What Difference Does It Make?

Know that experience of meeting people who seem like kindred spirits? Some people just immediately feel like soul mates! Conversation flows easily around topics of substance and mutual interest. I had that experience over the last few days.

Doug and Sheila live in Chicago and were in MSP for the wedding of their son. We share many friends in common and their reputation as missionaries in Mali, West Africa had already gained my admiration. The fact they were parenting three young sons at the same time heightened my curiosity.

A small dinner for six provided a rare opportunity for more personal sharing.  Doug now works with congregations in the U.S. around issues of inter-cultural communication. I was amazed by the wisdom with which he placed conditions on the “Golden Rule.” Isn’t doing onto others as you would have them do onto you one thing all great religions share in common? Didn’t Jesus himself teach this as the very bedrock of a moral life?

But, think about it in the context of Christian mission! Doug helped me see how ethnocentric and self-referential this can become in a cross cultural setting. Instead he proposed something much better, something known as the “Platinum Rule”: Do onto others as they would do unto themselves!

It’s not easy to improve upon Jesus but something tells me he’s thinking, “Gee, wish I had said that!” I believe Jesus taught the Platinum Rule by his actions and way with people. Doug just has a gift for putting a better spin on Jesus’ own words than Jesus did himself.

Conversation with Sheila was equally stimulating. We discovered a mutual affection for Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. Her book An Altar in the World had stopped each of us dead in our tracks. Shortly after returning from a one-week mission trip to Haiti the book pierced my sense of self-congratulatory virtue: “Our community with them is human community,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “yet who could be better equipped to pop the locks on our prisons than people in whom we see nothing of ourselves?”(p. 94)

I recognized that Sheila knows in her bones what Barbara Brown Taylor meant in quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image, for only then can we see past our own reflections in the mirror to a God we did not make up.”(p. 100)  She has lived this with greater intentionality than I probably ever will!

Sheila would be the first to admit her struggles and share how extremely challenging mission service in Mali was for her and for her family. But the fact remains that for ten years – not just my seven days – they labored to live what Barbara Brown Taylor counsels: “The assignment is to get over your self … the assignment is to love the God you did not make up with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and the second is like unto it: to love the neighbor you also did not make up as if that person were your own strange and particular self.” (p. 105)

Does it make a difference to go to Haiti for a week? …to Mali for ten years? Are we ever able to step outside of our own cultural bias long enough to do onto others as they would have us do unto them? Gospel preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor — but also people like Doug and Sheila — nudge us to see the mutual reciprocity essential for any such encounter.

Perhaps the vital question is not about the difference we make in Haiti or Mali. Rather, this is a rare moment when the Gospel challenges us to be more self-referential – what conversion does Mali or Haiti work in us? This alone protects us from being self-congratulatory purveyors of cultural bias or blind-guides looking to form clones of ourselves.

In a topsy-turvy world where the first are last and the last first, the only mission worthy of the Gospel is a life of mutual love and deferential service that reverences the truth that we are indeed kindred spirits, soul mates at the deepest level, equally members of one human family sharing a common home.

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