Reality (part 2)

Sometimes when hearts that have been protected and shielded have their eyes opened  to the real world and see life the way it really is, there is a danger. A slow, subtle, unsuspected danger, but a danger nonetheless.

It’s called cynicism.

In my childhood, I was blessed with hardworking parents who loved me, taught me about God, practiced a life of purity and passed on values that had been passed on to them from their parents. At home, we had sunny days and cloudy days. It wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But it was good. And sheltered.

I was a voracious reader, and I devoured books day after day, filling my mind with knowledge of life outside my home, outside my culture, outside my realm of experience. It broadened my horizons and sprouted the dreams of what I am living out today.

But books can only do so much. Without experience to attach to what I was reading, the life I read about in storybooks was just that- storybook reality. When I heard someone else telling tales of their life in a foreign land, or their adventures in serving God in an inner city, or stories of serving Him on some distant reservation, I attached to them the fairy tale perfectness that I seemed to see in the books I was reading, although the books I was reading were far from fairy tale perfect. Take Run Baby Run, for example, the graphic story of a street gangster’s conversion. But what I was reading was in a book. When you can open something, step into it for a moment, see, feel, and experience to a certain degree what is happening, and then successfully step out again into your own life, it is not reality! As long as you can shut out of your life someone else’s pain and hardship and experiences, it is not true reality until you are in that place without a way to escape into a sub-reality. Or maybe I should say without choosing to escape into a sub-reality. As much as books can transform your life, they are no substitute for reality.

When reality hits and your eyes are opened through experience, there comes a crucial point of deciding what you will do with what you have experienced.

We have several choices. We can become hardened to what we see, and gradually embrace the culture of sin that we see around us. We can forget the standard of holiness that has been set for us by God and blend into the life around us, just going with the flow.

Or we can become bitter. When you see someone else’s pain and sympathize with them, when you know what could have been done to avoid it, when you see that the source of the pain is ongoing and you are helpless to stop it, the temptation comes to carry their grudges on your back, their pain as your responsibility to avenge. You walk around with a chip on your shoulder, ready to fight for your cause at the drop of a hat.

Or we become overwhelmed. What can I, as only one person, do in this situation? It looks hopeless, so we retreat to our own little world of life – reality as we know it, and try to forget what we saw and experienced.

Or we become cynical.

My reaction has been cynicism. When I see the harsh reality that people we revere, honor, respect, listen to, read about in books, or have placed on a pedestal are not perfect, I  become cynical. When I see the world around me crumbling to pieces because of a denial of reality, or realize with shock that what I had seen as reality is not true, I become cynical. When my ideas and dreams of what should be true are shattered, it is then I become cynical.

Since I moved back into big city life a couple of weeks ago, I am astounded by the variety of living conditions that I see here in this Asian country. On the same street as a sprawling mansion are run-down  shacks and tents. In the same city as towering shopping malls that far outshine anything I saw in my small town American hometown are the wretched makeshift dwellings of migrant workers that eke out a living building those same towering structures. Wealth speaks from every corner, and so does poverty.

In this land of smiles, keeping face and being “perfect” has so much sway. But behind the smiles, behind the façade of peace and perfectness, lie anger, pain, and spiritual poverty. A father pulls a gun on a son, because he shares his belief in Christ. Yet he would never display that anger in the presence of a foreigner because he would look bad. For these people, what you see defines reality.

I hate facades. I think the reason I hate them is because I am so guilty of wearing them myself. So when I see facades and shells of what is really true, I become cynical and disillusioned, because I know what lies behind the outer mask.

Recently I had the privilege to join a group of young ladies for a night out. We boarded a riverboat, and with soft Christmas music playing, we pushed off into the gentle night, enjoying our dinners as we glided along in the surreal atmosphere. Soft lantern light splashed on the water in patches and on either sides of the river, we could see the lights of the city- gorgeous, iridescent, shimmering, exotic.

But as we traveled, I found it hard to relax and be content. Beauty eluded me, because everywhere I looked I only saw sin and filth beneath the exterior. Instead of the soaring malls that rose beside us occasionally, I saw wealth gained from exploitation and greed and the fallacy that “more is better.” Instead of the arched bridges that we glided under, I saw only the graffiti painted on the sides and thought of the drunken revelries that take place there. Instead of the romantic restaurants that lined the riverside, I thought of gluttony and starving children and girls giving their bodies in exchange for money. Instead of peaceful sidewalks and lantern-lit parks that we floated past, I thought of rapes and murders.

As I found myself thinking these things, my first thought was, “God, what has happened to me? Is it supposed to be like this? Why can’t I see beauty in life anymore? Is there no real beauty anymore? Or is there only the “beauty” that we construct with our hands to mask the dirt and the pain of this city?”

But then I listened. And what I heard was a direct answer to my prayer.

Because over the water floated a song, sung from the lips of girls whose lives were pure and whose hearts were seeking the only One who satisfies.

Tears come into my eyes as I remember this now. These were the words:

“Love one another, for love is of God,

He who loves is born of God and knows God,

He who does not love, does not know God

For God is love, God is love.

Love bears all things, believes all things

Love hopes all things, endures all things.

God is love, God is love, God is love!

God is love, God is love, God is love!

God is love, God is love, God is love!

God is love, God is love, God is love!

Love the Lord thy God with all strength,

With all thy soul, all thy strength, all thy mind

Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart

For God is love, God is love, God is love!”

In that moment I realized that the source of all beauty comes from God Himself. When these girls let His beauty shine into their hearts and overflow, I was able to glimpse a bit of God’s heart and see with His eyes. Because that is the other option we have when we are faced with reality- to see the world with His eyes, instead of becoming jaded and cynical, or unsuspectingly embrace the culture around us.

Now when I look at the world around me, I still see past the outside and see hearts submerged in sin and shame. I still look at the hawkers in cultural dress at the night market, selling their little wooden creations, and wonder if they actually get any of the money from the sales they make. Sadly, I still look with distaste at fat white men who stroll along streets of bars hand in hand with native young woman, and I still struggle to love them.

We live in a broken world. I must realize that and wrestle with that and come to a place where I can see the hand of God moving – using imperfect humans who are filled with His perfect spirit to restore the beauty this world was meant to have.

One heart at a time, one soul at a time. And there is so much beauty in that reality.

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