Tears in the Void

Saturday, January 7, 2017

I’m often surprised by the things that stand out when I’m reading the Bible. This time it was God’s message to Hagar – the second time he had spoken to her. The message was this: “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is” (Genesis 21:17). As far as Genesis tells us, neither Hagar nor Ishmael was crying out to God. They were simply crying. The situation seemed so desperate that Hagar even walked away from her son so she wouldn’t have to watch him suffer.

But God didn’t walk away.

Human suffering doesn’t deter Him. And sometimes, for reasons I’ve never quite been able to grasp, suffering is what moves Him to act. God was there and He heard the boy right where he was, in the middle of the desert, forsaken by his father and the only home he had ever known, alone but not alone. God didn’t bring him back to his old home, but to a new place, one where he would find success and lead a nation. And God would remain with him in that place.

Sometimes I feel like I am just crying out into the void, although I know that there cannot truly be any void, for God is everywhere. And I have friends who struggle, but don’t cry out to God, because they don’t believe He is or because think they need to get through things on their own. But God hears us, no matter who we are, no matter where we are. And in his time, perhaps when things become the most desperate and He can no longer hold Himself back, He will act. I know He has acted many times in the past and I believe that he isn’t finished and will again act on behalf of the people that He has made – even those who don’t believe or who don’t cry out to Him.

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A Pleasing Aroma

Maybe it’s because this last month has been filled with grief. Maybe I’ve been listening to too much Evanescence. Or maybe it’s just been too long since I faced this head on.

I am sick. I have an incurable disease. And while I try to never let it define me, it has changed me.

My body is more frail than it ought to be for someone my age. There are days when my feet are heavy and it is difficult to walk. Sometimes I walk with a limp or even trip and fall on my face. Other days my vision blurs briefly for no apparent reason.

When young people make their lists of what they are looking for in a life partner, there is an unspoken assumption that the person will be healthy. I dread the thought of telling someone crazy enough to date me about this sickness. That there is currently no cure.

I know a man who has given up. He has the same diagnosis as I do. He doesn’t leave his home anymore or see the world with the sense of adventure he once had. The disease has beaten him.

I cannot – I will not – let it beat me.

So I did what I tend to do when I am struggling to understand, I went for a walk in the early hours of the morning and I began to talk it out with the One who never sleeps and always listens.

I wish I had heard an audible voice. Or even that still quiet voice that we are taught to listen for. Instead I saw a rose bush.

Many of its roses had fallen to the ground. Others were in the process of losing their petals. The flowers were clearly at the end of their season, but I leaned in to smell one of them anyway. The scent was as beautiful as the most perfect, freshly picked rose.

I cried.

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ…” II Corinthians 2:15a

Some days I wonder how my life can be anything beautiful. There is so much that I lack, so much that I am not. So much of me is weakness. And yet, even the falling rose released a beautiful aroma.

A friend of mine frequently tells me that I benefit the people who know me. Sometimes that annoys me, as though I only exist for their benefit. But what if that’s what it means to be a pleasing aroma?

Is it possible that despite my sickness, or perhaps in my sickness, I reveal Christ? And if so, do others want the life they see in me? (A crazy thought.)

Anything would be worth it, if the result is that Jesus is reflected through my broken, weak, fragmented body. Anything at all.

Although its season is ending, the rose bush isn’t dying; it will bloom again. I also will still continue to have hard days where I have to die to myself and let go of my wishes for my life to be different.

Parts of my life have come to an end as a result of this sickness. Dreams have had to change.

But there are new seasons coming. Seasons filled with the full bloom of the flowers, different flowers than before, but as fragrant as the first roses.

Perhaps they will be even more fragrant.

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” II Corinthians 2:15

 

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Not even a sparrow falls…

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I’ve been praying a lot at the piano these days. Sometimes it’s the only way I know how to pray.

Last night a friend’s husband unexpectedly passed away, leaving her alone with their two young children. Another friend is processing what life looks like for her and her husband one month after the death of their 21-month daughter. And it is the one year anniversary of my uncle’s death.

I am angry. It isn’t fair. There is something fundamentally wrong about a person dying young. And it wasn’t God’s plan.

It’s easy to blame God, to ask why, to shake my fist and say, “If you really cared, you would have…” But even as I shout, I realize it is because I am confident that God hears me. As I cry out my grief, I know it is because I believe God does care.

And so I pray at the piano, with songs that remind me of who God has always been and always is, words that help me turn to the only one who can comfort me when life hurts this badly.

Did you cry
When you saw the tears of the ones who’d been left behind?

Did you grieve
When you felt the pain that they carried deep inside?

And we’re tempted to ask where you are…
why you hide
But we cling to the promise you gave to remind us

Not even a sparrow falls without your notice
And are not our lives worth much more in your sight?
And you catch each tear and your love we remember
In the words you have said,
     that not even a sparrow falls

I have read
That the death of your saints is a costly thing in your eyes

I have heard
Of the tears that you shed when the one whom you loved had died

Yet the voice that asked Mary, “Do you know that I am the life?”
Still speaks to our hearts, giving home in the hardest times

Not even a sparrow falls without your notice
And are not our lives worth much more in your sight?
And you catch each tear and your love we remember
In the words you have said,
     that not even a sparrow falls

To April, to Lesa, to my family, and to all who grieve, may you find comfort and rest in the one who sees you and loves you and whose heart breaks with you.

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“Dreams come true. Yeah they do. In Santa Fe.”

I have always been a dreamer. I am rarely completely content with how things are. There is always that majestic “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20 NIV) looming just ahead of me. I refuse to settle for just a job. And I struggle to believe that people can’t change, that I and my situation won’t change.

I resonate with Jack Kelly more than any other musical character. Throughout the Broadway show, Newsies, he is shown rising to the challenges before him, while dreaming of a simpler life, which he believes can be found in Santa Fe.

“And I’m gone.
And I’m done.
No more running. No more lying.
No more fat old man denying me my pay.
Just a moon so big and yellow, it turns night right into day.
Dreams come true. Yeah they do. In Santa Fe.”

*All lyrics taken from Jack Feldman’s song “Santa Fe” from the musical “Newsies.”

My Santa Fe is San Jose. When I think of that city, I remember a time when life was simpler and when my dreams first began to come to life. San Jose was the first place I had people I looked up to who believed in me and invested in me. In San Jose, I fell in love with the Bible. I met people who would become lifelong friends. I was part of a church that was life-giving.

But then stuff happened, as it always does. And I left. I went to Jerusalem. Many people accused me of running away. I think I was running away less than trying to find something to run to. This has happened many times.

“Let me go.
Far away.
Somewhere they won’t ever find me, and tomorrow won’t remind me of today.”

In Jerusalem, I changed. Faith was no longer this simple belief system that surrounded me, it became something I had to fight for. Friendships were quickly made and gone, although I am thankful for the friends I still have around the world. At the same time, the Bible continued to come to life before my eyes and I came to see God in a way I hadn’t before. Jerusalem was for me a place of transformation. But it was also the place that stole my simple faith, changing how and why I believed.

I came back home after a year and a half, only to find that everyone else had moved on with their lives and were closer to their dreams than I was. The things I wanted weren’t as attainable as I had believed. So I taught. I volunteered at my church. I began to grow disillusioned that life was the grand adventure I once believed it would be.

“Why should you only take what you’re given?
Why should you spend your whole life living trapped where there ain’t no future.”

The disillusion lasted for nearly a decade, although I don’t think I completely realized it then. I also don’t believe I wasted those years. I continued studying. I continued serving. I invested in others. I believed for them. But I didn’t know what to believe for myself. I fell in love several times and thought each time that it was the answer I was looking for, but it turned out to be an empty promise. My years of studying and earned degrees hadn’t led to a better career or an easier life. I moved my life again, this time hundreds of miles from home, but found loneliness instead of the adventure I had hoped for.

When all my dreams came apart, I dared God to act, to not waste this time. The answer didn’t come right away, but stubbornness is also a trait of dreamers, and I stayed, waiting, despite the many appeals that I should return home, that there was nothing for me here in LA.

“Santa Fe, my old friend.
I can’t spend my whole life dreaming.
‘Though I know that’s all I seem inclined to do.
I ain’t getting any younger.
And I wanna start brand new.”

God is a God worth waiting for. And while he doesn’t act on our time frame, he always acts. At the time, I felt like I was waiting forever, while he gently reminded me that he was still listening, still seeing me the way he always paid attention to his people when they cried out to him.

Someone told me that God had me here for a reason, although it wasn’t the reason I thought it was. No kidding. Someone else, while praying for me, said that God wanted me to know that he had not forgotten me. No one had heard my private prayers, but that had been the theme of them for some time. A new community took me in as one of their own and loved me as my wounds were healed.

I had hints of God’s action on my behalf. But not enough that I could give myself over to my dreams again. I had a job and a place to life. I was making things work. I was surviving. And still I waited.

“I need space. And fresh air.
Let ’em laugh in my face. I don’t care.
Save my place. I’ll be there.”

As far as I know, Santa Fe never happened for Jack Kelly. And I never got to go back to a simpler life. I also haven’t received a lot of the things I thought at one point would be the answer. Marriage. A career as a Bible professor. A Ph.D. Instead, God began reshaping my dreams, first reminding me of an ancient calling, one I had repressed since high school, the call to minister within the church, and second, giving me a heart for reconciliation between ethnicities, cultures, and generations, and above all reconciliation between people and God. A Korean church asked me to serve with them and it was there that I heard God speak clearly to me. “I can bring you back to life here.”

It’s been a crazy adventure since that moment. I found a joy in serving that was beyond anything I had ever known before. I realized how much I loved investing in teenagers. I heard God whisper to me that he really had intended for me to serve the church all this time. And yet, it was in a completely different context, a more difficult way, than I had ever dreamed. I followed him back to seminary, this time understanding why I was there and what I needed to learn to be effective in my vocation. I followed him to an internship, where I was surrounded with people who once again supported me, and believed in me, and encouraged me to continue to follow God. And when I graduated, he led me once again to a people who I had not expected, but have come to love deeply over the past few months.

And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Romans 5:2b-4 NIV

There is something about being a dreamer that I think resonates with the heart of God. Dreams are what allow us to hope. And our God is a God of hope. He never gives up on us or on the dreams that he has given us, but continues to shape them and to shape us, as we grow into the people he has created us to be. I’m glad I didn’t run away. And I’m incredibly thankful that he restored my ability to dream, by giving me dreams worth dreaming. The life I now have is so much more than I imagined. And while it’s still scary at times, it is filled with hope that comes from seeing God.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
Ephesians 3:20-21

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Thoughts on Life and the Love of God

My thoughts are a jumble these days. I have one quarter left before I graduate. I have no idea where I will be working and praying that God bring me to a good place. I’m moving tomorrow and frantically packing up my house. I’m preaching tonight at youth group about Jesus feeding the 5000. I still need to proofread an issue of a certain magazine by Sunday. The boys downstairs playing ball yell anyounghaseyo and anyoungee kehseyo every time I walk downstairs with another box and laugh when I answer back.

My mind returns to a conversation I had last night about how we can know which interpretation of Scripture is correct…or if we can know… And a week prior, I was asked how I would explain the gospel in 30 seconds or less and I gave an equivalent to the Sunday School answers I grew up with, answers I no longer believe connect with the people I talk to about Jesus.

So I was talking with God about it, and I realized why the Sunday School answers don’t really work for me anymore. Those answers start with our sin as a foundation for needing a Savior. But that requires so much explanation and apology and convincing at times, to a world that has trouble defining sin. And so I think gospel must start with our desperate desire for unconditional relationship and God’s crazy dream of a relationship with his creation. And so, God has been pursuing us relentlessly for millennia. How can we not respond when the Creator of the universe loved us enough to send His own son to walk among us and remind us that we are loved? How can we not follow the One who has always been faithful to never abandon or give up on us?

But then I wondered what to do with sin, since it is very real and we do need a Savior to bring us back to God. And I was reminded of Genesis 3, the first mention of sin. We all know the story. Adam and Eve were told they could eat any food in the entire garden except the fruit from one tree. Yet they ate it anyway, and ashamed of themselves, tried to cover it up. God still came to walk among them, calling to them where they were hiding in the garden. Adam’s response? “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”[1]

Their sin separated them from God, which is what our Sunday School lessons have taught us. But something else caught my attention. It is the fact that God walked among them, even knowing that they had sinned. And it made me wonder, is it possible that our sin separates us from God because it causes us to be afraid to come into God’s presence, and not because God has shunned us for our sin? Throughout the entire Bible, God talks with sinners, blesses fallen people, commissions cowards and liars, and comes to us in spite of our imperfection.

Perhaps this doesn’t change the message of the gospel, but for me, this changed the meaning of the gospel. Yes, we have all fallen short of God’s glory.[2] Yes, the result of sin is death and a curse.[3] And yes, Christ came to break the curse, so that we would not die but have eternal life.[4] But all of this goes back not to our sin as the starting point, but to the love of a God who desires a relationship with His people and is willing to do whatever it takes to bring us back into relationship with Him, even giving up His only Son to die on our behalf.

My thoughts are still running all over the place, but they settle at this one thought, which is simply that “God so loves the world.”[5]

[1] Genesis 3:10 NIV

[2] Romans 3:23

[3] Genesis 3:19; Romans 6:23

[4] John 3:16; Galatians 3:13

[5] John 3:16

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Thoughts on not being perfect (but being delighted in anyway)

I never used to struggle with perfectionism. Perhaps it was because I was surrounded by people who delighted in me. As a girl, my horse drawings were thought beautiful, my grandma always asked to hear what I had learned on piano, and I sang my original songs in church. My great grandma even wrote me thank you notes for my thank you notes. Perhaps this is the American way, this way of encouraging kids to build up their self-esteem, rather than critiquing them in order to help them approve. In high school, my pastor started criticizing my music – why don’t you write songs about God rather than friendship? This felt like a critique on my character as well as my music. Other high school students started to compare artwork – my drawings are better than yours. And in college, I was never chosen for the elite vocal ensembles even after being assured that I would be.

For the first time, I was simply not good enough. I quit drawing altogether. I stopped singing my songs in public. And I practiced piano more and more, hoping that if I focused on one thing, maybe people would approve again. Interesting how approval ebbs and flows. I studied worship leading, focusing on excellence as well as character, but often being asked to choose which was more important. Should a church hire excellent musicians who are not Christians or use strong Christians who have difficulty carrying a tune? In other places there was a strong belief that since God deserved the best, if we were any less than that, then we need to either wait while continuing to focus on practicing, or accept that maybe those really aren’t our gifts. These questions still haunt me.

But over the years, I have learned that while God deserves my best, he is the only one who can truly quantify what that means. Did I give God my best when I spent a day serving teenagers or when I stayed in my room practicing? Did I give God my best when I sacrificed my friends and social life to study for exams? Did I give God my best only when I was serving in my areas of talent or also with my unskilled labor? And lately, doing things entirely beyond my comfort zone, things that I have little knowledge of or personal ability to do well, am I still giving God my best? I have felt freedom in realizing that the answer to those questions may be subjective and that, by doing what I believe God is calling me to do right now, I am giving God my best.

I was never that great at drawing, although my mom still keeps my old pictures. But when I look at them, I realize that I was giving the best of my ability in that moment. And while it was clearly not “the” best, it was “my” best. When God asks us to give him ourselves, I believe that is what he is asking, not for the best, but for our best. So I will keep learning not to compare my successes with others, to accept my imperfections and lack of talent in many areas, and to continue to learn and grow, knowing that God delights in me and trusting that ultimately he alone knows when I have done my best.

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American Sniper, Selma, and The Sermon on the Mount

Earlier this week, I read a Christian blog post comparing the number of Christians who went to see American Sniper with those who went to see Selma. It was a critique on our Christianity, basically saying we should have rallied behind a movie like Selma and should have shown no support for a American Sniper in which the man who killed so many people claimed to be a Christian and felt no remorse for killing people he had decided were evil. My initial thought (I have seen neither movie thus far) is not to condemn the Christian audiences, but those who are telling the stories. Whatever your thoughts on whether it is right or wrong to kill those who have committed heinous crimes (and Christians are divided on this), should not the fight for freedom still have been the more compelling story? The more victorious story? Instead of making Christians feel obligated to support bad story telling (and I have high hopes that Selma is well told, simply poorly advertised), shouldn’t the story tellers themselves take much of this responsibility?

The Sermon on the Mount tells a compelling story of what Christianity can be like. But so often it is taught as a list of rules and regulations, impossible moral standards that break our backs as we try to follow them, or worse, so impossible that we need not even bother and should simply accept grace as we live as we like. How can we teach the story behind the Sermon, telling of people who have remained the salt of the earth, who have lived lives of godly character when no one is watching, who have stored up treasure in heaven, who have persisted in faithfully asking and believing until God rewarded their requests? The story of Jesus and his kingdom ought to be the most compelling story out there and we have all found it to be exactly that at some point, which is why we are now staking our lives on it. How can we communicate it in such a way that a story of God’s coming kingdom is more compelling than the mere story of a sniper?

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