Looking back seven years…
I didn’t expect to laugh so much, and I didn’t expect it to be so hard for Helen. And I didn’t expect her to change so many people’s lives.
I married Helen seven years ago today. I had known her five months to the day. There were people who thought I was taking a big risk; I was not one of them, and I was right. The past seven years have not been easy, but they would have been far harder without her, and immeasurably less full of joy.
Back when I announced my intention to marry Helen on the blog I maintained at the time, I tried to describe to my American friends just what kind of person Helen was. I think that’s a good place to start: after seven years of marriage, how much do I agree with my younger self?
- She has a lively and sneaky sense of humor.
I so underestimated this. This isn’t just true; it’s far more true than I could have imagined back then. Especially after the first couple of years, as she slowly found her footing in the midst of the storm that she unwittingly hurled herself into by marrying into my life, it seems as though whenever I have been around her I have always been more or less constantly laughing. She sees the world so differently from the way I see it, and yet so accurately in her way, that I never know what she will say next that will strike me as both true and hilarious.
I have often told, for example, the story of how, after months of nagging, the kids and I finally convinced Helen to watch football with us. When we finally got her to look at the screen and pay attention, she watched intently for about two minutes and then said, with a tone of astonished dismissal, “This is a very rude game.” Now I will wager two things. First, Gentle Reader, I wager you have never heard football described that way ever before in your life (unless you have heard me tell this story). And second, I wager that now that you have heard her describe it that way, you have to admit it’s a pretty accurate description.
Helen is so good-natured that she is a delight to tease, because she takes it all in good fun – and also, because she can give as good as she can get. I hadn’t realized how much of our conversation consisted of this affectionate, tongue-in-cheek give and take until my son Rusty’s girlfriend spent two days in the car with us en route from Houston to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for his boot camp graduation. Poor Christy…we didn’t realize it, but she spent the whole two days in a state of confusion, because she literally couldn’t figure out whether we were really fighting or just playing. But whatever it was, we did it constantly. (Rusty assured her that we are careful never to fight in front of the children and therefore she could relax and enjoy herself.)
You can tell from this that I was pretty much on point for the next two as well:
- She is of an astonishingly even temper and calm disposition.
- She has just enough occasional air-headedness about her to make her empathize with my habitual absent-mindedness, and to be amused by it.
Even after seven years, and occasional episodes of absent-mindedness on a truly epic scale, she responds to what most people would consider provocations with pure grace. (“Oh, you’ve gotten to work and you’ve just realized you forgot to wear a shirt? Ah. Well, don’t drive all the way back home; just go to Wal-Mart and buy one. I still love you. See you this evening.” This really happened, and that’s really pretty much how she responded.)
Of course we haven’t gotten through seven years without any fights at all. But really truly furious with each other fights, involving yelling and stomping out of the house and staying away from each other until we could calm down and apologize? I think we have one of those about once a year. Oh, Helen gets mad at me more often than that. (The two times I have accidentally addressed her with my ex-wife’s name? Yeah, that’s a three-day recovery period.) But when she does, she has the immense good sense to simply stop talking to me, rather than say things that hurt. And I have the sense to stay calm myself and offer periodic conversational olive branches. So our marriage has been astonishingly peaceful, in this respect.
But in other respects, peaceful was the last word you could have applied to the life we lived when Helen first got to America. I mentioned earlier “the storm that she unwittingly hurled herself into by marrying into my life.” Those first four or five years were difficult to a degree I can’t describe without violating other people’s confidentiality (and legal non-disclosure provisions). But I have to talk about them at least in general terms in order to address the next few points my younger self made all those years ago.
- She walks around wearing joy the way other people wear clothing.
- She has a habitually positive attitude and does not indulge in self-pity.
- She has an extremely robust sense of responsibility, and whatever she considers her responsibility to be, she does whatever it takes to fulfill it.
- She keeps her word.
- She has enormous emotional resources and resiliency – her heart may be as soft as warm butter in its compassion and concern for others, but it’s indomitable in its strength and courage.
- She is very, very smart; very, very prudent; very, very hard-working; and very, very practical. I strongly suspect that I will never, ever have to ask her to be more careful or less foolish with money, and if anybody gets lazy and tries to get away without carrying their fair share of the load it’ll probably be me, not her.
That bit about joy? Well, at first, I clobbered that well and truly. I had tried to explain to Helen honestly some of the difficulties she would take on by becoming my wife; but she simply had not been able to imagine how incredibly difficult it was going to be. I still had my divorce lawyer on retainer because my ex-wife’s behavioral episodes required legal attention with monotonous frequency. I was trying to fight my way out of bankruptcy while paying mountainous legal bills and trying to deal with an IRS liability that ultimately took several years and over a hundred thousand dollars to settle; as you can imagine, this meant that it took years of scrimping to get back to even a $0 net worth. When Helen first set foot in my house, I had living with me my oldest adopted daughter (who pretty much spoke only Russian and also suffered from severe epilepsy), her student-visa-holding husband who couldn’t work without risking deportation, their infant child, my second-oldest adopted daughter, a foster daughter in her late teens, and my adopted son who was four years older than Kevin, Helen’s seven-year-old. Of these, all but my youngest adopted son spoke Russian, not English, as their primary language (I myself spoke much more Russian at home than English); and they were culturally Russian in behavior and diet. So Helen was trying to adjust to American culture but also to the quite different Russian culture at the same time, while dealing with crippling debt. There were also five other children who under the initial terms of the divorce decree were to live at my wife’s house; it didn’t stay that way, but here we start getting into some of the really nasty stuff that I simply can’t share, so we will just leave it there.
All of these burdens, which I had carried for years and continued to carry for years after our marriage, became Helen’s. And they became her burdens all at once.
I had friends who expressed astonishment that I had been able to survive those last few years of my catastrophically bad first marriage and insanely nasty divorce. They credited my faith in God, and there is no doubt that without that faith, and without the knowledge of the Biblical principles by which I tried to guide my dealings with my ex-wife and children, I don’t know how I could have survived. But in comparison to Helen I had so many advantages. I at least was more or less used to the stress. For example, I didn’t go from having no children to having nine; I worked up to it gradually, one or two kids at a time, not, “You did okay with one so let’s go straight to ten.” In the same way, all the other stressors in my life, as unbearable as they might have seemed to outsiders looking in, were stressors that I had years of practice in learning to bear.
But Helen’s life in Shanghai had been very well-organized and simple and fully optimized for her happiness. She had been making good choices for a long time and so she had her life set up exactly as she wanted it. She was full of joy, partly because she loved God, but also because her life had few problems – since she had not created a lot of problems for herself by bad choices. Life was almost perfect for her until she met me…
…and then she walked into my life. From one child to, effectively, ten. Americans and Russians crammed into the same house, and behaving in ways she found unpleasant and incomprehensible and sometimes outright shocking. An ex-wife to whom I was legally tied, as co-conservators of children, for years to come, and against whose malice I had constantly to defend myself, at great legal expense. A country, or at least a state, in which it was not possible to function without being able to drive a car. Every friend and family member she’d ever known in all her life, seven thousand miles away. A mountain of crushing debt, with years of scrimping ahead just to get to zero and start all over, and then a husband who would have to find a way to put up forty-five years’ worth of retirement savings in only fifteen years, unless he planned to work until he was eighty.
Those first two years here…well, there were a lot of days when you wouldn’t have been able to find much joy in her eyes. Several times she went so far as to ask whether I would agree for us to stay married, but for her and Kevin to go back to live in China while I lived with my kids in Houston for the six or seven more years until the youngest graduated from high school and I could move to China myself. Sometimes I could go as long as two or three days without seeing her smile or hearing her laugh.
But however much she wanted to leave, she never actually left. Her time of testing was severe, and it was long in duration, and even to this day there are still burdens. But she stayed the course, shouldered her part of the burdens (without her black-belt Chinese saving skills I’m sure my net worth would still be negative), climbed that long mountainous road right along with me even though not one of the burdens was of her own creation or fault. And even at the worst, I don’t think I ever went for a full week without our laughing together.
And eventually, by God’s grace, the joy started coming back. Meanwhile she grew spiritually at an insane rate. And she began to accomplish things that neither of us could have imagined.
- She has exactly the kind of simple, yet inquisitive, vibrant and deeply pragmatic faith in Christ, and love for God, that my parents have.
- She has the gift my mother has, of finding natural joy in serving and loving other people.
- She couldn’t be selfish or manipulative if you held a gun to her head.
- If there’s a kinder, sweeter, gentler person alive than Helen, then whoever it is I haven’t met ’em.
Helen did learn to drive, but she was terrified of driving on Houston freeways those first couple of years. We even decided that we needed to change churches from our beloved Houston Chinese Church, up near Reliant Stadium fifteen freeway miles away, to Fort Bend Community Church, a Chinese church in our own community that Helen could drive to using ordinary streets.
But at about that time there was a little girl from a remote and impoverished Chinese village, who was brought to America by an organization that had arranged for the child to have critical heart surgery here at the medical center. Of course the child’s mother couldn’t drive or speak English, and the local volunteers from the charity either couldn’t speak Mandarin or weren’t available to drive the child back and forth to the doctor. Helen forced herself onto the freeway, terror or no terror, so that she could get the little girl to the hospital for her appointments. Then our friend Ju from Houston Chinese Church asked Helen to help her assist Chinese cancer patients who had come to America for a last, desperate attempt at survival by seeking treatment at M.D. Anderson. Being Helen, she simply went up there and loved them. It wasn’t just that she helped them and never asked for money; it’s that the love of Christ simply radiated from her and from Ju, and these patients knew that they were loved. They couldn’t understand it – how could two strangers love them, with such obvious sincerity and such utter lack of self-interest? “You don’t even know me,” at least one patient told them in astonishment, “but you care about me more than my own family members do.”
And so, one by one but steadily, they started asking Ju and Helen where that love came from; and then they started becoming Christians. So of course they needed to go to church. And it happens that almost none of them could speak English; so they needed to go to a Mandarin-speaking church. And it also happens that most of them lived within three or four miles of Houston Chinese Church, which may be fifteen freeway miles from our house but is not much more than a few stones’ throws from the Medical Center. But we had switched churches, and the children (especially Rusty) had made friends and gotten involved at the new church and it didn’t seem right to make them switch back; so we really felt like I needed to keep taking the kids to the new church…
So Helen started driving that freeway every Sunday morning, white-knuckling the steering wheel for the first few months, in order to pick up cancer patients and take them to church, and often multiple times during the week, in order to take them to medical appoints or grocery shopping or even just to the outlet mall. And before we continue with that story, let’s bring in a couple more things that I said:
- She has a very sweet and pure singing voice, but oddly enough a very rich chuckle with a lot of texture and timbre to it.
- She’s rather absurdly modest.
Now here is where I grossly underestimated her. This woman is the single most talented person I’ve ever met, and all I said about her was that she sings nice.
God has a habit of rewarding faithfulness with unexpected impact. I didn’t foresee that Helen was going to play a major role in helping lead fifty or so (not kidding) Chinese cancer patients to peace with God. I also didn’t foresee that I was going to find myself married to a celebrity.
I knew that Helen had a blog that had quite a few regular followers, and I knew that, in the past, one series of her blogposts had been selected by the editors of the largest blog site in China to be linked on their home page as an “Editors Choice.” I knew that she was very diligent about responding personally to people who wrote to her – and, because the blog post dealt with the difficulties of life as a single mother in China, and because she wrote about the trials she faced honestly but with grace and without bitterness, many other single mothers wrote to her in some desperation. But I had no idea how good a writer she really was – because I couldn’t, of course, read Mandarin.
It turns out that she is astonishingly good. I have been told this by others who read Mandarin fluently, and I have gotten to where I can read Mandarin well enough to be able to translate her work with reasonable accuracy, and even in my deeply inadequate translations she writes movingly and powerfully. Literally thousands of people in China have signed up to make sure they automatically get copies every time she posts anything, and one piece that she wrote over the weekend of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was read so widely in China that she got an e-mail from one of the bereaved thanking her for the comfort they had found in her article. (You can read my English translation here.) As the years went by and she continued to grow deeper and deeper spiritually through her faithfulness in helping me bear my burdens, her articles grew richer and richer and her audience wider and wider. There are several Chinese online magazines now that not only publish her work regularly, but occasionally contact her and ask her whether she can write bespoke pieces on topics they badly want to address but on which they can’t find adequate pieces. She even edited a book with true stories from the cancer patients.
Along the way, as we went to funeral after funeral of nice people who had prayed for healing and died anyway — I was the videographer for one wedding, you know, that took place in the bride’s hospital room. (In any room full of Southern Han Chinese people and me, I will be the obvious candidate to stand on the back row and look over everybody else’s heads.) Her parents and the nurses had dressed her in her bridal gown, and when it was time to kiss the bride, he removed her oxygen mask to do so. Even the four nurses from that wing of the ICU, who had quietly come in to stand in the back, were weeping through their smiles. She died five hours later. She and her parents were Christians. We spent time in the special burn unit down in the Galveston hospital with the parents of one young man who hadn’t been burned — he had had a severe allergic reaction to chemotherapy that caused 90% of his skin to die and fall off. He and his parents were Christians.
I came to terms with the suffering of good people long ago; either you come to terms with it or you don’t stay a Christian very long. For Helen, however, it was shattering. I gave her the philosophical answers, which was the easy part, since those answers are straightforward and logically unanswerable — but also not worth very much, as the problem of suffering is fundamentally an emotional problem: how am I supposed to love such a God? She began to read book after book from the classic Christian treatments, and eventually she found her way to the autobiographies of Joni Eareckson Tada. Here, in the words of a Christian who had gone through terrible suffering and found joy and ministry on the other side, Helen began to find some peace.
Well, she told cancer patients about Tada’s A Step Further, as well as other books by people like Nick Vujicic. Here she ran into a problem: for many of the patients, especially those in advanced stages, it was difficult or impossible for them to read. At first she started to read Tada’s book to them; but then it occurred to her that it would be more efficient for her to record it once and then give everybody copies.
Now, being Helen, she immediately thought of the podcast websites that had become popular in China by then, where people recorded themselves reading books and articles and then posted them. But on those podcasts, people don’t just read books and articles aloud. They perform them, with sound effects and music tracks designed to heighten the emotional impact.
Of course what that actually means is that somebody who is good at writing, writes stuff that is worth reading. Then somebody who is good at reading reads the stuff, usually with several takes, each of which usually gets some of the reading just right and some of it not. Then somebody who is good with music finds, or composes, music suitable to the reading. Then somebody who is technically good with computer software, and who has an ear for timing, mixes the music and the reading together, including mixing readings from different takes to produce what sounds like a single read-through but is really a painstakingly and seamlessly patched-together set of cuts of the various takes, using the best of each. And lastly an editor looks at the length and, if it’s just too long or in places wanders too far afield or slows the pace too much, figures out which pieces to cut out in order to tighten everything up. I’m quite serious; this is a typical team for a professionally published audiobook or artistic podcast.
Helen listened to all of this and did not think, “Oh, I need to get a team of people together.” She listened to all of it and thought, “Oh, so that’s what I need to get this book to sound like.”
So she did.
It turns out that she has a highly expressive reading voice that is also extraordinarily calming and comforting. It turns out that she has a keen ear for just what kind of music each piece needs, and near-flawless judgment in exactly where within the reading the music should appear, and where it should swell up or die off. It turns out that she has the patience to take two hours of reading takes and transform them into twenty minutes of reading perfection. And all this, with no training whatsoever.
She read all of A Step Further onto her iPhone and transferred it to her computer. She found production-mixing software on the internet and downloaded it, and taught herself to use it. The patients loved it. Then one asked her to read one of her own articles. She turned a couple of her articles into podcasts and took them up to the hospital; the patient listened to them and then asked if Helen could do one every day. One a day was too much, but she did a few more.
I could tell the podcasts were something special, even with my limited Mandarin. So I bought her a high-end microphone, and the next thing you know – I kid you not on this – she had done a series of podcasts that was the entire text of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity in Chinese, doing everything from reading to post-production single-handedly…and it went to the top ten on the podcast download charts for the People’s Republic of China for religious podcast audio books. By this time she had established her process: every time she wrote a blog or magazine article she would do a podcast version of it, a process that would take several hours; and then the podcast would go out with the article. By the time the year was out, not only were there more than a thousand people who were downloading every self-written, self-performed, self-produced podcast she published as soon as she published it, but she had been contacted by a lady in Wuhan who wanted Helen’s permission to collect those podcasts and publish them on a CD. Which she did, and people ordered that CD from every province of China, I think. Last year the local Chinese Christian radio station got in touch with Helen and worked out a contract under which they pay Helen every month to produce content specifically for them to air.
To top it off, a few months ago Helen was contacted by the director/producer of a documentary about Steve and Xinwei, a couple in China who for years have run a private orphanage for children with extreme special needs – spina bifida, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, paraplegia…just a truly astonishing couple. The director had years of documentary footage available, but needed to be able to tie it all together with explanatory commentary, which she wanted to be told from Xinwei’s perspective. Tragically, however, Xinwei died of cancer a couple of years ago. But the director had heard Helen’s podcasts…
So last month the documentary came out, and I have rarely sat through a more moving and inspiring two hours. And the narrative sections are in fact told through the voice of Xinwei – as provided by Helen.
But all those people in China weren’t just reading and listening. Helen publishes on the Web, primarily; and when you publish on the Web, you get comments. And when Helen gets comments, she answers them. A Web community started to form around Helen’s posts, and it migrated from there to WeChat, which you can think of as the Chinese version of Facebook, more or less. People began contacting Helen privately, in desperation, because they were struggling with ferociously difficult problems, and they knew Helen had fought through ferociously difficult problems in her past, and they didn’t have anyone else to turn to. For a not insignificant number of people, Helen’s podcasts became a lifeline, the one thing above everything else they hung onto in order to make it through, the one voice of comfort they could find (for China can be a cold, hard world to the lonely, and there are many Christians in China who are the only Christians in their village and who therefore endure a special kind of spiritual loneliness). They would listen to her podcasts until they had them practically memorized. And they would reach out to her to thank her…and often, to ask for help, for advice, for a word that would help them find their way.
I’ll tell you frankly, this scared Helen. It still does. She has researched what it would take to get a degree in Christian counseling simply because she finds herself doing counseling already – because for so many of her listeners there is nobody else to do it. She feels the weight of the responsibility keenly. She comes and asks me for help, sometimes – “What can I say to somebody who is going through this? Could you write something about this that I could translate?” She tries, I think, to communicate as much love and acceptance as possible without giving much advice, because she feels so inadequate to advise but wants so badly for them to know they are loved.
Only, I’ll tell you a true story. At one point Helen mentioned on WeChat that she was struggling with the decision of whether or not to go back to college and get a counseling degree. It turned out that one of the members of her WeChat community is in fact a professional counselor, with at least one and I think more than one doctoral degrees to go with years of experience. And her response to Helen was, if memory serves, “Why do you need a degree? You’re already one of the best counselors I’ve ever seen.”
At any rate, in the meantime she started finding that lots of her listeners were struggling with the same problems. So she began starting special-project WeChat groups dedicated to having a small community of a hundred or so people take on short-term sort of group-therapy projects: “One Hundred Days Without Catching Fire,” for example, which is a Chinese way to say, “We are all going to try to make it a hundred days without losing our temper and yelling and screaming at our spouses and kids.” She has done several of them, and they fill up promptly. And every day, she checks all the comments, and follows the conversation, and if she finds anybody who makes a comment and then doesn’t get any reply, she answers herself, so that she can be sure that nobody in the group feels ignored and left out.
And all this time, she has still kept on ministering to the cancer patients.
One last note: she recently has taken up drawing with pencil, and from there moved on to painting. A couple of weeks ago she decided to try her hand at acrylic on canvas, applied with a palette knife rather than a brush, which was a technique she had never used before. She found an instructional video on YouTube and started to follow the artist’s instructions to paint a nice little study of bright color on a background that is deliberately muted and dark in order to render the splashes of color even more vivid by contrast. But she was literally painting this during Hurricane Harvey, and she wound up turning what the artist thought of as the background into the lead character, as it were, and she decided not to add the bright colors at all – thereby completely changing the character and mood of the piece into something I think is best described as “elegaic.”
I thought it was awesome. I put a picture of it on Facebook and people thought it was awesome. I took it to work and co-workers thought it was awesome. And it happens that one of my company’s partners has a sister who has made her living for years as a painter in oil and as a commercial artist and instructor; she has sold hundreds of paintings. My partner’s wife sent her a photograph of Helen’s picture and asked whether it was actually good enough to sell, and if so, how Helen ought to go about trying to sell it.
The answer came back today – and remember, this is the first time Helen has ever tried to paint with a palette knife instead of a brush. The professional artist said Helen should frame it (which – I’ve checked already – would cost about $110), and that it absolutely was good enough to sell, and that if Helen wanted to start selling paintings, she (the professional artist) was willing to offer consultant services to help her.
Oh, and she even said what she thought Helen should expect to be able to get for that painting, if she were willing to sell the original. That would be $900, plus the cost of the frame.
A thousand dollars.
I pause here to note that Helen got to read the first section of this post before I wrote this section, and she complained of various “inaccuracies.” One of them was that she objected very strongly to my statement that she was “very, very talented.” This she had marked with a big “X,” along with the annotation, “Just have some hobbies.”
I leave it to the Gentle Reader to decide whether I have been guilty of an “inaccuracy.”
Now at this point, you are probably getting annoyed, because this does not seem to be a piece about our marriage, actually, but has so far simply been a panegyric of Helen, an extended riff on, “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” So I should say that I don’t think Helen would have been able to do all this on her own – our marriage has enabled her. Let me start describing how it has done so by bringing in another of my opinions from seven years ago:
- She is very good at business, but is interested in business only as a means to seeing to it that the people she loves have all that they need in order to be happy – and is literally incapable of carrying on business in a dishonest or unethical manner.
Helen has done many things of impact outside our family in the last seven years, but most of them she has done as volunteer ministry. And for years, she would periodically suffer bouts of severe guilt over feeling that she was not helping me enough – I was working very hard, very long hours, trying to support our family and get us out of debt, and she felt that she had a moral obligation to go find a job with a nice salary to help take that burden off of me. This is completely in character: she didn’t want to go out and get a job in order to get rich, because she has little desire for wealth. She wanted to go out and find a business so that I wouldn’t have to work so hard. This was particularly true before she began bringing in income through part-time jobs with the radio station, and the occasional magazine article, and serving as the local representative for a Chinese plastics products company that gets raw materials from the Texas Gulf Coast but doesn’t want to keep a full office running here. Those first few years she wasn’t making any money at all because all the ministry was volunteer work; and, as I say, from time to time she would suddenly have a guilt attack.
Whenever this happened, I would patiently explain that she had no business feeling guilty, and that I was very happy with what she was doing. In the first place, by taking over the management of the finances and doing it spectacularly well, she already was taking a huge load off of my shoulders and contributing very materially indeed to our financial well-being.
But there was a much more important reason that I wanted her to keep doing what she was doing rather than going out and finding a paycheck. I tried to explain it several times before finding the phrasing that made the penny drop for her:
“I make money. But you make a difference.”
And the thing is, because Helen does all this ministry, I get to be a part of it, too, and these are ministries I could never have participated in without her. My Mandarin isn’t anywhere good enough to help Chinese cancer patients or WeChat counselees on my own. But I get to help. In the first place, by working as hard as I do, I free her up to be able to do those ministries full-time. In the second place, I can cook when we invite Chinese speakers to our house, and I can go to the get-togethers they have and just basically walk around and smile at people, which has a bigger positive effect than you would expect. In the third place, there are things I can do that Helen can’t, and she calls on me at need – I served as an ambulance driver at 2:00 a.m. once, for example. Also, while I’m pretty sure Helen loves God more than I do, I have known Him longer, and I know the Bible far better than she does; and so when she gets into deep waters theologically or apologetically, she comes to me and I write up answers for her, which she translates. She has helped lead lots of people to peace with God, far more than I. But there are a couple of people who got as far as Helen’s love could take them, and ran aground on difficult philosophical or emotional barriers to take the final step into faith; and I was able to answer those questions and see them become Christians and know that there was now another house in Heaven I will someday be welcome in. But those people would never have come to the point where I could help them if Helen hadn’t brought them there by loving them first.
I even got to be a part of that documentary about Steve and Xinwei – chunks of the dialogue were in English and chunks were in Chinese, and the director decided to subtitle the whole thing in both Chinese and English. Only, nobody on the team really knew English very well…so now I have had the fun of translating all the dialog for a two-hour Chinese documentary into English subtitles. What do you think my odds of doing that would have been if I weren’t Helen’s husband?
My most important role in her ministry, however, is something rather different. I said earlier that as Helen has grown in faith and maturity, her ministries have grown in influence and power. Helen’s ministry is grounded in, and inseparable from, our family life in three ways.
First, her audience exploded when she reached America and began writing what amounted to an open journal of a Chinese girl trying to adjust to America, and to being married to an American, and of all things being married to an American man who already had eight children, and who had grown up in a Christian culture that had American Christian expectations of husbands and fathers, which are very different indeed from typical Chinese expectations of family men. Many Chinese are avidly curious about life in America, and they ate it up.
Many of her pieces compared American culture to Chinese culture, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively; many of her pieces more specifically compared American Christianity to Chinese Christianity, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. But the pieces that had the greatest cumulative effect were her honest sharings of how we went about building a marriage that was neither Chinese nor American, but something in between. I play a huge part in her ministry, you see, simply by providing her with material.
Seven years ago I said:
- She is transparent and honest; what you see is what you get.
- She has no talent for dishonesty whatsoever.
In one respect this proved false: she tells everybody in China about everything good I do, and leaves out all the bad, so that there are women all over China who regularly wish that their husbands were like “Shū-shū de lǎogōng,” Shu-shu’s husband. I tell them I wish I were like Shū-shū de lǎogōng, my own self; he seems like a pretty awesome guy. But about her own struggles she is utterly transparent…and so her readers have been able to watch as she has grown. For they have seen not only her struggles; they have watched, in real time, as the Biblical principles that our life as a family is built on have succeeded and triumphed, and they have retooled their own family lives to build success on those same principles.
This leads to the second element: it is overwhelmingly the trials that we have faced, in our family life and in a ministry that takes us to lots and lots of funerals, that people respond to. It does very little good for someone whose life has been easy to talk to people who are suffering about faith. But people look at the things Helen has dealt with and say, “When that woman talks about how God is with us in suffering, she knows what she is talking about.” Helen wasn’t likely to create a lot of problems for herself, back in her well-ordered life in Songjiang – but she wasn’t likely to have very many people coming to her blog and finding comfort there, either. So God dropped a whole bunch of problems on her that weren’t in any way her fault but that she had to deal with…and her struggles gave her a voice to thousands of other people who were struggling as well.
Which brings me to the third reason our family life is the basis for Helen’s ministry. God gave Helen a bunch of problems that she did not know how to handle. But He also gave her me. Now I am very far from a saint, and Helen loves God far more than I do and will rank very much higher in the Kingdom of Heaven than I. But I know what to do in the face of trials; if my first marriage did nothing else besides giving me eight children whom I love, it gave me one whoppin’ ton of experience in enduring through suffering. I am not much of a saint, but I am at least a very experienced and knowledgeable Christian. So I have had the privilege of being her pastor and guide as she has gone through incredible growth. And as we faced problem after problem that seemed to Helen at first to be unbearable, and time after time I walked her through how God wanted us to respond to each problem as it arose, and as she saw the principles of God work and grew by leaps in bounds in faith…well, she brought her readers right along with her as she learned.
That pattern has been remarkably consistent over the last seven years. A difficult problem arises; we work through it, usually with me explaining how God tends to work and what He wants us to do in such situations; Helen grits her teeth and tries to do the will of God; and when to her joy God’s way works, her readers hear all about it.
I don’t want to imply, by the way, that the knowledge transfer all goes one way. When Helen first got here, she was appalled by what she perceived as the dynamic between my children and myself, and she frequently challenged me – but always in private – about whether the choices I were making were really the best for the children. I had a lot to teach her about giving grace to people whose behavior is a long way from what it should be, and about looking for progress rather than looking for perfection, and about unconditional love. But I also know about myself that I pathologically hate conflict, and that my avoidance of conflict had already done my children a lot of harm during the decline and fall of my first marriage; and there were times when I decided that she was right and that I needed to change tactics. Sometimes I decided she was right; sometimes I decided she was partly right; sometimes I just flat-out disagreed with her. I didn’t always follow orders, as it were, and she spent a lot of time frustrated by my choices. I’m sure I didn’t listen as often as I should have. But when I didn’t listen, she didn’t pretend to agree with what I was doing – but she also accepted the decision. Our marriage could very easily have been shipwrecked by the gap between our natural parenting styles; by God’s grace, and because we both tried to treat the other the way God says to rather than the way either American or Chinese culture urges us to, our marriage ultimately was strengthened in the fire, as it were.
What’s more, just as she made me a better father to my children, God used me to make her a better mother to her son, and to challenge her on the one point where she has trouble loving her neighbor.
- She is of an astonishingly even temper and calm disposition.
- She can pray the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” in perfect safety – I’ve never heard even a shade of anger or bitterness in her voice when she talks about the past.
- She has never allowed herself or any member of her family or friends to ever say anything bad about Kevin’s father in front of him, because that’s Kevin’s dad.
- She has the gift my mother has, of finding natural joy in serving and loving other people.
On these, it turns out, a little bit of correction needs to be made. These are the almost the only points on which I had slightly overestimated where she was spiritually seven years ago. I would say there really were only two major issues of character that she needed to address when we wed. First, major relational issues between herself and Kevin surfaced. Second, she has practically infinite capacity for self-sacrifice and love…to those whom she deems worthy of help. But to people who consistently make what she thinks are bad decisions or who respond to other people’s self-sacrifice with selfishness and indifference and ingratitude, she finds it hard to be charitable: Christ’s ability to love the worst of sinners is something that she is building up only slowly and painfully, and while she has a very great capacity for self-sacrificial love, she came equipped with pretty much no natural capacity for unconditional love.
When we started, Helen was often deeply frustrated with my willingness to stay in relationships with friends and family members who were treating me badly, and thought I was wrong not to demand good behavior or else. Why would I put up with it? They had no business acting that way! And to a certain extent she was right to challenge me, to make sure I wasn’t just avoiding conflict (one of my worst besetting sins and the single most destructive of my many failures in my first attempt to be a husband). But through the years she has come to see that some of what she at first perceived as weakness was actually unconditional love. Not all, by any means, but certainly some. There was a point when she recognized that in this respect there is a journey she has to make, and that on this particular journey of faith I have (thanks to my having grown up with the parents I grew up with, not thanks to any great natural virtue of my own) a head start on her. And I have seen her set her jaw and set out on that journey.
Also, just as, through the years, she has challenged me on whether I am making decisions that are in my children’s best long-term interest, so have I, through the years, taken on the task of helping Kevin and Helen work on the patterns of behavior between them. And while she is no more of a perfect mom to Kevin than I am a perfect dad to “my” eight, still she has come a long way, possibly much farther than she realizes.
And in the end, isn’t that what a Christian marriage is supposed to be about? Iron sharpening iron, God using two people who get different things wrong to help each other get more things right? We have faced daunting problems together; we have disagreed with each other’s decisions in certain areas; we have disapproved of each other’s behavior from time to time. But we have for seven years simply refused to hurt each other on purpose. We have been honest about the issues and we have not avoided confrontation and straight talking when it has been necessary. But we have largely avoided speaking in anger; in the language we use in our house, almost always, when one of us has felt it necessary to confront and challenge the other, we have done so in “solution” mode rather than “blame” mode, and even in the darkest times neither of us has ever doubted the other’s love. I said earlier that we get in a real fight no more than once a year or so; but Helen challenged that – she said she only remembered two times in seven years when I have lost it and yelled at her (anyone who knows my temper knows from that alone that she must be insanely easy to live with), and I can’t remember more than a couple of times that she has left the house to cool down because our conflict got too heated – and they may well be the same two times. I get mad at her and frustrated by her much more often than once a year, you understand, and I’m sure that there has been more than twice in seven years that I have royally honked her off. And it’s not like we can’t tell that the other is angry. But we refuse, generally speaking, to hurt each other: if we are angry we keep silent until we can talk in a way that will help solve the problem rather than make it worse; and if we can see that the other one is angry we try to speak and act reconciliation, not defend ourselves. So the challenges we’ve faced have brought us together rather than driving us apart, and those challenges have given Helen, and to a lesser extent myself as her meet help, a platform to help other people in ways I couldn’t have imagined seven years ago.
And among those people are the people I care about more than anybody else in the world save Helen herself: my children. I will not violate my children’s privacy by talking in any detail about the hell I had to watch them go through as my first marriage disintegrated and then the divorce battered and damaged them, nor about the challenges my adopted children brought into the family with them, through no fault of their own, from all they had suffered before I even met them. I had no goal about which I was more passionate, thirty years ago as I entered into my first marriage, than that of protecting my children and giving them the blessings of the same kind of family environment with which my parents blessed me; and in this respect, I could hardly have failed them more catastrophically. But in the end I got at least one thing right: I gave them Helen as a stepmother. And, again, I will not share details, but I will say this: Helen has brought a great deal of healing to my children, and among the various children, the more time they have been able to spend around Helen, the more healing I have seen. I am grateful to Helen for many things, but for few things am I more grateful than for how she has loved my children – and for how she has helped me love them more effectively myself.
Oh, yes, there was one last thing I told my friends seven years ago.
- When she smiles at me the world wobbles and my blood catches on fire.
Seven years later – it’s still true.