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December 31, 2013

a glimpse of God

They fell in love because they liked dancing together. "Not the best reason to marry someone," she admits, "but we did it anyway. We sure loved dancing!"

She waves a wrinkled hand and retells stories from years gone by. When she and her husband reached retirement, she wanted to give herself to important things, like a street-corner truth-sharing, or volunteer work with orphans. But her plans changed when she got stuck caring for her ailing husband, who is eight years her senior. Well, "stuck" is how she felt, until it occurred to her that she wasn't being held back from ministry, this was her ministry—caring for her dance partner. So, care she has.

On the wall in their bedroom three pictures hang: one from their wedding, one from their twenty-fifth anniversary, and one from their fiftieth anniversary. The changes that fifty years wrought on their faces and bodies are dramatic. Now, it's been eight years since that last portrait.

The man she married was a handsome, capable man who took her on cruises to the Far East. The man she's married to today is voiceless and withered, staring up at pictures of cartoons above his bed, contained by a crib-like railing. When he needs her, he squeezes a small squeaky toy.

This is how they're celebrating Christmas: she stays within earshot of the squeak. This is how they're celebrating love.

In the dining room, there's another couple. Well actually, now she's in the kitchen and he's in the entry way greeting guests. But on the dining room wall, they are pictured in a faded 8x10, cracking big smiles only 30 years ago.

They're greyer than 30 years ago, but the wide smiles and happy eyes remain. Tonight he's enthusiastically organizing games; she's managing multiple pots on the stove...and they both make it look so easy. She tells me that they had a family dinner in the afternoon; this evening's Christmas dinner is an "extra" meal. "Just" a meal for about fifteen people who don't have family around this Christmas. Just the way these two do life—they are given to hospitality.

The love I see between these two is demonstrates itself as like-mindedness. He asks for testimonies; she always has one to share. He leads the study; she contributes her insight. He invites a friend over; she makes her famous cake. He brings home the proverbial bacon; she graciously cares for his aging parents. They both glow when they talk about the good news. Their lives are one, split as by a semicolon: two related thoughts, flowing in the same direction, with the same idea in mind. Their love is evidenced by kind interaction and teamwork.

This is how they're celebrating Christmas; with a stirring spoon in one hand, straws for group games in the other. This is how they're celebrating love.

In the living room there are a dozen young adults playing games, laughing, and being extra-friendly. It's easy, when you're young and your skin is tight and your teeth are straight, to look for a love that is all jitters and woo-woo and lightening.

I don't have much to say about the youngsters, because they don't have much history yet. They're exploring. Giggling. Flirting a little. And probably giving no thought to the dining room, or the back room.

This is how the young are celebrating Christmas; smiles and nervous butterflies and glances. This is how they're celebrating love. 

I leave the back bedroom with a certain heaviness, and this is why:
I don't think that kind of love is in me.

Living room love? Yes.
Dining room love? Maybe.
Back room love? No.

What young soul doesn't want the woo-woo of the living room? It's heady; it's fun. It's a gift of God when it's guided by wisdom and truth. But friend, it's the cotton candy version of more enduring love—it's good but you can't live on it.

A young person could even value of the agreeableness of the dining room. Cooking dinner, taking care of the inlaws, steadily performing our duties day-in and day-out. It's a bit boring, but it's the stuff of life: potbellies and three square meals. This dinner, that outing. Haircuts and hassles, cancer and curry. Sunrise, sunset. We can see the value in their faithfulness.

But the door between me and the back room is closed. There's something in me that doesn't want the reality-check of that stubbly jaw or rumpled pajamas,
...where the pictures on the wall show decline,
...where look on his face reminds me that
"death will soon disrobe us all",
...where I see a still-capable wife dying to other dreams.

No, I don't think that back room love is in me.

Slowly, two thoughts come to mind.

First of all, love is of God. I could never conjure it up myself. And this is my hope: He who loves is born of God and knows God. He can produce this love-fruit in me, if I abide in Him. This is a miracle of His grace. That back room love is not in me yet, but He can produce it in me.

Secondly, old, enduring love can only come from people who are old and enduring. I've often wondered at the wisdom of God in making pregnancy a nine-month period. It gives a couple time to adjust, to dream, to plan, to prepare for a new little life. Except for those tabloid-like tales of women who give birth unexpectedly, there's really no such thing as a pregnancy that is still a surprise by the time the baby arrives.

In the same way, God never calls us to be elderly before we have first been young, and then middle-aged. In this I see His wisdom, too. He gives us time to discover what love is, at all its stages. At my age, it's no wonder that back room love seems beyond me. My call is not to serve an old husband, but it is to build a good wisdom-foundation for enduring love. To mediate on what true love looks like. To follow godly older examples.

So that someday, that back room love will be in me, too.

It's Christmas in this house, and the common areas are packed with people. But the real romance is in that back room. When a little squeak sends two loving, ever-available feet pattering over to see what's wrong. When a woman of integrity stands by her promise. When love, which is of God, appears in human fleshhere we catch a glimpse of God.

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, 
God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 
—John, in 1 John 4:12  

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; 
and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God.
 —John, in 1 John 4:7 

"‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: 
this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. 
It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run:
being in love was the explosion that started it."
 —C. S. Lewis on Chr!stian Marriage

December 22, 2013

i found Christmas

It doesn't look like Christmas in our dusty Asian city. It's just like any other day: cows meander in the streets, a traditionally-dressed woman carries a bundle of sticks on her head, puppies yip and yap, and security guards chew betel-nut and stroll along the borders of my complex. The temperature is a comfortable +26°C and the air smells faintly of smoke, though it's not coming from fireplaces with stocking-adorned mantels. I hear a pounding hammer and cooking vessels clanging. On Friday, I asked an employee: "Have you ever celebrated Christmas before?" He shook his head and didn't really look like he cared whether he ever would. Christmas is no biggie here.

Canadian friends were visiting me for a few weeks, and together we found gangly plastic Christmas trees available in three heights: 3', 5', and 7'. We rustled through kitschy gold plastic bells to find a few lights and star garlands with which to decorate my tree of choice—the 5'. Later in the week, we picked bugs out of the flour and ground coarse sugar to make it slightly finer, for some Christmas baking. I'm hoarding bits of mail that come and putting them under the tree to open on Christmas morning. Sitting alone in the office on Saturday, I chomped my one imported candy cane and listened to Mary, Did You Know? and I'll Be Home for Christmas. And so it goes; I'm pulling together bits of Christmas, Asia-style.

A few nights ago, my roommates had a heated argument during supper. I tentatively dipped my chapati into my greenish-black moong dal and then escaped to my room as soon as possible to avoid the clatter and conflict. When I resurfaced, still a bit tired by their fighting, the conversation with the remaining roommate was still about house business and roommate matters. Should we have a grocery purchasing schedule? Why does so-and-so do such-and-such? We stood meters away from my Christmas decorations, discussing things that seemed so far from peace on earth, on this December 21.

But then, the conversation took a turn toward grace. Toward talk of relationships and forgiving before the sun goes down. "Your Book says that? My dad used to teach me to not go to bed angry, but I didn't know it was from the Book." I commended her for the apology she'd texted to the other roommate about the argument they'd had. Suddenly, my roommate said, "You know, it's been a long time since we've had a Book study together on a Sunday. How about tomorrow, we have breakfast and a study?"

And just like that, I remembered that Christmas is right here, because Christmas happens wherever incarnation happens. Living with roommates of such different backgrounds, worldviews and cultures is challenging. But the Christ Who lives in my body has a chance to incarnate over moong dal, at the dining room table, or next to the Christmas tree. He has the chance to shine through in the elevator, in the way I speak to an employee or boss, or in the love I show to a neighbour. And that is the essence of Christmas: incarnation.

When He lives in me, I live Christmas. And for all the cozy descriptors we use for this season, true Christmas is as bundled with tears, frustrations and struggle as it is with joy, peace and goodwill. Didn't the need for Christmas start with a power struggle, that of Adam's race seeking to overthrow God's authority? Haven't the forces of evil battled his coming ever since, seeking to eliminate the royal line? The fact of the baby's divinity didn't minimize the severity of the contractions that throbbed through Mary's abdomen on Christmas night, or eliminate Joseph's struggle to keep pure and obedient until Mary was his. When the incarnation was approaching its culmination, Christ was sweating blood. 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.

When that word which we heard from the beginning (1 Jn 2:5) is in us (1:10), and we keep His word (2:5) and let it abide in us (2:24), we are applying the theology of Christmas. He came among us so that the truth could be in us (1 Jn 1:8). Our eyes, mouths, hands, and feet can be used to physically represent truth; to give flesh and bones to spiritual concepts like grace and truth. "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked" (1 Jn 2:6). J'esus can walk the earth again, through me, through you.

Christmas is "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
Christmas is "Let it be to me according to your word."
Christmas is "Not my will but Yours be done."
Christmas is five hundred bowls of dal in exchange for fifteen good conversations.
Christmas does whatever it takes to minister reconciliation.

So this morning, we lived Christmas. We sat next to my scrawny tree with a candle burning, but that had nothing to do with it, really. Between breakfast and our Sunday tasks, we talked through John 1, about light and life and incarnation. And here, in my dusty corner, I found Christmas.

November 06, 2013

age is beauty

I'm in my late twenties—and apparently this is the age when female friends start telling me about the wear and tear on their bodies. One complained to me about the crow's feet around her eyes and the way her skin looked definitively older after just one more summer in the sun. Another has been finding grey hairs, and she's only in her early thirties. A third told me how a guy asked her if the mark on her leg was a surgery scar—to which she had to honestly reply, “No, that's a stretch mark.” We're starting to look back on photos taken only four years ago and think “Wow, I looked much younger then! Didn't my skin look nicer then?” Time is taking its toll. And too many of us are not OK with that.

Ever since the crow's feet remark, I have been renewed in thinking about the beauty that is available to us in Je'sus. How wonderful it is to get older with J'esus. Because only in J'esus do we find an escape from the world's dying system, where women must fight to stop the age clock. In every other Western worldview, every other system, women have to grapple with the issue of becoming "un-beautiful" as they age. Their physical feminine glory loses it's luster and then, what is life? Fifty more years of unbeautifulness, a downhill slope?

But in the B!ble, age is beauty.

Because beauty is in your good works (as done through the grace of God, I Tim. 2:9-10, Eph 2:8-10, Rev. 19:8).

And the older you get, the more time you've had to do good works.
So your beauty blossoms as time goes by.

Which means thirty is more lovely than twenty.
Forty is gorgeous, darling!
And fifty? By then, you'll be stunning, my friend, if you continue on His path.

My friends with the scars and stretch marks and white hairs? They are getting more beautiful, as they donate their time to orphanages, outreaches, and to the children of cross-cultural workers. One cleans her crotchety neighbours' house and is the only J'esus they see. Another finds sponsors for needy children and yet another spends weekends with an older lady from her chur'ch to provide companionship. They organize summer camps. They open their homes to people needing a place to stay. They suffer through health problems that limit them, or family difficulties, but they don't lose hope. One took in some friends of mine who were in a crisis when I was far away in Asia—the bond that has grown between them is beautiful.  

They remind me of 1 Timothy 5:10, they have:
brought up children,”
lodged strangers,”
washed the saints' feet,”
relieved the afflicted,”
diligently followed every good work.”

They don't make a big deal of the beautiful things they are doing.
They do them out of gratitude to Chr!st.
These are beautiful women.

They evidence their beauty not only in these altruistic acts, but also in their daily routines. They wake up each morning, pin back their hair, add a touch of mascara, and go through another day with a smile and faithfulness. Some have never had a man call them beautiful, and I know their hearts long deeply for that recognition and affirmation. But the Lover of their souls has called them Beloved, beautiful, and has betrothed Himself to them. As He takes deeper root in their hearts and lives, I see how things are changing, as their lives better reflect His beautiful character. They are “not afraid” (Prov. 31:21), no matter what the world may tell them about the passage of time or the state of their bodies.

So I say,
Be happy for the way your skin has weathered because you were chasing kids and telling them about hope. Remember how the five pounds you gained last summer were because you were eating bad camp food, so that you could share love. Be thankful for the callous you got weeding the neighbour's garden or the scar on your finger that reminds you of that job that was difficult, but you stuck it out. This is no excuse to let yourself go, to be un-pretty. It's just a call to focus on inner beauty, that doesn't fade away. This is not self esteem, it's Chr!st esteem. Your true beauty is so entwined in J'esus, and another year just means another year of getting to look more like Him, and point more eyes to Him. And if no one's ever told you, woman of God, you are beautiful.

[Friends, thank you for letting me observe your beauty as I visited with many of you during October. I love you!]

October 30, 2013

one flock, one shepherd

[Note: I wrote this post at the beginning of October, as I was leaving Asia.]
I knew, in those moments, that my life was changing dramatically. There was the blast of an unstifled burp mixing with the smell of airline biriyani. A person or two cutting in front of me in the immigration line-up. A sweaty chase after a late flight set me behind. Planes crammed with black-haired people and me. And, in those moments, I couldn't help but think: so this is where I'm moving. This is my new host culture. There was some trepidation in my heart.

Ten months ago, we were touching down on the tarmac when the man next to me began making small talk. He was bleary-eyed, just stirring from a fitful night of plane-sleeping. But once he heard where I was going to work, he was alert. "You're going to live where? Why?" His face registered shock, surprise, and warning. The people of the state where I was moving are known even by neighbouring states for having a strong, exclusive, traditional culture.

It's almost exactly ten months later, and I'm headed back to the airport, for a short visit to North America. I'm using the same suitcase as last year, but this time, it might hold the scent of the cloud of incense that drifted through our house this morning—from the kitchen, where the gods are, where my roommate's aunt was saying her prayersparticular prayers, because it was the beginning of a religious festival. Ten months later, but so much has transpired in those ten months.

The shiny airport facility appears in the distance, clean and modern-looking. But upon closer inspection, it is chaotic place. The crowd outside the glass building is writhing with veiled or sequined women, new brides adorned with clattering wedding bangles, and men in small caps and full beards. Upon seeing the busy scene (and this at one o'clock in the morning), I do something that has become so common in the last ten months. I avert my eyes. I lift my scarf to partially disguise my blonde hair. And finally, I step into the melee with my luggage.

Inside the airport the crowd thins, but men still surround me, and so do their eyes. I'm glad for the slight protection of my scarf. But it can't stop one nearby man from jutting his chin and motioning to his two friends to look at me. I look away. The luggage guys scan more than just luggage. I look away. And so it goes. The eyes feel more plenteous than usual tonight; they weary me. Is this not an international airport? Have they never seen a foreign woman travelling by herself before? Frustrated thoughts go through my mind. Until a phrase from a Psalm comes to mind, riding on a tune I heard recently: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

And that truth is enough. Enough, until the eyes are gone, the documents are stamped, and the boarding call is made. I know the Shepherd, and He is enough.

My foreign friend's words come back to me now: "We have been called to lay aside our culture for a time, so that we can love in this culture." That "laying aside of our culture" is difficult, some days. It's not so hard when I'm presented with the gracious aspects of our host culture (and there are many!): their warm affection and hospitality, their delicious meals, their constant availability to help, their gorgeous patterns and clothing, their respect of elders. Truly, they do many things well. But it's hard to remember under the smell of onions and body odour, when the heat is oppressive, or when the paperwork takes trip after trip.

"Laying aside our culture"hiding my hair is the least of it, changing my eating habits is part of it, laying aside personal goals or preferences and actively choosing new attitudes is the hardest.  
But this is my calling at this time.

I admitted to my foreign friend that as much as I anticipate my time in Canada with my friends and family, at times my mind already goes to the goodbyes at the end of the visit. Before I even hit Candian soil, I'm already thinking about the struggle of unclothing myself of my culture and putting on theirs again. And my friend could relate to the tears that collect at the edges of my eyes when I think of returning...or leaving....or whatever it will be called when I land on Asian soil again and raise the headscarf. The headscarf, a symbol of submission: I will live in this culture, so that I can love in this culture.

You know, Father, that it isn't because I don't want to live in Asia, right?
I know You led me there for this season.

You know, Son, what it's like, right? This unclothing of ourselves?
It's good that you know—because I desperately need Your example.

You know, Spirit, how I need you, right?
To do Your thing—to comfort, strengthen, convict, guide.

As I type this paragraph, I'm on a turbulent flight somewhere over the Canadian prairies. We've been shaking for a while now. Reminds me of my heart, sometimes: fitful, fraught with frailties, fighting to stay steady between cultures, between countries. Outside it's dark and cloudy.

I met a lady who told me that my host country reminded her of that phrase,
"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them..."
So now my Asian home reminds me of that passage, too.

The sheer number of people is part of what makes this nation overwhelming. But it's also part of what presses their need into my heart. As my coworkers and I pushed to the front the airport crowd that night, I remembered His compassionate heart toward every last one of them. I remember the Shepherd who would gladly inconvenience Himself to find just one, lost lamb. And that is not my heart—that of gladly inconveniencing myselfbut I want it to be my heart.

Even as I prepared to board my flight away from our cityguarding my position in the queue rather selfishly—I saw, out of the corner of my eye, men in white robes saying prayers toward a wall before boarding. The waiting area was full of these relig!ous men. Again, He reminded me of His perspective. Why did He have compassion? Because they were "…harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Let the people cut in line. Let the burps fly. Let the sweat collect under my headscarf. Let the eyes bore into me. Let dear friends be far away, or not even understand me. Let me lay down my culture, my life. This announcement from the Shepherd would make every moment worthwhile: "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep."

"The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." —John

"I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. 
I must bring them also. 
They too will listen to my voice, 
and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." —John

October 11, 2013

a beautiful day

Today should be a beautiful day.

A Canadian October is a brief sigh, released after a gorgeous summer; it's the last hurrah before the snow comes. 

Today should be all hurrah.

The autumn breeze is playing with my hair. I'm holding my niece close to my chest, hearing her tiny breaths and watching her bright eyes. I bundle her in my shawl as the wind cuts cooler and closer to our skin.

She's healthy. She's happy. She's a sweet little person who chortles and chuckles, scoots and shines. So much joy entered our hearts when we met her one year ago today. My heart should be full. 

Today should be so sweet.

But today I got a message from a friend in Asia. A few days ago we were glowing and praying and wishing her well at her baby shower. Today the words are choppy, as they come—without a lot of explanation—and the glow is gone from the terse phrases:
It's a baby boy.
He's early.
Don't know if he will live through the night.
She lost a lot of blood.

And on this day that should be beautiful, hurrah, and sweet...
with a healthy, happy October 11 baby in my arms, 
suddenly I'm crying. And crying. In my mind, I see American blood washing down Asian drains, dreams drowning in grimy gutters.

When I get the message, we're cutting out party decorations. And my niece's mother tells me, “You can go if you want. You can go lie down.” No need to string paper owl birthday banners when another baby is suffering.
I do go lie down.
I'm still crying.

On the day that was supposed to be beautiful.

I'm back on the park bench, with my lovely niece. I wrap my French shawl tighter around her and snuggle her against my Asian top. My bangles clink. I think about how, while sometimes it feels like I have come back to a place where nothing has changed, I have changed. A tour of Europe, ten months in Asia, and now a visit back to Canada. Here I am, weeping for people that my friends and family have never met. They try to understand: “So is this a family you work closely with?” They kindly offer a pr@yer for him or listen to the baby's story with compassion. But it's hard for them to comprehend the world that opened itself to me in ten short months. The world into which fresh pain has entered today.

Babies suffer every day. Why am I crying for this one? Because I love him, I suppose. I loved him before I met him, because I loved his parents. Now I love people so far from my quiet park bench under the grey autumn sky. I have changed.

Today I see life and death undiluted. The joy of a cozy child, resting contentedly and joyfully. Another baby, struggling to breathe: pain, sorrow, and anguish.

I have in my day a cross-section of life on earth as we know it: true joy, true pain...“and underneath are the everlasting arms.” If not for those arms that stretched wide and took pain, true joy would have been eclipsed by the suffering sin brought. The solution for our pain was wrought 2,000 years ago, but for now the two realities coexist in a sort of tension, until that long-expected day when joy wins and sorrow is put away forever. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain....”. Some days we feel that joy-pain tension more than others. Days like today.

But without the anguish of the “Man of Sorrows”, we would never have received the Comforter. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 
Today is a beautiful day, 
it's even hurrah,
it's even sweet...
because between tears, we have the assurance of lasting joy in a not-too-distant tomorrow. 

Our pain is temporary. Our joy is forever. Thank you, Je'sus.

[Note: I posted this on October 23 but back-dated it to October 11.]

September 09, 2013

talking about forever

Have you ever noticed how 90% of the compliments we (women in particular) pay one another are about essentially inconsequential things?

“I like your hair today.”

“That sweater looks nice on you!”

“Where did you get your purse? I like it.”

“You have a beautiful smile!”

Or, my personal favourite: “Nice phone!” (How do you even respond to that compliment? "Thanks, I'm glad I had the money to buy a nicer phone than yours"?)

You've probably received compliments like the above, and you've probably given some of these compliments too. They are small encouragements that make our days more cheerful. But I've noticed that we often praise friends for things that:
   (a) money can buy (clothing, accessories, haircuts, cars) or
   (b) they received at birth (straight teeth or beautiful hair)
And rarely do we praise our friends for things of lasting value. Day in and day out, our conversations, however positive, are often full of these trival things.

(Don't misunderstand, a compliment about physical appearance can bless another person or reassure an anxious heart. When you spend an hour getting ready for a special event, it's nice to know you look good. God made us to enjoy that kind of beauty.) 

It's just that too often we settle for good instead of best in our conversations. We live on the plane of the visible and temporary and God is beckoning us to belong to the world of the unseen, which lasts forever. He's calling us to talk like women who have eternity in focus. Every day, every word, every compliment, is an opportunity to choose which plane we'll focus on. Whatever we affirm, we confirm as being important. If we compliment the external nine times out of ten, we are encouraging the external nine times more than the internal or spiritual. It's simple math.

Why don't we compliment the things that last forever? I think that often it is because we see mostly with our flesh-eyes, and not with our spirit-eyes. We see fashion, not fruit; glasses, not godliness. Or if we do compliment people on their spiritual qualities, I've noticed that we often find it easier to write than to speak of such things. On birthdays we write sweet cards. For celebratory dates we commend each other with letters. But how often do we sit, face to face with someone and tell them which traits of Chr!st or fruit of the Spirit you see in them? It seems to me that it is something we should do more intentionally, and more often.

Calling out the good fruit you see in someone else's life is an eternal activity in and of itself. It is life-giving and encouraging. A few times my team here in Asia has come around me and told me what they appreciate about me. They didn't tell me that I wear cute scarves or have a nice smile. They talked about spiritual qualities. A comment like, "I can see that you love J'sus” is immeasurably more valuable than telling me that my hair looks nice. It both encourages me (in saying that there is fruit in my life) and exhorts me (to continue abiding in Him).

How often do we not serve others in conversation simply out of a selfish fear of exposure? Because we wonder what others will think if we change the way we speak? Sometimes we don't open up about such things because we don't want to be cheesy. But is it really cheesy?

If the conversational topics we choose in our spare time are mostly earthly things (or if we fear man more than we fear God), it shows where our minds are. If we want our tongues to focus on what's eternal, our minds must focus there first. 
Maybe a little less Pinterest and a little more Philippians is in order. Less social media and more psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. As our eyes catch His vision, our mouths will speak of it.

A smart phone, a manicure, a tan? 
Anyone can pursue these things.

A gentle and quiet spirit?
Joy in the midst of strenuous circumstances?
Patience with a difficult person?
Self control in a tempting situation?
A hunger for His Word and His work?
Humble boldness in truth-telling?
These are evidence of His work. 
These are evidences of eyes fixed on forever.

Call out the things you want to encourage. As we set our minds on things above, may our tongues be known for complimenting those things which last forever. 

August 26, 2013

the settle

I came of age in a culture where skirts could not be short enough. Where park benches were synonymous with kissing and dampness and moonlight. Where the fleshly feasts (that in many countries would be more hidden) called aloud from every street corner, magazine stand or radio hit.

These obsessions permeated almost everything, even the trusted summer camps where my parents would send us. Camp was a place for midnight serenades under the dorm windows, love notes being read in a microphone in the dining hall, and pair games. At age eleven, I was dressed up in a denim dress and encouraged to hold hands with a my camp crush. To top it all off, there was usually a romantic dinner on the last night, and everyone was encouraged, even pressured, to take a date.

A foreign friend attended one such camp at age 14 or 15. On the first or second night of camp, a gangly boy gathered the guts to ask her to go with him to the romantic supper. She thought no one else would ask her. (You know, she was only foreign and beautiful—of course no one would ask her!) So she settled for the stranger, the first boy that asked.

Of course, the next days, she was invited by other guys but she kept her word to the first boy who asked. I was glad she kept her word, but her situation always remained in my mind as an example of The Settle. The I-don't-think-I-can-do-better. The mediocre. As my college classmate would put it years later, the good enough.

Years later, a man across from me described his relative. His voice sounded heavy and tired. "He's living with someone he met online....they're not married...she's hugely overweight, and lazy... I wish he had done better." He longed for something superior; I grieved with him at what had been lost. But soon they were buying a house together. Then there was a sparkling ring in the picture, and I realized: they've settled. Yes, they could have done better, had better. But they chose not to.

I know I'm not the only one who began life full of dreams. Aspirations. Ideals. When is it that we settle? Settling feels old. Uninspired. Lifeless. Yet I see it so often.

My friend and I compared stories of how, in our teenage years, speakers would always exhort us to make public commitments.

"Stand up to indicate that you won't have sex until marriage."
"Raise your hand if you want to live your whole life for Him."
"Come down to the front to show that you commit your life to help the globe."

A few times, I did raise the hand or go to the front. But we both felt like rebels when most times we sat, hands down; when we didn't run to the altar with the people around us. It wasn't that we wanted to have sex before marriage or wanted to live selfishly. But we did business with God in our rooms, in our hearts, under the Spirit's conviction. Not under bright lights and the crackling of a famous man's microphone.

There's nothing improper about challenging people to make public commitments on important issues. But we all know what happens to many of those "commitments" when, with a buzz, the lights flip on, the background music starts playing, and people brush off their dusty knees to head home. The emotions that drove promises to be made are the same emotions that cause uncertainty later, and eventually, settling.

Perhaps this is because our Chr!stian culture has become one of conferences, events, gatherings, and altar calls....and our relationship with Him is fed only by those things. One-time events. Monthly gatherings. Weekly small group. And there's a disconnect in the hours and minutes and seconds in between, where life settles. To the point that the majority of our moments are not spent in step with Him.

From my understanding of sin, it usually starts small and grows. If we're daily talking to Him, daily hearing Him, He's pointing out areas of sin. He's offering us grace. He's not so much asking for big promises and commitments on our part. He's asking for a daily relationship with Him, the Only One big enough to keep promises and to strengthen us to live aright.

We were taught to make Him promises.
Now I just want His promises, not mine.

I met a businessman with the stocky body of a marathoner. His eyes brightened easily and his laughter never seemed too far away. His manner was welcoming, even upon first meeting.

Pushing spicy sauces around on his plate, he told us his life story, at our request. It's an unlikely tale, of soccer-playing priests who bore him the first witness of compassion in the name of Chr!st. He lived abroad in various cities, where in every city he found friends and neighbours who peddled truth to him. And so, through various means, the Father pursued him until one day he was no longer his own. He was bought with a price: he finally understood that.

We listened to him talk humbly of charitable activies that he's involved in, sponsoring girl children's education or giving a job to someone in need. Compassionate stories. Humanitarian stories. Nice stories. Then my friend spoke to him of "burning heart" moments, Emmaus road moments, where truth is understood for the first time. "Have you seen this? When? Where?" We leaned forward. Waited for stories. For his eyes to light up, for his mind to turn itself to the stories for which we were hungriest.

But that was where the stories quelled. There was a story here and there, a small incident, a bit of conversation. After ten, fifteen years, that was all he had to offer. "People-in-this-culture-are-like-this" stories. "Everything-takes-a-long-time" stories. In my mind, they seemed like settled stories. In his eyes were the last coals of the evening, the slow glow, but no sparks, no roar. That night, I made loops around our complex, gathering my thoughts as to what bothered me about that conversation.

Call me idealistic, but I want to go out with a roar, with truth burning in my bones. I want to keep believing what I was told—that if we sow the word, a harvest will result. I want to keep believing that sowing truth is chief to sowing healthcare or tuition for girl children (though often the two go hand-in-hand). But where does that fire come from, and how does it stay alive?

In one of my favourite songs, Sara Groves writes,
Jeremiah, tell me about the fire
That burns up in your bones
I want to know
I want to know more now...

I was looking to myself
And I forgot the power of God

I was standing with a sparkler in my hand
While I stood so proud and profound
You went and burned the whole place down
Now that’s a fire...

We were taught to make Him promises:

"I'll save sex for marriage, God!"
"I'll commit my life to you, God!"
"I'll cross an ocean for you, God!" 

"...You just watch!"
"...You just watch what I will do for you!"

Perhaps our intentions and the intentions of our leaders and guides were sincere. But when we fueled these noble efforts with our flesh, we settled for much less. We forgot the source of the true Fire.

Now I just want His blood, not mine. His Work, not mine. His promises, not mine.

So be it.

"It is no longer I who live, but Chr!st who lives in me. 
And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, 
who loved me and gave himself for me." 

"Our Lord makes a disciple His own possession, He becomes responsible for him...the spirit that comes in is not that of doing anything for J'sus, but of being a perfect delight to Him.... I am His, and He is carrying out His enterprises through me. Be entirely His."
—Oswald Chambers

"For it is God who works in you,
both to will and to work for his good pleasure." 


August 24, 2013

a quiet mind

A while back, I read an article about a lady who lost her upscale NYC job in during the recent American economic downturn. The woman who used to make $300 per hour moved home to Idaho and began working a more average job. One of the joys, for her, of having to live a simpler life was that of making homemade food made sense again. In the interview, she said, "When you make $300 per hour, you can't afford to make homemade soup." But when financially, it made more sense to make her own soup again, she was happy with the change.

I always liked her story. When I was an interim manager at my last job, I thought of her comments, when there were nights I worked much later than I wanted to. I'd grab take-out for supper or eat candy from the vending machine. When I'd rather earn a few bucks less and have the pleasure of eating homemade soup, the overtime was not so welcome. Money doesn't buy time, or quiet space in your mind.

Enter Asia—one of the biggest adjustments in home life here has been having a maid. With previous roommates, in Canada, we made chore charts or took turns cleaning. Here, the questions are not about who will do the work, but questions like What work will she do? and How often should she come? and How much should we pay her? Maids are part of normal life here.

My housemates are accustomed to house help. I could get really accustomed to it, too. With a maid to make the bed, clean the floors and bathrooms, wash the dishes, do basic cooking, and do the laundry...there are few household tasks left for me.

But in the past few months, I realized that I miss the open mental spaces created by mindless work. I often used to fill those moments with sermons or audio or a few good movies or good music. These would be background sounds as I did day-in-day-out tasks like washing dishes and chopping vegetables. And I find that I miss that "free brain time" being forced into my routine.

I miss standing at my sink with rays of light falling on me or looking out windows edged with frost. Enjoying the beauty of a pile of pitted plums. Listening to the deep clunking of eggs jostling in the pan as I boil them; frying onions and garlic for some dish or another. I'm no housework-lover, but there was something about scrubbing toilets to the sound of Clough, vaccumming while you listen to the book of Joshua, or simply working in silence, that was good for my soul.

And I knew that God was not just on mountain tops or in the newest technology. He was not restricted to temples or churches or priestly garments. He didn't just come for us to have successful jobs and employees to do our bidding, though there is nothing wrong with either.

I found God between the potatoes as I chopped them. In the corners of the fridge when I wiped them out. In the organizing and labelling of the pantry shelves. In the cleanliness of a fresh bucket of mopping water. I don't mean this in a pantheistic-god way, but in an omnipresent-God way. In those simple motions, I learned that even the tiniest, most routine tasks dripped with Him. He is before all things and that by Him all things hold together. The quietness of my mind during those tasks helped me to seek Him. And the mental exhaustion created by certain jobs can often keep us from Him.

As I skid green peppers off my cutting board with the side of my knife, I sort and organize my thoughts, as well. Thoughts that don't have time to sit, to simmer, to grow, when the maid is asking what to do next. When the doorbell is ringing first by the garbage man, then the ironing guy, and then the second ironing guy, and then the electrician, and then the electrician again....

It isn't wrong to outsource your housework. Sometimes using the maid is just good business. If I can do two hours of my own work, it more than pays for two hours of her work, there is profit. A foreign friend commented that it sounds like people here are lazy. Yes, some are. But so are some North Americans. The problem is not who does our housework or yardwork but the attitude of both the employer and the employee about the work. 

A B!blical worldview infuses every aspect of work and life with purpose. I've been reading this book and learning that generally, when truth is prevalent in a culture, we see the rise of a middle class. Pagan cultures have always been marked by great rifts between the rich and the poor. This makes sense, because only when He redeems us, do we truly know the value of human life, and the rich begin to help the poor. We see our lives and our work as holding purpose beyond self-fulfillment.

A local friend told me, "Our holy books do not teach love for everyone. For example, I have friends who will not take an auto driven by someone of a different religion. When I got to know you, I realized that your life wasn't so divided like that. What this God," she said, indicating her copy of our book, "says about loving everyone, I like that."

The life she described, the heart without improper divisions and categories, is not truly my heart, but it is the one we should all strive toward. Where the street sweeper and the investment banker live lives of equal value. Where the person who chops the potatoes and the person who pays the potato-chopper are of equal value. Where the prayers that come out of us in one locale don't ring hollow in another. Where sincere smiles and genuine concern are not reserved only for particular people. Where the category called "human" isn't divided into varying castes that determine our value. A life of integrity. Wholeness in love.

Division of labour is almost in the blood, here. Certain tasks are simply not done by certain people. The maid tries to fight me off if I try to help her with the dishes, even when she's swamped with work. Some days, I fight her off in return, because doing a menial task can sometimes be the best way to live love.

As I write this, I see the glorious One, 
who had not only his heavenly courtroom 
but indeed the whole universe at his beck and call.

I see him stooping, grabbing a towel, and washing dusty feet.
This is how I know that every work has value.
This is how I know that no work is below me.

Our maid quit, recently. And I haven't minded, too much, that more housework falls on me. Granted, I haven't cleaned my bathroom in a while. But I relish the quiet as I polish glass table tops and wash dishes and reorganize the pantry. For a little while, I have my quiet housework time back. And I've seen Him here. Sometimes I've spoken aloud with Him. I love finding Him in the middle of the day-to-day, and even if we're wrestling or I'm rebellious or I'm struggling...I know He is here.

Find Him. Take a slower, lower job if you have to. Hire a cook. Or cook your own soup. Sit at the top of a glass office building and call important meetings. Or sit in a small, unknown place. But may your mind have the quiet it needs to seek Him. To find Him. At any cost.

Love the Lord your God with all your mind.

August 11, 2013

so long, impossible

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch her movement. She's lighting a wick. She's raising her scarf to cover her head. She's waving an incense stick. I don't want to be distracted from the conversation at hand, but I can hardly help it; I'm discreetly watching this ancient practice. The small wick glows, throwing orange light on the framed deities, miniscule statues, and water from the holy river, all of which rest inside a wooden box. The smell of the incense scents the space, as the sky squeezes out the last drops of daylight.

As she finishes her worship, a sound begins behind me. It is a steady, resounding chanting. It spreads over the housetop terraces, over the open field with its tufts of grass and stretches of dust, over the hibiscus blooming on the sill...filling the room. At dusk begins the evening prayer time at the local m0sque.

Incense before me.
Chants behind me.
I'm small and I sit somewhere between them.

My friend listens to my story that night, and says,
"Sometimes it seems impossible, right?"

Today I saw a sticker adorned with some text and a graphic of a turbaned man. It had a pantheistic phrase on it, about the life that dwells in all things, making all things part of god. On another continent it could have been a John 3:16 sticker, I muse. But this is their version—their token summary of belief pasted somewhere as a good omen.

The thought comes unbidden: This is what they've been taught for We grew up with a J'sus with fabric wrapped around his middle section, hanging on a cross. And for just as long or longer, they've grown up with images of men wearing wraps too, just that their wraps are around their heads and their teachings are quite different.

And these practices, they are so ancient. When I read Old Testament passages, I see versions of similar routines around me. Head coverings, sweet incense that floats up to heaven and men in robes. Rules about what household tasks women cannot do while menstruating. It's like I've entered a time warp where somehow ancient ideas have sought to blend themselves with modern realities.

Before me there's the flowered veil, the scent, the waving. Behind me, the chanting. This is nearly as ancient as humanity itself: we look for ways to reach Him. We are Cains. We think we can impress Him with our vegetables. We wrap ourselves in rituals and tasks, but He is the reality that any rituals were only meant to point toward. And the task is done. By Him. It is finished.

How long, O Lord?
This earth is groaning.
Fill it with the knowledge of your glory. 

If our ancestors said "yes" enough times to truth, our own "yes" comes easier. And if they said "no" some ways our "yes" becomes harder. Who said "no" here? How many "no's" were repeated, generation after generation? An ancient civilization built on a billion "no's". Our unbelief, it seems, is almost written in our seed after a while. Each one chooses a personal "yes" or "no", but our personal choices have far-reaching consequences.

At times, I have mentioned to my friends that one of the Twelve came here. The man who had to put his fingers in the nail prints in order to believe: tradition says he came here. I want my friends to know...
(when the world's greatest suffering 
and the world's greatest joy met in that Israeli man,)

(when all the powers of darkness reigned 
and then were conquered,)

(when the people bowed down with rituals and routines 
were met with spirit and truth,)

...that the news of that joy and power spread to their corner of Asia, too. To their land. To their ancestors. What I don't mention to them is what their ancestors did with Thomas. In 72 AD his blood wet this soil in martyrdom. That was a "no". One of many "nos" that still have effects today.

Today, with the m0sque behind me and the temple before me.
I'm small and I sit somewhere between them.
"Sometimes it seems impossible, right?" says my friend.

Even the warmest coals feel a bit cooler today. There are few sparks, as if the humidity has affected even our spirituality. And indeed, we are small. But in our hearts, the cry "How long, O Lord?" is met with a calm, a stillness. We know that it is in the "impossible" that He delights to show Himself strong—because when it happens, we will know it was not our doing. It was all Him: from Him, to Him, through Him. Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.

Our prayers rise t
o the Maker of the heavens and the earth. Like a cloud of incense before His throne. Like the thrumming of voices, we join our hearts with others who are asking in truth. With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

August 04, 2013

come away by yourself

The metallic turquoise bedspread beneath me could tell you a lot about me. The illustrated peacock on the wall could do the same. The dusty, swishing fan above would also oblige. These companions of mine were spectators to my first three months in Asia. Oh, what stories they could tell.

In this room, I made messes and I sorted them. I stayed up far too late blogging. I bawled like a baby and hardly knew why. I made mistakes. I worried and prayed. And sometimes, I trusted in Him. If the bedspread, the peacock and the fan could speak, they would tell you all about it.

Now I've been eight months in Asia, and I still do the same activities, except in a different room. In the apartment I share with local friends.

But tonight I am back under the peacock's gaze because sometimes, I need a break from my current room. To give a little quiet to my head and space to my mind.

"And He said to them, 'Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.' (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.)" Sometimes I feel that is me, that person who does not have time to eat what my soul needs.

Well, technically, I have the time, but—there's a knock on my bedroom door. A loud phone call in another room. Some lively music. Another knock on the door, a text, another text, a request, "Can I borrow some money?" and "Would you watch the maid, I'm leaving?" and "Let's go see a movie at 11pm" and the doorbell just rang twice and "We need to have the neighbours over and which dish will you be making?" and "I have an errand to run, can you please come with me?"—sometimes it seems never-ending.

They mean well. They just don't know that my soul needs still Water. Long drinks. Quiet pastures. Nor do they know what it is to have a relationship with Him that is thirst-quenching. So, in our house, we are all thirsty. Except I know where the watering hole is (though some days, in the ruckus, I lose sight of it, too, and go long stretches without a good drink).

Oswald Chambers reminded me today of why I need a place to rest and time to eat and drinkbecause my relationship with Him is of utmost importance.
"As Chr!stians we are not here for our own purpose at all—we are here for the purpose of God, and the two are not the same. We do not know what God’s compelling purpose is, but whatever happens, we must maintain our relationship with Him. We must never allow anything to damage our relationship with God, but if something does damage it, we must take the time to make it right again. The most important aspect of Chr!stianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the surrounding influence and qualities produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to give our attention to, and it is the one thing that is continually under attack."
Maybe someday, I'll have an apartment of my own. Maybe someday, I'll be in a position to take quiet trips away by myself to regain my strength. Maybe someday, I won't need to use my coworkers' guestroom as my quiet place. But for now, it is a calm space to which I can "come away." It's good for me, and it's good for everyone I relate to. Whether they understand that or not.

If someday I have ample quiet moments, as I have in past seasons, I know I'll struggle to maintain my relationship with Him then, too, because "it is the one thing that is continually under attack." And maybe I'll long for the days when a good conversation or helpful cultural advice was so easily accessible. But for tonight, I'm glad I simply came away and rested a while in the room with the familiar bedspread, peacock and fan. And, I've done it again: stayed up far too late blogging.

July 24, 2013

a small no now

There is a rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed man on the sofa. He's eating chicken and drinking vodka and talking about Manhattan. He hasn't been there long; he arrived in the late evening. And he arrived with gifts: expensive perfumes and large bottles of premium alcohol.

When he's not listening, my friend tells me that he is the sole heir of his parents' successful international business. But he doesn't seem uppity; he converses easily, offers drinks...and stays even later into the night.

More information shared behind closed doors: he has known his share of women. He was thrice engaged and is doubly divorced. But tonight, he's visiting a solo female family friend, one who had a little history with him, many years ago. He says one of the perfumes is from his father. She says his sister was supposed to come with him, but cancelled last minute. And the clock turns to mark midnight, then one o'clock, then two o'clock, and the story is that his friends are coming to pick him up. I think he knows the game fairly well. Everyone has slept. There are only two left awake. My friend has a choice to make.

I remember the moment so clearly. It was me and the grass and my God. I was sitting on a green knoll, reading and praying. Other than a man playing basketball on a faraway court, the park was virtually empty.

After half an hour on the court, the athlete ambled in my direction. He's exiting the park on this side, I thought. But instead, he kept coming toward me. Sat on the knoll, ball at his side. Struck up a conversation, as if it was the most natural thing in the world: two young strangers shooting the breeze on grassy hill. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, and he was not godly, but he was affable.

We talked for five or ten minutes. And in those minutes, I saw my frailty. So I went home, promptly, by myself. That day taught me that I—the church kid, the "good" kid, the "spiritual" kid, the Sunday school teacheram fragile. That I can't sit on ledges and not risk falling off of them. I need to keep my distance. It is only wise.

That day taught me that small, right decisions now can stop big, wrong decisions later.

Oh, but the flesh encourages us to toy.

To keep the phone number.
To reply to that text.
To accept the friend request.

To stop being old-fashioned.
To loosen up a little.
To keep the door open a crack.

But the way of the flesh is death.
Broad is the way that leads to destruction.
And he who sins is a slave to sin.

It's hard to identify death, destruction and slavery when they wear a guise. When spiritual death looks like a band we really like (with songs that feed our flesh), a movie everyone's watching (with content that hurts the soul), or a novel that captures your fancy (but takes your mind to bad places).  When death looks like expensive perfume or a genuine connection on a grassy hill. There is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

The fruit that was "good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable" brought death. How could Eve have known? The only way to know was to listen to her Creator. Without His input, we don't know which is the forbidden, death-bringing fruit, and which is plucked from the tree of life. We need insight from His eternal vantage point. That's why we train. That's why we press on to know His mind and his person, as revealed in His Word.

It's morning and the common room is adorned with half-full cups. Untouched table settings. A plate of chicken that tasted good last night. The patio doors are closed and the muggy space smells like yesterday. But does it smell like regret, like death? Not if we learn to say a small "no" now.

"The mind governed by the flesh is death, 
but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace."

July 13, 2013

grey and a heart prepared

The Europe I visited last November was grey. (That's "gray", if you speak American). There was drizzle in Berlin, a chilly stillness over the nearly-naked Black Forest, and heavy cloud cover at the bottom of the Alps.

Prague, too, fell under the dreary feeling of November. The Czech culture and the city charmed me, in spite of the cool weather, but the most intriguing part of our visit were our hosts, who gave us insights beyond what a typical tour guide could give. In the middle of a dark city, here were people with whom we could talk about holiness or hospitality or Mark Driscoll. So, talk we did, even late at night when our bodies were weary from weeks in transit.

In those short days, our new friends described their own people, the Czechs, as a people beset with suspicions and doubting after communism ate their collective soul. (Their mother was raised in an era when there was only one style of shoes available for each gender. Needing ladies' shoes? "What size?" was the only question the vendor need ask.) And communism was only the most recent in a series of tyrannical rulers who stole freedom and vitality from this small region. Now, neighbours hardly talk to neighbours; gambling is a national pastime; and God is, in popular opinion, non-existent.

You can hardly blame them for being a bit cagey, after all they've been through. But it makes you sad anyway, because between the sour cabbage and polished music halls and stone castles, there is a dark void.

One of our hosts shares truth with university students; it is her job, her life. "How is it?" I asked her. Her reply was, "I have never seen a person turn from lies to truth here. We don't even know what it would look like. We pray. We hope. But we have never seen...." Her sister added, "They call this a graveyard." The conversation was solemn. And Europe was grey, with spots of sunshine and light. For me, Europe is eternally stuck in November, until I see it in the summer sun.

Later I commented to my travelling partner at the sadness in our new friend's statement. "She's never seen one person be transformed?" I did not consider it a fault of hers; I was simply grieved, I knew some days must be discouraging and dark. Then my friend, who was from Canada (not from post-communist Eastern Europe) silenced me, "But Julie, neither have I, really. I mean, kids at camp. But who else?"And I had to recognize the truth in her response—how many personal friends or peers have we seen undergo that total transformation, that rebirth? Maybe it's not just Prague that is grey and damp and soul-dead.

I devour stories of exodus and moving into Canaan, especially when day-to-day life seems to provide few of such stories. I've decided that such accounts should be a regular part of my reading (and that reading should be a regular routine of my living). Especially when some days we feel as grasshoppers surrounded by giants, like riff raff that wants to enter the Promised Land but can't work up the courage because we've got our eyes on ourselves. The only way we keep going is by calling to mind the God behind the miracles that happened thus far, behind our personal plagues that ejected us from Egypt, our individual Red Sea openings and pillars of cloud that led us here. And I keep going by reading stories, like Paul and Rosaria and lately, Star, to remind me that transformation really does happen.

I was asked to review Plowed Under, an old book of Amy Charmichael's that had been out of print until recently. Ever since I read Elliot's account of Amy's life, I have wanted to read more of Amy's own writings, and CLC sent me a copy of Plowed Under so that I could do so. Plowed Under is basically the story of Star: Amy's contact, then daughter, then friend. A child of India, then a child of God. And it is a story of the kind I find encouraging.

Amy writes in her typical flowery style, her texts interspersed with quotations from here and there and word pictures of India in the early 1900's or late 1800's. To be honest, her style of writing is a bit hard to follow sometimes, and I would recommend reading an overview of Amy's life and work, such as Elliot's book A Chance to Die, to give context to smaller stories, like Plowed Under.  Even a short online summary of Amy's life might give you enough context to better understand this short story recorded by Amy.

I also recommend the background reading because so much of Star's story was built upon groundwork that was laid before the book begins. Amy's original readers certainly knew more of her story than most of us would. Amy quotes Josephine Butler who says, “In order to produce a movement of a vital, spiritual nature someone must suffer. Someone must go through sore travail of soul before a living movement, outwardly visible, can be born.” So there was suffering and sacrifice in the life of Amy and others, that Star might know and grow in life. When Amy speaks of the difficulty that some early friends faced, she says, "That track has been followed by many. But few know what it cost to blaze the trail."

But back to Star, of Plowed Under: from a very young age, she questioned the system in which she was being raised.
"Who of all the gods was the God of gods, the Sovereign God, Creator? That had been the first question that she had brought to her father. Was it the [god] whose ashes she rubbed on her forehead every morning after bathing? There were so many gods, she grew puzzled as she counted them all. Who was the greatest?"
She would pray and wonder, but no one she knew could tell her about Most High. Then, when still a child, she heard Amy and her team speaking near a well. A man who knew transformation was saying, "There is a living God: He turned me, a lion, into a lamb.” It was the first full ray of lightin verbal formto hit her soul. That phrase answered questions she had been asking nearly since she was old enough to speak. She began to pray in earnest, for now she knew He did exist, and that those people by the well could tell her about Him.

In her ventures, Amy always asked for "souls prepared", but the evening after the well incident, she knew nothing of what was happening in Star. That night, she lay in her tent discouraged that there had been no response to their message. Star lay in her home, not wanting to sleep, she wanted to talk to the "living God". Only later did Amy discover that while she was feeling like a little David before Goliath, the living God was working beyond what she could see. She wrote, "I had often wondered how it was that this child, who had never heard before, was so ready to understand. We were to see that miracle of miracles, an immediate response to the call...."

So, Plowed Under is the story of that prepared and transformed heart. Of Star's coming, and of the struggles she endured to live counter-culturally in nearly every way. Of her undying determination, which to me seems evidence of the heart the Father prepared in her for years before Amy arrived. Of persecution of her and her friends and family, in the form of emotional wrangling, cayenne pepper to the eyes, andthough no one would admit to itpoison. Of pleading, that if nothing else, please be "not be this kind of Chr!stian, but the harmless kind." Not the "plowed under" or surrendered kind, but the nominal kind of which their region and even their family had a few. But Star was strong.

Amy speaks also of the joys and difficulties of spiritual parenting. Of wanting to keep "her child" Star from harm and trouble, of wanting to keep her close by her side. Amy eventually learned that "the love of God is brave." It allows and even pushes his children into less-than-dreamy circumstances, that they may learn the deeper parts of his heart. And so Amy speaks of her experience of learning to let her child go. "Ours is a God who delivers, not from the hour of trial, but out of it, out of its power; and in the bearing up under it, not in the sliding out from beneath it, there is strength and victory."

Plowed Under truly an encouraging story, a challenging story. Any story of Amy's is.

I thought it might be helpful to summarize a few principles for people who scatter seed and carry lit lanterns, principles gathered from Plowed Under:
  • The Father prepares hearts. We can ask Him to be led to those hearts. He is sovereign.
  • When we are most discouraged, thinking that light is not falling on any hearts, remember Star and Amy on the night Star first heard. He is omniscient, we are not. He is working.
  • Often people come "not in crowds..but one by one." Let's not be distracted by where the crowds are, but by where the truth is. He loves and draws individuals.
  • Darkness does not let go without a fight. Persecution can be expected. "When man or woman, boy or girl dares to break through the opposing powers...and openly follow...something inevitably and often immediately happens, as though to fling that life on the ground and stamp it underfoot. It is usually illness, or accident, something that looks like the hand of the avenging god." And yet, "He Himself is our Peace.""Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world."
  • We need to be prayerful, and in so doing, learn to see things from an eternal perspective.
    "We think in terms of time: God thinks in terms of eternity. We see the near end of the thread on which are strung our moments, minutes, hours, days, like pearls on a string; the other end is out of view, and yet the thread is one, indivisible. We call the near end time, and the far end eternity, as though somewhere the thread broke (at death perhaps). But it is not so. We are living in eternity now."
That is a review of the story and the lessons of Plowed Under.

I do not know if in eternity we will have rainy days or overcast, grey skies. But I've seen somber clouds in North America, South America, Europe...and today, in Asia, where rain streaks the 20-metre-high glass windows of the restaurant in which I am sitting. Outside the traffic keeps its usual pace. Crows make paths across the grey sky. Motorbikes jostle next to pedal bikes. Cars throw up waves of brownish water at pedestrians. The temple across the street has closed its gates; perhaps in the afternoons people do not need to pray, at least when it's raining. It is monsoon and our little corner of Asia is must be many corners of the earth, though I am no meteorologist.

So, perhaps it is fitting to end this post with the poem with which Amy begins and ends Plowed Under:
"Come ill, come well, the cross, the crown,
The rainbow or the thunder—
I fling my soul and body down
For God to plow them under.

And this, this only, is the way of joy."
 A joy that overtakes the grey.


July 03, 2013

this is our story

I wonder, as I bounce around in a hired auto, how many stories have been written about this land. Short stories, novels, memoirs, text bookswritten by fascinated foreigners such as myself. They must be almost endless. I watch men perched on the back of a truck in front of my auto. Sweat plasters their shirts to their backs as they bounce down the road ahead of me. My head fills with stories—they come and go; they jolt, jerk and bounce; they take me somewhere, though I am not always sure where.

I met some young foreigners recently. "Have you been here very long?" One gave a sober nod, denoting experience, "Yes, three months." Three months? It sounds so...short a time to be in a place where life takes so long, especially as a newcomer. I have been here six months and still, my washing machine isn't hooked up. Somehow the days pool into weeks, weeks flow into months, and though the current feels slower here, time is passing as regularly as ever. Another one-month veteran of our city told me that every day she has five did-that-really-just-happen? moments. I told her that those moments ease, though I am not sure if they ever completely go away, for anyone who was not raised here. Maybe I have three of those moments per day now. They make for good stories, if nothing else.

I suppose I am fascinated with telling about this place because it feels so different. I just want to record what makes life here so different, before it becomes normal to me. I want to remember the lady sitting cross-legged on my floor, wrapped in a peacock-patterned dress. Her belly hangs from the side of her garment; her smile is cheery. I'm still wiping sleep out of my eyes and she has begun her work for the day, collecting laundry. I want to remember the woman who veiled her face before she greeted us. The touching of an elder's feet to show respect. The beggars with their balloons for sale. The street-side barber's chairs. The way the lower class seem to quietly accept their role as bell boys for the upper class. Stories from other cultures give us insight into culture: theirs and ours.

Have you thought about the mystery and intricacy that is culture? That tangled mass of roots that evidence themselves in our traditions, habits, and so much more?

For example, how did foods develop? Nearly every few days I eat something I've never eaten before. Today it was a thin vegetable, wrapped in a thread and bursting with intense flavor. I could tell you about fantastic vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes I have tried, dishes that use ingredients Westerners have never seen. I could mention the spiciest pepper I've ever eaten (it was hiding under some less-spicy vegetables, kindly delivered by a neighbour in celebration of the kite festival). The people on this land mass have some interesting concoctions.

But isn't it funny how, while preparations change, our basic foods are similar and merely morph as they creep across continents? My Asian corner does share some common ingredients with the Middle and Far East. (When I read a story about Afghanistan, I could suddenly relate to the breads, the pomegranates, the tea.) The Middle East, in turn, shares some flavors with southern Europe, and southern Europe with Northern Europe.... We all depend upon breads and starches, because bread is life. How can there be such diversity, and yet such unity in our food? We coat and garnish differently, but at our core we all need basics: flour, water, salt....

Eastern music is so different than Western. When I first heard music from this part of the world, the women's voices sounded high-pitched and whiny. Their traditional idea of lovely singing was so different than my own. Our employees love to sing popular songs from movies. Slowly, I'm learning to like some of their music. And they are learning to like some of mine. And our bond is over music, whatever its form, because music evokes emotion, tells stories, and awakens memories for all of us. Because our story is bookended by singing. In Genesis, Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. In Revelation, just and true are Your ways, King of the nations. We were birthed by a song, and we were born to sing forever. 

Living with locals, not expats, reminds me of just how differently I do or think about most everything. A European lady who married a local man agreed, "They sneeze differently. They go to the bathroom differently. They think differently." Not incorrectly, just differently. 

As we accept those differences, it gives us freedom to see how much is similar about us. Don't we all, at the core, respond to the same things? Here, as much as anywhere, people can appreciate authenticity, cheerfulness, trust.... When I am in a cultural quandary, at least I have a basic framework for how best to proceed when everything looks so different on the surface.

And so, I am intrigued by that which is the same, despite our outward differences. We have roots in the same garden, and scraps of same fruit rot our teeth. We all know bread, water, and salt. And can't we together relate to songs and celebrations? We can relate to cities, walls, and gates. Trees, fruit, and choices. Sun, light, and darkness. Marriage, parenthood, and family. These easy words and themes are at the core of our common story. Genesis and Revelation. Alpha and Omega. Beginning and End.

In the back seat of the hired auto, I wrap my scarf closer around my head and avert my eyes, so that the men in the truck won't watch me. I am curt with the auto driver. Four pairs of eyes observe me from a nearby guardhouse, yet they do not make me feel safe. There are many stories to be told from this land, from any land, and not every story is beautiful. Our stories on earth will always have some death, dying, sickness, sighing.

And yet we love stories because we live a story. We love happy endings because we were made for a happy ending. Can we talk about those themes we all know, from salt and light to trees and choices? About the tree of which the leaves offer healing to the nations?

Despite our differences, these are our commonalities. Our local, daily stories vary, but the master narrative is the same. We're all in this together—this is our story.