Being “Poor in Spirit”

Living cross-culturally presents a constant string of opportunities to embarrass yourself.  Living in a place where you don’t understand the language or the customs or systems is a humbling experience.

I was in Zagreb for 60 days last fall, and for most of it, I had people watching over me.  I was a guest, they were my hosts.  For example, I didn’t drive once during that time.  So when we went somewhere, or when I experienced something for the first time, I could watch what people did.  Or I could trust that my friends would tell me or show me how to do things without doing anything too embarrassing.

It wasn’t until Beth and I arrived in Zagreb and started trying to live independently that the “training wheels” came off.  I’m driving.  We’re renting a house on our own.  We go grocery shopping and to the mall, the Emmezeta (electronics & appliance store), the Bauhaus (like a Home Depot), the IKEA (Dante’s seventh circle–but HEY, it’s got an espresso bar) on our own.  We even went to a concert at the Student Center this week on our own, and made it safely there and safely back.

We can go days at a time, at least on weekends, without talking to other Americans living here.

Living in America, living almost my whole life in the southwest, I never really thought about how much of life is context, unspoken familiarity with the rituals and systems and the ways things work.  So now I’m in a place where I don’t know the context.

I don’t know how to park a car here.

The traffic lights aren’t where I expect them to be.

Twice, I’ve tried to order a meal at cafes and the waiter has thought I didn’t want anything but coffee.  (Yes, I DO want coffee.  But I also wanted some soup!)

It’s humbling.  It’s a constant reminder that we are NOT self-sufficient.  I’m 53 years old, and I can’t navigate life here without “training wheels.”

(I know that it’s normal, and to be expected. But I’m 53 years old, and it’s hard to be 53 years old and need training wheels to navigate daily life.)

One of the foundational ideas of Socrates’ philosophy was that you can’t begin to learn anything unless you’re ready to acknowledge that you don’t know anything.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  “Poor in spirit” is a reference to acknowledging your own spiritual helplessness, that you don’t bring anything to God that he needs.

It means acknowledging that you are 100% dependent on him to save you, because your merit doesn’t even move the scale, much less balance it.

It means realizing that you’re NOT self-sufficient.

It means faithfully pushing through the failures and embarrassments.  It means not giving up in spite of your awareness of your inadequacy, being willing to humble yourself in dependence on God who does all that you cannot do for yourself.

It means setting everything else (including embarrassments and pride and …) aside and “pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”


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