The reality is that I brought a whole lot more home with me than a little dirt. I brought intangible memories of people and images and once-in-a-lifetime experiences home too. Africa and its people have settled into my heart.
I saw so many things that are now imprinted in my mind. I interacted with the international doctors and their wives and observed lives that have challenged my own. And I experienced it all in a way that has shifted my worldview and put a mirror to my perspectives.
That's what I realized this morning as I opened my African-scented Bible: this is an experience that isn't just one in a long line of experiences. This is an experience that will jut up against all the others and against my worldview in uncomfortable ways.
May I share that with you? At the risk of a banal slideshow of experiences that mean little to you, may I take you back with me so that I might also speak to where we are?
Last Wednesday, our team ate lunch in the home of an Ethiopian family, headed by Barnabas and Garinet. Garinet and her neighbor spent six hours preparing a traditional Ethiopian Christmas meal for us, an enormous amount of food served with great care and joy. Afterward, we stepped outside the back door to see the kitchen in which it was prepared: a darkened shack-type hut with a burning fire on the ground and hay for their cow to sleep on at night. We realized the enormity of their efforts on our behalf: six hours hovering on a wood fire, six hours preparing Garinet's home for our arrival, six hours of anticipating our reaction to the traditional food. They lived simply; they had little in terms of material possessions, but what they had they shared joyfully with us.
After we left, our team talked about the experience. We recognized that all of the Ethiopians we met were intently focused on relationships over activity, joyful, and quick to help and be helped. We realized that, as Americans, we are painfully focused on productivity, efficiency, individualism, self, and accomplishments. We are more likely to pretend that we know what we're doing than to ask for or receive help. There is a hardness and cynicism we have that is probably more detrimental to our Christian lives than we realize.
I realize that many people serve or travel internationally and then turn a critical eye on their own culture. That's not my intention. As I've processed my experiences, I've simply realized that my faith and my beliefs about who God is must be able to transcend generations and cultures or it's likely not biblical. How silly my legalist tendencies look in light of Christianity in Ethiopia!
How do I think God works in this world? Think suffering, healing, provision. That belief should be able to cross socio-economic gaps.
What do I believe about the works that come from faith? Think personal convictions. Those works must be able to be done across all cultures.
What do I believe about church? Think buildings, instruments, and roles. They should be able to be practiced in all places, among all people.
The list could go on and on: What do I believe about what I'm promised? What do I believe about the nature of God? Do I truly believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Because all of these things do (and should) have cultural implications, no matter what culture we're in.
These questions beg the most important, the one we processed together as a team after leaving Garinet's house: How much of my culture's pursuits influence my idea of who God is and what He wants for and from me? Privately I considered how much my heart is hardened by materialism, leisure pursuits, cynicism, pride, superiority, entitlement, the pursuit of accomplishments, the collecting of experiences (to post on Facebook), and the American Dream. Although some of these are ingrained in the human heart, some are beliefs specific to culture. They can't be practiced in all cultures, so they can't be from God.
What can cross cultures and generations?
Working joyfully in what God has given.
Recognizing and acknowledging God in everything.
It seems to me that these are biblical priorities, and I can instantly think of countless verses directing us toward these ends. It seems to me, then, that these should be what characterizes our lives. I look at this list and I realize that I have so far to go, but at the same time it provides a sense of relief. In God's eyes, we aren't our accomplishments. In God's eyes, we're allowed to be dependent and needy. In God's eyes, we are asked to place priority on what is in the end most life-giving.
All of this says to me how good and gracious God is. He made a way for both an American and an Ethiopian to know Him. He made it simple and accessible to all, whether rich or poor, black or white, old or young.
His love knows no boundaries. It is truly cross-cultural.