My New Neighbor, My New Brother

Upon reentering our Central Asian country we had to sign that we would self-quarantine for fourteen days. In spite of much ambiguity about whether this is actually required, we are trying to honor this request as much as possible. However, there were a few tasks that needed to be done in our immediate neighborhood in order to be able to stay at home for these two weeks, such as replacing a burned-up component of our electricity box. The lack of constant electricity is such a common grievance here that the government would definitely count replacing this piece as a permissible exception. “Give us independence! … or if not… we’ll settle for 24 hour electricity.” is the joke refrain among some of the demographics here.

On our first or second day back I was sneaking out of our courtyard in order to put something in our vehicle. As I hurried down the street, masked, I saw a 50-year-old-looking man approaching me in the native dress of a different people group, the outfit of the historic enemies of our majority neighbors here. He stopped me and began to ask me something, but in the other major language here that I haven’t been able to learn, focused as we’ve been on our people group’s tongue. There is a swathe of shared vocabulary between these languages, however, and I was able to discern the word for “neighbor.” This man seemed to be asking about my neighbors. I apologized and told him that I didn’t speak his language and moved on to my vehicle. But I pointed to another neighbor’s 20-something son who is fluent in this language and indicated that he could help him.

When I was walking back to my house, there he was again. The young man then began translating for us. “He’s your new neighbor!” he said. “He wants to let you know that he is honored to meet you and that he is at your service.”

I began kicking myself inwardly. I had done it again, rushed out to be about my business without moving slowly enough to make room for respectful greetings and interactions with others. Yes, I had the quarantine to consider, but here was my first interaction with my immediate neighbor, and I had essentially brushed him off. Depending on his personality, he could take offense at this. I quickly recomposed myself and used the few respectful phrases I know in this other language, holding my hand over my heart and hoping that my eyes would show my smile beneath the face mask. We proceeded to have a brief and respectful interaction, mediated by our translator, who as a member of the younger generation began rolling his eyes a bit at all these pleasantries. My neighbor seemed to overlook my mistake gracefully.

Living between Western culture and Central Asian culture presents this daily difficulty: how to be productive and time-oriented with my coworkers and Western partners while still leaving enough margin in my day for honorable interactions with Central Asians. If I’m not careful, I slip right back into productivity mode. I step outside my gate expecting to be able to immediately get in my car so that I can make it to that meeting on time. Yet often there is another neighbor just then driving up or standing in the street, eager for the kind of friendly and respectful interaction that makes for good neighbors here and a good reputation.

To love and respect Central Asians I need to communicate to them that I have time for them and that their relationship is more important to me than my to-do list. And yet I tend to be a man at war within myself. I’m either knocking out the emails, projects, and meetings and blowing by my Central Asian neighbors, or I’m taking the time necessary to build those relationships and resigning myself to my ballooning inbox and to-do list. My current strategy is to make mornings my protected productivity time while leaving the rest of the day open for the unpredictable, time-consuming, and ever so valuable task of relationship-building.

A couple days after we met, my new neighbor caught me again peeking outside my gate, trying to figure out why we had lost electricity. He eagerly engaged me, even though he knew that I didn’t understand his language. But this time he managed to share two new pieces of information with me. First, he is actually from a minority here, what we call an unengaged people group. This means there is no established church among this people group and there is no one that we know of currently strategizing to reach them. The second thing that he shared with me was that I am now his brother.

Remarkable. Even after years of working with Central Asians, I continue to be amazed by their overflowing hospitality and respect. There is a regional proverb that says, “The first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.” This neighbor had moved in while we were away, so technically he is the newcomer. I should be welcoming him. Yet I had possibly acted dishonorably in our first interaction. I haven’t learned his languages nor done anything yet to serve him. Yet he proclaims me his brother.

I have come to understand that these over-the-top statements are not always meant to be taken literally. It is an honor-shame culture, after all. Yet they are said genuinely by enough of the population that I still find myself perplexed at how anyone can have so much energy for respectful hospitality. Perhaps another local proverb has had a deep effect on them, “Guests are God’s guests.” At any rate, I still have a long way to go in learning from my local friends how to live slowly enough and energetically enough to be an honorable man in this culture. How that is supposed to mesh with the Western side of my life, I really can’t say. I suppose it is a tension that will always be there.

I’m grateful for my new neighbor, my new self-proclaimed brother. No foreigner that we know of has ever learned his language. He’s probably never heard the gospel before. Perhaps God will use his cultural honor, grace, and hospitality as a means by which we can eventually show him supernatural honor, grace, and hospitality through the gospel. Oh for the chance to share the gospel in a way he will understand. Are we supposed to learn his language? Are we supposed to recruit others to do this? There are at least five unengaged language groups like his in our country where no missionary has ever learned to speak their mother tongue. These are things to commit to serious prayer.

For now, I am grateful for the common grace of good neighbors. Rather than ignoring us as the strange foreigners, they have instead proclaimed us to be family. May we indeed become true family, co-members of the household of God.

Photo by Kieran Stewart on Unsplash

Making Observations, Not Laws

“All Chinese restaurants here are fronts for prostitution.” This statement was communicated to us when we were brand new on the field. Over time we learned that it was a bit overstated. Yes, some of the Chinese restaurants were fronts for prostitution, but not all. From asking various locals we were able to learn about certain restaurants where we could enjoy some delicious Asian cuisine without indirectly supporting prostitution – and where we would also not be in danger of being perceived by locals as ourselves being customers of the wrong sort. Turns out that even in our corner of Central Asia there were Chinese small business owners who were just here to make a living by opening a restaurant (some of whom in other cities were rumored to be missionaries themselves, part of the Back to Jerusalem movement).

What had been a valid observation had become a law of cultural interpretation. “Chinese restaurants here tend to be fronts for prostitution” had become “All Chinese restaurants here are fronts, therefore never eat at one.” For us, this served as one example of a common trend among those doing cross-cultural ministry – the trend of making laws when we should instead be making theories and observations.

It’s understandable. When we enter a new context we are eager to learn the culture, the rules, the way things are, and the way we need to act. Important things are at stake, like our sanity and our testimony. We ourselves are adrift in a sea of uncertainty, navigating a foreign culture and context, desperate for something solid to hold onto, eager to make sense of this new world. So we get a piece of intel from our teammates or from a local and we absolutize it. From this day forward, I will honor the laws that all locals have lice, no locals can think abstractly, no locals are comfortable worshiping in a public church setting, etc., etc.

But there are several problems with this way of forming these kinds of laws and absolutes. The first is that every culture is diverse. Just because one local describes his people in a certain way does not mean that is an accurate representation of every demographic in the culture. My wife was once invited to play a role in a local TV commercial for a rice company. Most of our city friends said not to think twice about it, but to take it as a fun opportunity. But when we checked with one of our other believing friends from a more conservative Islamic and tribal background, he told us not to do it. “We would never ever let our women be filmed like that,” he said. “Too much opportunity for them to be objectified by others. It’s not honorable.” We decided to be cautious and to pass on the offer. We were glad after seeing the commercial as they portrayed the foreign women who later took the role as somewhat of a buffoon.

Another problem with making laws instead of interpretations has to do with our own limited understanding of our new context. Actually understanding what certain things really mean in a new culture is a marathon effort, not a sprint. We do not always have the lenses we need to see things clearly and without distortion. Once we have spent some years marinating in the values and worldview of our new culture, we will be in a better place to connect the dots. “Try not to make any judgments in your first year on the field” is a wise piece of advice I recall my mother saying. If we’re not careful, one generation of missionaries makes hasty judgments which get passed on as laws to the next generation of missionaries and then on to the next. While some things are blatantly obvious (drunkenness and wife-beating are wrong and to be immediately condemned), others are illuminated in a better light over time (he’s making sure not to touch your hand when he gives you the change, not because he thinks women are dirty, but because he wants to protect your chaste reputation in the community).

Finally, culture is not a static thing. It is living and moving, like a cloud formation that seems stable, only to have shifted a great deal the next time you glance back up at the sky. The valid “rules” a few years ago may have shifted by the time we arrive on the field – or when we come back again after a season away. They may continue to shift. The key is to have a firm grasp on our biblical principles and their range of expressions and then to have a curious and keen eye toward studying the culture. Living in a non-static human culture will bear on commands such as “outdo one another in showing honor,” “he must have a good reputation with outsiders,” “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and others (Rom 12:10, 1 Tim 3:7, 1 Thes 5:26). It is extremely important that I stand to my feet when a local man over forty enters a room. This is changing among the twenty and thirty-somethings, who are moving away from some of their elders’ formality. Rightly discerning our context is key – as is the right kind of stability and flexibility. I will always honor adoption, no matter if it is shameful in my adopted culture. I will not always kiss other men on the cheek without first discerning my context.

Entering a new culture (or reentering) is a wonderful time to make observations. Contrasts which will later fade are stark and vibrant. So let’s make abundant observations and theories. But let’s be cautious with making laws about the culture. They may prove to be valid trends. But turning a trend into a law ultimately results in decreasing our valid biblical options. And frankly, the work is hard enough that we should want all options on the table.

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

Flip Flops: Mine or Ours?

I had a favorite pair of flip flops that I took along to the Middle East. Being a college student at the time, and one who had grown up in an island-type culture, I had indulged on an expensive American pair of preppy leather flip flops. One summer day I wore them to a house church, depositing them outside the door with all the other shoes and sandals. After the gathering was finished I was dismayed to find that my favorite flip flops had disappeared. Apparently someone had mistaken them for their own – but no, footwear like that wasn’t available in this country, so no one could confuse them for their own. Had someone stolen them? And at a church meeting no less!

A few weeks later a local believer came to our house. And lo! He was wearing my flip flops. As it registered that he was the thief, I sat pondering how and if to bring up this awkward topic. Yet something was strange about his bearing. He wasn’t acting guilty or conscious at all of his infringement upon my personal property. There he was, wearing them right in front of me. I let it slide until I could figure out what was going on and how I should navigate this situation. Somehow I eventually came to realize that my friend wasn’t showing any signs of remorse because he hadn’t even committed a mistake, let alone a theft, according to his culture. Flip flops and sandals were simply considered communal property.

To have special ownership over a pair of sandals was utterly foreign to my host Middle Eastern culture. Shoes, yes, but sandals? Everyone knows that sandals belong to everyone. You wear them to to enter the squatty-potty, to walk to the corner store, to go out on the dusty roof. No one thinks twice about utilizing them however is needed. Once I realized this part of the culture I strategically wore a different pair of sandals to the next house church meeting. I managed to reclaim my cherished flip flops with a subtle switch during a trip to the bathroom. My friend never seemed to notice that I had successfully reclaimed them. Yet given the extent that I had been bothered by the loss of these flip flops, it felt like a hollow victory. As I recall, the leather later shrunk and curled under the merciless Middle-Eastern sun.

Cultures vary in their understanding of communal property. Certain items or spaces are understood as belonging not to individuals, but to the community. In Melanesia, grassy lawns were viewed this way. It was not uncommon to emerge from a missionary’s house to see clusters of locals sitting and enjoying the front yard. And yet when my friends and I tried to hike different mountains, we kept getting in trouble for not first consulting the “owners” of the mountain. Lawns belong to the community, mountains are private property. Got it.

Every culture has communal property, those things which are simply understood by insiders as justly being available to all. We even have this in the West in spite of our heavier emphasis on private property. Just drop a group of American tourists in a foreign context with no public restrooms and see what happens. And yet this is another area of culture that tends to go unspoken. It is caught rather than taught. One grows up and learns by osmosis what is private and what is communal. As such this area poses a real danger for culture stress.

Frustration with a foreign culture often builds slowly, akin to death by a thousand paper cuts. I think that the “trespassing” of our private property is one area particularly irksome to us Westerners. Whether it’s time, space, or belongings (or hair or photos?), we tend to have a harder time overlooking the oft-unintentional violations of what we have learned belongs to us. We need to have eyes that are open and looking for these differences so that we are better prepared to overlook them in love when they do occur. Count on it, when crossing cultures we will have opportunity to practice not counting anything that belongs to us as actually our own (Acts 4:32). Not that the scriptures are against private property at all – on the contrary, it is assumed to be part of the world God has created. But when necessary for the sake of the gospel and the community of believers, these private rights are surrendered for the sake of love.

One of the best examples I have seen of this came from an older Korean couple who worked among a mountain-top tribe in Melanesia. Knowing that the tribe would understood their tools as belonging to the community and not to themselves alone, they decided to proactively own this fact, rather than fighting it as many other outsiders do. When they moved into the tribe, they appropriately asked that the villagers build their first jungle house for them. In return, they publicly announced at their welcome ceremony that their tools were for the use of the whole village, as needed. So when a tool was inevitably stolen later, they gathered the village leadership and told them that the village tools had been taken. The tribe was accordingly alarmed and put together a search party which soon hunted down the culprit and punished him appropriately. The tool was returned and all was well.

Had this Korean couple not contextualized their personal belongings in this way, the village may well have justified the theft because of the vast wealth disparity still present between the average villager and the modest missionaries. In a subsistence culture where survival depends on sharing tools, these missionaries appropriately put away their own culture’s understanding of personal property and put on their host culture’s. They have lived in peace in that remote tribe for many years now.

What is your culture’s understanding of communal vs. private property? Every culture will have both, but the particular arrangements tend to vary. Are we preparing our hearts to respond lovingly when our understanding of private property is violated in a cultural sense? Do we know what private property means in our host cultures so that we can still call theft theft in the biblical sense? These are not simple questions. Yet they are the meat-and-potatoes of living with a good testimony in another culture.

Some days we will find ourselves deeply annoyed that something of ours has been treated as communal property. But it would tragic to lose our witness among our focus people group because we clung too tightly to our own culture’s property preferences. Let us rather be known as those who cheerfully give up our possessions for the sake of others. In this way we can point to him who though rich, became poor for our sake (2 Cor 8:9).

Photo by Dhruv on Unsplash

The Upside of Reverse Culture Shock

This past week I was fielding questions from a colleague about to reenter the US for the first time after spending a significant amount of time overseas. I found my answers echoing those of the doctors when my wife was pregnant and wondering about certain symptoms. “Don’t worry, it’s normal. It’s alllll normal.” Reentry can bring with it a surprising range and intensity of emotion and thinking. The proverbial weeping in the cereal aisle really does happen. A prepared person will expect the unexpected and therefore have a place to mentally put that unusual fatigue, skepticism, or anxiety.

Yet our conversation also brought to mind one of the very good fruits of reentry, a quiet upside to reverse culture shock. This upside is the ability to see your home culture with the eyes of an outsider for a limited window of time. When entering a new culture or a foreign country, we are immediately able to recognize differences and to pick up on contrasts. This makes the first few days or weeks in a new context important as we are able to feel the differences in a strong way. Unfortunately, this ability tends to fade quickly as our senses rapidly adapt to a new normal. Thankfully, these new lenses are not only present when moving into a foreign culture, but also return when reentering our native culture and land. It’s worth paying attention to what sticks out in this temporary period when we have slightly different eyes.

For those who have read the book Out of the Silent Planet, you might remember how Dr. Ransom gets to see humans for a brief moment as the alien residents of Malacandra do. His impression of them is quite humorous. He is fascinated by these ugly, stumpy creatures until he suddenly realizes that he is actually looking at members of his own species. It had just been a while.

It’s hard to predict what will stick out on a given trip back “home.” One trip I was struck by how simultaneously friendly and sloppy in dress Americans in airports were. So many approachable people in their pajamas! Another trip I remember marveling at the amount of money and quality control that goes into basic and boring infrastructure in the US – things like bathroom stall latches and highway guardrails. So much costly quality – these bathroom stalls will last for decades! This time around we’ve been struck by how abundantly green Kentucky is in the summer, more like a jungle full of massive oaks than we had remembered. So much wonderful green space for picnics! Why is no one picnicking?

I’ve come to think of this brief initial window as a potentially enjoyable time where making observations can really pay off. Any time that we have the opportunity to see around our own blind-spots we need to seize it. Whether that’s reading old books or authors who have the rare gift of seeing through a culture even while writing from within it (as C.S. Lewis did), or whether it is pursuing dinners with internationals in our churches to hear their take on things, we are helped by these opportunities. The typically unseen suddenly become visible.

Why is it so helpful to see our home culture through new eyes? For starters, it’s hard to think clearly about what you cannot see. Many aspects of our home culture are invisible to us because that is all we have ever known. We are the fish unaware of the water in our fishbowl. But once a given aspect of culture or context is seen it is able to be assessed and compared with other contexts – and more importantly, with biblical principles. Once I can actually see the lack of fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables in the US (particularly in businesses which serve the poor), I can begin to ask why that is. Once I can see that the willingness to help strangers in trouble can be a common virtue (as it is in the US) then I can ask why it is that my Central Asian neighbors don’t share this value. What is biblical modesty? What is biblical masculinity? Should I get a dog? Many kinds of questions are helped by an exposure to diverse cultures and reentry provides a fresh opportunity to wrestle with them.

Those of us who live navigating between various human cultures have the particularly unavoidable challenge and opportunity of carving out our own unique personal culture, which tends to borrow certain emphases from the diverse cultures we have lived in while intentionally rejecting others. Like all believers, we live in the tension of pursuing a more biblical culture while we ourselves are enculturated beings, deeply affected by the unique times and contexts of our upbringing – with all their blind-spots, brokenness, and lingering glory.

When we reflect on the diversity of godly believers and faithful churches throughout the centuries, we come to find a rich tapestry of biblical cultures which have emerged from the same eternal and biblical DNA. Many tribes as it were, distinct in some ways and yet bearing an uncanny blood-resemblance. For those we are called to reach and steward, God has asked us to find our particular place in that tapestry so that we might in the right ways become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22). Therefore, we need to have eyes that clearly see culture – both foreign and our own.

Reverse culture shock certainly comes with challenges – Watch out for the cereal aisle. Yet it also provides a unique window, one in which we can find helpful or at least interesting clarity. But it is a short window. Let’s seize it while it’s open.

Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

Those Who Leap Over the Threshold

Not unlike the Evil Eye, it appears that threshold rituals are also surprisingly ancient and widespread. When we find religious practices held in common by the ancient Assyria, tribal Melanesia, and contemporary Central Asia, that’s something worth digging into a bit. Humanity, it seems, impulsively fears the demonic entering their homes through their doorways. This fear has resulted in some common responses among the religious beliefs and traditions of the world.

Take this obscure rebuke from Zephaniah 1:9,

On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their masters house with violence.

Here’s a historical explanation of this verse: “Evil spirits were often believed in the ancient Near East to be able to enter temples and homes via windows and doors, especially if someone stepped on a threshold (cf. 1 Sam 5:5). This is perhaps why the Assyrians often buried sacred objects below their thresholds.”*

Apparently there were residents of Judah in Zephaniah’s day who were leaping over thresholds because they had been influenced by the pagan religions around them. They believed that by not stepping on the threshold of the door, they could protect the space they were entering from evil spiritual forces. This was of course syncretism which would be part of the reason for Judah’s coming judgment. Even though some might view this as a relatively harmless folk belief, here we see how seriously God takes this kind of attempt to fight the demonic by borrowing from the rituals of the pagans. Missionaries, let us take note.

As soon as I read the part about Assyrians burying sacred objects below their threshold, I was transported back to high school, when one of my Melanesian teachers shared her testimony. One of the key parts of proclaiming her faith in Jesus was her agreement to dig out and throw away the sacred ancestor stone that was buried in the dirt beneath her door frame. This stone, viewed as a spiritual necessity by her tribesmen, was buried in order to protect her house from evil spirits and the curses of enemy witch doctors. When she dug it out her family was furious and made genuine threats against her life. But by getting rid of that stone she was proclaiming that Jesus now protected her from the threats of the spiritual realm, not her sacred ancestor stone. It was a hill to die on.

How fascinating that the ancient Assyrians had the same practice of burying sacred objects below thresholds. Did these things ultimately come from the same early pagan practices that emerged sometime in the first eleven chapters of Genesis? Or did they arise independently, inspired by the demonic who seem to have a pretty similar playbook they use in the animistic/polytheistic systems that have emerged around the globe? Was all of this some kind of hijacking of what occurred at the Passover, when the lamb’s blood spread on the door posts protected God’s people from the angel of death?

Sacred objects being buried is one threshold ritual which attempts to protect against evil spirits. Another is to avoid stepping on the threshold, as was mentioned earlier in Zephaniah 1:9. If we follow the cross-reference in that passage to 1st Samuel 5:5, we learn that Dagon’s head and hands were mysteriously cut off and found on the threshold and Dagon’s torso was found lying facedown in front of the Ark of the Covenant. “This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.” Apparently YHWH, by placing these idol pieces on the threshold, was communicating in a form the Ashdodites would clearly understand. An enemy spiritual power has been here, one more powerful than your patron “god.” Not only can he can cross this threshold, he can dismember your idol and leave him on the threshold for double emphasis. The Ashdodites, rightly terrified, decide to never step on that threshold again. Why exactly they thought that would accomplish anything is unclear, but perhaps they thought it was better than doing nothing. Typical religious response.

The Islamic traditions in our part of Central Asia advocate for their own threshold rituals. But instead of burying things or not stepping on things, they focus on the goodness of the right side and the badness of the left side. This likely has links to the old idea that the right side is the side of honor, as is often picked up in biblical language and imagery. But apparently our local friends are also taught that Satan does everything with his left side. So he eats with his left hand, leads with his left side, and most importantly, enters a room with his left foot.

Therefore, for a good Muslim, you must not enter a room (especially a mosque) with your left foot first. You should be careful to enter with your right foot only. This also applies if two men are walking through a door side by side. The one on the right should be allowed to go first, leading with his right foot of course, then the man on the left can enter with his right foot. This in some way is supposed to fight evil, not unlike the way locals build staircases with one random step always higher than the others, “to stop Satan.” Seems more likely to cause missionaries severe pain in the middle of the night when the power has gone out than to do anything of consequence to Satan.

Missionaries would be wise to keep an eye out for the presence and importance of threshold rituals among our focus people groups. Some of them, like those of my Melanesian teacher, will be so serious as to warrant repudiation as an expression of true faith. Others, like those in my Central Asian context, are not quite this serious. Because they have shifted out of a serious spiritual practice and into a simple tradition or way of being polite, it’s not necessary for us to strongly emphasize our freedom to enter a room with our left foot first. Sure, we talk about it and joke around with our local believing friends, sometimes insisting that the man on the left go first because we are those who do not believe the local folk religion. But it seems to be heading in the direction of “Gesundheit” and less like digging up a sacred ancestor stone, with its accompanying death threats. Still, we need to ask more questions because these beliefs can go very deep, only reemerging in force in times of crisis and weakness. It was always when a child was very sick that Melanesian Christians were most tempted to return to the old witch doctor.

But whether we need to relieve a believer of threshold-demon fear or simply help one another better understand these fears that are out there, we can have confidence in the power of the Spirit. He is the Lord of thresholds, the one who dismembered Dagon on his own doorstep. He can keep us from spiritual harm, whether we are too afraid of the demonic or not afraid enough. The simple practices of spiritual warfare advocated in the New Testament are sufficient. Elaborate threshold rituals are not required.

No leaping over my threshold, please. Leave the burying of items to my future dog. And when you come over, feel free to enter with your left foot first.

*ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p.1309

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

An Embarrassing Example of Why We Need to Keep Learning Culture

I was raised mostly in a certain Melanesian country. Having grown up there, I was able to intuitively pick up on many parts of the culture. I knew what many forms and actions meant in that specific context. The repeated tongue-clicking meant either pity, shock, or awe. You could use it while hearing a sad story or while admiring a friend’s new pair of sunglasses. I knew that a bowed head and one hand placed just above the forehead meant that person was feeling a degree of shyness, embarrassment, or shame. I knew that it was not considered immodest for a woman to breastfeed while singing a special in front of church, but that it was considered immodest if she wore blue jeans.

The thing with culture is that form and meaning don’t stay static. Over time the way that meaning is communicated through certain forms changes. In the West, not wearing a tie to church just doesn’t carry the same meaning that it used to. Culture, like language, is a living thing. While this doesn’t at all make meaning or truth relative, it does mean there’s a certain degree of forms-communicating-meaning fluidity built into the thousands of human cultures out there. When the scriptures have to say “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning…” (Ruth 4:7) it means that that form had changed such that the author’s contemporaries would no longer understand the meaning without an explicit interpretation. Keeping up with how culture is changing is hard, especially when the changes are happening at an accelerated pace.

Youth culture is one subset of culture where changes in form and meaning seem to take place very quickly. This is true in the West. The slang words (forms) used just five years ago by high school students are out, and new terms are in. This is also true in cultures overseas which are emerging from a more isolated past and coming into contact with more technology and global culture. In tribal cultures, such as those I grew up in in Melanesia, this pace of change is warp-speed. Tribes which had lived in stone age-like conditions as recently as the 1970s now have smartphones and access to Facebook. Oh to sit around a village fire and hear the stories village elders would be able to tell of the contrast between their childhood and their own grandchildren.

My high school years were thankfully just prior to the emergence of social media. Email was also not mainstream among my peers, especially my Melanesian friends. No, it was with good old-fashioned letter writing that I would end up caught in a very embarrassing cross-cultural blunder.

The week of Easter Camp was one of my favorite times of the year when I was in high school. Baptist youth groups from all over the country would descend on a Bible college campus for a week of preaching, volleyball tournaments, skits, and verse memorization contests. Most years I was the only Westerner present among several hundred Melanesian high school students. Since my MK school was majority Western in students and culture, I always enjoyed the chance Easter Camp gave to be fully immersed in Melanesian culture once again, as I had been when I was much younger. This was the one week of the year when my brain would actually think in another language and need to take a moment to translate those thoughts into spoken English. Easter camp was also fun for all of the typical reasons youth group camps are fun – the chance to goof off with other guys and maybe meet a pretty girl.

One year we reached the last day of camp and a frenzy for exchanging addresses began. While both guys and girls were exchanging post office box addresses with me, I began to be a bit alarmed at the number of girls I hadn’t even met that week that were asking for my address. Clearly, something was going on, but I didn’t have the experience to place the proper meaning with this address exchange frenzy. I assumed it was mostly a chance to find potential pen pals. Not wanting to be rude I gave out my address to all who asked.

A couple weeks later I started receiving letters from two different Melanesian girls who lived in other provinces of the country. They were very polite and kind letters with questions about life and learning English. Wanting to also be kind, I wrote back. My responses were similarly polite and respectful, very much of the pen pal variety. I was not a very good pen pal in general, with a fellow MK in Panama at one point dubbing me “worst pen pal ever.” We MK’s tend to struggle at maintaining friendships from a distance – something about the amount of transition we grow up with. Still, in the case of the Easter camp letters I thought I had done what was expected of me and moved on unconcerned.

When the girls’ responses in turn arrived I was thoroughly shocked and confused. They had both independently written back full-blown love letters, full of poetry, compliments, and dreams of a blissfully-wedded future. Clearly I had missed something! Not long after, my good local friend, Philip, shared with me some bad news. At our local church’s youth group he had been confronted by some of the teen girls, who demanded to know why I was such a womanizer that I was dating two different girls in different provinces at the same time. He now put the question himself to me. Thoroughly confused (how in the world did the youth group know about this?), I explained to Philip that all I had done was respond to these girls’ letters in a kind way! He then let me know that the simple act of responding to a letter in these circumstances communicated the intent to enter into a romantic relationship.

MK’s occasionally have these kinds of moments when we suddenly realize that there’s been an important gap in our knowledge of either our home or our adopted culture. While we’ve been doing our best to pretend to be insiders, suddenly we are outed for the outsiders we actually are. These moments come out of nowhere and we usually try not to let on how thoroughly in the dark we’ve been. But I’m pretty sure I couldn’t hide from Philip my dismay and utter ignorance of this very sensitive cultural form. How had I missed this? I was now dating two different girls in two different provinces all the while I was planning to ask out my Australian neighbor. I had never dated anyone previously in my life and here I was, almost dating three girls at the same time. How had it come to this?

Thankfully, I had a mom who was willing to come to my rescue. I had quickly shown her the letters and shared with her my confusion about what to do next. She wisely counseled me to write back and clarify that my intentions were purely platonic. When one of the girls wouldn’t stop writing me love letters after many attempts to make things clear, my mom wrote the next one for me. It must have been quite the intimidating letter because it had the intended effect.

When I think back to my years in Melanesia, I wish I had taken a more proactive role in learning the local culture. There was much I was able to pick up on. But there were also holes in my cultural understanding that clearly needed to be filled. By coasting along in my adopted culture, I had missed the very important and very new dating culture rules that had emerged among my Melanesian peers. And I had certainly dashed some hopes in the process, not to mention risking being known for behavior that was not becoming of a follower of Jesus.

Cases such as the Easter camp letters have given me a desire to be a lifelong student of culture. One, so that I can avoid landing myself in these kind of embarrassing situations! But also because of the dynamic nature of culture. We may assume it is static, but it is anything but. It is a living thing, shifting right under our noses and rearranging meaning and forms in endlessly new combinations. As those who desire to communicate God’s truth not just in word, but also in deed and form, it behooves us to pay very close attention.

This doesn’t mean adding some college-level course to our lives that we don’t have time for. It can be as simple as a more generous usage of one very important question: What does that mean?

Photo by Liam Truong on Unsplash

King-Slapping Ceremonies and the Original Redcoats

Old Testament background continues to fascinate. I’ve recently come across two customs from the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires that once again prove that the past is truly a foreign land. This type of material is interesting because it adds more texture and color (here literally) to ancient history. It reminds us that these were real people, just like us, with their own complex traditions and cultures – that they were just as fully alive as we are. Not unlike the effect of seeing old black and white footage restored in color for the first time, these details help the stories, carvings, and statues feel more real. That in turn helps guard us from treating the Old Testament narratives as more like myth and less like actual history that we ourselves are connected to.

Micah 5:1, strike the judge of Israel on the cheek. This may allude to a ritual in the Mesopotamian Akitu festival known as the royal negative confession (with “judge” here referring to the Israelite king). A third-century-BC Seleucid source describes how, in this ritual, the high priest would stand before a statue of Marduk and recite the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation epic) in order to emphasize Marduk’s superiority over other gods as well as his creation of all things, including mankind. After the temple was cleansed, the priest would take the royal insignia from the king, slap his face, and force him to kneel before the statue of the god. The king was then to confirm that he had not misused the power given him by Marduk nor violated the welfare of Babylon or Marduk. The high priest would then slap the king again and force him to cry, possibly to demonstrate his contrition. After this, the king’s authority would be restored.

Nahum 2:3, shield is … red. The palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh depicts the typical Assyrian shields of his day, such as those used in his conquest of the Judahite city of Lachish in 701 BC. According to the early fourth-century-BC Greek historian Xenophon, armies of Assyria, Babylon, and Media typically dressed in blood-like scarlet in order to intimidate their enemies.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, pp. 1289, 1296

So the next time you are reading an Old Testament account of Nebuchadnezzar, imagine him at the head of a column of soldiers who are dressed in blood-like scarlet – and he himself with blood-shot eyes because his high priest recently slapped him until he cried.

We probably have some updating of the Sunday school flannel boards to do.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Speaking in Spirals

One night our taxi driver neighbor called me, asking if his family could come by for a visit that same evening. We readily agreed, excited that this more traditional family felt free enough to pay a visit to us, their strange American neighbors. We also had a Texan friend over that evening, who himself had lived in this family’s home city, one of the few Americans to do so. I was excited for the potential of the visit.

Things went well enough for the first hour or so. We had tea together, munched on sunflower seeds and banana bread, and even joked around some. In what I thought an obvious jest, I told my neighbor that my Texan friend was the nephew of George W. Bush. I later found out the sarcasm must have gotten lost in translation as months later my neighbor was telling his taxi passengers that he had actually met W’s nephew! Attempts at humor in a foreign tongue can sometimes go awry.

About an hour and a half into the visit, the conversation took an abruptly serious turn as my neighbor asked me what the new password was for our wifi. The previous tenant had not had a password and since we had installed one, our neighbors had come to request that we give them the password and thus restore their free internet access. The quiet and focused attention of the family on me when this request was made led us to suddenly realize what the visit had been all about in the first place. Our neighbors hadn’t come and invested an hour and half visiting because they were primarily interested in knowing us. They had a request to make. And an hour and half visit was their way of indirectly spiraling into this one simple request.

We were initially discouraged by this realization. It felt like they didn’t value us as people, but had used the relational visit as a means to increase the force of their request. But the more we learned about the culture, the more we came to understand that this kind of indirect communication, couching requests or statements in visits or metaphorical language, this is meant to be highly respectful. It’s also meant to be clearly understood, but we straight-shooting Westerners sure end up missing a lot of it, much to the consternation of our Central Asian friends.

Indirect vs. direct communication is another prevalent difference in cultures which can often lead to misunderstanding. Many cultures which are more honor/shame oriented speak indirectly as a part of everyday speech. This is certainly true of Middle Easterners and Central Asians.

In our corner of Central Asia, if you mean to accept an offer, instead of a direct “yes,” you should say “no,” “don’t trouble yourself,” “thanks,” or “may your hands be blessed.” Instead of refusing an offer with a direct “no,” you should say “If God wills it,” “May your house ever be this blessed,” or “thanks.”

That’s right, “thanks” can be used to indicate either yes or no, and “no,” for the first three uses or so, actually means yes. Confused? Welcome to the murky world of cross-cultural communication.

“We Iranians laugh and say that we eat like this,” a refugee friend once told me, curling his right arm over his head in order to put a bite in the left side of his mouth. I have often thought about this image as I’ve been in contexts where polite questions are asked about someone’s welfare, their parents’ welfare, their cousins’ welfare, Trump’s welfare, etc., before the actual reason for the visit is stated explicitly. Indirect communicators spiral into serious topics, like a missionary pilot’s Cessna circling a jungle airstrip, trying to find a break in the cloud cover. Let the evangelist take careful note of this point. Just because the conversation hasn’t gotten to spiritual things in the first hour doesn’t mean the evening won’t lead to fruitful discussion. The plane may only be halfway done with its spiral descent.

Indirect communicators also make heavy use of poetic and symbolic phrases. Proverbs, metaphors, and similes are all leveraged for the sake of honorable and gracious communication – or sometimes for the opposite purpose, to take a dig at someone. To tell someone to stop being such a pain in the neck, you can say, “If you’re not a flower, then don’t be a thorn!” On the other hand, when a father and son visit another man’s household to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, they lead with the phrase, “You have a beautiful rose in your garden.” All the men in the room know exactly what that means. An engagement negotiation is about to begin.

“But this all seems so inefficient!” our Western sensibilities cry out. Why not just speak more plainly? Several things are important for us to understand about direct and indirect communicators. The first is that both kinds of people and cultures believe they are being clear. The aim of almost all communication is to be understood, so indirect people and cultures are not usually trying to be opaque – though sometimes they are trying to keep plausible deniability. Usually, indirect communicators have been raised to understand the clear meaning in phrases that, without context, seem unclear or even dishonest to a foreigner. My Central Asian friends believe that everyone knows that the first “no” doesn’t actually mean no.

Second, we need to realize that every culture makes use of both kinds of communication. Even in the West, we tend to speak of sensitive or offensive things in indirect ways. Why is it that no one directly asks about your salary, rent, or your giving to your local church? How would you feel if your waiter asked you directly if his service meant you were going to tip well instead of saying, “And how was everything this evening?” Many a Western marriage has learned that “Little man is stinky!” actually means “Please change our son’s diaper for me.” Or, as many a seminary student has figured out the hard way, it doesn’t usually work to speak too directly about marriage the first time you take a girl out for coffee. Brother, keep the fact that you are interested in marrying her an indirect, open secret for at least the first few dates!

Third, the Bible is full of both kinds of communication. Not only do we have examples like Abraham and Ephron communicating effectively and indirectly, but God himself speaks to us in direct and indirect ways. Much of the Old Testament in God indirectly communicating through narrative that salvation by trying to keep the Law just doesn’t work. What is required is faith in God’s promises of a redeemer. Then he says so directly in passages like Galatians 2:16. When Jesus says in Mark 10:18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone,” he is saying indirectly that his questioner is not good enough to inherit eternal life (he’s in the category of no one after all), but Jesus is also likely hinting that he himself is good in this true sense, meaning he is God.

As with time-orientation and event-orientation, Christians are in danger of making our preferred directness or indirectness of speech a black-and-white issue, rather than an issue of Christian liberty or preference. If we hold on to the biblical principle of clear, honest, and loving communication (Eph 4:15, Col 4:4), then we are free to leverage different styles of communication as fits the occasion. We all know there is a kind of directness that can be unloving – and that there is a kind of indirectness that can be dishonest. I’m not saying those cliffs don’t exist. But here again I am arguing for a spectrum of biblical fidelity when it comes to the communication cultures of believers.

I can love my American brother by taking his word for it when he says he doesn’t want a cup of coffee. But in order to love my Central Asian brother, I need to press past the first few indirect responses so that I know how I can host him well. Just as we train our children for what questions and observations are polite to deal with directly in our culture, so we can learn these things about the cultures of other believers also. Again, simple spiritual friendship can make all the difference.

What did we do with our neighbors’ request for free wifi? Well, given the honor/shame dynamics of the situation, we made a call on the spot and temporarily agreed to give them the password. But we knew that from a security standpoint we would need to not have others using our wifi network. So a few weeks later, we changed the password again. I think this worked out honorably all around. Our neighbors understood that we were not able to share our wifi as the previous tenant had. They never asked again. We were able to save face by granting their request temporarily, but later indirectly communicating our final decision.

The way to honorably and clearly decline a request is an area we continue to find challenging in our focus culture. And it’s possible we got this situation wrong. Yet we keep trying to learn more so that we can communicate with clarity, wisdom, and grace – whether that be directly or indirectly.

How have you worked through the challenges of direct and indirect communication in your own families and ministries? Feel free to comment below.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

The Evil Eye: Surprisingly Ancient and Widespread

Typical evil eye amulets in the Middle East and Central Asia

Many cultures’ folk religions believe in the evil eye. In our area of Central Asia, some, particularly the elderly and rural, believe that certain persons secretly have the power to curse others by looking at them and envying them. This is said to be the evil eye, or the dirty eye as our local language puts it. In order to protect one’s self from this danger, certain eye amulets can be hung on persons, gifts, or in rooms.

It’s also important to assure others that you are not a secret possessor of the evil eye. Locals do this by prefacing a complement with the Arabic phrase, Mashallah, which means “what God has willed.” In complementing babies and small children, one should say, “Mashallah, what a cute baby!” This supposedly protects the child from an intentional or unintentional curse from the evil eye. Mashallah is also plastered on houses and vehicles in order to protect them from this curse.

A hidden ancestor of evil eye amulets in the West

I knew that the evil eye is a widespread belief in the Middle East and Central Asia. I had even come across it in strange places in Western history. Those unique geometric designs painted at the apex of Amish barns? Artistic descendants of attempts to protect their barns from the evil eye. But I had no idea just how ancient this belief in the evil eye is. Look at this Akkadian language (think roughly 2500 – 500 BC) evil eye incantation from the archives of ancient Assur.

The [eye] is evil, the eye is an eye which is evil, the eye is hostile… the eye which emerges is the eye of the terror of the enemy; (namely), the eyes of father, the eyes of mother, the eyes of brother, the eyes of sister, the eyes of a neighbor, the eyes of a (female) neighbor, the eyes of one who cares for or carries (a child).

The eye called out maliciously (at the) gate, the thresholds groaned and roofs shook. In the house which it enters, does the eye wreck (things)!

It has wrecked the potter’s furnace and caused the sailor’s boat to sink, it has smashed the yoke of the mighty ox, it has smashed the shin of the loping donkey, it has smashed the loom of the skillful weaving-ladies. It has removed the loping horse and the nose-rope of the plow-ox, it has scattered the bellows of the furnace when lit. It has deposited worm-pests at the command of the murderous Adad, it has raised quarrels between (otherwise) happy brothers.

Smash the eye, chase away the eye! Make the eye pass through seven rivers and make it pass through seven canals! Make the eye pass over seven mountains! As for the eye, take it and bind each of the joints of its feet. As for the eye, take it and smash it like the oil-pot of a potter in front of its owner. Whether fish in the river or birds of heaven, (the eye) causes them to fall/sink and destroys them. Whether one’s father or mother or brother or sister, or stranger or…

Akkadian Incantation, ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1270

Westerners struggle to feel the fear the evil eye has exerted over huge swathes of humanity. We tend to write it off as mere superstition. Even as Christians who believe in the power of the demonic, we are likely to miss when this belief might need a direct Christian response among our focus people groups. Yet for many, they are just as emotionally terrified of the evil eye as they are of Covid-19. It is real to them, even if it does not feel real to us.

What might a Christian response look like? Certainly the theological knowledge that the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit now protects believers from whatever demonic power could be manifest in the practice/belief of evil eye. He that is in you is greater than he that is in the world (1st John 4:4). Practically, all evil eye amulets should be discarded and the use of Mashallah discontinued as evidence of believers’ trust in Jesus for protection in the spiritual realm. It may also be appropriate to craft Christian prayers where believers actively “put on” the righteousness of Christ and the truth of God’s word, reaffirming their faith in God against their fears that the evil eye could still harm them. For one historical example of this kind of prayer, check out St Patrick’s Breastplate.

Whatever our response ends up looking like, it’s worth keeping “an eye out” for belief in the evil eye. This belief is surprisingly ancient and still surprisingly widespread.

Photos by Hulki Okan Tabak and Ella Christenson on Unsplash