Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li (Part 2)

Mr LiMrs. Yang came rushing up to where we were sitting. She thought that we had left for Kunming without saying goodbye. She was dressed up, wearing beautiful embroidered slippers, a silk blouse, a little makeup on her cheeks, and a radiant smile on her face. She sat with LeeAnne and Jamie, our team members from Concordia International School, Shanghai and talked. During the conversation, Mrs. Yang, told the story, with a shy giggle, on how she had wooed her husband many years ago by getting dressed in her finest clothes, walking to where he was working on a road crew, and serenading him with a traditional Chinese love song. It worked. And then, without hesitation, she sang it. It was priceless.

A small number of people began to arrive from the planting day in the fields, gathering for the 2:00 worship service. LeeAnne invited Mrs. Yang to join us – this time she hesitated. In all the years of living in this little village where the largest building in town was the church, Mrs. Yang had never gone. But God was at work – just the way He always is. As we walked upstairs to the sanctuary, she followed, sat down in the first row, right in front of the pulpit, (that alone tells you she’d never been in church before!) and next to a neighbor who helped her through the service. The young pastor was awesome. He told me later that, after seeing Mrs. Yang, he pitched his planned sermon, turned to John 3:16, (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”) and preached his heart out.

Mrs Yang - shawlWomen from our congregation had made over 70 hand-crocheted shawls for us to give as Mother’s Day gifts to the women of the village. That afternoon we selected a shawl for Mrs. Yang and headed to her home to present it.  It turned out that it was also Mrs. Yang’s birthday. Shortly after our entire team had settled in their living room they received a phone call from their daughter to wish her Mom a Happy Birthday. The way Mr. Li answered the call cracked us up! “We can’t talk to you right now. We have a house full of Americans.” We could just imagine his daughter’s response, “Dad, how much Baijiu have you had to drink today?”

As Mrs. Yang sat in the opposite corner of the living room, wrapped in a new shawl and a big smile, Mr. Li sat down next to me, held my hand, looked me in the eyes, and started talking. He had decided that he was my best friend. The conversation was amazing.

Watch for Part 3 in the next “Stories of Faith” posting.

Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li

Mrs Yang and Mr Li“You can come to my house.”

She was bright-eyed with a confident and beautiful smile. Behind her neck rode a farmer’s rod, smooth and shiny from years of being held by her hands and the friction of her shoulders. At each end swung buckets from which she had carefully ladled water at the base of each plant growing in her field. On her head rested a cap of camouflaged fabric with matching shoes and knotted laces on her feet.

We had spent the last two days in a small Yunnan Province village located in a rural area of southwestern China. It was community of 140 people; a blending of Han and Miao people living side by side in a village with a name that means “unity.” The community had been created a couple of decades earlier when the government moved several groups of isolated people, living high in the mountains, to a place where services and utilities were more readily available.  It was, frankly, easier to create a new village than it was to cut roads and string utilities.

Our time in the village was in support of a health advocacy project with our longtime China partners. We were conducting door to door interviews in hopes of acquiring a baseline understanding of the village’s health awareness with the goal that the project’s future steps would help to improve their quality of life, reduce the devastation of childhood dysentery, and minimize the negative impact of improperly handled agricultural pesticides.

Our recent attempt to interview an old woman, blinded by the shiny yellow-gray cataracts in her eyes, had been declined and, as we stood at the gate in front of her house discussing where to go next, up walked Mrs. Yang.

“You can come to my house.”

We followed her through the narrow streets to a house on the perimeter of the village, overlooking a small canyon through which heavy trucks rumbled in and out of a coal mine. As barking dogs announced our arrival an elderly man appeared, surprised to see a small group of Americans trailing his wife into the courtyard.  After putting the buckets away, she confidently invited strangers into her home with the usual Yunnan hospitality that included tea, nuts, and fruit. She was proud of her home and excited that it was full of Americans. It was clean and tidy, in contrast to many of the places we had visited in the village. Upon sitting down on the sofa, the first thing I notice was a combination refrigerator freezer that sat proudly in the space between the living room and the kitchen – something I had never seen before in a village.

We were introduced to her husband, Mr. Li. (Chinese women don’t take their husband’s name in marriage.) Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li had been married for over 50 years and had raised three daughters who were married and now lived outside of the village with their own families and their husbands’ parents. As part of our interview we learned that Mr. Li had gone to school through 5th grade while Mrs. Yang was illiterate; she could not read or write. While they planted and maintained a field to grow what they needed to eat, they made their living off of a small herd of 40 goats.

When the interview concluded, we thanked the couple, shook hands, posed for photos, and headed back to our base. Little did we know that this simple conversation had just set the stage for something wonderful that God was about to do.

Watch for Part 2 of Mrs. Yang and Mr. Li in next week’s post.

A Special Announcement – Part 2

Earlier this week I announced that one of the short stories I wrote for “23” and Other Stories of Faith has been accepted for publication in the September issue of the Lutheran Witness (the magazine periodical of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).  The story is called “Herb and Vi” and was originally posted on this blog back in March.  I am excited that thousands more will soon be blessed by the wonderful story of this humble couple’s faith and trust in God!  Please share this good news with others!

On Monday, May 28th I reposted Part 1 of Herb and Vi.  Here, now, is Part 2.

Herb and Vi (Part 2)

Herb and Vi were able to sleep in their own bed almost to the end, even though it was on the second floor of their home.  They had installed a stair lift when Vi started having trouble getting around.  A baby monitor provided the connection between the bedroom and their caregiver’s base of operations downstairs at the kitchen table.  Each night the monitor witnessed to the caregiver of Herb and Vi’s faith, their confidence that God would walk with them through their final valley.  As they had done every night for 69 years of marriage – before they went to sleep – they held hands and prayed together Psalm 23.

Herb completed his journey ahead of Vi.  We got the call on a Wednesday night about 8:30.  My pastor partner, Glenn got there before me.  He was already upstairs with Vi and family when the caregiver welcomed me with a hug.  Herb’s body was in the hospice bed in the family room but his soul was already in Heaven.  Vi was dressed in her flannel nightgown, in bed and propped up with pillows, eyes full of tears.  We mourned with her the way Christians do – with hope, the confidence of eternity, and the certainty of reunions in heaven.  Together we lived out St. Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

As Vi lay in her bed, Glenn and I each took a hand and declared with her the faith that she and Herb confessed every night of their marriage.  We had done this together many times over the last months.  Tonight it was different.  As Vi spoke the psalm and emerged on the other side of the valley, an incredible thing happened.  She dropped our hands and reached her arms out toward the heavens as if directing a chorus of unseen angels.  As she repeated the phrase over and over again, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” her fists punctuated the heavens.  With each word bony hands and arms were thrust into the sky.  Words were declared with a volume that we had never heard from this gentle woman.  “AND I . . . WILL DWELL . . . IN THE HOUSE . . . OF THE LORD . . . FOREVER.  FOREVER!  FOREVER!!  Her right hand hung in the air until the ringing of her words died.  And with that, this valley-walker lay back against the pillow and closed her eyes.

The silence that followed echoed across all of creation. None of us could speak as tears choked us.  It was the holiest of holy moments that I have yet to experience.  Vi’s Herb was in Heaven.  She knew it with all her heart and she knew that she would soon follow him.  She did.  Viola Wilhelmina Theiss made her final journey through the valley on July 25th at 97 years old – five months and eight days after Herb.  Oh, how I would have loved to be there for that heavenly reunion.

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”

A Special Announcement

I am pleased to announce that immediately prior to my recent departure for China I received notification that one of the short stories I wrote for “23” and Other Stories of Faith has been accepted for publication in the September issue of the Lutheran Witness (the magazine periodical of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).  The story is called “Herb and Vi” and was originally posted on this blog back in March.  I am excited that thousands more will soon be blessed by the wonderful story of this humble couple’s faith and trust in God!  Please share this good news with others!

Here, again, is the story of Herb and Vi” (posted in two parts)

Herb and Vi

Vi was “the older woman,” born in 1919, 2 years and 3 months before her beloved Herb. She never let him forget it and he’d always remind her.  She left her childhood home of Pleasant Dale, Nebraska at the age of 22 for San Diego, California to work at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation.  Like thousands of other women during World War Two, Vi served her nation as a “Rosy the Riveter” working in the defense industry building B-24 Liberator bombers and PBY Catalina flying boats.

Like Vi, Herb was a Lutheran.  As a matter of fact, the Theiss family were pioneer Lutherans in California, having found their way from the mid-west center of Lutheranism to establish congregations and schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Herb’s dad, a pastor, spent his life serving churches throughout California, eventually leading the family to San Diego.

Herb was in the Army during World War II, serving in the Pacific Theater, obtaining the rank of Master Sergeant.  And, like so many other Lutheran couples after the war, it was at a Walther League young adult event that Herb and Vi met.  It was a love story that would last for over 69 years of marriage.  Growing up in San Diego, where the weather for sports was always perfect, Herb lived and breathed baseball.  One of his proudest accomplishments was as a starter for an American Legion baseball team that played for the national championship in 1938.  But Herb’s greatest feat was hitting a homerun when he married Vi.  She was a baseball nut!

Vi loved the Dodgers.  Herb loved the Angels.  Fortunately their National and American League allegiances allowed for a peaceful coexistence until the day the world shifted on its axis and interleague play was introduced.  In addition to being a pastor, husband, and father, it is important to confess that my next most important self-identifier is that I am a San Francisco Giants baseball fan, almost from birth – the Giants moving from New York to San Francisco two years after I was born.  And so it was perfectly normal for Vi and I to take great joy in picking on each other as participants in the greatest sports rivalry of all time – the Dodgers and Giants.  The three of us often talked about how our days, and even life’s rhythm itself, was impacted by the performance of our teams.  Each day a new game, a time for a fresh start, a field on which the drama played out, and valleys full of the great joys and deep disappointments.

Herb and Vi were pillars at Christ Lutheran Church and School, Costa Mesa, California, the place where I have served as lead pastor since 2006.  For more than 20 years, Herb led a Saturday morning Men’s Bible Study that mentored more men, husbands, and sons in Scripture than most Bible teachers will ever experience.  They were examples of faithful living, no matter the challenges of life’s valleys.  Unlike many in the church, they didn’t step aside as age crept up and life slowed down.  They kept serving the Lord until the time in life when their bodies simply wouldn’t allow them to keep up the pace that had defined them for so long.  The day that Herb handed off the leadership of the Saturday Morning Men’s Bible Study was one of the toughest days of his life.  He yielded simply because, at 93, he could not maintain the quality of his leadership.  While both had various issues of health as they got closer to heaven, it was really old age that led them into life’s final valley.

Please watch for Part 2 later this week!

Authority Has a Bad Reputation

Authority has a bad reputation.

Without question there are many in authority who abuse their positions with others. Media reveals examples in the entertainment industry (#MeToo movement), politics, law enforcement, the classroom, neighborhoods and homes, and even in the church.  Abuse of authority – of any kind – is indefensible.  It’s wrong.

I’m wondering today how we got here and how much of this struggle stems from society’s general rejection of authority.  Wouldn’t we do better if we made the effort to reset our understanding, teach appropriate perspectives, and hold up the many good examples of authority that are out there?  We shortchange ourselves when we “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

I think that our authority problem is rooted in what our culture perceives as truth.  When every person decides what is right and wrong for themselves it is no wonder that we have difficulty agreeing on what to teach our children, how to hold people accountable, and why bad people try to get away with unacceptable behavior.  We are caught up in a decline that is circling the drain.

People of faith know that this isn’t a new issue. The Bible teaches us that embracing a relative truth has been the underlying cause of problems, conflict, and abuse ever since Adam and Eve decided to go their own way in the Garden of Eden – rejecting God’s authority, design, and plan. Carry that decision forward over the course of history and it’s no surprise that we’re a mess today. When we ignore the ultimate authority that God designed for us, people “cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18) and go all kinds of crazy. Even a quick, honest reflection will show that the authority we’ve chosen for  our lives isn’t working so well for us.

The old saying is true, “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”  That’s why a right understanding of authority needs to be taught in the earliest of our relationships – at home. God says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’”  To ensure that this relationship isn’t abused, God also says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  (Ephesians 6:1-4)

Our need for a right understanding of authority carries over into the realm of civil government: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” (Romans 13:1-4)

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”

As I write this, I have just had a conversation with a neighbor who was out for a walk.  True to form, he launched into his favorite topic – his profound dislike for our president.  I tried hard to make my point: Whether we “like” those who lead us or not, there is a reason and benefit for all of us to respect the position of authority and to pray for those who lead us.  Without it we quickly fall apart and anarchy reigns.

What do we do when civil authority is abusive, like we’ve often seen throughout history? When that happens the answer is short and simple: “We must obey God rather than man.” (Acts 4:20)  The Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of this and an appropriate challenge of abusive authority.

There is an important “final part.” Our broken world needs to be restored and reconciled.  Without it our hatred and unforgiveness will be the example we set before the next generation and the problem will simply perpetuate; continuing our slide into degenerative behaviors.  This is where Jesus comes in.  He is the one who offers something new and healing.  Because of what He did on the cross – being abused in our place and paying the price for all of our abuses – we have hope for something far greater than the mess we’ve got now. Where we have “cast off restraint,” rejected God’s ultimate truth, and replaced it with our own, we can experience forgiveness and a reset to authority – God’s Lordship in our lives. Where we have broken relationships with others, we can find reconciliation.  Where we live in mistrust of our leaders, we can trade fear for the peace of a God-guided future.

Where do you place your confidence for life, relationships, and authority?  Maybe it’s time for a change!

Respond:  Join me in the conversation – what is your perspective on authority?

Soup Mountain

“Will you lead our retreat?”

The question was asked by a member of our congregation who was working in Shanghai, China.  Since I was already going to be in China at the time it was easy to do – sort of.  I just needed to fly diagonally across the country, from Kunming to Nanjing – the retreat site.  Since I had never been to Nanjing before my answer was quick, “Of course, I’ll come.” What an incredible city!  Nanjing has existed along the Yangtze River for over 6,000 years and served as one of China’s ancient capitals for 500 of those years.

The retreat was for their little house church – a mixture of mature believers, new believers, and seekers.  It would take place at the Tangshan Hot Spring Resort outside of Nanjing. Tanghsan is the ancient word for hot spring, but it literally means, appropriately, “soup mountain.”  The resort advertises that the 122-140 degree water contains calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium and is supposed to heal skin diseases, arthritis, neuralgia and many other ailments.  That’s some kind of soup!

Here’s the really cool part: the resort is smack dab in the middle of the Nanjing PRC Army Base – it was full of soldiers on R&R.

I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb – a 6’3”, 240 lb white guy sitting in the hot spring pools with hundreds of others.  I tried hard not to draw any attention to myself.  That lasted for only a short time until we settled into the “little fish hot spring” pool where thousands of tiny fish swarm you to “remove” the dead skin cells from your feet, legs, arms – and wherever else they can wiggle.  I didn’t last 30 seconds and came flying out of the water with a yell, much to the enjoyment of my fellow bathers.  For the remainder of the time we were there, I was pointed out to those who had missed my embarrassing moment, often with accompanying laughter, a mimicked yell, and hand motions as soldiers described my rocket-like self-extraction from the little fish hot spring pool.  Any thought of blending in while leading a Christian retreat (we did keep our purpose for being there secret) in a hot springs resort, located in the middle of a military base, deep inside China, was gone!

On the last day of the retreat I was blessed to have a significant conversation with one of our retreat participants – a seeker who became a believer as the Spirit created faith in him through the Gospel.  As the conversation concluded, he asked to be baptized.  Right now.  By me.  It made me think of Philip and the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:37 when he said to Philip, “See here is water!  What prevents me from being baptized?”

Well, there was certainly no shortage of water in the hot springs – just privacy.

The solution turned out to be an easy one.  The “villa,” in which we were conducting our retreat, had a small high-fenced private backyard with a waste deep, 12’ diameter pool.  The big water faucet was turned on, hot spring water poured in, and an hour later we were ready to go.

“What prevents me from being baptized?”  “Nothing!”

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”  Cheers, hugs, tears, and photos followed (which I can’t show you in this blog).   What a joy.  In that moment, our Heavenly Father adopted a new brother into the family of God, forgiven, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and the promise of a glorious inheritance.

I’ll always remember my first baptism in China – in a backyard of a private villa, in a hot spring spa, in the middle of a PRC military base, 27 kilometers outside of the 6,000 year old city of Nanjing, and 6,550 miles from home.

Water and the Word are a powerful pair!

Respond:   Got a baptism story to share?  Post it in the reply section!

 

“That’s Too Coincidental to be a Coincidence.”

I discovered something exciting and new in Scripture during Easter this year (God’s Word is like that, you know, fresh and revealing every day).

In the account of the Creation recorded in Genesis, the Bible says that God took Adam and “put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

In the account of the Re-Creation recorded in John’s Gospel, the Bible says that Mary Magdalene saw Jesus standing in the garden near the empty tomb, “but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” (John 20:14-15)

In both accounts God uses the image of a “gardener!”

“Coincidence?  I think not!”  (The Incredibles, Pixar Film, 2004)

The first “gardener” blew it!  The Second redeemed it!

The first Adam was formed by God to care for and steward creation – he failed. The  Second Adam was the eternal Son sent from the Father to save and restore creation because of God’s love for his broken world – He succeeded, beyond all imagination!

“That’s too coincidental to be a coincidence.”  (Yogi Berra, Professional Baseball Player and Philosopher (1925-2015)

The Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Paul made sure we didn’t miss it.

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being” (Genesis 2:7); the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. 1 Corinthians 15:45-49

And later from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of  righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Romans 5:18-21

One gave up eternal life in pursuit of his selfish desires and sin – and death gripped creation.  The Other gave up His life in selfless pursuit of our restoration – and the freedom of forgiveness and eternal life was offered.

Thank God for the Second Gardener!

John finishes his story this way:

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. John 20:16-18

 He still calls His creation by name. He’s still in the business of making New Creations – like you. So, like Mary, turn to Him – experience the grip of the Gardener’s amazing grace.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  2 Corinthians 5:17

Enjoy His amazing “coincidences” today!

Respond:

  • Share some “coincidences” and fresh discoveries you are seeing in the Bible.
  • Got a gardener in your life? Pass this along – I bet it’ll bless them.