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December 22, 2014

an uncomfortable Christmas

From my kitchen table, I can see rooftops and treetops in my new city. It's overcast (what else is new?) and looks like a European winter out there—lots of grey, no white. After a few not-so-enjoyable run-ins with brusque grocery store staff communicating with me in a language I barely understand, I'm postponing this afternoon's food-buying trip as long as I'm able. If you've ever changed continents, or changed them as often as I have this year, maybe you understand why I need to work up a little courage to do so simple a task as grocery shopping. So the bread dough is rising for the second time, the dishes are washed, the shopping list is made...and really all that's left is for me to put on my boots, take my re-useable shopping bags down seven short flights of stairs and brave Europe.

This morning is cool, but I woke up with my warm husband at my sidemy human anchor in all this transition. Today is our one-month anniversary of marriage, and he lingers around the flat longer than usual, not wanting to go to the office. I encourage him in his delay tactics, but endlich, I shoo him out the that, as I tell him, he can come home earlier!

I am overwhelmed by the miracle that God accomplished when He set us two lonelies in a family. He searched the ends of the earth to bring two so like-minded people together in a country that is neither mine nor his. Yesterday a generous family adopted us for the day. We had meals, fellowship, a walk and nap. Kindly, they put our two-person North American family into a bigger European family for the day. "Was it strange," I asked, "being with a family who has hosted you so many times, but this time with me?" No, he said it felt completely normal. That is how our marriage has felt, completely normal. God truly brought me my other half in my husband.

Which is why, when I sprouted the idea of inviting a passel of Asians over for a Christmas gathering, Husband was game.

One of the privileges and challenges of marriage is "leaving". For us, the "leaving" was rather forced, by kilometers (or miles), time zones and continents. We both leave homes that taught us truth, and now we have the responsibility of founding a temporal home that echoes with eternity, a home in which God dwells. A holy home, if I dare use that old-fashioned word. I've been pondering what a home looks like if God "tabernacles" there, when the Word "dwells richly" in us an then "becomes flesh" in our space, in our conversations, in our actions, in our choices. Late at night I whisper those thoughts about "tabernacling" to my husband and we pray for our Asian party.

The Father made our paths cross with a local yet excellent-English-speaking student with a similar heart. She, my husband and I all wanted to have a party in our home for international friends who are far from home this season. My husband and I had the home and the desire, but few international student friends. She had the friends and the desire, but no home she could share. Together, we can accomplish something we couldn't separately. Today she came here to lift them up with me and gave me a list of names of friends, mostly from Asia, whom she plans to bring to our home tomorrow night. She's elated to have a home to gather them in. We're elated that she has these friends from Asia. Yet another God-ordained joining, Europe and North America merging to bless Asia.

I asked her about her parents, whom she lives with, and they believe like we do. "But I can't bring in so many outsiders. They like their Christmas traditions. I could bring in one foreigner, that would be OK. But not ten."

I know what she means.
We all want Christmas to be comfortable. 

But aren't the beginnings of our Christmas traditions all 
neighbours' gossip and disbelief,
birthing pangs and bloody delivery, 
splinters and rough wood,
socially-awkward agricultural workers and then,
Asian visitors who show up late and travel-weary....
perhaps needing a translator? 

This doesn't sound like a Martha Stewart Christmas with Ten Must-Have Napkin Rings or Terrific Turkey for Twelve. The first Christmas was not exactly comfortable. But friend, this is Christmas. Remember?

We get so intent on celebrating Christmas in a comfortable way, 
the way we've always done it, 
that we forget whom we say we are celebrating:
the uncomfortable coming of the uncomfortable Christ.

The One who asked the massage parlour worker (the "Is-she-a-prostitute?" one) from the brothel to the potluck. The One who took in that guy with the oozing wound that might be contagious or the girl who talks non-stop about topics of no interest to you. The One who stretches us where we didn't want to be stretched and says things that challenge us to the depths of who we are. The One who didn't just tell us to spend time with people who aren't part of our club, He modeled it. He didn't come to be served but to serve. Christmas was a stoop, an uncomfortable stoop, for God "veiled in flesh".

I recently read a comment from the main character in Stepping Heavenward. She confides to her journal: "One must either stop reading the B!ble altogether, or else leave off spending one's whole time in just doing easy pleasant things one likes to do."As Matt Papa bluntly puts it, "If you want a comfy life, stay away from J'esus." Yes, Christmas is more about being uncomfortable than comfortable, because that is what Christ is about.

God sets the lonely in families. He goes to great lengths to bring people home, and others-centered, unselfish hospitality for those who need a place is a classic trademark of His people. A holy home puts flesh on a holy God whom we cannot see. A holy home doesn't let its own comfort determine how hospitable it will be. When God "tabernacled" amongst His people, it was sweaty, dirty, earthy workdoes our Christmas look like the Christ we intend to celebrate?

October 20, 2014

here and there

They were worried I wouldn't like it here.

Maybe it was the crawling vines clinging to the stone houses, or the red berries that grow in storybook-like clusters along the roadside, that they thought I wouldn't like. Or the fallen orange leaves that brighten the slippery grey cobbled streets. Or the bread pretzels topped in chunky white salt and the hazelnut chocolate spread that are never far away. Or the plentiful, varied, fresh and clean produce. Or the warm-compared-to-Canada winters. Or all the quiet and privacy and shiny machines that do every task imaginable. 

Maybe these were the things that came to their minds, when they were worried I wouldn't like it here.

They ask what I've seen so far and where I've travelled since arriving. I tell them I've seen my fiancé, and this city. They ask if I like it here, and I say "Yes, because my fiancé is here." My fiancé tells me that his is a dirty city, by European terms, and that others turn up their noses when people talk about this region of the country. And yes, I see the bridges scarred with graffiti, the industrial smoke stacks or the homeless men by the bus stop with urine-soaked trousers. But it's nothing I haven't seen before, or nothing that would stop me from living here. And somehow it doesn't cancel out the beauty of being here.

I have always been happy with simple pleasures. Here I've been happy to take walks under sunny fall skies, to buy discounted nail polish and shoes at the flea market, to make homemade lasagna and serve it on a colorful new tablecloth, to pick a bloom from along the roadside and grace a jar with it for days, to weave words together on the printed page, to notice how the trees stand majestically in rows by the river, and to watch the hillside flame with fall. To breathe in the quiet and rest, before I return to North America for a busy month of wedding planning.

And though I enjoy simple pleasures, more importantly, I remember that life is so much more than what we like, or even what we can see. What is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal. When my fiancé and I speak of expectations for where we'll live after we are married, answering questions from premarital books, we both realize that we have never chosen our geographical location only for our pleasure, and we never will. We will never live by the ocean simply because we like beach walks, or nest in the mountains just because we like alpine air. We'll see which temporary circumstances make the most sense based on our understanding of our eternal circumstances. And we'll hammer in our tent pegs into this temporary soil accordingly. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

I'm staying in a spotless, spacious flat owned by friends of my fiancé's. They welcomed me to a pristine spare bedroom with a flat-screen TV and bubbly water. I am to help myself to their lovely kitchen's contents. Even now, I just finished a tasty European breakfast and I'm looking out onto their spacious balcony that overlooks the hilly city in which they live. They have made me more than comfortable for the remainder of my visit.

Somehow, they were worried I wouldn't like it here. And merely in a physical sense, it is quite likeable here. But as I move to my fourth continent, I know that life is about so much more than me, or about here. 
It's about HimGod.
And now, himmy almost-husband.
And thereHis unseen home and kingdom.

It's fun to be in love in Europe in autumn, eating street falafels and taking long walks. Last night foreign-sounding music was blasting below the bridge and we watched a boat crease through the river, folding the sunset's reflection in the water in its wake. As afternoon became evening we were going through more premarital counselling questions, this time about finances, and were reminded that we aren't owners, we are stewards. He is over all, and through all, and in all. In Him we live and move and have our being. All this is for Him—all this moving and settling, marrying and giving in marriage, Europe-living or Asia-living. All this is His.

For now we are stewards of bread pretzels and European efficiency—a memorable place to begin our marriage, in our cozy IKEA-furnished flat looking out at a quiet red-roofed neighbourhood. It might sound exciting to others, that my fiancé is whisking me off from dusty Asia to one of the world's top move-to countries. But we won't cling too tightly, as we may anytime be asked to exchange this for rolling corn fields and down home Americana, or another honking, writhing Asian metropolis.

Any day, this all will end and we will see, face-to-face, the spiritual kingdom on the other side of this life. I wonder, based on our stewardship here, what our assignments will be in His kingdom. How did we use our engagement season to edify others? How will we employ our wedding ceremony for His purposes? Will He be lifted up in our marriage, in our Europe months or years? We are training for reigning, by our stewardship of what we have here.

If we're going to "worry" about anything,
let's worry about that.

 But if we have food and clothing,
we will be content
with that.
— Paul

"Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,  for everything in heaven and earth is yours.  Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.  Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all.  Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.... Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.  We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.  Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. Lord, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you... — King David

October 08, 2014

dear single friend

Dear single friend,

In July, I did something unprecedented. Unexpected. And if you ask my siblings, un-Julie-like. I told a man I'd marry him.

We sat on a park bench next to old Civil War cannons in the dapple of mid-morning sunlight. He did something ordinary for him—read to me from the Good Book. But this time, when he finished reading, he pulled out a red letter which he'd concealed between that Book's pages, and asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could see my eyes. I knew what must be coming. He read me words of godly commitment—and with his trademark genuineness, asked, "....will you marry me?"
Of course, I said "Yes!" And we cried a little, and smiled a lot, at this decision that seemed so obvious and so right, both to us and to our families...a decision that has seemed more "right" the longer we've watched it play out.

Dear single friend, we've dreamed about that moment for years, right? And often wondered if it would ever happen. Maybe that's why I cried, when he proposed, and also as I started to write this post.

Because singleness left an ache,
that ache that Genesis termed "not good",
that ache that we almost feel unspiritual admitting to
("Isn't God enough?")
that ache that ebbed and flowed through the years,
sometimes worse, sometimes better.

I don't quite know when I started identifying as a "single". Maybe it was in high school, when there were nearly no boys to date but my teen girl magazines assumed there were. Maybe it was when the boys who pursued me were socially awkward, or lacking common sense or insight when it came to conversational topics. I had only one semi-brush with romance in my first 27 years, and afterward my friend told me that I didn't talk about guys as much anymore. Because I was realizing that finding romance seems more akin to winning the lottery than to going shopping: you can't decide for yourself when it will happen. You can't go out and buy genuine, reciprocated affection and commitment. For the most part, you have to wait for it to happen.

(I think that the waiting, the not knowing if it will ever happen, is one of the single person's most precious "materials for sacrifice"—demanding nothing from God, being patient to go from day to day with no promise of marriage by a certain age. If someone had told me I'd be married just before my 29th birthday, I would have been OK with that. But the hard part was contentment in not knowing if I'd marry at all. You know what I mean.)

To make matters worse, as single girls, most of us have been told, by a well-intentioned married friend: "It seemed like just when I surrendered my singleness to God, that's when [insert Husband Charming's name here] came along." Which always left us feeling that if we were only more spiritual and surrendered and satisfied, somehow a man would materialize before our eyes. As if marriage were a prize handed out to the godly.

I won't burden you with any such story. I'm just amazed at how hard it was to meet someone until it was my someone, and then how easily it all came, once God knew it would be a good thing for me.

Engagement thrust me into a world of veils and vows, reproduction and registries. I don't know about this stuff. Remember, I've been single, for nearly 29 years. I had never owned a diamond until my fiancé gave me one. I still can't spell "boutonniere" to save my life; I have to Google it every time. I hardly know any "human love" songs to play at our wedding, because I had to abstain from listening to them so as not to foster discontent when I was single. (It's OK, I know lots of "God's love" songs, and His love is better, anyway, for the single and the married). I feel awkward in front of my peer single friends when a big fuss is made over me because I'm getting married—you should be fussed over just as much as me, you're just as valuable to society. And no, I haven't finalized my dress yet, and the wedding is just over one month away.

Married ladies are saying "Welcome to our side! Here, reuse my veil!" and giving me free birth control advice. Well-intentioned married people are telling me how tough marriage can be. And I'm transitioning, because I still identify with my fellow non-wives, many of whom have shared my journey. My non-wife years have been rich. In my mind, I'm slowly shifting into thinking as someone who comes in a pair, someone who is almost a wife. (Thankfully, it's coming quite naturally).

It's quiet on the phone and then he asks me—
"Are you excited about moving and living here?"

(Did I mention, that by marrying him, I'll be moving to another new-to-me continent, again? He's a bit nervous that I won't like his host country.)

I ask for clarification,
"Do you mean, am I excited to marry you, or excited to live where you live?"

"I know the answer to the first question, Julie. But what are you most and least excited about moving and living here?"

I tell him that I'm excited to make a home for him—to transform his bachelor flat into a joyful and colourful place for him to come home to. To have our conversations over supper, not over Skype. But I admit that I'm concerned I might be a bit lonely, some days, due to the double-edged sword of learning what it's like to make friends as a married woman, and making friends in a language I hardly speak. Some days I'll probably miss the freedom of friendship-building from my single years—our impromptu outings, our late-night talks on the doorsteps of the chruch or on bunks at camp, or our trips from anywhere from Anchorage to Prague. While I'm happier than happy to marry this godly man, it's just reality, that some days I might miss some aspects of being a

dear single friend.

We always expect that life will change in great jolts. Certainly, sometimes it does: the sudden death of a loved one or a shocking situation changes life as we know it, forever. But for the most part, life is just lots of everyday living. Decisions that we make (or don't make) over dirty dishes or laundry or in other mundane circumstances shape our lives.

And maybe I thought that becoming engaged would be one of those jolts, but for the most part, it just felt like another day. Another day, on which I finalized a decision that will affect every day to come (though really it was a decision we had been easing toward since we first started talking, almost one year before.)

After agreeing to marry him, I thought to myself, "I don't know what 'until death do us part' looks like." I don't know what engagement, newlywed life, or parenting looks like. I don't know how to tell a man that I will love him for the rest of my life. Through holidays and hepatitis (God forbid), romance and renovations.  

But promises aren't kept in one-year, or five-year, or fifty-year chunks. Rather, they are kept in faithful seconds, thoughtful minutes, committed hours. I can seek to love him this hour, and then the next hour, and on and on after that. And if I do, someday I'll find that I've loved him in accord with that promise.

At the time of my engagement I was reading about Abraham, and that's probably an appropriate narrative for me, because he sure looks like he didn't know what he was doing. (Also, he moved all over creation. Apparently I do, too.)

God had to patiently work for many years with Abraham. There were a lot of years between "Get out of your country..." (Gen 12) and "Do not lay your hand on the lad..." (Gen 22). Sometimes with our "great patriarch" glasses, we forget that Abraham did stupid things too, like making a baby with Hagar, or deceiving people about his wife's true identity. His son, grandson, and great-grandsons had their share of faux pas as well. Actually, as I read their stories again recently, I saw with fresh eyes what a mess they were. They were no five-star family with a godly portfolio; they were much the opposite.

And friend, that's because the story recorded in the Good Book wasn't ever really about Abraham, Isaac or Jacob anyway. The story is about God. I started worshipping God in a new way, this time, after reading the miserable patriarchs' stories. I started worshiping Him for being different. Because the rest of us fail, and often we fail miserably. But He never failed. J'esus is better. He is the perfect prophet, perfect priest, perfect king. The perfect patriarch, if you will.

As I studied God's appearances to Abraham (sometimes spaced apart by many years) it struck me that for every command He gave Abraham, He made more demands on Himself than He did on Abraham. If He could work in Abraham's story, He can work in mine, too. My life story is about showcasing His greatness, not my own prowess at being single or married. It is God who is at work in you, to will and to do according to His good purpose.

Before Isaac was even born, God was speaking in what sounds like past tense: "I have made you a father of many nations...." Because when God makes a promise for the future, it is as good as done. It comforts me to know that when God sees our lives, He sees them already completed. He must not know whether to laugh at us or cry, when we insist on worrying or fussing about something that, in His eyes, is complete. He doesn't see us as singles or marrieds, He sees us as pilgrims and sojourners on this earth, where titles that refer to marital status often divide instead of uniting us.

Dear single friend, for every stage of our journey, we need and we have a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. Before a man ever promised me, "I will...", my God had promised first. His promise is the most reliable. I rested in that promise as a single, and must continue to rest in it once I marry.

While my life is changing, and my loyalties, my time and my love are becoming more and more my husband-to-be's, I do still love and appreciate you,

dear single friend.

Thank you for journeying with me.

July 22, 2014

sacred mystery

[This is a post I had in my drafts, from June.]

It's a broad, blue-skied evening on the Canadian prairies. The sun is making its delayed summer exit. The air is crisp. Birds sing in surround-sound. Bushes line the streets; their tiny yellow blossoms fragrance the aisles of the small town. The edge of the world is just on the other side of the town school, and I find it almost accidentally, on my evening walk.

Seating myself on the dirty edge of an open field, I cannot see even one human. (For someone freshly arrived from Asia, a human-less landscape is highly unusual). I hear only prairie birds and see only fields, and dirt, and the houses on the edge of town. The sun angles over stubble left in the fields. Dreams billow in my mind like the cottony pileup of dandelion seeds. Thoughts amble down semi-smooth grooves of fertile prairie soil. Sometimes I need open air to free and see my thoughts. The thud, grind and scraping of living fades into the distance on this prairie night, and I'm up close with the quiet of God.

Have you met one of those people who says he won't believe in God until he can make complete sense of Him? The kind who refuses to believe in an infinite God unless first he can wrap his finite brain around Him? Never mind that he eats food, whether or not he has a complete comprehension of how that food was grown or will be digested. I suppose he also trusts the car or train that carries him to work without fully understanding every fine detail of its operation. But when it comes to "rel!gion", he requires complete comprehension before he believes in Him. As if God, if He is who He says He is, could be summarized in pamphlet or a half-day Saturday course.

The truth is, that life is full of mysteries, small and big. Every time you look around, you can see something you don't quite understand. Tonight, I don't understand why that dandelion tuft drifts in an unusual pattern. Or why a mosquito flies this course and not that one. Why this leaf is fuzzy and that one smooth. Why I can battle with beautiful words for weeks and then find they come tumbling into my head so inconveniently when I am without pen and paper in an open field surrounded by earth. Life raises lots of questions, and fewer answers.

Friends, we should value mystery. The eternal God must grieve, seeing a twenty- or thirty-something made of already-dying cells demand an explanation of some minute circumstance from the Everlasting One—"or else!" Who are we to make such demands? Learn to put your hand over your mouth, with Job. Mystery is sacred because it reminds us that we're not done knowing yetsomething very important for arrogance-prone humans to remember. It takes humility to admit to not knowing.

When we date, we try to sleuth the mystery that is another human life. We ask lots of questions, and wisely so. But sometimes, we hit a wall in our comprehension of the man-woman relationship. That's completely normal. The wisest king who ever lived said he could not understand the way of a man with a woman. Paul used the word mystery in describing how two could assimilate into one and picture that greater Union. Maybe it's that balance of the known and the mysterious that keeps us coming back, and back again, for more.

My man and I can talk for hours, and we know so much about one another. Sometimes he finishes my sentences because he knows where I'm headed. He told me recently that it makes him glad that he's learning to anticipate what I might want—to ask me if I want more watermelon, because he sees the want in my eyes before it gets to my tongue. But he also told me once, that no matter how many hours we've talked, I still hold some mystery to him. And that that mystery is part of what he likes about me. 

My tendency is to want to ask questions, to probe, to poke. Or to completely divulge everything. But I let his comment about mystery lie on my ears; I like how it sounds. It ties with the virtues of feminine modesty and masculine conquering of the unknown. Mystery is sacred, and somehow it pulls us together. 

God is comprehensible, on one level. Utterly incomprehensible on another. Knowable enough for us to trust Him. Unknowable enough for us to stand in awe. He is present in the hand of a carpenter's son healing a sick child, yet He is as mysterious as a dark Mount Sinai covered in smoke. His Book can be grasped by a child, yet an adult can spend his lifetime (and an eternity to come) wrestling with the finer details of that story.

Elizabeth Elliot wrote these words about a man, but they could be written of God, too:
"He is free, and you must always reverence this freedom. There are questions you have no right to ask, matters into which you must not probe, and secrets you must be content never to know.... there are things a man cannot and ought not to give. The deep calls only to God."
And about your husband, Elliot writes, " must accept the mystery of [your spouse's] personhood....Your [spouse] is known fully only to God, and stands in a sense alone before Him.... Ultimately he is God's man."

God and men: analyzable, but only to a point. 
Knowable but yet unknowable to women.

As women, we often pick things apart with our words: we dissect, we explore and we want details. It's that constant need to know and discuss that can exhaust our God and our men. Sometimes it's needed, but not usually to the extreme in which we pursue it.

Words can be beautiful, but sometimes wisdom tells us
to quell our tongues, and
let our mouths stand agape at His wonders.

To be humble enough to admit that there are some things we can't understand.

To be still and
let the summer wind blow and
feel his arm around you and
need no explanation.  

June 17, 2014

tentative ten-year-olds

It's a sunny day, and I'm back in the land of pet dogs, quiet streets and clean skies. I'm on a break from Asia, visiting friends in North America. As you know, friends are always changing, but changes seem more obvious when you've been away for a while.  

I notice that some of the biggest changes are in my littlest friends. One intelligent little ten-year-old has been my friend for at least five years. In times past, he told the wildest stories, kept me laughing with off-the-wall comments, sat next to me at family gatherings, and always tried to steal me away to jump on the trampoline after lunch. In a word, he was vivacious.

But he's ten now, and taller than ever. When I saw him last week, he didn't say much to me. His usual zest was strangely missing.

The second time he saw me, he took me to "his" lake (down the long route, through mosquito-filled woods) to a broken-down dock. The woods are where he feels comfortable, looking for birds' nests, catching frogs and confidently dispensing nature facts. He told me how Grade Three passed slowly, and was filled with adventures. But Grade Four passed quickly—he explained sagely, "that's what happens when you get older."

But the third time he saw me, he stretched his thin arms around me for a hug. It was informal and unpretentious, a natural extension of our long-time friendship. It was almost like old times, with some new times mixed in.

Ten is quite different than five.
Less carefree, less trusting. Loving at ten might look different
than it did at five—but it matters just as much. Don't we all wish for friends who will love us in our gangly years, in the transitions and messiness and questioning of growth? We want friends who will meet us where we're comfortable, and eventually care take us to where we aren't. We want friends who are content to lie on an old boat dock and wait for us as we poke around. Friends who won't think we're crazy when we stir up ant nests with long sticks or insist on balancing on a railing just to see if we can. Friends who will put away their smart phones and be fully engaged in the moment. Friends who will listen before they speak, and when they speak, use wise words. Who will rebuke us when it's needed, but encourage us when it's not. We want people who will keep getting to know the ever-evolving "us" and love us anyway—in a way that points toward Him.

This morning I visited another friend, who is a few decades older and wiser than my little ten-year-old man. We met in a comfort zone, too, of her home. We ate breakfast in the dining room like proper friends might do, but then we also stood in the kitchen and soaped up a pile of leftover Father's Day dishes like real friends do. (Families leave messes and sorting and cleaning them up takes time.) We chat just as easily at the sink as we do on the sofa. Four hours later, the dishes are washed and dried and we're drinking tea. There is still so much to say and discover, and I leave with more conversation still waiting inside me, and some encouragement and insight gained.

Things have changed so much since we met. We've travelled to and lived on different continents. We've gained and lost: jobs, weight, friends, hopes and dreams. But mostly we've grown: as individuals, as friends and as Followers. As I listen to my friend speak, I hear a woman who is deeper than most, and wiser than ever. She's not the same woman I met five years ago either—she's growing up in Him. We've seen each others' soul stretch marks and still found beauty in each other: God is expanding us to fill us with more of Himself.

In our hearts we all know what it is like to be that tentative ten-year-old, wondering if this old friendship will hold our new weight. We wonder if our friends will be okay with our gangly parts or if they're going to laugh. If we can still be informal and 
wash dishes and 
jump on trampolines and 
breathe out things we haven't figured out or 
we've never told anyone....

Or if we need to confine ourselves to the parlour 
and drink perfectly-steeped Earl Grey
from delicate china cups
and only talk about our successes....

Loving at ten might look different than it did at five—
but it matters just as much.


May 25, 2014

the sewage of sin

Our land is dry. Outside of a freak rainstorm with high winds, and a few unusual rain sprinkles, we have not had rain in many months. The roads are dusty and a slight gale kicks it all up. The top of everything catches filth. If the floor hasn't been mopped in the last 24 hours, my bare feet sense the dust. This corner of Asia has taught me what parched means.

Which is why it stood out as unusual when my auto bounced through a monsoon-like puddle near our office building one morning. I saw some birds happily splashing in what must have felt to them like a lake. They flapped their grey feathers. One dipped his beak in the puddle, as if delighted to find such a large and luxurious birdbath in the middle of the hottest and driest season.

Of course, I wondered at the source of their bathing water. It didn't take long to see what was feeding the birdbath. From around the edges of a manhole cover, greyish-brown water gurgled out. The water was sewage, pouring over the already-filthy dirt street, lined in garbage and construction debris.

As my auto driver navigated the puddle that morning, I thought about those commonplace pigeons basking in grey sewage. I wondered: do they know that across the city there is a large, man-made lake, which, while it might be a bit dirty, is a real treat compared to sewage? Better yet, do they know that in some parts of the world, other birds (which are in no way superior to them) splash in pristine, glacier-fed lakes? Do they know what's out there? If they knew the options that exist, would they be so happily flitting through grey, watered-down excrement...the very thing that will kill them?

And it was like the Father told me: you are that pigeon with your face in the sewage, Julie. When you choose sin over righteousness, you're choosing sewage over glacier-fed lakes. You're holding close to yourself something which, in the hot season of life's trials might feel like instant release, or easy pleasure, but it will ultimately kill you. As Paul wrote to the Romans, in 7:11, "Sin...killed me." The Father reminded me, sin is sewage.

But what is sin? Some people think of the "seven deadly sins". But Susanna Wesley penned a brave and broad definition for sin, which convicts me every time I read it:
"Whatever weakens your reason,
impairs the tenderness of your conscience,
obscures your sense of God,
takes off your relish for spiritual things,
whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind,
that thing is sin to you,
however innocent it may seem in itself."
For me, it helps to list a specific sin, and remind myself that that thought or act is killing me:
Gossip...will kill me.
Laziness...will kill me.
Prayerlessness...will kill me.
Lust...will kill me.
Bitterness...will kill me.

Sewage, will kill me. Is killing me. Remember the happily ignorant pigeons.

C. S. Lewis is known for saying, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea." Lewis speaks from the perspective of the joy that is missed when we don't accept God's good gifts, and I speak from the disaster that is imminent if we continue to cherish sin. What is at stake is not only that we might trade a holiday for a slum, but that ignorance of or willful disobedience to God's design kills us. That is not to say it causes us to lose our eternal salvation, but...
It kills our spiritual fellowship with God.
It makes us unable to bear good fruit.
It renders us useless to Him and powerless for spiritual battle.

God says sin kills.
"In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
"For if you live according to the flesh you will die; 
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

The world, the flesh and the devil sell us the idea that sin will not kill. 
"You will not surely die." 

Every decision comes down to who we trust. Who we believe. Will we believe what He says about sin, whether or not we see the long-term consequences or understand the why

Perhaps you, like me, have trouble forsaking those sins that don't seem to have negative effects at present. Perhaps you think of sin lightly. Your sin was and is so terrible that the only sufficient payment for it was the violent death of the only Son of God. Thomas Kelly addresses this in a song that is relatively new to me:
Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.
Killing sin is serious business. John Owen wrote, 
Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. 
A trial is never so hot that bathing in sewage is a good idea. No matter the short-term relief that it seems to provide, fix this in your mind: sin kills me. Our insistance on drinking in sewage proves that we "don't know what's out there" when it comes to our relationship with God. And we can never begin to delight in a holy lifestyle if we don't actively flee sin and fly toward righteous J'esus. Let's get our faces out of the gutters of sin: He's calling us to the abundant life of Living Water, on the mountain of God.

When desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin;
and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

May 17, 2014


Every Sunday morning, a few of us used to sit on a unpainted, slatted bench in a four-foot-wide dirt alley. Behind us was a bare brick wall, with cement dripping from its seams. Before us was a fence or a wall (I can't remember which) that divided the chruch property from the neighbour's open yard. Ants crawled by and the temperatures were warm. It was a bit of an unlikely classroom, where I told stories to only a small audience.

I'd talk about the narrow way and the broad way, using an old curriculum with outdated inked graphicsgluttony was illustrated with a pig, and lying with a snake. I tried to liven things up, teaching parables with cotton balls for sheep, cheap beads in place of the pearl of great price, and plastic vegetable sacks for nets.

Three or four girls attended semi-regularly. A tall, mild-mannered one of African heritage, whose parents showed no interest in sending her to learn. A lighter-skinned one, with a shy manner, fuzzy hair, little education and a passel of younger siblings in tow. And then there was the one I remember best: she was thin, with wide cheek bones and hair as straight as palm leaves. She was bright. And she was faithful. Her father would drink himself stupid on the weekends; sensual music would play loud and late in her neighbourhood. But nearly every Sunday I would mark her "present" on the attendance chart. Hair freshly washed; smile in place. Ready to learn.

I moved away, for college, and my parents would tell me stories sometimes about my young student-turned-friend. She was still coming, and growing. She was excelling in school, too (which is quite something, in a impoverished area where some were illiterate). She was taking responsibility in the congregation. Five years later, I returned, and she stood at the front of some rows of benches, holding up the story book, smiling and teaching. 

I think about those years. I think about her. And I remember that the Father gave me one. One known fruit that remains, to this day. Isn't He good, to encourage me like that?

Life has taken me through various stages, and most of them have been fairly clearly deliniated by a geographical move or a change of employment. There was the year at a college with deep rock gorges, autumn glory, and good teaching. There was the internship where I learned deep truth that I still apply daily and made the best of friends. There was more college, more and more work, moving to Asia, and here I am. As I look back, I realize that in nearly every season, He has encouraged my feeble heart by giving me one. Though sometimes I don't know it until I move on. And in some cases, I still don't know if the seed found any good soil.

Once my one was from a confused family, you know the kind, where she hardly knew her surname. She was hungry for affection and needing a friend. Another time, my one was really two: in my part-time coffee shop job years, He gave me a mother-daughter duo. They'd camp out in the coffee shop in the evenings. Mom and I would talk about life, death, value and meaning, while I wiped counters and chapped my hands from so much washing. The daughter ate sweets they bought from behind the glass, while mom was caught up in conversation.

In one season, my coworker and his wife became my friends. They were immigrants, and my sister and I fed them what I now realize was probably a less-than-impressive chicken holiday dinner in my poorly furnished house. Somehow they appreciated it anyway. Later my brother became their friend too, and we ate dumplings and shared life. They showed a lot of interest in us, though not much in our message. Then they moved away....  A few years later, he messaged me to say he had found what we had. "Now I understand...." God didn't have to let me know, how his heart had changed. But He was gracious to do so.

There are one or two others that come to mind. But not many hungry ones, really.

And perhaps that is because "narrow is the way...and few are those who find it".

Maybe it is because God Himself insinuated that seed falls on good soil only about one-fourth of the time (though when it does, it bears one hundred fold—well worth the investment).

Perhaps because I don't press and inquire and seed and water and pray as much as I should.

In any case, my ones are few but just encouraging enough for me to press on.

These days, I'm visiting with another one. The seed hit good soil, and it's obvious. She's ravenous for truth and bravely understanding the implications. She's watching truth on YouTube, snatching moments in the car to ask me important questions, and changing her habits. But some ten years ago, she was someone else's one. Her friend taught her, prayed for her, nurtured her, rebuked her. Finally my friend left her first friend, disappointing her and going on the broad path.  

Today, I get the joy of seeing a seed growing and flourishing because someone else did some toilsome seed-planting and seed-watering back when I was on another continent, against the bare brick wall, next to the noisy neighbours, a world away from Asia. And today, I can only be in Asia because local friends provided the infrastructure for me to be here. I think her growth is the result of many people's petitions. Yet more than most anyone else, I get to reap the joy of seeing the results in this one. Which reminds me that one is often the project of many.

When people who work abroad write home, they say they feel the need to impress. To give stats, to tell powerful stories. But one of the most "impressive" couples I've met sowed in parched soil for fifteen years and could not even tell of one.  (The husband's marriage proposal, if I remember correctly, was inelegantly made, on a coach bus. He said something like this: "Hey, wanna come with me to Central Asia?" She said a courageous "Yes.") They changed their lifestyles drastically. They left everything. They faced buzzing war zones with three young children....and couldn't even tell of one? How fair is that? But their story impressed me more than an expected tale of ten or one hundred, or ten thousand. Because it was real. It was raw. And they were faithful without the knowledge of one sprouted seed. I know there are many like them, on the narrow path.

You've planted one hundred seeds? 
Plant one more. 

You've told them one thousand times? 
Tell them one more time.

I hope, for the sake of your encouragement, you get to know of one lost coin rescued. Or two sheep brought back. But friends, "let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." From His eternal perspective, He already sees the harvest. Someday we will, too.  

Put in one more day, every day, even if it's just for one
(And may it not just be for one, may it be for many!)

He shall see of the travail of his soul, 
and shall be satisfied: 
by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many
for he shall bear their iniquities.
— Isaiah

April 27, 2014

i don't know hot

It's hot here. My hand touches down on the dry watermelon skins at the vegetable stand; they feel unappetizingly warm. Damp burlap bags cover shallow woven baskets of cucumbers, okra and green peppers, in an attempt to keep them cool. The shop door is rolled halfway down to block the sun from hitting his produce; my head nearly collides with the low door. Everything's a little wilted here, including humans. During this season, after you try to do something, you end up not wanting to do much of anything.

It's hot here. Driving by a row of roadside shacks, I see a group of ladies chatting in the shadows of their makeshift dwellings; one of them seems to be commanding the attention of the rest. A half-clad, dark-skinned man sits in a large steel basin and splashes water over his head with a steel bowl. A dirty child licks a lime-green popsicle. In these eletricity-less homes, shade and water—and maybe popsicle vendorsare the only saviours on days when the temperatures are above 40°C.

It's hot here. The warm 5:00pm air kicks a slight breeze through the police office where I sit. It lifts the wall calendars, which bump lazily against the wall. Lazy, like all of us, in this heat. One of the calendars has the monkey god prominently on display. He's large, princely... and hairy. The other calendar has smaller graphics on holiday dates. One day is marked with a god with a blue countenance; another is labeled with a god with a marble face and pointy, kohl-lined eyes. But on the eighteenth square of this month, there is no god and no face. There are just two rough wooden posts, crossed, and draped with a fluttering strip of white linen.

The monkey calendar taps the wall, again.
The fan swirls and clicks, again.
The official checks my paperwork, again.
I wonder if the policeman knows what that faceless holiday graphic represents. "The word is near you..." but it is not "in your mouth and in your heart." There are small clues for the curious; it's on the April calendar, in the theatre, in a bookstore or two....

It was hot there. When fiery justice fell on His human body. When warm blood spilled from redemptive wounds. There was a God and there were faces there, though the calendar doesn't show them. One face crying out in anguish ("Why have You forsaken me?") and One face turned away.

Rebuked, I realize that I don't know hot. The face of the Father is turned toward me in soothing grace, because that day, on the two wooden posts, He turned His face away from His Son. He poured the heat of my transgressions on His Son, so I could stand in the shadow cast by His cross. So I would not know hot.

April 08, 2014

him and her

(How do I begin a post in which I tell you about the man I love? It's a risk, perhaps, to whisper into this open space that my heart is taken with someone. But I rest in the arms of a greater Beloved and know that "the plans of the Lord stand firm forever". So with quiet joy, I can share with you some lessons I'm learning in this season. If you could see my eyes, I think they'd be shining right now. [If you are hoping for many details about him, this post may disappoint you—except that you may know that he is both godly and gentlemanly]).

We're alike—in the important things, and in many of the inconsequential things, too. Every once in a while, though, there's a moment when I think, "Wow, we're actually really different." And next the thought that crosses me is, "Was I wrong, I thought we were so alike?" Then I realize that the biggest differences I find between us are often because (surprise!) he's a man, and I'm a woman. (Yes, we have one of those old-fashioned, Garden-of-Eden type relationships: one male and one female). Anyhow, those "wow-we're-different" moments require a bit of a perspective adjustment, to remember that we're supposed to be different. That it's OK. Then I remember that indeed, I like him very much, not only in spite of our differences but because of our differences.Why this mention of fear? That fearful heart is the opposite of a quiet, trusting one. The opposite of submission to God (which then entails submission to a husband, should God give you or me one) is a rebellion that comes out of a heart that is fearful. Because of falsely-rooted fear, women abandon that gentle and quiet spirit that submits "as unto the Lord" and seek to rule over their men. They live with...Most of our problems come from Eden, from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what happened at Eden. Elisabeth Elliot tackles women who want their men to be women, too, in Let Me Be a Woman.Know your man. Know that there are things that make him different from you. His masculinity will help to explain some of them."There are lots of questions to ask if you are considering dating, engagement, or marriage. Questions of similarities in viewpoints or theology or plans. But there is never any question of the chain of authority in the marriage relationship: God, then man, then woman. "Should I marry within my gender, or marry another gender?" was also already answered in Eden, no need to ask that again. We all face that same test the first pair faced: will we trust His Word?This man who pursues my heart and seeks to understand me is like me (in more ways than I can count), but he's also different. And you know what? That's a good thing. Actually, after God surveyed the land, the sea, the sun and the stars, He called them "good". But on the day God formed humankind, "male and female He created them", He declared his work "very good." 

Last year, God sovereignly brought into my life a person who is like me. He has a similar heartbeat and his dreams move in the same direction as mine—something I had thought I might never find. We can talk about anything and nothing and almost everything, and somehow our minds meet and ultimately agree. I smile inside when I remember our first dress-up dinner date. After he pulled out my chair for me (much to the confusion of our local waiter, who thought it was his job to help me with my chair), we almost ordered the same thing off the many-paged menu—we truly do have so much in common, to the point that we like most of the same foods.

I am not the first or the last to find gender differences confusing at times. When we talk about gender, 1 Peter 3 is one of the passages of choice. You know at least the female side of the script. It says that submission, inner beauty, gentleness, trust and quietness are qualities of a holy woman. But less often do I hear commentary on 1 Peter 3:5-6, "Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror."

Fear that this creature's differences will cause me grief.
Fear that if I don't show him how it's done, it won't get done right. 
Fear that if I don't speak my mind, every time, he'll never learn.
Fear, fear, fear that is finally rooted in doubting God's design. 

It's the clay questioning the potter's workmanship: why did you make us this way? So different?
Compatibility is the supposed be all and end all in romantic relationships. We have this idea that our life partners should be as alike to us as possible. As I've watched the same-sex attraction crowd grow bigger and more boisterous, I think: these ladies want someone who is more alike to them than different. They don't value the difference like God does.  It doesn't surprise me that what would follow on the heels of a vehement feminist movement is a growing group of women who would seek long-term marriage-like partnerships with other women.  

When you spend your days imbibing doctrine that says that...
women are better than men, 
women are more capable than men, 
women can do anything that men can do....
remind me why you'd ever want or need a man? Let alone a man who (unlike your lesb!an partner) could leave you in the vulnerable position of motherhood, dependent on him for provision and protection? In this way I can see, through their perspective, why lesb!ans seek out female partners for themselves. Because they don't trust that God made men different for a reason, or that His creation was very good when it left His capable hands. They doubt man's capability because they firstly doubt his Maker.

Fear says our man-woman differences are a flaw.
Trust says our man-woman differences are by design.

Strange how easy it seems to be for some women to expect their husbands to be women, to act like women, to do what is expected of women. Instead of that they are men, they act like men, they do what is expected of men, and thus they do the unexpected. They surprise their wives by being men and some wives wake up to the awful truth that it was not, in fact, a man that they wanted after all. It was marriage, or some vague idea of marriage, which provided the fringe benefits they were looking for.... But somehow marriage has also insinuated into their cozy lives this unpredictable, unmanageable, unruly creature called a man..... Anything he does which seems to her inexplicable or indefensible she dismissed with 'Just like a man!' as though this were a condemnation or at best an excuse instead of a very good reason for thanking God. It is a man she married, after all, and she is lucky if he acts like a man....

Even in our creation, we were literally made differently. Each man still bears the image of Adam, constructed of clay. Every woman was, thousands of years ago, whittled from the bone withdrawn from man's side. A part of him was removed to make her, and later woman was rejoined to man to provide that which was missing in him. He sang a song when he saw her; he knew she was exactly what he lacked.

Our gender differences are more than OK. They're good. Sure, they're thoroughly tarnished by the Fall (again, we must properly understand Eden's events, curses and consequences), hence the chaos that often ensues. I've had more than a few bewildering "man moments" in my life, when a man's actions or words (or lack thereof) confused me. But the gentle, quiet woman puts her trust in God in these moments. She keeps listening, asking, sharing, and treading kindly particularly in the areas she cannot understand.

Somehow together we reflect His image in a way that we could not have, if we were all one gender. We are "heirs together of the grace of life"—"and that life is in His Son."

A woman freed from fear is able to quietly trust in His very good design.

"Man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man....Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God." —Paul

March 30, 2014

the expense of worship

If you look at my bulletin board today, you'll see a portrait of charming, impoverished Burmese boy with paint on his skin. I found the image in an old calendar a few weeks ago, and now he smiles silently above my desk. For years, I've posted pictures of international children around my home or office, and donated to child-related causes. I tell myself that I love international children.

But then I remember a recent night. I was hurrying home from doing important-person stuff and a beggar child surprised me by grabbing at my hand in the dark. She wanted change. I didn't stop long enough to pay attentionI brushed her off and was secretly glad that it was time to cross the street anyway....

I guess that's why I came to Asia: to brush off poor local beggar girls, because I'm in a hurry to go home and post pictures of cute kids from Burma.

Recently, my flatmate came home extra-late after a long day at the office. I paused what I was doing, welcomed her home, and offered to heat up the supper that was sitting cold on the table. Then I cut her a dish of cold watermelon chunks (perfect for a day when summer felt closer than ever) and visited with her for a bit (she loves this). I'm nice, right? She thanked me for the watermelon and the visit.

But what she didn't know, was that before the she came home, I had carefully chopped up kiwi, watermelon, pomegranate and banana and tucked them in the back of the fridge. Behind a few other things, where I hoped the flatmates wouldn't notice them. As I chopped my fruit, I thought, "I hope the girls don't come home while I'm chopping this. So that I don't have to share it, and I can save my fruit salad for a few days' lunches...." 

I guess that's why I came to Asia: to hoard my carefully washed and cut fruit, but still make myself look good by chopping up watermelon when the flatmate comes home.

Not long ago, my other flatmate was fasting for one of many religious festivals. During her fast, potatoes were one of the few permissible foods. She wandered into the pantry and asked if she could eat my chips that I had just bought that afternoon. My healthy chips. That I bought and carried home all by myself. From the store directly on my route home from work. (I'm trying to make it sound like it was hard work to acquire them, but it wasn't). I let her have them, and she promised to replace them the next day.

I didn't expect her to replace them, and she didn't, and she still hasn't. The problem is, it bothered me that she didn't return my chips. I found myself thinking things like, "I knew she had no intention of replacing the food she was taking from me. I wanted those chips. She was lazy to not pick up her own food for her fast...." Her fast to the god who sees nothing....

I guess that's why I came to Asia: to hold grudges against gold-god worshipping flatmates because they didn't return my fifty-cent Lite and Fit chips that I didn't need anyway. 

Father, this heart!
Have you seen it?

Can you change it?

In my heart I see Jonah. I put on the show; I go to a far country. "Hey, look at me! Listen to this testimony of how I stopped running away from God! Hey! Pay attention over here, I'm going to do a good work!" I tell someone they're perishing, but when they turn their head and actually show interest in what I'm saying, not only am I surprised (I mean, I didn't really expect them to listen to truth anyway), but I'm busy whining that I can't find a shade tree under which to eat my Lite and Fit chips while they perish.

In my heart I see the prodigal's older brother. No big history of wild living. I think I'm faithful and serving the Father, I have a list of deeds I can show. But when mercy and grace are lavished on the prodigal, I'm not rejoicing. Instead, I'm crossing my arms, furrowing my brow, and wondering where my "good girl reward" is hiding. But my Father sees that I'm keeping the nicer salad for myself or pushing away a beggar child.

At the split between Matthew 5 and 6, I found these convicting words:
"If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? ...And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? ...Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
God saw more worth in the hearts of the pagan Ninevites, who were cut open by the Word of God, than in the heart of proud, Jewish Jonah. Because He's not looking for religious status or skin colour or upbringingHe looks at the heart. He's looking for true worshippers, who worship in spirit and in truth. And the thing is, what is worshipful coming from one person, might be inauthentic coming from another—He looks at the heart. The difference is broad, between a gift and a sacrificial gift.

I don't want to be Jonah.
I don't want to be the older brother. 
"Love must be sincere," so I want to be like Mary, who "took a pound of very costly oil...anointed the feet of J'esus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil."

Mary teaches me that real worship is costly. Mary gave something of real value. Perhaps my tiny, daily equivalent would be me giving up my fruit salad, that I wanted for me, instead of the watermelon, that was easy to share. Inviting someone over when I don't feel like it, not just when I do. Waking up earlier than is convenient to my flesh, to spend time alone with Him. I was asked a few years ago: "Are you content to offer J'esus that which cost you nothing?" What sort of a gift is that? What kind of worship is that? Love Him lavishly; worship Him expensively. Only you know what that will look like in your life.

I remember some cost, in coming to Asia. I remember bawling on the bumper of my friend's car, telling her how I didn't want to leave her, but I wanted to leave her, all at the same time. I recall reconciling the calendar and the calculator, figuring out when my last biggish paycheques would stop coming. It was sad, to leave my tiny niece and siblings behind. That might have been oil I broke over His feet nearly two years ago (and that oil was worth every penny—He is worthy), but what have I given Him lately? It's easy to stop giving Him gifts that cost, and just give gifts that look like they cost. He looks at the heart.

Mary teaches me that when I give Him gifts that cost me something, others will notice a difference. Because that kind of expensive, generous-toward-God living is as uncommon as breaking perfume worth a year's wages on a Man's dusty feet. I know this: the smell of a life lived as a sacrificial offering will fill the house. It will float into the elevator, and then the office. It will cling to my hair, as I run errands and encounter beggars and talk to flatmates. Half-hearted service is weak; costly worship effects a powerful testimony. 

And I guess that's why I came to Asia: to worship, at any cost.

"You are worthy, our Lord and God, 
to receive glory and honor and power, 
for you created all things, 
and by your will they were created and have their being."  
—The twenty-four elders

March 23, 2014

there is no other

"My friend asked me to pick up this wall hanging for her." It's Thursday and my friend has recently returned from an out-of-town trip. She's wrestling a decoration out of multiple layers of cardboard and packing tape.

Slowly, a brass sun emerges. "Wow!" I commend her choice, "that looks nice!" (I mean, glitzy and gaudy are the name of the game here, so a large brass sun is actually less showy than many decorations I see.)

As she pulls off the last bits of cardboard, I see that the sun has a face and a mustache. I comment, "That's an interesting face, for a wall hanging."

"It's a god that my friend worships. I mean, I worship it, too. You know, every Saturday when I go to the temple. It's the sun god." The words come out so matter-of-factly, as if we're discussing yesterday's weather.

An hour or so later, the dal and spicy eggs are eaten and we're still talking. "My dad is bothering me about getting married. He wants to know when I will marry. He wants me to make a plan for my life."

She looks across the table at me. She has serious eyes—the kind borne by a woman who lost her mother in her preteens. Whose father's job meant transfers around the country every few years. Who has said a lot of goodbyes. Who thinks deeper than it appears at first meeting. Who lives with many fears.

It comes out, "I'm scared to get married." 

I understand, I tell her. It's a big commitment.

And next, "I'm emotional. The smallest things that happen make me have mood swings."

I understand, I tell her. My emotions shift, too.

The conversation moves from marriage, to spouses who fight, to pornography, and back to marriage. It's empty in every corner for her. No wonder she's scared. 

I've thought that I am not one of those "typical" emotional women. It's true that I'm steadier than some. But particularly in the last few weeks, I was feeling unsteady. One day I'd be relatively cheerful, another tearful, and what concerned me the most was that it seemed almost out of my control.

I woke up on Friday with anxiety clutching my heart and I knew my day was starting off poorly again. I'd prayed, I'd asked others to pray, and this time, I'd had enough—enough of these weird mood swings.

I cried out again to the unseen God, the God who created the sun. I told Him how I couldn't understand my emotions. I reminded Him that only He knew why I was in such an upset state. And this time, I insisted. I confessed my sins, and I told Him I needed to hear from Him, because He promises He'll guide us if we are right with Him. I went back to sleep, and woke again a few hours later, with old truth coming to freshly into my mind. I believe He was answering my call to Him.

As the first hours of Friday's daylight began to come through my window, He told me that I have other gods, too. Not brass gods, but people gods. I have been seeking to find my significance, my purpose, and my peace in people. I want my human friends to be able to probe the depths of my soul, to know, love, understand and complete me. I want them to save me from my problems, or give me joy. When they don't, I get frustrated. My emotions rest on their success in pleasing me, so my emotions are constantly jolting.

He told me, "Free your gods, Julie. Let people be people. Appreciate them for what they are, bear with them for what they aren't. The bad news is that they are fallen mini-Mes, and they can only reflect to you broken portions of Me. The good news is that I know your heart, your mind, your emotions like no one else could. I will sustain you."
He told me, "I am God and there is no other."
"You shall have no other gods before me."
No brass other on the wall—I've got that down.
No human other in my heart—this, I struggle to learn.
And is there really any difference, whether my god is brass or human?
The heavy cloud lifted when I realized all over again that my significance, purpose and peace come only from Him. When I looked up to the God of all, He answered my cry for mercy.

I didn't ask my friend if she went to worship the sun this Saturday, but she usually does. And this Saturday, I worshipped the Son with a new appreciation for His goodness to me. But my friend and I are not so different. We have feelings that aren't rooted in His truth. We have gods we need to lay aside for the Living God. But when I think of her, facing the same problems, but not having the same help from her god, crying out and receiving no answer.... it makes me sad.

No wonder she's scared; no wonder she's sad.

It's Sunday morning. We're chopping fresh fruit, and rummaging for the toaster and butter. I tell her my recent story. About my unexplainable tears and moods (I tear up even telling her). About my cry for help on Friday morning. About the peace He gave me in reminding me to have Him as God, and let no other take His place. "He's so steady," I tell her, "People change; He never does."
The cantaloupe is tasteless and the toast got too dark, but I hope something in my words makes her hungry. My soul is litmay a few rays shine across the tabletop.

"...An unknown God....this is what I am going to proclaim to you."
"Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should."

I sought the Lord, and he answered me; 
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
    their faces are never covered with shame...
 Taste and see that the Lord is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

All the chisels I've dulled carving idols of stone 
that have crumbled like sand 'neath the waves...
You're the only One who's faithful to me.

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.

When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want.

February 23, 2014

death and a coconut

When I enter the living room, it smells like death. There's weathered, papery, yellow skin and eyes that betray what no one wants to say: this man is dying.

Die he did. The next time I see his wife, it is at the temple. She's wearing white (the traditional funeral colour) and is somber. We sit cross-legged on the floor, me and a temple full of local people. The funeral director doubles as a musician, and they play a tabla and other instruments. People sing from hymnals, and when there is a break between songs people come and go, pausing before they leave for a small bow to the gods. But what distracts me the most are the coconuts.

Coconuts and pineapples are spread on a table, to be offered to the gods at the front of the temple. Each coconut is topped with some sort of sweet, and specially arranged. All I can think is, "What do coconuts have to do with dying? With souls and life and death?"

These questions distract me until I see my dear friend at the front of the temple, nearest to the multiple deities. The girl with red nail polish, a ready laugh, a sweet smile and five hundred scooter-accident scars from vivacious living. The girl who tickles me and can always round up a crowd for a party. But today she's different, sober, dressed in white, and holds a gift for the god. She has a white strip of cloth around her face, to keep her breath from defiling god. She seems to me a world away from the girl I knew before this moment.

We sit in the temple for nearly an hour, and I'm left alone with my thoughts, because I can't understand the local language and only catch pieces via translation. And ultimately, I can only think one thing: if I'm right, they're all wrong. This whole temple full. This whole neighbourhood full. Almost this whole city full. 

The thought is staggering. 

The musician/religious leader is talking: "Between ages 25 and 50 is your real life. That's the time when you need to do good karma. Do good. Do good." 

When she has the chance, my friend tells us with quiet joy: Grandpa did good. He went fresh. He was clean. Just before he died, he asked to do a worship service to the god. And, she adds with extra zeal, his soul left through his eyes. Our mutual friend fills in some blanks for me: It's one of the best ways to go. If his eyes were open when he died, it's a good sign.

But inside, I know it's a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal, the stuff of earth:

Birdseed for pigeons.
Water and washing.
Open eyes.
Good deeds.

This is earthly, flighty, featherweight.
We need something heavenly, enduring, eternal.

Coconuts may feed a physical body. Water may wash a physical body.
But what can feed and cleanse our spirits?

I wouldn't trust a coconut. 

A certain gravitas comes across me again as I type these sentences. And I told God, help me write this, because people should know. Because, if we're right, they're all wrong. It's simple logic. 

If we believe that, every one of us should be acting. 
If we don't believe that, then are we pretending to believe the rest?

If there's only one way, there's only one way.
If there are more ways,
then "we are of all people most to be pitied."
Because we're giving up "houses, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or land" for this one way, one truth, one life.

There are millions of people believing in the power of a coconut, a bit of water, a fast, open eyes, a stack of good deeds done during middle age. If you read this, you can't say you didn't know. I don't like to be pushy, but this I will push: what are you doing about it? I push it with myself too: what am I doing about it?

We live in a new part of the city, and they in the old. Sometimes I wonder, how do we bridge the gap? Their roots in this culture are deep. They're offering pineapples to deities in the way their forefathers did, but have 3G in their back pockets. Tradition, family and roots call them loudly, but so does the internet, the bigger outside world, and new conversations.

Watching the world go by from the back of my friend's scooter, I am dodging cows and tucking in my limbs. She shows me a roadside vendor selling wooden stretchers used for cremation. Next, she indicates a man with a fortune-telling parrot. I wonder: how do we start to have new conversations? I try to love and ask good questions, even on the back of a weaving scooter, because I believe that real Love calls loudly, louder than roots or traditions or old stories. And real Love is what everyone is ultimately looking for.

We keep asking questions, keep opening conversations.
until they hear, death will be appeased with a coconut. 
And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't trust a coconut.

 "I hold the keys of Hades and of death..." 
"I am the door."
"Knock, and it will be opened to you." 

But "how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?"

Photo credits to my friends M+C.