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August 26, 2013

the settle

I came of age in a culture where skirts could not be short enough. Where park benches were synonymous with kissing and dampness and moonlight. Where the fleshly feasts (that in many countries would be more hidden) called aloud from every street corner, magazine stand or radio hit.

These obsessions permeated almost everything, even the trusted summer camps where my parents would send us. Camp was a place for midnight serenades under the dorm windows, love notes being read in a microphone in the dining hall, and pair games. At age eleven, I was dressed up in a denim dress and encouraged to hold hands with a my camp crush. To top it all off, there was usually a romantic dinner on the last night, and everyone was encouraged, even pressured, to take a date.

A foreign friend attended one such camp at age 14 or 15. On the first or second night of camp, a gangly boy gathered the guts to ask her to go with him to the romantic supper. She thought no one else would ask her. (You know, she was only foreign and beautiful—of course no one would ask her!) So she settled for the stranger, the first boy that asked.

Of course, the next days, she was invited by other guys but she kept her word to the first boy who asked. I was glad she kept her word, but her situation always remained in my mind as an example of The Settle. The I-don't-think-I-can-do-better. The mediocre. As my college classmate would put it years later, the good enough.

Years later, a man across from me described his relative. His voice sounded heavy and tired. "He's living with someone he met online....they're not married...she's hugely overweight, and lazy... I wish he had done better." He longed for something superior; I grieved with him at what had been lost. But soon they were buying a house together. Then there was a sparkling ring in the picture, and I realized: they've settled. Yes, they could have done better, had better. But they chose not to.

I know I'm not the only one who began life full of dreams. Aspirations. Ideals. When is it that we settle? Settling feels old. Uninspired. Lifeless. Yet I see it so often.

My friend and I compared stories of how, in our teenage years, speakers would always exhort us to make public commitments.

"Stand up to indicate that you won't have sex until marriage."
"Raise your hand if you want to live your whole life for Him."
"Come down to the front to show that you commit your life to help the globe."

A few times, I did raise the hand or go to the front. But we both felt like rebels when most times we sat, hands down; when we didn't run to the altar with the people around us. It wasn't that we wanted to have sex before marriage or wanted to live selfishly. But we did business with God in our rooms, in our hearts, under the Spirit's conviction. Not under bright lights and the crackling of a famous man's microphone.

There's nothing improper about challenging people to make public commitments on important issues. But we all know what happens to many of those "commitments" when, with a buzz, the lights flip on, the background music starts playing, and people brush off their dusty knees to head home. The emotions that drove promises to be made are the same emotions that cause uncertainty later, and eventually, settling.

Perhaps this is because our Chr!stian culture has become one of conferences, events, gatherings, and altar calls....and our relationship with Him is fed only by those things. One-time events. Monthly gatherings. Weekly small group. And there's a disconnect in the hours and minutes and seconds in between, where life settles. To the point that the majority of our moments are not spent in step with Him.

From my understanding of sin, it usually starts small and grows. If we're daily talking to Him, daily hearing Him, He's pointing out areas of sin. He's offering us grace. He's not so much asking for big promises and commitments on our part. He's asking for a daily relationship with Him, the Only One big enough to keep promises and to strengthen us to live aright.

We were taught to make Him promises.
Now I just want His promises, not mine.

I met a businessman with the stocky body of a marathoner. His eyes brightened easily and his laughter never seemed too far away. His manner was welcoming, even upon first meeting.

Pushing spicy sauces around on his plate, he told us his life story, at our request. It's an unlikely tale, of soccer-playing priests who bore him the first witness of compassion in the name of Chr!st. He lived abroad in various cities, where in every city he found friends and neighbours who peddled truth to him. And so, through various means, the Father pursued him until one day he was no longer his own. He was bought with a price: he finally understood that.

We listened to him talk humbly of charitable activies that he's involved in, sponsoring girl children's education or giving a job to someone in need. Compassionate stories. Humanitarian stories. Nice stories. Then my friend spoke to him of "burning heart" moments, Emmaus road moments, where truth is understood for the first time. "Have you seen this? When? Where?" We leaned forward. Waited for stories. For his eyes to light up, for his mind to turn itself to the stories for which we were hungriest.

But that was where the stories quelled. There was a story here and there, a small incident, a bit of conversation. After ten, fifteen years, that was all he had to offer. "People-in-this-culture-are-like-this" stories. "Everything-takes-a-long-time" stories. In my mind, they seemed like settled stories. In his eyes were the last coals of the evening, the slow glow, but no sparks, no roar. That night, I made loops around our complex, gathering my thoughts as to what bothered me about that conversation.

Call me idealistic, but I want to go out with a roar, with truth burning in my bones. I want to keep believing what I was told—that if we sow the word, a harvest will result. I want to keep believing that sowing truth is chief to sowing healthcare or tuition for girl children (though often the two go hand-in-hand). But where does that fire come from, and how does it stay alive?

In one of my favourite songs, Sara Groves writes,
Jeremiah, tell me about the fire
That burns up in your bones
I want to know
I want to know more now...

I was looking to myself
And I forgot the power of God

I was standing with a sparkler in my hand
While I stood so proud and profound
You went and burned the whole place down
Now that’s a fire...

We were taught to make Him promises:

"I'll save sex for marriage, God!"
"I'll commit my life to you, God!"
"I'll cross an ocean for you, God!" 

"...You just watch!"
"...You just watch what I will do for you!"

Perhaps our intentions and the intentions of our leaders and guides were sincere. But when we fueled these noble efforts with our flesh, we settled for much less. We forgot the source of the true Fire.

Now I just want His blood, not mine. His Work, not mine. His promises, not mine.

So be it.

"It is no longer I who live, but Chr!st who lives in me. 
And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, 
who loved me and gave himself for me." 

"Our Lord makes a disciple His own possession, He becomes responsible for him...the spirit that comes in is not that of doing anything for J'sus, but of being a perfect delight to Him.... I am His, and He is carrying out His enterprises through me. Be entirely His."
—Oswald Chambers

"For it is God who works in you,
both to will and to work for his good pleasure." 


August 24, 2013

a quiet mind

A while back, I read an article about a lady who lost her upscale NYC job in during the recent American economic downturn. The woman who used to make $300 per hour moved home to Idaho and began working a more average job. One of the joys, for her, of having to live a simpler life was that of making homemade food made sense again. In the interview, she said, "When you make $300 per hour, you can't afford to make homemade soup." But when financially, it made more sense to make her own soup again, she was happy with the change.

I always liked her story. When I was an interim manager at my last job, I thought of her comments, when there were nights I worked much later than I wanted to. I'd grab take-out for supper or eat candy from the vending machine. When I'd rather earn a few bucks less and have the pleasure of eating homemade soup, the overtime was not so welcome. Money doesn't buy time, or quiet space in your mind.

Enter Asia—one of the biggest adjustments in home life here has been having a maid. With previous roommates, in Canada, we made chore charts or took turns cleaning. Here, the questions are not about who will do the work, but questions like What work will she do? and How often should she come? and How much should we pay her? Maids are part of normal life here.

My housemates are accustomed to house help. I could get really accustomed to it, too. With a maid to make the bed, clean the floors and bathrooms, wash the dishes, do basic cooking, and do the laundry...there are few household tasks left for me.

But in the past few months, I realized that I miss the open mental spaces created by mindless work. I often used to fill those moments with sermons or audio or a few good movies or good music. These would be background sounds as I did day-in-day-out tasks like washing dishes and chopping vegetables. And I find that I miss that "free brain time" being forced into my routine.

I miss standing at my sink with rays of light falling on me or looking out windows edged with frost. Enjoying the beauty of a pile of pitted plums. Listening to the deep clunking of eggs jostling in the pan as I boil them; frying onions and garlic for some dish or another. I'm no housework-lover, but there was something about scrubbing toilets to the sound of Clough, vaccumming while you listen to the book of Joshua, or simply working in silence, that was good for my soul.

And I knew that God was not just on mountain tops or in the newest technology. He was not restricted to temples or churches or priestly garments. He didn't just come for us to have successful jobs and employees to do our bidding, though there is nothing wrong with either.

I found God between the potatoes as I chopped them. In the corners of the fridge when I wiped them out. In the organizing and labelling of the pantry shelves. In the cleanliness of a fresh bucket of mopping water. I don't mean this in a pantheistic-god way, but in an omnipresent-God way. In those simple motions, I learned that even the tiniest, most routine tasks dripped with Him. He is before all things and that by Him all things hold together. The quietness of my mind during those tasks helped me to seek Him. And the mental exhaustion created by certain jobs can often keep us from Him.

As I skid green peppers off my cutting board with the side of my knife, I sort and organize my thoughts, as well. Thoughts that don't have time to sit, to simmer, to grow, when the maid is asking what to do next. When the doorbell is ringing first by the garbage man, then the ironing guy, and then the second ironing guy, and then the electrician, and then the electrician again....

It isn't wrong to outsource your housework. Sometimes using the maid is just good business. If I can do two hours of my own work, it more than pays for two hours of her work, there is profit. A foreign friend commented that it sounds like people here are lazy. Yes, some are. But so are some North Americans. The problem is not who does our housework or yardwork but the attitude of both the employer and the employee about the work. 

A B!blical worldview infuses every aspect of work and life with purpose. I've been reading this book and learning that generally, when truth is prevalent in a culture, we see the rise of a middle class. Pagan cultures have always been marked by great rifts between the rich and the poor. This makes sense, because only when He redeems us, do we truly know the value of human life, and the rich begin to help the poor. We see our lives and our work as holding purpose beyond self-fulfillment.

A local friend told me, "Our holy books do not teach love for everyone. For example, I have friends who will not take an auto driven by someone of a different religion. When I got to know you, I realized that your life wasn't so divided like that. What this God," she said, indicating her copy of our book, "says about loving everyone, I like that."

The life she described, the heart without improper divisions and categories, is not truly my heart, but it is the one we should all strive toward. Where the street sweeper and the investment banker live lives of equal value. Where the person who chops the potatoes and the person who pays the potato-chopper are of equal value. Where the prayers that come out of us in one locale don't ring hollow in another. Where sincere smiles and genuine concern are not reserved only for particular people. Where the category called "human" isn't divided into varying castes that determine our value. A life of integrity. Wholeness in love.

Division of labour is almost in the blood, here. Certain tasks are simply not done by certain people. The maid tries to fight me off if I try to help her with the dishes, even when she's swamped with work. Some days, I fight her off in return, because doing a menial task can sometimes be the best way to live love.

As I write this, I see the glorious One, 
who had not only his heavenly courtroom 
but indeed the whole universe at his beck and call.

I see him stooping, grabbing a towel, and washing dusty feet.
This is how I know that every work has value.
This is how I know that no work is below me.

Our maid quit, recently. And I haven't minded, too much, that more housework falls on me. Granted, I haven't cleaned my bathroom in a while. But I relish the quiet as I polish glass table tops and wash dishes and reorganize the pantry. For a little while, I have my quiet housework time back. And I've seen Him here. Sometimes I've spoken aloud with Him. I love finding Him in the middle of the day-to-day, and even if we're wrestling or I'm rebellious or I'm struggling...I know He is here.

Find Him. Take a slower, lower job if you have to. Hire a cook. Or cook your own soup. Sit at the top of a glass office building and call important meetings. Or sit in a small, unknown place. But may your mind have the quiet it needs to seek Him. To find Him. At any cost.

Love the Lord your God with all your mind.

August 11, 2013

so long, impossible

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch her movement. She's lighting a wick. She's raising her scarf to cover her head. She's waving an incense stick. I don't want to be distracted from the conversation at hand, but I can hardly help it; I'm discreetly watching this ancient practice. The small wick glows, throwing orange light on the framed deities, miniscule statues, and water from the holy river, all of which rest inside a wooden box. The smell of the incense scents the space, as the sky squeezes out the last drops of daylight.

As she finishes her worship, a sound begins behind me. It is a steady, resounding chanting. It spreads over the housetop terraces, over the open field with its tufts of grass and stretches of dust, over the hibiscus blooming on the sill...filling the room. At dusk begins the evening prayer time at the local m0sque.

Incense before me.
Chants behind me.
I'm small and I sit somewhere between them.

My friend listens to my story that night, and says,
"Sometimes it seems impossible, right?"

Today I saw a sticker adorned with some text and a graphic of a turbaned man. It had a pantheistic phrase on it, about the life that dwells in all things, making all things part of god. On another continent it could have been a John 3:16 sticker, I muse. But this is their version—their token summary of belief pasted somewhere as a good omen.

The thought comes unbidden: This is what they've been taught for We grew up with a J'sus with fabric wrapped around his middle section, hanging on a cross. And for just as long or longer, they've grown up with images of men wearing wraps too, just that their wraps are around their heads and their teachings are quite different.

And these practices, they are so ancient. When I read Old Testament passages, I see versions of similar routines around me. Head coverings, sweet incense that floats up to heaven and men in robes. Rules about what household tasks women cannot do while menstruating. It's like I've entered a time warp where somehow ancient ideas have sought to blend themselves with modern realities.

Before me there's the flowered veil, the scent, the waving. Behind me, the chanting. This is nearly as ancient as humanity itself: we look for ways to reach Him. We are Cains. We think we can impress Him with our vegetables. We wrap ourselves in rituals and tasks, but He is the reality that any rituals were only meant to point toward. And the task is done. By Him. It is finished.

How long, O Lord?
This earth is groaning.
Fill it with the knowledge of your glory. 

If our ancestors said "yes" enough times to truth, our own "yes" comes easier. And if they said "no" some ways our "yes" becomes harder. Who said "no" here? How many "no's" were repeated, generation after generation? An ancient civilization built on a billion "no's". Our unbelief, it seems, is almost written in our seed after a while. Each one chooses a personal "yes" or "no", but our personal choices have far-reaching consequences.

At times, I have mentioned to my friends that one of the Twelve came here. The man who had to put his fingers in the nail prints in order to believe: tradition says he came here. I want my friends to know...
(when the world's greatest suffering 
and the world's greatest joy met in that Israeli man,)

(when all the powers of darkness reigned 
and then were conquered,)

(when the people bowed down with rituals and routines 
were met with spirit and truth,)

...that the news of that joy and power spread to their corner of Asia, too. To their land. To their ancestors. What I don't mention to them is what their ancestors did with Thomas. In 72 AD his blood wet this soil in martyrdom. That was a "no". One of many "nos" that still have effects today.

Today, with the m0sque behind me and the temple before me.
I'm small and I sit somewhere between them.
"Sometimes it seems impossible, right?" says my friend.

Even the warmest coals feel a bit cooler today. There are few sparks, as if the humidity has affected even our spirituality. And indeed, we are small. But in our hearts, the cry "How long, O Lord?" is met with a calm, a stillness. We know that it is in the "impossible" that He delights to show Himself strong—because when it happens, we will know it was not our doing. It was all Him: from Him, to Him, through Him. Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.

Our prayers rise t
o the Maker of the heavens and the earth. Like a cloud of incense before His throne. Like the thrumming of voices, we join our hearts with others who are asking in truth. With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

August 04, 2013

come away by yourself

The metallic turquoise bedspread beneath me could tell you a lot about me. The illustrated peacock on the wall could do the same. The dusty, swishing fan above would also oblige. These companions of mine were spectators to my first three months in Asia. Oh, what stories they could tell.

In this room, I made messes and I sorted them. I stayed up far too late blogging. I bawled like a baby and hardly knew why. I made mistakes. I worried and prayed. And sometimes, I trusted in Him. If the bedspread, the peacock and the fan could speak, they would tell you all about it.

Now I've been eight months in Asia, and I still do the same activities, except in a different room. In the apartment I share with local friends.

But tonight I am back under the peacock's gaze because sometimes, I need a break from my current room. To give a little quiet to my head and space to my mind.

"And He said to them, 'Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.' (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.)" Sometimes I feel that is me, that person who does not have time to eat what my soul needs.

Well, technically, I have the time, but—there's a knock on my bedroom door. A loud phone call in another room. Some lively music. Another knock on the door, a text, another text, a request, "Can I borrow some money?" and "Would you watch the maid, I'm leaving?" and "Let's go see a movie at 11pm" and the doorbell just rang twice and "We need to have the neighbours over and which dish will you be making?" and "I have an errand to run, can you please come with me?"—sometimes it seems never-ending.

They mean well. They just don't know that my soul needs still Water. Long drinks. Quiet pastures. Nor do they know what it is to have a relationship with Him that is thirst-quenching. So, in our house, we are all thirsty. Except I know where the watering hole is (though some days, in the ruckus, I lose sight of it, too, and go long stretches without a good drink).

Oswald Chambers reminded me today of why I need a place to rest and time to eat and drinkbecause my relationship with Him is of utmost importance.
"As Chr!stians we are not here for our own purpose at all—we are here for the purpose of God, and the two are not the same. We do not know what God’s compelling purpose is, but whatever happens, we must maintain our relationship with Him. We must never allow anything to damage our relationship with God, but if something does damage it, we must take the time to make it right again. The most important aspect of Chr!stianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the surrounding influence and qualities produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to give our attention to, and it is the one thing that is continually under attack."
Maybe someday, I'll have an apartment of my own. Maybe someday, I'll be in a position to take quiet trips away by myself to regain my strength. Maybe someday, I won't need to use my coworkers' guestroom as my quiet place. But for now, it is a calm space to which I can "come away." It's good for me, and it's good for everyone I relate to. Whether they understand that or not.

If someday I have ample quiet moments, as I have in past seasons, I know I'll struggle to maintain my relationship with Him then, too, because "it is the one thing that is continually under attack." And maybe I'll long for the days when a good conversation or helpful cultural advice was so easily accessible. But for tonight, I'm glad I simply came away and rested a while in the room with the familiar bedspread, peacock and fan. And, I've done it again: stayed up far too late blogging.