A Fellowship of Men in the Presence of God

Reflections on the 2017 GBF Men’s Retreat

And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. They went away in the boat to a secluded place by themselves. 

~Mark 6:31-32

This past weekend marked my first experience at a men’s retreat. And it was awesome. Or should I say, uniquely awesome. 

A bit ironic, perhaps, given that speaking and exhorting the men of the church in whatever capacity induces the strongest heartbeat in pastors and ministers. Ironic, surely, given that counseling, discipling, training, ministering with and being educated alongside men has comprised more than a good slice of my life’s pie. Pastors’ conferences, men’s breakfasts, church leadership get-always, I’d been to them all. But an all-inclusive men’s retreat – it was, for some reason, my first. I hope it won’t be the last. 

An Ancient Activity

The gathering of a select group of God’s men to a secluded area, away from the regular responsibilities of daily life, for a concentrated time to absorb the Word of God and be refreshed by the company of one another is no novelty. If anything, it’s a classic endeavor. Christ would frequently take His twelve to the mountains or secluded places for prayer, teaching, or simply rest from the crowds. At the GBF Men’s Retreat, we weren’t Christ and His twelve, but we were a group of twenty-three saints tucked away for an over-night get-away at the American River – a couple of hundred miles away from our home base in Silicon Valley. Engaged we were in an ancient activity. There’s something special about tapping into the classics. 

Pondering the Person of Christ

On Friday evening, the men opened up the Word of God together, specifically from Mark 14:26-50, and studied Christ while examining ourselves from the same passage. We first examined the fleshly traits that so often beget us and hinder us from a full-fledged pursuit of biblical masculinity – conceit, casualness, and cowardice. Then, in the subsequent session, we pondered the godliness of Christ as laid out in this near-apex of the Scriptures. There was Christ before us – the seeking man, the suffering man, the submissive man, the settled man, the sacrificial man. Christ may not have not been present with us in physical body, but His person was made vivid through the revelation of the Bible. And contemplate Him we did. Then, on Saturday morning, we went rafting. 

In the Presence of the Untamed God

It’s every little boy’s dream, only it was different as a grown man. Rafting is every bit as humbling as it was exhilarating – not because any of us fell into the river, but because the river wouldn’t listen to us. We could only navigate through the river’s rapids and currents; we couldn’t command them. The American river flowed at a direction and with a vigor wholly independent of our will, causing me to consider that the majority inanimate earth remains untamed. Yet, even this river flowed only by the decrees of Almighty God. I was reminded once again – as I’m sure were the rest of the men – that it isn’t the river that is untamed; it is the Lord Himself, to whom the entire universe belongs and obeys (cf Job 38). There is nothing that a man needs more than to realize that he stands perpetually in the presence of the untamed God. 

Witnessing the Work of the Spirit

But the 4 hours of rafting left us with a good 16 hours (for you math geeks, I subtracted the time spent rafting and sleeping) together. That’s 16 hours driving together, stomaching steaks and scrambled eggs together, studying the Word together, exploring the camp grounds together, sitting around lanterns (or, rather, lantern-looking flashlights) rehearsing stories together. It was “male-bonding” as it’s normally termed, only it was everything but normal. It was unique – not because it’s unique for a group of twenty three men to do all these things together over a weekend, but because it’s unique for a group as eclectic as ours to have done so. The oldest man in our group was a grandfather in his late 60s; the youngest, 15 – an incoming junior in high school – with everything in between and with roots from different farming grounds. Some were born and raised in California; others from Idaho; some, from China, Kuwait, and Hawaii; others, from Virginia and Tennessee. The group consisted of engineers, collegians, writers, business owners, and pastors. Some were athletes; some were artists. A homogeneity meter of virtually zero. But this is the nature of Christ’s church, whose fellowship spans every culture, generation, ethnicity, occupation, and socio-economic background. I’ve been around the block long enough to realize that not all local churches reflect this. And so to witness the diversity amongst the men present – to witness the fellowship of our church’s men break through the barriers that normally confine immunities and social groups – was witnessing a redemptive work covered by the Holy Spirit’s fingerprints (cf Galatians 3). 

So there you have it: an overnight trip to the American river with twenty-three men engaging in an ancient activity of pondering Christ apart from the normal responsibilities of life, in the presence of the untamed God, witnessing the redemptive work of the Spirit. That, my friends, was the 2017 GBF Men’s Retreat. 


Reflecting on the Gift of Family 

A brother was born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17)

On my office desk, co-existing with the stacks of books and binders that constitute my ministry toolbox, sits a picture that was taken 19 years ago. It is one of my parents, brother, two sisters, and myself. The place: Honolulu, Hawaii, in the living room of our Hawaii Kai Queen’s Gate home. The date: July 31, 1997 – the evening of my younger sister’s 12th birthday. That picture was the last complete family picture that we took.  

Less than a month after it was taken, my parents separated and divorced shortly after. We haven’t taken a picture with the six of us together since.  

The photo serves as a reminder of my roots, of the family soil from which I bloomed. Life has moved on for all – parents and children alike. Today, my father lives in the Philippines; my mother in Las Vegas. Both are remarried. I see my mother a number of times a year on special occasions, and my father about once every year and a half. My brother currently lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children. I see him a few times a year, and our kids are the best of buddies. Both of my sisters are married and live in the Bay Area; them, I see quite often, since we live inhabit the same part of the globe. During the first two weeks of September of last year, I had a chance to see all of them – yes, all six of them and their families. Kathy, the two kids, and I spent a week in Asia with my father, and then traveled straight to Hawaii for one week for my mother’s sixtieth birthday celebration, where all my siblings and their families were present. It was a blessedly refreshing time for us all, and it prompted me to write this entry.

There was a particularly long stretch of life when I valued friends above family. When I headed off to college, I had no real ambition to remain close to my parents and siblings. I began trekking a new trail, restructuring my sphere of close relationships that consisted entirely of Christian friends from church or fellowship. Toward family, it was less of a despising and more of simple disinterest. I saw them as infrequently as possible, and during the times that I did I was distant and aloof. Perhaps it was an outflow of a man who was seeking to find my identity in my newly forming social circles. I vividly recall a conversation with my brother the day before I was scheduled to fly to Phoenix for a family reunion, during which he asked me why it was that I had planned it such that I would fly into Phoenix and also leave the evening of that same day. He asked me why it was that, every time we had a family event scheduled (which wasn’t even that frequent), I seemed to always be interested in leaving earlier than everyone else. I was offended during that phone conversation…and it was mainly because he was right.  

In that particular season, a reality was concurrently beginning to unfold of which I became aware only near the tail end; I would go through one cycle after another of gaining and losing friends. Close confidants became people to avoid. Those who vowed loyalty one day would betray it in the next. But throughout the rising and setting of friendships, my brother and sisters remained by my side. My parents never removed their love and support. To say that “they were always there for me” sounds cliche-ish, but its truth can’t be denied.  

Admittedly, I used to think that exhibiting strong familial ties were particular to certain cultures and not to others. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that it is not fundamentally a cultural practice, but a biblical principle that stems from both biblical commandments and biblical wisdom. Cain, though he denied such a responsibility, was called to be his brother’s keeper. In the Old Testament, Hebrew slaves in the Old Testament who were too poor to redeem themselves were to be redeemed by their blood brothers – hence the term “kinsman redeemer.” A woman who was widowed by her husband’s death was called to be taken by that man’s brother as his wife. In the New Testament, believers are commanded to be devoted to one another in “brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10), carrying the implication that the relationship amongst brothers ought to both valued and be set as the model for the way the members of God’s church were meant to treat one another. So yes, I admit that in my previous failing to value family, I was biblically off the mark.  

Today, Cuevas siblings do live our separate lives, exclusive of each other in its daily workings. My older brother, the business-savvy one, currently works in Phoenix as a product manager for Annexus. My older sister, the logical genius of the bunch, works at Google as a senior software engineer and team lead manager. My younger sister, in many ways the clan’s most talented, will be starting a professorship at U.C. Davis for bioinorganic chemistry. As for me, the “different” one as my mother told me on the eve of my college graduation (it’s a euphemism for “headstrong”), am a full-time vocational minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As it is, we don’t get into each other’s business or tell each other what to do. Quarreling and arguing are as rare as a Diamond Head volcano erruptions, if not altogether non-existent. Our reunion routine: we start with loud “Hi!’s”, embrace, find a place to eat at a restaurant, and talk. There’s a lot of story-telling, laughing, and reminiscing about our childhood – both the good and the bad. Nothing can replace that. There’s something particularly special about the common grace that was extended to us through my parents and how they raised us. And as I write this, I’m humbled that the Lord didn’t repay me for my previous perspective of at times throwing them under the rug, and instead kept me integrated into their lives.  

As we continue to stay in touch as adults, I’ve reflected deeply on Proverbs 17:17: “A brother was born for adversity.” The meaning is simple. God providentially gave us parents, brothers, and sisters to be one of the greatest sources of security, safety, and support during life’s most adverse seasons. I knew this biblically; I now know it experientially.

So live we must, as Christians, for the kingdom of God and the ministry of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The ministry today to which God has commissioned me and Kathy – the pastoral ministry of the gospel and edification of the church in the Bay Area region – is an endeavor that is mutually exclusive of my familial ties. But my parents and siblings remain a most valuable and lasting set of earthly relationships apart from the ones I have with my wife and children, and ones deserving of great honor. It just took me a while to figure that out. 

Goodbye, Mama Geny

During the 1940s, a little peasant girl in the Philippines begged a Japanese soldier to spare her life. She and her family had been hiding underground in dugout trenches during the Japanese invasion of the country during World War II, but they were found out. But with all hope seemingly fleeting, the little girl begged – reminding the soldier of his own daughter, and thus drawing out his compassion. She was void of impressive stature, guns and weaponry, and formal education. But that little girl fought for her life, and for the lives of the next generations to come from her lineage. She would survive the war, get married, become the mother of five children, the grandmother of fifteen grand-children – yours truly being one of them – and nine great grandchildren. On December 31 of 2016, at the ripe old age of eighty-two, she passed away peacefully in her sleep. Her name: Genoveva Palacio Tan.  
She went by “Geny” (pronounced “Hen-nie”). Her kids called her “Muh-Mah”, and her grandchildren knew her as “Mama Geny.” My kids, and her great grandchildren, referred to her as “Granny.” With regards to her legacy, a book can be written about her…and I’m not going to attempt to author it in this blog entry. Thus, the tribute that I’m paying to the life of Mama Geny is unique not in plethora but in perspective. I write as the one member of the family with whom she had the most strained relationship.  

I state this with a deep sense of grief. Sparing details, there were obstacles that prevented my relationship with Mama Geny from being that picturesque grandmother-grandson relationship. Some of those obstacles were circumstantial; others were personal. I admit now, and painfully so, that I allowed past pains to blur my perspective. But the truth is, for the better part of the last two decades, I convinced myself that she didn’t love me. Perhaps, because by doing so it was easier for me to make sense of all the bitterness and hurt – one that, I realize, isn’t actually all that uncommon between family members. Some choose to handle it with grace. Others, like me, resorted to stubbornness. Mama Geny was strong-willed, but I was moreso. What resulted was a uniquely dysfunctional relationship between her and me that lasted for nearly twenty years. And while I was deeply resentful, she was deeply grieved by the grandson who attempted to categorically shove her out of his life.  

Yet, year after year, she would call my phone on my birthday to greet me and tell me she loved me, even when I would forget hers. Year after year, during family get-togethers, she would broil prawns and bake salmon because they were “JR’s favorite,” even though I would never say thank you. When I got married and had kids, she called them year after year on their birthdays, too. Year after year, she would go to the market to shop for clothes and toys for my family to give them during Christmas. In her last years, she would continually comment on how well she thought Kathy and I were raising our children.

Out of pride and blindness, I grew wary that perhaps she was trying to buy my love. And, for a long time, I thought I was right – even when my wife (and everyone else in the family) would tell me otherwise. But during the last full day that I spent with her earlier this month, I learned my lesson. She was bed-ridden in the hospital with oxygen tubes inserted through her airways; I was seated on the other side of the hospital room. She then motioned for my mom and, in her native language, whispered something to her. I stopped what I was doing and eavesdropped. With her life fleeting before her, she was reminding my mom to deposit money into my bank account.  Money that she had saved up for my kids’ – her great grandchildren’s – future education.  

It was then that I realized just how stupid I had been. For year after year, even though I foolishly tried to convince myself of otherwise, she loved me unconditionally as a grandmother to her grandson. That little ten-year old girl who fought for her life before the Japanese soldier would, in the last ten years of her life, continue to fight for mine.

I spent that last day with her trying to make her laugh, and laugh she did. She watched me eat prawns that evening.  She even listened to me debate with my cousin about the topic of political correctness, and said she “learned a lot.” The very next morning, my mom and I stopped by the hospital to see Mama Geny before I would have to fly back to California only a few hours later. Shortly after we arrived, Mama Geny was transferred onto a stretcher, as she was due for a chest x-ray. As they prepared to haul her away, I did what I had never done before: I gently stroked her face, told her I loved her, and told her to get stronger. She looked at me, clutched my hand, and said, “I will always love you.” Those were the last words I ever heard from her in person.  

And that time, I finally believed it. As I write, I still do.  

As 2016 comes to a close, the Tan Clan says goodbye to our beloved Mama Geny. Everyone will remember her for how much she loved her family, and that she did. But her purest, most unconditional form of love was given to a young man who, for the greater part of the last twenty years, failed to see it and failed to return it, but today can finally testify of it and for the rest of his life will choose to commemorate it. 


Farewell, Legacy Christian School!

Reflections after my two-year season as a teacher

A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.”

~Luke 6:40

I believe in my heart that the Lord Almighty has called me to vocational pastoral ministry. Since discerning God’s leading during my junior year in college, I’ve pursued it unashamedly. I’ve never been afraid to be honest about this on any occasion – including job interviews where I knew that such forthrightness could potentially cost me the offer for the position for which I was qualified. So when, during a summer morning in July of 2013, I was asked what my future career ambitions were during a job interview at Legacy Christian School, I responded: Continue reading

North of Forty, North of the Flesh

Reflections from being a special guest of honor at our church’s North of Forty social

“Wisdom is with aged men, with long life is understanding.”

~Job 12:12

This past Sunday, Kathy and I were invited as special “guests of honor” to North of 40, an event gathering at our church specifically for folks who – you guessed it – are forty years of older.  We – along with my other colleague and his wife (who actually hosted the event) – were invited so that the older sector of Grace Bible Fellowship would have a chance to interact with and get to know us, who are relatively newbies on the church’s pastoral staff.  The evening was relaxed and low-key, as my wife and I sailed smoothly from one conversation to another – only to be interrupted by the occasional and expected cry from one of our kids.  The conversations themselves were warm, deep, insightful, and encouraging, through which I found out that many of them had grown kids my age.  As the event drew to a close, I told the following to my pastor (who was also present at the event):

“There’s something about being with the more seasoned saints.  There’s a different kind of encouragement that they bring to the table that, as a young man, I really do need.” Continue reading

Training, Teammates, Teacher

Reflections from the 2015 Shepherds Conference

“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my my complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.  Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

~Philippians 2:1-4

As a few of the GBF staff coagulated by the front of The Master’s Seminary library on Thursday morning, preparing for what would be the tenth general session of the 2015 Shepherds Conference, one of the elders made the following observation:

“This is the most excited I’ve ever seen you!” he commented, referring to my visible animation that had been reverberating throughout the week.  “I mean, yesterday, during the session, you even jumped!”  To this, I responded:

“It has indeed.  But it wasn’t always this way.” Continue reading

Thanksgiving to the Grieving

Thanksgiving Picture

(Photo from Wikipedia from MS Jones)

A reflection on celebrating Thanksgiving during seasons of tragedy 

“Faithful is He who calls you, and He will also bring it to pass.”

~1 Thessalonians 5:24

It’s that time of the year again, when ham and turkeys morph from slices of lunch meat to gigantic oven roasts, when pumpkin pies and their derivatives temporarily monopolize the desert selections.  It’s that time of the year again, when families are hectically trying to get together, tapping into their holiday traditions, and convincing themselves that the adipose tissue they store from four days of gluttony will magically dissipate into the air when the first week of December comes around.  It’s that time of the year again, when folks all around the United States are encouraged by their parents and teachers to make lists of what they’re grateful for.

It’s Thanksgiving.

My personal relationship with this wonderful holiday has morphed over the years.  As an immigrant to the United States, I loved Thanksgiving for the same reason that most school-bound children do – that for four glorious days I wouldn’t have to lift a pencil and open a textbook.  Of its history and significance, I was clueless.  As I assimilated into my culture and progressed through high school (and as members of my family started dating and marrying Caucasians), I began to understand its deeper culture and tradition; our festive chicken and rice began to be replaced by turkey, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole (the one with marshmallows makes my tongue sing).  After I became a follower of Jesus Christ and became integrated into the life of the church, Thanksgiving became a time for list-making and group-sharing of those lists during church potlucks.  Philippians 1:3-6 and 1 Thessalonians 5:18 were attached to the four-day vacation as tightly as were turkey and cranberry sauce.  For the last few years, I started a lot of unfinished blog entries on “Things I’m Thankful for” lists, with Bible verses attached to each one.  Providentially, I never came around to posting them.  After all, that’s what I thought Thanksgiving was about.

Providentially, I say, because my relationship with Thanksgiving morphed once again.   It morphed, because the last seventeen months happened. 

For the record, I no longer need to rehash the trials that my family endured last year.  As hard as it was for that period of time, the Lord has used it for the good and our family is in a better place – spiritually, circumstantially, and ministerially – than we’ve ever been (for this I’m thankful).  The past year-and-a-half was much more than about what happened to us, but also about what we watched happen around us.  I watched my eight-year old niece pass away from an asthma attack.  I watched a close family friend helplessly watch his children being taken away from him.  I saw a friend lose her newborn baby only a day after he was born.  I listened to a college friend share about several miscarriages he and his wife endured.  I watched chemotherapy treatments take place – to an elderly woman and to a toddler the age of my youngest daughter.  I watched some families from the sideline deal with suicidal children.  I watched some deal with parents‘ divorce; others deal with parents‘ disowning them.  Over the past seventeen months, I’ve both experienced and observed a tremendous amount of tragedy in the lives of those close to me.  My relationship with Thanksgiving morphed once again this year because, if my circle of relationships is but a microcosm of the world’s affairs, I realize that there are a lot of people out there who have entered into this lets-make-a-list-of-things-we’re-thankful-for holiday season with a genuinely tragedy-stricken spirit.  And it’s not because they’re not thankful, or because they’re grumbling and complaining about life.  It’s because, in God’s providence, they’ve been put through the heat, and they’re emerging from it with tremendously deep wounds.   

If I’m honest, this Thanksgiving entry – the first that I’ve posted in eight years (the last one was back during the days when Xanga still ruled the blogosphere; how archaic!) – isn’t for those who insist on list-making this year.  It isn’t for those who are trying to figure out what to share during their family gathering or church potluck regarding what it is they’ve been most thankful for this year.  Rather, this entry is for those who are entering Thanksgiving this year with hearts stricken by the tragic blows of life, and who have a tremendous amount of grief embedded in their hearts because of recent or recurring circumstances.  This entry is for those who are internally battling with what you think people want you to say (“I shouldn’t be sad, because they’re so much to be thankful for”) and what you really feel (“I’m extremely sad, and can’t seem to fight it”).  This entry is for those who are truly struggling with grief and are willing to be honest and genuine about it.  This is entry is for those who are entering Thanksgiving and are struggling to give thanks.  I experienced this at this time last year, and I wish to simply reach out to those who are experiencing it this year.

For those of you who are tempted to approach these struggling folks with a “verse of the day to keep their grief at bay,” do me a favor and hold your tongue, lest your name become Zophar.    

When the Lord calls us to rejoice always and give thanks in all things in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, He isn’t calling for an artificial joy that masks the reality of internal pain.  He isn’t condemning people for feeling grief, as His very own Son was well-acquainted with it (Isaiah 53:3 come to mind?).  Instead, He wills for you to be thankful in all circumstances, not necessarily for or because of your current circumstances.  Heartbreaks and tragedies are real indeed, not merely a figment of your imagination or a result of a skewed perspective on life.  But God wills for you to be thankful in all circumstances because, in all circumstances He is faithful to you.

Scroll a few verses down, will you, to 1 Thessalonians 5:24, and read it out loud: “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will also bring it to pass.” 

Thankful you can be, that God’s promises don’t fluctuate like your circumstances and emotions do.  In the midst of your greatest sorrows and tragedies, the Lord remains unchanged in who He is, and remains in full control of the universe’s affairs.  in the midst of your seemingly unbearable circumstances, He remains active in working all things together for the good. 

Thanksgiving, in the end, isn’t about being artificial about the things you’re thankful for while masking the reality of the griefs that your heart has been pondering.  It’s about being genuinely thankful that God has not left you and that He has not ceased to continue working on your behalf for His glory.  It’s about being sincerely thankful that, as you grieve, our merciful and sympathetic High Priest holds you in His hand and intercedes on your behalf.  For these reasons, you can truly rejoice.  Rejoice you will – not in replacement of your sorrow, but in the midst of it (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Thanksgiving, I’ve come to realize, is less about list-making and more about upward focusing.  That’s how things have changed for me, and I hope that it’s how it will change for many.

For true, God-centered thanksgiving exists in its brightest form in the lives of those who have to fight for it.