Learning and Unlearning

The first moment of my awakening took place over a lively debate about fast-food underneath a cloth canopy jutting out among Wadi Rum’s nothingness.

Steaming cups of sweet Bedouin tea in hand, there was no air of sophistication, no underlying metaphor to dig up. The question was simply this: Can we, or should we, support this chain?

I had no reason to believe all, or even some, of my political, social and cultural beliefs or convictions hung upon the morality of eating a certain chicken sandwich, but the discomfort I felt, the way my palms began to clam up as the conversation became more heated, made me question everything I thought I knew. My world immediately felt very small. The cognitive dissonance was overwhelming. Mine was a physical and emotional reaction to a conversation that became the doorway to my own questioning, restructuring and reclaiming. 

 I’m both a daughter of refugees and a daughter of the South; as with most things, there needed to be room for nuance. At the time, I was vaguely aware of people out in the world, probably residing in some far away place up North, who lived and breathed different politics and had far different life experiences than myself. It’s just that we’d never shared a cup of tea together. In the flesh.

This needful conversation in the most unlikely place is one of the few memories I have from an afternoon trekking through the Jordanian wilderness. Best of all, this took place in 2016, the year many of us, for better or for worse, woke up to our own worlds and the worlds of others. The experience lives with me still in weird and wonderful ways. In retrospect, it was the easiest way to begin.

You see, starting out with, “I see now that you grew up in a very close-minded, fundamentalist environment. You’ve never questioned or critically thought about anything you hold to be true. What do you make of our political climate; How do you think we ought to interpret and live out Scripture in our current context; and also, how in the world can Christians support Donald J. Trump?” The question of the sandwich was quite literally a godsend.

It was beyond me, completely and totally, to attempt to answer any of those questions and the dozens of others that would follow. I had only just begun to see myself and my circumstances for what they were. And it all started with whether or not I should eat a chicken sandwich. 

The road to our awakening, or at times, our unraveling, need not be complete and total to be productive, to be a vital part of our development. It just needs to begin.

My awakening was accelerated by my physical and intellectual position. I chose to study abroad that fall in Amman, Jordan and was one of the only students from my university, from my state and even from any type of faith, far be it a Christian one. It hadn’t dawned upon me that I was leaving the water I’d been swimming in all my life until we stepped underneath that woolen tent in the desert.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, the claim that Socrates staked his life upon, then I’m afraid many of us, myself included, are in trouble. As my quarter-life crisis creeps closer, and it will come, as they predict, I find that I am only now beginning to examine and understand my life. I worry that some may never make it even this far.

What I mean is that I’m beginning to trace the arch of my life story, even as I am in the starting stages of putting words to my experiences. There’s a narrative here, common threads woven from my earliest memories to my current regrets, my deepest joys to the discomforts and pains I’d rather forget about altogether. Life is not just happening to me anymore, I see it for what it is: my rebirth and connection to the stories that came before me, some even welcoming me into the story I now get to live out.

With my awakening comes agency. I have the power, the right, to choose and unchoose what belongs.

My hope is that the stories I tell are an invitation to awaken, to examine and to grow, believing that the process alone is more important than the conclusions. The gift of becoming is a lost skill in a world we now experience statically through algorithms and infinite scrolling, often in an echo chamber. We see the evidence of people’s journeys, but very rarely, if at all, how they arrived. 

For so long, I lived in a silo. I thought I knew who I was, why I believed what I did and what I was going to do about it. Except that this version of myself was false, a shadow of my true self. It was not the person I was created to be, but rather an amalgamation of everything the people around me thought I needed to be. Awakening means actively engaging with my circumstances, my choices, my life. And so I did. Or at least, I try, and the intention alone has already proven itself to be more than enough.

If I had never stepped outside of my comfort zone, I would likely have gone to this college, studied this degree, married this person, and lived this wholly other kind of life. I can see it, it’s all there, because for nearly two decades, it’s the path I planned to pursue. It was an expensive path–it cost me my time, my joy, my fulfillment, and more as I worked to do the work that was not mine to do. If I had never been confronted with difficult questions about my core motivations, fears and beliefs, I’d still be stuck. And I’d never know it. 

Awakening is a gift, and those who don’t think they need it are probably the ones who need it most.

Golf + Grit

I fell off the cart so quickly, I barely registered what happened. It was, in many ways, the beginning of the end.

I joined the high school’s golf team on a whim. In truth, it was a calculated whim. I wanted a letterman jacket, and if I could get out of school to ride a golf cart for a few hours, well, why not?

The first thing that struck me about our golf coach was his visor-shaped tan barely brimming the edge of his nose and curving up toward his temples. The man, a faithful golf and football coach, constantly soaked in the Southeast Texas sun.

Learning the game of golf from him was what I imagined learning from my grandfather would be like, of course, if my grandfather knew how to play golf.

Coach was patient, kind and always made sure to ask me if I was having fun. Or, maybe it was just me he checked on. I was, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst player on the team.

Golf was a beautiful game, Coach taught us as much. But somehow and someway, I played the most hideous game. Despite my severe shortcomings, I continued to show up each practice and tournament, perhaps to the chagrin of my teammates.

By the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the benefit of many innocent bystanders, it has been years since I’ve attempted a pure game of golf (I’m assuming five-person scramble doesn’t count). Although I’ve yet to master driving or perfect pitching, I’m just now beginning to lean into the most important lesson golf taught me–the gift of showing up for hard things, for things I’m not good at, for things I’d rather not be doing.

I was told again and again that perfecting my swing would come in time and soon turn into muscle memory. Muscle memory, that coveted thing. It never happened for me. Still, I devoted hours after school and on the rare weekend to perfecting my craft, or rather, my attempt at the craft.

It was discouraging and, at times, grueling practice. Honestly, it felt like a waste of my time and effort.

Showing up is easy when we’re good at something or have the hope or promise of success.

But showing up is pretty dang hard when we have no idea what we’re doing or where we want to go.

I’m not sure exactly how or why I stuck it out on the golf team, so I’m sorry to say I don’t have any magical words of advice on how to show up when it’s hard to do so. I just know I made a commitment and I had to see it through. That was enough.

Commitment. Grit. These are lost practices.

We all have spaces that require or call us to show up. Often it’s your family, your community, your vocation. Or maybe it’s an internal call to show up–to show up for yourself, for your dreams, for your life.

Showing up means actively engaging with the circumstances and the people around you. Showing up isn’t passive; you don’t get points for merely being present. It means giving the task at hand your best effort and undivided attention and not stopping until you’re satisfied (notice I said you, not anyone else). The best time to show up is when you feel afraid or inadequate.

There are multiple ways in which we show up. Right now, I’m doing my best to show up every day as the best follower of Jesus, wife, daughter, sister and friend I can be. I’m showing up and taking steps toward my dream job, something I’m so grateful for and also completely scared of.

Regardless of the outcomes, I’m confident part of the fruit of showing up is the little bit of fortitude built each time we forge ahead.

Showing up. Being present. Being all in. Win or lose, rain or shine. You showed up. And it matters.

Momentum

In many ways, the last night of high school felt exactly like the first. In any stage, liminalities have more commonality than we think.

First, there was the high, the exhilaration of the unknown, free from the burden of expectation, full of pure, unadulterated hope for what lies ahead. For some, this stage lasts longer than others.

There’s always an element of fear involved during transition. Maybe it’s too scary to hope. Maybe hope is the only thing you have.

Hope was alive and enough for the first few years following graduation. Friends moved to far-flung places, achieved at university, took jobs and started creating a life. But eventually, the momentum of the new and never enough begins to slow, giving way to the doubts and fears long ignored.

Am I doing the right thing?

Is this what I love, or even what I like?

Is this the fun I hoped I’d have?

Am I enough?

Is this enough?

The veneer slips away to reveal the reality of the world, of your world. This is the next stage.

I’ve not made it to where I thought I’d go. I’m still waiting, still learning, still growing as I gather the elements that worked. The hope I had, it served me well. At times, it fueled me. I’ll find it and carry it closer. The expectations I thought I needed to meet? I’m still trying to measure myself and my life by a different rubric.

You see, the stages aren’t linear. You just take what you need and leave what you don’t. As long as you’re still moving, it’s enough.

Who owns the trees?

There’s not much I remember from when my grandpa came to live with us in the fifth grade. However, I do recall his restlessness. Back in Cambodia, there are the temples, the monks to give reverence to, the old friends who walk by on their daily stroll, the small spirit house at the edge of the backyard that places you near the dirt path connecting society.

Here on Turtle Creek, there is our cold red brick facade, some smaller brick structures and others larger still, all on neatly-packaged lots. Except for the lot across the street.

For many years, that lot remained wooded–thousands of square feet of untouched piney woods. It became my home for summer evenings when my neighbor and I would find paths beneath its branches and bridges, even homes upon fallen trees.

My grandpa played there, too.

Perhaps it reminded him of the rare parts of his home land that had yet to be cut down for foreign corporate profit. Or, maybe he just enjoyed its wildness, the juxtaposition of perfectly-kept lawns against nature’s stronghold.

He often went there to cut down limbs and other pieces of tree that he used to build a trellis in our backyard garden. I used to think it very funny. “Grandpa, you can’t do that. Someone owns that land,” I thought.

And now, now I understand.

The Quiet Miracle

I remember the feeling well. The perfectionist, people-pleasing part of my personality was fighting to have just one more small victory. Just tell them, I told myself. And I so wanted to.

It was my sophomore year of college and I had the awkward task of telling my small group I could no longer go on the mission trip we had planned for part of winter break. The thing is, I didn’t have a neatly packaged answer as to why. Instead, a knowing slowly grew over time within my spirit, telling me quietly, but confidently, that the trip was not what God had planned for me.

It’s not God’s will for me to serve Him on a local mission trip? I had a hard time coming to terms with that. Even more, I had a difficult time officially leaving the group because there was also another lesson at play here: God also didn’t want me to explain why.

Did I mention I’m a people pleaser? Because this one small part of obedience to God felt like it killed me inside. I worried about what people would think of me and where my heart was if I abruptly left for no reason.

An explanation would have helped me to feel justified before my friends and mentors. And that’s exactly why God wanted me to keep it just between me and Him. In truth, the only reason I craved justification is because of my pride, my worry about what others thought about me. In this circumstance, glory to God rested in the quiet obedience between Him and I. I needed to know and trust that pleasing God was enough.

After informing the leaders of my decision, I returned home for winter break with lingering questions and frustrations. I didn’t understand how this could possibly be a good thing.

A few days after being home, I got a call from a close family friend who needed me to drive her to the hospital. She was in, or at least nearing, her third trimester.

I don’t remember how long we were there, but I do recall sitting in the waiting room and feeling a rush of gratitude to God. I was, and still am, grateful I was able to be there for someone who means so much to me. Thankfully, this story ends well, but it may not have. We never really know how things will pan out; in this instance, I just felt humbled to be someone that others can depend on. I’m thankful my obedience to follow the Lord’s leading gave way for an unexpected blessing.

After returning to campus the following semester, I so longed to explain myself once more to the friends I had bailed on. It would be a way to glorify the Lord, to show how He works, I told myself. But still, deep inside I knew it was a way for me to clean my slate and try to justify myself. It’s now been five years since this all took place, and I’ve only shared the truth of what happened with a couple of friends.

I still struggle with people-pleasing, but when I do, I try to remind myself of the unexplainable sweetness that comes from choosing to obey God’s leading, even if no one else understands, even if no one else even knows.

Jesus exemplifies this time and again throughout the gospels. He lived a life of holy obedience to the Father at all times and in all circumstances, from the public square to the temple, even alone in the wilderness.

During a recent rereading of the Book of John, I was struck by the quiet nature of Jesus’ work in his first miracle on earth.

John 2

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

Did you catch it?

In this gospel account, the bridegroom gets the praise for having accomplished what was really the work of Jesus. This was Jesus’ opportunity to say, “Hey, here I am! This is who I am. Look at what I’ve done.” But he doesn’t.

Only the disciples know what has taken place here. And they believed.

When He calls us to it, may quiet obedience be enough for us as we walk with Him.

The Hope of a Future Song

On January 1, we said yes to forever with each other.

On March 24, our city shutdown, effectively saying no to everything else. At the time, we lived nearly 50 miles from each other. In the new world of stay-at-home orders and face masks, it felt like 500 miles.

Now barred from going anywhere but the grocery store, I projected my dashed hopes and dreams of this would-be-wonderful year into planning our July 26, 2020 wedding. 

And then as the “two weeks to stop the spread” slowly morphed into one month, and then two months, and then three, I didn’t know where to place my hopes anymore. 

Could our wedding day even happen as we planned?

If not, what should we do? 

Will they give us our money back?

What if we scale back? And if we do, how far should we go?

Will our immediate families even be able to attend under the current orders? 

The one thing I hoped would bring me joy became a moving target.

Maybe for you it’s the hope of a new or perfect job, the relationship you’ve always wanted, the education or lifestyle everyone else seems to have. I’m convinced we all have that one thing we’re reaching for. 

Even more than that, I’m convicted that it is all in vain.

It’s no coincidence that around the time quarantine began, I happened to be studying the Book of Ecclesiastes. The paradoxes found in this book of the Bible helped me to embrace the fleeting nature of my pursuits while also encouraging me to find meaning in each moment.

Ecclesiastes teaches us that life is hevel. That’s Hebrew for:

  • vanity
  • emptiness
  • transitory
  • unsatisfactory
  • breath
  • delusion
  • vapor

 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.

“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
What does a person gain for all his efforts
that he labors at under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-4 (CSB)

As much as I tried to hold on to my wedding as a source of joy during this uncertain season, I was reminded again and again that life itself is uncertain, a vapor, temporary.

The things we look forward to, the things we reach for, can vanish so quickly.

This is a sobering truth. What do we do, how do we live in light of this?

Here are a couple of my reflections:

Enjoy the gifts of each moment.

The fact that life is short and fleeting does not take away meaning from our everyday experiences. Rather, this truth should encourage us to find more joy and meaning in our day to day. This requires a paradigm shift in how we view ourselves, our role in the world and the story God is writing.

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 (ESV)

The brevity of life doesn’t take away from the truth that it’s still a gift.

Remember the big picture.

In instances where joy or meaning are hard to find, as followers of Jesus, we have the future hope of glory. As my dear childhood pastor always said, “this life is a dressing room for the next.”

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (ESV)

Ultimately, it is keeping an eternal perspective that has given me the most heart as I prepared for this new chapter. I’m so grateful for this future hope. Unlike the things I am tempted to look forward to or put my trust in, I know that my God is good, faithful and trustworthy.

“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn that ultimately in this world there is no finished symphony.”

Karl Rahner

For the believer, Karl Rahner’s words are a comfort. Ecclesiastes teaches us to enjoy the music now with the hope of a future song.

Introduction

God is and has been so gracious to me. He is merciful and kind to reveal himself to me through the Scriptures, through the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, through the words or actions of a stranger.

For so long, I’ve been pondering these things in my heart and even writing about them on occasion over at an old blog. But today is officially the start of fall, which feels like the perfect day to launch myself into a new season of my own.

Wholehearted Writing is my step forward toward actively listening to the story God is writing in my life. He’s writing a story in your life, too, and if I can connect just one reader to that life-changing truth, it’ll be worth the fear and vulnerability that come with making myself known here.