Sunny Shell Interviews Lisa McKay

Before I introduce our guest for this month’s cover, I thought it would be best for me to confess something first. I am not an avid reader. Besides the Bible, I’ve never enjoyed reading and have been frustrated my entire life, as I constantly find myself asleep after reading for only a few minutes.

In addition, I don’t particularly enjoy reading fiction books. And now I’ll share with you, why this confession is so important to mention, prior to introducing this month’s cover girl. Our guest this month is an author… of a fiction book nonetheless. And do you know what? It is FABULOUS! It has to be, I didn’t even fall asleep! And if that weren’t enough of a miracle, I really enjoyed it! Why? I believe mostly because it wasn’t the typical story, nor was it the typical fiction book. Instead, it was a book that really made me consider some very deep faith issues. It caused me to contemplate why I believe what I believe, it challenged me to consider if I would behave the same way if put in a similar situation and also provoked me to wonder if I am living out true biblical Christianity or have succumbed to the comforts of cultural Christianity.

Now with all that said and done, I’d like to introduce you to our dear sister, Lisa McKay, whom God has used to prove to me that all fiction books are not boring and some even have deep spiritual impact on the lives of those who read them.

Our sister Lisa has come to visit us with her debut novel, my hands came away red, (Moody Publishers). I have not only been intrigued by this wonderful book she wrote, but also by her life she so honestly shares.

Lisa is a trained forensic psychologist who works as the Director of Training and Education Services at the Headington Institute in California. She has dual citizenship in Australia and Canada and has lived in eight countries. By the time you read this, she will be in New Zealand on her honeymoon.

As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that today is the day that Lisa travels to Australia for her wedding set for the 24th of January. And I’m praying that the Lord will richly bless this precious sister whom I’ve so enjoyed getting to know through this interview; with hopes that our new friendship will blossom in Christ.

I pray that God will ignite your heart to ponder the depth and height of the riches found only in Christ as you get to know Lisa through this interview, just as He did with me.

Most people find it difficult to plan a wedding in the same town in which they live. But you live in California, you’re engaged to man who lives in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and will be married in January 2009 in Australia. This is quite interesting, to say the least. Would you please share with us how you can see the hand of God guiding you in all of this?

I believe it was the hand of God that enabled Mike and I to connect in the first place. The short version of that story is that a friend of Mike’s saw a press release for my novel and read about my role at the Headington Institute, which is to provide stress and trauma training for humanitarian aid workers. She thought of an aid worker friend of hers who lived in PNG and could do with some information on stress and trauma, so she went to my writing website trying to figure out how to sign Mike up for the Headington Institute’s newsletter. Then she read some of my essays before emailing Mike and encouraging him to read some of my writing. He did, and then he emailed me, and….well, six months later we were engaged.

I used to hear people say things like, “Oh, when you meet the right person, you’ll know. You’ll just know” Before meeting Mike sayings like that often frustrated me. But that sense of “knowing”, a relaxed sort of peace and the room to just be myself, was present right from the beginning with us. Perhaps it partly comes with being older – we were both 31 when we met and are very grateful for the lessons we learned solo during our twenties – but also I had a sense from quite early on that we would most likely be married. That is probably what enabled me to (mostly) to keep my head when Mike proposed to me in May, after we had spent a total of less than three weeks face to face in the same country.

The unique manner in which we met, the mutual friends we already had in Melbourne (people I’d met while growing up in Zimbabwe and whom Mike got to know when he lived in Melbourne) our shared passions and experiences related to humanitarian work, the ways in which we were able to establish patterns of deep and transparent communication across the miles, even the fact that we were 31 when we met, not 21… I see the fingerprints of God on all those facets of our relationship.

That is truly amazing Lisa! And even as an “outsider” I can see the fingerprints of God all over your relationship with Mike! I suppose if ever people ask if the two of you were “set up” you can tell them, “Yes, by God!” 🙂

I noticed you have Opportunity International and International Justice linked on your website. What are your affiliations and/or involvement with these organizations?

After I finished the first draft of my hands came away red, before I started querying publishers, I felt led to make the decision to give away all my royalties should it ever actually be published. So when I got the contract with Moody, I decided to use the money to support charities working in Asia, particularly Indonesia, since that’s where the book was set. I picked OI and IJM because they are organizations I respect that target poverty and injustice in very different (but both very important) ways. OI works in microfinance – providing small loans to allow poor entrepreneurs to start or expand a business. IJM is a human rights agency that documents injustices related to slavery, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violent oppression. They work with local officials and court systems to strengthen public justice systems.

Bless you dear sister for your obedience to the Lord in giving all your royalties to both these wonderful, Christ-honoring organizations. I was especially impressed with the Scriptures they both base their commitments on: IJM – Isaiah 1:17; OI – Matthew 5:42 and Proverbs 14:31.

Your position at the Headington Institute is not only very interesting, but it is also vital to those who are called to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9) Would you please share with us what are the most exciting and fulfilling aspects of your job and what are the most heartbreaking and difficult aspects of your job?

I do love traveling to run workshops on stress, trauma and resilience with groups of humanitarian workers. Last month I spent a couple of weeks in Kenya, working with humanitarian workers and counselors based in Nairobi. These are people who do amazing work under incredibly difficult circumstances. Some document the sexual abuse of children in order to help prosecute offenders. Others work with refugees in the Sudan, or teachers in the slum areas of Nairobi, or child soldiers in Liberia. One of the workshops I ran focused on the topic of spirituality – it is almost impossible to do this sort of work without it affecting your worldview, your source of strength and hope, and your deepest sense of what is important. Given the challenges they are facing, it was such a privilege to help these inspirational people explore how their career has impacted their spirituality and values, and how they can prepare to meet and grow from future spiritual challenges.

Ironically, however, it’s this very aspect I find so rewarding that can also be the most draining and difficult. The time spent in airports and on planes to get to and from workshops, the focused energy required for teaching, and bearing witness to the stories that are shared by participants can all leave me physically and emotionally exhausted.

I truly believe this is God’s calling on your life dear sister. As so often, it seems that the very strengths and passions God has given us, is exactly where Satan attacks us. But all glory be to Jesus Christ, who alone can refresh us and overwhelm us with His joy – delighting in obedience to God.

You say that you provide “spiritual” support to the relief workers as well. What does that mean? Do you mean spirituality in general or is this another avenue God has provided you to spread the Gospel of Christ? Not that you would “force” it on people, but would present it to them?

I’m glad you asked about this, as this is an important point to be clear on related to work.

The Headington Institute is not technically a “faith-based organization”. This grants us access to work with a broader range of groups than we would have if we were specifically a “Christian organization”. As a result, I often have a mixed faith group in my workshops. I always talk about the importance of spiritual awareness and self-care, and ways in which spirituality and religious faith are impacted by humanitarian work. However, in my role as workshop facilitator I always talk about spirituality in very general terms and define it as, “your deepest sense of meaning and purpose, hope and faith.” This allows participants to explore these concepts within their own understanding of faith, and promotes open dialogue within the group. The group members will often end up talking openly about their personal faith and religious beliefs. However I rarely do that as the facilitator, and almost never without being directly questioned on the topic by a participant. What a wonderful opportunity God has given you! 🙂 I will certainly include this in my prayers for you sweet sister as you minister to these precious people in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I sincerely pray that God will open many doors for you to share the salvation found only in the Son of God.

In your essay entitled Unexpected Joy, you state: “I was trying to figure out how to make sense of pain. And I was trying to follow through on a promise I made at eighteen.” Would you please elaborate on this statement by sharing what pain were you referring to and what promise you made at eighteen?

When I was eighteen I went on my own backpack mission trip – to the Philippines. A couple of months before I left I read an article about pirate attacks in Southeast Asia and it set me to wondering what would happen if my trip met up with a bunch of modern-day pirates. That would be a cool story, I thought. Someone should really write an honest story about a mission team that collides with some of the worst this world offers, God.

Somehow, during the following weeks that thought slowly became a conviction. I should do that. Then it morphed into a promise. I will do that…

I had no idea at the time that it would take me seven years to write anything decent, and five more years before the book would see the light of day. If I’d known that, I might perhaps have been much more careful with my promises!

The story I initially had in mind changed during those twelve years. The role of pirates shrank to a couple of lines, and increasingly I found myself (and the characters) grappling with troubling questions about pain and suffering. I grew up in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and as a young adult I worked in prisons, with the police, on child-death review teams, and slums in the Philippines, and in the Balkans after the wars there. All of those experiences had raised many questions about pain that I didn’t feel I had good answers for. These turned out to be the same sorts of questions that the characters in the novel were confronted with. Why does pain exist at all, for example, and what’s the point of suffering? How can a loving God bear to stand by and watch the bad unfurl beside the good in the wilderness of freedom and choice?

Writing Hands in many ways was a personal quest. I wanted to tell a good story, yes. But telling that story also allowed me to explore those questions about pain through the medium of fiction and the eyes of different characters, and come to a clearer sense of God’s peace with my own answers (or lack thereof).

Those are great questions sister. Thank you for honestly sharing your personal challenges with your faith in order to comfort other sisters who may be facing similar issues.

One of my favorite parts of your book was that you used a real letter your father wrote to you. I wish I could quote the entire letter, it’s so wonderful! But I’ll only quote this one sentence that really blessed me, “He [God] doesn’t spare us all difficulties, but He does walk through every situation with us.” When and why did you father write this letter to you? How did it affect you?

As my parents dropped me off at Boot Camp when I went on my own mission trip, my Dad gave me a spiral bound notebook with a letter from him on the front page. In the letter he talked about wanting to protect me from the difficulties that can come in life, but knowing that that’s not in his job description as a parent, or even within his ability, but that God is always present.

During the three-month trip I used that notebook as a journal, so I saw it every time I went to write. It was a very tough summer – blisters, heat stroke, long hikes, no showers, no toilets…the list could go on. But seeing my Dad’s letter in my journal reminded me that I had family who loved me (even if they felt very far away) and that God loved me too – even if He felt very far away as well.

Precious sister Lisa, I’m so blown away by this! As a parent, I so often desire to shield my children from pains I’ve suffered. What your dad wrote to you has really ministered to me as a mom, and has helped me to remember what my God-given role is.

It seems your main character Cori has quite a bit in common with your real life i.e., you both grew up in many countries, you’re both Australian, how you both felt about moving to the States, and you both were part of a Teen Missions International backpack team. I know your book is fiction, but did you base any of the story on your personal experiences during your 1994 Teen Missions to the Philippines?

Yes. There is more than a little “fictionography” in there, especially the experiences in the first half of the book. Although I didn’t decide to go on my own missions trip to escape a relationship, other aspects of Cori’s heartache at leaving Kenya and her rather breathtakingly casual approach to signing up for the trip came from my own experiences. So did many of the details in the Boot Camp scenes.

Thankfully my own mission team never witnessed the violence that Cori’s team is exposed to. These details, however, I reconstructed as best I could based on events that had actually unfolded in Indonesia, and the questions that Cori grapples with after these awful events – questions about human nature, and the nature and sovereignty of God – are all questions I’ve found personally confronting as the result of life and work experiences during my twenties.

Again, thank you Lisa for being so transparent with us so that we may clearly see the work of Christ in you.

What kind of research did you do to find out about the true “civil war” that occurred between the Christians and the Muslims in Ambon in 1999?

I was attending university in Australia during this time, but spent several months of every year in Indonesia between 1996 and 2000 because my parents and brother were living in Jakarta. A month after they were evacuated to Singapore during the 1998 Jakarta riots we all returned to Indonesia with a new awareness of the instability of the region. There were tanks on the street, various shops had been gutted, and some friends who’d stayed and hunkered down during the riots were struggling with post-traumatic stress issues. There was tension in the air.

Having been sensitized by the events in Jakarta, when Ambon went into meltdown in 1999 I guess I just paid attention to what was going on. I clipped out articles from the Jakarta Post and saved them. I took a tape recorder and interviewed missionaries who had fled the violence. I looked at maps, read travel guides, and bought picture books and postcards of scenes from Ambon and the other islands to help me visualize what the place looked like. I tracked down detailed reports published by the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch to help me understand the human rights abuses that had occurred and what had sparked and maintained this conflict. I know I didn’t get every detail in the story absolutely right, but I tried as very hard to understand and portray the complexity of the events involved.

Wow, I can’t even imagine what that would be like! We live in such blessed conditions here in America. I feel a bit shameful for the “inconveniences” I so often fret about. Thank you for putting things into perspective for me.

What in particular about this village and situation interested you enough to write about it?

I wanted Cori and the other characters in the story to be confronted with some of the worst that the world has to offer – with life at its most disturbing and confusing. The Moluku Islands of Indonesia are the only area in the country with a significant indigenous Christian population and, under pressure, Ambon fractured suddenly and violently down the fault line of religion. What followed was awful, and disturbing. And very, very confusing.

What happened in Ambon and the surrounding islands – with Muslims and Christians killing each other in the name of God and clan – raised all sorts of questions for me about the nature of this specific conflict, and I knew it would for the characters in the story, too. What caused some people of faith on both sides of the conflict to resist the violence and try to protect others, while many others who called themselves Muslim or Christian picked up machetes? Was this so-called “religious war” really about faith, or was it more about politics and/or power and/or money? What role did the government and the army have in fomenting the conflict? How on earth do you even begin to love your enemy when your enemies just burned down your house and killed your family?

The very fact that these were tough questions with no easy answer, perhaps with no single “right” answer, was what drew me to write about Ambon.

I believe this is a challenge for all believers. I think sometimes, instead of trying to figure it all out, it is wise to do what you’ve done – trust Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27-28 & 35-36 and obey them, even if you don’t understand. Then trust God with the results. This is similar to what you wrote in the last chapter of your book where Cori writes about something one of her friends/somewhat romantic interest from the mission trip to Ambon said, “He [Kyle] says you just have to make a choice based on what you know about God. And relax and trust for the rest of what you don’t know.” Where did this statement come from?

I think that many of the questions that Cori agonizes over during the story just don’t have clear answers (this side of heaven, anyway). This is perhaps especially true when it comes to some of those “why” questions – “Why did God allow this to happen when He could have prevented it?” Articulating and wrestling with really tough questions like this one is probably an integral part of maturing and growing as a person and as a Christian. But at some point I suspect that sitting with these questions can become a counterproductive and “stuck” sort of spinning that can lead to mental, emotional, and spiritual paralysis.

Several months after the trip, Cori was quite understandably still hurting, angry, and confused. Perhaps she wasn’t yet at the “paralyzed” stage, but there were signs that she was toying with embracing that sort of “stuckness”. As I was trying to think through what I might say to someone in her situation, as a counselor or a friend, I kept coming back to the fact that sometimes we just aren’t going to get the answers that we want to our questions. We are not going to be able to know “why”, or “what for”? I believe that acknowledging and sitting with hurt and frustration and confusion is very important. And I also believe so is knowing when to say, “OK, enough. Right now I don’t know. I can’t know. So, based on what I do know and feel to be true, what do I want to hold on to, how do I want to live, and how do I want to move forward?”

Those were some of the biggest choices I felt Cori was facing at the end of the story. I understand the temptation to stay mired in confusion and angst – I’ve given into it myself on more than one occasion. But I also do believe the words Kyle spoke to Cori are very true. At some point, at many points throughout life, you just have to make a choice based on what you do know and relax and trust God about the rest.

I agree with you dear sister. I think so often we struggle with trying to make sense of it all, that we forget we are yet but dust (Psalm 103:8-14), and God alone is omniscient and omnipotent; and rest in that truth.

Would you mind very much sharing with our readers any Scripture verse or passage that the Lord is using to impact your life right now and why?

Scripture that I’ve been really touched by lately is Ephesians 3:16-19

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

There’s just so much packed in these few short verses. I’ve been particularly struck that Paul’s prayer is that they would be strengthened with power through the Spirit so that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith rather than the other way around. I think I’m often tempted to reverse the equation to make it look something like this, “if I’m a good enough Christian, and have enough faith, then I’ll be strengthened with power.” It’s been so freeing to be reminded that my relationship with God, doesn’t depend solely on my own efforts to “have enough faith”, and that the important power Paul is talking about here isn’t linked to “doing and accomplishing” but to understanding and experiencing the glorious mystery of the love of God!

AMEN sister! You echoed God’s words in Jeremiah 9:23-24.


“Thus says the LORD; “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understand and knows Me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

Precious sister Lisa, thank you so much for visiting with us here at CWO! You have been a sure blessing from God, and I am confident God has used you to minister to many other sisters out there who have been and may still be grappling with the similar “faith challenges”.

I enjoyed reading my hands came away red, and look forward to reading your second novel….I mean the one that you’ll have published next. (*wink* *wink*)

To find the latest news on Lisa, read her essays and be completely blessed, please visit her at:

©2009, Sunny Shell

Find more interviews like this in Sunny Shell’s monthly column: “Sister to Sister.”

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