The Day God Told Me Not to Praise Him Yet (And Why We Need Lament)

I was once at a church thing where a speaker talked about the Hebrew words for praise. At the end of their message, they gave us an opportunity to practice doing each of those words. (Before you read on, I want you to know that I’m not throwing any shade to this speaker at all. And just in case, I’m also not going to tell you who they were. If you want to try to guess, know that I’ve been in many services in more than one country in which speakers have given basically the same presentation. So maybe I’m amalgamating multiple speakers into one; maybe I’m not. 😜 Anyway, back to what I was saying…) One of the Hebrew words for praise is towdah. The translation this speaker gave for towdah was, “to extend the hands with thanks for promises that are coming,” and the Scripture cited was Psalm 50:23.

"Whoever sacrifices a thank offering honors me,
and whoever orders his conduct, 
I will show him the salvation of God." 
(Psalm 50:23, CSB)

Even though I had heard all of this many times before—and had even taught it myself a few times—I listened and took careful notes. And when it was time to practice praising God in different ways, I “knew the drill” and was ready to go. But when the time came to “thank God for promises that are coming,” I couldn’t do it and I sensed the Holy Spirit speak a loud, “no,” into my heart. “You can’t do this yet,” He said. It may seem strange that God would tell me not to praise Him yet. But I had a suspicion for why and decided to check it. So as the sound of people praising surrounded me, I pulled out my Bible and read the passage again—not as an isolated verse, but as a part of a whole—beginning with verse one.

It’s important to remember that the book of Psalms was/is the Jewish prayer and song book. And for Christians today, it’s still meant to be our prayer and song book, giving us language to fully express our hearts to God. And whether we’re reading the Psalms or any other book of the Bible, when we isolate verses from their context, we misunderstand what those verses mean.

So now let’s take a look at Psalm 50. Many words of this psalm would not be suitable to stitch onto a throw pillow:

"Our God is coming; he will not be silent!
Devouring fire precedes him,
And a storm rages around him." 
(Psalm 50:3, CSB)

When someone in the Bible spoke or prayed about God not being silent, there was something they wanted God to respond to. And that something was likely a source of pain, anger, or some other heavy emotion. What (or who) was causing this author to cling to God this way in this psalm? From verse 7, we learn that the offenders were God’s people. (“Listen, my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you…”) These were people who had God’s law and knew what He required of them. In today’s vernacular, we’d say these people went to church, raised their hands and voices during worship, and they might have even been the loudest and most verbose during prayer time. But God rejected their acts of worship and called them “wicked.” Why?

"But God says to the wicked:
'What right do you have to recite my statutes
and to take my covenant on your lips?
You hate instruction
and fling my words behind you.
When you see a thief,
you make friends with him,
and you associate with adulterers.
You unleash your mouth for evil
and harness your tongue for deceit.
You sit, maligning your brother,
slandering your mother’s son.
You have done these things, and I kept silent;
you thought I was just like you.” 
(Psalm 50:16-21, CSB)

In short, Psalm 50 expresses pain and anger about those who outwardly worship God and claim His name, but who also participate in injustice. 

You cannot do the praising of Psalm 50:23 until you have done the lamenting and petitioning of Psalm 50:1-22. There is no shortcut to praise. It’s not that God doesn’t know about our pain unless we express it; it’s that by expressing our pain to Him, we give Him access to it so He can do His transformative work in and through it. God does not ask us to bypass our pain; the God Who Is With Us invites us to walk with Him through our pain. And while we still live in the now and not yet, in a world that is still broken and yearning to be made new, we continue to both lament and praise.

So back to the day when a speaker invited a room full of people to praise God for the promises that are coming: After the Spirit told me, “No, you can’t do this yet,” I broke into tears and lamented, giving voice to injustices I had seen and ways I had been wounded. And after I lamented and poured out my heart to God, I was able to praise.

Book Recommendation

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, by Soong-Chan Rah

Some of my favorite quotations from this book:

“There is power in bringing untold stories to light.” 

“Lament serves the purpose of providing a necessary step toward praise.” 

“What would happen to our faith if we believed that God reigns sovereign over both our celebration and our suffering?” 

“Lamentations recognizes that individual voices from the full range of citizens must be heard. Lament requires the full and honest expression of suffering; that experience must encompass the full breadth of suffering. In contrast, American evangelical Christianity often presents only the story of the dominant culture. Often, the stories from the ethnic minority communities are not deemed worthy…The power of Lamentations is that the voices of those who have actually suffered are not missing.” 

“In many of our justice endeavors, we often believe that our task is to speak for the voiceless. But maybe we need to follow the book of Lamentations and move the ones who suffer to front and center. The prophet-narrator has much to say, but the real movement and progress is that we hear the actual voice of those who suffer.”

Start With Hello

Confession: I was supposed to publish this the week that this book launched into the world in October of 2022. I posted these words in a number of other places. But even though I had this post ready to go weeks in advance, when the day came, I forgot to hit the “publish” button. I actually didn’t realize this wasn’t already published until I opened up WordPress to write something else. So after months of being out in the world, let me tell you about a book:

Start With Hello, by Shannan Martin

In a society marked by hyper-individuality, a lack of real connection that leaves us lonely, and what feels like insurmountable division, we need Shannan’s words. Through her storytelling, she paints a picture of what our lives together as communities and a society can be. And through her practical wisdom, she gives us a path for how we can move in that direction. (One way she does that is by ending each chapter with “One Simple Way to Move toward Each Other.”)

She ends with “A Neighbor’s Blessing.” If any part of this blessing resonates with you, then this book is for you:

“May you go out into this bewildering world warmed by the fire of possibility.
May you come to see walking shoes, soup spoons, minivans, and wrinkled hands as worthy tools for connection.
May your heart stay tender, your hands stay open, and your door stay easy on its hinges.
May you find comfort in the moon, art in the clouds, and goodness in the faces around you.
May you gather, listen, and hope relentlessly.
And May you never give up on the living light if belonging, right where you are.
Grace and peace and gumption be with you.”

One more thing about this book stands out: In addition to people who resemble herself as a white woman, Shannan Martin gleans wisdom from diverse voices—including men and women who are Black, Asian, Latine, and Indigenous. This book is a demonstration of how learning from diverse voices makes our lived theology more robust.

A Good Conversation: Our Feelings about Roe v Wade

A few weeks ago I started something on Instagram called, “Good Conversations.” The goal is to pursue good. Not easy answers, not destruction, not an echo chamber. And even when we talk about hard things and the conversation gets messy, it’s so we can pursue good.

Also, I want the name “Good Conversations” to define our rules of engagement. These aren’t debates with winners and losers. We’re in this together. And this is a space where we treat others—even those with whom we disagree—with love, respect, empathy, compassion, etc. In other words, this is a space where we practice goodness. The feeling I have after a good conversation—the feeling of being seen, heard, loved, encouraged, energized, challenged in a good way—that’s what I want this to be for everyone.

If you’re on Instagram, you can participate in these conversations simply by responding to my weekly polls and questions. (To follow me, click here.) I’ll be saving each conversation in a highlight reel. For those who aren’t on Instagram, I’ll share some of these conversations here on my blog.

The topic of the first Good Conversation was a big one—our feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade (which became official just a few days before this conversation). Here it is:

Click here for the link to this post.
Click here for the link to this post.

When Following Jesus Requires Questioning

I went out for sushi with a friend. She’s the kind of friend I love talking with and who always leaves me feeling encouraged. During this particular conversation, I noticed something interesting:

Whenever she’d say, “I know I should…,” what followed would sound spiritual and “Christian”—like things I grew up hearing at church. But strangely, it wouldn’t sound like anything I’ve read about Jesus’ life in the Gospels. And when she’d apologetically say, “But I decided to…,” I’d be reminded of passages throughout Scripture and I’d see parallels between her life choices and the life Jesus modeled for us.

My friend is following Jesus. And in order to do that, she has to reject the patterns of this world—including ways the Church has adopted and spiritualized these patterns.

Isn’t that weird? At least, shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t this be cause for alarm?

We’re followers / disciples / apprentices of Jesus. Whatever terminology you like to use, we’re to strive to look more and more like Him. But sometimes we confuse the way of Jesus with church culture. Church culture doesn’t always look and sound like Jesus. In fact, sometimes it’s conforming to church culture that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. (What a brilliant way for the enemy to keep the Church from actually living like the Body of Christ! “Make it sound spiritual and put Jesus’ name on it, then they’ll accept it without question!”)

I want my heart to be aligned with Jesus’ heart, to look and sound like Him, to reflect Him every way I can. Unfortunately, that means there are times when I must make choices that go against the culture of the Church (or at least the American Church). And that means people who know church culture better than actual Jesus will accuse me of things that sound a lot like the things Jesus was accused of.

• What if we accepted Jesus’ invitation to learn from Him, diving deep into Scripture with humility in the fact that we don’t always get everything right and we still have more to learn?

• What if we investigated whether or not each supposed truth we label “biblical” is actually in the Bible and in alignment with the heart of God?

• What if we chose to follow Jesus—actually follow the words He spoke and the way He lived as it’s revealed in Scripture rather than what some people or our church culture tells us is “biblical”?

So here’s my challenge to you: The next time you find yourself thinking, “I feel like as a Christian I should…,” ask these two questions:

1. Does this thing I feel I should believe/think/do/be resemble what Jesus lived and taught? (If you can’t find it in Jesus’ life and teachings or anywhere else in Scripture, that’s a big red flag. So be specific. Where is it in Scripture? And if you find a verse, zoom out and look at the context of the chapter, book, and whole of Scripture. Is that really what that passage is saying? Or has it been misunderstood or taken out of context?)

2. What is the Spirit saying to me? Could it be that what the Spirit is saying to me contradicts something I’ve been taught but is actually in alignment with the way of Jesus as revealed in Scripture?

One more thing: Live this out in community. Find people who will ask these questions with you, lovingly call you out when you don’t live them, and aggressively encourage you when you do.

A Prayer about Racial Issues (Or, A Prayer That’s Scary to Pray)

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from one of the pastors in my local church. He asked if I could lead a prayer at our upcoming evening worship and prayer service. (We have one of these every month.) The area he asked me to pray for is one I’m passionate about: the racial issues in our country. I was honored to be asked. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I responded with my “yes” was fear and dread. Our church is predominantly white; the demographics of our congregation reflects the demographics of our city (which is statistically one of the whitest cities in America). Let me be clear: I LOVE my church! It’s a great church with wonderful people. But what was being asked of me was still terrifying. I voiced my fears to my husband:

  • “How on earth am I supposed to lead a congregation to pray as one about something in which we’re so divided?”
  • “How do I—a woman of color in a predominantly white space—lead a prayer about racial issues in a way that won’t get labeled ‘divisive,’ but is still honest and genuine?”
  • “What happens if this doesn’t go well?” (This was my biggest question/worry. Did I mention that my husband’s on pastoral staff at this church?)

I labored over the words I’d pray, crafting the words while whispering again and again, “God, I can’t do this. Please help me!” He gave me words. And I prayed them on my own each day leading up to the service. Alone in my living room, I felt the weight of the words. This is not a safe prayer, I thought. I felt something else, too. Something beautiful was happening.

Last night, as I walked up the steps of the platform to lead our congregation in prayer, my heart raced and I unsuccessfully fought to stop shaking. In my fear—yes, I did it scared!—I kept my head down and my eyes on my iPad. As I prayed, I heard something I hoped for but didn’t expect: voices rising in agreement. There were only a couple times when I felt the crowd get quiet. My husband prepared me for this: “There will be moments when they’ll get quiet because they don’t know yet how to pray about some of these things. They’ll get quiet so they can listen and learn. It’s a good thing. Just keep going.” I remembered his words and kept going all the way to the “amen.” Something indeed happened last night. It felt as though something hard that needed to be broken was beginning to break. This is just a beginning. I wrote in my journal after I got home, “I feel it—really feel it. Hope.”

After the service, a number of people asked if I could send them a copy of what I prayed. This morning, I got more messages with the same request. So here it is. What follows are the words I spoke and prayed (including a couple notes to myself to breathe) at Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of Sunday, February 6, 2022. May we continue to pray these words. And as we do, may we learn to live them.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We’re going to pray about the racial issues in our country. [Take a breath.] And I know that as soon as I said those words, every single one of us felt something and our minds got loud with ideas and beliefs. And the range of thoughts is so wide that it can seem too insurmountable for us to be able to pray as one.

So here’s what we’re going to do:

  • Everyone, hold out your hands in front of you, and clench your fists. (No hitting! We’re not about to fight each other!) Prayerfully imagine that in your fists are all the things you think and feel when you hear the words, “racial issues”…because we’re not going to be able to pray as a unified voice until we deal with what we’re holding in our fists. 
  • As I begin, I want you to pray, “God, here’s all my stuff. I want to give You access to all of it.”  And when You’re ready, I invite you to open your hands in surrender to Jesus. If you need more time before you’re ready, that’s okay. The important thing is that we all move a little closer to God in this moment.

Let’s pray:

God, we’re symbolically holding in our fists 

  • ways we believe we’re right and others are wrong,
  • ways we’ve allowed ideologies to hinder us from loving well,
  • maybe feelings of apathy or annoyance, 
  • or a desire for things to be better and exhaustion by the weight of it all,
  • maybe disillusionment, anger, or disappointment in our brothers and sisters in Christ, 
  • maybe pain or even trauma. 

Some of the things we’re holding are right in Your eyes and some are not. For most, what we’re holding is complicated. And all of it needs to be surrendered to You—whether for repentance, or so You can sanctify it to be used for Your glory, or so You can do Your miraculous healing work. 

So God, here’s all our stuff. Help us surrender it all to You.

If you feel ready, go ahead and open your hands and pray with me:

Jesus, we surrender it all to You. We give You access to all of it. Align our hearts to Yours and let Your will be done in and through us.

So now we lift up our church, our community, and our nation.

God, we lift up the Black community.

We lift up the Native American community.

We lift up the Latino community.

We lift up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

We lift up everyone who’s part of the majority culture.

The needs are many.

We pray for demonic strongholds to be destroyed. Break the strongholds of racism and white supremacy in our country and even our churches. Disturb what needs to be disturbed and change hearts. 

We pray for repentance to continue and to be thorough. We’ve come a long way, but still have far to go. Help us to repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As Daniel, Nehemiah, and others repented for the communal sins of Israel, we repent of our nation’s sins as well as our own.

  • In commenting on MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” Mrs. Coretta King said: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.” God, there was a moment when it felt like we were on the brink of racial healing, but it only lasted for a moment, and too many returned to business as usual. 
  • We repent of our prejudices, the ways we’ve wrongly judged, painted groups of people with broad strokes, or turned people into demeaning caricatures. We repent of the actions and inaction that flowed from these ways of thinking. 
  • We repent of disobeying your command to care for the foreigner and the ways we’ve treated ethnic minorities like they are “other” and do not belong.
  • We repent of the ways we’ve upheld or been complicit with unjust systems.
  • We repent of choosing to be colorblind when the dream of Your Kingdom is not one of ethnic erasure but one that envisions every nation, tribe, and language worshiping together before Your throne. Give us eyes to be color brave, to see the beauty of our ethnicities and the ways they reflect the image of God.
  • We repent of choosing comfort over bravery. 
  • We repent of participating in racial jokes or degrading comments, whether we were the one speaking the words or were complicit with our laughter or silence.
  • We repent of being silent when we should have spoken up in either correction or encouragement. 
  • We repent of getting so caught up in ideologies and partisan talking points that we’ve allowed ourselves to treat people—fellow bearers of the image of God—as though they’re the enemy.
  • We repent of getting so caught up in debate that we fail to listen, show empathy, compassion, and love.
  • We repent of treating racial issues as though they’re problems “out there” and neglecting to care for those among us who are hurting.
  • We repent of the times we’ve prayed without action and the times we’ve acted without prayer. 

I pray for us to not settle for superficial peace, but to be agents of healing and justice. 

  • Give our lawmakers the wisdom to correct unjust laws and systems.
  • Raise up more Christians like Bryan Stevenson to advocate for the victims of our unjust laws and systems and work towards equity.
  • I pray for the violence against Black and brown bodies to stop. Oh, God, we denounce violence in all its forms. We denounce violence that’s inflicted on anyone. This week, with the start of Black History Month, at least 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities were forced to close due to bomb threats. Oh God, we cry out for true peace in our land. As we often pray for a shield of protection when we travel, we pray for a shield of protection around ethnic minorities.
  • In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King lamented, “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” Oh God, may we be a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice! Give Your Church—here at Central and throughout our country—the wisdom and anointing to be brave in calling out unjust attitudes and systems, to be brave in doing the work of racial reconciliation, and to be brave in praying for and working towards shalom in our land. Holy Spirit, lead us and help us lead the way. 

[Take a breath.]

Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a drastic rise in Anti-Asian violence. Asian Americans have been bombarded with videos of people who look like us and our parents being attacked and murdered. A couple months ago, there was news of an Asian man who was shot multiple times. He was about my father’s age and was killed in Chicago’s Chinatown, a place my father frequents. So when I saw the news headline, without thinking, I instinctually looked up the details of the story to make sure it wasn’t my father. This is a glimpse of what racial trauma looks like.

Jesus, we lift up those who are hurting and suffering racial trauma. 

  • We’re hurting. And sometimes the pain is too heavy and hope feels impossible. Oh Jesus, You understand wounds. So we welcome You into our pain and we bring You our lament. We bring You all our anger and frustration, all our why-s and how longs. 
  • We pray for every BIPOC person who is carrying trauma in their bodies and their spirit. God of all comfort, I beg You to heal us. 
  • Help us as we absorb yet another insensitive comment, dirty look, or hurtful action. Keep our hearts soft and our armors strong. May we forgive and, at the same time, not internalize the racism we experience.
  • Help us when the news of another assault or murder triggers our trauma and fear. 

Our Father, there’s so much brokenness. But You are the Lord of righteousness and justice, God of miracles and infinite possibility. Heal our land. Amen.

Our Essence: The Imago Dei

On September 10, 2021, I spoke at an event at Central Assembly in Springfield, MO. These are the words I shared that day.

I’m going talk to you about something that’s a lot bigger than what I can give you in 10 minutes. So I want to whet your appetite and stir in you a holy curiosity that I pray will shift the way you read the Bible and interact with God, the way you see yourselves, and the way you love others.

Sometime ago, I was watching a Netflix documentary about American Christianity. In it, someone said, “In our essence, we are sinful.” That sounds spiritual, but is it true? Is our essence, who we are at our core, our sinfulness? Is that how God sees us? And as Christians, is that how God wants us to see ourselves and others? 

To answer that, let’s go to the Bible. And let’s start at the beginning. 

Genesis 1:1, the opening line of Scripture, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Right away, we meet the main character of the Bible, the hero of the story: God. And this chapter proceeds to tell us how God created everything in the cosmos. Light, land and sky, day and night, sun and moon, seasons and years, the plant and animal kingdoms—He spoke it all into being. And as He created, He declared His creation good.

And in Genesis 1:26-27, we meet more characters:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ 

So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.”

With these verses, we read the beginning of our story. And the very first thing that’s said about humanity is that we’re created in the image of God. God didn’t speak humanity into being. He formed the first human from dust and breathed life into Him. 

If you ask a lot of Christians about their theology, what they believe, many would begin in chapter 3 with the fall of man. This is how many of us were taught to share the Gospel. But when we do this, we miss out on the theological richness in the first two chapters of Genesis where we’re introduced to threads that are woven throughout the entire Bible, threads that are important for understanding who God is and who we are. And one of those threads is the idea of the imago Dei, the image of God. 


What is the imago Dei? What does it mean to be “created in the image of God”?  

When we read the story of creation, God creates a lot of amazing, awe-inspiring things that reflect God’s glory. But not everything is created in God’s likeness. God chose humankind to be the bearers of His image.

The idea of the imago Dei flies in the face of a culture that gives people worth based on things like appearance, platform, productivity, and status. Dr. Jemar Tisby wrote, “…the Christian doctrine of the image of God teaches that all people have inherent worth and dignity simply because they are God’s creation.” 

So what are ways we see the image of God in us? 

We see it in our capacity… 

  • to think and reason,
  • to forge relationships and emotionally connect with God and others,
  • to have authority and responsibility over the earth through our vocation, care for our health and wellness, and stewardship of our resources,
  • to become more and more like Jesus until we meet Him face to face. (from Christian Spiritual Formation, by Diane Chandler)

Every single one of us is a bearer of the imago Dei, created in the image of God. THAT is our essence. We reflect God’s image in the ways we’re similar and also in the ways we’re different. Our different stories and backgrounds, the different generations we were born to be part of, our different gifts and passions, even our different races, ethnicities, and nationalities—they all come together to make a beautiful mosaic that reflects God.

At this point, you may be thinking, But what about original sin? In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, sin entered the world. Did that change our essence? Did sin erase the image of God in us?

Well, what does the Bible have to say about the imago Dei after the fall?

Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them.

When talking about why murder is wrong, in Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.

In the New Testament, when talking about how difficult it is to control the tongue, James 3:9 says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.

Sin fractured our identities, marred the imago Dei in us, but it did not erase it. Even in our brokenness, we still bear the image of God!

This is the tension we live with: In our essence, we are bearers of the image of God. And at the same time, we live in a fallen world, impacted by sin. And because of that, Romans 3:23 says “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” We don’t live up to our potential as image bearers. 

But God has not given up on us. He invites us to follow Him and partner with the Holy Spirit in His transformative work in our lives.

And like a masterpiece painting that has become cracked, weathered, and faded, we’re still a masterpiece. And God, the master Creator and artist who loves His creation deeply, can restore what has been marred to once again look like the image He created us to bear. 


Before I continue, I’d like to speak from my heart. The past 18 months have been difficult for all of us. In many ways we deeply feel the pain of living in a fallen world. One way is in the racial divisions that have been brought into the light. Some of you in this room may feel like your dignity and worth or the dignity and worth of your children have been torn down. Maybe you’re carrying the wounds of trauma and you feel emotionally exhausted this evening. If that’s you, I invite you to find me later—or message me—and I’d like to personally take the time to give space for what you’re experiencing. 

And for all of us in this room—or everyone reading this blog—I exhort you: Let us practice and model to a hurting and broken world what it looks like to see and value the imago Dei in ourselves and in others.


Now, let’s talk about Jesus.

There is only one person in all the world and history who has ever completely and perfectly borne the image of God. His name is Jesus. 

Colossians 1:15 (CSB) says,

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn over all creation.

I love how plainly The Kingdom New Testament Translation, by N. T. Wright, says it:

“He is the image of God…”

Diane Chandler wrote, “…Jesus is the perfect image that humankind lost during the fall but through whom humankind now is alive with potential for restoration through redemption and is capable of holistic growth into the image of Christ.” (from Christian Spiritual Formation)

Romans 8:29 talks about how we’re to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son.”

And 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…”

In other words, what’s the goal? To look more and more like Jesus!

And how do we do that? Through Jesus!

Let’s take this one step further: On this road of spiritual formation, we need Jesus…and we need each other. 

God’s character and nature, His personality, His passions, the way He expresses Himself and interacts with His creation and with us—He’s so much bigger than what any one of us can reflect. So it’s vital that on the road of spiritual formation, we not try to do it all on our own, but that we do it together in community. And that means it might get a little messy because people are messy. But even in the messiness, and many times, through the messiness, God’s transformative work happens and we begin to look more like Jesus and better reflect the imago Dei, both individually and corporately.

So let’s do this! And let’s do this together!

Another pic from that night. This is me and Amelia Umbenhower—one of the leaders in our college ministry. I’m super blessed to get to know her and all the ways God is mighty in her! We’re two women with different backgrounds, stories, and giftings. And we’re both bearers of the image of God!

Reclaiming My Ethnic Identity

A few months ago, in “An Asian American’s Awakening, I wrote these words:

So I’ve made a decision: I’m not hiding anymore. What does that mean? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I’m just going to let this journey take me where it will. Here’s what I do know: I bear the image of God and I’m not going to be a part of tearing down the imago Dei in me anymore.

What follows is a continuation of this journey of reclaiming my identity and an invitation for you to do the same.

When I was in high school, my history teacher talked about the Filipino “savages” that came at Magellan the explorer with their clubs shouting, “Ooga, Ooga!” I will never forget my humiliation as my classmates turned and looked at me. In that moment, I felt ashamed to be a Filipina, and even more shame for feeling ashamed. So when I stumbled on a collection of poems by Justine Ramos, a Filipina American author, with a piece called, “Ferdinand Magellan,” I knew I had found something special. In sharing her own Magellan story, I could feel the tension in her body and the wrestling with her identity as the other students in the class stared at her. And in reading her story, I was also reading mine.

Telling our stories is important. And something powerful happens when we see ourselves in the stories of others.

But what happens when we’ve mostly been erased from the stories that are told, when the only time we make it into the narrative, we’re villains and “savages”?

Both of my parents immigrated to the States from the Philippines, so I’m second generation American. I grew up in the Chicagoland where many of my closest friends were also second generation Fil-Ams (Filipino Americans). We weren’t related, but they were my sisters and brothers and their parents were my titas and titos. Our parents spoke to us in Tagalog; we answered in English (with some Taglish thrown in). We lived in America, but we were tethered to the Motherland. 

Now I live in Springfield, MO, one of the whitest cities in America. I’ve code switched—hidden my Filipinaness and acted more white in order to blend into white spaces—for so long that I feel disconnected from an important part of my identity. I miss Tagalog, sitting down at a table where patis (fish sauce) is one of the condiments, and being greeted with the words, “Kain na!”–”Let’s eat!” I miss eating with my kamay (hands). I miss fancy events where men wear barongs, women wear dresses with big sleeves, and people dance the Tinikling. But most of all, I miss feeling at home in my Filipinaness.

So now, months before I turn forty years old, I’m reclaiming my ethnic identity. It isn’t easy. (I have one Fil-Am friend where I live. One. Two if you count her four-year-old daughter.) I’ve been listening to podcasts to learn Tagalog grammar so I can finally be able to formulate my own sentences aside from the ones I know only because I heard them a million times growing up. I’m reading books that tell stories and details that have been left out of American textbooks. (How old were you when you learned about the Philippine-American War or that the Philippines was colonized by Spain and then the United States?) And I’m exploring art, movies, music, and poetry where I see reflections of my ancestors, culture, and myself.

It’s time to reclaim my story. It’s time for all of us to reclaim our stories.

A BOOK FOR ALL ETHNICITIES:

Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures, by Michelle Ami Reyes

If you want to understand the importance of all of our ethnic and cultural heritages in a theologically robust way, this book is a goldmine! Here are a couple of my favorite excerpts:

“No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person. If you don’t value your cultural identity, you are not valuing a vital aspect of the image of God within you. If you don’t value the cultural identity of another person, you are not valuing the image of God within him or her.”

“The words of Scripture challenge us to step into other people’s histories and stories, to see through their eyes, to mourn for their pain, and to build better futures for one another. Justice is not a distraction from the gospel. It is a core message of the gospel. The life of Jesus declares this to be true, and if you want to prioritize the gospel in your life, then the pursuit of justice on behalf of others must be an essential component of your faith. Like Paul, become the weak. See the world through their eyes. Only then will people truly begin to see Christ in you.”

A COUPLE BOOKS FOR THE FILIPINX DIASPORA:

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of expletives and I typically don’t recommend books that contain language I wouldn’t use. However, there are some exceptions and these books are among them. The expletives and strong language in the following books are minimal. And they serve the purpose of historical accuracy (such as quotations from historical figures) or expressions of intense emotion. But if you have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to strong language, these books may not be for you.

A History of the Philippines: From Indio Bravos to Filipinos, by Luis H. Francia

This book dives into the history of the Philippines from pre-colonial days to the present. Though this is an amazing resource for a Filipinx wanting to learn about their ethnic heritage, this is a book for everyone. By including perspectives and parts of stories that were left out of our history textbooks in the US, it challenges the way we view European and American history and adds insight to discussions about racism, colonialism, militarism, and even missiology.

Halo-Halo: A poetic mix of culture, history, identity, revelation, and revolution, by Justine Ramos

This is the book I mentioned earlier with the poem called, “Ferdinand Magellan.” In a podcast, I heard Ramos talk about how publishers told her that her themes were for “too specific of an audience” and that she should try to write for a wider, more general audience. I’m so glad she didn’t diminish the power of her words by diluting her creativity! This book is a work of art. Through her slam-style poetry, Ramos gives insight into the experiences and psyche of the Filipinx diaspora. At times, her words feel like lament. Other times, like revolutionary anthems. This book was like a healing balm to my soul.

In the Author’s Note, she wrote:

“My poetry is dedicated to all the textbooks that left my country and culture out of the narrative. My poetry is devoted to anyone who has ever uttered “Hirap Buhay ‘Merica” [“Life’s Hard in America] under their breath…As you turn the page, you’ll read snippets of frustrations and reflections. You’ll read flashes of my childhood, a peek into the crevices of my heart and memory. You’ll hear outrage, hope, and a desperate call for advocacy and awareness. These pages contain the tears of those who have lost a sense of themselves, those who have let the world define who they are, and the strength of those who, like me, are on the journey of finding themselves again.”

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Are you on a journey of reclaiming your identity? What are you doing to reclaim the pieces of your story and culture you have lost, forgotten, or never had? I’d love to hear from you! (You can share in the comments.)

What Silence About Racism Sounds Like (and Words BIPOC Need to Hear)

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

~Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986

As a woman of color navigating all the ways this past year has brought my racial pain and trauma to the surface, there are words I need to hear from the people in my life:

“I see you.”

“I’m here for you.”

“I’ve got your back.”

For those of you who are leaders, I need to hear the same from the leadership of the organizations and institutions I’m part of:

“We see you.”

“We’re here for you.”

“We’ve got your back.”

Why is this so important? Because, as Elie Wiesel states, “Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” For me personally, when the people in my life or the organizations I’m part of offer silence in response to racial pain, what I hear is NOT compassion or empathy. What I hear is:

They do not see me.

They are not here for me.

They do not have my back.

My journal is a place where I feel freedom to express all the things I’m too timid or scared to say out loud. Over the past year, I’ve written in my journal, “I wish they would try. But in order to try, they’d first have to care. And I don’t know anymore if I believe they care.”

So if you care, please don’t believe the lie that silence is the best option. At the least, it can be hurtful (or even feel like betrayal) to those who are hurting. At most, it can embolden those who have deep racism in their hearts and desire to harm racial minorities. Say something!

I know that some of you are reading this and thinking, “I’ve wanted to say something to my friends (or the people I lead) who’ve been hurting during this season, but I haven’t been able to find the words.” I get that. It can be scary to want to say something but to also be afraid of saying the wrong thing. If coming up with the “right” words has felt like an overwhelming and impossible task for you, or if you read the three sentences I shared earlier and thought, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say but I didn’t know how!”—you’re welcome to use them! It doesn’t have to be word-for-word exactly what I wrote. There are so many ways you can express these messages! The important thing is to express them and mean them!

Let’s take a closer look at these three sentences:

“I see you.”

This is the bare minimum. This shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, unfortunately, I know that for some, it is. If you love someone, these words should be easy. The other two sentences are dependent on this one. “I see you” can sound like:

  • “I’m listening.”
  • “I see your pain. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
  • “I see the image of God in you.”
  • “I see your uniqueness. I see your beautiful personality, your giftings, what you bring into a room, the ways you make me better.”

Note: In addition to silence, there are many ways to convey, “I don’t see you.” Some of those ways include arguing instead of listening, gaslighting, defensiveness or making it about yourself when people are sharing their stories of pain with you.

“I’m here for you.”

This one takes a little bit of time, effort, and compassion. This looks like sitting with someone’s pain—even if it’s uncomfortable. “I’m here for you” can sound like:

  • “If you need to cry or vent, I’m here.
  • “Can I give you a hug?”…when it’s safe to do so.
  • “Can I bring you coffee or a meal?”

“I’ve got your back.”

This one takes some courage. You might get some pushback from those who haven’t taken the time to examine their negative racial biases. But know this: The dignity and worth of BIPOC are worth it! In addition to using your voice to speak up, “I’ve got your back” can sound like:

  • “I want to be your ally.”
  • “I want to grow in this area so I can do better.”
  • “I want to protect you. I will come to your defense if someone tries to harm you.” (These words need to be backed up by action if the opportunity arises!)
  • “Can I sit with you at church?” Or, “Can I come with you when you go to [insert place where they may need an ally to help them feel safe]?”
  • “I want to give action to my words. I don’t just want to say things need to be better; I want to do concrete things to help bring change.”
  • “We need your voice! I’m going to amplify your voice any way I can!”
  • If you’re in a position of leadership: “How can we do better?” and “How can we come alongside you?”

One more thing: If you can’t mean these words, please don’t say them. I don’t mean that as a slam. It takes repentance and work over time to be able to say each of these things. It’s also a progression: You can’t have someone’s back when you’ve never been (or aren’t at least willing to be) there for them. And you can’t be there for them if you don’t see them (which includes seeing their pain). So if these are words you’ve never said to someone experiencing racial pain or trauma, start by prayerfully examining yourself and asking God, “Since words are the overflow of the heart, what in my heart (and mind) needs to change so I can say these words?” If you can say, “I see you,” but you don’t think you can honestly say, “I’m here for you,” or “I’ve got your back,” bring that to God and be honest about why you feel that way. And then let God shine a light on everything in your heart that wants to hide. Will it be easy? No. But will it be worth it? Yes!

This is where healing begins.