paper lanterns – divine love affair, pt ii

part i.

Everyday I walk to the ocean, once in the morning for the sunrise, once in the evening for the sunset.

Some days, the sun doesn’t rise. Other days, it doesn’t set.
Some days, it’s neither.

Once in a while, I will take a trip to myself in the wilderness, and get away from the city. I spend my time driving up and down the coast, in search of one called God.

Some days, she is there. Other days, she is not.

This is the third trip that I made this year and this time, I’m camping out in Big Sur.
I’m walking on a trail in the Redwood forest, meandering in step and in thought, when I spot a patch of red paper in the distance.

My heart elates. I step off the trail and carefully way my way through the brush to untangle it from the shrub.

The candle is still barely smoking, emitting gentle pulses of warmth. I unfold the slightly-torn lantern and look inside.

There is ink on it,
but it is smudged away by rain. It is barely illegible.

Sigh.

I pack the scraps in my bag, step back onto the trail, and continue walking.

“Table for two?”

“One.”

She smiled.

“Right this way.”

Days are slow here.

I chose to leave the noise of the city, but some days, I cannot stand the silence.

The California coastline is one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve never been to Big Sur before so I give it a shot.

Yesterday, I spent the whole day in the woods, so today, I decide to go to the water. The cliffs here are incredible and I could probably spend the whole day looking at the waves crash into them.

But there is a thick fog that has rolled in, and the ocean – along with everything else – carries a deadened gray hue.

It is underwhelming.

I try again the next day. And the next.
But the persistent fog refuses to leave. Every day, more fog rolls in and covers the sky and I am unable to enjoy the scenery.

Time passes at a strangely slow tempo here.

No sunrise. No sunset.

They say God speaks in mysterious ways.

“I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had left;
he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.

I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer.”

I’m driving up and down the golden coast, in search of God. I trek through thick Redwood forests and scale cliffsides, hoping for a mere glimpse.

“Maybe this is a good place to look.”

Oftentimes, I do not know if I really found her.

I have a memory that still sticks with me, one that
even after all this time, still glows.

The sun is setting, but the air is dense and humid. We hurry up and finish painting on the red fabric for our mobile love letter.

Mom shows me the characters once more, slowly swashing brushstrokes with care and finesse. I try to imitate, but I was never good at calligraphy, or anything artistic, for that matter.

My characters look gloppy and messy – like a child’s watercolor painting. But the sun has set, so we finish up our inkwork to prepare for liftoff.

I watch as my mom slowly folds and creases the canvas, repeating the motion multiple times, until the ink-splattered piece forms a paper orb.

“Woah.”

I am mesmerized watching Mom turn our messy paintings into paper lanterns, soon to take flight.

Each of us takes a lantern and runs outside. Mom places a small dish of strange jelly inside, telling us it will help them fly.

There are crowds outside, other rowdy Taiwanese families eager to send off their own lanterns. The sky darkens, and the crowd hushes.

It is time.

Mom takes the lighter and ignites the jelly. Our lanterns inflate and take a life of their own. Soon enough, they begin floating and lifting off the ground.

I am a little scared to let it go, knowing how much effort I put into my Taiwanese-American characters, but I feel the thing pulling and tugging away gently.

My mom nudges me, “It’s time to let go.”

My small hands are clenched but after hearing Mom speak,
I unfurl my fingers.

I watch in awe, as the glowing lantern floats away,
higher and higher into the sky,
joining hundreds of other lights,
like a swarm of fireflies.

“Where will they go??”, I ask Mom.

I don’t remember what she told me that night.

But a part of me – the little Taiwanese child part of me – wants to believe that it floated somewhere far, far away beyond the horizon, where somebody else would be watching,
waiting to catch it.

I’m snaking my way through the winding Highway One.
It is a mind-numbing, mostly-gray drive.

I see a restaurant on the side of the road, and without thinking, pull over. I stop the engine, pull the key out of ignition, and sit in the deadened silence for a while.

I step outside my car, and walk inside.

“Table for two?”

“One.”

She smiled.

“Right this way.”

I get seated and look through the menu, but I’m heavily distracted by what’s in front of me – or rather, what’s not. Every few minutes, I peek over the menu, and hide behind it again.

“All ready to order?”

“Um, few more minutes.”

I forget what I order.

I sit around waiting, letting the feeling sink in. Twiddling my thumbs by the candlelight. Checking my phone with no reception.

Staring into the gaping, empty chair in front of me as I eat,
listening to other peoples’ conversations,
other couples’ conversations,

thinking to myself –
“Is this what desperate people do?
Am I crazy?”

How do I love you if I can’t even see you?
How is this going to work between us?

Is this our relationship?

I drive home that day, slightly buzzed from one too many.

The next morning, I scrawl onto a dinner napkin –

If it weren’t for this dreadful fog, 
these waves would be so much bluer,
the hills would be more alive,
spirits would be lighter,

life would be so much more colorful.

It’s been three days. Or, has it?

“Lift the fog.”

By the third – or fourth – day, I’m feeling ready to go home. I’m sick of hearing only my own voice, so I pack my bags.

I drive out into the woods again, and snake my way through Highway One, spotify on shuffle. Meandering in route and in sound.

Within the first thirty minutes of winding road,
the clouds clear, and the sun abruptly pierces through.

Finally, the fog lifts.

Then, I see it.

A speck of red, buried in shrub.

I slam my breaks and pull over at the next turnout. Emergency lights on. Treading carefully through the brush, I make my way to the paper lantern tangled in the foliage.

The candle is still barely glowing –
emitting gentle pulses of warmth – even after all this time.

I pick it up. I see traces of gloppy, messy letters, smudged and weather-worn after its long journey.

I unfold the torn lantern and look inside.

She looked off to the side, the way she does when she’s thinking – like her mind is onto something. Gentle pulses of warmth ebb and flow from the candlelight between us.

She pulled out her pen and grabbed my napkin.

“Let me show you something.”

And on she went, scribbling and scrawling whatever idea was up her sleeve. I looked intently, as she drew with care and finesse. I could see the resolve in her furrowed eyebrows.

Pen click. Push napkin.

“Here.”

I looked at her inklings. They looked great, but I didn’t understand.

“Looks like a wine glass… and an elderly man with a cane. Um, walking stick.”

“So.. what do you think?”

“Well, they both.. smell funny.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Think.”

“Okay um… well the wine glass reminds me of romantic dinners and fancy things. An expensive treat. And the walking stick makes me think of old age.”

She kept her eyes fixed on me, as if I would suddenly read her mind and understand everything.

“…Am I close?”

“Mmm you’re getting somewhere.”

“Growing old. Together.”

“Mhmm..”

“Oh, like an old couple. Wait, are you..”

“Hey. Focus. What do the two have in common??”

“They both.. smell funny.”

“They both age well.”

I picked up the napkin and examined it closely, then looked at her. Then back at the napkin, then back at her.

“The longer you let wine sit, the better it tastes. It draws out a flavor that is sweeter, darker, – yet richer. Sure, it might be harder to appreciate than say, apple juice, but it’s an acquired taste.”

“And acquired tastes are the best tastes.”

“Right.”

My turn to look off-screen. Her words took their time, sinking in.

“Hey… we’re both getting older.
Don’t you want to save the magic??”

I drove home that night feeling slightly buzzed, and it wasn’t just the alcohol. I took the napkin and stuffed it in my coat pocket on our way out, when she wasn’t looking.

What she said still echoed in my mind –
about growing older and how much harder it gets,
about deepening the flavor.

Aging well.

I thought about all the transitions I’ve made into adulthood recently and how much harder it’s been. Time has done its due and I am getting older. Searching for the Kid has not been the same.

I thought about how Kid Wonder keeps disappearing, again and again, and why he can’t just sit still in one place.

And I think the answer has something to do with romance.

The way it ages, but only gets better and better. The way it gets older, then becomes young all over again.

The playfulness of it all.
The teasing, the inside jokes, the roleplaying,
the cheesiness and the ridiculousness,

– the childlikeness.

The way it hides, then shows itself for no reason again.

Kid Wonder is still out there, so I must keep looking for him.

Everyday I walk to the ocean, once in the morning for the sunrise, once in the evening for the sunset.

Some days, the sun doesn’t rise. Other days, it doesn’t set.
Recently, it’s been neither.

I drive up and down the golden coast, in search of God. I trek through thick Redwood forests and scale cliffsides, hoping for a mere glimpse.

They say God speaks in mysterious ways.

“…for your love is more delightful than wine.”

“We rejoice and delight in you; 
we will praise your love more than wine.”

– Solomon

Oftentimes, I do not know if I really found her.

It is day four, and I decide it is time to go home.
Back into civilization, back into 4G LTE cell service,
back into adulting life. Whatever that means.

I’m snaking my way along Highway One, spotify on shuffle. It is refreshing to see the sun for once.

One lane eventually splits into two, then three,
and “Paper Airplane” starts playing. I listen to the words and think, maybe this is the type of relationship God wants with me.

Sending letters, throwing paper airplanes across the ocean,
and such.

Longing for our lovers, but at a distance.
Separated by spacetime.

Waiting.

I drive out into the Redwoods and travel along golden coastlines, scouring the land for messages in bottles, lanterns from faraway places, any sort of trace of her.

I look for any sign, that she is still out there,
still also looking.

Somedays, I find something. Other days, I do not.

Before I leave, I write a message of my own. I fold the delicate fabric, carefully creasing at the right spots, and craft my own paper lantern.

I place a small dish of strange jelly inside the orb, and ignite it with flame.

The lantern inflates and my mobile love letter is now glowing.

I am scared to let go, but I feel it tugging and pulling gently, as if nudging me to release.

After a moment, I pray that it will reach her, and let go. The lantern lifts up and the wind blows it towards the horizon. I stare at the floating light – the singular firefly – before it floats further and further away beyond eyeshot.

I cannot leave until I see it cross the horizon, because it is so sad, yet so beautiful.

As if watching a second sunset.

I’m not sure who God is,
but I can’t help but think that our divine love affair is like a long-distance relationship.

#gettrekt16 – “why you came?” (entry 4)

On good days when our Daa finds himself in a good enough mood, he will crack jokes with us, teach us some Thai words, and practice his choppy English vocabulary. On one of these seldom days, he kept saying this one phrase over and over, “Why you came!” Michael and I looked at each other and laughed. We’re still trying to figure that one out, my friend. We’ll get back to you on that one.

 

If God is all powerful, why does He call us into Mission? Clearly, He can just do it all Himself. If He wanted to, He can bring the Kingdom of God to the earth, fulfill the Great Commission, and it would be a cakewalk. So why would He call us, messy human beings, to do His work when He is perfectly capable of doing it Himself? That doesn’t sound very efficient to me. Is God really perfect?

The trek is quickly coming to a close and it’s about that time that we start taking inventory of the things that God has done and is continuing to do. If the trek were to end tomorrow, what can we point to and give God glory for? What testimonies will we hold onto and savor in the years to come? What convictions and lessons will we carry home?

Here at the Ruth Center, God has shoved us beyond the limits that we defined for ourselves and taken us to places we would have never dreamed of going on our own. He has shown us what His cup of suffering really tastes like. He has taught us how to love those we have forgotten how to love, even ourselves. I personally received deep inner healing last week when my team dedicated a couple of hours of their afternoons to pray for me.

But wait a minute. What about the things that changed in Thailand? What about the difference that we made in the peoples’ lives here? As we reflect, we are forced to wrestle with a realization that may be startling to some. It seems like Jesus was doing a lot more work in our lives than the lives of our hosts. As far as I can tell, we spent a lot more time dealing with my long-forgotten childhood trauma than that of the Thai people. What’s up with that? Jesus, what exactly did I sign up for?

As difficult as it is to admit to ourselves and our church friends, Bangkok isn’t going to go through that much transformation by the time we leave. If we are being truly honest with ourselves, we didn’t change Thailand that much. What am I to say to my friends at my InterVarsity chapter when I come home? What am I supposed to tell all those people who donated so that I could afford this trip?

It is a scary place to be, when we are no longer able to hide behind our accomplishments or a nicely-packaged testimony. But that is exactly where Jesus wants us. Because it threatens our source of self-worth when we live and breathe a culture that has idolized achievement and success like golden calves. Because we can no longer shield ourselves behind the damaging notion that the poor need us as much as we would like to believe. Because it is in this place of vulnerability and nakedness that we are forced to face who we truly are.

When God called me to commit to a short-term mission trip this summer, He was not inviting me to change Thailand. He was inviting me to confront the brokenness of my own heart. Is the North American evangelical church ready to face such a scandalous truth that they are just as broken as the third-world countries they so fervently claim they are called to serve? It is easy, even comforting, to point out depravity when we walk the Red Light Districts of Thailand but are we willing to let Jesus walk through the depravity of our own souls? Are we willing to let our consciences be disturbed when Jesus reveals to us that the sin we see in the consumers of the sex trade is the same sin that plagues our own hearts?

That is what Jesus is doing in my life and I firmly believe that is why He asked me to drop all my plans and travel halfway around the world this summer. Yes, to see the messiness of sin in Thailand, but more so, to see the messiness of sin in my life.

Jesus doesn’t need us to complete the Mission. We need the Mission for Jesus to complete us. Because it is in the Mission that we find not only the healing of the nations, but also the healing of our hearts. It is in His perfection that He calls the imperfect to do His perfect will, thereby perfecting them.

 

Why you came?” Whether out of genuine curiosity or just to give us some laughter, Daa poses a serious question that has haunted us the whole summer.

Maybe it’s not so much about us missionaries bringing change to Thailand. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that Jesus is already doing that, with or without us. Maybe we’ve romanticized the short-term mission trip so much in the church that we’ve forgotten that Jesus is on a mission after our hearts. Maybe we’ve obsessed over the idea that “the poor need us” and lost sight of the reality that we are just as in need of Jesus as they are. Maybe our stories of redemption are actually intertwined and we’re just in it for the ride. Together. Maybe that’s all Mission really is. Not the rich saving the poor, not the missionary changing the world, not even the churched converting the pagans. Because to both the Rich Men and Lazarus’ of the world, Jesus is the true Savior, the true bringer of change, and to our greatest surprise, our true reconciler. So maybe Mission is just Jesus’ invitation for us to learn something we’ve forgotten how to do with Lazarus: to share a relationship together.

 

#gettrekt16