As I was nearing the end of my three-week language intensive, I started anticipating—rather, salivating over—my rapidly approaching visit to America. After constantly struggling in the language and being the lowest student in the class, the prospect of being in my home culture began to appear like an enticing mirage before me. Part of this was simply fatigue and the excitement to see friends and family. The other part came from a sudden desire to feel completely comfortable—to walk into a grocery story and know every product, to know the unspoken and implicit rules of a culture so that I don’t always have to be trying, thinking, challenging myself, making mistakes, and feeling weak and incompetent. To feel completely “in” and a part of everything.
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy and even love Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian culture—because I do. But when fatigue and discouragement inevitability creep in, the promise of the easy comfort of being in my own culture is like a siren song.
Today when I was driving toward the Roma kids’ club where I am working the next few days, I had a sudden image of myself walking next to a clear, gently flowing river in the midst of a lush green canyon. The quiet was deep and restorative, broken only by the songs of the birds.
The still waters are not your home culture….
The thought flitted across my brain like a frightened bird, but its wing-tipped touch brushed deep into the recess of my soul.
I have said before that language learning is a spiritual discipline, a constant mental and emotional commitment to be weak, to make mistakes, to rely on the help and instruction of others. And I’ve also written briefly about the experience of “being a stranger” as another kind of spiritual discipline—one that daily teaches you to be aware of your subtle dissonance with this world as it is. Although we are born in our respective cultures, and we can enjoy culture as a unique expression of God’s creativity, being a stranger constantly reorients us away from feasting on things that do not satisfy. But how do we learn how to feast on the right food regardless of where we are on this planet?
I think of Jesus, stepping into the clothing of a Jewish male in a specific time in history, stealing away to refresh himself in the presence of his Father.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delights yourselves in rich food.” Isaiah 55
How many people are living, not by choice, outside of their home culture? The UN estimates that the current Syrian war has forced 2 million people to flee their country (the fastest growing refugee flow since Rwanda). This invitation in Isaiah, repeated several times by Jesus when he walked the earth, almost seems to good to be true for such people who have traumatically lost everything and whose lives are irrevocably changed.
My experience of being a stranger is different, because I have the option of returning to my home culture, because I have a place here in this culture. And yet, the ongoing dissonance forces my attention to the millions who do not have such options.
But the good news of the gospel speaks to this angst of being a stranger: “So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2). Paul wrote this to encourage the Gentile believers who were once “strangers to the covenants of promise” but it offers a timely hope for those who feel on the outside—constantly experiencing trauma, discomfort, and the loneliness that come come as a result of never truly being “home.”
Living cross-culturally is both a gift and a discipline—it is in the dissonance and angst one can begin to see clearly, to differentiate between the mirage and the true oasis. He is your true home, the feast that truly satisfies, the waters that sustain you.
The still waters are not your home culture.
“He leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul.” Psalm 23