It's like they have a different word for everything! (My friend's dad)
I love how my friend described his father's reactions to the language and culture the first time he came to visit. We're all sort of that way with new experiences, aren't we? Whether it's a new school, a new job, or a new country, there's always some sense of disorientation until we get some handles to help us navigate (maps, groups, words, cultural awareness, etc.)
When it comes to languages and cultures, the more we explore, the better we get at navigating. This is partly because we have more handles to hang things on (word cognates, cultural similarities or differences), but the biggest thing we gain (or re-gain) is the power of wonder.
Wonder is entering the unknown with the heart to discover and learn. Children tend to be great at this. Just spend a little time around five or six year-olds and you know what I mean! For a moment, let's think back to when we were five or six. Didn't we love to wonder? The world was so big! We could be anything! And then we grew up. Reality set in. And we lost some of that wonder.
And somewhere in our reasonable adult life God called us to do something crazy - to place ourselves smack in the middle of a new language and culture, and commune with neighbors who were totally unlike us. Amazing! A beautiful "do-over" to regain some of the wonder we lost! A new chance to discover a whole new world!
Sadly, instead of stepping into the wonder of that new world, we often react the way we do as adults, not as children. Instead of celebrating the joy of wonder and discovery, we think we have to figure it all out. Even worse, we may actually think we have it all figured out! Or we give up. We learn just enough to get by in some sort of détente relationship with the world around us. Or we retreat into what's familiar, fully immersing into an expat community, or just leave.
But what if we didn't? What if we embraced the unknown around us with the heart to discover and learn? Once I faced an unknown in my life and received amazing advice from a trusted mentor, "Maybe this is a chance to step into the wonder of God?"
I love that! The wonder of God! I began to reorient my perspective. Instead of seeing the unknown as scary or dangerous, I started trusting God more. God gave me peace and joy. Most surprisingly, he gave me eagerness. Instead of worrying about the next steps, I experienced his wonder. What a gift!
I began to apply this more in my language life. God's wonder fuels my desire to keep learning. Because the more I learn, the more I get to discover his purposes for my cross-cultural life and ministry.
A big area of discovery for me has been in discipling new believers. If any of you have had the terrifying joy of doing this in another language and culture, you know how crazy it can get when issues come up about life and spirituality! Several years ago I was discipling an older man in preparation for baptism. He brought up how much he struggled surrendering his life to God (Galatians 2:20). From all he experienced in life, surrender didn't mean just "giving up" but total and complete dishonor. He felt shame even at the thought. I didn't see this coming. I realized I needed to understand honor from his cultural perspective - as much as possible - so I could better help him understand what it meant to surrender his life to God.
As we face language and culture challenges like this, let's view them as opportunities to learn and discover more of the world to which God has called us, for his glory, as we seek to do his will. Let's step into the wonder of God!
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Cor 2:9)