by Suyai R. Cameron
I remember meeting many missionary families in church who loved Jesus so deeply that they had decided to leave their countries behind and move to the narrowest and longest country in South America: Chile. Although each one possessed different personalities, they had some similarities that made them stand out from the local crowd. One of the most obvious was their love of structured time and the way they expected everyone, including nationals, to always be punctual – and how frustrated they became with the laid-back attitude of Chileans when it came to starting times, and especially finishing times, of every church meeting or get-together.
Over the years, many of them opened up to me and shared, among myriad things, how they found themselves feeling disrespected by the apparent nonchalant attitude of Chileans towards time. Even though I was born and bred in Chile, I was raised by a French grandmother and British grandfather, and so I have always been acutely aware not only of how important time and efficiency are for most Westerners, but also how easily frustrating different aspects of any culture you migrate into can be. After moving to the UK as an adult and having spent almost fourteen years here, I can now further empathise with the expats I met in Chile and can better understand the massive gap between the Western and the Latin American concepts of time and how we experience it.
The English phrase ‘don’t waste your time’ has an equivalent in Spanish: ‘no pierdas el tiempo’, which strictly translated means ‘don’t lose [the] time’. There is, nonetheless, a subtle difference between the English and the Spanish. Whereas a Westerner feels they can control time (by deciding whether to waste it or not), a Latin American feels they cannot control time (it gets lost).
One of the many anecdotal theories I have come up with over the years is that efficiency permeates everything in the West. Countries function in apparent order; people respect queues; and if you meet a friend for coffee they will give you an exact hour of their time and then have something planned to do right afterwards. In Latin America, however, it is relationships that seep into every aspect of life. If you’re invited for lunch, you will probably also stay for dinner; you will be more likely to find a job if you know the ‘right’ people; and if you meet a friend for coffee, you will stay there for at least two hours, if not more. None of these things is inherently right or wrong. They are simply different ways in which cultural mindsets are wired and entrenched deep within us.
The other side of the cultural coin is what we experienced when we arrived in the UK and started inviting people to our house. We quickly realised we couldn’t just ask someone to come for lunch on the same day – we had to agree on a date at least a few weeks beforehand. When they finally arrived and departed after two hours at the most, we were left wondering what on earth we had said or done that had offended them, as they had left so soon. We were used to people staying after a meal for hours on end, just talking about nothing and everything. There is even a Spanish word which has no translation to English: sobremesa (literally ‘on the table’). It is used to describe the period of time after everyone has finished their meal but are still sitting down and chatting about life in a leisurely manner for a long time. Here, it seemed that if our guests intended to stay even a wee bit longer than two hours, we needed to actually do something together, like go for a walk or play a game. Leisure for leisure’s sake was simply not on the cards.
I remember pondering about the frustration Western mission partners felt about Chileans not complying with set times. The palpable irritation they felt when a meeting started half an hour or more after the set time whilst people took time to greet everyone in the room and catch up before it started, or when people casually walked into the church service forty minutes after it had already begun. Most Chileans couldn’t really grasp this and usually considered issues revolving around time as secondary and not to be taken into account that seriously.
Many times, this cultural clash got me thinking about Jesus – was he actually punctual? Although we know the Bible was written by Middle Eastern people, our minds tend to somehow forget this, and we end up mostly reading it from a Western perspective. Even growing up in Latin America, many are taught by Western mission partners and thus tend to use the same lens. We are drilled in church with the overuse (or, dare I say, misuse) of ‘God is a God of order’ (1 Corinthians 14:33) and that therefore one should always be mindful of time and respectful of time.
However, we can see throughout the Bible how relationships trumped efficiency most of the time. We see Jesus taking his time – days – to get to his friend Lazarus, who had died, even though people found it hard to accept that he wouldn’t hurry up and feared he would be too late. We have the Mary and Martha story, where Jesus praises Mary for simply sitting at his feet whilst Martha is making sure everything is ready and on time. We witness Jesus giving children unrestricted time to come to him despite the open frustration of his disciples. It is hard to imagine Jesus rushing people around to start or end a meeting, although I can’t picture him wasting time either.
Once my husband was told off for having preached just over twenty minutes at a church in the UK as surely he should have been able to preach five-minute sermons following the example of how Jesus taught (e.g. the parables)? I couldn’t help but think about Jesus feeding the multitudes as they stayed for the whole day just to listen to him teach for hours and hours. Just because you can read a parable in less than five minutes, it doesn’t mean it actually happened as quickly in real life!
So, was Jesus punctual? I believe it would be fair to say that perhaps Jesus wasn’t necessarily punctual, but he was indeed always on time. There is a difference. We see Jesus interacting with people from different backgrounds and gently adjusting to their culture whilst still modeling a countercultural way of living, even when his own experience of time knows no bounds. When ministering cross-culturally, how you experience time can be a challenge both for yourself and the ones you are ministering to. As with everything in life, we need to accommodate our cultural expectations accordingly.
Nevertheless, as Christians we belong to a much wider subculture. Depending on where we were raised, Jesus’ cultural understanding of time might not exactly match our cultural (mis)understanding of it. One thing is clear though: he always made time for people at the exact moment when they needed it, even when it did not seem ‘convenient’ or ‘right.’ The God of the Universe walking among us was – and is – all too familiar with time being eternal and with our hearts yearning for time spent with him no matter what our watches may try to dictate. Jesus didn’t see people as interruptions, but as valuable enfleshed souls requiring unconditional love and every single ounce of his attention, despite our own earthly understanding of time.
Suyai R. Cameron cannot imagine a life without writing. She has lived in forty-six houses (and counting) across two continents and feels at home in at least four countries. Together with her husband and their son, they have been serving God in Northern Ireland, UK, for more than a decade. On top of working as an editor and translator, she enjoys dark chocolate, reading books under her velvety weighted blanket, leisurely walks through lush forests, and pondering on the intersection between the Bible and ordinary everyday life. You can follow her on Instagram at @suyai.r.cameron and on Facebook as Suyai R. Cameron.