Tag Archives: culture

The Godfathers

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If you ever get invited to a wedding in another culture, you should go.   Without hesitation- just go.  It will be so worth it!  We were honored to be invited to the church wedding of two of the young people that we have been working with the past 3 years.  (The civil ceremony which makes the wedding legal happened a few days before.)  The first thing we attempted to do was to discover the protocol for gift giving.  What kind of gift is appropriate to give?  How much money are guests expected to spend?  Are gifts brought to the ceremony or sent to the house ahead of time?  Is there any such thing as a gift registry?  Those are the questions we asked.

The answers were not so easy to come by.  After asking many people, both gringos and Ticos we learned that there were some upscale stores that do a gift registry.  Our couple had listed a store on their invitations… though often times there is no formal paper invitation to be had since there is no mail service delivered directly to the houses here… because there are no addresses, obviously.  Duh.  However, we were given a hand delivered invitation with the name of a store on it.  My husband proceeded to ask around for the location of the store.  He eventually found a website with no wedding registry information on it, but he did find the phone number.  After many calls to the store which was in a different city, my husband placed an order for a gift and asked for it to be delivered to the couple… after we got directions to the house where they were going to live.

So we thought that we all set.  We were familiar with the city where the wedding would be held and Josh had actually been to the church before, so we were good.  The last time we tried to go to a wedding in another town we spent 6 hours wandering lost in the mountains before we decided that we probably missed the wedding and we should just head home.  Turns out weddings don’t start on time either.  We probably could have made it still.

On our way to the wedding, the store called and asked when Josh wanted to come pick up the gift.  He was shocked!  He told them, “You were supposed to deliver the gift yesterday!  If you deliver it today, no one will be at the house.  They are all at the church!”  So after some bickering back and forth, they agreed to have someone deliver the gift the following day.  Strike one for the wedding guests.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

When we arrived at the church, we were sure the ceremony would not be starting on time.  The groom was standing out front waiting for us.  Josh whispered to me, “Oh I hope they don’t ask me to say anything spur of the moment!”  Well he lucked out, all the groom wanted to know was if we would be the “Padrinos” or Godparents of the newly weds.  My husband said we would be honored, but what do the Padrinos do?  The groom laughed like we were making a joke and said, “Oh, you just pay for the wedding.”  (Costa Ricans love teasing and sarcasm.)  And we all laughed… nervously.  We still had no clue what was expected of us.

As we walked into the sanctuary, I grabbed the sister of the groom and whispered, “Where do we sit and what do the Godparents do?”

She shrugged and pointed to the back of the center aisle.  “Just wait here for instructions.”  She said it didn’t matter which side we sat on.  We chose seats in the middle of one of the sections since we didn’t want to presume that the Padrinos would walk down the aisle or be seated at the front.  We were wrong in our humble assumptions.  Strike two for the gringos.

I was actually surprised that we started within an hour of when the invitation said the wedding would start.  I had heard that often times the time on the invitation is when the wedding preparations start for the bride.  So if the wedding starts at 10:00 am, that means the bride will be getting in the shower at 10:00.  The family might sit down to lunch while she gets ready and by 3:00 pm, everyone will be making their way to the church.  No one really knows when the service will actually start.  And no one is bothered by this except the Americans.

In Costa Rica, there is an M.C. that directs the ceremony calling each person down in their proper order like fashion models walking down the cat walk.  “And now we have the grandmother of the bride being escorted by her grand-nephew.  And now we have the Padrinos, please walk to the front Josh and April.”  We hastily jumped up from our seats, ran up the side aisle and walked back down the center aisle together.  At the head of the aisle I looked to the announcer for directions about which side to sit on or if we were supposed to come up on the stage or stay standing along the front like groomsmen.  He was already on to the next fashion models and we were left awkwardly standing at the front.  We slid discretely down into the front pew.  Strike three for the totally lost Padrinos.

Both sets of parents sat across the aisle from us in the front pew and the sister of the groom sat next to me.  It was all totally disorganized and no one seemed to care.  When we realized that we were the only ones who were bothered by this, we let the blush cool on our cheeks and relaxed our tense shoulders.  “Pura Vida” we whispered to each other.  That is the Costa Rican motto which really means “No worries mon!”  Just go with the flow.

After the ceremony we were uncertain what would happen next.  The announcer did something totally surprising.  He said, “If anyone wants their picture with the bride and groom, just come up on the stage.”  So for an hour the guests pushed and cajoled for a spot in line to have their picture taken with the new couple.  It was like a mad receiving line with iPhone cameras flashing everywhere.  Totally disorganized, and again, no one cared.

We didn’t know if there was a reception somewhere.  We didn’t see any gifts on a table anywhere.  (For the record, I did see some relatives whisk some packages into a car earlier on.)  We loitered around the back of the sanctuary talking with guests and family, waiting for some kind of sign.  When the groom finally said he had to get going, we figured that was the end of it.  We headed home to San Jose… hungry.

I had heard of weddings where there was indeed a beautiful cake on a table, but it turned out that the cake was cardboard and only one little disk at the top was real for cutting for the photo.  It seems that Hollywood has influenced Costa Rican culture in a way where young couples thought they wanted a cake since that’s what they do in the movies, but no one knew what to do with it.  And since cakes can be insanely expensive here (Most people don’t bake or even know how to use their ovens.  They store their Tupperware in their ovens.) they opt for a fake cake that looks good in the pictures.  So I was bracing for no cake.  I was quite shocked at no reception at all.  Strike four for the hungry Godparents.

The lessons we learned at the wedding made us feel honored that our friends had opened this cultural portal for us.  We left feeling proud to have navigated another pot-hole filled mile of culture and for having not embarrassed ourselves too badly by not knowing what was going on.  We were able to “roll with the punches” and we survived.  Plus we learned that not much flusters a Costa Rican, so we should just relax and enjoy the Pura Vida too.

Indirectly on Egg Shells

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Americans usually speak directly.  They tell you what they are thinking.  Particularly Minnesotans value honest communication of facts.  But in Costa Rica, speaking indirectly is the norm.  One of the highest social values here is not offending.  It can become a labrynth of side stepping and hedging just to communicate and get things done here.  But getting things done is not the priority.  Keeping the peace is more important.  To do this, Costa Ricans often use a third party to ask for favors or to make inquiries.

For example, when we were in language school we convinced our conversation teacher to let us have a field trip to a local coffee shop where we would have breakfast together and practice our Spanish conversation skills.  It’s true, we just wanted to get out of the classroom.  The teacher liked our idea, but she asked that WE ask the director for permission.  We thought this was odd, since SHE was the teacher and HE was her boss.  We considered it her responsibility to go through the proper channels to get permission, but she considered this the proper way of asking for favors- sending a third party.

This happened again a few months later.  We had hired a maid for the first few months that we lived here (I didn’t know how to clean a house with tile floors throughout or to get my laundry to dry in this rainy climate.)  After we moved to another house, we didn’t continue using the maid, however another new family hired her.  One day I ran into Suyen (our former maid) and she asked me to speak with her new employer for her.  She said, “I don’t think Mrs. Anderson understood me.  I asked if I could change my work hours and she said No.  Could you ask her if she understood me?”  Suyen was asking me to ADVOCATE for her, not translate for her.  When I spoke with Mrs. Anderson, she said she understood Suyen perfectly and had said No to her request.  She wondered out loud why Suyen would ask me to speak to her.  Then I put two and two together and realized that I had been used as a third party.  Suyen had wanted my leverage of the power of connection with the other American AND she had wanted my protection from receiving a direct No again.

It was hard for me not to feel used in both of these instances.  However, I have since then learned to use this system of communication for my own benefit rather than always feeling like a tool that my friends use for favors.  Now I can skillfully navigate tricky conversations to avoid conflicts too.  For example, when I have a sensitive question to ask someone, I find another person who is willing to speak to the person for me.  Especially someone OFFERS to go talk to the person for me- I accept the offer.  In America we would say, “No, I can do my own dirty work.”  But here my thought is, “I don’t want to offend or embarrass this person, so maybe it’s better to let someone else do it.  They might know how to do it more gently and more appropriately.”

Because the Costa Rican way is to avoid direct confrontation and avoid embarrassing people, it can feel like walking on egg shells all the time.  I breathe a sigh of relief when I manage to escape a potentially confrontational situation.  I don’t particularly LIKE this way of communication, but I’m learning how to use it, how to adapt to it, and how to recognize it.  It’s part of cultural adaptation and it’s what missionaries do.  We try to be all things to all people and if that means walking on eggshells and speaking indirectly- then that’s what I do.

Stress

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It may just be me being hormonal or maybe it’s because I’ve eaten fast food 3 times this week, but today I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster.  There were some really great things that happened, and there were some super stressful things that made me want to scream and curl up into fetal position for a few days.  Most days I’m pretty flexible with the way that Latinos change their plans at a moment’s notice.  I just roll with the punches, but today the punches knocked me off my feet.

For my 5th grade class and my 9th grade Bible class, I have had my units all planned out for the last 6 weeks. I planned to wrap everything up this week since finals are the next week.  But my week is being whittled away!  Today my schedule changed HOURLY!  The kids kept asking me what subject we were doing next and I would tell them, “I planned to do such and such, but it depends on who walks in the door during the next 40 minutes!”  The demands on my flexibility were pushing me to my breaking point.

So another thing that was running in the background of my mind was the fact that I was on the schedule to lead the teachers’ devotional tomorrow morning.  I have long since quit going to that Thursday morning obligation because it’s just too much to ask me to get 5 people out the door and on the campus before 7am.  It’s just too much.  But I was ready to teach and braced for the effort of herding my people out the door early.  The devo was supposed to be during a special breakfast time to close out the year with the teachers.  Right on the schedule it said “desayuno compartido” (shared breakfast) next to my name, so I assumed that I would be sharing my devotional while we are sharing breakfast together.

Mid way through the morning the principal approached me with the devotional schedule in her hand.  “I just wanted to check that you saw this.”  She said, pointing to my name on the sheet.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m ready.” I was confused that the expression on her face was not one of relief.  She arched her eyebrows and puckered her lips into a tense smile.  Uh-oh, something’s not right.

“So you are prepared?  I was concerned because you didn’t mention anything yesterday in our meeting (which was another stressor from the day before).”

“Yes, I’m ready to share a devotional.”

“You see that it says ‘shared breakfast’ next to your name?”

“Yes, I will share the devotional while we have our breakfast.”  Her expression of worry had not changed yet.  I felt like I was missing something.  Even though I was understanding her words completely, I was missing some hidden meaning.  I prodded, “We ARE eating together, right?”

“Oh yes, do you need any help with that?”

“What?”

“Do you need me to bring anything?” she asked me.  Now I was totally confused.

“Ummm, If you want to, I suppose that’s fine.  What were you thinking?”

She informed me that normally they do a full Costa Rican style breakfast with beans and rice, fruit drinks, and eggs.  Then a sinking feeling settled into my stomach.  I asked point-blank, “Am I supposed to make breakfast for everyone?”

“YES!  That’s why it says ‘shared breakfast’ next to your name!”

“OMG!  I didn’t know that!  I thought I was sharing a devotional while we ate a breakfast that the school provided for us!” In my mind I continued:  You mean I’m supposed to cook AND teach BEFORE I teach all day long and then go home to make dinner for 25 people on the missions team that we are also hosting at this time?  Shall I kill you now or AFTER breakfast?  “OK, well since I obviously didn’t understand that, I’m only going to bring a box of donuts and maybe someone can help make coffee too.  How’s that?”  I felt I was being generous.  Her lips pursed again.  “Or… maybe we could put a sign up list in the office and see if other people will bring stuff too.”  Hmmm…

I finally just apologized for not understanding and informed her that I can’t possibly provide breakfast.  I felt the angry, frustrated tears burning in my eyes and my throat constricted as I forced myself not to cry.  This was my last straw… for that hour.  More straws were coming, falling on me like rain.

An hour later the school secretary sheepishly came to my classroom and said, “I heard what [the principal] said to you.  Um, I am going this afternoon to buy the food for the breakfast.  I ALWAYS do this.  You were never expected to make the breakfast.  Did you think you were going to have to pay for this on your own?  Oh no, I have money from the school for this.  I will take care of all of it.  Just don’t forget that you have to do the devotional.”  Believe me, I was NOT going to forget THAT!

I can’t remember the last time I felt so much relief.  However this was a cultural thing.  The principal would never admit to my face that she had been wrong- totally flat-out wrong.  No, and neither would the secretary admit that the principal was wrong.  I didn’t get an apology for the hour of heart palpitations that I suffered.  I just privately savored my relief.

Later that afternoon, I found myself standing in a space no bigger than 5 feet square shoulder to shoulder with 13 other people and only 4 chairs.  I was in the waiting room at my son’s orthodontist’s office.   The air in our cubicle was stale, pre-breathed air.  Everyone was trying not to make eye contact with each other, and trying to wait patiently.  Because my children and I were the last ones to arrive, I knew that even through we had a 4:30 appointment, there were 13 other people ahead of us who were also waiting on appointments long passed.

We waited 10 minutes before I decided, “Screw this!  I’ve had too long of a day to sit her for another 2 hours.”  My patience was shot!  We left without even informing the receptionist who was hiding somewhere in the back office so she wouldn’t have to stare at a room full of long-suffering strangers.  At that point I gave myself permission to say, “NO.  I have been imposed upon one too many times today.  I’m going home now.” We stopped at McDonalds for dinner… for the third time this week.

Without Love this is all Worthless

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I had already been thinking of writing something about 1 Cor. 13 from a missionary point of view when a friend of mine posted this version that she had saved from her language school days. So I decided to save myself some time and just shamelessly share Cindy’s post.  

The point is that without love, missions is pointless.  I think some of us THINK  we have love, but when that emotion is twisted and broken by culture clash, then we realize that what we had was a sort of romanticization of missions.  We loved the IDEA of being missionaries rather than loving Jesus enough to love fallen humans.  

Love isn’t easy.  If you think it’s easy, you aren’t doing it right.  Jesus said even sinners love those who love them, so what’s the big deal if you do the same?  The really hard thing is to love those who don’t love you back, who hate you and your nationality and your skin color, who don’t want you in their country.  Now that’s real, gritty love.

love you

A GUIDE TO CULTURE (According to 1 Corinthians 13)

If I speak with the tongue of a national, without love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I wear the national dress and understand the culture and all forms of etiquette, and if I copy all mannerisms so that I could pass for a national, but have not love, I am nothing.

Love endures long hours of language study, and is kind to those who mock his accent; love does not envy those who stayed home; love does not exalt his home culture; is not proud of his national superiority; does not boast about the way we do it back home; does not seek his own ways; is not easily provoked into telling about the beauty of his home country; does not think evil about this culture.

Love bears all criticisms about his home culture, believes all good things about this new culture, confidently anticipates being at home in this place, endures all inconveniences.

Love never fails, but where there is cultural anthropology, it will fail; where there is contextualization, it will lead to syncretism; where there is linguistics, it will change.

For we know only part of the culture, and we minister to only part.

But when Christ is reproduced in this culture, then our inadequacies will be insignificant.

When I was in America, I spoke as an American, I understood as an American, I thought as an American, but when I left America, I put away American things.

Now we adapt to this culture awkwardly, but we will live in it intimately. Now I speak with a strange accent, but He will speak to the heart.

And now these three remain: cultural adaptation, language study, and love.

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/brandoncwarren/4164759025/”>Brandon Christopher Warren</a> / <a href=”http://foter.com/Love/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>CC BY-NC</a>

What NOT to wear

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One of my favorite “junk TV” shows is a catty little fashion show called “What NOT to wear”.  Basically the witty, yet snotty, hosts hijack some poor fashion disaster, trash her hideous wardrobe, and then take her on a shopping spree in New York City.  They give her shopping guidelines to follow based on her body type and her previous fashion faux pas.  I have often wished that someone would give me some fashion guidelines for dressing myself in another country.  It would make things a whole lot easier.

I stand in my closet and think, “Hmmm, What to wear, what to wear…” If I were in a country where the locals went naked, would I consider following the local trend? Probably not, but how “native” am I willing to go?  Sometimes that’s not a difficult adjustment to make and sometimes it’s super challenging.  For example, here in San Jose, Costa Rica a modest woman does not wear shorts in the city.  I wear pants, jeans, capris or longer skirts.  Now the locals can also wear super short skirts if they want to, but not shorts.  I personally get stared at enough as it is, being a white woman with blue eyes, so I prefer not to wear mini skirts and get too much of the wrong kind of attention.  It’s not a sacrifice; it’s my preference.  Actually it’s the jeans that cause me the most consternation.  When it’s hot, jeans feel like insanity!  Yet people wear them… and wear them tight!  UGH!  This American thinks that is crazy uncomfortable.

As a Christian we also have a tighter set of fashion standards that we have to think about too.  For example, I have a friend who grew up in Africa.  His parents were missionaries to a tribe of people who basically wear strings tied around their waists and nothing else.  In an early attempt to bring Christian modesty to the tribe, the missionaries imported a box of T-shirts and passed them out to everyone.  The people were thrilled!  However, the missionaries were less thrilled with the results.  The following week all the women showed up at church with circular holes strategically cut in their T-shirts to make nursing their babies a convenient activity while the pastor preached with a tomato-red blush on his white face.  Fail!

So the question remains for the conscientious missionary:  Are you going to “go native?”  Do you wear what the locals wear?  Or do you require that they convert to Western clothing when the convert to the Western Jesus?  If I am a woman in a Muslim country, do I veil?  What is Biblical and what is my culture and what is my responsibility to the people that I want to minister to?

You burst my personal bubble

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Before I moved to Latin America I had a rather large, roomy personal bubble.  Most Americans do.  I didn’t like “close talkers” to use a phrase from Seinfeld.  You know, a close talker is someone who stands uncomfortably close to you when they talk.  And they may even unconsciously pursue you as you back away gradually.  A close talker could easily creep me out or make me super irritated.

This past week at the conference I was basically chased around a table by a close talker.  I kept backing up and he kept following me!  I even tried throwing a few chairs in his path, but they didn’t deter him!  He was WAY into my personal bubble.

But in Latin America, my personal bubble was completely burst.  Here girlfriends often touch each other’s hair and clothing as they talk.  Old ladies hold my hand or pat my cheek or rub my arm while they talk to me.  Friends link arms as they walk along.  Everyone kisses as a greeting.  Closeness is part of the warmth of the culture.  Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.

When we lived in Mexico occasionally we would take advantage of our two oldest kids finally being in school and we would go to see an early movie.  No parents in town meant no babysitters for date nights, so we compromised.  Naturally because we are Americans we always bought our tickets early and arrived at the theater early enough to choose our seats.  Being the first ones, we had the whole theater to chose from.  But it never failed, the very next couple to enter the theater ALWAYS chose the seats RIGHT NEXT TO US with no buffer seat between us.  (Have you noticed how Americans put their coats on the seat next to them as a buffer?)  To our American sense of space, this was incredibly awkward to be sitting in an empty theater shoulder to shoulder with total strangers.  Awkward!

But for the Mexican who were used to living in one of the most crowded cities in the world, it was nothing to be nearly on top of each other.  More than likely they were thinking we had chosen the best seats and naturally they wanted the best view too.  It’s kind of like how you can draw a crowd just by staring and pointing to something vague in the distance.  (It’s kind of a fun prank, you should try it sometime.)

Here in Latin America touching and grooming and friendship all shrink my personal bubble.  I have discovered that when I return to the United States I often freak people out by standing too close for comfort.  I don’t mean to be a creeper, I just forget!  One time I was in the grocery store in the meat section.  There was only one other lady in the whole place.  She was looking intently into the cooler case, examining some packages of meat.  I thought because she was looking so purposefully that she must have found a sale item.  So I slid over to her side and looked right where she was looking.  She looked up in surprise and took a few steps to her right.  Instinctively I followed her a few steps to the right.  She gave me a dirty look.  Then I realized what a creeper I was being.  I apologized and headed to the bread section post haste!  It was pointless to try to explain that Latin America had broken my personal bubble.

Time Travel Jet Lag

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We are coming up on “summer vacation” here in Costa Rica.  As a family we are looking forward to returning to the States for a few weeks of R&R for Christmas and to attend a World Missions Summit.  We are totally blessed to be able to travel with relative ease between our mission field and our home state.  But in many ways, making short trips back home sort of has the same effect as traveling through time might have.  I feel like I get Time Travel Shock and the space-time continuum is interrupted.

When I am in Latin America, the third world is my “normal”.  It’s like I exist in a completely different period of time now.  There are so many aspects of life that I just take for granted at this point.  The things that used to shock me or catch my attention have become part of my background white noise and I hardly notice them any more.  But when I am dropped like a paratrooper back into my original setting, everything that used to be “normal” before I was a missionary seems stunning or note-worthy.  Not only do I change locations physically, I seem to travel into the future to a time that has not yet existed in Costa Rica.  The bouncing back and forth can be quite a shock to me both mentally and emotionally.

Let me expound on just one feature of my time travel shock.  When I return to Minnesota the first thing I notice is the SPACE around me.  There is just so much SPACE!  Even in a crowded airport, I have ample elbow room.  When we get in the car and drive from the airport to the house, the cars all keep a reasonable distance from each other. The highway is buffered on both flanks by wide hills of grass or dunes of snow depending on the season.  So much unused SPACE!  In the grocery store, I have lost all sense of what is an appropriate distance to maintain between myself and the other shoppers.  Either I fall into my Latin American patterns of driving my cart right up to the behind of the person in line in front of me, or I over compensate and leave a confusing gap between us.  My sense of space is all out of wack.

When I return again to Latin America, the first thing I notice when I step outside of the airport is the closeness of everything and everyone.  The humidity wraps around my head and presses against my face, making me feel like I am breathing through a wet blanket.  The people press in all around me asking to carry my bags or find a taxi for me.  I have to resist the urge to start pushing people out of my way.  I want to shove everyone and shout, “Back off!  I have been folded into an airplane seat for hours and I really need some space.”  The smells of wet pavement, rotting sewer, and over perfumed humanity all press in against my senses leaving me no where to turn.  Then we get in the car and start driving home.  The traffic zooms up to us and stops suddenly, no buffer, no fear of hitting us.  They are just taking up space as fast as they can lest another car come along and claim that inch of pavement.  We zoom, they zoom.  The buildings on both sides of the highway hug the road, dangerously close.  When we stop, people swarm the car trying to sell us things through the car windows.  We keep the windows rolled up.  That 3/4 of an inch of glass between us and the street vendors feels like enough space.  Personal space has become relative.

In addition to our awkward use of space and the gawking our family of 5 will do in every public space, going back for Christmas time is a surreal experience in and of itself.  My parents want my kids to make a Christmas list.  My kids don’t know what toys are “out there” now.  They ask me, “What do I need, Mom?”  I just shake my head.  I am stuck back in time from when we first left America 6 years ago.  I think about what will fit in a suitcase- again, I have space issues.  Before we leave, I will search the internet for what clothes are in fashion now.  I will try to pack things that are neutral enough so that I blend into the background and don’t make me stick out like someone who just arrived from the year 2006.  Not only to we change spaces, we change times as well.  I am already anticipating the Time Travel Jet Lag.

Vegan Church

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Last Saturday morning, my husband and I went on a coffee date to Starbucks.  We drove about a half hour to a very ritzy part of town called Escazu.  (Whenever you see Costa Rica on House Hunters International it’s either a beach location or a multimillion dollar house in this part of town.)  It’s very American over there.  As a matter of fact, we just got our first Starbucks in Costa Rica and, of course, it’s in Escazu.

We noticed as we were pulling into the parking lot that there was some kind of festival or market happening down the block.  There were cute white tents like the kind they use at the Uptown Art Festival in my hometown.  So I got excited, thinking that maybe it was an art exhibit or something.  After our coffee, we wandered down to the tents to take a look.

It was an organic, vegan and whole foods farmers’ market.  There were all kinds of foods that I have never eaten before and had to read the labels to identify.  And everything was suuuuuper expensive, like $20 for a bag of hemp chips.

All the vendors had a certain look about them.  At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I finally decided that I would call the look “Rich-Modern-Urban- Spiritualist.”  If “Hippie” ever became trendy, this would be the look.  If “Boho” married “Yuppie” this would be the prodigy.  I concluded that everyone obviously “belonged” in this kind of market because of their look.

It was kind of like crashing a convention of home school moms.  Everyone sort of had the same look, except for us.  (I say this with no malice because I WAS a home school mom for many years.)  My husband and I sort of didn’t fit in.

Yep, that’s the home school mom look.

Maybe it’s because we had both showered that morning and neither one of us smelled like Patchouli.  Maybe it was because we don’t drive a hybrid car or recycle religiously… I don’t know.  But whatever were the elements required to be a member of this group, we didn’t have them.  I walked away with an odd feeling of being excluded.  (Maybe I should have bought that $30 jar of seaweed jelly just to fit in.)

I asked Josh, “What do you think people think of us?”  I mean, I pegged those people into a category upon first sight, but what category would WE fit into?  It really is difficult to see how others view you. I wonder if my husband and I have any distinguishing characteristics or fashions that would allow people to guess how we voted in the last election, how many times a week we eat fast food, and if any seaweed has ever been ingested by either of us.

Then I got to thinking about the church.  Is this how people feel when the visit our churches?  Do they feel like they need to have some “cool factor” in order to fit in?  Does our appearance communicate how rich we are?  Are we more likely to enter church with a Starbucks cup in our hands or a Bible in our hands?  Is our church language designed to give newcomers the information they need to become a member of our group, or is it exclusive so that only long time members would understand the announcements?  Do new people walk away with a vague sense of “High School Cliques Deja-Vu” or do they feel warmly accepted and excited to return?

We should give careful thought to the kind of culture we are creating at church.  We should put ourselves in the position of a Newcomer and try to see how THEY would view us.  “What would other people think of us?” is a valid question.

They won’t invite you in

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Part of learning to live within another culture is learning to observe and draw conclusions.  For example, when we lived in Mexico City I wondered why there were so many speed bumps and so few stop lights.  After a few months of observing the way Mexicans drive I decided that the speed bumps were a way to slow down on-coming traffic just enough to let you slip into the gap.  No one has to fully stop unless the whole line of traffic is backed up.  Another example comes from our first trip to Panama.  We noticed that there were plenty of stop lights at night, but during the day the lights were turned off and a police officer was directing traffic.  Why?  To create jobs during the day.  At night it’s easier to see a light than a person.  So sometimes a little time spent in observation yields great dividends in understanding the ways of this new culture.

But sometimes I just can’t connect an observation with any logical conclusion.  Sometimes I’m just stuck with a behavior that is disconnected from meaning.  For example, after two years of living in Costa Rica, we have actually seen the inside of a real Costa Rican’s home only a handful of times.  (That’s not counting all our “Gringo” friends who live in “Tico” style homes.)   So one day my curiosity just overwhelmed my patience for observation and I asked a direct question.

I was sitting around the table in the teachers’ break room with 3 other Costa Rican teachers.  I had worked with these ladies for a year and a half and not only did I really like them, I respected them.  They also understood Americans because their students were nearly all missionaries from America.  So I decided that they could handle a direct question and would give me a true answer.

I started gently.  “So, I’ve noticed something about Costa Ricans, tell me if you think it’s true.  Costa Ricans don’t invite people to their houses for dinner very often.  Is that a correct observation?”

The air around me crackled with peals of laughter and squeals of pretend shock.  Hands flew expressively into the air and over mouths and on top of heads, “Oh no!  NO!” they all affirmed, “You do NOT invite people into your home!   Only family is invited into the house.”

But WHY?  I pressed.  “The home is very private.  You might as well invite someone into your bedroom to go through your closets!” My friends all gasped at the horror of the thought.  “Once you invite someone into your home THEY ARE FAMILY and you can never get rid of them!  They can ask you for things.  They can show up any time they want.  They will stay as long as they like.  It’s such an imposition.  You have to be very certain that you really like this person, because once they come for dinner, you’re stuck with them.  And it might take 4 or 5 or even 10 years to decide if you like someone enough to invite them over for dinner.”  I guess we’re going to be here a while, in that case.

One of the teachers who had studied in America remembered how shocked she was when Americans invited her into their houses just to get to know her better.  She concluded accurately that Americans use their homes as a tool to get to know people, while a Costa Rican would prefer to go OUT for coffee to get to know someone better.

At first I was horrified to hear this thinking about how many times we had invited groups of students and pastors and other friends over to our house for dinner or a barbecue.  We’ve been making social blunders all over the place!  (But the students REALLY LOVE coming over to our American-style house.  We always draw a huge crowd.  I guess it’s a novelty.)

Then I got a little teary eyed when I thought of the few times that we had been invited to a Costa Rican’s house for dinner.  (We have actually been invited to STAY with some friends on more than one trip outside of the city.  If dinner is a big deal, then a week long visit is over the top!)  Suddenly I knew how they felt about us.  We were family.  We had been invited into the inner sanctum of familial love and closeness.  It made me so humbled and happy to know that THIS is how they feel about us.

We are far away from our real family, but God has given us friends that love us like we were family.  And that amazes and humbles me and fills me with joy.

My daughters sitting at the breakfast table at the home of our precious friends when we came for the weekend.

Let’s give the children fire!

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This weekend we will be celebrating Costa Rica’s Independence Day.  Tonight at our school we will be participating in a special parade that will be duplicated in every neighborhood containing a school.  The Independence Day celebrations begin with a “running of the torch”.  Our original colonial government was based in Guatemala.  So every year a torch is run from Guatemala down through El Salvador and Nicaragua to Costa Rica.  It takes a few weeks, but the children do a mini-torch run around the block around the school.

We also have a special parade around the school where all the children carry lanterns.  The lanterns are called “Faroles” and they are usually homemade paper houses… swinging on a string tied to a stick… with a candle inside.  Yeah.  The whole thing has disaster written all over it.

I asked a friend of mine once, “Don’t the faroles ever catch on fire?”

She laughed and said, “Oh yes!  All the time!  Every year someone gets hot wax spilled on them or catches their lantern on fire.  It’s really dangerous, but we still do it every year.”  I laughed nervously.

Then I remembered another conversation I had a few years ago.  I showed one of my Mexican friends a picture of my husband and son ice fishing on a frozen lake in Minnesota.  She had never heard of lakes freezing over.  I explained that when the ice gets a few inches thick, we drive cars out to the middle and park a little house on the ice.  We cut a hole in the ice and sit in the house and fish through the hole.  My friend was totally shocked!

“Don’t the cars ever fall through the ice?”  she quizzed me.

“Oh yes!”  I laughed, “Every year some idiot tries to drive on the ice before it’s thick enough and he falls in.  Then they have to either haul the car out with a winch or wait until spring.”  This did nothing to erase the shocked look from her face.

So tonight I will be giving my children their homemade faroles with little battery operated LED lights in them instead of the traditional candles.  I don’t see any reason why we should give the children fire and tell them to run around the block in a herd.  I think that’s just asking for trouble.  We’ll see how it goes.