I remember for the past few years, I’ve had this running to-do list in my mind. It’s my “when I have a chance to breathe, I’ll get to it” list. There are some very important things on this list — such as regular exercise. I would squeeze a work out in here and there, haphazardly, but I hadn’t built it into my weekly rhythms. I kept thinking, when I settle my schedule, I’ll do incorporate it properly. It never happened. There were so many other things on that list, and the list kept growing. It was a crushing weight that I somehow learned to ignore for the most part, but subconsciously, it was leaving me feeling rather breathless, if I will admit it to myself. I felt as though life was always happening to me, and that I was in reaction mode.

Until now!

COVID has provided this amazing opportunity to clear my schedule and reset my rhythms. It’s almost like an answered prayer, in an odd way, to have this chance to breathe.* — All that time that I was burdened with this massive to-do list, and I was telling myself “when I have a chance to breathe…”, I was actually praying, “God, please give me the chance to catch my breath.”

I find that I have developed a nice rhythm during this time. Rest, work, connection / community, play, purpose, study, prayer. All seem to be in the right amounts and balanced. I’m especially grateful for the chance to take naps almost whenever I need to! It’s truly life-changing. I remember this Albert Camus quote I put in my college yearbook:

In the depth of winter, I finally found within me an invincible summer.

I’m not trying to say my life is rosy — I certainly miss having regular in-person human contact and there are a lot of personal, communal, and global downsides to this COVID winter. But I guess I’m learning that in some ways, it might be possible to thrive during this time. By the grace of God.

* NOTE: I know that I’m privileged to be able to view this time in this way, while so many people out there (essential workers, unemployed people, parents with kids at home and no childcare) are not finding this time restful at all.

I realized that my last two blog posts are deeply related. This time of self-confinement is not only tapping into my fear of missing out on months of living life, but also my fear of not being missed by others. Out of sight, out of mind. Due to the COVID-19-related guidance to shelter in place, I won’t be physically around my friends and social circles in person as a prompt for my community to remember I exist.

But I also need to flip around the fear so that it’s not so self-oriented. The enemy just wants me to focus narcissistically on myself and drown in self-pity. So I too can do my part to remember my friends and family — to reach out to them proactively to see how they’re doing. Especially those who are isolated, living alone, without much support. Care for others as I want to be cared for.

Along with countless others, I rewatched the movie Contagion and I resonate with the daughter of Matt Damon’s character. Due to a worldwide pandemic, she has been cloistered for months, and she is clearly tired of being cooped up and missing her friends and high school experiences. (At the end of the movie, her father stages a “prom” for her in their house, where he invites her boyfriend to come slow dance with her to U2’s All I Want Is You. No fear, they’ve both received the vaccine for the supervirus.)

I don’t want to minimize anyone’s fears of actually being infected by Covid-19, of spreading it to people who are high-risk, and of all the fatalities that will occur. But as I self-sequester myself in my place along public health guidance (as far as I know, I don’t have the coronavirus!), I’m finding that one of the biggest fears emerging in me personally right now is the terror of missing out on life. I know people talk about “fomo” but this isn’t just simple fear of missing out. There’s something deeper and more visceral for me. We will never be able to recover the many weeks, or even months, that we will be spending indoors and apart from our friends and family. Online interactions, video chats, and phone calls can only replace so much social interaction.

I see this social distancing going on for weeks and weeks on end. We’ll miss celebrating Easter and the Resurrection in person (thank goodness churches are putting their services online). Will we also miss summer with all the wonderful things that come with that season, including holidays by the sea and other vacations? And some experts speculate that coronavirus isn’t seasonal, so how far into this year will this seclusion last? Will it permanently change how we function and socialize? Will we be under house arrest until either a vaccine and/or an antiretroviral is developed? (I’m fine with getting rid of the hand shake, though, because elbow bumps are fine with me and I’m sure many diseases are transmitted via hand shake.)

How do we recover all this time apart? I feel this acutely because I feel myself aging, and the last thing I want to do is lose more time being apart from loved ones. Unlike when I was young, I don’t feel as though I have unlimited time ahead of me. Every day is precious. But it’s hard to appreciate this preciousness when life seems to be on hold. Time slips by and I’ll have even less of it on the other side of this virus, when life starts up again.

Can God work and bear fruit even in this time of sequestration? I struggle to believe this, because I think that I have to be out and about in the world to help Him make things happen. Things don’t “happen” when I’m shut in. Plus the Sabbath is only supposed to be one day a week, not for 2, 3, 4, … straight weeks.

There’s a biblical and agricultural concept of lying fallow. A field needs to lie fallow for a period of time, to restore its nutrients, before being planted again. I remember someone sharing that analogy with me once when I took a “sabbatical” year from being social and trying to focus on my relationship with God. Upon reflection, that seems to be poppycock. I don’t remember that year being foundational to all that happened afterwards. Also, I had control over the extent of the sabbatical — I wasn’t completely antisocial that year; I was more selective and focused. But I now regret pulling back that year — I wonder if there’s just this twisted Christian myth that we need to go on silent retreats to win His favor, and that I was just being legalistic.

I’m frankly not sure what to do with this forced time of quiet and solitude.

 

The title of this post was inspired by the “right to be forgotten” enforced in the European Union, which basically asserts the right to have private information expunged from internet searches. This blog isn’t about internet security or privacy, but I’ve been pondering what it means to be forgotten and remembered. It makes sense that we’d want to suppress sensitive, especially damning, information about ourselves, especially if events happened long ago and we’ve repented / changed (or perhaps we were victims, and not perpetrators) — in some instances, there should be a statute of limitations on what can be recalled.

So let’s talk about remembering and our deep, natural human desire to be remembered. My view of this was shaped by my childhood. My mother neglected me: she took care of all my basic needs, but she never played with me. I was an only child and was very lonely (before I was school-aged, I spent most days alone playing in the living room), so I did a lot of things to get her attention. For example, one day, I decided to open the refrigerator and drop all the raw eggs on the floor.

This is how I learned that if I didn’t actively draw attention to myself, no one would remember me.

So my deep desire to be remembered and my corresponding deep fear of being forgotten have shaped my personality. I’m naturally an extrovert and enjoy being a connector of friends. However, the dark side is the need to be the center of attention. This manifests in needing to be high achieving (hence being obsessed with having a perfect GPA in school), being pointedly, publicly and provocatively opinionated and principled (whether in word, speech or deed), and being in contact with a lot of people at all times (social media is certain a huge enabler of this). A lot of what I do screams, “Look at meeeee!!!”

As a result, my personality has developed these sharp edges, especially from the drive to be noticeably opinionated (no one would ever accuse me of being bland or milquetoast), but to the point where it can repel and intimidate. I know that’s not good at all. Ironically, these sharp edges work directly against my desire is to be remembered and cherished by a beloved few.

Also, working against me in the past was how thinly I spread myself across friends — I’ve been invited to 150-200 weddings over my lifetime, but only asked to be in the bridal party for four. I’m sure the vanity around trying to draw attention to myself isn’t attractive either!

Underlying all of this is the nagging sense that if I don’t remind people I exist, I’ll be forgotten. That’s the terror in my soul. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s probably why I bawled when I watched the Disney movie Coco (amazing how Disney could make animated skeletons cute!).

I’m realizing I’m super tired of reminding people that I’m here. I want God to help me to know that He remembers me and that I don’t have to bug Him. I also want to trust in my good friends that they’ll remember me even if I don’t throw myself in front of them.

The thing is, we all get busy with life, and it’s not possible to remember all our loved ones, all the time. There are also seasons where we intentionally must focus and set aside a lot of our relationships for a time. I personally need to do a better job at remembering my friends and family.

God is beginning to help me to remember all the times He’s worked in someone’s heart to reach out to me out of the blue — after months, and sometimes years, and at the right time. One story that stands out to me in Scripture is Joseph and the cupbearer. The cupbearer only remembered Joseph a couple of years after he met Joseph in prison, when Pharaoh had the dreams from God and asked for an interpreter. I just have to assume that the timing was divine, although that Joseph was probably frustrated that the cupbearer hadn’t remembered him sooner.

These stories from my life and Scripture are good reminders that God doesn’t ever forget us, and we don’t have to “work” to win His affection or attention.

Admittedly, cleaning out my freezer was a little bit inspired by the Marie Kondo craze which was reinvigorated by her recent Netflix series. The other inspiration was the fact that I couldn’t go to Costco anymore because my freezer was bursting at the seams. Literally. To the point where I had to install a little babylock to keep the freezer door from popping open on its own. (I had originally bought the babylocks to keep my cupboards from springing open during an earthquake and having all my plates end up in shards on the floor — another story altogether.)

The real reason underlying my reluctance to clear out my freezer was a simple denial that my life hadn’t unfolded the way that I had wanted, when I moved to this city 3+ years ago. Yes, you may wonder what on earth my expired freezer contents would have to do with my life trajectory, but there’s actually a little bit of logic, however twisted, here. If you stay with me, you’ll understand in 2 minutes.

I moved here to get a fresh start from my life in my previous city, for a wide range of reasons, many of them the usual suspects. And it was indeed refreshing to “start over” — ranging from buying all new furniture, colorful cushions, and cute wall hangings for my apartment, to creating a mostly new professional and personal network (and renewing previous acquaintances whom I hadn’t really connected with in years). Going from being shamed about not following politics and current global affairs, to being shamed for not recognizing the names of tech founders, CEOs, and unicorns. (Yes, people always find some way to make you feel dumb about something. But good news — now I can shame people here for not following politics and current affairs.) Going from being one of the few Asians in the congregation, and feeling like a complete alien, to one of many, many, many. Lots of interesting changes.

One of the first things that I did when I moved into my apartment, was to stock my fridge and freezer. In terms of my freezer, I bought a lot of frozen party food/ hors d’oeuvres from Trader Joe’s. You know, the kind that you can whip out when you have guests over and stick in the oven for 15 minutes. Mushroom turnovers. Stuff like that. And of course, the underlying presumption is that I’d have guests over frequently and be social… Then, 2 years… and then 2.5… and then 3… and then 3.5 years later, I’m looking through my overstuffed freezer and finding the very same items… and finding myself utterly unable to throw them out. So I just ignore them, even though they are completely freezer-burned, covered in ice, and inedible. And what I’m really suppressing is the fact that I never actually had that many people over, to occasion consuming these items. [Also, I plain forgot I had bought them, so there’s also that problem.] And these items were a painful reminder that so much time had already passed since I had moved here, and it felt almost like yesterday that I had purchased them. And then finally throwing them out was part of the grieving process — acceptance — that life hadn’t really unfolded the way I had hoped with my “fresh start.” And that I’m well beyond the “fresh start” phase of my time here in this city. Throwing out these items seemed to be admitting that I had expended another 3 years of my life, in trying to accomplish my life goals.

I often feel as though I’m the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day. But the most unfair part is when I wake up, I’m one day older, “one day closer to dying” — the lyric from the song “At the End of the Day,” from Les Miserables. But Bill Murray’s character is the same age every day. Who knows how many iterations of Groundhog Day he lived through… he gathered all that wisdom, and when the Fates finally allowed him to move onto February 3rd, he still had the rest of his life before him to live the “right” way with the wisdom he had accrued. I suppose from a Christian perspective, we have our entire lives in Eternity to have our happy endings, but that feels like cold comfort!

Regardless of the reluctance to face mortality, the long and short of it is that I bit the bullet and tossed out the old junk in my freezer tonight. I will relish in this small victory of finally being able to admit defeat.

Please don’t read this blog post if you’re teetering on the brink of depression b/c it will surely push you over the edge. It’s a very realistic look at what God actually promises us.

My favorite CS Lewis essay is “The Weight of Glory.” In this piece, he summarizes what guarantees Scripture give us. “The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised

  1. that we shall be with Christ;
  2. that we shall be like Him;
  3. with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”;
  4. that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and
  5. that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe”

This is very sobering b/c it really indicates no guarantees about our welfare on Earth. I think what is problematic is that we will read stories in Scripture where God makes specific promises to individuals (e.g., Abraham), and we then erroneously appropriate those verses/promises for ourselves. I don’t know why pastors / seminaries don’t do a better job at helping lay people learn how to study Scripture and discern between promises God makes to everyone (e.g., what’s listed above by CS Lewis) and specific promises He made to individuals and DO NOT APPLY TO US. As a result of this totally sloppy, and frankly self-focused and almost narcissistic, way of interpreting Scripture, we have unfortunately absorbed a health and wealth / prosperity gospel into our theology. We expect God to deliver us from our current circumstance. I am not saying He will not, but sometimes He does, and sometimes He does not intervene. There’s no formula here.

And fortunately, since I (and perhaps some of the folks reading this blog) are fortunate enough that things work out for us generally in this life (because we are part of the global 10 percent, and we have access to a wealth of resources, not limited to social networks, family support, education, living-wage employment, clean air and water, money, etc.), it does seem like we are generally delivered from most challenging circumstances.

But in reality, this is not true for people who are at the bottom of the pyramid, many of whom worship Christ. Every day people die from lack of food and healthcare, families are separated, children are orphaned, people are trafficked, women, children, and others are violated, etc. God’s promises of deliverance did not bear out in their lives on Earth. Even for those who are of the top 10 percent, there are many ailments that are not addressed on this side of Heaven — many blind, deaf, and mute who do not recover their senses; many with diseases who die young and not healed (my mother being one of them); many hearts broken which never fully heal, whether it’s because of the death of a dearly loved one or a loss of a relationship.

So the solace of Advent and Christmas, and the heart of the gospel message, truly lie in the guarantee, promise, covenant, fact that we are saved from the jaws of DEATH, to eternal life. Should God choose to deliver us from earthly circumstances and trials, that is a bonus.

It’s interesting, b/c since many of us in the 10 percent are not at the brink of death (unless we’re aging and have terminal illnesses), we don’t confront our mortality day to day. Death is not a pressing concern (unless there’s a natural disaster and the apocalypse comes upon us). And so the solace that Christ brought to us isn’t as much of a solace. At least not for me. For those whose survival hangs on a thread, the gospel becomes truly good news.

So how then does a global ten percent-er live day to day with this hard truth that nothing on Earth is guaranteed, and while Heaven is guaranteed, it may feel like a distant glimmer, almost like a fairyland? The bottom line is I honestly can’t rely on God to have my back in this life — whether it be in my job context, my prospects for dating/marriage, my ability to sustain myself financially, my health, my relationships with friends, family, coworkers, etc. It used to be, that when I lived under the delusion that God has my back, I could give “freely” because I trusted Him to honor and replenish what I had given, in this lifetime. I didn’t have a scarcity mindset. It turns out I was motivated by entirely the wrong theology.

However, now that I’m moving one layer deeper into theology, it turns out that faith actually means giving and loving with no guarantee or hope of return in this lifetime. As such, I lack faith. I find that I am becoming increasingly stingy about giving financially b/c I don’t believe it will come back to me. Maybe I’ll get an extra jewel or two in my crown in Heaven, but if it means that I will struggle financially during my retirement, I don’t think it’s worth it.

So the question, while embracing the hard reality that God may or may not have my back on earth, how do I live by faith? I think of the book of Daniel and the King threatening to throw his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace to burn them alive. And yet in Daniel 3:16-18:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

That is truly faith! In some weird way, I sort of wish that they had perished in the fire because this would be an example in Scripture where God didn’t come through and people couldn’t just explain that away. We are quick to embrace happy endings, and yet sad endings are typically what happen 99% of the time.

I remember my pastor taught about how obedience is a response to knowing (in a deep, personal way) God’s love. And so maybe the motivation to obey is not b/c of how God can deliver or bless us in this life, but more because we are enthralled with Him and then act sacrificially. But that’s where I truly struggle. I don’t feel a deep emotional love for God — like Heaven, He’s an abstract concept to me. And hence I don’t know if I will ever be able to live deeply in faith for Him and lay down my life for others as Christ did. I’m just a bit too self-protective to do that.

 

My friend is a fanatic about Mr. Rogers b/c of the depth of his Christian faith. He was one of the few famous people who actually was in real life as he portrayed himself on television, which is heartening at a time like this (i.e., #metoo). I am reading a book by Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor, which is a compilation of her reflections about him. Below are some quotes she uses to frame her reflections.

Ms. Hollingsworth writes about how Fred Rogers believed in helping children to express, not suppress, their emotions, but also to control / channel them in ways that would not hurt others. Mr. Rogers would play piano or swim, if he felt angry. Here’s an accompanying quote from Madeleine L’Engle’s book, The Irrational Season:

Righteousness begins to reveal itself as that strength which is so secure that it can show itself as gentleness, and the only people who have this kind of righteousness are those who are integrated and do not suppress the dark side of themselves.

She also writes about how Fred Rogers taught her who her neighbor is: the person standing in front of her. He emphasized the importance of seeing God in each person we encounter. Here’s a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov:

Know this: You should judge every person by his merits. Even someone who seems completely wicked, you must search and find that little speck of good, for in that place, he is not wicked. By this you will raise him up, and help him return to G-d. And you must also do this for yourself, finding your own good points, one after the other, and raising yourself up. This is how melodies are made, note after note.

The author also reflects on the power of being fully present to someone, and quotes from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s The Gift of Peace:

I tried to look everyone in the eye and make each person feel that he or she was important, the only one present at the moment…. When you convince people that you really care and that, even if hundreds of others are around, at that particular moment they are the only ones that count–then you establish a new relationship…. You have somehow mediated the love, mercy, and compassion of the Lord. In other words, the encounter also has a significant religious dimension: It helps strengthen the bond, the relationship, between each person and God.

How I wish I could have that mindset whenever I interact with people… Sometimes in a group gathering, my gaze wanders, wondering whom I would rather speak with, whom would I potentially gain more from? It’s usually a consumeristic lens that I take, versus a perspective of giving and blessing.

 

I’ve just been thinking about how we all seem to be hardwired to reciprocate — if one person does a good deed for us, we want to do a good deed for them. It seems like a reflex we cannot suppress — even the bad guys in stories can’t suppress it! I think of Harry Potter and Peter Pettigrew.

In book 3, Harry spares Peter’s life:

“Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt… When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them… and I’m much mistaken if Voldemort wants his servant in the debt of Harry Potter… This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry.”

In book 7, Peter/Wormtail attempts to kill Harry:

‘You’re going to kill me?’ Harry choked, attempting to prise off the metal fingers.

‘After I saved your life? You owe me, Wormtail!’

The silver fingers slackened. Harry had not expected it: he wrenched himself free, astonished, keeping his hand over Wormtail’s mouth. He saw the rat-like man’s small, watery eyes widen with fear and surprise: he seemed just as shocked as Harry at what his hand had done, at the tiny, merciful impulse it had betrayed, and he continued to struggle more powerfully, as though to undo that moment of weakness.

Grace begets grace. Peter’s intentions were overwhelmed by a deeper impulse.

It seems like we’re built to respond to grace, like Someone created us to be responsive to Him and His nature. The extent to which we’re able to reciprocate that grace demonstrates the extent to which we’ve experienced it directly. I think it’s hard to extend grace when we’ve not felt God’s grace in our own lives, even if we know of it intellectually.

Since the election of Trump, it’s fascinating how much I’ve been hearing calls to unity within majority-culture churches. I think this recent article in the New York Times, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches,” explains why these calls to unity fall flat. Minorities often interpret these calls to unity as a manipulative attempt to silence and stuff their concerns… I agree — I mean, as the church, aren’t we supposed to care about other parts of the Body which suffer and suffer along with them? I think of 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”  Part of that suffering includes the ways minorities are treated differently, both individually and structurally, so shouldn’t we openly address and care about that? Acknowledging all concerns and trying to address them as a Body seems like true unity to me. I’d love to see someone write a thoughtful article about what church unity really means — define it in biblical terms and especially for this current time.

There’s a case to be made for division and separation as a means of holding people accountable for bad behavior and sin (whether by omission or commission). When Hitler was in power in Germany, the church divided, with one faction opposing and taking a moral stand against Hitler. Also, think about the conservative churches who left and separated from their liberal denominations (e.g., Anglican vs. Episcopal) in the name of defending orthodoxy regarding LGBT issues, and yet these churches don’t consider this “divisive”, but probably view themselves as nobly defending the Christian orthodoxy. And yet these same churches will play the unity card to try to keep congregants from leaving over issues of race and social justice, by over-simplifying these issues and saying that “focusing on race is divisive”.

I’d argue that leaving a church because you feel that they have turned a blind eye to social justice issues is morally and spiritually equivalent and as defensible as leaving a church because it’s turned a blind eye to orthodoxy about LGBT issues. Leaving the church over social justice issues is a moral wake-up call for the church. The Bible has a lot more to say about caring for the poor, widows, orphans, aliens, etc — much more so than the handful of verses related to homosexuality. It’s unorthodox to NOT care about social justice issues. So I reject the blanket, silencing call to unity within the church, unless there’s a more nuanced way to address it and open up a genuine dialogue towards being more inclusive and empathetic of points of view of minorities and those who have been disenfranchised. If the white evangelical church is unable to do this, it will continue to fade into irrelevancy and endanger its core mission of spreading the gospel.

I finally read A Christmas Carol, and have established another holiday tradition. It’s a very short read, and I liked it immensely. It’s nice to know that Dickens can write stories that are uplifting 🙂

Here are a few quotes I liked:

‘There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

~~

“And how did little Tim behave [at church]?” asked Mrs. Cratchit….

“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

~~

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

~~

“Why bless my soul!” cried Fred, “who’s that?”
“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?”
Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes….Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!

~~

“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, “and therefore I am about to raise your salary!”
Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it; holding him; and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this every afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

~~

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew….

[I can visualize and hear Gonzo narrating this part in The Muppet Christmas Carol version!]