The answer to a Charlie Brown prayer

The other evening, I received a small but profound blessing, a seed.

We had gone away for a brief vacation, both of us burdened by the sadness of many hearts, and weary from the battle for hope and joy and light when the darkness felt so thick. I asked a dear friend to house-sit for us. Yes, and can my other friend come too? She has been looking for a time of retreat. It couldn’t have worked out better. We prepared and cleaned as hastily as we were able, and I was glad that our time of getting away could in turn allow for other hearts to also find a time of hiddenness and rest. We left a small list of things we needed them to do – gather the mail, water the plants, take out the trash. I wanted their work to be minimal, and their rest to be true. I felt a bit badly for the countertops I didn’t get to clean before we left, though I knew these friends wouldn’t mind.

Our vacation was perfect. Mammoth was my much-needed reminder that beauty did not always require heartbreaking effort to find. That is the mercy of God over me. I hope in His redemption but I rest in His unshakable love.

Returning home from vacation always involves a mix of relief (there’s no place like home) and low-grade dread (I’ve got some work to do). On the long drive down U.S. Highway 395, I began to plan what we would do when we got home. First things first. Wash the towels and bedsheets. Wash the dusty dog. Semi-organize all the stuff we unload from the truck. Wash up. The rest can wait until morning.

Weary, though in a lighter-hearted kind of way, we finally arrived home. After unloading our vacation-in-a-truck, I walked into the main living space, and there it was, the blessing. Clean towels, washed and folded. Bedsheets newly washed, beds remade. A handful of thoughtful gifts, and a note. Everything has been washed. Enjoy your rest after a long drive. I walked into the master bathroom, and saw there was more. The countertops I hadn’t gotten to were now wiped down. Even the jacuzzi bathtub, which we hardly use, had the embarrassing spiders and dust rinsed from it. These friends had served us in their own time of retreat, beyond what we could have asked. They gave us a blessing.

In a profound Peanuts cartoon strip by Charles Schulz, Charlie Brown whispers a prayer one dark night after reassuring a very frightened Snoopy that the sun would eventually come out again. Who comforts the comforter? That was my heart as I wept in my prayers before leaving for Mammoth. God, my heart feels so drained, and so lonely. Who comforts the comforter?

These friends had given us the blessing of meeting anticipated needs. They were God’s answer to my prayer. I know what you need. I know what you need. He moved hearts to be thoughtful in the most substantial form of the word, to be sacrificial, to be incarnationally compassionate down to the most minute details.  I took this blessing, this seed, and put it in my heart. It is growing. Hope. Joy. Light. Life.

this was all I had, you see

All I had in hand was a sheet of paper with pairs of sentences, one in English, one in Japanese.

Please show me how to buy a bullet train ticket to Kyoto. (Japanese translation)

Please show me how to buy a local train ticket to the Kyoto University neighborhood. (Japanese translation)

Please show me where I can call for a taxi. (Japanese translation)

It was my first time traveling alone. I had my suitcase, this paper, a map, and a small amount of trust in strangers. My parents dropped me off at the airport, and suddenly I was alone with my excitement, alone with my fears, alone with my issues. I had more baggage than just my suitcase. I slowly inched through the security line, passing the same faces as the line weaved, back and forth, back and forth. A large group of obviously close friends was traveling together, and I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation because what else is one to do in a line so long, so tedious? Well, my eavesdropping proved to be quite serendipitous as these turned out to be friends of friends, and beyond that, they were people that I had been hoping to meet for awhile because they were of wonderful reputation. And here was our most unexpected introduction. A long time to sit otherwise alone, now blessed with company. Twelve hours later, we parted at the bullet train station, my courage strengthened. With each remaining leg of the journey to Kyoto, I stopped any person wearing a hint of kindness and pointed at the appropriate sentence. There were nods and hand gestures and a lot of bowing, ‘arigato.’

By the time I stepped off a small local train near Kyoto University, I had been traveling for over 18 hours and it was near midnight in Japan. I was jet-lagged and exhausted. I still had to walk the remaining few blocks to the University itself with my suitcase, but it was summertime, and it was midnight. What would I do if the dorms were closed? I called the number on my wrinkled paper, and mercifully, a voice answered on the other line. I could not stop the trembling as I tried to explain, I am here for a summer school program, I just need to know if I can get in, I’m sorry it’s so late at night. It was obvious the person on the other line did not fully understand my English, but he understood my fear. “Ok…. ok.”

I arrived, both hopeful and resigned, at the door to the dormitory. I knocked, and I waited. A tentative face appeared at the window, and then slowly, the door opened.

It was a summer of strangers, new friends, a new culture, a summer of shedding the old me. A summer when a complicated relationship intensified and ultimately ended. A summer of getting to know myself, getting to know God’s voice in the thunderstorms that shook the earth, getting to know God’s humble friendship when I walked the streets, heavy with homesickness but known, so deeply known. I brought my paper, my suitcase, my excitement and my fears. I left with a heart that was full, known, broken, healed, loved.

when my mess tumbles out and God comes in

In all the 20 years that I have been leading worship in music at church, I still get nervous every single time. It’s more than stage fright, though that remains a significant component. It’s anticipation, longing. Wanting more than a sentimental musical experience. Wanting something real, something deeper. Creating a space with the music for people to go beyond words in bringing their hearts, their hurts, their fears, their doubts, their shame, before a God who says to every broken soul, “Come to the cross, I will not turn you away there.” Creating a space where the heart is opened and everything tumbles out in the mess that we often feel we are, and we try so hard to contain our mess and apologize that we didn’t get it together before we came before this Holy One. Only to find ourselves caught up in the embrace of the Father who ran to us while we were still a long way off and says, “Welcome home.”

I long for this as a worship leader. For this real exchange to happen. For people to find themselves found by God, because of Christ. I am afraid of getting in the way with too many words, not enough words. Awkward pauses. Wrong notes. I’m afraid of a Sunday with a weak voice, an off voice that doesn’t inspire others to proclaim, “I am His beloved, and He is so good.” I used to think that quality and skill in music didn’t matter that much as a worship leader, but particularly after going through John Piper’s series, “Gravity and Gladness,” and reading Bob Kauflin’s book, “Worship Matters,” I am convinced that quality and skill do matter. Quality in music, quality in leadership style, skill and discernment in both. I don’t think I can take the ministry of worship in music too seriously. I am leading people, through song, to come before a holy, loving God. The Creator and King of the universe. Our Life-giver. He is holy, holy, holy. I tremble with this, every week. I don’t want to sing flippantly to this God who sees my heart of hearts. I want to be used by You, God. I don’t want my pride to get in the way. I don’t want my fumbles to get in the way. Give us Yourself. We need You. No one brings life the way You do. Not me, not my music. Give us Yourself and help me not to get in the way.

There is a deep joy I share with my fellow worship team members. I love musicians who offer what they have to worship the Lord. They get it. They get that the backing off with an instrument is a humble expression of worship, a humble act of service to the church family, just as much as the loud strums and beats. I don’t have to play, to be heard, to be recognized, all the time, because it’s not about me. We’re creating a dynamic with our music, the rise and fall of our hearts when we hurt and we hope and we fall and we get up, when our brokenness robs us of our words before God and when our joy can’t be contained so we have to sing and shout and clap. There are certain Sundays when we know that the Lord has been gracious to us in our time of music, He has been there. The weight of His glory lingers even after the benediction has been given. I exchange glances with other worship team members and we just know, He has glorified Himself through our offering, and our hearts are so glad. Sometimes, I have trouble talking with people afterwards because I feel so amazed that He would give us this gift of Himself, our little broken but beautiful church community. He is what we have longed for. We need Him to go with us into our traffic and our housework and our tense relationships and our Monday morning blues. Give us Yourself, God. As you always have, would you now, again, graciously give us Yourself.

The Case for Counseling

At first, I thought it was a copout response. My patient’s mom knew that her child was extremely sick, but she told the medical team that she didn’t want any real “bad news” until the father was able to join her in a week. The overly practical part of me thought, with a shameful lack of sympathy, “So we’re just supposed to keep this poor child in medical limbo, and an expensive one at that, until Dad gets here to make any sort of plan one way or another?” The more that I considered the mom’s position and response, however, the more I saw and respected her self-awareness and her humility. She knew that any decisive family conference would essentially determine the entire course of her child’s life – aggressive but painful measures to try and fight the awful disease with a poor prognosis, or comfort measures that would likely lead to an earlier but hopefully peaceful death. This mom was aware that one set of shoulders and one heart, valiant but frail, was not enough to hold the weight of this burden. She needed the help of another, and not to mention, the dad certainly deserved a voice in the matter. She was wise to advocate for herself, because it would not do her other child, healthy and growing, any good for mom to become consumed by the heartache of a burden too great.

This is my case for counseling. A friend and I talked over lunch about the taboo that still exists with regards to seeing therapists. I understand completely that therapy might not be for everyone, or perhaps only for certain seasons of life. But why do we hold such judgment towards one another for our common brokenness, our need for the help of another?

When a person has a broken leg and cannot walk, the doctor is wise to prescribe a crutch and the patient is wise to lean on it. Unhelpful pressure is alleviated, and healing can happen. The person who tells the patient that he should be strong enough, brave enough, to just keep walking without a crutch is not kind nor wise. It always saddens me when I hear deeply hurting friends say in response to the suggestion of counseling, “I just don’t want to be seen as someone who needs counseling.” I have to ask again, why do we judge one another and judge ourselves so harshly for our brokenness?

I’ll dare to get even more controversial here. Some Christians say that the Bible and prayer should be sufficient for any faith-filled believer to work through his or her troubles. I love the comfort and the direction of the Word of God. My heart has been relieved of many burdens through times of prayer. But does this mean that the Apostle Paul was wrong when he wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in so doing, fulfill the law of Christ”? Did he misunderstand the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, our Wonderful Counselor, when he penned these words? God knows I need my family and friends when life is hard. Why can an insightful therapist not be another tool that God uses to help carry out this exhortation in our times of trial and confusion?

I have not been a parent to a dying child in a pediatric intensive care unit. But I have faced issues in my life that have been bigger than me, bigger than my understanding, bigger than my maturity, bigger than my solitary heart could manage. It is the discernment, the objectivity, the outside, unbiased perspective of a tender-hearted, insightful, truth-speaking therapist that has helped me untangle myself multiple times from the mess of painful circumstances, the twisted lies of Satan, the flawed voices of people too close to the situation, and my own spinning thoughts. I can see situations for what they actually are, and I can breathe again. The outside pressure is alleviated, and I have the space I need to heal.

I am thankful to God for those who have the courage to help bear our burdens this way. It is my prayer that we will be kinder towards one another and towards ourselves when considering the option of undergoing counseling in our times of need.

the strength that comes

I hear it and I say it a thousand times a week in one form or another. “I’m tired.” “I need a vacation.” “It’s been so busy.” We are tired people. It seems to be a given, just inevitable. It’s the pace of our society, and it comes with growing responsibilities coupled with the physical changes of getting older.  Gone are the carefree days of being a five year-old whose primary concern was which toy offered the most entertainment at any given time. What a life that was!

I think a lot these days about the weight of our lives. Heavy issues in my family, heavy issues in my patients’ lives, heavy issues in friends’ lives. Sometimes it’s easier not to think about it. And sometimes it’s important to give myself the freedom not to think about it all for awhile. But the reality is that it’s still there and can’t be ignored forever. Not if I want to live fully and discover the redemptive joys and lessons in character and faith that are to be gained from working through even the most painful situations.

After a particularly harrowing day at work, I commented to a coworker, “I choose to be here, right?” At the start of each day, it is still ultimately a desire and voluntary choice of mine to come into work, even when I know that it can be intense and beyond crazy-busy. The ability to choose our burdens, in that respect, is truly a gift. Because sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are outside of our choosing, from which we cannot escape. I watched the family member of one of my patients carry unbelievable burdens and responsibilities on her shoulders after a horrific accident. She was honest about her exhaustion and deep struggle, and yet she carried on with such fortitude, such commitment. She never would have chosen to be in this place, not for herself and not for her family member lying in that hospital bed. They were so tired. A vacation was not on the radar. But there was and there is a strength that comes.

According to Isaiah 30:15, “This is what the Sovereign Lord…says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’”

Some days I have to remind myself that for every legitimate complaint I am tempted to utter (and often do) about how tired I am or how hard things can get, I have ten things I can be thankful for. I really do. I’m not trying to be over-spiritual, unrealistic, or dishonest about what goes on in my heart. There just comes a point where I need to let my complaining grow quiet, and let renewed strength come from a grateful heart. To look less to the shadows and more towards what is lovely and good.

Sometimes, I try to escape burdens through busyness. Clean the house, fill my schedule with activities, watch movies. All good and helpful in the right time and right amount. But it is only in the quiet place of prayer before a loving Savior who Himself bore the burdens of a broken world on His shoulders where I can truly relinquish all the brokenness I feel for myself and others to Him once again. Let my anxious heart look upwards to trust that He is still Emmanuel, God with us.

I do not and should not expect Him to fix everything now, to free me of all trouble for the remainder of my days here on this earth. There are a lot of very uncomfortable uncertainties for my life, my loved ones, and for what I see in my patients, that I am learning to live with, and it is hard. But there is too much left for me to learn about resting in His presence, trusting Him more, longing for heaven, and responding to hard situations with better character, for Him to give me less than what I need to grow. Simon Rodia constructed a beautiful testament to what beauty can be brought out of brokenness when he built the Watts Towers, and I am thankful for his reminder.

So I am learning slowly that strength does not ultimately come from venting all my complaints, escaping all burdens, or having all the answers to all my questions.  Let strength come, rather, from the quietness of knowing His hand is over all things, and trusting that His hand is faithful, loving, and good. For my home is with Him now in the midst of a broken world, and my future home will be with Him when the brokenness is no more.