Monday, October 24, 2011

Learning from a Foreigner

We Americans think we’re so smart. While non-Americans often love the idea of America, they’re not so wild about Americans. They consider us loud and arrogant. You know why? Because Americans tend to be loud and arrogant. God has blessed me with the opportunity to see various places in the world. It’s usually easy to pick out the Americans that are there. They’re the loud ones. They’re the ones who seem to carry a sense of entitlement to whatever they want: attention, service, a better bargain, respect, deferential treatment, an expectation that the whole world should speak English. Nothing personal here, but compared to others in the world, Americans do tend to be loud and arrogant.

And that’s a shame because there is so much we could learn if we’d shut the heck up and listen to those outside of our culture and our country. Travel to Latin America or Africa, and if you’re paying attention you’ll learn that time should be our servant rather than our master. That’s a hard lesson to learn for those of us who live by the clock, on the clock, and with a clock on our wrist when we’re awake and by our bed when we’re asleep. But instead of learning such a helpful truth, we Americans tend to categorize the non-time-conscious as lazy or unfocused or ignorant. And we arrogantly pronounce that judgment as we pop a couple of heart pills and swig our ulcer medicine. We can learn a thing or two from foreigners.

Just yesterday, one of my Russian friends preached in the church that I serve. His name is Pavel Ruseev. He’s really good at Russian but barely speaks a lick of English. He’s a pastor in Russia with a great vision to plant churches in a nation that doesn’t have a church on every corner or even in every town. I met him a couple of years ago in Russia and bonded with him immediately. He’s young, he’s passionate, he’s entrepreneurial, and he’s trying to do God’s work in a culture that’s blowing a 100 mph wind in his face no matter which direction he turns. I don’t see how he does this and keeps his sanity at the same time. Must be God’s grace. Anyway, he preached a very fine sermon yesterday on Jesus’ great commandment to love God and love others. But I don’t want to talk about his sermon; I want to talk about the three things he said that have stood out to him about American culture in the month or so he’s been here.

Pavel said he is amazed at the size of food portions in our restaurants. In Russia, a little dab will do you. In America, load up the plate—“Can you use a bigger serving spoon, please?” “Super-size that for me, would you?” My first thought was that he wouldn’t be quite so surprised about the size of food portions in America if he would just look at the size of so many Americans. We don’t miss many meals and we usually go back for seconds. Geez … who knows what Pavel might have thought had he visited an all-you-can-eat buffet! So many in the world are hungry, and we keep piling it on the plate. Pavel didn’t seem offended by this, more amazed really. But it kind of offended me. We Americans could do better, you know. I could do better. Eat a little less, share a little more, care about the hungry and find ways to help.

Here’s a second thing that stood out to Pavel: Americans do so much of life without having to get out of the car. He said, “You go to a restaurant, and you don’t have to get out of your car to get your food. You go to the bank, and you don’t have to get out of the car to do your business. In Fayetteville, I went to a movie and didn’t have to get out of the car to see it. I was in Arkansas a week-and-a-half before I took my first walk.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there are a few places in America he could even go to church without getting out of the car. Pavel’s right, you know. He lives in a culture that relies on public transportation and shoe leather. Only the more well-to-do can afford a personal car; everybody else walks or takes the bus. And if you take a bus you’ve still got to walk some distance to the bus stop. He talked about his grandmother who used to walk to the nearest church every weekend. It was 45 miles away. She left on Saturday and returned home late Sunday evening. “You do everything from your car,” he said. I’m just glad he didn’t ride with somebody who drove around a Walmart parking lot for ten minutes just trying to get the spot closest to the door. Even though getting plenty of exercise is not a problem for me, his comments made me want to use my body more and my machine less.

Pavel then said that the third thing that stuck out to him about American culture is this: so many, many churches. He had no idea. Oh, he knew America was far more churched than Russia, but he had no idea that there really was a church on almost every corner. This observation struck me at a deep level. On the one hand, I was grieved for Russia and the need for more gospel witness, more churches, more communities of faith for a people so in need of Christ. On the other hand, I was grieved for America: so many churches, so little gospel witness; so many churches, so few devoted disciples of Jesus; so many churches, so little impact on our culture, so little assistance to the poor and those in need—and why? Maybe it’s because we’re more about glitz than God’s glory, more about entertainment than worship, more about self than others, more about “our church” than God’s kingdom. Most American Christians see the church as an organization they can use to make their life a little better rather than as the bride and body of Christ which forms me as a disciple of Jesus and sends me into the world in His name and for His glory. How else can you explain the disparity between the number of churches and the lack of influence? Pavel’s words stirred in me a desire to be a better pastor, to love and serve Christ’s church more deeply and encourage others to do the same.

So forgive me, God, for being an arrogant American who thinks I know more than folks from other cultures. And thank you, Pavel, for teaching me a thing or two about my own culture. I’ve always wanted to be a lifelong learner—even when that learning comes through a foreigner.


  1. Wonder what this says about the American Church?

  2. Great points John. We can all learn from this.