Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Don’t Be Alarmed If It Feels Like Death

“Go where you wanna go. Do what you wanna do. Believe in yourself.” Sesame Street is playing in the kitchen where my boy has been camping out in front of the HomePod, making requests to Siri. He’s enjoying the music when I hear him think out loud to himself, “Do what you wanna do”? No…you can’t do what you wanna do.

My little guy’s statement, unprompted and so obvious to him, is a bit like the child calling the emperor naked. In our world, self is king and doing “what you wanna do” is the only true way to live. Authenticity is heralded as the supreme measure of what is right. Trust in self a given good. He doesn’t know yet what a counter-cultural sentiment he’s expressing.

My four-year old’s critique isn’t one I am meant to merely rail against “culture” though, it is firstly a reminder for me.

These days, I’ve been sorting through the pull of desires and responsibilities. There are some things I want to be doing, which make the things I ought to be doing feel more onerous than usual. I have been at this— walking with God in my particular spheres of life— long enough to know that I can’t just shirk what I ought to be doing, but the slog of it had been creating a bit of dissonance in me and probably a bit of self-pitiful bitterness too.

I told Jeff yesterday that I wish I didn’t have this other thing I wanted. It was easier to say “yes” to the ought to when I didn’t have desires to do otherwise. I’d rather just not want than say no to what I wanted. To be sure, there are times when God calls us to reevaluate our priorities, to rest, to say no to duties we can no longer shoulder. I am in the middle of such a season. But my more recent struggles aren’t so much a matter of being over capacity as much as the reality that sometimes, I just want to do what I want to do, even as I do what I ought. Which is why some of Jesus’ hard words in the gospels have been actually coming to me as comfort this week.

Working my way through the gospels, I’ve been reminded of how committed Jesus was to giving a realistic view of what it would look like to follow him. He warned his disciples of persecution (Matt. 5:10-12, 10:23; Luke 12:21) and spoke of daily life with him as taking up his cross (Luke 9:23). Loving God will look like hating our own life at times (Luke 14:26). It is so complete a surrender of our own desires and a right to self that Jesus calls it death (Luke 9:24-25).

The force of these verses are not merely their predictive value, but in the promises Jesus holds out. Our death to self precedes our finding true life in him. We die as seeds, forfeiting all we know for the greater glory of a life that bears much fruit (John 12:24-25). These promises are gold. But what I am helped by today is something a bit more peripheral. It is the way that in them, Jesus resets our expectations of life with him.

I’ve always been a bit taken aback by Jesus’ words to the scribe who said to him “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Instead of affirming his desires, Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:19-22). It always felt a bit harsh to me. Now I’m seeing it as a mercy.

In our first years of marriage, Jeff and I would reflect on how surprised we were at how much we were enjoying it. We had braced for the worst, having been taught since we were teens about marriage— how sanctifying it is to be bound as sinner-saints to another, how it is not easy being exposed and continuing to love in the daily grind of real life. We went in with joy but also a bit of trepidation at the hard work we knew would be entailed in keeping covenant with one another. In hindsight, I probably could have used a more balanced view of marriage, including more of the joys. Still, I’m grateful because I can’t imagine having gone in wearing blinders, how confused I would’ve been had my expectations for it been different.

Jesus knew the scribe had prematurely declared his devotion. Whatever he imagined it’d be like to be a disciple of the Teacher, suffering, homelessness, and scorn needed to be added to the picture. Count the cost of following me, Jesus said in another instance, like a builder of a tower or a king before war. If you aren’t willing to bear your own cross, if you are not ready to be so committed to me that it looks to others like you hate your own life, you cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:25-34).

For those who by grace now follow him, there is a way in which God mercifully sets our expectations so that when things are truly hard, they aren’t compounded by our bewilderment that they are so. “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” wrote the apostle (1 Pet. 4:12). Jeff has reminded our church often that the uniform of the Christian is the armor of God, not Hawaiian shorts and a t-shirt. I’ve found that though this isn’t always the case, sometimes what I need most is just that recalibration of my expectations. That image of being dressed for warfare silences my alarm that “something strange is happening” when I don’t feel like life is a vacation.

I’m not exactly sure why it helps me as much as it does, these reminders that the Christian life is costly. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to instinctively take cross-bearing as a given and forget I didn’t walk into this life blind. Perhaps it takes away some of the doubt and guilt I feel when there’s a discrepancy between what I want and ought to do. Or perhaps I’ve just needed the assurance I’m going the right direction, like getting a call from a friend a few miles ahead on a road trip. “It’s a bit winding and you’ll pass by a Chick-fil-a billboard,” they might say, and the sign-holding cows come in view just as you wonder if you’ve lost the way.

Either way, I’m receiving this mercy today, the reminder that if it feels hard to follow Jesus, to obey him and love him, to sacrifice my own desires to know him better, it’s normal. Don’t be alarmed, he’s telling me, if it feels like death. He’s walked this way before, and it’s just as he said it would be.

Truth & Orthodoxy

God Among the Crowds

“Can I just have 15 minutes?” is my request, delivered with more edge than I expected. Sometimes, I just don’t want anyone touching me. Which is to say, my body hurts, I’m tired (or busy), and I don’t want anything else asked of me right now.

I think I used to imagine Jesus’ relationship with the crowds like that of a speaker with an audience: They’d listen to him in large numbers like a sold-out stadium, then gather around as people might surround a guest lecturer after a talk. Even with a sizable group, listeners instinctively wait their turn and respectfully give the famous person some breathing space. Being a mom of 4 has changed that perception.

As long as I’m at home, there is no escaping our little crowd. I could be sitting on the mat in front of the stove and somehow it’s now their new favorite hangout. Not only am I no longer alone, the kitchen floor becomes strewn with books and toys. Case in point: Since I wrote that last sentence, a metal bowl has been placed on my left arm and two kids now flank me, holding clementines for me to peel. Another has pointed a large stick in my face.

“Please don’t sit on my arm.”
“I’m not sitting on your arm!”
“Yes, you were. You were JUST sitting on my arm.”
“I’m not sitting on your arm now.”

Maybe I used to picture how tired and busy Jesus might be, constantly surrounded by crowds. Now I feel it in my body.

I opened the Scriptures this morning, and I watched Jesus walking by the sea, then making his way up a mountain. He sits down. And that’s when the crowds come.

“The lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others,” the text says. “And they put them at his feet, and he healed them” (Matt. 15:29-31.)

This week, Jeff served our church in a way he always has. For some reason it caught my attention differently this time. And when I paid notice, my gratitude for my husband swelled. That’s what happened when I saw this crowd surrounding Jesus. I saw my King with fresh eyes.

In an earlier chapter, the moment they recognized him in town, people “sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment” (Matt. 14:35-36).

All the sick in the region?

I look across the street at my neighbor’s house and imagine what it’d be like to see homes empty out in Staten Island. If everyone chronically or critically ill went to seek healing all at once at the same place. Who would they bring? Would I go for my back pain? How uncomfortable would it have been to be among those pressing in to touch him? To hear people yelling out for help, their voices so persistent that the disciples would plead with their Master to tell them to stop.

Then I saw Jesus, literally surrounded by the broken.

The lame.
The blind.
The crippled.
“And many others.”

I saw him bending down to speak, to listen to a request, to touch, and to be touched.

What kind of Love must this be to not only acquiesce to, but welcome such a crowd? What power would stoop so low? What humility to heal and then, unwilling that the weak would faint on their way home, in compassion prepare a meal for thousands? How tenderly, how kindly, how joyfully he serves. What a sight it was to behold!, even if only in my mind’s eye.

In the future I may remember this scene in the context of motherhood, of Jesus as example to follow, (how do I treat my little flock that, at this very moment, is talking to me about June birthdays, pushing me off the couch, and pulling my hand off the computer keys. “I’m hungry, I’m hungry!” says the arm-tugger.) But right now, I’m just marveling at my King. He is the God of the broken, who welcomes the weak. The God who serves the crowds.

We answered this question after church on Sunday: “What difference would it be make for you to see the church as a hospital for sinners and not as a waiting room for a job interview?” This morning the Lord answered for me: Seeing the sick, I’d behold the Physician among them, and having seen him, my heart would love him so.

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.