Aside

“The missionaries brought the Bread of Life, but we choked on the packaging.”

“When the missionaries came, they brought the Bread of Life. But alas, we choked on the cellophane it was wrapped in.”

Those were words I heard over and over as a child, my missionary father thoughtfully quoting a Liberian radio preacher. I could tell my father took them very seriously, so I did too, branding them into my brain right next to my parents’ constant admonishment against the sweeping generalizations little girls are wont to make (see what I just did there?). “Jenny, don’t generalize!” could have been my proper name, my “Christian name” as my Liberian friends would have called it.

So I grew up ultra-aware of two important facts: It’s extremely rude to talk about a group of people as if they’re all the same, and if you try to make people act the way you think they should act, you may actually drive them away from Jesus. The shudder-worthy image of someone choking, gagging, and suffocating as a well-intentioned outsider shoved a loaf of cellophane-wrapped bread down their throat was hard to shake. The gospel can be deadly if you don’t remove the cultural packaging and offer it freely, instead of forcefully.

As a little girl in Liberia, running around with my posse of neighborhood friends, I didn’t have much cause to think deeply about my father’s words. They were simply part of The Williams Guide to MK Etiquette, along with never refusing gifts from the Indian couple who lived upstairs, because they would consider it an insult, and never paying full price for the carved trinkets merchants brought to the door, because they would consider you a sucker. I could be annoyed that Allushus could shimmy all the way up the coconut tree while I could only manage a few feet, but to chalk it up to him being a Liberian boy and me being an American girl would be rude, and hardly representative of universal truth.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I was back in America that the full impact of my father’s words hit me. “Don’t generalize!” my mind would insist as a congregation tittered in response to some lame joke about gender differences. “Alas!” it would cry as legislation against the GLBTQ community took higher priority than love for them. I would sit in “Bible studies” about how to be a good Christian housewife and think of the girlfriends I left behind in Liberia, a nation now ravaged by war, disease, and hunger. The dichotomy was grotesque. If being a “good Christian woman” meant being some pretty, passive thing who kept a beautifully decorated home and greeted her husband with homemade meals when he came home from his 9-5, where did that leave my friends who had been forced to flee their zinc shacks and subsist in the jungle?

No. Clearly, we American Christians had wrapped the gospel in some heavy-duty cultural packaging, in a misguided attempt to protect the Bread of Life from worldly contaminants. Our message, shrouded as it was in the trappings of WASPy Christendom, was impossible for some people to digest, suffocating the spiritual life out of people Jesus suffered and died for. Isn’t it ironic that so much of the New Testament is focused on liberating the gospel from its cultural baggage so it could truly be good news to every tongue, tribe, and nation, and yet we have the gall to call our narrow western worldview biblical; that we who worship the incarnate God are so quick to distance ourselves from the wider world around us, calling it unclean? It became clear to me that we hadn’t only failed my friends in Liberia, as that radio preacher said–we had failed the people down the block, the people who live differently than us, vote differently than us, dress differently than us, think differently than us.

Our insensitively-expressed opinions, prim expectations, and slow-burning cultural condemnation have alienated people, and in some cases cut them off from Christ. We have piled righteous-sounding burdens on their backs, declared them unfit to enter as they are, and slammed the door of the kingdom of heaven in their faces.

In Matthew 23, Jesus had strong words for the Pharisees who did exactly that. And yet many of us seem to have appointed ourselves Teachers of the Law, defending the traditions of our elders at the expense of the precious people standing before us.

And just for the record, our elders don’t just have names like John Piper and Ronald Reagan and Bill Gothard. Some of them have names like Jimmy Carter and Dorothy Day and Tony Campolo.

We humans can find ways of being obnoxious, militant, and mean-spirited about just about anything, even the good news that God sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself and one another.

The good news is that there’s grace, even for us self-righteous Pharisees convinced we know what the kingdom of heaven is really all about. The question is, do we have the humility and courage to accept it on God’s terms, instead of our own? Embracing the kingdom is going to mean embracing a lot of people we may not like or understand, people who are different than us, people we don’t consider good or obedient or kind enough to represent Jesus, people whose way of life feels like a threat or affront to our own.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day counted the cost too high. Given the choice between Jesus, who they could not define or control, and a religion they could, they chose religion. The Bread of Life was standing before them, but they clung to their empty plastic bag with a fervor fueled by fear, fear that if they stopped performing for God and demanding the same performance from others, their whole way of life would collapse.

And it did, in spite of them. And ours might, in spite of us. And God will still be good, still be enough.

Let’s peel the wrappings of culture and bias off the gift God has so freely given, and offer it to the world with open, trembling hands, trusting Jesus to preserve his people, not the other way around.

 

28 Responses to “The missionaries brought the Bread of Life, but we choked on the packaging.”

  1. Rebecca Trotter February 20, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    So good, Jenny! Thank you for sharing. :)

  2. Suzanne February 20, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    I need to print this out and put it by my bed, to be read every morning before interacting with the world.

  3. Tim February 20, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    Loved that image of the Pharisees clutching an empty bag, Jen.

    On the issue of cultural insensitivity, I wonder about the criticism that people are choking on the wrapping we put around the Gospel. That happens with every single interaction, doesn’t it? I trust the Holy Spirit to work through it all, rather than hope to get it right on my own!

    Tim

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong February 20, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

      Thanks Tim!

      Regarding cultural insensitivity, I actually do think we can mess things up badly out of ignorance or arrogance, and while the Holy Spirit is still at work in our imperfect attempts, we often lack the humility individually and collectively to respond to (or even see) signs that our strategies are hurting instead of healing. I know I’ve been guilty of that–responding to people out of my unknown ignorance and personal discomfort. It’s not the sort of thing that we can get objectively right, of course, and it’s certainly not a reason to get discouraged and quit trying, but acknowledging the accidental harm many well-intentioned people have done is an important part of trying to improve, IMO. It’s like parenting–sometimes we just FAIL, and while the Holy Spirit works in spite of our failure, and sometimes even through our failure, admitting that we messed up is a huge part of our growth in that area. We don’t ONLY trust that the Holy Spirit will work through it all–we work hard to get it right!

      • Tim February 20, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

        Learning from mistakes is just plain good stewardship of the time, resources and talents God has given us. Some are better at this than others (me falling into the category of “others” way more often than I’d like!).

  4. Meadow Rue Merrill February 20, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Really well said!

  5. Kristen Rosser February 20, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    This is a very important message. Thanks for couching it in such a vivid, understandable metaphor.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong February 20, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

      Thanks Kristen–although I can’t take credit for the metaphor! It’s a powerful one, isn’t it?

  6. Mary Fisher February 20, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    Jenny

    Really appreciated this piece. I am becoming more and more concerned at how much political dialogue on both left and right are destroying kingdom witness…

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong February 20, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks Mary. It worries me too. I think there was a good reason Jesus refused political power when the people tried to make him king. We wind up putting our faith in the wrong thing, and it can get really ugly, really fast.

  7. Sue Fosse February 20, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    Good writing Jenny. As a missionary in Africa I totally agree with what you say. We can be like the Pharisees if not careful. It is so important to learn about the culture so we can be less offensive, more accepted – although mistakeas are sure to happen. To say “they this and they that” is really a no no. After 23 years I have made all the above mistakes and have offended but I pray that happens less and less now. Thanks.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong February 22, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

      Thanks Sue! Living in Africa was hard for me (so was coming back to America!), but 25 years later I’m still mining and learning from the experience. There’s so much to be learned from cross-cultural living!

  8. Sarah Tun February 20, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    “Embracing the kingdom is going to mean embracing a lot of people we may not like or understand, people who are different than us, people we don’t consider good or obedient or kind enough to represent Jesus” – this is at the heart of your message that really strikes home – it is not for us to judge who’s in or who’s out but rather to look forward to all those folks we are going to spend eternity with, learning about and learning to understand, or just simply learning to enjoy their company.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong February 22, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

      “…look forward to all those folks we are going to spend eternity with, learning about and learning to understand, or just simply learning to enjoy their company.”

      GREAT insight!

  9. chris February 21, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    Great insight and very well expressed – makes me even more determined to keep running Kairos courses – a Perspectives family course

  10. Shary February 21, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    Hi Jenny since you are an MK you will understand the need for MKs to get help in dealing with abuse. MK Safety Net is holding a conference in the Chicago area in April. We are looking for funds to help the MKs get to this conference. If you have the ability to help go to this site and click on the blue button that says “I want to sponsor an MK so they can attend”

    http://www.mksafetynet.net/conference/index.html#subsidy

    Hundreds of MKs have been abused on the mission field by missionaries. Often in boarding school situations. Missions have show great reluctance to help these MKs work on healing from the abuse. Often denying and covering up the abuse. These MKs are now adults and dealing with the results of abuse. Please help if you can. MK Safety Net is a not for profit organization.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong February 22, 2013 at 8:17 am #

      What a great ministry, Shary. My friend Michele does ministry to MKs, and you’re absolutely right–instances of abuse are not dealt with well, and MKs have very little safety net when they are overseas. Maybe it’s better now in the age of cell phones, but children were basically just stuck, cut off from people who could help them–not even a 911 to call. Thanks for sharing that link!

  11. Gillian February 22, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    So well said, Jenny! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Cindy Crestik February 22, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    Excellent! Your article reminds me of the incredible importance of having the Bible translated into different language groups so that the people can understand it more fully from their own cultural context. That’s what my folks did in Liberia – yes, we share a common bond! I grew up in a little village among the Kissi people while my dad went about his literacy projects to teach the Kissi how to read and write…while the translation process was going on with teammates. I remember the many discussions on Biblical texts and how best to translate concepts so that the Liberians could understand them. Thanks for the flashbacks to my Liberia days ( I grew up there in the 70’s and 80’s)!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong February 22, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

      How cool! What mission were your parents with? I was in Monrovia in the mid-eighties. :-)

  13. Angela February 22, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    “Let’s peel the wrappings of culture and bias off the gift God has so freely given, and offer it to the world with open, trembling hands, trusting Jesus to preserve his people, not the other way around.” For real.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] “The missionaries brought the Bread of Life, but we choked on the packaging.” Clearly, we American Christians had wrapped the gospel in some heavy-duty cultural packaging, in a misguided attempt to protect the Bread of Life from worldly contaminants. Our message, shrouded as it was in the trappings of WASPy Christendom, was impossible for some people to digest, suffocating the spiritual life out of people Jesus suffered and died for. Isn’t it ironic that so much of the New Testament is focused on liberating the gospel from its cultural baggage so it could truly be good news to every tongue, tribe, and nation, and yet we have the gall to call our narrow western worldview biblical; that we who worship the incarnate God are so quick to distance ourselves from the wider world around us, calling it unclean? […]

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