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.
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.
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.
I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about as I sat on the train from DC, just my bone-weariness and the weight of the stories of the suffering. Leaning back into the headrest, eyes closed, I prayed, or maybe just thought, “Is life on earth just sorrow after sorrow and only that?” The question still hanging in the air, I turned to look out the window just as we crossed the Susquehanna river. The sun was setting on the horizon, and the water caught and reflected back its radiance. The beauty was familiar yet breathtaking. What I saw with my eyes, I knew in my soul as God’s answer.
I’d asked if life on earth was filled with sorrow and sadness only. He spoke before I uttered an amen.
I have been meditating lately on the mystery of the good. That there is still such beauty and joy to be found in this world and in our lives, broken though they may be. For me, the consideration of why this evil? is linked experientially to why this good? It is the flip side of asking about God’s sovereignty in suffering, me recognizing that his ways pertaining to the good and beautiful are just as inscrutable to mortals as his ordaining the bad.
The question first arose as I’d held my newborn son on a hospital bed. Having just walked through a season of grief where I couldn’t perceive God’s reasons for my suffering, I realized I was equally unable to comprehend the scope of his purposes behind the good. I held my son to my chest, pressed my face into his fuzzy head, and wondered, why? Not, “why is there good in this world” in the abstract, but why this blessing? Why for us? For me?
“Because God is good and he gives good gifts,” was the answer Scripture held out for me then, and still does now. No specifics I could grasp, just sufficient reason in who he is and what he wills, leaving me to reverent wonder and grateful praise.
Sometimes, I think in trying to correct the false notion that God is only good when we get the things we want, we can shy away from seeing his goodness through his gifts. I may uphold the truth that God has loving purposes for suffering while failing to see his gracious heart and divine wisdom behind every blessing. It’s true that God is not good because he gives us good things. But the Scriptures teach he gives good gifts because he is a good Father (Mt. 7:11, Ja. 1:17). It may seem obvious, but it is something I need to deliberately meditate on.
I am prone to taking life with all its attendant blessings as a given— givenness not in terms of it being a gift, but as it being an impersonal default. Perhaps this is one reason why gratitude is so important for God’s people, why we are so often exhorted to give thanks. Because we are wont to live as deists, as if God programed the world and left it to run by itself, interrupting only intermittently in the form of the rare miracle or painful trial.
In reality, the only reason the universe does not completely unravel, ceasing to exist this very moment, is because God is upholding it by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). The truth is the sun rises today on the good and evil because God calls it forth from its chamber as an intentional act of grace (Mt. 5:45). Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge, which is to say each one is completely within his scope of care (Mt. 10:29). All that happens today, bad and good, he has ordained freely and consciously in his perfect will.
Thus, gratitude for the good things he gives is more than about finding a way to emotionally balance out the hard ones. It is not an adult version of the lollipop after a shot at the doctor’s. To recognize God’s hand behind the good we receive from him is to remove our blinders and see the world as it truly is, filled with his mercy and grace in thousands upon thousands of specific ways. We are recipients of blessings we’d never have thought to ask for, of good gifts we could never have earned even if we’d worked our whole lives for them. Blessings are gifts to be traced back to our loving Father who grants them out of his creativity, faithfulness, and good pleasure. To thank him is to train our hearts to recognize his steadfast love and active involvement in our lives and in the world.
When my children were infants, I was hyperaware of the fragility of their lives, the way their tomorrows were not guaranteed to us. I’d lie down to sleep and, with my head on my pillow, look at them through their crib slats. They were swaddled and so small, and me drifting into unconsciousness meant I had to leave my vigilant-mom post. More than once, my last thought before sleep was the simple request that God allow them to see morning. Each day with them that followed such a prayer felt like a tangible answer from God. A gift, and if I were to probe further into the whys, a mystery.
Really though, today is no different for all of us. Every breath we draw is freely and gladly given by God who sustains our lives by his will and power. We receive our daily bread from his loving hands. And this is just life in its barest form. Even in a world that is groaning for redemption, he fills our days with the good and beautiful— with laughter and open skies, with timely encouragement and faithful words, with work to do and people to love and be loved by.
We put together a last minute escape room for our kids last month, a special birthday celebration for one of our girls. The Chang kids worked impressively as a team, retrieving hidden messages from between piano keys, in a narrow-necked bottle filled with colored water, inside a board game. Jeff and I did pretty well too, I thought, linking clues together for the passcode to a tablet containing messages from aunts and uncles which in turn led to a final “laser” protected clue. The kids loved it, and we loved watching them love it.
What if I walked through life as my kids in that escape room, I wonder, looking out for the intricate ways God has woven goodness and mercy in and through all my days? I have a hunch that I’d be less irritable in the day-to-day, more aware of God’s nearness, patient with those he’s called me to love. In awe of his attentiveness and goodness, might I grow in humility and contentment, abounding in thanksgiving as my prayers slowly conformed to the kinds of petitions described in the epistles (Col. 4:2, Phil. 4:6, Col. 2:7)? Might it even help me to feel more keenly his presence and kindness in the practical graces and consolations he gives in the midst of trials?
What if we were more attune to the ways the good, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy things in our lives are evidence of his wise and perfect care for us?
Faith in Christ means we hold onto promises regarding the eternal, fixing our gaze on the unseen. But the Holy Spirit also lifts the veil that keeps us from truly seeing the things right before us. As Christians, we recognize the eternal and unseen behind, beneath, and upholding the temporal and earthbound. The good we are given is not meted out by some distant algorithm, but from a Person, in his divine purposes and steadfast love. We know that the Father who did not spare his own son for us is the One who graciously gives us all things (Rom. 8:32). Surely his ways are beyond tracing out. Still, the threads we catch of them here and there inevitably lead us back to him.
I watched the skies the rest of my train ride, grateful for the way God was loving me through rolling clouds and flashes of lightning in the gathering darkness. While I was pouring out my heart to him in the train car, the heavens had been pouring forth speech over me, and God in his kindness had me turn to catch a bit of their message at just the right time. They spoke beauty and glory. They declared that he is God and that there is still good in this world. Even now, they proclaim this. And to their praises, I add my Amen.
He leadeth me: O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught! Whate’er I do, where’er I be, still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me. He leadeth me, he leadeth me, by his own hand he leadeth me; his faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me.
(He Leadeth Me, Joseph Henry Gilmore)
I can’t believe she was born less than a year ago, I’ve been saying.
I suppose it’s time to start setting goals and planning for the decade, but today I’m still looking back. I only have approximately 10 journal entries for all of 2019, so I’ve been relying on my photos to jog my memory as I reflect.
The year started with my rounded belly. There’s that photo of me sitting in the church office when we thought I was going into labor early. The selfie from L&D. There are significant events like her welcome home and baptism. We’ve got some family trips in there. But mostly the camera roll is filled with everyday graces. Of learning, of friends, of play. And of children, imperceptibly but steadily and undeniably, growing.
I look back at a journal entry from twelve months ago, my list of hopes for the year, and I can’t say those have all panned out. What I thought would be important at the time wasn’t what was on my mind two days ago as the decade closed. Some desires, God hasn’t granted. Yet apart from what I have intentioned, my life has been brought to me moment by moment, and I have been changed.
It strikes me then that the thing that matters most about last year is this: I have been led through it.
As I think about 2020, I am hoping to keep some habits and lose others. I will, by grace, continue to bring to God yet unanswered requests. I still have some key words I want to try keep in focus. I want to follow Jesus more closely, to love and know him more deeply. But as I follow, I will rest in the truth that thus far he has led, and he will lead me still.
The other day as Jeff held the baby, she had a death grip on his shirt— as if she could fall while he held her up. So it is that though our following and God’s leading in many ways is one and the same, what matters much more than our sheepy resolve to follow, is our Shepherd’s commitment to lead. My hand holding onto my kids looks the same as theirs holding mine, but my vigilance matters the most as we walk.
Know this dear one, whatever the strength of your resolve, into each new day of the new year he goes before you. And at the close of each, he hems you behind.