Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Closed Doors

On Sunday, I found myself squatting around the same bucket as a 15 year old girl, refilling bowls of noodle soup together, during the Memorial Festival in honor of her great grandmother. We started talking about school and her hopes for the future, continuing our conversation at her relative’s house where we joined some others for lunch, and then she suggested that we go for a walk around the village.

I felt so privileged to hear this girl’s heart. It gave me a better understanding, in much the same way that my class at the mosque a few months ago helped me to view faith through the eyes of a devout Chinese Muslim woman. This was life through the eyes of a very mature village girl who is feeling the tension between having longings and dreams and realizing that certain doors are closed to her.

She is working hard in school to please her parents, and to maybe get into college (if she can score high enough on the college entrance exam). The other option would be to get married (as some of her friends already have) to someone of the same Sufi order, through an arranged marriage. But if it was up to her, she would choose a third option and go out on her own to find a job. Because she really wants to get some life experience outside of her province and to see more of the world. She doesn’t want to be tied down. Trapped. Behind closed doors.

Three years ago she was able to go to Beijing for the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, as a representative of the Bonan ethnic minority people. She loved the experience, but it also caused her to realize how little her people know of life beyond their province. Many of them don’t travel or have access to the internet. She used the word that so many Chinese use when talking about this area 落后 luo hou meaning backward, behind the times.

At the same time, she can understand the benefits of having a simple life. And I affirmed what she was saying by telling her that people can have a lot of things and not be content. They can easily think they need a bigger house, nicer car, more things...in order to be happy. Looking out over the beautiful landscape I said, “Here you have such natural beauty and it’s free.” 

 I said that it can be easy to look at other people’s lives and think that they have it better. To wish my life was like theirs. But the truth is that Zhen Zhu (True God) has given each of us the life that is perfect for us. The difficult things we each experience can help to develop our character and help us to grow closer to Him. And He can use them to give us a contented heart that isn’t dependent on our outside circumstances.

I was encouraged by our time together: both from what I had learned from her and what I had been able to share. Until I got home and read the following sections in a Brian McLaren book. Which made me question whether it would have been better for me to keep my mouth shut (like I felt two years ago with my friend whose young son had died and I tried my best to bring some comfort to her grief).

McLaren highlights a verse that he discovered in the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Mrs. Cecil Alexander, which is not included in most modern hymnbooks:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

He says, “As I pondered this verse, I couldn’t help recalling various stops in my travels over recent years. I’ve been inside the castles and mansions of some of the world’s rich and powerful—eaten gourmet meals, enjoyed scintillating conversation, slept in the finest beds, and even relieved myself in bathrooms of shocking opulence. And I have walked among the poor outside the gates of the rich...visiting in homes smaller than bathrooms, walking in the fecal mud of crowded refugee camps and squalid squatter villages, sleeping in dingy slums and grim occupied territories where oppression is the norm and police are just another threat. Having been both inside the castles and outside the gates, if I were asked to sing this verse in church some Sunday, I can only say that I would choke. I would walk out. I don’t know if I could ever return to a church where this verse was sung.

Imagine the effects of singing such a verse on the rich—the gratification, the peace, the joy, the sense of divine entitlement. And imagine the effects on the poor—the humiliation, the fury, the outrage, or the resignation.”

Later in his book, McLaren writes about overhearing a conversation between a Kenyan and an American about the recent intertribal violence in Kenya. “The American asked, ‘Which tribe are you from?’ The man hesitated a moment and replied, ‘I could answer your question because I am not ashamed of my tribe. It is part of who I am, and I know who I am. But at the risk of sounding rude, I would rather not answer, and let me explain why. In reality, in every country, there are only two tribes; the haves and the have-nots. It is enough to say that I am from the haves, and I want to use the advantages that have come to me by accident of birth on behalf of the have-nots, whatever their tribe. So although I am from one tribe, I exist to serve people of all tribes.’”

These words stabbed my heart. I thought about how I, as a definite “have,” had just told a struggling “have-not” to accept the life God had given her as His perfect plan for her. Earlier in the conversation I had tried to empathetically communicate how hard it must be for her to have these dreams and to try to figure out what to do with the longings of her heart, in light of the realities of life. But how could I even begin to understand her situation? Me, a “wealthy American” with a privileged life, whose children had so many more opportunities and possibilities for the future than she had. We, who were not facing the closed doors that felt unfair to her.

 How did my meant-to-be-encouraging words sound in her ears?

While I agree with Paul’s statement about God’s sovereignty in the lives of people, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live.” (Acts 17:26)

I am also deeply convicted by the words of the Kenyan who had no sense of “divine entitlement,” but was so humble that he referred to his advantages as coming to him by “accident of birth.” I, too, want to use the advantages I have as one of the fortunate “haves” to serve the “have-nots” and the “people of all tribes.”

Lord, help me know how to serve. How to encourage. How to give. What to give. What to say. What not to say. Help me to know what the real needs are. Spoken and unspoken. And what you want me to do about them. Help me to grow in humility. Generosity. Sensitivity. Understanding. Compassion. Creativity. May You be honored through my words and actions. And through the way You might choose to use me and Your people around the world to open some of the closed doors in the lives of the have-nots all around us. May You make a difference in the hurting world through Your submitted servants. Who want to see Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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