A divinity for daily life.

I experience the divine in the seemingly smallest things — the way the light pours through the cracks in my drawn blinds in the morning, the smell of a fragrant burning candle, the melody of an acoustic guitar, driving home on the 134 at dusk — seeing that view that overlooks the whole city, sipping a latte with a friend at a local coffeeshop.

I wanted to expand upon my last post, “I don’t think I’m a non-denom, evangelical Christian anymore,” because there are a few more places I can go with that one; I may end up doing a small series on it. Here, I want to talk a little more about my experiences with God and what I’m learning from friends and peers of other faith traditions or denominations about their ways of communing with and experiencing God. It has been teaching me a lot.

One of the beautiful things about being a part of the spiritual care team at Children’s Hospital LA is that I get to learn from the other chaplains about their traditions, how that informs their spiritual practices and ways of offering care, etc. It seems like in a lot of other faith conversations, there is an unspoken (or spoken) idea of exclusivity — this is where/how I practice my faith and in this context, that is the correct way — I don’t need to learn from other traditions or have them inform my practice in any way. In healthcare chaplaincy, it seems the opposite; sometimes the best way you can care for patients’ spiritual needs is to learn as much as you can about the worldviews and specific practices of various faith backgrounds.

For example, there are certain prayers for healing from the Qur’an that a Muslim patient would appreciate; he or she may not be comfortable with any other type of prayer. A Jewish patient will need his/her food kept kosher in a special fridge during the hospital stay — it’s necessary to be aware of and able to accommodate those requests.

In addition, as a Christian, learning about these traditions has been informing my own, in ways I wouldn’t have expected. In my Christian journey, growing up in a non-denominational church, I felt separated from certain practices of my faith — of tradition, liturgy, understanding the sacraments, corporate prayer, etc. because the components of my understanding of God were the Bible, my church, my small group, youth group, communion, service projects and mission trips and that was pretty much it.

When I read my devotionals on my own or Scripture on my own and didn’t “feel” the Spirit in that instance or didn’t understand the impact the words were having on my everyday life, I stopped reading and/or continued to read but felt disconnected. That often left me wondering if I was really “missing the point” or “missing God” in those cases, or was it just that the method wasn’t the best way for me to connect Scripture to a practical experience.

As I piece together a theology and understanding of my Christianity at this point in my life, it’s very helpful to learn about Jewish practices like Shabbat (Sabbath-keeping) or keeping kosher; these are practices that have kept the Jewish people constantly aware of — and connected to — a practical living-out of the faith. Or Catholics using rosary beads to say daily prayers. I understand it can swing to the other side and become “too ritualistic,” separated from the spiritual impetus, but for me, it is helpful to learn about.

My Jewish peer at work speaks so naturally and organically about her theology and spirituality — it has become a lifestyle, a way of seeing everything and understanding the world. As much as I’ve always aspired to that, and hoped that I reflect my faith in that way, I still feel that my Christianity can be easily compartmentalized — especially when it does not feel grounded and connected to practices of my daily life or spheres of my identity — what I’m eating, how I’m spending my time, what I’m paying attention to, what I’m thinking about, etc.

As I figure out what practicing my faith is going to look like right now, I want to remember to be conscious of the divine in my everyday life — whether that’s through a ritual or a liturgy I say with my church or alone, journaling or writing my prayers down — or whether it comes through reading Annie Dillard’s poetry or listening to Sufjan Stevens on a drive home, I believe each and every one can be a spiritual experience, a communing with God. A divinity for daily life.

What does my relationship with God look like when I’m questioning my Chinese-American-ness or adopted-ness — how, practically, can I feel connected to my faith in those moments? Or in moments of vocational questions — like how do I merge what is fulfilling with what is sustainable? The moments where I’m so sleepy and don’t want to pray, how can I still experience God?

I’m looking for rhythms and practices of life from the Christian tradition or borrowed from others that could help a feeling of practical-connectedness to God and to myself.

How do you experience God in your daily life within your tradition or spiritual practices? Would love for you to share with me! Thank you for reading. xoxo

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

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.

The Truman Show, RBG and changing unjust realities.

It’s amazing how movies help me process ideas and make connections. Recently, I’ve realized how many classics I need to still see, and so have been trying to catch up. Movies have the power to transport us to alternate worlds, help us put into words what we cannot ourselves, or empower us to envision scenes that we wouldn’t be able to construct from our own realities. Movies inspire and particularly for me, help in making connections between ideas or concepts that may otherwise remain separate and unrelated.

Last Friday was a great example of that.

I was introduced to The Truman Show for the first time (checked a classic off the list!) and was immediately engrossed in Truman’s distorted reality and his journey from discovery of a false identity to complete rejection and rebellion against the system which had placed him as a star in his own reality TV show. Shrouded in humor, lighthearted banter, personable characters and happy neighborhoods, at its core, the movie is existential, deep and haunting. Truman is basically stuck in a reality that is everyone else’s but his own, constantly watched by zealous viewers around the world, lied to and deceived from birth by the people seemingly closest to him. His fate has been scripted by people he has never seen or met, who hold ultimate control over everything from what he eats, to where he works, to whom he marries.

In the middle of the movie, the producer, Christof, this metaphorical God-figure who oversees Truman’s life, says in regards to Truman’s situation and his coming awareness of reality, “We accept the reality of the world as it is presented to us.” Deep, right?!

Okay, before I elaborate on that quote, let me fast forward in my own evening to the second, seemingly completely different movie I saw that day, the newly-released must-see, On the Basis of Sex, a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Firstly, shameless plug for this film — it is powerful, inspiring, informative and provocative. It opened my eyes to a movement of men, women and youth for equality against a discriminate legal system that I had no idea existed. And, apparently, it is helping me make broader, very important social connections.

Basically, RBG, depicted skillfully by Felicity Jones, is one of the most brilliant women ever, who excelled in both Harvard and Columbia Law, taught gender law passionately at Rutgers when denied other employment opportunities that she was more than qualified for, cared for and worked alongside her husband, a skilled tax lawyer himself, raised a daughter and son, and fought tirelessly for gender equality throughout the course of this film. In a quintessential speech in a Colorado courtroom where she was representing a man who had been penalized on the basis of sex for caring for his mother, she delivers a remarkable speech about social change. In her speech, she talks about various laws and cases that brought about social changes, and the pressing need for new precedents and laws to fit a new era. While the opposition wants stasis and stability, out of fear of change and what that will bring to a male-dominated system, RBG and her husband advocate for incremental, step by step change that is needed for a new age.

Now, hopefully this isn’t too much of a jump, but with the premise of this film in mind, I want to return to that quote from The Truman Show, because herein lies my main connection. The basis of that quote is the idea that humanity accepts blindly the norms, structures, systems, realities, institutions, etc. that surround us, maybe on the premise that we are either powerless, lazy, incompetent, unmotivated, whatever, to address or change them. For Truman, there were incredibly active and formidable forces keeping him from changing his reality, so I didn’t see this statement as a remark on any laziness or paralysis on his part to take action, but more of an umbrella statement about the human condition and our tendencies.

For whatever reason, it is comfortable for us to resist change. Or maybe not to resist it, but simply to ignore its possibilities. We are afraid; we’re apathetic; we’re lazy; we lack the foresight to take risks and trust in the unknown outcomes. We cannot often envision futures beyond what we know in the present, or what we have experienced or seen.

This may be the case for menial daily instances like cleaning our room, doing chores, cooking dinner, to larger personal situations like changing a career path, leaving a job or moving abroad. But the idea that we are immobilized or apathetic toward changing larger social things that we know are wrong, unjust or oppressive is very interesting. Why do social systems remain the way that they do — why historically were there hundreds of laws prohibiting women from doing certain jobs and requiring them to live by certain procedures, or preventing African Americans from having equal opportunities and rights as white people? What does it take to uproot a system? Why are we so afraid of change? And why do so many people feel helpless to change things?

Hopefully, you’re starting to see some of the film to social connections that I’m trying to make. Funny how two disparate movies brought up similar questions. My main goal here is to raise the questions that can help us think, and leave you to answer in your own varied contexts.

I now want to bring in a spiritual component to these ideas of social change, resisting structures, confronting norms, and not living within the reality of the world as it is presented to us. The truth for Christians and for my own journey is that Jesus lived both within and outside social systems. He was a Jewish man who in one sense inhabited a human body and died a real and painful death, while in another sense being completely God and effectively subverting and resisting all forces and structures of power and oppression that he came into contact with. The Gospel, as people of Christian faith believe, is not a comfortable reality or something that just fits into a modern or prescribed worldview. We have to notice differences, unethical structures, and step outside the boundaries of what is normal or comfortable to us in order to take action and make changes when we are confronted with them.

The ways we choose to do this depends on the situation and our context, but the truth is that social change, ethical decisions, movements that serve and help others, justice on behalf of marginalized or oppressed peoples, creation and culture care, etc. are not just realities that are presented to us (often reality stands in opposition to them); we must act to propel them forward. This is a biblical and theological precedent as well as a historical one. We are called to take creative and just action and participate in God’s kingdom here on earth, being moved by things that move God’s heart.

So take Christof’s words not as reality but as a warning of what could be; strive to embody social change where it is in line with justice and truth; live within the bounds of earthly systems while trusting in divine, otherworldly realities.

My prayer, both for myself and for you as readers and friends, is that when you do feel immobilized or stuck within a reality presented to you that you know is wrong or you do not want, that you would be able to envision hope and change, both an eternal and everlasting hope, and simultaneously, a tangible and practical hope that meets you in your immediate need.

*Artist: Banksy, Title: Girl with Balloon