Motherhood & Family

A Buffet of Sorts (or Ode to Books & Their Keeper)

One of the most formative things my mom did for me growing up was building her library. She never made me read any of her books; I don’t even remember her ever recommending one. It was more of an open buffet of sorts, set out in the living room and made ready for me to serve myself. Through the years, I was nourished at her shelves, more than once helped without anyone other than God knowing just how much.

I think love for reading is more caught than taught. It was certainly that way in my case. We didn’t watch much TV or have video games growing up, so books were naturally a form of entertainment. I read in my free time, during trips in the car, and in the bathroom. On Wednesdays we’d go to the Brooklyn Public Library where the children’s librarian recorded our visits in her ledger. Every third week we signed in, we were invited to walk behind her desk to browse the rolling cart and bring home a reward for our recurrent visits — one free book of our own choosing!

Recently, I helped my parents sort through their books. Most are going to the church library, but I set aside a few boxes for myself. My parents raised us to live simply, you might say frugally, as many Chinese immigrant families do. (I still reuse ziplock bags and buying garbage bags still feels like a scam when plastic supermarket bags work fine.) But my mom has never skimped on books. She says she was taught that by my grandmother, a refugee to Hong Kong and a school principal. It must have been a lesson my mom took to heart, because the shelves in our home were always full.

In highschool, I heard a Christian leader talk about a set of books on her bookshelf she didn’t let others touch. The idea was so foreign to me that it has stuck with me since. In our home, books weren’t meant to be hoarded, they were stewarded with generosity. Guests perused our living room shelves, at times asking about a title, sometimes bringing one or two books home. Years later, when my mom started purchasing books from the bookstore where I now work, she began buying multiple copies whenever there was a good promotion— just in case someone she knew could benefit from a copy. It’s a habit that remains (I joke that the bookstore has a warehouse here in Staten Island) and has been passed on to me, my sister, and my sister-in-law.

Sorting through books at my parents’ place, I consider which titles I’d want my own kids to be able to grab off our shelves on a whim. I remember the time I sat at my bedroom desk, self-consciously searching a systematic theology textbook index. I had checked over my shoulder before finally finding my way to a section on “doubt.”

I set aside a stack of books addressing the questions I had as a teenager, written by authors who have been instrumental in forming my conviction that Christianity is a thinking-religion, able to withstand the challenges of every age.

I pack biographies and stories of revival, books that gave me a vision of Christianity beyond my own experiences. They showed me that the roots of our faith are deeper than current debates and the branches of the kingdom reach to the farthest corners of the earth. Here I was given models to emulate, practical examples of what God is able to do in and through lives of imperfect people given over to his glory.

John Piper has said, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do, Sometimes even sentences.” I don’t know that I can separate the influence of whole books versus their parts, but it’s true that my most vivid recollections of books are of my mind, heart, even life, pivoting on sentences. Augustine’s defense of God’s incorporeality in Confessions. C.S. Lewis’ defining anxieties as an afflictions, not sins. Elisabeth Elliot’s assurance that our Shepherd wants to lead his sheep more than we want to be led. Jim Cymbala’s stories about a pew collapsing when he first started at Brooklyn Tabernacle Church and his church’s earnest prayers for his prodigal daughter. Andrew Murray’s assertion that we don’t pray because we don’t love– a charge that changed my prayers in college which in turn changed my whole life.

It’s incredible to think of sovereign Love and providence at work here. That God would meet the past, present, and future needs of my heart, mind, and soul through the words and lives of strangers— what a mystery and comfort, what grace and privilege. This is what I’m hoping for as I bring some of these books home and build a library of my own.

Before unpacking the boxes from my parents’ place, I move our bookcases from the second floor down to the living room. Arranging the shelves of our now merged libraries, I think about which ones I want to be eye-level for guests, imagining that after the pandemic, they’ll be able to browse our shelves before and after group gatherings. Perhaps standing there with needs God alone knows, they’ll spontaneously pull out a book and read a pivot point sentence. Perhaps one of the books here will hold out hope for one of my own children during their own darkness of doubt or trial.

Our hand-me-down bookcases now hold some of the same books they did as I grew up. They are an imperfect set, not quite matching and sagging a bit. They are working for us though. Already, my oldest has read through a few books she pulled out on her own: two biographies, a book my brother received on his baptism, a collection of stories about persecuted Christians. I’m going to be the librarian, said my girl as we shelved books.

What matters more the condition of their aged particle board is the invitation these shelves continue to extend. May the weary questioner meet Grace and Truth, may the thirsty and hungry find Water and Bread, and may many be summoned to the Supper through the words served here.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

Pay Attention: The Trees Are Singing

Every day you wake up in a world that you didn’t make. Rejoice and be glad.
– Jonathan Roger
s

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
– Mary Oliver

~~~

The trees invited us to pay attention today.

The kids set out with empty bags; I held my phone for photos and a plant-identifying app. We must have been a sight to behold, how they yelled excitedly and crouched in the middle of the sidewalk, shoving leaves into their Dr. Seuss totes. One man stood in front of his house and just looked at us. At one point I walked straight into my boy who’d suddenly dove between me and the stroller I was pushing. When I turned to help him up, I saw him sitting next to the red-yellow-green leaf he had spotted and gone for. The fiery red ones especially took my breath away, but we got them all, yellows, reds, greens, browns, and every combination of autumn’s colors.

We’d done a walk like this a few weeks ago, but this time, we learned names. So the five of us didn’t just collect “maple” leaves. We collected silver, red, amur, and sugar maple leaves. We didn’t just bring back “oak leaves”— but pin, swamp white, northern red, and scarlet oak leaves. I was so proud when at the end of one walk (we went out twice), my boy, with a full bag, picked up and showed me a leaf he noticed he didn’t have yet.

In the middle of a pandemic and election season in our divided country, leaf hunting might seem like just a nice kid-friendly, socially-distanced activity, a distraction of sorts. In a way it was a good break for me from heeding the beck and call of things that felt urgent, but it was more than that. I was glad when my son showed me his leaf-find, because it meant he was learning to pay attention not just to trees in general, but to each tree we’d stopped under, and to this one in particular. Our naming trees was a kind of noticing, and when we notice in God’s world, we gather kindling for praise.

We returned home, bursting with leaves and worship. I pointed out to them that God could have just filled the world with one generic tree. On that third day of Creation, he could have said “let there be trees” and filled the earth with forests of trees as I draw them– cartoon broccolis that vary only in size, with an occasional circle in the trunk as an owl’s perch. But, praise God, we don’t live in that kind of world. Instead, we emptied the kids’ bags into a box and pulled out green ash, black gum, sweet gum, and honey locust leaves. There were 15 or so species of trees they had gathered from, and these were only the ones with leaves already shed on the sidewalk we walked on. We even had a mystery leaf we’re not sure the app is right about, so the plan is to hunt down the tree again.

What kind of brilliance and creativity must it have taken to fashion all the trees we found within that two-block radius of our house, I wonder. What kind of power must God have to uphold the outermost galaxies and oversee every single tree we encountered today?

Sometimes it’s easy for me to imagine God using his power as brute force, accomplishing great and good purposes, but in an impersonal, blunt way. Knowing God flung planets into space by a simple word fills me a sense of awe at his strength. But studying the differences between types of oak leaves furthers my understanding of his power while offering insight about how he wields it.

Recently, I watched a painting tutorial where the instructor warned beginners not to focus too much time and effort on the first detail they worked on. The reason is that they’d probably get tired and end up with one section they loved that wouldn’t match the rest of the piece. That God doesn’t lose steam— that he is powerful and wise enough to pay attention to the smallest minutiae of creation— honestly stretches my faith. That he uses his strength and mind with precision and creativity in the world offers me comfort and hope. He is big enough to hear my small voice in a broken world (Matt. 6:6-7). He is precise enough to be trusted to handle the details of my life with care (Matt. 6:25-34). And he does not just write my days in a way that is utilitarian, but beautiful (Psalm 136:16).

One of my girls loved pointing out the different reds of the leaves today. I imagine the earth, resting on its axis as on an easel, and God joyfully painting our little corner with the touches of the crimson, pink, and peach that filled her with such delight. Our Creator’s heart must have been so filled with love of beauty as he generously paid attention to every detail of the place he was preparing for us to inhabit. Eden’s trees were not only good for food, but pleasing to the eye. East of the garden, the trees still are his handiwork.

After we labeled our finds, the kids burst out into a spontaneous song about the cherry plum leaf. Today they sang about a tree, but one day the trees themselves will lift their voices. From the cedars of Lebanon to the redwoods of California, the forests will sing for joy when Christ returns. If you listen closely now, you can catch the neighborhood trees rehearsing their doxology.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.
– Psalm 24:1 (ESV)

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
– Psalm 96:11-12 (ESV)

Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

The Beanbush, My Tutor

The kids held out their green beans today and we laughed in celebration over them. It was the second collection of beans they’d made since I’d said, “I think the bean plant is done for the season.” The harvest we cooked for lunch was yet another lesson for me under the tutorage of our bean bush. For months I’ve been picking beans I didn’t believe would ever grow.

It was actually friends who sowed the seeds in our garden that became our bush of a thing. We didn’t know what to do with the tall, leafy, stems, so they just grew together until they became one giant plant. It overtook the pepper plant, tipped over trellises, and then just kept growing.

The bean bush’s unruly tangle of stalks meant that when it was harvest time, the green beans had to be hunted for, which also meant more fun. Green beans, where are youuu? the baby would say-sing, and every bean we found was a wonderful surprise for everyone, but to me most of all.

See, I’d checked our Great Fruit and Vegetable Guide, and had seen the season for harvesting started before our bush showed any signs of beans. “They should’ve grown by now,” I told everyone, like the expert gardener I am not. One of my girls though, she’d walk outside with a watering can and come back insisting she saw baby beans growing. I told her she probably just thought that’s what they were. Not too long after, I was down in the garden, picking beans. God has had words for me by that bush since.

He’s taught me about pruning, how from the outside it looks like it’s killing the plant. I’ve followed the instructions for doing it, half-expecting to come back to a dying bush, only to find more beans. How could things in our lives that are so painful make us more fruitful, I don’t fully understand, but they can and do under his hand. (John 15)

I’ve learned that sometimes, you need to hunt for signs of growth and grace. In the day to day I often miss God is working in my kids, in me. Perfectionism and ungodly expectations means I look at the book and scoff at the plant. But while signs of his grace in and around you may not be immediately obvious, they are still evidence of his work. When you find them, rejoice. Laugh and shout like a kid who just found a GINORMOUS green bean.

I’ve learned good fruit is often borne in unexpected places, ways, and people. We may assume certain sets of circumstances, methods, personality-types, and backgrounds are the ones we want for serving in God’s Kingdom. He may think otherwise.

Most of all, I’m learning about the patience of God who does not give up on us. He won’t uproot a plant just because the tiny growing shoots aren’t obvious yet. He waters, and slowly but surely he makes us grow. His declarations are more certain than the accuser’s and he’s promised that those who belong to him will surely bear eternal fruit.

Part of God’s good work is his invitation for the impatient to come observe his ways. To see how he is so unlike us, possibly how unlike who we imagine him to be. And in the grace of harvesting where we did not sow, he teaches us to wait.

From one of the impatient ones, for the soily lessons about our most trustworthy and patient Gardener, and for providing vegetables my kids love to eat, thank you bean bush. Sorry I doubted.

P.S. Cucumber plant, this post could have been about you because I really did try to put your roots back in after daughter-gardener pointed out the small, spiky green ovals growing off your dry stems, but it was too late. You’ve taught me too though, and I’m learning to wait.

Writing

Learning in Exile

The last 5 days of remote learning have made me want to cry more times than homeschooling for 4 years ever did. The girls really have been great and their teachers are wonderful. Still, it’s stressful for everyone all around.

Distance learning isn’t my first, or even second choice, but isn’t that what life is like these days for everyone? We’re educating kids, celebrating birthdays, getting married, birthing babies, grieving deaths, and worshipping together the best we can given the circumstances. Yet when it comes down to it, what we end up settling with can feel like just that— settling.

Ours is not the only time and place the people of God have been asked to live, work, love, and worship in less-than-ideal circumstances.

I think of the prophet Jeremiah. Build houses! Plant gardens! Start families! Pray for your city! Seek God!, he instructed. Not strange things, except that God’s people were to do this in Babylon, the land of their captors.

It is to these exiles that God declared, “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 9:21). Deliverance would come, but not for another 70 years. Until then, they were to live life where they found themselves. And as they lived, they were to trust.

Maybe our times are not as unusual as we think.

On the framed glass my daughter faces as she sits in her virtual classroom are words by Charles Spurgeon.

“Remember this, had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are in, divine love would have put you there.”

As we gear up for a week of school, they are for me. They tell me, Yes, you are frustrated, sad, pleading for all this to end soon, and rightfully so. But don’t forget you do this as one who is loved by the Sovereign of the universe.

Beloved, we are not living God’s contingency plan.

We walk into the week loved by a God who is committed to our good.

Our children sit down for class beside the One who is working all things for their flourishing even now.

So here’s to the next 5 days of Google Classroom and Zooming kids. To leaning on grace and trusting his ways, here where divine love has placed us.

Writing

God of Naps, God of Justice

The cousins ran around today, occasionally coming to the dining table to graze on leftovers, settle on laps, and complain about what someone else did or didn’t do. The adults had lingered after the meal, our conversation meandering as it usually does. We talked about old computer games, the Atlantic article about the Romanian orphans, and the way our churches have talked about race these past years. It was precious time. With both healthcare workers and at-risk family members, we’ve only been reunited recently after months apart.

Later as I put our youngest down for a nap, I thought about how it’s been hard to pray, to feel God is near and hear him in his Word. He had started some deep work in me a few weeks into quarantine as I processed a slow but long-coming burnout. But the past few weeks I’ve only been able to think and feel over issues of racial injustice. With my sweet girl snuggled on my chest, I wondered how I could approach God about personal restoration while engaged with the pressing issues of injustice in our country.

I swayed with baby girl in the carrier, and the thought came, gently.

You care about both. Why can’t I?”

With that came a reminder that these last few weeks, I had cared for the little one in my arms. If I had space to love my children while lamenting and responding to systemic racism, why wouldn’t God be able to care for each of his own while breaking down strongholds of evil in the world?

These days, we are surrounded by the hurting. Our family has been praying for exhausted black friends and neighbors. Those who’ve felt the effects of racism their whole lives— “I can’t sleep,” she told us, “I’ve had nightmares. It could’ve been my husband.” We are remembering those who have died, and are still dying, from Covid-19. We pray by name for their family members who are reeling from grief. During protests in NY, we prayed for a neighbor in a local police precinct working nonstop and an Army friend, a husband and dad just returned home after months overseas, who was almost deployed to the protests. Our church hasn’t met physically for months and we fear for those drifting from the faith. We continue to mourn with others who were suffering before Covid-19 and George Floyd’s murder. Cancer, trauma, sick babies, marital strife, and mental illness don’t relent for pandemics and protests.

The needs are so great it is hard not to feel like it’s either/or. The world is constantly telling us we need to choose sides for those we care about, choose which one of God’s commands we should obey. Do you care about the health of the immunocompromised or the historic oppression of blacks in America? Do you tend to the flock God has given you or do you honor his image bearers outside church walls? Do you care about your physical neighbor or the people Jesus said was your neighbor— the person in front of you or the needs of marginalized communities? Do you seek to be an agent of change in the world or a faithful mom at home? Do you want mercy or justice? Do you pray for them or do you act?

This is a trap.

God does not pit the cries of the hurting against one another in a cosmic duel. He is not conflicted in himself. He does not need to simplistically choose the more worthwhile of two good causes or the lesser of two evils (though, admittedly, sometimes we do). His love, power, and ways have no limit, and as we consider who he is, he destroys the false dichotomies we too easily take as a given.

Consider that the God of Scripture is the God who punishes the wicked AND turns persecutors to martyrs. (Ex. 34:7, Acts 9)

He tells his people to act justly AND to pray without ceasing. (Is. 58, 1 Thes. 5:17)

He responds to individual sufferers AND the collective cries of the oppressed. (Ps. 28, Ex. 2:24)

He calls us to care for the widows, orphans, and strangers AND to be diligently faithful in our own homes. (Deut. 10:18, Eph. 6:4, Tit. 2:3-5)

He teaches us to be silent before him at matters too great for us AND to speak up for those who have no voice. (Ps. 131, Prov. 31:8-9)

He is full of grace AND truth. (Jn. 1:14)

He loves justice AND mercy. (Ps. 33:5, Mic. 6:8)

He upholds the sparrows AND the universe. (Matt. 10:28, Heb 1:3)

I know this isn’t as simple as it looks on paper, that walking in the world requires discernment and wisdom. That we need nuance and God’s voice as we make difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, either/or decisions. Still, I want to be fiercely both/and in all the ways that reflect him.

So by his grace, I will pray for the safety of my NYPD neighbor and for police reform. I will keep learning and educating, preparing the summer self-study material my daughter asked for on African American history, and I will step back from conversations when I don’t yet have the weight of experience or knowledge to contribute. I will ask God to restore me from burnout and for the healing of the nations. l will seek his help to be faithful in keeping place and to leverage my place for his glory. While considering with others around the table what God would have us do outside of my home, I will serve brunch and referee sibling fights inside it.

I am loved by the God who loves the world. And in this knowledge I will rock my baby to sleep as I pray for his justice to roll down like waters, his righteousness an ever-flowing stream.