What Lies Beneath

Today’s scripture: Romans 14:1-12 (ESV-text and audio) (KJV) (The Message)

As you read, consider: What might God be saying to me? Summarize your thoughts in a sentence or two.

My thoughts (Elizabeth Keller):

“It’s a scene out of National Geographic,” one person said, as our group of 13 drove into the deep bush of Sudan to meet the Toposa (Tuh-pō-suh) tribe. Typically in their skins (meaning “naked”), they “clothed” for our visit. Children’s eyes were mesmerized as we stepped into their world — many had never before seen a white person. Caked with dust and dirt (the nearest clean water was over 5 miles away), jewelry dangling around their necks and ankles, many bodies marked by scars from times of war, the Toposa people welcomed us. We walked through their primitive village, surrounded by the smell of feces (both animal and human), as children crowded all around us. We then we approached the leader of the tribe.

The village of Toposa.

Some of the children of Toposa.

As he spoke in their native tongue, we had no idea what this tall, gaunt man was saying to our host Gladys of the Sudan Council of Churches. He raised his voice, beat his chest, flailed his arms, yelled at the women, and never once looked at us. Our group got scared. Did we do something wrong? Were we not welcome? We saw a man standing behind the leader — holding a gun — and we wanted to leave. But then after about ten minutes of this leader’s ranting and raving, he turned to us — and shook our hands. We were so confused and still scared. As we turned to leave, he insisted that we receive a goat as a gift of hospitality. Could this trip to the Toposa tribe get any more strange?

Our gift from the village leader.

I sometimes have similar experiences when I journey to the Pauline Epistles written to the early churches in the first century. I mean, how do we understand male circumcision and female submission; the flesh, the law, and the Spirit; the Greeks and Jews; and works and faith? It’s all rather mystifying — and marvelous, too, like our trip to the Toposa tribe.

In seminary we always say, “Context, context, context!” Some say with scripture, “What you see is what you get.” But if my experience with the Toposa tribe taught me anything, it’s that things are not always what they seem.

As we returned to the compound with a goat in tow, Gladys interpreted the scene for us. The Toposa leader was not in fact angry with us. It is customary and normal for their people to speak loudly with fervor and passion, using their entire bodies to express themselves. As Gladys continued to interpret their words and rituals, we learned that our fear was never needed; instead, our hearts and hands opened to their hospitality was.

Have we too often passively accepted or passed judgment on Paul’s letters before daring to dig deeper into the Word and world for which it was written? Have we too often traveled to other countries, with the best intentions to do good work, but make wrong assumptions because we have failed to learn their culture, listen to their story, and hear their voices and dreams? Have we too often passed judgment on another based on their outward appearance, not what is hidden inside?

As you engage the Word and the Other, I invite you to dig deeper into the context and story of our neighbor and stranger across the tracks, under the bridge, beyond our borders — and in the very next pew.

Thought for the day: When was the last time you passed judgment on someone based on outward appearance? Do you really know the stories of your next-door neighbors? People at church? Colleagues at work? Strangers around the world?

We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the guidelines on the How to Pray page.