by Harvey J. Thiessen
ONTARIO—During the recent Olympics, I watched with interest the women’s 100-metre freestyle swim. History was about to be made; there was excitement in the air. The commentators were hyping the athletes and setting the stage for viewers.
As the racers neared the finish, the excitement increased. Then our athlete won and history was made to exclamations of “never before,” “incredible,” and visions of a bright future for swimming.
Glancing at Facebook, I was confused. Posts of victory and history-making about the race appeared, but a different athlete was celebrated. I had cheered Canadian 16-year-old swimmer Penny Oleksiak. Others cheered American Simone Manuel, the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic gold.
It was the same race, but different athletes were being celebrated. They had tied for the gold medal, and yet Canadian commentators barely mentioned Simone and Penny was an afterthought for the Americans.
Neither country was wrong for celebrating different athletes, but they missed what else was going on. What we value and celebrate is greatly determined by our identity, who we are.
Whether by nationality, tribe, gender, sports team, profession, ethics, religion, political party or endless other ways, we separate and define ourselves as much by what we are not as by what we are. We complain when others (especially superiors) don’t acknowledge what is clearly important for us. We are all subject to this short-sightedness in our interactions.
In our delivery of the gospel message, for example, do we really understand what others are hearing and seeing? In the ethnically, culturally, denominationally, linguistically diverse community in OM where I serve, we have an advantage in seeing things from the vantage point of others. It is, however, not a natural tendency.
We have to try hard to think outside of our experience and understanding. While in the context of the gospel these divisions don’t apply (Gal. 3:28), they are still barriers to understanding. The best antidote is to develop the posture of Jesus, who came to serve and not to be served (Mark 10:45). It takes time to understand others.
In our modern world we have a greater challenge as we often live in different worlds in our home, work place and that new realm called the cyber world. Our little communities are no longer isolated, and the words and terms that we understand are often misconstrued by others.
There is even greater diversity of positions, histories, and experiences to understand in the new world the Internet has opened up. We can either run from it or find it as an opportunity to grow and be present as a witness in this world.
What happens when you continually feel marginalized, unimportant, or misunderstood? The best answer I have found is not to talk louder and more often to make sure I am noticed and understood, but to spend time understanding others. This is especially important in today’s new missions era.
More than ever, we have the opportunity to learn from the rich experiences of the global church, to understand the vast variety of God’s creation, and learn to work with it.
Harvey J. Thiessen (Wymark) serves as the North American Area Leader of Operation Mobilization.