After traveling for about 24 hours with flying time and layovers altogether, I was glad to board the last flight into Larnaka, Cyprus. To my knowledge we were the only Americans on the flight.
And this is when you really leave your culture, homeland, and flannel comforts behind…
You forget about being an American at all, or a tourist, or a world citizen. You become a patriot of heaven alone.
As I stood in line to board the plane, the woman behind me pressed me forward. She pushed the whole weight of her body against me, as if it would make the line shorter or go quicker.
The more she pressed the more frustrated I became. I turned around and glared at her. I was tired and dirty and fed up with flying, and this pushing was putting me over the edge. Suddenly, I didn’t feel very holy or missionary-ish or loving or sacrificing. I felt ready to take a shower and get some real sleep.
Then I remembered a message I heard from Charlotte Baker a number of years ago. She talked about her first missions trip abroad. A wonderful door of service had opened up for her in the Philippines. She felt so in love with the people, and the opporutnity to work there made her heart sing.
Charlotte hadn’t been there 24 hours when she got into an argument with one of the locals. She felt they were so unreasonable and unloving about the situation. In prayer, she complained, “These people are hard to love, Lord.”
The Lord spoke back to her that she shouldn’t have gone to the Philippines or couldn’t stay in any country based on “her” love for the people. That would always be subject to change, rather she should always go and stay based on her love for God.
Out in the nations, truly the rules are different, and those changes test our commitment to God and to each other. I am not saying that my traditions alone are right, but the changes are exactly what are hard for me. Here are just three of them:
1) Body bubbles are very small or non-existent in most of the world. Americans have unusually large body bubbles or personal spaces. We don’t like people too close to us, especially strangers. This is an unspoken rule in America that does not exist in the nations. People will invade your body space, occupy your body space–they will get in your face to talk to you.
2) First come, first serve doesn’t exist in many countries. First goes to the fastest or the strongest–or the one who can elbow or bully his way to the front of the line. Yes, it seems unfair; but you can’t change it.
3) A smile is not a civil graciousness that is broadly accepted. It can seem very shallow or even suspicious. You can’t smile at everyone and receive a warm reception and expect a smile back. But when the time is right, a smile can be a great bridge builder. You almost have to earn the right to smile.
There are many more unspoken rules that I have learned from traveling and living in the nations that grate on my personal cultural sensibilities.
Yes, the rules are different. But when you get past the thin veil of things that separate us, you see that these things are very, very small. There are many things that unite us. And the main thing is humankind’s desperate need for God.
The differences should draw us closer to God as we endeavor to find ways to communicate His love in culturally relevant ways.
All those comfortable things about my life at home also can be a huge hindrance to sharing my faith with the nations. It is hard to be inconvenienced and much easier to stay home. But the one thing that compels me truly is this verse, “Not that we loved God, but that He loved us.”
No one knows all the ugly and unlovely areas of my life like me. And God loved and rescued me in the depth of my selfishness and depravity. That is why I have to ask myself: “Can I become longsuffering with others who are not like myself?” When I am body slammed in the airport, and people are frowning and invading my body spaces… and getting in my comfort zone, can I forebear as Jesus did with me?
I want to answer that with a resounding, “Yes!”
Well, welcome home to the nations. God knows I need some rough edges rubbed off.
Finally, we landed in Cyprus and wound our way up the Troodos road to our little mountain chalet with a view. As I fell asleep in our warm bed in our new home in the Mid East, I thanked the Lord for a safe journey and asked Him to be patient with me as I realize once again: the mission field is very often more for me than for anyone else.