November 2, 2007

Being Wrong

During our mission training in June, I consciously and unconsciously developed a number of expectations for what my personal experience would be like. When we talked about general issues, I tried to imagine how they would in my own context. For instance, when we talked about the language-training allowance we are given, I thought to myself (and I’m embarrassed to admit this), “Well, I won’t need that. They speak English in South Africa!” I can safely say that I have never been so comprehensively, completely, totally, and without exception wrong. I am spending that allowance as rapidly as possible on Xhosa lessons.

But there were two other more significant expectations that have turned out to be not quite what I anticipated.

Many of you have mentioned to me in e-mails and in June we talked about the idea of a “ministry of presence,” i.e. what can we do and share just by choosing to share an experience with people in a vastly different context. I like this idea a lot but in June I said to myself, “I’m going to be doing things in South Africa. Presence is great but deeds are better!” I’ve already written about my struggles with this particular issue, struggles I still have. But there’s another way I was wrong. In June, I imagined it is fairly easy to be present with someone. I was wrong – being present is hard! It’s hard to be present with people who are suffering so much and be able to do so little. It’s hard to be present with people when you don’t speak their language. It’s hard to be present, to share the same experience as others, when you stick out so much just because of who you are and people always want to treat you specially because you’re the guest. And, of course, it’s hard to “just” be when I want to do.

Also in June, we talked about was the challenge of “sharing grace gracefully” (to use a phrase from Desmond Tutu), i.e. sharing the challenging and occasionally confrontational message of the Bible in a way that also respects and embraces the local context. When I thought about this in June, I reassured myself that I would have no trouble on this count because I resolved to avoid talking about the difficult bits of the Bible as much as possible and, in fact, to talk about the Bible as little as possible. “Share the Gospel of Jesus Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” is attributed to St. Francis and I thought it suited me just fine.

But mission work, like any other occupation, presents certain challenges and I have been disappointed (though not surprised) by how un-gracefully I respond to these challenges. One major challenge I continue to have is in my interactions with the pre-school children. As someone put it in an e-mail, I am “kneaded” too much by them. (I really like that pun.) Sometimes when I have pushed and prodded and poked and pulled every which way I find myself acting deciding un-gracefully.

The experience has made me look at one of my favorite Bible passages in a new light, Matthew 19: 13-15 (also Mark 10:13-16 and Luke 18:15-17): “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.’” (The passage goes on to say, “and he laid his hands on them and went on his way.” I’d like to know how I’m supposed to “go on my way” when I’ve got three children clinging to each leg.) What Jesus is saying is not always as easy and cute as I had previously thought. In fact, it is downright difficult at times but nonetheless a defining priority of Christ’s mission. I might be wrong but I think this is the passage that is sometimes translated as “suffer the little children.” Indeed!

I think we could boil down the job description of every missionary to being present and sharing grace. Neither is easy.