From Devastation to Ordination

Reflections on my recent ordination at Grace Bible Fellowship

“Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart…”

~2 Corinthians 4:1

I remember the first day when my wife and I stepped foot on the campus of Grace Bible Fellowship. It was a beautiful summer day on June 23, 2013, but I was devastated. Just eight days prior, I had resigned as a pastor from the ministry of which I had been a part for close to a decade. Eight days after a church resignation is equivalent to eight seconds after a biking accident. The wounds were raw, and the pain was excruciating. With all of our ministry plans and hopes for the next several years shattered, Kathy and I found at the beginning of the process of wandering in the wilderness that many ministers know as the interim period between ministries.

Nearly five years later, on March 11th of 2018, I was formally ordained as a pastor and elder of Grace Bible Fellowship. It will be marked as one of the most significant events in my family’s life.

I’m still not sure how it all happened.

I’m not claiming denial to the sequence of events that led up to the ordination. In the June of 2014, seven months after Kathy and I joined GBF as formal members, I was offered the opportunity to serve as an interim part-time pastoral assistant. In the June of 2015, I was offered the opportunity to serve in a full-time capacity. In January of 2017, I was approached about the prospect of becoming an elder. In March of 2018, I was ordained as an elder. The dots were clearly there. It’s the connecting of those dots that I have trouble tracing. The transition from one milestone to the next was seamless, which I found to be a most profound testimony of the providential wisdom of God. Proverbs 16:9 reminds us that while the mind of a man plans his ways, it is Lord who directs his steps. In my particular situation, I wasn’t even planning, because I didn’t really know how to plan. The only course of action I knew to take was faithful obedience to the revealed will of God.

Then again, that’s always how I’ve approached pastoral ministry. The ambition for a particular ministry title has never been a part of my modus operandi. When I first committed myself to the path of vocational ministry of the gospel 2006, I didn’t know the difference between a pastor, elder, and deacon. I was clueless regarding my spiritual giftedness. All I knew was that Christ desired to make disciples of Himself and I desired to give myself wholly to that endeavor. For that cause, I was willing to give up my previous career ambitions. I do what I do so that the Word of God may go out to the people of God, that they may be conformed to the Son of God and be prepared for the kingdom of God.

I’m not saying that I was clueless during the time that I’ve served at GBF. By the time my family joined the membership, I had graduated from seminary, served as a youth and associate pastor, had been formally ordained as a pastor and elder at my previous ministry. I’ve had enough time – and enough feedback from others – to where I’m gifted and where I’m, well, not gifted both at the previous ministry and at GBF. I was fully aware of the biblical mandate for the office of overseer and the nature of the work. And the desire for the work has always burned with a steady flame. But, with all integrity, not once over the last five years did I ever approach Pastor Cliff (GBF’s pastor-teacher) to ask when it was that I could become an elder. It wasn’t for any lack of desire. But I firmly believed that it was not in my place to do so. It has never been up to me to plan the course of my life as a minister. There’s a difference, after all, between being faithful and forceful. The duty of the man of God is not to force his way into a pastoral position, but to faithfully proclaim God’s Word, equip others for the work of the ministry, love God’s people sacrificially, and endure all the hardship that comes for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord decides which responsibilities in the labor of the kingdom he allots to me for whatever season of life. I myself don’t have a 10-step plan for going from layman to leader. I really don’t. And even if I could recount the events, the movement was more fluid than methodical. I guess I could say, “Stay intimately communing with Christ, be faithful to teaching His Word whenever you get the chance, and care deeply for the people in your midst. Do this to the best of your ability, week-in and week-out, and see what the Lord decides to do with it.”

Plus, it’s not like I’ve arrived. If anything, it’s more of, “Here we go…” Whatever position or title or function was never the end for me, but simply a means to the end of the sanctity of God’s people. To be ordained is more than to be recognized. It is to be held responsible. It is to be entrusted. It is to be held accountable. A gift entrusted must be a gift employed, fervently and faithfully. And by God’s gracious commissioning, it has happened to me for the second time.

Ordination into pastoral ministry and eldership is much different the second around than the first. For one, there’s a more sober realization of the suffering and persecution that comes with the ministry. But more pointedly for me, there’s a greater and deeper appreciation for the sovereignty of God. I’ve come to understand that I was ordained not because of my qualifications, but because of God’s sovereignty. As I write, I grieve with the many men who are qualified for pastoral ministry and, for one reason or another, are out of the ministry. Not everyone who desires to pastor and is qualified to pastor actually gets to pastor. Further, I realize that a man’s ordination at a particular local church is far less about ambition and much more about submission. During this whole process, one dear saint told me, “I was so happy to hear that you were being ordained…because it meant that you had decided to stay with us rather than moving to another congregation” (I’m paraphrasing). The gift of pastoring (cf Eph 4:12) will remain with the man of God wherever he goes. But to be ordained as an elder at a particular local church indicates his commitment to give himself to the shepherding care of that particular flock of God. For one, it means that I’m committing to link arms with the current elders of GBF. It was at GBF that I learned what true, godly pastors and elders look like. The elders who so lovingly and wisely helped my family reconstruct our lives were the same elders who welcomed me into their team, and for that I am doubly honored. It also means that, for now, I am looking nowhere else other than to the saints of Grace Bible Fellowship as the primary people to whom I will serve, day in and day out, week in and week out.

Ordination is important because God’s people are important. Being a pastor and elder is crucial because the sanctity of God’s saints is vital. Before Christ, I have not changed. Intern, assistant, elder, or whatever the title…I’m a bondservant of Jesus. I always have been, and always will be. He directs my life and commissions my ministry as He pleases – different works for different seasons – and to that I am bound. His Word – the same Word which I’ve been preaching and teaching since 2007 – hasn’t changed. Feeding His flock is all I’ve known to do, and that’s all I’ll continue to do – whatever the form. And right now, that flock is the membership of Grace Bible Fellowship.

From devastation to ordination. GBF…my family and I are here to stay.

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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