I returned home to build my photography business and moved into my own apartment downtown. It had a beautiful sun-lit loft, perfect for indoor photo work, and a huge closet that I converted into a dark room. There are some things that you can do with film that no digital camera in the world can duplicate. The nook where I set up my Mac was positioned just so I could look out the window and see the tree-tops of Manshire park. It was a great place. It was also across the hall from Mrs. Chung.
I remember the first time I met the stooped old lady. I had just signed the lease and was leaving the apartment to head back to my parents’ house as she was huffing her way up the stairs with a big paper bag perched in one arm, pulling herself along the bannister. It seemed wrong to me that she would have to do this by herself, so I took her bag and offered her my arm.
“My, aren’t you a kind young man,” she said with a smile that even through my glasses pulsed with the power of a thousand flashbulbs.
“My name is Sam Heiligenthal,” I said. “I just leased apartment F.”
“Then we’re neighbors, Sam. My name is Nishu Chung.” She was definitely Asian. Her hair, though mostly gray, still had black strands shot through it. Though tiny and frail, her dark eyes were clear and full of wit.
“Old age is not an easy thing,” she remarked when we reached the top step. “But it has one advantage: I am that much closer to being with my Lord.” She smiled, fumbled for her keys and let herself into her apartment.
“It’s good to meet you, Mrs. Chung,” I said, handing her the grocery bag.
“And you, too, young man. Come have a cup of tea with me when you’ve settled.” I couldn’t help but smile back.
“Yes, ma’am. I will.”
The opportunity came about three weeks later. I had given up going to church when I’d gone to college, using Sunday as my day to sleep in. I often worked on Saturday evenings, though this week I’d not had a job, so I woke earlier than usual. I heard voices outside the door as I stumbled past it to the kitchen. I looked through the peephole to see a young Asian man talking to Mrs. Chung. She closed the door to her apartment, hobbled across to mine and rapped on the door. I hesitated to open it, but curiosity got the better of me and I cracked it.
“Good morning, young man,” she said with a smile. “Don is taking me to church and I wanted to invite you.” I must have grimaced, because she quickly continued. “Of course, I would have told you yesterday, but I think we missed each other. So perhaps you’d like to come to tea this afternoon, at four perhaps?” That seemed a lot better to me and I smiled.
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be there.”
“God bless you, young man,” she laughed and shuffled off down the hall on Don’s arm. I closed the door and went about my usual Sunday routine: a slow breakfast, reading in a devotional book that my grandmother had given me upon graduation from college, a walk in the park and watching a couple of episodes of a show online. Even so, I felt giddy, as if the day could not pass quickly enough. I hadn’t been this excited about something since entering my first photography contest.
The occasion felt so momentous that I considered dressing up. I even pulled out my suit and put it on, but while knotting the tie, I felt it was too over the top, so I settled for a pair of slacks, a blue dress shirt and a vest that I often wore for wedding photography. As four o’clock rolled closer, I felt that I could not just go over empty-handed, so I ran out to the drugstore and grabbed a bouquet of flowers, making it back to the building just in time to stop in front of Mrs. Chung’s door and get my breathing calmed down before knocking.
She opened the door with a smile. She was dressed in a red Chinese coat and black skirt with small black slippers, her hair carefully coiffed, every inch the hostess waiting for an honored guest.
“Welcome, young man,” she said.
“Thank you for your invitation, ma’am,” I replied, extending the flowers.
“How very kind of you,” she exclaimed, obviously meaning every word. “Your parents certainly trained you well.” Her apartment was very like mine, though she received the morning sun rather than the afternoon. Her view was of the main street and she remarked that it was nice because she could watch the people go by.
“It helps me pray,” she closed, showing me to an old, solid armchair.
“I’ll just be a moment,” she said, heading toward the kitchen nook. I looked out the window and then down at the table she had sitting in front of it. There was a thick, black book with Chinese characters on the front of it and a framed photo of a much younger Mrs. Chung with a straight-faced man. I lifted my glasses to look closer and noticed a sparkle in his eye that suggested the seriousness was put on. Beside the photo was a post-card sized item with some Chinese calligraphy on it that arrested my attention. Though brushed in deep black, there was a glow around the letters, as if they were infused with an invisible power. I wondered what they said when my thoughts were interrupted by Mrs. Chung’s voice.
“So, here we are.” I turned, forgetting my glasses were off, and was stunned. Over my life I’d seen many, many shining people, but none like Mrs. Chung. Gone was the little old lady. In her place stood a beautiful, tall woman. The face was the same, but much younger; and yet it held the mature beauty of a woman who had reached her middle age but whose wrinkles had not yet begun to set in. She was not only shining brightly, the rich colors of her coat and skirt having become even richer, but she was also wearing armor. Her feet were sheathed in white shoes whose bands crisscrossed up her calves. A jewel-studded belt lay around her hips from which hung a sword about as long as her thigh and a gleaming lorica was over her chest, though the form of this accented her femininity. It was decorated with what looked to be images of humans with wings as well as Chinese characters. A crystal shield fully as tall as her was strapped to her left arm, though it looked to be light and flexible and did not hinder any of her movement. Her head was covered in a shimmering helmet that reminded me of a picture of one worn by the ancient Greeks, though with small upturned winglets on the sides. But the strangest part was that the helmet did not obscure her features in the least. Rather, her bright, dark eyes shone through clearer than in her very face. They fairly glowed with kindness, courage, care and charity. She was truly awesome, in the old sense of the word.
“My God, you’re beautiful!” I exclaimed. For a moment she looked puzzled as she set a tray with a Chinese teapot and cups down on the table.
“You’re a bit of a charmer, young man,” she said lightly, as if trying to brush it off. For once I could not let it go.
“No, I mean it!” I shot back. “You’re tall and you’re young and shining and you’re wearing this wonderful armor….” My voice trailed off and a longing struck deep in my soul: I want to be like that!
“Sam Heiligenthal,” she said sternly, straightening and waving a bright finger in my direction, “you are not making sense. I know I’m a little old woman. You do not need to make up stories. You are much too old for that.”
“But I’m not,” I stammered. “At least I don’t think I am.” She sat, looking at me intently with her bright, dark eyes.
“What do you mean?” she asked and it all poured out of me: how when I took my glasses off, people changed. I described my parents, my grade-school teacher, that day at church, my classmates, Jasmine, my erstwhile girlfriend and finally herself. As I spoke I could see her features first soften and then turn to awe.
“What a gift!” she sighed. “God has gifted you supremely!” She folded her hands tightly. “Oh, that I could see as you do!” Then she cocked her head to the side.
“Sam, what do you see when you look at yourself?” I was stunned. I’d never thought of that.
“I don’t know, myself, I guess. I mean, I don’t look any different than in the photos that were taken of me, I don’t think.”
“Seeing yourself is the most difficult of all, young man,” she said. “The human heart has an unlimited potential to deceive itself. Perhaps you don’t see yourself because you choose not to look closely.” That thought astounded me and I suddenly wanted to go and look at a mirror, both fascinated and fearful of what I would find.
“But what makes people like you shine?” I asked instead.
“Think back, Sam, who were the beautiful ones, the shining ones?” she replied as she began to pour the tea. I thought for a long moment. In each case, those who shone were ones who called themselves Christians. They were people who not only believed that Jesus Christ was their Savior, but also strove to live a life that was in line with His teachings; and it seemed that the closer they were to Him, the brighter they shone and the more beautiful they were.
“But Mrs. Chung,” I interjected, “why are you wearing armor when so many others who say they are Christians do not?”
“That is simple, my boy,” she said with a laugh. “Many years ago I began the practice of praying through Ephesians 6 and putting on the armor every morning. It has become my morning ritual along with reading my Bible and praying. It prepares me for the day and the attacks that Satan levels against me through my sinful nature, others around me and the dark, twisted world we live in. Few Christians I know are aware of this practice and fewer still actually practice it.”
We drank our tea and spoke of beauty and life. I drank of the glory sitting across from me as Mrs. Chung told me of her painful life, of migrating to America as a young girl, of her beloved husband who loved Jesus so much, he’d snuck back into China many a time with Bibles to help the Christians there. Then many years ago, he took one more trip and never returned. No news ever came, there were no answers to inquiries to the authorities in China beyond the statement that he’d entered through passport control and customs, but Mrs. Chung knew she was going to see him again, at the very latest before the great Throne. And there they would sing the Song of the Lamb together.
“I am excited about it,” she sighed. For the first time ever, I was unable to inwardly snicker at such a notion. The glorified warrior queen in the old chair across from me made such sentiments seem certain rather than silly. Mrs. Chung continued telling of how from then on she’d devoted herself to reading the Word of God, to prayer and good works. She told of instances where God had put her in situations and places where she was allowed to touch the hearts of others. As she spoke my heart burned, longing to live like that, longing to be like that.
Eventually our visit ran down and I excused myself, but not before Mrs. Chung asked the burning question.
“And how is your relationship with our Lord Jesus, Sam?” I stammered and stuttered, not wanting to admit that I really didn’t have one; though the question brought about that burning desire again, to be like Mrs. Chung: to shine, to be dressed in brilliant armor, to know where I was going, to be certain of what I hoped for and sure of what I could not yet see.
I excused myself and returned to my dark apartment, looking out at the crimson bands lying across the treetops, the wisps of cloud painted in gold and the royal blue sliding over deep purple into the soft black of a glorious night. Only one bright star was visible yet and I thought of Mrs. Chung’s question. How did I truly look?
I went to the bathroom, turned on the light and went to the mirror, but could not bear to look up. I stared at the sink and, for the first time in years, muttered a prayer.
“Please show me, God.” I heaved a sigh. “Show me … no matter what.” I raised my head and looked and here is what I saw: Not the usual rounded, youthful face with a slight spattering of freckles and gray eyes looked back at me, but that of an ill and wasted man. The eyes were dull, fear-filled, the cheeks sunken, the flesh pale, the hair thin and stringy. No, I did not look at all like Mrs. Chung or like my father or mother or Jasmine. I looked like Ms. Murray and my corpse-girlfriend, though perhaps not quite as bad; I was still on my way there. I looked back down at the sink and tears began to form in my eyes as I thought of what Mrs. Chung said: Who were the beautiful ones, who were the shining ones?
“Oh, Jesus,” I moaned. “I want to be like that. I want to shine like that. Whatever it takes, make me like that!” Words from my childhood, from my grandfather, came back to me and I prayed them. “Jesus, forgive me my sin against you. Be my Lord and Savior. I give you my will and take yours in its place. Amen.” I meant those words with my whole heart. They burned on my lips like bright embers, flowed from my eyes in salt rivers and soared from my heart in a roaring wind. Then, I wanted to look up at the mirror again. But what would I see? Fear gripped my heart, harder than the first time. But then, that tiny voice, that bright voice whispered, “Don’t you trust Me?”
“I do, I do!” I cried, raised my head, and gasped. Looking back at me was no longer the wasted and dying man, but that of a glowing child, head crowned with bright brown locks, gleaming eyes full of wonder. I could see tears, but they were of joy. I wiped at my face and the boy in the mirror wiped his eyes. In that moment I heard my father’s voice, reading his favorite passage in the Bible, “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2Co. 5:17 – NAS77) And here I am, brand new!
I couldn’t wait, I rushed over first to Mrs. Chung’s and beat on her door. It took a long moment before she opened it, and there she stood, wreathed in light.
“I’m new, too!” I cried at the top of my lungs. “I shine, too!” She smiled brightly and grasped my hands tightly.
“Welcome, home, son,” she whispered, suddenly glowing brighter. I would have spun her around, but I had to remind myself that though she looked a warrior queen, her physical form was 80 years old and not steady on its feet.
“I have to tell mom; I have to tell dad!” I laughed and rushed down the stairs, forgetting my keys, forgetting the door to my apartment, forgetting everything in my haste. I realized it when I reached my car, but could not bring myself to go back upstairs, lest I lose the joy. So I ran all the way to my parents’ house and burst in on them at the dinner table, as they were reading their evening devotions. I’d forgotten that I wasn’t wearing my glasses and saw the two majestic beings at the table, looking at me in puzzlement. The glow of their worship was still in their eyes as I danced around them, telling them of my commitment.
“I’m his, I shine!” I cried. I told them of what I could see, how I could see. I hid nothing from them and after all these years, it felt so good! They knew. I didn’t care whether they would accept it or not, but at least they knew. And I shone, too. I looked down at my hands and could see the glow. Then I closed my eyes in thankfulness.