Secrets of the Spice Islands

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Part 1: Cloves

One small island fascinates me more than any other. This volcano rises like a perfect cone from the emerald sea. Nestled on its eastern shores is a busy township, ever watchful of the belching sulphurous cloud above.

Even before I step off the boat, a sweet, pungent aroma fills my nostrils, carried on the tropical air. It is the smell of cloves drying in the midday sun—green flower buds blushing three days to a deep crimson-brown.

Welcome to Ternate. Before the dawn of modernity, when ships carried giddy explorers to every corner of the globe, this secret paradise and its four near neighbours boasted the world’s only clove forests.

“In Europe, cloves were said to be worth their weight in gold.”

That fact would be a footnote on the pages of history—except that medieval Europe’s hunger for spice was insatiable. To the rich, cloves were the ultimate symbol of affluence.

For three thousand years, this tiny wooden nail had been shipped across the world to flavour foods, preserve meats, numb pain, and infuse perfume. If that weren’t enough, clove was rumoured as a choice aphrodisiac. And more lately, as a cure to Black Death—the bubonic plague that had decimated the continent.

Venice was Europe’s spice gateway, and as a result, the canals of this seaport city dripped with wealth. And merchants all the way from here to Arabia, India and the far-flung Orient held two of the world’s most jealously-guarded secrets.

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The first was the spices’ mysterious origin, believed by many to be the lost Garden of Eden somewhere across the seas. The second was the dizzying profits being made along the spice trail.

Truth really is stranger than fiction: between their source in Asia and the markets of Europe, cloves underwent a one thousand percent markup. In cities like London and Paris, this spice was said to be worth its weight in gold.

“The spices’ mysterious origin was believed to be the lost Garden of Eden.”

These were times of swashbuckling adventures, of pirates, and a yearning for exotic lands. But no kingdom sailed the unmapped world for sport. It was only as Europeans closed in on the spice trade secrets—namely, that wealth unimagined was theirs if they could bypass middle-men and trade directly with Asia—that the Age of Discovery was born.

Portugal had bravely ventured round Africa’s southern cape, and the spices of Asia lay before them. Not to be outdone, Spain surprised the world and sailed west, searching for a quicker route to the Spiceries.

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Along the way, they happened upon a continent unexpected, which we now know as America. But this was not the prize. South round the Americas they went, pushing boldly into the uncharted Pacific.

Finally their worm-eaten ships laid anchor at Ternate. These adventurers had done it—they’d sailed to the far side of the world. Cordially welcomed, they traded their gold and textiles for more cloves than they’d ever dreamed of. Then evading the Portuguese through Asia, they limped back home.

“They had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history.”

Three years had passed. When the journey began, their ships numbered five and their crew 237. Alas, scurvy, dysentery and perilous storms had reduced them to 18 haggard sailors on a single carrack. But they had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history, having circumnavigated planet Earth.

More importantly, they’d tapped into the world’s most lucrative market at its source. The single haul of cloves and other spices brought home by the crew would pay for the venture and all its losses several times over.

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This was only the beginning. For the next two hundred years, wars would be fought, empires would rise and fall, and the most unbelievable real estate deal in history would be made—all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.

Today a bottle of cloves is sold for just three dollars on a supermarket shelf, yet this spine-tingling tale of the Spice Islands remains one of the greatest stories never told. Now that you’ve heard it, permit me to leave a few thoughts with you.

“Empires would rise and fall, all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.”

These bold explorers sacrificed life and limb, braving deadly seas and enemies unknown, all for dried bark, seeds and buds. What about you? As you toil from dawn til dusk each day, what’s the prize you’re seeking? Like these sailors, is it a treasure here on earth, vulnerable to rust, moths and thieves—or will it last eternally?

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Jesus warned that we could gain the whole world and yet forfeit our souls—and that the only way to avoid this greatest of errors was to surrender our lives for his sake. Is this message as forgotten for you as the history of the Spice Islands, or does it ring with warm familiarity?

O, that we would seek God’s kingdom and righteousness with the passion that monarchs and men had for spice.

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Read Part 2 of 2 | Secrets of the Spice Islands: Nutmeg.

Seven Things God Can’t Do

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There are some things God can’t do. Yes, God is all-powerful (“omnipotent” in Christianese). Nothing is too hard for him (Isaiah 43:13) and he does whatever pleases him (Psalm 135:6).

But “all-powerful” still has limits. By the time you’ve finished reading about these seven examples, I think you’ll not only agree with me, you’ll also love God all the more for it.

1. God can’t deny himself. In 2 Timothy 2:13, Paul puts it like this: “If we are unfaithful, God remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is.” Who God is today, he has always been.

“‘All-powerful” still has limits.”

Trustworthy, perfect in beauty, entirely without sin, full of unfailing love, present in our weakness. The second God falters in any of this, the moment he breaks a single promise that he has made, he ceases to be God. And that’s something he cannot do.

2. God can’t be tempted with evil. James 1:13 says that, “God is never tempted to do wrong.” We tend to think of right and wrong as abstract ideas that even God is accountable to. But we have it back-to-front.

“The moment God breaks a single promise he has made, he ceases to be God.”

Good is, by definition, anything that aligns with God’s perfect character. And evil is, by definition, anything that doesn’t. So to say that God can’t be tempted with evil is an understatement. It’s a logical impossibility.

3. God can’t learn. I don’t have a Bible verse for this one. But God knows everything. And if God could learn, it would mean that once upon a time, he didn’t know that thing he learnt. Think about it.

4. God can’t do the illogical. Have skeptical people ever taunted you with questions like, “Can God make a box he can’t escape?” or “Can he make a rock so large he can’t move it?” or “Can God draw square circles?”

“Add these silly semantic puzzles to the list of things God can’t do.”

Don’t try to defend the indefensible. The answer is no. Add these silly semantic puzzles to the list of things he can’t do. God’s not fazed; no need for us to be either.

5. God can’t get tired. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28). That’s good news for weary souls.

6. God can’t teach you as much through pleasure as he can through suffering. How can a good God allow evil and suffering? This question is universal, and it’s borne out of the fire of our own uniquely painful experiences.

“The things that have shaped us the most have also cost us the most.”

While this doubt is deep, complex and touches us in different ways, we all know instinctively that the things that have shaped us the most have also cost us the most. Are not all of our favourite movies simply retellings of this same theme?

In our mess, this feels like cold comfort. But try to imagine your own story without a single struggle or challenge. What of substance in your life would there be to speak of today? In the chaos, hold on to God’s promise that all of these “light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

7. God can’t seperate you from his love. God didn’t remain aloof from the suffering of the world but entered into it. And it was this act of unthinkable humility—our Creator suffering all that we deserved, absorbing the rage of man and the wrath of God—that lifts the curse and welcomes us back into his eternal love.

“God didn’t remain aloof from the suffering of the world but entered into it.”

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).

I’m glad there are some things God can’t do.

The Lost Art of Conversation

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Conversation is a dying art form. This isn’t a whinge about social media. I mean that actual face-to-face conversations are losing their way. People probably talk as much as they ever have, but does anyone stop to think why they’re talking?

A lot of what’s said is to fill awkward silence. To share an opinion. To make someone laugh. To be liked, respected, admired. This is good social etiquette, and it’s better than making someone dangle in said awkward silence, or cry, or hate you.

But conversations built on this stuff (at least in my experience) don’t result in significant relationships. They just result in more conversations. Or sometimes, less.

“Does anyone stop to think why they’re talking?”

I’m spoilt by many deep friendships with incredible people. Some are from other sides of the planet, and some now live on other sides of the planet. I could do better at staying in touch with those far away, and I could do with extra days in the week to give those nearby the quality time they merit.

I’ve been in the trenches with each of them. But that didn’t happen by chance. We got there because somewhere along the way, we talked. And not in the way I described above.

We didn’t talk to be heard, but to listen. To understand each other. To care. To bring out the best in each other, to get close enough to hear how the other person ticks.

“It involves pausing your inner dialogue long enough to care about them.”

So what do such conversations look like? At the risk of sounding like a list of instructions on how to suck eggs, here are some ideas on reviving the lost art of conversation.

Ask how they’re doing, and mean it. In Australia, we don’t say “Hello”. We say “How are you going?” Even to the person on checkout. But we rarely care for a serious answer, and we’d be surprised and uncomfortable if we got one.

Whether talking to someone randomly at the shop, or someone you know well, if you want to cut through this cultural baggage, rephrase the question. What’s your week been like? How’s your shift going? And then actually listen. Ask follow-up questions about the answers they give. It’s not hard. It just involves pausing your inner dialogue long enough to care about them.

“Don’t talk to be heard. Talk to listen.”

Get inside their skin. They say we’re a feelings generation. Let’s use that to our advantage. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person who’s sharing these things with you. If their week was tiring, picture when you last felt exhausted. If their day has been the best they’ve had in ages, think back to the last time you felt that way. Experience their emotions from the inside. There’s no point asking someone how they’re going if you don’t actually care.

Connect your story to theirs. Only a few minutes into a conversation you will have already found—if you’re looking for them—points of connection between their life and yours. It might be the life stage you’re in, a current world issue you’re both drawn to, a struggle you’re facing, your mutual love (slash hate) of certain activities, seasons, famous people, or parts of the world.

“Experience their emotions from the inside.”

Find common ground. If they let slip a social, political or religious view that you don’t share, stay on your mission of connecting your stories together. If you’re feeling brave, use that courage not to voice your own opposing view, but ask them more about theirs. Maybe they’ll return the favour.

Track with them over time. Someone you met once must have actually cared about you if they remembered your name. Even more so if they remembered details of that conversation. So do the same for others. How is their vegetable garden going? Did they get the job they applied for? How did their son find his first week of school?

Too much of this and soon you’ll have a friend. Do this with your friends and you may have friends for life, comrades who fight for you in the trenches.

“Everyone loves talking about them self. So stop doing that, and let others.” 

Don’t kick your conversations like a can down the road. When you talk to people, talk with the express intention of caring about them. Listen in on your own conversations and see what needs to change.

Everyone loves talking about them self. So stop doing that, and let others. Putting other people first might be counterintuitive, but it’s exactly what genuine love looks like. And right now the world needs a bit more of that.