Maybe a year and a half in Poland has left me somewhat nostalgic, but I love America, I miss America. As we learn the language and observe this culture so foreign to our own, we often catch ourselves comparing the two. One culture is home, and the other, well . . . it’s growing on us. Many similarities can be observed but a few stark differences exist. The longer I’m away from home the more I see “American Individualism” emanating from across the Atlantic. We Americans love stories about people who overcome all odds, we root for the underdog. Whether its pilgrims surviving the first winter, or sending the world’s great superpower back across the pond with its “tail between its legs”, or a handful of men holding off Santa Anna’s army allowing Sam Houston to rally the troops, stories of one man or a handful of people making a difference are forever engrained in our folklore. It’s why Sylvester Stallone made six Rocky films and it’s why Jack Bauer has saved the country, from certain destruction, something like five times with another adventure planned for this fall. Though we know the outcome we can’t avert our eyes. American fascination with sports has fed this obsession as well. One needs look no further than the Milan Indians. In 1954, Bobby Plump’s last second shot rocketed his team, from a little school of 161 students, to victory over the heavy favorites and enormous Bearcats of Muncie Central. Made famous by the movie “Hoosiers,” this story wrestles with “The Miracle On Ice” for the distinction of the greatest upset in sports history.
Polish people respect Americans, consider us allies, can’t get enough of Hollywood or our stories, but they don’t buy the underdog stuff. Theirs is a completely different history. Around the time we claimed our independence, Poland was completely dissolved. Polish history is littered with invading armies and neighboring countries that pillaged and claimed what was rightfully Poland’s. One of the great uprisings in modern history ended in tragedy for the Polish people. The book “A Question of Honor” documents how for 63 days 40,000 soldiers, including 4,000 women held off the Germans though having only 2,500 guns at their disposal. Hoping for rescue by the Allies the opposite in fact occurred. The Russian Army camped outside Warsaw counting on the Germans to eventually annihilate most officers and resisters. The purpose, of course, was so that Stalin could have a much easier path in establishing his puppet government. In that uprising, 22,000 soldiers and 200,000 civilians sacrificed their lives only to see the country fall into Soviet control for another fifty years in spite of the incredible efforts. Underdogs don’t win in Poland. Individuals are crushed. Strength is found in family, protection is found in community. Ginger and I have seen this played out time and time again in our neighborhood. We live in a block, which can be described as several high-rise apartment buildings in close proximity. For many, these apartments have been passed down from Grandfather, to father, to son. In the apartment below ours three generations, totaling ten people, live in roughly 800 sq. feet. Yeah, I have no idea how they do that. Living like this creates a tight community. In other words, if your neighbor has a problem it becomes your problem not out of pressure but because it’s the right thing to do. Four teenagers had planned on attending our teen camp this summer but they have all backed out because of the wedding of a former unrelated resident. Two nights ago, a drunk driver clipped our neighbor’s car at midnight. We watched from our window as the entire building sprang to life--not to gawk, but to chase down the car, phone the police, and check for injuries.
This aspect of their culture has ramifications on how the Gospel is shared in Poland. Don’t miss the point, the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is for all cultures, but the presentation is not a “one size fits all.” Though this is changing some now, for years American Christians have presented the Gospel to their neighbor as “a personal relationship with Christ” or emphasized to their unsaved colleague that “Jesus died specifically for you.” Without overstating, the individual aspect of the Gospel has little appeal for a Polish man or woman. Why would they want something that singles them out from their family and neighborhood? Why would they want to forge ahead alone? Underdogs don’t win. Individuals are crushed. In our first few weeks, Ginger and I noticed a word that kept coming up in the church service. “Kościół” (kosh-chewl) is the word for church in Polish, yet over and over we heard the pastor and various Christians refer to the church as a “zbór” (zboor). During one of our Polish lessons I asked our teacher (a staunch Catholic) the difference. Her reply was very negative, she told us that it described the church in a very informal way, it turns out that most Catholics in Poland agree. The problem is that “zbór” is the Polish translators’ word of choice in many places throughout the NT, though most Polish Catholics have no idea having become accustomed to the spoon feeding of their priests rather than the meat of God’s Word. The word denotes Christian family or Christian community and it’s precisely the message that must be emphasized while sharing the Gospel to Poles. For converts who risk alienation from their family and their neighborhood, the idea of being part of a Christian Family, or of members who know each other by name, who pray for each other and open their homes for Christian fellowship, the idea of being part of the Body of Christ, that resonates. In our short time here one experience stands out. Last summer we had the privilege of witnessing a public baptism for three Christians in our church. We went to the lake in town and watched as they were baptized publically in front of hundreds who were swimming 200 yards away. What a test for those young believers, publically distancing themselves from their former lives. It was the hugs and prayers of support coming from their “zbór” as they came out of the water that left the greatest impact on us. For those new believers, the message of reconciliation from alienation in Colossians 1 changed their lives forever.