Sunday, July 31, 2011

Running for joy

I am considering retitling this blog "Matt's Running Adventures". This will be, I believe, the third post I have written about running in little over a week. It may seem a tad obsessive, until you consider a few things. Discovering a new hobby, at any age or stage of life, is an exciting thing. The older you get, the less common it is to discover a new love. I'm not old by any means, but I'm old enough to be fairly set in my ways, fairly fixed in what I think I like and don't like. It's a nice feeling to have those fixed ideas shaken up.

But there's more to it than that. You see, running has, unexpectedly, brought joy into a life that, for some time now, has not abounded in joy. On Wednesday night, for instance, I came home feeling truly terrible, the worst case of the winter commuter blues that I've had in a while. So what did I do when I got home? I ran. It was late, it was dark, I hadn't had any dinner, but I ran. As I set off down the inner-suburban streets near my house - it was too dark to run along Merri Creek - I wondered why I was doing this. It seemed ridiculous. Shouldn't I be resting? Shouldn't I be recovering from a challenging day? No. I ran. And when I came home, something had changed. It's hard to say what. None of my problems were solved. But the darkness of my head as I had driven home was gone. My head was clear.

So I was unsurprised to hear my sister tell me today that running can help combat mild depression. I'm weary of self-diagnosis, but the term "mild depression" seems to fit my state of the past 12 months or so - sometimes going beyond mild - and running has been one of the best things that I've done to combat it.

The idea is confirmed in this article from BBC News, and a few other places that appeared when I googled "running depression". And what is the reason for this link? Well, at a physiological level running releases endorphins - happy chemicals which our bodies and minds need for our well-being. Sitting in a car in the dark driving from Brunswick to Werribee and back each day, I suspect, releases fewer endorphins than running. I doubt, as a matter of fact, if it releases any. So, looking purely at the chemistry of it, it makes sense that running would make you feel better.

But there are other reasons. Biologist Professor Lewis Wolpert is quoted as crediting running with helping him overcome severe depression because it gives him "time to quietly think". For me, running does nothing of the sort. I hear my heart pounding in my ears; I struggle over each mound; I let the songs streaming into my ears help me up and down each crest and round each corner. The best thing, for me, about running is that I don't think. And that, for a chronic over-thinker like myself, is a very good thing.

I accidentally mistyped "good" as "god", and, while I corrected the mistake, I think it was more meaningful than your average typo. I think that running and not thinking is also a God thing. You see, with His creation on either side of me, His wind blowing into my sweaty face, His strength powering my weak feet (I pray before each run that His strength will sustain me), I feel Him in a way that I never will sitting anxiously behind a steering wheel. I also trust in Him in a way that I never otherwise do. It's a powerful experience, and one that I have trouble explaining. But I think that a quote from the classic film Chariots of Fire goes some way to expressing how it feels. Says Eric Liddell, the great sprinter and Christian missionary:

I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.

I'm not sure He made me quite so fast, but He has shown me a joy when I run that I don't feel at other times. When I run, I too feel His pleasure.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Restitution and Offsetting

How do we assuage our guilt? It's an important question. The Catholic church told us to wallow in our guilt. Self-condemnation, it seemed, was the way to atone for sins we could never undo. The Freudians told us guilt was an immature response to our lives and something we needed to overcome for the sake of psychological health.

These days, we don't seem to know at all. We go for runs to deal with our guilt over eating that extra piece of cake. We offset our carbon emissions to atone for an overseas flight. And then we tell ourselves to not feel bad. It isn't our fault. We're only human. We've all got to live a little.

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

Zaccheus could never have done anything to make up for his guilt. He could never have been accepted by a society that resented the crimes he had committed. He could never have broken out of the cycle of guilt and indulgence that trapped him. But Jesus called out to him and said, "Zaccheus, come down from that tree." And thus began a transformed life. The first thing he did was pay back those he had cheated.

3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5)

Judas saw the best of all men hanging on a tree and knew he had put Him there. He looked at the silver in his hands. He looked at the perfect blood smeared all across it. There was nothing he could do. Giving the money back would never bring back the life he had betrayed. Hanging himself on a tree could never take away his guilt either. But he could see no choice.

A man sits at the entrance to Lygon Street. A scrawled note on a piece of cardboard sits in front of an icecream container with a few odd coins sitting in it, the sort of coins I consider a nuisance. The sort I would throw away if I could.

I have no money in my hands, only the books I just bought from Readings. The man blocks my path, and his needs cloud my happy Saturday mood. I glance at his face. I do not know what to do. Maybe I'll beat myself up over it, tell myself I suck, that I'm another Western hypocrite, that I need to be more compassionate, more giving, less selfish. Maybe I'll go home and donate to a charity to offset my guilt. Better than that, maybe I'll fall on my knees before the perfect one who already bled for my every moment of hypocrisy. And what will He say to me, when I kneel there? "I forgive you. Now go and do what you know is right."

He has shown you what is good, O man. And He knows that you will forever fail to do it. Rise every day. Pray that this time you will do what you are called to. Cling to the grace that forgives you every time you fail.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An open letter to Rebecca Black

(Inspired by reading this related post on a friend's blog...)

Dear Rebecca,

You don't know me, and I certainly don't know you. Having watched your first music video and made fun of it does not count as knowing you. But that's the thing about celebrity - it creates a false sense of familiarity. We all know your face and your voice, and we know what time you wake up in the morning. Many people even feel they know you well enough to make comments on your video that discount you as a human being, not just as a singer or songwriter. And that's certainly something they had no right to say, and no basis for saying it.

We could say that you asked for it, by choosing to put your music out there for the world to see. We could say that aiming at celebrity brings with it the chance that as many people will hate you as love you. And yet that seems to be a little like saying that those who visit war-zones deserve to be killed. The truth is that the comments people have written on your video have been truly ugly, so ugly that the video keeps being removed and then re-uploaded as a semi-effective means of controlling the hatred. At least the record of hate gets occasionally deleted, only to be replaced by more, and the occasional plea for goodwill, and sometimes, just sometimes, a comment that says, "I actually like this song..."

But it isn't just those who have hated it - and you - openly that have shown an ugliness in humanity. It's also those of us who have delighted in mocking it. The number of parodies now far outweighs the original versions available on YouTube - it now takes a concerted effort to find the real thing amidst all the mocking imitations and ironic cover versions. I watched a few and laughed. I participated in the mockery as much as most respectable Gen-Yers did. I can't apologise on their behalf, but I can say that I am sorry. You don't deserve this. If your courting of fame has left much to be desired, that doesn't excuse us for our ridicule. We were always taught in school that bullies make fun of others to feel better about themselves. We were always taught this was low. It isn't any lower when you bully someone you can't see. It isn't lower when the person you bully is also an overnight celebrity.

The truth is, I don't know if you are old enough to reflect on this whole situation in a way that will edify and not destroy you. Your latest video seems to suggest that you are fighting those who hate you by trying to prove them wrong. Perhaps you shouldn't fight them; perhaps you should just take away their fuel, by ignoring them and getting on with being a teenage girl. But then almost no girl your age is content to just be herself, and we have not helped, by telling you how worthless that self is. We have never been in any position to judge.

What is saddest, perhaps, is that a song with so much youthful innocence about it - a song where the hardest choice of the week is whether to sit in the front seat or the back - should have inspired death threats and online vendettas. I guess you can't go back to that world now, can you? But hopefully, with time, you can be wiser, and hopefully humanity, by the grace of the God I believe in, will see for itself the evil that it does, again and again, every time it picks on the weakest to make itself feel stronger.

Yours sincerely,

Ideas From the North.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What I write about when I write about running

I've never been one for athletic metaphors for life or the Christian experience. They've always left me cold, to be honest, partly because they're cliched, but mostly because I'm no athlete. I can relate to them about as much as someone born in the Ghobi Desert can relate to "The Little Mermaid". Maybe a little bit more since I have actually seen an athlete before, but now we're just splitting hairs.

The point is that typically, when I hear people talking about how something or other is like a marathon, my eyes tend to glaze over almost as quickly as they do when people try to explain economics or sub-prime thingummies. But, being Australian, I'm in the minority, I realise. Besides, people who use athletics as a metaphor for Christian life are in good company. After all, Paul did just that, drawing on the strong Greek athletic tradition (the very word "athlete" is Greek in origin) when he wrote to the church in Philippi:

Forgetting what is behind me and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)

He also wrote to his protege Timothy:

If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Timothy 2:5)

And, in a famous closing remark on his ministry drawing to an end he wrote:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

So I suppose I should feel rebuked for my dislike of these kinds of metaphors. The fact is, Paul may not have been much of an athlete himself, but he saw in the kind of strength and perseverance that an athlete must show a helpful metaphor for what it is like to persevere in the faith.

Today, going on my second longish-distance run in three days, I feel qualified to make all kinds of comments on running as a metaphor for "going the distance" as a Christian. The fact is, I am neither qualified to speak about running nor about going the distance. My running career leaves much to be desired, and I am too young to say that I have gone the distance. Still, running in cold weather, rain and over a muddy, hilly track, with my muscles still sore from two days ago, I made a few observations that I will finish with here:

1) If I have any intention of making a fist of this running habit, I will need to do it even on days like today, when I had much rather not.
2) Being gung-ho is not the same as persevering. Persevering requires sustainability. So I need to be willing to spend some time doing the same thing - running the same distance, the same place - to build up my strength and stamina, before I rush into something else. Looking after my body is an important part of training it to be stronger.
3) The extreme muddiness of the track today made it necessary for me to slow down, even walk, to avoid slipping. We need to be willing to slow down when the track is unsafe or unstable.
4) We then also need to be willing to run whenever the track allows us to. You might think that slowing down at the muddy points would have helped me get up my energy to run the rest of the time, but it wasn't so easy. Slowing down made me more inclined to stop; I had to push myself to run the rest of the time.
5) Persevering through a difficult run like today will not be enough to make me magically able to persevere for the rest of my life. There are no magical bullets or defining experiences that make perseverance easy. Perseverance can only happen over time, and with great persistence.

It isn't very profound, I'm afraid, and I may well find that, in a few weeks or months, I'm no longer running. But I hope that I can continue, not only for the sake of the running itself but for what it will teach me about discipline and perseverance.

I must remember that perseverance is not easy in any area, whether in running or in faith, and we will rarely make it to the finish-line looking calm and dignified. But Jesus does not require that, when I get to the end, I look anything other than faithful and persistent. He only requires that I make it to the end. And that certainly is my aim.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Shoes of readiness, heart of reluctance

This afternoon, energised by a literacy day in Preston - a much shorter drive from my house than I normally have during the week - I decided to buy myself some running shoes. I've talked about buying running shoes for some time now - let's just say that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. In Malaysia, I would just run barefoot or with sandals (they called them "slippers"), until I sprained my ankle - an unrelated incident - and my running career was cut short. Then I returned to Australia and it was winter and I was broke, and one thing led to another year of indifferent slumber from exercise, until we're where we are now.

But this week I requested my church small group to keep me accountable with buying running shoes AND actually using them, and this, combined with the fresh mind I had and the sunnier weather, prompted me to go to Northland and buy an affordable pair of blindingly white runners, and on returning home I set off with my runners, my iPod armed with a playlist of songs designed to spur me on and delight me, and off I went down Albion St towards Merri Creek, unable to see very clearly but happy enough with the blur of trees, long, green grass and the creek to my right.

There were some hills to climb and some mud which reduced the blinding whiteness of my shoes, and while I ran steadily for the first half, the second half saw me alternating between running and walking. A fairly constant stitch for the last few 10 or so minutes made me slow down, though I felt motivated when Josh Garrels' "Resistance" came on, and I found myself speeding up like the eternal spiritual war of good and evil depended upon it.

Yet when I came back to Albion Street, and the song changed, I stopped and took the final stretch at a slower pace. As I surmounted my street - the last hill before home - this song, also by Josh Garrels, filled my ears, and comforted me until, with perfect timing, I reached my door, and it ended.

These words in particular struck me as I walked through the front gate to my house:
"Not by my might, or my power, or by the strength of swords
Only through your love, my Lord.
All we've lost will be restored."

Yes, the spirit is willing, and today the flesh co-operated. We'll see if it happens again. But praise God for His strength in weakness, and praise Him for the beauty of a peaceful afternoon jogging in Brunswick, and the cool breeze on my face, and the knowledge that one day we will rise hill after hill and not grow tired.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

And it was all a dream...

The return home is often a strange experience. On one hand, there is the feeling that you have never left. Everything feels just as it always did. Give yourself a good night's sleep, recover from the jetlag, and you may wonder if you were ever gone at all. Did you not, perhaps, simply dream it all up?

On the other hand, if your time away was in a place very different to your home, there may be some degree of confusion over things that were only recently very familiar to you. You may, for instance, be surprised at which side of the road you drive on, even though prior to going it seemed the most natural thing in the world to drive that way.

People drive on the same side of the road in Malaysia, so I do not have to adjust to that. And, all things considered, I was only away for two weeks, so it shouldn't be all that strange to be returning. Then again, having lived in Malaysia previously, I found myself adjusting very quickly to life there, which makes the experience of returning so soon perhaps that bit more confusing. Confronted this morning with a knife and fork for eating breakfast, I caught myself thinking, ever so briefly, what do I do with these? Faced with crossing a peaceful Brunswick street, I instinctively thought, quick - run across while it's clear. Looking at our front door - just a door, no gate or padlock - I thought, how simple these doors are to open. Even a sea of white faces seems a little odd. And I was only gone for two weeks.

Give me a night of sleeping in Australia and I'm sure I'll be back in the swing of things. But for now I'm happy enough to be where I am - half home in Australia, half still in Malaysia.

(More travel stories will appear here once the jetlag has passed and I've uploaded my remaining pictures - for those who are interested...)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A whiter shade of fake

Back in Kota Kinabalu for a few days, I find myself confronted more - though only a little bit more - with western tourism. In Tawau, you can imagine that you aren't actually a tourist, and in a sense I'm not a tourist when I go there, being there more to visit friends and volunteer at the school. Now, in KK, it's different. I'm here on holiday, and for much of my first two days here I did not see anyone I knew and was left to my own devices, wandering around with my back-pack on my pack and the streams of sweat pouring from my pasty-white brow showing that I was very much "not from around here".

There are other westerners in KK - not many, but more than you'll find in Tawau. Granted, that isn't saying much. But if you go to certain key tourist spots - Jesselton Point, for instance, or the overly expensive bars on the waterfront - you'll see them. They probably won't want to look you in the eye, because they will want to pretend that they are the only white people there (see this post on Stuff White People Like for an authoritative confirmation of this theory). Most of us are quite good at deluding ourselves about how others see us; when white, travelling in a sea of non-white faces, we can imagine that we blend in; that, because we can use chopsticks and feel authentic because of how much we are sweating, we must surely look like locals by now. Only, there's one problem - the whiteness of our faces. Seeing other white people exposes this for us; it shows us what everyone around us can already see: that we are white, not Asian.

Of course, I can think cynically about these things, and I have lived here, so from time to time I can fancy that I am somehow superior, that while they are tourists, I am somehow something higher. The only problem here? Almost everyone thinks that. If you're white, you are either determined not to be a tourist (while still going on frequent overseas holidays) or you are completely comfortable being a tourist because you didn't even realise there was an alternative. I find the latter group offensive because they draw attention to themselves and blunder ignorantly into situations they do not understand. I find the former group offensive because they show me up for what I am.

Is there another option? A third way, perhaps?

I think that, so long as we are looking solely at ourselves, trying to modify our own actions, trying to ensure that we are different, that our actions make us purer and higher than those around us, then we will fail. We will remain wannabes who redeem themselves by their own tolerance and by how much chilli they can eat. If instead we do everything with the love of God in our hearts, seeking to honour Him and to love His people, then I think a better way will open itself up without our even noticing - a way that is better than all the rest, because it is inspired by and rooted in love.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Don't you know who I am?

I suspect that tempers boil a little quicker in hot climates. Make the weather particularly humid, and it gets even quicker. Add an Air Asia flight to the mix, and the boiling point is probably brought down a good (or bad) ten degrees.

When I first came to Sabah, I came knowingly as a servant. I came determined to accept whatever situation I was put in. This proved harder than I had thought it would be, though sometimes the situations I found myself in were far easier than I had expected (and also sometimes far harder). I was sometimes looked after very well, sometimes not at all. Often I was given nice, comfortable accommodation. Often that accommodation came with heavy responsibilities, eg. looking after 8 teenage boys. I was required, I suppose, to put Philippians 4:12-13 to the test.

This time round, I told myself that I was going to come with no expectations, to once again accept whatever situation I found myself in. If I was treated like a celebrity, so be it. If I was treated like dirt, well, I didn't much fancy that, but so be it, I suppose. But in my heart I said, "But really they should treat me like a long-lost friend."

And in Tawau that's how I was treated, mostly. In KK it's been a bit different so far. The friend who was supposed to pick me up from the airport didn't. The room that I had stayed in on my first night here - small but nice, and with an en-suite - had been changed to a smaller one, with no en-suite, and where the adjoining communal bathroom seemed to have no hot water and not even really something I would consider a shower.

Pride, of course, kicks in very quickly in these circumstances. "Don't you know who I am?" the fleshly spirit rages.

Yes, there are many in Malaysia with better accommodation than I will have tonight. Yes, it is annoying that I was not collected from the airport. Yes, it is frustrating that these are my friends who seem to be letting me down.

Then I think of a garden where the best of all men knelt crying and sweating blood while his closest friends slept and their spirits began to prepare to abandon, even deny, him. If anyone deserved to say, "Don't you know who I am?", it was him. Yet he never did. The one time he declared his identity, it was at an impromptu and shoddy trial for his death, and the declaration sealed his fate.

My flesh tells me I should not have to put up with this on a holiday. "Go and book yourself into a hotel where at least they'll book you a taxi and give you breakfast", it says. But then my mind is half-drawn back to the one who can show me how to handle this situation properly, and I am humbled.

Who am I? I am nothing, if I am not like Him.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tawau's Got Talent

I remember reading what the Lonely Planet guide to Borneo has to say about Tawau. I bought it just before moving here, and was a little disappointed to find this description of my prospective home:

Despite the progress, desolate pockets remain after dark. Particularly around the local bus terminus, dog packs are big and loud enough to cause distress, and street lighting could use an upgrade. But what's really missing there at night are people.

The lure for travellers is the border: Tawau is the only crossing point with Kalimantan where foreigners can get a visa to enter Indonesia.

The last part isn't true. I tried to get into Kalimantan twice and failed. You need a Visa, and they're not easy to get. Or maybe that was just me. But I certainly remember feeling somewhat disappointed by what I found when I arrived. Up to this point, I had been familiar with Malaysia's tourist hotspots. The most provincial experience I had had of Malaysia had been Kuching, Sarawak, and I had loved that so much that I thought living in Sabah would be a cinch.

I suppose I can admit now that it really wasn't. While I loved much about it, and still do love it, Tawau was a difficult place for a foreigner to live. The chief reason is that there are simply no other foreigners here. I can distinctly remember the few times that I have seen any other orang putih (that means "white men", rather than a type of monkey) here. I saw a few the other day at Taman Bukit Tawau. It was a novelty. While you might find that in the bigger cities, even in Kota Kinabalu, you can live a relatively western life just with spicy food and exotic, tropical surrounds, Tawau does not afford these luxuries. Here, you are thrown into life with few of your protective mechanisms. You may not realise on the surface how different this place will be to live in, but you'll learn quickly enough once you are here long enough to need routine and familiarity.

One issue, I think, in a place like this is the attitude of the locals towards their own town. Some love it, some view it with contempt and can't wait to get out. Others simply don't know any different. For someone who has lived in many different places and now lives in one of the more cosmopolitan and advanced cities of the world, I view complacency a little critically. I don't think this is necessarily a good thing, since it brings with it much that is unreasonably judgmental. Still, there is much to be said for knowing other ways of living. I have come, for instance, to love the upbringing I have had because, knowing of lives other than my own, I have learnt to see the value of what I have. Many of the people I see daily in Tawau are teenagers, and many of them, by virtue of youth, long for another life. I remember being much the same as a teenager busting to get out of Drouin.

The real challenge for Tawau, and for Malaysia in general, is for people who leave for education and broadening of experience to return, to come back to their home with love and the kind of civic-mindedness which governments can promote but only the heart can produce.

When I think of how I should pray for this country when I return to Australia in less than a week, I suspect this is a very good prayer to pray: that there would be more and more Malaysians who love their home, not because they don't know any different, but because they see the value of home, and see the good that they can do for their people.

It's also a prayer that can be prayed for every cosmopolitan city, where travel and self-development are valued much more highly than staying put and working for the good of your home. We can all learn, I think, what it is to seek to bless not yourself but your home, to hold in tension the problems you see and the love you have for the place. It is a tension, I suspect, best achieved by the grace of a God in whom we always have a higher calling, a higher Home.

Beggar's Prayer

I have been recently compiling a unit on "World Poetry" to teach to the Year 10s at my Melbourne school next year. This has led me through many cultures, mostly African and Indian, to find the best poems that are out there. I also had the great joy this week of sitting with one of the indigenous students from my school in Tawau - a gentle-spirited, godly boy who writes poetry - helping him to translate two of his poems from Bahasa Malaysia into English. I won't share any of his works here, because they are not mine to share, but along the way on my journey through the world's poetry, I found this beautiful offering by Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet. His particular blend of mysticism is, I am sure, often quite divergent from Christian belief, but I think I could say this poem word for word and mean it all. I picture Lazarus, the poor man from Jesus' parable, begging at the gates of heaven, and being let in with all the mercy of our mighty and humble King:

Beggarly Heart (Rabindranath Tagore)

When the heart is hard and parched up,
come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life,
come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides shutting me out from
beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner,
break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one,
thou wakeful, come with thy light and thy thunder.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A fitting resting place

In January of last year I had my first set of Australian visitors come to see me in Tawau - my friends Anne and Paul who stopped by on their honeymoon. It was a rare opportunity to put aside my responsibilities for the weekend, and also my first time out of Tawau since arriving. One sweaty Sunday afternoon, after church, we drove to Semporna, the next town - around 100km away. I remember sitting down at the famous floating restaurant, looking out over the magically clear water, eating magnificent food (fish that had only been caught a few minutes earlier) and drinking cool beer, and breathing perhaps my first sigh of relief in one month.
Today I returned to Semporna, with Aunty Wendy, an older Chinese lady who now does much the same job in the student hostel that I had last year. She had been wanting very much to go to Semporna and could not find anyone with the time to accompany her. I, fortunately, also wanted someone to go there with. We shared the driving, ate seafood for breakfast and lunch and took a boat to a small island adjoining one of the many kampung air (water villages) peppering the coast. The boat was suitably wild, belly-slapping the surface of the water at opportune intervals, the boat's driver seemingly dodgy at first then proving quite the gentleman, and the children at the kampung initially standoffish then wondrously happy when our cameras came out, jumping and dancing for no reason aside from apparent joy. They followed us to the jetty, echoing each other all the way down with repeated cries of, "Bye bye! Terima kasih! Jumpa lagi!" ("Thankyou. See you again.") One child introduced a variation with, "Terima kasih! Jumpa lagi! Makan (eat) KFC!"), and by the time I was in the boat the cry had become, a little unusually, "Thankyou, daddy, I love you, daddy". They also enjoyed poking my feet, which they found to be delightfully white. It was a suitably odd and joyful moment that I feel I have to record, for the sake of remembering it when moments like these seem rather strange and unlikely to have ever actually happened.
I later found out that the name "Semporna" means place of rest. Like "Brunei Darusalam" ("Abode of Peace"), it forms one of the most aptly named places of momentary rest and peace in the busy life I led while here. Today it was also an oasis of peace after two and a half days of fairly solid time spent back at my old school. Driving back to Tawau, up the lush oil-palm-lined hill that led us home, I looked ahead at the clouds and blue sky set against the alarming green-ness of the Sabah landscape and thought of the resting place that still awaits me - a resting place I will never have to leave, never have to say "Bye bye" or "Jumpa lagi", but where I can dwell forever, with a permanent, resounding "Terima kasih". That, I suspect, will be the day to end - and begin - all days.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A waterfall and the trouble with staring at the ground

One of my favourite things in all of God's creation is a good old jungle. Back home, we call them rainforests but the difference is lost on me. My geography was never really good enough to understand these fine distinctions. The point is that the small southern Queensland town where I spent my formative years had much rainforest on hand for a small child to enjoy, and our semi-regular trips to the north gave me early exposure to the tropical variety. Years spent in the more pastural Gippsland made my love of the rainforest/jungle lie dormant for a few years, but on first coming to Malaysia it was reawakened. By the time I was living here last year, it was thoroughly active again, to the point that I booked a cabin in the jungle to spend a night back in June last year, even though I had a fever and had barely been able to walk the previous day. I love the jungle. That's all there is to it.
So today, after two and a half days of being back at my old school, more or less acting like I wasn't actually on holidays at all, I had the joy of going to one of my favourite Sabah haunts - Taman Bukit Tawau (Tawau Hill Park), where I stayed for that famous feverish night last year. I went with a friend, the husband of my principal, whose company I always relished when I lived here. We could drink beer and talk about history and literature, and he liked walking in the jungle. Enough said. So today we returned to the jungle, and went on another ill-fated search for the mythic hot springs of Tawau (that's two failed attempts now, this time because a very large tree and menacing-looking rotan branch had fallen across the path) and also had a successful trip to the Bukit Gelas waterfall, pictured above for your convenience. My feet got absolutely coated in mud (yet another pair of shoes to be christened by the extremes of Bornean weather) as did my trousers, and I was thoroughly sweaty by the end of the hike, and had an all-round rollicking good time. Afterwards we drank tea and ate papadums and roti, and talked about history and theology. We're planning another jungle trek on Saturday, this time up another hill nearby.

There was a moment while hiking when I realised, though, that for all my love of the jungle I rarely look at it when I'm walking in it. Much more of my time is spent staring at the ground, avoiding the mud (I was unsuccessful), looking out for leeches (failed on that count too) and generally making sure that where you put your feet is steady and safe (that was more successful). Then you enter the clearing, find the waterfall and put your bag down. You wash your face and hands in the stream and look up, and there it is. The thing you came here for.

You cannot, perhaps, see from the picture just how beautiful that waterfall was. Come to Tawau with me one day and I'll show you.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Divided Loyalties

I mentioned in my post of a few days ago that there are a few different emotions that are brought up by returning to a place that was once very familiar to you. A major part of that experience, I think, is the feeling that there is often an aspect to your personality that is powerfully connected to that place - a part that may not feel connected with anywhere else. Strange and mystical as this might sound, it can actually result from a variety of quite everyday reasons: the people you love who live in that place, or the unique sensations and experiences that stem from living there. While, for instance, I may be able to eat Malaysian food even when not in Malaysia, there's nothing quite like the feeling of actually eating it in Malaysia, with the sultry heat and tropical downpour, soaking in the smells and the colours around you as you eat. This, I think, is an experience that I do not have outside of Malaysia. It awakens in me something that is not awakened anywhere else.

Then there is the love I have for the people, for the school I am visiting, for the whole, gloriously imperfect experience of being here, with them, doing what I'm doing. While I may have comparable feelings in Australia, at my school there - and I certainly do - I am someone who tends to become consumed by whatever situation I am in. While in Malaysia, my mind is almost exclusively on Malaysia. When back teaching in Melbourne, that's where my mind is once more. The effect? Not necessarily what R.D. Laing or William James would mean by the "divided self", but perhaps a more everyday approximation of it. I am still me in any place where I go, and I can be both happy and sad in equal measure wherever I find myself. And, more to the point, God is the same wherever I am, and never leaves me or forsakes me. Yet I am conflicted. I long to stay here, yet I long to go home.

Isn't this, I wonder, what we should feel about Heaven? Yet the feeling, in that case, should be more intense in the conflict it causes, while also more clear-cut in where the lines are drawn. Heaven, unlike Malaysia or Melbourne, is perfect, and we will only ever be happy there, never sad. Going to Heaven will be the true act of Going Home, where there will be no sadness or regret. Yet the Apostle Paul captured the tension perfectly when he wrote these words:

"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body." (Philippians 1:21-24)

Perhaps, when we feel these inner conflicts, they are because our divided loyalties result purely from division between earthly motives. If our desires and hearts are fixed on our true Home, then we will feel conflict, but not the conflict of a divided heart. Whether here or with Christ, our hearts will be with Him and His kingdom.

Early last year, reflecting on this same conflict, I wrote the following poem, words which, now I am back in Malaysia, bring me back to the very emotions that must have prompted me to write them. I will let this be my prayer today:

The Undivided Self
(After John Donne)

I am a homeland of warring fractions.
I am a mountain pulled by opposing forces,
a mass on the verge of becoming many islands.
If you have the power,
and the love to overpower my will,
keep me as one –

or, if there is much that must be discarded,
may you leave just the parts attached to your land;
cleave them unto your shelf, your continent,
and may all else cleave away.
If I cannot be one, then make me all None,
and make my nothing All on the land-mass of
your wondrous whole.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Over the mountains and the sea

If you are comparing Kota Kinabalu to other South-East Asian cities, you may find it small and laid-back. It isn't as inexplicably quiet as its neighbour, Bandar Seri Begawan, and the constant traffic jams make it seem less than idyllic. But to one side you see lush, jungle-thick mountains stretching out as guardians over the city and to the other you see water, and islands, and boats wandering out to bring the two together.

Sabah Reflections #1: On being foreign (and not especially humble)

I’m not sure how regular my internet access will be over the next two weeks, so my blogging may well be sporadic at best. This post is being written offline while the ideas are fresh in my mind and will be uploaded as soon as an opportunity arises. It’s early evening in Kota Kinabalu – the end of my first day back in Sabah. It’s been a day of ups and downs, not helped perhaps by the fact that I did not get to eat anything until around 12:30. But it’s also been a day of wonderful rememberings and reflections. Some solitude in the afternoon afforded me a lovely leisurely time roaming the familiar streets of KK, going to old haunts and taking far more photos than I was actually aware of. You can expect to see some uploaded here presently, but I might just focus on thoughts for the time being.

Returning to a place that was once very familiar is a strange experience. The first few days, I suspect, are a mix of delighting in becoming reacquainted with it all and being reminded of things that you had not once thought about since leaving, some of them good, some of them not as good.

It’s amazing, for instance, how simply being back in Malaysia helps me make sense of aspects of my life here that had become distant memories, even beginning to take on the atmosphere of myth. My writings from the first half of last year, for instance, attest that while living here I grew in God in ways that, back home, I have come to question, even potentially doubting that it ever happened. Being back here I can see why. There is something so humbling about life here, at least for a foreigner. You could live in far less resourced places, but enough things just won’t work, or simply don’t work how you’d expect, that you either become very quickly angry, or learn that the world does not revolve around you. There’s also a gratitude for simple blessings that develops in a place like Sabah. Functioning hot water systems can come, appropriately, to seem luxuries. Drinking water can be an unalloyed pleasure. On the other hand, rarely knowing how to do some of the most basic things has a similar effect, I suspect, to being an adult who, for whatever reason, loses the ability to walk and must learn to do so again.

When faced with humbling situations, there are two choices: accepting humility, or being humiliated. The latter regularly stems out of pride and leads only to further hardness of heart. The former leads to joy and gratitude: the sort of gratitude that, 18 months ago, prompted me to write this simple poem/prayer, which I will share with you today:

My heart is full
(sweet syrup of
your love, and each
and every gift; with sap
my tree-trunk spirit fills);
my hands, though empty,
better suited are to reach
inside my heart and take
full quota of this
liquid-blessing. Full
my heart to overflowing.
(Blessed be the hands that give.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jet Planes and Setting Suns

Well, there hasn't been an awful lot of activity here at Ideas From the North of late, primarily because I've been quite frantically trying to finish up the somewhat implausible amount of marking that I've had piling up throughout the term. The deadline? Flying back to Malaysia tomorrow morning for a two week return to the place I called home for half of last year.

Apart from being flat out tying up loose ends in Melbourne (I haven't succeeded; many ends are still loose), there's naturally a lot of conflicting emotions in me in the lead up to my return. Now, I'm not going to go into the details here as to why exactly I feel mixed about it, but suffice to say that my experience of life in Malaysia involved some of the greatest joy and some of the greatest pain of my short life so far. Returning to the place where it all coalesced bizarrely and indescribably - well, you can imagine that I'm not exactly sure what to feel.

Fortunately, unlike John Denver, I'm fairly sure of when I will be back again, but have less idea what to expect when I get there. I may have a chance to report some of it here, but make no promises. I remember once hearing something along the lines that, when you've been overseas for a week, you think you can write a novel about the experience, after six months you think you can write a short story, and after a year you think you can manage a sentence. I wasn't there for the full year, but I think enough got crammed into that year to have a similar effect. I may have coherent thoughts about it all. I may not. But I suspect it will be worthwhile.

One of the biggest challenges that I face right now is entrusting the whole situation to God. I'm not sure why. I know He can be trusted with everything, and has been trustworthy so far. But for some reason I feel that nutting things out on my own, in my own incompetent style, is better by far than being humble enough to accept that God's plans might be better than my own. Yes, the humbling part of the process seems to be the hardest.

The good news is that God is still likely to look after me, however immature and untrusting I am. The Bible makes it quite clear that God provides for His creation constantly, regardless of what it does or does not deserve. This morning, for instance, I read Psalm 50, which begins with these wonderful words:

"The Mighty One, God, the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets."

The rising and setting of the sun each day should serve as reminders of God's sustaining goodness. I can trust in Him because He is powerful, and because He is good. Those are two things that I am certainly not, and this is a very good reason to trust Him and not me.

Tomorrow I will leave as the sun rises. I will return when the sun has set. In the middle - the goodness and faithfulness of God.