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.   

On Driscoll and Mars Hill’s Dissolution

“I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.”

~Ecclesiastes 3:14

First, Sovereign Grace.  Now, Mars Hill.

During the years I was in seminary, the Sovereign Grace and Mars Hill Church planting movements were the topic of conversation and the model systems for all of the aspiring church planters.  Amongst my mentors and colleagues, there were different perspectives regarding the integrity and biblical fidelity of the movements.  Some emulated them; others were wary.  But everyone took notice.  How could you not, with the way that Mars Hill was expanding its ministry and the rate at which churches were being planted? 

But Mars HIll Church is closing down.  And so will all of its thirteen church plants, either by actual dissolution or by dissociation (http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/october/goodbye-mars-hill-multisite-church-dissolve-mark-driscoll.html?paging=off).  By January 1, 2015, Mars Hill will be a thing of the past.

I was never a fan of Mark Driscoll.  Nor was I ever antagonistic toward him.  To be honest, I feel a bit ambivalent toward this well-known pastor.  Despite the number of times his teaching has been recommended to me by numerous colleagues and friends, I’ve yet to read a single one of his books.  I’ve yet to listen to a single one of his full-length sermons.  During the lone Acts 29 conference I attended, I had to leave early for work right before Driscoll spoke (heard it was a good sermon).  So, quite frankly, I don’t know a whole lot about the guy – good or bad.  Any kind of verdict I render toward him and his ministry will be made with severely limited data.  And so I’m not going to point fingers and analyze why it is that Mars Hill is dissolving.  I’m not going to make a judgment on whether or not Driscoll is guilty of the charges made against him, or if he’s qualified for ministry.  Because, quite frankly, I don’t know.  And it’s none of my business to know more than I need to know.  The last thing I want to do is arrogantly judge and condemn someone, only to see the very same thing happen to me someday (1 Corinthians 10:12).  So if that’s what you were hoping I’d do in this entry, then you might as well stop reading.

But, at the same time, I am indeed sure of the ultimate reason why Mars Hill is dissolving.  When it comes down to it, the reality is this: Mars Hill is dissolving because, in eternity past, God planned for its dissolution.  The lifespan that He had marked on what many looked at as an indestructible church planting movement was eighteen years.  And, in His proper time, He ended it.  It’s worth a reminder that Mark Driscoll wasn’t ultimately in control of his own destiny or the destiny of Mars Hill.  As it turns out, all of the acclaim, success, and momentum that the movement had meant little before God.

Once again, the sobering reality stands.  The hand of the Lord is absolutely unstoppable.  His decrees, whether we want them in place or not, simply cannot be overturned.  He is the sovereign one, who rules from heaven.  All of redemptive history is constructed by His counsel.  All of church history flows according to His providence. 

So who was responsible, ultimately, for the fall of Mars Hill?  I believe Scripture answers this.

The Spirit’s wisdom and perspective from Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3, 14: “There is an appointed time for everything.  And there is a time for every event under heaven…a time to tear down and a time to build up…I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.”

I don’t deny that there are several lessons to be extracted from the current circumstances surrounding Driscoll, Mars Hill, and all of its satellite churches.  I don’t doubt that a book could be written concerning what’s to be learned about church ministry, pastoral leadership, and biblical church planting.  But the main lesson to be learned is this: God, who holds our history in His unstoppable and incomprehensible hand, is to be feared.  Always.

From an outsider’s perspective, what happened can be a bit perplexing.  Similarly to Sovereign Grace Ministries, Mars Hill Church has written in its mission statement that its mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, with a vision to carry out this mission through the vehicle of church planting (https://marshill.com/mission).  Seems right.  Seems biblical; Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 affirm these.  But, from a perspective unknown to man, God saw something unfitting about Mars Hill being the movement to carry out the mission.  And thus, His hand decreed the termination.  A hand He has that ought to be feared.

Personally, I’m not convinced that God is feared by pastors and churches the way He ought to be.  To think that what American Evangelism is lacking most today is not program methodology but the fear of the Lord is, well, a fearful thing.  That’s not me pointing fingers; that’s just a biblical reality.  A lack of the fear of the Lord is an epidemic amongst non-believers (Romans 3:18) whose vestiges remain in God’s people and continue to trouble church life.  How many pastors, ministers, church planters, and missionaries live day to day with the awareness that the viability of their ministries are at the complete mercy of the King?  How many honestly minister and go about their church endeavors without attempting to take the place of the Sovereign one and without attempting to take matters into their own hands?  Such an internal disposition is reflected in a reverent conduct.  And when the latter is hard to find, you can be sure that the same holds true for the former. 

All of church ministry – from the pastoring to the preaching to the administering to the serving – ought to be carried out with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).  Whenever a leader or church starts to operate outside of such a disposition, he and his ministry will find themselves in danger of facing the hand of God.

For it is by the hand of God that something stands, and it is by the hand of God that something falls.  Foolishness is when the minister boasts in his gifts, accomplishments, and influence…in the same way that foolishness is when the rich man boasts in his riches, when the wise man boasts in his wisdom, and when the strong man boasts in his strength.  Let him who boasts boast in this: that he knows the Lord, and nothing more.  Success and sustenance in ministry happen not because you were so great, or because you were so right.  They happen, when they do, because the Lord permitted their happening.  If there is a lesson to be learned from the circumstances surrounding Mars Hill, it is that we who labor under the sun ought to fear the One who rules from above it. 

I’m not advocating this “let go, let God” modus operandi.  After all, with trembling, one’s salvation ought to be worked out (Philippians 2:12, present tense, active voice).  Rather than “let go and let God,” it’s “go forth and please God.”  Living with the sole ambition to please God – and no one else – is really the only way to go.  That goes for all of life. And, consequently, that applies to all of ministry.  Doing all of things with an unwavering, uncompromising obedience to God and His Word is the only way to go.

I hope the best for Mark Driscoll and his family.  I know a bit of what it’s like to be out of pastoral ministry after being so heavily embedded in it, and the pain can be maddening.  Driscoll is a gifted man and minister and, if God sees fit, I hope to see him one day restored and find his place in the ministry of the gospel…whatever that may or may not look like.  I desire the best for all those who are and have been hurt or lost by all of the events surrounding Mars Hill’s closing down; for those who are truly saved, the Lord will not cease to complete the work in them that He started.  In time, they’ll find themselves back into the ministry of the church.  The Lord may not be faithful to every church planting endeavor, but He is always faithful to build His church, period.

For the rest of us, may the words of Ecclesiastes 12:13 resonate in our hearts and lives: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.  For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.”

To Him, and Him alone, be the glory and honor.  Amen.