Packing 'life bags'
Growing up, my dad used to share an analogy about the bags we pack in life. He said parents pack ‘life bags’ for their children, filling each bag with traditions, beliefs, perspectives and stories. The child repacks his/her bag as they interact with the world and have new experiences.
When you get married (this was the main lesson of my dad’s story) it is the couple’s responsibility to unpack their individual bags and make one bag for their life together. My dad said that many marriages fail because people are not willing to unpack their bags in front of one another; too shy to share their pasts or unwilling to compromise when not everything fits in the new bag.
When you have your own children, my Dad would say, you pack a ‘life bag’ for each child out of the bag you and your spouse have made together and the unpacking and repacking of life bags goes on for generations.
Now, a big part of missions is living cross-culturally. A saying I’ve often heard is “it’s not wrong, it’s just different.” When confronted with another method of washing dishes, praying or dressing there is an opportunity to either say “I’m ignoring this and will continue doing it my way” or “let me open my life bag and re-examine the way I’ve been taught.”
I remember being challenged by this during Discipleship training. I was sitting in class listening to the discussion and realized that only the locals were participating. Gathering my courage, I stood up and shared my opinion on the subject – which happened to be disagreeing with the teacher. Sitting back down I felt good and was sure that everyone would understand why I had disagreed. After class one of the local students pulled me aside and shared that I had been extremely rude and that I should never do that again. He explained that in their culture you can only publicly oppose the leader (in this case, our teacher) when the entire group shares your opinion. By standing and disagreeing, it was like I had spoken for the whole class (though they actually agreed with the teacher and not me).
It is in these situations that we must unpack our bags, decide if we agree with what we were taught from our families, what our culture values, our traditions and even the way we work and interact with others. We take certain things out and add new things in. We grow, reflect, question and expose ourselves to change. I want to make sure that one day when I pack my child’s bag it is not only filled with my culture, but with encounters that challenged my way of thinking and doing things.
Why is it important that we as believers frequently open our life bags and re-examine? Why is culture shock relevant to our faith?
It’s important because it gives us another pair of glasses to look at God, His creation and His plan for us. Cultural differences confront not only the content of our bags but also our view of God. Each of the villages surrounding a single mountain have a different view of the same mountain. One village may speak about the big shadow it casts, another how beautiful the rock formation is and still another about the waterfall that cascades down its side. No one is wrong, but to truly say “I know what the mountain looks like,” one would need to walk all the way around the mountain to see it from every side.
This is the same with God. Every culture values and experiences something different about God. For example: Westerners have a guilt-innocent culture, Asians have a shame-honour culture and Africans have a fear-power culture. All three cultures value one side of God more than the other, but all three have equally important views of God.
Growing up we develop a cultural view of God – maybe you learnt more about God the Father than of God the Healer. Confronted by a different view we don’t necessarily need to take out that part of our bag, but can rather add to it. We learn more about Him and His nature when we see Him through the lenses of different cultures.
Accepting differences guarantees that our life bags stay relevant, healthy and balanced. It gives different methods to our approach to worship, prayer, understanding others and evangelism. It equips us to be flexible when we share the Gospel, to act culturally appropriate and challenges what is considered ‘normal.’ There is something powerful about praying out loud in a group but something equally powerful standing in silence and feeling the Holy Spirit move.
Unpacking our life bags breaks the traditions that bind us to religion and liberates us to have a personal relationship with our Father. It breaks through the man-made view of how things should be done and empowers us to experience the true God who is not limited by a denomination or method. Regularly reviewing how we define our faith and Christianity drives us to actively grow, learn and re-align ourselves with the one we serve.