My favorite time of the year.

It’s getting to be that time where even in Southern California, the air is shifting and we’re all breaking out our turtlenecks, cozy slippers, pine-scented candles and hot tea. The weather is still so weird here around this time though; I remember a couple years ago when it was in the 90s on Thanksgiving. It may be superficial, but I’m already thinking about what I’m going to wear this year to Thanksgiving dinner — on top of the weather being weird, how do I dress for the amount of food I’m going to eat?! Haha.

In all seriousness though, this is my favorite time of year; because worked into our calendar and the things we celebrate are ideals of gratitude, thanksgiving, love, family, community and birth. My church congregation this past weekend “hung the greens” and decorated the building to mark the end of the church calendar and the start of Advent next week. After Thanksgiving passes, Christmas is right around the corner and then it’ll be the New Year. But my naming of those quick seasonal changes this time of year isn’t meant to make you feel anxious about the approaching holidays, or stressed because it’s all happening fast. It’s to hopefully help you take a step back this Thanksgiving and Christmas season, pause, breathe, and reflect on the goodness you have received, the things you’re thankful for and the uniqueness of the people you celebrate with. After you’re happy, sleepy and full of turkey, of course.

This year, I’ll be spending Thanksgiving with my aunts, uncles and cousins in La Canada Flintridge, and so my Aunt Gini asked me really graciously if there was any dish that was meaningful to my family that I wanted at this year’s Thanksgiving. It was so thoughtful, and reminded me of truly how meaningful the particularity of this holiday is for everyone. Each family’s, friend group’s or community’s Thanksgiving is unique and significant in particular ways to the people involved. Whether it’s sweet potatoes baked a certain way, mac ‘n cheese (both of which we never had at my family’s Thanksgiving, but both of which I’ve been delighted to discover at other people’s), pecan pie, a specific kind of cranberry jelly or gravy, or something totally different than any of those items, you know these particularities that I’m talking about. I’ve been part of more and more conversations lately on adoptive identity, narrative and journey; and I’ve been thinking about those conversations in combination with the celebration of Thanksgiving and in combination with the particularity and uniqueness of each of our stories. My story (as well as all of your stories), is both part of certain larger stories, like the Asian American narrative, the adoptee narrative, the Christian narrative, the millennial narrative, the female narrative, etc. — but it’s also particular and unique — transcendent and inclusive of each and all of these stories because it’s only and wholly my own.

In a sense, the way we as an individual, family or community celebrate Thanksgiving — the particularity of our family’s food and customs — is one reflection of our combination of each of these hybridized, interwoven and unique narratives that make up who we are.

For example, for me, the smells and flavors of Thanksgiving food and the warmth and memories associated with celebrating it on Ingleside Ave. in Pennington, New Jersey, with my mom, dad and sister, Beth, will always be conjoined and extremely sentimental in my mind and heart, now and for years to come, even as things continue to change for all of us.

We gathered around the table sometime in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes with exchange students from Princeton that my parents were friends with at the time, sometimes with other friends of my parents, but normally just the four of us. We played an ABC Thanksgiving game, where we went around the table, each saying things we were thankful for in alphabetical order. We played Hide the Pilgrim with little plastic figurines of a pilgrim boy, girl and turkey. We always prayed and thanked the Lord for the blessings He provided for us, recognizing that this day, in addition to every other, was from Him, for Him and centered around Him. We had the typical dishes — squash and green bean casseroles, stuffing, turkey, canned cranberry, mashed potatoes, apple, pecan and pumpkin pie. An outside observer may have thought it seemed pretty normal, a pretty typically American way to celebrate Thanksgiving.

But, if you haven’t experienced my particular family’s way of being together, who we are, what we eat, what we talk about, you can’t necessarily understand. Just like I can’t completely understand the way you celebrate with your family or your people. That uniqueness of your family and uniqueness of mine brought together around a common time of celebration, gratitude, love, comfort, feasting and belonging is what I so love about this time of year. It’s a delicious and tangible expression of each of our individual, family and communal stories — centered around food, the table, and ideals of love and gratitude — a deeply theological expression, whether we consider ourselves spiritual people or not.

So I hope in this time, we share our stories with each other — how do you “do” Thanksgiving and Christmas? I also hope we invite each other and others into our homes and our lives in this time, because that particularity and uniqueness that our people have can and should be shared with others.

Happy Thanksgiving! Eat lots of stuffing and green bean casserole for me! (or mac ‘n cheese, if that’s more your family’s thing)

xoxo, Joy

Small things aren’t insignificant things.

I wrote a poem not too long ago, called “My Small Things,” about a time when my ideas and dreams felt really small and unattainable; I’ve sure we’ve all been there. But I’ve also been thinking how “smallness” doesn’t need to equate to feelings of loneliness, sadness, despair, neglect or rejection by those around us. Small things can be really good things if we ourselves give them value in our own lives.

My roommate, Karley, introduced me to this podcast called The Next Right Thing, all about taking small steps forward in decision-making and life, and the host, Emily P. Freeman, talks often about the importance of small things. In one of the recent episodes I listened to, something that has really stood out and stuck is the simple idea of “point and call,” or naming things, big or small, for what they are and for their significance. This helps us better know and understand ourselves and what’s happening in our own lives. It also helps us think clearly as we continue to move forward. If you’re anything like me, you can reach the end of a tough day, or a good day, or just a very eventful day, and know that a lot happened but not take the time to process exactly what those things were and their affect on you. This can happen day after day, until you realize you have a lot to process and say or think about — it can feel like a weight is pulling you down.

So just for me — and if you’re interested in listening — I wanted to list some things that have been happening in my life lately. I believe that giving words to simple things gives them power and significance and lets us decide how we want them to affect us.

There is a lot that we carry around with us, and as a Chinese adoptee, I have lately been trying to process more how my story connects with other Asian American stories and how to relate to the AAPI community. This is one thing: I have been feeling disconnected from a cultural and ethnic story lately, and I’m not always sure how to proceed forward in understanding my own.

Another thing: I met with fellow Chinese adoptees last weekend in downtown LA for brunch, and we got to know each other and talked about our lives. It was really wonderful.

Another thing: I have my first published (well, published in print) article coming out for Inheritance Magazine this week! It’s in an issue called, Same but Different, and I’m really excited about that.

Another thing: I was reminded this past weekend, and have been lately, of how grateful I am for my little apartment in Pasadena, my dear roommate, friends, family, and church community. I love living in LA.

Another thing: In the middle of busy days and weeks, I have been trying more and more to practice mindfulness and self-care. Not “settling for” things I don’t really love, but taking them in stride. And in the meantime, taking time for myself whenever I can.

You know, when I was little, I always remember getting the comment “Joy takes pride in her work” on my report cards — you remember that?! Those generic comments your teacher could insert for you? I remember thinking, “well, duh, it’s my work and since I got an A, of course I’m proud of myself (no brainer)” — the words of the slightly haughty and naive little 3rd grade me. I’d ask my mom why they even offered that comment as an option because it didn’t make sense to me. Today I realize how radical a statement it can be to take pride in my work; I hate that as we get older, the world tells us more and more that we aren’t good enough or that we are what we produce.

Can we first take pride in who we are — and then in what we’ve done?

Can we tap back into those proud and confident third grade voices in our heads that told us we could do anything and we were good enough?

Can we name the small things we’ve accomplished or that we’re thankful for unashamedly and proudly for what they are?

That’s my encouragement for you today; thanks for reading!

The table.

Tables come in all shapes, sizes and materials. In some cultures, there is a short table on the floor and everyone gathers around it on a bamboo mat to eat. Some cultures use spinning tables at certain meals so that everyone can share the food easier. When we can afford it, my roommate and I need a new kitchen table because we want to be able to host more people. Tables are for gathering and sharing food, stories, and life together.

Today at church, we sang one of my favorite songs, called “The Table.” There are a few reasons why it’s one of my favorites — firstly, I love it because of that image of tabling, or feasting with the Lord. One of the verses says, Come all you weary // Come and find // His yoke is easy // His burden light // He is able // He will restore // At the table of the Lord. There is rest, restoration and rejuvenation at the Lord’s table.

I love tables because I love food. And I love that the image of gathering around the table is one constantly used throughout Scripture. In the parable of the great wedding banquet, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. The king invited those esteemed guests and members of the royal household, sending servants to check on them and make sure they were coming, but they refused. The king had prepared the best food he had available, his oxen and fattened cattle, but the guests turned down his invite and one of them even mistreated the servants that were sent to him.

Reading this now, I’m like, why would you pass up (what at that time seemed like) an amazing feast?! But they did. So the king told his servants to go out and gather people from the streets to come eat and celebrate, because the food was ready but the guests were not. Sometimes v. 14, “for many are invited, but few are chosen,” is debated, but I want to focus on the idea of feasting at the table as an image for the kingdom. We are invited, and it’s a free and beautiful invitation to come eat! It is free because of the free gift we have been given in God through Jesus, which we symbolically celebrate around the communion table in Eucharist too. Because of what has already been done and prepared for us, we are invited to come gather, as the chosen and invited ones, around the table for a delicious meal.

One reason why fall is my favorite season is because of the food. And that the flavors, the colors, and crisp, cool air, I find, bring people together. After our church service today, where we sang that song, we gathered for an autumn potluck together and laughed, caught up, shared stories and ate around communal tables. Everyone was encouraged to bring a fall dish, and flavors like pumpkin, apple, squash and caramel tickled and warmed my senses. I was so happy; we were all so happy to be gathered around tables eating together.

That this is an image for the kingdom of God is so beautiful, so accessible and so identifiable. Everyone likes to eat, and most people like to gather with other people. Most people like to be invited to things. I know I can often do a better job of being a warm, inviting, and welcoming person — sometimes as an introvert, it is easier to want to eat alone or not start up a conversation with someone new — but it’s important.

The image of gathering around the table also brings in this idea of belonging, our place, our invitation, and our importance to the dinner party. In a world of competition, envy, deceit, hustling and genuine struggle, I have to remind myself everyday that I bring something important and unique to the table. Maybe it’s a similar dish as another person, maybe I look like another person, but I am unique and it is important because it is me. And God made me, and each of us uniquely and especially ourselves. This sounds so cliche, and it’s not in an “I’m so different and special” or “more different and special than other people” kind-of-way, it’s more to help me (and you) recognize our own individual value and worth at the tables we feast at.

Real talk is that I struggle a lot with wondering, is what I’m bringing to the table good enough or enough? Am I writing enough, am I thinking enough, am I dreaming enough, am I doing enough?

The truth is, I may never know the answers to those questions but I will know what it feels like to have truth in the midst of those questions — the truth that God created me and invited me to the table. The most important question is, will I accept that invitation? Will you?

Preserved.

My name is Emily Zamora, I’m a lifestyle and wedding photographer born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and now living with my husband and furbaby in Portland, OR.

Most photographers would say that their love of photography started when they got their first camera in their tweens/teens/college years and haven’t been able to put down the camera since.

My story with photos goes a bit farther back than that.

First, I guess I should start with a little blurb about my family history and how I came to be the woman writing this article.

I was born Emily Jean Stephens to a teenage, drug addicted, unwed mother who just wasn’t ready to be a mom. And that’s okay. Because that opened the door for me (and 3 of my biological siblings) to be adopted by her grandparents, my great-grandparents.

Can I just add that adoption is a BEAUTIFUL thing. It’s difficult, messy, political, scary, and yet oh so needed beautiful thing. And sadly, some children aren’t fortunate enough to be adopted by blood relatives. Some don’t find their forever homes for several months, years, or ever. All of that time spent in the system, passed around from place to place. With little to no documentation of their growth or preserved memories or knowledge of where they came from.

This breaks my heart.

By the grace of God, that was not my story exactly.

Like I mentioned earlier, I was adopted by my maternal great-grandparents. My own living family history. I even still visit my childhood home and grab my family photo album that documents ever milestone and accomplishment. But with this connection to my (well half of my) gene pool, also came the knowledge of our family’s history of memory loss and dementia. Especially among the females.

Yeah.

While I’m not guaranteed to inherit the disease, that doesn’t stop the worry that, someday, I just might.

Cue the part of the story where I get my first “real camera”, your mid 2000s basic point-and-shoot. I guess technically you can trace my VERY first camera back to the Kodak disposable film ones my mom would give me and my siblings when we did theatre in elementary schools. Every new play/production we’d get a new camera to fill. I even still have the images from those cameras. Man, the content you get from an 8 year old with a camera. But before I go too far on this tangent, I just want to explain how I’ve used cameras (and photography) since that first point-and-shoot. I took pictures of EVERYTHING. My food, family vacations, trips to the mall, my dogs, my feet … basically of anything to preserve the memory of what I was up to that day. Nowadays people get a bad rep for taking “food pics,” “shoe pics,” and basically over photographing every moment. But I say, take those photos! Preserve those days! And maybe refrain from the hundreds of selfies – those ones do get old.

Now as a professional photographer, I absofreakinglutely LOVE that I’m the one charged with preserving someone’s special moment. Whether that be the first look between a bride and groom, the sibling meltdowns that happen at basically every family session, or that special moment when someone asks their significant other to spend the rest of their lives together. I get to play the comic relief, the peacekeeper, the quiet fly on the wall, and so much more. How freaking lucky can one person be?!

And because I feel like I started off this whole thing pretty heavy, I’m going to close with some of my favorite camera/photography related memories …

  • When my husband and I were dating, during the Summer before my first year of college he bought a disposable camera and documented random moments during the summer. He then developed the photos so I could have them before I left for school. The images weren’t the greatest, but the memories are some of my favorite.
  • When I’d get my middle school+high school besties group together for dinners and then turn them into mini friendship photoshoots. We even posed on my dad’s Mustang during one of them. Serious dorks.
  • The childhood summers during my Jr. Lifeguard years where I’d create FULL albums of images of my friends/what we did that day and upload them to Facebook. Almost EVERYDAY. I’m talking heavily filtered. All uploaded to the internet. One upside was that they made for great end-of-the-summer slideshows.
  • My mom taking our “special occasion outfit” photos in the same exact spot in our house my entire life. I’m talking toddler years to present day. Talk about consistency!
  • And basically anytime someone prints a photo I’ve taken. It gives me the feels every time.

And with that, I’ll sign off. Thanks for reading! Enjoy some of my favorite life moments encapsulated in the following photos.

PHOTOS

That underwater point and shoot that was my constant companion.
Pictures of everything, I tell ya.
Even food.
Some of my earliest memories are hanging with my aunt. I’d later learn to actually play on this same piano and continue to play on it for over a decade.
Kindergarten Emily. Probably why I chose to be in FRONT of the camera.
That iconic photo location!
While the people in front of it grew, it always stayed the same. Pictured here with my biological brother, the first to get adopted by our great-grandparents.
Young, probably around 7 years old, Emily showing off her new found skill of hand sewing. Sporting an ever-present, during those years, Snow White costume.
There were never any bad pictures for me growing up. I kept everything.
One of those friendship photoshoots, location was usually one of our houses.
Or in this case, my dad’s car!
Funny how photos can also help you remember “pose trends” from the time?
An early photo of me and my now husband.
A candid from my highschool grad night. I’m sure on of my sisters caught hold of my camera for this one.
And this one.
A college sophomore roommate shoot, on the last day as we were packing up to leave for the summer.
And another, this one commemorating that we had made it. Finally.
I truly have a love for photos that capture movement or a candid moment in time, I definitely chose our wedding day photographers carefully based on this fact.
Commemorating a moment in time during our honeymoon in Spain. It was so surreal to feel the Mediterranean between our toes.
And the Sagrada Familia. I never wanted to forget this view.
And another lifetime moment as I looked out over such a magnificent sight while hiking in Zion for my 23rd birthday.
Here’s that iconic photo location again. This one was for Easter family photos. Featuring my younger biological sister and our parents [great-grandparents].
As a photographer, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to be in front of the lens with your loved ones, so moments like these are near and dear to my heart. [and ALWAYS printed out multiple times and scattered throughout our home].
And now a few special moments that I’ve been able to capture for others…

Because I want my small business to have an element that does something for others without any expectation of anything in return and as a way to “pay it forward”, I’d love to offer any foster or adoptive families in the Portland, OR area (or Los Angeles, CA area with coordination with my return visits schedule) a complimentary family or portrait session.

I’d like to gift these sessions as a way to say thank you and offer these families, who open their homes and hearts to other children, a way to preserve the memories of their growing families and the lives of those they foster. If I can provide some memento of this time in their lives with the people who helped them grow, to be able to look back on when they are grown, I will have accomplished my mission.

If you or someone you know is interested, please reach out!

Love, Em

Be still.

Every week at church, my pastor, Scott, segues into a prayer time in our liturgy by encouraging us to “in the stillness of our hearts, offer our prayers and concerns to God.”

Yesterday was the first time I heard that and was somewhat struck by the fact that my heart was NOT still. Relationally, vocationally, emotionally, spiritually, my heart and mind are in turmoil right now. Especially in moments of prompted stillness, or when spending time in the morning journalling and reflecting, I am more than ever reminded of how un-still my heart and life really is. I understand it could just be a nice-sounding way of moving us into prayer, reflection and inward contemplation. Maybe encouraging us to still our hearts as we move into this time, if they aren’t already there. Yesterday, I was simply struck by my heart’s anxiety and I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided to meditate on Psalm 46, where the phrase, “Be still and know that I am God!” is used, a command God gives to be still — because He is God. But where does that statement of stillness come from and in what context is the psalmist quoting God here? I was curious. Our lives are not expected to be still already, they are expected to still in light of knowing who God is. Or something like that.

Let me expand on some of my thoughts and reflections (coming from a slightly more stilled heart), after examining this more closely.

Psalm 46 is a pretty beautiful poem of praise to the God of Zion/Jerusalem who is present with his people there (historically, God was believed to inhabit the temple with his chosen people in Zion/Jerusalem). Vv 2-3 describe a tumultuous, entire earth-shaking earthquake, and God’s presence, his refuge and strength in the midst of that chaos and fear — which those of us who were in the LA area the past few days can really relate to. Two days ago, during the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck Ridgecrest, I was listening to some live music in Pasadena. The band was introducing a song titled, “Firm Foundation,” about standing on solid ground, trusting and hoping in higher and stronger forces than ourselves — as the ground literally began to shift and shake underneath our feet. It was probably the most visceral reminder I could’ve had at this time of the fact that God is God and we are always on solid ground, always in the midst of refuge and strength when we are in his presence. In the midst of an earthquake, the truth of God remains the truth of God. The reminder of that fact through song was pretty prophetic and beautiful.

The psalmist here, in the midst of a cosmic-sized earthquake, reasserts his faith and hope in God. God is both the God of the heavens and cosmos, but also God who resides in Zion/Jerusalem among his people. As the poem continues, we see that God is in the midst of the chaotic and unpredictable forces of battle and war as well. That’s where the statement, “Be still and know that I am God” appears — in the middle of earthly wars and battles, God is there and he is above it all (“exalted among the nations, exalted in the earth” vv. 10). He is not only sovereign, exalted over it all, but he is with us, with the life of the community in the midst of it (vv. 11).

The stillness that comes with God’s power and presence can be in the midst of cosmic disaster or war, but it is a reality for the depths of our hearts. In our deepest, darkest doubts, fears, questions, anxieties and pain, that’s where God’s stillness reigns. These tumultuous images of war, chaos and disaster rendered by the psalmist could be his realities in the Near East of the time — and that was where God was present and exalted and where he was reminded to “be still.” Today, we are experiencing earthquakes and wars too; pain, anxiety and fear is persistent in our world today, but the love, presence and stillness of God persists as well.

That call to “in the stillness of our hearts, offer our prayers and concerns to God” from my pastor is not a request to still the actual realities of our lives — sometimes, we just don’t have that power. The call is to remember this God described and praised in Psalm 46 and throughout the scriptures, this God who is exalted in the midst of our pain, suffering, disaster and war. The chaos of life will continue; the depths of our hearts and minds may continue to be in turmoil and anxiety, but the peace, the stillness of God reigns nonetheless. What we choose to proclaim and believe in the middle of our anxiety is what matters — will we choose to cling to a stillness and ever-present hope that has power over it all, even when it feels as though we are powerless?

That is trust; that is hope; that is in what we could hope to find stillness.

References for Psalm 46 taken from:

Brueggemann, Walter, and W. H Bellinger, Jr., Psalms. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Waiting.

Waiting upon things is so difficult — any human would probably attest to and agree with this. This post comes out of a current story of a season of life of waiting. We all know it feels bad, hard, anxious and painful, but what can we do about it? Is God listening to us? Is it okay to not always be tangibly “moving forward” in our lives? What do we do when we feel a little stuck?

The other night, I was babysitting for two kids, a different family than I wrote about last — these kids are a 7 and 8 year old girl and boy in Santa Monica. Their parents had told me that they could stay up til they got home, I didn’t need to put them to bed, so I had braced myself for a loong evening of rambunctious games and running around. Which is exactly what it was. I began to notice their impatience early on while playing games with them — they’d continually ask me questions and as I was trying to figure them out, they’d repeatedly ask the same question in a crescendo-ing tone. It was pretty annoying and I found myself repeatedly asking them, “pleeaase, be patient as I figure it out.” Seething a little bit under my breath, I’d pretty quickly determine the answer, just to be bombarded with more questions and way more energy than I was prepared for. After awhile of the impatient questioning and my repeated pleas to please be more patient as I figured out the rules of a new game and how to explain to us all, or as I went to get us all water, or as I figured out how to deal with a tiebreaker … I realized that this was a learning opportunity and insightful experience for me as well as for them (hoping that my encouragement to be more patient in some way had an affect).

I’ve found myself currently in an ongoing season of restlessness, anxiety, questioning, doubting and stasis, in many ways. I have so much I want to do and figure out and sometimes it feels like all I’ve been doing is waiting to start something. I find myself longing for God’s presence, peace and action in my life, because waiting puts us as humans in a weird position. We’re out of control and dependent on other forces to make decisions. The power isn’t in our hands; if it was, we’d take action and get the outcome we want ourselves. We would answer the questions we’re asking about the rules of the game ourselves. Waiting brings up issues of trust and faith because when we cannot control an outcome, how will we live in the present and how will we interact with the One who has that power?

Reflecting back on the way I responded to those kids’ impatience made me think about the way I’ve been talking to God lately. What does God think when I feel restless and anxious in my waiting? When I really want something and I ask for it impatiently? I doubt God gets annoyed like I did with the kids when we ask for the same things over and over in increasingly impatient ways.

For those of you, like me, who may feel stuck and static in seasons of waiting and expectation, I hope you’ll be reassured that God does speak to us, interact with us, and move among us. But most of all, God loves us and is with us. I don’t know how you experience God’s love and presence, but I hope that in your moments of anxiety and difficulty, wrestling and questioning, stasis and stuck-ness, that you will in some sense, experience solace. Maybe moments where we seem to most lack control over our lives can point to the fact that anything that is achieved or that happens is God and not us.

I want to leave you with this prayer from a book of Walter Brueggemann’s, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, that my mom gave to me and I’ve been meditating with lately. This one spoke to me because sometimes we pray and try to listen but are distracted. May we have clarity and may we be in a “listening mood” in order to hear well.

Your command is garbled

We imagine you coming into the barracks with your insistent demand. We imagine you addressing the sun to “move out,” the sky — “let there be light,” the sea — “stand back.”

We imagine you addressing us, each of us and all of us with your order of the day. We imagine … but the din of other commands, of old loyalties and unfinished business and tired dreams cause us not to hear well, not to listen, not to notice, and your command is garbled.

So come again with your mandate, with the clarity of your imperative. We listen, because we know in deep ways that your yoke is easy and your burden is light. Come among us, because we are yours, and ours is a listening mood. Give us ears and then hands and hearts and feet for your good news. Amen.

Big lessons from little kids’ books.

I’ve been nannying some kids for the past month or so, a 3 year old boy named Dylan and 5 year old girl named Ellie, who are hilarious, wild, crazy, sometimes really obnoxious and mischievous, but normally just a lot of fun and I’m learning so much from them. It’s true that I often think, “this isn’t my real job” or “what I really want to be doing long-term,” and it definitely isn’t. But in the meantime, this is my current reality, and so I’m investing in it as much as I can and truly learning a lot.

For example, the kids are half Korean, half Taiwanese, and both they and their parents have taught me a lot about Korean culture and food. I had a great conversation with their dad the other day about his childhood in Brazil and then his move to the US and the struggles he had learning English and connecting with other Asians because he identified more as Brazilian than Taiwanese or American.

But the big thing that struck me last week came while I was reading some books to the kids.

Lesson one came from The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. It looked like a nice book to read to Dylan before a nap; it has a pretty, green cover and I had fond memories of it from childhood. Has anyone read it recently? Warning that, if you’re anything like me, there’s a high chance it’ll catch you off guard and make you cry. A brief recap … this tree and this little boy become friends; the boy climbs the tree, plays in its branches, etc. As the boy grows up and moves away, the tree misses him and still wants to be his friend. But the boy comes back in need of bigger things from the tree, like a house and a boat. And the tree continues to give and give, and the boy continues to age and need more. And then it gets to a point where the tree can’t give anymore to the boy, and that’s kind of the end of the story. The boy is off living his adult life, full of change, growth, emotional hardship, etc. and the tree remains behind but is always the one giving in order to sustain the friendship and the boy’s needs. It was pretty heartbreaking to read this story again in my adult life, and to realize how uneven and unbalanced this giving – receiving friendship between the tree and boy is. What type of message does that communicate to kids?

I’d like to challenge you to ask yourself (as this book challenged me to ask myself), are you just taking from your friendships and from others, or are you giving as well? Are you finding balance with yourself and in your interpersonal relationships?

Self-care is really important too. Are you being refilled and replenished as you give to others?

The second book that made me think a little bit last week was actually just a children’s Bible storybook, so a very simplified version of Bible stories with pictures designed for toddlers. It wasn’t anything about the stories themselves or the way they were simplified that got me thinking, but it was the fact that the writers left out completely Jesus’ death and resurrection from the story and skipped right from his birth to his ascension into heaven and then the book ended. Likely they left it out because it’s a gruesome and sad part of the story that Jesus was crucified, and it’s hard to put that in a little kid’s book. You also can’t talk about the resurrection without talking about the crucifixion, so that part couldn’t be included either. It really made me wonder in that moment how I was taught about Jesus’ death when I was a child. Was it mentioned in Sunday School and at what age did I start hearing that part of the story? I can’t remember, honestly.

I was helping the kids get ready for a Good Friday service at their church a couple weeks before encountering the Bible storybook, and I remember Ellie, the older girl, asking me why they had to go to church “not on a Sunday and at night?” and I wondered, “hmm how do I say this well to her?” I said something about having to remember the whole story of Jesus and having to honor Good Friday before we can celebrate Easter. But I didn’t give her the whole story or mention death, I don’t believe.

Why did I, in that moment, and why do we as Christians, shy away from talking about hard or difficult things or including parts of the story that may prompt our kids to ask us questions that we can’t answer? As parents, I’m curious how you talk to your kids about death and the tougher parts of Bible stories.

I wish, as a kid, I had been told more often (and I had seen others in my life saying more often) that it’s okay to not have all the answers.

I’m learning so much from these little ones, and they’re not even my own children; I’m only with them for four or five hours a day. It’s incredible how inquisitive, adventurous, funny and intelligent they are. I think they (and all children in our lives) deserve the most authentic and thoughtful storytelling experiences we can give them at their age. It’s just not good enough to leave out the death and resurrection of Jesus in a Bible storybook. That’s the most important part of the story, of our story. Today, as an adult, I’m afraid or hesitant to ask hard questions sometimes, or to be honest and transparent with my thoughts and feelings. It could be totally unrelated to the way these topics were broached in childhood, but if it is at all related, I wonder, why are we modeling to our children anything other than complete honesty and trust? Especially when it comes to the Bible and telling the story of God truthfully.

Self-Concept: How I Found Freedom in Understanding my Identity.

My name is Beth, and this is my story about finding my identity.

I was adopted from China and brought to America when I was seven months old, so most people would say I am Chinese American. But I didn’t always see myself that way. My loving parents made their best effort to educate me on Chinese culture so that I knew where I came from. I vividly remember my mom coming into my second grade class to celebrate Chinese New Year with my classmates by getting little envelopes with money in them and making paper lanterns. So even my friends understood that I was born somewhere else. As much as I enjoyed all the festivities, I still never felt like it was truly a part of who I was.

As I continued to mature, I don’t remember even trying to make sense of this disconnect. Throughout grade school, I didn’t know many other kids who were “like me”, as my school district had an extremely low diversity rate. And, as is typical of most teenagers, I wanted to fit in with the latest trends in fashion, hair, and music, which were mainly flaunted by my White American peers. I thought nothing of it. I watched my sister go off to college and start studying Chinese, and she even studied in China for a year and came back with all kinds of insight on what it meant to be a Chinese American in China. We had visited China as a family when I was 12, but I never got a strong desire to return. My sister’s stories made me wonder if I should be more curious, since we had similar stories and the same upbringing. Nevertheless, after a while, I let it go again.

My slap-in-the-face moment didn’t present itself until I was a senior in high school. One of my best friends at the time was Korean, and she invited me to her Korean church. I was excited to go, since at the church I had been attending, I was one of maybe five Asians, including my sister. That Sunday morning, I walked into church with my friend, and I shouldn’t have been surprised at the number of Asians in a Korean church, but I had never seen such a strong minority presence. My attention shifted quickly to the one White, red-headed boy standing in one of the first few rows of seats. As soon as I saw him, I turned to my friend and said, “Hey! I’m not the only White one here!” Big oops. She burst out laughing. It was at that moment that I realized I had no idea what race meant to me.

Fast forward to present day, and I am nearing the end of my college career. I decided to take a course titled “The Psychology of Power, Oppression, and Privilege”. We discussed the idea of racial identity, and more specifically, centrality of the identity. This is the idea that for some, race is an important part of how they see themselves. Even within a particular racial category, membership of that racial group can mean different things to different people. Those who consider race to be more essential to their own self-concept are more likely to be triggered by subtle microaggressions. I was not one of those people. But that’s okay because everyone’s experiences are different.

As I reflect upon the things I have learned through this class and through life experience, I think about how I do identify myself, if not first and foremost with race. If someone were to ask me in this very moment, I would probably say something along the lines of “I am female, a Christian, and a student.” And all of these things are true. Now it is also true that I am Asian American, cisgender, heterosexual, and non-disabled. Just because the latter are not included in my major identifying factors does not mean that they are not true. My experiences as a member of all of these categories listed above have made me who I am. I have just finally come to terms with what is most important to me when I consider my identity and how this drives my behaviors.

Growing up, I thought identity was a checklist for everyone and that people expected me to identify strongly with everything on that list. I have learned that this is not the case. And for anyone wrestling with self-concept, I would encourage you to think more about who you are and less about who people expect you to be. What it means to be you is not what it means to be anybody else. So be proud of who you are because you matter!

Thank you for reading 🙂

Beth

Image Credits: COFFEEANDMILK / IAMBADA / GETTY / NAJEEBAH AL-GHADBAN

Minimal living.

A few days ago, a friend recommended to me the Netflix doc, Minimalism, and watching it really got my head spinning, as good documentaries often do for us. It was created by the two founders of The Minimalists, who in 2010, launched a nationwide, large-scale movement stemming from their personal journeys away from corporate, high-paying jobs and toward the pursuit of minimalist lifestyles. It is a challenging yet compelling message that they offer, to leave unnecessary possessions, fancy cars, homes and jobs, in exchange for fewer material items but more overall meaning and significance in the things that they do have and in the relationships and non-tangible things that they value most. Their movement offers books, lectures, films, a podcast and more, and I’d highly recommend looking into it!

As a person who has never valued objects that much, and who finds myself in a transitional and mobile stage of life where I don’t own a home or necessarily have strong ties to physical possessions, it is not that difficult for me to consider giving things away and living on less than I do. That being said, I do have a lot of shoes and really need to clean out my bathroom vanity too. I feel a little more motivated to do so after watching this, which is good. What struck me most about this doc, however, were the social, moral and spiritual implications that it posed (this is solely my interpretation, not necessarily the intent of the filmmakers).

The questions that it leaves me with, and that I want to examine are these:

How can minimal living encompass our mental, emotional and spiritual space as well as our physical possessions?

How can decluttering our lives and hearts reveal our devotion?

I saw the minimal lifestyle championed in this film as a metaphor for discovering truth. Let me explain. Minimal living, in essence, requires cleaning out the parts of our lives that distract from what truly matters to us: our families, friends, vocations, passions, purpose. It is a means as much as an end; the significance is in the process as well as the result. We are shaped and formed as we discover what it is to live with less, what we can do without, where our priorities lie, what we cannot do without. This could be paralleled to the spiritual process of being refined and strengthened in our faith journeys, perhaps even a process that could run alongside a physical cleansing of our worldly possessions. In Malachi 3:2, God is described as “the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap, He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.” The decluttering process can be spiritual as well as material, and through it, the re-prioritization of goods and values can allow God to do His refining work within our hearts.

Additionally, when we remove excessive physical objects in our lives that are vying for our attention, we create physical, mental, emotional and spiritual space for other things to take their place. The truth is that, as capable, well-developed and sophisticated as we are in multi-tasking in this day and age, as humans, when we are devoted to one thing or a few things, we cannot be as devoted to others. Our attention can only be truly concentrated in a limited number of compelling objects, people or causes. It’s a fundamental fact of our existence. So, I interpreted the movement toward getting rid of physical objects to be a moral statement about elevating in importance our devotion or attention to other things instead. The question therefore becomes: in what do we place our devotion if it’s not our material possessions?

Taking the spiritual parallels one step deeper: I’m reminded here of Jesus’ cleansing(s) of the temple in the Gospels, where he overturned moneychangers’ and vendors’ tables and demanded allegiance to his Father (Mt. 21:12-17, Mk. 11:15-19, Lk. 19:45-47, Jn. 2:14-16). His anger toward the desecration of his Father’s house into a marketplace illustrated a few things: 1) The temple was holy; it was a place of worship of God alone; 2) The temple represented communion, access and forgiveness, where people were accepted without barriers (key point of Jesus’ anger was that Gentiles were being swindled by moneychangers, inhibiting their access); 3) Again, the temple was holy, and it represented more than a physical building; it was Jesus’ body, the church. If you’re tracking with me, this biblical story is sort of a perfect parallel to The Minimalists message made spiritual, because the cleansing or decluttering of the physical space of the temple was a metaphor for something much greater, the reorientation, cleansing, refining and purifying of peoples’ hearts and the church. There was distraction and clutter in the way of people (especially Gentiles in this case) freely accessing and worshipping God in the way He had intended, and Jesus was infuriated by this.

This reorientation of our priorities and cleansing of our homes (and hearts) is incredibly spiritual if we want it to be. Decluttering can be more than a socially conscious action to live lightly (although that is exceedingly important in and of itself); it can also be a spiritual statement in allegiance to God and his ideals of love, care for our earth, and acceptance of its people. In resisting idols of wealth, power, status, etc., we are aligning our hearts with His. I truly believe that when we resist consumerism, capitalism, and cycles of production and consumption that exploit people and our environment, we are making a spiritual statement that we align with Our Creator and His ideals of justice, peace and love.

Joshua, one of The Minimalists’ founders, encouraged viewers if they decide to get rid of possessions, to think through each item, and only keep things that are necessary or serve a tangible purpose that we could articulate and justify. Way easier said than done, I know. I wonder if we can go through this process spiritually too. Can we recenter and refocus our thoughts on things above? Can we invite God in to purify, cleanse and declutter our souls too? Can the material, physical process of cleaning out our home propel forward the spiritual process as well?

Sometimes this looks like it did in the film for the founders or like it did with Jesus in the temple: a force ravages our lives and we are confronted head-on with our priorities and what is getting in the way of focusing on them solely. There is a distinct moment where we come to the awareness that we need to make changes. Sometimes, however, and I can speak from my own experience here, there isn’t going to be a drastic moment of realization or truth where we know exactly what we need to do. A lot of changes are gradual, incremental, and filled with indecision and hesitation, and that is okay too.

I think (and I’m taking my own spiritual liberty here) that we can be patient and forgiving with ourselves too, open ourselves up to change, refining, purifying and decluttering, but still take it slow. Again, the transformation is as much in the means as it is in the end here; a lot more could be changing for us or being refined within us than we may realize. Can we start by opening our imaginations to what we may need to do to either begin or propel forward this process?

Of freedom.

Caught in between
worlds, cultures and faces.
Where do I find myself?
But lost
within a notion of who I have been
conditioned to believe
that I should be.

Shapes, colors, details, bone structures,
have torn the world apart,
have told us who we are,
have told me that I cannot decide for myself.

But when I do decide,
what do I say?
Who am I to know now who I want to
become?

My face is not my culture,
it is not who I am.

But when I am free,
to act on something deeper
than my tiny nose, almond eyes and black hair,
am I ready?
Do I know what my freedom means,
or what it can do?
How do I find something that has always
been missing?

I need to construct, to redefine, to revert
and subvert
that which has been constructed for me.
Freedom is in this power
to discover and create.
Can we look beyond?
Can we look within?

To discover
that we are a human race
never meant to be defined by borders,
shapes, colors, frameworks, details or faces,
but by qualities
of love,
of creativity,
of compassion,
of discovery,

of freedom.