Category Archives: Ministry

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.

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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. 

Grief

<deep breath>

It’s been two months.

Grief does funny things to you. It somehow turns you into an unpredictable brute of emotions. A friend described her process as a lazy susan of emotions that gets spun unpredictably, and you never know what you’re going to feel. The “stages of grief” are not as linear as I wish they were. At first I was trying to go through them like a nice checklist. I find instead, I’ve been wandering between denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in large squiggly lines.

People tell me I should be so overjoyed she said “yes” to Jesus. While I’m sure the hope will settle in… I still just miss her a lot.

Grief can’t be rushed. But damnit, I want it to be over already. I hate being this weak. I hate being this uncontrolled. I hate not knowing when I will snap. I’m tired of having to apologize to people almost every day. My jokes are what they were 7 years ago before I did a lot of character work- cynical, angry and cutting. I slam cups down on tables a lot- which people think is out of my usual party-jovial-ness… but the act filled with anger. I’ve been swearing a lot more than even my relaxed standard for bad language can take. Objectivity and putting on the “work” hat takes so much energy.

It’s this brute of emotion I keep trying to lock up. I’ve made a discipline of it. “Daniel, you have to make emotional choices to be present” has been the credo of my incarnational lifestyle in this ministry to a culture that is not my own. I hide the beast behind this locked door because I’m ashamed of how the majority culture around me, my family, friends, students, coworkers …and God would judge it. I’m sure it’s the full representation of my sinful nature. I’m ashamed of my judgmentalism. I’m ashamed of my anger. I’m ashamed of my depression. I’m ashamed of how I might blow up on people. I’m ashamed of what my supervisors might be discussing behind closed doors if they start to see how immature I look.

…How easily I forget that locking up the beast is a choice towards hardness. How easily I forget that the most important emotional choice I could make is to open the door. Perhaps it’s the Lord’s mercy that grief has allowed the beast to break out from these heavy locked doors every now and then- to remind me that His mission is not to slay this part of me… but is to embrace it, love it and restore this beast’s humanity. For, if I were to listen to what I teach students- He doesn’t love part of me. He loves every fiber of my being. He loves the parts that reflect His image… and he loves this uncontrollable brute of emotion within me, because that was once a reflection of His image as well.

Last year I taught several interns that our best tool in ministry is not our strength, our talents, our charisma… but our vulnerability. I hate having to trust in the things that I teach.

Vulnerability forces me to remember His mercy on me, brute or not. The reminders from friends who say in both words and presence- “you are not alone.” The grace extended by my coworkers every time I’ve had a blow up in the middle of a meeting. The fact that my students haven’t left me in the midst of my unpredictable anger and withdrawal.  …and a new friend God has brought into my life- she keeps praying for me, and I know theologically there is really no such thing as somebody who God listens to more… but I’m pretty sure He listens to her more. There are times I feel I am drowning… but the people the Lord brings around me are like the waves withdrawing, dipping down to me so that I can breath. Mercy like a head bobbing out of violent waters gasping for breath.

I have to remember that what passes by before me in the midst of the waves as I cross the sea is not a ghost.

…maybe one day I’ll finally get it and arrive in Bethsaida.

Ranch 99

I drove into the crowded parking lot. Cars are “parked” (more like strewn about) in strange patterns that generally follow the patterns of the parking lot lines. I see mothers pushing carts laden with food for their families towards their cars.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here.

I park and walk in. I walk straight to Sam Woo. No, it’s not the best Chinese food… but there’s something homey about the place. I stand in line. As if an act of recognition and welcome, the man behind the counter purposefully skipped the white man in front of me and pointed at me.

I replied, “Cha sieu fan.” The words felt clumsy coming out of my lips. English had been forming the muscles in mouth, and the old forgotten muscles, tones, sounds, and inflections wanted to come out… but it was like running for the first time after a long period of no exercise… painful yet exhilarating.

I walked out, glad that my lack of practice in Cantonese wasn’t tipped off to the rude cashier lady.

But much like after a first run in a long time… I realized I needed more. With the sweet BBQ pork with rice and savory sauce in a plastic bag, I turned around from heading back to my car and walked into the fray.

The produce section was filled with people touching and testing the veggies. It brought me back to times at the dinner table when my mom had to negotiate with me to finish eating my veggies, to at least get one down my throat. Ironically, as I walked past the fruits and towards these vegetables, I missed the gai lan, the bok choy, the luk dao…

I strolled towards the meat section. There were cuts of meat that I was so familiar with and missed. There was that familiar smell… the smell of wet markets in China where you weren’t sure if you were smelling fresh meat or rotting meat. There were people haggling in different dialects of Chinese and other various languages over fish and pork… Ah yes. The fish. This was my favorite part of the market as a child. I loved seeing the live seafood swimming around. I would always try to convince my mom to buy a cat fish, my favorite fish to eat as a child. I remember the wonder and excitement I would have as the worker would grab the net, capture a big catfish and then take it to the back and clean it for us. I remember the grumbling of my stomach as I smelled the catfish steaming on the stove, with green onions and ginger; finished off at the end with a mixture of sweet seafood soy sauce and hot oil with crisped up ginger or garlic. I loved how the skin tastes… Recently I went to buy some salmon fillets at an American market. I asked the butcher to scale it for me. He looked back at me confused- “Oh, so you want me to take off the skin?” “No. Scale it.” “Skin it?” “No. I like the skin, please just scrape off the scales!” The butcher sighed in confusion and attempted to scale the filets… he left half the scales on and I had to finish the job for him at home.

I periodically become painfully aware of how in between I am. All of this here has so much nostalgia that pulls me back to my roots of where I came from… but I’m no longer there. My cantonese wants to spill out of my mouth in a smooth torrent of communicative lyricism, but comes out in dilapidated dry chunks of clumsy sound waves. My heart is caught in a state of homelessness.

I don’t always feel safe sharing my culture where I’m at. I have a tired rage within me at times. I’m tired of explaining how I communicate. I’m tired of people looking at me like I’m crazy for talking about how things happen for an Asian. I’m tired of people asking me about the missions field in China when they don’t realize that they themselves are my mission field at the moment, not China. I’m tired of explaining why I don’t like Jackie Chan or being called a ninja. I get tired of having to confront directly every single time at such a great intensity and having to train myself to look directly into the aggressor’s eyes… and I’m tired of having to remind myself that their directness does not mean that they hate me, they are probably just trying to understand.

But at the same time, I am not where I used to be. It’s not just the language I’m no longer as fluent in. I’ve lost my sensitivity to face. I tell people more directly than I used to that they are wrong because I’ve just gotten impatient. I don’t fight for bills too often anymore. I forget that sometimes just the words “thank you” once don’t really mean “thank you” until you’ve said it 5 million times (same thing with “sorry”).  I’ve stopped waiting to be invited into leadership all the time, I’ve had to learn how to fight and stand up for myself instead of worrying about the shame and pride of an entire group, family, community or culture.

But I must keep trying to remind myself- where I was is not home. Where I am at is not home. Where I will be in the next season is not home. These spatial-temporal loci we call seasons have formed the lenses from which I view the journey and look for home, but they are definitely not home. Home is much more fluid than I want it to be- It hasn’t come yet, but it is with me. It’s not a place but a posture towards a Presence. Heaven is my home. I chuckle to myself as I wrestle with how hard it is to follow the very advice I usually give my students, “Don’t fear the tension or lack of answers and run away. Face it. Wrestle with it. Sit in it. Embrace it. You might even find God there.”

In this season, every time I have complained about feeling out of place anywhere I am at, no matter if the people look like me or not, I have felt the strong response of that Presence remind me that the only place I will ever be at home is in YHWH’s “hesed”- covenantal love. A promise is a promise, and He doesn’t back down from a promise.

And as I turn the corner towards the hot food and the bakery, I realize it’s time for me to leave the familiar sights and smells that I grew up with.

I let out my melancholy in a sigh. I miss these things.

But I’m reminded that I haven’t left it all behind.  I still take my heritage with me to where I am called, it’s not something God requires I leave behind, but is something He redeems for others.

The smell of cha sieu fan slowly fills my car as the Highway 5 takes me north- back to Oceanside.

A mystery.

I had a micro rant earlier today on facebook. It went like this:

why is it that so many churches merge their college and young adult ministries together? Is it a resource thing? Is it because we don’t know what to do with either demographic? Is it because young adults out of college keep wishing they were in college?

the mystery of my last 5 years. They are totally different life stages! Doesn’t make sense!

And then I realized I had a lot of answers and thoughts for my own questions.

Background- I’ve been a little angsty lately on the topic of personal community. Although I’ve made some great friends here and there, on the whole, making friends after college in a new town is extremely difficult. Every time I go to one of these “young adult” groups to see if I can go and meet some more people in my life stage, I find myself sitting next to… college students.

And don’t get me wrong. I love college students. It’s my freaking job to LOVE college students. Many of the college students I minister to are my friends… but it’s a different relationship. I am their mentor. Their leader. Their pastor. Their coach. There’s a point when I stop being their friend and lay some truth bombs or make them do extremely uncomfortable things as their leader. So you can see how it’s awkward to go from a place of leading college students to having them called peers all of a sudden.

Here’s the problem- many churches in the West have engaged these different life seasons with different ministries. The problem is, life stages usually keep following common age markers… and then when you hit post-college (or even during college), the age markers go all out of whack. Things start getting weird. They start having groups for married people, for people with babies, for people retiring… and all these things happen at different times. Which leaves me in an awkward place- A 28 year-old single male that is often shoved in with college students at church because all my friends are married and having babies.

But as I was reflecting on this conundrum after posting my question on facebook (and receiving a lot of interesting replies), I realized the whole “age group” thing is a convoluted mess. I was honestly acting like what I always tell my students NOT to act like- A consumer of ministry, not a missional producer of ministry.

Here’s my theory- It starts with the western notion of “youth group” at church. Youth groups started with the missional purpose (and many still remain missional- I continue to be influenced by what I was taught by my own youth pastor, and am continually inspired by my man Nate Wells and other youth pastors I know…) to reach the unreached youth for whom church was often irrelevant or unaccepting of. It was to address a problem in which youth were not being reached. So they started to create hip programs and hire youth pastors that could play electric guitars or who had tattoos on their arms. But then something strange started to happen… parents started to see the youth program as an extension of the babysitting/children’s program. It was something to keep the teenagers in the church. And so the posture so easily shifts- It’s not about the groups that are not in the church, it’s about those who are IN the church and to KEEP THEM STIMULATED. Once ANY group becomes a babysitting program… you lose missional edge, you lose the point and you create consumers of ministry.

And so it continues for college groups- Well… the kids we KEPT with youth group are out of youth group… and oh shoot. There’s no youth group for them. They will probably leave because we aren’t giving them anything! So we get trendy hipster services where there’s radiohead-like crooning with V-necks, plaid and skinny jeans, so our kids will stay.

As a college minister, I unfortunately have to work out the consumer out of most of my Christian students. It’s driven me to a point where my co-workers have called me out for just ignoring Christian students because sometimes the mentality of consumerism is so engrained, it just drives me nuts. It’s why I often tell my students that we are NEVER to be called a “Christian Club”. Christian clubs (including the one I was the president of in high school) have the tendency (and not all of them, mind you) to HIDE from the world, not engage it. I’ve found that the shift in my ministry in the last 5 years has gone from producing a good product (like a slick bible study) to producing good producers. It’s not trendy. It’s not sexy. Sometimes it makes Bible studies horrible. But I’ve begun to realize that an empowered student who leads an awkward and choppy Bible Study but knows that they are heralds and representatives of the Kingdom of God in the location that they’ve been placed… oh man the shivers that run down my back thinking about that.

So back to my dilemma. Really, the question I was really asking was- WHY ISN’T ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION TO ME AND FEEDING ME?? I’m like a raging glutton who’s had his feeding tube fall from his mouth, but is too fat to stoop down and pick it up.

But my yearning has some legitimacy though. Perhaps my question should not be about whether somebody will minister with me or not… but rather “Are there any peers out there who want to do mission with me?”

Perhaps the dissatisfaction comes from churches not sure how to treat the masses of Christians getting older and addicted to being babysat. So many churches just create another baby-sitting program for… adults? Perhaps this is why it feels so demeaning. It takes the leadership out of adulthood. All this time of just getting really hip programs and inspirational speakers… were we like princes and princesses gorging at a medieval feast that our father the king provided… while not paying attention to the intentions and real leadership that a king does? Has our king become the caterer for our buffet?

We were meant to become LIKE Jesus, to do what He did, to love what He did. And yes, He’s promised a banquet for us in heaven (personally, probably my 3rd highest reason for being a Christian), but Jesus was about SO MUCH MORE. He was about healing. He was about redemption. He was about forgiveness and reconciliation. He was about raising up the weak. He was about starting movements that would change the course of history.

Here’s a scary thought that is inspired by how my youth pastor, Victor Quon, used to think- What if youth groups stopped being a place where we protected our kids but where we actually started to teach them how to lead their friends to faith? What if college ministries were not about helping all those Chrisitans keep their faith in college by sheltering them (by sending them to Christian college… ugh don’t get me started), but to actually see their place in college as A CALLING. I was inspired recently by our IFES counterparts in Mexico. Their group is called COMPA. Their group spans from high school to college… When their high school student leaders get ready to go to college, they actually go through a process where they pray to God things like, “God, what school would you send me to? How do you want me to become part of the movement there? What college campus do you want me to plant your movement at?”. Gutsy.

Let us end our babysitting programs. It gets old. Especially to a 28-year old. Honestly, the more I learn about Jesus and sit in the word, there’s nothing about Jesus that was about staying and being protected by a program. The only thing that comes to mind was that Jesus told the disciples to wait for was the Holy Spirit, but even that was SO THAT the disciples could fulfill the great commission of going OUT to the ends of the earth… Let’s start leadership development programs. Let’s start launch pads into unreached cultural groups, campuses, companies and office buildings. Missions isn’t for a select group of people in the church who go on Christian vacations to exotic locations across the ocean- it’s for EVERYONE who calls themselves Christian, which originally meant “little Christ”… If we are to be imitators of Christ, shouldn’t we be stepping forth into His mission wholeheartedly? What if we knew we were “sent”, like Christ was sent? What if high schoolers knew that they were sent to their high schools for a reason? What if college students knew that they were sent to their college, no matter how prestigious or dingy, for a reason? What if young adults stopped seeing their cubicles and annoying boss as a place of slow death, but as a place where Christ’s light could burst forth with light… through themselves, who were sent?

What if we stopped worrying about KEEPING people? What if we decided to stop being consumers of babysitting programs and bomb shelter supplies…  and began to awaken people as forces of cultural change, reformation and redemption?

What if I stopped whining about nobody paying attention to me and started finding co-conspirators to find and redeem my peers who are far from God?

…okay. My unorganized stream of conscious vomit of thoughts is over. I’m getting old, can’t stay up this late. Time to sleep.

Justice- Ugly, Hard, And Not As Trendy As We Make It Out To Be.

This has been bothering me a little bit. I’m getting really tired of hearing about justice.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not agreeing with Glenn Beck’s xenophobic outcry that any church that preaches social justice is unbiblical. In fact, I think that social justice is one of the most important neglected subjects of the Bible that the church must think about. We should be involved with the poor, the hurting, the oppressed, those on the fringes of our communities. And I think a lot of churches have hopped on…

…to the bandwagon.

It’s cool to donate to a catastrophe. It’s cool to say you’re not cool with slavery. It’s cool to get organic and fair trade products. It’s cool to wear TOMS (I myself have a pair).

Call me a hipster that hates bandwagons (and yes, I am one, minus the mustache and plaid), but there’s a reason why. There’s a danger of jumping onto hot topics and bandwagons in ministry. The danger we run into is the tendency to turn important topics into just… trends. I cringe every time I go to an evangelism seminar and somebody (sometimes myself) says “Let’s focus on justice because it’s what this generation cares about! They’re activists! Let’s use that to win them to Christ!” And so, justice has become a tool, a means to an ends… a trend. And unfortunately, trends tend to go out of fashion. What will we do when justice goes out of fashion?

When it comes down to it, we must care for the issues of social justice not because people care about it, but because this is something God cares for. Justice was not a means to an ends, but was included in the all encompassing vision Jesus had of the Kingdom of God. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was a coming shalom, peace and rightness back to created order, which transcends the physical tangible world, but never excluded it. It was a revolution of wholeness that was both earthy and lofty, of right reconciled relationship with God personally, but also physically, emotionally, relationally, systemically.

Then after proclaiming this grand vision, demonstrating power and might through some cool miracles and cool statements- Jesus pulls a fast one. The path He calls us to is not a path of power, glory, showiness, cool campaigns… but a slow, hard, suffering journey, ironically filled with joy. And how we have taken the easy path of charity, where we can look good helping others by doing it at a distance, throwing money at people, voting for the right things! Jesus did not call us to charity, but called us to justice. He calls us to walk alongside the oppressed in reconciliation. He calls us to compassionately share in suffering. He calls us to live incarnation, to go to their house, to eat with, to heal them (and perhaps receive healing from them as well). Jesus calls us out of our ADD compassion and to actually walk the whole journey  with people, where the people cease being the ones we help… but our friends; to keep walking the journey even after walking alongside people stops becoming glorious, when it gets frustrating and hard, when the drug addict relapses, when the homeless guy you helped get out of homelessness goes back on the streets… (Reminds me of what I read Habbakkuk 2:4b  “…but the righteous will live by their faithfulness”). One of the terms in the old testament that has been doing a number on my soul is the term most used to describe God’s love- hesed. It basically means covenantal love- not love because God feels like it or he whims it out of His existence depending on His mood, but a committed, promised, faithful, enduring and promised love. Justice without hesed- the hard long term commitment to whole relationship- is just a really cheap substitute- a really weird generic and flat safeway select cola that tastes nothing like the real thing.

And please, keep giving donations. Keep caring. Keep signing petitions. Keep buying with a lens for justice. But don’t let that be where the pursuit social justice ends. Do it not because other people care about it. Do it because God cares for people, and that He calls us to incarnationally and sacrificially be a demonstrating witness to His care and deep love.

Justice. It’s not that cool. It’s ugly. It’s hard. It gets you bloody and dirty. Really, it’s not the most attractive thing. Sometimes it disappoints. Often, it breaks your heart. But there’s a strange and incorruptible joy that comes out of it if you stay with it after it breaks your heart, where it’s not about yourself, about telling people you did something good, but that you are doing what is on the Father’s heart.

And it’s funny. Thinking about it, i’m pretty far from the standards that i’ve laid out in this rant. I’m just as bandwagonny as the rest of us. I am completely content being at a distance so I can protect my heart from breaking too much. I’m okay just giving some change instead of actually sitting down and eating with the person I give to, committing to friendship. Perhaps it’s a call for myself as well, to stay faithful to the ministry God has called me to- to stay engaged with the people I meet at MiraCosta, oppressed or not (aren’t we all oppressed in different ways anyways?); to lean into what is hard; to stick with the annoying students; to demonstrate what true faithfulness is to my leaders and to rediscover what true joy is in ministry when all the flash and bang is gone.

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?

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.