5. I Will Pray for You (Part 1)

China hotel beds are hard!  Village beds are . . . harder.  A sheet of plywood for a mattress and a thin “Hello Kitty” quilt or two for padding. (It always feels like my hip is bruised when I first wake up.)  I woke in the morning to the cries of roosters and the clucking of hens, the chopping of wood, loudspeakers broadcasting patriotic songs and village announcements, and the movement of people into the fields.  Many carry a hot-baked potato in their jacket pocket, cooked overnight in the dying coals, to use as a mid-morning snack and to warm up their hands before gripping their digging hoe.

With the movement of the morning came the awakening of my memory and the remarkable images of the night before: Brothers and sisters in Christ worshipping in their heart languages; Jon and I sitting on stools over the dirt floor of the Village Leader’s house as his wife heated water over an open fire, set in a hole carved in the ground, just so that we could wash our feet; discovering custom-welded bed frames for Stephen and his “larger” American guests so we could stretch out as we slept (a miracle gift to experience after Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride); and Jon making his first trip to the village “toilet” in the middle of the night, headlamp attached to his Angels’ baseball cap, only to be greeted by a really big rat (you know I thought that was funny).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe conversation that followed was one we’ll never forget.  We sat outside our friend’s simple house on stools stacked high enough to get our knees bent to a near 90 degree angle.  As always, tea, fruit, and sunflower seeds were in our hands. It was just four of us – the Village Leader, our young translator, Jon, and me.  Stephen had left the village early that morning for other parts so we were on our own.  Since I had heard them before, I asked our friend if he would tell Jon the village stories of God’s faithfulness.  Jon was the excuse, but I desperately wanted to hear them again.

He sat with his knees bent at a 90 degree angle on a single stool, low to the ground, feet in sandals, legs clothed in those blue Mao pants. Three different t-shirts were layered under an old, shapeless, beige linen suitcoat – a surprising fabric for the mountains.  His rough hands were nimble with gestures and finger punctuations. But it was his eyes and face that made me stare.  With wrinkled determination, eyes flashing with wisdom and spiritual understanding, he began to tell a story of pain, of suffering, of the Church Militant, of God’s faithfulness, and a promised triumph to come.

Every story has a setting, a context, from which it draws meaning and understanding.  The village’s story takes place during a multi-decade attempt to remove from Chinese life all systems of belief and philosophy but Communism.  In the years following 1949 and the establishment of Mao’s government, 1,000’s of missionaries were thrown out of the country and the anti-Christian campaigns of the 1950s launched attacks against churches and Christian schools.  While it is impossible to know how many Christians lost their lives during this time, it is speculated that 1,000s died.

In the 1940s and 50s the village Christian school was attended by Miao children from the surrounding countryside.  One day, government officials told them to shut down the school and for the children to attend the school in the valley below – requiring little children to walk down the mountain each Sunday afternoon and return in the same way on Friday (common throughout all of the China countryside today). The village refused to close the school – confessing the words of Peter and the other apostles: “We must obey God rather than man.” (Acts 5:29)  One day the soldiers came, forced the children down the mountain, lined up the teachers against a wall, massacred them with bullets, and left one old man to tell the story. Today the empty school still stands over the village as a monument to God’s faithful, the Church Militant, which stood unwaveringly for Christ – praying that one day it will again be full of Miao children.



4. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Stephen met us at the Kunming airport and we went to his house to drop off our luggage and repack a few things into a simple backpack for a couple of days in the village. (I will not identify the village or give names of people to ensure the safety of our friends.)  The rest of the team wouldn’t arrive for several days so this was my chance to show my buddy, Jon, the “Miao Mountains, the village, and to meet a very special man – the Village Leader.  Our driver was a long-time friend and he met us at the curb outside Stephen’s apartment.  With him was Stephen’s assistant who was serving on this trip as an additional translator, a petite young woman, with a great sense of humor, and a very firm will!  Without hesitation, she called out, “Shotgun!” and climbed in the front passenger seat (she had her American colloquialisms down).  This wasn’t an expression of her sense of humor, this was part of her resolve, accompanied by the warning that she gets carsick.  So, with a shrug of our shoulders, the three of us, none of whom would ever be accused of being little guys, wedged ourselves into the back seat of the tiny car.  Stephen to my left, Jon to my right, with me straddling the transmission hump on the floor of the back seat.  A bit of personal sinfulness emerged, along with a few grins, as we allowed our knee caps to dig into the back of the front passenger seat, an attempt at a little “shotgun” pay back.  Seatbelts?  We didn’t even try as they were buried behind us.  As soon as the doors closed, we were off into the night, for what would later be referred to as, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”  It gave new meaning to following in the train.

Within a few minutes it was clear that the front suspension was gone as the car shimmied and shook itself down the highway.  We held our breath and prayed.  This ride was a gift, the kindness of a friend, and we couldn’t let him lose face by telling him that we feared death at high speeds.  While we quietly grimaced in the backseat, up front our translator chatted away, apparently oblivious to the suspension issues and any problems with her stomach.  In time the road surface changed from a concrete highway to an asphalt street and then, to dirt. That’s when things really got fun.

We drove at night to provide the freedom to a travel without interruption and checkpoints.  But it was apparently important that we also arrive as fast as possible as we spent a good part of the trip bumping across potholes, sliding around corners, screaming up inclines, and taking blind hairpins like no one would ever be coming the other direction. In the backseat we were wedged in so tightly that we held each other in place.  All we could do was laugh – two Chinese in the front and three Americans in the back.

As we prepared to make the final dash up the mountain to the village we drove through farmers’ fields, crossed narrow concrete pathways (which were really rice dikes), and twisted in and out of narrow town streets.  We squeezed past the occasional “Mao-blue-truck” as they rumbled down the mountain in the other direction,  We drove over the rice and other grains spread out on the road so that vehicles could help separate the good stuff from the chaff.  Finally, with a burst of Ahmao over his cellphone announcing our arrival, we pulled into the village.  And there, waiting for us was the Village Leader, our friend.

Two years previous a team from Costa Mesa had raised the funds and participated in the work to create a significant new water system for the village (The ultimate purpose of the water system was to not only improve the quality of village life, but to allow the church to host a greater number of people for training in the Gospel). For me, this was a long awaited return visit with friends. But for Stephen, this was his home-base in the mountains. We followed our friend down the pathways, passed chickens, piglets, and goats, and stepped into a meeting room on the church grounds.  The room was next to the kitchen where wood-fired woks backed to the meeting room wall and radiated heat to keep the room warm on the cool mountain evening.  Tea, fruit, sunflower seeds, and conversation followed. It always happens this way.  No rushing is allowed. The relationship matters more than the schedule (oh, how we need to learn that in the US).  Tomorrow, when it was daylight, we would see the changes in the village, but for now we would sit, talk, and celebrate our reunion.

When the time was complete we walked across the concrete pad separating the two buildings, up three steps, and into the church. About 60 people waited for us.  Some had walked for 4 hours on the narrow, twisting, and mountain pathways between villages so that they could be there for the evening. Then they waited an additional 45 minutes past the start time while we relaxed with tea, fruit, sunflower seeds, and conversation. Whatever village they were from, these dear saints were all the descendants of the same spiritual father, BoGeli.

We spoke, they spoke, they sang, we sang – for hours.

On the top of a mountain in Yunnan China, a humble space once again became a holy place and I was reminded, through tears, that this is what it’ll be like in heaven: “. . . a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)  There are no boundaries or dividing walls for the people of God.  Borders, nations, politics, and philosophies of government can’t separate the Church.  The only thing that divides us is sin and ignorance, not our home address or the language we speak.  All that was overcome when Jesus completed the work of the cross and rose from the dead.  The Holy Spirit, through Paul, says it perfectly: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28)

And so we were – one in Christ – three big American guys, a room full of Miao, at the top of a mountain, at the end of dirt road, following in the train.

3. Follow In the Train (Part 2)

Hudson Taylor spent 51 years in China.  His vision for China ultimately resulted in the sending of 800 missionaries, the establishing of 125 schools, 300 mission stations, and the conversion of 18,000 Chinese believers. Taking the words of the Apostle Paul to heart, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), he lived as a native Chinese, a practice unique among missionaries at that time, in an effort to tear down walls and build bridges for the Gospel.  In a letter written to his sister Amelia Hudson Taylor in 1860 he declared, “If I had a thousand pounds China should have it – if I had a thousand lives, China should have them. No! Not China, but Christ. Can we do too much for Him?  Can we do enough for such a precious Savior?” (Broomhall, Alfred. Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: If I had A Thousand Lives. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1983).

Samuel Pollard was one of the China Inland Missionaries who followed in the train of Hudson Taylor.  Called by God at a missionary conference in 1885 he was eventually posted to Yunnan province in southwestern China in 1888.  He remained there, serving in the ways of the China Inland Mission, until his death from typhoid in 1915.  When Pollard arrived in Kunming, having traveled across the country from Shanghai, he did not find the dominant Chinese population, the Han, receptive to the Gospel. God’s ways were not those of Samuel Pollard – there were other plans.

In 1904 a small group of poor, marginalized people, the Ahmao (The Big Flower Miao) came to Pollard and asked if he could help them and teach them about Jesus.  Over the next few days more and more people came out of the mountains, refusing to return to their villages until he promised to help them.  Pollard initially struggled with their request as he believed that God had called him to reach the Han people of southwestern China. In time God changed Samuel’s heart and he spent the remainder of his life working among the Miao, creating a written language for this illiterate people in order to translate the Bible into the unique Ahmao script; a script that is still in use today.  Of the 400,000 Miao people, 80% were said to have been converted to Christianity as an extension of Pollard’s work. Their churches are alive, serious-minded, and full of beautiful choral music – the Miao can sing! To this day, the Miao believers celebrate God’s work through their spiritual father, Samuel Pollard – a man they lovingly call, BoGeli.  They follow in Pollard’s train.

I have logged a lot of miles sitting in the jump seat of a “bread van” (the vehicle’s shape looks like a loaf of bread) as the little vehicle makes its way on the narrow dusty roads of Yunnan, transporting mission teams from the big city of Kunming to the isolated mountain villages of the Big Flower Miao.  This was a special trip as my dear friend, Stephen was in the van.  He and his family had followed God’s call to live in Kunming and to quietly work in the Miao villages.  He is a theologian, a teacher, a translator, a shepherd, a mentor, a trekker of mountain paths, and a friend to those who live as subsistence farmers and serve in the Miao churches scattered across the mountains.  Over the years we have worked together to provide motorcycles so that itinerant preachers can more easily travel the mountain paths, resources for clean water cisterns and plumbing for villages, reduce the effects of dysentery, expand the quantity and care of livestock to improve income, and offer training for church leaders.

It is an amazing work.  But for those who live and serve this way full time, the feelings of isolation and discouragement, are often a difficult companion in the journey.  The work of translating Luther’s Small Catechism into Ahmao was taxing.  While the Miao have a printed Bible and a hymnal in their own language, they don’t have much else.  The blessing of a little book that can provide the church with a simple and systematic understanding of faith is invaluable, in training, and in practice.  But it is hard.  It is like giving birth and Stephen was caught in the minutia. It is easy to lose perspective.  Why am I here?  Am I being effective?  (Can you imagine the questions Robert Morrison asked as he labored for 25 years to translate the Bible into Chinese and baptized a grand total of 10 souls?)  All of us experience these feelings and questions in life’s valleys. It’s what it means to be part of the Church Militant – living in the now and the not yet.

At the moment that Stephen expressed this struggle in the holy place of that little bread van bumping along the dirt roads of Yunnan, God gave an answer. I was sure it was a word from His heart to Stephen’s.  “Stephen,” I said, “I know this is hard.  Harder than I’ll ever understand.  But remember, remember that YOU are part of God’s answer to the prayers of Samuel Pollard, as his health declined from typhoid and he approached his entrance into the Church Triumphant. YOU are God’s answer when he prayed that the Father would send people to work the harvest field among his beloved Miao.  As you walk these mountain paths, you are following in Pollard’s train.  You are a direct descendant of his life, his work, and his sacrifice.”

Tears flowed.  Prayers followed.  Perspective reclaimed.  All of us – in life and ministry – follow in someone’s train.  I am honored to follow in Stephen’s.

2. Follow in the Train (Part 1)

Reginald Heber was an Anglican pastor, bishop, traveler, poet and hymn-writer (1783 – 1826).  For most of his career he served as a congregational pastor in Great Britain and then, for three years, until his death at the age of 42, on the India mission field as Anglican Bishop of Calcutta.  Monuments were erected in his memory in India and in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  A collection of the hymns he wrote was published about the same time.  One of these, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is a greatly loved hymn for Trinity Sunday.  But it is a lesser known work, “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” (1812) that touches my heart most deeply.  Its significant message was even embraced by author Rudyard Kipling in 1888 for his novella, The Man Who Would Be King.

The Son of God Goes Forth to War 

The Son of God goes forth to war a kingly crown to gain.
His blood-red banner streams afar; who follows in His train?
Who best can drink His cup of woe, triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears His cross below– he follows in His train.

The martyr first whose eagle eye could pierce beyond the grave,
Who saw His Master in the sky and called on Him to save.
Like Him, with pardon on His tongue, in midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong–who follows in His train?

A glorious band, the chosen few, on whom the Spirit came,
Twelve valiant saints; their hope they knew and mocked the cross and flame.
They met the tyrant’s brandished steel, the lion’s gory mane;
They bowed their necks the death to feel–who follows in their train?

A noble army, men and boys, the matron and the maid,
Around the Savior’s throne rejoice, in robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of heav’n thro’ peril, toil, and pain.
O God, to us may grace be giv’n to follow in their train!

Hymn #452, The Lutheran Hymnal
Author: Reginald Heber, Composer: Henry S. Cutler
Tune: “All Saints New”

Heber’s lyrics tell a story of the Church Militant.  It is the Church engaged in the great tribulation of Revelation 7:14, a struggle that most Christians in the world live every day. These militant believers stand counter-culturally in a time between the times – between their salvation and their ultimate victory in the glories of heaven. It gives meaning to the words “pick up your cross and follow” Jesus; often resulting in sacrifice and martyrdom. It is a faith that challenges the American church to set aside its ease and to join in living the contrast.  To consider taking that step makes us look for strength and guidance in an unfamiliar journey, to draw on the examples of those who have walked this way before us, the average men and women of God who, despite their circumstances, leave footprints for us to follow. If we will look, we will find comfort and encouragement in their example.  They invite us to experience a trust that is “without borders” and a faith that is deeper than our “feet could ever wander” (Oceans, Hillsong United).  God invites us to follow in their train.

Whenever I can, I take my mission teams to Macau in southern China, an hour hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong, to a Portuguese cemetery where we stand at the grave of the first Protestant Missionary to China, Robert Morrison (1782 – 1834).  Like most missionaries of his time Morrison packed his belongings in a coffin when he left England, certain that he would give his life in service of his Savior.  Morrison served for 27 years in China with only one furlough home to England.  For 25 of those years he worked to translate the Bible into Chinese and baptized just ten believers. When Morrison was asked shortly after his arrival in China if he expected to have any spiritual impact on the Chinese, he answered, “No sir, but I expect God will!”

Morrison influenced many of his contemporaries, one of which was Samuel Dyer, a typographer, who created a steel typeface for Chinese characters, replacing traditional wood blocks, and enabling the printing of Morrison’s Chinese Bible.  Dyer is buried next to Morrison in Macau.  When Dyer’s wife, Maria died three years after her husband, they left three young orphans, one of which, Maria Jane Dyer – greatly influenced by the work of her parents – spent her life on the China field as the wife of Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission.  Robert Morrison’s pioneering courage opened the door for others.

They followed in his train.


1.  Flying Tigers

The news media around the world was going nuts.  During the late spring of 2003, Bird Flu was making people sick across Asia, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of birds in an attempt to control a growing epidemic. To say that these reports were merely in the back of my mind as I awaited lunch was a lie.  It was all I could think about.  In this little village located in the mountains of Yunnan, chickens were all over the place, running in and out of the open door of the little stone farmhouse, carving figure eights between me and my friends.  To make matters worse, we were seated on the tiny, standard-issue, stools of rural China – lowering us almost eye to eye with the birds.

“Tea?”  Since the birds had been drinking out of the water pots on the floor, it was an easy answer: “Bù, xièxiè” – “No thank you.”  “Beer?” Ah, that was easier.  It was warm but it came with a cap.  With bottles of Dali in hand, we were safe – for the moment.  We were having goat for lunch. This was the first time I had ever eaten goat but certainly not the last.  Earlier in the day we saw a goat tied conspicuously to a nearby tree and decided to name him, “Lunch.”  We were right.  We looked on with fascination as two men butchered the goat, burned off the hair in an open fire, and then cut the meat into chunks with a questionable knife and an even more questionable cutting board, a well-worn, well-used piece of plywood. The meat was simply cooked in water with mint leaves and hand-stirred (literally, hand-stirred).  When lunch was served I was handed a bowl containing a scoop of rice and a ladle full of cubed goat meat – and something that didn’t at all look like a cube of anything.  Unbelievable! It was “Lunch’s” left eye socket complete with a hairy eyebrow.  What to do?  I couldn’t really throw it away, I might offend someone?  Maybe a chicken would eat it?  But that would be tough to pull off undetected in the crowded room.  So I grabbed my chopsticks and jammed the eye socket deep into the bowl, burying it at the bottom of the rice, carefully eating off the surface, and PRAYING that the eyeball was in someone else’s bowl.

Right before our hosts came around with seconds an older man with white hair, a thin mustache and a chin beard, pulled up a stool and abruptly sat down across from me. He wore the usual “Mao-suit” – a blue button-up square-tailed shirt with matching pants and cap.  Over it he wore a brown-grey sport coat with the manufacturer’s label still tack-stitched above the left wrist, a cigarette protruding between the fingers of his farm-worn right hand.  He reached inside the left breast pocket of his coat, pulled out the cigarette packet, and offered me one. “Bù, xièxiè.” (Mandarin’s not so tough, I’ve got this!)

For a moment we sat there politely chatting, with broad smiles, even though neither of us knew what the other was saying. When Michelle, our interpreter, realized my predicament she came over to help. He told me his name and asked mine.  It is apparently difficult to transliterate the name “Mike” into Chinese.  Michelle, (I discovered later that she knew exactly what she was doing) offered one he might recognize.  She called me, “Mickey”- right out of the Disney portfolio. “Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse!” the old man said over and over while laughing and coughing his way through the cigarette smoke.


Suddenly he was silent, standing, and then gone, kicking at the chickens, and walking straight up a path and away from the house.  He was back within minutes carrying a little boy, a three-year old, dressed in a red fleece sweatshirt with black trim in the style of a traditional silk jacket.  On the sweatshirt were two machine-embroidered goats.  (Yea, goats.  It was the theme of the day – it’s hard to make this stuff up.)  A soft smile returned to his face, he looked straight into my eyes, and said in translated Mandarin, “Sixty years ago I met an American.  Today I bring my grandson to meet you.”

So, what American did my new friend meet 60 years before?  It turns out that he met a member of the famous Flying Tigers.

I have always been a huge reader and, as a Junior Higher, I was fascinated by stories from World War II.  I especially enjoyed reading about the exploits of the Flying Tigers in China and their single engine fighter planes with the painted tiger’s teeth on the nose. This group was officially called the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force and was composed of pilots from the United States Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marine Corps, recruited under President Roosevelt’s authority and commanded by General Claire Lee Chennault in the days before Pearl Harbor.  At the time of the AVG’s inception, Chennault was a retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer who had worked in China since August 1937, first as military aviation advisor to General Chiang Kai-shek in the early months of the war, then as director of a Chinese Air Force flight school headquartered in Kunming, Yunnan Province. The Tigers trained on the west side of the Himalayan Mountains from Yunnan in Burma during 1941. Later two squadrons were based at Kunming and a third near Rangoon (now Yangon, Myanmar). One of the things they were assigned to do was protect both ends of the vital Burma Supply route, as the  C-47s and crews “Flew the Hump” to supply the American and Chinese war effort against the Japanese.

The Tigers saw their first action against Japanese forces on December 20, 1941, less than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their success was the first positive American military action to take place in the bleak days following the “Day of Infamy,” bringing a glimmer of hope to a devastated nation. Tiger pilots earned official credit for destroying 296 enemy aircraft, while losing only 14 in combat between the winter of 1941 and the summer of 1942.  On July 4, 1942 the AVG was disbanded and replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces where they went on to achieve similar combat success, all the while retaining the tiger teeth logo painted on the remaining P-40s.  To this day, older Chinese fondly remember the brave American Heroes of the Flying Tigers.  Two Flying Tiger museums – the one in Kunming that I’ve visited and another in Chongqing – continue to tell the Tiger story in China.

This day, he brought his grandson to meet me.  Man, I hope the little guy isn’t too disappointed when he’s older.

It goes without saying that there was no way that I could have imagined the possibility that I would make a new friend and meet his grandson because of a sixty-year-old chance encounter between a young Chinese boy and an American flyer during World War II.  Who knew that I would be following in the footsteps of my childhood heroes – “following in the train” (the old hymn says) – of a Flying Tiger!  God is sooo cool to do that.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

8. Goodness and Mercy Follows

When my Dad was little he grew up for a time in a house on the old California State Fairgrounds on Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento (now long gone) where Pop was the fairground’s labor foreman.  One of his favorite memories was watching the Barnum and Bailey Circus Train pull into town and offload in preparation for the performance.  Elephants, lions, tigers, horses, clowns, jugglers – they all poured off the train and into line and whether in cages or on foot, they paraded through town to promote the circus.  At the end of the parade was a group ignored by most, but critical to the effort.  They were the ones pulling garbage cans, pushing brooms, and sliding shovels to clean up after the parade.

Life and valleys are messy.  Since the day a verdant garden transformed into the valley of the shadow of death, debris follows our actions, words, and thoughts.  All of us are guilty.  Our brokenness leaves a parade of disappointment and piles of failure in its wake. Being human makes you part of the club.  Bodies wear out, relationships crumble, poverty crushes, addictions destroy, and emotional illness grabs us.  No one is exempt. Death is the ultimate expression of sin’s brokenness.  In time it gets us all.  That’s why things like “23” are so important.

The Creator, before time, had shaped a plan to redeem all this.  He had loved the crown of His creation, humankind, longer than anyone had loved another – more than even 69 years of married bliss. He never deviated from the plan.  He was always on track toward complete fulfillment.  He has always wanted people to know that there is a way through valleys.  Promises, prophets, rebellion, and redemption all pointed the way through countless valleys to wayward people who sometimes paid attention. But it was on an night when the angels sang in the sky and shepherds gathered around an unremarkable little family that mission fulfillment went into high gear. An infant Shepherd was placed into our world, to grow up like us, to walk in valleys with us, and to experience the shadow of death for us – doing the work to ensure that goodness and mercy follows us all the days of our lives.

His shepherd’s rod and staff was not the usual crook of guidance and prodding rod of protection.  It was a cross.  He took on all of creation’s brokenness and paid punishment’s price because we live in the valleys. Because of his obedience, His goodness and mercy follows all our parades, in all our valleys, cleaning up behind us, forgiving us, restoring our souls, and leading us in paths of righteousness – for His sake.  All so we could dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Look over your shoulder.  He’s always there.  His goodness and mercy follows you!

Some Chapter Closing Thoughts

I have now walked in more than a few valleys in 60+ years of life and I’m even beginning to understand pastoral ministry a bit.  Many of the valleys I’ve walked are personal and painful.  Most have been as a companion with others.

In some cases we’ve walked into and through valleys, just like we’re supposed to.  Other times we’ve wondered why it seems to take so long to see the other side.  And, on occasion, the valleys even seem to backup, to pile up on one another, and obscure the green pastures and quiet waters that we know are really there.  That’s the stuff of life in a broken world and why God’s promises speak louder than our feelings.

But, whatever the valley, I have learned to always be sure of the Lord, my Shepherd.  He is with me. Always. He follows me with goodness and mercy – personally. He grows me – all of us, actually – for life and ministry.  Everyday.  God never wastes an experience: a field upon which to play, a lesson to learn, a mountain to climb, and another chapter of life to write. Lots of the experiences are brand new but some of them old and familiar – even painful.  It is a rhythm of light and dark, life and death, just the way the Creator designed it.  There is always the offer of a heart full of hope. He never disappoints.

(The next post begins a new chapter:  Miao)

7. Surely

There are some great “surely” passages in the Bible.  “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:6).  “Surely I am with you always to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:20)

For years I stood before the church during baptisms and requested, “Would someone please have a daughter and name her Shirley?”  Why?  Because I wanted to say at the end of the baptism – “Shirley, I am with you always to the end of the age!”  Yea, I know, its cheesy, but my church loved it!

During the years that we served at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Milpitas – in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley – there was a significant influx of Chinese immigrants into the community – over 50% of the population.  Most had come for the second California Gold Rush – to work in the high tech computer and internet industry.  As our church reached out to this immigrant population, we were blessed to have two Chinese vicars (pastoral interns) on our team who gave me the gift of insight into their culture, leading me to fall in love with the Chinese people.  This led to regular trips into Southwest China and, within a few years, we were regularly sending short-term mission groups to Kunming, Yunnan Province, where I still go today.  We served in tiny impoverished villages in the mountains around Kunming, partnering with local churches, to provide clean water for subsistence farmers of the Miao minority group. We discovered that many Miao were followers of Jesus – valley-walkers themselves.

One Sunday, in the fall of 2005, our congregation formally adopted Kunming as a location for ongoing mission work and hung the China flag alongside the flags of other nations where we served.  God surprised us that Sunday when a young Chinese woman walked into worship for the very first time and watched us adopt Kunming, China as a mission location – her home town.  Her name was Shirley and she was new to the Christian faith.

Once we got to know one another, Shirley tried to teach me Mandarin in hope that I could speak to the Chinese people in our community and in Yunnan.  I’m a lousy language student but, fortunately, she was a great Bible student.  Our class times gave us ample opportunity to talk about Jesus. Eventually she asked if I would baptize her and if Kathy and I would be her baptismal sponsors.  And so, on a July morning in 2006, on the very last Sunday of a twenty-year ministry in Milpitas, I baptized a Shirley – my god-daughter. Oh, how the church laughed as we declared the words in unison, “And Shirley, I am with you always to the end of the age!”

I think God laughed too, after all, it was His idea.  May He speak His “Shirley” over you.

6. Herb and Vi (Part 2)

Herb and Vi - last photoHerb 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. The caregiver heard every word – every night.

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!”

5. Herb and Vi

Herb and Vi - weddingVi 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.

Everyone thought Vi would go first.  It happens that way a lot.  Mini strokes, falls, and failing hearing.  During her last days she was so deaf that shouting didn’t work.  We had to speak to her by writing on a little white board with erasable felt pens.  She never lost her edge.  Her sense of humor never waned.  If there were more days in between my visits than Vi thought appropriate I was usually greeted the next time with a sly smile, a wagging finger, followed by a demand for increased frequency.  Herb cared for her as long as he could.  But eventually hospice was called for both.  The doctor had told Herb that he’d die of old age before the prostate cancer got him, but the doctor obviously didn’t have many patients who lived into their mid-90s!  (Watch for Part 2 on Tuesday, March 6th.)