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

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Lent 2021 Week 5 - The Suffering of Lent Is Love

Do you like to suffer? I know, I know, that sounds like a dumb question. 

Our culture primes us to want comfort and ease, and now we have robot vacuums and lawn mowers and self-driving and self-parallel parking cars! We usually prefer a sense of security, and don't we all like a good night's sleep?

Gospel culture takes us the opposite direction. Jesus gave up His place in heaven and humbled Himself in becoming a human. The incarnation (God becoming man) was humiliation.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8 ESV)

Jesus gave up His comfort and ease, entering into our human spaces and experience. That in itself was suffering. But he continued, all the way to the cross.

What does that mean for us? It means that He loves us. His suffering was because of God's love for us. 

Our culture too quickly dismisses suffering as bad. But there are plenty of ways in which suffering in our lives is an expression of love. Childbirth. Doing chores so your spouse or parents can rest. Working hard at your job so that you can provide for your family. Talking with a friend late at night and helping them unload some of their emotional turmoil. Giving money to help a family in need, even if that means changing your plans to make funds available.

And God calls us into the culture of the Gospel. It is when we find the love in Christ's suffering that we come to understand both what the suffering means and what love is.

Dying to self is actually a good thing. It is a joyful, conscious choice to surrender our broken, misguided will to follow God's life-giving and love-filled will. It is where we meet Jesus.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:25 ESV).

Again, I'm praying that you will find your life in Him.



Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Lent 2021 Week 4 - Life from Jesus

The annual Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta is 6.2 miles down Peachtree Road from Buckhead to Piedmont Park in Midtown. Right around the 3-mile mark is the beginning of a long hill, nicknamed Cardiac Hill, which happens to pass by Piedmont Hospital. When the summer sun heats up the asphalt and the tens of thousands of runners flood the streets, that hill tests the participants' energy, will, and resolve. From where will their strength come? What reserves are left? What is their source of life?

The pandemic has rearranged so much of our lives, our communities, and our priorities. Combined with the issues of our day, our political season, and social media, we have become exposed in surprising ways. Where do we find the energy to endure, to keep going, to maintain hope? When churches are not offering full services or fellowship gatherings, when relationships are curtailed, we are left with just us and God. Is He enough?

He is. More than enough. We often focus too much on other people rather than directly on God. Think of this: do you rely on others to help your relationship with God, or do you find that your relationship with God actually helps you to relate to others? Both are true, but my hope is that the latter is our usual experience. God can use people in our lives, and He places us in faith families and calls us to love one another and carry each other's burdens. But the source of life, the life-giver, the strength-restorer, the hope-affirmer is always God.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds his brothers and sisters of this truth. When things are difficult, we come back to our source. If we've been relying on other people and they are taken from us (or at least socially-distanced), then we falter and feel aimless. We can come back to Jesus. We die to ourselves, die to our fleshly, human-focused idolatries, and we can find that Jesus is the only one who can actually give us life. This is what we reflect on during Lent, when many of us choose to go without something, so we can learn or remember that when we have Jesus we have everything that we need.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ESV)

I'm praying that you will find your life in Him.



Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Lent 2021 Week 3 - Can You Believe Jesus Did That?

We are coming up on the one year anniversary of virtual church - March 15, 2020, was our first Sunday shifted to virtual church due to the pandemic.

One of the most interesting aspects of how we have experienced this past year has been how individualistically we tend to think. This is related to how we come to know what we know about the world, about life, and even about God. Our basic epistemology is "I know it because I experienced it." Related to this is a skepticism toward those considered experts or authorities on various subjects. So we have people say/think things like, "It doesn't matter what the epidemiologists say! I saw on YouTube that the whole thing is a hoax!" And while that example may sound extreme, I do hear from various people that they have a hard time trusting the media, the government, big business, and even healthcare officials (we do call it the healthcare industry sometimes!). If we aren't going to trust others, whom will we trust? The final answer to that question is that we will trust ourselves. I will trust my own intuition, research, intellect, reason, and, yes, experience. I will be my guide. There is, after all, no one else.

Do you believe the Bible? Do you believe the Gospel, the Good News, that Jesus was born as a human being but showed the power and presence of God because He was also God? Do you believe that He lived, loved, helped, taught, and wowed? Do you believe He gave His own, innocent life, and that it was an injustice? Do you believe He came back from the grave? Can you believe Jesus did all that?

We can believe it, but we have to humble ourselves and take off our epistemological blinders to be able to do so. Our pride, and sometimes our pain, causes us to withdraw into our own experiences and opinions, and sometimes it really is to protect ourselves. I get it. But we can be honest about the fact that we do take things on faith all the time: yes, there really was a holocaust, a moon landing, and a place called Africa (I've never been there myself but I know people who say they have been).

But maybe the hardest things to take on faith include love. When someone says they love you, you have to have faith. You don't know what's going on in their minds or hearts. You can see some of their actions, but you may never know for sure. You have faith.

Jesus showed His love for us by coming to us, suffering with us, suffering for us, and overcoming the curse. You can believe it. And this truth changes our lives. And He is loving us today. He is with us in His Spirit. Day by day, through this season of Lent, ask Him to make His love for you and us more and more real. And to give you faith in His loving presence.

John 1:9–14 ESV
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
   And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

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...