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October 30, 2013

one flock, one shepherd

[Note: I wrote this post at the beginning of October, as I was leaving Asia.]
I knew, in those moments, that my life was changing dramatically. There was the blast of an unstifled burp mixing with the smell of airline biriyani. A person or two cutting in front of me in the immigration line-up. A sweaty chase after a late flight set me behind. Planes crammed with black-haired people and me. And, in those moments, I couldn't help but think: so this is where I'm moving. This is my new host culture. There was some trepidation in my heart.

Ten months ago, we were touching down on the tarmac when the man next to me began making small talk. He was bleary-eyed, just stirring from a fitful night of plane-sleeping. But once he heard where I was going to work, he was alert. "You're going to live where? Why?" His face registered shock, surprise, and warning. The people of the state where I was moving are known even by neighbouring states for having a strong, exclusive, traditional culture.

It's almost exactly ten months later, and I'm headed back to the airport, for a short visit to North America. I'm using the same suitcase as last year, but this time, it might hold the scent of the cloud of incense that drifted through our house this morning—from the kitchen, where the gods are, where my roommate's aunt was saying her prayersparticular prayers, because it was the beginning of a religious festival. Ten months later, but so much has transpired in those ten months.

The shiny airport facility appears in the distance, clean and modern-looking. But upon closer inspection, it is chaotic place. The crowd outside the glass building is writhing with veiled or sequined women, new brides adorned with clattering wedding bangles, and men in small caps and full beards. Upon seeing the busy scene (and this at one o'clock in the morning), I do something that has become so common in the last ten months. I avert my eyes. I lift my scarf to partially disguise my blonde hair. And finally, I step into the melee with my luggage.

Inside the airport the crowd thins, but men still surround me, and so do their eyes. I'm glad for the slight protection of my scarf. But it can't stop one nearby man from jutting his chin and motioning to his two friends to look at me. I look away. The luggage guys scan more than just luggage. I look away. And so it goes. The eyes feel more plenteous than usual tonight; they weary me. Is this not an international airport? Have they never seen a foreign woman travelling by herself before? Frustrated thoughts go through my mind. Until a phrase from a Psalm comes to mind, riding on a tune I heard recently: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

And that truth is enough. Enough, until the eyes are gone, the documents are stamped, and the boarding call is made. I know the Shepherd, and He is enough.

My foreign friend's words come back to me now: "We have been called to lay aside our culture for a time, so that we can love in this culture." That "laying aside of our culture" is difficult, some days. It's not so hard when I'm presented with the gracious aspects of our host culture (and there are many!): their warm affection and hospitality, their delicious meals, their constant availability to help, their gorgeous patterns and clothing, their respect of elders. Truly, they do many things well. But it's hard to remember under the smell of onions and body odour, when the heat is oppressive, or when the paperwork takes trip after trip.

"Laying aside our culture"hiding my hair is the least of it, changing my eating habits is part of it, laying aside personal goals or preferences and actively choosing new attitudes is the hardest.  
But this is my calling at this time.

I admitted to my foreign friend that as much as I anticipate my time in Canada with my friends and family, at times my mind already goes to the goodbyes at the end of the visit. Before I even hit Candian soil, I'm already thinking about the struggle of unclothing myself of my culture and putting on theirs again. And my friend could relate to the tears that collect at the edges of my eyes when I think of returning...or leaving....or whatever it will be called when I land on Asian soil again and raise the headscarf. The headscarf, a symbol of submission: I will live in this culture, so that I can love in this culture.

You know, Father, that it isn't because I don't want to live in Asia, right?
I know You led me there for this season.

You know, Son, what it's like, right? This unclothing of ourselves?
It's good that you know—because I desperately need Your example.

You know, Spirit, how I need you, right?
To do Your thing—to comfort, strengthen, convict, guide.

As I type this paragraph, I'm on a turbulent flight somewhere over the Canadian prairies. We've been shaking for a while now. Reminds me of my heart, sometimes: fitful, fraught with frailties, fighting to stay steady between cultures, between countries. Outside it's dark and cloudy.

I met a lady who told me that my host country reminded her of that phrase,
"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them..."
So now my Asian home reminds me of that passage, too.

The sheer number of people is part of what makes this nation overwhelming. But it's also part of what presses their need into my heart. As my coworkers and I pushed to the front the airport crowd that night, I remembered His compassionate heart toward every last one of them. I remember the Shepherd who would gladly inconvenience Himself to find just one, lost lamb. And that is not my heart—that of gladly inconveniencing myselfbut I want it to be my heart.

Even as I prepared to board my flight away from our cityguarding my position in the queue rather selfishly—I saw, out of the corner of my eye, men in white robes saying prayers toward a wall before boarding. The waiting area was full of these relig!ous men. Again, He reminded me of His perspective. Why did He have compassion? Because they were "…harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Let the people cut in line. Let the burps fly. Let the sweat collect under my headscarf. Let the eyes bore into me. Let dear friends be far away, or not even understand me. Let me lay down my culture, my life. This announcement from the Shepherd would make every moment worthwhile: "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep."

"The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." —John

"I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. 
I must bring them also. 
They too will listen to my voice, 
and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." —John

October 11, 2013

a beautiful day

Today should be a beautiful day.

A Canadian October is a brief sigh, released after a gorgeous summer; it's the last hurrah before the snow comes. 

Today should be all hurrah.

The autumn breeze is playing with my hair. I'm holding my niece close to my chest, hearing her tiny breaths and watching her bright eyes. I bundle her in my shawl as the wind cuts cooler and closer to our skin.

She's healthy. She's happy. She's a sweet little person who chortles and chuckles, scoots and shines. So much joy entered our hearts when we met her one year ago today. My heart should be full. 

Today should be so sweet.

But today I got a message from a friend in Asia. A few days ago we were glowing and praying and wishing her well at her baby shower. Today the words are choppy, as they come—without a lot of explanation—and the glow is gone from the terse phrases:
It's a baby boy.
He's early.
Don't know if he will live through the night.
She lost a lot of blood.

And on this day that should be beautiful, hurrah, and sweet...
with a healthy, happy October 11 baby in my arms, 
suddenly I'm crying. And crying. In my mind, I see American blood washing down Asian drains, dreams drowning in grimy gutters.

When I get the message, we're cutting out party decorations. And my niece's mother tells me, “You can go if you want. You can go lie down.” No need to string paper owl birthday banners when another baby is suffering.
I do go lie down.
I'm still crying.

On the day that was supposed to be beautiful.

I'm back on the park bench, with my lovely niece. I wrap my French shawl tighter around her and snuggle her against my Asian top. My bangles clink. I think about how, while sometimes it feels like I have come back to a place where nothing has changed, I have changed. A tour of Europe, ten months in Asia, and now a visit back to Canada. Here I am, weeping for people that my friends and family have never met. They try to understand: “So is this a family you work closely with?” They kindly offer a pr@yer for him or listen to the baby's story with compassion. But it's hard for them to comprehend the world that opened itself to me in ten short months. The world into which fresh pain has entered today.

Babies suffer every day. Why am I crying for this one? Because I love him, I suppose. I loved him before I met him, because I loved his parents. Now I love people so far from my quiet park bench under the grey autumn sky. I have changed.

Today I see life and death undiluted. The joy of a cozy child, resting contentedly and joyfully. Another baby, struggling to breathe: pain, sorrow, and anguish.

I have in my day a cross-section of life on earth as we know it: true joy, true pain...“and underneath are the everlasting arms.” If not for those arms that stretched wide and took pain, true joy would have been eclipsed by the suffering sin brought. The solution for our pain was wrought 2,000 years ago, but for now the two realities coexist in a sort of tension, until that long-expected day when joy wins and sorrow is put away forever. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain....”. Some days we feel that joy-pain tension more than others. Days like today.

But without the anguish of the “Man of Sorrows”, we would never have received the Comforter. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 
Today is a beautiful day, 
it's even hurrah,
it's even sweet...
because between tears, we have the assurance of lasting joy in a not-too-distant tomorrow. 

Our pain is temporary. Our joy is forever. Thank you, Je'sus.

[Note: I posted this on October 23 but back-dated it to October 11.]