Monday, November 28, 2011

hold your applause

From an email I sent out to some people this evening

Dear friends,

One of my students recently attended a Tuesday night service. I didn't get any feedback from her until today, but what she said jarred me. I shared it with my team here at school, and I think the insight behind her statement is worth forwarding to some of you. First, let me preface this with some background information:

Earlier in the semester, one of my students stood up to speak about the assigned topic of, "FAMILY." He related the story of his grandfather, who had been captured by Japanese soldiers. He was put to work in a camp, escaping only by killing two of them. As the student recounted that event, the class broke into applause and smiles. I ached. After his presentation, I slowly made my way to the front and spoke for a few minutes about how grieved I was that the loss of life - though that of an enemy - was celebrated. I reminded my students that life is still life. In that same breath, I encouraged them to consider that generational hatred puts them in more of a prison than those who represent a bitter past.

Fast forward to today (Monday). I had class with the same group of students. Today's assignment was to discuss the outcomes of a unique assignment given two weeks ago. Each student received a piece of paper with 13 activities/destinations throughout Harbin. One of the 13 had to be chosen and completed. It was done with intentions of giving freshmen students an opportunity to get to know their city. One of the options was to attend a service at [ ]; that's why you may have seen several new faces with us on recent Sundays and Tuesdays.

The young lady who was present last Tuesday spoke about how friendly the people were and how interesting she found the video series that we've been watching At the end of her presentation, she said, "But there was something that confused me. In the video, they talked about Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and G opened the water to let them through. He punished the Egyptians, though, and drowned them in the sea. When that happened, everyone in the room clapped. But didn't we learn that we aren't supposed to celebrate the death of our enemies?"

Her memory was spot on, and her insight stunned me.

I knew the timing wasn't appropriate to discuss anything with her, so I allowed the presentations to continue. I did, however, mention this to my team at today's meeting. They, like me, could only initially reply, "Wow." In discussing this with my team, we concluded two things which I will mention to that young lady:

1) Cs make mistakes. Our response to the video caused confusion for at least one person and may have hardened her heart against us and, ultimately, the One we represent. We asked that this not turn her away from any interest that she may have about learning and seeking.

2) Perhaps people clapped because of G's demonstration of His sovereignty over man and nature. In the story of the young man's grandfather, He was not mentioned. It was man against man. However, in the events of the Red Sea, there would have been no victory without His miraculous presence and hand orchestrating it so. In that case, perhaps the applause was for Him and not so much for the lives lost.

I and my colleagues found this a very thought-provoking moment of the day. May it help us to be more sensitive to the perceptions of newcomers and to those who are watching and listening to our everyday responses.

A question on Chinese minds

Being single in China isn't easy. The population is already lopsided as the result of the one-child only policy. Men will soon outnumber women by 30 million. 30 MILLION. That's like the states of Texas and Colorado being filled with nothing but bachelors. Add to that the expectation of parents and grandparents to marry and produce an heir to carry on the family name, yet with little being spoken of in families about the way to go about it all. It's akin to the blind leading the blind. No wonder our university students are so curious about it all. Many of them have never even been on a date. When they finally do find love, they take it so seriously that their well-being rides the wave of the relationship. If it crashes, so do they - literally. Many jump from windows. Some take pills. Either way, their lack of coping skills leaves them defenseless and all too quick for a surrender.

Our fellowship has noticed that even among believers, there is an alarming level of ignorance about approaching a romantic relationship from a Truthful point of view. Many of our like-minded friends aren't even aware that we are not supposed to be unequally yoked.

As we have discovered how vast this void is, we have begun to talk about discussing this on one of our Tuesday nights. Tomorrow has been designated the first of these talks in which we highlight something that seems to be on the minds of many and yet, has not been given proper attention. We are calling it, "Single and Serving." It will provide a chance for anyone to come and be a part of group discussions. Some groups are led by singles like me, and others are led by couples who have enjoyed healthy and stable marriages for years -- even decades.

Our hope is that people will be able to ask questions and receive counsel that is Word-centered and that their understanding of earthly love will be broadened by a greater picture of eternal union. Please remember us. It will be an important night. Many (students) who have heard about it are eager to attend, with a good number coming for the first time in their entire lives.

If the video below doesn't load properly, click here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

a heart full of rocks

If you look closely, you might see
That I walk with a lean
Bending toward the left
Trying to hold up this heart of mine
A heart full of rocks

The weight of those rocks
Swings my heart like a pendulum
Their solid masses moving to and fro
With the rhythm of my gait
They tumble about
As my feet burn into the day
Like a signet into melted wax

Where did these rocks come from?
The young man whose giant stature cowers to fear;
The girl whose sideswept bangs point to pleading eyes;
The boy who kneels at the altar but sees not the High Priest;
The loved ones who want my service to have a deadline;
The longing to write what I have never written;
The answers still hidden behind a curtain of time

This heart full of rocks
Sometimes grows weary with its cargo
A cache of precious stones
Jagged enough to bruise the walls that enclose them
But polished by the whispers of communion
Unable to rend their vessel
But displacing enough comfort
To remind me that I have a heart at all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ashes to Beauty

One of my students, a handsome well-spoken city boy, showed up at our Tuesday night study two weeks ago. His religious background requires kneeling before sitting in the pew. I told him that wasn't necessary, but he did it out of conditioning. He sat in front of me, and within a few seconds, I detected a thick unmistakable cloud of cigarette smoke. He was covered in it, but I wasn't sure if it was firsthand or from being prisoner to a thoughtless taxi driver. (On the books, smoking in taxis is prohibited, but this is China.)

I taught his class the following afternoon. During some group work, I found an empty bench in the back and observed the students working. A few seconds after sitting down, my nose retreated in the same way it did the night before. I looked over at the belongings next to me, and I recognized his coat and scarf. I had my confirmation...and the ensuing conviction that there was a reason I noticed his habit two days in a row.

But we barely know each other.

I watched the students smiling and talking with the discussion partners. He was near the front of the class. So young and so full of potential. I kept imagining him gasping for breath. It made all the difference knowing that he is MY student.

A few minutes later, teams began making presentations. I found a piece of printer paper in my stack of handouts. The lower half was unmarked, so it folded and tore it from the rest of the document. It became my makeshift stationary. I had to be succinct, and I had to be quick. I didn't know what I would write, and - more concerning - I didn't know how I would get it to him without drawing attention from classmates who watch my every interaction.

I don't remember what I wrote. I wish I did. Only fragments come to mind:

I don't know when you'll read this, but I trust God's timing.
Smoke-filled lungs are tortured lungs, indeed.
I hate to think that you will pay such a huge price for a youthful addiction.
As your teacher, I care about your well-being.
I hope you don't consider this an invasion of privacy.

Once I finished it, I folded it up and starting working out HOW I could get it to him. My eyes scanned his coat, and that's when I realized there were two large pockets on the front. No one was sitting behind me, and sliding the folded note into the pocket took all of two seconds. It was done before anyone could even turn around. I hoped and asked that he would find it within reasonable time. That was it. I left the rest to our mutual Maker.

I've thought of that note since last week. Tomorrow (Wed) is his class. This afternoon, I received an email from him. It was attached with a four-page response. I can't betray some of the information he shared, but there's a future at stake, so I'm sharing enough to prick the finger of petition from anyone who feels moved. Please remember him.

I cannot help to say that I REALLY appreciate your letter. It is so kind and sincere of you to write this letter to me. So I hereby want to tell you some truth of myself, confidential ones that I never shared with any female friends, even my girlfriend. It’s disappointing, but I do admit that I really smoke. Sorry to hurt your feelings. In the start, a pack could last for a month. But now, it can be emptied in two days. Disappointed again, right? I’m so sorry about that and I really mean it. But anyway, that is the situation right now.

It is no denial that smoking is bad in every aspect and brings numerous diseases especially cancers. A youthful addiction, it is so precise, a youthful addiction that changes entire life. I probably would blame myself for not quitting it some decades later. But still, another truth, I don’t know how to quit, or, more accurately, not determined to quit it now. I am a man without strong determination. Although I have a good girlfriend who keeps pressure on me to quit smoking. Although I received your letter, which made me almost break into tears. Although I imagined how depressed would my parents and grandparents be when they know this thousands of times. I cannot quit it. Admitted, I am such a weak person.

I picked it up again last year. I was mentally destroyed by the failure in election (I failed to be the Chair of the school’s Student Congress but only the Vice-Chair) and relationship. (The girl that I’ve been pursuing for the whole year was never interested in me) As a result, I turned to my old friend. It is not an excuse to start the torment of my lung. I am feeling guilty about this because I once thought He cannot save me or relieve me from this suffering. I was wrong; He can do anything because of who He is. I was just not faithful enough. Could you tell me how to be more faithful? I mean I sometimes forget the rituals, like one before the meal, one after get up and before go to bed.

Again, I really thank you for your attention and advice to me. I really never ever expected this kind of warm-hearted letter. It must be a blessing which is giving me the best foreign teacher I ever had. It is also a miracle to bring two souls to each other only after a lesson at [your fellowship]. And I’m sure that it is a message to tell me stop smoking ASAP. I will keep it in mind and keep the letter carefully.

Thank you for your time reading such a long and meaningless email, too. I’ve never sent an email more than 600 words in English. I’ve never told my life story in English to anyone neither. I am extremely glad and happy to make friend with you. See you tomorrow~

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

undercurrents of grace (continued)

I had lunch with two students last weekend: one - the extrovert - was there at his own request for extra help and the other - the introvert - was there because he is only a few blank stares away from failing class. I thought a meal might soften the initial awkwardness of combining two students of such segregated proficiency and personality. It was a wise move.

While our chopsticks were moving from plate to plate of steaming Chinese dumplings, the extrovert mentioned something about, "that country to the east of us."

You mean Japan? I clarified, not understanding his ambiguity.

"Yes, that country," he affirmed.

His second refusal told me what his words didn't.

You know, when you refuse to give a proper name to a person or to a group of people, you are attempting to dehumanize them. Criminals do it all the time to their victims so that they won't have to consider that person another human being.

"Oh, but that's not what I meant," he stammered.

So what did you mean?

"I want to forgive them but they haven't admitted things that they did to us."

So you're waiting for them to make the first move?

"Yes," he replied.

You know, forgiveness is a miraculous act of mercy and grace because it often requires the person who was hurt to make the first move. Is it true forgiveness if you stand on one side of the line saying, "You come to this side and then we'll talk,"? Where's the compassion in that? Sometimes forgiveness has to start with the victim, but it ends up setting both sides free.

His chopsticks were resting on his plate. In fact, both boys had stopped eating. The introvert was silent but unwavering in his attention to the two of us.

The extrovert stared at me for several seconds and then crinkled his eyes a little. "Do you get this power from that book you told me that you read all the time?"

I nodded my head. Yes.

He nodded in an I-suspected-so way and said, "I would like to study it if it gives you that kind of strength. There's a lot about it I don't understand, but I'd like to."

Let me know when you're ready. I have some resources for you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

undercurrents of grace

If my daily life was a drainage pipe and you could just open up a manhole covering and stick your head down in there to get a glimpse of what kind of conversations have been passing through, you'd be overwhelmed. I mean, I am. Overwhelmed by doors that are opening and questions that are coming out of nowhere from students who have the courage to ask. Overwhelmed by the sparks in classes that lead to discussions about eternal things. Overwhelmed by the responses of students to the challenge of choosing mercy over generational bitterness.


After almost four years, she has finally chosen to sit down with me and study. I know that she is fickle and often changes her mind, so if our Friday nights together continue, it will be a miracle. Maybe it's appropriate that we're reading about the great flood: If he can preserve the entire population through eight in a giant boat, he can take care of one shipwrecked girl.

He and his partner told me the day of class that they couldn't complete the homework assignment, which was to dress in business casual attire. I pulled them into the hallway and, as any teacher should, warned them. But I did that mostly out of protocol. I dismissed his partner to return to class. I kept him for an extra talk. Compared to his classmates, he is goliath. He is tall and obese with large swollen fingers. He slumps in his desk. He rarely talks and when he does, he fidgets and stammers. His self-confidence is nowhere in sight. I began, "I know this assignment was difficult for you." He looked down and nodded, pulling a little at his shirt. "But I want to help you," I continued, "I'd like to help you work on your English and your confidence in speaking with others. If you're interested, let's get together once a week. Let me know in a day or two if you'd like to accept my offer." That was two weeks ago. He has been to see me twice. We meet at my place of Tuesday fellowship and then we have dinner together, usually with a small group of other students. The first week, he said little and inhaled his noodles. The second week, we went around the table and took turns sharing something about ourselves. When it came to him, he said, "I read a lot of science fiction, and I think it helps me to understand some of what we learn on Tuesdays and how maybe I can believe in Him." I should've been wearing a seatbelt for that one. As I walked the dinner group to their bus stop, I turned back to see him talking with another young man. He was chuckling -- chuckling! And in class this week, he didn't slump. He seemed more alert and awake. It so happened that this week I was able to tell an ancient story. In a recent article of a national publication, the title read, "SHENZHEN PONDERS PROTECTION FOR GOOD SAMARITANS." It is in response to a tragic story of a little girl who was run over and left for dead while 18 people passed by without helping. We discussed the article and then I asked the class, "Do you know what a good Samaritan is?" Some guessed and guessed correctly. My next question was met with silence. "Do you know the origins of that name?" And so, as a supplement to their understanding, I shared with them the story. They were mesmerized and then shocked when I put it into cultural terms for them by asking them to imagine doing the same act of kindness toward a wounded Japanese soldier 50 years ago. Unheard of. I happened to glance at him while the story was being told. He had a look on his face that I can't describe, sort of like he knew inside information because of what he's been learning on Tuesday nights. For me, it was a double blessing.

To be continued...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

a deck of carts

On the way to fellowship last Tuesday night, I ran into a guy who was also going to the same place. He showed me a side street that avoids some of the construction nearest our destination. As we rounded the corner of our detour, I saw four or five carts turned up and stored for the night. They were rusty and ragged except for a band of color down the sides. Beautiful symmetry. I stopped and gazed at them for a few seconds. My company didn't realize I had quit walking until he turned around and saw me fixated on what he probably appraised as glorified wheelbarrows.

It was too dark to get a photo, and I was without my camera, but I knew I'd be back.

I left my apartment about 30 minutes early this morning. I wanted enough time to get some photos of what tempted me on Tuesday night. The diffused morning light made me hopeful. And yes, they were there. A few people passed by and stopped to look at what I was doing, more curious about the crouching stranger with camera than about what might be captivating her. Why does something have to be glossy and sequined for people to pay attention to it?

I think dingy splintered wheelbarrows are much more intriguing.