a symbol of civility

There was some great food in Argentina. Asado, a kind of barbecue concept, involves eating different cuts of meat over a period of about 3 hours. Katie and I even came back drinking mate, a hot drink unique to South America.

But understanding and appreciating the cultures where our missionaries work is not about the food. Nor is it about what they can or can’t buy or how long it takes them to pay their bills, although all these things are important and may help us pray more thoughtfully about the work they do and the challenges they encounter.

Culture, at some level, is about the core values of a people. And each country, and in fact each family or individual, has been shaped by its history and geography in ways that shapes its politics and its art. To reach a people, missionaries have to learn these things. And to pray for a people we must learn them too.

I can assure you, spending six weeks in Argentina didn’t make us experts. And spending a lifetime there might not either. But it has made us more thoughtful, and more prayerful.

For example, one afternoon we stopped at a Shell station and bought some water so we could use the wifi. The young man had us sit down and brought us the water with two glass goblets. What’s going on here? It is more than a novelty. It is a sign of something significant, an aspect of national identity. It’s part of how the Argentines see themselves.

It fits a pattern. There are no Styrofoam cups. There is no take out. Even a cup of coffee in a gas station comes in a ceramic cup with a cookie on the side. And a $2 cup of coffee in a café? Well, that comes with a roll and a small glass of orange juice, with white linen tables cloths and napkins.

But to see this is not to understand it.

You see, the waiter who served it to you is making about $3 an hour. In fact, the per capita income in Argentina is about $14,000 a year, about a third of that in our country. According to the Washington Post, a century ago Argentina was the 4th richest country in the world, and now it’s the 76th.

Argentina has resources equal to our own. But corrupt leadership and mountains of debt have left it teetering on the edge of third world status. A cloth napkin or a glass goblet then becomes a marker of past glory, a flag of defiance, a symbol of civility, an enduring legacy of their European roots.

The irony of being Argentine is to see your self as European but to be denied the respect and resources that come with it. At some level this explains the Falkland War and the dysfunctional socialism and the 35% tariff on agricultural exports.

But more than that it explains two things about the Argentines. First, they crave respect. And second, they don’t trust authority, since both their government and the national church have failed them. So we come to them with the gospel and say, so you want respect? Actually you are more broken than you realize. You don’t trust authority? Jesus wants to rule every aspect of your life.

This is a tough sell, and to be a missionary in Argentina, or to pray for a missionary in Argentina, we need to understand it. And understanding how difficult it is, we need to rest in God’s soverign grace and power.


This is an excerpt from a sermon entitled “The Hand of the Lord.” You can hear the entire sermon here.

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