A former cross-cultural worker with Interserve Australia in Southeast Asia, Stacie Ellinger, reflects on how feeling vulnerable in an unfamiliar culture gave her insight into God’s willingness to be open to hurt as he sought a relationship with us.
“I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know if I can do this.”
These words often filled my head as I looked out my window to our street in Southeast Asia. Yes, they were words of fear and anxiety but they were also words of courage and reality. I didn’t know how to live in another culture. I didn’t know how to connect with people who spoke another language. I didn’t know what neighbourliness looked like, or what was and wasn’t appropriate in this setting.
I was like a toddler, having to learn how to speak, how to eat, and what was expected of me socially, all over again. I felt, and was, completely vulnerable.
It was during that time that I started to reflect on the vulnerability of God. Brain Morykon recently said in a Renovaré Newsletter (Dec 24, 2021) “It feels almost sacrilegious to call God vulnerable.” And it would be if being vulnerable means being a victim. But it doesn’t. Choosing vulnerability is an act of strength and courage. To be vulnerable is to allow yourself to be known and open yourself to be hurt. It is the road on which friendship travels.”
God chose to be vulnerable to come in search of a relationship with us. As a Christian, I am not trying to figure out if I can trust God enough to be vulnerable with him and see how he responds. I am responding to his vulnerability to me.
He relied on his friends while knowing that one of his closest would betray him.
God came as a baby, reliant on a teenage mother. He came as a refugee, fleeing from Herod’s violence. He came as a roaming teacher, staying in the houses of his disciples and his friends. He came as someone who got hungry and tired, who needed time to withdraw to be by himself (with God), who needed a nap. He came as someone who rode on donkeys, not royal stallions. He came as someone who allowed himself to be influenced by women’s opinions and circumstances and ate with other social outcasts. He told stories about the things he saw around him. He was interested in what his friends believed and had to say. He worshipped in the common places of worship and he relied on his friends while knowing that one of his closest would betray him. He came not to be waited on, but to serve breakfast.
The very God who breathed life into dust, who created beauty out of nothing, who parted the Red Sea and set the earth spinning, chose to rely on the very people he had come to save, in order to be in relationship with them and to show his heart and character.
We don’t create space for local people to show us how it is done. We don’t let them use their strengths to minister to our weaknesses.
It turns out that I was not the only person reflecting on God and vulnerability in the context of working in another place and culture. And I wasn’t one of the first either! In 2007, the Vulnerable Missions alliance was formed for missionaries to explore what vulnerability in missions using Jesus as a model could look like. The movement came out of observations about the inequality – normally financial – between missionaries and local communities and leaders, that lead to misunderstanding, conflict and create barriers to the gospel. These inequalities are prevalent and when added to hundreds of years of geopolitical history, colonialism and stereotypes (on both sides), often create issues.
In my host country, I saw agendas pushed forward, jealousies erupt and church communities break in conflict caused by well-meaning outsiders who relied on their own access to financial and educational knowledge to open doors to opportunities. Sadly, they were opportunities that did not turn out to be in the best interest of the community. Some of the things I observed were my own doing.
Jean Johnson, long-term missionary and author of We are not the heroes and Go light, Go Local, talks about how often mission workers (especially those who come from the Global North) enter communities with our strengths and our resources. We identify those who have weaknesses and needs and then set about using our strengths to ‘solve’ their needs. But we rarely show our own weaknesses. We don’t create space for local people to show us how it is done. We don’t let them use their strengths to minister to our weaknesses. We don’t allow them to use their resources to fix our needs.
I was also drawn into a deeper relationship with the One who chose to be vulnerable to have a relationship with me.
We rely on our own resources – our education, our wealth, our connections. And we lose opportunities to create deep and long-lasting relationships. When Satan tempts Jesus he offers Jesus self-sufficiency, creative power, honour and supernatural protection from death and harm. These are all things Jesus gave up to be with us – things that he could have used to avoid his death and to take a place as king. Instead, he chose to grow up among his people, to experience life as they lived it and use that to transform the world’s understanding of who God is.
When we left Australia in 2014 to serve with Interserve Australia, we were asked to be willing to go to our host country without a predetermined role, without a sense of what we would be “doing as ministry”. Instead, we were asked to commit to a year of language and culture immersion in preparation to find a space where we could live and serve in the community.
While one year is much less than the 30 years that Jesus spent in preparation for three years of ministry, I will be forever grateful for the emphasis that Interserve places on coming as partners alongside the local church, entering into what God is doing, and learning to be vulnerable. It was in this vulnerability that not only was I able to enter into deeper relationships with my local friends, but I was also drawn into a deeper relationship with the One who chose to be vulnerable to have a relationship with me.
Stacie Ellinger has started a partnership with Interserve in Australia called the Walk Humbly Initiative to equip the Australian church through workshops and other training to engage with vulnerable communities, whether overseas or in Australia, in ways that open the door to genuine relationships.