Travelling the world to share…

“I shared the gospel with someone tonight as I travelled through China”

Ah, good, I guess.  Well done!

There are a few reasons why I’m never generally jumping up and down at such statements evangelism while travelling.

Why?

Well by “sharing the gospel” people from my circles generally mean this:

“whatever short summary of the good news they have rote-learnt from memory and just divulged over someone in six sentence summary format”

For everyone that will have limitations:

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  1. Cultural

For many westerners, they come from cultures which delight in direct communication.  Does my bum look big in this?  Well, yes, yes it does (ok, that’s an extreme but…).  “Telling it straight” to someone will evoke a sense of truth and in many, pride.

But to those who do not come from a “direct” culture, they are often deeply offended at such directness and pressing them to respond individualistically to a set of western-orientated presuppositions.  Particularly when it is in front of a group – the honour of their intelligence, worldview, friendships and whole way of thinking could be at stake.  It makes them recoil from even considering what the person is talking about, because the means embodying it is so shameful.

2. Theological

Many protestant cultures also are shaped by a guilt/innocence worldview where we describe our short summary in terms of God creating us, us doing wrong, feeling guilty, Jesus being innocent, Him taking our punishment, dying on a cross to make us forgiven and legally right before God, and Him coming back again for those who how have His righteousness.  Other western ways of sharing things might be along the lines of “Two ways to live” or “Four Spiritual Laws” or others such thinking.

But what about someone who has never thought too much about guilt or innocence, but is steeped everyday in the shame of not living up to familial, social, and cultural expectations or is craving the honour of the elder person they really respect?  That guilt/innocence presentation will have completely not connected with them, most likely.  In fact, it might take them one step closer to thinking God has little to do with their life and problems.

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TRAPPED!  In our cultural way of thinking.

Despite both of these, I would want to make two push back points:

Don’t let these negative experiences of short pithy gospel presentations push you into silence.  So often I can be so judgemental of how others do things, that I never speak, or never thank God that He uses (and has used) me even in my frailest of moments and stupid actions, to work for His glory.  Surely that is the Bible’s emphasis and should be our emphasis.

Gospel summaries are fab!  And I encourage all my students to learn one or more, so that they can snappily summarise what they think and believe.  It helped me spiritually, more than I’ve ever been able to share it!  But like anything in life, they’re not the golden bullet.  They all have weaknesses, all fail to convey lots, and depending on who you’re standing before can be (my old supervisor used to say,) like:

Frodo in the Lord of the Rings coming into an Ethiopian café when the football is on TV.  He shouts “Come Celebrate with me!!  The ring that was lost is now found and we are on our way again to Mount Doom where it can be destroyed and we can all be free!  Join us on our journey.”  To the Ethiopians, they have either no concept (or twisted ones) of all of those words/phrases, haven’t a clue what weird creature is excitedly speaking to them about this strange thing, and wouldn’t know what the journey looks like anyway.  And so they go back to watching football on the TV.

You see, Christ’s Lordship cannot be communicated in six sentences!  The everlasting and infinite God has chosen (in His wisdom) to reveal Himself using the frailty of human words, spoken into a particular culture at a particular time.  He has done it at that length and meant to do it so, because He knows best.

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And it’s wonderful.  The fact that He is Lord means that regardless of what I am talking about or doing, that a gospel of His Lordship is hovering over it.  I am as close to His Lordship as I am talking about brushing my teeth, as I am when I share my six sentence gospel summary.  Because ultimately He is Lord over teeth-brushing!  I am either doing it for His glory, or I am doing it from duty (good or bad) or legalistically doing it out of service to another god.  He is returning to bring us to a land where no decay or tooth-brushing will be needed!  Cheesey, but an example of how close things are to everyday situations that people can relate to!

So what does this look like in reality?

Well, let’s get this straight.  I don’t want to say that we must learn every culture and their way of speaking and acting, so that we become experts to all cultures.  Some gifted evangelists may think that’s what being “all things to all men” (2 Cor 9) is about but I think I disagree.  It’s impossible.  You can’t expect everyone to have cultural awareness of every culture.  Perhaps to specialise in knowing one cultural background, maybe.  But not that everyone will master everything.  Why do I say this?

Well, in me moving to Cork, I was moving from a British guilt/innocence culture to an Irish shame/honour culture (not to the same extent as Middle Eastern, but still massively moreso than British).  Now I have one of two choices: stay living in guilt/innocence culture, or try and get used to shame/honour culture.  And whichever I choose, I will alienate others and resonate more deeply with some.  It’s a choice that take a lot of time normally.  But I can’t live out both worldviews, unless I segregate relationships and all of my life.  I can be culturally aware of the clashes, but I cannot live both.

I am naturally inculturated.

I cannot sit above culture.

I am human.

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Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (Book review, IVP Academic, 2016)

I sat in the Christian Union (non-denominational campus ministry) missions committee meeting in my own house, just like every month of every semester.  But now, more than ever before, it all made sense.  This is why people were acting like this!

We had begun at 7pm with a meal.  I say “began” rather loosely.  Because at 7pm, the only one who’d shown up was the British student.  The Irish trundled in a little later, bringing a Germanic student with them (who didn’t know the way).  By 7.50pm, we were settling down to tea, coffee and dessert, and I was mightily impressed at how quickly things were moving.

Until the Germanic lady startled the room and drew everyone quiet:

“When are we starting the meeting?”

Many puzzled faces.

“I mean, I will have to leave soon” she said.

“When do you need to leave?” I asked.

“Uh, I guess pretty soon”.

And so with that knowledge, I “started” the meeting.  The fact that this was the first meeting of a committee, and that she didn’t know anyone yet, didn’t strike her as needing all this social faff before the meeting “proper”.  Nor did being in a culture that hugely values people, connections and relational life.

“Say who you are, what you study, where you’re from and why you wanted to be on the missions committee.”

And so we went round the room.  Much to the visible distress of the British, the answers to why they wanted to be on missions committee, were nothing to do with mission!

“I thought it’d be good craic” (x2)

“I wanted to be more involved in the community here in CU” (x3)

“Er, well, I think mission is great, and God has commanded it, so I want to reach the campus with the good news of Jesus” he said.

Silence.

Before the final person quickly took up the reins and said that they were there for the craic too.  Phew.  Awkward serious moment resolved.

Shortly afterwards, the Germanic lady got up and left.

“What was up with her?” said one of the Irish students, there for the craic.  “Is she not keen on this whole missions week thing?”


Culture is a baffling thing!  And the fact that the Bible was written by humans in a particular culture may not appear to immediately help the issue.  That evening to look at Acts 17, we first needed to see what culture the author was writing into.  Then from there, we needed to assess what culture we sit in, and then hardest of all, make the bridge from one culture to the other.

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The simplest of tasks like walking past a graveyard, becomes a complicated action when you’ve people from different cultural frameworks there!

The tricky thing about culture is that we all think we’re Biblical.  Because we read scripture through our own lenses.  Nigerians will always declare the Irish to not be passionate about faith at all (as you’ll see in this interview here).  British will always find the Irish not to be direct enough about an urgent proclamation of the gospel.  Americans will find the relational way of going about things to be the most unproductive, nepotistic way of doing life possible.  And those from Germany find the Irish to be quite two-faced…saying “yes” to things and yet not actually appearing to do them, or to turn up at all.

Are the Irish just a horrible bunch of people, in a culture seething with horrid practices?

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Because no Irish sign will ever directly tell you to do something….without at least making a joke about it.

Well, given I’m an Irishman writing this blog, I guess you may anticipate my response.  But this book (yes, we finally are getting to it), is one that will help anyone thinking through these questions or similar ones.

Jayson Georges and Mark D Baker play on years of experience of ministering within shame-honoUr (I insist on the proper spelling, sorry!) cultures.  The whole book is out to persuade us that there are 3 paradigms for culture:

  1. Fear and Power (Often thought to be African, animistic settings with witchdoctors)
  2. Shame and Honour (often considered to be Eastern settings)
  3. Guilt and Innocence (often considered to be Western settings)

And that none of them are “correct” or necessarily better than the other.  Here’s one chart to illustrate how we each think poorly about others who think differently:

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The book weaves in helpful stories from real life, solid handling of Biblical scriptures and texts, and very helpful nuances to their argument.  Here’s 3 things that I found helpful about that.

Firstly all their work was Biblical and opened my eyes (who has been theologically reading endless amounts) to new insights, fresh ways of thinking and things that warmed my heart about the God we serve.  Seeing outside of my own perspective is refreshing and paradigm shifting.  I’ll never be able to look back again.

Secondly their application to culture was very refreshing.  Their principles of what “shame/honour” culture looks like never stayed abstract.  They tell story after story of very helpful tales, all of which resounded with me and made sense.

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Up on top of a mountain with other international students, and I was interrupted by an Irish Aviation Authority tannoy system, telling us that the Gards had been called (in order to shame us into leaving).  The fact that the Gards had clearly not been called, is besides the point.

And thirdly, they always gave caveats to their arguments and never try and broad brushstroke everything.  Because “western” culture is not all guilt-innocence related.  In fact, in Ireland, according to those I’ve had do their test online here, Ireland is a good bit more shame orientated than guilt.  They also made the case that everyone will have some kind of mixture of values, and that it’s impossible to be all things to all men.  The more one delves into a particular framework and lives by it, the more alienating one will be to those of other cultures.  Try and stay separate from everything?  Impossible!  And you’ll only run the rick of not resonating with anyone.

This book is a fantastic point to delve deeper into this key topic, and those around me in Cork will know that it’s impacted me enough that they’ve had to endure me excitedly giving them a running commentary on culture in every gathering we’ve entered for the last few weeks.  However, if you’ve never thought about it before, this will be heavy going and you may prefer to start with reading chapter one, and then seeing for a few months whether you see what they’re talking about, as you look on life with others.

Travelling for abortion: one story, one lady, two lives?

I’ve tried to write this several times closer to the conversations I had with these two ladies, but each time I clammed up and tears were welling in my eyes.  And if it’s been like that for me, I don’t know what it is like for these ladies.

With that in mind, I know how tempting it would be to agree with many of those I met on Saturday at the “March for Repeal” (to repeal the 8th amendment, which bans abortion in most circumstances in Ireland, outside of when the mother’s life is endangered) who asked me why I was vocalising my male views, on a female topic.  And if it were simply that, perhaps both “sides” of the protest could tell their male attendees to go home and shut up.

But I stayed.

It wasn’t easy to stay.  I’d had a long week of work, the sun was out for the first time this summer (in any meaningful way), and there were plenty of places I would rather have been that standing in a 200 strong crowd of angry, yelling protesters, who were chanting things from the depths of their being against what I considered precious to me.  Compared to those who had come down to protest for Repeal from Limerick as they thought this would be a “fun day out”, I was out of my mind.

Repeal rally

And it’s not because I’m “one of those” people either.  You know the ones who love to get their megaphone out and make their understanding of truth be known to everyone, at any opportunity?  I was helping a UCC society new committee this week do some teamwork training, and to help them understand their roles within a team.  And from the survey they all filled in (Belbin), I didn’t score highly on any of the assertive questions about making my views known in a divergent group.  Perhaps I’m blind to my own ways.

What was I doing there?  Displaying signs like these, and saying very little:

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The group I was with that day also endorse the use of graphic imagery to inform people, as they would believe that statistics don’t hit home “the nature of genocide”.  But before you voice your disgust, I wonder if you could give me a few seconds more and listen in to one of many conversations I had that day with “Eilidh”?

Firstly I should say that we were their legally, having forewarned the Gards about our being there, and using EU legislation to allow us to express what we wished.  We have a code with all those who work with us, that we’re there to stand silently and engage with those who wish to engage in meaningful ways and seek to love those around us, however we can.  “Eilidh” was one of those.

“Our bodies, our choice!
Our bodies, our choice!
Our bodies, our choice!  Our bodies, our choice!

Pro life, that’s a lie,
you don’t care if women die!
Pro life, that’s a lie,
you don’t care if women die!”

“Excuse me, I was just wondering if you know that women are protected under Irish law in all circumstances and can have a termination of pregnancy if their life is at risk?”

“That’s a lie.  What happened to Savita, or that lady flung in a mental home for wanting an abortion this last week?”

“Savita was medical malpractice (nothing to do with abortion) and the most recent case of the lady going into care was not because she wanted an abortion.  It was standard medical procedure, and she also happened to be pregnant at the time.”

E angrily, “Why are you even here?  Just to show hatred for women?”

“No, I’m just wanting to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, like these ones” (pointing to large picture of aborted fetuses)

“But they’re all fake images.  Fake news.  Aborted fetuses aren’t like that.”

“I’m afraid not, they’re very real images”

“But, but…but, they can’t be.  Are you sure?”

I nod, but barely a second passes as she gulps and interrupts.

“But I bet you don’t care for women who choose to keep a child.  What do you know about anything like that?  You just campaign for something and then leave women to suffer.”

“Well, no, actually.  I campaign for something and then try to live sacrificially towards it.  I run community spaces in the city to help a diverse range of people, and am involved with others who give financially, give accommodation, give of their time, and surround women who want to keep their children with a loving community of supportive people.  In fact, we even support those who’ve had abortions, to mentally process things.”

“Oh…..that’s beautiful.  Well, I wish that had been made known to me when I was 16 and was forced by my family to go for an abortion”, she said, breaking down in front of me.

Then she turned away, ashamed of her tears, back to the yelling crowd, full of fear.

I once again returned to silence, pondering just how many others like her were in the crowd.  Another I chatted to that day was angry, simply because she had come back from an abortion a few hours earlier, and needed somewhere to vent.

People’s experiences can change them.  Change us for the good, but also change us for the worse.  It can blind us all to logic.  And logic in the light of experience can seem so cold, so brutal.  Unless you have a warm community around you, taking away any shame and willing to unconditionally support you.  I’ve linked some places you can go if you want to experience that.

I hope the table below makes it clear that there aren’t any reasons to endorse abortion, unless you are also willing for infanticide in the same cases, as pro-choice ethicist Peter Singer so rightly has argued.

What makes a human

What about rape?  What about fatal foetal abnormalities?  What about the hard cases?

Well they are hard.  And they’ll never become anything but that.  They are also rare.  But so this doesn’t get any longer, perhaps I could point you to find answers here and here, and further support below:

  • Gianna Care – for any type of support
  • Rachel’s Vineyard – for support post-abortion
  • WomenHurt.ie – Irish women who have walked in your shoes before you
  • Your local Students for Life group in Cork (or near you) are at the main gates of the college once a week and are willing to chat.  Coffee is on us!
  • Local churches like this one and this one have provided finance, accommodation, community, support and much more for those Students for Life Cork have met who want to continue with their pregnancy.  Many others would do similar.

10 top tips for souk bartering in North Africa

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So many people get exasperated by a day in the souks, haggling in a different culture, and trying to negotiate a shame/honour culture, whilst having no experience in it.  Here’s a few top tips I’ve gleaned from locals over the years:

  1. Relax.  You’re there for the cultural experience and the fun of a holiday in another culture.  Only take what money with you that you’d be happy spending, and then you’ll not be too disappointed at over-spending!
  2. It’s not a competition (well, for most of us).  I’m super-competitive about everything in life.  I like to think I never settle for second-best.  But if you do that here, you’ll always live in the past with regrets and mentally will never be free to enjoy the day.  Let go of the thought of trying to get the world’s best ever deal.  If you’ve got a price that you think is worth it, accept it and enjoy it.
  3. The more you look like a tourist, the more you’ll be charged tourist prices.  The more you sound like a tourist, the same.
  4. Try to avoid the main branches of the souk off the main square/walkway.  They see hundreds of tourists a day, know every trick in the book and often charge more than those who see fewer tourists on the back streets and winding alleyways.
  5. If you see something you like, try bartering for it at a few stalls (not within eyesight of each other) to see what the best price is you can get, and then start with that price to drive a hard bargain at a final stall.IMG_0171
  6. A shame/honour culture dictates how things play out in the souks.  If the seller can tell you a long sob story and persuade you of its reality, he maintains honour and gets a good price (even if the story is not true).  If he tells you that you can look and not buy, he will maintain his honour but of course will draw you in for the sale with treating you admirably while you are in the stall (honouring you).
  7. You most likely are from a guilt culture and are thinking whether the things the seller says are true or not.   His sob stories convict you of guilt (it would be cruel not to buy).  His chat, winsomeness and maybe even offer of mint tea mean that your heart is feeling guilty by walking out on him without a purchase.  You take every word at face value.
  8. Depending on how much you believe you can or should play along with the shame honour culture, have some of your own stories up your sleeve for why you aren’t able to pay such high prices!  If you want to stick to a stricter guilt model of ethics, think of ones that are entirely truthful and feel guilt-free!  (see example below)  If you haven’t got a good price to start with, you’re unlikely to be able to wrestle it back mid-interchange, but it can be fun to try!
  9. If you’re outside of a tourist area, you’re more likely to be offered very reasonable prices, and driving them as low as you can may even not be the most friendly thing to do – remember you’re the rich western person (probably in the world’s top 1% richest) on holiday in a place where many aren’t so fortunate.
  10. If you really get infuriated by not knowing prices, most tourist markets have many stalls with fixed prices – just look out for things with price labels…you normally can’t barter in these.

And here’s one example for you!

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Seller (S): “Hello my friend!”

(I ignore English in the souks to get better prices and more real exchanges)

(S) “Bonjour Monsieur!”

(I respond by looking uninterested but willing to browse.  All interactions are then in French or Arabic, but here written in English)

(S):  “Look, no buy for you today.  Just come here”

Me: “Oh but your things are so beautiful.  I must of course look.”

“Yes, they are very authentic products made here in [insert place] by my family for decades.  If you tell me what you want, I will get one’s which are better than the tourist ones I have for sale here”

“Ah wow, your family must feel honoured that you continue to sell these things.  They are beautiful.”

(I browse for a few minutes, finally spotting what I fancy)

“I love the pattern of this.  So intricate and it blends so well!”

“Yes, that is one of our best things.  If you would like it, I can offer you a special Ramadan price”

“You are very kind.  The last time I bought one of these I got it for a very good price too, so that would be wonderful.” (getting the upperhand by making him nervous I know the pricing structure, which, so often is true, because I’ve been round all the stalls)

“Well for a great American friend like you, I will only charge 300 Dirhams”

“Oh, I’m not a rich American.  In my country, we do not have as much money and it is not as important to us.”

“Ah, so you must be English.  I will do a better price for you English because I like that.  People first, money after.  Perhaps 200 Dirhams for you then?”

“Oh 200 Dirhams is a lot for me, because I am not English.  I am a poor Irishman.  The English have oppressed us for 700 years and colonised us.  You must know what that feels like, no?”

(He smiles) “Ah, I see.  Good Irish price then.  What would it be for you?”

“Oh probably 60 Dirhams”

“60 Dirhams?!  I could not even do that for an Irishman, or else my family would not live”

“Well, how about 80 Dirhams then?”

“90 Dirhams and you will have had the best deal in all of [insert place name]”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, if I buy two of these, I’ll pay you 160 Dirhams and we’ll both have a great deal!”

“You barter like a Berber, my friend!  But I cannot take lower than 90 each”

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Such bartering style even must be deployed in the simplest of exchanges on the beach or anywhere!

(I look sad and start to go towards the door and signal my apology)

“Then I must thank you but leave, because I only have 150 Dirhams left to buy anything today, apart from some bread for lunch.  Look, that is all I have”

“My friend, do not tell anyone, but I will take it.”

“Thank you.  You are a generous man, and you should be proud of your family heritage.  These are the best in [insert place name].

*buys product*

Marrakech, souks and disgruntled tourists

“I’m never going back there again”

“I wouldn’t go there for more than 2 days”

“They were so aggressive”

“I felt so overwhelmed all the time and unable to escape”

Comments you wouldn’t expect to find on a holiday brochure for Marrakech, Morocco, but nonetheless ones that were the expressed sentiment as soon as Easyjet had shut the aeroplane door to Manchester and the tourist may as well have been back on his home turf again.

And yet they weren’t angry comments.  More just baffled.  Because the next sentence would always be one that would reaffirm that they did really enjoy their trip.  But did they?  Was this sadistic enjoyment?

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Why don’t I set the scene?  It’s 45 degrees celsius and you’ve headed out for the day in Marrakech.  Dressed in as little as possible for a conservative country like Morocco, you have a phone in one pocket for photos and your wallet in the other.  Apart from a few sights, mostly the main “attraction” for most people is spending the day walking quaint souk (market) stalls in tiny alleyways.

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The maze of tiny stalls, each repeating very similar wares, yet every one unique and with its own quirky personality that probably reflects the owner as he stands there.  A true joy to browse.

 

 

 

 

 

“monsieur, Monsieur!  Vien-ici!”  “Look, no buy.”

At which you are greatly pleased.  Aha!  I can look at all these things and not be forced to buy.  Perfect.  And so you walk in.

A few minutes of polite chit chat with the stallholder later, you start to browse.  Taking interest in a couple of things in particular, you discuss something and take a photo.  And the stall owner moves for the kill, with you their unsuspecting prey.

“You like?”

“erm…yes, it’s beautiful” (not meaning to offend)

“Well, I give you good price”

“How much is it?”

“A good price.  What would be a good price for you?”

“oh well, I don’t know.”

“well, I’ll offer you a special Ramadan price of 120 dirhams.  Normally I would sell it for 340 dirhams, but my brother especially made this one, and so I am able to get it for you far cheaper for you alone today.”

Wow, you think.  Such a good offer just for me.  And his brother made it….so it’s really authentic.  But 11.50 euros…just for that?  Oh but it’s genuine, and when else could you buy something like this?  And so the internal debate ravages on.

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“Oh I think I’ll think about it and come back to you later”

Sensing his prey moving onwards, the stall owner puts himself between you and the door and tries again.

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“Oh my friend, this is a one time offer.  My brother only made one.   Look at how bad the quality of the normal “tourist” ones are!  This is a special one for you.  You are English.  Cheaper prices than Asda for you.”

At which you’d love to still walk out of the shop, but you start to wonder whether he is in fact, very correct.  It does indeed appear better than the others.  And it would be fun to have.

And so as you pull out your wallet, you hesitantly try another ten dirhams off the price.  At which you feel stupid, as this poor man quickly says he couldn’t afford to sell them for that price, and reverts back to the original.  And the deal is done.  The robbery has happened.

And the only consolation….you probably could afford to be robbed for the joy of such an exchange.  A sadistic joy.  Paying perhaps more to experience culture than for the item you now walk out to try and squeeze into your hand luggage, that will soon sit in some cupboard, not in use back home.

And unless you understand the culture, this repetition all day will break you.

Anger.

Frustration.

How could they?!

As you walk into another stall determined for the same thing not to happen again.

“Bonjour monsieur!  Look, no buy!”

“NO!  JUST TELL ME HOW MUCH IT IS!”

“What would be good price for you Monsieur?”

The man looks so honest.  And somehow I spurt out a figure.  And in a split second of madness I wonder whether I’m dealing with a reincarnated man from the last stall.

And my Dirhams which once were a good exchange rate against the Euro, have just somehow vanished in Euro-like quantities.

Travelling to find a wife (!)

Travelling always lends itself towards one night stands and quick flings.  I walked in to my room at a rural youth hostel recently to find the other two occupants of said room, lying on top of each other, and quite shocked that they had company in the hostel (thankfully not just me).  With my appearing, they disappeared….off to find a scene where they could make out undisturbed and, let’s face it, probably in a more romantic setting than a shabby hostel dorm.

But much as travelling lends itself to such encounters whilst thinking that your sex goes unseen and without harm on anyone, I doubt that many people go short-term travelling to find themselves a wife.  Perhaps move countries to where you deem the people to suit you better, yes, but not short term travels!  In fact, from those who’ve done so (Rob Lilwall I think being one), most don’t recommend the messiness of distance and culture at all!

And so here is where some ancient middle eastern stories fascinate me, where we find some quite unusual scenes and ones probably not repeatable (some more than others!).  And so I invite you to come with me on a well crawl, regardless of whether you consider yourself religious or not – I trust that these stories will be top proposal story material.  Well, well, well.  Sorry…

So here we are and we’re sitting by a well (Genesis chapter 24 and verses 1-67, for those who want to find the ancient story themselves).  Beside us is Isaac.  He’s travelled miles to find this dating spot.  It’s a divinely ordained dating spot at that!  (Perhaps that takes all the fun away, but it sure might be handy)  He didn’t fancy marrying any of the Canaanites, not because of their looks, but because of who they worshipped and followed in life.  They didn’t worship the living God.  So in order to be faithful, God directed him back to a spot and gave him the conditions by which he was to know what lady to marry.  Bit legalistic from God?  I’ll deal with that soon on the blog.  But anyway…on with the story.

A while and later, and boom!  There she was, offering the symbol that God had given – not just offering him a drink (unusual) but offering to water all his camels (a huge job!).  Talk of female power!  And back he goes to her place…et voila.

Come with me to the next well…

One generation later (we’re onto Genesis 29 for any interested) and we’re sitting by another well with some shepherds when along comes Jacob.  “How’s it going boy?”  “ah grand – have you seen my mother’s brother around in your hometown recently?”  “well, yes, and here comes his daughter”.  And so off goes Jacob back to Rachel’s place to meet his mother’s brother.  Voila!  Another well made match.

well

A well (in Israel)

And lest two of the central figures of Jewish history weren’t enough, we’ll add on a third well for the trip.  This time we’re sitting around and like so often happens, the women shepherds get hounded by their male counterparts.  This time it’s the Egyptians (of Exodus chapter 2).  They won’t let the Israelite women near the water troughs at the well.  But, wait, what’s this?  In storms the saviour of the day – Moses – to push them back and allow the women to access water for their needs.  The women arrive back early to their Father with their herds, he’s surprised and asks them why they’re early, and they tell of their great hero.  And you guessed it, it’s Moses married to one of this chap’s daughters.  Voila numero trois!

And I could go on…you see wells were pretty loaded locations in Israelite stories.  So when a well appears, you know a good proposal story is about to happen.  And that’s where we arrive at our final well in the eyewitness account of Jesus’ life in John chapter four.

Everyone sit on the edge of your seats!

Add on top of that history, the fact that men of that culture did not strike up conversation with women.  I mean, it just wasn’t done.  Go to the middle east and do that with a women, and well, erm, yes.  Now add to the fact that this women was of the opposite team.  It’s far worse than any Cork-Kerry rivalry.  It’s not even Ireland-England proportion.

And just to top it all off, Jesus is tired and travelling.  I mean, have you ever been on the road for a while?  When I’m travelling is normally when I get my head down, read a book or sleep.  And help the person who tries to have any meaningful chat with me!

But maybe that’s not it.  Enter stage right: a woman. Not only of a woman but one of a foreign sort.  A woman not even just of a foreign sort but the very least of a foreign sort.  In fact, so much that least that she’s so scared of the snide remarks, abuse and shame on her from her past that she is making her way to the well at the hottest part of the day.  If you’ve ever been in that part of the world, you’ll know how stupid a thing to do that is.

And so the conversation starts – one-on-one.  “Can I have a drink?”

*Twit twoo*

But (sadly, if you’re wanting some action!) all the controversy dies away when Jesus makes it clear what He’s after.  He could have launched in to criticise her and heap judgment on her like everyone else (for she’d had 5 husbands).  He could have made her feel really shameful.  It wouldn’t have taken much to do that.  But no, what does he say?  He can give eternally satisfying water.  He intrigues her.  This living water has been a theme throughout the prophets…everyone knew that!  (For those of you religiously orientated: Ezek 47:1-12; 43:1-12; Isa 44:3; Isaiah 55:1-3 ; Ezekiel 37:15-28 )

Even the best of wells couldn’t have done that (see – she remembers and mentioned those Israelite wells in the historical records of this story!).  “What do you mean?” she asks.

“Bring your husband and come back”

*gulp*

 

There it is – the same shame moment

 

avoid convoOnly…she doesn’t seem ashamed…she seems more excited about finding out about this water than she feels shame…because the conversation keeps going.  I don’t know about you, but I shut down convo pretty quickly when I feel shame or I babble on incessantly about something different and meaningless!

She’s amazed at what this prophet knows.  Likely in her culture, it’s five men who’ve treated her awfully in relationships and left her.  Women didn’t have much say in such things, yet still end up with a bad reputation from it.  “It’s normally their fault after all.” men might reason back then (and sadly too much today).

“But if this man is a prophet, he’s probably one of the wrong sort.” she thinks.  Imagine protestant vs Catholic.  “Oh yer one of them!  I mean to be Samaritan is to worship in your own place.  Not the Jerusalem temple like those Israelis.”  Or in terms, to be Irish is to go to mass.  Not a protestant church.  In fact, definitely not that kinda church.

But Jesus doesn’t take up the “them vs us” battle.  He rarely does.  He points past it to a day where everyone who worships in Spirit and Truth, will worship together at the same place.  It’s another thing the promised One would be said to do according to the prophets of old – everyone knew that – unite the nations – (Isa 49:6 ; 2:2-4; Gen 12)

And just when one bullet is dodged, the next happens…in walks his mates, to find him chatting one-on-one at a controversial location, in the tiredness of the heat with a saucy woman.

And just when one bullet is dodged, the next happens…in walks his mates, to find him chatting one-on-one at a controversial location, in the tiredness of the heat with a saucy woman.

But such is the purity and holiness of Jesus, that no-one asks any questions.  They all know nothing has happened.  (And perhaps that’s where it may differ to our situation in life)

Such love that goes far beyond gender boundaries.

Such love that goes far beyond cultural boundaries.

Such love that goes far beyond religious boundaries.

Such love that goes far beyond tiredness.

Such love that goes to the perceived most sinful.

Such love that helps her see her true state.

Such love that so intrigues and woos her heart spiritually, that her shame and conviction of sin are felt as nothing, compared to the all-surpassing grace that flows and points her to greater places to find joy.

Such love.

On such offers of love, CS Lewis, the Irish Oxford professor, once said:

“It would seem that Our Lord find our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

FatherTedCarefulNowSuch love that encourages us to not to hold signs saying “careful now” but “desire more” (in the right places, of course).

It’s not surprising then her response, is it? (to ecstatically tell others)

Or for that matter, those who gathered around to listen to Jesus’ words and went away changed by them?

And with that in mind, I might hope to wish the woman of my dreams on my travels (though I’m not holding out for it!).  But more so I hope to meet more of the travelling One who offers all-satisfying waters.  And perhaps those on the road with me will too, through my mouth and others.


This was an edited excerpt from a sermon I recently preached at several churches. in counties Waterford, Limerick and Cork.  Where does this fit into our theology of travel?  I’m not sure we can conclude huge amounts about travel from this.  Answers on a postcard and I’ll come back to it!

Shuma!

Travelling Morocco is a joy.

Arriving into Marrakech airport, I was soon picked up by a local family.  One of the advantages of travelling alone this time was going to be throwing myself head-first into culture.  But one thing I was told at the very start “if you get into trouble and you feel threatened, the word in Arabic to shout is “shuma!” and people will back off.  Now I’m not sure on the validity of this advice, and I didn’t intend on getting into trouble, so it went into storage at the back of my mind and basking in the 45 degree June heat took my attention away.  Little did I know that I’d use that little phrase “shame on you” before I left the country.

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The quiet waters of a beautiful Rabat, not the usual stop on the tour guide.

From the packed Jamaa El Fna Square in Marrakech, to the hustle and bustle of the souk stalls of Fes, to the wonder of the Atlas mountains, the barren majesty of the Sahara and the surfing spots of Agadir and the coast around, Morocco is worth a visit, even in the lesser visited spots like the financial capital in Rabat (see above).

It’s been one country largely unaffected in recent years by terrorist attacks, so I could imagine its tourist trade is rocketing, with it being one of the cheapest destinations to reach from Ireland.  Given the number of Moroccans leaving to fight further east, sadly I wonder whether it won’t come under the same fate soon.

Top travel tip: stay away from the tourist traps, and regardless of attacks, you’ll be fine!  And you’ll probably also have some more genuine experiences, unlike the one I’m about to describe.

Visiting quite touristy Marrakech souks, I was hoping to strike up conversation enough to get to know stall-holders and get a feel for life behind tourism.  Going to Fes, and I turned into a stallholder, with one of the most fantastic experiences ever, living in the medina with a local family and helping a man run his souk stall!  (My thanks go to: Fes Homestay)

But being a stallholder for a day or two and travelling the length of the country means that one tends to be alert to prices.  So when a market stall holder saw money (a westerner) walking towards his stall, he thought he was in for a treat.  Declining to speak in English, I thought I was on safe ground, but when the bartering price started at £400 for a small earthen vessel, I looked amazed and declared that I have the local price and not the tourist price!

“No, no, I’m not a rich American!” (*price gets lowered by a third*)

“No, no, I’m not English…the English oppressed us for hundreds of years and left us with nothing!” (*price gets lowered by another third*)

“I am a poor Irishman” (*we agree a final price, a fraction of the first*)

I’ve only once in my travels felt so threatened and surrounded by several stallholders, all pushing excessive prices and starting to corner me and grab me physically, that I had to shout “shuma”.  Shame on you!  The ultimate Arab public insult.  Later, having spent many more hours of life with Arabs, I wonder whether I over-reacted that day to cultural intensity and bartering banter.

But since my exposure to such cultures, I started to wonder.  Why is shame and honour such a huge thing in Arab cultures?  Why do I think more of guilt in western culture?  Is it a western/eastern divide?  Or perhaps an Islamic/Christian one?  Because whatever the answer, shame and guilt poke uncomfortably into every human’s life at many points.  And it’d be handy to know why to hopefully be able to start to remove them from dominating life!

I’ve been mulling over this a few months with folk and may pen a few thoughts soon.  But in the meantime, if you know of any resources to help us all think further on it, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime here’s some more of Morocco for those who don’t like to philosophically ponder as much!