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January 29, 2013

in particular

Generalizations are often made about the place I am calling home. Many of them are negative. Before I moved here I read a rather intimidating summary of some of the circumstances here. I saw eyebrows raise when I told of my plans. My coworker was told not to start a business here, because that the g0vernment is “evil.” A seatmate on the plane (though she had never been here) told me this is a “scary” place. Local people generalize too, about "the uneducated people," "people who live on that side of the river" or "people with that last name." How easy it is to allow these comments to form our view for usto allow generalizations to make us feel there is no need for inquiry into the particulars.

After such warnings, you might be surprised to know that I have met many friendly, welcoming people here. They are quick to invite mea strangerinto their kitchen, under their tent flap or onto their rooftop for food. Pleased that we have chosen their city as home, they are happy to help us with the language. They speak with me in their best English, though the onus is on me to learn the local language. These are a few general, positive experiences I've had with people here. 

In particular, I think of drivers who charge an honest rate and wait patiently when we do errands. I remember our cleaner, who does dirty work with a wide smile and a good attitude. I admire interviewees who openly share their dreams and lives with us upon our first meeting. My teacher's generous spirit and respect for her parents is commendable. I've interacted with kind people who have that last name and seen kind faces on that side of the river. This is what I'm learning: when you meet individuals, the generalizations almost seem contrived. There may be some difficult or dangerous people here, but the vast majority of the people I meet are not those people.

My parents taught me to be cautious with the words “always” and “never.” Used incorrectly, those words can cause great damage. It's not always hot here; nor is our city always noisy. The red chewing tobacco stains are not everywhere. The beggars don't always pester you; dust and dirt don't enter every orifice. The people aren't always late...and on and on it goes. If you must generalize, choose your words wisely.

How often are relationships broken, or aborted before they begin, because of careless generalizations? We ignore or distrust people because others have misrepresented them with their words. We speak confidently about things we do not really know. A coworker once made a comment about how I “always cause such-and-such a problem.” It stung, because it was not true and I felt defrauded: I made that mistake sometimes, but not every time. But isn't it easier and quicker to be general than specific? It's like treating a problem area with a wooden mallet when tweezers are required.

People are everywhere here. Their limbs hang out of buses; their backs carry heavy loads; their eyes stare from side streets. I see why it is especially easy to generalize, to survey, or assume. Getting to know people—especially in a culture so different than my ownexpends more effort than painting them all with one brush. But the calling is to love in a way that is not only corporate, but individual. I don't want to judge them based on the generalizations people make about the culture, on reading I've done, or claims I've heard. Each person is an individual Image-bearer. Their circumstances are particular. They no more want to be Brown Person #2043 than I want to be White Person #1097. People may be everywhere, but there is only one of each person

The Father “so loved the world”, but He also loved the individual. Did you see how He comforted Hagar in her time of need, called out the sin of Achan, met Elijah in his suicidal anguish, or provided for Ruth of Moab? “In these last days, He has sp­oken to us by His Son,” who took time to chat on a rooftop, by a well, or near a graveside. He didn't disregard a person due to his haircut or her heritage; He saw the heart. His call was general, but also specific: whoever is thirsty, let him come. Yes, He loves all, but He also loves in particular. Would we follow Him?

January 22, 2013

just ask isaiah

Recently I attended my first wedding in the East. I wish had some over-the-top, noisy, bustling, radically-different wedding to describe to you. But to be honest, the wedding was quite Western in feel. The bride wore a white gown, carried a bouquet and cut a cake. The vows were much like vows my friends would say in Canada. It was solid; it was true. But as far as Asian cultural experiences go, this one didn't top the charts.

Weddings (no matter the continent) are fantastic for making singles feel single-er. There's the awkward moment when someone's husband offers to dance with you; his wife is away. There's the thoughtful moment when your couple-friends offer to dance the silly group dance with you as a threesome, so you won't be alone. And there's the end of the night, when people go all Noah's ark on you: they pair up and head to their stalls. And you just go to your stall, on your own.  

Sometime between the kiss and the bouquet toss, it's easy to lose perspective and feed self-pity. Weddings remind me that I'm not married. It's out there; it's obvious. Almost like being one of two blondes in a crowd of 500 wedding-goers is obvious.

"People don't really not marry here," explained the thirty-something friend, talking about what it's like to be single in a society that has no place for singles. She's a social oddity.

"Do your relatives pester you about being unmarried?" I asked. They do, but she's learned to pretend their nattering doesn't affect her, so they bring it up less frequently. "But it does bother me."

I wonder where she hangs the "bother," the irritation that it must be, that she is The Single One.  Where does she pin her heaviness? I know I would need a place for it. What I mean to say is, I know I have a place for it.

I've been listening to Isaiah, and the story there is vast. Spend a while even just in Isaiah 40. God talks of world powers, kings and empires like they are dust. Carved images are chunks of perishable wood. All humanity is as weak as grasshoppers; as frail as grass or chaff. The longer you listen, the more you realize this: He's the only One that is everlasting.

Isaiah speaks of a story that has spanned all continents, all centuries, all people. Indeed, it spans our universe. It's a big deal. He's The Big Deal. And the rest of this down here? It's fleeting: "marriage and giving in marriage" amongst humans is only for this life. He urges all of us to consider the things of eternal importance. "Seek ye first...."

This is the second time lately that I post what 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)

When I see my life from His perspective, everything changes. What about my new friend, where does she pin her heaviness? There's a place for it. What's your heaviness? There's a place for it. 

He's the place for it. (Just ask Isaiah).

January 19, 2013

sweet, sweet mercy

Lance Armstrong's confession made top headlines this week. After years of vehemently denying all allegations of doping, and suing anyone who dared tell of his practices, he finally admitted to the lie he has been living. This from the man who is described on his own website as "one of the most recognizable and admired people of this era." He recently appeared with America's favourite talk show host, and admitted to winning seven consecutive Tour de France's through drug use.

Oprah: "Did it feel wrong?"
Lance: "No. Scary."
Oprah: "Did you feel bad about it?"
Lance: "No. Even scarier."
Oprah: "Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?"
Lance: "No. Scariest." (Source)

Lance blew it big-time. His wins were on the big screen, but now his sins are on the big screen. As the Good Book says, "Be sure your sin will find you out." Truth is leaking out after years of hiding. He admits that the damages wracked by his life of lies are colossal.

 The classic French tale Les Miserables weaves a story of a man with more depth of character than Lance. Jean Valjean, a criminal turned kind-hearted mayor, hears that another man is about to be erroneously sentenced for Jean's crime. His response? “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!” So, he chose to speak, exposing his own sin, appearing in the courtroom to allow the innocent man to be freed. Victor Hugo's drama broke onto the big screen again recently, with resounding themes of how mercy and grace overcome sin and law. The story never gets old, because we all see ourselves somewhere in the story. We hope we're Jean...not Lance. 

God exposes sin.
He exposed Lance. In fiction, He exposed Jean. You can see it as an act of God's sovereignty, justice, or holiness. The Light bursting into dark places and Truth replacing lies. But can you see God's exposing of sin as an act of mercy?

My friend told me about a dating couple who were sinning sexually. God knew. But their parents didn't know; their friends didn't know. But it was not long before they realized that everyone would know what had been going on behind closed doors. They got pregnant. My friend pointed out that this exposure was due to God's mercy. Their sin was brought to the fore, offering them opportunity to confess, and forcing them to admit to their families what had been going on. (How many a white-clad bride has been impure, but hidden that knowledge from everyone? Secret sin seems to have a tighter grip than blatant sin.) In making their sin obvious, God showed kindness. He was shining light. He is the Light. He says, "Walk in the light."

I have had a problem during some seasons of my life: my sin is not enough exposed to others. The sins of my heart are often insidious sins that lurk just beneath a well-behaved exterior. The Spirit and the Word certainly rebuke me, if I am willing to listen. (Indeed, Timothy said that the Word exists for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training.) But at times I wish for a human voice speaking, too, echoing what the Spirit is already saying. 

Sometimes I have to admit my sin to someone else because it involves them. Often the other person excuses me, saying, "Well, we all make mistakes." Or, "I didn't even notice your [insert sin here]." Maybe they think they're doing me a favour by going easy on me; it sounds really nice of them. But what I really need is for them to go to g0spel basics with me. We need to talk about the seriousness of my sin (whether they subjectively felt sinned against or not) and the holiness of God. Then we can talk about the graciousness and forgiveness of God. We can't skip the truth that sin is wrong or we won't appreciate the goodness of the g0spel.

The best of friends aren't necessarily the ones who remember birthdays, help you move or house-sit for you...though I like those friends, too. The best of friends are the ones with backbone. My ten fingers would probably be enough to count the people who have rebuked me personally, spiritually. Those episodes stand out starkly in my mind because they are so rare. Once, I was in a math classroom with a teacher; another time I was talking on the phone with a friend while making my supper. One such rebuke from over ten years ago still stings, because it called out a sin that I still struggle with to this day. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy." My "best" friends in the truest sense are those who care enough to risk wounding me, who shine light in the darkness.

We have systems to fight private sin. It has become trendy to have specific accountability partners. There is software that will report to a friend if you look at inappropriate web content. Once I was given a list of character traits to develop, a self-evaluation form to fill out, and a superior to report to. Such systems may have their place, but they have one major flaw. They cannot overcome the blackness of sin. Only the work of God can. This heart has been described by an accurate Source as being "deceitful and desperately wicked." I know that if I want to sin, no accountability partner, software install or self-evaluation form will keep me from it. I will find a way. And to quote Lance, to me this is "scariest."

So, I have a new request of the Father in 2013. It is not something that I have asked for specifically before. I am not sure what His reply will look like. But I am praying specifically that God would not allow my sin to stay hidden. I am praying that He will expose my sin, even that He would big-screen it to others if that's what it takes to bring change of mind and heart. For His mercy is evidenced not only in the pardoning of sin, but in the revealing of sin to a deceived heart. Sweet, sweet mercy.

"Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults."
"Come...let us walk in the light of the L0RD."

January 16, 2013

loving the familiar

This week my friends and I ate at a heritage house that has been converted into a hotel. Living in this old metropolis has its perks, such as candlelit, rooftop suppers in January! We were presented with fresh flowers, used our hands to eat from large silver platters, and had a variety of servers at our beck and call. This is a traditional dining experience that every foreigner is told to enjoy while here.

We also spent our evening observing a sociological phenomenon: a first date. Of the three couples sitting at tables nearby ours, two of them were clearly at ease, but the third couple was not. Butterflies? Check. Nervous laughter? Check. Their stilted mannerisms and forced joviality were signs that this was probably a preliminary acquaintance. Mr. Man was trying to impress; Ms. Woman was new, and therefore, fascinating. This was our evening entertainment.

John Webster wrote: "Old soldiers, sweethearts, are surest, and old lovers are soundest." But I've been thinking about how human nature values the new and different over the old and the proven. A friend once described himself as a "whore for experiences", and though the term sounds crude, doesn't that summarize many of our lives? We crave novel things, not because they are necessarily better, but because they're new; they're different. 

If we're talking about new food or new travel destinations, the consequences may not be so serious. But when this attitude bleeds into our relationships, we must reconsider. 

The English language has this idiom: "familiarity breeds contempt." The Bible and Ben Franklin express similar sentiments. Time has its way of dulling unattended relationships. We begin to take others for granted, or even dislike them, because someone new attracts our attention. Even our most important relationship lies unnoticed (the Creator's cry in Isaiah is "You forgot...your Maker" and you "forget my holy mountain"). We are all too familiar with this concept, which is why the Word has to encourage us constantly to do such things as:
Otherwise, familiarity breeds contempt.

Perhaps a simple first step to fight the detrimental side of familiarity is to thank more: thank the Father for anything and everything, often. We take Him for granted. Then express appreciation to the people in your life who serve and bless you. Forgive. Be intentional about loving the Father and others daily. When Webster said "Old lovers are soundest," he meant to say that your older relationships will go places no brand-new relationship could go. Don't cast them off.

As my language helper left after our second lesson, I said "thank you" to her. She asked me point blank: "Are you going to say that every time we meet?" I was a bit taken aback, until I remembered that in this culture people don't say "thank you" much. I'll have to intentionally learn what shows love and appreciation in this culture. If it isn't the words "thank you", then there must be some other way to show love. Continually, daily, every time.

Love intentionally. By the work of the Father in us, familiarity need not breed contempt. 

January 05, 2013

sachsenhausen and my soul

In November of last year, my friend and I visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just north of Berlin, Germany. It was the chilliest, rainiest and most sobering day of our Europe excursion. We scuttled down paths from one covered area to another, avoiding the autumn rain while listening to stories and browsing old paperwork and photos.

Reading books and watching movies about this era does not quite prepare you for entering the the triangular grey expanse that is this concentration camp. You cannot be entirely ready to stand in the basement of an abandoned Nazi mortuary, which also doubled as a brothel used by the guards. You cannot notice a small marker reading "mass grave site" without reeling internally at the magnitude of the tragedy that took place there. It's grim and grisly.

When new captives came to Sachsensausen, they were told, “There is a way to freedom, but only through the chimney [of the crematorium].” A few were freed through the gates rather than the chimney, and the story they tell describes a Europe gone mad. Humans doing to other humans things that seem almost unimaginable. 

In the early afternoon, we packed our soggy selves onto a train back to Berlin. As my mind began to process what I had seen and heard, questions rose. They weren't the angst-ridden, angry cries of an unbelieving rebel; they were simply questions that needed addressing after a day of witnessing seemingly unbridled evil. 

Questions like: Where was God when all this was happening? If God is good, why did he allow this to happen? If so many of the concentration camp victims believed in the Judeo-Christian God, why didn't He move Himself for them? Why did He allow such atrocities?

There the questions sat, next to me, waiting for answers. As if to say, "Handle us, will you?" Indeed, I had to handle them, because little rattlings of unbelief, if not quieted, could cause quite a ruckus. I know that questions will always be with us on this earth, but the way in which we answer questions is of utmost importance.

Children have a lot of questions. Important questions, too. One day one asked me, "What happens to babies when they die: do they go to Heaven?" How would you answer?

Would you say the Bible is crystal-clear on that question? I know what the feel-good answer is, but I tend to think there's more Biblical support for the idea that they don't than the idea that they do. That said, I don't want to raise Cain and then find out I was wrong. Because, either it's unclear or I haven't studied enough to understand. Therefore, I told them: I don't think it is explicit enough in Scripture to be 100% sure either way. So let's not be dogmatic.

But the question remains, right?

To anchor ourselves, we looked at nine character traits of God (posted on our wall), and talked about what God is like: loving, just, all-powerful.... We asked ourselves, "Would God do something unfair and unloving to babies who die?" The answer is clearly, "No." Whatever God does is both just and loving. So we left the issue there. We must train ourselves to rest in God's character.

Someone who overhead the conversation I had with the kids addressed me later. He quoted an obtuse verse and suggested it as an answer to the same question. He meant well. I cannot remember what his suggested answer was, but it was hermeneutically shaky and a bit obscure. It reminded me that we need to give believers (even young ones) tools to deal with questions, not just quick answers. I cannot think of a better way to frame a difficult question than to: (1) address it with any clear teaching from the Word of God, and (2) trust in the character of God for the parts that are still unclear.

In my e-mail inbox a few weeks ago I got a list of questions from a girl whose unbelieving classmates are assailing her with questions intended to brutalize her faith in the Biblical God. She wanted a list of helpful answers for the questions she's being pelted with. I told her that Google could come up with good enough answers to many of their questions, such as "How could the ark fit so many animals?" With all due respect, if her classmates genuinely wanted to know the answers, they could have looked them up themselves. They're attacking her not because they want to believe, but because they want her not to believe. My concern was not so much with the list of questions, but with how necessary it is to train her mind to frame questions correctly. Deep soul rest from questions comes not from a debate "won" here and there, but from deepening the foundation of Truth in our lives. From getting to know God's character and His Word.

To not be toppled by the questions raised by Sachsenhausen, I had to (by God's grace) dig up the ideas beneath the questions. The presuppositions, if you will. The questions that rise upon seeing God's apparent passivity at the grief of humanity are generally questions that attack His character. These questions assume that God cannot be both all-loving and all-powerful. Because, the fallen brain deduces, if He were all-powerful and all-loving, he would have stopped these terrible acts. That is to say, "Sachsenhausen proves to us that God is not who He says He is."

In these attacks you hear an echo of one of the snake's original questions: "Has God indeed said...?" The snake cunningly questioned the character of God; "He's not really good. He's not actually honest." His tactic was to get Adam and Eve to question God's character; we all know what disaster followed.

It is not essentially through logic that God woos man to Himself. Logic can point to Him, but fallen logic can also seem to point elsewhere. God says his followers must come by faith; it is a prerequisite. In sweeping narrative, the Bible gathers together all little stories into one big story. Throughout history we see this: He is loving. He is all-powerful. He is good. He is just. He says, "This is My story. This is what I'm like." On that basis, He asks for our trust. 

(Note that in God's story, we find basic answers to all of life's big questions. Answers skeptics do not have. Skeptics can't explain why concentration camps were even wrong. They can't explain where we get our universal concept of what's fair. Their questions are a lot bigger than ours.)

Hopefully you're not disappointed to learn that I don't know why Sachsenhausen, or why World War II. I don't know why you in particular have cancer or lost a loved one. But I praise God for the story of Lazarus' death. The fact that Jesus was able to weep at Lazarus' death shows that He could be angry at sin and its consequences without being angry at Himself. Do you understand? If Lazarus' death was His fault, those tears would have been false ones. If Jesus did not truly love, He wouldn't have cried at Lazarus' tomb. At the tomb of Lazarus we catch a glimpse of how the suffering on earth was not caused by God, but allowed by God. We know the suffering down here hurts Him, too.

We can also piece Scripture together to build a basic framework to understand why He allows it, if it hurts everyone and if He is all-powerful. For example, humans, created in the image of God, carry bits of His sovereignty in their ability to make choices. The Bible teaches principles of sowing and reaping. Evil things happen for various reasons, but one of the big reasons is because God allows man to make choices, and man trusted lies rather than in the character of God. My mind finds a resting place here, from the biggest questions.

Above I said that "you cannot be entirely ready to stand in the basement of an abandoned Nazi mortuary." But in essence, you can, and for your spiritual well-being, you should be. You can (1) address your situation with any clear teaching from the Word of God, and (2) trust in the character of God for the parts that are still unclear.  

Whichever your train, your Sachsenhausen, your questions, don't ignore them. But find in Him an anchor for your soul. A sure foundation. A rock. He's all that.