Michelle’s Favorite China Moments (#5- Selling Matchbooks)

This month I am doing a series on my top favorite moments in China over the past decade.  These are in no particular order.

Selling matchbooks.  I was living in the northeast of China, which is close to the border of North Korea.  Temperatures outside would reach 30 below 0 degrees on some days (but nice and toasty warm inside).  It was basically like a frozen tundra.

A student was moved by the story “The Little Matchbook Girl” (Hans Christian Anderson) about a little girl who sold matchbooks to raise money for food.  The tragic part of the story is that at the end the little girl died in the cold. Yes, I know, terrible story.  However, because he was so inspired by this story the student decided he wanted to sell matchbooks to raise money for the local orphanage.


On what I am convinced was the coldest day of the year, our team helped him.  We stood on the little corner outside next to the student dorms.  Matchbooks were sold for about a dime each.  We bounced around, sang songs, and implored students to buy our matchbooks.  Students would ask why we were doing this and we would tell them.  I’m not sure how much we raised that night, but even the insanely cold weather couldn’t defeat our enthusiasm.

I tell you, though- that hot bowl of noodles that greeted us later never tasted so good!


Michelle’s Favorite China Moments (#4- Mittens Project)

This month, in honor of my imminent departure from China, I am doing a series of my favorite China moments over the past decade.  These are in no particular order.

Mittens project.

Imagine being in the dead of winter (a wet chilled-to-the-bones type of winter) and having no indoor heat.  Sometimes I would sleep with my winter jacket and hat on.  I wore gloves in the classroom when writing on the chalkboard.  The cold concrete floors would seep through my shoes.  I was one of the lucky ones because I could actually move around in the classroom and could get a bit warmer than my poor students. Imagine sitting for hours during the day on hard wooden benches huddled together for warmth while doing English exercises.  And when you go back to your dorms it’s actually colder there than it is outside.  It’s like camping- which is fun for a weekend, but not for months on end.  I remember the sheer torture getting from my bedroom to the shower.  It was like how fast can you possibly move between the time you shed your clothes to the time you can get hot water to touch your skin.  Sometimes my space heater with the unit connected outside would encase itself in solid ice, which pushed cold air instead of hot air inside.  I used to hang out my window and take a cleaver to hack the ice away from the air conditioning unit.  Sleeping with a portable heater at your side is warm, but it isn’t exactly safe. Spring couldn’t get here fast enough, but even spring would bring on the rain.  Real relief would come about May.

Now imagine you look at all the students and none of them are wearing mittens.  Some of their fingers are turning purple.  Many of them come from the countryside.  Yet, none of them complain.  And your heart goes out for them.

One year our team decided to raise money to purchase over 1000 pairs of mittens to give as Christmas gifts to each of our students in our classes.  A simple gift, but we also really didn’t want the students feeling that we saw them as a charity case.  Which we kind of did, but we also wanted to keep their dignity intact.  So we called them “Christmas gifts from the foreign teachers” like handing out cookies and candy canes.  But, we felt like the mittens was a huge felt need.

I remember going to the warehouse near the train station.  These warehouses and markets would have stall after stall lined up selling all kinds of knickknacks and toys and paper items…  If you can’t find it there, then you just can’t find it.  Luckily I took a Chinese friend with me to the warehouse to purchase the mittens.  My Chinese was okay, but when I said to the owner of the mittens stall that I wanted to purchase 1000 pairs of mittens he looked at me like, “obviously this dumb foreigner doesn’t know her numbers in Chinese because she wouldn’t have said she wanted 1000 pairs when she meant 10 pairs.”  What’s a couple of zeros?  No, really, 1000 pairs of mittens…and we think this qualifies for a discount.  After convincing him that we were for real and that we weren’t going to start our own little side business of the mitten market and buy him out, we found the perfect mittens that have a flap over the fingers so that students can still write with them on.  The guys got “manly” mittens.  We paid the deposit and came back several days later when they arrived from the mitten factory.

Three HUGE boxes awaited us.  How were we possibly supposed to get these mittens back to campus?  We don’t exactly have a van, friends. Luckily I brought two Chinese friends this time.  We stood on the curb and waited for a taxi to come.  However, the boxes wouldn’t fit in the taxis, and most taxis upon seeing our parcels didn’t want to take us.  Darn.  However, three taxis later, with one box (and one friend) in each taxi we just placed them (the boxes, not the people) in the trunk with the lid hanging open.  It was like a caravan of mittens.  The road between the train station and the campus had more potholes than I’ve ever seen in any place ever- even the roads of Africa and India could not compare.  Bumpity bumpity bump.  With no rope to tie the boxes down we just hoped they wouldn’t go flying out the back of the taxi, cause a traffic accident, and kill someone.  I can just see the headlines: “Death By Mittens.”

Later our team divided up all the mittens by classes and put them in sacks to carry to the classrooms.  It was like being Santa for the day.

I never realized mittens would bring so much joy!


Michelle’s Favorite China Moments (#3- SARS. A cave. A water bucket. And later, a closet.)

In Guilin (a town called Yangshuo) with a little granny. I love the height difference! 

This month I am doing a series on my favorite China moments over the past decade.  These are in no particular order.  

SARS.  A cave.  A water bucket.  And, later, a closet.  In the middle of SARS in 2003 most places in China, particularly the universities, were shut down.  Students weren’t allowed to leave.  People were afraid to go outdoors.  However, not the foreign teachers!  Instead, we got off campus andventured down to Guilin, southern China for the weekend. The place was almost deserted.  One day we decided to visit a cave.

Problem was that the region had experienced a period of abundant rain and, therefore, flooding.  However, if SARS wasn’t going to stop us, neither was a flood.  We took a small boat into the cave.  However, because of the rising water we got stuck and were wedged at the opening of the cave for quite some time.  Being “stuck between a rock and a hard place” suddenly had new meaning. I had to lay flat on my stomach at the bottom of the boat before our guide gave up and told us we had to roll over into the water and swim to the bridge that was also under water.   Then we slid around and wrestled in the mud.  I was stung in the water by a bizarre bug and then I almost broke my leg sliding down these rocks, with scars on my leg to this day.  In other words, it was awesome!


A few months later we went back to the same place, this time during the national holiday.  It was back to its usual crowded-to-the-brim-with-people.  So crowded in fact that there was literally no room at the inn…anywhere.  The only option a teammate and I had was when a little old granny offered to let us sleep in her linen closet.  We’ll take it!

The next day we went off the beaten path to follow a waterfall and were completely lost in the forest three hours later.  Completely and utterly lost.  We were preparing ourselves to spend the night in the trees, but luckily we didn’t have to.  Because we are SO good at learning lessons made from dumb decisions :), the day after that we got lost during a trek through these massive rice paddies.  When we came upon a village we were so thirsty that we didn’t think twice about taking large gulps of water from the bucket that our new village friend offered in exchange for us teaching him a few English words.  Obviously we made it home on both counts and were spared the evils of dysentery and parasites, otherwise I wouldn’t be here telling this story.  And oh what a great story to tell!


Michelle’s Favorite China Moments (#1-Of Train Stations and Angels of Mercy)

This month I am doing a series on my favorite China moments over the past decade.  These are in no particular order.

 Of Train Stations and Angels of Mercy.  When I lived in the south we didn’t have an airport in our city.  We didn’t even have butter in our city.  That means that anytime we had to travel we had to take a 3-hour train to the provincial capital, and then take a long-distance bus, just to get to the airport.  You couldn’t just order tickets ahead of time, but instead just hoped there was a tiny corner available on some train that would take you home.  One time I was making my way back to my city in the middle of the Chinese New Year (February).  To say that there were many people scrambling to get train tickets during the holiday is a bit of an understatement.  I remember having a forty-pound backpack on my back while pushing through the masses at the train ticket office.  It wouldn’t have taken much to simply tip me over.

I was also culturally frustrated.  You see, Chinese people have a funny way of standing in line.  There’s a fancy word I learned in grad school to explain this call “polycentrism” but I don’t think you care about that.  It’s basically like this: If you don’t close in on those two inches that suddenly opened up in front of you then you can guarantee that someone else will get in there.  I only wish I was exaggerating.  So, it’s cold, my back hurts, I’ve been travelling all day, the masses have no mercy, and I have been waiting in line for over two hours.

I pushed and shoved my way through the crowds of lines!  Still praying, still checking my attitude, and trying to concentrate on the cute kid in front of me rather than the throng of people cutting in front of the line.

All of a sudden I just started singing.  I don’t know why, but I began quietly singing the songs we sang at a conference we had just a few days before.  And thanking Him for a time to pray.  🙂  The people in front of me probably thought I was looney, but I’ve been called other things before :).  And I sang and hummed my favorite tunes.  I felt like Paul and Silas singing in prison when the doors opened (except I wasn’t in prison and the singing didn’t help the line get any shorter, but you get the point).

Finally made it to the front of the line and got a ticket.  I didn’t have a seat, but I got a ticket and that’s all I cared about.  Standing for three hours on the train, I was okay with that. I finally got a ticket!  Such a joyous moment!  Realizing I had a few hours to kill before my train left I decided to find a coffee shop or someplace warm to hang out for a bit- which meant trekking about a mile down the main street.  Then it started to rain and I didn’t have an umbrella.  Of course I didn’t.  So, it’s cold, my back still hurts, I just stood in line for two hours, and now I’m wet!?!  Lord, have mercy!

About half a mile from the train station I am plugging along when all of a sudden a young man jumps out of a taxi right in front of me.  I was so startled by his appearance that I didn’t realize what was happening until after the fact. With just a smile on his face the young man hands me something, gets back in the taxi and leaves.  I look down at my hands and there is my passport, my wallet (with cash and credit cards still there), and the train ticket for which I’ve been standing in line for two hours!!!  Apparently I had dropped it a few blocks back and he was simply returning it to me.  And there in the middle of a rainy cold street in China I just let tears flow in thankfulness to the Father who was truly watching out for me!


Michelle’s Favorite China Moments (Series)

End of my second year in China. My team got me a Mahjiang set and table for my birthday.

Almost ten years ago I came to China for the very first time. We got on board never really knowing what it would hold, but trusting that the One who goes before did. Our destination was China. We had hopes and aspirations. We dared to imagine that God would do great things. We had our faith stretched and our hearts broken for the things of the Father. We were constantly given reminders of what in the world this is all about.

These past ten years have taken me places I never imagined when I first set out. I have learned much from my time here and I have loved fiercely in this place.

And after a decade in China it’s time to move on.

Recently I have been looking back and remembering. I decided to make a list of my top favorite moments here in China over the past ten years. What began as a simple list turned into a short book. It is this that I share with you.

Over the next few days and weeks as I close this chapter in my life I will be chronicling these stories in this blog series. So, come back every few days to check out the latest in this series!
Some accounts are funny, some are serious, and some are simply “someday this will make a great story for people back home” moments. 🙂 I hope they make you laugh and cry and think and discuss. I hope you will come with me to remember these amazing days.

To Dad on His Birthday

This is probably my longest post to date.  This post is a tribute to my dad.

When I look at this picture I can hear my dad laughing.  I believe that my dad has the greatest laugh in the world :).  I am often the one laughing with him- the kind with tears rolling down my face, while my mother rolls her eyes.  My dad and I share the same sense of humor, much to the chagrin of my mother.  He makes me laugh like no one else can.  Both of us being such visual people when someone tells a story we see it so clearly in our imagination that it’s unbelievably funny.  Just say the word “seeing-eye pony” and you’ll have us rolling on the floor in laughter, embellishing everything we can add to the image of said “seeing-eye pony.”

When I move back to the States in a few weeks I will be looking for a car.  I recently told Dad I wasn’t sure I could buy a car right away.  He then started laughing and talking about how he was imagining me riding a tricycle down the neighborhood.  With pink streamers.  And bells.  With my knees in my teeth.  Pushing up the steep hills that make up our neighborhood.  Holding up a whole line of cars behind me.  And it went on and on and on and on.  Now I can’t look at a tricycle without getting a huge smile on my face.

Whenever something is broken he talks about throwing it out in the yard.  The kitchen sink isn’t working, throw it out in the yard.  The chair is making that oh-so-very-annoying squeaky sound, throw it out in the yard.  Don’t push any buttons you’re not supposed to be pushing, or you’re going to sleep out in the yard.  What’s ironic is that his yard is impeccably neat and trimmed.  That grass is going to stay green no matter what he has to do.  We have a yard filled with gigantic beautiful trees, right against a golf course.  Raking those leaves is a monumental task, but this remains one of my absolute favorite things to do with my dad.  It’s a form of stress relief for both of us, actually.  However, even more monumental than leave raking season is acorn season.   These two seasons seem to coincide side by side with each other.  What seems like millions of acorns fall from the trees each year and imbed themselves into the ground.  On our hands and knees we gather trash can after trash can after trash can filled with acorns.  He will not rest until every single acorn and loose twig on the ground is accounted for.  Dad and I often joke about starting a rescue mission for squirrels.  It’s funny to us in our own unique way.  🙂

My dad is my favorite person in the world.  We are so alike in so many ways, yet we are different enough to keep it interesting.  He is a great thinker with a great mind, and yet he remains incredibly down-to-earth.  He is passionately driven, knowing that the way things are is not the way things have to be.  I’m convinced that this drivenness is going to cause an aneurysm someday, but what a way to go!  While he is one who holds strong to traditional values and heritage, at the same time he challenges the status quo.  He’s funny like that.  If you want to hire someone who is safe and goes along with everything and everybody just as it has been done at this church or this college for years without ruffling any feathers- sadly to say, he’s not your guy.   Ruffling some feathers certainly doesn’t win many popularity contests, as he has learned the hard way over the years, yet he remains true to his principles and sense of integrity.  People remember that.  His standards are high, but he imposes the same standards on himself as much as the next person, if not more so.  He is refreshingly honest, and at the same time knows when to speak and when to stay silent.  He doesn’t over-spiritualize, but, rather, he stays connected with culture so that his speaking and writing remain relevant to his audience.  He can be in the world without being of the world.

With over 30 years of ministry under his belt, 35 years of faithfulness to one wife, and the father of two grown children who also actively pursue God’s plan for their lives in ministry (and his first grandchild on the way), he seems to have accomplished much.  Ordained as pastor, having received his Doctorate of Ministry as well as a PhD in Organizational Leadership, we call him “Reverend Doctor Doctor Sessoms”.  Missionary in Indonesia, pastor, vice president of spiritual formation of a Christian college, student ministry launcher, director of leadership development, speaker, writer, consultant, mentor, marathon runner, university professor, Lausanne Congress board member, pioneer of new initiatives, founder and CEO of Freedom to Lead International are just some of the roles he has assumed. He has broken bread with some of the poorest people in the world, and he has dined with millionaires looking for way to invest their money.  Yet, no matter the company he keeps, he is still seen speaking the same story and message of Christ wherever he goes.  Over a million miles (no exaggeration) traveled with United Airlines alone (never mind all the other airlines) as he has ventured to various parts of the world to be with people where they are at.  By the world’s standards people would say that he has been very successful.

As he grows older, however, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers.  Far from it.  Instead, he says this: “As I get older the less I know- but there are three things that I’m absolutely sure of: There is a God.  I’m not him.  And Jesus Christ changed my life when I was 17 years old.”  He has also said, “I don’t claim to know anything…the truth.  I just know the One who is THE Truth.”

Dad’s greatest passion is seeing the potential in other people and developing that potential to be the leaders God would call them to be.  Raising up a generation of younger leaders to follow after the leadership model of Jesus Christ himself.  Not John Maxwell or Steve Jobs or even Moses, David, Joshua, or Paul.  Christ.

He believes primarily in the power of Story.  Yours.  Mine.  His.  Someone once said that the shortest distance between human beings and truth is a story.  Dad turns another year older today.  58 years and it sometimes seems like he’s just getting started.  His story does not end here, any more than it began 58 years ago.  Because, you see, his story started long before conception and will continue long after his death.  His story is wrapped in God’s story.   It is God’s story that began before the creation of this world and culminates in the resurrection of Christ.  It is a story that changes each of us, a story that we are each called into.  A story we are then called to share.

And while being used by God in this lifetime, Dad’s impact and legacy will continue.  People have been touched by Dad, and now they are starting their own churches and ministries, raising up leaders in their own midst.  People the world over have been greatly impacted by his leadership.  I know I have.

You would say that I pay this tribute to my dad by virtue of him simply being my dad.  And that’s a valid point that sits alongside all those “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mugs.   I mean, this is a guy who dresses up like Santa Claus in the 100-degree Indonesian heat and comes down the “chimney” to assure his delighted children that Santa did not forget about them when they moved to Ujung Pandang, Indonesia!  “Santa’s hands look just like Daddy’s!” I observe as a five-year-old.

Some people caution against putting people on a pedestal.  Because inevitably that person will fall off that pedestal.  And it is heartbreaking (and in a sense a betrayal) when that happens.  While there are so many great things I can say about dad, he’s also as human as they come.  I know it and he knows it.  He’s one of the most stubborn, particular people I’ve ever known, borderline OCD if you ask any of his family.  Yet, what makes him stand apart is that he will be the first to admit to this and show just how dependent he really is on the grace of Christ.  And, frankly, in this day and age, that is a rare thing for people to confess and be transparent about.

Some people can probably make similar tributes to their own fathers.  Sadly, many people can’t.  So many of our world’s problems can be traced back to fathers and their lack of involvement and love in their children’s lives, some inflicting neglect, abuse, and abandonment.  To say that I’ve been lucky seems like a bit of an understatement.  But, I haven’t just been lucky, I’ve been incredibly blessed.

I’ve lived and worked in China for almost a decade.  When I first told my dad about going to China over ten years ago, he got so excited that he offered to buy my car, give me his computer, contribute to my financial support and come alongside me in every way he knew how.  Through the ups and downs over the past ten years he’s been there.  Sometimes not always comfortable with the choices I’ve made or the things that have happened to his daughter so many miles away (usually inflicted by people he’d rather point a shotgun at)- he has supported me.   He will be in my corner every single time.  He has challenged me.  He has made me laugh and has made me cry.  He’s my dad and there is no other.

After ten years in China I’m going home.  I’m leaving everything I’ve ever known since college to begin a brand new chapter.  Yes, friends- I’m going to go work for my dad at Freedom to Lead International.  And yes, sometimes there are complexities when family members work together on a professional level.  But, I cannot imagine a greater privilege: raising up a generation of leaders among cultures that don’t read, using story, symbol and song to impact local communities with the Story of Christ.  And I get to do that with my dad, and other great leaders partnering with the organization.

I was thinking of a birthday present for my dad all the way from China.  Something more meaningful than ties and mugs and golf balls and witty cards.  Something with a little more effort than asking mom to take money out of my bank account and give him some cash to spend.  Although he would probably prefer something monetary or a year’s worth of Krispy Kreme donut coupons (or, you know, gas), this is my gift to him.  I decided that the greatest gift I could give him was my writing because it is in writing that I give the best that is within me.  It is in writing and my own story that my dad has challenged me with over the years.  He has challenged me and developed me so that I can give life to these words of mine.  I give him the best that I have out of the best that he has given to me.

After dad reads this tribute to him I know he’s going to make some witty (some people would call it “sarcastic” :)) joke in an attempt to make light of something he secretly greatly appreciates but in which he wants to remain humble.   My mom and grandma will cry.  My brother, while trying to keep his reputation as “the funny one in the family” will say, “yep, what she said.”

And at the end of the day when the candles are blown out and dad finishes up the last of Grandma’s famous birthday carrot cake–my dad, my dad will keep on doing what he’s doing.  Because that’s who he is.