If your wife is trying to kill you, you should probably fight back. And so I did. In the first year of our marriage, every time she washed the dishes, she put them back in the cupboard still wet. I'm no scientist, but I was pretty sure she was turning all our cups and plates into petri dishes. The germs were going to kill me, so I surmised.
We had a huge argument. It lasted for months. Over whether to let the dishes dry before putting them away.
I like to quote Jesus when I'm judging others, but it turns out that the Bible gave me nothing to work with for this particular debate. I had to rely on Wikipedia, which turned out to be only marginally helpful. What I learned was this: if you leave wet dishes in the cupboard for more than three or four days, there is a significant possibility that deadly bacteria will begin to grow in them. But if it's only a couple days, probably no problem.
So, it turns out that I wasn't the potential victim of a murder after all. It was just a cross-culture catastrophe. In my culture, most households have multiple pots and pans and cups and bowls... often used infrequently... probably a result of our consumeristic excess. In China, however, where apartment space is severely limited, and most adults are only a generation removed from extreme poverty, the few dishes and pots a household has tend to get used every day.
These days, out of respect for me...or to humor me...Jie has crossed over into American culture, and she even tries to convince HER parents to dry their dishes before putting them away.
Much as I wanted Jesus to be on my side in this argument, he turned out to be a non-factor. Darn!
Meanwhile, as I was worrying that
Jie was going to kill me, she was convinced I was trying to kill
myself...with mashed potatoes.
We were at a restaurant early in our marriage and happened to order mashed potatoes. Jie thought they tasted wonderful...and then started to harass me by wondering why I couldn't cook that well. So, I bragged that my mashed potatoes were even better than the restaurants. (I often brag that I can do better than the restaurant.)
A few days later I decided to treat her to
my mashed potatoes. And she decided to watch while I whipped up my masterpiece.
As I pulled the potatoes out of the bag, she saw sprouts growing out of them and made me throw them all away. We had a big argument about whether potato sprouts will kill you. I assured her that I had eaten many a potato sporting sprouts over the years...and I was still alive. But it was clear I was not going to win the argument that day.
So, I went and got another bag of potatoes. When she saw that
those potatoes had some green skin on them, she made me throw them out too! Of course, we had another big argument--this time over whether green skin on a potato will kill you.
And once again Jesus was of no help to me. I had to call upon Wikipedia for my salvation. It informed me that both sprouts and green spots
can be deadly, but not if you gouge out the sprouts...and peel away the green skin. And since I ALWAYS gouge the sprouts and peel the skin, I could see no reason for her to worry that the neighbors might peek in the window some day and find us deceased...our heads tumbled into a gob of now-cold deadly spuds.
When I finally came up with a bag of potatoes that passed Jie's inspection, I peeled them, quartered and boiled them, and put them in the bowl with a stick of butter and a splash of milk. Then she made me remove the butter. "Chinese don't eat butter" she said. Plus, "Butter is the reason you Americans are so fat." I didn't have any argument left in me that day, so I removed the butter, mashed the remains with a hand mixer, added salt and pepper, and served her the "approved" recipe of "mashed potatoes."
She took one bite and refused to eat the rest: "I told you that you couldn't cook as well as the restaurant."
While she suspected that I was committing slow suicide by mashed potatoes, it turned out to be just another cross-culture catastrophe.
When I was serving the church in Urbana, after I'd been there about six years, a group of people decided that I was trying to kill the church. They held a secret meeting where they decided to make a list of "Things that are wrong with Mike." The woman who organized the meeting later told the District Superintendent: "We only wanted our first meeting to focus on the negative. We decided that the rest of our meetings would be positive...except it took us two meetings to finish our list of what we didn't like." A few days after that second meeting I received an eight page letter listing dozens of sins I had committed. At the top of the list was this, "You are trying to kill our church because you do not respect our culture." The list concluded with some suggestions of what I might do with the rest of my life.
As for the many items on their list...well...sometimes truth takes a holiday. I turned the whole epistle over to the pastor parish relations committee, sent a copy to the district superintendent, and left it up to them what to do next.
But the one thing I did take seriously was their accusation that I didn't respect the CULTURE of their congregation. It set me to thinking. Why do so many pastors have cross-cultural catastrophes with their congregations...even when we are of the same race and language? And is there any hope at all for a denomination, or a congregation for that matter, that tries to host more than one
type of culture?
When Jie attended our conference's ill-fated "Cross-Cultural Appointment Seminar" last week, it raised issues I've been pondering for years. So, I think I'm going to explore this subject for two or three more weeks in these Sunday letters.
Here are some of the thought-threads I'll be tugging:
Every church has its own unique culture. So does every annual conference and every denomination.
The definition of culture is this: the habits, materials, and beliefs that form the common ground for a particular group of people. Culture is something we try to pass on to new generations (or members of that group) with the expectations that they will conform.
Another definition of "church" culture: it is everything in the church that isn't specifically commanded by Jesus. It is our buildings, our programs, our hierarchy, our rules for membership, our worship, our music, our artifacts, our mission projects...
The culture of a church is often sacramental, but nothing of culture is actually sacred.
If we do not understand the extent and grip of our
own culture, it will be impossible for us to interact with people of other cultures in any sort of healthy way.
Jesus calls his followers to be "in" the world but not "of" it. Paul says that the church is a treasure in earthen vessels. There is no "church" without various cultural embodiments. Jesus is "in" our church culture, but never "of" it.
When defending our own cultural ways of doing church, it is really hard to admit that culture often renders Jesus a non-factor. In fact, to truly follow Jesus usually requires us to confront the elements of our congregation's culture. The prophet Malachi referred to this as facing the refiner's fire...or the fuller's soap.
One of the best ways of distinguishing the living Christ from "church culture" is to interact with Christians of other cultures...learn from each other...laugh with each other...and challenge each other.
Okay...that list is long enough for today. (But my list does go on!)
I'm looking forward to thinking about church and culture more. For example, my first church (Immanuel Church in Olney, Illinois) enjoyed serving an annual "chowder." They would fire up a big iron kettle in the middle of the night and start throwing in all sorts of vegetables and meats. In the olden days, they would even pitch in some local squirrels and rabbits. (But not the white squirrels that lived in Olney...that was against the law!) After the stuff cooked all night and all morning, it was "chowder" ...and ready to put in jars and sell to everyone in town. It tasted great.
But let's face the truth: this was part of that congregation's culture, not the heart of what it meant for them to be the body of Christ. Turning squirrels into chowder is hardly the same as turning water into wine.
It might have been sacramental (a 'this-world' thing that conveys the goodness of God) but it wasn't sacred...nor suitable as a substitute for the sacred.
Till next week...