When people who are sitting directly in front of us at church resist the temptation to turn around and stare at us, we notice. Alexa keeps up a steady stream of excited sounds when she’s in church and we’ve grown used to people turning around to see who is making all that racket. When they don’t, it’s a pleasant surprise.
For a few months now, I’ve been noticing a group of young people from Korea who tend to sit around us in the sanctuary. Apparently they like to sit towards the back also. I’ve watched their heads and marveled at how they just keep staring straight ahead no matter what kind of noise is coming from behind.
This was never so obvious as on Christmas Eve. Alexa stayed in for the whole service. She was terribly excited and altered between loudly exclaiming, “Merry Christmas!” and “Santa Claus!” I had to remind myself that keeping quiet when she is excited is almost physically impossible for Alexa to do. I tried telling her, “That’s too loud! Whisper!” and she did try but it came out more like a dramatic stage whisper, “That’s too loud! That’s too loud! Whisper!!!”
Out of desperation, I came up with a little ditty, “Let’s practice being quiet – that means making no noise.” As I spoke the words slowly into her ear, she turned to look at me with dancing eyes, bobbing her head to the rhythm of my new little song. It was working so I repeated it a few more times. She seemed enthralled. I stopped. She exclaimed, “Merry Christmas! Santa Claus!”
At the end of the sermon I touched one of the people from Korea on the shoulder. “God has a special blessing for people who put up with sitting in front of my noisy daughter, you know,” I said and they smiled sweetly. I thought, “No, I really think he does.”
Intrigued about their polite behavior, I stopped one of the women as she was leaving and asked about the group. She explained that they are mostly students and that they live in community here. I asked if it would be appropriate for them to come to our house for dinner sometime. She got a concerned look on her face, “You mean all of us?” “Well, yes!” I replied. “But there are 20!” “I think we could handle that,” I told her. “I would just really like to hear your story.” She smiled and softly said, “We’d like to hear your story too.”
All I knew was that her name was Claire. For the next few Sundays I looked for Claire but couldn’t find her. I gave two different Korean guys my name and number and asked for them to have her call. Each time, I told them we wanted to have them over for dinner. Each time, they got a horrified look on their face and said, “But we have 20 people!” “Well, I’m getting a little bit afraid, the more you point that out, but I really think we can handle it.”
Finally Claire and I connected. So on this past Sunday after church, smack in between two snow storms, 20 beautiful people trudged through our garage and up our basement stairs. (Because huge snow drifts covered all other entrances, it was the only way into our house.)
They came in and spread out, curiously exploring every room. “This house looks like an advertisement for Pottery Barn!” one of them exclaimed. Another commented, “Oh look! There is a fire in the place!” One person carried in a huge tin of giant baked potatoes. Another brought in a second batch. One person had cookies, one chips. Claire came up with a large bouquet of beautiful flowers in her hand. Many, many times we heard, “Thanks for having us!”
Somehow we got everyone together in the dining room. In keeping with our family’s tradition we held hands and sang the Doxology.
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him, all creatures here below
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
After we started eating, Greg Pak and his wife Susan arrived with their two small children. Greg has been the interim preacher at our church – we’re big fans of his – and he had to preach that morning so they were late. They, like the others, began to pour out their appreciation to us for having them.
After repeatedly hearing that Steve made the best chicken chili and that I made the best chocolate chip cookies, we began to feel like we were floating on air right inside our little home, we were so uplifted. Claire took me aside and told me that the way my eyes look when I am with Alexa touches her heart as a mother. The kids were in awe of Steve and what he had done to the house.
Later everyone found a seat in the living room. At Claire’s suggestion we went around and introduced ourselves. The supporting adults were a well-educated, impressive group, the kids utterly charming. One girl shyly told us that tomorrow was her birthday. We loudly sang her the birthday song. We asked each other questions and laughed at honest answers. They wanted to know more about Alexa – that what she has is autism and that her special talent is twirling sticks. We wanted to know more about them – that they do like snow because of snow days and that there is a 13 hour time difference between here and Korea.
We learned that Claire and her husband (who was in China that week) had started the organization, BNM – Building the Next Millennium. Kids from Korea come to get a more balanced education – not just the strict academic focus which is the norm in their country. Many of them were involved in sports and art. They all go home during the summer months but return for the school year.
It isn’t easy but it is rewarding work. BNM wants to be more than just another Christian organization. They want to build something that lasts, that has a positive influence for generations to come.
I noticed that Alexa was looking tired and she was starting to make manic noises. “Could we sing a song together?” I asked. “Alexa would really love that.”
Greg sat down and started playing a song we didn’t know. Suddenly they all began singing in Korean and as they sang, each person held out both of their hands towards us. As we looked around the room trying to take it all in, Claire slipped out of her chair and came over to where the three of us were sitting. She started whispering the words of the song, “Everyone is born to be a blessing, everyone is born to be loved, this is our blessing to you.” Tears trickled down my face.
We hugged and made promises to continue our new-found friendships. They put their coats on and trampled back down the stairs to the waiting pile of boots. Greg hung back for a moment. “You know,” he said to Steve and me, “there is a Biblical principle at work here. Where there is suffering, God promises to at least match that amount of suffering with blessing. There is great blessing here.”
I was surprised that I felt relief when Greg used the word, “suffering.” He said it as a matter of fact and it is. Just look into Alexa’s face when she is anxious and confused. Yes, there is suffering here.
You would expect the result of suffering to be constriction, the closing off of the human spirit. But I’ve learned that suffering can do the opposite – it can have the effect of opening and expansion. I’ve tried to understand why that is.
Just looking at our little family, I see that where there is suffering, there is also need. People who have need in their lives have to stay open for divine or any other kind of help to come. Any words of encouragement or acts of support, any sharing of the things that truly matter in this life. We need wide pathways for love and compassion to travel on.
A long time ago, we asked a young couple with two children who were new in town to come for dinner. Years later, the woman told me with tears in her eyes it was something she will never forget. I asked her why and she told me, “Please don’t take this the wrong way Ali, but you had every reason not to invite us. Still, you were the very first ones who did.”
Without realizing it, we had already learned what Greg pointed out before he left. Where there is suffering, God at least matches it with blessing. And all we can do with blessing is let it flow.