About a year ago if I’d been letting my body sleep in like this, I’d have probably launched into a stream of self-criticism and guilt and then willed myself to get about life and the business of working on my dissertation research here in China and all that entails.
But with just a few short months left, my perspective has changed.
It’s not only that I’ve learned to adjust to the rhythm of life here in China, allowing the week to take shape by way of others’ last minute phone calls rather than relying on my best laid plans. I’ve learned to sleep when I find the time, work when the time is nigh, and throw all that American work-balance stuff out the window! But I’ve also submitted to a certain desire, a need even, to sink into life here and relish these moments with foster mothers, trusted friends, and brothers and sisters.
This life in China, this life of mine is about to change dramatically, and I don’t want to miss the goodness and the blessings it has provided by worrying or planning the time away. Nor do I want to add to the fatigue and the fear of change by hurrying its process. In due time, I keep telling myself. Because truthfully, I don’t know how to gracefully exit a life where I’ve made such deep friendships, where I’ve been so changed and challenged by another culture and others’ faith.
And so I muddle on, slightly fatigued, but my spirit deeply satisfied with all that I’ve learned and all there is to continue to learn. And I let my eyes rest a little bit longer in the morning, knowing that the days will be long, but full, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Last weekend was truly such a restful time of talking with good friends, eating good food, kayaking, swimming, and getting kissed by the sun.
However, while it was a wonderful weekend away, I’m really not so unhappy to be back in China. My husband and I are gradually settling into the home stretch– he’s got about three more weeks in his semester and exams, and I’m finishing up my research, as well. My family will be here in less than a month, and we’re also looking forward to that. Our plan will be to head back to the states by the end of July.
And today is our fourth wedding anniversary: we’ve spent two in the US and two in China. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A couple weeks ago during the board trip for the charity I’ve been partnering with here in China, a board member challenged the China staff and the participants to be bold in the Lord. And we began to talk about what that looks like.
Another Chinese friend of mine has been reading the Old Testament and contemplating the connection between prayers and signs from God (See Genesis 24). We’ve talked a great deal about how we pray and how we might be bold in asking God for what we truly desire while not falling into unhealthy patterns of testing or bargaining with God.
And over the past few weeks I’ve been emboldened to pray differently, passionately, and urgently for the future I desire, for new post-China opportunities to serve God and to grow together in faith with friends and family. And while I’ve not yet seen my Rebekah arrive at the well like Abraham’s servant, I can say emphatically that these prayers have brought me a new kind of peace in the face of uncertainty, they’ve opened my eyes to God’s work in my midst, and they’ve made me more aware of God’s presence in my relationships with others.
If those aren’t signs, I don’t know what are!
And just as I’ve heard God calling me to be bold in prayer, I’ve also heard God convicting me to share God’s faithfulness and my own efforts to be faithful with others. What I’m feeling isn’t a naive conviction that things will go perfectly according to plan but that God will provide (as God has before), which actually changes my perspective in that I see the signs of that faithfulness earlier and more clearly than I might otherwise.
When I wrote about the peace I experienced in the midst of my Grandpa’s trials, I almost felt guilty, but I realize that this peace is not incidental or manmade, but powerful and why our God is worthy of praise. I remember awhile back hearing a fellow person of faith say being a believer in God doesn’t insulate us from life’s struggles or pain, or even fear, but because we know we’re not alone or on our own in the midst of them, it makes it all decidedly less daunting.
It’s been about a year since our first trip to Hanoi, the bustling Northern Vietnamese city that both assaults and enchants with its peddlers, propaganda posters, and world-famous pho.
And it was in a familiar sleepy stupor that we first wandered the streets after disembarking the overnight train from Nanning at the ungodly hour of 5:30 China time/4:30 am in Hanoi.
Good morning, Vietnam.
We stopped into a nearby noodle shop to stomach some pho and a coffee shop to grab a stiff early-morning brew, and then it was off to St. Joseph’s cathedral, the statuesque steepled church in the middle of the city. While mass was just letting out as we arrived at seven am, in the early afternoon locals gather nearby to drink fabulous lime tea under the awnings, and it’s a more festive atmosphere.
We also made our way to the iconic red bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake and enjoyed watching the locals practice their tai chi. We grabbed a couple pan chocolate (God bless Vietnam’s French heritage!) and savored them as we continued meandering our way through the colorful streets.
When we came back on Saturday from our tour on Halong Bay, we had just a few short hours in Hanoi, so we made a beeline for Cong Caphe, where we downed some fabulous little cups of coffee and stocked up on supplies for the train home to China.
We ended the evening in Hanoi by dining on a set menu at the popular (and pricey) Wild Lotus. The atmosphere was relaxing, the food pretty good, and the company excellent, of course. While our time in Hanoi was short, it did not disappoint.
More on Halong Bay and the rest of our trip to come…
But the time in China with friends who don’t speak the language has got me thinkin’ on those little phrases that mean so much, that get you by with cultural finesse even when you’re a clunky foreigner living in well, a foreign country.
So with no further ado, here’s five Chinese phrases I’ve found to be particularly useful in these parts.
Bu hao yi si (不好意思）
That’s Chinese for sorry, or more woodenly, my bad! Very useful when you botch someone’s name, spill something, etc. (can you tell who is a clunky foreigner here?!). Chinese don’t usually apologize unless it’s something really shameful, but the bu hao yi sis are used as both nouns and verbs and pepper conversations like our ubiquitous sorrys.
Mei ban fa (没办法）
This one’s hard to translate, and incredibly infuriating if you’re on the receiving end. Mei ban fa means basically you’re not going to get what you’re asking for because either the person in question can’t do anything about the situation or they just don’t want to! It’s a great way to evade responsibility, but it’s also a handy one if you don’t want to go into a lengthy explanation for why something just can’t be done about that lousy leak under the sink or that visa paperwork. Again, I guess I’ve been burned on the receiving end of these and am left a bit more bitter than I thought…
Wo you shi (我有事）
This little phrase is comparable to our Oh I’m sorry, I’ve got other plans. It’s a wonderfully vague way of saying I’ve got other stuff to do, I’m not gonna be able to make it, and don’t ask me about the stuff, clearly it’s private, or I would tell you instead of saying, I’ve got stuff. It’s amazing how sufficient and satisfying Chinese find this explanation. For instance, someone might ask you why you weren’t at work or in class, and all you need say is, wo you shi and it’s all forgiven. Wildly helpful, this one.
Wo kao lv yi xia (我考虑一下）
This phrase is handy in the event that you’re shopping, you’ve discovered prices are a bit higher than you’d like to pay and you’d like to get out without offending anyone. Perhaps the shopkeeper is pestering you a bit. Shoot him or her a simple wo kao lv yi xia, and you can slide right out of the store assured by a simple nod and no questions asked. It means something like, I’ll consider it, and gets you off the hook with surprising speed, no questions asked.
Na li, na li? (哪里哪里？）
Here’s your token response to the great undeserved praise that will be given to you for uttering a broken xie xie or ni hao. Maybe your Chinese truly isn’t up to snuff, but when you respond to their false praise of your abilities with a na li na li, they will discover that you do indeed understand Chinese culture. Westerners often find this response, which literally means, where, where? a silly and phony self-deprecating move, but I guarantee you your humility, however false, won’t be lost on your Chinese friends who will grin with pride at your ability to kowtow with the best of ’em.
And those my friend are just five little tips (of the iceberg as far as Chinese goes, though!) for your first trip to China.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:7-15)
What an emotionally-charged, amazing week this has been!
And I couldn’t have gotten through it without all those prayers that friends and family have been sending up on my behalf and the tears and laughter you all have shown me, truly abiding with me and my family in this time.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
This morning a dear friend of mine and I took some time to pray in silence together, and she misquoted the chapter and verse she meant for us to read, and so we ended up reading this one instead. And because abide is my centering prayer word, because my joy has felt so complete this week despite the pain and suffering, and because my friends have truly shown me the love of Christ, my eyes began to brim with tears.
We concluded that she was meant to misquote the chapter and verse, and we were meant to read this one together, to commune across an ocean in silent prayer, abiding with God, and then talking about what that looks like in our lives together.
See, I now realize why God lead me to the word abide in my silent prayer practice. Whereas my other prayer word grasp denoted the sense of grasping for God and being grasped by God, abide is a state of relative passivity.
There’s nothing we’re doing in abiding with God and with others outside of communing with one another in the presence of the Spirit, and I think that’s what God’s been trying to mature me into as a Christian–a woman who recognizes God’s work in every moment, and realizes that her joy is complete regardless of the turmoil that’s going on around her.
Now none of that is to say I’m above life’s struggles. I still worry, I still fear, and I still doubt, but since we moved to China, thanks be to God, there’s this real sense deep in my soul that God is truly omnipotent, that God has abided with us in the fullest sense here. And I’ve found that prayer takes on a new meaning, when the end goal is nothing beyond that communion, that abiding, and that release of raw emotion, imperfection, and anxiety to a God who can be fully trusted to carry and receive it all.
But abiding with God in prayer is not merely where my joy is complete. Rather, abiding has many faces, and it’s in the everyday that I learn more about what that means.
It’s the friends who have surrounded me in China to experience my joys and struggles in such a real way and to encourage me on this journey.
It’s the foster moms a few weeks ago in Anhui, with whom we sat experiencing their joys, their fears, their complaints in caring for special needs children despite their limited education and their limited means. Abide means there wasn’t anything that we as the listeners could really offer them beyond our ears and our hearts and our support, but I think in some sense God blessed that moment as one of deep prayer and communion.
And abide is an image my friend shared with me this morning in her ministry with elderly people at a nursing home, the recognition that while one may be aging and not able to do the things she or he previously could that God calls us all the same to abide, not necessarily to do, but to receive. She noticed as she spoke these words of truth an elderly woman nodding with tears in her eyes.
To me, that’s what it looks like to abide.
And so this weekend as I look forward to friends from the states coming to visit us here in China, I rejoice in the ways so many of these relationships in my life have bore fruit, have taught me about discipleship, and have made my joy complete in the Spirit.
I don’t feel I’ve ever made a very good evangelist.
I’m not a hellfire and brimstone kind of gal, and so my conversations are rarely peppered with words like salvation, revelation, or sanctification. As a minister-in-training people often ask me lots of very good questions about heaven and hell, and I always have to reply, probably much to their disappointment, that I know no more than they do, or anyone can, for that matter.
In fact, I remember the conversation in the lovely backyard garden of a much-esteemed professor’s house over dinner with his colleagues where I realized that my faith was not built on promises of heaven or another world, but the immanently spiritual experience of this one. While that realization was revelatory for me, I think it was equally baffling to them. After all, what does it mean to believe in God if that belief tells us very little about life after death or reincarnation, retribution, or reparations?
By that token, I may not be a very faithful person either. Like doubting Thomas, I have a hard time trusting in things I can’t see or feel, like Peter, I’m all too eager to profess faith, yet a hearty failure when it comes to living it, and I’m quite certain that I, like Sarah, would laugh in God’s face if I heard that faith is the stuff of miracles.
No, my faith it quite ordinary, if anything. It’s built on the warmth of fellowship with others and being known and loved by a God who is unconditionally faithful. It’s built on the certainty that I didn’t and don’t have to do anything to deserve God’s grace and devotion, and yet I’m invited in this lifetime to experience it all the same.
It’s tempting sometimes to try to be someone or something I’m not, and even in the name of God. Like, quite simply, this morning I woke up with a to-do list miles long and every intention of being the most productive person in China today, and then I got another message from my mom about my Grandpa’s deteriorating health, and my stomach leapt into my throat, and as much as I am physically in China, my heart floated to his and my family’s side, and I felt powerless, lonesome, and fatigued.
And then I began to pray. See, it’s at moments like these that in my meekest and at my weakest, that God leads me to God’s side in prayer, and I think about how meaningful, how powerful it is to know that on at least two continents (imagine that?!) there are friends and family lifting up my Grandfather, and I marvel at what wonderful fellowship we have in Christ.
I may not know what happens when we die, I may be a lousy evangelist and a doubting minister, but I know that there is grace for this moment, that my faith with all its dents and cracks and imperfections, leads me to an eternally faithful God, and that the feeling of being surrounded and lifting up in prayer, well that’s my miracle for today. In fact, when I think on what greatness God can do with ordinary human beings, in an ordinary world, I doubt what more there really is to wonder about.
All photos by Evan Schneider. Taken in Yunnan, China.
This weekend was a lesson in contrasts: on Saturday morning I visited a very naughty, angry little girl in foster care, but on Sunday afternoon I sat with another foster girl and her older sister, completely content to practice their English with me and on their very best behavior for their foreign aunty. While I was rushing around Nanning, the poor husband was stricken in bed with a pounding headache (we still haven’t determined the cause), and so I took to caring for him in the only way I knew how: feeding…hehe.
We found mascarpone cheese at the Western store, so I plopped the other half of lemon yogurt cake batter I’d frozen from the last one into the crockpot, and whipped up a lemon mascarpone frosting to go with it. The frosting is light and fluffy and tangy, subtle and sophisticated, yum.
Last night I stopped by the hand-torn chicken stand that’s been gracing the alleyway down from us and watched as they literally tore the chicken, chopped up the bones, and mixed the whole lot with spicy oil, peanuts, chives, and sesame seeds. Then I headed home, and impressed myself by turning out some simple greens and stir-fried eggplant with rice to go along with our Chinese chicken dinner.
Little did I know that I have much more to learn on this topic.
But that’s what’s so compelling about our scriptures–each time you read them the Spirit reveals something new, something so eerily, no– purposefully appropriate for today.
In the twelfth chapter of Luke, Jesus continues by deconstructing the practice of worrying. “Consider the ravens,” he remarks, “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (12:24-25)
I hate to admit it, but I can be a real worrywart. I hate to admit it, because I despise the out of control, overwhelming, guilt, and fear worry instills. I hate that my own vanities and my own weaknesses are what drive me to it, but most of all I hate that not only do I know it’s a waste of time, but I do it anyway! I hate that as Jesus suggests, while we’re worrying, the gift of life and all that really matters are passing us by.
Two weeks ago today I was in a meeting with orphanage directors here in South China when my phone starting ringing incessantly with an +09 number that could only be a skype call. And my heart sunk as I finally answered it knowing that whoever was on the other side would only be dialing me over and over here in China in the case of a dire emergency.
Since that time my Grandpa has been in the hospital, fighting a weak heart, and recently failing organs. When I opened up about the difficulty of being here and not there the next day, one of my Chinese friends discouraged me from worrying. I could feel the anger and the exasperation well up in my throat as I choked out and snapped, “Well I am worried, because he’s very, very sick!”
Truthfully it wasn’t just this remark but a number of interactions that have made me frustrated with my Chinese friends lately. They can’t understand why I’d ever want to leave China, and they’re kind of mad at me for making plans to leave this July, and for not being able to tell them for sure when I’m coming back.
And I’m mad at them, especially at times like this, for not being able to see and understand that I’m not only their Lin En, the woman who loves to talk to them about their families and their lives here, but also a person with her own family and friends, and a life that I left behind in America, too.
We usually understand each other so well, and so I want them to get all that, too, you know, just instinctively, right?
But when I read a scripture like this one I see that my energy, my anxiety, and my worries are futile. You see, I could focus on the ways my friends here just don’t get it, or the parts of my life they’ll never fully grasp, or I can marvel in the blessing of God providing me such amazing, supportive, loving, accepting people in this foreign place when it seemed entirely likely that I would never belong. How humbled I am to be so loved by my Chinese friends that they tell me they can’t do without me, and that I understand their culture and their concerns to the point that they can’t imagine me anywhere else but here.
And how careless I am to assume that their urging me not to worry is an indication of their lack of understanding or concern, but rather an understanding of myself on a level that I thought only God could grasp. See, when I’m afraid, full of worries and fears, they see beyond that to me at my best and not at my worst. In asking me not to worry, do they not rather invoke all this is precious and good about humanity, God, and life itself?
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart is also. –Luke 12:32-34
I’m still rather ragged thinking about my Grandpa and my family back in America this week, but I think it would make them happy to know how good God has been to me here in China. And when I meditate on those good things, both my American family and my Chinese one, I do feel a little snippet of peace, and I pray my Grandpa does, too.
Almost two years ago now, my husband and I packed in two large duffel bags to move to China. (When I arrived in the Shanghai airport, someone accidentally mistook my bag for his, and I thought I might actually never get that one bag back, but that’s another story!)
Before we left the US of A, I sorted through an abundance of clothes, much of which I never wore, and passed them onto friends and shelters. While I admit there was an initial pang of giving up some nice, only slightly-worn things, the overall effect was liberating. Now in China, my husband I, like most Chinese, have only a few clothes that hang in our closets, and we’re pretty satisfied with that.
However, we do watch a fair bit of American tv, and we especially love home improvement shows. And I’m noticing that the trend in America, true to form, is not this paring down of superfluous items to the bare necessities, but the tendency to build bigger boxes, houses, closets, and bathrooms to house all our stuff. Perhaps I’m especially sensitive to it, because it tends to be women on these shows who determine that their closet needs to get bigger to hold all their clothes rather than the other way around.
This morning when I was reading through Luke, I stumbled on the parable of the rich fool. Jesus talks of a man whose land produces abundantly, so he schemes to pull down his barns and build larger ones, where he can store his grain and goods. The man says to himself,
‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. (Luke 12:13-21)
So as my husband and I prepare to go back to our home in the United States, a land of worldly riches and abundance, I’m reminded of that singular bag I packed a few years ago, the simplicity of my Chinese friends’ lives here in China, and this warning not to store up treasures for oneself but toward God.
I often hear people say that our calendars or our checkbooks are a good indication of our priorities in life…well, how about our closets?