Photo Credit: Joel Ham Photography
I met a man a few weeks ago who does inner city ministry like we do, only he does it in the big dog towns. He lives in the Bronx with his wife and three kids. He was telling me about how they went to another state to visit a family in the suburbs and how his son got to ride a bike on a cul-de-sac for the first time. Actually, it was his first time to ever ride bike period. In the Bronx where they have been raised, he doesn’t get to do things like that. There aren’t yards to play in and safe streets where they can ride freely. When they returned back to New York his son said, “Dad, I just want to be able to ride bikes and run like normal kids!” His dad said, “What is normal? That is normal for American suburbs, but it’s not “normal.” ”
This is question I think about all of the time when it comes to faith and how that is lived out within our culture as Americans.
What is normal? That suburb life is only normal when you talk to someone in the suburbs. Is it normal to a child in the middle of Manhattan? In the middle of Beijing? In Alaska? This family was living an unconventional lifestyle and doing missions by living in a rougher area of a major part of New York city. It’s a worthwhile thing and some people are called to do that. But, that green sprawling grass and getting to ride bikes in the quiet streets of the suburbs, is what that child wanted to be like. Just a normal kid…. Living our lives by a ruler of what is normal in our culture is dangerous. It’s not only dangerous, but it leaves you discontent. I felt that way tonight. I do it all of the time.
So, what is normal? What is normal for you/us?
You go to college, of course. You get a degree and then you make money, maybe get married and you buy a home. We usually call those “starter homes”. Half of the world lives below the poverty line and real-estate in major cities is so expensive that a “starter home” would be a quarter of a million dollars but regardless, for most Americans, we call these smaller homes…even new ones, starter homes. Why starter homes? Because you move up. You make more money, you buy a bigger house. You start small. You make more money, you buy better cars. You buy bigger houses because all of your kids need their own rooms. Never mind millions of kids are homeless and/or poverty stricken and sleep on the ground in homes shared by 15 people but here, you must not just have a home, but a room for each person. I will never forget how humbling it was when an African refugee family came to our 2,000 square foot house and after looking around, asked us how many families we shared it with. We want extra closet space for all of our stuff. A garage for both cars. We are a nation of moving up the ladder. It’s normal…for us. But just like that African family inadvertently showed us, we are blinded to our own extravagance. My home and standards aren’t “normal”. They are American or Western but not “normal”, simply cultural. They would think us having more for our 5 person family would be completely un-necessary. Most Americans would beg to differ.
I realize that I am so engulfed in my culture that I have wondered over the past few years of our move into an inner city unconventional lifestyle, how much am I blinded by simply being American? How many of my standards of the choices I/we make as a family are swayed by what I consider is normal because of our culture? I acknowledge that there may be many things I believe are normal, based on my biases that I am unaware of. I have started to question over the past few years this very important question that is relevant across the world:
Are you letting your faith define your culture, or your culture define your faith?
Are we living comfortable lives because that is just “what we do” in one of the most comfortable societies in the world? Are we basing our standards of living based on our faith or our culture? Are we trying to make our children comfortable or Godly? Are we making choices for our families and children based on faith or American norms where you live in the best place you can afford and interact with people like you in places you are comfortable? Are you giving your children a lived out example of the gospel or American goals and standards? Does the way you live your life challenge your kids in any way? Do you look different to the world?
Are your prayers American?
“God, please let us close on this new home.”
That home is bigger and better and every kid has their own space. That home costs way more and is climbing up that ladder. I am NOT saying it is a sin to have a nice home or a bigger home. I’m not even saying the desire is necessarily wrong. But what I am saying is, why do we want more? Why do we need more? In our culture, it’s just what we do. And that’s just my point, we think culturally. We don’t question it. Actually, we don’t even notice it. But then I think this, God hears my prayers for a newer nicer home, which I have prayed many times, in the same ear as the Ethiopian woman praying her child lives through the night with Malaria. God hears that prayer with the same ear as he hears the mother hunkered down in her home for fear that someone may come to kill her in the night for being a Christian. God hears my prayers for more in the same breath of the African mother who just wants one more bowl of millet to feed her hungry family. He hears my prayers for more with the same heart that He hears the Syrian woman happy with what she has. Most of this world not only doesn’t pray for, but doesn’t expect or ask for bigger homes and better material things but for shelter, safety, food. I can’t help but feel that most of us, me included, pray and ask for more because my culture says that is the next step and we don’t feel convicted about it BECAUSE we are blinded to it. I can’t help but feel that my culture is defining my faith and not my faith defining how I live within that culture. The latter should make us look differently.
How are you living your life? How are you making choices and by what measure are you making those choices? Ask yourself, are there things you can’t see in how you live because you are living like an American Christian and not just a Christian?
I heard from my last pastor who lived in India for a time of a man who crawled on his leprosy nubbed limbs to church every morning. It took him two hours. All the while here we don’t go if we are tired or leave a church because they don’t have enough programs you love. People around the world are dying for owning bibles. Lepers are crawling to churches and Christians are being beheaded. Wake up, America! Wake up, believer!
I think of how my husband heard a man in Africa tell an American pastor that the difference between American Christians and African Christians is this: “In America, you love God. In Africa, we depend on him.”
That was strong.
More and more I think, “Do I think this way or do I think this is necessary or important because I am an American? Does the bible say this is important? Does the bible say this is what my kid’s need?”
We aren’t Americans.
We are Christians living in a biblical context. We just happen to live in the states.
One day, we will all stand before God, I, American Rebecca, will stand among the nations. God will not ask of you or me, “How did you live by My standards within your culture?” He won’t ask you if you lived humbly or non excessively for “an American”. He won’t ask of you, “Did you make time for me and my church, by American standards?” God won’t ask of you, “Were you generous for an American?” He will only expect of us what He expected of people from the very beginning, that we define our lives by Him, not a cultural standard.
When we stand before God, we will not get leniency based on our cultural interpretations. There will be no Ethiopian, Korean, Brazilian, American, Middle Eastern, Japanese standards. There will be but only one standard, which was the only standard there has ever been: Jesus.
Does Jesus define your life, lifestyle and your choices? Or does your life look a lot like how Jesus might have been if He had been an American? But wait, Jesus wouldn’t have looked different in any culture, right? Exactly. He would have been Jesus in Nazareth, Jesus in Korea, Jesus in Iraq and Jesus in America. If we are to look like Him, so should we. So ask yourself, what does that look like? Let Jesus define you wherever you may find yourself and not your location define your Jesus.