I had lived in eastern China for four months, and I was head-over-heels in love with my university students. Longing for a chance to share about the greatest Love of all, I eagerly accepted a student’s invitation to visit her small-town home during the winter break. Dressed in layers of long underwear, I boarded the train with excitement, thinking about all of the meaningful moments we would share over the next ten days.
We arrived; the days crawled by, and nothing meaningful was happening.
Mealtimes were punctuated by hours of watching unintelligible Chinese soap operas, and I began sleeping in till early afternoon just to cut down on the tedium. I felt like a veal; my life revolving around food and sleep. In this unheated concrete house, I was constantly freezing despite my layers of clothes. My student barely talked, and the conversations around me happened in the local dialect. Whenever I walked out onto the street, I received stares and my student was peppered with questions. The toddler of the house wore the ubiquitous split-pants in lieu of diapers, and constantly relieved herself on the floor. I learned that showering was not a daily activity with my hosts, but I remained committed to a daily wash. This entailed a horrifying half-hour of shivering, as I mixed boiled water with the cold tap and dumped it over my body every night. Terrifying night-visits by rats forced me to flee my room.
The day I wore seven layers of clothes, we walked passed meat-sellers on the street and I spied a dead dog on the meat table. I frantically telephoned a friend while standing next to a fish-seller, desperate for five minutes of English. Why on earth had I agreed to come here for ten whole days? I had cherished high hopes for meaningful conversations with my student, fascinating cultural experiences, and relationship-building activities. All such hopes had come to naught and I was stuck in this rut of human existence with my hosts. No wonder my student’s father would get a little tipsy at night after a day of slaughtering pigs in the cold. What else was there to do?
In this little Chinese town, mere existence was not beautified by materialistic distractions or exciting schedules. The mundane-ness of everyday living was highlighted by an absence of eternal purpose and the aimlessness of it all ate at my soul. I shivered in my layers and thought, “If I felt like I was making a difference, the discomforts would fade into the background. But I’m stuck here, just existing, running from rats and watching Chinese TV. This trip was a freezing waste of time.”
And suddenly, while mundanely washing my hands, I had the most powerful epiphany of my life:
The Incarnation was not merely those three years of exploding ministry, miraculous healings, constant travel and fierce opposition.
Thirty long years of mundane existence came before.
Nazareth sprung to life before my eyes and in the tiniest way, I felt the weight of those years with Him. His town was much like this one, full of hardworking folk with predictable schedules. His stepfather probably came home tired and went to bed early. Babies crawled underfoot without Pampers and bathing wasn’t a daily thing. The Nazerenes didn’t watch soap operas, but their snatches of free time weren’t filled with high-end entertainment. In a small community focused on temporal, mundane concerns, the Embodiment of all true purpose had come to dwell.
“So the Word became human and made his home among us.” John 1:14 (NLT)
“Right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize.” John 1:26 (NLT)
No bells and whistles accompanied His life in Nazareth. No obvious ministry, no mighty acts. He slept, ate, and worked alongside His neighbors, joining them in their laborious rut of human existence for three decades of seeming fruitlessness.
I paused in wonder, my hand under the cold tap. I would take three years of exhilarating and exhausting ministry over thirty years of mundane living any day. I had never realized that the Incarnation had been so hard. If I was having difficulty living in an environment of purposeless existence, how much more did He feel the contrast? He had come from a realm where every heart beats for God’s worship, to a squalid place where His neighbors only thought about bread, sleep, and wine.
And somehow, the Eternal Father determined that those thirty years of dwelling among us were a necessary prequel to the three explosive years that followed. Those three decades were an integral part of His ministry as the Son of God.
It was not a waste.
The wind seemed knocked out of my chest and I was worshipping, awed by this new understanding of what He undertaken on my behalf. The ethereal concept of the Incarnation was suddenly personal and very precious.
A few days later, I returned to my drafty apartment and its leaky shower. My fellow teachers cooked up an American meal and we exchanged culture-shock stories. We felt drained and weary and cold, but something had happened inside my heart. I had learned that real ministry would be much harder, much slower than I had imagined. It would often come to me, cloaked in mundane, fruitless garb. It would necessitate a willingness to dwell among my students in raw, unexpected ways. I would need to embrace my brokenness and their brokenness, trusting that grace alone could heal us all. I would need to surrender my formulas and pat answers and “Christianese” for something authentic. And I would begin to realize that it wasn’t so much about me dwelling among them. I needed Him as much as they did. The wonder of it all is that He had come to dwell among us. Refusing to distance Himself from our mundane, self-absorbed existence, He had moved in. And in the midst of Him joining us in our life-rut, “we beheld His glory” (John 1:14).
I would never be the same.