I Was Here…

What is it about our names that we feel the need to carve them in things?  Wet concrete.  Bathroom stalls. Trees.  The Luxor temple .  Names etched all over the world prove the reality of our experience and existence.  At least we hope they do.

I carved my name on the world one time.  After my first two years overseas I wandered my campus, the campus where I learned to speak an incredibly difficult language, and remembered the moments of my presence.  I purposely journeyed and recalled first days in class, first friends, and my purpose in undergoing such trying two years.

Towards the end of the journey I used my key to carve my name in a bamboo grove near a favorite meeting spot on campus.  A key is an unwieldy tool for carving a name.  My name etched in a particularly fat bamboo pole stared at me in all its amateur ugly but it stuck in there solidly white in a background of green.  I took no picture of my name but it looked worse than this one.DSC_0128

Carving my name felt permanent.  I know now that bamboo is grass.  Bamboo grows fast.  Super fast.  People cut it down to use as scaffolding or to hang laundry on to dry.  It floors houses because of its eco-friendliness which rests in its ability to replace itself and fast.  Did I say it grew fast?  Bamboo can grow a few feet a day which is why people feel not the least sad to hack it down.  Hardly the kind of media to use when one tries to make a permanent mark in the world.

But bamboo possesses a strength which makes it suitable for many tasks.  Asians love bamboo.  They sleep on it, eat it, eat from it, hang clothes on it, paint on it, paint it, carve it, write poems about it, feed it to pandas, and build walls using it.   If ever a perfect plant existed for such a numerous people, this might be it.  After 12 years in Asia I understand the Asian love for bamboo.

My name long since grew up and out and over that bamboo grove.  My permanent mark proved anything but permanent.  But the task of marking my name on something stays with me.  The fact that I chose bamboo of all things seems significant.

It reminds me of the strength that comes not from being brittle and hard and tough but from growing from a strong network of roots connected to the Source.

I think about the way it grows so fast and hope that I, too, grow in season.

Bamboo sways and whispers and sings.  I hope my life also sings a melody of God’s grace as I live among others.

Have you carved your name on something?  What significance does it have for you?

The Cup

In Chinese, the word for cup and life sound the same so giving a cup means inviting someone in your life for a lifetime.  A cup is a symbol of enduring friendship.

The tradition of gifting cups started in pain for me.  After 3 years of living life side by side my dear friends felt led on a different path.  After 7 years of leaving others I now understood what it feels like when someone leaves.  It feels terrible.  What once filled up areas of life goes and it leaves a painful vacancy along with not much energy to fill it.  I had not come to peace with it yet.  I fought someone…God.

I gave my friends (and myself) the first cup trusting that God was in this and that He had a plan for my future and for theirs even if it meant thousands of kilometers of distance.  A white cup with green leaves covers the outside.  I hoped that our friendship, once they left, would live like the green leaves and continue to grow.DSC_0010

Every year we continued to meet and each year someone brought a cup as a gift or we bought one together to remember the year.  God grew our friendship in a unique way.  The cups became a sacred remembrance like the stones the Israelites laid in the desert to mark something the Lord did for them.  We cried and laughed, shopped and sat on those weekends. I cherished and looked forward to them all year.

Those meetings in the spring in the historic streets of the Far East will ended.  I am the last still living in Asia.  Still more friends left after them and I snatched cups from their give away piles.  Cups fill my cabinet, each one reminding me of a special friend.

Being left with a void after saying goodbye is something I’m thankful for with tears and still a frequent stabbing pain.  A void the Lord fills better than any beverage, movie, book, or ministry I know…but the pain still resides as well.

Living with the void hurts but the filling of the void by the only One who truly fills anything is worth the wait.

Yet again, I wait.

In the House of Mourning

The sweltering heat presses down on us in the hidden cemetery.  I pass by inscriptions of women, children, missionaries, diplomats, and seamen.

I imagine some died from mosquito-borne illnesses as I nervously slap away hundreds of the pests.  My children flee to higher ground to avoid the onslaught.  I and my daughter remain and wander as the clock hastens towards closing time.

DSC_0040Some inscriptions move me to tears.  The small crypt of an infant inscribed with words of surrender even as grief slays the soul.

Others give my heart pause to wonder…was it worth it?  The sailor whose greatest achievement, the one that took his life, was war to open a port of trade to opium.

Most received their burial in the presence of friends or shipmates, not family.  Etched in the side of one stone tomb I read, “The Tomb Erected by a Mournful Friend.”  Who was the mournful friend?  What does mournful friendship look like in this era?

DSC_0062Then, the lengthy inscription of Robert Morrison who translated the Bible into Chinese and created the Chinese dictionary all in the age before computers.  We stand on his shoulders along with hundreds of millions of others who daily benefit from his labors.  I’m sure my contribution pales in comparison.  Am I content to continue even if my labors never amount to such fame?

DSC_0048Better to go to a house of mourning…this theme echoes in my ears during the season of goodbye gatherings that recently ended.  Do they ever end though?  Goodbye parties and cemeteries…my current houses of mourning.

Walking through this cemetery anchors my soul to the crucified life.  Through the tears I manage to glean something of the realities of a life surrendered.

To conquer?  To serve?  To give my life?  To accept loss that comes to my doorstep?  To be the mournful friend?

Lost!

20121101-132501.jpg“Mommy! We’re lost!” my son piped up from the back seat. We cruised around previously unexplored sections of our side of town. Our new car made it possible to explore more extensively and I like exploring. As I pondered the intersection I replied, “I’ve never been here before, but we’re not lost.”

How often I feel like him! I sit in the back seat, out of control and my soul is screaming, “I’m lost! I don’t know where I am or how to get home!” I hold no roadmap or sense of direction. I sweat and scramble to make a plan and carve a path in the thicket of life so I know where I stand or how to arrive at a destination, any destination. So I feel secure. I pretend to save myself.

5 years ago a host of friends moved away and I felt abandoned on a road I wanted to abandon, too. I enjoyed the journey before with my friends but now with the space cleared the openness and silence overwhelmed me. The expanse left felt like the valley of the shadow of death to me and I was no happy, contented sheep. Why was I on this road anyway?

I knew little of the shepherd on the next stretch though I learned. By the rod and the staff I learned as I felt poked and prodded through my fears. I learned His voice and His ways more in the coming years. Now, 5 years later I experience the same phenomena, a host of friends moving at the same time.

His peace and His rest reside in green fields and bubbling brooks but before that, and after and all around sometimes, come the valleys of death. I know my weakness and fear. I feel lost and I hear His voice more clearly now echoed in my son’s words.

“You have never been here before but you’re not lost.”

Plain Old Pain and Sore Pain

At 20 bucks an hour, medicinal back massages are a steal.  Last furlough I vowed to indulge in this overseas luxury more often.  Cross cultural life stresses the body and the mind.  Massage works wonders…if you can stand the pain.

Massage in America surrounds you in an experience of soothing luxury.  Relaxing smells and soft music with a fountain trickling in the background usher one into an experience of stressless comfort.  Not so in Asia.  A successful massage in Asia uses one hour to hit every pressure point and problem area with torturous force.  No music or fountains…just hard work.  It is not for the faint of heart.  If I scream, which I do, I only communicate a job well done, not a request to stop!

Two words describe pain in this language and we learned them from the masseuse.  There are more, but these two strike me with meaning.  Pain and sore pain.  Pain is just what it means…pain.  No purpose.  Negative.  Undesirable.  Bad.

Sore pain…now sore pain is good.   The masseuse explained that sore pain means new blood flowing to the knotted muscle and washing out the toxins.  Sore pain eventually allows the muscle to release the poison and relax resulting in more freedom of motion without limiting pain.

Sore pain is why I get a massage.  Sore pain serves a purpose.  Sore pain yields.  Sore pain is not futile.  Sore pain leads to loose muscles that enable me to enjoy daily life without as much plain old pain.

As in my spiritual life there is pain that leads to more pain and serves no purpose.  That kind of pain makes me act funny as I protect myself.  And, then, there is sore pain.  The word a friend speaks that brings to light a sin issue I need to face.  Or, maybe it is doing the thing I fear will incur disapproval from others.  Pressing these areas brings sore pain.  But, sore pain is worth it.  Sore pain brings new life.  Sore pain gets out the poisons.  Sore pain eventually brings peace and freedom.

Sore pain still hurts.  I scream when the masseuse hits certain pressure points.  I cry and can get angry when someone pushes on a stiff spot.   But the promise of cleaning out the toxins and moving unencumbered by a stiff soul makes me crave it even as I want to scream.

When I visit the masseuse I always try to go with a friend.  We bond as we listen to the masseurs grump about our physical problems and as we hear each other yelp.  Taking a friend along on the journey of sore pain of the soul helps me endure.

Between the screams, and sometimes through them, we laugh a great deal.

What stiff places in your soul need to experience sore pain these days?

Slop

photo (1)Some men occupy their days and fill their pocketbooks carting slop.  Bicycles carry huge, blue, open vats of slop to unknown places where the pigs live.  It sloshes around, a thick, chunky mixture of food scraped from plates or expelled from woks.  The muck on the containers repels a pedestrian before the smell ever reaches the nose.  No one washes the containers between loads.  I do not ask to know this…I see it clearly.

I never pictured slop in my mind until I encountered it overseas.  America is clean.  Slop travels mysteriously through some opaque tube into a closed truck with some words about sanitation written in green or white on the outside.  Only a few come face to face with this ugly reality of life.

My children, however, grow up smelling smells and seeing things I never set my eyes on as a child.  Slop is one of them.  I say slop and they know…their minds pull up a picture of a nasty blue container crusted with who knows what.  Slop is real to them.  Their faces contort when I talk about slop.

So, last week when I read the story of the Prodigal Son and they listened again…I added some detail and brought it home to them.  I told them that pig food he ate?  He ate slop.  Their faces dropped.  Unimaginable.  How desperate.  How disgusting…eating slop.  Anything is better for dinner than slop…even slavery in your own home.  Going back as slave became a totally reasonable and necessary choice to avoid slop.

photo (2)We walked along puce green for a few minutes as we imagined eating slop.  I hope they remember slop for the rest of their lives.  The smell, the look, the grime…because maybe the grace of the Father offered to them will astound them.  Instead of slop…or slavery…a beef barbecue as a treasured son?

I hope and pray they choose the barbecue because they know a life apart from God resembles eating slop.  I pray they know the grace of the feast that the Lord offers when the best they dare expect hope for is slavery.

And, for myself, I hope I receive the gift daily to enjoy the barbecue instead of trying to earn a meager meal…the best I fear I deserve…as a slave.

Escape to Ikea

ikeaI go to Ikea for a cultural break.  The blue and yellow bastion of  order speaks my language in the midst of a chaotic culture.  At Ikea I know how life works.  I understand the products that sit on the shelves.  The model apartments reflect the dream I dream of one day achieving order in my own home.  The prices allow me to take home a little piece of Swedish brilliance.  And, they take care of some of my kids for an hour so I can browse in self-centered silence!  What’s not to love?

Ikea surrounds me in western-conceived orderliness.  I understand the world for the time I walk their halls.  I relish the way I know how things work for once and it’s not just a knowledge gained over time but a deep-seated knowing rooted in the basics of my identity and western upbringing.  For an hour or two I retreat from Eastern thought and indulge the part of myself that will never quite be put to rest overseas.  I vacate in the walls of a store where I need no passport or expensive ticket to feel more at home.

Now that my daughter exceeds the play area age limit, Ikea means mother daughter time.  She finally appreciates shopping and she understands that our family mostly looks.  We laugh at the 5 aunties chatting it up on a model king-sized bed while the baby in the middle sleeps.  We exchange ideas about style–good style, not-our-style, bad style.  We notice some furniture is very, very inexpensive and some quite expensive.  We define quality.

We pick up the few things we came to buy and try our hardest to resist the intriguing but unnecessary items.  We fail…often.  The arrows on the floor herd us along.  We note the items we might purchase next time if they receive approval when discussed at home.  We never miss the “as is” section.  I still wonder who buys the mattresses no one wanted after their 90 day trial period!  We purchase and pick up the boys and follow the path to get hot dogs and an ice cream cones that are too cheap to refuse.  Everyone wins at Ikea.

At Ikea I embrace a part of myself that I can never put aside completely no matter how long I live in a foreign land.  I speak the language, grasp some of the mindsets, eat the food, survive, and often thrive but I am foreign and always will be a foreigner.  Escaping to Ikea for a few hours a month used to feel like a personal weakness.  Now I just enjoy Ikea for what it is…a break and an acknowledgement of my identity.

What escapes exist within your host culture?  Do you take advantage of them?  Why or why not?

Cisterns and Springs

Mountain walks provide soul nourishment I never fully appreciated until I lived life surrounded by the noise of dense population.  Exploring and listening to the myriad sounds of silence lifts my soul.  On one such walk, I stumbled upon an interesting contraption to gather rain water and irrigate a small plot of land.  I snapped a picture and filed it away, not knowing for what I wanted to use it. DSC_0019

Fast forward 6 months and here I sit, thinking of that picture.  This image of a cistern captures my attention again.  Cisterns hold finite, defined amounts of water to sustain life.  Someone rigged this one to fill by itself but in general, cisterns require significant labor to fill because water weighs a ton.  Cisterns lose their effectiveness quickly.  Water left a few days becomes stale.  Containers break and they run out when drought arrives.  With cisterns, one knows how much water one possesses, making it easier and practical to divvy out and a source of fear as water runs low.  Rationing is reasonable and necessary with a cistern.

6 months after taking this shot I see what I missed then.  So often I live life as though my sustenance comes from a cistern.  A limited, contained, quickly stale, rationed source.  A fearfully fragile pot that I fill myself through much hardship.  Water weighs a ton.  My spiritual life feels like hard work and I decide on my portions.  I ration my efforts based on how much water I see in the container and the labor I know it takes to replace it.  Exhausting.

So when Jesus speaks of a spring bubbling up, my ears prick.  Springs produce water through no effort.  They spill water all around for anyone to gather.  Their limitless supply confounds the mind as the source stays mysteriously buried underground.  Springs clean themselves and never sit to stale.  Rationing?  Impossible and unneccesary.  Drought may come but the spring reaches farther down to draw up water.  Fear subsides as I see Jesus, the fountain of living water.

As I contemplated the cistern spiritual life I’m prone to lead or the spring-fed life Jesus offers, I want to throw down my heavy buckets and come to Him.  I search for ways I ration my outpouring–and the Lord reveals many–and gather with others at the spring for my daily drink.  The spring always bubbles up and I rest, quenched.

What differences do you see between a cistern and a spring?

Yielding in an Unyielding Culture

100-0031_IMGI’m astounded by the risks pedestrians and bikers take on their road back home or to work.  The shortest distance between two points consists of a straight line.  Conservation of energy reigns supreme to most foot and bicycle traffic so hoe-bearing old farmers tramp across eight-lane highways looking neither right nor left.  On a rainy night people invisibly weave in and out of cars on dark, soot covered bikes cloaked in black jackets.  Have I explained why I dislike driving in the rain?

From the comfort of my car, I remind myself of the days I rode bikes in driving rain.  The days I arrived home with mud spattered up my back into my hair and my hands turned to ice on the bars.  The early days when I achieved my personal challenge of keeping my feet on the pedals all the way to school to avoid sinking into piles of  mud.  So, now, stopping to allow a horde of pedestrians cross a busy street on a rainy day brings a wide smile to my face.

Yielding defies all local logic.  Most become paralyzed in disbelief when I give way.  I see the confusion on their face as they struggle to decode the situation and then discover the unbelievable.  Someone stopped….for me.  Often they spring forward when the idea dawns that the coast is clear, a new surge in their energy.  I especially like stopping for one person in this country who believe to the core of their beings they rank only one of “too many.”

Giving way.  Yielding.  Such a small thing to give way yet what a difference it makes to give away a few seconds, to not be first that time, to not claim my right according to the law, to surprise someone with a small kindness, to recognize an individual soul.

I do not always yield, believe me, but I like the state of my heart when I do.

What uncommon courtesy puts a spring in your step?  What uncommon courtesy do you like to gift others?

When Boundaries Get Crossed

Picture me standing in line for the lady’s room at a coffee shop with my daughter mentally pondering my spiritual growth.  Just a year before at the same shop I’d struggled with impatience.  Women in our host culture seem to take eons in the restroom. Eons.

Maybe its just that personal spaces are few and when privacy comes, it must be enjoyed…for awhile.  Now, look at me waiting patiently! I felt thankful to be in such a place and be able to recognize this growth. I mentally patted myself on the back.

A few minutes later, after stepping in to have our moment, an older women enters the restroom and waits about 2 seconds before she starts pounding on our doors.  Literally, pounding.  The locks rattled, the door shook.  It was a shocker!  She loudly complained of how long we are taking and asks us to get out so she can have her moment.  She continued to grumble and berate us loudly and did not cease to pound.

I know enough language to be sassy.  I can express things I wish I could not.  What proceeded to transpire still fills me with a mixture of pride and shame.  Pride at the fluency and shame at my use of my fluency.  We conversed…ok…spoke loudly…ok…argued.  I suggested she find other places to have her moment.  She asked me to show her one.  I replied I could not do that at this moment.  She continued to loudly complain and urge me to hurry up.  I offered to learn from her vast experience about how best to do that.  And it went on. It was a charged conversation.

Ten minutes later when the adrenaline dissipated in my veins, I doubled over in hysterical laughter at the absurdity of what transpired in that restroom. To have someone literally try their level best to evict you from a bathroom stall, well, it just crosses a boundary.  Apparently, it’s a boundary I did not want crossed.  Isn’t that how it is with boundaries?  We realize their importance to us when they are crossed.

I’ve heard it called “Hulking Out”, what I did.  It’s not pleasant, attractive, or in the slightest bit useful.  I had to explain and apologize to my daughter.  Actual repentance in my heart occurred later that day.  I realized just how short my fuse can be…so very short…which humbled me.  All that pride of how I learned so much patience?  Gone. Back to square one, I stood there with a truer picture of who I was and it was not who I wanted to be!  I hulked out, tried to force my right and win by argument…by power. It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve hulked out.

A crossed boundary often kicks in my survival instincts. I try on being dangerous. But that’s not the dangerous God wants for me.  His power came in His laying aside His life and rights for others…not claiming them for Himself.  He gave everything.  Am I willing to forgo survival?  To pass on using my strength which is no strength at all?  To be truly dangerous God’s way is to be the right kind of dangerous.

I think being dangerous for God’s kingdom that day would have been using my 10 minutes of language ability on my captive audience toward a much different end than protecting my right to a bathroom stall!