Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Observations on being home

If you haven't figured it out yet, I am still in Malaysia, and have been for the last 6 weeks or so. The process of resolving whether I can get a new visa is still frustratingly slow. It's certainly nice to be back home, but once you've started getting used to having your favourite foods available again, being in limbo does wear on you. People have been very nice and have tried to be encouraging; more than one person has said to me: "You've been working too hard, so you should enjoy the holiday!" There's also no doubt that God has brought me back for good reasons, some of which I can guess at, others I might not know. But I am raring to head back. Anyway, here's a bunch of stuff I've been picking up.

Reverse culture shock #1. After being in an egalitarian society where 70 year olds expect me to call them Mike, not Mr. Jones, and to discuss things on a peer-to-peer level, I'm finding myself a little confused about what is and what isn't appropriate to talk about with those older than me. I think it doesn't help that there're degrees of differentiation too! My family would be a bit more traditional and there's more of a hierarchical mindset, whereas my church is relatively speaking, much more relaxed. I suspect I'm erring excessively on the polite side.

Reverse culture shock #2. So when an uncle (in Malaysia, anyone who is reasonably older than you is often addressed as such, not just family. No responsibility is taken if you misjudge somebody's age!) offered me coffee, I said immediately: "Yes, please!" After watching his body language thereafter, I realised then that I should have played the "No No" game, making some tentative refusals before accepting his offer. Ergh.

Reverse culture shock #3. Most of the literature dealing with this subject note that symptoms often include
  • Difficulties explaining coherently your time and experiences abroad. Those who listen don't have the frame of reference or travel background to understand.
  • Reverse 'home' sickness. Feelings of being lost and lonely.
  • The relationships at home have changed. The returnees as well as those who stayed at home have altered.
    I think I've experienced bits of this, and it's reminded me that when I finally come back home long-term, whenever that might be, I would have to deal with this.

    Theory and praxis. I think it was the veteran missionary Martin Goldsmith, who used to pastor a church in Malaysia, who said: "Asian (or was it Malaysian?) Christians are short on theology, long on ethics." By that he meant that Asians tend to dislike theoretical musings for its own sake, but want to see its connection to daily life, the "real world" if you like. Otherwise it would just be dismissed as irrelevant. This has positives and negatives. Positively, it immediately lends Christian reflection a pastoral and missional orientation. Theory and practice must not be separated. Negatively, this often leads to pragmatism, whatever works. They just want to know "what to do", and to think too deeply is "unspiritual". I bring this up because I am sensing this a little.

    Bible study. I was also thinking about how our Bible studies work. In Asian Bible studies, it is common for people to immediately think about their own experiences and contexts and to share them as they go through a passage. I was previously very critical of this, and I think there is good reason to be. There's always the danger of reading our own experiences into the text and seeing things which aren't actually there. Tangents also often lead the group to chasing red herrings and completely missing the main point.

    But I now think I've allowed myself to be over-critical. Rightly done, I see that there is a lot of value in just naturally intertwining our understanding on the passage with reflections on our lives. I've been observing my home fellowship group and though we don't always get it right (and to be fair, who does?), I thought that for the most part, whenever somebody shares or offers a reflection, it's been tied to the text and not just some random whimsy to offer a thought for the day. It's just their way in which they allow the Bible to bear on our lives. In fact, it's challenged me because I probably don't let God's word really peer as deep into my soul as it should. I suppose the cultural anthropologists might argue that this is because "Western" thinking is more linear and "Eastern" thinking is more circular. So while the principles remain the same: we need to know what the Bible says and means before we can apply it to our lives, there is a variety of models, and I know I can't lead a Bible study here exactly the same way as I would in the UK.

    Social networking. Media commentators have picked up on this (eg: here, here, and here), but seeing it for myself was quite different. I was quite stunned by the virtual connectedness of the teenagers in my youth group. The amount of photos taken and placed on Facebook was quite something. Again, social commentators have noticed that we are once more heading into a world where the boundaries between the public and private spheres are blurred, as it was in a pre-industrialised age. But it's still jarring to see photos of myself that I didn't even know were being taken suddenly appear on the Net!

    Spiritual warfare. I wasn't home for that long before I heard of a case of demon possession. Growing up, of course, it's not that rare to hear such stories, but it reminded me once again that it's certainly one area to think about for anyone wanting to do ministry in Malaysia. What you don't want is to capitulate to the latest faddish teaching on the one hand or to ignore the spiritual realm on the other.

    Wrestling in prayer. I think I identify a little more with the psalmist now. "Lord, please help me to trust you. I know you are sovereign over all, I know that you are good, and that your plans are best, so whatever the outcome is, help me to accept it. [clenches teeth] Lord, help me not to be so half-hearted in what I just said. It's going to be hard if you don't allow me to go back, but help me to grow in my trust. But God, I do believe you are a generous Father, and that Christianity ain't fatalism. My prayers do count for something, don't they? So do the prayers of others? So I pray you'd allow me to head back - I don't see how that's a bad thing. [Pause] I mean, Lord, I'm not actually presuming to tell you what's best for me, oh no, not at all. But it's a fair request? [Pause] Ummm, but I know you're more concerned about me being more like Jesus, more concerned about being more like what you've made me to be than where I am. Consider it all joy and all that. So ummm, help me trust you again no matter what. [Deep breath] But...pretty please?" It's ping-pong prayer, back and forth, back and forth.

    Sin. You'd like to think that you've grown stronger, and then you come into a stressful situation and learn that your sinful patterns are more entrenched than you realise. Thank God for his grace.

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