March 26, 2013

in answer to your question

Little known fact: in my first year of post-secondary, my classmates voted me the "person who asks the most questions." Yes, that's me. I ask questions because I want to understand thoroughly. I like neatly presented information: outlines, parallel sentences, numbered lists, and books with logical structures. The usual state of affairs on my desk might not lead you to this conclusion, but a personality profile test accurately stated that I "desire a high level of structure and order." I also like clear answers to my questions, so I ask and ask until things become clear.

Enter Asia, where I've been living for almost four months now. Neither of my current physical environments (Asia, or my employer, a family-run start-up) have a high level of structure and order. Clear communication is often strained by cultural differences, language barriers, generational gaps, and the like.

This has taken its toll on me. Lately I have felt exhausted and overwhelmed, and I realized that being in a constantly new and changing environment (coupled with wearing this fallible flesh) has resulted in culture stress. In addition to that, Asia has blown out the walls of my mental house and has me asking questions that I've never asked before. So. many. questions. If I asked a lot of questions in college, I'm asking even more now.

If you've been following my journey in Asia, you've seen me grapple questions such as:
But there are more questions, many more. 

There are simple daily questions. Where do I get a curtain rod and is that a good price for sheets? Why is that person ringing my doorbell? Is it safe for me to be walking down this street by myself? Is that driver overcharging me? And my personal favourite, is everyone in this food court staring at me, or is there, perchance, one person who isn't? As much as I enjoy many of the cultural experiences, the very fact of having to learn so many things all over again (starting with the alphabet!) is humbling, and draining.

My soul is also asking questions with larger implications. For example, how did J'sus relate to rich people, and what can I glean from His methods? How do I know when I am paying someone a fair wage, and how is fair defined? How do I interact with the servant who works in my house? What is a truly Biblical, unbiased view of wealth, the value of labour and employer-employee relationships? To what degree can I participate in festivals and activities, as everything seems to have an underlying religious meaning? How do I manage my time well, while still being flexible with the twists and turns that cross-cultural living and relationships always throw my way? It seems like I am constantly coming across situations for which I don't have a workable frame of reference. 

In recent years I have become accustomed to asking Google most anything, but these are questions Google can't answer for me. I want to frame the questions properly, to find answers in His revelation, to think B!blically. But until I have time to do so, my questions rattle around in my head and sometimes, steal my sleep. Late one night, I asked myself: did I make a mistake in coming here?


Design by Christopher Goodwin (http://www.chris-to-pher.com/)
I've been spending quality time in police stations lately, to acquire visa documents. My coworker and I ride through heat and dust, enter the station, get told to return, and then return again, then return again…. The corners of the building reek of urine and the men stare me down, and (only for documentation purposes) ask if I'm married and where I live. Sweat dribbles down my back and my work to-do list piles up while we do what feels like unnecessary running around. Another question rises in my mind: why am I here again?

In the generous manner that I see often here, a friend gave up her evening to serve as my translator at the police station. We ducked past swarms of bored policemen and stood in the station's open-air hallway, chatting as we waited for our audience with the police official.

I know many so-called spiritual people who would have spent the moments in the hall shooting the breeze. Maybe I would have as well, had my friend not set a serious tone to the conversation. "I have questions," she told me, "about what life is about. Why things are, why things happen." I clarified, "You mean, you wonder about the purpose of life?" She responded in the affirmative and continued, "Like my friend injured by a serious car accident…why her? What for? Why is life unfair to good people? She was always the happiest, kindest person...." Her voice trailed. Uncertainty hung in the air. Darkness tucked itself around the corners of the station as she expressed her concerns. She's seeking answers; it's obvious.


I have so much to explore, to learn, to ponder, and to discuss. I'm asking, asking, asking...but my questions are less urgent than hers. My body, mind and emotions may be wrung by change, but ultimately I am resting in the One whose "understanding has no limit". My friend is not. She's asking, seeking, knocking.

A few years ago I had to determine my stance on the question "what of the unreached?" or "what happens to people who have no exposure to the Light?" It was a query that needed to be settled from the Word, in my heart and mind. After much study, I had to conclude that in order to be fair in judging unbelief, the Father must provide enough opportunity for each seeking heart to believe, whether it looks that way to us or not. By that I mean that there is no one who is truly unreached by any Light (cf. Psalm 19 and Romans 1). I also concluded that those who respond to the little Light they have are given more: "you will seek Me and find Me when you seek me with all your heart."

The questions that have occasionally taunted me come to mind: Did I make a mistake in coming here? Why am I here again? I must revert to truth to answer those questions; according to my theology, the Father finds a way to throw Light on the path of the seeker. I came here to push pixels, to expand my friends' business, and to learn about another culture. But it is also probable that I am here in answer to a question someone asked, to a petition someone made to One who promises that "everyone who asks receives...." And for now, that's all I need to know. No more questions asked.

March 10, 2013

room for one more

A hot breeze is blowing and I smell human sweat. I'm not sure if it's mine or that of the realtor standing in front of me. Maybe both. It's a warm day and the wind blows through the open patio doors of my new apartment, into the living room with its torn couches (the owner promises to replace them) and the broken TV (a repairman is coming any minute now). But the airflow, warm as it is, reminds me of one reason I like this apartment: the wind blows through freely. The living room faces an open lot, and the porch already has hooks for a swing.

"Pencil hai?" Is that a pencil? asks the realtor. "Are you sure that's not a pencil?" The ink from my pen, which my roommate is using to sign the documents, doesn't look dark enough to convince him it's a pen. Forgetting that my humour doesn't always translate into this culture, I tease him a little, "It's an exotic pen, a Canadian pen." His reply: "Canada is the only country that won't accept medications made in other countries. Our country can't send medications to your country. Australia, yes. UK, yes. Canada, no." If you aren't sure what the connection is between Canadian pens and Canadian pharmaceutical import policies, I'm with you.

Three additional men stroll into the living room. Two of them are realtors I've seen before: the slight mustachioed man dressed in a bit more conservative style, and the agreeable one with a wild mop of hair. The latter has grown a beard since the last time I saw him. The third I've never seen before. He is gyrating the metal part of his motorbike key inside his ear, a Q-Tip of sorts. I wonder why these three have appeared so suddenly, but then I realize: they want to get their share of the realty fees. Besides, in this place, there are always spare people around; anyone who's anyone has an assistant. You just don't do things on your own. So there are now seven people at the meeting where I expected three. Oh wait, there are eight now....the TV repairman just showed up.

The documents on the glass table are in two different languages, and the conversation around me is in three. Thankfully, most of the documents are in English, and I understand roughly 30% of what is going on in the room. The form written in the state language (the language my roommate and I don't speak) scares me a little. Are they going to ask us to sign something we can't read? The first realtor is jovial and keeps saying "Foreigner...foreigner...." (Those ellipses stand for the parts of his sentences about me that I can't understand.) I find out the local document is police paperwork, they'll fill it out for us, no signing necessary.

The documents are finally signed, cheques written, cash handed over. Can we have the keys to our apartment? "Oh, keys? We only have one key. We'll have to make a copy for you." Oh, OK. The realtor foursome said they'd make an extra key for themselves this week, too. We definitely will be changing the locks after we take possession of the apartment, lest one of these four men visits us unannounced.

It's beyond my understanding how, after weeks of back-and-forth, haggling, and repairs left undone, all parties still have smiles for each other. They've exchanged cross words on other days, but today, we've reached our peace. Not because all the repairs are done, but because if we wait for all the repairs to be done, we may never move in. No one seems particularly stressed about the delay or about the work left undone. Clearly, this Westerner was the only one losing sleep over it.

The whole rental process has accentuated the differences between our cultures. When they said they'd get the repairs done, I thought they would. When they said the apartment was ready, I dared to hope it was. When I got frustrated, they didn't. Behind four walls, working and living with other foreigners, it's easy to create your own world. Slowly now, I'm moving into their world. Sweat, hot breeze, exotic pens. People, people and more people.

(I wonder, briefly, how His entrance was into our world. What culture shock He must have felt. The incarnation carries more weight, now.)

This week I plan to clean the spacious apartment He's provided, perhaps with an assistant or two. If it's up to me, I'll dispose of the deities from the pantry, and the welcome god perched over the door. This week marks a new phase for me, I'll move in with someone of a culture vastly different than mine. Her culture won't be outside the walls, it will be inside the walls. Here's hoping she can teach me something about patience and smiling at the causers of your frustration. Perhaps she can help me learn the national language and embrace free-flowing, unscheduled community. Because here, the door opens frequently, the neighbours want to chat, and visitors drop by at 10:00pm. The friend of your friend wants to meet you. You don't just do things on your own. And no matter how full the living room is, there's always room for one more. 

March 09, 2013

knee jerk worship

I woke up ill yesterday. All morning, I was feeling awful, heavy. Trying to work, only to head back to bed again; wondering what was wrong.  I was frustrated to be sick yet again; it's become all too common since I moved to this continent.

Suddenly, in the early afternoon, my body took care of the problem. It expelled the alien substance that was making me ill. I haven't vomited since grade three. But Asia has changed things. Thank you, Asia.

Actually, I am thankful.

Because even in those moments, as I was getting cleaned out, I had a few split seconds of awe. Awe that He designed our bodies so masterfully. Awe at the mechanisms the Creator put in place. Awe that He trained my body to do exactly what I needed: get rid of whatever was making me sick. What sovereignty, wisdom and kindness came up with such a system?

My coworkers cleaned up my mess, brought me tea and toast in bed, and rounded up fresh coconut water. (There's nothing like throwing up to make you feel legit in taking the rest of the day off.) Lounging on my bed, I thought about those split seconds of awe in the middle of distress, and realized: this is what we train for. This is why we immerse ourselves in Him. This is why He works to transform our minds. The Father is drawing us to the place where our knee jerk reaction to any circumstance (puking or paralysis, Typhoid or thick traffic) is that of worship. In my illness, I had a small taste of this.

Worship isn't a normal human response during a vomiting session. My normal human response was more along the lines of frustration: sick, again? But He is work in us, enabling us to do all for His glory. Enabling us to see the circumstances of life as pathways to worship.

He didn't promise life would guide us down broad, even paths, lined with well-tended geraniums. Sometimes the road we tread is one of sharp rocks. Steep inclines. Narrow passes.

Cancer or prolonged health problems.
Stillbirth or miscarriages.
Handicaps and children with extraordinary struggles.
Barrenness or singleness. 
Marital struggles and divorce.
Loneliness. Accidents. Death.

We hope that when those circumstances come along, we'll triumphantly rise over them. But the best soldiers aren't recruited one day and put on the front lines the next. A seed doesn't start bearing fruit the day it is planted. It is rare that investments earn whopping amounts of interest overnight. Job didn't just determine to be a banner of hope to people in suffering situations. He first had a consistent reputation for being "blameless and upright, and one who feared G0d and shunned evil." He would "rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings....thus Job did regularly." Worship was a regular thing for him, not a Sunday thing, not a when-others-are-looking thing. It was constant and it was sincere. Because of this, when multiple tragedies came, he stayed the course: he kept worshiping.

If you're in a narrow pass right now, set up a place of worship there. Watch how Job suffered without sinning.

But if your season is a joyous one, follow Job's example during his joyous years. Fear G0d, shun evil. Cultivate a lifestyle of worship. Then, when struggles reach inside of you and expose you for who you really are, they'll find a worshiper of the deepest, truest kind. The kind birthed by G0d Himself. To Him be the glory.

March 04, 2013

why you don't need to travel

At breakfast, an acquaintance asked me how many countries I've visited, and I had to stop to count. It was a new situation, that of not knowing how many countries I've visited. At the end of 2011, I had only been to 3 countries, but by the end of 2012, the count was at 11. Sounds like 2012 was a fascinating year, right? The stuff of many daydreams.

There were crunchy macaroons, famous historical sites, entertaining moments and encouraging conversations. There was light from The Good Book. My life was enriched and deepened by the knowledge I acquired and the people I met. But to be realistic, travelling also meant diarrhea for over a week, rain and cold, the re-wearing unwashed socks...and the regular weight of being a sinner living in a dark world. In many ways, travelling was not so different than everyday life. 

I hope that last sentence didn't just ruin your life.

It's just that my perspective on travel has been gradually shifting.

North American culture teaches that travel is all that. It's the cool thing, to take a gap year to save turtles on a beach in Costa Rica and to sail around Caribbean. I had a coworker who told me that she “lives to travel.” (I couldn't help but pity her, because that means she only “lives” one or two weeks out of the year.) I don't need to tell you that travel can be an idol for many.

As a TCK, I have perceived travel as all that in a different sense. I often have thought that people who've never travelled need to get out more in order to gain the Father's heart (and to be more interesting dinner companions). Need to get on a plane and discover a place where the apples aren't polished and the tap water isn't potable. I could relate to Mark Twain, who stated that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

We all have this idea that travel changes things. 

But the truth is, the Father changes things. Not travel. Travel can have positive effects, but the moving of your body to another corner of the earth doesn't necessarily mean the moving and transforming of your heart to better reflect Him.

This was aptly illustrated by this post from an American living in Asia. For two years, she has been a first-hand witness to her neighbours' suffering and deception. Yet she still finds herself listening to a friend talk about how her husband is beating her, and then being upset because her internet is slow. (What is slow internet after spousal abuse?) She gets so frustrated with disruption of her neighbours chanting to idols in the night, that her heart fails to grieve for the blindness around her. She reminded me that a change of heart is the work of G0d. Not the work of travel. If it were the work of travel, she wouldn't be struggling with wrong attitudes anymore.

It is good that we would hold lightly to our physical location and tightly to the One who cradles the earth in His hands.


This photo was taken by my travelling buddy, Christie.

Our tour of Paris was led by a Bulgarian in a beret. She guided us between gold-covered monuments while we munched on baguettes and soft goat cheese. I had no expectation of what the Louvre would look like, but when I saw it, I was impressed. It surprised me when my travelling buddy was notably unimpressed. I questioned her reaction. She surveyed the structure rising from the cobbled courtyard and said, “It's just that the things of man cannot compare to the things of G0d.”

I think her reference was to how grey stone buildings and glass pyramids couldn't begin to compare to the endless spread of the Yukon territory. How the sparkling Eiffel Tower could never rival the a sky showcasing the Northern Lights. How all the most elegant bridges in Paris could not offer competition to the formations of the Giant's Causeway. She was right.

"The works of man cannot compare to the works of G0d." That sentence spoke truth on various levels. Travel will never finally change the world. Travel can't answer the world's problems. Travel won't heal the ache of the soul. If you're discontent, bored, jealous or selfish, travel is not the solution. What I'm saying is, you don't need to travel. Carrying a valid passport doesn't hurt. Getting it stamped multiple times can be fun, challenging, and perspective-broadening. If you have the opportunity to travel, I recommend it; you can tell me your stories at dinner.  

But what you need, my friend, is J'esus. Only He can answer problems, heal aches, and transform the human heart. Only He can cure "prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness" once and for all. Let's keep that straight.