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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


  1. my eyes are watering. having been in the same country I remember what it was like both the good and the bad. I know we don't know each other that well, but I'm proud to call you sister. thank you for your love and dedication to our Father - you are in my prayers.

    1. You are kind, M! Thank you for remembering me/us!