When my family was living in Australia we had the opportunity to visit a Karen church for a Sunday. The Karen are a displaced people group, originating in Burma, but hunted down by the current government simply for their ethnicity. The Sunday we went was a fairly typical Sunday for anyone; lots of upbeat music sung very loud in their native tongue (though they kindly translated some of the service for us since we were visiting), a sermon, and fellowship. Then, following the service, we were invited to partake in lunch.
It's a basic rule of cross-cultural etiquette that, when invited to enjoy the food of another culture, you do not turn them down, for this could be a great insult. And it seems like an easy rule to accept, until you look at the spread:
Fish soup with some rice ...
... with quail eggs ...
... and the biggest pile of green onions you've ever seen.
And that's it. No bread, no pasta, no ketchup, nothing.
I grew up a cheese pizza kind of guy. I like simple food, very American food. Burgers. Spaghetti. Peanut butter. When my mom put broccoli sautéed in onion on our pizza once, I freaked out. Gourmet, to me, was getting takeout Chinese (to be clear, not to my parents, just to me; I've grown a lot since this). Anyway, you can imagine how this went over.
But I tried it. I ate about as much as I could before my stomach started to rebel. But I ate it. See, the issue here wasn't them. They weren't trying to impose their culture on me, as if what they liked was better than what I liked or was used to. No, I was the problem. I was their guest, and they wanted to give their guests the best they had to offer. They weren’t just offering me food that I didn’t want, they were offering me a part of themselves. And so to honor them in the way they were trying to honor me, a brother in the faith, I ate something new, something scary, something that, truth be told, I would never voluntarily eat again (my stomach hurt for about a week from all the green onion). And I thanked them for an amazing morning.
Because I was grateful for their hospitality.
Marva Dawn wrote that we ought to learn to "sing the songs of 'the other.'"
I think a lot of times when we get frustrated by this. We like the kind of music that we like, and especially in church world, we think that others ought to conform to our preferences - because we pay the bills, because we volunteer more, because technically we're in charge, whatever. We justify our own narcissism in many different ways, but behind the facade, we simply do not want to learn to sing the songs of those not like us - maybe because we don't like them, maybe because we don't understand them, or maybe because we're just afraid of not looking like we have it all together.
Singing the songs of 'the other' does not mean giving up our own musical preferences. Really - it's ok if you like the organ or the drums or the banjo, God won't ask you to stop liking them. But He does ask us to also allow others to have their own preferences without judging them, and to celebrate them for their uniqueness; they too were created in the image of God. By singing the songs of the others who are not like us - but are a part of our spiritual family - is a way of honoring them, honoring their culture, and thus a way of honoring the God who made them.
Singing the songs of 'the other' is an act of worship.
It will stretch us. It will confront our fear of failure head-on. But it will also broaden our horizons and show us more about the Creator who made such wondrous variety in the world. Without learning to sing the songs of 'the other,' we start to think the world ought to be just like us, through and through. We become isolated, and our worship becomes stale. But as we learn of 'the other,' as we honor their music and culture, our community cultivates a picture of the Kingdom of God come on earth - every tribe, every tongue, every nation worshipping the Redeemer.