In my head, I have this list of things that I think it would take to make me content with my life in China. It goes something like this:
1) A shower stall. (If you are new to our blog, you may not know that in China, it is somewhat uncommon to have a shower stall or a bathtub. Instead, you have a drain in the floor and a shower head attached to a wall somewhere, resulting in the whole bathroom flooding each and every morning. Our shower head is beside the toilet. Nothing makes me feel clean like bathing next to the toilet! Though, some have helpfully pointed out that it does raise interesting possibilities for a new level of morning-time efficiency. Needless to say, that hasn’t helped.)
2) Kitchen cabinets that are of normal height. (Ours are made for Chinese people who are much shorter on average. They come up to about mid-thigh on me. Because we inevitably lean over to work, it results in aching backs each and every time we prepare food; worse when we wash dishes, for then we’re working at about knee-level due to the depth of our sink.)
2B) An oven would be nice. A real one. Not a toaster oven that bakes 6 cookies at a time. I love to bake, but it is an exercise in patience here. I really just want it to be an exercise in relaxation.
3) A car. Without one, getting anywhere is tricky, time-consuming, and troublesome. Our current options are either public transportation, which while it is an adventurous experience for visitors, is something that quickly loses its appeal to long-termers. It doubles the time to get anywhere. It also results in being stuck in the middle of maddening/pushing crowds, shoved with literally no room to move between the guy who keeps sneezing, the one who ate garlic for breakfast, and the woman who just bought a month’s supply of onions from the farmer’s market. Quaint, adventurous and a good experience for first time visitors? Yes. A good way to put Jacob and me in a bad mood quickly? Also yes. Option two involves hiring a private driver, which due to the fact that it must be planned at least a day in advance inevitably results in zero spontaneity, with the added bonus of wandering all over Beijing because the driver wants to take “his shortcut.” If you are unlucky enough to get one of the many drivers of questionable skill, it also involves a lot of practice in fervent prayer for one’s life. (Needless to say, private drivers sound a lot more glamorous than they are in real life.) We independent road-trip-loving Americans really end up feeling a bit trapped with no freedom in this system.
Wow. I sound complain-ey. I hope you stick with me, for I really am going somewhere with all of this.
I am self-reflective enough to know that the truth of the matter is even if I were granted my 3 wishes, I’m human and therefore discontent enough to quickly find 3 more to replace them. And, I’m self-righteous enough to be bothered by the fact that all 3 of my items are so materialistic. Why can’t I be perfect and not struggle with such base desires?
I’m coming to accept the fact that self-perfection isn’t something I’m going to achieve in my lifetime. I’m being lighthearted about all of this now, but in all seriousness, this has been a major hang-up for me over the last year and a half of living here. Jacob and I were so terribly arrogant about moving to China. We were going to come to China and “live like the natives.” We were going to leave behind our modern conveniences and fully immerse ourselves in rural China.
That lasted all of one week. We were blindsided by the depth at which a desire for comfort and ease had rooted itself in our souls. In fact, it took being taken out of our own comfortable and easy situations to realize that it had ever taken root at all! Back in the states, we were terribly arrogant as well. But, it was a different kind of arrogance. It was quietly looking down on the people who thought they “needed” a Hummer for their life in suburbia. “Those” were the people who were so encumbered by their “stuff.” We were “free” from those entrapments, able to see bigger goals and higher priorities than a life in pursuit of comfort and ease.
Reality hit like a bombshell when we moved to our dusty little village outside of Beijing. I wanted a dryer. I wanted a dish washer. I wanted my soft mattress and “decorative pillows.” I have a strong desire to make someplace feel like home, and I still miss my home decorations that are packed up and scattered across several cities. Sure, for the most part we’ve adjusted to life without these conveniences and comforts. We even buy our meat on the street in our dusty little village. (When we get home, we cheerfully wash off the dust and possible cigarette ash that occasionally drops from the end of the meat seller’s cigarette, and get on with whipping up a meal.)
But, all that aside, I was (am) deeply bothered by the fact that I had (have) such an attachment to stuff. I am supposed to be storing up my treasures where moths and rust do not destroy, but if I’m being honest, most of my treasures are stored in my parents’ garage, which as far as I can tell, is not immune to moths and rust. When I was unable to just “get over it” and leave it all behind, I became very depressed, worrying that if I despised myself for how materialistic I was being, God must despise me all the more… ESPECIALLY since I ranted and railed against materialism and consumerism so much in my past life. I felt icky for how I had treated people (even if they never knew my thoughts), realizing for the first time that I was no different. My self-created superiority pedestal that I had built was definitely crumbling. And it hurt deeply.
But in the end, it was a good kind of hurt. God used a variety of different conversations, circumstances, and friends to show me that His heart for me was love. He loved me unconditionally. I would grow to understand that God wasn’t half as worried about whether or not I could give up a shower stall for Him as I was; He wasn’t impressed by my self-created standards of righteousness where I earned points for giving things up and lost them for still desiring them. I learned in a deep and profound way that the scorecard I was keeping was of no interest to Him. I think that’s why I can be so open and honest about it now. I know that it is of no difference to God. He loves me even with all this stuff in my heart. He loves me even if I can never get rid of my 3 Wishes List. I’m secure. So, if someone reads this and judges us, thinking that we must not be cut out for this kind of life since we can’t get it together, it’s truly OK. That’s between God and that person. As for me, I’m going to rest in His mercy and grace.
A friend of ours, who we deeply admire and respect and is serving in Western China, told Jacob and me on a recent visit (when we were discussing these matters) that He thinks God would rather we buy a shower stall than quit the work and go home over something as silly as not being able to fully adapt and adjust. He’d rather we do our ministry cheerfully and with a heart of love and service, and if that requires a few more comforts from home, then so be it. God didn’t ask us to come here as an exercise in self-deprivation. Now, this man is certainly not suggesting that we all go buy Leer Jets and gold-plated toilets because it is “important for ministry.” There are and will always be sacrifices that we make.
I guess the point of all this is that I’d be lying if I tried to pretend that I’m good at sacrificing. I often think about the fact that Jesus told His followers to “count the cost” before following Him. I really wish that the cost I was counting was something loftier than dollars and cents. I’m pretty sure no one was ever held up as a hero of the faith because they gave up a life where they could afford a shower stall.
I’m really not trying to whine. Jacob and I are choosing this life. And to be honest, for the first time in a year and a half, there’s actually a desire in our hearts to be here now. (For the first year and a half, mostly we were here out of a sense that we should be here.) We absolutely love the place where we serve. We’re content and at peace most days, and we know that what we’re doing matters. Each day we thank God for the opportunity to be here. Since we live in a place where we could get sent home for little or no reason, it really is a blessing to have this opportunity. No one is forcing us to stay. If we wanted to go home, we could do it just as soon as we could get on a plane. We know everyone would support and understand our decision to come home… probably our families would quietly rejoice a little! It isn’t easy on anyone for us to be on the other side of the world. And (though the economic situation could affect this), Jacob could probably go back to the electrical engineering work that he knows, enjoys, and excels in, and we would shortly have enough money to buy every foreigner living in our little village a shower stall! (Not that we’d be rich; it just really isn’t that expensive.)
So you see, when I count the cost, it really is dollars and cents. How much money do we have? And how much money would it cost to fulfill the 3 Wishes? The answer to that little equation is: Not Now. To be honest, it just really isn’t easy to voluntarily choose a life of being poor (by back home standards, at least). It stinks, really. Sometimes we shake our heads in disbelief at the sheer craziness of our own decision to stay. It’s this weird trap where we want to be here, but we don’t want to want that. We want to fully want a normal life where we could have American sized countertops and a bathroom that doesn’t daily flood. So, in my head I tell myself that I’d be content if only I could have both…
Anyway, I feel like this could ramble on forever with me going on and on about wanting what I don’t want to want (the material stuff, not our life in China). Hmmm… that sounds vaguely scriptural. Maybe I’m not the first one to wrestle with this. When I started writing this, I just wanted to honestly share that we don’t always do this life that gracefully. Before writing this, I spent the better part of my Sunday afternoon imagining different kitchen configurations. Time well spent, let me tell you.
We get lots of kind emails and comments from people who call us heroes and amazing, and I really just feel the need to squelch that rumor right away. We’re as human as the next person; as human as you. If you’re going to admire someone, admire the One who loves us with enough grace to cover us with forgiveness, enough mercy to give us a fresh start each day, and enough patience to treat us with kindness and gentleness in spite of our failures.
So onward we march. I know I’m still going to miss the comforts of home — and I’m still going to be irritated by the fact that I want them at all — but I also know that “I don’t have time to maintain these regrets, when I think about the way He loves us.”