It’s easy for me to sit in judgment on the Israelites, on their lack of faith so soon after God took them out of Egypt. The splitting of the sea, the destruction of the Egyptians, shouldn’t those miracles have carried them for the rest of their days? Shouldn’t the truth that God was good have been permanently lodged in their hearts? Continue reading “When the Timing is Wrong and Your Faith is Wavering”
Nearing the end of my time in Russia in 2014, I sat with a close friend trying to puzzle out my next steps. I was going to be in grad school part-time, which would make a full-time job difficult, but I had to find a way to support myself. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that it was imperative for me to set out on my own. I couldn’t return to my parents’ house if I wanted to wear the title of true adult; going back home would be to regress into immaturity and an unhealthy dependence. It would definitely be something to be ashamed of.
But my Russian friend didn’t see it that way.
“Why don’t you just live with your family, Hope?” she asked. “It would be good for you and good for them. You could help to support each other.”
The way she said it made it sound so easy-too easy, when as a young adult I should be paving my own way, not relying on others, being self-sufficient and independent. But something about her words made my perspective ring hollow. And as I let her words linger, I began to realize that my perspective wasn’t necessarily right, it was just…American.
The Role of Culture in Our Worldview
Although I thought that my viewpoint was one built by morality and maturity, I see now that it was actually a perspective built largely by my culture. It took seeing through the lens of another culture to realize that my view did not have the moral high ground.
The more I interact with my international friends and students, the clearer it becomes that as humans, we often place moral judgment on other cultures’ viewpoints and behaviors when in reality, our way of doing things isn’t necessarily better than theirs.
A great example of this is the typical American’s reaction upon entering Russia and being met with unsmiling, seemingly harsh faces. Americans tend to interpret a lack of a constant smile through their cultural lens: in America, smiling equals politeness and goodwill, so these unsmiling Russians must be rude, cold, surly people. What most don’t know though, is that a smile has a different definition in Russia. Russians generally smile when they are truly happy, and it is not seen as necessary to smile in public. In fact, it may even come across as disingenuous. So smiling, something we assign moral value to without even realizing it, is actually more neutral than we realize.
I believe it is much the same with the American ideal of independence. Many of us were taught the value of hard work and being able to support oneself from a young age, and there is much to be said in favor of this. However, I’ve learned that when this principle is taken to the extreme of I don’t need anyone else, the effects can be devastating. Since that conversation with my friend back in 2014, I’ve gotten to explore the issues of American independence and individualism through conversations with my international students and friends, in my grad work, and in my experience living both sides of the story. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that the belief that independence from others equals maturity and freedom is a lie that has had costly effects on our culture.
Dissecting American Individualism
The Geert-Hofstede model of cultural dimensions is a fascinating way to see how American culture’s individualism stacks up to that of other countries. For those of you who like Myers Briggs (INFJ anyone?), it’s basically the Myers Briggs for countries and their cultures. Geert Hofstede analyzed different cultures by 6 orientations: Masculinity, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Indulgence, Future-Orientation, and of course, Individualism. All are fascinating, but what stands out especially when you see America is how much higher it is on the individualism scale than that of the cultures of many of my friends and students. Geert Hofstede defines individualism as “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” It has to do with whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies, people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies, people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)
What this means for American culture in general is that, “The society is loosely-knit in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support. There is also a high degree of geographical mobility in the United States. Americans are the best joiners in the world; however it is often difficult, especially among men, to develop deep friendships.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)
This “loosely-knit” geographically mobile culture is in stark contrast to the more collectivist cultures I am familiar with. Take Russia and China for example. Russia comes in at 39 on the individualism scale, while China scores a mere 20.
Collectivist culture manifests itself in different ways, both negative and positive. One thing that I have found in cultures that are more collectivist is that a.) moving out of the house is not a rite of passage into adulthood, but families often live together, and b.) there are tightly knit communities that are not only based around the nuclear family. Whereas in collectivist culture, community is almost a given, in American culture, it is relatively foreign. There are certainly pros and cons to both individualistic and collectivist cultures, but what I want to highlight is that pursuing community certainly doesn’t come naturally to Americans.
Many of my ESL students have expressed bewilderment and a sense of sadness at the way Americans act as individuals rather than as part of the community, for example, moving across the country on one’s own for a job. Whereas Americans take pride in their self-sufficiency and view isolation as a necessary cost of success, many I know from other cultures would argue that the toll that loneliness takes on a person far outweighs any benefits.
An Afghani friend who studied psychology hypothesized that the current mental health crisis in the U.S. is strongly related to loneliness and isolation. My own experience supports my friend’s thoughts. During my 9 months in Russia, I had no church community and was an outsider in a closely-knit foreign culture. By four months in, my mental health weakened to a point where I didn’t know if I could wait it out. God gave me the grace to push through to the end of my grant, but I came back a shell of myself.
Then, 3 years later, I became one of those Americans who moved across the country for a job. It seemed like the perfect opportunity at the time, but it soon became clear that what the job required of me would leave no margin for the type of deep Christian community I longed for, one that was woven into the fabric of my daily life. I felt myself wilting by the day, so I decided to make a choice that seemed strange from an American perspective and leave it all behind. I left a stable job with a fancy title for a place where I had no job lined up, but I knew that I would be living life with my best friend.
When I arrived in Burnt Hills, I didn’t think that I would find a true Christian community. I had become cynical of the possibilities for community that the American church structure provided, and I hadn’t seen many people who thirsted for community like I did, who had been so deprived of it that they wanted to find it and never let go. But God surprised me by placing me in the midst a diverse group of people united in their love for Jesus Christ and a desire to do life together.
This, I found, was the body of Christ in action. Imperfect, but beautiful. Human, but miraculous.
Called to Be Countercultural
As Americans steeped in an individualistic culture, it may feel natural to approach our faith as a solely personal thing: me and God and maybe my family, but nobody else. But if we approach our faith like this, we disobey the Lord and we lose something precious.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul calls us the body of Christ, in which God lives and works and ministers. As the body of Christ, each of us has a specific function given for the common good (1 Cor. 12). God has given each of us spiritual gifts, but we can’t live solely off of our own gift. God may have given me the gift of discernment, for example, but it’s arrogant to think that I can live my Christian life without others encouraging me, teaching me, and loving me. It is also selfish to not contribute what God has given me to the common good. We are not meant to function alone, but we “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Romans 12:5)
During my short time being a part of this community, I can attest to the way that I have seen the body of Christ work together toward the common good and for the purposes of God’s kingdom. One thing that has been special to me is the way the Lord surrounds us and provides for us through His people.
Recently, we had a worship and prayer night with a visual that powerfully illustrated this reality. We stood in a circle while different struggles and sins were named. We were encouraged to step in the circle to receive prayer for those struggles and sins and to be reminded that we were not in this alone.
It was what happened after the service that was the most powerful though. Friends laid hands on me and prayed for me that evening. One checked in on me during the weeks after, talking through my tangled emotions and offering the blunt truth I needed to hear. And when God freed me from my struggle in an unexpected miracle, this friend was there to praise the Lord with me. This is just one of the ways I’ve seen God work over these past 5 months through this body of believers. And as I reflect upon my time here, I’ve seen myself change in many ways:
- Whereas once I thought that a romantic relationship was the only thing that would take the ache of loneliness away, deep-hearted friendships with other believers have replaced my frantic longing with a hopeful contentment.
- I feel empowered to use my gifts for the common good. Now that I’ve been poured into, I have energy to pour out, and I have the desire and opportunity to minister to others with the gifts that God has given me.
- And most importantly, I’m growing leaps and bounds in my love for Jesus and in the knowledge of His love for me.
Aggressively Pursue Community
It is not easy to pursue Christian community in our culture. Many of us are raised and conditioned to solve our problems on our own and to approach our faith in isolation. But now that I have seen, experienced, and participated in a community that is committed to God’s kingdom and committed to each other, I can earnestly say that any sacrifice it takes to pursue this type of community pales in comparison to the beauty, grace, and power that you’ll receive from it.
Christian community is certainly not perfect; in our sinful state we still hurt each other, in our differences we frustrate each other, and in our limited perspectives we misunderstand each other. A quick glance at Paul’s letters tells us the story has been the same from the earliest of churches. But the miraculous thing is that though on our own we are sinful and petty and weak, Jesus Christ has blessed us with the honor of being His body and whose power in us overcomes our shortcomings. “[We] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
So my charge to believers who are reading is this: aggressively pursue community. This will look different depending on your season of life, but the principle is the same: seek out a group of likeminded people who desire a community that goes beyond crossing paths once a week, who are committed to using their gifts and keeping you accountable and spurring you onward in this journey of becoming more like Christ. It may take time. It may take sacrifice. But it is so, so worth it.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14a
The Word become flesh is the most breathtaking, precise translation of language ever accomplished.
In all other cases, there is something lost in translation, the nuances and intimacies of the native tongue sanded away until only the general message remains. But in this one, the precision is only intensified because the translator is also the Creator, knowing the hearts of the people He is speaking to and exactly how to reach them.
The truth of God, His mind, His heart, His message, translated into our flesh-language, the language of skin that bristles in the cold, is singed by the fire, that stretches, wrinkles, dies.
The Word become flesh is a translation of eternal omnipresence into a finite house of one human’s consciousness, a consciousness often clouded by hunger and cold and loneliness.
The Word become flesh is a translation of omnipotence into backaches and sweat and veins that would open and leak life away.
The Word become flesh is beautifully inefficient. An efficient translation would trade nuance for speed and intimacy for numbers, but He chose to save us by growing up in obscurity, 30 years of humility in mundane labor, living an unseen life so similar to ours. And then, in His ministry, again and again He slowed and stopped to listen to the individual, to hear their story to to speak healing into it.
God’s ways are higher than ours, His wisdom and love beyond our comprehension, but He has revealed them to us in the language that we can understand: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And I pray that you would let this language rest in your heart, that you would know, personally, the depth of God’s love that is in Christ, our Lord, our Savior, the Word become flesh.
Unclean am I, I am unclean, because of a bleeding that won’t stop, no matter how much I adhere to the doctors’ instructions, more outrageous and extravagant by the day. Weakness does not just fill me; it is me.
I feel cold in the sun.
I want to seek Him, Jehovah, the Lord, the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But I am cut off. Shame and sin are mine, are me. An unrepentant woman. I hear the whispers: “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” I am unclean, unclean am I. I used to have a name before the condemning blood.
When I heard about him from my mother, when she told me about what he did for the blind man that used to beg at the end of our street, all I could think of was how much he sounded like the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But compassion was a word for others; it could never apply to me. For my uncleanness, my sin, they said, had cut me off from the people. Compassion should not be shown to one who willfully persists in iniquity. It might imply that misdeeds were acceptable in the eyes of Jehovah. But with Mother’s story about this Jesus, I saw that this man did not play by the Pharisees’ rules.
A rebel, a kind rebel.
I touched him, merely touched him, and I was healed. For a moment, I was thrilled, but then I felt the question like a slap.
“Who touched me?”
I should have known better.
His voice wasn’t angry, but I knew it would be as soon as he realized that I, an unclean woman, had touched him. And if he was as powerful as my mother said, he would most certainly realize.
I feared that he would be angry, that I may have tainted his power with my unclean hands. But I was desperate; he was my last chance. My hands went numb and my body began to heave with tears that left me gasping for air. With my last bit of strength, I moved toward him, then fell near his feet, my hands scraped by the gritty ground.
“It was me! Forgive me, it was me.” The tears kept coming, but my face grew numb. I kept my head to the ground, waiting for the blow, or the curse, or the command to leave.
But instead, in a gentle voice, he said “daughter.”
I lifted my head in disbelief, and he looked in my eyes, really looked-not through me or past me as the others do. And when he looked in my eyes, his own filled with tears. And with a lump in his throat and a soft smile, he said, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace, and be freed from your suffering.”
He called me daughter, and he called me free. This compassion, this love, still feels strange and unreal. It’s been so long since I’ve been clean that I have to remind myself that my encounter with him wasn’t just a dream. But as I wake up every day with strength in my body and the memory of his words, I know that it is all true. And now I can proclaim with joy, just as Hagar did when he rescued her, “I have seen the one who sees me.”
This fictional account is based on Mark 5: 25-34. Hagar’s words are from Genesis 16:13. Italicized words are direct quotes from Scripture.
I am not okay.
I haven’t been okay for quite some time.
The past few months have been defined by a new, sharp unearthing¹ of an old struggle, one that seeped in so deep and so long ago that it is a daily voice in my life’s narrative. I truly believe that the Lord is author of this unearthing; He has been revealing lie after lie that I believe about Him and myself. But sometimes it feels like too much at once.
Sometimes it seems that, yes, the lies have been revealed, that they have been defeated by my mind, but they will always stay lodged in my heart. Many times over the past few months I have felt that I was on the cusp of a long-awaited victory, a standing up into a strength that could not be toppled. And He has been kindling a calling in my heart, one that has been gestating for years and feels ready to be born.
But each time I stand up in seeming steadiness, each time I take a step toward this calling, my feet are swept from underneath me, my head cracks loud on ice, and the wind is knocked out of me. And at the lowest moments, I fear that there will not be a good ending to this all.
But right now, in this moment, I am thinking clearly, I am seeing through the eyes of the truth and not my fears. I am confident, that, as Susie Larson says, “There comes a point when God knows we’re strong enough to win the battle. He allows an overplayed enemy attack to position us for freedom. When we finally grasp the lie, we’ll recognize our path to freedom. The storms reveal the lies we believe and the truths we need.” ( Fully Alive, p. 79).
In this moment of steadiness, I need to remember what He carried me through, so that in a day, in a week, in a month, when the wind is knocked out of me again, I can dismember the lies. Right now, I need to proclaim in vivid detail the account of His faithfulness in similar times, when my heart failed me, but He proved greater than my heart.
So I’ll go back 5 years, to a dark place, a place where death hovered close, but my Father God shielded me, to a place where, though I couldn’t feel His presence, He fiercely protected His daughter.
On November 17, 2013, a rickety white leopard* careened through the airspace that blanketed Kazan and thudded, face first into hungry pavement. The plane had been flying for 23 years, its safety features long since neglected, the Russians’ philosophy being that if they shut their eyes and hoped for the best, if there ever was a problem, it would fix itself. But the Tatarstani president’s son had died and so had 49 others and the city would go on as usual because as their idiom goes, you can’t outrun fate.
At the time the plane came into being, I did as well, gestating somewhere between the fourth and fifth month in my mother’s womb.
23 years is a long time to go without a safety check.
What a metaphor this plane was for my own shaky frame. I was about to collide with the ground, fast and deadly, and after running for almost 23 years with no respite, it was bound to happen sometime. But I had to go on; there was no other option.
The day after the tragedy, death hung grainy in the air as I hurtled toward Kazan, that city of death, in the 5:00 am darkness. If all went as planned, (a phrase which, here, made me laugh with a cynical bite), this trip would secure me a visa for six more months. Where did my determination come from? Why was I gritting my teeth, doing everything I could to stay in this haunted republic that had lodged a perpetual pang in my chest? It wasn’t a question of whether I trusted the two men that took me to the capital, the potato-faced driver and the handsome, self-important VIP from the university. Trust was irrelevant, because this trip was the only way, so I couldn’t allow myself to think of the possibilities of traveling along deserted roads with two strange men. In Russian, the phrase would be другого выхода нет, “there is no other exit.” The phrase struck me as particularly Russian, looking for an exit, a way out, a work-around, instead of barreling through the problem like a stubborn American. Perhaps it was that Americanness that convinced me that exit was never an option.
As we were spit through the precarious roads, we swung past a car, open and gutted, and was that blood? Was that actually the casual opening of a person into lifeless flesh? The narrow highway continued to suck me forward no matter how hard I clenched my muscles.
When we arrived, the sun was up and the university VIP gave me his number, saying that he would call me when he finished his important business. I wafted through the university like wind, not remembering that it was the one where Tolstoy had dropped out and Lenin had been expelled, such a proud institution, yet so creaky and irritable.
I reached the visa office where the woman with the gaunt wrinkles had turned me away a month ago with a yawn. And again, she looked at me like the stupid American I knew that I was and that I wasn’t.
“Of course you did it incorrectly,” she said. Subtle satisfaction flickered in her eyes at first, but I had a flash drive, and in an assertiveness born of desperation, I said we could fix it right there. Afterwards, I took to the city to wander while I waited for the VIP’s call.
Darkness snaked inside of me as I traipsed for hours, each second stinging like a venomous bite. This was the definition of alone, plodding through a city of 1 million, silent and waiting. It’s not easy to be alone when your nerves are so sunburned that a touch could set off sobbing. It’s not easy to be alone when the city is so suffocating, that you fear if you breathe too deeply, you might use up all the air.
When death and darkness have dogged you for months, the faintest light gives hope. Three weeks after the plane crash, I went back to Kazan to meet up with the Tatarstan Americans, us bewildered ones still in shock from the past three months, most in shock that we had remained whole, unharmed, and sane. Nick, the luckiest of us, lived in a new university for athletes and was able to secure us three nights in his dormitory. Unlike my Soviet-era dorm with its broken ovens, persistent dirt and peeling paint, the rooms we stayed in had a new-car smell, beds and sinks and furniture popped out of an Ikea magazine like puzzle pieces.
It wasn’t easy to gain entrance, which made it feel that much more surreal. The campus was outlined in a tall fence with wires, and we entered a metal box with security officers and a turnstile. We were smugglers, our bags full of champagne and wine, which was строго запрещено, strictly forbidden in the dormitory. But they waved us through, too bored to notice any guilty expressions, and I felt the first spark of giddiness in months. After two more checkpoints, we were in, we were safe, we were warm.
Our Thanksgiving meal was drawn out over hours. The small oven only let us cook one course at a time, so we began first with lentil soup, then the chicken that we pretended was turkey, then to hiding like a bunch of high school students when we popped the cork off the champagne. The cork had whizzed against the window, and we feared the wrath of the uniformed woman who prowled the dorm, looking for those whom she could destroy. She especially like to use the intercom to assert her reign, sending us into ripples of laughter when we heard her nasally voice whining “внимание!”
One of our days in Kazan, we found a doll resting atop the snowy street, curly blonde hair framing an expressionless face. We left it there, believing that someone would notice it, would pick it up and discard it. There was no way that she would last through the winter.
Months later, I was being ferried around the stagnant town of Yelabuga in an off-balance, bloated van on the outskirts of the city, when I saw a nineteen-year-old motorcyclist splayed out, extinguished unexpectedly. The onlookers fanned out around him and stared, but I knew they would soon disperse.
At least he would be cleaned up, unlike the muscular golden mutt that emerged, slowly, through the cakey blanket of snow that I walked atop daily, not knowing that it housed a beautiful, frozen death. The dog’s tawny hairs sprouted through the snow like grass, then with the snow scraping itself off to reveal a perfectly formed head, untouched by rot, and finally, the perfectly preserved mummy of the creature that was alive at the time when the rickety white leopard careened into the pavement. The dead dogs popped up everywhere through the snow, so much that we made it a game between our two cities, my American friend Hanna and I, counting them. Once again, Tatarstan proved itself to be a showcase of death. Death happens everywhere, but here, it was on freakish, frozen display.
Nick stayed in Kazan throughout the winter, and when the snow began to recede, walking along those same old streets, he saw that something had surfaced through the snow. He laughed when he saw the blonde curls and expressionless face and took a photo of the doll. She had been submerged and suffocated, trampled and forgotten, but somehow, she had emerged whole. The snow had covered her, but instead of dismembering and destroying her, it had preserved her.
The doll was a more accurate metaphor for me more than the plane, I realize. I would not be dismembered, but would emerge whole. I would not end violently, but begin anew. During those nine dark months, I was covered in snow that seemed to be soil on my grave, but what if that snow was really a blanket of protection?
And what if right now, the snow blanketing me is actually His protection from the elements that are poised to flay my skin and seep into my bones? I don’t know when I will emerge, but I know that I will. I don’t know the future, but His protection in the past gives me hope to grip in the present. So may I curl into His covering as a child into the crook of her father’s arm, may I rest and wait and trust that “I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).
*The airline was Ak Bars, Tatar for “white leopard.”
¹In her book Fully Alive, Susie Larson uses this phrase to describe God’s process of revealing lies and hurts in our soul to lead us to healing and freedom. I highly recommend the book!