They are inside all of us, buried deep inside our subconscious—these moments of impact. There are places, people, and events that changed who we are becoming. When our lives bump up against something that challenges us or deepens our understanding, we become the sprout that branches off an old limb. Over time you don’t see where the new life began, for it is part of the whole, yet this shoot did have an origin and it changed the life of the tree completely by springing into existence. For me, it is often a fragrance that often brings these pivot points back to the surface.
It was my daughter that first noticed what was to her an offending scent. She wrinkled her nose and covered her face. Turning to see what she was referring to I saw someone carrying a thurible into the church, the small golden incense burner that hangs from chains and swings to release the smoke into the sanctuary. The smell of Frankincense startled my senses and I gasped. What was new to my daughter brought back a well of fourteen-year-old memories flooding through me. I turned to my husband, suddenly that young bride, full of wonder again, and cried, “it smells like Egypt!” He smiled and nodded and I knew he was back there again in his mind, too.
The six months we were part of the Coptic church in Egypt transformed us, one of those points in our lives where we diverged from who we had previously been into something altogether new. It was a phase of life in which every new experience overwhelmed us. I dwelled inside the memories in those moments sitting in the church with my family on Christmas Eve. I was transported to the stone walls of another church where my faith exploded into fresh places.
Nothing in my evangelical upbringing prepared me for seeing the demon-possessed woman writhing on the floor during the healing service at The Cave Church. My Western theology had no space for the quiet, yet forceful priest who commanded men in wheelchairs to stand. I watched in skepticism as thousands of people, Christian and Muslim alike, flooded through the village that housed all of Cairo’s garbage collectors and mounds of trash to the monastery hidden inside the recesses of Mokottam Mountain.
All skepticism evaporated like the smoke rising from the incense burners when I met Abouna Samaan, the man who the community called Father and who truly treated each person who came to him like a beloved child. A week after first meeting him we were on a bus with him and dozens of church members headed out into the desert to the retreat center under construction. Here we were, were two total outsiders, welcomed directly into the fold of the largest church in the Middle East.
“Why are you here?” she asked suspiciously when we sat down knee to knee on the dirt floor of her shelter. She had seen other foreigners before. They brought food and water, set up medical camps. Were we here to do the same? “We just want to hear your story,” one of the women in our circle said. The Rohingya woman tugged the violet scarf behind her ears as she smiled widely and let out a contented sigh.
When I was younger I never imagined I would be sitting in a circle like that one. Everything in me loved to color inside the lines. A risk-averse rule follower asks where the boundaries are and then stays a few feet inside of them.
My faith stayed inside the lines for years, too. I clung to right answers and thought I knew all the rules to follow to please God and to make a difference in the world.
And then, I went out and met people who looked, lived, and believed nothing like me. I started listening and realizing how little I knew at all.
Thankfully, I met people who valued people’s stories over quick solutions. When one organization I worked with wanted to combat slavery in India they asked the people in bondage how they could help and listened when they responded: “Educated our children. Don’t let this cycle continue with the next generation.” So, they started schools and empowered national teachers to run them.
“It is easy to know what is good for someone else,” says nun and human rights advocate, Joan Chissiter, “It is difficult to listen and let them define it themselves.” I don’t always make the effort to listen. But when I do, I realize the gravity of carrying someone else’s story…and the privilege.
Back in that camp, we leaned in closer around the quiet woman, eager to hear her story...
I am thrilled to share my story today at Cara Meredith's Coloring Outside the Lines blog. Cara is the author of The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. The proceeds from the article will go to the work of Preemptive Love.
“Oh, boys don’t wear mehndi,” we were told when our six-year-old proudly displayed the bright red paisley design he got on his palm during a recent celebration. We’d seen young boys on the streets with the designs and he just wanted to be included in the festivities, but a trusted friend told us it is a bit taboo. I nodded and made a mental note for next time. There’s always something new to learn.
Learning to live well in a new culture is like being a small child again. We are helpless without the guidance of others. Some may think this ends after we’ve learned where to shop and how to navigate public transportation, how to have a simple conversation or what hospitality looks like. It doesn’t, not if we want to be good students of culture and open ourselves to truly connecting with people in our adopted home. We have to make choices every day to set aside our pride and to place ourselves under the wisdom of those wiser than us.
Humility looks like being embarrassed when we are told to always serve tea in dainty teacups (now knowing why we got funny looks when we gave our guests our enormous American mugs. More is better, right? Wrong.). It looks like serving dinner at the end of the night instead of the beginning like we’d do in American because here visiting first is a priority and serving the meal means the visit is now over. We can’t ever assume we understand and we can’t stop seeking to go deeper in respect for and a willingness to learn from our neighbors.
We need to know how to respect the traditions of our neighbors, how to walk the line between what we hold onto from our own culture and how we fit into our new one. I wear the local clothing (not all foreigners here choose to) but my young daughter doesn’t need to. We fumble with attempts to learn the language but our kids go to an English school and only know a few phrases in Bangla. We eat Bengali food for lunch but don’t deny our son his Nutella.
I am not a natural at humility or taking correction. It actually takes a lot of work for me. While I can easily submit myself to the wisdom of people in my adopted country, I often am rigid when it comes to taking direction on issues I think I know a lot about. I’m not happy about this. God is leading me to the roots of this pride, the insecurity that fuels it.
Feeling like a child again shows me how little I know and I am working to allow trusted people to speak into my life in more than just issues of culture. I especially want to look to those with a different perspective than me. I want to read more books by and follow people on social media who are outside my own culture, faith tradition, and race—people who can speak into blind spots my own experiences have left me with. In areas I know I am weak, I look to those who are strong. In areas where I think I am strong, I remind myself I’m not as capable as I think I am. I still need some work. Okay, a lot of work.
It may not come naturally to humble ourselves but that is why we work at it. When it comes to wanting to belong in a place or to a people, sometimes it is easy to say, “here I am; teach me!” When it is a group we aren’t sure we love yet, a people who rub us the wrong way—it takes a little more effort and is that much more necessary.
Yes, I’m like a child in a culture where I am an outsider. But in so many other ways as well I am like my kids easily take correction on their spelling words. They know their mom knows a few more things about the English language than they do in first and fourth grade. But they don’t exactly love it when I point out their bad attitudes or unkind words. I remind them that I am trying to help them grow into better people and make a mental note that I need to take my own advice. All of us children need reminders that correction is loving, humility is necessary, and we should never stop trying to grow.
In what areas of learning do you feel you are weak?
How do you work towards humility in your life? Does it come naturally to live as a learner?
What steps are you taking to take correction and move towards understanding, in what areas of your life?