miracle grow

Tourists standing in line. Note the orderliness.

Confession. My four daughters do not know how to stand in an orderly line.

I realize that North American parenting protocol requires this to be checked off the list before we catapult our almost-adults into the free world. The ordering of oneself into a tidy, patient, linear stance is essential to public health and safety, I know. More importantly, it is a key indicator of the sort of careful, quality parenting to which we all aspire. Having understood the clear implications this has on my 17 years in the parenting business, I simply resign myself to failure in this key area. I am quite convinced that, even as productive, functioning adults, they will automatically have their elbows poised and their forward momentum set to an even keeled ‘Balkan push’ when they encounter large groups of people.

If I could take a moment to defend this seemingly failed attempt at parenting, I could explain that they simply operate by an altered ‘line standing paradigm’. In our Balkan neighborhood, waiting in line is a skill set to be honed and polished. Elbows locked at 80 degrees, eyes set to straight ahead and no visual contact, acceleration keyed to ‘slow yet persistent forward motion’. This is not rudeness but a sort of self-care that states, ‘I am responsible for my own success at reaching my destination’.

City streets like this one in Zagreb are full of energy.

Growing in another culture brings unexpected and permanent changes. Six months after beginning life in Moscow, I found an unfamiliarly familiar face staring back at me. This new person was able to traverse busy city streets absent of a smile with head down and pace determined. She was no longer cowered by hemorrhaging trams of human cargo or taxis that drove on the sidewalk. Somehow, a stronger version of myself was miraculously emerging.

The lion waits at the mouth of one of Budapest’s beautiful bridges.

But, most of us will admit that our concept of a missionary is far from the word strong. We tend to think of said entity as a slightly awkward, somewhat puny bespectacled human-variant studiously and safely buried behind a monstrous Biblical tomb. That stereotype is problematic because the true reality is a paradox.

Grafting into another culture means determinedly developing a root system in new soil. Against the odds, one must find a way to live, to even thrive in the new environment. With chin set at a stubborn angle, for a time, the work of simply functioning is an accomplishment. Becoming missionary requires strength; strength of character, strength of belief, strength of purpose. But there, in the new soil with forward acceleration set to a Balkan push, the faults, the shortcomings, the sins thrust their way toward the light of day. Some of them even ingeniously disguise themselves as strength. It is as if God pours Miracle Grow on every fault, on every temptation, on every weakness that once laid dormant and lifelessly hidden inside. The only cure? A spiritual paradox, a topsy-turvy eternal truth; in order to live, one must die. Die to self, to ambition, to comfort.

A beautiful reflection of Jesus in a Venice window.

In a car on a recent sunny Budapest afternoon, a new friend, Nina, shared from her Croatian perspective. As we talked about the missionary endeavor in the Balkans over the last two decades, she said something like this,

‘We [Croatians] do not need missionaries who do not struggle. We need missionaries who visibly live out their struggles with us, draw strength from God and stay through the challenges. As Croatians, we do not have the option to leave when life gets hard and life here is hard. If you want relationship with a Croatian, stay, allow God to visibly transform you.’

This is not the job description we embraced. The missionary myth brings us into a culture and casts us in the shadow as ‘spiritual giant’ or ‘compassionate white-knight’ but the reality seems much less romantic. Inexplicably, God seems to be committed to the ‘God’s power made perfect in our weakness’ concept. His transformational grace at work in our dying to self is the visible power that the world longs to see.

Conflicts with colleagues, the rub of learning a new cultural paradigm, the insecurity of an unfamiliarly familiar face, the parenting mistakes; God’s Miracle Grow power made perfectly strong in our weakness if we commit to live authentically visible lives where we are planted.

Grace that brings the lion and the lamb into the same neighborhood is a world-changing sort of redemption. Its best work, His best work, is most powerfully expressed in our confession.

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