Once, when visiting a country where most of the people had darker skin, I saw a picture of Jesus and children painted on the wall of a Christian school (i.e., probably illustrating the record of Mark 10:13-16). Most of the children in the picture had dark skin, but there was a single white child in the group.
Although I suspect that both Jesus and the children that were brought to him didn’t look like either of these (since Jesus was of Jewish descent, and the children probably were, too), it was interesting to observe the opposite trend from many other pictures of this story that I had seen, which were meant for white audiences. When I was young, the usual poster in a Sunday School room for this story would probably have a bunch of white kids and one or two children with different skin tones.
I suspect that this has gotten better in the modern era, as transportation and technology make our world smaller, but I still rarely see pictures of a Jewish-looking Jesus.
Before then, I remember a time when the music leader at our church one Sunday morning (a young, cool-looking guy, who had both a heart for worship and a talent for music), announced that the next couple of songs, “might be new to some of you”. To some, this is an ominous warning that some obscure, new, un-singable piece is coming. I don’t remember if a hushed groan spread among the congregation (although, if others were thinking that, they were probably polite enough to hide it). In this case, though, the music leader proceeded to lead the congregation in singing a couple of hymns.
As I recall, I actually knew the “new songs” just fine, having sung hymns when I was younger and still taking time to enjoy them in my own music library today (along with music from many other styles and eras). However, it struck me that – for many in the worship service that day – these hymns were new, and it might be a little uncomfortable for those worshipers to try and follow along.
Both of these events caused me to remember that my vantage point is not the only point of view. Truth is truth, and – when it is actually truth – does not vary depending on how one looks at it. However, what I have grown used to – what I grew up with and experienced – is not the same as everyone else. Others may come to the same church, or hear the same things as me, but yet have different perceptions, expectations, and interpretations of these events.
The songs I know well (whether from the hymnbook, from the radio, from our music minister, or from my own discovery) aren’t the same as anyone else. The children’s books that taught me Bible stories when I was little (and filled in missing pieces of the stories with their own inferences and illustrations), just aren’t the same as someone else. This is true even if that other person also had a Christian upbringing (that is, even if the core of Biblical truth was the same). And, if that is the case, imagine what differences exist between my expectations and someone who did not have the same foundation of faith as I experienced.
The life that I’ve lived has had its own twists and turns; ups and downs; adventures and trials. But, these experiences aren’t the same as anyone else’s that I will meet today.
While we can’t necessarily put ourselves in someone else shoes (or sandals, or bare feet), may these illustrations remind each of us that others could bring very different perspectives to things, and to try to be sensitive to that. This might require us to explain what we are saying, or to ask to learn more about others’ background. It may require us to refer back to the Bible to differentiate how much of what we have learned was truth, and how much was human speculation (no matter how well-intentioned), whether the latter was used to fill in the gaps or to make a story more understandable to a specific audience.
The Bible reminds us that all kinds of people are part of the family of God:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:26-28 NASB
Being redeemed by Jesus meant that the community of His followers no longer had to differentiate themselves as to their faith. However, each of them did bring a unique past to the church, and before they found the Truth, I suspect that others in the church had to be considerate of individual backgrounds.
Here, Jews and Greeks were people groups who normally wouldn’t worship together. Their beliefs were so fundamentally different, that it just wouldn’t have made sense. But, in following Jesus – who the Jews could relate to as a rabbi and Messiah, and the Greeks could relate to as a great teacher and God – the early Christians could glorify God together, despite radically different backgrounds.
In conclusion, consider this passage from 1 Corinthians:
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God;
1 Corinthians 10:31-32 NASB
What do we need to see differently today, for the good of others? May we remember that our backgrounds are not the only ones, and – in love – consider others’ history, as well.