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Cross-Cultural Ministry - Mistakes and All

A few years ago, Bo and I watched the show The West Wing. I liked the character, C.J. Craig (Alison Janney) who played the White House Press Secretary and then the Chief of Staff.  C.J. was successful and powerful. She commanded the room in sleek Armani suits and an entourage of Secret Service. As the series concluded, the incumbent President offers C.J. a job that is perfectly tailored for her talents, but there is a snag. For the past eight years, she has been in love with a journalist and has put her relationship with him on hold due to the demands of working in the White House.

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In a final scene between them, the journalist asks her to take a break from her political service to marry him. At first, she says no, but he persists and C.J. is torn between a life of power and success and a life of love. In a moment of tension, she explains to him that she is good at her job.  She knows how to do it perfectly, but she is terrible at love. As she puts it, “I can’t love you. I’m not good at it. I don’t know how...” His response, “I know. I’ll teach you. We’ll do it together.”

It’s this decision, between a life of love and sacrifice to something greater than ourselves or a life of power, success, and achievement, that is often at the root of cross-cultural ministry. God’s love asks a lot of us. We may have to give up our homes, our jobs, our prestige, and our time. But, loving the cross-cultural stranger ups the ante. It’s a wild, radical act. We will make mistakes. We won’t be safe in an office or a stretch limo with the Secret Service right outside.  We will be in the thick of it.

Years ago, Bo and I had a family we were ministering to (or maybe they were ministering to us). They were a different race, nationality and income level. In a moment of crisis, they needed financial help. We gave it to them in a form of check. My friend had to come back later, extremely embarrassed, to admit it that she had never had a bank account. The check for her family was useless. Bo and I had had bank accounts since high school. We were in the system. We hadn’t lived lives of extreme poverty, immigration and cultural unknowns. It was in that instant when I realized how different we were and how ignorant I was to her true situation. This is one of the many mistakes (and a relatively benign one) that we’ve made in our few short years of cross-cultural ministry.  None of us knows how to love perfectly from the get-go, but as we make those mistakes, we learn how.

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I was recently part of a discussion in which a church was moving from the suburbs into the city. One person was concerned the move might create moments of offending people through cultural insensitivity. This is a very valid point. We never go in thoughtlessly. We always study the people we are going to reach. We live among those people in an attitude of humility, cheerful curiosity, and service. We try (as our Christian conscience dictates) to adopt the cultural customs of the area, to be “all things to all people,” (1 Cor. 9:22). We must do our cultural due diligence.

But, even with the best intentions, studies, plans and cultural sensitivity, we are going to make mistakes. That is cross-cultural ministry, and I simply want to encourage us today to go forward, mistakes and all.

It is not that we don’t try to seek excellence for God. We do and we shall. Onward and upward. But we make a departure from a culture of performance and achievement to choose one of grace and forgiveness. And the great paradox is our mistakes are often signposts of this new Kingdom. As a lay leader, it is often my imperfections, the times I don’t have answers, the times I’ve cried, fallen down, had to move back home, or ask for help, that have drawn others closer to the Kingdom of Grace.  My “hot mess” has been much more compelling than my seminary theology award.

It is important for us to remember that mistakes are made, and mistakes can be redeemed. Friends, this has never been more crucial. We live in a culture where self-justification has never been stronger. You need only to be on social media for a minute to witness the finger pointing and the score keeping. Christians feel that pressure, that possibility of public shame, mistakes or failure which is downright scary. But, remember that God loves you and wants to work with you – mistakes and all. He knows that you are learning, and He wants to teach you. Did you ever yell at your child for falling off his/her bike? No! God knows, when it comes to loving cross-culturally, many of us still have on our training wheels.

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Please take a moment to consider the people God chose to work with throughout the ages. David was a murdering adulterer, Peter was a back-stabbing fisherman, and Rahab, a woman of bad reputation.  Isn’t that encouraging? To know that God can redeem our mistakes and shortcomings in ministry and possibly even use them for His glory! And when we think of it, wasn’t the cross the greatest perceived “mistake” the world has ever known? No matter what are our biggest calamities, shames, and public failures, God has a plan for all that, too.   

Let’s not let perfect get in the way of good. Furthermore, let’s not let our own expectations get in the way of God’s plans. Sometimes, it’s even our greatest mistakes, when given over to the Lord, that can become points of strength and connection with our community. They are opportunities to publicly ask for forgiveness, to be forgiven, to create relationships of grace rather than contracts, to laugh at ourselves, to invite others to laugh with us, and above all, to point to the fact that we are not God. We desperately need God and thanks be to God – we can have Him! Lastly, know that God is more concerned about your cross-cultural ministry than you are. He wants to do great things in you and through you for His Kingdom. None of us truly knows how to love flawlessly, at least not yet. But, the same words the journalist said to C.J., Jesus says to you: “I know. I can teach you. We’ll do it together.”

 

 
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Lilly Sanders Ubbens is a published writer and mother of two.  After growing up as a missionary kid in Honduras, Lilly went on to earn a masters degree from Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.  While there, Lilly met and married the love of her life, Bo, and they now serve at Christ Church Anglican on the Mainline in Wayne, PA. You can contact Lilly here.