That Time My Pot Got Me In Trouble

That Time My Pot Got Me In Trouble

“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.*” We pulled over at the side of the road to admire the handmade pottery of a Zulu craftswoman. Her earthenware was rough: clay scooped by the handful from the earth, shaped into a rustic earthenware pot with a sturdy swell at the base tapering into a gorgeous, distinguished neck. I knew we were flying half way around the world just a few days later and that our luggage allowance was limited, but I had to have it.  It was all the rough beauty of Africa in a single urn.

My brother-in-law constructed a custom box for it: repurposing old computer boxes with tape and tenacity. We stuffed its graceful neck with strips of raggedy, old newspaper. I remember brushing away mouse droppings and wondering if they would cause the sniffer dogs at customs any alarm: animal products, and all that. I found the biggest red marker possible, and stenciled FRAGILE! THIS WAY UP!! in alarmist lettering on every side.

I checked my bags through one, two and then three flights, but kept my cardboard box with me on each. I cradled it baby-like through each security checkpoint; held my breath through every bumpy landing. 11,000 miles later, I exhaled slowly as we taxied down the final runway. I was nearly home.

A long, snaking line at Passport Control. Arrivals forms efficiently scanned. A scurry through baggage claim. And finally: the last stop at customs and excise duty – a checkpoint which had only ever required a polite nod and a wave before the blessed reunions of the arrivals hall.

But not this time.

A man in uniform politely waved me to a counter, where I dutifully unpacked all my belongings and watched in fascination as my underwear and toiletries appeared in ghostly X-ray outlines on the screen. My polite chit-chat was interrupted by the customs official.

“What’s in the box?” she asked.

“It’s my pot,” I answered proudly, ready to tell her of the lovely road running from Ixopo into the hills. The expression on her face stopped me short.

What is it?” she snapped.

I pointed to the screen where the graceful outline was clearly visible. “It’s my p…… ”

In slow motion, I realized how incriminating my South African noun sounded to her Californian ears. My scalp prickled.

“It’s my vase! It’s my vase!” I sputtered. “I promise! There is absolutely NO pot in there whatsoever. Just a vase. Made of clay. Nothing else.”

*******

It’s not the only time my words have raised eyebrows. Our first year in the States was replete with moments of social humiliation and hilarity, but slowly our comfort with the local language grew. Our settling into life and community was matched (and facilitated) by a settling into the language of the community. A growing sense of belonging wasn’t just about getting to know people, or being known by them. Grafting into our community included grafting the vernacular into our conversation: once we talked like locals, we began to earn street cred. All our words were still said in a South African accent, but the actual words themselves changed too: diaper, not nappy. Faucet, not tap. Gas, not petrol. Oh for the love: eraser, not rubber.

Accidentally choosing my native words in conversation was like waving an “outsider” flag. Conversation would stall while we awkwardly stumbled to translate our intention. An offer to “fetch someone on my way” was met with suspicion and a shudder of offense. “Fetch” is a verb used for dogs chasing sticks. The more appropriate word here was “to give someone a ride”, or to “pick them up”. We made dozens of these adjustments: taking down linguistic barriers so we could reach across to form deeper friendships.

*******

I noticed it in the church most of all, probably because it was the place I needed to belong most keenly.

The cultural phenomenon of figuring out “who belongs” as defined by their language is a heightened reality within the evangelical church. Aware of theological threats on every side, we parse our words carefully. Some of Christendom’s deepest divides have been chiseled by disagreements over words. Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christendom parted ways over precise words, because of course it wasn’t just about the words – but rather that the particular words represented very nuanced (and divergent) theological views. Church history is littered with word-wars.

And the church today is no different. We think carefully about whether we describe ourselves as reformed, or evangelical. As a Christian, or a Jesus-follower. We choose those terms because they represent something significant about the way we understand our faith. It means something to be a Baptist rather than a Presbyterian. To be an Anglican rather than an Episcopalian.

Beneath the layer of formal Christian titles, there is the second tier of language, in the way we talk about everyday things. Do we talk about being “born again”, or having “come to Christ”, or “becoming a believer”. To move from a culture where people are “born again” into a culture where people “come to Christ” presents some challenges. When you tell the new group that you were “born again” – instead of initially seeing a similarity (yes! you are one of us! you belong to Christ!), the hearers might at first hear difference (that’s not how I would have put it. I wonder if she’s one of those hellfire and damnation folks. They talk about born again a lot. If she says “the blood of the lamb” in the next sentence, I’m outta here.)

It took nearly a year in the US for me to feel I could really trust my new church theologically. They spoke a different dialect of Christianese: similar enough to mine to understand it, but just different enough for me to be on guard. Just in case. Like the maps of yore, the edges of my theological map contains seas marked “here be dragons”. After a year, I had learned enough to know that even though the expressions of faith were phrased a little differently to where I’d come from – we were still kin, and the bedrock of our faith was common after all.

******

Every new believer we meet, whether we intend it or not, faces new customs when they visit our churches, and not unlike the Customs Official I met, we find ourselves wondering: what’s in your box?

Let’s not be alarmed if the answer comes out as something like ‘pot’.  It may well be that they really do love Jesus,  but they speak a slightly different Christian dialect. We have eternity to figure out the details – but for now, let’s give some grace to those who speak with a different faith ‘accent’ before we jump to conclusions.

  • The opening lines from Alan Paton’s most beautiful book, Cry, The Beloved Country.

14 thoughts on “That Time My Pot Got Me In Trouble

  1. The divisive traditions of phrases laden with unclear meaning are a barrier to faith and to community. At first, I thought I was too immature or inexperienced to understand religious concepts. It took me years and a university education to come to a point where I could use some of these phrases honestly and others still make me cringe because I doubt anyone using them really knows what they mean or if they mean. Potentially universal experiences lurk within them, but it takes tremendous effort to sort those experiences and to have confidence in the meaning of the labels. Without oversimplifying, I think we have a responsibility to make the path to faith clear, rational, and transparent. We need to be able to use language that even a child can understand.

  2. I agree, Laurna – having to teach my children about Scripture has been a tremendously eye-opening filter for me. With my children, I can’t hide behind fancy theological language, and I can’t avoid their direct questions. Speaking with them has brought a great deal of honesty and self-reflection to my faith-journey: one of the many, many things I count as blessings in my role as a mom.

  3. I love this.
    It resonates with me a lot, because I’ve ‘been there’ so much – I learned English as a second language, then got my variants (British, American, etc.) all mixed up through working and talking with an international crowd, not to mention the influence of books, media etc. I’ve been told that I sound like a native speaker – though not from a particular region – yet always, eventually, some phrase or word comes up where I stumble, just like your ‘fetch’ example.

    In Christian circles, especially, I don’t know which phrases go with which crowds. And what all the connotations are. Example: for an American, the word “evangelical” apparently evokes a lot of cultural things that are not a part of my experience at all. In Finland, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the mainstream ‘state church’ that encompasses a whole spectrum of political opinions from very left wing to right, and it is very far from the definitions of ‘evangelical’ in the Merriam-Webster dictionary that talk about “fundamentalist” Christianity and “having or showing very strong and enthusiastic feelings”. If I described myself as an evangelical, I would probably be trying to say something very different than what an American would understand.

    So I fully agree with your last point about different Christian dialects. Don’t shut them out before you listen and find out if they really mean what you think they mean. 🙂

    • Tuija – you are so right. ‘Evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are SUCH politically- and theologically-laden words here – and reading a dictionary gives one very little idea of just what kind of punch those labels can deliver socially. Thanks for reading and commenting – I always love to hear from readers!

  4. That ‘pot’ story is hilarious! And I loved how you used it to teach us some sensitivity and grace toward other cross-cultural interactions we may have within the bigger family of God. I am guilty of this! I usually zone out of a conversation containing too much Christianese. <==confession!

    • Thanks, Cindy. I’m sure you have some cultural-miscommunication and airport horror stories of your own 🙂

  5. Love your story! As an Australian living in America I found the smallest words could have a very large and negative impact at times! My husband and I got used to the strange look that would pass across the face of a confused listener and would mentally check back through our recent words to correct ourselves!

    The funniest times for us were when I talked about my ‘pot’ plants thriving (oh what horror since we were growing them at our bible college student accommodation!), and then the day my husband asked our friend if he could “nurse’ her newborn, (in Australia that just means to hold a baby), but when our friend could finally speak she explained that it meant breastfeed and my husband went beetroot red and quickly backed away!

    There were awkward times though, because in Australia we use words that in mid-western American Christian circles are considered swear words. I’m thankful that most people would ask if it was an Aussie thing before judging our faith in a harsh light. Miscommunication can do so much damage 🙁

    I’m a new reader of your blog and am enjoying it. Sorry for my long comment!

    • Oh I blushed for your husband just reading about the ‘can i nurse your newborn?’ question! Australia has some particularly odd turns of phrase. I remember vividly when a guy in Sydney offered to “shout me for lunch”, and me just staring at him in reply. I kept thinking “if you are going to be so rude as to shout at me, why would you warn me in advance?” … and yet the expression on his face seemed so friendly and hospitable and not-at-all-shouty. I was so confused.

      Thank you so much for reading my blog! and comments are always welcome – there is nothing that encourages a blogger so much as a comment to let her know people are reading 🙂

  6. I totally get what you mean about vernacular. When I lived in England I had a lot of new words to learn, or rather new meanings to old words that I needed to learn in order to be understood clearly. And since I became a Christian while over there, I also had to learn some of the American ways that Christians express themselves, as those were a bit different from the English ways I’d picked up in my early months as a new believer.

    That said, if you were to tell me you were going to fetch someone along the way I think my response would be to find your South African way of expressing yourself quite fetching.

  7. I really have enjoyed this post Bronwyn! I am the opposite of Tiff above, an American living in Australia and the language “barrier” if you can call it that has been quite terrible at times! Often times I have to ask for definitions of the most basic words and find myself stopping mid sentence when I realize the people listening have NO CLUE what I am saying!

  8. Great post! I truly enjoyed your story and I loved the application to Christianity. I am often finding myself careful about how I word things. This was a great reminder. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Interesting and well-written article (as always!) but I worry about the bigger picture that makes this post necessary – that we judge other Christians so easily. We wait to hear the right words until we decide “if they are kin”. I wish we could just have wider arms and a lot more grace. They declare they are a Christ-follower/born again/ believer (whatever) and we get the picture that they are a fellow traveller on the road to God. Should that not be enough? Why do we need to know what type of Christian they are? Are they like me? Are they some other sort?? NO! We are all trying to follow Christ as best we can let’s stop judging whether they are the ‘right type’ of Christian for us to accept.
    I’m having trouble wording this properly but it just bothers me deeply that we firstly judge whether people are believers or not and then whether they are the ‘right’ type of believers. So sad!

  10. I was helping someone who was teaching a free English as a Second Language class. U.S. The students were mostly Chinese. The teacher tried to say that snogging meant something vastly different than it does. When I insisted that, courtesy of the Harry Potter books, snogging meant kissing, boy was he embarrassed!

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