I don’t think I’m a “non-denom, evangelical Christian” anymore.

I am increasingly noticing that certain moments and experiences of life force us much more than others to stop, confront and question who we are, our identity, belief and value systems — sometimes it’s in a halting and rattling way that we don’t expect, sometimes it’s in a more subtle and prolonged way that allows us time to react and process.

I want to spend my time around people who expose themselves to these kinds of moments too — because we can choose to avoid them — but we can also seek them out and learn tremendously from them.

About two weeks ago, I started a clinical pastoral education internship at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where I’m part of the Spiritual Care team and training to be a chaplain.

I haven’t even started visiting patients yet; I’m still in the orientation phase, but already have been confronted with so many questions: how do I want to identify myself as a Christian, especially to people who don’t know me and may be wary of spiritual care? Rituals like baptizing infants in emergency situations is common; maybe my dad wouldn’t be okay with that — but I am — which means perhaps my theology has diverged from the theology of the evangelical, non-denominational church I grew up going to — I’ve known that for a long time, but not really ever been confronted with exactly how.

In the vein of becoming independent; over the years, I’ve had various experiences discovering and asserting my adoptee identity, my Chinese-American identity, my identity as a young but competent and intelligent woman — but my Christian faith has always been defined by what I grew up with, what books my former pastor would recommend in his sermons, the mission trips I used to go on, my InterVarsity influences in college, etc. Questions of my ethnic and cultural identity began to intertwine themselves with questions of theology when I moved to LA and started studying at Fuller. The gaps in my understanding of my Chinese-ness and adopted-ness unfolded in critiques of evangelical Christianity or church history — realizing in my modern-day understanding, I didn’t have a sense of anyone’s story except a white, male, upper-middle class, well-educated American one — because that’s the lens through which I’d been taught growing up.

I had noticed dissonance in the faith I knew as a child and the things (I think) I believe now, but wasn’t always in a position to wrestle with them. The recent silence over and within my spiritual journey comes in large part, from this, I believe. It comes from realizing all along — but again, not having jolting-enough experiences that were forcing me to confront anything in detail — that my theology has changed.

It’s a silence that comes out of lack of understanding of my place within the Christian story — location, placement, identity — all matter when having spiritual understanding, I think, because the Bible is a living word that manifests itself in our everyday lives. The people we hear the words from, and the way that they say them, affect the way we understand them. If we’re not hearing it from people who interpret & reflect the story in the way we ourselves are positioned within the story — then maybe it’s not always relatable and we can find ourselves feeling out of sync, silent, unable to grasp on to or experience resonance because we’ve lost our footing.

That’s how I felt, and in many ways still feel when I listen to others’ tell the story. What if the way I had been taught about God wasn’t always how I understood or experienced God? How do I make sense of my other ways of understanding and experiencing God?

This brings me back to the hospital bedside and my introductions as a spiritual care provider — in a state of extreme vulnerability, many times it doesn’t matter to the patient of what faith the chaplain is coming from. But, as a chaplain-in-training, it matters to me more than ever, because I want to have confidence in my faith as I approach the patient. I want my posture to reflect a growing — but confident — relationship with God — one with doubts and questions, of course — but one that knows and remembers why it believes what it believes.

I think it will be a challenging and insightful 6 months ahead in this spiritual care internship. I opened the hospital records the other day to get familiar with the layout and noticed a child accompanied by two foster parents; my heart broke a little without even having met her; I thought about my wonderful adoptive parents — and solemnly wondered if she was as fortunate.

I fight the urge to succumb to smallness or loneliness — “this is new for me, therefore I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m not competent.” When we start something new and unfamiliar, often we don’t feel like anyone can relate to how chaotic and overwhelming it feels. How much we’re questioning ourselves. How much we’re needing to rely on our relationships and friendships with others; but not always having the words to say — can you check in and be there for me?

Much learning and growth to come in 2020, I’m sure. Thank you for reading. Keep an eye out for further reflection on this experience, as well as updates on a memoir I’m working on and some songwriting I’m doing for fun!

xoxo, Joy

My favorite time of the year (cont.)

And then, with the passing of Thanksgiving comes my absolute favorite time of the year, advent. Bellies full from turkey leftovers and warm soups, we enter a time of waiting and joyful expectancy for Christ to come. Like many other days and moments in our lives outside of this season, we wait.

We sit at traffic lights, we wait for our laundry to finish, we wait for water to boil, we wait for that text message response. We wait for bigger things too, perhaps. A new job to start, our resume to be evaluated, a diagnosis, a baby to arrive. Of course we’re still running around like crazy, trying to get all of our work done, meals prepared and errands run. But, I like to take moments in the season of advent, while doing my normal things, while waiting in that same light that takes forever on the corner of Allen and Walnut, and remember that because of this season that we’re in; the waiting is different than the other times.

Because we’re waiting for the moment when that baby that changed the course of the past, present and future will arrive. It might feel like just another day, another year. For those alive at the time of Jesus’ birth, it was just another census, another year to make the long trek back to their hometown.

But really, it was the most remarkable and life-altering moment, even if a lot of people didn’t realize.

So, a good way to remember, honor, celebrate and prepare for that remarkable, life-altering moment is — in the middle of monotonous, dragging moments and days this winter — take some time to do something differently and more intentionally. Like be kind to people in the midst of the waiting; be kind to yourself. Recognize that this is a remarkable time.

This is a short post, but I don’t have a lot to say in the beginning of this advent season — as the acts of waiting expectantly, listening, giving thanks, being mindful and intentional — I hope, will speak themselves in your own lives. I hope it’s a reminder to take joy in the next few weeks, as Christmas is quickly approaching!

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!

Shanghai.

The old woman’s wrinkles cradled secrets and stories
tucked within the folds of her worn linen shirt and dumpling basket
 
Her ebony, beady eyes hold years of pride and mystery
her small, dainty feet have pedaled all the crevices of the city
 
The noodle soup man stands at his stall every morning through evening
he makes the best Muslim noodles in my neighborhood
 
Is that even right to call them Muslim noodles? 
His food welcomes natives and foreigners while he himself was displaced
 
Sometimes we need to take a pause, the sounds are overwhelming
but our lungs are gripped by heavy smog, we cannot find pure oxygen
 
Picturesque, vintage scenes like from a postcard
where does the value in things lie? Is it all being commodified?
 
It’s early morning and everyone is moving,
why don’t people pause to rest, to sip their morning coffee?
 
To continue quietly in the comfort of their own image,
to take peace and satisfaction in all they have truly accomplished
 
Do they take moments for themselves like I do?
do they take pride in who they are?
 
How I wish I could know their hopes, loves and dreams
what was their dream job, their favorite memory as a child?
 
What gives them energy, what do they love the most?
How do they have strength to continue moving at this pace?
 
When whiteness is the highest standard, 
blonde hair and blue eyes worshipped,
than who tells the stories of the old, wrinkled woman,
the noodle man,
the ones who hold so much in their faces,
and in their grasps?
 
The ones whose stories I long to know, 
I cannot be the one to tell them, I am the foreigner.

My mystery.

Still in the middle of my mystery
I feel anything but secure
it’s a story, it’s a history
I always wish I could’ve said more.

Mornings of serenity and frost
wilderness and rural churches
why there did I feel so lost
three years the lakes I searched.

Searched nature and world over
for answers to my questions
found myself without even one cover
yielding a story with my mention.

Because world over it didn’t exist
never could I hope to carry myself right
despite having stories to impress
deep down my heart lurked in its night.

We all looked the same
but more different we couldn’t be
falling asleep sad and frustrated
people looked but they couldn’t see me.

I find myself now in the city of angels
pursued a degree because I had the same questions
see myself in more peoples’ faces yet still it’s a challenge
how do I make money and do something relevant?

So see, they continue but they take different forms
the mysteries of our lives
if we live into them, if we give them respect
maybe we will find

friends to guide us
a church to harbor us
a family to love us
a stronger self to carry us through.

Because the mystery is ours to write and solve
we always ask our own questions
we decide around what or who we revolve
and how we resolve our tensions.

Who we will turn to in our sadness and joy
who is with us in our darkness.
who we will show the side that’s smooth and coy
or who with we’re our authentic and full selves.

As I forge the story myself
I still feel less than relevant
but I think less and less that’s what it’s about
making ourselves feel important.

Truthfully,
we have always been immensely important,
valued beyond belief.
So the real question is:
how do we realize that,
how do we live into our worth?
it’s a relief to not worry:
is my mystery valuable enough to be seen?

But, to think about instead,
filling our stories with more meaning.
Meaning, not being worldly clout
but our strongest, truest sense of being.

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 I cannot decide for myself.
 
But when I do decide,
what do I say?
what 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.

My small things.

They sit on a street corner at the edge of my heart,
vying for your attention.
But they’re drowned out,
because I’m too afraid,
that your dreams will engulf them.

Not because my small things are
            not as strong,
                        not as good,
                                    not as worthy,
but because they’re not only on a street corner,
on the fringe of your periphery,
but they’re in a box.

Only passersby, 
people driving, 
pedestrians, 
a young mom pushing her stroller, 
an elderly man walking his dog,
can see them,
if they’re at a certain angle,
if they’re paying attention.

My small things, they just sit in their box and wait,
because I’m too afraid,
to shove them in peoples’ faces,
to have them tell me, no I don’t
want to see those things,
hear those things,
            I want to listen to my car stereo instead,
                        I have to pay attention to my baby,
                                    to my dog.

I have too much to worry about,
too many dreams vying for my attention,
to spare a moment for your
small box of things.

Fully engulfed in the exhaust of other peoples’ dreams,
I wonder were they
            not as strong,
                        not as good,
                                    not as worthy,
or maybe the street corner just wasn’t a safe place for my small things.

Maybe they were never needed to vy for your attention,
maybe mine was enough,
maybe I was enough,
but because I was too afraid,
I never told you how small my things felt,
how my small things felt,
vying for your attention.

They’re
            just as strong,
                        just as good,
                                    just as worthy,
to be noticed by passersby,
to be held safely,
to demand attention.   

Kentucky.

The screen door swings open by itself,
and memories come out to haunt,
I don’t quite know why,
I’m remembering the summer of the fireflies,

of the smell of freshly cut grass,
Daddy just mowed the lawn,
the sweat upon my brow and lip,
because of the just-set, hot summer sun.

Why is it a place with a straw field that I always remember?
A looming house, a boy I don’t really know,
memories that may not be my memories,
I’m running across the field with a stranger.

But that’s kind of how Kentucky feels,
in my memory it doesn’t feel like my own,
it was someone else’s story my mind set out to steal,
and it’s only now I’m making that known.

But the memories take me back,
to a brick, one story house
nestled on Coltneck Lane,
how could I forget?
This really may be my story,
that place once held my name.

I learned how to ride a bike,
on the gentle decline of a church parking lot,
Daddy’s encouragement and grasp, my guide,
As I tentatively moved down that slope.

Momma dressed us up for Easter in matching dresses,
the tulips beamed too in the front yard photos,
we went to a neighbor’s house for supper,
and I ate at least two dozen dumplings.

I wore my dress-up clothes around the house,
I read around a racetrack,
I didn’t have a care in the world,
I definitely rocked that bowl cut,

This was me almost 20 years ago,
happy and carefree,
I had a little southern drawl,
I went to Trinity Academy.

And then the screen door slams shut,
the fireflies disappear,
it’s getting late,
and the heat feels too much to bear,

I wake up in another chapter,
a cold yet familiar place,
the sweat has dried upon my brow,
my memories erased.

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?