Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dwelling in the Rut: A Hidden Ministry

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 students 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 students 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 Im 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 wasnt a daily thing. The Nazerenes didnt watch soap operas, but their snatches of free time werent 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 Gods 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 wasnt 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.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Recently Read Books: Three Good Ones from the End of 2014

The Brothers K by David James Duncan

I loved, loved this book. It was slow at times, gripping at other times, but so beautifully written, so layered, so nuanced, that the story sank into my soul. This is the story of a large family—four brothers and two sisters---shaped by their parents’ two passions: baseball and the religious extremism of the Seventh Day Adventist church in the 50’s and 60’s. The youngest son serves as the perceptive, hilarious, and gentle narrator for his family’s fascinating story, spending most of his time on his father, and three other brothers’ individual stories. I find it hard to describe the scope of this book in a review because its wonder is so nuanced, so layered. There’s the story of a family shaped by its experiences, difficulties, passions, and rebellions, and then there is the deeper story of how everything connects, and how healing and beauty is possible. This book was especially personally meaningful to me, almost cathartic, as I watched the influence and effects of parental religious extremism on each member of the family, and how each one’s journey to healing is unique and personal, challenging and beautiful. To steal a line from the cover, “By turns uproariously funny and deeply moving, and beautifully written throughout, The Brothers K is one of the finest chronicles of our lives in many years.” Oh, yes. Read this book.

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

I discovered this book at a library sale and really enjoyed it---even though the ending was not what I hoped for, and the many Italian, German, and Jewish names kept confusing me as to who was who. This book introduced me to a part of history of which I was unaware—the period of time between Italy’s WW2 surrender and the years of German occupation of the country. The story focuses on the role that many Italians played in protecting the many Italian Jews in their midst as well as the Jews who had fled to Italy from other German-occupied countries. I loved how the author mixed in German perspectives, immigrant Jewish perspectives, native Italian Jewish perspectives, and regular Italian perspectives into this fascinating story of how religious folks and non-religious folks came together to protect the innocent. According to the book’s cover, the author “tells the little-known story of the vast underground effort by Italian citizens who saved the lives of 43,000 Jews during the final phase of World War II.” I was shocked and gladdened to learn a little bit about this bit of light in an extremely dark period in history. The author does such a good job of humanizing all of her characters; we see their failings and fears as well as their courage. A great read for anyone who loves World War Two history.

Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

This little gem of a story traces the perks and the challenges of a young couple’s first year of marriage (on an extremely tight budget and hectic schedule) in 1927. Betty Smith writes from the perspective of Annie, the young bride who longs to make her husband proud, loves learning, and worries about money and her mother’s fierce disapproval. Although much has changed since 1927, the tale of two young people against the world, endeavoring to become one while worrying about getting food on the table, is hardly foreign to our modern context. A lovely read by the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a book which I still need to read!).

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Recently Read Books: Ones That Don't Get An Amazing Rating From Me (I'm probably missing something, but it's how I feel!)

1. Island of the World by Michael O’Brien

Beautifully written and deeply moving, this book traces the life story of a boy born in the Balkan mountains. Throughout his life, Josip Lasta endures multiple cycles of suffering from the cyclical violence that ravages his country. While describing his experiences, the story focuses on his inner life; the journey of his soul and its repeated resurrections from the inner deaths wrought by suffering. I have only heard raving reviews of this book, but I must say that I can’t give it five stars. I was wishing it would go ahead and end; over 800 pages of this cycle of suffering and healing began to seem a little far-fetched to me.  Moreover, about halfway into the book the tone changes, and Josip seems more of a ghost with a mechanical soul that chooses forgiveness again and again. The ghostly, soul-less feel is totally merited; I would become a ghost with a mechanical soul after the things Josip endured by page 400. However, that’s where Josip’s renewal, soul-resurrection (if you will), and baffling choice to forgive and give love almost seem mechanical. It feels like it is coming from a person who has already died, because he has already lost everything that matters. I think if O’Brien would have shortened the story, it would have meant more to me. But who knows? You’ll probably love it!

2. My Antonia by Willa Cather

I finally finished Cather’s most famous work and I must say---I really didn’t like it! I felt like it was an endless, pointless rambling. I have to chuckle though; I’m sure that is what others may feel when they read Cather’s book Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I count as one of the most poignant, beautifully written, subtly meaningful books I’ve ever read. So I feel a little guilty about disliking My Antonia---perhaps I’m missing something grand!

3. A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith

This is another book that garnered rave reviews, won awards, and was highly recommended to me, but it didn’t meet with my grandiose expectations. It was an interesting read however, and it helped me appreciate Florida’s history and look on the land around me in a new light. I don’t think I had quite understood how much of a wilderness this place was even after the Civil War! This book traces the lives and struggles of three generations in the McIvey family, whose patriarch moved to the scrub-bush in Florida in the 1850’s. The accounts of wilderness survival, cattle drives, and friendships with the Seminoles fascinated me because the names of these remote outposts are well known to me---but now they are anything but remote! While I won’t be raving about this book like others do, it did give me a great appreciation for the Florida Crackers’ and their toughness, as well as a sadness for the plight of the Seminoles and for the destruction of the Florida landscape.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Recently Read Books: The Ones I Loved, In Order

1. My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

I loved, loved this book. Conroy is an amazing writer, and this memoir is unique because his entire life was marinated, steeped, soaked in great books. I listened to this book as I was driving across three states, and I was constantly wishing I could take out a pen and write down the books he talked about and the authors he loved. His personal anecdotes are truly moving and memorable, particularly the stories about his two greatest mentors—his mother and his high-school English teacher---and yet these stories come wrapped up in the books that shaped his consciousness and turned him into a writer. This book is beautiful, beautiful---but I’d recommend listening Conroy read it himself on CD to get the full effect of its magic.

2. The Mom Factor by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

These guys are great counselors.  Highly recommended for lending perspective and practical advice on relating to your mother as an adult.

3. All the Shah’s Men:  An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer

This was one of the most fascinating historical accounts I’d ever read; talk about learning something new! I was clueless regarding America’s involvement in Iran over 25 years before the hostage crisis of 1979. This book was so eye-opening, showing how oil, British intransigence, Iranian nationalism, Cold-War politics and a few strong opinions created a U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s leader Mossadegh, and installed Mohammad Reza Shah. The coup and its aftermath helped to plant the seeds of anger which came to full fury in 1979. This book provides details and background that help when trying to understand even a sliver of the complicated backstory that precedes foreign policy crises.

4. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

This story of a couple and their inner musings on the nature of love is winsome, unique, and baffling. I love Dillard’s writing style.  I loved parts of this story, hated parts of this story, and am still baffled by other parts of this story. I would love to read this book in a discussion club!

5. The Water is Wide: A Memoir by Pat Conroy

This is the warm story of Conroy’s rewarding, enlightening, and infuriating year as a fumbling, brand-new teacher on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina. With little else but a desire to make a difference, Conroy encountered a whole new world as his students were completely isolated from the outside, and his education superiors still harbored racist attitudes and agendas. This is a beautiful little account of one teacher’s attempt to connect his students to real life and treat them as persons of value.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Meditation on Memory

Echoes of early childhood ripple through my veins.
My uncle, his mannerisms so like my father’s
Triggers memories of his mother, my grandmother
Her voice, her stories, her tiny Florida cottage.
Blue river-waves slapping the bleached pilings
Of a dock ruined by a hurricane
In the pelicans skimming the water
I see the reflection of a photo
This dark haired little girl
Posing on a Miami dock, 1986,
Pelicans all around.
Sailboats docked in the marina,
Masts thrust heavenward
Transport me to Matheson Hammock,
My father’s great love of the sea and sails,
“Coming about” in our sailboat, scrambling to our tasks
My two brothers and I,
Our clumsy fingers fumbling the ropes, my father shouting,
We four lowering our heads for the boom.
My babysitting gig, this toddler named Noah—
He shares the name of the tow-headed brother
I raised on my hip
Before the sisters arrived.
It was another world.
These lizards, they’re everywhere—
I had forgotten.
Toddler Noah gives them heck and
I remember my brother Paul
The boy who caught lizards with his hands.
It was another world, a lifetime ago.
Those days when our family lived in their city of birth
When my experience of the other 49 states
Was limited to the plastic map above our dinner table,
That place where we ate meals together and played long guessing games.
The days before the bus, the boondocks, adventure, trauma
Moves upon moves, the cloistered life
The stories that fascinate and shock
The journey to normalcy
But not---
Because in my veins runs a passion for the unconventional.
These memories rush back from the days
When China was just a place in my favorite storybook,
Before I thirsted after Europe
Before I stomped through deep, brilliant Cambodian mud
Or lost my way among darkened Saigon streets
Or gripped a bamboo raft with my bare toes
As it whisked down a Thai river.
I have traveled so far
From these early moments
Those opening chapters.
And yet, the book turns back
The pages open---
Musty, forgotten, familiar
When I return—
A stranger.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Recently Read Books: An Episode of Sparrows

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

This book was a sweet story, written in “old story style.” A bit like The Secret Garden, and yet, quite different. The story mainly focuses on three children (“sparrows”) who live in poor circumstances, on the same street, in post-war London. The little girl is overcome with a passionate desire to plant her own garden, but since she is poor, even “good garden earth” (dirt!) is very hard to come by. Planting and cultivating the garden brings two of the children together as friends, and the third one sometimes tags along when they dig up dirt under cover of darkness. The featured adults in the story are also folks with deep desires, and this tale illustrates the truth that no-one’s deep longing should be sniffed at. To quote from the story: “You are making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Angela. Olivia was suddenly inspired to answer, “A molehill can be a mountain to a sparrow.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Recently Read Books: Pilgrim's Inn

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge

This book was a fun read; the story centers not only around a family but around a place, a beautiful, old inn-turned-home-then-turned-inn-again. The inn was made for pilgrims, religious travelers. Once it is revived, the folks who pass through are not religious travelers, but they are broken souls needing healing. And somehow, they find it in this place.