Category Archives: Memory

Brothers Still

The four of us sat in a row together, in a building full of memory beneath the paint of the walls. The first slide up front was a cursive proclamation: “You Belong Here”. Perhaps to some of us, it was a warm welcome home, and perhaps to others of us, it was a threat… or maybe a mixture of both and more. Listening to the songs that meant so much to us when we were younger, eliciting different reactions in us today- comfort, revulsion, confusion, curiosity. Familiarity and foreignness.

There was a communal snicker that came out of our row of four as the announcements of a youth lock-in came on screen. “…remember the bathroom?” and it was hard for us to contain our laughter as memories from almost 20 years ago resurfaced; we were making a scene just like we used to all those years ago.

Sit. Stand. Pray. Sit back down. Greet someone. (“…It’s been so long!”) Listen to sermon. Try not to listen to eachother’s snickers. Stand. Pray. Leave.

Nothing’s really changed.

As we sat at a barbecue restaurant at 10:30am (nothing better than barbecue for breakfast), we marveled at how much it all felt like home, but how strange and unfamiliar it all was. We’ve gone our separate paths. Life has brought different things to us. Some of us have kids, some of us have experienced heartbreak, and some more than others. But all of us are showing age- if not in the color of our hair, it’s in our stories; it’s in the brief pauses after our laughter at old memories and stupid jokes… And in our age, “God” means different things to us all, and some would even say that some of us have “wandered” from the family… but here we were, this strange hodgepodge of personalities that came from the same cloth, as if some strange modern Asian-American version of the beginning of a Dostoyevsky novel (I should probably try finishing that book at some point in my life) had reincarnated itself in our own lives… brothers still.

As we jabbed eachother with old trash talk, with inappropriate jokes and with reminders of awkward memories… there was something powerful and incorruptible underneath it all. There was something deeper to our brotherhood than even (dare I say) religious affiliation.

…Maybe even a hint of God’s presence in our midst, whatever that might mean to each of us.

…or maybe i’m just a little too sentimental. Maybe I’m just a little overoptimistic about the fortitude of old friendships. Maybe I’ve conveniently forgotten how hard these friendships were to maintain through the years. Maybe I’m  just someone stuck in the past and things aren’t as much the same as I think.

But whatever I am, I’m sure of this: I miss these brothers, and I’m thankful for the part they’ve all played in making me the beautiful mess of who I am today. Thanks guys.

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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. 

East of I-5

I was irritated.

In desperate need of a break last semester, I had planned to take the long way home for thanksgiving along the coast. But things came up and I left late… making it impossible to get to the prettier parts of the coast before the sun went down (don’t you hate winter?).

So in a foul mood, I made the trek through the congested streets of LA to the boring farmlands of central California…

…it’s funny how God makes the mundane beautiful.

I spent the car ride giving my usual complaints to the Lord: “Am I in the right place in life?” “Everyone seems to be moving on in life. Why do I feel stuck?” “How long will I stay in this season of isolation?”

As if the Lord got tired of my whining, I saw a flash to the right of me. I looked and saw nothing but darkness. Confused, I kept going. Another flash. Looked, darkness again. The third time it happened, I was determined to see what was doing it, so I intently switched from the road in front of me and the dark night sky to the east… and I saw it.

A storm was brewing to the east somewhere just north of Fresno. It was dark and hard to see. But every few minutes, lightning would strike and the dark grays and blacks of the cloud would be transformed to brilliant pink and yellow sharply against the starry sky. The cloud was persistent. It seemed run north with me up that long stretch of I-5 and endless farmland.

I remembered how in Exodus, the Lord would lead the Israelites through the wilderness in a cloud. And that still small voice, which I had lost in the midst of busy-ness and ministry success, that I so desperately needed, whispered to me, “I have been, and will always be with you. I lead you and I follow you; I cover your every step. Remember that the only right place to be is with Me, where you are never alone.”

I couldn’t stop looking to the right the rest of the time I was on the freeway. As I exited I-5 onto 152 westwards towards San Jose, I found myself shaken.

…shaken, but not alone.

East of I-5

A kid showing his mom his artwork

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 :).

While I was gone…

We the staff of San Diego have been reflecting on the life of Elijah this last year during our quarterly spiritual formation retreats, where we go worship, study some scripture and be silent in the mountains for about 16 hours.

During this time, I realized that there has been a lot to process this year. Much to have joy about. And much to mourn. And at the end of the retreat, I found myself needing more. So I decided to use take some time off this week to seek God. I spent 5 days without facebook, twitter, internet, netflix. It was a decision to spend some time off really reflecting on the past and lean into my next two years on staff.

I needed to laugh and have joy about my victories. I needed to grieve and be aware of my woundedness from losses and failures. I needed to dream again.

There’s a lot of stuff I processed this past week. Too much to write, and some of it too private and should remain in my personal journal (where I complain like a teenage girl ha). I also painted. I’ve been trying to become more comfortable with my artistic side lately, to stop cringing when people call me artistic and just… embrace it (I had a much longer thought on this, but it’s just too long of a tangent).

The painting I did seems to portray the process I was going through this week.

So instead of writing a lot, here it is with pictures.

I transformed my tiny backyard this week into an art studio. Here is my backyard:

I did the painting over 5 days, in 3 parts.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

My paintings are how I process my prayers.

The first part, I was looking for a part of me I felt was missing.

The second part, I was reflecting on the storms and crises I had been through since september… and there have been a lot. I was also realizing how much I had learned about myself through those experiences.

The third part was a reminder of how God spoke to me when He called me on staff, and a very specific image that has a lot of personal meaning for myself. It was a reminder of how things began, and a reminder to hope for the future.

And that’s been this season really… A lot of storms. A lot of loss. But still a lot of fruit… and realizing that it all distracts me from some important things that are basic to the wellbeing of my soul.

This year, I am realizing the depth of my limitations and the simultaneous depth of His grace on me. The biggest thing I’m coming away with is that in order for me to thrive in this next season, I need to stop trying to expand the borders of my ability, but to embrace my limitedness and lean upon the unending and limitless grace that God has for me.

Grace. I can’t run away from it. I can’t ignore it. And I can’t figure out what to do with it, what it actually is for me… and if I’m really allowed to have it. But it’s there, waiting to be known.

Peaceful Joy

I was driving the old maroon Previa up the peninsula on I-280, a trip I had taken so many times in my years as a Bay Area resident, but remains fresh every time I am on that road. The rains had just fallen and it just so happened that the hills that are usually brown, burnt by the sun, were glowing with a vibrant green. The oaks were barren but gleamed with a lime green from the sun reflecting off of the lichen that bore heavy on the trees. On the left, we could see the fog from Half Moon Bay slowly crawling over the evergreen-covered coastal mountains. The conversation I was having with my friend in the passenger seat stilled as we reflected on the peaceful joy that emerges from scenes such as this.

Peaceful joy. hm.

This past week, I was in the San Francisco Bay Area for the Asian American Staff Conference for InterVarsity. I had been expecting it to be a place of peace and joy. It had been at this conference where I was invited to attend as a student guest, that I first started really got serious about considering that InterVarsity Staff was going to be God’s call into ministry for me. And after spending so much time in a ministry context so devoid of Asian Americans (but still several there, you just have to look hard), being at this conference in the Bay Area, where I grew up, should have felt like returning home.  Perhaps that was why I didn’t feel peace and joy.

Yes, I walked into that conference- a place where 3 years ago I would have felt complete comfort in…- totally uncomfortable. I felt tension. I felt lonely even though everyone else around me looked so similar to me! I had grown up all my life in situations like this! This place that should have been the epitome of my feeling of “home”… resulted only in my own disorientation.

And not just in conferences… As I sat there uncomfortable in the back of the room during the first session, my memories wandered back to a few weeks prior as I sat in my grandparent’s house in San Diego’s City Heights, trying futilely to help them out as they labored to prepare Chinese New Year’s dinner for me. This was the same house they had moved into when they first immigrated to the States in the 70’s as a cook and a laundromat worker. The age of the house showed with grease stains on the kitchen walls and the carpet worn where my grandparents had grown accustomed to walking on. Usually I try not to help my grandparents prepare food. They get mad because for them, service, hospitality and food are how they show love to me, and they don’t want to be stolen that opportunity because they don’t usually have much to give in a red envelope to me.  This time though, my grandma’s blood sugar had gotten low and she was sweating so much she had to change clothes, and my grandpa’s leg was undergoing some sort of pain that made walking almost impossible if it weren’t for his old aged pride used as a mask in an attempt to hide his inadequacy that night. As I attempted to offer help, I tried to ask them what I could do in cantonese… and what once flowed out of me so naturally felt like I was coughing out clumsy bricks of words, stripped of the intricate 7-9 tones that makes the cantonese so warm and alive to me.

It’s created this nagging and haunting thought… in the attempt of being incarnational and missional to a community of whites, blacks, latinos, philippinos  and samoans, am I losing my own Chinese identity? In theory, being missional and being a blessing to those outside of our own communities should not steal from our identity but actually should help us discover what it really means to be whoever we are… because that’s what we were created for. It’s so beautiful in theory…

…but it’s so hard in reality. When I get endless jokes about me being a kung fu master, a ninja, a panda, jackie chan, etc… I feel cornered into two options that I don’t like- either directly get really angry and frustrated at people and have nobody understand why I’m so angry at them or passive-aggressively swallow it in a slow simmering resentment against my own Chinese identity.

And so I find my own identity dissolving, fracturing and decentralizing in ways that horrify me but am powerless to stop. Joy and peace… is something that I realize i’ve gotten used to not having when it comes to my identity.

But then as I write those words, Alexi Murdoch’s song “orange sky” comes up on the shuffle, with that simple repeating refrain I could listen to endlessly, “…in your love, my salvation lies, in your love, my salvation lies, in your love, in your love…” I remember John 15, the verse we dwelled on several weeks ago during our retreat of silence- and the majestic whisper that kept beckoning me, “Remain in my love.” I remember marvelling that God prunes the branches that bear fruit… so they could bear more fruit. Not as punishment, and not so that they would bear less fruit.

I did this piece during a retreat of silence as a reflection on my Chinese identity in the light of John 15

Could it really be true that God is pruning my identity? That He is pruning my identity as a Chinese-American so that I could be even more fruitful in my identity as a Chinese-American? Could there really be fruitfulness as a result of this sense of identity-barrenness?

True joy and peace in the midst of this journey of identity formation cannot be in the flux of my identity, but in the hope built upon His unchanging, unswerving and unrelenting love which is the very force that has taken me on this journey in the first place. A hope that this journey does not lead me to a place of identity sublimation, but to a place where my identity no longer stands in the way of me being a blessing to others… but on the contrary becomes the very means in which i can be a blessing to everyone I meet in this multicultural world.

In the midst of this tension and reverse culture shock, I choose to remain.

…in Your love, my salvation lies…

To Feel (a.k.a. “There and Back Again, a hobbit’s tale”)

(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.