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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

When in doubt



Today I was looking for an old photograph to post. The photo depicts me in a body cast with my nickname Eowiggle written across my chest. I can see it in my mind's eye, but  I did not find it. It must still be with my parents. In looking for it, I stumbled across my baby book. On the very last page, my mother (Rebecca Jones) describes events that occurred on April 27, 1973 when I was 10 months old.

We were driving to Princeton for Peter's oral examination on his dissertation. It was raining, and as we were coming around a curve, Peter lost control of the car and it began to go off onto the shoulder of the road. He steered back toward the center of the road, but we were going nearly 60 mph and the wet roads kept him from regaining control. We smashed into the center guard rail, were flung across the road, spinning as we went, and smashed into the side guard rail. When we finally came to a stop, Peter said, "the baby!" and we immediately jumped out to see how she was. She had been sleeping in her car bed behind the back seat in our Opel station wagon.  She was gone. Nothing was in the back-no car bed, no suitcases, no baby. I thought she had been thrown out early in the accident and since I saw something about 100 yards back by the side of the road, I began running down the road, screaming, "Eowyn, Eowyn, where are you?" Meanwhile Peter was looking too and found her lying on the other side of the guard rail in deep grass. He called me back and put her in my arms and it was as if she had been brought back from the dead. I began to cry and kept saying over and over, "Jesus, thank you. Thank you, Jesus!" I knew then that Eowyn did not belong to us. She is God's child. It was as if God wer saying, "She's mine. I'm going to let you keep her now. Take good care of her for me." This dawned on me only as I stood in the hospital with little Eowyn naked and wrapped in white sheets on the white bed. We had waited in someone's car for 20 minutes for an ambulance, then there was a 10 minute ride to the hospital and a 15 minute wait in the emergency ward. She might have had any number of internal injuries-might still have been dying for all I knew but I had an immense sense of peace knowing that she belonged to God-that He loved her infinitely more than I did and that I didn't mind if He wanted to take her. Right then and there, in my heart, I dedicated her to God.When you read this, Eowyn, remember that you belong to God and no one can take you out of his hands.Remember how he preserved your life so that you would grow up with us. We thank Him for you and pray daily that you would come to love Him with your whole heart, soul, strength and mind. A boken leg was the only injury. Peter and I had our shoulder seat belts on and had only minor bruises. Eowyn ate and slept well immediately, though she nursed more frequently for the first two days. By May 1st she was crawling all over the house, cast and all.

This account of how God preserved my life as a baby has become more precious to me as I have grown older and have children of my own. It encourages me in numerous ways. The first is the faith of my parents who, with the uncertainty of whether I would live or die, were willing to trust their heavenly Father with their child's life. My mother dedicated me to God right then and there. What a blessing she has been to me through her example and her actions that prove her unshakable trust in God.  The second way this story lifts my spirit is it reminds me that God knows the number of our days. He knows the number of hairs on our head. He knows exactly when it will be out time to leave this earth. Is this thinking morbid? On the contrary, it is quite freeing! It frees me not to fear my own death and not to be overly anxious about the safety of my own children. This does not mean I don't struggle with fear. I do. I am tempted to worry whenever one of my kids sets off across town on bike or on the Berlin public transportation system alone. Every time this happens, I am challenged to stretch my faith muscles and trust God with their lives. So when in doubt, I remind myself that they too are in God's strong yet tender hands, just as I was on April 27th, 1973, the day of that terrible accident, when those hands gently placed me on the other side of the guard rail in deep grass. One day those hands will carry me safely to the other side of the guard rails of this life and it will be the right time then.

Friday, May 24, 2013

No Small Feat~ How can I make a difference in this world?


Do you sometimes wonder whether your life is making a difference in this world? I do. I want to feel like I am part of something bigger, something significant, something that is changing lives of people around me for the good. I want to be changing for the good too. Stories of normal, yet courageous people encourage me to be more bold in my pursuit of my calling. I want to be realistic about my abilities and my limitations, but I don't want my view of my limitations to limit what God might be intending to do through me or even in spite of me! 

One such encouraging story is about the life of Gladys Aylward. My grandfather, Ron Jones, used to tell stories of an unusually short and spunky British missionary woman who would occasionally stay at Maybank, my grandparents large home in Liverpool. This lady, who didn’t exceed 5 feet had become as Chinese as one could get. Her stature, her demeanor and especially her pitch black hair made her look very Chinese. One might think, in one sense, that she was the perfect fit for working in China. But she was not even supposed to have gone to China. 
Gladys was born in 1902. Her father was a mailman. She became a Christian at a revival meeting when she was a teenager and felt called to be a missionary to China. She had worked as a parlor maid in rich West End manors since she was 14. Pursuing her sense of call, she applied to the China Inland Mission and was rejected after 3 months of training. Reason? She wasn’t educated enough and would never be able to learn Chinese. Gladys was determined, though. She worked as a house maid for a few years, saving every penny until she was finally able to purchase her ticket. At age 30, she set off for China by train, crossing war-torn Russia alone.
Gladys arrived in Yangchen and set up an inn there. Yangchen was an overnight stop for mule caravans that carried coal, raw cotton, pots and iron goods on six week or three month journeys. It is told that the first night, she pulled one of the lead mules into the courtyard of her inn and all the other mules followed. The men, at first quite suspicious, were well fed and Gladys told them stories about Jesus. Can you imagine a housemaid ministering to rough Chinese tradesmen? Does this seem to fit the picture of being suited and qualified for a job? But God used her vulnerability and weakness and many of these rough men were drawn to God's love and became believers as a result.
Gladys Aylward practiced Chinese for hours every day and learned it very well. Later she would call this “one of God’s great miracles” because her missions agency had told her she would never be able to learn such a difficult language with her level of education. 
foot binding
This is what bound feet look like
And because of her interpersonal and language skills, and her normal feet, Gladys met the Mandarin (or the governor) of Yangchen who commissioned her to be the official foot inspector in the entire province. The government had decreed an end to the practice of foot-binding. This included binding, sometimes even bending or breaking little girls’ feet so that they would remain small and walk more gracefully. Because Gladys had normal feet, she was given this traveling job. She accepted with one condition: that she would be allowed to tell the families about God's love for them. Permission was granted. She got to visit all the households of the province, inspecting feet and proclaiming Christ.
One of the women who became a Christian as a result of Gladys’ foot inspections later said: “My heart was bound up tight with sin, like I bound up the feet of the little girls. Now I am free and my heart can grow big with happiness”.  And so, if you’ll excuse the pun…..What this little woman accomplished was no small feat!
During her second year at Yangchen, the Mandarin called her to calm a men’s prison riot. The men were rampaging in the prison courtyard and some of them were dead. She was told: “Go into the yard and stop the rioting” to which she responded “How can I do that?” The warden said, "You have been preaching that those who trust in Christ have nothing to fear." So, she walked right into the courtyard and shouted: "Quiet! I cannot hear when everyone is shouting at once. Choose one or two spokesmen, and let me talk with them." The men quieted down and chose a spokesman. Gladys talked with him, and then came out and told the warden: "You have these men cooped up in crowded conditions with absolutely nothing to do. No wonder they are so edgy that a small dispute sets off a riot. You must give them work. Also, I am told that you do not supply food for them, so that they have only what their relatives send them. No wonder they fight over food. We will set up looms so that they can weave cloth and earn enough money to buy their own food." This was done. The people began to call Gladys Aylward "Ai-weh-deh," which means "Virtuous One." It was her name from then on.
Then the war came. In the spring of 1938, Japanese planes bombed the city of Yangcheng, killing many and causing the survivors to flee into the mountains. The Mandarin gathered the survivors and told them to retreat into the mountains for the duration. He also announced that he was impressed by the life of Ai-weh-deh and wished to make her faith his own. There remained the question of the convicts at the jail. The traditional policy favored beheading them all lest they escape. The Mandarin asked Ai-weh-deh for advice, and a plan was made for relatives and friends of the convicts to post a bond guaranteeing their good behavior. Every man was eventually released on bond. As the war continued Gladys often found herself behind Japanese lines, and often passed on information, when she had it, to the armies of China, her adopted country. She was sent a message by the local general “The Japanese are coming in full force. We are retreating. Come with us." Angry, she scrawled a Chinese note, Chi Tao Tu Pu Twai, "Christians never retreat!" He sent back a copy of a Japanese handbill offering $100 each for the capture, dead or alive, of (1) the Mandarin, (2) a prominent merchant, and (3) Ai-weh-deh. She determined to flee to the government orphanage at Sian, bringing with her the children she had accumulated, about 100 in number. With the children in tow, she walked for twelve days. Some nights they found shelter with friendly hosts. Some nights they spent unprotected on the mountainsides. On the twelfth day, they arrived at the Yellow River, with no way to cross it. All boat traffic had stopped, and all civilian boats had been seized to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese. The children wanted to know, "Why don't we cross?" She said, "There are no boats." They said, "God can do anything. Ask Him to get us across." They all knelt and prayed. Then they sang. A Chinese officer with a patrol heard the singing and rode up. He heard their story and said, "I think I can get you a boat." They crossed, and after a few more difficulties Ai-weh-deh delivered her charges into competent hands at Sian, and then promptly collapsed with typhus fever and sank into delirium for several days. 
After 20 years and with the communist takeover of China, Gladys Aylward and other missionaries had to leave. Christianity was suppressed. Would the church survive there? Would the Mandarin’s words to Gladys before he became a Christian remain true? He had once said to her:“Ai-weh-deh, you preach and you work for your God, but I do not think you will make a ripple on China’s consciousness as great as the ripple a gnat makes when he touches the surface of a great ocean.” That is sometimes the way I feel about my life and work. A gnat's ripple! But that is not God's voice, nor his perspective. 
Only in the past few years have we discovered in the West that the church in China not only survived but enjoyed dramatic growth. It is estimated that between the Communist takeover in 1949 and the mid-1980s the church in China grew from 800,000 to as many as an estimated 50 million. Today there are 159 million (conservative estimate). This is one of the greatest surges of growth in all of Christian history which, I think, we can call more than a gnat’s ripple! Gladys' life and work contributed to this movement. Our small steps of faith and obedience can result in huge, life-changing, history-making events. All we need to do is to be willing, to listen and to follow where God leads us. The rest is up to Him!

 How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation (Isa 52:7).

Excerpt from a talk given at a conference.


Gladys Aylward in traditional Chinese garb


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Balancing Act



 As a child I did gymnastics. I loved it. I enjoyed the thrill of the balance beam: Being up high off the ground and having just 4 inches of width on which to perform tricks. I learned quickly that looking down was a sure way to fall. Our coaches always hollered repeatedly: "Look up! Keep your eyes on the end of the beam!"

Living in Berlin is God’s will for my life and that is the best place to be. It has become my new balance beam. It is the place where I've been dared to learn new tricks, reach new heights. There are days when I love it. I thrive on the challenges of living in Germany, ministering to difficult people and being cross- and counter-cultural. I love the fact that Berlin is a dark place where God’s light shines all the brighter. But the reality of that darkness is sometimes overwhelming. Remaining a foreigner and being different  gets to be exhausting. I waver a lot when I look at my life. I have lots of questions about calling too.

On good days I can see all the walking the kids and I do as “exercise” but on bad days it’s simply a hassle. When I’m upbeat, being friendly to gruff people is rewarding when I see their icy faces melting into a smile. When I’m down I think, “if one more person talks to me rudely or looks at me funny, I’m just going to start screaming!” When I’m feeling independent, being away from my family feels like an adventure but when I’m lonely, the sight of a grandmother with her grandkids is enough for me to burst into tears. At times, I even feel like the balance beam act is upped to a tight rope walk in which losing my balance could lead to a serious fall. The stakes are much higher. That on which my feet are standing is itself shaking. The tight rope is God’s calling on my life.  The only way to get to the other side is to look up and forward. I cannot focus on the tight rope itself because my perspective on it is often skewed by my circumstances. On good days, though the walk may be scary I know the rope is firmly attached. On bad days I look down into the abyss of my own heart and the hopelessness in this world and start to despair. It is then that the rope starts to wobble and I start losing my own balance. My sense of calling wavers. I lose all sense of purpose and direction. I can’t help thinking of Peter, Jesus' friend and follower, who stepped out of the boat to walk on water toward Jesus. It was a huge step of faith! But as soon as he focused on the waves instead of Jesus’ face, he started to sink. I think mourning what we give up to follow Jesus, or shedding tears over this dark world has its place but it cannot determine our life or else we start wallowing in self-pity. What we are doing is looking at the waves. Weeping over the hardness of hearts and the brokenness of this world is not only acceptable, it’s what Jesus did. He wept over the lostness of Jerusalem and over the death of his friend Lazarus. But we start drowning in those waves if we stay stuck there. Jesus spent many hours praying, communing with his Father. It is that communion with God which kept his gaze fixed upward and forward. He lived in the very same tension in which we live. In Gethsemane, Jesus struggled over God’s will and calling for his life which involved great pain. He himself walked the tight rope of obedience to his calling. The difference was that, even knowing he would have to fall into the abyss, he chose to look up, to trust. "Not my will, but yours be done." Maybe that is part of what Jesus meant when he talked about the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:14). Though it seems so limited to walk on the narrow path, the 4 inches of balance beam or the tight rope of our calling, it is the way that leads to freedom and joy because we are forced to gaze at him and not at our own feet and the path that seems right to us. When we look down, we fall. When we look up to Him, we live.

Have you ever seen the movie or read the book The Lord of the Rings? In it, Gandalf the wizard is the last one of the fellowship to cross a very narrow bridge in the depths of the mines of Moriah. He is balancing on the last piece of standing bridge, a narrow foot path, fighting a fiery demon called the Balrog in order to protect the hobbits.  It wraps one of its tentacles around him and pulls Gandalf down into the fire. His last words to the hobbits are “Run, fools.” As the hobbits realize that Gandalf has sacrificed himself for them, they reluctantly start running, they look back in disbelief and then they finally pick up speed and run all the treacherous way out of the mines.


To watch this clip go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLclk16PtE4


Our Christian walk is often like that last run of the hobbits. But there is one very significant difference. What they did not know, was that Gandalf would come back to life. How could they have known? They ran driven by their despair and fear. We can succeed at our perilous balancing act because we know that Jesus went before us, taking the fall for us and is now standing on the other side of the chasm with arms wide open and ready to catch us. We can leave the abyss behind as we look upward and forward into his face.

I have a daily choice to make. I can  look down at the negative circumstances in my life that threaten to paralyze me and make me lose my balance or to look up and forward in trust that Jesus is there to catch me. It's not easy. Especially when those circumstances make no sense to me or I cannot see how God could turn them into anything good in my life. It takes faith. But when I look at the alternatives of despair and hopelessness it drives me to want to practice trusting, just like I did when I learned  how to do tricks on a beam as a child. Falling and failing were one and the same thing for me back then. The fear of falling would often leave me stuck on the beam, not willing to go on.  But my coaches would remind me that falling was not failing if I got back up on that beam and tried again. I fall often when I look down at my negative circumstances and allow myself to be dragged down by them, but in every fall is an opportunity to learn to trust more, not a failure. And there is God's Spirit who comes along side of me as a coach and whispers encouragement in my ears: "Look up, keep your eyes on the end of the beam."



 I love this verse in a German song, written in 1941 by Arno Pötzsch, a German pastor who ministered to wounded soldiers and to people before their execution for hiding Jews:





Du kannst nicht tiefer fallen

als nur in Gottes Hand

die er zum Heil uns allen

barmherzig ausgespannt.



You cannot fall any lower

 than in God's merciful hand

which he stretched out to us

for the purpose of saving man

(translation mine)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle and why this blog?


Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle (as depicted for C.S Lewis' The Silver Chair)

 Why this blog?


The Marsh-wiggles are pessimistic creatures, always expecting the worse so that they are surprised when things go well. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that I am, gulp, a pessimist, in spite of not wanting to be one! 

We pessimists like to believe that our way of seeing things, namely that the glass is half-empty, is more accurate, more realistic than that our optimist counterparts. We don't like to be disappointed. We hide behind our "realism" to avoid the negative attribute "pessimist." After all, who really wants to be around a pessimist? Negativity is not "in." The views of a realist, however, might be considered constructive and helpful. We also like to believe that our criticism and judgments are neutral, hence contributing positively to any conversation. In the end, though, our neutral criticism does not seem to be appreciated by others because, try as we may, our pessimism does percolate through our arguments. 
We have a love-hate relationship with optimists. On the one hand, they excite us, motivate us and give us a glimpse of things we cannot imagine. On the other hand, they frustrate us to no end because their upbeat spirit not only seems to us to be out of touch with reality, it rubs our noses in the muck of our own negativity leading us to feel even more critical of ourselves. And who of us wants to be around someone who makes us us feel even worse about our nature?

The thing is, I did not choose to be a pessimist. I do not consider myself to be an unhappy person either. It is just the way I view the world. I'm no philosopher, but I am someone who likes to think about things and sometimes my own thoughts hold me captive and spiral me down. That is why I need to keep moving up and out of my pessimism so I don't get bogged down in the marshes of worry or fear. Puddleglum the Marshwiggle is described by his own kin as a kind of "optimist pessimist." There is a scene in The Silver Chair in which the witch casts a spell on Puddleglum and the children and tries to convince them that their world, Narnia, is but a dream, that the sun is merely a lamp and that Aslan, the great lion is only a cat.  In the end, it was Puddleglum who was able to see through the lies of the witch, and, with his bare feet, stomp out the fire that was causing the spell. In the end, he had the strength of character to doubt his doubts, to rise up over the spell of hopelessness and be true to what he held most dear. Puddleglum may be may be a doubting Thomas figure, a realist who cannot quite get his mind around God's goodness, this love that appears too good to be true. But he has to cling to that goodness, in spite of himself, in order to make sense out of anything.

I want to move in that direction. I don't want to miss out on the joy in life and my Christian world-view holds me in check. It acknowledges evil and the mess of this world as well as holding out hope for change and renewal, including in me. This Eowiggle is a work in progress when it comes to the pursuit of joy. I know it can be found and I will pursue it. This blog is a tool for me (and maybe others too) to reflect on how we view the world, how God views it, and how my views have to change in order to become a real and joyful realist.

This blog will not focus on one single topic, rather, address numerous ones from Eowiggle's experience and perspective. Because of this, it may seem eclectic at times,  but there will be an underlying theme in each post: How does the Gospel and God's renewal cast light on tough issues that cause us doubt? Some of these issues I don't even really want to face and write about, but that is how I will force myself to do what God does. He doesn't look away from the mess of this world. He has redemptive plans for it. Eowiggle welcomes comments and critiques.