Category Archives: Identity

On Speaking Out Against Starbucks (or “…all I really wanted was some coffee”)

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My bad panaroma picture on the day I was at starbucks

Recently, I was doing some catch up on my yelp reviews and decided to write about a recent experience I had during my visit to Seattle at Starbucks’ cutting edge new coffee shop that showcased modern coffee techniques and rare coffee beans (link). I had experienced a rather unpleasant brush with some racist jokes by a corporate employee there, and thought it’d be good to write about it in my review. It wasn’t a new thing for me- in my years working in North County San Diego, I’ve had many instances of minority micro-aggression, and Yelp had been one of the places where I could express my frustrations at the experiences of prejudice and racism being one of the few Asian-Americans in a military town… And usually, my reviews would get a couple chuckles, but would simply get lost in the cacophony of the cloud. I didn’t think anyone paid attention.

I closed my computer, and proceeded to pack for a spring break camp that I was staffing for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the organization that I work with. It was out of cell phone range and there was limited wifi there for only official business.

Imagine my surprise when I went online to send a quick time-sensitive work email to see that I had created a medium disturbance in the Asian-American internet world. My yelp review had been shared multiple times on Facebook. I had interview requests from a couple news outlets. I was featured on the Angry Asian Man blog, an extremely respected blog and voice for Asian America (of which I frequently read as well). All of a sudden my review with questionable grammar was being shared and I was a mediocre viral celebrity.

Resonse From Others

I’ve gotten a lot of responses from people about the review. They fall in these categories:

  • Skepticism: “How can we trust you?” Yes, I know- Yelping is not the most reputable platform (chefs publicly rant about entitled yelpers all the time). And no, I don’t have hard data- I have only my experience. This has been an interesting response from a few people- I saw some comments in which the sharer’s friend was convinced I was lying or that the corporate employee was in fact just some guy in a suit who wanted to be racist to me. Although things could very well be proved (I could find the barista, I could find the security tapes…), and I have a very solid reputation as a yelp reviewer (I have been an elite for 4 years), when it is a story of injustice, somehow it’s instilled in us to not trust the story of the victim. It was a small taste of victim-blaming and voice delegitimization that happens in situations of abuse, prejudice and racism. It’s interesting how our society can quickly cover up real injustice by relegating it to the imagination of the victim. It’s also interesting that I felt tempted to fall in line with those accusations. However I will stand by what I said with clear conscience- I did not make this up. My experience was real and not imagined.
  • Shock and Anger: “How could this happen?” Other reactions were reactions of horror. How could this happen in Seattle, one of the most diverse cities in America? How could a corporate employee not know that his comments were not appropriate that his joke insinuating that my friend and I were Chinese spies was not funny but hurtful? How could Starbucks, a company that claims to be so progressive, allow such a bad miss by its corporate representative? “Let’s boycott Starbucks!” “They better repay you… or sue them.” While I am angry with my friends at this situation… it also opens a window into the state of our “post-racial” society. You see- I was angry, but for me, having lived in a community without that many Asian-Americans for 7 years, I had self-destructively bottled up my anger in a state of internal micro-aggression. The shock and anger, on one hand, revealed how hidden the everyday forces of racism were to many of my friends and community. On the other hand, it revealed how, out of my own internalization of anger, I had began to delegitimize my own voice and anger by silencing it in myself.
  • Relief: “Thank you.” But in the midst of all of this, I noticed another sound in the chaotic response to my yelp review- a sigh of relief. I realized I had tapped into a common experience that many Asian Americans and other minorities in America have experienced- and that they, like me, had began to internalize it in resignation to the prejudice and racism that they experience every day. It was a sigh of gratitude that at least something was being paid attention to, in a time in our country where heinous examples of racial injustice are just swept under the rug and kept from trial. And no- the stupid jokes I got are nothing compared to the treatment of my Latin@ friends as second class citizens or the trauma my black brothers and sisters have experienced in this last year with the multiple counts of untried violence against their young men- but we are all disserviced by the false narrative of our postracial society that attempts to put a whitewash over our stories of racial injustice when we decide to ignore our stories of pain, no matter how big or small. A wound won’t heal if you hide it from the doctor… instead, it festers and gets infected. Healing and reconciliation won’t come from a cover-up, but it comes from exposing it so it can be cleaned, dressed and healed. Perhaps the sigh of relief was from seeing that an experience similar to their own was actually paid attention to.

“So… What do you want from this?”

That was the question that a news reporter recently asked me when interviewing me about this. In reality, I hadn’t written the review with any real motive to get anything from Starbucks. It was just a review, one of the many that I write- some better, some worse. Really, I didn’t have a set goal for what I wanted– but after having this whole thing blow up, it’s made me really think about what I want out of this.

Jokingly, a lot of my friends have talked about how much free stuff I’m going to get and to share “shut-up” money if it comes to that. In fact, a customer service representative from Starbucks has already been in conversation with me and has promised a “gift” to me on my starbucks card (which hasn’t shown up…  but eh Edit: $50 appeared in my account last night) as they further investigate what happened at the Starbucks Roastery. And hey- honestly, I’m addicted to coffee, and I’ll take it… but reparation is not what I want.

Some wonder how far I really want to take this. It’s not really an Asian American value to speak up- you don’t want to be the nail that sticks out, because it will be hammered down. We value peace and harmony, not speaking up. But if there’s one conviction I have gained working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, building and advancing multiethnic witnessing communities- it’s that sweeping things under the rug is not real peace. That fake kind of harmony is nice and pretending it didn’t happen would be a lot less stress… but I won’t settle for that.

The peace that my religious convictions as a Christian speak of are rooted in the Hebrew concept of shalom– a peace that comes from wholeness on every level- physical, emotional, social and spiritual. Shalom is translated as peace, but it is also translated as justice- and justice is something deeper than a surface level image of “diversity”. Shalom hurts because it demands real engagement with pain and systemic injustice. Shalom requires self-sacrifice. The peace talked about in my faith is a peace that was bought by a God who chose to fully engage and immerse Himself in personal and systemic evil head-on by being with us in our brokenness as Jesus and even became a victim of it Himself. It is from this self-sacrifice that He conquered evil and death in order to afford us not just surface level peace and harmony, but deep reconciliation and wholeness.

This is what I want- I want real dialogue about race. I actually admire Starbucks for being a corporate entity that desires to take progressive stands of inclusion. I admire their desire to have the race conversations in their #RaceTogether campaign. But if they really want to engage in subjects like race and inclusion, it’s going to take more than corporate policies and PR campaigns. It needs to start from the deep places where racist tendencies fester because we don’t talk about it. It needs to start from speaking in truth about stories of hurt… and allowing the chance for reconciliation. This is what I want- I want Starbucks to live up to its progressive outside image. As a Christian, I want to see shalom- complete wholeness and reconciliation. I speak up not to complain- yelpers get a lot of bad press for being entitled whiners. I also am not speaking up just to rock the boat just for rocking’s sake, just disturbing everyone around me with rage and frustration. I speak up because I recognize my responsibility as a citizen to offer my story up for the good of society. I speak up out of responsibility as a Christian who has been captured by the dream of not just surface level peace, but of deep shalom and wholeness in relationships, including with this corporate employee who humiliated me… I have compassion on him.

Because really, all I want is a real conversation with that corporate employee, to hear his story, and to maybe offer a glimpse of what that dream of deep shalom and reconciliation could look like in real life outside of a publicity campaign or a company policy- and maybe we could do it over a cup of coffee.

On the run (i.e., a window into Daniel’s self-therapy)

…left, right, left right…

…breathe in, breathe out…

I woke up this morning with this enormous weight of insecurity and inadequacy. After about an hour of moping, I realized I needed to get out and run.

Just as my physical legs were in need of movement under the cool overcast sky this morning, my mind needed to run itself out of this place.

Transition is hard. There are times I’m running full speed, not feeling… and then I stop and I realize how tired I can get. It’s tiring to navigate expectations. It’s tiring to try to adjust to those expectations. It’s tiring to realize that as I adjust to those expectations, it creates assumptions from others what my true self is… and then in turn causes me to take a double take on what I thought was the true me… I found myself ranting to my spiritual director that I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. The Bay Area is a strange place where, in Meyer’s Brigg’s language, people from high school know me as an INFP, my San Diego friends know me as an ENFJ and I have shown myself as an ENFP to those who work with me… well at least the one solid thing in me is the unpredictable intuitive emotion, and it’s probably what brings me to these places of heavy introspection so often. I find myself in constant culture shock- where the familiar I grew up with is so foreign. I find my cultural identity in flux as I must relearn what it means to indirectly communicate again, yet still engage a diverse spread of people around me who still communicate directly. It’s funny how my struggle in North County was all about feeling in between without a sense of “home”… and it seems that feeling has followed me back home.  It’s tiring to constantly put myself out there, not knowing what the results will be; if people will accept what I offer; if people will love me or hate me, or if I accidentally offended someone or stepped on someone’s toes…

As I turn the corner on the street, I start thinking on the past 2 or 3 years… As is usual when I’m in this mood, I start thinking of my regrets. My heart begins to race as I remember the friends I’ve left… some of the closest friends and intimate relationships I’ve ever had. I start to think about the ways that I must have disappointed people. Insecurity wraps around me  in a choking embrace…

But then that familiar whisper shakes me so violently yet gently… remember.

And I start to remember who I was… and who I am becoming. I am not the person I used to be. I am no longer that scared child. I am no longer that insecure unstable person going from one opinion or emotion to the next. I am a Chinese American man who has exposed every part of my identity on every level to the harsh death of the cross and have experienced the rush of resurrection power in my life. And who I am becoming… is a man who is confident in the cultural identity as a Chinese American that God has given me; a man who passionately pursues the lost; a man who stands as an advocate for those who do not look like me, communicate like me or live like me; a man who empowers women, partners with them and has been blessed to be led by them; a man who prays prophetically with vision no matter how unlikely that vision is; a man who has passionately loved the “long-shots” like the community college and dared to risk feeling the pain when even my best efforts backfire at me. I am a man that is courageous enough to risk bringing everything I have confidently to the table, even when I know there is chance for rejection, pain and loss… because I am not defined by those things but by His love.

…And it was as if I wasn’t breathing this whole time and my lungs forgot how to pump air in and out, all while running full speed ahead… and I finally gasped for the air that my heart needed. I gasped for the only Voice I needed to listen to.

…breathe in, breathe out…

…left, right, left, right…

And as I turned the final corner with my house and broke into a sprint, I was filled with this strange sense… pushing through and throwing off the shame and self-critique I often find myself in and that so easily entangles myself, especially coming from such a self-deprecating culture…

…I realized…

…I’m proud of who I’m becoming.

On Growing Up

I’ve been thinking about growing up lately; what it means to become a man.

Perhaps this has been stirred up by the new job. The learning curve is steep. There are challenges and demands that I had not realized would be so difficult. The stakes are real and Uncle Ben’s words to Spiderman- With great power comes great responsibility- often ring through my head. The pressure to perform is oppressive… (although most of it probably comes from myself).

…But I suppose that’s just on the surface.

Recently, one of my mentors in ministry passed away. It was a sudden and unexpected death, with a sudden complication of pneumonia that left him in the hospital battling complication after complication for a whole year. He went to be with his Heavenly Father just a few weeks ago.

Uncle Ed was the pastor who supervised my first paid job in ministry as an intern at San Jose Christian Alliance Church. Of course, he was much more than just a pastor in my life… his family was extremely close to my family, and some of his children I consider lifelong friends. Our relationship during my time as an intern transformed into that of a father and a son. I considered Uncle Ed to be one of my spiritual fathers. During his memorial, I thought of the hours of meetings we had during that summer. I remember feeling empowered by him. I remember Pastor Ed believing in my potential and calling out the baggage I was too prideful to admit I carried. I remember other times feeling annoyed at his judgment calls… only to find that they were usually right. I remember experiencing the beginnings of caffeine addiction because of all the coffee Uncle Ed offered to me every morning. I remember the many years after that internship, how every time I came home, his office was open and we always made sure to get coffee and catch up.

…and I remembered, as we heard stories about Uncle Ed, as we laughed, as our eyes grew moist… how much I will miss him. And in the midst of missing Uncle Ed, I realized the breadth of his spiritual influence… and heard in the subtext a small divine whisper challenge myself and the whole room of 1000+ friends and family, “He has fought the good fight… now who will rise and continue the fight?

One of my current supervisors recently was talking to me how, anecdotally, the coming of age for Asian American males seems to come at the passing of a parent. I remembered this during the memorial service… and realized, it’s time to grow up.

It’s time for me to grow up.

I recently had the opportunity to lead a Sunday school discussion on Ferguson. This was unexpected, and I was really encouraged at the opportunity. I felt like the man. I felt like I had finally arrived at a place of influence. It felt strangely affirming to have a platform to speak on something that I felt passionate about that I wasn’t sure others were even aware of. It was encouraging to share the ways God had shaped and formed my heart for racial reconciliation over the years, through mistakes and victories, laughter and wounds. I felt invincible.

…how fragile my invincibility was. Of course, Ferguson is a divisive issue at a Chinese church, and not everyone would agree with me… I heard one small negative comment (and I’m not sure it was even directed at me), and I completely imploded. I crashed, and folded into a mess of a victim, feeling like the entire world was against me. My “adulthood” felt squashed and threatened. I retreated in fear.

This morning i was discussing with a planter that I coach about the loneliness of leadership. They say that the higher you go in leadership, the more self-leadership is required of yourself. That self-leadership requires so much strength and courage… to stand up against discouragement in a posture of surrender to God’s grace and to proclaim with tenacity at the situation, that, as Paul said:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As we mature, the people who can encourage with those words become less and less… and we have to know it in our own hearts, as the number of people we can call peers shrink.

…but sometimes even a grown man could use some encouragement.

I wallowed in self pity for 2-3 weeks after I heard that negative comment. I felt zombie-like going to church, a little discouraged. But at the end of the service, one of the older members of the church- part of my parents and Uncle Ed’s group who had been part of the church for years- pulled me aside. Our conversation went (paraphrased, by the way), “Daniel, we wanted to tell you in person. Thank you so much for having that discussion a few weeks ago on Ferguson. It’s exactly what we wanted to say… but we are too old now.” I tried to tell them that they weren’t too old, and that it wasn’t too late… but they wouldn’t have it. They interrupted me and said, “Our time is passing. We believe it’s time for the younger generation to stand up, and it will be your generation that can say the things that you have said.”

Here’s what I am learning so far about being a Christian adult; no longer a child, but an adult- a man or woman in the Kingdom of God:

  • An adult stands up for what they know God has laid in their hearts- not for themselves and their own glory or reputation, but because it is what God has laid on their hearts, and they are obedient to that still voice.
  • An adult throws off the victim mentality knowing that they have been set free by God’s love in every level of their being, and do not have to fear failure or disappointment.
  • An adult becomes an adult not by “powering up” or even hard work… an adult becomes an adult by surrendering to God’s grace in the midst of weakness and failure.
  • An adult is someone who has allowed the kingdom narrative of God’s conquering, covenant love to burn in their hearts… and who has ears sensitive enough to hear it from outside themselves when that burning seems absent.

And Hebrews 12 rings in my mind…

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

I’m realizing there are so many things to throw off that entangle me in this life of ministry. My “edgy” jokes just to be “edgy”. My self centeredness. My pride. My ranting at situations instead of directly engaging them. My love for comfort. My love for being the center of attention. I’ve held onto these things because I figured there were those above me that could cover up for my shortcomings… but I’m realizing that they aren’t there anymore to shield me, but the few that are there are cheering me on in the journey… They are pushing me to become the man I was meant to be and to look towards that man- Jesus, whose version of manhood was not about becoming powerful, but was about enduring suffering and shame for the sake of the true glory of knowing and living in the inexhaustible love of being in the presence of God. They are urging me to strive and push forward… not in the way the world tells us to become workaholics, but the hard work of surrender and accepting grace- a surrender that Jean Pierre Caussade describes hyperbolically as a “holy apathy”. A holy apathy towards the immature ways I have faked “ministry” and to set my eyes full of passion towards the goal- to become a child of God.

To become an adult in the kingdom of God is to become a child of God.

To become an adult in the kingdom of God is to look towards the unchanging God and to stand upon Him as the rock of my life…

When I was praying for my decision to enter full-time ministry, I picked up an unusually clean stone from the muddy field after the rain. The Lord reminded me that as I enter full-time ministry, I must stand on Christ the Rock as my foundation (1 Cor 10:4). People and situation may change, but He is unchanging. Christ is our living memorial, yesterday today and forever.

-Pastor Ed Kwong, “Living Memorial”- Words for SJCAC’s 30th Anniversery, 2005.  http://www.sjcac.org/eng/info/articles/ekwong2005.php

…It’s time for me to grow up.

Some interpretation

I usually don’t tell people what my art means… it takes a lot of trust to let somebody into the motivation of some of my art. My art is not necessarily about skill (there are many more talented artists than I… I usually joke that I do modern abstract art because it requires less skill… it’s true.), but about catharsis, release and unburdening. They are prayers that I lay before the Lord. They are psalms in visual format… So it’s a little nerve-wrecking to let people into that space. But in the meantime, I allow people to see the final product, and I’m often interested in how the art affects them. Sometimes it shines new light on my work that I didn’t see before. I’m always fascinated at how interpretation transforms from individual to individual, and how it will affect my own interpretation, even though I myself am the creator of that piece…

…That being said, I have decided I should provide some interpretation to the last piece I painted. Here it is:

Stains on pavement Torn Asunder What will be released? Is there treasure underneath?

Stains on pavement
Torn Asunder
What will be released?
Is there treasure underneath?

The Ferguson decision was made on Monday night. I made this painting on Wednesday night, after realizing how exhausted I was from the constant stream of news, to seeing communities in pain, to figuring out how to talk to my immediate friends and family about it all.

The initial connection to the shooting of Michael Brown is obvious. I used an acrylic gravel medium to make a pavement effect on the canvas. I spread it randomly, imperfectly, brokenly… because that was what I was seeing in the system that had perpetuated this all. I used a tar-gel solution to create the red stain on this broken pavement. This was the stain that was left by Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Dr… But it represents more- it’s the stain on the community that surrounded it. It’s the stain that was there before the bullets penetrated Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant… and many others. It’s the stain of fear. It’s the stain of oppression, of systemic bloodshed that has a 400+ year history. It’s the stain we keep trying to cover up, saying that it ended in the ’60’s with the civil rights movement. It’s the stain that one can hear screaming from the pavement, crying out for justice. It’s a scream that I have heard in the sigh of black students and leaders I have partnered with in ministry. It’s a scream I, as an Asian American, have agreed with but tried to silence because there was no context in my culture for anger and loud protest. It’s a scream, that although intense, I have recognized as an invitation to listen in partnered compassion instead of the comfortable saving face action of silence and ignorance.

And the torn canvas…

I was at a prayer vigil in Berkeley the night after the decision was announced not to try the officer in court. It was moving to be part of a community that mourned. At one point of the service, we spent 4 minutes and 32 seconds in silence as an act of reflection and lament for the 4 hours and 32 minutes that Michael Brown’s body was left out in the open on the street. After that, we were each given strips of cloth. As an act of lament at these events, following with the Jewish tradition of tearing your clothes when in mourning, we tore those strips of cloth as an act of lament. At first, it was silence again… but then one tear. Then another. Then the whole room was filled with the shredding of cloth. The sound was echoing off the walls of the church. Black, Asian, Latino, White… the sound was deafening. It reminded me of the prophet Joel’s cry, to “rend your hearts, not your clothing”… unlike Israel, the sound of tearing in that room was not a fake repentance. I heard beneath the shredding of the strips of cloth the sounds of people’s hearts tearing and rending before the Lord. We then, one by one, tied our torn strips to a wire-mesh cross in the front. It was beautiful:

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As an Asian American, we have many positive parts of our culture… but often, the way we are taught to mourn is silence. It was moving to be invited into a more open type of lament. I am learning to openly lament- as an act of solidarity with others and as an act of bringing our sorrows before the Lord, to the cross where He defeated our sorrow.

Later that night, I was reading a post from one of my former students, Jon. In it, he wrote to his fellow black brothers and sisters:

In the midst of all of this I still remain hopeful. Some ask; will this be the event that begins to wake black America up? Others remain less than optimistic. To all of those who remain cynical, who have given in to hopelessness, who feel empty, who can not see an end, I URGE you, once again to examine history. History has shown time and time again that under the most grim circumstances, our people not only rise to the occasion, but create a path, an outline, a blueprint for the rest of us to follow. So instead of looking from a deficit, ask yourself, what will we create this time. #‎ferguson

The hope he had was inspiring- it was a call to face the reality of brokenness in the world around us, and in the midst of lament and mourning, to activate our imagination and creativity and continue to work as a people who declare and make the Kingdom of God a reality, despite the crap we see around us.

As I reflected on this, I remembered that it was not just an old testament practice to tear one’s clothing… it was a new testament thing as well. When Jesus, wrongfully accused by the majority and sentenced to death while innocent, was brutally killed by an oppressive occupying force that had created a system of fear and dominance over his people on a cross and breathed his last breath, it was recorded that the veil in the temple all of a sudden violently tore in two from the top to the bottom. On one level pointed to God Himself rending his garments in grief at the death of His son. We serve a God who also had his son unjustly killed. Other theologians, however, talk about how this simultaneously destroyed the barrier to the holy of holies- that out of this grief, God tore down the very thing that separated people from the presence of God. The greek word in the Mark account for tearing was only used once  before- when the heavens tore open during Jesus’ baptism and a voice declared that this was His son, whom he loved. The tearing of the veil made the same sound as the presence of God tearing into our reality, a symbol of God’s presence released to be accessible for all.

As I tore the canvas of my  painting and reflected on this, I prayed- Lord- make it so. Turn our mourning into a release of Your Spirit. Turn it into new expressions of Your kingdom, breaking through and tearing apart the unjust realities that we live in. Retrieve and reveal the created goodness in this world that has been so long twisted and torn up by both the systemic and personal sins of racism. We need your kingdom to tear into our reality, God. Only You, oh Lord can do this. Lord, have mercy.

Finally, this painting is my feeble attempt at remaining a person who pursues justice. In this transition here to the Bay Area, it’s been really easy to default into “it’s not around me, so I don’t have to care”, especially living in the middle of the Silicon Valley. My old allies and partners in the multiethnic journey are no longer near me, so there hasn’t been anyone to bother me to keep pressing in. The Lord has been repeatedly reminding me in the last several weeks that those excuses are not good enough. All that the Lord had taught me about what it meant to be a cross-cultural Asian American who cared for the issues of people who didn’t look like me during all those years working with my students at MiraCosta- they weren’t just for my first years on staff, but remain my calling as I continue in ministry. As I move into more management positions, I have already felt the temptation to remain distant to the things I once fought for.

This painting was a personal confession before the Lord. The tearing of the fabric was not just for the issues but was me rending my heart to the Lord- my personal expression, my heart, my inner being. It was me saying, “Lord- continue to break my heart for the things that break Your’s.” It was a prayer, asking the Lord to give me courage once again to seek out the cross cultural partnerships that keep me from being comfortable but reveal the full richness of the gospel. It was a prayer to the Lord, confessing my propensity towards using my privilege to hide from the brokenness around me, and to help me once again to be an agent of Kingdom reconciliation and healing that comes in the wake of the power of the Gospel. It’s a prayer, not only for the stains of blood on the pavement and the stains of racism… but for the stains of ignorance and fear on my own heart.

What can wash away our stains?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus…

——-

Yes, I know- many of you don’t agree with me. The challenge of my piece is not to agree with me or the voices in defense of Michael Brown. It is this- sit and listen compassionately, not critically. Before you judge, lament with those who lament; listen to why they lament before you judge, and be open to what it might do to you…

…Still disagree after that? Fair… but please- Sit and listen first.

An old companion

I woke up with my heart racing. There was a twitch in my eye. My brain seemed to be on fire with all the neurons firing off in an electric buzz. I knew this sensation. My old companion, anxiety had begun to tap on my shoulder again. I say companion, and not friend. This companion is like the annoying person on a red-eye plane who sits next to you and decides to jab their elbow at you the entire flight. This is the neighbor that won’t turn off his heavy bass music at 2am. This is the slightly crazy hitch hiker who you swore looked normal when you picked them up…

My old companion, anxiety, would usually show up in the most inopportune times when I needed to concentrate the most and be the best person that I had to be. Anxiety bothers me when I have to run a big event, when I want to ask a girl out, when I have to finish a huge project or when I have to have a tough conversation with a supervisor… except the problem this time was that my heart started racing, my eye started twitching and my brain started exploding… in the middle of my vacation.

As I assess where I’m at, I realize that it’s been a long year. There have been radical changes in my life with relationships, with my location, with my job… My last month has been intense: learning a new job, meeting a new team and looking for housing. My last 3 months have been crazy: Going from a serious relationship that I thought was going to be “the one”… to realizing that it wasn’t going to work out. The last 6 months have been intense- Announcing to my ministry of the last 7 years that it was time for me to move on, and the emotional goodbyes that filled the days before I left. My last year has been intense- experiencing the loss of my grandma and a mourning season that lasted longer than I wanted and that finally made me realize my time in San diego was over.

And it took me a whole week of my vacation to realize that my mind, body and soul was still riding the inertia of that stress and pushing it down, down down… This week, I didn’t stop myself- I just kept on charging ahead. I took the week off… but really, I spent all my energy trying to find housing. And it got to me. The rental market is extremely bad right now with a shortage of housing and extremely high income folk from technology companies outbidding me left and right. Cheap rent here is 1000/month… 2.5 times what I paid in San Diego. When I’m working, I usually have anywhere between 5-13 google docs open on my browser… I closed them to signal to myself that I was on vacation, but the google docs tabs were quickly replaced with craigslist ads. I even made a new google doc for housing.

Finally, it hit me. I was just as stressed out as I was while working. There was something about working that I was addicted to- this year, because of all the transition around me, I had learned to work harder so that I could gain some sense of control over the volatility and constant change around me. And worse, when I worked harder, I became more successful! I look back at the year and wonder how I accomplished all that I did- I successfully led and directed a great fall conference. I mostly destroyed a ministry and rebooted it within 6 months. I worked on planting new work with veterans and international students. I started the plant of an unreached extension campus. I recruited and activated a network of community college staff around the nation, and, from that, I directed and created an extremely successful learning day for community college staff- something that had not been done in decades.

…And although I was successful, I just kept working- to maintain the feeling that I, the mighty Daniel, was self reliant. I was afraid of the feeling of helplessness around me; the feeling on uncontrollable-ness. I needed to bury myself in something- it may as well be my success.

But during this week, I’ve realized that sometimes one can bury themselves so deep in their work and success, that they forget what rest is. It’s ironic that what I needed was to escape… but instead I was burying myself deeper. Even in the first half of my vacation, I was still driving myself into the ground- while the invitation of God was to stop flailing my arms around and look upwards. I had forgotten how to rest- to stop powering myself through life’s situations, and wait for Him to lift me up.

He’s been gently disarming me this week- twice, a couple that I’m good friends with called me to pray for my housing because they felt God laying it on their hearts- and they both felt that it would be God providing me a place to live in a way that would be miraculous. Then my anxiety attack happened yesterday… and while looking at a house, my future roommate, full of faith, said that he was confident God was going to provide. It took three times. And I realized I needed to stop fighting, stop worrying and start trusting.

So I’m getting out of town. As the song goes, I’m leaving on a jetplane. As I am sitting on this plane, I read to myself a celtic liturgy- that Christ would be over me and below me. I realized how high I was physically, and that in the same way the invitation for me during this vacation was to stop flapping my arms around, to be still and remember what it means to feel the strong currents of the Holy Spirit beneath my soul, lifting me high above to a place of perspective, stillness and closeness… closeness to the One who does not change. The One who has mercy on my wandering heart. The One who can heal me, restore me and teach me walk again. The One who is my true home, in the midst of a world in constant flux. It’s here where I find that my anxiety and hubris don’t have to be my only companion- that in fact, this One has been inviting me again and again to be with Him. 

A Howling Wind

The mountain is alive and breathing as the wind stirs the evergreen trees, causing their limbs to bend and creak in submission and their pine needles to dance wistfully, like her hair blowing across her face in the sea breeze… I look out at the mountain side as it drops out to the valley with the sea in the distance, and there are thousands of trees bristling back and forth- one moment succumbing to the force of the wind and then fighting back to maintain uprightness… And the usual serenity of the mountain’s silence has transformed into a roaring white noise of dangerous and beautiful motion.

I can only stand outside moments at a time, as the motion around me overstimulates and gets in my eyes. It isn’t a cold wind, but somehow gives a chill to my bones anyway. I retreat inside next to the smoldering remains of logs in the fireplace. It’s easy to retreat physically by this fire, but I find that as I hide from the wind, there is still so much noise in my heart.

So much has happened in this last year. And it’s been like a howling wind blowing across the face of my heart that I cannot find shelter from. I’ve seen death, new love, new life, and the loss of love. Transition has been a violent force in my life that bends and creaks every fiber of my being- sometimes even breaking my heart. I haven’t written here in 10 months. Not because nothing has happened- it’s because everything has been happening. Perhaps it’s the cultural training I have as an Asian-American to save face and look stoic on the outside whilst a whirlwind howls within. I’ve told close friends that the emotions I have been feeling have been so intense in this last year that it’s as if there is a constant buzz and tingly feeling in my head and heart- much like a foot that’s fallen asleep- that’s with me when I wake up, when I’m going through the day and when I fall asleep.

I often get frustrated at myself as a feeler. These emotions seem to cripple and paralyze myself from within, and it all seems self-inflicted. I try to keep the hurricane contained and keep myself busy…

…but now as I find myself alone and silent, on this mountainside that seems ready to be uprooted by the violent gales that crash upon its rocky face, I hear a whisper within the howling- a familiar whisper, a whisper that is my gentle friend, but isn’t afraid to use violent force to get my attention. A friendship that can in one instant become a howling wind and pentecost fire of a jealous lover and Creator.

And perhaps this is the chaos and violent storm before the new genesis… that even there, He is present. He hovers above the violent waters. His feet do not sink within my interior chaos. Only he has the authority to separate sky from sea, sea from earth… to say to the winds and storm “Be still”… but perhaps in this season, He is the violent pentecost wind heralding a new beginning and season in my life. Maybe I have to come to peace with the hurricane within, because it’s more than chaos but redemptive creation power at work within me.

…I don’t know. But I know that I’m still standing, and whether He is the source of these howling winds or voice of peace the stills them… -or both- I know I’m not who I was a year ago. I’m not sure who I will be when I emerge out of this season that He is taking me through… But I know that whatever I become, I’ll still be standing- because it’s His mercy that keeps me upright. He has always remained with me, He is still with me, and He will continue to be with me when I come out of this, and because of that I know I’m becoming more like the man He’s created me to be.

לעולמ חסדו

His steadfast love endures forever

—-

“I once saw a stonecutter remove great pieces from a huge rock on which he was working. In my imagination I thought, that rock must be hurting terribly. Why does this man wound the rock so much? But as I looked longer, I saw the figure of a graceful dancer emerge gradually from the stone, looking at me in my mind’s eye and saying, ‘You foolish man, didn’t you know I had to suffer and thus enter into my glory?’ The mystery of the dance is that its movements are discovered in mourning. To heal is to let the Holy Spirit call me to dance, to believe again, even amid my pain, that God will orchestrate and guide my life”

– Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing

Thoughts At Desert Sea

I didn’t write my 1,000 last week. So I’ve written 2,100.

—–

The salt crunches beneath my shoes.

Beneath, an expansive white plain opens up in every direction, interrupted by the skeleton of a few trees in the distance. Above, the endless smooth expanse of blue sky paling around the late afternoon sun surrounds me. The white and blue expanses meet in a shimmer of water to the north… that salty, acrid accidental water of the Salton Sea. Nobody expected the sea to be in the middle of an inland desert, but it’s here, and it’s massive. Funny, I always talk about the refreshing biblical image of springs of water in the desert, but this is all wrong. It’s not a spring. It’s simply the lowest point in this God-forsaken desert, where all the agricultural runoff and flooding from the Colorado River collects into a massive saline puddle.  It’s not where water comes to live, it’s where it comes to die.

I don’t know why I’m here. I guess I had been surrounded by so many people, often trapped in how messed up the world is, that I needed to go to a place where I could be alone, away from it all. Driven by that gut desire, I hopped into the driver’s seat, and 3 hours later in the middle of my fourth play of U2’s Joshua Tree album, and somewhere in between the tracks “Red Hill Mining Town” and “In God’s Country”, I found myself in this abandoned corner of Americana.

I pull up to the only place in Bombay Beach that seems open, besides the gates that have been left swung wide ajar in front of abandoned trailers. The heat wraps around me, and although heat it self is not solid matter, it seems to add dry viscosity to the air around me, like I’m walking through a thick, pasty burnt soup that’s been left on the burner too long. Everything smells a little burnt around me anyways, as if the desert heat is slowly incinerating anything man-made here. The sign says “Ski Inn”. I wonder what kind of skiing they are talking about, in the middle of the desert, with any semblance of mountains in sight blazing with the heat of the sun. Not the most hospitable place for snow to reside. Must be for water skiing. In water that’s three times more saline than the ocean. So many dead dreams here, maybe more than the millions of dead fish carcasses that litter these shores. The trailer community here was formed when this desert sea was a resort… Prime real estate, right next to the water! Fishing, relaxation, a great place to retire! Paradise in the desert!… and now all that’s left are dilapidated and abandoned houses, desiccating in the heat, with a crunchy crust of salt uniformly formed on anything exposed to the air. And Ski Inn.

There’s a man smoking on a bench outside the nondescript white door with rusty stains. His red sunburnt face turns to me briefly as he notices me, but his notice does not go as far as acknowledgement. At that moment, I’m not sure if I’ve made a good choice stepping out the car, but my desire to save face paired with my hunger has me committed and locked in as I reach for the door knob and enter. The room is dark, and rays of sunlight filter through the dusty air. I have to wait for my eyes to readjust, and I see hundreds of dollar bills taped up on every wall and even creeping up to the ceiling, with each bill scrawled with the name of the giver. The room is empty except for the bar, where there are four aging senior citizens in a conversation with the ancient bar tender and his wife. I think humorously to myself that there are more dollar bills with names on them than there are people in here (and in this town in fact). I try to hide my nervousness and sit at the far end of the bar on the old cracked leather of a bar stool. The bar tender notices me, gets up and stiffly walks over to me and asks how he can help me. I reply, “Howdy, y’all got anything to eat?” I know it’s ridiculous, but when I feel nervous around white people, I start uncontrollably talking in the Texas accent that I learned when I was Pawnee Bill in my high school musical, Annie Get Your Gun. And my unnatural Texas accent is thick in this moment. In my thoughts, I’m shaking my head and laughing at how nervous I am. However, the accent seems to shock the bar tender enough to confuse him as well (my Texas twang is pretty good, I might add)- I can imagine what the confusion is saying inside the man’s head- “What is this Chinese boy doing out here in the middle of the desert with his shiny gray Honda? And why in God’s name is this Chinese boy talking like a Texan cattle rancher?”. However, we both endure through the awkwardness, and he hands me a cracked plastic menu. I quickly look it over and order a cheeseburger and a coke. He gets a can out of a hidden refrigerator and cracks it open for me and then slowly trudges back to his friends, because one of the old leathery ladies needs a refill on her red-eye, which is half tomato juice and half bud light. They proceed to continue their conversation, which was about the strong winds that came out of nowhere today and the especially large amount of motorcyclists that had been coming through that day. The two topics must be important, because the conversation seems to be on repeat, like Joshua Tree was for me in the car. I can tell they’ve all lived here for a long time, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps they came out here when the place was still in its resort-heyday, and just stayed… out of loyalty? Out of the refusal to change? Perhaps in hope that those old dreams of retiring happily in paradise would magically come true? Or perhaps out of surrender to the death of those dreams and growing too old for change? I silently think about it as I eat the mediocre burger and scarf down the french fries. Food is good when you’ve driven so many hours in silence, and company, even awkward company that you hope won’t talk to you, is refreshing when you’ve been walking along salty shores littered with dead fish by yourself.

In the afternoon sun, I look behind me and see the shadows of my footprints in the expanse of salt crust, mostly in a straight path except to walk around the piles of dead fish carcasses that litter the Salton shores.

I don’t know why, but the expanse was so inviting to me, and the branches of a dead tree seemed to be like the inviting arms of embrace, and I just started walking. I didn’t realize how far the tree was, and my small Honda is now an even smaller speck of gray in the distance. The dead tree on the other hand has grown larger than I had expected, perhaps dwarfed in the distance by the white salty expanse below it and the blue expanse above it. The black crows and cormorants that were on the branches sense my presence, and fly away. The tree is beautiful. The bleached white wood is orange in the sun’s decreasing angle in the sky and is striking against the blue of the sky. It’s strange how beautiful this deathly remnant is, and how it still seems alive with arms wide open.

I’m driving down a bumpy road, listening to the nostalgic falsettos of a Bon Iver album, following the directions of the clerk at the small grocery store. “Salvation Mountain? Well, you’re actually right on the street that leads up to it, just keep going, it’s three miles down.”

As I continue driving, slowing down for the bumps and potholes in this unmaintained road, my eyes are searching the desert hills. And all of a sudden an outburst of color emerges over the horizon. Salvation mountain. It’s an entire hill that’s been covered by acrylic paint. It’s bright colors shine against the drab grays and browns of the desert surrounding it. It’s covered in giant Bible verses and “GOD IS LOVE” is written on any other space. I park my car and find hordes of tourists and photographers. I’m always a little ashamed to join the hordes, but it’s not enough to keep me from joining them, gawking at the bright yellows, pinks, purples and whites, with blue flowing down in painted rivers from a lone cross on top of the hill. In several places, there are hearts with a prayer written within them, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” Leonard Knight met Jesus in 1967, and it seems to be a prayer he’s repeated over and over as he worked on his masterpiece in the desert over the years.

Leonard isn’t there. I’m sad, I was hoping to meet him, as if he was some desert-artist-saint-wiseman. I hear some tourists murmur about how he’s currently sick in the hospital. Some obnoxious teenagers who look like their parents spoiled them a little too much with a Lexus brashly declare that he’s probably dead, as they climb irreverently on the hillside clearly marked by Leonard, “DO NOT CLIMB”. I’m a little angry at the girls as they treat this giant monument to a man’s love for God into some playground, but really, their juvenile disposition towards life can’t really overshadow the sheer beauty of the place, as awkward and garish as it might be. There’s beauty here, but it’s not necessarily in the looks. Perhaps there is beauty here because the paint is laced with the blood sweat and tears of a man captured by a genuine vision that he wanted to share with the world. As I take a break from the mountain and find myself wandering in the desert into the distance, I chuckle to myself pondering the words of my college professors were when they boldly proclaimed those post-modern philosophical sentiments of “the medium is the message!” and what that might have meant for Leonard in his simple Christian conviction of God’s love as he scaled that hill painting day in and day out. I wonder if his medium really was old donated cans of acrylic paint.

I stand staring at the beautiful bleached wood of twisted barren branches.

My trance is shattered by a loud gunshot to the northwest that seems to echo and bounce back and forth between the desert floor and the sky-blue ceiling. My eyes turn and look around. The dead silence that was punctuated by the steady crunch of my shoes in the salt crust is littered with the cries of birds rising out of enormous body of unnatural, salty water to the north. I look up and there are thousands of white winged dots above me in the blue expanse above. They sound like the cries of many people. And a, “wow” shyly creeps out of my throat awkwardly, probably because it’s the first sound I’ve made since saying “Howdy” at lunch 4 hours ago. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounds me. The dead fish carcasses and barnacles, the salt crust, the putrid smell, the sad remains of a 1950’s dream of heavenly relaxation and the thought that somebody’s probably just illegally killed an endangered bird… they should make me disgusted with the place, but I’m finding myself in awe of a hidden yet grand, sublime yet blatant sense of beauty.

My counselor, a quiet bearded man who doesn’t ever seem to tire of my endless vomit of words that I burden him with every two weeks, listens quietly. He’s an introvert, and the introverts in my life have magical powers to me that coax out every thought I’ve had in my head. I’m telling him I was so captured because for some reason, the rubble, the deadness, the deterioration- it’s beautiful to me. “Why is that, Daniel?”

“I guess it’s because those things have character, they seem to have gone through something. They have story, the narrative value is apparent, and the story seems old and begs to be known…”

I pause. People keep saying to me at church, and I tell students I minister to on campus, “God makes all things beautiful”, but part of me couldn’t quite believe it for myself. I’m often filled with fear that my brokenness, my fears, my addictions, my faults- that *I* am not redeemable.

“… and it’s cheesy, but there are a lot of things that I’ve had to watch die off in my life. But I’m now starting to gain the courage to face those dead things, those abandoned dreams, and realize they are part of me, and that God can turn them and has turned them into something beautiful- once I was brave enough to look.”

Brave enough to stop running and go back and look at the desert.

So perhaps… I can catch a glimpse of beauty.

The beating of wings fades, the white dots settle back upon the distant glimmer of water to the north. It’s silent again. The sun is setting and the my shadow’s as tall as the tree. I turn around and look back across the white expanse and let my feet crunch upon the white salt crust towards my Honda in the distance. It’s time to go back and face the world. This messed up, beautiful world.

Christmas

Christmas.

Sorry to say it, but it’s my least favorite time to go to church.

Perhaps because the memory of that December so many years ago in college is still fresh. I was angry at God and had decided to become an atheist. But I was too scared and ashamed of it to tell my parents or friends. So I went to church. And it was just so disgusting. Why the heck were these people singing these stupid songs, playing stupid games, eating food, having generic sermons about how we love to receive gifts, but we have forgotten “the real gift” of Christmas, seeing kids dress up in sheep costumes, and wearing absolutely horrendous looking sweaters?

I think I was angry because I was looking for proof. I didn’t want to be an atheist. I wanted to believe there was a God. But I was just so bitter, angry and frustrated… perhaps I didn’t want proof of His existence, I just needed to know that He cared. In retrospect, I was probably more likely an agnostic that was posing as an atheist out of my passive aggressive way of expressing anger. I was yelling. And even if I was yelling at thin air, I was hoping the swear words I yelled got to some higher divine being.

Those Christmas celebrations made me angry- not because I felt displaced, but because deep inside I was desperately hoping that they could turn me back to God, and instead they were just a bunch of people trying to act drunk without alcohol. They talked about some real gift of God, but really nobody cared. They just wanted to sing some carols haphazardly. I had to sit through so many of those Christmas pageants, awkward parties… Is that really what Christians thought of God? Was God really a God of awkward parties and bizzarre children’s Christmas plays? This hope that they say was fulfilled on Christmas… just seemed so fake. Perhaps hope really was a socially constructed reality that we were all fooled into believing to keep us sane.

But really, I shouldn’t be so down on Christmas. It was the depth of my frustration, anger, and (dare I say) depression. But it was also where God met me.

I rolled around sleepless in my bed on Christmas eve after one of those aforementioned awkward church Christmas celebrations, wondering if hope and heaven were real… and every time I got close to being okay with hope being real, I remembered how angry I was at God, how bitter I was. When it came down to it, even if He was real, how would I be able to be sure I could trust in Him? How could I be sure that He loved me?

And then something strange happened. I heard a foreign yet familiar whisper. Remember…

and it kept repeating, hauntingly, yet lovingly… remember… remember…

As I sat in bed, it’s hard to explain what happened. In fact, every time I try to recount it, I just have no words for it and verbally stumble around (which is rare for me)… but I can describe it simply as… I remembered. I can’t really describe it, and I’ve been trying for these last 7 years to figure out how to explain it, and the best I could come up with was that… I remembered. I remembered His goodness. I remembered the times I saw Him tangibly act, when I could feel Him. I remembered when I saw Him heal. I witnessed Him when he changed people’s hearts.

For some reason, I remembered the orphans I had worked with that summer in China. And how many were now actually going to college and getting jobs… often an impossibility for handicapped orphans. And how they sang to God saying,

For You are the song that makes my heart sing,
For You are the strength that lifts my hands in praise,
For You are my God, I offer You my life,
Now I am Yours, Your precious living stone

And in that moment, I remembered hope was concrete, it actually transformed. It was more than an abstract idea, but it was a personal, powerful and tangible force. It was a hope I could no longer ignore. My resentment, anger and frustration melted. I surrendered to that foreign yet familiar whisper. I stopped running away. I stopped resisting. I could not keep saying “no” to this unrelenting love.

During that Christmas, as annoyed as I was at God, at His people… I received the real gift. And the real gift of Christmas is that God couldn’t stand the separation between us and Him… that He is not the deistic divine being that stands back in unrelatable aloofness, but actually reaches out to touch us, to be with us, to speak with us, to heal us.  What makes this gift even deeper is that we can throw in all the anger, bitterness, swear words, middle fingers or plain ignorance… and He keeps reaching out to us in love. There is something tireless about the way He pursues, and that He would go to any length to be with us, even if that means being born into a stinky box meant for putting in the feed for cattle, in the bloody ugliness and pain of human birth, if that meant being born into the family of a lower class laborer in a abandoned desolate corner of oppressed empire, if it meant suffering an execution on a cross on account of false accusations… He did it, and would do it again so that we could tangibly experience the God named Emmanuel, which literally means “God With Us”.

So this year, as I sat in the second of at least 5 Christmas parties, chugging down on my second cup of hot cocoa while playing Christmas carol pictionary, I felt the old scars in my heart. But as my fingers ran over those scars, I didn’t just remember the pain associated with those scars… I heard that familiar (and no longer so foreign) whisper again… remember… and I also remembered the healing each of those scars represented, that He actually would pursue, come close and redeem my pain and my anger.

I smiled and snapped out of my introspection as I recognized the bad drawing of my tablemate and yelled out the answer for pictionary. Lame or not, I was going to win this game :).

An Addendum

I was told a couple of times I made some pretty hard hits on white church in my last entry. I wanted to make a few comments along those lines. It’s a little different from what I usually write, but I think these things should be said.

1. Was it too heavy handed? It may have been. But these are real thoughts that bounce around in any person’s head in cross cultural interactions (they call it red-lining in InterVarsity missions training, read about it here). What I was trying to capture was my “red-line” posture, in which I approach differences negatively. Now, just because it is common or “real” doesn’t make my rant very right. I should have put in a clear disclaimer that my posture was not a good one (And I do write later how God had to change my posture), and perhaps didn’t need to put all the details of my thoughts there. But this is the type of “red-lining” that I have to guard my heart against each day when I’m in North County- a culture that is not my own, but God has called me to make my own. That’s a huge part of missions- making the decision not to approach differences badly and to see and call out the created beauty within the culture we are called to. When we stop seeing the beauty, we fail the mission of missions.

2. Was I making too many generalities about cultures? Yes and no. Yes in that culture is full of generality- in fact, it’s not about the individual, but the collectivized and generalized actions of many individuals. But culture is slippery. It’s hard to pin down what is Asian culture, white culture, black culture, Latino culture, etc… The descriptions of white culture and Asian culture I had were synthesized from my own personal experiences that constructed specific schema for me to operate out of and assume out of. See, that’s the thing- culture is not only the actions and ideas of the group, but the perceptions of the observing individual. And then let’s not forget the unique and anomalous decisions of individuals which will always aberrate from the constructed assumptions (from within and outside) of that culture. Actually the point of the previous entry was to point out that things are easy to hate and be annoyed at (or on the flip-side have a very ignorant type of paternalistic love for) when we refuse to see the nuanced individual aberrations from culture and just pure surprises when we actually take time to get to know the individuals of a different culture.

3. So are white people evil? There is a long history of oppression by white westerners towards the rest of the world. As individualist as a white person wants to be and say that they are separate from their history, it simply is not true. We are all part of our histories, and our histories are what have put us in our specific present places (geographically, socially, etc.). Subsequently, a lot of the expressions of white culture (even when expressed healthily!) are tainted with that history from a minority’s point of view. So yes, white people are evil… but not anymore evil than any other group of people. NT Wright writes that good and evil is not a line between good and evil people, but a line that runs down the center of every single human heart. Every single person or people group has the same potential towards sin, and we all share a common history in sin with Adam and Eve. The oppressed can so easily become the oppressor. The question isn’t really if white people are evil… because the same stain of evil and sin is deep within every culture.

BUT THE GOOD NEWS: We were created by a good God, who originally saw creation and saw it good. Culture is part of that good creation. I serve a God that not only had good original intentions, but is constantly redeeming the fallen parts of our beings and cultures through the power of the cross and the resurrection. We, by ourselves, are suspended within a sinful system and are infected deep within with sin. He is the only one that can redeem us from being suspended within the endless cycles of oppression and sin.

Because I feel that white people get a lot of flack for how much they suck, I thought it would be good to put out a list of admirable things I have observed about white culture in these last several years. It is the created beauty that seems to shine out a lot in white american culture (again, refer to #2, these are generalizations, this is not all white americans, and many non-white people have these traits as well). In no particular order:

  1. Hard work and honesty- They value good hard work. It’s one of their core values. And yes, this value has been manipulated to work against others, but I think at its core, this is a good thing.
  2. Individualism- We love to hate individualism. But really, it’s something that that white American culture offers to us, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I come from a culture of heavy communalism. In its best, we know how to be family and how to have hospitality towards the stranger. We know that we have to stand up for each other and protect each other. We know that we are all connected, and that no individual’s action is done in isolation. But at its worst, it’s easy to just go with the masses and make peace instead of actually standing up for what’s right, or just my own personality. Individualism helps me to make my faith my own, instead of just what everyone else is doing. Individualism helps me know that God has created me uniquely, not for selfish purposes, but to bless others around me. However, I (and everyone else) lose that blessing if I think that I have to be like everyone else. No, God has created us uniquely to be blessings to creation.
  3. Confrontation and truth- Similar to individualism, this is also one that people steer away from. I remember always wincing at the comfortability that some of my white friends and their families had with conflict. But coming from a culture in which our (good) peace keeping tendencies can easily turn to hiding the truth, not speaking up and just being plain silent when injustice is occuring… the expression of dissatisfaction is refreshing. White people have taught me how to be a brave prophet and speak truth, even if it will offend people. In its better form, confrontation helps us speak truth so that we can love even deeper and make even stronger peace.
  4. Indie music. Coffee. Homebrewing. haha i guess hipster culture in general (I always poke fun at it, but it’s really because I admire it).
  5. Engaging the mind. This is something I notice in white worship services. The worship leader gives just as much if not more theology than the pastor that is preaching the sermon! One of my students aptly observed- white people’s services are like a college lecture. It’s not about inspiration but learning. While I am a big fan of honoring God with the emotions (I’m really emotional, in case you didn’t know), what I get from my white friends is an act of worship by offering God their minds.

There’s more. But it’s getting late, and I’m tired. Perhaps you should add. We know how white culture and history has badly affected the world… but what if we did some excavation and looked for what God’s original intention (and is still there) in white American culture? I’ve seen too many white brothers and sisters either ashamed of their culture or unaware that they have one. That shame and/or unawareness only leads to more sin. Shouldn’t we (and especially myself) be calling out the good in our white brothers and sisters, so as to empower and challenge them to also be blessings to the rest of us in the fullness of their cultural identities?

Welcome.

I’ve been out of town fundraising for the last 2 weeks fundraising.

I love fundraising back in the bay, because… I have friends.

…Let me rephrase (because I definitely have friends near me haha). I have friends that I’ve grown up with my whole life, who know me, whom I don’t need to over-explain… and well, let’s face it. They’re asian. What I love most about my Asian cultural background is the sense of family, of instant belonging. I’ve showed up as a stranger at Asian American churches, and felt an instant welcoming. Like clockwork, even if it was the most awkward and unfriendly Asian American church, I’ll get offered some sort of meal at the end.

You see, I love meals, especially Sunday after-church meals, but for more reasons than me loving eating (which I do). I miss the feeling of getting approached and invited to lunch. I miss the laborious process of standing in the circle, debating what to eat and nobody deciding, until somebody just gets tired of it and decides. I miss sitting around 3-4 combined tables at a pho restaurant, exchanging jokes, talking about the sermon. I miss the bonding that happens during these meals. I miss… the community.

And in this process of being cross-cultural and learning how to love white culture, the one thing I haven’t quite adapted to is the individualist culture of white America… the awkwardness of just getting people together to eat after church. During my 2-year church search process in North County, I observed a certain process: people file out quickly and leave, until I find I’m the only one left talking to perhaps one person, who is a 25% chance of being a lunch buddy. I’ve just kind of folded into it all and joined the individualist masses in leaving quickly. Sunday afternoons are for you to chill out alone and watch TV or something. Community’s supposed to happen somewhere… but perhaps with the family or (I say it sarcastically) for singles, yourself.

So upon my return, I had really low expectations remembering my 2 year search for a church that was welcoming. I was a little embittered from the last 4 years of trying to make attempts at friendship in North County in the midst of my own busy ministry schedule, and then coming immediately from the Bay Area, where I had perhaps just one meal that I ate by myself. I was ready to face the impending isolation. Even worse, church that sunday had a father’s day theme. I really dislike being at those services away from my family, it always seems to serve as a reminder that I am far from home and far from familiarity. It reminds me of how hard it is to be cross cultural, no matter how heroic it sounds.

I love my pastor, and what he did was not wrong, just really hard for myself- He had all the dads stand up, and then all their families stand next to them so that the dads could pray for their families, because that’s what real dad’s should do (which is actually a really cool thought). Unfortunately, I was left alone without a family there, and I could almost feel that sense of isolation creep up on me…

But God has a way of melting the most bitter and cynical heart (of which I’m pretty sure I’m near the top of that list).

As I began to go down the dark vortex of sulkage, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the Jenkinsons. They were signaling for me to get into their family huddle. And I got up and joined their huddle… As I was there surrounded in the huddle of my adopted family and heard Mr. Jenkinson whisper his prayers over his family, I heard in between those whispers, the whispers of my Heavenly Father, reminding me that His embrace, fatherhood and friendship are immutable and immovable, ever so constant.

Ironically, after all my complaining of the lack of meals with people after church at all the white churches I’ve visited, there was a church bbq. I sat down with the Olaguibels and said “ah, mi familia!” and they welcomed me to pull a chair and sit with them. As I sat there in our church’s lawn exchanging jokes with the Olaguibels, I thought- really, this is family.  I remember (now that I think about it) that I decided to stay at Las Flores Church because they were the first white church to remember my name. They even sent me a handwritten letter thanking me for coming a second time. The men’s group I had been going to at Las Flores this last semester has been one of the most convicting and faith building groups I’ve been a part of that was not comprised of just peers. And Pastor Dwayne, he remembers you. He notices and emails you when he notices you haven’t been at church one weekend. So I guess white people can do community if they try :P.

And no, this white church isn’t perfect… but really, when has an Asian church ever been perfect? God is reminding me that He provides, beyond whatever culture, whatever place… true family, home and community are in Him, and He’s a good dad that provides for all our needs. All I need to do is to remember to trust in that, as I forge further ahead in this place of ministry that not many others are in- that He is a God that brings streams in the desert, manna from the sky.