Changing the Center of Our Universe

by Ian Bridgman

It was Easter Sunday. The clear aqua blue water splashed gently against the white sand of the beach, crowded with picnicking families. I saw the helicopter a ways off the shore, going back and forth. And then again. And again. I thought it was one of the sightseeing choppers that give happy tourists a view of the island from the air, until it came back once more, this time right along the beach flying low over the water. It was bright orange, and there were men with rescue gear intensely searching the water below. Then I saw the bright orange boat, also cruising back and forth further out. This was a search and rescue operation, meaning that someone’s Easter Sunday had gone terribly wrong.

All of us have a cultural center of gravity, a fixed point around which our own personal universe revolves. This center of gravity affects almost everything, from how we view the world around us to how we understand and relate to individual people. For some people it could be the closest big city, perhaps New York or Boston for people in New England. For others, it could be their individual small town, or city block. This started to make more sense to me while living in Martinique for the second time. For example, one evening, I overheard a DJ performing a live mix show on the radio, and it was fabulous. I found myself thinking “why is this guy still here on this island when he could be tearing up the airwaves in New York or Miami??” In my mind, success in a large American city carried more value than success in a place that most people I know can’t even find on a map. It took me until the end of my first year there to understand that for this DJ, just as for my housemate, and most of the other people on the island, the most important thing was not success in some place he has maybe visited once, or most likely only seen on TV. It was not success in Martinique as a whole, or even Fort-de-France, the capital city. The center of his universe is his individual town, among his extended family and the friends he has had since childhood. The most important thing, for him, is to be successful and respected in that specific context.

The same rule often applies to us as assistants. One thing I found disappointing was how many of the assistants would refer to their “real lives” or “real jobs” back in the U.S. or England, as if our experiences and responsibilities somehow didn’t count simply because the people had a different skin color, or spoke a different language, or lived in an “exotic” place. As if these people were cartoon characters or images on a postcard temporarily come to life that would return to being frozen in time once the wheels went up on our airplane. Every year, there are a few that abandon their contracts in order to take a “real job” back home. The beaches were nice, but we’ve been sunburned enough times. This teaching thing is getting mundane. Why stay on the island any longer when “real life” is waiting back in Boston or Washington D.C.? The whole point of this beautiful tan is to show it off to our friends back home anyway.

While at Urbana this year, I found myself at a seminar with Frontiers, who specialize in missions to unreached Muslim people groups. The representative was presenting what it takes to “be the first” (which is Frontiers’ motto) missionary to an unreached group. She used a different analogy, but I quickly realized it was the same concept that was beginning to form in my own mind. She described how the space shuttle carrying the Rover to Mars started out with so much extra baggage, fuel tanks, protective capsules, airbags, parachutes, and even the shuttle itself. By the time it touches down and actually begins its work, there remains just a small fraction of the original vessel that left earth. In the same way, she said, those who are called to an unreached people group need to be prepared to shed many layers and any extra baggage in order to be effective in understanding those we are trying to reach. It requires a shift in our center of gravity, changing the center of our universe. This is much of the reason why when a group of Afghan girls gets blown to bits by a land mine, it is unfortunate, if we even hear about it, but when a bomb goes off at the Boston Marathon, it is a time-stopping horror. Not that we should be paralyzed with grief every time somebody dies somewhere in the world; we would be useless and cease to function. I’m only illustrating the point. One is far away, the other hits close to home. The Boston bombing was certainly a tragedy, but I doubt those families in Afghanistan were posting #bostonstrong all over their twitter accounts.

So back to Martinique. The sun was setting, the sandflies were coming out, and it was time to leave the beach. Neither my friends nor I thought much more about the search operation we had seen earlier. Two days later, I was in the corner grocery store in my neighborhood and saw the newspapers stacked by the checkout. There it was on the front page, a picture of a boy getting close to finishing high school. He had been caught up in a current and pulled out to sea where he drowned. On Easter Sunday. It took effort to hold myself together as I checked out my things and walked back to my house.  That was our go-to beach, one of the very best on the whole island, and Sunday, after church, was the best day to go. It was also normally one of the safest. I knew it well. This beach was a guaranteed good time. Now, one family would never be able to enjoy that beach the same way again. The thought of someone drowning is always a chilling thought, but this instance was especially sobering. I knew that sand, and that water. I knew where he went to high school. I knew the picnic tables where his family was probably eating that afternoon. I knew what the procession would look like as his community, dressed in black and white, marched, on foot, through the town, from the church to the cemetery.  The center of my universe was shifting, and this was all hitting very close to home.

Of course, one thing that will never shift, regardless of where we go, or how long we stay in one place, is Jesus Christ. If our identity is in him, then we do have a solid rock that will never change, no matter what language we speak, or what clothes we wear, or where we go swimming on Sunday afternoons. I am no longer in Martinique, and I don’t expect to return anytime soon. Any shift in my cultural center of gravity that may have occurred will most likely begin to reverse itself. But I consider it a privilege to have lived there, twice, and to experience first-hand the change in perspective, and the growing pains that come with it. My primary role there was not missions, but I know that God was not letting those 14 months go to waste. I wasn’t taking a year or two off, hibernating on some far-flung island. I was learning, making mistakes, and growing, right at the center of the universe, a different universe, but one that is still very close to God’s heart, and now, close to mine as well. I don’t know what God will do with all this;  I really have no idea. But I do know that Jesus loves me and those in Afghanistan, Boston, Pittsfield, New York City, Martinique, and everywhere else. The Bible tells me so. The Bible also says that “he who began a good work . . .  will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1.6). That is good news no matter what universe we live in.

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