The long journey back to Hong Kong

It is a bittersweet day. I am high above the US on my second flight back to Hong Kong. I left Minneapolis on Wednesday, after a couple of weeks visiting friends and grieving the loss of my mother. I’m so grateful to everyone who welcomed me home, especially my many hosts. I couldn’t have done it without the generosity of many friends.

Highs below zero!
Meeting a president in South Dakota.
Dinner with South Dakota bishop Constanze Hagmaier and Pastor Dirk Hagmaier, who is pastor at one of my sponsoring congregations, Trinity Lutheran, Madison, SD.
A cold walk in frozen South Dakota with friend Panda.

After a day back in Atlanta for my covid test, I just boarded the long trip to Seoul. When I arrived in Atlanta, I had a new wave of grief. I was back in the neighborhood where my mother died. The images and sounds of those last two weeks became much more real, and when we took off from Atlanta, I felt as if I were leaving her again.

Not too busy at the Atlanta airport!

But it feels good to head back to Hong Kong. I’ve enjoyed teaching my students from abroad, but I am looking forward to rejoining the seminary community. I miss my colleagues and students, the beauty of our mountain, and my daily routine.

There’s just one more large hurdle I need to jump before my normal life can return: a three-week quarantine in a Hong Kong hotel. I must not leave the room for 21 days. I look forward to your calls, texts, and pictures. This seems quite difficult, so please accept my not-so-subtle plea for communication!

Police bracelet. I can’t leave my room!
My hotel desk.

So I am ready to continue my mission in person. The rest of the semester will go by quickly and we have much to do. I am excited for the June graduation and to see our graduates go out to begin or continue their service to God’s people around the world!

Strength, Courage, Support

Each time a mission opportunity came up, I always thought about Mom. Should I go and leave her? Would she be too worried or stressed to have me far away? I hesitated to ask her, especially the first time.

I was wrong. Each time she said, “Of course you should go,” without hesitation. She had confidence in me, trusted my judgment, and, when it came time to say goodbye, put my happiness above hers.

Now she is gone.

I had the privilege of coming back to the US, to encourage and comfort her, and to say goodbye. On Wednesday, January 27th, she died peacefully, after two weeks of time together at a hospice house outside Atlanta.

Before the hospice house, I was permitted just one visit at the hospital. She was talking and we had a good conversation. Just two days later, she moved to hospice, and the conversations changed: I talked and she listened.

And talk I did! I talked about good memories, I read from the Bible, and I tried to play all sorts of music that I thought she would enjoy.

It was fun to pick music Sometimes it would be a musical that I knew she enjoyed playing from the pit. Other times, I would choose music I had heard her play at church. Sometimes I went for comfort or inspiration: some hymn or anthem that I hoped would ease her mind.

I can’t be sure she heard any of it—the talking, reading, or music. But maybe she did. At least I enjoyed it.

Her office for 37 years.

Since it’s not safe to hold a proper service now, we will wait until summer or later, if need be. I wish we could have had some way to grieve this difficult loss together, but that time will come. In the meantime, we’ll go back to our routines and deal with her death in our own ways.

I’m grateful to Mom for so many things. I know that she wanted to be a mom more than anything else. I received a small portion of her musical gift, and I’m glad that she encouraged me to continue playing and singing.

Mom and her boys on a trip to Minnesota.

This blog has gone on for almost 8 years. I wouldn’t expect anyone to read every post. But, as I mentioned last week, she read them and she forwarded them on to other friends. When I was writing, I was often writing to her. The blog has lost its most faithful reader, and I have lost my biggest supporter.

Venue Change

Your man in Hong Kong has stepped away! Have no fear. Classes are meeting on Zoom, as all seminary classes are. I’m just teaching them from the US, at crazy hours.

Just before Christmas I decided to make a quick trip home to visit my most faithful blog reader: my mom! Not only does she read each word, but she forwards my posts far and wide.

Shortly after arriving in Georgia, Mom got a little sicker, so I am hanging around Atlanta to keep her company during the day, while I teach at night. So far, so good. I’m still meeting students individually and attending meetings.

I thought I had explained it well to my students. But one guy, after the second week, said, “Do you mean you’re not in Hong Kong?” Oh dear. I should know to never assume I am being understood.

I’ve enjoyed spending some extended time with my mom. It was also great to see my sister and her husband. After a year and a half in Hong Kong, it has felt good to connect with family and friends. And my Zoom classes look and sound just the same from here! But I will be so glad to see them in person. Let’s keep those vaccines rolling out!

A Very Quiet Christmas

One more semester is in the books* and it certainly ended with a whimper. The last three weeks we returned to online teaching.

*I don’t think any students read this blog, but if they do, they need to know that it’s not in the books until they finish their assignments. Come on! Help a guy out!

Class pictures in the COVID era..

We still managed, but it just isn’t the same. This is no way to end a semester and say goodbye!

Last chapel talk

My last turn speaking in chapel was also a bit less satisfying. I’m grateful that I was able to use the chapel and have help operating Zoom. When I led a service alone on a laptop, I found it to be too much. I was more concerned with technology than with my message.

We had a four-week Advent series on Thursday mornings. Each week the speaker focused on one person from the Advent story: Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, and John the Baptist. We each chose an image of a stained-glass window that featured our subject. I had the last turn, so I hunted for an image of John the Baptist. Not so easy! Most images show him baptizing Jesus, as you would expect, or they show his head on a silver platter, depicting his martyrdom.

Zagreb, Croatia

I needed one from his time in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming Messiah. I chose this one. John is holding and pointing to the Lamb of God and, if we could see the entire ribbon around his staff, we could read “Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold, the Lamb of God). Except for the empty chapel, it was a very meaningful experience for me.

Sheng maintenance

For my last session before Christmas, my sheng teacher, Isaac, decided it was time for some maintenance on my instrument. It’s a long, tedious project. Each of those blue reeds had been connected to the pipes above by a thin bead of wax. Our first job was to pull them off. The wood is too soft to use a knife, so we tried to use our fingers.

Then each of the bronze reeds had to be scraped clean with a razor blade. Yes, I did knick of of my fingers.

Malachite

Then Isaac put a bit of water inside this metal bell and started making circle motions with this stick of malachite. (Look it up—I don’t know either). This blue water eventually appeared, and we dabbed it on the reeds, as shown above. Isaac heated up what looked like a dental tool and put a thin bead of hot wax around each reed to seal it to each pipe.

Apparently, the reeds will be more responsive and have a slightly brighter sound. Unfortunately, that took most of an afternoon. We will have to have a second session to add a dab of something on each reed to tune it. This is also a tedious project. When we’re finished, the sheng should be in good shape for another year or so.

I must add that I’ve had the same trombone for 43 years, played it for thousands of hours, in heat and in snow. After about 30 years, the spit valve spring broke. That’s about it for maintenance. What happens to this sheng when I’m not in Hong Kong?

The New Year is underway! Thank you so much for following and supporting my work in Hong Kong. Together, we have the privilege of helping committed, genuine brothers and sisters fulfill their calls to service. I say “we,” because I couldn’t begin to do what I do without each of you. Thank you so much!

Our diverse community!

Students from Myanmar, Thailand, and Nepal, sporting their traditional dress.

What a wealth of color and culture! It’s so great to be a part of a school with students from many different parts of Southeast Asia. Almost every student pictured represents a unique language and heritage. We all have a lot to learn from each other!

They don’t dress like this everyday. Last Friday we were celebrating Founders Day. LTS is 107 years old. The small school that Scandinavian and American missionaries started in Hubei, China has grown to a thriving learning community on a peaceful mountain in Hong Kong. It must have been a very difficult mission, to travel to China and start a school. We can only do what we do because of their hard work, sacrifice and faith.

The service started outdoors, near the fishpond.
A little traveling music on our way to the chapel.

But things change quickly! Although the numbers are quite small compared to the US, we are experiencing a 4th wave of the coronavirus. Just a few days after this big celebration, the color and energy are gone. We are teaching online again and the campus is oddly quiet.

Our last day of face-to-face class.

We often pose for pictures at the end of the semester, but we knew that this would be our last real meeting, so a student suggested a picture.

Now back to that fishpond! It’s one of my favorite spots on campus. When we have a break during class, I like to go out and watch all the fish swimming around. When I get to the edge, they think I will feed them, so they all come swimming over.

Hungry!

One of my colleagues said he picked a favorite fish and that he looks for it each day. I decided to do the same.

There are two black and gold fish, so I started there. One has an orange mouth, so I have adopted him.

In these difficult times, sometimes just finding “your” fish feels pretty good!

An invitation!

I’m honored to be one of four panelists for a discussion entitled, “A Conversation on Life and Justice in Interfaith Settings.” It will be held on Zoom this Friday, November 20, at 8 pm CST.

The discussion will be centered around our interfaith environment and how it connects with issues of life and justice. Panelists will be from India, Cambodia, Japan, and…Hong Kong! Franklin Ishida, ELCA Area Program Director for Asia and the Pacific, will moderate from Chicago.

My contribution will focus on my work with students who are ethnic and religious minorities in their home countries.

I would love to have you join! Click below to register. A Zoom link will be emailed to you.

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMvceGprTIjGNXqKCOAXeXtPAECpRAe5VD6

If you’re not free Friday evening, the event will be available later and I will post a link. You are not off the hook!

A Time Traveler

Martin and Me

Martin Luther made a cameo appearance before today’s Reformation service at LTS. He said nothing. He posted nothing!

“Lutheran” might be a poor choice of a name for a church. We don’t worship Luther, and he was no saint. But we remember the words he used to bring the church back to its essential message: Grace alone, Faith alone, Word alone. We are saved by God’s grace, through faith, as recorded in the word.

Your amateur preacher is keeping a busy schedule. The board in the picture above (it’s hard to read—trust me) says that I was the preacher of the day a few weeks ago. After many years of teaching, I have no problem standing in front and speaking, but I’m still not completely comfortable preaching to a room full of theologians. My next talk is this Sunday, for the small English service held near the seminary. It will be All Saints Sunday, so if you have any good ideas for me before Sunday evening, pass them along. No, I’m not kidding.

LTS Family of Joy

Once a month, my colleague Francis and I plan a social gathering for our “family” of international students. Francis has been perfecting the art of making pasta, so he invited us to his apartment and put us to work!

Cranking!

The dough gets stuffed into this small device, and while David cranked, Nay cut the tubes at just the right time. Lian and Bawi are preparing the next batch of dough, while Harvey and I spread out the pasta on towels to dry. The three women in our group are just outside the picture, preparing the tomato sauce.

I was reminded that cooking can be pretty fun if you’re not working alone! It was a great lunch and afternoon of conversation with some fine young people.

Time is going quickly, in many ways. Each day is full—teaching, editing, practicing, and growing into my role. I’m grateful for all the support and encouragement I continue to receive. Not every day is easy, but I know it’s a privilege to be here and and to learn with people from around the globe. So, thank you!

I leave you with some of the beauty of “autumn” on our mountain!

Face-to-Face

More accurately, we are mask-to-mask. Due to the low numbers of new infections in Hong Kong, we have had three weeks of classes in person. We have moved to larger rooms and we keep all windows and doors open. Students check their temperature on the way in, wash their hands, and then sit far apart with masks on.

Maybe that doesn’t sound great to you, but I am loving it! Zoom was getting so old! I enjoy our time together. It just feels more natural. I’m not using part of my brain to keep the technology working. We have better discussions and I think my teaching is a bit more effective.

The new five and our helpers

I need a name for this new group of Myanmar students! The school allowed a small party on the rooftop above my apartment. I also invited the three young men who helped so much during the quarantine and orientation.

The rooftop is a fine place to enjoy each other in the open air.

All of these five new friends have at least one class with me, so we are continuing to bond. The whole arrival/adjustment process was a very unique experience for all of us.

My neighbors also came to the rooftop, where we shared a fine meal to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. We had a couple days off from school and had time to enjoy each other’s company.

No, it has not been one big party! I have been working—really, I have. I have already given three sermons this fall! This past week, I spoke in morning chapel. My student Rose Mary read the Gospel: render unto Caesar…Then I had a short message. It’s nice to hear these brave new students get up and read, and it’s a privilege for me to be able to speak to the community.

Reader and Preacher
It was too windy for the white board to be outside; I hope you can read it. It still gives me a bit of a start to see “Preacher: Dr. Matthew Hafar” when I arrive.

To close, I’ve been thinking a lot about how long I have been here—14 months! I really expected to come home for a visit long before now. In some ways the time has gone fast. But when I think about the day I left Rochester, that seems so long ago.

Another measure of time? When I arrived, all my socks matched. I now have 8 singles.

Giving and Receiving

If you read my last post, you know that I was in charge of an orientation of sorts: introducing Hong Kong and LTS to five students from Myanmar, who were locked in quarantine. Yes, it was a challenge!

On Friday of the first week of school, the orientation students were released from quarantine! We had had 14 days of intense electronic communication, but finally the day came to meet in person! A few colleagues and I went to the dorm in the morning for a ten-minute ceremony. One of the professors cut off each electronic bracelet. It was a beautiful image of freedom and a new beginning. There were some words of welcome (through masks) and then, for some reason, the theologians called upon me (the English teacher) to offer a prayer.

Later that day, we posed for a picture outside my office. They are real people! They are so appreciative of the help so many have given them during their lockdown. At last they could see where they have been living!

We finally meet!

When the students arrived at LTS to begin their quarantine, the school provided them with a bag of useful products and snacks. One colleague also assembled a bag of stationery items. At the end of quarantine, bracelet cutting day, I presented each student with a rechargeable subway/bus card—another symbol of freedom—that a friend helped me get.

I also ordered an English Bible for each of them, but they were delayed. A week later, the Bibles finally arrived and I asked each student to come by and pick one up. But they didn’t come by. I was puzzled!

Gifts abound!
(No talking allowed when masks are off!)

It was because they were assembling gifts for me! When they finally came, I received a cloth book bag from the Chin State; a wicker basket to be worn around my neck from the Kachin State; and a necktie with colors and patterns from the Karen people. Needless to say, both containers were filled with treats from Myanmar!

I was not excited when I saw that leading orientation this summer was my responsibility. It seemed overwhelming! I couldn’t imagine finding three weeks’ worth of interesting activities, and I wouldn’t say that I am ready to be a Hong Kong tour guide. But, as often happens, it was a completely different experience. I didn’t need to be an event planner or tour guide. As it turned out, they needed someone to talk to, and someone to listen. Those are things I can do, and it feels like a privilege to help welcome them to the seminary.

First day of school!

Ready!

Thanks to a gift from a returning student from Myanmar, I feel like I fit in a bit more this year! Ling Naing gave me a longyi, a circular piece of fabric that both men and women wear in the heat of Myanmar. It’s much cooler than long pants, socks and shoes. I’m so happy with this unexpected gift!

In some ways, I feel more prepared to teach at LTS than I did last year. I know more about my students, the expectations of the school, and I can even find my classroom without a map.

But, instead of preparing for classes, I have been in charge of orientation for five new students from Myanmar. In past years, this orientation has run for three weeks. They meet many professors, they see Hong Kong, they learn about money, how to ride the train, and where the grocery store is. And, perhaps most important is interaction with the returning foreign students, who can tell them what really goes on here!

I suppose you’ve heard about the virus. None of those things happened! We weren’t even sure if they would be able to travel to Hong Kong. We certainly didn’t know when.

I had 10 days, with help from several colleagues, to tell them the most important things, make them feel welcome, get them registered for classes, etc. We have been in close contact every day, but I have not met them. They are each quarantined in a separate dorm room with its own bath. Meals are delivered to them and all our communication has been electronic, over a fairly unstable system. We have seen each other’s faces when the signal is strong. We have talked, listened, prayed, and encouraged each other. I admire all five of them for leaving their families behind to pursue their callings!

So, the new year begins, with joy and anticipation. I’m still grateful to be here. But the virus has changed everything—even blogging. I don’t get out much and I don’t see many people, so I’ve stopped taking pictures! I will close with one of my favorites from last year’s start of school: the entire seminary posing for a picture after the opening church service! This year we will each be a tiny box on Zoom!

September, 2019

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