Tag Archives: cross culture

Will the Pastor have a Beer with us?

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In our missions organization, drinking alcohol is taboo.  As a matter of fact, we all sign a contract saying that no matter what the cultural standards are in our mission field, we all agree that we won’t drink alcohol no matter what.  (Yes, we all know that Jesus drank wine.  But that’s not the point.)  This puts everyone on the same level playing field theoretically, but it can cause cultural problems ON the field.

For example, we have friends who serve in Ireland where drinking beer is not just a mile stone for manhood, it IS THE DEFINITION of manhood.  How a man holds his liquor is an indicator of how well he is respected in the community.  It is “sissy” for a man to go to the pub with his friends and just order a soft drink.  Not acceptable.  No, he must prove his worth with a foamy head.

This is a major problem for our friends.  They find themselves on the outs with the culture they want so badly to be IN with.  What to do, what to do?  (Personally, I have just enough ornery in me to break my written word when a higher need presents, if you know what I mean.  But my friends are true blue and won’t consider my alternative.)  So they are praying that the Lord will open up doors for them that don’t require alcohol for a key.

Missionaries have to deal with these kinds of ethical dilemmas all the time.  In some countries, it’s alright for Christians to smoke or drink or go out to eat with a member of the opposite sex who is not their spouse, the list of acceptable vices is long and colorful!  Gambling, movie going, using the Lord’s name in vain, all are cultural details that require a missionary to take care while searching for just the right stand to take.  It’s complicated, to say the least. What do you do when someone gives you a bottle of wine as a welcome gift?  What do you do if a tribal chief wants to smoke with you?  What do you do when a pastor invites your secretary out to lunch just the two of them?  Hmmm.  This is getting messy.

A Taboo Subject among Missionaries

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OK, it’s time to get brutally honest.  Today I’m going to blog about a taboo subject.  It’s something that most missionaries experience at some point in their careers and yet NO ONE wants to talk about.  It sounds sinful.  At some point in their lives, most missionaries say to themselves, “I don’t want to go to church.”

Now before I pick that scab off, let me clarify, I USED TO LOVE going to church.  I grew up in a ministry family and we were in church every time the doors were opened.  The overwhelming majority of my childhood church memories are wonderful, so I’m not processing repressed emotions here.  Then I grew up and had my own family.  We became a ministry family too.  As an adult, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of ministry… but I still loved going to church.  Even though Sunday was the longest work day of the week for us, I still loved going to church.  It was all about Jesus!  Yeah for Jesus!

I loved going to church, until I became a missionary.

With one change of location, church became something completely foreign to me. Church became the source of so much culture shock.  The minute I set foot outside of my house in Latin America, a tidal wave of Spanish washes over me.  I am swept out to sea.  For two and a half hours (five in Mexico), I tread water every Sunday in church just waiting for someone to pull the plug and drain the ocean.

Let me describe my cultural shock, I mean my church experience, through the eyes of a Minnesotan transplanted to Latin America.

Because we’re missionaries, we feel obligated to put ourselves through this practice for Hell every single Sunday.  We crowd into a VERY HOT room where everyone sits shoulder to shoulder, uncomfortably close.  (We’re so close that by the end of the service I am wearing the perfume of the lady sitting next to me.)  The music starts.  Somewhere in the rules of the cosmos it is ordained that if you give a Latino a microphone they will wrap their lips around it and sing at the top of their lungs.  I don’t know why, but it is true.  For an hour and a half, the singers howl like banshees into the hottest sound system in a 10 block radius because the neighbors who don’t go to church just might get saved if they can hear the service in their living rooms.  It’s hard to remember that this is about Jesus.

It does not matter if the drummer can keep a beat, he will pound the life out of those drums.  The audience does not clap on 2 and 4, they clap on 1 and 3.  (At each church we visit, my children always ask, “Mom, do we clap in English or in Spanish?)  If there’s not a tambourine in the room, then you’re not in an Evangelical church.  For the first year, my children would cry that their ears were hurting.  I stuffed cotton balls in their ears every week.  I think we’ve all lost a percentage of our hearing, because no one cries anymore.  I can’t hear myself sing, but I think sound is coming out of my mouth.  I guess I went deaf for Jesus.

The preaching… 90 minutes or more.  Remember that I have about a 20 minute attention span on a Good Spanish Day.  On the positive side, that’s a solid hour of Bible reading for me if my kids are behaving.  Jesus likes Bible reading, right?

But my children are another trial.  Every Sunday they become tormented by demons.  There is more screaming and crying and fighting in our house on a Sunday morning than in all the rest of the week combined.  By the time we get to church… I want to sell my kids to gypsies.  IF there are classes for them, I can guarantee that they won’t want to go to them.  I let them bring Polly Pockets and coloring books to service.  They still whine and wiggle and annoy each other and basically drive me nuts for two and a half hours.  I’m having a really hard time focusing on Jesus.

When Lucy was a baby I tried to acclimate her to going to the nursery, but each week I found myself sitting on the floor of the nursery picking up thumb tacks and staples from the carpet and taking batteries out of other babies’ mouths.  Diapers were changed on a filthy twin mattress that took up most of the floor space.  In the corner was a broken play pen.  The corner of the play pen was held together with a rusty wire.  Sometimes the toys were stored in the play pen, and sometimes children were stored there.  Every toy in the room was broken and dirty. There were broken balloons mixed in the heap, and one time I found a tangle of an old telephone cord that someone thought the babies might like to chew on.  There was no way I was leaving my child in here!  I’m sure this has nothing to do with Jesus.

When we get in the car to go home, I congratulate myself on making it through another service.  We won’t have to do this for a whole ‘nother week.

So this is what you won’t hear from the missionaries that are visiting your church to raise their budgets:  Going to church?  We dread it.

Sure there are things we learn to appreciate about it along the way, but for most missionary families, going to church is the most stressful thing we do all week long.  I can tolerate the difficult shopping challenges, waiting in line until Jesus comes back, crazy drivers who break the law left and right, filth and poverty everywhere, the heat, the smell, the prehistoric sized bugs, beans and rice with every meal, punching through the language barrier.  But when you take away my familiar church experience and replace it with THAT it’s like the cloud that can’t contain one more drop.  The cloud bursts and an ocean rains down on me.  I’m drowning in cultural differences.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.  I’m not the only missionary that has said to herself, “I hate going to church.”  Sometime when you have a missionary all alone in a quiet booth at Denny’s, ask them how they feel about church and let them be brutally honest with you.  It’s a relief to be able to admit it.  I don’t want to go to church.

Culture: The Mole on the Back of Your Neck

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Unless you are a cultural anthropologist, you probably don’t give much thought to your own culture.  You don’t think about what makes your nationality or ethnic group different from other groups.  You don’t consider where your opinions come from or what deep seated believes inspire your reactions to the world.  You never see all the different colored strands that go into making the tapestry of your world view.

Unless you physically move into another culture, you have very little to compare yourself to.  Up until that point, your culture is like a mole on the back of your neck that you never knew existed.  How can you possible know it’s there unless someone points it out to you?  For example, when we visited Thailand, our missionary friend humorously informed us that Thai people think Americans stink.  I was incredulous!  We don’t stink!  They stink!  (Americans tend to think the smells of fish, cumin or garlic are potent, so anyone who eats a lot of those foods will stink to the American nose.)  But the amazing thing was that after sweating profusely for 5 days straight, I was out of clean clothes.  And so was everyone else in the group.  Now I agreed with the Thai people… we do stink.  But unless I came in contact with someone with a different perspective than mine, I never would have seen myself from a different point of view… or smelled myself from down wind.

When missionaries enter a new culture, one of the things we pray for is that God would give us friends who can unlock the culture for us… gatekeeper friends, I call them.   These are friends that are able to love you for who you are and help explain their culture to you in a non-judgemental way.  These are the friends that will gently correct any mistakes you make without causing you additional embarrassment.  These are the friends that you can trust with your questions like, “why don’t we flush the toilet paper here?”  and “what does it mean when someone rolls their eyes at me?” and “how am I supposed to take my turn if we don’t form a line?”  A gatekeeper friend is an invaluable resource for learning a new culture.

I am continually amazed when God gives me friends like this because sometimes it is very difficult being friends with an outsider, a foreigner.  Having a conversation takes a lot of work on both sides, for me to struggle through Spanish and for them to concentrate so hard on understanding my meaning.  It’s exhausting for both of us!  Always having to explain things that are automatic or that are generally taken for granted requires patience.  Noticing the tired, glazed over look in my eyes or the look of confusion or of shock means paying attention to the details of someone else and taking compassion on them when their reactions are not your reactions.  It’s a lot of work being friends with a foreigner!  And I am so grateful for the friends that are willing to put in that kind of work to be my friend.  In their compassion towards me I feel the love of Jesus.  It’s a beautiful thing!