Wednesday, April 8, 2009

No Respector of Persons: A Snapshot of the First Half of my Timeline

I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. I have given them the glory that You gave Me. That they may be one as we are one. I in them and You in Me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.
The Holy Bible (NIV), John 17:20-23

Fully believing that “He Who began a good work in you will carry it on completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:16), I know that  none of my life experiences have been incidental or accidental but are all tied in mysteriously to my sole purpose here on earth, which is to bring glory to God. Indeed, what I have previously perceived as tragic errors in my life, He has somehow managed to transform into victorious periods bringing honour and glory to His Name.

God uses these rough periods in the lives of His children to make us pure, holy, beautiful and perfect, following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who, “though He was a son, learned obedience from what He suffered” (Hebrews 4:8).

I am learning in a very painful way at times, to stop struggling to climb out of situations, especially emotional conflicts, for if “in bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 3:10), then I will “not be surprised at the painful trial that I am suffering, as though something strange were happening to me, but I will rejoice that I participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that I may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed” (adaptation of 1Peter 4:12-13).

Now I can grasp more fully what the apostle Paul meant when He said ”How I long for [you] to experience the wealth of conviction which is brought by understanding – that [you] may come to know more fully God’s great secret, Christ Himself!” (Colossians 2:2, Phillips Revised Edition).

In a real way, how I long for God’s message to mankind to be stripped down and cleansed of cultural rules, self-righteous legalism, denominational doctrines and all other man-made gospel trappings. My cry is, “Let the world see the message, Christ Himself!  Please let us realize the enormity of our awesome responsibility as Christ’s ambassadors here on earth!”

I was born in the country of Trinidad &Tobago, a multi-ethnic and multi-racial island in the West Indies. As a child, I took for granted the beauty of the variety of peoples or races and the ease of intermingling in an urban setting. I did realize that there seemed to be a hierarchy where the lighter-skinned held the more prestigious positions in society and inversely the darker-skinned people had the least prestigious jobs. This was the case when I was growing up in the sixties. Much has changed since then. Currently, other factors such as power, money, “whom one knows” and education play a greater role in upward social mobility. 

I remember a happy childhood for I was securely involved in my carefree environment. I came from a family that was full of love and material possessions. My parents, of East Indian origin, were both Hindus of the Brahmin caste. My mother was the first one in our family to be converted to Christianity by a local Christian and grew in faith when missionaries brought the gospel to our home. In fact, this mission, World Team, held their first church meetings at our home. My father was converted several years later, an answer to the faithful prayers of his wonderful wife. Disillusioned by the lifestyle of the Hindu leaders in his family, my father had never hindered his wife or young children from attending the Christian meetings before his late conversion.

I grew up learning much about God in Sunday school. I loved the Bible stories and became a “Bible scholar” at an early age. It was impressed upon me at an early age the importance of being obedient to my parents to please God and choosing to do the right thing even when no one in authority could see me. After all, God was watching me all the time. This knowledge is now an integral part of my adult character and lifestyle.

I remember raising my hand to indicate that I wanted to “accept Christ as my personal Saviour” at the tender age of eight. You see, I did not want to burn in hell when I died, I wanted to go to heaven! I am happy to add that the basis of my continuous conversion to the original image in which man was first created has expanded to accept Christ not only as Saviour, but also as Friend, Teacher, Judge, Creator, Lord, and as my Bridegroom.

Life was so smooth and beautiful as a child. I scarcely noticed or understood that for some of the other people in my church, love and material possessions were sadly lacking. I was learning about complacency at an early age. I was more concerned about our missionaries. How I loved them and their exciting way of life, the American way of life, which I could read about in all the religious materials made available to the congregation and see on television as well.

Somewhere along the line of my colonial upbringing and even perhaps tainted with the philosophy of the Hindu caste system, I was taught to look up to fairer people, in this case, the American whites. Somehow they were inherently better and could teach us to improve. I would imitate everything that the missionary kids did and felt privileged to be so closely associated with them. Sad to say, most of our missionaries seemed to encourage these attitudes almost as if they did believe this colonial philosophy was part of the Christian philosophy.

Later on, as a consequence of being educated through knowledge and travel, and with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, a jaded congregation began to view missionaries with resentment and suspicion. However, at that time, pure and simple love and hospitality flowed from the people to the missionaries, considered our white brothers and sisters who had come to teach us about Christ. Even then though, I was receiving a message that somehow the North American culture was linked to the Christian lifestyle. It seems unbelievable now that I thought a Christian song sung calypso style was somehow blasphemous!

Anyway, as I started growing up, my adolescent ideals about human beings started being shattered one by one. Disillusionment became a way of life for a few years as my awareness of injustice slowly grew. I noticed that there existed for the missionaries a set of rules that set limitations on things like the “missionary-native” relationship, and on national leadership positions like those of an administrative or pastoral nature even though there were mature men and women of the faith in the national church. Maybe the non-American approach was also viewed as non-Christian.

I heard someone justify this and say, “We must avoid jealousy and carnality among the native leaders.” I felt strangely uncomfortable after hearing this statement for it somehow offended my sense of ethics. After all, was “jealousy and carnality” characteristic only of the native peoples? Was this not common to mankind generally? Were missionaries not also threatened when someone seemed capable of usurping their positions of power and authority, positions which they could never achieve back in their native North America?

Now I clearly began to see the paternalistic, patronizing attitudes. At that time, I was beginning to see a set of missionaries, who, duty-bound to bring heathen to Christ, had forgotten that Christ had also come to break down the barriers and to make us brothers and sisters in Christ with equal rights.

However I can praise God that not all of the missionaries were like this. Besides, I still loved them. At this point in time, God had begun to teach me the error of believing and trusting in humans the absolute way that I did. I must look to Him always or else the inconsistency of His followers would shatter my faith. My personal faith in Christ had by this time grown tremendously as I was forced to turn to Him alone in periods of crises and also as I had seen Him miraculously transform the lives of others. Much of my growth through learning occurred at summer camps held every year. I cannot therefore emphasize enough the significance of Sunday school and camps.

Young Adult:
When I was twenty, my parents decided to send me to Toronto, Canada, to pursue education in Business Administration. One of the first questions Canadians ask me is, “Why Canada?” I guess because we had family friends living here is one of the reasons. Also, it was in na├»ve trust that they sent me to this “land of opportunity” fully believing that I would be well taken care of especially if I found a good church. After all, they had no reason to believe otherwise. They loved me, our family was well respected in Trinidad and I was always made to feel special. So maybe they assumed that everyone else would feel the same. They were totally ignorant of the fact of culture shock and subtle institutional racism that I would encounter in both school and churches.

In light of my family background and cultural upbringing, I was now thrust into a completely different way of life. I was now a “nobody”, so to speak. I had to use public transportation and was at first simply appalled at the disrespect that young children showed the adult bus drivers. I was terrified of these children especially after I was called “Paki” a few times. I was simply overjoyed to discover a Christian club at my school for I wanted to share so much about my home and my loneliness. To my embarrassment, my open sharing seemed to offend or was maybe misunderstood. These same club leaders would outside of meetings not even acknowledge that they knew me, almost as if they did not have anything to share with me apart from the Bible-study.

I saw their attitudes as faith without love, reminiscent of the missionary attitudes. The church that I was attending was huge and I felt small and insignificant as no one noticed my need and cry for fellowship. The facts that I was a non-aggressive person, a tiny person, a young woman, an East-Indian woman, all seemed to contribute to my being overlooked.

Having been disillusioned before my arrival in Canada about North Americans, I soon learnt how to keep amicable relations with Canadians. Do not indulge anything personal and just “keep my place” generally. If anyone showed any interest in me I was surprised and filled with gratitude. I remember telling a few people “Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me..” It seemed such a rare occurrence for me especially in Christian circles. I remember a pastor’s wife suggesting to my family when they emigrated later that we attend another church where we would be more comfortable. Comfortable for whom? Their church was almost completely ‘white’ upper-middle class with an Anglo-Saxon majority. Our family was no longer the respected and privileged.

Unknowingly, I had got an apartment in a ‘bad’ area of our city or so the media propagated. Suddenly I felt humiliated. God was now teaching me how life on the other side felt. Now more than ever, I felt the snobbery and stereotyping of the sheltered complacent middle class Christian. Now more than ever I saw how God’s message was being distorted and badly misrepresented to the underprivileged. Imagine Christ suggesting that I attend another church where I would find the suitable race or class!

However, anytime that I have been tempted to point the finger in judgement, I always find three fingers pointing right back at myself, as God exposes my own complacent lifestyle at home. I now understood the frustration and humiliation experienced by those who are commonly labeled and stereotyped and ignored.

The hurt inside grew intensely as I personally experienced direct and subtle racism which I could perceive very clearly. Why? Because God was slowly exposing the prejudice that existed in my own heart.
I discovered that I had always assumed that darker-complexioned people would find me more attractive or desirable than a darker-skinned person. When this did not happen, I was genuinely confused. I realize how much we are socialized in our colonial upbringing to indirect subtle racism, the most hurtful kind.
But how could I judge others?
God was teaching me to understand these hurtful attitudes through my own attitudes. So my sensitivity grew as I began to see and know myself. Around this time I was also slowly beginning to withdraw from any place where I would experience any form of paternalism, rejection or condescension.
At that time I worked for a company in a semi-senior administrative position where the owner’s wife would come in and acknowledge all the other junior white employees and totally ignore me. I saw employees being chosen according to color or ethnicity to please certain clients. The pain of injustice grew deeper and deeper while my attraction to God became stronger and stronger. The pain forced me to ask myself such questions as “What is my purpose here on earth?” More and more the answer seemed to point to getting to know God, my Creator.

Bible College:
So I entered Bible college in 1981 longing for fellowship and relief from my struggles in a loving Christian environment. I soon learned that many students do not necessarily attend a Bible college with the purpose I had in mind. For many the term “bridal college” seemed quite apt. I realized that I was surrounded by the children of the white middle-class church whose sole exposure to non-white foreigners had been through missionary presentations. I had seen many of these and it grieved me so much that Westerners had not grasped the true meaning of missions. The stress is usually on cultural differences, superficial things like dress, food, housing etc., and more recently, noting the lower-class, middle-class church etc. with accompanying comments like “Can you imagine…”. I scarcely  heard how the Third World churches can teach us about pure and simple childlike expressions of faith and love so valued by our Lord. In a society where people are still people-oriented, they have not learned the sophisticated and civilized way of expression. Thank God!

In a goal-oriented society, the church seems to place stress on “doing things for Christ”. Once, in a group where introductions were being made, I heard everyone saying their name, field of study, future career goal, country of origin etc. until the turn of an African student came. She simply said, “My name is ___, and Jesus is my Lord.” I was stunned and ashamed and rejoicing at the same time. This dear sister simply mouthed words that held eternal value. What a lesson I learned!
Our words are a reflection of our values.

Anyway, back at the Bible college, unable to separate the missionary presentation from my brown skin, some of my fellow students simply did not know how to relate to me. I could almost see them wondering what went on in my brown mind! An African student was actually asked by his roommate, “I’ve never met a Third World person before. May I study you?” [His major must have been missions!]

On another occasion I heard a young lady proudly telling a group of visitors, “…we brought him here, you know..”. It is no wonder that we often felt like specimens. Whenever there was a focus on missions, I saw people suddenly looking at me with that “good-cause-in-life” look, obviously trying to let me know how much they wanted to do for people like myself. Every word that came out of my mouth, like my name and address, were all equally incredibly “interesting” or “fascinating”. Since I knew that I was merely giving dull statistics I saw their responses as somehow contrived and artificial and it hurt!

I learnt the lesson that when we befriend to convert using the “how-to’s”, we do not see the person as an individual like ourselves. Only a few people could be natural with me whether that was shy, moody, nervous, etc..  It seemed that the others thought that they must be a friendly missionary example to the brown person. Here there was a slight fragrance of patronizing and condescension.

Even now, I can look back at the undermining of the work by the early missionaries because of the paternalistic philosophy. You see, many missionaries had come down to teach us how to follow and that much of the western culture was somehow incorporated into the gospel. Therefore the 70's and perhaps 80's left the church in Trinidad with a gospel that reeked of a kind of legalism that adhered to external Western puritan rules. There were gifted but untrained and immature believers. Discipling was inadequately done. The missionaries did make sad mistakes mainly through misdirection but hopefully have learned from the past. They now have to deal with nationals who are equally and in many cases more educated and travelled and who consider themselves equal in every way.

However, back in Canada even though I knew I was equal, I was not treated as such and often felt I had to prove myself in some way superior to be noticed or accepted.

From my own experiences and observations in Canada I realized that the more “Canadian” I behaved, acted or spoke, the quicker and easier I would fit in and feel that I belonged. I think that it is a part of human nature to be threatened by the unknown or different and we find ways to punish the deviants or to make them conform.

You know, I am simply amazed at how many “how to” messages I hear, e.g., how to witness…how to pray…how to get to know God…how to treat international students…etc. The western world seems to love conformity and thrive on methods or external rules. It makes life a lot easier for us. For by following  these ready-made conditions, we are easily seen or recognized as “Christian”, whether mature or committed etc.. But this bypasses an important stage in the Christian walk, the humbling process, the painful exposure of our true selves, the suffering of knowing God in an intensely personal relationship and Him knowing you. We are robbed of the necessity of being sensitive to the Holy Spirit for guidance on different situations.

Did Christ have set methods for witnessing? Not at all, I daresay, because each individual He shared with was different, unique and He met each one at his or her need. However, this “be-attitude” requires a change of the internal, a painful cleansing and breaking and surrendering of the old nature, the “self”.

It is simpler to follow the impersonal textbook rather than to be under the eye of the personal Teacher Himself who sees the true condition of the heart. This is the true cost of discipleship.

So understanding the cultural norms of the Christian church in a real way and unwilling to conform, I began to fear the people who would label others according to the external behavior, the accepted code of rules for Christian decorum. I began to fear attending any event, even dinner invitations, where I knew a set of rules or a certain behavior was expected. I gradually withdrew from Canadians, becoming extremely patriotic, talking about my “home” and I began associating with other 3rd-worlders only.

To all Canadians I showed my who-needs-you attitude. I felt comfortable and accepted among the international students that I met at university. Here I could play the guitar and sing without the fear that I was being evaluated for the correct tone or pitch. Here sincerity and the sharing of a message was the all important issue. If you placed one Canadian among us in whose attitude I sensed the let-me-show-you-how-it-should-be-done-correctly attitude, I became mute. And so I became increasingly cold and withdrawn from Canadians.

Oddly enough or perhaps I should say that it was not surprising that the coldness within me grew in proportion to my lack of a meaningful 'quiet time'. How can a person filled with coldness and bitterness have sweet communion with the Father? Yet, since I grew up in a church environment, I automatically said the appropriate words and performed the right deeds. In fact, I was telling everyone who asked, that I would be serving in the 'ministry' and heard many comments about my faithfulness and dedication and maturity. Somehow my western Christian socialization had dulled my senses into making me see nothing really wrong with my exemplary role-playing. Satan had even injected a little self-righteous attitude towards Canadians.
 After all, I was a poor victim of prejudice.
But if you are a true child of God, you know that this cannot go on indefinitely. You see, I have a loving but HOLY Father Whom I was daring to represent very unworthily and I had just sung a chorus, "Cause me to come to Thy river, O Lord..."

And "Cause me", He did.
Knowing more than anyone else of my deep need for security and belonging, God decided to teach me the hardest lesson I have ever had to take. He abruptly removed physically and emotionally the deepest source of that security and belonging that I had here in Canada.

My whole world, my whole security was suddenly shattered. It was, I knew, the worst thing that could have happened to me.
Numbly, with eyes clouded with pain, I looked up to God and simply said, "For You to allow such a thing to occur, there must be some constructive or instructive reason. Teach me."

This attitude stayed with me through many crises since then. That night I realized fully my call to service to a Holy God and the importance of being worthy of that calling. God's  holiness rained down upon a tender, wounded heart and exposed the unChristlike deeds and attitudes. I saw clearly that I had dared to play word games with and about the Holy, omnipotent God.

I had been arrogantly assuming that I would go into His ministry before He had even 'called' me. [I wonder how many missionaries have 'called' themselves.] I was claiming to be a follower of Christ Whose Name is synonymous with agape love and forgiveness, yet here I was with a heart full of bitterness and coldness towards my Canadian brothers and sisters.

God was actually asking me, "Do you think that I love you more than my Canadian children?" In a flash I realized that subconsciously I had thought so since I believed that my sense of ethics was higher, but at the same time, He also said, "Who do you think you are?"

His love shows no favouritism regardless of the sin committed. I was equally wrong and He loved my Canadian brothers and sisters. He would forgive me I learned how to forgive them. He had forgiven them and me. Who was I not wanting to forgive? In Matthew 6:14-15, it says "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Broken and humbled, there followed several confessions and apologies to my Canadian brothers and sisters. With new eyes I now saw people who genuinely cared for me. Before, viewing through eyes of bitterness, I had been guilty of stereotyping Canadians.

I spoke to a Dean at the Bible college and I was deeply touched when with tears in his eyes, he thanked me for sharing and wished that more international students would share how they were hurting.

I now saw that in many cases where I had assumed a racist attitude, it was merely an insensitive display of ignorance, and by not sharing but rather storing the hurt inside, I was building walls. Christ's message breaks down the walls!

I also started obeying the command to fellowship with other believers, with the other parts of the family of God, namely the Canadian believers. I am no longer concerned about 'fitting in' for I am a heavenly citizen and my 'home' is wherever He has chosen to place me at any point in time.

The make-up of my personality makes it very hard for me to express hurt or dissatisfaction especially as I tend to search my own heart for blame first. Because of my sensitive spirit I continually experience hurt. I genuinely mourn and grieve over injustice. But now I realize that when He teaches me, I must share in order to restore and bring glory to His Name.

There has sprung up in me tremendous righteous indignation and courage to speak out and defend that Name which I bear, whether it is in the Christian or the secular world. I will be held accountable and responsible for upholding that Name as an ambassador of Christ Jesus here on earth. What a privilege!

For this reason, I see it very important that missions must be cleansed of its cultural and legalistic and denominational trappings. [It seems that each denomination thinks it has the corner on the truth!] God's message to mankind must be clear. It matters not your academic or denominational accreditation. What matters is your call to service and your willing heart in tune with the Holy Spirit, loving and caring as Christ so beautifully set the example.

I must now unashamedly confess that I am very much in love with my Lord Jesus Christ. I Him I have found the perfect Empathizer. As I apply my experiences to my purpose of becoming more like Him, I realize that here is Someone Who has experienced every emotion that I have felt (except perhaps guilt), but, Who, because of His very nature knew the purity of emotion. As pure as His love, how pure must be the pain! In the light of my own pain I sense His love like this...

In the beginning my Lord was with His Father in heaven enjoying utter bliss with full communion with Him. He was worshipped and adored by angels as they sung praised to His Name. He was totally wrapped up in beauty, light, purity, and love. He was enveloped in holiness. Then He looked down and saw me. Noticed me. He looked straight into my eyes and saw directly into my heart so full of sin, pain, and need for Him. He knew that there was no way that I could reach Him by my own efforts. Nothing I did would make me worthy to enter His Holy Presence. So without hesitation, He left the beloved Presence of His Father and the angels and condescended to earth as a mere man. Yes, He emptied Himself of all rights as King, Yahweh, Creator, Ruler, and with love only, He came to birth in the lower rungs of society. He had entered an entirely alien world, a world stained dark with sin and pain. Alone, misunderstood, rejected, humiliated, scorned, betrayed, He suffered silently and meekly. What culture shock! He did not have to continue, He certainly did nothing to warrant such treatment. Yet for 33 years He suffered the agonies of a love that no man has ever fully understood. Then He paid the ultimate price for me. His life. Even though I crucify Him daily with my doubts, complaints, unfaithfulness, faithlessness, and empty words, with LOVE He tells the Father, "Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she does." Yes, He gave His life for an unworthy wretch like myself, and still says, "It has been worth it, my Beloved." But I am yet unworthy to meet Him, so He bids me walk the road that He walked and go through the purifying process of suffering, for my Bridegroom surely loves me and eagerly awaits His spotless Bride.
"Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all." 
(From the hymn, "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross")

I know of one song that spells out in a beautiful and very practical way our great Commission, Christ Himself:
No Respector of Persons
You can't judge a person by the friends he hangs around with
Perhaps he sees there's love inside just dying to get out
Like Jesus and the sinners desiring to surround Him
They saw the love He had to give 
That's what He's all about.

Oh, it's God's love,
You know it means so much to me
Accept it now and every day
(sing twice)
Come share it now and every day.

You can't judge a person by the clothing that he's wearing
Old sandals and a seamless robe are not in style today
As little as he owned He still believed in sharing
And we should strive to do the same
For He has shown the way.

You can't judge a person by His mighty occupation
An education doesn't make you wise beyond compare
It was to simple poor folk God sent His revelation
The message of His love for us
That we are taught to share.
(written by a friend of my brother whose name he can't remember)

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