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April 27, 2013

ideal walking conditions

I was born into a family of walkers. We walk out of necessity; we walk for pleasure. We walk in the winter; we walk in the summer. In the city or in the countryside. Uphill. Downhill. You get the idea.

When my grandpa was ailing in a nursing home, my grandma would trek on foot across townperhaps a two-hour walk round tripto visit him every day. She'd pull weeds out of sidewalk cracks along the way and identify every tree she walked by. Some of my earliest memories of my dad involve him walking me to school, encouraging me to walk with my feet straight, "not pigeon-toed". He taught me to stay a foot away from the curb, to look both ways before crossing the street, and that car ownership is a privilege, not a right or (in most cases) a necessity. Growing up, we did a lot of walking.

Now I realize that walking is the embodiment of values we hold dear, such as simplicity, thrift, health-consciousness, and enjoyment of creation. I learned that going places on foot offers an independance that relying on other modes of transportation does not. As I created my own adult life, living walkable distances from work and chu'rch was a priority for me. It relaxes me, and it satisfies my inner thrift-er. Walking has been healthy for my relationships and my thought life. On city sidewalks and wooded trails, I have shared many a deep conversation with a close friend, or with my Father. So, blame it on nature or nurture, but walking is one of my favourite simple pleasures.

Walking in my new city, though, is not for the faint of heart. It is less simple, and less pleasurable. Because of heat, dust, noise, safety precautions and my tendency to be tardy, I rarely walk to work. Though it is only a fifteen minute walk from door to door, I hire a cheap auto to take me the distance. If I want to go for a stroll, I do so in the evenings inside my gated complex.

But a few nights ago, I chose to walk to my friends' complex around dusk. I wrapped my scarf tightly over my hair, eyes alert for oncoming vehicles. I walked past the corner where the autos-for-hire wait...and perhaps to their surprise, did not hail any of them. On my walk, I saw three giggling girls sitting in the dust, sharing a snack. I looked into open shanty huts lining a vacant lot. I surveyed the rows and rows of simple white apartments rising from a paved slab where children play games and cows roam free. I stepped around assorted rubbish, lying loose next to the road. I walked through the real lives of fellow humans who live only meters from my gate. That evening, I remembered again why walking is good for me. When I walk, I see. When I see, I think.

I need to walk sometimes, so that I learn about life outside the walls of my complex, the walls of my auto, and the walls of my air-conditioned office. Walking affords me extra moments to take in the texture of the simple bed frames used by the shanty-dwellers. To see the golden earrings on the giggling child. To smell deep-frying oil or the sweetness of chai. To think about life on a road that divides the maids from the maid owners, and the cow milkers from the milk buyers. Rebecca Solnit writes, “Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world...." Walking forces me to ponder life.

Walking in this neighbourhood reminds me of the tension I often feel between (1) feeling the pain of the needy, and (2) enjoying what the Father has given to me. How do I strike the balance between giving to the poor without feeling guilty in enjoying a fuller life than they? Sincere followers have disagreed on this topic, some living as ascetics and others enjoying fine dining every weeknight. Each individual is responsible to seek the the Father's perspective and respond to the conviction given through His Word and Spirit. But this I know: my heart should break with compassion for the poor, because His does. My heart should break for people who walk in darkness. Walking can be used of the Father to awaken a heart anesthetized by pleasure, greed, and the pride of life.

One night in April, I walked from the office to the auto drivers' corner—usually a short, semi-pleasant jaunt in the early evening. A strong wind was blowing, whipping up the sand and dust that rests on everything, throwing grit into my eyes. I fumbled for my sunglasses but was unable to find them. I tugged at the shawl on my head, urging it to protect me. Nothing really helped, I just had to bear the swirling sand until I reached my auto. Ideal walking conditions? Maybe for a camel. But even a stroll through a sandstorm is a trigger for thankfulness. This is why: if the walk were comfortable, the weather temperate, and the air clean, I might forget my purpose. But when the walk is difficult, hot and dusty, I have no choice but to remember why I am here. Why He came here. When I walk, I remember. When I walk, I am thankful.

April 21, 2013

interpreting across a cultural gap

Last year a friend asked me what I think our Book is saying when it tells us to refuse food that we know has been offered to idols. 

I told her that I think it means that we should refuse food that we know has been offered to idols. 

Common sense, right?

But if I had not yet been to Asia when she asked me that question, I don't know what my reply would have been. Asia taught me that believers still face that exact situation. The instruction is a practical one here, as are many of the passages that refer to idols, special days, special foods or not eating meat in front of a vegetarian friend, and much more. It has never been more obvious to me that our Holy Book is an Eastern book. It bears many more physical and cultural parallels to Asia than to the Americas...because it is an Asian book. 

But in the West, the turbans, camels, walled cities, servants, nose rings and arranged marriages of the East seem like distant fables, and we have a tendency to "spiritualize" any passage that we can't directly relate to. Understanding the culture into which our Holy Book was written is one of the most difficult parts of understanding what it has to say...and a part most of us sorely neglect. Too often we think that only the leaders of our gatherings, or radio preachers, are responsible to do cultural or background research. As for our own reading, too frequently we jump in and out of the text quickly, just looking for a quick application, without any time for background research. While sometimes we emerge unscathed, it doesn't mean that our method is wise. A careful and prayerful approach to the Word keeps us balanced and true...while haphazard hermeneutics could have us joining a fanatical cult in Texas. It is a worthwhile cause to take some time to understand how to understand the Word.

When I moved to Asia, one of the books I wished I could have brought was this book on interpretation. What follows is quoted from a chapter called "Bridging the Cultural Gap," pages 92-94. Zuck has helpful words about determining the relevance of certain passages to us:
"The following principles may be useful in determining which cultural practices and situations, commands, and precepts in the Bible are transferable to our culture and which ones are nontransferable. 

1. Some situations, commands, and principles are repeatable, continuous, or not revoked, and pertain to moral or theological subjects, and/or are repeated elsewhere in Scripture, and therefore are permanent and transferable to us. We need to ask if the Scriptures treat the situation, command, or principle as normative. Sometimes a reason is given for a command. Capital punishment is considered a permanent command because, after being given in Genesis 9:6, it is nowhere revoked, and the reason given in that verse is that man is made in God’s image. The command in Proverbs 3:5-6 to trust the Lord is certainly repeated, though stated in various ways throughout Scripture....

2. Some situations, commands, or principles pertain to an individual, non-repeatable circumstances, and/or non-moral or non-theological subjects, and/or have been revoked, and are therefore are not transferable to today. Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:11-13 to bring his cloak and scrolls is obviously limited to Paul’s situation. Nowhere are Christian fathers commanded to sacrifice their sons as Abraham was told to do (Gen. 22:1-19); that command was only for that occasion in the patriarch’s life....

3. Some situations or commands pertain to cultural settings that are only partially similar to ours and in which only the principles are transferable. Five times the New Testament refers to greeting others with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13: 12; 1 Thes. 5:26; 1 Peter 5: 14). Since that was the normal form of greeting in that day, and since that is not the normal form of greeting in our Western culture, it follows that this practice need not be carried over to today. Instead the principle behind it should be followed, namely, to express friendliness and love to others. In Latin America the same principle is expressed by a hug rather than a kiss, and in America a handshake is sometimes accompanied by a hug or a pat on the back....

 4. Some situations or commands pertain to cultural settings with no similarities but in which the principles are transferable. A sinful woman expressed her love to Jesus by pouring perfume from an alabaster jar on Jesus’ head (Matt. 26:7-8). There is obviously no way in which we can do this to Jesus now, but the principle holds that we can express our love to Him sacrificially..."
Zuck's well-organized book gives more examples of each of the above scenarios, as well as lots of other helpful guidelines for people who want to take their Book reading deeper. Every believer could be helped by skimming the book every few years to keep his reading and study on target. (Someone has scanned the whole book and put it online...copyright page and all! While they shouldn't have done that, it sure came in handy tonight for this girl whose beloved book is languishing in storage in Canada).

David Cooper is known for saying, "When the plain sense make common sense, seek no other sense." If we abide by this guideline in interpretation, 80% of our interpretation pitfalls will already be avoided. The example I gave of not eating food that has been offered to idols would probably fall into category 3 or 4 for most Westerners. But for Easterners it falls into category 1. We could try to draw elaborate modern-day Western parallels for idols, food, and offerings....but that would be going much farther than the text goes. Instead, we could draw a simple principle from it (à la 3 and 4) but concentrate on the obvious meaning based on the cultural context into which the Book was originally written.  

And that is common sense.

April 16, 2013

the nature of sacrifice

An acquaintance relayed to me a story of a trip he made with his family to an impoverished country in another hemisphere. His son, upon seeing the needs of the people around him, gave away nearly everything he had taken with him on the trip. As the story concluded, of course, I commented on the son's commendably generous spirit. “Yes,” his dad chuckled, “but when we came back to Canada, I had to buy replacements of everything for him.”

In contrast, a friend told me about a little girl who asked her parents if she could give her bicycle away to an immigrant girl at school. Her parents confirmed, “Are you sure that that is what you want to do? We will not be buying you another bike right away, you will have to go without.” That was exactly what she wanted to do; she gave away her bike.

Both stories sound altruistic. Both children gave gifts that were happily received. But one gave out of abundance, the other gave a true sacrifice. It makes me think of the story of the widow's offering: she "put in everything—all she had to live on"...and the God of all the earth took notice. Just because we are giving doesn't mean that we are sacrificing.

In our circles we bat about the word “sacrifice” without much thought. The term is familiar; to us a sacrifice is the giving up of something of value. But today's spiritual jargon forgets the graphic nature of "sacrifice" in the Old Testament. In Old Testament sacrifices, something often died. Multiple animals died. There was pain. There was blood. There was a mess to clean up. Then in the New Testament we see the ultimate Sacrifice, that of the Son—heart-wrenching pain, blood, death and separation. A life given up because "unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it remains alone." These pictures should frame our understanding of what sacrifice looks like.

A good question to ask ourselves on a regular basis is, “Am I dying anywhere?” Or also, "Am I giving to the Father anything that interferes with my comfort or ease?" "Do my offerings draw blood?" These sacrifices come in many shapes and sizesbut most often they come not without a scuffle, sweat, breaking and blood. May these deaths remind us why we are alive.

April 13, 2013

it's about time

I'm eating an unhealthy bachelorette supper tonight: Nutella on roti (bread) and flat Sprite. It's not exactly the balanced meal of my mother's dreams, nor it is it a meal that would win a man's heart. But my mom is far away and I'm OK with my singleness tonight. It's a quiet around the apartment after a long day at work. The air conditioner coughs as it starts to cool my bedroom. The weekend is here—hallelujah!

I got away with eating such an unusual supper because my roommates were out. When they returned, they questioned, "Have you eaten? What did you eat? Chocolate spread on bread?" Guilty as charged. I'm living with two local girls who don't understand my choice of chocolate spread as a meal replacement. But they do enjoy eating meals together, whatever the menu.

Interestingly, there was no discussion with my new roommates about whether we would sit down to eat meals together or not. We were virtual strangers before we began sharing an apartment, but it is assumed that if we are home around the same time, we will share a meal. I think I'm OK with that. We're settling into a little routine of suppers together and small talk around the table.

Whether it's having scheduled meals or making neighbours welcome to drop by, I'm coming to the realization that building relationships here will require a significant time commitment. It's hard to schedule events or people in a land where typically things run late and long, and where people are more relationally-oriented than time-oriented. The local culture is not going to change in that regard.

So, I'm realizing that if I am going to live and love in my new environment, I'm going to have to change. I can't keep too many things on my urgent to-do list. Pursuing freelance work has to take a back seat to having time for people. I must be wise as to what degree I communicate with friends back home, ie: how often, how long. I must learn to seize the day here and to not be too perturbed if "the day" gets postponed, elongated or changed.

Building bridges into my roommates' lives is not only different because we are from different cultures, but because we hold vastly different worldviews. In North America, I always sought roommates of the same faith. Here, I didn't really even consider looking for such people. They're few and far between, but also I thought that living with girls from such differing worldviews and backgrounds could be an effective thing on multiple levels. Challenging? Yes. A situation to be entered into pray'erfully? For sure. But a great opportunity to be real, and build relationship.

I'm telling you these facts as they relate to me and Asia, but no matter our physical location or culture, we need to intentionally cultivate meaningful relationships with people of other faiths. As North American believers, we tend toward one of two extremes:
  1. We have almost no deep relationships with people of other faiths (ie: we spend all our time with fellow believers), or 
  2. We have too many deep relationships with people of other faiths (ie: to the point that our faith is compromised or weakened).
Our Western Chr!stian signboard-carrying, web-linking culture needs to be challenged in the area of establishing relationships....myself included. A tract, a Facebook post, a billboard, or a five-minute conversation on a street corner might challenge a heart, but it can't be more meaningful than a true, godly friendship. We suppose that those who are seeking will come and find us (after all, don't our chur'ches have websites?), but more often they're the missing sheep that need to be sought after. Seeking out sheep takes a commitment of your person to the effort.

A common misconception is that the most spiritual, committed people are those who are on every chur'ch committee or at every chur'ch meeting. We need to inquire deeper into fellow believers' hearts and motives, because those with the perfect Sunday school attendance records might not be the most effective disciple-makers. And we were called to make disciples more clearly than we were called to attend Sunday school. Often we don't have time for meaningful relationships with anyone outside the Family...and then we wonder why our Communities aren't growing.

Moving to the other side of the world allowed me to reevaluate my schedule and commitments, and reminded me of this: if we're too busy to make disciples, then we're too busy.  That's our calling, after all.

This month I read a powerful article about a lady whose life was profoundly changed through the love of a couple who cared enough to challenge her worldview. The challenge began in the form of a gentle, challenging reply to an article she wrote, but developed into a long-term relationship between the two parties. The title and subheading are attention-grabbing: "My Train Wreak Conversion: As a leftist lesbian professor, I despised Chr!stians. Then I somehow became one." Definitely make time to read her transformation account.

When you read it, you read her story in a condensed form. It would be easy to forget the many dinners, hundreds of conversations and thousands of prayers that were groundwork laid before this articulate, intelligent lady "got up from the bed of [her] lesbian lover." Her friends "brought the chur'ch to [her]" through hospitality and relationship until she was so convicted that she took herself to the chur'ch. Her loving Community helped her along the narrow path she chose; it was not without enormous pain and struggle.

Yes, sometimes people come into the light quickly, seemingly easily. But they are the minority. The rest need the chur'ch to come to them, in the form of loving relationships.

It's Saturday evening now, and my roommates and I had a few others over for pizza. I spent hours planning the menu, shopping for ingredients, making homemade dough and homemade tomato sauce, and double-washing the vegetables in our warm kitchen. Tiring? Yes. Valuable? I hope so.

We're doing life together. Life takes time. So as I revisit my schedule to make time for roommate suppers (with or without Nutella), neighbour visits, and chats with coworkers, I'll keep this in mind: if I'm too busy to make disciples, then I'm too busy.