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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Learning notes: It was the stench

Things we did

Last week, our friends, the Tillets, invited us to come along on their trip to the zoo. I thought it would be the perfect week to study Noah's story.

On Monday, we read various renditions of Noah's Ark. I checked out nearly all the picture books our local libraries had about Noah. There were so, so many (there were versions about Noah's trees, Noah's dog, etc.). Our favorite was probably the one by Jerry Pinkney, intricately illustrated with simple prose. Here is a quote that stayed with me:
And the Lord loved Noah.
God spoke to Noah.
Noah put down his basket and listened.
We also liked the one by Peter Spier. His illustrations were thoughtful and detailed. We compared the different versions and talked about how faithful each of the authors were at telling the original story. Some ventured far, far away from the Biblical account. Others were nearly unrecognizable. I thought it was important for the boys (especially Emeth, for now) to learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.

And we decorated paper boats.

But the zoo was indisputably the highlight of our week. The opportunity to spend time with friends is so precious, and so much fun (Thank you, Callie, Lei, and Kalina!).

Khesed was exclaiming "A!!!! A!!!!! A!!!!!" (for alligators).

Things we pondered and cherished

We pondered the smell.

More specifically, we pondered the smell of poop in the Australian House. For some reasons, the excrement of wombats and fruit bats was more pungent than the excrement of animals in other exhibitions. It was so memorable that we were still thinking about it days later in the comforts of our home.

It was the stench that led us to a cherished discussion about obeying God.

I find it funny that stenchy places have their ways of speaking to Hans and me about divine things.

The conversation started when they commented on how they really did not like the odor in the wombats' house. And I told them it was very likely that Noah's ark smelled just like that, if not worse. Noah and his family were rescued. Yes, their lives were saved, and they gave praise and thanks to the Lord. But building the ark was hard work. Planting food to take into the ark was hard work. Caring for the animals was hard work. It was not fun to be teased by their neighbors, to be thought as foolish. It was not (always) fun to be in a stuffy ark with lots of animals. Noah was very eager to know when the water would subside.

Obeying God is often hard work, and often not very fun.

*crickets chirping*

I don't think they understand this quite yet.

Our conversation also made me think about what I prioritize as their mother. Have I demonstrated through my parenting that fun and comfort and happiness (by themselves) are Most Important? Do I overemphasize, do I idolize, these secondary things? I would have to think about this a little more, but the idea itself is a little unsettling.

Finally, we loved the dolphins. It was really interesting for me to watch Khesed participating and responding to his surrounding. In our past field trips, he would sit back and quietly soak up his environment. During the dolphin show, he kept signing the letter "D" with his hand, and he would sign the letter "B" when he saw the dolphins playing with the ball. And because he is Khesed, my loudest child, his signs were coupled with exclamations, "Deeee!!!! Deeeee!!!! Deeee!!!! Beeee!!!! Beeee!!!!! Deeee!!!!! Deeeee!!!!!"

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Learning notes: Love is the thing

I remember the awful look on my mother's face when I told her I wished I was the only child.

We were on a five-day journey from Iowa to San Francisco. I was 10, that means Jean was 6, Evelyn was 4 and Catherine was 2. It's too bad that the wanderlust that possessed my parents to drive across a foreign country did not make it into my genes.

Pa and Ma, may I have a dash of your bravery please?

My sisters had been arguing and crying for hours. Someone had lost an earring. All four of us were itchy and scratchy from the chicken pox. The old car was chugging along the highways through Utah's desert. I wish I had been paying attention. I am sure the landscape was breathtaking.

Instead, I chose to focus on myself. Woe is me! I am being so good! They are all being so bad! My poor sisters are stuck with this self-righteous oldest sister I can't think of a worse kind.

There it is! My self-righteous face digitized. Apparently, I give them this face a lot.

In her still low voice, my mother warned me to never, ever say that again.

When my mother used her calm voice, I knew then my transgression was much worse than the hours of screaming and crying from my younger siblings. Never, ever wish that I was the only child, she warned me again.

And I have not.

The thing we did, the thing we cherished, the thing we pondered

Last week, we had our first guest teacher.

When our friend Esther from New York City was planning her trip to Chicago, I asked her whether she would be willing to be a guest teacher at our homeschool. She kindly agreed.

She picked one of her favorite picture books as our book of the week and I put her in charge of one activity she would do with the boys. She picked Chickens Aren't the Only Ones by Ruth Heller, a lyrical book about eggs that came with beautiful illustrations. She also chose an eggs-periment (teehee) to do with Emeth, a lesson on hypothesis, observation, note taking, and conclusion.

The week before she arrived, I checked out all the books we needed from our local library. We were ready for her arrival.

What I did not know was that we were going to be sick, sick, and sick.

In God's kindness and mercy, he sent friends to provide fresh vegetable from their garden and grocery (Thank you, Vivian and William and Sharon!). And because Esther and I had planned everything in advance, the Lord even supplied the material and a teacher to teach my children.

People regularly ask me why we choose to educate our children at home. More and more, I simply tell them that I do it because I love doing it, and I would feel like I am missing out if I do not do it. Despite the fact that Hans had to remind me this morning to stop feeling like I am drowning (ha!), I really do love teaching them.

Among my favorite things about being my children's educator are the many hours I get to watch the brothers learning to love one another. I love watching Emeth reading to his younger brothers, Yohanan reading to Khesed, Yohanan helping Emeth with math (I know, it's very sweet). I love how they turn pages for the baby when they listen to audio books, how they are learning (and struggling) to celebrate when other people win at board games, how they are learning to say sorry, to forgive, and put one another first.

I get it now, Ma.

This thing we call love. I felt its gravity in my mother's ashen face. I remember the weight of sadness in her voice. That awful wish, I feel a little sick just thinking about it. There are very few things in life that are sweeter than brothers and sisters loving one another.

I love these weirdos to bits.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cacophonic grace

Have you heard the saying "that which does not kill you make you stronger"?

Yeah, I disagree.

Trials do not make me stronger. Trials reveal me. Trials disarm me. Sometimes, trials weaken. Sometimes, they crush. They can even kill. But trials do not make me stronger.

Trials put us on the stand. Bare faced, no mask, nowhere to hide. Trials turn up the volume of our emotions; they amplify the refrain of our souls.

What do we sing in the dark? What songs in the storm?

I had an unpleasant encounter recently. The incident was so petty, so trivial in comparison to the kinds of trials that other people would come upon. But it was enough to throw me off. Enough to reveal the unkindness and selfishness that was mine.

The struggle was something I regularly faced, but I somehow managed to tune it out, like the buzzing of a gnat. I knew I was disobeying the Lord, but I became an expert at avoiding it, masking it, justifying it especially to myself.

The incident brought my sin out into the open. The Ugly I had nurtured and stowed away in the closets of my soul became plain as day. Perhaps it was not obvious to outsiders, but before Hans and the boys, there was no hiding now.

The volume was turned up, and there was no song.

All I could hear was the harsh clamor of discord, blaring, "Mine! Mine! Mine!" I was the noisy gongs; I was the clanging cymbals.

Church bells may come to mind when we think of repentance. The lovely ringing of melodies so sweet and nostalgic, pouring out of the church's tall and ancient steeple. Each note, full and deep, calls the weary and hungry to come home.

My call of repentance sounded slightly different.

There, under the weight of the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals that was mine, the Lord called me to come. The cacophony was neither sweet nor delightful, but it was the sound of grace and mercy. In his perfect love and infinite knowledge, God gives his children pain if pain is the thing that would bring us back to him.

Trials amplify the poverty of our hearts. Trials do not make us stronger, but by God's grace, the Lord uses trials to drive us to our knees before the One who is strong. Here, we cast our eyes on the One who bore the weight of our sins. He bore the weight of the rugged cross.

Soul, sing the Lord's song in the dark, in the storm.
Soul, amplify Christ. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Learning notes: Humility laughs

Things we did

At the end of last week and most of this week, we were sick, sick, and sick. Lesson for the week: how to keep our mouths from complaining and our hearts joyful. I struggled (and I am still struggling) to find a rhythm to our days. The storm of sicknesses wiped out any kind of routine I had tried to establish during the first week of school. Yet again, the educator was the one being educated.

School work was strangely a nice distraction when we were sick. The boys continued with their math and handwriting, albeit rather slowly. For our book of the week, we read Tacky the Penguin and other books in the series by Helen Lester. We learned about adjectives, penguins, and a little bit about Antarctica. I had a lot planned for science, experimenting with ice, making ice cream, and such. But alas, ice and other cold things will have to wait for healthier days.

Things we cherished

Hans is deep in the trenches of writing and editing right now. Once in a while, he would emerge from his study to cheer us on. Last week, Hans taught the boys for a few minutes while I got lunch started. Unlike me, Hans did not shy away from using big words and complicated concepts. The boys were lost somewhere between the phrases "the adjective modifies the noun" and "here are the differences between adjectives and adverbs." Never mind the boys, even I scratched my head a couple of times.

But, here is the thing Emeth and Yohanan loved it.

They basked in their father's attention. They were engaged and responsive. They answered Hans' questions and tried again when they got the wrong answers. They roared in laughter at his examples and had the time of their lives. If someone were to be watching them from a distance (which would be creepy), Hans would have looked like a comedian. No one would guess this was a dad teaching his first-grader and pre-schooler English grammar.

Things we pondered

Watching Hans, I learned that a healthy dose of confusion helps keep my young men humble. Being a little lost can be a good thing; they learned that sometimes things are more complicated than our minds can handle, and that's OK.

Watching the boys, I saw that humility is not self-deprecating or awful. Instead, true humility looked more like laughing faces, bright and eager to learn, so happy to please their father.

That same week, my good friend Wini, all the way in Kuala Lumpur, posted a picture on Facebook. Her husband Tim was teaching her son Matthew how to fix the computer. Matthew is 7.

Tim teaching Matt how to fix the computer. Photo credit: Winifred Heron, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I am so grateful for learning families around the world. And by this I do not mean homeschooling families. I grew up in various public school systems in Malaysia and the United States. But my parents were my primary educators and my three sisters were my closest classmates. I learned to see the world with them and through them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Learning notes: The appendix led us to beautiful places

My good friend Jenni once described parenting as a re-living of our childhood. Another chance to read our favorite picture books, another chance to order chocolate ice-cream (every single time), to play, to hide, to seek, to be found.

Being my children's educator gives me another go at first grade and pre-school. Everyday, the educator gets re-educated, even though I am supposedly on the other side of the desk.

Because this virtual space is an extension of our lives, and because I love reading and regularly benefit from the chronicles of other learning families, I am going to jot down (as often as I am able) a few things we did, a few things we cherished, and a few things we pondered (somewhat) regularly.

Things we did

This year, the bigger boys are able to work on math and handwriting with less supervision. We are using a combination of Handwriting Without Tears, Singapore Math, and Kumon workbooks.

For about an hour or two everyday, we roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty (metaphorically and literally). I am currently trying out a concept I learned from Jenni. The basic idea is that we would read a book in the beginning of each week, and throughout the week, we would re-read it and explore different aspects of that book. This way, we learn to enjoy the book not only for its story, but also as a portal through which we explore different places and subjects.

For example, the first book we read  was Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. Throughout the week, we learned its geography (Paris, France), literary devices (rhymes), artwork (Eiffel Tower), biology (the digestive system), and so on.

Things we cherished

In the story, Madeline had to go to the hospital because of her appendix. So, I thought it would be a good way to have a look at where the appendix is located. I did not expect how much the boys would love it.

For days, I heard the boys saying random things like:

"But mommy! I don't need to go to the bathroom. My rectum is empty!"

As Hanan took bites of his lunch, he would say, "Now, the food is in my mouth. Now, the food is going down my esophagus. Now, the food is going into my small intestine.... (and he continues)"

Or, "Mommy, the bread is pushing my bladder!"

Or, "Look! A human fountain! Water is shooting out of the esophagus!"

"Look! A human fountain!"

And then, there were many, many conversations about the liver, the kidney, and the bladder. "The liver is so kind to give the small intestine its juice!"

Hanan was especially intrigue by the bladder. "Why does the bladder look like a heart? Is the bladder dirty? Hollabout (how about) the kidney?"

We stepped into the rabbit hole via the appendix; it led us to many beautiful places.

Things we pondered  

This week, I thought a lot about my educational method. As it turns out, I teach the way I cook.

The golden rule applies in life as it does in the kitchen as it also does at school: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Cook for others the things you would want to eat. Teach others the way you would want to learn.

Also, I am coming to terms with how horrible I am at following curriculum, just as I am horrible at following recipes.

I would begin with the intention of following a recipe. I would be inspired; I would study the recipe and assemble the ingredients. But somehow, as I begin to throw things in the pot, so to speak, I would often end up improvising and going with my preferences and instincts.

This new concept that Jenni showed me gives me enough room to be spontaneous, but it requires me to think a few days and weeks ahead in order to make the necessary preparation. Thanks, friend.