|The Measure of a Place
by Chip Zimmer, Director of International MinistriesI was 21 years old and a recent college graduate when I traveled outside North America for the first time. In August 1970 I flew to Nepal, where I would spend two years as a Peace Corps volunteer.
My introduction to Nepalese culture had begun two months earlier during training in Davis, California, but it wasn’t until we were on our final approach into Tribhuvan Airport that I appreciated how different Nepal was from anything I’d experienced before. There, outside my window and a few hundred feet below, stood Bodnath, one of the most famous Buddhist shrines in the Kathmandu valley. I couldn’t take my eyes off the domed temple, with its superstructure of painted eyes, prayer flags, and golden crown. This definitely was not Kansas.
I’ve often found that my most intense memories of a place are linked to sights, sounds, or smells. As vivid as these are, however, such physical stimuli can be misleading. They may tell me that a place is different, but it is not until I have been granted access into the lives of people who live there that I form an appreciation for a culture’s fundamental shape, and for how its values align with or are at odds with my own or with God’s.
My friend Ted Kober discovered this on his first visit to India several years ago. Ted had been invited by church leaders to teach peacemaking in the southern part of the country. After one of the presentations, a pastor raised his hand to ask a question that went something like this:
“The parents of a young man in my church arranged for the marriage of their son, but the son refused to cooperate. Instead, he married a woman of his own choosing. As a result, our church excommunicated both the young man and his parents. The parents repented for not being able to control the behavior of their son and asked to come back into the church, but our elders refuse to reinstate them.”
The pastor looked at Ted and asked, “What should I do?”
The question stopped Ted in his tracks. Here was a matter that went to the heart of the intersection between Christianity and Indian culture, and he, an outsider with little understanding of the intricacies of local customs, was expected to provide the answer. All eyes were on him. How would he respond?
I know how I might have responded. I would have been tempted to blast away at arranged marriages–in fact, at the entire caste system. I had struggled during my years in Nepal with the whole notion of caste and everything that went with it. What could be more unfair than a system that allocates opportunities in life based on family of birth? As a North American, I am saturated with the belief that individuals should be free to choose for themselves whom they marry and that opportunities in life should be based on what you know, not on who your parents are. The chance to take a good swing at a system I found abhorrent would have been hard to resist.
Yet, at the same time, I think I would have been restrained by years of wrestling with peacemaking and the implications of Scripture–something about getting the log out of my own eye first. Where in my own culture could I point to a functional caste system in which opportunity had more to do with birth than with ability? More to the point, hadn’t I found it convenient to show favoritism, or say to someone in need, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed”? In my own way, hadn’t I lived what amounted to a caste system approach to life? Didn’t I try to control others, to manipulate their decisions to get what I wanted? I have to admit that the answer to these questions is “yes.” As I reflect on my own shortcomings, I am amazed and grateful that Christ died even for these sins of mine. I hope that this realization would have tempered any remarks I might have made.
Beyond being wise in speech, however, I also hope I would have come to the conclusion Ted reached as he stood before his audience. Ted resisted the temptation to try to answer the question and instead pointed his listeners to the one source he was sure would help. “What does the Bible say?” he asked. “Let’s take a look at the Scriptures.”
The wonderful thing about Ted’s response is that he recognized a boundary and refused to cross it. It is not always easy to defer when cast in the role of “expert,” but Ted wisely realized that, in the end, it was not his opinion that mattered, but God’s. Scripture is the standard by which all cultures should be assessed. Ted’s answer affirmed this reality and pointed his listeners toward taking a biblical approach to life’s problems, the very thing he had been teaching in his peacemaking seminar.
I have thought a lot about Ted’s experience in the years since he told me his story. It has shaped my own approach to teaching generally and working cross culturally in particular and more than once has helped me stay out of trouble. Along the way, I have developed a deep appreciation for the words of David, as recorded in Psalm 19:7, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.”
I’m not 21 anymore, but I still love the thrill of visiting someplace new, of seeing new sites and meeting new people. I try to cherish every trip and every new friendship. But, I have also learned that the true measure of a place is not primarily what I see or hear or smell. The true measure of a place–whether it is your home or mine–is what lives in the hearts of its people and whether those hearts are inclined toward God.
P.S. Ted Kober, who for many years was our colleague at Peacemaker Ministries, currently serves as president of Ambassadors of Reconciliation. To check out the Ambassadors website, please go to www.HisAoR.org.