Today's job was cleaning the windows, to make the church building appropriately shiny for a wedding tomorrow. It doesn't sound big, or dramatic. It's not what I thought of missionaries as doing before I came! But I quite liked it. It didn't involve people, and gave me some thinking space, to process the challenges of adapting to culture. It was feeling inadequate about adapting to culture that made me welcome the lack of people! In fact, as I worked at it, it gave a new picture of why it's so difficult to learn anything to do with cross-cultural life. Standing on the outside, polishing the windows, they looked quite good, in my humble opinion. When I went back inside and looked out, they looked disgusting. Quite possibly worse than before I started! So I went back and tried again. And again. And again...
Learning a new culture (or indeed language) is like this, I mused. From my outside perspective, it might look OK. From the inside perspective, my efforts look pretty grubby, and need constant improvement. With the added complication that there is in fact no door by which I can enter; I have to listen to instructions from within. And they are muffled by the glass in between. (Would it stretch the point too far to consider that the language barrier, I wondered.) No wonder it's hard going.
lessons in humility come principally from the difference between this experience and my expectations before I came
What has this to do with learning humility? Well, the lessons in humility come principally from the difference between this experience and my expectations before I came. After all, hadn't I been to Bible College? A Mission Training College, no less, where cultural differences and how to address them were on the curriculum. Cultural differences should, therefore, be a piece of cake, shouldn't they? OK, they'd take some hard work. That was spelled out in the Mission Training. Never mind that I have come to Japan, where anyone who knew anything about mission said was extremely tough to get the language and the culture.
Language was not so much the problem. Obviously I want to do my best, but making mistakes or needing help with the language is no cause for shame. No-one with my blond hair and blue eyes is expected to speak particularly good Japanese, are they? Language errors can be frustrating; they can be mildly embarrassing, especially if they cause your hearer(s) to convulse with laughter and you don't know why. But I have heard of very few examples where a language error caused a major impediment to the Gospel.
Culture, I am becoming aware, is different. People expect language errors. They are prepared to make exceptions for culture too of course, but if I behave in an antisocial manner it may not be clear that it's a cultural issue. And even if it is, I may be expected to have got beyond such childish/selfish/inconsiderate behaviour as I am supposed to be a respected teacher with great faith. So I start to put pressure on myself to be able to adapt culturally.
And of course, I don't measure up. I miss a lot of the cultural issues. Even the ones I do understand, I keep forgetting, or not realising they apply in this situation. And so I get cross at myself and inward-looking.
Of course, when I do, I realise how preposterous I am being. Here I am, a mere six months out of language school, expecting to have mastered a culture world-renowned for being impenetrable. Here is the humbling lesson - not so much that I have failed, or even how badly I have failed, but that I presumed to aspire to such a preposterously high standard in the first place. How full of myself was I to think I could achieve it?
But just in case this wasn't enough humility for me to learn, the Lord had another lesson. If truth be told, it shows I didn't really learn the first lesson very well! Instead of being properly humbled, I took refuge and pride in other things. I can write addresses, I thought. Of course, the pastor checked it; I expected it to be full of errors in terms of language. I didn't expect it to be full of problems of structure and content, but it was. And once again, I was exposed. Did I not expect a man who has some years of experience as a pastor to have something to teach me, a beginner, about writing sermons? But by focusing so exclusively on the language, I had overlooked this and thought that only in the language could I be deficient.
the Lord has taught me, again, how much I need to depend on Him, in all things
So what has missionary life, short though it has been so far, taught me about humility? That both in where I know I am weak and where I think I am strong, humility is needed. In weakness, I presume to improve myself - in strength, I presume myself already perfect. Where, then, is the strength of the Lord to be seen above my own presumed strength? So the Lord has taught me, again, how much I need to depend on Him, in all things.
One more lesson came from this. In talking about much of this matter with my wife, we commented how often we hear from our colleagues that, through their service here, they see the Lord work great change and sanctification in their own lives. Was there a danger, we wondered, of focusing inwardly on our own lives because, in the hard spiritual soil of Japan, we see little fruit looking outward? And yet, is it not through such changes that we become better witnesses to the Gospel? So, both looking inward and looking outward, I must learn to welcome this humbling until I can say with Paul 'But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.' (2 Corinthians 4:7, NIV) To show, not my feeble power, but the all-surpassing power of God, is after all what we are about, is it not?