i remember where I was sitting back in 2005 when I wrote my first blog. Blogging was a new term to me and I was living in the Mariana Islands at the time. Blogging helped me connect with the rest of the world outside my tiny island and gave friends and family a window into my world. I’ve written off and on for the last decade on a variety of topics, creating a sort of identity online. I would imagine that more than a handful of entries have been composed on the topic of missionary identity and being true to myself as I live cross-culturally.
The gig can be difficult to explain to my neighbors when they ask directly how I get paid or where my office is located. Missions isn’t exactly an office 9-5 sort of deal. Then you have the whole complication of fundraising, donors, a central office near Chicago and on and on. Generally speaking, I’m okay with the lack of clarity. Amongst my native-born American friends I have tended not to fit in as much as I would like as we’ve lived for such a long period of time now in a culture that is not our own, communicating in a language other than English. The values of Nepalis have blended with my own American values. I speak only Nepali to my son. Charity speaks only English. Our lives are like this weird sociological experiment that we are sort of okay with . . . well, most of the time. J Honestly, identity can be a real challenge but we try to do our best to remind ourselves that a cultural or vocational identity isn’t ultimately all that important. Being understood isn’t exactly the mandate of Scripture. Obedience to Christ is what counts and His greater calling and connection to the Spirit is what we hold tight in our grasp.
Today I went to the park with a friend of mine and his two kids. Charity, Amos and Molly came along. My friend has been in the country 5 years or so and is disabled. His kids are extremely intelligent and his wife works hard during the day. I was having this weird moment at the park . . . battling yet again with my identity as a missionary. Everyone at the park was a stay at home mom or they were retired. The fact that I have a different sort of schedule where I can take neighbors to do things like this has been enabled by this missionary status that I’m so blessed to live. But I was still struggling as I sat there chatting away in Nepali with my friend. Charity, Molly, and the kids were all running around, the kids rambling on in perfect English. My friend and I sat alone on a bench and he told me so many different details of his life. For nearly 2 hours he asked me everything under the sun.
My friend (let’s call him Hem) was commenting on so many different things and I could just tell he rarely gets the opportunity to do what he was doing – sitting and talking. He discussed how our government provided funding for beautiful places such as the park where we were sitting. He thought it was so cool how you could make food there if you wanted. We talked about war and how my dad was wounded there. Hem was amazed that this park was right in the heart of the city but off in the distance you could see the forest. He lamented his hearing difficulties and struggles with coping with boredom. He dropped a heavy burden on me as he seemingly is not able to overcome something in his personal life right now. He wanted to know what the bible said about it. Hem is in his 40s and at one point he told me we should go swing so he grabbed a swing and started flying through the air.
As the conversation continued, I realized that Hem was seeing some pretty massive identity issues of his own. He has only been a Christian for a few years and now he is forced to take his mostly Nepali-Hindu worldview and squeeze it through the lends of Jesus. He has been transformed and he is a wonderful husband and father but everything is so new. He has a hard time understanding his kids because their Nepali kind of sucks. They speak very simple Nepali, operating most of the time in English. He watches others sort of adjust quickly in an extremely fast paced society while he is sort of forced to figure things out on his own. The isolation that Hem must feel at times has to be unbearable.
But there we were today . . . swinging along. I realize that if I didn’t have this sort of missionary identity that I would not have been able to speak directly into his situation. I likely wouldn’t have learned this language, have the time to invest in the relationships I have, and I sure wouldn’t be at the park at 10:30 on a Thursday morning. Hem held a very long embrace today as we left. Identity is all a matter of perspective. 
Later on today, I was talking to a Nepali church leader and he shared that the elementary age children probably understand less than 40% of the Nepali language as they are growing up in America. Identity struck again. Uprooted from Bhutan, off to Nepal for 20 plus years. . . . This is the story of most of my neighbors. Only recently have they been able to be resettled in this great country. If our friends and neighbors didn’t have much, at least they had the ability to communicate easily with neighbors and family members. But the cultural adjustment is extremely accelerated in the Nepali community right now. Changes are coming so fast that even kids within their own families won’t be able to understand each other well in a matter of years.
As I sat and talked to this ministry leader I asked him what he would suggest since we are developing youth and children’s programs at his church. I explained that we need to train leaders but the young people have to be able to understand the gospel. They have to be able to understand those doing the teaching. It was sort of a tangled mess. In that tangle though, I was thankful for this missionary identity. Our small little team here in Pittsburgh can be these amphibians going back and forth between American and Nepali cultural, switching on and off English and Nepali. Without that sort of identity we simply wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing.
All Nepali language speaking with the adults and elders. A mix of English and mostly Nepali with older teenagers. All English with very little Nepali as we work and talk to the kids. These are the ways we communicate with our neighbors and the different modes of ministry before us. Coping with our own identity as missionaries makes it possible to relate, at least a tiny bit, to the identity struggles of our friends. 
I’m thinking of another person who had an identity dilemma on His hands. Heaven to earth. God became man. Jesus was divine and human all at the very same time. The incarnation is a beautiful example for us. We, like Jesus, simply want to lay our lives down and live out the Kingdom. The incarnation was slow and so often, so is the transformation process. Jesus never seemed to be in a hurry. He knew who He was. So too, must we.