Reflecting on 2012

2 Corinthians 9:15

It’s hard to believe that just about a year ago the 4 of us committed to writing on a weekly basis again. We may have missed one or two here and there, but we’ll call it a good running start. We originally had not intended on including graphics with each post, however while Bryan and Kelly were visiting their parents for Christmas a “one-time favor” became a regular part of this blog.

Over the past 12 months quite a bit has changed as well! In 2012:

  • Dien graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary and married his lovely wife, Loan
  • Helicon graduated from Western Seminary and accepted a full-time pastoral position at Chinese Evangelical Free Church of Santa Barbara
  • Tim began his last year at Biola University
  • Bryan shaved his head

As we spend time with family and friends this Christmas we invite you to take a stroll down memory lane with us as we recap a few of your favorite posts from 2012:

As we look forward to 2013, let’s focus on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith“ and “let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”

Thanks be to God for His undescribable gift.

From all of us at TemporaryVisitors, Merry Christmas and happy new year!

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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).

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

Please Read God’s Word

The last post was a petition for Christians to pray because prayer is one of the most beneficial disciplines in the Christian faith. In this post, it is a petition to read God’s word. I want to say that there is a relationship between how powerful a person’s prayer life is and their knowledge of God’s word. Prayer might be the fire, but the fuel to the fire is God’s word. One author describes the relationship in this manner, “Unless the vital forces of prayer are supplied by God’s Word, prayer, though earnest, even vociferous, in its urgency, is, in reality, flabby, and vapid, and void. The absence of vital force in praying, can be traced to the absence of a constant supply of God’s Word, to repair the waste, and renew the life. He who would learn to pray well, must first study God’s Word, and store it in his memory and thought.” Again, Bounds writes, “The Word of God is the fulcrum upon which the lever of prayer is placed, and by which things are mightily moved. God has committed Himself, His purpose and His promise to prayer. His Word becomes the basis, the inspiration of our praying, and there are circumstances under which, by importunate prayer, we may obtain addition, or an enlargement of His promises.” Is there a relationship between prayer and God’s Word? Yes.

The apostle John writes, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). The stipulation to answer prayers is God hearing us, but God only hears us if we ask according to His will. How does a person know God’s will? For the most part, I believe, God’s will is revealed in and through His word by the Holy Spirit. The promise is if we pray according to God’s will, then we know that God hears our prayers. The result is God will answer our prayers. What an amazing thought. Again, the apostle John writes, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn. 15:7). One commentator writes, “effective prayer is based on faith in Christ and on His words remaining in believers. Christ’s words condition and control such a believer’s mind so that his prayers conform to the Father’s will. Since his prayer is in according with God’s will, the results is certain – it will be given you.” Praying and reading God’s Word go hand in hand. If one reads God’s Word, one is driven to prayer. God’s word has the ability to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4;12). When one spends time in the presence of “Holiness” it will show the presence of filth in one’s life, which would move us to prayer.

Oh, love ones, please read so that we can pray effectively. How is Bible reading going for you? Do you want a powerful prayer life? If so, please develop a ferocious reading life of His Word. Please read God’s Word. Don’t forsake it. It is essential to the Christian life. Without it, everything else will fall apart. May we be a generation that loves God’s word by reading it. Please read, understand, digest, and practice God’s word in order to ensure a great prayer life.

Self-Reliance, Materialism, and James

Be forewarned — today’s post is a rather gloomy post. Lately, I have been thinking a bit about the book of James. Famously, Martin Luther was not a big fan of the book; he thought it failed to mention Christ and the gospel enough times. Well, I think a more charitable read of James is that it presupposes the gospel. Hence, James is writing to those who already considered themselves Christians.

Given that James is writing to Christians, it is interesting to see how much they struggle with worldliness, so for the rest of this post, I want to reflect a bit about two manifestations of worldliness that our current culture especially demonstrates. The first kind of worldliness is what I’ll call self-reliance. Consider the following passage from James 4:13-17.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

Now, we might ask, “What’s so bad about having plans for our futures? After all, isn’t that wise stewardship?” The problem, I think, is the underlying attitude. James is writing against an attitude that focuses on our plans and purposes, rather than on God’s plan. This attitude is arrogant because it assumes that we have the ultimate say over our own lives. However, as James says, we do not know what tomorrow will bring. We cannot control reality. The fault is not in having plans for the future, but in having a belief that we are our own masters.

The second kind of worldliness relates to material possessions. It is discussed in James 5:1-6.

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

This is a thorny passage, but I just want to point out two things. First, James emphasizes the temporary nature of material possessions, as if there were some who had an undue attachment to money. Second, he condemns the “rich” for the lack of justice in withholding wages from their workers. In our day, it has become popular to demonize the “1-percent” or the wealthy. But before we attempt to remove the speck from our brother’s eye, let us see if we have a log in our own eye. Do we, as Christians, have an excessive attachment to possessions? To worldly success? Is there justice in the way that we use and share our resources?

Self-reliance and materialism are, I think, two of the most prominent forms of worldliness among Christians today. We need look no further than within our youth groups. I see kids who are pushed to academic success, which is certainly a good thing, but when it comes to the Bible, they are functionally illiterate. I see parents who are more concerned about the worldly success of their child than they are about their child coming to the knowledge of the living God. We are blessed with so many things, yet I wonder if that has not trained us to be the most materialistic generation the world has seen. We make idols out of our smartphones, but justify it by downloading Bible apps.

Even if you don’t agree with what I’ve said, here’s one thing that we may agree on: my generation of young men and women must learn humility. For some reason, we think we are the latest and the greatest. This is even reflected in the church. Young Christians like me (especially those in high-school and college *ahem*) seem to think that we do the Christianity thing better than our parents, our churches…better than all those Christians in two-thousand years of church history. They are traditional, outmoded, and ignorant, but we are progressive, urbane, and enlightened.

Well, I am guilty of all that as well. I, too, am self-reliant, materialistic, and proud. What are we to do? Here is James’s advice to us; let us attend carefully to it:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
(James 4:7-10 ESV)