|Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.|
-- I Corinthians 8:13
|Please, teacher,| said a voice at my elbow, |wouldn't you like to wash your face?|
We were having a week in the country. For the fifth time that day, our first full day out, there stood the pastor's wife, holding out to me a basin of steaming water. She had just the right combination of humility and pride in her manner. I quickly stifled the desire to say, |I don't want to wash! What in the world do I want to wash my face five times a day for?| Then I mumbled thanks, and reached wearily for my washcloth. But a little later I tackled her about it.
|Do you always wash your face as often as this?|
|Why, of course!| was the quick reply. |All clean people do! And I was brought up in a very clean family.|
I let the matter drop, and washed my face (and my feet) as often as she thought best for the rest of the trip.
* * * * *
Grandmother Bay's little granddaughter had just come back from Shanghai. Grandmother Bay proudly appeared at church accompanied by a prettily dressed, well-behaved child of about nine. After the service several of us sat chatting. One old lady looked at the child's pretty frock, and then gave a quick glance at her grandmother.
|I suppose that's the Shanghai style,| was all that she said, but Grandmother Bay divined her meaning.
|Just what I thought myself!| She quickly caught up the remark. |It's pretty material, and nicely made -- cut a bit closely, but I suppose those Shanghai tailors do it that way. But the sleeves! Practically no sleeves at all! It's almost indecent! But you know, she has hardly a scrap of the material, and I haven't been able to match it. Otherwise I should have lengthened them immediately. It's too good a garment to throw away. I don't know what in the world to do about it!|
I sat listening with my mouth open. The child was little enough so that I would hardly have been surprised to see her running around the yard with nothing on but a pair of trousers, as many smaller girls did. (The boys needed still less!) The objectionable sleeves were just long enough to cover her shoulders. What was wrong with that for a child of her size?
I looked at the two women, trying my best to understand their point of view. What I saw made me gasp. In that area the older women all wore thigh-length loose jackets, and loose trousers, as their regulation attire. It was warm, and one of the two women had just pulled up her trouser legs. Her short stockings reached about eight inches above her ankles, and were held in place by tight round garters. She vigorously fanned her bare knees as the two, with serious, troubled faces, continued the conversation about the |indecent| dress.
* * * * *
What is decency anyway? In certain groups in India it is not decent for a woman to show her face, but her bare feet peep from beneath her long robes. Things that look perfectly all right to us look indecent to someone else; and things that look indecent to us may look perfectly all right to someone else!
A young missionary goes inland to her first station. |I'm not going to look frumpy!| she declares, and takes all her prettiest dresses. When she comes out in gay colors that are not worn in that backward area, or in short sleeves when everyone else has elbows duly covered, her senior missionary attempts to suggest a bit of alteration in her wardrobe. All suggestions, however, are indignantly rejected. She plunges enthusiastically into work with the children, using pictures very effectively to supplement her limited vocabulary. One day her two favorite scholars do not appear, and she asks her helper, a bright high school girl, the reason. The embarrassed and evasive answer does not satisfy, and she keeps after the poor girl until finally she is told the truth. An hour later her senior missionary finds her weeping in her room.
|She said,| she chokes, |she said -- -- that their mother won't let them come any more because I -- -- because I can't be a good woman; I dress like a -- a prostitute!|
What is wrong? Why does the eager young missionary have to go through all this heartache? Just because she is not willing to see with someone else's eyes. Her own standards are the only right ones. She learns by hard experience the fact that other people do see things differently from us, and that it does make a difference. After all, this is their country, and these are their customs. We cannot expect them to adjust to ours. It is the foreigner in the strange land who has to adjust to the ways of that land.
To learn a new language, the ear must be alert to hear just that little turn with which a sound is pronounced that makes all the difference between a foreign and a native accent. To become adjusted to a new people, the eye and the heart must be alert to perceive clearly, to understand and take in their feelings and their reactions. May God grant us the seeing eye and the hearing ear!
* * * * *
|Oh, they're terribly strict at that Bible school!| someone remarks. |There are rules about how long your dresses must be, and how you must wear your hair. I wouldn't stand for it! Why, it's things like that that give Christianity a bad name!|
Perhaps. At the same time, one who has shown that he is willing to give up his own standards and conform to someone else's, even though he may not see the reason for those standards, has shown an attitude that will take him a long way on the mission field. The |how I do my hair and what kind of clothes I wear is my own business!| attitude so frequently met with, both at home and on the field, is not a promising one. If we have fully given ourselves to Christ, nothing is our own business -- it is all His.