Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I Love My Library Card; Or, April's Reading List

For previous book lists and posts labelled 'reading,' click here.

I remember my friend B.J. asking what I thought I'd miss the most when I went to Sofarawayistan. "My library card!" I said. This month I used Mom's, too, as well as paying for my own copies in a few cases. I was on semi-vacation a good chunk of this month and got to hang out in the Pacific Northwest, God's country. Well, it was cold and rainy a lot, as might be expected. (That's how God keeps it so green.) Just the weather for reading. Here's a summary. Reactions, recommendations, always welcome!

1. Books to make you think:

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini – OK, I’m not done with this book that everybody has probably already read by now. But it’s the selection for my book club meeting this weekend, and I will finish it by then. I’m glad we’re reading it. I tend to be suspicious about many of the books coming out about the Middle East and Afghanistan these days, wondering if they are written to reinforce the anti-Islamic orientation so many Westerners have. You know what I mean: “Here’s the true story about how awful it is, from someone who should know!” That kind of thing is just so unhelpful. But so far that hasn't been an issue with this one. Our friend “Celticpole” blogged about it here.

The Shack, by William Young – Very good. I started it in a bookstore, went back later and bought a paperback version. Everyone’s reading this one too. It’s a Christian book, man-meets-God. And wait until you see how God is portrayed… I liked it. Oh, it dragged in places; mostly just one theological conversation after another, but all dealing with key issues, real questions we all have at some point, if not always. I’d like to read this aloud with someone and analyze it a bit more.

Not Less than Everything, by Valerie Griffiths – Well, I think I’ve said enough about this one in my previous posts. Wonderful. Oh, if you aren’t interested in missions, probably not; it’s not one of those things that is going to have a break-out audience, though it has plenty to say about women in ministry, and ministry in general, not just ministry in China.

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, by Thomas Cahill – I didn’t read this one straight through, but it’s a good reference and I’ll pick it up and read bits. I think it might be weaker than some of his other works.

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky – Well, I wondered, but maybe you don’t. I like overarching historic analysis, what can I say? This covered some similar ground as When Asia Was the World.

Listening Is an Act of Love, ed. Dave Isay – Wonderful. Inspiring. Do take a look.

2. On the lighter side:

At Home in Mitford - dramatization – Focus on the Family did this; didn’t realize when I downloaded the audio book that it wasn’t the real thing. It was OK, but book was better.

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, by Alexander McCall Smith and Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith – Having tasted them all now I’d say with confidence that the “Sunday Philosophy Club” series is most congenial, followed by “The #1 Ladies Detective Agency.” This series is well-written, and funny but I didn't like it as well. I felt like his goal was to get you to laugh with him at how ridiculous his characters are.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis – Time travel, Englishness, fancy dress clothes, and some romance - fun. Willis does weave in the most hilarious little details… in this one, the origin of church jumble sales and the extinction of the common house cat. You’ll have to read it.

Miracle, by Connie Willis – Christmas stories! Therefore easy to get from the library this time of year. Which is fine, since we’re still getting snow in Colorado

3. Young-adult-ish books:

Old Peter's Russian Tales, by Arthur Ransome – I love Arthur Ransome; he wrote the "Swallows and Amazons" series I enjoyed as a kid (and ever since). This set of linked folk tales are available for free download, so I read them as bedtime stories from my laptop. Cosy.

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper - Picked this one up after my sister blogged comparing the book and movie. Will skip the movie (as she suggests) but didn’t enjoy the book as much as she did, and as much as I remembered, though I’d still recommend it to anyone who likes good vs. evil epics (with plot trumping character development). Probably a decent read-aloud for parents with older kids, too.

Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve – Another recommendation from my sister. Shelved with YA/J books but definitely has a dark side; not a feel-good book, which is part of what I was looking for in requested recommendations for things that were more wholesome. But it was really good; I’ve checked out the sequel.

Emlyn's Moon, by Jenny Nimmo – Couldn’t get into this one. Bored, I flipped to the end after a while, than back and forth to figure out what happened; only gave the whole thing about an hour I think.

Ender's Shadow, by Orson Scott Card – Brilliant, as Card generally is; a full-length SF tale that parallel’s Ender’s Game (from the perspective of a different character).

Space Boy, by Orson Scott Card – This one, a novella, didn’t have the SF elements I expected. Wasn’t one of his best, either, I thought, but I finished it!

A War of Gifts, by Orson Scott Card – Another novella, this one in the ‘Ender’ universe; I listened to the audio version. It was intense, quite grim in places. But very good.

D.A., by Connie Willis – I LOVED this book, a novella about a somewhat obstreperous teenager with whom it was quite easy to relate. (Suppose that says something about me.) Took only 30 minutes to read. So I flipped back to the beginning and read it twice. Great fun. I’ll read more Connie Willis. ‘Celticpole’ blogged about this one here.

What’s next:

I am planning to cut way back on my reading in order to join this event called the Bible Marathon – a plan to read the Bible through in 90 days. Why not? Reading the Bible through over the course of a year is practically a sacrament in some circles. I’ve heard lots of stories about new believers who gobble it up a lot faster than that. It takes about 80 hours to read the Bible, apparently. Not sure if I’m going to follow the appointed plan or just dive in on my own. Maybe load it all up on my MP3 player as well.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Those of you who are serious Marti Smith fans may remember the story about my friend who was in a terrorist bombing incident in South Asia; I told it in Through Her Eyes. I was thinking about her the other day... for you who don't remember the story, here are the notes from my 2003 interview. If you remember it, skip to the end:

"March 17 was our second Sunday visiting this church. It was located in the diplomatic enclave, and supposedly quite a safe area. The first time we went, there were armed guards everywhere. The second time, we were a little puzzled; there were no armed guards.

"When we got there I wanted to put [my son] in the nursery, but there was nobody there yet. I took him with me to the sanctuary. After the service started they got to that point where everyone is supposed to shake hands and stuff, and I never like that part so it seemed like a good time to slip out; I went out and put him in the nursery. Then I came back and the sermon started. [The baby] fell asleep in my lap. I kicked off my shoes and crossed my legs. It was a hot spring morning and the sermon was kind of boring.

"Then I heard what sounded like fireworks in the back of the church. The Muslim holiday season had just finished, so it could have been that, but seemed like a bad joke or a skit. But I turned around and saw the commotion; people in the back row were getting up in a panic. I thought, this is not a joke, this is something serious. I saw and started to smell smoke, and pieces of debris in the air, and I thought, somebody is shooting at us: this could be the last moment of my life.

"All kinds of things go trough your mind. It felt like slow motion. I had full-on peace, thought: I wasn’t panicking one bit. It was like I was packed in cotton. My two thoughts were for God and my husband, my two most important relationships. Am I alright with God? I was so glad, you know if he takes you, you go to a good place. You are OK. So the next thing is I wanted to be right with [my husband] too.

"Then pieces were flying through the air. I thought, I’d better get out of here somehow! I wanted to get out and started looking around to leave. But at that moment [my husband] grabbed me, pushed me down, and threw himself on top of us. [The baby] woke as I hit the floor, and a bomb went off. That bomb perforated our ears, but not [the baby’s] because he had started to cry so he had no pressure in his ears!

"As we tried to get out, I was barefoot and carrying [the baby], so my only thoughts were, don’t step on the glass, and get out. I felt weaker and weaker, and looked down and saw there was blood all down my left side. Oh my God I was hit! I sort of listened, inside, thinking, can I continue breathing, or is there something wrong internal?

"We made it up the foyer. We had just finished [the Muslim holiday]. They slaughter animals for the ritual of sacrifice at that time, and in our gutters you would see a lot intestines and the inner parts of animals. As we walked out I saw some of that, and you realize, this is from a human being! But I didn’t see anyone laying on the ground dead or wounded, because I was looking down and focusing on not stepping on glass. That was just God’s mercy, I think.

"We saw another family we knew; the wife was injured but the husband was not. They had their car parked in front of the church and he knew the best place to go. Even so, as we were driving to the hospital, I was thinking, this takes so long, we’re never getting there! Their little boy, only three years old, kept saying, 'They did it on purpose, those bad men they did it on purpose.' I was so surprised, that he understood that."

My friend's arm was shattered and her eardrum punctured, the baby in her arms was unharmed. She still doesn't have a full range of motion in her arm. But she is thankful. "Before," she says, "I never thought, 'I have this arm!'" Now she thanks God for her arm.

She also thanks God for her husband. He may be bad about taking the garbage out, it's true, "But in a crisis situation, what a person is made of all comes out. He jumped on top of me when the bombs hit." (Don't you love that? I love that line.)

I was walking along the other day thinking about my friend being thankful for her arm, her kind-of-mangled arm. I had spent too much time on the exercise bike the other day and could feel pain in my hip joint as I walked. But I thought: Hey, I have this hip. I have two legs, two arms, all these organs, this face, and so on. It may be pretty easy to complain about what we have, to see only the flaws and things that don't work right - or look right - or seem not as good as what someone else has.

I think I'd watched 'Dancing with the Stars' with my parents the night before and felt, I could never do that; I am nothing special. True? Well, we can't all be Kristi Yamaguchi!

"You need to pray and thank God for your body, for your face," the thought came. "For the strength and health and beauty that you do have, whether they seem like enough or not. Those things are tools in God's hands. He works through them. You should thank him."

Not just by thinking, but through prayer, through systematically thanking God for each part of me, I found my attitude about what I've got to work with, changing. There are so many things I can do with how I use my body and/or my countenance. We shouldn't take these things for granted. We're given so much power, so much potential. Even as, at the same time, we're so vulnerable. Could lose so much in just a moment.

My friend described the time after the bombing like this:
The period right after was glorious time, in spite of all the pain and weirdness and sensitivity of emotions. You knew, overwhelmingly, that God protected you and he was right there with you. You may only have a few moments like that in your life.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


My grandparents never expressed much interest in their five grandchildren after we were grown up. It was as if our fathers were part of their family, but we were not. Am I right about that? Do the others feel the same way? Or am I just projecting something? Maybe we were the ones who turned from them and not the other way around. Regardless, it was a healing thing to go to Grandpa’s funeral, to hear funny stories and positive things people said about him, to feel like I could still get to know him a bit better and to forgive what I hadn’t realized I’d held against him.

Was it for me, then, or for him, that tears came to my eyes at the card on one floral arrangement, “Healed at last by the Great Physician”? I'm glad that Someone is going to make things right, in the end, to bring healing and comfort and reconciliation and reunion where there has been pain and disappointment and brokenness and division - or just a vague sense that things should or could have been better.

How easy it is to have ideals for what family is supposed to be like, for the kind of family we want to be part of, and be disappointed when others do not make that happen for us. How much harder to consider and accept the role we play in that, and realize others may, as well, be looking at each of us through a lens of expectation. Or, they may have no expectation at all. I suppose some people never think about these things. Maybe they just accept things as they are.

Well, in addition to sorting out a bit of that, it was also valuable to me to look to the future, and to have enough time with aunts and uncles and cousins to feel like there’s a foundation for continued relationships even with the older generation gone. Three of my four first cousins on Dad’s side live in Florida, at least part of the time, and since I get down there sometimes now I’m hoping to organize a get-together. I don’t remember the last time I saw C. and D. (who didn’t come to the funeral). Until we spent time together this week, I think it had been 15 years since I saw M., although I always ask about her.

I do still have one great aunt, living, and she is getting pretty frail. One of her old classmates was at the funeral home at the same time she was and I was tickled to hear him tell her that their 70th high-school reunion was coming up and trying to persuade her to go. “I’m going to get Herman to come, too,” said Carl. “Well then,” said my aunt, who does not get out very much, “If you and Herman are going to be there, I really should go…” Apparently quite a few of the members of the class of ’38 are still around!

(Although I went through that rite of passage a good 50 years after my aunt, I am not in touch with any of my high school classmates. So, I will probably not attend any 20-year events that may be planned for this summer.)

Here’s another story. When Aunt A. was a girl – about five years before that ’38 graduation ceremony, I guess – she and her grandmother both became ill with scarlet fever. They were quarantined in an upstairs bedroom for six weeks. Can you imagine? One of the things they did during that time was to “piece” a quilt. It’s now in the keeping of cousin L. who is a professional artist and likes “old stuff.” She’s done several paintings which include the quarantine quilt. Isn't that something?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Women of the China Inland Mission: Nellie Marchbank

More on this topic here.
"Am so tired – Oh, for someone to understand, someone to lean on just for a little while to feel real human sympathy. But there is more need to sympathise than to get sympathy. Oh, Master, at such a time, Thou art the One I need." (1895 Diary, Nellie Marchbank, after seven years in China. She was leading the CIM work in Guixi.)

The Guangxin River area was one of the CIM's most successful areas of church-planting, and all the key players were single women. Most had little education; previously many had been clerks, dressmakers, governesses. Nellie had come from a poor Scottish family, and did not arrive on the field until after her widowed mother passed away. Nellie was nearly 30 – older than most of her colleagues. Only three years after leaving her work as a household servant, however, she found herself the senior missionary in her district in China.

Back in England and in his travels around the world, Hudson Taylor was praying and calling for 1000 more workers. Nellie soon found herself supervising six of them. Her responsibilities continued to increase. During her 35 years in China 37 women of many nationalities were trained by serving alongside her. They traveled from village to village (often in wheelbarrows!) tirelessly teaching and ministering to men, women, and children. They worked side by side with Chinese "Bible women" and other local Christians. Thousand heard the gospel because of their ministry, and hundreds responded.

While the CIM missionaries may have, at times, felt they were at a disadvantage because they were all single women, it was clear that their status had significant advantages as well.

"...Missionaries and nationals worked together in teams as brothers and sisters. If missionary men had been around, oriental culture decreed that the nationals would have deferred to them. The missionary women, however, provided someone with experience and wisdom who could be consulted, but still allowed the local leaders to take responsibility in the local churches." (Valerie Griffiths, Not Less Than Everything, pp. 117-118)

Not only did the work prosper more because it was entrusted to single women, but their safety was also increased, not decreased, by the fact that there were no Western men present. When anti-Western riots ransacked the town, Nellie wrote, "our peace and our safety lies (under God) in the fact that we are women." (quoted in Griffiths, p. 121)

I love the way God uses people with different kinds of personalities, breaking out of our expectations and ideals. Consider what Geraldine Taylor (married to Hudson Taylor's son Howard) said when she and her husband visited Nellie (then aged 60). Geraldine wrote,

"We had never imagined anything like the station and work we found in Kweiki. And it is all the expression of this woman's soul. How well I remember meeting her for the first time 30 years ago. I wondered then whether she would ever learn the language, and get in touch with the people. I little realized then that she was already far more of a missionary than I. She had been out a few months longer, but was so reserved, that I, taken up with dear Katie Mackintosh – my ideal of all a missionary should be – was wholly unconscious of the depth and power..." (Griffiths, p. 129)
Probably the apostle Paul said it best:
"Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (I Corinthians 1:26-30)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Grandpa Smith

...did pass away this morning. I am going to fly to the midwest tomorrow for the funeral, along with my dad and stepmom.

I'll fly back to Denver Saturday afternoon. Need to cancel my Wednesday night teaching in Auburn and skip out on a conference I'd registered to attend in Colorado Springs on Friday.

The trip to Indiana should be a good time to learn more about this side of my family and maintain those relationships. Most of these folks I have not seen in years. Perhaps I'll learn more about this man who was my grandfather, John Smith, and the family in which my father grew up.

Update - my sister posted the obit. and a picture of the grandparents, here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thoughtful Blogger – or Anyway, Thoughts on Blogging

Paul “tagged” me to write about why I blog.

Mostly it’s for myself; an outlet. I don’t like to see, or hear, or think something and not put it into words, one way or the other – it feels lost if it’s not passed on or written down. Any day on which I’ve done some writing is a day when I feel better about myself and the world. And that may sound a bit airy and self-important, but it's pretty practical too, because feeling better about myself and the world is a huge help in weathering whatever else comes along with much more equanimity. So, writing keeps me (a bit more) sane. If I don’t do it fairly often, I tend to get more mopey and defensive. I am a nicer person to be around if I've been writing. Well, a little bit nicer.

Why write in public, though? Some folks are more reserved and would not want others to know what they are experiencing or pondering; they might confide in a very small circle of people and/or keep a private journal. It would cost them, in some sense, to “open up,” perhaps seem like a sacrifice or a discipline. But I’m not like that. Staying quiet would take much more discipline and sacrifice! I want other people to hear what I say. I want to talk. And writing about things is even better than talking about things. You can pick your words more carefully, and/or go back and change them after, and they last longer.

Blogging also helps me think more clearly. I aim for 70-80% intelligibility when I blog. So, not great writing, but something that moves me forward from the 50-60% intelligibility (or less) of unexpressed thought. If occasionally I pull off a 90-100% post, that’s good. But I’m not going to hold myself to those standards here. I aim a bit higher with newsletters and stuff that gets published on paper or where my words are intended to represent a group of people instead of just myself.

If keeping a blog helps or stimulates others, great. If it makes me a few new friends, that’s nice too. And if it helps people who care about me keep tabs on me and feel connected, responding with encouragement or accountability as needed, all the better. Feedback through comments, while there isn't a lot of it, can be quite helpful. But that's not why I blog.

One thing that’s challenging is that my readership is more diverse than a group I might spend time with in person. Face to face, I am much more in the habit of contextualizing my message, sticking mostly to topics of interest to whomever I’m speaking with.

The blog is read by people with whom I share very different patches of common ground. So I can’t contextualize. Or I don’t, anyway. While some bloggers stick to one basic topic, tone, or area of life (or keep multiple, discrete blogs), most of us don’t. This tension kept me from starting a blog for some time. I didn’t know which part of my world I’d blog about, or for whom, and didn't want it to be incoherent. But, like many bloggers, I do produce a hodge-podge.

That means, on any given topic, I risk confusing, offending, or boring some segment of my little readership. Face to face, I wouldn’t show my missions-y side to my non-Christian family members, at least not as much. I wouldn’t show as much of my liberal side to my more conservative friends. Would I complain about my job-related issues to my coworkers and supporters? Ah, well, I might – I do. I disapprove of covering things up; I consider openness a better policy. But it is also risky behavior.

My favorite posts are whimsical or intellectual. I am both, but I know those aren’t “cool” things to be. So I tend to tone down those attributes in social situations to avoid being mocked or seen as eccentric. Here, I can be myself – that side of myself. It feels safer.

Now, whom should I tag? Why do YOU blog, bloggers?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Trip to the Skagit Valley / Reflections on this Time

Some of my Scandinavian ancestors farmed in the Skagit Valley in NW Washington. Five of them are buried there. My mother, who has been getting into genealogy, wanted to check out the church records and visit the cemetery. Yesterday we went. It was a nice outing - complete with stops for ice cream and coffee!

While we were in the area we visited the La Conner Quilt Museum and went to look at the tulips, just coming into bloom. To view more pictures from the day, click here.

In other news, my plans for the next week or so are up in the air again. My grandfather, back in Indiana where my dad is from, seems to be dying. I will try to make it back for his funeral. This may mean canceling commitments I've made in Washington and/or Colorado, but I'm not sure yet. He is an old, old man, and began the process of dying many years ago; I think he's ready to go. Who knows, maybe things will turn around and he will pull through. But that's not what's expected.

Whether I get on a plane to Indiana on Monday, or keep my original plans to fly back to Colorado Thursday, my time away from the office seems to be coming to a close to quickly. Yes, I'm still kind of stressed about how I've used my time here. On the up side, I did some teaching at church which went pretty well, and got together with a college friend I haven't seen in maybe five years, and I have plans with another, tonight. I've worked out every other day, and am getting plenty of sleep. I'm getting along well with my family, even if it's difficult to meet their expectations without becoming overextended. I've read quite a few books. I spent some time processing my last six months at work, assessing what I've done and how I feel about it.

On the other hand, I find 30+ unread emails in my inbox today, sitting on top of several hundred I had hoped to clear out, and I've done little writing, and not enough reflection. In less than an hour I have a lunch appointment which I am dreading. It could be she just wants to spend time together because we are friends, but I can think of three or four ways I have let her down recently and am fearful that she wants to confront me about these things and point out what they say about my character (that I don't keep my commitments and follow through on things. It's true!)

[Update - well, she did not bring any of this up. Nor did I... which would have been another way to clear the slate. Now it seems silly that I thought she was mad at me. I must have been looking through a lens blurred by guilt...]

I think back to my days as a Girl Scout. Grownup life, you know, still seems to include time for snacks and games and singing, but is remarkably short on merit badges and other ways to mark and celebrate one's success in exploring a new area or facing a fear or mastering a new skill (like learning to rollerskate backwards or do CPR or build a fire).

I may have written about this before, but when I was a Scout we closed all our meetings with one of several songs. The one I think I've taken most into my heart is the one that's most spiritually questionable. We called it Canadian Taps (though probably it is no more Canadian than Canadian bacon or Canada geese).

Softly fades the light of day,
As the campfire dies away.
Silently each scout shall ask,
"Have I done my daily task?
Have I held my honor bright?
Can I guiltless sleep tonight?
Have I done and have I dared
Everything to be prepared?"

Try sleeping easy after that. It's pretty unnerving. Because I fail, so often, to be prepared, to preserve my honor and integrity and clean conscience. Well, let's deal with the deeds undone, let's face our ghosts and failures and wounds. And if my friend wants to confront me about the ways I failed her, far better to weather the confrontation and come out cleaner on the other side.

If you want to sleep easy, though, meditate on the much more soothing words of this song - 'regular' taps. You know the tune I suspect.

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest.
God is nigh.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Spring "Break"

"get away"
"get some rest"
"work out and go for walks"
"catch up on neglected writing projects"
"clean out my inbox"
"teach at my home church"
"see people I've lost touch with"
"get my head straightened out"

For good measure, add:

"be pleasant and available"
"help my mother"
"try to be useful around the house"

Good goals, perhaps. But when I try to do them all at once it's hard to see much progress in any of them. Frustration is good for at least one thing, though - it's not so hard to get in-touch with the feelings that led me to put "get my head straightened out" on the list. I find the most (and sometimes only) effective motivation for changing the way I live my life is unwillingness to accept the way things are. When things are working OK, I'm not willing to open myself up for examination, to make that best and most terrible of journeys, the journey within. (Hmmm, hope that doesn't sound too melodramatic...)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Women of the China Inland Mission: Mary Ann Nicol, Fanny Clarke

Here's another glimpse from the lives of pioneering missionary women, based on Valerie Griffiths' excellent book Not Less Than Everything. More postings like this here. I'm planning to write another one about Emily Blatchley and Jennie Faulding. We'll see what others rise to the surface.

* * *

In September 1879, a year after the two women had arrived in China, Mary Ann and Fanny married their husbands, George Nicol and George Clarke, in a double ceremony. Both couples were members of the China Inland Mission, founded in 1865. The two men had arrived in China in 1875. In November of 1879, two months into their marriages, the four set off on a ten-week journey up the Yangtze River.

After a difficult voyage (which included two shipwrecks in the icy river) they reached their destination, where the Nicols were to stay, during Chinese New Year’s. Local women were busy with preparations for the festivities, but their curiosity was greater than their busy-ness; they wanted to see the foreign women.

Every day about 200 Chinese women would make their way down the narrow street in the heart of the city, through the courtyard and into the house to catch a glimpse of the foreign women. When the holiday was over, the numbers rose to 500! The lane outside the house was jammed with their sedan chairs and bearers, reports Valerie Griffiths; the room full of smoke from the women’s pipes.

“Mary Ann’s language skills improved by leaps and bounds, but as the crowds continued month after month, and the summer heat increased, she became more and more exhausted. She would snatch moments during the day to write letters home in the midst of the crowds, or else she would write late at night. Often she was called out to the opium suicide victims, sometimes two or three times in a night.

“After Fanny Clark moved on, Mary Ann did not see another European woman for two years, but the local women gave her their friendship and support. One elderly lady saw her plight in the summer head and would take her back to her own home to rest and relax, and sit and fan her while she slept. Mary Ann had open access into the upper-class homes of the Mandarins, and women confined to their homes welcomed her and listened to the Bible stories she told them.”

(Not Less Than Everything, pp. 90-91)

I don’t like to hold up one example of what life was like then – or is like today – for missionary women, and imply that that’s how it was.

Consider how different things turned out for Fanny than they had for Mary Ann. The Clarkes kept going several weeks further inland, over slippery mountain trails made slick by winter rains. Fanny was the first Western woman to reach Guizhou. Within a few months were joined by Jane Kidd, the first single woman to go so far inland, and the recently widowed Ellen McCarthy, who had only arrived in China the previous year. (Can you imagine being in the shoes of any of these women?)

But building relationships among the local people was much more difficult for the Clarkes than it had been for the George and Mary Ann. George Clarke tried to start a school, but only one boy came. The Clarkes planned to stay in Guizhou only a short time; they were waiting for their baby son to be old enough to travel. When died at the age of five weeks, there was nothing to keep them. They continued their journey on into Yunnan Province. Their nearest coworkers were now 500 miles away, and mail now took five months to reach or come from the coast.

“Their surroundings at Tali were incredibly beautiful, with snow covered mountains rising 15,000 feet around the great lake. The town was quite a different matter. A house had been rented for them, but the other occupants refused to move out and they had to share it for six months. Further attempts to rent a house were blocked, and the whole atmosphere was one of rumor and suspicion.”

Moreover, the community was marked by addiction, violence, abuse, and mistrust.

“Fanny was mobbed if she went out, so she received women at home. At first she could get no house help. She felt as if she were up against a brick wall, and achieving nothing.”

Kunming was harder, if anything. The women there were fearful and withdrawn, and would not go near Fanny or invite her to their homes.”

(Not Less Than Everything, pp. 92-93)

Fanny never recovered from the birth of her second son, but died six weeks after he was born. Her husband buried her, conducting a short service at her graveside, and walked home alone carrying their six-week-old baby.

As Fanny Clarke lay dying she felt she had accomplished very little, but she said, “Others will come after us.”

Tough stuff, huh? Was Mary Ann doing things right and Fanny doing things wrong, than one had so much more of a positive experience than the other? I don't think so. And when we go out today, should we expect to be overwhelmed by opportunities and relationships, or isolated and alone, unable to make a friend? Either may easily be the case. When put ourselves forward to be used for God’s purposes, we can be confident that we will be used, but we don’t know what part we will play. This is nothing new.

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:13-16, NIV)

* * *

I met a woman at the conference in Thailand who said something that really got my attention.
I don't even know who it was, so I can't follow up with her. "Are you going to write another book?" she said. Um, should I? "You should! You should write about expectations. We have so many people who come out to our field who have unrealistic expectations. Especially Americans. We need some tools to help people set appropriate expectations."

Well, I have tremendous struggles on that front, myself; everything to learn, nothing to teach. But that's the beauty of being a researcher/writer. I could actually do this. All I'd need to do is put myself in a position to learn from those who have something to say, faithfully listen to them and write down what they say. I'd get so much out of it. Just one of those sneaky ways I could do a master's (well, the functional equivalent) without paying for it. [Though, on that front, a major Christian U. is offering members of our organization a 50% discount on tuition, which might make doing things the formal way a possibility for me.]

Of course that's just one of many research projects I could pursue in years to come. Who knows what will rise to the surface? It's fun to have lots of ideas and opportunities. I'm trying to avoid making any promises I cannot keep.

Monday, April 07, 2008

More Missionary Women Stories

More on this topic here.

One of best books I've read in years is Valerie Griffiths' Not Less Than Everything, which is about the first missionaries in the modern era to go to China, and, in particular, the first women missionaries. I remember seeing parallel after parallel to situations in the Muslim world today, but I couldn't remember the details. So when I packed for my study/rest/reflection time in the Seattle area, I tucked Griffiths' book into my suitcase. Time for a re-read.

In the early nineteenth century foreigners were not allowed to make permanent residence in China - so, no foreign missionaries. The London Missionary Society was very interested in taking the gospel to the Chinese people, but the best they could do was settle in the nearby coastal cities with large Chinese populations, places like Singapore, Penang, and Jakarta.

In the years to come China would open up, and many of the first to walk through those open doors were women. There may have been many reasons for that, but one must have been that more women than men were needed. Think about it:
"Two hundred years ago the women of China spent most of their lives in their homes. For over a thousand years the custom of foot-binding (to produce 'lily' feet three or four inches long) had crippled millions of women, and made walking painful, if not impossible. The first missionaries to China soon realized that unless Christian women could visit them in their homes - a massive task - they would never hear the message of God's love." (Griffiths, p. 10)
One of the first openings came with setting up schools for girls. While in some Chinese families, the birth of a daughter was welcomed, in other cases daughters were seen as a financial burden, and it was rare for a girl to be educated. Even beyond the times and places where foot-binding was practiced, girls typically lost much of their freedom by the time they were 11 or 12. They would be confined to home until their early marriages, after which they would rarely leave the house. So one of the first things missionary wives and widows (not typically identified as being actually missionaries themselves, since that 'rank' was reserved for ordained men) did, was to set up set up schools for young Chinese girls in the coastal towns.

Among the early Christian school teachers were a pair of sisters named Maria and Burella Dyer, daughters of a London Missionary Society missionary couple. It was their father's dying wish that his wife and children carry on his work serving the Chinese people. After their parents died they girls spent five years in England until returning to East Asia at the ages of 15 and 18.
"When Maria Dyer married Hudson Taylor in 1858, she had already packed more adventure and achievement into her 21 years than most Victorian ladies experienced in a lifetime." (Griffiths, p. 45)
She was not the only one. By 1900 there were two missionary women in China for every man, and their work among women (and beyond) was crucial to the growth of the church in that country. Such is the case today in places like the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And while the cultures (ours and theirs) still provide varying levels of opposition to the development of the gifts of women, I'm encouraged at how these obstacles were overcome in China. And, as Griffiths points out,
"In the process, these Western women were liberated from Victorian customs and expectations; they found themselves gifted for work in teaching and evangelism which would have been impossible in their churches at home. At the same time, the Christian message liberated their Chinese sisters too. For the first time in their lives the Chinese saw women living far away from their families, educated, unmarried, able to travel, and capable of more than they had ever dreamed. They were soon working together. The uneducated Bible women taught the missionaries how to communicate with the Chinese women, and the missionaries enabled the local women to take the message of God's love to their neighbors." (Griffiths, p. 10)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Story Questions

Have you heard about StoryCorps? It’s an extensive oral-history project through which people around the country have the opportunity (and the help of a facilitator) to do a 40-minute interview with someone else in their life (usually someone they love) in order to tap into that person’s wisdom and experience and preserve it for others.

Participants take home CDs of their interviews and recordings are also preserved in the Library of Congress. Thousands of people have participated. Excerpts of interviews are broadcast on the radio each Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition. And recently a book, Listening Is an Act of Love, was published.

Well, you know how I love a good short story, and I love to see people take the act of listening seriously. What would it be like if each one of us sat down with someone – say, our moms, or our dads, if they are living – and asked them some of these questions? And what if we didn’t change the subject or contradict the speaker, what if we just listened? Would we hear things we hadn’t heard before?

This is from the appendix of the book:
Favorite StoryCorps Questions
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who was the most important person in your life?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did this person teach you?
  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • What is your favorite memory of me?
  • If you could hold on to one memory from your life for eternity, what would that be?
  • Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to me?
  • What are you proudest of in your life?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • What does your future hold?
  • Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
  • Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?
  • Turn the tables: This is you’re chance to tell the person you’re interviewing what you’ve learned from him or her and what that person means to you.
You can find more StoryCorps questions here. You can also find information on how to record an interview yourself.