Thursday, September 29, 2011

Strong Girl {an essay}

Every morning we lug our three bicycles from the apartment into the elevator, then down the corridor to the glass doors that leave the building. The job of reaching up to press the door release button and then push with a mighty heave against the metal bar that is the door handle has fallen to the youngest, still not quite three, because the rest of us are barreling along with the bikes. Every day her brothers encourage her as they pass her stout little legs holding steady, her back against the glass, “Strong Girl!!” She basks in the glow of the compliment, and sometimes states it herself when they are not around. “Strong Girl!”
I saw a sign the other day, one meant to inspire and be hung on a wall and remind you every day of it’s important truth, “You never know how STRONG you are until being STRONG is the only choice you have.” I wondered about that. What if when you have no other choice but to be strong, you aren’t strong enough? What if you lose control, or give up, or let someone down, or don’t make it through, or break apart? Maybe then you find out you aren’t very strong at all...and then what? But the sign sounded nice, for strong people I guess.
If you have been reading around here at all lately, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn I've been wondering about being a strong person, a strong girl, a strong woman, and what it looks like. Our society lifts up strong women. We tell ourselves via advertisements and movie scenes and magazine articles that women are meant to be strong, can be strong, should be strong, will be strong. We pat each other on the back for our strength when we show it. Ra ra for strong women.
I’ve wondered about being a strong woman, or person in general and what it can and should mean as a Christian who believes in the dignity of humanity, but the fallenness of our situation because of sin. And I don't feel strong lately. I feel like I can’t be the person I want to be, can’t respond to my circumstances how a strong woman would. It’s in these kinds of moments that it's easy to cling to Biblical passages like “my strength is made perfect in weakness,” or “The Lord delights not in the strength of horses nor the strength of man, but He delights in the man who fears him.”
But then there are those days when I DO feel strong. I feel capable and on top of it all. I see my talents and the ways I’ve been gifted and I sort of bask in the fun of being able to do something well.  On those days I wonder if the clay pot thing doesn’t apply to me anymore… what do I do when I don’t feel like a weak failure of a person? Am I just fooling myself pride with or have I now been disqualified from being able to shine forth the glory of my Maker and Savior, because I’m not weak enough?
One of the most unattractive displays of strength is in an arrogant person. Arrogance must be among the great acts of thievery in the world: the proud and haughty wrenching of credit for something you had nothing to do with. Certainly there are all levels of strength in the human experience. Some have great strength of body and physique, some of intelligence, some of emotional stability and fortuity. Yet none of us arrives at these strengths of our own doing. We do not choose our upbringings, our genetic makeup, nay our every life circumstance. Some have much to work with, some have very little. Whatever strength we have, it must certainly have been endowed to us and not created ex nihilo by our own volition. So arrogance is an entirely misplaced and perverted view of oneself and the God who made all things. Adam, arguably the strongest of all men in mind and body and spirit, was of all men most obviously shaped and molded by God alone.  How silly it would have seemed if in his prowess, he had turned to look upon himself and taken even one ounce of credit.
Perhaps that is why, when one looks at strength in a particular personality of flesh and blood humanity, the ones that seem most attractive to us are those who give the credit where credit is due. It is why we marvel at a man like Eric Liddell and gaze with wonder upon a woman like Joni Erickson Tada. One had the strength to with the speed of horses, but he knew it was a gift from God, and in his strength he shone with the glory of his God, and not himself. Joni has so little bodily strength resulting from her quadriplegia that she cannot do one movement on her own. But she credits her strength of spirit to the God who healed her soul and will one day heal her body, and she too shines with the glory of her God, and not herself.
I know that in my weakness of late, I have both marveled at the beauty of being small before a Mighty God who is near to those in need, and cringed in disgust at how humiliating it can be to feel like a wimp of a person who cannot handle what so many others could. But these words keep splitting into my at times weak, at times strong and able soul, “His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man: the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” Psalm 147:10-11.
In the 50th Psalm the LORD says, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills…the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? [as in, do I really need your animal sacrifices??] Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will honor me.” The point is it all belongs to Him, and comes from Him. But to whom do we lift our eyes? To whom do we give the credit? When we are weak… call upon His name. When we are strong… give glory to His name.
Clay pots we all are, shaped and formed and gifted with the breath of life from the Creator who molds and makes all things for whatever purposes he designs. And the clay of a man like David ran just as thick with the strokes of God when he shouted out strength in the Name of the Almighty at a giant as it did when he lay prostrate with his face to the dirt, a man broken by his sin and failure. In both moments he called out to the one who could save him. In both moments his clay was brittle but out of him shone the burning bright glory of his Maker. He was just a clay pot, housing the treasure of the all-surpassing power of God. And that is what God delights in. He made us. We are not gods. But He reins us in and fills us and lifts us up on wings of strength that make us feel the wind of heaven and all his glory goodness in our faces. It’s a beautiful and ponderous mystery, the way our strong God delights in our weakness because it makes him look good, but all the while he is delighting in making us look good with his goodness.
And my strong girl, you are not a strong girl. You are strong because someone made you strong, and you ought to look up and tell Him how thankful you are and how good he is. You ought to offer every bit of that strength right back to him; basking in Him when you bask in your given strength. Yes, strong girl, you are not a strong girl. You are made of clay and sometimes you will break. And when you break you ought to look straight up into the eyes of the One who made you and ask him to carry you, wait on him to heal you, trust in him to do everything you in your useless broken state cannot do. And you can bask in Him when you bask in your weakness. He absolutely loves it, and you will too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Before and After {guest room}

I posted this picture a few days after we had moved in. It is the guest room/office and for awhile it has been the catch-all place for everything left unpacked or without a proper place just yet.

But I am so happy to say that we are making progress and it is becoming more the space I pictured it to be, with a few small details left to go (like paint on the walls and chair, one last box of books to find a home for, cushions and pillows for the window seats... maybe)

Redoing a room when you move is for me an ever-evolving dance of repurposing the old, and knowing what new things need to be purchased. I may not love the filing shelf as a bedside table, but when you need a new bed and sheets, well you just have to make do with the ugly shelf!

I did have a lovely time getting all my yarn out and dreaming of the coming year and it's many projects. Then there was a sudden light bulb of an idea to use an old map of China that had been ruined in many places but I didn't throw away yet- and fill my needlepoint looms with the good patches of places we've been and lived.

I was thrilled to be able to bring back this old Remington typewriter from a thrift store this summer. The kids have already enjoyed typing many short, sweet letters to grandparents and friends. I however am not so sure about the hand winding of the ribbon when the size of spool I bought did not quite work on this model.

And then there is our guest bed, which houses a trundle bed underneath and has already been used once... ready for many more visitors! It is the most comfortable bed in our house and it takes some measure of control for me not to creep in there at night when my hips feel a bit sore from the fossilized board they call a  mattress in my own room.

This room, with it's lovely light and deep window seats and now organized, cheerful shelves and soft bed is my favorite place in the house just now. More pictures of the other spaces I've been working on to come.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Mountains are Good For You

We were away for the past few days on a retreat with all our staff, foreign and national. We drove on a bus to a famous mountain called E Mei Shan. There are mountains surrounding this city of 14 million we live in, but the haze and clouds from both natural and unnatural sources keep us from ever glimpsing them. This weekend was a rare and refreshing retreat into the beauty we know is nearby... but don't often have easy access to.

Our hotel was more of an "inn" with hard beds and meals served that did not, surprisingly, even include drinking water. We were well prepared though (we've been on trips like this before) with lots of fruit, crackers, bread, and even some cinnamon chip scones for breakfast (I did remember the french press and did forget the coffee grounds which left me in a deep state of regret for several hours).

The hike up the first part of the mountain, which is all we with our additional six little legs could undertake, was full of greenery, stunning drops into the river ravine, charming and strappy porters carting touristy paraphanalia up and down the path, hazy but serene views of lakes and bridges, and wooded mountains rolling heavily into the distance.

We stopped for awhile to throw rocks (which turned into boulders) in the water, doing our best to re-arrange the carefully balanced ecosystem of the river, and then trooped back to the trailhead where we stopped for lunch at a little restaurant.

The weekend was simple and refreshing in some ways, challenging and a bit uncomfortable in others.

It is beautiful to sit and worship in two different languages, each sensing the unity in knowing and lifting our faces to the one and same God. 

To lay your eyes upon greenery and the natural wonders of this world feels almost as necessary as drinking a glass of cool water; when you don't have it often enough you begin to feel rather parched and dry.

 It is challenging to sleep five people in three twin beds, but there are strange moments in the early morning with the the little one curled next to you when you think of how blessed you are, and how little you had to fight for the family you have, especially when the woman down the hall may be faced with the choice to keep her baby or her husband- a choice no mother should have to make.

A friend that I barely know prayed words for me this morning, that I would accept this place with the expectation of what God will do here, and would be thankful for the good things we that had there (previous home). Her spirit evidenced such thankfulness, and joyful trust in what He is doing and where He is leading, that I felt embraced and calmed and comforted by it, knowing my own spirit, by the power of the Spirit within me, can and must evidence the same things.

We are home now, kids in bed, a mug of lemon tea in my hands. I am thankful for the mug of coffee that awaits me in the morning, for the clean tiles of my bathroom, for the space of my bed, and more than ever for the security I rest in knowing I am a child of a King. My circumstances, difficult as they may be for me to enjoy at this point, are more the pouting fits a child throws when a parent brings them to the doctor rather than the park to play. I am not a lost child, wandering the streets like an orphan, wondering what my life is about. I am a loved and dearly cared for daughter, who is merely having a little trouble taking what is given from her Father. But we all know, that is just why the Daddy is there for in the first place.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Street Food and Back

What do you do in place of pizza delivery, or any nearby restaurants that serve food you are mildly comforted by when you need a night off of cooking?

You eat Street Food.

Street Food is just what it sounds like: food cooked on, eaten on (found on?) the street. The culture of a Street Food/Night Market area is incredible to experience. It will either disgust and overwhelm you, or make you feel like you've hit some small part of the incredible heart of China. It is not for the faint-hearted... if you care a lot about germs and cleanliness and stuff like that.

Let's go for a short tour. First stop, if you want some shao kao (chinese street barbecue), you fill your little plastic basket with all the skewers of meat, and vegetables, tendons, or quail eggs you desire, then hand them over to your friendly grill master...

Send someone else to hunt down bottles of water from a nearby vendor... lots of them, especially in Sichuan province where the hot in hot is HOT.

Let the kids wander nearby (no ipods, iphones, or personal gaming devices of any kind are needed- there is plenty of butchery and live creatures to keep them entertained for hours) to check out the buckets of shrimp get a rinse, or someone's dinner choice get cleaned and de-scaled, or the small puppy licking up scraps at the feet of your very own grill master.

Maybe shao kao isn't your thing, or you'd like a little something to complement it. Head down a few stalls to your choice of fried rice or noodle vendors. Just pick from a variety of chopped meats and veggies and they will throw them all into the wok and whip you up some fantastic, salty fried something in a matter of no time, all for pennies and a toothy grin.

I'm not promising you the meat has been refrigerated recently, or how many times they wash the wok out between... days or weeks, but we've never been sick and we have always had a good time. If nothing else, for the memories.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Making Do

In another land, far far away, the "football" (or as my son says, heavy on the accent, "it's football for the one where you say "hut hut hike!" and it's futball for the one that you play with your feet") season is in full swing. Here, we know little about that except for those who can search the internet and But for the rest of us we are not surrounded by any of the hooplah, and yet as the result of a Friday night viewing of "Remember the Titans" last week, we have had our own little season opener that does not appear to be letting up any time soon.

It has been this small little bit of grace for me, watching my children this past week. Of course, you know, with my current down swing about our living situation I need these things! Living in a city and small apartments has had it's struggles for us with raising small children, something that was affirmed and also encouraged by an audio talk we listened to last year about Raising Your Kids in the City given by Tim Keller. Some of his points continue to stick with me. But anyway, even with the many withouts we muddle through, it brightens my spirit to see my kids flourishing in spite of it all.

They can make do with anything. Or so it seems, today at least.

They create homemade football teams and run plays in the smallish living room, even including little Scout who is probably the best Defensive End of them all. They come up with team songs, flags, and uniforms. They read about Moby Dick and create whaling ships with their legos (never mind all those other important themes that zipped right over their heads). They watch Chariots of Fire and make hurdles in the "hallway" behind the couch with their blocks. They listen to The Call of the Wild in the evenings before bed and spend the next morning constructing dog sleds out of Lincoln Logs and pulling one other around the hardwood floor with a blanket tied around their waist.

We had a day off of school on Monday, and being as tired as I was and having been away from the weekend with much to catch up on, I was sort of dreading a rainy day inside with three small kids. But they blessed me again by playing most of the entire day together, happily, with inclusiveness. I truly did have to give thanks. It was unexpected.

They are so full of observations and ideas and enthusiasm. A birthday card Skills wrote to his dad the other night read

Dear Dad,
I love you more than life itself. Or if I were to describe it another way, if someone were trying to steel you I would save you. But let's get that out of your mind!
I love you so much.
Happy Birthday.

It just cracked me up, this six year old and his way with words.

Then you have these two, settling in for a "drink" before going out to... I don't know, rustle up the outlaws in town?

Yes, that is all I have to say today. I am thankful for my kids. They make do with what they have and they don't even know they are doing it (and that is without saying I know they have A LOT).

It's good to observe their childlike way of life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Retraction of Sorts

I'm about to get all confessional on you.

When I first began to face this transition there was a part of me that knew the challenges we would face, and so I braced myself, even tried to prepare myself mentally for them. I accepted the fact that it would mean saying goodbye and tearfully worked through many of those, even though I knew it would be painful. I knew it meant a span of days and energies poured into packing and sorting, organizing and then undoing it all again once we arrived. I knew that once we got here, the time it would take to feel at home would perhaps be lengthy, and that there would be things I would miss and suffer through the loss of until I found my new way. Always surrounding those thoughts was the assurance that this move was not our idea, and that we were led and cared for in it-- and there was comfort in that.

But there is a battle waging. In spite of all my attempts to prepare myself, to remain positive, to be comforted by the fact that this is the place we are meant to be, I am losing ground.

Normally, I would say that the idea of losing a battle should not be considered a good thing. But, in this instance, I am beginning to wonder if it is in fact the best part of it all. I've been fighting for the wrong things... I can see it in the things I've written in recent posts, in the thoughts that weigh inside my head all day, in the words that more often than not escape from my mouth. I miss the life I had. I am disappointed in what I've been given. So, I've been bemoaning it and fighting to find some way to keep it all.

It may seem to you in this next statement that I am over-spiritualizing something like my hobbies... but I have sensed over the years, at different key points in my life, when I have been pushing too hard for something, for my own way. I feel that right now. In something so small as a "photo challenge" or a project to foster my creativity, at least at this particular time, I have felt a prodding that perhaps I am trying too hard to grasp at something that is not given to me right now.

So, this may seem quite silly, but I am retracting, or cancelling my little "photo essay extravaganza" plan.

This summer I read the book "A Place of Healing" by Joni Erickson Tada. It spoke to me in many ways about my own heart condition, and I know a prayer of mine has been that God would give me a desire for the things He loves and cares about. I don't know all of what this time, this move means for us or for the people around us (God's plans are always much bigger and more complicated than just us), but I am sensing that He is emptying me of some of the things I have cherished. I don't know why- and maybe it is only for a season or maybe it is just me over thinking this move! But I believe He is working and perhaps part of that is by bringing me to a new sense of neediness before Him.

I'm pretty needy and all over the place. We just found out that we are expecting our fourth child in April. This was a complete shock to us, who felt a bit like two overgrown teenagers or something that naively believed some methods of birth control were one hundred percent effective. Shock and disbelief aside, I have been dealing with extreme fatigue in the midst of trying to "find my new way." Even the things I have always felt able and even gifted at doing, are outside the range of my capacities right now. It is almost like I've become completely disabled, or at worst- useless.

Wait, before you get as depressed as I sound-- there is good news. I am extremely thankful, and almost excited in an expectant sort of way. I believe this is God answering the prayers of my heart, and of our hearts as we've prayed over many different things in recent years. We are not the worlds best prayers, so that is not meant as a pat on our backs so much as a testament to the fact that I know God hears, and responds- and that He is compassionate and gracious and gives us much that we need and don't even consistently ask for.

I think he is doing some deep tilling in the soils of the way I think and know Him and live before Him. I am feeling humbled, and hungry for a growth in my faith through the Word of Christ. The study I am going through right now is hitting me in soft and tender spots day after day, and is filling me with hope and clearer vision as I am beginning to see breaches in my faith, weakness in my thinking, points where I need to repent and turn, and the God who brings me out of all those pits.

It sure does feel sort pit-ish around here. I just cannot get it all done. I can't do the things I love to do. I can't even think correctly about it all- I can't have a good attitude.

This weekend I was reminded in a powerful way that we are all of us clay pots. Broken and fragile, not radiant with any form or shape or beauty in and of ourselves. But filled with the knowledge of the glory of Christ, we can shine with his likeness. I think in all my can-nots, perhaps I can learn to see myself as I really am, and am being emptied in order to find healing in the inner places, where the glory of Christ can radiate with an unspeakable beauty, that brings the glory to Him alone. And what heart wouldn't sing with an inside like that?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

fyi: traveling

We are away for the weekend... off to another city to attend meetings, but without the kids who are staying with friends (no small task... we are grateful for them!). 

So far I have had Thai food, seen the Yangtze River, cried while telling our story, talked and caught up with dear friends over coffee, and slept in a wonderfully soft bed. We head home tomorrow to the kids and a pot of chili in the fridge, and I can't wait.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

You would think I was opening a cafe

All right, well before we get started with the whole photo and essay thing... I have more food to share. I do apologize if this interruption happens regularly, or more than once. I've been having a good time with this lately. My lunches have been a little over the top- seeing as how they are for one and a half persons... and the other half mostly just wants yogurt and a few nibbles of whatever I'm eating.

It is so worth it though, and not really that much work, to end up with a nice savory meal instead of crackers and peanut butter (though those tasted good the other day too... while I was preparing lunch).

Just a couple quick recipes here, if you care to indulge yourself. The above photo is the Pumpkin and Feta muffins (with tons of other good stuff not in the title, like spinach, sunflower seeds and parmesan cheese to name a few) which I have mentioned here before... somewhere... and the first time around I wasn't overly impressed. But this time, I had to change a few things because of the ingredients I had on hand, and also spilled a little extra salt in the bowl after a fight with a feisty plastic trap door thingy that guards the salt from escaping I guess. In the end, they proved far more tastier than my first endeavor and I was really pleased with them. I ate four for lunch that day.

The recipe is found here, and my little list of substitutions are as follows:
- sliced almonds in place of the sunflower seeds
- baked sweet potato in place of the pumpkin
- 1/2 ricotta and 1/2 feta in place of all feta
- 2/3 cup whole wheat and 1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour in place of all white flour
- maybe a bit more salt than is asked for

This next easy recipe is from a photo I saw on pinterest of a basil pesto, mozzarella, and plum tomato grilled cheese sandwich, with a side salad of kidney beans, sweet corn, and avocado.  I happened to have all those ingredients on hand (grape tomatoes in place of plum) as well as some fresh spinach which I threw on the sandwich. The salad was sprinkled with a pinch of salt... and there was our little gourmet lunch for one (and a half). Delish.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

photo&essay extravanganza

I think I've decided what to do around here for the next little bit. I saw this photo challenge list the other day on pinterest and it caught my eye... but I don't want to do a thirty day photo challenge. I don't want to just find another angle or subject to try and clear the inspirationless cobwebs in my head. I want to write. I want to think. I want to look around. But not just for the sake of looking.

I've moved to a new home. Okay, we all know that.

It's hard. I feel the dryness and the forlorn attitude that is starting to creep in because things are different here, and maybe a little more difficult. The sun doesn't shine very much, for one thing.

We've moved, it's hard, but I know this is where we are supposed to be. I'd love to be able to jump in and do all the things I was doing before and beginning to enjoy so much. I'd really love to be able to walk around and photograph this city like I was hired by National Geographic or something. I'd love to write a book and have it drip off my fingertips instead of having to fight fatigue, or all the other tasks that end up filling my day. I say these things to myself a little too much lately. Then I remember (or my better half reminds me) wait, this is my life. And it is good. It is given. I can already see the good work He is doing in my heart.

So yes, it's a little slumpy around here right now. Maybe I can't write about the things I think I should, that reflect China or our life here or who knows what else. Maybe my pictures are not forthcoming. But these are the days given to me, in my hands like putty, poured out with grace, though I may not be accepting it or willing to take it in it's given form. But who wants to be like that? I don't. I'm asking for help. I always need help.

I'm not sure all of what I need to do, maybe just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe drink more soothing beverages. Pray. But today I did think of one idea that sort of excited me, at least in the areas that tend to refresh and inspire me. Why not instead of just doing a photo challenge, or a series of writing prompts, combine the two? I could make a list of subjects- similar to the photo challenge above, and take a photo. But the really fun part would be to use that photo to prompt an essay. Not a journal entry, but an actual essay. One that makes you think of a theme, or leads into a memory, or rehearses a train of thought that in the end may reveal or teach you something.

That all sounds maybe a little too profound and important. There is no guarantee anything interesting of the sort will happen. But it would be fun (for me anyway) to try. It would give me some parameters, a backbone of sorts to build off of. And I like the idea of the writing especially, because that is often where the heart and soul work really grinds itself out, instead of just trying to take interesting photos.

I think I just may try it. A list of fifteen things. It doesn't have to be every day, though I'll try to be consistent about it. I cooked up a little list so I could be all fancy and serious about it, and mostly because I just think it's fun to do such things. Of course that means you'll know what's coming... but it also means you could do it too.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Blueberries and Raspberries, Oh My.

Just a few photos of some things I've been doing around here. That looks like mostly eating, I guess.
I am loving this new cookbook, Super Natural Every Day and the above photo is her Baked Oatmeal recipe with blueberries, bananas, and walnuts.

We spent a lot of time this weekend finally pounding some nails into our concrete walls, and drilling a few holes too so we could start hanging up all our photos and shelving. Hopefully soon I can post of pictures of the more "finished" side of our apartment. It's feeling more and more like home.

Yes, well... more food. I found frozen raspberries and blueberries at a store here in the city (I've never seen rasberries in the four years we've lived here) and couldn't resist. Lemon Raspberry Scones for Sunday breakfast.

I've been musing on a little idea to do around here for the next few weeks. I may share more of that tomorrow...