Monday, May 30, 2011

The First Love

"The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:
2 ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent."

Revelation 2:1-5

Friday, May 27, 2011

China Me, Baby

This past week I had to go clear across town for a shopping/errand run with Flight for micMAC. You may not think that really sounds all that fun.

You'd be wrong.

It was fantastic. The whole morning was a cultural experience, unlike anything I have experienced in a while here. I met Flight at Tai Dong, the self-proclaimed “world famous walk street” known for its shopping, not because we needed to buy anything from Tai Dong but because the huge Walmart there is pretty much the only landmark that side of town to which I know how to find my way. First we went to a little area full of cramped market alleys packed to the brim with exploding colors and sounds and smells and lots and lots of things for sale. That's where Flight taught me how to say “Ni yao shenme, Tamen you shenme.” which literally translates to “You want what, They have what.” or more loosely: You want it, they got it. From a cursory glance at the aisle and aisles of junk, stuff and valuables-- I have to say thats about right.

Our next big stop was a place called Culture Street. This is a bit higher class of buying area, with shops full of carved wood, shaped stone, dyed scrolls, and old books. Flight needed to buy some blank scrolls for a training gig this weekend. I was afraid that if I accompanied her too closely the vendors might raise their bargaining prices on account of me being foreign (this has happened before). So while she visited the shops searching for the best price, I wandered outside and looked at a myriad of huge carved stones. There was literally a whole street lined with people selling massive hunks of rock. I even stumbled upon one tent that had a huge wooden buddha, standing a few feet taller than me, and what looked like a wooly mammoth shaped from a large old tree stump (also much taller than me). I wished I had brought my camera! Though, since I left the charger for my camera in Japan it probably would not have done me much good.

Computer City was up next. This was another “Ni yao shenme, Tamen you shenme” place, except this time with electronics. Multiple buildings filled with multiple floors of stuff and stuff and stuff and stuff. Its like if Best Buy and Circuit City and the Apple Store all had a baby, and then that baby grew up to be 9 feet tall and 400 pounds and full of Chinese people looking for a bargain. I could absolutely spend all day there.

Best of all was lunch. Flight took me to a little hole in the wall place not far from Computer City. You know its going to be good when nothing on the menu is in English. Thats when you have reached the bottom slice of China's restaurant industry, and that is where all the best food is. It is common for little noodle shops to be run by a family of Muslims (called Muslim Noodle Shops by foreigners.... original I know) and this one was no exception. They are well known for their exceptional noodles, and after tasting them I agree with the cultural consensus: they are in fact delicious. I ate till noodles were coming out my ears.

The whole morning served to remind me of one simple fact: I LIVE IN CHINA. Which is pretty cool. My side of town just isn't the same. I don't have awesome hole in the wall eateries or buildings full of stuff for sale. I have Western style food courts and malls and a movie theatre. My routine doesn't take me far afield in Qingdao. I have a bubble, and I like it that way. But days like that one remind that sometimes I just need to say “China me baby” and go on an adventure. I won't be here forever after all.

I want to experience more of what China has to offer before I leave.

But mostly, I want some more noodles.

~J.L. Smith

Monday, May 16, 2011

New Directions That Are REALLY Old Directions

I am going to Seminary.

No, not right now. They don't really have very many of those in China. I mean, I will in the future be going to seminary.

This may seem like old news to those who know me. Haven't I always said that going to seminary was something I saw myself doing at some point?

Yes. I did.

But ever since God shattered my life plan and I figured out that listening to God's leading on my life was, like, "important"-- I have held off from making any definite future plans. Its ok to have back up plans, things that are loosely held as fall backs unless God leads you differently. But real substantial actual Plans where You tell God Your Plan? I have learned to avoid those.

So though seminary was first a part of my self made Plan, and then later loosely held as a "back up plan", I now hold it as a God given leading. I don't just plan to go to seminary anymore. I feel led there. And probably for the first time in my life could I approach seminary correctly.

I used to want to go to seminary as a simple stepping stone to more education and a consequent job. I kind of don't care about that anymore. That is, really, not a good reason to devote several more years of my life to study. Neither should I go because it is comfortable. If I am honest, I wanted to go to seminary after undergrad because in the last analysis--it would be easy. Sure the work and study and stress are hard, but the general environment of higher Christian education? Completely, 100%, absolutely comfortable. I liked that. But it is also not a good reason.

What is a good reason? Questions.

For several months now I have been feeling a burgeoning sense of intellectual discomfort with my faith. I don't understand broadly or deeply enough. I have come to realize I probably never will. But in order to live a life of semper reformanda, a life of constant reformation, I must always be reforming and deepening my understanding of my faith. To live a life of constant sanctification is to live a life of constant questioning: questioning your motives, questioning your praxis, questioning if you are truly reflecting Christ, and questioning how it all fits together.

Seminary is a place of Questioners. And it is a place that teaches you, maybe not all the right answers, but how you might live a life of constant questioning, answering, and reform.

I don't know when my time in seminary will come yet. But I now know that, yes, God would have me go there.

~J.L. Smith

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Concerning My Christ-UNlikeness

I love Philippians 2.

It is one of my all time favorite passages of scripture. I talks about being imitators Christ, who made himself nothing and took on the very nature of a servant so that he might die for a sinful world. We should be self-less in the same way.

I have found that to be kind of hard. Big Surprise, I know.

It is my job as a Christian to proclaim the Kingdom. Christ is King, he died for the world, and we can be restored, redeemed and renewed because of him. That is pretty good news. I should need no other motive than the glorification of Christ and the fulfillment of my god-given calling. Unfortunately I find another motive at work in my heart.

I want to be big deal. I want to be a pretty cool Christian and do all the proper Christian things and give myself lots of brownie points for doing all the right things. Instead of humbling myself and only having concern for others, I kind of want to have concern for others because its the right thing to do! And if I do the right thing then I can pat myself on the back and give myself a gold star for being awesome. I get to exalt myself in my own eyes.

I am going to tell you a secret. You can't tell anyone.

I have never brought anyone to Christ. At least not directly. I have never had a conversation with someone where at the end they decided to believe in Jesus. I have never baptized anyone. Sure, maybe something I said or did made an impact on someone and later on it was a part of the reason they came to Christ. But I have never had the direct experience of leading someone into the faith.

Not that I haven't tried. I have done tons of preaching and teaching and conversing and praying and all that jazz. Its just never come together.

Recently I spent two months praying everyday for the nonbelievers I was regularly around. Everyday. For 56 days. I expected a lot to happen. I expected this to be my big moment, my golden opportunity. It was an intense spiritual fight, with lots of opposition, which convinced me all the more that I must be really on to something. The 56days ended a week ago. I still can't say I have led someone to Christ. That bothers me.

More importantly, it bothers me that it bothers me. I am disturbed at the fact that I trivialize all the good those days of prayer did and all the fruit it brought about in order to focus on how I can't add a spiritual badge to my chest. I am disturbed by the fact that at some deep core level I can pour myself into Kingdom work and the Kingdom life for.... myself. Glorifying Christ, on some level, isn't enough. I need a little glory too. I am not selfless. I have not made myself nothing. I have not taken the very nature of a servant.

Most disturbing of all: what if that is why I am ineffectual? What IF God chooses to draw people to himself only indirectly through me BECAUSE I am not humble enough? What if the pride of my faux humility is the very thing holding people back from entering the kingdom?

I have talked before about the weight of representing Christ. It is when I am convicted so acutely about my Christian life that I feel that weight most heavily.

Rom 7:24-25
"24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

~J.L. Smith