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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.