THE IMPORTANCE OF CELEBRATION

Celebrations, anniversaries, parties, special little meaningful gestures, getting dressed up, making a fuss, and writing cards can seem frivolous and silly, especially if you’re in a cranky mood. I have a high value for practicality and frugality, so sometimes when Andrew and I are thinking about date nights, I find myself calculating the actual cost and deliberating if it is worth it. I can be a bit of a Scrooge. For birthdays, I never want people to spend money and would rather have them over for dinner. On my 30th, three friends took me out to a nice restaurant and treated me and brought a birthday cake too — I was floored, and slightly confused. With flowers, I used to think they were a waste of money because they die, and so I would pretend to scorn them even though I had a secret love of them. And with presents, if it isn’t absolutely necessary, why should I receive it?

It seems like I’m just really, really cheap. Which is true. But what is below the surface here is a spiritual unhealthiness keeping me from celebration. Sometimes it’s a bloated sense of my own importance and the gravity of the world’s problems that has me overburdened, lacking trust in God, and not making any space for celebration. Sometimes it’s a lack of hope that things can get better, so why celebrate this little thing now? Sometimes it’s a sheepishness in receiving love, care, and generosity — a sheepishness that comes from shame and self-abasing, false humility. Usually, it’s a lack of a true, humble (not self-flagellating but actual) view of self and a true, big view of God, and a lack of a sense of his delight in me.

I used to think rejoicing and celebration was a “not very serious” kingdom value, but I am learning that celebration is a spiritual discipline, an act of faith only possible where there is hope in the One who will never leave you. Celebration in the kingdom is more than half-hearted applause to fill in the silent parts between acts, but a steady and powerful choice to rejoice in the “ellipses” of life, when you’re still watching and waiting and hoping and praying. It is a courageous act of hope, a conscious decision to say no to despair and to take joy — even delight (!) — in small victories when you still have a long way to go.

Celebration gives room for reflection so we can see past mere accomplishments and instead savor the true gift of the presence of God with us. Celebration sharpens a fearlessness in us for tomorrow because the same God we saw with us yesterday is the same God with us today, and the same God with us tomorrow.

And so for our one year anniversary, Andrew and I celebrated! We went to a very small town in western Massachusetts and enjoyed it for what it was and didn’t expect it to be what it wasn’t; we walked on its flower bridge and hiked and ate things and stayed at a cute/creepy bed and breakfast. We remembered, we shared stories, we laughed. Lots more work to be done, lots of lessons yet to be learned, but celebrating God’s never-failing presence in our marriage was sacred and delightfully fun.

Who knew very small town New England could be so beautiful, quaint, and weird?

Right after that, I flew to Missouri to celebrate the graduation of my dear friend Dr. Miranda Machacek, who just finished her PhD! She is a part of an MD/PhD program, which means that she resumed the grind of med school a mere week(!) after her graduation from her PhD. A time of celebration wasn’t practical per say, but it was crucial in the meaningful, weighty kind of way.

Family and friends from near and far, celebratory flags, pounds of hummus and pita, hiking, favorite restaurants, and lots of Andy’s custard, all to declare that even though more is to be done, something of great value was achieved through incredible grit and perseverance. God upheld her throughout, and a celebration was in order! In a way, celebrating was a prophetic reminder that God was with Miranda in getting her PhD and will be with her as she finishes med school. Celebration leads us to worship that brings a solid, actual hope that we can cling to and stand on with more and more confidence, and deeper and deeper trust.

It was high priority to make glitter flags to accompany such a scholarly celebration 🙂

So, here on my birthday, as I sit and stare at the peonies and poppies that are gloriously adorning my living room, flaunting their intricate, strong, delicate beauty, I am invited to a place of wonder. These little friends are strong and resilient to survive the New England winters. They are needy, flourishing only when their needs for light and nutrients and water are met. They are downright unapologetic in the unfurling of all their beauty in their blooming. And they die after some time, and I’ll have to throw them in the compost along with the banana peels and egg shells.

Our current living room situation.

These flowers were gifts from people who love me. The very things I used to scorn as a waste of money are powerful reminders of my own belovedness, my own strength when I receive the care of the Father, my own neediness, my power and beauty, and my own real limitations. It is all beautiful, even if it is but for a moment and still in process, and it is to be celebrated with unadulterated wonder and a heart of worship.

WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE

This was a post on my instagram with thoughts on love in marriage as we express it, receive it, make mistakes in it, and grow in it daily.

Love sometimes involves romance and red dresses, but more often love is filling up your water when it’s low, it is cooking and changing your seasoning to match the palate of the other, it is sitting next to you when you’re groggy and exhausted saying, “Chula sleep longer, skip the gym” in the kindest and most gentle way. Love is letting you have the last of the milk for a chocolate protein shake and making your own with water (ew thank you wah). Love is unwavering support in a new season of work and school, with packed meals and green tea lattes and a car full of gas. It is hosting a dinner party with Kata the elf on Valentine’s Day for the people who have been on my heart when you’d probably rather have a quiet night.

Love is fighting for each other in prayer, it is forgiveness and grace over and over, it is saying no to despair and resentment and choosing to see with eyes of faith and hope. Love is a beautiful, beautiful thing that points to something so pure and bright and of heaven that it would hurt your eyes if it were not made so tangible and real and gritty. It makes you new.

Honestly, I think Andrew loves me most when he makes and protects time every morning with the Father. because He is the One who helps him stand tall and love so freely and deeply. I have never seen someone so committed to hearing the voice of the Father. Andrés, thank you for protecting that space of great love and intimacy with Dad. I see its overflow in all places. It helps me see the face of God in places I never ever expected. It is heavenly.

THAT AUNTIE LIFE

It is one thing to experience motherhood as a daughter. It is another thing entirely to experience it as a “yee ma” (aunt in Cantonese) to your sister’s baby pupski. (I have called Harper “pupski” since she was about a month old. I’m not exactly sure why or where that came from, but it is special and she is a little pupski to me!)

Last year a baby pupski came out of my sister!! It was a miracle.

As a yee ma, I have experienced things that I never could have imagined – the crest of a little hairy head before launching into the world, yellow watery poops that smell strangely sweet, alarming dragon noises emerging from a very small child. A whole little body and face transforming every month – thunder thighs and round cheeks, a buddha poop-filled belly when constipated, the teeth of a growing little bitey pirahna, hair now long enough for pigtails! Going from falling asleep in our arms to screaming when put down for naps. Feeling actual relief flood your own body when you celebrate the poops that come after long last (even if they are now kind of gross because of the solid food). Long days, fast weeks.

Mothers are warriors. I knew this before, but I see it more fully now. In a very real way, their lives (and body, and time, and decisions) are no longer only about them. There is a magical expansion of the heart to care for another. Mothers delight in their babies, want the best for them, and their hearts go to battle for their flourishing. They root for their development and celebrate milestones – solid food intake, vocabulary expansion, crawling and walking – even as they quietly mourn the loss of the days when there was only breast milk and incomprehensive dragon noises. I think of my mom bringing three of us into the world and raising us at home, and the amount of strength and tenacity and prayer that went into the countless days of growing us up. Moms should get medals of great honor.

It has been fascinating to follow the development of Harper the baby pupski, and how her introduction to the world is shaping us. Oftentimes it  feels like we won’t have the bandwidth to love more  (the #nonewfriends movement on social media?), but when we choose to love there is this beautiful expansion of the heart. It looks different for everyone, but it is a steady opening of the heart that is breathtaking in its self-giving love. There is a becoming, an unfolding of sorts, that is sacred. Just when you thought you knew someone so well, all your life? Front row seats to watching family choose love and become more of who they were created to be.

I see that in Kit the mom, Jeff the dad. Kim the yee ma, me the “yee ma weirdo” (it is important to distinguish between me and Kim okay). My mom is now “paw paw” and my dad is “gung gung” (maternal grandma and maternal grandpa in Cantonese). It has been so curious and fun to watch these relationships and new avenues of love unfold.

Paw Paw, Gung Gung, and Elmo are all big Harper fans teehehe

As our family expands with husbands and children, we are all changing and learning new things. It’s not just Harper the baby, but the adults too are adapting and growing. It feels new and different, clunky and a little confusing sometimes.  And just as we are kind to Harper when she falls on her butt after standing up ( “It’s okay chooky you can try again!”), I’m learning to be kind to when mistakes are made and I need to try again.

This past weekend was Harper’s first birthday party and we all came together to celebrate. I was struck by the love Harper is surrounded with that she experiences in being held, in playing with us, in exploring new places while we hold hands as her walking support, in gifts that span from the things she needs (socks and chopstick trainers obviously) to things she loves (an Elmo couch, animal floaty bath toys, an orange), in Kit keeping her to her nap schedule and feeding her, in the prune concentrate she drinks to soften her poops so they’re not little rocks that hurt her when she tries to launch them out of her body. I see the sacrifices (of time, of dream jobs, of sleep, of desire) that Kit and Jeff make for Harper’s care. It is a deep love. It is an embodied love.

Yee Ma Star Baker (aka Kimberly, not me) made two BOMB cakes – a hedgehog cake funfetti cake for the adults, a personal sugarless carrot cake for the birthday girl!
Harper got NEW WHEELS! (slash, a hand-me-down from a neighbor but new to her!)
So many little and big milestones to celebrate in a year of life!
We got her baby chopstick trainers, bath toy friends, and a cara cara orange 🙂

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” + Matthew 7:9-12

“How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Grateful for this new perspective of “yee ma life” that gives me a real life picture of the love of a parent. It has filled me with gratefulness for parents who love us so well through the years, and has filled me with wonder to think about God the Father. Delighting in us, fighting for us, savoring communion with us. See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! Wow. That is amazing. Maybe I am a growing-up grown up pupski in the Father’s eyes.

LOUDER THAN WORDS

Streets lined with red lanterns, firecracker debris scattered on the streets like red confetti, lion dances outside restaurants and storefronts with that dun-dun-dun-dun drumroll with the crashing cymbals that lets you know that the new year has come! Listen closely, and come see the bright red banners with shiny gold Chinese characters, the fresh shrimp chips with the oil dripping into its three-tiered paper towel cushion, and hear the sound of the wok’s sizzle song as the wooden spoon keeps the stirfry on beat. Artfully displayed cuts of fresh fruit, shiny red Chinese candies, gold coins of solid milk chocolate. It’s like Valentine’s Day, but better! No one is alone and sad. Everyone is together, there is decidedly less pink, and there are hung baos (red envelopes) full of cash.

Lion dances on Mott Street, Chinatown NYC. Dragons eat cabbage!

These Chinese New Year memories have sharp sounds and savory smells and flavors and feelings and little kid wonders. As a third-generation Chinese-American whose parents were born in New York City and whose Chinese is limited to “Gung Hay Fat Choy” (happy new year), a few food dishes, and “ne mo gaw cho-ah” (what is your problem?), I have sometimes felt like an outsider looking into a culture not quite my own. Is this mine, too? After years of the slow work of God healing my understanding of my identity (more on that in another post!), I have been freed to say yes, it is also mine. From a much greater distance than my ancestors in China, but yes, it still speaks to a family whose story and culture has shaped me deeply. It’s a culture about which excitedly enjoy learning and celebrating!

One of the things I most appreciate about my Chinese culture is the sheer generosity in expressing love. Through many perspectives, that might sound odd because Chinese communication could be seen as stingy – quiet, passive, not direct enough to say “I love you.” But if you look closely you’ll see that it is not passive but quite active; we communicate love through quietly anticipating needs and thoughtful, generous acts of service. It is not a deficiency of love but a different means of expressing it. It’s the best.

My family out at Chinese New Year in 1994! Guess which child I am 🙂

If you listen curiously to the indirect communication within a Chinese family, you might be surprised to see the subtle but strong ways need, love, and appreciation are expressed with lavish generosity, yet subtly so that the recipient will not feel ashamed. If you listen closely, you will hear stories of my dad coming to my apartment when I’m away for the weekend and dropping off two watermelons, a Costco ream of toilet paper, and containers of hearts of palm (something I love but don’t want to spend money on). You’ll see the group text between my mom and sisters and the ways we care for each other by constant updates and pictures of Harper, cats, and me with yogurt masks on my face. You’ll see softly given, unpretentious generosity from Chinese church families who support the ministry to students continuously and with great faith. You’ll see my parents driving to Boston to bring snow tires up for Andrew for the winter.  You’ll see tables abundant with all of our favorite Chinese food whenever we come home, communicating an affection without words. But, to us, it’s understood as plain as day. You will see me trying on wedding dresses with my sisters and mom, falling in love with the most expensive one in the store, crestfallen at the price, then receiving a text from my dad the week after saying “Don’t worry about the dress.” And then getting similar texts from my sisters to see if I needed help to get the dress. You’ll see me cry. You’ll see my parents ensuring that we had real hot food and a tent for our wedding so that we didn’t have to do a potluck picnic haha (a real option). You will see the cards from my parents, with prayerful and powerful words of pride and joy. Rarely spoken, but heard and treasured forever.

My dad got a first look of my golden-flower princess poof wedding dress! Photo by Shipra Panosian Photography

It is a beautiful song of call and response that you will miss if you’re not listening. Families seeing each other deeply, anticipating each other’s needs, and helping each other. Whole communities functioning and flourishing with this sweet, subtle communication to help one another, to save face and protect honor. It is a song that that communicates pain and softness, strength and wisdom, courage and pride. It is not without missteps – harshness where there should be softness, passive aggression when it doesn’t feel accessible to express negative feelings, needs not well anticipated. And in emergencies when decisions need to be made quickly, indirect communication doesn’t work so well. But when it is just right – when there is learning and giving and receiving, and a shame-lifting grace, it is powerful. It would bring tears to your eyes.

As I’ve walked with God I have found that he sometimes he speaks boldly and directly in  moments that change your life forever. But there are also times where he is subtle and indirect, where you feel seen and gently invited if you so choose to trust him. There are the bold declarations of the prophet, and also the gentle whisper of the Lord after the wind, earthquake, and fire. You see Jesus blatantly chastising the self-righteous, and you also see him teaching in parables for him who has ears to hear.  Those earth-shattering “ah ha” moments are powerful, but the indirect ways he speaks to me are some of the sweetest. I often find myself crying and repenting when reading for pleasure; God speaking subtly and yet powerfully through fictional characters! Or through a thoughtful note from a friend gently suggesting the very thing I need, reminding me of how seen I am.  Or in writing – as I wrote the last post on generosity via our wedding cake, I heard God’s invitation to be radically generous to a brother when I really didn’t want to be generous (haha, irony). But I heard God’s voice constantly as I wrote (it was annoying but endearing) and eventually said yes to him. And it has brought life. His indirect, gentle beckoning and care is one of the ways that his long-suffering love comes along side of us. It is a deep seeing, soft with kindness and strong for the long road. How has God shown you his love in subtle, gentle ways?

THE CAKE

Whenever I host dinner parties, I never think of dessert. If a guest doesn’t bring dessert, I usually don’t have anything sweet other than a few oranges, like a proper Chinese restaurant (minus the divine hot towel service and the pink tablecloths). But ever since I got married, that has all changed. Andrew is literally my southern sweet. He has a sweet tooth that involves browned butter caramel cakes with glazes and frostings and things that make me thirsty just thinking about them. On days of rest or special occasions, you can find Andrew humming to himself, covered in butter and flour, baking something very special and very sweet. So when we were planning our wedding, orange slices were out of the question. We needed a cake.

I take a picture of all of his cakes! He hates it haha. This is his browned butter cake!

As we planned for our wedding with us both in full-time ministry, we knew the wedding would mostly have a “do-it-yourself” vibe. Neither a cake nor orange slices even made it as a line item in the budget.

In September, eight months before the wedding, I got a Facebook message from Mandy, a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in ten years. The message contained a short update on her life and ended with this: “I make cakes for a living. Did you know this? Birthday cakes, anniversary cakes…WEDDING CAKES… If you haven’t already made plans for this part of your special day, I would love to make your wedding cake as a gift to you and Andrew. I’m hoping to make it up to Boston this October, and I’d be glad to do a tasting for your guys. It’s just a thought, and of course if you have other arrangements, that is wonderful!” I read it right before bed and I remember groggily looking at it and thinking it was a dream.

It was not a dream. Mandy is actually a real-life sugar plum fairy! She was very serious in her cake offering and magically showed up in my apartment in Boston a month later laden with piles of little cakes of six different flavors and nine different buttercreams that she had made in her own New Jersey apartment and transported in an impressive arrangement of baking pans and tupperware. She set up a professional cake-tasting for us. You were supposed to take small bites of each mini cupcake, but Andrew downed them whole and was in heaven. Andrew is a baker himself, with annoyingly high standards and strong opinions on flavors and moistness, so to see his thorough enjoyment of Mandy’s baking had me at ease — we were going to have a wedding cake! She had bold rich flavors for Andrew and light subtle ones for me, somehow satisfying both the southerner who glazes everything with an extra layer of sweet and the Chinese-American who would almost always rather eat fruit. Mandy was determined that we could each be satisfied because, after all, “cakes have tiers!” What a gift, somehow reconciling our opposing taste buds with buttercreams and green tea.

TASTES OF HEAVEN: Six different cakes and nine different buttercreams!
Notice the plate piled with wrappers from Andrew’s thorough demolition of cake.

Now, when we started the guest list endeavor we realized we’d likely have upwards of 250 people. That is a lot of cake. I wanted to give Mandy a way out in case this was more than what she bargained for. “So Mandy,” I said, “what if we have a lot of guests …” To which she cheerfully replied, “Then there will be lots of cake!” As simple as that. The generosity of that response blew me away. We were being thoughtfully, abundantly cared for by a friend whom I hadn’t seen in ten years, a magical sugar plum fairy baker from New Jersey with a heart of gold and a knack with buttercream.

For the wedding, Mandy took three days off of work, drove up to Toah Nipi two days early, labored hours and hours making so many cakes, so many buttercreams. Andrew and I weren’t even there yet! Mandy made us a beautiful three-tiered cake and two huge sheet cakes — the most delicious labor of love. She somehow cut and served all the cake on the wedding day, and even though there were no forks (we forgot that small detail -whoops), cake was abounding and guests were so happy! As predicted, the Asians loved the green tea cake with green tea buttercream and the lemon cake with the strawberry buttercream (my choices!!) and the southerners were keen on the chocolate cake with the caramel whiskey, while the hummingbird cake with the cream cheese frosting was a crowd favorite that spanned people of all ethnicities and tastebuds. Somehow she also made sure that Andrew and I were stocked with cake for the honeymoon. We ate cake all honeymoon long, Andrew indulging in abnormally large slabs of it at any given hour of the day. We froze the rest and ate it for months after the wedding. Generosity overflowing so much that it ended up in the freezer.

Mandy saved us the cake tops to “test” the night before the wedding! Everyone approved.
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography

That cake. That colossal, thoughtful, time-consuming, delicious cake was one of the most beautiful displays of undeserved love and sacrifice showered on us that day. It tasted sweet like something costly and way out-of-your-league wrapped up and given excitedly with your name on the tag, like getting an Audi when all you wanted was a bike tune-up, like holy grace so undeserved but so undeniably meant for you. It was generosity in the shape of a three-tiered cake with its two sweet side sisters. This kind of generosity makes you question what you’ve done to deserve such a gift. And the honest answer? Nothing.

That cake was a reminder of the sheer lavishness of God’s love, the ridiculous lengths He has gone to to get our attention, to express his love, to give us real life-changing hope. How will we respond to his over-the-top sugar plum fairy kind of love? A love that comes down to be with us, that is entirely self-sacrificing, that promises never to leave us, and to lead us in the way everlasting? I hope we learn to receive, savoring and delighting in the gifts, enjoying the presence of the Father, who uses all things (the waiting, the aching, the receiving) to draw us nearer to himself. Because, after all, that is the real gift that can never be taken away. May the lavishness of his love inspire us to go over the top in our love for others. “How can I give like Mandy?” is a question I now ask. How can I be unselfishly generous? How can I show the heart of the Father, and heap on as much buttercream as possible?

Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography

 

PS: Here is photo evidence of Andrew’s post-wedding mini-moon cake consumption. Half of that chocolate cake was gone when we left 🙂

NO MORE CRUMBS

Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography

These pictures capture of one of my favorite moments of the year. Partly because I forgot to practice walking in my big poofy cupcake princess dress, partly because our “aisle” to the altar was like a mile long DOWNHILL, and partly because my dad and I were cracking up as he tried to not be blown away by the cupcake skirt. The wind was strong that day.

It’s also one of my favorite moments because it had be pouring rain for two days straight and had been forecasted to rain all weekend. I had wrestled with this for weeks because, excepting the dumpling hour, the entire wedding was outdoors. We had prayed for it to be “as dry as when the Israelites walked across the Red Sea” because I told God, “I don’t care about rain except that our guests would have wet feet. I am a host, but you’re a better host, and you have power to stop the rain. Wet feet are not ok, Lord! Think of those southerners! Bring dry ground.” And somehow the rain stopped and the sun came out a few hours before the ceremony. And there I was, trying not to roll down the aisle with my unwieldy dress, laughing and almost gleeful that my heels weren’t sticking into the mud because there was no mud! The ground was dry. “Oh, how the Father loves you,” said Rosa to me that morning. Oh, what a gift! My heart burst with delight. I didn’t trip.

And then there was Andrew, with his dewy eyes and kind smile. People we loved surrounding us, our parents’ blessing, and a holy covenant.

The Father’s hospitality is thoughtful, thorough, and sometimes outrageously over-the-top. Almost uncomfortably so. Like, who am I? In my Chinese-American family, when we get “too good” gifts, we say “No, you must be crazy! You better have got that on sale!!” Surely we are not worthy of such generosity. And so with God, with his pure goodness and overflowing banqueting table, we often say, “No way, who am I?” We shy away from giving our desires to him, acting like a servant in the corner who may scrounge some crumbs if we’re lucky. We think his guests must be befitting of his riches on his table, “worthy” in some way to have a seat. And yet in his upside-down kingdom, the guests we wouldn’t think fitting to sit at the table of a king, He deems worthy of high honor. He says, “Come out from under the table silly Kata, and take that crumb out of your mouth. Sit here and feast with me.”
In some moments, our souls are awake enough in surrender to see the lavishness of his sheer delight for us. This year has been marked by his generosity; it has been confounding me, changing me, softening me. Crumbs are not satisfying, after all. In the next few posts, I’ll be reflecting on some of the moments of God’s generosity where I heard clear invitations from groveling and eating crumbs to standing tall and feasting at the table; moments experienced through elaborate cakes, a Chinese banquet, lavish grace when my head was bowed in shame. My hope is that your eyes will be opened to see the Father’s generosity towards you. He hasn’t forgotten you. He is inviting you to the table, also. The food is really good, and the Father’s prepared a seat for you.