For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime. Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My decision, His reasons

Sometimes I wonder… Why do we make such surprising, seemingly unreasonable decisions sometimes? We have our reasons, all the time, but God has His, too.

This is the view from where I sit to work on my assignments. Our lovely hydrangea and thyme plants! 

Just about a month ago, I began my Maymester course. It was a short but intense course, involving 15 hours of class per week, and spanning four weeks in all. This meant also, that all assignments would have had to be completed within those four weeks too. On top of this, I had my culminating Masters “Capstone” project to deal with. This would be due about two weeks from the end of the Maymester course.

I’m sure you’d guess that my classmates and I wanted the class to be a breeze, and for the assignments to be easy. This makes good sense, doesn’t it? But I found myself deciding on the tougher option, only to later discern a divine hand in the whole matter.

This is a course for both masters and doctoral students. This means that while the doctoral students attend the same classes as us, their assignments are more demanding. In this case, the doctoral students were required to write a research proposal, as though for a dissertation project, as their final assignment. In the course syllabus, it was stated that masters students were offered this choice too. However, the other available choice for us was (simply) to write a lesson plan. During our first class, the professor informed us upfront that the masters students would do the lesson plan option, while the sole doctoral student would do the research proposal. I think she was quite right to assume that no masters student would sensibly choose to do the hulking task of writing a 25 page research proposal within a two week period and with the Capstone hovering in the background the way it was.

Somehow, though, I found myself drawn to the research proposal task. Generally, I had my good reasons:
            - The M.Ed. program I was enrolled barely deals with how to conduct research at all; I felt this would alleviate that weakness somewhat, in a ‘something is better than nothing’ kind of way
            - The research proposal would be for a qualitative study – a topic of fascination to me
            - I anticipate that I’ll be needing to do research in my future work
            - I had the seed of an idea for the research study

And so, I wrote the professor, and asked if I could possible take on the research proposal option. At that point, it was all quite hypothetical. I just thought, oh well, I might as well explore this…

But the professor came back saying that yes, she thought it would be great if I did the research proposal! And immediately, I was struck with a serious case of ice cold feet. It was partially the sheer expected length of the paper in the short time frame. It was also my awareness I have had no prior experience writing research proposals in an academic setting, and wouldn’t be familiar with the style and vocabulary that should be used. What did I just get myself into? This was the fear-filled refrain that hauntingly echoed in the background at that time.

The most crippling thought, however, was worse. You’re simply not a doc student, and so you won’t be able to do it! Spot on, I thought. I am definitely not a doc student. Nowhere close.

I did contemplate backing down. After all, we must all make an accurate assessment of our own abilities and resources before embarking on a task. It is simply good sense to do so. No one would argue otherwise.

And so, one day, I remember coming back from class, discouraged by something or other and deciding, okay, I’ll do the lesson plan instead. And so I settle down with my books to begin the day’s readings. The readings turn out all to be about how to conduct the exact type of research I was planning to do. The kind of research I had just given up on writing. In fact, they were models of the kind of research I had in mind. Okaaay. Perhaps I shouldn’t give up yet.

And so I don’t. But it’s hard. And one night (You’d remember the short time frame – so this would have to be maximum two or three nights later), after spending the whole day turning the ideas around on paper and in my head, I hit a dead end, and lying on my bed that night, think, okay, I’ll just do the lesson plan. Rightos. Goodnight.

But when I awake, I realize that having come so far, it would make little sense to give up just like that. And so I take the task back on, and head out to school. Who would know, but class that day is all about conducting research – yes, including the kind my research proposal would be on. I feel goosebumps, at the uncanny timeliness of this provision of exactly what I need.

And so I keep at it, day after day. Nearing the end, I even get to share my ideas with my doctoral student classmate, who shares his excellent resources with me, and helps me out with all that terminology I lack for expressing my ideas. And just like this, it got done. It’s now with my professor, waiting to be graded. It wasn’t the easy option, and I’d be surprised if it was just I who was involved in choosing this option, sticking with it, and bringing it to pass.

The truth is, it wasn’t me. At the end of this experience, I simply have God to thank for encouraging me at all those crucial moments when I was just about to give up, through providing the very thing I needed to take the next step. It wasn’t that He provided all these resources all at once in the beginning. If that were the case, knowing myself, I may have been overwhelmed instead! Having everything provided in bite-sized portions the way they were saved me the need to organize and search for my resources. They truly were right there, by divine appointment.

Sure, I had to put in a great amount of effort, still. There was a price to be paid in terms of the sheer number of hours I spent working on the paper. There were other resources I’d had to search out. But it felt like those crucial parts, without which I would not be able to complete assembling the piece of furniture, were specially handed to me. Of course, everything proceeds from God’s providence. But, is it fair to say, I felt like there was a special kind of providence at those moments when I needed help to even stay the course?

It’s so easy to breeze through an assignment, using those God-given resources like analytical and critical thinking skills, information synthesizing skills, and writing skills, without paying much attention to the fact that they proceed from God’s gracious (and miraculous) provision. It is familiarity that is to blame, as He’s provided these to us for a long time now, and we’ve gotten used to using them. But I believe that my decision to take on this task beyond my reach was precisely God’s instrument for awakening me to this miracle of His provision.

The archway I walk through on the way to classes. Walks to school are often a time to pray.

So I’d like to confess: God’s hand is indeed in my assignments, and I’m very thankful for that. And, no, my identity is not in being a masters student, or a doctorol student. I am simply a child of God, doing what He’s entrusted for me to do for now, with the resources that are available to all His children, doctoral student or otherwise. Where God guides, it is He who provides.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
- Robert Browning

Monday, May 28, 2012

If wildflowers could speak...

Hiking through the woods yesterday during our day waterfalling trip to Fall Creek Falls, I noticed that we were walking through a corridor of what I thought were Rhododendron bushes. Immediately, it came to mind the last time we saw Rhododendron bushes. That was early last Fall, during our Fall break trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. Then, the Rhododendrons were not in bloom. I remember us trying to match what was written in the nature guide leaflet with what we were observing around us. There were none of the blooms described, nor their accompanying fragrance. We managed, though, to recognize its leaves – very dark green, round-tipped, medium sized and distinctly waxy. I remember us making a mental note to revisit those Smoky Mountains woods again, perhaps in spring when the flowers would be blooming.

Rhododendrons at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens

Alas, all that came to mind in an unrelenting wave yesterday, more or less sparked off by that stroll through the Rhododendron corridor. Later that night, curled up in bed trying to identify the names of the wildflowers I had seen and taken photographs of, I felt that regret once again. These were summer wildflowers I was identifying… what about the spring ones? How could we have lived through an entire spring, without taking some just-to-see-the-wildflowers walks? And how nice, I thought, if we had gone for an early April trip to the Smoky Mountains!

Rhododendrons at Cheekwood again, intensely red

I know it was just over wildflowers, and if you are not as wild over flowers as I am, this may sound highly uncalled for and exaggerated. Still, an intense sense of regret I did feel, and it was over wildflowers.

And it made me think (as I was kneading a bowl of bread dough just an hour ago) about this thing called regret. I’ve definitely encountered regret in many more circumstances than what is purely botanical. I’ve regretted plenty of bad decisions and wasted hours, friends slighted and words spoken and left unsaid. I’ve regretted hurting others by all of the above, or not having chosen the way of love.

Tulips at Cheekwood

But, as God’s providence would have it, the humble wildflower, by way of their absence, has a sermon for me. The truth is, though spring was a very busy month for me, with many school deadlines and some social events, we did try to take walks at our favorite parks in the Nashville area. We do have precious memories of spotting wildflowers in early spring, with a gallery of photographs to show for it (some featured here). We even went to the botanical gardens to catch the tulips in bloom, and made it a point to check on the newest openings at nearby Scarritt-Bennett Center. The truth is, we had been overwhelmed all spring by flowers, wild or not.

In early spring, flowering trees were everywhere

Then comes this little thing that tries to discount all of that, and make me obsessed over that one thing that wasn’t mine to have. Be thankful, I heard the absent wildflowers say. There is always so much more to have, to have been able to have had. Just be thankful, was their whisper from one season ago.

Narcissus flowers gazing over a stream at Edwin Warner Park

Also, there is that little dichotomy between what I want and what I need. What exactly had I been doing all spring, I found myself asking last night, as I contemplated the pink lady slipper* I hadn’t gone to seek out. Well, the truth is that I had been working hard on all my assignments, going in to my practicum site two to three times a week, still making sure Sundays were free for some leisure time, having my hands full, and enjoying every bit of it. In all honesty, I was fully convinced of how I wanted to spend those April days, and this was especially true, of all times, during those April days.  I remember reading somewhere that regret can be countered by knowing that whatever we found ourselves with at those times when we thought later there could have been an instead, was exactly what we needed then. In view of providence, this can be seen to be true. Even regrets about bad decisions can be seen that way, when they are looked upon as opportunities through which we learned. After all, we all do need to learn. And, recognizing our need to learn acknowledges that we are fraught with human weakness; so fraught that we often know not what we need.

A crowd of curious Pansy faces

Aren’t those wildflowers verbose? But there’s more. Well, just a little. Don’t feel too bad that you didn’t come to see us this spring, they seem to say, but we missed you still! And with a dainty, demure nod of their tiny heads, they end their sermon and vanish. So next time, if I can, I’ll definitely reserve a few more spots in my weekly planner for wildflowers. But I may not be able to. And if I can’t, I’ll have to take that, too, in my stride, as my wildflower friends preach. 

*Pink Lady slipper is a wildflower from the Orchid family, found in east Tennessee

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Grow some love and friendship

When this one year in Nashville has become a completed chapter in our lives, and we look back to remember with gratitude the people who have blessed us, I know that H & J will be quick to come to mind.

I like to think of them as "Grandpa" H and "Grandma" J, although they are far from my grandparents' age, because their grandkids were visiting that first time we went over to their home for Christmas lunch, and I can't seem to think of them for long without thinking of them in their roles as model grandparents.

H & J's thriving herb garden

Also, H & J have a lovely backyard garden, where they grow their own vegetables and fruits, such as zucchini, arugula, and cantaloupe. They also have a thriving herb garden full of aromatic herbs. Walking through their garden, in the midst of going "Wow!" every so often at the sight of another bulging squash, and the taste of yet another interesting herb, I found myself remembering with much fondness those few but precious school holidays spent at my grandmother's farm.

Do you see the Zucchini?

It's been interesting being the outsiders here in Nashville for the past nine months or so, since we've both been used to being on home ground most of our lives, and definitely for all of our married life thus far. When at home, we know that we are to constantly be willing to extend hospitality to those for whom home is far away. We know that we are to extend warmth and friendship to those who are new to our church community. Having experienced some months of being the ones far from home, we may now be able to say that we have a better idea of some of the needs of those who are living in a foreign land.

Seedlings. Back in April, we saw them still hidden beneath their soil blankets, or as tiny two-leafed baby plants. Now, some of them have grown up to be healthy plants, full of the energy and drive of youth!

I am writing this primarily because I would like to look back in the future, and remember what H & J did for us, so that I will remember what I can do for others in a similar situation. There can be so much more than saying 'Hi' in church on Sunday. For us, it all began when H & J invited us to their home to Christmas lunch. However, as their grandkids were around, and a grand feast had to be prepared, and a tree-ful of gifts had to be opened, they felt that we weren't able to spend enough time have quality conversations with each other that visit. (Plus, I was completely distracted with the grandkids, demanding that they let me read to them, and play games with me) So they invited us back again, and again, and again.

Last Saturday, H & J prepared a fondue feast for us. So, we pretended we were on the ski slopes of the Swiss Alps as we enjoyed each others' company and dipped hunks of bread, broccoli florets, whole mushrooms, fresh shrimps and scallops into hot, melted cheese, and at least five different dips. Ahhhh!

Part of the fondue spread! Doesn't it look like a fancy hotel?


Another thing we love about visiting H & J is taking a tour of their garden. Especially since I had seen the apparent barrenness of winter, the sight of all the green growing things filled me with wonder in spring. What a miracle it is, to consider that the cantaloupe and honeydew vines will be heavy with fruit within the next two months!

H's newly-installed watering system. Each plant has its own little sprinkler. 

Petunias which sowed themselves. Apparently Petunia have to be resown every year, but these ones came up from last year without J having to do anything

What a miracle, too, to consider the miracle with the seeds of friendship, once tiny and unremarkable, now flourishing!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Life, in the midst of barrenness

Spring in Tennessee was beyond anything I could have imagined spring to be. I remember thinking at one point that Tennessee must be one of the best places to experience spring - greens greener than green, trees in bloom, flowers everywhere taking their turn to spring into exuberant bloom. 

Driving along the roads in the harsh landscape, on some stretches there would be these lining the road for miles on end 

Going from that glorious spring into the wilderness of Colorado, Utah and Arizona, flowers were far from my mind, and just not what I had expected to see in the desert. Cacti? Maybe so, and just one or two varieties of them. Wildflowers in an array of colors? Definitely not. 


Yet, I found that it is precisely the desolate nature of the desert that brings out even more strongly the beauty of the wildflowers. Perhaps, it was the power of contrast and juxtaposition. Life, in the midst of barrenness; delicate beauty, in spite of a harsh landscape; healing, in the most unexpected of places. Each desert wildflower - a sign of God's faithful providence. 

The number 'five' represents grace

For Christians, the desert is often seen as a place of testing and temptation - the place we would all avoid if we possibly could. Nonetheless, who can say that they shall never encounter difficult circumstances in their lives, or that their character has never been painfully tested? Despite this, many would testify that it is precisely in wilderness experiences, the more trying of life's situations, that they found themselves more keenly aware of God's providence and presence. We cherish His forgiveness, when we grieve over our wrong; we cling to hope, when the reasons to give up loom large; we need His healing, when we are not whole. 

Yucca, a plant with medicinal value

In a world that is thirsting, hungry, and suffering, each desert wildflower is a much-needed sign of life - that God and His promises are with us, we need only choose to notice. 

My favorite desert wildflower, the Indian Paintbrush. It's bright vermillion reminds me of a brilliant sunset

I will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13:5b (ESV)

Monday, May 7, 2012

"And it was very good"

The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

That night, after the first day at the canyon, I lay awake, unable to fall asleep. Moments of drifting off always seemed to bring me to a dreamscape where once again I walked along those precipitous canyon cliffs - ancient walls billions and billions of years old, famed not only for the depth and breadth of the canyon which they hold up, but admired by paleontologists for their sheer age, a precious and rare window into the secrets of geological time.

Standing on the rim of the canyon earlier that day, gazing a mile down the ten-mile wide expanse, I found myself in the middle of an astounding geology lesson, with the aid of the park ranger, the park brochure, and information panels. I couldn't help but wonder at those layers upon layers - first that deep, dark, inner gorge, then those layers of different shades of brown, now greenish, or reddish, now rocky and escarpment-like, then sandy and sloping. I learnt of how they were billions and billions of years old, of how they bear the evidence of continents drifting and oceans receding, and of how each and every layer was laid - long before human beings began to leave our first footprints upon the earth. 

These rock layers have been there long before human beings have. In the Bible's creation account, there is a sequence in the creation order, which places the creation of man as the final act, after the sun and stars, land and sea, vegetation and wildlife. The creation of the world is completed in six days*, with the shaping of man from the earth and breathing of life into his nostrils taking place on the sixth day. A refrain rings in the creation account every so often: And God saw that it was good. Watching the sunset on the rim of the canyon, bathed in vermillion hues, driving to the canyon again the next morning in the pre-dawn hours, watching navy become indigo, then cobalt, mauve, and a myriad shades of blues and oranges till finally that glorious sun emerged, how could it be anything but good? Yet, at the end of the six days, after man was created and given custodianship over the earth, 'good' was replaced in the refrain with 'very good'.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning - the sixth day.                                                                            Genesis 1:31 (NIV)
Imagine an earth perfect in beauty, unspoiled by the impact of man in any way: industrialization, urbanization, pollution. Creation was just how God meant it to be. Yet, God did not regard that as being complete till He had made man in His image, to be with. This reflects His heart, His ways, and it was simply part of His plan. Being at the canyon, one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, I was awed that the God whose word created all things would be so intent on drawing me close to Him, and longing to show His heart and ways to me, and to you. So that's what the Grand Canyon means to me now - a window into a time before mankind was created, and reminder of my God who chose to make man, to have unspoiled friendship with Him. I am in awe - but not at the canyon itself, but at the God who made the canyon, and chose to make me.

* "Days" in the creation account are now thought to refer to periods of time, instead of the 24-hour span of time we think of as constituting a day