“Hey Jon, here’s a knife.”
That’s a simple enough phrase. Someone gets my attention and allows me to know that a sharp metal object called a knife is accessible. Yet, this phrase can have significant changes in meaning depending on its context.
Imagine that I was on my hands and knees crawling around looking for something. Someone comes up and asks what I’m looking for. I say that I’m looking for the knife my grandfather gave me when I was a young boy. This person then starts looking with me. After a little while he says “Hey Jon, here’s a knife.”
Or imagine that I’m eating Thanksgiving with my family. The whole family is gathered around as mom brings out the steaming hot turkey. We say grace and we all wait for dad to carve the bird like he does every year. But to my surprise this year he lets me know the honor is mine by saying “Hey Jon, here’s a knife.”
What if me and another person had been captured and tied up. We want to escape very badly, but they’ve tied our hands and feet pretty well. Right when I’m about to give up hope my heart leaps as the other person says “Hey Jon, here’s a knife.”
In those three situations a simple phrase like “Hey Jon, here’s a knife” takes on significantly different meanings. In the first the person is essentially saying “I think I’ve find your grandfather’s knife over here.” In the second he’s saying “Would you do us the honor of carving the turkey?” In the third he’s saying “Quick! Cut the rope so we can get out of here!”
“Hey Jon, here’s a knife.” What’s my context you ask? I’m in rural Paraguay with a group from my church. We’re just finishing up a medical outreach in a needy area of the country. A decent group from church has gone, and we’ve enjoyed sharing our meals together. Today for lunch we’re eating hot dogs before hitting the road to go back home. I pick up a bun when one guy says “Hey Jon, here’s a knife.”
What on earth is he really saying in this exact situation? I instantly send an order to all the little guys sitting at their desks inside my head. “Quick! Search the computer database for situations you would need a knife for a hot dog lunch!” All the little guys start pecking away at their keyboards. One guy tells me that maybe I need to cut the hot dogs into slices to eat with my macaroni and cheese. “Nope, that can’t be it. Keep searching!”
Finally one of the guys who works at a computer inside my head suggests that maybe this isn’t one of those pre-cut buns. I look down at the bun and see that it is indeed pre-cut. But then the guy suggests that maybe the person handing me the knife thought my bun needed to be cut. Ah-ha! That’s it! Problem solved. I thank the guy and send him home early for the day.
(Disclaimer: there are no little men inside my head. This is a metaphoric attempt to visualize the abstract concept of thought.)
I go ahead and fix my hot dog the way I like it: ketchup, mayonnaise and of course the hot dog itself. I’m a sucker for hot dogs, so I’m actually pretty happy as I begin to scarf it down.
About half way through my first hot dog I stop. I’ve suddenly noticed something I missed before. I look around the room; there are perhaps 12 people sitting around enjoying their hot dogs as I am, with one major difference. Every single last hot dog around the room has a slice down the middle, kind of like the hot dog bun itself. Inside the slice has been squeezed the ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and golf sauce.
I quickly cram the rest of my hot dog down my gullet before anyone sees me and my non-conformist condiment ways. Can it really be that I’ve lived here for two and half years and don’t even know how to eat a hot dog correctly in this country? I look over to the table and my disbelief is confirmed. There a guy has placed a hot dog in the bun and sliced it down the middle. He has then squeezed all his preferred condiments in the slice mark. You learn something new every day.
In the words of comedian Brian Regan: “I’m just trying to go through life without looking stupid. It’s not working out so well.” This is what living in a new culture is like. Everything – even the most seemingly simple of things – is done differently, and you’ve got to be like Sherlock Holmes and discover the new right way to do that thing. Sometimes you make mistakes and it’s a big deal. Fortunately other times instead of putting ketchup inside your hot dog you just squeeze it on top like a weirdo with a beard-o.
When you begin to look to have spiritual input in people’s lives, you don’t want to be the guy who never learns how to behave in a new culture. In Paraguay you don’t want to be the guy who consistently forgets birthdays. You don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t interrupt to say hello to everyone in the building. You don’t want to be the guy who wipes the tereré straw with his shirt before drinking after somebody. All of these things would be a road block to gaining an audience.
Pray for us as we continue learning how to be relevant ambassadors for Christ in this country.