Several years before my husband and I moved abroad, we visited some friends living in Peru. They were well into a five-year commitment to serve in a city where they were spearheading a religious community and outreach program.
I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into their apartment. I had spent time with many families working overseas, so I suppose I had anticipated meager living conditions with the typical mismatched furniture and never-ending bug problems.
But what I found brought me great comfort and joy. My friends were functioning at the highest emotional, relational, and spiritual capacity of anyone I had visited in a foreign context.
I took hot showers, slept in a large bed, and at night we sat around a flat-screen TV and watched Netflix.
Granted, we were in a city that provided access to modern conveniences like high-speed internet, taxi services, and a brand-new KFC. But the traditional expectation that foreign religious workers should live modestly kept tugging at me until I finally asked my friends about this stereotype.
When you guys move overseas, there will be plenty of things to sacrifice, they told me. You’ll be leaving family, friends, and lots of nice things behind. But you won’t stop being American. It’s okay to make your house a home and a place you actually want to return to each day. Nobody is asking you to give up EVERYTHING just for the sake of being pitiful.
Serving on the foreign field looks vastly different in 2015 than it has even in the recent past. Globalization has brought the Internet to the bush of Africa and sports cars to the unpaved roads of Southeast Asia. Rural villages are somehow connected to the international community, and fancy resorts are sprinkled across even the most remote landscapes.
Whereas expatriates used to be forced into complete abandonment of their passport culture, it is now easy to blend into a global context while still holding onto the things that remind us of ‘home.’
Still, when my husband and I finally reached the field last year and started looking for our first home, I carried the expectation of what our life should look like into that decision.
What will people think when they come to visit us? This house is too modern! Do we really need three bedrooms? Shouldn’t we be looking for an older, more traditional home?
The pangs of guilt nipped at my conscious as we considered which housing rent contract to sign.
But the guilt wasn’t coming from my Heavenly Father. The guilt was coming from my own beliefs of how donors and supporters expected us to live.
My mind floated back to the words of my friends in Peru. I remembered how healthy they were and how effective they were in their ministry.
I also considered the things I had read about culture stress from Ronald L. Kotesky.
The greater the difference in values between your passport culture and your host culture, the greater your stress will be. The more life changes you experience at once, the greater your stress will be.
For me, I knew I was juggling dissertation research, international adoption paperwork, and tonal language learning…all while raising a toddler and adjusting to a new culture. The cards were stacked against me in my first year overseas, and I needed a place where I could thrive.
So we moved our family into a new home we could feel comfortable in but with a rent payment still within our budget.
I’m in no way advocating materialism, and I definitely believe we all have to be on guard for the idols in our lives.
What I am advocating, however, is shirking off the expectation that as foreign Christian servants we must cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes. I am advocating mental health, self-care, and maintained wellness.
We don’t all need the same things to be able to thrive. For some of us it may be a place of respite. Others of us may be working in such stressful environments that we need regular vacations and debriefings. Still others may flourish with familiar food and good education for our children.
Whatever it is that helps you thrive, feel the embrace of the Father as He wraps you in His grace. There will always be more to sacrifice, but He will open those doors in His perfect timing.
Soak yourself in Scripture, respond to the daily challenge of dying to yourself; but more than anything, let Heavenly Mercy be the heartbeat of your overseas rhythm.
Sister, you were called to shine.
How have you felt that others’ expectations of your life overseas affect your ability to thrive?
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