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July 31, 2015

when God is heavy

[Sometimes I look back in my files and see an almost-finished post. This one's from Asia, in 2014.]

It's a quiet weekend morning and I'm stretched across the foot of my friend's double bed, staring at the delicate pattern in her white curtain. I'm listening as she slowly divulges a dark story about her friend's poor decisions. Disappointment makes her voice drop and scrape as she talks about what is a heavy topic for a lazy Saturday morning. She swears me to secrecy about the weight she's carrying.

Not long later, I'm sitting on a second friend's bed and the story she tells me is similar in its gravity. Her neighbour literally chose his "neighbour's wife" over his own. Her tone is disgusted and distraught as she recounts the lurid tale, her eyes dark and fretful. "This is wrong! It's wrong!" I listen, and agree: it is wrong! (But what makes it wrong? How does she know it is wrong? Who says?)

I sit on a lot of beds; it's normal here. Our deeper conversations often take place in a female friend's room, her relational sanctum-sanctorum, if you will. One friend even laughed at the idea that we would sit and visit in the living room; she wanted us to visit in her bedroom. Something else is normal here, too, and it's not as laughablefriends carrying heavy burdens.

I hear statements like, "I am OK with one affair, but to have three or four affairs in quick succession? Now that is wrong!" Or, "I don't lie...except when it's a situation that I just can't escape without lying." As I shift on the end of the bed and listen to the sad stories unwind, it weighs on me to see how little distinction there is between truth and lies.

I shouldn't be surprised, because at times a friend mentions how his father taught him to lie about his age, or how her mother laughed off her small thefts as a child. Their confusion about truth is intergenerational, and its no wonder that they can't quite distinguish truth from error, when a clear, unchanging Standard was never taught to them. (And this is the case in homes all over the world, not just in Asia).

Something's missing. 
And that is "the knowledge of the glory of the LORD."  

Just one of the yummy meals my friend spoiled me with on her bed.

"Glory" comes from a Hebrew root word that denotes heaviness, and speaks of importance. It's translated so many ways in the Good Book because it seems to connote so many things. But I like to just go back to the root, "heavy, weighty." It helps me to understand: God is heavy. He carries weight. That's ultimately what we mean, when we talk about His glory. He is a big deal. He is the big deal!

If you've grown up in a home where truth was taught, and you haven't wandered particularly far from it, perhaps you (like me) have sometimes felt you have no story to tell. No dramatic tear-filled conversion, teenage pregnancies or prison stays to report.

"My parents taught me about the true God.
I believed, and still believe."

Kind of boring, right?
Won't draw a crowd, will it?

Sometimes I've even thought that my story of finding rest in gentle, humble Je'sus from a young age would be something people of other backgrounds couldn't relate to at all. It almost made me wish I had a more dramatic darkness-to-light testimony to share.

But one day, as I thought about this phrase, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea," I realized the eternal significance of a believing parent's work. A parent who raises his child with the knowledge of God is creating on a small scale the future earth that God speaks of here. He is structuring a mini-society in his home, where God is honoured (or "heavy") as He should be, and where truth cuts a straight line between wrong and right. 

That parent knows that when the child faces life on earth in its current condition, truth will be fallen in the street. But in his home, he seeks to create a solid base, full of the knowledge of Him, so his child is ready to make decisions grounded in who God is and what He has done.

What the wise parent knows is that when we don't allow God to be heavy, we end up carrying a lot of heaviness of our own, on our own.

What I realized is that my story wasn't boring; it was the kind of story that ideally everyone would have. God meant for every human's ideas to be shaped by truth-telling mediatorial authorities (like parents, teachers, elders) who let Him, as ultimate authority, have sway in every area.

I was raised with the knowledge of the glory of God, and by God's grace, accepted it early on—and my life has had a kind of lightness and straightforwardness to it that others who have come to know Him later have not experienced. That does not mean that I have had no problems, but I just mean that when we realize His weight at thirty or takes a lot more soul-scraping to change from seeing things our way to seeing things His way.

The story of Rosaria's discovery of the glory of God is one of my favourites, because she is so articulate about the enormous worldview shift that came about when she came to know Him in her thirties:
"I discovered that God isn't just a narrative we pick like summer berries or leave for the next person; nor is God a set of social conventions tailored for the weak of mind, nor is God a consumerist social construct to exist in the service of Christian imperialist ideologies and right-wing politics. Rather, I discovered that God through Jesus Christ exists, the triune God…exists, whether we acknowledge him or not. I discovered that God wasn't very happy with me."
She goes on,  
"This wordconversionis simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreak that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God.... When I became a [follower], I had to change everythingmy life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts....."
As Rosaria discovered, God was, is, and always will be weighty. He doesn't become glorious when we discover Him; He always has been. But the question is, do we acknowledge Who He really is? Or will we be bowed with our own burdens forever?

When He gets heavy in our own hearts, life changes. The general distinctions between truth and lies fall firmly into place. When God is heavy, we know the Standard: He is the standard. If we're willing to call wrong wrong, and right right, He gives us power to walk in the right and not the wrong. 

A few years ago I heard a wedding reception speech in which the father of the bride said that he had begun to pray for his children before he even had a wife. I knew that he had sought to raise His children to know and love God. And on that day, as he watched his daughter marry a man after God's own heart, his eyes shone and his joy was full. The baton was being passed in the relay of truth: another home where, by God's grace, they could perpetuate a legacy of preaching God as the heavyweight in all areas. Their home could be as full of the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as any home on earth could be.

But if you were raised in a family tree with amputated limbs, by a mother with a wandering eye, or by a father who didn't acknowledge the truth...there is just as much hope for you as for anyone else, though learning the knowledge of Him does take time. It takes time to rethink life, to let Him be heavy, to acknowledge His glory in every area of your life. 

I sat many times on a third bed in Asia, hearing out a third friend as she described the changes happening in her soul after she realized who God is, and started letting Him be the heavyweight in her life. The process was and still is difficult for her, and for anyone who lives in light of His glory (whether raised with the knowledge of God's glory or without).

But it's far better than the alternative. Because when He's not heavy, everything else is. 

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! 

"For the earth will be filled 
with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, 
as the waters cover the sea." —God to Habakkuk

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." —J'esus

"Throw all your worry on Him, 
because He cares for you." —Peter

"Give your burdens to the LORD, 
and He will take care of you...." —David

July 15, 2015

astounding grace

Tonight an Asian friend in Europe heard a definition of grace. It went something like this, "Imagine that you parked illegally, and deserved a parking ticket. You had absolutely no money to pay the fee. The lady writing up tickets filled out your ticket, but then proceeded to pay it herself. She showed you completely undeserved kindness—that is grace." A fairly simple definition, right?

I wish I had a picture of our friend's face at that moment, when he heard Biblical grace described for the first time. He was utterly astounded; he had never heard of such a thing. To him, grace carried the idea of balancing something out, not receiving something completely undeserved....even if only a paid parking ticket.

Tonight's Asian brought me bangles. I didn't mind!

Earlier today I spoke to a sweet friend back in Asia. I told her that I had met someone here, from her homeland, that made me think of her.

"I know you're a woman," I quipped, "but this man reminds me of you."

She laughed, "How is that? Does he wear specs?"

"No," I smiled. "He cares about spiritual things. He wants to know God and know truth. Making a difference matters to him."

Then I told her that if God were to give a job in her country to my husband, we would seriously consider moving back there. She tried to convince me otherwise.

"There is so much injustice here, Julie. Women are not safe. And what if you have children? You wouldn't want them to be raised here...." She concluded, "If he has an opportunity to have a job in a better place, really you should take it." 

But this evening, when I saw a simple definition of grace make an Asian almost jump off his chair, I remembered why I left my heart in his homeland—because principles like grace, that are part of my everyday experience, are virtually foreign to most there. Theirs is a land with many spiritually-minded people, and a land where a little truth goes a long way.

We know that astounding grace, and for us, the question is—does it make us leap out of our chairs? Would we go a long way, for a little truth?

July 13, 2015

beyond this valley

[I wrote this post about a week ago, near the end of what I hope was our first and last heat wave of the summer].

We've had a string of sweltering summer days here. Despite my tropical roots and my mostly-hot time in Asia, this European heat wave is still withering me! Our third floor apartment never really seems to fully cool off, and this country is too praktisch to have air conditioning (after all, it only gets this hot for a few weeks each year). So we're taking extra showers, keeping lights off, avoiding baking, and drinking iced coffee. I stopped while writing this paragraph, to go get water to drink, because it's just that hot.

We're struggling to have the energy to work in this heat, even with the luxury of cold water and regular meals. But we have friends who can't drink water or have a snack whenever they want. Many people in our city aren't eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset (about 3:30am and about 9:30pm here) for 30 days. One such friend moved to northern Sweden a few months ago, and he couldn't have chosen a worse time and place to celebrate Ramadan—this year it falls at the hottest time of year, and at the time when there is virtually no night. Our friend, and others who follow the same religion and live in the North, have a difficult decision to make: not to eat for days on end could endanger their bodies, but to eat could apparently endanger their souls. Knowing of their physical affliction, along with their spiritual hunger and thirst, reminds me of how blessed we are, even on these fiercely hot days.

It is fascinating to watch ancient religions, which were formerly separated by huge distances, stumbling into today's smaller, more connected world. I don't suppose Muhamm'ad started this fast maliciously, realizing that for some people, their days would be twenty-two hours long, followed by only a two-hour night. He likely knew nothing of Sweden; fasting during daylight hours worked where he lived. It was a local standard taught to a local community.

We could say that religions like his are culture-bound. As the travel time between different cultures and religions shrinks, and secularism raises more skeptics, world religions—each one claiming to teach universal truth—are put to the test. Do they work cross-culturally? Can they function on a different continent? Most importantly, can people of other cultures be convinced of and transformed by their message?

The more I learn of the traditions of various religions, the more I realize that their laws are covered in the fingerprints of men. Their very creeds are created by finite men, held captive by time and space, laying down principles for the world that they knewlaws that worked in their era, customs that fit their local culture. 

In Asia I have dear friends who are part of a religious sect that is quite well-known in that area, but ill-recognized in the rest of the world. My friends took me to temples or funerals, and once I even climbed one of their holy sites, a temple-covered hill, to see the thousands of idols at the top. I remember watching a procession celebrating the end of an important fast in our city. The ones who had successfully completed the fast were triumphantly paraded through the streets on painted elephants or in ornate carriages. I wondered to myself that several million people belong to this faith, yet most of the rest of the world has never heard of it.

My friends spoke with pride of their faith community, but they really didn't know the details of their religion. If we asked the details behind a fast, or about the ins and outs of the food laws, they would suggest that we meet with a wise uncle who read their holy writings. Other times they would recommend us to a lauded teacher who was coming to town, who could give us answersthough we never pursued it so far.

For the faithful, their diet was extremely limiting, with anything from potatoes and carrots to eggs and meat being banned year-round, and various other periods of time when they were expected to fast. In a desert climate with temperatures known to soar above +45°C, the esteemed priest or nun equivalents are not to use electricity (though having someone else turn on the fan for them is sometimes a way out) and they can travel only by foot. These are just a few of the boundaries placed on them by their system.

Their beliefs were an endless maze for me. Their practices constantly raised questions that I wondered why they did not ask. For example, why would God create food full of helpful nutrients, and make it available to you, only to tell you to scramble for ingredients to assemble less nutritious meals? If God rewards those who climb various holy mountains in remote parts of southeast Asia, how is that fair to the lame, the elderly, the sick, or people who live far from the religious headquarters? Most importantly, I always wondered, how can a religion deemed as the one, true way have been around for 3,000 years and still be a side sect in a few states in Asia? If this is the truth, why don't we see people relocating from all over the world to live at the base of this mountain and acquire good karma? Such questions were not voiced. (Critical thinking is less valued than respect to elders—to pose such queries would be disrespectful. The easiest path to peaceful relationships, which they value deeply, is to not think too critically).

Unfortunately, the answer to the questions I wanted to ask lies in the fact that their religion was made by people trapped in human culture. The esteemed elders may have had a form of godliness, but even if they climbed to the top of their holy mountain on a clear day, they literally couldn't see more than a valley or two away, let alone see the hearts of men, or see the future. So they created a religious system that seemed to answer the big questions of least in their valley, or in their region of the desert.

These short-sighted and specific laws only make sense in a particular place or time. This problem is not unique to Asian religions. Think of the Amish, and their laws about technology or attire which seem so cumbersome today. Remember Mormons back-pedaling on the issue of African-Americans not being allowed in their church, because that started to look bad? Orthodox Jews struggle to understand how the Torah's laws should be kept in today's era (because they don't see that the law has already been fulfilled in Christ).

If a religion claims to have a universal message or offer universal salvation, its message needs to resound universally. In fact, it needs to rise above culture and offer something that reaches the spirit of every man and woman. It needs to be flexible enough to be applicable in any time or location, yet robust enough to not be crushed by opposition. One of the greatest proofs of the Bible's uniqueness is its ability to transcend culture.

In Christianity, the structure of truth is solid, but the way in which it is carried out is quite flexible. Here are just a few examples that came to mind as I considered this:
  • Worship regulations: Christians have been given a precedent of worshiping corporately on Sunday, and of regularly remembering His death and resurrection. But if they live in Central Asia and have a Thursday-Friday weekend, or provide essential services on Sunday, there is no rule that condemns getting together on another day. For the remembrance meeting, we were given an example of using wine and unleavened breadbut I've had it with mango juice and chapati, or bread with yeast and grape juice, and it works! Christians enjoy visiting Jerusalem and some enjoy Jewish traditions, but there is no compulsion to visit there during a believer's lifetime, nor to pray facing a holy location.
  • Food regulations: I wrote a whole post on this because I think followers of Christ should know and preserve their liberty in the area of food—it's a big part of what makes Christianity so transferable worldwide!
  • Beverage regulations: We are clearly taught not to get drunk, but other than that, Christians vary greatly on their views about alcohol consumption.
  • Clothing regulations: We are taught to dress modestlybut we are free to interpret that in a way that works in our culture. There is no mention of gingham or plaid, burkas or burkinis, saris or kimonos. 
  • Special days: Christians get lumped in with everyone else, because we are said to have our festivals (Christmas, Easter) just like they do, but really, there is no compulsion from the Scriptures that we are to celebrate those days at all, and no threat of punishment if we don't.
  • Marriage and family regulations: Our book deals with gender roles, but it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation of how exactly those roles play out.
The New Testament was certainly written in an ancient culture by men who were products of their time and place, just as the other "holy" books were. Those men couldn't see beyond their "valley" or the next any better than another author of one of the world's great religious texts could. So how did a burly bunch of near-Eastern fishermen pen words that a European psychology student friend of ours called "modern"? How did they have the foresight to write words that are still expounded by intellectual preachers in New York? How is it that the Bible's message is relevant in cultures anywhere from the mountain peaks of Switzerland to the overgrown valleys of Papua New Guinea?

The Book we have could only have been breathed by an infinite God who could see past, present and future, and who knows our inner person. There is no other valid explanation for how our Book transcends culture. John Stonestreet writes, "the Bible transcends cultural trends and realities because the Bible is the context of all cultures." To say it another way, Truth existed before culture; culture did not generate Truth. The Bible explains our common identity, origin, purpose, and destiny because its author wrote our story. Our religion transcends culture because it diagnoses and remedies what ails the human spirit, no matter the colour of the body containing the spirit. It works on every continent, in every country.

It's evening here now, and the weather has cooled considerably, for the first time in four or five days. The night breeze tumbles through our kitchen window, as my mind goes to our various thirsty friends. They have strong family ties have widely-varying cultures, presuppositions and philosophies. At times I wonder if the Word is the universally life-giving Bread and Water that it claims to be. Does it really quench thirst cross-culturally? Can people of other cultures really be fed by its message? Or is it just a local phenomenon? Is it just convincing in my valley?

The best way to know if our "product" works is to test it, to give it out. They can't know if our bread is good unless they taste it; they can't drink of our water unless we put it on the table.

A few nights ago, as another hot Ramadan day ended, our Syrian friend said his prayers facing Mecca (previously only known as "the vacuum cleaner corner") on a bath towel my husband arranged for him on the floor. He then broke his fast with a meal that we ate together at 10pm. He was revived, drinking cold water, serving up his share of supper, and laughingly recounting incidents from his childhood. Our visit started and ended late, and by the time the guests left, the dishes were washed and we fell into bed, we were hot and exhausted. But just our bodies were tired; our spirits were alive. Because at one point after dessert, when I looked up at our Syrian friend, I could see in his eyes that more than his body was being fed and watered. His spirit was eating and drinking, too. And to give that food and water, we'd heat our already-hot kitchen and stuff the freezer with ice cubes a thousand times over.

This religion works, friend, in more than just our valley—"to Jerusalem...Judea...Samaria...and to the ends of the earth." Hand a loaf to a hungry one, or a cup to a thirsty one, and see for yourself.

"With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

"This is the bread that comes down from heaven, 
so that one may eat of it and not die. 
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. 
If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. 
And the bread that I will give 
for the life of the world is my flesh." 

"But whoever drinks of the water 
that I will give him will never be thirsty again. 
The water that I will give him will become in him 
a spring of water welling up to eternal life." 

"Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; 
and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!" 

July 06, 2015

to be at home

I spent almost two years in Asia, and most of the time I was there, I lived with two new Asian friends. They were from other cities (albeit in the same country) and we had all come to our host city because of our jobs. We were of vastly different worldviews and backgrounds, but found each other through the local version of Kijiji and forged a partnership, a little home made up of single girls in a country that largely still doesn't really understand single, working women. We had our ups and downs in living together, but our necessary dependency on each other created an important bond.

Living with people of such different faith and culture stretched me daily in ways I had not been stretched before. For example, never before had a roommate asked me if she could hang her god cabinet in the common dining room, or hired a maid who insisted on disrupting the order of objects in my room. But living with them gave me deeper relationships with them and deeper insights into their culture than I could have had any other way. My husband and I, now that we have our own independent home, could likely never so deeply experience life with the people around us, as I did in living with roommates. I am thankful for their friendship, and for the many things I learned from and with them.

Beverages on one of our our roommate dates

One positive thing my roommates, and our host culture, taught me was a new appreciation for having someone around the house. Before Asia, I had valued the idea of a stay-at-home mother or stay-at-home wife, but only after going to Asia did I begin to value just generally having someone around.

It took a while for me to understand that to my roommates, home meant a place where there was someone around. Someone who could cook, clean, and have warm rotis sitting in their insulated box when they came home. To me, home was a place where I could enjoy my privacy, and I enjoyed being home alone. To them, home was a place where there needed to be other people or noise, even if that was just the TV. I think this comes from their typically inter-generational homes ("joint families") where cousins from two, three or four different sets of parents grow up on the same property or even in the same home, almost like siblings. Grandparents live with their children and grandchildren, and therefore the house always has someone around.

In this warm culture, they're not used to being alone or eating alone. Our dear neighbour pleaded with me to allow her to serve me homemade suppers when my flatmates were away, because she couldn't bear the idea of me eating alone, or not eating "properly" while they were gone...though to me, having the flat to myself for a few days usually meant a quiet reprieve that my beleaguered introvert self appreciated.

There was always a bit of tension between me and the roommates about how much access others should have to our home. It boggled my mind how my roommates would allow a person they'd known for a few months have the keys to our home, or even how they'd leave the key with the neighbour whom they'd only known for slightly longer. (For all I knew, the neighbour could be making and selling copies of it). We were constantly trying new solutions that could keep us all happy, but there was never a perfect one: if the maids had free reign of the house while no one was home, I was unhappy. If my roommates didn't have homemade food waiting for them when they got home, they were unhappy. We were never able to see eye-to-eye on this, and perhaps God knew it was time to have me to live with someone of a more similar cultural background!

Because of our key holder issues, it was always a relief when an aunty, mom or sister would come to stay with us. In our corner of Asia, when a female relative came, she often came for weeks or months. During her stay, she could be the "at home" person, taking vegetable deliveries, letting in the cleaning lady, giving instructions to the cook, handing over the car keys to the car cleaner, and collecting ironed clothes from the press wala. It gave a sense of comfort even to me, to have someone around our house, who knew what was going on during the daytime and managed the many part-time employees my roommates collected. It didn't hurt if the aunty wanted to make some delicious chole masala or pau badji for me, and give me a good night hug, either. I learned to appreciate the family members that would come stay with us.

My corner in our shared flat, probably after the maid cleaned my room.

I brought some of this stronger sentiment about having someone at home to Europe with me. My husband and I talked about having me look for a job locally, but my basic language skills would probably land me only a simple job, and we didn't like the idea of my hours or holiday time conflicting with my husband's or with serving others together. We were willing to try it, though, and just before we started pounding the pavement to look for outside work for me, suddenly God brought along a significant amount of writing and design work that I can do from home, which made the decision easier to have me be around home.

I savour being home. When a package comes mid-day and I can receive it (saving a trip to pick it up somewhere) or when the plumber needs to come in and check our hot water heater, I'm glad to be here. When I can format a book spread and still fill the house with yummy aromas long before my husband arrives, I'm thankful. Or when I can rearrange my work schedule to allow for morning breakfast get-togethers or a spontaneous late lunch with a friend who needs someone to talk to, I realize I'm blessed to be flexible. One week when my husband was terribly sick and needed extra care, I was glad to not have to head out the door each morning and leave his weak form behind, because my vows are to my husband before my other work.

I know that many wives would love to be at home and still earn something to help with their household income, but haven't found a way to do that. I know that many single women would love to focus more on their homes and ministry through their homes, but supporting themselves means going to a typical 9 to 5 job each day. So, I remember that it is a dear privilege which I currently have, of being physically present in our home, and I want to use it to bless those who have less flexibility in their work or study schedules.

At one of my pre-wedding showers, a gifted speaker exhorted me to be a woman who is a Titus 2 homemaker. Friends of various backgrounds were attending, and I suppose that when the speaker said she was going to talk about making a home, some of them were leaning back and expecting a wimpy talk about baking pies and hanging frames just so. But to everyone's surprise, the speaker told us about Jael. Yes, that would be the woman in Judges who pounded a tent peg through the enemy's head while he was resting in her tent.

The speaker contrasted the world's idea of a homemaker being simply a "housekeeper" (implying that the duties are merely physical, like dusting or dish-washing) with the godly, eternally-minded design for making a home. She spoke of the value spiritually of having someone physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually present at home. God's homemaker is, she said, a spiritual woman who is discerning, knows that God's people are at war, and uses the resources that are available to her to bring down ungodly strongholds. The fleeing enemy Sisera napped in Jael's presence, because he was sure that a gullible housewife wouldn't cause any danger to him. Like many today, he thought a woman at home would have little intellect; she probably would not even know who he was. But this housewife had her head in the game, and finished him off. In protecting her home, Jael protected their whole nation and even blessed generations to come. The speaker pointed out that Mary, the mother of our Saviour, and Jael are the only ones called "blessed among women" in the Scripture. 

That was a powerful shower message, and one I will remember my whole life. I'm glad she didn't mention wearing a plaid apron or dusting on Wednesdays, but instead focused on the overarching picture of a godly wife, and the power and value of being at home. Titus 2 teaches that a woman's behaviour in relation to her home either honours or dishonours God's Word; it is of great importance.

In my short months "at home", I've realized that it is possible to be physically at home and not mentally, emotionally or spiritually at home. When I take on projects that drain me completely, so that I cannot keep up with the needs of my husband and home, I'm not really at home. When I'm wasting time on social media or doing unimportant things, and putting the things my husband would like me to do at the bottom of my to-do list, I'm not really "at home." I'm currently learning what it means to balance and properly prioritize my home work and my outside-of-home work. 
Our home is in its early days, and I long for it to be a place where God's Word is honoured, and where my husband and others love to be. I'm thankful for my Asian roommates, and for Jael, who taught me to put a greater value on having someone whose job it is to be at home.