I zip open my purse and walk by the guard at the door, flashing it wide at him so he can peer at the contents. I pause so the woman on the other side of the door can pat my backside, then I make my way to the counter. There I stand as close as possible to the woman ahead of me, all but bumping into her. She completes her transaction, so it’s my turn. I lift my eyebrows and chin in a small fluid movement to the girl behind the counter before placing my order, and I don’t flinch when the change she gives me is 50 ‘cents’ short. I make my way with my rice and chicken through a thickly crowded room, and sit down at a table with another woman, a complete stranger. We engage in a bit of conversation about the Department of Education as we eat using our spoons and forks. She gets up to leave, and, finished with my meal, I rise too, leaving all my food wrappings on the table behind me.
You might question the sanity of someone who acted like this in public. But because I’m living in a culture that’s not my own, I’ve had to learn a new set of rules. This is my new normal. It took some time. And after almost three years I’m still learning.
Other foreigners who come for short-term trips arrive in this country and are impressed by all the newness. They are delighted with the novelties of jeepneys and papayas and the beauty of the local beaches and the smiles of the people. They may learn to raise their eyebrows, or to open their purse for a guard, but there’s no urgency to learn all the local ways, since they are just here for a couple of weeks.
They are challenged by some of the temporary inconveniences of no running hot water, no clothes dryers, ants in their kitchen, and no self-checkouts. They are shaken by the vast chasm between their lifestyles and the poverty they see up close. They help with a VBS or a medical outreach, hand out generous gifts, and then climb back onto the airplane with their tourist visa in hand, blessed, changed, but happy to be returning home, to the familiarity, security and comfort they know there.
There are parallels in Christianity. Not everyone has been called to live in a foreign culture, but Jesus has invited all of us to step beyond the bounds of being a tourist-class Christian. He has called us to a change of culture.
“Our citizenship is in heaven” Phil. 3:20
He asks us to relate to Him, to become His friend and disciple, to dwell in His house, basking in the glory of His beauty, trusting His strength for the challenges and difficulties, becoming a contributing member of the heavenly culture, sharing in His work of blessing the nations.
Can I be content to be a “day-tripper” into Christianity? It’s not enough for me to enter church as a tourist each Sunday, to be delighted with the beauty of worship, to be challenged by the words of Christ, or to be shaken by the vast chasm dividing my lifestyle from the commands of Christ. It’s not enough to hand out generous gifts in the offering plate before climbing back into my car, relieved to be returning to the pleasures of home, away from whatever might have unsettled my inner security and comfort during the past hour.
“Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.”
1 Corinthians 15:49
This ‘image of the heavenly’ is our new persona as a Christian. To have any amount of effectiveness as a citizen of heaven, the heavenly culture must be our new normal.
Just like an expat in a new culture watches and imitates the people around him to learn how to live, how to talk, how to act, so we learn this new heavenly culture. We watch, peering closely into the window of the Word, observing, noting how things are done in the heavenly economy. We watch Christ Himself. We watch faithful believers who have gone before.
Then it’s time to imitate.
“You also become imitators of us and of the Lord,” 1 Thess. 1:6
Some of the heavenly cultural norms defy what has always come naturally to me. I tend to be a slow learner. It may take more than a lifetime for me to learn these heavenly ways.