Thursday, March 5, 2015

Before her King

Mary was always at your feet.

When you came by for a visit and her sister wanted her in the kitchen, she listened to your teaching at your feet. When her brother died and she did not understand why you did not heal him, she wept at your feet. When her brother was raised from the dead and people wanted to kill you because they refused to understand, she poured precious oil on your feet and wiped them with her hair.

On bended knees, this was how she always received you. On good days and hard days, she always came to your feet.

My sister Jean once told me that we are like teabags. We release our flavor, our aroma, our true selves—in hot water. Will I be faithful, kind, and patient when I am under pressure, when I cannot understand, when death is near? What are the words that will come out of my mouth when I am provoked, when I cannot help it, when I am despised?

Will I remain in your love, my Lord? Will I fall at your feet? Will I stay here?

Mary's love for you was so indiscreet, immodest even. She held nothing back. When other people were blind to your beauty and deaf to your voice, she was held captive. You, the Maker of Stars, was in her home. The voice who spoke the universe into place was speaking. So, Mary listened.

She ran to you when you were near. Blinded by tears and confused, she fell at your feet. Here, she was safe; you were her refuge. She did not try to explain her pain or keep herself together or ask you why her brother had to die. She just wept.

Mary's love for you made people squirm in their seats, uncomfortable. Her love seemed so foolish and wasteful. Surely, she was showing too much, pouring out her respectability like that pound of expensive oil. The crown of her head wiped the dust of your feet. Again and again, she abandoned herself and other people's expectations. Her love was not respectable, or useful, or reasonable.

When people despised her, she did not try to defend herself or explained what she was doing. When people criticized her and rebuked her, she remained silent.

She knew you understood.

You saw her, and that was enough. You defended her before the scoffers and their disapproving glaces. You commended her. You wept with her.

My mother on bended knees.

On ordinary days, Mary was probably an excellent helper to Martha; this would explain why Martha could not do without her help. I am guessing she washed the dishes and helped with the clean-up when Jesus and his disciples left.

The difference between Mary and everybody else was not merely differences in their actions or postures. What set Mary apart was her certainty that Jesus was who he claimed to be: The Son of God. Those were no ordinary days. Those were the days when God walked and ate and slept among his people.

Therefore, she came to Jesus on bended knees. Her encounters with Jesus were not meetings between two equals. Mary came to Jesus as a subject before her King, a worshiper before her God.

bend your knees on ordinary days,
bend your knees on hard days,
bend your knees on days when you are not sure.

behold your King,
his feet hanging on a tree.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Psalms: The story of a place between two worlds

I cried in my Hebrew class.

It was my first semester at Trinity, almost nine years ago. Dr. Magary was explaining grammar and syntax in the book of Ruth. He loved every jot and every tittle of God's Word. Every letter, every stroke was precious and full of meaning in his eyes. Not one word was empty.

During that same semester, I was taking another a class on the Psalms. Dr. VanGemeren took us up into the air, and showed us the world of the Psalms. See! The wilderness, the green pastures, the hills. Behold! The trees of the forest, the battlefields, the valley of the shadow of death. Look! That was the willow tree where they hung up their lyres. Here, this is where we hid under the shadow of the Almighty.

These two men offered me cups of cold water, and only then I realized that I had been thirsty my whole life. Some days, my heart would burn and ache just listening to their teachings. I cried in my Hebrew class because in and through his reading of the Word, I heard the voice of my God.

Here are some lessons I learned from them about how to read the Psalms:

1. The Psalms is a story.

It has a beginning and an end. The first two chapters set the stage stage for the rest of the book. Dr. VanGemeren would say that all the themes in all the other 148 chapters are introduced here, in the beginning. The story has an ending. The last five chapters are called the Hallelujah psalms. They are the grand finale to the story.

The book of Psalms contains five books, the same number as the books of the law — the Pentateuch. Each book has its own characteristics, its dominant writers, its dominant themes.
Book I: 1-41
Book II: 42-72
Book III: 73-89
Book IV: 90-106
Book V: 107-150

For example, Book IV begins with the prayer of Moses. The person of Moses evokes the stories of creation, the great Exodus, and forty years of wandering in the wilderness. These are the very themes that dominate Book IV. Each book end with a similar doxology: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen" (Psalm 41:13, the doxology of Book I).

Because the Psalter is a story, the place of every song, every line, every word is meaningful. The 150 psalms are not randomly arranged. Whenever we read and interpret a psalm, it is crucial that we read what precedes it and what comes after it. One psalm is one scene in a bigger story. In order to understand this particular scene, it is helpful to know its context, its location, the questions and concerns of the person uttering this prayer.

So, for example, Psalm 111 and 112 should be read together. They begin with the same words: "Praise the Lord!" Psalm 111 tells us about Yahweh, and Psalm 112 tells us about the blessed person. Right in between these two psalms, we see that the blessed person is bound to Yahweh by "the fear of the Lord" which is the beginning of wisdom (111:10). The fear of the Lord is the meat that brings this sandwich together.

Because the Psalter is a story, the 150 psalms moves forward, and its movement follows certain patterns. From a bird's-eye view, the psalms move from lament to praise, chaos to order, conflict to resolution, shame to glory — orientation, disorientation, reorientation. Sometimes, the movements are small, from one verse to the next, or from one chapter to the next. Other times, the movements can span across a few chapters. The themes flow from one to another much like how the scenery changes on the highway. A mountain might first be at the horizon; it then becomes nearer; and soon, it is behind us.

Therefore, Psalm 23 is comforting because of Psalm 22. "The Lord is my shepherd" is the answer to David's question "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" These two psalms are embedded in a greater body of psalms about kingship, and the shepherd is a symbol of the king in the Old Testament. In Psalm 20, David prayed "O Lord, save the king!" In Psalm 24, David declares, "Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!" The theme changed from an earthly king to the heavenly King.

Photo credit: my sister Catherine

2. The Psalms is a place.

Christians live in a place between two worlds. We left our old lives behind, and we set our feet on a pilgrimage towards the Celestial City. The Psalms is that place, that path, between these two worlds.

David, Moses, Asaph, the Sons of Korah were the people who once walked on this narrow path. They knew the terrains of this wilderness. They showed us that there are two ways: We could either walk towards to City of Life on the Path of Wisdom, or we could turn back to the City of Death on the Path of Folly. Every day, in every decisions, we are talking steps in either direction. We could either fix our eyes on Life or on Death.

The psalmists did not leave us with mere breadcrumbs. No, they carved out mountains with their bare hands. They dug deep wells of never-ending springs. They established ancient rocks that conquered the test of time. They paved the road with their prayers, their tears, their joy, their blood, their strength, their songs. They showed us the path that leads to Zion.

But, they failed. And they died. The path was unfinished.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came and walked along the path of the Psalms. He went into the wilderness. He spoke and the mountains moved. His steps were sure and steadfast; he never looked back. He paved the way to the Father with his tears, his sweat, his blood, all the way to Golgotha where he gave his life and said, "It is finished."

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the Story; he is the Place. In him, we hide.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Come, and do ordinary things

Revival meetings were in vogue among the churches in Malaysia during the 1990s. The charismatic movement swept through the land and there was much talk about prophecies and visions and tongues. My friends attended many of these revival meetings, and I wanted to go as well.

But my parents said no.

My parents felt it was unsafe to send their naive teenage daughter to sit under the teachings of strangers. I obeyed them, though I recall there were some tears. My friends spoke enthusiastically about their mystical experiences, and some even received "words of prophecy" about their futures. I told my parents that I, too, wanted to know God's will for my life. My parents told me to read my Bible.

They were so, so wise.

Twenty years later, the questions that used to trouble me as a teen are no longer so weighty: will I continue my education, where will the money come from, will I marry, will I be a missionary doctor, etc. The Lord faithfully answered. There were some yeses, and they were some nos. But all things worked together for my good.

New questions came, new concerns for the future. My prayers now include questions about our children, our sisters and parents, our friends, our church. The list is long. My parents' words still ring true: Read your Bible.

So, Pa and Ma, I am reading my Bible. And I see that God's guidance came in two ways:

1. God's guidance came to people when they cast themselves at his feet.
God came to people who were seeking after him, blind beggars who called out to him, a man who climbed up the sycamore tree, a barren woman who wept at the temple, a sick woman who touched Jesus' cloak. These people knew they were desperate and in need, so they came to him.

God wants us to come to him. He is constantly calling us to return, repent, and come. He has given us the way, the truth, and the life through Jesus Christ. He has equipped us with prayer, communion, baptism, fellowship, and his Word. In order to received grace, we must come. We must cast ourselves in the way of grace.

2. God's guidance came to people when they were doing their ordinary, everyday duties.
God called people who were doing what they were supposed to be doing, a farmer who was farming, fishermen who were fishing, a shepherd boy who was shepherding. When we faithfully carry out the small duties that are set before us, we are preparing ourselves to know and accept the will of God.

You might be thinking that you are just doing the dishes or your homework, just going to bed early, just waking up when the alarm rings, just going out for a jog, just typing the Power Point presentation for the worship service, just disciplining your children for the sixth time in one hour, just making food for friends who are sick — you are not. These thousands of decisions, thousands of tiny moments are chiseling away at our souls, shaping and teaching us to obey, and to sacrifice.

In words of Amy Carmichael, "A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in little things is a very great thing."

Between writing this post and making a birthday breakfast for Hans, the toilet overflowed. Perfect timing. Because there is no duty more ordinary than toilet duty.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bend your neck, bow your head

Khesed calls sheep "baa-baa." For some reason, I think of baa-baas whenever I hear the words, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

I think of the green pasture in Psalm 23. Jesus takes me and lays me by the still waters. I am his little sheep and he is my shepherd. I would then play all day with other sheep, happy and free of my burdens.

Wrong. Wrong animal.

When Jesus calls us to come and rest, he also says, "Take my yoke upon you."

A yoke. As in that thing farmers attach on their oxen. Not exactly the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of rest.

It has been another Elisabeth Elliot week for me. For two days, I have her sermon about meekness on replay on my desktop. She opened my eyes to see my opposite-of-meek ways. Yesterday, as I was folding laundry, the Holy Spirit performed several open-heart surgeries on me. There was no anesthetic for the pain. With utmost precision and care, the Lord cut into my soul and placed his fingers on the sickest, most vile places of my heart.

Right between those piles of laundry, the Lord broke me.
I needed to be broken. And brokenness was a good place to be.

In order to take the yoke of Christ, I must first bend my neck, and bow my head. I must submit my will to his, and go wherever he leads me. But, this yoke—with its weight and constraints on my shoulder—I do not like it. I want to stretch my neck and look around. I want to evaluate all my options and decide for myself, where I want to go, who I want to be. I want to run and be free.

But running wild, I should know by now, is no freedom at all.

Imagine a frail animal in the wild. In the cold, in the rain, in the ditch. Thirsty, starving, hurting. A prey for fiercer beasts. Lost and alone. It could fall off a cliff, or worse, it could be captured for chains and slaughter.

This yoke doesn't seem so bad now, does it? Jesus calls it "easy" because the yoke is his steadfast love. He bound himself to us because of his faithfulness. All I have to do is bend my neck and bow my head, and receive it with a grateful heart.

In his grace and mercy, God bound his fate with ours. To be under his yoke is to be one with Christ — the One who bent his neck and bowed his head under the weight of the cross. To be under his yoke is to belong to God, to be in God's field, to work God's soil, to bear fruit for God's glory. The yoke is heavy and constraining only when I am fighting and pulling away.

Soul, bend your neck,
Soul, bow your head,
Take his yoke upon you,
this is his steadfast love and faithfulness.
His yoke is easy,
and his burden is light.
Learn from him,
for he is gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest, Oh my soul.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Be more than a mother

My friends have talked about the books of Elisabeth Elliot for years. I do not know why I had not picked one up until now. I chose her biography of Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die. Encountering authors for the first time is much like meeting new friends. In this book, I met not one but two incredible women who were not afraid to die. They embraced their chances to die, to be crucified with Christ, as the door to life.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote in her preface, "We read biographies to get out of ourselves and into another's skin." And getting out of my own skin has proven to be incredibly useful.

During the boys' nap time and between chores, I opened my book and flew to India. There, under some shades in the hot and humid jungle, I sat and watched Amy Carmichael as she taught her dark skinned toddlers to sing. She required even the smallest children to help, "A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in little things is a very great thing." As their hands swept the floor of their bungalow, peeled fruits, and husked rice, their lips sang these words,
Jesus, Savior, dost Thou see
When I'm doing work for Thee?
Common thing, not great and grand,
Carrying stones and earth and sand?

I did common work, you know,
Many, many years ago;
And I don't forget. I see
Everything you do for Me.

Motherhood for Amy Carmichael began one morning when Preena ran up to her as she was sipping her chota (early tea). The little girl climbed into her lap and began to chatter away, "My name is Pearl-eyes, and I want to stay here always, I have come to stay."

Preena ran away from a Hindu temple, where her biological mother offered her as a child-slave to the temple guardians. Amy was convinced that an angel helped her escape, because fleeing the temple would be quite an impossible feat. Crowds from the village and the temple women came to Amy's house to reclaim the child, but Preena would not go with them, and Amy would not force her. Amy later learned stories from this child that "darkened the sunlight," and Preena had the scars to prove her words.

More and more children were brought to Amy. Her home would sometimes be filled with thirty or more babies and children. She had rescued and raised hundreds of children into adulthood by the time she died at age eighty-three. Many stayed with her and helped her. Some were rescued from the temple; others were brought to Amy by pastors and Christians who found babies by roadsides. Since the day Preena arrived at her door, Amy gave her heart and her missionary feet to be bound by her beloved children, "for the sake of Him whose feet once were nailed."

Inside the front cover of Amy's Bible were written these words:
These children are dear to Me.
Be a mother to them, and more than a mother.
Watch over them tenderly, be just and kind.
If thy heart is not large enough to embrace them,
I will enlarge it after a pattern of My own.
If these young children are docile and obedient, bless Me for it;
If they are froward, call upon Me for help;
If they weary thee, I will be thy consolation;
If thou sink under thy burden, I will be thy Reward.

I would return from these trips restored, rested. The toys on the floor and dishes in the sink do not seem so daunting. Even though the window announces that it is still winter here in Chicago, my heart is warmed by the heat of the Indian jungle.

*Pictures taken from the website of the Dohnavur Fellowship, home to thousands of children in South India, continuing the work that Amy Carmichael began in 1901.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Almost indulgent

Mr. Khesed is quite the talker nowadays. I melt a little whenever he sings and hums to himself.

He loves colors, and red in particular. He loves his older brothers and follows them everywhere. He makes his wishes known in one word exclamations. He still calls many things and people by the first letter of their names, but he has learned many of their full names as well (J Jean! J Josh!). Sometimes, he summons things by their color ("Yellow!" for his cup, "Orange!" for carrots). Yesterday, he learned to say, "Boots! Daddy!" That's three syllables all at once. A big deal. He laughed a big laugh and beamed.

His happy place.
My baby turned two last week. I cannot believe how fast the years are flying by. I still remember how he slipped out of me before the nurses and doctor were ready. And prior to "slipping out," he also gave me the most painful pain I had ever known.

My good friend Serene (whom I've known for two decades) quit her office job about a year ago and opened a family day care right at her home. A brave and adventurous soul, she said that her career change has given her the time to be with her children, so much that it felt almost indulgent.

"Indulgent" — a strange word to describe this stage of our lives, when days are filled with jam covered faces and crumbs all over the floor. But "indulgent" rings true. Every moment alive with the ones we love is good and weighty and precious. Every nibble of his dimple, every summon (Mommy-O-mommy-O-mommy!!!), even the tears and things we are less eager to remember.

He likes scarves.

So, my littlest dude, the one who loves scarves and puppets and coloring, don't be in such a hurry to grow up. We miss so much whenever we are in a hurry. Mommy wants to gather you in my arms—all of your limbs all at once—just a little longer.

Here are some of his (mispronounced) words that are just too cute to correct:

Moshare! - lotion

Wawa! - water (as in, I'm thirsty right now)

Gib! - give (as in, take this right now)

Huck! - hug (as in, hug me right now)

Hee! - C (for car, cat, carrot, colors, etc.)

Gee! -guitar

Tracah! - chocolate

Crumb! Berries! - Cranberries (his longest word)

Rest! - raisins

Tato! - potato

O's! - cereal (the shape of Cheerios)

Bun-ton! - Button

Huuhuu! - train

Honey! - What he sometimes call Hanan, and what he yells when he knocks on Daddy's door. He calls the real honey "H".

And puppets.

A few additions that I had forgotten:

Chepap! - Ketchup

Good Norming! - Good morning!

Mas-meo! - Marshmallow

Ba-ba! - Sheep

Ornts! - Ornaments

Lub ewe - I love you (one of the only phrases he does not shout)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Because I have you

I am turning into a Chinese auntie. Who am I fooling? I am a Chinese auntie. Whenever guests arrive at our home, I have this irrepressible urge to feed them. "Have you had breakfast/lunch/dinner? Oh, you've eaten! Well, here is more food!"

Sometimes, friends who come through our door are just hungry. Sometimes, they come tired and heavy laden, hungry with needs that we cannot possibly fill. So, the least we can do is to fill their stomachs. As an added bonus, I love cooking and watching people eat my food. Don't worry, when you come over, I promise not to stare at you (too much).

I have been thinking about the story of Mary and Martha, and I am perplexed. Once upon a time in a land before children, I assumed that I understood the story. I (wrongly) thought that I was more like Mary (ha!). Martha was running around, busy cooking and cleaning after everyone, while Mary worshiped. She sat and listened at Jesus' feet. Silly Martha, Mary clearly chose the better option.

Now that I am a wife and mother of three rambunctious boys, cooking and cleaning — these are my acts of worship. Keeping people from starving and stinking is my act of obedience. Worship and work are not opposites; they are not mutually exclusive. And on better days, I would even say that working and serving others brings me peace beyond my own understanding.

So, what then is the purpose of this story?

Here are two ways where I went wrong: First, Jesus was speaking to Martha. In order to understand, I need to step down from my self-righteous throne, and hear Jesus' words as a Martha. Second, I was focused on what the two women were doing (sitting vs. working), but Jesus was looking at their hearts.

Jesus is always looking at our hearts.

I am in a predicament. The Teacher is at my house. There is so much to do! What would be a fitting meal? What could I possibly offer the one who fed 5,000 men (not including women and children) with a child's lunch, calmed a storm, and raised people from the dead? I want him to be pleased with me, to enjoy his stay, to know that I believe.

What should I serve? Bread, definitely. Would he prefer fish or meat? Meat, probably. In that case, I need to run to the market. And we need more wine, just in case. But I need to heat up the oven. And...

Suddenly, his voice speaks into the chaos of my heart, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

I see, Lord.
I see now who Mary sees.
I was troubled and anxious,
I wanted to win you — to me, to love me.
But I already have you.
You are here, in my house.
I do not need to work to get your attention, your pleasure.
I can work because I have you.

You are the one necessary person.
You are the one person I need.
And you are here.
You will not be taken away from me.
I thought I could feed you,
but you came to feed me.