Speaking from Experience

I read this article last week and have been thinking about it ever since. This quote sums it up well.

People who live abroad get broken there…..They have seen poverty and the global realities of politics and their own ideas on these topics have been transformed. They are no longer welcome, when they speak from what they’ve learned, in the places which sent them out.

I appreciate the writer’s blunt assessment of what seems like a common theme in missions. Said missionary leaves with a calling, a purpose, and a genuine zeal. Then, depending on their experience, they come home and begin to question many cultural, relational, and spiritual bonds they thought were secure. Or at least I did.

Although the article emphasizes brokenness and church support, it got me thinking about how brokenness intersects with church culture stereotypes here in the South. And how I didn’t know that I fit into a cultural stereotype until I was exposed to other cultures outside the US.

Growing up, I remember being outwardly submissive, eager to please, and ready to go the extra mile especially for people in authority — a “sweet” girl. (And by “sweet” I mean enthusiastically amiable and compliant. Others may define the term differently). The problem was, the more people affirmed me for being “sweet” the more I equated being “sweet” with being “godly.”

Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. Being “sweet” is generally a beneficial characteristic and one that I’m happy to emulate in many social situations. But I would argue that when elevated too highly in churches, it takes on an appearance of godliness and sets a dangerous precedent for women.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is obviously not an official church doctrine and there are plenty of women and churches who don’t conform to it (and many that go too far the other way, too). But in my experience, it is the preferred characteristic for Christian women in my culture.

To some, calling “sweet” a dangerous precedent may sound ridiculous. To others, well, they understand it all to well. For me, it typically looks like speaking from the cultural expectation of amiability and compliance as opposed to speaking from actual experience and understanding. Of course, that looks different in different situations with varying consequences, but at times, it can do great harm.

I’ll give you an example. Say a woman goes to a third world country as a medical missionary. She sees disease and death, oppression and cruelty on a level that has shattered her emotional, physical, and spiritual stability. She’s risked her life on multiple occasions and possibly has PTSD. Then she comes back to her sending church to “report” — a church, mind you, that still remembers her as a “sweet” Christian girl — what should she say? Honesty about the effect her experience had on her will risk disbelief, rejection, and disapproval (and possibly loss of funding) while conforming to her former self will feel like betraying everything she now understands.

So she hides — because she’s too broken to return to being enthusiastically amiable and compliant and too afraid of relational pain and betrayal to be honest.

Of course, this is an extreme example, but it’s not as uncommon as one would think per the article above. Transitioning from cultural expectations into openness about valid life experiences can be a painful and costly process especially in the church.

Personally, I’ve made plenty of mistakes while trying to break out of this cultural stereotype. I’ve said things too forcefully, overblown non-essential issues, and been unnecessarily argumentative (sorry, Dad!). But so many of us have so much more to contribute than the cultural stereotypes that used to define us. If only we weren’t expected to embrace our former selves and instead were encouraged to embrace our Savior who walks beside us no matter how hard the experience.