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.