Between Worlds

A poem of sorts written about a Third Culture Kid’s* journey, and the Christian faith pilgrimage…

It’s strange…
Feeling more at home on an aeroplane,
Or in an airport,
Feeling more at home between worlds,
Over international waters…
Or perhaps with those who aren’t where you’re from
But aren’t where they’re from either…

Dreading the question of belonging…
“Where are you from?”
Because it can only be answered with “everywhere”…
… dreaded, because the answer also holds
an equal truth…
“… and nowhere.”

Hearing your parents say “we’re going home”
But when you arrive,
You find it doesn’t feel like home at all.
Things you’re supposed to know,
Ways you’re supposed to relate to
And when you arrive, all you feel is
“I’m not from here”.
But if you went back,
You’re not from there either.

Quick to adjust,
But slow to attach
Afraid to commit, because you know
That soon, it will be time to go again.
And the pain of the loss
Might not be worth the effort,
Of another relationship
That must be left behind.

But when you meet someone
Who is just like you
Who was born here, then moved there,
Then back and forth, and then somewhere else
You feel you’ve found a long-lost friend
It’s as if a family member has been found
You laugh and cry,
About things that others can’t understand.

“So who am I?!”
Your soul cries out…
“And where do I belong?
Am I doomed to always be
A foreigner
Different
Strange
A pilgrim
Wherever I may go?”

And then one day you realise,
That a Son was sent from another world
To this one, where He didn’t belong either
And told those who followed him,
That His Father – their Father – was preparing a real home for them
But not here…
Because nowhere here is home for them.
Then you finally breathe a sigh of relief,
And realise that it’s ok to feel like a pilgrim everywhere…
Because we’re not home yet.

Hebrews 11:13  “…They (the heroes of the faith) agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland.”

 
Philippians 3:20 “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”

*Third culture kids (TCK) are people who were raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years. They typically are exposed to a greater volume and variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in one particular cultural setting. TCKs move between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity.

Keep it Fresh

“Wow Anna, that's very careful colouring!”
“Ughhh Mum, don't say that!” she replied.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you say that EVERY time…”

Aren't people so perceptive from such a young age?! She was right… I had been giving her that same line when she showed me her pictures, for the last few weeks! Even my four-year-old knew that what I had to say wasn't anything particularly… fresh!

I'll be the first to admit I don't have a green thumb… I kill almost all the plants I try to nurture (even cactuses)! Sometimes I'm too anxious over them, or too busy and neglect them, or I just don't take the time to learn about how to take care of them, so I treat them all the same. Funnily enough, I've found I can be like that with people too. Now, I've taken to keeping mostly fake plants in our house, because they're just so much easier than real ones! But in a way our hearts and spiritual lives, including our relationship with God and others, are a bit like a garden… they need keeping fresh. 

With God, everything is alive! After all, He is the living God! Isn't it wonderful that He placed Adam and Eve in a garden, and their job was to take care of it? It was alive! The whole thing! It was full of plants and animals… fruit, vegetables, flowers, bugs, birds, everything was alive! And the living things they ate, like fruits and vegetables, nourished their bodies and kept them healthy and growing. God loved to walk with them in the garden too… how beautiful and fresh. The bible just seems to be full of stories about gardens, trees, grass, fruit… things that are alive and growing! Every day, the garden of our heart needs tending too… it needs watering with His Spirit, it needs the good soil of His Word, and the sunlight of His daily presence.

John 15: 4-5 “Abide in Me, and I will abide in you. The branch cannot itself produce fruit, unless it abides on the vine. Likewise, you cannot produce fruit unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
Many times, I have let my relationship with God go stale… I've gotten into repetitive habits of prayer that were more like going through the motions than attentive listening and sharing my heart, I've been reading the bible with my dusty old “yesterday” glasses on, and having patterns of thinking that were run-over with weeds of unbelief or legalism, choking out the good plants. The scary thing is, not only does it affect me, but it affects the people around me. When someone needed comfort, all I had to give them were stale platitudes. When someone needed a sensitive ear, all I had was “let me tell you all the memorised answers”. When someone had a spiritual need, all I could see was a physical hassle. I was on auto-pilot… I had forgotten to abide. Without abiding, I'm like a fake plant in a way… I can't produce fruit, I can't nourish anyone, I can't decontaminate the air or produce oxygen. Without abiding, I can do nothing.
When we abide in Him, even the same-old-things can become fresh again! I remember when my Mum had just passed away… I was so overcome with grief. I knew that “she was in a better place now” and, “I'll see her again some day”, but for some reason those things just didn't seem to comfort me during that season. I started to wrestle with God about why those statements, though true and factual, didn't seem to help. He didn't really answer me at the time, until one day… I was just going about the housework, when suddenly God gave me a totally new way of thinking about it… we are all like runners in a race in the Christian life, just like Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 9, and some of those runners He plucks out early and places them at the finish line to cheer the others on, all part of the great cloud of witnesses like in Hebrews 12! Now that was some fresh encouragement! I imagined Mum at the finish line cheering us on as we continue to “press on towards the goal” (Phil. 3:14). I knew God was encouraging me with some fresh ways of thinking about a same-old-truth.
When we abide in Him, we also have fresh and living things to give to others, things that will build them up, just like fresh fruit and vegetables building up our physical bodies. Once when I felt dried up and worn out, I asked a friend to pray for me. She and her husband prayed together, and afterwards she texted me what she felt the Spirit telling her to pray. It was one of the most refreshing prayers I've had prayed over me! It was for new wine to be poured out into new wineskins (Matthew 9:17), which is exactly what I needed but didn't even know it! It was so refreshing and powerful to have someone who had been abiding in the Spirit and drawing from the fresh word God had given.
Lamentations 3:22-23 “The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.”

Afresh each morning! How wonderful. Let's keep our spirits fresh by daily listening to what God's Spirit has to say!

     

Million Dollar View

There they sat, chewing million dollar grass. Lucky cows… some might have thought. But there they were, cows sitting in a paddock right in the heart of Auckland City, with the best view in town. My Dad and I chuckled as we leaned on the fence at Cornwall Park, one of the oldest and loveliest parks in the city, which happened to also be part-farm. Considering the house prices in Auckland, these cows didn’t know just how much that grass they were sitting on was worth! And yet, thank goodness that park was still there, and hadn’t been developed… it’s huge old trees and beautiful green spaces provided much rest and leisure for all around. But those cows… if only they knew they had it so good…

She poured all of it out, every drop… all over his feet! Mary chose an expensive way to express her love for Jesus… couldn’t she have just given him a hug? But instead she poured an entire jar of pure Nard, an expensive perfume, all over his feet… his feet! I looked up the value of Nard in today’s dollars, and this is what I found: “The cost of the ointment was worth about 300 denarii, about $54,509 in U.S. dollars. The disciples were not only shocked by the cost of the ointment she was using, but of the amount that she was using. This act of devotion was seen as waste to the disciples.” Here is John’s account:

John 12:4-8 “But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was going to betray Him, asked, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas did not say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money bag, he used to take from what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “She has kept this perfume in preparation for the day of My burial. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me.”

Don’t we just have the most practical and sensible ideas sometimes! In Judas’s case, his “sensible idea” of using the money to feed the poor was, in fact, a devious plan to get more for himself. Sometimes we can fall into this kind of selfishness… but often it’s just that we depend on ourselves and our good intentions to decide what we think is best: “Here’s a need that needs meeting, I’ll just do XYZ to meet it. I have this talent, so it seems logical to use it in this way to the best of my advantage. I have these resources, I’ll use them to get more”.

Honestly, if I had been Mary, I might not have thought to pour out all that expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, and certainly not in front of all those people watching (and wipe it with my hair!). Seems pretty, I don’t know… awkward! And yet, Jesus was so pleased… whether she realised that was the intention or not, she had kept the perfume for the day of his burial (an eternally important moment), and her obedience and outpouring of love and adoration was recorded for all of us to read millenia later.

I remember hearing a story a while back about a brain surgeon who was one of the top in the world. He came to know Jesus, and one day He heard God telling him to use his skills and go and be a brain surgeon in the middle of Africa. He went. A lot of people thought it was such a waste… he could’ve made millions, he could’ve been famous, and had an amazing reputation. Isn’t it interesting how different God’s ideas are than ours?

Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Our perspective is often just so… sensible! So practical, so… concerned about the present. From what I’ve learned, God is much more concerned about the eternal. We cannot possibly know how things will pan out in the long-run… we cannot possibly know all the things that God knows about what will happen, who our choices will affect, and what impact they will have. But here’s the thing… God does! And He wants not just the good, but the best.
I’ve often thought about why God chose to do what He did, the way He did, through His son… as I know many others have. If I was God, Creator of the Universe, would I send my son, my only son, to become a little baby to very seemingly ordinary and unimportant earthly parents, born in a dirty stable, growing up to be a carpenter (the God of the universe… quietly making tables and chairs for 18 years!), and then let him walk around, essentially homeless, with a crew of rough rabble, inhibited by the common limitations of a human body, and then let Him die in the most painful and humiliating way, completely
innocent and yet saying absolutely nothing in his own defense… all for a bunch of ungrateful creations like us that scoffed at him, rejected him and beat him? It just doesn’t make sense to us. I can’t imagine putting my own child through that… and yet, that’s the way He chose to do it. And there are so many treasures to be unearthed in that story…

I’m sure those cows can’t appreciate the value of the land they live on, and perhaps that surgeon couldn’t appreciate the eternal impact he would have by using his top-class skills in the middle of Africa. I’ve had times where I really wanted to use a skill or a resource in a certain way (mostly to my own advantage), and everyone else was telling me to do the same… and I felt God gently saying, “no”. I’m still waiting to see why, and what he does with it instead… but all I know is, it’ll be the best way, and the most eternal way.

Turn off the Sun

I remember watching a TV program once about the sun. It was so interesting, so fascinating… and yet quite terrifying. Solar flares, temperatures that are out of this world (no pun intended), explosions and nuclear activity that dwarfs the most advanced nuclear weapons. One of the scariest things was the fact that solar storms were causing solar flares which could reach close enough to the earth to have a huge and devastating impact on our lives here! …And all this from our lovely, warm, life-giving sun! It’s the same sun that allows photosynthesis to take place in plants so they can be nourished, the same sun that sunflowers turn towards throughout the day, the same sun that leaves our bedsheets feeling fresh and dry, that melts the winter snows away to make way for spring, that warms us, brightens our day, and is vitally important to everything that exists on this earth. If it died out, life on earth would die in a matter of minutes. How could it be such a… dangerous and scary thing?  

It’s funny, but I used to get a similar feeling about reading the Old Testament… what a scary God He was! Killing people, burning entire cities, flooding the earth and wiping out all (except 8) of humanity and his creation. I liked the New Testament much better… that was about our Jesus, our compassionate, merciful, loving, humble, servant Jesus. And yet… He told us many times in the gospel accounts, “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”. What, you mean that same Father who allowed serpents, sent plagues, exiled His people, and poured out His wrath on those who disobeyed?   

I realised that, in all honesty, I really didn’t very much like a lot about that Old Testament God! I’ve heard many people say something like that. Maybe He’s not really like that, or maybe He changed when Jesus came, or maybe that was all just written by flawed people with an agenda. But… what if we just have a bit of a soft view of God? Do we see him as more of a Santa Claus figure, a jolly Father, or just a quiet and warm sunshine that is here to meet our needs? Maybe He is some of those things in a way… but do we forget the nuclear activity, the solar storms, the holy anger, the light so bright it would blind us if we saw Him face to face?  

I guess the thing is, knowing the truth about the sun makes me a bit afraid and uncomfortable… it’s something I want to keep a safe distance from. Imagine the heat as you approached it in a spacecraft, doing as best as we could to design a protective suit that could withstand the temperatures. I’m not sure I could say to that sun as I approached it, “I don’t like that you’re this hot! Please, just turn off the heat!” The sun couldn’t change it’s properties, change it’s make-up, it’s temperatures, any more than God can change who He is. Just because I don’t like the heat, doesn’t mean He can just turn it off. Like He said to Moses, “I AM that I AM”. His most common name, Yahweh, means “I AM”. The very meaning seems to imply something unchangeable, no matter how we feel about it.  

So… why was Jesus seemingly so different from this aspect of God? Or was He? How easy it is to forget the Jesus who also whipped people out of the Temple in His Holy anger… and who had some firm and direct things to say about those who were supposedly the keepers of the law given by His own Father, and who spoke often about the eternal fire and warned of the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. And yet He still reflected God’s kind nature perfectly, because the truth is that the Old Testament God the Father (and the same God the Father He is today) is also very merciful, kind, compassionate, and loving! (Just read some of the Psalms, especially Psalm 136!). Jesus was very aware of our weaknesses and temptations, He was human as well as God! But He was also aware of the bright and Holy presence of the Father, a presence He loved, and a presence that He came to make us ready for.   

The thing that we don’t often like to think about is, the gospel is bad news before it’s good news… the bad news is, there’s a fiery sun, a Holy God, a solar storm that we can’t withstand, that would melt us in a second, no matter how good or protected we think we are. It seems to me that it’s not because He is temperamental, controlling, angry, or down on us… but because He is so Holy (pure, clean, bright, with no darkness or shadow), and we (because of the fall in the garden back in Genesis) are so… not. And there’s nothing He can change about that, except… the good news is, there is! He has made a way! Or, if I thought of it this way, He has made a spacesuit of protection so that we can “boldly come before the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16), we can approach that hot but loving sun, and we won’t be burnt. Instead, we will find help, love, protection, provision, mercy! That suit of protection is the blood of Jesus, the full truth and acceptance of His redemptive work for us on the cross. It was freely given, and it was costly… more than all the money, time and sweat spent on all the space exploration in the history of the human race. 

“Consequently, he (Jesus) is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25

     

Paradox Paradise

“You mean… you’re just going to give it away? But we need that money!”

My husband had decided to give away our remaining piano before we moved back to New Zealand. We could’ve sold it for about 4000RMB, around $800NZ. I was pregnant with our third child, money was tight, and I was anxious about all our up-coming expenses. How could my husband think this was a good time to be overly generous?

He had a student who needed a piano, a Christian family, and he felt very strongly that God was telling him to just give it to them for nothing. What could I say? I know what I wanted to say… but I’d learnt to trust my husband’s lead, so all I could say was… “alright, if that’s what you think we should do…”  

A week (or maybe several) later, the family came back to us and said, “we feel that God has asked us to give you some money for this piano. I chose the numbers 3 and 7, because they seemed like good biblical numbers, and I’ve multiplied them together and added a few zeros… here’s an envelope with 21,000RMB in it!”  

How could it be that when I let go… when we give away, when we don’t try to gain for ourselves, even when it hurts… we could end up with more than we could’ve imagined?  

Jesus seems to have taught a lot of things that don’t make sense to our natural minds… a lot of paradoxes. Look at all these paradoxes in the bible…

  • Finding through losing (Matt. 10:39)
  • Living through dying (John 12:24)
  • Freedom through servitude (Rom. 6:18)
  • Gaining through losing (Phil. 3:7-8)
  • Receiving through giving (Acts 20:35)
  • Strength through weakness (2 Cor. 12:10)
  • Exaltation through humility (James 4:10, Phil. 2:8-9)  

The thing is, these paradoxes all seem so foolish to our human minds! What do you mean if I want to be first I must be last (Matt. 20:16)? If I want to be a leader, I must be the servant (Matt. 20:26)? How are we supposed to understand all these paradoxes? 

I think Jesus was alluding to a secret… there was another place where things were different. A place where we can store up treasure that never rusts, where the merciful and meek win out, where the sufferers and mourners are blessed, a place that He knew so well but was so unlike what we know now. But like I learned with giving away the piano, I’m not sure it can be intellectualised… our minds just can’t comprehend it. But it comes alive when we just believe and obey… have those paradoxes come alive for you?  

Salt and Sandcastles

Jesus told us we are salt and light. I guess I kind of understood the light part, that seemed fairly clear and easy to understand… but the salt? I assumed that had something to do with it's flavouring properties. 
Luke 14:34-35 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.”
The soil and the manure pile? Why didn't he mention anything about food?  
I realised I needed to learn about what salt was so important for on that soil and manure pile in Jesus's time. After listening to some teaching on salt 2000 years ago, it turns out that salt was not only for flavouring food, it was also a fertiliser and a disinfectant! It was scraped up from the shores of the Dead Sea, which was very salty. It's not pure Sodium-Chloride, it was a mixture of different salts, one being Potassium-Chloride. Gardeners and fruit-growers needed fertiliser that contained Potassium Chloride, or “Pot-ash”, to develop the flowers and fruit of a plant or tree. The salt scraped up from the Dead Sea was widely used as a fertiliser because of its Pot-ash. My husband David told me that his brothers use Pot-ash to develop the persimmons on their trees!
Here's what I learned about the manure pile: in those days there were no toilets as we know them. When you needed to “do your business”, you went down to the bottom of the garden where there was a heap of dirt where you emptied your bowels, and beside the heap was a box of salt from the Dead Sea, which you put on your “pile” to disinfect it. Kinda gross… but it dealt with things you didn't want to grow: disease, bacteria etc. Wow! Salt both promoted things we wanted to grow, and prevented things from growing that we didn't want to grow! How did it do that? Just by being salt I guess.
But then, how can Sodium-Chloride lose its saltiness? Jesus said that it can, so what did he mean? Apparently, it could only lose its saltiness if it was “adulterated” with other substances… in Jesus' time, sometimes men would scrape the salt up with sand and sell it at the marketplace. Any house-wife in those days who bought adulterated salt could only throw it out on the street to be trampled underfoot. It was useless.
We live near a beach, and our kids love to go there and dig around in the sand! They love to make sandcastles and decorate them with pretty shells and sticks and leaves. Inevitably, their sandcastles get stepped on (usually by one of their brothers!), or washed away by the tide. I started thinking, as I do, about salt and sand. All that beautiful salt on the shores of the Dead Sea, lying on top of all that sand. I imagined my kids going to those shores with their beach toys. They start to scrape up the salt and the sand together, and build it into a lovely sandcastle. They decorate it with pretty objects, and we all admire it and tell them what a lovely sandcastle it is. Then, when the weather comes, it gets demolished, not because it was the weathers fault, but because it couldn't stand up to the elements. Or maybe someone comes and kicks it over, on purpose…
Then I really got thinking… are we sometimes, as Christians, busy building sandcastles when we're supposed to be being salt? Sure, the sandcastle has some salt in it, isn't that good enough? But what if the sand we're adding to the salt is rendering us… useless? What if our church buildings, big budgets, fancy sound systems, entertaining services, are becoming sand in a sandcastle that we're busy building and decorating? Maybe not always, but it seems to be a trap we can easily fall into. If the power went out, could we still worship God in spirit and in truth? 
Are we making “church” a Building or a Bubble, instead of being the Bride and the Body we were meant to be? Are we spending our time “making” instead of “being”?
I guess we can make sandcastles out of a lot of things as Christians… our homes, our churches, our lifestyles, our kids' education and success, our politics, our social justice causes, our careers. Things that are good, but if it's not all salty, can turn sandy. Or maybe we're not really building anything… but we're just mixing sand in with our salt. Sometimes I realise I have just the same worries, the same reactions, the same attitudes, the same habits, the same ambitions, the same hang-ups, as people living without Christ. It's so easy to start mixing the sand from the world into our lives, and before we know it, we've lost the power, love and holiness of the salt that Jesus told us we were to be in a dirty world. We've compromised, and then, we're useless… both as a fertiliser and as a disinfectant. 
But hey, there's still some salt in our sandcastle, right? Isn't that enough? Lots of people admire it and I'm happy building it… that's ok, right?
Then one day… the weather comes. Jesus said it would in the parable of the foolish man who built his house on the sand (Matthew 7:24-27). Trials come, suffering comes, temptation comes, and the sandcastle collapses. The sand is exposed for what it really is. Or maybe… someone comes and kicks our sandcastle over, on purpose… 
I know someone who has kicked some sandcastles in my life… his name is Jesus. Sometimes he has used my husband, sometimes a friend, sometimes even a stranger. He kicked them while they were still small, thank goodness! I hadn't had much time to decorate them yet! I was mad at him at the time… but then he reminded me that this sandcastle-building was getting in the way of what he really wanted me to do… just “be” salt. 
Please Jesus, keep kicking my sandcastles, and please kick them while they're still small…


Psalm 127:1 “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.   

All Ruled Out

“Gross!” my kids exclaimed… “Yup,” I said, “John the Baptist ate honey and locusts”.   

John certainly had an interesting life… an angel made it to his Dad before he was born that he wasn’t to ever drink wine, and when he was older he lived in the wilderness and had a pretty unique diet! I have to say, I’m glad I didn’t have to live like that! But look at the calling John had on his life, so there must be something behind that…

…and then there’s Jesus. He drank wine, he feasted, and look who he hung out with! He also didn’t seem to be concerned with all the religious rules that the Pharisees loved, like what to clean and when, and how to pray and when to fast. In fact, this is what Jesus told a crowd about the generation they were in: Luke 7:33-34  “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

Apparently, neither Jesus nor John were going along with the rules that people assumed made a good Godly person… I find it so interesting how many different lifestyles God calls people to! Some he calls to have financial wealth and influence, some are called to live a life of near-destitution in foreign countries, some He asks to refrain from this or that, and others He just plants in one place to faithfully walk with Him day in and day out in a very “normal” (from outward appearances) lifestyle.  

When my husband and I were just married, I found out he loved going to the movie theatre! And he found out that I wouldn’t go with him… I explained to him that since I was young I was very sensitive to what I watched and listened to, because I had a mind that liked to run away with things and which I found difficult to keep under control. I’d struggled with nightmares and night terrors, and all kinds of fears… so, not long after I came to Christ, I started becoming convicted about what I was watching, reading, and listening to. Eventually I just boycotted most movies that I wasn’t very familiar with, especially at the movie theatre. However, I couldn’t convince him not to go, I just wasn’t going to go with him! I realised it wasn’t a hard and fast rule that Christians shouldn’t go to movie theatres or watch films, but it was a personal conviction – something God had laid on my heart to refrain from. If I’d gone against that conviction, I felt that for me, it was wrong. Still to this day, if we’re watching a movie at home, I always check the rating, the story plot, the reviews (for content, not opinion!). The few times I haven’t done this, I’ve regretted it… but I’m sure not going to go around telling everyone they’re horrible for going to the movies!

Romans 14:2-6  “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”

Romans 14:22-23 “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  

Of course, there are quite a few things in scripture that are “rules”… things we certainly aren’t meant to be doing or exposing ourselves to, and we need to know what those things are. The beautiful thing is, God does have rules for us, and they’re meant for our good! They are for our protection and spiritual well-being, not to be used as weapons or whips on ourselves or others. Our church here in Te Atatu focuses on a different spiritual discipline each month, and I love that, because those things are very helpful to our spiritual life. But the funny thing I’m finding out is, apart from the obvious stuff, God might convict us to do totally different things! It might even be different things this year to what it was last year! And it will most likely be different from believer to believer, because He knows our different needs and seasons of life!

This has taken me a while to understand, but then just look at Jesus and John the Baptist… and God told Samson not to cut his hair! He sure hasn’t ever asked me to do that.    I remember reading about Hudson Taylor, the great British missionary to China. During his preparation to go to China, he felt God asking him to just live on a simple diet of apples and brown bread, so he did. He was a medical student, and one day he was working on a deceased body that had septicemia… and he contracted it! What a deadly disease… do you know what the doctor said to him when he eventually survived it? “Your diet saved you!” I wonder how many people would think how deprived they were if God asked them to do something like that, and just brush it off… and yet it was the very thing that saved his life that year.  

I saw a great quote the other day: “Religion is man trying to get through to God. Christianity is God trying to get through to man”. There’s a lot I don’t know about other religions, and maybe this is an oversimplification, but it seems that they all involve a bunch of rules that need to be obeyed in order to “get through to God” or “be good enough”.

The wonderful thing I love about following Jesus is… it’s not a religion! We aren’t worshiping a bunch of rules! Here are some common ones I’ve been stuck on: “Memorise more scripture, have a bible-reading plan and stick to it, this is how/when/how often you need to do your “quiet time”, if you use these spiritual words you’re a mature Christian, if you don’t do church/worship/communion/theology this way, it’s not correct!” Once we get into this mindset, it’s no longer all about Him… it’s all about us! I often think of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, going to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee had obeyed all the rules… but missed the point! His rule-following had made it all about him. The tax collector, who had probably broken most of the rules, had finally realised who life was really about.

Are you a rule-lover? Are you a “this is what I did and it works so you need to do it too” kind of believer? Or “this person had this lifestyle and did these things every day and look how God used them!” kind-of thinker? 

One of the best and biggest questions I’m learning to ask God is, “What do you require of ME?” And then just do that.

Don’t walk through all the open doors

When our first child Anna was still a young baby, we met a man who lived in our same apartment block in Shenzhen, China. He was Chinese-American, a very successful businessman, and was quite interested in David and I helping him run some of his English Teaching business. We bumped into him a few times in the elevator in our building, and every time he would bring it up. We politely shrugged it off, as we had a young new baby and no experience in running big English Centres, although I had worked in one. Eventually we moved to another apartment building in a different part of the city. One day I was visiting a friend back in our old apartment block, and lo-and-behold, I ran into him again! He tried very hard to convince me I would be great for managing one of his centres, and the idea started to stick in the back of my mind. I asked him where the centre was that he had in mind, and when he told me the address, I realised it was right across the road from our new apartment!
 
I went home and told David, and we agreed to meet with him in his office. When we arrived at the meeting, we realised just how successful this man was! He had a big and fancy office in the building where he had a big company, and proceeded to tell us all his business endeavors and accomplishments. After meeting with him, I felt this must be the direction that we should go with our teaching business! We had lost quite a few students due to our move, and I was feeling quite anxious about it and ready for something different. We’d never managed an established English Centre before, and it made me feel important and excited. I love to “manage”! (Just ask my kids!). David, however, wasn’t so convinced. “But it’s literally across the road from us! How can that be a coincidence?! It must be a sign…”, I said. We went and looked around the centre, and though it was low in student numbers and activity, we met someone there we knew. It turns out a friend-of-a-friend’s husband worked there as a teacher! “See? Another sign…” I told David. “This is definitely what we’re meant to be doing.”
 
After another meeting with him, I was rearing to go. I had told the ladies in my bible study group all about it, and we were all excited about this new direction that God seemed to be leading me and David in! However, David was still not convinced. Like all our big family decisions, I said my piece and then allowed him to take the responsibility of the decision-making. He said he just felt no peace, and that we shouldn’t go ahead with it. He arranged to go and have one last meeting with this guy and let him know. That was the end of it. I was so disappointed, frustrated, deflated, but I knew that David always felt the seriousness and responsibility of making the right decisions by God for our family… so I just had to give it up and let it go.
 
Several weeks (or maybe it was months) later, I ran into some friends at a shopping mall. It happened to be the friend and friend-of-a-friend whose husband we had seen working in the English Centre! After catching up I shared how we’d bumped into her husband there, and she told us how glad he was to have quit that job! “Why?” I said, “What happened? We were going to manage that place! In the end we didn’t though…” 

 

“It’s a good thing you didn’t!” she said, “that boss was terrible! My husband almost never got paid on time, the guy was so unreliable, and my husband always had to fight for his salary!” The centre had soon closed after that.
 
Wow… my husband had been right all along! The door of opportunity that I thought had opened so widely for us would have been a snare! Goodness knows what could have happened if we’d put all our eggs in that basket. Not only would it have had financial implications, but it would have taken away much-needed time from our young family. In fact, right after David said “no” to that job, I found out I was pregnant with our son Levi!
 
Proverbs 14:12 says “There is a way which seems right to a man and appears straight before him, but at the end of it is the way of death.” I don’t know if it means physical death, spiritual death, or the death of opportunity, blessing, relationship, or all of these. All I know is, don’t judge a way by how it appears! I was taking all the appearances of the situation as “signs” that this was God’s way for us, when in fact, it wasn’t! That was a really big lesson for me.
 
Recently a friend of mine told me about the difference between “faith” and “confidence”. Sometimes, we feel confident about something because perhaps we’ve seen God give it to other people, or it’s something we want, or we are desperate and impatient for something to happen. “Faith, on the other hand”, he explained, “comes from hearing, hearing what God has to say.” Had God actually told me that job was something He wanted me to have? Had I even asked God if that was the right thing for us? Or was I just so confident that it must be, because all the ducks seemed to be in a row (and it served some of my selfish ambitions)? Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is stay back when all we want to do is walk right through that open door… especially when it has flashing lights, confetti, and good music on the other side!

Infestation

The apartments we lived in in China all had one thing in common… they were full of cockroaches! Some apartments were worse than others. I remember going out to the kitchen in the evenings after the kids were in bed and turning on the kitchen light to go and make a cup of tea… as soon as I turned on the light, I saw a seething mess of little black things with legs scuttling away into the nooks and crannies! They loved the darkness, and thankfully hid away in the daytime. But when it was night, they all came crawling out. I remember being woken up by a very big one biting my face in bed! And to top it off, we had to fight mould in everything as well! When we felt God leading us to move back to New Zealand, I remember thinking “well, at least we won’t have to face cockroaches there!”

When we moved back to New Zealand, we lived in a farmhouse.  It wasn’t long before we found out it was time to face a new pest: mice! I had never dealt with mice before, and they were pooping all over our bed and our baby’s cot! Something had to be done… Thankfully we knew some people who knew what to do. We got good recommendations for some mouse poison that could be out of reach of the kids, and we set traps. We then realised that there were also possums on the farm eating the fruit in the orchards! My uncle helped set up traps and taught us how to check them. The pest situation got under control. Eventually it was also discovered that the mice had been eating away at the wiring in the house! Suddenly, power-sockets stopped working! Half the house had to be re-wired.

We have since moved house, and are now fighting ants! Why did I think there would be a dream home where I wouldn’t have to fight some kind of pest? Some pests erode the safety of our home. Some pose a threat to the health of the inhabitants. Some eat away at the food supply… and some quietly eat away at the interior, unseen, subtle, until one day things start falling apart and stop working. Each pest is different in the way they affect us, and also in the way we must fight them! As far as I know, a mouse trap is useless for keeping ants away!

What are the pests that are trying to infest your life at the moment? Your relationships? Your church? Do you know how to fight them? Are they noticeable, or are they hidden and slowly creeping into your heart?

Here are a few common spiritual “pests” which can become infestations that destroy:

Idolatry (worshipping anything or anyone other than God), pride, selfishness, materialism, disobedience, deception, unforgiveness, unbelief, complacency, destructive thought-patterns, self-sufficiency, jealousy, unhealthy anger.

We will never be free of things trying to invade our life, our mind, our heart, our relationships… they may be different each time, but we need to know how to deal with them. Paul told us in Ephesians that we are not fighting a physical battle as Christians, but a spiritual one. How do we fight that kind of battle? It took me a long time to learn this lesson. It all seemed too abstract to me. But when I started losing control over areas of my life, I started to realise how important it was to fight the battle. Here are some of the weapons that we can use to fight “infestation”:

Prayer, fasting, praise and worship, love and grace, obedience to the truth of Scripture, the gospel, humility, thankfulness, the blood of Christ, our testimony, encouragement, the armour of God (found in Eph. 6:13-17), church discipline, spiritual gifts.

Sometimes, invading pests can turn into “infestations”, and we need others to intervene and help. We don’t have to fight on our own!

Recently I saw a post on social media about natural “pest control”… spiders! Honestly, I hate spiders! Perhaps it’s my years of growing up in Australia, but those things sure creep me out. However, when I was living in rural Korea (which also had a lot of the same spiders that Australia had, funnily enough!), I decided to face my fear, literally. I would go for a walk through the farm-roads, and when I saw a big Orbweb spider in its web, I would walk up close to it, and just look at it. Stare it down! I realised there really was nothing to be afraid of, it was just how they looked! They probably don’t even bite…

Spiders sure are great natural pest controllers! Fear has been a “pest” that has infested my life before, but now I know better… therefore, I’ve (almost) overcome my fear of spiders, and am trying to allow them to just do their pest-controlling job! Perhaps we need to overcome some fears in our lives in order to get the pests out too…

Are you afraid of being obedient to some areas of scripture? Are you afraid of confessing some things to someone? You might just find that these are the very things that will get some pests out of your life!

Land Mines

One morning, we were seated around the cooking fire in the kitchen with some family members in David’s village in rural China. We were chatting casually when someone drew attention to the pot that was sitting over the fire. In my naive Western way, I asked if there was any family history to the pot, excited to hear the story behind it, assuming it might be a treasure handed down from previous generations like I was accustomed to in my family. Suddenly, there was a palpable tension in the room. Someone got up and just walked out, and another started murmuring something. David walked me up to our room to explain that the pot had belonged to someone else and there was quite a bit of family tension behind it. I had no idea. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, confused. I felt like I had just stepped on a hidden landmine.

There are landmines everywhere. They seem to be in most families, most marriages, most churches… things that are not supposed to be talked about, topics we don’t bring up, things that happened that aren’t to be mentioned. If they are, there’s a big explosion and everyone will get hurt.

I’ve been pondering landmines recently, I mean the real ones, and considered a few key things about them… they’re usually weapons used in a war. They’re often hidden, or covered. They explode and hurt people when they’re touched. They are often things left behind long after the initial war is over. They are often stood on later by those who are innocent, uninvolved in the war, or unaware they are there. Then I thought about the relational ones. We go to war in our relationships… “you have something I want, I want to be right, you’re stopping me from having something, you hurt me and I’m going to punish you, I deserve better.” If unresolved, these “wars” leave behind landmines in our relationships… topics that will explode again if they are brought up. They are hidden or covered in an attempt to “preserve the peace”, but are really just creating a minefield. Sometimes, new people come along and unknowingly touch the landmines, and suddenly there is hurt (confusion, cold silence, arguing…).

Then I thought of the ways to deal with mines. It seems you either need someone who is familiar with the territory and can tell you where to avoid standing, or the mines need to be removed… set off, dug up, thrown out (or something like that, I’m certainly no mine expert!). If the mines are left there, there’s still fear, there’s still tension, and the land can’t be used properly or enjoyed. It seems the best way is to remove them. How do we do this relationally? Maybe things like pride, selfishness, unforgiveness, anger, and judgment need to be removed, repented of… Maybe there has been miscommunication, or misunderstanding. Maybe we need to sometimes humble ourselves and let go of our “rights”, and allow God to be our Defender and Provider. Sometimes this can be a very painful process! And maybe sometimes it needs to be the right time, and probably needs to be covered in a lot of prayer first…

I am certainly not innocent of creating minefields! I am most prone to do it in my marriage. We have a “war”, and then I go cold and silent. If he brings it up again, I fight my point to the bone using every cunning argument I can muster! Sometimes he’s completely unaware that he’s upset me! Fortunately, I have a husband who relentlessly digs up the mines, humbly listens and is always the first to say sorry and want to change. Sometimes I want to say “But I was really enjoying that war!” My Mum used to tell me I should have been a lawyer… I always loved a good argument! Pride, selfishness, punishing others with our anger… these things somehow make us feel entitled, powerful, or in control. But my husband’s attitude leaves me defenseless… I can’t be angry anymore! No matter how much I want to prove my point and be right, his humility and love takes all the air out of my argumentative sails. He tells me that the relationship matters more to him than being right. How does it come so easily to him… I’m also learning to be more communicative about things that have upset me that I know he might be unaware of, and I’m learning how to communicate them effectively and inoffensively.

James had something really interesting to say about all of this…

James 4:1-12  “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:  “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”  7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.  11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”

Don’t you just love James?! So practical… and he doesn’t mince his words! He seems to be saying “Recognise what you’re doing, who you’re really fighting, and by God’s grace, stop it!” Easier said than done… but I noticed three key concepts in there: Submit (to God), Resist (evil and your selfish desires), Humble Yourselves. Probably the three things I struggle with most! But as I watch my husband do this (and wonder why it seems so easy for him), and as I start practicing it myself, it seems to get a little easier and happen a little sooner every time.

Side note:
Here are a few things we learned from a marriage course, and learned from our mistakes, that I hope can help others on this relational journey! Certainly not just for marriages…

  • Take out the trash – all relationships, especially close ones, regularly build up “trash”… things that were said, hurts that were felt. We try to bring these up for removal regularly with each other. This is especially important with “the little things”… these can easily turn into land mines! 
  • We can easily offend each other with how we bring up our hurts. We learned about the “I feel ______ when you ____” statement. For example, “I feel hurt when you spend more time looking at your phone than engaging with me in the evenings”, or “I feel unimportant when you don’t remember the things I talk to you about”. This helps it to be less confrontational than “you don’t think I’m important!” or “you never listen to me!”