Thursday, July 24, 2014

Friends Near and Far

With only 10 days until I return home, I've been thinking with much anticipation about the friends I'll be meeting this summer. I've got some amazing friends and family back home whom I only get to see once a year, if that. This summer, I'm flying to see a friend of almost 20 years whom I haven't seen in 5! I wish I could see everyone every time I go home, but with time, money, and geography, it's just not possible. Plus there are so many Taiwan friends who have returned to North America that I would love to see in addition to the Canadian friends I left behind 10 years ago. It's really hard for me sometimes to choose to see someone, or not to make the trip to see someone, to impose myself on people helplessly (I'd love to visit you, but I'll need you to drive me an hour or more to an airport afterward), and to have to say "you only get a few hours of my time" when it would take much, much longer for us to catch up. I also don't want it to feel like I'm "gracing" you with my presence when I probably am more encouraged and refreshed from our visit than you ;) Recently, I've been thinking about an attitude of my heart. I know that it makes me feel unloved when I feel like people are friends with me for what I can give them rather than who I am or talk to me only when they need something, and I never want someone to feel like I'm visiting them because they'll be a free place to stay/ride or not visiting them because I can't get anything out of it. I especially don't want people to feel that way because God reminded me that we treat Him in exactly the same way sometimes. Do we only want to be 'friends' with Him when He brings us blessings?  I'm certainly not a perfect friend, and not unlike this blog, I do feel like I've neglected a lot of my friendships in the past few years. Here's what I strive for instead, as I posted a few months ago at Bold Cup of Coffee:

5 ways to engage in life-giving friendships

Originally posted here

You can’t be God to someone As much as you want to help and be there for your friends, it’s more important to encourage them to seek God. You can’t make decisions for people, change their hearts, or become their salvation. But you can remind them that God sees and hears them, testify to his work in your life, and pray with them. Some of my most blessed moments with good friends have been when we stopped rehashing problems, situations, or frustrations over and over again and just prayed. 

You can’t live in the past  As the rhyme goes: Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver, the other gold.
But the truth is, people change, friends drift apart, and keeping in touch is HARD. It’s ok to let people go, and it doesn’t invalidate the time you had together.  It’s a truly wonderful thing to have those friends with whom you can just ‘pick things up where you left off’ which for me is a necessity since I only return to Canada about once a year. But I’ve also had to come to understand that life is happening during those in between times, and I may or may not be a part of that. I believe that God brings people into our lives at different times, and we should do everything we can to build up those around us and learn from them while we have the fortune of being part of their stories.

You will need to be honest Friendship requires vulnerability. Truly connecting with someone means letting them see both your good and bad, and trusting them not to judge you. Will you get hurt? Probably. Does that mean you should give up on people? Probably not.  I’m starting to wonder if people-pleasing is, at its root, an honesty problem. We want people to see some made up, ideal of ourselves so that they will like and accept us. But a true friend will see your potential, and be willing to help you get there.

You will mess up Friendships can become a place where we are very selfish; whether that means expecting another person to fulfill our needs, or whether we surround ourselves with people who make us feel good and avoid those who are harder to love. I know it’s been said many times, but people, even the best of friends, will always let you down. We really need to stop keeping score in our relationships. If we started applying a measure of forgiveness to others, we might remember that we have already been forgiven much.

Life-giving friendship is a taste of heaven Part of being image-bearers of God means that we were made for relationship. We were not made to live in isolation, and friendships at their best can truly reflect God. When life-giving, God-glorifying community happens, healing occurs, people get saved, and memories are made. I don’t know about you, but for me, coming to a relationship with God didn’t involve an intellectual decision as much as a community of believers who came alongside me and showed me what life could be like.

Maybe one of the most well known Bible verses about friendship is this one:

We need the light, warmth, acuity, and simply the spark from others to pass through the flames and become a more useful instrument in the hands of our Maker.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Recently there has been a lot of bad news coming my way.
In the past few weeks there was news of two sudden deaths from afar.
It is really hard to grieve when you are not there with everyone else, especially for an avoider like me.
But as a friend recently reminded me, it doesn't make sense for us to wait until the end of someone's life to express how much they meant to us and how much we appreciate them. This is something we should tell them NOW, while they can still hear us.
So here are some goodbye thoughts for those who have moved on, and coming up, I hope to post some #sayitnow words of gratitude and appreciation to people who have impacted my life!

Auntie Mona

Yours was the first wedding I remember going to, and I remember as a child always thinking you were so beautiful. But even more than that, you were the aunt that always took the time to talk with us kids. You would do our hair sometimes, and compliment us, and just make us feel like we mattered. One memory that comes to mind is 10 years ago, when I had just returned from Brazil. Most people wanted the short and sweet rundown, the 30 second answer to "How was it?" but not you. I remember you staying up chatting with me in your living room, after others had gone to bed, peppering me with questions about what it was like, and just letting me talk. I didn't know it then, being my first overseas trip, but this was a rare thing. Thank you for caring, thank you for listening, thank you for always making those around you feel like what they had to say was important. You will be missed.

Pastor Jeff

I didn't know you well, as I was somewhat of an itinerant visitor to your church, but a lot of people I was very close to had their lives changed by you. I was there as you baptized two of my dear friends and sisters, and I remember you praying for me during a significant crossroads in my life. You had no idea what was going on with me, but the words you spoke over me were truly from God. You were used of Him mightily while on earth, and your legacy will continue through many many spiritual children.

The world is a little darker without these two in it.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Writing again??

So I don't think many people are still following this blog, especially now that we have Facebook, which admittedly, is one of the reasons my blog started to peter out. Increased privacy, greater engagement, friends not needing to sign in and type weird codes just to leave a comment: all bonuses. But on Facebook, I was left with another problem, who exactly was I writing for? Did I want certain people to see it? Would I be spamming my non-Christian friends with faith-related content all the time? Because now that I've been in Taiwan for almost 10 years, many things that were once new and notable are quite routine. And I was feeling a desire to move into more deeper reflections, but not really sure how or where to do that. Plus there was the monster of people-pleasing out there whispering that it was too dangerous. I wouldn't be able to control others' reactions. I wouldn't be able to cater my words to every possible audience at once. And so I started to feel crippled.
Around the time I started to reflect on the people-pleaser in me, I noticed my friend Drake was posting some pretty cool stuff on a blog. And in fact, it looked like it was a pretty cool collective of bloggers writing about pretty cool stuff. So I decided to take the plunge and write a guest post. You can read it here. That became a commitment to be a regular contributor. So I'm trying. I'm forcing myself to write more, and be real with my thoughts, whether I get negative feedback, positive feedback, or no feedback at all.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Reason to Remember

This past Sunday, my local church put on a Tomb sweeping service. It’s the first our church has ever done, and the first I have ever attended. And I found it to be deeply meaningful. Growing up in a Lutheran church for a while, and being part of this generation that seems to be moving away from consumerism and entertainment-driven worship and toward liturgy and a deeper connection to past, future, and community, I found it refreshing to be a part of this service. Now for those unfamiliar with the holiday, Taiwan celebrates Tomb Sweeping Festival on April 5. It’s a day off when families traditionally visit the family plot where their ancestors are buried, and, literally, sweep or clean it up. Cemeteries in Taiwan do not, to my knowledge, have groundskeepers or other employees. Thus it is the family’s duty to make sure grave sites are maintained. Traditionally this would be accompanied with burning incense or ghost money, making food offerings, and prayers to the ancestors for blessings.
Personally, I love the fact that this holiday often falls around Easter time, as I think it can take on special meaning for believers. When I teach about the Easter story, I may even say that on the third day the disciples went to 掃墓, or sweep/visit the tomb of Jesus, only to find that He wasn’t there.

Understandably, believers in Taiwan can face a dilemma when it come to celebrating traditional holidays with pressure from their families to honor customs that may go against the teaching of the Bible. This is the very issue my church wanted to address. How can Christians still honor their families while not participating in idol worship during Tomb sweeping and other Chinese festivals? The pastor answered that in his sermon, and I’ll summarize below, but first I want to detail the service with a few reflections.

The service
The service started of like a typical Sunday morning with a worship set, including one song mentioning the resurrection and Amazing Grace. The scripture reading came from Psalm 116:12-16 which was read as a congregation:

“What can I offer the Lord for all he has done for me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and praise the Lord ’s name for saving me.
I will keep my promises to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
The Lord cares deeply when his loved ones die.
O Lord, I am your servant; yes, I am your servant,
born into your household; you have freed me from my chains.“

After that, there was a candle-lighting ceremony where the worship leader talked about the meaning, and then the people passed the light to each other. We had received the candles in an envelope when we entered the sanctuary. Once the candles were lit, there was a responsive reading. The basic gist was remembering our ancestors and being thankful that they gave us life, and being thankful to be part of their family line. In some ways, it reminded me of Christmas Eve candlelight services, but I thought it was a really neat way to visualize, as we symbolically passed the flame to each other, the way our ancestors have passed their lives and stories onto us.

Memorial Cards
After blowing out the candles, we were instructed to fill out a memorial card, which was also included in the envelope. It had us reflect on a loved one who has passed away, writing down a memory and talking about something we learned from their legacy. Once we were finished, they had trees at the front and back of the room for people to hang their cards on.
A few were selected to be read to the congregation as an expression of thankfulness for the effect they had on us and acknowledging their contribution to our lives. That was immediately followed by a moment of silence. It was understandably an emotional time for some. I reflected that just as we hung these memories on a tree, our savior, Jesus, was also hung on a tree. In my mind, there was some symbolism of us giving our pain and loss to Him, and remembering that He also gave His life for us.

This next part is a little hard for me to explain, but imagine a communion service, but with only the cup. Instead of wine, it was ‘water’ (actually tea) in the cups, and no bread was passed out. There were no restrictions on whether or not you were baptized; everyone was invited to partake. As the cups were being passed out, the pastor explained water represents that we all come from the same source and are united as humans who are born, live, die. It also reminds us that just as we need water to live, God is our source of life, and we are all created by Him. We drank together of that cup, united in our humanity, birth, life, losses, and hope.

Comparing experiences
Then it was time for the sermon, where the pastor shared some of his own experience of growing up in a family that participated in “bai bai” or a Taoist-based form of traditional ancestor worship. People do this for many reasons, including desire for blessing, a fear of being cursed, and simply out of habit or obedience.
He noted that in many respects, this ancestor worship is done out of a heart of love for family: a wish for blessings. But for him, the question was there – my grandparents say the same thing every time - do the ancestors hear? Do they eat the food offered? What does it really mean? When he became a Christian, he faced strong opposition from his family, especially as the oldest son. It was supposed to be his responsibility to keep up the tradition. A common view here is that if you don’t participate in “bai bai” you are saying you don't care about your family, you don't acknowledge who you are, you are showing disrespect for your parents, and you will bring bad luck to your relatives. In Taiwan, people may even be disowned for converting to Christianity.

He asked the question of why our ancestors would want to curse us, if they were our own flesh and blood. He also reminded us that our ancestors were human; they don’t in fact have the power to curse OR to bless us. That power lies with God alone. He emphasized, and I think that this is SO important: Obedience and respect for your family, and for those who came before is GOOD but worshipping them is not the only way to show that!
He then tied it back to the Bible, and talked about how important genealogies were, noting that a few other options for observing tomb sweeping festival could be to read out the name list of your relatives, here and gone, or to share memories of the things we still know about them. In the end, he asked, isn’t it more meaningful to love and respect them while they're alive than to prepare a banquet in their name after they're dead?

Final Thoughts

I loved the symbolism of the service and both the ancient church-ness AND Chinese-ness of it. I think it’s important for people to honor and respect both their families and cultures when they come to know the Lord. In fact, it’s more important than ever to do it then, to show God’s love.  These kinds of issues need to be approached with love and sensitivity, instead of a right/wrong or us/them polarization. I hope that this was helpful to new believers in our church who may be struggling with how to be a Christian witness in their families without making them feel rejected. Idol worship is real in Taiwan. Superstition informs behavior in the daily lives of so many. But as Christians, we know something precious. We know that death is not something to fear, because the one we follow has already overcome the grave.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

a lesson in contrasts and a matter of balance

I was helping out a friend this weekend who works at a Catholic school here in Taiwan, as she was asked to undertake the difficult task of translating legal/doctrinal statements from English into Chinese. To make matters worse, they were originally written in Italian! But the interesting thing about it was how the document was relating the vow of poverty that nuns take to the financial administration of an institution. The idea is that if our own Savior emptied himself and took on the nature of a servant, if he had no place to lay his head, and if the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, shouldn't followers of Christ also choose to live a certain kind of lifestyle? To our modern way of thinking the idea of renouncing your rights and/or possessions, much less committing to never acquiring anything except as you plan to offer it for the good of the community, well it seems outdated, impossible, and maybe even crazy! 

The next morning I went to a church where the speaker spent a great part of the sermon expounding on how much God wants to bless his followers with health and....prosperity. And this is something I've been hearing a LOT in the churches I've visited recently. God wants to bless your business. God is a God of abundance; ask you and you will receive. None of this is wrong...right? Yet somehow it doesn't always sit well with me. It's really easy for me to write a church or preacher off as "health and wealth" and not want to listen to anything else they have to say. 

I worry that in our desperation to get people into church, we want to make promises that God himself never did. A reading of the gospel seems to show that Jesus wasn't nearly as eager to attract followers if they were half-hearted, even turning away people who had seemingly reasonable excuses for delayed commitment (I'm just going to go say goodbye to my family, then I'll come follow you....). I worry that those hearing this prosperity gospel are the very embodiment of the seed that falls among the thorns, who receive the message with joy (who doesn't want the God of the universe on their side? Healing their illness, helping them find good parking spots, etc....), but are soon choked out by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth... I want to see true discipleship happening instead. 

The Jesus we are called to follow is the Jesus who said this:

Mark 8:34“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul?

In contrast to today's church, He typically didn't have a lot of good things to say about wealth:

Mark 10:17 As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. 19 But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
21 Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!”24 This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God.25 In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
26 The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
27 Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”

So does that mean we should all be taking vows of poverty? Are the promises of riches only for heaven? Can't we use wealth to bless others? In my reaction against the seemingly false teaching of the prosperity gospel, I didn't finish reading the passage, I'll underline the part that gave me pause:

28 Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said.
29 “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, 30 will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. 31 But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”

In other translations it is even clearer - a hundred times more blessing in this present age (along with persecution lest we forget), and in the age to come, eternal life. The book of Proverbs and many other parts of the Old Testament are also clear that on principle, those who follow God's way are likely to be rewarded, whether it is the logical outcome of living wisely, or as blessings in response to obedience. 

A student in my bible study shared what I think is a profound truth: all of the things we long for to provide us security in life (money, power, friends etc) things we NEED to ensure we have a comfortable life are actually an attempt to fill a deeper need for eternal life. 
So where does that leave us? Are we to pursue blessings? Are we to expect them? 
BUT we don't want to be like ungrateful children at Christmastime. We should never let our desire for these things outweigh our desire for the Giver.