Think

The cross by the wayside

May 2014    

“Think of the way he persevered against such opposition from sinners and then you will not lose heart and come to grief.”

Hebrews 12:3,
New Jerusalem Bible
(NJB)

With the recent visit by the Chinese President Xi JinPing to Paris, the French media was quick to point out the dissonance between the fact that big businesses welcomed him with open arms, while people who wanted to talk to President Xi about human rights were kept at bay.

Since we’ve arrived in France, we’ve discovered a dissonance of a different kind. You can’t go anywhere without finding abundant evidence of the Christian heritage of this country. At the edge of even the smallest villages you’ll often find one or more large crosses prominently displayed.

Each village has its church, and while it’s not always open, it is still being maintained as “a heritage site”.

These Christian roots are very ancient. The Anglican church we attend (sorry, no Methodists around here) meets in a Protestant chapel in the village of Saint Pargoire. Who is that? Evidently a Christian martyr from the 4th century, because the Christian faith spread to the South of France very early on.

But try talking about God in a social setting, and watch the reaction. That is considered a faux pas; usually, you will be politely ignored. There’s the dissonance. This wholesale abandonment of Christian foundations is both a tragedy and a challenge for Europe. Occasionally it looks ironical: The mairie (town hall) in the town where we live proudly and prominently displays “Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood”, the republican national motto, on its façade. But above the entrance you also read Domus Oratorii – literally, a house of prayer, because the building used to be a large monastery before 1789!

The challenge to communicate the Good News in a “post-Christian” culture forces us to re-think the usual strategies for reaching out to people. In France, it would appear that much stone-clearing needs to be done before the seed of the gospel can be sown, and that actions often speak louder than words. People are interested in spirituality, but most of the time they look for answers in yoga, zen, martial arts or other “Eastern” practices, not in the Church.

Why has the Church missed the boat?

Are there lessons in this for Singapore as well? I don’t have an answer, but we should at least think about this. It only takes one generation for the Church to decline. Here the decline has gone on for several generations!

The dissonance I have tried to describe, and the reluctance to have anything to do with organised religion, are but some of the many cross-cultural adjustments we are trying to face up to. Having to exchange three kisses as a greeting – often with complete strangers – still does not come naturally to us. You can’t be in a hurry in this country, which frustrates our Singaporean desire for efficiency. Oh, and why can’t the French be bothered to clean up after their dogs!?

We came here because the Lord led us here. It’s out of our comfort zone, for sure. Making cross-cultural adjustments is a process of learning to walk again, including some occasional falls and grazed knees, quite like a toddler. And like a toddler, it means having to learn to speak again, but now in a different language. At times it’s easy to wallow in self-pity when you can’t seem to make progress. But then I remind myself of the enormous cross-cultural gap Jesus had to bridge:
“Think of the way he persevered against such opposition from sinners and then you will not lose heart and come to grief.” (Hebrews 12:3, NJB). The cross at the edge of so many villages reminds us of the price Jesus paid so that we can enjoy being His children. It speaks also of the privilege of sharing the Father’s love, even when many refuse to listen. Pray for France!

Photo of mairie by André de Winne

André de Winne is Belgian by birth, but lived in Singapore for more than 30 years. He has worked for various Christian organisations, including Wesley Methodist Church. Last year, André and his wife Cathy re-located to Pezenas, a small town with about 8000-plus inhabitants in the south of France, in response to God’s calling.

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