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Man, This Cross Cultural Stuff is Hard!

I’m here in Nairobi, Kenya a city that I lived in thirty years ago as a missionary/pastor. My home church, New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, had given me a leave of absence to pastor a congregation here in Nairobi while a Kenyan went to the U.S. to go to seminary. He eventually came back and we returned to Chattanooga. Over the years my wife Joan and I have returned many times and now we are spending part of our sabbatical here. One of the great blessings to me, and for me, has been the chance to observe culture and cultural interaction in a different context than America. If I had been better educated in anthropology and cultural psychology I might have learned some lessons better, sooner, and maybe some I haven’t learned at all yet. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to be in a place where cross cultural interaction is a daily occurrence, necessity, frustration, and intentional. I have the opportunity to preach for my housing as the pastor of New City Nairobi is in Germany finishing up his doctoral thesis. He is a Kamba (a particular tribe and language group of Kenya who is married to a German woman. He did graduate work at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis and so became part of the New City network while he was there. I get to stay in his house as I preach for his congregation, which is one pastored by an African attempting to reach Asians and bring them into the discipleship of Christ. These are people whose ancestry is from India and Pakistan, former Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs. Some are from historical Christian families as well, mostly from South India. We are sharing the house with some German ladies, who are here studying the Somali language, and one is studying Swahili because she is engaged to a Tanzanian. Yesterday I sat in on an Elder”s meeting. One Elder mostly spoke in Gujarati, but was answered by the other Elders in English (I suppose for my sake). Sometimes remarks were made in Swahili. Comments were made about a member who was offended that more people from the church didn’t attend her mother’s funeral. Culturally, what do we owe one another in times of grief? How do we know the rules? How do we win back someone who is offended and has stopped attending church? This last week I met with a Kenyan pastor who at one time was a young man that I had opportunity to pastor and disciple. He is an educated man, and has a master’s from an American seminary. He worked with an American missionary organization for many years. Recently they fell into conflict, and it was as if both sides fell back into their most culural ways of thinking (interacting). I was at a meeting months ago when we tried to resolve an issue, and we failed. Only now, months later, do I begin to understand a little of what my brother was thinking and why he did what he did. So how is it that people who are daily engaged in cross cultural relationships, cross cultural ministry, and believe in the necessity of it for the sake of God’s glory and Kingdom, still have trouble with it and sometimes simply fail at it? Is it possible that we complicate our cultural interactions with sinful hearts and personalities? Is it possible that we grow weary of trying and fall back into our “normal” ways of thinking and possibly don’t realize that the angrier we get, the more selfish we become, the prouder we remain just adds complication to something that is already amazingly and confoundingly complex? Sometimes I think we have a de-fault switch and when we are emotional about certain things we trip it, and we stop trying or caring to love other people like they need to be loved, and in fact if we don’t love them the way they need to be loved they don’t feel the love at all. We are always in culture, we think it, act within it, interact across it. Yet we are always in a spiritual context as well. Our human-ness dogs us, our fallenness cripples us, our sinfulness distorts our thinking and our relationships. The necessity of constant brokenness before the Spirit of God, of spiritual self awareness, of a self examination of our own motives both spiritually and culturally is I believe a never ending requirement in this interplay between ourselves and God, ourselves and other people, ourselves and other cultures. How many times have we used the phrase, “I wasn’t thinking”when we were attempting to apologize? Certainly as a husband of the male gender I often fail or simply to refuse to think about what my wife of the female gender may be feeling. What do feelings have to do with it anyway? Oh, this is one relationship where my laziness or obtuseness will have definite negative consequences. So, not only for the sake of my own happiness but also for the sake of my integrity in keeping the promises I made to her before God, and for the value I have placed on this most intimate of relationships do I humble myself to keep learning her needs, her wants, and trying to make myself understood. As with all husbands at times I am confounded, maybe exasperted, and mad enough to not care. I am sure she has had more of those times with and about me. Sometimes we dwell in the illusion of perfect understanding and harmony. Those things, understanding and harmony, might be a state of being but I think more honestly they are to be a constant pursuit. When we stop paying attention and fall back to our most basic ways of thinking and acting, or some event triggers that default switch we feel like we have never really known each other. We do that in marriage, we do that in cross cultural relationships. We must, we just simply have to continue to pursue love anyway. It is the call of Christ, it is for the glory of God, it is what servanthood means, it is the glue of marriage and the Church, and the combination gives a richness to life that we otherwise would surely miss.

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