Cultural letter #3   What’s offensive?


Dear friends,


Now for another cultural letter...what's offensive, what's not?  Let me explore this idea with you all a little bit, but first, more of my background...


During my elementary years I attended a Christian school in Tacoma, WA, where dad was head of the Bible Dept., and attended a GARBC church pastored by Dr. Charles Wagner for part of that time (dad pastored another church the other part).  I'm partial to Regular Baptist Press because of this period of my life.  Then, when I was almost 14, and going into 9th grade, we moved to FL, and we became affiliated with a BBF church in Tampa, FL.  After being there one year, dad was assistant pastor of a church in Zephyrhills, FL, (with GARBC associations) while heading up a small Christian school with Hyles associations in own town, Dade City.  After we were there for about year, we started our own church and school (ACE) with none of the previous official affiliations.  But because we had been part of so many different facets of Ind. Baptist fundamentalism in the US, we had been exposed to many different kinds of groups, from Word of Life to Cedarville and LABC (at the time, now Master's College), WBBC, Faith Baptist in Ankony, IA, BBC Springfield, BBC Clark Summit, TTU, to PCC, and all with the ever-abiding knowledge that we would be attending BJU when we "grew up and went to college."  I guess you could say we've seen quite a lot of the range of fundamentalism.  The music has ranged from BJU "high class" to Word of Life, Life Action Singers to "sings" with the Inspirations and other groups.  As I mentioned before, our family fit into the "conservative" side of life.  We didn't always fit into the churches where we were. Even in these churches there are "cultural" differences. I can see how this variety of backgrounds has helped me form some of my own philosophy and opinions about culture and convictions.  Different groups tend to have their own lists of "acceptable" and "not acceptable" things that a Christian can do.  (I'm not complaining, but rather, merely observing).


A very personal example... When we moved to FL and after a year down there, dad became principal of a Christian school with Hyles' leanings. Dad told us girls that we could no longer wear pants off our property.  Since I was afraid to say what I thought to my dad, I seethed only inwardly-- but eventually I got used to the idea.  I know that among most of our churches, this isn't even an issue, but at that time, in the BBF and among Hyles' churches, it was an issue, and dad felt, that being in his position of leadership, whether or not we personally believed that way, that we should not offend.  I understood why, but it didn't make giving up this particular item of clothing any easier for me.  God began to show me that NOTHING must be so precious that I can't give it up. 


Later, as we came here to Poland, I had to continue to learn this lesson.  When we were first here, I had heard that makeup was "not acceptable" to the pastor with whom we were working, so I went without, even though I felt terribly "naked" without it. (I had grown up with the saying, "If the barn needs paint, paint it." (tastefully)  However, here, if they prefer the "barn" to have the "weathered" look, I had handle that--it's harder on others, than on me, as they are the ones who have to look at me!) However, other things just aren't done, like pierced earrings, or earrings in general--I've been told that they are just so you can "catch a husband" and they are not allowed for married women (I heard that from another missionary).  We've been invited to a camp in the Ukraine in July, and since there is one group down there that thinks it is wrong for a Christian woman to curl her hair, (I have hot curlers.) I may not even take my curlers rather than offend, or risk offending.  I had to learn, even as a teenager, that some things just aren't that important. 


However, in what other ways have we/Americans been known to offend/break cultural code?


1. Not standing always when we pray.  Here, at least, in the churches, they always stand when they pray, even for prayer meeting.  In the Ukraine, they stand or kneel, not sit. I once asked some girls here in Poland why they did this, and they had no idea. It was something that was just "always done".  However, we were told, very strongly (but  kindly) by a Russian that it was to show respect to God. (I've never asked someone who believes this about praying while driving, showering, lying in bed, etc.  I've wanted to, but not had the right opportunity--I've been afraid of offending even by asking the question lest I come across wrong, but I remain curious about it.)


2. We've been told men aren't to cross their legs, ankles to knees, but have to cross their legs "lady style" with their knees together. (We've been offered no explanation of this one.)


3. You can't whistle in public.  (I've no idea why.) 


In Russia, there are even more possible offenses--many more. In some ways the Christians with whom we have had contact, here in Poland, have a much "looser" acceptable standard of practice than some of the fundamental Baptists in the states. (In some ways we are the same.) One specific example that comes to mind, It is common here for Christians to go to the movies. Since there is a wide variety of beliefs even among Ind. Bapt. Fundamentalists in the states, this should not have come as as big of a surprise as it did.


So, what does this have to do with us?  Well, for all of your missionaries ministering around the globe--and esp. for Mike, as he travels to different groups, please pray for wisdom. We are not only crossing some basic theological differences (one big one--Mike has faced the issue of eternal security numerous times as many over in this part of the world don't believe in it), we cross cultural viewpoints/attitudes that are different. Since with men (as opposed to women) there are fewer variables, and fewer opportunities to offend, it is good that he can travel by himself in this part of the world. I would like to travel with Mike some time, but I realize that somehow I might cut off opportunity to minister inadvertently, by some totally innocent transgression. (If a man wears a conservative haircut, long dark pants, white shirt and takes a tie/sport coat, he probably won't offend in his dress. There have been some in Russia who said that wearing a tie was a sin, but on the other hand, we were in one church here in Poland where Mike didn't have a sport coat because we were at camp, but they wanted him to speak, and the church had a rack of sport coats that men could use.)


We must try to learn what is "offense" and try to steer clear of those things at least when we are around those who would be offended.  This calls for grace and wisdom (and a good memory)! :)


Some of the other things that are "different" are.


*Here, at least in most of the churches we are in, you bring your own hymn book.  Buy one and then bring it back and forth with you to church. There seems to be one main one here in Poland that people use.  Some of the churches are getting away from using hymn books and just sing choruses. Most of the hymn books don't have notes. They have just the words. Only people who have notes are the ones like the pianist and a few other people scattered throughout. Since sometimes there isn't a pianist in the church, it can lead to some very interesting varieties in the melodies.


*You don't greet strangers on the street, even if you look at them right in the eye.  HOWEVER, if you go into a doctor's office, or other small store, you make a general "good day" as you come in and again as you leave.  (I laughed at that one, since the same person you might never even nod to on the street, you will speak to in a small enclosed place.) It's just the way it's done.


*So far the stores are just learning the principle of "the customer is always right" and that if you are a rude salesperson, you may lose a customer.  In times past, with a shortage of goods for sale, it made sense that they could treat the customer however they wanted, and if you as the customer wanted the product, you endured it. However, with competition, this is changing.


*If it is a cold day and your child isn't bundled up like an eskimo, you will hear about it by total strangers!  Standard dress is gloves, scarf, hat, tights, boots, etc.  Even if you are only walking from the house to the car, and from the car to the store, and then to the house.  There have been times we (Americans) have been irritated by some Polish lady's need to tell us how to dress our children.  (OK, I know it isn't very spiritual to get irritated, but it's true, and it's one area that we've been surprised, as we wouldn't think of telling a stranger how to dress her kids unless something were absolutely unbelievable--like one time Mike was standing in line at the bank and a little girl had a very suggestive saying on her shirt (in English) and Mike asked the mother if she knew what it meant.)


This letter has been much more personal. When I write a letter such as this, I struggle over it in order to give you an accurate picture of what it's like--trying not to either overly dramatize and yet to share some of the struggles that we (at least I,  Becky) face.  We aren't somehow "super Christians" just because we live over here. Thanks so much for your prayers on our behalf.


What we covet is God's grace, wisdom and mercy. We want to do what is right before Him, knowing that ultimately we will answer to Him for all that we do and say.


(If I get feedback that some of these observations are incorrect, I'll let you know!)


In Warsaw,

Becky Petersen



P.S. I wrote this 3 weeks ago and have let it sit, well before the issue with BJU/Bush came up.  Mike and I are BJU alumni 5 times (together) over and we thank God for BJU.