I don’t do much cross-posting here, but I have a piece over at Reformed Margins today that may be of help to some readers here. In it I process my absence of tears in response to recent events, and how I believe God is inviting some of us to learn to grieve.
Here’s the introduction:
Why aren’t I angrier? Sadder? Why aren’t I speaking out? Compelled to action for my own people?
Even as fellow Asian Americans have been speaking out in recent days about their grief and anger about the way people in our communities are being and have been treated, I believe there are many of us who are still processing our own disparate responses. Like fellow RM contributor Larry, I have been wondering why my own reaction has as tempered as it’s been to the increasing anti-Asian racism and violence this year.
This week, Larry wrote about the way the model minority myth can numb us to trauma. In his guest post, Peter Ong touched upon the way many Asian Americans deal with the pain and shame of being perpetually othered, “swallowing the bitterness.” Today, I want to explore another reason why some of us, myself included, may be having trouble grieving over anti-Asian American racism. It hit me while reading something Youn Yuh-jung, the 73-year old South Korean actor who starred in the film Minari, said in an interview.
Youn, speaking of the immigrant experience of those in her generation said this: “We expected to be treated poorly, so there was no sorrow.”
“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.
Every day you wake up in a world that you didn’t make. Rejoice and be glad. – Jonathan Rogers
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)
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.
Oh! I heard surprised delight in his voice. Quick girls, come look! Jeff called, urgent yet tender. We left what we were doing, scrambled into the kitchen, and followed his gaze through the slatted blinds. I picked up our three-year old so he could see the feathered, fuzzy head of a baby sparrow perched on our windowsill.
It sat there unaware of our family huddled over the sink on the other side of the glass. It must’ve fallen out of its nest, Jeff thought aloud. But when I raised the blinds, it flitted, first to a nearby tree where an adult sparrow sat, then away and beyond our view. It was off to bear witness elsewhere.
Jesus once taught about sparrows. Not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father, Matthew records him saying. Not one of them is forgotten before God, wrote Luke.
It’s interesting because he could’ve phrased it as a universal blanket statement that would be just as true. “Every sparrow is remembered” or “all sparrows fall only within his knowledge.” Instead, he spoke in the negative. I think it was to make sure we know that with God’s care for those who run to him, there are no exceptions.
It’s as if Jesus knew there are those of us who would read, “God loves the world” and think, of course God’s love is for all people— just not me. Like he knew there would be moments we feel, of course God’s care never ceases in theory — it just kind of has right now. So Jesus says: No, not one sparrow is forgotten by your Heavenly Father. No, not one sparrow falls apart from him, and the good news is that you are of more value than many sparrows.
I don’t know if things have felt noisy to you lately, but they have for me. My thoughts fly disordered between how a grieving friend is doing to the theological problem of suffering to NY Times headlines to what prominent Christians are writing to whether or not my faith will endure.
I love theology and my mind constantly turns over truths, analyzing, weighing, and applying them. But I’m coming to recognize that sometimes we can only hold one or two thoughts in view at once. This is one of those times for me. So I’ve been asking God to cut through the noise and simply remind me of his love for me. And as I pray for the sick, grieving, serving, and isolated, I’ve been asking God to let loved ones know they are loved by him, because truly they are.
“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands [Isa. 49:16]. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.”
Even as we struggle and grapple to make sense of our competing thoughts, growing and needing to grow in our knowledge of him, what matters most is that he knows us. He knows us and loves us. His care shown in creation, his gift of breath and life, his burden-bearing on the cross. These all testify to God’s unwavering love for us and those we love.
Even the birds beckon, Come and look.
The older saint you love in the nursing home— not forgotten by him.
The prodigal living under your roof— not out of his reach.
Your grieving friend and exhausted health care co-worker— never out of his mind.
Your sick family member— there is not a moment when his care falters.