Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Openness: Welcoming Others Into Your Presence*

**Openness: The First Step of the Pilgrimage

"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Luke 15:2

Openness is defined as the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.

Three important observations the author makes regarding openness:

  1. It is important to note that the author emphasizes that being open toward others is an ability...even if we aren't particularly good at it, we can practice and get better.  
  2. Openness is directed toward people--others like ourselves and those who are unlike us.  
  3. Openness must be expressed in culturally appropriate ways so that others feel both welcomed and secure in our presence.  This will, of course, mean different things in different places.
  4. Practicing openness in a different culture will require that we change.  A good quote about using the term embrace when speaking of welcoming others into our presence..."The will to give ourselves to others and 'welcome' them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying with them in their humanity."
On the cross, Jesus' arms were wide open and he signaled his openness to receive those who would come to him in was not only openness to repentant sinners, however, but also to those wishing to draw near for comfort, peace, refuge, hope and grace.  Therefore, the author points out that openness is grounded in the very nature of God.

Openness is also illustrated in the biblical concept of hospitality, mentioned various times in Scripture.  Hospitality describes an attitude of extending grace to people, including the stranger and those who are different.  It does include inviting people into your home, but the concept is expanded in Scripture to include extending love to those we don't know and who may be quite different from us...being gracious to all people, welcoming them into your presence and making them feel valued.  

The word hospitality is rooted in the word hospital, which Greek roots mean "loving the stranger" and later "house for strangers."  Eventually, the word hospital came be be known as a place of healing...the word hospitality meant connecting with strangers in such a way that healing took place.  Welcoming people just as they are and inviting them to join us just as we are therefore becomes a sacred event reflecting what Jesus did for us--providing us with a healing relationship.

A Western tendency is to quickly categorize people and things.  Westerners like to know where things or people fit because then it is easier to manage them or the relationship.  One way Westerners do this is by using the categories "like me" or "unlike me."  The "like me" category tends to become the "approved" category that Westerners approve and promote.  However, things that fall into the "unlike me" category tend to be viewed with suspicion, distance, critiquing and trying to change it (or you) to look more like me.

Skills for Openness - practicing these skills in your home culture will make them more natural so that when you do encounter or enter in to another culture, you won't need to develop them as much as just find appropriate ways to express them. 

1.  Suspending judgment

Making a judgment about something or someone is the same as coming to a conclusion.  If the conclusion is wrong, however, we have acted unjustly toward the person.  And once we have formed a conclusion, our mind may become closed to new information that might change our conclusion.  Often, once our conclusion is formed, the tendency is to see only the evidence that confirms that conclusion.     

When we are confronted with a new culture and a multitude of differences, we are all prone to judge from our own cultural perspective and therefore likely to see negatively what God sees as merely a difference.  If it is truly only a difference and not wrong, then we should try to stay open and be accepting. 

Developing our ability to suspend judgment helps us to follow God's caution about judging only with extreme caution so as to avoid misjudging another human being and therefore touch Jesus with the same disregard.  Suspending judgment is the first skill we need in order to maintain keeps us from making premature negative judgments and keeps us open to new information that may help us judge accurately.

Steps to avoiding premature negative judgments:
  1. Recognize that you might be making a negative judgment...ask yourself the question, Am I jumping to a negative conclusion?
  2. Stop when you recognize a negative thought or make a negative comment or judgment.  Ask whether you have enough information to be negative about that person...ask whether you should suspend judgment, get more information and get more cultural understanding before making a conclusion. 
  3. Ask yourself whether the observed behavior violates some clear mandate of Scripture or whether it is merely a cultural difference?
  4. If the behavior does, in fact, appear to violate a clear biblical mandate, ask yourself how you could respond so that you still continue to show openness while addressing the situation.  Great wisdom is needed for such a response and should not be done quickly...the correct response will probably not look the same as it would in your own culture.
  5. Unless you a person who has spent many years in the foreign culture, it would be wise to ask for counsel from a mature local pastor or an experienced missionary rather than adressing the issue yourself.
  6. If it turns out that the issue is merely a cultural difference, then remain open and celebrate it as part of God's diversity...try to understand how this difference is part of the larger picture of the culture.
Anytime we evaluate another culture from our own cultural perspective, the other culture will most likely look worse because we naturally favor our own cultural perspective and believe it to be superior.  This kind of ethnocentrism can cause us to assign negative attributes to the things we observe.  James 1:19 admonishes us to be quick to listen and slow to speak...good advice for the cross-cultural context!

2.  Tolerance for ambiguity 

A tolerance for ambiguity means living in uncertainty for periods of time...uncertainty has the tendency to drain our emotional strength and lower our physical capacity.  Most Westerners prefer not to live in uncertainty and manage their lives using PDAs, daily planner and agendas, leaving little room for the unexpected or ambiguous.  Westerners work very hard to avoid uncertainty and to live an ordered, predictable life because the unknown and unexpected are viewed as unwelcome intrusions in the schedule.  Other cultures, however, are very different and may not be as concerned about avoiding the unexpected or ambiguous as Westerners. 

When a person enters into a new culture, therefore, ambiguities abound.  The temptation is to hide or escape, but we can get better at handling the discomforts by keeping an open mind, processing our observations and asking questions.  The ability to tolerate ambiguity will allow us to hang in there when we would prefer to criticize or run away.

3.  Thinking gray

"The essence of thinking gray is this: don't form an opinion about an important matter until you've heard all the relevant facts."  Steven Sample

4.  Positive attribution

Negative attribution thinks the worst about others when there is uncertainty, but positive attribution assumes the best (while not being naive).  Try to develop the ability to intentionally think the best about people and then, if necessary, notice some of the less pleasant things on the side.  Positive attribution is a powerful tool in keeping us open towards others, which allows for a stronger relationship to develop.

A Restriction on Openness

The author throws in a caution at the end of this chapter to emphasize that openness to other cultures does not in any way equal religious relativism.  The challenge in cross-cultural relationships and ministry is to communicate grace to all peoples and yet affirm that the Bible is the authoritative truth of God. 

Our job is to remain open to the cultural diversity and to seek to adjust to the local culture without violating clear biblical principles or a clear mandate of Scripture.  Openness to these cultural differences will naturally lead us into the next step in being a cross-cultural servant, which is Acceptance. 

*Sorry, but you will be hearing a lot from me about this topic of cross-cultural's what I'm really passionate about right now as God works on my heart in this very area.  I hope it will bless you as much as it's blessed me!

**Notes for this post taken from the book Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility by Duane Elmer.  I highly recommend you get this book, by the might change your life!

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