“As iron sharpens iron,
So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
Proverbs 27:17 NKJV
In a few posts back (Stepping Out of the Sun), I wrote about how being socially isolated in high school allowed me to focus on growing as an individual. I did what I could, with what I had, where I was.
However, there’s more to this story, than just four eventless years of nerding out and introversion. (Isn’t that so true with all stories? There’s always more, and more…)
From the beginning, God did not intend for us to be alone. He created Eve so that Adam would not be alone in the world. Man and woman were made to be equal but different, and to exist in a relationship.
‘And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
Genesis 2:18 NKJV
We were made for companionship. This is why loneliness is the opposite of connectedness, and why it is so painful and dangerous for our well-being.
Friendships and belonging in community are necessary for spiritual health, too. This is why Solomon writes:
“Two are better than one,
Because they have a good reward for their labor.
For if they fall, one will lift up his companion.
But woe to him who is alone when he falls,
For he has no one to help him up.
Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm;
But how can one be warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him.
And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NKJV
I fondly look back at the summer before junior year high school. I had spent my freshman year at Dulwich College Beijing, and my sophomore year at the International School of Beijing (ISB), where I would remain, and eventually graduate. They were very different systems of learning, the former being a British satellite school, and the latter having more of an American tilt.
The experiences at both schools opened my eyes to a community that was truly global. However, having been born and raised in America, neither transition came without its own series of culture shocks.
I quickly supposed that I didn’t have many new things to add to the conversation, especially when that meant I would have to firstly compete for space in the classroom, for attention in social environments, and for achievements.
During the first two years of this transition, I was a social butterfly. I knew what to say and do to please people, and to be likeable, but I never got very far in a relationship. I always felt that eventually, people would move on, having other people they were more invested in, and who they valued more.
I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. Some days, I would simply remove myself socially so I wouldn’t have to face this rejection, and one day, I just never reappeared.
At Dulwich, I had the persistent feeling that I was being judged. When I transferred to ISB, it was less haughtiness, and more indifference, that I was met with. Which environment was better or worse, perhaps I’ll never know. Neither one felt like a community to me, although it may have been a home to the other people there.
During those years, I did have experiences where I felt unconditionally accepted and loved by the people around me, it was just never while I was at school.
Credo Music was a three-week faith-based summer chamber music program that changed my life for the better.
Their mission statement is to “Develop the Gift, Acknowledge the Source, Respond in Service.” Our mindset was informed by a bible verse I now love and live by:
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if there is anything excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
After spending two weeks in Honduras with Operation Wallacea that summer, which was itself an amazing adventure, I flew to Oberlin College to learn the Borodin String Quartet with Credo.
There was something tremendously different about Credo. When I arrived, I was immediately greeted with love, curiosity, and generosity.
When our coachings began, I instantly realized that my skills were quite average, although I had been matched in a group that worked well together. I was surrounded by musicians who were attending, graduating, or preparing to enter professional music schools, such as Juilliard, NEC, Curtis, and the like. And our coaches were masters of their craft, with years of experience leading orchestral sections, having careers as professional soloists, and teaching young professionals.
It was humbling, but even more so, was seeing how modest these people were, despite their highly trained skill set, and the amount of respect I was treated with. Again, the love I received was without pretense or conditions. This began to open my heart, both to love, and to being loved.
Each morning, we would gather in the chapel together for Morning Sing. We would hear different faculty deliver a message each morning, which was food for my soul, and we would sing from the hymnal. Having a group of phenomenal musicians worship together in beautiful hymns was just a joy to witness. Each note was in tune, harmonized SATB-style, and expressive. I would often tear up, feeling the music and words overflow from my heart.
Even when it was someone’s birthday, and it would be time to sing to them, or during the Fourth of July, when we sang the national anthem, our voices would be like no other. These people knew music theory, had perfect pitch, and loved what they did. No other unrehearsed celebrations I’ve seen since have ever come close.
During meals, nobody ever sat alone. When someone was homesick, they would be comforted. When I fell sick, I was taken care of. Wherever there was a space for love, love would come in and fill it.
I felt like I belonged. No words can do justice to that.
As we developed our skills in the practice rooms, at coachings, and during rehearsals, I learned to give thanks for the gifts I had.
I learned the meaning of stewardship, and I became increasingly grateful for the things I could do with my mind, heart, and body. I acknowledged God for everything I had, from my sense of hearing, to the way I could move my arms and fingers to make music on the violin, and to the way I could get up every morning and swim 2K in the pool before Morning Sing. The more gifts I acknowledged, the more I could see.
I loved Credo so much, I returned the following summer. That year, I learned a different kind of thankfulness. I gave thanks to God for blessing other people with gifts and talents. Instead of seeing it through lens of jealousy and envy, it was a great joy to see how my brothers and sisters at Credo were growing as musicians. For if they received increase, that meant I would receive too. I saw our body of people as one.
Each Thursday was our Service Day. We would go out and do community service. Sometimes this meant packing food in churches and laboring in shelters, or picking up trash by the highway. We would also take our quartets and bring our music into spaces that normally wouldn’t be exposed to this level of music. We performed in nursing homes and hospitals, and in the Oberlin community too.
It wasn’t really about how helpful we were, or how great we sounded. More importantly, these days were about the heart.
We served the people around us because we loved them, and because we were grateful for what we were given. This was our response to the love of God, and to being ministered to by our community at Credo. Because we had received, now we had to minister unto the people who needed it.
I learned that it was an absolute joy to freely share the gifts I had. During the weekend concerts, when I was on stage with my quartet, I realized that performance should have been an act of delight and worship all along.
This is all without even the mention all the other crazy opportunities we had. I sang in the choir for Haydn’s “Creation” oratorio in Cleveland’s Severance Hall, played on Joshua Bell’s former violin, and performed the national anthem at a major league baseball game, just to name a few.
When it was time to say goodbye at the end of three weeks, there was scarcely a dry eye in the room. We wept and hugged like we had known each other for lifetimes.
Overall, at Credo, I learned what community should be. That when people put their gifts together for good, glorifying the Lord, something truly beautiful comes out of it.
Although I was mostly alone for the remainder of high school, Credo ignited something within me. Like a candle lit for the dark, I traveled back to China both years with a renewed sense of purpose. I longed for this kind of fellowship once again, but in the meanwhile, I was determined to love God with all my heart, my soul, and my mind.
And I loved the people around me because of that. I prayed for them when I was alone. Although this love was hardly reciprocated, I had a source within me that would eagerly give without being exhausted. Even though I struggled greatly with my social anxiety, I had great compassion when I saw my peers become stressed over exams, college applications, and competition.
I’ve written previously about the days surrounding my acceptance to Wellesley College. It was the first testimony I had ever written and shared, but it was so clear to me, even then, that God’s hand was at work in placing me there, and not anywhere else.
The first thing to know about Wellesley is that it is a women’s college. In fact, it is the top women’s school in the world, and in the top 3 of liberal arts colleges in the nation.
When I decided to attend Wellesley, I immediately felt empowered by my choice. This was despite the fact that I never imagined actually accepting an offer when I applied.
Maybe I felt bolder already because I had previously always been in a co-ed environment, and I knew how difficult it was to hold my space in a setting where males were physically louder, stronger, and more emphatic with their presence.
In fact, I scarcely had a male friend growing up. (Fine, maybe a couple, but they were the exception, really. My friend groups were always all-female.) I just couldn’t feel like myself when I was constantly set on edge by them.
It was like this college was designed for my needs at the moment.
I needed a place where I could rediscover my confidence, and to find the community I had tasted while going to camp at Oberlin. I knew it was possible. So I made it a priority before I even arrived that fall, to find sisters who would sharpen me like iron.
I didn’t want to limit myself to only Christian friends, and I didn’t want to pass up any opportunities for friendships when I got to campus. I talked to everyone, introduced myself, and asked questions. Lots of questions.
I watched as people began to form into groups, although I still felt welcomed in them. I began to feel like a bouncer, not quite here, not quite there. I watched as a small community began to form right on my floor, and I was too anxious or otherwise occupied to let myself be a part of that. I watched as another one formed upstairs, too, and on various parts of campus, like in my archery class, or among other STEM students.
I felt well liked, but not always loved.
Symphony Church was the first Sunday service I attended, and where I decided to stay. Once a week, we had “Family Group” in So’s dorm room, where we shared about our week, did bible study, prayed, and had fellowship with one another.
During my first semester, I became so busy and swept up by the various things I had committed myself to, I had to begin seeing a counselor for the intense anxiety I experienced. Despite this, I still made family group a priority. It was good to just be present with other Christian women.
But there was more to be done, and more that God would do.
There were about two semesters in between, where I attended church service, worship night, and family group sporadically. I got to know my sisters better, but it was rare to see them outside of these events. One on one, we intentionally would meet up for meals to get to know each other, but it was a long process, and one that required effort, since we didn’t bump into one another on campus all that much.
However, it was worth it.
By the time I reached my second semester of sophomore year, I had been through a lot, emotionally and spiritually. The devil had planted thoughts in my mind that sought to harm me, and it took all my being, and the full armor of God, to resist his wiles. I had been diagnosed with a long string of acronyms, the experiences of which I have written about already on this blog.
Especially during this semester, I became better and better about vocalizing my struggles, asking for help, and seeking the company of my sisters.
In addition to our main church events, one sister among us, Ja, hosted prayer meetings, which grew and became more powerful. During the second to last week of classes, God broke through and ministered to us through the Holy Spirit.
I began seeing my sisters quite often, almost on a daily basis. We became better at intentionally talking to one another, asking and receiving prayer, and holding one another accountable to walking with God.
Finally, God had planted a much-needed community on our campus. And it’s still growing. I am so thankful to be a part of this process. From the time before I was conceived, through my childhood, through high school, and college, even for this very moment of today, God has always had a perfect plan for me. Likewise are His plans for you.
On our campus, we have distinctive lamp posts that light the pathways when it is dark.
These lights were made as a symbol of God’s Word as a lamp to our feet, and a light to our path. To me, they are also a reminder not to be ministered unto, but to minister, like what I had learned at Credo, and like our college motto, Non Ministrari sed Ministrare.
My prayer is that our light would continue to shine into the darkness that is over our campus. That it would become undeniably bright, because no matter how much darkness we are surrounded by, light will always overcome it. That Wellesley would be filled with light again, and that it would shine into the nations, at a time when it is so greatly needed.
There is a bigger story here. The question now is, will you join us?