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

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.

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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.

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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).

Between Here and There

The sky slowly begins to dim and turn shades of blue until blue is black and black is as black can be.  We live on the edge of a small village in rural Northern Thailand and when evening comes the sky is brilliantly full of the shine from heaven – unless it’s rainy season, of course, and then the clouds block the brilliance from physical sight but not from imagination.

Cicadas hum for a long phrase and then stop.  Hum and stop.  Our dog returns home from his daytime adventures in the rice fields and plops himself on our front step.  He’s ready for his self-appointed nighttime duty of keeping watch.  A tukae lizard calls out.  Our neighbours are quiet and have either gone to bed – it IS seven thirty already – or are busy watching the new Thai soap opera series or Thailand’s The Voice.

Day is done.  Nighttime is coming.  I’m here in this middle space of neither here nor there.  

We are transitioning from our home in Thailand to my homeland of Canada.  My daughters claim they’re “not Thai but English” – this is where the language and culture and nationality lines blur.  I remind them gently that they are both Thai AND Canadian, despite their protests.  

It’s a hard concept to grasp and I feel confused about those blurring lines in my own identity.  I can never be fully Thai but I’m not the same Canadian who left thirteen years ago for the mission field.  Does it really matter though?  My true citizenship is in heaven, I know.  But between here and there, what does it look like to live? 

We dream of what life will be like in Canada.  We plan, we brainstorm, we pray, we hope and we eventually give it all over to God.  We submit and surrender what our future will look like.  

Like the brilliance beyond the obscuring clouds, the future holds something so beautiful that we can’t even begin to fathom it.  We trust and believe in His goodness to both clear the clouds and carry us through.  We surrender our wills for His which is better than we can ask or imagine.


“How long will you be gone?” my husband’s grandmother, Uay, asks days later in Northern Thai.  She pauses and wipes tears away from her eyes.  She wasn’t looking at me when she asked but we were sitting next to each other on the bamboo platform, watching my youngest twirl with delight in her “princess” dress.  Uay laughs as her great-granddaughter dances around, playing games with her shadow.  “About three years,” I reply.  She wipes her eyes again and she holds my hand as we sit in silence.  

Transitioning means leaving where you were in order to arrive somewhere else.  The bridge linking those two places, whether physical or cognitive, is complicated.  How can one cross while their partner lags behind?  How can one cross while the pull to remain is strong?  How can one cross while the crossing pains a loved one?  

My husband assures Uay that we will be able to video call her and that her son or one of her grandsons will certainly help.  “Oh, I’m not good at that kind of thing,” she says, brushing off the attempt to console the upcoming loss.  

The only way across is through one step at a time.  We don’t have to jump across, only to land in the water, but simply put one foot in front of the other and walk.  

“Let’s go inside,” Uay finally says, putting her cane in position to help her stand.  Slowly, we begin to walk together.

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The Perspective of Returning Home

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I recently looked back at some of my early blog posts, dating back a little over thirteen years ago. I was in the middle of preparing to go to the mission field and, as I read, I was reminded of the many ways that the Lord prepared the way for me. I was single, young, determined, adventurous, and possessed a heart full of faith to follow the Lord where He was calling me. Now, all these years later, I am married with two small children, not as young as I used to be, just as determined, more cautious than adventurous, but still with a heart ready to follow Jesus as He prompts me through His Spirit.

We are heading back “home” to Canada this coming August and I am unsure whether to call it home or not. My mom passed away last year and my dad twenty years before that. My sister and her family live two hours away from where we’ll plant ourselves, and many of my close friends now live scattered across Canada.

Someone asked me recently about what was waiting for us in Canada, assuming we had jobs lined up and a place to live. “Oh,” they replied when my response was negative towards both of those things, “so you’re just waiting on God to see where He’ll lead you?”

The unknowns in my present are just as intimidating as they were when I was anticipating moving to SE Asia. But the difference now is that I have almost thirteen years of experience of walking through unknowns, following the lamp that the Lord’s provided to show the path in front of me, and the regular discipline of reminding myself of what is true.

I know He is El-HaNe’-eman – “faithful God” (Deut. 7:9 ESV). He never changes and, despite circumstances around us being uncertain, He is unwavering in His character.

I know He is Eliezer – “my God is help” (Exodus 18:4 ESV) – and Ebenezer – “stone of help” (1 Samuel 7:12 ESV). I’ve experienced His provisions countless times and often in the most surprising ways. Like Samuel in 1 Samuel 7:12, I have set up various stones – some real, some in my journal, and some through a picture or other creative means – in my life as a way to honour the Lord and remember how He has moved to help me and others around me.

I know He is Immanuel – “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14, 8:8, and Matthew 1:23 ESV). This has been the biggest reason why I’ve been able to persevere in serving the Lord. I have never had to tackle any task, assignment, follow-up visit, language and culture lesson, visa trip, immigration question, sickness, home assignment, dangerous road, sermon or annual reunion conference by myself. He has always been with me and will always be with me. Despite Satan’s attempts to convince me otherwise, I was never alone in that village in the wooden house, never forgotten in that mountainous assignment, never left behind when my husband went off to work and I was home alone with our children. His presence has satisfied my soul, calmed my anxieties and empowered my heart.

So, I anticipate returning home with great expectations of the Lord to remain the same. I know He will lead us through new challenges and adventures, He will provide exactly what we need (and sometimes what we may think we want) and when we need it, and He will remind me that He is with us and will continue to be with us through it all.

Home has changed. And I’ve changed too. I don’t know what home even really means anymore except for it to be the place where God invites me to be, too.

If you’re returning home for the summer or for longer, which testimonies of God’s goodness is the Holy Spirit reminding you of so your soul may be strengthened?

Accepting a Slice of Chaos

A few weeks ago, I entered the kitchen to get a cup of milk for each of my two young daughters.  They were waiting for me in their beds, nearly ready to sleep for the night – or so I was hoping.  Suddenly, I noticed some movement on the white tiled counter.  Ants.  And not just a couple of them but a long trail of busy, black ants.  I followed their path over to the far side of the kitchen where they were disappearing into a tiny hole in the counter.  I stepped back and decided to return to my original task of the cups of milk.  The ants would have to wait until tomorrow for me to deal with them.

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In every house I’ve called home in Thailand, there have always been ant problems.  For this reason, we (initially my roommates and I, but now my husband and I and our children) have always limited any food to the dining room and the kitchen.  The ants don’t need us to generously bring them crumbs and spills to other areas of our house – they’ll go there on their own anyhow!  We also need to have our house helper or a friend keep an eye out for ant invasions when we go away for vacation or return to Canada for Home Assignment.  Ants like unlived spaces even more than places invaded by humans. The last thing we’ve had to do over the years is to simply accept that the ants would never go away completely and that we would have to learn to live with them.  Those ants in the bathroom?  Sure.  You can stay there guys.  The ants traipsing across the steps of our front porch?  Well, just don’t cross the threshold into the house, okay? Okay?

I desire to be used by God but that also means I need to follow God in whichever direction He leads.  Does this mean that I must embrace an element of chaos if I want to follow Jesus?

I think that embracing the chaos can look different for everyone, and, it may not be the challenge that God is asking you to embrace.  My husband and I are nearly totally opposite people – for him, embracing chaos is exciting (or normal – because what’s chaotic for me is not for him since he is Thai and this is his home culture!) and he enjoys the challenge.  For me, I am a natural homebody (which is quite ironic considering how the Lord has called me to be involved in Kingdom building) and I like to plan things so I know what to expect.  Accepting the unexpected opens the door for both potential failure and success.

The ants in my kitchen represent something stressful and unmanageable.  They are unpredictable and potentially destructive.  They are my storm, whereas a clean, antless house would be my calm.  But if I let the ants blow me down, increase my stress and invade my peace, what will that mean for bigger life challenges?  Sickness?  Death?  Loss or disappointment of any kind?

No, as the Lord is leading me, I must embrace a portion of chaos and ask the Lord what He wants me to look for, listen for and learn in the process.  Because stepping out of the boat to walk on water to Jesus? It’s only possible if I first step out of the boat.

What is the Lord inviting you to embrace in this season?