Thursday, January 15, 2015

Asking Questions and UPGs

** Note: This was a tricky post for me to write. Including this note, hesitating between typing 'Please don't be offended by this post' and 'This is what is on my mind so it would be dishonest for me to pretend it isn't.' So now you know. Challenging post ahead. **

Yesterday, while running errands, I stopped in front of a window display in an otherwise vacant store. On a platform was the largest and most intricate Nativity scene I had ever seen. There was a castle tower with the Wise Men and a camel emerging, a courtyard with a well and humble shepherds and sheep. An angel and stars hung above the stable roof, where Baby Jesus spread open friendly arms and the visitors (and sheep) climbed a few stairs to greet him.... And on the windowsill below the scene were a few Buddha statues and a lost angel or two. Welcome to Rotterdam, I thought, and snapped some photos.  

As a kid, I read the book "You Can Change the World." It was about praying for different gatherings of people around the world who don't know about Jesus; they're called 'unreached people groups' or UPG's. I knew that Jesus made a difference in my life - he helped me be more patient with my siblings, and I could talk to him whether I was upset or happy. Sometimes we went to an international church, so I knew that he understood whether people talked or sang in Spanish, Armenian, Dutch, or English. He was never to busy to listen to me, and when we moved through different countries, I never had to say goodbye to him and wonder if he'd remember me.

The book made sense because if Jesus made my life better, he would make life better for the people around the world if they knew him too. I especially liked the part where we could pray for people who didn't have a Bible in their language yet, because it's hard to read in a language you're not very good at. Or to talk in it, and how can you really talk to God if you can't think of the right words? Some people groups didn't even have a written language, so for them I could pray that people would make cassette recordings of the Bible to listen to. Sometimes I dreamed about becoming a translator and traveling to Papua New Guinea or some Arabic desert - adventures and languages and new experiences! Plus getting to see the look on someone's face when they heard for the first time that God LOVED them and had sent me specially to tell them that.

Of course, I had other dreams too. Maybe I would become a photographer, or a diplomat, or an author, or a mom, or a ballerina. These days you can see from my blog that I spend most of my time writing and taking care of a little hobbit. Photography is mostly limited to photos on my phone of the hobbit, but when I'm out in the city, there are always stories and photographs just waiting to happen. I've also done a fair amount of traveling (mostly in the pre-hobbit days) and while I've photographed hundreds of faces, no one has ever walked up to me and said, "Hi, I'm from an unreached people group, and I'd like to know more about Jesus." I would honestly be pretty shocked if someone did. Especially here in the West, where there are churches scattered all over and you can order a Bible on the internet if you want one. Or pick one up in a bookstore. You're not going to get arrested in Holland or America or England if you own a Bible or go to church; the risk is just of getting a remark about how old fashioned or intolerant you are.

But most people I've come in contact with just nod politely and, especially in Holland, shrug and say something like, "Je moet het zelf weten." You'll have to know for yourself; it's your life. The popular view is that everyone is entitled to their own belief(s), whether that's Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, the Universe. Or a combination. Like in the window display. The only intolerance would be... being intolerant of others. And I imagine that praying for other people would join a particular style of faith/life might fall under that category. Especially because one can't exactly suggest, "My way is better than yours," since that would be rude.

I think the hard part is that we can't see what others are dealing with. I sit and have coffee with other young moms in the city, or at someone's home, and we all talk about our babies. If I have dark circles under my eyes, they can assume it's because Pippin is not sleeping well at night. I'd assume the same for them. But what if we actually felt comfortable enough to ask? Maybe there are allergy issues. Maybe someone's mother has recently died. Or a best friend from college. Maybe they stayed up late because they were having a glorious three-hour skype fest with a sister who lives in Japan. Maybe they're working late because rent has gone up again and their car recently broke down. And if we felt comfortable enough with eachother, maybe we could ask, or offer. "Have you tried cutting out dairy? My little one always cries when I have milk." "Do you want to borrow our car for a few days?" "I'm so sorry about your mom - can I pray for you?" Maybe one of the suggestions would help, especially if accompanied by a hug and an understanding look. And even if the answer is, "No, thanks, though," it's good to know that someone cares.

I feel like it's important to have that understanding, though, before offering anything. It certainly doesn't help to get judgemental comments like, "Well, if you just trained Pippin to sleep better..." or "What, did you think life as a mom was going to be easy?" Much less, "Your life is a mess, you should go to church," or "You know you're going to Hell if you don't get right with God." Nope. Not helpful at all. And yet, I've been the person sitting there trying to hide tears and half-worrying, half-wishing someone would come up and say, "Hey, are you ok? Can I do anything?" And when no one does, it leaves me wondering if anyone actually cares about me.

I've probably mentioned it once or twice (or twenty five times), but we live in a very diverse neighborhood in a very diverse city in a very diverse country. Sometimes when I walk around, I pray for the people, that they'd come to know God and find peace. Most of the time, though, I'm too busy thinking about my grocery shopping list or imagining how fun it will be when Pippin is old enough to make "woof woof" noises at dogs. Most of the time I focus on my own life, with occasional twinges of, "What happened to that little girl who believed she could help make the world a better place?" Today I looked up unreached people groups online, because that came to mind in between checking Facebook, feeding Pippin rice cakes, and planning dinner. Apparently there are 18 UPGs in the Netherlands alone. 3 with people in Rdam itself.

Mind. Blown.

So much for faraway, exotic villages and jungles. In my country here are 18 different people groups who essentially don't know that Jesus exists and/or don't have Bibles or gatherings of believers in their own language. It's one thing to deliberately know about Jesus and not want to follow him; that's a personal choice. But to not even know that he exists is like, in my mind, not knowing that fruits and vegetables exist and living on a diet of white bread. It's like not knowing that the sun exists and living in a basement. It's doable, and it's certainly simpler, less complications. But it's also so much less richer. And while I'm not going to stand on a box on a street corner and yell at people for their belief choices, it's not something I can honestly shrug about either. Because who wants other people to live in a basement or eat white bread all their life?

I don't know what to do about the information I found today. The thought came to mind that it would be really easy if there was already some church working with these UPGs and I could just show up and... take photos or something. Maybe serve lunch while they did the planning, or take care of kids while they did the real connecting. I know what I'm good at, and it's not any sort of confronting or arranging people! And how incredibly awkward (for me, anyway) to walk up to someone and say, "Are you from this UPG? Great. You need Jesus. Come with me." I know several extroverts who have a gift for making instant friends and then it all goes smoothly into conversation and they can find out if someone actually wants to know about Jesus.

On second thought, I've had more conversations with total strangers since last year than ever in my life. Pregnant bellies and cute babies are instant ice-breakers, even for us introverts. Maybe this season of life is an open door to new relationships and a chance to share what's important in life. Important things like finding our way in the Dutch culture, and family, and faith (and coffee and tasty treats!)

Maybe it also comes back to that whole prayer thing again. Maybe if I pray, and am willing to be uncomfortable, I'll end up meeting exactly the person who has also been praying for someone to tell them about God. I've heard some incredible stories of men and women who had dreams telling them to go find out more about Jesus at a certain place or from a certain person. You never know what could happen if you step outside your comfort zone.

And maybe it also goes back to being willing to care, and ask questions. If I assume everything's fine, and don't dare to question someone's dark circles under the eyes, how will I have the chance to help a friend in a difficult time? If I don't dare to strike up conversations with strangers, how will I have the chance to tell them something about the Jesus they might be looking for?

1 comment:

  1. That is a very interesting post for me. First of all, I feel you should never apologize for writing your thoughts in your own blog :) It's YOUR blog after all! Also, I can not imagine how someone could be offended by this post. It is informative and interesting and well-written.

    As you know, I am spiritual but not religious. We have decided with my husband to talk to our child about all historical figures that we admire, including Jesus. For me, the fact that are people out there who know nothing about Jesus is really strange. When I read about it I thought "How is it possible?!". But then I realized that I know nothing about may historical and/or religious figures of other continents, like Africa and Asia. This post helped me realize my own ignorance and I will definitely be reading more the following weeks.

    As for not daring to ask other mothers why they look tired/sad/exhausted, I think it stems from the fact that we mostly hang out with expats that come from different backgrounds, so we all try to be respectful of each other and not come across as curious or intrusive. Do I miss Greece and the fact that even strangers will ask you if everything is alright? Definitely :)