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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!