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June 21, 2013

gods and ends

My housemate's gods arrived last month. Not on a chariot or a white horse, but in a large brown cardboard box sealed with plastic wrap. Delivered by bumbling boys in polyester pants. The gods were in my housemate's shipment, which was in storage for six months before it finally was delivered to our doorstep.

The gods' house is a small wooden cabinet that got harmed in transit. In other countries it might pass for a house-shaped knick-knack cabinet. But here, it's a temple. My housemate recruited our cleaning lady's help to take the temple to the repair shop, but like many things here, there's no big hurry. Someday the house will be ready for its inhabitants.

I don't hear a peep out of the gods. So far, it would appear that these gods cannot hear, see, grasp, or speak. They couldn't give directions to the shippers. They couldn't hurry up their journey. They waited six months in a box, at the mercy of a transport company. Now they wait for their house to return. But all this to say, they're here.

It was a last-minute evening excursion. My housemate was driving. I was giving her directions as I tracked our position on my phone.

"Left here."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Don't you trust Google?"

Good old Google took us through a rougher area of the city, which made her nervous. She peered through the windshield, "Are you sure we're in the right place?"

I had to calm her briefly, but suddenly, I was fascinated, staring at what I saw on the sides of the road: gods made of plaster. Enormous ones. Small ones. Broken ones. Half-made ones. And milling about everywhere, going about their evening routines from their shacks along the street, were the commoners.

She was still nervous.
She: "Hey, are you completely sure this is where we should be? I don't like this area."
Me: "Wow, this is so interesting, these must be the people who make the gods."
She: "Yes, I know that as a foreigner you would find this interesting, but it could be dangerous driving through areas like this. Can we get out of here?"

Soon enough we were back to "civilization," to our supper in a fun cafe with air conditioning, pizza and Western music. But those memories of our drive stuck with me: the hot, dusty evening, the locals' shacks, and everywhere: idols, idols, idols. The elaborate gods and their simple creators.

While I was in high school (on a different continent, in a different hemisphere) there was a little old lady who lived in a house adjacent to ours. When my dad would climb his ladder to take papaya down from our tree in the backyard, she would greet him from her side of the wall. This tiny lady was raised by a father who was a god-maker. She could never believe that those gods could help her. After all, she saw her father carve them. And, he was just a man.

If you had asked me one or two years ago what I wanted to do with my life, I would have told you that I wanted to live intentionally internationally. To love and befriend and work overseas.

It was a journey, but last year I got the job, the plane ticket, the visa (OK, well, visa is pending again) I am. 

But if you asked me last month what I wanted to do with my life, I might have sounded more confused. I was feeling only 10% motivated to learn the local language. We were possibly only two-thirds of the way through the hottest season, but I'd already had enough of cooking in a boiling hot kitchen. The honeymoon I had with my new life here was over, and the realities (both good and bad) of life here stared me in the face. 

I came to Asia with a simple idea. I thought: I'll just go to Asia, work and love people. But I've realized that when I miss my friends, when my heels are dry and cracking, when my niece is adorable but also on the other side of the world, when I have diarrhea again, when I watch someone mistreat their servant for the fourteenth time, when workload becomes heavy and I'm love ends. My patience ends. My kindness ends. I end.

But it's not The end. Because someone entered Asia with me. Snuck in on my visa, if you will. He lives in me, so there was no moment that He was not with me. He didn't get lost in my luggage or stored in a spare room. His ears hear me. His eyes see me. His hand holds me. Most of all, He speaks to me. And He's so glad I've found my end. Because now He can begin.

 "The love of God is not createdit is his nature. It is impossible to exhaust God's love and it is impossible to exhaust my love as it flows from the Spirit of God within me."  
Oswald Chambers

"For this God is our God for ever and ever;
    he will be our guide even to the end." 
—The Sons of Korah

Speak, for your servant hears.” 

June 16, 2013

east meets west

The air is heavy with moisture; I feel it sitting on my skin. The skies are emptying themselves onto our housing complex yet again. I hear the irregular rhythm of the droplets as the drive themselves into the concrete six stories below. After months of hot, dry weather, monsoon season has arrived.

"Did you play in the rain last night?" asked one of our young employees, after the first big rainstorm of the season. No, I hadn't. She explained that in the rainy season, they go out on the streets and terraces and play in the rain. Afterward, they eat hot corn and drink steaming coffee in the middle of the night. Sounds fun, actually.

Our employees are always giving us cultural insights. Some days it is interesting. And some days I want to curl into a little Canadian-Brazilian ball and dream about autumn or pão de queijo instead of constantly bridging cultural gaps in every area. But my coworker is good at starting conversations that help both us and them to learn and grow between our cultures. This employee in particular spent a few years in America and one day my coworker asked her to share best and worst parts of life as a foreigner in (North) America. 

She had good things to say about her experience there, about how most everything was more organized, efficient, cleaner andmy favourite of her remarks"the firemen were handsome!" 

But what I found more helpful, though, were her criticisms of Western culture. (She was only criticizing because we asked for her perspective). For North Americans wanting to engage people from this part of the world in friendship, I thought her three key complaints could be educational. From her time there, she found (North) Americans to be:

1. Racist. Our employee was both surprised and disappointed by the prominence given to racial differences. The white people talked poorly about the black people. The black people dissed white people. As a "brown person", she didn't even know which category was hers...she just knew she didn't like the racist comments. 

2. Unfriendly. For an immigrant coming from a culture where there are always people everywhere, and complete strangers happily invite you in for a meal, North America must have been extreme culture shock. People here amaze me with their hospitality; they love to share meal with you, whether they've known you five minutes or five months. They are friendly and warm.

For that reason, some use the terms "hot" and "cold" cultures to describe our differences. North Americans, Europeans, Australians, etc. are from cold cultures. Latin American, African, and many Asian cultures are hot cultures. Cold cultures are task-oriented; hot cultures are relationship-oriented. When a hot moves to a cold, it must feel cold indeed.

Realizing that our time- and structure-consciousness can easily come across as (and be) cold is one step in the right direction...the direction of showing a kind spirit to people who are new to your land.

Loving people of another culture is costly. You're building common ground where sometimes there seems to be little; you might rather hang out with people you can understand and by whom you are understood. You're sacrificing time you could spend with your well-adjusted, local friends to be friendly to someone you just met. And it's worth the cost, because authentic friendship is an embodiment of authentic Truth.

3. Liberal. Lastly, she described Westerners as being "too free." While there is a growing, modern wave here, for the most part, many people from this part of the globe are more conservative than Westerners. The women dress more modestly, with their long, loose tops and multi-layered clothing. They value family, heritage, traditions, and arranged marriages. They value some form of chastity and lasting marriages. They believe in the spiritual realm and value spirituality. Some do not drink alcohol of any kind. The same things could be said for much of the East. In a culture that is indeed "too free", Followers have many values in common with these immigrants. While the heart behind our conservative actions is vastly different, many key values we do share: modesty, family, purity, enduring marriages, spirituality. Our employee's comments made me realize again that our common values can be a relational bridge. For us, they are not just rules, but practiced in relationship with the Creator...the one who made us all and gave us a shared, basic sense of right and wrong.

My point is this: when engaging newcomers from conservative countries, it is good to keep in mind that they likely expect you to be unfriendly, racist, and liberal.
If they came over with family, they're probably spending most of their spare time in that sphere and not building many bridges out to the people who are unknown to their family. In the case of our employee, the diet she maintains because of her religion would hardly allow her to eat outside her home (she does not eat meat, eggs, garlic, potatoes, onions...). Let the Love that lives in you surprise them, as you show warmth, acceptance and sharing of conservative values. 

Living between two cultures causes soul-searching in perceptive souls, as to what is right and what is wrong. This easily leads to conversations about values, meaning and purpose.

I love reading and listening to stories about people who've been drawn to Truth. The stories never get old! And two stories are never quite the same, but the commonality in nearly all of them is this: the Father uses people as part of the process. The neighbour, the sister, friend, the stranger at a bus stop. He uses available people. People who are dying to their own interests (ie: a tidy schedule, convenient relationships) and living for His (loving people).  I could say so much more...but my roommate just sent me a message. She wants me to go play in the rain with her. And after writing this post, I don't dare tell her that it doesn't suit my schedule.

June 09, 2013

teach us to pray

In April, I had a silly problem. I got a key stuck in my roommate's closet door. She was away, and when she came home, she wouldn't be able to access her cupboard full of valuables. Not only that, but it would look like I was trying to break into her closet of valuables, when really I was just trying out spare keys to check which doors they opened. Alas, such pickles I get myself into.

I talked to my stand-in "dad", that is, my coworker. He gave me a few tips and ideas to get the key unjammed. A day or two later he asked if I'd resolved the problem yet. Of course, I hadn't. "I assume you've prayed about it, right?" Of course, I hadn't done that either. "OK, well do that first. Then, if you need help, we can come over and try to help..." So we prayed, and they came, and they unjammed the key for me.

In May, I had another silly problem. I called my coworker's wife (my office companion) one night because I was trying to make homemade buns for soon-arriving guests. I was flustered and afraid my yeast wasn't going to rise. She gave me remote technical support on the probable condition of the yeast. Then she told me that she prays for her bread to turn out. She prayed for my bread to turn out. And it did.

This, my friends, is the story of my life here. These two people that I see practically every day pray a lot, about anything and everything. You seriously cannot spend more than an hour in Coworker 1's presence, without him stopping to pray about something together. He often drops into the office where his wife and I work, and asks if we can pray for five minutes. Sometimes while we're working with no employees in the office, my coworker just prays her thoughts aloud against our neutral gray walls. And when a far-away earthquake shook our office, and our employee was scared, or when another was sick, or another was receiving scary phone calls, my coworker prayed with them. Praying is what my coworkers do.

We've all heard people who have special prayer voices. When they pray their voices get mellow. Higher pitched. Shaky. Their prayers are somehow different than any other talking that they do. Other people go religious and uber-formal. Their prayers sound spiritual and elaborate, but boring and monotone. But my coworkers have been teaching me prayer that's anywhere, everywhere, and not just in your head, it's out loud and in your normal voice. So we pray while we wait for our entrées to arrive. We pray while we're squished in the back of an auto on the way to interviews. We pray after almost any conversation about something that's troubling us. We pray for our employees, our work flow, our neighbours, our visas, our keys, our yeast....

As we've talked about prayer together, I realized that my coworkers don't pray a lot because they are necessarily more spiritual than everyone else I've met. I think they've just learned that praying out loud, and often, is a positive thing in so many ways. It commits your every task and activity to Him. It adds eternal perspective to your conversations and relationships. It turns your burdens over to Him; “when we work, we work; but when we pray, God works.” And for three people who sometimes struggle to focus, concentrate and pray by ourselves, praying together helps us to focus on Him.

When you're with people who really pray, it's infectious. Some friends here got a new car. They asked us to go down to their parking stall with them and pray over the car. I thought that was neat. So, when I moved into my apartment, I invited the same friends over to pray over my apartment. After they left, my roommate told me, "It's good that you had your friends come pray for our apartment. Even I was thinking of doing something like that, to the god, something with incense sticks...." Our friends here appreciate that we pray with them, and I'm learning to suggest that we pray together, whether it be about their new home purchase, a difficult roommate, or an upcoming arranged marriage. Recently, we've started to hear our employees pray. Simple prayers with no fancy flourishes. Just sincere words that they're learning to give to God (and cute folded hands, since they've noticed my coworker folding her hands). They're learning to tell Him what matters to them. Prayer is contagious.

Prayer shows that we recognize our need of Him. Prayerlessness shows the opposite. Here's a paragraph from It Happens After Prayer (H. B. Charles, Jr.):
[Prayer] is an expression of submission to God and dependence upon Him. For that matter, prayer is arguably the most objective measurement of our dependence upon God. Think about it this way, the things you pray about are the things you trust God to handle. The things you neglect to pray about are the things you trust you can handle on your own.
This Asia move has not been easy for me. There have been days when I've wanted to escape, days when I've cried without being able to pinpoint exactly why. But being in a completely different country and time zone than many of the people I love usually means I must vent first to Him, not them. This has been healthy, to keep my tongue from telling others or my fingers from typing out some desperate email until I've talked to Him. 

I've never been good at praying. I have tonnes to learn in this regard, and I am thankful to be taught by my coworkers' lives. I find my lack of discipline in this area discouraging. But something recently made me hopeful: I woke up praying to Him. The first thing on my mind was not to check my phone, or confirm the time. I just woke up with my own neediness instantly so heavy on me, that my only thought was to beg Him for help. Asia has been a tool in renewing my realization of my need of Him. And if I realize I need Him, then I will pray to Him, about anything from jammed keys to difficult relationships. He is taking me to where He wants me— and "Lord, it is good for us to be here."

Source: Typographic Verses.

June 07, 2013

on conversion

I began to read a borrowed book last week. This was the opening line: "Conversion is the ultimate act of trauma." I didn't read any farther—that first sentence captured me.

This powerful description of conversion reminded me of Rosaria Butterfield, who left lesbianism because she found her worldview completely colliding with the Book. In this interview (and also in her book), she speaks of some of the "trauma" associated with the conversion which she describes as a "train wreak". She was drawn by Truth but when she entered the chur'chintellectual, butch, and almost-still-lesbianRosaria had a lot of questions for the ladies occupying the pews. She'd ask them point-blank, "What did you give up to be here?" By doing so, she found that they had stories too; she wasn't the only one who'd struggled to come to and hold on to true faith. Perhaps her new Family had not come out of lesbianism, but they'd come out in other ways. Their war stories reminded her that she wasn't alone in the trauma of conversion. I'm so glad she heard their stories.

Because, perhaps you, like me, have met people occupying the pews who don't seem to know any trauma. They are all peaches, iced tea and warm holidays. If they knew crisis, it was 30 years ago. I'd love to be all peaches, iced tea and warm holidays, but that's not what I see in the Book or in my heart. Perhaps this is why I have gravitated to Rosaria, Amy Charmichael, Oswald Chambers, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, and other friends who talk about the trauma of conversion, of daily dying. ("Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.")  

I didn't experience Rosaria's trauma with my original conversion event. How much does a four-year-old have to convert? But the rest of my life I have spent converting, present continuous, and in that journey I have felt the trauma. What waits for me on the other side of forsaking sin is true joy....but the process of admitting and forsaking hurts. That's because sin hurts, and to leave it, no matter how glorious our destination, is costly. 

(Lately I've been seeing the pride that still dwells in my heart. Last night, I found myself on my bed praying that the Father would take my sinful pride away from me; it makes both Him and me ill. I have begun to take shelter in the account of King David. How could his life story include adultery, yet the summary of his life be that of a "man after God's own heart"? The key seems to have been in his willingness to convert when confronted about his sin. Certainly, there were many sinful incidents in his life, but the overall thrust of his life was marked by a desire to become more obedient to Him.)

Rosaria's conversion was radical in that she had to leave almost everything she had known and loved inside her community. In our individualistic and secular Western society, I don't think many of us fully appreciate the radical nature of conversion in some cultures, whether in the GLBT community or in the 10/40. As I observe my host culture, where family is life, I see that anything that would be seen to tear a family apart would be considered death. Trauma. This makes my heart ask another question: would I be prepared to be Family to someone who is losing family? If Truth leaves trauma in its wake, presenters of Truth must be prepared to love and serve in that aftermath.
Someone wrote to me recently: "Pray for me to live that really is obviously different from those who have a completely different worldview than me." My heart's response was two-fold: I was sobered, because I know that when we pursue that separation from sin, there is trauma, there is death. I wondered: does he know what he's asking for? But more than that, when I heard his heart's desire, my joy was full.

We've talked a lot about trauma, but the eternal joy far outweighs it. It's better than the peaches, iced tea and warm holidays of a life lived for earthly joys. Yes, we could forgo the trauma of conversion, of converting. But "to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."