Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

A good man is hidden away in the dark. Far away from the eyes of the public, who are a poor judge of anything beyond the fitness of his form, the cut or sloth of his clothes, the polished or crude sound of his speech.

The good man is hidden, far even from the colleague or the church member, who sit beside him in the shining goodness of daylight, where fine words, smiles and handshakes, a well timed joke or veneer of productivity sit like a thin vapor over the deep well of a soul.

A good man may well look good to most men and women-- he ought to in fact. But a good-looking man in looks or in deed, does not a good man make. A truly good man is hidden far away from seeing eyes, is made in the fiery dark places that are unseen. Because a good man will be quiet when others speak ill of him in order to put themselves ahead or cover their mistakes. He may burn with their marks against him, but he will bear the sin of others, believing that, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and Saint Peter, undeserved suffering is in fact redemptive. A good man is a quiet, sometimes silent worker of redemption. 

A good man is the strongest, the bravest, the most respectable when there is not another soul around to see, to praise, to appreciate, or to keep in check. He fights for his woman when she is nowhere around. He fights for every woman by honoring them all, even when no one applauds his fight or praises his valor. In a world that pants after recognition, "likes" and the applause of an ever present and connected public, perhaps it is no wonder that a good man is hard to find.

Flannery O'Connor wrote a deeply dark and provocative story of the same title, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." In a letter to a friend she described her theological understanding of her characters: that Grace can in fact be delivered through the vehicle of the hypocrite, the fallen, the most base of humanity among us. In that vein, it must also be said, that the means of God's work in and among us is never limited by the cracks in the vessel.

A good man, yes, full of cracks he may be.

We are a world full of masks, of facades and personas. And the good men are out there, shoulder to shoulder with these men-as-shells. A good man, hidden among the reeds, is hard to find. A good man, whose goodness is not proved by his appearance, his words, his personality or joviality, his smoothness or even vulnerability, is hard to see. A good man is made in the secret, the quiet place. It may be that few will really find him. To find these good men is no small work of Grace itself. There ought to be no applauding or back-patting for those who have found and have known the years of truth of a good man. Knowing they are hard to find we ought to fight all the harder to honor them, share them, give thanks for them, protect them, pray for them, and do what ever we can in all this waging war of a world not to pedestal or promote them, but preserve them.

And then, over and over and over, we give thanks for them.

giving thanks especially for one I share this life with~ who incidentally celebrates 37 years of a life filled with cracks and grace today.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer Adventure {Like the Mountains of God}

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.
Psalm 36:5-6

We wake early, and already the sky holds promise, bright and full like a pool of liquid sapphire. I can see the mountain, the highest in Tongren, from our window and it looks so distant, and in a way, impossible with the brood of little legs that will be making the trek today. But as with most things that are formidable in life, I try not to think about all that it will require, just take the next step. So we head out to breakfast, stopping at a little hole in the wall fanguanr on the main street for our routine breakfast of doujiang and youtiao, a simple meal of fried dough sticks and soy milk. The kids eat this up like it’s Dunkin Donuts and the hot milk takes the edge off the chill in the air.

The Tibetan village halfway into the foothills where the trail for our climb begins is surrounded by terraced fields, shining in the morning light. The layers of barley and wheat cut into and carve up the mountainsides. Here and there a swath of rapeseed yellow as the sun sits like a smile against the curve of the hills.

Once again, like all ascents here it seems, the beginning is steep, curving through pastures where Yak graze and a cow is tethered to a small boy. Ryley is struggling with a twisted ankle from a few days previous. Sadie says her stomach hurts and she is reluctant from the get go, whimpering about not going on. We say a prayer, Josh and I, for the long day ahead and the sad shape we appear to be in already. I begin a long string of stories about hiking when I was a kid, and then some, trying to get the girl’s mind off her legs and lungs. It works for awhile, especially the ones about my trips and falls, or the time I stupidly failed to rope up when crossing a short ledge with a 2,000 foot drop at my side, or the time I was practically pulled up a mountain by my rock climbing friends when my skill failed to match anywhere close to theirs.

The benefit of such a steep climb is we gain height quickly, and the view is already breathtaking within minutes. I keep saying this to the kids, who are making small goals like the large boulder ahead, or that patch of grass by the Yak, and they are beginning to come around. We stop often for water and a quick bite of jerky or almonds and sometimes a few M&M’s. It is hard going, harder than any climb I would have been dragged on as a kid and though I am already so proud of their heartiness, I worry a little that we are killing any love they might have for the hills with such a challenge so young.  

We go on like this for hours, until at noon we have reached the moraine just below the summit. It is still a good bit of steep climbing left and Ari is battling altitude symptoms—cramping stomach, headache, and fatigue. We decide that I will stay at the watering hole we have reached with Quinn and Ari so the rest can hopefully summit within the next hour or so. We watch the others fade into pin size specks on the horizon, slowly pushing for the top. Ari has a few tears, feeling disappointed and a little ashamed that he can’t go on. I tell more stories, Everest stories about the greatest climbers and the world's tallest mountain and all that they pour into it, and how sometimes their bodies or the weather just don’t allow them to succeed. He has already succeeded and he seems to see that.

Quinn throws rocks into the small, muddy pool where a small group of 3 Tibetan shepherds have brought their herd of goats to graze and drink. The two boys are easily pleased by these surroundings and I vary between helping Ari find good skipping stones and running up the hill to check on the group’s progress. An hour or so later, I can see them, the tiniest black points at the peak, and I am swelling with pride. It has been an arduous, if not beautiful climb and I can hardly believe these little ones have done it.

The way down is overcast, the clouds having moved in early in the afternoon. They grace us with their protection from the heat of the sun we had begun to suffer under. These mountains, they are rife with all the pictures of realities we know in our souls and speak with our lips but cannot see, stuck as we are with nothing other than skin and bones and rock and sky. These mountains, forcing us to respect their majesty, shining with beauty that both overwhelms and inspires us, taking us to heights that offer glimpses of glory that at once make us small and insignificant, but still transport us to the heavens on their back, these mountains are like the mountains of God. The clouds part for a moment and we all watch as the hills are transfigured.

Hours later, we reach the little village at trails end and Denise and I decide to run the paths that cut down through the the winding dirt paths of earthen homes and terrace fields to the main road leading into Tongren below. We take off, I am already weary but suddenly invigorated by this throw back to train running in the mountains during my college days. The path winds and cuts and we let our legs fly, praying no ankles twist or trip in the many cracks and divots. We make it safely to the bottom, knees a wreck and ankles sore, but with happy hearts like two young schoolgirls, laughing at our fun and the look of our flushed and sweaty faces.

The boys have all gone ahead long before, their goal to run from summit to Tongren all in one leg. I worry a little, my boys are only 8 and 9 and they are tagging after two who are 13 and 15. But these boys are kind and thoughtful, and everyone assures me this will be nothing short of epic. I try not to think about the possible twists and falls that could easily happen as I navigate the steep gravel trail myself. Boyhood badges of honor and all that.

We finally meet up with the rest of the group at the home of our friend’s former baomu, Ng’Zh Euch Mo Cu. The boys are there, all smiles and a few minor scrapes on their hands and knees. Ari’s eyes are shining. Mo Cu Jie serves us what she smiles and says apologetically, is only a simple meal of noodles, but to us it is a feast. She has made a mixture of diced lamb, carrots, mushroom, and green onion with a garlic sauce and vinegar and we pour it over the noodles in generous heaps. We eat 3 bowls apiece. It is the best meal I think I have ever had.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer Adventure {Tibetan Town}

Into Tongren

The tall pillars of gleaming towers and congested roadways quickly give way to the long stretches of highway, bordered by the red, barren hills of deserted wasteland, the grasslands anchoring the ridges with hopeful shades of green. A few hours into our bus ride from Xining to the town of Tongren, the walls close in as we enter a gorge, winding down into the valley as the sun starts its own descent. Soon it all opens up, peaks surrounding us high above the valley floor, their ridges and bellies like the wrinkled backside of an elephant, and dry with the look of cracks in a desert floor. The valley all around us is green with the river's plenty, trees clustering and showing the telltale trail of the waters path. The fields of wheat and barley make quarters and puzzle pieced sections out of all the green, and fruit trees line the road where small fruit stands are set up here and there, piled with watermelon, apricots and nectarines.

The kids are drunk with the happiness of companionship. It is always fun to travel with friends and everyone seems to have found a buddy they can pal around with. Sadie sticks her head as close to hanging out the window as possible, and she welcomes the wind as it whips through her hair, leaving knots the size of roadkill for me to comb through later.

Tongren and its wide, arched gate welcomes us with little fanfare and no roadblocks as we gratefully enter in, having heard of some possible sensitivity the day before because of the Dalai Lama's birthday.

The hills are awash again with evenings gift of golden stupor, the whole sky beckoning for notice and a hand offered in praise, a song perhaps of worship. The hills themselves are singing their own song and it is only ever left to us if we will join in, and I wish in some ways I was not so inhibited or perhaps I just would.

Up Into the Hills

First morning waking up in Tongren. We open our eyes to a view of first light coming up behind the mountains, overlooking the city.

After breakfast, we walk up through the Tibetan quarter of town, where the original village houses stand. The road dividing the Chinese quarter from the Tibetan is a narrow, tough stretch of uphill road that appears to be dug up today, a sewer line being laid. We follow the road up behind the edge of town to where the ascent starts sharply up the near side of the ridge on this end of town. A dusty, beaten path steeply rises, and we climb, little legs and big, for the good bit of an hour til we reach the crest. Following the ridge line up, we stop at a tepee-like canopy of prayer flags. The flags are gathered here as one of the many Tibetan Buddhist "hot spots," where the belief is that the prayers are especially heard. The line of flags then continues in a long, snakelike stretch up the mountain. Each wave of the flag in the wind sends up the prayers of Buddhist scriptures printed out on the flag. 

So many prayers. So much hope to be heard.

We stop for a bit of a rest and to offer our own prayers on behalf of this town and the people we know in it. The boys all continue on to the top while we clamber down, then head to the old landlord's home for lunch.

A Tibetan Home

Around earthen walls and through narrow alleyways, the path climbs up the curve of the village slope as it hugs the base of the mountain. Each doorway in the earth walls is a beautiful, wooden arch of thick columns and intricate carvings. We enter one into a courtyard where flowers bloom in a small garden and the house surrounds us in a mixture of old, dry mud walls, piles of discarded pots, stacks of firewood, and the new renovation of pale wood paneling and floors.

The father, patriarch of this family and portly with white hair, greets us. His wife, she too round and sagging with age, opens wide her arms to us, welcoming us with hurried gestures to come sit down, rest, eat. The house is built to surround the courtyard and the rooms are spacious, some filled with the large kang heated bed and some dedicated to the the Buddha with an altar, burning incense, and rows of golden bowls for offering food. 

We enter one room lined with couches and low tables where we find large platters of dry, crumbly bread and bowls of sugar. Wan Ma Duo Jie, the Patriarch, has six grown sons. It is the wife of his youngest son who helps serve us today. She begins by filling small bowls with milk tea, which we gulp down gratefully. The feast consists of a rice dish mixed with a roasted root, nutty in flavor, and topped with Yak butter and more sugar. Ryley mutters that the roasted root reminds him too much of tarantula legs and he tries to focus on the bread and tea. Most of the children are hard put to eat much of the rice and pasty cookie dough like specialty called sampa, made by adding a powder to your milk tea, along with butter, and kneading it against the side of the cup, but they give it a valiant effort. Finally, great tubs of rich, creamy yogurt are served, alongside blows of sugar and great plates of sliced melong. the yogurt rivals any Greek brand sold in high end supermarkets in the West and we scoop it up gratefully.

Song Jie Cai Rang's wife, who has prepared this food, has a young son clinging to her legs, now and then teetering off bravely on his own to peer over the edge of the table or find a small object on the floor to play with. We talk a little, she speaks mostly Tibetan but seems to understand a little of my Chinese.

Zhou Ma, the old man's wife, sits down by my side as I try to keep an eye on the kids who are running wild in the courtyard, finding spiders with bodies the size of my knuckles and climbing the ladder to the roof. We smile and compare her long, thigh skimming black braids tied together at the ends in traditional Tibetan style, to Sadie's twin french braids. She takes my thin, long white hands into her thick, brown ones, looking them over, then searching my palms for some sort of telling sign.

As we ready to leave, Zhou Ma brings out two round, crusty loaves of bread the size of a tractor steering wheel. We laugh in delight and astonishment at such a gift. The late afternoon light is just hitting the edge of the mountain ridge high above the courtyard roof rim as we say our goodbyes. White smoke rises from the cypress leaves burning as incense in a small metal stand, and we whisper prayers in our hearts for these precious people as we walk away.

Summer Adventure {Getting There}

Our family needed to get out of the city this summer. Throughout the spring months, I prayed for some kind of trip that would be refreshing to our minds, our bodies, our souls, and would be within China, within our budget, and within the realm of something our whole family could take part in and enjoy. We pursued a couple ideas, and then this opportunity to go to Qinghai province with another family who had lived there years ago began to take shape. In the end, it was beyond what we had expected and was an answer to all that we had asked for. I wrote a little each day during our travels, but without internet could not share any of our pictures or words. The next few posts are a compilation of our time and what we experienced along the way.

The Station

We gather together, our two families with 8 children between us, at the North Train Station, like chickens lining up outside the main gate, herding and clucking in groups under the few shade awnings, pecking away at the bits of food we have brought. Tibetan ladies, their skin tanned and leathered, stroll through the crowds, hawking beaded jewelry and silver bracelets. A woman next to us helps her aging father scoop watermelon from hand to mouth, then changes his shirt as he squats on the dirty pavement, pulling a spare from her worn rice bag that doubles as luggage. As the jewelry merchants pass by, she shoos them quietly away, pointing to her baba and then to her head in a twirling motion, he's crazy.

The man to our left discusses minority dialects with his neighbor. Some he finds more difficult to understand, some he can get by with in a conversation. The Chengdu Railway Station is a rainbow of minority groups, the dress alone as colorful as a spice market. This "gateway to the west" does not disappoint with the melting pot of people it brings together. In a country where what most outsiders see is a vast sea of homogeny, we are swimming in rich pool of uniqueness, a reminder that this land teems with a billion individual souls bearing a mark known only by their Creator. Do we see them that way?

The children are a natural magnet for conversation. The woman with her father hurries to give up her small section of the shaded bench so our two littlest ones can sit down. They sit for a moment, but prefer to join their brothers in racing back and forth across the vast lot where travelers going every direction are often tripped up by these little legs, mindless of everyone and everything but reaching the finish line first.

Boarding time. We wrestle our backpacks and food bags, filled with enough to hopefully get us through the 24 hour journey ahead, through lines and more lines, finally landing in our small cabin of 6 beds, stacked three high on each side, open to the narrow hall lined with ten more identical cabins holding 6 more people each. Like chickens packed in a crate, headed to who knows where and hoping we don't lose our heads on the way.

Through the Night

Children on the train are like the Eighth Wonder of the World. They scramble from bed to bed, swinging across the rails like monkeys making a playground of the iron trunks. Quinn is a foghorn, his lungs at full tilt as he bellows about passing trains, rivers and wooded mountains to any who will listen and more often those who will not. 

The evening light is glorious, spilling over the mountain ridges with blankets of golden twilight. My favorite time of day. I am certain, as I always am that we were made to drink and be restored by scenes like these. How can the way the light falls be such a means of love? A gift of grace? It seems almost silly, the amount of power packed into the way the evening falls, but it is there and I am full willing to accept it.

Faint smells of smoke waft down the corridor, a trail of tobacco and burnt embers from the restless men standing in the passageway at the tail end of our car. Even with the smoke and the narrow, hard beds, I am happy. We all are. This means of travel is full of its own challenges... and blessings. There is no roar of jet engines that leave my head and neck throbbing, no weary ache behind the eyes. Instead, we rock with the sway of the rolling cars beneath us and watch as the scenes slowly change from concrete to countryside, to green hills, to wooded mountains, and now the barren red mounds of earth and terraced grasslands.

I sleep fitfully, watching to keep the two next to me from rolling off the bed. The wheels screech too loud and a man trolls on his phone in the midnight hours, crinkling small wrappers as he crunches away on a snack, the sound in my ears like a megaphone and frustrating my efforts to think kindly on my fellow travelers.

The morning comes, a wonder again all on it's own, bathing the window and hall in a fresh wave of glory, and I relent of my hateful thoughts and sip nice and slow and grateful on a thermos of hot coffee, ready to start again.

On the Way Through Xining

Xining is full, as all large cities in China, with the mix of ever modernizing new means of consumerism, the construction everywhere, streets heavy with traffic, the buildings rising daily to sky heights and expanding further into the horizon. Our train stops here, dropping us off in this still somewhat of a throwback, "backwater" city clearly on the edge of what was previously known as China's Siberia, the place of exile-- Qinghai Province. Previous generations have no fond memory of this mountainous, barren earthed landscape on the outer edges of this great country, and we have only dipped our toes into it's easternmost border. There are still thousands upon thousands of miles stretching far into the west.

Our traveling companions (a family of 6 who lived in this region for about 7 years until the visas of all foreigners in that area were revoked in 2008) met confused responses from many older Chinese on their announcement of plans to move to the province from their home in England. "They have no meat there," some would say, it being what they remembered from the days when political offenders had been sent to the region for re-education.

Our ultimate destination is Tongren, a Tibetan town about 3 hours drive from Xining, but first we stop in the city to see a few old friends who previously lived in Tongren. They had been a small team of foreigners doing medical and language work. Some of these friends have since moved on, returning to their home countries after the visas were revoked 5 years ago, but a few have relocated to the larger city of Xining and continue to carry out their work there.

One family has opened a successful coffee roasting and cafe business, which began with the purchase of a small chestnut roaster while they lived in a Tibetan home in Tongren. Now it boasts several locations in Xining and Lhasa and is supplying beans to cafes all over China. We stop for a tour of their quaint factory and eat in their home, where their 5 children romp with ours, playing soccer in the street and eating plates of fresh melon and homemade cookies. They are clearly made for this work, speaking fluent Chinese, Tibetan, and Spanish, and making friendships and a home dripping with hospitality with an ease I can't comprehend.

The next day we lunch with a couple who work as doctors in the local Red Cross Hospital. They are Swiss, speaking German as their native language, conversing with us in English, but carry out their work in Chinese, so they often stop to ask one another terms, and the whole triangle of a brilliant mess in their brains is not only impressive, but absolutely entertaining to watch. The wife is an obstetrician who comes to lunch straight from a string of deliveries. Her face looks tense and drawn when she arrives and though she slips easily into conversation about family and recent events, I can tell she is troubled. When we ask, she tells us her last appointment was with a woman 36 weeks pregnant, who in recent weeks just learned that her baby has Spina Bifida. At the appointment today, the woman has made it clear her decision is to end the pregnancy. Our friend and her husband will talk with the mother again later in the afternoon, and it weighs on all our minds.

We sleep in a simple room at the Lete Hostel, where too many travelers hog the bathroom and we are serenaded to sleep by a man down the hall singing along with his headphones at the top of his lungs. But we all have our own bed and for tonight it is enough. Tomorrow, we head to Tongren.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A {Perfectly Difficult} Day in the Mountains

{the start}

The morning sky was just beginning to show itself when we headed out yesterday. We were up at five-o'clock, filling a daypack full of food meant to feed six people for the day, hauling the children out of bed, and heading out with the hope of a day in the mountains; a day breathing air that was fresh and clean from the pollution of the city, a day with a dirt path under our feet and the smell of pine and thick underbrush in the air.

If there is one small thing I have learned living in a country that is not your own, it is that things often don't go according to plan. Here is a good rule: The plan will be different than you anticipated, and who knows what may happen. Inevitably, I have found that heading out to do anything, anything at all (with or without my family trailing along) is usually a harder, longer task than I expected. This may sound frustrating, and it can be. But this simple reality has taught me quite a lot and it has changed me. It has shown me that I am not naturally the flexible, easy-going girl I imagine myself to be in my head. And it has taught me that if I knew all the facts ahead of time, I would likely choose to opt out of most experiences that have actually ended up being far more rewarding and important than the "difficulties" they were made up of.


Yesterday was no exception.
Our plan on paper was to head out with a group of local friends to an undeveloped area in the mountains outside the city. To get there was an hour ride on the subway, then a two hour bus ride. We were expecting to hike on a moderate trail with no stone steps, no crowds, and no trailside vendors selling trinkets and food along the way. We were expecting to stop for lunch somewhere on this moderate path, and then hike down in the afternoon, boarding the bus around three-o'clock and being home somewhere around time for dinner.

Instead, we found ourselves tagging along on an ambitious effort to ascend a steep, slick, endlessly upward trail with the goal of reaching the summit in four hours (or however long it took) and then heading back down to "hopefully" board the buses by seven or eight-o'clock. Maybe we would get home by ten.

As our team leader shared this plan ten minutes into our hike, I looked around at the two-year old strapped to my Man's back, the boys plunging ambitiously ahead of the pack, and my five-year old bringing up the rear of the group and wondered if we were going to fit into the day's agenda very well.

It's true, on paper I would not be up for this. A mountain outing all day with a two-year old who can't keep from hurling himself over the rock ledge and into the creek? No thank you. An all day mountain outing with a five year old dragging herself up miles of steep, slippery rock trails, falling and scraping her leg with no choice but to keep going? No thank you. An all day mountain outing where five unexpected hours are spent at a little bee infested creekside clearing, waiting on the rest of the group to summit and return? No thank you. An all day mountain outing where it takes four different legs of travel by taxi, subway, bus and walking just to reach the trailhead? No thank you. An all day mountain outing where I have four little people to keep watered, fed, safe from falls and scrapes and pricks, not to mention psychologically strong enough to keep going and not give up? No thank you. Yes, on paper it sounds like a nightmare and everything opposite of refreshing.

{rock lover}

But this is where so many of these circumstances happening over and over again in these recent years have taught me a most valuable lesson. It is valuable to me at least, because I can see that without it, I would continue to see myself as "flexible and easygoing," all the while being unwilling and unable to push through hard circumstances to experience the reward that comes with them.

Sometimes these rewards seem small on paper too. But they are not small, and I find time and time again that they are far more than enough. This is something that keeps pounding itself into my head as I learn this lesson over and over again: even after a trying day, there are intangible pieces of goodness that come in greater measure than the long list of difficulties. Yesterday for instance was filled with not a little discomfort, but in equal measure there was joy in watching my children romp through the outdoors, and find real happiness in it. Not a trumped up, I'm-making-this-sound-better-than-it-was for the sake of my story kind of happiness. Just the kind that comes from humans being in the beauty of God's natural world and finding it fun. And they didn't seem to know they should be tired and whiney and complaining this was far too much for them too handle. They pushed through and worked hard and kept going. I was so proud of their strength and tenacity and so thankful for the fun and freshness of the day in spite of it all.

It's going to seem small as I list them, the snapshots of goodness that were were given, but they were reward enough for me.

There was silliness on the bus as we shared embarrassed introductions in broken English and halting Chinese. There was my my girl catching butterflies and my boys building dams in the creek. There was the rushing of water over rocks and wild ferns at my feet. There was the vista and the view and the sky wide and blue overhead. There was the evening light stealing over the mountainside and the smell of twilight in the air, something that always does my camp-loving heart a great deal of good. There were our friends, hearty and generous and ambitious, and if for a moment I felt that at times they were not thinking of our predicament, they also taught me that at times I am too uptight and there is real truth in their little phrase meiwenti, it's not a problem.

There was more and it is all wrapped up in my memory of the day, and in the memory each of us will have of it. I am reminded that it is God's mercy that I don't know everything ahead of time and that I am not given the facts of the day before it is played out. I wouldn't choose it, but having gone through it, I know that I would not choose otherwise. Isn't this the way of our lives, the days that make up the years that make up the whole of what we will one day look back on? I'm certain that what I am learning is nothing less than faith and trust, played out in tales of days in the mountains which impress upon me like parables, and in the day to day life I am called to that often feels nothing like an adventure, but will one day be see in all it's wildness and wonder.


{boulder climbing is the best}

{ferns are my favorite}

{riverside painting}

{lovely path}

{hold him or he swims}

{who needs boyscouts}


{inevitable end}

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sowing and Reaping and all that Rubbish

I have been pulling lettuce from the garden almost daily for our salads this week. Big, beautiful mounds of crunchy Red Romaine and Mantila Butter Leaf. It's hard to believe they were seeds just a few weeks ago. The same goes for the tomato plants, which are climbing out of control and the basil that must think it's in some sort of Plant of the Year competition. Watching the process of growth from preparing the soil, to planting the seed, to waiting patiently, and then seeing this precarious seedling grow into something bountiful and edible and beautiful to behold, is astounding in a way. And yet, it's pretty scientific, pretty down to earth when you follow the "rules." The right conditions, the right procedure, and you are guaranteed a pretty sure outcome. Soil. Water. Sunlight. Temperate Climate. Oila-- harvest.

The boys traipsed off to their piano lesson this morning. It can feel a bit like the seed planting, this piano thing. Put in the hard work now and one day you'll sow a prodigy. That's not really it of course. I want them to enjoy and appreciate music, to give develop and flight to that possibility in them that may have an affinity for it, and to be able to give of that pleasure to others too. But these "building years" can play with your mind too. You can begin to believe that put in, put out... if you do it right and have all your worthwhile ducks in a row, you will grow a nice human. Lessons. Practice. Committment. Don't give up. And oila-- well rounded little musicians.

I picked up a book a few days ago that is fast turning into my obsessive summer-read. Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of New China by John Pomfret. I am a sucker for these memoirs and biographies about life in China. I especially love when the stories run deep, revealing the complex frailty and abiding strength of our humanness, both at once hard to understand in the worst moments of any nations history. How can we do these things to one another? How can we believe and live in these circumstances? How can we survive? How can there be any hope... for change? For recovery? One of the men in the book, Zhou, after recounting his horrific experiences which included maligning and renouncing his own father, asks the question: "How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?" The seeds were planted, the harm done. Can there be any stopping the harvest it brings?

One of our memory pieces for the summer is Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream." Dwelling on his beautiful, poetic lines day after day don't take away the stringent truth that is starkly evident with each sentence. A nation reaping the woes of sorrow and atrocity they had been sowing for far too many years.

And then there is me. Being a parent. Who can be a parent and not either feel the burden of all their mistakes and failures on a regular basis, or else a false sense of pride that having done much of the sowing as per the manual, they are sure to reap the child that turns out Just Right. This is me, worrying that as the Sowing and Reaping principle goes with children, I am surely failing in creating the right conditions.

And China, oh China. My life is lived in you, given over to you. And what do you do when you sow and sow and wonder when the reaping happens? The principle of it starts to play on my heart strings, to play with my mind. Perhaps you sowed all wrong. In vain. Something is wrong with your sowing. It's all sticks and stones. It's all for the burning. Maybe there won't ever be any good fruit to show for it all.

Sowing and Reaping is scientific. It's matter of fact. It's get what you deserve. And this for much of life, is the way it works. Jesus himself preaches that.

But there are miracles. Jesus, the miracle worker showed us that. And in this world of Sowing and Reaping there is the wonder and unexpected gift of something we don't deserve. Time and time again we get it. We get the kindness of God. We get his smile on us. We get his patience toward us. We get his work on our behalf when we have stopped working, or when we do it all wrong.

The lettuce bounty is evidence that you do reap what you sow. But people are evidence of the fact that God is at work in souls in ways that go beyond the fixed laws of nature... just as he bent those laws in his miracle working ways so many years ago, to still raging seas, to change water to wine, to heal blind and lame men, to bring a girl back to life and a man out of the tomb.

I cling to the fact that there is more to my tasks of sowing than getting the conditions right. God is there, with his miracle of daily, amazing, not-according-to-my-rules, grace.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Summer in China

It's Summer.

The students have gone away, the staff have mostly left for various home countries, the neighborhood is even a little quieter with families away on summer leave or furlough. It is quiet and peaceful and there is nothing more I want in the world than this right now.

It has been another long year and even though the sky is grey outside with a soft blanket of mist falling from it, I am not disappointed by the rain. I think we are all in need of the comfort that it brings. We need rest. We need to be together. We need to soak up the goodness and provision of Heaven.

For us, Summer in America means reuniting with family, traveling, blue skies, camping, eating our favorite foods and seeing old friends, shopping and stocking up for the coming term. Summer in America means go and revel and spend.

Summer in China means rest, routine, memorizing and reading, family time and few friends, rainy days and baffling heat. Summer in China means rest and reflect and restore.

So we are here in rainy China land with our Summer Schedule up on the fridge and I am thankful.

Everybody got a Super Summer Bucket with reading plans and journals, books and games, soccer jerseys (because it's a World Cup Craze going on in this house right now) and swimming gear in the hope that the rain won't be here forever.

I am also happily and gratefully heading out each morning for a couple hours of Chinese class, another of my top reasons for enjoying our summers in China... intense and profitable Chinese lessons. Though I did get a little teary eyed this morning at one point when I felt so overwhelmed at the vast amount of this language I still don't understand. Still, I love my morning walk by myself and the way it  reminds me of those quiet, simple mornings when I took summer courses in college. The routine that develops with grabbing a coffee and your breakfast on the way to class, the focus you can give to a single subject. My life is so far from the freedom and study of those university days, but this little morning bit with my walk and my language lesson brings me back and makes me smile inside.

So does getting kids excited over new books and watching them chip away at memory work, like Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. I am not sure who gets the greater benefit-- the ones memorizing, or the one helping them. I know all the words I have floating around in my head and on the tip of my tongue from Romans and Proverbs and Martin Luther King are a little like those rain drops outside, sent from above, settling into places in me that need a drink of something higher and better and wiser than myself. 

Who would have thought, a summer in China, a little piece of heaven.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chinese New Year :: This Is the Way

We just finished two weeks of rest together at home with no work, and no school, thanks to the Chinese New Year holiday that takes over the land. For many foreigners living in China, this holiday means jetting somewhere warm and far away from the cold, the billions-of-people-trying-to-get-back-to their families-migration, and the shut down of stores and conveniences all over the country. We dream of maybe doing something warm and wonderful someday too... but for the last 7 years, we have stayed put, and it has been one of the best building blocks of a life loved here in China. Here's why:

1. We have built traditions, built because they are not natural to us or our heritage, but over time spent in country and with our Chinese friends, they have become a special time of the year for us. Making jiaozi is a Chinese New Year family tradition and we love to get together with friends to master the art of securing little meat filled dumplings and then cooking them together for a grand feast. Our entire family adores this meal and we like to keep track of who has the best jiaozi making skills.

2. It's a unique time to spend with our local friends, meeting their families and being invited into their lives. We get to see them in their element, learn about their family dynamics- the good and the bad, the unique strengths and burdensome pressures.

This is my friend and her grandma. She loves to tell stories about the old days. Her life spans 7 children, and a history in China unlike any other generation. 

3. Our children get to see and practice the art of seeing a whole different way of living. 

We were brought with our friend's family to visit a local Buddhist temple. For our hosts it was more about social prestige (in knowing the head monk) and cultural affiliation. For us, it was deeply spiritual as we felt the weight of the beliefs so sunk in the hearts and minds of the place and people who were there. I prayed much of the time I was there. I grieved for anyone bound to a life where hope is tied to a god that is approached through karma and spells, through incense and offerings, none of which you can be sure are heard, or that even if they are heard are not offset by something done in your past life. I sat with the monk, and asked about his life, and the meaning of the bracelet he gave me. He does not like his life. I told him who I know, and that with Him there is a relationship that is real. I left feeling heavy with all those unheard prayers, and the man's life who for all its sacrifice can earn him nothing. I know a Man who lived the sacrifice for you! I still think of that monk.

4. We get to travel in the People's Way. At least I like to call it that. We love to take trains in China. It's an experience, and a good one. It's slow, and crowded, and full of interesting, regular old people of every shape and color of life. Our girl always, always finds some kind of friend she can talk to. And for a few dollars we get to experience the "thrill" of going somewhere, of window gazing, and of building our own store of family memories made of moments that can only happen on a slow train in China.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Bullet Point Thoughts :: Rats and Breakfast, Facebook and Puritans.

  • There has been a rat in our house. He is pretty brazen; thinks he owns the place. One morning when my eyes were still a little blurry before the coffee had done its magic, it skittered across the counter top and jumped off, then ran right under my feet and into the living room. Needless to say, we are all pretty much skeeved out and determined for this rat to never ever EVER AGAIN set foot in this house. 
  • My children have been making breakfast in the mornings. It is Chinese New Year break so we have not been getting up for school, and they are surprising me with the kind of meals they can pull off. I was encouraged to realize that even if I don't spend a ton of time walking them through step by step tutorials on how to bake, cook, etc., just by proximity and the amount of time they spend watching me do it all, they are picking things up. So in the past week we have had pancakes, ham and cheese egg sandwiches, french toast, and one muffin attempt. The fractions were going well until 3/4 cup milk became 3 cups of milk out of 4. And the oven does not work just by matter of placing something inside it, you must turn it on. Still, I think it's clear that lessons are being learned. And they are having a ton of fun...and their chests stick out a little further each morning as they roll their creation out of the kitchen.
  • Social media is driving me crazy. It's just driving me crazy. I have pulled out before, "fasted" from it. But right now I just feel resigned and lethargic about it. The complaining. The negativity. The insensitivity. The look-at-me-ness of it. The sheer amount of thought that should be kept private or between two people that gets exposed to the world. It's all part of the price we pay to "keep in touch" I suppose. 
  • I think the Puritan writers make great virtual pastors. Since moving to China, and throughout much of my life really, I have not had a pastor who shepherded me in the way all believers need to help them grow into maturity. It is one of the things that can feel lonely or even a little helpless while living here. But every time I pick up a book written by a Puritan, I immediately feel "pastored" as though I were one of their little flock, and they were looking into my heart, determining my soul sickness and needs, and administering just the right tonic through the Word and teachings of either conviction or explanation or encouragement or instruction. If I remember correctly, the Puritans were even called something along those lines... Soul Physicians. I recently picked up Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Buroughs and I am finding the same old thing is happening again. If you can't have the warm body of a real pastor, these guys are the most relevant dead men your soul may ever need.
  • We are getting on a train tomorrow. To go visit one of our local friends in a smaller city a short distance from here. She invited us to come spend some time with her family and celebrate her grandma's birthday together with them. I love doing things like this. It will be a day full of some discomfort for sure... lots of travel with little kids, meeting new people and struggling to speak their language or understand them, feeling awkward and unsure of how to act appropriately, wanting to say so much more than you can express, and watching my friend struggle with the dynamics of her family. But it is the kind of thing we live for. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I Love Living In China :: A Book. A New Year

I just finished reading The City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. It’s a novel about an American couple serving as missionaries in inland China during the early 20th century. It’s a somewhat prosaic story about their love, longevity, loss, and the lessons they learned as well as the difficult things that still remained a mystery for them at the end of their lives. In many ways the story is far removed from the China of today and the way we experience life here. But there was a spirit about it that was compelling, or at least had hints of a camaraderie in it to me… like that red silk thread that adoption families talk about, an invisible connection that ties them to their son or daughter in an inexplicable but very real way.

It made me think about the powerful influence of Time in our lives. How it can bind you in a slow, rhythmic way over days and months and years to a place, or a people. To many people, there may be very little on the face of living in China that is attractive. To the naked eye, comparing it to other places in the world, this city is dirty, polluted, frustrating and difficult. In many ways the stories and lives around us are maddening, sometimes horrifying, or just plain depressing. For all appearances, it's not a great place to raise kids. And I read all of this in The City of Tranquil Light too, though to a much greater degree. Life was so different back then, far harder, far more isolating and much more physically demanding. The sacrifices were incredible and seemed never to let up.  Yet in time, as the years swept over them like the dust storms that covered the land, this ordinary couple was molded by those long stretches of time, and the shape of those years gave form to love. The hardships and people, the relationships and experiences shaped their growing love like a baby that forms slowly in the womb and one day you look upon it’s face, seeing with your eyes what has all these months been blossoming by it’s taking from your own flesh and blood.

Time gives birth to love it seems. As does hardship. And weaving in and out of these two is every relationship, great and small that you make along the way. Relationships on every level are the ribbon of light that brings a wonder of luminescence to the fabric of time and hardship. It’s the part of life that keeps you keeping on, and that sometimes makes you feel as though all the world is breaking apart. In the book, it’s the relationships that make it hardest to leave China in the end. And though my family is not leaving, as I read it I felt the pull that is always there for us, the tension that rides under the surface of emotions almost all the time: the people we love and “lose” every day in a sense because we are not a part of their lives anymore, living way over on the other side of the world, but at the same time growing ever more grateful and attached to the people we have the gift of knowing here.

Sometimes I wonder if it makes any sense that we give up knowing cousins and aunties and uncles and grandparents, so that we can instead share life with the young woman, the student, the couple. These are things I can’t weigh in the balance. I can’t see what the worth of anything really is. And I have to put it all in the hands of my Lord who feels the weight of things correctly, and simply asks me to keep seeing with eyes of faith.

It is the start of another Lunar New Year today, chu yi the first day of the first month, and the most important holiday of the year. Everywhere are fireworks and families gathering. Red chinese lanterns are strung along the streets and in windows. The doors are covered with traditional banners declaring good fortune and well wishes over the household for the coming year. It is another mysterious sort of gift to me, this sharing in a tradition that is not ours by birth or rite. We are foreign to it and at most take part in a surface sort of way. But this too was something that struck me as I read, how joining in these festivities ties you to a place as well.  And without making too much of it, I think in some small but perhaps important ways, our family has been graced with good things that we otherwise may have missed were we not able to every year celebrate the Chinese New Year.

As is the tradition, on the Eve of the New Year, we made jiaozi, meat filled dumplings representing abundance and good fortune. As I sat with all four of my children and husband at our table, the plate heaped full with steaming, crunchy jiaozi that we all love with an almost improper ferocity, I did indeed feel fortunate. I knew and know that we are blessed.

It is perhaps easiest to look around and see the physical blessings, but as I have been pondering lately from the words of Jesus, as we work not for food that spoils but for food that endures to eternal life, our eyes are ever opened more and more to the unseen realities that our ours in Christ. He who gives the food and the rain and the house and the clothes also gives the joy and faith and love. You can have joy and faith and love without house or clothes. But to have house or clothes without joy and faith and love is no life at all. This is the life that is worth living… and it is a life that is learned over time, through hardship, in the midst of relationship. This is the essence of the good life that the couple in The City of Tranquil Light knew. And in this, and their love for China,  and the slow years that grew them, I feel I too one day may, in some distant way know a part of their story.