Faith

(written February 4, 2008)

Let’s talk about Faith. This is a subject matter that I have had to deal with a lot lately and not only in my own ability to have faith but in being exposed to other people’s own challenges with having true, unconditional, open-minded faith. Merriam Webster defines faith as:

(1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust

Although Merriam Webster is far from Gospel (in the very literal sense, that is), I do believe they have a point here: firm belief in something for which there is no proof. No proof. If you have actual, solid “earthly” proof and that is what you need to have Faith, then you really are not having any Faith at all. In fact, the very idea that some of us will claim Faith in something and then seek out proof of that thing already cancels out the claim that there is Faith in that thing. When someone seeks out an answer – a definite right-before-your-eyes answer – you are not practicing Faith. You are practicing your own earthly ability to try and control Faith.

Ideally, we as humans – we as Christians – should be able to ask God for answers, ask God for help, ask God to show you the way, then move on. Move on and continue living your life in the pursuit of being closer to God. That pursuit is a path and if you truly believe in God, you have no reason to get off of the path and revisit that prayer just to make sure God has answered it. Granted, you should continue praying and continue asking God for help but the quest for control should stop at that point. When you ask God for something, God WILL give you an answer and the last thing God needs is for you to micromanage his work and to make sure that he follows through on it. I think that is the greatest roadblock for us as Christians when it comes to our Faith. We tell ourselves we have Faith, we testify to others we have Faith, we declare to God we have Faith, but then we feel the need to remind God that we have given ourselves to him and, well, just in case he got busy and didn’t catch it the first time, we want to check back in and see what God is doing and if he has had the chance to get to your request. Is that the kind of Faith God really wants from us?

My current career revolves around everyone and their dog asking me or my team to complete tasks for them. All requests for projects come to me and I manage whether or not a project request is really what the requester needs and if it meets that requirement, I schedule it to be completed. If a project is deemed as unreasonable or not at all the solution to the challenge, I offer an alternative – sometimes more than one alternative – and once the requestor understands how the alternative is actually a better solution to their challenge, I see that it is completed. There are two types of requestors that I have to deal with on a daily basis: 1) Those who know what I can do and what my team does and simply request the projects and get on with their own businesses, knowing that by the date promised (often times sooner), that project will get completed without them ever having to check in on my team or stop by my desk every hour to check on the progress. 2) Then there are those who ask for a request, send emails all day long to me seeing where my team is on the request, calling my desk to make sure my team hasn’t forgotten about the request, pulling me out of meetings to make sure I have everything I need to complete the request, coming by my desk to make changes to the request, and sometimes, in the end, realizing the request was not what they needed after all and cancelling the request after dragging the timeline well past the original completion date and exhausting everyone else’s time, while asking for a new request to make up for their unsatisfied state with the previous request. Which one of those types do you think has gotten more 100% satisfaction from my team?

There was a time where I would ask God, after having prayed for something multiple times, why he hasn’t answered my prayer or what am I doing wrong that may be preventing the answer from coming to me. Those were not productive times for me. I made a lot of mistakes. I caused others to stumble from my own misinterpretation of what I thought was the truth. I did not have Faith. Although I am still no where near where I need to be, I have grown a lot since that time. I have realized that those times when I would challenge God and call him out to be accountable for where he did not help me, that all along, as I wasted his time with my inability to see the truth, that he did answer my prayers and he did give me what I needed. But just in a way that I was not expecting. And that was the problem, I made a request to God and I made an expectation of God and in doing so, if God did not answer my prayer the way I wanted it answered, then I assumed that he did not listen and was being unreasonable. How foolish I was? Granted, I know I am still only a foolish human being now but one that has a better idea of what Faith is and of what God expects from me, not vice versa.

Control. The ironic thing about “control” is that if you put control in the hands of a child, your car will steer off the road and possibly kill you and everyone else in the car. You cannot allow an immature being to be in total control of any complex machine because that being will not know what to do if that machine goes awry and not function the way the being expects it to. Life is the most complex machine we as humans will ever know in our mortal state. You may be able to train yourself to better drive that car straighter on the highway or better guide that paint brush more smoothly onto the canvas but not a single one of us will ever be able to fully control Life. Even with the ability to steer a car perfectly between the broken white lines on the highway, all it takes is another car with less control to cause the both of you to go careening over the edge of the cliff into a fiery explosion of pure chaos. You can control aspects of your life but do you really have total control of it? And if not, how you can you even pretend to think you can control others’? And do you really want to? How many “others” would you have to control in order to make sure that this life goes the way you think it is supposed to? And what happens if someone else’s idea of “supposed to” contradicts yours? The only real control that we can perfect that will guarantee perfect results every time is Faith. If we can completely, entirely put our Faith in God and at that point, let go of “control”, things will be running a lot smoother than they have ever run in the past.

Human beings from day one have always had the wonderful ability to be unpredictable. The awesome power of freewill has always been a blessing but because we are humans and we are not God, that very blessing has given us the ability to make it into a curse. When God created Man, he created a beautiful thing. Far more beautiful than any other creature or object that he had ever created. Here is a being that not only eats and sleeps like any other animal, and loves and pleases like other animals…this being can choose not to do any of those things. God could have made us where we would merely exist and go through our routines like fish do or dogs or deer but he had already done that. He already made cats, he already made trees. Would it really have been that spectacular for God, after creating hermit crabs and dolphins and rabbits and moray eels to have created Man if he merely existed on this Earth as a reactive creature? Well, yes, because God would have created it and it would have been good. But God, the almighty Creator, is a creative person. After creating the duck-billed platypus, it was time to create something even more awesome. And the one element that made Man so much more awesome than a mammal that lays eggs was to create a creature that could think for itself and have the freewill to decide not to do the things God created him to do. Man was a perfect creation. Man was not perfect.

And being not perfect, any idea that Man creates can be flawed. This does not mean that we cannot come up with great ideas. We have. It was through the use of Man’s mind that we were able to utilize electricity to power whole nations. It was through Man’s use of his fleshly brain that we are able to fly from one country to another. It was through Man’s ingenuity that we can pinpoint the exact point when a single strand of DNA can determine what color our eyes will be. But it was this same Man that was able to use the same mind that created all of these wonderful advances in science that we were able to create an atom bomb and make the decision to drop it on Hiroshima. With this knowledge, does this not seem logical that any idea that Man comes up with can be questioned? Asking this question, does it not dispel any reason to have faith in Man and put us in a depressing state of how can I trust anyone? Not really. It is true. Man and Man alone cannot be trusted. You cannot have faith in Man because Man is flawed and Man at his own devices will fail you every time. So, yes, one cannot trust Man. But one can trust God. One can definitely have Faith in God. So when we question ourselves or others in our lives, we do not need to ask ourselves, “Can I trust him to do right?” or “Can I have faith in her to be true?” but ask, “Is God in his life” and, “Is she listening to God?” because although we cannot have faith in Man alone, we can have Faith in Man with God.

My wife recently told me about how her science professor made it quite clear in class that God had no place in science. I respect that. I recently heard the phrase, “Where science ends, God begins.” This makes sense. Science has never been (shall I go as far as to say) an exact science. But God has always been an exact God. You cannot switch the phrases around: Where God ends, science begins. This cannot be true because God does not end but science does. Where would we be today if we merely accepted the “science” that the earth was flat? Or if we accepted the “science” that removing “bad blood” from the sick can heal them? Yes, compared to today’s standards, those claims seem ridiculous but isn’t just as likely that the “science” that we believe in today can be just as ridiculous 100 years from now? Heck, it is most likely some of the reports we read in highly recognized science journals today will be completely ludicrous a week from now. Science is also a creation of Man and because Man is flawed, so is science. Having said that, how can I have faith in science? I cannot. But I can have Faith in God because you cannot disprove God.

These days I have been more at peace with myself. More than I have been in a long time. And I understand why. For years I have been trying to be in complete control of my life and in complete control of the world around me but I realize now that I am Man and Man is not perfect. It takes a perfect person to be able to control this world and the only one that fits that bill is God. I am not God. I am no where near being God. And because of that, I cannot, at my own devices, make myself right. I cannot, in my own control, help make others right. I am in no place, on my own, to justify my actions or judge others’. But I can, with the help of God – a lot of help, desire to be perfect. And because I know that I am Man and that Man cannot be perfect, the only way I can get as close as I possibly can be to being what cannot be physically accomplished on this earth is to have Faith.

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Not to be Forgotten

(written April 26, 2007)

“The bodies of the dead were thrown into the ravine like bags of sand.” My mother’s eyes are still and distant as those words escaped through her dry, quivering lips. I wasn’t born until 1974 – one year prior to the end of the Vietnamese/American War – but through my mother’s recounts of the events that she lived through prior to the fall of Saigon and even more through the heavy silence that she emotes with each long breath between each word she speaks, I am able to live those moments as if they were my own heart wrenching memories.

A lot like the way the sky can grow very grey and dark prior to a storm; sometimes it builds up quietly and stirs up malevolently, on occasion ending with nothing more than a disappointing drizzle, but more often times ending with a downpour that not only frightens your senses into staying indoors to wait out the electricity and wind, it can also chill you straight to the bone, so much that no matter how tightly you wrap yourself up in your comfort blanket, you can’t help feeling the spine tingling effects of each clap of thunder. That is my mother to a tee. You never really know when one of those moments will come up, when she will feel the need to revisit a tragic memory, partially to share her grief with another person in hopes of relieving some of the weight the memory may hold, but more so to remind her of how good she has it now.

“The soldiers did not make any effort to keep this horrific sight from the civilians. I was only twelve years old when I saw my first dead body.” My mother had taken the same road to school every day. Her thin, rope laced sandals made a soft patting sound as each step made contact with the dry dirt, followed by an even softer clap as her feet left the ground and her heel reconnected with the top of the sandal. The soft sound of her walking accompanied the whisper of the flowing river next to the road; dark muddy water carrying the sounds of nearby farmers conversing and singing as they tended to their abundant rice crops. The walk to school was about three to four miles from her mother’s shack in Sa Dec and would take my mother about an hour to get to the neighboring village where her desire to learn could be met.

At the end of the day, my mother would have a light dinner, rice and fried fish, at an aunt’s house about a mile down the road from the school. Here she would tell stories of the new bits and pieces of knowledge that she had obtained during the day and assist her aunt and cousins in some daily chores. Family is important to the Vietnamese people and my mother is as traditional as they come.

As the sun begins to drop below the green and orange skyline, my mother says goodbye to her aunt and cousins and begins the walk back home.

This particular day – what should have been just like any other day – changed my mother’s life permanently and left a deep, deep scar in her heart that still causes her to grow silent and remorseful as she rethinks the events that took place on that walk home from school. The river no longer told tales of a rich crop or a full constructive work day for the farmers. It now roared details of a heated gunfight and mimicked the screams of the fallen soldiers who fought aggressively to take over the surrounding villages, only to end up as part of the land that they shed so much blood to obtain. The trees that once provided shade for my mother on this daily walk now barricaded the road as their shredded trunks smoked signals of destruction and horror, the dry dirt now moist from blood, sweat and tears.

“The smell was so horrible,” my mother recalled. “The smell of the dead is like no other smell.” Her twelve year old senses went into overload as she cried and ran every happy thought she could think of through her head to force out the sights, smells, and sounds that she experienced that day but it was all too overwhelming. Where a child would normally need a father or mother figure to hold her – embrace her in the safest place a child could be at a time like this – she only had the cold hand of a soldier, gripping the still warm metal of his rifle which just contributed to the obliteration of so many lives. A cold hand that simply told her to turn around and encouraged her to forget what she had seen that day.

My mother did not forget. My mother could not forget. That day, as the soldiers dumped the bodies of the dead on the side of the road; as their limp carcasses slid down the riverbank, some falling into the river, my mother was told to forget. My mother has not forgotten that that was the day she stopped going to school. My mother has not forgotten how many hours she cried, how many tears she shed at her aunt’s house as she told her about the terrible things she had seen. My mother has not forgotten that her children cannot go through the rest of their lives not knowing what sacrifices had to be made in order for us to be living when and where we are now. Because of this and so many other reminders from my mother’s past, I will never forget.

Newbie.

(written on March 1, 2007)

Newbie. Up until that moment, I had never been referred to as a “newbie” and didn’t quite know if I liked the connotation the word had for the situation I was in.


I was only about a year old when the American soldiers pulled out of Saigon in 1975, leaving the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves against the Vietcong soldiers, who were quickly making their way down towards the once-powerful capital city. Being as young as I was, my still developing mind merely took in the sensations and stimuli of the events unfolding before me, storing them in my subconscious with the possibility of never resurfacing again. At the age of 23, my consciousness never knew that those infant eyes once watched as grown men ran crying out of their homes and into the streets in search of their wives and children; American soldiers pushing past Vietnamese citizens to get to their helicopters or ships that were quickly abandoning the city; mothers grasping their young ones and what little possessions they could carry in hopes that some way, somehow, they would safely get out of the city before the Communist North arrived. My mother was one of those women and as I innocently sat in my mother’s arms, I did not know that what I was looking at was the scene of great terror and turmoil that would overcome the city — and eventually the whole country — for twenty-plus years to come.

In 1997, my mother asked me if I wanted to go with her back to Vietnam to see our family again. She had gone back once prior to that moment but the city of Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City) was still a poor struggling country and the experience was very difficult for her at that time, having been away for so long. This time though, with news that the country of Vietnam had been slowly evolving into a more civilized economy, with hopes of becoming more advanced and connected to the rest of the world, my mother wanted her closest child to return with her in this time of growth for the country.

newbieI had not considered going back to Vietnam up until that point. I never had any desire to do so. I grew up in America and having been raised by American television and radio, I only knew how to be cool like Fonzie and to talk like Mork from Orc. What could a struggling third world country ever offer me? But each time my mother asked about going, I could see in her face the deep, deep emotional scarring that had affected her through her journey from Vietnam to America. Those dark pupils held the remorse of a woman who was left to care for herself and two young children while waiting to learn of her family’s uncertain future in a Korean refugee camp. Each line on her forehead marked the torments that went through her mind when we were transferred to America to live once more in yet another refugee camp. The frown that had become a permanent part of her everyday expression reflected how she felt about her new life in America, after leaving the camp, knowing that she had an old life back in Vietnam that she may never get to see again. More important than my own selfish fears of going back to a country I never knew was the very fact that my going back may not only help prevent any more lines from breaking my mother’s gentle face, but there was a chance that this trip would also open areas of my mind that I had never bothered to explore before.

The city of Saigon was dark when our plane arrived. It was nearly midnight and having never been in an airplane for more than three to four hours at the most, the thirteen-plus hour flight had made me restless and anxious to get back on the solid ground. My already squinty eyes narrowed more as I tried to shake the sand from my eyelids and focus on anything that could be seen out the window from where I was sitting. The moonlight twisted and coiled as it reflected off of the barbed wire that lined the tops of the thick concrete walls that surrounded the landing grounds of the Ho Chi Minh City airport. The occasional flash of a military truck peeked out of the blackness, just barely under the sporadically spaced lamp posts, reminded me that this was a country that was once living day-by-day under the oppression of war and conflict and even now, was considered not entirely safe.

My fingers caressed the buckle of my seatbelt, as I patiently waited for the seatbelt light to go off. My mother’s face was the same intense, serious face that I had grown accustomed to over the years. It was only when she looked over at me when I was able to see that warm smile that was often hidden away, along with most of her pains and memories of the time past.

“You are back home.” Her voice was quiet, soft. Barely audible over the hustling of anxious passengers rummaging through the overhead compartments, frantically grabbing suitcases and bags, ignoring the fact that the plane had not completely come to a full stop, the flight attendants did not notice, though, due to their own anxiousness to get off of the plane themselves.

“Yes,” I hesitated. “I’m back home.”

The ping of the seatbelt light going off told me that it was time to step out into the Vietnamese air and take in the hot, humid breath that was only last taken twenty-two years prior to that trip. A nervousness overcame me and I recall getting up then sitting back down, hoping that the seatbelt light would come back on and the plane would turn itself around and go back to the States. Fortunately, the sea of black hair and almond-shaped eyes that filled the cabin of the plane reminded my stubborn self that I was not in Kansas anymore and the very fact that my skin color did not stand out in this crowd reminded me that this was something that I needed to do.

Once out into the open air, something in the back of my mind awoke. I can’t entirely say what it was and what went through my mind at that very moment, but I can say that it was a good feeling. What was once fear and nervousness became comfort and calm. Whether that was simply a reaction to actually being on the ground after the long flight or something deeper, like the lost memories that were last explored at the age of one and a half coming back to the foreground, I will never know. Alas, my stubborn self pushed its way back to the inside of my forehead where my consciousness dwelled, and that feeling of calm and contentment, just as quickly as it had come, began to fade as I was reminded of where I was and how little I knew of that place.

The box-shaped bus that arrived to shuttle us to the terminal brought to mind the image of a laboratory cage. The kind that scientists kept mice in just before performing insidious experiments on the poor rodents. I became anxious and played back in my head all the stories of the Jewish prisoners during World War II and the gas chambers that killed so many of them. I looked to the reflection on the large glass windows of the bus and suddenly the anxiousness once again subsided. This time, it wasn’t just the inkling of a possible childhood memory that calmed me but the image of my own self in the glass, dark shadows in place of eyes, strongly mirroring that of my mother’s face. I saw for the first time an expression that I had always had in me but it wasn’t until I came back to my place of birth that I would realize what that expression meant. There was a piece of my soul missing, buried deep with the memories of a baby, now resurfacing and bringing me back to that day when my mother said goodbye to her closest sister, making my aunt swear not to tell their parents and other siblings that she and her two young children were leaving Vietnam. It was that feeling that made climbing onto the bus a little less scary.

Once inside, my mother stood quietly next to me. She smiled once again and the tightness of her lips told me that she was proud of me for taking that journey with her. Something in her eyes told me that having me walking next to her back into Saigon was the perfect compliment of the memory of her carrying me out of Saigon in 1975.

I looked around me as the bus stammered forward and everyone’s arms tensed up to keep from falling back onto each other. I saw many older Vietnamese men and women, who, just like my mother, had a strong desire to be back home and was relieved to be living at that moment. Just a mere three to four feet away from me were two teenagers, about twelve and thirteen in age. I hadn’t really spoken to anyone besides my mother during the whole trip but seeing the highlighted streaks of red in the girl’s hair and the Green Day logo on the boy’s shirt gave me the slightest feeling of still being in touch with America, and so I awkwardly tried to break the serious silence that was enveloping the bus inside.

“First time in Vietnam?” I had forgotten that being the age that I was, even trying to talk to teenagers was like when an old uncle or your grandfather is trying to rap. As my words reflected off the humid atmosphere and ricocheted back into my own ear canals, I realized how incredibly dorky I must have sounded to those teenagers. Alas, they were kind enough to spare me any humiliation and actually responded.

“Nope. My sister and I have been back twice now.”

“Wow. Twice? So this is your third time?” And it was at that point when I realized that it only seemed like the teenagers were trying to spare me any embarrassment but in all actuality, they were really just patronizing me. “Third time to go back.”

“Yeah. That would make three.”

The girl was a bit nicer. “Is this your first time?”

“Ha. Is it that obvious?”

The boy, not so nice. “Very.”

“You’re a newbie,” rounded off the conversation, the girl’s calm voice echoing in the back of my mind. Her tone was very confident, as if she had just discovered a new species of butterfly or unearthed a new type of dinosaur bone.

Up until that moment, I had never been referred to as a “newbie” and didn’t quite know if I liked the connotation the word had for the situation I was in. But as I choked down the last bit of pride that was lodged in my throat and realized that the bus was slowing down to let us off at the terminal, the word began to make sense. And not just because this was my first time back in Vietnam but because this was my first time fully realizing that part of me that I had forgotten about — or had chosen not to think about — was coming to light. But being in the humid Vietnam air with its dark starless sky above me and the contrast of the people-filled terminal ahead of me, lined with military police and airport officials, a voice in my head was telling me that this was the right thing to do and that after the next three weeks, the word “newbie” would no longer apply to me.