Strong in the Broken: Facing Infertility Abroad

Today’s Strong in the Broken guest post is by Lori F and it is beautiful in its honesty about grief and infertility in a cross-cultural setting.

When we got married our goal was to work internationally.  We spent the first five years of marriage paying off school loans, pursuing more education and training, and generally equipping ourselves for life in a culture very different than ones we were used to.  We intentionally held off starting a family, wanting to be settled in our new home before starting that kind of adventure.  When the day finally arrived for us to fly to our new home in a closed, ultra-conservative Islamic country in Asia it was the start of a new, exciting chapter in our lives.  Of course, best laid plans and all – we ended up arriving in country on September 11 – yes, that September 11.  But that’s not what this story is about.

Despite multiple evacuations, political instability, constant violence from extremist attacks, kidnapping threats, extreme heat, limited availability of basic utilities, a constant turnover of coworkers, and a closed, completely segregated society we managed to dig in, learn language and thrive in this wondrous new world.  Except we couldn’t get pregnant.

During our first few years I was so overwhelmed trying to learn to communicate and in general functioning like a toddler myself, I didn’t worry too much about our lack of fertility.  But as I grew in understanding of the culture around me I also grew in grief.  In a culture where women rarely leave the confines of their walled compounds, are married off by arrangement, and are prized almost solely for their ability to produce heirs (read male), I stood out.  Daily I was asked why we had no children.  Women would belittle me to my face, recommend second wives for my husband, demand to know what was wrong with me.  In short, on a daily basis I was told I was subnormal, deficient, useless, and worthless.  Men would commiserate with my husband over our lack and suggest he divorce me and find a wife that would fulfill her duties.

And while we truly loved our adopted homeland this daily psychological warfare took a heavy toll on me.  In time we went through all kinds of fertility testing – its own kind of special humiliation – only to find no explanation for our barrenness.  We went through fertility treatments to no avail and then moved on to a multi-year adoption saga that left us defrauded financially, broken emotionally, and still childless.  In the midst of all this sorrow I was still contending with the daily drip, drip, drip of being found wanting as a woman.

There were days where I just needed to shut down, close out the world around me and console myself with the fact that despite everything I had a loving husband who cherished me.  We were together for better or for worse – something my local friends could not cling too.  Women like me, who found themselves unable to conceive within the first one or two years of marriage would quickly find themselves either divorced in disgrace and sent back to their father’s home, or shunted along to become a second or third wife, trapped in a loveless marriage, forever a servant in her own home.

Although my grief over childlessness did not diminish (and never will) I found it to be a key that opened the hearts of women around me.  The culture was inherently hospitable but also extremely stand-offish towards strangers.  Many women assumed that a privileged, ‘wealthy’, white, foreign woman could have no problems.  As I learned to open up and share my grief with them, they reciprocated – pouring out their hearts to me, giving me a glimpse into the darkest parts of their lives – the abuse, the shame, the fear, the hopelessness.  They trusted me with their hurts because they saw mine.  They often asked how they could find a husband like mine who loved me despite what their culture said about my failings.  And while I would not wish infertility on my worst enemy it did bind me to this culture of hurting, hidden women in a way perhaps nothing else could.

A TCK from Venezuela, Lori has spent the last 16 years working in several Asian countries together with her husband.  Along the way she has acquired an aversion to packing suitcases, a fascination with languages, and an abiding love for tea and spicy food.

Prioritizing Family While Living Abroad

Quick link: Fight for Your Family

At A Life Overseas I wrote about putting your family first while living abroad, something you will have to be intentional, and sometimes aggressive, about. Do it.

Humanitarian, governmental, and religious organizations sending people abroad don’t always have the best interest of their internationally-located staff in mind. They think they do. They hope they do. Even (I think) many of them try to. But they are organizations, based back in the United States. They are staffed by people who have no idea of on-the-ground realities or of the nuance of daily life in a specific location. They think about broad vision, finances, promoting their brand, infrastructure, leadership categories, bureaucracy. There are policies in place, sometimes for decades, and no one can remember why they exist but they continue to be followed without criticism.

This can lead to decisions being delivered down from on high, or from back ‘home’, or from some western place, that make little sense to the person working on the ground. Some questionable decision include things like…

Click here to read the rest of Fight for Your Family

Strong in the Broken: Revisiting the Kidnapping, Reclaiming the Story

Today’s Strong in the Broken post is by Trish and recounts an incredible story of trauma, fear, and healing.

The fear almost overwhelmed me – almost, but not quite. As I slowly made my way down the long gravel driveway, I envisioned dangerous men carrying ropes and blindfolds, plotting schemes against our family, lurking behind every rock and tree. This day, however, I was determined to force the issue. I would stand where the kidnapper had stood – the spot where my son and I had, inexplicably, gone from carefree to captive in a moment’s time. I would stand there and face it alone; not assuming the fear would cease, only knowing that I could not continue to live the life I loved in Honduras, unless I found a way to move forward in spite of the continuing emotional after-effects of the trauma.

Perhaps it would have been advisable to take a furlough, and remove myself, for a time, from the constant reminders of the kidnapping, and from the ever-present concern of additional criminal activities against our family – and I did go, for about a month, and visited with a trauma counselor – but long-term that wasn’t an option. My foster son, Ben, (my son, in non-legal terms, since I’ve raised him since he was a year old), who’d been kidnapped with me, couldn’t legally leave the country, and I wouldn’t abandon him.

My life is here, in Honduras. Continuing to live and work at our farm home requires me to regularly drive through the very spot where the abduction occurred. Conquering the feelings which had become attached to this spot was a necessary step toward taking back my life. I was determined not to let the kidnapper steal this, and the ministry work we love, from me. I wouldn’t let him win!

With music from my ipod accompanying my pounding heart, I slid and stumbled down the steep, rocky drive. When I reached the intersection of the driveway and the road, I just stood and cried, while the memories and the emotions washed over me.

-This is where he waited, gun in hand and face covered, listening for our approaching vehicle and prepared to confront us as we slowly rounded the curve in the rough dirt road.

-This is where I made the determination to stop the vehicle, believing that my son and I would be shot if I tried to accelerate and drive away (I know people who have lost loved ones in this exact manner), but also knowing that this decision put our lives into the gunman’s hands.

-This is where he pointed the gun at us, and forced us to climb into the back of the vehicle – shattering my naively optimistic thought that this was simply a robbery, with the abrupt realization that it was something much worse, something we hadn’t previously recognized as a potential threat in our relatively tranquil part of the country.

-This is where I thought, “We are at least as likely to die, as we are to live through this situation.”

– This is where it happened. A dangerous place – a public but isolated stretch of road, with no reason for anyone to be within earshot. No one would hear calls for help.

The song that had been playing on the ipod while I walked broke through my conscious thoughts, and I heard these words, and it was as though they’d been written for me, and for that very moment:

“No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand”

There wasn’t anything in those words I didn’t already know, of course, but the power of the music, and the intensity of my emotions in the moment when I first heard them caused them to mean so much more to me! I clung to this song, and it became my post-kidnapping anthem, even though I couldn’t hear it without weeping.

Even now, though almost four years have passed since the kidnapping, this song, and the way it came to me at exactly the moment I needed to hear it, brings me to tears – no longer because of a battle with fear, but because of the hard and certain knowledge I gained from this experience. Though I’ve come to know that I am a strong woman who can handle a lot of adversity, it is not my own strength that allows me to continue to live and work – and even thrive – in the exact place where I suffered this trauma.

It was, and is, through the power of Christ that I stand.

In Christ Alone: Stuart Townend & Keith GettyCopyright © 2001 Thankyou Music (Adm. by CapitolCMGPublishing.com excl. UK & Europe, adm. by Integrity Music, part of the David C Cook family, songs@integritymusic.com)

The story of the kidnapping was blogged immediately after it happened in 2013: Ben’s Kidnapping, Part 1

Living in Honduras with my husband, Allen, for sixteen years now, we run a ministry which empowers Honduran missionaries and pastors, and feeds 14,000 children in 150 feeding centers in mountain villages throughout rural western Honduras. I blog at www.sowers4pastors.blogspot.com
FB: Trish Sowers
FB Ministry Page: Sowers4pastors
trish@sowers4pastors.com

Strong in the Broken: In This Tent We Groan

Today’s Strong in the Broken post moves from Tolkein to Lewis, from being a missionary kid to homosexuality to suicide. This essay is brave and it is one man’s story, told with complexity and honesty. It is published without a name, if you wish to contact the author, either please leave a comment or email me and I will put you in touch.

Disclaimer: I understand that this is a sensitive topic, and I cannot claim to have all, or really any of the answers. My hope is to tell my story in an honest way, not as a prescription for anyone going through similar struggles. I do not want to cause dissent or arguments over this issue. This is an uncomfortable topic to be sure, but comfort is no good reason for silence. This topic needs to be talked about until the suicide rate declines among this demographic. It needs to be talked about until this demographic falls in love with Jesus.

Falling in love is a terrible thing. Especially when you are the son of missionaries, and the person you fall in love with is another boy.

I never really had a concept of homosexuality growing up on the mission field. And maybe it wasn’t necessary. I was busy roaming the city streets, climbing on fortress walls, learning languages, running away from security guards. But even at the MK(missionary kid) conferences I think I felt a bit out of place, as if there was something different between me and my peers. I didn’t quite fit in even among my fellow TCKs (third culture kids). I couldn’t put my finger on it then. I just tried to love Jesus and obey him.

The subconscious prayer I tearfully prayed throughout high school and into college was, “God, fix me!”, because even though I didn’t know what needed fixing, I was aware of something broken within me. I noticed other guys instead of girls, but I thought it would pass, that it was nothing, that I was just sinful, that if I prayed hard enough, obeyed God enough, studied the Bible enough, I would become the right person. Somewhere in my head I was searching for a magical concoction that would fix me. I dove into theology and philosophy, trying to be the best Christian I could. I ceased to see God as my loving Father who longs to embrace me, and saw him as a genie with the power to grant my wish that I thought would please him, if only I would follow certain steps. I did all of this for at least seven years without the slightest idea that I was gay.

During my junior year at university, my inner world of acting perfect and believing all the right things finally collapsed on itself from sheer burnout and I admitted to myself that I was gay. They don’t prepare you for being this in the transition seminars. No TCK talk could have prepared me for this sort of identity crisis. This sort of world-shattering reality. Because just as I was trying to get accustomed to being in America, and thoroughly enjoying aspects of this culture, I admitted that I was not who I always told myself I was.

Depression pounded against my skull as my heart beat to the rhythm of my pleas, “God, let me be straight!” Shame told me to isolate myself, and my mind went into shock. I didn’t know how to find my Comforter in the Scriptures, because I had spent years treating it as a how-to manual. So I stopped reading this how-to manual that spoke nothing but condemnation into my predicament. I tried to shut my emotions down to give myself time to think, to pray. But then my eyes would catch that guy in the halls and I would break down.

Terror drove me away from my family, friends, people, and God. I was alone with myself and hated myself. My vending machine of a god was not accepting any currency I had to offer, and I became hopeless. My thoughts vacillated between believing I was an accident and that God could not possibly have meant to create someone like me, and blaming God for doing this to me. My God had failed me, or I had failed God. It didn’t really matter, did it? I hated God and wanted to die.

On my darkest nights my feet took me to the train tracks near campus and there I would stand, waiting for a train to come and take my life away. Exhaustion drove me back to my apartment with a fresh anger against a god I was convinced hated me. “Why can’t you let me die?!”

How can I blame God for this mess? I have been told that He is all-good and loving. I must therefore do what comes most naturally to me and imagine myself to be the leviathan beneath the surface of my heart, writhing my scaly body beneath the waves, hunting frigates. It does something to a man when he believes himself to be a monster. I debated whether my heart was more like Hyde or Frankenstein, because in public I could pull off a fair impression of Jekyll, but alone in my room, Hyde was the unwelcome companion who tried to convince me that Frankenstein was a better monster than I because he embraced his monstrosity and accepted it as who he was and called that identity good instead of hiding behind the false form of a doctor.

And yet, if I had to be a monster, at least I might try to be a useful one. If I were a dragon, at least I could feign an impression of Eustace and help to build a mast instead of razing a dwarven city to the ground in order to become king under the mountain. Of course I would be alone, unable to make the voyage to the edge of the world, but at least I might do a little bit of good instead of wreaking destruction before the eremitic storm clouds reigned over my island.

But the truth has a way of shining a light into the darkness. The first time I was honest about this struggle, my body physically revolted, and my throat tightened as I choked on the words. But a weight was gone. In being vulnerable with people I trusted, I allowed them the opportunity to love the unlovable parts of me, and to see light in a place where I could see only darkness; to see hope where all I comprehended was despair. In that moment, a thought flickered in my mind of a God who might be bigger than my small darkness allowed Him to be. I saw a human reflection of Divine love. No expectations. No if…then statements. No “at least…”. Just “I love you.”

A few months later, J. R. R. Tolkien convinced me to begin reading the Bible again by his words, “…I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy story; the greatest. Man the storyteller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.” (Letter to Michael Tolkien).

I prayed that God would let me perceive the Bible as a fairy story, which is probably the strangest and best thing I have ever prayed. I lived and breathed the second and third chapters of Genesis for an entire month. I hadn’t planned to stay that long in the Garden, but the magic and beauty of the love of God kept me anchored there, beginning to break the spell which had bound me for most of my life. Where before I had seen a vindictive God who is bound by natural laws, I now began to see a God whose every action was done out of a deep and passionate love for Adam and Eve. This God seemed foreign to me, and I dared to hope that His love extended to this scared son of Adam. I began to faintly hear the call of a God in pursuit of me “Where are you?” and I was tired of hiding my shame from him.

I hate that what I fight against every day is becoming normalized and accepted (at least in America), for now I have to fight myself internally and the world externally, both vying for my acceptance as they tell me that they are advocating for my happiness. Sometimes they tell me that God would want me to live into this identity, that He made me good and wants my happiness. There are days when the fighting is exhausting, the desire seems inexorable, and I wish I could allow myself to accept it, grasp for it, lean into it. If I am honest, there are days when I want to embrace a lifestyle in which I could love a man and my God with a clear conscience, convinced that I am obeying God. But then I ask myself: Is my God the sort of God who would ask us to surrender all aspects of ourselves to Him? To say ‘no’ to our most deeply felt desires and longings in order to say ‘yes’ to Him?

C. S. Lewis in “Perelandra” makes a profound statement. In the book, the law is referring to one regarding the Fixed Islands, but it is fitting in describing the Biblical prohibitions against acting on homosexuality, “I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” There are many times when I don’t understand why this particular law was prohibited by God. I understand that homosexuality does not accurately reflect His love for his Church–that is mirrored in the marriage of a man and woman. I can see that as beautiful, but I often wonder where that leaves me in the context of the corporate Church.

The brokenness I am walking through is twofold: a broken sexuality and a broken perception of God. But as Tolkien said “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer.” (Ioreth, “The Return of the King”) My thoughts and feelings are painful. Some days I just want the strong hug of another man, emotional intimacy and trust, knowing that my imagination is capable of taking me further, and so I fight to stop there, and long for honest touch and true speech. Other days, the old dream of being a father surfaces, and I think of the names for my offspring that my desires steel from me. I romanticize the closeness of a Godly marriage. It hurts, and so I sit alone in my room and weep and pray to God. Not to be made straight, but to be with him.

The Psalms are a magnanimous comfort on the nights that feel especially long and cold and dark. I don’t understand why I have these desires. I don’t understand why God loves me. But maybe that is alright, as I trust that he loves me in bigger, better, and brighter ways than the darkness inside of me can fathom. And I would rather the darkness not be able to comprehend the light than for the light to stop it’s shining. I want to be okay with pressing into the Love of Christ that a part of me does not find comfortable and cannot understand as good and true. I want with my whole heart to leap into His Love, so that maybe His love could brighten the darkness within me.

The truth is that there are no easy answers; my story is one of tension and living in the margins. But I fight to hope in a God who walks with us through this dark and broken valley. And sometimes that fighting looks more like losing, more like retreating. Fighting what Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings calls “the long defeat.” Paul has a poignant way of describing the way that I see my experiences in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be found unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up in life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 1:1-7)

The author carries an American passport and was raised on British fairy tales while receiving a post-Communist education in the former Byzantine Empire. Some of his favorite pastimes include climbing trees and castle ruins, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and sipping chai with a good book. His Eastern heart currently explores and seeks God in the Western United States.

Strong in the Broken: Learning Trust, Embracing Vulnerability

Today’s Strong in the Broken post comes from Y.P., someone I have immense respect for in her life and work, living in a foreign country far outside her comfort zone where she takes daily relational risks and is learning to trust. I think we all face this battle of choosing whether to listen to (possibly) rational fears or to take a chance. Here’s a glimpse into Y.P.’s process.

For some reason I grew up believing that once you learn to differentiate between which people to trust and which ones not to, you’d be set for life. Turns out, I’m still not set. Not sure I ever will be.

Trust is a bigger battle than I imagined. To stay vulnerable when everything inside of you tells you to back up, to remain trusting when everyone tells you to wall-up, to maintain a tender heart when the world tells you to harden.

You can call me naïve, and you won’t be the first one. I do trust a lot of people to have good intentions. I trust that if someone offers me a ride, they mean it. That they don’t want to drive me out to no-man’s-land and rape and kill me. I trust that if someone asks where I live, they don’t want to come to my house at night and set it on fire. I trust that if someone stops to talk to me, they do just want to converse a little in English. I trust that if someone asks me a personal question, they are interested in me. That they don’t want to shame me publicly based on what I tell them.

This comes with a high price. It’s always more costly to choose to share my stories than to stay silent or switch topics. It always takes more energy to engage with someone who has hurt me before than to stay away from them. It takes a lot out of me to be ‘naïve’ if that’s your word of choice.

Especially in a climate where suspicion is a virtue.

My brain doesn’t want me to trust. Something wants to see evil and danger everywhere and to find excuses for why I shouldn’t trust. My brain quotes books and news headlines and other people’s horror stories, and it rehashes my own past experiences. It tells me, “Watch out. Bad things have happened before. They will happen again. I told you so.”

This fear wants me to put everyone into boxes with the labels, either: ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’.

Yet my God is a God of second chances. And fifth. And seven-times-seventieth. God doesn’t act based on past painful experiences, hurts, or disappointments. So who am I to live that way?

And I find God constantly whispering into my ear, over the sound of fears, “trust again, I know you can do it!” And so, at least I try. Because He knows what He’s talking about. And He doesn’t do boxes, certainly not of fear.