(disclaimer: apologies for the length and the introspectiveness of this entry… it’s one of those “thought-vomit” entries without much form (smart people call that stream of conscious, but let’s be realistic- it’s thought vomit.))
I didn’t want to go in. That night, our assignment as the Urbana Prayer Ministry team was to go and do prayer ministry at the Urbana Poverty Track. The poverty track was a special track for students who were passionate about and wanted to follow God’s call to the poor. The reason they needed us there that night was that they were going to do a session of lament, where they would release students to mourn and lament at the state of injustice of our world. And I didn’t want to be there. Too many old scars…
My final paper in undergrad was 25 page paper on my journey through my 4 years at UCSD (I think it’s actually in UCSD’s 6th College CAT 125 reader… Why I got in the reader but my grade was a B-, I don’t know… but that’s for another entry). I described the self-reflective experience as entering a dark Fangorn-like forest (If you don’t get it, read the 2 towers by Tolkien, i don’t have time to explain my nerdiness lol). Dark, wet, old, dirty… and angry. Old and bitter. It was scary to let myself wander back into those last 4 years- where God did a lot in my life, but was also the source of much pain. I looked at how my identity shifted in the areas of my ethnicity, faith and my role as a member of academia. The tearing apart of each of those 3 areas was mentally violent, and there was a point in those years where the deconstruction of my identity was so intense that I had decided to abandon my faith in God (which in retrospect, was just me being passive aggressive, but again… that’s for another entry). In my wanderings of self-critique and deconstruction, I often felt surrounded and directionless no matter where I ran (if I could run and not trip), it was just endless darkness, I was covered in dirt, always running away from my fears, but in doing so, running straight into them.
In the end (at least at the end of my paper), all of a sudden, I emerged out of the dark wood, and found myself at the shores of a beautiful pristine lake. I said something about the journey being worth it to get to where I ended up, no matter the scars (Yeah, a little optimistic and cheesy, but that’s really what I think about my journey). By the end of my senior year, I felt like the process of reconstruction had begun.
In these last 3 years, I’ve learned a lot about myself, post-dark-forest, as I’ve let God reform my identity. In my time of reflection of my undergrad years, and with the help of my mentor Natalia kicking me in the butt a few times, I’ve realized how much of that dark season was triggered by my emotions.
You might be scratching your head at this statement. Let me clarify. I grew up in a Christian context where I constantly heard people say “faith is not an emotion, but it is fact and reason”. While I agreed with that, in my Asian-American Christian context, where male Asian-Americans already don’t show that many emotions, I found it damaging and unbalanced. People were already so apathetic, why give them a reason to be apathetic? Non-emotion, to me, was not faith but flat out apathy. So during my junior high and high school years, I made a commitment with myself to never be like the typical non-emotive Asian-American male that I met every day at school and at church. I didn’t want to be a stone. I wanted to FEEL. I wanted to know the tears that God shed. I wanted to know the joys that God felt. Emotions were my freedom from my cultural baggage, my spiritual release.
I got what I asked for while I was at UCSD. A little too much. I began to feel God’s anger at white cultural oppression as I had to interact with my first white roommates. I began to feel God’s sadness for the oppressed peoples of the world, many of them oppressed as the result of America’s imperialistic thirst for power. I began to feel God’s disgust at fake and staged religion. I could feel God’s fatherly despair as I interacted with orphans in China. It’s funny. The emotions that gave me such spiritual life and fervor… began to taste like poison.
And one day, I snapped. In my heart, I was telling God (with my spiritual middle finger stuck up), “If You’re feeling all of this, then WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU !@#$ing DOING ANYTHING?” That fury-filled moment started my journey into the dark forest. My journal at that time was filled with tears from the times I would press my pen too hard against the pages, as I wrote several times in huge capital letters, “GOD WHERE ARE YOU????”
In the end, I came back. It was a long, inarticulatable journey… I still have trouble telling people why I came back, only that I’m sure it was the right choice. Even after a 25 page paper on it, I’m really not sure how I got out of the forest… only that by God’s grace I came out. But the result of that season was that although I still knew that emotions were a healthy reality, I feared them. I made sure they always stayed in control and didn’t control myself. I would never let my emotions lead me to an implosion again.
Sitting in the Urbana plenary, I reflected back on these… wow… past 10+ years, something in me (haha maybe God) told me I needed to go and join the rest of the prayer team. I had politely told our leaders that I did not feel emotionally able to sit through a half hour of purposeful mourning. At first, I just wandered by the room, to see what they were doing. Then my feet stopped. I found myself in the pre-session briefing for prayer ministers. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the room.
The lady in the front of the room was telling the students about her time in missions… how she encountered injustice that was so dark, ugly and bitter… it left her in conflict and frustration… asking God “why?” And she was telling the students to dwell in that tension. I know that tension too well, and I initially didn’t want to participate. I didn’t want to tear open old scars.
She stepped off the stage. At first it was a tense silence, in that room with about 300 students. Then there were sniffles at first. I resisted remembering. Then there were whimpers. I began to feel the gentle invitation of the Holy Spirit. As my eyes were closed, I could see their faces again- the blind, the cripple, the deaf, the homeless, the stuck. Around me, the whimpers had grown to all out wailing around me. And all of a sudden, I began to do what I hadn’t done in a while- I began to mourn. I mourned the tension between the Kingdom being “here” but “not yet”. We say that with such optimism, but what about those stuck in the “not yet”, never experiencing the “here”? I mourned some of my students, of whom I had come to the end of myself and just had no more ability to love without it hurting. I mourned the countless Chinese students I had taught English, but would probably be stuck in an economically unbalanced system where the rich get richer and they, the poor, would get poorer. I mourned the migrant workers I see everyday in front of Home Depot and try to ignore in fear that I would care too much. I mourned the homeless I had sat down with, and attempted to have conversation with, only to find that their sanity had been stolen by years of loneliness and post-traumatic syndrome.
I mourned. And then I heard Him speak. “These aren’t for you to hold onto. They’re mine. Let me take care of it.” The mourning was real, and it was God’s, but for all these years, I had become overwhelmed by them because they weren’t my burdens to carry… they were the tears of God, not my own tears. I realized that in the past I had simply forgotten that I was not able to handle the burden. God invites us to share in His heart for the world, but He doesn’t demand that we hold onto it to the point of self-destruction. Volf writes that when God gives us something, it requires that we respond back in faith. It requires an acknowledgement that it comes from Him. And it leads us to a place where we can experience His redemption.
I stopped mourning. Simply because… I felt I was done. Like when you’ve cried so hard that there’s nothing left to cry about. Except for myself, it was a sweet surrender. Not an ignorance. But surrender to the one who was strong enough and in control enough to hold all of that mourning and… hope. I know some to some of you (for my agnostic/atheist friends) look at this in disgust as a religion that forms as a crutch for the weak… And really… that’s all it is.
We are all crippled in this world, paralyzed by the insurmountable amount of pain and mourning which we cannot escape. It would be arrogance to deny that we are in need of freedom from our brokenness. If I am to believe that God is a good God, it would be denying His power to not trust Him. My faith demands that I trust in this God, for it is my only hope to stop mourning, get up, and walk.
And He calls me to walk… not away from the pain but straight back. He calls me to walk back into the forest. But this time, not lost, not afraid, not in confusion. But in confidence, hope and love, stemmed from knowing that He never left me during that season, and He never will. Even further, He longs to transform that forest from a place of fear and darkness… to a place of freedom and redemption.
No. Not all of my questions have been answered.
Yes. I’m still in the tension between the “here” and the “not yet”. But I’ve realized that I am not to hold the burden by myself. And yes, I still feel, and I feel strongly. But it is only a curse when I do it alone. It is still a blessing, and a blessing that my students need to know and experience. Can I let God turn me into a model of healthy emotion- where I am not a robot, but I’m also not ruled by those emotions? Can God transform the brokenness of my past to bring freedom to those He has called me to love?
As God is inviting me to “feel” again in this season, that’s my hope and prayer.
I walked out of the room. What a strange peace. Sometimes, you don’t know why you’ve been feeling so uncomfortable lately and for some reason joy is not a reality at hand. And you realize that all you needed to do was to do some healthy mourning. It’s in the open expression of our mourning that we can leave it in the hands of He who mourns the most… but is the source of a hope that stills that very mourning.
I opened the door and walked outside and felt the cold air on my face and sighed with relief. As the warm air from my sigh turned to mist in sharp coldness of the St. Louis air, I knew I was being invited to “feel” again. But not alone. In the chill of the air, I felt a strange warmness. I heard the beating of His heart.
I was invited not to feel on my own… but to catch the rhythms of His heart again, to walk with Him. To feel His heart was not the ends, but to be with Him was the ends.
And in the midst of mourning I felt… joy.