THE PEOPLE CAREFULLY chose their seats around the meeting table. They huddled together with their “us” as distinct from those who were “them”. There was an opening prayer and time in the Word of God — desperate genuine attempts to transform the fortified huddles into the Body of Christ.
This was a typical leadership board meeting of an Asian American church that was becoming more multicultural. The church’s seniors were passing on and not being replaced by their children and grandchildren. Congregational decline had been fairly steady for decades.
The seniors had witnessed years of conflict with the issues and the players changing over time. The conflicts had yielded multiple church splits and groups of people leaving. Despite the bitter fruit, the practice and habits of conflict continued.
One fall evening, I came home from a church leadership board meeting in which there had been name-calling, blame, and accusations — this was not surprising, since the main topic of discussion was money.) There were also those who were silent during the meeting, who would have a “parking lot” conversation with their own group afterward. On this evening, some of the accusations had been directed at me.
Accused of trying to “spin” the situation and waste the church’s money, I felt an internal wall of silence go up and emotional numbness spread rapidly over me as if I had been injected with a syringe of potent emotional anesthesia. I went home and felt heavy and dark. It lasted several days like a bad hangover.
This was an all-too-familiar cycle: being accused, putting up an internal wall of silence, feeling emotional numbness, staying silent, living in days of darkness, and then returning to myself. At first, I didn’t even notice the cycle. I didn’t notice how, in the face of accusation, I became numb and silent. I became not myself.
I didn’t notice how, in the face of accusation, I became numb and silent. I became not myself.
I suddenly became aware of this cycle one ordinary day during my normal practice of silence, prayer, and reading the Word. I saw that it was something that just seemed to happen. I didn’t consciously choose the wall and the numbness. I didn’t understand and couldn’t control my response. I also noticed that my response did not bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. With considerable anxiety, I invited God into that place I myself couldn’t reach to dismantle the mechanism and destroy the cycle. Inviting God in left me feeling even more anxious.
Once the hangover of darkness had dissipated, I became aware that heaviness and darkness were always part of the cycle of being blamed and accused. It didn’t seem to be a coincidence that one of Satan’s names is the Accuser and that these actions could open the door to heaviness and darkness.
Over the years, I developed a cluster of spiritual practices, and I had a group of people who loved God and loved me. It was a group I could trust to speak the truth in love. Particularly in an Asian American culture, that seemed like gold.
It was a group I could trust to speak the truth in love.
How I Found Freedom
1. I made time to be silent. My most natural state is “to do”. My top strength in the Clifton’s StrengthsFinder assessment is to be an achiever, so the discipline of silence has not come easily.
A couple of years into this practice of slience, I read something by Richard Rohr that said people who tend toward doing and achieving will even approach silence that way. They will put all their energy into being the best silent people ever! He had unmasked me. I wept at how I had unconsciously co-opted this spiritual discipline to achieve first and be present to God second. Despite how painful the realization was, however, it was key to becoming more present to God.
I wept at how I had unconsciously co-opted this spiritual discipline to achieve first and be present to God second.
2. I sat in the Word of God, reading deeply as I had been taught in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). I also grew in another way of contemplating on the Word, historically known as “lectio divina”. Through IVCF I had learned to read the scriptures; through lectio divina, I learned to let the scriptures read me.
3. I journaled. As this practice grew, I realized that I had used journaling more as a tool for introspection, inherently creating a monologue of “how do I fix myself”. As I returned to the tool, however, it became a loving dialogue with God.
4. I asked people to pray with me: to listen to God on my behalf, to hear what was going on in me, to hold me accountable, and to speak the truth in love. I gave people in whom I witnessed the fruit of the Spirit permission to speak into my life.
5. As a leader, I acted while doing the internal work. I helped start various actions ranging from building trust and relationships with more substance to applying criteria for leaders and their behavior that was already part of the written documents of the church.
In the midst of my spiritual practices and actions as a leader, God showed me the power of my mother’s story in forming my silence and numbness in the face of accusation. The roots of my response went further back than my own life.
The roots of my response went further back than my own life.
A Look Into My Mother’s Story
Every morning she rose early. She made our breakfast and packed our lunches: oatmeal with an egg or cereal for breakfast, then squishy white bread with bologna and one limp piece of iceberg lettuce and fruit for lunch. She didn’t say good morning when we came in the kitchen. She never told us to have a good day at school like Beaver’s mom. The house was silent except for the soft swish of her spoon in the oatmeal, followed by the clanking of our spoons against the sides of our bowls. It was all sealed with the snap of our lunchboxes being closed.
One day I asked God about my mom — a mom who was MIA emotionally. The memory of her standing in front of the stove in her pajamas came back to me. The morning was gray. She was stirring the oatmeal — swish, swish. Her head was bowed, silently staring at the pot. I sensed God saying as he looked at her, “Well done.” I was startled. What’s so “well done” about making oatmeal?
I sensed God saying as he looked at her, “Well done.”
My wondering led me to ask her about her story. Out tumbled a story of a father leaving for the West and never returning, bandits killing her brother, Japanese soldiers firing on her and other villagers … the Communist takeover … the unwelcome of America and the story of loss and violence.
I believe her numb silence, which had formed as a response to wave after wave of violence, was a key part of my numb silence in the face of accusation, of perceived danger. I had breathed it in like secondhand smoke. My default cycle of response in conflict could not be dismantled without addressing my mother’s story.
REFLECTIONS TO HELP YOU DEAL
Our family’s story is alive in us. We have experienced it since we
were conceived. It is a force to be reckoned with whether it was
verbally told to us or not. We lived it. We know it in our gut.God’s intent is that his Kingdom story become alive, experienced,
a force to be reckoned with, lived and more known in our gut than
any other story. That includes our family’s story. Our family’s story
is not destroyed by God’s story. It is transformed.
Practices, depending on which ones we choose, help make us
available to God. A practice of speaking the truth in love makes us
available to God; a practice of accusation and blame makes us
unavailable to God. A practice of gratitude makes us available to God;
a practice of complaint makes us unavailable to God. Practices need to be built over time. They are like building a strong
immune system with healthy eating, exercise, and sleep. The time to
do it is before you need it.
Doing the work of our own souls is critical to being able to live as
a person of peace and, therefore, as people of peace. This
work will entail a growing awareness and clearer sense of self and
of God. It can turn off the “if only they would change, then
everything would be fine” tapes that play in our heads.
Be aware of what God is asking of you and what God is not asking
of you. God is not asking you to be a savior.
Nina Lau-Branson is a spiritual director working with individuals and groups. She pioneered InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Asian American student work as their first director. She is currently working with Fuller Seminary, the Free Methodist Church, and other organizations in spiritual formation and leadership coaching.
DARREN INOUYE is a Los Angeles-based artist with a desire to tell stories that will impact culture. Check out his work at darrenin.com.