Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Story of Reality

This story is not a fairy tale, but rather it is the Story all fairy tales are really about.  Indeed, almost every tale ever written is an echo of this story embedded deep within our hearts.  Yet this story is not a tale at all since the Story is true.  

As I read The Story of Reality, I kept thinking, "Where has this book been all my life?"

Every religion tells a story of reality.  Every philosophy and every individual outlook on life is a take on the way someone thinks the world actually is.  There is no escaping it.  

I've looked for a book like this for years.  I can remember sitting on the floor of the Christian bookstore (back when Christian bookstores were a thing), scanning through dozens of books, trying to find one suitable to give to a non-Christian friend.  I wanted something that explained Christianity in a compelling, winsome way, but wasn't overly academic or complicated.  I was looking for this book.  I guess I never found it until now because it was just published in January.

Gregory Koukl's The Story of Reality:  How the World Began, How it Ends, and Everything Important that Happens In Between is kind of a worldview book, but not really.  It's kind of an apologetics book (a defense of Christianity), but not really.  It's kind of like a fascinating conversation with a really smart, really kind, Christian friend.  That's what it feels like.

There is a saying that has been helpful in some ways but I think is misleading in this regard.  The saying goes, 'God has a wonderful plan for your life.'  From what I understand now, that perspective is in the wrong order.  The Story is not so much about God's plan for your life as it is about your life for God's plan.  Let that sink in.  God's purposes are central, not yours.  Once you are completely clear on this fact, many things are going to change for you.

This book is extremely readable and entirely enjoyable.  It's only 200 pages.  It's non-fiction, but written like a story, in a conversational, highly understandable, relational tone.  It's easy enough for a 14-year-old to understand, yet profound enough for a deep-thinking adult to contemplate.

Now, I realize that the idea that God is in charge is bothersome to many people, but what is the alternative?  If someone is not in charge, then no one is in charge, and that seems to be a big part of our complaint about the world to begin with.

From now on, this is the book I will give to a friend who has an interest in Christianity.  This is a book I will read aloud with my kids when they are young teenagers--allowing us lots of time for all the conversations it will spark.  But this is not a book just for inquirers into Christianity.  It's for any Christian who wants a shot of adrenaline, a reminder of who we are and why we are here and what we are living for.  This book truly is a gift to God's Church, and I hope that you'll look for ways to use it in your circle of influence.

First, trouble, hardship, difficulty, pain, suffering, conflict, tragedy, evil--they are all part of the Story.  It is the reason there is any Story at all.  The Story not only explains the evil people do; it predicts it.  Our world is exactly the kind of world we'd expect it to be if the Story were true and not just religious wishful thinking.

Second--and more important--our Story is not over yet.  Evil did not catch God by surprise.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed

I struggled with knowing whether I should share this post here, because I wrote it for missionaries.  To anyone else, it might sound whiny or cynical.  But if you're friends with missionaries (or any overseas worker), this might be helpful for you.  It may sound strange, but coming home can be just as difficult as adjusting to a new country.  I hope this may give you a glimpse into what it can be like.

Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed

When I’m overseas, I dream about Target.  Everything I need, all in one place, at reasonable prices!  So when our furlough started a month ago, I visited Target the day after I arrived.  
We’ve been missionaries for 13 years, so I should know better by now.  Target’s awesomeness can be a little too much to take in just 48 hours after leaving East Africa.  I was instantly bombarded with hordes of conflicting emotions.  Wow, it’s all so amazing!  Look at all this stuff!  Yeah, what’s wrong with Americans?  Why are they so materialistic?  That one pair of shoes could feed a family for a week in Tanzania.  And in just a couple of years, all these clothes will be cast off and end up in some market in Africa.  So why should I even bother shopping for them now?  Oooohhh….but I really like that blouse.
Emotional whiplash.  I couldn’t keep up.
And then when I finally did finish shopping, I felt like an idiot as the clerk tried to help me use the chip card machine.  Shoot, I thought I was doing well by just remembering how to use a credit card, and then they go and change all the rules on me!  “Sorry,” I mumbled to her.  “I’ve been living overseas a really long time.”
Ah, going home.  We dream about it.  We long for it.  We count the days until take off.  But when it finally arrives, the reality just doesn’t match up.  And we find ourselves in the midst of adjusting, all over again, to a place that we thought would feel like home.  We find ourselves struggling with disillusionment and discouragement.
So why can visiting home feel so hard?  Here are some thoughts.
People move on.  When you leave home for a just a few weeks or months, it’s easy to slip back into the same routines of life.  Friends, social events, and jobs all come back together just as they were before—just with more stories to tell.  But when you leave for years, life goes on without you.  In your mind, time stood still back at home, but in reality, your friends have gone through hard stuff and happy stuff, and you were not there to experience with them.  And all those people who sent you overseas with much fanfare?  They are a lot busier now, and might forget to roll out that red carpet you expected.
You are a different person.  Spending years in a different country changes you.  You’ve adapted to new ways of speaking, interacting, shopping, sleeping, and raising kids.  There are literally new pathways in your brain.  It’s not so easy to just drop all of that on a 14 hour flight and expect to become the same person you once were when you get back home.  You are not going to see the world the same way ever again.
Read the rest here at A Life Overseas.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Infertility and the Privilege of Motherhood

It took me a while to realize how lucky I am, given my circumstances, that I got to become a mom.

When Gil and I concluded early on that babies weren't coming the natural way, we were left with the adoption route or the treatment route.  We were in the States at the time, so we planned to start the treatment route, but I got pregnant--the one and only time.  It only lasted seven weeks, and by the time the dust had settled, we were on our way to Tanzania again, so there wasn't time to start treatment.  Adoption had always been "Plan A" for us, even if the biological option had worked out, so there wasn't much question that we would start that process in Tanzania.  And 10 years later, we have 4 beautiful children.

I look back now and think about how my life could have gone a completely different way.  I've never birthed a child, but God gave me a husband who was enthusiastic about adoption.  That's not true of a lot of other husbands.  Treatment wasn't available in Tanzania, but adoption was--and it was ethical and hardly cost anything and there were good orphanages who kept careful records on their babies.  That's not true of a lot of other countries.  I could have found myself 40 years old, infertile, and in a country where adoption wasn't possible.  But I didn't.

A friend recently asked me to share about my experience with infertility with a friend of hers.  I told her I would be happy to, but I might not be the best person.  Yes, I did go through a miscarriage and a couple of years of taking my temperature every day and crying every month.  But I have been so fortunate.  I often think of the women in many other cultures whose husbands divorce them for infertility.  Or those who can't afford treatment or can't afford adoption or who would love to adopt and their husband says no.  Or those who mortgage their house to pay for treatment which lasts months or years, and there's only pain and never joy.  Or those women who long for children, but a husband never materializes.

Infertility has helped me understand the privilege of being a mother.  Kind of like how I didn't really understand the privilege of electricity until I had been without it for 12 hours a day for months at a time.  I know that there are many who long for motherhood and for one reason or another, are never granted the privilege.  That could have been me.

Of course, as any mother quickly realizes, motherhood is not all lollipops and rainbows--quite the opposite, in fact, when the lollipops make the child go berserk and the rainbows appear scrawled in crayon on the living room wall.  Motherhood is a dying to self, pure and simple, a laying down of one's life and desires and peace and ambition in sacrifice for these small ones who ruin your pretty things and make you want to hide under the bed.  It's no wonder, really, in our self-consumed culture, that so many women these days are choosing to reject motherhood altogether.  Maybe they need to hear more voices telling them that in losing your life, you actually gain it.  More than you ever dreamed.

But for those reading this today who do dream, who long and wait and who dread Mother's Day, who want nothing more than crayon scribbled on their walls, know that I mourn with you too.  And I pray that as God brought redemption into my life, may He do the same for you--in one of its many forms.

I said that it took me a while to realize how lucky I am to be a mom.  Of course, I don't believe in luck, but in God's providence.  I'm humbled to contemplate this story He wrote for me.

It's been 10, maybe 15 years since I've been with my Mom on Mother's Day.  How blessed I am to call this godly, generous, faithful, sacrificial woman my mother.  And my friend.

My four with the apron they made me.  They made an acrostic out of my name:
Guess they had a hard time thinking of "Y" words.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

We Americans Are Far Too Easily Pleased

I am a cheating American.  I don't deserve your sympathy.

When we’re in the States, Gil and I often comment at how much easier it is to live the Christian life when we are overseas.  There’s something about being outside of our own culture that takes away much of the temptation to acquire more, to be more, and to over-indulge.  You have no idea what a blessed relief it is to be free from the constant barrage of television commercials, billboards, and the incessant push to buy more, more, more.  There is something incredibly humbling in forging deep friendships with people who (materially) have so much less than we do, yet have relentless faith.  And the times when we do go without electricity or safety or convenience have taught us much about contentment and perseverance.  I wouldn’t trade that for anything. 

But even if I have had the benefit of living a good portion of my life in a different country, at the end of the day, I still am American.  Sure, I can reap the advantages of learning and growing from other cultures, but I still have my blue passport and my health insurance and my 18 pieces of luggage that I will lug back to Tanzania.  Yep, 18 pieces, people.  Sure, I can tell you that a lot of it is for HOPAC and other ministry purposes, but that’s still 900 pounds of Americanism that I will carry over the ocean.  No, don’t elevate me for what I have given up.  I am a cheater.  I get the best of both worlds. 

packing at the end of our home assignment in 2014

I have a love-hate relationship with America.  I love all that’s good—all that I see that sets America apart from so many countries in the world—but yet I hate what it breeds.  I love Costco, but then I read that America has over 3 million self-storage units at 58,000 facilities.  I love Target, but then I remember that the markets of Dar es Salaam are bursting with hundreds of tons of America’s cast-off clothes.  Americans have 44 billion dollars sitting around in unused gift cards. (The entire GDP of Tanzania is $45 billion).  But what do we buy our friends who have everything?  Gift cards. 

American cast-offs

Why is it that we Americans can have so much—and yet so often take all those gifts and throw them down the toilet?

Freedom leads to debauchery.
Prosperity morphs into greed.
Beauty turns into idolatry.
Convenience feeds laziness.
Opportunity transforms into pride.
Abundance becomes addiction.

Gil and I keep having the same conversation these days:  How does an American truly live the Christian life?  What should that look like?  When the temptation of excess is not only close by, but encouraged and celebrated?  When even good things, like food and sports and entertainment are so close to our fingertips at every hour of the day that it becomes practically impossible to turn them down?  When binging is no longer only associated with just food or alcohol, but also entertainment?  How do we enjoy the good gifts God has given us, like prosperity, opportunity, and beauty, yet keep those things from turning into greed and idolatry?  The line is so incredibly thin and so difficult to determine.  Sure, it’s easy to say, “American Christians are too materialistic,” but then when it comes down to deciding how much is too much, who knows the answer?

There’s got to be a way, isn’t there?  Can we find a way to take advantage of our prosperity, of our abundance and comfort and convenience, and yet use it for the glory of God?  Can we enjoy the gifts God has given us, and yet still live a life of self-denial?  Can we allow the beauty of America to sink into our souls and make us better people, yet steadfastly refuse to be satisfied in anything but Jesus? 

I don’t know the answer, but I know it starts by asking the questions.  Every single day.  And not allowing ourselves to be truly dazzled by anything except the cross of Christ. 

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (C.S. Lewis)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Medina Life, April 2017

Easter Sunday
Believe it or not, there are four generations in this picture:  Babies, Mom, Grandfather, and Great-Grandmother.  

Three-legged cousins

Brotherly love part 1

A Medina tradition:  Street Wiffle Ball

Brotherly love part 2 (tagging him out)

All dressed up and freezing in our pretty Easter clothes

Auntie and nephew

winning the balloon toss

Brotherly love part 3

Cousin bonding

The whole gang....four generations.

Lots o' cousins


Driving this car may have been the pinnacle of his entire life thus far.

Dodger Stadium

In the Dodger dugout during a pre-game tour

with Grandpa at the new Jackie Robinson memorial

His first MLB game

California Poppy Fields 

Then up to my hometown of San Jose...

Children's Discovery Museum

That right there is my very own niece.

And this amazingness is my nephew.

And just for fun, this was my own little guy 7 years ago, at the same location and the same age then as his cousin is now.  Apparently two-year-old boys are all pretty excited by this exhibit.

And this is my favorite little brother.
Who also happens to be a pretty incredible Dad.

Girls' Day 

My aunt spoiled all us girls with lunch and pedicures and ice cream!

Giants' Game

My Dad took Gil and the boys to a Giants' Game.  I think my boys' grandfathers are doing their best to confuse their poor grandsons by each supporting one of the two greatest rival teams in California.

And in between all this, we are doing things like homeschooling and preaching and making presentations and driving a lot and hugging a lot of people.  It's overwhelming and wonderful and we are all enjoying ourselves immensely.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Six Privileges of Living in a Wealthy Country

Some benefits to living in a wealthy country are obvious:  Access to clean water, free schools, plenty of available food, non-stop electricity.  But it wasn't until I had lived in a developing country for a number of years that I started seeing the more subtle privileges.  

1.       The privilege of choosing your career.  What do you want to be when you grow up?  is a standard question for children.  We encourage our children to dream big, to set goals, to reach for the stars.  We take personality tests and analyze our strengths.  Yet for most of the world, this is never even a consideration.  For most, a job isn’t about personal fulfillment, it’s a way to survive.  That means you take any job you can get, whether it’s digging ditches or selling boxes of Kleenex on the side of the road.  And working in fast food?  That’s one of the better careers out there. 

2.       The privilege of reasonable commute time.  I'm currently visiting Los Angeles, which has the worst commute time in the United States.  But compared to the rest of the world?  It ranks 12th.  Out of the 50 cities worldwide with the worst commute times, America has only three. We also must consider that for most people in the world, getting to work isn't in a private, air conditioned car with leather seats.  Imagine an hour or two--each direction--standing in a packed bus or train.  Every day.

3.       The privilege of protecting your children.  Every morning, I have watched children as young as four or five years old walking a mile to school along busy roads with no sidewalks.  Do their parents worry?  They certainly told me they do.  But since parents have their own hour-plus commute every morning, and they can’t afford school bus fare, they don’t have much of a choice. 

4.       The privilege of seeing your children reach their potential.  Sports teams, music and art lessons, even educational toys are all at our children’s fingertips.  Learning to read and write is an assumption, and if we discover a particular talent in a child, we nurture it.  But in the majority of the world, this doesn’t happen.  Children are often crowded into classrooms of 50 or even 100, and books or other resources are scarce or non-existent.  How many potential Olympians, musical prodigies, or brilliant scientists are languishing in developing countries, with no opportunity to develop their potential?

5.       The privilege of food choices.  Eliminating gluten, dairy, grains, peanuts, and meat, or switching to organic food has become a popular way of improving health in western society.  But what you may not realize is that this is a distinct privilege of living in a wealthy country.  Even in countries where food is not scarce, choice is not an option.  Pesticides are a cheap and easy way to increase crop production and are rarely regulated.  And in many countries, eliminating grains or carbs means there would be hardly anything left to eat. 

6.       The privilege of knowing why people die.  Of course, having some of the best health care in the world means that in wealthy countries, a lot less people die in the first place.  But when they do, at least we know why.  I can think of countless incidences in East Africa of babies, children, or adults dying—sometimes falling over dead after a short illness—and no one has any idea why.  Cancer?  Heart attack?  Diabetes?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  They will never know. 

Of course, not every person in a wealthy country has all these privileges, and not every person in a developing country does not.  And there's always people like me, who get the benefits of being from a wealthy country, even while living in a developing one.  The life I take for granted is not a reality for billions of people.  And coming to grips with my privileges has helped me to be more grateful, more content, and more eager to wisely use what I have been given. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

God Does Not Accept Me For Who I Am

Our culture is obsessed with acceptance.  Have you noticed this?

Believe in yourself.  Be yourself.  Come as you are.  Accept people for who they are.  Don't judge.  I felt judged.  I promise I won't judge you.  I promise I wasn't judging you.  Love yourself.  Don't ever change.  Treat others the way they want to be treated.  

And perhaps you've even heard this one:  God accepts you for who you are.  Unconditionally.

That is a lie.  And if you believe it, it comes straight from your culture, not from your Bible.

God does not accept us for who we are.  He never has.  He cannot.  He literally cannot go against His perfect and holy nature and accept us for who we are.  In fact, the Bible says that we are enemies of God.  That we are children of Satan.  That we are at war with God.  That He despises our sin.

That is not acceptance.

But here is the hope:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Acceptance, no.  But love, yes.

The problem is that our society simply refuses to acknowledge the fact that we all are wretched sinners.  It's ridiculous, really, because we watch the news at night and we discipline the children who are clawing each other's eyes out and we shame the bullies and we are horrified at the racism and the raping and the riots, but then we think the answer to all of this is simply to.....accept one another?  Really?  Yet we do everything we can to tell ourselves that we're really not all that bad, that we just need to build our self-esteem and get rid of the toxic people in our lives and practice better self-care, and then our lives will be grand.

Oh, I get it.  We're all good people, deep down.  Sometimes really deep down.  At least I am, right? After all, I wouldn't have been one of the millions of Germans who stood by and watched the ashes of six million Jews fall on my head.  It wouldn't have been me who picked up a machete and murdered one million neighbors in Rwanda.

Seems to me that the deeper you go, the less goodness you find--not more.

It's true that as a human made in the image of God, I am infinitely valuable.  But I have never been worthy of acceptance.  I am arrogant and selfish.  My patience level is directly connected to sleep and food and air temperature.  My heart is not naturally inclined to worship God.  Perhaps if God was a good-natured grandpa, partially blind and deaf, then he could find it in his heart to accept me.  But who would want to worship that kind of God anyway?

Jesus Christ died on the cross because God does not accept me.  It's like the parent who loves his drug-addicted son so much that he cashes in his pension and sells his house to pay for his treatment.  That's not acceptance; because what parent willingly accepts his child's addiction?  But that is love.  Amazing love.  Sacrificial love.  Unconditional love.  Never-stopping, never-giving-up love.  But not acceptance.  We cannot confuse the two.

I cannot understand the cross until I understand that my sin is the reason it cost so much.  I cannot understand that cost until I come face-to-face with the truth that I Am Not Acceptable.  But He became Acceptable for me.  I was not acceptable, and yet I am loved in a way that is far beyond what I can ever understand.  And the more I understand my wretchedness, the deeper I understand His love.

I am now acceptable to God.  Not because of who I am, but because of what He has done.

The new morality in our culture bears the disguise of goodness.  Don't we want people to just feel good about themselves?  Except that when we do that, we lie to ourselves.  We lie to our friends.  We lie to our children.  Often we make our sin worse because we refuse to deal with it--or even acknowledge it.  And certainly, we lose the power of the cross.  And that is a tragedy indeed.

"Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet." (Thomas Watson)