Right? Wrong? Or Different?
Have you ever experienced something so far from what you were used to that you didn’t know how to respond? We all have a circle built around us that we call our comfort zone. We function best within it. Naturally, all of our foods, friends and work come from safely within this circle. However, as Christians we are to carry a supra-cultural message in a multi-cultural arena. Personally I have struggled deeply with things that stretched my comfort zone. Difference feels so wrong. In this post I’m sharing my personal journey relating to this area.
If someone were to ask me what denomination I belong to I usually would say “Mennonite.” Although our family attended a wide variety of churches as I grew up, the most formative experiences I had were in the years we were attending conservative Mennonite churches. I am very thankful for my experience in these churches. God’s Spirit is working in His people in beautiful ways. I would like to write about one of those ways he is working in my life in relation to my traditional Mennonite thought processes.
Becoming a Mennonite at 12 years old was not easy. For various reasons, we never stayed at a church for more than two years. Although moving from one Mennonite church to a similar one doesn’t seem like it would be hard, we always seemed to be in the crossfire at the fringes of the culture. What was normal in a previous church could be frowned on or totally rejected by the next if the element of “differentness” was deemed too great. We made friends, were part of their circle, but were always at least a little different. In my early teens, this difference began to feel so wrong. I did my best to fit in. My efforts toward uniformity were applauded the same way differentness was looked down on. This was the beginning of my religious experience as I accepted the dogmas and cultural moorings of my specific group in order to fit in.
When I finally began to understand what was at the root of all this, I realized there was a fully heeded yet unspoken axiom applied to every area of our lives: Differentness is Wrong. Although there is an element of this in the way all of us view the world around us, in my Mennonite experience this sentiment was brought from being a personal thing to be the presiding element in culture and religion. Tradition was king. I remember a good friend of mine saying, “The church should create a culture around itself.” I often heard this sentiment: “We have found a way that Christianity works the best. We will stick with it.” Although no one would have said that anything different was inherently wrong, actions and attitudes spoke louder than words.
Although this sentiment was prevalent among the communities I knew, I found out that there were a few anomalies. Over the years, I learned to know a few people who didn’t seem bent on protecting the church from difference. They accepted our culture as part of life, but they also spoke highly of and worked with people from outside our circle. These people made me subconsciously question the dogmas I had accepted, but my first in-depth experience that began to erode my mindset was a term of voluntary church service in Peru. The exposure to another culture began to awaken me to the fact that the differences might be something other than “wrong.” Of course, I would never have said that “different” was equal to “wrong,” but I felt that way.
I later became very involved in Ghana and continued to form my perspective of differentness. I lived there for two and a half years with one interlude back home and had to embrace many different aspects of what was strange to me. I ate hundreds of meals without utensils and learned to love it. I learned to squat behind the nearest, farthest, biggest, unused bush to relieve myself. Although the organization I was with embraced cultural differences much more than I was used to, it still was a challenge for me to fully accept the fact that the churches and practice of Christianity around me were legitimate.
I remember one experience early in my stay in Ghana that was very influential in changing my worldview. I was in a village far from any major roads, vehicles or electricity, being hosted in a traditional mud and grass house. An interpreter was with me, but beyond that I could understand nothing of what was happening. I remember going to a church meeting late that night whose form resembled a traditional African tribal assembly and celebration more than anything else. I was exhausted from the bike ride, jarred by the drumming and completely looking forward to getting back to civilization. After the meeting, I slept fitfully on a plaster coated floor. I woke early, and with nothing better to do, went out to the church building (hut) for some peace and quiet. There in the complete silence I was able to think clearly and suddenly realized the beauty in what I experienced there the night before: A group of people had been radically changed by God and were expressing their great joy in their own cultural way.
In that church building, I realized that I had been making judgements based on difference. I felt obligated to categorize what I observed as right or wrong. When I was doing this I was missing the whole picture. As time went on I began to see how God was breaking my friends free from tribal violence, the impoverishing clutches of animism, habitual wife-beating and chronic drunkenness. Especially as I saw the other side of things, the darkness in unbelievers all around us, I became convinced that God’s Spirit was working beautifully. Difference didn’t matter, this supernatural Force changing lives did.
Through all of this, although it often ran against my grain, I learned to stop waving the “Difference is Wrong” flag whenever I come across something new. What is wrong is no longer based on what is different, but on what God wants to change in a life that embraces the supernatural power of his Spirit working in them..
In the future I anticipate continued surprise at my own inability to step away from the feeling that “different is wrong.” But I am passionate to see God’s Spirit working in His people to see beyond differences and to see things as He sees. My challenge to myself and to everyone is to embrace those times when we are out of our comfort zone and difference seems huge. Don’t run away or succumb to the urge to feel the difference is wrong. Welcome it because it is through these experiences that God gives us His perspective and His Spirit.