Monday, March 30, 2009

T Minus 3

Three hours till the plane leaves. For only getting four hours of sleep last night, I'm surprisingly awake. Maybe it's the coffee. Or the adrenaline.

Just got a call from my boss. He's coming to pick me up from the office, and we're heading to the airport to dance through security and work at the gate.

Goodbye with Katy was tough. I tried to focus her energies on thinking of the souvenirs she wants from France, Denmark and Sweden. It wasn't enough to keep tears from flowing. I stayed strong, but I wasn't going to last much longer.

Got some feedback from some of the folks I'm trying to set up interviews with in Denmark and Sweden. Trip looks like it will be a success.

In T minus three, I'll be headed across the Atlantic for my first European journey.

12 Hours Till Takeoff - France, Denmark, Sweden

It's 3 a.m. I'm still packing for a week-long business jaunt to France, Denmark and Sweden.

My flight leaves tomorrow afternoon (or, technically, later today), and as the night slips away, I'm starting to feel stuck in that purgatory between the discomfort of leaving all that is familiar and the excitement that awaits me in strange and mysterious lands on the other side of the ocean.

The bags are pretty much packed, but in some ways, I never feel prepared for an international trip, especially to a place I've never been before. There's always something else I can learn, some linguistic tidbit I might need, some food recommendation that could make the difference between a delicious meal and five hours in the can, some lodging tip that could separate rat-infested inns from trendy hostels.

I've traveled to China five times, but I've never been to Europe before. After my first trip to China, I started learning the language, guessing correctly that I'd be back many times. I don't speak a word of French, and I will land in Paris with admittedly little knowledge about the artistic and cultural treasures the city holds. [Insert jealousy-induced boos and hisses here.] I probably know even less about Denmark and Sweden, although I don't feel quite so guilty about that.

There's something great about being the expert in a place, the one that everybody turns to when they need to know which cultural snafus to avoid. I've been that guy in China, and it gives you a surprising sense of superiority and accomplishment.

But there's a bad side to this as well. If you think too highly about your own knowledge, you'll have little openness to all the new things happening right in front of you. Senses dulled, you'll be so engulfed in your opinion or leading the group that you lose that invaluable attribute that the traveler must have in order to achieve a transcendent experience: wonder.

In three countries over the next week, I'll be writing about international topics like biotechnology, climate change and entrepreneurship and how those reflect. But below the surface of meetings and interviews, my inexperience in these lands will ensure that the undercurrent of awe persists.

God's world is big. He says that he put people in the places where they live so that they could reach out to him and possibly find him. I can't think of anything I enjoy more than to observe how this great cosmic game of hide and seek plays itself out around the world.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Music to Your Ears (I Hope)

I just added the contents of my YUDU library to the sidebar of the blog. YUDU is a site that allows you to publish and sell digital content including magazines, books, newsletters, podcasts, music and more. I'm just using it for music right now, but I might use it for digital publications in the future.

Click the icons on the sidebar to listen to some of my songs and download them from the YUDU site.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Waking Up to the Gospel

A post from one of my mission trips is featured on the International Mission Board's East Asia field blog today. It's amazing how that journey changed my life and allowed me to wake up to the reality of the Gospel in a way that hadn't been real before.

As I said in one of my most recent posts, it's humbling to know that there are still places in this world where we are only representatives of the kingdom of God, living stones forming the pavement on the road that leads to him.

That backpacking trip across three countries keeps on giving - in friendships, in writing content and in the assurance that short-term trips are necessary and life-altering when done in the right context.

Click here to see my chronological journal of posts.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Three-Book Course on Evading the Status Quo

I've always been a bit of a cheapskate. It's not that I don't like luxury. I enjoy sheets that are soft enough to polish your sunglasses with and food that looks too pretty to eat just as much as the next guy (ask my wife).

I don't hate luxury. It's just the luxury, by definition, is not practical. It rushes beyond utility and tops it with the whipped cream and cherry of outlandish comfort. When I experience lavishness, I appreciate it, but I rarely expend my resources to achieve it.*

There are just too many useful things to spend money on. In essence, I try to prod myself with the same argument your mom used when you were little. You know, the thing about the starving kids in Ethiopia who would've loved a bite of that spaghetti you didn't finish or those Brussels sprouts you couldn't stomach.

So I walk the line between staying frugal and becoming miserly. In America, frugality is an anomaly, looked upon as old-fashioned and quaint as the world whizzes by - on your computer monitor and TV screen, in your magazine - with the latest in fashion and gadgetry. I love gadgets, so it's easy to get caught up in consumerism's storm.

But as I've gotten older and seen how much responsibility costs, I've learned that the people with the toys aren't always the ones with the real wealth. In fact, they're usually compensating for some emotional shortfall. I see this in myself sometimes. We want approval, love, affection, value, and we buy the lies that lead us to buy the things we're told will fulfill these needs.

To many people, money is an adversary, something they fight with daily, work for constantly, desire incessantly and in some cases, idolize. Not that I've achieved freedom from worry about it, but I've resolved that I'll do everything I can to make money a tool, something I master so that it works for me, not the other way around.

I'm a long way from doing this, so please don't hear arrogance in what I'm saying. I'm only 24 years old, so maybe I'm a bit naive, still blinded to bitter reality by the lingering euphoria of a steady paycheck even two years out of college.

My goal, though, is that money will not be a hindrance to my desire to live out my faith and life in a way that goes beyond the status quo, the humdrum monotony we all find ourselves resigning to if we let daily life erode our resistence to it.

Three books I've read in the last few months create a sort of rough guide to doing this. Interestingly enough, though they're books that have to do almost entirely with what Christians would call "secular" concerns, they've impacted the way I look at faith in the context of American life and have stoked the embers of adventure in my heart:

1. Embrace the millionaire paradox - According to The Millionaire Next Door, you don't need to have a trust fund to break into the exclusive top class of wealthy Americans. You need to be innovative, dedicated, hard-working, and have an instinct that is paradoxical in our society: You must be willing to relinquish present luxury for future security. In the words of money guru Dave Ramsey, that means living like no one else so you can live like no one else. If you cut back now, you'll be riding high later, while everyone around you is digging out of the pit they created.

2. Boost your productivity and utilize the mobility and potential for wealth creation that the 21st-century world provides - One of my favorite things about The 4-Hour Workweek is that author Tim Ferriss doesn't set out to make you a member of what he calls the "new rich" solely so you can lounge beside the ocean somewhere and drink mai tais. His ideal is activity - enjoyable and useful activity. He seeks to remove the time constraints and monetary hindrances that keep us from living the lives we want. His solution? Using carefully laid out techniques, you can boost productivity, automate income, escape 9-5 labor, and spend time on what makes you happy and the world a better place.

3. Protect what you've achieved from impending calamity - Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life is hot off the presses. It's purveyed as author Neil Strauss' all-around guide to getting a second citizenship and creating a sort of offshore backup life to protect yourself from the calamity that befall you or your assets in the world of Y2k, ethnic conflict, terrorism, nuclear launch buttons, failing banks and shrinking civil liberties. I'm halfway through it (220 pages in one day), and I now realize that it's more of a personal narrative of how Strauss did this, which is better than a guide, in my opinion. In addition to being well written and very entertaining, the book brings up a lot of issues about America and how we're perceived around the world. Even those of us who aren't paranoid yet can learn a lot about preparation from reading it.

And there you have it, a three-book course on evading the status quo, mostly with regard to money, the tool that makes the world go 'round.

*By this I mean, beyond the luxuries and conveniences that are incumbent in American life. By no means am I taking these for granted.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

You Are the Kingdom

A pastor friend of mine just re-posted an entry on his blog about a trip we took four years ago to three Asian countries. We were backpacking through villages, leaving traces of the Gospel and praying for those people we encountered - and many others we will never see.

His post recounts the last leg of our journey, when a six-hour trip turned into 13 after an out-of-season rainstorm flooded the country, turning dusty mountain roads into red-clay mush.

We caught one of the last buses out of town after having lost contact with our American team leaders. When we came to a place where the deluge had overtaken the road, we crossed a torrent of water on a makeshift bamboo bridge, and everyone on our bus crammed into another one on the other side of the river that was almost full already.

On another occasion, we waited an hour for workers to use a tiny chainsaw to cut a massive tree out of our path. Further down the road, we twice had to get out as the driver made impossible turns on mountain ledges, spinning the wheels of the dilapidated school bus that carried us to this country's border. At one point, the water was three- to five-feet deep, and we all applauded as our intrepid driver plowed through, getting us one step closer to home. We had a plane to catch to the U.S., and there was no telling if we'd make it.

I spent about half the journey standing up, holding a bar for support, or sitting on my pack or a bag of produce in the middle aisle. The rest of the time, I shared about one cubic foot with a native woman and her baby. With all the canvas bags of garlic-y crops scattered about and a bus filled to twice its capacity with hot, disgruntled patrons, it's amazing that I ever got to sit, even more amazing that the kids behind me were the only ones losing their lunch.

My friend mentions that at the end of this hellish ride we spent Easter Sunday at the border between two countries, one open to the Gospel, one militantly opposed to it. Did I mention that we had spent three hours the day before detained at the border of another country?

We were talking the other day about how life-changing it was to celebrate the risen Christ in a land where worshiping him is not permitted, where believers don't have the same privilege that we enjoyed in as we sat partaking Easter Communion in that river town. We broke bread from a local shop and sipped mango juice as wine.

"People just can't understand what that was like when you explain it to them," I told him the other day about the impact of the trip.

"You know," he replied, "People in this country just don't get that there are times when you are the Kingdom of God. You're it."

For that reason, the bus ride was worth it, even with all the obstacles along the way. In a way, it was like God leading us in a dramatic crescendo to the resounding final note on our journey. The roadblocks, he seemed to be showing us, were the reason we were there.

Before our trip even began, before we knew all the transportation trouble we'd face, our team had a name. It was the Roadmakers.

See my original blog posts from that trip here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

China's Year of Anniversaries

It's the year of the ox, and you'd figure China would be fat and happy coming off 2008, when it enjoyed significant economic growth propelled in part by a largely successful Olympic Games that released its splendor for the masses to see.

Even with all the tumult in the run-up to the Games, things stayed relatively stable.

But this year could be different as the country comes down from its euphoric Olympic high, for a variety of reasons. Recently released numbers show that gross domestic product growth slipped below double digits for the first time in five years, and as the worldwide financial crisis persists, China's learning hard lessons about being largely dependent on foreign buyers and investors.

Exports are flagging, and factories are shedding jobs. Itinerant workers are having to leave the cities and head back to their home villages. The economic engine is stalling, and China's predicting just (man, would we kill for this kind of "just") 8 percent growth for 2009.

Along with all these factors, this is a year of anniversaries, more than any other year at least in the past decade. Some will likely provoke celebration. Some will spur outbreaks of unrest. In all, let it not be said that China watchers will be bored this year.

The cycle begins today, as Beijing tries to downplay and supporters try to play up the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule that resulted in the Dalai Lama's exile. The capital is on high alert, even though this officially is just a normal Tuesday (as this IHT article so eloquently describes it).

Dates are extremely symbolic in China. As the article above points out, a strong historical focus on numerology means that the Chinese refer to events by their date rather than their location, much like we think of 9/11.

The Tiananmen Square massacre is known as 6/4. A famous 1919 student movement that sparked nationalist sentiment is known as the May Fourth Movement. Even last year, authorities held the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies on 08/08/08, beginning at 8:08 p.m., just because the number eight sounds like a word for prosperity.

We know that Chinese officials will be milking the anniversaries they support to gain whatever public favor they can. It'll be interesting to see how the Communist Party this year will walk the tightrope that perennially characterizes its modern struggle: weighing its iron clamp on power against the stated goal and unspoken hope from its citizens more freedom and rights.

That said, the Chinese people seem to be enjoying the stability and relative prosperity that the Party has provided, so it'll also be interesting to see how many people push the limits as the economy sags.

Here's what to be watching for, as China is "dressed to the nines" with anniversaries:

-90th - May 4 will the the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement.
-60th - The People's Republic of China was founded on Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong took the stage victoriously in Tiananmen Square to declare that the civil war between his forces and the Guomin Dang armies was all but over.
-50th - Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama has been exiled since this failed attempt to regain authority in the southwestern province. The Chinese government still views him with wariness and regularly takes him on in the media.
-30th - Reform and opening - In 1979, China opened its economy and normalized diplomatic relations with the U.S. The one-child policy was instituted this same year.
-20th - On June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping ordered China's army to attack pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Hundreds were killed, and the day lives on as one of the most infamous in modern Chinese history.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Georgia's Fickle Weather

Around the apartment in Decatur, I show how Georgia's fickle weather went from blustery blizzard to sunny Sunday in just one week.

The Right Place

Don't worry. You haven't gone to the wrong place. This is still the blog of Trevor Williams, although it looks a bit different than the black background frequent readers were used to.

For those of you who haven't been here for awhile, don't be afraid to subscribe to the RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, friend me on Facebook, or check out my YouTube videos by clicking the tiles in the sidebar. Also, you can listen to some of my songs and download them from the graphic on the right as well.

I hope to make some improvements to this blog design, most notably a new header, but in the meantime I think this spices things up a bit. This new layout also has a better archiving system and more gadgets to choose from as well. It's a step up that didn't require a full-on switch from Google's Blogger to Wordpress.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Emergency! Keeping Sickness from Owning You

My head felt like a watermelon teetering at the top of my weak neck. My heart pumped up against my ribcage. The organs behind it felt like they wanted to break out of their bony prison. Cold and shaking, arms aching, I knew it was time. Emergency room, here I come.

They say you're not supposed to drive yourself, but I had no other option. My wife was working, and even though she knew how scared I was, she couldn't just up and leave. The thought of her not being there if this was something serious riddled me with anxiety and worsened my condition. Somehow I dizzily walked to the car and drove the mile to the hospital, pondering my fate. Was this morning the last time I'd share coffee with my wife?

I know. I sound like a drama queen, but this was strange new feeling for me. I normally hate even taking pain medicine, and I usually go to the doctor about once a year. But ever since the night before I couldn't shake the urge go to the ER. No matter how much I fought it, I was certain my body was rebelling against me. Was I just paranoid, or would I be sorry that I didn't seek care sooner?

I arrived with a sense of urgency. Apparently, I was the only one who felt that way. This was not TV; nobody was rushing like they do on Grey's Anatomy or ER. The automatic doors didn't open when I tried to come in. I stood there, waving and pleading for someone to open the door. The ladies at the front desk stared at me like I was a coach customer trying to weasel my way into first class. I finally got in only when someone else left.

The lady acknowledged me grudgingly. She took my insurance card and driver's license and instructed me to sit down. They'd process me after the paperwork printed out.

I sat down, and then it hit me. After the paperwork? Seriously? So you're telling me if I'm dying, it's more important to have a printed record that I checked in before I croaked? Apparently so.

Five minutes later, a neat stack of papers had rolled off the presses. I was still alive. To make a long and boring story shorter, after EKGs, X-rays, blood tests, and two bags of saline solution pumped through my veins over five hours, doctors were confident that my heart was normal along with everything else and that I was not, in fact, going to die - yet.

They discharged me, but this is just the beginning of the story. Over the next week, I went to my primary care doctor twice and mixed in another visit to the ER when severe lightheadedness rudely added itself to the growing list of uninvited symptoms crashing my body's party. Two weeks after that second ER visit, I'm back at work but still recovering.

Throughout the ordeal, I've learned some things about being sick, lessons that my good health kept me from learning over my first 23 years. If it were up to me, I'd do without these hard-earned nuggets of wisdom, but as he's reminded me in the past few weeks, God always has reasons for what he allows us to go through.

My main takeaway is that my faith - however fortified I thought it to be - was weak when tested with uncertainty. And what good is faith if it's not functional when doubt arrives? That's an oxymoron, like a health insurance policy that's only effective when you're well.

With weak faith and a body pummeled by the mysterious, unnamed illness, I allowed the sickness to own me. I worried constantly and dreamed up all kinds of explanations for my symptoms, the more severe the better. This was an open case, and I wanted to solve it rather than trust God to handle it.

An earnest prayer helped me find my way out of that trap, and since then, I've compiled a few ways to keep sickness from becoming an idol:

1. Stay around other people - Sickness, at least for me, has the tendency to cause self-absorption. It's understandably hard to think about others when you've got symptoms like mine or even more severe ailments, like so many unfortunate patients I saw on my ER visit.

But self-absorption can easily morph into worry, which usually has negative physiological effects. I found that I was most positive when I was focusing on someone else. Faith helps, but a head knowledge that God's got things under control doesn't take away fear. And fear is fertile ground for worry to take root.

2. Get married - Wives save lives, and I still owe mine a nice dinner. Maybe after all the medical bills are paid. Seriously, though, she was rock-solid when I was worrying like a pansy. She refused to believe anything bad might happen. Her insistence was a bit annoying when I felt like I was going to die, but if she had melted down, I might have.

3. Learn - This will be tough and next to impossible for those with life-threatening or terminal illnesses. I understand, and I'm trying not to be insensitive. But for me, once I found out that I was generally OK, the experience became a great opportunity to learn about the glories of empathy and the woes of the American health care system. This kept me distracted, which kept me from worry, just like #1.

4. Make peace with death so you can truly live - Those first few moments in the emergency room, I tried to make peace with death. This might be difficult for those who don't have faith in God or an afterlife. Those aren't hurdles for me. My life has been a good one, and although I'm still afraid of dying, knowing that I'm satisfied with the life I've lived is a strong source of peace.

It's freeing to be content with death, because death is pretty much the worst thing that could happen to you. Beyond that, what is there to fear? The best lives are lived not with a morbid focus on death, but with a realization of our transience and the urgency with which we must steward our time on earth.

Please pray that I'll continue to recover, but more than that, that the clarity that sickness has brought won't fade when the symptoms go away.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Freshly Fallen

No matter how beautiful it is undisturbed, I'm always tempted to walk through a patch of snow freshly fallen, where no one has been since it first blanketed the ground.

We had a big snow the other day (never thought I'd be able to say that in Georgia), and I couldn't resist the urge. I put on the boots I bought for a trip to Maine a few years ago and tromped around the grounds of my apartment complex, looking for especially pristine plots to defile.

I guess you could say this tendency metaphorically represents my spiritual life in two conflicting ways, one good, one bad.

We'll take the bad news first. For one, I think it reflects my unrelenting desire in each situation to exert my own will, not to let things rest just in their unspoiled state.

But on the other hand, on a truer level, I think this shows something more pure about who I am. I want to make the first tracks in that fluffy patch of pure powdery white because I want to be a trailblazer, to go where no one else has gone, to become the first to walk a certain path.

This is good and bad in my walk with Jesus, especially with regard to evangelism. In some ways I feel like Paul, who in his letter to the Romans said, "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation." After tasting that morsel of satisfaction that comes with planting a seed of the Gospel in new soil, Paul saw it as his mission to continue sowing.

I feel Paul on that one, as evidenced by the way I do well sharing my faith overseas to new ears but often can't find the same resolve in my daily life. I just find the fact that billions still haven't heard Jesus' name appalling, especially with the riches in technology and knowledge that we possess in this country.

In comparison with the soft soil I have sometimes found abroad, Americans seem like icy snow - frozen over, slippery and hard to penetrate. They seem jaded, and the natural inclination - at least for me - is to prematurely move on.

But here's something I've learned, and it has helped me keep a soft heart towards Americans who have rejected Jesus time and again: Many of them are not rejecting Jesus or his grace. They are rejecting the image of him that has been presented to them. They often understand that we believe he died on the cross and rose from the grave. But they don't get his audacious acceptance, and no one has ever taken the time to break it down for them. Most of all, they just don't know who he is.

May I be one who breaks the ice and makes the introduction.