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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!" 

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