Friday, July 27, 2018

FUNDAMENTALS

It surprises some people these days to learn that I played basketball all through middle and high school. It was a long time ago, and I’ve rarely even picked up a ball in the last decade, but I’ve found myself thinking about those afternoons in dusty gyms lately. Surprisingly, it’s not the camaraderie of teammates or the stories of crazy coaches, the game winning shots or black and blue injuries that have been rolling through my head lately. I’ve been thinking about the very worst part of the basketball seasons—the first few weeks (or longer!), usually called “fundamentals."

These introductory workouts focused on alternating conditioning—meaning we ran until we literally fell over and then kept doing it again and again until we didn’t need to fall over—and learning the very basics of the sport. The first part was physically exhausting. The second part was mentally exhausting. Learning how to hold a basketball or how to pass a ball with 100% correct form and practicing it for hours is incredibly boring. At the beginning of the season, we were jazzed up to get on the court, but it always seemed that the coaches didn’t let you actually play the sport for weeks. It was all stretching, passing and dribbling drills, and shooting literally hundreds of free-throws.

That's me in the back row, number 30.

Even back then, I could see the point. The way you position your hands when you shoot does make a difference, and bad habits are hard to unlearn. But I hated doing it. I wanted to get on with the plays and the strategies and the competition of it all.

Our first term here on the field in Cambodia has been a lot like an extended fundamentals season. We got here, and we were excited about life and ministry in Cambodia. I was ready to hit the court! But “hitting the court” looked a lot less like hitting game winning 3-point shots and more like sitting in a rooftop classroom learning to hold my mouth just right to be able to reliably hit a uniquely difficult vowel sound. It was about learning how to stretch my worldview to take in so many cultural differences. I have had to condition myself to continue to dig up motivation and diligence to learn a language without many trained or experienced teachers. It was about my body getting adjusted to long days in hot weather. I have had to discipline myself to make observations without automatically filling in the meaning according to my culture. I've gotten good at being wrong. I have sat through so, so many awkward situations and had to condition myself to keep showing up.

I won’t lie. It’s been physically and mentally exhausting. Sometimes it has been incredibly boring. There have been moments sprinkled all throughout the last 2.5 years where I was so ready to just get on with it already.

Yet. As we are finally starting to be able to do more than lay foundations, I am so thankful for the wisdom of these long years of fundamentals. The only reason people can understand me at all when we chat about our lives and dreams and concerns is because I spent entire months practicing the alphabet sounds with a teacher at the beginning (and oh how I would rather have been shooting free-throws!). I understand some of the cultural motivations here because I spent hours reading books on culture and history. The only reason I can escort a friend and church member to get checked by a quality, low-cost health center is because I spent months working through paperwork to become a referring partner at the center. I can hear some hard truths from honest conversations with Cambodians only because I have shown up enough for them to know that I can take it.

Even when I was doing those things again and again, I knew they were important. I knew that I needed to retrain my mouth and my worldview and my patience in order to minister effectively and long-term in Cambodia, but it hasn’t been fun. I knew that one day it would pay off, but that day seemed so far away.

The day has come, though. And I may not be hitting game winning shots yet—or even making all the easy lay-ups—but I feel like I’m at least allowed on the court. We can see clearly how the foundations we have been working on are firming up. We are seeing deeper into the culture than ever and are excited by the dreams and collaborations that are in the works. There’s still a lot of language and cultural learning going on, still a lot of stretching of our worldviews and practicing listening, but we hope at least our form is decent. We hope, even under stress, we have the muscle memory we need.

Working on fundamentals isn’t glamorous. It’s often not only boring, it’s painful. But from someone finally making her way out of a season of fundamentals, I feel the value all the more. So, if you’re in the middle of fundamentals in a new job, a new town, a new ministry, a new relationship, or a new season of life, keep at it. It’s not glamorous or even all that fun sometimes. But, as Paul says to the Romans, we know that running the race, or the laps around the proverbial gym, produces perseverance. And perseverance produces not just great form or great pronunciation, but character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.