Autor: Jim Thomas
We develop relationships with churches of other cultures so we can learn from each other; so we can grow into a deeper, less culturally bound experience the God’s kingdom. If cross-cultural insights for spiritual growth are our goal, how do we know when we’ve had one? What do they feel like?
The kinds I find easiest to recognize, and the ones I enjoy the most, often have something to do with food or music. For example, when I was recently in Japan, I was humbled by the deference and hospitality shown by the servers in several restaurants. And the cooks’ care for those they were preparing food for was shown in the artistic way in which it was served. There are high class restaurants in the US that also show deference and care for their customers. But in Japan, the care and hospitality went further down the economic ladder. And for me at least, it felt genuine and not purchased. In Japan, I saw cultural expressions of care for strangers that spoke to me of God’s admonition for his people to love strangers. This led me to grow in my own hospitality and love for strangers.
This cross-cultural insight was a pleasure. Others have been less so. Some, perhaps even most, are uncomfortable or painful. They often feel like frustration, confusion, anger, disgust, exasperation, or some other negative feeling.
I’ll give you an example from an experience I had while living in France. I was staying in a Christian boarding house, learning French before moving to the Congo (called Zaire at the time). Many French people have a different relationship with baths, showers and body odor than most Americans do. There was one woman in particular who was either oblivious to her odor, or who reveled in it. In any case, I did not enjoy sitting next to her at meals where we all ate together at one large table. I thought less of her and, I will admit, I even spoke badly of her to others. But now, many years later, I see that the French have a comfort with the human body and its natural functions that we Americans lack. I’ve read that Napoleon, upon returning home from battle, sent a letter to his wife that said “Do not bathe, Josephine, I am coming home.” He was looking forward the natural smell of his wife.
In the context of societies throughout history, the American frequency of bathing could be viewed as an obsession with cleanliness. Or, stated more strongly, a denial of our natural bodies. To take this a step further, one could say that many American Evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with the humanity of Jesus; the idea that he had bodily functions like everyone else, and that he would probably smell bad to our 21st century noses. Consider also what his fisherman followers may have smelled like.
The French comfort with natural body odors has caused me to reconsider how I might be in denial of the natural limits of my body, and thus working against the way God created me. For example, I now see more clearly my need for sleep and rest. I’ve started going to bed earlier. With less fatigue, I find that my sense of spiritual wellbeing is tied to my physical and mental wellbeing.
Our culture defines for us what “normal” is. In my culture, it is normal to take a shower every day. Subconsciously, people in my culture often take that idea a bit further and translate “normal for my culture” into “right for all people, regardless of their culture.” By doing this, we subconsciously assume that it is right for people to shower every day; and further, not doing so is wrong, and is perhaps evidence of a moral failing. Our reaction moves from disgust over a smell to disapproval over hygiene, to righteous anger that the person is offensive, and to conviction that the person must change their behavior.
If we are going to grow by allowing our cultural assumptions to be challenged; if we are going to gain spiritual insights from other cultures, we will often have to break through negative feelings. Or, here’s another way to put it: we should learn to treat negative feelings as a prompt. When I am in another culture and I feel impatience, frustration, or some other negative emotion, that should prompt me to stop and think more deeply about what is going on. Are my cultural assumptions being challenged? Is this an opportunity to see God’s kingdom from a different angle?
This kind of thinking is not natural. Our instincts tell us to stand our ground against the abnormal. So, to be open to questioning what is normal, and to be open to insights from another culture, we need something beyond our instincts. We need God’s Holy Spirit. One of the most valuable practices to encourage growth in cross-cultural relationships, then, is prayer. Pray that your eyes and ears will be opened and that the Spirit will help you see things that you have been blind to.
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This is where I say good-bye to you all. I will not be at the Lausanne gathering in Cape Town next month. I was honored to be asked by the Congress to write this monthly blog. And I’ve enjoyed putting my thoughts on paper (or screen) to share. The number of readers has been an encouragement to me. I wish I could meet you in South Africa for face-to-face conversations. Short of that, though, let me ask if you might be my eyes and ears at the meeting. If you hear something about partnerships that I might learn from, please let me know. My email address is on my personal website: jcthomas.me. You can also reach me through the “contact us” page on the website of my organization: africarising.org. And if your church or organization wants help moving to a partnership model, please consider whether I might be of some service. In the meantime, have fun in Cape Town.