living outside the Amazon jungle

The baby industry in the United States is, not surprisingly, a multi-million dollar industry, and I have made my small contribution to this in recent months as the process of nesting in my home has intensified. I went online to try and figure out the essentials for preparing a home for the arrival of this bundle of joy, and lo and behold, everything is presented to me as an essential. Positive reviews raved, “I couldn’t live without this!” “A must-have for every new mom!” “I wish I had this with my first child!” We are a country obsessed with our things and all the good we believe they will do for us. It’s hard not to get sucked in, to not believe all the hype about the newest developmental toy that will surely launch my child straight into Harvard.

I am grateful for every gift and gadget that our generous friends have given to us. I truly am. I am grateful to be able to afford extras of certain items so that I am not doing endless laundry just because I’ve refused to buy more than one of anything. I am grateful for the first-world luxuries and conveniences afforded to me and my baby, which will hopefully give me one more minute here and there of precious sleep. I understand that living – surviving – as a mother in the 21st century here in Los Angeles, CA is vastly different than living as a mother in a small, quiet village in a developing country.

But I remain unconvinced that my baby actually needs everything the Los Angeles marketplace has to offer her. Amazon.com is endless but her needs are not. I personally certainly do not remember the way my nursery was decorated when I was a wee one, three, six months old. (Was it even decorated at all?) I remember the one little brown towel that I wanted more than any other item in my toy box. And I remember surviving and moving on with life when even that most precious security blanket got lost on a family vacation. I think I turned out ok.

I want my baby to grow up in a home marked by simplicity and contentment with the things we have. Freedom from the need to keep up with the Joneses. I want her to learn about the world such that she is able to distinguish between a first-world problem and a third-world problem at a young age, both externally and internally. She may be raised in Los Angeles, but I don’t want Los Angeles to raise her. I want her to understand that we live in a rather privileged pocket of a very broken world, to know that what God gives to us is meant not to be boasted in, but to be shared. The ads, the peer pressure, the internal insecurities, they will come at her from all angles. But how I pray for a life of joyful freedom for her and for our home. So free me first, God. Free me too.

letter to baby, at one trimester

I wasn’t sure for a long time if I wanted you. No, that’s not quite it. I just wasn’t sure if I could be the mommy you deserve to have. Life was so unrelentingly full with big things, unusually big things, some good things and some really sad things, and I was scared that I couldn’t give you the attention and priority and love you would need. Your daddy was so patient with all my crazy fears and our God was so gracious. And now here you are. We saw you, heard your little strong heartbeat, and there’s no turning back. Your head is huge and your legs and arms are still forming. I think you look ridiculous and adorable and amazing and just perfect. I can’t believe you are inside of me, connected to me, depending on me to take good care of you because right now, you are literally a part of me.

I can’t help but wonder if you have any conscious thoughts at this point. Do you mind that I still sleep on my stomach sometimes at this point, or is it annoying? Do you feel ravenously hungry when I feel ravenously hungry? Does it startle you when I sneeze? Did you hear the music I was making on the keyboard this morning? I hope you are comfortable and happy and safe in there. I think you have your daddy’s gas.

I’m eating a whole lot these days because of you. You sure do like all things potato, egg, and orange. Apparently you hate mushrooms and green beans, and the taste of coffee is a bit much for you (which makes me wonder if you’re really my child). You’re making my relationship with food really complicated.

I take care of a lot of sick kids at work, and it’s scary for me to know that you are not necessarily exempt from any of the things I have witnessed. You belong to God and your life is in His hands, and that is a good place to be. I hope to make good choices that will give you only the best quality of life at the end of the day. If you are healthy, which means you are running around and babbling and exploring and getting messy and sometimes screaming incessantly, I hope to not take that for granted too much when I’m exhausted and longing for peace and quiet.

I pray to grow and stay rooted in enough security in Christ and humility before Him that I don’t let my ego get wrapped up in your future behavior, your future success. I don’t want to raise the pastor’s kid. I just want to raise you. He is weaving your heart and mind and being together in my womb, and I hope to nuture you well so that you might know your Creator and live for Him, with all the gifting and passions He’s putting in you. Even if you and I have completely opposite personalities, interests, everything. I hope to value you well for all you are.

Well, enjoy it there in my belly for the next few months. The world is a big place and you’ll have a lot to take in. I don’t know if you sleep sometimes, but if you do, sweet dreams, little alien baby. Mommy loves you, and mommy’s praying for you.

I’m (not) sexy and I (don’t) know it

I heard the word used in a couple of different contexts today and I couldn’t help but feel curious. Sexy. What is that? Someone’s original topic for a book proposal was initially rejected because it wasn’t sexy enough. And of course, the more common context. Girl, you are sexy. (Please note, not said to me. I’m not sexy and I know it.)

It’s a curious word. Let’s take the context of getting a book published, in this case, non-fiction. The topic has got to be beyond interesting. It’s got to be beyond important. Even really important. It’s got to be sexy. I’m disappointed to say that the first comparison that comes to mind is Super Bowl Sunday when everyone is scrutinizing the commercials to pick out the most memorable. Meh, we’ve seen the typical Toyota commercial showing a spotless new car gliding along the shoreline, a happy family laughing, a dog grinning in the back, and 0% interest for 12 months. But it’s the commercial where the car door opens and out emerges the very long-legged woman in very high heels in a very tight dress that causes even the most ambivalent football fan to stop mid-conversation to gaze at the screen for a few extra moments. This, I suppose, is the desired effect with book topics among publishers. Sexy. The bookworm will be perusing the bookstand in the “newly released” section. We really do judge a book by its cover. Some, you look at and you just don’t take seriously at all, ever. But there are those books, with just the right play on words in the title and subtitle, just the right delivery of visual interest in the cover design, that lure you. They make promises and you want to know if they will deliver. They draw you in on a deeply personal level, in ways that you have not been drawn in, or drawn out, before. Sexy.

And of course there’s the more common context for the word sexy: people, usually female.  I am not sexy. I don’t know how to be. I’m way too practical for high heels and I shave on the minimal end of minimal. I look at magazine covers and they confuse me. Who makes those kinds of facial expressions in everyday life? The ‘come hither’ look. Am I supposed to learn how to make that kind of facial expression with my husband? I think he’d just laugh. I’d laugh. Who are you and what have you done with my wife? I like that he thinks I’m pretty when I wear a nice dress, do my hair a bit, add a touch of blush and light perfume. But I like that he loves me when my matted hair tells him that I’ve clearly slept on my left side all night, when I don’t feel like getting myself out of my pajamas and bedhead until 10AM on my days off, and when I’ve come in from an evening run with hair pinned back, my face red and dripping with sweat. Truth be told, I like being demure. A lot. I love that my husband wanted to get to know me for demure me. I know he’s not immune to visual temptation but I love that he makes a concerted effort to turn his eyes away when those commercials come on, looks at me and tells me I am beautiful. Who knows, maybe I am sexy. If being demure means that I can draw my husband in on a deeply personal level, like a sexy book where all you want is to spend time getting to know more of what is going on in this amazing life that a well-written book takes on, then maybe I do want to be sexy, maybe I am sexy and I just don’t know it.

a messy answer to a loaded question

It is an incredibly hard question to answer. You’d think that I would have some kind of ready response, given that I think about it every day, but there simply is no neatly packaged answer that seems to do any meaningful justice to the question,

What is it like to be a pastor’s wife?

First, I need to explain why it is so hard to answer this question in the first place. Complexity. This is not just one question. It is at least two. What is it like to be the wife of a pastor? And what is it like to be in the separate but related role of “a pastor’s wife”?

So now, part one of that question: What is it like to be in a marriage relationship with someone who is a pastor?

Well, relationship is fundamentally molded by time shared. And for the pastor, there are demands on his time that do not exist for any other profession, coupled with expectations that he can or should find a way to meet many, if not most, if not all of those demands. This makes for an irregular schedule for your home life. His meetings with people are generally scheduled around the 9-5 work schedule that the majority of people abide by, which means that others’ free time is his work time, i.e. evenings and weekends. The spouse, then, either comes with him or stays home without him, both options having their challenges if the spouse works full-time herself. And it’s not just demands on his time. It’s demands on his emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual self. He is constantly asked to give, and give well, on all these levels. He needs to find time to recharge, through our marriage but also apart from me. He needs his man-cave time too. It takes a lot of intentional effort on both his and my part to help make sure that happens.

If you are married to the pastor, you don’t hear the sermon the same way as everyone else in the congregation. At least I don’t. I am thinking about the sermon, but I’m also thinking about how he feels about his sermon and what kind of feedback he will want and need from me afterwards. I listen to sermon podcasts from other pastors so that I can listen to a sermon just for the sake of my own learning and growth, and for nothing else. I also have learned how to better negotiate with my pastor-husband just how much he uses me and our relationship as analogies or examples for the things he is preaching about. While I consider myself to be fairly honest and open about my life, I am nonetheless uncomfortable being the center of attention, especially in a larger group. I don’t always want to be worked into the sermon. Our dog has been a nice substitute.

If God gives you children, you are going to raise the pastor’s children. You want them to be just your children, but the fact remains, they are also the pastor’s children.  No pressure.

You know the pastor in ways that no one else does. You know his dreams, his hopes, his fears, his frailties. And you are to be his main support and encourager through it all. It is wonderful and amazing. It can also be heartbreaking.

Now, part two of the question: What is it like to be in the role of “the pastor’s wife”?

The expected “role” of “the pastor’s wife” is largely defined by your denomination, and more specifically, the personalities in your church congregation. They determine a lot of the underlying definitions and expectations of that “role.” Even if you have a supportive congregation and a fairly healthy sense of self, you still feel yourself constantly negotiating those tensions between what you want and need and what you feel others want and need. What is more, the tensions are not completely static. They will change as your congregation changes, and they will change as your own personal life changes. As a result, you are constantly re-negotiating them to some degree. You’re evaluating your personality type, your social preferences, your boundaries with time, the needs of the church, and your own needs. And you’ve stepped into this role, regardless of any other roles you already play in your own career, family, and other circles of influence.

There are other miscellaneous dynamics that are somewhat unique to the role of the pastor’s wife.

Your financial situation is different from everyone else’s. I’m not talking so much about salary and tax laws, though those can certainly be sticky topics. I’m talking about perception and expectations related to finances. What you buy, what you wear, what you drive, where you live, where you go on vacation. You feel the presence of perceptions and expectations related to all these things more than the spouse of any other profession, I would argue. I know of one pastor’s wife whose husband won a contest from a local sports radio station, which landed a huge HDTV in their living room. I know of another pastor’s wife whose wealthy mother-in-law passed on a used Mercedes to her and her husband. These would be much more normal and acceptable in any other context, but because the husband’s occupation is that of a pastor, they receive, at times, questioning looks about these nicer things in their possession, and they feel a need to explain.

Your relationships are just different. It’s hard to articulate the dynamics in this arena. But I remember going to a family’s home for New Year’s Eve, and they had two energetic, playful dogs who proceeded to do what dogs sometimes do – they humped. Mortified, the teenage son pulled one dog off of the other with this specific scolding: “Not in front of the pastor’s wife!” I was mostly amused but also a little sad. He didn’t feel like he could let his dog just be a dog, simply because I was there, and I was the “pastor’s wife”? I never forgot that, maybe because it reflected a bit of this underlying threat to honest and real relationships that I wish with all my might didn’t exist, but does. Adam McHugh describes this well in his blog post, Why I Sometimes Lie About My Profession.

There are spiritual aspects around this question that I have for now intentionally left out of this post. Not because they aren’t important, and not because life is really that compartmentalized. God knows that without the spiritual aspects for me and my husband, none of this would ever be possible or worth it. But I left them out because usually when people ask me the initial question presented at the beginning of this post, they are asking about the day-to-day, nitty gritty stuff, which is what I’ve tried my best to describe here in hopefully some measure of succinctness.

I also do not intend this blog post to come across as a litany of complaints. I’m just trying to describe the experience of at least this one pastor’s wife as honestly and as straightforward as I can. These are the challenges and tensions that I am constantly working through. Can it be hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

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.

the worth of a less impressive answer

I have decided that gardening is a hobby that may cause the obsessive-compulsive part of me to run into a bit of trouble. I didn’t want to hire a gardener just to trim the shrubs and the bougainvillea gone wild in the front of our home. So I grabbed the shears, rolled up my sleeves, and went at it. Suddenly, every stray branch and every slightly awkward stem became ridiculously obvious. I could not stop, despite the sun beating down on me and the milk from newly cut stems covering me with stickiness. I am surprised there is anything beyond a stump left standing after all the trimming I did.

My parents came for a visit not too long after I finished. I apologized that I was worn out from doing a whole lot of yardwork. My mom wanted to see what I had done, but I had nothing special to show for all my hard work. She hadn’t seen how scraggly the shrubs were before I had attacked them. And so to her, things were “just as they ought to be,” nothing more. Just a bunch of trimmed shrubs.

Maintenance is that way. People ask what I do on my days off from work, and I feel so busy but I struggle to find an answer. Or perhaps a more honest statement is that I struggle to find an answer that sounds impressive. So much of my time is spent simply maintaining. Laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking, organizing. Just maintaining.

But I think there is something about maintenance that reflects, or at least helps to cultivate, the virtue of faithfulness. Sticking to something not because you always love to do it, but because it’s important to be done. Cleaning house because it is a space that has, in a sense, been entrusted to me. For my friends who are new parents, changing diapers over and over again because that humble, humbling maintenance is sometimes all that separates a good parent from a dangerously neglectful parent. The baby who is well-cared for will still cry, but underneath, that baby’s butt is as clean and healthy as can be. It’s not anything special to show for all that hard work. But it matters. It’s important. We simply do not realize how valuable maintenance is until it is no more.

Let us then not despite the drudgery and humbleness of everyday maintenance. And perhaps more significantly, let us not despise ourselves when that is all we have given ourselves to for a day. It matters.

obviously hidden

“We were friends for a long time. And one day, I woke up, and suddenly thought of her in a completely different light. And I wanted to marry her.”

I remember hearing this introduction to a love story from two college acquaintances, and being so moved by its drama. A life-changing, earth-shattering, world-rocking revelation. Isn’t that how a great and awesome God moves and speaks in our lives, if we are truly connected to Him? Stops us in our tracks, lights a burning bush, and brings us to our knees? I do take a lot of quiet, slow walks since my dog seems to forget on a daily basis that he has stopped to sniff and mark every tree, every day, for the past few years. But I have yet to run into any burning bushes. Life outside of work has been unremarkable, for the most part. I’ve got the same housework to do that I did just a few days ago. Unpacking and settling into a new home is about as tedious a process as it gets. It has, however, proven to be curiously, quietly revelatory.

We had slowly moved some carloads of boxes over to the new place before our biggest and final moving day, when 30 generous hands connected to 15 big hearts helped load all the larger items into a U-haul, only to unload them one block over. These 30 hands also helped to pack and move the remaining random items that seemed to multiply and emerge from hidden places in the old house as the day went on. The help was invaluable, but the lack of organization on our part led to a hide-and-seek game of epic proportions when I started to look for the most important things, like underwear. And jewelry. There’s nothing quite like calling your girlfriends at 10PM asking if they know where your underwear got packed away. Only to have them say they have no idea, maybe one of the guys packed it? That’s fantastic. And I was so certain that I had dug through every box multiple times in the house and garage, trying to unearth that single, elusive jewelry box, growing increasingly frustrated and frantic with each search. Until one day, I casually picked up a couple items on top of an open box at the front of the garage, and there it was just underneath. The jewelry box. Just where it’d been all along.

And then there was the classic male versus female difference in approach when it comes to settling into a new home. The husband’s task list was composed of fixing, drilling, sawing, installing, building. My task list was composed of cleaning, organizing, decorating, decorating, and decorating. He tried showing me all the hard work he put into sawing a hole in the wall so he could properly install the new washing machine and fit it into the laundry closet. I responded with a blank stare. I tried getting his feedback on colors and patterns and the overall look of a room, only to get a seemingly indifferent shrug. We both dove headfirst into our tasks, buried deep in our worlds, blinded by our respective missions. The inevitable argument ensued. You don’t see what I’ve been working on. You don’t appreciate what I’ve done.

Sometimes, we just need to settle down from the tizzy of over-determination and its subsequent frustration to see what’s been so obviously hidden in front of us. Sometimes, we just need our loud, proud voices to quiet down so we can see, really see, what was so obviously hidden in another person. And hence we find those things that can be ours from the hand of a generous and gracious God in the quieter but no less life-changing moments of humble daily revelation.