“Do you know if the bakery sells Napoleons?” my mother asks me in Chinese. Sort of having an inkling of her saying something about Napoleon per the phonetic pronunciation, my mind does a quick circuit as it retrieves some blurry pieces information about a french pastry of some sort with layers…but I’m far too hungry and tired to make a solid connection. “What in the world are you talking about, ma?” I say in a dismissive tone. “It’s really crispy and tasty,” my ma supplies as if that were enough for me to know which bakery sold said crispy and tasty dessert. I give an exasperated sigh of confusion and she forges on ahead, “well you should try it, it’s really good. Ah, so where should we eat?”
Fast forward two more minutes of “where should we eat”s and finally finding ourselves in my favorite little hole in the wall, M Kee, my family gets around to ordering food when my lips suddenly start to tremor as my eyes well up with tears. To my horror, big, fat, (I swear they were like anime) tears roll down my cheeks with alarming velocity and plop on the table before me. Before long, my ma notices that I’m crying and for the first time I can ever remember, she puts her arms around me in a gesture of comfort and shakes me gently. “What’s wrong?”
And, that’s when I snap. I go ham on her. I am so horribly shocked by the upset I’m feeling in the moment that I can’t stop the heated words from coming out of my mouth. I’m so mad at both her and my dad but I take it out on her…for making things so difficult, for taking forever to buy her pastries before we eat, for asking me to pick something for dad to eat and then immediately disagreeing with it and then changing her mind again to agree while the waitress is standing there impatiently tapping her feet, for saying she doesn’t want to eat a lot then saying the restaurants I picked wouldn’t fill her up enough, for always changing her mind and being utterly impossible to please, etc, etc, etc.
Silence and then: “I still don’t believe that’s why you’re crying…are you not really stressed about something?”
I put my head in my hands and keep crying. “No, I’m just that frustrated!” I tell her. You always do this, I want to tack on, you always hurt me by never listening to me, never valuing my opinion, never realizing that I’m trying to help you. In that moment, I feel completely justified in my hurt and I’m seething with self-righteous anger. Then a minute of silence later, I’m completely mortified because I know my ma is going to be silent now for the rest of our time together and I’ve just ruined a perfectly good family dinner and I just ruin everything, I just mess up everything, I’m still the same goddamned brat I was five years ago who only knows how to retaliate hurt with hurt and the thought absolutely wrecks me…so I keep crying silently as I try to choke down my dinner.
Fast forward eight hours after my parents have taken their leave, I am ridden with regret. The first time my ma has ever put her arms around me in a show of openness and warmth in order to comfort me, I shook them off in a fury. If anyone asked me that question now, about the moment I regret most in my life and if I would ever go back to fix it, I’d fix that moment. I’d go back, keep my mouth shut, nod silently when my ma questioned whether it was me stressing over my job or not, and just eat peaceably with the fam. I would have been more patient, more loving, more forgiving. Less prideful, less entitled, less ungrateful.
There is a deep unrest in my heart as I sit on my bed and weep; I am so torn over the fact that I haven’t changed at all since I met Jesus. I’m still just as impatient. I’m still just as hard. I’m still so quick to anger and slow to love. I still carry such a bitterness towards my mother, a bitterness that I tell myself every year that I’ve finally cast off. In my grief, (still crying massively…fat…tears), I turn to the Lord and cry out to Him: “I’m still just the same! I haven’t changed at all.” Why, why? Why haven’t I changed? Have I not learned so much from Jesus? Have I not done so much to change?
In that moment, I feel the Lord point out with startling clarity the idolatry of works in my heart. When the eyes of my heart finally saw the hopelessness in trying to change myself, to make myself into a better person, Jesus revealed to me that He doesn’t exist to teach me to better myself or change myself. Because ultimately, my salvation does not depend on myself. My salvation depends on Him. I’m never going to become a better person, not apart from Jesus. I’m never going to be holy, until He makes me perfect. I’m never going to be without fault, no matter how hard I pray and how much I read the Bible and how often I go to church. I’m still going to sin. I’m still going to mess up.
That’s why I need His new mercies, every morning. That’s why I need grace, daily. I need Him, every moment of my life, because I am always sinful at heart. I am capable of the worst of things; murder, theft, bribery, etc. Why would I think I am above these things?
And this should be terrible, terrible news (this I think in alarm to myself before finally remembering -) except that Jesus died for such a terrible, resistant, stuck in their sin type of person. Jesus knew that I would never be able to beat sin on my own. He knew that I would succumb consistently to anger, jealousy, and pride, even after meeting Him and saying that I wouldn’t. He knew that He’d have to walk with me every day of my life because I am helpless to change on my own. He knew that I would never be perfect, holy, and worthy of Him – and He went to the cross anyway.
In a way, Jesus loves the complete crap out of us…literally. Everything that is filthy and evil and bad, the disgusting part of our human nature, He covers it with His righteousness…so we are counted righteous with Him.
So when I lament over how I’m still a sinful person, so prone to hurting others and serving myself, so unable to do what is right and good, Jesus tells me He’s not surprised. “Yeah, I know. You can stop trying to prove yourself. I love you, anyway.”
Momma makes one last stop at a bakery after we’ve had dinner. I have apologized sheepishly to her at this point and she’s given me an annoyed side glare with a hint of a smile. “You…” she says peevishly. She marches into the bakery, ordering me to wait outside as she needs to pick up some buns at the request of her coworkers. I dawdle outside making small talk with my dad, dreading the end of their visit because I’ll have to awkwardly say goodbye and go back home and stew in regret over the day’s unfortunate circumstances.
My ma walks out and shoves something into my hand (none too gently – I gather she’s still a bit flustered by my behavior). I look at the foreign object wrapped tightly in saran; I can see the multiple layers of pastry and cream and my mind makes the connection this time. Napoleon cake. I look at my ma, who is avidly avoiding my gaze, and smile.
Help me, Father, to repent for trying to change myself through works of faith and teach me to trust in You instead, for healing, hope, and redemption.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26.