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.

FIRST ANNIVERSARY: A YEAR IN REVIEW

Wherever there are hearts surrendered to the Father, there the kingdom comes. As we’ve been reflecting on our first year of marriage, that has been a truth we’ve been discovering more and more: the more surrendered we are to the Father, the easier it is to love. If not trusting and soft-hearted towards God, loving the other feels like trying to run in tar. Andrew likens it to slavery, half-heartedly, anxiously running through motions and tasks of the Father’s house, all the while breathlessly estranged from the Father himself. The heart becomes numb and bitter, arrogant in its dutifulness, walking around like it’s owed something.

I’ve found that when my heart is stubborn towards God, it is nearly impossible to love Andrew –  “love” becomes shortchanged from “love is patient, love it kind, it doesn’t envy or boast, and is not proud” to “just try to be nice,” which is in some cases minimized even further to “just try to be civil,” and sometimes even further to “just try not to kill him with your words.” And sometimes that is really hard not to do. When we do not know the refuge of the Father, we defend ourselves mercilessly, often at the expense of the other. Or at least I do. Within me there is breathless fight of panic, anxiety, unrest, a scramble to defend my worth, and what comes out of my mouth is exactly that – a weaponized fight with word lances, low blows and a clear lack of listening, of self control, and of grace.

In my sin I become less of myself. The image of God is murky in my unholy chaos because I’m not surrendered to God and I’ve chosen instead to go my own way. The irony is that you’d think I’d become more and more of myself in choosing to follow myself and heed my own desires, but because we were created to most fully flourish in dependence, surrender, and trust of the Father, I am less of myself. In my sin I hurt others, and the damage is no small thing. There must be another way.

It is the Father who calls us to put our weapons down, the Father whose safety allows us to be vulnerable to confess and repent to one another, the Father whose unwavering love gives us courage to reaffirm our comparatively flighty love for each other. It is in surrender to this Father that we are learning to reconcile and come out the other side to what I call “the soft side,” where vulnerable thoughts and feelings often defended with defensive prickles and words lances are instead uncovered slowly and in trust. Instead of entering a battle ground, it’s like entering a wild garden at dawn. Sunlight pouring in to create an amazing array of shadows and light dancing among the greenery and the buds. It is a place to observe, smell, touch, admire. Because we are still getting to know each other (and will be for a lifetime!), this is a place of discovery where curiosity is invited to lean in and ask questions, as opposed to making assumptions about things we don’t know. Curiosity is a holy posture that honors the other in its inquisitive, childlike nature that communicates that you are worth knowing.

When the heart is surrendered to the Father, there humility presides, un-clenching anxious fists in a delightful admission of dependence on God. We then can laugh at ourselves and receive grace for our mistakes. We’ve experienced a lightness and levity that comes in where discouragement, shame, and despair threatened to have the last word. There is a new end of the story because of the Father’s grace in Christ! We live, walk, fight, reconcile in this grace, upheld by its tremendous power, buoyed by its hope.

One year later dressed in our wedding garb, in our favorite park for evening walks. Photo by Zoe Towler.

ON VOICELESSNESS

Unless you’re heading to a silent retreat, there is no super convenient time to lose your voice. SERVEUP is definitely not a silent retreat. It is an spring break service trip for college students with rebuilding work during the day and conversations about justice and faith in the evenings. It is a highly relational trip that has everyone happily exhausted at the end.

Part of the team at Yabucoa, a fishing village where we did post-Maria rebuilding work!

As staff, you shout to get people into vans and buses, to remind to hydrate and put on sunscreen, to see if you left a student behind when you stopped at the panaderia. Where we were in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, there was no sound system and so you use your loudest, most commanding voice to lead evening sessions.

The only time I had a full voice! Teaching at the first community time.

It was the third day of the trip when I started to lose my voice. Frog-like sounds began to emerge from my mouth pretending they were real words and cohesive speech. At first I panicked. There is no way I can lose my voice and lead this trip. I asked staff team to fill in for me, not realizing they’d have to do that for the rest of the trip.

THE RISK OF ASKING FOR HEALING
In the past when I’ve been injured or sick, I would immediately assume that it was to teach me something – how to be slow, how to ask for help, etc. Which was good for my spiritual formation. But I was so preoccupied with “learning from the suffering” that
I would never ask for healing. But since my miraculous ankle healing on the Camino de Santiago three years ago (will write about it sometime!), I have learned that one of the marks of discipleship with Christ is allowing ourselves to yearn for healing and asking for it even if it doesn’t seem wholly possible. I’ve been learning the sacred balance of asking God to heal with hope, and yet choosing to praise him even as it doesn’t seem like he’s said “yes.” This teaches humility while not abandoning hope, and embraces the holy ache for things to be made right. It’s the faith in waiting when things are not as they should be. It’s vulnerably asking for desires with an open hand as opposed to a suffocating grip and being open to how God moves, whether it is in the way you think it should be or not.

So there I was, asking for healing. We prayed. My voice regressed from frog-sounds to barely any sound at all. At one point I got mad; I felt annoyed and powerless to express myself. I wanted to explode but it took so much effort to try to speak that I wanted to give up trying altogether and just be quietly resentful.

I had a choice. I could allow the resentment of my powerlessness to rule me, or I could submit to the lordship of God even when I didn’t get what I wanted. By the grace of God I chose the latter, and this is what I learned.

NO CHOICE BUT TO LISTEN
The treasure of having no voice was that listening became the only way to connect with others. Maybe this is an obvious lesson, but it was like a parable I was living out in real color and silence. I began to realize the sheer, upside-down power of curious listening. Upside-down because our culture promotes well-spoken leaders who don’t necessarily have any listening skills. Upside-down because it feels like receiving more than giving, but is actually a great gift to those who trust you with the weight, conviction, and treasure of their words. There I was, getting to show some upside-down love in my muteness. In the conversations in the van, sitting on our cots, over dinner, I listened. More than ever before, I listened. Behind the questions I heard stories, and behind the stories I heard yearning and groaning and sadness and joy, proclamations of beauty, strong and uncertain desires. I was able to see people more deeply because I could listen more clearly.

I listened to the hearts and struggles and hopes of these student leaders in meetings, as we worked together during the week, as we cared for each other. It was strikingly powerful to hear.

THE POWER OF WORDS
With every word feeling like a it was a stale dry cracker forcing itself out of a brittle straw, every word was a struggle. The scarcity of words taught me a powerful lesson about their intrinsic value. As opposed to saying whatever, whenever, without much thought, I had to be wise about how to use them and when. It meant saying no to micro-managing, it meant saying yes to trusting the staff team more fully.It meant that things looked really different than I would have liked, but still seeing God’s hand at work. It meant deciding that the most important purpose of my voice was to speak of God’s reality and power to those (literally) leaning in to hear more.

This staff team carried my teaching and MCing weight, prayed for me, tried their best to listen to me in staff meetings when I was whispering haha. Jackie is a doctor and cared for me intensely with meds and motherly love. I wouldn’t have known this level of teamwork if my voicelessness hadn’t made me so darn aware of my need and dependence 🙂

I found myself on long busrides, on worksites, and eating meals with seekers and skeptics asking me questions about my life with Christ as a Chinese-American, about how to hear God’s voice, about how to trust him when you’re not getting what you desire. Every word felt like a little frog-like treasure emerging weakly and miraculously out of my mouth, and from the depths of my heart.

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. We either speak life or death. “Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing for the bones” (Proverbs 16:24). How will I choose to give honeycombs and speak life and hope, and let all other words fall to the wayside? God speaks kindness, grace, and forgiveness to me over and over. Its sweetness and power is changing me, and the more I learn to receive his honeycombs allows me to speak that to myself and to others. “Choose the honeycomb, Kata!” For all the words that come out of my mouth, that is my prayer.

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.