Monthly Archives: April 2011

Responsible Tourism

My husband and a friend bargaining for a cut of pork outside Langfang, China.

Just having returned from an impromptu trip across Guangxi (Nanning–>Yulin–>Guilin and back), and planning a jaunt to Yangshuo for our anniversary in late May has me pondering responsible tourism. A couple months ago, I read an article in the Travel section of the New York Times that wondered about the same topic. Kevin Salwen, contemplating the responsible response to peddlers on the street, writes, “The expanded power of a dollar, combined with what seems like infinite need, creates so many situations in which no answer seems appropriate. I find myself feeling like either a deep-pocketed patsy or a skinflint.”

I tend to loathe bargaining myself, because it seems arbitrary and nearly impossible to find an equilibrium and inevitably orchestrates injustice: either you get cheated, or someone else can’t earn a living. When shopping with Chinese friends, however, they insist you shouldn’t buy unless you can bargain down to the meager price their local sense tells them is appropriate (this has often amounted to either Evan or I running what I call “interference:” one of us distracts our Chinese friend in the other direction while the other buys whatever item we want at whatever price we want, however inflated!). In the end, Evan and I, like the Salwen, have settled on a resolution to buy the item for what we want to pay, regardless of whether we’re overpaying by local standards. As the article says, consider “stop[ing] bargaining before you are the only winner,” and let someone earn a decent wage. The final thought I have on this topic would be that we keep our privileges and blessings, as travelers in perspective. The ability to travel and enjoy other places is not a right but a blessing, and we’re visitors in someone else’s home country, and need to reflect on the way we represent our country as well.

What thoughts do you have on responsible tourism? How do you shop when you’re on the road?

Preconceptions and Possibility

Wa Christians listen to a sermon at a local training center.

“We’ll never conquer evil if we launch a frontal assault. If we do that we may incorporate ourselves into the energy and the weapons of evil. We end up turning into what we hate. That’s why Jesus told us to love our enemies; otherwise we become just like them. Hitler is thought to have said that the wonderful thing about Nazism was that all those who directly attacked it became fascists themselves in the process. The U.S.A. has a lofty self-image and thinks it conquered fascism. Nevertheless America has supported extreme right-wing regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, and South Africa. You hardly ever see your own sin; you tend to rationalize your sin away as virtue. For this reason we need help recognizing that we ourselves are a mixture of good and evil.” –Richard Rohr, Simplicity

Last night while scrolling through photos of our recent journey to Yunnan and telling some friends about what God is doing in the minority churches and through local leaders, both government and church, these words from Richard Rohr came to mind. The fact is, many of we foreigners come to China with a host of preconceptions about the Chinese Church and its relationship to the government, and unfortunately these preconceptions are rarely productive in that they blind us from our own sin, as Rohr talks about above, and they lead us to believe we know the best way to confront the complicated relationship between the church and the government in China.

As we visited with churches in the countryside of Yunnan these past few weeks, many of these Christians boldly proclaimed their resolution to wait on the Lord, to work alongside the government for change, and to in effect, as Rohr says, love all those, even enemies, in order to rise above the mistakes of the past and avoid these same mistakes in the future. We also met government leaders who support the church and believe in many ways that the church serves as a light to the local community. But two things were for certain: these relationships were never simple, never without tension, and Evan and I have a long way to go in understanding and fathoming them.

Rohr goes onto to acknowledge that Mother Teresa found Americans, so bent on freedom, the most unfree people she had ever met, because they were paralyzed by possibility. Similarly, Rohr himself says we try to buy into political systems that “promise us quick and easy security, instead of living in this essential insecurity, in this deep inner poverty, where we really grow in wisdom. It’s in the school of victims that we learn something, not the school of the winners, not the school of security.” If you read my blog regularly, you’ll recall that I struggle with this insecurity myself, and yet I know my insecurity is nothing when compared with my brothers and sisters living a life of subsistence, cash poor, without access to education and healthcare, and traversing not only rocky mountains, but these tricky relationships between church and governance in Yunnan.

But Jesus says such is theirs the kingdom of heaven, not the bed of security, but the heart of wisdom.   I was humbled to experience such spiritual wisdom this past week. Those who cry out for training, Biblical and education, and knowledge, at the same time exhibit the movement of the Holy Spirit, freedom, and goodness, practically beyond recognition. God does God’s work in spite of our privileged plans, our secure systems, our progressive dreams, and I pray that I can release all these preconceptions that trap me, that prevent me from being an instrument of the Holy Spirit, a faithful follower of God’s vision and not my own.

Lincang Prefecture, Yunnan, April 8-17

Rice Terraces in Lincang Prefecture, Yunnan, China

There will be much more to say about our trip to Yunnan this past week and a half with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, but for now, I am left reflecting on these idyllic scenes that we captured with our camera, and realizing the harsh lives that belie their beauty and placid exterior. We were given the opportunity these past few weeks to fellowship with Dai, Wa, Lahu, Jinpo, and Lisu minority Christians in Lincang prefecture, to see the humble churches that these people have constructed with their own hands, to hear their stories of their faith, and their dreams for the future.

May God sustain them in the midst of struggles I can hardly imagine. May God hear their prayers for not only buildings and financial needs, but for encouragement, training, and stamina to carry the light to others. And may they hear our words of thanksgiving, Samo (Lisu language for thank you ), Bu e (Lahu), Ding ba so (Wa), and Jing Ju ge ba (Jingpo), for the way they have shared the light of Christ with us, echoing for a long time to come.


“let us confess our sins to one another and before God…” –Presbyterian Call to Confession

认罪: This is just one of many characters sticky-noted to our bedroom wall, all Christian phrases and words, in preparation for our trip to Yunnan with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, which begins this Friday. And this character in particular (or ren[4]zui[4]), means to confess one’s sins. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about confession lately, perhaps because it has fallen so out of fashion in our modern spiritual lives. But in Lent part of our task is to focus on our sin, as we journey uneasily with Jesus, to the cross, the place where our sin meant his death, and through amazing grace, in spite of ourselves, new life.

The other day a foreign friend of mine asked me if Christians still confess our sins to a priest behind a wall as in the movies, and while I explained that even for the Catholics that tradition is a bit outdated, I expressed that we do still today, confess before God and to one another. Just last week, I felt compelled to write a long newsy letter to my best friend, mostly filled with failures I can hardly admit to another human being, but also dreams of wholeness, and it’s only now in pondering her encouraging, loving reply, that I recognize this discipline as modern confession.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has for decades insisted on making the Call to Confession and the Prayer of Confession (and the Assurance of Pardon) a central part of the worship liturgy. For it’s only through confession of our sins that we can ready our hearts to receive the good news. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to own up to our shortcomings, perhaps especially to those whom we do not want to disappoint. But it’s essential. It’s what brings healing. It is right, and it is good. Who do you confess to? Who accompanies you on your journey to wholeness? I thank God for those who accept me in spite of who I am. And I thank God for sending Jesus to teach us how. Amen.

Awkward pose and other wisdom

About a week ago now, a fellow yoga-lover and spiritual friend and I began touting the wisdom of awkward pose.  I’m not sure our partners were convinced that true wisdom or enlightenment might rest in holding such an excruciating, intentionally uncomfortable position, but I felt as if we had spiraled onto some sort of epiphany.

It’s not that yoga’s benefits extend far beyond the physical realm and into that of the spiritual, because that’s long been common wisdom, but the spiritual discipline of resting in the middle of uncertainty and abiding in God and relinquishing control, well that’s both easier said than done, and visually and viscerally summed up in awkward pose.

Awkward pose’s benefits are numerous, ranging from aligning the skeletal system to alleviating cramps during menstruation (yes, women, you heard that correctly!), but the how-to list is also numerous: takes nine whole steps to teach our bodies how to bend this way!

Awkward pose doesn’t come easily or naturally, but that’s actually part of its wisdom: it’s not easy to abide or wait during the hard times, and yet spiritual growth is possible because of such discipline. This wisdom has been so profound to me lately, because I’m in one of those perpetual awkward poses, trying to trust God’s leadership for my life, trying to rest in the now despite an uncertain future, and trying to ease my worrying by living into God’s constant presence and faithfulness.

What metaphors teach you about spiritual discipline? How have you learned to cope during the “awkward, uncertain times?”