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December 31, 2015

somewhere in between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 17, 2015

what no one else sees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2015

'tis the season

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

December 03, 2015

this slow salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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