Strong in the Broken: Singing in the Storm

Today’s Strong in the Broken post is by Serenity, offering a specific insight into longevity abroad and how to achieve it joyfully. (By the way, yes, I’m still accepting posts for this series, probably through August.)

“AND SING!!! Don’t just listen to your music, sing along.  Sing when you cook, when you clean, when you drive.  Sing in the night, in your mind you will wake up with a song in your heart.  A song of praise to our God.”  My mother sent this advice to my roommate in a much needed email recently.  As I read those words, I realized that this decision to sing was what has kept my mother overseas for the past thirty years, and it is what has sustained me too.  It is through the songs, and through the singing, that we have been able to weather the storms, which are many.

Living in my little part of my very big city, I have had to fight for joy almost every single day.  There has been pain. Lots and lots of pain.  There have been tears, hugs, and hands held while prayers have been said and unsaid.  And I have searched for ways to keep my head up and hold on.  When my mother’s email arrived, it was an affirmation that singing is important.  It was a confirmation that having the music at work, at home, and in the commute can be a tool.  A tool to help us to sing.

The struggle to sing is not something I only bear for myself but it can be a challenge for those around me also.  I sometimes look out at my class and see a student who has just moved, a student with no idea how long they will stay and one student whose brother just left her to study in a different country.  I see another student experiencing the grief of death, another grieving because visas were lost, and yet another student who can’t understand a word I say.  I have found that if I look at these moments in themselves, they are ugly.  I struggle to find the beauty in them.

The Right Now can often look like that.  We might feel rejected or abandoned.  And, we definitely do not feel like singing.  But then I remember that the Right Now will eventually form the fabric of an incredible tapestry.  So the songs must continue.  That can mean that someone else might be singing for us, or that we only have the energy to listen to the music, but the songs and the singing continue.

As we walk through these seasons of life we find ourselves angry, sad, and hurt.  I find myself staring rejection in the face again and again.  I sometimes forget how to be genuine.  Sometimes it is something as small as being just too hot outside, and I find myself suddenly petulant.  It is in those moments when I sing, actually sing, and I remember that I will look back someday at the Right Now and I will see the beauty.  I have a lighthouse tattooed on my right forearm to remind me of one of my favorite songs and to remind me to keep singing, to keep holding on.  It is a constant reminder for me of the song inside of me.

There have been moments, and there will continue to be, where I feel ignored, taken advantage of, abused.  Living overseas sometimes means that I’m misunderstood in my host country and I’m confused in my home country.  But instead of allowing the lies that I am less than someone or something, I choose to put truths in front of me.  Truths that do not let my fear hold me back.  Truths that help me to sing a new song each morning. This means that I keep getting up, keep investing, keep loving, keep serving, and keep trusting.  My heart and soul remain in a messy state, and have hardly anything figured out as I transition from one country to another, but I do know one thing – that I will keep singing, even when the storm tries its absolute best to stop me…I will keep singing.

Serenity calls South Asia home, but also feels at home in the Mid-West.  She drinks more coffee than is beneficial, and spends most of her time telling little people that math and manners are really important.

Facebook: Serenity Ward

Instagram: renward92

Strong in the Broken: Loving Others While Fearing Others

Today’s Strong in the Broken guest post is by Jennifer Brogdon about finding the courage to love people in spite of her fears.

I do not recall fearing others the first half of my life. 

It begins the first time I hear someone say this or that about me. It heightens when I notice others plot to vote against me in a school election. At its peak, I hear the booing as I walk up to receive an award and want to hide from the public (or people in general) forever. At the same time, loved ones’ verbal cut-downs continue throughout the years.  This punch to the gut continues beating me up in every new relationship—not necessarily from anything the other person does but from the possibility of what they could do. I see the lady with the beautiful garden and the multitude of trinkets sitting on her porch each time I jog by and the woman in the brown house with white shutters who checks her mailbox during my stroll. As a Christian, I know I should not avoid people but rather love them. I am scared though. In this instance, I am scared of the frailest woman and what she may think of me. 

To rightly love others, I must get over my fear of what they think of me.

I hear a couple explain the difficulty in building relationships with the people in their community across the world.  They share how it takes years for the people to welcome you in a deep and meaningful way. This hits me. I think about the importance of staying in the same area for a long time because of this, but then it hits me harder as I ponder my impact on my own community. Over the last few years, the impact has been small.

On my next run around the neighborhood, I start to notice people, namely the elderly.  I wonder who they are, what they believe, how they feel, and what they may need. Do they have faith convictions? Is their faith deeper because of their years? Are they lonely? Do they have loved ones who take care of them? Questions like these flood my mind, but then fears sprinkle in one by one—as they often do. I wonder what people would think of me if I went up to talk to them.  I imagine a snarky response or being ignored. I fear their reaction to how I would approach them, when I would do it, and what I would say.

I’ve lived in this neighborhood for two and a half years and only know the neighbors to my left and my right.  I believe the couple when they said relationships take time to build, especially in a different culture. How much more frightening is it to approach those who see you as a foreigner than the elderly woman who lights up with a youthful glow in seeing a young face speak to her? The boo-ers from my youth were people I knew for many years. I remember calling them my friends. The verbally abusive were the ones who knew me (or thought they did) the best.  I shudder to bring many people close enough to where they could point fingers or stab me in the back. 

But something deep compels me to love even if I don’t receive love in return. The One who fully loves me despite my failures to love him persuades me. Perfect love casts out fear, and his love proves perfect in my salvation and in my future hope. I fail at times. I keep jogging by the lady because the bullies of my past are all I see, like a horse with blinders. The two greatest commandments say to love God and then love your neighbor. To love my neighbor, God is the one I need in clear view!

Hiding from others displays zero love, for God is love and came down as the God-man. He came to seek and to save the lost with full knowledge he would bear the sins of man and endure the wrath of God. This love took everlasting death from me and gave me eternal life.  If this reality does not encourage me to abide in Christ to fight my fear of others which enables me to love others as he loved me first, what will?

Jennifer Brogdon is a stay at home mom who ministers to students at Mississippi College during her free time. She enjoys running, reading, traveling, watching classic movies, and writing for Desiring God, True Woman, Servants of Grace, her own blog, and others. Jennifer and her husband Shane are members of Grace Community Church in Jackson and have a heart for the nations. You can find her on Twitter @brogdonjen or  her blog


*image via Flickr

Strong in the Broken: Living While Recovering

Today’s Strong in the Broken post is by the talented and prolific Daniel Maurer. Check out his books and website (links in the bio below). Dan is the only person who has ever played a bagpipe for me, in my yard. It was awesome. Enjoy!

My Broken Doesn’t Define Me, But Without It, I’m Missing a Great Gift

Don’t worry—I’m not going to take you to rehab.

I know how tiresome reading another account of addiction-and-depression-to-recovery can be, because I share them all the time on my blog. In fact, recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol has become my non-fiction brand as a freelance writer, whether I like it or not. Some days it feels like I eat, sleep, do jumping jacks, play Scrabble, and poop recovery.

My real passions dwell in my family, my faith, reading, walking or jogging with my wife and our dog, writing science-fiction, planting my garden, and exploring the vastly more interesting realms of topics that pique my curiosity. For example, one book I’m currently reading on the history and fascinating development of the periodic table has me enchanted like a beaker bubbling along, perched in a science lab filled with flaming Bunsen burners.

Being a pro writer is amazing too. What’s great is I have connected with other writers all over the world, like Rachel. Visiting her blog and reading her work is—technically—part of my weekly agenda. How cool is that?! I love my life and I wouldn’t trade being a writer for anything. I feel more whole today than I ever have in my life.

But I gotta be honest . . . I wouldn’t truly be whole without first being broken.

The thirty-second version of my little tale is that I served as an ELCA (progressive Lutheran) minister in western North Dakota for eleven years. I was a good pastor. I enjoyed studying scripture and proclaiming the Word. I loved my people. But I was also depressed. I was frequently bored. To combat the gnawing worms of ennui and melancholy eroding the foundations of my soul, I drank and I took pills, mostly painkillers. Of course, this only made things worse in the long run.

One of the reasons I get tired of reading and hearing other addiction-recovery stories is that they all end the same way. There’s never a magical twist in the plot. The details might be different, but yup—all of them don’t end well.

Just over six years ago, I was arrested for felony trespassing while I was in a blackout.

Then I finally got sober (I’d already done several “rodeos” in rehab prior to my decisive arrest). I moved from the country to a large city. I developed my new vocation as a writer and reconnected with my family, myself, and God. I strive to never seem “in your face” with my spirituality, but the fact is it’s extremely important to me. The big surprise for me came when I was standing in the basement jail cell wearing an anti-suicide smock.

I asked myself, “How the hell did I get here? Where is God now?”

I didn’t immediately receive a reply to those questions, but they came soon enough. I think an appropriate one-word summary to the answer I got was . . . submit.

A longer answer I discovered in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (12:10):

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

One of the best real-world allegories for this concept of strength-within-weakness you can see in the Japanese art of kintsugi. The artists who create such works first begin with the broken pieces of pottery or ceramic.

Whereas most potters or ceramic workers would likely curse their rotten luck of having dropped their work—then undoubtedly had to haul out the broom, pan, and garbage bin to dispose of any evidence of their clumsiness—some ingenious Japanese craftsman in about the 15th century got an idea:

Why not put the pieces back together and create something beautiful?

The gorgeous creation that first bloomed from the once-destroyed piece of lacquerware most likely came as a delightful shock for that brave medieval craftsman who first experimented. Today, instead of striving to hide the cracks and breaks, kintsugi artists accentuate and aggrandize the damage with gold, platinum or silver lacquer.

The result stuns and dazzles, just as much as it shows us that the brokenness can be more than simply useful, but also elegant and transcendent.

“Living while recovering” is a daily process for me. I need to apply continued effort to stay sober because addiction is a brain illness. I don’t dwell on the past, but I never shut the door on it. I regularly attend Twelve Step meetings. God has taken my cracks and my shattered past to make a difference for others, not just with the work I do, but also simply being there for others who are hurting. With a problem as serious as addiction has become in this country (worldwide really), it’s a gift to let my broken past be a gift for others.

I am strong, because I am first broken and weak.

Daniel D. Maurer is an author, a freelance writer, a public speaker and a blogger. He has four published books: Sobriety: A Graphic Novel (Hazelden Publishing, 2014), Faraway: A Suburban Boy’s Story as a Victim of Sex Trafficking (Two Harbors Press, 2015), Papa Luther (Augsburg Fortress, 2016), and Endure: The Power of Spiritual Assets for Resilience to Trauma & Stress (Mount Curve Press, forthcoming—fall 2017). He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For more info, please visit his blog at Transformation is Real.

Strong in the Broken: Sick While Stuck

Today’s Strong in the Broken guest post is by Beth Watkins, about sickness, trauma, refugees, and healing.

On our first weekend in Cairo, almost two years ago, it happened the first time. A sudden, extremely painful episode that doubled me over on the floor, unable to speak, vomiting from the pain.

We went to several doctors, had several tests done, and they all told me the tests were clear. Every couple of weeks, it would happen again, and leave me sore and tired for days. More doctors, more tests, more of everyone telling me I was fine.

We were working at an organization assisting refugees out of the church. It was a stressful, demanding job, managing a multi-cultural team and overseeing job training and placement services, and the adult education program. Working with vulnerable people and with people from multiple countries and cultures is challenging.

The season in life prior had been no bowl of cherries, either. In the previous four years overseas I’d been robbed, had a house fire, was interrogated in a second language and eventually expelled from my first desert home. I had to be evacuated from a warzone the same year, returned, got married, travelled constantly for nine months, and then…Cairo. The stress and trauma of the last few years finally caught up.

After a year of the pain attacks, my British husband and I decided we had to move back to the US. So we began the long, expensive, stressful, and uncertain process of applying for his permanent American residency.

From there, it was one month, one week, one day at a time.

I was exhausted all the time, stressed all the time, and in pain part of the time. I was anxious for our refugee friends, worried about my weakening body, and terrified we’d be stuck in Egypt longer than planned. I’d cry myself to sleep at night over negative changes at the organization for our refugee coworkers, while not knowing if I was doing lasting damage to myself by just being there.

I wanted to stay and fight for my vulnerable friends. And I wanted desperately to leave and not feel stuck anymore in a place where I was feeling weaker and more damaged by the day.

I was only working three days a week, and sometimes barely managing that. But in those three days a week, I was able to do more than I ever thought possible. I fought for our refugee coworkers to have equal rights. I quadrupled enrollment in our adult education program. I created new jobs, and rewrote contracts for those jobs to protect the rights of refugee workers. I worked with other organizations in the city to coordinate services, and held new workshops for HIV+ women. In a country where relationship is everything, as much as I could I sat with people, asked about their families, shared my snacks, helped in menial tasks that weren’t mine to do, and tried to make everyone feel important.

Somehow, in my two weakest years overseas, working the least hours in a week in any other season in my life, I managed to contribute more and grow more than during any other time in my life.

It took eleven months of bureaucracy and endless mountains of paperwork to get the green card. We left Cairo for good six days after we had it in hand.

We are still searching for answers, and my health still has a long way to go to get better. The anxiety has decreased. The pain is lessening. For the first time in almost two years I feel as though I’m getting stronger, and not weaker. But I have been told by doctors and counselors that I won’t recover my capacity for at least a year, and maybe never. I am still sick, but no longer stuck. And I am grateful.

All the while, in the back of my mind, are the refugee friends we left – some of them struggling with worse illness then mine – who have no outs or options. While I am back in my home country, they are in a country without welcome.

And I’m sick over the fact that they are still stuck.

Beth Watkins has spent the last 6 years working in North and Sub-Saharan Africa with street children, refugees, and other vulnerable populations, and is currently settling back in the US with her British immigrant husband. She blogs about living toward God’s kingdom and finding our neighbors at, where you can also download a copy of her free e-book, “For the Moments I Feel Faint: Reflections on Fear & Showing Up.”

Strong in the Broken: Female in Saudi Arabia

Today’s Strong in the Broken essay is by Ersatz Expat who lives in Saudi Arabia. The essay is a bit longer than I usually post but her experiences are unique and eye-opening, so I decided to publish the piece in full, in one post, rather than breaking it up.

A little over two years ago, over supper in our house in Ipoh, Malaysia, my husband, Mr EE told me he had been approached by a school in Jeddah looking for a new headmaster. My response was immediate visceral: ‘over my dead body’.  A bit of research ameliorated my position and a few months later we moved.  Family and friends were wary, concern for me barely hidden behind a façade of congratulations.  There is no getting away from it, Saudi Arabia has a reputation for being a hellish place for women.  Unable to drive, unable to go anywhere without the consent of her guardian, hidden, controlled, second class.  Why would I, a confident, outspoken, opinionated woman submit myself to that?

A year on and I can say that my experiences of being female in Saudi are nothing like I expected or how the media portrayed. But, time has also shown me that I am extraordinarily privileged in my freedoms and my experiences are not the same as those of others.

Everyone gets something different from a posting, even within the same family. Jobs, friends, and colleagues see to that, but Mr EE and I have had broadly similar experiences in every country we have lived in, until now.  His position, nationality and gender mean there is an inherent level of respect for his opinion and an open ear not automatically there for me, although it is given freely and generously when earned. 

Over the last year there has been much talk of Brexit and elections in key western nations. His views were actively solicited while mine were not, at least at first.  When people (ie men) see that I am informed, interested and knowledgeable, they respect my opinions and contributions but I have to prove myself in a way Mr EE does not.  My parents, my schooling, my whole life experience have given me the innate belief that my opinion matters and  built the confidence to articulate it.  I see, however, how easy it would be for women who do not have such benefits or whose cultural heritage and experience denies them the ability to develop those skills could be sidelined without overt malice, but the result of centuries of ingrained cultural expectations.

In the same way that the experience of doing business with Arab men is closed to me, there is a side of life Mr EE will never see: women’s spaces. I took a course at a local women’s university.  Demure, black-clad Saudi and Middle Eastern expat women walked in and, once past the screens, transformed into the same lively, fashionable women on campus at any university.  With the windows obscured, they were free to behave as they wished.  I asked one woman why everyone stayed until closing time every day and did not go home after lectures. ‘We are free here,’ she said.  Some worked, some socialized over coffee and others danced (more seductively than Beyoncé) to Western and Arab music.  Women love to party and dress to impress, the difference is that it is for other women not for men.

They were fascinated by my family life, so different from their own and I spent a lot of time answering questions.  Many told me they live almost parallel lives to the men they married.  One moved in with her mother-in-law post marriage and her mother-in-law knew her better than thehusband, as he was rarely with her.  She wept bitter tears when her mother-in-law died, her friend of 7 years leaving her in a house with a stranger.  One asked if I loved my husband when I married him and one told me she wished she had been able to delay her children, the way we had, to have time to get to know her husband and settle into married life.  I was often asked how I felt when my husband ‘told me’ we were moving to Saudi and they were incredulous when I said he never told me to do anything, that we discussed and agreed on big decisions and, had I said no, we would not have come.

I have freedoms many of those women will never have. With the exception of driving, I am as free in Jeddah as I would be in London or the Hague, yes there are areas I would not go alone but those are everywhere.  If I want to get on a plane and go to Dubai or Khobar or anywhere, I can. I can work, I can study.  Not all women are so lucky, a woman’s mahram or guardian, typically a father, husband or brother can control her every move, a woman’s freedom depends on her mahram’s enlightenment.  Some are as free as I am, others are heavily controlled, being told when they may or may not leave the home, for how long and where they may go.  It is this guardianship system, more than any of the other restrictions on women, that annoys my local friends.  Lawyers, teachers, business managers, 18 year old college students, they are all subject to this system which many have told me they find insulting and infantilising.  There have been recent changes in the law however, and there are hopes the guardianship system is coming to an end, a relic of an earlier age when women did not work and were rarely seen.

Are the clothing laws oppressive?  From a personal point of view I don’t mind my abaya, although it is restrictive.  Trailing hems trip people up and get caught in escalators (I recently helped rescue a women caught in one at Riyadh airport), sleeves knock over drinks and the popper buttons open at the most annoying moments.  It is almost impossible to run or exercise in public and I get undressed to go out, changing from the proper clothes I wear in the compound into leggings and a strappy top to keep cool under the abaya.  For me and women like me these are minor annoyances.  What I really mind is the compulsion, that I am not trusted to make appropriate clothing choices.  Even more than that, I mind, on behalf of Mr EE, our son and all the kind, wonderful men I know and trust, the implication that all men objectify women and that it is our responsibility to prevent them. 

There are cultural sensitivities at play, women wearing abayas here is as normal as men wearing thobes and the fact that many of my friends do not cover as extensively when they are abroad shows they have personal choice.  I know Western female converts who have taken a positive and personal decision to cover in full and some who simply wear a hijab.  I know Middle Eastern expats who cover only when they pray and wear the most daring of abayas and others who told me they never covered their hair in their father’s house but were made to after marriage.  Clothing is complex and nuanced, different in every circumstance but, naturally, the law here does make it easier for women to be forced to dress in a particular way.

Saudi is changing. My friends tell me women today have more freedoms than they had for decades.  The mutawa, or religious police has had its activities curtailed, there are moves to end the guardianship system and there are campaigns (supported by many men) to allow women to drive.  Saudi universities cater to more women than men, the number of career options open to women is increasing by the year.  The Saudi men I know are not misogynistic bullies and the women are no shrinking violets. But, but but, it remains a segregated and divided society, even young children, unless they go to one of the consular schools, are educated separately with more study and leisure options for boys than girls. 

When we are out by ourselves Mr EE may not enjoy the friendly and welcoming atmosphere of the family section of a restaurant while I may not join the men’s section.  There is a palpable sense of ‘two steps forward one and a half steps back, for example recent proposals for the establishment of sports colleges for women failed to pass the consultative council.  When change happens, it will happen (as it should) Saudi-style, slowly, uniquely but hopefully sustainably. 

A no longer 30 something perpetual expat I am Irish (but never lived there), was born in the Netherlands and am on country number 9 and posting 11 (or 12 or 13 I’ve lost count).  I lived in The Netherlands (many times) Norway, the UK (more than once), Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela with my parents.  I thought I had settled in the UK with my British husband, two children and a dog but a few years ago we decided to have an adventure and became expats again.  In that time we have lived in Kazakhstan, various locations in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, somehow managing to acquire a second dog, a third child and a cat along the way.  I blog about muddling through daily life as an expat in general and our postings in particular at

I can be reached at

*image via Flickr