Monday, February 24, 2014

Life as an expat

Portzelky, a Mennonite treat.
Image from: www.littlecookontheprairie.blogspot.com
Living in a culture or place different from the one you grew up in is not always easy. Montreal is full of expatriates (ex = out of, patria = fatherland) who are trying to build a new life removed from their place of origin. In reading through the book of Daniel again, I discovered that the stories therein reveal some excellent wisdom for expats of all kinds.

First, a bit about expats. Expatriates are different from immigrants in that they are, for the most part, skilled workers who have been sent by their company to work in another location. Expats can be identified by their loyalties; they are always rooting for their home teams. Just this past week, Canadians living in the USA congregated at Canada House in Washington DC wearing red and white and cheering on the Canadian hockey teams. Many expats can also be identified by the way they talk; their accents give away the fact that they are from somewhere else. For example, if you are North American and say "Rise Up Lights," you are commanding lights to arise. However, if you are an Aussie, this same phonetic phrase is actually heard as "Razor Blades." Cool, right?  Expats are famous for eating food from their native country or culture. This is why you can find Chinese restaurants, Italian eateries, a restaurant called The Alpenhaus, and of course, a wide selection of French patisseries in Montreal. And this is also why you will find me hunting down the Mennonite fried dough delight, portzelky, every December (see photo).

Now, on to Daniel. Daniel was a godly, upstanding young man living in Judah during the reign of Jehoiakim, but it turns out that he was the exception. Judah had become a nation filled with people who adopted the wicked ways of their pagan neighbours, did pretty much whatever they wanted, and ignored years and years of warnings from the prophets to turn back to God (see Jeremiah 25). As a result of Israel's disregard for God's directive to be a holy people who would heal the land they had been given and cause it to flourish, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and carried off their finest youths as well as the sacred vessels from the temple. Daniel and three of his friends were among those who ended up in Babylon and began a program of training to work in the king's courts.

The goal was to assimilate these young leaders into Babylonian culture. Their names were changed (Daniel which means "God is my judge" was changed to Belteshazzar which means "may Bel (a pagan god) protect his life"). The three-year training period also included eating the rich food available in the palace. Daniel was wary of being absorbed into the culture, especially when the Babylonian values clashed with his worship of the God of Israel. He asked to be excused from the royal diet and be given food which had not been offered up to Bel-Marduk, the Babylonian deity, and instead was in keeping with Israelite dietary laws. Due to Daniel's skill as a negotiator, his boss agreed to have the four young men do a test run of an alternative, vegetarian diet to see if it had any ill effects. We all know the story; the Israelite diet was a success and after the end of the trial period, Daniel and his friends appeared more robust than all the others.

The clash between two ways of life is evident in this story: 1) Daniel's loyalty remained with the God of Israel despite insertion into a foreign culture and a name change which honoured the pagan god, Bel-Marduk, 2) Daniel went along with much of what was asked of him, but was very careful about what he took in, believing that the Hebrew dietary laws reflected that he was God's, whereas the Babylonian diet reflected homage to Marduk, 3) Daniel's demeanour was noticeably distinct from the Babylonian attitude. Instead of having a conquering or revolution mindset, Daniel exhibited a humble, respectful attitude to his captors and overseers.

As citizens of the kingdom of God, we don't always feel at home in this world. Some Christians want to take over the world and enforce godliness (Jesus' disciples exhibited these tendencies and humanity is notorious for wanting to mix religion and politics). Other followers of Jesus want to isolate themselves and live separate from this world. I don't see that as a viable, long-term option when our example is One who came to live among us in our broken, corrupt world. In essence, we are "in" this world, but we are not to be a product "of" our world's culture.

Let me offer some lessons to be gleaned from Daniel the expatriate which might be useful to those of us living in a land other than the one we grew up in. They might also prove helpful to us as we remember that we are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God.

1. We are sent by God. As expats, it can be tempting to adopt the attitude that we are somehow the victims of unfortunate circumstances, held hostage here. We can spend our time longing for the homeland (escapism) and living in the past (or the future). Daniel never acted like he was enslaved; he lived like a free man because he was confident that he was where he was because God had sent him.
2. We are called to serve with wisdom and humility for the good of this world, not to overthrow it (adopting the conquering mentality of Babylon) or to self-righteously isolate ourselves from it, but to bring the presence of God to it. This is the vocation that the Israelites rejected.
3. The values of this world/culture and the values of the kingdom of God will often clash. Our identity as children of God must be solid enough to allow us to live and work anywhere without being threatened or fearful.  We must also develop the wisdom and discernment to know when our loyalty to Christ is being challenged. In those circumstances, we must learn to say "no" with respect, humility, confidence, and creativity.

As disciples of Jesus, our food is not the rich offerings of this world's palaces, but the body and blood of Christ. Let us take this food in; let it define whose we are. Let it keep us away from idols which can enslave us. May it bring freedom and grace to us and to our world. Let us ask God to give us strength to live in an imperfect and foreign world without frustration, anger, or complaint. Let this food be Life and Truth to us.

Jesus prayed for his disciples: "Like Me, they are not products of the corrupt world order. Immerse them in the truth, the truth Your voice speaks. In the same way You sent Me into this world, I am sending them." (John 17: 16-18, The Voice).

This material is taken from a series I am teaching in our faith community called "Life as an Expat: Stories from the book of Daniel."

Monday, February 17, 2014

a few thoughts on WWJD

Image from christianbracelets.com
I have never owned a What Would Jesus Do? bracelet and I probably never will. Don't get me wrong, I think the campaign has its merits, especially if it makes people more thoughtful in their decisions and encourages them to more closely align their lives with the life of Jesus. This was no doubt the intention of Charles M. Sheldon who penned the 1896 novel, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? and continues to be the objective of subsequent popularisers of the catchy phrase. But to me, the question seems odd. Let me give you an example. Dean has a great deal of knowledge in the area of business and finance, a lot more than I will ever have. However, when I am faced with a financial decision or need business advice, I never ask myself, "What would Dean do?" I just talk to him. I tell him about my situation and express my concerns and fears. We have a conversation about the various options and we work it through together. There is never a hypothetical question with a hypothetical answer.

WWJD strikes me as odd because the question is phrased in such a way that it seems like I am trying to estimate what a friend (or acquaintance) might do were he or she in my shoes even though they are not. In reality, it is a bit of a guessing game. I offer my best guess based on what I think they would likely do. It is not direct imitation of specific acts (in which case we would find WWJD proponents spending most of their time healing and feeding people, telling stories about the kingdom of God, and walking along dusty roads with a bunch of disciples). The question is hypothetical. And that is a big problem. I have never liked hypothetical questions and for the most part choose not to answer them. In most cases they have very little relevance to reality and involve a great deal of speculation based on incomplete information. In addition, they rarely move us to any real action or change.

Does this hypothetical question, WWJD, really reflect the way we are to follow Jesus? Is being a Christian basically making good, perhaps even educated guesses? I hope not. The more important question is this: is WWJD the way that Jesus himself instructed his followers to live? I don’t believe it is. In John 14 we find Jesus talking to his disciples about what will happen after he leaves. He says: "I will ask the Father to send you another Helper, the Spirit of truth, who will remain constantly with you. The world does not recognize the Spirit of truth, because it does not know the Spirit and is unable to receive Him. But you do know the Spirit because He lives with you, and He will dwell in you. ... The one who loves Me will do the things I have commanded. My Father loves everyone who loves Me; and I will love you and reveal My heart, will, and nature to you." (The Voice)

One of the major problems I have with WWJD is that it is a question we ask ourselves as if Jesus were not present. As if he had not given us the Spirit of truth to live in us and instruct us in all things. The Spirit of Jesus is here with us, so we can speak directly to our Lord.  Instead of asking, “What would Jesus do?” we can pray: Jesus, please show me where you are right now in this situation. Spirit of God, teach me how to lovingly participate in your action in this world. Father of love, who and what are you compelling me towards? How are you calling me to move away from pride and fear and step into humble identification with your life, death, and resurrection? How can I walk in faith, hope, and love this day, this moment, right now? What do we do now, Jesus?  

Saturday, February 08, 2014

I wrote a poem

Walking on the beach at Lunan Bay Scotland. A 'Yes' moment!
Around 8 months ago I jotted down the beginnings of a poem. Today I came across the rough draft and thought perhaps it was time to finish it. If I remember correctly, I hastily typed those first words in a rush of joy and exuberance, absolutely besotted with being alive and surrounded by so much goodness. This evening, in a more contemplative state of mind, I edited it and added a final stanza. It is a poem about hope, celebration, gifts, limitations, and sobering gratitude. It is a poem about saying yes to life, all of it.

The Poem of Yes
by Matte Downey 

Do you ever just want to write a poem? 
Because you want to say something delicious
Create something frothy and delightful
Mold something with edgy consonants and soothing vowels
Paint a picture with adjectives which have the potential to startle the mind and make someone go “Oh!”

Do you ever just want to dance and jump? 
Because there’s no good reason for it but jumping is what you do when you’re alive and you have legs
And dancing is what you do when you are alone and unafraid and miss someone you love
And dancing and jumping is what you do when adjectives are just not enough

Do you ever just want to cry? 
Because there is too much pain in the world and it has numbed us all
Made us a little too cynical
Too sure of ourselves
Too immune to small disasters
And too blind to big ones
Or maybe just because the story unfolding before you is too beautiful and the weight of life too heavy to carry without tears
And crying is what you do when the time for dancing and jumping is past

Do you ever just want to smell everything? 
Like the sweet tang of freshly cut grass
Because that particular smell is not available year-round in Canada
Like the sweaty clothes lying on the floor after a day filled with sunshine and playing outside
Or scrubbing the back deck 
Like the garbage in your kitchen 
Because the rank odour reminds you of last night’s party with chicken drumsticks
And the overripe strawberries you had to throw out because you just couldn’t eat another bite
And it makes you sad because not everyone has the privilege of a stinky garbage
And smelling everything is what you do after you have cried and wiped your nose

Do you ever just want to stand and look at the sky as it changes minute by minute? 
Or listen to the sounds of people walking on crunchy snow?
Or breathe in breath after breath of sharp cold air on a clear night?
Or stroke the cat's fur and feel her small chest rise and fall in half-slumber?
Because sometimes you realize just for a moment that you are very alive in a 
Wonderful
Terrible
Overwhelming
Intoxicating
World
And it makes your heart want to burst
And let out a long, primal scream which could be translated roughly as "I hear you calling! Here I am!"






Monday, February 03, 2014

the small stuff

One of the buttons I am sewing onto a piece of clothing today
If you are like me, you spend a lot of time attending to details and often these time-consuming tasks don't seem to affect much in the grand scheme of life. But they do. Today I wrote a little something for a practical theology blog about finding holiness and inspiration in the details of life. It comes from engaging with Ezekiel 40-43 where we find lots of detailed measurements and instructions for building the temple. Click here to read it.

And enjoy the small stuff of life!