I travel around the world as part of my missionary career. I love it and I dread it. I love seeing new things and tasting new things; I get to practice keeping a straight face when scenes don’t look familiar and when my taste buds experience flavors far different from what they are accustomed.
There are deeper challenges and opportunities, too. Many times, those challenges are to my sense of identity and worth, which for me are closely tied to my need to “get it right.”
On one trip, an old woman offered me her seat on a local bus in Southeast Asia during a bright morning ride across town. After interpreting her gestures and smile as insistence that I take her seat, I finally acquiesced when she stood, refusing to give in to my return smile and head shake of what I hoped communicated “No, thank you.”
As I slid into the seat, I was warm with embarrassment and worry and failure. I assumed I was doing something culturally inappropriate or foolish in my standing on the bus and bracing myself with the hand straps. I thought I had been quiet and polite, standing where I was supposed to and not giving offense. My heart sank, since clearly I had blown it and this woman was trying to get me to stop being so stupid.
My friend and travel companion, a woman who was raised in this part of the world, sensed my disappointment. When I apologized to her that I must have been doing something wrong because a woman much older than me made me take her seat, my friend explained to me it was local hospitality. Age had nothing to do with it; I was clearly a visitor in this part of the world and this woman was caring well for me, as her upbringing taught her.
Then, another familiar sense overwhelmed me; once again, I had assumed the worst of me.
The bus ride was a crash of cultures and my own fallen heart. In my home culture, it’s polite for me to stand and make sure anyone older than me has a seat, especially a senior citizen. Here, it’s polite for anyone of any age to give up their seat for a guest in their country. With a moment’s reflection and a little more information, my mind can process the difference and appreciate the experience. But by then, my heart has to be resuscitated; inside, I always first process anything uncomfortable or unknown as failure on my part. My fallen inner voice tells me all the time that I am not enough and if I want to be loved (at most) or not a disappointment to God or anyone else (at least), I need to get every step and every interaction and every choice just right. When things don’t go precisely the way I expect or I don’t know what to do and there is the slightest chance I might stumble, I always first interpret the situation and my feelings as my failure.
It hadn’t crossed my mind that the elderly woman was being kind. It hadn’t crossed my mind to simply experience the moment with open eyes and heart, willing to observe and enjoy and learn. I was in full self-protection mode, only watching and processing my own actions, guessing at the impression I was giving others, striving to make sure that impression made people like me.
Granted, it was just a brief bus ride with people I will likely never see again, but it tells me something about my instincts and inner habits; when I live in self-protection mode, I miss good things. I miss relaxing in the warm smile of a woman’s kindness; I miss seeing others and their real intentions, obsessed instead with myself; I miss learning in real peace and trust, clinging instead to whatever I think will keep me most acceptable to people, a false peace.
Gratefully, I am gaining a better sense and habit of my already-complete acceptability in Christ. If I believe I am already wholly acceptable, it gives my heart space to process new information and new moments … and receive God’s sweet smile and generosity in the gift of a seat on the bus.