Everyone counts the flowers

 

If you buy someone a bunch of flowers in Romania, be careful what message you’re giving.

A conversation with a friend recently accidentally revealed the potential for a major inter-cultural error.

Apparently, in Romania, you give even numbers of flowers for a funeral, and odd numbers for another occasion.  Since every Romanian knows this, they automatically count the flowers to check what your message really is.

This is a good example of ‘culture’, which can be defined as the unspoken shared assumptions about ‘the way we do things round here’.  When people within a given community all know something, they don’t even consider the fact that outsiders might not know it too.  My friend was astounded that I wouldn’t consider it an insult if you gave me a bouquet with 10 roses in it.

Mission workers live in this world of cultural faux-pas, particularly in more inscrutible cultures where it can take decades to learn the subtle nuances, which may even be intentionally kept secret from outsiders.  We can all tell stories of our embarrassment at insulting somebody while trying to be polite.

But it a world where more mission workers are coming to the traditional sending countries of the West, and internationals (particularly students) are brought to us from all corners of the globe, how aware are we of our own unspoken shared assumptions?  How inscrutible do we make our culture to others when we don’t stop to explain why we talk about the weather so much, queue politely, or roll our eyes in exasperation at our neighbour on the bus when somebody else has music on annoying loud but we don’t actually talk to the offender?

One of my great joys is to welcome incoming mission workers and provide some training and cross-cultural orientation for them so that they stand less chance of alienating the British with their brash approaches to cross-cultural interaction.  When I was conducting some research (among people I hadn’t trained) I asked them what one thing they now wish someone had told them when they first arrived in Britain.  The main answer was “I wish I’d known you don’t mean what you say.”  Ouch.

Perhaps it’s time to be more honest, with others and ourselves, if we’re going to help them thrive cross-culturally in our world.  After all, not everybody knows they have to count the petals.

The crack in the wall

Cracked wall25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall was breached.  Few of us alive at the time can forget the emotional scenes of Germans from both sides of the barrier greeting each other freely, without risk of being shot.  The Wall had divided the city since 1961 and was a symbol of the Cold War division of Europe into two ideologically distinct halves.  The fall of the Wall was a dramatic change in European geopolitics which had been unthinkable only a few months before.

Berlin was a microcosm of global issues and the fall of the wall was a turning point in modern European history.  It brought down with it the Iron Curtain, and shortly afterwards the Romanians overthrew their dictator, and other communist regimes fell in eastern Europe.  Within a few years, The Czech Republic and Slovakia had parted company, Yugoslavia had violently fractured and the Soviet Union broken up.  The impact of those events still affect millions of people today – just think of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Berlin itself wasn’t the start.  The roots of the popular overthrow of communist regimes across eastern Europe began with the election of a Polish pope in 1979, which gave a new legitimacy to the Roman Catholic church in Poland.  The trades union Solidarity stood up to the communist government.  Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika.   Prayer meetings started in East Berlin.

Gods_smuggler_headerChristians played a significant part in this movement and continue to do so.  New liberties allowed Christians to meet freely and take the gospel to their neighbours.  Western mission agencies and churches could enter countries freely where only a few years before Brother Andrew had been smuggling in Bibles in his battered VW.  Protestant churches were planted where previously there had been no evangelical witness.  Church buildings were reconsecrated and put back into use.  Eastern Europe began to send its own mission workers to other countries, and today it provides the world with significant theologians and leaders.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time there will be many retrospectives.  The current issue of Vista has an excellent review.  Syzygy is proud to be helping the European Evangelical Mission Association run a conference called Revolutions in European Mission, which will take place in Bucharest in two weeks’ time on the anniversary of the Romanian revolution.  Not only will it review the successes and failures of the last 25 years of mission, but it will ask important questions about how we do mission in the future.  You can read more about it here.

Today a million tourists have taken away most of the Berlin Wall, though its location is remembered in the paving on the Berlin streets where it once stood.  On this important anniversary we rejoice with the people of central and eastern Europe, recognise what it cost many of them to gain their freedom, and pray that they will use it well.