It always interests and amuses me when our home church pastor uses a movie clip or a story from some film as a sermon illustration. Recently however, Anji and I again watched the movie The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King. Near the end of that movie there is a scene that hit very close to home and is still giving me pause to think and ponder. Allow me to briefly describe that scene, and then to share why it has extra meaning for us as missionaries.
The four Hobbit companions who were part of the Fellowship Of The Ring and who have seen and experienced nation-shaking and world-altering events have now returned home to their safe, quiet community. What each Hobbit has seen and experienced has shaken, stretched, and challenged them, and to say the least, has altered their worldviews in a major way. These experiences have also left each of them with varying degrees of physical, emotional, and even spiritual wounds which have only just begun to heal – some of which will never fully heal.
As the Hobbits sit around a table in their local inn enjoying all of the comforts and pleasures of home, they look around and realize that the lives or their friends, family, and neighbors have gone on just as they always have, and that these people have no idea of the monumental events that have taken place in their world. Not only that, these people have no desire to know about those events, they don’t want to hear about the adventures the four companions have been through, nor their trials, nor their hardships, nor their triumphs, nor their victories – all of which have had their part in changing the course of their world and future history.
In fact, the people to whom they’ve returned are far more interested in a giant pumpkin that one of them has grown. The looks on the four companion’s faces are very telling as they begin to realize that what they have seen and done is a burden that only they can understand and share between them – seemingly no one in their community cares or wants to know. The expressions on their faces as they realize this fact is enough to break our hearts, but it should also serve as an example of something that happens all the time in real life.
The same process happens to missionaries and others who have had cross-cultural experiences – often life altering and worldview changing – and then return to their own home culture, family, friends, and church body. Dr. Paul G. Hiebert, noted Christian Anthropologist, professor, and author – whose parents were missionaries, and who himself served as a missionary in India for a time – talks about this phenomenon at length in his book Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Since Dr. Hiebert says it better than I can, let me share from pages 238 & 239 of his book.
Since we [missionaries] live on the borderline between different worlds, we find that no matter where we are, we are not quite at home. We are never fully assimilated into our second culture, but after a while we no longer fit our first culture either, because we have been changed and influenced by our experiences….
As we have seen, missionaries are often unaware of the profound changes that take place within them through their participation in a second culture. We often think of ourselves merely as Americans or Canadians living abroad for a time, and we expect to assimilate back into our first culture with a minimum of adjustment. We are shocked to find that relationships with our relatives and first-culture friends are strained and distant. We expect them to be excited to hear about our many experiences, but after an hour or less, conversation drifts off to local affairs about which we know little – sports, church matters, or family issues. The people at home have their own social order, and we begin to realize that we no longer have a place within it. Old associates do not know what to do with “missionaries on furlough” after we have given a church report or two. In their uneasiness over how to relate to us, they begin to ask when we are going back to “the field.”
This loss of identity in our first culture is not only social. It is also cultural. When we return, we can no longer identify uncritically with our home culture, nation, or even denomination. Consequently, when we criticize them, we so arouse the suspicions of our relatives and friends that they accuse us of disloyalty and even heresy.
Hiebert continues on with very accurate insight and makes many good applications in this section of the book and we would highly recommend the book to anyone who has had cross-cultural experiences – or plans to. Let me be quick at this point to point out that we are in no way whatsoever condemning our home church, nor our friends who make up the body there. On the contrary, we have always felt that we have had listening ears and understanding hearts among the people of our home church. I would say that it has done better than most in welcoming, accepting, and “dealing with” missionaries and those who have had cross-cultural experiences.
It is because of this acceptance and understanding that we are even brave enough to broach this subject and share our hearts with you all about it. Perhaps there are even some reading this who don’t. That is ok, we would encourage you to allow the Lord to work in your heart regarding this matter.
But what application should we make, what is the whole point of sharing this moving movie scene, a quote from this book, and our hearts with you all? It would be our hopes and our prayers that as each one of you encounter missionaries on home assignment or people who have been cross-cultural missionaries or folks who have had a cross-cultural experience of some sort (like a short term missions trip) that you would try and do several things.
First, realize that this person (or couple or family) may have had experiences that have shaken, stretched, and challenged them, and to say the least, have altered their worldviews in a major way. These experiences have also left each of them with varying degrees of physical, emotional, and even spiritual wounds. Each person’s experience will be different, just as we are all individuals.
Second, take the time to really listen to what they have been through – their trials and hardships, their triumphs and victories – even if what they are describing is so foreign to you that you can barely relate. Remember, what they have been through has probably been changing the corner of the world where they have been.
Finally, in whatever way the Lord enables you, help that person to return to life in your church, community, and society as much as possible. Your missionary friend or fellow church or cell group member who has had a cross-cultural experience is not really an alien; given opportunity, understanding, and a safe space in which to be vulnerable, in time they will be able to enter successfully into their home community and culture. Keep in mind that this person is a child of God and a brother or sister in Christ who will continue on into eternity along with us. The same cannot be said about any sports team, current event, or even a giant pumpkin.