How to condense a life into a sound bite

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A dear friend and colleague is transitioning back to the States this week. I first met Cathy in 1995 and knew we’d never be friends because she was so kind and thought the best of everyone. She embodies grace and sweetness in ways I never have and (most likely) never will. Sigh. Oh, and she talked about her four nephews all the time. It was obnoxious. I thought she was a pathetic single woman who gushed about nieces and nephews because, well, she didn’t have kids.

That is until my first niece was born and I became like a pithed frog about that baby; and then about them (all, irony of ironies, four of them girls). Guess what, you can be a fool for someone and it doesn’t mean you’re pathetic, it just means your love flows over.

Cathy has modeled more than “good aunting practices” — most recently how to mourn the untimely death of one too young — she has modeled the love of her shepherd. As she prepared to leave, I asked Cathy the following:

When did you first come to China? 1992

How many places have you lived? 6 ish – counting the summer in Lhasa
And where? Xining, Beijing, Changchun, (Summer in Lhasa), Qinhuangdao, and Zhengzhou. {For those who aren’t the familiar with Chinese geography, Cathy has basically lived in every corner and in between.}

Roughly how many students have you taught over the years? 730 – estimate   (counting both Chinese student I taught English and foreign students I taught Chinese. Note: Cathy is bilingual and a great teacher.)  Just FYI – I have had 156 teammates over the years…

What’s one Chinese word that will stay in your vocab? 耶稣 Yesu (Jesus)

{And this answer, ladies and gentlemen, shows the character difference between us I was mentioning earlier; that, sadly, is not the first word that came to my mind! See the end for my word.}

What are three things you’ve seen change over the years? (don’t have to say much about them)?

  • ration tickets the school gave us to buy oil and rice
  • Wal-Mart
  • Taobao (Chinese amazon, of sorts)

Name one student you won’t forget. Why? Gabby- She’s among my few friends here in Zhengzhou, and she is my dear sister.

Name two dishes you will miss. I will dream of di san xian and my Changchun baomu’s carrot, onion, and egg jiaozi. {Di San Xian – three treasures from the earth: potatoes, eggplant, and green pepper. Baomu is a house helper. Jiaozi are dumplings. Good choices!}

Any parting words are you get ready to start a new chapter? Ecclesiastes 5:19-20  🙂

Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

My life in China has been that precise gift from God, “China” will always be a part of who I am – from the prayers I will continue to pray for people I dearly love to the Great Wall’s worth of stones of remembrance I have collected – I  will continue to commune with my Father about this place, and these people with thanksgiving for all He has given during this time and with hope for all He will continue to do in years to come.

{Cathy, thank you for this snapshot. We will miss you. I will miss you. My life will have more 麻烦 — mafan– without someone as competent and delightful to work with as you have been these past five years, when we really got to know each other. Hassles (mafan) doesn’t even begin to touch on it. You are a gem. The Lord before you, behind you, and always beside you.  祝你平安. Love, Amy}

What question would you like to ask Cathy? Answer one of the questions I’ve asked her (you can be living anywhere in the world!)

Five lessons I’ve learned living cross-culturally (part two)

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In part one of this two-part series, I shared four must reads for anyone interacting with others. If you haven’t done so already, choose one of the books and read it. I mean it! (Does anybody want a peanut?)

What I love about books is that I can enter into worlds other than mine – I can go to Africa, outer space, China in the 1920s, and work with gang members and ex-cons in California. But not all my learning is book learning, these five tips come from living in China, living in a group home for pregnant teens, working with men and women perpetrators of domestic violence, living in an international dorm, working with those from many denominations … you know, life!

1. You never know how X you are until you go to Y. In my case, I never realized how American I was until I moved to China. Of course I knew I was American. But I hadn’t counted on America had seeped into everything – not in a bad way, just rather thoroughly. I think many of us think “Yeah, yeah, I’m German (or whatever), but not THAT German.” Ha. I say it again. HA.

A few direct quotes from my mouth to illustrate. “Oh, you need to use your elbows when using public transportation? I did not know that.” Or “No, the school walls don’t really make me feel safe, they make me feel confined.” That was an eye-opening conversation with students! Narrowing it down, I’m a Coloradoan through and through. Colorado isn’t big on women’s work and men’s work. Historically we didn’t have that luxury; we did what needed to be done to survive. I don’t think I’ll ever be keen on daily tasks done solely based on gender; a lesson learned by being around those from other neck of the woods.

2. The biggest change will occur in you, not in those you interact with. Yes, yes, you will hopefully be a part of bringing some kind of change whether educational, economical, world view, restoration, greater understanding, or more hope. But the bottom line is that you, your marriage, and your children will be changed too.

3. There will be unintended consequences of your presence – both good and bad. We often focus on the good and discount the bad as being not that bad. The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell fleshes this idea out and I highly recommend reading it. Twenty years ago I’d hear Chinese friends say, “We will let in the good parts of western culture, not the corrupting parts.” Turns out that the corrupting parts weren’t just in western culture, but in human hearts. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be involved with people different from us, mercy no! But it does mean that no matter how much you think through, prayer over and plan through actions and decisions, there will still be unintended outcomes.

4. There will be a cost. Count it as much as you can. You will not be the same after you have worked cross-culturally (see #2) and overall that is good! But depending on the cross-cultural work you do, it might cost you financially, relationships may change, your values may change, your understanding of history, or the way you see God may expand. You may miss out on friend’s weddings, funerals, grand children’s birthday, the latest fashions, and promotions. I don’t know what the cost will be for you, but I do know, there will be a cost. For me, one of the costs is that I now have a sense of home on opposite side of the globe. I am always home and never fully home.

5. It is worth it. The changes in me, the unintended consequences, the cost, the risk, the heart ache, worth it.

What would you add to the list?

Four must reads for anyone interacting with others (part one)

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I really wanted to title this Four must reads for cross-cultural work, but I was concerned that some of you would see the word “cross-cultural” and think “well that’s not me” and move on. But wait! Do you know anyone with a different religious view than you? Grew up using different utensils for eating? Is from a different part of your country? Might not support the Denver Broncos? (Shocking, I know.)

We all are blessedly cross-cultural. Surprisingly, in China some of the greatest cultural difference for those working on a team have come not from the Chinese (because we expected those) but from fellow Americans from different parts of the country.

Books are a wonderful way to fall into another world and see things in ways we might have missed. Here are four must-reads when it comes to cross-cultural themes. They cover the broad spectrum of cross-cultural experiences: bad, innocent, good, and true.

  1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – Placed in Africa, this story chronicles a family of six moving as missionaries to a village. The story is told through the voices of the wife and daughters with the father prominent in the story. Kingsolver’s ability to capture the uniqueness of each female is some of the best writing ever.  Be warned, you may want to scream at times.
  2. The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell – While living in the US several years ago I attended a book group that without fail, no matter what they were discussing referred back to “Priests in space.” I knew it was a must read. Russell wrote this in response to Columbus’ 500 year anniversary. Many were critical of Columbus and she wanted to remind us that people of that era came with the best of intentions and did not intend for it to go so poorly!  A group of Jesuit priests go to another planet to observe two species; they took great pains to alter nothing, become involved in nothing, and return home leaving no “footprints.” (Disclaimer: one part is not easy to read, but that’s true of cross-cultural work too!) Children Of God is the follow-up book when the main priest is forced to go back, allowing for many confusions to be answered.
  3. City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell — Will and Katherine moved to Guang Ping Cheng, China in 1904 where they lived for the next 20 years. Burying their only child, living through famine and war, setting up a clinic and school and starting a church — a picture of the dance between seeing amazing things happen among very ordinary and hard times.
  4. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle (True story) This book makes me want to be a better person. Period. Anyone who can take working with gang members and ex-cons and some of the most tragic situations and find The Light and the light side is someone I want to follow. Father Greg consistently challenges the deeply rooted belief that some lives are not as valuable as others. There is also a beautiful chapter on success and failure and what they look like when you are working with people … things are messy!

(Bonus book: Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski). In part two, I will share a few things I’ve learned living cross-culturally.

What books would you add to the list?

Part two here

An open letter to pastors {a non-mom speaks on Father’s Day}

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Dear Pastor,

As I’ve said before, tone can be tricky in writing. Let’s picture me stopping by your office–again, I know, I know =)–, but this time with two diet cokes in my hands. Given all of the unexpected attention my Mother’s Day Letter to you generated, it’s understandable that you tilt your head at me and with your eyes ask, “Friend or foe?”

Handing you one of the diet cokes I smile and say, “Pastor, I come as a friend! One with opinions, yes, but one who also respects the weighty call you have.” You pop open your can and I pop open mine. After taking a sip, this is what I want to share.

If I made an odd candidate to speak up on Mother’s Day, I make an even odder one to speak up on Father’s Day. But as I mentioned before, people tell me things from the shadowy corners of their souls, and without violating confidences, I’d like to share them with you.

1. Some men will stay away from church on Father’s Day not-so-much due to the standing thing (that seems to be a bigger deal on Mother’s Day) but because of the shaming thing. There seems to be a double standard of honoring mothers and shaming fathers on their respective days. There are places to call any one of us on ways that we are not honoring our callings (and yes, fatherhood can be a calling), but this is not the day for that message. Pick some time in October or February or really any day but this one.

2. Recognize the broad spectrum of fathering. A friend’s brother was recently left unexpectedly by his wife who took their young daughter with her. I’m picturing this man who would like nothing more than to see his family healed and restored; but on this day he is awakening to an empty house and there will be no dear young arms hugging him or young lips kissing his face. He is but one of many for whom this Father’s Day is different from years past.

In your flock you will have those:

  • who are faithful husbands and fathers (!)
  • who found out years later of children they never knew who were aborted (and they wonder about them today)
  • who have regrets in the ways they parented
  • who became first time dads and RADIATE joy like the sun
  • who lost children or grandchildren this year and the ache is so profound words are inadequate
  • who walk the paths of infertility but are supposed to be “the strong one”
  • who aren’t providing for their families in ways that they want
  • who encouraged their children to be aborted
  • who had horrific fathers are doing the best that they can
  • who love fathering and walk honorably in the role
  • who are co-parenting and are not able to be with their children as much as they want
  • who are estranged from their children both relationally and physically
  • who lost their father this year and feel like orphans
  • who did not grow up with good fathers and it has impacted their view of God

There will be step-fathers, fathers-in-law, adoptive fathers, biological fathers, foster fathers, spiritual fathers and mentors. David had his mighty men and we have mighty, brave men in our midst too!

3. Commend fathering for the ways it reflects the Imago Dei (Image of God) by protecting new life, encouraging those on his path, and living with the tension of providing both freedom and a safety net. One of the great joys in life is watching my brother-in-law delight in his children. In him (and my own father), I see a picture of the way God delights in us and allows men to reflect that aspect of Him.

Thanks for listening and for continuing to spiritually parent us in a shepherding way. I wonder what kind of response this letter will bring. Will people care as passionately about men on Father’s Day as they did women on Mother’s Day? I don’t know. But regardless of what others do, thank you for showing up week in and week out, you model well the unconditional love our Heavenly Father has lavished on us.

Warmly and in your corner,

Amy

Related articles: Dear Pastors, It’s me again {what a few days, eh?!} and Another open letter to pastors {lessons from the comments section}

Lessons I learned from my first jobs

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Whistle while you work. Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la!

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

A little sleep, a little rest, a little folding of the hands to rest,and being poor will come upon you like a robber.

These are just a few of the messages we are given about work, even set to music! Today I’m over at David Rupert’s Red Letter Believers sharing what I learned from my first few jobs. Not all of it is pretty! To read A boss who actually cared, click here.

What lessons did you learn from your early jobs?

Who says chipmunks don’t make nice pets?

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It’s traveling-pet-store time of the year in Beijing. Most evenings, as the various food carts come out, so does this one:

While I don’t want a pet, I can’t help stopping to ooh and ahh over the animals (there are fish too, as you clearly can see!). Usually there are guinea pigs, bunnies, birds and turtles. Sometimes there hamsters or kittens. And more often than you’d think, there are chipmunks.

Since seeing my first caged chipmunk four years ago, I check to see if the seller (and it’s not always the same cart) has them. A good 1/3 of the time the answer is yes. This begs many questions!

  • Where did they come from? Clearly the other animals entered the world through “normal pet means.”
  • Do people actually buy and bring chipmunks into their homes?
  • What do you feed chipmunks other than peanuts?
  • Do they bite?
  • Are they scared?

I could go on, but you get the point! Based on not-very-official internet research, there are at least 1,250,000 identified species of animals with around 475 of then domesticated (that includes animals, freshwater and marine species). First let’s just pause and slowly say the number.

One million, two hundred, and fifty thousand animal species.

Wow. This doesn’t include all of the variety within species. The immensity of it is just too much to fully grasp! The creator God has certainly done that — been creative. If that number isn’t big enough for you, there is an estimated 10-30 million unidentified species, mostly in the rainforest. So, while we know a lot, what we’ve identified is a pittance. I love numbers, and it’s even a bit overwhelming for me.

However, I’m pretty sure we don’t need to add “domesitcated chipmunks” to the list!

What’s a strange pet you’ve heard of (or had!)? Do share!

Ruthlessly eliminate hurry

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Let’s play Jeopardy. Here is the answer: “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life, for hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our world today.”

What was the question?

John Ortberg asked Dallas Willard what he would recommend to bring new energy to his spiritual life.

We have come to the final month in 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker (months one through six here, here, here, here, and here). She ended with an easy one: stress.

Cue the nervous laugh.

As she said, it’s easier to wear one shirt over and over than to reduce stress in a world that bombards us with more. More opportunities, more ways to waste time, more books to read, shows to watch, music to listen to, tasks to do. We cram and we cram and we cram more in to our days and schedules and then use our favorite word: busy.  Jen wanted to pray seven times a day. Have I mentioned that it’s easier to wear the same shirt over and over?

Shaken up river water. That’s how Ruth Haley Barton’s mentor described her. In Invitation to Solitude and Silence Barton explained how she had to learn the importance of learning to sit — even for ten minutes a day– to let the river water of her soul settle a bit.

Ruthless eliminate hurry. Let the shaken up river water in my soul settle.

I can picture this so easily because I can resemble it so closely it’s eerie.

This whispers to me, letting me know that while I can’t control all the junk (and good stuff) that life is going to throw at me, I do not have to jump like Pavlov’s dog salivating at a bell. Long conditioned to the messages to, be, cram more in, God knew what he was up to when he blessed the seventh day. All of the other days he called ‘good’ or ‘very good,’ but this one he blessed.

Small practices of sitting, reading, meditating at ten minutes a pause can be enough to slow me down to hear from God. In our all-or-nothing cultural messages, we find it hard to believe that moments of rest and silence can be woven into our day.

So, here we come to the end. How has it gone? Well, I didn’t part with all of the pairs of shoes I said I would. BUT I did move other pairs along for the same total number of pairs. I have cleaned out four drawers and have helped two men in Cambodia with loans through Kiva.org (go there right now. Stop reading and go to Kiva. And family members, I hope you like getting loans for birthday and holiday presents!). I don’t mean for this to be “I did this” or “Look at how great I am.” I really didn’t do much, my point is, if I read and preach and then show NO change in my behavior, I’m like a clanging gong and not a church bell that links me to a world much greater than me.

And there in lies one of the greatest lessons of the book. John 3:30 come to life. He must increase, but I must decrease.

What is one thing you’ve done in response to this series?

Risky post {at least I feel a bit exposed}

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Me: Please take me to (and I give dirctions to the cab driver, all in Chinese)

Driver (after we’ve been driving for a while): So, is your family in China?

Me: Actually, I’m not married.

Driver (tilting rearview mirror to see me more clearly and muttering): But you look so normal.

True conversation. In all fairness to taxi drivers and random strangers, my singleness is socially odd in China. Virtually everyone is married by age 30 and as you near that date the pressure to marry can be extreme.

Today I’m over ad Ed Cyzewski’s In.a.mirrior.dimly, having a frank chat about my singleness. Because it is frank, I feel a bit exposed and I say things that not all are going to agree with. I’m not trying to be provactive, but to share from my experience. Please check it out and leave a comment, I really would like to hear your response. It can be found  here: In which we have a frank chat about my marital status.

On a totally different topic, my friend Holly wrote about going on a hike with students and I. SIMPLY.MUST.SHARE. If you’ve lived in China, you’ve had one of those kind of experiences and if you haven’t, it’s a great peek into cross-cultural living. Read it here.

I do look forward to your thoughts, Amy

*Picture from Kalun L

In which a Chinese bell becomes a living proverb

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The LORD detests the use of dishonest scales,
but he delights in accurate weights.
Solomon

The feast is supposed to sustain the fast,
but we go back for seconds and thirds and fourths
stuffed to the brim and fat with inactivity.
 Jen Hatmaker

I love a pithy saying and have quotations scattered all over my home. Whenever I am in an airport in the US I am drawn like a moth to the bookstore and in the bookstore to the card section and in the card section to the clever magnets. I. CAN. NOT. HELP. MYSELF. Moth meet flame. Amy meet sayings.

But it’s much easier to read a proverb than to live it. Look again at the first one, are there any words you skipped over? If you’re like me, you read ‘detests,’ but you didn’t absorb it. Let me say it again: Detests. Not “the LORD is disappointed” or “disturbed.” Detests.

What do dishonest scales look like in our lives? One answer comes in chapters five and six of Jen Hatmaker’s 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. She devoted seven month to address, you got it, seven areas of excess. Months five and six find her wrestling with waste and spending. Nothing any of us can relate to, Poor Jen. {Cue the music the points out the disconnect between me and reality!}

In trying to live a less wasteful life she and her family adopted seven greener habits, one of which was partnering with KP Projects. KP Projects will come to your home, plant a garden, and give you half of the produce while helping formerly homeless transition off the streets. Is that not the coolest thing you have heard of today? I share it to show that there are more options out there for creative solutions (even partial solutions) to complex problems than I think. If China is a bit too heavy on only sharing good news, we in the West have gone the other direction and are obsessed with the bad.

The Hatmaker family limited their spending to seven places for a month and used the language of “fasting” to describe this month. The poetic practicality got to me. I’ll be honest that in China I don’t shop at that many places or eat at that many restaurants; I “fast” from being around my family, live sports, convenient Western food, and having my own car. But when I read about the rhythms of feasting and fasting, I know that I don’t fast in ways that are forming my spirit. Let’s be honest, I “fast” because I have to, not as an act of obedience that will lead to greater reflection of Christ.

I read these chapters and then went on a weekend trip to Qingdao (of Qingdao Beer, strong German influence) with a friend who is researching church bells in China. In March she “happened” on a most inspiring story (read about it here). Sunday morning found us sitting in a church that was designed by a Russian, founded  in 1938 in a Japanese controlled area of a Chinese city, holding a German bell dating 1883, attended by Chinese brothers and sisters. Five minutes before the service started they rang their bell for about two minutes. All was quiet in the sanctuary as we prepared to worship.

We were allowed in the bell tower for a closer look at the bell from 1883

Do you feel the weight of that place? The history? The enormity of the moment? Can you hear the bell?

It was not merely a call to worship, but a call to live the stories we were meant to live. We were not meant to be wasteful, selfish people who spend like we are in Vegas, extended beyond our means. No, we are the children of the LORD who wants us to feast, oh yes! He is generous and created a wonderful world. But we must also have times of fasting of helping the poor, the widows, those trapped in injustice.

Hear the bell as a call to live a life reflecting feasting and fasting. The clapper hitting one side and then the next. Feast, fast, feast, fast.