I Bought A New Home!

On the internet, that is.

After six months of blogging, I’ve decided to finally purchase my own domain and set up more permanently online. More than anything, it is a sign of my commitment to continue writing publicly. I hereby invite you to my new home:

http://cindywords.com

Much like my own home, it’s a little bit of a mess. The header is not yet perfected, the social media buttons don’t all work, but I don’t wait until my house is Martha Stewart worthy before I invite my guests in – so welcome, grab a cup of coffee, and make yourself comfy.

For my WordPress.com followers, this move means you will no longer receive my posts in the reader. Please subscribe via email on my new site if you wish to continue to follow my posts.

For my email subscribers, please excuse the dust as I move posts over. You may be receiving one to two repeat posts in email, I apologize for this.

For everyone who clicks into my blog from Facebook or other sites: if you have enjoyed reading my writing, please help share my posts, this will help get my new blog off the ground and introduce my writing to others.

Lastly, I love hearing from every single person who reads the blog, so please comment, drop me a message, and de-lurk, it truly brings me deep joy. Remember, I have an intolerance to alcohol – your feedback is my buzz.

Thank you x a million,

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Thirteen Misconceptions of International Marriages

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Today my husband and I celebrate thirteen years of marriage. After all these years, sometimes it is still jarring to look in the mirror and be reminded we have different color skin. Not only are we a mixed race couple, we are actually of different nationalities. Because of our unique situation, people are often curious about our every day life (yes, sometimes we eat spaghetti with chopsticks) and inevitably develop some misconceptions about international marriage. To honor our thirteenth anniversary, I present to you thirteen misconceptions about people like us, and hope to clear up some confusion.

  1. You married an American, so you’re an American citizen now, right? This is a very common, overly optimistic view of America’s immigration process. Although it is true, as movies like “The Proposal” shows, marriage is one of the most efficient ways to acquire American citizenship, it is still a multiple-year process with strict residency requirements. We have not resided in America for more than a decade, so I am not even close to being an American citizen. Our children, however, are automatically American citizens due to their father being American – all that took was a quick trip to the embassy after birth.
  2. “Why don’t you learn Chinese from your wife?” Oooooooh, we get this all the time. Spouses do not make very good teachers. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m saying it can’t be done by us. You see, an effective pedagogy requires students to actively engage with the teacher by questioning and pushing boundaries. There’s a reason we pay people money to teach because it takes a professional level of patience typically not characteristic of spouses. In short, if I teach J Chinese, I get very angry, very quickly.
  3. Our children are automatically bilingual. We wish. It is well documented the many benefits to children who are multi-lingual. However, learning language, even for children, takes many intentional practices and choices parents make for them to be fully bilingual. We have heard one of the best ways to raise bilingual children is for each parent to speak one language exclusively. But because I am so comfortable speaking English, we have always spoken English as part of our family culture. Our children are therefore not fully bilingual, but know a reasonable amount of Chinese.
  4. Our children are smarter and prettier. Oh thanks, that’s really kind of you to say, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t a proven fact. Physical beauty is a subjective opinion, unsupported by research. However, since we are giving subjective opinions, mine is that how good looking mixed kids are really depend more on how good looking their parents are, than the fact they are mixed race. In Asia, it is common for people to say our children are smarter, but again, I still believe it is unsupported by any credible research. The only factor I find tenable is the added benefit that being bilingual allows for better learning and a broader worldview.
  5. Our marriage must be so much harder, having to communicate across language and culture. Marriage is hard because you have to forgive. Forgiving in Chinese and forgiving in English or any other language is equally difficult and equally rewarding. International marriages do have unique challenges because of our different backgrounds, but those challenges are different than non-international marriages, not more difficult.
  6. We must know everything about our spouse’s culture. Even after thirteen years, I am still discovering new aspects of American culture so deeply ingrained in my husband’s worldview and lifestyle. Culture runs so deep, and even in a relationship as intimate as marriage, one cannot possibly convey our culture to one another very quickly. It is truly a life long journey of discovery. As for J,  if you expect him to know everything about my Chinese culture, he’ll point to 5,000 years of history and give you the side-eye.
  7. But we have learned a lot. It is hard to believe J, with his pale (sorry, babe) skin, speak fluent Chinese and know quite a lot of Chinese history and culture. In fact, I often joke he is more Chinese than me because he expends effort to understand something I simply take for granted. One does not simply spend 13 Chinese New Year celebrations with all Chinese relatives without learning a thing or two about the culture.
  8. We lose part of our culture of origin. This one hits a personal sore spot. Please hear this: I am not any less Chinese because I married an American. Marriage and culture are not a zero-sum game. I do not reduce myself to half a person in order to join with my husband, we are two whole selves submitting to one another in a sacred covenant. Both of us bring the entire vibrant culture from which we come from into our marriage. Yes, we do have to make compromises and difficult decisions in areas where our cultures conflict but those choices do not reduce our Chinese-ness, or American-ness, they help us mature. This is personal for me, because it is isolating when my Chinese friends see me as other-than, when I often long to belong with them.
  9. We live exotic lives. People are drawn to what is new and different; this is what makes other cultures interesting to us. My Chinese friends are fascinated by our Christmas celebration rituals while American friends find our Chinese customs intriguing. But to us, it’s just everyday, ordinary life. Please ask questions if you are genuinely curious about our lifestyles, but know that a constant caricature of our habits as “exotic” can be tiresome.
  10. You must be attracted to White Guys. Of all the international couples I know, only one of them set out to marry her spouse of a particular nationality. Almost everyone else I know never expected to end up marrying internationally. Often, we have been attracted to our own kind, only to be pleasantly surprised by the way fate has ordained someone unexpected. I certainly assumed I would marry an Asian guy, but J showed up and he was really, very cute.
  11. You cannot connect as deeply as couples of the same culture. I myself had this misconception growing up. I never thought I could possibly connect with somebody who didn’t understand the unique way I was raised as a TCK. But there are things in life which transcends shared background. People connect through common passion, faith, life goals, personality, philosophy, and lifestyle. I can much more connect with J than I can a Chinese dude who is a night owl, is a sports fanatic (no thanks), and do not share my faith values.
  12. We must enjoy hanging out with other international couples. It is fun to hang out with other mixed couples. If we ever double date with another couple, it’s always confusing to the public who goes with whom because people instinctively pair off the similar looking ones. However, I don’t think I’ve ever hung out with another couple because they were also internationally married – we’ve hung out because we like them. And we certainly like all kinds of other couples, international or not. Also, we like hanging out with singles, divorcees, unmarried partners, and other human beings in general. The ones we like.
  13. We are rare. Check again! With globalization, people are migrating for both work and study, and international marriages are on the rise and only projected to increase. Interestingly, and certainly pertinent to my story, Asia is where international marriages have been rising most consistently. For more statistics, check out this article from the Economist. 

The Chinese say if you hold your chopsticks very close to the food you’re picking up, you will end up marrying close to home. Well, I must have held my chopsticks from very far up to have married halfway across the world.

To my husband who absolutely detests attention of any kind, for our anniversary I wrote about us on the internet.

Thank you for thirteen years of keeping our promise.

When Life Gives you Red Bean

A lifetime ago, we led a team of college students from America on a short term missions trip to China. During one of our evening worship sessions, we participated in communion with bread from the local bakery to represent the body of Jesus.

“This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 

There in the middle of the bustling city of Beijing, China, we stole a moment of silence to reflect solemnly on the sacrifice of our Lord, whose body is apparently filled with RED BEAN PASTE! I try to stifle my giggles, but it was hard watching the team leader up there breaking a piece of mian-bao (Chinese for bread) with red bean gooey filling bursting forth. I found the scene wildly comical and yet oddly culturally appropriate.

For those unfamiliar with red bean paste, it isn’t bright red, (though that may have been more apt in communion bread, we could partake of the body AND the blood in one fell swoop!) it looks exactly like dark chocolate filling. It is very common in China and Taiwan. We eat red bean in dessert soup, flavor it in ice cream, and often use the paste form in various kinds of baked goods including the traditional moon cake consumed during Moon festival. Most expats are not fond of red bean. My friend and I have a theory about this: we think the reason is because expats often anticipate dessert filling to be chocolate; the brain has already prepped the senses to savor a nostalgic taste, then BAM: red bean. It’s hard to appreciate that which is not chocolate. (Can I get an amen to that?) The deceptive appearance of red bean transfers undisputed assumptions, and one is left feeling cheated; and disappointment never tastes good.

Forrest Gump’s momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” From Forrest Gump’s era to now, the possibilities life has to offer has only increased as technology presents us with opportunities at our fingertips. Any ordinary joe can publish writing via a blog (me!), children can produce TV shows with youtube, stay-at-home moms and pops can make a living through a myriad of entrepreneurial activities online. The reason Millennials have a tendency to suffer from a Messiah Complex is because technology can build up unrealistic expectations to what we can actually accomplish. Everyone thinks they can change the world. 

We consume large quantities of polished products within a short span of time every day. Whether it is a gorgeously painted antique furniture on Pinterest, or a friend’s perfectly lit family portrait against a brick wall at sunset, our brains are constantly preparing us to savor the life we should have, and it is sweet and luscious like the most decadent chocolate dessert. Then, when our DIY crafts make it on the Pinterest Fail boards, and our kids are fighting and it rains on our family photo shoot, we are jolted by the red bean dissonance.

The thing is, I love red bean. Many of my Chinese friends and family adore red bean, this is why those desserts sell here in my part of the world. One reason is because Chinese people generally do not like very sweet treats, so the less sugary red bean paste is more palatable. Come to think of it, pragmatic Chinese people would likely think most of the Pinterest crafts are ridiculously over-the-top, preferring functionality over presentation.

Our expectations color the way we experience reality. We can’t avoid having expectations, nor should we want to. Anticipation is often half the fun, and setting proper expectations drives us to achieve. However, it is inevitable we are disappointed in life. We bite into chocolate only to end up with a mouthful of red bean. Perhaps it is helpful to remember there are those in the world who enjoys and even prefers red beans.

The point of DIY crafts is that they are hand made by ordinary people like you and me: messy, quirky, and asymmetrical. That rainy day family photo shoot, when stripped of picture perfect expectations, can end up being one of your most memorable experiences together.

Sometimes, red bean doesn’t taste half bad.

*When was the last time you had a let down due to unrealistic expectations? What is your opinion of Pinterest, seriously?

The Way We Win Matters

The classic sci fi novel “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card was adapted on to the big screen in November 2013. The story tells of a brilliant boy, Ender, who trained to battle in a world threatened by a formidable alien race. In the final battle sequence, Ender skillfully devises the perfect strategy, carrying it out ruthlessly to achieve victory against his enemy, effectively wiping out the entirety of the opposing army. Just as the audience exhales from his display of incredible wit and meticulous execution, the chilling plot twist dawns: what Ender assumed to be the final simulation exam was indeed a real, flesh and blood battle. Ender had inadvertently committed genocide.

Enraged by having been manipulated into killing, Ender glowers at his commander, the emotion in his voice drenched with the incomprehensible weight of his new realization, he says,

the way we win matters.

Battle wounds inflict both the victim and the victor. When I look around the landscape of Christian activity, I see stripes of betrayal, festering cynicism, crippling disappointment, and visible strains of fatigue. Whether they are earnest, conservative Christians losing their grip on cultural advantages, or liberal Christians frustrated by the slow pace of progress, the war raging is showing its wear. We even use language like “culture wars”, or “spiritual battle”, and “fight against (insert cause)”. All along the spectrum, followers of Jesus are bearing the heavy cost of their own, hard-fought, battles.

It is the core of believers, to take up our convictions and season the world like salt; to shine like a light on the hill. Without a passion for our causes, our faith lies dormant, irrelevant to our circles of influence. Without the tenacity of a warrior, we cannot prevail in waging war against the global injustices present in our generation. Let there be no doubt, we are embroiled in a fierce battle.

And yet, the moment we begin fighting in ways more like the Roman Empire, than the One who submitted himself to death on a cross, we have already lost the war. When we begin to adopt the mentality of us vs. them, or attempt to lord power over instead of subverting from below, we relinquish our distinctive ability to critique the culture in which we live. We can dress our battle cry in fancy spiritual lingo, but unless our movement to fight is to give away power rather than gain, we aren’t fighting in the way of Jesus. Unless our battle wounds are cruciform; intentionally bearing the pain of others out of love, rather than from retaliation fire of a fight we start, we aren’t winning in a way that matters.

Ender’s Game, the movie, did poorly in the box office. There are many speculations to why it didn’t gain traction, but one reason is its counter-cultural narrative to the reigning glorification of violence in Hollywood. The Oscars, the most prestigious awards in the film industry, has granted many accolades throughout the years to movies portraying redemptive violence. An Oscar win is indeed the pinnacle of one’s acting career. Yet in 1973, the recipient of the Best Actor award, Marlon Brando, asked the actress Sacheen Littlefeather to publicly refuse the award on the grounds for the injustice perpetrated towards Native Americans by the film industry. Read the remarkable story of an example in which persons in positions of power and powerlessness worked together to create room for more justice.

There is no room for complacency and passive non-engagement with the rampant injustices from modern day slavery to environmental degradation. But we must fight for justice in the way of Jesus. This means scrutinizing our methods in community development, unpacking the nuances in dialogue for reconciliation, and being wary of sensational language which dehumanizes the ones we hope to persuade. The ends do not justify the means. Let our urgency and passion drive us to critique the how of what we do. Like Ender, let’s not be tricked by the lies of the empire, only to find out at the end, we have inadvertently committed injustice in the name of justice.

We must fight, but the way we win matters.

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Oh Look, It’s my Birthday!

Hey there, Birthday Girl,

Wow, it’s been thirty six years I’ve known you.

We went through quite a few rough patches there in Middle School with the zits and the braces and the little pudge- pudge on your changing body. Then in High School, when self consciousness threatened to crush us, we pretended to be shy to avoid the apocalypse of NOT BEING LIKED. We *may* have bit off more than we can chew when we moved our tropically inclined self to the eternal-winter-that-is-Chicago for college. But remember seeing snow for the first time there? Remember walking to the school cafeteria in the dark, winter night, your face turned up towards the sky while light flakes of snow fell rhythmically on your puffy yellow parka, your face, and delightfully landed on your eyelashes? And remember even then, you didn’t dare blink your eyes for fear of missing just one moment of this white magic falling from the sky?

It was with those same widened eyes of wonder that you witnessed moment by moment the overwhelming life that followed. Along the way I got to know you more. I learned you were fascinated by people, and could sit for hours hearing someone’s story. This made it so you’ve always only had room for a few close friends, but that was okay with you. I learned the reason you cry so easily is because you are inclined to enter into another person’s pain. You have the good gift of empathy. But I quickly had to teach you how to draw boundaries with your tender heart; not to stop caring, but so the sadness of the world doesn’t pin you down.

When you birthed your first baby and carried her in her infant seat to finish up the last courses of seminary, you started showing your true colors: a compulsive drive to overcommit. I had to show you how to wear the many hats in your life. You were a daughter, sister, and friend. Then you became a wife, mother, and a grad student. When you were thrusted halfway around the world you said YES to every adventure that crossed your path. I learned you are driven, task-oriented, extroverted, and thrives on a full schedule. Vertigo, heartburn, and several health issues later, we had a quick pow-wow in which I said to you: “It is time to slow down.”

When we slowed down, our relationship leaned in even deeper. I started to recognize the brokenness which threatens to take what is good about you and turn it for destruction. Your desire to achieve became competition over and against others. You parent out of love, but also a lot out of social pressure and image crafting. The drive to stay busy began to be fueled by a deep seated, spinning out of control anxiety. You lie in bed at the end of each frenzied day, battling borderline depression, fighting the existential anxiety of life and death, wondering if you matter very much at all.

Last year, you decided to do a very brave thing. You decided to start writing and sharing your words publicly. I know you were terrified, and still are each time you pull up a new, blank page to write. You fear writing terribly, over-sharing, self-promoting, being judged, getting ridiculed, and not getting enough attention. But still you pushed past those fears and you showed up to write, because you really do want to become a better writer and deep down you hope writing will save you from the brink of insanity. You were brave, and you have survived.

Nothing much has changed since you started writing. You’re still the same neurotic, anxiety-ridden woman prone to over-commitment. Except now you are a neurotic, anxiety-ridden woman prone to over-commitment who writes; and this makes you a WRITER. I know, I know, you are loathe to claim this title for yourself because 1) you have yet to publish (for reals) and 2) very few people read your blog and 3) your general opinion of your own writing is that you suck.

Hear me say this loud and clear: you are a writer. Do you know how I know? Remember when your brother had to draft a difficult letter, in which every word mattered, and you helped communicate a deep part of his soul because somehow you had the gift to be that voice? Remember when you submitted the story of marrying your friends and the words moved her to tears all the way from this side of the ocean because your writing spoke the depth of your friendship? Remember when your coworker sent you an email and casually asked you to “do the writer thing” and edit his email, and you sat staring at those simple words and teared up because he used that word to describe you? You are a writer.

I didn’t know you could write. You didn’t even learn this language until you were 10 years old, and in HS English class you performed mediocre-ly. (<== See, that’s not even a word.) It took me 35 years to figure out you can write, so for the love of God, DO the writer thing.

Speak the truth with conviction.

Tell the stories with integrity.

Be a voice in advocacy for the vulnerable.

In the words of Frederick Buechner, let your deep gladness meet the world’s deep hunger. Don’t pay too much attention to the crowd. The rejections of your submissions do not diminish your value. The big name magazines, fancy websites, celebrity bloggers do not matter much. You know who does matter? Your brother, your friends, and your coworkers. They are the people you are called to create meaning with. Write for them. The truth is, you are ever only able to write, because of them. Despite your many imperfections, they’ve stuck around to celebrate your birthday with you.

Can we really ask for more?

Happy birthday, you are loved.

Sincerely,

Me.

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p.s. Just checked, husband said you’re still not fat. Go ahead and splurge on the chocolate birthday cake.

Wheaton Students Tell More than a Single Story

We may not all be rich. We don’t all have successful careers. We aren’t all healthy. But the one thing we all have, are stories. From the beginning of time, we have thrived on connecting via stories. We consume stories for leisure, speak our stories for sanity, and create stories to capture our imagination.

We are swayed by stories. Stories can compel others in ways propositions and facts statements cannot. Our attention wanes at statistics and exegesis, but perks at vivid characters in an engaging plot. Stories have been proven to be an effective rhetorical device. They draw people’s attention in and leaves them satisfied upon conclusion.

You cannot debate a story. While it may be tempting to try and deconstruct the reasoning behind stories when it goes against your agenda, the genius of stories is that it can’t be used as an argument. The story of a chain smoker’s longevity sits uncomfortably in the presence of someone advocating the ills of nicotine. The story just is. We cannot alter it, the only thing we can control is how we choose to respond to it. Any attempts to dishonor or discredit someone’s story is an assault to their humanity.

Given the degree of power stories hold to impact our society, it is incumbent upon us to do justice to all stories by cultivating a safe place where every voice is valued. Recently, a group of students from my alma mater, Wheaton College, coordinated a sit-in demonstration before a chapel speaker shared her story. The Wheaton Record, the official school newspaper, documents the concerns from the leader of the demonstration:

Massey said that he feared that students would be isolated or marginalized by Butterfield’s story of transformation from “radical, lesbian, leftist professor to this morally good Christian,” which could make LGBTQ or feminist students feel that those two identities were “oppositional” or mutually exclusive.

“We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen,” Massey said.

The students rallied their movement surrounding the theme, “More than a Single Story”, because they recognized the potential this story, told by an invited speaker from an authoritative platform, can impact the community in ways that paint a sanitized picture of a complex issue. Their hopes were not to dishonor this individual story, but to include multiple stories in the larger narrative.

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Although each person has a story to tell, an unequal distribution of power means gatekeepers control the types of narratives that get told, and at what volume. Winston Churchill famously said, “History is written by the victors.” The stories passed down to us are an interpretation of history from a single perspective: the ones with power. This ensures there are stories upon stories kept silent from fear, shame, and a sense of powerlessness. The real stories of these hidden voices, then, begin to be caricatured by the prevailing narrative, until real people become mere stereotypes. The African author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” A single story quickly pushes all other stories to the periphery, a broadcasted story drowning out the whispered ones. In telling “More than a Single Story”, the students gently insisted each person gets a turn at the mike.

The goal is not to have a shouting contest. After the sit-in demonstration, the Wheaton students respectfully entered the chapel to hear the speaker’s story. Every story deserves to be heard, but the best stories are the ones which make room for more to be told. The best stories aren’t prescriptive or agenda driven. They are ones told with a quiet strength, compelling their listeners into deeper reflection, and liberating them into telling their own. A truly powerful story shares its power and invites others to participate in the narrative. 

May we learn to be masterful story tellers, sharing our stories with courage and conviction, because there is always room for more.

Just Enough

Hey guys! I’m working really hard on writing for various platforms. Sometimes, this means I can’t get around to posting on my own blog. For those who have recently followed my blog, I hope you enjoy this one from the vaults. I polished up this old post I had written in 2012. Thanks so much for being a reader!

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When I logged in to write this new blog entry, blogger pulled up the stats of my blog. The numbers of page views, comments, impressions. When we see young children exhibit creativity or ingenuity, we quip, “that kid’s going to grow up and change the world.” We are inspired by heroes in our culture and aspire to impact others as we have been impacted.  We derive meaning and purpose from what sort of mark we hope to leave in this lifetime.  We strive to make impressions.  As many and as deeply as we can with the resources we’ve been given.

As Christians we have co-opted this drive to be influential.  We couch the intentions with religious language and say, “we are working unto the Lord” and with evangelistic fervor we urgently “reach” as many as we can.  We may argue our motivations are more pure than the worldly drive for success because we do it in God’s Name and for His Glory, but the underlying ethos is no different.  Let’s build the grandest sanctuaries, lead worship with the best musicians, host the most quality VBS programs, so we can further God’s Kingdom as effectively and efficiently given our resources.

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We value visionary leaders and the go-getters.  We encourage each other to dream big – to live radically for God.  We see the broken world around us and our passions drive us to do more, to help more, to make a difference, to impress God’s love upon our world.

We celebrate biblical teachings like how God can turn a mustard seed of faith into a big tree. We trust that if we just give our five loaves and two fish God can feed thousands.

I learned from a chapter named “Why We Can’t Change the World” from Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making, where he effectively bursts the bubble of our perceived “world changing” aspirations. He shows example after example of powerful people, corporations, and governments, who fail in their aspirations to affect the world. In conclusion he says,

So can we change the world? Yes and no. On a small enough scale, yes, of course we can. But the world is sufficiently complex, not to mention sufficiently broken, that the small scale of our own cultural capacity is never sufficient. And this remains true no matter how much power we accumulate–true for the CEO of the telephone company just as much as it is true for the lineman… At whatever scale we have the capacity to bring change, we discover, for myriad reasons, that power to bring the change we truly seek lies beyond our grasp.

If even the arguably most powerful man of the world, the president of the United States, struggle to solve even one global crisis, we find ourselves sorely limited indeed in our endeavors for change. Perhaps this is a time to start considering a theology of enough.  A cruciform theology which upends our prevailing cultural values.

Instead of praising the high achievers, we bless those who mourn; the ones who are racked by grief, whose hearts are torn and their faith hanging on by a thread.

Instead of listening to those who make the most noise, we hear the quiet.  The ones who have almost stopped trying to speak because their voices have been drowned out far too long.

Instead of reading celebrity blogs with the most number of impressions, we log off and share meals with the ordinary members of our community.

Instead of acquiring power or amassing more influence by treading on others, we give and celebrate others’ successes. We don’t pit ourselves against our competitors and try to one-up them. Love is not a zero sum game.

Instead of being inspired by the spiritual giants, we stumble along with those who are falling; the ones who are so messed up inside they can’t find their way out of the tangle.

Because isn’t it true sometimes we offer up our bread and our fish and all it feeds is a few people?  Sometimes our faith is just enough to make it through the day, or even half a day, or just the next moment.

I think I’m ready to celebrate impacting the world “just enough”.