On Living Generously—What the Marginalized Taught Me about Giving

Being a first generation immigrant, I watched my parents make a life for our family, living paycheck to paycheck. My dad held numerous hardworking, blue collar jobs working in warehouses, making and delivering lunchboxes, and tending other people’s yards. We were recipients of the good will of others in the forms of hand-me-downs and occasional financial support. My sisters and I worked within a five dollar budget when in need of a new shirt for school, and sharing one drink between the five of us at fast food restaurants was how we rolled. I’m no stranger to being in want and living frugally, though I never knew what it felt like to go hungry, or not having a roof over my head.
In the past few years as I find myself encountering the marginalized of our society, more specifically the financially disadvantaged due to mental or physical disabilities, family crisis, or lack of legal status, I’ve learned some valuable lessons on charity and kinship that I’d like to share with you.

When we participate in charitable giving, do we prioritize what is convenient to us and what we think is needed rather than what is truly needed? Not long ago, a friend came to me and shared that he was visiting his nephew and nieces for the holidays, but had ran out of money to buy presents for them. Not wanting him to show up empty-handed, I gave him the Target gift card I had on hand and was fully expecting to be thanked for my spontaneous act of generosity. Instead, he said: “What am I supposed to do with this gift card? There are no bus routes to Target.” The Target gift card is as good as monopoly money without the transportation he needed to get to the store. I have learned that when we give, we must give thoughtfully; to give thoughtfully, we must put ourselves in proximity to the challenges people face daily.

Fear of being made the fool. When I encounter people asking for money on the streets, my primal response is suspicion and fear of being taken advantage of. I’d like to think that some of it is good common sense, but more likely than not there is an unhealthy dosage of cynicism and self-righteousness. In Greg Boyle’s book, “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship”, he writes of the value of tenderness, of holding our own wounds close. When we are able to wear our past hurts, pain, and helplessness on our sleeves, we see the needy as kin, not someone to be despised and suspected. “How can someone take my advantage when I’m giving it?” Boyle asks. Give generously, not as a response to someone’s deservedness, but as an outpouring of gratefulness for all the advantages afforded to us, which of many we did not deserve.

Give without judgement or expectation. When we give charitably, do we give with strings attached? Do you find yourself frowning upon the subject of your giving when he or she doesn’t use your gift in the way that you expect them to? I’m not advocating for fiscal irresponsibility or knocking the very real need of financial education, but unless we have the privilege of a solid relationship and the invitation to do so, it is not our job to be the bookkeeper of the poor. One faulty thinking that I often observe is that we judge the financially disadvantaged when they spend money on things that we would consider “frivolous”—phones, new clothes, cable, eating out, or going to the movies. We don’t understand why they would be so reckless with their money when they don’t know where next month’s rent is coming from. The truth is, our desire for relaxation and the search for comfort do not magically go away when living paycheck to paycheck. In the same way that we do not put birthday moneys toward mortgage payments, we should not judge when our brothers and sisters of lesser privilege seek out temporary escapes from their daily stresses.

Don’t romanticize the poor or their human condition. Struggling to make ends meet do not make people more grateful, more appreciative of material wealth, or more spiritual. Human nature in all its glory and ugliness is the same whether you are in want or in plenty. Actively reject the notion of a “grateful recipient” and the facade of “when you have less, you appreciate more”. We are called to bear with one another in love (Colossians 3:13), and people are people, no matter the size of their bank account.

Donations of money, goods, and participating in service projects meet real, pressing needs in our communities. It gives us an opportunity to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves and temporarily takes us out of self-absorption. However, these charitable experiences fit neatly into a specific framework, and allow us to reenter our lives without disrupting our status quo. Building relationships with the marginalized, however, takes intentionality, time, and discomfort. The length it takes to nurture these relationships afford us the time to root out the pride, self-righteousness, and judgement that accompany our best intentions. In other words, relationship leads to kinship, and kinship changes lives—starting with our own.

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The Stench of Saviorism

In the past year or so, Steve and I have sought out numerous medical professionals and therapists in search of answers for our neurodivergent child. When you have a child who doesn’t follow the ascribed developmental milestones that seem to come so effortlessly for children his age, play dates, free library classes, community events, and even playground trips become a perfect petri dish for comparison, anxiety, and even guilt to fester.

Whereas I battle against these thoughts in the war zone of my mind every day, God has also opened my eyes to a parental pitfall that I had long-coddled in my unchallenged blind spot: Savorism insidiously corrupts the way we teach children about empathy.

While my son J was still in fourth grade, I received a phone call from my friend whose child has autism. She told me that J had stood up for her child in the school bathroom when there was some bullying taking place. She asked me if I had heard anything about it (which i hadn’t), and said that she wanted me to know how it made her feel as a mom. She knew that it was impossible for her to be everywhere her child was at all times, but knowing her son had friends like J brought comfort to her.

Later on when I asked J about it, he nonchalantly told me what had happened, as if this event didn’t really stand out from the other normal, day-to-day happenings. I went on to make a big deal about it and told him how proud I was of him, that he was a protector and a great friend, and that he stood up for what was right. I made sure that the grandparents, aunts, and friends heard about what had happened, and the avalanche of praises ensued.

At that time, I thought that by elevating what J did, I was encouraging and cultivating empathy in him and in others. Looking back now, I didn’t realize how misguided and mistaken I was.

When we elevate the actions of our children for doing what we consider to be good deeds—standing up for someone, helping the needy, giving to the poor—we are teaching them saviorism. Saviorism creates hierarchy, not horizontal kinship. Saviorism elevates us to a position of power, where our status is magnified over the object of our aid. The goal of saviorism is to shine a spotlight on the actions that we perform, instead of placing the welfare of another as the priority.

We were never called to be saviors; instead, we were called to a better way—to have empathy for one another. Empathy calls us to imagine another’s feeling and condition from their perspective, not from our own. It calls for the shedding of our agenda and self-centeredness and enrobing ourselves with concerns for another—elevating their needs and well-being to the utmost importance.

We are called to a mutuality that beckons us to do unto others what we would want others to do unto us. Empathy enables us to find common ground in the belief that each person has the innate, God-given dignity as image bearers of our Creator, worthy to be respected, loved, and treasured. Whereas saviorism clearly distinguishes the savior from the saved, empathy erases the distance between “us” and “them” and creates a new identity: ”We”.

If I could go back in time, I would tell my son that I was proud of him, not because of his actions, but because of what transpired before he even did or said anything. I will tell J that he saw his friend clearly—as a person of value who is to be respected; not to be made fun of. I would tell him that when someone is devalued and dehumanized by words or deeds, we must always intervene, so that through our action and words we may help one another remember to see the image of God imprinted in every single person.

A week ago, I took my neurodivergent child to our library’s “Alphabet Soup” program for preschoolers and kindergarteners. There was an extremely bright little 4 year old boy, who knew all the answers and all the songs. His mom beamed with pride and beseeched his son repeatedly while motioning toward my son, “why don’t you show this boy how to do X, Y, Z?” Her eyes never left her son, even though she instructed him to show “kindness” toward another.

What my son needed then was not someone to show him how to fill in the perceived lack of knowledge. His silence was an indication that he was processing all of the sensory inputs that threatened to unravel him. What he needed then was space to be different, and kindness that shows itself in an understanding that intelligence comes in all shapes and forms.

In our strive toward goodness, may we learn to take our gaze off of ourselves, our children, and instead, may we fix our eyes on others not as the object of our pity, but as if they were our very own selves. Until then will we learn what true empathy is; until then will we learn how to care for one another without the stench of saviorism.

I Find You

I could no longer find You

In the first lights of the morning

In the rhythms of the waves

In the vastness of the skies

I could no longer find You

In the comforts of my home

In the pristine steepled church

In the well-dressed and the well-versed

I could no longer find You

In the houses filled with laughter

Of friends and family who have so much

When their next door neighbors struggle to pay rent

I could no longer find You

In the quest for better jobs

Better homes

Better schools

Better neighborhoods

Then You came and took my hand

And showed me where You have been

And–

I find You in the wails of a woman

Fighting for breath, for freedom,

Pleading to break free

I find you in the tear-soaked face of a mother

Whose disfigured son marches to the sure drums of cancer and death

I find You in the stuttering tongue of a boy

Struggling to comprehend letters and numbers

People called him “special needs”

but all I see is Your love-stamped face

I find You in the determined warrior

Her body and spirit broken by abuse

Her cursing, a more beautiful praise

Her baby-filled arms, an anthem of faith

This is where You show me Your face,

And this is where I’ll find You.

“For the Lord is close to the broken-hearted

And saves those who are crushed in Spirit.”

Psalm 34:18

Love Is A Growing Up

“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does.  Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”  —James A. Baldwin

One Saturday afternoon this past September,  we were on our drive back from a quick getaway at Great Wolf Lodge with our dear friends when we received a call.  It was DCPP calling to tell us about a 12-year-old boy with minimal medical needs who needed a foster home, and if we would be willing to take him in.  God’s timing was impeccable; it was just a few days prior to us receiving this call that our kids had told us that they were ready for new friends to join our family again.  Up to this point we had taken a year off from fostercare and the catalyst was our 10-year-old who had said to us: “Can it just be us for a while?  I don’t want us to be a foster family anymore.”

Steve and I had understood why he wanted to be done with fostering; in the past 4 years since we were licensed by the State of New Jersey as a resource family, we have had a handful of children coming through our home.  We had adopted our youngest through fostercare.  There have been a lot of welcomes and good-byes; our children have had to be migrants in their own home, moving from room to room.  They’ve share friends and toys, bathroom and living spaces; they’ve had to advocate for the already divided attention of their parents, and have been targets of angry outbursts as well as lashed out in frustration themselves.  We have cried many tears and shared many laughs, and stretched our kids and asked more of them than they were capable of, or so it seemed.  Even so, Steve and I knew then that our fostercare journey was not over.  Our hearts continue to break for the broken homes and shattered lives; we felt compelled to be in the midst of the hurt and this takes precedence over what we, or our children, might be feeling at any given moment.  We have seen how God had impart justice in the hearts of our children for those on the fringe of their microcosm, and have seen the healing in the pain, the beauty from the rubble.  This break from fostercare was to be a timeout, a chance to pick ourselves up, to huddle and regroup; it was not our finale.

When we received the call about J on our carride home, the excitement spread like heatwaves through the car; the anticipation was palpable. The boys were thrilled at the idea of having an older playmate and have already started making plans of all the things they could do together.   Experience has been our greatest teacher and we knew what questions to ask, key words to watch out for as we fished for more information about J.  We wanted to make sure that we knew what we were getting into not just for the sake of our three children, but more importantly, we wanted to make sure that we would be a good fit for J as well.  In the past, we have had to ask DCPP to rehome a child who was staying with us, whom in his short 4 years of life had learned to use violence as a coping mechanism and a survival instinct.  Our best intention and our stubborn pride of “we can’t give up on him” ultimately fell short of what he needed, and what we were capable of giving.  The last thing we wanted to do was go into another fostering experience naively.  Even so,  we felt a blanket of peace about our “yes” to J; we marveled at God’s timing in working in the hearts of our kids. We immediately let our close friends knew J was coming and our incredible support system went to bat for us,  providing us with weeks of meals and unceasing prayer.

Then J came.  Without going into details and stories that are not mine to share, as the days he spent with us accumulates, his needs multiplied and grew until it took on a life of its own.  In addition to the anticipated package of doctor’s visits, visitations, and communication with social worker, law guardian, CASA, and the division nurse that comes with every child in fostercare, we came to find out that there were also numerous specialists that we needed to see, and a common cold could easily turn into a medical emergency.  We were buried in an avalanche of phone calls, speaking to J’s growing posse of professionals who have a stake in the well-being of this child.  Life at home grew increasingly difficult as well; as a child from hard places who has experienced trauma and neglect in their lives, the coping mechanisms that kept him afloat up to now became the very things that stand in the way of progress.  It wasn’t long before we realized how deeply sick he is, and how insurmountable this challenge that is facing us.

Every day tasks that used to require very little thinking and planning became a training ground.  J was the new recruit in the bootcamp of community living and I was the reluctant drill sergeant that has be tasked to shape him up.  I much prefer the role of the nurturer, the encourager; afterall, it is how God had designed me to be and what gets my blood flowing.  However, I came to realize that how I am gifted is not what J truly needs; for his sake, I needed to learn to take on another role.  J needs high structure and he needs to know that he is not in charge.  The very things that he fights against are the very things that he needs to flourish.

We struggled, everything is hard.  Developmentally, J swung like a pendulum between the ages of 4 and 12.  He had to learn how to chew productively and how to swallow without gagging.  He had to learn how to tolerate seasonings and textures of food.  He needs directions on how to have a conversation and we practiced the basic skills of listening and responding, reading nonverbal cues and be considerate of others.  We use timers for getting ready for school, for meals, for electronics, and for bedtime.   His pathological needs for attention, positive or negative, threatened to unravel me.  Steve and I needed to be a united front at all times because any cracks in our relationship became a tool J uses to regain control.  We watched as the initial excitement of having a new playmate/brother was replaced by constant arguments and competition for attention among the boys.  And I struggled to bond to this child; if I am to be completely honest, I could not find one thing about him that makes being around him easy for me.  There are days when I cannot even look J in the eye for fear that my eyes would betray me, and he would know how deeply I dislike him at that very moment.

To make matters worse, the people we were counting on to be our allies in advocating for social services for J became hurdles we had to jump through.  Emails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned.  Our eyes were opened to the dysfunction and failure of the fostercare system that were previously veiled from us.  Our eyes were opened to see those who would gain the system without fulfilling their responsibility to care for the vulnerable who were entrusted to them; and I learned to use my voice to advocate for J in a way that I have never done before.

This has been, by far, the most difficult fostercare experience we have had.  We are still in the thick of it; and I am learning an aspect of love that I had never known before.  A kind of love that is unemotional, not dictated by feeling, but by grit.  A kind of love that wills and fights and does not back down.  A kind of love that speaks the truth, awkwardly and messily, for the good and edification of another.  This love is foreign to me, but it is making me stronger and braver, this “…love is a growing up.”

A Prayer for My Children

Jesus, give them the blessing of sorrow, so they will know how to grieve with those who grieve.

Jesus, give them the blessing of longing, so them will remember with every tear that this world is not their home.

God, give them the blessing of a body riddled with imperfections, so their pride and identity will not rest on something that will not last.

Give them the blessing of being in need, so they will see that true riches are immaterial. Jesus, teach them how to give what they have with freedom and generosity.

Let them fail, again and again, so they will know humility, hard work, and grit.

Abba, forgive us for confusing your blessing with what we can hold onto with our hands, when it has always been what we learned in the process and not what we achieve in the end.

Make them uncomfortable, so that they will long for change.  Let them see injustice and feel it in their bones.  Make them warriors for reconciliation.

Marr their faces with tears and give them a broken heart.  May they walk in the path of their Savior, the road of the Cross.

The Way of Christ

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded.  It’s a covenant between equals…Compassion is always, at its most authentic, about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship.” 

Gregory Boyle, “Tattoos on the Heart”

 During her second and third year of college, Esther co-led a Women’s Small Group in the campus student fellowship we were both a part of.  She was known by members of her small group as being “bipolar”–intensely and outrageously goofy in the privacy of an intimate group of friends yet painfully shy in public and large settings.  She dressed plainly without makeup and spoke mousily most of the time, yet in the company of her friends she stood on the table in the deserted library and belted out “Figaro!” on the top of her lungs–which promptly got us all kicked out.  She was an enigma for many who did not know her and someone whom people easily disregarded as being socially awkward and hermit-like.  In her college years, she surrounded herself with female friends and had very little interest in pursuing attention from the opposite sex.  She seemed to draw people in with similar dispositions–outliers who either did not care for popularity, or cannot seem to break their way into the in-crowd.  After a while, we found out that we were nicknamed “the lesbians” by someone in leadership in the student fellowship, which made us feel even more isolated and disconnected from the group as a whole.

Esther was not always an outcast.  Our experience as immigrants and minority in a mostly white town hugely impacted her identity during the formative and impressionable adolescent years.  If I may be so bold to say, she was quite the flirt at one point in her life. She had a way of behaving around boys that drew them in like flies to fire or bears to honey.  She did always have her boundary clearly marked, however.  There was little intimacy save some hand-holding and stolen glances, oh yeah, and hours and hours talking on the phone much to my parents’ dismay.  Slowly, I witnessed a gradual change in my sister–she started not caring about her looks as much and her behavior around boys did a 180 as well.  I never did ask her what happened, but I know there was a “relationship” (if you could call it that) that broke her confidence.

Her suitors waned as her attention shifted, and her relationship with God exploded.  Esther was my college suitemate for two years.   In my defense, I did desperately tried to keep some distance between me and my overly protective and loving sister, but my efforts toward independence were short-lived.   Every morning when I groggily peeked into her room on my way to the bathroom, she was always there, sitting up on her bed, pouring over her NKJV Bible.  Her college-era Bible remains my favorite possession in this world.

Another trademark of Esther’s college life was that she surrounded herself with international students.  Rutgers has a large population of international students, many of them here without families.  She would meet them on campus–never in her classes but around in the student center, on the bus, at the library–and she would invite them over to our apartment for a meal.  Then she would invite them over to our house on the weekends where they would endure my dad’s corny jokes, eat home-cooked meals, go rollerblading in the park, watch five dollar movies, and seemingly loving every minute with us.

Frankly, I didn’t like it.  Up to that point, I had tried so hard to shed my “fresh off the boat” stench and there she was, associating with FOBs and instead of climbing the social ladder, she appeared to be descending it.  I would’ve been ok with just being friendly on campus, saying hi and maybe chitchat for a few minutes with my fellow international students before going on our separate ways.  What I didn’t realize about my sister was that they were not her charity cases, but kinsmen.

Growing up, there was a neighborhood boy who came by our apartment building a lot.  His name has long been gone from my memory, but what I remember about him was that he was always dirty.  His hair greasy and his fingernails black, and he always wore a beat up pair of flip flops.  Esther quickly befriended him and very soon, he would show up in the courtyard of our apartment, screaming her name “Lin Chia-Chen!  Lin Chia-Chen!”  He was skinny as a stick and would always have a pack of dried ramen as his lunch, which he ate straight from the bag while applying the seasoning packet generously.   Esther often snuck him fruits and snacks, and they would talk and play for hours in the courtyard before the daylight fades and night appears.

Suffering is the fertile soil in which compassion can flourish.  Our own experience of pain allows us a window into the pain of others.  When we see our reflection on the faces of those whom others are quick to reject, and we walk with them and call them our own, we walk in the way of Christ.

A Crown of Thorns

It was not long ago when I watched you

Running your fingers through your hair

It had always been what many envied–

Beautiful, silky, long

It was not long ago when I followed you

Rollerblading through the park

Your athletic body, so tanned and strong

What a gorgeous girl you are

This is how I’ve always known you

So beautiful and strong

You took wondrous care of yourself

And you beckoned me to do the same

Now your former self a faint memory

In place of your lustrous locks, a scar

An emblem of pain and suffering

And fear of the unknown

Your body, broken and foreign

Controlled by endless medications

What I would give to see you again

Without a care in the world

Wear it as a Crown of Thorns

Wear it as a Crown of Thorns

For Jesus, for Jesus

Wear it as a Crown of Thorns

You have become a fragrant offering

For the One who deserves it all

For Jesus, for Jesus

Wear it as a Crown of Thorns  

-Rebecca Wen

Esther had the stereotypical Asian women’s hair that was low-maintenance and annoyingly silky and shiny.  It used to be an object of great envy among the three of us sisters.  Joyce, my eldest sister, and I both had wavier, coarser, thicker hair that doesn’t quite behave as obediently and brilliantly as we would’ve liked it.  For the most of her life, Esther wore her hair long, and one of the most vivid memories I have of her during our adolescent years is the image of her staring at herself in the mirror, brushing and flipping her hair from one shoulder to the next.  Our childhood home has one full bathroom which we all shared, and a half bath downstairs that was used mainly by our visitors.  You can imagine what prime real estate the bathroom was in a house full of teenage girls.  It got to a point that my dad started posting scriptural verses in the center of the mirror; one of his favorite ones was from Proverbs 31:30—“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”  My dad’s passive-aggressive scriptural spanking didn’t end there; there were also gems from Proverbs 10:19 taped on the phone (“when there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise”) and Ephesians 6:1-2 on the kitchen wall (“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”)

Before Esther’s brain surgery, we talked to her about the possibility of shaving off her long hair.  She sat on the idea for a very long time, and eventually decided against it. The neurosurgeon informed her that he would be shaving off a section of her hair so that he could perform the life-saving procedure of removing the cancerous tumor from her brain.  Fast forward to post-surgery and recovery, the remainder of her long hair became a bit of a hassle as it interfered with the wrapping of the wound; it also became laborious for her to wash her hair while keeping the 6-in incision clean and dry.  Eventually, Esther decided to buzz off the rest of her hair.  I tried to keep myself together as I watched her long hair fell to the floor, her face unmoved and determined.  We said our final goodbye to her companion of many years that brought her so much pride.

After surgery, Esther went through 6 weeks of radiation treatment which targeted the area of the brain where the tumor grew.  One of the major side-effects of this treatment was that it also severely retarded the growth of her hair on the scalp.  As the rest of her hair slowly grew back, there remained a patch of baldness on the right side of her head.  For months we lay our hands on it, asking God to grant her favor and give back her hair.  Yet the patch was stubbornly barren; any new growth resembled the fuzz on baby chicks and less like adult hair.

Very few people knew about this bald spot.  Esther kept it hidden away with a bandana or scarf.  My uncle offered to purchase a wig for her and we scoured a few stores looking for the perfect one.  Wearing a wig was a hard concept for Esther to accept and even after she decided on one, it sat on the corner of her shelf, never to see the light of day.  She never wore it even once; she felt it was dishonest and she was misrepresenting herself.  Plus, “it makes my head so itchy,” she declared.  She loved wearing her bandana with just a little bit of hair peeking out from the front, framing her face.  It also deceptively convinced people that her hair was growing out fine.

On the eve of her wedding, I found Esther sobbing in her room.  We had picked out a silky scarf rimmed with decorative laces as her headwear, but she was longing for her hair.  On the day when a woman is expected to look her best, she grappled with the loss of something that has so long been a part of her identity.   On her wedding day, she once again wore her warrior face and her beauty grew deeper roots inside her heart and began to flourish.

One of Esther’s last wishes was to go to a harbor 15 minutes away from our childhood home.   It was a harbor lined with sidewalks and one of my dad’s favorite places to go fishing.  On that day, she requested to make a stop at the supermarket so we could buy some snacks.  It was a hot summer day, and as I wheeled her into the store on her wheelchair she turned around and asked me:  “Antie (my childhood nickname), is it ok if you take off my scarf?  I am so hot.”  I told her that of course it was ok, but really, I was weeping inside. There I was, wheeling my sister with a head of unevenly grown hair and an ugly 6-in scar.  Her face swollen from the medication and as people stared, I wanted to scream at them and say “Stop staring!  You don’t know how beautiful she is!  You don’t know what she’s been through!”  Perhaps sensing my tortured thoughts and mistaking it for embarrassment, Esther turned her head and said, “Antie, I can put the scarf back on if I’m embarrassing you.”  To which I replied, “You will NEVER embarrass me.  You are beautiful.”

After her death, mourning her hair became part of what it means to grief her.  Beauty to ashes.  Yet from ashes arose an indomitable spirit more magnificent than I’d ever seen.

Worship God with All that I Have

When I was working as a Children’s Ministry coordinator at a Chinese Christian Church about 12 years ago, I met a young man with Down Syndrome whom we shall call James.  James was then around 12 years of age, and he loved to sing.  Every Sunday during worship service, you could hear his distinctive voice rising above the crowd.  His voice was eclectic, unmelodic, and abrasive to the mortal ears; the looks he drew were most often that of annoyance.  I loved every minute of his singing.  I loved to look at his face–which was always turned heavenward with his arms raised high, unaware or perhaps, unconcerned that he was deemed a distraction and someone who needed to be silenced.  I thought about James’ voice rising up to the throne of God as incense, a praise offering pleasing to Him. (Psalm 141:2)  I pitied those people giving him dirty looks–didn’t they realize they were witnessing an angel singing to his Father?

In the last few months of Esther’s life as she started to lose sensation and mobility in half of her body, it became harder and harder for her to attend Sunday worship service.  Around the same time, her strength slowly began to fail as waking hours became shorter and shorter and even minor physical activities sapped the life out of her.  Then she stopped attending church in person, choosing instead to listen to sermons online.  About a month before she passed away, she requested to attend a Sunday worship service.  It was the last time she went to the church building.  At her request, we pushed her in the wheelchair into the sound room located next to the sanctuary because she didn’t want to see or talk to anyone.  My mom, dad, Rupert, and I sat around her in the tiny room with a very accommodating A/V guy, looking out through the small window to the congregation.  Esther didn’t say a word throughout the whole service; she sat completely still with her eyes closed.  Right before the pastor concluded his sermon, Esther opened her eyes and whispered that she is ready to go.  As we got up, she motioned to me for a pen and paper and I handed her the closest thing I could find, which was the church bulletin that day.  She laboriously scribbled something with her right hand, which was so shaky and weak that she dropped the pen a couple of times in the process.  When she finished, she looked up at me, smiled, and handed the paper back to me.  On it she wrote:  “Worship God with all that I have.”

In my life I’ve been fortunate enough to witness true worship from that of a young boy with Down Syndrome and a cancer patient facing her imminent death.  When I’m tempted to think that God is impressed by our beautiful voices, beautiful clothes, and beautiful bodies, I will remember what true worship looks like:  BROKEN.

 

 

“Go Pick on Someone Your Own Size!”

My sister Esther was a year and nine months my senior.  I was shorter and smaller than her for the first five years of my life, but by the time I was 6, I rivaled her in stature and surpassed her in weight.  People often mistaken us for twins and we basked in that very idea.

I was a very sensitive child.  In the Chinese standard of beauty, a slender body is considered desirable and attractive in both male and female; although my parents were purposeful in not commenting on my weight, I distinctly remember feeling ashamed and unattractive at an early age because of my somewhat unconventional body mass index.

In the Taiwanese public elementary school where my sisters and I attended, there was an annual “Health Day” when teachers measured and recorded each student’s weight and height on the blackboard for the whole universe to see.  It was a day made in heaven for gossipers.  It was a culture where expediency, practicality, and community trumped personal privacy and individualism.  When it was my turn to step on that scale, it was as if the whole room fell silent and dark except for the invisible and undeniable spotlight on me.  I could hear the whispers, the gasps as my numbers were recorded and I stepped off with my cheeks red hot and my head hung in defeat.  My only comfort was that my good friend consistently saved me from the dishonor of being the heaviest girl in class by claiming the title for herself, year after agonizing year, bearing the brunt of cruelty disguised as harmless playground taunts.

There was a particular fearsome bully in my class one year who was a Goliath in a sea of Davids.  In retrospect, I wonder about his story and the pain he carried because of how he terrorized us.  During recess, he used to chase my friend and I into the girls’ bathroom, threatening to beat us up if we dare to step out in defiance.  It led to many “late to class” write-ups on our records and we offered no explanations to our teacher for fear of retribution.

Exasperated, my mom confronted me one day about the teacher’s reports.  Tearfully, I told her what happened and as you can imagine, she was furious.  The next day, she contacted the teacher and told her what happened, and squared everything away.  The bully was dealt with and that was the end of it, or so I thought.

That same afternoon, Esther showed up in the hallway of my class during recess, demanding to know who it was that dared to mess with her little sister.  She dragged him out of the classroom by his ear (no joke), pushed him down on the ground, and promised him the fires of hell if he dared to pick on me again.  It was the first time I saw fear in his eyes and the last time he chased us into the bathroom.  Unfortunately, his fury turned to some other unfortunate soul, and I wished that poor little boy also had a sister as fierce as mine.

After we immigrated to the US, we attended middle school and high school in a small, mostly white town.  My sisters and I made quick friends with a few other immigrants from Poland, Hong-Kong, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria as well as a substantial pocket of Indian-Americans.  Racial taunts and bullying were daily occurrences for minorities in this school.  Many of us were mocked, spat at, pushed, tripped, punched, and marginalized by not only our fellow students, but a few teachers as well.  There were very few of us, especially the new immigrants, who defended ourselves and fought back; most of the time we kept our heads down and try to hold on dearly to what’s left of our dignity.  One afternoon, however, proved to be too much to bear for Esther.  When the bell rung for dismissal, I met up with her by her locker so we could walk home together.  On our way down the hallway of the second floor of the building, we saw a white boy ran up to a Indian immigrant with a sign that says “Kick me”.  He pretended to say hi to his unsuspected victim and patted him and in so doing, affixed the sign onto this poor kid’s back.  Then, he lagged behind for a few seconds then ran up with full speed, jumped and kick the immigrant kid, knocking him to the ground.  Esther and I watched in shock as the poor kid got up, looked confused, and was kicked back down again all the while being laughed at by his tormentor and bystanders.

At this point, Esther ran after the white kid and shoved him from behind, hard.  Then she said, “Hey!  why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”  Incredulous, the white kid looked at her and tried to laugh it off and made his escape down the hallway and down the stairs.  She chased after him, pushed him down the stairs and shouted again, “Go pick on someone your own size, you stupid idiot!”

After that incident, the school counselor approached my sister and asked her to be part of a new initiative called “SAS”, which stands for Students Assisting Students.  Time and time again, my sister showed me what bravery looks like.  She stood up to formidable opponents in the forms of bullies, language barrier, molestation, cancer, and death.  She wasn’t always victorious and fearsome; She was beaten down, crushed, emptied, and she oftentimes crawled, but she was never destroyed.  She had a fighter’s spirit, and “though she be but little, she is fierce.” (William Shakespeare)

On Death and Dreams

It’s hard for me to think about the events surrounding the time that my sister died.   I have specific memories that would come into sharp focus when I beckon them; yet there are also lapses of time that my mom would later fill which I had no recollection of whatsoever. I remember visiting Esther the day before she died; she was at that point on hospice care at home.  She was confined to the bed and no longer able to communicate with us or the outside world.  For years one of the most painful memories I had of her was the look of her eyes during those last few days.  They were bulging and yellow, rubbery and spiritless.   They looked more like the eyes of a dead fish at the Chinese supermarket and nothing like the warm sunshiny eyes I had stared into thousands of times.  Once Esther ceased talking and was in a perpetual state of sleep, I would lie down next to her and tell her over and over again how much I love her.  I would also tell her that I’m sorry.  In those last days the IV was removed as her vitals slowed and her body felt neither hunger nor thirst—the sure sign that she had entered the slow process of death.  Even so, I couldn’t shake the thought that I was complacent in starving her and playing an active, sinister role in her eventual death.

It was a few hours past midnight when we got the phone call from Esther’s then-husband Rupert telling us that she had just passed away.  My parents had opted to stay the night at my house and we were a mere 3 minutes drive away.  My mom later told me that upon receiving the call I had asked everybody to wait as I jumped into the shower, instead of rushing over to my sister’s side.  In retrospect, this is still extremely upsetting to me that I had done that because one, I do not remember doing this and two, I had delayed everybody from saying goodbye to my sister.

When someone dies in the movies, there’s oftentimes an elaborate scene where the surviving loved ones threw themselves over the deceased, sobbing uncontrollably.  That wasn’t what happened with me.  I remember the tears rolled down freely and the heaviness of grief weighed down my each and every breath, but I also remember how beautiful Esther looked.  Her body was still warm to the touch at the core, but her extremities were beginning to feel cold and her skin appeared ivory, even translucent.  I stroke her face and kissed her on the lips for the very last time.  Rupert had left the room to call the hospice nurse, and when she arrived, she asked if we wanted to sponge bathe Esther’s body in preparation for the funeral home, to which I eagerly replied “yes”.  In the months leading up to her death, Esther had experienced weakness and the loss of sensation to one side of her body, which got in the way of her walking, toileting, and bathing.  She was notoriously private and did not want the nurse to assist in any of the above activities, so Rupert, mom, dad, Joyce and I took turns helping her.  It was clear to us whom Esther would’ve wanted to help her for her last bath in this world—and I did it solemnly and lovingly, cherishing my final act of service to the one who had always taken care of me.

The hours, days, months, and years after Esther’s death were excruciating.  The grief was so physically palpable and the only word that would best describe it is OPPRESSION.  It colored everything I see, choked out every joy, and yet it was irresistible because in it I felt close and loyal to her.  During her funeral service I had lifted up my hands in worship and surrender, yet in the aftermath I had no words but curses for God.  FUCK YOU GOD.  I hated that everybody could hit the pause button, grief the loss of her, and then went on with their lives when my life had forever changed and will never be the same.

In my grief I would write emails to Esther.  I would call her number just to hear her voice on the voicemail, and then leave her stupid little messages the way we used to do for each other as if nothing had happened.  For a few minutes everything would feel better but then soon after I would once again spiral into the dark abyss of grief.

Looking back, there were two things that were lifelines in my journey through grief and I hope to share more deeply later on about how they saved me.  The first was the grief support group I attended (but didn’t complete) at Zarephath Christian Church called “Griefshare”.  The second was the freedom I felt to be completely honest, raw and disrespectful to God in how I felt about his shit plan in allowing my sister to die.

One night as I laid prostrate in our home office, weeping and wailing and cursing at God, I said out loud into the air, “Lingo (Esther’s nickname), I just want to know if you are ok.  Just please tell me that you are happy.”  That very night, I was given the gift of a dream that would begin the long journey of healing and restoration for me.

In the dream, my dad, Rupert, and my cousin Oonay were carrying a stretcher with the body of my sister lying on top of it.  My mom, Joyce, and I followed closely behind and we were walking through a very long, dark tunnel, weeping with every step we took.  We walked for what seemed like forever when suddenly, the tunnel led us into a bright opening, and the stretcher disappeared.  I saw what looked like a vineyard with rows and rows of vines pregnant with harvest; the vines bowing low by the weight of the grapes.  I saw tables set up with white tablecloths and feasts sprawling on them, and then I saw my sister in her favorite lilac-colored dress, running toward me.  I have never seen her so beautiful, so vibrant; while she was running I noticed that there was water flowing out of her body.  My dad, without missing a beat, declared, “that’s the living water flowing through your sister!”  We embraced and she whispered in my ear,  “Antie, don’t worry about me.  I am SO happy.”  Then there was a loud trumpet sound that took her attention and immediately she smiled, and I knew it was time for her to go.

I woke up from this dream in the middle of the night and I knew it was a direct answer to the question that I had howled into space just a few hours ago. In His infinite mercy, God had given me a glimpse of heaven.

 

Death, boasting in all its pompous victory

Came to me

And issued the following proclamation

by which I must observe

Jeeringly, he declared

“by the law of nature I now pronounce ownership over the following:

Lingo’s body which is from dust, and to dust it must return

The aspirations she once had, for children, family, and career

Oh yes, the hopes and dreams—that you’d be together ‘til old

And lastly, all the love you stored–the ones marked with her name”

“You have already claimed her body”, I wept, “must you also take the rest?

I know not what to give you, for they’re interwoven in my heart.”

“I know what’s mine”, Death snarled, “I’ll be just a minute”

Swiftly it plunges a knife in my heart, its mouth curled into a bloodthirsty grin

Hungrily it sliced, and ripped and tore

Until my heart is limp and mangled, and ebbing with blood

Then ever so softly

The Restorer came with tears streaming from His eyes

He gathered the mangled carcass in the gaping hole that is my heart

He cradled and kissed it tenderly as a mother with her child

“Look,” He whispered and gave me His eyes

and I saw a great celebration banquet in a vineyard pregnant with harvest

more beautiful yet was my sister, a vision of glory and vitality,

flowing through her was the Living Water

She ran to me and we embraced, and she spoke into my ear words I longed to hear

Then the trumpet sounded and with a smile she parted, and I knew I had to let her go

“This is a glimpse into the Hope you possess,” The Restorer said

And with these words the healing begins

And I know that although death has won

weak is his triumph—it cannot conquer hope

His reign and plunder is but a twinkle

-Rebecca Wen