Grace While Global

“Faith has brought you to where you are, but grace sustains you.”

 

I was 18 when I wrote this quote in the margin of a notebook; shotty cursive, with a date written next to it. I didn’t identify who wrote it, or note why it was of importance at the time, but the words stuck with me. As an opener, this phrase can (and probably will) turn some away. I’m okay with that.

“….another wannabe blogger ranting about religion, trying to convert the masses… ugh…. “

Not quite. I’m  hardly one to preach. I make mistakes, every single day, and I am certainly not a beacon of perfection or example to mirror. Nelson Mandala put it well when he said “I am not a saint- unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

That being said, there are two types of people in this world:

Those who slide into your DM’s, and those who crash into your DM’s.

…..I crash. Forget “hey, what’s up?” Let’s skip straight to the substance. 

 It’s easier not to talk about it.

It is far easier to submit to passive silence than engage in open dialogue. Faith….relationships….politics….the list of topics that yield vulnerability is a lengthly one.

But, here’s the thing:

…it was never supposed to be easy.

If our opinions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings were never tested and tried, would we fully understand them? Would we fully understand ourselves? The answer, I believe, is no.

So, let’s talk. Shall we?

Grace is a term- an action, if you will- that’s always been in my realm of thought. However, living abroad has challenged me to explore the concept in new depth.  While  America is often described as a “melting pot,” the UK presents diversity in the contains of much closer proximity.  The University of Sussex alone boasts a prayer room specifically for Muslim women, Catholic mass every Sunday, a Buddhist “Mindfulness and Meditation” society, and a CoExist Society….to name a few. There is an outlet for every perspective and practice. In my experience, British university places genuine emphasis on religious diversity and inclusion in a way that I cannot truthfully say I’ve previously experienced- at least, in an educational setting. This is ironic, because the country does not have separation of church and state. America does (or at least, we think we do…..the line is a blurry one.)

I’ve always identified as a Christian. However, the ways in which I practice my faith have varied overtime. I grew up and received confirmation as a Catholic. As a teenager, I identified as a non-denominational Christian. When I went away to university, I attended a contemporary baptist church. This weekend, I’ll return to the Catholic parish to attend stations of the cross in honor of Good Friday.  Traditionalists might argue that this is a track record of confusion; the path of an individual who doesn’t really know what they want, or really know their God. But, I beg to differ. For me, it’s been a track record of growth. With every experience, I’ve met unique individuals whom have brought me closer to Him. I’ve witnessed- first hand- different ways of worshiping the same Lord, and come to find we’re not all that different. In moving to England, my beliefs have continued to evolve. My time living internationally has introduced me to a new way of practice.

I suppose you could call it cross-cultural Christianity.

In some settings, and when reasonable, the cross-cultural Christian can (and absolutely should) speak freely.

Picture this:

You’re in a small group seminar discussion. The majority of your classmates are Buddhist Chinese  students whom, while they can write in English well, often struggle to verbally speak it in the classroom setting. To your left is a classmate whom regularly wears a traditional Muslim hijab. To your right is a fellow American who probably could offer something up in the discussion, but rarely does. Your professor assigns a feature piece written by him (nothing academics love more than the sound of their own words, lemme tell yah), addressing the relationship between silence and religion. It’s an insightful piece. His portion of the column is from the perspective of an Atheist, challenging the Christian point of view. You read it with an open mind and an open heart.

“Why do religious people crave silence? What is it about it that appeals to this demographic, do you think?”  The professor asks. No one speaks. He looks you straight in the eye.

“Well….when it comes to sounds, we all have pre-conceived notions, even if we don’t intend to. We’ve been innately conditioned to associate certain sounds with certain ideas, people, or places….and silence? Silence is like a blank canvas. It’s entirely what you choose to make it, and I think that’s why it’s so appealing to the religious. Faith is a personal thing, and so is silence. For me,  that’s the connection. It’s an opportunity to reflect without being influenced by anything or anyone else. Just you and the God you worship. ” You respond.

“But religion isn’t personal. It’s collective.” He fires back, instantly.

You look around the classroom, waiting for someone else to chime in.  Feel free to speak anytime now, guys, you think to yourself nervously. The room falls silent, ironic, considering it’s the discussion topic at hand. Your professor doesn’t break his gaze, and waits for you to respond. It’s clear that this is not just about academia; for lack of better term, there’s beef.  This guy sees the discussion as something much bigger. He knows you identify as a Christian, and he’s now put you in the hot seat.

“In ways, yes. Community always has an element of collectivity to it, that’s natural. But religion can very much be individualistic. The relationship that I have with my God is very, very much a personal thing. I don’t think anyone else could wholly define it but I. We don’t all believe the same things, and even if we do, it’s not always in the same light. That’s what makes it personal. That’s the variety of the human experience. That’s what makes humanity so incredible. ”  You then attempt to crack a rather awkward, untimely joke in a desperate attempt to thaw the tension.

….I was the student the professor challenged.

And in this particular setting, it was all about dialogue. A spirited debate later, we both left the classroom with mutual respect, and a greater understanding of one and other. He proceeded to give me first marks on a 2000 word mid-term paper I wrote the day of submission….with limited sleep….nursing a cup of coffee a barista gave me for free because I looked a hot mess when I walked in with my backpack {…I don’t always gamble, but when I do, I go all in?} So, I like to think we’re cool with each other. In this situation,  dialogue was both appropriate and necessary. However,  this is not always the case.

In my first 20 years as a Christian, my efforts to talk the talk outweighed the importance of walking the walk. It wasn’t until I made the move to the UK that the tables turned.

Here, I am surrounded by individuals of diverse faith and background. The cross-cultural Christian recognizes that, in an international setting, actions can sometimes speak louder than words. While it may not always the right time to speak, it is always the right time to act. It’s always the right time to give and love unconditionally, regardless of difference in opinion or lifestyle. I’ve come to find that living with intent, love, and light can be a powerful method for spreading the word of God, without ever speaking a word.

Heightened understanding and acceptance of other faiths, cultures, and opinions is a staple in my practice as a Christian….living abroad has only affirmed to me that cultural awareness and tolerance is everything in a world that is dying for more of it; literally and metaphorically.

I spend an hour each week reading up on different Sub-Saharan regions of Africa, in preparation for a hopeful Peace Corps interview in the Fall. There are many outlets where smoke and mirrors can get you by; essays, auditions….Tinder. [plot twist: I took those pictures when I was 16 years old…..]  However, it is my understanding that this is not a setting where one can, or should for the matter, play pretend. The topic of this post has been on my mind for some time, so this afternoon I chose to do my weekly research on genocide associated with religious conflict. As we speak, religiously motivated conflict occurs regularly in Central Africa Republic, amongst many other locations throughout the world. My heart aches reading these stories. This hate- this blatant intolerance for diversity on an international scale-  is not a reflection of the God that I know. Knowledge of these crisis’, coupled with my experiences living in England, fuel a fire; a desire to radiate love in the way He would, even if only on a small scale.  I fall short more than I’d like to admit, and I sin every single day, but I do try.

The cross-cultural Christian recognizes that respecting and accepting others opinions and beliefs is not synonymous with denying God’s grace. If anything, it’s a method for emulating it.

 When you step out of your comfort zone and into an environment rich in diversity, and strip away the fear and hesitancy, it all comes down to one thing:

Grace.

It’s not always realistic or reasonable to walk into a room and start spitting bible verses at the crowd, but it is always appropriate to walk into a room and greet others with a smile and a hug. If it’s appropriate to speak, lovely. However, gestures of kindness can be equally as powerful and words. Wherever you are in the world, whomever your with, and whatever you’re doing….all roads lead to grace.

Of the 7 months I’ve spent in England, this is the most valuable lesson I’ve taken away thus far.  As we celebrate the Holy Week in preparation for the Easter holiday, I am thankful for the opportunity to live abroad, the ways in which it’s added strength to my faith, and the lessons I have and will continue to learn.

 

 

xx,

Shelbs

 

"But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." Romans 11:6

“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Romans 11:6

 

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