Cross-cultural faith

Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a pearl merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it! —Matthew 13:45,46, NLT (Jesus speaking)

The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast used by a woman making bread. Even though she used a large amount of flour, the yeast permeated every part of the dough. —Matthew 13:33, NLT (Jesus speaking)

And from the time John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it. —Matthew 11:12, NLT (Jesus speaking)

The wheezing of an accordion drifts through my window—I’m in Oaxaca. It’s someone’s birthday or wedding, and the fiesta will go on loud and strong until the wee hours of the morning. No noise ordinances here—Mexicans are unapologetically exuberant, just one of the many reasons this country is enchanting.

If I were to describe Oaxaca to you, I could talk about chicken with black mole sauce, or Spanish colonial architecture and cobble-stone streets, or ancient trees shading the Zocalo where lovers snuggle together on iron benches.

But when Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven, he never once mentioned food or buildings or all-night parties. He never once spoke of the hustle and bustle of a great city, or even the magnificent, gilded halls of a great king.

Instead of describing the ambience, Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of Heaven focus more on the ethos of the place. One comes away from these teachings thinking that the Kingdom of Heaven, despite its name, may be more of a cultural phenomenon than destination.

Which leads me to two thoughts. First, the Christian faith is a cross-cultural experience. While still maintaining our home in America (or Mexico or Scotland or China…), Christians are granted citizenship in God’s Kingdom. We live out our faith with this dualism: We are continually torn between two cultures.

You are no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. —Ephesians 2:19, The Message

My second thought is this: All cross-cultural experiences are difficult, and living in the Kingdom of Heaven is harder than most.

I’ve visited the Kingdom of Mexico many times. After presenting my passport to a serious-looking immigration officer, I have to force my American brain to Think Spanish and Behave Mexican. The nouns and verbs make their way to my tongue in random spurts, like air bubbles erupting from a clogged drain.

Living cross-culturally is hard work. The beds are too short and the shower heads are too low. The world is measured in liters and kilos and pesos. Conversations zip by like ricocheting bullets, too fast to track. The smells, the sounds, the music that fills the air each evening—nothing is quite like home.

I experience culture shock, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar. To lessen the discomfort, many travelers adopt strategies to make the foreign less foreign. They may travel with a group of their own countrymen or live in enclaves of their own kind. They may rely on professional translators, or shop where the store-keepers speak their home language.

This sort of insulated travel experience is a bit like being on a Disneyland ride—the risks are only an illusion; the thrill is synthetic.

Christianity is foreign and strange, even dangerous. We Christians are tempted to tame the experience, to make it just like home. We have a tendency towards syncretism, making Jesus fit our culture, our beliefs, our preconceptions. We convince ourselves that Jesus is just like us, sharing our political views and values, while conveniently ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

We insulate ourselves from that foreign Jesus, that shocking Jesus, that Jesus who wandered the wilderness without a place to lay his head. We remodel the Kingdom of God, making it look as much as possible like Norman Rockwell’s America.

Genuine New Testament faith creates the spiritual equivalent of culture shock. The Kingdom of God is not at all like Kansas. It’s disorienting. It’s uncomfortable. It stretches us. It’s upside-down and inside-out.

And, it’s our real home. Our only true home.

Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives. —1 Peter 2:11,12, The Message

We live with this dualism. We are born to this world, so it pulls on us powerfully. We think and speak and act like citizens of the earth.

But Jesus calls us to become first-citizens of his kingdom. In fact, he challenges us to carry his kingdom back home with us. We’re to be like yeast in bread dough, change-agents in our home turf.

If the Kingdom of God feels perfectly comfortable, perhaps you’ve never learned to speak the language. Perhaps you’ve never actually crossed the border.

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  1. You got it Charlie! You and The Message made it so clean that ~I~ got it. Thank you, now if only I can keep remembering it.

  2. Dear Charlie, Nice to meet you. Your post on the Sudan is excellent in your great looking blog. I have just posted an excerpt. Thank you and God bless.

  3. Fantastic post! Yes, we are sojourners here, seeking a city yet to come. I really like your analogies here.

  4. Good post, but no need to exaggerate about the food! Looking at Matt. 8:11, what do you suppose that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are doing at that table? Does drinking wine count? Check out Matt. 26:29. And how about that banquet in Luke 14:15-24? I anticipate no lack of food in the Kingdom of Heaven. Sounds like a pretty good time to me, and I’m sure the Mexicans there will have as good a time as anyone.

  5. Yeah, ok, I knew I’d get called on the food thing. I was in my poetic license-taking mode.

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