I snapped this photo in my car a few weeks ago while my older girls were in piano lessons. Me with my laptop, working on my manuscript. I’m not sure if I got much writing done with the younger two in the back, but I probably did some, hence the selfie and the smiling.
If one thing surprised me after I became a stay-at-home mom, it was that I’d feel called to something outside the context of homemaking and ministry. And though I’ve settled into writing over the years, I still feel the underlying tension of needing to figure out what to do with my limited supply of time, energy, and health given the various desires and duties I have.
One thing that’s encouraged me immensely as I’ve navigated motherhood and writing is hearing from other Christian women who are also mothers, and also have been called to create.* Their sharing about self-doubt. Their wondering, “What is this—a hobby? Leisure? Or something else.” (I think it was Jen Pollack Michel who somewhere put words to my own wonderings here.) Their honesty about how making space to create has meant sacrifices and hard choices, and how things don’t always fall into place in neat ways. As they share the way they process these dual callings (mom + writer/artist), I am able to imagine what faith and faithfulness might look like for me.
So I thought I’d also share this in-process photo because I went through a familiar-to-me cycle today. From despairing that I’ll ever have the time or energy or solitude to finish the first draft of a chapter, to having a painful knot in my stomach thinking about all I need to do (including but not limited to writing), to doubling over onto my bed to pray, to having a few surprising hours of writing granted to me, to feeling simultaneously guilty about not engaging more with my children and wishing I had more time alone. Also, to gratitude.
I share because though I’m still in need of wisdom on how to make things work with family, ministry, work, and writing, I’m grateful for the space God gave me to work on a chapter of my manuscript today.
I’m thankful because each time I come out of this despairing to grateful cycle, the inkling that “God provides” grows. Each time, I am a bit more prepared to push back against the panic of “I am never going to have time for this!” when it invariably rises again.
And I’m thankful for many reminders lately that I haven’t ended up here by my own force of will. God has answered so, so many prayers up to this point. He has prepared good work for me that I am walking into. His calling is his equipping and provision. And that is so very heartening.
At the playground, my youngest sits in a lopsided plastic car on springs and calls me using an imaginary phone. Ring Ring!…Now you pick up—no, hold the phone like this! I’m her substitute sibling while her real ones are in school, so she’s sticking by me more than usual.
She runs to play, then back to sit on my lap. Out to play, then back again.
She pulls out a notebook from her narwhal backpack and “reads” it. Mark 35. Now you read it. Say “God made the world.”
She attempts to walk up the slide.
She asks all her questions.
She is loved with an everlasting love.
I think about this as I watch her stand in front of me in all her three-year-old fullness. She’s hilarious and expressive and curious and so, so, fiercely loved.
Do you really love her more than I do?, I ask God, heart swelling with the answer I’ve been meditating on.
I’ve been thinking on this love in light of a picnic our family attended recently. It was a gathering for Staten Island pastors and their families, hosted on our friends’ wide church lawn and complete with bouncy house, unlimited cotton candy and popcorn, and all-around fun for the kids. PK’s need love too, said a fellow ministry wife. It was so thoughtful and generous, and the Chang kids had a blast.
Seeing everyone gathered in for prayer though, that’s when it hit me, God’s love. Particularly, God’s his love for the people living here on our island. Each pastor’s family—called to love and serve the people here— stood a living witness to me of this love. A testimony that God sees and remembers those on the “forgotten borough”.
This conviction deepened in conversations as I listened to individual stories of how God called these men and women to their churches. They are proof to me that God loves those we have loved and have prayed for, and that he loves those we don’t yet know but hope will come to know him. The Good Shepherd is seeking out his lost sheep on Staten Island. That he would call under-shepherds here for this task is evidence of his pursuit of souls. Of his care.
One of the most, if not the most, unfair charges I’ve ever leveled against God in ministry was about this care. When the needs have been great and the stakes high. When I had cared deeply, but couldn’t do anything to stop the things that would harm those I loved. When he could have stopped these things, but didn’t.
At that time, God spoke to me his assurance that all he does is not in spite of, but because of his care. But I see another way now that I have been wrong to raise such accusations against God, either out loud or deep down in unspoken ways.
I would accuse God of not caring, but why did I care, if not because he did?
What if I cared because God cared?
I mean this not just in the sense that I was like him in my caring, or that he commanded me to care. I mean, what if the very fact of our being where we are—hearts breaking for the suffering and brokenness around us—is in and of itself an act of God’s steadfast love toward those we would accuse God of not loving?
I think I’m influenced by Luther’s work on vocation here. Our callings, according to Luther, are not just jobs assigned by God. They are “masks” of God behind which he actively works in the world. God himself milks the cows through the milkmaids, he said. This is what I was so convinced of through the presence of those ministry families at the picnic—God’s active love for Staten Islanders in the calling of men and women to serve our churches. He loves through our love.
Perhaps this is what John meant when he wrote that though no one has seen God, his love is perfected in us when we love one another (1 John 4:12). The moments my heart is moved with compassion, the conviction to intercede and do good for another, these are acts of my joining God where he is already at work, where he actively cares and has already been caring. In our love, the love of our unseen God is made visible.
Recently, I have watched many of my friends get hit with wave after wave of trials as they serve God—in difficult church dynamics and with a break-in and floods and health problems and loss. I’m walking with some of the godliest people I know as they navigate unfulfilled, good desires. I see parents at a loss for what to do with prodigals and I can’t shake the faces of some of these wandering young people from my mind. I join with believers as they pray for the sick and newly widowed and abused. I scroll my news app through reports of wars and floods and horrible things people to do one another.
The temptation for me has been to lower my head in despair while my heart slowly hardens to God who could fix it all in an instant, but chooses not to.
But what if I care because he cares?
What if it is God himself who prompts my compassion, conviction, lament, prayer, and a desire to act in response?
How often have I known such love, the care of the invisible God made tangible through the concern and compassion of one of his children? And when I’ve received this love, didn’t I know it to be, in a very real way, the love of God?
This makes a difference in the way I think about prayer, especially when overwhelmed by the needs around me. Luther has said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance,” and I think today how prayer is not overcoming God’s indifference either. I am not charged with reminding God of those he’d forget otherwise. Rather, my prayers—for the world, for unreached people, for the suffering, widowed, fatherless, doubting, prodigal—are being prompted by his word and Spirit because he so loves.
I need to remember this as I parent too. God has loved my children from before the foundations of the world, and in his coming, death, and resurrection. My loving is a participation and expression of his vast, wide, deep, long-suffering care, it is a drop in the ocean of his tremendous love for my kids. This knowledge of his love for them anchors me when I’m anxious about their souls and futures and wellbeing. And it brings me to a deeper knowing of the love that surpasses knowledge when I feel my heart explode with affection for my little one at the playground.
What if my care is evidence that he cares? It is not the whole case for his love, not even close, a partial fingerprint perhaps. But it’s what he has brought to me this week. And at the very least, it is setting a course correction for my own heart.
This is the reminder then, for me. Maybe for you too. To take heart when those we love are going through dark days because God loves them too. He has not forgotten the ones we fear he has forsaken, and he has not overlooked the needy we have been called to serve. Your brokenheartedness, your tears, your pleading, your lament, your service, your pursuit, your waiting, and your prayers on their behalf— these are evidences of his remembrance and love.
Two years ago, the kids cleared the living room and, with the help of my sister-in-law, put on a short play based on Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Baby Wren and the Great Gift. In it, a newly hatched baby bird (ours had a paper beak tied around her head with string), observes the other animals in her canyon with awe. As each tumbles, swims, dives, or soars, she exclaims, “How wonderful!” Just as she wonders, “What can I do that’s wonderful?”, the sun sets (our 9-year old stagehand held up a red blanket behind the couch at this point). The wren bursts into song for all the beauty around her. Eagles, whose soaring she’d admired, turn to her and say, “You are little, but your song fills the whole canyon. How wonderful!”
The image of this baby bird singing catches my imagination. The whole story does, really. The way she is filled with wonder at the rest of creation. How her wonderful gift flows out of her in thanksgiving. The way the eagles speak to her so kindly of this gift. It’s different than other children’s stories for the small and insecure. There’s no proving or comparing and ending up better than. Instead, there’s freedom and joy, a spirit of generosity and unselfconsciousness in the way she joins the rest of creation, doing what she was made to do. She is the magnanimous man G.K. Chesterton writes about, who is great but knows he is small.
I first heard about Chesterton’s magnanimous man on a podcast episode with authors Jonathan Rogers and Kelly Kapic. Talking about Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of magnanimity (greatness of spirit) and pusillanimity (smallness of heart), Kapic says,
The reality is God has given gifts. And to actually always shy away and go, “I don’t have anything. I don’t bring anything”— that can be just as problematic as thinking you’re the answer to everything. It’s a problem to say, you’re not an answer to anything.
…We need to be willing to believe people when they point out gifts we have, cause gifts are more often— not always, they need work and cultivation— but they’re often more what you might call natural to us…Part of what Aquinas is saying is you have gifts, and when people are helping you see those gifts, recognize, believe that is from God, and now use it. You have a responsibility. Not in a bad way, but in a joyful way. Like, look what he’s giving you and use it. You’re good at the flute. Don’t be shy about it. Help us. We’re enriched when you play, and we’re impoverished when you don’t.
I love how communal this vision of gifts is, that it’s through the voice of others that we learn how we are uniquely designed to help others flourish. And that in this way, we worship God. I also love the sense of grace in all of it. “As each has received a gift,” writes Peter, “use it, to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10). Gifts are truly gifts, freely distributed by God himself to be recognized, received with gratitude, and used for good. In another article, Kapic explains that magnanimity is not trying to be great apart from God, but employing “gifts as an expression of worship and as a way to help others.”
Here’s why this way of thinking about gifts is so helpful for me. Part of what sanctification has looked like in my life has been God reframing my thoughts of greatness, or more specifically, my own desires for greatness. Which is to say, he’s humbled me. Through the years, he’s increased my contentment and joy in the hidden things that are of great worth to him. He’s been discipling me in refusing to believe that what is impressive to the world, even the Christian world, is always impressive to God. To value the small and insignificant, because he does too. I am not there yet, but by his grace I have grown.
It’s been hard at times then, having been disciplined by God regarding these things, to know the difference between true humility and small-heartedness. Beset with self-doubts and fear of my own pride, and sometimes just in ignorance, I’m often slow to admit I have anything to offer. I want to grab a basket and put it over my lamp because it’s safer. This way I won’t make mistakes. Won’t sin. Won’t be tempted to boast. Won’t fail. But, here is God’s immense grace to me, it’s been the body of Christ who’ve come around me time and time again, patiently speaking courage into my heart. Recovering my hidden lamp from the corner, they’ve handed it back to me saying, “Here’s your gift. Use it.“
I signed a book contract earlier this month. It was an unremarkable process insofar as I did what I believe are the normal things. I wrote, I submitted to a publisher I truly appreciated, I waited, and I heard back. But the process was also an unveiling for me, God in kindness drawing out an admission from my heart that, and this feels strange even now to say, I do want to write a book.
The process thus far (still only just beginning!) has also been soaked with the grace of God’s people. Possibly my favorite part of receiving an offer was being able to tell those who’ve been praying and cheering me on, excited for the doors God might open for me. I forgot all about magnanimity vs. small-heartedness talking to friends this week about the book contract. It goes to show you…anyone can write a book!, I’d said. But they didn’t laugh or let what I said slide and, before we left, prayed for me and this good work God has assigned to me.
The publisher is taking a risk on me, I know, a relatively unknown writer with a very small platform. Yet I am encouraged that in extending an offer, they have also in effect said, “Hey, we think this is a need for God’s people, and we believe you are called to meet this need in some way.”
You are little, but we think your song will help others.
I remembered the story of the baby wren recently after listening to a song about how we’re made to join creation in praising God. I won’t stop singing, I won’t stop singing / These lungs were made to sing your praise, were the lyrics. I thought of the wren’s song. Like her, I am little. And like her, a song rises unbidden in my chest nonetheless, one I was made to sing.
Now may be the time to consider taking some things off your plate. I’d actually been about to heap on some new ministry opportunities, and said as much before laughing weakly. A few days later, I wrote an email backing out of a new church initiative. I pressed Send and the tears welled.
I want to be led, but not this way. Give me burning conviction from the Scriptures, promptings of the Holy Spirit, and events too unlikely to be dismissed as coincidences. But to make choices informed by my body, by pain and weakness? Here I become a 2-year-old trying to shake loose a caregiver’s grip with all my squirming toddler might.
Motherhood especially has been a classroom in being led by way of constraints, but I suspect it’s also a natural part of getting older. As time passes, we become more aware of the limitations that, much like a river’s banks, have held and directed the flow of our lives. It turns out that I’ve always been constrained by my callings (as a mom, daughter, neighbor, friend, church member, citizen, etc.), my particular time and place, and my unique family history, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, gifting, and body.
It’s the last bit that I’ve most often strained against, especially these days. When facing less-than-ideal circumstances, it has helped me to remember that just as trails are marked by the unyielding presence of the trees that line them, so God often makes my way known to me through interruptions. But with chronic illness, it’s not so much the redirection— God saying, “I want you to serve here, not there”— but the shrinking of my capacity that I am wary of. My body is dictating the vigor and pace I can walk this path, and it is painfully slow, halting even.
I think it may be helpful for you to hear this, my sister prefaced, shortly after my autoimmune diagnosis. She then told me about another woman, in ministry and chronically ill, who’d shared about needing to trust that there was no good thing God wanted her to do that she wouldn’t be able to do because she was sick.
I’ve been here before. God has been whittling away at this part of me for about as long as I’ve known him. Taking my raw yearning to be used by him for his glory and refining it in the heat of ministry, motherhood, now illness.
What if God won’t use me?, I’d said in high school, fearful that my sinfulness would render me out of service in the Kingdom. In God’s kindness, the mentor who heard my question didn’t assure me of all the great things I’d do for God. Instead, he’d gently pushed back with a question like, What if that’s not the most important thing. Years later, I was praying with thanks over a summer of what had felt like successful missions work, when the Holy Spirit blindsided me. I would’ve been just as loved by God, he reminded me, even if I hadn’t “done well.” I was undone.
Perhaps this is one reason Jesus rebuked the seventy-two returning to him with an excitement that had been similar to mine post-missions. Instead of joining in their celebration about the wonderful things they did in his name, he told them not to rejoice, at least not about that. Rather, they were to rejoice that their names were written in heaven (Lk. 10:20). I wonder if Jesus’ redirection of their joy not only instructs us to prize God more than our work for him, but serves to reveal what he values most— that compared to all we accomplish for him, our hearts are his greater treasure.
I’ve been thinking about the widow’s offering lately in connection to Psalm 50, the way that, if God truly needs nothing from us, then he must be after something else in our sacrifices. And how, if he is not dependent upon our offering for his work, he is truly able to value gifts based solely on the hearts of the giver.
I’ve always been moved by the stories in the gospels of those who gave their little, but all, to Jesus. Stories of bread and fish broken, of two coins dropped in a box, of an alabaster jar emptied. It’s incredible to me that the God of the universe has seen to it that a record of these gifts would be written down for the ages. Yet it is precisely because he is so immense that he can delight in offerings so small. Because God isn’t bound by our resources, he can freely assess the value of our service in a completely different economy than human judgments of usefulness.
The poet John Milton touches upon this in his “Sonnet 19.” Wrestling with a “soul bent” to serve his Maker, but limited in his capacity (most probably because he was going blind), he wrote: “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” God is King, he writes, and has thousands doing his bidding. Therefore, Milton concludes, “those also serve who only stand and wait.”
With so many needs around me and holding a shrinking plate, I am being forced to plead with God to work with what little I have to offer him. Yet even here, it’s tempting to put too much hope in what Jesus will accomplish with my loaves and fish. Surely, he loves to confound the strong by making his power known through the weak. He can and does multiply the efforts of those who serve him, establishing the work of our hands. But in the final measure, it isn’t even what God chooses to do with my meager offerings that determines their worth.
The large sums of the rich would no doubt end up being put to more use than two small copper coins. Mary’s perfume could have been sold and used for charity. Yet our Savior goes so far as to say that the first giver “put in more than all of them” because “she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Mk. 12:41-44). The second, he defended publicly as doing a beautiful thing, saying, she had “done what she could” (Mk. 14:8). In both instances, Jesus recognizes the way these worshippers gave out of their limited supply and, in light of a gift earnestly given out of the confines of these limits, praises them.
The Apostle Paul writes similarly of the generous giving he sought from believers, saying, “For if the readiness is there, [the gift] is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Cor. 8:12). God knows both our hearts and the limits of our ability. So while he may ask for my all, he never demands more than that. I need to believe this, especially now.
A few weeks ago, my 5-year old walked ahead of me into Trader Joe’s. Greeted at the door by a display of flowers, he circled back toward me. Can I buy some for you? As soon as we unloaded the groceries at home, he brought the blooms over to me as if they were a surprise. This is for you! I’d bought the bouquet for myself but they were no less from my son.
To those who want to serve God with all your being, who have given of yourselves with a burning passion for his glory and yet find your Shepherd has led you down unexpected pathways— he is, and has always been, after our hearts. So it is that the feeblest heartfelt offering given by the lowliest of saints is not only seen, but received with gladness by our King.
Though we may mourn the immense gulf between what we hold in our hands and what we wish we could give to so great a Savior, in some ways this sense of our poverty is part of what we bring. We know we have little, but still we bring our all. Father, this is for you.
I was one of those people who got a bike a few months into the pandemic. My first ride out and away from a full house, I pedaled to a large, open field. I hadn’t been that far away from another human being for months, possibly years. Alone, I dismounted to take in the last light of the day, and a prayer came out like a long, unconsciously let-out sigh.
God, you don’t need anything from me.
It was as if my soul exhaled.
Maybe it’s because of my personality, Chinese culture, or family of origin. Or maybe it’s my firstborn-daughter status combined with intense ministry training and being a mom. At church events, standing in line at Panera, on elevator rides with strangers, reading an email, as long as another person is in my physical or mental space, I’m “on.” Unless I’m completely alone, and sometimes even when I am, I can’t help being vigilant for needs I may be called on to meet, sensitive to what demands my presence may similarly impose on others.
It’s not inherently good or bad, just a virtue of who I am which can be alternatively helpful and used for service, or unnecessarily burdensome and a source of anxiety. Knowing this about myself though, I’ve come to realize that the simple truth that God needs nothing from me is sometimes the welcome into his presence that I need.
Though there are things God requires of me, there is nothing he needs from me. This distinction is important. The psalmist, rebuking those who offered sacrifices while continuing to sin, declared that what they thought they supplied God— the cattle on a thousand hills, the beasts of the fields— were already his (Ps. 50). In fact, the world and its fullness are his. So what God required from his people in sacrifices was not food or fuel as if he needed anything. But what he desired, and still desires, is a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That they would call to him in their trouble, and in response to his deliverance, glorify him.
To call on God and give him praise is right and good— it is required of me. The Christian is called out of darkness into light in order to proclaim his deeds. But God’s wellbeing and work, these are not dependent upon me— he needs nothing from me.
This is a tender, holy, freeing truth. That he who made all things, owns all things, and doesn’t use his creation to supply his needs. Rather, he is ever the gracious Giver, ever the joyful Benefactor in our relationship, the Source of life itself.
God, you need nothing from me. I breathe out, and the knots in my stomach loosen a bit. He is solid and steady and not flustered by my presence.
If he needs nothing from me, I can pray— really pray, not worrying about my anxiety or anger or foolishness swaying his judgment or burdening his mind. I don’t need to hedge my request in polite, calculated consideration of his limited supply of patience and help.
Neither is he vying for my resources, wit, compassion, godliness, or strength. He is not looking for me to give him something he lacks. So I can heed his welcome as true and in good faith, receive and believe it is wholly for me.
The Scriptures are punctuated with this welcome: come to me, come to the waters, come eat, taste and see. There is more that I’ve been mulling over regarding God’s self-sufficiency, implications for what this means about his pleasure in what we do offer him, how graciously he receives from our hands what he doesn’t need. But for now, I want to sit on this, the way burnt out laborers, haggard moms and dads and sons and daughters, and all the weary and wary souls who come to him, will find that he gives and gives and gives, grace upon grace.
With our God is the fountain of life, and we are invited to approach it with all our neediness hanging out and spilling over. There, we the poor, thirsty, hungry, tired, sinful, and lonely, will be received with gladness— because he who needs nothing from us freely gives to all who come.