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.