Reverse Culture Shock

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
(Ephesians 1:3)

Visiting Haiti was a shock to the system.  The sights, the sounds, the smells, the traffic – everything we experienced was an affront to our accepted Midwest norms.  Here in NW Iowa, you can drive for miles without seeing another person, the streets are clean, and the people around you generally respect your personal space.  You quickly realize when you step off the plane in Haiti; We’re not in Kansas anymore!

As an outsider coming into a different country, it is good to be aware of these differences, and not let them get to you.  We had to remember this when we were being driven through Port-au-Prince – our gasps and groans in disgust at the filth and horrid conditions we encountered were comments well understood by our driver.  This was his home, we were his guests.

It is hard to try to understand the Haitian culture, some recommend not even trying.  They are not so concerned with time and schedules, “Day-Planners” aren’t a hot commodity there.  Things get done when they get done.  Looking at Haiti with American eyes, it’s easy to imagine what a few good Civil Engineers could do to transform their land – or what a nationwide recycling effort could do to help clean up the streets – but at the heart of it all, that’s just me wanting to impose my way of life, my custom and comfort, onto everyone else around me.

In a way, I was prepared for that kind of culture shock.  I was even somewhat prepared to take in the suffering and the heartbreak of the absolute poverty and brokenness of the children we were working with.  These are children whose parents have died, or whose parents cannot afford to raise them and had to give them up.  I knew I was setting myself, and the entire team, for a kind of heart-ache that opens our hearts to love in ways we never thought possible.  I knew that none of us would be the same after this week in Haiti – I was prepared, even inviting that kind of culture shock.

What I could not prepare for, and what still has me reeling, is the reverse culture shock from coming home.  I was overwhelmed by the ordinary of our American prosperity; the mega grocery stores with overstocked shelves and over indulged children; the cheap and easy fast food; the rows upon rows of corn and beans, a harvest that is abundant even in the lean years; the opulence and comfort of our homes (even the poorest here live better than the richest there).  We have millionaire football players who strike because they need more share of the profit, while there are people who make a living off of less than a dollar a day.  We bicker and fight over procedures and policies while there are children who sleep on the ground, hungry because they have no food.

I think there are two ways of coping with this culture shock.  We could come to despise our own way of life.  If we see it for what it really is we will recognize materialism, greed, covetousness, insecurity, all which masks the idolatry of our hearts.  I think there’s a bit of that in everyone’s heart.  But what good would that accomplish?  Recognizing our tendency toward idolatry is helpful, but if that turns into a despising of the good gifts, the blessings, that God has given, then we have merely replaced one idol (money) with another (pride).

I think a healthier approach to this shattered world-view is to see the blessings that God has given us for what they truly are: an opportunity to bless others.  If God has given to you in abundance, it is not so that you can rest in that abundance, but so that you can put that abundance to work.  If God has prospered your way, it is not so that you can clutch tightly to that blessing, but so that the blessing will flow freely from you into the lives of others.  Those who hold a miserly grip on the blessings of God love the gift more than the giver, and deprive themselves of lasting joy.  As God has loved, so we are to love; freely, graciously, sacrificially, joyfully.

I knew that this Mission Trip, the first for our congregation in a very long time, would be a game changer, I’m seeing now just how that will work.  I knew the trip would change those who went to Haiti, but I also knew that our transformation would spread through the congregation.   We are not the same, our church is not the same, because of this trip.  God’s Spirit is moving amongst us, breaking down walls, transforming lives, opening our hearts in love and service.  May we continue to grow in God’s Spirit, that we may abound in love, in grace, in charity – that we may grow in the likeness of Christ.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings…

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…

(Ephesians 1:3 ESV)

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians begins with one of the most effusive expressions of praise ever found, “Blessed be God… who had blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing… as he chose us… predestined us… adopted us… to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he as blessed us.”  Volumes of books are necessary to unpack this simple yet eloquent explosion of praise to God.  You’ll find the opening verses of Ephesians to be a “Cliff’s Notes” guide to covenantal reformed theology, and without crossing the line into plagiarism, every candidate for ministry should use these verses as the basis for their statement of faith.

We have been blessed by God in Christ with every spiritual blessing.  This could be read, with every blessing of the Spirit, the Greek is a little ambiguous here, but ultimately it all means the same thing.  Paul unfolds the blessings that God has showered upon us.  We have been chosen by God to be holy and blameless.  In love, he predestined us to be adopted at sons, for the praise of his glorious grace.  I know words like “chosen” and “predestined” make some people shy away muttering “free will” under their breath.  But this is the word of God, His promise to us.  It is meant as good news.  God’s will is that we know His love, encounter His grace, be called His children – and God determined this when our will was set against Him.  That’s good news.

Moreover, we have redemption in Christ Jesus, the forgiveness of trespasses, and the revelation of the will of God with all wisdom and insight.  The blessings of God go on and on throughout Paul’s letter – Praise be to God for His goodness and grace!

Except –

There are times when we don’t feel blessed.  The world seems set against us.  Money’s tight, or even non-existent.  Friends are few and far between, and those you thought were close only got there so they could stab you in the back.  Anxiety and stress rise up around you, you feel lost and tossed around in the storm.  The winds blow and your life is turned upside down (literally here in NW Iowa).  It’s hard to echo the words of Paul, it’s hard to say that we’ve been blessed with every spiritual blessing.

There are times when we are in the desert.  We feel dry, spiritually – we’re thirsty for closeness with God.  We want to know those blessings that Paul is talking about here, but it’s just not connecting.  We hear about the blessings, why don’t we see them?

It’s at times like these that it is important to remember this truth, God’s word is true regardless of how we feel about it.  So often we think that our religious affections (to borrow the phrase from Jonathon Edwards) all rely on how I feel about God at this particular moment.  If I feel passionately about God, then I must be close to Him and He to me.  If I’m feeling distant from God, then there must be something wrong in my life.  While there may be some truth to this, I think that sometimes we may put a little too much emphasis on our feelings.  If I don’t feel like I’ve “connected” to God in prayer, does that mean that God didn’t hear my prayer?  If my heart wasn’t really in my worship and preaching last week, does that mean that God wasn’t still glorified by my preaching and in our worship?

One of my favorite quotes in literature comes from Dickens’, A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge has just encountered the ghost of Bob Marley, his former business partner who warns him of the coming visits in the night.  In disbelief Scrooge replies, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”  How many times are our feelings, either positive or negative, toward God based on our lack of sleep, our indigestion, or the run-in we had at the supermarket yesterday?

The truth of the matter is, regardless of how you feel about it today, for those who are alive in Christ Jesus, God has blessed you with ever spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.  This doesn’t mean that we won’t encounter poverty and pain, it doesn’t mean that we won’t face hardship and setback.  But it does mean that God to supplies all our needs “according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). It does mean that regardless of what we face, we may say, as did Job, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Friends, when you don’t feel it, know it.  Know that God has blessed you in Christ Jesus our Lord, and you are blessed indeed!