Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The {In}Comparable Advent

The last days leading up to Christmas, I feel so keenly the hardness of the road to Bethlehem.

It seems easier to identify with the realities of their situation, that venerated but simple couple, than to gloss over it with sentimentality. This is because my life has little gloss and sentimentality. I pursue it of course, with candlelight and delicious smells in the kitchen and having the kids gather round for readings, but daily we hit the wall of arguing and misunderstanding, the surprise of loneliness and the battles against disappointment, the frustrations of pollution and a city in a foreign country and the fact that in all our meager efforts to create unity and contentment, we just can't make it happen.

I find it easy to compare. When you think about all the actualities of the birth of Jesus, it is everything our lives are today: ordinary, humbling, frustrating, fraught with challenges, filled with situations that make you wonder, really, Lord? Is this the way you care for those who follow you? Surely Mary must have wondered that as the doors shut in their faces just when the baby she had born the shame of misunderstanding for, the filling and breaking of her body for, the burden of her whole long life of piercing for, was about to enter the world.

My little girl, in her five year old way of questioning, has asked me a few times in recent days, Mom, do you really believe God is taking care of you? I say yes. And we list the ways we see it. But in my heart, I know if I was really honest, that sometimes I too wonder. Lord, are you sure you got this?

That is when I lose the grip on comparing myself with Mary. And I think I want to. The gift of the Advent of Jesus is that something mysterious and incomparable, incomprehensible and impossible, happened on our earth in real space and time and history. What I need most in my hardest moments, in the day to day grind and the failure of my family, my friendships, my broken and dying world, is for God to step in. I need him to take care of things. To take care of my sinful and wayward heart. To take care of all the wrongs that are being done to innocent children and defenseless people. To turn the hearts of everyone to their Creator, to pour out love on us in such a way that we can do nothing but love him and everyone around us in return. To make me see the earth and all that inhabits it in the way that he does. To fill me with joy.

We all need something entirely outside ourselves to break in and rescue us.

When I think about Mary listening to Gabriel speak unfathomable words, the Shepherds surrounded by the glory of God on the hard ground of the rough earth they trod every day, Joseph gazing at a baby that looked like any other baby but that he knew beyond what would have been very reasonable doubt, was really God, I cannot put myself in that story anymore. This kind of thing doesn't happen to me. In fact, it just plain doesn't happen. It's the most unimaginable story, nestled in the most ordinary, relatable circumstances.

This is our life every day. Ordinary and difficult, humbling and fraught with disappointment. It's the old curse at work, Adam toiling and Eve in pain. But God steps in. He makes a way. Jesus really was born and lived a real exemplary life and died a real sacrificial death and rose in miraculous glory the way only a real God could. And He is really here, taking care of things right now.

So we can join with Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the Shepherds and Simeon, and all the millions who have followed along in their steps, believing and worshiping. Immanuel! God is with us.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The {Im}Possible Thing About Advent

I just want to be free of it, is what I keep thinking to myself.

Free of the weight of this baggage of self I carry around all through my days. It's Advent for crying out loud and I love my dark early mornings with the cold and my coffee and the Word both sharp and lovely, but these last few days as the light of dawn breaks through the windows, my own heart seems to slide into its own kind of darkness. I weary of the struggle with my emotions and the battle with my attitude.

I'm doing the work of Advent, the hint of an impatient thought showed its underbelly today as I battled the thoughts that plagued me. I'm paring back and meditating and slowing down and trying to open my heart to the wonder that God could speak into it. I wish that meant less struggle with personal, ugly darkness. 

So here, apparently is my wish for a successful Christmas Season. A tranquil heart. Unburdened by want or need or any sort of pining. Simply content. Happily pouring out and into everyone around me. In short, it seems I ought to become a Buddhist. Just get rid of all that desire, and find the way to inner peace through annihilation and emptiness.

This is where the heart of Advent stepped into my world again today. Our Christmas card this year reads Peace on Earth. Celebrating Emmanuel in China. When we took the picture for the card there was anything but Peace on that part of the Earth. But we like to think of it as a hope for the future peace that will only come when our Savior returns. In that picture taking moment, and in most moments of our days, we are waiting with hopeful longing for that peace.

And in the meantime, we are celebrating the fact that Emmanuel, God with us, is ever true way over here in China. And that is what I need to know and walk in more than ever these days. The gift of the first Advent was the arrival of God putting on flesh, our very flesh, so that he could be with us. And not just with us to hang out, but to understand, to empathize, to relate in the most humbling and of ways. Beyond even that though, the first Advent meant God put on flesh so that he could die in the flesh and make God with us a forever possibility. Or rather, us with God an eternal reality.

As I walked through my day, talking with the Lord in my head, pouring out my heart and my battles, my confessions and my questions, my thanks and my worship, I was struck by how precious it is that He walks with me. My struggle with sin doesn't stop because of Advent or any other special time with the Lord. But this special time of reflecting and thinking upon His Birth and His breaking into our world makes me more keenly aware of my need and His meeting of it. For what are we without God? Phantoms, wraiths, walking souls with insatiable desires that go unmet and grow greedy with the consumption of what does not satisfy. But with God? God with us? We are like springs of living water, whose well will never run dry.

A true celebration of Advent seems impossible sometimes. It is too plagued by real life and real people. Even when you do all you think you can do (and even the things the books tell you to do) to put yourself in the position to really value and experience the true meaning of this beautiful, weighty, all-important holiday season, the truth is that any Advent is impossible from our side of things. Real Advent is all about God being with us. It's the central message of the gospel truth all over again. You can't get to him on your own merit.

The Possible thing about Advent from our end is worship. God is with us, and plagued by the darkness of the world and our own hearts, we cling to His Light all the more. The shepherds came humbly, the magi came adoring, we come thankful, in awe, needy and leaning in close to the God and Savior who is no distant idea or statement of Four Truths or cold, lifeless statue with a fat belly. He is Spirit, who put on flesh. He has a name and he knows each of ours.

If it feels impossible to get yourself all cleaned up and heart-ready for the celebration of the first Advent, you are just about right. With man this is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The {Un}Interesting Thing About Who Gets Picked for Advent

If the season of Advent is all about waiting and watching, and slowing down enough to enter into the story of the Birth of our Savior, so that you can be changed and renewed again by the words of the Word who became flesh, then you have to wonder...

Who are the ones who hear that Word? 
Who gets spoken to during Advent? 
What kind of person do you have to be to hear His voice and feel the weight of the story anew in all its grime and glory?

There was Mary of course, penitent and willing, sublime and submissive. But even she asked, "How can this be?" 

Joseph, stalwart and self-righteous, careful and caring. Did he bend his ear to God or was he bent by the Word that bore down on him?

Zechariah, pious and prayerful, set in his ways and waylaid by the message that jarred him from his righteous slumber. He thought he was ready to hear from God, but was he?

The Shepherds, alert and eager, responsive and rejoicing. They did nothing glorious, but the glory came to them and shone all around them. Were they prepared? And yet they received it like the gift it was.

Simeon, devout and desiring, filled and foretelling. He was ready, as ready as one can ever be. Was he any more blessed than the surprised shepherds?

Anna, old and graying, worshiping and praying. 

The Men from the East, wise and generous, seeking and relentless.

Herod, devious and envious, murdering and scattering.

You think of all the ones He came to. Was he really that picky, that concerned with a correct posture towards himself, coming only to those who were ready and willing to accept Him and his messengers? Or was it all an act of pure grace? To some who were looking and ready, he was received with gladness, but others with doubt and surprise. To some who were not looking nor ready, he was received with gladness, but others with doubt and dismay. 

Is the posture we take all that interesting to him? Or is He the interesting one, the arresting one, the one to be reckoned with, coming in a humbling and generous act of grace to each and every one of his choosing, not because they were ready-- but simply because He wanted them to know Him.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Inconvenient Advent

Having a house full of sickness was not my plan for the first couple weeks of December. It set back plans I had for a December Photo Project (after three days of pictures with me on the couch, knitting needles, and a sad kid face in the frame, I gave up), it scaled down preparations I was making towards hosting and all put an immediate stop to any kind of shopping. It meant our daily advent plans have many days gone unattended, and my own personal reading has been sporadic in its rhythm. But as I wrote yesterday, it has created quiet and space in a different way than I had envisioned, and that has been its own kind of gift.

There is an Advent discipline that I have heard encouraged, where you try to place yourself within the Nativity Story. In this way, there is the hope that you can experience anew some of the realities that may have become old hat, or rote and sterile after so many years of hearing the words read in church and sung at Christmas concerts.

Last night my oldest boy was expressing some sadness as he thought about all his grandparents and extended family never being able to be with us at Christmas. We realized we could relate somewhat to Mary and Joseph being far from their families during one of the most important moments of their lives, the birth of their first child. Were they better able to wonder and worship because they were alone? And anyone who has had a surprise pregnancy, perhaps at what appeared the most inconvenient time, can (albeit to a much smaller degree, but a degree just the same) feel the tremor in Mary's question, "How can this be?"

I want to share the following chapter from a book I have lying around my house and like to read now and then during these Advent days. I share it in honor of someone near and dear to me, who just told me yesterday she is very unexpectedly expecting her fourth child, and is feeling more the burden than the joy of it just now.

"A Plan Behind the Pain"
(excerpt from A Christmas Longing by Joni Eareckson Tada)

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world... And everyone went to his own town to register.

"So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born..." (Luke 2:1, 3-6).

The distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is no Girl Scout hike. It spans over sixty miles of rough and rugged terrain.

We can imagine Joseph packing a few belongings and beginning that journey on foot or donkey-back with Mary-- well into her ninth month of pregnancy. Talk about unpleasant circumstances! How Mary must have suffered on that journey. Joseph, too, may have been gripped by anxiety over the situation. Can you imagine his thoughts as they traveled toward Bethlehem?

Why did this census have to happen now? Of all times! What if the baby comes while we're traveling? Where will we stay when we get to Bethlehem? What if the inns are full? When the time comes, what if there is no one to help? Will I be able to assist Mary? Will it be terribly hard on her? Will the child be in danger?

But it was necessary to make that several-day journey to Bethlehem-- for more reasons than one. Hundreds of years before, God prompted His prophet to name the town of the future Messiah's birth. The city of David. God used external circumstance, the Roman census, to have His Son born in His ancestral city.

Now, certainly, it was a great inconvenience to both Mary and Joseph. But unpleasant circumstances often have a way of becoming the best part of God's magnificent design. Despite the heachache and hardship, the inconvenience and discomfort, God's sovereign timetable was ticking off right on schedule.

This Christmas story has a lesson for us today, because sometimes you and I make the mistake of thinking that only the "right" things or comfortable things are a part of God's design. A good job, robust health, close friends, a comfortable house, money in a savings account-- all give us the impression that we must be doing something "right." Then, when the inconvenience or discomfort or hardship hits, we wonder what "went wrong."

Maybe nothing went wrong.

Maybe we simply need to realize that our most unpleasant circumstances, much like Mary and Joseph's, often have a way of becoming a beautiful portion of God's magnificent design.

God's sovereign timetable is working in the life of your family, too, hard as that may be to accept at times. Despite the hardship, despite the inconvenience, despite our lack of understanding, God has something in mind. He is in control, and He has a design for your life this Christmas season... and through all the seasons of your life.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The {Im}Perfect Way to Start Advent

I tend to think that the days are slipping me by when I don't write on here. But I think there is some part of me that wrongly starts to feel guilty and twitchy, like something is missing if I haven't shared about it. The truth is that life is probably best lived in the secret, in the quiet. When I am disconnected from updating, I am assuredly more present in the living. So lest I ever think of this space as another place to upload my life, please remind me: Life isn't slipping me by because I haven't written about it. This is a place for pondering, thinking, and working things out through the written word. If it's done with any regularity that just means my brain has not been sucked dry by life with four kids or trying to figure out how to speak one of the hardest languages known to man.


It is Advent season and the days-slipping-by theme seems to be in full swing. Now you must know, I love Advent. Love. Love. Love. I am a Think Deeply About Themes kind of person so give me a book and some Scripture and tell me how light and darkness and hope and expectation and lament and rejoicing all weave together through stories and symbols and I am going to jump on that bandwagon and ride it til the cows come home. So the fact that we are now on Day 9 of the Advent calendar and five out of four of those days have gone Un-Observed because of some family sickness has not been easy on my Advent-loving heart.

Yes we have been sick and more sick around here. Almost 10 days now of off and on stomach serious nastiness and fevers and colds and children lying all over my house in various degrees of compromised health. I was thankful and proud that our Christmas decor was all arranged a few days before Thanksgiving. But then the Sick hit us and as my dear daughter pointed out with a grimace in my general direction the other morning, the tree has lights but nothing else. We didn't do our tree decorating cozy evening yet. We didn't hang stockings. I barely got the advent calendar up. We've spent a few nights reading our daily portions and lighting candles, but at this point if feels disjointed at best.

But as in so many things in life that go this way, I think in the end the days of sick may just be the way we need it this year for Advent. If these few days of preparation are meant to help us open our minds, enlarge our hearts, and allow space to ponder anew the coming of Jesus, to see what He is doing in the world and to recognize how he is speaking in our lives, then being home without much to do but care for needy kids is one very pared down way to do that.

Because even in preparing for Advent-- the very season to ready you for the coming of Christ-- you can get caught up in the preparations, in making sure you are doing all the right activities, becoming either somewhat frenzied or at least particular and controlling about the ways in which you will create a space to experience the real meaning of the season. And then once again, the Person you are trying to meet gets missed, or smothered.

If the space and time I need to think about the darkness of this world and the hope of the Light that has come into it, is created by sitting with a fevered, wimpering child all afternoon, then iso be it. In some small way, this is my point of entry-- at least this year-- into the mystery of the Bethlehem Story and all it's inconveniences that birthed a Savior into the world.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Things I am Loving

Coming home from grocery shopping to this hobbit/kid in an apron.

The way things are coming together for a study with both chinese and foreign friends.

The smell of these pumpkin cookies in the oven, and the excitement they will produce when my kids walk in on a Friday afternoon from school.

The way food makes my children adore me. I have many faults that make me hard to live with, but the food thing is one way we make peace and promise to live happily ever after together.

Studying Jesus in the gospels. The unexpectedness of it... the way he seems ever more real to me. 

The things that make me laugh. Like remembering Jen Hatmaker's quote about her reaction to surprise information that came home from school about costumes. "What fresh hell is this??
It is so where I am at right now. It is my new motto.

Other funny stuff like these taglines

Starting the Fellowship of the Ring with my boys after not having read it for maybe 10 years? We started in, and then... I remembered why... and I can't wait to get to know them all again.

Listening to Johann Sebastian Bach on Pandora. And then I came across this article.  The man's life: not easy. His music: equally challenging and difficult. But was his music a true gift of God, a divine inspiration? I love this line...But in the end, [the author] finds, it comes down to an act of faith. Other composers, among them Monteverdi, Beethoven and Mozart, have achieved greatness in various ways, “but it is Bach…who gives us the voice of God—in human form.”

Kneading bread. It's so contemplative to me. It's my favorite way to be quiet right now.

Helping my eldest study for his spelling bee. For as many as he gets wrong, I am still amazed at what the kid can spell! Where do they pick up these things?

The dimples, the uneven cowlicks, the jolted run, the constant jibber jabbering of our littlest man. (Not loving the endless forays into the sugar bin, the rice bin, the emptying of the water tower, ad infinitum).

Starting Chinese classes again, which translates into the hope of someday not sounding or feeling like a moron. Incidentally, I learned the word for "hope" this week... xiwang 希望. 

The way my Man rallies. He pulls himself together. He pulls me together. He pulls us all together. He's a rock, a steady force. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On Making Ravioli and Children

Hey, I have a good idea. Feeling frustrated? Irritated by some circumstance in your day? Why don't you go ahead and try to make one of the more difficult pasta dishes by hand, from scratch? It's sure to be therapeutic in an opposite sort of way.

Yes, that was me today-- plunging ahead into a ravioli making endeavor even though I spent most of the morning struggling to look at my children without losing it on them, listening to whining and fighting, missing my husband who has been gone most of the week and last night and now today as well, dealing with the same water spilling and bowl breaking issue over and over again with this little one year old.

So after the little guy was down for his nap and the other two were happily engaged, I started rolling out the pasta dough and brushing the edges and filling the little squares, some with pumpkin and some with a spinach/ricotta filling. Starting out, I really did think I was kind of an idiot, knowing how foul a mood I was in and thinking that if this didn't go well it was only my own fault for attempting it on the least patient and long-suffering of days.

Thankfully, it all went fine. The dough did not stick to the counter in a huge sheet of gluey mess as it had in my one and only previous attempt at fresh pasta making. The filling was ready thanks to prep I did earlier in the week, so the process overall was less tedious and time consuming. The kitchen was not a flour covered sea of disaster and did not take long to clean up. The cute little things looked good with their rustic fork pressed edges, and were even kind of fun to pull together.

And the quiet, hand-consuming work gave me a little time to reflect, to let my mind wander over the day and the little people that have filled it. Imps, urchins, cantankerous little devils with wills and selfish needs all their own. That is how I responded to them most of the morning. There were a few glimpses of hope, a few moments where goodness seemed to seep in the edges of the conversation and sprinkle a few drops of grace on an otherwise stormy situation, but most of the time I was on edge and raw. I could see the mirror slapping me in the face as I implored one child to think not of his own interests... but remember that Jesus always ignored his own rights and poured out his love for us, even when we were at that very time sinning against him. I just kind of sat there, quiet-- the child waiting for me to say more-- and all I could think of was my own need to digest this.

Later, as I was carefully pressing the edges of each little pocket of pasta, all the words I had read over the week seemed to converge in my mind.
"If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me." Mark 9:35-36
One of the more staggering things about our great God is the very particular way he cares for each and every human life, and calls that one life sacred. In that, he calls me to join him, even as he knows I am an impatient, selfish woman who is constantly veering back towards my own needs and wants. He must have known all that when he looked at his flesh-crusted disciples and said to them, "whoever receives one such child in my name receives me." He knew he was calling incapable people to act like him.

I have to find some kind of precious hope in that, when feeling incredibly full of incapability. How do you get there, from I am super irritated and can't say nice things to you, to receiving and responding to these children as if they were the God-man himself?

A little like ravioli making maybe? You confess that you are an idiot. You admit it seems a task with little prospect of going well. You believe that it is still worth your time and effort to go ahead with. You plunge ahead. You pray for grace, for help. And the Spirit of God always helps us in our weaknesses. He is real, our faith is required, trust is implied, and obedience is the way forward.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why I {Love to} Live in China :: Neighborhood

Every Monday and Friday morning I head out with my three-wheeled scooter and stash of grocery bags to pick up fresh goods from the market and other weekly necessities from the large grocery around the corner. The side streets are a throng of other morning shoppers. The three-wheeled bikes and scooters piled high in the back with whatever is in season are dotted along the roadside, surrounded by people from the neighborhood looking for the best bargains for their evening meal. I am a bit of an oddity, buying vegetables to sustain me for the next 4 days of meals. Everyone else is looking for one chive, a head of greens, maybe a potato or handful of green beans. The red peppers are a must have.

Grandmas are pushing little trikes with their fat grandbabies who stare at the morning melee with big, curious brown eyes,  the young women xiaojie's carefully pick through the crowd and stalls with their high heels and short, colorful dresses, old men shuffle by with pipes or a cane or both. Some sit listlessly in wheelchairs, simply gazing, out for their morning air. The house helper baomus are there, looking for the  bargains. They talk and haggle with one another, laughing and pointing out the best prices, the greens or melon that will best be suited to this day and this type of weather.

It is not sterile. It is not well lit. Something about it though reminds me of the small town we visited this summer, where in the span of one day I saw the same 5 people at the post office, the antique shop, the grocery store, on a walk in front of our house, and in a newspaper article. It's close. It's a neighborhood.

I think too, on the streets here the realities of life seem so smack dab in your face. There are no pretensions. This is not a row of clean, well manicured lawns type of place. The store fronts are open, the shop lady is there, cooking her lunch on a hot plate and wok beside the steps. The dirty laundry is literally hanging up all around you, outside apartment windows, in the back of a store, along an alley. We all air our dirty laundry for everyone to see around here. The blind masseuse stands just inside his shop doorway, shuffling in his manner that betrays a lifetime of getting along without seeing. He is there, living his daily routine out in front of you.

I am not entirely sure what it is about all this that endears itself to me. I like cleanliness and manicured lawns and a good Wegmans as much as the next girl. I don't think you need China specifically to make this happen, but I do like that it forces me not to take my life as the status quo. I have to think about my surroundings, I have to take it in and digest it and most of the time it points to a way of life so different than my own, in a way that challenges my own assumptions about what is necessary, what is worth my time, what is important, what is missing, what is the good I am aiming for and the the purposes I am striving for.

And some days, when I find I am taking myself too seriously, I just buy my fruit and go home.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why I Live In China :: Part II

For the first part of the evening, as another man shared, he stared blandly somewhere near his knees. Then someone asked him to pray. He rose up and his voice bellowed forward, melodic and rhythmic and it filled the room in a way his frail frame did not suggest was possible. "His Name is Wonderful!" he repeated several times. And I knew he believed it in a way I have yet to learn.

He has lived in China for more than twice the number of decades I've been alive, and he has seen changes most people will never relate to or understand. He spoke of many of those changes and the testimony of faithfulness of His God whose Name is Wonderful. He has tested that faithfulness through war torn years, change of power, dark and tense years when much of life as we understand it was being undermined and even destroyed, and finally, in prison. 

His Name is Wonderful he said, and this man believed that for that Name it was worth standing in prayer before a building that was being bulldozed to the ground, because it was built for the Name. Bulldoze away, they said, we will rebuild it again. And they did, and again they knocked it down, and again they rebuilt and now it still stands. But stronger than that building is the faith of these men and stronger than their faith is the One they put their faith in. 

One of our white faces stood up to share our thanks, for being able to sit at the feet of these men as they shared their stories and their hearts for their country with us. We feel small, he said. We are humbled. Faith as small as a mustard seed can move a mountain, and though our faith felt so small it is the size of the one we have faith in that really matters. And in that, we were all brothers and sisters, perhaps worlds away in culture, experience, history, age, and maturity, but clinging to the one whose Name is Wonderful in any age or land.

And what did I learn? That perhaps a stripping away of all that seems necessary can be a purifying thing for gathering worshipers. That for some, starting a school that aims to teach from a Logos-Worldview is a frightening and important venture that is vital to the minds and hearts of the next generation, not merely another school option. That old men who look like they are sleeping, are just waiting to stand up and shout Hallelujah. That some people get geeked about rock concerts or celebrity sightings, but this is where I become a hopeless and pathetically adoring fan.

Dear Old Man, I could listen to you sing out "His Name is Wonderful" for the rest of my days, and someday... I will.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Why I Live In China

In China, there is one commodity that teems through its cities and villages in numbers greater than any other nation on earth. People. Living, breathing, eternal souls who work fields and factories, inhabit high rise apartments and simple, dirty shacks, buy cell phones and sell roadside vegetables.

It was a person that was the crowning achievement, the glorious moment that culminated God's first creative act. And it was for people that He gave the final and Greatest Sacrifice. For this reason, in all that we endeavor to care for, live for, and love before God on this earth, it is people in their teeming masses, but always scaled down to the one living soul before us in any given moment, that is of supreme importance.

Because of this rather grand statement, no matter where you live in the world, if you are under this calling, you are under the highest calling a person can answer in their lifetime. China is one place on earth where the call is almost deafening if for no other reason than the sheer numbers of people that live there, and so many of them having so much need.

This great calling also means that often what most inspires us, what lifts us to a life beyond ourselves, is the example of people who evidence some act or attitude of divine, sacrificial love. They beckon us to a love of a different quality, a costly kind of love that seems weighted with the gold of heaven. It is the kind of love that also raises the person it is poured out on to the heights of God's vision for what they were meant to be and what he gave so much to make possible.

I heard this quote the other day, from someone who was sharing about this hard work of loving people going on in China.
True discipleship takes time and is very costly time-wise.  I’ve found those growing the most were closest but there was a sense of disappointment that it took so much time.  But discipleship is sacrificial, it’s going to cost your life.  To disciple the nations is going to cost many lives.” ~Rob Cheeley
The thought was sobering and beautiful in the weight of its importance.

I sat and listened this week to two women, two teachers in our school, both Chinese. Their hearts are shaped by the Love of their Lord; and their hearts beat for humanity, specifically for their countrymen, for the humanity that teems through their China's vast cities and rural villages. There are many ways they could answer this call to love their many neighbors, but they are teachers and so this is the path their burden takes.

I listened to them and felt like a tiny grit of sand that is part of a large rock on which these women stand. I loved to watch them far above me, poised as unique individuals because they have been raised in a Chinese education system, trained in a western education system, and have hearts to reach the children and families who are mired in the struggles and pitfalls of their country's current path.

One of our visions as a team here of both foreign and Chinese teachers, administrators, and families, is to raise up national teachers who have a heart for the Chinese, have been given educational tools alongside their foreign teachers, and can go out to schools all over China, transforming classrooms from the inside out, reaching students and faculty and parents with this Difference in purpose and method.

As I listened to these two women, I could see the cost their discipleship has required of them, the pleasures they have given up and the trials they have endured and know they will endure. And all I need to do is hear one story of one child who was changed, or one family who came asking for more, for answers to their heart's greatest need, and I am sold. Sold that this is why we are here, laboring to make this school happen where we are alongside our Chinese brothers and sisters, training and supporting and sending them out as they follow the Call to Discipleship, their hearts bleeding for their country. They do not see their lives as their own, but their trust is implicit and the reverence they have for the importance of their task deepens my respect for them.

My daily work is simple and compared to the vision above it can also seem pretty small. I don't sit in the rural classroom with the migrant worker's child. But she will. And she will teach others to do the same. One waters, another plants, but it is God who makes it grow.
"If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one."
- Mother Teresa

Thursday, September 12, 2013

expat coffee ladies

The other day I went to a sort of meet and greet for expat ladies in the city. It's not my scene really, but I go to be a face for our school and to rub shoulders with other women who are not in my immediate circles. There are always some colorful characters to muse over and that part I secretly enjoy a little too much.

Exhibit Lady A: from Texas, with the big hair, big makeup, and big jewelry one comes to fondly expect of ladies from this fine state. She also plays Mrs. Santa every year alongside her husband at the Christmas Bazaar, and she is a big reader-- attending multiple book clubs per week. She speaks up quite a bit, and warmly greets everyone in the room as she breezes through with her amply filled out blouse, extending a hand and offering her full name as a sort of audio business card. Before you know it, she's on to the next person.

Exhibit Lady B: Romanian, with hair constantly dyed a different but equally vibrant shade of red, she is a jack of all kinds of trades: gemstone jewelry designer, choir member, graphic designer, Rotary club president, and she will somehow touch on each of those interests in nearly every conversation you have with her.

There was the wise old lady doctor who looks like something straight out of the 19th century with her wrinkles and white hair and British accent and the way she rides her bike everywhere, tanned and clearly bent on nothing other than spending time with and for the Chinese she lives to serve.

There were the consulate wives, and the newly arrived business expat wives who were keen to be involved in everything, especially mah-jong clubs. "Teach us Mah-jong! any! and all kinds of Mah-jong!" they were practically screaming from their seats.

There were a few, quiet Chinese women, though one spoke up for just a moment to offer her ukelele-playing, winner-of-awards-in-Hawaii brother as entertainment for the Christmas Bazaar. We listened and nodded. For a ukelele player, winning an award in Hawaii seemed to really tip the scales.

I sat next to a woman who has spent the last 19 years moving every two years to a different location with her husband and now 4 year old son. I felt inclined to be her friend for those moments and peppered her with conversation, but couldn't tell if she was just naturally reticent or had lost that social edge with the weariness of always meeting new people.

At the end there was a call to involvement, especially in the events that raise money for charity, which is a typical hobby for expat wives living in these foreign cities. The charities are worthy causes: heart surgeries for the children of poor families, and dormitory and latrine construction for migrant worker's schools. Money is important; money is what allows practical needs to be met, needs that are essential to life itself, if not a quality of life that is desirable by most people.

Charities are good (amazing statement there) and necessary. Though there is something that seems out of place when spending a lot of money for a dinner or event with the intent that the proceeds will go towards people in need. It seems like we should just give our money out of generosity and compassion and maybe even with some measure of involvement. But regardless, there are still great numbers of people hurting, struggling and suffering here that any means to help them is worthy enough.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

land lady

Today my landlady came over to remove *most* of her furniture from the upstairs rooftop. She is somewhat of a mystery to me. Beautiful, with strong, balanced features and long, jet black hair that she usually wears down but today with all the stair climbing and directing movers, she had it pulled up in a knot-twisty thing.

She is nice to me, but you can see there is an edge to her just underneath the surface, so that if I ask a question she feels will put her in a bad position, or if she senses I am trying to get something out of her, she sort of bristles. It's unnerving. I also see the way she handles other people and I know she is one of those infamous "Landladies of Chengdu"types. They are known for being hard to work with. These kind of observations make any meeting with my landlady opportunities for an overall sense of nervousness and anxiety. I pace the floor all morning, mulling over the questions I need to address with her and the issues I am hoping to resolve... how best to approach her? And then I throw it all out the window when I realize I only know about five words to even try to get my point across. And then I just pray a lot and hope for the best.

In recent days, I keep coming back to this phrase:
In the morning you hear my voice, In the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch. ˜Psalm 5:3
It has been a sort of watchword for each day. All three themes are so important:

  • He is near, and he hears. 
  • I have something to give, and it often costs me. 
  • The cost is worth it. If I watch and wait- He always has something He is doing. 
Maybe it seems a stretch to think of a meeting with a landlady as a sacrifice, but for me one kind of sacrifice is each and every one of these "stressor"situations that exacts something from me or causes me to have to lay down my desires on the line, knowing they may not be fulfilled as I wish. There has to be some measure of trust in every one of those moments, believing that the times are not in your hand, but the Hand that holds them is working for your good. Or that what may be asked of you in a single day does yield some sort of fruit if you do it unto Him, even if it is not evident in that span of time that you labored.

All that pretty hair, I wonder what sort of soul lies beneath it. Perhaps there will be a day when it won't be such a mystery, nor a means for a day of prayers.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Our New Home

Let me take some time today to talk about our most recent home. It's pretty amazing. It might get a little long here.

My expectation when we first moved to China was for pretty simple and even bare conditions, all based on what my husband told me of his situation back when he taught in Nanjing during his college days. I was thinking; concrete walls, exposed piping, one room apartment kind of thing. So I was more than overjoyed and surprised at how nice and somewhat normal the first place felt when we walked in six years ago, even if it was overdone according to my sparse American taste, with crystal chandeliers in every room and glossy wood built-ins everywhere you looked. At least it had several rooms and no exposed piping.

Living as a foreigner in China for the most part means a fair bit of transience when it comes to your home, which is typically an apartment of some kind. The reason for this is that, with few exceptions, most foreigners have to rent, not buy their apartments, and are therefore subject to the whims of each individual landlord (as apartments are owned individually much like condominiums) such as leases not being renewed, landlords selling the place or deciding to move in themselves, and of course the transience of the foreigner themselves who may decide they need to change location, or find a better place, a better rental price, etc.

In the past six years we have lived in three different apartments, and this one we just moved into is now the fourth. This latest move was because our school building is changing location and we were too far away for the commute in our old apartment. So before heading back to the States this summer, we had to find a place and then move our stuff in, three days before boarding the plane.

The place we had found was a true answer to my many little prayers, as over the last six months, I somewhat feebly and not very boldly asked for things I knew I didn't deserve or need but thought could make all the difference in helping our family thrive in this country. I asked for space; for four bedrooms, or at least more square footage (not easy to find in our price range, or sometimes at all. New construction in China is on the small side). I asked for light. Light is important when I am home most of the day and the skies here are often on the gray side. In many ways, I think light just makes everything in the world better. I asked for (and here I closed my eyes and squinted, sort of wincing out the request) the crazy extra bonus of in some way being able to garden, which meant a first floor or a rooftop.

After many tiring weeks of searching for new housing for our entire staff (I was on the housing committee for this task) and not seeing anything that would work without a lot of gulping and probably crying in the closet on my part, I went one day to see a place with some friends who had given me a lead. It was on the seventh floor, with no elevator. It was a rooftop, and it was huge. Four bedrooms, lots of light, an upstairs with a large room (like a basement for kids but on top, I thought!) and a garden/patio area. It was within our price range.  And it was completely trashed.

Josh and I decided it was worth the extra work and money to us to take this fixer upper on, and we planned to sign a four year lease on the place that week. At the contract signing with the landlord, our company GM and maintenance guy came along to do inspections. They found significant water damage coming from the rooftop area and showing in the apartment below. After much discussion with the landlord and among ourselves, our GM made the hard call not to rent the place if the landlord would not agree to fix the roof leak. She refused. We walked away.

I was pretty devastated. It was desperately hard for me to let go of what I had thought was such an answer to my unreasonable prayers, what I thought was purely a gift from God. I had told our kids about it as we left for the signing. They were beyond excited at this provision. So WHY, I cried out, did I have to even see this place at all, if it was not going to work out in the end? Why was that necessary?

For some reason I had been re-listening every morning to my good old friend, Elisabeth Elliot, who I have read off and on through the years but had not picked up in quite some time. She can have a hard message, or a stringent one at least to our modern ears. But I wonder if when your soul is most needy, it is only the real food, the good stuff, even if hard at first, that really nourishes and sustains you. Her message for me was, Trust. And in a thousand ways over those few days I had to work through that. I DO trust Him. He is certainly trustWORTHY. Why do I think when things go awry or look so wrong to me from this end that this means He is messing up. Of course it does not mean that. But it does mean that the trust I have to offer is that much more costly. It definitely cost me something this time to trust him. I had to offer that house, that house that wasn't even mine, right up there on the altar and watch it burn. It's just a house, I know. But the provision of it, and the house itself had meant so much to me. I let it burn, and trusted that God was making something infinitely more beautiful out of me in this process than if I had that house in hand. I felt silly comparing myself to Abraham, but at the same time I was so thankful for Abraham being there, with his Isaac on the altar story. Maybe a million times in my life or more, there will be big Isaacs and little Isaacs, and they all get given to the same God. He always provides.

A couple weeks later, I got a phone call from the GM. The landlord had called back. She said if she fixed the roof, would we still be interested in renting? There it was. The ending I thought would never happen. He gave me back my Isaac. I couldn't believe it. This house, with all it's neediness, was nothing short of a provision from the hand of God. And that is how we saw it and see it still. It's a great story for the faith of my kids. And I think better even as they had the opportunity to walk with me through the initial disappointment, the choice to trust, and the wonderful ending at last.

So it's true that this place needed and still needs a ton of work. But for now, let me tell you the things I love about it.

  • For the first time in six years I do not have a bathroom where the toilet is located in the shower. I think about this every day and am thankful for the separation of these two activities. Shower, and toilet. To each his own. 
  • I have four bedrooms. My parents did not even have a four bedroom house when they were raising their four kids, and I have seen other large families here cram into small spaces and make it work. This place with its rooms and the square footage is nothing short of a massive gift of space. I look at it every day and breathe a prayer of thanks. 
  • The light is everywhere, in every room. I don't have to leave lamps on during the day. They all stay off, and the light just blows me kisses.
  • The kitchen is huge. It has an arched window, an arched window!
  • It has a separate place for laundry. No laundry in the bathroom. No laundry in the kitchen. It's on a porch off my bedroom, tucked in its own corner. This, I love.
  • It has a rooftop. It's moldy, and the garden is in disrepair. It will need a ton of toil and labor and probably tears as it takes me longer than I want to get it together. But it's there. And I never ever thought I would have something like it.
That is all. That is my House Story. I love it and still think about it, and remind myself of it when other things about it are hard. There is so much overwhelming good to be thankful for and I truly feel like it is the most undeserved of gifts. 

And pictures, you ask? Well, I'll just have to try to pull some together here and post them next time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Jitters and Joy

{first day of school}

They left me this morning, full of jitters and excitement. I was excited too, even though there is always a part of me that nags about how I should be doing more of their education myself instead of sending them off to an institution. I can listen to the nagging and feel bad about it, but in the end I have to come back to the fact that this is where we believe we need to be right now. And here and now that means kids in school. So, that's it. It wasn't entirely my idea and it's not always entirely my agenda but there is a measure of peace that comes from knowing it's not all in my hands.

And as soon as I get over that nagging feeling, I actually rejoice. This woman, in this place and at this time needs some space to get things done and to be able to breeathe.  So thank you to each one of you wonderful teachers who has put in time and thought and precious energy into planning lessons, thinking through curriculum, putting up inviting and stimulating classroom decor, and practicing patience and dedication to the end of helping my kids to grow as learners, individuals, citizens, friends, readers, children of God, and followers of Jesus. I see you as nothing short of God's loving and gracious provision. I am also hoping for lots of college scholarships so let's get crackin'.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In the Last 6 months

For the first time in what feels like a long time, I made something with my daughter, and enjoyed every flour filled, hand licking moment from beginning to end and all the parts in between.

It has been a long six months since I last sat down to write. The days have been full, for both body and brain, and sometimes the end of one day and the start of the next seemed to lose their boundaries. I have often felt like even though I was getting food on the table, and the house was clean, and everyone had clothes in their drawers, that my ends were fraying and I had little to offer that was good and decent and nurturing.

In the last six months we moved houses again, though not cities, we wrapped up a hectic and trying school year, and then we went home to the States for a few weeks and saw family and friends not seen in 2 years.

Last week, we arrived back in China, to unpack in our new apartment that we are oh so grateful for, and to re-acquaint ourselves with a new neighborhood and all the quirks that this new place seems to be anxious to offer. The first few nights we were without power, our freezer full of meat had rotted over the summer, and the Man had to head straight back to work while I faced a mountain of unpacked boxes, unpacked luggage, and four little sweaty kids wanting food and play and (preferably) a mother who was not irritable.

The overwhelming flood of thankfulness I feel for this new, bigger, more accommodating space for our family (a true provision that came about in a very God-given way) has been tempered by a struggle to work through all the troubles that have splayed across our path since arriving. This summer a friend mentioned that sometimes it is good to know specifically what you are offering up to God as a sacrifice, rather than just thinking of life in general as sacrificial unto him. We are not martyrs. We are living sacrifices... not just to burn and char, but to become a beautiful, pleasing aroma.

The daily battle I face with attitude and understanding and strength to do the next thing is also tempered by the grace I see in so many little things. I ask for help, and he gives it: The afternoon of baking and cooking with my daughter, where I freely engaged and enjoyed her immensely and she found me teaching and guiding her and not scolding or shoving aside, the pleasure of well-behaved boys playing with a friend all day when his mother was in need of a sitter, the calm hand of a gentle and guiding husband even when we are faced together with so much that seems beyond us, the Daily Words that comfort and guide me when my heart so easily runs to other thoughts and ways that are not His.

I'm trying I tell you! I think writing about bits and pieces of it here always helps me and so I'm trying again.

Here's to hoping for another six months.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

excerpts from a chinese new year day

*Photographs in pairs
{morning walk}
{morning water}

{out with the old}
{in with the new}

{play with feet}
{play with fire}

{looking out}
{looking up}

Friday, January 25, 2013

to me

happy birthday.
to me.

i sat and looked at
a tree.

The power went out this afternoon along with the water, so I took my baby bundle out for a walk in the sort-of-sunshine and he fell asleep. I didn't want to hike back up the five flights of stairs with him sleeping so nicely, so I just parked it on a bench and thought about the scope of my entire life. Isn't that what everyone does when they sit down on a bench in the late afternoon on their 33rd birthday? The scope of their entire life?

I have now known my husband for one third of my days, he informed me over dinner. The older I get, as the ratio of years I have known him to the years I have not grows, the more a blessed woman I become.

Birthdays are of little consequence anymore to me, at least in our family. It is a moment where a few people near and dear step out of time and place to share their love and invoke a memory or two. But there are so many other days throughout the year where I am given gifts I don't deserve and that flow from my husband's heart so freely, that if this day trickles by with just a seat on a bench and a few rays of sunlight on my baby boy's cheeks, I don't mind at all. 

We did try to go out. There was babysitting lined up and I prepared milk and meals and rushed out the door forgetting to dab on the lipstick. The power was out in the neighborhood though so we didn't go far. We walked to the blind masseuse but they were backed up, so we made our small talk and then sauntered out. We settled on... chinese food and walked in and out of several restaurants and finally landed at a pathetic little place where he pulled out a card from his pocket that said the perfect thing. Because only one thing matters and when you have it, it's enough. More than enough. 

And what of anything do we have that has not been given? It was a happy birthday, to me anyways.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bits II

*My baby has been sick for several days, and it was starting to get the better of me. I don't know what to do with that boy when he doesn't give me a smile all day long, and no amount of holding him will stop the crying. This morning though, we struck gold with a nap that whiled the day away and after that he started to resemble his old self. Thank goodness for recovery; from addiction and cancer and all that kind of thing of course but mostly today just from the sick baby blues.

*If I didn't know better, I might have been living anywhere today, my interactions with the world were so limited. It would have had to be somewhere highly pollutable, so not Bora Bora or Montana or anything like that, because the heavy grey sky is a hard reality to get away from. There is this massive surge of pollution particle awareness going on in the social networks that is either incredibly helpful (for those that can either move away from their polluted situation, or take serious political action against their governments, or are do it yourself scientists that can devise their own facemasks) or just plain depressing. I don't want to bury my head in the sand (but it's being buried in particles anyway, so do I even have a choice?) but I don't fall into any of the three categories listed above so what do I do? I'm seriously asking. So if you have any suggestions for how to safely survive ridiculously out of control, hazardous levels of pollution please let me know. Also, world peace while you're at it. And how to raise perfect children.

*Before bed, Scout the Intrepid was moaning about a large bruise on her leg. A brother piped up from the top bunk that he had bruises before. Three of them. All in the same spot. His knee. Only three, I asked? Of course. Three, all on the knee. And he remembered when they happened too. One in Qingdao, one in America, and the other he forgot. How could he forget, I wondered? Clearly, bruises make their mark and any six year old worth his stuff knows when and where and how they happened. It's cake. Three bruises, all on the knee.

*I have a knitting situation. The first part is: I haven't been knitting in awhile. Somehow the past year got the better of me and I went into a knitting slump. So there is this red sweater that I started 364 days ago and it still needs sleeves. Josey keeps asking me about it. She's sort of like a Knitting Holy Spirit, just like I used to feel like a Knitting Evangelist. I'm not sure if that's bordering on sacrilege but I hope it's not because it describes the situation pretty well. Anyway, the slump happened, I want to come out of it, the Knitting Spirit is there prodding me, and so I'm trying to respond. It sort of worked this past week. I am enjoying it again and have nearly finished a sleeve.
The second part of the situation is: the 364 day sweater may end up a few inches shy on one sleeve. I'm running out of yarn. How dumb is that? There is probably a rule about this in every knitting book ever written. I don't want to think about it. I just keep knitting, hoping more yarn will materialize like the oil in that one woman's jars.

*I have decided that I'm pretty much 100 percent sure I don't deserve my husband.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


*Everyone is back at school now, except for me and the Little Guy. We only have four weeks of classes and then another 2 week break. This seems crazy and outlandish to me. 2 more weeks off!? It happens that way because of fairness, I guess. We are an international school which means many of our students and teachers travel over the Christmas Holiday. But then the other half of our staff and some of our students are Chinese, and for them Chinese New Year is the all important holiday to go home and see family. I'm not complaining because it's pretty awesome. But it also feels a little like I drank too much Mountain Dew in one sitting (I did that once, and now I don't like Mountain Dew).

*I am reading Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: a Journey Between China's Past and Present. My husband has long loved and read all his books, but for some reason I have never got around to it. Now I am hooked. He is fascinating to me: dropped into a remote village for 2 years of peace corps work teaching English, became fluent in the language, lived and wrote in China for 10+ years. I want to be him in another life. 

*I dreamed a dream... watched the previews for Les Miserables on youtube, and told my Man that they made me cry. He laughed. There was a layer of superiority and mockery there. Then he watched it. 

*I dreamed another dream... that onc day after dinner the ratio of food in our stomachs will be greater than that which is on the floor. 

*My sweet little boy is full of chagrin that his underwear has holes in it. He thinks this is unacceptable. I would buy him new ones but he is also rather attached to the Fruit of the Loom boxer brief style I have always got him from Target in the States. Oh the little things in life that will teach you flexibility.

*I've been missing old friends lately. I love the memories of our days together and the things we grew in, worked through, struggled over, laughed about, rejoiced in. It takes time to build friendships like that and I have had pockets of years in a few different places where a friendship grew. They remain and even though I miss them, I think I still find solace in the gift they were and are.

*Husbands can be friends too. Dear Husband, you are the dearest friend to me. Thanks for always saying nice things about my food and... everything else. I think pretty much every day that you got ripped off but I got a sweeeet deal. You rocked those pants in Insanity tonight.