Moving Abroad, Chicken Feet, & Life-Long Friendships

This post orginally appeared on bestselling author Beth Wiseman’s blog on Tuesday. She is one of the fiction authors I work with at Thomas Nelson & I feel incredibly blessed to know her. Today’s post is a great way to gear up for next week’s guest posts. My friend Natalie will post on Monday about strength and weakness in relation to Chinese culture & the Gospel; Wednesday you’ll hear about The Red Light Outreach-a ministry to Chinese women trapped in the sex industry-from one of the founders. Exciting week ahead!

I stepped off the plane, my head still spinning from the rough landing, as the smell of fried noodles and strong spices wafted over me; instantly taking note of what appeared to be thousands of black eyes staring at my differences. I nervously pulled my hair back behind my ears and bit my fingernails- just 14 hours ago I was sitting in the Atlanta airport speaking English. I felt as Lucy must have when she discovered Narnia. The wardrobe was behind me as I was standing in an unknown world of fascination and intrigue—one where everyone stared at me like I was a life-size doll and the words consisted of intricate pictures. I was certainly not in Kansas anymore. I arrived across the globe in what would be my new home for the next two years: China.

I moved to China to tell a primarily atheist nation about the one true God who sent His Son to die for them. I was there to be the hands and feet of Christ—in a city where brokenness and sorrow reigned because a recent earthquake buried thousands of children underneath their schools. Overwhelming does not even scratch the surface of the emotions I felt walking around my new city of 12 million. The most daunting task was to learn to communicate in their heart language.

The honeymoon phase with my new home ended rather quickly. I grew frustrated with the people staring at me on every street corner, some touching my hair and face as if I was an artifact. The general hurry of everyone in public seemed unjustified, especially when elbows would find their way into my sides or worse when I was pushed off a bus one time. Pushed! I didn’t understand why the Chinese stood in line touching each other or why people would cut me in line if I didn’t press my body against the person in front of me. And why the hurry at the train station? I have never before experienced such massive chaos and panic as the train doors opened and we were allowed to find our (assigned, mind you) seats. Grocery shopping in China on a Monday morning felt like Y2K was looming. And everywhere I went, people snapped pictures of me (without permission) and school children giggled and pointed.

The language came with great difficulty, many embarrassing moments—the word napkin and menstrual pad should not be confused, esp. in a crowded restaurant—and many tears over the frustration of the large communication barriers.  With time, I began to form deep friendships with Chinese women. The cultural barriers came down, brick by brick, as I was able to truly recognize that while they looked different, talked different, and had different customs, we were in essence the same in longing for love, acceptance, and belonging. They needed a Savior just as much as I did. My housekeeper Xiao Li and I loved to laugh and share a good meal with friends. My friend Zhou Qiu Yu and I both loved to sit up late and eat ‘snacks’ and watch a movie (however her ‘snack of choice’ was chicken feet). My friend Zhou Xin and I like to run together. Elengi and I liked to watch The Office together. One night, I invited my Chinese friends over for a sleepover. And guess what we did? Danced, sang, laughed, ate way too much candy, went to bed at 4am, and talked about boys. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Each day as I lived among the Chinese, spoke their language, and became closer friends with natives, the unfamiliar with the culture grew familiar. They laughed, desired acceptance, fought with their relatives, struggled with selfishness, loved deeply, had their hearts broken, wanted to be thinner, experienced anger, wanted more—just like us. While there will always be language & cultural barriers between me and the Chinese, my time in their midst was the most rewarding time in my life. Hard, yes. But richly blessed with friendships and experiences that forever change the way I view others.

Have you ever experienced life among people from a different culture or background? How did it challenge your faith?

Ruthie vs. Airplane: On Overcoming Fear

Overcome your fear. I hear people use this phrase, but what does it really mean? My dad used to tell me I needed to overcome my fear of heights by going on a roller coaster. To date, I have only allowed roller coasters to take complete control of my body twice. Once, at Six Flags with my dad and best friend.  And the second time, I did it for a cute boy on a trip with the basketball team in high school. My sobbing and begging someone (“whoever was in control of this thing!”) to let me off “The Hulk” that ensued did not impress him. Mark my words: I will one day be the mom standing at the bottom of a roller coaster with all the lunch boxes and fanny packs and not feel left out AT ALL. Kids, don’t even try-I’m not going.

I’m still afraid of heights.  To add to this fear, I am now deathly afraid of flying brought on by two bad experiences with airplanes-both of which I was sure I would die. (I used a variation of the word ‘die’ twice in the last sentence. Usually I would edit, but in this case it feels necessary.)

It was a late night flight in China. Ominous feeling already, right? I was all alone, heading back to Chengdu, and we flew directly into a thunderstorm. The lightning wasn’t below us, it was on either side of us seeming to engulf the aircraft. I flipped rapidly through my Chinese dictionary as I couldn’t remember any of the crucial vocabulary for that moment. First I looked up turbulence. Then lightning. Then die. Dramatic, yes…but when you are on the opposite side of the world in a country where everyone thinks your hair is blonde (it’s clearly not) and wouldn’t know the first thing about getting in contact with your family-its scary. Trust me. “What the heck is going on? Don’t you see the lightning? Are we going to die?” I fumbled my way through the questions, using all the wrong tones.  The flight attendant with her white powdered face and red lips didn’t even acknowledge my question. I started bawling, thought about standing up to share the Good News with the plane, and wrote a goodbye letter to friends and family. The man next to me asked to move seats. I was interrupting his nap.

Flight Disaster #2: My sister Rachel and I flew back to Amsterdam from Ukraine. We were surrounded by Russians. As we began our descent, the plane LITERALLY flipped on its side. And started violently shaking. All the lights went out. I don’t remember much after that other than Rachel and I ducking our heads and asking God to PLEASE SAVE US. Everything over the intercom was in Russian and I could only imagine them saying, “We are going to crash. You are going to die today” as we plummeted through the sky. I thought the girl next to Rachel must have been a terrorist, because she did not even look up from her book as the plane was flipping through the air. Russian poker face at its finest.

So naturally when Thomas Nelson asked me to fly to Dallas last week, I thought to myself, “Perfect. I can overcome my fear of flying!” Wrong. I thought about plane crashes, dreamed about plane crashes, and almost told my team where my book manuscript was should I happen not to make it back. If you happened to have caught my husband and I saying goodbye to each other at the airport you might have guessed I was being deployed overseas indefinitely by the way I was crying and embracing him. On the tarmac, a woman next to me noticed my white knuckles gripping the arm rests and said, “Want some Zanex? It always helps me with flying.” Usually I don’t take medicine from strangers (I promise), but I was desperate. I popped a Zanex and talked with her the rest of the flight.

Fortunately for me (maybe not for them) I was with two of my bosses on the flight back to Nashville. As soon as the plane started to make screeching noises and bumping around in the sky, I asked Allen to kindly put down his manuscript (sorry editors) and tell me an interesting story. In between his story about meeting his wife and realizing she was “the one” I would intermittently duck my head and say something like, “Please God! Get this plane on the ground! Allen and Eric have children!” and then pick my head up and calmly mutter, “so you were saying…”. On our last flight from Houston to Nashville, I told our team, “If this turbulence does not stop in 2 minutes, I’m ordering a strong drink on the company.” To which Allen said, “Go ahead.” I decided to blog instead of drink, as I didn’t want to start a habit of drowning my fears with alcohol. We landed safely (duh because planes just don’t crash). On the ground it all seems so ridiculous.

Did I overcome my fear by flying to Dallas? Yes and no. If the definition of overcoming means I am no longer afraid of flying, then no. But I did overcome in the sense I didn’t allow my fear to control me or dictate my decisions. I knew the plane ride would be hard, but I didn’t allow my fear keep me in Nashville and away from the opportunity to travel and meet authors and readers. I still hate airplanes, probably always will dread flying in some sense, but the important part about fear is not necessarily overcoming the fear, but not letting your fear win. Ruthie 1: Airplane 0.

We are all afraid of something -whether legitimate or illegitimate. Whatever you’re afraid of, may you find the courage to not let it keep you from soaring to your full potential {pun-intended}.The trip to Dallas was well-worth the stress, especially hanging out with our incredible author Beth Wiseman.

And if you ever find yourself next to me on an airplane, I apologize in advance. Whatever I say cannot be held against me, because I will claim temporary insanity. Promise.

Meeting Colton Burpo | Heaven is For Real

Heaven is for Real — by the end of this week — will have sold 5 million copies. For those of you who haven’t heard of it (ie you’ve just emerged from a bomb shelter), it’s the remarkable, true story of a boy’s trip to heaven and back. Colton Burpo, is rushed into emergency surgery at age 3, and miraculously survives and begins talking about his trip to heaven. He describes what his parents were doing (he said he could see them) during his surgery AND about meeting his grandfather and sister, sharing impossible-to-know details about each.

Today, we {Thomas Nelson} had the privilege of meeting and hearing from the Burpo family – Todd, the father and author, Sonja, the mother, and the famous Colton himself.

Todd Burpo, Colton’s Father, didn’t want to write the book. They live in a town with less than 2,000 people and even people knocking on his door telling him to write a book didn’t convince him. He talked about his conversations with God about writing this book and all the excuses he made not to. “I’m boring,” he told God. “Who would want to read about my family?” “I have three jobs and have no time.” “Publication is a grueling uphill battle” and on the list went — but after he exhausted all the excuses, He felt God entrusted him with a story and he felt burdened to share.

Before he wrote the story, he wanted a ‘sure sign’ he was really supposed to write the book. A few weeks later, an agent found him and offered him a deal (first time authors: this never happens). Todd gave in and wrote the story with the help of Lynn Vincent, co-author of Same Kind of Different As Me — and Thomas Nelson published the book.

And it wasn’t just published. Heaven is for Real is still on the New York Times Best Seller List after 37 weeks. His wife spoke about crying when they received the first call Heaven is for Real was on the New York Times bestseller list. 

The Burpo family has been all over the country meeting fans, appearing on different shows and radio programs, and of course signing books. (Look how good Colton’s cursive is!-right). But something the father shared really affected me and showed his true character and humility.

Todd loved meeting all the fans, but he said there were hard parts, too. He choked back tears as he talked about meeting a mother, with a picture of her daughter at the Butterfly Pavilion the same year Colton and his family were there (right when he started to feel sick). Her daughter also suffered from a ruptured appendix and rushed into surgery.

Colton survived. But her daughter died. Why?

Todd told us the hardest part about the book was all the fans he met whose loved one didn’t survive. Why did God spare the life of Colton Burpo, but not their child?

The question is still stirring inside me. I don’t have an answer, but I am thankful for the Burpos courage to share their story with the world — to bring hope to those who only dream of seeing loved ones again.

What a beautiful picture of unanswered questions and a family who is following God’s call and leaving the results to Him.

And, I was thrilled to meet Colton! He is 12 now and is very good at signing in his best cursive handwriting. He rocked his new Nashville cowboy hat and told my coworker, Jodi, of his big plans for the future: he will move to Nashville. He thought the Parthenon replica was SO AWESOME. 🙂 It’s not everyday you meet someone who has been to heaven.

If you missed my previous post Hope in Heaven is for Real, you can check it out here.

Hope in Heaven is For Real

On Saturday night, I went with some friends to Arrington Vineyards — tasted some incredible wine — and met a girl named Lauren. She asked me what I did in Nashville and loving every opportunity to brag about my company {Thomas Nelson}, I started my usual speech, “I work for Thomas Nelson – a book publishing company – our biggest book recently was Heaven is for Real – have you heard of it?”

“Yes.” she said and proceeded to tell me the powerful influence the true account of a boy’s trip to heaven and back had on her. “We had a miscarriage in February...”

She shared with me the deep pain of losing a child. Ecstatic with the news, by the 10th week she had told everyone she knew and even shared her pregnancy on Facebook. Week 12 – for reasons her and her husband still don’t understand – her baby died. Devastating. ( Lauren’s post about the miscarriage)

In Heaven is For Real a 4-year-old boy miraculously survives a surgery — or so his parents and doctors think. But after surgery, he casually commented about meeting God and  Jesus, his time in heaven, details about heaven matching the book of Revelation, what his parents were doing during his surgery, and encounters with his grandfather and sister.

The most heart-gripping, hope filled scene takes place in the family’s kitchen, in a conversation between Colton and his mom.

Mommy, I have two sisters.” She corrected him (he only has one). He insisted.

“You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” Colton matter-of-factly asked his mom.

“Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?” his mom replied furious. She had never told him about her miscarriage — described as the most painful event in her life.

Colton replied with no hesitation, “She did, Mommy. She said she died in your tummy.” Colton went on to describe MEETING HIS SISTER — a sister his parents had never mentioned, because of Colton’s age and the desire to forget about the miscarriage.

Colton’s mom cried with the news and Colton said to her simply, “It’s okay Mommy. She’s ok. God adopted her.”

For any of you who have ever lost a baby – I do believe what Colton shared it true: you will meet your child again, because God adopts those who don’t make it to this earth. You may not understand the “whys”, and probably never will. I don’t presume to know or understand how losing a child -even if it was your choice — has wrecked you.

But I do know the good news: Because of Jesus we are not without HOPE! Nothing you have done or experienced is too great for Him to heal. And my new friend Lauren has shown me this is true.

“Yeah, she said she just can’t wait for daddy and you to get to heaven.” Colton  Burpo

Questioning God’s Blessings

I have an interview tomorrow for my D-R-E-A-M  job. Thomas Nelson-the largest Christian publishing company in the world and the 7th largest trade publishing company-will interview me for a position in the fiction department in 31 hours. Am I nervous? Anxious? Both to the nth degree.

In effort to fully equip myself for the interview, I read the CEO’s blog yesterday.  I looked at the archives and noticed a post entitled “Why You Should Run A Half Marathon” and immediately knew I liked him. (5th Half Marathon coming up next month! Nashville Country Music!)

In his post “Chapter 4: Our Purpose”, Michael states the purpose of Thomas Nelson: to inspire the world.

And they believe they can change and inspire the world through the written word.

As an aspiring writer and someone who radically believes in the power of words to produce profound change in people, I stood up to get another cup of Starbucks coffee to celebrate finding a company who is actively involved in what I believe is God’s call for my life: write and allow the healing power of Christ to flow through my words into many people’s lives.

I do believe God is leading me to this job, but what if I’m wrong? I’m almost scared to write this blog post because then if I am not offered the job, I am back at square one, begging God to speak clearly about His call on my life and asking if I misheard Him before. Moving home from China produced a profound identity crisis in me because I did not have a clue what to do in “the real world”. My résumé states the facts: Vanderbilt Cum Laude, conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese, among a host of other accomplishments. However, I felt void and empty inside not knowing if I could get behind anything in the corporate world as riveting as evangelism in another language.

The truth is, I believe I am the best person for this job and have begged God to grant me favor during the interview tomorrow. But, I had to stop myself  yesterday because I was giving God ultimatums.

“It just wouldn’t be fair if you dangled this in front of me…after you’ve clearly led me to this place (a very rocky road, may I remind you)…only to take it away?” Have you ever prayed something like that before?

Does our Heavenly Father long to bless us? Does the God of the Universe know what is best for us?

The answer to both questions is undoubtedly YES. However, sometimes God’s blessings and idea of what is best for His children isradically different than what many of us want and ask for. How many of you wanted to get married by a certain age or wanted a certain job you just KNEW was meant for you….and then God DID NOT COME THROUGH. What is that about?!?

God is writing a beautiful story and invites each of us to play an integral part. We can complain and become bitter when God doesn’t come through on what we perceive as the ‘blessings’ we deserve, or we can trust God ‘s heart towards us and allow Him to author our story.  His story is about bringing hope and redemption to the farthest corners of the earth, and something we don’t want to miss out on because we are demanding our own way.

Pray with me:

God whatever happens, I trust you. I trust you not because you always give me what I want, but because you sent your Son to die for me and ultimately you know better.

I’ll keep you posted on the results:)