We were surrounded by persian rugs – rolled up and leaning against the walls, resting on the bench, and scattered over the floor. Clothed in salwaar camis and wrapped in a dupatta, I sat in the midst of the them, my right leg folded under me, my bare left sole resting snugly before me on the soft cool touch of silk. I leaned over my left knee and watched and listened to the merchant bargain with one of my companions. In the midst of the bargaining, the merchant seemed suddenly distracted by me. With a puzzled expression he noted, “You sit like a local girl,” then resumed his bargaining.
After the bargaining was concluded, he spoke to my Uncle in Urdu. I understood some but it was little.
“What did they say?” I asked Aunty.
“The merchant wanted to know why you dressed and sat the way you did,” she said. “Uncle said ‘Jesay Daysh Vesay Vaysh.’ It means ‘As the culture, so the custom.'”
It is a typical Indian saying and mentality: Adapt to the customs of the culture where you live. It’s a sort of Indian version of “When in Rome do as the Romans,” which interestingly enough is a phrase that did not originate in secular thought, as I first assumed. Our phrase “When in Rome…” can be traced as far back as Saint Augustine when he wrote how when he was in Rome he fasted on Saturdays, though in Milan he did not. (I feel such a tangible connection with this as I write, as my lips parch and my stomach twists in observance of the local fast.)
But the concept goes back further than the Indian or Anglican sayings. The concept goes back to the Scriptures, to the words:
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
– 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NIV
Another translation lays it out more simply:
Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life….
– 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 MSG
It’s a truth that perhaps we don’t think about all that often, but we really should. I’ve seen the difference. I’ve seen the division caused by a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and I’ve seen the way that something as simple as scarves and bangles creates a passage into a people’s world. Of course, it’s more than clothes. It’s also practices and attitudes, body language and food choices. It’s a hundred other things. But they are important things. They are the details that make up a culture and a people group, but more than that they are the details that make up a person.
The great thinker Alfred North Whitehead once said “We think in generalities, but we live in detail.” And we do. Though we think in the necessary – vital even – generalities of doctrine, belief, universal truths… we live in the morning prayers, in the cups of coffee, in the scarves around our necks. In fact, the various details we choose to live in flesh out the generalities we truly believe and communicate them to the world. In south India I wore a scarf around my shoulders; in the north I wrap it around my hair. The choice itself is different, but it’s communication is the same: “I respect you. I relate to you. I love you.” and, hopefully “Our Father loves you. Can we grow in Him together?”
When we do this, when we live these details, when we both “enter into their world” and “experience things from their point of view” something very significant happens: We grow in both knowledge and unity.
We grow in knowledge in the way that as we fully recognize another culture, we more fully see our own. I have seen injustice in India.I have seen lies, oppression, fear. But I have also seen love and honor and respect and self-sacrifice in a way that in all my life I have never seen in the country where I was born. Yes, I have seen truths of the Bible forsaken here, but I have also seen truths of the Bible fleshed out here which until now my eyes had never seen.
We grow, too, in unity. From childhood we know the strange power in the details of commonality – the same favorite movie, the same frequented coffee shop, the same interest in art. Those details, small as they are, are binding. We are tied to people through ice-cream and summer-camp and all-stars; we are tied to people through bangles and hot chai and fasting.
When we choose details, when we choose to enter in their world, when we choose to experience things from their point of view, we choose them. We choose to be Jesus to them – God fleshed out in their lives. The choice isn’t between our Faith and their culture. No… The choice is our faith lived out in their culture: Holiness is dressed in scarves; love is poured out in cups of tea.
God saved us by first becoming like us. We carry on His work by becoming like them. He did not compromise Himself – he was fully God and fully man. Likewise we can be fully God-honoring and fully integrated into the culture of these people. The difference lies only in sin itself. As He was a man who participated in all but the sins of mankind, so we can by His power participate in all but the sins of our culture. The key is to have a Biblical assessment of sin: Sin is not defined by what seems strange to us, but what estranges us from God. As we choose which details we will live out, we choose them on the basis of the holy law that sums up all the Law and the Prophets: We choose the details through which we can best both love God and love people.
So I sit here like a local girl and I adjust my scarf, because I have been loved and I want to flesh out love for these people; I enter into their world and see things from their point of view because I want to be, by God’s grace, all things to all people so all people may know Him and so I may know Him better, so I may like the writer share in the blessings of the gospel. Because, for me “Jesay daysh vesay vaysh” means “When in India…” It means that beneath my head covering, I will fast and pray.
Please pray with me for the people of India and that the Lord of the Harvest will send laborers into this, His harvest.