Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana [the simplest of the phonetic lettering scripts of Japanese].
Some words I just type into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem arises when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.
Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.
Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.
You go through applications and interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling,” you hear them say.
And you need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.
But here’s the paradox: you land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.
I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.
No longer are you the person who knows “all the things.”
You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.
Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems that you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations; you’ll be combatting first grade homework!
It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one- or two-month course and then you’ve checked that off your list. For many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.
You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.
You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.
You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here ever after.
You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.
You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.
Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.
You’ll be serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.
It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.
But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.
A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.
And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and in God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated, and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.
This entire journey is a walk of faith and trust in God that He’s got the map right even if the one we’re holding is upside down. He’ll enlighten us like a loving parent, if we’ll allow Him to. He’ll even transform us through this journey and work through us in ways we might never have seen coming. In the end, it’s Christ who supplies our competency as ministers of the Gospel.
Janine, her husband Vicente, and their three daughters live and serve in the Tokyo metro area. They established an evangelistic media ministry to share the Gospel. Janine served for 3 years in Mexico before moving to Tokyo to work in church-planting, where she eventually met her Honduran husband who happened to visit on a short-term trip. Janine enjoys audiobooks, quilting, cooking and obviously, writing. You can find out whether they survive elementary school by following her personal blog.