You give and take away, you give and take away.
We sang those words in church yesterday at our annual combined service with the French church that meets before we do (we are an English-speaking congregation). We sang songs in French and English, including the classic “Blessed Be Your Name” translated into French “Béni Soit Ton Nom.” I first heard and sang this song during chapel at university in my third year, March 2004; it was our International Week. There were flags on the stage representing the home countries of the students, and the band stood in front of them, a guy who grew up in Uganda was leading the song. My guess is I’ve sung this song at least once a month in a congregational setting for the past eight years, but yesterday was the first time I sang it in a language other than English. When I saw the words in French, I started singing along.
Sur cette terre de plénitude
Où Tes bienfaits se répandent
Béni soit Ton nom
Et béni soit Ton nom
Quand mon existence est un désert
Quand je parcoure des chemins inconnus
Béni soit Ton nom
It didn’t take long before the tears formed in my eyes, my jaw quivered and my emotions and my spirit went into full-on response mode. I had to stop singing to keep from bursting into tears. This happens to me every Sunday I’m in Germany, singing songs in German. I’m fairly certain I know why singing in a language that is not my own does something to my heart.
It reminds me that I am not the center of the universe, that my way of doing things, my way of seeing things is not right, there are different ways of communication, different ways of talking to God, there are people all over the world who communicate with him in different ways than I do, and this is good. This is right. And my heart is well in these moments because it is reminded of the truth – my way is not the only way.
Something happens to us when we live in a monocultural, monolingual environment. We start to think that our way of living is the only way of living, our way of thinking is the only way of thinking, our human way is the best way. This is a lie – our way of living, however good it may be, is not the only way of living. Our way of thinking, however rational or educated we may be, is not the only way of thinking. Our human way, however well thought out or well prayed out it may be, is not the only way.
This lie does something to us – it turns us against other people who live and believe differently, and it causes a swell of judgment and bitterness to rise up within us. This is what heals inside of me when I sing in a different language, this is what heals when I believe that I am not the centre of the universe, me with my “right” way of doing things, “right” way of thinking, “right” way living.
I have been thinking and continue to think long and hard about the 2012 campaign season and elections. I have read many articles. I have seen many a Facebook status update. I have had a few conversations. And I have my own soul and mind and my own thoughts about all of these things. This week is my attempt to wrestle some of these thoughts out on this “page” and an effort to talk to you instead of Husband who can only listen to so much ranting at 5 in the morning. Seriously. Five in the morning. Chances are you’re more than tired of hearing about the U.S. elections, and in my own small way, I am sorry for adding to the noise. Well, I hope this week won’t be noise but thoughts for everyone, United States of American and people who are not. I have had a few seasons of writing about politics; I have not always been gracious or gentle. I am trying this week to write to deeper things, not things on the surface, and I am trying to see how these thoughts will work out in my own life as well.
Here are my thoughts for today, and they are aimed primarily toward people who are Christians.
It’s no secret that most of us like to be around people who remind us of ourselves. I find myself in the bizarre situation of being a non-white person to the naked eye (I’m more than brown as a Sri Lankan for anyone who is interested), yet I know my mind is fairly “western,” more specifically “whitely western,” so yes I have no problem saying that if you ask me whom I feel most comfortable around other than my family, it is probably going to be western people, specifically western white people from the U.S. I just want to make this clear, in case it is not obvious, that this does not mean people of other nationalities, ethnicities or races make me uncomfortable. My closest friends have been from five continents, they all have different colours and speak different languages. I am just saying that, when I enter a room for the first time, the people I tend to be connect with the easiest are people who are white from the U.S.
All of us have these preferences, but what we do about our natural preferences determine how we will live and what we will think.
I’m wondering today about my life and your life, whoever you are who is reading this. Who are my friends? Who are your friends? Do they look like us? Do they sound like us? Have the same lives that we lead? Are they from the same kind of economic background? Do they have the same faith, values and lifestyle? Are they educated in the same way that you are?
If you consider yourself a Christian, are you ever in places of worship that include people who speak a different language? Is everyone or are a majority of the same colour and economic background? Do you actively seek out people of different cultures as friends for you and for your children?
There was something heartbreaking for me listening to the spin in the days after the elections. Democrats turned out the Hispanic, African American and female vote, hooray says the Democrats! Republicans need to do some soul searching about immigration reform and how they “talk” about women’s issues. Pundits bemoaning their lives in an America that “is not your grandfather’s America.” Christians who feel lost in a country that no longer shares their values.
But when it comes to the subject of people, language, culture, colour and countries, it doesn’t matter if the president is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and it doesn’t matter if the House and Senate is controlled by Republicans or Democrats because the people who live in your towns and cities are the people who live in your towns and cities, and your choice, everyone’s choice is this: How will we treat our neighbors? How will we think about and treat our fellow citizens?
The illusion an election provides in democratic societies is the illusion of control – we think we put someone in office who will do what we want. They will most likely not. Yes, Barack Obama is probably going to make more Democrats than Republicans happy in the next four years. But he will not even make all Democrats happy in every way he could. He will disappoint them; he might even infuriate them. Elected officials may be accountable to the citizens who elected them, but they are ultimately people who make human decisions. You and I do not control public policy, voting may direct public policy, but it in no way controls it. It is easy, very, very easy to see people in terms of the political abstractions of welfare, abortion and immigration reform. Let us not be so easily deceived. People are people, they are not policies or laws or entitlement reforms. When was the last time you befriended someone on welfare? Not to be their charitable savior, but to befriend them, to get to know them as they are? We may not have control over public policy, but we have complete control over how we treat other people, and we have complete control over the culture we create in our homes and in our communities.
These are questions I am thinking about for myself because I am realizing that the more deeply entrenched I become in my “way” of doing things, I will be disconnecting myself and my family from relationships that have the power to transform us. My relationships in Geneva are with people of a variety of cultures and beliefs, but they are mostly with highly educated, highly skilled and highly resourced people. This needs to change. I have no idea how, but it needs to change.
What are the cultural stereotypes that hold us back from other races, other colours, other languages? Yes, there are people on all extremes who fit stereotypes, but the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle, in a place that doesn’t fit a caricature, and it doesn’t matter if we are white, black, brown, blue, red or yellow, we want to be known and accepted for who were are as people. How are you inviting people who are different from you into your life? In what ways are you inviting yourself into theirs?
Husband and I talked about this, and for us we think it might mean every so often going to a church of a different culture from ours – a Spanish congregation, a Filipino one, etc. If you are a Christian and still reading this, can I make a humble suggestion? Go to an African American congregation and engage. Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. Go to a Hispanic American congregation. Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. Go to a white church. Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. (And there are so many others, Chinese, Korean, Ethiopian, Russian, Arab, Jewish, find any one of them).
Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. And thank God that he made us different, that he understands and hears all languages, that he has no favourites and preferences, and that he loves it when we are together.