Grandma’s Sunday best was a tailor-made Cheongsam; a Chinese dress with a stiff stand-up collar. She rarely left the flat besides on Sundays. Sundays were always the same. We each had duties on different floors of our 17-storey church building near central Hong Kong. Grandma was the attendance-taker in her bible class of elderly ladies. Dad was a deacon, Mom conducted the choir and my sister and I helped in the nursery. I didn’t like the chore of putting flat sheets over baby mattresses but doing that made church feel like home. I “gave my life to Jesus” several times during those years. I didn’t have a reason not to.
Growing up, I connected easily with the idea that God loved the world. I soaked in my parents’ conversations with their friend who visited on furlough every few years from Côte D’Ivoire. I remember going to the harbour to visit a big ship with a bookstore (who came up with an idea like that!?!). I was marked by the thought that my parents’ friend Ms. Chan lived on board because she wanted to share God’s love with the world. I felt chills whenever I sang songs that connected Jesus to all nations. When a preacher encouraged us to ask God about our vocation, I already had an answer in my gut: to travel the world and communicate God’s love through music. I had a faint inkling that this had something to do with the “chills,” but the dots didn’t connect till a couple of decades later. Back then, I believed that God’s love was an important truth for the whole world, but I thought of it more as a lesson to be learnt, or a concept to grasp.
At that time, my heart was set on the trumpet, my first love. I went from being the “quiet nerd” to the “trumpet player” between the ages of 10 and 13. I was hooked on the power of taking over a room with sound. The trumpet spoke for me in a way I wished I could with words. I really wanted to become a professional trumpeter. I thought this might have been God’s idea, but I didn’t actually want to find out. I didn’t dare to let Him have a say over what I was so afraid to lose.
Summer, 1995 – I brought my ambition with me to my new home in Calgary, Canada as I trumpeted my way through football fields in a marching band uniform complete with a shoulder cape and a hat with a plume on top. I trumpeted my way to university in Montreal; 18 and armed with 10-year plans. Alone in a studio apartment, with my own rice cooker and electricity bills for the first time, I had to reckon with the freedom I had to never pick up the Bible my parents left on my shelf. I didn’t wander off too far, mainly for social reasons. I was too shy to venture out of the “Christian bubble.”
At the start of my second year in university, my friend Carleen and I started a prayer group with fellow music students. Those Monday afternoon meetings became frank conversations with God, in front of each other. There was little room for hiding. It wasn’t long before I had to confess an uneasy realisation: I was unable to pray: “Lord, it’s okay if playing the trumpet is not Your will for me…” When I tried to form that sentence in my head, I would cringe in anxiety. I didn’t know who I was apart from what I did well.
During summer vacation that year, I finally confirmed with God that it would be okay if He had something to say about my all-or-nothing dreams in music. As I fought through my words of surrender between sobs, God’s love rushed in and immediately filled the space my ambition left behind. That was when this truth dropped from my head to my heart: the God who loves the whole world loves me specifically. His love is for all time and for the here and now. I usually have a harder time embracing the latter.
'The door is ajar'
God loved me through crossroads and graduate school, all the way to North Africa, where I became a music teacher in a city where less than one per cent of the population followed Jesus. I thought serving God overseas meant that I no longer had to deal with my musician’s perfectionism. Yet in the middle of a season when nothing much was going well, I was back in the same wrestle. I wanted to matter. I thought that meant productivity, and things going well. One Spring morning, I surprised myself by waking up as early as the birds. I felt I needed to go up to the roof with my guitar. As I prayed in song, I stumbled my way towards clarity: God likes me. His delight in me is not contingent on me at all. I didn’t have to linger by the door of the Father’s house, trying to fix myself in hopes of an invitation in. The door is ajar. I belong inside.
Through that prayer-song, God sent me out again, with prayer as my primary task. From the Father’s house, I learn to listen and ask as a treasured child of the One who is Love-in-motion within Himself. In God’s presence, I learn to pray Scripture with curiosity and confidence. I find that He always wants me to stay close, but will never keep score on how well I’m managing that. Friends who pray together became family. We prayed through the mundane, the impossible and the fun. Prayer propelled our proclamation. It is our being with Jesus as we take Him at His word that He is right there in our neighbourhood where not many are wanting to know Him yet. Livingroom conversations with the Father spark, sustain and grow vibrant communities.
During this season of confinement, my mind can rush down rabbit trails like: maybe I should just get a job at the grocery store. I miss having travel itineraries, and schedules that take me beyond my desk that’s just a metre away from my bed. A book I ordered arrived, a couple days into quarantine. It is Ruth Haley-Barton’s “Invitation to Solitude and Silence.” On the first page is a written prayer by Ted Loder. It starts like this: “Gather me to be with you as you are with me.” I’ve been praying this regularly as a reminder that God’s work of sending intersects with His gathering. He loves us, and He likes being with us. From this place of belonging and delight, we can accelerate or pause, and Zoom (or Teams chat) our way into new ways of being a growing family of beloved ones.
Louisa is currently in Montreal, Canada. She is (remotely) a part of the Prayer Hub in Zaventem, Belgium. During most of her 30s, Louisa called North Africa home. While there, she served an eclectic community of prayer, mainly through songs and meals. Louisa likes to explore on foot, sit under trees and photograph things that make her think.