Like many of you, my story– my overseas story– is full of complicated layers of stress, hope, survival, endurance, and resolve. There are highs and lows. We get tired, maybe lonely, or stressed out. We don’t try to burnout, in fact, we get trained on how to avoid it! But truth? Burnout is part of my story.
I knew the importance of rest, exercise, connecting with loved ones, caring for myself and deepening my relationship with God, so that I could live a balanced and healthy life. But, I had a hard time saying NO. I was there to serve, to be involved, be useful. It was my joy, my calling, to visit the sick, tend to the needs of others and disciple. Our home was a happy, safe place for many, and our children thrived. When trauma hit, or stressors piled up, I told myself to “buck up,” this is the sacrificial life God has called me to. Margin? Forget it. I couldn’t stop doing what I was doing, because who else would do it?
After years on the field, thinking I was doing fine, I felt the burn; a slow, slow burn. I was really tired. Kind of numb. Irritated. I was anxious, and felt overwhelmed, even out of control at times. I started to feel resentful about all the stuff I was taking on. I found myself judging others for not diving “into the work” the way I thought they should (I chalk this up to the evils of comparison, and some misguided missiology). My husband and I were barely connecting due to the high volume of people coming in and out of our home. I knew I had taken on too much, but I didn’t feel the freedom to say “no” when “yes” seemed to be the only way. And then something happened one day.
I had just returned to our little market town after six days of running a workshop in another province. After two plane rides, and a long bus ride home to the countryside, I got a message from someone at the local hospital. “Come,” it said. I hadn’t seen my family in days- and even though I knew they were fine and I couldn’t wait to see them, I decided to stop by the hospital, then go home. The hospital visit wasn’t urgent, yet I couldn’t say “no.” A pattern had developed; I felt pressed in and locked down to squeeze every request into the ragged corners of my life. There was a pang in my heart when I got home, and with my three kids jockeying for hugs, I collapsed into my husband’s arms. I said, “I don’t think I can keep this up.” He said, “Honey, no one is asking you to.”
I was walking around with deep burns– the bones of my soul seared, and nerves so fried that all sensation was gone. I couldn’t bear to admit it though, it was like pulling teeth to get me to say: I’m burnt out. For me, it had such negative connotations, words and phrases like: overwhelmed, overstressed, poor boundaries, running on empty, couldn’t cut it.
Regardless of how I thought others perceived me, it was time to take stock; we needed a break. Thankfully, we were due for home leave in a few months and my husband had to write his dissertation out of country. Easy enough to leave it at that, but the truth was, we were burned out too. I held my breath, waiting for judgment to descend!
The opposite happened, we were met with care and support by our organization, family and friends. We would take our first, much needed Sabbatical in 14 years of ministry. Even so, I felt relieved and terribly guilty at the same time. I remember trying to reason with myself, burdened by the desire to “stay put,” and yet desperate to get away, to recover.
When the time came to leave, I remember a horrible feeling came over me as I walked across the tarmac and waved goodbye to our friends who were standing off in an open field. I was suddenly scared. Scared I might not make it back. Help me God, I prayed.
As our plane took off, bamboo forests in a shroud of mist below, I pulled a letter out of my backpack my friend Hanna had given me prior to our departure. She was a TCK, the daughter of team-mates, who was in her gap year and spending a few months with our team. When we hugged goodbye at the airport she shoved an envelope into my hands and said, “Read this when you get on the plane Auntie Monica.” I opened it and read the words:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matt 11: 28-30 The Message)
Jesus loves you Auntie. I’ve seen all you do, and all the people who love you. Let God love you now. Live freely and lightly.
At that moment, Jesus’ words, so full of grace, poured out like a rich, soothing emollient, seeping into long-neglected wounds. As you might imagine, that’s not the end of my story. For now, I leave you with this: if you are running on empty, if you feel like collapsing, or that you are at the end of your rope, I’ve been there too. Know that I’m giving you a virtual hug and whispering, “Let God love you now.”
To be continued….
Here at Velvet Ashes, we strive to be a community that embraces women in all seasons of life and ministry. This is a safe place to share, to be listened to, and loved on. How can we pray for you this week? Did anything from Monica’s story resonate with you?
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