The most common question I heard this past year was, “How are you guys doing, being back in Canada? Are you all settled?”
It’s an understandable question. People are kind and interested and that’s a really normal thing to ask someone who has moved back to their home country. I just found it hard to answer because the truth was, what I was feeling was exactly the opposite of what most people were hoping for me. I was feeling exactly unsettled, in fact. I spent the entire year feeling unsettled in three important ways.
#1. I was unsettled emotionally. It took me until late spring to utter the words, “I think maybe I’m depressed.” Eight or nine months after our return, I still found myself sad and weepy on a regular basis. Not a daily basis, like the first three or four months, but certainly a couple of times a week. I couldn’t motivate myself to do much of anything. I really struggled to initiate activities or time with friends. I believe in the power of words and thoughts, so I kept telling myself that I was definitely feeling better and better with each passing month, but by May I realized that actually, I didn’t feel any better than I had in January.
In fact, in some ways I felt worse, because on top of feeling sad and uncertain about what I was doing with my life, I added on a pile of shame for daring to feeling depressed when I had such a good life. “How could I possibly still be sad?” I’d tell myself. This can’t still be about leaving the UAE. Surely I’ve had plenty of time to have grieved and moved on by now. I would scroll through my list of blessings. I’m healthy, everyone in my family is healthy, we have a lovely home, Dwayne has a good job, my kids are involved and active, I have great friends, we live in a beautiful part of the world. Each item on the list made me feel more ashamed of myself for not being able to “snap out of” my haze.
#2. I was unsettled socially. I have always, always, always found great friends wherever I’ve lived. The world is full to overflowing with amazing people, so it’s not surprising that I fall in love with several new friends in every city. When I relocate, my top priority is to seek out community and invest in friendships. But this was not a new city. I’d already spent eight years falling in love with lots of wonderful people in Chilliwack. But we don’t live in the same neighbourhood that we used to. We don’t attend the same church. Everyone’s lives shifted while we were gone, just as ours had. My worldview was radically altered while we were away and I was wrestling to figure out how to fit into a new life in an old city. What should have felt easy, in fact felt harder than starting all over in a new community.
#3. I was unsettled spiritually. Our church in the UAE exposed me to Christians from all over the world whose faith was expressed really differently than mine. I also fell in love with Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist friends. I came home processing all these things and landed in kind of a church nightmare, which further forced us to wrestle through what we believed, what was essential, and where we belonged. This turned out to be the most unsettling part of all. I asked a lot of questions of God, of myself, and of those closest to me, and was left sitting in a lot of uncertainty.
So, with all this unsettledness, this summer finally felt like I came up out of the clouds. I recognized I was climbing a mountain, looked back where I had come from, and saw dense clouds covering the valley below. No wonder it was dark down there. I don’t know if there’s another valley up ahead or a heavy storm rolling in, but for now, my head is above the clouds. Things are clearer and I realize that it felt dark this past year because it was dark. It was hard. But here’s what I learned in the dark places.
#1. Sometimes we feel really sad. For a long time. Longer than we think we “should,” and sometimes about things we think we “shouldn’t” be so sad about. There’s no shame in that. There’s no timeline for grieving a loss. (I am not qualified to make statements about mental health, I can only say that depression sucks and pulling yourself out of it feels impossible, even if you recognize it. If you know someone who is struggling with this, don’t expect her to initiate anything, but don’t leave her alone. Show up for her, be patient while her storm passes, and mostly be present. I had friends who did this for me.)
#2. Coming back to the same place is not the same as never having left. Not by a long shot. It takes time to adjust to moving back “home.”
#3. “If our theology doesn’t shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we’re paying attention.” (Sarah Bessey) “Lean into your questions and your doubts until you find that God is out here in the wilderness too.” (Sarah Bessey, again.) (Actually, just read all of “Out of Sorts” and insert that here.) Paradoxically, God invites us to know him even though he’s beyond our comprehension. In some ways, I think we’re further from God when we think we have him all figured out. Some of my theology has changed, but God is still my all in all. He is walking with me through this season, as always, and I believe being unsettled was part of his good plan for me.
That’s what I learned in the dark this year. I learned more about God and faith. More about myself. Deeper compassion.
And yes, I’m finally feeling a little bit settled.
In July of 2016 I found myself facing questions I couldn’t answer at a customs counter in the Prague airport, and I looked at my husband, son, and daughter and realized I knew exactly where I felt most at home in the world.
Tsh Oxenreider, an author and podcaster who has become a significant voice in my life these days, just released a book this week called “At Home In the World,” and as part of her book release launch, she has asked her readers and listeners to consider where they feel most at home in the world and to share their thoughts. When I first heard her question, I had two or three significant places come to mind immediately. My family’s farm in central Saskatchewan. Nose Hill park overlooking the Calgary skyline. Walking our old street nestled under Mount Cheam in the Fraser Valley. All those places hold a special place in my heart and were once places I lived. They are in many ways, places I’m from. But the truth is, they no longer feel exactly like home to me.
And then I remembered this moment last summer when I had my most intense feeling of contented at-homeness. We were leaving Abu Dhabi after 2 years as expats in the UAE. We were eventually returning to Canada, but were first setting out on a 6 week adventure in Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. We landed at the Prague airport and the woman at the customs desk asked me if we lived in the UAE. Since we had just cancelled our visas and given up residency, I answered, “No, we don’t live there anymore.”
“So, you’re going to Canada?” she asked.
“Well, not for six more weeks.”
“So where do you live?” she asked as if it should be such an easy question to answer.
I looked at Dwayne and the kids and thought, “Where do we live?” We were residents of no country, we owned no home, we didn’t even have a rented apartment. We had some suitcases stored at a friend’s house, but otherwise we were just carrying our summer belongings. We actually lived nowhere.
I thought, though I wisely kept my thought silent, “Lady, right now we live right here in front of you.”
I don’t ever recall a time in my life where I felt so completely grounded in the present moment. I felt peace. I felt free. I felt at home in the world. My home was where I was presently standing, and I knew the next place I stood would be my next home.
The thing is, I’m 41 years old, and I’ve lived in 18 different homes in 4 different Canadian provinces and 2 different countries. All my life, wherever I’ve lived, I’ve felt home there. The truth is, I’m pretty good at creating a home. I’m a firm believer that we don’t have to look for a beautiful place, we make a place beautiful. We make it beautiful with our spirits and with the physical belongings that remind us most of who we are and what we love. I think back to some of the places I’ve lived, and they haven’t always been the most inspiring upon first glance. Even the most recent home we left in Al Ain was a pretty depressing discovery when we first arrived in the UAE. We cried the day we were given the keys to our assigned housing. But, two years later, we cried harder when we had to leave it. It had become home to us. More importantly, we had made it our home. With intention and effort, we had made it our home.
So, as I stood in front of the customs agent and considered our apparently homeless state, I felt such peace because I was confident that home would always come to us. “Us” being the key word. It turns out, wherever I land with Dwayne, Josiah, and Abby is where I feel most at home in the world.
I’m not someone who generally leaves things unspoken. Whether it’s something that fills me with joy or something that has been hurtful, it’s not my natural inkling to let things quietly blow over. I’d rather talk about the elephant in the room than pretend he’s not there because I have found that, more often than not, an honest conversation can cut that elephant down to size. Words are my thing. I’m a talker and a listener. So, it should come as no surprise that, as we have recently made the decision to leave our church, I cannot let this slip by without saying something. And the two somethings that I want to say, dear church family, are that this was not easy and I love you.
Leaving a church family is no small matter.
First of all, if you’ve really loved well and invested fully, this involves an actual ripping away, and it’s painful. We’ve wrestled and grieved and felt all the feelings, and I’ve spent more time crying in the last few months than I would have liked. Nothing about this decision was easy.
Secondly, we are a family of four, and factoring in all of our needs and desires and spiritual states makes staying at or leaving a church very complicated. Navigating this road as a parent has been an emotional challenge, and choosing to uproot after a couple of years of uprootedness was really the last thing we wanted to do right now.
Also, the decision to leave a church comes with a sort of stigma. After all, God commands his people to work out their grievances and to love one another in spite of all differences in order to demonstrate his love and transformative power to the world. Time and time again, I have seen God mend very broken relationships and very divided people and it is truly one of the most beautiful things about the Church. So, we’ve had to ask ourselves in the midst of our own church struggle, if God was asking us to stay and model this kind of reconciliation to a world that is so in need of it.
But, the thing is, we weren’t facing broken relationships. We weren’t needing to be reconciled to anyone in our church. Truly, I have nothing but love and tenderness in my heart toward the pastoral team, the lead team, and all the other wonderful folks we have served with and worshiped beside for years. Our decision to leave wasn’t because of anger, lack of forgiveness, or un-mended hurt. It was simply a change of direction. Our church came to a fork in the road and chose a path we personally felt we couldn’t follow. Our collective end goal is still the same. Our joint mission hasn’t changed. We all want to see the kingdom of God grow and people come to saving faith in Jesus. But the roads we take en route to that goal are not always the same.
Christians are often referred to as brothers and sisters. John 1:12 says, “Yet to all who did receive him (Jesus), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” The men and women in my church family are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are children of God, loved by our Father, and this will never change. But sometimes brothers and sisters see things differently. Not in an angry, divisive way, but just a difference of opinion, and that’s okay. We can all seek to bring glory to our Father and lift up the name of Jesus, wherever we worship on a Sunday morning.
So, to my Central church family, I want to say, bless you, bless you, bless you, for you have been nothing but a blessing to us for 10 years. Thank you for loving, challenging, encouraging, and nurturing us. Thank you for calling us out to serve with you and be used by God. I pray that God would continue to pour out his favor on you and that many would come to a saving faith in Christ because of your faithfulness. You still feel like home to me and I’ll miss you.
I already do.
This fall I found myself feeling emotionally battered for being a woman.
It came at me totally out of left field and it took me a while to identify what was happening. How, in the year 2016, did I find myself feeling diminished and devalued as a women? Life is never really cut and dry, but I realized that two factors were especially significant in how I was feeling:
#1. Our personal church crisis
#2. The American election
First, Dwayne and I are in the midst of a church crisis. This is too heavy and difficult for me to process on this blog and I don’t want to get into all the details, but I do want to say that our hearts are broken. Both Dwayne and I have been left feeling that my value, contribution, and who God created me to be has been diminished by people we dearly love.
And then there was the American election. I honestly don’t want to get into a political discussion any more than I want to get into a church leadership discussion, so again, I’ll just say that in the end I felt that, as women, our voices, accomplishments, and capabilities are still viewed as ‘less than’ by so many in our culture.
But in the face of these devastating realities, do you know what I heard from my heavenly Father? Do you know what God whispered to me, over and over and over?
Rise up, my beloved daughter. Rise up and be who I created you to be without hesitation or apology. You don’t need permission from any government or religious institution to be who you are, because I rule the universe. I call you, empower you, and equip you. I have woven together each of your life experiences to form you into the woman you are today and you are beautiful. Rise up, my beloved daughter, I have important work for you to do.
This is what God has been whispering in my ear when the other voices get loud. I know His voice and it’s the only one I’ll follow. Listen carefully, my sisters, because if you’ve been feeling battered down, he may be whispering this to you too.
Sometimes it feels like living overseas for a couple of years has ruined me for life in my own country. My heart is a little bit torn and kind of confused almost every day. I’m trying to go easy on myself because it’s only been 2 months since we arrived back in Canada, but since so many people kindly ask us if we’re feeling all settled and fully transitioned, I thought I’d just say, we’re not feeling either of those things.
I am not alone. I am very well loved and supported. But I can’t deny that there is a “loneliness in having a mind spinning with images, lessons, and memories that can never adequately be shared” and I do feel confused about how and what to incorporate into our old but new life. (Thanks Rick Steves for the words I needed to explain myself.) I’m struggling to write about it, so I haven’t blogged. I’m struggling to do much, in fact, other than connect with people as that seems to be what matters most to me these days.
So, I’m embracing a season of adjustment and waiting on God. He has been slowly revealing the pieces we’re meant to hold onto and the pieces we’re meant to let go of for this next chapter. I know he is intentionally crafting a new life for us here, different from the one we left 2 years ago, and while it’s exciting, it’s also still really hard. I am clinging to God who remains our constant through the trial and the change. He is the same, no matter where we are.
We have a home again. This is no small matter. Since June 28th, when we moved out of our apartment in Al Ain, we have changed locations 15 times. From friend’s homes to hotels to airbnb apartments to basement suites, our move into our townhouse marks move number 16, and as you can imagine, we are all more than ready to unpack our suitcases.
But how did we get from planning on RV or tiny home living to buying a townhouse? Well, the bottom line is that purchasing one of these options was totally doable, but finding a place to put it was another matter. I thought this would be easier than it was, but with the BC housing market being so crazy, the out-of-the-box affordable living options have also been all snatched up. And setting up house on someone else’s property in Chilliwack turned out to be more complicated than we’d expected, and in the end, not really suitable for what our family needs in this season. So, it turns out we have returned to a much more mainstream living situation than I had been dreaming of recently. However, thanks to generous family and as always, the perfect provision of God, we now find ourselves with lower mortgage payments than what it would have cost to rent an RV pad every month.
Now, I have to tell you that we looked around at the options for housing in our price range, and they were sort of dismal. So when we walked into this lovely townhouse that is now our home, I actually sensed God saying, “I saved this one for you.”
You guys, it’s so perfect for us! All 4 of us. Remember I was telling you about all the things we worked through this summer about what we really needed and didn’t need in order to really thrive and serve? Well, this home far exceeds what anyone in the world really “needs” to live in, but in God’s wonderfully gracious way, it meets everything that each of us hoped for in a living space. Three small bedrooms, big living spaces for family and friend time, a tiny yard (we hate yard work), a covered spot for our car, and very little storage space to force us to keep our belongings pared down and simple. AND, it’s a 3 minute walk to Dairy Queen! Thank you Jesus!
Do you also remember when we built that beautiful dream home in 2010? It’s hard to compare the feelings we had on that move-in day, as that was a labour of love on so many levels. But here’s the thing: our new-to-us home is beautifully reflective of where we are in our lives now. The complex is almost 40 years old. In fact, it was built the same year that Dwayne was born. But inside it has been marvelously renovated, with all of the colours and finishing I would have chosen if I’d been doing the renos myself. (See – God was saving it for me.) I think this home is a good picture of the Hansen family. We might look the same as always on the outside, but we have returned from a very transformational experience. God has done quite a work in each of us. We are not the same. We have also been remodelled. And I believe God has sent us back to do a new thing. To carve out a different life with a new perspective.
So, when I pull up to my lovely dark brown townhouse and walk inside to the fresh new interior, I will remember that God’s greatest work is how he transforms hearts. That he is always willing to do something new in us, if we are open to his prompting. That he created us and knows our longings and our needs better than we know them ourselves. That he is a good, good Father, and I’m loved by him.
That’s a lot for a house to say, but I guess it’s a talker. Like me.
We arrived back in Canada exactly 2 years after we left for Abu Dhabi. Of the 104 weeks we were gone, we traveled for 18. Not including the exploring we did around the UAE, we roamed the planet for the equivalent of 4 and a half months. People often commented on how amazing this must have been for our kids, which is partly true. Seeing so many countries and people and cultures has definitely impacted them, even if it takes them half a lifetime to recognize it. And there were countless interesting new experiences and tons of fun activities for them. But, I’m gonna let y’all in on a little secret, which pretty much every parent actually already knows deep down.
Traveling with kids is about as awesome as living at home with them.
You know what I’m sayin’? Its full of ups and downs. Of expectations, frustrations, and complications. It’s laughs and fights and great stories. It’s moments of amazing family bonding followed by reaching the end of your rope with family togetherness.
Our kids are truly amazing people. Honestly, they are incredibly flexible, open-minded, and patient. In all our travels they handled uncertainty, long waits/rides/flights, and glitches with poise. They agreed to every tour, day-trip, and itinerary we asked of them. Watching my little family breeze through airport security like a well-oiled machine made me smile every time. But they have their limits.
We hit those limits this summer.
After two years of intense travel, they just really didn’t want to see any more cathedrals or pretty views or cool city squares. Seeing street after street of beautiful European architecture just doesn’t make their soul sing like it does mine. They’re happy to be out for a few hours every day, but by this summer, that was about all they could handle. So we embraced that and all found our happy place. Because you know who’s not tired of cathedrals or views or city squares? Dwayne and I. We’d happily spend all day and all night out exploring, but we knew none of us would enjoy ourselves if we asked that of the kids this time around.
So, we found a new family travel groove. Day time plans, regroup at the apartment, night time plans. Kids choose one or both outings. Whenever they opt out, Jen & Dwayne enjoy date time. WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN!! Four happy campers.
The last stretch of our trip included 4 amazing European cities: Zagreb, Croatia; Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; and Prague, Czech Republic. Every day we enjoyed some family time out and about, and almost every day, Dwayne and I got to explore these cities on our own. (This piece of family travel heaven is brought to you by comfortable airbnb apartments, wifi, an almost-teenager, and two family cell phones.)
I had moments of wondering if this meant that all this travel was wasted on our kids, but this is just one issue on a long list of things I’m working on releasing control of. My kids’ experience of the countries we visited is just that- their own experience. Me forcing them to participate or berating them for not fully soaking up some amazing venue just isn’t going to help them appreciate it more. If Abby looks back one day and wishes she’d gone out more in Zagreb, she can choose to go back on her own. If Josiah wishes he’d said yes to the segway tour in Budapest, he can choose to go back another day and do it. Or not. Maybe they’ll never get these opportunities again, but that’s their lesson to learn. But, more likely than not, they won’t regret these things. They’re children who will vaguely remember the fun things they did do, the way they felt in each city, and the stories we gathered as a family.
Dwayne and I, however, are grown ups who soaked up all we could of these amazing cities. Zagreb far exceeded our expectations, Vienna was a bit of a disappointment although we managed to fill it with the Hansen version of family fun, and Budapest and Prague both blew us away. I could have done a blog post about each stop, but I’m gonna save those endless photos and stories for my photo album, spare you all the details, and share our highlight shots from each city. (Click or hover over any photo for a description.)
This leg of our trip wrapped up 2 years of world traveling adventures. Individually we all collected new insights and joyful moments, and as a family we made memories I know we’ll cherish and enjoy together for many years.