Offering Compassion in the Face of Shock

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Shortly after starting my job downtown last year, I quickly began to learn of the complexities of homelessness and drug abuse.  Our office’s main floor washrooms were locked off and made available only to those who worked in the building and had electronic passes to get inside.  One of the building’s janitors explained the extra security was added because of what was done in the washrooms – dirty needles, among other items, were routinely left behind.  

Today, I ate lunch out with several of my colleagues.  Our team manager was treating us as a thankyou for the last quarter.  Not long after we sat down, I noticed a young gentleman with his hood pulled up, discussing something with our waiter near the front doors.  Unlike others on the busy street outside, he had no winter jacket on top of his hoodie sweatshirt.  The waiter moved aside and the young man headed towards the restaurant’s bathroom.  This tall young man looked small as nervousness and a question mark covered his face.  He disappeared out of sight.  Roughly thirty minutes later – by this time my colleagues and I had ordered and had finished our appetizers – he reappeared from the depths of the bathroom hallway and immediately left the restaurant.  I pointed him out to my boss who observed the young man stride past the restaurant’s front window and he commented, “He’s high.”

A fancy-looking office building in the downtown was not immune to the problem of drugs or overdosing that was strangling the homeless population in my city, or in other cities across Canada.  After my experience today, I quickly realized that a fancy restaurant was not removed from facing the issue head-on either.  

Last winter, I entered my office building early one snowy morning and said hello to a poorly dressed and unshaved man sitting just inside the doors of the back entrance.  I can’t remember our exact exchange of pleasantries but I do remember he looked so sad and dejected.  Later that day, I heard on the news that a homeless person had overdosed in the early morning hours just a block or so away from my office building.  I immediately thought of the man from the back entrance and wondered if the two had been friends.  When I saw him this morning, was he in the throws of grief?  Was he reeling from the loss?  Had he been warming up from the cold and yet was unable to rid the shaking of the shock of profound loss?

Working downtown for the past year has provided me with various opportunities of surprise.  Only six months before starting my job, I had just moved back from Thailand to Canada with my husband and two children.  I had been living and serving in a rural village in Northern Thailand but now found myself parking in a parking garage and working in a tall office building.  The two situations couldn’t be any more different.

I don’t pretend to have an answer for the issues of addiction; it was a problem in the communities in which I worked in Thailand, as well. The brokenness around me, whether it be Thailand, or Canada is often confrontational, sometimes intimidating, and usually heartbreaking.  

I don’t think that locking bathrooms is the answer, nor is giving access to all bathrooms.  But maybe a start is to see the humanness of the gentleman with the pulled-up hoodie getting a high in a fancy restuarant’s bathroom or the dishevelled and dejected man warming himself inside the doors of the back entrance of an office building.  Maybe giving people a chance and showing a little compassion is a good first step, no matter where in the world you may be.

Why not reach out to a local organization serving the homeless in your community and ask what you can do to help?  What is most needed to help them do what they do well?  Volunteer?  Give money?  Listen and learn from them – the experts for that context.

Two Initial Steps to Begin Again

I didn’t write a single blog post in 2019.

While we’re truth-telling, I suppose I could’ve entitled my last post, “When You’re a Struggling Returned Overseas Worker” because that’s where I was at the end of 2018. We had chosen to return to Canada midway through 2018. Then, ultimately, we chose to leave our missions organization at the end of 2018. It was painful.

The pain came as I still felt called to serve among Tai and Thai people, my husband had vision for a new project in Thailand and we sincerely loved and appreciated our missions organization. But when we prayed and sought the Lord, we simply felt that God was opening up a new chapter in Canada for us.

The new chapter has stretched us. Muscles stiff to unfamiliar movements and directions – tearing, repairing, and slowly strengthening. The pain has been as much physical as it has been spiritual and emotional.

I don’t have all the answers but I wanted to share just two of the many things that have helped me this past year. If you find yourself in the beginning of something new – a new move, a new job, a new country or maybe even a recent return to your passport country – keep these two things in mind:

  1. Remember you’re not alone.

    Others have gone before you and many will come after you. There are excellent companions for the journey all around and some may surprise you.

    Not only will you have people who can relate to what you’re going through, the Lord Jesus himself is with you. He experienced great transition, loss, stretching periods and challenges of trusting His Heavenly Father. Call out to Him for help, strengthening and provision. “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.” Psalm 18:6, NIV

  2. Trust the Lord.

    If God has led you to something new, lean on Him and trust Him that it’s okay to put your whole heart into the new thing. Acknowledge your losses but also embrace what the Lord has prepared for you by grabbing hold with both hands whatever it is that He has set before you.

Niki Hardy, a fellow hope*writer, wrote about this in her book, “Breathe Again: How to Live Well When Life Falls Apart”:

“The real question is, How do we let go? I know it’s easier said than done, and I’ve found that it helps to think of letting go and holding on as one complete action. I can’t hold God’s promises if my hand and heart are full of the fear of my cancer returning.

“…Trusting God is simultaneously a letting go of what we think will make everything better and a holding on to the promise that with him everything is better.”

(p. 98-99)

Following through with that simple act, one releases their grasp and lets go – midair and carried with momentum… and the Spirit.

“I’m still learning to lean into the cracks and tears of my life and choose to thank God for them. It’s not easy but it is possible, and as William Wordsworth is rumoured to have said, “To begin, begin.” Let’s dive in, whether we feel like it or not, knowing and trusting the water we dive into is the living, life-giving water of the One whose abundance we crave.”

(p. 171, Nicki Hardy, Breathe Again)

And so, as another year unfolds, another year in this new chapter of life, I make an intentional choice to trust God wholeheartedly – with both hands and both feet. I recognize those around me who are on this similar journey – perhaps even you, my reader. And I continue to begin again.

Let’s journey on together.

When You’re a Struggling Overseas Worker

When I was introduced to *Sarah, a newcomer to Canada, and her son, Austin*, at the drop-in playgroup the other day, I’m ashamed to admit that I judged her a little bit.  Her son seemed a little bit out of control (or just hangry).  And Sarah was tired and appeared apathetic.  She was due with baby number two in a week or so and was in a relatively new country and culture.  There’s no way of knowing the depth of how affected she was by the trauma from her war-torn country and the excruciating pain and loss before leaving her beloved homeland.  There’s no doubt she was missing loved ones – whether they even still lived, I do not know.  I had a sense that she was generally just feeling numb.  And then I got it.  I understood.  

Though my own experience pales in comparison to that of any refugee, I do know what it’s like to live in a foreign country where culture and language, no matter how much I learned, still left me feeling like an outsider.  Sarah’s numbness reminded of my last several years in Thailand, overwhelmed with motherhood, and weighed down with anxiety and grief.  I was numb too.  I get it.  I really do.  My heart was moved with compassion and I felt prompted to pray for Sarah and think more about how I can reach out to her and her family. 

I was also reminded of other moms on the mission field who are in the depths of the numbing shame for not handling life better than they are.  I think of single friends who are struggling despite being called.  These women struggle despite having prepared for serving overseas, despite their numerous prayer supporters, and despite a caring husband, housemate or team.  

One friend shared incredulously that she had actually been told that living in her country of service was exactly the same as living in her passport country.  “Why are you struggling so much?” they asked her.  (For what it’s worth, the two countries were vastly different in both culture and language.  Just basic daily living overseas can be exhausting, not to mention any ministry work!)

If that’s you, if this is how you’re feeling and what you’re struggling with, what I want to tell you is that you’re not alone.  You’re not the only one who has been in your position and struggled.  You’re not the only one whose feet keep getting stuck in the muddy bog, who use up nearly all their strength each time you lift your leg and break free only to get stuck as soon as that foot aims to set firm again.  

To you, I say this:

Don’t let your suffering isolate you.  Tell even just one other person your biggest burden, and you may just find they say, “I’m thankful you shared that with me.”  Or even, “Me too.”  Far too often we think that we’re the only one who has struggled with something and, for the most part, that’s simply not true.  You can even e-mail me [ beth at bethdonchai dot com ] and I would be happy to pray for you!

Seek help or ask someone you trust to assist you to get that help. It may be found in a counsellor, or your physician or both.  Be persistent in getting the help that you need. Be your own advocate or ask your spouse or friend to be your advocate.  There are wonderful online resources like those at MissionaryCare.com to give you a start in the right direction.  There are also extremely helpful counselling services available for missionaries and expatriates in many locations around the world.  Many of the counselling centres that I’m aware of, even offer some follow-up counselling via Skype.  Cornerstone Counseling Foundation and The Well International are two fantastic foundations in Chiang Mai, Thailand who offer a wide variety of counselling services.  Feel free in the comments to make personal recommendations of other counselling centres.  

Give thanks to God – you’ll find that this alone will change your perspective.  This study found that “compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.”

Paul wrote many of his letters when he was suffering or facing persecution and yet he was so full of joy and gratefulness to God.  I recognize and fully understand that this is NOT EASY but the same Spirit who empowered Paul lives within each Christ follower today.  

The people who I found to be most supportive and helpful when I struggled were the ones who had gone before me through similar challenges.  They had battled the same battles, sought the help and support they needed, overcame obstacles, moved to healthier ministry locations, made other healthy life changes and were able to now help other missionaries who were struggling.  

This was what Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (ESV):

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation, and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for when we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia.  For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.   But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.  You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

So, whether you’re currently struggling on the missionary field, a foreigner living in an unfamiliar land, or one who has the capacity to support newcomers to your country, just remember that you’re not alone and that it will get better.  I pray that you, too, can get the support you need to not just survive where God has called you to be, but to thrive.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Photo credit: John Silliman on Unsplash

Finding Healing in His Presence

It’s mid-afternoon and I stand in the middle of the grassy yard, eyes transfixed on the movement of light dancing all around me on the ground.  The maple branches are caught in a lyrical dance that fools and I cannot stop watching this masterpiece before me.  

My daughter runs past, asking, “What are you doing, Mommy?”  By this time, I’ve pulled out my phone to try to capture this magic.  It’s hard to explain that it’s not so much the shadows and light that I’m taking pictures of, but the feeling in which I’m enveloped.

This late summer trickery takes me to another backyard, another time period, and another mother.  It calls me in to reflect on time now lost and people now passed.  The dancing light lures me in like a cosy bed on a cool day.  It’s familiar, comfortable, mystical and it feels like time has stopped.  

My daughter stops and asks me again, “What are you doing, Mommy?” She peers at the screen on my phone and positions her feet and legs in the frame to capture herself.  “Look at me!” she exclaims.  Two and a half and full of life and joy and expectancy.  

The light draws me in and she pulls me out – a lifeline in the grief that has poured another wave over my head since returning to my hometown.  She leans over and presses the button to take a picture on my phone over and over again, except it’s still in video mode and the result is a small collection of millisecond videos.  She insists on playing each one.  She laughs and skips off to play with her big sister.

Why am I capturing light when the picture of beauty is in these two beings who grew in my womb?  Why am I so distracted?  Why am I entranced by the movement dancing from tree to grass to bush to shrub?  Its ethereal nature draws me in like the intimacy of the Holy Spirit nurturing my soul.  It’s like a gift from God, communicating His very presence with me.   

Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Each day holds a surprise.  But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us.  Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or joy.  It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.”

In this holy space, time stands still.  God’s presence is loud but gentle, His voice firm but loving. He picks up a little piece of my heart that had broken off and makes it whole, along with the rest of me.  

___________________

I often find that the Lord speaks to me when I’m out in nature.  How has God been meeting with you lately?

Transition Discomfort

Several weeks ago, I decided I would move away from hosting my blog on WordPress. I had researched several other options and decided on a host with a good reputation. The reviews I had read made it seem like the transition would be easy peasy lemon squeezy, like the saying my five-year-old has recently picked up. I filled in the forms, gave consent to make the switch and almost immediately regretted my decision.

After furiously reading more in-depth about transferring my domain to a new host and my website to a new server, I was still grasping to understand what I was attempting to do. It felt like it was a big mess and I began to doubt my decision to move. I looked up the 30-day refund policy, while still communicating with the technical gurus at the new server.

It took some time, lots of calming essential oils and tweaking but it finally seemed like my website would happily survive in its new place.

Just over a week ago, our family made an international move from our place of service, and my husband’s home, in Thailand, to my homeland of Canada. We both felt led by the Lord to make this move and had peace despite many details that were not yet clear. We had good goodbyes, a lovely send-off at the airport, fairly uneventful flights, and warm embraces when we eventually arrived back on Canadian soil.

The messiness of adjusting to something new can be uncomfortable or confusing or both. But if the Lord is in it, we trust Him that the outcome will be worth it.

_________________

I remember that when I first moved to serve in Thailand in 2005, I was so overwhelmed.  On the drive from the airport, through the busy city to my organisation’s office and guesthouse in Bangkok, I felt panicked and flooded, like the streets, flooded from the late afternoon’s deluge. Days later, after sorting out my visa and work permit in the capital, we drove north for a few hours to Lopburi.  I felt like a fraud.  There I was in Thailand, where I felt for YEARS that God had called me to be, and I DIDN’T WANT TO BE THERE.

There.  I had said it – in my head, at least.

We were orientated to our new city and language school, and my roommate and I were given the keys to our new home.  I cried each day.  Wept quietly.  But I knew, without any doubt, that the Lord still wanted me there.  He still wanted me to follow Him.  He still wanted me to serve Him in the on-going work in seeing the Lost come into His Kingdom in S.E. Asia.  He was still with me.  But it was uncomfortable, lonely, and I was still overwhelmed.

Years later, another female colleague shared with me her story of when she arrived on the mission field.  Our stories were very similar.  She wept regularly in that first year.  And, like me, she pressed on.  In fact, both of us, unlikely missionaries, ended up marrying nationals and forever entwined our hearts and lives with Asia.

_________________

Sometimes the move to something different, to somewhere new is as easy as changing your shirt to bear the cooler weather.  Sometimes, it’s as difficult as clinging onto the Lord’s hand as you, begrudgingly, inch forward.  Sometimes, there is immense joy as you enter into a season of change.  Sometimes, there is unexpected grief.  Sometimes, it’s a combination of all of these things.

Hudson Taylor, founder of China Inland Mission (CIM) in 1865 once wrote, “I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realize the Lord is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. It makes no matter where He places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest positions He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult, His grace is sufficient.”

Just as the sun paints an everchanging picture on a landscape, so will we grow and adapt in whatever it is that He has called us to.  There is beauty in each new scene, even though darkness is not absent.

As Paul gave encouragement in his letter to the Roman believers,  so I include this verse to encourage you and me both: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (15:13).