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October 29, 2012

life, uncropped

I hardly remember life before Instagram. That may be a slight exaggeration, but in the last twelve months or so, Instagram took over my newsfeed. It's not so bad. Most Instagram photos I see are sweet, capturing smiling children, kissing lovers, enjoyable outings...and what people are eating for lunch. I "like" a photo here and there, and move on with my day.

Instagram is lovely for sharing bite-size moments of life. It gives you hope, you know? Because you could be in the ugliest environment in the world, but if you place a few cute things into the small frame shot by your cell phone camera, and crop out all the ugly stuff, your not-so-cute life can look really cute online. Just try it.

There's nothing wrong with cropping photos. But recently I've been thinking about how we often try to crop the pictures others see of our lives, to make them look better.  We think we're doing ourselves (and others) a favour. But are we?

Sometimes we want to crop our past. Who we were in the past doesn't fit the picture we want to present now. Maybe we're embarrassed of our upbringing, our background, our home life. So we get silent. We won't go there. Cropped.

It's easy to crop our present. We play the "I'm fine, how are you?" game every day, or every Sunday, without ever delving into the less-beautiful details of life. I wonder how many heads would jerk and eyes would flutter in prayer meeting if (after praying for Uncle Joe's safety and Brother Bob's cold) we prayed about the sin we're entangled in. If we talked about real life on a deeper plane.

When I'm with people of other faiths, sometimes I avoid spiritual matters. But to crop out any spiritual talk is crop myself. I am who I am only because of Christ, and He permeates my very being. When I take pains to remove Him from conversations, I'm doing a major crop job.
For those in some form of spiritual leadership, pride often leads us to idolize a squeaky-clean appearance. In a sense, that might attract people at first, because you seem like you have a life that's really put together. But while that person might admire you from afar, when hurt or struggle hits their lives, they're unlikely to think you can relate. They'll either suppress their problems or take them elsewhere. 

Some of my most treasured memories of teaching God's Word are those where I gave "my" kids the uncropped version of the lessons God was teaching me. One summer we talked about Proverbs' advice about words and communication. Sharing on a weekly basis about my failures and victories in communicating with my housemate made the lessons more real. Messier. More cluttered. But more true-to-life.

We crop because we're full of the fear of man instead of the fear of God. We're afraid of what others will do or think when we leave crop mode and let them see the bigger picture of our lives. Proverbs teaches that, "Fear of man will prove to be a snare..." but "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom...." (29:25, 9:10). Life-cropping due to fear of man is sin.

During the past few months, I've been a bit of a gypsy, staying in about 15 homes in 3 months. It has been enriching and beautiful. But I've also seen photos before they are cropped and edited. I've heard stories before they are edited for online consumption. I've eaten meals that weren't cute enough for Instagram. I've watched real life in many homes. 

And I know why we like cropping. Life is cuter that way. Zoom in on the beautiful centrepiece on the table; leave out the Cheerios gathering dust by the baseboards. Crop out marital strain and show only date nights. Fill the frame with feel-good content, click and upload.

We crop because we're not willing to live with or share reality. Sometimes reality stings, even savagely. But only when we talk with God (and often others) about real problems, can we find real solutions. Through the grace of God, ministered by His Spirit and our spiritual family, we can grow in living life uncropped. Staring fallen-world reality in the face with redeemed-world reality in mind.

I will finish with a relevant clipping from A. W. Tozer:
"If realism is the recognition of things as they actually are, the Christian is of all persons the most realistic. He of all intelligent thinkers is the one more concerned with reality…He demands to know the whole truth about God, sin life, death, moral accountability and the world to come…He takes into account the undeniable fact that he has sinned. He recognizes the shortness of time and the certainty of death. These he does not try to avoid or alter to his own liking. They are facts and he faces them full on."
Maybe here I should put in a disclaimer about how we should exercise discernment as to when and where to share life, uncropped. But you already know that, right?

Hey, you! Stop cropping.

October 19, 2012

cold stomach, meet your God

It hit me today and the pit of my stomach got cold: two weeks from tomorrow, I'll be leaving North America. To use the terminology of my earlier post, I bought an ox and I'm moving to Asia because of it.

The feeling in my stomach wasn't an "I don't want to go" kind of cold, just the "Wow, this is going to be a big change" kind of cold. The kind of cold you feel when your safety net is being pulled out from under you.

Although I feel like an international person, when I did live and travel overseas, my parents took care of most of the details of packing, cleaning, getting money in different currencies, paying for flights and finding housing. Now when I travel or move, those responsibilities are mine. It has been a journey to even get to this point.

My adult years have been spent in North America 99% of the time. Canada treated me well. I found edifying and helpful community. I found a job I enjoyed and that paid the bills. I've had a good life here. But the fear in my stomach brings me to realize that I trust in things like familiar surroundings, financial stability, friends and family to make me feel secure.

It's taking leaving my regular surroundings to expose that once again, I'm trusting in myself and things I can see instead of the unseen God.

The true God is not concerned that my geographical location might make it difficult for Him to provide for me. In fact, the idea never crossed His mind. I know, because today I read Psalm 66, which says, "By awesome deeds in righteousness You will answer us, O God of our salvation, You who are the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of the far-off seas." 

It goes on to say that He established the mountains by His strength, is clothed with power, stills the noise of the seas and the tumult of the peoples. Doesn't sound like He'll be struggling with culture shock, financial stress or fatigue overseas. I continued on to Psalm 66, and it speaks of the whole earth worshiping Him, too, "Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth!" and "all the earth shall worship You and sing praises to You....”

Cold stomach, meet the God of the universe. The God of North America is the the God of Asia. Let Him be your confidence. He's got earth (and you) covered.

October 15, 2012

take a risk. buy an ox.

One of my favourite Proverbs of late is 14:4,"Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, But much revenue comes by the strength of the ox."

This proverb speaks to me of basic life principles of choice and risking to gain. Life is a series of choices. Even when we think we are not making a choice, we are. We're choosing to stay where we are. The challenge of this proverb is that a well-calculated risk is worthwhile to take. It doesn't say you have to risk. Have a clean manger if you want to; it's your choice. But consider the alternative: the power of extra revenue. Three of the big areas of risk in life are changing jobs, getting (and staying) married, and having children.

Changing jobs involves risk. I find it interesting seeing how some people stay at the same job for decades, and others change often. There are benefits to both. But the lesson of this proverb is that what looks complicated or like extra work, might in the end be worth the extra effort. As Barnes' Notes on the Bible says, "Labor has its rough, unpleasant side, yet it ends in profit." Are you too worried about mussing the manger? Are you complaining about or suffering from lack of revenue, but unwilling to risk dirtying the oxen's stall?

Marriage involves risk. It, too, is a choice. God does not force us into marriage. But the ox parable holds true there, too. Yes, marriage comes with extra duties and responsibilities. But it comes with extra joys, too. There are singles that I meet who are full of fears about marriage or require extraordinary accomplishments of any eligible suitor. We want a perfectly compatible, well-groomed, well-established partner. Perhaps we just need a bit more of a taste of the "revenue" of a godly marriage, to be reminded of the good it brings. Marriage is a risk worth taking, in the will of God.

Having children involves risk. In North American culture, more and more couples are choosing childlessness. What used to be a couple's worst nightmare (consider how Biblical couples struggled with barrenness) is now considered a viable option. They're afraid of getting the manger dirty or having to pay for shots for baby oxen. In a sense, couples do have a choice as to whether or not to have children. But much joy comes from the arrival of a child.

On Wednesday and Thursday morning, my sister might have told you that she, too, would never have any more children. (Labour is called labour for a reason, I learned.) But you should see my sister's home now, four days later. You should watch the way the love and joy has multiplied in their home by the arrival of the little person below last week. Yes, she was a lot of work. Yes, she will be a lot of work. Yes, it's quite possible that she's screaming right now. But the unique joy of parenthood is the "much revenue" of the addition of their sweet daughter.

The direct application of Proverbs is 14:4, of course, is to work, but I believe that many other secondary principles can be drawn from this verse as well. It is a good challenge to those of us who are reticent to make changes, to expand, or to try new things: Where are we trading revenue for a tidy manger? Yes, it's your choice whether you want oxen, but a little hay never hurt anyone.

October 09, 2012

a friend indeed

This summer I took a trek to various parts of North America to see friends and family. I crisscrossed the continent, chatting on picnic blankets, rolling homemade sushi, spooning clam chowder out of my sourdough bread in the fog and polishing off my first lobster tail at Anthony's Fish Grotto. I rode buses, planes, trains and boats. I walked until my legs hurt, held sweet babies and read dramatic autobiographies. It was a great way to spend two months. Because I was with good friends.
Rolling sushi with friends in Michigan

The majority of the friends I visited are transplants; when I originally met them, they lived somewhere other than where they live now. We said goodbyes at one time or another, and moving trucks or  overstuffed vans took them somewhere new. As they have settled into new spaces, they have filled their homes with a mix of memorabilia and new acquisitions. Their lives have been stretched to include new situations and new relationships.

As we talked life—on boardwalks, in their homes, at their churches, at Chinese restaurants—I noticed that there has been one thing that many of them have had a hard time finding, and that is good friends. Wouldn't it be nice if one could walk into a furniture store, and along with the new sofa, purchase some close friends to sit on it? "I'll take two close female friends, to go!" Or if IKEA carried a build-a-friend kit? But good friends can be hard to acquire!

A friend is not bought. There is something about free will that makes relationships deep and satisfying, or nothing at all. When a person chooses you, and then chooses you again and again, they are making you an offer of friendship. Because a true friend cannot be forced or paid, we truly rest on the grace of God to give us godly friends.

Free will also allows us to make the choice to be a good friend. What kinds of friends should we seek to be? This is an informal list with a few suggestions of choices we can make in our current and future friendships.

A visit with friends to the Hidden Lake Gardens in Michigan

Choose Jesus as your Best Friend.
Healthy human relationships flourish only in hearts that keep everyone in their proper categories—God is the only One we should worship, and it is finally His opinion of us that matters. Human friends are just that: human (read: fallible, flawed). It's easy to be petty and selfish about friendships, such as when a good friend finds a new close friend, when a friend moves into a different stage of life and you don't, or any multitude of other difficulties arise. Find your identity in Christ, not in others' reactions to you or interactions with you. In focusing on your relationship with your Best Friend, you'll become the best human friend possible. (I preach this to myself). 

Be a friend that encourages people to choose your Best Friend. This should be a natural outpouring of a healthy relationship with Christ. Whether your friends know Jesus or not, a true friendship will point them to Him as the best and most enduring relationship. Sometimes even in what looks like a good relationship, because we discuss spiritual things or pursue godly activities, we can be encouraging our friends to depend on us instead of Christ. A friendship that encourages a greater love for Jesus is the best kind of friendship.

Choose your friends with wisdom. This is basic to godly living: friends hold a place of great influence, so choose them carefully (Prov. 12:26). Proverbs warns against being friends with an angry person (22:24). When a person has a huge, prevailing sin, it is important that that person not be a main source of advice or counsel. A common mistake is that we think we can surround ourselves with unbelieving friends and still flourish spiritually. Friends influence us more than we realize. While it is important to build relationships with those who believe in other gods, and to love them, they should not allow them to be our counsellors—because we become like the people with whom we spend time.

Check your motives for choosing certain friends. It is so easy to desire friendships with people who are well-liked, influential, attractive, at a similar stage of life, or popular. It can be tempting to refuse developing friendships with people who don't meet our qualifications. But as a wise man once pointed out to me, often the people who don't have a lot of friends are the ones who will be the most loyal friends. The popular kids can always move on to another friendship. Maybe that's why Proverbs speaks extensively about how the wealthy make friends, but the poor struggle to—because human nature is essentially selfish and thinks, "What's in this friendship for me?" (14:20, 19:4,6,7). Ask God to open your eyes to the friendships that He wants you to have—not just the friendships that are the most comfortable.
Choose your words with wisdom. The way we use words has a lot to do with the kinds of friends we attract, keep and lose. Gossip kills friendships (Prov. 16:28, 17:9). Gracious words, on the other hand, win friends (Prov. 22:11). Part of true friendship is confronting or challenging friends about sin, but "faithful are the wounds of a friend" (Prov. 27:6). Give heartfelt advice (Prov 27:9). Use your words to sharpen and challenge your friend in the things of God (Prov. 27:17).

Choose to use technology with wisdom. Further detracting from good relationships is the internet's "Facebook friend" culture, where people think that by being online "friends", they truly know another person. Coworkers we hardly know on a personal level want to add us as their "friends." Though mobile devices, we expect instant and personal access to our friends. We sit across the table from warm, breathing bodies and stare at Twitter updates on our phones, rather than having a real conversation with the person right in front of us. Maybe because in the digital world its easier to hide our faults and accentuate our strengths. As one of my friends so astutely stated, Facebook gives us all the perks of friendship without any of the sacrifice or struggle. It also gives us the illusion that we can closely maintain many friendships, when really a person cannot really have deep, regular interactions with so many people. Though our sinful natures have always struggled to have godly friendships, our culture of instant gratification and information overload sometimes weakens interpersonal relationships to a new degree. We need God's wisdom to know how to wisely use the technology He has given us to cultivate godly relationships, not detract from them.

A Mexican sunset - enjoyed with friends

Do you ever wonder at the goodness of God in creating relationships? Do you thank Him for your friends? There is a certain chemistry in the most enjoyable of friendships that is not reproducible on command. There is nearly nothing sweeter than the company of good friends. As I travelled I was amazed anew at the kindness of God as shown to me through my friends. They are friends indeed. May I be as well.