Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Late night blogging part 2: The true enemy

(This will probably make more sense if you read the previous rant, er, post first...)

I was getting ready for bed, when the second urge to blog hit me. If I went to sleep, I knew I would loose it, so here I am again, for the second time tonight, finishing up the processing that I started in the previous post.

I have wonderful roommates. They are a lot of fun. I relate to each one differently, but they are both very important to me and bless me enormously.

Roommate number 2 and I have a very "special" relationship. We fight. All the time. (she is quite violent I tell you!) Only we are fighting in jest. We both enjoy verbal sparring and spend many of our conversations in mock battles of the wit. (I of course win most often, being ever so clever and all.) She takes great pleasure in twisting my words to the worst possible meaning and throwing them back at me. (This often leaves roommate number 1 attempting to translate, or just laughing at us) We both take great pains to get roommate number 1 to agree with our side. (She is quite skilled at remaining neutral, allowing neither of us to "win")

This is of course all in play, and we don't take any of it seriously. It helps us refresh ourselves and stretch our minds a bit in the process.

But remembering this made me think. There are times when this kind of stuff is not in jest and fun.

Just think of any teen movies involving girls. Where one girl innocently says something meaningful to her, and others twist it and use it against her. Come to think of it, we call this politics when we are adults...

So, how does this relate to my previous post?

Ah, so glad you asked.

Because, it's all about WHO is doing the whispering.

When I say something because I care about the well being of another person, this reeks of love. There is an Enemy who hates anything that reeks of love, and therefore seeks to twist and destroy it whenever possible. If I say "I'm worried about your child" he twists it and "You are a bad parent" is heard. Culture, bad translation, insensitivity, a host of excuses are blamed, and hated. And an action born of concern has become a breeding ground of hurt and suspicion. Score one for the Enemy.

And it's so easy to buy into. When I run into a wall, when I hit the frustrations that I perceive as culture, or stubbornness or fear, and when I resent them, the Enemy gains a foothold in my heart. None of these are the problems. They are the excuses, the symptoms, covering the espionage of the Enemy.

When my roommate deliberately twists my words, it doesn't upset me, because I know we are joking, and I know she is not my enemy. If I didn't know that, and walked into a discussion like ours, it could be so easy to be hurt and offended.

When I only see what is obvious, or what I want to see, I allow the Enemy room to maneuver. When I realize it's all a cover up, I can see beneath the surface, stop resenting the people, and my frustration dissipates.

My enemy is not the culture, it is not the church, it is not people or even myself.

My Enemy is Satan, who seeks to devour us like a roaring lion.

There's a sudden feeling of freedom with this revelation.

Or maybe it's the feeling that now my blogging is done and I can go to sleep. ;-)

Either way, my heart feels lighter now, and Hope burns stronger.

Funny how you feel better when you know your enemy has already been defeated. :-D

Frustrations vs Faith; Trust in the face of weakness and brokeness.

How do I say the things I want to say? How do I make the words come out so that they are not misunderstood or offensive? Are these even things that I should care about?

I worked for years in a lukewarm church, doing lukewarm events and saying lukewarm things. I watched close friends of mine with their battles in less tepid places. I rejoiced when I left the program, because I was tired of battles that I could not see or fruit that seemed to be too small, rotten, or crushed before ripening. I was tired of watching my friends, my comrades be injured.

My battles were small. I was on the edge, far enough to see, but not get as caught up. And I was thankful.

Two years I worked in meaningless jobs, loving children, but somehow not making any impact, either on their lives or their ability to use English. And I felt hollow inside, knowing there has to be something more.

Now I return to the "church."

I grew up in West Texas, a Lutheran in a world of Baptist and Methodist who always asked me "What's a Lutheran?" My first ever case of culture shock was when I went to a Lutheran college. My second case was when I went to the Twin Cities for two weeks of missionary training. (West Texas having much less of the "culture" of Lutheranism)

After working as a missionary for a couple of year, I thanked God that I had not gone into my original field of youth ministry in American churches.

I'm not a "church" person.

Don't get me wrong. I faithfully attend church. I love when I am able to fully worship. I think churches are so very important.

But something about the way humans have warped this institution makes me feel chained and drained of life.

I feel guilt because I don't enjoy "church work."

My friend likes to call me "post-modern" because I prefer the "edges" to the "church." (I'm not really sure what that means, but she says it often.)

Once again, don't misunderstand. I like my job. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy being with my students and learning about them. I love teaching about the Bible.



It's not enough.

My life on the edge has protected me from many things. And now I'm facing things I haven't before. And I feel so helpless in the face of it all.

Last week I had my first successful event. We line danced. There was laughter, and music, children running up and jumping into my arms to be swung around. I had a Bible verse ready, we recited it in English. And it's over. The kids go home, remembering the dancing, but not understanding how it relates to life. Do I even understand how it relates to life?

And I think of my students. I shouldn't pry too deeply into the private life of a student with behavior problems. I can't do anything anyway. Just try to do something with him in class... I have to be careful if I want to offer food to my students who are starving because they come straight from school to English class without a chance to eat dinner, and some even have another cram school after that. I might imply that their parent's aren't taking care of them. Every time I look at one of my students with care and compassion, and want to help, I'm told I can't. That's not how it's done. Someone might get offended. We've never done it that way before.

And something inside of me screams. Isn't this what I'm here to do? What happened to binding up the broken-hearted and setting the captives free? I feel like all we are doing are keeping the captives a little more comfortable. Here, have some tea, and here's some lotion because I know those chains must be chafing. No, wait, I can't give the lotion because that would let you know you are in chains. Well, anyway, here's some tea.

Discouragement sets in. You wonder, what's the point? How long do we wait and pray O Lord? I see my friends, their hearts breaking and struggling, bleeding for people we can't seem to help.

And everywhere I look, stumbling blocks. The culture, "church culture", other Christians, my own fears and weaknesses, my own judgment.

I feel weak.

I think of how many people spend years and years praying for people they love, without an ounce of hope. There are countless examples given to us by God Himself.

How many times was Abram discouraged, how many times did he lose hope, I wonder...
Moses? Joseph? Poor Jeremiah? David?

Yet, they persevered.

God never fails.

I always struggle with the balance of being a missionary. How much of my desire to "change" things here arrogance from my own American way of life? Do I want to just make the people here American/Christian clones? How much of my reluctance to enforce change is of respect for the culture here, valuing harmony and history?

But in the end, isn't a missionary supposed to be an agent of change? Otherwise it's not even needed.

How do I offer love without offending? But isn't the very nature of Christianity supposed to be offensive?

I just falter in frustration, wondering what it is I'm supposed to be doing? My prayers feel hollow, my motivations suspect.

And the only thing I have left is Trust. Trust in a God who works perfect through weakness. Trust that even though I feel like my prayers are in vain, and time is passing by with no results, God is in control.

I'm suddenly glad that it is Jesus who binds up the broken hearted and sets the captives free. I seem to be one of those who are helping with the breaking and chaining...

But I can move forward because I know there is Grace. Maybe tomorrow my heart can learn to love a little more and understand a little more than today. Maybe tomorrow my heart will be opened to pray in Truth for these people and this land.

And even if it's not tomorrow...

I have only Faith and Trust to hold on to.

That is the strength that my weakness gives me.

I have far more questions and frustrations than answers. But then again, if I had all the answers I wouldn't need Faith.

I thank God for Remembrance, and for sustaining, and for patience with thick-headed disciples.

And I Hope for tomorrow...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Overcoming the curse of human nature

When I was in high school, some friends of mine introduced me to the world of anime (or Japanime as it was called at the time.) At first I was skeptical because after all, they were just cartoons, right? Those thoughts were completely shattered the more I watched.

Anime is merely a way of telling stories. It's a media form and has no bearing on the quality of the story. Just like there are bad television shows that dull the mind and offer only superficial entertainment, there are also bad anime series. But there are some very stimulating and thought provoking television shows and movies as well. And in anime as well.

One of my favorite series is called "Fruits Basket." This is a innocent seeming story about a family with a strange curse. 14 members of the family have been cursed. (Japanese families are still often very clan like, with large estates and strong family ties even among cousins etc, so this is a large wealthy family.) 13 of the family turn into animals of the zodiac (plus a cat) when they are weak or when they are hugged by a member of the opposite sex. And one, who represents God, bears the brunt of the curse, and in return is head of the family. In stumbles a high school girl who has recently become orphaned.

At first I wasn't so sure about this series, because I'm not a fan of anything that deals with the zodiac in general. But it turns out that there is actually very little to do with the actual zodiac or it's meanings, it's just kinda there.

What the series does do is explore wounded human nature. The Sohma family is cursed. And each member reacts to the curse differently. Some react in anger, some force themselves to be cheerful, some become withdrawn, but they all carry deep, deep scars born from their curse. They feel hopeless and trapped in their situation, controlled by an equally wounded and fearful "god."

And here enters Tohru Honda, a high school girl whose mother had just died in a car accident. Her father had died when she was very young. Her mother was a former gang member, who had quit when she met Mr Honda. She had found someone who accepted her for who she was, and gave her love and allowed her to bloom. When her husband died, she did her best as a single mother, pouring her love into Tohru, and teaching her what it means to be a kind person.

This love helped Tohru become a person who chose to believe in and accept other people, finding their good points, even when she was living under difficult circumstances.

She comes to live with three of the main characters by chance, and discovers their secret. But instead of rejecting them, she accepts them and wishes to continue being their friend. Her unconditional love has a great impact on the wounded hearts, and one by one the cursed family members begin to seek her out.

The series isn't a dark series, in fact it's quite humorous. But the characters are multi-leveled and deal with the real pain and fears of rejection and self-loathing. All the characters feel worthless, because they have been cursed, they are no longer human, and somehow deserve their pain. But they long for redemption even so.

There is no instant fix in this story (the anime is only one season, but the book form last for well over 13 volumes and goes much deeper into the characters issues.) but it is instead a journey of hurting people hurting others, being hurt, but then being accepted and slowly changing and accepting themselves, becoming kinder in the process.

One of the characters is a grade school girl, who encounters bullying at her school. She is different. All the cursed members have hair color that resembles their animal. In Japan, where everyone has dark hair, it's easy to stand out. So the girls in her school didn't like the fact that she had different colored hair. When she tried to defend herself, the girls ignored her, eventually just laughing anytime she said anything. In the end, the girl locks away her words, unable to speak. She quits going to school, and eventually runs away from home in her shame.

She is eventually found and introduced to Tohru, who of course falls in love with her instantly. Little by little, the girl regains her courage, but is still unable to speak. Eventually she recieves a letter from her school teacher, urging her to come back to school. In the letter, the well meaning teacher writes "You should learn to like yourself a little more, and then others will like you too."

Two others with the curse had been reading the letter with her, and were disgusted with what was written. But one, thinking of how he had started to change since Tohru had entered his life, reflects about it. He said, "I don't understand that thinking. How can someone who can only see the ugly things about themselves learn to see the good things? How can you like yourself just like that? No, I think the teacher was wrong. First you have to be told that you are loved, and then little by little, you can learn to love yourself." He told her how much she was loved, and they were all relieved when the little girl made her first utterance.

I really like this series. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and it makes me think. It does such a good job of capturing the human condition. We are cursed beings. The curse was not about transforming into an animal, the curse was the pain of rejection and the pain of being different. The more you went into the series, the more you saw how each character was driven or defined by his or her pain. Even those who weren't cursed. Some turned their pain into strength, but most were being crushed by it, crying out for a savior.

Of course this series is not Christian, but it shows life without God, or rather life with a flawed god. In the end, the only thing that can redeem these people from their pain, is love: unconditional love.

And isn't that what we have been given from God? Isn't that the people we are supposed to become. A person who does not look at another person and finds reason to distrust them, but instead looks at a person and celebrates them. Instead of giving into jealousy, there is celebration.

I learn so much of what it looks like to be a Christian from the main character, Tohru, who even when she has every right to give into her pain, she still accepts and loves others for who they are. She doesn't judge, but merely accepts. She gladly serves, and learned the secret of thankfulness.

John Eldredge likes to talk about how all Epic stories are just a reflection of The Epic Story of God and His love for us. I feel like I don't have words to do justice for this series, but somehow I wanted to write out a little of what it makes me feel when I encounter stories like this.

Hope from ashes. Redemption from pain. Unconditional love. Struggling, but not being overcome. And changing and becoming stronger and better people because of the struggle.

Our pain, our struggles, our relational disasters. These are all parts of the curse of sin. But there is hope, even in the cursing. We are not left alone in our curse. Jesus took the curse upon Himself to save us. He loved us when we were unlovable. He has given us reminders of His love. We are allowed to live even when cursed with death.

Yesterday and today I was overcome with my own ugliness. How my heart judges and condemns others so easily. How I focus on myself so much, it traps me in a miserable spiral.

But God reminds us that we are loved. Even in a sinful world, living with other sinful people and being confronted with our own sin, God gives us reflections of His love. We are not perfect people. But we are not perfectly cursed either. We have Hope and offers of Redemption.

My heart was soothed by a roommate who worries about me, and took time to just be with me when I wasn't feeling well, physically and emotionally. And God reminded me through a silly story about His love, and what life is really about.

I'm not alone in my struggles and my pain.

Someday I want to become the kind of person who gives love to others. I want to look at people and see their good points, and celebrate them, instead of being jealous or threatened by them.

Growth is painful. But it is growth. And growth is a blessing from God.

I'm thankful for another chance to Remember and Learn and be Challenged to rise above myself.

I hope I can remember this tomorrow as I brave another day of rain and work...

But at least I know, even when I fall and I hurt others, I can never be so ugly that God doesn't love me and continues to bless me.

Yes, tonight I am Thankful.

and going back to bed, so I can remember to be loving tomorrow. ;-)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The importance of Remembrance

I'm ADD. The non-hyperactive kind, but still ADD. So this means I am prone to forgetfulness. Things that I have said and done are clearly etched in other's minds, but I am often shocked and clueless when they re-count them to me.

It's easy to forget.

Well, some things.

Trauma, scars, wounds, self-doubt, guilt. These we are constantly being reminded of. Things that keep us away from Truth and Peace and Joy. These we can easily recall at any time. Negative things that would pull us down and keep us under. Oh yes, these I remember often and with vivid colors.

There are other things that I remember can re-call. I think my most vivid memories I have made have been in Japan, mainly because I am always aware of the uncertainty of life here. Will I be here next year? How many more times will I be able to meet these people? Will this be the last chance I have? There are so many things out of my control, so I actively archive and treasure memories. When I feel uncertain, or I hear the lies of self-hatred whispering in my ear, I remember.

I think of Israel. It's really shocking how forgetful they were. Or I used to think so. I mean, really! They saw really BIG powerful miracles and acts of God. And the first time they hit a snag, they complain, and here comes selective memory. "Ah, how wonderful it was back when we were in Egypt. We had food and we ate our fill everyday." (conveniently forgetting how much they complained of their slavery at the time.)

But God, ever so aware of our faulty memories, kept giving them new things to remember.

How blessed we are.

Today I was able to talk with an old friend for the first time in years. She reminded me of so many things we used to do and be when we were younger. So much I have forgotten. So much I have lost. But she remembered for me. And reminded me. And we rejoiced in the remembering.

I often struggle with self-worth. It's a daily ritual for me lately to make myself remember why I am OK. And most of my remembering is done through the affirmations of those I care about.

I am daily amazed when people accept me instead of merely put up with me. It honestly shocks me when people desire to spend time with me. I am baffled when people desire my presence, not just occasionally, but they want me to live near them and be in community with them.

Well, I never said I didn't have self-worth issues.

But that's not really the point.

I think there are all things that we forget. Important things. Things that when we remember change our whole view of the world and life. These things are different for different people, but we all have them.

Or the things we remember, like in the back of our minds, but don't recall. They are just sitting there, dusty and forlorn.

And I can see how this is what the Enemy wants. Us distracted, forgetful of the things that would bring us Life. Anything to keep us discontent, distrustful or rebellious.

No wonder God reminds us so often to Remember.

Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
-Proverbs 3:3

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.
-Deuteronomy 6:4-9

There are so many things that should be forgotten. Hate, fear, rejection, things that distract us from Life. But oh so many more things that should be Remembered. Love, friendship, rest, rejoicing, small remnants of Eden still left for us, to Remind us that all is not lost. In the midst of an imperfect world, we are called to Remember.

Today I am thankful for those who Remember and Remind, and share with me the joys of Remembrance.

And somehow Heaven feels just a little more tangible tonight.

Monday, May 09, 2011

When God answers prayers

About six years ago I had just finished moving into my new home next to the church where I thought I would be working for the next two years. (two years became four, and I lived there for a total of 6!) After a few weeks I had started to get used to the teaching routine and had started exploring my new area on weekends. I did a lot of walking. After a month or two, I realized that while I wasn't suffering from overwhelming loneliness just yet, I could see that I might in the future. There were two English speaking church members who I spoke with, but they were both older than me by close to ten years. I wanted friends closer to my age (or younger) who I could hang out with, do things with, and learn from. So somewhere around there, I decided I should be pro-active, and I started praying that God would provide friends for me, my own age, who lived near by, so I could meet with them easily (the other missionaries being in the Tokyo area and over an hour away one way, which makes meeting more difficult and less spontaneous.) Around 3 months I prayed this prayer whenever I thought about it. And then God answered my prayers in ways I never expected.

You know, I was thinking one or two girls, close to my age who I could call up, hang out with etc. God provided a band, complete with friends EXACTLY my age, plus younger and older thrown in.

The answer didn't come right away, but it came, and when it came it was beyond anything I could have dreamed of.

Fast forward four years. I've just left the VYM missionary program and have started my new job as an ALT. I have little money, little time, and little patience. I still had my old missionary friends, and the band, but still, coming home every night to an empty house was taking it's toll on me. I had been thinking for a while how I didn't really find living alone an ideal situation. Of course, when I came to Japan I was insistent that living alone would be best for me. I'm messy, opinionated, lazy, and I like to be able to have a place where I can just be "ugly" for lack of a better word, where I don't have to put on a face, and be nice or anything else. I can just be me with my hair down, make-up off, and in whatever ratty clothing I happened to put on. Roommates require consideration, compromise and other stress-inducing things like that. So I was originally very happy to have my own little space to be self-centered in. But after 4 years, and some growing, I felt that living alone was no longer in my best interests. I was becoming set in my ways, and too self-absorbed. Having a roommate would be a good way to help me get out of that, right? Besides, I would also like to get married one day, and it would be good to live with someone and work out the kinks before jumping into marriage. Right?

Well, those were some of the thoughts anyway. Plus it was just lonely coming home every night to an empty house. So I mentioned the issue to God and talked about it a couple of times with Him. In about the same time frame of three months or so, God clearly answered my prayers by dropping a roommate in my lap. Due to her own personal circumstances she needed a place to say, and it ended up being with me. I cleared out some of stuff and tried to make room for her.

And I discovered how much of a blessing she was to me. She accepted me, put up with me, listened to me, tolerated the crazy things I did... It was a perfect match. (for me anyway, I continue to feel sorry for her, and I still kinda think she got the bad end of the deal.) She even came with me to the band.

Somehow life still revolved around me. Haha.

So then I prayed also for community. Christian community that supports and lives and shares together. And this year God plopped roommate number 2 in my lap. (the day she moved in was the 3rd time we had met.) She has been here since the first of May, and it feels like it has always been this way.

And I have found yet another person who tolerates me, and laughs with me, and has mock arguments with me, and is some how willing to live in the mess that just seems generated anywhere I go.

When God answers prayers, He answers well. My Father has smiled upon me and has delighted to give me good and wonderful things. And has brought to me, so many wonderful, accepting and affirming people to bless me.

I'm not sure this is making me any less self-centered. ;-) It certainly does bring more joy into my life.

So looking at this pattern, I noticed how much above and beyond what I pray for that God provides me with.

I'm not sure if I should be nervous or highly expectant since I have been praying for a husband recently... ;-)

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Golden Week

It's Golden Week in Japan, a series of holidays that generally last about a week, and give people a chance to travel and such.

I'm very thankful for this chance. It's been rather hectic with all the moving and adjusting to the new job. I just now today got all my stuff out of my roommate's room. Now eventually I'll have to unpack my room and make it livable.

Our final roommate arrived tonight. Now we get to start a new rhythm of life and see where it leads us.

Tonight is a quick up-date kind of post. Shocking I know. I will return again some other time for my usual lengthy posting.