Monday, December 29, 2014

The Insanity of Forgiveness

His eyes are crazy, deep pools of hatred. I grip my scarf until my knuckles are white as I watch him beat the helpless young man before me, striking him again and again across the face with his cane. It's not the first time. I know it won't be the last time. I feel wrath, even hatred, bubbling up inside me, and I wish I could hit this bully back, beat him twice for every blow he's given Louis. But there's nothing I can do.

There's nothing I can do because I'm sitting in the cinema, and the young man, Louis, is on the big screen. I'm watching "Unbroken." The movie posters declare that it's an incredible true story of survival, resilience, and redemption, which it is, but I would like to add one more thing: it's an incredible true story of insanity. The insanity of war and man's brutality to man, and the insanity of faith and forgiveness.

Forgiveness, when you think about it, isn't very "fair"--nor, perhaps, is it terribly satisfying. When I see Louis being tortured by the prison guard in the film -- or when I hear news stories of, for example, the Taliban massacring hundreds of innocent schoolchildren -- the anger that wells up inside me cries out for revenge. For justice to be served against the guilty. The kind of justice that takes an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.

It's at such times that I can resonate with David's heated pleas, "Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!" (Ps 139:19) I can understand why God would hate sin and anything that hurts his creation. I can appreciate God's statement: "I do not excuse the guilty" (Ex 34:7). What I find harder to understand is when God says, "I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. . . I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live" (Ex 34:7, Eze 33:10). I cannot understand forgiveness.

It's one thing for God to forgive me. After all, I'm basically good, right? I haven't committed war crimes. I haven't slaughtered innocents. I deserve forgiveness. Wicked people don't. Surely, to forgive the wicked doesn't make sense.

Picture taken from
At the end of "Unbroken," Louie -- who has devoted his life to God -- returns to Japan, influenced by his faith to seek forgiveness rather than revenge as a way forward. The movie's website quotes Louis: "The one who forgives never brings up that past; true forgiveness is complete and total." That's insane.

To give up your desire to see the other person hurt in justifiable revenge? To offer unconditional forgiveness for terrible wrongs? It goes against every natural instinct. Forgiveness is something that, when I really try to think about it, is practically impossible to wrap my head around.

War and human brutality is insane. Forgiveness is also insane. It requires something superhuman. True forgiveness must be divine, and the fact that there is a faith that not only calls for forgiveness, but somehow also enables people to truly give it and live it -- as evidenced by Louie and many, many others -- is astounding.

There is something beautiful in the madness.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jesus Claus

Dear Jesus Claus,

I know you have a list and are checking it twice, but by and large I've been a good girl this year. I'm sure I don't really deserve to be on the naughty list. So can you please, please send me a new car, a lot more money than I have right now, and a good man? Amen.

P.S. Oh, and can you hurry it up a bit? Thanks.  

Salvation is a free gift, but everything else has to be earned, right? After all, just like Santa Claus, God only gives nice things to those who have accumulated enough brownie points.

At least, that's what I realized I'd fallen into thinking.

I was journaling through some prayers, pouring out my heart to God and asking Him for something in one sentence, but in the next sentence agonizing over how I really didn't deserve such a gift anyway and hence I didn't expect to receive it. And suddenly I stopped short. What was I thinking about God?!

I began to write: "Do I really believe that any good I receive is because I deserve it somehow? That any time God gifts me is because I've ticked all the right boxes? That for God to bring something into my life I have to bribe Him with good behavior? Ouch."

God doesn't work that way. He is not some Santa Claus figure, weighing up my good deeds and my bad deeds before deciding whether I go on the Naughty or Nice list, and thus deciding whether I should receive any good gifts or answered prayers.

God is someone who loves to give and gives because He loves.

Over and over again in my Bible study this year, verses about the goodness and abundance of God have jumped out at me.  He promises that those who seek Him will not lack any good thing (Psalm 34:10). He "deals bountifully" with His people (Psalm 13:6), and brings them to "rich fulfillment" (Psalm 66:12). He promises that I can be "abundantly satisfied" with the "fullness" of His house (Psalm 36:8).

And all of this is simply because of who He is. Not because of anything I've done to be placed on a Naughty or Nice list.

How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Oh, continue Your lovingkindness to those who know You. You crown me with lovingkindness and tender mercies. Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the lovingkindness of the Lord. 
(From Psalms 36, 103, 107)

Thank you to Tamara Naja for giving me the suggestion and inspiration for this post.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Rat Race 2: The Courage of My Convictions

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." Ralph Waldo Emerson
Change demands courage. As I’ve been inwardly rebelling against the evils of the rat race (read some of my thoughts here and here), I’ve begun to realize that outwardly I haven’t done much about it. (That being said, this week I did give more time to people, and felt so much better for it. Yay!)

Actions speak louder than words.

I say that God is the most important thing in my life, but I don’t act like I believe “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33)

I say that other people are more important than myself, but so much of my daily life is wrapped up in what I need to do, what I want to do with my limited free time, and how I need to act to promote my future success.

It’s not that completing tasks is wrong. It’s not that wanting excellent grades is foolish. It's not that seeking success is worthless. However, I need to analyze my heart as I pursue tasks and grades and “success.” What values are driving me?

Are selfishness and pride a bigger part of my motivation than I’d wish to admit?

(Talking of grades—I kid you not, I had a nightmare this week about a teacher giving me a C on a paper. In the dream, I argued and argued with her but she wouldn’t change the grade, so I got really mad. I woke up annoyed. Interpret that as you will!)

Perhaps it’s easy to give in to the rat race without analyzing the values that drive it—and us—because it’s an accepted, expected part of our culture. That’s just how you live life.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but it will take courage to change.

What values do you want to embrace? What values does God want you to embrace? Don’t let society force you to blindly accept all its values, whether those values are embodied in the rat race or in something else. Don’t let society squeeze you into a mold that doesn’t fit.

I’m challenging myself to look deep into my Bible and my heart and change my attitude and my lifestyle accordingly. I’m challenging you to do the same.

A busy lifestyle isn’t necessarily wrong. A 9-5 is not necessarily meaningless. But what are your heart values in pursuing the life that you have and embracing the standards of success that you hold?

How will you stand up against the rat race? What do you need the courage to change?

Maybe you need to spend more time with family and friends. Maybe you need to experience a period of missionary or volunteer service. Maybe you need to seek first the kingdom of God. Maybe all you need to change is your attitude toward your current situation.

I know I need to do at least three things on that list!

I don’t want to let society force me into a rat race for a “success” that I don’t really believe in. I want to have the courage of my convictions. I want to live out my true values.  
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau
“So how do you judge what a man is worth through what he builds or buys? You can never see with your eyes on earth. Look through heaven’s eyes. Look at your life through heaven’s eyes.” From the Prince of Egypt

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Rat Race 1: Relationships

Burying my head in my arms to muffle the sound of my crying, I crumpled into a pathetic ball on the bathroom floor. Meltdown. I don't have many of those, but this past week was sufficient to induce one. I had been sick all week, and increasingly stressed and frustrated with each passing day. (I'll spare you the tedious details of my workload this semester, but suffice it to say it feels like I didn't know what "busy" meant until this year.)

"I can't do it!" I sobbed. "I can't do everything that's demanded of me to the standard that they expect, the standard that I want. It's impossible. I'm exhausted. I'm sick. There's not enough time. I hate this."

My life is an endless cycle of do, do, do. Do now, do more, do better. No time. No time for deep devotions, because I am too tired and distracted. No time for meaningful social interaction, because I am too busy getting my assignments done. No time to explore. No time to just be. I have to accomplish important stuff.

I am part of one rat race, being trained to enter another. There is no finish line. And somehow, especially after weeks like this, I am overwhelmed with the feeling that my life is not all that it could be -- perhaps not all that it should be.

I can't help looking back to my pivotal experience in Laos. Life there was far from perfect, yet there were many things I learned to value. Sometimes I wonder whether part of the reason God sent me there was so that I could grasp priceless lessons I couldn't have learned by staying in the West.

I need to apply those lessons back here, to recreate those things I miss, but it's hard.

I am naturally a task-oriented, driven perfectionist. That's not altogether bad. However, and it feels so horrible to admit this, I tend to put tasks above people. Sometimes people turn into tasks. My stuff has to get done.

Laos showed me that relationships are more important than tasks. People always had time to talk to you (which sometimes frustrated me because I was trying to stick to my business, surprise surprise). People would always invite you to spend time with them, to eat with them.

People would shut down their businesses for days because of a family funeral; instead of working they would spend time with their guests, neighbors, and family. Living in this environment, I slowly began to mellow, to get used to the idea that building good relationships really was more important than checking off everything on my to-do list.

I was satisfied by deepening friendships and meaningful, honest conversation.  Relationships -- building them, sustaining them, fixing them -- began to take a higher priority. I felt supported, I felt loved, I felt challenged.

Now I have reverted to checking off my to-do list. Back here, I don't know how to live like other people are more important than my tasks. I hate that, and I want to fight it, but this rat race seems so perfectly designed to focus my attention on myself and what needs to get done because my grades and my future and my reputation is riding on all.that.stuff.

So too often I sacrifice the chance to grow meaningful relationships on the altar of my daily planner to the great, insatiable god Time.

That's not the way life should be.

Friday, August 1, 2014


“You’re not prone to fainting, are you?” the optician asked me as we sat in her tiny office, preparing to initiate me into the fellowship of contact lens wearers. 

“That’s encouraging!” I laughed nervously. “Not as far as I know. Why?”

“I’ve had two people faint on me when I was trying to put in their contacts —one girl, who did admit she was a fainter, and then one hulking six-foot-tall macho man. I know first aid though, if you do happen to start feeling woozy!”

Thankfully, her getting the lenses into my eyes was no great ordeal. Getting them in and out by myself, however, was another matter. How could something so small cause such sinking feelings of dread, such trembling of the hands, such sweating of the brow, such pounding of the heart?

Forty-five slightly traumatic minutes later and I was victorious. I had conquered my fear and was a successful contact-lens wearer.

My introduction to contact lenses wasn’t my only confrontation with fear this summer.

I was afraid of not being able to make enough money. Because of the World Cup, we’ve had fewer Brazilian students coming to summer school, and consequently I’ve had two months of no work. This wasn’t exactly the best news for a financially challenged university student!

I was afraid of making a choice that would leave me vulnerable -- of being honest and open as I knew I needed to be. Making that choice and conquering that fear was one of the most difficult yet gloriously freeing experiences I’ve had.

I was afraid, when I went back to work at the end of July, of being officially inspected the first time I invigilated a proper exam. As the inspector sat eagle-eyed in the back of the classroom, I walked around coolly, hoping I looked less amateur than I felt and mentally running through my checklist of invigilator duties.  “Oh, dear God, what if I’ve forgotten something? What if I make the school lose its exam center status?!” Of course, it would happen that while the inspector was still in the room, someone nearby started playing Miley Cyrus “Wrecking Ball” loudly enough for the world to hear.

The biggest fear that I face, though, is still unresolved. I’m entering my final year of university. I’m turning twenty-four. I should have my life together. People keep asking me, “So what are you going to do after you graduate? Are you staying in America? Are you coming home?”

I don’t know. I don’t know. I hate saying that. I don’t know. What am I going to do? I feel the pressure of having to make up my mind, especially as an international student who has to worry about visa issues. But I don’t know.

One night I literally jolted awake in a sudden panic at the thought of how quickly time was passing and yet how blank my future looked. How bleak my future looked, even, to my current darkened state of mind. And then I felt God speaking to me so strongly that I felt compelled to write it down in my journal.

“I have not called you to freak out about the future, to worry about life after graduation or your relationships or your money. Your freaking out will not alter My plan, but it will rob you of today’s joy. I have called you to walk with me today, to give yourself to today, to trust Me today. I am not against you. I am able to do more than you can ask or imagine. Stop doubting and believe. I am in control, and I will show you what you should do at the right time. Turn your whole being to trusting and loving Me.”

This summer hasn’t gone the way I expected, but every sadness and every fear has been counteracted by the reminder of a God who delights in giving abundantly. “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it with good things!” I hear Him crowing over me (Psalm 81:10).

I’ve seen some of those good things this summer, in amazing people, good memories, necessary growth, and personal triumphs. What other good things are waiting to assuage my fears for the future? I am excited to find out! 

“How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings. They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house, and You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.” Psalm 36:7, 8

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Suburban Growing Goodness

"It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato."  ~ Lewis Grizzard
There really is nothing more satisfying than enjoying the fruit of your own labors, fresh and delicious and bursting with a flavor that supermarkets just can't conjure up. Most of the men in my family have been keen gardeners, and some of my favorite childhood memories involve wandering around my grandfathers' allotments, crunching on fresh peas, sneaking juicy strawberries, or picking fat purple plums.

Now that I'm in college, minus a garden or much free time, it's a little difficult to keep up with the gardening, although I'm determined to see what vegetables I can grow in pots on the balcony.

I've also found an excellent resource to inspire me to suburban growing goodness. I wholeheartedly recommend Siloe Oliveira's YouTube channel "Suburban Homestead" to anyone who has thought about turning their little patch of lawn into something more productive.

The videos are informative, entertaining, and make growing your own extremely do-able. As spring is just around the corner, I encourage you to watch and be inspired! 

After all...
"To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul." ~ Alfred Austin
Episode one is below. Enjoy and subscribe!

Plot Twist!

I needed a change. After seven years of teaching, on and off, I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue. Perhaps it was a temporary di...