Lost Control, Found Weakness

For the past seven years, as a minister in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, I was growing in my ability to walk into any situation, at any time, and give the distinct impression that I was in control. Performing my first graveside service and don’t know where to stand? Adopt the right facial expressions, good posture, and pretend I do this all the time. Phone rings with a pastoral emergency that is way over my head? Adopt a deep, calming tone of voice, and assure the person on the other end of the phone that it is okay, I’ve dealt with things like this before, and let’s remember who is in control right now (even though it’s not okay, I haven’t dealt with anything quite this bad before, and it’s a good thing God is in control, because I certainly am not). Let me be clear. I do not think that I always was in control, nor was I being insincere in my actions. I was trying to fulfil my role with competence and dignity. I think that if you asked the members of my former congregation, they would say that I did an okay job of this. I usually kept my head and even had a bit of grace-under-fire.

That seems to be all over now that I have come to Papua New Guinea. The other day in the grocery store, I dropped a bottle of Sprite on the floor. That’s cause for attention anywhere, but when you are the only white guy in the store, it is a real attraction. Imagine my humiliation when, while attempting to pick up the errant Sprite, which had not only dropped but was now rapidly rolling away from me, I started to take a few quick steps to make a quick and graceful grab, intending to make it look like I did these kind of graceful grabs all the time, only to trip over my own feet and fall straight onto my face. Big tall white guy chasing a bottle of Sprite, sliding and sprawling face-first onto the floor.

In the past, I considered myself quite athletic and generally in good control of my body in physically demanding environments. If there was heavy lifting, I would join in. If there was a difficult hiking path, I wanted to take the lead. I have boasted to more than a few people of the trail runs I completed at various mountains in British Columbia. Well, this too seems to be over. On two hikes now to worship at the Reformed Church in Wantun I have been the only one in group to be helped across the river by a teenaged girl, been the only one that had to hold someone’s hand while crossing a log-bridge, and been the only one to lose my footing in half-a-meter of water and need rescue.

These are only the superficial things, but I hope that they will help you to understand what is happening on a deeper level. While I spent the last seven years trying to grow in my ability to think, write, and preach in the English language, I am now like a babbling child in my new language, Tok Pisin. While I had spent considerable time and energy reading widely to understand Western, particularly Canadian, culture, I am now in a very, very different culture. Whereas I might have gained some insight into how to help well-off middle-class people of Northern European descent with the struggles and temptations of their time and place, I am now in a completely different time and place, where people are dealing with poverty, the harsh realities of settlement life, and deeply rooted ways of life that are much more pagan than Christian.

How does this feel? Well imagine you are in a grocery store and you drop a bottle of Sprite… Or you need a grown man to hold your hand while you cross a ditch…

Whatever mirage of control I had managed to convince others of or believed myself is now gone.

And this is good. It is very, very good. Because in this humiliation (in the proper sense of the word, a process of being brought low), I am learning deep truths about the grace of God. I would like to share two with you.

First, as you can imagine, I have learned that I am not in control. From my birth, I have been catechized by Western culture to believe that I am always to be in control of a situation. Western culture emphasizes the power and rights of the individual, the ability of technology to overcome obstacles, and the need to pursue ever higher levels of achievement (strong, higher, faster).  It also taught me to believe in myself, and in my abilities and capacity to deal with any and every situation. I read once that Africans have this sense that Westerners have a god-complex by the way that they walk around with the absolute confidence that every problem has a solution and their job is to provide just that. Certain structures in Western culture allow this mirage to continue. We don’t deal with many catastrophic natural disasters, we are blessed with well-functioning civil governments, and we have the benefit of hundreds, even thousands, of years of Judeo-Christian influence. We should praise God for these blessings. Instead, we become puffed up with pride and believe the lie that we are in control.

But we are not in control. And many ugly parts of our Western culture should be reminding us of this every day. We experience huge amounts of anxiety and stress— it is the Western epidemic.

Why?

Because we believed the lie that we should be able to control everything, and quite literally freak-out at trying to maintain the lie.  Believe me, I know: I have suffered the panic attacks and had the heightened blood pressure of stress.

In moving me to PNG, God is teaching me in new ways that I am not in control. I don’t know the language and so I simply can not do the things I would like to do. I do not know or understand the culture, and so I cannot form the relationships that I would like to form. I do not have the social and civil structures around me that I am used to depending on, and so I cannot just assume that things will go the way that I expect them to go, and therefore I am often at a complete loss as to what to do. The other day I went for a haircut. Walking into the barbershop, I didn’t know where to sit, what to ask for, or how much to pay. In the end, my hair was cut, but I was not at all in control of the experience.

But at the very same time, God is teaching me that He is in control. Surely there is an inverse relationship between our mirage of control and our devotion to prayer. As I lose my security blanket of culture and language, I am praying more. Yes, I am confessing to you now that in the past I struggled with my devotion to prayer. But in praying more now, I am learning that God is in control. He is hearing my prayers. He is answering them. Many things are too difficult for me, but God is sovereign over all things, and he does things that are impossible for me. They always were impossible for me, but now I understand that better. I hope that by sharing this with you, you might begin to question your mirage of control, and might begin to pray with more earnestness, intensity, and frequency. I also hope that by sharing this, you will remember to keep me accountable too. As I become more savvy with the language and culture here, I am going to start feeling more in control. But I don’t want to lose the sense that God is one who is sovereign over all, who guides and directs each one of our steps, who works out all things according to His eternal plan, and who allows problems to be solved and successes to happen so that His kingdom will come and His name will be honoured. God is in control, not me, not us.

Second, I am learning that I am not strong, but God is. Here too, much like my sense of control, my strength was really just a mirage. In Western culture, weakness is shameful. Nobody wants to be weak. Everyone wants to be strong. Look at the magazines in the grocery store— carefully, because many are simply feeding your lust. But if they are not feeding your lust, they are showing you the strong body, the business acumen, the political power, the celebrity fame that you should worshiping. No magazine glorifies weakness. Every story is about the person who has overcome and achieved success. You should be strong, we are told. You are strong, some stranger who writes self-help books assures us.

But I am not strong. See what I said about my inability to control things. Strong people take control. Weak people have no control. When strong people feel weak, they dig deeper within themselves and find previously-undiscovered sources of endurance and stamina. Here in PNG, I find myself completely tired out at 9:00pm (aptly termed, “missionary midnight,” I have learned). There is a to-do list that seems like it will never get done because at the end of the day, I am completely wiped.

These physical examples are only a part of the weakness that I am experiencing here in PNG. The more significant parts are the relational, emotional, and spiritual parts. On the relational side, it is very difficult to go deep with people when you cannot converse with them easily. This is especially true in Papua New Guinea, where the way that relationships are built is through “storying”, sitting around and telling others about your past or the events in the life your community that are important to you. Emotionally, apart from what has already been shared, there are many other factors that are having a tremendous impact on my emotions:  being faced with poverty, illness, and the potential of crime almost everyday; dealing with the different smells, sights, and sounds constantly; trying to juggle my new role as missionary along with the needs and demands of my family, to name a few.

Imagine these types of weaknesses— physical, relational, emotional— as boxes, and they are all stacked one on top of the other, each one giving stress and strain to the one below it. On the bottom of the heap, then, is the spiritual weakness. It is the hardest one to get to, but it is the one that feels the most strain.

And yet, hidden inside this near-to-crumpling box of weakness is a beautiful, precious, life-saving truth, waiting to be discovered. It is the truth that JI Packer captures in his book “Weakness is the Way.” He writes,

“The truth, however, is that in many respects, and certainly in spiritual matters, we are all weak and inadequate, and we need to face it. Sin, which disrupts all relationships, has disabled us all across the board. We need to be aware of our limitations and to let this awareness work in us humility and self-distrust, and a realisation of our helplessness on our own. Thus we may learn our need to depend on Christ, our Saviour and Lord, at every turn of the road, to practice that dependence as one of the constant habits of our heart, and nearby to discover what Paul discovered before us: ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor 12:10)” (Weakness is the Way, 2013, 15-16)

This is the truth that I am learning to believe and trust. The strength that I find within myself is not that strength which lasts or which feeds and nourishes imperishable life. It is a strength that provides for this life only, and even then, not really. But in weakness there is a strength that nourishes spiritual life, the strength of Jesus Christ. In the weakness of my sin, there is the forgiveness through Christ’s blood. In the weakness of my mind, there is the wisdom of Christ crucified. In the weakness of my body, there is the strength of Christ’s resurrection. In the weakness of my struggle against sin, there is the strength of Christ’s Spirit protecting and helping. In the weakness of my personality, there is the refining, recreating work of Christ. The Spirit-breathed Word of God is full of the truth that we are weak but God is strong. God reveals this to us for two purposes. First, so that we might not put our trust in our strength and deceive ourselves into temporal and eternal ruin. Second, so that we would rely on a strength that is true and will never fail, a strength that has proven itself time and again, a strength powerful enough overcome death, tender enough to support bruised reeds, faithful enough to promise forgiveness for all of our sins.

I never was in control and never was strong. But the Triune God was, and is, and always will be. This is a life-giving, glorious truth, especially when you are face down on the floor, Sprite in hand.

(This article was published in Una Sancta, volume 64 3, March 11, 2017).

How to Cross Cultures

In a few days, I will be taking my family into Papua New Guinea, crossing over from North American/Western culture into Melanesian. This is probably a good time to think about how to cross cultures. No, I’m not talking about tips on flying with children, handy as those are. I’m talking about the process that someone goes through when going from one culture to another so that it becomes a meaningful, growth-inducing, life-enriching experience.

In his book, Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to Engage our Multicultural World, David Livermore provides his take on a model developed by Karen Joplin, a five-step process for active learning, which Livermore has adapted for cross-cultural experiences. The five steps- focus, action/reflection, support/feedback, debrief, and learning transfer-are visually represented like this:

livermore-joplin

In the first step, focus, you give particular attention to what you hope to learn. The key here is taking a little time for preparation and creating awareness of your self and the situation into which you are heading. Livermore provides some questions to facilitate this step:

– What do I anticipate will happen?
– What do I hope to learn?
– What are my hopes?
– What am I afraid of?
– What am I assuming about the other culture that might need correction?
– What judgments do I need to suspend?

The second step, action/reflection, takes place in a continuous loop. As you engage in cross-cultural experiences, you are reflecting on what is happening. The reflection doesn’t have to be profound, but does require taking note of what is happening around you. While I tend to think of reflection as something that is done internally, Livermore notes that it is best when the action/reflection loop happens communally. Keeping a journal is a good way to facilitate ongoing reflection.

The third step, support/feedback, requires engaging with community, especially with others who are further along the path of cross-cultural learning. These people will be able to provide the help that you need to move forward in the culture well, but also challenge you to think deeper about what you are experiencing by asking the “why” questions and forcing you to consider the hidden layers of the cultural onion that lie under the surface.

The fourth step is the debrief. While similar to both reflection and feedback, this is the organized process of identifying what you have learned, discussing, and evaluating it with others. What is different here is that is done after the cultural experience. Livermore suggests that reviewing your journal entries is a helpful way to debrief.

The fifth step is the learning transfer, taking what we have learned and incorporating it meaningfully into our lives. Livermore contends that most people do this step poorly because the context for cross-cultural learning is so different, and also because we simply don’t know how to translate those experiences into our day-to-day lives. Livermore suggests finding a mentor who can help you to engage in continuous reflection and incorporation into how you think and live.

As I head out, I hope that this model will help me engage with the new experiences well so that I can grow from them. I recognize the real possibility that the only things that grow are my level of frustration, anxiety, and self-centredness. What I hope, however, is that the experiences, interactions, and relationships into which I am heading will be opportunities for real growth, growth not only in cross-cultural learning, but especially in the humility of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Monocultural Like Me

Before preparing for cross-cultural mission work, I had not given a lot of thought to the fact that I am monocultural. In preparing, I have found the discussion in VanRheenen and Parker’s book Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies to be very helpful.

According to them, someone who knows only one culture and one language is monocultural. This is me, through and through. Thankfully, there is nothing inherently wrong or sinful about being monocultural, it simply describes a reality, one that describes many, many people in this world.

The problem with monoculturalism is that it often leads to ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is cultural pride, a group self-centredness. While monoculturalism says, “My way is the only way I know,” ethnocentrism says, “My way is better than your way.” Ethnocentrism grows and matures into racism (I am superior because of my skin colour) and nationalism (my country is better than your country).

Sadly, as I reflect on my life, it is clear that my monoculturalism has led to ethnocentric pride on many occasions. Rather than try to understand and appreciate other cultures, I have often tried to affirm or assert the supposed supremacy of my own. I have argued with my father-in-law about the superiority of western democracy, pitied those poor, ignorant people who do things all wrong in Africa, and been offended by what I interpreted as the rude and offensive behaviour of “foreigners” in the grocery store.

I am thankful that God has not left my monoculturalism unchallenged. He has given me a wonderful wife whose Chinese-Canadian upbringing was very different from my own. He has allowed me to live in a very multiethnic community in Ontario for a few years and in multicultural Canada my whole life. Now, he is giving me the opportunity to live and work in the strange (to me) but beautiful culture of Melanesia. I don’t know if I will ever be fully bicultural, and I know that I will never be fully free of my ethnocentric pride, but I consider any movement in that direction to be a gift and a blessing from God.

What is Melanesian Culture?

The culture that I am heading to is known as Melanesian culture. Melanesia, the home of this culture, is comprised of the Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Papua, as well as the countries Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and some smaller islands in the South Pacific.

map-of-melanesia

While most of population still lives in rural environments, urbanization means that many are coming to cities for work, and there are large squatter settlements in and around many major cities. While urban population (% of total population living in urban areas) in the world is 52.6%, in Melanesia it is only 19.2%. Yet, the rate of urbanization (urban population growth) is 2.2%, which is basically on par with the rest of the world (2012 stats). Given how difficult it is to keep accurate records of what is happening in the settlements, this rate of urbanisation is quite possibly even higher still.

Religiously, the area is very interesting. Christian mission in the area, which took off in the late 1800s, has been remarkably successful, with about 90% of the population Melanesia claiming adherence to Christianity. Within this 90%, however, there is significant amount of nominalism (Christian “in name only”) and syncretism (mixing) with traditional religion.

Melanesia has an adult literacy rate of 64.7%. Nearby Australia, by comparison, has an adult literacy rate of 96%. No doubt there are many reasons for this. Access to education would be one, since many Melanesians live in remote rural communities. Another reason might be the prevalence of subsistence farming, which requires little education. It has been said that in parts of Melanesia children are over-educated if they remain in school past fourth grade.

Another reason might be that literacy itself is a fairly new phenomenon in Melanesia. Melanesia was and remains an oral culture rather than a written one. While a lot of effort is put into literacy, storytelling, the hallmark of an oral culture, remains an important and much loved activity for Melanesians.

One of the most striking features of Melanesia is its linguistic diversity. As many as 1,300 different languages are spoken there, making it the most linguistically diverse area in the world.

The linguistic diversity points to the importance of clans or family-groups in Melanesian culture. Historically, most of the region has been characterized by inter-tribal feuding and fighting. While trade between groups did happen, they were more often (or simultaneously) at odds with each other. In some places, this conflict was intensely violent, including headhunting and cannibalism, while in others it was a constant, simmering, but not violent animosity. Although less violent today, conflict between tribes and clans is still a part of Melanesian culture.

Death and dying are very much a part of living in Melanesia. The average life expectancy in Melanesia is 63.8 years, compared to 70.7 for the world. Infant mortality is 43.4%, compared to 26.7% for the rest of the world (2012 stats). What is the reason for this? The prevalence of tropical diseases is one, lack of access to safe drinking water another, difficult access health care another, and taboos surrounding sickness and treatment yet another.

As discussed in an earlier post, culture is much more than the facts and figures that I have discussed above. In fact, trying to accurately describe a culture is notoriously difficult. For example, I have chosen to focus on matters like literacy and health. These are Western preoccupations, and probably reveal more about me and my cultural bias than it does about the world of Melanesia.

So far I have been speaking about the outside layer of the culture “onion.” What about the Melanesian worldview? Experts describe the Melanesians as having an integrated worldview. In an integrated worldview, the visible, material, empirical world is understood as being mixed together with the non-empirical world, which includes spirits and other personal forces. A compartmentalized worldview, on the other hand, keeps the visible and empirical separate from the non-empirical, while a secular worldview denies the existence of the latter. This means that a Melanesian understands that the spiritual world is very much involved with what is happening in life in the day-to-day.

In the Melanesian worldview, life more or less revolves around the clan. One’s clan includes not only the living in your family or village, but also the dead— it is generally believed that the spirits of ancestors continue to reside close to the village. Morals are defined by this focus on the clan. “Good” is what is good for the clan, while “bad” is that which would bring harm to the clan. Thus doing harm to someone else is only wrong if that person is a member of your clan. A Melanesian finds their identity within their clan and have a sense of duty not to themselves as individuals but to the clan as a whole. Security is found in belonging to the clan, and ambition is realized by becoming prominent (a “Bigman”) in the clan.

A persistent feature of the Melanesian outlook is the idea of reciprocity, the belief that the basic dynamic of life is a back-and-forth exchange. For example, gift-giving is very important in Melanesia. But this gift-giving is more than simply showing goodwill, it is a way of securing favour and future benefits from others. Justice and health are also comprehended in this scheme of reciprocity. If someone is killed, then vengeance upon the person or clan responsible is expected. If someone falls sick, it is thought to be either an act of vengeance on the part of an enemy, or the result of some moral wrong that the sick person or their family has committed.

There is of course much more to say about Melanesia. Certainly as I go to work there, I hope to be able to gain insights that go beyond the broad brushstrokes painted here. Up to this point, I have only spent one week in the culture itself, but that week has left a lasting impression upon me. Among everything else, I found the culture to be warm, kind, and hospitable. I truly enjoyed interacting with with my Melanesian hosts, and look forward to getting to know them better soon.

Lazy?

Ever considered a person or group from another culture and thought that they were lazy, unmotivated, or wasters-of-time? Sherwood Lingenfelter shares a helpful story in Ministering Cross-Culturally.

When he hired Palauan men to build his house on the Micronesian Island of Yap, he was dismayed to watch as these men would work for an hour, then take a break for an hour to talk and chew betel nut, working only half of the time that they were present to do their work. Although Lingenfelter was dismayed by this sight, the men were able to finish the house on time, although they had to hire extra men to do the work.

While “lazy” might be the first label to come to mind for task-oriented Westerners, Lingenfelter explains the logic the Palauans’ actions. Rather than task-oriented, they are person-oriented. A priority for the person-oriented is interaction with others. Chewing betel nut and talking with others was as or more important to these Palauans than completing the house quickly.

Lingenfelter provides a further explanation for this kind of behaviour. On an island like Palau or Yap, there is no reason rush building a home, because the weather is warm and hospitable year-round. Lingenfelter recalls how his neighbour’s process of building a home would include days of fishing, helping others with their projects, or doing nothing at all. There was no need to hurry because there was no approaching winter; as long as he had a place to shelter him from the rain, he was fine.

The weather had a significant impact on this man’s schedule, but also on his goals. Relationships were important because the weather event that could cause disruption was a typhoon. After a typhoon, there could be widespread damage and debris all over the place. At this moment it is important to have network of contacts who can chip in to help do the work that is too much for one person alone, and to do this at many places throughout the community.

As Lingenfelter repeatedly stresses, it is important to suspend and avoid judgment of other cultures. In fact, if we consider that our Lord Jesus was often more focussed on people and relationships than on tasks and time, we will try to understand and even embrace the way of life of those whom we first thought were lazy.

What is Culture?

If you are going to think about crossing cultures, it is probably a good idea to give some thought to what culture is. Culture is variously defined. Here are a few definitions:

Culture is:
– the beliefs, customs, arts, etc of a particular society, group, or time (Merriam-Webster).
– the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another (Dictionary.com).
– the unwritten book with rules of the social game that is passed on to newcomers by its members, nesting itself in their minds (Hofstede, 2010).

Most often when we are confronted with a culture different than our own, the sensible aspects of culture— dress, smells, behaviours— make the biggest impression on us.

But culture can also be understood as something of an onion. Geert Hofstede provides this model of culture:

hofstedeonion

What is helpful about Hofstede’s model is that is helps us understand that there is more to culture than just what we can see (symbols). There is also what we collectively love or hate (heroes and villains), what we collectively do (rituals), and what we collectively believe (values).

I find the model of Bunkowske (which I found illustrated here: http://scriptureandmission.com/on-worldview-1-missionary-anthropology/) to be even more helpful:

bunkowske-model

Here we see that allegiance lies at the centre, finds it expression in worldview, which further manifests itself in beliefs, values, feelings, and behaviours, before finally arriving at artifacts. In other words, what you can understand from a culture through your senses is only the beginning. Like layers of an onion you must peel back the various layers in order to truly understand a culture and what makes it tick.

acrossculture

Welcome to this blog! I don’t know how you came across it, but I’m glad you stopped by. In the space that this blog allows, I hope to share my reflections on the two themes captured by the title “acrossculture.”

The first theme is “Across Culture.” As I head from the place that Canada holds in Western culture to the culture of Melanesia, more specifically Papua New Guinea, sent by a church in Australia, in order to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, King of Kings, I hope to reflect on and share what others who are more experienced and insightful than I have said about how do this well and in such a way as bring glory to Christ.

The second theme is “A Cross Culture.” The goal of the people of God in all cultures is to live out of the forgiveness of sins imputed to them through the cross of Christ, and to more and more embody a culture that reflects the humility, service, and love that Christ displayed as he endured the cross for us.

“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)