All the Things I Still Don’t Know

Written by Janine Alvarado. Original post appears here.

Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana.

Some words I’ve just typed into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem is when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.

Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.

Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.

You go through applications, interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling”.

You need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.

But here’s the paradox:

You land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.

I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.

No longer are you the person who knows “all the things”.

You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.

Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems what you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations, you’ll be combatting first grade homework!

It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one or two month course and then you’ve checked that off your list, for many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst Gringo accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.

You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.

You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.

You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here everafter.

You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.

You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.

Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.

It’s serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.

It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.

But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.

A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.

And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated… and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.

This beautiful poem by Robert Frost reminds me of the journey:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

5 thoughts on “All the Things I Still Don’t Know”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Janine. To me you’re a seasoned missionary, and it’s good to know you have these thoughts too.

  2. Janine, Thank you for sharing. How true, how true.
    Many blessings on your journey, enjoy the path ahead.

    Tony Bianchi

  3. Dear Janine, A beautiful explanation of expanding ones comfort zone each day to operate in a totally new environment. Every time I see pictures of you with your little daughters when you go shopping or the first day of school I marvel at the way the whole family is growing! I remember the adjustments I had to make in the US when the children first started to school, and think “Wow, look what Janine and the girls are doing now! I am amazed at how you seem to tackle any task for instance
    the transportation problem with the bicycle, bus or train with such ease. Truly , you were chosen for this journey. May you be continually blessed as your Faith is affirmed by the Faithful God you serve. Cathy Fleming

  4. Wow, you are such a gifted writer! As a missionary in a culture very close to my own, and married to a local, I literally have no idea the extent of what you go through, I haven’t had to learn another language (well, mostly). There’s still a lot that I don’t get culturally, though, and your words are like giving expression to the feelings of those who have to cross boundaries. You help me “feel” a wisp of what you are saying, even the parts I cannot relate to.

    Thanks for writing. I am sharing this with some friends in Europe who are missionaries and will be very encouraged and feel understood by reading this.

  5. Janine, I LOVED this article!!! I was actually getting ready to speak at the ladies’ meeting here at the Mexico Missions Conference when I read it (we still miss you). You said it all so accurately, so succinctly! I specifically honed in on, “gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems what you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works.” To this day I have the sensation when we cross the border, “I’m home. Now I know for sure what’s expected of me, what to do in miscellaneous social situations, etc.” The sad thing is that while we’ve been in Mexico, much about our country has changed. I am not longer SURE I know what to do there. LOL! Since my “talk” was about God being our home (when everything else may seem confusing or uncertain with confusing cues, He is our home), I mentioned your comments when I covered this part of the talk. It seemed appropriate since your start was in Mexico. Love you! Thanks for sharing this!

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