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An Invitation to Lament

From the series Still Serving in China

I will never forget a certain December day in 2021. It was the day our entire family had tickets to fly back to Shanghai and return to our life in China. We left in the summer of 2019 for a regularly scheduled furlough. Enter COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, and our scheduled return that summer was long delayed. In January of 2021, valid work visas, negative COVID-19 test results, and very expensive plane tickets in hand, we were ready to go. However, for reasons unknown, we were not granted the green code to fly. Our visas expired shortly thereafter, and it wasn’t until late autumn in 2021 that we received new visas for our entire family. Surely this time it would be different, right?

Attempt #1: This past December we had our COVID-19 PCR and antibody tests at our port of exit. The next day my husband’s antibody test came back positive. We were all flagged as close contacts. Chest x- rays and two more weeks of quarantine until we could attempt to test and fly again.

Attempt #2: Two weeks later, my husband’s COVID PCR test came back inconclusive.

Attempt #3: A week later, the Chinese embassy said we had insufficient reason to return.

Attempt #4: A few days later, a paperwork nightmare did not allow us to get green codes in time for the flight.

Attempt #5: The following week, my husband and I both received green codes, but after many hours and little explanation, our children did not.

After nearly 30 days of attempting to receive permission to fly back to China, only my husband boarded the plane, while I was left behind with our two daughters. Due to the nature of our work in China assisting a business-as-mission project that employs 25 local people, it was imperative that someone return, or the work would likely come to a sudden end.

We had been asking God for clarity. All of us returning or none of us returning would have provided that, but the path forward seems murkier than ever. Our visas have now expired. Will we be able to secure invitation letters again, especially for the kids? Will we be granted visas? And how long will all this take? And with valid visas, negative test results, and plane tickets in hand, will we be given permission to fly this time?

In no way do I relay the events above to be dramatic or emit pity from others. Our family’s story contains elements that hundreds of workers’ families have faced and are facing. The question that continues to rattle around in my head is: Is it worth it? Were the dozens of nose swabs, five blood draws, hours of paperwork, our family’s separation, my husband’s one-month long quarantine, the cost, and still so many unknowns of the future worth it? Surely the above points to a clear closed door and we should invest our time elsewhere, right? And yet, the hearts of our local friends grow, new opportunities for ministry spring up, and even the real possibility of a viable business utilizing kingdom principles and values persists.

Nine weeks into our family’s separation I wish I had more answers than questions, but that is not the case. I still ask for clarity, but more often these days I ask for faith to make it through the day. I am assured that God is present in the murkiness–the questions, the uncertainties, and all the variables that are out of my control.

And I am learning to grieve. For many months I did not allow myself to grieve because returning to China always seemed imminent. How could I grieve something that wasn’t lost yet? But upon further introspection, I see that there have been so many losses.

The loss of a stable home. The loss of belonging somewhere. The loss of my vocation and the fulfillment and joy it brought me. The loss of the ability to control going or coming. The loss of the ability to plan ahead and make commitments. The loss of the ability to do life together with not only my husband but also a team, striving for the same big goal.

American culture, and may I be so bold as to say especially church culture, avoids pain. Although well intentioned, we quickly spiritualize pain in order to avoid it, quipping “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” or “Count your blessings” or “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Or we rationalize the pain and loss, comparing it with others in much more traumatic or dire situations, further avoiding or hiding it. The result of this behavior is often an addiction of some sort to numb the pain. It could be the common addictions we think of like alcohol or pornography, but it could also be much more acceptable and even encouraged ones such as work, busyness, and even ministry.

God clearly invites us to grieve as a regular spiritual practice. About a third of the Psalms can be classified as songs of lament. They follow a familiar pattern: invocation (addressing God), complaint or lament, petition (asking God for relief or deliverance), and praise. I quite often feel the need to clean up my mess and then I can come to God and praise him. The Spirit gently reminds me even now as I write, saying “Eileen, this is not who I am. I died for the mess. I died for the tears. I weep with you. I cry with you and agree that the world is broken. This is not how it was meant to be.” Lament is bringing our loss, our complaints to God, and as a result experiencing sweet communion with him in the midst of pain. And somehow, lamenting allows us space to hope, to renew our faith in the God who loves us dearly, and to give him due praise.

Perhaps you are someone still living in China having lost many dear friends in your expat community, the certainty of how long you can stay, the way your ministry once was, or the way you thought life would be like. Or perhaps you are someone like me longing to return but uncertain if that will happen. Or maybe you are someone who left China, perhaps quite suddenly, and are having to start life over in your home country that may not feel like home.

Wherever you find yourself, please give yourself permission to grieve the many losses. Write out your own personal laments or find a trusted friend who will listen and acknowledge the losses with you. Do this to avoid living in bitterness or denial. Lament so that you can hope and dream again for God’s precious people in China or whoever else he has placed in your path.

Together with the psalmist we can cry, trust, hope, dream, and sing again:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Psalm 13

This post was informed by the following sources: Deep Calls to Deep: Spiritual Formation in the Hard Places of Life by Tony Horsfall and the video “Grieving the Seasons of our Lives” by Ron Walborn.

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Eileen Johns

Eileen Johns (pseudonym) is a wife and mother who longs to be teaching and living in China again. She has an MA from Wheaton College and is passionate about helping people connect with God.View Full Bio

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