by Susan K. Johnston
Change. It is inevitable, scary and challenging. It is hard for ‘ adults to deal with. It can be even more overwhelming and crippling for children.
Change. It is inevitable, scary and challenging. It is hard for ‘ adults to deal with. It can be even more overwhelming and crippling for children. The children of Israel were no strangers to change. Abraham was thrust out into a land where, "he did not know where he was going"(Hebrews 11:8). Joseph suddenly found himself captive in the strange land of Egypt. The nation of Israel multiplied in this land and made it their home, but then they too were called on to leave the life to which they had become accustomed. Yes, their life in Egypt resounded with difficulties, but it was their home. They knew how to live and function there. So it is not surprising to see the problems that occur as they leave that land.
In Exodus 17:1-6, Israel is in the midst of change. Moving from the Desert of Sin, they travel from place to place. What’s the reaction of the people? They begin to complain. Sure they have a valid concern. They had no water and it was hot. But their reaction to no water reflects the typical reaction to change. Everything seemed wrong. Life was so dismal at this time that the grumbling escalated to the point of, "Let’s go back to Egypt." They even considered stoning Moses. This is not too far from the reaction of many MKs on first arriving on the field or returning back to their passport country for home assignment. "Why do we have to be here? Why couldn’t we just stay in the Philippines?" Or, "Why do you have to be missionaries? Why couldn’t you just get a normal job like other people?" "I hate it here and I’m not going to get involved at all. Just leave me alone with my Nintendo!"
Comments like these hurt and confuse parents, who feel like they’ve failed. They question their own calling. Was this a big mistake? Moses felt the same way and his response was to cry out to the Lord, "What am I to do with these people?" Perhaps the first step in helping children cope is to cry out to the Lord. Ask him what the proper responses should be. Ask him for insight into what the child needs. Perhaps they only need time to grieve over what was left behind or become adjusted to the setting. Perhaps other intervention may be deemed necessary. God wants us to ask him for his wisdom.
When we returned to the field for our third term, our middle son Caleb struggled so much. He had made wonderful friends in the US and enjoyed the various sports programs. Manila, with the wall-to-wall concrete buildings and no yards, did not offer the life he enjoyed. He wanted only to return to the US. I asked several friends back home to cry out to the Lord on Caleb’s behalf. Within a few days he came running in the door, excitedly waving forms for Little League baseball. Light began to penetrate into what seemed like a dark world for Caleb.
God responded to Moses’ request by first of all saying, "Walk on ahead of the people." God called Moses to be the leader and therefore Moses needed to go out in front. He had to set the example and prepare the way. In the same way parents need to go ahead of their children in helping them cope with the coming change. Simple steps can be taken to make the transition smoother. Parents can write and ask for pictures of the new place to be shared with the children. E-mail provides a quick way to find out if there are any other kids living in the new area. Parents should research the schooling systems in advance and find out what needs to be done to enroll the child so that the school is ready for them, thus making the child feel welcomed from the start.
Parents can also go ahead of their kids in preparing them emotionally. Children need time to be able to talk out their feelings, both positive and negative. Some children are quite verbal in how they are feeling, while others keep their feelings pent up. Often, the silent child will show feelings in non-typical behavior patterns such as low grades, outbursts of anger or even withdrawal. But no matter the personality, every child needs help to think through all that is involved in the upcoming change.
God also tells Moses to take some elders with him. In other words, this was a big job and he needed the input of others. MK care exists. Parents need to use the resources that have been developed or tap into experts in the area. When we were about to return to the US after our second term, our daughter Hannah showed signs of being extremely disturbed about the move (see sidebar). She saw it as a death of her friends and all that she held dear. Although only a second grader, she felt things very deeply. We felt lost as parents, but fortunately consulted an MK specialist with our mission. She met with Hannah regularly for several months before our departure, helping Hannah to work through the issues that bothered her. She even found out that one of Hannah’s biggest fears was not being able to find her parents in a crowd in the US because "everyone is white and blond there."
God then tells Moses to, "take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile." Perhaps the staff represents God’s significant intervention in the past. God is reminding Moses that he did it before; he will do it again. Children need to be reminded of who their God is. Rehearsing together as a family the way God has met needs in the past renews hope and gives a better perspective on the present situation. Family journals provide an excellent way to help children remember what God has done and who he is.
Children also need to take some of their past life with them. Often parents throw out things that are important to the child because there is simply not enough room in the luggage. I remember throwing away a box of my daughter’s rocks because they were so heavy, only to find a devastated daughter crying on her bed. Although rocks to me, they represented memories of all the places she had been. Most experts suggest that a child be given at least one box or piece of luggage in which they may pack whatever they feel important. They must stay within the weight limit, but at least they are making the choices. Children also need an opportunity to say good-bye properly. This takes on different forms depending on the child. One child might want a huge party with all of his friends, while another prefers a quiet afternoon with her best friend.
Finally, God reminded Moses that he is his Rock and his Provider. He wants to intervene on Moses’ behalf. He tells Moses to strike the rock, to take some deliberate action. God wants to bless his people. He wants us to come before him with specific requests. Parents need to take seriously the valid needs of their children and ask him to provide. Missionaries easily trust and ask God for specific ministry requests, but somehow other areas may seem unspiritual. God says to strike the rock. A house with a yard, a friend to play with, a piano and a piano teacher, a room of their own, or maybe a pet dog, all represent valid needs of children that God wants brought before him.
Just as God called Israel out of Egypt into, a strange land, so too he calls people to go forth into the uttermost parts of the world. But as with Israel, he is there to hear the cries of his people. He wants to prepare the way so that change is not so devastating, especially in the lives of the children of those called to cross cultures for the sake of Christ.
Susan Keller Johnston and her husband served with OMF in the Philippines for 14 years as church planters and in developing video training materials for Filipinos.
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