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. Rather, 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.

Some new additions:

Chepap - Ketchup

Good Norming! - Good morning!

Mas-meo - Marshmallow

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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Cast your love

I had a dream last night that someone gave me a long blanket coat (is this even a thing?). It had the color of melted butter on toast. Knitted from the softest yarn, it reached all the way to the floor. I had never seen anything like it.

I woke up thinking about Joseph.

For years, I found myself defending him whenever someone called him a spoiled brat. Yes, he told on his brothers. Yes, he rubbed his dreams in their faces. But it was not his fault, right?

I mean, he did not ask for the special robe. He did not ask to be the firstborn son of Jacob's Rachel. He did not ask for all of Jacob's love to be cast on him when his mother died. It was not his fault that his brothers were not trustworthy with the sheep. He did not ask for his dreams.

So why blame Joseph for being bratty when his brothers were the ones who hated him and hated him even more, were jealous of him, and could not speak to him in peace?

He was not at fault.
And yet, he was.

The earliest representation of the crucifixion. Christ, praying. Santa Sabina, Rome, 430 A.D.

Generations later, four other sons of Jacob were granted special favors. Banished from their homes as children, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah stood before the Babylonian king. They were given the privilege to eat the king's food and drink the king's wine. Yet, they refused to defile themselves with food that was unclean to the God of Israel. Instead, they chose only to eat vegetables and drink water.

Though they stood before the king of Babylon, they lived for the King of kings.

I woke up from my dream and it became clear to me that I was like Joseph, and I was nothing like the four companions. I would have worn the special coat, and I would have eaten whatever that delighted my eyes. Knowing myself, vegetables and water would not satisfy.

It did not occur to me that Joseph chose to wear that robe. He chose to wear his fancy coat to meet his brothers in the wilderness when his father asked him to check on them. Of course, the robe was given to Joseph; he was entitled to wear it. But can you imagine how the story would go if he had chosen, for the sake of his brothers, to not wear it? Or better yet, what could have happened if he had given his robe away to his brothers?

Daniel and his friends simply said "No, thank you." They plainly refused the gifts that were offered to them, even if they came from a king who had the power to put them to death (which he later attempted, but that's another story).

So it comes down to this: Am I willing to sacrifice my happiness, my comfort, and my rights for the sake of another?

As a parent, I used the word "share" often when my three boys played with one another and with other children. To a young child, to "share" and "take turns" and "give" mean essentially the same thing — letting go of what you are holding in your possession for the happiness of someone else. What I am really asking my child to do is make a sacrifice. And to sacrifice, I know, is a high and difficult calling. But this is exactly what I want them to learn, because this is love.

So, I have been trying to expand my vocabulary. Instead of "share," I ask my children to sacrifice, and to love.

Soul, cast your love on the King,
whose robe's hem filled the temple.
He became dust for dust's sake,
naked in the virgin's womb,
a small, narrow space for the maker of stars.

Soul, cast your love on the King,
who took off his robe and
hung naked on a tree
for you.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Grace upon grace upon grace

For Christmas this year, I gave myself a gift. I gathered a few documents that make me cringe and put them in a folder. I labeled the red folder "My Failures, His Grace."

Happy new year to me.

I will always remember the morning I retrieved my SPM exam scores (SPM was the Malaysian standardized tests for high school students). This piece of paper was the culmination of five years of stress and studies. I was confident that I had done well and I could not wait to see the results. It was going to set me apart, and rescue me from the pit of mediocrity. This piece of paper was going to define me, my future schools, my future career.

I was ecstatic.

I gave the person at the desk my name, showed her my ID, and waited as she looked for my exam results. Butterfly fluttered in my stomach as I held in my hands the paper of my hopes and dreams.

I was devastated.

I had done well in most subjects except for the one that mattered the most: the Malay language. This one grade dragged my overall score down significantly. As my friends gathered around and shared their results, most had done better than they expected. I wanted to dig a hole and hide.

No, this is not a story about how I would be made stronger. Or how I would learn something through that experience. Or how everything happened for a purpose. No, this is not a story about how I would survive. In fact, I went on to face even bigger disappointments, made bigger mistakes, and fell into bigger deceptions.

As my three boys grow, they will one day be utterly crushed. They will fail and see that they are not enough. Their mistakes will be costly and they will feel the sting of rejection. They will be devastated by the weight of their guilt and defeated by their fears. One day, hearing "I still love you" and "I still think you are awesome"—from their old mother—will not be enough.

I pray that, in these moments, they will pray, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." This is our end, to love the Lord our God, and nothing more.

As this year is ending and another is coming, I have no doubt that I will mess up my brand new year pretty quickly. Probably within the first few minutes. I know there will be new additions to my folder of failures, and there will be many more that will not be recorded (thankfully). But all of them will point me to grace upon grace upon grace.

My one resolution is that I would pray more, and more truly, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." And nothing more.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Where there was no room

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

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

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

During the summer between his first and second year, my father was offered a job as a interim pastor in San Francisco. My parents packed all of us into the backseats of an old Buick (that they bought for $650), and took us on a five-day journey across America. Crammed together like a can of sardines, there was no wiggle room to scratch the chicken pox that covered us from head to toe.

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas, world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

My professor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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