So, What Does God Look Like to You? [—at A Life Overseas]


Imagine getting a handwritten invitation from God the Father requesting your presence for a meeting. You quickly get ready, and you’re on your way. When you arrive at his door, you knock twice and hear, “Come in.” You turn the knob, push the door open slowly . . . and there he is.

But before you enter, let’s back up a second. How’s your imagination? What kind of invitation did God send? What about his handwriting? What sort of clothes are you wearing to your meeting? Formal? Business casual? Shorts and flip flops? And his door, is it simple or ornate? What kind of voice does he have? And what does God look like?

For many years, I could most easily picture God sitting on a throne, an ancient sculpture come to life. He had long hair and a long beard, and he must have been at least 10-feet tall, as he was large enough for me—even as an adult—to crawl up onto his lap and burrow my face into the billowy robes that flowed down from his shoulders.

I like that image, and it still gives me comfort. But it’s not always the one that now first comes to my mind. Instead, I sometimes think of God standing before me with his arms crossed, a disappointed look on his face. On a particularly bad day, he uncrosses his arms to shake a finger at me. This change in how I view God seems to have come about sometime overseas, when I realized that my accomplishments and abilities weren’t matching my own expectations and what I thought were the expectations of others.

What does God look like to you? I’m not talking about God appearing in a bona fide vision. I’m thinking of how your imagination pictures him being present—right in front of you. It’s an interesting question for missionaries, relief workers, and the nationals next door. It’s an interesting question for all of us, because the answers we give tell a lot about who God is to us and about how we see our relationship with him—about how we see ourselves and think God sees us. Does he resemble your father, president, prime minister, or king? Does he look like a church leader or a boss you’ve known? Does he give you his full attention, or is he busy with the crowds around him? Does he have your features, or is he a foreigner?

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Peek,” by Wesley de Ridder, used under a Creative Commons license]


Eleven Tips for Helping Someone with Cross-Cultural Transitional Loss

7016973613_ded8a0eac1_mIf you want to help people in transition—cultural, geographic, and vocational transition—then you’ll need to deal with the grief that comes with their losses. Here’s a great resource for that, A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief. (LifeCare is a leading provider of “work-life services.”) While this publication is aimed at comforting people who have lost a loved one, the advice it gives can be applied to those with cross-cultural transitional loss as well.

It opens with the second half of this quotation from Henri Nouwen, from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life:

[W]hen we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

Here are eleven tips from Helping Others Cope with Grief to guide us in being that “friend who cares.” Each one is followed by a short excerpt to help explain the idea. I have, when necessary, replaced some words (in brackets) in order to to apply the advice to people experiencing loss due to cross-cultural transition—a group including all cross-cultural workers, their parents and family left back “home,” Third Culture Kids, expats, and repats:

  1. Mention the [lost relationships, places, and things], and acknowledge your awareness of the loss.
    . . . . Many people avoid mentioning the [loss], fearing it will remind the grieving person of his or her pain. . . . [B]ut behaving as if you don’t remember or are unaware of your [friend’s] pain often leaves him or her feeling very alone.
  2. Listen to your [friend].
    . . . . The most important thing you can offer someone who is grieving is your ability to listen without judgment. A good rule to follow is to listen 80 percent of the time and talk 20 percent. . . .
  3. Insist that your [friend] see a doctor if he or she exhibits signs of depression.
    Intense grief can lead to depression. If your friend seems unusually depressed or withdrawn, suggest that he or she seek professional help. . . .
  4. Encourage your [friend] to make wise choices.
    Urge the person who is grieving to pay attention to his or her own needs, and make choices accordingly. . . .
  5. Offer practical help; don’t wait to be asked.
    . . . . Make specific offers several times, and encourage your friend to take you up on your offers. Avoid phrases such as, “Let me know if I can help.” Usually, he or she won’t let you know for fear of imposing on you. . . .
  6. Remember that grieving is a long process.
    The person you care about may be grieving for a long time. Several months or more after the transition, he or she may actually be feeling the loss more acutely, and much of his or her support system will have backed off. . . .
  7. Offer your companionship.
    Your presence can be comforting to a grieving [friend]; you don’t have to do anything special. Often, grieving people just do not want to be alone.
  8. Don’t minimize the loss.
    Be careful not to say, “I know exactly how you feel.” . . . Instead, use statements such as, “I know this is difficult,” . . .  or some other statement that is heartfelt and accurate, but leaves room for the uniqueness of your [friend’s] experience.
  9. Encourage your [friend] to share his or her feelings.
    Avoid saying things like, “Be strong for…” or “Don’t cry.” This sends the message that you are uncomfortable with your [friend’s] intense feelings and, therefore, you will leave him or her emotionally alone. . . . Instead, encourage your [friend] by saying, “It’s okay to cry,” or “You don’t have to be so strong.”
  10. Help your [friend] create new traditions/rituals/activities.
    . . . . Holidays and other events filled with tradition can . . . be especially hard to deal with; try to help your [friend] discover new ways to experience these events. At the same time, he or she should be encouraged to cherish the memories and/or traditions associated with the [people and places no longer close by].
  11. Give advice cautiously.
    Avoid offering advice with phrases such as, “You should…” or “You need to….” . . . . Instead, give advice that encourages the grieving person to trust him or herself and make choices based on his or her needs, rather than on what others think he or she should be doing or feeling.

(A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief, LifeCare, 2001)
[photo: “B,” by Eugene’s Likeness, used under a Creative Commons license]

Henri Nouwen’s “Inner Voice of Love”: Finding the Path Home

I’m a fan of the writings of Henri Nouwen. Before his death in 1996, the Holland-born author and theologian served as a Catholic priest; taught at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, and at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard; worked with Trappist monks in New York’s Abbey of the Genesee; lived with the poor in Peru; and became pastor at a L’Arche community for the mentally disabled in Canada. Along the way, he wrote over 40 books.

One of the hallmarks of Nouwen’s works is his honest sharing of his personal struggles. This is probably nowhere more apparent than in his Inner Voice of Love, originally a series of “secret journal” entries written during a period of deep depression. In the introduction to the book, Nouwen writes that it was only at the urging of friends that he decided to have The Inner Voice of Love published.

In the book’s pages, Nouwen touches on themes that strike chords with many cross-cultural children and adults, global nomads, and others who are physical or spiritual “strangers in a strange land”—with those who are looking for a community and home to call their own. In fact, it was shortly after he joined the community of L’Arche, what he called his “true home,” that Nouwen was faced with his depression. “Just when I had found a home,” he writes, “I felt absolutely homeless. . . . It was if the house I had finally found had no floors.”

Over the course of the next six months, Nouwen moved from agony “to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity.” Following are some of the “spiritual imperatives” that Nouwen wrote to himself during this journey, as he sought the path home:

Coming Home and Trusting Your Heart

Sometimes people who do not know your heart will altogether miss the importance of something that is part of your deepest self, precious in your eyes as well as God’s. They might not know you well enough to be able to respond to your genuine needs. It is then that you have to speak your heart and follow your own deepest calling.

There is a part of you that too easily gives in to others’ influence. As soon as someone questions your motives, you start doubting yourself. You end up agreeing with the other before you have consulted your own heart. Thus you grow passive and simply assume that the other knows better.

Here you have to be very attentive to your inner self. “Coming home” and “being given back to yourself” are expressions that indicate that you have a solid inner base from which you can speak and act—without apologies—humbly but convincingly.

Sharing Your Pain as a Fellow Traveler

You wonder whether it is good to share your struggles with others, especially with those to whom you are called to minister. you find it hard not to mention your own pains and sorrows to those you are trying to help. You feel that what belongs to the core of your humanity should not be hidden. You want to be a fellow traveler, not a distant guide.

The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing for yourself. . . .

But when you fully own your pain and do not expect those to whom you minister to alleviate it, you can speak about true freedom. Then sharing your struggle can become a service; then your openness about yourself can offer courage and hope to others.

For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart.

You Are Welcome Here

Not being welcome is your greatest fear. . . . It is the deepseated fear that it would have been better if you had not lived.

Everything Jesus is saying to you can be summarized in the words “Know that you are welcome.” Jesus offers you his own most intimate life with the Father. He wants you to know all he knows and to do all he does. He wants his home to be yours. Yes, he wants to prepare a place for you in his Father’s house.

Keep reminding yourself that your feelings of being unwelcome do not come from God and do not tell the truth. The Prince of Darkness wants you to believe that your life is a mistake and that there is no home for you. But every time you allow these thoughts to affect you, you set out on the road to self-destruction. So you have to keep unmasking the lie and think, speak, and act according to the truth that you are very, very welcome.

(Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, New York: Doubleday, 1996)

[photo: “To die by your side,” by Hugo Marcelo Mendez Campos, used under a Creative Commons license]