Thursday, November 15, 2007

More Isobel Kuhn - Joining the China Inland Mission

A few years ago I was part of a ‘social networking’ site called Missionster. No idea if it is still running and active. Among the characters lurking there – mostly young, mission-minded Southern Californians – were some who represented themselves as historic missionaries like Amy Carmichael, Hudson Taylor, and yes, my recent companion Isobel Kuhn. I think it would be a fun and helpful exercise to immerse oneself in an admirable (or even just interesting) character like that – historic or fictional – and to discipline oneself respond as they did or would. Do other web communities encourage / allow that? Is Sherlock Holmes roaming around in Second Life? Does Florence Nightingale have a MySpace account? Is Mahatma Gandhi on Facebook?

[NOTE: 6/29/08 - If you are Facebooker, you can become 'friends' with J.O. Fraser, one of Isobel's mentors and inspirations.]

I’ve been planning to write another posting about my new friend Isobel, telling a story from her autobiography By Searching. If you can't find a copy in your local library, you can get it from OMF here.

This one takes place more than 80 years ago, in January 1927. Isobel was just out of college and ready to pursue the next step for which she had been preparing, joining the mission agency whose members and supporters had nurtured her as she turned from living for herself to choosing a consecrated life and equipping herself for cross-cultural service.

First, a Graduation Story
Elected the female valedictorian of her class at Moody, Isobel had been required to make a speech at the December graduation. According to the rules of the institution had to submit her word-for-word speech in advance that it might be approved, then recite it from memory exactly as written. This wasn’t her style, as she was later to realize. Cramped by it, she stumbled and forgot her lines.

As soon as she could get away she ran off to her room where, she says, “I fell on my knees in an agony of humiliation and failure.”
“A pale December sun shone weakly through the heavy city atmosphere upon me, and then suddenly the Lord was there with me. I felt His love folding me around. ‘Never mind, dear,’ He was saying. “Failure or success it is all over now and my love is just the same.’

“…The words were as if spoken, and the tenderness that engulfed me was balm of Gilead to my agonized soul. Slowly I quieted, relaxed, rested back on Him and drank deeply of His love. It was a wonderful experience and I was lifted up in spirit so that I no longer cared for any personal humiliation. I was deeply sorry I had disappointed the expectations of my class, but apart from that I was beyond hurt. I have never forgotten the outpouring of His love upon me that day when I felt such a failure.”
As she left to spend some weeks or months at the China Inland Mission’s “home” in Toronto where she would receive some training and orientation to the mission, one of her mentors came to the train to see her off.
“I do not know whether I was looking anxious or sad or just plain tired, but suddenly a tender compassion lit up his face and he leaned forward and said to me, ‘Do not be afraid, Isobel. There is nothing to dread in candidates’ school. The CIM has known you from a child.’”

Found Wanting

The time came for Isobel to be examined by the Council which appointed new members. It was “a formidable occasion” she says, and she was nervous. Called back to the director’s sitting room after supper to hear the verdict, she was told:
"The Council was quite satisfied with your answers today, and we in the Home have enjoyed your presence. But the Council has asked me to speak to you upon a very serious matter. Among your referees there was one who did not recommend you. The reason given was that you are proud, disobedient, and likely to be a trouble maker. This person has known you for some years and the Council felt they could not ignore the criticism. … I cannot tell you the name, but I would like to discuss with you what havoc such characteristics can cause on the field.’ He then proceeded to do so.  
“At the end of an hour of earnest exhortation, he pronounced the verdict: ‘The council has decided to accept you conditionally…. There is an anti-foreign uprising in China just now which is very serious and we dare not send out any new candidates. That will be our public statement on this matter. For yourself alone, and we hope you will not spread it around, during your waiting period the Vancouver Council will be watching to see if any of these characteristics show themselves. If you prove that you have conquered them, you will then meet with the Western Council and be accepted fully…’”
How Would You Respond?
That night, unable to sleep, Isobel considered the accusations. She’d been accused of being proud, before, and didn’t think it was true. In time though she had come to realized there was a real flaw in her life but that it had been given the wrong label. It was more a matter of selfishness. She had divided the world into people who interested her and people who did not, and tended to brush off the latter. Still a pretty problematic characteristic, and not one you’d want to see in a missionary. Disobedient? That one did seem unfair. Moody had so many rules and she’d meticulously obeyed them all, sometimes at great inconvenience. What about rebelliousness? Well, after laying these things down before God she rose from her knees not with resentment, but with alertness: to see if these things appeared in her life and get rid of them.

She must have still felt the accusations rankle, though. She mentioned them in letters to a few close friends. One young man whom she expected to be indignant on her behalf, wrote instead:
“Isobel, what surprised me most of all was your attitude in this matter. You sound bitter and resentful. Why, if anyone had said to me, ‘you are proud, disobedient, and a troublemaker,’ I would answer ‘Amen, brother! And even then you haven’t said the half of it!’

“… He was right. Why try to make the mission think I was lily-white? They’d have personal experience before long as to just how earthly a person I was!”
As Isobel says, these accusations were a kindness – not because they were true but because they could have been, because they kept her in North America for some work he had for her before sending her to China, and because they shook her self-confidence in an important way – reminding her not to rely on her own good works or efforts in anything.

It mars the story somewhat when Isobel explains how she discovered who had spoken against her, and chose not to try to clear her name… but she was eventually entirely cleared of the accusations and went out with no cloud on her reputation, instead had the Council’s unanimous and unconditional support! How often do we come out of such situations so squeaky clean?

Well, this is personal for me. Some 60 years later, I found myself in similar circumstances. I was about a bit younger than Isobel when I was rejected by an agency (not merely put on probation, as she was), and on the basis of similar statements also made on a confidential character evaluation. I’ve never forgotten how that felt. Looking at my own heart, I felt the same conflict between the partial truth of the negative words, and the misunderstanding or injustice in them.

I don’t think I responded as well as Isobel did. But it has shaped my life in positive ways as it did in hers – reminding me of both my real weaknesses and those of which I might be accused. And I also came to see God’s hand in redirecting me from the course I was planning to follow, toward another one. God is good. And I feel a connection to Isobel.

On the Other Hand
I should acknowledge, I don’t admire or relate to everything about Isobel and her life. Some of her views and ways that seemed charming in a girl in her 20s lose their enchantment in a middle-aged woman. Her prejudices and assumptions certainly belong to a different world, too.

The way she calmly submitted to being separated from her children for years on end for the sake of the ministry and their schooling seems unimaginable. I think she sent her daughter Kathryn to boarding school before she was 10 and didn’t see her again until she was 16 or something.

Nor did she or the mission see anything wrong in long separations from her husband, requiring him to travel without her for four months of every year. At one point men of his position in the mission were even asked to leave their wives and families back in the West for a whole year while they went ahead to set up some things in China! (This, at least, allowed Isobel to spend time with Kathryn and get to know her nearly grown daughter again.)

So, I don’t know that I’d change places with Isobel, but I do enjoy the fellowship of reading about her life. It’s nice to know we are not alone when we struggle, that whatever it is, someone else has been through something much like it before!

> What about you? Got a historic companion for your journey these days?


Anonymous said...

During my youth, my mom had us read missionary biographies as part of our entertainment and spiritual education--replacing a great deal of TV-watching in our family.

Part of that reading list was all of Isobel Kuhn's books, which I have since re-read many times. Her life resonates with me so closely as I grew up where she did, and now serve the Lord in Northeastern Thailand, barely a day's bus ride from her center of ministry in her later life. From time to time, I come across evidence of her ministry, particularly among the Christian hill tribes which are gradually dispersing among Thai society in the 21st century.

Enjoyed reading your article and your personal connection with Isobel. Only eternity will tell how many tens of thousands (maybe more!) lives she has touched through personal ministry and her subsequent writings.

Marti said...

Thanks for posting! Yes, seems like God has used Isobel to touch many lives over the years. CIM has attracted/produced quite a few women who used their writing gifts. Right now I'm reading a Phyllis Thompson book, 'Each to Her Post' which I snagged from the OMF USA library. Love it...

If you come back by here again, Anonymous, tell me which of Isobel's books you like best, and why, so I'll know what to pick up next time I mosey down there. Thanks! And blessings on your work in Thailand...

Kay Day said...

Elisabeth Elliot has been my companion for years. And through her I've come to know amy Carmichael a little.
I also love Isobel Kuhn. By Searching was required reading at my high school, but I've got it now and read through it now and then.
I also really liked In the Arena and need to get a new copy of that to re-read.
Corrie ten Boom is another.
I'm so thankful for these women of God who can mentor us through their words.


Thank you for your wonderful blog wherein you put your ideas for Iam in thoughts of the Lisu people after reading Stones of fire for the second I love those faithful missionaries who left all for Him.....I strongly wish I had a heart set aflame for God like them..... also Corrie ten Boom,Amy Carmichael,Ida Scudder,Gladys Aylward and other stalwarts of faith