verb – learn or develop (a skill, habit, or quality)
Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, I stepped off a plane and into an unknown life. I knew a little of the language, less about the culture, and even less how it was all going to work. Some people (who experience the first year of missions) will gush about the God-filled purpose-driven life and daily jubilation of learning a new culture. While I did that on many days, there were also many days that were difficult, desperate, and lonely.
Despite those dreaded days, I can stand here one year later and say that God has taught me so much in this time. While some things were painful to learn, some were empowering and life-altering. Either way, I have learned to laugh – A LOT and I’ve also learned that God isn’t afraid of my tears, my frustrations, or my questions.
What exactly have I learned? I’m glad you asked.
Life Lessons in First-Year Missions: A List
- Humility will find you whether you want it to or not. I’ve been one of those “smart people” all my life. No, I’m not trying to be prideful; I’m being honest. I have defined myself at times with this trait and felt that it was my only worthy trait – it made me valuable. Well, let’s just say that there’s no being the intelligent one when living in a foreign country that does’t share your language. Language learning in itself will render you pride-less and completely humiliated – not just every once in a while but every day. People will giggle quietly – and sometimes laugh loudly — at you on a daily basis, yes DAILY! The worst part is half the time you have no idea what you said that was so funny or you realize as you leave a conversation that what you said was actually possible the stupidest thing you’ve said – EVER! For example, people might wander why you need a cachoro (puppy) when eating your soup instead of a cuchara (spoon).
- Laughing at yourself means you get to laugh more. I’ve never been very good at laughing at my mistakes, espeically if they are made in front of an audience of 100 or one. I’m my toughest critic and my most hard-core judge. But here in a world where you can make a cultural or verbal (see #1) mistake at any moment, you have to learn to laugh at yourself – to find the funny in ALL of it. Because if you don’t, you will simply be miserable all the time and make those around you miserable too.
- Don’t focus on your abilities, focus on how you’ve grown. During our 8 months in language school, the director constantly reminded us to avoid comparison and to simply ask ourselves one question: “What do I know today that I didn’t know the day I arrived?” That question doesn’t only apply to how many more Spanish verbs I can conjugate, but how much more I trust God than I did when I got here, and how much more I feel empowered since God walked me through this journey. Honestly, I look back at my spiritual walk a year ago and realize my faith has super-sized itself, and I look to the future knowing that I can do whatever else God might call me to do. Can’t say I felt that way a year ago.
- Being a fool is okay, as long as it’s a fool for Christ. I remember the period where we told our friends, family, and co-workers about our call to missions. The reactions to this news were varied (and that’s an understatement). One girl at the nail salon even asked me a few weeks before we left: “Why would you give up two years of your life to go to another country?” She thought me a fool and had the courage to voice it. I’m sure others — even friends — thought the same too, but tried to be supportive. Sometimes we place to much emphasis on what people think in relation to the “tasks” God asks us to do. We look like fools, but once we step out into that task, we feel like conquerors. I’m sure people will still consider me a fool as I continue to walk out whatever God-given task lies before me, but I’ll walk that road nonetheless and take the motto Nichole Nordeman so aptly sang, “I will be a fool for You, all because you asked me to.”
- There are friendships that extend beyond time and space. When we left over a year ago, so many people said the comforting words, “we’ll keep in touch” or “we’re gonna come visit.” Deep in my heart, I hoped that would be true, but in reality I knew living so far away would make it nearly impossible. However, what I was surprised to discover were the friends who really did mean what they said. Who continued to invest themselves in our lives despite the distance, despite the ability to talk on a daily — or even weekly–basis. Those friendships have truly been a gift from God. That knowledge alone helps me look to the future happily knowing that those friends will always be in my life, no matter the distance.
- God loves me for who I AM not what I DO. I think this has been the best lesson so far. If God asks you to be a missionary, well, you become a missionary. Truthfully, I worried that if I didn’t agree, God wouldn’t like me anymore. (I know some of you are thinking that’s crazy, but you’ve thought the same thing about some task in your own life.) The past year brought me to a place where I’ve been emptied of myself, my expectations, and my needs. I’ve let go of a lot of “needs” in my life: the need to be liked, the need to be smart (see #1), the need to have a purpose. Instead, I’ve learned to just seek after God, find out who He is and let Him define me according to His thoughts. Wow! What a relief! If I seek only Him, everything else in life just falls as it should. (Reminds me of a Bible verse I once read;) Forget the seeking after what God wants from me, what is my life’s purpose, what can I DO for God. Now, I simply seek after Him and let it all fall into place as He works in me. A hard lesson to learn, but one I won’t forget.
I hope that one lesson opened your eyes a little more to what God is doing in your life. That’s my favorite part about getting to know God better through life experiences: each painful event helps me help another grow in their relationship with God. There’s no greater joy than sharing my valley survival tools with a friend and in return watch her conquer that same valley.