I try to cultivate a cheerful, accessible demeanor.
In public, if you make eye contact with me, I’ll smile at you. If you smile back, sometimes I’ll offer a “hi” or “how are you” as I go by. Part of it’s innate; I think I’m a pretty friendly person. And part of it I trace back to elementary school, when I was so caught up in daydreaming once that a local parent, Mr. M, wondered why I wasn’t smiling and told me people might think I was unhappy if I didn’t.
Imagine my amusement, then, when I was reading recently about differences in international cultures and learned that in Russia, smiling at strangers the way I do is generally frowned upon. I’ll let Marina Koren of the National Journal explain:
When Leigh asked a native [why Russians don’t smile in public], the man told him, “In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people — and rich people don’t walk on the street.”
For Russians, a smile in public is not the polite expression that Americans reflexively offer strangers on the street. A smiling person must have a good reason for doing it, and it should be obvious what that reason is. When people smile without hesitation — for no reason — Russians find those grins artificial or insincere. And they think those people have a few screws loose.
The article goes on to explain that Russians do smile, genuinely – when they are at home and happy, and among friends or family. But the article (which is amusing and offers a history for this particular Russian cultural tic) made me think about the differences between cultures, between countries…and between Christians, too.
I mentioned earlier I’m a cheerful, accessible person – or at least that I try to be. I come from a church and a family of pretty cheerful, accessible people. But not every believer is the same. Some Christians are naturally more serious, and don’t smile as often. Some Christians have what my mother once referred to, amusingly, as “tart” personalities. Some believers are acerbic, with bone-dry senses of humor. Some are brisk and business-minded. Some are silly and goofy and love puns. Some people are huggers. Others aren’t.
Reading that Russia article reminded me that it’s easy for us to reflect our own assumptions, ideas, and personalities onto Christianity as a whole and onto other believers, too. It’s simple, in other words, for us to assume that other believers do or should act just like us because they love the same God we do and are blessed in the same way as we are. I love to hug people, we think, so who wouldn’t? Or happy people always smile at strangers, we think, so who wouldn’t? But that’s not true.
I smile at people I see in the street. Maybe a Russian Christian wouldn’t. And maybe I differ in a million different ways from all the other believers in America who have a wide variety of upbringings, cultures, and habits, who were raised in multiple environments in multiple ways. But that’s the glory of God’s creation and His purpose.
In Acts 13:1, there is an amusing one-off little sentence that cracks me up every time I read it:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
So we have the encourager, Barnabas. We have the former Christian-killer, Saul/Paul. Some scholars have theorized that the Simeon mentioned here was Simon of Cyrene (this remains uncertain) and others have theorized that because of the “Niger” nickname he was a dark-skinned Jew. Manaen, it seems, might have been a courtier, and some scholars have placed him as Herod Antipas’ foster-brother.
Could you think of a more unlike gathering of believers? Could you think of a more disparate collection of identities, personalities, and habits? Imagine the personality clashes, the misunderstandings, and how odd some of their behaviors and histories must have seemed to each other! And yet here they all are, about God’s work: that is the grand story of Acts.
And it is our grand story, too.
Every Christian has a set of beliefs, aspirations, ideals, and truths in common. Every believer has a common mission, and common commands. We share a Savior. But our personalities, our habits, and the way we go about loving and living in Christ is as different and unique as each one of us.
May we praise God for that, even when it results in misunderstandings, confusion, or differences of opinion, and may we praise the way it opens up His word to the whole world.