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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Not taking yourself too seriously!

Learn not to take ourselves too seriously. A second way to deal with stress is to see ourselves in a proper perspective. It is natural to perceive ourselves as the center of activity and the present as the most important time. This, however, places great importance on everything we do and fills each moment with high tension.

We need to see present opportunities within the perspective of our lifelong ministry. Missing tomorrow's meeting, which seems so crucial to us now, will most likely be forgotten five years from now. On the other hand, taking time to learn the language and visit with the people, which now seem to keep us from our work, may in retrospect be the most significant achievements of our early ministry.

Similarly, we need to see our work within the broader ministry of our missionary and national colleagues. No one person is called to carry the full responsibility for the work. We may be needed, but we are not indispensable. The realization of this frees us from a false sense of our importance.

Humor is a great medicine for an excessive sense of self-importance, as it is a sign of inner security and self-esteem. We need to laugh with the people at our mistakes-we make many of them learning a new culture, and they are often very funny. Remember, people are not laughing at us but at our strange ways and our cultural faux pas. Learning to laugh with them helps us overcome the fear of failure that so often keeps us from trying something new. We learn new cultures best when we try and fail, laugh, try again, and learn from our mistakes.

Flexibility, too, is a remedy for stress. We are often cantankerous, unbending, and authoritarian when we are self-centered or uncertain. Then every change in plans and every unexpected event generates a great deal of internal stress. But it is hard to program life, particularly in cross-cultural situations and invocations that relate to people. It is important, therefore, that we hold our plans lightly and are flexible in our lifestyles and in our dealings with human beings.

Forgiveness is a third antidote for the tension that arises from a false sense of self-importance. Ministering the gospel and serving as a leader too easily infects a person with a spirit of perfectionism that can ravage his or her Christian life. In that case, we begin by not forgiving ourselves and end by not forgiving our fellow missionaries, the national Christians, or the non-Christians around us. The message of God's forgiveness and salvation is blotted out, and we are destroyed by stress arising out of the deepest levels of our identity. After all, if we want to be anything, it is to be righteous!

But the heart of the gospel is forgiveness for sin and failure. So long as we remain on earth, we are not saints untouched by temptations and sins. We are saved sinners, helping one another amid our human failings to follow Jesus Christ. Like Peter, we need to cultivate a lifestyle of forgiveness both for others and for ourselves. We need to learn again and again that our righteousness is not of our own doing. It is a gift of God to repentant sinners.

Thankfulness is another counteragent to stress. It is easy in strange settings to notice everything that goes wrong and overlook the many things that have gone well. If we stop to think about the events of the day, we will find many moments of joy-mastering a new verb, making a new acquaintance, or watching with awe the sun's setting. Joy and thankfulness contribute a great deal to a peaceful life.

Treat ourselves. There are times in cross-cultural situations when, no matter how hard we try, our stress levels go up. Even our efforts to reduce tension produce more of it. We are simply fed up with the whole situation and want to leave. At such times we need to treat ourselves and withdraw from our involvement in the new culture. We may read a good book, go on a family picnic, or take a few days off. Sometimes, when homesickness for our original culture becomes too strong, it helps to go to the city and eat at a restaurant in a modern hotel. We all retain identities rooted in the cultures of our childhood, and we cannot starve those identities completely. Often a brief involvement in our first culture is all we need to prepare us for re-immersing ourselves in the new society.

A word of caution is needed here. When we go overseas, there is always the temptation to withdraw from the people and form a small ghetto of our own. While this may temporarily reduce our stress, in the long run, it prevents our entry into the new culture, which would reduce in turn the stress arising from living outside the local cultural frame.

Treating ourselves also implies that we can monitor the timing of particularly stressful situations. There are times when we are prepared to venture into bold new experiences and other times when we are already under such stress that we need to avoid them. Learning a new culture always involves stress, which is essential for growth. What we need is not stress avoidance, but stress management.

Share burdens. Paul advises us to bear one another's burdens, and this is particularly appropriate in missionary service. A missionary needs to be concerned with the burdens of others, particularly those of his or her spouse and children. This can help prevent the self-centeredness that is a by-product of high stress.

This advice, however, has two sides to it. While we are encouraged to bear the burdens of others, we must be willing to share our own with them and permit them to help carry the load. It is essential that as missionaries we find others to whom we can tell our troubles and turn for advice. Too often there is a tendency to feel that now we are leaders and therefore no longer need someone to pastor us. Nothing is farther from the truth. It is precisely as missionaries that we have the greatest need for someone to whom we can turn for spiritual and personal counsel. Like all vocations, being a missionary has its own problems and temptations. Unfortunately, mission agencies often do not arrange for someone to pastor those in the field, so missionaries are left to find someone on their own. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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