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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

September 03, 2015

the poor in God's kingdom

As soon as we rounded the corner, we could see that we were in a different kind of neighbourhood. It is hard to describe what makes you instantly know that "poverty lives here". Maybe it's the rows upon rows of simple, matching apartment blocks. Maybe it's the old paint and the blackened remains around a window of a room that obviously was burned. Maybe it's the three-year-old dressed in a too-tight onesie, or the young men and children who clump so quickly around any activity in the neighbourhood, because they have nothing else to do. Maybe it's all of the above, together, or maybe it's your friend parking the car and saying, "We're here. This is the refugees' area." The living conditions in the refugee neighbourhood we visited, while not nearly as bad as in some parts of the world, were far below the Western European standard. Seeing their poverty and struggle always raises the question: how can we help the poor? 

Unless you've been living under a rock (I just wanted to use that expression sometime) you must know about the refugee crisis in Europe. We heard that at least 650,000 refugees have arrived in Germany already this year, and the prediction is that the number may rise to 750,000 refugees by the end of 2015. That's more than the current population of Frankfurt, just in refugees, just in one year. Today the nations that were once the "Christian nations" of the world are being called upon to gather up the poor escapees of wars and turbulence in other lands, and they are struggling to know how to handle the influx.

Christians have long been known for their sympathy for the poor, and Christian nations for their strong and (sometimes) benevolent middle class. When Christians speak of helping the poor, they probably reference the New Testament or Proverbs the most, but the laws of the historical kingdom that the Lord set up through Moses (given in the Pentateuch) have much wisdom to contribute to the challenge of how to help today's poor. We always face the problem of balancing handouts or generosity with hard work and fiscal responsibility. The kingdom of God on earth was set up to balance grace and truth for all, and we see this in the laws God gave to Moses.

The following thoughts were collected from Alva J. McClain's The Greatness of the Kingdom (pp. 75-81), in a section entitled "The Economic Aspect of the Historical Kingdom", which I've been reading lately. Quotations below, unless otherwise attributed, are from McClain.

When God miraculously brought Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, He gave them a specific role on earth and as their King, and He gave the divinely-inspired Law to Moses. Upon entering Canaan, the Israelites' original wealth came from three places: their flocks and herds which they had in Egypt, the gold and silver which they plundered from Egypt while leaving, and the land that God gave them in Canaan. Every family in Israel was allotted a piece of land, which they could farm, rent out, mortgage, abandon, temporarily sell...but the only thing they were not to do was permanently sell their family's land. The land was seen as belonging to their King Jehovah, and while they had the right to private possession of it, they were to keep it for God's people, Israel.

We can see from how God structured Israelite law that his ideal world was not one where everyone earned the same wage, no matter how hard they worked. God knows that "if men are to enjoy any satisfactory measure of personal liberty in economic affairs—men being what they are, widely different in disposition and ability—some will gain and others will lose." God made provisions and gave instructions so that all could have the possibility to prosper financially, but He was also realistic enough to admit, in Deuteronomy 15:11, that "there will always be poor people in the land". God built into his kingdom a plan to help balance out some of the inequalities that would no doubt arise. 

#1: The "haves" were expected to be generous to the "have nots" in a way that maintained the dignity of the poor. Despite of the fact that all the original Israelites had land, in Deuteronomy 15 provisions were made for the poor, saying that even if they lost their land, they would always have food to eat. Some of the grapes and grain were to be left in the fields and could be gleaned by the needy (Lev. 19:9-10, Deut. 24:19-22). McClain comments that this system gave the poor some work and a way to maintain some dignity—they didn't stand outside the tabernacle and receive bags of grain already ground and bottles of wine already pressed, they had some work to do to gather their own food. This provided a way to keep body and soul together while working to better themselves economically.

Cheerful and willing generosity to the poor was taught in Deuteronomy 15, “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’"

If money were loaned to a poor man, interest was not to be charged (Lev. 25:35-37). In the seventh year (Sabbatical year) the soil was given rest and whatever grew in the fields that year, the poor were free to reap and gather (Lev 25:4-5, Ex. 23:11). King Jehovah's expectation of the rich's attitude toward the poor was this: "Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 25:17).

#2: The Sabbath year (every seventh year) provided some relief for the poor. Deut. 15:1-3 describes a release from debt that was given to the debtors every seven years, in the Sabbath years. It seems that this was likely not a full debt cancellation, but a year of grace. This seemed to coincide with the year in which the land rested, too, and the debtors would have less opportunity to work and earn wages that year, so it seems that this was built in to the system to protect the poor from being asked to repay debt in a year where they had less income than ever.

#3: The year of Jubilee (every fiftieth year) provided a fresh start for the poor. The year of Jubilee protected from permanent impoverishment of families in Israel (Lev. 25). Every fiftieth year, the slaves went free, debts incurred in connection to land were cancelled, and men could reclaim their land if they had lost it due to sale or poor management. This was not a communist-style redistribution of wealth, but a restoration of real property to its real, private owners. This gracious "reset" every fifty years allowed enough time for the industrious to be rewarded for their industry and the lazy or poor managers to feel the consequences of their lack of industry, but provided a boost or a fresh start for those who had failed financially to try again. McClain notes that this ingenious idea of land redistribution once every fifty years seems to have been unique to Israel. "It allowed, on one hand, considerable room for the play of individual initiative and energy with their proper rewards. But, at the same time, it guarded against the evils of great concentrations of real wealth in the hands of a few, with the consequent hopeless impoverishment of many others."

#4: The law of redemption allowed for land to be redeemed before the Jubilee year. If a man or his near relative were financially able to buy back lost property before the year of Jubilee, provisions were made for this, so that he could use his land to produce an income for himself again.

It is important to recognize that the Biblical record is unique in its entire law code, including in the provisions it made so that wealth could be more balanced, so that what we now call a "middle class" could result.  McClain quotes T. H. Huxley: "The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor, and of the oppressed; down to the modern times no state has had a constitution in which the interests of the people are so largely taken into account, in which the duties, so much more than the privileges, of rulers are so insisted upon, as that drawn up for Israel in Deuteronomy and Leviticus."

How does knowing what God taught about the poor in His kingdom help us today? I do not believe that it is our duty to seek to impose the Jewish law code on our world. But as believers, we should seek to understand God's great wisdom displayed when God set up His government on earth. Our world is struggling with the widening economic gaps, and simultaneously, people are becoming less and less familiar with the Bible (even believers, who disregard the Old Testament as confusing or outdated). Perhaps there is a connection—that while God's Word collects dust, societal problems get worse? It is a Christian's duty, as salt and light, to share God's great wisdom with a world that is decaying (needing salt) and darkened (needing light). In caring for the poor, God's kingdom furnished a system of checks and balances that blessed diligence, but also showed mercy to the poor. As long as there are poor, His wisdom about the problem of poverty will be important.

"Your word, LORD, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens."
—Psalm 119