I have been feeling the mounting pressure. Oh no, not from cross-cultural ministry. Not from teammates or the weather or the road traffic in my host country. It is the opposite: I am crossing back into my old culture again. I am going home for the summer.
Our family has a short window each summer in which we can return home to family and friends. We have just a span of a few weeks to stop in and say hi and catch up and go out for coffee and take a walk in the neighborhood, a little time to tousle my nephew’s hair and cuddle my friend’s new baby girl.
We miss so many things during the year: just missing the cousins’ weekend that took place in late June, being the absent ones at the Thanksgiving gathering around Grandma’s table, and not skiing on opening day in the mountains…for the last six years! For so many birthday parties and births and vacations I am “the absent one.” Do they bother hanging up my Christmas stocking anymore?
As difficult as it is to be absent, sometimes it feels less stressful to stay put. By remaining in my host country, I do not have to deal with the pressure of squeezing in coffee dates in two-hour increments and telling my cousin if she wants to see us she can come to a large gathering on the 22nd. If I stay away, I can avoid hearing the hurt in my friend Rachel’s voice when I confess I cannot meet up with her, but maybe next year. If I did not return, I would not have to deal with this undercurrent of expectations from both sides of our family to give them equal shares of our already-strapped time.
Where do I go with all these unmet expectations, all these quick appointments, these pressures from every direction? If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men (Romans 12:18). I take a deep breath and put my inner people-pleaser aside. I remind myself I will never please everyone on every return. And, just as my host culture never meets all my expectations, I will be disappointed with some aspects of my return home as well.
But I can work for peace. I can do the hard relational work of sharing openly about our time constraints. I can hear and consider the expectations of those we love, and—on my part—let peace reign in my heart as I make decisions and carry out plans during my trip home.
Here are six ways I have learned—through trial and error—to work for peace during these visits:
1. Be upfront and honest with family and friends about my limited time, while honoring them in the time I do have with them. That means saying, “We won’t be traveling up your way this year, but we will be staying in the Big City for a week. If it’s feasible, we would love for you to visit us one of those days.”
2. Remember that my close friends and family have lives too! I try to probe about their schedules, work hours, and children’s camps and, as much as possible, accommodate them.
3. I am not as important as I think I am. Casual friends and acquaintances will not be torn up over not seeing me every single year. They may express disappointment, but some of that, while sincere, is purely politeness.
4. Ask good questions. I try to be primarily interested in my friend’s world and find ways through conversation to bring her one step closer to Jesus. To get beyond shallow conversations, I am starting to ask questions like:
- Is there a problem that has come up in your life since we last talked? How is God working through that?
- What is your biggest concern for your children right now?
- Is there a way you have seen your spouse change this year that has delighted you?
- What tough decision did you make that you are so glad you did?
- What sin has God been exposing in you? How have you dealt with it?
- What ways have you seen God’s protection over you and your family?
5. When asked about my life, I found myself having the same mundane conversation with everyone. Now I try to pick one or two stories ahead of time—maybe about a close relationship I have in my host country, or a way I see God at work around me—that I can share with curious but not overly-interested people. Stories that spark a question or help your friends picture your context and inform their prayers are the best.
6. Start each day in quietness with my Savior. My return trips can be so over-scheduled and frazzled that I forget to dwell deeply in Jesus. My good mornings begin acknowledging God as sovereign over every hour of the day. I tell him I want to reflect Christ in every interaction and submit to His plan above my own. When I dwell deep, peace reigns.
As cross-cultural workers, we have the opportunity to touch lives with the Gospel in our corners of the world. One of the biggest shifts in my thinking, however, has come as I began seeing my return trips home as an extension of my work on the field: I am also incarnating Jesus to my friends and family!
My trip will not be picture-perfect, but I can serve and love in the capacity Jesus gives. I represent Jesus best when I am not anxious about my time constraints or people’s expectations, but rather when I am submitted to Christ and completely committed to honoring my friends and family with the time I do have with them. While I am at it, maybe I will remind them to hang up my stocking this Christmas!
Question to consider: What ways have you found to make your home visits both productive and peaceful?