Whenever I write on a topic, my brain scans through the last decade of our family’s experiences for anything that could possibly relate to what others are going through. As I thought about what helped our family through the first holidays away from home, I realized that anything I listed would just be a transplanting of our experiences into subpar advice. The truth is that what worked for our family won’t necessarily work for yours. You are, most likely, in a different culture, in a distinctive time, with your own unique family and individuality.
For us, frequent video calls with family became very difficult. For you, it could be life-giving. For some of you, this first holiday season will feel like a thrilling adventure. For others, it’s filled with loss. So, rather than a list of do’s and don’ts, I would like to provide you with a general message of grace…and lament.
Be gracious and kind to yourself and your family during this time. You don’t have to “be okay” or even be particularly happy during your first holiday season away. It’s okay to feel hurt and alone. Lament. God never asks His children to ignore our pain or just “get over it.” He is a kind Father who allows us to bring our hurt, our most embarrassing questions and doubts, our deepest burdens and darkest thoughts to Him (Ps. 147:3). Even those seemingly insignificant losses like pumpkin pie, football games, or watching your grandpa cut the turkey in his own unique method hurt. And those hurts, as insignificant as you may think them to be, are met with His grace and comfort.
Speaking of pretending to be okay, allow me to share about my behavior during our first festive party here in Tanzania. I was embarrassingly impatient with one of our daughters. She was only 6 years old at the time and very afraid of using the squatty potty inside the outdoor shack. It was dark, rancid, and filled with flies and maggots. She was terrified, but I was more concerned about what people would think if they heard her cries than I was in comforting her. Instead of being patient and understanding with her fears, I dismissed them and wanted her to “be okay.” I whispered harsh words in efforts to force her to act okay so that we “didn’t offend people.” If I’m really honest with my motivations, I was probably more concerned with protecting my own pride than offended people. I placed many hurtful expectations on myself and my family in those early days. I was so worried about doing everything right and looking like nothing was foreign or weird to us that I blazed through and overlooked many important emotions. I have done a lot of apologizing for my behavior back then. Try to learn from and not repeat my mistakes.
Everything is probably weird, scary and a bit sad for you right now. No one needs you to pretend it’s fine. Probably one of the best ways that you can build meaningful relationships in your new culture is to admit that you miss home and need help navigating this new culture. Be vulnerable enough to allow others to comfort you. Allow them to help your family during this season. It is okay if you are not okay. It’s okay that your children aren’t okay.
You don’t have to over-spiritualize your newsletters to make supporters think you are fine – let them know about the loneliness and the fears. Let them pray for you.
Most importantly, turn to your loving Father and cast your burdens on Him. Don’t excuse, ignore, pretend, or try to explain away the pain. Bring the pain to God and lay your sorrows at His feet. Help your children do the same. Faith isn’t merely ignoring pain or pushing through it. It’s acknowledging that “even though” we walk through the valley, He is with us (Ps. 23). Just like faith isn’t ignoring our pain, lament isn’t merely complaining about the pain. Lament is where the cries of pain and faith meet. Lament is a place for both feelings and truth. Lament is an act of worship and an act of faith.
Lament will do two beautiful things at once – it will allow you to bring your pain to God and also allow you to learn more about God in your pain.
I know that lament is probably the last thing that people expect to read about in a holiday blog. However, as a counselor I know that Christmas can be some of the most painful times for many people. And as a missionary, I have experienced the deep sorrows during that first holiday season away from home. As a child of God, may I encourage you that our Lord will provide His comfort and peace to you as you walk through this season. May you have the strength to acknowledge the loss you feel and then the faith to bring it to Him. He never turns away from our cries for help. He always gives us more of Himself (Ps. 91).