We first arrived in Southeast Asia five months after the destructive tsunami of 2004. My husband was leading our family on an adventure and I was excited about it. We were going to live on a base camp with our children and receive volunteers who were flooding into the affected areas. These volunteers were going to do everything from clean up the destructed areas to build fishing boats for fisherman who had lost everything. We had read books like “Don’t Waste Your Life” by John Piper and “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge and we were ready to live for something greater than ourselves. Our family verse is Psalm 119:32: “I run in the paths of your commands for you have set my heart free!” We felt like we were running after Jesus. We had romantic dreams of building a life that mattered. So what if we didn’t know the language. So what if the area we were going to had been in a 25 year war. It was a beautiful dream filled with lots of unknowns, yes, but we would persevere. All adventures have obstacles, right?
The unknowns quickly became known when I saw where we were going to live. There was a small wood shack that was being built next to the beach just for our family. It had one room for all four of us. And did I mention it was unfinished? Until the house was finished we were going to have to camp in a pavilion on the beach. I was in shock. In my romantic, adventurous dreams I never once imagined bringing my kids to such a place.
The first night we put our kids, ages 5 and 6, on a pallet under a mosquito net to go to sleep. The nets kept the mosquitoes out but not the sand fleas. It was miserable. I remember lying awake and wondering what have we done? What have we brought our kids to? I began to cry…not a saintly, soft, sweet cry filled with faith and surrender but an all out ugly cry filled with questions and accusations. As I was crying it began to rain…sideways. A tropical storm rushed in and our pavilion with no sides did not keep us from getting soaked. My son woke up with a start and began to scream, afraid and disoriented. He woke up my daughter who then also began to scream. I was already crying. We rushed over to the kids and all huddled in the middle of the pavilion trying to find a place away from the raging storm. My poor husband began to pray for us as we were all huddled and crying. As he prayed the storm got louder and louder to the point that he was yelling his prayer. In that moment we felt as if we had been dropped into the demilitarized zone of a war. We felt as though some unseen evil did not want us there. As my husband continued in his prayer the storm subsided, little by little. We were spent. Our children were exhausted and fell back asleep, but my husband stayed awake the rest of the night praying…and I stayed awake the rest of the night planning our way out of that place. In my imagination we were booked on the first plane out of hell.
The next day I was a mess. I cried all.day.long. It wasn’t pretty. Gone were my thoughts of adventure and romance. Gone were my thoughts of perseverance. I just wanted to run away.
Because we didn’t know the language or culture, we were given an experienced couple to accompany us who had been in the country for 15 years. They were not only fluent in the language but they were also experts in the culture. They were going to stay one week with us, to help us settle in and get our bearings. I will never forget our conversation the next day. As long as I live, it will be one of those conversations that I will go back to again and again. The wife could see that I was crumbling. She could see that I was holding on by a thread. She didn’t give me advice or lecture me on the need to persevere or to stay strong. She just asked me a couple of questions. First she asked me, “Colette, if you could ask God for anything right now and you knew He would give you what you wanted, what would you ask of Him?” My first thought was that I would ask God to get me and my family out of this place. But as I thought about it, I knew I couldn’t waste the request on that. If I knew I would receive whatever I asked for then I would need to ask for something important. I said, “I would ask God that my children would passionately follow Him their whole lives.” Then her next questions pierced me to my core, “Do you think your children will learn to passionately follow God if they see you leave this place He has called you to? Will they persevere in God’s call if you give up?”
I knew the answer. Deep inside I knew that our children were watching us. They were watching to see what “normal” looks like. They were watching to see what it looks like to chase after Jesus. If it’s difficult, do we trust and continue, or do we flee? Do we stay safe or do we passionately follow? Do we compromise or do we “throw off everything that hinders…that we may run with perseverance the race marked out for us?” (Hebrews 12:1) If “normal” is passionate, loving, perseverance what will they accomplish in Christ? I want our normal to be chasing Jesus wherever He leads.
We stayed at our base camp and helped build boats for fishermen. We lived in our one room beach house and fell in love with Southeast Asia. I homeschooled the kids on our porch facing the ocean. Our kids learned to make hats out of banana leaves and climb coconut trees. My husband and I prayed together every night while swatting away insects in the process. It was difficult, but these are a few of my favorite memories of life here.
Are you struggling? Are you looking for a way out? Are you secretly praying for some situation (not super bad–but just bad enough) that is beyond your control to send you back to your home country, so you won’t look like a quitter? If so, my advice is to find a mentor in your host country as soon as possible. Look around. Is there someone in your city who you would like to emulate? Who you could be transparent with? Is there someone who is humbly living successfully in your new country? If they aren’t in your city, could you email them…or call them? Don’t be intimidated to ask for help or advice. Asking questions of and listening to others who have gone before us helps hold on when we are tempted to quit. It helps to hear how others have struggled and how they got through hard times. We’ve been in our country off and on for nine years now and I still consider that woman one of my greatest resources.