Category Archives: Musings

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

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My bad panaroma picture on the day I was at starbucks

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

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

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

Resonse From Others

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

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

“So… What do you want from this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…left, right, left right…

…breathe in, breathe out…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…breathe in, breathe out…

…left, right, left, right…

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

…I realized…

…I’m proud of who I’m becoming.

gospel.

Reflecting on 1 Corinthians Ch. 1 this morning… when Paul engages the divisions within the church over theological issues, his solution is to go straight back to the Gospel.

The Gospel. The story of the foolishness of surrender and emptying of absolute power. The story of healing. The story of redemption. The story of forgiveness and reconciliation- for both individuals and communities. The story of a God who decided to face death, experience it, and overcame it in His power in resurrection. A story that tells the powerful that their power is nothing compared to that power, and tells the powerless, the oppressed and the victim that this resurrection power is available to them.

It is this story that we need, in a time where divisions- while not always theological, but cultural (but perhaps those categorizations aren’t so helpful)- cost lives.

In the midst of my anger at the news this morning about the City of Cleveland placing blame on Tamir Rice for his OWN DEATH, when he was shot by police in the timespan of 2 seconds of the police’s arrival while playing with a toy gun… In the midst of feeling the weight of the absence of Trayvon, of Oscar, of Michael, of Eric… of so many- I remember how much we need that story.

And yes- it’s too simple for such complicated layers of racism, of cultural divides, of historical trauma, of the diverse yet divided society we live in… But I have to believe in the potency of the Jesus narrative- the gospel- because honestly, I am at a loss at how to respond but to fully express and expose my mourning and lament to the “here but not yet” resurrection power of the gospel.

On Growing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time for me to grow up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Hebrews 12 rings in my mind…

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

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

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

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

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

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

…It’s time for me to grow up.

Some interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the torn canvas…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

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

An old companion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Howling Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

לעולמ חסדו

His steadfast love endures forever

—-

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

– Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing

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.