He watched closely, probably trying to contain his laughter as I dug a four-foot deep trench to join our septic hole to our house’s plumbing. The day before, I was told by tribal friend that I looked like a troubled child trying to use a big shovel. That’s probably true, though more likely definitely true. My tribal friend, we’ll just call him Joe, is a pro at digging these trenches. Joe and the rest of the Kuman tribesman have been helping their parents to dig drainage trenches in hillside gardens since they were little kids, to protect the primary food source from erosion and flooding. In fact, only a ‘terrible Kuman’ can’t dig straight and precise trenches! Much like the manicured front lawns in America, straight trenches are the socially imposed ‘standard’.
Joe appeared visibly uncomfortable and approached me in the middle of my “shoveling.” He saw me struggle with the larger rocks in the soil, and he politely grabbed my shovel and took over. If there was an Olympic Digging Event, Joe would take gold every time.
Such a kind gesture, I had to know the rest of his story, so I prodded a bit.
Joe told me that he was an orphan. His mother and father died when he was ten years old, and after wandering and begging in the nearest town for a year, he finally made his way to our village. An older woman offered to house him, so our village is Joe’s home, for now.
“I do everything she asks me to do,” Joe said. ”I clean the house. I work in her garden and it’s always full of food. I pray for her every day. I try really hard to be a good Kuman man. I don’t smoke, I gave up betelnut when I was 10, and I’m a good worker.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear him say all of that. In fact, I was expecting it. There is a ‘self-righteousness’ that often characterizes the West, and the same attitude is prevalent here in Papua New Guinea as well – it just looks a lot different.
I’ve often felt the presence of this unspoken “Good American Checklist”:
- You have a full-time job and provide for your family? Check.
- You don’t ‘get all up in’ someone’s business? Check.
- You own a house/car and are a fairly self-motivated man and woman? Check.
- Oh, you have some feature or talent that makes you stick out in a sea of faces? Check.
WELCOME TO THE CLUB!
The Kuman, too, have a lengthy checklist. Passed down from their ancestors and neighboring “churches.” In his own mind, Joe met all the requirements, and justified himself.
The Father of Lies has some guest houses here in Papua New Guinea too.
I asked Joe, “How do you think God feels about all of that?”
“I think he’ll let me into heaven when I die. I do helpful things for people… kind of like I’m doing for you right now.”
I prodded, “Joe, have you heard the story about the Law of Moses?”
“Yes. Moses split the big water and then gave Ten Laws for everyone to follow.”
Silence. I couldn’t let that sit, though. I was dealing with some tension here. This whole time, my entire relationship with Joe hangs on our speaking in a trade language that is really insufficient for communicating any spiritual truth. Complicating things further, I don’t know Joe’s culture, and so our conversation is being interpreted through two completely different worldviews… My ‘grid’ and his are likely completely different, and we may not even mean the same ‘thing’ when we say ‘God’. All sorts of miscommunication and assumptions are likely happening, and neither of us can be sure at this point what the other is thinking. It’s precisely this tightrope that all cross-cultural communicators (church planters especially) walk daily: We live with the urgency of the commission, but must communicate clearly.
I had to challenge his worldview, and had to acknowledge that the real Jesus of the Bible, and what sin really is, and even God – These are foreign things to him (even though he doesn’t think so!). Joe needs to be hungry before he’s fed, otherwise he’ll only hang on to the clever lies our Enemy has made so easy for the people here to believe, and Joe will sit in ignorant apathy.
I worked up my best pidgin and said, “Jesus said that if you want to follow THAT road to become His child, you have to follow it perfectly like He did – from birth until your death. The book of James says that if you break even one of God’s ten laws, it’s like you’ve broken all of them.”
I tried to communicate that his understanding of the purpose of the Law is ‘crooked’ (in a culturally appropriate way, of course), and that God’s Word tells us that those ten laws have a very different function. After hearing my response, I’d like to think Joe grasped the reason for my eagerness to learn his heart language and culture: so I can tell him what “God’s Talk” really says.
Maybe I shouldn’t have even said all of that. Maybe I should have said more…only God knows. But what I do know is that every aspect of the sweet, incredible Gospel – mankind’s helplessness, God’s Perfection and Justice, His Love and Mercy, His Beloved Son’s incarnation and substitutionary death on the cross for our incalculable sin-debt, and His Resurrection Life available for all who believe – these beautiful truths have been emasculated and twisted into religious lies by the Enemy. Lies that keep the Kuman trapped in a world of jealousy, hatred, sorcery, self-justification, and hopelessness. And God hates that.
God hates when His image bearers live in a false-reality invented by Satan (and then propagated by man). God despises false teaching that blasphemes His name and dishonors His Son and the “It Is Finished” of the Good News.
I guess that’s why God uses dysfunctional tools like you and me. We are recipients of the Grace – just orphans made into children of a King. I long for the day that I can speak the truth of God’s Word to Joe. An orphan spiritually (just like me), and physically… Joe needs to hear in his heart language, even if it means I have to look like a troubled child digging a poor excuse for a trench right now.
(This post can be found at Alta-Forma.com)