Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fighting for a Soldier

He swaggered into my Sophomore Oral English class last semester with his top three shirt buttons undone. He sometimes wore a white sport jacket without knowing that it came straight from the lot sale of Miami Vice. He was trailed by the pungency of cigarette tar but managed to pierce his own nicotine cloud with a quick grin and shiny eyes. He wasn't the HIT-fashioned student with short cropped hair, rectangular glasses and awkward glances at girls. There was something about him that seemed more rebellious and also more calloused, as though he had somehow managed to skin his knees on the world's playground long before his classmates were even allowed out of diapers.

I soon learned that he took frequent smoke breaks, skipped classes more often than not and never considered homework a priority. These truths rose to the surface early because my classes are small enough for me to do a superficial glance to see who's prepared and who's not. And as quickly as I learned about him, he learned about me and how I can usually detect the deadbeats and will call on them ruthlessly. He skipped out on my class, once, because he had failed to do the homework assignment and was afraid that I'd single him out (I would have). During the mid-class break, he and another classmate disappeared and never returned. By that point in the semester, I knew his penchant for bailing and decided to address him immediately. I delayed the class, pulled out my cell phone, and called him. He didn't have my number plugged in and was blindsided by a seemingly benign call. When he answered, I said, “This is Meagan. Where are you? I haven't seen you in half an hour.” He blanked. Then stammered. Then breathed heavily. Then paused. He confessed that he was in the dining hall hanging out with friends. Both he and the other boy had left their things in the classroom because they knew that a full migration out the door would've raised my suspicions. That also meant that they had to retreive those items before the workers would sweep through after our session. So, I reminded him that they'd have to return and that I'd maime and/or kill them with my bare hands once class was finished and they showed back up.

As the other students filed out of the class, they cowered in the doorway. I stared them down and then told them to come get their things. They paused, unsure of what I was going to do. I told them very plainly, “Don't ever do that to me or your class again. From now on, you come on time and you leave on time. You are MY responsibility, and I don't deserve to worry about you like I did today.”

They sheepishly walked out, and as I watched them scuttle down the hallway, I realized that I was only worried about one of them. And it was him.

I worried about him for the rest of the semester, not really knowing why but certain that it was justified. I never got a chance to sit down and learn any life details from him, but what I did find out only added to my burden. One day, he mentioned that he would enlist in the military after graduation. A rough kid like him getting tossed into the cycle of a soldier's life doesn't usually have a healthy outcome. And then I understood why he seems to defy the stereotype of an HIT student. He has been sent here because this is a feeder school for the military. He's here because he has to be.

I only saw him once on campus after our class ended. I kept my hello simple because he was with other guys, and I didn't want to give them fodder for ridicule. After that, I went home for the summer and then returned to Harbin in late October, right around mid-terms. He crossed my mind occasionally, but I don't normally chase down students. Part of knowing on whom to concentrate my efforts involves seeing who comes to me and initiates conversations. He was silent.

Until Christmas.

That day, filled with activity from sunrise to sunset, was the day I heard from him. He sent me a quick text message in Chinese. I could only decipher part of it, but I knew it was the standard message. Still, he had written, and I wasn't going to lose the opportunity before me. So I promptly responded with, “I'm delighted to hear from you! I haven't seen you on campus all semester. Are you still here? I've been a little worried about you.”

A few minutes later, he sent me another message confirming that he is still a student at HIT and that he's been busy. He also confessed that he had wanted to call me but that he had lost his confidence because his English isn't so good. (He's not being modest; his English could use some help.) I wrote back a very earnest appeal for him to reconsider calling and left it with, “I would climb a mountain to catch up with you, so if you've got some free time, let me know.” His curiosity must have been ignited because he soon nominated Monday (yesterday) to have dinner. I said yes without any hesitation.

We met outside my dorm. His telltale swagger gave him away. I asked him if he would like hotpot, and he agreed. So, we walked off campus to a place that I thought would provide some slightly quieter atmosphere. As we sat there, we talked about our summers and about the rush of fall semester. And then, in his broken English, he said, “I wondered why you are worried about me.”

Do you really want to know?

“Yes,” he said eagerly.

I began. I met you last year. You walked into my class, and you were different. You had a rock 'n' roll look, but my heart saw something underneath the surface. I only know a few things about you. I know your hometown, I know your dorm and room number, your major and your birthday. I know you smoke. But, I also know that you've had a difficult life. I just don't know how difficult.

He stopped eating. “You know my hometown?”

Yes. And I named it.

"You know my dorm number?"

Yes, and I named that, too.

“And my birthday?”

Yes, and I named the month, day and year.

He sat there in disbelief and could only respond in Chinese.

And then it was his turn to blindside me. “My mother died last year. That's why I missed your first class last semester.”

My heart ached. I softly spoke, “I'm so sorry,” but I decided to keep pressing him. What about the rest of your family?

“My dad is a salesman. I have a younger brother and a sister. My brother did something bad and he's in prison for three years. He gets out next year. He's one year younger than me. My little sister is in junior high school.”

And I bet she watches and listens to everything you do and say.

He blushed and shook his head. “Nahhhh.”

So you and I are both the oldest children in our families.

He nodded.

I've been a big sister for a long time. Part of being a big sister involves protecting others. When I came to HIT, I realized that I was also a big sister to my students. I want to protect them even though I know that I can't do that all the time. That's how I feel about you. When I heard that you are going to become a soldier, I was fearful for you and wished that I could protect you from a lot of mistakes that young soldiers make. My hometown is a military town, and I've seen many young men ruin their lives because they're far from home and they choose friends who are no good for them. I don't want to see that happen to you. That's why I've been concerned about you. I want you live a wonderful and purposeful life and become an old man with very few regrets. I want you to be remembered for your wisdom and your compassion and your courage and your love for others.

His face suddenly softened and he looked down. When he looked back up, his eyes darted from left to right in the frantic search for words. Finally, he met my gaze and said, “Before today, I didn't know that you cared about me so much. I don't know what to say. I feel so lucky.”

I smiled. You don't have to say anything. I just want you to remember this moment because there will be challenges and difficulties waiting for you in the future, and I never want you to forget that even though life isn't fair, [someone] loves you and desires great things for you, and He sent me all the way across the world to tell you that.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Innkeeper

(available for audio download at

This has greatly humbled my thoughts today.

The Innkeeper by John Piper

Jake's wife would have been fifty-eight
The day that Jesus passed the gate
Of Bethlehem, and slowly walked
Toward Jacob's Inn. The people talked
With friends, and children played along
The paths, and Jesus hummed a song,
And smiled at every child he saw.

He paused with one small lass to draw
A camel in the dirt, then said,
"What's this?" The girl bent down her head
To study what the Lord had made,
Then smiled, "A camel, sir!" and laid
Her finger on the bulging back,
"It's got a hump." "Indeed it does,
And who do you believe it was
Who made this camel with his hump?"
Without a thought that this would stump
The rabbi guild and be reviled,
She said, "God did." And Jesus smiled,
"Good eyes, my child. And would that all
Jerusalem within that wall
Of yonder stone could see the signs
Of peace!" He left the lass with lines
Of simple wonder in her face,
And slowly went to find the place
Where he was born.

Folks said the inn
Had never been a place for sin,
For Jacob was a holy man.
And he and Rachel had a plan
To marry, have a child or two,
And serve the folk who traveled through,
Especially the poor who brought
Their meal and turtle-doves, and sought
A place to stay near Zion's gate.
They'd rise up early, stay up late,
To help the pilgrims go and come,
And when the place was full, to some
Especially the poorest, they would say,
"We're sorry there's no room, but stay
Now if you like out back. There's lots
Of hay and we have extra cots
That you can use. There'll be no charge.
The stable isn't very large
But Noah keeps it safe." He was
A wedding gift to Jake because
The shepherds knew he loved the dog.
"There's nothing in the decalogue,"
He used to joke, "that says a man
Can't love a dog!"

The children ran
Ahead of Jesus as he strode
Toward Jacob's Inn. The stony road
That led up to the inn was deep
With centuries of wear, and steep
At one point just before the door.
The Lord knocked once then twice before
He heard an old man's voice, "‘Round back!"
It called. So Jesus took the track
That led around the inn. The old
Man leaned back in his chair and told
The dog to never mind. "Ain't had
No one to tend the door, my lad,
For thirty years. I'm sorry for
The inconvenience to your sore
Feet. The road to Jerusalem
Is hard ain't it? Don't mind old Shem.
He's harmless like his dad. Won't bite
A Roman soldier in the night.
Sit down." And Jacob waved the stump
Of his right arm. "We're in a slump
Right now. Got lots of time to think
And talk. Come, sit and have a drink.
From Jacob's well!" he laughed. "You own
The inn?" The Lord inquired. "On loan,
You'd better say. God owns the inn."
At that the Lord knew they were kin,
And ventured on: "Do you recall
The tax when Caesar said to all
The world that each must be enrolled?"
Old Jacob winced, "Are north winds cold?
Are deserts dry? Do fishes swim
And ravens fly? I do. A grim
And awful year it was for me.
Why do you ask?" "I have a debt
To pay, and I must see how much.
Why do you say that it was such
A grim and awful year?" He raised
The stump of his right arm, "So dazed,
Young man, I didn't know I'd lost
My arm. Do you know what it cost
For me to house the Son of God?"
The old man took his cedar rod
And swept it ‘round the place: "Empty.
For thirty years alone, you see?
Old Jacob, poor old Jacob runs
It with one arm, a dog and no sons.
But I had sons . . . once. Joseph was
My firstborn. He was small because
His mother was so sick. When he
Turned three the Lord was good to me
And Rachel, and our baby Ben
Was born, the very fortnight when
The blessed family arrived.
And Rachel's gracious heart contrived
A way for them to stay—there in
That very stall. The man was thin
And tired. You look a lot like him."
But Jesus said, "Why was it grim?"

"We got a reputation here
That night. Nothing at all to fear
In that we thought. It was of God.
But in one year the slaughter squad
From Herod came. And where do you
Suppose they started? Not a clue!
We didn't have a clue what they
Had come to do. No time to pray,
No time to run, no time to get
Poor Joseph off the street and let
Him say good-bye to Ben or me
Or Rachel. Only time to see
A lifted spear smash through his spine
And chest. He stumbled to the sign
That welcomed strangers to the place,
And looked with panic at my face,
As if to ask what he had done.
Young man, you ever lost a son?"

The tears streamed down the Savior's cheek,
He shook his head, but couldn't speak.

"Before I found the breath to scream
I heard the words, a horrid dream:
‘Kill every child who's two or less.
Spare not for aught, nor make excess.
Let this one be the oldest here
And if you count your own life dear,
Let none escape.' I had no sword
No weapon in my house, but Lord,
I had my hands, and I would save
The son of my right hand . . . So brave,
O Rachel was so brave! Her hands
Were like a thousand iron bands
Around the boy. She wouldn't let
Him go and so her own back met
With every thrust and blow. I lost
My arm, my wife, my sons—the cost
For housing the Messiah here.
Why would he simply disappear
And never come to help?"

They sat
In silence. Jacob wondered at
The stranger's tears.

"I am the boy
That Herod wanted to destroy.
You gave my parents room to give
Me life, and then God let me live,
And took your wife. Ask me not why
The one should live, another die.
God's ways are high, and you will know
In time. But I have come to show
You what the Lord prepared the night
You made a place for heaven's light.
In two weeks they will crucify
My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I
Will rise in three days from the dead,
And place my foot upon the head
Of him who has the power of death,
And I will raise with life and breath
Your wife and Ben and Joseph too
And give them, Jacob, back to you
With everything the world can store,
And you will reign for evermore."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Unto us a child is born...

Meet my newest little friend, born a few weeks ago to very proud first-time parents.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

the power of cookies

I gave today completely over to baking cookies. Once I took care of a few phone calls this morning, I slid my Union Jack cooking apron on over my pajamas, pulled my hair into a sloppy bun and started mixing ingredients. That was at 9:00. I finished around 7:30p and immediately headed into the shower to wash away all the butter, flour, chocolate and sugar.

While I was standing in my tiny kitchen with no cabinets, mixing a bowlful of batter with a handheld mixer whose little motor was struggling to fight against the density of dough, heat and the aroma of caramel buttery indulgence emanating out my open hallway door, I thought of my grandmother. She loved vanilla, and agreed with me that it's never a bad idea to add more to a recipe.

Later, I attempted to make fudge according to my aunt's foolproof recipe. I realized that I didn't have enough milk chocolate pieces, so I improvised and added some mint chocolate pieces. How bad could it be if there's only one letter difference between the two? I smiled as I thought of her and how she'd probably approve – if not of the flavor, at least of the courage to adapt the recipe according to supply. My aunt inspires me for a number of reasons, one of them being her creativity in the kitchen. Her kitchen is her palette, and she knows exactly how to mix one flavor with another.

In between digging out from the avalanche of flour, I munched on handfuls of Chex Mix thoughtfully made and shipped from my mom. It's very hard to find a suitable cereal equivalent on this side of the ocean, so it's a luxury that I can't even come close to duplicating. It combines the my favorite snack elements: crunchy and salty. You can keep your gummy worms, kids. I'll take Chex Mix by a country mile.

At the end of such a long marathon, my back is a little stiff, my fingers pruned, and my kitchen floor an imitation Jackson Pollock. But, to show for it, I've got chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, peppermint cookies, pecan pie cookies, eggnog cookies, rice krispy treats, and chocolate-mint-hint fudge.

And family reunions unlocked from memories....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

a baby dedication

A poem I wrote and dedicated to friends of mine here in Harbin who are about to welcome their second child:

A snowy day in cold Harbin
Our feet slow to a crawl
Winter winds growl at our windows
Shoulders bracing for the haul

And yet in our Siberian sphere
We know there is a light
Born years ago to a virgin girl
‘Neath Bethlehem’s stellar night

A canopy of angels sang
Proclaiming our Messiah
Yet in a manger he was displayed
King sent as a pariah

In his mother’s arms he stirred
The stable dust he breathed
Soon walked with sinners and lepers, too
So that they would believe

December’s Son became our Savior
His stripes atoning for our cost
The baby born among the fodder
Became Shepherd to the lost

And as we celebrate the Gift
Formed in the womb of Mary
Our hearts prepare to welcome you
Baby _______, in January

Much like our Lord, you will arrive
Among a darkened land
With hungry souls at every turn
As countless as the sand

This author knows you’ll change the world
If, by your life, will be
Another letter of Godly love
Written to hearts of humanity.

This Christmas season of Twenty Ten
Our thoughts of Holy Child
Give us reason to hope for you
As tender and as mild.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Weather report for Saturday evening in Harbin:

Tonight: Bitterly cold. Mostly clear. Dangerous wind chills may approach -45F. Low -23F. Winds WSW at 10 to 20 mph.

Monday, December 6, 2010

hamburgers with extra grace

About a week ago, Stonecold and his friend came over for what is becoming the default menu: hamburgers. I've never met a Chinese person so infatuated with them and so surprisingly open-minded to some of the more traditional ingredients that have proved stumbling blocks to Asian palates: cheese and yellow mustard. He uses them with the same liberality as I do, which makes me laugh when we both reach simultaneously for my imported jar of French's.

That night, I found out his birthday is in December. I didn't write it down and soon got lost in another tangent of conversation. This morning, as I was remembering him, I was reminded of what he told me and soon sent him a text message asking, once again, for the date. His response was surprising, considering that he had not hesitated with me in the original exchange of information:

Stonecold: May I ask, what for?

Me: I want to make sure that we celebrate in some way. If that's ok...

He was silent for 15 minutes. I was concerned. Finally, my phone beeped.

Stonecold: Well, your idea upsets me. First of all, I'm still too young to celebrate my birthday. It's not worth it. We have a saying in Chinese that's something like, “It's bad manners to only receive.” If you keep doing something like this and don't give me a clue about what I can do in equal [return], I'd be worried, though friends we are.

I was a little stunned and wondered if his limitations on birthday celebrations are more Stonecold than they are Chinese. I felt like I had taken a step back for the ground that we gained with our most recent interaction. I asked for wisdom as I pressed my faded cell phone buttons.

Me: I instantly and sincerely apologize. I wasn't aware that you had such a complex view of birthday celebrations. I should explain to you that, growing up, we celebrated birthdays as a way to express our gratitude for the lives we've been given, and saying that I want to celebrate your birthday is also a way for me to demonstrate an appreciation for the day that YOU came into the world. You see, I know full well that none of us is guaranteed another sunrise. Life isn't fair, and as a response to that, I celebrate things as they come, knowing that I may not have another chance to do so.

There was much more that I wanted to say, but my message was already in four installments. I felt that the rest of the explanation would have to wait. I pressed “send,” with dueling tides of peace (over what I had said) and apprehension (over his forthcoming reply).

He wrote back quickly.

Stonecold: Ok. I understand your theory now. It's December 18th.

Me: Thank you. As for what you can do in return, my answer will have to be in person. It is very heartfelt, and my cheap rebellious Nokia is unworthy of such a task.

As I finished my message, I felt warm tears slowly trail down my face. I was overwhelmed by the realization that he and I are on the cusp of a very pivotal conversation. Telling him what he can do to repay my kindness is nothing less than spelling out what grace is. It is receiving something good and beneficial for which there is neither merit nor equal recompense. My very life has been defined by grace, and so my generosity with him is my very human attempt at enacting what has divinely been given to me. He cannot repay me, as I cannot repay my Redeemer. My tears turned into pleas, and I begged for the explanation of grace to impale him like “a double edged sword, penetrating even to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” (Heb 4)

In remembering my text to Stonecold, may I be given another sunrise so that I might say these things to him face to face. And may he be prepared to hear them.