“I never trust someone who walks on tip toe.”
Perhaps I was trying to reduce the noise my shoes made as I walked down the long halls. Maybe I was pretending to hunt wild game due to reading too much of Louis L’Amour’s western stories. The sound of each step might make the difference between success and failure! Most likely it was a habit picked up from years of dodging streams of fire ants on jungle trails. I had been walking on tip toe.
Fire ants! In the jungles of Borneo, fire ants were my main reason for a small footprint. About every other step across the jungle paths were billions of ants. They look like rivers across the path. Step in one river of ants and hundreds of ants will be biting your foot and crawling up your leg within seconds. While hopping to brush the biting ants off of one foot you are very likely to hop onto a river of ants of another kind; which also bite! Some of the bigger ants were over an inch long with very sharp pincers.
This well respected pastor had put me in my place. Without a word I had been communicating that I was not trustworthy.
I wondered if he had ever walked along a jungle path for hours in bare feet. Shoes collect leeches. I hate leeches. I wanted to see the leeches and get them off before they sucked my blood rather than leave them bloating hidden in my shoes or socks, so I often walked barefoot along the muddy trails, swamps and streams. As we walked we also watched for bamboo. Bamboo can be as sharp as a razor and easily as effective. Sharp rocks hurt even through thick callouses. Slippery mud or moss could lead to a dangerous fall far from help. Put down your heel first and you will eventually have a painful, slow-healing wound to show for it. All of these things encouraged a small foot print of a barefooted walker. A cautious stride and reserved step could result in the ability to avoid injury. Several times I had realized halfway through a stride that the stick where my foot was about to land was not a stick. I don’t like last second leaps over snakes but that is better than stepping on them!
I once jumped over a log across the trail. It was one of many I had jumped as I ran on that path. What was different about this one is that the tribesman behind me divided it’s attention with a machete. “Did you not see it?” he asked me later. “See what?” I responded. I had been looking for the little snakes, for the bare ground between ant trails and for the sharp objects that might hurt my feet as I hurried along the trail. I don’t remember seeing the 13 foot long python at all – up until the time we chopped it up, cooked it and ate it.
Culture is often somewhat like that. We don’t know what we don’t know and assume everyone thinks like we do. We think we are communicating one thing and all the while we are communicating something different. The guy who destroyed the snake was incredulous that I didn’t even see it. Any person raised in the jungle should have seen it. The pastor wondered how anyone trustworthy could possibly walk on tiptoe instead of “on the balls of their feet.” According to culture, I was weird in both places.
Later, at the airport in Hong Kong, I found a nice bench seat set back off of a long terminal corridor near my next departure gate. I was a passenger on my way back to Papua New Guinea to fly airplanes. I sat down to wait out the few hours before my next flight. Trying to get comfortable, I pulled one foot up onto my knee and watched people as they scurried from one location to the next. After a while I heard the announcement of a flight arriving from Bangkok, Thailand. A short time later hundreds of passengers streamed from the gates down the corridor past me. One of the men walked purposefully toward me, twenty feet out of his way. He slapped my foot off of my knee as he passed and continued down the corridor. That is when I remembered that one should never show the bottom of your foot or shoe in Thailand. I was not in Thailand but I had just offended at least one person on a whole flight full of Thai people.
Culture is not only what you think but how you think. It is the grid through which you might discern what is good or evil, right or wrong. I have heard people say, “That’s un-American!” or “That is just plain rude!”
Culture may tell you that a person who will not look you in the eye is shifty and untrustworthy – or that the person respects you and does not want to challenge your authority – or that the person is being appropriately respectful of the opposite gender. Culture is what tells you that burping while eating at the table is rude, disgusting and impolite – or a most appropriate and polite compliment to the quality of the meal and the person who prepared it.
As ministers of the Gospel and ambassadors of Christ to the unreached tribes, our objective is not to change culture but to see that people understand the Word of God within the context of their own culture. We want to avoid being the obstacle that prevents the communication of God’s great message. We want to provide opportunity for the Word of God to speak into the culture of our audience, informing people whether a cultural practice is good or evil when measured against the transcultural standard of God’s Word. Clearly communicating truth demands understanding the grid through which people think and learning how to avoid offending your entire audience before you even begin to speak. (Don’t show them the bottom of your foot!)
Please pray for our fellow missionaries as they learn to navigate mysterious cultures to present God’s word to those who have never heard. Sometimes it is like tip-toeing through trails of fire ants!
P.S. You can avoid a lot of ants by flying in aircraft!