I live in a place where there are only two English-language bookstores within shopping distance. One is the size of a one car garage, the other is an hour and a half away. So in the ex-pat community, books get passed around frequently. And they are often deposited on one’s doorstep like a box of kittens when someone leaves the country. I pick through the box and put whatever looks remotely interesting into one of my many stacks of ‘books to read.’ That’s what happened with this fat Isobel Kuhn omnibus a few years ago.
I had never heard of her before, but Caitlin had read her story of serving God in China and recommended it. I’ve always enjoyed reading biographies and memoirs. When I was growing up, I chomped my way through a young adult series on early Americans–Lucretia Mott, Molly Pitcher, and Francis Marion the Swamp Fox are three that stick in my mind. [I think the fascination of looking into someone’s life is also one of the appeals of blogland.]
Still, Isobel Kuhn stayed put and gathered dust. You know, so many books, so little time. But one day I picked it up, in part because earlier this year, a half-dozen Chinese showed up at church. Our international church is a real parade of nations, and countries seems to come in waves. We used to have a slew of South Africans, then Australians, then Brazilians. This year, Finns and Chinese are in ascendancy. I think it’s the first time the church has been blessed with Chinese from China since I’ve been here, thanks to a telecommunications project that China is helping with [and using English as the common language].
It turned out Henry was from southern China. A place that sounded like “Yngnyng’. Then I asked him to spell it: “Yunnan” “Oh, I said, “You-nan”. It just so happened that’s the province where Kuhn and her husband worked, nestled between Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. In the thirties and forties, when the Kuhns lived there, this was a true backwater place. In the US with our system of highways, it’s hard to grasp the concept of what it means to live at the edge of the world. For Kuhn in China, it meant living in a tiny village in a remote mountain canyon, a two-week truck ride from the province capital, a long way from the comforts of Vancouver where she grew up. Or in this country, it means a five hour drive on a one lane road, to reach a village with no running water or electricity like this:
The omnibus includes three of Kuhn’s books. The first, By Searching, tells the story of how she came to follow Jesus and then set sail to work in China, for the China Inland Mission [founded by Hudson Taylor]. The second, Nests Above the Abyss, focuses on the growing church among the Lisu people, and In the Arena tells about some special challenges in her life and work there. The Lisu lived in fear of demons and had no word for forgiveness or compassion or justice. But there was an extensive vocabulary for how to skin a person alive [the common method of punishment].
The stories she tells are inspiring and stirring and challenging. She doesn’t give a bird’s eye view of what happened, but a personal, up-close view. Always, her focus is not on the life she lived, but on what God taught her and did in the Lisu people around her. She doesn’t gloss over her faults and failures and struggles [or of the growing church], but she keeps coming back to how God demonstrated His faithfulness. The church was founded on indigenous principles: self-governing, self-supporting, self-disciplining, self-sending. The foreign workers worked alongside, as they were invited, but it was the Lisu believers who went out and shared the gospel with other villages and tribes.
She doesn’t tell the story chronologically since she’s not writing a history but looking at different aspects of life and faith. I especially loved reading the chapters that put the spotlight on different believers–humble illiterate mountain people–as they grow in faith and become saints. I was inspired to read her own faith journey too, and the many amazing answers she received to simple prayers. She was a person who lived out The Praying Life.
And it was exciting to see events through her eyes as the Lisu people started to follow Jesus and establish churches, going from a handful of believers to a quarter of the population in sixteen years. 70 years and one long Communist regime later, it’s about half of the Lisu population. So it’s like reading a Lisu version of the book of Acts which makes a perfect post-Easter read. The resurrection of Jesus was only the beginning…
The books are available individually through Amazon sellers or at the OMF online bookstore. If you were only going to get one, I’d start with Nests Above the Abyss.
Snack Bar item: Soul food–for a full and satisfying feast
If you’re interested to learn more about the history of the church in China or to get a better sense of the area, there’s also a blog, Searching for the Footprints of God in Southwestern China, that talks about the province next to Yunnan, with beautiful pictures.