I truly believe that my own journey of faith has been one of many humbling surprises. God has led me into places and destinations that I have never planned and imagined! While I tend to resist, and at times resentful at first, too; when I look back, they all tend to make sense in the greater plan. Even though I still do not fully understand His plan for me now, but retrospectively reflecting on my past and where I am today, I can only say that it is all of grace and filled with many humbling surprises. Perhaps this particular reflection will be of a more personal story-based one, but I hope that it will inspire you to look back into your very own lives and see what God has done for you, too.
When I was young and growing up poor in Viet Nam, I was always envious of the richer kids who seemed to have it all. I coveted and wanted the things that they had; sometimes, it was as simple as a set of chess pieces. Nonetheless, I knew that we had little. My parents did try their best to provide for us, and I cannot ask them more than what they can provide for me. Even though I never got what I wanted, especially the things I thought would make me happy, He always kept me humbled and focused on what was important — people and not things. Even when I was scared and felt like I had to have it in control, He let me go through the trials but used them to teach me many valuable lessons.
The first lesson I wanted to share today happened one night when our whole neighborhood’s electrical power went out. It was pitch dark and I was scared as an eight years old child at home, watching my younger brother while my parents were working to provide for us. Even though I got scared, I tried not to let it show because my brother was emotionally and visibly scared. After a while, he broke down and cried because of the dark. He wanted to go outside instead of staying inside our small home! Nonetheless, I did not let him do so because my parents told me to never open the metal sliding doors to anyone since we were two young children at home, just in case some bad people wanted to rob or do harm to us. He cried, and after a while, our neighbors heard his loud weeping and came to check on us! They told me to be lenient and let him out but I did not know what to do… I was instructed to keep us safe by my parents.
I was scared of the dark, too, but I had to be strong and firm. I went into the backroom and quietly sobbed, “Where are you, mom and dad? What am I supposed to do? I am scared, too.” After a while, one of our neighbors went and let my parents know because my brother was crying for a long time but I would not open the door. When I heard my mother’s voice, I was so relieved… I did not have to be tough, have things in control anymore, and simply be a child!
I believe many of us are feeling the same way, too, with many uncertainties caused by this whole pandemic. As adults, we are often expected or thought that we have to have our acts together, be strong, and have things in control! However, things have not been easy for many. As a matter of fact, I know first-hand accounts of many people suffering from the fallouts of this pandemic — physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually, too. Even though the storms seem hard to bear and darkness is all around us, let us remember that we do not have to have things together, for darkness is not forever. Just as Earth is part of the Solar System, revolving around the Sun, God continues to be present even when times get dark. Darkness is just the absence of light, and even though it seems scary, the light will always return! After the storms and their covering clouds moved past us, the sunrays will reappear. After the darkness of night, the dawn will come. Even when we do not see the sunrays, especially when they are covered by the darkness of the night or the stormy clouds, the sun is still present and radiates. Therefore, for us, too, as people of faith… even if we do not feel the presence of God in the trials, hardships, challenges, pains, sufferings, or fallouts of life, He is still there and present with us every step of the way.
The second lesson has to do with my struggle with weight and my very own weight loss journey in preparation for the United States Air Force chaplaincy. Those who know me for a long time will know that I have always been a bigger guy. I struggled with my weight and self-image being bigger and chubby than others. I tried all sorts of different short-term diets and weight-loss methods, hoping to lose the desired weight. Nevertheless, that is not how my body works! Even though I could lose a few here and there, I could not keep them off until I have to come to recognize that this is not a short-term solution but a lifestyle change. While I was hesitant and did not want to make the full-term, all-out commitment, the needed pressure from the application and accession process made it clear that I will not be considered unless I meet the needed weight and physical requirements.
I worked hard with the weight loss because many things were dependent on it. I had to learn that my body is not very carbohydrate-friendly so I have to dramatically cut it down in order to lose the weight (and keep it low to maintain it). Therefore, I had to keep myself honest by using a fitness and meal tracking app, disciplined myself to log and check everything, and especially plan my meals ahead. I also had to share my daily intake journal with several friends and people so they can keep me accountable as well. The simplest but hardest fitness lesson that I had to remind and relearn for myself from this whole journey is to be aware of what my body can intake, how it burns calories, and to burn or eat less in order to lose weight. On top of losing the needed weight, I was told that I need to begin prepping myself for the physical assessment components that include running, push-ups, and sit-ups. To be honest, those are some of the things that I disliked the most in life! While I can do sit-ups and push-ups, I am a slow runner and do not like running at all.
It was hard at the beginning with the physical readiness part, just like the weight loss itself, because I would have to push and condition myself and its muscles! Things were sored and I was hurting all over. Due to the extreme weight loss, my very own body had to adjust to the drastic changes, so I experienced bodily pains, hair loss, and other internal physical discomforts every day. I did not have much energy since I was cutting down on my caloric and carbohydrate intake to lose the needed weight; but on top of that, have to run and condition myself to meet the physical requirements, too. There were no easy ways, and something had to give in and hurt to gain in the process! It was not easy but I pushed through the process — doing my best — in order to meet the required military physical standards.
I was given the specific number of pounds to be weighed before I do my initial physical entrance examination. I met almost all other requirements but I failed one area that I did not expect! Again, I thought I tried and do my best, but I did not expect the unforeseen and unexpected “curveball” that caused me to be sent home, to wait without knowing an exact answer for a while, and to graciously given a chance to do more paperwork to seek a medical exemption. What I thought was needed to meet the physical requirements was blindsided by something that I did not expect. Even though I was sad and frustrated at that time because of the unexpected failure of physical aptitude, I had to learn to trust and be patient with the process, especially in knowing that if God is in control and if this is where He is leading me, I have to let go of my own’s.
Last but not least, the third lesson I want to share with you is one that is very personal, but I think this is where the most grace falls into place. As I have told you before, I struggled for a long time with my own weight self-image. It took a long time to truly accept myself as I am, to see my inner self-worth instead of my exterior self-image. To be honest with you, I think that God in His infinite wisdom and divine providence allowed me be bigger in weight for a long time so I can truly find my self-worth in who I am instead of what I think I have to be in order to be pleasing to the eye, attractive, appealing, or whatever standards that would seem best for others and my fragile ego. If I was too preoccupied with my idealistic weight as a religious, seminarian, or young priest, I would never got the needed opportunities to grow, mature, and learn to become who I am called to be deep from within because I would be too worried about what I need to be on the outside for others! My whole faith, priestly formation, and pastoral ministry journey have been one of deep healing of past hurts and poor self-images of what I thought I had to be in order to please myself and others. I am a recovering perfectionist, struggling everyday to let go and not have things be my little “perfect” ways in order for life to be good, full of grace, and filled with His love. I am given numerous opportunities to grow and mature into what God wants of me instead of what others want to be, and at times, these opportunities really hurt and challenged me deep from within.
I have been hurt by many people, even those whom I thought needed to be leaders, shepherds, and examples of Christ for me. I have been challenged toward the point of leaving it all because it hurts so much. Nonetheless, I am still here — kicking and screaming at times — because He never left me. Even at times when I thought that the hurt, darkness, pains, sufferings, and trials would never end, I overcame them with His grace. Even though I got scarred and hurt many times, I know deep from within that I am only able to be here and overcame all those things because He is faithful, gracious, and loving toward me — giving me what I needed instead of wanted. In my own trials, hardships, and challenges, He continuously takes me from humanistic and exterior focuses, definitions, demands, wants, desires, and expectations to mature and grow interiorly in His gracious love.
Just like what Saint Mother Teresa of Kolkata said to her sisters, I do not have to be successful or be like what others want me to be in order to be loved by God, because all He ever wants and asks of me is to be faithful to Him. Even though life can get really hard and hurtful at times, there has always been enough and more than sufficient grace there! Therefore, I truly believe that, throughout my life, formation, and ministry, the Almighty in His infinite wisdom and mercy has taken, removed, challenged, and taught me — over and over again — to accept myself as I am, to see my inner self-worth instead of my exterior self-image. I do not have to be in control and have things together! I have learned and relearn throughout my journey that I am not in control of all things. As a matter of fact, life is very messy and filled with many unexpected twists and outcomes, even when I try my best and hardest to do what is asked of me. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, I do not have to worry about what others think of me or want me to be to please them, to be accepted, or to prove something to myself but to simply be who I am as His son, disciple, and instrument of peace. I do not have to be successful, appealing, in control, have things together, or whatever I think I need to be or become with what this world wants of me. He only asks me to be faithful in trusting, giving, and abandoning myself to Him in this journey of faith that is filled with many humbling surprises. Hence, I hope you are, too…