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Friday, March 17, 2006

First Person Plural

Most of us change pretty dramatically after just a short time on the field. As we begin to identify with nationals, we are exposed to different perspectives (many of us for the first time) that we never really got from previous experiences or short-term trips. Right away, we start to see ourselves through other people's eyes, and we can't help but rethink some of what we've always believed about politics, social issues, and our faith. We are compelled to begin the process of determining what is truth and what is culture.

Even though we all go through this transition from our home culture to our host culture, it's a lonely time for us, because we must go through it alone. Sure we try to relate our experiences to our friends and families back home, but how can we express the disillusionment, frustration, and doubt we struggle with? After all, we're paid to be professionals. We ought to know our role, and we certainly should be beyond the basics. If we are open about these things, people get nervous; the Board of Trustees thinks we've gone liberal and makes a new policy to help straighten us out. If we seek the counsel of our stateside pastors, they inadvertently give us a distinctly American perspective. If we ask our Southern Baptist constituency, the people in the pews, we risk losing their confidence in us and therefore their support.

So the norm these days is to keep quiet. Don't tell the people back home that we've changed our minds about alcohol and the death penalty and spiritual gifts. Don't let them know we're against the war in Iraq and embarrassed by the overweight, ignorant volunteers that come and perpetuate the American stereotype. But as far as I can tell, saying nothing hurts accountability and unity. So I blog. And fortunately, I'm not alone. Coworkers from around the world are writing posts about some of the same things. I can't tell you how encouraging it is to me to read fellow IMB M's blogging about the issues they face, and knowing that the people who send us can read about our experiences first-hand.

But the comments that followed my last post reveal the difficulty of communication between the field and home. Here are some reasons for the breakdown:

Learning living languages brings a new perspective to our understanding of biblical languages. If it takes me years to learn the subtle nuances of the twelve different ways to say the same thing in my host language (a language I'm immersed in), maybe I'm going to be a little skeptical of the preacher back home who claims to know the one true meaning of the original Greek of a biblical text.

We are consistently exposed to the spiritual enemy in ways we normally wouldn't experience back home. On a daily basis, we come face to face with principalities and powers that have ruled these countries for generations. Even those strongholds that are familiar to us: bitterness, materialism, and idolatry, seem to have extra-sharp teeth out here. All we can do is hold tightly to the Holy Spirit. But if we talk about what we've seen, we're labeled charismatic.

We are seeing strong and healthy churches born all the time. We learn more about the body of Christ from this adventure of being the church than we ever did by going to church in the States. We don't miss one bit the politics, fund-raising, or programmed activities of the congregational churches we come from. These groups were started by the Holy Spirit and accountable to Him as they seek to obediently work out what it means to be believers in their own culture. But because these churches don't fit the SBC mold, seminary presidents and big-name pastors back home are questioning our ecclesiology.

I've often heard that missionaries should just preach the gospel, and not worry so much about the culture. My time on the field, however, has taught me that the gospel is impossible to share or even comprehend outside the context of a culture. So I will keep seeking cultural translation of life in Christ. And as long as I have something to say, I'll keep blogging about it.


David Rogers said...

Living in a different culture definitely does change you. And, I would say, in most ways, for the better. It gives you a broader perspective: on the world, on the church, on the Kingdom of God... But it is also fraught with the danger of making you more cynical.

I love the following quote from Paul Billheimer's "Love Covers" which I recently referenced on my blog...

"In God’s book, the important thing is not to settle controversial issues here and now, but while considering them, to grow in grace and in the supreme virtue of agape love."

I believe that living in another culture gives us greater opportunities to "grow in grace...and agape love". Sometimes these opportunities (or challenges) are so great that we are not up to the task, and, as a result, become bitter, cynical, and judgmental of others who don't see things our way. If, however, in the face of it all, we can persevere in the path of humility and brokenness, there will be some incredible rewards as a result.

David said...

Thank you, stepchild, for the vulnerability and transparency you relate via this blog. God bless you in your desire to be available for His service.

CharlieMac said...

Your perspective into learning a living language is so very needed in Southern Baptist circles of today. I have come to believe that to claim to know exactly what all scripture meant in ancient times and to apply the exact meaning today exhibits a lack of understanding. Not only of the fact that all languages from the beginning have been ever changing living languages, but also of a living God who reveals himself to His people as they are able to grow and understand more about Him.
Just as our knowledge of the ever expanding universe changes as we study it, our knowledge of God's meaning in His Word and our lives grows.

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Stepchild,

As a stateside pastor, I feel like I stand between you missionaries and the people in the pews. I try to keep them informed about you, so that they will be prayerful and supportive. Blogs like this, where you tell what we need to know, but won't get through official channels, are a great help to me in my role, and so to the members in theirs.

Love in Christ,


Anonymous said...

I think change is okay and change is a great thing. So often we find ourselves in a place of needing to revamp things but we are taught it's bad to reshape our minds and how we view the world.

People seem to be afraid of what isn't familiar. If we begin to express our changing opinions it's seen as liberal and even dangerous. Is it not more dangerous to sit idle and continue eating what is spoon fed to us even Sunday and Wednesday.

josh said...

As a 'stateside' I am humbled, embarrassed and compassionate for you. I don't know what your issues are. Even if I did, I couldn't begin to understand. I will pray for you. Pray for me.

Bill said...


Your post brought back a lot of memories and insights about learning language and culture.

When my wife and I lived in Norway we took advantage of the free Norwegian lessons offered by the community, along with a lot of other "refugees" who lived in our town.

I learned essentially nothing about speaking Norwegian from this class. While I learned some vocabulary and rules for constructing sentences, I did not cross the bridge to understanding the language, and I could only speak the rudimentary "Hello, my name is _____ sentences, and then with atrocious pronunciation. A major problem of the class was that while our teacher was Norwegian, she attempted to explain things to us in English.

My wife and I learned the language by being part of the community and a congregation. We spent lots of times with friends hearing them speak in the context of everyday life. I learned more about the culture by doing typical Norwegian activities (e.g. Sunday afternoon walks in the forest) than I could have in years in the classroom.

There came a time when hearing and understanding "clicked in" so we could understand what was being said from context rather than knowing the meaning of each individual word. As a result there are many Norwegian words that I could not accurately translate into English, because they convey a feeling or concept rather than words. I've found that sometimes it isn't even important to know the exact translation - the primary goal is communication among friends!

Perhaps the same is true of scripture - complete understanding and communication do not come through grammatical analysis or debate, but through living it together in the context of community.

Joe Missionary said...

this is a great post, I can't really think of anything to add except that this is a universal phenomenon of cross-cultural mission. I am re-reading Kester Brewin's book, THE COMPLEX CHRIST and I share with you here the opening paragraphs of the chapter called Emergence...

"Christ’s emergence as a baby, born into a specific culture and a particular time, is an archetype for change. We must stop. Wait. Allow God God’s freedom and let the old pass away. Free our memories and open our imaginations to be impregnated; become wombs of the divine and give birth to newness in our particular place and time.

Christ’s incarnation in a specific time and a specific place demands of us, the body of Christ, that we too undergo incarnation and are born somewhere specific, committing to it and putting roots down. We cannot be reborn in first-century Palestine; we need to be incarnate to the place where we are and the place that most needs us. We must learn how to incarnate the Church in the city.

Becoming incarnate will mean the same for us as it did Christ. We will have to experience being small and defenceless, requiring nurture from our host-world just as Christ needed Mary’s milk. We cannot and must not remain rootless people or rootless churches. Christ needed water from the earth, food from the ground, education from his elders; yet we too often experience church as an organization that has absolutely no need for its surrounding community or area. It is too often an appendage, something slightly apart and independent, not needing the neighbouring culture in order to survive. To admit our need as a church, our dependence on our host culture, is a risk. Yet like Christ we must take this risk of interdependence, this risk of being born, this risk of life. (p. 52)

I find this encouraging because it is a divine process to be incarnated into another culture. As we deal with the frustrations and difficulties of adopting a new culture but being accountable to another, take is a very special and holy experience.


stepchild said...

It's funny that you mention how living overseas changes us for the better. My brother-in-law thinks it's only made us "a bunch of liberals!"

Thanks for the quote. I'm convinced that most of my questions boil down to incarnation of the gospel, and its application in my host culture. I've learned so much about myself and my home culture through the process.

Theophilus said...

I've had some similar thoughts on this issue that I've shared on my own blog. I am gratful for this forum. It has given me an even greater appreciation for all our frontliners. There are some great minds and hearts here.
A few years ago in the midst of a different controversary (we do this from time to time!), I wrote my sending pastor in frustration. He said, "we'll work this out on this side, but God has called you to stand on the wall, so you stand on that wall!" That encouragement still echos with me.

Jacob said...

To stepchild -
I am right with you...uh huh!