The Labor and Benefits of Language Learning

Our family has lived in Japan now for 6 months. After spending our first month adjusting and getting our house and life set up, for the past several months I’ve been ensconced in Japanese language school, studying what has been rated the most difficult language in the world for English speakers to learn. By God’s grace I have completed more than one graduate degree in the past, and this is now the seventh foreign language I’ve studied, and I must say that I have never worked this hard before. Both the language itself and the pace of the program I’m enrolled in are very difficult, which can at times feel overwhelming and discouraging. Progress often feels like it moves at a snail’s pace. Nevertheless, we press on because we believe that this is where God has called us to serve.

As we’ve found ourselves amidst this new culture and struggled to understand the language, I’ve begun reflecting more directly on why we need to learn Japanese. Why go through all this effort to become proficient in a language with three alphabets and whose syntax is as far away from English as the east is from the west? Interpreters are available; shouldn’t we just “get right down to ministry”?

The obvious answer is that language acquisition makes life easier. Learning your host nation’s language means you don’t have to rely on others to go to the doctor or read forms from your children’s school. And of course, knowing the language enables one to engage in ministry more directly and effectively. But beyond these reasons, I can think of at least four less obvious and less frequently discussed benefits to the labor of language learning.

1. Language learning is humbling

Missionaries can sometimes enter the mission field with the mindset that they are there to give and teach, while nationals are there to receive and learn. Although it is true that missionaries are vessels of gospel proclamation for those who have not heard (Rom 10:14-15), when not appropriately balanced this mindset can create a subtle superiority complex that is dangerous and unhelpful. Beginning one’s missionary career as a language learner fosters humility, since we are placed in the position of a student. We are here to learn first, and out of that humbled position we will be better suited, both personally and professionally, to serve as a vessel for the gospel message we seek to communicate.

2. Language learning teaches us patience

In our digital age we often don’t have to wait for anything. Services like Amazon, Wikipedia, and Google Translate provide instant products and information that we have learned to expect in a matter of seconds. This immediate access to anything and everything has had a side effect, though: we are now very weak in the area of patience. We want what we want and we want it now, and this has occasionally crept its way into our view of missions. We want to serve; we want to teach; we want to be useful; but focused time on language study often means that we must wait for these things. Although ministry is obviously a very good thing, if we pursue it impatiently we are not pursuing it in line with the Spirit’s fruit in our lives (Gal 5:22). Language learning provides a healthy and useful opportunity for us to develop patience, to wait, and to grow as we seek to acclimate to our new country. This fruit of the Spirit, in turn, will yield greater results in the long run as we seek to serve and minister.

3. Language learning demonstrates a servant heart toward those whom we seek to minister

This is the other side of the coin from number 1. Not only does language acquisition cultivate humility within us internally, it demonstrates externally to our host people that we are willing to learn from and about them. We are willing to serve them by learning their language, their culture, what they value, what they fear, and what they hope for. We don’t expect them to communicate to us in our language; we make every effort to learn theirs and thereby place their needs above our own. This is significant, since gospel ministry is not simply data transfer; communicating a message to a recipient. It is conveying the hope of the gospel to real people, and inasmuch as we move toward and serve those people in real, tangible ways, we will highlight the servant-hearted nature of the Savior whom we proclaim. Learning their heart language is a significant way to do this.

4. Language learning embodies the gospel to which we witness

At the bottom line, this is the most important reason to engage in the labor of language learning: it is a reflection of the gospel which we seek to proclaim. In order to redeem us, God came to us, adapted himself to us in the incarnation, served us on the cross, and spoke to us in words that we can understand. The labor of language learning pictures this truth insofar as we come to a foreign place, adapt ourselves to it, serve the people there, and speak to them in words that they can understand. For the missionary, then, language learning is an extension and embodiment of the gospel itself. May those of us who serve overseas make every effort to maximize this opportunity for Jesus’ glory.

Learning to put doubt where it belongs

trashIn my last post I mentioned that we were at 50% of our monthly budget, and I reflected on some of the things I’ve learned during the first half of support raising. The first thing I listed there was how unbelieving I have been that our budget will be met.

Today, only four weeks later, I am blown away that we are now (unofficially) at 68%! We have had several people register pledges this past month, and we received a particularly sizable pledge today that has left me absolutely awestruck at God’s providence.

As I sit here, grateful that God’s faithfulness and provision is not contingent upon my feeble faith, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:28b-33).

Applying this to myself, I should not be anxious, saying, “Where will our support come from? How is this ever going to happen?” Rather, I need to learn to put my doubt in God’s  provision right where it belongs–in the trash!

And so we continue to press forward, by God’s grace and in his strength, to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Join me in giving thanks to God and praying that he will continue to astound us by his great providence.

How Time Flies – Make it Count

Lydia preschoolLast week Lydia began preschool. For several years before we had children, Caroline was a teacher, so she has attended plenty of “Meet the Teacher Nights.” But this most recent one was her first time attending as a parent.

Afterward she said to me, “This really makes me feel grown up.” And I know what she means. Lydia recently turned 4, and I’ve realized that I have vivid memories of my own life from when I was her age. I remember going to preschool. I remember running in a cornfield and getting stung by a bee. I remember Christmas that year, learning to ride a bike, and our family buying a dog that we would own for the next 17 years.

But what really blows my mind is that it doesn’t feel like that long ago that these things happened to me. Yet it has been over 3 decades. And when talking to folks who are older than I am, I’m told that the time just keeps moving faster. I have a feeling that before I know it, I’ll be sharing pictures of my grandkids heading off to preschool!

Lydia newbornTo the right is a picture of Lydia as a newborn. It feels just like yesterday that we were in the hospital with her, excited if not just a tad freaked out about being new parents. But this was 4 years ago.

What all this reminds me of is how short life is and how little time we have on this earth to live sacrificially and boldly for Jesus and others.

I find that in life I have a strong proclivity to overvalue things that make me look good and neglect things that make God look good. But one thing I do know: when I reach old age, if the Lord grants me the years, I want to look back and know that I did what I could to resist that tendency and seek to serve Him with all of my ability.

Life is short. The time flies. When you envision yourself looking back at your own life in old age, what do you hope to see? Whatever that is, now is the time to start doing it!

Five Ways to Support Missionaries When Your Budget is Maxed Out

empty-piggybank-290x340Missionaries have to raise support (at least most of us do!). As I connect with folks, share about the work that God is doing in Japan, and invite them to participate through prayer and financial support, sometimes the answer comes back, “We believe the work you’re doing is great, and we’d love to support you, but we just don’t have any money right now.” This answer can come from individuals and churches alike. And this is fine. When missionaries head out to raise support, we go knowing that not everyone will be able to participate.

However, if you do find yourself in the position of wanting to support missionaries yet not having the resources to do so financially, I’d like to suggest a few ways that you can support and encourage them without having to donate money.

(1) Still agree to meet with them.

It may seem surprising, but we missionaries still want to meet with you and share about God’s work in our country even if you can’t partner financially with us. You’re not wasting our time. The goal of support raising is not to get people to empty their wallets but to build relationships and share about God’s work in another part of the world. Yes, ultimately we do need funds to go, but by agreeing to meet with us you’re saying, “What you’re doing is important enough for me to take time to hear about it.” This is an encouragement to us.

(2) Commit to pray for them.

When we say we’re looking for “prayer and financial supporters,” that “prayer” part is not a pious appendage that we slyly affix to our request for funds in order to make it sound spiritual. We actually do want, need, value, and appreciate people who will commit to interceding for us in prayer. If you are able to commit to doing this, please let us know! This is a very real and much needed way that you can participate in the missionary endeavor.

(3) Invite them to share and/or preach in your church.

Not every missionary is a preacher, but every missionary can share about their calling in a church context. Ask your pastor or elders if your missionary friend can share during your Sunday school hour or worship service. If the missionary is a preacher, ask if he can preach in your service. You can serve as a bridge between missionaries and your church leadership, facilitating opportunities for them to share with people that they might not otherwise be able to.

(4) Invite them to share with your small group.

If you’re in a small group, arrange for your missionary friend to come and share with the group. This is another great opportunity for you facilitate meetings that might not otherwise happen. And if your small group feels so led, you can “adopt” the missionary and regularly pray for them and send encouragements such as birthday cards or care packages to them once they’re on the field. Such acts of support are a huge boost of encouragement for missionaries living abroad, even if financial partnership is not involved.

(5) Host a “missions dessert” in your home.

This is a particularly creative way to support itinerating missionaries if your personal finances are maxed. Invite people from your church to come to your home for dessert and coffee and to hear from a missionary. This is yet another way to serve as a facilitator, use the gift of hospitality, and provide an environment for the missionary to share about God’s work in their country. Be sure to inform invitees that there is no pressure to give – by simply showing up at the dessert they fulfill number (1) above. However, in such situations you never know whose heart God may move to participate financially as well.

Summary

The above five suggestions certainly don’t exhaust the opportunities that exist to support missionaries when your budget is maxed, but they are a start. Of course, if you are able to support a missionary financially, that is another very necessary element for them to get to the field — and one that we certainly encourage and appreciate! But don’t let lack of finances keep you from the privilege of participating in God’s global work. He has given you gifts and resources that you can use to assist the spread of the gospel across the earth for His glory.

Anniversaries and the Gospel

Last week was our 9th wedding anniversary, so we celebrated by going out lunch. Since Caroline has been pregnant for the better part of the last two years, we haven’t had a lot of opportunity to enjoy sushi together, so we went to a nice little Japanese restaurant in downtown Raleigh and had some good (by American standards!) sushi.

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As our anniversary came and went, I was reminded yet again of God’s faithfulness to us in the gospel. Every year that Caroline perseveres in marriage with me — and all the sinful baggage that comes along with me — is a testimony to Jesus’ commitment to His church. Jesus’ commitment to His people is most fully demonstrated, of course, in His willingness to die for us, that through His death we might have life.

This is incredibly good news for people like us who are adept at rebelling against God. This is also incredibly good news for the nation that has mastered the art of making great sushi–Japan. Our prayer is that the good news of Jesus will spread throughout Japan, freeing people from the penalty and power of their sin and enabling them to live in the liberating light of Jesus’ commitment to His church.

The Struggle to Sacrifice

One of the aspects of Christian living that I find hardest to live out is self-sacrifice. Specifically, it’s difficult for me – and I’d wager to say for all of us – to be willing to sacrifice things that I love for the sake of the gospel. In my flesh I want to cushion myself with comfort, pad myself with pleasures, and avoid difficulty at all costs. I want to create a situation in which I can coast through life with as little turbulence as possible. Left to myself, these desires would guide my decisions and shape my lifestyle.

However, a passage that has been a huge challenge for me in this respect – and also a great encouragement – is Matt 10:37-39. Here Jesus says:

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (vv. 37-38).

Here’s what’s difficult for me as we prepare to go to the mission field: I love my parents. I would love to live near them for years to come. I love my children. I would love for them to grow up near their grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. But what Jesus says here is that I must love Him more than my parents or my children. And that means that if He calls us to move far away – which we believe He is – then we need to be willing to do so.

I also find it interesting that Jesus follows this statement about loving Him over close family members with the startling claim that only those who take their own cross and follow Him are worthy of Him. This means that we must be willing to sacrifice certain things in this life for His sake. For us this means not living near family or familiarity. For others it might mean sacrificing something else in life.

The encouragement comes, though, with the next verse:

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39)

That is, those who seek their “best life now” will ultimately lose it, but those who live sacrificially for Jesus now – who “lose” certain things in this life for the sake of the gospel – will find true life. This is an encouragement because oftentimes I would prefer my best life now. I worry that by moving across the world I will miss out on things that my shortsighted vision for a good life says are most important. But the opposite is the case. By letting go of a life driven by my own desires and instead letting the gospel direct my path wherever it might lead, abundant life will follow.

Our prayer is that God would sustain us and help us believe this as we struggle to live this truth out.