Thursday, December 18, 2014

Where there was no room

My mom is a wonderful chef. Being a Chinese living in Malaysia, she had a quite a diverse repertoire. When she craved something from Indonesia, the country of her birth, she would replicate it in her own kitchen. Rendang and tempe and baso were our common meals. She even made Western fares like yogurt and pizza — from scratch. She raised us with feasts from around the world. We were not deprived of options.

Yet, in the quiet stillness of my home, when all my children are asleep, I crave my mother's humblest dish — rice and (Chinese) Spam.

The year I turned 10, my parents brought all of us to Iowa to pursue their education. Friends and relatives in Malaysia thought they were insane. How would they manage such a financial feat (among other challenges)? But they did. They were certain that if something was worth pursuing, we would pursue it together as a family.

During the summer between his first and second year, my father was offered a job as a interim pastor in San Francisco. My parents packed all of us into the backseats of an old Buick (that they bought for a few hundred dollars), and took us on a five-day journey across America. Crammed together like a can of sardines, there was no wiggle room to scratch the chicken pox that covered us from head to toe.

My mom brought her tiny rice cooker with her. Each night, after we checked ourselves into a motel room, she plugged in the rice cooker, threw in some rice, water, and canned meat, and let the magic happen. As she bathed us and turned us into four spotted monsters dotted with anti-itch lotion, we would smell the fatty and familiar aroma of meat and rice.

We gathered around the rice cooker as my mother lifted its lid. Steam rose and filled the motel room. I can still feel my sisters wiggling next to me, our voices chattering with excitement as we watched our mother's steady hand scooping out the feast that was about to come. In that moment, there was very little else in the world that I desired other than my very own bowl of sticky rice, and a piece of that glistening, salty meat.

Just the other day, one of my boys burst into tears when he realized that his brother was no longer in the room with him. We do not allow unreasonable outbursts in our home. Yet, I understood his grief.

This Christmas, there is too much room, too much land, too many oceans between me and my sisters and my parents. If I could burst into tears at the distance that separates us, I would. So, I hold on all the more to my flesh and bones that I do have with me.

I guess I am not craving rice and Chinese Spam after all. I think I am just missing my people. I miss being pressed together, watching steam rising from the feast that is to come. I miss having no room between us.

Merry Christmas, world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

My professor

I heard about Rosaria Champagne Butterfield two years ago when her book "The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert" first came out. If you see my copy, you would find frantic scribbles along the margins of way too many pages. My heart burns with a strange joy whenever I read her book.

Since then, I have slowly worked through the numerous videos of her lectures and conversations online (I know, I do feel slightly stalker-ish). Professor Butterfield has been a dear companion and teacher during my middle-of-the-night nursing hours. I have loved and admired many professors during my years in grad school and seminary, but I did not know how much I have longed for, and needed, a professor like her. By examining her own inner landscape, she has helped me see the rough terrains of my own heart.

The first few sentences from her "Acknowledgements" summarize her conversion with an elegance that I cannot capture with my own words,
When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. I was at the finish of a PhD in English Literature and Cultural Studies... At the age of 36, I was one of the few tenured women at a large research university, a rising administrator, and a community activist. I had become one of the "tenured radicals." By all standards, I had made it. That same year, Christ claimed me for himself and the life that I had known and loved came to a humiliating end.
Today, she is a a pastor's wife, a mother, a homeschool teacher, a foster parent, and an evangelist who tells her story across the nation (basically, a modestly dressed Wonder Woman). She would often emphasize that the Lord did not save her from homosexuality to heterosexuality, but from death to life. She would say that her repentance did not begin with her realization that lesbianism was a sin, but that pride was a sin.

Instead of typing out the countless quotes I circled and underlined in her book (because you can get your own copy), I thought it might be more helpful to share a few gems I found among her numerous Question and Answer sessions.

How she responded to the phrase "love the sinner and hate the sin."
It is so much easier to poke at other people's sin and not our own. I think that our job is to love the sinner, hate our own sin. I do not think our job is to "love the sinner and hate the sin." I think if we spent more time hating our own sin, we would just be more responsible with the lives of others. We need to be better keepers of the integrity of each other's hearts.
How she responded to the question "When did the yuck factor of lesbianism hit you upside the head?"
When I first repented of the sin of my lesbianism, I had no idea why it was a sin... I didn't stop feeling like a lesbian. Someone once asked me, in public, "When did the yuck factor of lesbianism hit you upside the head?" I had to say, "You know what? It didn't." What hit me upside the head were two things: God's authority over me and that in my sin, in a complex way that I do not understand, I was persecuting my Savior.

Over time, does healing take place? Absolutely. But I wasn't zapped. But I also wasn't in a church community where people expected me to be zapped. I was a believer and I was broken, and that is a really good place to be.

How she spoke about having compassion on someone who is in the throes of sin.
I don't think sin is always a matter of choice. In Genesis 4, God said to Cain, "Sin is lurking at your door, its desire is for you, but you will have mastery over it." A lot of people are going to walk home late tonight, and it is going to be dark, and you don't like the thought of having something lurking, knowing where you live, and knowing that you are alone... Even in the life of a believer, there are times when sin — just clobbers you — just takes you out.

I think we need to be tender, and realize that when someone is in the throes of sin...Your job is to hold on to their ankles as they peer over the cliff. So, sometimes, less talk, more prayer, more Gospel, more honest articulation of (our own) sin.
I wrote Secret Thoughts for my children... We adopted four children, and two children we adopted out of foster care at the age of 17... They have been through hell on earth. I really wanted them to have a book where they knew that I am not all cleaned up. I don't measure up, that's the point, Jesus has measured up for me.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Love brings me home

Just the other day, I was out for a run by myself. It was so cold that I could not feel my face. I was running against the freezing wind, and the wind was winning. I could barely keep my eyes open. Gusts of wind were pushing me to the left and then the right. Keep running, I told myself, think of the boys. They must be starving! (They were fine.) They must be crying! (They were playing games with daddy.) It may sound silly now, but it worked, somehow.

Love got me home.

When the grandparents visited, Hans invited me to run with him; I was not too sure about the idea. Even at his slow pace, I was barely keeping up. Although I was behind him most of the way, being with him was nice. I kept my eyes on his broad shoulders, the shoulders that bore our three sons. I smiled (in my heart, my face was showing something else). On our last stretch, he ran next me and said, "Finish strong! Try to keep up with me." And then, he ran even faster. If I had breath to spare, I would have laughed out loud — at myself. But, I pressed on.

Love got me home, again.

If I could invite Martin Luther over for a dinner party in heaven, I would ask him why he chose to make repentance the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, the document that marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Retrospectively, it was quite fitting that Luther's call for reform began with a call to repent.

All of life is repentance. Every single second. Not just the occasional "sorry" or "please forgive me" or "the U-turns." Our life's journey in its entirety is a returning, a returning to Garden. Not the Garden that once was, but the Garden that will be.

Repentance is not a one-time thing; repentance is an one-life thing.

I used to think that it was guilt that drove me to repent. If I could just muster up enough guilt about my wrong-doings, perhaps I would be able to change, perhaps my contrition would be more true and sincere, perhaps it would make me more worthy of forgiveness. Guilt, however, can do none of these. My guilt about eating too much cake might help me see my need to exercise, but my guilt is not enough to get me home. My guilt does no good on an icy day when the wind is beating on my face while I gasp for air.

But love,
love brings me home.

No, not my love for God, but his love for me. His never-stopping, always pursuing, never-giving up, always forgiving, forever love. Hunger makes me long for home. Guilt helps me see that I am wrong, I need his forgiveness. But love waits for me.

My Father saw me and had compassion on me. He ran to me. He brought me home. He sent his Son to pay the penalty of my sin. Jesus Christ was crucified in my place.

Repentance is our response to God's love. Repentance is choosing to believe that his steadfast love is better — than whatever else we look to for happiness. Repentance is choosing him, because he gave himself to us.

This is how we repent: We keep our eyes on the shoulders that bore our cross, and we run home to our Father who loves us with an everlasting love. We repent by believing the prayer of David, "Your steadfast love is better."

Your steadfast love is better than the number on the scale.
Your steadfast love is better than the number in the bank.
Your steadfast love is better than a clean and beautiful home.
Your steadfast love is better than a fulfilling career.
Your steadfast love is better than infatuations.
Your steadfast love is better than friendships.
Your steadfast love is better than marriage.
Your steadfast love is better than children.

Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away... If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away." Our right eye and our right hand are supreme examples of God's good and useful gifts. Even so, God's steadfast love is better.

Your steadfast love is better than my dreams.
Your steadfast love is better than my pride.
Your steadfast love is better than my happiness.

Because your steadfast love is better is better than life, my lips will praise you. (Ps 63:3)

Your steadfast love brings me home.

Repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. How much greater? About the size of a mustard seed. Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus, no matter what. And sometimes we all have to crawl there on our hands and knees. Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect.
- Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, 21-22.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Goodbye for now, little butterfly

Dear friend,

My heart broke when I read your letter. For days, I sought for the right words to say. But the strings of words that formed in my mind seemed too fragile, too short, too little. I then realized that there is no simple way to speak about death, especially the death of a child. There is nothing I can say that could make things better.

I will cherish the moment you told me that you were pregnant, how we laughed at your thoroughness, taking the test three times. "Just making sure," your said. I will remember the joy and the awe, as we stood in wonder at the miracle of life. How you said, "the long wait was all worth it." How I hesitated to hug you in fear of squeezing you too tight. How eager we were. How I reminded you to drink a lot of water, "to flush the baby's toilet."

I will hold these tiny moments in my heart.

I will not forget the terror, when you told me that there was blood.
"Pray," you asked, "Please pray." So, we prayed.

And we mourn.
We wait.
We hope.
A butterfly rest
beside us like a sunbeam.
For a brief moment,
its glory and beauty
belonged to our world.

Suddenly, it fluttered away.
How we long for you to stay.
How we long to hold you, one day.
Thank you for the joy that you brought.
Goodbye for now, little butterfly.
You are forever loved.

Until soon,
Your friend

When I was 14 months old, my mother suffered a miscarriage.

Though I have never met this sibling, he or she is a member of our family. We speak of him or her often. Whenever people asked my parents how many children they have, they often answered "five" and explained that they lost a child due to miscarriage.

My mother would tell us the handful stories she kept for this baby. How she had already felt the baby's kick. She told us her memories of an earthquake that might have caused the miscarriage. The night she knew something was not right. How she mourned for her child after his or her death. How my grandmother cared for her as she regained her strength, "so I can take care of you," she would say.

I have no doubt that my convictions about the dignity and humanity of unborn children, and the preciousness of human life, began on my mother's lap, listening to her stories about this brother or sister whom we will forever love.

So, we mourn.
We wait.
We hope.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

God Counts: Numbers in the Bible

Here is the story of how I learned to teach Yohanan about God. You can download the picture book I made for him over at the Gospel Coalition Blog.

Hans handcrafted these for Yohanan, our little number lover.

Description of the book

God Counts is a book about God told through the numbers in the Bible. Essentially, it is a theology primer for very young children (ages 2 to 5). I sketched some simple drawings and left them in black and white to make it a little easier to print. In our home, it also serves as a coloring book.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Crumbs of glory

Hans kissed me good night and wished me a happy birthday at midnight. I drifted into sleep trying to decide what I want for my birthday lunch. It was going to be a good day.

Morning came.

I drew the curtains and saw that there were ants everywhere. Everywhere. Hundreds of ants crawling all over our floor. All over the bag that I used to carry the children's snacks. Ants were storming in through our front door and our screen door. Ants were streaming into our kitchen.

The boys were still in bed and I instructed them to grab some books and stay in their beds. Breakfast will not be served for a while. My head was swimming in words like infestation and invasion as I tiptoed around the apartment, trying to decide the best course of action. An ant found its way up my pajamas and bit my leg. That prick, that tiny sting, planted a seed of fear in my disorientated heart.

I can't let them near the boys. The baby, I can't let them bite the baby. But they were everywhere. There were hundreds of them, and one of me.

Last week, we walked by the Godiva store when we were running errands. The boys asked me whether they could pick up a chocolate sample for daddy. This has become somewhat of a tradition for us, and it was really hard to say no to boys who were being kind.

The sweet storekeeper found out that the boys were saving their samples for their dad, so she generously packed an entire bag of chocolate caramel as a gift for the boys. When she checked my membership, she reminded me that since it was my birthday month, I was allowed to pick five free truffles.


After a chorus of thank yous and happy shrieks from the boys, we walked out of the store carrying two bags of free chocolate. Being students, Godiva is not exactly on our monthly budget. The boys skipped all the way to the car and shouted, "Thank you, God! Thank you for the chocolate!"

I thought to myself, surely these must be the crumbs of glory. These must be the crumbs that fall generously from the Table of the Lord, where his children will feast for all eternity. Thanks be to God indeed.

My birthday surprise yesterday morning was less pleasant. While the boys waited patiently in their beds, I launched my attack against these tiny enemies. The fear that was planted by the sting on my leg grew into a seedling.

Two hours later, the boys were hungry for breakfast but the ants were still streaming in. No matter how many ants I killed, they kept appearing.

Suddenly, the crumbs that I had failed to pick up from the night before seemed to have multiplied, and magnified. The sticky sugary residue that I had neglected to wipe off my kitchen floor looked like a banquet table for ants. I had known for some time that I was not a detail-oriented person. But yesterday, my weakness seemed so abhorrent to me. Guilt took roots and they entangled my soul.

Throughout the day, Hans and the boys would wish me a happy birthday. I would say to them (half jokingly): No, it is not my birthday. I refuse.

Hans took his entire day off to help me clean the house. Together, we sprayed our adversaries with vinegar at their point of entry. We wiped them off at their path. Vinegar, wipe. Vinegar, wipe. Vinegar, wipe. We gave Emeth a vinegary rag and put him in charge of the floor under the tables and chairs.

Our victory was not swift, but it was sure. By end of the day, the ants were nearly gone. Working alongside my husband, in the company of our children, with this magical, non-toxic liquid was a good thing for my soul.

Fear withered; my heart was at rest. These little ants led me to the real crumbs of glory.

Family, friends, home, life, redemption, and hearts set free from guilt these are the crumbs that fall generously from the Table of the Lord, where his children will feast for all eternity.

Last night, we celebrated with fancy chocolate. Though they paled in comparison, they, too, were glorious.

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures,fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us,like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. - C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wearing the Gospel on our sleeves

Levi's were really cool in high school. All the cool people had them. The little red tag represented wealth and the ability to own a tiny piece of something from the United States. So fancy, so stylish.

The little red tag also cost a fraction of my father's salary as a pastor in Malaysia. They were way beyond my reach.

I don't have an older sister, but Wini comes really close. She introduced me to lipsticks. I was hanging out at her house one day, and she asked me whether I would like to try on her Levi's. I said, "really?!" She said, "really."

"It fits you well," she said. I was beaming. Beaming and exuding the coolness I had never known.

Imagine my surprise when she said, "Take my jeans! They are yours." I was floored.

Those jeans were perfect in every way. I loved the wash, the fit. I wore them everywhere. Everywhere.

They came with me to the United States a year later. Those were the days before Skype and Facebook. The faces and places I once knew were like a distant memory. I missed home so much that my body hurt.

Those jeans. I wore them to shreds. I wore them under the autumn sun, and I wore them in the dead of winter. They were to me a piece of something from home, the far country where it was always summer. I wore them in remembrance of Wini, of her love, and her kindness.

My three older sisters. Wini in more cool jeans, Janice, Serene, and me in front of Wini's house. Christmas, 1999.

Recently, I attempted to correct two mistakes I had made over the years when I taught girls about Biblical modesty. You can read my thoughts over at the Gospel Coalition blog, "The Gospel on Our Sleeves."

There, I explained how immodesty is the beginning of why we wear clothes, but Christ is the end. What we put on our bodies is a response, not a means, to forgiveness and righteousness in Christ. In other words, our clothes embody our response to the Gospel. Our clothes embody our worship. We put on our clothes in remembrance of Christ.

Some of the feedback I received asked me if I could give a guideline to how we should dress. I am always hesitant to give a list of what to wear and what not to wear, mainly because we are neither defiled nor made righteous by what we wear. We can be covered from head to toe and still be immodest. Having said that, I do see the benefits of fleshing out how we might wear the Gospel on our sleeves.

The dress code of God's children can be summed up in one word: Sacrifice.

In the Old Testament, the garments of priests were splattered with blood. Their work and worship entailed much slaughtering of various kinds of animals. Levitical priests stood before Yahweh, representing God's people, offering sacrifices unto God.

In the New Testament, God's people are the sacrifices. We are to present our bodies, our entire beings, as living sacrifices to Yahweh. This is our worship.

As living sacrifices, we get dressed with nothing to prove, nothing to hide.When our clothes are beautiful, let their beauty honor Christ. When our clothes comfort and protect, let them enable us to labor for Christ. When our clothes are means of expressing ourselves, let us proclaim Christ—truthfully, beautifully, and well.

Here are some questions I find helpful as I evaluate the intentions and desires of my heart about what I wear, what I buy, and what I choose to put on my children.

1. What am I trying to convey? Am I trying to prove something?

2. Am I able to control myself when I am shopping for clothes? Do I have a budget? Do I feel entitled to spend however much money on however many clothing I want?

3. Do I have things in my closet shoes, bags, rings, necklaces that I treasure a little too much? Am I willing to give them away?

4. Do I feel entitled to wear whatever I want whenever I want? Am I willing to give up my so-called rights of self-expression if my preference would not be good for others? Am I willing to sacrifice comfort in order to serve and edify others? Am I willing to sacrifice my time, resources, things for the edification and good of others?

5. Am I willing to submit to the instructions of my authority? 

6. Am I ready, at any given time, to open up my closet and give a portion of clothes and things away if I know someone in need? To give away even the things that are still useful to me?

7. Do I regularly purge my closet and give away clothes that I do not wear, or do I hoard?

The baby's uniform. Hat - check! Backpack - check! Jacket - check!

The garment of God's children is marked by sacrifice. Wini demonstrated her love for me when she gave me something that was precious to her.

I have a son who loves his bow-ties and blazers on Sunday mornings. He is learning to check his heart and ask whether he is wearing his Sunday best for his own glory or to honor God.

I have another son who loves soft and comfortable things. He loves his jeans and T-shirts. For Sunday worship, he is learning to give up a little comfort to honor the Lord and others by wearing a not-as-soft button down shirt, sometimes he would even throw on a tie.

I have yet another son, who is only one year old, but he is already making his preferences known. He knows exactly what he wants to wear: hats, backpacks, jackets, and puppets on both hands. He makes us laugh by running around in his funny outfits.

We get dressed in remembrance of Christ, of his love and his sacrifice. We get dressed in remembrance of the bridal garment that we will wear, in the city where there will be no need of sun or moon, where there will be no night, for the glory of God will be our Light.

Shark on his head, peacock on one hand, flamingo on the other.