Friday, December 10, 2010

The First Seven: 5

Day Five
This was the day that I began to feel like I had some sort of routine. I continued getting up rather early and taking a walk by the sea. Climbing up on the outcropping of rocks to the east, I sat and watched the waves shine in the light of the newly risen sun. I love having a nice place to go and find solitude among nature. It was one of things I missed most in Kissimmee, being surrounded by cars and sprawl all the time, always hearing the clamor of civilization. Sitting on the rocks with only the ocean and God for company lets me think and read and pray.

It was a good thing that I had time to clear my head in the early morning, because from 9:00-12:00 I had my first language training session--and I needed all the room I could get! The method they use for learning is simply fantastic, and by the end of that one session I could comprehend and speak a host of different sentences. Flight is a natural teacher, and we had fun laughing at my mistakes.

The rest of the day’s activity involved running errands with Flight. I still needed my own sheets and blankets and towels, in addition to my own key for the apartment (the Joneses and Whitneys were nice enough to lend me some upon arrival). Flight wanted to take me somewhere we could get sheets made for cheap (she is always very concerned about saving money), so we went off across town to an area called Tai Dong. I wished I had my camera! Tai Dong is a large section of the city devoted to all different kinds of shopping. Think along the lines of a Chinese Citywalk or Downtown Disney, but full of a greater variety of shops with a greater disparity in pricing. Broad footpaths criss-cross each other and people stream from everywhere to everywhere. We got fabric cut for sheets, went to Walmart, and tried to get a key copied. I say tried because we found a man to do it, but when he saw that I was foreign he wanted to charge me more: 10 kuai instead of 5. So a little over a dollar, rather than a little under a dollar. I personally didn’t care, since I expect that to happen when I go to street shops and because it was only about 70 cents difference, but Flight wouldn’t stand for it. She decided she would just go and get a key copied on her own, and save the 5 kuai.

On our way out of Tai Dong Flight wanted me to try Chu Tofu, or Dofu Tofu-- Stinky Tofu. I had heard stories about this particular tofu back in the States, with everyone bemoaning how horrible it is and how awful it smells. But my policy in China has been “I will try anything once.” So I agreed and we got a cup of small tofu squares sprinkled with pepper. It didn't smell nearly as bad as I thought it would, nor taste as bad! After a bite Flight asked me if I liked it. I said, “Eh, it is ok.” Her eyes widened and she said “You are Chinese!” I don't think she knows how much of a compliment that was.

~J.L. Smith

The First Seven: 4

Day Four
This might have been the most interesting day yet! Jerry decided to step up the culture training to a whole new level. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but when he told the Whitney’s their faces lit up and they said how they wished they could go, so I was pretty confident that where we were going, wherever that ended up being, would be an Experience with a capital E. Jerry, Lawanda, Judah, Flight, and myself all crammed into a taxi and headed across town.

The taxi driver was one of the chatty variety, so naturally Jerry was talking with him in Mandarin. Somehow the conversation turned to me. We happened to be driving by “Beer Street”, which is famous throughout China because it is the home of the Qingdao Beer Brand (like Bud or Busch in America). I am single. I am young. I am in business. So naturally the taxi driver asks: “Have you had the famous Qingdao beer?” “No” “Oh, you have to have it! Its famous!” “He doesn't drink” “Whaaaaaa? No drink?” It just astounded him. You must drink to be a man he said. Over and over again he came back to it in the ride. “No drink? Really? Never?” And he would just shake his head and laugh... and shake his head some more.

There is an amazing amount of cultural insight to be had in just that taxi ride. To see myself from his eyes: in order to be a man, I must be someone who drinks, and I must be someone who drinks a lot. The male community here is brought together and united by drinking. It is how trust is formed. So excellence at drinking is excellence at being a man. Refusal to drink is refusal to be a man. Why would I ever not want to drink, then?

Well, beer taxi aside, we arrived at our destination. Winding through some small streets crowded with vendors, we entered a very nice restaurant, full of decorations, great smells, and miniature waterfalls. One area was a concave rectangle outlined with tables filled with different dishes. That was the menu. You go over and look at what you want, and then order it to the hostess who follows you. Around a small corner you come into a large open room, full of tables and people, all facing a stage for... the Qingdao Opera! Reds and Golds and yellows and flash covered most everything, matching the gaudy (but not in a bad way) costumes and make up of those on stage. Columns lined the walls, crowned with grinning golden dragons in full rampant, and people filled the tables all eating and talking and dipping and drinking as the performance went on. The opera itself was far more a piece of atmosphere than an engaging performance. To be honest, I didn’t pay all that much attention since 1) They mostly just stood around and talked, sometimes in a singsong way 2) I couldn't understand them 3) I was much more focused on the food!

Jerry ordered enough food to feed a small army: sprigs of lettuce like greenery with tangy sauce, mixed vegetables prepared cold and sour, broccoli warm and soft, pork with chewy sea-growth, hot and spicy and flavorful skewered pork, warm and satisfying onion bread (though really more of a tortilla), and more pork mixed with yellow and black something (I assume vegetable, maybe squash) which you pack into a tiny tortilla. The only thing I didn't enjoy was the mixed vegetables-- I bit into a large piece of ginger and I felt like a novacaine pill had exploded in my mouth! And I almost forgot the other dish we ordered: Duck head! Jerry and I were the only adventurous ones. I can see why its not popular in America... and it really has nothing to do with taste. I mean we eat hot dogs and sausage for crying out loud! We are not averse to weird food as long is it tastes good enough and is hearty enough. This tasted ok, but was decidedly lacking in heartiness: there just wasn't much there to eat, and hardly worth the effort. After stuffing myself to the brim with wildly delicious food, THEN Jerry tells me: save room for dessert. But he said it with a glint of mischievousness in his eyes that immediately put me on my guard. We headed outside to one of the many street stalls. This particular stall specializes in frying insects. ordered a fried scorpion for each of us (and by each of us I mean Jerry and I-- Lawanda wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole, and I guess Flight didn't want one). The man flipped one of the many live and scurrying scorpions from a bowl right onto the fryer, cooked it up good and covered it in spice. We each took a bite at the same time. That is definitely the weirdest thing I have ever eaten-- but not that bad. I would get it again. After its fried and there are spices on it, there isn't much to it.

Day Four = Success!

~J.L Smith

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The First Seven: 3

Day Three

This day started off great. Despite the fact that I used my extra days stateside to begin switching timezones, the little cuckoo clock in my head definitely still thought I lived in North America. I gave up trying to sleep anymore around 6:30, and went for a walk instead. Living right next to a beautiful ocean, I naturally decided to walk along the seaside toward a park with some spectacular rocks. A busier seaside you have never seen! Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but it is certainly not an exaggeration to say that you would NEVER see that many people out and about and exercising at 6:30 in the morning back in the States. The only people up that early are people that have to be. It is funny how Carrefour and the morning of day3 stand in contrast in my mind. If Carrefour was China shocking and imposing, this morning was China glowing and glittering, alive and beautiful. The sun was already well risen by 6:30, breaking through the clouds and haze to make the sea abreast of Qingdao a fair lady crowned with sparkling jewels. Men and women, old and young, were walking forwards or walking backwards or running quickly or doggedly running, or stretching or pacing or talking or waving or clapping or rubbing their hands. Multiple groups were doing Tai Chi as I came into the park on the hill, moving gently with the music that matched them. On the sudden rocks that lift sharply from the sea by the park, one man was stretching and performing forms―like something out of a movie. And last but not least, a man I shall not forget: the Laughing Man. This man was down on the big rocks by the water, pacing back in forth with arms clasped behind his back. Every once in a while he would stop and face the sea, start into a loud aaaaaAAAAAAAAHHHHHH---- and then just let loose the most cathartic guffaw I have ever heard in my life. It was, to say the least, fantastic.

I didn't do much else that morning. Mostly I took the time to read a combination of Lord of the Rings and the Bible. Later that morning I did a little bit of language with JD and learned about their specialized program and the theory behind it. Basically micMac has distilled some interesting language research into a practical program that approaches language learning the same way you learn language as a kid. Since I am something of a nerd, I found the lesson very interesting, and it whetted my appetite for really digging into the language later.

I spent the rest of the day with Jerry. He had an informal business meeting that morning so I tagged along with him to a small coffee shop in May Fourth Square (which some of you may know is the place with the giant red swirling thing that Qingdao is famous for). He was meeting with Preeti, an Indian expat who knows pretty much everyone in the expat community by virtue of her sociality and her position as Communications Executive for Qingdao Ex-Pat online magazine. I was pretty much just a fly on the wall, but it was good to observe and watch and listen.

Then we went for some random strolling in the city. We hopped on a random bus, rode it till we got kicked off, and then just walked around. I love the sights and sounds of China. Really there was nothing spectacular to report from that walk, but that is kinda the point isn’t it? Men and women walking to and fro, shopkeepers selling their wares, taxis swerving and honking and dashing about as buses meander to their destinations, men play cards while others stand smoking and watching the game-- all the mundane everyday things are what really make up China. China isn’t a fantastical land, nor some movie set or landscape. It is a real place with real people with real jobs and real lives. After a while we came to an underground market, which we explored. When I say underground I mean it felt like it was underground, since it was down some steps in the dim and wet basement floor of some building. I couldn't have felt much more out of place walking through an open fish market, what with my white skin and fancy clothes. Maybe that is what Jerry was going for?

Well, we got back from our random excursion, and I met Lotus who is the owner of the small vegetable market at the entrance to Jin Hai. She has pretty good and English, and like most any chinese person I have met so far, seems very nice when you make the effort to talk to them. Then went with him to pick-up Rachel from the bus stop. We ended up going down to the rocks, and Rachel and I invented MOOQC (Moo-qwa) as we play. MOOQC is of course and imaginary land that we own, and which only shows up when the tide is low. And what does any newly formed land need? An altar to Jesus! At least Rachel thought so. So we made one out of rocks and then skipped stones on the ocean. She is a chatty little girl, but I just love her. Then I went over to the Joneses for dinner: pasta! And broccoli! Yum!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The First Seven: 2

Day Two
Second day was interesting. The majority of it was made up of me going with Jerry and JD to lunch, and then going shopping after that.

We went downtown to one of the many mall/shopping plazas in Qingdao. I seriously never imagined there would be SO many high end shopping plazas in Qingdao. I now live within just a couple blocks of stores like Prada, Gucci, Porsche, Louis Vuitton, and others of the same kind. These of course are mixed with a plethora of every other kind of store and shopping opportunity, all the way down to street vendors who lay their goods on the sidewalk. After getting some fresh roasted coffee from a sequestered little place that Jerry knew we ate at a restaurant in the mall. The food was pretty good, not as good as the first day. The talk was the most interesting part.

The conversation found us talking about what being a Christian in China looks like, how we define ourselves, if the company is a BAM, and the vision for how the company might grow and impact the community. Overall, they are all about people, through and through. They want to improve people's lives, specifically be improving their work lives and changing the way they encounter other cultures. And they want to redeem people's view of work (yes, even Christians), so that they see it as something is beautiful and necessary and God glorifying. Right now they are trying to push into the hotel market, for double tree and Hilton. They want to provide cross-cultural and language training to hotel staff here in Qingdao, hopefully converting that contract into a contract for hilton hotels area wide, china wide, even asia wide and beyond. They also want to provide training to local chinese Christians. If business expands like they want it to, they will eventually need people to run local offices in the Middle east and Africa. This would be a prime opportunity for sending a local chinese who has been trained here in Qingdao to that post. What a great way for Christians to mobilize! I really like the plan, their earnestness to help the community, and their holistic vision for how every part of what they do is aimed at bringing the kingdom (my words not theirs).

After that, it was high time I got some essentials for my apartment. Though there is a Walmart in Qingdao, it is not near Jin Hai, so we went to one of the foreign Walmart dopplegangers: Carrefour is a French store chain, and boy was going there an experience. It was definitely the most shocking cultural experience yet. I can't really put my finger on why. I mean it was huge for one. Three stories. I think largely though, it was because I was very aware of the fact that without JD I would be utterly lost. Whenever I am out and about, Jerry/JD/Flight serve as my life support, my floating device to keep from drowning. In Carrefour that day I felt the cold water of a strange cultural ocean crash over my head in colossal waves and seep through my clothes as I coughed and sputtered, clinging to support. I didn't look it, but I felt it. The decision making was what made it so bad I think. I am bad enough in a strange store back home. I want to be able to make decisions based upon data and experience, neither of which could I do in Carrefour. I can't read packages, I don't know what the products even ARE most of the time, let alone what brand they are, nor if that brand is good. I see myself standing in front of a massive wall of incomprehensible choices, my face blank, my mouth open, and my eyes hollow. All of that is hyperbole of course, but I am afraid I can't even give you a tingle of the experience without it.

~J.L. Smith

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The First Seven: 1

Now, I know what you are thinking, "Finally! I was beginning to think that Jeremy was never going to blog! I have been waiting on pins and needles!" Ok, maybe not so much that last part, but I know my entry has been a long time coming. In my defense: 1) I just moved to a new country--which takes a little bit of settling in and 2) I had to figure out how I was going to blog in the first place with some of the internet restrictions they have here. Fortunately, I have now settled in and I have now figured it out. So! Let the blogging commence!

My first series of posts will be called "The First Seven". In seven separate posts I will detail the first seven days of my life in China. I kept a pretty detailed journal the first week, so don't worry about losing any of the details.

Day One

First day was quite weird by all accounts.

Plane got in around 10:00, on Sunday the 31st--making it only 48 hours late. The plane ride from Seoul to Qingdao took only a short hour and a half, and was filled with a mix anticipation, sleepiness, pretty good food (an American airline would never have served a full breakfast for so short a flight I think, thanks Korean Air!), and a mix of Mandarin, Korean, and English. As we landed and pulled up to the gate, I started to worry about knowing where to go and what to do once I was in the airport. There were some other American looking folks on the plane, so as we disembarked I just kept saying "follow the white guy, follow the white guy." I needn't have worried. Immigration and customs went off without a hitch. I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous as I went through both. The military uniforms are imposing. But mostly they looked as bored at being there as any other airport employee.

I was worried when I didn't see Jerry or JD amongst the people waiting on the other side of customs. I scouted around a little bit, waited outside some, and grew restless. "What if we got our times mixed up because of the delayed flight?" "What if they are waiting at a different gate?" "What if they forgot?" After waiting outside for what felt like thirty minutes (but was really more like 5--again, the uniforms are scary...) I went inside and waited to exchange some money so that I could find a pay-phone and call them. In hindsight I should have just waited longer for them to get there, since as soon as I exchanged my money they came walking in through the doors. Turns out my plane was just early. Doh!

Jerry and his daughter Rachel, JD and two of his boys Corbin and Josiah (the third is Elijah), and Flight, a chinese national who works for micMac, were all there to pick me up. It was great to finally meet them. During the cab ride back to the apartment, I began to realize a couple things:

1) The Whitneys and the Joneses (and Flight) seem like great people and working with them for a year will be a pleasure

2) China is big. Ok duh.

3) But Qingdao is big too. Huge even. I knew it was 8million people strong, but didn't know just how big a city that makes it. It makes it the size of New York City (also 8 million people). Endless rows of tall buildings and apartment complexes stretch out in all directions, fading quickly into the industrial haze that pervades inland China. The cab ride took about 40mins-- just to drive across a part of the city.

I couldn't have asked for a better place to live. I am in an apartment complex called... well, now that it comes to it I am not sure I know the proper pinyin spelling for it... I will spell it Jin Hai (pronounced Jean Hi). It is an upper middle class complex that has a pretty large expat (foreigner) community (roughly 20% of the residents) and sits nestled right next to the yellow sea. I lived in Daytona Beach all my life, but now live closer to the ocean than I ever have before! But more on that later.

We then went to lunch at a little restaurant called "Lennon's"--and yes your immediate association with that name is spot on: it's a Beatles themed restaurant! Being Western is quite trendy here in urban China. The food was entirely authentic Chinese though. Beef, pork, chicken, rice-- yum! Also cabbage and egg plant, both surprisingly delightful. I failed pretty miserably at using chop sticks the first time! It was quite funny. Even though I am rather good with the crappy wooden ones from back in the States, these were just so much larger and heavier. It takes a lot more hand muscle to make it happen. Luckily, they had forks too, so I was in no danger of starving.

Corbin has taken to me like a fish in water. I think I am his best friend now. Well at least until the "he's new and older--he's cool!" effect wears off. He held my hand the whole way to and from Lennon's. Walked back, then hung out with the Whitneys until it was time for the Fall Festival-- yes you read that right, a halloween party! In China! That was the weirdest part of the whole day. I never thought I would end up hooking candy onto kid's fishing lines my first day in China, while little kids ran around as vampires, robots, and superman. It was entirely surreal because it was entirely normal. Why was there a halloween party? QICF, the international church made up of foreigners, wanted to put on a community event for Jin Hai. TONS of people turned out too, by the end a majority being Chinese, so it was a great success.

Later that night I went to the Jones's for dinner and we ate-- if you are expecting something wild and exotic I will have to disappoint you--pizza. Yup, good old fashioned delivered pizza. Granted it was a little different than American pizza, but not so different that you would guess it wasn't American pizza if you didn't already know.

After hanging around a little bit, it was around 9:00 pm and I was jet lagging pretty hard. So off to bed I went. And thats my first day. I told you it was weird. Weird because it was so normal. I went out to eat for lunch on Sunday, went to a fall festival on halloween, and then had pizza with friends. Never would I have predicted my first day to be filled with such mundane things, which oddly made things so much more surreal. I expected everything to be foreign, unfamiliar, and incomprehensible. Instead I found many things comfortable, familiar, and accessible. Weird.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Words from China

This post was not written by me. It was written by three Chinese House Church leaders (Brother Yun, Peter Xu Yongze, and Enoch Wang) who share a vision for evangelizing the countries between China and Jerusalem. This "Back to Jerusalem" movement is moving many in China to become missionaries and go to these very hostile countries. Below is a selection of quotes from their book that explains their movement. As I read their words I was convicted and moved. I hope you will be as well.

“If we lose our first love and start to focus on our own needs, our spiritual life will shrivel up and die. As long as we strive to obey God's call to take the gospel...revival in China will continue.”

“We encourage Christians and churches around the world not to focus on their own needs and desires! If you do, you will surely shrivel up and die...When you make missionary outreach to nations that have never heard about Jesus the priority of your church, you will not fail to be blessed and revived.”

“Christians and churches that seek blessing for their own pleasure and enjoyment are in danger of idolatry.”

“So many Christians are doing their own thing, and don't know or even seem to care that God's cloud and pillar of fire have moved on! Let's decide to wake up and find out what the Lord is doing and see how we can get involved! The difference between mere “Christian activity” and being a front-line soldier in the Lord's battle is as wide as day and night.”

“If a man picks a hot stick out of a fire and runs with it, the movement will fan the flame back to life. If he sits down and watches it long enough, the fire will diminish and finally be snuffed out altogether. The christian life is one of action for Jesus, not inaction.”

“Some Christians seem to have got the idea that “missions” is “the West to the Rest”. But nowhere in the Bible does it say that missionaries have to be white! They don't need to come from wealthy countries, nor do they need to have graduated from Bible school or seminary. A missionary only needs to be someone who loves the Lord Jesus and has passion to reach the lost world for him.”

“Who then can be involved in the Back to Jerusalem movement? All whom the Lord calls, and who are willing to start by living the Back to Jerusalem life wherever they are. What does this mean? It menas that if you are willing to spill your blood and die for the vision, you are truly a partner of the Chinese church as we march on the strongholds of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.”

“Why is there still a need for the Back to Jerusalem vision after twenty centuries of Christianity? The problem lies in the kind of christianity practiced by the majority of believers today. For countless millions of people, following Jesus is little more than a cultural experience. Joining a church means little more than joining a social club where they can meet new people and exchange pleasantries about inconsequential matters. If the Bible is read at all, it is from a sense of duty rather than as part of a relationship with its real, vibrant, and life-changing author.”

“Millions of churches around the world, including inside China, are bound by legalism. Obeying man-made rules has become more important than taking the hand of Jesus and walking with him in the cool of the evening.”

“One thing is certain: the billion Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus we are targeting in the Back to Jerusalem vision will never be reached by passionless Christians.”

“Christians are called to exercise “faith, hope, and love”, but for millions of churchgoers in has been replaced by hopelessness, hope has succumbed to disillusionment, and love has been swallowed up by cynicism.”

“True disciples are usually people that few understand. They are viewed as potentially unstable fanatics. Often the same governments that tolerate the existence of mere believers will stop at no ends to completely eradicate any disciples within their borders.

Believers try to follow God, but their prayers and commitment are clouded by indecisiveness. Their prayer goes like this: “Oh Lord, I am so weak. Please send your power. I am weighed down with sin. Please come and relieve me.” If they ever hear the King's call to go somewhere and do something for the sake of the Kingdom, they feel they need extra encouragement before they can safely step out: “First let me check with my wife, my pastor, my boss, and my mother-in-law to see if it's OK with them.”

A believer always seeks assurances that nothing will go wrong if they step out for Jesus. Only when they are are convinced that the coast is clear and no harm will befall them are they willing to take their fist step!

Disciples have a different attitude. In China many disciples beg God to give them just a little of his dynamite power. They pray, 'Oh God, If you will send me just a little spiritual dynamite, I promise I will take it to the darkest area I can find, place it there, and pray you will send your fire from heaven to explode it.'

God always does.

This is how the Gospel has spread so quickly in China."

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Unknown

In exactly 36 days from now I will be departing this country, the land of my birth and youth and life and language, and traveling to the far side of the world. And I won't return for 365 days thereafter. Crazy.

Sometimes I still can't get my mind around that. One Year. The Other Side of the World. China. Perhaps I never really get my mind around it. Maybe there are simply times when I am more comfortable with the idea than others. What I do know is this: whenever I think about this undertaking, it stands before me as a wall of the Unknown, sheer and high.

After all, there isn't much about this next year that I can put in the “Known” category. What does a middle-class white-boy born to a Christian home in a land of religious freedom know about living in an atheist and communist and by-the-way-Asian country? For that matter, how much does a newly graduated college student know about living in the “real world” in general? To be honest—not much. Yes, compared to the towering mountain of Unknowns, the things I “Know” about China (and life in general) are a small and unimpressive pile.

It is human nature to fear the unknown. So you might assume that as I face all these unknowns my heart would be filled with fear—but you would be wrong. It is not fear that fills my heart, but daring! You see, it is true that what is before is Unknown and daunting—but that is what makes it grand! For the Unknown is only terrifying to those who feel insecure. The Unknown fills them with fear because they cannot predict it, control it, or systematize it. They aren't sure if they will be able to preserve their security through their white-knuckled, jaw-clenching grip on reality. But what does insecurity have to do with the Christian?

Nothing. None whatsoever. I am not insecure, but eternally secure! Faith means I have no need to control reality. And so at the thought of the Great Unknown my heart does not fall, but instead it rises!

I feel on the edge of a grand adventure, a story book quest, a thrilling chase. A great mountain waits to be scaled; a vast ocean waits to be traversed; an undiscovered country waits to be explored. There is a challenge to face, a dragon to slay, a great and lofty purpose to fulfill!

Yes, the Great Unknown awaits me--but I call it The Great Adventure.

Let the Adventure begin.

With eyes lifted upward to the throne of Christ and heart drawn forward by the mission of Christ,

~J.L. Smith~

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Summer's End

Well summer is finally coming to a close: kids are back in school, teachers are back to the grindstone, and the days only get shorter from here on out. Supposedly, summer is supposed to be a time of relaxation, rest, and fun. At least that is what T.V. and movies say. Perhaps the phrase "the lazy days of summer" applies to some, but for this missionary's summer the word "lazy" wasn't even in the dictionary.

My whole summer was spent raising support for this big thing on the horizon called "China". Apparently living in a foreign country for a year isn't free--even if it is communist. So, through the providence of God, I was fortunate enough to book seven weeks of summer camps and VBSes to help raise the cost. I say fortunate not primarily because doing summer camps is a good way to raise support (though it is), but because through summer camps I would have an opportunity for ministry all summer long. Booking 7 weeks of camps was fortunate because it gave me the opportunity to pour out my passion for Christ on others and try to set their hearts on fire for Christ.

Now, one week of summer camp is a tiring jog. A whole summer is a marathon. And so up and down the state of Florida I traipsed my metaphorical 26.2 miles of ministry: Tallahassee to Macclenny to Daytona to Keystone Heights to Lake Wales to Port Orange to Kissimmee--and some of them more than once!

I could tell you about playing earth ball with middle schoolers or teaching the missionary song to little kids or experiencing the Holy Spirit's power as a group of counselors worshipped together; I could tell you about whacky scavenger hunts, powerful messages, funny incidents, campfires, and baptisms--but I am afraid that to write about all that happened this summer would take another whole summer in itself. And heaven knows that none of us has the time (or the desire) to devote that kind of time to this blog.

So instead I will just say this: travelling this summer was such a blessing! To experience the heart and generosity of so many kids and counselors really took my breath away. To look and see first hand that someone is sacrificing for you-- it is deeply touching. I went into this summer with the intention of pouring myself out in ministry, to try and fill others up and love them. But I found that for every attempt I made to pour myself out, God filled me up all the more. Blessing after blessing rained on me this summer through the Church, and it was amazing to experience! Support and love and friendships and community and joy all sprung up like a banner harvest around me.

Now don't get me wrong. It was hard. This summer drained me emotionally and spiritually. I faced trial and temptation in weary desert valleys of the soul--but even these were for my own building up and good. The hardness of things doesn't in any way detract from the sheer Goodness of those same things. In fact I think it makes them all the more joyful.

So I guess what I am trying to say is thank you. Thank you to all who offered their prayers and dollars toward my mission in China. Thank you to all who offered the hand of friendship. Thank you to the Church, the Body, the Kingdom of God for redoubling in me all that I invested in you. And thank you to my God and King, the author and the continuing perfecter of my faith, who has put up with endless wandering on my part and matured me through it all. I will never remember this summer as being easy. But I will always remember it as being Good.

Grace and Peace,

~J.L. Smith~

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Call

"...And so "The Plan" was born. I would go to FCC, then to a seminary, then maybe get my doctorate, and then be this preacher/writer/teacher synthesis. Boy, was I going to be happy. With my vice-like fingers gripped firmly around "The Plan", I headed off to FCC. Everything was going to be great. I was going to be happy. I was going to great things for God. I was going to be in control. And then God came along and screwed it all up."

Never tell God that you aren't going to do something--because God has an awesome sense of humor, and, more likely than not, he will get just the biggest chuckle out of telling you to do it. I always wanted to do big things for God. "Here I am send me God! Use me to do the big stuff, the cool stuff, the stuff that matters!" Which sounds good. But I would always add an exception clause. "I will do anything for you God... Except that whole missions thing. Thats not really my style." I am sure God heard me, because freshman year he began to get his chuckles.

At Florida Christian College we had a class called Missions and Evangelism. Naturally, whenever missionaries are on furlough and happen to be near the school, they are often brought in as guest speakers. One day, some missionaries from China were guest speakers. They spoke of the pressing need for workers in China. They spoke about churches that would meet together and only sing and pray because no one felt competent to actually teach from scripture. They spoke about how God was changing the face of the country. And that is when it struck me. That sounds like a great ministry! That sounds awesome! That sounds like such a wonderful thing.....for somebody else to do! And I didn't think any more about it.

And why should I? That wasn't “The Plan” after all. I knew, I just knew, that I was supposed to get my Masters and my Doctorate. The only thing up in the air was where I would go. What school would I go to for my education? What would I major in? What school would I teach at? Obviously I wasn't supposed to be a missionary, but all these other decisions—they needed lots of prayer. So I would pray all the time. But from that point on, I never heard a sermon about God's plan for your life, I never had a conversation about my future, I never prayed to God about his call without China weaseling its way into my conscience. At first I chalked it up to coincidence. It was just a curious psychological phenomenon caused by those missionaries from China coming to class. Of course China would pop into my head when I just listened to an hour and half presentation about it! And once it kept popping up I just attributed it to my own memory, the contours of my brain, and the peculiar way ideas can get stuck in your head—just like some horrible song on the radio (Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, I'm looking at you). Over and over and over again it would come to the front of my brain, and over and over and over again I would dismiss it, rationalize it, squelch it and suppress it.

Maybe it was my own spiritual immaturity. Maybe it was my lack of experience. Maybe it was my need for control. Regardless, I was running away from God, plain and simple. I was Jonah and Seminary was my ship to a land far far away. I wasn't being led by the Spirit. And that was true in many aspects of my life. I knew what the Spirit was telling me to do, but I just wouldn't do it. I was living a half-life. A pretend Christian existence where I call myself a God-follower but won't actually follow. Slowly, that began to change. In my junior year I finally listened to the Spirit's voice and submitted to accountability and mentorship from others. That one step of obedience led to many more, and I was brought into a position to honestly examine my life.

I found that my “Plan” was arrogant. I found that my “Plan” was MY plan, and I realized that not once, not ever, did I pray to God when I made it. I found that I wanted my life to be about me, myself, and I; that I wanted glory, honor, and accolade--that I was prideful. And I realized that if I ever wanted to do anything great for God, that if I ever wanted to do big and influential and grand things for God, then I had to be willing to do the smallest thing for God. If God wanted me to be a janitor in a school the rest of my life, and three people would know my name—if that was my ministry and my call then I had to do it. I had to be willing to say to God “Here I am, send me—wherever!” And I had to really mean it with all of my heart. I had to find humility.

CIY saved my life. You see it it two different things to recognize you need to be willing to follow God's call, whatever it is, and actually BEING willing to follow God's call, whatever it is, with all of your heart. Just as I began to dig deep into finding humility in my heart and was accepting the possibility that going to China after I graduate might be what God wanted from me, just then, the summer before my senior year came. Through providence I ended up on the summer travel team for FCC and spent 8 weeks that summer traveling to conferences and recruiting. I say it saved my life because God used it to speak to me. You see, when you are recruiting your job is to meet new people. When you meet new people three questions would inevitably come up: Where are you from? (FCC) What are you majoring in? (Bible and Humanities) and What are you going to do with that? Or in other words, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” So all summer God had people asking me, “What are you going to do after you graduate? What are you going to do after you graduate? No, really, what are you going to do after you graduate?”

At the beginning of the summer I twisted and turned and explained to people that I didn't know, that God had just removed the plan I had been relying on so heavily for the past four years, and that I had no idea if China or seminary or something else was held in store for me. I generally said “I might, maybe, sort of, kinda, possibly be going to China. But God kept having people ask. Again and again and again. And slowly I realized: there is no maybe about this. There is no might or possibly or any of the others. God has called me to go to China after I graduate. And if he called me, I have to go.

And so I am going. For one full year I will be in China—and I can't wait to see what God has in store. I don't know if God has called me to China for the rest of my life. I don't even know if he has called me to missions for the rest of my life. I simply know that he has called me to at least go. Who knows what he will call me to do from there.

~J.L. Smith

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Plan

No one is perfect at making decisions. Everyone has their own little weaknesses and flaws to their decision making M.O.

Some people get bogged down in the details. They can't make decisions about little things like which ice cream to buy at Ben & Jerry's: Should I get a sundae or a shake or a cone? Should I get small medium or large? Should I get mint chocolate chip or coffee or brownie chunk or some combination thereof? They hem and they haw and they twist and turn--and take forever in the process-- but once their mind it is like pulling teeth trying to get them to change it.

Some people don't get bogged down at all. They just go with what they feel. Details aren't as important as the big picture. Just go and do and be. Adventure is the name of the game. They can make up and un-make up their minds without blinking.

And there are a whole mix of people in between. Me? I am one of those in between people. I am a big picture hem-haw-er. I don't care so much about the details, but when it comes to big decisions it can take me near forever to think everything through. I pick whatever makes the most sense. And once I choose, I stick with it until someone pries my cold dead metaphorical fingers off of it.

Highschool was a time of hemming and hawing. Deciding what to do with the rest of your life kind of tends to produce a little bit of pressure. Because what you decide to do determines what degree you need, which determines which college you should go to, which determines who you will meet, which determines who you will marry; it also determines how much money you will make, which determines where you live, how you live, and what you live in. One slip up here, right at the beginning of real life, and I could go tumbling down into some less than ideal/not my full potential version of my life (or so I thought then at least). So what was I going to do with my life? How can I get the most out of it? And how can I be sure I am making the right choice? You can see why I might be a high-schooler of great consternation (in case you were reading fast, thats conSTERnation, not conSTIPation. Though sometimes that did come up in a non-decision making kind of way.)

So like any good American boy, I looked at what I was good at. The best version of my life, and the most fulfillment out of my days and ways must lie in what I do best--right? So I thought about what I could see myself doing for years and years and actually enjoying. I liked writing. I was pretty good at it. So maybe I could pursue that. UF had creative writing as a degree. I could go there and bright futures would pay my way. Which sounded like a pretty good option.
But then again, there was this whole God thing. Growing up, I always said I wouldn't be a pastor. I am not too good with people and emotions and stuff. Shepherding is not my gift. But the thing about it was...I loved preaching. I mean really loved it. It was pretty much the bee's knees and the cat's pajamas all rolled into one. Plus, there was this one CIY where I said I would do ministry. How do I combine writing + God + preaching - shepherding?

After a little bit of concocting, I had it! I would become a professor at a Christian college! I was always good at school, so getting the degrees wouldn't be a problem. And it fit perfectly with all my strengths! I could write books in my spare time, talk about ideas all day, do ministry, and preach whenever I felt like it! And so "The Plan" was born. I would go to FCC, then to a seminary, then maybe get my doctorate, and then be this preacher/writer/teacher synthesis. Boy, was I going to be happy.

With my vice-like fingers gripped firmly around "The Plan", I headed off to FCC. Everything was going to be great. I was going to be happy. I was going to great things for God. I was going to be in control.

And then God came along and screwed it all up.

~J.L. Smith

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I get lots of questions. I guess that tends to happen when you travel around meeting new people and telling them about an upcoming journey to somewhere not here. "When do you leave?" "Do you speak Chinese?" "What city will you be in?" That last one always kills me. I mean, unless I say Beijing then people don't really know where the city is anyways. But those are just surface questions. Sure, people do actually want to know the answers, but when it comes down to it, it isn't what they really care about. Once you get past all upfront questions and people feel comfortable enough, they ask me what they really--deep down--want to find out: "Why the heck are you going to China?!"

It's a pretty good question. I always try to answer as best I can.

Mostly I say, "God told me to."

And that is certainly true. But it leaves out the whole story of how its true, that I often don't have time to tell--or if I do tell it I cut and edit and don't get to tell it proper. So I thought, "You know this is just what a blog is for: to tell things properly that need a proper telling." So my next couple of posts will tell my story. Did I always plan on being a missionary? Why China? What do I mean God told me to? All this and more coming soon.

Grace and Peace,
~J.L. Smith~

p.s. I know it is slightly unfair to write a whole post about a future unwritten post, and I would write out my whole story right here and now... if it weren't already one in the morning!

p.p.s. Readers will have to excuse my current writing style. Having just finished The Catcher in the Rye I have a whole host of bad habits stuck in my head.