through someone else’s song

In my high school years, my friends and I were young, zealous, and just a little foolish in our desire to do good for others. We didn’t know what we were doing, but you sure had to give us an A for effort. We would go to Denny’s, the four of us, order one serving of toast, and throw all the little packets of jam into our backpacks, only to call over the waiter and ask for more jam. You can imagine, this only worked so well. It was a miracle we never ended up in the back washing dishes. We then made our way to the market where we bought a loaf of Wonder bread, a container of peanut butter, and bottled water. From there, we would seek out any homeless person we could find and give them their pb&j fixings ad nauseum for the week.

Something else we did quite regularly was visit the local nursing homes with my guitar. We just kind of wandered in and poked our heads into any rooms with open doors, asking if we could visit awhile. It was a slightly disturbing miracle that we never, to my recollection, were stopped or questioned by the staff as to who we were or why we were entering the residents’ rooms.

One visit stands out in my memory. We found a woman in her 40s or 50s, sitting next to her aged mother, who clearly suffered from a considerable degree of dementia. She was unresponsive to our questions, gazing at us with a confused look through forlorn eyes. We offered to sing a well-known hymn, “Because He Lives.” We closed the door to her room and sang softly.

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow; because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.

The light in the room seemed to grow softer. Peace replaced anxiety. Dare I say, joy came to us. The elderly woman quietly whispered the words of the song. It was as though we had ever so slightly stepped for a moment into that future time and place where sorrow and tears and death will be no more, and our hearts were glad.

Fast forward many years.

I had received an unexpected phone call. A loved one was in a hospital, many miles away. A suicide attempt. Please come quickly if you can.

I had no words for the pain, it ran so deep. I could not utter my prayers, I did not know what to ask or how to ask it. But there was a hymn that a close friend emailed to me. When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul. It was the sung prayer of my soul. For weeks, as my loved one slowly recovered, words continued to evade me, both in conversation and in prayer. I ached, deeply. Did God hear the words I could not find?

One Sunday, I visited a nearby church rather than attending my own. I had no energy to keep up the façade to help others feel less uncomfortable with my pain. The pastor preached on anxiety and trusting the goodness of God because we see Christ, who bore our grief and infirmities, so that we might be healed. I went forward for Communion. The pastor met my tearful gaze. This is His body, broken for you. I returned to my seat, and the very moment I bowed my head, the music team began to play a hymn.

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.

What is this love that comes so tenderly from heaven to earth, to this heart that could not pray but through someone else’s song. He heard my cry. Peace replaced anxiety. Even in grief, joy had come.

why I regret robbing my mother

There was a law at the time which dictated that for immigrant families who wished to come to the United States, one parent had to come and stay for a year first before the rest of the family could join. A type of security deposit, I suppose. On paper, I can see how it makes sense. Protects the country, somehow. But for a young couple with two baby girls under the age of two, I can see how it felt like an impossible move. A father, determined but scared nonetheless, leaving his family behind and going to a place where he did not know the language, the culture, the street signs, the taboos. He knew no one, no one knew him, and no one really cared. Except the family he left behind.

My mom says that once that year was up, my sister and I thankfully slept quite soundly on that long, so very long, plane flight from Taiwan to Los Angeles. I often wonder what went through her mind during that long lonely flight with us. What did a young mother with two baby girls pack in her suitcase as she flew them from one side of the world to another? My father drove the equally long drive from Nebraska to LAX to be reunited with his girls. And together as a family, we turned his car around and drove back to Nebraska where my parents would finish their graduate school education. Listening to lectures in a foreign language and trying desperately to interpret and then process everything before the professor moved on to the next sentence, the next equation, the next exam. It was so hard. But it was for their girls.

Between then and now, I have mostly not appreciated my parents. I don’t think I have ever said to their face, “Thank you for giving up your entire lives so that my sister and I could have a better life.” I was embarrassed by their accents, their broken English, their struggles to assimilate into my cool American life. They were always so frugal with everything and I resented it. I had no idea what a mortgage was, and besides, what did that have to do with me? So I stole a wad of money from my mom’s purse in high school and let her think that a coworker had taken it. I remember her feeling so confused, so disappointed, that anyone at her workplace would even think to do that to her. It wasn’t until college that I confessed to her, it was me. She didn’t get mad. She was just so… shocked. We had some significant differences in personality, communication styles and overall life philosophy that took a lot of work and heartache to sort through. We were never a family that openly expressed affection very easily, and we sure broke each other’s hearts countless times. Yet somehow we’d eventually tread on superficial chit-chat in that awkward movement towards reconnecting, quietly, again and again.

It’s funny how you can know your parents so well and yet not really know them at all. I remember asking my mom once over dinner, why did you marry Dad? She’s normally not the sentimental type. But her face softened. “You know… he was just… such a nice guy.” I never really thought of them as two people who had gotten giddy around each other, but she opened up a small view hole into two younger versions of themselves, eyeing each other on the college campus, flirting, laughing, wondering. They weren’t just my frugal, embarrassing immigrant parents. They were, well, real people. Huh.

Last night, my mom received an award as “Employee of the Year” in her workplace. She is the senior systems administrator overseeing the IT system for a city police department. All that hard, hard work furiously translating her graduate school lectures in those crazy Nebraska years paid off, not just for her girls, but now, for her. She was so embarrassed at the bouquet of flowers we made her hold because of the extra attention it drew to her. But of the 60+ people who received various recognitions throughout the night, many of which were for acts of tremendous valor, she was the one person who got some whistles from the crowd when her name was called. My mother? Police officers and other non-sworn coworkers came up to us throughout the night and raved about how much they loved her, about how we couldn’t let her go on vacation because the department fell apart when she wasn’t there. She grinned sheepishly throughout the night. No… she glowed. It was her night. I was so proud of her. I was so proud to be her daughter.

danger in twenty five miles

The middle class is a tricky category to fall into. You are not poor enough to have the tight confines of an extremely restricted budget – spending to survive with anything more hardly being an option. You do not feel you are rich enough to be associated with the superficial, self-absorbed Real Housewives of Timbuktu. You work hard, you pay your taxes, pay your bills, and you try to enjoy some nice things here and there. Nothing too over the top, most of the time.

But I think there is a very real danger of then just doing things, buying nice things, and avoiding the hard things, just because we can. The danger is in the deep, sharp claws lurking in the corner of Pottery Barn, disguised in pretty candlelight and flowers. I rarely go there but I had a gift card, and could feel myself being wooed, beckoned, seduced into it all. Start with decorating the living room, but if you’re going to do that, then you want to redo the dining room, in which case the bathrooms need touching up. And suddenly the bedroom looks awfully dull and outdated too. Do it. You can afford it. Others can’t. But you can.

“This place is dangerous,” I said to the stylish but not overly uptight gentleman at the register.

“That’s what I hear. But we’re safe. We don’t bite. Come in, come in.”

I remember an interview with Bill Clinton shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A reporter asked him, “Why did you do it?” His simple but unsettling reply: “Because I could.” It wasn’t that he could because he was the President of the United States. She was there. She was not saying no. His ego, fed by a woman’s eyes who said he was everything he longed to be, edged out his conscience. His loins burned away the red flags of self-restraint. Do it. You can afford it. Others can’t. But you can.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have lived most of my life fighting to learn how to be nicer to myself, fighting to learn that it is ok to rest from my labor, my striving, and enjoy the grace and blessings that God intends for us to enjoy. But when I walk into Pottery Barn and feel the strong, intentionally designed pull on not just my wanting but my sense of needing these things, I have to wonder what that is, where it comes from.

I think part of our susceptibility to that insidious pull comes from the fact that we are not, on a visceral level, entirely convinced that our world is much bigger than the 25-mile radius that encircles the majority of our days. Within my 25-mile radius, I would say most homes have some pretty Pottery Barn purchases. I’ve got to keep up, because isn’t it a part of who I am, who I am becoming as a working, middle-class woman?

Then, for a moment, I look at the fine print. “Made in Thailand.”

And then I remember the men, women and children whom I spent a summer with in Chiang Mai. I remember pledging to them that I would not forget their stories. How they fought the cycles of poverty so that their children would not have to see sex slavery as their only option for an income, for survival. How the orphans traveled unbelievable journeys to be free from abuse and the threat of the sex trafficking industry. How they didn’t need Pottery Barn to feel settled, content, respected, valued. They needed safety, love, and people who would hear their cries and advocate on their behalf.

They feel so far away now, in both time and space. But then I look at the fine print, and here they are, in my 25-mile radius. Reminding me. Humbling me. Asking me to think, not full of cynical criticism, but humbly and critically again about how I am letting my 25-mile radius reduce my vision and my ambitions to something so much smaller than what God ever intended for my life. Hopefully they are still a part of who I am, and who I am becoming as a working, middle-class woman.

What if I were to turn from my sin, because that’s ultimately what it is, sin. What if I start to do the less selfish, rather than the more selfish things, because the grace of God in my life now says that I can? It could be dangerous. And it could be really, really good.

Wearing Pajamas to Work Leads to the Most Schizophrenic Compliments

With my typical work attire being just slightly a notch above pajamas, and my standard work hairdo being the ever so ageless ponytail, I wouldn’t exactly say I dress up for work and dress down on my days off. I could swing through my nursing unit on an off-day for a meeting or a class, dressed in jeans and a decent blouse with my hair let down, and one of the most common comments I get is:

“You look really nice today! I didn’t recognize you at first.”

Haven’t we all either had someone say this to us, or said it to someone else? Somewhere in there is a compliment, but there’s something else there too. Something that consists of… well, not a compliment.

It’s curious, and rather revealing, the things we say without actually verbalizing them. Other unintentionally mixed compliments that leave me awkwardly scrambling to find a non-awkward response include:

“You’re really good at (some ability). I wish I could be as good as you.”

“Oh, so you’re a (fill in job title or some other specific role)? I could never do that.”

“You’re so funny” (in reaction to something you said that was not an actual joke).

There is a Bible verse that says, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” It’s true. We aren’t so good at not saying what we don’t mean to say. (How’s that for a brain-bending sentence?) We inadvertently end up saying it anyhow, somehow. It makes sense then that the responder to a schizophrenic compliment has a hard time knowing which aspect of the schizophrenia to respond to. It’s easier to just say “thank you” to the compliment portion, but somehow the other implied commentary lingers in the air and begs for our attention.

Somehow, I think there has got to be a better way to have these conversations. Either keeping the compliment in pure compliment form (which we still have struggles giving and receiving), or else shamelessly but ever so graciously delving into more honest discussions about what we’re actually thinking. Maybe what we have a hard time with is keeping that conversation going from a place in both parties that is full of grace and free of shame.

Why is that? Why do grace and shame exert such strong influence over the dynamics of these kinds of conversations?

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For reference and credit, Adam McHugh’s recent blog post, “Why I Sometimes Lie About my Profession” inspired me to write this.