Sometimes you lose sight of why you chose the principles you did.
Back when our first daughter was born, my wife and I discussed the possibility that I would speak to her in Spanish for, say, six months. The trouble was that six months is long enough to establish a firm habit, and in the case of relating to a baby, is part and parcel with the stability and security Baby needs.
We didn’t make that choice to be cool, nor, as most of the people who surmise a reason, to give our children desirable and lucrative job skills in a globalized world. In truth, one of the reasons for me was to treat my kids as a science experiment. Well, to try an experiment on them. Does that sound bad? Does it qualify as child labor? To you parents who are now appalled, I challenge your sense of moral superiority – did you really never do something odd just to see what your kid would do? Your curiosity never got the better of the perfectly-polished parenting skills that came with the birth certificate? You never wondered enough to find out what would happen if you asserted your parental authority and the kid on an obstinate bottle strike wasn’t allowed to eat until the food came from the bottle? (The showdown lasted 36 hours, if memory serves.) Ok. Whatever. More power to you. And to you who haven’t worked much with kids, just know that it’s way more interesting to try to manipulate, that is, form for the good of humanity, the neural net of a child than that of a pet, for example. Our fish, Manchas, never learns I’m not a threat and extends his gills to look bigger whenever I approach his tank. I’ve learned to fear him, especially since it is said that Betta fish can jump out of their water and come for you. Science!
Anyway, we also had some deeper reasons for trying to become a bilingual family. Most importantly, we thought it could serve the Kingdom of God. No, we have not decided that our children’s destiny is to be missionaries in a Spanish-speaking country. Instead, we’re trying to witness to God’s plan to gather the nations to Himself in Christ. We want to raise cultural bridge-builders who not only have some inter-cultural intelligence, but also are equipped with the love of Christ. We want our family to be a living sign of God’s love for the Other.
That’s the idea. But the tricky part is remembering that.
As the years have passed, sometimes I wonder if our choice really meant what we thought it meant. Now that we’re established in a community, we’re a known quantity, and so the curiosity level has stabilized. The fact that I sometimes miss the attention tells me that vanity was one reason I chose a bilingual life. And we’ve met other families doing similar things; we’ve met families way ahead of where we’ll ever be in terms of linguistic and cultural skills. Plus, most of the rest of the world lives a multi-lingual existence quite naturally, which means some of our ideals depend on pridefully comparing ourselves to what is normal in the developed English-speaking world as opposed to what is actually normal. Oof. That puts me in my place.
I’m not trying to be sour, but sober.
Sometimes I wish I could make my Spanish as nimble and subtle and precise as my English. And I wonder what Dan my kids are growing up with, since I am different in character and emotion and thinking in another language. Do they know me or less of me than other kids know of their dads?
And the days come when I wonder if being a bilingual family is serving the deep purpose that would hopefully subsume all the subtleties of ego and the sin that always manages to infect my best intentions. Does trying to be this kind of family actually work for the Kingdom?
Churches are usually thought of as families, too. Thousands of them have made choices to actively pursue the “all nations” component of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). But their motives are mixed. Some churches want to be “progressive,” whatever that means, for the sake of being “progressive.” For a few, the choice is driven by demographics and the convenience of church growth more than spiritual conviction. But for a majority of the dozens of churches I’ve talked to over ten years in ministry about “multi-ethnic” church, survival is a key motive, usually unstated but as clear as the prayer from a fox-holed atheist. That kind of self-serving is part of what makes the subsequent multi-ethnic work extremely difficult. Ethnic diversity is seen as a means to furthering an established homogeneous group identity and preserving an institution begun in segregation. Even if a congregation’s primary reason is genuinely Kingdom-centered, it still has to contend with one of the greatest powers and principalities of the kingdom of darkness: tribalism. And there always come moments when a church and its leaders will wonder if the risk and the choice was worth it and if the deep purposes, which we hoped we believed in enough, actually “work.”
But for both families and churches, all those complications can direct us to the more enduring truth that seeking Kingdom diversity in relational ways is an act of faith. Acts of faith are not undertaken because we think they will “work,” but because we think they please God. He loved us first; we try to respond in kind. Whether out of obedience or conviction or prayer or finally understanding Scripture, we act. Of course we hope God responds or blesses our efforts, but we must resist the temptation to expect that God’s work with and through us will fulfill our expectations about how He will work. Acts of faith leave results in the Sovereign’s hands and keep us submitted as servants. If we knew how it was going to play out, how much trust would we really be demonstrating?
The hostel just outside of Cotopaxi National Park teemed with 20-something Europeans. Dozens arrived every day, and the pace of turnover made us feel, after a lengthy stay of three full days, like old friends of the staff. The lodge, featuring wood-burning hearths, hammocks, and hot water for hierba luisa or mora tea, was a haven for community and relationships. The long wooden tables filled with food and travel stories three times daily as we shared meals.
And that’s when it would happen. After puttering around the grounds during the morning, the girls had barnacled onto some new friend, or we’d flump down into the chairs with our fellow hikers. They’d gotten to know us a bit, and we had exchanged the standard where-are-you-froms and what-are-you-doing-in-Ecuadors, and then came the non-standard inquiries about being a traveling bilingual family in a region kids mostly don’t visit in order to increase inter-cultural understanding and skills . “They’re so open to the world.” “So you’re doing this on purpose?” “She played with the Kichwa kids in Quilotoa?”
And then before we would eat, we would pray.
“Praying before meals is something we do because we’re Christians, and we invite you to join us if you like, but please don’t feel any obligation.” Most people did join us. Sometimes we’d pray for them. Always in Jesus’ name.
I don’t know what the Spirit will do with those small encounters, but I know what the Spirit can do. Most of the travelers we met seemed to hold religion at arm’s length, a couple were aggressively against it in any form, but those who became better acquainted with us met a family that is learning to love outside its tribe and does so because Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, loved us. And they know it.
Sometimes when you lose sight of why you chose the principles you did, God will restore a clearer view, just enough for faith to be a glimpse.