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Seen and Heard

And that's what she said.

Something I will never get used to as an adult: the death of a friend.

I wish I could say these things in lighter circumstances. I was thinking about spiritual growth and what it means to be successful– the success that lasts, you know. And I had a lot of things to say. But now I don’t. And think this just might be it.

I think its just seeking His face alone and with each other. To live fully in this, until its time to go home. That’s the standard set by Christ. That’s the standard set by so many that came after Him. And of those that walked with me for a while and that I’ll see again at home, one day.

Thank you for walking with me, Trixie. For the life that bubbled up through your jokes, the sassy competence that you exuded during all-nighters. Your passion for Asian American issues, the competence in which you and other leaders rallied all the APIA organizations together. Your joy for avocado shakes, dancing, laughter, the simple, delicious, beautiful things in life.

See you at home, friend.

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The day when things fell to pieces, she wasn’t alone.

It was rendering for a while, like a patient self-destruct sequence. And when it was time, it did with a quiet explosion that did nothing on the outside, but everything on the in. Nothing would ever be the same. Trusted people could not be trusted, unshakeable rocks were shaken, once safe walls crushed her bones.

She sat back in her chair and wearily draped her arms across her face, as if trying to X out the circumstances. Silence. Finally a heavy, muffled sigh and, her mouth retarded against her skin, bleated out:

“Why do things fall apart?”

He stood there awkwardly and after thinking carefully, he began cautiously. “Sometimes they need to–“ She moved her shoulders as if irritated at the sound of his voice. Maybe it was a rhetorical question? A moment’s hesitation and he tried again. “They need to… so they can be put back together in the right way.”

“That’s dumb,” she snapped, even though he was wise, “I don’t care,” even though she did.

She kept her arms over her eyes until he felt so uncomfortable that he drew away. And she caught the edge of his sleeve and asked him to stay; something like a sad hope glistening in her eye.

She had caught me by the pyramid of my elbow and– all smooth– hooked me around for a hug. Centripetal force spun my hair and muddled into my mouth. For a brief second, I just saw the grains of her mascara, then my nose hit her shoulder. Undignified and off-balanced, the sheer force of how she squeezed me punched all the air out of my nostrils. I thought I shot a booger onto her chest. I told you– smooth.

She thanked me fiercely, shaking me in a bear-hug to punctuate her point. No need, I thought. I’m not the person to thank anyhow. She released me from her vice-like gratitude, and walked towards the gallery. I don’t recall if she sold anything that night. I don’t particularly remember any of her photos, just the trembling position of her shoulders as people flooded in to strike pensive in front of her work– poised for greatness, really.

Much later, we caught up over a brew, and things had changed. I was in the winter of my discontent and short on work, she was in her glorious summer of interviews, gallery shows, and, even more, talks with the Getty. When before she talked about love, life, and passion, now she was about success, investments, and networks. Barbed topics, insensitive to my empty pockets and pride. I had little to say. Well, more like little attitude to listen. I nursed the bottle between my hands, coldness sweating into the prayer of my palms.

What shifted was her paradigm, a small change in her direction. I watched her take a deep downward swig of her beer, lips pressed hotly against the bottle, eyes shut in a sudden rush to the head. I opened my mouth to say something. Her brow began to bead from the flush of the alcohol. I watched her mascara begin to smear, and didn’t say what I should have said.

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Roethke writes about death and God in some hard-hitting stanzas:

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

This whole idea of “going” and “to go” has held me in rapture. Since that year when He poked His head under the tablecloth and told me to come on out, He’s never failed to nudge me gently, with His big toe, out into the open.

The world is big. The table is well past me now and well– the world is still big. Sometimes there are so many things that don’t make sense. And sometimes so many closed doors with long roads behind them, but still there is a call, still there is a “Go”. Sometimes I want to peer over the edge of some cloud and call out for God to do what the pirates did: X marks the spot, please. If only “destiny” was as simple as pirate-booty.

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going… For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”– Hebrews 11:8, 10

There was a call, my treasure’s there– so I’m going. Where? Don’t know, but at least Someone does.

That’s good news.


“You are a man-woman chink.”

I blinked, then reared back to propel the prickliest pine cone at no-nonsense speeds, straight for his head. I beaned the neighborhood bully in the eye and he took off, whining. Coward. I pelted more at his retreating figure and yelled some rap lyrics I had heard on the radio. Triumphant, heart beating fast and hands sticky, I sat back on the branch of the tree in front of our rent-controlled apartment. Here, I was king. Here, providing I didn’t run out of pine cones, I could beat down anything.

Because home didn’t make sense, I would do the only thing that did: run away. My gawky 10 year old self would bust through the screen door and bee-line for this tree. Like a bear, I would thrust my face into the branches, hug the trunk, and shimmy up high. I would perch there for hours until my stomach ate itself. Just sit and watch: cars clanked across the speed bump, high school kids ambled home, the neighbors would sit outside and inhale cigarettes, pack after pack. This conifer world was good, albeit prickly and sticky with resin.

I was looking for a safe hide away, but found something better: perspective, a higher one, a better one. After that, I would climb trees for that. Something tall to rise above the canopy of a confused home– But also to see the world in another way, a way unobstructed by noise or nonsense– I needed that. Something about the way the light filtered through arboral arms and hit the gold edges of a leaf, the topside of a world taller than me. I had fallen and slipped out in dignified thumps, but damn, it was alive up here. Painful, but good.

This past June, I was offered a paid opportunity to go to Japan to document relief work. It was a guerrilla project, completely chaotic-sounding, and I was about to turn it down. But I didn’t. I don’t feel like putting a joke in here, or witticisms. This trip was hard. Writing this post was hard. But the lessons were good.

The extent of the destruction in the Tohoku region of Japan is journalistic fodder: boats tossed onto fields and through the walls of homes. Personal articles are strewn everywhere, in the branches of trees and fences. Metal is twisted and warped in some poetic mess. Some streets by the ocean are completely gone. No houses anymore, just faint outlines of a home that was. Further inland, some buildings look fine and intact. You walk around to where the waves hit and there’s a large bite missing on one side, the entire first floor stuffed with debris, wood, trees, preciously peeking out of windows. It is shocking. And the stories, the testimonies, the faces, the names, the hearts behind the circumstances– when it is told to you, with it all around you– this is what changes you.

To climb a tree is to seek His perspective, a Truth made up of broken flesh, bleeding lives of people I can call my brothers and sisters because they are His. It is to leave yourself in the open, exposed to a bigger picture. You are likely to be shaken, so shaken, but alive inside. I returned, thankful and really damn shaken: adventures half spilling out of my face, tears constipated because I had no idea what the hell was going on inside. Two things were clear. I came back with a deeper respect for Japanese people in these times. I got to glimpse His immense heart for the nation of Japan.

Various people asked if it was worth going. Some loving friends admonished me for putting myself in harm’s way or inconveniencing organizations. To many, climbing trees is redundant, wasteful, foolish– even selfish, some say. In a tree, you can only go so far, then you gotta slide your way back down– sometimes poorer, hungrier, broken. Agreed. I’m humbled and thankful for my experience, I regret the worry I may have caused, but I stand by the decision to go, to climb trees.

We hear this tossed around a lot: walking in Truth, in Spirit and in Truth, He is the way, the Truth, and the life. In an age of post-modernism, relativism, stream-lined propaganda, and half-truths, I desire a Truth that is sanctified, lasting, and righteous. The Bible is His Truth, but I think there are more than just glimpses of it in the brokenness of the world. So when the opportunity arises: What are you willing to give up to see Truth? How far will you go in order to live Truthfully?

He reveals much when you seek the Truth. He hears when you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding. This truth makes us come alive: the ache of a human life beyond your own, the injustices that you’ve never seen before, but also the breadth of His salvation and grace, the depth of His healing. It’s right here, actually. In front of you, me, in tangible life, in God-breathed Word. Seeing life through His eyes is life as it is meant to be seen.

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So I’m going to Japan tonight. How did I get here?

It’s a strange story– one for another day– but I’ll be traveling to film Christian relief efforts in Tohoku and to document a group of American entrepreneurs trying to make a difference. Dope. Packed light and simple, but the mind is heavy.

I’ve traveled far and wide before. Seen a decent share of interesting things and different countries working with TheHammer and Plan C Group on our concert and film tours (my favorite film is 1040, I swear), but with every journey, I always wonder A) how the junks am I going to get there? And B) once I’m there, what next?

The job will be tough, but seeing Japan and hearing the stories will be the biggest handful. The biggest questions are the quietest hurts. Mental health issues abound in Japan. Suicide rates have jumped to new highs in Tokyo since March. Over a 100,000 people are still displaced and homeless in the disaster zone. Debris and wreckage is everywhere. Radiation– I’m not even sure what’s going on.

I want to do this job in excellence. I want to be more than a “relief tourist”. I want to contribute in whatever capacity I can. I want to hear stories and send them back home. But I know its bigger than I can manage. I know I might get there and all I can do is just watch, pray, and love (suck on that, Julia Roberts). That’s important. But that’s frustrating to me. There are good and quick-fix ways to aid nations and communities in need. Then there are wise and sustainable ways; a part of me fears I’m part of the former.

I know I want a lot of things and I don’t want to make this trip about me. And unfortunately, it is right now. I want an adventure. I want to see. I want to go. I want, I want. My head is buzzing with questions. Does this seem bright-eyed, bushy-tailed or impulsive? Is this selfish to those I love and to those that worry for me, to those that wait for me here? There’s also my obnoxious ‘bleeding-heart’ desperation, and that part of me that makes knee-jerk decisions because I want to climb a tree– God– please. Please redeem this heart, clear my head, and grant me grace. How do I get there? Where is there anyhow?

That’s our journey, right? From here to there. Not just earth to heaven, but from this heart of stone to a heart of flesh. From our nature to His Spirit. From man to servant, sinner to saint. It takes a lot of His grace to get there and, while I’m an advocate of being discerning, taking precautions, and not doing things purely on impulse, sometimes you just have to go.

“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” John 1:39

Once I get there, I don’t want my heart in this state of doubt and self-intent.

Once I get there, I want to surrender daily to the way He’s moving, listen attentively to what He’s saying, walk in wisdom and peace, speak boldly, love deeply, be discerning and vigilant– that dope jazz.

Once I get there, I want to ask “Lord, where are You going?” and listen, and follow.

Once I get there, I don’t want to keep holding onto big handfuls by myself. I can’t get there alone. Please walk with me in prayer, fam.

Let’s get there.

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What happens when loved ones leave?

The other day, I cried into my coffee with a friend. She was recounting the way a man and woman love each other through sickness, a coma, and then death. The way she described the way a wife held her husband’s hand– and then was a widow– something bubbled up inside of us. We looked into our coffee, quiet for a moment, eyes ringed red. She cleared her throat, I wiped my eyes, and she continued. As people came in and out of the room, the widow was at his side, quietly looking at his face. Fingers interlaced in– not his hand anymore– just a hand now.

When it came time for the orderlies to move the body, she ran her fingers through his hair, down his face and neck. She rested her head there. There used to be a heartbeat here. This was her husband. The father to her children. She moved her hands up to cup his face again. What did she remember? Did moments of their life together pour out of her hands into his face? To revive him, to wake him up one last time. She gently closed his eyes with the tips of her fingers.

There was no sound, no machinery pumping anymore, no clicking or movement in the charts. There was just silence, rest, and peace. Death did part them.

I cried, sloppy and confused tears. When the family asked me to photograph the funeral, I said yes. It was a severely awkward and humbling honor. Through the day, as I looked at the family through the lens, I kept thinking about those I love:

The way their voices rumble in the lining of my ears, how their muscles move beneath my hands, what it feels like to run my fingers across the ridges of their knuckles, the smell of who they are mixed with perfume or cologne. I cried for the Lee family and their loss. I cried for our community and the collective pang that comes with seeing a loved one pass. I cried for the future passing of mine, because they are really His. Just cried and didn’t think about the confusion that comes with death.

I know that humans were created for life. God’s will for his people is life and He has power over death. But “death is everyone’s lot.” It hurts so fricking much when loved ones pass, its so hard to mourn, to accept the end of a life. But it is not the end to hope. Something awakens when the life of a good man concludes on this earth. From his story, giants awake. Within us, around us.

We interceded for Uncle Jonathan for a year; we prayed for him to wake up. There were strong ‘words’ or spiritual visions, impressions that he would wake, unite his family, and his testimony would change lives. This will come to pass, some said. His family had faith, we had faith.

He passed. To say maybe it meant a “spiritual awakening” seems cheap to me, but maybe that was the truth. Death in this circumstance is not punishment, is not the result of disbelief or doubt.

“Dying is the most important act of living. It involves a choice to bind others with guilt or to set them free with gratitude… The dying have a unique opportunity to set free those whom they leave behind.”

Facing his mortality after getting clipped by a van, Henri Nouwen also writes this:

“Love, real love flowing from me or toward me, sets me free to die. Death would not undo that love. To the contrary, death would deepen it and strengthen it. Those whom I love dearly and those by whom I am loved dearly may mourn my death, but their bonds with me will only grow stronger and deeper. They would remember me, make me part of their very members, and thus carry my spirit with them on their journey.”

The passing of a beloved man to the awakening of giants.

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