Eight “Ifs” I Don’t Believe So Much Anymore

After my mother’s death last year, my sister and I sorted through the items in her house, and I came home with some boxes that Mom had saved for me. Inside were things I didn’t know she’d kept, such as grade-school spelling books, birthday cards, newspaper clippings, and some college acceptance letters. There were posters, too, ones that I’d used to decorate my room when I was a university student.

Do you remember those Argus posters with inspiring words printed over inspiring photos? (If you don’t, ask your parents—it was that long ago.) I recently unrolled a few of them, and remembered them hanging on my wall. There’s the photo of a sailboat against the horizon, reading, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for.” And there’s the image of a man climbing a nearly vertical cliff face. That one says, “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

That’s one of the “If” phrases that used to guide me, but after living overseas, I don’t believe them as much now. I can’t say for sure that it was the location that changed my thinking. Maybe it was just a matter of time going by, and I would have come to the same conclusions without a change of address. But the experiences and the places and the time are all too intertwined for me to separate.

Regardless of how I got here, this is where I am today.

If it is to be, it is up to me
You’ve got to admire that mountaineer on my college poster. He’s straining for his next handhold, his bearded face a display of determination. He knows that he must—he will—reach the summit. He knows the printed message is true. It’s made up of 10 two-letter words. How cool is that?

I understand what the poster is getting at—that we shouldn’t wait around for others to get things done. But somewhere along the way I learned that I’m not the center of the making-things-happen-universe. And it’s a good thing for the world that I’m not. Now I’m more on board with an image that says something like “If it is to be, it is up to God, using whomever he sees fit to allow to join him. Finding what I can do to help is the part that’s up to me.” Not too catchy. Too many words and letters for a good poster. And for the picture? How about a guy pausing as he climbs the stairs?

If you want something done right, do it yourself
This phrase is a second cousin to the one above. I used to think I had the corner on doing things the right way. But that’s a dangerous attitude to have, especially when serving cross culturally. It’s not easy to hand over a responsibility that you know you’re good at. We often talk about working ourselves out of a job, but it’s an even harder concept when it feels as if we’re also working ourselves out of a purpose and identity.

My “right” isn’t always best, and even if I I’m better in some areas than others, it’s not about me showing what I can do. It’s about helping others learn how to grow and develop, even when the results are less than perfect. And that leads me to another  phrase in this extended family. . . .

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well
I remember hearing this from the preacher of a large church during one of our times back in the States. He was lauding his church’s attention to quality, and rightly so. They really do do things well, from their full-service coffee shop in the lobby to their polished song leaders on the stage to their massive outreach in the community. But that doesn’t mean that worth-doing things shouldn’t be done if the highest quality can’t be guaranteed. In 1910, G. K. Chesterton said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” I like that better. It allows me to try, and allows me to let others try, too.

If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.
This comes from  the oft-quoted William Arthur Ward, and reflects the idea that we should never put limits on ourselves. But my imagination and dreaming abilities are pretty amazing, extending well beyond what I’ll ever achieve or become. Failure has taught me my limitations and has shown me that I’m not the big deal that I’d always hoped for.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
Yes, this one says “at first,” but we often use it to mean “don’t ever stop trying.” Sometimes, sometimes, you just need to move on. It’s not always failure to quit. It’s not always bad to fail. And a retreat does not always signal defeat.

If it’s important to you, then it’s important to God
This is something I used to say to people to let them know that God shares their concerns, no matter how insignificant they may seem to others. He loves us that much. My perspective has changed, though, as I better grasp the size of the world and the length of its timeline and recognize more of the struggles and needs around the globe. I now understand that many of the things we fret over and pray about aren’t so significant after all, and I’ve come to believe that God is less concerned about the weather for the picnic than with how we handle the rain.

You are important to God, no matter how insignificant you may seem to yourself or others. As for the things that trouble us, we need to work at matching God’s values, not the other way around. So, if it’s important to God, it should be important to us. But he understands our situation and shows us patience and grace. He loves us that much.

If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile
Sometimes we’re afraid that if we give an inch, they’ll take . . . that inch. And that seems like too much. People new to the gospel who read the Sermon on the Mount for the first time might come away actually believing that if someone forces a mile out of you, you should give two. They haven’t learned yet that you should never, ever, give in. I’m glad for people who’ve taught me what it looks like to see the truths of Christ’s teachings without being hindered by the blinders of cultural Christianity.

If A, then B
Oh, how I love math and computer programming. Actually, I don’t love them at all, but I do admire their consistency and firm adherence to black-and-white rules. If A, then B—always, without exception. But general principles, as true as they are, aren’t mathematical equations or computational algorithms. I wish that if I believed A, did A, prayed A, said A, then B would happen, always, without exception. But things just don’t work that way. It’s the always-and-without-exception part that’s the problem.

I guess this kind of sums up my issue with all these “Ifs”—the second parts of the phrases are less than perfect matches for the first. It’s taken a while for me to figure that out, to see that the world’s a lot bigger than I once thought and that I’m a lot smaller than I once thought, too.

I’m kind of a slow learner, and I still have a ways to go. So I’ll just keep climbing those stairs, one step at a time.

[photo: “to climb the stairs” by Thomas8047, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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