A cross-cultural God-adventurer (or whatever we’re calling them these days to avoid the M-word) is like a whale.
We dive deep and travel long distances, far from the eyes of our peers back home. We are endeavoring to wrestle with ‘below the surface’ issues of culture and worldview, we are exploring the baseline narrative of a culture, probing for weakness and seeking to replace it with a better story. We stay down for long periods of time and no-one sees us or hears from us for years. We make our home in the depths.
Something, then, you need to know about whales; Whales are mammals, they have to come up for air.
I only realised this recently. Whales can stay down for long periods of time, but they don’t have gills. As committed as we are to enculturation and getting as deep as possible, don’t forget to come up for breath sometimes.
I’m almost loathe to say it, because most of us have the opposite problem – we spend too much time at the surface and never get deep enough. But for my deep-diving brothers and sisters who can hold their breath for long periods of time; don’t forget oxygen!
Furlough, home assignment, a holiday, a sabbatical; I don’t mind what you call it (well, actually I do, but that’s another blog post) can be a blessing or a curse. I think that primarily the purpose must be to draw breath in preparation for diving deep again.
The exotic Mr. Livingstone
David Livingstone was your archetypal deep-diver, disappearing from public view for years at a time. At one time he wrote derisively, “If you meet me down in the colony (Cape Town) before eight years are expired you may shoot me” (David Livingstone, Stephen Tomkins).
When he eventually did make his first trip back to England he was welcomed as something exotic and wonderful, just as when we do get a glimpse of a giant from the deep; the very rarity of spotting one makes it all the more breath-taking. The first run of 12,000 of his book sold out in advance of publication, and a second sold out within a month. He eventually made £8,500 from it, six times what he had earned as a salaried missionary (don’t get any ideas…)!
According to the United Presbyterian Magazine at the time:
Scientific societies, learned and venerable universities, civic corporations, mercantile leagues, ecclesiastical assemblies have vied with one another in declaring in the manner appropriate to each the appreciation of the services he has rendered to the interests they severally represent. Nobles of highest degree, philosophers of world-wide reputation, princes and prelates… have crowded the reunions at which Dr. Livingstone was expected to be present and have sought to be made known to him.
So when we go back and tell our stories, what is normal to us sounds glamourous to them. Third culture kids can always outstrip their more sedentary peers in cool stories. They see us glistening with the foreign culture from which we have so newly emerged, like a gleaming giant whale, and they praise us.
There are at least three dangers with this:
1. Our ego swells and we think we are bigger than we are.
Cross-cultural workers are notoriously under-praised and under-encouraged, so an ego that is used to being beaten up all day long can find all those congratulatory slaps on the back really hard to handle. And we start to enjoy it a bit too much, and our stories and statistics start to stretch, and we like to communicate that we are the only people God is using in a particular place.
2. We forget that everyone’s vocation is sacred and think we are more holy because we are more exotic.
Or, in actual fact, many people assume this (“Gee! I could never move country for the gospel like you have…”) and we stop correcting them.
3. We forget to dive deep again.
Normally you glimpse a whale briefly, then it disappears again beneath the waves and continues its long, invisible journey. That is what is supposed to happen with you. You take breath, have a few photos taken, and then dive deep again.
But so often what happens is that we get more speaking and teaching invitations, more opportunities to fly here and there, and the very thing that caught peoples’ attention in the first place (the deep-diving giant) is lost to us. The Christian equivalent of promotion to the level of incompetence, unfortunately, is taking someone who is good at ‘doing’ and making them ‘teach’ it so much that they have to stop ‘doing’ it!
Friend, don’t get pulled off mission.
Do remember to draw breath occasionally, enjoy the opportunity to profile what God is doing and never dumb down the amazing stories you have to tell, giving glory to Jesus; but make sure that you dive deep again afterwards.
I imagine a whale feels somewhat safe again as the waters close over his head and the pressure starts to buzz in his ear drums (whether whales have ear drums or not is moot). Getting back into your rhythm of languageand hospitality and local church life in your new culture can feel more like a homecoming that you expect. Even though whales don’t have gills, and all the other fish look at them and say “you’re not a real fish”, I suspect whales feel more comfortable in the deep than on the surface. So may it be with you!
AM has been in a city in the ME since 2009, leading a team, leading his family, planting a church. “We are still very new at this, so don’t take anything I say too seriously!” Click here to connect on Twitter.