In time, we grew up, married and parted ways. Linda and I haven't seen each other for years but she is still that friend I shoot off a message to when I know no one else will understand or I desperately need someone to shoot straight with me. Without fail, she is never shocked by my messes and always tells me how to "straighten up and fly right" in the wisest way possible.
It is no surprise that I turned to her for help this month with question #10. When she answered my plea for insight with - "I don't know that anyone did anything to help *blend* cultures. That was one of the very hard things. There was no honor given to the culture I had been raised in; everything "English" was bad, or at least needed to be examined carefully. Everything Mennonite had an air of sanctity and questioning the religion/culture line was rebellious.
Now having said that, I have seen a *big* shift in those attitudes in our generation. There's a part of me that thinks if those in authority back then would have had this new openness, we might have stuck it out longer." I said, "Aha! Would you consider guest posting for me??"
And bless her, she did.
If you were plucked up out of your comfortable home and community, and plopped down on the other side of the world, what would you expect? Assume the people there are believers, so you're not there as a missionary. You're just there to live. Are you going to try to change the culture to suit yourself? Are you going to try to completely change yourself to adapt to the native culture? Or do you hope to learn as you go, and find joy, acceptance, and peace?
Cultural differences can be a fascinating exploration, but it's a bit of a mine-field, too. It's so easy to blunder into hurtful territory, and so hard to repair the damage you might not even know you caused. The Lord has put me in a front-row seat for observing a lot of microcultures within the American macroculture. For example...
I grew up homeschooled (1). My early religious exposures were Baptist (2), then switched to Mennonite (3). Early in my childhood we lived in a mid-sized town (4), then we moved waaayyyy out in the country (5). I married a man who, like me, grew up "worldly", then joined the Mennonite church as an adult; his family has never been religious (6.5). We moved to his home state (7), halfway across the country from mine, and joined a non-denominational church with anabaptist roots (8). We didn't stay long there, and church shopped for an exhausting year before the Lord sent us our home fellowship (9). If I thought we had been cultuarally diverse before, well, our home fellowship makes it look like a walk in the park!!
But let me back-track a little, to trying to fit in with Mennonites specifically. Please understand, this is from my personal experience. Each person, each situation, each congregation, is unique and will have its own issues, it's own highs and lows. These are things that stand out in my memory as specific issues as a young woman trying to fit in with Beachy Amish Mennonites.
The main issue: The mixture of doctrine and culture is bewildering, and often frustrating, to someone from the outside.
I understand that the Bible has specific language about modesty, but... cape dresses?? Where is it found that we should wear solid colors? And black pantyhose is completely counter-intuitive to modesty, but whatever, I don't want the old ladies to chew me out, so just scour the shelves for the last pair of Off Black. Nevermind that I can see the Bishop's daughter's underwear right through her "modest" cape dress (don't you know she's the example to be held up to!).
It would have helped if someone had been willing to acknowledge the difference between Biblical principals (modesty, headcovering) and cultural application (cape dresses, pleated net coverings with strings). It would have helped to feel accepted and valued while I learned the principles, before expecting me to adopt the culture. I am forever grateful to the few who patiently answered questions, pointed me to scripture, and were willing to admit when things didn't make sense-- especially when the majority were hearing the same questions and condemning me as rebellious.
There are doctirines that are applied in unique ways, for example, the holy kiss. A friend took her pre-teen son to visit a Mennonite church for the first time. He rushed up to her after the service, eyes bugging out of his head. "Mom, we have to leave right now!!!"
"The men are KISSING EACH OTHER!!"
--It's a hilarious story, but just imagine that poor kid's panic. It helps to anticipate ways that you are different, and offer gentle explanations. Your minor discomfort may prevent another person's trauma.
There are parts of the culture that I value highly to this day. The emphasis on home and family, the sanctity of marriage, the church as a family, not just where I land on Sunday. We did life together. We sewed and cooked, tended babies and gardens, exchanged patterns, seeds, recipes, hand-me-downs, and lots of laughter and love. My church family was far closer to my heart than my blood relatives. But I still struggled to fit in.
Smaller issue: Everybody is related to somebody... except me.
The conversations with new people go like this:
Hi, my name is Linda Fletcher. (holds breath)
Fletcher?! Where are you from? (looks confused)
Who are your Parents?
Carl and Debbie... (wait!)
Now, what was your mother's maiden name? (begins to look determined)
Martin, but-- (oh, boy, here we go!)
Oh, Martin!! Where was she from?
Kansas, but really---
What are your grandparents names? (looks really, really determined)
Ezra and Edna, buttheywerentMennoniteorAmish. YoudontknowmeIpromise. (Ugh!)
^^^^^ please. stop. doing. this.^^^^^
I was already an oddball, borderline pariah. There was no need to rub it in. When you meet someone new, meet the person, not their genealogy.
Another small (not-so-small) issue: My culture is valuable, too.
It hurts, deeply, to be expected to leave everything behind. There are things that need to be left behind, but not everything, and not all at once. Be gentle. Be willing to let the Lord do the convicting. You don't have to be suspicious of everything in my past just because it's not familiar to you. Yeah, I don't need to teach your kids to sing Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, but I can still sing Happy Birthday to Jesus.
One last scandalous act, as we were leaving the Mennonite church after out marriage, was to exchange wedding rings. Why? Because my grandmother believed with all her heart that you weren't really married if you didn't exchange rings. We did it to protect her heart, to refrain from offending someone with a weaker faith. The gossip and backlash from out church families was astounding. A reception at my husband's home church was summarily cancelled. A man my husband looked up to as a father (who wasn't at the wedding, but knew about out rings in less than a week) yelled at him over the phone; he was crushed. That heart connection was completely broken. The rings have stayed.
Since then, we've become part of a fellowship of believers that is unique in it's ability to embrace differences. We come from a lot of different places, both geographically and experientially. There are families who actually practiced idol worship before they came to Christ. There is a sister who was set free from addiction and human trafficking when she met the Lord. There are those who were raised Catholic, or in a cult, or just abandoned by society altogether.
What unites us? The Life of Jesus in our hearts.
A few years ago I had a conversation with an older Chinese sister in our church, in which I expressed frustration with a lack of what I thought was "like-mindedness." I had deep concerns about the differences in practice between our family (lots of kids, homeschooling, wearing skirts/dresses) and a lot of the other families around the same age (more typically American). Her words resonated deep with my years of struggling to fit in with Mennonites, and completely changed my outlook for my family today. In a way, it really set me free.
"Every Christian, every true Believer, has the Life of Christ in their heart. We all share this same Life. We also have, individually, the Light that God is giving us for the path He sets us on. You do not have the same Light as I do, because we are not on the same path. The Lord may illumine the same scripture to you in a completely different way than He does to me. The scripture does not change, but our understanding may. If we try to fellowship around the Light that we have, we will quickly become frustrated. We are in totally different places. We don't match at all. How can we then walk together? We walk together in His Life. We rejoice together because He lives in us! We encourage each other to listen to the Lord, to press in and really hear Him, and then walk in that Light. That is how we can be so different, and yet still the same."
What it all boils down to, really, is our hearts. Love God, and love people. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Ask gentle, sincere, and respectful questions. Really listen to each other.
Praise God, He has not made us to be cookie-cutter Christians! The same God who created our varied and fascinating world lives in us!!
Thank you, thank you, Linda. God bless you so much for sharing. You are a gem.