Thursday, May 13, 2021

Returning to God, Not Just Church

No question, it's been a long, hard fourteen months since COVID hit us with stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and masks. Some of us have been itching to go out and get back to life as we knew it. Some of us are pretty content to stay at home and don't mind it one bit. All this and the political season, social (media) turmoil, and coronavirus variants, and we are still needing to navigate life with awareness and wisdom.

So...how is your relationship with God?

I get to ask this question of many people, in person, over text, in email, or on phone or video calls. Some are doing great! Like legitimately, actively growing through the difficulties. Many others have had difficulty navigating the changes, and their relationships with God have been a struggle. So let's provide some context:

1. How have your relationships with family members been? Have you missed each other? Have you been able to help each other along?
2. How have your relationships with friends been? Do you still talk? Do you still love and care for one another?
3. How has your work or schooling continued? Are you still productive or have you been too distracted to get anything done?

Each of those areas of our lives demonstrate aspects of a resilient spirit and approach. You know that work and school need to get done, so you make adjustments, do your best, and sometimes innovate to accomplish things. You flex with the needs of the circumstances. That should also be true with family relationship and friendships. You may not see each other as much as before, but you love each other so you do whatever you need to do to help one another and keep connected.

So what about our relationships with God?

A friendship based only on activity or circumstance can dissolve when circumstances change. If your relationship with God was based on simply a habit of going to church, then when obstacles arise to that activity, your relationship may dissolve. As in your relationships with good friends, will you pursue God despite the changes in circumstances, despite the obstacles?

As things in the United States start to open back up again, maybe the great lesson to learn from all this is not to ground your relationship with God on some activities or rituals. Instead of going through the motions of relationship, let's build a deeper friendship with God, a family relationship with Him and with our church family members. How do we do this? Here are a few things to reflect on:

- Does God love you? How has He shown it? How do you experience God's love every day?
- Do you love God? What do you love about God, not just what He does for you but who He is? (e.g. God is beautiful, the most beautiful person I know.)
- Do you show love to God? How do you or how can you show love to God every day?
- Do you love your church family? How does God demonstrate His love through your church family and how do you participate in that?

Let's get ready to return to God and not just to church!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Lent 2021 Passion Week - Hope

 In the midst of suffering, we wrestle not only with our pain but with a deeper turmoil. It is a battle of our spirits, our intellects, our hearts, our beliefs, and our will. It is the battle between hope and hopelessness. Whether we are talking about social issues, a broken marriage, a wayward child, or failing health, we wonder, in the midst of suffering, can God really help me? Will He make things better?

It was into centuries of such turmoil that Jesus came to the earth. The Jewish people had reached high points in their history, industry, artistry, international relations, and religion - Solomon had built the grandest temple and had the greatest influence on others. And it all came crashing down due to centuries of apostasy. When the hammer of judgment came down, Israel and then Judah were exiled by the Assyrians and Babylonians respectively. How long would they suffer? The period between the end of the Old Testament and the Good News of Jesus' birth was over 400 years.

Think about that: many people were born and died in that intertestimental time. Does that mean their lives were devoid of any light from the Lord? No. God had given His promises. By faith alone were people saved, even people in the Old Testament as they were looking forward to the gracious provision of God to come. But still, their entire lives were spent waiting for something, someone...who never showed up!

We cry foul at the thought! What right does God have to not provide relief for me in my lifetime here on earth! Isn't God supposed to make my life on earth good?

There are Christians being martyred on this earth even today. Maybe here in America, we have gotten so caught up in our American dream and sense of entitlement that the idea of suffering for the entirety of our lives seems antithetical to what we believe are our inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But God never promised us happiness in this life. He did promises us His presence. He promised us joy in knowing that He is with us, that He has secured our place in eternity with Him, and that we are saved because of what Jesus did.

And isn't Jesus' life the pattern for ours? "Follow me," said Jesus. To the cross and through it to the other side. What's there you ask. The life that He has for us.

It is the life we've always hoped for. But it's different from the life we often find ourselves chasing. Are you hoping for happiness? Or are you hoping to be with Jesus? If we devote ourselves to Jesus, He will provide for us all that we could ever hope for.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7 ESV

I'm ready to let go of false promises of happiness. The older I get, the more I do not find meaning in that. I'm ready for something more lasting. I want more of Jesus. I place my hope in Him.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Lent 2021 Week 6 - Forgiveness

The shootings at Atlanta area massage businesses have stirred up a lot of emotions and thoughts regarding violence, treatment of women, race relations, socioeconomic marginalization, shame, media bias, police bias or insensitivity, and more. One question some are asking is exactly how much racism is there in our communities and in our nation? The polarization of viewpoints over the past year+ through our political season, pandemic response, and social debates seems to show very different viewpoints...and a desire to separate that is just as strong as our desire to unite. So if we have all these differing viewpoints, how can we ever get along? The social consciousness says, we will not get along until there is justice and equality.

Those are valid pursuits. They are God's goals for us: justice, mercy, love. The way the Gospel shows us to pursue them, though, is through grace, and namely, His grace toward us. Heart change is not possible until someone meets God and makes peace with God.

 Until then, how much are you willing to forgive?

What causes us to forgive? If we are waiting for reparations, then it is not so much forgiveness from us as it is repair work done by the offender. If we say we forgive, but then we also refuse to have anything to do with the offender, then we have not reconciled. It is forgiveness in name, but it is not forgiveness in experience.

What is forgiveness? Like with everything else in life, we have two options for how to define forgiveness. One is man-centered, based on our experiences, reason, and capacities. From this baseline we can say forgiveness is impossible, or depends on the offender's attitude (are they remorseful?), or allows us to forgive but not forget. These are all based on what our hearts and minds tell us what we ought to do.

The second way to define forgiveness is God-centered. If we look through the Bible, and we examine the life and death of Jesus, we find that God's definition is pursuing reconciliation. I'm thankful for Psalm 51, King David's song of repentance, but I'm also aware of how poorly he managed the relationships in his household in his later years (lots of drama). I'm thankful for Philemon, the short letter from Paul that talks about a man reconciling with a runaway servant (not quite our own American definition of slavery), where the ideal is that the master would not treat his servant poorly but rather he would treat him well. This exceeds just dealing with the offense; it is about fulfilling God's vision for what any and all of our relationships ought to look like.

I know some who are in abusive relationships need to be on guard - physically, emotionally, and mentally. I also pray that God would let His Holy Spirit break into all our hearts and minds to guide us. Is forgiveness possible? Anything is possible with God, as much as God allows it to happen.

We strive to emulate God, but it requires our obedience to God's work and pace.

God has forgiven us. Let us do our best to show this grace to all around us. Let us pray.



Saturday, March 20, 2021

Responding to the Atlanta Shootings from March 16

(sent on March 18, 2021, to the EACF congregation)
To my dear brothers and sisters of EACF,

As a predominantly Asian American congregation scattered throughout the Atlanta area community, we may have been shocked to hear of the killing of six Asian American women and two others (and injury to another) connected to three massage businesses in our area. This tragedy may have impacted us on many different levels.

On one level, violence against Asian Americans - and in this instance, the shooter isolating Asian women in Asian massage businesses may have indicated the targeting of each aspect of that profile - affects many of us. Are we being targeted? Is there some sense of othering that is happening, where our type is not considered friend but somehow gets labeled foe? The shooter may not have had an overt racial intent, but his actions were limited to one particular subsection of our broad, diverse community. So when the result is isolated violence, it disturbs us. Personally, I don't know enough to label him racist, but I am noting and am greatly troubled by the narrowed scope on Asian women. I do not think of this as exactly the same as other recent violent acts against Asians in our country (those seem more random and this incident has other layers to it). But I understand how this is a moment when some people's consciousnesses are awakened. For many of us, it is another aggression added to a mountain that has been largely ignored.

On another level, mass shooting in our Atlanta community brings these issues close to home. I read of unprovoked, seeming random attacks in the Northeast and the West Coast where Asians of both genders and many ages have been assaulted. It was disturbing, but somewhat distant. Whenever something happens closer to home, it invades our sense of peace and security. It becomes even moreso part of our lives. Again, though, many of us have already dealt with aggressions. Some of us have wounds that have been hidden for a long time, and that is often moreso the case for women.

On a third level, any time someone takes the life of another, or lives of multiple others, it should unsettle our spirits on a human and especially on a Christian level. We live in a world where there is evil. If we've ever pretended that this is not the truth about our world, we have believed a lie. And if we've ever thought God promised us not to have to deal with these things, then we have also misunderstood. As Christians, we are able to more acutely grasp sin and brokenness because we have a vision for something that was (Eden) and will be (heaven) better. Sadly, as the other elders and I have been emailing about this, we know that this brokenness can also be found in our Christian experience. The shooter attended church and claimed to be a Christ-follower. Yet somehow, some way, his discipleship did not bring him to transformation through Jesus Christ. This challenges our own understanding of what it means to be Christian, to confess our sin, and to beware the evil within. He came to see the solution to his problem was to eliminate others, namely Asian women working in massage parlors. He did not see them as fellow image-bearers of God who also need the love and grace of Christ. He saw them as an obstacle, a hindrance, the problem. The sadness and despair that we feel drives us to the Gospel.

This is why Jesus died.

Christ died to break the power of sin. His gracious work transforms us from the inside out. We have a new heart, new spirit, new life, and new relationship to others because of the cross and empty tomb. And God has secured us in the present and future.

Now, having said that, and while trusting in the provision, power, and presence of God, we still have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And it is wearying, heart-breaking at many times, and sad. But this is also a time when God uses us to comfort one another, within our predominantly Asian American community, but also as we hear from allies who would want to sit with us and walk with us, to grieve, and also to promote something better. God has given us hope in this darkness. Our greater identity in Christ calls us into His comfort and His strength, to fight against sin, evil, hatred, mental illness, insensitivity, callousness, ignorance, and passivity. No, we do not fight the battle like others do: Jesus is, after all, the one leading us into and through this battle. But we cling to what is good, and pray for God's mercy, and promote justice and peace.

What can we do?

First, pray. The Spirit will groan with us (Romans 8) and will renew our thoughts, sight, and emotions (Ephesians 4, Ezekiel 36). Sit with your Father. He catches our tears and bandages our wounds. Too often we dismiss prayer as simply mental exercise or meditation, but as Christians, we believe and know that this is our time to connect with and be ministered to by the Father and Spirit. Go to your knees and pray. We cannot accomplish anything significant with God.

Second, support one another. None of us are meant to live in isolation, so reach out for help or to help, even if it's just to sit in silence as we feel the weight of the world a little bit. Our culture too often emphasizes internalizing our pain and suffering and emotions. God calls us to carry one another's burdens. Let's share and carry.

Third, talk with our non-Asian friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates - anyone who will listen. What will we say? We might talk a bit about the other acts against Asians that haven't been noticed as much. There has thankfully been much more written lately to highlight the history of Asian American in this country.

But even more importantly, we can frame all of this within the larger conversation of racism, hatred between individuals and groups, the fallenness of the world, and the hope that we have in Jesus entering into these broken spaces. Because even when we sign petitions, form support groups, share knowledge, or build relationships, we're always needing to see how true change only happens when we take it all to Jesus. Human-to-human conversations will help, but human-to-Jesus is when light shines into the darkness.

May God give us all hope in Christ and by His Spirit.

If you want to talk, I and the other elders are available to listen. If you want to pray together, call, text, or email. If you prefer to speak with a professional counselor, we have two or three that we can recommend and help you set up an appointment. Our church fund can cover the initial costs as well. We are here for you.

May God give us all comfort in these days.

With faith, hope, and love,
Pastor David

Returning to God, Not Just Church

No question, it's been a long, hard fourteen months since COVID hit us with stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and masks. Some of u...