I have swimmer’s shoulder, but I don’t swim.
It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.
I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.
So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”
It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).
Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.
Do you have things in your life abroad that are necessary but mundane, things you do day to day on the path to your goals but that lack the flair of a movie workout? Things such as prepping for departure? Settling into a culture? Language learning? Wading through red tape? Forming relationships? Chipping away at overwhelming problems?
Here’s the thing about serving overseas—and life in general: Rarely do our efforts merit a rousing soundtrack. Now if your cross-cultural experiences are film-worthy, I won’t stand in your way, and I’ll cheer when your theme song reaches its crescendo in the cinema. But for most of us, rather than a fully orchestrated “Gonna Fly Now,” an “Amazing Grace” played by a toy xylophone and a kazoo may seem more appropriate.
It makes me wonder about the music behind the Psalms, when they read, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks'” or “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.'” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what those songs sounded like? I’m guessing they weren’t pulse-pounding tunes but more in line with the normal, coarse warp and woof of a life serving Jesus.
And here’s another thing: Much of what you do in cross-cultural work doesn’t culminate in a resounding, definitive victory. Often, it’s more of a series of little victories mixed in with little failures. You know, that two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing. (Or is it the other way around?)
Take language learning for instance. What if your language study doesn’t culminate with nationals saying that you sound more native-born than they do? What if your language study never seems to end? Yes, you’ll have agency- and self-imposed benchmarks to meet, but you may never get to where you wish you could be—or to the level of your coworkers. That’s OK. It’s not about matching their good, it’s about doing your good. Wherever your best efforts lead you, there’s a place for you in God’s work. I hope others believe that, too.
Much the same could be said about “learning” your new culture. It takes a lot more time and effort to be a resident of a country than to be a tourist. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson uses similar language when talking about the Christian life, making a distinction between those who are “tourists” and those who are “pilgrims.” He writes that most Christians “are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.”
Peterson identifies the common assumption among Christians (and others)
that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.
“Thirty-second commercials.” “Thirty-page abridgments.” To those I could add three-minute training montages. But all of these may seem rather quaint compared to the norms of today’s culture (Peterson’s book was first published in 1980), with our current attention to Twitter and TikTok and all the other short bursts from social media.
Yes, the Christian life is “a long obedience.” And if I could paraphrase that, I’d say it could also be seen as a long series of short obediences. It’s exercising, stretching, pulling, pushing, lifting, running, jogging, walking, and resting, over and over again. It’s you, as a cross-cultural worker, doing all this with a God-ward aim, with your God-given abilities, at your God-given speed. It’s finishing your race, even if your finish line doesn’t end up being on foreign soil.
And it’s you, all the while, humming in the background the soundtrack of your own making.
(Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, InterVarsity, 1980)