A squint into my Asian American experience.

I have always been fascinated by the topic of race. Growing up, my family was the token Asian family in our neighborhood, my best friend was the token black girl on the block, I went to predominantly white schools, and most of the friends I hung out with were from our Chinese church. I’ve received my fair share of racist remarks, from the classic “Chinese, Japanese” eye-pulling children’s rhyme to “Go back to China!” remarks to “compliments” about my English being “really good!” (eye roll)

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For a few years in middle and high school, I attended Chinese school on Saturday mornings with the other Chinese American kids whose parents wanted them to retain their culture and language despite growing up in the US of A. It was there that I learned that all Asians really do know each other and that being called “whitewashed” was the biggest insult someone could give me. (“Whitewashed” is a derogatory term used to describe a non-white person who has seemingly rejected his/her own cultural heritage to fit in with the mainstream white culture.) I prided myself on being able to speak Chinese and I never understood why the kids at school thought my lunches smelled weird. In high school I was part of the step team, which was a fun mixture of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians and the few white girls on the team were considered minorities for those few hours after school each week.

When I went to college, I was afraid I wouldn’t have any Asian friends since Penn State is basically an all-white school. This lack of diversity was such a well-known fact that one semester, the student satirical journal made one of those motivational teamwork posters that showed a bunch of white hands interlocking and read, “Diversity: because we’re all different shades of white” with the Penn State logo in the corner. (It’s okay, you can laugh at that. It’s hilarious!)

I found myself in the Asian circles my freshman and sophomore year until I decided I didn’t want my whole college experience to exist within the confines of that exclusive bubble. Large groups of Asians would swarm around campus together as if they were one entity. I didn’t understand why college was so segregated when it was supposed to be a place you got to meet and interact with people from different walks of life than you! When you walked through the student union building, there was a clear black students section, a clear Asian students section, and a clear international students section. (The white students section existed everywhere outside of those three sections, ha!)

I spent most of my time with my friends from my dorm, which meant I was usually the only Asian in any given group I was with (sometimes one of two, gasp!). I eventually started taking pride in being the token Asian and even found myself judging the Asians who would only hang out with other Asians (“because it’s easier”). I was very content with my newfound friend group and the term “whitewashed” no longer offended me–I was fitting in with the mainstream culture!

I missed my high school stepping days so I joined a step team in college that happened to be paired with a gospel choir (though I was definitely not a part of the choir!). This time I was the only non-black person on the team! Suddenly I found myself as the minority within another minority group.

Hanging out with my black friends was so much fun and like entering another world from my day-to-day college life. I learned about weaves and waves and shouting, “Ya betta saaang!” when someone hit a high note. I was welcomed in as one of them and we all cracked racial jokes at each other. It was somehow okay because I was another minority and a neutral party of sorts. Because I stood in this neutral territory, I was a safe person for them to freely express themselves around. I remember feeling so cool to be included but also so shocked when I heard my first racist comment towards white people. Huh? How was that okay?? Would they dog on Asians too if I wasn’t there?

I remember when The Princess and the Frog came out in theaters. We were all so excited! The very first black Disney princess! I saw it in theaters with 13 black girls. When the credits rolled, I distinctly remember cheering along with them until one girl stood up and proudly shouted, “I have a black President, that’s my black princess, we’re taking over the world!!” to which I was left speechless as they all celebrated. Was I supposed to cheer with them? But I wasn’t black! But I was happy for them? Wait, what about Asians??

My favorite class at Penn State was a sociology class on race relations where we boldly discussed race issues in a diverse 700-person lecture that included a 15-person recitation class that met once a week. I don’t know how they racially profiled our names to create such diverse recitation classes, but that classroom was the first diverse space I had ever been in where controversial race issues were freely and openly discussed! We had students from every race, students from different socio-economic backgrounds, students from different religions, students from other countries, etc. I realized how beneficial it was to meet, sit down with, and truly listen to people with different perspectives than my own. Needless to say, that was a very educational semester for me.

Now this whole race issue is even more complex for me because I am not just a typical Chinese American whose parents are from China, but I and my parents are a part of the overseas Chinese diaspora, or the 46 million ethnic Chinese who either moved out of or were born outside of China. Both of my parents were born in Southeast Asia, and only two of my grandparents were born in China (later emigrating to Southeast Asia in their 30s). So even among my other Chinese American friends whose parents are from either China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, I have been an anomaly. My ties to “the motherland” are more removed, so any comments that attempt to tie me back to her are annoying and come off as ignorant. My first trip to China wasn’t even until college! That trip was also my parents’ first time to China, so it was a strange experience for all of us to enter into the culture of our ancestors but feel so alien in it. We were all so excited to finally be back home…in the US!

A few years ago there was a viral video (in the Asian American community, at least) called, “What kind of Asian are you?” The reason that video became such a hit was because it resonated so deeply with Asian Americans everywhere. The all-too-familiar “Where are you from?” question that we get asked on a regular basis, inevitably followed by its evil twin of a question when our answers don’t suffice–“No…where are you really from?” are the banes of our existence. Because it’s not possible for us to actually be from New Jersey, or Texas, or California…even when we speak English with a perfect American accent, even when we cheer for our favorite football team while drinking Budweiser at a tailgate, even when we sing The Star-Spangled Banner on the Fourth of July while dressed head-to-toe in red, white, and blue and eating hot dogs and apple pies and Twinkies and all the fried foods during a NASCAR race!!! I digress. Because Amurica can’t possibly look like we do even though that’s what makes her so great to begin with, right?? (For the record, the correct way to ask that question is, “What is your ethnicity?”)

You see, the annoying thing about being Asian American is that we are the perpetual foreigner in our own land. We will never be seen as fully American but when we visit “the motherland,” we will never be seen as fully Asian either. So we exist in our own culture. Some of us choose to “side with” our Asian-ness and band against white people by watching Asian dramas during our dumpling-making parties, while others of us choose to suppress our Asian heritage by drinking lattes at brunch and rocking jean shorts and flower crowns at Bonnaroo to prove our American-ness. (Hey. You do you, Asian reader!)

I recently returned back to the States after spending six months living and working in Lusaka, Zambia. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I absolutely fell in love with the people I met there, but I definitely do not miss being stared at and catcalled by random men on the sides of the road. Being an Asian American in Africa was an identity crisis waiting to happen, ha! People there either saw me as white because I wasn’t black (something that would never happen back home in America), or they saw me as a Chinese person from China because I didn’t “look American,” AKA white. They would either shout “Chinese! Chinese!” at me when I walked by or “Mzungu! Mzungu!” which is what they call white people. Any time I tried to explain that I was, in fact, an American who was born and raised in America, they would either try to dispute me or look utterly perplexed. Because how can non-white people be from America, right? Facepalm.

Since droves of Chinese immigrants are moving to Zambia for business in recent years and oftentimes either mistreat their Zambian employees or are too proud (read: scared/unwilling) to assimilate to Zambian culture or even smile at locals (which does not help their already poor reputation there), I found it extra pertinent to dissociate myself from that part of my culture. I didn’t like how I would be immediately put in that Chinese box at first glance. You don’t know me! I’d diva-girl snap at them in my head. The negative reputation of the Chinese there made me scorn my own heritage even more. I would purposefully greet Zambians in their local language just to separate myself from “those” Chinese people. “You’re so nice! You’re not like the other Chinese people,” I would often hear. “Well, I’m not Chinese…” I’d try to explain. But deep-down inside, I hated that I felt this need to suppress that part of my heritage!

The movie Black Panther came out in theaters two weeks before my six months in Zambia was up, so I watched it in a packed theater with some of my (Zambian) friends. I found myself feeling equally as empowered as the rest of the theater watching the Wakandans dominate the screen and I even picked up on some cultural nuances I’d probably have missed out on had I not spent this past half year immersed in African culture. The movie did a great job showcasing the beauty of African culture and it felt especially meaningful to watch it with my African brothers and sisters (one of whom even knew two of the three languages being spoken in the movie!).

But what was most interesting about the movie was how different my Zambian friends’ interpretation of it was from mine! They did not catch how it symbolized the racial tensions between whites and blacks in the States. They did not think about the double standards that American minorities face on a daily basis when it comes to equal rights. They could not fully embrace why it was such an important and empowering movie for Black Americans. Don’t get me wrong, they also loved the African representation in Hollywood and the all-black cast (with one or two white people), but their interpretation of it was different than mine because their life experience is different than mine. They thought more about the colonialization of African countries by white Westerners, the corruption of government leaders seeking power and wealth at the expense of others, and the competition between various tribal communities within Africa.

I started thinking about how complex race issues are and where I fit into those discussions. I thought back to the racist comments my black friends in college made about white people. I thought back to my own experiences with racism and prejudice as an Asian American female. I thought back to my own judgements against Asians who host exclusively Asian dumpling-making parties. And I realized that I am a part of the problem too!

But then I thought about all of the beautiful relationships I’ve formed over the years with people who are not like me. What would it look like if we could all humble ourselves enough to enter into the world of someone who looks different than we do, who believes differently than we do, who lives differently than we do?

Prior to working for the orphan ministry I work for now, I worked for another ministry in Dallas that focused on loving the marginalized of society because Jesus loves them even if/when/though the Church seems distant. I found myself in unlikely places through this job–street corners of high-crime areas with drug addicts, refugee neighborhoods with immigrant families, gay bars with members of the occult, Korean brothels with likely trafficked mama-sans, strip club parking lots with single moms, community colleges with students from the Middle East, section 8 housing with ex-criminals. My eyes were opened to the indisputable thread between humanity and how Christ’s offering of love on the Cross was for all of humanity–all of them, all of us. I think that season of my life prepared me for this most recent season in Zambia.

The reason I fell in love with the people I met in Zambia is because we welcomed each other’s differences with open arms. I did all I could to learn their language, to eat their food, to sit in the dirt with them and they did all they could to teach me their language, share their meals with me, and invite me to sit in the dirt with them. We allowed ourselves to face our differences and in the process, realized how insignificant those differences really were. Because we are all members of one Family.

And I guess that’s kind of the point of all this race talk, huh? That despite all of our racial identity issues, we all ultimately belong to the same human race and the same all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God created each one of us in His image. So we should accept and love each other as brothers and sisters of the same Family–God’s.

I know, I know. That seems like an oversimplified solution to this whole race issue, us all being part of God’s big family…but is it, really? Wakanda is alluring because it is a glimpse into a world where we really do see each other as members of the same family–a world where we freely share our resources with one another, a world where we truly care for one another as brothers and sisters, a world where our differences become insignificant against the backdrop of our shared humanity. It’s alluring to us because that’s the type of world we were made for, and it starts with each of us choosing to reclaim our citizenship in that world and acting like members of that society even while we are still living in this one. It starts with us looking within at our own life experiences and choosing to see the “other” as our brother, no matter how different he may seem. It starts with us humbling ourselves to leave our comfortable little worldview long enough to enter into the world of someone who looks different than we do, who believes differently than we do, who lives differently than we do, because maybe, just maybe, they can help us see a fuller picture of this beautiful world we live in…and maybe, just maybe, we won’t have to squint to see it anymore.


[Please comment if you read through this novel of a post! I’d love to hear your thoughts!]

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Back to America!

I’m back in the US of A after six wonderful months in Zambia! Here’s a quick glimpse into what my last three weeks there were like and some insight into what’s next! (Also, this 6+ minute video would’ve taken at least three hours to upload in Zambia but it only took THREE MINUTES here!!!! Hahaaaa!)

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Thank you all for being on this journey with me! Your prayers, encouragement, and support have carried me through and I have come back a changed person. God is good. The work that He is doing in Zambia through Every Orphan’s Hope is no joke and I am humbled that He’s allowed me to be a part of it. Thank YOU for being a part of it too!!

To check out some of the work I did in Zambia, visit everyorphan.org/givehope or click these videos below!

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Cholera, Elephants, and the Rainy Season

What an eventful month this last month was! Highlights from this video include:

• That time I became famous in the market
• That time my parents visited
• That time I stayed up until 5am
• That time I became “one of them”
• That time I stopped doing my laundry…

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I also wrote a blog post about 5 lessons I’ve learned from Zambia (thus far) that you can read here!

It’s hard to believe I have less than three weeks left here. What an adventure it’s been! Please pray that I will finish strong. Thank you all for your support and prayers!

Sang 🙂

Happy New Year from Zambia!

Happy New Year from Zambia! Please pray for the cholera outbreak that is currently happening here to stop soon…!!! #isthisreallife #tia

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5 Lessons from Zambia (thus far)

I’m four months in to my six-month stint in Zambia and just realized that I’ve only posted on here once…oops! (In my defense, I’ve shared regular updates via email so please comment if you’d like to be added to my mailing list!)

Here are 5 lessons I’ve been learning from the Zambian culture thus far:

1. Generosity

In Zambia, you are born into a culture where sharing is a given. Because it is a collective culture (and not individual like the U.S.), people are more concerned about the group’s needs as a whole than the individual’s needs.

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Source: The Economist

That means if you are walking into a group setting and have any kind of food in hand, it is better for you to either finish it before you enter the group setting or make sure you have enough to share with everyone than to walk in eating your food. Similarly, if you’re already out with a group and become hungry, you should either stop and buy food for the whole group or not eat at all. It would be better for you to endure the hunger pangs with everyone else than to pull out your own little snack and eat it in the presence of others (unless you have enough to share with everyone else).

If someone stops by your home, you should offer them whatever you have in the house to eat. If you don’t have any food, the least you can do is to offer them a cup of water. This out-of-the-way generosity is exemplified even more in Tanzania, where people are known to invite passers-by over to share meals with their families if they pass by during meal time.

When you invite a friend out for a meal or an event, it is automatically assumed that you are treating them. Not everyone has disposable income to spend on luxuries like eating out or going to the movies, so you’d better make sure you have enough money to pay your friend’s way before inviting him to join you! An exception to this is if you discuss it beforehand and agree that everyone will chip in a certain amount of money for the event…but even then, you are equally sharing the bill. Splitting bills isn’t even an option here!

I’ve been on the receiving end of this type of generosity from many Zambians and it is always so challenging and convicting to see some of them offer me the best of what they have. If the whole family is eating a meal, they will give me double the portion of meat than everyone else. If they only have a few chairs in their house, they will get up and offer one to me. If I stop by to say hi and they’ve just made some food, they will insist that I stay and eat with them or pack me some to-go if I can’t stay.

Whatever little they have, they share with others.

I’ve been trying to exercise this level of generosity with those I’ve met here, and it has truly been rewarding to give and to share from what I have. Admittedly, I’ve found it a little easier to give here since $1 USD = 10 ZMK, but I’ve been challenged by my Zambian friends’ quickness to give from their lack instead of from their abundance. Would I still be willing to give this generously if I was back in the States??

Jesus said, “It is better to give than to receive,” and I think the Zambians are onto something with their generosity!

2. Community

People here spend time together…in person!! Whaddya know. Maybe it’s because not everyone has a smart phone yet or that internet is expensive, but people are often found sitting outside chatting or playing games with each other! Since everyone knows and trusts their neighbors, children are able to freely roam around without parental supervision. The community takes care of itself.

This sense of community is especially evident during funerals. Sadly, death is much more commonplace in third-world countries, where people often pass away from ailments or illnesses that would be easily treated in first-world countries. Sometimes it seems like there is a funeral every day–I went to three in two months and saw firsthand how the community comes together to support its members.

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View from inside a funeral house while others are singing praise songs outside.

A funeral here typically lasts three days–the first day for visiting the family, the second day for the burial and ceremonial tributes, and the third day for the immediate family to get together and discuss family matters. During the first and second days, friends, family, and members of the community all intentionally take time out of their schedules to visit the grieving family at a designated “funeral house,” one of the family members’ homes. The women gather with the family of the deceased in a mourning room where loud cries and wails are rampant (and almost expected). Though sometimes it does feel a little disingenuous because people are laughing one second and wailing the next (without tears), I can’t help but think about how Romans 12:15 says to “weep with those who weep,” or in other translations, to “mourn with those who mourn.” This, compared to the sterile and structured funeral homes in the U.S., seems like a more natural and comforting way to share the pain and burden with the grieving family.

At the burial site, the men of the community dig the grave and bury the casket, and then the women come to pack the dirt into the grave as an act of love. Then family members and close friends of the deceased pay their respects by planting flowers in the newly formed mound of dirt, which I think is a beautiful representation of new life found in Christ. Praise songs are sung throughout the whole ceremony and the crowds of people walk from the funeral house to the gravesite and back in song. It’s heartwarming to see the community comfort and support one another in this way. The power of presence is truly healing.

3. Relationship is King

In America, Time is King. In Africa, Relationship is King.

In Zambia, when someone makes plans with you at 11am, they really mean they are starting off at that time. I’ve found that Zambian time is at least 45 minutes–2 hours later than they tell you, which can be really frustrating for someone who comes from a culture that values punctuality and basically has Time as its main currency.

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I think it’s safe to expect people to show up at least one hour later than they say they will in Zambia!

Apparently there is a two-hour grace window for being late to an appointment because everyone knows that life happens. After that two-hour window, it’s safe to say that your plans have been canceled. If you bump into a friend on your way to another appointment, your top priority is your relationship with the person in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you are running late to a work meeting, a hair appointment, or a meal with another friend. The person directly in front of you is more important than your schedule…even if your schedule involves other people!

Honestly, I struggle with this one because although I do see the value of putting relationship above one’s schedule (Americans could use a good reality check every once in a while when they freak out over being late or missing deadlines when no lives are actually at stake), we still need to get things accomplished and this approach to life seems inefficient for my western time table, not to mention disrespectful to the other people whose schedules are affected by your delay! Needless to say, I’ve had to learn a lot of patience here, ha!

4. Culture of Honor

Similar to Asian culture, the African culture is one of honor and respect. When greeting elders (or anybody in positions of authority), you’re supposed to curtsy and shake their hand while holding your forearm with the other hand. You do the same thing when receiving something from someone. Their language even has different pronouns you use when addressing those either older than you or higher than you in societal position! Something very different from the American culture where we call our elders by their first names!

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Some of our students greeting the Headwoman and other leaders of a village they visited.

Romans 12:10 says to “outdo one another in showing honor,” and this automatic humbling of self is something that I think America could really benefit from…it creates a societal hierarchy that values and respects elders and leaders. Children don’t step all over their parents or teachers and are less likely to become the self-entitled brats that we so often see in the U. S. of A.

5. No Fat-Shaming!

This is one of my favorite things about Zambia…there is no fat-shaming! The word “fat” is solely a descriptive word and nothing more! It’s not an insult, it’s not offensive, it’s not negative in any way…it’s just the same as any other word you’d use to describe someone: “tall,” “short,” “young,” “old,” etc.

When I first heard people describing others as “fat” here, often in front of the person they were describing, I’d laugh in shock at the speaker’s bluntness. How rude! Strangely enough, nobody else ever seemed to react the way I did, including the person being described. When I asked if it was offensive, everyone responded in unison, “Not at all!” Huh!

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I’ve noticed that it’s always a very matter-of-fact statement that some people are just bigger bodied and therefore, able to eat more or are more prone to tiredness than their smaller-bodied peers. In a country where probably half of the female population would be considered plus-size by U.S. standards, this is a great thing! They celebrate people exactly the way that God made them! God made people all uniquely and purposefully–some are tall, some are short, some are skinny, and some are fat! It’s just the way things are and there is no one body type that is better than another. To shame a whole percentage of the human population based on their body type is an insult to God Himself!

My initial reactions to these seemingly offensive fat comments showed me just how much of a problem it is that Americans have made it shameful and undesirable to be fat or big-bodied! How is it that we’ve allowed “fat” to become an insult? How is it that we’ve allowed Hollywood to dictate our standards of beauty? The highly enhanced and edited images that are thrown at us through the media are not real nor attainable and leave society reeling in insecurities and comparison issues. This is why so many people struggle with body image in the States! Interestingly enough, eating disorders are not prevalent in Africa. I attribute that in part to the lack of body shaming here, something I wish America could implement and embrace.

So there you have it!

Five lessons I’ve learned from four months in Zambia. What do you think? What are some things you’ve learned from being in another country??

 

Halfway through already?!

And just like that, I’m halfway through my six months in Zambia already!!

The first minute of this video is a highlight reel from this last month and the next five minutes is a tour of the Every Orphan’s Hope Zambia office for those interested in meeting my awesome team here! (Our family homes are called “My Father’s House,” from John 14:2 when Jesus tells his disciples, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”)

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I’m encouraged that so many of you are enjoying these videos! Please keep the feedback coming–what else do you want to see about my life here in Zambia??

Praying you all have a joy-filled Christmas and a chance to sit and reflect on all God’s done in your life in 2017! 🙂

Lending to the Lord

It’s been two weeks since I landed in Zambia and I’m still not sure the reality of me being here for the next 6 months has really sunk in yet. I am actually living in Africa! What a whirlwind the last two months have been. More thoughts on this journey and transition to come, but first I wanted to share what God’s been teaching me lately.

“If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord –
and He will repay you!
Proverbs 19:17

The other day, my new friend/neighbor asked me to do a favor for her and pick up a pack of chicken for her from the store while I was there. She said she’d repay me the next day. I hesitated at first because I really don’t know her well and foreigners are often taken advantage of because of their naivety to the culture, but I decided to just help her out. My mom always taught me to give without expecting to be repaid, and a pack of chicken is really not that expensive anyway, ha!

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Zambia’s currency is called the kwacha and $1 USD is worth around 9.5 ZMK.

Anyway, she paid me back the next day and there was no problem. But after reading this verse, I realized how this concept of lending and being repaid rests a lot on whether or not you trust the person involved in the transaction! You can lend to someone whom you trust because you know that they will pay you back. (Or you can make them sign a binding agreement and put your trust in the agreement instead.) It’s easy to sacrifice for someone you love and care about because you know they won’t cheat you or take advantage of you…and if you really love the person, you are even able to give sacrificially without expecting or even wanting a return! You forfeit the expectation to be repaid and see the act of lending as a gift to the person, which frees you up to lend and give joyfully!

I never thought that we as people could lend anything to God until I read this verse. Why would we have to lend to God if He owns everything in the universe?? Why would God need a favor from us?? He’s God!

The Greek word for “Christian” means “little Christ” – someone seeking to follow and imitate Christ in their own life. Before Jesus left the earth, He charged His followers to go out into the world to do the things that He did. He told them that they would do even greater things than He did and He taught them that anything they did for the least of those in the community would be as if they did it for Him.

When Christ was on earth, He loved and cared for people, especially the least of these. It makes sense that He would want His followers to continue doing that even after He left the earth. Though Jesus is not physically on the earth now, many of His followers are, and it is our charge and responsibility to go out into the world to represent Him and love the least of these on His behalf. This is a tangible way that we can lend to God!

We can confidently lend our time, love, and resources to people around us on behalf of God and rest in the promise that He will repay us, because He is a trustworthy God who keeps His word. Do we really believe this??

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I think of Mother Teresa and how she sacrificially gave of her time, energy, resources, and life to serve and love the least of those in India. Who was paying her for her service? Who was compensating her for her time? Many of the children she helped could not even smile or make eye contact with her, let alone utter a “Thank you.”

I see Jesus in every human being.
I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him.
This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene;
I must wash him and tend to him.
I serve because I love Jesus.
Mother Teresa

Being in Zambia for the past two weeks has already been challenging my faith. Virtually every single person I’ve met or interacted with here so far has lost one or both of their parents. People younger than me, people my age, people older than me. Like seriously, I think I’ve met one person who still has both of their parents. ONE!

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Zambia has one of the highest per capita orphan rates in the world, and over 75% of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25/day. It seems like there are more opportunities to “defend the weak and the fatherless [and] uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3) here.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). He gave up His life for ours, so our lives aren’t even ours to begin with. The fact that we could lend our lives for His service and that He even promises to repay us for this service is an extension of His grace that truly does not make sense. This is amazing grace.