It’s hard to hold a serious conversation when you’re wearing someone else’s pyjamas… I know this to be true having once met an entire community dressed in bright red borrowed pyjamas.
I was studying Arabic in Cairo and I had been invited to visit the family of a friend I had made at my language school. At this point my Arabic was tentative at best and my friend spoke no English, so I wasn’t 100% certain of what was expected of me. When I reached her house she asked me if I wanted to change into my pyjamas. Slightly baffled since it was 11 am I said “No, I hadn’t brought any with me”. Oh she said, we always wear pyjamas in the house, and provided some of hers. Since foreigners were a bit of a rarity in that part of town my friend’s extended family were all very keen to meet me, and so for the rest of the day I found myself dutifully greeting a steady stream of visitors in my bright red borrowed pyjamas. I inwardly cringed as I met each person and chalked it up to a unique learning experience.
Several years later, my husband and I had moved overseas, again to the Middle East. After the initial period of culture shock we had settled into our new life happily enough, and with our language learning now at an advanced stage, we began to think that we finally knew what we were doing – we no longer felt like strangers in a foreign land.
Until the funeral...
One morning my friend and neighbour, whose family we loved and spent a lot of time with, called with the news that her grandma had died. The funeral would be held the next day, and we were invited to attend. Having not been to a funeral before I called a friend who had lived in the country a lot longer than me and asked her how we should best pay our respects, what we should say, dress and bring. Armed with this information my husband and I headed over to our friends’ house. On arrival we were seated and served the traditional food offered at such occasions. Only then, as we looked around, did it dawn on us…everybody else in the room was female.
“I’m the only man here” my husband whispered desperately, a note of panic creeping into his voice. “What should I do?”
Well, in that situation there’s not a lot you can do! We were rescued by our wonderfully gracious neighbours, who went out of their way to make us both feel welcome and deflected our embarrassment by producing a myriad of small boys, young enough to be at a women only event. Meanwhile, my husband ate faster than I’ve ever seen him eat before or since, and left as soon as was feasibly polite. We discovered later the men were meeting in a different house, in a different town, nearly an hour’s drive away!
So, how could we have avoided these mistakes? Perhaps we could have asked more questions, but it can be hard to know the right questions to ask - you don’t know what you don’t know! In fact, after years of making all kinds of similarly embarrassing mistakes, the conclusion I’ve come to is the only way to avoid such moments would be to stay firmly at home in my own culture. But how less rich my life would have been if I’d made that choice for that reason! I would never have experienced life in a poor Palestinian village, never been where few foreigners had ventured, never learnt how Muslims mourn their dead, never understood what life at home is like for a Muslim woman. I would have missed out on the love and kindness of strangers who saw my vulnerability and naivety and sought to welcome, encourage and protect me.
I would have missed out on the pain of immersing myself in a culture I did not understand and feeling like a child as I struggled to learn new words,
and new ways, but I also might have missed out on Jesus drawing close to me and soothing that pain, and showing me that He too experienced these feelings, He too knew what it was like to come to a new culture and begin again as a baby.
Jesus loved us enough to come down and incarnate in our culture. He left the comfort of heaven because He loved us so much, He experienced our pain, our suffering, our joys as one of us and because of that we can bring all our experiences to Him knowing that He truly understands. He is not a distant God looking down from heaven but He has been one of us. He knows what it is like to be human and He has even experienced the weight of our sins despite living a sinless life. How much poorer we would be if He had not done this, if He had not sacrificed His life for us. How much poorer we are if God is asking us to go to another culture, and we do not heed His call to go; if He is asking us to ‘incarnate’ amongst another people group and love them as He loves us, and we do not respond. So although it might cost something – comfort, pride and dignity amongst other things - to go to those who have never heard the gospel, the rewards are great for them and for us, and not just the eternal ones.