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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