Perpetual Foreigner or Perpetual Native?

I recently went back to the States for a week to surprise my mother for her birthday. Despite the current state of affairs in America, with racial tensions running high, I didn’t expect to experience anything that would make me feel out of place as a person of color. I was going to Southern California after all, where Asian Americans can be found as easily as avocados and aspiring actresses.

But I was wrong.

My mom had invited me to come with her to an English conversation club at a nearby college. It was a new outreach ministry to international students, started by some people from the megachurch she attended. We were the first to arrive in the student lounge, and sat on the hard plastic chairs for a few minutes before an Asian girl came in, asking around about the English club. Her name was Yan Min, from China, and she had just started classes there. We were deep in conversation when several other volunteers from the church arrived—all white. My mother and I briefly introduced ourselves to them and were about to dive back into our conversation with Yan Min when one of the volunteers said, “So… should we each take one?”

I was confused at first, not understanding what he meant. There was only one student who needed a conversation partner. And then it slowly dawned on me that he wasn’t speak to me and my mother, but about us. He had assumed that we were also there to practice our English.

My mom immediately jumped in and explained that we were also volunteers, and that her daughter here had actually graduated from Berkeley and majored in English. I was embarrassed for the man, and embarrassed that my mom felt like she had to list my credentials to prove that we were qualified.

Perpetual Foreigner

This incident would have been amusing if it were isolated; something to brush off and laugh about. But it happens more often than I’d like to admit—the presumption that I am a foreigner simply because I am Asian.

I remember the time I attended my friend’s church in North Carolina. The church was hosting a group of Japanese exchange students that week. When the pastor urged the congregation to greet the foreign guests, my body stiffened as I saw several people home in on me. Assuming that I was an exchange student, they warmly welcomed me before my friend could interrupt them and explain that I was visiting from California, and not from Japan.

I sense it whenever I visit a white church and have to introduce myself. I can see their eyes carefully considering me, their speech deliberately slow and simple while their minds are racing to figure out where I’m from. I can feel the urge within me to speak fluent English, dropping slang or using sesquipedalian vocabulary just to make it obvious that I was born and raised in the States.

It’s curious how these memories I have are all in the context of church.

Outside the church, my experiences are much more confrontational: chants about slanted eyes, threats telling me to go back to where I came from, sing-song gibberish that mock the Chinese language. These racist encounters are so universal among East Asian Americans as to be almost banal in their unoriginality.

Inside the church, I am not told to get out. In fact, I am invited to come in… but as a guest. I am received, but as an outsider. I am welcomed, but still as the perpetual foreigner. It does not occur to them I am home, that I am not a visitor.

The jagged pill of outright racism makes me mad. But this saccharine-sweet “othering” that’s coated with good intentions just makes me sad.

Perpetual Native

And then there’s my experience of living in Asia for the past 14 years. While I am perceived as a perpetual foreigner in America, here, I am the perpetual native.

When I first came to China to teach English in the 90’s, I was on a team with three other ladies: two blondes, a redhead, and me. Whenever we went out together, I was automatically pegged as the translator, even though I could barely get by on what I learned from my one semester of Mandarin in college. I recall one time when we all went out to a park, and a group of school children gathered around my teammates like hungry birds, chirping at my poor friends with their chorus of “Hello! How are you?!” They obviously did not notice me, for I was just another Chinese face in a city of 15 million other Chinese faces. When the kids asked to take a photo with the Americans, I wasn’t in the picture. I was the one behind the camera.

Nowadays, I still get a lot of confused looks when I tell people that I’m from America. “But you look like us!” they say, baffled that I don’t have a big nose and blond curls like the stereotypical image they have in their minds. “Where is your hometown?” they press further, and I dutifully respond by telling them, “Chao Zhou, in Guang Dong province,” even though I have never stepped foot there in my life. Their minds are eased that I am still Chinese, after all. In their imagination, America is a land of white people, and an American person of color is oxymoronic (something that a good portion of America seems to agree with right now).

Here in China, I’m not the foreigner. I’m the local nanny, the translator, the teacher who isn’t white enough to teach English (even though my mom would like to remind everyone that I graduated from Berkeley as an English major).

Sometimes, the assumption that I am part of a group is as toxic as the assumption that I am not. Sometimes, inclusion is as destructive as exclusion.

Both invalidate the complexity of my identity. Both cause shame. Both deny me of agency and true belonging. I am simply who people imagine me to be because of the color of my hair, my skin, my eyes.

But the reality is, I cannot be boxed into the false dichotomy of either foreigner or native.

I am both/and.

Otherness and Likeness

Jesus was the embodiment of this both/and paradox of otherness and likeness.

Wholly divine and fully human.

Son of God and Son of Man.

Alpha and Omega, yet Emmanuel.

He lived in a world that could not seem to reconcile the two. He was too foreign to be considered one of us, and yet too familiar to be considered “The One.” Instead of receiving Jesus in the fullness of all his deity and humanity, the world rejected him for both.

Yet for all the times we treated him as other, he continued to reveal his solidarity with us. He made his dwelling among us. He shared in our humanity and suffering. He laid down his life for us. He loved those who wanted nothing to do with him.

And when we believed him to be just like us, he continued to reveal his distinctiveness. He offended those who couldn’t see him as anything other than the hometown boy. He didn’t play by the social or cultural rules. He commended outsiders over his own ethnic community. He challenged the expectations of those who wanted to use him as a poster boy for their own causes.

Like Jesus, I want to embrace the paradox of my likeness and otherness, instead of feeling like I must choose one or the other.

I want to expose the exclusion that shames and distances, and call out the inclusion that enmeshes and limits.

I want to engage the world in loving but uncomfortable ways; not writing off those who would reduce and reject me, but inviting them to accept me with all my similarities and singularities.

Because at the end of day, I’m not the only one who is both perpetual native and perpetual foreigner. We are all native to one another in the shared humanity that makes us connected and compassionate. We are all foreign to one another in the diversity that makes us intriguing and beautiful.

We are all alike and we are all other.

We are all both/and.

Deconstructing Christmas

I’m the kind of person who has a tendency to overthink things.

Just last month, I almost cancelled Thanksgiving as I wrestled with existential questions about the whitewashing of America’s history, the use of religion to justify entitlement, and the cultural ethnocentrism of the tradition.

This month, Christmas has met with a similar fate as I’ve picked apart the whys and hows of this holiest of holidays.

So for those of you who are like me, here are three ways to deconstruct Christmas so that you can actually enjoy Christ.

  1. Deconstruct the Myth

Whether it’s the festive fantasy of decking the halls with boughs of holly and roasting chestnuts on an open fire while dreaming of a white Christmas…

Or the magical myth of the silent, holy night when the Christ child was born, no crying he made while angels bent near the earth to touch their harps of gold…  both these versions of Christmas are elusive illusions.

The actual story of Jesus’ birth diverges widely from what we associate with the holiday.

Instead of kisses underneath the mistletoe, we have an engagement that nearly broke off.

Instead of an idyllic Christmas card scene, we have a dark cave filled with the noxious fumes of cows and sheep.

Instead of new toys, clothes, and gifts underneath the tree, we have a child left out in the cold, wrapped in leftover strips of cloth.

Instead of laughter and merrymaking, we have scandal and rejection.

Instead of political peace and justice, we have oppression and corruption.

Instead of a cozy family sleepover in matching pajamas, we have a family on the run.

However much we try to create a picture-perfect holiday, the Christmas story is not about perfection. It’s about God entering into the chaos of our very imperfect lives and saying, “I’m here.”

Into homelands ravaged by war. Into homes filled with discord. Into bodies poisoned by disease.

I’m here.

When we’re stressed out by gift shopping. When our kids bicker over their new toys. When we overcook the Christmas ham.

I’m here.

Once we relieve Christmas of our unrealistic expectations, we are able to experience His presence in the midst of our unfiltered reality. Instead of manically trying to achieve a holiday pipe dream of love, joy, and peace, we can rest knowing that no matter what mess we are in, He is with us.

After we scrape off the candy-coated layers of the Christmas story, we realize that the good news of great joy is not that Jesus makes everything sugary sweet, but that he shows up, even when things aren’t.

  1. Deconstruct the Motive

As Christians, we talk of Christmas as if it’s a birthday celebration for Jesus. Amidst all the holiday bustle, we try to focus on Christ. Make ourselves ready for his coming. Prepare our hearts. Make room for him. Serve him.

But does Jesus really need Christmas? Does he really expect something from us?

Maybe the reason for the season is really more about what Christ has done for us instead of what we must do for him. Because when we stop to think about it, the story of Christmas is not about our love for God. It’s about his extravagant love for us.

The God of the universe becoming God with us.

The Word becoming flesh and making his dwelling among us.

The Light of the world shining in our darkness.

The Prince of Peace extending reconciliation to us.

The Gift of God freely offering us abundant life.

Christmas is about the gospel of grace. Instead of stressing ourselves out with all the doing, we can focus on receiving. Instead of trying to spiritually prepare for his coming, we can rejoice knowing that he came even when no one was prepared. Seeing Christmas in this light frees us to cease striving and simply enjoy his goodness with gratefulness.

  1. Deconstruct the Meaning

I once mentioned at church that I didn’t think it was necessary to celebrate Christmas. Everyone looked at me as if I had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.

But really, Christmas is just a man-made custom (as is every other holy day on the church calendar). The Bible leaves no instructions to celebrate Jesus’ birth. It does, however, leave us some thoughts on such religious observances.

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you… with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of things that were to come; the reality, however is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

The Christmas holiday is a shadow, pointing to the reality that is in Christ. However much we like to talk about Christ being the Reason for the season, He cannot be neatly gift-wrapped into a religious festival we observe once a year.

Jesus is not in the tree, the lights, or the presents. He’s not in the nativity set, the carols, or the Advent readings.

He is in us.

And when we have the reality living inside us, sometimes we don’t need the shadows and symbols. Sometimes those shadows only get in the way of us seeing the real thing.

So if Christmas is stressing you out, don’t feel like you have to celebrate it. Forego the stocking stuffers. Skip out on the candlelight service. Take your kids out of the Christmas pageant. Feel free to ditch the whole thing!

Or pare it down to the bare minimum, rid yourself of everyone’s expectations (including your own), and do only what you really want to.

Or go all out and sing the Christmas cantata, host that fancy dinner party, send out your 2016 family photo, and dig out those holiday mugs you use once a year.

Whichever way we choose to celebrate Christmas this year, the grace of God gives us freedom from perfection, expectations, and obligation.

Christ is with us.

Christ is for us.

Christ is in us.

The spirit of Christmas may fade after a few weeks, but the Spirit of Christ is ever present with us in the messy, mundane moments that we call Life.

Now that’s something I can celebrate all year round.

 

I belong. You belong. But…

These last few days have been a whirlwind of emotion for me as I’ve vacillated between feelings of anger, betrayal, disappointment, fear, cynicism, and resignation. More than the actual results of the election, I’ve been grieving what it has revealed about the American church. With white evangelicals overwhelmingly aligning themselves with a political platform that builds walls (literally) and feeds on fear and hate, so many of us feel like abandoning the Church that has apparently abandoned us.

Yet this is what I keep coming back to:

I belong. You belong.

White, Black

Republican, Democrat

Conservative, Progressive

Men, Women

Straight, Gay

Citizen, Refugee

And everything in between…

As the Church, we are all invited to the banqueting table. We are all welcome to partake of Divine Love. Although different and diverse, we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you,” for we are all united under one Head.

And since we are one Body,

I will break bread with you.

I will pass the cup and say, “This is the blood of Christ, poured out for you.”

I will reach across the table and I will hold your hand.

I belong. You belong.

BUT…

If people come to the table and say, “I belong, but you don’t…”

If people come to the table and save seats for their buddies while others are left standing…

If people come to the table and hoard food while others are starving…

If people come to the table and dehumanize, demonize, abuse, or silence…

Then they are rejecting the Body that has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.

They are renouncing the cup that makes us all acceptable before God by faith.

        And maybe, instead of reaching across the table…

I might need to start overturning some tables.

Because I will not stand idly by while those who bear the name of Christ exploit the weak for their own gain.

I will not prematurely call for unity and peace while the religious continue to hinder the marginalized from experiencing God.

I will not turn a blind eye while the church traffics in power and profit instead of offering refuge and solace.

I will not sit quietly while some defend the right to their precious traditions at the expense of another’s personhood.

I will not maintain the status quo while those who are made in God’s image are being desecrated and demeaned.

I will not pass on the other side of the road while the most vulnerable among us are dying.

Yes,

I belong. You belong.

But some things simply do not belong in a community that values belonging.

Racism

Xenophobia

Misogyny

Homophobia

Hate

Pride

Fear

Self-righteousness

Condemnation

I, too, want to see the Church come together in unity and reconciliation. I mourn over how we’re so divided,  racially and politically. I am saddened by how we’re villainizing each other as either baby-haters or bigots. I lament at how we’re looking at each other and thanking God that we’re not like them.

But instead of faking unity, I’m going to fight for it.

I’m going to fight using the “powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6, MSG).

Because some things can’t be fixed with a quick handshake, hug, and a round of Kumbaya.

Sometimes peace comes by flipping tables, smashing ideologies, and tearing down barriers.

Sometimes the message of the gospel can only be communicated by cleansing the temple and driving out the religious gatekeepers so that the blind and the lame can draw near to be healed.

So especially to those who have felt locked out and excluded from the Church, Jesus has made a new and living way. The doors are open and His arms are welcoming.

I belong. You belong.

And nothing can separate us from that love and belonging in Christ.

Not a vote.

Not a president.

Not a wall.

Not even the church.

 

The Abuse of Forgiveness

These past few weeks, I’ve been having online conversations about issues of race with other Christians. As a person of color, I’ve been encouraged by much of the humility and empathy I’ve received in response to my experiences with unconscious racial bias.

But invariably, I will also receive comments like:

“I don’t think that was racist.”

“Don’t be so easily offended.”

“Give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“You’re being judgmental.”

“You shouldn’t read into things.”

These well-meaning Christians—all of whom are white—urge me to extend love and forgiveness.

But what they want is not true forgiveness.

They just want me not to be hurt.

*            *            *

We are taught much about how we as the Church are meant to forgive when we experience hurt and injustice. Yet it seems that little is spoken of how we are to walk alongside the brokenhearted.

Too often, instead of alleviating their distress, the Church ends up suppressing, forsaking, and embittering them. Instead of holding space for their pain, we shut them down and brush them off. Instead of listening and affirming, we recite platitudes about how they need to forgive.

“Forgive one another”  becomes a weapon of silencing instead of an instrument of peace.

“Seventy times seven” is exploited to shame and blame those who would dare speak of their wounds.

“Love covers a multitude of sins” is distorted to justify evil.

The very thing that is meant to bring healing becomes a means of abuse.

DENIAL & DEFENSIVENESS

Our appeals to forgive are rarely meant to be harmful. Perhaps we genuinely think that those in pain will benefit from our exhortations. But oftentimes, there are other factors at work. We want to reassure ourselves that all is well. We try to deflect the uncomfortable feelings that arise when the spotlight is on us.  We redirect the attention onto the one who is hurt in order to avoid the difficult work of examining our own culpability.

The call for forgiveness is actually our defense mechanism.

The Gottman Institute defines defensiveness as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is blame… You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’”

In other words,

Other people’s pain are a threat to our egos.

We interpret cries of pain as personal attacks against us or our communities.

When others say, “I’m hurting,” all we hear is an accusation.

We see their desire for acknowledgement and accountability as a thirst for vengeance and blame.

“The problem isn’t me, it’s you,” we tell them.

Sadly, when we react out of shame instead of respond out of love, we add to the suffering of the wounded. When people bring their hurts before the Church seeking justice, accountability and healing, but the Church answers with judgment, dismissal, and lectures to forgive, we fall miserably short of the vision of a Body that is to care tenderly for its vulnerable members.

Howard Zehr, a proponent of restorative justice, described this succinctly in his book God and the Victim:

The church should be a place of refuge, but often we have not known how to listen, how to be present to victims. We have told them that their anger is wrong, that they need to move on, to forgive, to forget. We have denied them their right to mourn and instead have laid new burdens on them. All this is understandable—as part of our effort to distance ourselves from pain and vulnerability—but not at all helpful.

In my opinion, it is not only “not helpful.” It’s harmful.

CANCER IN THE BODY

Unfortunately, this abuse of forgiveness among Christians is not limited to issues of race.

  • It comes when a well-known evangelical leader encourages you to apparently excuse the sexually exploitative comments of a certain presidential candidate, warning you of the “consequences of withholding forgiveness.”
  • It appears when you try to report a case of child abuse at church and the leadership refuses to bring it to the authorities, calling it a “misunderstanding” and cautioning against “false accusations.”
  • It shows up when you’re advised by a prominent pastor to endure abuse in your marriage in the name of submission.
  • It manifests itself when the Church tells people who have walked out its doors to simply forgive instead of taking a good hard look at what it’s doing to drive people away.

Such cruel misuse of grace and forgiveness within the Body allows for unhealthy, cancerous beliefs to survive and proliferate.  

More often than not, those who expose wrongdoing within the Church are not simply whining about petty personal offenses.

They are warning us of the cancer growing in our Body. They are calling attention to ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that need to die so that new life can take place.

They are raising their voices so that others who’ve been wounded can know that they are not alone. They are telling their stories so that the Church can lament together. They are speaking up so that there can be greater awareness, so that steps can be taken to bring about healing, forgiveness, and transformation.

The question is:

Will our Body listen to itself?

TRUE FORGIVENESS

Healing cannot occur without first diagnosing the disease. True forgiveness cannot happen without first naming our pain. Reconciliation cannot exist without empathy and validation.

If we as the Church are to grow in greater unity, grace, and true forgiveness, here are a few things we can do:

  1. Create safe spaces.

Give hurting people a safe forum to speak honestly about how they’ve been wounded.  Fuller Seminary recently hosted an event called “The Church Hurts People,” providing an opportunity to those who have experienced church-related trauma to share their stories and take steps toward healing. Whether it’s in your church, small group, school, or organization, create a culture where it’s safe to be vulnerable.

  1. Check our defensiveness.

Take time to recognize the uncomfortable feelings that are triggered by other people’s pain. Instead of reacting in defensiveness, become aware of how your sense of self feels threatened. Sit with these difficult emotions.

Ask yourself:

How does this make me feel about myself?

Why am I offended by this person’s pain?

What false parts of me am I trying to protect?

Ask God:

What is your truth about me when I feel ashamed?

What is your truth about the hurting person?

How can I see them through your eyes?

  1. Counsel from a place of compassion.

Much of the forgiveness that is promoted in the Church comes from a position of power. It comes from leaders and others who might have a vested interest in suppressing any exposure of injustice and wrongs. It only serves to maintain the status quo, silence the hurt, and further abuse the injured.

In contrast, when Jesus speaks of forgiveness he does so from a place of deep compassion; not with indifference and judgment. He suffers with us, empathizes with our hurts, and understands our grief. In his identification with us, he invites us to forgive and experience freedom from bitterness and resentment. His understanding and validation are some of the very things that actually empower us to forgive.

Likewise, when we listen to people who are hurting, they need our empathy. They need to know that we see them. We hear them. We mourn with them. Speaking of forgiveness from any other posture is simply dismissive and damaging.

  1. Confess to our part.

Whether or not we are personally responsible for someone else’s pain, we can still acknowledge the harm we have caused by our own complicity, ignorance, or unconscious beliefs and behaviors. When we own up to our failures as individuals and as a Church, the person who is hurt no longer feels the need to fight to be heard and understood.

I have experienced this firsthand as individuals have contacted me personally to grieve with me over the marginalization I have felt within the Church as a racial minority. They have taken responsibility for participating in and perpetuating a Christian culture that favors the strong and powerful, and have asked for how things might change within their organizations and communities. Their humility, sorrow, and desire for growth has allowed me to move beyond just naming my pain and work towards seeking solutions to the problem.

*            *            *

It is the Holy Spirit’s work to bring about true forgiveness in the hearts of those who’ve been wounded. As the Church, our part is not to rush others through that process, but to provide an environment where true forgiveness can flourish.

When we hear the cries, see the wounds, and touch the scars of our hurting brothers and sisters, let us not be like those who—when told of Jesus’ agonizing crucifixion and death—were offended and defensive, angered by how Christ’s suffering implicated them.

May we instead be like those who were cut to the heart, repentant, and willing to ask, “What shall we do?”

May we be humble enough to receive the grace and forgiveness that God offers to us all.

 

The Spirit of Adoption

I was taking a walk around the neighborhood recently, listening to a playlist of Christian music that I had created a few years ago.

But instead of feeling encouragement and resonance, I found myself experiencing the exact opposite.

Over and over, I heard lyrics like:

     “I know I’m unworthy…”

     “I don’t deserve your love…”

     “I’m weak and poor…”

     “I have not much to offer you….”

Words clothed in the guise of humble spirituality, but words I found completely discordant with the spirit within me.

In fact, they sound more like a spirit of slavery than a spirit of a child of God.

The Spirit of Slavery

A spirit of slavery sees God as Master and ourselves as slaves. It strives to please the Master through performance and what we can offer. It produces fear and burden. It focuses on weakness, brokenness, and unworthiness. It belittles us through shame.

Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

That’s what I hear in these lyrics.

SHAME.

Now, there is no shame in feeling shame sometimes. But in many Christian circles, this shame is actually required and commended.

We are told that we are supposed to feel unworthy of connection. We are made to believe that God is somehow pleased with this psychological self-flagellation. We are encouraged to approach God with a slave mentality.

But the spirit of adoption that God has given us flies in the face of this shame.

 

The Spirit of Adoption

The spirit of adoption sees God as a loving parent, and ourselves as glorious heirs. It reminds us that we are completely accepted in the Beloved One, just as we are. It produces carefree trust and joy. It focuses on our true identity instead of our false one. It fuels transformation through love and acceptance.

Instead of speaking shame over us, the Spirit says,

There is now no condemnation.

Instead of telling us we are weak, the Spirit says,

You are overcomers.

Instead of pointing out our ungodliness, the Spirit says,

You are partakers of the divine nature.

Instead of expecting us to grovel before God, the Spirit says,

Approach the throne with confidence.

A spirit of slavery sounds like the desperate, mortified monologue of the prodigal son who doesn’t really believe in his father’s unconditional love.

A spirit of adoption sounds like the toast of a beloved child who’s enjoying the welcome home party.

 

A Misunderstanding of Grace

Grace is defined as God’s favor that we don’t deserve. We assume that a correct response, then, is to feel undeserving. We believe that in order to not take grace for granted, we have to be constantly aware of our shortcomings.

But I want you to take a moment to imagine a loving parent-child relationship.

Picture yourself as a parent, offering your child the affectionate, accepting, understanding grace of one whose love cannot be earned or lost. Your child does not need to do anything to deserve your love because you delight simply in her being. She cannot do anything to exhaust your love because it was never based on her behavior anyway.

Now imagine your daughter always feeling like she isn’t enough. Imagine her believing that she could never live up to your expectations. Imagine your son afraid that his mistakes make him unworthy of your love. Imagine him constantly aware of what’s wrong with himself.

As a parent, I would be so grieved.

Yet for some reason, we think that this is what God wants from us.

This shame-filled response that we are taught to have is actually incongruous with God’s grace. This focus on being unworthy exposes our misunderstanding that God judges us by our works. It is the very thing that God wants to rescue us from—the belief that He deals with us according to our actions. God’s grace wants to take our works out of the picture so that we know His constant love is not dependent on our failures or our triumphs. He wants us to know our inherent worthiness—not based on our behavior, but based on our true identity.

He wants us to see ourselves as he sees us:

          “You are chosen.”

          “You are royal.”

          “You are holy.”

          “You belong.”

We need to stop feeling unworthy of belonging. We need to stop behaving like the prodigal son who felt like the most he could hope for was to be welcomed back into the household as a servant. We cannot be content with this spirit of slavery that includes us in the Father’s house, but excludes us from his heart.

The extravagant grace of God shows us that he wants sons and daughters, not slaves. So let’s stop groveling. Let’s stop reminding ourselves how wretched we are. Let’s stop listening to messages that reinforce shame.

Instead, let us fully embrace the spirit of adoption and accept the ring, the robe, the sandals, and the feast that God offers us as His children.

I think I’ll start by deleting some songs from my playlist…

THE DEAFENING SILENCE OF THE ASIAN IMMIGRANT CHURCH

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

Terence Crutcher.

These are just three of the 165 African American men who have been shot by police in 2016 alone, according to the Washington Post.

Protests and riots against this epidemic have reached a fever pitch.

Out on the streets, I hear wails of pain, shouts against injustice, and cries for a response.

Within the Church, I hear weeping together, rallying together, dialoguing together.

But it’s been amazingly quiet in one corner.

My corner.

The Asian immigrant church in America has been silent.

And the silence is deafening.

 *  *  *

In William Barber II’s New York Times piece about the Charlotte protests, the African American minister writes,

“Charlotte’s protests are not black people versus white people. They are not black people versus the police. The protesters are black, white and brown people, crying out against police brutality and systemic violence.”

There is no mention of Asians.

Not only at this particular demonstration, but within the general movement towards racial reconciliation and social justice, we are—more often than not—conspicuously absent.

I have been in Chinese immigrant churches all my life, and never—not one single time—have I ever heard a pastor addressing issues of racism from the pulpit.

I cannot recall one single Sunday service where there was a time of communal lament for a tragedy that did not directly affect our ethnic community.

On social media, I hear very little from my Asian American community about the injustices that we see happening around us all the time.

And I have some suspicions about why.

Culturally, we are taught not to rock the boat.

Relationally, we value non-confrontational communication.

Emotionally, we are trained to subdue and suppress.

Socially, we are insular and content to play the part of “model minority”.

Regardless of the reasons for our silence in the past, something needs to change. The Asian immigrant church must “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). If ever there was a group that has been oppressed, widowed, and made fatherless, the black community is it.

But before we start trying to correct this oppression, we must deal with the plank in our own eye. We must confront our own prejudice. There cannot be any denying that we have been handed down deep-seated biases and preconceptions about other people of color. The immigrant generation before us came from countries that were mostly mono-cultural, and the attitudes they had towards those outside their culture reflected that. My generation has inevitability inherited and internalized some of that xenophobia, so we must become aware of it and own it so that we can bring it to the light.

We also must acknowledge our own apathy towards the suffering of other people of color. We Asian Americans have generally done pretty well for ourselves. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center article, Asian men and women both have higher hourly earnings than their respective white counterparts.  We also lead in educational attainment, being the demographic that has the highest percentage with a bachelor’s degree or more. This wealth and education affords many of us a life that distances us from the plight of other minorities. We can’t seem to relate to the overt discrimination, the closed doors, and the disgruntled protests because we have studied at top tier schools, have well-paid jobs, and live in affluent neighborhoods.

Yet as Christians who follow a Jesus who seeks out the marginalized and notices the forgotten, I think we must seriously examine what it means to identify with the hurting instead of disassociating from them. We must question our quest for greater success and privilege and consider what it might look like to stand in solidarity with those oppressed by systemic injustice.

Because the reality is, there is no us and them.

We are one.

The reality is that not too long ago:

  • Asians were depicted as apes and primitives, a threat to the American way of life.
  • Asians experienced prejudice and earned the lowest, not the highest, wages as railway workers and gold miners.
  • Asians were not allowed to become American citizens, let alone study at its universities.
  • Asians were prohibited by law from owning land, much less reside in middle-upper class communities.

The reality is that we are not so different after all.

But like in the story of Moses, perhaps we have been sheltered from the suffering of our own people. Perhaps we’ve lived among wealth and education and privilege too long, and we identify more with the dominant culture than the oppressed communities we originally came from. Maybe we feel like we’ve overcome our own obstacles and seek to simply live a quiet life away from all the turmoil and injustice.

But I hear God saying,

              I have indeed seen the misery of my people…

              I have heard them crying out…

              I am concerned about their suffering…

And regardless of our race, God is inviting all of us into his compassionate heart, redemptive work, and vision of liberation. God is calling us all to speak up and take action.

Now we as the Asian immigrant church can choose whether to remain in our place of relative peace, or to enter the pain and the fray.

As for me, I’m jumping in.

I’m going to protest alongside my black brothers and sisters,

               Let my people go!

I’m going to show up. I’m going to listen. I’m going to use my voice to plead the cause of the oppressed.

For I am fully convinced that by replacing our disengagement and silence with solidarity and protest, we end up reflecting more of God—

A God who shares in our humanity,

sympathizes with us,

advocates for us,

and stands in solidarity with us.

 

 

Oh Lord, Please Forgive Me

 

“And we have to mourn this and we have to be sad that we live in a town, a state, a country where shit like this happens. I mean, these are people trying to distance themselves from this crime. And we need to own this crime. I feel. Everyone needs to own it. We are like this. We ARE like this. WE are LIKE this.” – Zubaida Ula, in response to the torture and death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student.

It’s been over a week since the Pulse shootings and I’ve been wrestling with how to respond on my blog. I knew instead of distancing myself from the horrible tragedy, I had to mourn it. I had to own it.

What welled up from within me turned out to be a rap lament

*************************************************

Oh Lord, Please Forgive Me

For every time I laughed and looked down on someone overweight

I never realized I was feeding someone’s self-hate

Making them feel that they were less than, they weren’t good enough

What else could they do but let their hearts become tough?

 

For every time I fed a child my unconscious prejudice

I never realized they’d be consuming something venomous

Passing on my fear and putting people into boxes

It’s like I forgot what the meaning of the cross is

 

              I’d like to point fingers at the mess that we’re in

              But if I’m truly honest, I know I helped to create him

              My finger wasn’t on the trigger, wasn’t on the gun

              But, Oh Lord, please forgive me

              I helped make him the one

 

For every time I judged somebody with a different faith

I never realized that I was just tryin’ to play it safe

I had all of the answers, never thought I had to listen

Instead of simply loving thought I had to make them Christian

 

For every time I made a gay person feel oppressed

Believing that their gayness should be cured or at least suppressed

Or when all of the haters said that they should be punished

Instead of speaking up I kept silent, I kept hushed

 

              I’d like to point fingers at the mess that we’re in

              But if I’m truly honest, I know I helped to create him

              My finger wasn’t on the trigger, wasn’t on the gun

              But, Oh Lord, please forgive me

              I helped make him the one

 

For every time I listened to the rhetoric on gun laws

All the people talking ‘bout the right-to-bear-arms clause

How about the mamas, papas, uncles and the aunts

Who lost their precious ones to this senseless violence

 

For every time the Church turned its back on the outsider

When we should’ve had our arms opened even wider

For every time we say we love the sinner, hate the sin

Why we talking ’bout sin instead of reconcilin’?

 

               We’d like to point fingers at the mess that we’re in

               But if we’re truly honest, we know we helped to create him

               Our finger wasn’t on the trigger, wasn’t on the gun

               Pulse victims, please forgive us

               We helped make him the one

 

 

*************************************************

If you’re feeling like you need to own this too, you can play the beat below and rap along.

 

Following Aslan: Calling the Church to Radical Inclusion

Metaphors.

They are powerful symbolic narratives that have the ability to soften our hearts, expose injustice, convict us of our culpability, or reveal profound truths.

I recently came across a compelling one in C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian.

The Metaphor

The four Pevensie children and Trumpkin the dwarf are trying to make their way across a gorge to get to the Stone Table. Peter has been leading them, choosing a route based on his intimate knowledge of Narnia from his days as High King.

Only that was hundreds of years ago, and the terrain has changed dramatically.

They end up completely lost.

Suddenly, Lucy catches a glimpse of Aslan in the distance, convinced that he wants them all to follow him. Not having seen the Lion themselves, the rest of them doubt Lucy, skeptical that he would appear to just her and not all of them. Plus, he was in the opposite direction of the way that seemed the most sensible! They take a vote and Peter decides to continue down the gorge as planned, ignoring Lucy’s vision.

Predictably, they run into trouble and are forced to backtrack, realizing a little too late that they should have listened to Lucy in the first place.

That night, Lucy encounters Aslan face to face and receives a gentle rebuke for not coming up to him alone when she saw him, even if it meant leaving the others. 

Then he gives her a task:
“If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me—what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”

“Wake them up.”

So why am I telling you this story?

Because I am Lucy, and this is me finding out what will happen…

 

The Meaning

I am LGBTQ affirming.

It began years ago, when I started listening to the stories of those who were faithfully LGBTQ. I grieved over the pain they experienced at the hands of the Church. I saw their deep love for God and their profound faith despite the Church’s efforts to exclude them. I heard their desire for community and companionship even though the Church limited and prohibited relationships. And much to my surprise, in spite of everything the Church told me, I saw God there. I had been taught that God could never show up in a place like that, but there He was, plain as day before me.

But instead of following God, I reluctantly followed the course that the Church set—a seemingly reasonable path based on past tradition, but one that was leading us astray. I submitted to the majority vote cast by the Church—the belief held by the elders who asserted that one could not be both gay (or gay-affirming) and Christian. I tried to stay together for the sake of “unity,” occasionally voicing my dissent. But I was just little ol’ Lucy, and it was Peter and Susan who had more maturity, experience, and authority to make the calls.
Then… God had a little heart to heart with me.

And I now know what I have to do.

I have to follow Him, even if it means leaving my brothers and sisters behind. I have to be willing to part with the Church so that I can stand with those whom she persistently rejects, but whom Christ radically welcomes.

Some might label me
mistaken,
delusional,
divisive,
or downright “naughty,” as Susan said of Lucy.

But now more than ever, I am compelled to follow God rather than man.

 

The Call

I could just sneak away and leave while everyone’s sleeping. It would be easier. But I can no longer quietly dissent.

No, like Lucy, I’ve been tasked to wake everybody up and call you to join me in embracing, welcoming and affirming LGBTQ people.

Join me in saying “No” to beliefs that only bring about
Rejection.
Bondage.
Denial.
Self-hatred.
Death.

Join me in saying “Yes” to beliefs that offer
Faith.
Hope.
Love.
Freedom.
Fidelity.

“God is there! Can you see him?”

I will go alone, if I have to, but I do hope you will come with me.

It may seem reckless at first, following after something you can’t see. But pretty soon, like Edmund, you’ll catch glimpses of His shadow—proof that you’re on the right path.

There may be times when it looks like He’s leading you off a cliff. But then you’ll find that what appears to be complete folly is, in fact, the only path across.

The way that seemed utterly apostate in the beginning will end up being the only way to reach the Stone Table—a picture of the cross of Christ.

The cross,
where every dividing wall is demolished,
where all are invited into His presence,
where those who were far off are brought near.

That’s where I’m headed.

I’m following Aslan. Will you join me?

Deadly Discipline

This past week, while many were following the whole gorilla incident, I was anxiously following another news story about a Japanese boy who went missing after his parents had left him behind in the woods for misbehaving. On the morning of the disappearance, 7-year-old Yamato Tanooka had been mischievously throwing rocks at people and cars while playing by the river with his family. Later that day, his parents decided to teach him a lesson by dropping him off by the side of a road, locking him out of the car, and driving away. When they returned a few minutes later…

He was gone.

 

Discipline that Brings Death

Reading about what happened to Yamato made me horrified and sickened as I imagined how he must have felt as his parents drove out of sight.

Yet despite my empathy for the young boy, I felt deep compassion for his parents as well.

Just a few years ago, I could easily have been them.

As a conscientious parent, I had vowed that I would never use the traumatizing disciplinary methods that I witnessed in the news or experienced personally. But as a Christian parent, I also felt that it was God’s mandate for me to train my child to be obedient and respectful.

The ironic thing was, my “Christian” parenting started to look a lot like the very thing I was trying to avoid.

I would withhold affection when the kids disobeyed.

I would spank them angrily to show them their sin.

I would wield “The Spatula” to keep them in line.

I would rage in righteous anger at their offenses.

Despite my denouncements of abuse, I found myself responding to my kids in ways that were destructive and disrespectful. My fixation on compliance, sense of religious duty, and perfectionistic tendencies combined into a toxic mix that made me constantly sin-conscious, offended, and angry. I was troubled by how this kind of “Biblical discipline” could even lead to devastating outcomes if left unchecked.

                              
My parenting was turning my kids’ hearts away from me and from God.
 

In my efforts to raise kids “God’s way,” I was instead causing harm, strife, and isolation.

My discipline was bringing death.

Something needed to change.

 

Re-Parented by God

We become like the god we worship.

Unfortunately, my view of god was pretty warped.

      I saw god as cold and distant when I sinned.

      I believed god would punish me to teach me a lesson.

      I would be intimidated into good behavior by my fear of him.

      I felt he was constantly disappointed and angry with my every little infraction.

It wasn’t until my understanding of God began to change that my relationship with my kids changed too.

I started believing that God’s compassionate presence was eternally with me, even in my mess.

  • Instead of sending my kids to their room in the middle of a tantrum, I began holding them and comforting them.

I began experiencing how God’s perfect love cast out fear by removing any fear of punishment.

  • I stopped spanking and punishing my kids, but instead set up natural limits and consequences.

I was wooed by God’s offer of freedom and abundant living instead relying on external rules.

  • I started giving my kids more choices and more freedom so they could learn to exercise their own power and listen to the Spirit inside them.

I saw that God had dealt with my sins once and for all in Christ, and he only looked at me with eyes of love and understanding.

  • I stopped being so sin- and behavior-focused and concentrated more on relationship.

What God desired from me was connection, not perfection. Relationship, not rule-following.

As I allowed myself to be re-parented by God, I gradually let go of my demand for perfection and obedience in my own kids. My experience of greater love, freedom, and connection with God slowly produced the same fruit in my own parenting.

 

Discipline that Brings Life

If we want to avoid deadly discipline and practice parenting that is life-giving, going back to the Source of Life itself is a good place to start.

We can ask ourselves:

Who is this God that I worship? What is this God like?

Does our image of God look more like the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy, or does it look more like Jesus Christ, who came to give us abundant life?

Our core beliefs about God will either distort or clarify the Imago Dei in ourselves and in our children.

Secondly, we can examine our discipline methods so that they more accurately reflect how God parents us.

We can ask ourselves:

  • Does this cause death or life?
  • Does this instill fear or trust?
  • Does this create alienation or connection?
  • Does this use power and control or love and influence?
  • Does this show dignity or does it belittle?

Mercifully, Yamato’s story did not end tragically. Five harrowing days after he disappeared, he was found. Physically, he was unharmed, but it’s unlikely that he walked away from this event emotionally, psychologically, and relationally unscathed. His parents, in doing what they thought was best for him, undoubtedly ended up inflicting untold damage.

Thankfully, Yamato’s parents have been given another chance.

And so have we.

No matter what our parenting has looked like in the past, we can always choose what it will look like for today.

Instead of parenting with wrath, antagonism, frustration, harshness, disrespect, unpredictability, and parental control…

We can choose to parent with

Love.

Joy.

Peace.

Patience.

Kindness.

Goodness.

Faithfulness.

Self-control.

God himself has shown us how.

 

 

Salvation is in the Sinking: The Forgotten Art of Lament

 

 

Two Losses

Sheryl Sandberg recently gave a commencement speech at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, where she shared publically for the first time of her husband’s sudden death a year ago. I wept with her as she described her “deep fog of grief,” laughed at the inside jokes that only Cal students would understand, and was inspired by the lessons she had learned about resilience, joy, and gratitude through her heartbreaking experience.

“I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void —or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.”

A few months earlier, another speech about the loss of a spouse had come across my Facebook feed. It was Monty Williams, the Oklahoma City Thunder Assistant Coach, giving a eulogy for his wife who had tragically died from a head-on car collision. Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition held Williams up as an example of “God-centered hope.” Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, called the eulogy “profound, sincere and supernatural.”  Many commented with admiration for his strong Christian faith and call to forgiveness.

But I couldn’t help but feel disconsolate when I watched it.

As someone who had also experienced overwhelming loss (which I share about here), I felt more unease than comfort at his words. I wasn’t quite sure why at first. But the more I mulled, the more I realized why I found his eulogy disconcerting:

He didn’t show any grief.

He shed no tears. His voice never cracked. He never had to pause to contain his emotions.  He acknowledged his pain (parenthetically), but quickly qualified it by saying that God was good and everything would work out.

He never let me into his pain.

Unlike Sheryl Sandberg’s speech in which I was invited to share in her vulnerability and grief, Monty Williams’ words left me feeling in awe of his strength and faith, but disconnected from his humanity.

I’m not saying that he was insincere. In fact, I honor his story as a beautiful expression of trust and grace. But I take issue when this one expression is upheld by the Church as the yardstick for a faithful Christian response to suffering. I am troubled by how this message could heap shame, condemnation, and expectations upon those who are already burdened down with grief.  I feel saddened when his optimism serves to alienate those who have experienced their own catastrophic loss rather than welcoming them to mourn honestly.

Faith in the midst of grief does not just include hope.  It also includes lament.

We forget that we, who “do not grieve as others who have no hope,” (1 Thessalonians 4:13),

Still must grieve.

David lamented. Job protested. Mary and Martha questioned. Even Jesus felt forsaken.

Yet we as Christians make little room for stories of lament, doubt, and wrestling.

 

Salvation is in the Sinking

Too many of us are trying to keep our heads above water in the midst of grief. We’re dog paddling with all our might to stay above the murky darkness beneath us.

We speak of hope,

slap a high five,

sing our Hallelujahs.

And all the while, we are slowly drowning.

What would happen if we actually let ourselves sink down into the depths of sorrow?

You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.

What would happen if we let the grief wash over us and overtake us?

Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves…

What would happen if we questioned and blamed the Lord?

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

What would happen if we voiced our fear and named our pain instead of trying to escape it?

 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

~ Psalm 88:6,7,14,15

I believe that when we lament, we are doing the very thing God wants us to do:

Be our true selves.

He wants our raw emotions more than our quoted scriptures. He delights in our broken spirit more than our religious works. He welcomes our weakness more than our show of strength.

In my own experience of loss, I have found that it was in my weakness that I discovered true grace.

It was in my sinking that I discovered real salvation. 

For it was only by surrendering to the overwhelming waters of my grief that I could “kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”