As I looked into the Maasai women’s faces, I saw old and young, wrinkles from years of smiles and hard work. I tried to absorb the explosive grins and colorful fabrics and beads overflowing from everybody in sight. I was asked by new friends with thick African accents, “How do you find the Maasai?” I find them spectacular and dazzling. I understand this to be a pretty typical response, as their songs, traditional dances and jewelry are tourist attractions around Eastern Africa.
The greatest joy and honor of my recent trip to Kenya (besides getting to see Heartwork projects in action, through the incredible ministry of One Child Matters) was getting to be a part of a women’s group which has been investing in this community for years. So, I wasn’t there just to see the Maasai dance for tourists. I was riding up and down their bumpy roads, passing wild zebra, singing in their church, hugging and kissing a hundred beaded necks, milking cows, dancing with their children, eating goat stew with chapatti, and trying with my Western mind to understand their ways.
As many words as I have about my trip, this particular story isn’t about me, and it’s not even about the Maasai. It’s about a truth so deep that it’s true for you, for me, and for these women I sat with on the other side of the planet. That’s the best kind of truth, isn’t it?
I looked into the women’s faces and tried to soak up the beauty. I was startled from my daze as a travel companion, a nurse from North Carolina, caught my attention to begin our presentation. We had been asked by the local team to talk about the spiritual and medical concerns regarding female circumcision, also known as FGM. It’s a dangerous and dehumanizing practice that is prevalent in many cultures around the world, including the Maasai. This is an important topic, but I am no expert and I won’t get into it here. The point is this simple truth, which I believe the Lord led me to share in that tent full of Maasai women in Kenya, and here with you.
Normal. It’s a word I’ve been simmering for a few years now. Whatever things are normal within our own culture become the most thoughtless practices for us. How many things do we do in our day to day lives, participate in as a society and spend our time and energy on, simply because we have never given thought to them… because they are normal? In getting to visit a new culture, one sees how each people group has its own “normal”. In Maasai-land, a man always carries a stick with him, a woman goes to the river many times a day to carry giant jug of water back up the hill, and a 15 year old girl is cut in a tiny hut made of manure in the deep bush of Africa. It’s all normal. We cringe, but they would be ashamed to do any differently.
“Think of a strong river,” I found myself telling them. “Turning away from a tradition, or a cultural norm is like turning around and trying to walk upstream.” Why would anyone choose a more difficult journey? Well, many will not and many others just do not. But we are Christians. Our identity as “Christian”, must mean something within our normal comings and goings. Our commitment to our Lord must supersede our cultural traditions. We pray and learn to hear God’s voice as He gently points out a path that is narrow. I encouraged the women, in this issue of FGM, not to just take our word for it, but to seek God for themselves and for their daughters. “Pray together, hear the Word of God, and if one of you feels convicted to make a change, beware of the temptation to judge each other or shrink back. God will show you the way. Then, encourage one another and stand strong.“
As I spoke, the words echoed in my heart for my own people. What are the cultural norms that we never even consider? What “normal” habits do we engage in that would make Christians outside of our culture cringe or shake their heads in bewilderment? It would be nice to think that we are beyond such imperfections, but that would be naïve. We are all subject to the temptations to fit in, to rise in status, or to avoid being “odd”.
I believe our most concerning cultural norms have to do with our highly consumer-driven, materialistic culture. But, don’t just take my word for it. Pray–listen to the Word of God for both yourself and the young people you lead. If you’re convicted to make a change in some very “normal” area of your life, don’t puff up into judgment of others or slip into insecurity. Just turn around and walk up that river, friend. You are not alone. There are many of us who long to see and be Christian leaders who will carve out that narrow path for others to follow.
“Yearning for a new way will not produce it. Only ending the old way can do that. You cannot hold onto the old, all the while declaring that you want something new. The old will defy the new; the old will deny the new; the old will decry the new. There is only one way to bring in the new. You must make room for it.” – Neale Donald Walsch
Here’s to creating a new “normal”.