What is it like being a missionary in a foreign culture? One missionary described it by saying “Imagine eating upside down, sleeping standing up, looking through something solid, walking backwards and speaking in reverse order. That is the comfort level of a missionary in a new culture.” And I laughed, because I think it paints a vivid picture of how odd and out of place one feels. This is what people call “culture-shock” – which will shock you no matter how hard you try and brace yourself for that shock.
A few weeks ago, our village elders called for a meeting with us missionaries. What prompted the meeting was me buying avocados that wasn’t great quality. Yes, the simple task of buying avocados. I bought avocados on Saturday, that I thought looked yummy and didn’t seem to have any defect (little did I know it was picked to early) On Monday one of my friends asked me if I had some avocados I can give to her. I brought it outside, and then, all of a sudden the ladies who were standing around became angry and asked me “who sold you these avocados? They are terrible quality” After the ladies left, they took their complaint to the village leaders, and 2 leaders came to meet with us that afternoon. At a point in the discussion, one of the leaders said “If you buy avocados from a little girl that is bad quality, you’ll create problems for her dad” You might think he’s referring to the fact that that was their family’s food, and now a kid came and sold it, but that was not the problem.
Our friends here believe that, whenever you are bitter and angry towards someone when they’ve wronged you, your bitter thoughts have the power to bring misfortune across someone’s way. They might face financial difficulty because of the wrong they have done, or they might get sick or their children might become sick. Their troubles will remain until they have reconciled with the one they have wronged – usually by giving a gift. At the heart of the avo-issue is the fear that I would cause harm to their family, by thinking bitter thoughts about them.
This is why, when the people in our village get sick, they don’t hike to the clinic or hospital, but instead they stay and try to figure out who they have wronged. They need to solve the problem at (what they believe is) its root.
This way of thinking does not only apply to tribulation only, but to prosperity as well. When I walk through the village, sometimes people tell me “You are going to learn the language fast. You are chatting and spending time with the people and playing with the kids” In my mind that makes sense: you hear the language a lot + you practice speaking the language = you’re going to learn the language. Later on I heard that comment made for about the 10th time, but with one sentence added to it that changed the entire meaning “…the people will like you (because you spend time with them), and their thoughts about you will bless your brain so that you will learn fast” One piece of the puzzle, changing the whole picture for me.
This ‘power of thoughts’ is just a little taste of one aspect of the culture that I recently began to grasp. Because our worlds are many miles apart, there are many miscommunications (a lot of them not even recognised in the moment,) there are many moments of utter confusion, many activities that we cannot participate in, and many times of walking on egg shells in conversations – and that is not pleasant.
But there are many opportunities to pray for wisdom and examine the Scriptures, many opportunities to commit our ways to the Lord, many opportunities to praise the Lord for the guidance He gives, many opportunities to examine our own Western-mindset, many opportunities to practice endurance, and many opportunities to humble ourselves and to be like Paul, who said “for though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor 9:19) – and thát is pleasant!
So the big question is, WHY learn culture – why take this mix of unpleasantness and pleasantness and try and do something with it, trying to make sense of things and understand things? I keep three main reasons at heart when I do cultural learning.
- For the sake of not putting a stumbling block in the way of the Gospel (1 Cor 9:12). I’m not learning the culture because I have some odd fascination with it, am doing ‘human behaviour studies’ or am discontent with my own culture and would like to exchange it for another. No, I desire to do as Paul says I should, and to do as Paul did “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Cor 10:32-33) In order to not offend them and for me to appropriately please them, I need to get to know my friends better and better.
- Rom 1:25 is true of our friends here “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Isaiah 44:19-20) We know that what they believe about God’s character, humanity’s sin and fallenness, and God’s plan for salvation is a lie, and that they worship a lie. A huge part of our cultural learning is to learn what they believe about God, sin and salvation, and to take what Ephesians calls “the Word of TRUTH, the Gospel of your salvation” and to pit it against the black, deadly lies of the devil, the father of lies, the deceiver of the whole world (Rev 12:9). And we are praying that they may love the truth and be saved!
- And then, as the Lord builds His church, we desire to further use this knowledge of the lies they believe to teach soul-stabilising truth to them. In Ephesians 4:11-15 God said that He gave “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers… so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”
And so I learn to gather information, and change my own conduct as it fitting, for the sake of the salvation of the people. And then, for their growth as believers – that they may join us as their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in renewing their thinking day by day according to God’s precious truths!