Reflections at 5: Forays into weakness

Part 1 of  cross-cultural, spiritual, and missiological reflections in order to mark my 5 year anniversary of cross-cultural living.  WARNING: No firm conclusions are reached!IMG_1057

Today it has been five years since I landed in Croatia, my life tightly packed into three bags.  It scarcely seems possible that I have been here for half a decade, particularly since I only planned to be here for 2 years.

Yes, time for some true confessions.

I couldn’t have imagined the worlds I would enter, the friends I would make, nor the richness to be gained by sinking some roots into cross-cultural living.

I also wouldn’t have imagined that at five years, I continue to feel weak and inadequate in so many ways in ministry and cross-cultural challenges.  Foremost among those challenges continues to be: language.

Time for another true confession: I thought I would be fluent in Croatian in two years.

I look back at my sweetly naive and overly ambitious self and cringe with humorous disbelief.

I guess you could say I was a little overconfident. But in my defense, I was blessedly unaware that I did not possess a natural gift for language acquisition—and so my language learning has been won with blood, sweat, and tears (and a few hearty groans and shrieks).

Recently, I connected with a linguist in Serbia who told me I should really learn the Old-Romanian dialect the Roma speak in the communities in which I work.  In theory, I agree—but…yeah, okay, right.

This whole issue leads to something that I have been pondering of late.  The last few months I have been so frustrated that so much of what I want to do in this context is limited by….language.

Yes, I can converse with people in Croatian and get around fine, but when it comes time for me to minister to people as me, in the fullest ability of my gifts and skills, I feel handicapped.

I think of spending almost a decade as a facilitator of groups in the wilderness and how long it took to hone the art of facilitation.

Now, when I want to facilitate a prayer meeting or some games with purpose for teenagers, I am unable to access many of those skills. This is frustrating and, to borrow a word that a friend recently used when we were discussing this topic, even shaming.

I should be better than this at this point.

So this brings the  obvious question to my mind—is it better (for both me and others) to be in a context where I can operate in the full sense of my gifts and strengths?

But this question requires a counter-perspective. I’ve also been contemplating  the strange way in which weakness is often juxtaposed with strength in the Scripture.  In fact, Paul came to the conclusion that he should boast about his weaknesses, embracing them as part and parcel with being joined with and empowered by Christ.

Could it be that my constant feeling of weakness and insufficiency in language is a spiritual discipline that is of greater kingdom value than me performing at my best?

This concept sounds really profound, but believe me, it doesn’t feel profound or natural. I don’t particularly feel any epiphanic spiritual realization when I am struggling in language—I just feel, well, weak and frustrated.

I could do so much more, if only….

Ah, so this  rams right up against my cultural understanding of what success looks like.  Perform, accomplish,  achieve, produce….be all that you can be (Cue inspiring music).

Time for my third true confession. By this point, I wish I had already written two books  and could preach in Croatian.

And I know why (I think).  Would this give me a sense of internal validation that I have accomplished something tangible, that I was successful both in my vocation and in my adopted culture?

“It’s not about you, ” said Dr. David Scholer(1938-2008), a Fuller professor who had dedicated his life to advocating for women in ministry. I had the privilege of taking his class the year before, when he announced the first day of class that he had terminal cancer, his weakened voice raspy  because of the chemotherapy.  But  I remember his Baccalaureate address profoundly, because at that point,  he was facing his imminent death. I remember sitting there, a knot in my throat, knowing that this was a sacred moment—a man with a lifetime of wisdom whittling down his thoughts to this statement.

It’s not about you.

In this context, maybe I would phrase it in this way. It is not about me performing and producing in all my strengths and giftings, it is about me being with Christ on this journey of life and learning to love others in the self-giving way he did.  And maybe forced weakness is the best way to do that.

But this is not a firm conclusion, because I am still mulling it over.  And it certainly is not an excuse to give up on language learning with a flippant, “Well, when I am weak than He is strong…”

There is a tension here that is uncomfortable for me—and a danger to flee the discomfort for the  safety of extremes.  I don’t want to be a liability for the church here in Croatia, neither do I want to be caught up in the pride of accomplishment—to think that I am successful because I can tick off all the cross-cultural and mission boxes. I don’t want to not be all that I can be, nor do I want to drink the kool-aid of American exceptionalism. Where does that leave me?

It’s not about me.

I can see that this issue is far from resolved. Talk to me at 10.

PostScript: The same evening in which I wrote this, I went to hear Jackie Pullinger speak in Oxford.  She concluded her hour long lecture with these words: “When you embark on the rest of your life with Jesus, you haven’t got to achieve anything at all.  You haven’t got to come up with any numbers.   This is not a competition. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.”

See how I have discussed this issue throughout my five years: The still waters of Him: A meditation on home Confessions of Cross-Cultural Learner On language learning A day in the life of a language learning

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On the Way

Praying in Croatian still feels laborious and even tortuous, like I’m trying to dig a deep hole in dirt that hasn’t seen water in years. Almost like I’m trying to fit oval-shaped ideas into square-shaped language boxes—sometimes with awkward or unfortunate results.

It is fairly ironic, therefore, that a few weeks ago I felt compelled to start a mid-week prayer service at our church.

After I whispered my idea to the other leadership right before the service for their agreement (our all-to-frequent way of operating),  pastor D. announced it at the end of church.

So there it was.

It has been taking place for a few weeks now, and we are a small group, between five and ten, and everyone is in various stages ‘on the Way.’ Some have just been coming to church for a few months.  Some have been baptized.

I drove one woman today, and it was  her first time to the prayer service although she has been coming to church for the last few months. She told me she  decided to follow Jesus and wants to be baptized sometime this year. “But I don’t have to say anything today?” she anxiously asked me.  “I can just see what is happening?”

I smiled.  “No one is going to force you to do anything.”

Some are unable to pray at all.

“I want to pray, but it gets stuck somewhere here, ” one man said, pointing to his throat.

“That used to happen to me, too,” another lady said, “and I’m not sure what happened but now I can pray.”

“You don’t have to be ashamed or shy to pray in front of others, ” pastor D. said.  “Look at Melody, she is praying in Croatian and making so many mistakes, but God knows what she is trying to say.”

I sigh inwardly, but also have to laugh that I am used as the example of the poor soul who makes little sense to anyone but God.

“Pray for me, ” Grandmother K. commands, “but pray in American!”

“In English?” I clarify.

“No!” she says, smirking, “American!”

At last! I think.  I am free to pray as I wish!  But when I look up from my heartfelt English prayer, everyone stares at me blankly. Okay, good for me, not so good for the community, I think regretfully.

Last week, I was the only one from the leadership team who could come. That felt like a long hour, since only two of the five people who came were able to pray in front of others. I was sweating a little bit toward the end.  “Ok, when I am weak…” I comfort myself.

Still, there is something strangely intimate and community-forming by sitting in a circle together, and it feels very different from Sunday.  Usually, I read a Psalm a couple of times at the beginning.  Well actually, after my nervously tripping tongue butchered the Psalm the first time, I now ask one of the people who can read to read it.

But that is good too, I think, because we are learning how to participate together as a community.  In fact, we are learning how to pray together.  For me, I am learning how to pray in Croatian.  For some, they are learning how to pray for others—the community, the refugees, the Roma in Europe, and all nations.  And still others, although just now they are only listening, one day they may feel the freedom to pray in front of everyone.

But I love this freedom—we are all on the Way—in our own ways.  And Jesus knows exactly where we are and where we are going.