If you had a captive audience of fourteen missionaries, what would you say to them? What if you had them for five months as fulltime, live-in students? As they set their faces to places beautiful and broken, what do they need to know?
As our five months of missionary training draw to a close, I’ve been thinking about what we’ve learnt. We’ve had classes on mission, culture and language. We’ve written plans for self-care, risk management and coping with change. But what is the thread that pulls all these things together?
For me, the thread is weakness. Let me show you what I mean.
Just this week, during a risk management class, I started feeling a bit nervous about the frequent earthquakes experienced in our location. Thinking about tectonic plates and writing a survival plan has a way of rocking your confidence! Others in my cohort came face to face with the realities of kidnapping, car-jacking and civil unrest.
We go into this weak.
In self-care class we were encouraged to maintain our spiritual, mental and physical health. Are we responding to difficulties with godliness or a sinful heart? How will we deal with loneliness when we’ve left our family and friends behind? We’ve had full physicals too: poked, prodded, measured and weighed. But how will my friend exercise outdoors when this is unsafe for women in her location? How can a missionary go for a jog when thick smog makes it hard to breath?
Life is going to be harder there. We’re under more pressure. Our frailty will be obvious.
The most vivid picture of weakness was painted during language class. As we learn language we become like babies, unable to speak or understand. We require new mothers and fathers to nurture and teach us. As we fumble through toddlerhood we are humble and needy. But with help, we hope to grow into adults who are able to know and be known. I’m slowly seeing that language learning isn’t a barrier to ministry, it is ministry. I’m at ease being the one with a cup of tea and the answers. But I’ll have to get used to receiving ministry too. I’ll be asking for help. I won’t have the answers. And I’m ok with that. I’m choosing weakness.
I have long held to the Bible’s teaching that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. However I’ve not often had to test this truth. I’ve become comfortable in positions of leadership and influence, helping others with their vulnerabilities and I thank God for those opportunities. But my time in missionary training has shown me that the decision to pursue cross-cultural mission is a decision to be weak.
Mission isn’t about me and my strengths. Mission strips us bare, exposing our frailties and inexperience. I’ve spent most of my life getting by on my strengths, all the while trying to avoid suffering. But now as we sit on the edge, wondering what our new life will be like, we know that it will be hard. We know that the kids will struggle, that we’ll feel awkward and foolish on a daily basis.
And I still fear weakness. But now I’m able to embrace it, knowing that this is God’s work, not mine. And this weakness isn’t hopeless; it only proves God’s power as he works in and through flawed jars of clay. I can trust that God is greater than the challenges we face and able to bring about his kingdom. I don’t need to hide my failures or try to stay in a safe place. I can take a risk, knowing that he has a mighty arm.
So what do missionaries need to know? The same thing that everyone needs to know: the gospel. This is the good news of our Lord who was crucified in weakness, yet lives by God’s power (2 Corinthians 4:4). I really shouldn’t be surprised that this strength-in-weakness has been the meta-narrative of our training. I’m thankful that we’ve had this precious time to peer a little deeper into the gospel of grace and find our strength there.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9