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February 28, 2013

introducing: wheat

I am not a rapid reader. Sometimes we share from what we're reading, and my friend asked me if I'm still in Isaiah, because he noticed I was there for a long time. I've actually made it to Jeremiah. I've been spending quite a while with this guy, too. Last week, Jeremiah challenged me to the core again. He's a good place to be.

The Creator issues a task in Jeremiah 23:28, "He who has My word, let him speak it faithfully." It is followed up by this phrase, "what is the chaff to the wheat?" A small pair of phrases that ring with powerful implications.

We get confused. We often think our task is to prove chaff's worthlessness. We hold it up in our palms. We blow on it. We talk about what colour it is. We write reports on the texture. We imagine that one day, after enough arguments and witty points about chaff, our friends will give in and say: "Yes, you've convinced me, this chaff isn't much good."

But the best way to show someone that chaff is worthless is to introduce them to wheat. Then the topic of the value of chaff will become a non-issue. Think about it: does wheat get worried that chaff will someday take some of its market share? Do farmers sit around and discuss the merits of planting chaff rather than wheat? The answer is obvious. Nothing makes the worthlessness of chaff more obvious than the presence of the real deal, the wheat.

It is written, "He who has My word, let him speak it faithfully." Sometimes we get distracted from the simplicity and purity of the task. Yes, there may be a time to discuss chaff. To issue a reminder to people who've mistaken chaff for wheat. But that's not our main task. Understand? The key task is to speak the word faithfully.

Jeremiah 23:29 describes that word as having power: Is not My word like a fire?” says the L0rd, “And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Spurgeon said, "The Word of G0d is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.” When we worry about the wheat not differentiating itself from the chaff, we're saying that the word is not sufficient. Not fire. Not a hammer.

This is a reminder for every day. Analyze and familiarize yourself with the wheat, not the chaff. Hold it up, blow on it, talk about it, write reports on it. Most importantly, spread the wheat out faithfully. Let the wind of time blow. The chaff will be gone, the wheat will remain. It's that powerful. It's that simple.

February 21, 2013

bare feet and justice

February, for me, has been the month of the apartment hunt. I have high standards: I want a place where the sink isn't rusty, the paint isn't drooping or chipping, and the walls aren't stained with betel-nut-tinted spittle. I want something clean and safe for a single, white female. The apartments that meet my criteria are generally new developments, that's where realtors have been taking me. I'm seeing semi-clean white walls, freshly-tiled floors, televisions in every room...I'm finding out how the middle-upper class people live.

I'd also like to have a nice view from my apartment. In this crowded city, a "nice" view might be a vacant property or a nice-looking building. It might just mean being high enough that you see some treetops rather than the disorder below. But even the "nice" views overlook extreme poverty. Maybe that's why everyone in the condominium wants a garden-facing flat. Not a reality-facing flat.

A stone's throw from an apartment complex I liked—past the guard and the well-tended green space, over the wall, on the other side of the row of flowering plants—are shanty towns. Homes made of spare boards and strips of discarded banner material. Homes with no running water, let alone shining sinks; no flooring, never mind beautiful tiling.

These are the homes of the construction workers and maids. They build and tend to the homes across the street, but cannot even dream of owning such homes. Not because they don't work hard, but because they were born into the wrong family. With bad karma. Under the wrong stars. Fate made them the underlings.

I could have been that person who moved to Asia to work with the outcasts, the poor. Instead, the work that brought me here has me wrestling with Excel spreadsheets and becoming conversant in data transfer speeds. But as a person in relationship with The Just One, no matter my daily employment, I am pained at the injustice around me. Why do the rich live at ease at the expense of the poor? How can they treat them without mercy when they have so much? How are animals venerated but people expendable? I wonder: What can I do about this? What am I supposed to do about this?  How do I never let this injustice become normal to me?

My friends and I often visit a doctor's happy middle-class home. As I arrive, I stop to remove my shoes. If the doctor's wife is nearby, she stops me. Our conversation goes like this:

"Don't take off your shoes!"
"But they're dirty!"
"But our whole country is dirty! That's what it's like here!"
"But I don't want your house to be dirty."
"Leave them on. We leave ours on."

So, I dirty her house. If she's OK with her home being dusty, then I can be OK with that. But I can never be OK with injustice.

I've been trying to read through the Scriptures in a year, but my slow pace has me stuck in the prophets. Jeremiah writes, "Execute judgement in the morning; and deliver him who is plundered out of the hand of the oppressor, lest my fury go forth like fire..." (21:12). "Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Was not this knowing me?" (22:15-16)

If my soul is heavy when I see injustice, it is because I know Him, and He is grieved, too. He is more than grieved, He is angry. 

This month we hired a few new employees. The young man we took on came neatly dressed, his hair freshly trimmed. Each day he came to us after a full morning of college classes, riding the cheap bus for two hours to get here...and two hours to get home afterward. His smile was wide, and overflowed into his eyes.

Two weeks came and went, and his ability didn't match up to the tasks he needed to perform. We'd advanced him money from his paycheque to get glasses (a luxury he hadn't invested in) but still his eyes weren't picking up the problems in his work. It came time for the axe.

After explaining why we needed to dismiss him, my coworkers blessed him with encouragement about his good qualities. Where justice would have paid him two weeks' wages, grace paid a full month's wages. He left as pleasantly as he had always come, saying, "No other company would do this for me." He knew that something was different here. 

When we see justice done, something in us responds. Fair wages paid, wrongdoers punished, lies exposed. But when justice gets outrun by grace, something within us sings.

I like to think that Truth began to play on his heart as he was here. Truth was playing a song that cannot reverberate inside cows, pigeons or monkeys. It is a song sung uniquely inside Image-bearers, when the human soul sees qualities that reflect His Image. The song says: "this is what I was made for."

One of my new friends is short on cash. It's not because she's not a hard worker, or because she doesn't have a job, or because she's not skilled. It's simply because her employers hold back her wages. They promise, but don't deliver. 

Based on the prophets, I would say that God is angry at her employers for their injustice. He will make them give account. There will be a day of fire and judgement.

But between now and the Day when justice is finally meted out, what I can do about injustice? How can I do justice? I'm a graphic designer, or a writer; not a lawyer, or a social worker.

The voice from the fiery bush said, "What is that in your hand?" (Ex. 4). Moses had a rod. We start with what we have, too. This week, our company paid (more than) fair wages to an employee. This week, I pr@yed for, designed and printed business cards for my friend who needs paid work. This week, I wrote this to exhort you, because you witness injustice too. Do justice. Live grace.

As we do, the song in our hearts rises; Truth sings. We step on holy ground (Ex. 3). And this time, you'd better take off your shoes. Even the doctor's wife would agree.

February 14, 2013

that reminds me of a story

Last night, my new friend and I were sitting in the foyer waiting for a ride to a wedding reception we were to attend. My friend was telling me about her neighbour's adulterous affair. It was too-typical sludge: a lover scampering off in the morning; a crying spouse; betrayal and lies. Then she told me another similar tale. It was a murky, dark topic of conversation.

"The story that you're telling me reminds me of the true story of a man named Joseph, a story told in the B'ble," I said. "Can I tell you that story?"

She seemed agreeable, but suggested that we start walking toward where we were to meet the driver.

As we stepped out of the elevator into the parking lot, I started again. "Joseph was from Israel. Do you know where Israel is?" I asked. "Yes, of course I know where Israel is."

So the story began, as we walked down the dusty street near my flat. "Joseph was his father's favourite son. His brothers despised him and wanted to kill him. They came up with a dishonest plan...."

We turned onto a secondary road, looking both ways for vehicles. The conversation quieted for a few moments. "But yes, you were telling me about Joseph...?" "Joseph was taken away by slave traders and sold to an Egyptian owner...."

Soon we had reached the main road near my house, the road that my coworker says he pr@ys every time he crosses. "Are you good at crossing roads?" my friend asked. I thought I was decent, but it proved a challenge even for an advanced road-crosser like myself. (Local traffic has a few unique features: it can come from any direction, at any time, and at any speed. I have yet to see a functional crosswalk or stop light.) We made it halfway across, and waited a few minutes at the median. A little lady started across, waving for vehicles to stop for her, and signaling for us to follow. We reached the other side of the street and positioned ourselves at a relatively calm spot next to the busy road. We continued to wait for our "chauffeur," who was apparently on his way.

"So, yes, finish about Joseph," she said. We got to the part about Joseph's exalted status and Potiphar's wife's attempt to seduce him. With joy, I told her about the triumphant moment where Joseph ran away from adultery and chose to do what pleased G0d. The story continued with his many years in prison, and his later exaltation after suffering.

A few dogs wandered by. One came too close for comfort.
My friend adjusted her shawl and checked her phone. Her friend called to say that he was approaching, watching for us along the busy roadway.

We had a few more minutes to wrap up the story with Joseph's exemplary forgiveness of his brothers, and his statement about how G0d used even an evil thing for good. Then her friend's car approached, and we trundled off to the reception.

As I think about our evening, I remember that there were street dogs. There was the polluted air of rush hour. There were blaring horns. There was our late, late ride. But amidst the chaos, there was the peace-filled story of Joseph. A story of integrity, faithfulness and forgiveness. A story that's true to life, both in it's account of man's failure...and the possibility of man's redemption. A beautiful story...especially when you're hearing it for the first time.

February 05, 2013

poh-tay-toh, poh-tah-toh

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” 
Do not I fill heaven and earth?

Before I came to Asia, a friend who hails from here prepared me: "In my homeland, they have their own version of everything. They imitate brand name smart phones, software, computers.... Be careful, or the next thing you know, they'll make a duplicate of you." We laughed.

But indeed, in less than two months here, I've realized that this country appears to have a counterpart for everything an outsider can throw at them. Never mind the fake Apple products or pirated software (I prefer to buy the real deal), this whole duplicate thing has been especially obvious to me in the spiritual realm.

For example, I asked a neighbour about the portrait on her wall. I knew it represented a g0d. She replied, "That is so-and-so." Then she offered an explanatory note, to help this foreigner: "He's like your Je'sus." Oh, gotcha.

I heard loud music blaring during my language lesson, and asked my teacher if it was true that the music was part of a religi0us ceremony. Her reply? "It's like church for you. You sing, we sing. Same thing." I was quiet.

My mind is grappling with the supposed similarities. I am not surprised that most Westerners who come East would just assume, as my Eastern friends do, that we are all doing the same thing and treading the same path, just in our own ways. Poh-tay-toh, poh-tah-toh.

Here, Eastern religious temples dominate the landscapes. Western* countries draw guests to see cathedrals. Could the pictures on their walls be counterparts to our Sunday school portrait of brown-haired J'esus? They have gurus. We have past0rs. They ask their astrologers about big and small decisions, just as we might consult a wise older believer. The East has factions within their religious groups. The West has denominations. It seems that for everything there is a parallel.

And if anything, it appears Easterners are more zealous, with their regular fasts, abstaining from particular foods always, performing elaborate ceremonies...and setting up g0ds at every gate, every home, every shop....

The first movie I saw in theatre in Asia was, appropriately, Life of Pi. When I entered the theatre I didn't know I would be watching a profoundly spiritual film. What for the first 100 minutes appeared to be simply a fantastic 3-D story slapped me silly with huge philosophical implications in the last 20 minutes. Yann Martel knows how to weave a powerful tale. I spent the next 48 hours digesting what I saw.

He sought to convey, in parable form, the variance and semblance between Eastern and Western worldviews. The Eastern worldview is a tangled, colourful tale. The Western is straightforward and to-the-point. The Eastern story had talking animals and incredible feats. The Western tale could stand up in a court room: the details are scientific and believable. But the clincher is this: according to the author, both seek to explain events that unknowable. Therefore, either explanation is equally valid. "Pick your story," he says. We start and end in the same place either way.

It sounds tolerant. Wise, even. Enlightened, informed, peace-loving...on the surface. But when examined a bit longer, you must conclude that the glaring hole in the worldview of Martel is its audacious acceptance of uncertainty as a way of life. In fact, on his terms, concepts like tolerance, wisdom and peace cannot be universally defined. They cannot be known and understood by all humans in the same way, because everything must be left open to opinion, interpretation, and persuasion. On such a basis, what is peace? What is wisdom? Who is to say that they are universal values?

The reasoning mind cannot be satisfied, because it cannot answer any of the big questions. The biggest goal seems to be to forget your big questions. In Life of Pi the big question is "Why did the ship sink?" Martel says it doesn't matter because you'll never know. Do you have deep questions that keep you up in the night? Hush makes no difference anyway.

In seeking to cater to all worldviews, it could not be more clear that Life of Pi came from one. One where all is one: one being, one continuum, one reality. All sources of knowledge are equally valid or invalid because there is no information from outside our realm. This worldview has no eternally separate, distinct, personal, unique Creator who wants for nothing and needs not His creation. The Creator who can provide the back story to the universe, and who can therefore answer the big questions in a satisfying way. The Creator, whom no one can truly copy, imitate or duplicate.

We visited a tourist city a few hours from here. At a beautiful waterfront restaurant, I caught a bit of a philosophical conversation between two young travellers. It doesn't surprise me that they were talking about core values and ultimate reality in a country like this one. Those themes are begging to be discussed because around every corner there's something that shakes your way of thinking...or threatens to. The human mind is not content with—and not even able to strictly live by—Martel's proposition that all is relative. It wants to know.

Do you hear again the challenge Isaiah and Jeremiah transmitted?
“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” 
Do not I fill heaven and earth?

Let me know when you find a copy of Him.

"The Portion of Jacob is not like them,
for He is the Maker of all things."

"There is none like You."

*While followers of J'esus are followers of a faith that has its roots in East, the Western world is much more influenced by the teachings of J'esus than the East. This is why I speak of the general worldviews for which these areas of the world are known, in collision. I do not mean to insinuate that all Westerners have a correct worldview nor that all Easterners do not.

February 04, 2013

that big, that good

There was no handwriting on the wall. Tea leaves certainly didn't spell it out for me. I can't tell you a dramatic story of my Book opening to particular passage. My decision to move to Asia was simply a choice I made, a door I walked through.

Many, many times I had looked into opportunities abroad, only to be discouraged eventually. But this time I saw the guidance of the Father, in opening door after door. I pursued wise counsel. I sought the blessing of my parents (and after some tough questions, they bravely blessed this venture). And finally, I said, "Why not?! Let's do this." In some senses, it was fairly straightforward.

After arriving here, again, I've seen His fingerprints on this situation. It isn't perfect, by any means. There's only one perfect Place. But I could list for you at least 5 confirmations that have reminded me that this is a good place for me. I didn't have to receive confirmations like that from Him, but He is kind to encourage me.

Before I came to Asia, there were a few who questioned my decision or discouraged me. The most notable was one who insinuated that by my leaving, a particular person (in whom I had invested a considerable amount of time) would be left to struggle spiritually. The gist of it was: this person needs you in order to live rightly. Quite a claim!

Obviously, I didn't let the comment stop me. But it rattled me. While 90% of me was fiery ("That's not true!") there was 10% of me that feared those words would come true. Those words exposed the false fear I had, too. Was I a crutch that kept that person, or others, going? Would something or someone fall apart by my leaving? Was I selfish in my decision to go abroad, or was I going for the wrong reasons? I spent time entertaining fears, some foolish, some more real. But no such fear was great enough to cancel my plans. Asia still beckoned; the pathway was still clear. I came.

I told my local coworker about that hurtful remark. I was already seeing sweet signs that that person's claim was untrue, that the Father was caring for and guiding said person without me. My coworker has been reminding me of this: when the Father guides me in a particular direction, He is orchestrating the surrounding details as well. He knows how far the ripples of our decision will reach, and He's already prepared for that. He's that big.

For example, if He guides parents into a particular country or situation, He has a good plan for their children there, too. In my case, if He leads me far from family and friends whom I love, He's going to use that for good both in my life and theirs. The Father won't lead his faithful child astray. He may lead through thorny ways or situations not presently understood. But He'll never, ever lead his child astray. He's that good.

I want this simple post to stand as a reminder to me, and perhaps to you as well. I want to remember that He does all things well. Moses wrote, "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful G0d who does no wrong, upright and just is he." He continually has our (individual and corporate) best in mind. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.