Updated: May 17
It’s impossible to quantify the complex layers of loss, grief, disappointment, uncertainty, and transition that we’ve all experienced over the past few months. The fact that there is no clear light at the end of this nebulous tunnel is unsettling and disheartening, to say the least. Some of us became involuntary homeschool parents overnight. Others have lived in solitary confinement when it suddenly became illegal to venture out in the streets or gather with friends. We probably all know of colleagues who “got stuck” away from home while they were supposed to be on a short trip, equipped only with a few days’ clothes and a carry-on.
Families who had sold everything, completed training, and were just days away from landing in their new field of service are now sheltering in temporary stateside housing or staying with extended relatives, grappling with the undetermined time frame of their displacement. Most of us have wrestled with the agonizing question of whether to stay or leave, knowing that our understanding is utterly limited and we’re making decisions with little capacity to control our future outcomes.
Trusting the Lord has become a fight for faith at times when so many of our hopes and plans have unraveled before our eyes. We know that the world is fallen, but the evidence of brokenness, fear, and the fragility of life have been vividly on display all around us. In our groaning, we have cried out, “Give us wisdom!” and “How long, O Lord?” while seeking to do the next right thing with faithfulness, holiness, and discernment.
With all this upheaval in our lives, it’s not surprising that we have likely seen our own sin exposed in fresh new ways. We’ve been abruptly confronted with intense stressors that have shaped and affected almost every aspect of our daily present and future realities. The refining fire is burning hot and close these days, leaving almost no part of us untouched. Reserves of patience run dangerously low as high-energy kids with no place to go are quite literally bouncing off the walls. Jealousy creeps in as we’re tempted to compare our situation with a co-worker’s. Sorrow over disrupted plans, now dead in the water, gets twisted into bitterness and murmuring and we become uncomfortably aware of how much hope and joy we had staked on them.
Without a doubt, this is a messy, raw, confusing, and distressing time for all of us. The dross that existed, dormant under the surface, is rising unappetizingly to the top. As believers, we can acknowledge that the Lord is working these painful and challenging situations in our lives for our good and growth in Christ. We know where to run for refuge as chaos swirls around us, though that’s much easier said than done. We have tasted the sweetness and freedom of confessed sins that have been forgiven and washed clean by the blood of Jesus. Praise be to God for faithfully granting mercy and grace to us in our time of need and for walking with us as our ever-present help in trouble! He is our loving and careful Vinedresser, sovereignly pruning and cutting in just the right places so that we might bear more fruit.
As believers, we can acknowledge that the Lord is working these painful and challenging situations in our lives for our good and growth in Christ.
But practically speaking, how do we, as brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow expats, walk through this pandemic together and come out on the other side in a way that brings honor and glory to him? How do we prepare for the next phase of our personal journey with wisdom, sober- mindedness, love, and faith? How do we think about and listen to one another’s stories with genuine compassion without being tempted to compare them with our own? The way we move forward from here is crucially important, and there are huge implications for how we will flourish personally and in community as fellow workers. Here are a couple overarching thoughts to help you walk confidently and carefully from this season into the next:
1. Keep Your Expectations in Check: Reverse Culture Shock is Real
When traveling to a new place for the first time, we expect things to be very different. Culture shock may hit after days, weeks, or months, but most of us have been prepared to expect it: foods, behaviors, sounds, activities, language, and the general atmosphere will be a far cry from what we’re used to. But what if you’ve spent years of your life in a beloved place and then go away for a few short months, only to return and discover that it has vastly changed from the one you left? What if you stayed in your apartment for weeks of lockdown only to discover that lockdown didn’t just change your external environment – it changed you?
The effect of this global pandemic is that nearly everyone is grappling with a new experience of reality. Many of the rhythms in your daily life that you used to enjoy and count on have likely been impacted by new regulations, closures, schedules, or limitations. Maybe the food supply chain was massively disrupted, or the beaches have now been banned. Maybe your local produce store has closed its doors permanently, or now you wait in excruciatingly long lines just to get groceries. Maybe your friends or co-workers seem different after going through a shared lockdown experience with one another, and now you find yourself on the outside, unable to easily relate or enter that closeness. As lockdown policies ease, many people are now discovering that their tolerance for social interaction has drastically decreased during the weeks of being in isolation; being around people has become exhausting, even for extroverts.
Whatever the changes are, you will feel them, and it might be way more acute and affecting than seems rational at first glance. Reverse culture shock (or re-entry syndrome) happens when you expect to find everything as it was, but nothing seems the same. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, weary, and disoriented. Are you feeling a slight sense of guilt for enjoying the downtime you had during lockdown too much, and now you have mixed emotions about getting back in the saddle again?
For some of us, getting the unique freedom to pull back from our busy daily routines has been an unexpected gift of rest and refreshment from the Lord! Even when the world seems turned upside down, he is abundantly kind to give his children exactly what we need. However you feel, you are not alone in your experience, and you can work through it within the community God has given you. Don’t forget that mental health professionals are available, and you also have pastors and sending fellowships who stand ready to walk alongside you. During a season marked by a health crisis, one of the healthiest things you can do is reach out and talk with someone before you find yourself at a breaking point. There is no shame in saying that you need help and you’re not okay right now.
In the book of Ruth, Naomi describes her return to the land of Israel in the severest of ways. She wallows in hopelessness and testifies to her former neighbors that she “went away full, but the Lord brought [her] back empty” (Ruth 1:21). She even wants people to start calling her by the name “Mara,” convinced that the Almighty had dealt bitterly with her (Ruth 1:20).
Of course, we have the incredible benefit of observing her story from a zoomed-out vantage point that allows us to see how God was fitting all the puzzle pieces together perfectly for her. We see him orchestrating events and working through the tragedies and transitions of Naomi’s family to redeem her story, lavishly blessing her with goodness and favor through Ruth and her offspring (King David, King Solomon, and Jesus, to name a few). Bitterness and murmuring were a temptation for her when she was focused only on the difficulties and heartaches of her present circumstances. They can be temptations for us, too.
“We honor the Lord and one another when we show empathy and take time to listen to each other’s stories, to rejoice over the sweet gifts and to weep over the hard ones together (Rom. 12:15).”
So how do we practically face re-entry? With sober-mindedness, brace for the impact of unknown changes ahead, strive to be as flexible as possible, and give yourself an extra margin of time and grace to slowly ease yourself up to speed as you adjust to the changes in your life. Grieve what has been lost, be thankful for what was, trust the Lord with what is, and consciously reset the desires of your heart to find fresh ways to bloom where you’re planted. He has you right where he wants you. Take courage and step out in the strength that he supplies. Our God is putting together puzzle pieces in our lives that we cannot even begin to imagine, and he is trustworthy.
2. Beware the Victim Mentality: Bear One Another’s Burdens Instead
One of the potential human-nature side-effects of walking through a difficult season is the sad drift into a victim mentality: I feel my own suffering and loss intensely, and yours doesn’t seem nearly as severe in comparison (by my estimation), so I begin to embrace a narrative that yours isn’t as legitimate as mine. The natural outworking of this narrative in our relationship is that I am self-focused, wanting sympathy and exceptional understanding from you while at the same time neglecting to feel or demonstrate compassion toward you and what you have experienced.
We have an opportunity right now to grow closer in community with one another than ever before! We all have our own unique stories to tell, disappointments to grieve, difficult situations to lament, and paths to trace out. We honor the Lord and one another when we show empathy and take time to listen to each other’s stories, to rejoice over the sweet gifts and to weep over the hard ones together (Rom. 12:15).
We are called to bear one another’s burdens, so fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), and to live alongside one another in humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love and eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-3). Intentionally look for ways to serve one another and cry out to God for each other in prayer. Remind one another frequently the glorious truths of the gospel—we all need to hear them over and over again. Tread gently and let grace be your rule-of-law. Imagine how the Lord might knit our collective hearts together as a force for kingdom advancement as we each strive to love our neighbor as ourselves!