“For the Americans, a special surprise,” our waiter promised, and then vanished.
My husband and I looked at each other in confusion. It was our second night in Prague, and we’d just been seated at our table. I wondered what the special surprise might be. All around us, different languages drifted into the air: Czech mostly, but also Spanish, and Russian, and Japanese. It was our first time in a major European city and we were already surprised by the diversity.
Our waiter returned. With a flourish, he set down a glass in front of each of us and filled them with water. My husband and I exchanged a glance. Was this the surprise? How could water be a surprise? Perhaps sensing our confusion, the waiter laughed. “No, no,” he explained, then produced a small silver dish and set it on the table between us.
It had been meticulously filled with five ice cubes.
With equal delicacy, he produced a small silver spoon and nestled it into the dish. “For your water!” he proclaimed. “Because although we do not drink it this way, we have learned Americans like it.”
We burst out laughing.
It was such a small difference between cultures, and yet so profound. It’s true; in most places we’ve visited in Europe, ice isn’t the norm. But in many places in America you’d have to beg the waiter to bring you a glass of anything without it. And there are other differences. Dinners run longer in Europe, sometimes lasting for hours; Americans often eat and run. Coke in Ireland tastes too artificially-sweetened to my American palate. Czech McDonald’s appears to make their burgers with actual beef. I see more smokers overseas…but more oversized fountain drinks at home. Every aspect of culture differs – not just between Europe and America, but between all countries and continents.
I felt it when, during my travels, an Australian complimented me on my “charming” accent – though I never before then perceived of myself as having an accent at all. (Being unable to speak a country’s language is enormously humbling and perspective-changing). I felt it when I was crammed shoulder to shoulder with strangers in a train bound for Kutna Hora. I felt it when I read that Russians eschew smiling at strangers (which they perceive as insincere) and instead save those gestures for friends and family. I felt it when I read descriptions of church services in China and Africa that were wildly different from my own.
All of this reminds me that my Christianity is indelibly marked by my culture. I grew up with Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art and Nearer My God To Thee. I grew up with devotionals and authors like Josh McDowell and Max Lucado. I grew up with youth groups and youth trips and godly courtship and pictures of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus. I grew up with nativities and Christmas pageants and church Easter egg hunts. And I grew up with a history, too: a history of the church in America, historical references to the works of God’s children in my country.
But many people in many other places grew up with a different Christian culture. They have different books and songs, different ways of worship. Different images of Christ. The history they have is not the history I have. As Philip Yancey writes in a discussion of Endo Shusaku and Japanese Christianity, “Christians in the West are raised on inspiring stories of martyrs advancing the cause: ‘The blood of Christians is the seed of the church,’ said Tertullian. Not so in Japan, where the blood of martyrs was nearly the annihilation of the church” (source). Japanese Christians approach their faith through a different historical lens, through the history of Christianity in Japan, not America. That passage helps remind me that my approach to God’s word and to His grace has been influenced by the world around me – and that the same is true for those who live in other countries and cultures. The trappings of Western Christianity that appeal to me aren’t something that others have experienced nor even necessarily something that they would desire.
There is a lot of beauty in that.
God’s family is big. The ways we worship Him and serve Him and live for Him will vary from culture to culture and country to country – our lived journey of faith is, in some ways, inseparable from the culture in which we were raised and with which we identify. The important thing to remember is that our experience within the Christian faith isn’t the only experience nor necessarily the best – that we have a lot to teach each other and to learn from each other, and that what we share in common eclipses whatever our insignificant differences might be. Nor does Christianity have one particular sort of face: it is a faith for all peoples, everywhere, wildly diverse people united in one common cause.
No image of that is more striking than the one in Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
As I move forward in my own Christian walk, it’s my pleasure to know that out there in the world – in different timezones, in worship services that are either quieter or more boisterous than the ones I am used to, in regions where the history of Christianity is very different – other believers too are living and working and loving. And I pray that God continues to open my eyes to that, to keep me mindful of it, and to make me grateful for it. May I remember always that my Christian experience is not the only one; may I remember to value the lives and experiences of my brothers and sisters whom I have not yet met.