The Day We Didn’t Go Home {A Life Overseas}

by Jonathan

We were supposed to go home on August 6th. We had tickets and plans, we had dreams and ideas. But when we left Cambodia back in March, we did not have an awareness of how COVID-19 would turn the world upside down.

So we’re not flying home on August 6th. As a result of passport issues, visa issues, entry requirements, finances, and a whole host of reasons (everyone has them), we’re staying.

For our family, August 6th is now Stay Day.

Does your story include a Stay Day? Perhaps for you it wasn’t a Stay Day as much as a Leave Day. Do you have a day that marks when life quaked and plans tumbled? Do you memorialize a Stay Day or a Leave Day? Should you?

We hope to remember our eight years in Cambodia on this August 6th, and every August 6th afterwards. It will be a sort of anniversary; a blend of stories and laughter and tears.

Like so many memorials, it will be a funky mix of mirth and merry.

On Stay Day, we’ll remember the day we didn’t go home.

Sure, America is home too. Or at least it was. And it will be again. I’m speaking for myself here, of course, because my children will have their own stories, and they’ll need to tell them. Their relationship with America (and Cambodia) always was and always will be unique. Different than mine.

But some things we shared.

Like the eight years around a thick, Khmer-style round table. Well, more like seven. The first year we had a cheaper wooden rectangular table that got eaten up by termites so big you could hear them feasting: lightning-bug-size table chompers.

We’re shipping the Khmer-style table to America, so every Stay Day we’ll gather around it and remember.

We’ll remember the scent of frangipanis, and we’ll probably try to buy some. We’ll feel the feel of traditional kramas, the checkered scarves Cambodians (and my daughters) use for everything.

We’ll probably order Indian food and remember Mount Everest, the local restaurant in Phnom Penh that taught us to absolutely adore Nepalese and Indian food.

We’ll look at old photos of a younger family riding tuk tuks, playing on the street, trying to figure out cross-cultural living.

We might search YouTube for Khmer dance music, and we will probably laugh about the incessant, LOUD, and DRUNK karaoke that permeated our house during wedding season.

We’ll watch old videos of moto rides through our neighborhood, and we’ll remember the kind old man who laughed at the four white foreigners driving a moto through flooded streets and belly laughing. I wonder if he knew how much it reminded me of riding a jet ski.

Maybe we’ll check Google street view and meander past friends’ houses.

On Stay Day, we will remember. And we will pray.

We’ll pray for Cambodia, for our friends there, and for the Church that’s blossoming into its identity.

And Lord willing, we’ll do this every August 6th: the day we didn’t pack up, weigh all suitcases to 49.9 pounds, quadruple check passports, and jet across the Pacific.

August 7th won’t find us staggering out into the scents and smells of Phnom Penh. We won’t un-mothball our house and turn it back into a home. We won’t schedule reunions with local friends. We won’t visit favorite haunts and coffee shops.

Instead, we’ll mourn what was, and we’ll be grateful for it too.

Mourning is a wetter way of expressing gratitude, after all. 

And we’ll move on, whatever that means.

God remains the God of the past. He will always be the God of the past, and he will always care enough to ask the same question he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?”

He is the God of Stay Day, August 6th, but he is also the God of August 7th and 8th. And if he’s true, if he’s real, he’s got us, and he holds us in his strong right hand.

And he will hold us on every Stay Day, and every day after that too.

 

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Do you have a day like this? A Stay Day, or something like it?

Do you need one?

Here are some more thoughts about creating shared meaning and the importance of family rituals. As folks who regularly celebrate “shared meaning” through Sacraments, I hope these ideas will resonate and inspire.

May our families be places where we remember our stories, together.

Can I Love a God Like This?

by Elizabeth

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“Does God love me?”

This is one of the biggest questions any of us will ever have to answer. It can haunt us for years. I know it haunted me. “Jesus loves me, this I sometimes know” is what I used to say to describe that struggle.

After years of seeking and searching, I know God loves me, and I don’t struggle with that question the way I used to. Over the last few years of my life, however, I’ve had to answer what, for me, has been a more difficult question: the question of “can I love God?”

When my prayers go unanswered for decades, when horrifying atrocities happen throughout the world, when a pandemic hits — these are the times I have to ask myself if I can keep loving a God who at times seems distant and uncaring.

I settled the existence of God long ago; I can’t disbelieve. I don’t have the luxury of atheism. Even in the midst of grief, if I get really quiet, my soul knows I still believe. So in the face of disappointment, I can’t just chuck all this religious stuff. I have to deal with the questions. I have to deal with my anger at this seemingly incompassionate creator.

Asking, “Can I love God?” is not the same as asking if you can obey or honor God. You can obey without love. But a life without loving God is a pretty despondent life. We were made to love.

I had been asking myself this question ever since we arrived in the States earlier than we had planned. I landed in America and couldn’t understand why all my hopes and dreams for the spring semester came crashing down.

I couldn’t understand why God didn’t stop this pandemic, because people were dying and starving all over the world. This is always happening, true, but the suffering, starvation, and death are much worse in the current global crisis. And there’s so much uncertainty about when it will end.

If God cared about any of these things, why didn’t He stop coronavirus? He could have. A God who forged galaxies with His voice and breathed life into dust could certainly stop a simple string of RNA from causing mass suffering. Add to that the thousands of years of suffering that God has also chosen not to stop, and I wasn’t sure I cold love a God who lets so many bad things happen.

God and I weren’t on speaking terms, to say the least.

This wasn’t the first time I had questioned my love for God. A few years ago I was struggling with some unanswered prayers. Decades-long prayers. The question I felt God asking me in that season was: “Even if I don’t answer these prayers, can you still love me?”

This question is different from the question of the fiery furnace, when we are asked if we will continue to worship and serve the one true God even when he does not rescue or heal. It is different from the question posed to Simon Peter on the beach, when Jesus asks, “What is that to you? As for you, follow me.”

God has asked these questions in the past. But they were not what God was asking me now. What He was asking me now was, can I love a God who is like this? A God who sometimes seems distant and uncaring? Even if this thing that I desperately want or need never comes to pass, He asks me if I will still love him.

I had to walk deep into the prayer closet to find out if I still would. It took hours. I wrestled through tears. Through tissues. Through cramped hands furiously scribbling in my journal.

In the end, after conversing with Job and Jacob and Lewis and Jesus himself, I knew I still loved God. But I wasn’t sure whether that made me happy or sad. Happy to know I still love Him; sad to know this is the God I love. I am yoked to a God who seemingly allows senseless destruction. And in spite of the suffering, I somehow still want this God. This is a great mystery, and I do not pretend to understand it.

I only know I don’t have to give God the cold shoulder anymore. I only know that on Sunday mornings when all seems bleak, I can sing again. I can pray again. For “though He slay me, yet I will trust him.” And “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

And “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Amen.

On Living in Terrible Times

by Jonathan

The sword hangs by a thread, suspended above the throne, pointing down. Threatening.

One strand of horsehair, fastened to the pommel, is strong enough. Barely. One breeze, one bit of weakening fiber, and death is certain.

And so, no matter how powerful the king becomes, no matter how many successes he has, the sword remains above him, ominous, looming, damning.

What’s the sword hanging over your head, threatening to snap loose and cleave? What’s the thing that’s unresolved and maybe even unresolvable? What’s the impending doom that’s imploding joy?

Is it the politics of your passport country or your host country? Visa issues or money problems? Social unrest and violence where you live or where you’re from?

Is it the well-being of your church or your children? Your health or your marriage? Is it an imminent deconstruction?

Do you drown in a deep awareness that one tiny thing could shift and it would all come crashing down?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We live in an ever-more connected age, which seems to be resulting in an ever-more frightened age. Things seem to get scarier and scarier, more and more unstable. Darker. A U.S. news site just ran this headline: It’s Hard To Not Be Anxious When Nowhere Feels Safe Anymore.

Governments fall, global alliances splinter, trusted institutions falter and misstep. Racism blooms like a mushroom cloud and injustice rains down unchecked.

It’s exhausting and terrifying and oftentimes paralyzing.

 

How should we then live? How should we then minister and love across cultures?
C.S. Lewis speaks to us, cautioning against a common (and paralyzing) error. Lewis writes, “[D]o not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.”

He continues, speaking of his very atomic circumstances, the sword his generation lived under:

“Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors – anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.”

OK. Depressing.

But somehow, it’s not depressing for Lewis; it doesn’t lead to numbness or retreat or despair. Instead, for Lewis, this awareness leads to LIVING. He goes on to encourage the fearful of his time, and us too:

“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

So may I encourage you, my dear reader: don’t forget to live. Plant yourself where you’re at, scratch your name into the land, and connect heart and sinew with the people of God and the people God loves. Live!

 

Chase the Light & Notice the Life
We need to know and remember, deep in our gut, that we can face this darkness and not die. It’s a hard sell, I know, but notice how Paul juxtapositions death AND life in the same verses. They’re both there, and they’re both weighty:

“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the DEATH of Jesus so that the LIFE of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. Yes, we LIVE under constant danger of DEATH because we serve Jesus, so that the LIFE of Jesus will be evident in our DYING bodies. So we LIVE in the face of DEATH, but this has resulted in eternal LIFE for you.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12, NLT)

My best friend recently pondered this collision of life and death, musing about our desperate need to chase the light, especially when it’s dark. She wrote:

So what can we do when we’re confronted with all the darkness within, and all the darkness without? I mean, we know the end is good. We know the Bridegroom is coming back for us. But our eternal hope doesn’t always translate easily into our everyday moments and hours.

I think we need to chase the light. To DO something to help scatter the darkness. These days this is how you’ll find me chasing the light. . .

Singing a worship song.
Kissing my husband.
Chopping vegetables and preparing a meal for my family.
Reading a book to my kids.
Laughing at my husband’s jokes.
Going for a walk.
Drinking coffee with a friend.

These are the things that are saving my life right now. The small, menial acts that remind me that I’m still alive, that I’m not dead yet, and that the world hasn’t actually blown itself up yet.

No matter how sad I feel about everything on my first list, I can’t change any of them. But I can live my tiny little life with light and joy. With passion and hope. I can chase the light.

I chase the light, and I remember that this life is actually worth living, even with all the sadness in it. I chase the light, and I remember the Giver of these little joys, and I give thanks in return.

I refuse to let the griefs and evils of this world pull me all the way down into the pit. I will revolt against this despair. I will chase the light. I will grasp hold of the ephemeral joys of my itty bitty domestic life. And I will remember — always — the Source of this light. 

~ Elizabeth Trotter

Conclusion
Living under the sword of Damocles is draining and terrifying. But even there, Christ is.

And because Christ is, we can dance in the light as much as we fight in the dark; we can laugh as much as we mourn. Our lips can crack into smiles as often as our hearts crack into pieces.

As long as this age endures, the sword will remain. And yet.

The lone strand of a horse’s hair, weakly holding back death, has been replaced by the strong mane of a Lion’s love. And we are saved.

So live, dear one.

Chase the light and remember the King.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*More on the Sword of Damocles

This article first appeared on A Life Overseas

When Your Baby Dies | A Mother’s Journey, part 2

Read part 1 here.

~~~~~~~~~~ September 12, 1987 ~~~~~~~~~~

Laura died September 1. We brought her home Friday, August 28 after taking her off the ventilator. Everyone expected her to die then.

I know there is much comfort in having the memory of her dying in my arms at home rather than hooked up to the equipment in the hospital. It was very peaceful and I’m really grateful for these memories of her last days and final hour.

I have hesitated to write down my deepest feelings — somehow writing them down will make them more painful; like setting them in stone or something. Our house is still full and active and bursting with children’s activities (soccer, etc.) and music and friends.

The baby things are slowly being put back in the attic and that has not been as painful as anticipated. The things were used (the mobile) for 3 days and that makes packing them up easier.

My body is the worst reminder. Big and fat, ready to nurse a baby — 30 pounds overweight. It’s the worst reminder of all. Usually I have an unsightly body for 3 months but it’s balanced with the joy of a beautiful baby — not a high price to pay. Now it’s just the thought of having to lose the weight, wanting to get pregnant again.

My body, however, is so strong and healthy I hate to be too critical of it. After all, I had a baby, left the hospital three hours later, and went nonstop for three weeks. How can I hate a body that serves me so well?

Tomorrow is church. I’m already dreading it.

People don’t know what to say — what do I say? I’m fat, what will I wear? It’s terrible to feel like everyone is looking at you wondering “how you really are.” Are you going to crack up? I don’t think so. I hope I can reassure them of that.

Yesterday I went out with a friend and her new baby. A lady at the store asked me when my baby was due. I said I had had her and she had died. It wasn’t hard to say — it was just a bleak reminder of the truth.

I went through a pregnancy (never a fun event), had a baby, and now I don’t have one in my arms. And that is the saddest part.

Laura couldn’t have survived; I didn’t even want her to. Her body was not compatible with life and I was actually very much at peace with her going on to God and getting a new body. But that still has left me with empty arms. And I will live through that too. My hope is so strong for another baby. I don’t know when, but I feel like I know God has promised me a healthy baby and that hope gives me comfort and energy to get through these next weeks.

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Laura Beth Trotter

August 14, 1987 — September 1, 1987

Finding a Father Wound

by Elizabeth

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It was Holy Week when the breach happened. A seemingly small incident that tore something wide open in my heart. It was a wound I didn’t know I still had, and it ripped right apart. It was a wound I thought had healed. And actually, I’m not sure I had ever identified it as this kind of wound: a father wound.

It feels strange to say that, because it didn’t come from my earthly father. While no man is perfect, this particular father wound wasn’t inflicted by him.

Rather, it came from someone who was like a father to me. A man who promised me home and then ripped it away. A man who promised me love and then withdrew it. A man who accepted me and then turned around and took it all away.

The sun was shining, and then it wasn’t. And it never shone again.

I trusted this man. I believed in this man. I loved this man. And his change of heart was both confusing and devastating. It insidiously taught me things about a Father’s love that I never should have learned. Lessons like:

Someone can offer you love and then completely withdraw it. You are never safe in love.

Someone can offer you home and then kick you out. Home and belonging are never forever.

Someone can accept you at one point in time and then for seemingly no reason at all completely reject you.

You can be worthy of someone’s love and then suddenly unworthy of love, forever expelled from their life.

So you must always work to earn people’s love, because you never know what little inconsequential thing might trigger love’s loss.

This father wound of mine, it’s a situation I knew was unfair. I’d been angry about it for years, but I hadn’t let myself hurt too much over it. I just let myself stay angry. That was easier, more cerebral. Anger doesn’t hurt nearly as badly.

But the wound was there, always festering, never completely healing. Until something ripped it open this spring. I was shocked — I hadn’t thought it was still there. But when you cry so hard you can’t breathe and you begin to think the emotional pain might literally kill you, well, that’s an experience that begs for the healing power of Christ.

It was Holy Week, and I went to Maundy Thursday service. I went expecting to meet God. In fact, on the way there I told God, This thing hurts so bad it feels like I’m going to die, so if you don’t show up tonight, I don’t know what I’m going to do.

There was plenty of space to meet God that night, and God descended into several of those spaces with me. A couple different people prayed for me. The songs, the prayers, the sermon, they were all good. But the most important part for me was the Watch at the end.

The service closes in silence and allows people, as they feel led, to stay in prayer, in the same way that Jesus asked his disciples to keep watch with him. I planted myself in prayer. I was almost undone at this point, desperate, my head hung low.

I wondered if the place to start wouldn’t be in asking for healing, but in asking for the faith to believe in healing. Because what if I asked the God of the universe to heal my heart, and He didn’t come through? What if I asked Him to fulfill his promises, and He let me down too, just like the man who was a father to me? I didn’t want to be hurt by the Lord of everything, our true Father.

So I stayed and prayed. I stayed, and I stayed, and I stayed, until I heard the answer in the form of one of the evening’s songs:

O come to the Altar, the Father’s arms are open wide.
Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

I stared at the newly cleansed and stripped-down altar, with its small cross inscribed into the wood now visible, and it dawned on me that a father wound is healed through the love of the Father. That my Father’s arms are open wide. The man who inflicted my father wound held arms open wide at one point, and then closed them forever. But the Father’s arms are open wide, always and forever.

I had stayed and pressed in, until I heard some sort of answer from God. And when I received it, I knew I was free to go. I packed up my bag, smiled in thanksgiving, and stood up to leave. I turned around to find no one in the room – no one except the ministry team cleaning up. I had been in the front row. I hadn’t realized I’d stayed that long. Everyone leaves the service so quietly, and I’d been praying so intently, that I hadn’t noticed.

I wasn’t healed on Maundy Thursday. But I knew where my healing would come from – the Father’s love. The Father’s arms are open wide. “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure.” On that night, the knowledge of the source of my healing was enough for me. And I was on the watch for more healing.

A few weeks later I went to a special Saturday evening worship service, and God was so sweet to remind me of His truth. We sang songs about God’s goodness and faithfulness. It was good to remember everything God has done for me in my life, how He has always been with me.

That night we also sang Hillsong’s “Who You Say I Am.” It’s a song I’ve heard before but that hasn’t spoken to the deepest parts of me before. This time was different.

Who am I that the highest King
Would welcome me?
I was lost but He brought me in
Oh His love for me
Oh His love for me

Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God
Yes I am

Free at last, He has ransomed me
His grace runs deep
While I was a slave to sin
Jesus died for me
Yes He died for me

Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
In my Father’s house
There’s a place for me
I’m a child of God
Yes I am

I am chosen
Not forsaken
I am who You say I am
You are for me
Not against me
I am who You say I am

In my Father’s house, there’s a place for me. I am chosen, not forsaken. The highest of Kings welcomes me. I needed to hear those truths over and over again.

A couple weeks ago we sang this song at church again. This time I sang it not through pain, but with joy. I sang, and I realized that the Father’s love had been busy at work in the undercurrents of my life, convincing me that there’s always a place for me, that my Father’s love will never fail. It will never run out, will never run dry.

The Father’s arms are always open wide. Earthly fathers may forsake, but we have a Father in heaven who never will.

The funny thing is, I thought I knew God as Father. As a child, I first learned of God as Father. “Dear Heavenly Father” is how all my childhood prayers were modeled. I was comfortable addressing God as Father. My dad was someone I could easily talk to, and God seemed like Someone I could easily talk to, too.

In the last decade I have explored God as Spirit and God as Son. This was healthy and healing, but I had neglected to keep pursuing God as Father. I thought I already knew God as Father. But I was wrong. There was more to know, more to learn. With our Triune God, it’s always that way. “Farther up and farther in,” right?

We’ve now lived all the way through Easter season and have even slipped past Pentecost. I’ve let the love of the Father wash over me the last few months, and I’m more sure of His love than before. I know that there’s a place for me in the Father’s love. I know the pain of a father wound will not kill me, even if it sometimes feels as though it might. And I know the love of the Father truly heals old wounds. Even the wounds we didn’t know were there.

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