the art of good news

Why is it that when I am exposed and surrounded by nature, I feel an urge to write?

There is this phenomenon that occurs in the world of artists. When one painter indulges in the works of another, the painter feels an urge to return to his paintbrush. When a musician listens to another’s compositions, the melodies and rhythms of an un-birthed song are already playing in her imagination. When a dancer sees someone sway and move to the beat of the song, he can’t help but to join in.

Inspiration.

Beauty begets more beauty. Inspiration inspires more inspiration.

When I am in nature, I’m surrounded by God’s artwork.  A walk on a trail becomes a tour through a holy art gallery. A good art gallery takes multiple visits to appreciate fully. With so many pieces on display, I sometimes miss a few on the first visit or I fail to see the full beauty of each piece.

God, the unrivaled Artist, has an infinite collection of art galleries, each of them constantly shifting and in perpetual change, like the waves of the ocean or the clouds of the sky. Like the family of deer stenciling footprints into the snowy winter canvas. Like the twinkling “star-covered tapestry plastered on a clear night sky”. Like black holes distorting time, matter, and even our perception of reality itself. Like the birth of galaxies that we cannot see until they start to die.

There is simply too much beauty. When I am in nature, I not only feel inspired, but compelled to write. I need to create art.

God made it such that good art not only inspires, but demands a response.

Is that not the gospel?

Is not the gospel God’s finest art piece?

 

“Good art doesn’t give answers. Good art asks questions.”

the Kid, pt. 1

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

There is this phenomenon studied in Community Psychology known as the “expert mentality”. An expert figure administers what he believes is professional help to a recipient based off of what the expert perceives as the recipient’s needs and deficits. But in doing so, the expert unintentionally creates more deficits that necessitate more “professional help”. The expert consequentially responds to the newly created needs by prescribing another treatment, which would only give rise to yet another deficit, requiring another treatment. A detrimental, crippling cycle is inadvertently manufactured in an attempt to provide help.

Think of a doctor who attempts to cure his patient’s disease by prescribing a medicine. The patient faithfully takes his pill daily but the pill produces some deleterious side effects. So what does he do? He goes back to the doctor, of course. Aha, the doctor knows exactly what to do: prescribe him a new pill to take care of the first pill’s side effects. The patient diligently takes both pills but to his surprise, this new pill spawns its own side effects. So the doctor prescribes yet another pill (with more side effects!) to treat the second pill’s side effects. You get the idea.

In an attempt to address the patient’s deficits, the professional creates new ones, further harming the patient and digging him deeper into a well of cyclical dependency. In the end, the solution to the problem the medication was made to solve is to get rid of the medication itself.

We see this all the time in social work and non-profit attempts to aid underprivileged communities. “Professional”, college degree-brandishing outsiders come into these communities and start implementing programs (often without the people’s consent/cooperation) that they believe will be the solution to the community’s problems.

We, psychologists, have this strange obsession of pathologizing everything, especially things we see as deviant. We have a keen awareness of people’s life problems and we subconsciously start diagnosing their ish, even if we don’t know them too well. (Guilty). And as with individuals, we do same with communities. But there is something fundamentally wrong and unhelpful in our thinking. The problem is that we are viewing people by their deficits and needs, rather than their strengths and assets. Why is it that we let people’s deficits be more definitive of who they are than their strengths?

To take it a step deeper, the lenses by which we view their deficits are easily susceptible to cultural, gender, and worldview biases. For all we know, what we think are “needs” in other communities may not actually be real problems. Often times, these communities don’t actually think they need our help. Go figure.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

Any community psychologist knows that the ultimate goal is empowerment. But we will never empower individuals and communities if we see them by their deficits. When we see them by their deficits and interact with them as such, we instill a debilitating belief in them that there’s something wrong with them. And the potent self-fulfilling prophecy does the rest.

God has long been at work remodeling my heart to love the socially-marginalized but I’ve always thought that I have a special place in my heart for that inner-city kid who struggles with school. The ex-gang member teenager. The father living on the street. As I digested these new concepts in my Community Psychology class last semester, I felt a deep sense of compassion for those who felt identified by their weaknesses rather than by who they fully were. And even more so for those who weren’t aware that this was happening to them.

For some reason, this time was different. I didn’t just feel sorry for them. It was a profound feeling of identification, as if I was sharing in their suffering. It didn’t take long for God to reveal to me the reason for my empathy: “That’s you, Justin”. This struggle I was discovering in underprivileged communities was a struggle I had already gone through. I felt for the inner-city kid because we had matching scars.

How could one from a stereotypical Asian-American, middle class suburb relate to the good Kid of the Maad City? I wrote an article titled “Memoirs of a Racially Confused Blogger” in my latter years of high school (roughly four years ago). Crawling out of a turbulent year of academic failure, my disillusioned self released a 3,000+ word, messy tirade on my scarring experience of Asian culture. I recently revisited this piece and thought about editing it to make it more cohesive but decided against it; I was angry and wounded and this rant captured my raw emotions while they were still fresh. I did not plan it but this article became my unofficial self-declaration of divorce from my own culture and people.

Rant TL;DR – I was not Asian enough. I was left to navigate the brutally competitive, cut-throat environment of highly-comparative hyper-Asians and everything in my environment was affirming my non-Asian-ness. Everything and everyone was a constant reminder that I was not enough.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had trouble reading.  I still have vivid memories of my mom dedicating extra time to me to help me read quicker and more efficiently. I have a particular way of learning that is slower than others. But all the attention was given to the slowness. From the third grade until my senior year in high school, my parents sent me to more tutors and after-school programs than I can remember. To be quite frank, it made me feel like shit.

 I was confused. “Why didn’t my friends have tutors? How come my siblings don’t have to go to this after-school program? Why aren’t they coming with me this time? (Why are you spending so much money on me?)” As I grew older, I began to catch on. I’m the problem child of the family. They were trying to fix me.

After years of tutoring, I can say with confidence that I learned nothing. Four years later and I don’t remember the Pre-Calculus. I don’t remember the SAT grammar rules. What I do remember is the insecurity and the pain of knowing that I was not good enough. In my parents’ attempt to “educate” me, my years of being tutored have only taught me one lesson: that there is something wrong with me.

Such is the nature of institutionalization. When a child grows up in a reality in which everything in his environment is reinforcing the fact that there’s something wrong with him, he will start to believe it. When someone’s neighborhood is saturated with outsider organizations (non-profits) attempting to “fix” his people/community, a great debilitating work is done on the soul. Good intentions are not enough.

Once it dawned on me that people were trying to fix me, the seed of bitterness was sown. Am I not enough for you? Do you not want me? Fine. I don’t need you. I’m done being your slave. And in one final act of defiance, my soul beat its chest and gave a last “fuck you” as it raised the double middle-finger to my own culture and people, once and for all.

I am unashamedly ashamed to be Asian American.

Yes, God has got a lot of work to do with me. I know. Save the rebuking comments. I’ve got quite a distance to cover before my heart learns how to forgive my culture. Jesus calls us into multiethnic community but He doesn’t call us to forsake our own culture in the process. Our pursuit towards multiethnic community cannot be an escape from our own personal cultural identities. But I’m currently in a place where I just don’t want to own my cultural identity because of how much pain it has caused me. I want to escape.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that Jesus brought me outside of my suburban hometown and exposed me to the inner city in such a time as this (college) so that the good Kid of the Maad City could show me that his scars were much like mine. I needed the Kid. I had to enter his story and decipher his struggle if I was to understand my own pain. God created us such that we, an unlikely duo, would live a symbiotic relationship with one another. The Kid and I must depend on each other to see God’s redemption in our identities and in our Maad Cities.

Who would have thought that our stories could be so intertwined?

“We cannot view them as deficits.

Rather than seeing them for what they don’t have, we must see them for what they do have, for what they are capable of.

They are not deficits. They have assets and strengths. They are valuable.

They may be broke, but they are not broken down.

After trying to find the solution to the community’s needs, we completely miss the solution that is right in front of us: the people themselves.” 

–excerpted from my Community Psychology lecture notes [October 8th, 2015]

Update 1/6/2017 – This is part one of the Kid, a series recounting my story as an ethnically-confused (and slightly jaded) 2nd-generation Asian American. After much soul surgery, bloodshed, and cussing at the gods, I wrote a sequel 10 months later. You can continue the story here: the Kid, pt. 2.

the inclusio of scripture

[here’s a little article that’s dedicated to the bible-lovers]

inclusio – a device in literature where a section of text is bracketed off.  the story is placed within a frame, so that it begins and ends the same way.  like a sandwich.  inclusios are everywhere, in books, music, movies, you name it.  we often overlook them the first time we read, listen, watch them, but when we look back, we realize that they’re there and it’s quite mindblowing sometimes.

in onerepublic’s most famous song “apologize”, ryan tedder begins and ends the song the same way, with the words “i’m holding on your rope, got me ten feet off the ground”.  inclusio.  jason mraz both opens and closes “the sunshine song” with “if there’s a light in everybody, send out your ray of sunshine” [excellent song, btw].  inclusio.

in movies, they’re not as prevalent but there still are some out there, such as mission impossible iii.  in the opening scene, ethan hunt is strapped to a chair and watches in agony as the heartless antagonist owen davian counts down to the second he pulls the trigger of the gun pointed at hunt’s wife’s head.  turns out it was a flash.. forward? and the audience does not get to see davian finish counting.  2 hours of intense, spy action sequences later, we revisit the interrogation scene once again, only this time, davian finishes counting as a desperate ethan hunt attempts to negotiate with him.  inclusio.  in forrest gump, both the opening and closing scene show forrest gump [and forrest jr] waiting at the bus stop in greenbow, alabama as a white feather is carried by the breeze into the sky.  inclusio.

i find it weird that i enjoy writing blogs and whatnot but i’m a terrible reader.  i don’t read too much but anyone who knows me well would know that my favorite book of all time is the bible.  just about a month ago, i’ve been made aware that even the bible, the living word of god, has inclusios in it.  if you look in the gospel of mark, there is a very subtle inclusio hidden in chapters 1 and 15.

in chapter 1, we witness the baptism of Jesus [by John] in the Jordan River.  pretty epic moment.  in chapter 15, we witness the death of the messiah as he breathes his last on the cross.  overwhelmingly epic moment.  though baptism and death are two concepts that one would most likely find contrasting to one another, these are the two elements that make up the big juicy sandwich of the “gospel inclusio”.  but how, justin?  how do the baptism and death Jesus make up an inclusio if they’re not even the same thing?  you be trippin, man!  well, let’s take a look at scripture.

1. “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”    -Mark 1:9-11

here is the scene when Jesus gets baptized.  what observations can we make?  Jesus was getting dunked in the river and as he rose from the water, the heavens opened.  i’d like to say i have a vast and vivid imagination but the imagery in here is simply unfathomable.  i try to picture some large crevice splitting open and creating a divide that breaks some invisible, metaphysical boundary between heaven and earth.  and wind.  lots and lots of gushing, loud wind.  then, the holy spirit makes its way down from the other side of this momentarily fractured barrier and the voice of God thunders from it: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”   holy cheeseballs.

2. “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died,he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”    -Mark 15:37-39

fast forward 15 chapters.  Jesus dies.  what observations can we make?  as Jesus let out one last sigh, the curtain of the temple tore completely, from top to bottom.  so what temple is mark talking about anyways?  in case you didn’t know, it was the temple of Jerusalem [Herod’s temple, if i am not mistaken] and inside this holy temple, animal sacrifices were made as well as worship according to the Law of Moses.  there was also a room called the Holy of Holies, in which the presence of God resided.  it also contained the Ark of the Covenant [yes, the one in indiana jones].  this place was so sacred that no one could enter into this inner sanctuary except the High Priest once a year to make atonement for the people’s sins.  this room was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain.  and this wasn’t just any old window curtain that you put on for decoration.  it was a 4-inch thick curtain with such strength that even horses tied to each side could not pull apart.  oh yeah, it was also 60 feet tall.  pretty buff curtain.  but not buff enough.  when this curtain tore in half, even the Roman centurion instantly knew that Jesus was certainly the son of God and he was so sure about it that he felt like he had to say it out loud.  holy cheeseballs.

okay, now it’s time to connect the dots.

EXHIBIT A

in mark chapter 1, jesus was baptized by water.  while one may think that this is just something that all believers must do as a public profession of their faith and acceptance of God as their heavenly Father, baptism also has another meaning.  “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” [Romans 6:3-4]  baptism, in essence, means death.  so what was Jesus up to at the end of Mark?  oh yeah, dying.  bingo.

EXHIBIT B

after Jesus’ baptism, the heavens OPENED!  after Jesus’ death, the curtain OPENED!  well..  tore in half.  if you haven’t already got it, the curtain wasn’t just an extraordinarily buff curtain, it was a symbolic representation of the separation of God and Man.  separation of the Holiest of Holies and the rest of the temple.  of sinless and sinful.  of light and darkness.  of the heavens and earth.  when Jesus died for our sins, the impenetrable barrier between us and God was shattered.  bingo.

EXHIBIT C

after the heavens opened, we hear a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” [Mark 1:11]  this is the voice of God, and He is proclaiming that Jesus is His beloved Son.  after the curtain ripped open, we hear a voice from a bystander: “Surely this man is the Son of God!” [Mark 15:39]  this is the voice of a Roman centurion, and he is proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God.  bingo.

i don’t know about you but when i first realized all of this, i was completely mindblown.  the entire gospel story of Jesus Christ, wrapped in a big, delicious sandwich.  wickedly cool.  personally, this revelation served as a reminder of just how amazing God’s Word is.  the bible is a truly remarkable book and i think we all ought to spend more time reading it.  trust me, it will change lives.  and lastly, i would like to give a big shout-out and thank you to the fantastic mr. jimmy l., who did such a phenomenal job at sharing God’s truth with me and the other highschoolers at ev.  personally, this was one of the most memorable bible lessons i’ve ever been taught in my entire life.

PRAYER:  heavenly father, thank you for your word.  thank you for this amazing book of life, because through it, we may grow spiritually and learn more about you.  thank you for God-breathed scripture, for it is useful in teaching, rebuking, correcting and training others in righteousness.  it is your truth that we cling on to and it is our double-edged sword.  thank you for revealing yourself in it so that we may see a glimpse of just how great you are.  Lord, please help me grow a desire and eagerness in reading your word.  move my heart and let me have an inclination to hear your truths each and every day of my life.  God, I want to grow in you.  i want to know you more and i want to love you even more than i already do.  help me become a better son.  as always, i am eternally grateful for your gift of love and i will forever praise you.  and it’s in your Son’s most precious name that I pray,  amen.