Today We Talked About Stories

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Today we talked about stories. “No literature is truly profound,” you said, “that does not gaze upon death and wrestle with it.”

You come from a culture that looks away, hiding behind white garments and doctors’ hushed tones. When you asked after your friend’s mother-in-law, she said they were observing her 100th birthday. I remember, with a flash of humor, that you nearly sent her well wishes before you realized the woman was cold in the grave. There is no soft synonym for death in our mother tongue—she’s gone, passed away, no longer with us—so we say nothing at all. We cover it in silence and dirt, by the millions.

I grew up in a culture that sugarcoats, inventing euphemisms as if an exchange of words can temper our ruthless fate. We listen to a society spin convenient yarns: In our youth, Death is incentive to chase happiness, because You Only Live Once. In our contemplation, Death is dangerous to dwell on long, turning thinkers into maniacs. In polite company, Death has no place in conversation, drowned in teacups and gossip. At a funeral, Death is a sure entrance to A Better Place, affirmed by the man at the pulpit. All of us who are living are also dying, and we convince ourselves it is not so bad.

You read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Hugo and Dickens. Like Greek philosophers of old, the best minds press on the vein of the deepest questions, cut into human nature until it bleeds. But in the end, they also must look away, or sink into despair, or treat it too lightly.

“No literature can bear the weight of death,” you said, “without a right theology of God.”

Martin Luther said, “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” Thank you for teaching me the True Story, that by God’s grace, I may do both well.

Today we talked about truth. “Every religion is man trying to reach God, or some higher spiritual plane, or some better sense of self,” you said. “But the truth is, we cannot reach God. God reached down to us, in Christ.”

You sent me off to the halls of higher education, a hailstorm of evolutionary theory and existential philosophy, without batting an eye. Maybe it was nothing compared to your college experience—complete with high quality communist movies from North Korea and Russia. But now I know why you were not afraid. The truth is not something fragile, that needs iron bars to protect it from the world. No, the truth is something fierce, that tears down strongholds of lies. That shakes the pillars of the Earth and stirs our blood. That says, with Paul, we are most to be pitied if Christ did not rise from the dead. That dares you to find it false.

Your heroes are not the celebrities, the entrepreneurs, the Nobel Prize winners. Yours are the ones who fought to know truth and fought to defend it, who pursued the glory of God despite the displeasure of men, who counted all things as loss for the sake of knowing Christ.

Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” You will not settle for less than that either. When a Man comes into our world and says He is God, who can take that lightly? Thank you for teaching me never to trivialize truth, that it is a hard and holy thing, and that it can set the sinner free.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. “So every year,” you said, “they will make another movie about this fake universe and fake characters and people will pay to watch it? Zhen me wu liao.”

How boring, you said in Chinese, and we laughed. It’s difficult to capture the full-orbed meaning in English—boring, silly, tasteless—and harder to describe why it’s gold coming from you—candid and genuinely perplexed, but not cruel or condescending.

“Of course,” I said staunchly, but I don’t fight back. I gave up long ago trying to convince you why Star Wars was not just for idiots, and sometimes I need your honest irreverence to see the absurdity of our lives.

Our times are in desperate need of people like you. Hence I suggested, with varying degrees of sincerity, that you should record a podcast, host a talk show, or write an autobiography. You laughed at me and said I would be the only listener, follower, or reader—and you continued quietly with your life.

I doubt it, but you made me think. How many mothers do their thankless duties with an audience of one?

Today a strong, independent woman comes with a particular characterization: a feminist empowered to break the chains to societal expectation, religion, institution, and men. To be whatever she wants, to define her own destiny. In pursuit of freedom, we have shackled womanhood to a religion of self-worship. In a march for equality, we have defied divinity to count nothing sacred but the Self: my way, my truth, my life. I wonder, what makes freedom and equality so worth fighting for, if they are nothing but man-made ideals?

Yet if they are divine, we all sit under the judgment of the Creator, and the Maker of its morality.

In a world spinning wild, you show me strength: to forsake what is wrong and hold to what is true. You show me freedom: to think little of self, so I might know a Savior. You show me womanhood: to be gentle but not timid, to have a simple faith but a probing mind, to fear God and not man.

Jim Eliot, echoing the words of Jesus and Ecclesiastes, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Thank you for teaching me to have eternal eyes, that I might hold these fleeting things loosely, that I might have Christ.

Today we talked about stories. Sometimes you laugh at the ones I read, and I snooze at the ones on your shelf.

Today we talked about truth. We have God-shaped souls, though we are small people, anchored by gravity to a small world, hung on a spiraling, galactic canvas of creation.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. We sit in a quiet corner of the globe, eating breakfast and watching the rain. On the scales of eternity, our lives are but a flicker, and a moment lapses into memory with each breath. But I thank God, that in the time and space he carved around us, He made you my mother.

Quietly, She Builds the World

Poetry is oft for lovers, rarely for mothers.

Theirs is the thrill, the mystery, the romance, I suppose. They command our devotion, with a drama of ecstasy and despair. Some strange charm beckons us in the star-crossed tale and the daring plunge of two naked souls.

But what do we write of the ones who fold the laundry, steam the rice, and frighten the ants away? What glory do we dismiss, when we relegate her to nursery rhymes: the ones who bore us to life, and in times of thunder, hold up our skies?

Quietly, they build the world, when the world is not watching.

My mother, she builds

with thick skin and iron fingers

She never wears mittens, juggling pots with bare hands. She is not delicate, as fearless in the face of man’s mockery as she is with boiling dishes. Let them laugh, she says, why spend your life saving face? We choose whether their words wound us or not.

Grown in the soil of her country, she will always love its food, but never wear its masks. Who will judge you, when Heaven has pardoned you?

as a romantic and a realist—

She once danced for farmers in the rice paddies as dusk shimmered away, back when Mao was god. Her limbs moved with childlike grace, a brief light in poverty, a defiant laugh in the dark. Beside her candle and banned books, she dreamed of being a rural schoolteacher. Now, she visits suburban homes and American libraries, teaching calculus to the fearful and probability to Ivy League-dreamers. Still, she labors with compassion, and knows in silent wisdom that the rich may be poor in spirit.

like Sherlock to my Watson

She fires every gardener she hires for costly incompetence. She cannot bake sweets, but solves puzzles instead. What sort of grandmother will you be? I lament. Oh, I will teach your children about Calvin, not cookies. She forgets, sometimes, how to convert her height to feet and inches, and the order of planetary orbits. But communism was thin in the education department, and she has deeper things to ponder. She does not hear, sometimes, satire and sarcasm, because her habit is bald sincerity. She might offend you, or she might inspire you.

She lives good stories, and I try to write them. And sometimes, she wears funny hats.

in sorrow and splendor—

She is there when my world cracks and catches fire. Though she knows, in all her logic and reason, that tears do not fix broken hearts or dreams, she lets me weep. And when I cannot believe the kind, empty words of men, she speaks, like a songbird piercing hollow cathedrals. How splendid, when the strong in truth walk beside you in suffering. How steady and sure, the promises of God sound in her voice, whispered into the summer night.

Quietly, she builds the world

when she lays new dirt in the spring, when she fills the kitchen with garlic and soy, when she questions my sanity in all the right moments, and when she takes herself lightly, serious only in what matters most.

Quietly, she builds the world, yet teaches me—in triumph or in tragedy—not to love it so. But to store up in heaven the treasure of my soul.