Surprises (poem)

Photo by Celia Cortez on

Blind, she opened eyes to justice
Denied asylum, he inherited a kingdom
Childless, orphans christened her a mother
Stillborn, she was the saving of many lives
Nonreligious, she showed God what faith was

And a pregnant virgin sang: he honors the shamed!
Sang her son: the poor are blessed!

Then a guiltless convict
Reversed death’s sentence
For an empty grave, it sure was
full of surprises

The Reversal: A Christmas Poem (video)

To understand the beauty of Christmas, it helps to know the backstory from the beginning. When Adam and Eve sinned by trying to become like God, they brought a curse that would eventually be lifted by an obedient God who became like humans. Let this poem help you marvel in the gorgeous symmetry in God’s plan during Advent and Christmas. I previously published this poem as a PDF, but this video makes the point even better. Click here or the image below to watch on YouTube.

Self-Care was Unsustainable – I Needed Support Structures

The presenter talked about community. Slides described the health benefits, Scriptural backing, ideas of how to initiate. I sobbed violently, head down on my desk, “I can’t. I can’t do it anymore. I’ve tried it all.”

I hadn’t slept through the night in a year – except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and when I had COVID. I had left Nairobi, Kenya, six months prior. I was crashing in my parents’ basement in Minnesota. I had taken a month of medical leave to attend this intensive counseling program for burned-out missionaries in Michigan.

Alongside in Michigan

At the beginning of COVID, people suddenly woke up to the fact that remote work was isolating and international students were stressed about keeping their visas. I thought, “Welcome to my life for the last four years.”

During the lockdown, my roommate married and moved out. I had a throbbing infection. It didn’t respond to antibiotics and moved into my blood stream. The doctor mentioned the risk of septic shock. I faced a terrifying thought: what if I went unconscious? The first person to realize would be my boss in Nashville several days later when I didn’t show up for a Zoom call.

Living like this could kill me.

Social instability

A friend said later, “I had no idea you were struggling. Why didn’t you tell me?” But that was exactly the problem. I didn’t know I was depressed. And I had no one in my daily life to notice if something was wrong.

I had no one responsible to look out for me. I lacked the structural support of a family, a husband, a mission organization, or in-person work. I depended on voluntary connections for support. The friends who were my first line of defense had to spouses or families as their priorities, and rightly so. No one was obligated to me, so I tried to shore up favors for when I would need them. Of course, I genuinely love supporting my friends, but this instability led me to overstep my boundaries trying to be the superstar friend.

In addition, many of my friends had serious mental health and relational crises. Why was that? It turns out I’m attracted to smart, driven, world-changers – genuinely awesome people, but we’re also more prone to anxiety and burnout. I feel connected to friends who can have deep conversations. I also had an insecurity that emotional support was what I had to offer in friendships.

I’d invest deeply in friendships, only to have to start over – and over. A few years earlier, I had a breakup, a friendship end, and my church fall apart – all within six weeks. In the aftermath, I relied on a friend group, but two years later, all eight of them had moved away.

Some supportive friends who moved away

In fact, my whole life was high turnover: students, expats, young adults. In four years, I had 8 housemates, 25 friends left the country, and a whole new set of classmates. I strove to stay one step ahead so I wouldn’t be stranded. As an extrovert who worked remotely, I needed the social interaction more than my friends did. I told myself if I needed it, I needed to initiate it. Another exhausting imbalance.

Early waking can happen when you are chronically stressed. Normally, your body releases cortisol to help you wake up. But if your baseline levels of that stress hormone are already high, you reach the wake-up level earlier.

Hormones like dopamine from pleasurable experiences help to mitigate stress. Without the dopamine from fun and social interactions, I would seek a thrill from surmounting crazy work challenges or perfecting creative projects. It only added an adrenaline rush – and crash. In lockdown, I’d post a great sermon and everyone would assume I was thriving. In reality, having to remind myself of Scripture’s truth was all that kept my soul afloat. Don’t forget to check on your strong friend.

I prided myself on being more than capable, but I had hit my limit. Between insomnia and chronic foot pain, I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t walk. I felt like a toddler. Without structures of balanced support, my body was bearing the weight instead. It was telling me, “I can’t do it anymore.”

It’s Not Just Me

I share my story because I’m guessing other people can relate to parts of it. When you’re in a mental health crisis, it’s so easy to feel, “Something is wrong with me.” It has been reassuring for me that almost anyone in my situation would have been depressed. I was experiencing symptoms of broader cultural trends. For instance:

In a recent Twitter conversation, many single people said the hardest part about being single is not having someone responsible to look out for you when you’re sick or dealing with mental illness.

During COVID, many people have realized the challenges of remote work and isolation and are wondering how to reengage or reconstruct social structures.

International students and people living abroad are always wondering when their visas will be renewed. Being far from your hometown, family, and extended family can often reveal how building support systems is the work of generations. Fellow foreigners are often easier to relate with but have high turnover. Local friends often have a web of other commitments.

People with a high sense of responsibility may have noticed themselves in my drive to be the superstar friend or feed my high with another accomplishment. Perhaps you too have hit the limit of your capability, but it’s hard to recognize because no one expects it of you – least of all yourself. It was hard to admit I was depressed, to reach out for counselling, and to try medication. But it was life-changing.

Around age 30, people often have a crisis of sorts, reevaluate life’s direction, and look to settle down into stability. It often spurs you to make big changes, whether personally or professionally. It’s just more obvious when it involves moving continents.

My story is especially relevant to single women in their 20s and 30s working for small charitable organizations (especially in another country). So many of my friends fell into this category. Young women excited about travel and with big hearts for doing good can easily move to places like Nairobi where there are fewer language and socioeconomic barriers. They sign up for a shoestring startup with a handful of employees. Functioning as cultural mediators, they work with local people on the ground and are supervised from afar by someone in the sending organization back in the US, South Africa, etc.

These organizations aren’t thinking about cultural orientation, psychological support, and issues like visas or social life. It’s not sustainable, so many people leave after a couple of years. Those who stay have often found other support by relying on parents (if they grew up there), getting married locally, joining a different organization, or being informally included in the support structures of a more established organization. More broadly, this can apply to people working with marginalized groups closer to home, who bridge between realities on the ground and nonprofit leadership.

Hercules Statue by Richard Leonard, CC by 2.0

Whoever you are, if you feel you just can’t do it on your own anymore, you’re probably right. The weight of the world is too much to bear alone. Perhaps partially for shock value, Pastor Jin S. Kim once said something like, “Self-care is a Western fallacy, and it’s just not biblical. In Korean culture and other communal societies, we recognize that we were made to care for each other, to be interdependent.”

I know what he meant, because I tried to be proactive about my social and emotional needs. But that blood infection showed me that my life depended on me being conscious of my own needs and able to reach out for help.

It was an unbearable weight, and I realized I needed to build some support structures to ease if off my shoulders.

Making a Move

Just a day before that presentation on community, I had made a list of all the ways I would connect with people when I went back to Minnesota. But the minute I pictured doing it in Nairobi, I panicked.

Nairobi, in my experience, hadn’t lent itself to a lifestyle with margin: its people are trying to save the world, uplift their whole village, attend family functions, work a job and a side hustle, survive traffic, then crash on the weekends. That’s the reality of city hustle in that economy.

If I went back, I’d need to change jobs, housemates, neighborhoods, churches, and join a gym – only to live in an expat bubble and on the edge of a visa renewal. To get the support structures I needed, I’d have to start over anyway. I realized I might as well start over closer to family.

A pastor friend suggested finding overlapping circles to make community more convenient; live in a neighborhood with friends who go to your church so you’ll run into them at the grocery store. Social network theory says people connect based on proximity and similarity. Proximity: your neighbor, desk mate, or the person you see at the gym. Similarity: a writing group, a fellow preschool mom, or someone with your religious beliefs.

Third culture kids like me defy these principles, I wrote in my sociology capstone. We live in cultures where we don’t fit in, so we define new in-groups of outsiders. People like us are far away, so we keep in touch. I hadn’t known another life.

But I needed one.

I explored housing options for staying in the US, not yet knowing whether I would need to give up my job. A potential landlord told me she knew someone selling a car. “I don’t need one yet, but maybe if it’s a Prius.” It was. If I was ready to shell out for a car in the US, I needed to know whether I could keep my job.

When I told my boss I wanted to stay in the US, he agreed – the ironic benefit of my remote work and the world now being familiar with Zoom. In my parents’ neighborhood, I reached out to a couple of college connections for walks, joining a Bible study, or going out to eat. Family friends offered to rent me their townhome, ten minutes from my parents’ house, twenty minutes from everything else, and no more than two hours from half my relatives. God also provided new housemates, this time with a year lease instead of month-to-month.

A close friend said she was looking for a job, so my mom sent her openings until she moved back to Minnesota. We found a church and carpool there together. I visit my parents each week. I’ve been sleeping well with medication for a year. After much perseverance, I found a counselor and a physical therapist.

I’m still looking for more social structures since I’m single and still working from home. But God has provided so much already, and I much feel lighter and hopeful.

I want this for you, too

This time has taught me that going solo isn’t sustainable without structures of social support. I hope we shift from self-care to asking for help and looking out for each other. For me, that looked like telling people I wasn’t OK. I asked them to pray, comfort me, hang out, listen, or recommend therapists or connections. I’m so grateful for everyone who played a part in this transition, and for God answering our prayers.

If you’re carrying too much, I hope you feel validated. I hope you find the courage to ask for help. Maybe you discover creative ways to build support structures into your daily life. To find those balanced, interdependent relationships.

I also hope we start to recognize the people in some of these vulnerable groups. Check in with that overachiever strong friend, make sure that girl going overseas has support, ask whether that single person wants to hang out.

We can’t do this alone anymore, and we don’t have to.

I died alone

When I was depressed, isolated, and terrified I’d die alone, I asked where God was. This song was God’s reply. Good Friday now has a whole new meaning for me.

Read the full backstory in this post.

Ludicrously loved (poem)

Photo by Caio on

I want a covenant
a promise you’ll stay always by my side
that we’re in this together
come hellfire or high tide

Give me a covenant
to prove you love me more than my own mother
commitment that
you won’t abandon me for any other

Tell me
you’d die before you’d leave me
you’ll forgive my worst mistakes
Swear that
you’d risk it all to save me
when I lack the strength it takes

Vow that
you’ll always watch out for me
hold me safe inside your arms
Swear you’ll
provide whatever I need
never ever do me harm

But I can’t promise
that I will be all these things to you
because I know I’ll be unfaithful
and I know I’ll be untrue

So do your part and mine as well
give up your Spirit, flesh and blood
to make our love unquenchable
by many waters of the flood

Then by your power I’ll become
the bride you’re worthy of
your grace will bring me home
for I am ludicrously loved

Isn’t it ridiculous how much God loves his people? He makes a covenant he knows Israel cannot keep and he fulfills his end of the bargain, saving us even while we are still sinners. No one in their right mind would sign up for that kind of relationship. Prophets like Hosea show us just how irrational it is. Although this poem highlights how entitled someone sounds asking for this, it’s also an honest plea. We have a suspicion we’re incapable of loving the way we want to be loved. But isn’t this still the kind of security we’re yearning for, deep down? And isn’t it why the best of human relationships can still feel disappointing at times? What a strange and immense privilege we have that Christ invites us, as members of his bride, into a covenant relationship with him.

Who God is to me from A to Z

Today is my 25th re-birthday! To celebrate, I’m drawing inspiration from biblical festivals like Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Purim, which use symbols to remember what God had done. I don’t remember the day I was born again, but my relationship with God has had many memorable milestones over the years. And since I’m on to my 26th year with Jesus, why not go all out with the biblical theme and celebrate with an acrostic of who God has been to me from A to Z? I mean, the other option was a ribbon dance:

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
remember the wonders he has done.

Avenger of the innocent and abused
Bungee cord holding fast even in my plummet to doom
Creator speaking from chaos whirlwind of the beauty in view amid pain
Dumpster-diving artist shining light through stained and broken glass
Elijah’s whispering minister when he felt depressed, lonely, and used
Father who adopted me into a multicultural global family
Good gift-giver who gives bread not stones
Head of the church, lover of an imperfect bride
Immanuel, non-imaginary confidante when I leave my friends behind
Jireh guiding, providing miracle financial aid, checks and jobs from strangers
King coming again to rule in justice over the nations
Labyrinth Lord with the bird’s eye of my path, your higher ways
Messiah who frees me to just minister
New embodied life in barren wombs, from dry bones, out of empty tombs
One who died alone so I’ll never have to
Pastor-shepherd when I was in want of one for four years
Queller of the storms who did care if we drowned
Rainmaker, welcomer of children and their prayers
Spirit who called me before I was born, lands like a butterfly, baptizes with fire
Tucks me into bed, ignoring my essay of good deeds
Ultimate home for us TCKs and wandering Arameans
Virgil’s and Steve’s God, Rock my fathers depended on
Well of living water bringing blooms in a parched desert
eXodus redeemer from sin, shame, death, and Evil with unthinkable sacrifice
You’re with me even when I settle on the far side of the sea
Ziggurat, the Way and unearned blessing Jacob wrestled to grasp

The name of the Lord is great and worthy of praise
I will sing of his wonderful deeds.
25 years, even a lifetime is not enough
to thank him as he deserves.

If you’d like to know the backstories to any of these, check out the hyperlinks or just ask!

The Role of Bicultural People in the Missio Dei

We often talk about missionary kids’ emotional needs or involvement in their parents’ ministry, but what is their unique mission? What role do other third culture kids and people with mixed identities play in God’s mission?

Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Esther, and Paul all identified with more than one culture as young people, were rejected as different, persisted in identifying with both, and became missional mediators. Jesus even followed this pattern! What might happen if we continue identifying across difference and have faith that God is up to something?

Presented at the American Society for Missiology 2021.

Biological Clocks and the Hope of Eternal Life (published in Mutuality)

Couples struggling with infertility or women worried about their biological clocks have valid desires. Hoping in the birth of a child can also point to a deeper yearning – our ultimate hope in the birth of the Christchild. This inspired my recent article, which Christians for Biblical Equality published in the Winter 2020 issue of Mutuality. Click here to read the full article. I hope it is an encouraging reminder to all of us of God’s victorious power of life in the face of our mortality.

Isolated but Never Alone

2020 has confronted us with the terrifying possibility of dying alone. In my own small way, this July, I felt closer to that than I’ve ever been.

While chopping veggies for dinner, I nicked my thumb, rinsed it, and stuck on a Band-Aid. The skin soon healed over, and I had to sanitize my hands at every turn anyway, so I didn’t think much of it… until the throbbing in my arm kept me awake a couple nights in a row.

Photo by Pixabay on

My housemate had just gotten married and moved out, so I was living alone. I was hesitant to go to a hospital during COVID. Plus, I imagined I’d sound like a silly wimp, going to the doctor for an invisible cut on a finger.

However, my housemate had gotten a comprehensive physical right before her wedding, which reminded me to schedule one too, before my insurance policy switched and I lost that free benefit. It happened to be that weekend.

My blood test showed an infection. After five days of antibiotics, my throbbing arm was still making it hard to focus at work, and painkillers weren’t helping me sleep. I looked up bloodstream infections online and realized they could lead to septic shock, unconsciousness, and death.

The hospital agreed it was worrying. I was told to come in within 24 hours so they should anesthetize and cut open the thumb to remove the pus inside. I hate needles and scalpels. I called a friend in a panic, who prayed for me on the phone as my neighbor drove me to a nearby clinic.

That doctor said to wait 24 hours to see if the infection subsided. Before bed, I texted three friends to call me if they didn’t hear from me first thing in the morning, to make sure I was still conscious.

My vulnerability hit me: I lived alone in a foreign country, my work was remote, church was virtual. The only person I spoke to more than once a week was my boss in Nashville – Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons.

It was a Friday night. If I hadn’t known I was in danger to warn someone, I could have been unconscious or dead for three days before anyone noticed. I prayed desperately yet again and cried myself to sleep.

The next day, the throbbing was gone. Still, the terror of the experience had scarred me. I knew I was alone, but I’d always thought I could reach out for what I needed. But what if I was incapacitated and couldn’t call?

No one was responsible to look out for me. I had no missions team leader or spouse. My family and colleagues were too far away to know what was going on. My friends wanted to be there for me, but their own families would come first.

Holding my life in my own hands was too much. It was dangerous.

Months later, I cried out to God, “I almost died! How could you let that happen?”

I felt God place a thought in my head: “I died alone so you’ll never have to.”

Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends. On the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He died utterly alone on a Friday night. After three days, his friends came to find his body. Jesus has faced our worst fears and conquered them. He has crossed the threshold of death and returned for good. He is with me, so I will never die alone.

“If I wasn’t alone,” I told God, “where were you? I didn’t feel you holding my hand. I was in freefall, plummeting unhindered to my doom.”

I recalled how just after the thumb incident, I was fighting insomnia, crying at my desk weekly, trying to find energy to work eight hours and shower and eat. I needed a restful and social get away. I finally found an Airbnb within the locked-down city limits. But this friend had the flu, that one was returning to work, this one was having a baby, that one was leaving the country. No one was available. I was falling fast.

As I reflected on this, I felt a nudge suggest: “It was not freefall, but bungee jumping.” Terrifying, definitely. But there was a limit. God’s hand was never going to let me go further. “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1).

I began to see all the ways God had been protecting me:

I’d prayed for a housemate, and in January an old friend showed up from New Zealand with a couple days’ notice. Her presence kept me sane for those six months, and at her bachelorette party and wedding I laughed more than I had for months.

Then I survived living alone for a month. I had held out hope for September, when I hoped my brother’s job offer in Kenya would come through. Though I wouldn’t have gone to the hospital, my infection got bad when I already had a physical scheduled.

After my vacation plans fell through, I called my mom. She suggested coming to the US, since my siblings were all gathering in four days. International flights reopened the next morning, and I booked a ticket immediately. My friends leaving the country had figured out COVID testing to fly. They booked my test when they went to pick theirs up. The morning before takeoff, my results came in, along with news that my brother’s job offer had been rescinded. Any earlier and I might have despaired; any later and I couldn’t have packed my fall jacket and snow pants in case I extended my stay.

I thought if I didn’t text someone, no one would know or come for me. But God saw. I cried out for help, and he rescued me out of the depths. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … neither death nor life… neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Romans 8:35-39).

Of course, I never want to be in that situation again. I’m discerning what needs to change to avoid that level of isolation. For now, my emergency trip has turned into a year of working from my parents’ house, taking time to process and heal. But I am grateful that the pain was bad enough that I acted on it, that when I didn’t realize the danger, God was at work to save me. I didn’t have to be tough and hold myself together. God held me fast, like a bungee rope. I was never alone.

Goodnight, guava (poem)

Photo by Rajesh S Balouria on

Goodnight, moon, goodnight, room.
The familiar words of the bedtime board book keep me awake, tired eyes wide.
I have only two more pages to make my final art piece,
only five more words to make my peace.
Each syllable brings me closer to the Last page of the childhood story.

It is the day after the Last day of school, but I cannot leave
my art until it looks just the way I picture it:
the eyes of my cubist face strain to see the light in the tunnel,
looking forward and behind me.
I paint the Last scrap of cardboard with orange and Picasso blue to match my
California Oranges shirt.


My hand is snapping pictures
for my scrapbook:
me in my California Oranges shirt, arms over my classmates’ shoulders.
The Last missionary potluck, finally our family’s turn in the center of the circle, praying
hands on our shoulders.

Tunza farewell 139

My hand is packing boxes:
A good luck pennant a friend wire-wrapped, a kanga cloth signed by each family
at the Lake Victoria beach restaurant, the Last of eight farewell parties.
Once a box is packed, I do not want to see the contents too soon. It is not worth the hurt to slit open the packing tape before we arrive.
Goodnight, necklace. Goodnight, lake.

It is the day after the Last day of school, so instead of uniform, I am wearing
my California Oranges shirt. It is my favorite shirt,
the one I always cry in.
I wore it the previous Last Time. I wore it when I told the youth group about the
loneliness since the previous Last Time.

My hand has packed so many boxes I could do it in my sleep.
Goodnight – I must stay awake,
lest my hand mistake
the cardboard pages of the book for a box, flip too fast,
pack up my Past,
and tape the cover shut with a slam. I keep my fingers occupied with a camera or a pen,
trying to capture
the correct ending.

The previous ending was
the incorrect ending, the nightmare. This Time will still be an ending, so it might not be happy,
but it must resolve. By wearing the same shirt as the previous Last Time, I will
rewrite that ending too.
This Time I will not offer a feeble quote to the punk kid, a Band-Aid on my guilt for how we bullied each other. I am saying sorry now, not three years later, not over facebook. With all the tears in my journal now, I will have no more to use for the next year.
My hand is scribbling letters. Then I have permission to make new friends at my new school, because the old ones know I cared.
My hand is snapping pictures. This way I won’t be distraught if we don’t keep in touch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy hand is moving boxes,
trying to weary my arms so I can sleep.
In my scrapbook,
the stacks of boxes will obscure true memory.
My room will look like a cardboard tunnel,
scrawled with “FRAGILE” as graffiti. No masterpieces will hang in the hollow hallway.
Before I started taking pictures,
the Christmas ornaments were gently rewrapping themselves into boxes, the stools already vanishing to their new owners. As I walk through for the Last Time,
my whispered goodbyes are already missing
their familiar objects:
Goodnight, mosquito net. Goodnight, mattress on the floor.
Goodnight, I won’t sleep here anymore.

Perhaps I will return,
but this backyard will not be mine. There will be no silver Land Cruiser under the car port here, the “Hodi!” at the gate will not call for me. The papaya by the kitchen window
will not be mine to eat…

The moon spotlights a guava in the grass.
This is mine to eat, Now.
I grasp it awkwardly as I climb the ladder
of our mini-water tower. Halfway up, I swing my body onto a plywood platform, let legs dangle,
two feet above the clothesline.
Goodnight, guava. Goodnight, moon.

This month, we had laundry buckets full of fruit. Dad convinced Mom to make
guava sauce,
to squeeze the most out of our Last guava season.
Reason told her she had no lack
of boxes to pack,
but she did it anyway, just for him. For the past week, we have eaten only Home
-made guava sauce, yogurt and granola. As I bite into the light yellow-green skin, I discover
my tongue still savors fleshy pink sweetness,
my teeth have not exhausted the pleasure of crunching yellow seeds.

Guavas have no core:
when you are done there is nothing
to show or throw away.
The more I taste, the more I want to postpone the Last bite.
I nibble at it.
Goodbye home, I leave you soon.

Tomorrow I will have earned this Ending, finished
writing the story I want.
I have plodded through my scrapbook, listing every place, every relationship, diligently saying,
Goodnight. Goodbye.
I am thirteen years too old for this children’s book, but
I am not tired of the story.
I am just tired.
My eyes are cried dry.
My hand closes the Last cardboard. My fingers let go
of the pen. As I swallow the Ending,
it is sweet, and then
it is gone.