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.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Love brings me home

Just the other day, I was out for a run by myself. It was so cold that I could not feel my face. I was running against the freezing wind, and the wind was winning. I could barely keep my eyes open. Gusts of wind were pushing me to the left and then the right. Keep running, I told myself, think of the boys. They must be starving! (They were fine.) They must be crying! (They were playing games with daddy.) It may sound silly now, but it worked, somehow.

Love got me home.

When the grandparents visited, Hans invited me to run with him; I was not too sure about the idea. Even at his slow pace, I was barely keeping up. Although I was behind him most of the way, being with him was nice. I kept my eyes on his broad shoulders, the shoulders that bore our three sons. I smiled (in my heart, my face was showing something else). On our last stretch, he ran next me and said, "Finish strong! Try to keep up with me." And then, he ran even faster. If I had breath to spare, I would have laughed out loud — at myself. But, I pressed on.

Love got me home, again.

If I could invite Martin Luther over for a dinner party in heaven, I would ask him why he chose to make repentance the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, the document that marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Retrospectively, it was quite fitting that Luther's call for reform began with a call to repent.

All of life is repentance. Every single second. Not just the occasional "sorry" or "please forgive me" or "the U-turns." Our life's journey in its entirety is a returning, a returning to Garden. Not the Garden that once was, but the Garden that will be.

Repentance is not a one-time thing; repentance is an one-life thing.

I used to think that it was guilt that drove me to repent. If I could just muster up enough guilt about my wrong-doings, perhaps I would be able to change, perhaps my contrition would be more true and sincere, perhaps it would make me more worthy of forgiveness. Guilt, however, can do none of these. My guilt about eating too much cake might help me see my need to exercise, but my guilt is not enough to get me home. My guilt does no good on an icy day when the wind is beating on my face while I gasp for air.

But love,
love brings me home.

No, not my love for God, but his love for me. His never-stopping, always pursuing, never-giving up, always forgiving, forever love. Hunger makes me long for home. Guilt helps me see that I am wrong, I need his forgiveness. But love waits for me.

My Father saw me and had compassion on me. He ran to me. He brought me home. He sent his Son to pay the penalty of my sin. Jesus Christ was crucified in my place.

Repentance is our response to God's love. Repentance is choosing to believe that his steadfast love is better — than whatever else we look to for happiness. Repentance is choosing him, because he gave himself to us.

This is how we repent: We keep our eyes on the shoulders that bore our cross, and we run home to our Father who loves us with an everlasting love. We repent by believing the prayer of David, "Your steadfast love is better."

Your steadfast love is better than the number on the scale.
Your steadfast love is better than the number in the bank.
Your steadfast love is better than a clean and beautiful home.
Your steadfast love is better than a fulfilling career.
Your steadfast love is better than infatuations.
Your steadfast love is better than friendships.
Your steadfast love is better than marriage.
Your steadfast love is better than children.

Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away... If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away." Our right eye and our right hand are supreme examples of God's good and useful gifts. Even so, God's steadfast love is better.

Your steadfast love is better than my dreams.
Your steadfast love is better than my pride.
Your steadfast love is better than my happiness.

Because your steadfast love is better is better than life, my lips will praise you. (Ps 63:3)

Your steadfast love brings me home.

Repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. How much greater? About the size of a mustard seed. Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus, no matter what. And sometimes we all have to crawl there on our hands and knees. Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect.
- Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, 21-22.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Goodbye for now, little butterfly

Dear friend,

My heart broke when I read your letter. For days, I sought for the right words to say. But the strings of words that formed in my mind seemed too fragile, too short, too little. I then realized that there is no simple way to speak about death, especially the death of a child. There is nothing I can say that could make things better.

I will cherish the moment you told me that you were pregnant, how we laughed at your thoroughness, taking the test three times. "Just making sure," your said. I will remember the joy and the awe, as we stood in wonder at the miracle of life. How you said, "the long wait was all worth it." How I hesitated to hug you in fear of squeezing you too tight. How eager we were. How I reminded you to drink a lot of water, "to flush the baby's toilet."

I will hold these tiny moments in my heart.

I will not forget the terror, when you told me that there was blood.
"Pray," you asked, "Please pray." So, we prayed.

And we mourn.
We wait.
We hope.
A butterfly rest
beside us like a sunbeam.
For a brief moment,
its glory and beauty
belonged to our world.

Suddenly, it fluttered away.
How we long for you to stay.
How we long to hold you, one day.
Thank you for the joy that you brought.
Goodbye for now, little butterfly.
You are forever loved.

Until soon,
Your friend

When I was 14 months old, my mother suffered a miscarriage.

Though I have never met this sibling, he or she is a member of our family. We speak of him or her often. Whenever people asked my parents how many children they have, they often answered "five" and explained that they lost a child due to miscarriage.

My mother would tell us the handful stories she kept for this baby. How she had already felt the baby's kick. She told us her memories of an earthquake that might have caused the miscarriage. The night she knew something was not right. How she mourned for her child after his or her death. How my grandmother cared for her as she regained her strength, "so I can take care of you," she would say.

I have no doubt that my convictions about the dignity and humanity of unborn children, and the preciousness of human life, began on my mother's lap, listening to her stories about this brother or sister whom we will forever love.

So, we mourn.
We wait.
We hope.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

God Counts: Numbers in the Bible

Here is the story of how I learned to teach Yohanan about God. You can download the picture book I made for him over at the Gospel Coalition Blog.

Hans handcrafted these for Yohanan, our little number lover.

Description of the book

God Counts is a book about God told through the numbers in the Bible. Essentially, it is a theology primer for very young children (ages 2 to 5). I sketched some simple drawings and left them in black and white to make it a little easier to print. In our home, it also serves as a coloring book.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Crumbs of glory

Hans kissed me good night and wished me a happy birthday at midnight. I drifted into sleep trying to decide what I want for my birthday lunch. It was going to be a good day.

Morning came.

I drew the curtains and saw that there were ants everywhere. Everywhere. Hundreds of ants crawling all over our floor. All over the bag that I used to carry the children's snacks. Ants were storming in through our front door and our screen door. Ants were streaming into our kitchen.

The boys were still in bed and I instructed them to grab some books and stay in their beds. Breakfast will not be served for a while. My head was swimming in words like infestation and invasion as I tiptoed around the apartment, trying to decide the best course of action. An ant found its way up my pajamas and bit my leg. That prick, that tiny sting, planted a seed of fear in my disorientated heart.

I can't let them near the boys. The baby, I can't let them bite the baby. But they were everywhere. There were hundreds of them, and one of me.

Last week, we walked by the Godiva store when we were running errands. The boys asked me whether they could pick up a chocolate sample for daddy. This has become somewhat of a tradition for us, and it was really hard to say no to boys who were being kind.

The sweet storekeeper found out that the boys were saving their samples for their dad, so she generously packed an entire bag of chocolate caramel as a gift for the boys. When she checked my membership, she reminded me that since it was my birthday month, I was allowed to pick five free truffles.


After a chorus of thank yous and happy shrieks from the boys, we walked out of the store carrying two bags of free chocolate. Being students, Godiva is not exactly on our monthly budget. The boys skipped all the way to the car and shouted, "Thank you, God! Thank you for the chocolate!"

I thought to myself, surely these must be the crumbs of glory. These must be the crumbs that fall generously from the Table of the Lord, where his children will feast for all eternity. Thanks be to God indeed.

My birthday surprise yesterday morning was less pleasant. While the boys waited patiently in their beds, I launched my attack against these tiny enemies. The fear that was planted by the sting on my leg grew into a seedling.

Two hours later, the boys were hungry for breakfast but the ants were still streaming in. No matter how many ants I killed, they kept appearing.

Suddenly, the crumbs that I had failed to pick up from the night before seemed to have multiplied, and magnified. The sticky sugary residue that I had neglected to wipe off my kitchen floor looked like a banquet table for ants. I had known for some time that I was not a detail-oriented person. But yesterday, my weakness seemed so abhorrent to me. Guilt took roots and they entangled my soul.

Throughout the day, Hans and the boys would wish me a happy birthday. I would say to them (half jokingly): No, it is not my birthday. I refuse.

Hans took his entire day off to help me clean the house. Together, we sprayed our adversaries with vinegar at their point of entry. We wiped them off at their path. Vinegar, wipe. Vinegar, wipe. Vinegar, wipe. We gave Emeth a vinegary rag and put him in charge of the floor under the tables and chairs.

Our victory was not swift, but it was sure. By end of the day, the ants were nearly gone. Working alongside my husband, in the company of our children, with this magical, non-toxic liquid was a good thing for my soul.

Fear withered; my heart was at rest. These little ants led me to the real crumbs of glory.

Family, friends, home, life, redemption, and hearts set free from guilt these are the crumbs that fall generously from the Table of the Lord, where his children will feast for all eternity.

Last night, we celebrated with fancy chocolate. Though they paled in comparison, they, too, were glorious.

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures,fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us,like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. - C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wearing the Gospel on our sleeves

Levi's were really cool in high school. All the cool people had them. The little red tag represented wealth and the ability to own a tiny piece of something from the United States. So fancy, so stylish.

The little red tag also cost a fraction of my father's salary as a pastor in Malaysia. They were way beyond my reach.

I don't have an older sister, but Wini comes really close. She introduced me to lipsticks. I was hanging out at her house one day, and she asked me whether I would like to try on her Levi's. I said, "really?!" She said, "really."

"It fits you well," she said. I was beaming. Beaming and exuding the coolness I had never known.

Imagine my surprise when she said, "Take my jeans! They are yours." I was floored.

Those jeans were perfect in every way. I loved the wash, the fit. I wore them everywhere. Everywhere.

They came with me to the United States a year later. Those were the days before Skype and Facebook. The faces and places I once knew were like a distant memory. I missed home so much that my body hurt.

Those jeans. I wore them to shreds. I wore them under the autumn sun, and I wore them in the dead of winter. They were to me a piece of something from home, the far country where it was always summer. I wore them in remembrance of Wini, of her love, and her kindness.

My three older sisters. Wini in more cool jeans, Janice, Serene, and me in front of Wini's house. Christmas, 1999.

Recently, I attempted to correct two mistakes I had made over the years when I taught girls about Biblical modesty. You can read my thoughts over at the Gospel Coalition blog, "The Gospel on Our Sleeves."

There, I explained how immodesty is the beginning of why we wear clothes, but Christ is the end. What we put on our bodies is a response, not a means, to forgiveness and righteousness in Christ. In other words, our clothes embody our response to the Gospel. Our clothes embody our worship. We put on our clothes in remembrance of Christ.

Some of the feedback I received asked me if I could give a guideline to how we should dress. I am always hesitant to give a list of what to wear and what not to wear, mainly because we are neither defiled nor made righteous by what we wear. We can be covered from head to toe and still be immodest. Having said that, I do see the benefits of fleshing out how we might wear the Gospel on our sleeves.

The dress code of God's children can be summed up in one word: Sacrifice.

In the Old Testament, the garments of priests were splattered with blood. Their work and worship entailed much slaughtering of various kinds of animals. Levitical priests stood before Yahweh, representing God's people, offering sacrifices unto God.

In the New Testament, God's people are the sacrifices. We are to present our bodies, our entire beings, as living sacrifices to Yahweh. This is our worship.

As living sacrifices, we get dressed with nothing to prove, nothing to hide.When our clothes are beautiful, let their beauty honor Christ. When our clothes comfort and protect, let them enable us to labor for Christ. When our clothes are means of expressing ourselves, let us proclaim Christ—truthfully, beautifully, and well.

Here are some questions I find helpful as I evaluate the intentions and desires of my heart about what I wear, what I buy, and what I choose to put on my children.

1. What am I trying to convey? Am I trying to prove something?

2. Am I able to control myself when I am shopping for clothes? Do I have a budget? Do I feel entitled to spend however much money on however many clothing I want?

3. Do I have things in my closet shoes, bags, rings, necklaces that I treasure a little too much? Am I willing to give them away?

4. Do I feel entitled to wear whatever I want whenever I want? Am I willing to give up my so-called rights of self-expression if my preference would not be good for others? Am I willing to sacrifice comfort in order to serve and edify others? Am I willing to sacrifice my time, resources, things for the edification and good of others?

5. Am I willing to submit to the instructions of my authority? 

6. Am I ready, at any given time, to open up my closet and give a portion of clothes and things away if I know someone in need? To give away even the things that are still useful to me?

7. Do I regularly purge my closet and give away clothes that I do not wear, or do I hoard?

The baby's uniform. Hat - check! Backpack - check! Jacket - check!

The garment of God's children is marked by sacrifice. Wini demonstrated her love for me when she gave me something that was precious to her.

I have a son who loves his bow-ties and blazers on Sunday mornings. He is learning to check his heart and ask whether he is wearing his Sunday best for his own glory or to honor God.

I have another son who loves soft and comfortable things. He loves his jeans and T-shirts. For Sunday worship, he is learning to give up a little comfort to honor the Lord and others by wearing a not-as-soft button down shirt, sometimes he would even throw on a tie.

I have yet another son, who is only one year old, but he is already making his preferences known. He knows exactly what he wants to wear: hats, backpacks, jackets, and puppets on both hands. He makes us laugh by running around in his funny outfits.

We get dressed in remembrance of Christ, of his love and his sacrifice. We get dressed in remembrance of the bridal garment that we will wear, in the city where there will be no need of sun or moon, where there will be no night, for the glory of God will be our Light.

Shark on his head, peacock on one hand, flamingo on the other.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Learning notes: It was the stench

Things we did

Last week, our friends, the Tillets, invited us to come along on their trip to the zoo. I thought it would be the perfect week to study Noah's story.

On Monday, we read various renditions of Noah's Ark. I checked out nearly all the picture books our local libraries had about Noah. There were so, so many (there were versions about Noah's trees, Noah's dog, etc.). Our favorite was probably the one by Jerry Pinkney, intricately illustrated with simple prose. Here is a quote that stayed with me:
And the Lord loved Noah.
God spoke to Noah.
Noah put down his basket and listened.
We also liked the one by Peter Spier. His illustrations were thoughtful and detailed. We compared the different versions and talked about how faithful each of the authors were at telling the original story. Some ventured far, far away from the Biblical account. Others were nearly unrecognizable. I thought it was important for the boys (especially Emeth, for now) to learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.

And we decorated paper boats.

But the zoo was indisputably the highlight of our week. The opportunity to spend time with friends is so precious, and so much fun (Thank you, Callie, Lei, and Kalina!).

Khesed was exclaiming "A!!!! A!!!!! A!!!!!" (for alligators).

Things we pondered and cherished

We pondered the smell.

More specifically, we pondered the smell of poop in the Australian House. For some reasons, the excrement of wombats and fruit bats was more pungent than the excrement of animals in other exhibitions. It was so memorable that we were still thinking about it days later in the comforts of our home.

It was the stench that led us to a cherished discussion about obeying God.

I find it funny that stenchy places have their ways of speaking to Hans and me about divine things.

The conversation started when they commented on how they really did not like the odor in the wombats' house. And I told them it was very likely that Noah's ark smelled just like that, if not worse. Noah and his family were rescued. Yes, their lives were saved, and they gave praise and thanks to the Lord. But building the ark was hard work. Planting food to take into the ark was hard work. Caring for the animals was hard work. It was not fun to be teased by their neighbors, to be thought as foolish. It was not (always) fun to be in a stuffy ark with lots of animals. Noah was very eager to know when the water would subside.

Obeying God is often hard work, and often not very fun.

*crickets chirping*

I don't think they understand this quite yet.

Our conversation also made me think about what I prioritize as their mother. Have I demonstrated through my parenting that fun and comfort and happiness (by themselves) are Most Important? Do I overemphasize, do I idolize, these secondary things? I would have to think about this a little more, but the idea itself is a little unsettling.

Finally, we loved the dolphins. It was really interesting for me to watch Khesed participating and responding to his surrounding. In our past field trips, he would sit back and quietly soak up his environment. During the dolphin show, he kept signing the letter "D" with his hand, and he would sign the letter "B" when he saw the dolphins playing with the ball. And because he is Khesed, my loudest child, his signs were coupled with exclamations, "Deeee!!!! Deeeee!!!! Deeee!!!! Beeee!!!! Beeee!!!!! Deeee!!!!! Deeeee!!!!!"

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Learning notes: Love is the thing

I remember the awful look on my mother's face when I told her I wished I was the only child.

We were on a five-day journey from Iowa to San Francisco. I was 10, that means Jean was 6, Evelyn was 4 and Catherine was 2. It's too bad that the wanderlust that possessed my parents to drive across a foreign country did not make it into my genes.

Pa and Ma, may I have a dash of your bravery please?

My sisters had been arguing and crying for hours. Someone had lost an earring. All four of us were itchy and scratchy from the chicken pox. The old car was chugging along the highways through Utah's desert. I wish I had been paying attention. I am sure the landscape was breathtaking.

Instead, I chose to focus on myself. Woe is me! I am being so good! They are all being so bad! My poor sisters are stuck with this self-righteous oldest sister I can't think of a worse kind.

There it is! My self-righteous face digitized. Apparently, I give them this face a lot.

In her still low voice, my mother warned me to never, ever say that again.

When my mother used her calm voice, I knew then my transgression was much worse than the hours of screaming and crying from my younger siblings. Never, ever wish that I was the only child, she warned me again.

And I have not.

The thing we did, the thing we cherished, the thing we pondered

Last week, we had our first guest teacher.

When our friend Esther from New York City was planning her trip to Chicago, I asked her whether she would be willing to be a guest teacher at our homeschool. She kindly agreed.

She picked one of her favorite picture books as our book of the week and I put her in charge of one activity she would do with the boys. She picked Chickens Aren't the Only Ones by Ruth Heller, a lyrical book about eggs that came with beautiful illustrations. She also chose an eggs-periment (teehee) to do with Emeth, a lesson on hypothesis, observation, note taking, and conclusion.

The week before she arrived, I checked out all the books we needed from our local library. We were ready for her arrival.

What I did not know was that we were going to be sick, sick, and sick.

In God's kindness and mercy, he sent friends to provide fresh vegetable from their garden and grocery (Thank you, Vivian and William and Sharon!). And because Esther and I had planned everything in advance, the Lord even supplied the material and a teacher to teach my children.

People regularly ask me why we choose to educate our children at home. More and more, I simply tell them that I do it because I love doing it, and I would feel like I am missing out if I do not do it. Despite the fact that Hans had to remind me this morning to stop feeling like I am drowning (ha!), I really do love teaching them.

Among my favorite things about being my children's educator are the many hours I get to watch the brothers learning to love one another. I love watching Emeth reading to his younger brothers, Yohanan reading to Khesed, Yohanan helping Emeth with math (I know, it's very sweet). I love how they turn pages for the baby when they listen to audio books, how they are learning (and struggling) to celebrate when other people win at board games, how they are learning to say sorry, to forgive, and put one another first.

I get it now, Ma.

This thing we call love. I felt its gravity in my mother's ashen face. I remember the weight of sadness in her voice. That awful wish, I feel a little sick just thinking about it. There are very few things in life that are sweeter than brothers and sisters loving one another.

I love these weirdos to bits.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cacophonic grace

Have you heard the saying "that which does not kill you make you stronger"?

Yeah, I disagree.

Trials do not make me stronger. Trials reveal me. Trials disarm me. Sometimes, trials weaken. Sometimes, they crush. They can even kill. But trials do not make me stronger.

Trials put us on the stand. Bare faced, no mask, nowhere to hide. Trials turn up the volume of our emotions; they amplify the refrain of our souls.

What do we sing in the dark? What songs in the storm?

I had an unpleasant encounter recently. The incident was so petty, so trivial in comparison to the kinds of trials that other people would come upon. But it was enough to throw me off. Enough to reveal the unkindness and selfishness that was mine.

The struggle was something I regularly faced, but I somehow managed to tune it out, like the buzzing of a gnat. I knew I was disobeying the Lord, but I became an expert at avoiding it, masking it, justifying it especially to myself.

The incident brought my sin out into the open. The Ugly I had nurtured and stowed away in the closets of my soul became plain as day. Perhaps it was not obvious to outsiders, but before Hans and the boys, there was no hiding now.

The volume was turned up, and there was no song.

All I could hear was the harsh clamor of discord, blaring, "Mine! Mine! Mine!" I was the noisy gongs; I was the clanging cymbals.

Church bells may come to mind when we think of repentance. The lovely ringing of melodies so sweet and nostalgic, pouring out of the church's tall and ancient steeple. Each note, full and deep, calls the weary and hungry to come home.

My call of repentance sounded slightly different.

There, under the weight of the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals that was mine, the Lord called me to come. The cacophony was neither sweet nor delightful, but it was the sound of grace and mercy. In his perfect love and infinite knowledge, God gives his children pain if pain is the thing that would bring us back to him.

Trials amplify the poverty of our hearts. Trials do not make us stronger, but by God's grace, the Lord uses trials to drive us to our knees before the One who is strong. Here, we cast our eyes on the One who bore the weight of our sins. He bore the weight of the rugged cross.

Soul, sing the Lord's song in the dark, in the storm.
Soul, amplify Christ. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Learning notes: Humility laughs

Things we did

At the end of last week and most of this week, we were sick, sick, and sick. Lesson for the week: how to keep our mouths from complaining and our hearts joyful. I struggled (and I am still struggling) to find a rhythm to our days. The storm of sicknesses wiped out any kind of routine I had tried to establish during the first week of school. Yet again, the educator was the one being educated.

School work was strangely a nice distraction when we were sick. The boys continued with their math and handwriting, albeit rather slowly. For our book of the week, we read Tacky the Penguin and other books in the series by Helen Lester. We learned about adjectives, penguins, and a little bit about Antarctica. I had a lot planned for science, experimenting with ice, making ice cream, and such. But alas, ice and other cold things will have to wait for healthier days.

Things we cherished

Hans is deep in the trenches of writing and editing right now. Once in a while, he would emerge from his study to cheer us on. Last week, Hans taught the boys for a few minutes while I got lunch started. Unlike me, Hans did not shy away from using big words and complicated concepts. The boys were lost somewhere between the phrases "the adjective modifies the noun" and "here are the differences between adjectives and adverbs." Never mind the boys, even I scratched my head a couple of times.

But, here is the thing Emeth and Yohanan loved it.

They basked in their father's attention. They were engaged and responsive. They answered Hans' questions and tried again when they got the wrong answers. They roared in laughter at his examples and had the time of their lives. If someone were to be watching them from a distance (which would be creepy), Hans would have looked like a comedian. No one would guess this was a dad teaching his first-grader and pre-schooler English grammar.

Things we pondered

Watching Hans, I learned that a healthy dose of confusion helps keep my young men humble. Being a little lost can be a good thing; they learned that sometimes things are more complicated than our minds can handle, and that's OK.

Watching the boys, I saw that humility is not self-deprecating or awful. Instead, true humility looked more like laughing faces, bright and eager to learn, so happy to please their father.

That same week, my good friend Wini, all the way in Kuala Lumpur, posted a picture on Facebook. Her husband Tim was teaching her son Matthew how to fix the computer. Matthew is 7.

Tim teaching Matt how to fix the computer. Photo credit: Winifred Heron, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I am so grateful for learning families around the world. And by this I do not mean homeschooling families. I grew up in various public school systems in Malaysia and the United States. But my parents were my primary educators and my three sisters were my closest classmates. I learned to see the world with them and through them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Learning notes: The appendix led us to beautiful places

My good friend Jenni once described parenting as a re-living of our childhood. Another chance to read our favorite picture books, another chance to order chocolate ice-cream (every single time), to play, to hide, to seek, to be found.

Being my children's educator gives me another go at first grade and pre-school. Everyday, the educator gets re-educated, even though I am supposedly on the other side of the desk.

Because this virtual space is an extension of our lives, and because I love reading and regularly benefit from the chronicles of other learning families, I am going to jot down (as often as I am able) a few things we did, a few things we cherished, and a few things we pondered (somewhat) regularly.

Things we did

This year, the bigger boys are able to work on math and handwriting with less supervision. We are using a combination of Handwriting Without Tears, Singapore Math, and Kumon workbooks.

For about an hour or two everyday, we roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty (metaphorically and literally). I am currently trying out a concept I learned from Jenni. The basic idea is that we would read a book in the beginning of each week, and throughout the week, we would re-read it and explore different aspects of that book. This way, we learn to enjoy the book not only for its story, but also as a portal through which we explore different places and subjects.

For example, the first book we read  was Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. Throughout the week, we learned its geography (Paris, France), literary devices (rhymes), artwork (Eiffel Tower), biology (the digestive system), and so on.

Things we cherished

In the story, Madeline had to go to the hospital because of her appendix. So, I thought it would be a good way to have a look at where the appendix is located. I did not expect how much the boys would love it.

For days, I heard the boys saying random things like:

"But mommy! I don't need to go to the bathroom. My rectum is empty!"

As Hanan took bites of his lunch, he would say, "Now, the food is in my mouth. Now, the food is going down my esophagus. Now, the food is going into my small intestine.... (and he continues)"

Or, "Mommy, the bread is pushing my bladder!"

Or, "Look! A human fountain! Water is shooting out of the esophagus!"

"Look! A human fountain!"

And then, there were many, many conversations about the liver, the kidney, and the bladder. "The liver is so kind to give the small intestine its juice!"

Hanan was especially intrigue by the bladder. "Why does the bladder look like a heart? Is the bladder dirty? Hollabout (how about) the kidney?"

We stepped into the rabbit hole via the appendix; it led us to many beautiful places.

Things we pondered  

This week, I thought a lot about my educational method. As it turns out, I teach the way I cook.

The golden rule applies in life as it does in the kitchen as it also does at school: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Cook for others the things you would want to eat. Teach others the way you would want to learn.

Also, I am coming to terms with how horrible I am at following curriculum, just as I am horrible at following recipes.

I would begin with the intention of following a recipe. I would be inspired; I would study the recipe and assemble the ingredients. But somehow, as I begin to throw things in the pot, so to speak, I would often end up improvising and going with my preferences and instincts.

This new concept that Jenni showed me gives me enough room to be spontaneous, but it requires me to think a few days and weeks ahead in order to make the necessary preparation. Thanks, friend.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

K is for Khesed

Laughing at ourselves is necessary for life.

We had so much fun reading through all the Old Emethese and Old Hananese the other day. I had forgotten most of them. And I am so grateful for these whiffs of their baby years, so grateful that these nonsensical sounds are recorded for years to come.

As Khesed is eager to join his band of brothers, I have this sudden urge to capture some of his baby-ness before it all fades away.

When he was 15-months old, he placed the letter C, U, and P on my lap along with a cup. Hans thinks it was purely coincidental, there was no way a 15-month old could spell.

He is now 19-months, and he is still obsessed with the alphabet. It's nice that my children each have their little obsessions. Emeth loves dinosaurs and all living creatures. Hanan loves numbers. Khesed loves letters. It makes for really fun library trips. We get a little of everything. During their best moments, Emeth and Hanan read alphabet books to Khesed, make up alphabet games for Khesed, sing alphabet songs for Khesed, write out the alphabet for him. And the sweetest thing of all they clean up after their little brother, who loves toys that come in 26 pieces, at least.

Khesed is a man of few words. He pronounces only a few words perfectly, and always as exclamations:

Eat! - what he says when he is hungry. He is always hungry
Me! - what he says when he wants a piece of what everyone else is eating. He is my adventurous eater.
Shoe! - when his shoe falls off. His shoe always falls off.
Ball! - when he wants his brothers to play with him, which, as you can guess, is often.
Ge! - his favorite people in the world ("big brother" in Chinese)
Hand! - when he want to hold my hand. Hearing this word will never get old.
Yum! - when he knows we can't resist it when he says this so we will continue to feed him.
Yuck! - dirty things, crumbs.

A few weeks ago, he kept getting "Yum" and "Yuck" mixed up. His brothers thought he was hilarious.

He talks in letters. He labels things by the first letter of their names, or their phonetic sounds. When he wants more fish crackers, or when he sees fish, or flowers, he would shout, "F! F! F!" When he sees his favorite stuff animals (all beginning with P), he would make the "P" sound, over and over again. He does not even say "mommy" or "daddy." But he would occasionally run to me shouting, "M! M! M!" He does call Hans "D-D-Dah!"

But he calls bananas "ger-la-la-la!"

Here is a glossary, in case you ever strike up a conversation with Khesed:

A! - Apple
B! - Ball, bicycle, book
C! - Cat, cup
D! - Daddy, dog
E! - Elephant
F! - Fish, flower
G! - Giraffe, gorilla, grass
H! - hippo, hat, head
I! - Ice cream, he pronounces I as "Ig"
J!- juh
K! - kuh
L! - Lion (a.k.a. Raaaawr!), leaf
M! - Mommy, money (?!) - I was surprised as well
N! - Nose, numbers
O! - Oranges, I love oranges
P! - Panda, peacock, penguin
Q! - keeeew
R! - ah-re
S! - ssss
T! - Tree, trains
U! - uh! uh!
V! - veeeee
W! - wuh
X! - Xylophone
Y! - yuh
Z!- Zipper, zebra

Oh, and he loves numbers (Na!) and dinosaurs (Rawr!).

I have quite a collection of his pictures with his favorite things.

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.