main menu

July 24, 2013

a small no now

There is a rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed man on the sofa. He's eating chicken and drinking vodka and talking about Manhattan. He hasn't been there long; he arrived in the late evening. And he arrived with gifts: expensive perfumes and large bottles of premium alcohol.

When he's not listening, my friend tells me that he is the sole heir of his parents' successful international business. But he doesn't seem uppity; he converses easily, offers drinks...and stays even later into the night.

More information shared behind closed doors: he has known his share of women. He was thrice engaged and is doubly divorced. But tonight, he's visiting a solo female family friend, one who had a little history with him, many years ago. He says one of the perfumes is from his father. She says his sister was supposed to come with him, but cancelled last minute. And the clock turns to mark midnight, then one o'clock, then two o'clock, and the story is that his friends are coming to pick him up. I think he knows the game fairly well. Everyone has slept. There are only two left awake. My friend has a choice to make.

I remember the moment so clearly. It was me and the grass and my God. I was sitting on a green knoll, reading and praying. Other than a man playing basketball on a faraway court, the park was virtually empty.

After half an hour on the court, the athlete ambled in my direction. He's exiting the park on this side, I thought. But instead, he kept coming toward me. Sat on the knoll, ball at his side. Struck up a conversation, as if it was the most natural thing in the world: two young strangers shooting the breeze on grassy hill. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, and he was not godly, but he was affable.

We talked for five or ten minutes. And in those minutes, I saw my frailty. So I went home, promptly, by myself. That day taught me that I—the church kid, the "good" kid, the "spiritual" kid, the Sunday school teacheram fragile. That I can't sit on ledges and not risk falling off of them. I need to keep my distance. It is only wise.

That day taught me that small, right decisions now can stop big, wrong decisions later.

Oh, but the flesh encourages us to toy.

To keep the phone number.
To reply to that text.
To accept the friend request.

To stop being old-fashioned.
To loosen up a little.
To keep the door open a crack.

But the way of the flesh is death.
Broad is the way that leads to destruction.
And he who sins is a slave to sin.

It's hard to identify death, destruction and slavery when they wear a guise. When spiritual death looks like a band we really like (with songs that feed our flesh), a movie everyone's watching (with content that hurts the soul), or a novel that captures your fancy (but takes your mind to bad places).  When death looks like expensive perfume or a genuine connection on a grassy hill. There is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

The fruit that was "good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable" brought death. How could Eve have known? The only way to know was to listen to her Creator. Without His input, we don't know which is the forbidden, death-bringing fruit, and which is plucked from the tree of life. We need insight from His eternal vantage point. That's why we train. That's why we press on to know His mind and his person, as revealed in His Word.

It's morning and the common room is adorned with half-full cups. Untouched table settings. A plate of chicken that tasted good last night. The patio doors are closed and the muggy space smells like yesterday. But does it smell like regret, like death? Not if we learn to say a small "no" now.

"The mind governed by the flesh is death, 
but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace."

July 13, 2013

grey and a heart prepared

The Europe I visited last November was grey. (That's "gray", if you speak American). There was drizzle in Berlin, a chilly stillness over the nearly-naked Black Forest, and heavy cloud cover at the bottom of the Alps.

Prague, too, fell under the dreary feeling of November. The Czech culture and the city charmed me, in spite of the cool weather, but the most intriguing part of our visit were our hosts, who gave us insights beyond what a typical tour guide could give. In the middle of a dark city, here were people with whom we could talk about holiness or hospitality or Mark Driscoll. So, talk we did, even late at night when our bodies were weary from weeks in transit.

In those short days, our new friends described their own people, the Czechs, as a people beset with suspicions and doubting after communism ate their collective soul. (Their mother was raised in an era when there was only one style of shoes available for each gender. Needing ladies' shoes? "What size?" was the only question the vendor need ask.) And communism was only the most recent in a series of tyrannical rulers who stole freedom and vitality from this small region. Now, neighbours hardly talk to neighbours; gambling is a national pastime; and God is, in popular opinion, non-existent.

You can hardly blame them for being a bit cagey, after all they've been through. But it makes you sad anyway, because between the sour cabbage and polished music halls and stone castles, there is a dark void.

One of our hosts shares truth with university students; it is her job, her life. "How is it?" I asked her. Her reply was, "I have never seen a person turn from lies to truth here. We don't even know what it would look like. We pray. We hope. But we have never seen...." Her sister added, "They call this a graveyard." The conversation was solemn. And Europe was grey, with spots of sunshine and light. For me, Europe is eternally stuck in November, until I see it in the summer sun.

Later I commented to my travelling partner at the sadness in our new friend's statement. "She's never seen one person be transformed?" I did not consider it a fault of hers; I was simply grieved, I knew some days must be discouraging and dark. Then my friend, who was from Canada (not from post-communist Eastern Europe) silenced me, "But Julie, neither have I, really. I mean, kids at camp. But who else?"And I had to recognize the truth in her response—how many personal friends or peers have we seen undergo that total transformation, that rebirth? Maybe it's not just Prague that is grey and damp and soul-dead.

I devour stories of exodus and moving into Canaan, especially when day-to-day life seems to provide few of such stories. I've decided that such accounts should be a regular part of my reading (and that reading should be a regular routine of my living). Especially when some days we feel as grasshoppers surrounded by giants, like riff raff that wants to enter the Promised Land but can't work up the courage because we've got our eyes on ourselves. The only way we keep going is by calling to mind the God behind the miracles that happened thus far, behind our personal plagues that ejected us from Egypt, our individual Red Sea openings and pillars of cloud that led us here. And I keep going by reading stories, like Paul and Rosaria and lately, Star, to remind me that transformation really does happen.

I was asked to review Plowed Under, an old book of Amy Charmichael's that had been out of print until recently. Ever since I read Elliot's account of Amy's life, I have wanted to read more of Amy's own writings, and CLC sent me a copy of Plowed Under so that I could do so. Plowed Under is basically the story of Star: Amy's contact, then daughter, then friend. A child of India, then a child of God. And it is a story of the kind I find encouraging.

Amy writes in her typical flowery style, her texts interspersed with quotations from here and there and word pictures of India in the early 1900's or late 1800's. To be honest, her style of writing is a bit hard to follow sometimes, and I would recommend reading an overview of Amy's life and work, such as Elliot's book A Chance to Die, to give context to smaller stories, like Plowed Under.  Even a short online summary of Amy's life might give you enough context to better understand this short story recorded by Amy.

I also recommend the background reading because so much of Star's story was built upon groundwork that was laid before the book begins. Amy's original readers certainly knew more of her story than most of us would. Amy quotes Josephine Butler who says, “In order to produce a movement of a vital, spiritual nature someone must suffer. Someone must go through sore travail of soul before a living movement, outwardly visible, can be born.” So there was suffering and sacrifice in the life of Amy and others, that Star might know and grow in life. When Amy speaks of the difficulty that some early friends faced, she says, "That track has been followed by many. But few know what it cost to blaze the trail."

But back to Star, of Plowed Under: from a very young age, she questioned the system in which she was being raised.
"Who of all the gods was the God of gods, the Sovereign God, Creator? That had been the first question that she had brought to her father. Was it the [god] whose ashes she rubbed on her forehead every morning after bathing? There were so many gods, she grew puzzled as she counted them all. Who was the greatest?"
She would pray and wonder, but no one she knew could tell her about Most High. Then, when still a child, she heard Amy and her team speaking near a well. A man who knew transformation was saying, "There is a living God: He turned me, a lion, into a lamb.” It was the first full ray of lightin verbal formto hit her soul. That phrase answered questions she had been asking nearly since she was old enough to speak. She began to pray in earnest, for now she knew He did exist, and that those people by the well could tell her about Him.

In her ventures, Amy always asked for "souls prepared", but the evening after the well incident, she knew nothing of what was happening in Star. That night, she lay in her tent discouraged that there had been no response to their message. Star lay in her home, not wanting to sleep, she wanted to talk to the "living God". Only later did Amy discover that while she was feeling like a little David before Goliath, the living God was working beyond what she could see. She wrote, "I had often wondered how it was that this child, who had never heard before, was so ready to understand. We were to see that miracle of miracles, an immediate response to the call...."

So, Plowed Under is the story of that prepared and transformed heart. Of Star's coming, and of the struggles she endured to live counter-culturally in nearly every way. Of her undying determination, which to me seems evidence of the heart the Father prepared in her for years before Amy arrived. Of persecution of her and her friends and family, in the form of emotional wrangling, cayenne pepper to the eyes, andthough no one would admit to itpoison. Of pleading, that if nothing else, please be "not be this kind of Chr!stian, but the harmless kind." Not the "plowed under" or surrendered kind, but the nominal kind of which their region and even their family had a few. But Star was strong.

Amy speaks also of the joys and difficulties of spiritual parenting. Of wanting to keep "her child" Star from harm and trouble, of wanting to keep her close by her side. Amy eventually learned that "the love of God is brave." It allows and even pushes his children into less-than-dreamy circumstances, that they may learn the deeper parts of his heart. And so Amy speaks of her experience of learning to let her child go. "Ours is a God who delivers, not from the hour of trial, but out of it, out of its power; and in the bearing up under it, not in the sliding out from beneath it, there is strength and victory."

Plowed Under truly an encouraging story, a challenging story. Any story of Amy's is.

I thought it might be helpful to summarize a few principles for people who scatter seed and carry lit lanterns, principles gathered from Plowed Under:
  • The Father prepares hearts. We can ask Him to be led to those hearts. He is sovereign.
  • When we are most discouraged, thinking that light is not falling on any hearts, remember Star and Amy on the night Star first heard. He is omniscient, we are not. He is working.
  • Often people come "not in crowds..but one by one." Let's not be distracted by where the crowds are, but by where the truth is. He loves and draws individuals.
  • Darkness does not let go without a fight. Persecution can be expected. "When man or woman, boy or girl dares to break through the opposing powers...and openly follow...something inevitably and often immediately happens, as though to fling that life on the ground and stamp it underfoot. It is usually illness, or accident, something that looks like the hand of the avenging god." And yet, "He Himself is our Peace.""Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world."
  • We need to be prayerful, and in so doing, learn to see things from an eternal perspective.
    "We think in terms of time: God thinks in terms of eternity. We see the near end of the thread on which are strung our moments, minutes, hours, days, like pearls on a string; the other end is out of view, and yet the thread is one, indivisible. We call the near end time, and the far end eternity, as though somewhere the thread broke (at death perhaps). But it is not so. We are living in eternity now."
That is a review of the story and the lessons of Plowed Under.

I do not know if in eternity we will have rainy days or overcast, grey skies. But I've seen somber clouds in North America, South America, Europe...and today, in Asia, where rain streaks the 20-metre-high glass windows of the restaurant in which I am sitting. Outside the traffic keeps its usual pace. Crows make paths across the grey sky. Motorbikes jostle next to pedal bikes. Cars throw up waves of brownish water at pedestrians. The temple across the street has closed its gates; perhaps in the afternoons people do not need to pray, at least when it's raining. It is monsoon and our little corner of Asia is must be many corners of the earth, though I am no meteorologist.

So, perhaps it is fitting to end this post with the poem with which Amy begins and ends Plowed Under:
"Come ill, come well, the cross, the crown,
The rainbow or the thunder—
I fling my soul and body down
For God to plow them under.

And this, this only, is the way of joy."
 A joy that overtakes the grey.


July 03, 2013

this is our story

I wonder, as I bounce around in a hired auto, how many stories have been written about this land. Short stories, novels, memoirs, text bookswritten by fascinated foreigners such as myself. They must be almost endless. I watch men perched on the back of a truck in front of my auto. Sweat plasters their shirts to their backs as they bounce down the road ahead of me. My head fills with stories—they come and go; they jolt, jerk and bounce; they take me somewhere, though I am not always sure where.

I met some young foreigners recently. "Have you been here very long?" One gave a sober nod, denoting experience, "Yes, three months." Three months? It sounds so...short a time to be in a place where life takes so long, especially as a newcomer. I have been here six months and still, my washing machine isn't hooked up. Somehow the days pool into weeks, weeks flow into months, and though the current feels slower here, time is passing as regularly as ever. Another one-month veteran of our city told me that every day she has five did-that-really-just-happen? moments. I told her that those moments ease, though I am not sure if they ever completely go away, for anyone who was not raised here. Maybe I have three of those moments per day now. They make for good stories, if nothing else.

I suppose I am fascinated with telling about this place because it feels so different. I just want to record what makes life here so different, before it becomes normal to me. I want to remember the lady sitting cross-legged on my floor, wrapped in a peacock-patterned dress. Her belly hangs from the side of her garment; her smile is cheery. I'm still wiping sleep out of my eyes and she has begun her work for the day, collecting laundry. I want to remember the woman who veiled her face before she greeted us. The touching of an elder's feet to show respect. The beggars with their balloons for sale. The street-side barber's chairs. The way the lower class seem to quietly accept their role as bell boys for the upper class. Stories from other cultures give us insight into culture: theirs and ours.

Have you thought about the mystery and intricacy that is culture? That tangled mass of roots that evidence themselves in our traditions, habits, and so much more?

For example, how did foods develop? Nearly every few days I eat something I've never eaten before. Today it was a thin vegetable, wrapped in a thread and bursting with intense flavor. I could tell you about fantastic vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes I have tried, dishes that use ingredients Westerners have never seen. I could mention the spiciest pepper I've ever eaten (it was hiding under some less-spicy vegetables, kindly delivered by a neighbour in celebration of the kite festival). The people on this land mass have some interesting concoctions.

But isn't it funny how, while preparations change, our basic foods are similar and merely morph as they creep across continents? My Asian corner does share some common ingredients with the Middle and Far East. (When I read a story about Afghanistan, I could suddenly relate to the breads, the pomegranates, the tea.) The Middle East, in turn, shares some flavors with southern Europe, and southern Europe with Northern Europe.... We all depend upon breads and starches, because bread is life. How can there be such diversity, and yet such unity in our food? We coat and garnish differently, but at our core we all need basics: flour, water, salt....

Eastern music is so different than Western. When I first heard music from this part of the world, the women's voices sounded high-pitched and whiny. Their traditional idea of lovely singing was so different than my own. Our employees love to sing popular songs from movies. Slowly, I'm learning to like some of their music. And they are learning to like some of mine. And our bond is over music, whatever its form, because music evokes emotion, tells stories, and awakens memories for all of us. Because our story is bookended by singing. In Genesis, Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. In Revelation, just and true are Your ways, King of the nations. We were birthed by a song, and we were born to sing forever. 

Living with locals, not expats, reminds me of just how differently I do or think about most everything. A European lady who married a local man agreed, "They sneeze differently. They go to the bathroom differently. They think differently." Not incorrectly, just differently. 

As we accept those differences, it gives us freedom to see how much is similar about us. Don't we all, at the core, respond to the same things? Here, as much as anywhere, people can appreciate authenticity, cheerfulness, trust.... When I am in a cultural quandary, at least I have a basic framework for how best to proceed when everything looks so different on the surface.

And so, I am intrigued by that which is the same, despite our outward differences. We have roots in the same garden, and scraps of same fruit rot our teeth. We all know bread, water, and salt. And can't we together relate to songs and celebrations? We can relate to cities, walls, and gates. Trees, fruit, and choices. Sun, light, and darkness. Marriage, parenthood, and family. These easy words and themes are at the core of our common story. Genesis and Revelation. Alpha and Omega. Beginning and End.

In the back seat of the hired auto, I wrap my scarf closer around my head and avert my eyes, so that the men in the truck won't watch me. I am curt with the auto driver. Four pairs of eyes observe me from a nearby guardhouse, yet they do not make me feel safe. There are many stories to be told from this land, from any land, and not every story is beautiful. Our stories on earth will always have some death, dying, sickness, sighing.

And yet we love stories because we live a story. We love happy endings because we were made for a happy ending. Can we talk about those themes we all know, from salt and light to trees and choices? About the tree of which the leaves offer healing to the nations?

Despite our differences, these are our commonalities. Our local, daily stories vary, but the master narrative is the same. We're all in this together—this is our story.