SOMETHING ABOUT THE UNIVERSE AND ME

I recently saw a time lapse shot from NASA satellites.

A pause.

I wonder if you are able to pinpoint a single infinitismal whisper wafting through the air as the universe spins incessantly.

My voice is small.
The slow beat of my heart throb a dull thump.

I know so little of God because I know so little of my own heart, of this city, of this country, of this globe. I don’t understand the moon, let alone the flaming sun. I cannot name the stars in my own galaxy. And the clusters of distant glowing stars and space dust are enigmas to me.

The universe is big. So big that it irritates my tiny mind to consider all of it.

Pegasus.
Andromeda.
Pisces, Aries, Triangulum.

So you hold the universe in your hand? Your hands must be bigger than I had previously considered. Your mind must be warehouses of harddrives and switches to understand it. Your heart must be full to care for it.

Yet, strangely, the details matter to you.

I am looking up right now. The Manila sky is overcast. But beyond the cloud cover, the sun is a vibrant flame invisible to my eyes. I am looking at the sky right now. The expanse of it comforts and confuses me.

It reminds me of open Arizona skies. Pink and gold sunsets seem to bend eternal to the curve of the atmosphere.

It reminds me of the dull grays of Kunming skies, and the many sunrays puncturing through the cloud cover. The blues are brilliant just south of the clouds in Yunnan.

It reminds me of the contrasts of lush green landscape and azure of Myanmar as I secretly snuck across the border to translate for Time Magazine. It was a serene landscape but for the child soldiers and an excess of AK-47s.

The sky alone makes me think, “as far as the east is to the west, so great is your love for me.” The universe overwhelms me with your extravagant mercy.

I am a dot on the busy canvas.
I am a detail between the colors.

I just want to know that my whisper matters; my heart cry is heard; my churning heart has a home.

A pause.

I whisper a prayer to you again. Be with me. Right here. I need you. And I hear nothing in return but the passing of the LRT train, a honking taxi, footsteps of 16 million people, and ongoing construction.

But peace is with me. I feel you. I think I hear your presence in the slow beat of my own heart, as if you are telling me that I am an integral part of your storyline.

I am but a brushstroke in your masterpiece of the universe and me. And I think I feel you say, “My piece needs you. Every brushstroke matters.”

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SOJOURNERS SEARCHING FOR A HOME

This post is from my amazing wife, Lorna. Follow her on twitter @lornajoannes. Enjoy!

Sitting at our 40 square meter apartment in Manila, I am crying to God, asking where is my “home”? It has been more than nine months since we moved out of China. I was excited to return to the Philippines, thinking that it would be great to be “home”. I would finally be with my family, friends, church community, see the familiar faces, places and food. But after nine months of life in Manila, it feels so different. I still feel like I am not really “home”.

I remember it clearly, nearly nine years ago when I left home for China. It was two months after David and I got married. I was excited for my new stage of life with David and the mission field. But the day I left, I was filled with mixed emotions. It was the day I stepped into the unknown, the day I left all the comforts of home. It was a full flight, and as the plane took off, all I noticed was David sitting next to me, comforting me as I sobbed my eyes out.

That year was full of “firsts”, as I was a stranger to a foreign land. My first Chinese new year. My first Christmas in China (it was full of tears). My first time to celebrate my birthday with all the strangers and acquaintances from the missionary community. But as time went by, they became great friends. They became like a family to me.

It took me more than a year to adjust while experiencing the first year of our marriage, studying the language, and traveling to villages where there was no witness of the gospel. We had a great community. At last, I felt I was home! I felt better. However, in the back of my mind, I always thought of my “first home”.

Many years passed. By God’s grace, we were able to establish training centers among some of the most unreached villages in China. Many followed Christ, churches were planted, and they began to reach their own people. Throughout these years, I felt at home in this foreign land. There were times that I didn’t even think about my first home in the Philippines anymore. The mixed emotions of leaving that home had slowly faded. In my heart, I thought we would stay in China for many more years, and even raise our family there.

But after many years, David and I became very sick. We were unable to have children. Many people even told us it was impossible. I had stage four endometriosis and other health problems. The years of heavy travels and lack of good medical care had taken a toll on our bodies.

So we decided that it was time to leave China for the Philippines. Again, I was filled with mixed emotions. I had to leave the place where I finally felt had become “home” to go back to my “first home”.

When we arrived in Manila, my expectations were high. But soon I realized that I had mistaken hopes. I felt like I was a stranger in my own land. All the people, friends, and places were no longer familiar to me. The years spent in a foreign land had created a chasm between me and my own land. It wasn’t that our friends and family did not welcome us warmly. They did. They are not to be blamed for what I felt. It was I myself who chose to leave and follow God’s call. The years of experience on the mission field, and the life I have lived in a foreign land had strangely detached me from the place I once called “home”.

As I ponder all these feelings, I realize that the book of Hebrews says in perfect words all that I am experiencing:

By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.” (Hebrews 11: 8-10, The Message)

You may be a businessman, a student, a minister or a missionary, but we are all transients and strangers in this world. We are all passerby’s, and someday we will return to our true home. Through the years of following the Lord, I have always felt like a stranger wherever I go. I felt foreign in the tribal villages of Yunnan, China mountaintops; in the overpopulated bustling city of Manila; in quiet Prescott, Arizona. I guess I can console myself that it is normal to feel this way. If I didn’t feel like a stranger in this world, I wouldn’t long for my real “home”, where God resides and rules.

Moving from China back to my “first home” in the Philippines was one of the best decisions we ever made. Because right now, I enjoy a double blessing: healing after a major surgery for my endometriosis, and the gift of life—our baby on the way!

A new season has come. And in every new season comes new place of assignment and responsibility. We know it won’t be long when we will be on the road again, going to an unknown place where there is no witness of the gospel. That place will become our “new home”. Again I will feel those mixed emotions. But I will be able to deal with it better this time.

We are open to the next move of God in our lives because we are excited to get to our “real home”. 

Matthew 24:14 is the theme of our lives. We are passionate about taking the gospel to all nations so that Jesus can return to take us to our “real home”. After all, we are simply sojourners in this world.

A WOMAN NAMED MA RUI WHO I CALL SISTER

I moved to Kunming, when I was 18 years old. I bought a one way ticket from America, immersed myself in the culture and language of China, and traversed thousands of miles across the nation to share the message of salvation with forgotten tribes.

Every weekend I would jump on an overnight sleeper bus that smelled of socks, armpits and rice wine. I watched through grimy windows as the blurred green scenery streamed past my bus as we barreled over bumpy mountain roads from Kunming to Dali.

Early morning when I arrived in the ancient city, I checked in to Number 4 Guesthouse near the West Gate. My room cost $1.25 a night—a steal if you were willing to put up with plank-hard beds with an inch of bed bug-ridden foam tops.

I always took my guitar. That was my entry point into culture. I found that music superseded all cultural boundaries as I sang Qi Qin’s “The World Outside Is Brilliant” in Mandarin Chinese. A crowd gathered to watch the pale skinned round-eye sing in their language. They clapped and smiled, and dropped a few Yuan into my open guitar case. That always paid for my travels to Dali.

I met a Bai tribal woman named Ma Rui. She would always try to sell me ethnic jewelry of which I had no use. I would always tell her about Jesus, of which she had no use.

Despite our bartering of Jesus and ethnic tribal goods, we became good friends. She insisted I call her jie jie, Mandarin for older sister.

Every weekend I took the 12 hour trip to Dali. “Ma Rui, when are you going to believe in Jesus?” I asked. “When you buy my jewelry!” she replied.

I never did, and neither did she.

“You really are stubborn, aren’t you!” I joked. “But someday you’ll understand God’s love for you.” Ma Rui giggled, and ran down the street after a tourist who might be interested in purchasing her cultural relics.

The next time I traveled to Dali, I could not find Ma Rui. “She moved to Dongchuan,” my local Bai friends told me.

We lost touch.

For more than 10 years I ministered to countless tribes throughout Yunnan. I traveled long and arduous roads throughout the province, planted churches alongside the underground Church, and grew the ministry that would become Within Reach Global.

Last year, My wife and I took an American team to Dali after a week in nearby villages. We were sitting at Sweet Tooth, a local western cafe, enjoying a chocolate brownie when Ma Rui noticed me from the sidewalk outside. Time stopped for a moment. I looked at her, and tried to put a name to her face. She looked at me knowing exactly who I was. What can I say? I have always stood out in Asia.

Ma Rui walked inside Sweet Tooth. “Little brother David!” she greeted me with a wide smile. “It has been a long time!”

“Way too long!” I replied in Chinese.

“I have something to tell you. But you probably won’t believe me.” She was brimming with joy. “Remember when you used to say I was so stubborn? Well, it’s true. I was. But I believe in Jesus now! I am part of an underground church, and have grown so much in my faith!”   

I couldn’t believe it. Well, yes I could. Despite her stubbornness to the gospel message I had shared with her for years, I always knew God had his radar on Ma Rui.

“That’s wonderful news, older sister!” I said. But it was greater than wonderful. It was years of sowing into a soil I thought would reject the seed forever.

Then suddenly I could not control my emotions. The seeds I had planted for many years had died deep in the soil of her heart, germinated, and finally pushed past the brittle surface of her soul. This little plant was more precious to me than the hundreds of souls that I had had a part in reaching with the gospel.

As a missionary, I admit, it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to think that no one really cares about what you’re trying to tell them. The name Jesus has no reference point among an unreached people group. But God is always working behind the scenes to bring transformation.

This one was personal.
This one had a price tag.
This one was God’s reminder to let me know that he always causes the seeds we scatter to spring up to life.

I was still single when I shared the gospel to Ma Rui, so I introduced her to my wife.

“This is Lorna. This is Ma Rui”

The 3 of us hugged and cried and sensed God’s joy in that tiny western cafe in Dali, China.

I was again reminded that I was simply a small part of the big thing God is doing in the nations. But as infinitesimal as I was, what I did mattered.

When I live missional, transformation occurs.

The harvest is in the seed, and the more I sow, the more God’s garden grows.

Salvation 10 years in the making did not seem so long as I listened to Ma Rui tell me about the fellowship she was a part of, her Bible reading, and the life change that had taken place. Time was trivial. So was the struggle of prayer and preaching that poured from my heart.

A single seed.
A powerful life transformation.
The Holy Spirit reminding me that he had it under control.

God opened the Book of Life, leaned forward with pen in hand, and signed a name in Chinese on the open page. “Ma Rui.” He shut the book and smiled. And somehow I get the strange feeling that he added “David’s older sister” to the right of her name.