Five students from my speech and debate team sat around the booth and leaned towards me to hear over the pop music playing in the background. I ordered my French fries with a Bulgarian sentence I knew by heart: “Mojalee, persjonee kartoffee cus seerenae.” Please, I would like french fries. We spread a piece of paper between us. It was time to talk about leadership, something they’d seen me model, teach, and encourage them in. That night, they learned the Five Pillars of Servant Leadership.
This wasn’t the first time Worldview Academy showed up in my Bulgarian classroom. I was in Bulgaria for the year and taught “Which Monster Are You?” to every class. The classes used images to help them explain their answers to the big questions: How did the world get the way it is and how am I the way I am?
But there was a problem I had not anticipated. After a month on the topic of worldviews, mutiny formed and I didn’t know why. Finally, someone asked, “What is the use of this?”
If I ignored the urgent realities of their lives, I would fail to do my job as their teacher: exposing and translating truth into their context.
And then I understood. I had failed to address an essential question to Bulgarian survival: is it useful? It was an understandable question. Life in Bulgaria is difficult. Salaries are tenuous. Public corruption is rampant. And, as in any culture, this reality was mixed with a lie. “Utility” could also mean survival at whatever cost to others
If I ignored the urgent realities of their lives, I would fail to do my job as their teacher: exposing and translating truth into their context. I needed to learn their language and then translate myself.
I don’t mean just learning the language of a country. I mean learning the language of a culture: what matters to them? How do they see different topics? Basically, learning their worldview and the words they used to talk about it. By translating, I mean taking that language and knowing how to use it to show God’s love.
These two practices (language learning and translating) are the how in loving someone with the love of God. And through all the content, loving with God’s love is what Worldview Academy seeks to impart on their students, staff members, and families. Learning the how can be tricky. It took me much of my year in Bulgaria to reach the moment when teaching servant leadership would make sense to them.
I needed to learn their language and then translate myself.
But I learned some tools along the way, three of which I want to share with you: active time, humility, and relationships. Each of these is invaluable in making the difficult leap from the Worldview Academy classroom into the spheres of influence God gives us.
The ability to speak truth does not come easily or without cost. Time must pass and change us. Part of that will be maturing through the life stage we’re in. Part of it will be the silent education our communities will give us. Cultures are formed over centuries; we cannot understand them or speak their language in one day of quick study. It is the patience of God that enables us to give the time that it takes to learn a place the way it needs to be learned. A place (or community or friend group) must be learned and loved so one can share truth in words and actions that will be understood.
The fact is that every cultural presupposition carries a flaw, a tendency for blindness in particular directions. Truth is God’s alone. I am not truth. I am God’s child, sanctified slowly but surely. As much as Bulgaria has its favorite lies, I have my own. And my culture—American culture—plays itself out in my life. Maybe it’s in my innocent quirk that I like to go barefoot as much as possible, something that appalls most Bulgarians. Or it’s something pernicious, like my consumerist assumptions about the value of a life. There is room for me to learn from my students and from Bulgarian culture. God’s goodness can show up anywhere and I need to keep my eyes open for it!
It is possible, with time and humility, to form meaningful friendships or, in my case, teacher/student relationships. In Bulgaria, it takes a while to build trusting relationships. Everything I said in the classroom only mattered with students and their families if I cared for them outside of class. The more I learned about loving people in friendship, the better I became at speaking God’s truth.
I keep in contact with my students via Skype. I hear good things. One student from that pizza shop meeting joined the executive team for speech and debate, working hours beyond his university assignments to do the dirty work of translating communications and helping as best he can. A servant leader. Other students won an award at a national tournament for behaving with the best “sportsman like behavior.” Servant leaders. Recently, one student was diagnosed with cancer. He let me pray for him before his first round of chemotherapy. A week ago, he asked me to “do the thing you did last time” before he started his second round of chemotherapy. Yes, of course I will.
It’s in these continued relationships where translation happens: I am changed and they are changed.
It’s in these continued relationships where translation happens: I am changed and they are changed. Time, Humility, and Relationships: when filled with the Holy Spirit, translation is possible, the kind of miraculous understanding as on the day of Pentecost when each person heard the truth in their own tongue, their own grammar and vocabulary, full of its own pitfalls and opportunities for God’s voice.
Coming back from camp can be hard, for students. What do you do after the best week of your life? How does that make sense with regular routines and friendships that don’t reference “The 4 Killer Questions?” Let me encourage you: it’s okay when it doesn’t make sense right away. Giving life to what you’ve learned can take time. Each of the three tools I mentioned are a matter of patience! But this is okay. God plays the long game. It isn’t entirely up to you. But with time, with care, with love, the leap into action will become clear. And maybe you’ll get to share Worldview in an entirely different country!