Finding Unity in Love

*This blog is based on a recent sermon I gave in Burundi, centered on John 17. I encourage you to read the chapter slowly before reading this blog.

John 17 is a unique chapter. It is the only time we get to listen in on an intimate conversation between Jesus and God the Father. The only other prayers we hear from Jesus are what we call the Lord’s prayer, the template He gave us that everyone can follow, and a brief excerpt of His prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. This time, it is a specific, personal prayer, centered on the unity of love. He repeatedly references His unity with the Father, being one, the unity between Himself and His people, He in us and us in Him, and the unity between believers, following the very example set by the Trinity: May they be one as we are one.

The Unity of God: The Perfect Example of Perfect Love

Jesus describes the love and glory of the united Trinity being present before the foundation of the world (vs. 5 and 24). That means that glory is in no way dependent on our praise or the beauty and majesty of creation. Indeed, God’s glory is evident in God’s very nature of being relational. God is not just described as loving, He defined as love: perfect, untainted, glorious love. And that glorious love did not remain contained in the heavens. Jesus stated that He glorified the Father here on earth. He brought that perfect love to be displayed to all humanity.

Being perfectly united in love, being “one,” was described as sharing all things: “Everything I have is Yours, and everything You have is Mine” (v. 10). He emphasizes sharing the Word and sharing the work. Multiple times Jesus referenced the words given by the Father and being passed on to His disciples (vs. 7-8, 14, 17). Jesus is the go-between, the one who brought the word of truth, the word of love into the world. In fact, from the first verses of the Gospel of John we see that Jesus Himself was the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1). We only have access to that Word, that truth and love, because Christ brought it to us.

Passing on God’s word was a key component to God’s ordained work on earth. Jesus said that glory came with the completion of the work the Father had given Him to do (v. 4). He had revealed truth, both for the exposure of sin and the promise of salvation. He had also discipled the workers, those selected and given to Him by the Father. He loved, guarded, and equipped them to be sent, just as He had been sent by the Father. The passing on of the word and the calling of workers bring us to the parallel between Christ’s unity of the Father, and our unity with Christ.

Unity with Jesus

Partway through His prayer Jesus notes that this is not only His specific prayer for His disciples, it extends to “all who believe in Me” (v. 22). That means us! He wants us to know Him; in fact, eternal life itself is defined as knowing Him and knowing the Father (v. 3). This kind of “knowing” isn’t just head knowledge, but a deeper knowledge that comes from intimacy, just like the intimacy between the Father and the Son. He describes this intimacy as us living IN Him, and He living IN us (v. 21). Rather than just knowing about Him, we grow toward knowing:

  • His name—His very identity of being both fully God and fully human (vs. 6, 12, 26)
  • His truth and so the keeping of His word (vs. 6-8, 14)
  • His holiness, being separated from the world (vs. 14-16) and sanctified (vs. 17-19)
  • His calling, being sent into the world (vs. 18, 21, 23)
  • His joy, as it is made complete in us (v. 13)
  • His glory (vs. 10, 22, 24), which is found in
  • His love (vs. 23, 26)

So how do we discover this intimacy with Christ?

Imagine the most wealthy, powerful person on earth comes to your village and knocks on your door. He tells you he wants to be part of your life, and wants you to be part of his life. Most of us would be shocked, then excited! What an honor that he would even notice someone so insignificant on a global scale. Consider that the very Creator of the universe is indeed knocking on your heart’s door, stating His desire to participate in every aspect of your life and inviting you to be part of all He is doing. He wants you to know His love.

Getting to know someone, growing in intimacy, happens when taking time together, having meaningful conversations, and making memories together. Similarly, spending time with Jesus, in His Word, in His Presence, in both joyful and painful times, is how we develop that relationship. How do we spend time with Jesus?

Reading the Word of God:

Sometimes we read the Bible as a biography, learning more about God and all that He has done. It can also be more like a letter, discovering what He says—His principles and truths, and how it relates to us. But if we slow down, embracing the invitation to meditate on His Word, to open our hearts and minds, we can listen, asking Jesus to show us what He wants us to know from His word in the here and now. This process can blend with the conversations we call prayer.


Good communication is essential to any relationship, which includes both speaking and listening. Our prayers should not be just telling God what we want from Him, what we think He should do for us. Prayer is a place to pour out our emotions, our questions, our struggles (as modeled in many of the Psalms). It is also a place to listen for His response, after asking for His guidance, or asking for His will to be clear. Put most simply, we can ask what He wants us to know, being ready to receive the truth we need the most. Prayer is being in His presence, experiencing His peace and joy, and responding in appreciation for what He has done and what He is doing.

Making memories:

If we are in Christ and He is in us (v. 21), He is present all the time! Yet we may forget to seek Him, both in times of joy and sorrow. Intimacy comes from sharing life, both the small details and the big events. Actively seeking Him allows us to experience His presence, to be more aware of His hand at work, and there to gain glimpses of His glory.

Seeking Him in times of sorrow allows us to experience His loving comfort and reassuring truths. Times of trial are when we learn to depend on Him, especially when we discover that our own strength has run out. We can’t do it alone. The more we practice seeking Him, the more easily we become aware of His presence, and discover that we can experience His peace and joy regardless of our circumstances. This is how His joy is made complete in us, how we are more aware of His hand at work, and there how we catch glimpses of His glory.

Participating in His Kingdom: When we accept Christ as Savior, giving Him lordship over our lives, that is stepping into His kingdom. We won’t know the fullness of that kingdom until we get to heaven, but already we can see His love and His glory here on earth.*** Indeed, we are called to be in the world, but not of the world (vs.15-6), present to reflect God’s love and truth, but distinct from the worldly principles and priorities.

Until we get to heaven we are on a road, with the kingdom of God on one end and the kingdom of this world on the other. We’re either moving toward Christ or toward worldly things like wealth, comfort, power, and all the temptations of selfish desires. When looking toward Jesus we receive His love, His healing, His sanctification as we draw nearer to Him. It is always a choice; we can’t go both directions; we can’t serve two masters.

When walking toward the kingdom of God we have two foundational commandments to keep us on track. The first is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is what we are doing when finding intimacy with Christ. The second is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This love comes most easily as an overflow of the love we receive from God. That love is a testimony, particularly when displayed in the oneness between believers, bringing us to our final discovery of unity.

Unity in Christ

In His prayer to the Father, Jesus asks FOUR times that we, His followers, might be one. The first two times it is in comparison to the unity of the Trinity, “that they may be one as We are one” (vs. 11, 21). Here we return to that perfect model of unity. Like the Father and the Son, we show love to one another by sharing all that we have. We share the words, the truth found in Scripture. We share the work, the common purpose of serving God, and testifying His truth to the world.

Jesus then prays “that they may be one in Us” (v. 21). The unity we find in Christ is well described by Paul as being part of the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4). Anyone who is connected to Christ, the Head, is also connected to each other. When we look at the complexity of the body, we see the unique nature of every part, the distinct role of each one, and the value of each part.

For the whole body to be healthy, each part must be cared for. Whenever one part of the body is hurt, the rest feels it. If I stub my little toe, as insignificant as it may seem, the whole leg retracts, the mouth lets out a yelp, the eyes might release tears. We cannot compartmentalize every member of the Body. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, all displays of love. Love is crucial for all to thrive.

Finally, Jesus prays for our unity, “so the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me” (v. 23). As we walk together on this journey toward heaven, those around us will witness our interactions, our relationships. When turning to face Christ, we can more easily reflect His love, becoming a powerful testimony. Relationships centered on Christ are a sharp contrast to the self-centered, worldly motivations. Reflecting Christ’s love means living out humility and sacrifice instead of self-promotion. It means offering grace and forgiveness, balanced with truth and accountability. It is visible in the vulnerability of sharing both joy and sorrow, and the practicality of carrying each other’s burdens.

Following these guidelines, these invitations to love God and love one another, have both immediate and eternal outcomes. Paul states that three things will always remain: faith, hope, and love. “But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

How are you showing love to God this week? How are you investing in your relationship with Christ?

How can we as the Body of Christ find unity in Him? Where do we use love to overcome our differences?

May you fix your eyes on the love of Jesus, drawing nearer to Him and reflecting His love to those around you.

***An excerpt from the actual sermon in a rural church in Burundi 😊

Sickness, Grace, and Healing: 20 Years of Experience

I recently came across some old films from two decades ago. These are not pictures of my family making memories or reminders of my youth. They are images of my brain, MRI films from an era when hard copies were mounted on a lit background for evaluation.

2002 was the first time I got an MRI. An EEG had shown abnormal brain activity, providing a concrete reason for the “weird” mental experiences that I did not previously know how to define or explain. Ignorance was certainly not bliss, but neither were the questions that came from early revelations. The doctors said that many people have seizures without any visible cause, but they would do a brain scan “just in case” something showed up.

It did. Those early images revealed a lesion, but there was no way of distinguishing between a cavernous malformation (i.e., an abnormal clump of blood vessels) and a tumor. What does that mean? It was the start of a long journey. The first goal was to control the seizures and monitor the lesion for changes (growth = bad). After two years, not much change was visible, but several types of medication had not been effective on the seizures. I was in college with no driver’s license and an occasional mortifying experience when losing consciousness around my classmates.

Two decades later, I think back to the years of facing surgery, the discovery of a low-grade tumor of a type which had a high recurrence rate (astrocytoma, grade 2), gamma knife radiation and a severe delayed reaction, a year on corticosteroids to reduce the pressure from a swollen brain, and a gradual recovery. While the years of undergrad included the typical academic and social challenges, the internal battle, physical, emotional, and spiritual, was even more prominent in my life. I was eventually able to write out what I experienced and learned, and published a memoir a decade ago.

But there was no complete closure. With the tumor gone, meds were more effective in controlling seizures, but still necessary. I had an annual MRI to look for changes in the scarred tissue, each year bringing a sense of relief as the odds of a recurrence of the tumor decreased. I passed the average length of survival for that kind of tumor (8 years). I completed my doctorate and became a licensed clinical psychologist. I traveled the world, witnessing God’s hand at work. Now I only have MRIs every other year, but there is still an occasional partial seizure, still a slight risk of recurrence, still an existing uncertainty of long-term outcomes. What happens to a brain that has literally been sliced and zapped? What is the significance of an apparent reduction in brain volume? Questions and uncertainties linger.

The Gift of Weakness

Living with a weakness is negative by most human standards. Our culture calls for striving to reach the highest possible accomplishment, and an impediment is limiting, preventing the optimal. But that’s not how it works in God’s kingdom. His kingdom is not based on our abilities, our capacities, our strengths. He turns things upside down: blessed are the poor in spirit, the lowly, the children, the persecuted. Why? Because it is in the humble, the vulnerable, that God’s power is made most evident.

I remember being at one of my lowest points, when my brain was swollen, my ministry cut short, my capacities limited. During that time, I felt the presence of God in more intimate ways. One night I was praying, thinking about the significance of names in Scripture (often given by God with a specific meaning), and asking God what name He had for me. His response was, What is your middle name? Grace. I was immediately reminded of the promise and comfort given to Paul when he was dealing with his own weakness: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul’s response was a shift in mindset. He was ready to embrace, even boast about, his weakness, so that all the glory might go to God. It is hard enough for me to share about my weakness, far more difficult to “boast.” But I know that over the last 20 years “weakness” has served several purposes: 1) to keep me humble, fully aware that I cannot rely on my own strength; 2) to keep me grateful, knowing that life is short and every day I have on earth is a gift; and 3) to give me motivation to use what limited time I have to serve God’s kingdom here on earth. Even more important, my weakness has contributed to my dependence on and intimacy with God. That is of higher value than any accomplishment.

Where Is the Healing?

I fully believe in God’s power to bring miraculous physical healing. He does it all the time! Supernatural healing can bring Him glory and push the recipient and other witnesses closer to God. It can strengthen our faith to see His sovereignty over disease! Yet, there are also times when allowing physical problems to continue can perform the same purpose to a greater degree for a longer period of time.

There are numerous stories of God using suffering and struggles for growth and glory to a far greater degree than could’ve been obtained by a single miraculous event (e.g., Joni Eareckson Tada or Nick Vujicic). Seeing or experiencing a miracle can be inspiring! But faith can grow to a deeper level when we are forced to surrender our lives completely, to give back to God our skills, talents, ministries, and other strengths, and to trust in His will, especially when it makes no sense to us.

It is also in our weakness that God often shows us an opportunity for another form of healing: that deeper brokenness of the heart, mind, and soul. We all have those internal struggles, ranging from doubt to depression, anger to anxiety, bitterness to a battered self-esteem, and many more. Most are deeply rooted, influenced by painful past relationships and memories. Those sources of pain that inhibit our relationship with God and warp our perception of Him are ones that He wants to remove.

When we approach inner healing, the goal is not to simply feel better and be happy. The purpose is to draw nearer to Jesus, to find intimacy with Him. Out of that relationship comes joy that is not dependent on circumstances. In John 15, Jesus emphasizes the importance of abiding in Him, and He in us, with the outcome being His joy made complete in us. Inner healing is getting rid of any muck in our hearts that is taking up space we could give to Jesus. It is not based on our own capacity to change, but instead on allowing Jesus to shine His light of truth and redemption into the darkest places.

Grace in Weakness

Many times I’ve received prayer (and myself prayed!) for physical healing. For a long time, I wrestled with the question of why those prayers were not answered. Was it a lack of faith? Unforgiven sin? Was it my fault? I now realize that my view was based more on works—enough faith, enough righteousness, enough repentance, than on grace. God used a season of incapacity to debunk the subtle lie that my value was found in serving God and making a difference for His kingdom, which was especially rewarding when recognized by others. He loves me, even when I’m receiving instead of giving.

Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not after we had demonstrated our wholehearted dedication, true faith, and passion to serve Him. We are His beloved children, the Creator’s work of art. My weakness taught me that intimacy with God was the first step, and out of that emerged the love that empowered me to help others. I know can’t do it by my own strength, and that knowledge relieves me of any burden or responsibility to see results.

The invitation to take on Christ’s yoke is a beautiful picture of sharing in His work without being the one to carry the bulk of the weight or choose the way to go. “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). It is the stronger ox that bears the load and directs the pair. For us, there is joy and reverence in the invitation to participate in His work. For me, that has become witnessing Jesus transform lives in need of healing far deeper than physical ailments. I get to participate, but He does the healing!

I have reached a place where I see spiritual and emotional healing to be of greatest value, coming from intimacy with Jesus, only by His grace and love. Because our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls are inseparable, I often see physical relief as a “side effect” to emotional and spiritual healing. When our physical problems are linked to emotional wounds, encountering Jesus and receiving His healing in a painful memory also frequently brings reports of feeling better physically. Fantastic! But even more significant is the freedom from fear, anger, bitterness, and countless distortions of beliefs about God, self, and others.

The Ultimate Outcome

Healing is a powerful tool to demonstrate God’s power and sovereignty, His nature as Creator and Healer. It is an effective testimony that can also point others back to God. Keep asking for it, inviting God to use it for His glory!

Yet, I believe we must also be ready to welcome whatever God wants to give us or teach us THROUGH our times of weakness. What obligations needs to be released, strengths surrendered, sins confessed, and lies replaced with truth? What deeper wounds are being exposed, dark places in the heart where God wants to bring His light and life? What work of refinement and sanctification is He performing? How can He use this for His glory?

Either way, our confidence can rest in faith that He loves us, that He knows what is best for us, and that He can use the outcome for His glory. The hope found in these promises allows us to rejoice in all circumstances and embrace our position in His plan, slowly learning to trust in Him.

Spring Always Follows Winter

In much of the northern hemisphere, spring has arrived. The seasonal change is certainly evident here in the Middle East. Last month, when we took a picnic up to a lone tree on a hill, its March branches were still barren. It was that week that we celebrated “Nawruz,” the “new year celebration” that coincided with the beginning of spring. This year, cold weather and sparse precipitation contributed to the late arrival of greenery, but we all knew it would still come. Indeed, on an April visit to the same tree, we saw an abundance of leaves and buds. What had looked almost lifeless had been transformed.

Contrast between the winter tree and the spring tree
The Spring Transformation: From March to April

Despite the stark contrast, no one was surprised. This annual occurrence had created an expectation that despite the complete winter barrenness, the leaves would eventually emerge. It had not died, but instead gone through a season necessary for the blossoms and fruits that were to come. This assurance came with one resource that was consistently present: water. Unlike the rest of the hill, the lone tree sat by the one spring of water. A closer look revealed a warped trunk, but despite its non-vertical early growth, the availability of water allowed it to thrive annually.

Planted by the stream.

Like a Tree…


What I see makes me think of two Bible verses:

Blessed is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

Nor stand in the path of sinners,

Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!

But his delight is in the Law of the LORD,

And on His Law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by streams of water,

Which yields its fruit in its season, And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.

(Psalm 1:1-3, NASB)


“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,

And whose trust is the LORD.

For he will be like a tree planted by the water

That extends its roots by a stream,

And does not fear when the heat comes;

But its leaves will be green,

And it will not be anxious in a year of drought,

Nor cease to yield fruit.”

 (Jeremiah 19:7-8, NASB)

Both comparisons include the presence of water and the growth of both leaves and fruit. The first passage emphasizes the importance of delighting in and meditating on the “law of the Lord,” while the second highlights the need to trust the Lord, regardless of circumstance. The parallel comparison seems to illustrate the balance of “good works” and “faith,” a topic often discussed in relation to salvation. Following the law of the Lord does not earn salvation; salvation is a gift of grace, received by faith. At the same time, receiving salvation through faith does not release us to freely sin without consequence; with sincere faith comes the desire to serve God wholeheartedly.

Instead of salvation being acquired through action or belief, it is the outcome of a relationship with God, made possible only by the grace of God, through Christ’s sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. It is only in that relationship that we find true LIFE, both now and for eternity. God is the ultimate source of life, and is calling all of us, His children and creation, to Himself out of love. 

Planted by the Water

Water is often the symbol of life. Without it, the tree would shrivel up and die. But tapping into it, absorbing it, and enjoying it brings life and growth. Likewise, our relationship with Christ brings us life, as we abide in Him, delight in His word, partake in His joy, and experience His love. Seasons of apparent barrenness still come as we face losses, discouragement, weaknesses, and struggles with the consequences of sin, whether our own or that of others. Times of drought are a reality, as we encounter external sources of distress, whether the extremes of war and natural disasters or the accumulations of small stressors.

Yet, if we take those struggles as opportunities to lean into God, to deepen our trust in Him, and to turn to His word for truth and guidance, the outcome is growth. It is during times of drought that tree roots must dig deeper to tap into the water. Likewise, it is during our times of desperation that we seek God, realizing we can’t do it on our own. Learning to depend on Jesus strengthens our relationship with Him.

Trust in God provides hope. Even when a winter seems to last forever, it is always followed by spring.

He is Risen!

Dark Saturday: Anguish and Anticipation

Teaching about trauma makes me think about what that day after Christ’s death was like for His followers and family. The emotions of grief, anger, and fear must have been overwhelming. Perhaps they wondered if they too were in danger. Suddenly, the call to “take up your cross and follow Me” was not just metaphorical. They were not safe.

Then there is the confusion, as all the expectation of a Messiah’s victory were shattered. Had they misunderstood or been deceived? On that Sabbath, I imagine a sense of helplessness, being unable to do anything, even unable to mourn or find closure by preparing the body of their Lord. Perhaps they felt helpless, trapped, or just numb in disbelief. Was it all a bad dream?

Hopes Dashed

Surely that Saturday, that Sabbath, was the worst day of their lives, with no Teacher to turn to with their questions, no miracles to counter their fears and doubts. Did they try to comfort one another? Or withdraw to their own cocoons?  I imagine a wide range of reactions and means of coping.

Up until that final moment on the cross I can see there being some anticipation for a replay of Abraham and Isaac: at the last possible moment God could’ve intervened, validating the sacrifice without taking the life, and displaying His power to a wide audience.

“He saved others, let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” (Luke 23:35)

Onlookers were waiting, hoping, but it didn’t happen. Jesus gave up His spirit.

And all the crowds who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts. (Luke 23:48)

John must have embraced Jesus’ mother. (Was she wailing?) The followers who hadn’t run too far watched with horror. Jesus had abandoned the ones He loved… or so it felt.


On this day of remembrance, what I would call Dark Saturday, it’s tempting for us to quickly turn the page, reach the final resolution that we know lies ahead. But I see value in lingering, listening, understanding that feeling of dread among Jesus’ followers, and maybe grasping for a tiny thread of anticipation. Did any remember Jesus’ prediction of resurrection?

More likely the typical emotional reactions to a traumatic experience drowned out the cognitive reasoning that it might not be over.

The Story Is Not Over

But it is not over yet. God doesn’t end the story as the loser. God doesn’t end our stories in defeat. Maybe you’ve been in that dark valley; maybe you are there now. The climax is still around the corner. Hold on to the promise. Victory is yet to come.

Good Friday

To the Churches Whose Missionaries Have Come “Home”

It was 2001. My family had arrived in Kazakhstan in 1996, the first American family in our town, and been joined by other Americans and Aussies over the next several years. It was a fairly isolated place, and we certainly didn’t have Facebook and Zoom to remain connected to friends and family in our sending countries. Instead we became each other’s family. We shared laughter and tears, welcomes and goodbyes. As we ran an educational center and built relationships, the first Kazakh church was also being planted. Overall, we had good relationships with local leaders, and having arrived back from furlough in 2000, expected to be there another three years.

Early in 2001 the investigation began. Prompted by the president’s call to crack down on “foreign religious extremists,” the officials looked for fault in the running of the educational center, demanding files and citing new regulations. With little against us there, they showed up at the preschool where the Sunday worship service was held, locked the doors, and videotaped it (“catching” a team member playing guitar), and soon issued court summons. One family already planning to go back to the USA and some short-termers managed to leave the country voluntarily. The rest of us were stopped at the airport when trying to leave a week later. The men were put on trial, and sentenced to a fee and expulsion within ten days. It was a surreal week of doing what was possible to settle affairs and say goodbyes, a painful departure ending with news cameras and harassment by the officials at the airport, and a couple days outside the country to catch our breaths before returning to the US.

20190420_172131The very weekend of our return was a missions conference at a church that had supported some of our team members. I went to part of it, facing a thousand mixed feelings when hearing stories of others and reports of our own experience. But some of the most painful moments were the well-meaning comments:

“You must be so happy to be back home.”

“We were praying you’d get out safely.”

“Welcome home!”

“I’m sure you’re glad to be out of there.”

I had just left home. Our team family was scattered, no longer available to support one another. We didn’t have people around us to relate with us and listen to us. I don’t think we really knew how to process together early on and listen to each other as we each coped in our own ways. Although there was a day of debriefing, I was excluded from the “adult” session, because I was “just a teenager.” A teenager who had participated in all the adult meetings for our team, the only teenager on the team.

The American church was just as foreign as the one overseas, if not more so. The youth group seemed wrapped up in what looked superficial to me. I’m sure I was too judgmental, but as a “hidden immigrant” I felt lonely and at times overwhelmed and confused. I struggled with the theology of suffering and why God allowed all of this to happen; weren’t we serving Him? Weren’t we praying fervently?

Ultimately, God in all His graciousness used that difficult period to shape and equip me. (For more of the story, check out my book.) One outcome was being able to relate to others who have such painful experiences. From a clearer perspective, one thing I am aware of right now is the many missionaries who have come back to their sending countries in unplanned, painful circumstances. Do the churches see their perspective?

A Church’s Self-Assessment

Today I see a much better awareness in many churches, with a dramatic growth in member care resources and intentionality for supporting reentry for missionaries over the last couple decades. It is so encouraging! Yet I believe it can also be helpful to reflect on how well the church understands their missionaries and is responding to their needs. If you are part of a church that has had missionaries come “home,” I would encourage you to evaluate your current response with the following questions:

1) Do you know why they came back?

Facing the COVID-19 situation brought forth difficult decisions, with many factors to take into considerations and many unknowns cluttering the “strategic” steps to take. No one knows the exact timeline of when country borders will be open and travel will be feasible. If they left the field, they wouldn’t know when they could return. If they stayed, they couldn’t predict when they’d be able to get out. Think of the countless issues at hand: high-risk relatives who might need care; children’s education, particularly those who have had challenges; medical concerns with limited care or medication in the country of residence; future significant events that are high priority; visa issues (those that need frequent renewal); local unrest with varying degrees of risk; emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs that are not being met and are currently directly leading toward burn-out. There are many other possible issues that may need to be addressed. Have they had a chance to share their thought-process and decision-making? Do you know the ongoing questions and uncertainties?

2) Taking their reasons for leaving into consideration, are their needs being addressed?

They are back in a country that may or may not feel familiar, after different lengths of time and levels of acculturation overseas. Society is always changing, not to mention the drastic adjustments everyone is facing with social distancing and many services no longer available. Who is helping the returnees address the issues at hand? It can be overwhelming to manage the compilation of what may seem like a formidable mountain of details, each complicated with much of the economy shut down and healthcare influenced. Emotional and spiritual needs are just as significant. In a place of limited interactions with family and friends, some might be hesitant to reach out and take initiative in re-building relationships from a distance. Who is calling/Skyping/emailing/texting them?

3) Can you feel empathy?

Your own challenges in the midst of COVID-19 may actually provide a slice of insight into some of the difficulties felt on the field on a regular basis. Now you might be able to feel what separation from family and friends is like. Now you might have tasted the frustration of limited resources (yes, even if it’s toilet paper). Now you could imagine living with constant uncertainty with finances or government systems or health risks. DON’T ASSUME YOU COMPLETELY “GET IT.” But do take the opportunity to let yourself share in some of their struggles; it might even put your own into perspective. Everyone is different, so it is important to first allow them to share their own experience. Then, put yourself in their shoes and validate their emotions. (Read more on showing empathy.)

4) Are the kids receiving care?

With the evolution of internet connection and social media, some youth might find it easier to stay in touch with peers from the sending country. But many have just left a place that was home and people that they care about, and most don’t know when/if they’ll go back. Others might feel relieved to be out of a stressful context. Most will have ups and downs, gains and losses, excitement and let-downs, and a slew of other emotions. You won’t know until you listen. They too need to be heard as they process their own thoughts and feelings.

The Main Point: Listen and Love

clip_image002This is not an all-inclusive evaluation, but perhaps you’ll notice a theme: the importance of listening. We all need to be heard and it’s healing to feel understood. Answers aren’t always readily available, but active listening is critical, even without offering solutions. Make it a safe place to share emotions and struggles, ask open questions, and show that you are hearing and relating to what they share. Live their story with them, encouraging them to not only state the facts, but their also their thoughts and feelings.

It can be easy to assume someone else is available for the returnees, but that’s not always true. Having more than one listener is also valuable, especially if that person is coming in an attitude of humility, openness, and unconditional love.** This is the fulfillment of the church’s responsibility to care for its members, but on a broader scale, all of us have the calling to demonstrate love to one another. The needs aren’t to be met just by church leadership; the congregation should also share the role of investing in the lives of those they have sent out to the field. That participation also helps the church become more missions-minded and appreciative of the support offered to these families and individuals serving overseas or when nearby.

So whether you are a leader or a member, I would encourage you to reach out to the returnees. If you don’t know any, it might be time to meet them!

**Sometimes it is important to notice when a returnee would benefit from a more formal debriefing. If you see issues coming up that need to be addressed, it can be a blessing to encourage seeking additional help, whether through an organization or professional care.

If you want to become better equipped for debriefing and caring for missionaries, consider some of the resources:



How to support workers forced to return due to COVID-19

Other resources are available on that site:

Visit: Care Resources for Families

Read: The Debriefing Tool for Humanitarian Workers

Love and Suffering

Perspective: The Big Picture and the Beautiful Details

Recently, my husband and I took a hike near Joshua Tree National Park, intentionally staying away from the popular trails to make “social distancing” easier. Indeed, we encountered no one else along the way, and felt safe from any COVID-19 contamination. The downside of avoiding trails is that the terrain is not well-worn and rocks were crumbling beneath our feet. The steeper it got, the more unnerving it was to grasp for a ledge that turned out to be lacking in security, or to step on stones that gave way. We had not really planned to “climb” rather than walk, and my shoes were definitely not the recommended variety for some of the sections. But somehow, a certain peak became our goal, and we were soon past the point of no return. I also did not want to go downhill on the steep, unstable terrain we were currently on, fearing it could quickly turn into a disastrous tumble, so up was the only option. At long last, we made it, and saw a beautiful panorama of hills, rocks, the valley below, and the distant mountain ranges. Away from the media, the statistics, and the rush to stock up on toilet paper and disinfectant, it was easier to remember that God, the Creator of the universe, was still present and still Sovereign.

On the way up, my focus was on the rock directly in front of me, so I was constantly making each tiny decision of where to put my foot. I had my subtle worries that I would end up in a spot too steep and crumbly to ascend, and occasionally wished I was “on belay,” with a rope to provide security. But along the way I also found pockets of shade to catch my breath, drink some water, and rest enough for the next section. Those were the moments to enjoy at least a partial viewpoint, to note how far I’d come, and to be mentally prepared to go further. I knew that if I was dehydrated and overheated, I’d be unable to make it.

clip_image004Along the way, from our picnic at the bottom all the way to the summit, I also enjoyed the details: the spring buds of color. It is definitely the right time of year to be in the desert, with cacti boasting fuchsia blooms, and yellow flowers gazing out from the rocks, turning golden from the sinking sunlight on the way down. When taking time to look more closely, there were also tiny cobalt blue flowers displaying beauty enjoyed by few eyes, yet surely valued by their own Creator, our own Creator.

clip_image006 “Observe the how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these” (Matthew 6:27-28, NASB).

If I had focused only on the possible disasters, or the poor shoes, or the crumbling rocks, the hike would not have been half as enjoyable. But because I could look forward to reaching the summit and enjoy bits of beauty along the way, it has been a memorable event shared with my husband.

What Does this Mean in the “Real World”?

It’s much easier to get a clearer focus when surrounded by nature, but what about in the midst of our daily sources of stress?

Sometimes we find ourselves on a steeper slope than we were expecting. Instead of just finishing the school year, students and teachers are completely restructuring classes to work online, parents are learning how to homeschool and/or balancing having children at home while adjusting their own schedule and location. Many jobs are lost, some become more risky, others are also facing drastic re-structuring. Many feel like life might be about to crumble as forms of security vanish, and it feels like there is no rope to grasp. Some feel anxiety taking over, others are just exhausted. It’s hard to see where the end point is.

We need to take time to pause, find a place to rest and catch our breath.

To make it to the top, we need to quench our spiritual, emotional, and relational thirst. What helps you feel refreshed? When was the last time you sat in the Presence of God, soaking in the promises of His Word?

clip_image008We need to cool down. Maybe the frustration and anger that come from all the disasters we weren’t expecting are starting to boil over into other parts of our lives and relationships. Maybe our hearts are pumping from fear of what lies ahead. Emotions are normal; the question is how to manage them. What brings you joy? When was the last time you implemented creative activities, or tried something new?

We need to find reasons to be grateful. Even in the difficult times, we can find beautiful details. Maybe you are realizing the privileges that are easily taken for granted until they are suddenly taken away. Maybe you are learning skills and knowledge we never would have without this crisis. Maybe you have opportunities to express love in different ways and strengthen relationships. Intentionally identify reasons to give thanks.

We need each other. While my husband and I both made it to the top successfully, on the way up it was comforting to know that if something happened to one of us, the other would (hopefully) still have the capacity to get help. We were able to encourage each other and to share moments of appreciating beauty. Who do you have to turn to (even if not physically)? How can you together identify ways to encourage each other and share both struggles and moments of joy? Who will make you laugh once in a while?

None of us really know how we’re going to get over this mountain of problems. But we have many promises that can help shift our perspective. Just before the facing the mountain of pain and fear encountered in the crucifixion, Jesus comforted His disciples:

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NASB).

Yes, we are in a world facing drastic problems and the climb seems to be a long one. But when we put our trust in Jesus, He provides a rope of security that we can cling to even when our feet are slipping. Hold fast, and look forward to seeing the big picture of how God can use this for our growth and His glory.

Facing Fears from COVID-19

Over the last two months our perception of COVID-19 has been constantly changing, and with it, our internal and external reactions. When mostly isolated in China, it was something foreign, distant, and therefore not very threatening. But as its territory gradually started to expand, infecting people of our nationality, then appearing on our soil, then spreading exponentially, and soon directly affecting our lifestyles, it became a very real threat. Perhaps you are reading this from your own home when usually you would be at work. Maybe you’re lacking in toilet paper or hand sanitizer because the shelves were empty (or maybe you helped empty the shelves). Perhaps you personally know someone infected, or are one degree away, as I recently heard of the death of a friend’s mother. Maybe a tickle in your throat makes you worry that it caught up with you.

Throughout the ever-evolving state of affairs, there has been a wide spectrum of reactions. Early on there was far less anxiety, but at least some could only picture the worst-case scenario. On the other end, complete denial contributed to some countries falling short in preparing for potential risks, leading to current shortages in medical resources. But even if some of those who were more worried about the outcome turn out to be more accurate (now telling their friends, “I told you so!”), the extended state of heightened anxiety may have had detrimental effects on their own mental and physical health, leading to a weakened immune system and a higher risk for a more severe reaction to infection.

What Makes Us React Differently?

First of all, it is important to differentiate between fear and anxiety. Fear is a present reaction to immediate danger, a real threat, and triggers our bodies to go into self-defense mode (fight, flight, or freeze). It is important for our survival, facilitating the avoidance of true danger! Anxiety, on the other hand, is primarily worry about the future, what might happen. Sometimes, if the negative expectations come to pass, it too could contribute to survival. But it is not necessarily based on scientific reasoning and fact-based threat analysis. Instead, it is a cycle of keeping the body in high alert mode, creating hyper-awareness to any information that supports the possible threat, and reinforcement of physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual reactions to the perceived threat. When the threat becomes real, those with a history of anxiety and/or persistent stress have a brain wired to react more strongly to that threat.

For everyone, several factors contribute to an increase in fear and anxiety:

  • Proximity: When a threat gets nearer, our fear increases. This is evident as the change in geographical location influenced the attitude toward the threat of COVID-19.
  • Severity: The more drastic the potential outcome is, the stronger a reaction it triggers. Rates of mortality and ease of spreading the infection affect how the danger is perceived as a threat. Those with higher vulnerability (e.g. the elderly, those with other health concerns) may have a greater level of fear of contracting COVID-19.
  • Society: The more people around us express the fear, the higher our own levels increase. For many, the constant negative input from the news and social media (whether accurate or not), fuels the increase in fear. Influence on our own feelings is even stronger when those in close proximity are demonstrating fear; in contrast, being around others who to offer reassurance can have a positive effect and reduction of fear. Something as simple as a hug directly affects the chemicals in our brains, which is becoming more difficult with a significant reduction of close proximity.
  • Previous experience: Many who have experienced fear in the past will have those emotions triggered. It could be related to something specific, like disease, but it also might be more broad, having gone through periods of uncertainty, isolation, unmet needs, etc. The more anxiety and fear we have experienced so far, the more our brains are sensitive to potential threats.
  • Helplessness: The less control we have over a situation, the higher the levels of anxiety because of the uncontrollable outcome. A new disease like COVID-19 is worrisome because of our lack of knowledge, triggering immediate research on patterns of the spread of infection, searching for effective treatment, developing a vaccine, etc. The inability to acquire resources, such as masks and ventilators, increases the threat of a more severe outcome.

These factors are sometimes beneficial in triggering positive, necessary action. Even social pressure through Facebook has contributed to motivating the general population to observe social distancing for the good of society, not just the individual. People at all levels of influence are taking steps forward, reducing feelings of helplessness and striving to meet needs. The outcomes may have been more effective if started earlier, but everyone’s choices still will have an influence on the long-term picture.

Finding a Balance

Several years ago, I was in an African country about to have a presidential election. The most recent one had quickly turned violent, with many lives lost, and no one wanted to see it happen again. A number of expats decided to leave the country to avoid the potential danger. Companies and organizations varied in their policies for addressing risks, but most had a plan of action in place to implement if the levels of danger increased. In our organization, we were told, “Prepare for the worst, pray for the best.” We stocked up on non-perishables and bottled water in case it became too dangerous to leave the compound. There were radios in case cell service was cut off. We had specific locations to meet if it got to the point where evacuation was necessary. Fortunately, while there were riots around the city, it never reached the same level of violence as five years earlier and relatively quickly calmed down. But that mandate stuck with me.


Living in denial can have negative ramifications. Let’s take all the information we have seriously. Some countries found out the hard way that preventative action would have been most effective (or are realizing it now). But we can’t undo the past, and must therefore focus on immediate next steps. Some are fairly simple: social distancing and hygiene will decrease the rate of spreading the virus. This is about the well-being of those who are most vulnerable, as well as society in general. When the health care system has exceeded its capacity to provide needed services, the impact is widespread, as evident in Italy, a developed nation with more resources than many.

We also need to be active on an individual and familial level. Prepare for the coming days, weeks, even months from a holistic approach:

~ Physically: The healthier you are the better! The majority of COVID-19 cases have mild to moderate symptoms. That is influenced by our immune systems’ capacity to fight the virus. Sleep is critical. Hopefully you’ve stocked your shelves with healthy food. Be careful not to let “comfort food” become your primary way of managing stress. Stay active. Get some good doses of sunlight and fresh air.

~ Cognitively: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8, NASB). Be careful where you place your focus! It’s very easy to stay glued to the news, but not always helpful. I appreciate it when I see posts of humor—laughter is healthy! There is an abundance of free online resources to explore places you’ve never been, take courses, and explore new topics. But what is most valuable in influencing our thought patterns is spending time with God. Read His word. Listen. Give your concerns to Him, asking for His help. Remember that He is still Sovereign, even when we don’t understand what is going on around us. Take time to express gratefulness for what He is doing in you, around you, and through you.

~ Emotionally: Be real with yourself. Emotions are normal! Yet, sometimes ongoing negative emotions are taxing. Notice what triggers those emotions and identify what has in the past brought feelings of joy and peace. Go back to the positive memories of times with people you love, times when you felt the presence of God. Know your emotional needs. When feeling overwhelmed, stop and breath slowly. Notice how your body stores tension and find ways to relax. Explore ways of using creativity to express your emotions.

~ Relationally: Even if we are purposefully keeping distance from one another, the reality is we need each other. God made us relational! If social isolation is taking its toll, identify creative ways of connecting with people: calls, “real” letters or cards, video chat, online games, etc. Think also about the needs of others. Who in your family would really appreciate a phone call right now? Physical touch is not the only “love language.” Acts of service can be done from a distance, gifts can still be delivered, words of affirmation come in many ways, and quality time may even be through a conversation from a distance. Technology today has given us many resources to connect!

~ Spiritually: All of the above pieces are related to our spiritual well-being. When caring for our bodies we must remember that they are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” God’s Word is a great source of excellent things to dwell on and being in His presence transforms our emotions. Our relationship with Him influences our well-being in many ways.


Yes, most of our church buildings have closed their doors, but we can still join in prayer with our brothers and sisters worldwide. Collectively we can pray for wisdom for leaders at all levels, for action to be taken, for healing to come, for divisions to be broken down as we face a common challenge, and for needs to be met in places severely lacking in resources to deal with the pandemic. We can pray that God would ultimately use this disaster for His glory.

In our communities we can pray for one another, with our varying needs, fears, and struggles. During our individual times with the Lord, we can surrender our lives back to Him, expressing and giving Him all our emotions, doubts, and questions, and listening, allowing time in His presence to hear what He wants us to know. Abide in Him (John 15)! Throughout the New Testament we’re warned that we will face trials on this sinful planet, but they are nothing compared to the eternal hope we find in Christ.

What will you do today?