Culture Shock 101 at the Table

I have been thinking about ‘culture shock’ lately. Not the real kind, by which I mean the “travel, adjustment, return home” variety that many students experience after a lengthy “study-abroad” experience. Or that a military service-person knows who trains at home, is deployed to Afghanistan and ‘adjusts’ to survive, then returns home again. Both of those are noteworthy, marked with an intensity that does not match my meaning here.

No, the ‘culture shock’ I have been thinking about comes within environments of higher education in which one leaves a ‘home’ environment of some kind, voluntarily enters a different-but-related community committed to learning and critical exploration, then returns back to the home environment in which some kind of sense-making has to occur. During a recent campus lunch with students, I landed in a conversation with several levels of what could only be described as ‘culture shock.’ The remarkable thing—the element that seems worth musing about here—is that it was clearly a shared culture shock.

So here I’m going to share a secret: faculty experience culture-shock with students just as students experience culture-shock with faculty or institutional learning environments. Let me tell you one of my own favorite stories of culture shock. A couple of you will know this already, as I shared it at lunch, but your body-language of surprise and bemusement taught me it might be worth sharing more broadly.

About five years ago, I was teaching an introductory-level course on spiritual disciplines and educational ministries. One element of the course was exploration and commitment to a particular spiritual discipline of choice—either student chosen practice or, strangely-said but recognizable, practice-chosen student. A discipline, in other words, that seemed to make a claim on a student’s learning somehow. Each student was to identify a discipline to which s/he would commit, then weekly, ‘accountability groups’ of that practice would check-in with one another, to reflect on the practice and the learnings.

As faculty, it was my responsibility to sculpt the definition of discipline wide enough to include aspects of classical Christian disciplines most students hadn’t considered as ‘disciplines’ before—hospitality, contemplative practices, generosity, manual labor/work/service, artistic expression, etc.—and narrow enough that purely scriptural-centered disciplines could be chosen as well, such as devotional-reading, praying the psalms, etc. Some of our community require highly structured disciplines within highly literal nuances of the Word; others of our community are urged by Spirit to risk less-structured disciplines with more flexibility, different nuance and dimensions. As faculty, it’s my job to create space for all to learn.

Imagine my surprise when a student from West Virginia announced his spiritual discipline would be hunting. This may not surprise some of you at all. Me? I was horrified. Talk about culture shock. I could not have imagined that any Christian would choose an activity that required taking life in God’s creation. I was also horrified because when I reviewed my hand-written definition of a spiritual discipline there on the dry-erase board, I had not specified: and does not do harm or does not take life. [And remember, for those who may not, my own, more recent Christian tradition is Brethren, peace-church ancestry. Roots still in Nicene confession, but through the River-Brethren faithful…] Ultimately, the student’s request/announcement had to stand. I had established the boundaries and what he said was clearly within them. Culture-shock.

What do I remember of the feeling of this experience? As I’ve said: horror, but one that went both ways. I felt an incredible, negative energy directed outward toward the student who named the practice and inward, toward myself for not articulating more clearly an important distinction I still hold true (i.e. that spiritual discipline is about life-giving commitment to a practice in which Spirit shapes our hearts, minds, souls toward the image of God, the Christ, within each of us). This negative energy could be described as sadness, a bit of anger, disbelief, desire for distance, etc. I also felt guilty. Not only the ‘easy’ kind, meaning: I had crafted a learning environment found wanting, in my own view. But also a complicated kind: I was now participating in a conversation and learning situation that went against my own convictions. I felt in a bind, one I had both chosen and not chosen.

The class took its course over the next three months, with the student committed to his practice and with me listening alongside, feeling a bit helpless and not a little divided. It was uncomfortable, probably for both of us. By the end of the course, however, the student admitted with a smile that his practice was not about the hunting at all. It was the only time he and his son had together all week. It was the only time they could share the quiet beauty of nature and talk about God as father and son, amidst lives overrun with responsibility and challenge. I remember feeling relief, but also a kind of wonder and appreciation of the student and his articulate experience. I knew and felt more of a glimpse into his world, because of this experience and because he had let me see it, know it. For my part, I can say that this was probably one of the most significant events in my own professional development, one which has grown me the most, expanded my heart and mind the most, not to mention my capacity for carrying two contradictory positions in my spirit at the same time. My definition of spiritual discipline now clarifies “must do no harm; must not take life” whenever I make use of this curriculum, but I’m wiser and thankful for the unwelcome ambivalence of culture-shock received. I didn’t change my belief, in other words, but I learned a lot about a lot of things—different norms for communities equally Christian and faithful, my own teaching vocation, role in the classroom, dynamics of Spirit-led teaching (discomfort, sustenance of the discomfort, a-ha moment when a larger frame appears, articulation or interpretation of this larger frame of reference…),different ways of being with another faithful while not sharing worlds, etc.

So what am I trying to say here? I’m not sure all I’m saying, but at least this: one of the most significant challenges for any learning community rooted in an orthodox Christian confessional tradition and committed to Spirit-led renewal is keeping as many voices that want to be at the table at the table. Just like any good family drama, heated disagreements without tempered humility and grace result in blusters of indignation, pushing back from the table and storming away, perchance with slammed doors. Sometimes such distance is necessary to regain perspective, to blow off a little steam. But then lament and grief also become necessary: a voice has left the conversation that requires as many voices as God desires—which is all of them. Had I slammed down the rules in my own conviction, the student would not have articulated the heart of his own practice, nor would I have learned to trust Spirit’s tether in the teaching of us both. The task was one of sustenance and listening, not proclamation and posturing.

The felt-challenges of staying at the table, however, are most usually refused in today’s political-ecclesial climate. Most of us are not trained nor desire to sustain the felt-ambivalence of learning with those whose life or ideas or beliefs or presence contradicts something deeply held within our own. Rarely is the experience of such costly-but-natural-discomfort named either. Rarely are we encouraged to sustain the feeling of discomfort or guilt or risk for participating in something perceivedly against our own dearly held beliefs or against our own home community norms.

But until more of us learn how to carry that weight—yes, that cross—then we’ll just have more and more of what a dying church already has. Until more of us surrender to God’s sovereignty and learn to listen unreservedly and with sustained grace, we’ll continue to ‘feed’ tribalizing factions who profess Christ with their lips but refuse to welcome the least of these as Him to their tables. On the other hand, the better we get at rooting our faith in Nicene confessional tradition, moving in Spirit-led directions, the more culture-shock we will face. The better we get at bearing up under this increasing weight, with grace and humility, the stronger and more worthwhile our conversation will be, the more we’ll know how to share this complicated but expansive Feast with all who hunger.

Yes, food for thought. Blessings upon you and yours, no matter where you live, or what your community’s norms are about hunting. 🙂 I welcome you to the uncomfortable but life-giving learning Spirit brings for all who yearn to be at the Table.


10 Comments so far
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There is definitely a “culture shock” when entering seminary. It is such a different world from regular college. When I first entered, I admit I felt like a little guppy swimming in an ocean of big fish. I felt so under qualified to be there. But I know God wants me to be there so I just try to stay strong and confident in the Lord. I think often the Lord wants us to feel uncomfortable. Being comfortable is not always a good thing.

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

When Peter needed to sort out the resurrection, he and his brothers went fishing – aqua-hunting – to restore their soul-balance.

Comment by Brian Boley

“Staying at the table when challenged” resonated within my spirit as we often encounter people who we may often think at least once, maybe privately, why they are at the table. Thank God for Jesus who came and invited all who to the table and as we walk in the image of God, with a Christ -like mind, we have to ask ourselves this million dollar question, WHY? What do I mean? Why am I here? Why has God brought this person in my presence? Why am I being allowed to hear this? Why am I being allowed to see this? Is it to pray for them? Is it to understand that something inside of us needs healing that we thought had been healed some time ago or is that person’s opinion, though different from ours, used as a blessing to make both parties grow more like Christ in some way, form, or fashion.

Comment by Charlotte Edwards

I like the idea of a wider view of disciplines other than the ones we are familiar with. I have experienced spiritual strength through the more familiar means of prayer, devotions, etc. But some of the most extraordinary spiritual experiences, that I would now call disciplnes, came when I traveled to the Southwest U.S. and trekked through the majestic landscapes of Arizona and Utah.

Comment by Larry Whatley

I spent a lifetime running away from the people who I’ve become nearly certain God has called me to. I can remember I couldn’t wait to leave the small town I grew up in and the people I thought were “simple” in the worst possible way. I felt like some stranger in a foreign land so much growing up and now, well, now I get the sense that God is calling me back to the roots I worked so hard to disconnect from. The familiarity I ran from for the anonymity of the bigger world is calling me back. The time to hide is gone and I’m standing on Sunday mornings before a tiny crowd (compared to my church of the past 11 years) of about 150 people. No place to hide. No sense of being able to disappear anymore. Maybe my shock is a return to culture shock?

Comment by Richard Jarvis

The culture shock that I have experienced in just the few weeks that I have been enrolled gives me a little insight to your topic this week. Actually though I have felt more culture shock within my church tradition; age differences, changes in leadership and financial strain have brought out polar opposites of opinions and views. It has been an adjustment for me and I didn’t consider it as culture shock until now. Tolerance for what I have chosen, and yet not chosen as you put it is certainly required.

Comment by Phyllis Lemon

I experienced something of a culture shock this week with several members of my community. One couple in particular who have been extremely supportive of me as I continue to grow in ministry surprised me by their adamant opposal of homosexuality. They went so far as to say that if in the future the UM is split by the decision to change it’s discipline in regards to homosexual people in leadership they would be on the side against it and leave the UM church. This was shocking, yet it was good to know where they stand on this issue at the moment. Those in my close circle of supporters and friends generally hold the same beliefs, values and opinions on the issue of homosexuality that I do. That opinon is that homosexuality is not a sin, and should not be treated as such especially in the church of Christ. I appreciate what you said in terms of allowing ourselves to step away from what is on the table..or at least to detach enough to allow another’s understanding of life, God…and the issue at hand to regroup and to come back willing to move forward in the love of Christ. (I know I paraphrased a bit, but that is what I took from the last portion of your blog). Thank you for this timely and applicable post!

Comment by afi dobbins

Sometimes cultural shock comes when one has to figure out how to deal with miss expectations. I do not expect that the act of hunting is one that would be conisiderred as an act of ministry. Just like I do not expect national discourse about the death of any person should ever devolve into some of the dialouge that we have heard lately in the media.
Is I have listened to news regarding the murder of Gaddafi. To me life is precious, all life but i do put a personal emphasis on human life. So as i reflect on this story on light of current events my heart is made glad to hear that God is both seen and felt in the midst of hunting.

Comment by Jamal Gallow

This is huge. It speaks so pointedly to the diversity of the body of Christ. I sometimes feel that mainline denominations get so caught up in social agendas that they forget that Christ dwells in every believer and that there are actually disagreements that are *ok* with God. Some things are not black and white. Some things really are grey, like hunting…or….divorce….or a specific day of worship. I can say that getting outdoors with my boys is a form of worship for me. And my heart absolutely goes out to this father who found hunting with his boy to be so special.

Comment by George Fenley

This is ts true about culture shock . I suffered this when I entered the Methodist church 4 years ago . I have always went to church but I had never experienced anything like how the Methodists do things . The Apostles Creed was recited , along with Holy Communion every Sunday morning . And also responsive readings , and the Lords prayer . The churches that I had attended never done these things . We would pray , sing , give testimonies , then the pastor would preach . I walked into a cultural shock when I changed churches .

Comment by Thomas Miles

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