Navigating Troubled Times

By Jim Ramsay –

A copy of the Lord’s Prayer rests amid the rubble of Grand Chenier (La.) United Methodist Church following Hurricane Laura. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

By this point  in 2020, it’s cliché to say these are unprecedented times. The shifts happening globally and within the culture of the U.S. are significant. Predictions vary about what will be on the other side, but they are consistent in one thing: Our lives and ministries will likely not go back to the way they were – at least in many aspects.  So how can we weather the storms and prepare for the road ahead?

Throughout these past months, I have been observing the impact of this year’s pressures on our culture as well as on myself. I have been struck by how many of the methods and mindsets we teach as we prepare missionaries to serve in far-away cultures are helpful in navigating these times of change. I highlight some of these here:

The Illusion of Control. A key aspect of the dominant culture in the U.S. is that of predictability and control. We like to know what to expect. We have a deep, subconscious sense that if something goes amiss, then someone must have done something wrong. And if we work hard enough, we can fix it. This cultural trait has served us well in many respects, but it can result in disorientation when things happen beyond our control. Consider the response to hurricanes and how quickly blame is assigned for the destruction – lax building codes, inadequate government response, weak levees. Rarely is it mentioned that a 150-mile-per-hour wind and storm surges are just going to do damage. This year, the multiple challenges to the status quo and the accompanying uncertainties are especially hard on our collective psyche.

A key practice we teach new missionaries is to surrender their need to be in control. Life in many (perhaps most) cultures involves much less certainty and expectation of control. Interestingly, not only can this open-handed mindset help build resiliency in those settings, but it also positions one better to recognize the advancing of God’s kingdom. We realize we do not control his kingdom, as the parable of the farmer reminds us. The one who plants the seed sleeps and rises and the grain produces itself, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-29). When we let go of that control, it positions us better to see God’s work and to join with it in whatever context we find ourselves – even in a pandemic!

The Posture of a Learner. A second practice we teach missionaries is to take on the posture of a learner. This is not a call to continuing education, although that could be one way it is expressed. It is a mindset that sees the need to listen, observe, and learn about the setting we are in or about a person or culture we encounter. Taking on the posture of a learner means setting aside our own agendas and, as much as we are able, our own prejudgments and assumptions. This posture allows one to enter a new situation without feeling the pressure to have it all figured out. Taking on a learning posture means asking lots of questions, something Jesus beautifully modeled – which is especially striking, considering he was the Son of God. Exhibiting the posture of a learner can make a difference, whether one is seeking to better understand racial issues in the U.S., manage life during a pandemic, or engage with someone of differing political beliefs.

Culture Shock. Finally, we teach missionaries about cultural adjustment, popularly called “culture shock.” Early in the pandemic, I noticed something about my own and others’ responses. They mirrored some of the telltale signs of cultural adjustment common to people who move long-term into a new cultural setting. Feelings of frustration, anxiety, hopelessness, and even depression are normal symptoms of culture shock. In my experience, knowing about culture shock did not make these feelings go away, but being aware of what I was experiencing helped. I knew it was normal and that it was not permanent. I also knew what would help me work through this disorientation phase of adjustment.

Not surprisingly, two things that help people move through culture shock are (1) letting go of the need to control my environment and (2) maintaining a posture of learner! In addition, we must resist the temptation to isolate ourselves (which, in these months, might mean resisting the temptation to retreat into a cocoon to binge-watch cable news or Netflix).

As I consider the experience of 2020, I do not minimize the hardships and genuine losses that have occurred. However, I have great hope that the upheavals will push God’s people to go deeper into Him and to lean less on our own understanding and our own control. We can demonstrate a resiliency that results from being established on the Rock when other foundations are crumbling. What a great witness that will be to a hurting world, both in our neighborhoods and across the seas.    

Jim Ramsay serves as vice president for global operations at TMS Global. Dr. Ramsay is co-moderator of the podcast TMS Global – Thy Kingdom Pod: Living in the Unfinished – that goes deeper into applying mission mindsets to navigating modern life. To learn more visit www.tms-global.org.

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