Have you ever been to Zambia?
I haven't. But I know where it is. It's in Africa.
Zambia's centrally located, a land-locked country towards the southern tip. Its capital is Lusaka and most of it's population is urban, centred around the capital and the province called Copperbelt. It's called that because of the copper which has historically been Zambia's chief export. There's other mining as well, but agriculture employs more. And there's tourism, with the Zambesi River and the famous Victoria Falls. The official language of government is english, but there are at least 72 different ethnic groups, most of which speak Bantu.
Unfortunately, about 68% of Zambians live below the nationally recognized poverty line and inflation is still quite high. There are some social programmes, but very few are able to get out of poverty. Public health spending is among the lowest in Africa and, despite a recent decline, Zambia faces an HIV/aids epidemic. The average life expectancy is 51 years.
Well, that's enough. You can read the rest on Wikipedia or BBC News or Lonely Planet. Or the CIA website in their World Fact Book. Yes, they have a website.
But knowing all that stuff doesn't make any connections with the country or the people there, does it? Our church recently decided to raise some money to send a member of our congregation to Zambia as part of a Habitat for Humanity team. They'll be building a house for a family that takes in orphans, many who've lost parents to the HIV epidemic. It's good, important work that supports people in need.
It also provides us with an opportunity to connect, even through just one person, to get to know about people and life there. That doesn't only inform us with facts, but makes it more personal, more about experience and interaction. We can't all go, perhaps, but even one person sharing what they experienced brings us to a more personal understanding.
Writing to the people of Corinth, Paul says that he has "been all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22). It surprises me, sometimes, that many people - and many churches - still try to understand Paul literally. We should surely know by now that we can't be all things to all people. And trying to do so simply results in a lot of disappointment for a lot of people. But I don't think that's really what Paul means.
I think he means that we need to be ourselves, but to meet others where they are and respect where they are. Seek to understand their perspective, where they're coming from, what their traditions are, what their "language" is. That allows us to offer what we can, but also receive what others offer. That builds relationships that are whole, healthy and respectful. That creates a place where thoughts and ideas and even beliefs can be shared.
Given the manner in which we often impose ourselves on others or expect them to "speak our language," it may seem a novel idea, but it's not new to Paul. Jesus met people where they were, especially the sick, the poor, and the outcast.
Even from the beginning of his ministry, the gospel of Mark says, people flocked to Jesus. When Jesus was there, "the whole city was gathered around the door" and "everyone is searching for" him (Mark 1:33, 37). But it wasn't because they were looking for a name, a figure or a brand, they were looking for the guy who healed people, who made them whole. They were looking for the one who taught about love and showed love to all, no matter who they were. They were looking for the one who took the time and offered the grace that it was enough to be who we are.
We're just human beings. So was Paul, and there's certainly lots of evidence to suggest he wasn't always that good at being "all things to all people." But Jesus calls us to try, to reach out with respect and engage people where they are.