On Significance: The Tale of Two Plants


On my window sill, a tree grows. Its leaves soak in the light streaming through the cutout window of my home office. Moment by moment, at an imperceptible rate, branches spread and fledgling leaves emerge. Planted in an Asian ceramic pot, this former branch my parents cut off and gave to me has more than survived. It has grown new roots. Now, as a new set of green reaches towards the ceilinged sky, the air around it invisibly retreats to make more room.

Outside, on my 2nd floor balcony, another plant droops. Its withered leaves cling onto a listless and brittle branch. It is a shell of what could have been. Intended to bloom beautiful, white Jasmine flowers, these transplanted branches serve as a cautionary reminder, a sign that growth and rooting are not always guaranteed. Even with watering and a makeshift greenhouse (we placed a bag over it…), it has escaped life. Or perhaps life has escaped it. A gentle breeze whisking away its browned leaves into the air – this is all that remains to happen.

Potential, Vision, Dreams, Purpose. We call it many things, this search for significance. We want to believe that our humanity has intention, that our lives matter. Plants, after all, are meant to grow; they are designed to express their freedom by expanding their root systems, reproducing and participating in photosynthesis. What, then, is our design? What are we meant for? Answers abound:

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The golden girl. The funny and caring guy. Sex. Prestige and acknowledgement. Success. Pointlessness. Enough money to pursue our dreams. Making our parents proud. Personal satisfaction. Carpe Diem. Family.

Is it all these things? Is it some of them? Confusion sets in, and yet, hope and truth remain.

Genesis 1:27

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

I will admit that there are long stretches of time when I do not reflect on life’s significance. Then, there are seasons when this is all that I think about. In those times, I often find myself looking inward instead of upward, searching myself instead of God, who crafted my very being. But if Genesis is true, then how I come to understand divine intention holds even deeper meaning than personal significance. Why? Because it goes beyond finding something that fulfills me in the present. It becomes about living and dying, growing and withering.

Where then is this mysterious hope of life? It is found as we begin to meet the One who has sought us out this whole time, the One whose image we bear. In Him, our significance and our life are found and restored. Christ be glorified.

Crafting Creativity

It seems so long ago. That art studio. Among other emerging 7th grade artists. It was in that place where metal stools, paints, pencils and clay dust all came together to cultivate my creativity, my mind.

Now, 27. Almost 14 years removed from my last art class, the memories of past projects are vague. They are only recalled by old art pieces that my pack-rat parents have saved for one reason or another. Sometimes, it’s because they actually liked a piece, and at other times, it’s because they felt guilty after I caught them trying to throw something out, like the Happy Mother’s Day clay pitcher I made. None of these works will ever be showcased in a museum. The best I can settle for is a kitchen back in Allen, TX, where my mom now proudly displays that pitcher – high above the ground on top of her dark cherry oak cabinetry. Museum or not, my legacy stands solidified.

And distant. When was the last time my pencil and my fingers combined to skate across the white surface of an empty page? It has been too long.

Art, they say, is a means to escape home without running away. It is creativity that is developed, chosen and kept. It is the expression of the human soul revealed tangibly and understood variably.  Art is all these things, and yet it is still more. It harkens back to past memories. It expresses and elicits strong emotions. Art weaves the 20th century African American Great Migration to the modern day understandings of ethnicity and culture. It celebrates the ordinary things of life as seen through the world’s Norman Rockwalls. It memorializes tragedies like 9/11. Art, in these iterations, becomes part of our shared stories and identities.

Then there is art that goes beyond its normal forms and cuts through the disciplines and even life itself. I may not paint on a canvas anymore or sketch a scene at the park, but art still remains in me. Art takes the English language and makes writing into a craft that I love engaging with now. It helps me appreciate the offensive sets of a basketball team – artistry in motion. It transforms the way I think about the world, the way I try to capture a scene in my mind or understand someone sitting across from me.

That art studio still sits inside the school I once attended. Hundreds of students have probably sat in the same stool that I once sat in, breathing in the same clay dust I once breathed. I am sure I will never enter through its doors again, but gratefully, I don’t need to. Just as art moves between history and culture, somehow, it has found a way to move between my life and reach across memory’s distance.

It’s humbling to know that learning something like art (or _________) is a blessing and an act of both grace and empowerment. To my parents, my teachers and my Father in heaven – what a great gift. Thank you.

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!  So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

– Matthew 7:11-12

Coveted Parking Spots

The two sat for what seemed like hours, staring at each other, unwilling to surrender what they each felt was rightfully theirs.

Last weekend, Gloria and I went to Dallas to attend a friend’s wedding. We didn’t know anyone there except the couple, but that detail quickly lost significance as we witnessed a beautiful ceremony, celebrated our friend’s marriage and met new friends. The welcoming and glitzy reception, complete with the wining and dining one would except in this part of Dallas, didn’t hurt either – a mac and cheese bar, medium rare steaks, salmon with miso sauce. I obviously paid more attention to the food. My wife really enjoyed the tiered flower arrangements.

The wedding festivities came and went quickly as they always do. Life returned to its regular fall rhythm for me, Gloria and the other wedding guests. The next morning, my family and I went to church. We heard a great sermon on forgiveness. Soon after, we made our way to the mall. It was back-to-school and Labor Day shopping weekend. I really should have known better. All too familiar with shopping in these suburbs I grew up in, I turned into the parking lot and immediately started zig-zagging in search for a spot. Several minutes passed in this mundane routine when finally, a car reversed out, giving me access to one of the most coveted spots: a covered garage parking space, only one row away from the entrance of the mall. I parked and took my place among the lucky and suddenly elite shoppers that day.

But another unfolding scene had captured my attention, temporarily squelching the excitement I normally would have had at my luck. One row over, two cars sat still, facing each other. A truck and a mid-sized sedan, both partially in-process of parking in the same space, both refusing to surrender to the other. The drivers sat and glared at each other, reticent, angry and convinced. I guess the promise of elite status can produce behavior such as this. My brother, Gloria and I walked into the mall.

5 minutes later, I still couldn’t shake the image of these cars and individuals from my mind. I wondered – are they still sitting there? Being a nosy Asian, I walked back. Gloria imagined, “I bet you what happened is that both of them didn’t get it! It’s like Solomon and that baby.” We passed through the double doors and were hit by a wall of summer heat waiting for us outside. A few feet in front of us, security guards were beginning to leave the scene. Like a clairvoyant, Gloria was right. The spot was empty, and both cars were asked to leave.

This remains the one and only time that I have ever seen two people so committed to a parking spot – it was rightfully their own, not someone else’s. You might have just painted both of their names on the concrete.

Then it occurred to me – I’m really no different. How often have I looked at someone else’s stuff and wanted them for myself – new cars, higher paychecks, a cool yard. How often have I tried to fight for a parking spot, making sure that my signal is flashing for all to see – that’s mine! Growing up and reading stuff like Le Petit Prince, you never think that you’ll be those guys. You want to stay the wise child, untainted by consumerism, greed, covetousness, mindless busyness. But one day, you start seeing those very things emerge from inside of you, oozing out like bacteria that’s been trapped underneath your skin.

But praise God for the Gospel. In Christ, our damaged humanity is healed. In Christ, we come to recognize that all things belong to Him, “for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.” (Ps. 50:10). In Christ, we are the children of God, entrusted as stewards to bless others with what we may “have,” for all things are His. In Christ, we can rest secure and cease striving for the next thing. What freedom and what joy is ours when we know God as Creator, Sustainer and Giver of all good things.

Now, I just need to remember that I don’t own the roads or the parking lots at Costco.

Strange Security

In the midst of an exciting time during the year, I often find myself unknowingly caught up in a beautiful unfolding of God’s character.

The activity of these days feels nothing short of frenetic. Ride my bike. Cool off. Meetings. The sweat on my shirt still hasn’t dried. Reconnecting with returning students. The morning caffeine is kicking in now. Lunch with a volunteer. Welcoming new students at campus tabling events. Side conversations with staff. Time begins to blur as I switch from each mental mode to accomodate for different interactions. Finally, at an hour like this, I breathe. Taking stock of my day, I am suddenly reminded that God has been present.

Where? How? I actually don’t always know.

It’s amazing how much life happens in the moments of our days. Even more astounding are the ways in which God has been there – in every moment, in every interaction, in every breath. Subtle at times yet ever-present, His Spirit resides in me and strangely, in both the comprehensible and the incomprehensible, moves in this world to bring about His purpose. How inscrutable and glorious are His ways! I cannot begin to imagine how His Spirit is moving in the international student I greeted in my broken Chinese or the new student I just met on campus who wants to find out more about faith. But when His faithfulness surfaces, what a sight it is to behold.

I don’t always know the inner workings of God; after all, there’s only so much that He reveals. But after a long and hurried day, writing and reflecting on God’s Sprit puts me to peace. In Him, there is a strange security that escapes the description of words, “a peace which transcends all understanding.” It doesn’t matter that there are hundreds of things seemingly left unfinished or unresolved (that reminds me, I really need to clean the dishes in our sink soon!). If left to my own devices, I would never sleep. But right now, as I sit back and simply be in His Presence, I know that I can rest secure.

A Glimpse of Humanity

It was a moment that crystallized in my memory, but for greater reasons than our accident’s painful experience.

After arriving in Koh Tao, Gloria and I had decided it would be cheaper to avoid the taxis – it was more me than her, really. Those motorbikes, innocently parked only steps away from our bungalow, had beckoned me with low rental fees. What a money-saver, I thought. My parents would have been proud at my comparative consumerism. We signed the waiver forms and rode off, dismissing the lady’s concerned yet knowing looks when we said we had never driven one before.

3 hours and a couple watermelon shakes later, I drove the bike into the ground. Like so many other overambitious backpackers, our knees and elbows quickly became acquainted with dirt, gravel and sharp rocks. Suddenly, my vision of proud parents vanished.

The accident happened within a matter of seconds. As soon as I had lost control of the bike, I knew we would both sustain injuries. Time would tell how major they would be. What surprised me, though, was not that I got into an accident but how quickly and genuinely people responded to our time of need. Before we could even get off the ground and react to what had happened, a half dozen people surrounded us. A French couple pulled over on their own bike (Europeans, apparently, are better at riding these scooters). An off-duty police office across the street rushed to our side. Three local Thai women came from inside their shops with bandages and cleaning alcohol in hand. No one took a photo on their smartphone. Each of their faces communicated fear, concern, worry. But most poignantly, they communicated love. And there, despite the searing pain of lacerated skin and bleeding, raw flesh, I somehow found myself in a place of peace.

As I took in this unfolding scene, a singular thought kicked up to the surface and signaled its emergence: this must be God’s creation in right relationship with each other, if only for a moment. There were no misinterpreted motives, no misconstrued actions, no selfish desires, only man helping his neighbor without regard to class, status or ethnicity. Remarkable and confounding, our experience was a modern snapshot of the good Samaritan. It was “a paradise built in hell” (Rebecca Solnit). Much like Jesus’ parable and the personal accounts of the Great Fire of San Francisco, this moment afforded us a glimpse of humanity as God intends. Broken as humanity may be, it seems that the human psyche is still somehow hardwired – created – with the potential to respond to need. Some might call this responsibility. Whatever it is, we often don’t see it enough these days.

Oh, how we need more of Christ to fill us with His Spirit and empower us to love responsibly from moment to moment! What a day it will be when Christ comes to redeem and restore our humanity.

Thankfully, Gloria and I weren’t seriously injured. No broken bones, just some very deep, slow-healing wounds. For several days, we stayed in the shade and read books. We stared at the small waves rising and falling along the beach, as if to taunt us for our forced expulsion from the water. And we thanked God for His grace.

Beauty of Difference

Music plays softly in the background of this eclectic and comfortable cafe – its yellow walls adorned with abstract art. I look around. Faces. Worn, happy, concerned and engaged. It’s amazing how much someone can tell you through a single glance. Light bounces off the adjacent, red brick building and delicately streams through the large windows, as if it were meant to create the relaxed ambience of this place. The wooden door, probably reclaimed from the building’s past life when it housed a bank or a mom and pop shop, squeaks distinctively, swinging back and forth as the last of the lunch crowd leaves. Aside from the two middle aged women reconnecting about their lives and the college student sitting in front of them, the back side of the cafe is now empty. Above me, a fan spins almost imperceptibly as it hangs mounted on the green ceiling tiles. Its blades gently pass through the air, creating a slight breeze that lazily mixes with the distanced laughter of unseen individuals at the cafe’s storefront. My wandering eyes begin to trace the ceiling edge running against the far wall – here, green meets yellow as each stops abruptly before the other, curiously beholding and complementing each other’s difference.

My mind stays with this thought…difference. It can be subtle and stark. And often misunderstood. History does not make light of this last reality: male-female, black-white, young-old, Democrat – Republican. Probably not green-yellow though.

Not all differences are inherent. But when differences are real and natural, their meeting holds the potential for beauty. When the worn soul meets the joyful smile of another, differences and similarities clash, enabling each to mutually lift the other up. Differences connect in and over similarity, and each is afforded the unique opportunity to become more fully themselves.

Edge meets edge. Man meets wife. Black meets white. Created meets Christ. What amazing opportunity God gives us each day to behold beauty and become ourselves.