A few weeks ago we were asked by some future teammates if there is anything they can do to prepare for the mission field during their last few months in the US. I said something to them that I had not previously mentioned in these types of conversations.
“Try to go deeper in knowing yourselves. Ask your mentors, friends, and family for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Come to the field ready to be honest about those things and knowing how you will need to lean on others on your team. If you have a better understanding of who you are, you will be better able to understand your teammates – and you’ll be less likely to fall into unnecessary conflict.”
I said this because I am slowly coming to the conviction that a lack of self-awareness and a lack of holy imagination are at the root of much team conflict. And the two are related. Regarding self awareness, it simply takes a long time to truly see ourselves in relation to others. Most of us start off kind of ignorant of what we’re actually like, thinking that we are the definition of normal, balanced, and gifted, and that the world would be a better place if everyone else were more like us. It’s often after a long process of clashing and bonding with others who are very different from us that we really learn to live in a robust theology of the body of Christ – that there are all kinds of differences among the members and that this is actually worthy of celebration. We as individuals have some real gifts and strengths, and a unique slew of corresponding weaknesses. But the body of Christ working together is beautiful in how the members complement one another.
We need to get better at knowing ourselves – learning our own personal culture, as I like to think of it. But we also need to pursue growth in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – in what has been called holy imagination. I recently listened to an interview where professor Karen Swallow Prior was advocating for Christians to read more good literature – like Frankenstein. Her argument was a new one for me. She said that God has given us imaginations, and we will engage them somewhere. If we don’t engage them in healthy ways (like fiction books), then we will be more drawn to unhealthy things like conspiracy theories. Yikes. An underdeveloped imagination is also likely to lead to ugly conflict with others as we fail to exercise our imagination in interpreting their words charitably. For exhibit A, log on to Christian Twitter.
Yes, believers say things that seem hurtful or offensive all the time. But can we interpret those words in the broader context of our relationship? Can we understand why they would feel that way and speak that way given their history and their personality? Can we see things from their perspective? Feel things even from their perspective? This is what I mean by holy imagination. The Scriptures say that love bears and believes all things. Well, one way to practically apply that is to say that love puts itself in someone else’s shoes. When we consciously put ourselves in someone else’s situation and worldview, we end up more compassionate, patient – and better able to bear with their brokenness and their sin. And turns out this also makes us better at addressing their brokenness and sin.
Why are we so bad at doing this? I think I have more guesses than answers at this point. Though we are very strong in God’s book of revealed Scripture, I wonder why my tribe of reformed evangelicals is not particularly strong at reading God’s book of Nature – which includes things like culture, personality, and history. We are God-centered, but somehow not God-centered enough to study the complexity of God’s creation. We pride ourselves in knowing Paul’s logic in Romans, but for some reason use that as an excuse to not engage poetry as Paul did. Perhaps KSP is right, and we don’t engage our holy imaginations enough in things like literature and art. Is there something we are afraid of there? Or are we simply too busy doing ministry? Has anyone else ever found it ironic that the most influential fiction writers among evangelicals – Tolkien and Lewis – were themselves not evangelicals, but a Catholic and an Anglican?
As locals say when something doesn’t sit right, “there’s a hair in that yogurt.” Missionaries on the field are simply a reflection of our churches back home. And we are not very good at knowing ourselves and in our use of compassionate imagination. These are areas where we many of us need to pursue proactive growth – and I include myself in this.
So, to anyone reading this who is heading to the mission field, please do some hard work understanding yourself before you land on the field and join an already stressed-out team. Bring a metaphorical mirror to the field. It will really help. And please, bring your holy imagination.