main menu

November 18, 2016

odds and ends of mercy

It was a Saturday evening and I saw the man I married standing over a dirty pile of dishes in and around our one tiny sink. He was patiently cleaning every dish our guests had dirtied. If he were the cook, the dishes would have been neatly stacked, and fewer pots and pans would have been dirtied. But no matter—there he was, patiently and quietly cleaning up after his wife, the Tasmanian Devil of the kitchen. The task took him at least one hour, but he didn't complain.

On Sunday during the service, I  heard a pounding on the church door. Before anyone else could react, my husband jumped up to answer the door and pull the knocking man's wheelchair into the building. During the service, my husband was up and down several more times. Once to look for the easel the speaker wanted to write on. Multiple times to play his guitar, in his un-showy way. Once to close the bathroom door which stays open when someone with a wheelchair uses the bathroom.

At the coffee break between services, I saw him sitting at a table full of misfits. My husband is intelligent, athletic, musical, good looking and could mingle with most anyone. But he chose to sit with a simple immigrant lady with whom conversations are always about the same four or five topics. On his other side was the elderly German man who doesn't seem to do much more than eat cookies and praise my husband's language skills. The handicapped Russian-speaking man wearing a pirate-like eye patch was at the table too. He is difficult to understand and 3/5 of his jokes revolve around vodka. In human terms, the people at the table had nothing to offer my husband. And there he was, in the midst of them.

One of the unexpected blessings of marriage has been catching my husband employing his gift of mercy. We got to know each other long distance, so I didn't know I'd be the wife of the guy who buys popsicles for his coworkers on the hottest day of the summer. The one who patiently bears with long-lasting annoyances at work. The one who can be around a noisy child without getting upset. The one who nearly endlessly bears with his wife, who has more ideas than she has time to organize them...who starts a third or fourth project or sentence before wrapping up the first. It's unusual to hear him say a negative word about anyone. His spiritual gift is a gift to me and to everyone else.

I've noticed that usually the area where we feel most tempted to criticize our local fellowship—or the area where we see a giant need in the church—is probably an area of our own spiritual gifting. A friend of ours whose gifting is obviously in outreach is always perturbed that our fellowship doesn't have a clearer, more direct message going out every Sunday. I tend to be critical of sloppy, disorganized teaching and I think this is probably because teaching is one of my spiritual gifts. And when my husband sees that someone is suffering or needy, his "helps" or "mercy" sensor breaks his heart and sets him in motion. We can help with a variety of needs in our fellowships, but there are probably particular needs that we will feel especially drawn to, and be especially equipped to meet.

One evening my husband referred to a group of people who had been at our house as "odds and ends". It was a good description. The group was a bit of this and that: from different cultures, ages, and backgrounds. They didn't have much in common except that we'd met them through our fellowship, and none of them had much in common with my husband or me. His comment reminded me that while we might avoid gatherings of odds and ends (that night was a bit awkward), God thrives on gathering odds and ends and making them One in Him.

Titus said, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. Do we think He made us part of the Church because we were so attractive to Him? Because we cut our hair in reasonably stylish ways, spoke unaccented English or made decent money? Because we could carry on interesting conversations and He liked our personalities? Because we had something impressive to offer Him?

No, we had nothing to bring to Him. The mess was our fault, but He came along to clean it up. We were outside knocking, and He didn't have to let us in. We were at the table full of misfits who had nothing to offer Him. Somehow, He had mercy on us anyway. Not because of who we are, but because of Who He is.

We are His miscellaneous remnants.
We are odds and ends of mercy.

Will we show mercy to His other odds and ends?

"For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy." —Paul to the Romans

August 10, 2016

changing places

The late May air hangs heavy around us as we drive down a dirt lane in the shadow of live oaks. We're back at the place where the deer skitter in the bushes and the squirrels reign over the treetops.  Our visit at my in-laws' is full of reminders of old times for my husband: we eat some of his favourite meals, visit all his immediate family members, and sort through old books and papers. Standing on a chair in his former bedroom, my husband dusts and throws out a row of faux gold sports trophies from his younger years. "Sometimes I forget what a champion I was," he comments wryly. Between trips to the bank to do paperwork and attending a nephew's birthday party, I ask him if being at his parents' home again makes him wish he still lived there. "Not really," he says, "I just have memories here. It's not really my place anymore." But where is his new place? Sometimes we're not sure.

In early June we find ourselves in my brother's home. My brother is also my former housemate, and although he no longer lives in the house we shared, in nearly every room of his apartment I notice things that used to be mine. There's my knife set sticking to a metal strip in his kitchen, a towel that was mine in the linen closet, and my unsightly broken iron sitting on a shelf. In his spare room I find the berry crown I wore for our wedding photos and a tablecloth a dear elderly lady stitched pink roses into for us. Near the end of our trip, I search through dusty boxes in friends' farm shed for a blanket that holds memories for me; I want to take it to Europe.

Europe—my stomach flip flops when I see a picture of our new apartment—I am not sure I am ready to go back. 

(I have a lot of questions: Will I ever learn to express myself fluently in German? Will I ever feel at home in Europe? What would it be like to have and raise children in a place that will always be foreign? When will I find honest yet gracious answers to questions like, "Do you like living here?" or "What's different about living here?")

Ready or not, the tickets are already bought. We return to Europe and I stand in my kitchen, looking at my garbage can and reminding myself: that's what my garbage can looks like. After a few weeks in old places, I'm in a bit of a daze. How many housewares have I bought, thrifted, sold, given away and re-bought in the last five years? I'd rather not think about it. I sort through piles of stuff, and a week later a kind friend ferries both us and our belongings to our new apartment.

We've been in our latest home just over a month now. A few Tuesdays ago, a perky friend of a friend came over, and between bites of sushi she asked about our adjustment. She used a typical German verb: sich einleben, which literally means to "live yourself in". Have you lived yourselves in yet? My husband said, "Not really, I think it's going to take some time." She pressed, "Oh, do you miss people from your last city?" referring to the town 150km down the road where we last lived. I answered, "Yes, them too, but we sort of just miss...the rest of the world." It took a few weeks to organize most of our belongings, but it takes longer to organize our souls.

My transient soul has been tired lately, and at just the right moment,  I came across Psalm 84. It came alive again when I realized that it's all about where we live—about places, homes, nests and houses.

How lovely is the place where You live, O Lord.
My soul longs and even faints to be there with You.
Even the sparrow has found a home, 
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young—
Even Your altars, O Lord of hosts....
Blessed are those who dwell in Your house;
They will still be praising You. 
Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, 
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the valley of weeping,
the rain covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength;
Each one appears before God...
One day where you live, O God
is better than a thousand elsewhere.  
I would rather work as a doorkeeper at your house than spend my days where the wicked people live...  Blessed is the man who trusts in You.

Someday this old European apartment with its big windows and many doors may feel like home. Someday I may start voluntarily cooking hearty meals of pork, potatoes and sauerkraut (though I doubt it). Someday I may have German conversations that go deeper than how many siblings I have or how long I've lived in Europe. Someday, if we stay long enough, I may feel like I've mich eingelebt here, like it is my place. (Let's be honest, Western Europe isn't really a "hardship posting"—there are many lovely things about living here, too.)

But I'm not sure I want that eingelebt day to fully come after all. This unique ache of not having an earthly place makes me like the Psalmist—longing for a place near the Lord. Not having family or friends' homes to run to makes me realize that His house is my true house. 

Blessed am I when I make my home where He is.
Blessed am I when I make a nest for my young at the altar of God.
Blessed are we when we prioritize raising citizens of Heaven above raising citizens of a certain chunk of land in the Americas or Europe.
Blessed are we when we live each day in anticipation of our last repatriation...that final changing of places.

"and...we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore comfort one another with these words."

"...The heavens will disappear...
the elements will be destroyed...
and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
Since everything will be destroy in this way,
what kind of people ought you to be?
You ought to live holy and godly lives, 
as you look forward to the day of God...
in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to
a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."

May 19, 2016

until the day dawns

There's no sunlight yet this morning. Around me dozens of travellers are draped under blankets, stretched across two seats each, dead to the world. Beneath me wheels are turning at a steady pace, taking us to the airport in the big city. My mind is too awake to sleep, but too asleep to do more than pray a few partial prayers.

 Odd-hour voyages, sad farewells, and quiet petitions for the people I'm leaving behind have become the stuff of my life in recent years. This time we're just travelling to visit North America, and we plan to continue living in Europe, but upon our return, we're moving an hour and a half down the road. Last night our regular Wednesday evening group gathered in our friends' home instead of ours. We attended only the meal portion of the evening and then bid everyone farewell and headed home to finish packing. One of our international friends said, "I love you!" to me for the first time as we left. Part of me was touched. And part of me thought, I already love too many people. Do I have room in my heart to love one more person? To pray for another person? God must think that I do. As we walked home, my husband said he felt like a parent leaving his kids home alone for the first time.

Recently, I heard a speaker say that God often uses our upbringing or background to create our platform for ministry. He spoke of David, who played the harp presumably to pass time while watching sheep, but became so skilled in playing that he ended up in the palace. He said that often the very things that seem ordinary to us are the things God chooses to use to bless others. I realized that God is taking my history as a TCK, a constant hello- and goodbye-sayer, to provide a platform for loving other internationals who may have less experience moving or no Anchor to steady them through transitions. Sometimes we feel tired by cross-cultural living, transitions and language learning, but we can see that it has created unique opportunities to love people of many backgrounds, cultures and religions—although the goodbyes never get easier.

A few weekends ago we visited a church in the city where we will be moving. It was nice, but I told my husband that it seemed too white for us. (I hope white people are allowed to say such things.) Outside the doors of the church, there are Turkish kebab vendors in both directions, a vast Asia Mart, a salon offering Brazilian waxing, and a shop selling African groceries. But inside the church building, the audience was 99% Caucasian and I only smelled curry one person's clothes. I told my husband, "Maybe we should look for a church with more cultural diversity." And we might. But my husband reminded me that perhaps the white church needs a white international couple to bridge the gap between the church and needy internationals, to remind them of the darkness on their own doorstep. He might be right.

It's still dark on the way to the airport and we're waiting. For sunrise. To reach the Flughafen. To see our families. To move into our new apartment in our new city. But more than that, we wait "until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our international friends'] hearts." "Now we see things imperfectly...but then we sill see everything with perfect clarity"—when the Son comes, there will be no more goodbyes, and no more night.

March 28, 2016

so is joy

Today is Easter Monday—a holiday here. Good Friday was a holiday here, too, which means my husband had four full days away from work for Ostern. When I lived in Asia, I was surrounded by people who didn't really know the Christian significance of Easter. Last year it felt refreshing to come to Europe and, at the end of a dreary winter, see the shops fill with bright spring tulips and Easter symbols which are familiar to me. Although I knew that most here were celebrating a hollow version of Easter, with not a lot more understanding than my friends in Asia, it felt nice to once again be in a place where our Christian history is known and celebrated in some way.

This was my second Easter in Europe, and probably not my last, since my husband recently accepted a job offer in a city just a few hours from where we now live. On Sunday afternoon we sat in McCafé drinking cheap hot drinks, being pestered by a beggar and eavesdropping on Hindi conversations. I told my husband that the weekend didn't really feel Easter-like to me. We had spent the last two days looking at apartments, checking out various neighbourhoods, wandering into shops and visiting a new-to-us church in the city where we plan to move. Half the time we were carrying our luggage for lack of a place to leave it. Maybe Easter didn't feel "normal" because we weren't with anyone we knew, or maybe it was because we were far from our families and their traditions, again. In any case, nothing about this Easter felt quite familiar except the rabbits and flowers in the shops, and the 90 minutes we spent in a church service.

Easter is a day for the spring happies. It's the day to post a photo of your family in matching pastels on social media. It's a day to wear a wide smile and talk about the resurrection. But I'm not feeling bright and fluffy this Easter. There are weights that burden me. I don't know that my burdens are any greater than anyone else's, but as my mom always said, I can be overly sensitive. There are stones that I'm asking God to roll away for myself and others, and I feel weary of praying for the same thing over and over. I'm also mentally and emotionally adjusting to another move. But I suppose if I'm feeling more like a hollow cold tomb than bouncy furry bunny, my feelings are in line with the true Resurrection morning story.

Last night as a brightly-painted bus carried us home (wherever that is) again, I read the final chapters of John in the darkness on my Kindle. I came across another woman with a burden. She was crying at the empty tomb, wondering where the body of her Lord had gone. Others had come and gone, "but Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping." I could relate to her lingering sorrow on Easter morning. Others had gone on their way (presumably for Easter brunch), but she remained.

It blessed me to remember that Jesus chose to comfort the brokenhearted Mary first. The others who had left the tomb missed out on being there when He first appeared; it was to the woman who shared His sorrow so deeply that joy came first. The weeping, lingering woman was the one to whom Jesus entrusted the good news of His resurrection.

If I find my heart weary this Easter, I am in good company. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Jesus meets me in my sadness just like He met Mary in hers; our Savior is near to the brokenhearted.

If you find your heart weeping this Easter,  you can be sure that it won't always be this way. "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Brunch invitations and tulips are not guaranteed to us. The heavy stones of sorrows and trials are. But thanks to Easter—that is, thanks to Jesus—so is joy.

"It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart." —Solomon

"Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman...has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.... Ask [in my name], and you will receive, that your joy may be full." —Jesus, as recorded in John 16

February 16, 2016

on being migrant workers

I come from a family of used-to-be migrants, as many North Americans do. My maternal grandmother's maiden name reminds anyone who hears it that her parents made an arduous journey from Norway to Canada. My paternal grandmother was born to parents who worked in orchards in California. I imagine Grandma toddling through the trees to her parents, and packing up with them (or being packed up) on their various moves before they eventually settled down in Ontario, Canada.

By the time I knew my grandmothers both were farm wives who didn't take many vacations and rarely travelled (unless you count the trip to town for groceries as "travelling"). They were faithful in their day-to-day affairs. Mom's mom planted stubby trees and made sure they survived high winds and deep winter on the prairies. Dad's mom pulled on her boots—no matter how high the snow drifts were—and milked the cows in the barn. My grandparents had relationships with the neighbours that went back for decades. Their children spent their school days with some of the same classmates all the way through. My great grandparents may have been migrants, by my grandparents' lives were rooted on their farms.

My grandma in California in the 1920's.
It's hard for me to relate to their stories because I've never lived in one place for long. I must have lived in at least eight different homes growing up, and another eight since leaving home. While other people might take a vacation to a different country each year, lately I seem to move to a different country each year.

Moving is expensive and tiresome, but sometimes it seems worse than that. Sometimes it seems downright irresponsible. It is hard to tell our small, struggling fellowship here that we will be leaving. The strong-and-steady we've-lived-here-twenty-years types perhaps have a hard time understanding when we speak of moving to a city where the churches are more established. When we spoke of the possibility of moving to America, that seemed even harder to understand; don't churches abound in America? Why would we leave when the church here is needing encouragement? Why would we go when people of other faiths come regularly to our home to read the Good Book? We can almost understand if they don't understand our plans. Sometimes we don't either.

One Sunday night I looked across our small circle at a couple who have worked the spiritual land here for many years. They were not originally from this region either, but since moving here they have cleared soil (not without opposition), ploughed (hitting many rocks), sown truth (with young and old), watered (sometimes only to see the thorns choke out the little sprouts) and harvested (though not nearly as often as they've done the other steps). They are strong and hearty people of the Land. I admire the dirt under their nails and the callouses on their hands. I appreciate their steadfastness and their long history here.

When I compare myself to them, my role in God's field seems to be as a seasonal worker, a migrant who drifts from job to job and field to field. I've probably worked every phase of the farming process at one time or another. Sometimes I've moved rocks and cleared earth. Sometimes I've sown seeds with a prayer. Sometimes I've watered long rows in the sun and left before much sprouted. And sometimes, I've had the joy of helping pull in and enjoy the fruits of the harvest though I was nowhere to be found when the seeds were planted. Yet my work seems so scattered. I have no concept of what it is like to buy a piece of spiritual land and to farm it daily for more than five years, as our coworkers here have done.

At times I struggle to accept my current role in God's vineyard as a seasonal worker. But one night when my husband was feeling the weight of leaving our coworkers here behind, I reminded him that God gives more specifics about a man's duty to have dominion over the earth and provide for his family than it does about how long he should stay at the same church. God made you to work, to have dominion over the slice of His creation that you've worked so long to understand. If there is no suitable job for you here, we will take that as a definite indicator that the Master of the Harvest is moving us to a new field. Again.

For some time it seemed our new place of employment would be on American soil. Now, it seems more likely we'll stay in Europe. We don't know yet, but He does, and someday we'll see that each migration was perfectly timed according to His schedule of planting, watering and reaping. The time we've spent in the field here changed us, and better equipped us to sow seeds in the next field.

When the job call comes, we'll pack up our farm implements. We'll thank our coworkers here for letting us co-labour for a while, and know that a physical change of location doesn't mean we aren't co-labouring anymore. We'll say goodbye while looking forward to the time when all His workers—migrant or not—are finally together in one Place.

Together we'll see that God has "not forgotten our work or our labour of love". Together we will share meals of "the food that endures to eternal life". Together we will dwell in the land and rejoice over His great harvest. This knowledge guides my wandering heart: that final migration will be forever.

December 31, 2015

somewhere in between

In 2015 all of us were forced to think about war, refugees and immigration, perhaps more than ever before. In previous years the wars and conflicts in other regions may have felt distant to those of us who live in the West, but in 2015 they came closer. Twice this year we heard of horrible massacres in Paris. My BBC news app offers regular updates about killings in other countries and growing tensions worldwide. If you live in the West, your country has probably both taken in a new wave of refugees this year and gotten more directly involved in attacking the country most of the refugees have escaped. This year it has become increasingly clear that the battles being fought so far away are not just a concern of others, but a concern of ours.

For us, 2015 brought interaction with real people escaping real war. Twice this year I visited the city near us where refugees find shelter and try to maintain some semblance of normalcy when nothing about their situation is normal. When a Syrian teenager had us over for supper and described having to show his ID to masked fighters when leaving his country, I almost felt a chill go down my spine. When another Syrian friend posted pictures of a bombing near his home, the war felt closer again. A friend cast a shadow over my birthday plans by telling me that people were avoiding the city I wanted to visit, in case the Paris attackers came there next. War and terror have never before breathed their hot breath down my neck like they have this year.

If we watch the news or listen to Western news sources, we probably want to end 2015 with our windows latched, our doors double-locked, and definitely with no Musl!ms in our homes. Yet for me the irony of this year has been hearing more international stories of terror than ever before, while at the same time having positive interactions with a wider variety of internationals than ever before. 

Freelance work has brought many international clients into my world in 2015. I have not met most of my clients, but through interacting with them online I've realized that there are a lot of kind clients out there. The H!ndu paid me on time and was pleasant. The secularists were good to work for. In fact, the only client who ran away without paying me was a conservative Jewish rabbi (who perhaps needs to reacquaint himself with the Ten Commandments). Working successfully with people around the world reminded me that there are decent people in every culture.

Hospitality has brought many international guests to our table in 2015. We have shared meals with people of 20 or so different nationalities. At our table, a Tunisian listened attentively to and interacted with our view on abortion. A couple of Pakistanis who ate with us challenged my stereotypes about what people from their country are like. A Togolese girl from a polygamy-practicing family lit up our home with her genuine smile. There are many more internationals in our area than there were at the beginning of 2015, and interacting with ordinary people on a personal level is far different than seeing masked extremists on a screen. Our interactions with them have been positive overall.

I wanted to title this post "The immigrants are not as bad as you think they are." But that is not the whole truth. Sin has ravaged our hearts and if anything, people (ourselves included) are worse that we think they are. I am not advocating that we should trust just anyone of any culture. Both professionally and personally, we take precautions with strangers. We are not ignorant: we know that some of my clients or our guests may believe in or talk about things that are disrespectful, violent, crude or derogatory. The leaders of Western nations also need discernment to know which strangers to allow into their land, because there is evil in every human's heart and because what the West considers evil, some cultures consider good.

However, in a sense it is true that "The immigrants are not as bad as you think they are." The media portrays radicals, but most people are not radicals.
There are Musl!ms who are more spiritually open,
H!ndus who are more hospitable,
and pagans who are more reliable
than those who claim Christ's name.
There are internationals around us who hate war and violence much more than we do, because they know it much better than we do. It is not their upbringing or their religious label that necessarily makes an immigrant a safe or unsafe person.

Perhaps a better title for this post would be "Immigrants are not as different as you think they are." They're sinful just like us. They need Hope just like us. They need clients and friends just like us. How better to evidence the Hope that is within us than by interacting with them in our professional and personal lives with a balance of wisdom and warmth, intelligence and integrity?

As this year closes, I'm still hearing mixed messages. Some media sources would scare us into locking our doors. Others encourage us to fling them open widely, no questions asked. Some voices are talking about the violent directions given in other "holy" books and telling us to be wary of all foreigners. Other voices are encouraging blind acceptance in the name of Christian charity with catchphrases like "Jesus was a refugee in Egypt". But (lest we be extremists ourselves) I believe that God calls us to live somewhere in between the extremes. 

How His people respond to war, refugees and immigration may not be a black and white, open-and-shut case. But this I know: His people will live in the fear of God, not in the fear of man. They will carefully and prayerfully discern what striking the balance in between grace and truth (or love and truthlooks like in each situation. They'll confidently walk through the doors God has allowed violence to push wide open in 2015. And "the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits"—those "good works, which God prepared in advance for [them] to do."

PS - Don't tell the media, but we're not locking our doors as we enter 2016. We told a Syrian Musl!m friend that he can celebrate New Year's with us, in our home.

Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.
So be as shrewd as snakes and as harmless as doves.

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. 
Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

"...the people who know their God 
shall be strong, and carry out great exploits."
—from a vision delivered to Daniel

"These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.... Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown..."
—J'esus to the church at Philadelphia

"For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance...will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"
—Mordecai to Esther

December 17, 2015

what no one else sees

This year as autumn wrapped its spindly fingers around our city, as the green vines turned suddenly scarlet in sharp contrast to the grey European sky, as I turned on the hot water heaters and pulled out a thick blue thoughts were drawn to last year's fall, to a segment of that season that no one else saw.

Last year in mid-autumn I was in Europe to visit my fiancé a few short weeks before our wedding. It was my first time coming to see where I would soon be living. Before I came, my fiancé asked his friendly coworker who lived just a few blocks from his place if she would give me a place to sleep for a few nights. After my stay with her expired, I slept a few more nights at the empty apartment of a couple from my fiancé's church. My fiancé had to work most of the time that I was visiting, so after he left for work each day I went to his place to do wedding preparations, unpack things and generally prepare the flat for my return. In the evenings we would eat supper with others or alone, planning and dreaming.

I have long been of the opinion that dating couples should avoid spending much time alone together in private places, to avoid situations where impurity and compromise would come too easily. I recommend that to people who are dating, and we practiced it most anytime we were together before marriage. Yet while I was visiting Europe last fall, we had virtually no option but to be alone in his apartment from time to time. For the first time, I cooked his supper in his home a couple of times—almost as if we were married already. It was a different scenario than we would have recommended to others, but due to a variety of circumstances, there we were, spending a few hours together out of everyone's sight, a few nights in a row.

I was telling my friend recently about those isolated autumn days and how really, we could have done anything we wanted. No one would have known. The pre-marital counselling was done. I could have worn my white wedding dress a few weeks later, no questions asked. I mean, even if I had gotten pregnant, it would have been so shortly before the wedding that no one would have needed to know.

The only reason we didn't do anything we wanted, was because well, Someone would have seen. We were actually not alone together. Our Father was with us, and we feared to dishonour Him and each other. He had changed our desires to want what He wanted. We knew that sin would bear death in our own relationship, in our relationships with others, and most importantly in our relationship with God. The Holy Spirit's power showed itself to us: while we could have done anything while "no one was watching"we didn't even want to. 

During those days, I was thankful for:
  • my fiancé's strong commitment to purity and boundaries set long before (I completely agree with this guy who says choosing to only date godly people is the best and only way to have a godly dating relationship)
  • the few friends or family who were nosy enough to write or call to say "I-know-you're-almost-thirty-but..." and remind us be pure sexually
  • the good teaching we had received from childhood about faith, wisdom and pure living, and 
  • the work of the indwelling Spirit of God.
I've heard having sex (or practicing impurity) outside of marriage compared to building a fire in the middle of the living room floor. At first it looks like the perfect thing to ward off the lonely autumn nights' chill—it even looks wild and thrilling. But it doesn't take long until the fire gets out of control and destroys not only the living room, but the whole home. In the same way, sex outside of marriage causes great damage. Sex preserved for marriage is comparable to a well-contained blaze in a fireplace; it is safe, healthy and even life-preserving (which is not to say it doesn't still give off some sparks). 

We have no fireplace in this little apartment that looks out over the spindly trees and wet red rooftops of our city. I pad through the flat (that now is ours, not just his) in my slippers and twist the knob that turns on the heat. I wear a sweater while I wait for the room to warm up, and I make tea as he rests a bit longer. Marriage has been like that slow radiator filling the room; it gets warmer and more comfortable as time goes by. Love and respect radiate a steady, strengthening, enduring heat.

The choice to live in purity of heart is a choice made in faith, because "faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." Faith knows that "sin will find you out" and that "there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known." And faith also knows this: today, even what no one else sees, He sees. 

 “Be on your guard against...hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 

What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs." —J'esus

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: 
"You are the God who sees me," for she said, 
"I have now seen the One who sees me."
—Moses, writing about Hagar

December 10, 2015

'tis the season

Christmas usually pulls words out of me as I wonder at the Word becoming flesh. Here are a few links to Christmas writings of mine. The first is a previously unpublished piece I submitted as a guest post at another blog. ✨

whom do you seek?: "Christmas reveals to me that I am a seeker. There’s something about this season that unveils the longings of my soul like no other holiday. Perhaps that’s because I have been taught that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” I’ve been informed by holiday ditties that dreams come true and everything goes well at Christmastime. So, each year at Christmas I learn what my heart currently defines as “wonderful”—what I am seeking...." (12-2015 - guest post)

this slow salvation: "This December I'm realizing that usually the most meaningful things in life take time and come slowly—just like Jesus." (12-2015)

an uncomfortable Christmas: "We get so intent on celebrating Christmas in a comfortable way that we forget we are celebrating the uncomfortable coming of the uncomfortable Christ." (12-2014)

i found Christmas: "Don't think Christmas is missing because you don't have warm fuzzies. The incarnation of which we speak at Christmas often comes on the heels of hardship." (12-2013)

my city: "When I look at [cities that top quality of life surveys], I don't look for my home city here in Asia. I know it won't make the cut....The first coming of Jesus and ideas of so-called 'quality of life' were reverberating in me this Christmas. We cannot comprehend the quality of life that the Son had in His glorious home in Heaven. We're so accustomed to the story of Him coming to us that we don't realize the enormity of His change in lifestyle...." (12-2012)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

December 03, 2015

this slow salvation

I've never liked things that take a long time to accomplish. I might as well wear a badge that says, "Hello, my name is Julie, and I like things that can be done quickly" because this love of all things quick and easy shows itself all over my life.

Since my childhood, I've always been in a rush. My sister and I both liked to draw, but we gravitated to opposite styles of drawing. I drew cartoons in a few minutes. My sister would patiently labour over realistic shaded pencil drawings for days or weeks. While I was polishing off a sketchbook full of cartoons, she was adding the finishing touches to last week's life-like toucan. Our different approaches to life were also seen in how we learned piano. While I was improvising, chording and changing songs to make them easier to play; my sister was putting in the hours it took to flawlessly perform sonatas. You can guess who went on to take advanced music exams and teach piano, and who didn't. Becoming a master artist or a master pianist just didn't happen quickly enough to be a Julie thing to do.

To this day, it is obvious that I love instant gratification. That's why I write blog posts, not books and why my only gardening success happened when my dad was there to help me weed and water. I sew pillow cases, not queen size quilts; I serve one-dish meals, not meat and three; I make baking powder biscuits, not bread with traditional yeast. Because of my hurry, I've struggled to acquire the language in the last few countries where I've lived. Once the hard work of memorizing vocabulary or reading strange grammar explanations kicks in, I figure it is too much trouble and I talk English instead. Dessert appeals to me much more than jogging, because dessert tastes good right now. As for jogging, are you sure it does any good? Because when I get home I feel worse, not better! In any case, I still don't like waiting for things to happen. 

We have entered the advent season, the time of year when we remember Jesus' first coming. The advent we talk about in December is easy because we know which day He "comes" and can count down to it with chocolates. Perhaps we don't quite understand the distress of the long delay before Jesus' first coming. Advent is really just a nice way of saying something that isn't so nice at all: the story of Jesus' coming (advent) is a story of waiting. That is to say, the Christmas story is not my kind of story.

I can relate to Eve when I read that some commentators thought she expected her own firstborn, Cain, to be the promised Saviour. Had I been alive then, I would have been right there with her: taking a quick snack from the closest tree because the others were too far away, soon wishing I had done better long-range planning...then, expecting that if the Saviour was going to come from me, He was going to come ASAP

But what Eve could not have known was that there would be thousands of years of waiting until the first advent. Thousands of sins committed. Thousands of bulls and goats slaughtered. Thousands of lives that began and ended under the long shadow of that first tree. Had Eve known how slowly redemption would come, she might not have made such quick work of that fruit. Advent is not for the faint of heart. Waiting for a Saviour is not for people who like things that can be done quickly.

This advent season I'm beginning to appreciate things which happen slowly. As my friend's womb swells with the baby they waited nine years to conceive, I see how her whole pregnancy carries an inexpressible sense of wonder because of all the waiting. As I put on my running shoes and jog consistently on these grey December afternoons, I see slight changes in my body that couldn't be wrought by a one-week crash diet. As for my language studies, well, some work is still needed there. But this December I'm realizing that usually the most meaningful things in life take time and come slowly—just like Jesus. 

Advent reminds me that I need to ask for and appreciate slow, steady progress and delayed gratification. This December I'm asking for endurance to accomplish things that have not come easily to me in the past, no matter how seemingly significant or insignificant they are. I'm asking for His long-range vision to see people as He does, no matter where they are in their life stories, because God's working in history is a long story with lots of surprises. I'm asking for His return, as our world writhes with war and suffering that knows no quick answers. Just as He found Anna and Simeon awaiting His first advent, when He comes again for His Bride, I want Him to find me with my lamp still lit, expectant (even if it takes Him a while to show up and I'm using the extra lamp oil I brought along). Lastly, I'm asking for His forgiveness, for sins I've allowed to grow deep in my heart. I'm reminded that lasting heart change only comes from a long-term commitment to Him and to holy choices—there are no quick hacks for ridding myself of sin I've yielded to for years. It is only because He delays His judgment and is slow to anger that this girl who hates deliberation and slowness has another opportunity to be forgiven. This advent, I am glad that the Saviour is slow and waits for people who take a long time...people like me.

It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, 
because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, 
as some understand slowness. 
Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, 
but everyone to come to repentance.

Therefore keep watch, 
because you do not know the day or the hour.

November 19, 2015

when is the time for love?

When my sister was dating her now-husband long distance, she told me that she would send him cards in the mail. "What kinds of cards?" my twenty-three-year-old self asked her. "Romantic cards, of course!" was her enlightening reply. If my memory does not fail me, I groaned and made gagging sounds...because I was extremely mature at the time.

But how the mighty have fallen! Now I do things that would make others choke a little, like designing our engagement photo album to include favourite verses from Solomon's famous love song throughout it. (Cue gagging sound here.) I put the phrases in chronologically next to photos of us looking lovey-dovey one year ago this week.

Jokes aside though, as I made the album, I imagined myself telling our children or others our love story, and I thought that including phrases from Song of Solomon might raise good conversation about how (contrary to popular belief) God is a huge fan of amazing romance. He simply put guidelines on romance, so that it can be just that: amazing.

In putting the verses in order, I placed "Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases" first. That line is repeated three times in the Song of Solomon (chapters 2, 3 and 8) . It's an interesting line, and a few other translations of the Hebrew use words like "....until the time is right" or "....before the proper time" to qualify this mysterious yet important instruction about romantic love.

It seems that Solomon is saying that romantic love should lie dormant in us until the particular time that is right for love. But how do we know when the time for love has come? How do we explain that to someone else? How do we so often get it wrong? There is something mysterious about romantic love; Solomon himself said it was something he "did not understand". Really, who could explain the sudden urges lovebirds feel to Skype for five hours straight and then wrap things up with half an hour of texting...with someone they've only known for a few months? Or spend thousands of dollars on international visits and a diamond ring? (Of course, I'm speaking only of things others have told me they've done while in love—wink, wink!)

I've realized that the easiest way to discuss the proper time for romantic love is by saying when it is not time. That is much more obvious.

My husband says that the clearest indicator that it is not time for love is if you're not loving God (which equates to obeying God). When a person is thinking of romance and marriage, he or she should also be in a healthy, holy place spiritually, where he can make wise decisions. If he's not, its likely that what he stirs up will not be godly love at all.

God's Word also states so clearly that it is not the right time for love when:
  1. ...the person you wish to love is married to someone else. (Enough said).
  2. ...the person you wish to love is of the same gender as you. This article reminded me that it is never unreasonable to bring this topic up, even with believers, because in our fallen world this difficulty is arises more often than we think.
  3. ...the person you wish to love is not a genuine believer. Throughout the Bible it is taught that those who are committed to following the true God should not mix themselves up in romantic relationships with those who aren't. In the Old Testament it was delineated over and over that the Israelites were not to intermarry with Canaanite or foreign women. Unfortunately, Solomon let love be stirred up in his heart with pagan women and crashed because of it (which shows the power of ungodly romance to work destruction in every area of a person's life, just like godly romance can work good in every area). In the New Testament the injunction is clear, to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. People who don't share your faith should fall into the "undateable" category for you, which means not even toying with the idea of being more than friends. (To put it bluntly, don't even answer the first text).
  4. or both partners are unable to control their own bodies.  Paul is blunt in 1 Thessalonians 4: "It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of his brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins... For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit." This is not talking about just some technical upholding of virginity itself before the vows (to which Christian purity seems to have been reduced), it is talking about acting in a way that is "holy and honourable." When people practice impurity, serious damage is done. Outside of marriage, erotic physical love is not loving, and outside of marriage it is always wrong.
  5. ...marriage is not possible in the near future. From the above point, one might think that Paul did not understand the nature sexual desire. How realistic is it to expect holiness between two people who attracted to each other? Actually, Paul understood, and he said "if they cannot control themselves, they should marry." Solomon describes the undoing power of romantic love warns that it should not be stirred up before marriage can quickly follow. Stirring it up without a serious desire to pursue marriage if possible leads to #4 (above) and to broken hearts.
  6. ....wise believers warn you that it is not the time. Solomon writes that "in the multitude of counsellors there is safety." If one or more wise people show concern, listen to them. It's much harder to confront than to condone, so if wise, balanced people risk confronting you about your romantic relationship, there's probably a valid concern.
It's no wonder Solomon repeated this warning about timing three times in his short book. We'll all heard stories of men and women who are deeply hurt because love has been stirred or awakened "before it pleased". Hurt can happen in a godly relationship, but devastating romantic heartbreaks should be the exception instead of the rule when we follow God's wisdom. While we often lament the difficulty of singleness for those who long to know romantic love, even more painful is the struggle of those who dip into the wells of romantic love in a way that is contrary to God's wisdom and timing. God offers forgiveness, but what has been sown is still reaped, to some degree. Let romantic love lie dormant (even if you've stirred it up in the past) by (1) focusing on the Person and the Word of Truth and (2) avoiding things that awaken desire before it is time. The guidelines God gives us offer assurance, so we can know when the time is right to awaken God's excellent gift of romantic love.

If I were to flip through my engagement album with my child or a friend and see that oft-repeated line: "do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases...", I could not tell them with 100% certainty that this or that is the time for love. I could not set a date on a calendar or predict if a relationship they're in will "work out." I could probably not select "the one" for them. Solomon probably couldn't either. There's something about that spark that is mysterious both in its timing and in its ability to set off a younger sibling's gag reflex. But it's a lot easier to spot the signs that it is not the time for love. If those warning signs are not seen, then perhaps this is the time to stir up or to awaken love—to marry the one God brought to you at the proper time. I like to imagine God watching godly romance and cheering—"Yes! This! This is what I meant for you to enjoy! See, isn't it fun?"

"Sit still, my daughter, until you know how the matter will turn out."
—Naomi to Ruth

"His wedding...the day of the gladness of his heart."
—from Song of Solomon 3

Note: One of the most down-to-earth, Biblical books I've 
read about dating is Holding Hands, Holding Hearts
This article from Boundless relates to point #5: From 'Hi' to 'I Do' in One Year.

October 29, 2015

accepting limitations

This morning my husband made an unusual request: "Please don't do any freelance work today. Please take a nap." For the past week I have had a cold, and he wants me to get better. Last week I was staying up late, getting up early, teaching lovely but noisy kids, eating restaurant food, staying with strangers, and toting luggage up and down stairs...which could explain why I am still ill. When he instructed me, I countered, "But I have a few clients to whom I promised something...." He revised his instructions slightly, because he's reasonable like that: "Please don't do anything today that you don't need to do today."

So today I made a four-item to-do list. There are probably 25 other things that I could put on my list, 
because we are thinking of moving again, 
because we are submitting immigration documents,
because there's laundry and cleaning to do,
because there are other clients waiting for this and that. 
But today I am thankful for the limitation my husband put on his coughing, sneezing wife, because I accept that instruction as from the Lord. God Himself told me through my husband that I should rest today. So, I will try.

My husband makes great "I'm sorry-you're-sick" tea.

During the past almost-year I've been learning to accept the boundaries my husband occasionally puts on me (and when to negotiate with him, and when not to). He doesn't really ask much of me, but I'm realizing that even what he encourages me to do is good for me, too (like spending less time hunched over my laptop, and more time exercising, cooking wholesome food....or napping). My husband wants good things for me because he loves me, and any limits he puts on me, he puts on me in love.

Although learning to submit to a husband is new, having limitations placed on me by authorities is not. We like to tell children that they can "be anything they want to be", but actually, we all know that is a lie. We're all born between boundaries, borders and barriers. Some are placed on us due to gender or origin; others constraints are intellectual, emotional, physical or spiritual. Boys can't become robots. Girls can't become cats. Though some say differently, boys can't become girls, and girls can't become boys. Every child cannot become a dancer, an astronaut, or an acclaimed physicist, because we don't all have the abilities or the opportunities. Children should be taught that yes, there is a huge variety of options available to us, but that there are also boundaries or restrictions on what is wise or what is possible.

It is often supposed that limitations are meant to be done away with. We take pride in proving others wrong and flexing our authority muscles. Sure, some restrictions are wrong, unnecessary or unBiblical. But some limitations are God-given, sovereignly and wisely put around us for our good. We need discernment to know which is which, and to appreciate our limitations, we must first appreciate the character of the God who ordained them. 

I've experienced my own share of interesting limitations: my dad didn't like me to wear big earrings ("too showy") and in high school a teacher pulled me aside after chapel and gave me a longer T-shirt to wear because my stomach appeared between my shirt and my pants. In college, our dorm rooms were inspected for neatness and our lights were supposed to be out at 11pm. Bosses have put a variety of limitations on me as far as what time to be at work, how my work should be done, and how many days off I can have. Once when I told church leaders something I wanted to do, they didn't see things quite the same way, so the idea was stalled. Although my Asian roommate would encourage me to go out in shorter skirts and tank tops, my parent-like figures in Asia encouraged me to dress extra-modestly due to the culture and be cautious when out alone. 

Now I can see that my life's limitations have directed me. My gender, origin, and intellectual, emotional, physical or spiritual constraints have played a huge role in steering the ship of my a good way. And more specifically, those who told me what I could and couldn't wear taught me about modesty and to be more concerned with the inner woman than the outer. The mess police reminded me that less stuff equals less mess, and the 11pm lights-out preserved my sleep even when I didn't want it to. By seeking to abide by my bosses' rules and working with them for years, I have learned countless things personally and professionally. My church leaders' lack of enthusiasm about some of the ideas I presented ultimately guided me in another direction which to me now seems God-ordained. When I met a foreign girl my age in Asia who had been groped while alone in an alley, I was reminded that God kept me safe through the wisdom of my authorities. God used yays or nays of my authorities in different stages of life to guide me.

Today, as I sit here, suck my fourth throat lozenge, and look at my short (yet still somewhat intimidating, considering how I'm feeling) to-do list, I am thankful for today's husband-imposed limitations. There's a lot of freedom to be found within the limitations! There's freedom to not worry about answering that work-related buzzing on my phone; freedom to nap when I'd usually be up and about; freedom to write; and freedom to hold off one more day on making my big to-do list for the next few months.

No, fortunately I can't "be anything I want to be" or "do anything I want to do." I'm a woman, a member Christ's church local and universal, a wife, a freelancer, a guest in a foreign country, and (today) I'm sick! All of those categories or statuses limit my options in some ways, but they also provide a framework for what is possible. The unique framework of my individual limitations is good, because it communicates God's will for me quite clearly, and it allows me to be the best I can be. Within that framework, I am guaranteed God's protection over me as I explore, learn, grow and achieve! Knowing what I can't do often helps me to see what I can. As I told my kids in a raspy voice last week, a fish will be at its best when it acts like a fish, not when it acts like a bird. A sick Christian / woman / wife / freelancer / foreigner will do really well at sleeping and taking medicine today. Tomorrow or next week, she should be able to do much more, but not today.

Maybe your God-given constraints today have you working overtime and still having guests over for supper. Maybe accepting God's limits on you today means taking a nap and ordering take-out instead of cooking. May you find direction in recognizing your limitations. May you find contentment in accepting your limitations. They were put in place by an all-knowing, all-seeing, everywhere-present God, and His love for you knows no limits.

Now if you would excuse me, I need to nap.

In acceptance lieth peace,
O my heart be still;
Let thy restless worries cease
And accept His will.
Though this test be not thy choice,
It is His—therefore rejoice.

In His plan there cannot be
Aught to make thee sad:
If this is His choice for thee,
Take it and be glad.
Make from it some lovely thing
To the glory of thy King.

Cease from sighs and murmuring,
Sing His loving grace,
This thing means thy furthering
To a wealthy place.
From thy fears He’ll give release,
In acceptance lieth peace.

—Hannah Hurnard, "In Acceptance Lieth Peace"

October 15, 2015

good and not good

A few weekends ago we attended a farewell dinner for a good friend. We spent the evening around a rug on the floor of our friend's oversized bedroom, in the shadow of the suitcases and a bachelor's simple belongings stacked in the corner. There we ate homemade Indian food, drank chai and watched Asian cultural dance clips on YouTube, and at the end, said a sad goodbye.

At some point in the evening, perhaps because we were in a bachelor's apartment, a teasing comment was directed at my husband, implying that he misses being single. My husband acknowledged that yes, his single years were good ones, and then there was a bit of a hubbub, as if I should and would be upset at him for saying that it was good to be single. 

I considered whether that comment should upset me. It didn't take me long to realize that I'm OK with him saying that his single years were good, because mine were, too. To say your single years were good is not to say that your married ones aren't. Much of the joy and contentment my husband feels with his married status has to do with the fact that he cultivated a joyful and contented heart when he was single, too. Singleness served a good purpose in his life, and so does marriage now. His trust is in the goodness of God, not the goodness of singleness or marriage.

Yes, his single years were good ones. When he was single it cost 50% less to go to Prague and there weren't two sets of parents to call and fly to visit. He had fewer commitments and could be at church events more nights of the week. The bills were lower; he had more superfluous income to give away, or to spend on the pile of sports clothes that mostly languish in the bin above the closet now that he lives with a less-sporty spouse. Things didn't disappear unexpectedly like they do now ("Have you seen my sunglasses, Julie?" "I haven't seen my bike kit in months..."). The house was quieter—he didn't have a wife who liked to interrupt his train of thought. If he left the kitchen clean, he came home to (surprise!) a clean kitchen. And last but not least, the olive oil and shampoo lids were screwed back on securely after they were used! (Tightening lids is apparently not my spiritual gift).

And yes, my single years were good, too. God gave me community that grounded me in good doctrine and good works. He allowed me to develop my talents (fun!), and also realize some of the things I'm not good at (not so fun!). I got to spend lots of time teaching kids God's Word, which is something I love to do. He gave me the opportunity to travel more than most, and to cultivate deep friendships with singles and marrieds alike in a way that might not have happened had I been chasing toddlers. And did I mention that I got to live in Asia with Asians for almost two years? People sometimes say that they don't see their own selfishness until they are married, but I was put in enough awkward situations over the years that I was given the painful gift of seeing my flesh. I began to realize that "apart from [God] I have no good thing" before I married at age almost-29.

In our churches it is often emphasized that it is "not good for man to be alone," and we encourage marriage much more than celibacy, although Scripture is clear that marriage is not for everyone. And the much-quoted verse from Genesis bout what is good should also be balanced with the fact that "no good thing does He withhold from those whose walk is blameless." For our blameless single friends (that is, our friends who are walking with God and are unmarried, whether they wish to marry or not), I cannot tell them that marriage would be a good thing for them right now. In fact, at the moment it must not be. There is a profound (though sometimes painful) peace found in trusting in the never-ending goodness of God.

Yes, for us, our single years were good and profitable ones, and I've realized that my husband and I need have no qualms in acknowledging that in front of each other. We both struggled at times with singleness in a fallen world, but we will struggle with marriage in a fallen world, too. The worst season of our singleness, if we may put it that way, was simply when he and I realized that in the providence of God we had "found the one whom our soul loved". Then, singleness became for us not good, and after many googly-eyed Skypes and few months with our heads in the clouds, we made not good into good by means of a weddingNow marriage, with all its delightful and difficult moments, is God's good thing for us. 

By faith we know and accept this: God is good and what He does is good. Let us exhort one another to trust in the goodness of our great God, marital status notwithstanding. Even when we struggle to call our condition or that of another "good", let us call Him good. That (not the presence of a band on our left ring finger, or the lack thereof) makes all the difference.

"The LORD is good to all;
he has compassion on all he has made."

October 08, 2015

feeding foreign friends

When I was a child, my family and I ate in many different homes, especially during our visits to North America. We were fed many foods we didn't eat in South America, and this was generally an enjoyable experience. Hosts provided strawberries with whipped cream, toasted English muffins with creamed honey and peanut butter, and a delightful variety of sugary breakfast cereals to tickle our tropical tastebuds.

The breakfasts, lunches and dinners we were served blur together in my memory, except for one. Much to my dismay, on that too-memorable day I watched our elderly hosts-du-jour place a glass of reddish-orange juice at each place before our shared meal. I immediately recognized this hated foreign drink called "tomato juice". I knew the horror that lay before me: unless I managed to get clearance from Mom, I would have to drink it, and being forced to drink tomato juice felt like certain death to ten-year-old me.

I don't think of myself as a picky eater, but drinks must be a trouble spot for me. A few years ago in Asia a neighbour generously invited me over for breakfast after an early-morning outing. The meal itself was tasty, but unfortunately the fruity buttermilk drink she put in my cup almost made me gag right then and there. Thankfully, I was with another friend who could tolerate the beverage, so she guzzled hers while I left most of mine in the cup, hoping the hostess wouldn't really notice. Choosing not to drink it was the lesser of two evils, I hoped; coughing buttermilk onto the tablecloth probably would have been worse.

Have you ever had a similar experience of being invited to someone's house for a meal, only to be fed something that you virtually could not swallow? Food you can't enjoy (but feel forced to eat) makes you uncomfortable. On the other hand, food that you can enjoy not only makes your visit pleasant, but it usually makes you want to visit again!

Since moving away from North America, and especially since being in Europe, I have been learning about hosting guests of cultures different than my own. Here, we rarely have North American guests, so we are always wondering what others will like and feeding people who grew up eating differently than we did. I've been convicted that I should try harder to make our guests feel comfortable with the foods I choose to serve. Sure, we have the freedom to feed our guests anything we want, but it serves them and builds our friendship when we feed them things they can enjoy.

The biggest lesson I've learned about feeding guests of a different culture (you can stop reading after this paragraph if you want) is to use ingredients which are somewhat familiar to them. Usually you don't want to make something that is extremely different than what they are accustomed to eating or drinking, because they may not like it. But you also don't want to exactly imitate something that they had back home, because you probably won't make it as well as Mom did. If you're not very familiar with what people from particular parts of the world eat, Google is your friend. Ask it, "What do Arabs eat?" or look up "typical foods in Tunisia" and get an idea of what they are accustomed to, so that you can make something with a few familiar ingredients. I realized this when both our Indian and Syrian friends enjoyed this bulgar salad. I think that this is because it has ingredients that are familiar to them (bulgar, chick peas, cucumber, bell pepper), but perhaps they have never eaten those ingredients in a salad format before, so it is a different twist on flavours they can enjoy.

But maybe you don't know where to find bulgar or don't have a clue how to make chick peas. You can learn, or you can read on....

Another possibility is to feed international guests a meal or snack from your home country, adjusted to their cultural tastes as needed. Wouldn't you be excited if your Italian friend had you over for pasta, or your Middle Eastern friend brought you homemade baklava? As North Americans we don't have so many traditional foods as some countries, but burgers and fries, "meat and three", homemade loaf bread, chocolate chip cookies, pie or cupcakes are things your guests may feel privileged to eat in a North American's home. TexMex can be interesting to people of other cultures, because it is a twist on some ingredients they may have eaten before (like cilantro, beans, tomatoes, beef) mixed with other not-too-scary ingredients (cheese, avocado, tortilla chips). Some flavours or cuisines seems to be universally enjoyable, such as pizza, pasta, or chocolate.

If some of the ingredients in the meal you want to serve are a bit unusual, allowing people to pick their own toppings or mix and match ingredients on their own plates works well. I saw my friends in Asia serve meals like this successfully many times. I sometimes serve a salad as a meal, but have five or more bowls on the table with different options of toppings and dressings, which lets everyone pick something that suits him or her.

Here are a few commonalities I've noticed about guests from specific backgrounds:

For Hindu or Indian guests: Hindus range from vegetarian (some don't even eat eggs) to eating virtually any meat except beef. If I don't know them well yet, I usually try to feed them a vegetarian meal just to be on the safe side, because sometimes even the meat-eaters are not eating "non veg" due to a special fast or festival. Some might say they eat meat to seem more Western, but might be more comfortable eating a vegetarian meal. You can always ask ahead of time if they eat meat, or keep meat separate as an optional add-in. Also, south Indians are used to eating rice, and north Indians to flatbreads of various kinds. They virtually all like their food well-seasoned and spicy, and putting hot sauce on the table is a good idea, because you probably don't like it as spicy as they do. They are used to having their tea with lots of milk and sugar in it, and usually they like black tea—fruity or herbal teas are less known to them.

For Musl!m or Arabic-speaking guests: I have gathered that they are accustomed to eating meat, rice, kebab and flatbread. Probably most Arab men like some meat on their plate, though of course, not pork! The meat might need to be halal (such as from a Turkish grocery store). Anything that could possibly contain pork gelatin, like gummy bears, should be avoided if they're conservative. I've noticed that they like tea (green tea with honey and ginger seems to be a win) but only after the meal. If they're at your house around prayer time, you might want to make them comfortable to pray if needed. I've learned some of this also by visiting in our Syrian friends' home and seeing what is normal for them.

For Western European guests: Western Europeans use much less sugar than North Americans do. This has been a good thing for me to learn; lately I'm baking cake with half the sugar and hardly noticing the difference! They don't drink much pop and like their food fresh. Germans aren't guaranteed to be adventurous with spice or exotic ingredients, and using some of their sturdy staples like potatoes, meat, apples, bread, etc. is usually a recipe for success if you don't know your guests well. Good coffee is often appreciated by Europeans.

These are very general guidelines, but talk to your guests, and find out if they have any allergies, preferences or dietary restrictions. When feeding immigrants, their willingness to try new things might depend on their age (young people might be more flexible than older adults), personality (our easy-going Chinese friends enjoyed TexMex) and how long they've been out of their homeland (the longer they've lived outside their home country, the more they've likely adapted to local foods, especially if they came when they were quite young, or came alone, not with a wife or mother who has been cooking their traditional cuisine every day). The strictness of their diet or whether or not they drink alcohol might depend on how conservative they are. Of course, there are picky eaters or vegetable juice haters in almost any culture. Asking their preferences always communicates respect.

So, do you have to be super-hostess to invite a foreign friend over? I am living proof that you don't need to be. I've spoken a lot about food here, but I am not an excellent cook. The chicken tonight was dry; last week our Wednesday soup was too spicy and Germans were turning red eating it. My husband is too temperate to tell you of the the meals I've destroyed with too much garlic, too much salt, or too much time under the broiler. But the more meals I cook, the more I learn. The more international guests we host, the more trends and preferences I pick up on. Preparing and serving homemade meals is always quite a bit of work, but it does get easier and faster with practice.

Why does it matter what we serve our guests of other cultures? Isn't the heart behind hospitality much more important than the menu? Yes, but what better way to show guests what is in your heart than by putting care and thought into choosing a pleasing menu? Our friends who are far from their home cultures are probably extra-appreciative of love. Fine-tuning your hospitality to different types of guests serves to build bridges into their lives. If they are at ease (not nervously choking down buttermilk) and they see that you care about them, they're more to open their hearts. Rosaria Butterfield's words in this interview resounded with me:
"Hospitality is not about putting sprinkles on your [cupcakes]. It is a form of spiritual engagement, even perhaps a form of spiritual warfare….you want to always make sure the strength of your words matches the strength and integrity of your relationships. If you want to talk to your neighbours about sin you had better be friends first, you had better be able to be people who have shared a meal together..." 
A thoughtfully-prepared, prayed-over meal can be a bridge to deepen relationships and talk about what really matters. Serve food that makes your international friends feel comfortable. Prepare a meal or snack that makes them feel loved and looked after. And please, if you have learned anything from this post, don't force your guests' children to down tomato juice!

Note: If you liked this post and are thinking about hospitality, you might like to read other hospitality posts, especially this one that talks about why we prefer, when we can, to invite people in instead of taking them out. If you have experience hosting foreign friends and can contribute, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!