I recently learned that when true love reigns there is no need to worry about etiquette. Let me say more...
As we've traveled between cultures Chris and I have worked hard to figure out the cultural norms in each place. In Peru, when we arrived at someone's front door we were always given something to drink and a shady place to sit, even if we only planned to stay for a few minutes. In Kenya, it seemed that conversation was supposed to start with updates on everyone's family members. In Puerto Rico, people greet each other by saying, "¿Todo bien?" which means "Everything's good?" and it isn't socially acceptable to talk about anything meaningful until two people know each other well. Here in Costa Rica people never return a plate, bowl, or serving dish to its rightful owner empty. We took birthday cake to our neighbors and received our plates back a couple of days later full of sweet bread. As we've navigated these cultural challenges our kids have constantly encouraged us not to worry about the "rules" and just do for others whatever we'd appreciate them doing for us. Although I viewed this childlike perspective as something sweet and innocent, I wanted to make sure that they understand the importance of etiquette. What exactly is etiquette? Well, according to Merriam-Webster, etiquette "helps us to know how to treat others respectfully and appropriately in any context. By knowing how to read social cues and communicating effectively, we put others at ease, foster meaningful relationships and create a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere wherever we go." In a nutshell, we do for others whatever we'd appreciate them doing for us, just like our kids have said all along. When our actions come from a place of authentic love there is no need for prescribed etiquette because our love naturally compels us to treat others respectfully in every context. It's our love that puts others at ease, fosters meaningful relationships, and creates comfortable and relaxed atmospheres, not premeditated words and actions.
We recently had the opportunity to visit a friend who serves as a missionary in Honduras. In preparation for that trip, we registered online and paid the organization with which she works for our room/board. A week before our departure I reached out to see if there was anything we could bring her from Costa Rica, something that would bless her. Given the fact that the Costa Rican and Honduran cultures are so similar, there wasn't anything that we could think of that she couldn't easily get in Honduras, so we arrived empty-handed.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to spend quality time with our friend and her Honduran boyfriend, Cesar. We all told funny stories and recounted the cherished memories of our past. Chris and I talked about what it's been like to raise kids in the mission field and offered advice knowing that they're considering the same for the family they hope to have one day. It was a blessed visit and we thank God for the time that we had to share with this beautiful young couple.
A couple of days later we realized that our friend's birthday had recently passed and decided to buy her some fancy chocolates as a belated birthday gift AND as a gesture of appreciation for having us as her guests. She responded by saying, "Awww, you didn't have to do that!" but having grown up in a culture where it's polite to give one's host a token of gratitude for their hospitality, we felt differently. Even though we were in Honduras, we're all Americans, so it seemed that the rules still applied.
When it came time to leave, our friend hesitantly presented us with a gift saying something to the effect of: "Cesar is really grateful to have met you guys and really enjoyed your company. He wanted to see you off, but couldn't. Yesterday, we were talking about your family when all of a sudden he asked me what's the nicest thing we own. I understood what he was asking, but didn't see the point of the question. He asked me again, 'What is the nicest material thing that we have between the two of us?' As poor missionaries we don't have much, so I told him I didn't know. He thought for a minute longer and finally said that our most precious possession is the tri-fold panel of the Trinity. I didn't want to give it to you guys because it's the only thing I have that's really special to me. I keep it by my desk and look at it every single day. To me, this image is a perfect representation of the Trinity. Cesar told me that that's exactly why we need to gift it to you guys - because it's so beautiful and so special." Our friend went on to admit that she didn't think they needed to give us anything (based on the 'rules of etiquette' that she had learned in her life) and assured us that she could take no credit for this generous gift. She tried to convince Cesar to change his mind, but he insisted. I was speechless, blessed by her honesty, and completely awestruck by Cesar's selfless generosity. I have given away a lot of things, especially these last eight years, but I don't remember ever asking myself, "What is the most precious thing we own?" in an attempt to identify what we should give someone else as a gift.
There was one time that I thought the Holy Spirit was asking me to give someone my bible (which is my most precious material possession), and so after a lot of prayer I reluctantly offered it to a young Muslim man, but he declined because he said that it's forbidden for him to have any Christian paraphernalia. When it came time for us to part ways I quietly thanked God for allowing me to keep my Bible and promised Him that I would give it away if He really
wanted me to...but to be perfectly honest, there's part of me that hopes that day never comes!
As I've thought about the authentic love that compelled Cesar to give so generously I've been flooded with feelings of gratitude for his bold witness. I also feel a tremendous sense of peace knowing that our kids are going to do just fine in whatever culture they find themselves living. It's crazy to think that I've been worrying so much about them when the truth is that they've had it right all along: I don't need to worry about what the "rules" are in any given place, I just need to do for others whatever I'd appreciate them doing for me. So long as my love is real my words and actions will come from a place of charity, and my faux pas from a place of ignorance, not disrespect. I hope to grow in the virtue of generosity so that I'm free to selflessly give the most precious things I have, knowing that happiness doesn't come from what I have but rather from what I give.
Which of your material possessions is the most special? The most precious? The most valuable? Would you freely and joyfully give these things to someone after knowing them for just a week, like Cesar? If not, why?
Do you find yourself preoccupied with social etiquette? Do you do things from a place of obligation or authentic love?
I challenge you to really consider your motives. If you're as generous and selfless as Cesar, praise God. If not, join me in praying for the graces needed to learn how to love as Jesus teaches.
Thank you for taking the time to read a bit about what the Lord has been doing in our lives lately. Blessings, Karen
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