Monday, October 20, 2014

Ten Side Effects of Living in Taiwan

Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’ve noticed some things about me that have changed due to my time away. Here’s a short list:

1.      I often need to be reminded to tip in restaurants.
2.      I feel a little surprised when shoe stores have my size.
3.      Over half my stories start, “When I was in Taiwan …”
4.      But I can’t start these stories any other way, because the fact I was in Taiwan is somehow essential to them.
5.      When I hear the word “foreigner” in any context, I somehow feel like the word is referring to me.
6.      I feel homesick for a place where I was never considered a local.
7.      These feelings of homesickness are often triggered by seeing a 7-11.
8.      But if I go into that 7-11, I will inevitably be disappointed by the poor tea selection.
9.      When talking to strangers, I find myself restructuring sentences to avoid difficult words, only to realize that, yes, other grad students do know the term lingua franca.
10.   I get ridiculously excited about things like colorful autumn leaves and frost.

Obviously, these are not the most important take-aways from my time in Taiwan, but they are real. So if you want to travel overseas, be warned: your opinion of 7-11 will never be the same!

Monday, July 7, 2014

On Religious Parades

Before I went to Taiwan, I always thought of idols in one of three ways. Either they were gods worshipped in the distant past, they were modern pop stars as in “American Idol” or they were things that Christians today put ahead of God, such as money or having a good reputation. But after moving to Asia I realized that idolatry, in the most literal sense of the word, is alive and thriving in many places.

One Sunday night at around 8:00 p.m., the street outside my house exploded. If I lived anywhere else, I would probably have thought there was a gunfight. But in Taiwan, I assumed that it was just firecrackers. The bangs were accompanied by loud, raucous music. It was so noisy that I found myself putting my hands over my ears to stop them from hurting.

Apparently that was the night of a religious festival, probably a local deity’s birthday. These festivals are usually celebrated with parades, and this one started right outside my apartment.

The parade featured people in elaborate costumes, which represent either deities or protective spirits, that dance while music is played. People also carry the statues of the deities, which normally rest in temples, through the streets. These statues rest in elaborate boxes carried on poles by teams of people, kind of like a sedan chair. Traditionally the carriers bounce the boxes to give the deities a more enjoyable ride.

This parade also had fireworks, not just firecrackers, as well as a truck that was playing Western music, such as “Trouble” by Taylor Swift. (I wish that were a joke.) As they were getting ready before it started, I also spotted a flat-bed truck with a pole and a young woman who looked like she was going to be dancing on it.

My first reaction was frustration and anger at the noise. The sound was almost causing me physical pain, and there was no way I could get anything done with that cacophony outside.

But then my conscience caught up with me, and I thought of God. It was as if the Holy Spirit said to me, “How do you think I feel?” I realized that this parade, which in my mind was nothing more than a nuisance that should be shut down with a noise ordinance, was actually much more. It was an expression of a false religion, an act of worship given to a god that cannot save. Moreover, in worshipping this idol, the people there were despising and ignoring their Creator, who I love dearly.

Acting on impulse, I went downstairs to get a closer look. That was when I saw the costumed people dancing and posing in the street. There was a police officer directing traffic around the parade. And I saw a crowd of young men walk by, carrying the box with the idol, my frustration at the noise began to fade. I wondered what was going through their minds, whether they really believed they were holding a god or whether they were just participating in a fun cultural activity. I wondered the same about all the people in the parade.

Taiwan is quite highly developed as a whole. It has great public transportation, some very impressive buildings, and goods from all over the world. Almost all the young people have smartphones, and they tend to act surprised when they learn I don’t have one. And yet the country is still in the grip of superstition and pagan religious practices.

I’m not usually one to complain about other cultures. I’m all for experiencing and learning about new kinds of food, music, clothing, art, etc. Finding out about other countries can make our lives much more interesting. I also think Chinese culture has a lot of values it can teach us in the West, such as the importance of caring for one’s parents.

But religion doesn’t fall into either of those categories. It isn’t a morally neutral thing you can add into your life, like trying a new food or buying some calligraphy to hang on your wall. It isn’t even a moral statement everyone can recognize intuitively, accept and act on.

No, religion is fundamentally a statement of the way the world works. And that means if any religion is true, anyone who rejects it is believing a lie. I think Christianity is true. (If I didn’t, I would not be a Christian.) And if I’m right, these people are not only wasting their time; they’re actively insulting the God of the universe by choosing to worship something else.

After a few minutes, I turned away from the parade because I was choking up. The sight of so many people so lost and confused broke my heart. It was humbling for me to realize how little I cared about my Taiwanese neighbors. At first I didn’t care what these people were doing, as long as they didn’t interrupt my quiet evening at home. 

But for those of us who love the Lord, idolatry is not just a nuisance. It is a sin against God and a tragedy for people. If we listen with the ears of Christ, the sounds of the parade are really a cry for help.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dear Taiwan: A Love Letter

Dear Taiwan,

            When I first met you, I was like many graduates, young, excited, idealistic and nervous. Any blind date is frightening, and I had committed to spending two years with you. When I arrived, I had been traveling for almost 20 hours, and my mind was filled with a cloud of weariness almost as thick as the humid air.

As I traveled along your highways, I stared out the car window looking for something, anything, that would mark you as the exotic, interesting place I hoped for. At first, there was nothing. Then the driver pointed out Taipei 101, a strangely-shaped tower in the distance. But the first thrill of excitement to break through my exhaustion came with the sight of the Grand Hotel. Tall and majestic, its red and gold façade had all the elegance I had admired in your mainland sister, and at that moment, I knew that you had something to offer.

The years passed, and I became more and more familiar with the bustle of your streets, the grandeur of your mountains, the colors of your flowers, the flavors of your food and the welcoming smiles of your people. As friends introduced me to delight after delight, I realized with a thrill what a beautiful and interesting place you are.

You possess beautiful scenery: gorges, waterfalls and mountains, some of which meet the Pacific ocean in rocky beaches. Your forests are filled with flowers, animals and butterflies. And all of this is just a few miles from bustling cities where almost anything can be purchased from one of the convenience stores that sit on practically every block. I’ve always been more fond of the wilderness than of the city, but who could complain about a city that has a mountain range with several hiking trails in its center, as Taipei does?

And then there’s the food. You introduced me to fruits I had never tasted before – mango, guava, dragon fruit and pomelo to name a few. And even those I knew were sweeter. I often wondered whether the pineapple was fruit or candy, and your cherry tomatoes actually tasted like a fruit (which, biologically, I guess they are).

Then there are the many local delicacies I tried. Scallion pancakes fried and wrapped around eggs or other fillings, small dumplings filled with soup, noodles with sesame sauce and so many more than I could name. I loved your nearly infinite variety of teas– black, green, oolong and more mixed with milk or various kinds of fruit. Then you add tapioca, coconut jelly, fruit pieces or other things which I only know Chinese names for in the bottom of the cup. Now, we did have some disagreements over food, mostly when you misunderstood my home culture, but the hundreds of delicious meals you treated me to more than make up for the few bizarre ones.

Speaking of disagreements, I must admit that our first year together was a bit rocky. I’d never lived on my own, you see, certainly not while working full-time. And it did take a while for me to get used to you. But at those moments when I felt most homesick, when I most wanted to get on a plane and fly back to somewhere familiar, you would show me some unique aspect of your life that I hadn’t seen before. You would charm me with a building or a food I hadn’t yet tried, and I would remember that although I had left good things behind, the place I had come to was also good.

When that didn’t work, there were always people by my side, encouraging me and comforting me. I remember an elderly woman giving me a hug and saying, “If you miss your family, I will be your Taiwanese grandmother. So don’t be sad.” I remember friends sitting with me over long cups of coffee while I shared about my life. I remember adventures taken with individuals and groups up mountains, through city streets, to hole-in-the wall cafés, shops and flower festivals that I never could have found alone.

Taiwanese people were incredibly kind and willing to help. Once I dropped my wallet in a MRT (subway) station, and it was turned in to the information desk with all my money still inside. I lost count of the times strangers came up to me and asked if I was lost.

There are so many things I could say about you, Taiwan; so many things that you have taught me; so many ways you made my life with you convenient and comfortable. I have fallen deeply in love with you, Taiwan, so much so that it broke my heart to leave you. Our three years together have changed my life in ways I am only beginning to understand. Thank you, Taiwan. Though I have moved back to America, I will never forget you.

It would break my heart to say goodbye, so let me end with your own language: Taiwan, 再見 (zai jian). It literally means “see again,” and I sincerely hope I will.

                                                                                        Elizabeth Sunshine

Saturday, April 19, 2014

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Heaven

Yesterday morning I saw a news report about former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, which quoted him as saying, “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven.”

I think this is a pretty clear expression of most Americans’ thoughts about heaven. It’s not based on any particular religion (Bloomberg doesn’t even sound sure that God exists). But there’s a general sense that God is nice and will let people into heaven because they volunteered or donated money or did political work meant to help people or just were a nice person.

I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. One does not simply walk into heaven. To do that you would need to be perfect, and we aren’t. And if God simply overlooked the things we did wrong, it would violate His justice and make heaven less perfect in the process.

I can relate to the thought process that Bloomberg used. I thought more or less the same way when I was younger. At the time, I wasn’t really focused on getting to heaven. But I desperately wanted to know that God was pleased with me, and I thought that was something I can earn.

Do you think God is pleased with you? Maybe you’re certain that you’ve done enough good things to make God happy. Or maybe you’re thinking, “No, God isn’t pleased with me.” Maybe you’ve done something terrible in the past and you just can’t forget it. Or maybe you haven’t done anything really bad, but you know you’re not good enough. I fell into that last category.

I was always a “good girl.” I didn’t do drugs or steal or do anything that’s usually considered really bad. But I knew I didn’t measure up to what God wanted.

I sometimes argued with my brother or my parents. Occasionally I lied to teachers about whether I’d done my homework. I grew up going to church, so I knew God wanted me to be loving and friendly. But I was really shy, so I avoided my classmates instead.

These may seem like little things, but I felt terrible about them. They showed that inside, I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. At church, I kept committing to follow God, and I kept falling short. I was convinced that God was disappointed in me because I was disappointed in myself. I also wasn’t sure I had really been forgiven because I knew that receiving God’s forgiveness should change my life, and my life wasn’t changing.

Finally, when I was 14, I went to a church camp. They told me the news I had heard so many times before: That Jesus had died for me and taken the punishment I deserved for my sins. He rose from the dead and now offered me forgiveness. I just had to receive it.

I prayed and told God that I couldn’t live a good life on my own. As good as I might have looked on the outside, I was really messed up inside. I asked Him to forgive and change me.

That was when I finally realized that God doesn’t save us because of good things we’ve done or because He knows we’ll do good things in the future. He saves us just because He loves us.

After I asked God to change me, He did. I began to want to pray and read the Bible. I became more patient and loving, and I gradually stopped being so shy. But the best thing is knowing that God is pleased with me. And I can be sure that when I die I can simply walk into heaven. But it’s not because I’ve earned it. It’s because Jesus earned it for me. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Measure of Success

Lately, my free evenings often end with me going to bed crushed by discouragement. I have so many plans and goals of things I want to get done and end up doing only a small fraction of them. Sometimes the problem is that I was lazy and chose to waste time, but more often the problem was basic math. Ten hours’ worth of work cannot be completed in three.  

When the numbers don’t add up, there’s really only one solution: set priorities. This is not something I’m good at. I want to do everything. How can I decide which of the many good things I can do is most important?

Fortunately, about 2,000 years ago Jesus answered my question. Well, actually, he answered some lawyer’s question, but you'll see the connection.

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40)

Here we have a very clear statement of God’s priorities for our lives. It can all be summed up in one word: love. Loving God and loving others is more important than my work or my chores. It’s more important than my social life or my health. If I have a day when I get nothing done but love God and my neighbors well, that day will be a success in God’s eyes. And conversely, if I finish all my tasks at work for the next month, write fifty viral blog posts and a bestselling novel and develop the conditioning of an Olympic athlete but I don’t do it out of real love for God, then all those accomplishments are worthless.

My work and my writing are valuable, but only to the extent that they express my love for God, my coworkers and the people who read my work. And caring for my body has its place as a way to honor my maker and make sure I have the energy for my other loving actions. But I can’t let those things take away from what is most important.

These commands may be simple, but they are not easy to follow. Fortunately, God’s grace is there to cover the thousands of times we fail to live out these commands each day. He sees us, not as failures, but as His children clothed in the righteousness and perfect love of Christ. And focusing on living that love out sets us free from the burden of self-imposed expectations.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lessons From Lanterns

            Last Friday was Valentine’s Day, but here in Taiwan it was also Lantern Festival. This holiday is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year.

Some places celebrate Lantern Festival by creating huge sculptures out of paper, cloth or thin plastic and placing lights inside, turning them into giant lanterns. I have seen these sculptures featuring animals (this year there are a lot of horses because it’s the year of the horse), flowers, buildings video game characters and more. Sometimes people will set up whole scenes depicting historical events or traditions.

Others celebrate with “sky lanterns,” which are shaped like light bulbs about the size of my torso. People write wishes on the lanterns and light fires in the bottom. Then they release the lanterns into the sky. A town outside of Taipei called Pingxi is especially known for its sky lanterns.

Last year I went to Pingxi on the day of the lantern festival. I arrived in the middle of the day, but people were already releasing sky lanterns. As I watched the lanterns rise and blow away, I thought they moved gracefully enough, but I didn’t see why they were such a big deal. They looked like large balloons some poor child had let go of, not particularly beautiful.

I met a few friends, and we stayed until after the sun set. Lanterns continued floating up into the air, but they no longer looked like balloons. Now they resembled iridescent jellyfish in the depths of the sea or colored stars rising into the night. The same things that had left me cold a few hours earlier had been transformed into something mystical and hypnotic.

By this time, a huge crowd had descended on Pingxi (or rather, ascended – Pingxi is on a mountain). They gathered in a field where a stage was set up. In between speeches and performances they invited people to step into the space at the center and release the lanterns at the same time. The beauty of each individual lantern was multiplied as they rose together.

I found myself thinking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world.” Sometimes, it feels like the world is covered in darkness – wars, terrorism, disease, natural disasters … The evil around us can feel as vast and threatening of a night sky on a new moon when the stars are hidden by clouds. But it’s those nights when any light – even a tiny lantern – appears the most beautiful. As much as I love bright, sunny days (both figuratively and literally), sunny weather is not the time you appreciate sky lanterns most. It is the dark times that truly show what we are made of and that reveal the light of Christ shining through us.

Yet in those dark times, a single lantern, however bright, can only do so much. When we rise up as a community, then we turn the night sky into a backdrop for a dance of light. It is when we rise together that the world can see the light isn’t a fluke, a mistake, or a trick their eyes are playing on them. Through us they will see Jesus, who also called Himself the light of the world and who is the one who makes us shine.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Myths About Work Part 5: Work Defines Our Relationship With God

This is the final post in my series on myths about work. If you’re interested, here are part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. For this post, I’d like to broaden my focus a bit to include not only the work we are paid to do but also other things we feel we must accomplish. That includes things like housework, serving at church or volunteering. Many people buy into the myth that these actions define our relationship with God.

In the Babylonian myth that I’ve been comparing to the Christian story, the gods created people to do work for them. Since the work was assigned by the gods, we can infer that their attitude toward you would depend on how well you work. In Babylonian religious life, this worked out as sacrifices. People would give sacrifices as food to the gods. In return for these gifts, they would bless their worshipers (theoretically, at least).

Here in Taiwan, I often see people burning incense or paper money or leaving out food for gods, ghosts or their ancestors. But even in the religions that no longer require these kinds of sacrifices, one’s relationship to God (or the gods) is often dependent on obeying a set of commands or moral principles.

Even in churches, this myth is prevalent. I accepted it for much of my childhood. Sunday School lessons tended to focus on what God wanted us to do and examples of heroes to follow. Or at least, that’s how I understood it at the time. When I got into junior high school, the gospel message was proclaimed a bit more often, but it still took an awfully long time for me to get the point.

Throughout junior high school I felt incredibly guilty because I couldn’t bring myself to do what God required of me. Most notably, I knew I should reach out and share the gospel with people, but I was painfully shy and couldn’t work up the courage to do so. Finally, I gave up. I told God, “I can’t do this. If You want me to be a good person, You have to change me.”

Little did I know that that was exactly what God wanted. I admitted that I couldn’t earn His love, but I turned to Him in faith, believing that He could and would accept me anyway.

When we look at the Genesis creation story, God did ask Adam to tend and keep the garden He had made. But it was already a beautiful place filled with fruit trees. God showered Adam with blessings even before Adam had had a chance to do anything. In other words, the Biblical creation story starts with a free gift.

And although the Israelites and the Babylonians both performed sacrifices, their purposes were very different. The Babylonians sacrificed in return for favors to provide the gods with food. (Don’t want the immortals to starve to death.)

In contrast, the Israelite sacrifices were given either to atone for sin or to express gratitude. God was very clear that He didn’t need sacrifices. He didn’t even want them as much as He wanted His people to obey Him. But the real meaning of the sacrifices became clear thousands of years later. They were a picture of Jesus, who died on the cross to bring people forgiveness for their sins.

It is this gift, the sacrifice of Christ, that allows us to have a good relationship with God. Not sacrifices we give God. Not even our own obedience. Only a gift of grace.

The Biblical view of work is complex and multifaceted. We’ve seen how it is a good thing that reflects the image of God in us. But it is neither our purpose nor the thing that determines our value. We work, not primarily because God told us to, but because God works, and we were born to be like Him. God’s work is the foundation for our work. And it, not our own effort, is the foundation of our relationship with Him.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Myths About Work 4 – Inferior People Do Inferior Work

This is the fourth part of a series on myths about work. If you missed the first parts, please see part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Some of the lies we believe in any area of life are held consciously, while others sneak in through the back door. We absorb the latter from the glances and body language of those around us, the jokes we laugh at, the tropes that dominate TV. Often, if we were directly asked if we believe these lies, we would recoil in horror. But they lurk behind our attitudes, priorities and actions. The myth I want to discuss today is one of those sneaky lies that many people hold without knowing it. It is the myth that inferior work is for inferior people.

Many people judge the worth of others based on the kind of work they do. They automatically think of business owners, doctors and lawyers more highly than they think of truck drivers, fast-food workers or garbage collectors. The probably wouldn’t say these people are inferior, but the way they think of them and treat them shows that kind of condescending attitude. Sometimes, this manifests itself as arrogance about one’s own job. In different circumstances it could be the refusal to accept a steady but unglamorous position like flipping hamburgers because you feel it is beneath you.

Like the other myths I have discussed, I see this one reflected in the Babylonian creation myth. The story says that the gods created humans to do work, because work is beneath them. Clearly, the gods are superior to humans, so if the gods can pass work off to inferior beings, humans can do the same. This was a justification for slavery in many ancient cultures; those who were born into noble families were expected to cultivate their minds and leave menial, physical labor to lesser people.

The Bible, however, leaves no room for such a distinction. It presents all human beings as descended from one set of parents, which means that we are all equal in terms of our heritage. Moreover, the thing that gives us value, the image of God in us, is shared equally among all people. It is who we are, and nothing we do can change that. Seeing someone as less valuable because of their career is essentially saying that their work is a more important part of who they are than God’s image is. It makes one’s career more important than God.

The Bible never allowed people to view manual labor as inferior. In fact, it encouraged manual labor, and any other kind of honest work: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Paul, who wrote that verse, set an example of that himself. Although he was a teacher, and thus could be expected to gain an income through his teaching, he chose to make tents to earn money, rather than let people think he was preaching for selfish reasons.

Jesus goes a step further. He doesn’t merely that manual laborers are as dignified as intellectuals. He actually says that serving others, even doing the lowliest tasks like washing feet, is the way to greatness. The greatest person in the kingdom of Heaven the one who serves others.

I have found in myself a tendency to succumb to this lie and to believe that people who do certain jobs are less intelligent than myself. I believe the key to combating it is recognizing it for what it is. Since this is a myth that hides in the unconscious recesses of our minds, we must bring it out to destroy it.

We must also make sure we behave with respect and dignity toward people, no matter what their position is. Everyone, including waiters, bus drivers, janitors, and the tech support people at the company that produced your stupid, malfunctioning computer, is made in the image of God. The way you treat them reflects your attitude toward Him.

Update: See part 5.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Myths About Work Part 3: Work Is Life's Purpose

I began this series on myths about work by summarizing a Babylonian creation myth. I think modern people and the ancient Babylonians share some misconceptions about work, and I am contrasting them with what the Bible says. Make sure you look at part 1 and part 2.
My previous post addressed the idea that work is inherently bad. This time, I’m discussing the opposite extreme – seeing work as the purpose of life. The Babylonians thought that people were created to work, and many people today act that way.

Last time, I said that “Work is bad” might be the most common myth people believe. I said “might be” because this one is also remarkably prevalent. Think of people who stay late at the office every night, neglecting their families and their health. We identify with careers so much that “What do you do?” is usually the second question we ask each other after “What’s your name?” Children are taught to study hard and go to college so they can get a good job, and not having a job carries a strong social stigma.

Although the Bible affirms that work is good and is part of what God created us to do, it does not turn our effort into the total of our existence.

Work is an expression of the image of God in every person. We work because we are like God. But even God didn’t work all the time. He set the example of resting on the seventh day after working for six days to create the world.

Similarly, God commanded His people to rest one day out of seven. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

In both the Old and New Testaments, the greatest commandment is to love God with all of ourselves – heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus added “love your neighbor as yourself” as the second great commandment. This is as close as the Bible comes to giving a purpose statement for human life.

Our work can be one way in which we love God and others. For example, my current work of producing English-teaching materials is an act of love for the students because it helps them acquire skills that will help them earn money, learn more about the world and live richer lives. Anything that people pay you to do is somehow beneficial to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t pay for it. And any act of service to others shows love for God.

But for most of us the greatest opportunity to love others is by spending time with our families. And work is notorious for cutting into family time. Overwork also takes time away from loving God through personal prayer and Bible study. It also leads us to worry rather than trusting God as He tells us to do.

So what’s the solution? Surprisingly, it’s the same as the solution to the opposite problem of seeing work as evil: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That means work is a means to the end of glorifying God, not an end in itself. But “whatever you do” includes resting, building relationships with family and friends, exercising, enjoying hobbies and anything else you spend time on. These things can and should glorify God just as much as your work does.

Update: See part 4 and part 5.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Myths About Work Part 2: Work is Bad

The first post in this series described an ancient Babylonian myth and pointed out that, although we may have shed its polytheistic trappings, it reflects false beliefs about work that are still common today. Now I’d like to talk about the first (and arguably the most common) myth I listed.

The Babylonian creation myth says, in essence, that the gods created humans because they didn’t want to work and deserved better than to be forced to do so. That means work is a bad thing. Similarly, many people today view work as a necessary evil. We complain about our jobs and look forward to vacations and, ultimately, retirement. We think of “living the good life” as lying around on a beach somewhere far from the demands of the workplace. When people win the lottery, often the first thing they do is quit their jobs. And some Christians take comfort in the idea that in heaven, we won’t need to work.

But is that what the Bible teaches? Although it doesn’t directly say whether people will work in heaven, the Bible does tell us a lot about the nature of work. And it begins right where the Babylonians did – at the very beginning.

The first place where the word “work” appears in the Bible is Genesis 2:2 “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” So the first person to do work was God, and the result of His work was a “very good” universe.

Of course, the verse does say that God rested, indicating that work wasn’t the only thing that mattered to Him (more on that in the next post). But that doesn’t mean He gave up working as soon as someone else could do it. Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17) So clearly the Bible’s view of resting does not equal retirement.

When God created people, He did expect us to work. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28) God’s statement is a blessing, but it’s also a job description. Any parent can tell you that “being fruitful and multiplying” is one of the hardest jobs anyone can be given. Filling, subduing and ruling the earth means developing its resources. That includes farming, building cities and other economic activity. So God began His relationship with people by telling them to work.

But unlike the Babylonian gods, the God of the Bible didn’t make people work because He didn’t want to. We work because we are created “in the image of God.” That means we are like God and do the things He does. Being made in God’s image separates us from the rest of creation and gives us unique dignity. So work is a sign of nobility, not of inferiority. We work because God works, not so that He doesn’t have to work. Perhaps this is why God’s first assignment of work is described as a blessing.

But work doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Even though I love my job, there are still mornings when I’d rather pull my quilt over my head and sleep than get up and face a day of work. There are afternoons when I feel like if I look at one more page of text, my brain will turn to liquid and start dripping out of my ears. And that’s with a good job.

The Bible explains this, too. When Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the ground, saying it would yield “thorns and thistles” and that Adam would produce food from it “by the sweat of [his] face” (Genesis 3:18-19). This is the point where work, which is good, becomes toil, which is bad. The pain associated with toil is real and impossible to ignore. But the rest of the Bible tells about God making all things new, restoring that sin poisoned, including work.

In conclusion, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Your job isn’t bad; it was created by God and can be used to glorify Him. When we see our work as an act of worship and a way to better the world around us, we restore the goodness it was created to have and join God in rolling back the effects of the Fall.

Update: Please see part 3part 4 and part 5.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Instrument: A Haiku

This morning, I played my flute in chapel. Although Taiwan's temperature mostly stays above 10 degrees C/50 degrees F, we don't have indoor heating. That meant the instruments needed quite a bit of tuning. As I breathed warm air down my flute to warm it up, this poem came to me.

Cold, lifeless metal
Feels the warmth of living breath,
Wakes and sings for joy

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Myths About Work Part 1: Beginning at the Beginning

I began this series back in 2012 but never finished it. This is a reboot, so I’m revising the posts I wrote earlier and (I hope) finishing the series.

According to ancient Babylonian legend, the world began with a god and a goddess who gave birth to several other gods. The younger gods became disruptive, so their parents decided to destroy them. Naturally, the younger deities didn't want to be destroyed, and a cosmic battle began. Eventually Marduk, one of the younger gods and the chief god of Babylon, won the battle and was installed as king of the gods. This primeval conflict brought the forces of chaos under control, allowing Marduk and the other gods to form everything in existence.

Marduk and his fellow deities wanted to sit back and relax, enjoying their triumph. However, there was still work to be done. After all, immortals have to eat too. Marduk considered making the losers of the war do the work as punishment, but it didn’t seem fitting for divine beings to do such menial tasks. So the gods created human beings to do this work and free up all the gods, winners and losers alike, to relax and enjoy their unending lives.

“That’s nice,” you’re probably saying, “but why should I care what the ancient Babylonians thought? I don’t know anyone who still believes in Marduk.” No, I’m sure you don’t, but myths both reflect and shape a culture’s underlying assumptions about what (and who) is valuable. And I many of the assumptions expressed in this myth are surprisingly prevalent today. The Babylonian creation myth could have led people to conclude that …

1. Work is bad. After all, it was beneath the dignity of gods, even the gods who lost the war, to work. People were created as the gods’ slaves to do unpleasant things.

2. Work is the purpose of life.  According to the Babylonians, we were created to work, which makes work our purpose.

3. Inferior people do inferior work. This story doesn’t make distinctions between classes of people, but if the gods pass unpleasant tasks on to inferior beings, there’s no reason for humans not to do the same.

4. Work defines our relationship to the gods. Since the Babylonian gods see people primarily as workers, it would be logical for humans’ relationship with them to depend on how well people fulfill their function.

Do any of these attitudes look familiar? They should, because even though the story I drew them from has passed into obscurity, these ideas are alive and well.

Like the Babylonian myth, the creation account in the Bible says that God created the world, then created human beings and gave them work to do. This led some scholars, like the college professor who first taught me the Babylonian story, to compare the two. But behind any superficial similarities stand two completely opposed worldviews. The Bible presents work as something that is good but that does not determine a human being’s value or relationship with God. In future posts, I hope to look at each of the myths I listed in detail and contrast them with the Bible’s view of work.

Update: The series continues in part 2part 3, part 4 and part 5.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Shadow of Your Wings

My hatchling soul is thirsty for the rush
Of liberty beneath my tiny wings.
The bright blue beckons. As the breezes brush
Against my ear I hear a siren sing.
It bids me dive into the heights of blue
And rise to where my soul was born to be.
I will not wait. I know what I will do.
I leap and shout my triumph – I am free!

I beat my wings, but something has gone wrong.
My soul was born to sail upon the heights,
But I am young; my wings are not yet strong.
I flap; I flutter, flail with all my might,
But nothing I can do can make me fly.
I plunge beneath the ocean of the air,
And, seeing that I trusted in a lie,
I shatter on the rocks of rough despair.

Your shadow on my broken body falls.
I wish to hide my weakness from Your gaze,
But in Your voice, unbound compassion calls
To me. A fragile plea for help I raise.
Your mighty talons lift my shattered frame
And shelter me within Your mercy’s nest.
Though I am weak, you love me all the same.

In Your bright shadow I will wait and rest.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Angry Birds

I rewrote the words to this song a few months ago on the way home from a retreat, where we had been singing it. 

Angry Birds

Angry birds long prepared
To be launched through the air
They resound with noisy smacks
O let the angry birds impact

Birds of might only hope
They’ll have strength; they will cope
In the levels where they roam
Angry birds are hitting home

Angry birds, flying true
Changing pigs into goo
They have come the pigs to whack

O let the angry birds impact

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Chasing Dawn

I began the year 2014 with an adventure. Invited by my friend Zoe, I traveled to Keelung, a city on the northern coast of Taiwan. There Zoe, two other friends and I saw the harbor and a night market, enjoyed a meal of hot pot (meat, vegetables and noodles that you cook at your table in boiling broth) and watched fireworks. This was fun, but the excitement really began during the next leg of our trip, a journey to Fulong Beach on Taiwan’s northeast coast to watch the first sunrise of the new year.

The trip to Fulong itself was an adventure. Twice we were asked to wait for later trains because the earlier ones were too crowded. The train we did get on was hot and packed full of people. After a 50-minute train ride we got off, and the station was so full of people that it took us about 40 minutes to get out. And all this happened at the time of night when I was feeling most tired.

But finally we arrived at Fulong. Zoe and I rented bikes at the train station to travel to the place where we would watch the sunrise, while our third friend, Belinda, decided to take a shuttle bus and meet us at our destination. (The other friend had gone back to Taipei to rest.) All my frustration and tiredness melt away as I glided out of the station and down the slope toward the seashore. Taipei has too much light, pollution and cloud cover for stars to be visible there on most nights. But Fulong is far smaller, and it was a clear night, so I was delighted to see stars scattered above us.

Street lights and windows on some nearby buildings provided some illumination, but the path was quite dark. At several points, I couldn’t see the road itself, so I had to steer by looking at a wall that ran beside the bike path or by Zoe’s head as she rode in front of me. At one point it became so dark that we rode by the light of Zoe’s smartphone flashlight.

Even when the path ran next to the highway and our road was illuminated, the ocean lay in a field of blackness to our left. The utter lack of even a distant lamp or a faint star made the water appear as a shadow within a shadow. I found myself thinking of Genesis 1:2. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” I took comfort in the knowledge that God’s spirit is still hovering over Taiwan and all the earth, ready to bring light and hope out of the darkness that blankets our world.

After what I think was about 40 minutes of riding, we reached the spot where the shuttle busses dropped people off to walk up a mountain where they would watch the sunrise. But police officers blocked our way and told us we couldn’t bring our bikes up. We didn’t want to leave the bikes because the rental shop hadn’t given us locks. Belinda had already started up the mountain and was left without a cellphone signal. Zoe sent her a text message, hoping it would get through, and we continued on to look for another place to watch the sunrise.

Then we saw another, smaller path up to the top of the mountain. This path had fewer people, so we walked our bikes up the hill. This worked well for about five minutes, but then the slope changed into stairs.

Zoe and I walked on the concrete stairs, rolling our bikes up the muddy slope beside us. There were a few points where we had to lift our bikes over obstacles or move them to the other side of the stairs. People coming down from the top kept telling us that there were too many people and we couldn’t bring our bikes all the way up, but we were determined to try. When the path finally got to steep, we hid the bikes in the bushes by the trail.

We were hot and tired when we reached a plateau overlooking the ocean. Hundreds of people were gathered there to watch the sunrise. Singers were performing on a stage, and several representatives from the local government spoke. By the time we arrived, it was around 5:45, and the sun was expected to appear at 6:37. So we stood listening to the music and watching the sky grow lighter.

Soon pink and purple clouds appeared in the eastern sky. They then faded as the light grew and the whole sky turned silvery gray. The crowd waited eagerly as the set time came and went. The sun was still not visible because the horizon was covered with clouds.

Finally at around 6:45 the sun rose above the clouds, and the crowds cheered. We had reached the goal of our adventure. Zoe and I found Belinda and enjoyed the view of the sun rising over the ocean. The road back was incredibly beautiful, once it was light enough that I could see it. When I returned to the Fulong train station, I was tired but happy.

When I watch the news, I often become discouraged at the amount of violence, suffering and evil in the world. The Earth is a dark place, and sometimes it seems like it’s just getting darker. But just like the crowds waiting for the first dawn of 2014, we know that light will come into the world. God has promised to bring a new day free of darkness, confusion, war and pain. We may not know when it will come, but we can be as certain that God will fulfill His word as we are that the sun will rise each day. He is present in our darkness and will move decisively to bring an end to it once and for all.

None of us know what 2014 will bring. It may be a year full of toil and struggle, or it may be full of sunlight and beautiful views. But we can take courage, because we know how our adventure will end: with the defeat of the darkness and the dawn of a new, perfect day.