Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Be unafraid of nothingness

Chinese grocery stores are nostalgic places for me. A whiff of fishy odor greets me at the door. I am suddenly transported to a different time and country. I am a little girl again, walking behind my mother at the marketplace. Only I am the mother now, and three little boys walk behind me.

Months ago, my youngest sister was visiting and I decided that she would be my perfect excuse to splurge — on beef shanks and tendons. As I walked up to the checkout counter, I bowed slightly to the cashier. That day, I was given a brand new appreciation for Chinese aunties, and their curiosity.

"Why are you on food stamps?" She asked me.

No cashier had ever asked me this. Perhaps she wondered why someone "in poverty" or "on welfare" would choose to have three kids. Perhaps not many Chinese people use food stamps. For whatever reason, this stranger was curious and comfortable enough to ask why I was poor.

"My husband is a student," I answered.

"Oh, where is he studying?"


"I know Trinity! The seminary. What was he doing before?"

"He was a lawyer," I responded. Hans was a patent attorney. I was twenty-one when I met him, I did not even know what a patent was.

"What?! A lawyer? For how long?" She shook her head in disbelief.

"Thirteen years," I answered.

She turned to her friend who was stacking groceries, and repeated our conversation to her. Now there were two aunties staring and shaking they heads at me.

"But he will not make money," said the first auntie. "He will make some money," said the second auntie, trying to comfort me. "Nothing compared to when he was a lawyer," assured the first auntie.

"The Lord will provide," I said, amused by this conversation at the checkout counter.

Abel brought his firstborn lamb before Yahweh. He laid it on the altar, slitted its throat, and burned it. The offering, then, was accepted.

What is left of his beloved lamb?
But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
This baffling sense of loss?
I did not think about Hans' sacrifices very often, the life he had before we were married, until a stranger asked me why we were poor. It has been nearly ten years since he resigned from his law firm. Nine years of learning and failures. Nine years of labor. Yet, we have gained nothing—that can be measured. It struck me, for the very first time, how strange our lives must seem to strangers.

By his mercies, God met us at the altar of our strange ashes. Our Savior spoke into our nothingness.
Son, was the anguish of my stripping less upon the torturing cross?
Was I not brought into the dust of death,
A worm, and no man I;
Yea, turned to ashes by the vehement breath of fire, on Calvary?
O son beloved, this is thy heart's desire:
This, and no other thing
Follows the fall of the Consuming Fire
On the burnt offering.
Go on and taste the joy set high, afar, —
No joy like that to thee.
See how it lights the way like some great star.
Come now, and follow me.
The Lord accepted this sacrifice. Christ, the Lamb of God, laid down his life for our sins. This absurd and glorious exchange, that the Lamb would take our shame and guilt and evil and sickness and death upon himself—in order that we might meet God at the altar.

Therefore, by the mercies of God, we ask that the Lord would make us his living sacrifices. Jim Elliot once prayed, "Make me Thy Fuel, Flame of God" (Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, 18).

Fall on us, Consuming Fire.
Make us your fuel, Flame of God.
Help us to be unafraid of nothingness.
Turn us into strange ashes — for your glory.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A divine and supernatural chemistry

My dear friend,

Hearing from you brings me great joy. In your letter, you asked, is it wrong to desire "chemistry" in a potential marriage partner? Shouldn't "important matters" be "enough"? (quotation marks are mine) I have loved thinking through these questions with you.

Let us enter by a side door.

Peter (through Mark), Matthew, and John all recorded Mary's anointing of Jesus in their gospels. This meal at Bethany was one of the last meals they would share with Jesus before he died; their memories of it were vivid. They were among friends, those who had witnessed Jesus' power and heard his teachings. Lazarus was there; he was dead but was now alive. Simon hosted the party; he used to be a leper.

But Mary was the focus of their story.

Peter and Matthew recalled the moment Mary broke the jar and poured pure nard on Jesus' head. John remembered how she poured the rest of the perfume onto Jesus' feet, how she used her hair to wipe the dirt away. He could still smell the fragrance of pure nard filling the house.

All three apostles recalled how Mary offended them. "What a waste!" they cried, "the money should be given to the poor." If only they had known the blood that Jesus was about to pour out for their sins. If only they had known the body that he was about to break for theirs.

Jesus defended Mary. He called her offering "a beautiful thing."

"She has done a beautiful thing to me," he said. He did not call it "a good thing" or "the right thing," though Mary's act possessed both goodness and truth. It was good because she sacrificed for her Lord; it was right because Jesus was worthy of her worship. But why call her offering beautiful?

Back to your questions, is it wrong to desire "chemistry" in a potential marriage partner? Shouldn't "important matters" be "enough"?

When we speak of "important matters" in a marriage partner, we often think about goodness and truth. Is this person kind, patient, hardworking, faithful, truthful, and teachable? The list can get quite long. Beauty can seem less useful than goodness and truth. "Chemistry" or the attraction to beauty (which is in the eye of the beholder) can seem rather shallow. So, is it wrong to desire beauty? Shouldn't goodness and truth be enough?

My short answers: No, it is not wrong to desire beauty; and no, goodness and truth is not enough.

Without beauty, goodness loses its attractiveness and the self-evidence of why we must carry it out. Why be good when we can be evil? Without beauty, truth loses its persuasiveness; logical conclusions are no longer conclusive. Without beauty, excellency and truth would not captivate or compel the soul. So, no, it is not wrong to desire beauty. In fact, we need beauty. Beauty is essentially for understanding goodness and truth.

Chemistry, as we call it, is the attraction we feel towards beauty, the ability to see beauty in someone or something. When there is chemistry, we feel pleasure and delight (fireworks and weakness in the knees are nice too). Chemistry is real; it is not imagined. Not only is chemistry precious in a marriage, but it is also precious in our worship of God.

Jonathan Edwards called the "chemistry" of delighting in God — "the spiritual light." The spiritual light, according to Edwards, was a gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he called it "a divine and supernatural light."  This light was “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them.” A person who truly worshiped God did not merely have a rational belief of the divine excellency, but had a sense of the gloriousness and loveliness of God in her heart. She not only had the opinion or the knowledge that the honey was sweet, but she tasted the sweetness of the honey.

Therefore, in order to glorify God and enjoy him forever, we need a divine and supernatural chemistry. We must have a sense of his beauty, his glory, the loveliness of his holiness and grace. We must taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).

True beauty reflects God's beauty. Mary's love for Jesus was beautiful because hers was a love that reflected the love of God. His was a twelve-baskets-of-leftovers kind of love. Everyday at every moment, God pours out his beauty and pleasure and delight on his creation. Trillions of intricate snowflakes fall from the sky only to melt. Fields of wild flowers bloom only to wither. Forests of leafs turned into the colors of the sunset—while they are dying. God's love is the excessive, extravagant, wasteful kind of love. And Mary's love for Jesus was a little bit like that. And Jesus called her love "a beautiful thing."

Desiring chemistry in a future spouse is not a bad thing. But we must earnestly pray for a divine and spiritual light — chemistry that is governed and given by the Holy Spirit, chemistry that helps us see beauty that reflects the excellency and truth of God. We must cast ourselves at his feet and seek first, adore first, the beauty of our Savior's face.

Godly chemistry is a gift. After nine years of marriage, I still ask the Lord that I might love my husband more and more truly (fireworks and weakness in the knees are nice too). After twenty years of seeing Christ, I still ask the Spirit that he would give me a greater delight and affection for Himself.

Make no mistake, however, chemistry can be deadly and demonic. There is such a thing as an improper, sinful desire for beauty (or counterfeits of beauty). The forbidden fruit was a delight to Eve's eyes. Eve's chemistry for that fruit—killed her. When she desired, took, and tasted something other than God, she died.

So, dear friend, make no mistake.

Lastly, allow me to leave you with Edwards' tribute to the most beautiful lady in his eyes. Sarah Pierpont was a pastor's daughter in New Haven. She was seven years younger than him. When they first met, Sarah was likely too young for Jonathan to view romantically. But here was what he wrote of her:

They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on him—that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight forever. Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her actions; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after those seasons in which this great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, and to wander in the fields and on the mountains, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.
Douglas Sweeney, Hans' professor, summarized their chemistry so well: Jonathan and Sarah "were kindred spirits. Jonathan loved Sarah's beauty, but attributed her attractiveness to the fullness of God in her soul. To call theirs love at first sight would be to mislead most modern readers. These two fell in love with the image and glory of God they saw in each other" (Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, 61).

Forever yours,
Your sister

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Red leafs must break

Our lives are held together by a string of deaths and births.

We lose things; we gain things. We say hello; we say goodbye. Hope is born; hope takes flight; hope dies. Red leafs tell us about death every autumn; green leafs tell us about life every spring.
The seed  must break in order to let go the shoot,
the leafbud must break to let go the leaf,
the flowerbud break to let go the flower,
the petals drop off to let the fruit form.
- Elisabeth Elliot, A Path Through Suffering
So, in breaking, the purpose of each is fulfilled. By losing and gaining, in coming and fading, we live out the ebb and flow of this shore we call time.

Life and pain often comes hand in hand, from our very first breath. Newborn babies cry because they are forced to leave the warmth and comfort of their mothers' womb. At our births, we felt the first cold that cut our skin, the first light that pierced our eyes. We felt the pain of hunger and needles and being alone.

But these were small in comparison to the pain that our mothers bore for our sake. We are alive because of our mothers' pain; their bodies were broken that we might live. Water was spilled, blood was shed. In their worst hour of pain, we were crowned—with the gift of life's first breath.

April 1 marks one of the more memorable births and deaths in my short existence.

Even as I am typing this, I hear the voices of doctors and nurses and Hans telling me to breathe. Breathe! Take another breath, now push! Now breathe. I thought I was pushing Emeth out. But we gained much more than a baby boy that day. And we lost much more than blood and water and sleep.

Seven years ago, Emeth was born at 9:41 a.m. Seven years ago, Hans and I died, again. I became a mother; Hans became a father. Just as we left our former selves behind at the altar where we were wedded, we left other parts of me, of him, of us—in that hospital room where Emeth was born. We did not know it at the time, but we would never be the same again. We were broken for the sake of another.

So, today, I give thanks for our brokenness, for the brokenness that is the very fount of life. Red leafs must break in the fall for new leafs to grow in the spring.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Waiting for the end

Last week, we welcomed spring with open arms, thrilled to see the grass again. I rejoiced over that warm gray hue on the lake. The ducks seemed to be laughing as they swam between melting chunks of ice. Even the weeping willows looked cheerful against the deep blue sky.

But, this week.
Snow, again.

Winter is bidding farewell, with passion. The hills and roofs and cars were clad  in white, again. Today, the sky is heavy with gloom.

Spring snow

The world grieved for the death of a stranger this week.

Kara Tippetts (1976-2015) was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36. For me, 36 is only three years away. She had four young children. She battled against the cancer in her body for three years, but she called it her "fight for a tender heart."
I feel like I am a little girl at a party, whose dad is asking her to leave early, and I'm throwing a fit. I am not afraid of dying, I just don't want to go.
Most of us only met Kara through our electronic screens. Yet, she compelled us to walk with her through her kindness and beauty. She wrote on her blog last December,
My little body has grown tired of battle and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live.
Kara died last Sunday. She lived and loved and died so well. Her life made me think about how I would want to die. She left us with her book, and her call for us to die to ourselves and follow Christ, "When you come to the end of yourself, that’s when something else can begin.”

Dying seeds

So, I hold Kara in my thoughts as I am waiting for the end of this winter and the beginning of spring.

If I would listen, the fields are teaching me a lesson about acceptance. They received the snow in quietness and trust. With open hands, they rest in the goodness of their Creator. The soil and plants are teaching me a lesson about patience. The dirt is vibrating, the trees are humming, the branches are pregnant. Soon, they will burst into life and blossoms and fruit. But for now, they are content to grow in secret places.

Just because we cannot see what is happening, does not mean nothing is happening. Growth often happens in dark and hidden places.

Soul, wait not for spring,
Wait, instead,
for the Lord of the Eternal Spring,
the Lord of Life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

These Strange Ashes

Elisabeth Elliot continues to be a faithful companion. Her book, These Strange Ashes, is a collection of stories from her year as a jungle missionary in Ecuador, before she married Jim Elliot. For the first time in these past few months, I saw that my heroine was indeed made of flesh, bones, and blood.

For many years, Elisabeth Elliot had been preparing herself for the work of translating the Bible into a yet-to-be-written language. But much of her book was a confession about how distracted she was from the work she set out to do. Should she boil her milk and butter, how was she to keep her stove lighted, why it was such a trial to transport and boil the water from the river infested with human excrement, and how she made peace with wrinkled clothes.

There were points in the story when I had to put down the book, walk to my kitchen, and appreciate what she called "miracles of ingenuity"—the faucets and drains and my kitchen sink.

"The familiar became the stuff of dreams," she wrote, "and the stuff of former dream—the jungle, Indians, thatched roofs, campfires, a strange  unwritten tongue—became the familiar." Going to a grocery store became to her "almost a dream of paradise." Scotch tape, nail files, pots, vegetable parers, and notebooks became precious things, but they were always getting broken or rusty or mildewed.

Life was very stale, she wrote, and the days dragged by. But, when life was eventful, there was sure to be landslides, thefts, getting lost in the jungle, sickness, and deaths. I do not know which I would prefer.

And then, there were her losses. She quoted Amy Carmichael,
But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
This baffling sense of loss?
Son, was the anguish of my stripping less
Upon the torturing cross?
I stumbled across these words that did much good for my soul, though I do not yet understand them fully.
This grief, this sorrow, this total loss that empties my hands and breaks my heart, I may, if I will, accept, and by accepting it, I find in my hands something to offer. And so I give it back to Him, who in mysterious exchange give Himself to me.
Hers are among the strangest books I have read, and loved. There was no conclusion, no triumphant ending. I was left wondering why she suffered so, after she had poured out so much. And the losses she recorded in this book were not even the worst of her pain. After five years of waiting for the man she loved, Jim Elliot would die in another jungle just two years after they were married.

Loss after loss after loss.
Faith, prayer, and obedience are our requirements. We are not offered in exchange immunity and exemption from the world's woes. What we are offered has to do with another world altogether.

My miracles of ingenuity.

She ended her book this way:
A story is told of Jesus and His disciples walking one day along a stony road. Jesus asked each of them to choose a stone to carry for Him. John, it is said, chose a large one while Peter chose the smallest. Jesus led them then to the top of the mountain and commanded that the stones be made bread. Each disciple, by this time tired and hungry, was allowed to eat the bread he held in his band, but of course Peter's was not sufficient to satisfy his hunger. John gave him some of his.
Some time later Jesus again asked the disciples to pick up a stone to carry. This time Peter chose the largest of all. Taking them to a river, Jesus told them to cast the stones into the water. They did so, but looked at one another in bewilderment.
"For whom," asked Jesus, "did you carry the stone?"

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.