From the Mouths of Babes and Asian Men

A while back, I was reacquainted with a sweet older Asian pastor. I initially met him several years ago, and it took me a few seconds to remember him. I was making small-talk with him as he waited to talk to our pastor when he asked, “What’s your story?”

“Well, I work here at the church. What kind of story do you mean?” (I often assume there’s a question behind the question.)

“So you’re married?” he asked. “Do you have kids?”

I answered, “No, I’m not married.”

“Why not? Did you not try? Did you not ask God?”

There they are. The money questions. In my more insecure moments, I wonder how many people silently ask the same (or worse) questions.

Kids often ask me questions like, “Where’s your husband? Which kids are yours? Why don’t you have a husband? Why aren’t you married?” These kids understand the world in a very black-and-white way: you grow up, get a job, get married, have kids. That’s your one option as far as life-paths go. I’m not opposed to that for a simple reason: I think we’ve lost a lot if kids don’t see work and family as a healthy ideal. But I’ll be the first to tell you that work and family don’t look the same for everyone.

When kids ask these questions, I have a simple answer: because God has different plans for each of us, and marriage has not been his plan for me. I’m careful to answer these sweet, naïve kids with hope in God’s plan for my life, whatever it looks like, because I know that some of those kids may one day be single when they didn’t expect to be. I want them to remember that what God gives is what’s best, even if singleness and childlessness is what he gives.

But explaining singleness is a little different when you’re talking to a mid-50s Asian man whose wife is waiting in the car outside. I tried my typical kid-friendly answer (because it’s easy and rehearsed enough to be on the tip of my tongue), and he didn’t understand what I meant. In his culture, singleness—especially for women—is not an option. I wasn’t offended by his questioning because I understood his intent, but it made me think about how I respond to questions about my singleness.

Typically, my initial answer to kids about why I’m single does the trick and we move on to another topic. But this sweet man kept asking questions and offering suggestions (“Maybe if you go overseas to do missions you will find someone”), so I had to keep explaining my philosophy behind my singleness. It took me a minute but I eventually got to the heart of it.

I am single because I am following God.

If I believe that there are no accidents in God’s world, that he is in charge of all that happens to me for good or bad, and that his love for me is what drives his work in my life, then I have to believe each step I take is a response of loving obedience to God. Does that mean I am always, perfectly, 100 percent content in being single? Of course not! Do I feel uncertain when I imagine myself at 50 or 60, still single? Do I wonder how God will provide for me as I age or if I become ill? Absolutely. But obeying God means trusting that he knows what’s coming and how to care for me. It means not being consumed by desires and fears, and choosing to believe that my life will not be wasted—that I will not be ashamed because I trusted God. It means believing that whatever God has provided for this day, whether it’s marriage or singleness, wealth or poverty, sickness or health, is an opportunity to trust that he knows and does what’s best, not only for me, but for each of us.

I’m reminded of Luke 18:29-30, which says, “And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.’”

Following Jesus isn’t easy. Anyone who tries to convince you that the Christian life is easy is either fooling themselves or messing with you. But a life given to God for the sake of the gospel results in rewards that far outweigh the difficulties. It’s all worth it—the gospel is worth giving up your dreams and expectations for your life so you can be a part of the grand narrative God is writing. We will not be put to shame for trusting him.

So, whether or not you’re struggling, whether or not you feel lonely, I encourage you: be faithful, be obedient in wherever God has placed you, believing that God knows and does what is best, not only for the whole world, but for you—for he knows you by name.

What Buying a Car Taught Me about Prayer

I walked into the room, looked around, and tried to hide my growing sense of intimidation. The room was full of men (the only woman I saw was the receptionist), fake plants and cubicles abounded, and ESPNs 1 through whatever-number-we’re-up-to were on every TV hung in the room, offering a brief respite to those lured by fate or necessity into this room.

I knew who I came to see. I entered this car dealership to research trading in my car, and while I remembered this room from the last time I bought a car, I forgot the atmosphere that tries to pretend it isn’t about to crush your soul.

After a quick test drive and a quote on my trade-in, the negotiations began. They went far longer than I intended for them to go. I wanted to give up several times over the four or so hours I sat in the dealership. A friend was my car advisor—I texted and called him several times to ask, “Is this really a good deal? Should I leave?”

The process of buying a car is painful. I didn’t want the salesman’s approval, but I also didn’t want to appear unkind. I tried to be direct and firm but with a Christian gentleness. I tried not to play the car sales game, but somehow that made the game much harder to stop.

During what felt like weeks (but was really just a very long afternoon), the salesman looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you know what a good deal you’re getting?” I tried to play it cool, but I figured he was still playing games when I wanted to quit. Hours later, I left the dealership with a new car, hoping to avoid buying another car for as long as I could. As I drove away, I thought of a recent phrase someone repurposed as a joke: “Nevertheless, she persisted,” but applied to everyday things.

Someone who persisted

I’m not naturally persistent. I’ll push very hard for a while, but without results I tend to give up and move to something easier. But my car buying experience reminded me of Luke 18:1-8, which begins, “(Jesus) told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”

In this parable, Jesus tells a parable about a widow who was dealing with injustice. The only way she saw to get justice was to make herself an unwanted fixture in the judge’s life until he was willing to notice her. It worked. The judge, who didn’t care about God or people, was annoyed to the point that he gave her justice just to make her go away.

Jesus explains that the point of the parable is that if an unrighteous judge can be pressured to do the right thing by the persistence of one woman, how much more will our kind God respond to the cries of his children whom he loves? Jesus’ words at the end of verse 8 tie our prayers and our faith together, showing that faith gives us persistence to keep praying even when we don’t see what God is doing. Persistent prayers demonstrate faith that God will intervene in our lives.

Persistent prayer fuels faith

I recently read Answers to Prayer by George Müller, and was again floored by his example of persistent prayer. During a period of extreme need for himself and hundreds of British orphans, Müller wrote in his journal, “Truly, it is worth being poor and greatly tried in faith, for the sake of having day by day such precious proofs of the loving interest which our kind Father takes in everything that concerns us” (22). Here’s a man whose regular, persistent prayer fueled his faith that God would provide, even when it seemed impossible.

I’m learning that God delights in persistent prayer. He doesn’t tire of hearing me pray the same old things, but he delights in me and desires for me to seek him in prayer. He beckons me to come to him boldly because not only does he know me and my needs, he knows that what’s best for me is being close to him. Persistent prayer doesn’t make God more likely to hear me, but it makes me more dependent on my “kind Father” who withholds nothing good from me (Psalm 84:11).

The kind of dependence on God we see in George Müller’s life can only be cultivated through persistent prayer to a loving, attentive Father. It takes a lot of spending time in Scripture, being intentional about talking to God, and trudging on when it’s hard or it feels fruitless. This is where I’m working most on my relationship with God, and I pray that God will make me an enduring and persistent pray-er.

Note: If this is you too, be encouraged! It’s possible to grow in your relationship with God through prayer. A few resources that have helped (are helping) me:

— Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller (currently reading)

— Answers to Prayer by George Müller

— A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World by Paul Miller

Easter Wings

I love poetry because it forces me to look at the beauty of words and the way we use them. I was looking for poems about Easter, and John Donne is typically my go-to poet, but this time, I began with George Herbert. His poem “Easter Wings,” particularly its last line, opened my eyes and centered my heart. “For, if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” Amen. Isaiah 40:29-31 reveals the same truth: reliance on God through suffering leads to a unique renewal of our strength.

Easter is all about this juxtaposition: suffering and strength. Jesus became weak by taking on flesh, yet he was strong to complete the mission he was given to suffer and die in the place of sinners and then to conquer death through his resurrection. Jesus’ strength in suffering is now given to us through faith in him; we experience the glorious exchange of his strength for our weakness. So now we do not face suffering without hope. We put one foot in front of the other–sometimes slowly–knowing that Jesus walked this road before us, and his Spirit lives within us, empowering us to press on until we arrive in our forever home with God.

Easter Wings
George Herbert

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,

Though foolishly he lost the same,

Decaying more and more,

Till he became

Most poore:

With thee

O let me rise

As larks, harmoniously,

And sing this day thy victories:

Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne

      And still with sicknesses and shame.

Thou didst so punish sinne,

That I became

Most thinne.

With thee

Let me combine,

And feel thy victorie:

For, if I imp my wing on thine,

Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Beauty Is Not in the Eye of the Beholder

I just finished a class on the theology of Augustine, so if my posts become Augustine-infested for a while, consider this your fair warning.

Studying Augustine’s work, specifically Confessions, renewed my desire to learn and shocked my brain into working harder than ever. His understanding and application of order and beauty is part of why I chose "beauty" as my word of the year (though I feel cheesy saying it). 

I always valued things according to their truth or usefulness—nothing else. Is it utilitarian? That’s all I wanted. But now, having seen through the eyes of Augustine, I realize the inadequacy of the label “useful.” Augustine writes a lot about beauty in Confessions, but the structure upon which his doctrine of beauty is built exists in everything else we read for this class.

Augustine’s theory of beauty is what brings order and elegance to his understanding of the Trinity and what helps him to clearly describe the City of God in comparison to the city of man. Augustine wants his readers—long-time believers and brand new ones—to see that God’s designed order is beautiful and bestows beauty on all that submits to God’s order out of love and humility.

When our lives are rightly ordered in relation to God, they are beautiful. When creation works like it should, it is beautiful. "Consider the lilies of the field... they neither toil nor spin," Jesus says in Matthew 6:28. God made flowers beautiful, and when they are planted and cultivated correctly, when the rain is just right, those flowers are exactly what they should be. 

Beauty is not an object—it is a value. Augustine sees distinct similarities between goodness and beauty. God pronounced all things good at creation, and sin marred the goodness and beauty God designed. According to Augustine, evil is not an actual substance, but creation disordered (or anti-beauty). Sin is envy and lust for what we do not have; it's using people to get what we want; it's loving ourselves more than God. This is the root of evil—that we cannot achieve God's good design because we cannot submit to him as we ought, unless Beauty himself opens our eyes and hearts to greater realities which don't revolve around us.

So now, having been convinced of the necessity of beauty as a reflection of God, I’m now asking myself these questions: how do I observe and experience beauty each day? How is that beauty a reflection of God's beauty? How can I learn to value beauty the way God does?

My Word for 2017

I’ve never picked a theme word for the year. I don’t have a problem with it; it’s just never been my thing. Nor do I typically make resolutions. Only in the last few years have I begun working through a list of questions to help me pray and plan for the coming year.

When I sat down to work through my yearly questions, I discovered that I’m all dreamed out. I have great goals and ambitions on which I am praying and trusting God, but I can’t dream any further without taking action. I decided to move on, knowing that I can come back to the list later.

But it turns out that I have a word for this year. It came seemingly out of nowhere (but really we know that things that come out of nowhere often are a result of the Spirit’s leading).

Beauty.

For the last month or two, I’ve been really considering beauty—where it comes from, what its purpose is, and what we should do with it. I’m not sure what brought the idea of “beauty” to my mind (I’m sure it was some book I read), but I haven’t been able to shake the idea.

Until now, I valued things for their reality (or truth or tangibility, just not fake) and usefulness. Reality and usefulness were requirements for everything: for my time, work, books, music, even for hobbies. Beauty was not only optional, but was untrustworthy. The well-known verse from Proverbs 31 comes to mind: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain…” Beauty was a veneer that either blurred the truth or hid its own deficit.

But I’m beginning to see what I’ve been missing. Our expressions of beauty are a reflection of the source of beauty. Beauty is a person, just as truth is a person. Beauty has a purpose, just like light has a purpose. Beauty is meant to be seen, acknowledged, experienced, and enjoyed in its fullness.

But as it turns out, I don’t care about beauty like I should. Things that are beautiful don’t give me pleasure and cause me to delight in God, the source of all beauty. I don’t experience the beauty of things, at least not in the way God intends for us to enjoy him. I don’t often glimpse the beauty in the stories he writes. Beauty is not an end in itself, but a lens through which we see the world as it should be.

Looking through beauty-correcting lenses means asking, “Is this beautiful? What about it is beautiful? How is this beauty a reflection of God’s beauty? How can I experience and enjoy this beauty as a foretaste of what I will experience fully with God?”

May we be captivated by God’s beauty as we notice his fingerprints over all of creation!

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13)