by Ruth Van Reken
I’m glad our Shepherd doesn’t work by percentages. If he did, I’d still be in the bushes.
I’m glad our Shepherd doesn’t work by percentages. If he did, I’d still be in the bushes.
For years it seemed I was living proof of “How To Raise Successful MKs.” Simply mix close, loving parents with a warm, nurturing mission community. Stir in a supportive home church and strong extended family. Model principles of faith. Don’t impose legalistic rules and all will be well.
But a funny thing happened on my way to perfection. I kept stumbling over secret depression. How could that be with such an exemplary background? At age thirty-nine, Christ showed me the incredible paradox of Gethsemane—that deepest pain and profoundest faith can exist simultaneously. To affirm one is not to negate the other. I also saw my own paradoxical history. The very multicultural experiences I so valued brought confusion when I returned to my parents’ culture. The same high mobility which gave me friends on every continent also precipitated many painful losses. My life was a “both/and” story, not an “either/or.”
How had I missed this liberating truth? I wanted to share it with other adult missionary kids. One friend disagreed.
“Ruth, it’s too negative to talk about the pain. Most of your story is so good. You should emphasize the happy side.”
“But how can I talk about God’s comfort and healing if I don’t talk about why I needed it?” I asked her.
“I’m sure 95 percent of all adult MKs are doing well. Why concentrate on the 5 percent who aren’t?” she replied.
Maybe I was wrong. If so, I needed to know. I asked God.
“Jesus, am I really just making a mountain out of a molehill? She’s right — both about my story and that most adult MKs are apparently fine. But I’ve met at least a few others like me. You know us, Jesus. Externally, we look great, but internally we’ve wrestled—often not understanding our struggles until mid-life. And you also know my adult MK friends who’ve rejected you, missions, and even their families. But am I stirring up unnecessary trouble to talk about it? Should I keep silent? Maybe we are too few to bother about.”
In answer, the picture of the shepherd and his one hundred sheep instantly flashed to my mind. Ninety-nine of those sheep made it safely home—an outstanding ninety-nine percent. Yet that wasn’t enough for the shepherd. The minute he realized one sheep hadn’t returned, he went looking until he found her. Even a one percent loss exceeded his standard.
I discovered more. Luke 15 records three parables about loss. First the sheep, second the lost coin, and third the prodigal son. Each situation reflects a different percentage of loss. For the sheep, one percent were lost; for the coin, 10 percent; for the sons, fifty percent.
By his Spirit, Jesus spoke to me. “Ruth, don’t you see? The percentages never matter to me. What does matter is the one who got lost—be it sheep, coin, son, or even an adult MK. As long as there are wounded or lost adult MKs, you need to look for them. You’re right. Many are no longer around missions or church. But they are out there. Go look. My time for healing is here.”
Since then, I’ve spent thousands of hours interacting with countless adult MKs by phone, letters, or in person. I can’t say what percent of our whole adult MK population they represent, but we have many significant wounds, regardless of how we appear.
Several years ago, I heard about plans for the MK-CART/CORE survey. and looked forward to glimpsing a clearer picture of our group. When I first read this report, however, I felt disappointed to see the data often stated in imprecise terms such as “greater than,” “lower than,” and “overall.” I’d been waiting for the facts. Were 95 percent of us really doing “very well,” as my friend had presumed years ago? If not, what percentage of the whole does “overall” represent? And what, by the way, does “very well” mean? How was “spirituality” defined? As a recent cover story in Time magazine notes, all spirituality is not necessarily Christian. What kind of score indicated a positive Spiritual Well-Being Scale? How many were above and below that ineach section? And so my questions went.
Then, remembering what the Shepherd showed me 10 years ago, I realized my questions were irrelevant. Even if 99 percent plus of us adult MKs are doing not only very, but extremely well—both inside and outside, however you define it — our Shepherd won’t be satisfied until it’s 100 percent. We can — and should — rejoice greatly for all those who are safe in the fold without scratches, bumps, or bruises from the journey. But the rejoicing must never drown out the urgency of the task to seek those who are struggling on their journey, or who’ve never found their way back home.
We must also not ignore the parents who, for years, have silently borne the blame and shame because their adult MKs, in some way, didn’t “make it.” We can, instead, join them and Jesus in forming a search party to seek these adult MKs who “don’t fit the mean” of this survey.
But we must search with our Shepherd’s heart. He doesn’t worry about blame, or lecture the sheep when he discovers her under a bush. He gently lifts her out, prickly thorns and all, picks her up, and tenderly removes those thorns—which now also scratch him—as he carries her home.
How do we begin this search? First, we must return to the issue of paradox. Until, and unless, we come to terms with that great mystery of coexistent faith and pain, our discussions on MKs and adult MKs will only prove fruitless and divisive. Without that paradox, talking about the need for healing quickly degenerates into either attacking or defending parents, missions, God, or someone else. We never get to the real issue: What are we going to do about the wounded ones?
We must ask, Can there be legitimate pain while doing God’s will? Are MKs as subject to the brokenness of this world as anyone else? Can we acknowledge these possibilities?
Many adult MKs have been needlessly wounded and driven further into the bushes because well-meaning rescuers have not settled those questions for themselves. One adult MK wrote me:
I suspect that I am not typical for an MK, but I also suspect there are a number of others like me, and all of us perhaps a little ashamed to admit how difficult some parts of our life have been for us. Somehow, being an MK was supposed to be “special.” But it never worked for me.
I think that if someone had been open with me—able to accept my questions about why I felt so rotten if God wanted my parents to do what they did, instead of speaking platitudes about God taking care of everything if you trust him, I might have found an easier way through those years. Instead, I ended up feeling I’d been conned, fed a line that was an easy way out for the adults around me. I suspect I had questions that they couldn’t really answer. So easy—my pain was a consequence of my failure to trust in God—but I didn’t know how to trust any more than I was and the pain didn’t go away. So the second lesson I learned was you couldn’t count on God either. That is a very lonely and scary place to be—not able to trust people or to trust God.
The second thing for our search party to understand is why this particular paradox is such a critical one for MKs. For that, we must first look at the big picture of the MK experience. MKs belong to a large group of people from many backgrounds who have been raised between and among various worlds. They are called Third Culture Kids (TCKs, those who have spent a significant part of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents’ culture), or Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs).
During his seminars on The TCK Profile, Dave Pollock describes two basic overlays which impact all TCKs, including MKs: a transcul-tural upbringing and high mobility.
The benefits and challenges arising from a transcultural and highly mobile childhood impact all TCKs—regardless of which expatriate subculture they came from, whether or not they went to boarding school. Too often our searches for answers to MK issues start and stop in a discussion of the pros and cons of boarding school, rather than looking at thislarger picture of the MK experience. Boarding school may be a “hot topic” in missions—and a significant topic indeed for many—but it is one issue relating to MKs, not the issue. Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed in the MK-CART/CORE study hadn’t gone to boarding school at all.
There is, however, a third overlay specific to the MK experience not directly related to the other two overlays. Yet it greatly complicates our ability to look at clearly, or deal with appropriately, the normal challenges arising from them. This third overlay is being raised in a faith, or God-system.
Why does this complicate things? Because every circumstance of our lives as MKs—good and bad—happens within that framework, or under that umbrella, of faith in God and Jesus Christ. This means that while some of our deepest foundational blessings come from this overlay, our pain issues are also inextricably interwoven with God issues. A military kid can blame the commanding officer for any negative experiences, and a business kid can blame the company’s CEO. But for an MK, who, ultimately, is to blame for whatever happens besides God? For MKs, God and the system easily become one.
So what’s the problem with that?
The MK-CART/CORE survey tells us when the system has an “absence of overpowering negative factors . . . , the presence of strong familial bonds, and a safe, nurturing environment when separated from parents, most MKs can be expected to do very well as adults in their spiritual functioning.” It also says the 83 percent of adult MKs who saw their mission as a “good, supportive thing in their lives exhibit higher levels of well-being” than those who didn’t. Of course, that makes sense. A positive experience in a God-system is reflected by a positive view of God.
But what happens when the environment is not safe, or caring, or nurturing? For some adult MKs, it has even been abusive. What about the adult MK who talks of his bitterness and resentment regarding “some of my early childhood horrors at the hands of missionary dorm parents”? When that happens in a system which—from a child’s perspective—represents God, how will the child see God?
The survey also reports that the 17 percent of adult MKs who do not see the mission community as a caring, supportive community have a lower level of spiritual well-being that those who do. Again, this makes sense. A negative experience in a God-system is reflected in a more negative view of God. Without accepting the mystery of paradox—that even in the middle of God’s will there can be pain for us as there was for Jesus—adult MKs basically have two choices. To maintain faith, we must deny any pain from our childhood. But then unresolved grief surfaces in other ways, such as anger and depression. If the pain, or unanswerable questions, becomes too much, we discard faith — and with it the very one who is willing to listen to our questions and pain, and be our healer.
The above facts are true, but they only begin to tell the story. A rather stunning 49 percent of the adult MKs surveyed have already seen a professional counselor, or feel it would be helpful. These adult MKs have lower spiritual well-being scores than those who haven’t felt the need for counseling. They also represent almost three times as many adult MKs as those who view their missions community negatively. This means that even those with positive feelings about their basic environment are not exempt from struggling with either life’s situations or their relationship to God. Why?
According to the MK-CART/CORE survey, “Adult MKs who are not doing well existentially, religiously, and spiritually, as would be expected (italics mine), tend to seek out counseling.” This appears to reflect the common view that “pain (is) a consequence of . . . failure to trust God.” I would offer another possibility.
No one avoids pain, regardless of their background. Personality and family upbringing shape how we respond to various situations. Since the hurts of MKs come from within a faith system, their normal cycles of separationand loss—as well as abuse in boarding school—deeply shape their views of God.
I believe many adult MKs among the 49 percent who ranked lower in spiritual well-being, and who received or wanted to receive counseling, did not initially have problems primarily due to their lack of faith. Rather, their lack of closeness to God may well have arisen from painful experiences that happened within the mission system and clouded their views of God and of Jesus Christ. When you believe that your parents are doing God’s will, your sadness and pain cause you to feel like you are questioning God. Among adult MKs who dare to question the pain, some conclude that God cannot be either good or loving. As one adult MK said to me, “It’s really hard to trust the person you feel hurt you.”
That’s why the paradox of Gethsemane is so critical. In the very center of God’s will, Jesus suffered enough to ask for a way out. Yet by facing his pain rather than denying it, Jesus acquiesced to his Father’s will. In his struggle and choice, Jesus became a full participant in his Father’s plan, rather than a victim.
If they do not accept this paradox of pain and faith, adult MKs face two possible outcomes. First, to maintain faith, they must deny any pain from their childhoods. But then unresolved grief surfaces in other ways, such as anger and depression. Some adult MKs actually do feel like they are God’s victims. Second, if in the face of pain and unresolved questions, they abandon their faith, then they lose the very one who is willing to listen to their questions and pain, and to heal them.
By accepting paradox, adult MKs are free to look at the past without fearing they will have to reject their parents, their faith, or their own identity if they face something painful. On the other hand, those who have concentrated exclusively on their pain may need to see that something good and right did come out of it. The permission to look at both sides comes from Jesus himself. When adult MKs do that, true healing begins.
The adult MK I quoted earlier concluded:
Don’t give up on us. It may take a long time, but we can come back to the family after a long absence, and we need to know you’re waiting for us. During my adult years, I often wrote my parents only once or twice a year, or less. But they never stopped writing to me every week or so. They kept the line open so when I was ready I knew they were there just waiting for me. And they welcomed me with loving, open arms.
Yes, Jesus is our redeemer. Through his example he gives all adult MKs, and their families, the way to deal with issues from the past, while celebrating and fully using the great gifts of their incalculably rich faith heritage.
1. Frances J. White, “Some reflections on the separation phenomenon idiosyncratic to the experience of missionaries and their children,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall, 1993, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 181-188.
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