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.