Thursday, October 22, 2015

Learning Through Failure

As some of you know, I did a pastoral internship at our church here in Vienna. The experiences were so varied and challenging. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time learning and absorbing information. It was a lot of learning through listening and observing. This is an important first step, but at some point you have to jump into the pool and get wet.

The internship has been a chance to do that. At some point during the internship, I was asked to give a short devotion at the beginning of an all church meeting. These are great chances to share something and engage, without the larger time commitment of preparing a sermon. (Some will argue that shorter time constraints are harder, but that is another blog post.)

Me demonstrating the rubber band 
Up to that point, I had used a full manuscript for speaking engagements, where I wrote every word I wanted to say before hand. I am bad with a manuscript in English, but I felt I needed it in order to speak fluidly in German. This time around, for the devotion, I tried bullet points and I felt so much more fluid. I was able to just talk, instead of needing to read what was on the page. It felt really great.

So everything went well and I was feeling good. I talked about 1 Kings chapter 8 and Solomon's benediction after he build the temple. It is an amazing prayer. I talked about the constant need for repentance in our lives as Christians. I focused on the idea that at this very high point in Israel's history, Solomon talked so much about sin in our lives. Not just sin itself, but the beautiful cycle of recognizing sin in our lives, confessing it to God, repenting and turning away from those missteps and focusing our attention on God.

Or so I thought. The problem was...that wasn't what I was talking about. There is something special in German - prefixes. I talked about the Christian's need to continually "sich bekehren." Unfortunately, this does not mean "to repent" but instead it means repentance in the context of conversion... "to convert". I told them we continually need to convert. The word I was actually looking for is "sich umkehren." That's right, just one prefix changes the meaning from conversion to repentance. I have to be honest, I have made plenty of mistakes in language learning, but this one stung. That was a big difference.

In our training, we talked about a "rubber band" principle. Imagine that you have a giant rubber band around your waist. On one side, there is my expectations and on the other is what actually happens. When the distance between the two is small, the "snap" of a negative situation is minimal. But when I expect something, and something completely different happens, the "snap" hurts more because the two ends are farther apart.

Being at the stage in language learning where we are right now, these "snaps" happen less often than they used to. But when they do come, they can hurt more. We are required to continually put ourselves out there and take risks. When it works, it works really well! But when it doesn't, it can hurt.

One other thing that has been important for me to remember is that this is still actually learning! As frustrated as I can be with myself at a mistake like this, I will never make that mistake again. Language learning is tied to experiences. It takes humility to constantly place yourself in the position of learner. It is not easy to accept critique and input from others, but it is worth it because it is the only way to develop the language skills that we desire and need.

Failure in general is often considered wrong. In principle, we laud people like Edison who took so many tries before discovering the proper material to put in a light bulb, but it is different to personally put ourselves in a situation where failure is possible. I am noticing more and more that the longer I speak German, the less inclined I am to dive back into that role of "learner" or someone who doesn't know all the answers.

There is value in admitting ignorance and asking for help...spending time listening or asking good questions instead of just jumping in with our own knowledge or experience. There is value in being a learner and a disciple.