All Things To All Men

pentecost_kirillo-belozerskSunday, May 31, 2015
Feast Day of Pentecost

It always happens to me as we near the end of our time in Russia. The battle fatigue sets in from being constantly surrounded by a culture not my own, hearing another tongue I can barely speak myself, and meeting people with whom I miss so many unspoken cultural cues and gestures. In its most extreme form, it is called culture shock, and even the most seasoned travelers are subject to it. The best remedy for it is a kind of cross-cultural humility that’s hard to come by for most Americans, and especially for this one.

Growing up in a small town in the midwest, I found excursions to the big city of Toledo to be enough of a thrill. When we wanted to visit a foreign country, we traveled several hours north and crossed the border into Canada (in those days, they did not even require a passport). With our country surrounded on two borders by oceans, it is easy for us to think of ourselves as the center of the world. The farthest most Americans I knew traveled was down to Florida for Disneyland. But there was one exception to this general rule, and that was those who had accepted the call to be missionaries and spread the Gospel throughout the world.

travel-novosibirsk-article01It was a Protestant missionary who first taught me cross-cultural humility and love for Russia. In the early 90’s, he had done what sounded to me quite dangerous. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly created Russian Federation opened its windows to the West, and my friend answered the call to go there and minister to young college students in Novosibirsk, students whose last contact with faith was often just Baptism by a believing Babuska. Unlike me, he went to Russia without family, without any cultural contacts except for the few other evangelicals that accepted the call, and at a time when things in Russia were falling apart faster than they were coming together. The Orthodox Church at that time was just getting back on its feet, and the government was even less organized. It has been compared to the American Wild West in its lawlessness and the rapidity of growth and change. He stayed for over a year learning the language and culture and obeying the apostolic mandate to become all things to all men so that by all possible means, he might save some.

“Podstakannik mit Gold” by Jürg Vollmer / Maiakinfo

When I first came to Russia ten years ago, I remembered him fondly for being the first to show me how to brew tea the Russian way (steeping a concentrated batch in the teapot, then adding hot water to that). When I was dealing with the novelty and strangeness of it all, he was kind enough to forward me a paper he had written about the culture shock he had endured himself. His Christian warmth and love for a people not his own reminded me of why I became Orthodox. Because Jesus Christ is not a Republican; He’s not even an American. He is the King and Lord of all creation, and he calls his disciples to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel with the same zeal as the apostles after Pentecost.

My friend’s example still inspires me today in my darker moments of cultural insecurity when things don’t work the way I want or expect them to. His love, humility and gratitude can probably best be summed up by the great serenity prayer in the tradition of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous):

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Thank you, Dear Lord, for this prayer. For those of us in this world who struggle in a culture not native to us, may we all ultimately find that our home and true culture lies elsewhere:

My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place. (John 18:36)

2 thoughts on “All Things To All Men

  1. Pingback: Strangers in a Strange Land | Like Mendicant Monks…

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