A trip to the rooftop of the world had been on our life’s to-do list since before we were married, and we knew that if we didn’t do it while we were living in Asia, we’d probably never do it. Right now we had the time — maybe we didn’t feel like we had the money — but we at least had the time. And someday if we had the money, we probably wouldn’t have the time. So with a “you only live life once” sort of gusto, we applied for the travel permit, purchased the train and plane tickets, and told our friend we were coming.
Though we didn’t verbalize it to each other at first, somewhere in the course of the trip it came out that both of us wondered if perhaps this trip would be the last “big fling” before we got back to “real life.” The thought’s always lurking in the back of our minds… Maybe it is time to settle down and have kids. Maybe we should get jobs and be a bit more “responsible.”
Please don’t get me wrong. We love our life in China, and we are blown away with thankfulness and humility that we get to be living this life. And, it’s not that we feel like what we’re doing now is irresponsible and isn’t conducive to family life; it’s just that it’s always been hard for us to shake the feeling that (for lack of a better way to put it) maybe we’re just goofing off. (Or maybe, if we’re being a bit more honest, it would be more accurate to say that we have a quiet little fear that others think we’re just goofing off?) And who is going to argue the fact that a 49 hour train ride would be decidedly less appealing with a little one in tow?
So even though we didn’t say it, and even though we’ve never seriously talked about leaving China, we both wondered if perhaps this season were coming to an end. And perhaps a bit selfishly, we wanted to make the most of the opportunities in front of us before the season ended. So off we went…
But when we arrived, our insides turned topsy-turvy.
We fell in love with the sweet smell of incense chased by the crisp mountain air as it washed through the ancient alleyways, and the sound of traditional folk songs bouncing off the rooftops late at night and in the earliest hours of the morning.
Seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, and occasionally getting caught in the cross-hairs of the playful water fights of the local people left us feeling light-hearted.
We chuckled a little when we saw a little boy making change in the offering plate in front of a giant statue of Buddha. He didn’t want to give one yuan; only a few miao. So, he was picking out the change from the overflowing bucket, and no one thought anything of it.
Their eyes… We may never know fully what it was about them, but their shining bright eyes glistening against their wind-blown hair and sun-leathered skin never failed to capture our attention. Especially the laughing eyes of the children, curiously peering out from behind their grandmas’ skirts at the unusual looking foreigners. We fell in love with their eyes.
By the end of the first day, we were enthralled. But it was mostly curiosity, I will admit. The high of visiting a new place — one that for so long had intrigued us. We had seen the temples and taken our pictures and bought some souvenirs, and we were content with this being a once-in-a-lifetime trip to an exotic locale.
But then our friend asked us to get up at 6 am and join him on a walk around the city. He didn’t tell us what we were doing before we left, but the path he had chosen was one of the circumbulation routes of the Buddhist worshipers. They walk in clock-wise circles around various holy places to earn merit, in hopes of offsetting their sins and earning a better life in their next reincarnation. We walked counter-clockwise so that we could see their faces. For nearly 2 hours, we walked in a giant circle around the city… nearly 7 miles. As we looked into the worshiper’s eyes as they walked, counting off their prayer beads and spinning their prayer wheels, we noticed something we hadn’t noticed before — a certain heaviness on their shoulders and an almost frantic look in their eyes. Some of them even did the whole route by fully prostrating themselves, working around the circle one body length at a time and leaving blackened blisters on their foreheads from pressing against the ground hundreds of times a day. Our friend told us that those people might have made a pilgrimage to this Buddhist holy city from hundreds of miles away, even going over mountains, by prostrating the entire way.
They knew they had a lot of sins to work off.
If I needed to walk in circles in order to work off my sins, I would start at 6 am, too, and I wouldn’t stop until well into the night. And I would get up the next day to do it again.
There was a futility and hopelessness about them. They still smiled when the caught our eyes, but now I noticed something different in their eyes and it haunted me.
Jacob put it best when he said, “I can feel His aching heart for them.”
He doesn’t want them to walk in circles. He doesn’t need them to spin prayer wheels and prostrate themselves. Watching them desperately try to earn merit leaves His heart sad and heavy. He just wants them to know His love; to know the peace that comes from understanding that once we’ve encountered the Lamb, we don’t need to worry about wiping away our sins any more. They are gone — As far as the east is from the west.
It is a hard place. For friends of ours who are working there, they see very few signs that they’re making a difference at all — and they’ve been there over a decade. But we believe in the power of His love, and when that seed is planted, nothing can extinguish its life or its fruit.
So that night at dinner, we figured out that each of us had gone on the trip with the very same motivation and expectation. Somewhere deep inside of us, we thought that this trip could be one of the final touches as we neatly wrapped up this season of our life — a season we never really planned at all — and get back to the one that we used to dream about… stable jobs, a cute family, vacations once a year, a home to decorate with souvenirs from our “Asian Adventure,” and a retirement plan.
But, as we sat talking about it at dinner, we both realized that it had suddenly become much more complicated as we were moved by the Father with love and compassion for those people. More and more the dreams we used to have are changing. It’s a little scary to let them change, but our hearts can’t go back to the way they were before. We agreed that the last time we’d had an experience this moving and this profound was on our first trip to China… which ultimately resulted in us moving to China.
We’re left wondering if God knew what our unspoken thoughts were and used the time that we were there to wake us up to the reality of the people in the world who have never heard His name – People who we are utterly surrounded by on a daily basis. We feel deeply convicted that we need to share the freedom and love and mercy that we live under with those who have never tasted it… just as we would if we were the sole owners of water in a dusty desert town. But, if we’re being honest, in our humanity, we just wanted it to be a vacation.
We’re praying about the trip a lot right now, and ask that you lift us up too… we don’t know what all of this means yet. Maybe it doesn’t change anything. But maybe it changes everything. All we want is to follow His heart…
We want our hearts to break for what breaks His.
We want our hands to work for His causes.
We want our lives to reflect His love.