Friday, November 9, 2012

Chapter 56: Recording the Ways in Which He Seems to Work

One of the things that has been pressing on my mind lately is the strange way that certain moments and decisions have a huge effect on our lives.

When I was in college, I needed to get a job. I applied at lots of restaurants, since I had experience as a waiter, but none of them were hiring. So I started looking elsewhere for work. My roommate was working at a group home for developmentally disabled adults. I didn’t think I wanted to work there, since I had heard a lot of stories about how hard it was, and I honestly didn’t think I would be able to cope.

But I decided to apply anyhow. Decision one.

I got the job. I really liked working there, even though the job was messy at times. But it was a great working environment and my coworkers were wonderful people.

The nature of the job, however, meant that there always had to be 2 people at the house. And that didn’t always work, since we were often short-staffed. I picked up extra shifts and didn’t realize that in doing so, I was jeopardizing my learning. I didn’t have as much time to work on school, and it stressed me out, but only in a few classes (with a particular teacher who I will call Dr. Pembroke).

After several years of classes with Dr. Pembroke, and working at this group home, I finally got to the point where I was working 55 hours a week (though 14 of those were sleeping hours), going to school full time, doing my pre-student teaching, and being president of the college choir. Looking back now, I don’t know what I was thinking.

But I decided that the thing that needed to loosen up was my homework, since I could give a little in that area. Decision two.

So I didn’t do my all-out best on a big project. I still did it and worked hard on it, but not my best. Dr. Pembroke gave me 17 points on the project. Out of 200. Harsh. And totally unmerited, in my opinion. If I had turned it in to another one of my professors, I would have gotten a B, maybe a C.

Needless to say I failed the class and had to repeat it. But I was supposed to do my student teaching the next semester. That got put on hold. Graduation would be delayed by a semester.

I had been communicating with a school in Alaska. They had been interested in me and even had a 4th grade position lined up and ready for me in the fall. But that wouldn’t work anymore.

If I had not made those decisions, I would have gone to Alaska during the summer. I would never have visited camp and met Laurel, my girlfriend. We got to know each other during the time when I would have been in Alaska.

If I had not made those decisions, I would have been in Alaska and not heard about the job in Nigeria. I would never have gone there and seen that perhaps He is calling me elsewhere. I would have maintained my tunnel vision focused on the continent of Africa.

If I had not made those decisions, I would not have come to China. I would not have even considered moving to Asia. I would not have met any of the wonderful people I know and love here.

You know, when I think back on my story, I can see so clearly that His Hand is guiding me. I don’t know what’s going on in your life right now. I might not even know who you are or where you are from.

But I know that His plan is always good for those who love Him - for those who call Him Lord. I know that even the dirt and shame of our past can be used for His glory.

So though you may be filled with joy or sorrow, peace or shame, know that His way is always best. Really. He doesn't leave us to drown in uncertainty; but He tells us, in no uncertain terms, that He is with us. And in the end, even though there may be tears and brokenness now, he has given us a beautiful inheritance - that we can know and love Him through the sacrifice of His Son.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chapter 55: On Choices, Confession, and that Next Step

One of the things I have noticed about my walk with Him lately is that it is actually a choice.
- I can choose to read His Word, or I can choose to fill my time with other things (that, frankly, border on the fatally dull at times).
- I can choose to spend time interceding and praising, or I can choose to have a heart that is busy and made of stone.
- I can choose to ask for help from Him or others, or I can bumble along like an ape in a glass menagerie.

One of the more difficult choices for me, but one that I have been having to come back to a lot recently has been the choice to see and confront my pride.

Stupid pride. Gets in the way of relationships and keeps real growth from happening in my life. Keeps me from running to Him when I stumble, mostly because I hate that I'm-not-even-remotely-as-self-sufficient-as-I-think-I-am feeling.

But if I can just admit that I'm wrong. Admit that I don't have it all together. Admit that I regularly return to my own vomit, then everything is ok. It all works out well, right? I've slapped my own hands and sent myself to the Corner of False Humility. The admission of sin is enough.

But, the thief's admission loses something, you see, when his hands are working to steal even as he finishes his confession. 

Repent - A word that society has made into a lunatic on the street corner's cry.

Repent - A word that He has made into a call to hope - hope that we do not have to remain as we are, but that He gives us the power to throw aside the chains He long ago destroyed, and see the beauty of following Him.

Does He relentlessly love the ones He called? Yes.
Does He require a certain quota of good deeds or repented sins? No.
Are we who are His still covered by His grace? Yes.
All the more reason to repent. 

And here it comes back to the choices in my life. I can choose to repent of my sin, or I can choose to simply admit that it's there. So now comes the hard part. . .

What choices do you make, and, more importantly, are they the right ones?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Chapter 54: On Injustice, Superheroes, and House Maids

Many of my friends in America just started school, but this is already my fourth week of school. It was a good and a challenging summer. It has helped me see more clearly the shape that the next few years might be taking.

One of the things that has been on my heart heavily is the issue of injustice. This world is full of it, and it's pretty clear from His Book that we are meant to fight against that. I heard a great message this summer from a great friend here about this topic. He talked about how injustice is perpetuated by selfishness. As soon as my personal interest takes a part in the justice I am trying to show, it is no longer justice.

Now, Zack and I just watched The Avengers. Amazing movie. I forgot how subtly (and not so subtly) funny it is. But the justice portrayed there and in other superhero settings is imperfect. The justice we learn about in His Book is not based in acting out our own judgments and fighting those people who are serving injustice, but rather in seeking to aid those who are the victims of that injustice.

I watched and read The Help this summer as well. If you haven't seen it, move it right on up to the top of that movie list. Again, imperfect justice there, but it still has helped to open my eyes to what injustice is around me that I might be missing. And there is a lot of it.

How can I serve justice to those for whom it has been denied? How can I grow more closely in my relationship with Him so that I may see what He sees and act as He would have me act? How can I be more just? Where in my life am I ignoring injustice?

It's that last one that worries me. Because I can point out specific places in my past where I have done just that. When I was in the U.S., I didn't help any of the foreigners in the Cities even though I knew I should. After living as a foreigner, I know now how much of a difference support from the local people means. And when I was in college, I served at a center for inner city children. But it was only to complete the requirements for a class. And even then, it was done reluctantly. My heart wasn't in it to actually help serve justice to those children.

So if I have been apt to ignore injustice in the past, it stands to reason that I could be ignoring it now. But where? This is how He has been leading me - to pay closer attention to the people and circumstances around me. I'm still not there, but I'm at least paying attention to it now.

So the question is how will He use this to use me?
 How will he use you?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Chapter 53: Concerning the First Birthday of the Author's Niece

My niece turned 1 today. I haven't met her yet. I wish I could be there as she learns how to walk and talk. But I'm also thankful that her parents and older brothers do SO much to take care of her. I know she'll be amazing!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Chapter 52: Being the Dark and Mysterious Tale of Helen the Chicken

In my last post I referenced a story for another time. As promised, here is that story. This is that other time. 

The following is based on a true story that took place in the winter of 2009 and 2010. While names and events depicted are mostly accurate, some minor details including the thoughts of the characters have been changed to help the flow of the story. This story is rated PG-13.

Helen* was a chicken. 

She was born at a hatchery in Ibadan, Nigeria. She had all of the normal features of a baby chick, but she also had a spotted leg^. She was taken home by a fifth grade class along with 149 of her brothers and sisters. All of her brothers and sisters except 25 went to children's homes where some lived long(-ish) full(-ish) lives and others lived even shorter, less full lives.

But Helen and her 25 brothers and sisters stayed in a shower stall - enjoying their heat lamp; their food; the water they could play in, drink from and befoul; and the pleasant company which only a chick can bring.

Unfortunately for poor Helen, her neck was crooked, and her spotted leg had a limp. So while all of her siblings were running around and enjoying their first few days of life in the shower stall, Helen was not. She would sit and watch the other chicks enjoying themselves and she decided at that moment that she would be different.

The chicks soon grew to be too large for a shower stall, so they moved to the small coop outside. It was next to the Kindergarten where the chickens could watch the children play and vice versa. But the change was hard on some of the chickens, and soon their numbers dwindled.

Sixteen chickens, including Helen, made it through that first week outside in the elements. No longer enjoying the warmth and comfort of their shower stall, they had to deal with the harsh elements of the dry season in Africa - blisteringly hot and painfully dry. But the chickens persevered. And Helen knew that the time had come for her to be . . . different.

One morning, the guards found the body of one of Helen's brothers mangled in the bushes far away from the coop. Thinking that an animal had gotten into the coop, they ran to check on the rest of the birds. The other fifteen were still there. No holes in the chicken wire. No signs of forced entry. No cracks in the roof.

Confused by this situation, the guards decided to leave the case as an unsolved mystery. Helen didn't complain. Nor did her siblings. They didn't even complain when one of their number dropped dead in their cage overnight from unknown causes (the autopsy was canceled due to the fact that the body in question was, in fact, a chicken).

Over the course of the next few weeks, Helen's brothers and sisters dwindled slowly and just as mysteriously until one day, there was no one left except Helen.

And then, miracle of miracles, Helen's spotted leg no longer limped. Her neck was no longer crooked. She was as fine a specimen as you could wish for in a chicken (well, except for the spotted leg and fratricidal tendencies^^).

Helen lived for a good long while in her coop. She enjoyed the life she now had. Alone. Different.

But justice even reaches to the animal kingdom. . .

The orange sun rose on that fateful day, over the Harmattan haze hanging in the air. It shed its faded light on a chicken coop where justice was being served.

The guard named Sunday was making his morning rounds. He walked around the Kindergarten building to ensure that all was well. But as soon as he came to Helen's chicken coop, he knew that there was trouble in the henhouse. For there, right in front of his eyes, a black figure twitched and writhed. The figure's skin looked to be crawling with, nay, was crawling with black ants! When Sunday looked closer, he saw the truth - Helen was being devoured alive by an army of soldier ants - twitching in her final throes. He fenced off the area to protect the children from the ants and the horror he had witnessed.

So ended Helen the chicken killer. The evil that bird committed was as great as her life was short.

*Helen's name was not chosen by me. I would not have picked my grandmother's name for a chicken. Helen was actually named after the mother of Constantine.
^Added for emphasis and identification
^^While the author greatly suspects fratricidal tendencies, this is speculation and not grounded in any substantiated proof. If anyone has any different information about the Ibadan Chicken Killer of 2010, information can be sent to the author at the address listed above.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Chapter 51: In Which the Author Chooses a Random Moment to Turn an Introspective Eye on the Past Year of His Life, Recount the Findings in a Numbered List (While He Drinks a Cup of Homemade Chai), and Add Extraneous Detail to Make, Perhaps, the Longest Title This Blog Has Ever Seen

What have you learned about yourself in the last year? What new things have you discovered? Any surprises? I've had more than a few.

For my friends who appreciate numbered lists, here is a shortened account of some of my not-so-shocking-to-everyone-else-but-shocking-to-me revelations about myself:

1. I have learned that I am a one-upper.* Evidently, I have a story for every situation (not true, but I seem to have told a ridiculous number of stories this year). Someone in the group says something about parasites, a fear of butterflies, TV, anything related to extreme cold or extreme heat, urine, vomit, or jellyfish, and I'm all over that like the ants were all over poor Helen (and that's a story for a different time). And these stories are always going a step further than the one before. I'm a one-upper.

2. I have learned to hold a more realistic view of my singing ability. When I was in middle school, I was the best singer that had ever walked the planet. How I had not already been signed up to be on a T.V. show like Making the Band was beyond me. In college, sure I was in choir, but I really wasn't a good singer at all. I was forcing the air or out of tune 100% of the time. This year, I've come to a healthy medium. I know I'm not amazing, but I also know that I have been given a gift.

3. I'm influenced greatly by the people around me. Not so much my decisions as my personality itself. I'm around a group of witty, humorous people - I am witty and humorous. I am around people who are more interested in peace and quiet - I'll be the quietest and peaciest person you ever did see**. This happens with my students, too; if the class enjoys laughing, I'm the stand-up comedian math teacher. With my class that is considerably more somber - I am more straightforward and to the point (read: "boring"). It's shocking to me to learn this. I am surprised how much I can change in a single day!

4. This is the most important one. I have learned that I am just not content when I'm distant from Him. Duh, Warren. But it's true. Things I used to love are less exciting. The novelty of traveling wears off. The joy of living in a new place is dulled. The beauty of a hill or a leaf or the peace that comes with the rain - all of these are like the middle of Groundhog Day: boring, too often repeated, and leaving me wishing I had spent my time doing something else. . . Unless I am close to Him. 
Like every other person who follows Him, I have had my ups and downs. And I will continue to have them until this body is healed and glorified. But I keep learning and remembering that the beauty of this world is pointless without Him. The joy of friendships and the happiness of song are nothing when my heart is far from His. I wish I could remember this more often.

So what have you learned about yourself?

* This also applies to name-dropping. I'll unfortunately (and usually unintentionally) drop names all day long.
**I also learned I like to exaggerate.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chapter 50: How Godric Reminded the Author of the Truth

When I was in Nigeria, a great friend came to visit. We had a short time together, but it was a highlight of my time there. We talked, made meals, played games, and toured my city. I even made her an Americanized version of Nigerian food.

And at the end, she gave me two books, one of which was her favorite novel - Godric by Frederick Buechner. I put it on my list of books to read and tried to read it many times. But something always kept me from getting past the first chapter.

When I went to Korea last week, I was determined to finish the book even if it took the whole trip. . .  I finished the book in a day and a half.

I was expecting a good read (my friend has excellent taste), but I wasn't expecting to identify so closely with the character of Godric.

Godric is a rogue. He's a man who pretends to be a saint, but uses people for his own purposes. He has many downfalls, and he is far from perfect.


He finds the Truth through one of his money-making ventures. And he follows that Truth.

Over and over and over again, Godric makes mistakes. He messes up in lots of big ways. You pretty much name a sin and Godric had done it at some point in his life. But over and over again he comes back to the Truth. He realizes the error of his ways and ends up being used greatly by the Father.

I am not like Godric in a lot of ways, but I am in this - I sin.
A lot.

Godric reminded me of something I have known since I first found the Truth. His love is not an oops-you-made-one-too-many-mistakes-and-now-I-cannot-love-you-anymore love. His grace is not extended only to those who sin in "small" ways. His grace and mercy are extended to the worst of us (even me!) and in showing that compassion and love, He is shown to be so much greater.

This body of death that I am renting is prone to fondle the very serpent which would devour it.
The old man awakens at the worst times - trying to mock the things I respect most.
The lies of the enemy are ever in my ears trying to turn me from what is good and real.

But the Truth of his unlimited grace and forgiveness is where I will put my faith.
The knowledge that He is a great rescuer who rescues me from myself is where I put my hope.
The love that comes freely from his hands and feet is where I will return to wash and love in return.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Chapter 49: Being the Pros and Cons of Traveling Alone


+ 10 points - Lots of freedom in your day. If you feel like doing something, you can just do it. If you feel like resting, you rest. Yesterday I felt like walking a long way to the War Memorial rather than taking the subway. And I could do it.

+ 15 points - You meet more people. Because you are alone, you are forced to go out of your comfort zone to become acquainted with people. I have gotten to know Koreans, Australians, Canadians, Vietnamese, and Malaysians.

+ 15 points - You have a lot of good stories. Because you have to meet new people, you end up doing things you would never do. For example, last night I watched Australian rugby in an Aussie restaurant that was filled with Australians.


- 60 points - You are traveling alone.

This might be exaggerated. . .

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Chapter 48: On Target Parking Lots and Living as an Expat

It's been awhile since I've been this homesick - since my first few months of Nigeria.

It might stem from the fact that I'm not going home to Minnesota for the first summer in my life. It might be that I'm starting to realize that I'm in China (not three minutes ago I could be heard saying, "Holy cow! How did I get to China!? When did that happen?!?"). It could be that I'm just now finding myself not quite so mind-numbingly-busy-with-school-and-drama-and-fellowship-and-spring-trips-and-living-in-CHINA busy that I am actually having time to process the fact that I am not home.

It's easy, here in Qingdao, to deceive myself - to feel almost as though I'm in America. The ease of transportation, the sense of community in the fellowship that I attend, the amenities that are available here. . . much of it feels familiar, and much of it takes the place of the things I have left behind.


Under a Western facade, the city of Qingdao is still very much China. There are manifold differences from the U.S. in mindset, liberties, culture, language, and values. And while I love being here, I am also beginning to enter a time of longing for the familiarity of America.

It's interesting the things you miss when you move overseas. It's not so much the big changes that shock you. It's not the drastically different mindsets or the gigantic shift in language or the new and sometimes challenging foods. What you miss are the smaller things that you take for granted when you are in your home country: that I can't go out in a kayak whenever I want to; that I can't drive here; that Target is an awesome store; that the smells here are different than the smells there; that no one here has known me for more than a year.

So I find myself being homesick for stupid things - the parking lot of a Target, the smell of the neighbors having a barbecue, the satisfaction of mowing the lawn, music that I can understand in the stores. Things that would not satisfy if I were to get them. Who wants to spend time in a Target parking lot, after all.

There is one possible explanation for the homesickness that I'm feeling which I did not include in the list above. And I think it's the most important one. This is now the longest I've been away from the people I know and love the most. Ever.        
Skype is great. Facebook is wonderful. Blogs are insightful, and email is a blessing. But none of it is the same as getting a hug from my dad. Or smelling my mom's perfume. Or driving on a bumpy farm road with my sister. Or playing with my nephews on the floor. Or sitting down for coffee with my friends.

I don't want things to change here. I love Qingdao, and I'm planning on staying for quite awhile still.

But I wish, in vain, that there was a way to have both.

EDIT:  A good friend here just posted about a similar topic on his blog, and I thought I would link it in case you are interested. Definitely worth a read. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chapter 47: About May Madness

Snapshot of my life right now:

- In three hours I'm picking a friend up from the train station. We worked together in Nigeria for a year and shared a house.  She's visiting a family that she used to nanny for, and had a few days to come down and see me. Really excited about this. She'll be here until Saturday morning.

- Tomorrow and Friday I teach and take Chinese lessons. 8th grade Algebra project on how math, real life, and the Father all relate to each other is due on Friday. Grading will be intense.

- Tomorrow night: final dress rehearsal for the panto.

- Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon: Panto performances! I'll be the Baker from "Into the Woods," but it has been drastically altered from the original. Very fun, and I have a cool duet a la "Elephant Love Medley," - Rolling in the Deep, Forget You, Dream On, Don't You Want Me Baby, Bad Romance, and I Dreamed a Dream. Excited, but ready for it to be done.

-Monday morning through Friday: Help lead the 7th grade spring trip around Shandong Province. Going to Confucius' hometown, climb a mountain, and hit some roller coasters.

Two weeks? I could stretch this all out into 2 months and be ok. But it is what it is, and it will be fun. I'll definitely be needing summer break, though!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Chapter 46: Five Postcards from the Hutongs

1. Leave the rush of cars
and blush of neon
to enter into the hutongs*.

2. The smell of grilled meat,
Chinese five-spice,
and poverty

3.  They own almost nothing,
yet they smile more freely than the
dyed and gilded images of beauty
that own it all

4. Had jiaozi and kao rou chuanr^
with the sounds of men dining out,
children crying in the distance,
and Chinese opera from the boombox.

5. A shrine made of hell bank notes:
The elders gather around - white-hooded -
As the paper altar burned.

The shreds of ill-placed hope - some still alight -
circle up five-hundred feet
to 'nourish' long-dead bodies.

*hutongs - a type of Chinese neighborhood characterized by poor dwellings with narrow walkways
^jiaozi and kao rou chuanr - Chinese dumplings and grilled meat on a stick

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Chapter 45: Language Blunders - Part 2

Last time I mentioned how I inadvertently called a Chinese coworker a sleazebag.

Today's post comes from a conversation I had with another coworker. I'm learning different kinds of animals (some relevant and others not so much. For example, I can now say: cat, dog, cow, pig, horse, chicken, bird, panda, ostrich, moose, dragon, and penguin). I like to practice using the new words that I learn as soon as possible.

So I'm talking with my coworker about pigs - in Chinese, they're called zhu (first tone). But as we're talking, I recall something I learned a few lessons ago; if you put fei (first tone) in front of a word it makes it fly. For example, chuan is boat/ship. Feichuan is a spaceship. I think I'll make a funny joke about flying pigs, so I ask if she has seen a feizhu. She looks at me strangely, asks if I mean feizhou (Africa). Nope, I'm trying to be funny. So I explain the expression, "when pigs fly."  She lightheartedly tells me that I'm ruining her language.

And as this conversation is continuing, we change topics to talk about what The Book is called in Chinese, what the Fellowship is called, and what the King is called. Turns out His name is Zhu (second tone) Yesu. Zhu meaning lord.

Notice anything strange? Can you see where this is going?

That's right. After a brief moment, I was no longer saying Lord Jesus, but rather Pig Jesus (Zhu(2) Yesu compared to Zhu(1) Yesu).

Why those words are so close sounding in Chinese I have no idea, but it illustrates the difficulty a lot of foreigners have with the tonal nature of Chinese. The four tones have just as much influence on the meaning of the word as the actual words you're forming with your lips. And it's just unfortunate when my Western tongue ignores the tones and instead pronounces something slightly blasphemous.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Chapter 44: Language Blunders - Part 1

So, I've made a few Chinese language blunders in the past 9 months.

Last week.
I told a female Chinese colleague in Chinese, "I like your shirt. It's very yellow."

When met with a shocked look and no other response, I mentally reviewed my statement. Finding nothing wrong with the tones or words, I said again, "I like yellow. Your shirt is a pretty color."

Once again, a surprised look, but this time, accompanied by an "Oh. Thank you."

Uncertain of my mistake, I continued up the stairs to teach my class, putting the whole incident behind me and forgetting it for the time being . . .

Monday morning. An American coworker comes to me in the hallway.
Coworker:  I need to talk to you. You have to be very careful in the way that you use the word "yellow" with a Chinese woman.

Me: Okay . . .

Coworker: Yes. Chinese colleague said that you liked that her shirt was yellow.

Me: Yes, I did. (Uncertain of where this is going)

Coworker: She wanted me to tell you  in China, evidently using the word "yellow" to refer to something about a woman means she is perverse and involved in some questionable activities including, but not limited to, pornography.

Me: shocked silence

Coworker: She figured you didn't mean that, though.

Me: (more silence) Yellow!? Are you serious?

O, language blunders. How fun you are in retrospect - not so while you are happening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Chapter 43: Concerning Glory and the "Flowers of War"

One of the most gruesome, graphic, and thought-provoking movies that I have watched in awhile was Flowers of War. Christian Bale plays the role of a man living in Nanjing, China during the Nanjing Massacre. He ends up posing as a priest and reluctantly taking care of a group of girls from the convent, as well as a group of women who come from the red-light district. Death, ignorance, betrayal, and other evils abound.

This is one of those movies like Hotel Rwanda - it's good to watch because it helps me remember that there are awful and evil things going on in the world right now (and since the very beginning). But unlike Hotel Rwanda, this film has stuck in my brain and I've had to wrestle again with one of the great questions: how can He let this incredible evil happen - especially when it seems to do nothing to glorify His name?

I'm still in the midst of that question. A coworker was talking yesterday about how the main theme of the Bible and of history is that it is not about us at all. People are important, yes, but His glory is way more so. And I agree. This I have seen in history, and this is what keeps our prone-to-growing-drastically-out-of-proportion pride in check - that we are not god. We can't know why He does things the way he does.

But when that knowledge and belief is tested . . . uffda. It's rough. It's awful to have to come to grips with the brokenness of the world. It's miserable to realize that people aren't inherently good (something I knew with my head, but not with my heart). And it's painful to see what grief we willingly take upon ourselves by our actions.

But although my heart is laden with the evil of some people, it's nothing to when His whole being was laden with the evil of the world. Once again, I'm amazed and dumbstruck at the gruesome glory of the tree.

And there's the hope in it all. Yep. People are evil. But there will be a day when that evil is swept away and we who believe will be shiny, new, and no longer prone to sin. And it's not for us, but all for him and His glory.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Chapter 42: Being an Answer to the World's Question

There is a strange, almost paradoxical meeting of guilt and forgiveness at the cross.

     My guilt is overwhelming. It is so overwhelming that I cannot get out of it. I cannot do
     anything to clear my name. People have forever worked and worked and worked to
     wash away the wrong that they have done, but in the end our work is in vain. We can
     never get rid of the blot of evil.

          In fact - my guilt is such that it put a man on a tree and he died.     He. Died. 

               I am an accomplice in this greatest of murders. My guilt in this is undeniable.

Ironic, then, that the very act that confirms my guilt - solidifying in me a heart of stone - is the very act that absolves it - creating a heart of flesh.

How can it be that my guilt and my forgiveness are both hanging on that tree?
How can it be that my death and my life are there as well?
How can it be that my deepest shame and sorrow, and my greatest hope and joy are due to the selfsame event?

It is only in this paradox that we are free.
     Only when we have soldered the final and greatest link in the chain of our sin is the chain
     broken completely.
     Only when we have acknowledged our evil and then seen its ugliness, do we know the
     pain and joy of guilt and forgiveness. 
     Only when the the woes of the world are cast upon him can he cast them away forever.

The cross is an ugly and beautiful paradox.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chapter 41: Of Spring Break and a Surprise Party

Last night we had a surprise birthday party for one of the teachers here. We made lots of good food (chicken tetrazzini, sourdough bread, and I made Cajun-fried zucchini), told lots of stories, and laughed a LOT. A big part of the merriment was the fact that today is the first day of spring break. I love the feeling at the beginning of a break - when the time stretches before you like a Kansas highway - and you feel weightless and excited.

I really love teaching here. It's a great fit for me. But it has also been a bizarre week for me. I've been crabbier than I have been since moving to China, and I was pretty much busy non-stop. So this break is coming at the perfect time. It will be a good chance to get caught up on school work, Chinese, and rest. I'm looking forward to it.

I don't really have a big overarching lesson that I've learned from this. I could probably make something up about time management (though that seems like it would be beating a dead horse at this point), or the joy of community, but I'll leave it as a simple sharing of what is going on in my life this week.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chapter 40: Being a Glimpse Behind the Mask

Lately I have been noticing an discomforting amount of pride in myself.

Not necessarily the I'm-so-much-better-at-life-than-you pride, or even the look-at-what-I-have-done-and-accomplished-aren't-I-just-the-best type of pride. Instead, I've been seeing, in myself, the I-have-to-do-my-best-because-then-people-will-really-be-fooled-into-thinking-I-have-it-all-together sort of pride. Which is prolly the worst kind.

 As a way to deal a cutting blow to my pride, let me freely admit: I do not have my act together. I am a less-than-consistent friend, I am awful at following through in my classroom, I am an ungrateful son, I am miserable at regularly devoting time to him, I am selfish with my calendar, I choose momentary happiness over eternal joy, I value my way more than His way, and I stink at sports. And that is only off the top of my head. Were I to delve deeper into my habits and patterns of life, I would surely be able to rattle off a list of areas where I am lacking until the pigs have built their flying apparatuses and flown to visit their cousins on one of the moons of Jupiter.

(Now if you ever see or have ever seen me doing any of these things on this list, please feel free to stop and admire, not me, but Him. For any time that I have any smidgen of success in any of these areas, it is 100% due to His strength flowing through me.)

I think one of my new favorite verses is in the book of Zephaniah. A teacher shared this in fellowship on Sunday in the midst of a discussion about how 8 out of 10 people,* when asked the question, "What does the Father feel when He looks at you?" will answer "Disappointed," "Angry," or some other negative emotion. This speaker was arguing that the answer is "Unconditional love."

Zephaniah 3:17
"The Lord is in your midst, a mighty one who will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness;
He will quiet you with His love;
He will exult over you with loud singing."

Yep. He will. And certainly not because of me or my positive attributes (see list above for proof), but only because of the blood that covers me. 

So even though my list of faults is long indeed, and my mask of pride feeds my insecurities, I can know that his love covers me always.

Which is jaw-droppingly, heart-flutteringly, desire-changingly, and knee-bendingly awesome.

*fake statistic used to get my point across

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chapter 39: On Time Management

It seems I tend to make this life into a dance in which I continually push the beat of the drum faster and faster until I am struggling to keep up with the movements.

I am not as overwhelmed as I have been in the past, but I just keep adding things to my schedule. Good things, too. Really good some of them. But when you don't really have time to add even the really good things, it causes a stressed out me who only wants to sleep, watch movies, or read a book.

(I promise that my purpose is not to whine or to complain about my stress level right now. Rather, it's about how I have been learning how to prioritize.)

Before moving to China, I had never really thought enough about how I spend my time. Since coming here, I have had to pay much closer attention to the clock or else it surreptitiously turns its hands to a point some hours in the future without me even noticing. And then I am left wondering how on earth is it that time already!?

One of the things that has been helpful for me has been a paradigm shift in my attitude about time. I have gone from paying virtually no attention to my time management, to the point where I now am creating a time budget - allowing some minutes for this and several hours for that. It seems a very Western thing to do, but it's helping.

Another thing that has helped was something a friend shared with me last week. She was talking about how she has a list of goals for life in China, and if an event or project doesn't fit within those goals, she won't usually get involved. Obviously, this is not a rigid system with no freedom of choice, but it does help her to feel better about saying no.

So, I hope for you the same as for myself - that you are able to manage your time well so that you are the most effective tool for Him that you can be. It's all for Him anyways.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Chapter 38: The One with All the Sickness

I am not Phoebe Buffay.          
Shocking, I know.

When Phoebe is sick, she sings with this real raspy, smoky voice that sounds . . . great (according to her). Sickness actually "improves" her singing voice.

When I am sick, on the other hand, I sound like my vocal chords have been put through a meat grinder, piled in a dark corner until the mangled flesh is covered with mold and rancid decay, and finally placed back in their proper place by Picasso. In other words, I can't sing (or speak clearly). 

If you have ever spent more than three hours with me, chances are you've heard me sing. I sing a lot. Too much, some might say.

Random tangent on that note: My bathroom is particularly resonant, so I like to sing in the shower. I found out a month or so ago, that my neighbor two floors down can hear me crystal clear when I sing in the shower (like, she can understand the words I'm saying. Thank you, Mr. Sawyer for giving me clear enough diction to be understood through several layers of concrete). I turned all kinds of red after finding that out.

Okay, back to the main point of this random and somewhat nonsensical post: I currently can't sing.

Because I sing so much on a regular basis, I have unconsciously been exploring other methods of musical expression. I realized several minutes ago that I have been whistling, almost non-stop, for several hours. How did I realize this? Because my lips are sore from being puckered so much, and my ears are sore from hearing so much whistling.

Oh brother.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chapter 37: In which the Author Willingly, and Against All Common Sense, Chooses to Give up the Joys of Both Sugar and Film Simultaneously

February has been a challenge so far.

Not so much in a I-miss-home-so-bad-and-all-I-want-to-do-is-jump-on-an-airplane-bound-for-Minnesota, or a so-stressed-I-can't-even-think kind of way. Not even in a wintertime-slump kind of way.

February has been a challenge because I decided back in November that February would be a month to try new things. The new things this month? No sugar. And no TV/movies at our apartment.

Why, oh, why would I choose to do something so foolish? And while I had all the best intentions about 'suffering' silently, I find that I can't help but flap my mouth at every moment when I crave sugar or a good movie.

All this to say - I have learned that my self-indulgence rates are typically quite high. Call it being a product of the entitlement generation or call it being a weak-willed human, I just give in to impulses far too regularly. But. . .

Now comes the corny after-school special segment of today's chapter. Cue the sappy music as I share my newly-learned life lessons with my friends and adult mentor: . . . I've learned that it's good to go without because it helps us see what is important to us. I knew this already with my family and friends back home (when I'm away from them for so much of my new life, I really appreciate every moment with them when I get it), and I already knew this in Nigeria (where things like Kentucky Fried Chicken made me choke up in happiness with the feeling that all was good and right in the world as long as I had that spicy chicken burger slathered in mayonnaise and msg (unpaid advertising is the best)), but it seems I needed to be reminded of it again.

So even though I pull faces at the bitterness of coffee and sit wanting more than anything just to pop in "Cowboys and Aliens," I'm thankful for February's challenges. And I'm already thinking about March . . .

And now it's time for the group air high-five. Freeze the image when everyone's hands are together and their faces reflect all the joy of self-discovery and camaraderie.

If you were giving something up, what would it be?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Chapter 36: Five Postcards from a Chinese New Year

1. Our figures outlined 
in bursts of colored light.
Shadows dispelled 
by fire and thunder
raining down from heaven.

2. "Gongxi gongxi,
We want dongxi,"
little emporers cry.

3. We climbed into the Winds of May
and watched the world explode
in pyroclastic light.

4. The fiery lanterns trace their paths above the sea -
the manifestation of hopes and dreams. 
Yet their fate is shared with Icarus,
for neither heed the truth.

5. Lanterns huddle together -
gentle, scarlet beacons -
smiling their cheery wishes
for good fortune.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Chapter 35: On Being a Renaissance Man

I know, I know. The title makes me sound like a self-important, arrogant jerk. But hear me out before you judge me as being such.

I have a love-hate relationship with my own renaissance*^ (rebirth). And since I have many friends out there who are fans of lists, here are two lists to explain what I mean.

Things I Love about Being Reborn:
   -I love that I've been chosen to be reborn.
   -I love that my true life has germinated and grown in his power and grace.
   -I love the feeling of resting fully on him for everything.
   -I love the knowledge that I am secure in those everlasting arms that are mighty and powerful
    and yet incredible gentle.
   -I love the fact that I can ALWAYS have a sense of self-worth because he was willing to pay such a
    huge price for me.
   -I love the fact that he has and continues to use me in his dominion.
   -I love the fact that he has changed my view of others and my view of myself.

Things I Do Not Love:
   -I do not love the fact that the new man in me should be older and more mature.
   -I do not love the fact that I stupidly revert back to the "infant" stage in my new life.
   -I do not love that I all-too-often decide that I know what's best for me.
   -I do not love that my heart is a fickle beast that can't make up its mind.
   -I do not love the constant battle between old and new.
   -I do not love that I have to wait until death to be fully healed. Uffda.

Don't get me wrong. The things I love WAY, WAY, WAY, WAY outWEIGH (sorry, I got a little carried aWAY there) the things I don't love. It's just that sometimes it would be nice to see a little more progress.

*in case you don't know (shame on your high school history teacher), renaissance literally means "rebirth" in French.
^I am not a fan of the fact that I have lots of diverse skills/knowledge but no real mastery in most/any of them.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Chapter 34: On Being Abroad During Election Coverage

I'm not all that into politics. I understand why it's important to know about the candidate for whom I'm voting. I'm really thankful that even across the globe, I can still have a say in what goes on in my passport country (an expat way of saying "home country").

However, across the globe, I should not really be getting sick of the American media and its obnoxious coverage of the presidential race, nor the political campaigns which just get dirtier and dirtier.

All I can say is that I'm really thankful that it's only a trickle of politics coming to China from the media faucet, rather than the full flow that most of you are getting back in the States.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chapter 33: In Which "It's About that Time"

It's about that time. The winter chill has lost its charm, and the hope of spring is still too distant to grasp with any sort of conviction. School is starting again tomorrow and I am well aware of the higgledy-piggledy balancing act that will be my life in the coming months (between teaching 5 "new to me" classes, singing on the team at fellowship, chaperoning a trip to Beijing for the Model United Nations students, and acting as the Baker in "Into the Woods," I have a lot on my plate).

It's about that time. I know that MANY people (especially in colder climates*) really struggle through the winter months. And I am no exception. I have learned this about myself: mid-January through Easter is often a time of apathy and indifference.

It's about that time. All of these feelings combined with the fact that China isn't "new" anymore, and you would think it would be a recipe for emotional/spiritual/physical/apocryphal disaster on the grand scale. An extraordinary outburst of indifference and angst. You would think . . .

But I have just had so much peace here. And it's certainly not from me (see above dreariness for proof). Even though I am expecting that the apathy which often tempts me into laziness will surely strike, I'm also just so thankful for where I am and what I am doing (even though I forget that sometimes).

I highly recommend being in His will. It makes all the difference.

*read "Minnesota"

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Chapter 32: Five Postcards from an Evening on Guimaras

1. Braved the "stormy" ocean
    To find the place where
    Natives leap
           off lace-sharp stone               
    To cerulean velvet

 2. Witness bold sunset colors
    Easing into delicate fingers of magenta light
    That sweep the wisps of clouds to subtle beauty.

                      3. A glimmer on the shore
                                   Leads to
                    Dancing magic on the waves
                                       stars in the sky
                                       stars in the sea

               4. The great hunter
                         hides behind
                             the fronds,
               while the god of thunder
               boldly meets the sea.

5. that deep breath you take
just before sleep catches you
when the world is beautiful
and all is well

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chapter 31: About the Author's First Dive

I have been in Davao, Philippines for a few days, enjoying the good food, culture, and company.

I had my first scuba dive in the ocean today. It was amazing. I debated coming on this trip, but now that I'm doing it I'm really thankful.

Today we saw:
- 6 lion fish
- parrotfish
- clownfish in their anemones
- lots of starfish, sea cucumbers, and corals
- 3 pufferfish

It was pretty cool. Also, the scenery wasn't half bad.