Friday, August 8, 2014

Behind the closet doors of my soul

After serving on the music teams of youth groups and churches for more than a decade, I still struggle with pride, and I still struggle with the desire for people to think well of me.

When I was leading as a teen, I used to watch my friends' facial expressions to see how well I was doing. Were they singing? Or were they distracted? When I married Hans, I would watch my husband's facial expressions. What was he thinking about? Did he not agree with the theology of this song? Should I have chosen a different song?


Our pastor preached a sermon on 1 Peter 4:10 a few Sundays ago: "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace." Pastor Josh exhorted the congregation to serve the Lord and serve one another—excellently. Self-centered excellence, in the words of our pastor, is the American dream. Family-centered excellence is the Asian dream. As I was listening to his evaluation, I realized that I was both self-centered and family-centered.


The Church, according to Pastor Josh, is to strive towards Godly excellence, selfless excellence. 

We strive for excellence because we worship the one who is Most Excellent. Our talents and abilities, no matter how awesome, are nothing compared to the worthiness and splendor of our Lord. We are worshiping the King of kings and Lord of lords. The mindfulness and the hours we pour into the details of Sunday worship are all part of the gift we bring before him. Therefore, we delight in practicing, preparing, and praying to God for help, that we would know him and make him known.

Godly excellence, according to Pastor Josh, is done in God's way and for his name sake. While worldly success is measured by the number of thumbs-up, followers, and viral links, godly excellence cannot be measured — at least not by human means. The Lord is looking at our hearts. Are we faithful even in the little things? Do we serve because of love? Do we delight in fearing the Lord? 

We must pursue excellence not only when and where people can see us. Godly excellence, in fact, shines the brightest off the stage, from moment to moment, behind the closet doors of our souls, where the only person who sees us, sees everything about us.

Godly excellence is selfless. Selfless excellence points to Christ. To know Christ and make him known is the goal of an excellent worship team. We strive for excellence for this purpose: that the congregation would together delight in and meditate on the Word of God.

Mistakes can be distracting; sloppiness attract attention to ourselves. Therefore, during our worship services, we strive to minimize distractions. We get every Powerpoint slide to come up when it is supposed to. When reading Scripture, we practice saying the names in our passages; we make the passage a part of ourselves by reading it over and over and over again during the week. We think about our attire and choose outfits that would communicate reverence for the Lord. We pick truthful songs suitable for congregational singing, and sing them in keys that do not make us squeak. We balance the volumes on the sound system, and we make sure all the microphones are working and the stands are at their right heights.

We carry out the little things faithfully, and with love.

On this side of eternity, I will continue to struggle against pride, and against the desire for others to think well of me. I will struggle to serve selflessly and excellently. I will struggle to serve in faithfulness and love. The songs that I sing and sentences that I string will be flawed.


I will find comfort in the words of John Owen: killing sin is the work of the living. The very act of struggling is a sign that I am alive. I am alive in Christ. Apart from him, I would be dead. And dead people do not struggle.

Therefore, I will fight against my inclinations to pride, laziness, and disobedience. I will fight against my unloving, self-seeking, people-fearing tendencies. I will struggle against distracting thoughts on Sunday mornings, but mostly, I must struggle kneeling before the One who sees me, behind the closet doors of my soul.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Repenting of my repentance

I am a mom of three boys. I know this to be true: Clothes get dirty. We are hopelessly attracted to dirt and puddles, chocolate and jam. We spill milk; we get bloody noses. From morning to night, I take off, I wash, I put on. Repeat. The laundry basket is never empty.

The fullness of the laundry basket reminds me of the fullness of grace (and how I should not procrastinate). The mundane task of changing and washing points me to the ceaseless and necessary work of repentance.

Christ will one day clothe his Bride with fine linen, bright and pure (Revelation 19:8). On this side of eternity, however, my linen is never white. Even my tiniest sacrifices, moments of selflessness, are drenched with selfish and prideful thoughts. In the words of the Puritans, “my best prayers are stained with sin; my penitential tears are so much impurity… I need to repent of my repentance; I need my tears to be washed” (The Valley of Vision, 136-137).

When I lack the words to pray, I lean heavily on the words of men and women who walked before me. I return to this prayer again and again. Written during a screen-less time, the prayers of the Puritans are steeped in word pictures. This one is soaked in the imagery of rags and robes, reminding me that Christ is my best robe, my perfect covering.

O God of Grace,
You have imputed my sin to my substitute,
and have imputed his righteousness to my soul,
clothing me with a bridegroom's robe,
decking me with jewels of holiness.

But in my Christian walk I am still in rags;
my best prayers are stained with sin;
my penitential tears are so much impurity;
my confessions of wrong are so many aggravations of sin;
my receiving the Spirit is tinctured with selfishness.

I need to repent of my repentance;
I need my tears to be washed;
I have no robe to bring to cover my sins,
no loom to weave my own righteousness;
I am always standing clothed in filthy garments,
and by grace am always receiving change of raiment,
for you always justify the ungodly;
I am always going into the far country,
and always returning home as a prodigal,
always saying, "Father, forgive me,"
and you are always bringing forth the best robe.

Every morning let me wear it,
every evening return in it,
go out to the day's work in it,
be married in it,
be wound in death in it,
stand before the great white throne in it,
enter heaven in it shining as the sun.
Grant me never to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
the exceeding righteousness of salvation,
the exceeding glory of Christ,
the exceeding beauty of holiness,
the exceeding wonder of grace.

The Valley of Vision, 136-137.

Friday, June 13, 2014

He came for me

I sing the praises of my father's love for our mother loud and often. But today, on the week of his birthday and Father's Day, my memory brings me back to the car he drove when we were growing up. A beloved and unassuming car that perfectly crammed four laughing teenage girls in the backseat.

Photo credit: Catherine Yong

When we were little, my father made a commitment to be our family's driver. I say that he made a commitment because it required of him a great sacrifice. He chose to drive all four of his daughters, with different schedules, to different schools — while working a full-time job. He drove us to every piano lesson, every sport event, our friends' houses, choir practices, the list went on and on. Wherever I went, whatever I was doing, I could count on my father's car to appear on the horizon, coming for me.

Every morning, before he started the engine, he would pray for each of us. With our hearts heavy with exams, bullies, and the fear that we are not beautiful enough, we started the day by praying. When we arrived at school, we would exchange "I love yous" and then he would say good bye. His was the last face I saw before I stepped out into the wild, wild world. His was the first face that welcomed me as I stepped back into the familiar.

Even now, I remember the relief that would wash over me as I climbed in. The car was my resting place. So glad to be out of the scorching heat. So happy to see my father at last. So happy that the wait was over. Some days, he would even bring me lunch boxes filled with my favorite things, with chili sauce on the side.

I was not always grateful. Sometimes, I stepped into the car with my mouth spewing ugly words of complaints. Like everything else in my childhood, I often took my father for granted. Even then, my father responded with kindness and patience. Sometimes, he would even apologize for the delay. The man had a job! I had no idea how much he sacrificed for me. He never gave up. Even when each of us took on new activities, he continued to serve us in this way, year after year.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, I told him that I was old enough to take the bus. My friends did it. I assured him that this would help ease his load. He halfheartedly agreed, but when it came time for me to take the bus, he would always insist that he wanted to drive me instead.

I think he had bus-phobia. And I think it was because of me.

I was left behind by the school bus driver when I was in first grade. At the time, we were living in a remote village where my father was a pastor. My school was in the city, about 30 miles away. A local bus driver offered my parents her service (school buses were private businesses in Malaysia). Every morning, she picked me up before 6 a.m. and brought me home after 12 p.m.

One afternoon, I waited for hours. I was with my classmate from the same village. Both of us were left behind. I remember the silence of school yard. There was no one else in sight. Being impatient, I convinced my friend that we should surprise our parents by walking home.

She hesitated (for good reasons), but she finally came with me as she did not want to be left alone. We stopped at every bus stop. When we finished our last drop of water, I thought of selling my hair clip (it was very shiny) and use the money to buy some water. She cried and cried despite my attempts to cheer her up. I, on the other hand, thought this was all very exciting and could not wait to surprise my parents (not sure what this says about me).

Meanwhile, our parents were on panic mode (now that I have children of my own, I can only imagine their state). They called the bus lady only to be informed that she did not see us, so she left. Our parents searched for hours. First the school, and then up and down the route between home and school. Hours later, the two fathers continued their search, while the mothers waited at the house of a family friend.

I still remember the first sight of my father's car appearing on the horizon, coming for me. I remember the relief that washed over me to see his face. So glad to be out of the scorching sun. So happy to be found (though slightly disappointed that I didn't get to surprise them at home). He brought us to our weeping mothers, who eagerly fed us, as we had nothing to eat since the morning.

Perhaps this was the start of my father's bus-phobia? Or, perhaps he just loved us a lot, and driving was his way of spending time with us.

I know now, it wasn't the air conditioner, or the food, or the cushions. The car was not my resting place, my father was. My father who came for me, who still comes for me.

My father was my safe place. My mother was my safe place. My sisters were my safe place. With them, I could laugh. In that car, perfectly crammed, and together, we sang the praises of our Father's love for us.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Where messes and memories abound

We celebrated the last day of school under the sea, at the aquarium.

Emeth completed Kindergarten. Yohanan completed Pre-K3, a.k.a. a certificate in Following His Big Brother Around. And I completed my first year as a Kindergarten and Pre-school teacher, a career I never imagined for myself.

I am tucking away a few thoughts on homeschooling for years to come, years when they will all be taller than me, years when cereal will actually stay in their bowls.

1. Homeschooling was much like hosting a year-long dinner party — for people who needed a lot of help getting food into their mouths (literally and figuratively). Like all great dinner parties, messes and memories abound. My children were my guests, and a whole new world was on our menu. Homeschooling, however, was no magic carpet ride. It was my job to tell them "No" and where to go.

2. We learned a rhythm that worked for us (i.e. that kept me somewhat sane). School is simplified into two routines. I called them high tide and low tide. During high tide hours, we sat at the table and practiced math, spelling, painting, and penmanship. Basically, things that required maximum supervision. During low tide hours, the boys found their own comfortable corners; they read, drew, or worked on their various projects — things that required minimal help from me. A normal day would have some combination of the two routines. As a friend wisely concluded, it can't be high tide all the time or we would all drown. True words.

3. I had a lot to learn from parents who went before me — mommy polar bears, mommy belugas, mommy elephants, human parents, too. Keep the children close. Remember they learn best by imitating. Resist the urge to help too much. Sometimes, I walked a step or two in front of them. Sometimes, I stood behind them. Other times, I pushed — hard.

4. I learned to aim for the heart. Sure, I cheer like a crazy woman when their arrive at certain milestones, but reading and writing and counting are not our ultimate goals. They are means and methods to get to their hearts. I want my children to love people, to love serving others, to be curious, to work hard and work cheerfully, to overcome their fears, to know they are not perfect, to fail graciously, to be brave and try again.

5. I learned to study my children, how they played, how they learned. When choosing curricula, toys, books, or any other tool, I evaluated the product's potential by thinking of my child's skills, interests, and habits. Instead of thinking about what the tool can do, I learned to think about what my child can do with the tool. Reviews and good quality products certainly helped, but every child played and learned so differently. So, they benefited from the tools differently (or not at all).

6. I learned to be ruthless when it came to chopping off unfruitful activities and things. We made space and time for only things we loved. Having a small home forced us to donate books and toys regularly. Every month, the boys chose a few books and toys to give away. If a book was not cultivating good vocabulary, if a story was ugly or untruthful, we talked about it and moved onto other books. If the curriculum was too advanced, we put it aside.

 7. It has been a year of learning and accepting our limitations, while loving our freedom. We are homeschooling in a two-bedroom apartment. Because we do school and eat meals at the same table, you can imagine the boys' artwork, markers, crayons, pencils, spoons, bowls, all mingling in the most unattractive ways on my dining table. And then, there are other limitations, such as my patience, and my ability to fold the laundry.

On the other hand, we loved our freedom. The brothers were free to spend all of their waking hours together. We were free to spend our mornings at libraries, parks, friends' homes, and grocery stores. We were free to drop unsuitable curricula and pick up new ones. We were free to explore whatever that fascinated us.

It has been a good year-long dinner party. Summer, we welcome you with open arms. Hakuna matata, right? Wait, what?! I still have to do laundry in the summer?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Happy at last

One of our boys has a habit of saying, "My hand is empty! I have nothing!" right after he gives his toys away. This morning, I was so proud of him when he willingly shared his toy with his brother. But sure enough, exclamations of emptiness and nothingness immediately followed.

Right then, Hans picked him up, held him tight, and he said, "You don't have nothing. You have daddy."

The boy laid his head on daddy's shoulder, happy at last.

Giving daddy a piggyback ride.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

- Toplady, Rock of Ages, 1830. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Arise, my soul, arise

What is your calling in life?

What do people mean when they say they are called to be a pastor, or to do urban ministry, or to be a missionary? Is it possible to not be called to serve poor people or battered women or prisoners, or not be called to be a mother or a father, or not be called to be a counselor, or a worship leader, or an usher?

What is your calling? Are you called?

I may not know you very well. In fact, I may not know you at all. But I do know that you are called.

A little over eight years ago, a small Chinese church in the suburbs of Chicago called Hans to be their English minister. With our wedding approaching, he asked the church for a little more time. He wanted me to visit the church after the wedding and we would make the decision together. During our honeymoon and the few weeks after, we had this big decision to make. We knew we would be serving somewhere, but was this the right church?

Every fiber of my being screamed — No.

That is, until I met them. We visited the church the first Sunday we were in Chicago. Seven young people. Bright faced, cheerful, so lovely. Suddenly, it wasn't just any random church anymore. These were people, who needed help. Even then, I was not quite convinced that this was our "calling" and would much rather go back to planning my own life.

But my husband was certain that we should stay. So, we did. And I am so grateful for his decision. I cannot overstate how glad I am that the Lord called us to this church.

Being called has little to do with my feelings or desires. Being called has little to do with my talents or abilities. Being called has everything to do with the One who is doing the calling. Being called has everything to do with who is King over me, whom I am living for.

We cannot predict our future. We can, however, take on whatever task set before us by faith, with joy, making a habit of rising to the occasion — doing whatever the trial demands of us. Or, in the words that the Lord commanded Joshua, be strong and very courageous.

This is wartime. Eternal rest and peace is coming, I am certain of this. But today, we are at war.

We were once rebels. We were once slaves of another kingdom. But the King called us, by name, to be his own. The King's Son died in our place, and the Father adopted us, former rebels, into his family. We are now his sons and daughters.

In this household, the King's children do not sit around during wartime. The King's children do not chase after their own comfort, or their own success, or more money for their own glory. This would be absurd.

No, the King's children would rise, and fight.

In the King's house, it is all hands on deck, all the time, until his kingdom come and his will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Some are at the frontline, some are in the trenches. Some are commanding officers, some are cooks. Some care for the sick and wounded, some sharpen arrows (my task at the moment). The question is not "what is my calling?" The question should be, whom am I serving? Am I building my own kingdom, or am I serving the King?

I may not know you, but I know that you are called.

The King calls you to be his child.

This one calling would lead to millions of smaller callings. This one decision would lead to millions of smaller decisions. The narrowness of this calling is the narrowness of a birth canal. There is an entire universe waiting on the other side.

I never felt particularly "called" to be a minister's wife. Yet, there we were. I never felt particularly "called" to be a mother. Yet, here I am. I never felt particularly "called" to host a mother duck on our balcony (of all the places she could have chosen!). Yet, here I am, taking pictures of her eggs like I would my own babies. Because my calling has little to do with me — my feelings, or abilities, or desire. My calling has everything to do with the One who is calling me — to his purpose and his grace.

But I must listen.

I must hear the King's voice and hide his Word in my heart.

I may not know your smaller callings. I may not know the hundreds of decisions you need to make in the coming days and years. But I do know that if we stay near to our Father, if we look to him from moment to moment, he will use our every decision, every moment for his grace-filled purposes.

I learned today about a man in Liberia named Johnny. He was born a cripple. His mother wept over him because in that society, his prospects were utterly hopeless. Just another roadside beggar. But Johnny had a friend. This friend carried Johnny on his back and brought him to church. There, the King called Johnny out of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Shortly after his conversion, Johnny was so compelled to serve his mother that he would drag himself around the village with his able arms, collecting dirty dishes and washing them. The Lord would later raise this broken body to bring the Gospel to the unreached places of Liberia. There, Johnny served the Gola tribe as their youth pastor. Children would flock around Johnny's wheelchair wherever he went, and he called them to believe in Jesus.

Johnny heard his King calling, and he rose.

Arise, Soul, arise.

(Johnny's story begin at 09:22, but the entire video is worth watching)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Freezing beautiful

My friend Laura recently posted on her Facebook status that she has: 
been laboring to help her 7 year old understand how hard it would be to show up in the middle of the year in a new classroom to find yourself one of the only people of color and far, far behind academically. A little warmth and kindness can go a long way, my child. Can you overcome your shyness, be brave, and reach out? You will not regret it, sweetheart.
Her words came as a gentle knocking on the door of my childhood that I prefer to be kept locked.

I was the only person of color in my fourth-grade class in Dubuque, Iowa. I was the new girl with black hair and a strange nose. The girl with the mismatched clothes of awkward proportions and clashing colors, courtesy of people's donations. I spoke no English, and I had just learned that I had an English name. I-R-E-something-something.

My sisters and I moved across cultures and continents quite a bit when we were growing up. I was on my first international flight when I was 21 days old. My mother packed all our belongings — right after she gave birth — and we flew to Indonesia. How she managed this, I will never know. By the time I turned 4 years old, we had lived in 4 different countries.

We met many friendly people, but we had very few friends. Along with all the perks of international living came a fair dose of loneliness, and being teased and bullied.

Sticks and stones might break my bones, but unkind words always hurt me. I stood there, surrounded by people yet feeling completely alone, and confused. My face hot and tingly, embarrassed. Was this really happening? Was I imagining all of this?

The worst part about being teased and bullied was the silence of the on-lookers. They watched, yet they did nothing. They said nothing.

So, when I read that my thoughtful friend was teaching her shy daughter to befriend the new student, my heart swelled with gratitude and hope. Yes, we must teach our children that teasing and bullying is unkind. This is the easy, obvious part. But we cannot stop here.

I hope and pray that my children would learn to overcome their own self-consciousness, to see beyond their fears, and reach out to others. To have the courage to speak to and speak up for those who have no friends. We tell the boys often that they are their brothers' keepers. They are to stand with each other, and stand for each other. They are to be their brothers' strength and the shield.

As Laura said, a little warmth and kindness would go a long way. To have someone who would see me as a friend, despite my strangeness. To have friend to sit with me during lunch time, to stand in line with me, and do nothing with me at recess. I knew the difference between having one friend, and having none.

I had a friend. Her name was Keturah, and she lived next door. She introduced me to Barbie dolls, snow forts, and bicycles.

She taught me English by simply talking to me. I said her hair was yellow, she said her hair was blonde. On the morning the leaves turned red, she said to me, "I am freezing cold." I thought, "freezing" must mean "very." So, I started saying things like, "That is freezing beautiful," and "I am freezing hungry." We walked home together one afternoon after it had just snowed. I said to her, "The trees are freezing white!" She just looked at me, confused, and we kept walking.

Two years later, we moved again. This time back to Malaysia. Reverse culture shock was even more brutal. I no longer looked different from everybody else, but I was — different. The bullies knew that I was. Teenagers were even meaner than children. Words now hurt a lot more. And there was no Keturah in sight.

In my sadness, another friend showed up. His name was Jesus, my true and never failing friend. He was my strength and my shield. He was the keeper of my heart. He became freezing beautiful to me, and I realized I had been freezing hungry my whole life. He was my manna in the desert.

He walks me home.