Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Buddha's Birthday

In honor of Buddha's Birthday coming up (our son can't believe his good fortune - he gets the day off from school!) I thought this would be a good occasion to post a few of my pictures of "the largest outdoor sitting Buddha in the world" on Lantau Island (turns out there are larger Buddha's, but they are either not outdoors or not sitting haha).

So, I just loved the expression on this girl's face as she sits on the bottom of the steps leading up to the Buddha-- (and yes, shame on you earthly minded people, she was wearing a full set of clothes even though you can't see it in the photo!)

Second picture has some of the largest incense sticks I've ever seen, in the gardens and devotional places surrounding the Buddha. The air was perfumed by it, and I couldn't help but think of David's Psalm:

Let my prayer rise up as incense before you,
the lifting up of my hands
as an evening sacrifice.
--Psalm 141:2

Third picture is of a guy paying homage in front of one of the gorgeous Bodhisattva statues which surround the big Buddha.

My conclusion? The human desire and creativity in searching out a connectedness to the divine is something which transcends age, culture, gender. I believe that God honors that desire as something beautiful, in fact has created it, and is very near to all of us who reach out in hope of that "something more" to life.

At the same time, St. Paul 's words also echo in my mind:

What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you... Since we are God's children, we ought not think that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone -- an image made by human design and skill. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (see Acts 17:16-34)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Prison Ministry in Hong Kong Visit #2

I took the second of my monthly trips to prison with our church group to visit our "jailbirds" in a Hong Kong prison. Our group of inmates was slightly larger this time, 8 inmates instead of 6. (and yes, for those who read my first blogs on prison ministry... Angel was there again. "Do you really believe in angels?" he asked me. "You're standing right in front of me, aren't you?" I replied)

It turns out, though, that only non-Hong Kong or Chinese nationals can come to our group (somebody's rules... rest assured there is another Christian group for them in the afternoon, but it seems too bad, since Jesus Christ is pretty big on getting beyond national/cultural distinctions!)

So we have an interesting group of inmates from several different continents... Who would have thought I would come to Hong Kong to minister to guys from South America and South Africa?! Most are in for 6-8 years for drug trafficking. Several of them have never actually seen Hong Kong and wonder what it's like -- they were arrested at the airport!

Our topic today was "How do you know faith is real?" and these guys were brutally honest with their questions. They don't pretend to "feel" faith or believe in anything unless they really do. One of the guys with the most questions and what we would call "doubts" was the same guy who said, "I need this hour and a half with you guys so much. You get to go back to your work and your churches and your families, and if you have a question or want support in living a better life, you can turn to others. But we here in prison just go back to to our cells and there is nothing and there is nobody to remind us how God wants us to live. Until the next time you come. So please come back."

In all my years of parish ministry, I've rarely heard that kind of a thirst for the teaching of Jesus.

"My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?" Psalm 42:2

The answer for my soul right now, in prison! I get to go and meet with God -- and his angels!-- in a Hong Kong prison.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Studying Cantonese in Hong Kong

Wayne and I never guessed we would ever go to China, in fact I distinctly remember saying that Chinese is one language I would never want to have to learn... and here I am just beginning Cantonese!

For the uninitiated... most of the Chinese world speaks Mandarin, a wonderfully difficult language with four tones, so that if you pronounce a word exactly right but say it in the wrong pitch, you can mean to say a perfectly innocent thing and you actually end up saying something indescribably vile which will cause looks of consternation and shock on the face of your local Chinese friends and shopkeepers.

However, since we are living in Hong Kong, here (as well as in most of the immigrant "Chinatowns" of the world) people speak Cantonese. Which doesn't have four tones. It has nine. So that's what I'm studying twice a week, in the evenings, through the New Asia--Yale-in-China Chinese Language Center (I always did want to be associated with Yale University... and here's my big break!)

I'm studying up for the third session tonight... been taking it just long enough that I should be able to understand a few words when spoken to. Last time the teacher asked me (in Cantonese) if I was an English teacher and I responded that I was an American husband. Hardy har har, everyone just had a fine time with that one.

I and another person about my age are clearly the worst in the class. Part of that may be due to the fact that the others in the class have lived in Hong Kong a longer period of time already, and most know quite a few words of basic objects. I just hear a roar in my ears when the teacher directs a question at me, and for the first time in decades, find myself praying for the school day to be over so that the teacher can't call on me again. sigh.

I take to heart the wise words of the Old Teacher of Ecclesiastes 5:2

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

Amen to that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hoppy Palace Training - Part 2

“Be wise my child, and bring joy to my heart;
then I can answer anyone who treats me with contempt.
(The Proverbs of Solomon 27:11)

I’m totally exhausted after a full week of “Hoppy Palace Phonics” training. My major short-falling seems to be my slowness with the flashcards, which is true, but do I really aspire to greatness at speed-shuffling flashcards in front of two year olds? The critiquing teacher (cute young Canadian gal) told me I looked nervous. Well, yes, actually I was! Put me in front of 500 people for a lecture or a sermon & I rise to the occasion, but put me in front of 6 two year olds.... who are supposed to be learning phonics… and I’m all fumbling fingers.

The critique came from the same teacher who handed out two pencils each - unsharpened at least, but still -- to these same two year olds, and asked them to wave them and pound them and point them up to the sky... we lasted about 6 seconds before little DiDi almost put out her daddy’s eyeballs. (One of the bonuses of teaching on Saturdays is that while the littlest students during the week are usually accompanied by their live-in-nanny/helpers, on Saturdays the little ones often come with their Daddies, and it is an exquisite treat to see these stern, hard-working, professionally elite Dads take off their polished shoes and J-J-Jump up like a J-J-Jack-in-the-Box with their tiny tots. The kids just scream with delight!)

So I met the rest of the teachers and all nine of them are women in their twenties - Canadian, Canadian-Chinese, Australian, British, and two born and raised in Hong Kong to British parents. They are all slim and funky. So of course that explains why the head guy ("Dr. Lee"... although I have yet to see exactly where his doctorate might be from) that explains why he hired me. I just fit right in. (not).

I've certainly discovered again why God doesn't usually allow 50 year olds to have babies. To sit on the floor cross legged, jumping up and down for our song interactions... whoa.

This week we had one class where three boys wet their pants. Another class where little Lili came in the room… took one look and saw me sitting there… and promptly began to cry. I thought it was stranger-anxiety but then my teaching-teacher helpfully reminded me that Lili had already seen me in action last week, and obviously had recognized me again.

But there are moments of incredible sweetness. Like when little Ho-Ho wrapped his arms around my knees and said, “I love you teacher.”

Give me some moments of grace like these and I think I might be able to go on for years.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Making Pizza in Hong Kong

This Easter week Wayne and I were working on perfecting our pizza recipe, and invited several Asian students over, who, like us, are far from home and surely missing their families more than ever over the Easter vacation week. While Wayne & I really miss our college-age sons, some of these students are mothers and fathers of school age children, 7, 8, 9 years old. They are here studying in Hong Kong, far from their families, for the same reasons you and I do things that may seem crazy in the short -term... 'cuz followers of Christ have the ultimate long-term in mind.

We are very fortunate to have an oven, most people in Hong Kong do not. This week was our third attempt at a pizza, and Wayne outdid himself on the crust... he came up with the brilliant idea of asking one of the local bakeries for the raw dough and they were so interested in his project, that they gave us a big lump of dough for free! (He promised to report back to them on his success).

The dinner conversation was especially gripping that night, as a couple of students mentioned that their government (of a country which we won't even name) closed down over 100 churches because these Christian churches were too effective in mobilizing help, rebuilding homes, and giving extraordinary compassionate care after a recent natural disaster hit their land.

And yet, how eager these students are to get back home, so they can better serve people in & through Jesus' church, openly when possible, quietly when necessary.

Wayne & I are so grateful that we get to be part of these students lives.

As the new ELCA "slogan" puts it:

God's Work. Our Hands.

In this case, our hands were just rolling out pizza dough. But who knows what God is cooking up, through these new relationships with students, and the courses in Pastoral Care, Marriage and Family Counseling which Wayne is teaching? .

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My new job at Hoppy Palace in Hong Kong

Make your own "hoppy frog" by clicking here.

I've heard nothing from the University positions I've applied for (to supplement our missionary salary) so I have begun teacher training at the Hong Kong "Hoppy Palace" Phonics Center as an English phonics tutor for these impossibly cute little Chinese kids whose parents harbor high hopes for their children's academic futures.

This is an unanticipated change of career at this point in my life, but our Wisconsin house languishes, still unsold, and this experience should provide some fascinating glimpses into 3-year old Cantonese minds. (The students range in age from barely two to the advanced levels who are six or even seven years old)

My first training experience was with a group of four 2 - 3 year olds: Arthur, who wanted to sleep, Janie, a tiny little girl who shocked me by whispering in complete English sentences, Bo-hai who gave reluctant, but correct answers when asked to distinguish the word-cards "policeman" from "fireman" and Ling, who just wanted to play, until he realized that wasn't an option, then started loudly lobbying for a snack from the snack cabinet.

Classes are one hour long, there is no break between groups of students, the students are all at different places in their workbooks (yes, they have a rigid system of phonics workbooks to be completed), and the teacher (soon to be me) is expected to complete thorough progress notes to be handed to the parents after each and every session.

Can I really do this? My "teaching teacher" is at least two decades younger than I.

One thing, though, I can't wait to get my official "Hoppy Palace" business card printed up.

(Business cards are a big deal here in Hong Kong, absolutely everyone who is anyone has them)

I go in for another training session this afternoon.

Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"
He said to him, "Yes Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."
dialogue quoted in the Gospel of John 28:15

Sunday, April 12, 2009

No Camera at Easter

Happy Easter!!!
He is risen, All

Much to our 15 year old's delight (!) we got up at 4 to climb the hill to Tao Fung Shan for the 5 o' clock Easter sunrise service.

While it was still dark, we heard again the ancient reading of the witness who said that Jesus of Nazareth was raised, he is not in the tomb. Close as we are on this mountainside, to massive stone tombs and graves, it was not hard to imagine the tiredness of the women that first Easter morning, the mixture of hope and amazement and fear that accompanied the message of the resurrection.
"With this announcement, everything changed," our preacher, John LeMond, reminded us.

Then we set out on the short rocky trail (a bit treacherous in the dark) to the Tao Fung Shan cross, a huge stark white cross set on a cliff overlooking the many towering buildings that form the Shatin city center.

As the sun rose and as the birds contributed some very loud morning choruses, we celebrated Holy Communion, serving each other in a circle: "the body of Christ broken for you," I got to say to my son. "The blood of Christ shed for you", our son got to say to his father.

I had forgotten my camera and was really ticked off about that until I got to thinking, well, there were no cameras at that first Easter either, now were there? Maybe there are some things better told with words that can
evoke and bend and echo, rather than be confined to a camera's fixed eye.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday Foot Washing

A small Chinese man, with a noticeable limp, walks across the room, then bends down to wash twelve pairs of feet. The man is Bishop Tai, a remarkable person, who has a Ph.D. from one of the German universities (yes, I'm of German ancestry so I'm impressed by that). The twelve pairs of feet belong to assorted pastors and leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong. Middle-aged feet mostly, with calloused heels from the endless walking one does here in Hong Kong. A pair of bony, elderly feet. The feet of the previous bishop, a woman. Very few if any really nice feet, but then how many people do you know with really nice feet?

I'm not usually a fan of these "let's have the pastor play Jesus" ritualized Maundy Thursday foot washings. For one thing, it's usually seemed presumptuous to me... why should the pastor play the part of Jesus? Isn't it better that we should take turns washing each other's feet? For years that's what we did with our confirmation students & adult guides, out in the fellowship hall, with big bowls of warm sudsy water, laughing. And year after year, it was amazing how these turned into memorable and moving events. One year I got to wash one of my own teen aged sons' feet, and if memory serves me correctly, he then did mine. Another time I watched members of the varsity hockey team drying off each other's toes. So that's how I've done it all these years, informally, with splashing and laughing.

But this year it was good to sit in the background and watch, the gentleness and humility of a Bishop of the Church.

"I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." -- Jesus

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Amazing Grace in Hong Kong

"They came to Philip...
with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus."
--John 12:21

The Fifth Sunday of Lent we went to Amazing Grace in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong, which has an English - speaking outreach ministry to internationals, particularly Filipinas, women from the Philippines who are popular as domestic workers for affluent families in Hong Kong. These women practically raise the young children of many expatriate and Chinese households, cook & clean; they live right in the same apartment with their employers, and are often only given one day a week off... if that. Many of the women are quite young, a significant portion of them have left their own young children behind in the Philippines, where husbands and grandparents may or may not be taking good care of them. If they have kind employers, they may get two weeks off every other year to go and visit their families.

While many of them feel fortunate to have what are considered good paying jobs that can help pay school bills and raise the living standard of their families back home, these women can find themselves in a very vulnerable situation in the case of a dispute, miscommunication, or, sadly but realistically, physical, emotional, or sexual mistreatment by their employers.

The Christian Church is a refuge, a social gathering point, and an opportunity to hear the Good News of God's love for the poor, the lonely, the orphaned, and the foreigners of the land.

The preacher this Sunday was Joseph, one of Wayne's students; the liturgist was Letty, a pastoral leader who came from the Philippines many years ago herself, and so is uniquely prepared to minister in this international gathering. The choir, consisting of seven women and one male guitarist, filled up the small sanctuary so much that Wayne and I kept looking around to see where all the extra voices were coming from. Angels, maybe?

Wayne consecrated the sacraments (I'm still on my sabbatical you know :)and afterwards there was a fabulous supper for all.

While many Lutheran churches forgo flowers during Lent, I saw one of the most gorgeous arrangements I've ever seen, gracing the altar at Amazing Grace. What a good symbol of the vibrant, beautiful women who make up a large part of this worshipping community, and the joy they find in the all-embracing love of Jesus.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The dog we left behind

It's not easy leaving a dog behind, but we felt we had no choice with Maggie Mae, our ten year old golden retriever who has epilepsy, weird (benign) lumps all over her body, and frankly, is not the brightest mongrel we've ever known (she never did figure out our car's sound or smell or whatever most dogs recognize about their owners' vehicles, and used to bark ferociously at us whenever we came home). So one of our biggest worries, when it was time to leave for Hong Kong, was where was Maggie Mae going to go?

Well, the perfect family adopted her. Three kids. They live on a lake (Maggie loves to swim) and at long last, Maggie has a doggie playmate and sleeping buddy. (We were a one-dog, one-cat family, and the cat always had the upper hand in our household)

This week they sent us this picture. (Maggie is the smaller, darker dog with the expression of total bliss on her face)

For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. -- Psalm 57:10