One of the fun parts of going overseas? Seeing new layers of your family show up.
When we first moved, my then-two-year-old–just a toddler–showed himself as one of our primary cultural ambassadors.
Normally in Uganda, a woman is referred to by the name of her eldest son, or the son people know best. So I would typically be Maama-[name of my oldest son]. But nooooo. I was always Maama-[name of my youngest son]. Security guards would say, “Greet [your youngest]! And the others.”
His pizazz and pure personality unleashed in East Africa’s uber-relational culture. We found out that my son, wherever he goes, makes fans.
(Side note: I still remember cringing when at a routine traffic stop by a police officer, my son offered said officer a piece of gum–after which the police officer promptly waved us on. Did my toddler just bribe the police?!)
You could argue he was two–so of course his personality fleshed itself out. But it happened with all of my kids. I had no idea my daughter could play with people of any race or socioeconomic status. I’d never seen my husband’s generosity so abundant, or his courage in navigating a new culture to advocate for his family.
Through You, I See More of Him
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis makes the remark that when his friend Charles died, instead of having more of his friend Ronald to himself, he actually lost part of Ronald. Only Charles could display Ronald in the certain ways they responded to one another.
You may have seen this in a spouse: What if you’d never seen him or her as a son or daughter? As a parent?
Relationships bring out aspects of people we’d otherwise never see. How much more does another one of God’s image-bearers enlighten who God is?
And how much more could intimate knowledge of another culture blow the doors off our knowledge of God?
Adding the Color of the Eastern Sky
When I first read the passage below, I loved the words of Charles Freer Andrews. But i loved them more when I read his bio on Wikipedia: Church of England priest. A Christian missionary, educator and social reformer in India, he became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and identified with the cause of India’s independence. He died in 1940 in Kolkata, India (i.e. Calcutta. A close friend of Ghandi? M-kay. I give. That’s cool.)
Since I have learnt to know Christ afresh in this Eastern setting, it has been easy for me to point out the weaknesses of the portraiture when His character has been depicted with only Western ideals to draw from, as though these comprehended the ‘fullness of the Christ’. For in such pictures the true proportion has not been kept. Some of the marked traits of His character have not appeared at all. Much has been lost. Some day I would like to draw His likeness anew, with the colour of the Eastern sky added to the scene.*
Andrews points out that Jesus was born very near “the concourse of the two great streams of human life in the ancient world, that flowed East and West”.*
And perhaps this is what I can’t articulate well to friends back “home”–i.e. my passport country. I’ve seen an entirely different side of God as it is fleshed out in Ugandan culture alone–not to mention my refugee friends from Eritrea, Ethiopia, North Sudan, South Sudan, Congo.
It’s as if God has taken jigaw puzzle pieces of himself, shaken them, and scattered them throughout every culture around the world. The more cultures we know, the more of his world we see and intimately understand, the more of him we’re able to piece together.
Though I’ve attempted to catalog my life lessons from Africa–what I’ve seen of God--it’s beyond what I could write in a lifetime.
Just like no one will ever know my spouse as I do, having seen him in thousands of different contexts–the image of God I have witnessed has left me marked indelibly.
….For the supreme miracle of Christ’s character lies in this: that He combines within Himself, as no other figure in human history has ever done, the qualities of every race.
….For those who, through intimate contact with other races, have gained the right to be heard, have borne witness that each race and region of the earth responds to His appeal, finding in the Gospel record that which applies specially to themselves. His sovereign character has become the one golden thread running through mankind, binding the ages and the races together.*
And perhaps that’s what amazes me: That as I learn more of another culture–and more of God’s image–it is indeed his character that binds us together as humans. Together, we look like him.
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*In Baillie, John, ed. A Diary of Readings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons (1955), Day 23.