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December 31, 2015

somewhere in between

In 2015 all of us were forced to think about war, refugees and immigration, perhaps more than ever before. In previous years the wars and conflicts in other regions may have felt distant to those of us who live in the West, but in 2015 they came closer. Twice this year we heard of horrible massacres in Paris. My BBC news app offers regular updates about killings in other countries and growing tensions worldwide. If you live in the West, your country has probably both taken in a new wave of refugees this year and gotten more directly involved in attacking the country most of the refugees have escaped. This year it has become increasingly clear that the battles being fought so far away are not just a concern of others, but a concern of ours.

For us, 2015 brought interaction with real people escaping real war. Twice this year I visited the city near us where refugees find shelter and try to maintain some semblance of normalcy when nothing about their situation is normal. When a Syrian teenager had us over for supper and described having to show his ID to masked fighters when leaving his country, I almost felt a chill go down my spine. When another Syrian friend posted pictures of a bombing near his home, the war felt closer again. A friend cast a shadow over my birthday plans by telling me that people were avoiding the city I wanted to visit, in case the Paris attackers came there next. War and terror have never before breathed their hot breath down my neck like they have this year.

If we watch the news or listen to Western news sources, we probably want to end 2015 with our windows latched, our doors double-locked, and definitely with no Musl!ms in our homes. Yet for me the irony of this year has been hearing more international stories of terror than ever before, while at the same time having positive interactions with a wider variety of internationals than ever before. 

Freelance work has brought many international clients into my world in 2015. I have not met most of my clients, but through interacting with them online I've realized that there are a lot of kind clients out there. The H!ndu paid me on time and was pleasant. The secularists were good to work for. In fact, the only client who ran away without paying me was a conservative Jewish rabbi (who perhaps needs to reacquaint himself with the Ten Commandments). Working successfully with people around the world reminded me that there are decent people in every culture.

Hospitality has brought many international guests to our table in 2015. We have shared meals with people of 20 or so different nationalities. At our table, a Tunisian listened attentively to and interacted with our view on abortion. A couple of Pakistanis who ate with us challenged my stereotypes about what people from their country are like. A Togolese girl from a polygamy-practicing family lit up our home with her genuine smile. There are many more internationals in our area than there were at the beginning of 2015, and interacting with ordinary people on a personal level is far different than seeing masked extremists on a screen. Our interactions with them have been positive overall.

I wanted to title this post "The immigrants are not as bad as you think they are." But that is not the whole truth. Sin has ravaged our hearts and if anything, people (ourselves included) are worse that we think they are. I am not advocating that we should trust just anyone of any culture. Both professionally and personally, we take precautions with strangers. We are not ignorant: we know that some of my clients or our guests may believe in or talk about things that are disrespectful, violent, crude or derogatory. The leaders of Western nations also need discernment to know which strangers to allow into their land, because there is evil in every human's heart and because what the West considers evil, some cultures consider good.

However, in a sense it is true that "The immigrants are not as bad as you think they are." The media portrays radicals, but most people are not radicals.
There are Musl!ms who are more spiritually open,
H!ndus who are more hospitable,
and pagans who are more reliable
than those who claim Christ's name.
There are internationals around us who hate war and violence much more than we do, because they know it much better than we do. It is not their upbringing or their religious label that necessarily makes an immigrant a safe or unsafe person.

Perhaps a better title for this post would be "Immigrants are not as different as you think they are." They're sinful just like us. They need Hope just like us. They need clients and friends just like us. How better to evidence the Hope that is within us than by interacting with them in our professional and personal lives with a balance of wisdom and warmth, intelligence and integrity?

As this year closes, I'm still hearing mixed messages. Some media sources would scare us into locking our doors. Others encourage us to fling them open widely, no questions asked. Some voices are talking about the violent directions given in other "holy" books and telling us to be wary of all foreigners. Other voices are encouraging blind acceptance in the name of Christian charity with catchphrases like "Jesus was a refugee in Egypt". But (lest we be extremists ourselves) I believe that God calls us to live somewhere in between the extremes. 

How His people respond to war, refugees and immigration may not be a black and white, open-and-shut case. But this I know: His people will live in the fear of God, not in the fear of man. They will carefully and prayerfully discern what striking the balance in between grace and truth (or love and truthlooks like in each situation. They'll confidently walk through the doors God has allowed violence to push wide open in 2015. And "the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits"—those "good works, which God prepared in advance for [them] to do."

PS - Don't tell the media, but we're not locking our doors as we enter 2016. We told a Syrian Musl!m friend that he can celebrate New Year's with us, in our home.

Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.
So be as shrewd as snakes and as harmless as doves.

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. 
Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

"...the people who know their God 
shall be strong, and carry out great exploits."
—from a vision delivered to Daniel

"These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.... Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown..."
—J'esus to the church at Philadelphia

"For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance...will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"
—Mordecai to Esther

December 17, 2015

what no one else sees

This year as autumn wrapped its spindly fingers around our city, as the green vines turned suddenly scarlet in sharp contrast to the grey European sky, as I turned on the hot water heaters and pulled out a thick blue thoughts were drawn to last year's fall, to a segment of that season that no one else saw.

Last year in mid-autumn I was in Europe to visit my fiancé a few short weeks before our wedding. It was my first time coming to see where I would soon be living. Before I came, my fiancé asked his friendly coworker who lived just a few blocks from his place if she would give me a place to sleep for a few nights. After my stay with her expired, I slept a few more nights at the empty apartment of a couple from my fiancé's church. My fiancé had to work most of the time that I was visiting, so after he left for work each day I went to his place to do wedding preparations, unpack things and generally prepare the flat for my return. In the evenings we would eat supper with others or alone, planning and dreaming.

I have long been of the opinion that dating couples should avoid spending much time alone together in private places, to avoid situations where impurity and compromise would come too easily. I recommend that to people who are dating, and we practiced it most anytime we were together before marriage. Yet while I was visiting Europe last fall, we had virtually no option but to be alone in his apartment from time to time. For the first time, I cooked his supper in his home a couple of times—almost as if we were married already. It was a different scenario than we would have recommended to others, but due to a variety of circumstances, there we were, spending a few hours together out of everyone's sight, a few nights in a row.

I was telling my friend recently about those isolated autumn days and how really, we could have done anything we wanted. No one would have known. The pre-marital counselling was done. I could have worn my white wedding dress a few weeks later, no questions asked. I mean, even if I had gotten pregnant, it would have been so shortly before the wedding that no one would have needed to know.

The only reason we didn't do anything we wanted, was because well, Someone would have seen. We were actually not alone together. Our Father was with us, and we feared to dishonour Him and each other. He had changed our desires to want what He wanted. We knew that sin would bear death in our own relationship, in our relationships with others, and most importantly in our relationship with God. The Holy Spirit's power showed itself to us: while we could have done anything while "no one was watching"we didn't even want to. 

During those days, I was thankful for:
  • my fiancé's strong commitment to purity and boundaries set long before (I completely agree with this guy who says choosing to only date godly people is the best and only way to have a godly dating relationship)
  • the few friends or family who were nosy enough to write or call to say "I-know-you're-almost-thirty-but..." and remind us be pure sexually
  • the good teaching we had received from childhood about faith, wisdom and pure living, and 
  • the work of the indwelling Spirit of God.
I've heard having sex (or practicing impurity) outside of marriage compared to building a fire in the middle of the living room floor. At first it looks like the perfect thing to ward off the lonely autumn nights' chill—it even looks wild and thrilling. But it doesn't take long until the fire gets out of control and destroys not only the living room, but the whole home. In the same way, sex outside of marriage causes great damage. Sex preserved for marriage is comparable to a well-contained blaze in a fireplace; it is safe, healthy and even life-preserving (which is not to say it doesn't still give off some sparks). 

We have no fireplace in this little apartment that looks out over the spindly trees and wet red rooftops of our city. I pad through the flat (that now is ours, not just his) in my slippers and twist the knob that turns on the heat. I wear a sweater while I wait for the room to warm up, and I make tea as he rests a bit longer. Marriage has been like that slow radiator filling the room; it gets warmer and more comfortable as time goes by. Love and respect radiate a steady, strengthening, enduring heat.

The choice to live in purity of heart is a choice made in faith, because "faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." Faith knows that "sin will find you out" and that "there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known." And faith also knows this: today, even what no one else sees, He sees. 

 “Be on your guard against...hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 

What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs." —J'esus

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: 
"You are the God who sees me," for she said, 
"I have now seen the One who sees me."
—Moses, writing about Hagar

December 10, 2015

'tis the season

Christmas usually pulls words out of me as I wonder at the Word becoming flesh. Here are a few links to Christmas writings of mine. The first is a previously unpublished piece I submitted as a guest post at another blog. ✨

whom do you seek?: "Christmas reveals to me that I am a seeker. There’s something about this season that unveils the longings of my soul like no other holiday. Perhaps that’s because I have been taught that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” I’ve been informed by holiday ditties that dreams come true and everything goes well at Christmastime. So, each year at Christmas I learn what my heart currently defines as “wonderful”—what I am seeking...." (12-2015 - guest post)

this slow salvation: "This December I'm realizing that usually the most meaningful things in life take time and come slowly—just like Jesus." (12-2015)

an uncomfortable Christmas: "We get so intent on celebrating Christmas in a comfortable way that we forget we are celebrating the uncomfortable coming of the uncomfortable Christ." (12-2014)

i found Christmas: "Don't think Christmas is missing because you don't have warm fuzzies. The incarnation of which we speak at Christmas often comes on the heels of hardship." (12-2013)

my city: "When I look at [cities that top quality of life surveys], I don't look for my home city here in Asia. I know it won't make the cut....The first coming of Jesus and ideas of so-called 'quality of life' were reverberating in me this Christmas. We cannot comprehend the quality of life that the Son had in His glorious home in Heaven. We're so accustomed to the story of Him coming to us that we don't realize the enormity of His change in lifestyle...." (12-2012)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

December 03, 2015

this slow salvation

I've never liked things that take a long time to accomplish. I might as well wear a badge that says, "Hello, my name is Julie, and I like things that can be done quickly" because this love of all things quick and easy shows itself all over my life.

Since my childhood, I've always been in a rush. My sister and I both liked to draw, but we gravitated to opposite styles of drawing. I drew cartoons in a few minutes. My sister would patiently labour over realistic shaded pencil drawings for days or weeks. While I was polishing off a sketchbook full of cartoons, she was adding the finishing touches to last week's life-like toucan. Our different approaches to life were also seen in how we learned piano. While I was improvising, chording and changing songs to make them easier to play; my sister was putting in the hours it took to flawlessly perform sonatas. You can guess who went on to take advanced music exams and teach piano, and who didn't. Becoming a master artist or a master pianist just didn't happen quickly enough to be a Julie thing to do.

To this day, it is obvious that I love instant gratification. That's why I write blog posts, not books and why my only gardening success happened when my dad was there to help me weed and water. I sew pillow cases, not queen size quilts; I serve one-dish meals, not meat and three; I make baking powder biscuits, not bread with traditional yeast. Because of my hurry, I've struggled to acquire the language in the last few countries where I've lived. Once the hard work of memorizing vocabulary or reading strange grammar explanations kicks in, I figure it is too much trouble and I talk English instead. Dessert appeals to me much more than jogging, because dessert tastes good right now. As for jogging, are you sure it does any good? Because when I get home I feel worse, not better! In any case, I still don't like waiting for things to happen. 

We have entered the advent season, the time of year when we remember Jesus' first coming. The advent we talk about in December is easy because we know which day He "comes" and can count down to it with chocolates. Perhaps we don't quite understand the distress of the long delay before Jesus' first coming. Advent is really just a nice way of saying something that isn't so nice at all: the story of Jesus' coming (advent) is a story of waiting. That is to say, the Christmas story is not my kind of story.

I can relate to Eve when I read that some commentators thought she expected her own firstborn, Cain, to be the promised Saviour. Had I been alive then, I would have been right there with her: taking a quick snack from the closest tree because the others were too far away, soon wishing I had done better long-range planning...then, expecting that if the Saviour was going to come from me, He was going to come ASAP

But what Eve could not have known was that there would be thousands of years of waiting until the first advent. Thousands of sins committed. Thousands of bulls and goats slaughtered. Thousands of lives that began and ended under the long shadow of that first tree. Had Eve known how slowly redemption would come, she might not have made such quick work of that fruit. Advent is not for the faint of heart. Waiting for a Saviour is not for people who like things that can be done quickly.

This advent season I'm beginning to appreciate things which happen slowly. As my friend's womb swells with the baby they waited nine years to conceive, I see how her whole pregnancy carries an inexpressible sense of wonder because of all the waiting. As I put on my running shoes and jog consistently on these grey December afternoons, I see slight changes in my body that couldn't be wrought by a one-week crash diet. As for my language studies, well, some work is still needed there. But this December I'm realizing that usually the most meaningful things in life take time and come slowly—just like Jesus. 

Advent reminds me that I need to ask for and appreciate slow, steady progress and delayed gratification. This December I'm asking for endurance to accomplish things that have not come easily to me in the past, no matter how seemingly significant or insignificant they are. I'm asking for His long-range vision to see people as He does, no matter where they are in their life stories, because God's working in history is a long story with lots of surprises. I'm asking for His return, as our world writhes with war and suffering that knows no quick answers. Just as He found Anna and Simeon awaiting His first advent, when He comes again for His Bride, I want Him to find me with my lamp still lit, expectant (even if it takes Him a while to show up and I'm using the extra lamp oil I brought along). Lastly, I'm asking for His forgiveness, for sins I've allowed to grow deep in my heart. I'm reminded that lasting heart change only comes from a long-term commitment to Him and to holy choices—there are no quick hacks for ridding myself of sin I've yielded to for years. It is only because He delays His judgment and is slow to anger that this girl who hates deliberation and slowness has another opportunity to be forgiven. This advent, I am glad that the Saviour is slow and waits for people who take a long time...people like me.

It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, 
because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, 
as some understand slowness. 
Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, 
but everyone to come to repentance.

Therefore keep watch, 
because you do not know the day or the hour.

November 19, 2015

when is the time for love?

When my sister was dating her now-husband long distance, she told me that she would send him cards in the mail. "What kinds of cards?" my twenty-three-year-old self asked her. "Romantic cards, of course!" was her enlightening reply. If my memory does not fail me, I groaned and made gagging sounds...because I was extremely mature at the time.

But how the mighty have fallen! Now I do things that would make others choke a little, like designing our engagement photo album to include favourite verses from Solomon's famous love song throughout it. (Cue gagging sound here.) I put the phrases in chronologically next to photos of us looking lovey-dovey one year ago this week.

Jokes aside though, as I made the album, I imagined myself telling our children or others our love story, and I thought that including phrases from Song of Solomon might raise good conversation about how (contrary to popular belief) God is a huge fan of amazing romance. He simply put guidelines on romance, so that it can be just that: amazing.

In putting the verses in order, I placed "Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases" first. That line is repeated three times in the Song of Solomon (chapters 2, 3 and 8) . It's an interesting line, and a few other translations of the Hebrew use words like "....until the time is right" or "....before the proper time" to qualify this mysterious yet important instruction about romantic love.

It seems that Solomon is saying that romantic love should lie dormant in us until the particular time that is right for love. But how do we know when the time for love has come? How do we explain that to someone else? How do we so often get it wrong? There is something mysterious about romantic love; Solomon himself said it was something he "did not understand". Really, who could explain the sudden urges lovebirds feel to Skype for five hours straight and then wrap things up with half an hour of texting...with someone they've only known for a few months? Or spend thousands of dollars on international visits and a diamond ring? (Of course, I'm speaking only of things others have told me they've done while in love—wink, wink!)

I've realized that the easiest way to discuss the proper time for romantic love is by saying when it is not time. That is much more obvious.

My husband says that the clearest indicator that it is not time for love is if you're not loving God (which equates to obeying God). When a person is thinking of romance and marriage, he or she should also be in a healthy, holy place spiritually, where he can make wise decisions. If he's not, its likely that what he stirs up will not be godly love at all.

God's Word also states so clearly that it is not the right time for love when:
  1. ...the person you wish to love is married to someone else. (Enough said).
  2. ...the person you wish to love is of the same gender as you. This article reminded me that it is never unreasonable to bring this topic up, even with believers, because in our fallen world this difficulty is arises more often than we think.
  3. ...the person you wish to love is not a genuine believer. Throughout the Bible it is taught that those who are committed to following the true God should not mix themselves up in romantic relationships with those who aren't. In the Old Testament it was delineated over and over that the Israelites were not to intermarry with Canaanite or foreign women. Unfortunately, Solomon let love be stirred up in his heart with pagan women and crashed because of it (which shows the power of ungodly romance to work destruction in every area of a person's life, just like godly romance can work good in every area). In the New Testament the injunction is clear, to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. People who don't share your faith should fall into the "undateable" category for you, which means not even toying with the idea of being more than friends. (To put it bluntly, don't even answer the first text).
  4. or both partners are unable to control their own bodies.  Paul is blunt in 1 Thessalonians 4: "It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of his brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins... For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit." This is not talking about just some technical upholding of virginity itself before the vows (to which Christian purity seems to have been reduced), it is talking about acting in a way that is "holy and honourable." When people practice impurity, serious damage is done. Outside of marriage, erotic physical love is not loving, and outside of marriage it is always wrong.
  5. ...marriage is not possible in the near future. From the above point, one might think that Paul did not understand the nature sexual desire. How realistic is it to expect holiness between two people who attracted to each other? Actually, Paul understood, and he said "if they cannot control themselves, they should marry." Solomon describes the undoing power of romantic love warns that it should not be stirred up before marriage can quickly follow. Stirring it up without a serious desire to pursue marriage if possible leads to #4 (above) and to broken hearts.
  6. ....wise believers warn you that it is not the time. Solomon writes that "in the multitude of counsellors there is safety." If one or more wise people show concern, listen to them. It's much harder to confront than to condone, so if wise, balanced people risk confronting you about your romantic relationship, there's probably a valid concern.
It's no wonder Solomon repeated this warning about timing three times in his short book. We'll all heard stories of men and women who are deeply hurt because love has been stirred or awakened "before it pleased". Hurt can happen in a godly relationship, but devastating romantic heartbreaks should be the exception instead of the rule when we follow God's wisdom. While we often lament the difficulty of singleness for those who long to know romantic love, even more painful is the struggle of those who dip into the wells of romantic love in a way that is contrary to God's wisdom and timing. God offers forgiveness, but what has been sown is still reaped, to some degree. Let romantic love lie dormant (even if you've stirred it up in the past) by (1) focusing on the Person and the Word of Truth and (2) avoiding things that awaken desire before it is time. The guidelines God gives us offer assurance, so we can know when the time is right to awaken God's excellent gift of romantic love.

If I were to flip through my engagement album with my child or a friend and see that oft-repeated line: "do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases...", I could not tell them with 100% certainty that this or that is the time for love. I could not set a date on a calendar or predict if a relationship they're in will "work out." I could probably not select "the one" for them. Solomon probably couldn't either. There's something about that spark that is mysterious both in its timing and in its ability to set off a younger sibling's gag reflex. But it's a lot easier to spot the signs that it is not the time for love. If those warning signs are not seen, then perhaps this is the time to stir up or to awaken love—to marry the one God brought to you at the proper time. I like to imagine God watching godly romance and cheering—"Yes! This! This is what I meant for you to enjoy! See, isn't it fun?"

"Sit still, my daughter, until you know how the matter will turn out."
—Naomi to Ruth

"His wedding...the day of the gladness of his heart."
—from Song of Solomon 3

Note: One of the most down-to-earth, Biblical books I've 
read about dating is Holding Hands, Holding Hearts
This article from Boundless relates to point #5: From 'Hi' to 'I Do' in One Year.

November 12, 2015

from why to how to whom

She was pregnant, she told us. My mom asked how she got pregnant—not a question you usually need to ask, but in this case it seemed natural. As far as we knew, she had no boyfriend, and she certainly didn't have a husband. "At a party," she announced. The frizzy-haired girl with a broad smile, only thirteen, seemed happy for the extra attention her news and later her baby garnered for her. That snippet of her story stayed with me—she was a child carrying a child.

Around the same time, Mom told me that a family friend gave her some tapes about godly parenting. The friend had bought the material when expecting to have her own children. But as the years passed and no children were born to them, she finally asked my mom to give the resources away for her. My tenderhearted mom told me that disposing of those materials almost made her cry, because in her hands she held a reminder of her friend's disappointment.

Before I left home, I learned about one of the great ironies of life: well-educated, loving women who would seem to make wonderful mothers remain childless...and frizzy-haired thirteen-year-olds who hardly know how to read and write produce children like it's the easiest activity on the planet.

In our circle of friends here there are two couples for whom having babies has not been easy. They have been married nearly ten or fifteen years and unable to have children. Both are very invested in our local fellowship. Recently we had a thanksgiving service, and people were invited to share testimonies of the good things God has done in the last year. The first couple delicately announced that they are pregnant—after nine years of waiting. The second couple had no similar announcement to make. In fact, when it was the second couple's turn to share, the wife was weeping. Elation and sorrow often sit only a few rows apart, but the space between them can seem cavernous. 

The first question that comes to mind is, "God, why?" Why is the irresponsible teenager's womb healthier than that of the responsible lady in her thirties? Why did the couple that helps with the outreach work get pregnant when the couple that helps with the teenagers did not? And it doesn't stop there. Why does the neighbour's husband make more money than mine? Why does my coworker have more desirable talents? Why is my best friend happily married when I am not? Why did my car repair use up all my savings? Why can't my boss be kinder to me? Why do I struggle with my weight? Why do I have to move again? Why can't my family get along better? Why did my professor make my research project extra difficult? Why, why, why?

But maybe a better question is "God, how?" How does God say I should live in the circumstances in which I find myself? How would God have me respond to the person who has what I do not have? How would I want to be treated if I were in their situation? How does God's Word speak to this situation? How, how, how?

The answer to "Why has God allowed this situation?" is often unclear. Focusing on why often leads to doubt and disobedience because God's plan is not fully understood by me. 

The answer to "How can I please God in this situation?" is usually clear. Focusing on how leads to growth if I respond in obedience to His revealed plan for my life.

His instructions are plentiful, but the first how that comes to mind is His command to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn". He wants the expectant mother to shed tears with her infertile sister, but He also wants the barren woman to express sincere joy at her sister's pregnancy news. If He has commanded it, He also will empower us to cross the aisle or the cavern to find a place where happiness and pain can embrace.

When I have no answers to the whys, I am tempted to ignore the clear hows. I don't want to obey unless I know a reason first. But another of the great ironies of life is this: if I am not obeying what is clear, the unclear will certainly remain hidden from me. As A. W. Tozer wrote, "Truth will not give itself to a rebel." When I obey the hows, I may begin to see a few more of the whys....

...but even if I don't, in obeying the Truth, I find a much better Answer—the Person for whom and to whom and through whom everything exists. I learn that He is both loving and trustworthy.
Laying aside my whys,
as I live out the hows
I display how I answer the ultimate question:
whom do I trust?

"Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
—Abraham to the Lord

"It is the LORD's will. Let Him do what He thinks is best." 
—Eli to Samuel, of the LORD

"To whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life."
—Simon Peter to his Master

"It is always possible to do what He tells us."
—Elisabeth Elliot

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, 
neither slave nor free, 
nor is there male and female, 
[barren or pregnant, single or married,
rich or poor, talented or untalented, 
fat or thin, healthy or unhealthy]
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Paul to the Galatians
(Words in brackets my own)

October 29, 2015

accepting limitations

This morning my husband made an unusual request: "Please don't do any freelance work today. Please take a nap." For the past week I have had a cold, and he wants me to get better. Last week I was staying up late, getting up early, teaching lovely but noisy kids, eating restaurant food, staying with strangers, and toting luggage up and down stairs...which could explain why I am still ill. When he instructed me, I countered, "But I have a few clients to whom I promised something...." He revised his instructions slightly, because he's reasonable like that: "Please don't do anything today that you don't need to do today."

So today I made a four-item to-do list. There are probably 25 other things that I could put on my list, 
because we are thinking of moving again, 
because we are submitting immigration documents,
because there's laundry and cleaning to do,
because there are other clients waiting for this and that. 
But today I am thankful for the limitation my husband put on his coughing, sneezing wife, because I accept that instruction as from the Lord. God Himself told me through my husband that I should rest today. So, I will try.

My husband makes great "I'm sorry-you're-sick" tea.

During the past almost-year I've been learning to accept the boundaries my husband occasionally puts on me (and when to negotiate with him, and when not to). He doesn't really ask much of me, but I'm realizing that even what he encourages me to do is good for me, too (like spending less time hunched over my laptop, and more time exercising, cooking wholesome food....or napping). My husband wants good things for me because he loves me, and any limits he puts on me, he puts on me in love.

Although learning to submit to a husband is new, having limitations placed on me by authorities is not. We like to tell children that they can "be anything they want to be", but actually, we all know that is a lie. We're all born between boundaries, borders and barriers. Some are placed on us due to gender or origin; others constraints are intellectual, emotional, physical or spiritual. Boys can't become robots. Girls can't become cats. Though some say differently, boys can't become girls, and girls can't become boys. Every child cannot become a dancer, an astronaut, or an acclaimed physicist, because we don't all have the abilities or the opportunities. Children should be taught that yes, there is a huge variety of options available to us, but that there are also boundaries or restrictions on what is wise or what is possible.

It is often supposed that limitations are meant to be done away with. We take pride in proving others wrong and flexing our authority muscles. Sure, some restrictions are wrong, unnecessary or unBiblical. But some limitations are God-given, sovereignly and wisely put around us for our good. We need discernment to know which is which, and to appreciate our limitations, we must first appreciate the character of the God who ordained them. 

I've experienced my own share of interesting limitations: my dad didn't like me to wear big earrings ("too showy") and in high school a teacher pulled me aside after chapel and gave me a longer T-shirt to wear because my stomach appeared between my shirt and my pants. In college, our dorm rooms were inspected for neatness and our lights were supposed to be out at 11pm. Bosses have put a variety of limitations on me as far as what time to be at work, how my work should be done, and how many days off I can have. Once when I told church leaders something I wanted to do, they didn't see things quite the same way, so the idea was stalled. Although my Asian roommate would encourage me to go out in shorter skirts and tank tops, my parent-like figures in Asia encouraged me to dress extra-modestly due to the culture and be cautious when out alone. 

Now I can see that my life's limitations have directed me. My gender, origin, and intellectual, emotional, physical or spiritual constraints have played a huge role in steering the ship of my a good way. And more specifically, those who told me what I could and couldn't wear taught me about modesty and to be more concerned with the inner woman than the outer. The mess police reminded me that less stuff equals less mess, and the 11pm lights-out preserved my sleep even when I didn't want it to. By seeking to abide by my bosses' rules and working with them for years, I have learned countless things personally and professionally. My church leaders' lack of enthusiasm about some of the ideas I presented ultimately guided me in another direction which to me now seems God-ordained. When I met a foreign girl my age in Asia who had been groped while alone in an alley, I was reminded that God kept me safe through the wisdom of my authorities. God used yays or nays of my authorities in different stages of life to guide me.

Today, as I sit here, suck my fourth throat lozenge, and look at my short (yet still somewhat intimidating, considering how I'm feeling) to-do list, I am thankful for today's husband-imposed limitations. There's a lot of freedom to be found within the limitations! There's freedom to not worry about answering that work-related buzzing on my phone; freedom to nap when I'd usually be up and about; freedom to write; and freedom to hold off one more day on making my big to-do list for the next few months.

No, fortunately I can't "be anything I want to be" or "do anything I want to do." I'm a woman, a member Christ's church local and universal, a wife, a freelancer, a guest in a foreign country, and (today) I'm sick! All of those categories or statuses limit my options in some ways, but they also provide a framework for what is possible. The unique framework of my individual limitations is good, because it communicates God's will for me quite clearly, and it allows me to be the best I can be. Within that framework, I am guaranteed God's protection over me as I explore, learn, grow and achieve! Knowing what I can't do often helps me to see what I can. As I told my kids in a raspy voice last week, a fish will be at its best when it acts like a fish, not when it acts like a bird. A sick Christian / woman / wife / freelancer / foreigner will do really well at sleeping and taking medicine today. Tomorrow or next week, she should be able to do much more, but not today.

Maybe your God-given constraints today have you working overtime and still having guests over for supper. Maybe accepting God's limits on you today means taking a nap and ordering take-out instead of cooking. May you find direction in recognizing your limitations. May you find contentment in accepting your limitations. They were put in place by an all-knowing, all-seeing, everywhere-present God, and His love for you knows no limits.

Now if you would excuse me, I need to nap.

In acceptance lieth peace,
O my heart be still;
Let thy restless worries cease
And accept His will.
Though this test be not thy choice,
It is His—therefore rejoice.

In His plan there cannot be
Aught to make thee sad:
If this is His choice for thee,
Take it and be glad.
Make from it some lovely thing
To the glory of thy King.

Cease from sighs and murmuring,
Sing His loving grace,
This thing means thy furthering
To a wealthy place.
From thy fears He’ll give release,
In acceptance lieth peace.

—Hannah Hurnard, "In Acceptance Lieth Peace"

October 15, 2015

good and not good

A few weekends ago we attended a farewell dinner for a good friend. We spent the evening around a rug on the floor of our friend's oversized bedroom, in the shadow of the suitcases and a bachelor's simple belongings stacked in the corner. There we ate homemade Indian food, drank chai and watched Asian cultural dance clips on YouTube, and at the end, said a sad goodbye.

At some point in the evening, perhaps because we were in a bachelor's apartment, a teasing comment was directed at my husband, implying that he misses being single. My husband acknowledged that yes, his single years were good ones, and then there was a bit of a hubbub, as if I should and would be upset at him for saying that it was good to be single. 

I considered whether that comment should upset me. It didn't take me long to realize that I'm OK with him saying that his single years were good, because mine were, too. To say your single years were good is not to say that your married ones aren't. Much of the joy and contentment my husband feels with his married status has to do with the fact that he cultivated a joyful and contented heart when he was single, too. Singleness served a good purpose in his life, and so does marriage now. His trust is in the goodness of God, not the goodness of singleness or marriage.

Yes, his single years were good ones. When he was single it cost 50% less to go to Prague and there weren't two sets of parents to call and fly to visit. He had fewer commitments and could be at church events more nights of the week. The bills were lower; he had more superfluous income to give away, or to spend on the pile of sports clothes that mostly languish in the bin above the closet now that he lives with a less-sporty spouse. Things didn't disappear unexpectedly like they do now ("Have you seen my sunglasses, Julie?" "I haven't seen my bike kit in months..."). The house was quieter—he didn't have a wife who liked to interrupt his train of thought. If he left the kitchen clean, he came home to (surprise!) a clean kitchen. And last but not least, the olive oil and shampoo lids were screwed back on securely after they were used! (Tightening lids is apparently not my spiritual gift).

And yes, my single years were good, too. God gave me community that grounded me in good doctrine and good works. He allowed me to develop my talents (fun!), and also realize some of the things I'm not good at (not so fun!). I got to spend lots of time teaching kids God's Word, which is something I love to do. He gave me the opportunity to travel more than most, and to cultivate deep friendships with singles and marrieds alike in a way that might not have happened had I been chasing toddlers. And did I mention that I got to live in Asia with Asians for almost two years? People sometimes say that they don't see their own selfishness until they are married, but I was put in enough awkward situations over the years that I was given the painful gift of seeing my flesh. I began to realize that "apart from [God] I have no good thing" before I married at age almost-29.

In our churches it is often emphasized that it is "not good for man to be alone," and we encourage marriage much more than celibacy, although Scripture is clear that marriage is not for everyone. And the much-quoted verse from Genesis bout what is good should also be balanced with the fact that "no good thing does He withhold from those whose walk is blameless." For our blameless single friends (that is, our friends who are walking with God and are unmarried, whether they wish to marry or not), I cannot tell them that marriage would be a good thing for them right now. In fact, at the moment it must not be. There is a profound (though sometimes painful) peace found in trusting in the never-ending goodness of God.

Yes, for us, our single years were good and profitable ones, and I've realized that my husband and I need have no qualms in acknowledging that in front of each other. We both struggled at times with singleness in a fallen world, but we will struggle with marriage in a fallen world, too. The worst season of our singleness, if we may put it that way, was simply when he and I realized that in the providence of God we had "found the one whom our soul loved". Then, singleness became for us not good, and after many googly-eyed Skypes and few months with our heads in the clouds, we made not good into good by means of a weddingNow marriage, with all its delightful and difficult moments, is God's good thing for us. 

By faith we know and accept this: God is good and what He does is good. Let us exhort one another to trust in the goodness of our great God, marital status notwithstanding. Even when we struggle to call our condition or that of another "good", let us call Him good. That (not the presence of a band on our left ring finger, or the lack thereof) makes all the difference.

"The LORD is good to all;
he has compassion on all he has made."

October 08, 2015

feeding foreign friends

When I was a child, my family and I ate in many different homes, especially during our visits to North America. We were fed many foods we didn't eat in South America, and this was generally an enjoyable experience. Hosts provided strawberries with whipped cream, toasted English muffins with creamed honey and peanut butter, and a delightful variety of sugary breakfast cereals to tickle our tropical tastebuds.

The breakfasts, lunches and dinners we were served blur together in my memory, except for one. Much to my dismay, on that too-memorable day I watched our elderly hosts-du-jour place a glass of reddish-orange juice at each place before our shared meal. I immediately recognized this hated foreign drink called "tomato juice". I knew the horror that lay before me: unless I managed to get clearance from Mom, I would have to drink it, and being forced to drink tomato juice felt like certain death to ten-year-old me.

I don't think of myself as a picky eater, but drinks must be a trouble spot for me. A few years ago in Asia a neighbour generously invited me over for breakfast after an early-morning outing. The meal itself was tasty, but unfortunately the fruity buttermilk drink she put in my cup almost made me gag right then and there. Thankfully, I was with another friend who could tolerate the beverage, so she guzzled hers while I left most of mine in the cup, hoping the hostess wouldn't really notice. Choosing not to drink it was the lesser of two evils, I hoped; coughing buttermilk onto the tablecloth probably would have been worse.

Have you ever had a similar experience of being invited to someone's house for a meal, only to be fed something that you virtually could not swallow? Food you can't enjoy (but feel forced to eat) makes you uncomfortable. On the other hand, food that you can enjoy not only makes your visit pleasant, but it usually makes you want to visit again!

Since moving away from North America, and especially since being in Europe, I have been learning about hosting guests of cultures different than my own. Here, we rarely have North American guests, so we are always wondering what others will like and feeding people who grew up eating differently than we did. I've been convicted that I should try harder to make our guests feel comfortable with the foods I choose to serve. Sure, we have the freedom to feed our guests anything we want, but it serves them and builds our friendship when we feed them things they can enjoy.

The biggest lesson I've learned about feeding guests of a different culture (you can stop reading after this paragraph if you want) is to use ingredients which are somewhat familiar to them. Usually you don't want to make something that is extremely different than what they are accustomed to eating or drinking, because they may not like it. But you also don't want to exactly imitate something that they had back home, because you probably won't make it as well as Mom did. If you're not very familiar with what people from particular parts of the world eat, Google is your friend. Ask it, "What do Arabs eat?" or look up "typical foods in Tunisia" and get an idea of what they are accustomed to, so that you can make something with a few familiar ingredients. I realized this when both our Indian and Syrian friends enjoyed this bulgar salad. I think that this is because it has ingredients that are familiar to them (bulgar, chick peas, cucumber, bell pepper), but perhaps they have never eaten those ingredients in a salad format before, so it is a different twist on flavours they can enjoy.

But maybe you don't know where to find bulgar or don't have a clue how to make chick peas. You can learn, or you can read on....

Another possibility is to feed international guests a meal or snack from your home country, adjusted to their cultural tastes as needed. Wouldn't you be excited if your Italian friend had you over for pasta, or your Middle Eastern friend brought you homemade baklava? As North Americans we don't have so many traditional foods as some countries, but burgers and fries, "meat and three", homemade loaf bread, chocolate chip cookies, pie or cupcakes are things your guests may feel privileged to eat in a North American's home. TexMex can be interesting to people of other cultures, because it is a twist on some ingredients they may have eaten before (like cilantro, beans, tomatoes, beef) mixed with other not-too-scary ingredients (cheese, avocado, tortilla chips). Some flavours or cuisines seems to be universally enjoyable, such as pizza, pasta, or chocolate.

If some of the ingredients in the meal you want to serve are a bit unusual, allowing people to pick their own toppings or mix and match ingredients on their own plates works well. I saw my friends in Asia serve meals like this successfully many times. I sometimes serve a salad as a meal, but have five or more bowls on the table with different options of toppings and dressings, which lets everyone pick something that suits him or her.

Here are a few commonalities I've noticed about guests from specific backgrounds:

For Hindu or Indian guests: Hindus range from vegetarian (some don't even eat eggs) to eating virtually any meat except beef. If I don't know them well yet, I usually try to feed them a vegetarian meal just to be on the safe side, because sometimes even the meat-eaters are not eating "non veg" due to a special fast or festival. Some might say they eat meat to seem more Western, but might be more comfortable eating a vegetarian meal. You can always ask ahead of time if they eat meat, or keep meat separate as an optional add-in. Also, south Indians are used to eating rice, and north Indians to flatbreads of various kinds. They virtually all like their food well-seasoned and spicy, and putting hot sauce on the table is a good idea, because you probably don't like it as spicy as they do. They are used to having their tea with lots of milk and sugar in it, and usually they like black tea—fruity or herbal teas are less known to them.

For Musl!m or Arabic-speaking guests: I have gathered that they are accustomed to eating meat, rice, kebab and flatbread. Probably most Arab men like some meat on their plate, though of course, not pork! The meat might need to be halal (such as from a Turkish grocery store). Anything that could possibly contain pork gelatin, like gummy bears, should be avoided if they're conservative. I've noticed that they like tea (green tea with honey and ginger seems to be a win) but only after the meal. If they're at your house around prayer time, you might want to make them comfortable to pray if needed. I've learned some of this also by visiting in our Syrian friends' home and seeing what is normal for them.

For Western European guests: Western Europeans use much less sugar than North Americans do. This has been a good thing for me to learn; lately I'm baking cake with half the sugar and hardly noticing the difference! They don't drink much pop and like their food fresh. Germans aren't guaranteed to be adventurous with spice or exotic ingredients, and using some of their sturdy staples like potatoes, meat, apples, bread, etc. is usually a recipe for success if you don't know your guests well. Good coffee is often appreciated by Europeans.

These are very general guidelines, but talk to your guests, and find out if they have any allergies, preferences or dietary restrictions. When feeding immigrants, their willingness to try new things might depend on their age (young people might be more flexible than older adults), personality (our easy-going Chinese friends enjoyed TexMex) and how long they've been out of their homeland (the longer they've lived outside their home country, the more they've likely adapted to local foods, especially if they came when they were quite young, or came alone, not with a wife or mother who has been cooking their traditional cuisine every day). The strictness of their diet or whether or not they drink alcohol might depend on how conservative they are. Of course, there are picky eaters or vegetable juice haters in almost any culture. Asking their preferences always communicates respect.

So, do you have to be super-hostess to invite a foreign friend over? I am living proof that you don't need to be. I've spoken a lot about food here, but I am not an excellent cook. The chicken tonight was dry; last week our Wednesday soup was too spicy and Germans were turning red eating it. My husband is too temperate to tell you of the the meals I've destroyed with too much garlic, too much salt, or too much time under the broiler. But the more meals I cook, the more I learn. The more international guests we host, the more trends and preferences I pick up on. Preparing and serving homemade meals is always quite a bit of work, but it does get easier and faster with practice.

Why does it matter what we serve our guests of other cultures? Isn't the heart behind hospitality much more important than the menu? Yes, but what better way to show guests what is in your heart than by putting care and thought into choosing a pleasing menu? Our friends who are far from their home cultures are probably extra-appreciative of love. Fine-tuning your hospitality to different types of guests serves to build bridges into their lives. If they are at ease (not nervously choking down buttermilk) and they see that you care about them, they're more to open their hearts. Rosaria Butterfield's words in this interview resounded with me:
"Hospitality is not about putting sprinkles on your [cupcakes]. It is a form of spiritual engagement, even perhaps a form of spiritual warfare….you want to always make sure the strength of your words matches the strength and integrity of your relationships. If you want to talk to your neighbours about sin you had better be friends first, you had better be able to be people who have shared a meal together..." 
A thoughtfully-prepared, prayed-over meal can be a bridge to deepen relationships and talk about what really matters. Serve food that makes your international friends feel comfortable. Prepare a meal or snack that makes them feel loved and looked after. And please, if you have learned anything from this post, don't force your guests' children to down tomato juice!

Note: If you liked this post and are thinking about hospitality, you might like to read other hospitality posts, especially this one that talks about why we prefer, when we can, to invite people in instead of taking them out. If you have experience hosting foreign friends and can contribute, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

September 17, 2015

my place in his arms

Last Saturday evening we ate something I tried to hoodwink my husband into believing was supper. Roasted kuri squash with feta sprinkled on top, and green beans cooked with almonds and butter. No meat, no starch—not really a full meal, according to either of our mothers, I'm sure. But it was our supper.

I put our plates on the table, and my husband spun from the laptop where he had spent the last five hours job hunting, to face his plate of vegetables. We quietly cut squash into bite-size pieces with the sides of our forks and discussed his employment search. (Last week we learned that his current job is ending, and that there is a 90% chance that we'll need to move to another place in the next six months or so.)

The squash was a bit too much for him to finish, because his beans ran out and he liked eating the beans and squash together. He left a few harvest-orange chunks on his plate and was ready to turn back to his job hunt. I said, "Let's hang out a bit longer" and then salt water started dripping from the corner of my eye, down my nose—only the first of many tears. He was probably wondering why I was crying. But he patiently put his arm around me and let me try to explain. 

I remember the first day he did that, I mean, the first day that he put his arm around me. It was for a picture, when he visited me in Asia the first time. My smile in those photos was one of the widest ever, because I realized that not only did this man come all the way from Europe to meet me, but that after a few days with the real-life me, he still liked me. He wanted me to be close to his side.

Five months later, he sat me down in a historic American park and put a fidgety arm around me. He asked me to marry him and be his helper-completer. In other words, he said I was the bone missing from his ribcage. And with tears, of course, I said yes to his proposal. I imagined our life, shoulder-to-shoulder, doing His work.

On the day of our wedding—the day of the gladness of our hearts—he covenanted his love to me. And then he patiently wrapped his arm around my shoulder time after time on the church stage and in the church basement, until his lips felt like rubber from so many half-smiles for photos coming from all directions.

Last weekend, he put his arm around me again and listened to what made me cry: that the relationships I have begun to make here will meet an early end. The shuffling and selling and sorting that a move brings doesn't delight me either, but it is the emotional expense that I fear the most. Beyond that, I fear that this might be the first move of various, until he finds the job that suits him best. I try to explain that I fear all this moving will gut me, like I just gutted the squash.

It was obvious that the thought of moving does not make him feel the same way as it does me.
He has worked long and hard in anticipation of this. It has been nearly five years since he moved abroad, always knowing that this was in preparation for the next step in his career. For him, the thought of working on new projects, even if that means moving to a new place, is rather exciting. 

I see moving from an emotional perspective, after having made many moves in recent years. He sees moving from a practical perspective, and knows that it will likely be necessaryEven when our points of view are different, I always like to be in my husband's arms. They're strong and manly, yet gentle and kind. As we sat together last Saturday and I explained my tears, and he explained his thoughts, I was reminded of this: his arms are not enough. To some this realization would be devastating, but for me, it was not: I know that I can rest in my eternal Lover's arms. He will understand and carry me.

Actually, not only can I rest in my eternal Lover's arms, but I must, if I want to rest in my finite husband's arms. My husband is doing an excellent thing—exercising his dominion over creation and providing for me. If I want to be a wife with a quiet heart, a faithful helper, I must rest my full weight on the strongest arms...and those arms are not my husband's. Expressing my emotions to my husband is appropriate at times, but more important is pouring out my struggle with the only One who can really ease my worries. The Almighty One can help me to block the impending goodbyes from my view, and keep loving locally, and keep giving my husband the encouragement and support that he needs to pursue employment.

As women we dream of the day when a man will wrap his arm around us, invite us to shoulder life together, and covenant his love to us. Getting married can be good and right, but in a sense it is easy, too! Fall in love? Sure! Receive a diamond? Yes, sign me up! Get a nice new white dress and have a party? OK, can do! But the true nature of our womanhood comes to the fore when we're roasting squash, boiling beans and watching our husbands follow God's calling and apply for far-away jobs. Is our trust in God great enough that we can help and support the man He has given to us? No matter how strong they look, husbands need their wives' strength. Wives need their husbands' strength. And most of all, we all need the Father's strength. Saying "yes" to marriage is easy, but giving constant, daily support to another is impossible with out the stronger, everlasting arms beneath us. 

Our unbalanced vegetable dinner is digesting. Our conversation doesn't come to a grand and glorious conclusion, except that we decide it is not helpful for me to hear the name of each city or country where my husband has applied for a job. (I tend to start imagining life in that new place, until the next city name comes up. After hearing 20 different city names, this gets emotionally exhausting.) Our future plans are unclear, but this much is clear: my work is to keep helping my husband. It is my Father's will that I stay at his side, no matter where he goes. I do not know my next place in a geographical sense, but I do know my place in His plan: to rest with my husband's arms around me, and the everlasting arms beneath me. Here, my soul goes from clamorous to quiet.

"A foolish woman is clamorous...." 

"...let [your adornment] be the hidden person of the heart,
with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,
which is very precious in the sight of God...."

"This is what the Sovereign LORD...says: 
"In repentance and rest is your salvation, 
in quietness and trust is your strength..."

"His left arm is under my head, and his right arm embraces me."
—Solomon's wife, of Solomon

"Do you have an arm like God's...?"
—God to Job

"...nor did their arm bring them victory; 
it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, 
for you loved them."
—David, in the 44th Psalm

"My hand will sustain him; surely my arm will strengthen him."
—God, via Ethan the Ezrahite

September 10, 2015

as peaceable as possible

Have you ever had a job where everyone plays the lottery together? I had one such job for quite a few years. The tickets were just $2 or occasionally $5 each, and a coworker with a clipboard would come around collecting money every other week or so, record who had contributed, and then go buy tickets with whatever she collected. The idea, of course, was to improve our odds of winning by pooling our money, buying lots of tickets, and sharing the winnings.

When the collector would come around, the response in our department was virtually always the same. My supervisor would stand up, pull some coins from the pocket of his coat he hung behind the door, and joke about stealing the $2 from his kids' allowances. The rest of the coworkers in the room would shell out a few dollars each. And as for me, I never played.

One day a different coworker started collecting the money. When I said I preferred not to buy a ticket, she said, as if she had been prepped about me, "Oh, yeah, you don't play for religious reasons." I wanted to tell her that it wasn't really for religious reasons; or at least that a little financial common sense would also suggest that she not play the lottery, either. But before I could thoroughly explain myself, she was picking up twonies from someone else in the room.

Not playing the lottery sort of became my thing. Often the company owner and I were the only ones in the whole building who didn't put money into the pot. Good-natured teasing came my way, about how I'd have to work when the rest of them were retiring early. Then the owner, overhearing the jokes, would tell me that I would be guaranteed a wage hike and be second in command if the rest of them left for Tahiti with their lottery winnings. We would all laugh.

I did more than my own share of teasing back. I would joke about what I could buy with all the money I'd saved by not putting in my $2 each week. I would talk about the Reese's I was going to get from the candy machine with my $2, and remind them how $5 bought a tasty sandwich at the grocery store down the road. When occasionally the collector would happily announce that they had won $20, I would smile and ask her how much money it had cost them to get $20. Then I would tease, "I wonder if I could find a bank that would give me that kind of interest! If I could put in $50, and get only $20 back! What a bargain...!" We would banter back and forth.

Then one day I read Paul's instruction, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." When that verse took root in my heart, I realized that while some of our talk was in good fun, my teasing about my coworkers' decision to lose money each week (insinuating that they were unintelligent or irresponsible) was not really peaceable living. So, I stopped teasing (at least about that).

During those years I thought a lot about what winsome, peaceable communication looks like. Some days as the smokers in my department zipped up their winter coats in preparation for inhaling hazardous toxins outside, a couple of non-smokers would seize the opportunity to rag them about the dangers of smoking. While I agreed that smoking is unhealthy and unwise, I decided not to participate in this teasing because I realized that poking and prodding about topics like these would probably mean the loss of opportunities for more meaningful conversations about God, for example, or purpose or morality. I sought to cut down on my teasing about things that didn't really matter in the long term (believe it or not, there are smokers and gamblers amongst the redeemed) and look for those little opportunities to squeeze in more important (and even potentially-controversial) words, though those opportunities seemed few and far between. For me, this was an important lesson and something I'm still learning.

Lately, I've been watching with some concern how well-meaning believers throw highly controversial articles up on Facebook and—to use the same word Paul did—disturb the peace. You know what I mean; I'm talking opinionated posts about topics that tend to be divisive:
gun legislation
the definition of marriage
contraception, or
a particular diet.
Some people get sort of accidentally caught in controversy. (You didn't know that Aunt Fran had strong opinions about Shetland ponies? Well, she does.) But it appears to me that others are not posting gently or peaceably; they're practically wanting to stir up their followers who disagree with them on important issues.

I understand that truth by its very nature is divisive and at times offensive. I do believe that there is a place for using social media to raise awareness for concerns or crimes that the regular media is not covering (such as the recent videos exposing the systematic killing of babies). I too have strong opinions on both important and unimportant subjects—remember, I was one out of about forty employees who, week after week, didn't play the lottery. But when I try to bring Paul's teaching to bear on social media sharing, I ask: Is posting this the best way to live peaceably with the people who might read it? 

I heard Facebook described as an awkward party that you feel you can't leave and truly, that is what is has become for many people. Chances are that unless you've been very selective in your friending, you're followed by everyone: the vegan pro-abortion neighbour; the conservative head-covering cousin with ten children; your mother, who comments on everything you share; your quiet childhood friend whom you haven't seen in twenty years...and everyone in between. What to one is an encouraging post is to another deeply offensive. To make things worse, in an online "conversation" most vital communication cues such as tone of voice or timing don't come across so well. Truth is truth—but all of our friends are at different levels of readiness to accept truth and have different levels of trust in us and our message. Why even try to be peaceable when it seems virtually impossible? Well, because Paul also enjoined us to "speak the truth in love." Paul didn't use social media, but this was his strategy: "I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some."

How can we share the truth in love? How can we be peaceable when so much that we believe seems counter-cultural? Here are a few ideas I've had.
  1. Communicate difficult truths less through social media outlets, and more through live conversations and relationships. Initiate real life (or at the very least, private message!) conversations with people about topics that not everyone would be edified by seeing. Most of my unbelieving friends could probably guess quite accurately my views on the above listed issues (except about Shetland ponies—I tend to keep my views about them quite private).  But it is one thing for them to see my views in their Facebook feed—it's quite another for us to peaceably discuss them over supper at my house or in a quiet corner of the lunchroom. Real relationships can be severely damaged or at least hindered because of digital conversations that have not been well-planned. You'll probably also find that people are less abrasive when discussing a topic in person. Speaking of which...
  2. Don't post things that you wouldn't have the courage to discuss or say in person, if you were talking to the people who can see what you post. Some people are all bravado on the internet, but sheepish in person. I can easily be that person, because my written words are often stronger than my spoken ones, and there was an incident this year after which I determined to try to follow this rule myself. Be a voice of peace in every setting, because whether it is your digital voice or your physical voice, it should be the voice of Christ. 
  3. Do post (and like and comment) with your entire audience in mind. Suit your posts to your audience. If you want to post things that aren't appropriate for every single person in your feed, Facebook allows you to limit your audience for your posts. Some content could be meaningful to your believing friends but alienating to your unbelieving friends. To me, giving people ideas which they are not prepared to appreciate seems like throwing pearls before swine, or sowing your best seeds on unplowed, weedy soil. For example, in recent weeks I posted on Facebook about Rosaria Butterfield to a  limited audience. The truths she shares are precious pearls for those who are receptive; but others will trample the same pearls. (Note: check other settings as well; just because you're not posting on controversial topics doesn't mean that you're not liking or commenting on things that show up in all of your 600 friends' feeds.) 
  4. Pray about your posts. I do think that there are times when a post can be controversial but also appropriate, when shared in a peaceful, loving way. If you are posting something of this nature, pray about the post or comment, asking God whether it is wise, and if you do post it, ask God to use it to draw people to Himself and not to push them away.  
As far as I know, my former coworkers have still not won the lottery. They continue to work the eight to four-thirty shift and put their $2, sometimes $5, into the lottery each week. Maybe they still smoke, or tease the smokers. Since I've known them, some of them may have spent upwards of $700 just on the office lottery. (Let's not even talk about the cost of cigarettes). There's about 1 in 10,000,000 chances that someday they'll win "the big one" and message me gleefully...however, I might not get the message until later...maybe I'll be off spending my $700 plus interest on my dream trip to Russia. (There's still some tease left in me!)

Lottery players seldom win, but wisdom always wins big in the end. Maybe it's that assurance that we have that makes us eager to share truth with everyone we know—we are confident that the truth will prevail. It is a good thing to be confident in what He has promised. But let's be wise stewards of our digital communication by choosing fewer and better words. Let's share more of His Word, and less of superfluous human opinion. We're called to be strong and courageous, but we're also called to be peaceable and loving. The message of the gospel itself is offensive enough—may we wisely add no personal offence to it.

"Like apples of gold in settings of silver 
Is a word spoken in right circumstances." 

"The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable..." 

"...a word spoken in due season, how good it is!" 

"Through patience a ruler can be persuaded,
and a gentle tongue can break a bone." 

"Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves...Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

 "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God..." 
—writer to the Hebrews