After years of anticipation, prayer, and planning, we arrived in Cape Town Monday morning. A cold, damp winter sky was adorned with a rainbow, full of beauty and God’s promises. A friend I’d finally met guided us to the bus that took us and our belongings to the guest house.
Since then, we’ve seen him every day and had many joyful and interesting conversations. He’s been very open about life and practice and culture here, taught us to drive on what he calls “the correct side” of the road, taken us to home and office and stores and car dealerships, and universally been a wonderful host and guide.
He’s also asked us a bit about the US and its culture, church, and politics. And therein I stumbled yesterday into a valuable reminder.
News here has covered the presidential race and current events in America, and a conversation naturally fell into our friend asking us to explain some of the issues in America. It wasn’t an unfair or unreasonable question, and it wasn’t asked adversarially. Missionaries are inherently cross-cultural workers, and they tend to want to understand those they are working with and among. His asking didn’t bother or offend me, and it was a topic I consider myself well-enough informed upon to try to describe the reasoning and perspectives unfamiliar to him.
Yet, I found myself feeling wholly inadequate to the task. To try to describe the landscape of an issue, so to speak, to try to explain the part of it that seemed inexplicable to him, to try to accurately and adequately describe why the issue is so contentious and passionate in my homeland… all felt unattainable. I’m a teacher, a writer… I love to explain things, to use words and communicate… and yet it just didn’t seem to be working. Not to convince of a position but to explain its various factions and sources… even that, I didn’t feel I managed to do. It was uncomfortable and could have become damaging to a newly forming relationship; I’m glad it didn’t, as we had another enjoyable visit over dinner at another couple’s home last night. He’s a new, good friend, and that is always something to appreciate and protect.
It was a good reminder. One of the foremost principles of missionary work is to focus on the mission and people, on relationships. Part of that is avoiding commenting on the politics of one’s host country. It was good to be on the receiving end of such comments and questions, to be reminded of how difficult it is to explain one’s own culture fairly, accurately, and sufficiently, and of how uncomfortable it can be to be put in that place, even when asked politely and sincerely by a friend. It is wise to be gentle in asking, patient in hearing, and reticent about replying.
I’m not here as an emissary of the United States or of any particular set of its socio-political views and perspectives. I’m here as a representative of Christ, working under His authority and for His purposes. I am here because God has called us to a place where He loves people and wants them to know and follow Him, and He has a role for us to perform in support of that work.
I’d rather talk about that than politics anyway.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Colossians 3:2, ESV