I recently celebrated my birthday and nothing reminded me more of encroaching mortality than junk mail full of well wishes pimping eye cream, 401Ks, and yoga. But as friends gathered over delicious dishes and glasses of wine, I took a moment to soak in a moment spent with friends, some who had walked beside me for years – surrounded by laughter and love, what a gift.
As a slice of amazing tiramisu with a burning candle was placed in front of me, an old memory surfaced and I was taken back several years ago to a birthday that fell during a dark season in my life. This was back when I was desperately lonely, lost in the throes of anger and despair, friendless and absolutely bitter towards the world. Needless to say it wasn’t a very ‘happy’ birthday then, and when I celebrated, it was alone. That year I made the wish that I would start making every year that followed in the hopes that things would change. That wish was ‘to be happy, no matter what’.
Back then I remember asking myself if things would ever change or if I was destined to be stagnant, unable to move forward or backward. I agonized over the future: would I ever leave this city, would I find a job I didn’t hate, would I find community, friends who I could call family, would I ever experience a kind of love that didn’t manifest itself in the abusive behaviors that were so rife in my family, would I ever stop feeling like a failure, insecure in my identity as an Asian American woman, a sister, a daughter, a person overall. I thought it was up to me to turn my life around and every shortcoming was a reminder that I was woefully inadequate in all respects. I didn’t know Christ then, the Gospel an unfamiliar, impossible theory that my stone-cold heart was completely unreceptive and dismissive towards.
Fast forward years later and we’re back to tiramisu. Later that night as we laughed over old adventures and stories, we reflected over this question: How have you changed the most over the last five years?
Now five years may not seem like a long time, and in the objective scope of the average life-span it’s a drop in the bucket. Yet as we shared, we realized how much could change in just one year, let alone five. Most commonly, we all harnessed a certain degree of self-possession and self-confidence that was ridiculously absent before. It wasn’t confidence in the things we’d done or accomplished, but on the contrary we felt more comfortable and confident displaying our flaws and weaknesses because we were more secure in our identities rooted in Christ. The relationships we’d lost and gained were based more on trust and intimacy in sharing our vulnerabilities and sins with one another over the years rather than the surface-level shared interests, value systems, and liver capacities we’d touted when we were younger.
The conversation truly put into perspective for me just how much had happened in such a short amount of time. So as my mind sifted through stores of memories and my heart supplied its commentary, my final answer surprised even myself: “I’m much happier.”
It sounds corny I know: Happiness – the thing in life everyone strives for and knows how to define but can’t seem to attain despite our best efforts. But this wasn’t happiness by circumstance. In fact, if anything life has become more difficult, darker, frightening, lonely, and tragic in many ways. No, this was happiness through Christ who met me and led me in my darkest hours. Only through the transformative lens of grace and faith have I been able to see the ‘invisible hand’ at work in myself and the world around me. Only through confronting my own depravities and selfish, prideful hypocrisy with Christ’s unconditional love and forgiveness have I been able to seek peace through affliction and joy through victory. Only through being the undeserving recipient of lavish generosity and love have I been able to start challenging myself in these areas. And only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross have I been able to find my hope.
I’ve realized that beyond birthdays, every day of life has been special, meaningful, and filled with purpose. 99% of the time I’m mired in the distractions of daily routine, unaware and ungrateful of the providence of simply living. But in those precious moments of communion with the Father I am reminded that the life I live is not my own but Christ’s who dwells in me (Galatians 2:20).
As I blew out the candle, surrounded by my family in Christ, I made a new wish, for God so graciously continues to grant the old. It was the prayer that God had placed more recently on my heart: that is, to learn how to love others well, to love them as Christ loved them, and to do all things out of love (Corinthians 16:14). No small task. And yet if I could spend the rest of my life inching even one millimeter closer to Christ, then perhaps I could begin to understand what the cross truly means; the implications of Christ’s sacrifice and love for his bride, the church, and aspire to live this out in my own life. We have been recipients of such grandiose love, what a shame to keep that all to ourselves.
I hope that with each day that passes, with each year, I’m inching ever closer to the woman God created me to be. That is, the woman who doesn’t have to be put together all the time. The one who is not afraid to show her tears and her strength. The ‘me’ who loves God’s people, no matter where or who they may be, and the one who looks to the Cross and humbly seeks her Savior. This birthday may have been a reminder of the weird pop in my joints, the dark circles under my eyes, and the fact that life isn’t perfect, but with God’s love and grace in my life I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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