Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go”
It was September 8, 2012. And for some reason that day, 10:00 pm just seemed too early to hit the hay – at least according to my personal circadian rhythm. Perhaps it was because the 2012 London Olympics had just concluded, and I was just a bit more inspired for physical activity than normal and a tad less inspired to snooze without having exercised. Or maybe it was because I was a bit more stressed that day in anticipation of some major ministry changes that were just over the horizon. So I threw on some work-out clothes and some running shoes…and headed to the track at the local high school just a few miles away from my house. At around 10:30 pm – after some stretching and self-reassurance talk, I started running. Continue reading
“You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
Fish is my favorite food. Over steak, over chicken, over bacon. Salmon, Halibut, Sea Bass, Swordfish – cook ‘em and garnish ‘em, and I devour them (or don’t cook them, and give me sushi instead). Of course, I have to put up with the standard culinary philosophy that the finest of meats must be served with veggies of some sort. And while I’m not a fan of the herbivorous, neither am I of clogged colons. So, whenever I’m served a fish platter, I eat the greens first to get them out of the way – knowing that most of my caloric nutrition and tongue-dancing will come from the fish. Continue reading
“But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth.”
I was taught early in my salvation years that the Christian’s primary ambition is for God to be glorified in their lives. This was what my fellow believers claimed. This was what they prayed.
I realized, however, that most young people who claim and pray such don’t always know what they’re asking for. I’m not faulting them for lack of integrity, but such is a reality amongst zealous – but sometimes ignorant – youth. I was one of them. Continue reading
Reflections on the book of Hebrews
“So let us go to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach”
Jesus is worth it all. And many in the church don’t realize it.
I realized this before I was even saved, during the summer before I embarked to college, while listening to a sermon from my computer in which the speaker revealed an alarming statistic: eighty-five percent of those who make a profession of faith in Christ fall away. Eighty-five percent! If that isn’t as staggering as it is confusing, then there’s no need for earthquake drills or ambulances. Of course, from God’s point of view, no truly regenerate believer can ever lose his salvation. But from a human perspective, I was startled. That is, until I became a youth pastor and Christian school educator. Spending a ton of hours a week with young people who had been raised in the soil of the American church culture – whose schedules teeter-totter between youth group Bible studies and church summer camps alongside basketball games and AP exams – gave me some insight. It was later confirmed during a conversation that I recently had with some “church kids”. In a moment of candor, they spoke regarding the condition of their Christian walks:
“I know it’s the right way. It’s just that the rest of the world seems so much more enjoyable,” admitted one.
“I’m just not sure if I’m convinced that it’s what I really want. I mean, I know it’s a good life, but there are other things that I want,” remarked another.
They all referred to “it”; they didn’t refer to “Him.” These kids, wonderfully sincere and transparent and dear to my heart, knew church culture. They knew the imperatives of Christian living. But when it came to the beauty of Christ Himself, they spoke of nothing. It was like trying to convince a woman to get married without telling her about the man to whom she’d be wed. Of course she’d get cold feet, if not frozen ones. So would someone who was pushed to live as a Christian and forsake the world while remaining clueless regarding the supremacy of the Christ with whom he’d be cleaved.
No one would want to step outside the gate of the world, unless he was aware of who awaited him there.
Such was the case with the first-century Hebrew Christians. They were staggering, doubting, flailing, and falling. Their conversion from Jewish tradition to Christian conviction was met by extreme opposition and fiery persecution for which they were not prepared. Losing their property and being imprisoned were not on their post-baptism to-do list. As a result, many of them started to revert back to their old Jewish ways. After all, Judaic practices weren’t exactly pagan practices. In addition, it would spare them of a whole lot of pain and trouble. For them, the question regarding their newfound faith was: “Why stick with Christianity when it only brings about persecution while our previous religion, also found in the Bible, gets us out of it?”
To this, one of the apostolic authorities answered: “Because the Christ behind Christian living is worth that persecution.” He answered, comprehensively, in an approximately hour-long sermon – one which was later transcribed into a thirteen-chapter book that we know today as the book of Hebrews. No other New Testament epistle covers the topic of Christology as comprehensively.
The thesis: Jesus Christ is worth following because the incomparable supremacy of who He is, what He has accomplished, what He is doing, and what He promises to do. Lose the world you must, if that’s the path to gaining Christ.
It’s the same admonition he would have given to modern-day families that have forsaken church altogether because their achieving kids have baseball games on Sunday. It’s the same sermon would have preached to college students who start to dabble away from the faith because partying and academic achievement seem just a tad too appealing. It’s the same plea he would have made to those former pastors and missionaries who have stopped ministering to others due to the wounds from loneliness, criticism, and betrayal. It’s the same truth he would have reminded new believers who are hesitant to be baptized out of a fear of being disowned by their families.
Listen up, then, American Christians. List up, then, all you suffering Christians. Jesus Christ is worth it all.
He is worth gaining because, as the Son of God, He alone holds the universe together by the word of His power (1:1-5)
He is worth gaining because, as the Apostle and High Priest, He brings God to you and brings you to God (3:1).
He is worth gaining because, as the Master Builder, He both owns and constructs the church with His own hands (3:4-6)
He is worth gaining because, as the Sympathetic High Priest, He alone can truly and fully understand you in the midst of your trials (4:14-16).
He is worth gaining because, as the Eternal High Priest, He forever lives to minister and pray for you in heaven to ensure God’s blessing upon you on earth (6:20, 7:24-25).
He is worth gaining because, as the New Covenant Mediator, He promises forgiveness of your sins, inward transformation, an intimate knowledge of God, and eternal life (8:6, 9:15)
He is worth gaining because, as the Perfect Sacrifice, He alone has taken the total punishment of your sins that had once warranted your eternal damnation (9:14, 10:12)
He is worth gaining because, as the Author and Perfecter of Faith, He shows you through the example of His life what it looks like to truly believe and the reward you will gain from doing so (12:2-3)
He is worth gaining because, as the Unchangeable One, He is the same yesterday, today, and forever in who He is, what He has accomplished, and what He has promised (13:8).
Lose this vision of Christ, and the world begins to look appealing. Turn your eyes upon this Christ, and the world looks like rubbish in comparison. The thematic admonition of Hebrews, then, is this: Fix your eyes on Jesus!
The book of Hebrews is a personal favorite, for obvious reasons. It’s also the one book, until two weeks ago, I hadn’t opened in almost one-and-a-half years.
For thirteen months, I preached through the book of Hebrews at the ministry in which I was entrenched previous to my current. During that season, I studied the book in its original language (which was almost as difficult as college physical chemistry), and spent an average of six to ten hours a week preparing sermons intended to be both comprehensive and comprehendible to its targeted audience. Each week, I would get up into a pulpit for an hour (and sometimes more) and, with all of my might and fervor, do all that I could to explain the text of this marvelous book so as to convince my listeners from the Word of God that Jesus Christ was indeed worth following – praying night and day in between that they would find Christ supreme and the world around them worth forsaking. But after I left that ministry oh so abruptly, I stopped reading Hebrews. Frankly, it was too painful to to open up those same pages from where I used to preach. Too bittersweet it was, to look at those same notes I took in the margins of my Bible during that season when I brought this book to the very people who I loved. Reading any portion of the text would hark me back to the nights when I preached it, and it would hurt. Just a bit of irony there was, that the book I was having the hardest time reading was the one whose truths were designed to instill encouragement and focus during that time. In the recent weeks, however, now in my current ministry, I was scheduled to teach through Hebrews once again. Only now, my wounds were healed, my strength renewed, my ministry reconstructed, my eyes wide open once again to the horizon, and my heart even further purified to savor the supremacy of the Savior. Once again, I opened the book. Once again, I taught through it.
It didn’t take long to realize, once again, that He was worth it all.
(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.
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.
Reflections from the book of Numbers
“God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”
To this day, my younger sister loves to tell of a conversation the two of us had during my single-adult years in which I proudly told her about a meal I cooked. It went as follows:
“Hey, guess what?” I told her.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I cooked!” I said, somewhat proudly.
“Oh yea? What’d you make?” she asked again, somewhat suspiciously.
“Well,” I explained, “I stuck some raw eggs and tofu together in a glass tupperware…and microwaved it for four minutes!”
“You did what??” she exclaimed.
For the next few months, she proceeded to drop off lunch for me at the seminary once a week.
Am I really that clueless when it comes to the culinary arts? My wife doesn’t think so; she has faith in me, perhaps because of the Thai Chicken Pasta I made for her during a recent Mother’s Day celebration. Or, maybe it’s because she knows the real reason why, during the years of my bachelorhood, I put together such horrific meals.
“It’s not that you don’t know how to cook,” she once told me. “You’re not as clueless as you keep telling everyone you are. It’s that you’re impatient and lazy and don’t want to put in the work to actually prepare a good meal!”
A prudent wife she is. Just like many , I’m nothing short of a natural bee-liner.
I’m confident that I’m not the only one. The natural human philosophy is this: blessings must come to me immediately, and from trials I must be released instantly. We see little value in waiting and diligent preparation. Such is why it is can be tremendously difficult to trust God during seasons during which, at least from our limited perspective, blessings are delayed and trials are prolonged.
When we do have to wait, we demand answers. When we don’t get those answers, we complain, grumble, and attempt to take matters into our own hands. Towards this, the Lord is displeased.
I love that the book of Numbers was written.
Numbers is a book written to show that, for His people, God tends to have a different route in mind. His providential map is filled with zig-zagging and convolutions, rather than straight lines. And it’s through these twists and turns that God accomplishes His wonderful work of preparing His people for the blessings to come and the blessing they will be to others.
Israel didn’t get this. After the Exodus, the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land without intermittence. Forty years of wandering in the desert was not what they envisioned for the journey from Egypt to Canaan – from the land of oppression to the land flowing with milk and honey. It didn’t once occur to her that the reason for the so-called “delay” was not because God was slacking.
It was because Israel herself wasn’t ready.
The Israelite people, fresh from hundreds of years under Egyptian rule, didn’t realize how many vestiges of idolatry, paganism, and impurity remained amongst them from the previous culture from which they were incubated (remember the incident with the golden calf?). As a nation, Israel was numerous in quantity. But the quality of holiness toward the one true God was yet to be maturely exhibited. And God would not establish the Messianic lineage from an idolatrous nation, but from a holy one – one whose people were wholly consecrated and devoted to Him. Maybe they had forgotten the Abrahamic Covenant, but the Israelites may have failed to see that their entering into the Promised Land was not primarily for their own benefit, but rather for the blessing that would flow from them into the rest of the world.
And so Israel assumed that God had neglected them. What in truth was God’s purposed preparation of a nation, they viewed as aimless wandering. On numerous occasions, they complained that they had been left to perish – even claiming that they were treated better by the Egyptians than by the God who delivered them. In truth, God neither left nor forsook them, but was actively molding them.
Tragically, the older generation lost faith, and spiraled down towards incessant grumbling and complaining. With a loss of faith came a degradation of conduct. They grew impatient and grumbled (11:1, 14:2, 14:36, 16:41, 20:3-5). They grew rebellious and contended with their appointed leaders (12:1-3, 16:1-3). God did not excuse such behavior, and His anger was provoked (11:1, 10, 33, 12:9, 32:10, 13). And for the sake of His own honor, He caused the old generation – the idolatrous, faithless, grumbling, and rebellious generation – to perish in the wilderness. Lack of faith resulting in grumbling and complaining is not something God takes lightly.
Thankfully, our lack of understanding or faith doesn’t change the reality of who God is. Numbers, ultimately, was written to display God’s faithfulness more than it was to expose Israel’s faithlessness. Despite their grumbling, God provided the manna, quail, and water in the wilderness. In spite of how His wrath was provoked numerous times, God never allowed Balaam to curse them, even though Balak was insistent and persistent. He defeated Israel’s enemies who refused to accommodate their passing through territories. And, after passing of the older generation, He raised up a new generation that was more prepared to live according to His ways than the first. Not once did God break His promise of building the nation from which the Messiah would come. Not once did God ever go back on His word.
How, then, have you personally interacted with and responded to the account given in Numbers? The ramifications of such was spoken of clearly by the apostle Paul:
“6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:6-12)
Heed, ye, heed. Studying Israel’s pattern of character in Numbers, if you do it carefully, is equivalent to looking at a mirror. The book that so many claim to be “boring” or “lagging” or “repetitive” was written to protect us. To protect us from craving evil things. To protect us from idolatry and immorality. To protect us from falling into trying the Lord. To protect us from grumbling. The book of Numbers was designed to expose us to and protect us from our sinful instinctive nature during trying periods of waiting when blessings can’t seem be any more delayed.
In contrast, during these times, Numbers encourages us to respond righteously. To worship God. To stay morally pure. To submit. To believe. It encourages us by reminding us that, in spite of our severely limited vision, God is all-wise in His preparing us for our particular functions in redemptive history and the global growth of the gospel. It encourage us by reminding us that, in spite of our frustrations with life, God is ever-faithful in His promises.
Personally, it was through the lessons taught in Numbers that our family was able to persevere through the trials that we endured last year. The desert period following our exodus from our previous life was a long, trying one, filled with so many twists, turns, and convolutions. It was tempting to question what God was doing, and for what He was preparing us. Admittedly, there were times when I wanted to rush. After all, I did microwaved eggs and tofu, remember? But at the end of it all, I’m glad we waited. I’m glad we trusted. I’m glad we submitted to His providential preparation plan. I’m glad that Numbers harnessed us and directed us, when every fiber of my being instinctively wanted otherwise. For the present blessings bestowed upon us and the present blessing we get to be to those around us are ones of a magnitude far beyond what we’ve ever had, but also ones that would have never come had we insisted on our own bee-lining strategy. In the end, everything happened for the sake of the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That, I now see.
So let’s stop with the bee-lining. Refuse to grumble and complain when you’re tempted. Don’t strive, don’t rebel, and take not matters into your own hands. Rather, during seasons of waiting and trials, trust. Submit yourself joyfully to the sovereign and providential preparation process that the Lord is carrying out. For when there is great is great preparation, there results great blessing. And when there is great blessing, there results great honor ascribed to the Faithful One.