Isobel Kuhn and her husband John were missionaries to China from the 1930’s-1950’s and she’s written several beautiful books both about their experiences and what they learned. She’s one of my favorite spiritual authors, and when we moved last year I grabbed her books for my one box of precious actual books. Forgive the length of my quote from her:
“And now I was to be home tomorrow! By nature I disliked travel and change, and here I had been tossed from pillar to post for six weary months. I could hardly wait to get home, to my quiet bedroom by the side of the deep ravine where the birds sang matins in the morning, and the great peaks glowed back the sunset hues with their steady unshakableness at day’s end. I longed to get my roots down comfortably into familiar places! And this, my last little candleflame had to be blown out.
I had forgotten that Paoshan refugee missionaries must necessarily have changed things. Believing, like us, that Yunnan would fall and the Kuhns would never return, they had used our things as they would not have if they had expected to return them. Outside, home looked just as usual, but inside everything was changed around. Nothing seemed to be as I had left it, and I felt like a stranger under my own roof. It seemed as if my last little candleflame of human love had been extinguished. The superintendency had taken my husband (no matter where we lived he would be away from home much of the time); war had taken my girlie; marriage had taken my Lisu helper; and now home was no longer home; my roots couldn’t sink down and be comfortable. This seemed to be the last straw that broke the camel’s back. To my utter shame, my inner feelings were revealed to those dear guests, and I had to apologize and ask their forgiveness. They did forgive me, but I never forgave myself.
The moon was darkened by a misty doubt,
The stars of heaven were dimmed by earthly fears
And all my little candleflames burned out:
But while I sat in shadow, wrapped in night
The face of Christ made all the darkness light.
– A.J. Flint
The difficult lessons of 1942 taught me to fear leaning too heavily on human props. I had surrendered husband, child, friends, all I possessed, long ago. But this was something deeper. This was relinquishing my rights to them. This was holding them, but on the open palm of my hand. (Mrs. McFarlane, principal of our language school in Yangchow and a dear warrior saint, had taught me that metaphor. She said, “Keep your treasures on the open palm of your hand. If you hold something tight clenched in your fist, God may have to hurt you in order to open your fingers and take it from you. But if it is offered on the open palm of your hand, you will hardly know when it is gone.” I never found it so easy that I did not feel when my treasures were taken, but it did make a tremendous difference. It prevented me from collapsing or sprawling.)
Miss Hannah Hurnard in Hinds’ Feet on High Places expressed this truth in a different way. Little Much-Afraid, says her beautiful allegory, longed to go with the Shepherd to the High Places. She goes through many trials to get there; the final and greatest is a descent into a steep canyon called the Grave. In this deep valley were an altar and a priest, and here she was asked to let the priest reach into her heart and pull out the plant called Natural Affection, root and branch. When I read that I nodded my head with delighted recognition. That was what happened to me in 1942 “when all my little candleflames burned out.”
…If today has tears, they are shed and spent; but they are not carried over into tomorrow. In the days that were to be ahead of me, I would again have partings and separations from loved ones that cost heart agony for some hours. But never again did they overwhelm me. In other words, all the suffering when my little candleflames went out, one after the other, were worth the tears they cost, for they purchased for me a permanent freedom from sprawling spiritually, from being knocked down and overwhelmed.
In other words, it was a kind Lord, and not a vicious One who blew out my candles, systematically, one after the other. He had something better for me than earthly candles.
And as I sat in shadow, wrapped in night
The face of Christ made all the darkness light.”
From In the Arena by Isobel Kuhn, sections of Chapter Six, Extinguished Candleflames.
My mom gave me this book many years ago, it made a huge impact when I first read it, and now as I re-read it the words are again jumping off the pages into my heart. I’ve had that image of holding loved ones on the open palm of my hand, not clenched in my fist, for many years now – and it really did help through all our moves. I’ve said goodbye many more times than I ever wanted to. Leaving people, my beloved family especially, was something God began preparing me for I think as long ago as when my family moved from California to the East Coast in 1984, when I was 10. That move was huge for me, taking me from both sets of grandparents, extended family and school friends. I learned then, without putting it into such deep or beautiful terminology, not to cling to my loved ones. I never loved them less, but my little girl heart learned to expand and adjust for long distances. So the many hurts Isobel Kuhn experienced in having one after another of her loved ones cut off from her for long stretches in 1942 made sense to me, but were not new revelations. What had me in tears this time as I read her story was at the end, when she finally reaches home. The first parts of the chapter are really exciting and horrible, fully worthy of an awesome movie – traveling by horseback through steep mountains to reach a doctor, the early days of WWII in remote areas of China with Japanese atrocities, her little daughter being cut off from her and held in a faraway Japan controlled city with no letters or any way of communications for months, being away from her husband for most of this – just craziness. And then she’s reunited with her husband, they finally get a letter from their daughter, and they are able to return to their home high in the rugged mountains of China – it seems as if her trials are ending…
In 2005 we bought our first house. Until then we’d spent our marriage in one apartment after another, with some crazy stints living with family – his mom, sister and grandmother for the first many months of married life, later with my maternal grandparents when we first arrived in California in 1997, and then with my paternal grandparents when we arrived back in California from Hungary in 2003. Our little plot of land in suburbia was never Norbert’s ideal, but oh, my heart took root. I discovered gardening and the joy of tending flower babies. My mothering had new soil as our kids grew older and less needy. We filled our home with beloved finds and treasures; buying new furniture and appliances for the first time as well as the many deals from yard sales and thrift stores (my Grandma and mother did raise me properly). And then God threw open those doors for us to move back to Hungary, and while my heart ached at leaving ‘home’, I was really comforted by the fact that we could not sell our home but had to rent it out instead. Norbert moaned, but inwardly I was relieved. And, we would fill a container with all our stuff – I would be able to create the same home, just in Hungary. That has always been the plan, when we moved from Hungary in 2003 and basically left a house full of furniture and belongings, my sweet husband made one of those ‘promises’, that we’d never have to do that again, that we’d get a container and bring everything with us if we ever moved again.
But here I sit, in a rented apartment in Hungary, living with someone else’s cast away furniture that came with the apartment; making do for what will be at least two years with only half my wardrobe, with ebooks instead of my shelves and shelves of friends, missing so much of our belongings, our lovingly collected treasures. God was gracious, and I do have a good-sized balcony with almost full sun as we’re on the top floor – I do still have some flowers. And it all changed so quickly. I look back to our final couple weeks before moving out of our house and giving it over to the renters. Up to one week before moving day we were still going forward with the plan to bring everything. And then God shook up all our plans, and took away that last candleflame from me before I could really think it through. Instead of movers packing everything in one day, we had to do it ourselves – there was no time to think, to grieve. I think that was gracious too, as I was emotional enough.
I’ve had years of experience with holding the people I love most in an open palm. I’d never had a home before, not a house I loved and was connected to, rooted. My hands hurt a bit still from being pried open, I think there may have been some rose thorns in the way, some bits of cream brick cutting them. But I’m learning to enjoy and cherish the wonderful qualities of where we’re living now, to relish having less stuff to keep clean. I may never really embrace the minimalistic modern look, but I can sort of pretend that’s what I’m going for right now. And when, or if, God ever grants me all my beloved belongings again, they will be that much the sweeter. I may never live in our house on Marshall Street again, or tend my sweet garden flowers. And that’s okay. I’d settle for a desk lamp and chair, and maybe that box of my shoes.