Beyond Good Intentions: Loving By Learning

A typhoon stranded a monkey on an island. In a protected place on the shore, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed to the monkey that the fish was struggling and needed assistance. Being of kind heart, the monkey resolved to help the fish.  A tree leaned precariously over the spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey moved far out on a limb, reached down, and snatched the fish from the waters. Scurrying back to the safety of his shelter, he carefully laid the fish on dry ground. For a few minutes, the fish showed excitement but soon settled into a peaceful rest.     – An Eastern parable[1]



Those who care deeply about reconciliation are faced with the fact that our well-meaning attempts at cross-cultural relationships are also quite clumsy.  Indeed, multiethnic church expert Mark Deymaz says that there’s a 100% chance that you will offend someone or be offended by someone in a multiethnic setting, suggesting that clumsiness is a marker of true reconciliation.    Clumsiness reminds us of our imperfections and brings us to our knees in submission to Christ, the head of the body of Christ. It also gives room for Christ to be powerful in the situation - to bring miraculous, reconciliatory change in spite of our clumsiness.


Yes, clumsiness is helpful, perhaps even necessary, in the reconciliation context. However, I also believe that while we may never fully become experts in cross-cultural relationships, we should take steps to become students of cultures.  At most, we will show our culturally-different friends that we care enough about them to pick up a book or attend a seminar to learn more about their unique cultural experiences. At least, we will be able to ask thoughtful questions of our friends (thus saving them the laborious work of teaching us even the most basic things about their own experiences).


My friend Justin always said that “God can use any tool, but you might as well be sharp!”  And sadly, many of us (including the poor fish in the parable above) can attest to the fact that “dull knives” seem deceptively harmless but in fact exact ferocious and lasting pain in cross-cultural contexts.  Let’s do our homework. Let’s go beyond good intentions. Let’s learn about the people we claim to love.


For a simple start, I recommend the following two books.

 A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multi-cultural World by Patty Lane

Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by Sherwood Lingenfelter & Marvin Mayers


[1] Preface in Dave Gibbons, the monkey and the fish: LIQUID LEADERSHIP FOR A THIRD-CULTURE CHURCH. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009, 17.