Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bleeding faces {guest post by my sister Jean}

I'm so proud and so happy to introduce my sister Jean to you today. One of the dearest people in my life, she is currently studying Biblical Counseling in Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN. This following piece is her reflection on her acne. Her struggle with her extremely sensitive skin has been fierce and painful for well over a decade. Because of the way Jean pursues life, she is relentlessly theological, even in the way she observes her pimples. She is a woman of great courage.

This picture was taken right before my most recent breakout.

A few days ago, I saw some devastating pictures of Pakistani Christians suffering from a suicide bomb attack (some images are gruesome, here is the link if you want to see them). Hospital beds were crowded with injured patients waiting to be treated. The cement floor was dirty and the walls were covered with black stains. In another picture, there was a man whose shirt was soaked in blood, a little girl in a blood-stained dress, and a woman with a bleeding face.

Suddenly, the one valuable thing I had at that moment was something that had weighed me down recently: my acne-ridden face.

I have a carpeted apartment, a nice bed all to myself, mold-free walls, a stocked up kitchen, no missing limbs, but as to a bleeding face…I do have that. I don’t have one that’s bruised and injured but my skin throbs and bleeds more frequently as of late. My aching face was the one thing I could hold onto to enter into their pain, even if to a much smaller degree. I am suddenly grateful for what I had been despising.

It makes me think about suffering in a new light, another redemptive value about suffering I had never thought of. Perhaps another reason God has for allowing Christians in comfortable nations to suffer—due to the fallenness of this world—is to remind us of our brothers and sisters in other nations who are suffering death and persecution for their faith, not to mention poverty and much harsher living conditions. In other words, God knew I needed His help to consider the pain and suffering of others and that is one reason why he has allowed me to have this very, very light affliction — my acne-prone genes. He knew I would be a much different person, for the worse, without it.

Suffering of any kind also reminds us of yet another bleeding face, that of the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” who had “no form or majesty...and no beauty that we should desire him,” and who “was one from whom men hide their faces” (Isa. 53). If God did not spare his own Son of suffering, and this for our behalf, then we must not believe the lie that our suffering means God does not love us. As Robertson McQuilkin beautifully pondered, "...what always caught and held me was the vision of God's best loved, pinioned in criminal execution in my place. How could someone who loved me that much let anything hurt me without cause?...[T]he heavy heart lifts on the wings of praise."

So, bad acne as cure for the soul? Who would’ve thought? God would, and of course he would, because he is a God who redeems and refuses to waste anything.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison...”  -2 Cor. 4:16-17

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Under the open sky

On my eighteenth birthday

I love adventures.

When I was eighteen, I went on a medical service trip in the jungles of Borneo. My dad came home one evening and informed me that some of his acquaintances, a group of doctors and nurses, had just arrived from Singapore. They were scheduled to leave for the rainforests the next morning. And he asked me whether I wanted to go. (I know, I have the coolest dad ever.)

I said yes. A thousand times yes.

I left the next day, with a bag pack across my shoulder, and a heart so full I thought it would burst.

I drank it all in. I, the city girl, sat in the back of a pick-up truck, with no hood, the wind in my hair and sun on my face. We traveled on twisty, gravel roads the first day, and on narrow boats in a rushing, yellow river the second day. It was legitimately dangerous.

There was no electricity and no running water. The nights were dark. The sky was navy blue, dotted with a billion stars. While the others slept, I watched the fireflies and the shadow of a pig roaming for food. We slept on the ground. I washed myself under the open sky (with clothes on).

The entire village was a long, long house divided into about 40 narrow sections. Each family lived in one section. The villagers were poor, but generous. They fed us well, with tapioca starch from the trees. It tasted like glue, with sides of meat and vegetables. We were all very hungry. We drank coconut water straight from the trees.

The doctors examined and treated people all day. They assigned me to dispense the medications because I spoke Malay. Most people's teeth had rotted to the roots. The dentist who came with us plucked hundreds of teeth per day while we were there. We gave away toothbrushes and sang with the children.

I was enthralled. The week was magical. I was eighteen and life was just beginning. I wanted that week to last for a long, long time.

I fell asleep last night remembering that girl. It all seemed so far away. "Adventurous" would be one of the last adjectives I would use to describe the life of a stay-at-home mom. "Dangerous" would not be a good word either. In fact, I spend most of the day keeping the three boys away from danger.

But last night, I sat with the eighteen-year-old me. We chatted under the open sky, dotted with a billion stars. I showed her what her life would look like in thirteen years. I introduced her to her three boys, and to Hans, who would be the love of her life.

She cried. She didn't flinch at the thought of being a boy mom, or at the knowledge of her unsuccessful potty-training, or being a novice at homeschooling (probably because she was completely clueless). She was braver than me, to be sure, and so happy to be alive. She thought my life as a mom was pretty adventurous, and legitimately dangerous.

And so it is.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing

My dear friend Esther left this comment in my previous post on joy. She gave me permission to answer her here.
Irene, does your hair have highlights in it?
What about the mourners, who weep, but not without hope, as they know that a day of peace is coming? Is there not something to be said for comfort and stillness, that comes from hope in truth, even when the exterior circumstances remain in shambles?

I do find the joy/happiness distinction rather unhelpful. because both have to be inworked and outworked, but the joy/grief dichotomy is false... right? I think that's what people who say happiness [not equal] joy are getting at.

Is singing in the dark also joy? I guess I am asking if "waiting for joy" is the same as hope.

Dear Esther,

Your questions keep me awake at night. No wait, that's Khesed's job. I don't know all the answers. But here is a response to your (much appreciated) thoughts.

No, I don't have highlights in my hair. Though that would be so cool.

Honestly, I am not sure why people often make a distinction between happiness and joy. My attempt to understand the two together was mainly prompted by the war in my soul to rejoice.

I am a very emotional person. My facial expressions, the tone of my voice, my attitude are very influenced by my emotions. Because I am not my own, my feelings always affect those around me. Not only do I live before God, but I live before my husband and my children.

Therefore, I must learn to take the reins over my feelings. I want to know how to be emotional well. I want to rejoice well. Lament well. Laugh well. Weep well. Hope well. Fear well. Desire well. Hate well. Be compassionate well. Be zealous well. Be thankful well. Above all, the Lord has commanded us to love well.

Being emotional is not necessarily wrong. Scripture is full of expressions from highly emotional people. I find myself in good company, especially in Old Testament poetry. Jonathan Edwards described a "hard heart" as an "unaffected heart." The opposite of love, he said, is not hate—but indifference. "From love arises hatred of those things which are contrary to what we love." I don't want to have a "hard heart," but my heart needs to be moved by the right things.

Loving well means loving the right object. The phrases "I am happy" or "I am sad" need not imply an object of emotion. But the phrase "I love" raises the question "toward what or whom?" According to Augustine and Edwards, there are only two kinds of love: Love that drives people toward the City of Man and love that propels others to the City of God.

Weeping is not a sin; Jesus wept. Sorrow is not a sin; he is the Man of Sorrows. My sin lies in the reason for my misery, for I am often sad over stupid, worthless, fleeting stuffs. Being "happy" is not necessary shallow or less spiritual than being "joyful" (hence my long rant on how there is no distinction between happiness and joy). The question is upon what or whom do I place my hope for happiness?

So, I would say yes, Esther. Joy vs. grief dichotomy is false. The war within my soul is not between happiness or sorrow. It is a battle between two loves — my love for the world and my Lord's command to love him above all else.

You asked me whether waiting for joy is the same as hope. I would say yes, but—joy is not the object of my hope. I wait upon the Lord, for joy. My hope lies not in how circumstances might get better tomorrow; my hope lies in what the Lord has already fulfilled — on the old rugged cross. Or, to paraphrase another good friend, I can rejoice today not because of the promises this day holds; but because of the promises that day fulfilled.

Grace wins.

Writing this prompted me to think of two of my favorite passages in Scripture, Habakkuk 3 and Psalm 137 (the psalm after which this blog is named). They never fail to give me strength. I read the words of the psalmist during the worst parts of all three labors.

I read them because they are the fighting words of those who were sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. I read them because they are prayers. In the midst of their shambles, they spoke to God; they spoke of God. They prayed to Yahweh — the object of their faith, hope, and love.

These two men in the following videos embody a sorrow that rejoices so well.

I have been greatly helped by Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) over the years when I forget to pray for our brothers and sisters imprisoned for Christ. Here, he speaks about how he spent three years in solitary confinement with Christ.

Recently, I learned about John Barros, a man who saved 1,000 babies. With his broken body, he stands for the Gospel nine hours a day, six days a week, for the past three years — in front of an abortion clinic. He is a man who fears no man, and no pregnant woman.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Waiting for joy

Rejoice in the Lord always,
again I will say, rejoice.
These days, I've been learning to pick up my sword (and boy, is it heavy), fighting to rejoice.

People like to make a distinction between happiness and joy. They claim that happiness is all about the exterior, superficial and fleeting, whereas joy comes from deep within, and thus somehow more spiritual, superior, and forever. Or something like that.

I am not convinced.

First, I see no such distinction in the Bible. I see no "inner joy" in Scripture. Joy shouts, and sings, and it's loud. That sounds a lot like happiness to me.

Second, I don't know how joy and happiness would look any different in the eyes of my children. When mommy is happy, she is joyful. When mommy is joyful, she is happy. And when she is not, well, she's not.

I know I am not required  to be (and I don't want to be) a chirpy, upbeat, sugary-sweet-optimist kind of a mother. But I do want to be gentle, cheerful, compassionate, patient, and kind. And it's really hard to be these things when I am not joyful.

So, how am I to rejoice—always, in my soul and with my lips—even when I don't feel like it?

I want to fight, so badly, but I don't know my weapons. Sometimes, I don't even know my enemies. I am desperate to find some answers. So, I've been scouring the Scripture for passages on joy, rejoicing, happiness — what it looks like, when it happens, and particularly, what is the cause of joy.

I still have not figured it out, but here are some thoughts thus far.

1. Happiness flows out of right worship.

The distinction is not so much between the so-called joy and the so-called happiness, but the real difference lies in the object of my worship. Whom am I worshiping?

So often, the source of my joy is also the cause of my fears and worries. What I regard to be the source of joy becomes an idol in my life, whether it is my goals, my space, my schedule, an orderly house, my children's health, their education, their happiness, my family's approval of me, my husband's happiness, his affection — whatever it is. When the pedestals of my idols are threatened, when I feel that I may lose them, fear and anxiety are sure to follow.

So when I am discouraged or fearful or worried, when I have no joy, the thing to do is not to force myself to be happy (it doesn't work! I've tried it). What I need to do is to shift the object of my worship. I need to stop looking to my idols for hope and salvation, and fix my eyes on the cross.

2. Happiness is the response of those who are no longer afraid.
(Psalms 27; 31:7; Isaiah 41:14-16; 42:5-13)

Fear is such an obstacle to joy. When I find myself discouraged or anxious, it is helpful to ask myself what is it that I fear, or why am I afraid? Then, I would ask myself, is my Lord bigger than these fears?

The battle is often not a fight against my circumstances, but it is a fight to see the Lord for who he is. My Lord who calmed the sea and quieted the storm, fed the thousands, healed the sick, raised the dead. My Lord who created everything out of nothing, laid down his life, and reign over death and sin and me with mercy and compassion.

This Lord. Does he know? Can he see? Is he bigger than this fear that grips my soul?

Yes. Praise be to God. He is.

3. Happiness follows repentance.
(Psalm 32-33)

Whether it be with my husband or my children, tremendous relief and gratitude follows when they forgive me for the wrongs I have done. Such liberty is found after being bound up in my own little world of guilt, remorse, and self-justifications. Happiness is when I am able to come up to the surface and breathe again, knowing that they have forgiven me, that they still love me and want me.

This is all the more true with God. He always forgives. He always forgets. And his love is unchanging.

4. Happiness comes to those who dwell in the Word.
(Psalm 1; 119; Joshua 1)

The Father has given us the Word. He has given us instructions on how we may receive grace. If we do not place ourselves in the way of grace, it must be because we don't want grace.

Meditate on the Word day and night. Live there. Let that world become our reality. Let that world define how we perceive this world.
The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit
Autobiography of George Mueller, compiled by Fred Bergen, (London: J. Nisbet Co., 1906), 152-154.

5. Happiness is gift—for which we fight.

Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. The work is ours—to water, to pull out the weeds, to guard our hearts, but it is the Lord who makes the garden grow. We cannot attain happiness on our own, yet we must strive after it with our entire being.

In order to receive joy, we must keep ourselves in the way of joy. Like many promises in Scripture, we must seek ye first, and it shall be given. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you. Pursue wisdom, for the Lord gives wisdom.

Sometimes, joy comes. Sometimes, it doesn't. So while it is night, we weep, we mourn, we sing in the dark. For the nights, too, come from God.

We sit, and we wait. For joy comes in the morning. We wait in meditation and repentance, with prayer and worship. Thankfully, faithfulness is not measured by fruitfulness.

We remain in the way of joy. So when the Savior passes us by, we would recognize him. We would be ready to receive him.

Here is the link to a follow-up post, Sorrowful, yet Always Rejoicing.

An obligatory picture of my happiest baby. His joy is contagious.

Photo credit: Vivian Wu! Thank you for a happy day in your garden. =)