12/14/12

By now, I am sure you have heard about what happened in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut with the murder of the 20 children and 6 adults.  You may also have heard of the 22 children that were stabbed to death from YuanChuan Elementary School in the village of Chengpin in Henan, China that happened the day before.  If anything, what happened so saddened even President Obama that he cried as he shared his condolences and support to those that died.

After hearing the news on Friday morning, I was so heart broken that I felt led to go and make some major changes to my Christmas service sermon that I was sharing because I felt that it was so important not to forget what had transpired.  What I share next is not meant to take away from the pain, heart break, loss, suffering or aching that the families and their loved ones may be feeling, but I feel it is important to explore an important topic together… that is this concept of sin.

The truth of the matter is this: This is not the first time nor will it be the last time we will hear of such horrific things happening.  Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, such terrible things will have happened and will continue to happen.  We must take a moment then and ask ourselves, what drives such activity?! What I write to you after this is related to this because I believe what motivates such an action is this concept of sin which leads to such evils.  A quote I saw on my friend’s Facebook said this:

“The presence of evil does not imply the absence of God, rather the presence of evil demands a God who must be present — present to judge, heal, restore, and to save.”

I think that this is so true… that what sin reveals to us… what this evil shows what the world needs and has is a God that is able to judge, to heal, to restore and to save.  You see, sin is this corruption… this separation from God and what He originally planned for humanity.  It is a break from this vertical relationship with Him.  Originally, God intended for humanity to glorify Him, love Him, worship Him, love others, and to care for His world.  From the beginning with Adam & Eve till now, humanity has willfully disobeyed God.  We have done so by going against God’s original plan and desire for us … and have placed our own lives and priorities before what God has planned. By doing so, we have disconnected the vertical relationship with God and we have placed our own desires before God’s  By doing so, our sin has separated us from God and because of the inability to be perfect, our sin always now disrupts this relationship with God.

The truth is this… sin is nasty… it is what leads us to place these other plans and purposes (what we want) before God… and by doing so… we have started to worship creation and created things rather than the Creator!  God is no longer first.  As a result, our sins manifest themselves in two ways. One is outward and are actions that place one’s own desires above the care and consideration of others.  This often leads to acts of violence, exploitation, murder and taking advantage of others; it is about putting oneself before others.  This is what happened in China and Connecticut; it is this outward display of sin by selfish, sin-corrupted, evil people.

But you must be wondering, I am no nowhere near as messed up or evil as such folks, but the truth is sin is not just an outward display of selfish action, but it is also an inward disposition of our heart.  It is the corrupted selfish thoughts, feelings that we may have… the intentions, the desires, the bitterness, the jealousy, the greed, the rage and the pride that may lead us thinking about hurting others and putting ourselves first.  Trust me, the only reason sometimes we don’t act on these thoughts is simply our fear of self-preservation; we are afraid of the consequences of our sin and going to jail and being victimized as well.  The reality is we have the potential of great sin as well.  Humanity is unable to escape from this slavery of sin, and this is what brings us to where we are today.  As imperfection due to our sin, we cannot attach ourselves to a God that is so perfect because our sin now makes us imperfect.  Perfection and imperfection cannot mix!  You see, what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary and at YuanChuan Elementary is not alien to humanity, but common; it is the unchanging reality of our lives apart from God… the date, title and story of the News event may change, but these things will continue to happen because of sin; sin is the lowest common denominator of human reality!

In light of the Christmas season and preparing a sermon, I realized that ultimately the failure of Christmas for many Christians is not that we don’t remember it is about Jesus, but that we fail to remember the entirety of the story and just the birth of Jesus.  For some, we may only see Christmas as an occasion to deal with food, relationships and gift exchange; it becomes only about the horizontal relationships.  I think Matthew had a different idea when he wrote these words coming from an angel as it spoke to Joseph about Mary:

“She (Mary) will bear a son, and you shall his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

What Matthew shares is that what Christmas needs to be about is remembering this story of restoration of the vertical relationship between God and humanity through the physical reality of Jesus’ coming.

All our questions, our doubts, our pain, our heartbreak… we need to see that God about 2000 years ago answered our cries about sin and the brokenness of humanity.  It can be found by Matthew’s hinting using the name of Jesus at his birth.  Consider Jesus in verse 21, which means “God saves”.  Consider Immanuel in verse 23, which means “with us God”, or “God with us”.  What Matthew is pointing out is that in Jesus, God has answered our questions by sending Jesus to finally resolve this break in the vertical relationship between God and His people. God is here to save and He has not left us alone… but has entered into the historical timeline as a physical reality both as God and as man… the 2nd person of the Trinity, God’s Son, Jesus Christ has come so that He will know our pain as a reality.  Despite being tempted, with opportunities to outwardly sin, and inwardly sin, Jesus resisted and lived a life without sin.  Yet despite his sinless life, he was persecuted unjustly and put to death in the most humiliating way … through the cross!  Yet despite this, after three days, He resurrected, overcoming sin and the consequence that is death and separation from God, and now sits at the right hand of God, the Father advocating on our behalf.  By such actions through Jesus, God has taken all of humanity’s sin: past, present and future sin, and has washed those that call on the name of Jesus Christ as their Lord & Savior… a restored vertical relationship that gives humanity hope despite this world’s hopelessness.

In Christ, I don’t have an answer, but every time we see acts of incredible evil and sin, we realize the Author has written Himself into His story (History) and is here to save us.  It does not take away the pain and the inexplicable acts of violence and evil and suffering of this world, but these things should drive us to see that this is not the way God intended things to be; God had such a better plan that would lead to no heart break, and so now, God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ reminds us that He is bringing about a restoration and hope.  He comes alongside the brokenhearted and He lovingly embraces us and says, He understands… He knows because about two thousand years ago, He, a Father as well… lost His only Son to sin too.  He lost His beloved child and knows exactly how it feels.  

During this Christmas season, do NOT forget this true Christmas story about Jesus.  God has come to restore the vertical relationship that was broken due to sin, and Jesus is God saves, God with us.  May you continue to pray for the children and the adults that have died in such senseless tragedies and consider your own need for the love and redemption of God.  Remember,

“The Lord is near to the  brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

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The fullness of our journey of faith

Over the past 15 years of driving back and forth from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara, I have often noticed that the drive along the 101 freeway is one that is mixed with a plethora of experiences. At some points on the freeway, one is able to enjoy the fresh salty ocean breeze with the sound of waves crashing and seagulls cawing in the background, at another the stale dryness of the drought induced valley full of dried yellow grass that rustles in the wind, in some places there are elevation changes that bring different temperatures and color and lushness to the terrain, and in others there is the dampness/coolness of the fog as one enters into the heavily wooded areas intermixed with the signs of human habitation that distinctly changes the landscape into areas of concrete civilization. This diversity of experiences often reminds me of the journey of the Christian as well!

Like the 101 freeway’s diversity, the Christian life is meant to bring about a “fullness” of one’s life in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To the uninitiated, this is often seen as to mean that are lives are meant to be happy, carefree, without worry because we have Jesus and in many ways we are insulated from pain; it is expected that we are to have spiritual experiences that are bright, warm, filled with peace and blessing. Yet like the changes along the journey of a drive along the 101, the Christian is quickly reminded that this journey is not simply just those things; our journey is also hard, dark, filled with suffering and pain. The reality is one’s journey of faith also has shadows. We cannot simply gloss over the pain and hardship and skip over to the fun stuff.

The truth is our lives are not just filled with a gospel of fullness but one that includes emptiness. Our God not only gives, but He also takes away! Just as our spiritual lives can not flourish without God’s abiding shalom, so it cannot also mature without the dark night of the soul. Our Spiritual lives/experiences can also be filled with pain and anguish that is not about simply adding things to our lives, but also about the taking away and transforming who we are from the inside out. God comes not only as the great giver but also the great disturber of our lives. Our lives can expect to encounter difficulty! Thomas Merton once wrote that:

“while we may have the generosity to undergo one or two such upheavals, we [often] cannot face the necessity of further & greater rendings of our inner self.”

These tough spiritual experiences are painful and difficult, and often after a few, we simply want them to stop and to no longer have any!

In my journey with God, there has been amazing transformation and seasons of abundance, and yet it is in this journey into the light with God that one starts to be exposed to darkness as well. From moments of great joy and happiness… such as my times in ministry and the new relationships built with amazing people to my time at Western Seminary, it has also been filled with times of heartbreak, disappointment, loss, and difficulty. It was as God started to reveal what it means to follow Christ that I started to see that the journey involved more changes to the terrain and circumstances than what I had expected! This was like the long drives along the 101 at times. One cannot wait to get through certain areas because they were so boring with no change in terrain (or lack thereof)… and it would leave one so exhausted, and frustrated hoping for it to be over.

The reality is that these are the moments where we must submit our lives to Christ and to realize that there will be changes, and we must be open to these changes. Even the best spiritual growth/dynamism/movement is fraught with hardship and difficult. Our natural inclinations after encountering these hard parts of our journey, is to ask to stop, to be flustered, and to give up… “please God, no more!” But this is not the way of the Christian. We are called to walk the narrow and unfamiliar path; we are called into a downward mobility, to give up, to sacrifice, to serve. We are challenged daily to let go of our way and to walk the unique journey of faith. It is ultimately in losing our “life”, that we in fact truly gain a life in abundance and joy. Like this long drive along the 101 with changing circumstances, pretty soon, we will reach our destination and be filled with joy as we realize that without going through the good and the bad, we would never have been able to finally arrive at home!

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Inspired by “Seeking the Silences” by Charles Ringma

How did you?

You may be wondering why I am posting again so soon, but it is because I have an exciting personal story to share with you! But before I share this story, I want to ask you a simple question… for some of you, this may be many years ago, but for others, it may be recent… how did you come to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  How did God first start to reach out to you in your former life… in the midst of the darkness… how did you come to see the light?  How did the unsearchable riches of Christ become revealed to you?

Paul shared these poignant words in Romans 10:14-15:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

So that’s my question because my story starts with that question how that led me on an adventure that came to a beautiful conclusion.  You see, a few years ago, I felt led to search up all those brothers and sisters in my life that had been a part of introducing me to Christ.  Those that helped me to come to know Christ through sharing/witnessing/evangelizing/preaching… those that God used to witness to me about His incredible story.  My story began than with quite a few different individuals including my real younger brother, a high school friend, a few brothers from UCSB AACF and a random co-worker.

For this story, I want to focus on that random co-worker because I was able to thank and even meet up with all those others in my past that had a part to play to my knowing Jesus.  Yet my co-worker, I could not find after we parted ways about 10 years ago.  I just remembered that this co-worker, a Westmont grad… started working with me… and started to ask me questions about my faith then (Buddhism), and hung out.  We played baseball on the beach during lunch, ate together, chatted, and he simply asked me about my faith and shared a bit about his faith in Jesus.  Such a small thing, but it was his courage to talk to me, to love me and befriend me… despite my ignorance … that started the ball rolling to my own searching for an answer.  Nobody knows this, but his humble, simple witness was what started that insatiable curiosity for an answer that I could not find anywhere… was finally found at the feet of the cross of my murdered Savior, who died and rose again for my sake.

I won’t share his name via text, but you’ll see it in the picture that follows soon.  A few reasons… first of all, I think it’s best to not just list it, but also because ultimately, it is God who is moving and working these incredible things; not man, but God alone that deserves the true credit.

But as I am writing, my co-worker after a few months moved away from Santa Barbara!  Before he left, I am sure he left me his contact information, and I believe it was for medical school that he left.  You see, his dream was to be a doctor and to serve others and help others.  I remembered that, but like everything then, I lost the information or failed to keep in touch.  As time passed… I came to know Christ, but our friendship/story was lost into the obscurity of history.  Yet it was in the asking of the question of how did I… that I tried seeking out this co-worker. Google and Facebook were utilized, and though he did not have a facebook, Google showed that he was doing his residency in Fresno/Bakersfield!  There was no contact information so I set this aside and continued to pursue other things, and once again it was lost into the fog of history.

Well fast forward to Nov. 2012, and now, I am a Pastor in Santa Barbara serving at CEFCSB.  One of the members of our church family, an elderly sister in Christ was in the hospital with a foot infection, and I went to visit her there. During my hospital visit, I wanted to save up her contact phone number so I took a picture of the white board that is in every patient’s room at the hospital.  This was what I saw:

What I saw: my co-worker’s name!

The physician’s last name matched my random co-worker’s!  I thought … this couldn’t be the same person could it be? But it was such a unique last name, I figured I’d ask the nurse.  She mentioned that he was a doctor that just moved here, and so when I went to the website to look it up, it was him!!!!  I was so ecstatic, and left him a message with my number to call me so we can catch up.  Though he has yet to respond (only been a few days), I heard that he rejoiced to hear about me, and I hope that we’ll get time to sit down and talk and to fellowship once again.

Isn’t that wonderful?  Isn’t that praise worthy? Consider the words of Paul in Romans 10, how are people to call on Jesus for whom they have not believed? How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  How are they to hear without someone preaching? How are they to preach unless they’ve been sent?  How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!

You see, my doctor/co-worker’s friendship and willingness to talk about Jesus with me seemed so unspectacular at first glance. Very little impact and very little power, and yet God used this to save me… to change my heart… and now, I have been called to a place of serving others as well. Paul writing to us in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, wrote these words as a reminder:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

So as I leave you today, I want to give you an encouragement… How did you come to know and hear the good news of Jesus Christ?  Perhaps you are the random co-worker in another’s life!  My prayer is that you may be the random co-worker in many other people’s lives as well!  For truly, how beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!

A Wholesome Holiness

Seeking silence & reflection @ Lake Tahoe

I was deeply encouraged by the feedback and encouragement from others for my last post on October 17, 2012 titled “ALL things work together for good”. Thank you for your love, prayer and support through this transition period!

I actually typed a few pages for this blog, but decided to simplify this to a simple thought on the topic of holiness.  If you want to explore the topic of holiness with me, you can listen to my sermon at Living Stones Christian Church, my former church’s website, and look for “Hope & Holiness” on 9/9/2012.

During my own times of study and prayer, I came across an entry in the Charles Ringma book titled, “Seek the Silences with Thomas Merton.”   It was regarding holiness.  Essentially what Ringma points out is that people tend to be people at extremes in their pursuit of a holy life. These extremes can be seen as those that are very “holy” but not very outward focused in their love, to the very outward focused in their love, but that have very little inward focus towards their Savior.  Then there are other textures such as those that are greedy, or falsely spiritual, to those that are empty shells merely teaching theological truths but that feel no passion for what they teach. Ultimately, we are creatures of extremes and it is often assumed that a life of holiness is a life that is either bound in intimacy with God and for others tied to their spiritual ministry.

“Does holiness equate to intimacy with God or with spiritual ministry? Can one be a businessperson or a politician and still be holy? Is one holy because one is a priest or monk? Has holiness to do with one’s being or one’s actions or both?”

What Merton says about holiness is this:

“sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human… this implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding…and also for humor, for joy” (Ringma, 23).

Holiness is this then:  

“God’s grace operating in our lives” (Ringma, 23).

It draw us closer to God and turns our attention to the world. Holiness then is living the will of God by the power and grace of God.  This life is not one of prideful, self-holiness awareness, but one of great humility and enjoyment of life as much as it is a life that seeks to be holy.  It truly does reflect this focus on God and yet this connection to the world; a balance of being and doing. I find this balance then to be a better and healthier picture of holiness in Christ lived out by the saints, and seems to be confirmed in how Christ lived out his life too.  My hope and blessing is that you may continue to grow and model your life towards this wholesome holiness in Christ as well!

ALL things work together for good.

Romans 8:28

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Recently, my life has been filled with a series of events that have been very heavy and discouraging in my own life. From struggles in ministry and leaving a community, to my imminent move to Santa Barbara, to my grandmother being put in hospice care, to my grandfather struggling with illness, to heartbreak and a feeling of betrayal by a friend, it’s been a rather long line of experience of personal pain and hardship.

It’s in the midst of this time that I have been greatly comforted by God’s continued presence and reminder of His love. In praying for peace and to have joy, God has given me a deep peace which surpasses all understanding in my circumstances and that has been good. In reflecting on the blessings… in the things that are good, that are true… anything worthy of praise… I have come to see the value of friendships and how my friends in their love, prayer, support, prayer, encouragement, and listening has been such a comfort and such a reminder of God’s presence and ever faithfulness to care for me with those that come as His hands and feet… made in His image. They have been praying and pointing me to Jesus Christ and His work! It’s in reflecting on His goodness, His sovereignty… in that preaching of the Gospel to myself to hear and be reminded of His love, that the words in Romans struck a chord.

I was talking to some friends about the above text in Romans 8:28, and my friend pointed out an interesting thing. The thing that he pointed out was the word “all”. His point was this… that for those that love God… that have this relationship, all (everything)… ultimately works together for good! Even the hard things, the painful things, the negative things, and the bitter things. The fact is this… God allows and His sovereign control and will is moving even thru the stuff that is difficult, seemingly impossible and painful at the moment. Ultimately, He is in control of and allowing what transpires to happen and it will be resolved ultimately for His glory and good purpose. Isn’t that amazing? Everything… ALL things work together for good…

Do my times of sadness disappear, my moments of disappointment, hurt, or pain go away immediately? NO. But knowing He is sovereign brings such comfort because in the grand scheme of things… these things are small… yet to Him they are important too. It is in these times of hurt and pain that one feels the pain and it weighs heavily on me. It does not go away, and it is important to see that God is in these moments of hardship… in control. He is ever present, ever faithful, ever good and loves me despite my weakness, my bitterness, my anger, my frustration and my failures and lack of love. He allows me to be a wreck and to be hurt and to be angry and to be weak and bitter… not hiding behind a facade or thin veneer of performance and acting as though everything is fine, but allowing me to simply cry and be weak and to be in need of Him. Even these things are in His control working to bring about His good.

In reflection, this isn’t a post of deep theology or exegesis. I just want to share that God has reminded me of His constant love and presence through it all. As these doors in my life seemingly are closing and there are painful moments, God has opened other doors to guide me through my life. As doors in ministry have closed, other doors have opened as well! My life has been a mix of these… but one thing I always know… in these times is this: all things work together for good. Thank you, Lord for your love and your Sovereignty in my life!

“Busted Heart (Hold On To Me)”

Winter has come back again
Feels like the season won’t end
My faith is tired tonight,
And I won’t try to pretend,
I’ve got it all figured out,
That I don’t have any doubts,
I’ve got a busted heart
I need You now
Yeah I need You nowHold on to me
Hold on to me
Don’t let me lose my way
Hold on to meI am the wandering son
Enough is never enough
I keep chasing the wind
Instead of chasing Your love
I’m screaming out Your name,
Don’t let me fall on my face
I’ve got a busted heart
I’m in need of a change
Yeah, I’m desperate for graceHold on to me (Hold on to me)
Hold on to me
Don’t let me lose my way (Don’t let me lose my way)
Hold on to me

Broke Your heart a thousand times
But You’ve never left my side
You have always been here
For me

You never let me go
You never let me go
Don’t ever let me go

Hold on to me (Hold on to me)
Hold on to me
Don’t let me lose my way (Don’t let me lose my way)
Hold on to me
[2x]

Winter will come to an end
Soon the season will end
I surrender tonight
You meet me right where I am