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December 30, 2012

living grace in asia

Almost one month ago, I arrived in Asia to start my new job. To mark that one-month anniversary, I want to share a bit about the sensory overload that is this incredible (and incredibly different) Asian country. I don't want to forget it, and I want to share it with you.

A few days ago, I looked at my surroundings, shot a few photos, and literally thought: this is a National Geographic shoot. This place is exotic. To me, and to most of you, it truly is.

The irony is that to most of the residents of this city, I am the exotic one. I stand out in every way here: I'm tall, blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed and I don't speak the local language. That is to say, I'm a misfit.
    In the particular community we were visiting (seen in these photos), people stood at the doorways of their homes and watched us. I don't know what thoughts go through people's minds when they see me. A well-dressed man at the market followed us for 15 minutes; why? And what did he think of us? I wonder what the servers at our restaurant said about us to each other, as we tried to communicate but couldn't make them understand. I hope that somehow they catch a glimpse of grace.

    In my first month here I've had the privilege of meeting both the wealthy and the poor. Our friends and neighbours are often of the middle or upper class, but any venture to the streets has us rubbing shoulders with every class.

    Upper class friends live in spacious apartments, speak good English, play Avril Lavigne, wear jeans and use Blackberries. They eat imported goods and talk about Hollywood films. Some have traveled abroad. Cooks, drivers, and cleaners are at their beck and call. They are kind hosts and fun to be with.

    But this is a land of extreme contrasts. Just meters away from some of our city's polished malls, Nike stores and walled communities are tent cities. Early morning finds the inhabitants rustling, preparing small fires to heat tea and ward off the chill. A tattooed camel lazily chews its cud, waiting for its boss to finish breakfast and get to work. Modern highrises form the backdrop to this impoverished scene.

    The community pictured in these photos exists to create pottery. Clay water pots line the pathways of their community and a small mosque marks the end of the enclosure. We visited a family there, and they welcomed us into their home, a cloth tent. The mother busied herself making tea, which we drank from saucers (not cups), and she found some scraps of toast to serve us. No IKEA kitchen here: she worked on the ground to prepare our snack. We rocked their fussing baby's hammock and took pictures. As we headed out the tent door, the mother told us it was a shame we could not stay longer, for her to make flatbread for us. The people of this state, whether rich or poor, are known for their hospitality.

    During a game of ping pong, a new, well-to-do friend described a Western cafe where the clients "pay it forward" and donate coffees to poorer clients. It was a novel idea to her.

    "You should start something like that here," she said. "If foreigners start new ventures, it has more draw." I understand the whole "draw" thing; staring eyes are everywhere here. But I told her, "If a foreigner does something, local people will see it as something outsiders do. If you start something, they can look at you and say, 'If she did that, I can too.'" Grassroots grace. 

    Much of the world is used to foreigners coming to needy areas and showing grace. It's hip. But what of grace in everyday life, to the people on your doorstep?

    In Canada, I thought I knew what grace looked like. But now I wonder how grace embodies itself in a culture so foreign from my own. Does grace smile at the person who so brazenly cut in line? Does grace say "thank you" even when the culture doesn't expect it? Does grace help clear the table or allow itself to be waited on? How does grace treat the cook, the cleaner, or the driver? Does grace bite its tongue when it wants to make a joke about cultural differences? How does grace express itself when spoken language isn't yet present? These are a few of my questions.

    What grace looks like in a so-different culture is still a bit sketchy to me. But I think it starts by being filled by Him who fills all things. Then He pours out of you, and grace spills over. I can't look at the picture below without remembering that famous petition, "Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” That same spring of water "wells up" in us. Overflowing grace.

    The Sunday market next to the river swells with nearly every object imaginable. Wealthy locals would likely avoid such gatherings, but for us it is an adventure. The vendors' wares are an incredible mix of rusty tools, used clothing, pans, carts and animals. I snagged some booklets that teach the local language's alphabet. We saw baby chicks whose feathers had been dyed hot pink. Fake Ray-Bans and Dell backpacks. Cuddly baby goats. Old cameras. A padlock in the shape of a turtle.

    But most of all, the market swells with people. Tall or short, black-haired or blonde, rich or poor...we're right near the river and we all need grace.

    December 28, 2012

    my city

    As we wrap up 2012, quality of life statistics for cities worldwide are being reported. My city in Canada scored well in one such survey; and cities like Zurich or Geneva often top the lists. When I saw Switzerland this year, I understood why it is a desirable destination.

    These surveys look at a variety of factors, such as: number of ducks quacking in local lakes at any given time, Starbucks availability and the Justin Bieber fan index. (I was just checking if you were paying attention.) Actually, they look at factors that most people consider important for daily life: ease of transportation, air quality, education and entertainment options and, of course, cost of living compared to average wage.

    When I look at such lists, I don't look for my home city here in Asia. I know it won't make the cut. It doesn't have what it takes to be a top move-here city, with its smoggy skies, dusty streets, noise pollution, and the occasional riot thrown in for good measure. In fact, at Christmastime when I googled local weather, it came up as "smoke." I am glad to be here, but I didn't move here pursuing quality of life, by its common definition.

    The first coming of Jesus and ideas of so-called "quality of life" were reverberating in me this Christmas. When I thought about God's choice in terms of a quality of life survey, it gave me pause. We cannot comprehend the quality of life that the Son had in His glorious home in Heaven. He knew perfection in every way: relationally, environmentally, circumstantially. We're so accustomed to the story of Him coming to us that we don't realize the enormity of His change in lifestyle.

    But something mattered to him much more than personal comfort or earthly definitions of "quality of life." So He did something crazy. I went looking for the words again; Paul wrote about His move down in Philippians 2.

    He came down:
    "being in the form of God...
    made Himself of no reputation,
    taking the form of a bondservant, and 

    coming in the likeness of men."

    And down again:
    "He humbled Himself and
    became obedient to the point of death..."

    And down once more:
    "even death of the cross."

    Before He came to earth, God didn't do a quality of life survey about Bethlehem. In fact, of all people, He knew best what He was getting Himself into. He submitted Himself to pests, to dust, to sweat; to living in a sin-cursed world. More importantly, He submitted Himself to living under the Father's decree. He submitted to the point of death, even death of the cross.

    Hebrews 12 says: "For the joy set before him he endured the cross." Jesus' pursuit was of a greater joy than anything that could be quantified on a city score.

    Too often the joy we set before ourselves is not the same joy Christ set before Himself. We're not motivated by what motivated Him: things that last forever. Quality of life surveys show us what the world values, but we must assess our value systems for consistency with our Example's values. 

    Paul said: "What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away." (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

    Whether believers reside in a move-there city or a leave-there city, our focus is to be on the eternal city. Abraham gave up earthly quality of life, because he was "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10). 

    Someday soon, like Abraham, our pockets will be emptied. Our bodies will be stripped. Our homes will be leveled. True faith shall become sight. What a city we'll enter! What quality of life we'll know! We'll see firsthand what He left to redeem us. And we will worship...forever.

    December 14, 2012

    plainclothes priesthood

    Pigeons flutter and fuss outside my bedroom each morning. Engines rev. A sea of red-roofed buildings stretches below and around me, as far as the eye can see. By the time I wake up, the morning bustle has already started in our dusty, dry corner of Asia. I'm here; my new job has begun.

    Much of the work of recent weeks has been preparatory for the hiring of new local staff. Interviewing and setting up interviews took a lot of time. Finding appropriate computers, furniture, lighting, window coverings, and more for our expanding office has been the focus of much energy. I'm learning software and procedures so that I can be of help in the weeks and months to come. As I write, a team member is patching English together with the local language, trying to communicate with a carpenter. Our team is busy with the work that lies before us.

    I often think about the fact that a few years ago, I might have deemed this job as lesser than other kinds of Work. You know, more spiritual Work. But then Tozer challenged me:
    "It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, but why he does it. The motive is everything. Let a man sanctify the Lord God in his heart and he can thereafter do no common act."
    I kept this statement on my wall for years as I pushed a mouse, implemented colour schemes and interacted with coworkers at my previous job in North America. It was part of a long, maybe life-long, process for me: learning what it means to do even common work in an uncommon way.

    As I was preparing to move over to Asia, a fellow believer referred to my upcoming move for "secular employment." A friend and I laughed about it later—the comment sounded so cold. It sounded lesser than moving overseas for, you know, more spiritual Work. Like perhaps my highest goals were simply money and pleasure (an empty attitude for which any believer should be rebuked). But perhaps it showed how general Christian thinking sees a chasm between so-called "sacred" and "secular" vocations.

    In the classic film Chariots of Fire, Eric Scott,
    a gifted Scottish runner, speaks with his sister on a green Scottish hillside. She is frustrated with his fascination with making the Olympic team. She wants him to think of God's work in China and to stop pursuing his worldly goals of running. Foot racing to her is common, not spiritual.

    I could relate to her concern, so Eric's reply challenged me. "God made me fast…. I feel the pleasure of God when I run. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt." He knew there were pressing needs in China. But he also knew that not everyone could race in the Olympics, and that God had gifted him in that way. He had found his place for that time: using his physical ability to the glory of God. Today, Eric is more remembered for his Olympic participation than for his later work overseas. He showed that running, too, could be sacred: "the motive is everything."

    Martin Luther instructed, "Believe in Christ and do whatever needs to be done in your profession." This simple sentence boils down one's life to its bare essentials: what you believe, and what you do. These would be two good questions for any believer to keep in mind each day:
    (1) Am I believing in Christ today? and
    (2) What needs to be done in my profession today?
    I think Luther would agree that the answer to the first indelibly colours the second.

    We often tote this idea that we can separate our inner life and our outer life. This is a false dichotomy. The two are intimately connected: with your inner man you believe, and with your outer man you act upon what you believe. You will work in a way that shows forth the reality of what you believe. If the way you carry out your profession is not affected by Christ, then I wonder if you believe in Him. Faith in Him will, it must, affect how you go about daily life and work, be you preacher or peddler.

    Our world knows a lot about priests, capital "P"
    . Just pick your culture and continent. Gurus who sit cross-legged in front of attentive audiences. Preachers in crisp shirts and ties with smiling, freshly-washed families. Monks trudging long paths in their orange robes. Priests in velvety gowns that ripple around their ankles. Shaman with their drums and ceremonies. Imams gathering followers in the parched Sahara. Humans look for spiritual leadership and are often attracted to the pomp and ceremony such leaders may provide.

    But our Book speaks of the priesthood of all believers.
    It seems to discourage even the use of formal titles for true spiritual leaders in our midst; we are all one in Christ Jesus. I know many priests, lowercase "p". They look like graphic designers, engineers, drywallers, photographers, firefighters, housewives, mothers, sales managers, pastor-teachers, medical personnel and cross-cultural workers. In God's sight, one is no more priestly than another. They are the plainclothes priesthood. Lowercase "p".

    They are people who do whatever they do in a way that reflects a growing understanding of ultimate Reality. Everyday humans who realize that their everyday work—as ordinary or extraordinary as it may seem—locks into God's ultimate purpose. David said it best; only by embedding our lives in the life of the everlasting God can the work of our hands take on an everlasting quality. 

    And that, my friends, is uncommon. That is sacred.

    December 08, 2012

    some things take time

    It is 2:30am in my strip of the globe, and I am having trouble sleeping again. Perhaps my body clock is entirely confused or my mind is too busy processing new information. Whatever the case, today will be my sixth day in Asia; there's so much to take in.

    Between business meetings, interviews and cultural introductions, I have been itching to write again. Aching for quiet stretches of time when I can use written words to think about life and God. Writing seems to help me make sense of living with Him, and I've lived so much life over the last month or two that I feel I have a lot to write about. Right now.

    But most blog posts pass through a process. They've known previous lives as fragments of documents on my computer, Post-It notes on my desk or journal entries on my bedside stand. Raw ideas which I fear to leave unattended lest other eyes see them before the refining process takes place. Many drafted posts never make it into the real world or at least not in their originally-intended shape. I cannot "just post something" in this space. It takes time. 

    We don't like things that take time, do we? We are accustomed to instant access to anything and everything. We want to know how quickly we can get through school, which company offers faster internet or which radio station can direct us to the quickest route home. Our phones respond to voice commands—because unlocking your smartphone and typing in a question (which would have been considered high-speed technology only a few years ago) is so passé. Instant coffee, Devotions for Women on the Go, pre-peeled get the idea.

    We're forgetting the joy of quiet and of waiting.
    This greatly affects our ability to grow as beings made in the image of God. Life-changing ideas are often steeped by time, by the Word, by prayer, through circumstances and through relationships. There is a enormous difference between having access to facts and learning to compare and contrast ideas, to push the boundaries of our thinking, to come up with new-to-us connections and associations. A vast expanse lies between a simple Facebook friend and a true friend who has history with you, challenges you and reaches places in your life that few have reached. And the big Book's ideas illumine us but sometimes it takes years. Powerful ideas need time to disseminate.

    One of life's simple pleasures is watching tea steep in a glass mug full of hot water. It's a quiet moment that contains such beauty. Have you watched it happen? The water goes from being clear to being completely coloured by the tea leaves in a matter of moments. But not instantly. Those few moments as the colour transfers are my favourite moments of the process. Ideas, too, need time to steep.

    When I browse my own blog, it is a journey through what God has taught me over recent years. As I read it, I realize that God has been teaching me the same lessons for a long time. A few themes echo over, and over, and over. Because there's so much to take in. And some things take time.