Jared Witt l April 20, 2018
For almost as long as humans have been a thing, until just the last several decades, the vast majority of the world’s population never got to travel.
That fact always strikes me as almost offensively unjust whenever it occurs to me.
Even in the era of great marine explorations and colonialism, some rich people, military men, sailors, and a handful of oddball criminals and adventurists might have a couple great excursions in their lifetime, but even among that very small minority, the idea of seeing multiple exotic locations for no reason but to see them was rare if not mythological (to say nothing of slavery, but I didn't want to include that in a list of people getting to "see the world"). Even today, it is very much a privilege and a luxury.
One of the quickest ways to know I have very little in common with someone is when they either have the means to travel but have no interest or they’ve recently come back from a trip saying joyless things like “Meh, it was fine, I guess” or “I was craving a Whopper with fries by the end of the week.” And then there is the summary I have absolutely zero sympathy for: “the people were not very nice.”
This has never once been my general experience of people anywhere I’ve been. If anything, I've found people to be almost over the top friendly and accommodating, even looking out for my well being as a foreigner. I’m not at all naïve to the fact that there is a certain superficiality to short term interactions across cultures, and knowing myself, familiarity might surely breed contempt were I to stick around for a bit.
But from the middle-aged guy in Frankfurt who got off on a train transfer that wasn’t his own to shepherd my wife and I through our jetlagged confusion, to the older lady outside of Usulatan, El Salvador, who wanted to make sure I knew that the cheese I was about to eat was unpasteurized, I’ve repeatedly been graced by kindness and generosity toward the other everywhere I’ve gone.
This world is an overwhelmingly kind and hospitable place from what I’ve seen. That revelation alone warrants going bankrupt on travel, in my mind, as enslaved as my home culture has become to fear and paranoia.
Granted I haven’t been everywhere. But oftentimes I’ve heard a compatriot of mine universally dismiss as rude the very same place and culture where I’ve had nothing but wonderful encounters.
So obviously this begs the question: what are these people doing differently than me to trigger such rude interactions?
It’s an almost insane sense of entitlement which assumes that some waiter in Paris should’ve woken up this morning fully anticipating that he would have to rearrange how generations of Parisians have done things to facilitate the massive personal space bubble and have-it-your-way sandwich expectations of some Biff in a Texas Tech hat (not that I’m thinking of anyone in particular). I guess some people go to Paris to see Paris. Others go to Paris on the condition that they’ll put their Parisian-ess on hold for the moment.
I have some hypotheses on why the difference between my good experiences of people and Biff’s bad ones, but for the theological analogy I’m working on, I’ll settle on this one: I learn some of the language.
I’m completely aware of how futile and unimpressive it is, knowing 10 phrases in several different languages with no chance of mastery. With the wrong attitude it could even come off a little patronizing. And when I venture “Good day” and “Do you speak English?” in a country where half the population grew up learning English as a second language anyhow, I likely sound like an idiot.
That’s the point. When we venture communication in a language that’s not our own, it makes us vulnerable. It’s impossible, as an otherwise educated and functional adult, to try your best with a one-year-old’s vocabulary without swallowing your pride a bit.
And I think there is some deep human desire to want to shelter and shepherd someone who is vulnerable in this way. Hence, so many kindnesses that I’ve experienced over and over again in so many places. It tends to strip away any skepticism about my intentions because one is incapable of pretense when one is foolishly trying one's best in a new language.
This is why little kids have a hard time lying convincingly or concealing their agenda. Things like passive aggressiveness, backhanded compliments, and ulterior motives require mastery of a language. It’s when we get older and become adept with a language that we learn the self-serving art of subtlety.
And outside of the U.S., most everyone around the world knows this because they themselves have been in this position before. That’s what makes it endearing when they have the chance to accommodate someone else in those shoes. Sometimes you even get brownie points with people, because they know that a native English speaker doesn’t typically need to learn another language for any personal reason. A little bit unwarranted but such is the generosity I’ve experienced around the world toward a dumb American who tries just a little bit.
How little must Biff give a hoot, that he hasn’t received the same indulgence for such a trifling effort?
Now to tie off the longwinded theological analogy:
This is what sometimes goes through my mind, when people fret to me as a pastor that they don’t feel comfortable praying. I sympathize and I know where this comes from. Somewhere along the line they were taught that prayer should be something polished and impressive. Instead of learning the classic and liturgical prayers as forms and structures that assist our wordlessness when we don’t know what else to say, they heard them as formulas that govern what we’re allowed and not allowed to say. Instead of learning impromptu prayer as an opportunity to be vulnerable and unmediated before God, they learned it as a chance to nervously reassure God of their orthodox theology clothed in casual language.
The irony, I believe, is that what God wants is precisely what someone is lamenting when they say “I don’t know what to say.” Great. Excellent. That’s a good starting point for prayer. Have a look at Romans 8:26-27.
How would you feel if every time your child or your lover spoke with you, they were thinking in the back of their head, "Oh, I know just what to say to this guy" or "this explosion of eloquence is about to knock her socks off" God is happy for you to come to the conversation blank and unsorted.
It’s when we get older and more shrewd with language that we learn how to veil ambitions, talk around things, and obfuscate the issue with flowery words. God wants to get to us before that, when we’re like little children.
I’m not saying you should pray like you’re trying to calculate an exchange rate while remembering how to pronounce the Portuguese word museu to an Uber driver. That’s stressful and takes the analogy too far.
But pray like you don’t know the language well enough to be the Uber driver and take God for a ride—like you don’t know how to use the passive voice or speak in abstractions to begin with, so all you can do is say what you need to say.
Cheers and Peace,
On how Castle Church is stirring up a movement from a brewery in Florida.