This is the latest blog in the Called?! series. For previous posts see PersuadedSentPreparedTeamed

Entering a new culture is like dying.

Jesus, speaking of his own death, said ‘unless a [seed] falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’. When you enter a new culture it can feel like death (if you do it well!). Particularly in our recommended initial few years, where possible, of focusing on learning the language and the culture. You go from being competent and successful in your home culture to dependent and babyish in the new. You go from being able to express yourself to utter inarticulacy. You go from being respected to being misunderstood and unable to defend yourself. You go from feeling ‘useful’ to God to feeling the total opposite.

It’s like dying! Dying to what you knew, dying to the right to comment, dying to things that you had assumed to be absolutes. It hurts.

The hymn-fragment in Philippians 2:6-11 summarising Jesus’ career has often been taken as a great model for cross-cultural life and ministry. The V-shaped progression from his pre-incarnate glory in heaven, down to earth and death, and then up through resurrection to exaltation is a pattern for all Christians, although in crossing cultures it must be remembered that you are not leaving a better (higher) culture for a worse (lower) one as Jesus did. You are moving from one fallen culture to another. The pain is in leaving your preferences, assumptions, given world view and natural habitat behind and that is like dying.

The wonderful thing about a seed if it is buried properly and deeply is that it will take root, grow, and in time produce something. When Jesus’ killers buried him they gloated, they did not realise they were burying God’s long-promised ‘seed’ (which is traceable through Scripture all the way from Genesis 3:15), through which the new creation would be brought to birth as the fruit of resurrection burst from the ground. In the fairy tale, Jack’s mother threw away good-for-nothing beans and they became a mighty beanstalk. The stone the builders rejected became the capstone.

Likewise, every time we as foreigners feel buried under incompetence,  shame, uselessness, illiteracy, we must remember that we are being buried deeply into a soil where we shall take root, we shall bear fruit, and the more deeply we are planted, the more thoroughly we die to our former cultural preferences, the more locally and lastingly will our fruit be rooted.

Entering a new culture is like falling into a hole in the ground and choosing not to grab hold of the familiar to save yourself. There were so many familiar routines and comforts we could have grabbed hold of in the early, dark, chaotic days of relocating. A bit of English TV. Some time with foreign friends. Of course, you’ve got to keep some carefully crafted fixed points for the sake of your family’s well-being. We kept pizza and a movie on Friday nights. But the more of your old shape that you hang onto, even in family life, the less deeply you will enter.

A British soldier can live anywhere in the world, keep his discipline, shave every morning, drink gin and tonic every evening, and stay habitual and presentable. But he does not enter the culture, he camps upon it.

If you are falling into a black hole of chaos, if all your family routines are shot to pieces, if you are choosing not to hang onto the familiar, then take heart, you are entering the culture.

Entering a new culture is like scuba diving. I’ve only done this once and they put such a heavy weighted belt on me that I sank to the bottom and kicked along in the mud, panicking… until I stood up in the three feet of water we were practising in! The weighted belt is to keep you down, otherwise you have a natural buoyancy that brings you back up again. We will all naturally default back towards our sending culture, our inbred tendencies. We don’t stay as deep as we would like. Therefore, we need to dive as deep as possible at the beginning knowing that with time we will default back to a level slightly above. Deeper than feels comfortable or sustainable. And we need to weight our belts with disciplines that will keep us down.

Entering a new culture is like dying. It’s like falling through a hole. It’s like diving deep. It hurts, it’s shameful and no one understands. It rips your once-orderly family life and inner world to pieces. It strips you of dignity and competence. Much like Jesus did as he entered our culture and went right down to death. You are being buried, my friend. It’s a baptism. It’s cruciform. It’s heroic. It’s apostolic. It’s sacrificial. It hurts.

For previous posts see PersuadedSentPreparedTeamed