Tag Archives: transformation

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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Elusive Transformation?

We sat in the circle of Albanian women, their faces set and unsmiling, but when it was each lady’s turn to share, a shy smile broke out on her face as she introduced herself and shared how long she had been a part of the church.  IMG_0256_2

We were in Albania attending a CHE conference (community health evangelism) which is a Christ-centered educational training program that “equips communities to identify issues and mobilize resources to achieve positive, sustainable change.” CHE is a holistic approach to working with poor communities, where transformational development is encouraged from within the communities by training them how to approach their identified needs.  It is a often a slow and tedious process—a CHE worker in Albania was estimating 5-8 years before any change becomes visible.

As part of the conference, participants went on various field trips to see CHE  in action.   I had chosen to visit an Albanian church where CHE had been started in 2008.   IMG_0254

“The hardest thing about starting CHE was overcoming the Communist mindset that we cannot do anything or make any decisions without the government,” the pastor, who along with his vivacious wife, had planted the church 22 years ago.

“But now the women have seen that they themselves can bring about change.” Most of the men were in Greece trying to find work and so this church was made up of women and children.

We were introduced to the CHE “committee”— a few of the women who decide on the projects and help mobilize community volunteers to help others catch the vision.

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Outside on the new volleyball court. These young Albanian girls are taking English lessons as part of another program sponsored by the church.

The women took us out to the volleyball field that they had worked together to build for the community’s children. They explained how they had bought pipe and worked together to pipe water from the mountain into their houses, and pooled their money to hire a painter from their community to paint the church.

Meanwhile, my friend had taken a different field trip and was visiting a poor Roma community which had been turned around after they had been taught that they were growing the wrong crop for their village’s elevation.  Now, the whole village was successfully growing peaches and had a contract with a supermarket chain in Tirana.  Sons and grandsons were returning home from eking out a living in Greece and Italy to learn the community trade that was now allowing an economically sustainable life.

I have no illusions that this is some kind of magic pill to swallow that effects change overnight—however, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that poor Roma communities need to be approached holistically, and community problems need to be addressed with the people and not for the people. Quick relief or random projects are not effective in the long term—I am learning this by my own experience in the Little Darda Church and by visiting numerous other communities.  Poverty is a series of broken relationships with the majority culture, each other, God, and the environment, and Roma poverty is further complicated by the nature of their long history with the majority cultures.  Until reconciliation begins between the majority culture and the Roma community, any development will eventually be stunted by a glass ceiling of prejudice and suspicion.

These lessons became even clearer in the next few days when my friend and I visited a  Roma community situated on a city dump—the poorest that I have seen so far…