Saturday, December 20, 2014

In Dark Times, One Thing We Can Hold On To...

Recent events have sent the world spinning. People are despairing and asking more than ever "What is going on in this world?" and "What has the world come to?" This past week in particular, darkness just seemed to surround us, leaving people grasping for answers.

Most notably we have witnessed:
- The "Sydney Siege", in which a crazed lunatic claiming to represent Islam took hostages in a cafe for 17 hours. Two people plus the gunman died.
- 8 children killed in their own home in Cairns.
- 149 people, mostly children, killed by the Taliban in a Pakistan school.

As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly in the reality of the battle between good and evil and the existence of God and His enemy, (the created being) Satan. For reasons we don't understand, God gives Satan a certain amount of power and dominion over this world, and while Satan is ultimately doomed to destruction in the end, he's certainly making the most of it while he can, achieving his mission to "steal, kill and destroy."

We live in a broken, messed-up, fallen world and I believe turning to God is the only thing left to do. People will continue to mock, scoff and deny this view, but until we let go of our pride, stubbornness and rebellion toward God we will continue to grasp for answers and things won't make sense (although oftentimes they still don't, despite the strongest faith. Some things only God knows). Jesus never promises to take away the storms of life, but He does promise to be with us through those storms. It's our choice to trust or not.

One mistake we make as humans is that we don't "right-size" God. We limit Him, customize Him and shrink Him down to fit our little definitions and boxes. He becomes some sort of magical on-demand Genie or Santa Claus-type character, and when our demands aren't met straight away we curse Him, deny Him, rebel and turn away completely.

Come on world! The reality is that God doesn't owe us anything. He is God, the eternal creator of the universe and can do what He wants, when He wants to do it. Every breath we breathe is a gift of His mercy and grace. It was this mercy and grace that compelled Him to leave Heaven and come to earth, first as a baby, then a boy, then a man called Jesus, in order to make us right with Himself and be able to live with Him for eternity.

Recently I filled in as teacher of a Grade 5 class at a Christian school, and for morning devotion I was able to share with them from a book by Louie Giglio, one of my favourite authors. I love the way he contrasts the reality of our smallness and God's "bigness," particularly with his focus on astronomy and the solar system. 

I read to the students this excerpt from Louie's book "I Am Not, But I Know I AM" (pages 47-53)

Light flies, yet the universe that so easily blows our minds is nothing more than a speck to God. Scripture tells us that “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of His mouth. He spoke and it came to be; He commanded and it stood firm. In other words, God created the cosmos without lifting a finger. And when He created the universe, He did it all without a “how to make a universe” kit, an existing photo, a template or a diagram. God was creating in the truest sense of the word, speaking the world into existence out of absolutely nothing. God is the One who makes light fly.

He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers to Him. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. “To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them all by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

God is more massive than our wildest imaginations, bigger than the biggest words we have to describe Him. And He’s doing good today; sustaining galaxies, holding every star in place, stewarding the seemingly chaotic events of earth to His conclusion within His great story. God is constant. He blinks and a lifetime comes and goes. To Him, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day. All of human history could be written on His fingernail, with plenty of room left over for more. And God is doing well today, thank you. He has no dilemmas. No quandaries. No counsellors. No shortages. No rivals, No fears. No cracks. No worries. He is self-existent, self-contained, self-perpetuated, self-powered, self-aware. In other words, He’s God and He knows it.

After an eternity of being God, He shows no signs of wear and tear. He has no needs. His accounts are in the black. He’s the owner, not to mention the creator, of all the world’s wealth and treasure. He made the gold and silver and the trees we print our paper money on. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and all the hills the cows are standing on. He holds the patent on the skies above- not to mention the earth, the seas and their depths below, the breeze, the colours of the sunset and every flowering thing. They are all His invention, His design, His idea.

God does whatever He wants. His purposes are a sure thing. There’s no stopping Him. No containing Him. No refuting Him. No cutting Him off at the pass. No short-circuiting His agenda. God is in control. He sends forth lightning from His storehouse, He breathes out the wind, waters the earth, raises up rulers, directs the course of nations, births life, ordains death and, in the midst of it all, still has time to be intimately acquainted with the everyday affairs of everyone on the planet.

God knows everything about everything and everyone. His eyes race back and forth across the cosmos faster than we can scan the words on this page. There is not a bird flying through the air or perched on a branch that escapes His field of vision. He could start with Adam and name every man, woman and child who has ever lived, describing every detail about each one. To Him, pitch darkness and midday are as one and the same. Nothing is hidden from Him. He wrestles with no mysteries. He doesn’t need to wait for a polygraph machine to decipher the truth. He sees clearly and comprehends all He sees. He’s never known what it is to have a teacher, a role model, an advisor, a therapist, a loan officer, an adjuster, a doctor or a mother.

God’s rule and reign are unrivalled in history and eternity. He sits on an everlasting throne. His kingdom has no end. Little gods abound but He alone made the heavens and the earth. God has never feared a power struggle or a hostile takeover. He doesn’t have to watch his back. He has no equal. No peer. No competition. It makes perfect sense that His name should be I AM. And even more sense that my name is I AM NOT.

You and I are tiny. Miniscule. Transient. Microscopic. A momentary and infinitesimal blip on the timeline of the universe. A seemingly undetectable alliance of particles held together by the breath of God. The sum of our days is like a vapour; out accumulated efforts are like chaff in the wind. Among us, even the richest of the rich owns nothing. The strongest of the strong can be felled in one faltering heartbeat. Frail flesh. Little specks. Phantoms. If this fact makes you just a tad bit uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Invariably when I talk about the vastness of God and the cosmos, someone will say “You’re making me feel bad about myself and making me feel really, really small,” as if that’s the worst thing that could happen. But the point is not to make you feel small, rather to help you see and embrace the reality that you are small. Really, really small.

But that’s not where the story ends. Though we are transient dust particle in a universe that is expanding faster than the speed of light, the unexplainable mystery of mysteries is that you and I are loved and prized by the God of all creation. Simply because He wanted to. He fashioned each of us in His own image, creating within us the capacity to know Him. And if that wasn’t staggering enough, in spite of our foolishness and rebellious hearts, God has pursued us with relentless passion and patience, fully expressing to us His unfathomable love through the mercy and grace of the cross of his son Jesus Christ.

Sure, just a glimpse of His glory instantly resizes us to microscopic proportions. But God is not trying to deflate us with a Milky Way-sized put down that erodes any sense of self and reduces us to a pointless existence. Just the opposite. When we see just how tiny we are, our self-worth and our God-worth can become one and the same as we are stunned with the reality that we have been made in His very likeness and invited to know Him personally.

I am not, but He knows my name.
I am not, but He has pursued me in his love.
I am not, but I have been purchased and redeemed.
I am not, but I have been invited into The Story.
I am not, but I know the creator of the universe.
I am not, but I know I AM.

Let the depth and wonder of the words sink in. I am not, but I know I AM.

That’s the complete story, the whole truth about who you are. You are small, but you can be on a first-name basis with I AM. You’re beyond tiny, but every ounce of you has been bought and redeemed by God’s Son. You are a galactic nobody, in fact 99.99999999 percent of the people on earth have never heard of you. But God knows everything about you and calls you His own. What more could we possibly achieve on earth that is greater than what we already have? We are already friends of God. What greater prize or position could we hope to gain? What praise of men could eclipse the voice of I AM speaking directly to us?


I know that is a lot for a bunch of Grade 5 kids to take in, but my job is merely to plant seeds, and I hope that this picture of the reality of God spoke to their hearts in some way.

A thought that popped into my head while I was reading this to the students was "It is good that there are some things in this world that are mind-blowing, unfathomable and unexplainable (such as the "bigness" of God) because this makes us contemplate them, study them and think about them over and over again. Contrast this with simple facts like 2+2=4. We hardly ever think about these simple facts because they're basic and we just know them to be true; they're within our sphere of understanding."

The love, grace and mercy of God are indeed unexplainable and unfathomable, and rather than ask "Why?" like I used to, now I just say "Thanks!" and do my best to live a life that brings glory to Him.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"And That's The End of That Chapter..." (Reflecting on the Philippines)

I'm not sure what the appropriate length of time is before you should write about and reflect on an impacting cross-cultural experience. It's been 20 days since I arrived back in Australia, so if that's too soon then I guess you should take what I write with a grain of salt.

When I arrived in the Philippines on January 29th this year, I had every intention of staying for a long, long time. I boldly predicted my first stint to be "3 or 4 years." I sold almost everything I had, including household items and my car, resigned from my teaching job after a year rather than just take a year without pay and see what happened after that. I had had enough of going from place to place and job to job. I was confident that THIS was the job God had created me for and it would be a long term thing.

So now I find myself back in Australia a mere 10 months after I left, and I'm sure many people who followed my journey are scratching their heads wondering "What happened?" Fair question, and that's what this blog is about.

There are several reasons why my time in the Philippines was cut short. The main one is relationships (or lack of). I am a quiet white male and these three traits combined meant that it just didn't work. Pure and simple. In ten months I didn't connect with any Filipinos beyond "Hello" and some small talk. I'm not blaming anyone, that's just how it worked out. It's partly my personality, partly cultural ("we're shy" was used a lot). As a result the isolation and loneliness built up until the only decision that could be made was to come home.

Early on, I stood up in front of the group of Filipinas I worked with all year, made myself vulnerable and basically stopped just short of "begging" to be involved and invited into their lives. This didn't happen, and once again I don't blame anyone. It's obviously a cultural thing. However it hurt to see other volunteers come in for three weeks and be invited to the movies, the beach and even to their kids birthday parties, and when they left they were like best friends. By the end I was struggling to even get a "hello" out of many of the caregivers, which made it an uncomfortable and awkward place for me to be (please note: this is not meant to be personal criticism against anyone I worked with, but it was my own true experience. They are all lovely people but we just didn't connect).

I was also talked about behind my back. On one such occasion toward the end of my stay, a person told me that I drive the tricycle too fast and recklessly with the kids on board, and "it's not just my opinion, everybody thinks so," which I thought was a lovely parting gift. I was actually a cautious driver compared to the madness that was going on around me, and always got the kids to and from Ruel safely.

The bottom line is, I got stuck in the second stage of culture shock (variously known as the frustration/hostility stage) and couldn't get out. The first six months were amazing, I was living the dream. I found out later that that was the "honeymoon" stage of culture shock. Then, like clockwork, things started to go downhill, and things which I'd overlooked or not let worry me before became increasingly irritating. I was like the perfect text-book case study for culture shock, but I was on my own and ill-equipped to handle it. By the end I was overtaken by both frustration and hostility at everything I saw, and leaving was the best choice I could make.

I couldn't handle being so different, and being a freakshow out in the community. The staring, pointing and even mocking did not let up the whole ten months I was there. For the first five months, when I was walking I would smile, make eye contact and say hello but I would very rarely get anything in return. After a while this gets demoralising to a person's spirit. In the end I just put my sunglasses on and just walked. I became "that grumpy-bum white guy."

The other main reason I returned is Compassion. If you followed my journey throughout the year, you could probably tell I was not able to let go of Compassion sponsorship and advocacy. It still has my heart in a big way, and I am already a Compassion sponsor again. Some of the friends who sponsored my kids at the end of 2013 were unable to continue, so I've taken them back. I've heard from a few of the new sponsors that the kids keep mentioning me in their letters. I find it quite cute, but I can imagine it would be rather annoying continually hearing about "the other guy" if you're trying to form your own connection with them. I look forward to resuming my job as a "Global Poverty Fighter" which is what all sponsors are.

I don't for a moment regret leaving everything behind and coming to the Philippines, despite the short stint it ended up being. I know God has used me and grown me in amazing ways. I have learned lots about myself, and I have matured in certain ways. The weather was fantastic, the cost of living was incredible and the workload was anything but demanding, teaching a class of four kids for half-days. There was a lot to like. I particularly enjoyed the promotion role, introducing thousands of new people to the work that God is doing through Ruel via the blog, Facebook page and YouTube channel, which I set up myself. Ultimately I knew that what would keep me here long-term was not what I was doing, but the relationships I built, and that didn't happen.

As a "task-oriented doer" I put a lot of importance in and often define myself by things I achieve and accomplish (disclaimer: except when it comes to my salvation. I know I'm saved by grace alone, and my works and deeds are in response to being saved, not in order to be saved). So, just for the heck of it, here's a list of just some of the things I've been able to do this year

- Provided United Evangelical Church with 3 new guitars
- Provided UEC with a paved basketball court
- Bought a tricycle and taken the kids to soccer, church, mall
- Given two boys the experience of a soccer tournament on a different island, and coached the team
- Become the host, or "the guy who knows stuff" when Pauline is away and we have visitors
- Been in charge of the petty cash and banking
- Written a 200 page, God-glorifying adventure-of-a-book
- Facebook page "likes" increased from 780 to 1340 through my advocacy
- Blog: 84 posts, 6015 views
- YouTube channel: 69 videos
- Provided the kids with a father-figure to teach, play with and love them

I believe that in one way, my decision to go to Ruel was actually an "attempt to escape." In 2013 I traveled to 11 developing countries with Compassion, and each time I came back I struggled to adjust to our culture of prosperity, abundance and wealth. I struggled to balance the things I had seen "over there" with the way we live life "over here." Internally I grew angry at Christians who I perceived to be living lives no different to the world - self, comfort and materialism, and silently demanded that they do more. I had to get out!

The invitation to live and work in the Philippines, at Ruel, was like a lifeline for me. It was my ticket out of this culture of greed, wealth, pride, disgusting over-indulgence and ingratitude. Deep down maybe I also thought that living in a simpler, less affluent society would somehow turn me into a better version of myself. Funnily enough, that didn't happen. I struggled with the same sins and bad habits and I was no more social or outgoing.

And so I conclude by saying I am 100% comfortable and content with my decision to come back to Australia, returning to the very culture I once despised and tried to escape from. I still fully intend to live a God-honoring life of sacrificial generosity as I have been with my Compassion sponsorship. As noble as it is to leave everything behind and serve orphans, I know I can have just as much impact from a position of prosperity, using my God-given material wealth in the right way.

I am sorry I have not been able to provide a wonderful, glowing, Disney-esque account of my time in the Philippines, and I apologize if you were in my life in 2014 and are upset by something I've written, but I can only write the truth about what I experienced and how I feel. I will always support the amazing work that Ruel Foundation does and I was privileged to have a front-row seat in 2014, but at this point there's no hint of "my heart is aching to return." I'm quite happy to assign this experience to a moment in time and now move on.

Looking ahead to 2015, this is what's in store for me:
- Family. I've already reconnected with my five nieces and nephews aged 2 to 6, and I LOVE being Uncle David.
- The recently-published Compassion book, including a book launch and a TV appearance in February
- Teaching. Currently unemployed, but I've signed up with an agency and there's always plenty of work where I live.
- Basketball coaching, which is a real passion of mine
- Sport - I'm looking forward to possibly returning to stats roles with high profile sports clubs Werribee Devils (basketball) and Werribee Tigers (Australian Football)
- DC Fun and Games is a new business I've just started up, which is basically playing games with kids (my kind of job!).
- Church. I've just started going to Destiny Centre in Werribee and was attracted by the sense of community they offer, which is something I need. I think that a season of positive learning and growth is ahead of me.

Looking forward to the next chapter, and thanks for coming on the journey with me in 2014.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ten Months in the Philippines - A Picture Summary #1

I've been back in Australia for three weeks now, and of course there's some debriefing and processing going on. I'm incredibly happy to be back and looking forward to what God has for my future, but you can't spend ten months in a country without it affecting you in some way.

As part of this debriefing process, I have put together this little picture blog to capture my time at Ruel Foundation in 2014. During my time there I took thousands of photos of other people, so it was good to be able to get out from behind the lens on occasions.

In the schoolroom (three of the kids in this pic were adopted this year)

With Little Miss J, Little Miss S and Little Miss R at McDonalds

Celebrating Miss P's 9th birthday

With soccer balls sent by our Australian friend Fiona

Christmas trees up and about in September

Grabbing the spoils of a pinata

Celebrating my 33rd birthday at McDonald's, thanks to a generous donation from our friend Fiona 

About to try and catch two soccer balls at once

Enjoying the novelty of owning my own tricycle

Enjoying our brand new bamboo hut

In "intense soccer coach" mode. I did enjoy the day.

With two of my favourites, Miss R and Mr B. They were both recipients of cleft lip/palate operations

Enjoying an ice cream at the mall

Most of the kids were excited to be watching the movie 'Frozen', but it was all to much for Mr B 

A special time with these three siblings before they joined their adoptive parents in Spain, back in August

Saying goodbye to our new friend, Ate Sarah Tibben.

Enjoying some presents from our friend Ate Irene Bilson from Portland, Australia

Last special outing with four of the little guys

Enjoying some presents from our friend Linda and the children from Melbourne Praise Centre

Little Miss S enjoying her birthday cake (all over her face)

Shenanigans in the school room

I was privileged to provide United Evangelical Church with this basketball ring and paved surface

With some proud-as-punch kids showing off their soccer medals

Last outing with the lads

Enjoying some gifts sent by our friends Rita and Mick Handreck from Portland, Australia

With some of my soccer team

Last outing with the little ladies

Celebrating Miss R's 11th birthday with our new friend Ate Bridget

Trying to get little people to look at the camera is a fruitless endeavour

Mr J was always good for a wacky photo
Baby Girl C

Baby Girl D (returned to her family)

Little Miss L

Mr J

Miss R

Miss M


Miss J

Mr B (returned to his family)

Baby J

Little Miss R

Baby Girl J (returned to her family)

Mr J (adopted to Canada)

Little Miss S

Mr P

Little Mr C

Miss P (adopted to Spain)

Miss R

Little Mr MM

Little Mr J

Mr W

Miss N

Baby Girl J

Little Mr S

Little Mr A (adopted to Finland)

Little Mr I

Mr J

Little Miss J

Mr J

Little Mr R (adopted to the US)

Miss P

Little Mr E

Mr F (adopted to Spain)