A New Belonging

At this past Sunday's Town Hall Meeting, I briefly presented our renewed Community Group vision that we hope to start in the Fall and made a call for help to make this vision a reality. I want to outline this vision here for those who couldn't make it but also to better explain the rationale and hope behind it.

Why are we doing this?

After over a year of Zoom gatherings, punctuated by major life changes (moving to a new neighborhood, changing jobs, welcoming new children, etc.), we needed re-imagine community building for our church. The isolation/independence we've practiced over the past year+ only reinforced the hyper-individualism already apparent in our city and culture. The question for us, as we grow together is this:

How can we [re-]learn and put into practice the truth that God calls us to be members of one another (Romans 12:5)?

The purpose of this new vision and structure is to help us embrace our communal identity in Christ -- that God has called us to a mutual belonging, where each of us is an essential conduit of grace for one another.

The structure:

Community groups will follow a monthly cycle where the various weeks will give each group an opportunity to grow together in different ways. Of the four weeks in every month, the first three weeks will be with members of your community group and the fourth week will draw from the entire church

Week 1 - Bible Study (what we've been doing...)

If you've been part of our community groups before, this should be standard fare. We are committed to hearing and learning from the Bible. It is God's gift to his people that we may know him and become who he has called us to be. Every month we gather to be challenged and encouraged by God's Word to us that we may better love him and love our neighbors in our daily lives.

Week 2 - Smaller Group (getting deeper into one another's lives)

Within your community group, you will be a part of a smaller group of 3-5 people. On this week, your smaller group will meet together to get to know one another at a deeper level. Oftentimes at the end of a typical "Bible Study" gathering, we try to squeeze in sharing about our week, asking for advice and perspectives, and praying for one another in the span of five minutes (or alternatively extending the duration of the meeting). We have this week set aside for growing in relationship beyond the small talk, to see how God is working in each of our lives.

Week 3 - Larger Group (more space for visitors and friends)

While some people may prefer to enter into community in smaller groups (see above), we set aside a week to welcome friends, neighbors, and co-workers to experience life together in larger groups. These gatherings are meant to be hospitable, making space for people to share interests and experiences. This week can take a number of forms to better welcome one another to our lives: dinners, games nights, bowling, social events, etc. If you've been with our community group ministry before, this is similar to our "fellowship weeks."

Week 4 - Affinity Group (this is new!)

The first three weeks (above) can happen in any order, but the fourth week is across our entire congregation; people are welcome to attend groups of varying interests. For example, on the fourth week of every month we can have a Young Adult Singles group, or a Families with Young Children group. We can periodically host a Men's or Women's Fellowship, a Book Club, a gathering based on careers (e.g. Faith and Finance/Education/Medical/etc. group). We can host regular praise & prayer gathers on this week. This final week gives us opportunities to connect with others in the church across our respective community groups and provides space for new communities to form. A church-wide schedule of events will be provided as this begins.

Great! How can I get in on this?

If you're a member of our church and interested in forming a group, let me know! (see contact form below) If you're kinda interested and find someone else who is kinda interested, you can let me know together. We would welcome more people who are willing to host or willing to be the point person for a group. It begins with a recognition that we need one another to mature in our faith and a willingness to be available for others.

Based on the current locations of our church members we're hoping to have...

  • 3-4 groups in Downtown Flushing
  • 1-2 groups in Forest Hills
  • 1-2 groups in Eastern Queens

If you have questions about what these groups could look like or have other ideas about getting involved (e.g. "I'd be interested in hosting a one-time affinity group!" or "I have an idea for ______________."), I'd welcome it!

It's my hope that we will better see and know one another, recognizing one another's gifts, and have opportunities to use these gifts to bless one another.

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    our EmbRACE studies

    If you've been with our church this past year or have attended one of our community groups, you likely would have participated in one of our EmbRACE studies. I've written about these studies before, but the actual studies themselves were only shared within our community group ministry so I wanted to put these studies out there in part as (1) our humble contribution to the ongoing work of the church in its engagement with the systems of oppression in our society but also (2) as a snapshot to mark where our church is regarding racism in and around us. These are studies that are meant to be done in community, resting upon the Spirit's work to speak when God's people gather. If you only read the content without engaging with the Spirit at work in his people, these studies will be but brief summaries of our world's sins.

    Some of you may know that the EmbRACE studies were originally from a series of studies put out by another church in hopes to move their congregation to deal with racism. And while I applaud the effort of the leaders of that church to shepherd their congregation, when reviewing the studies, I could not put the same study before our church without some editing; there were clearly some cultural blind spots that became apparent in the study material so the studies were completely rewritten with our congregation in mind. I am sure that in a few years, I may come back to these studies and realize that some parts did not age well and will need to be corrected.

    What's clear at this point is that there is much to learn and there is much to mourn and lament. As we noted when we finished the last study today, the work is far from over if we are to live into our identity as God people and truly be a light to the nations -- a city on a hill. It is my hope that as our city reawakens that our church would more clearly recognize its calling and mission to repent and show the world the one who can change our hearts and redeem our broken world.


    Salvation by Pain

    This month we commemorated one year of Covid-19 lock downs.
    We experienced collective pain and grief over the deaths in Atlanta.
    And endured even more hardships daily in this season of Lent.

    In a book I started reading this Lenten season, I came across a reference to The End of Suffering by Scott Cairn where he tells about a monk, dying of cancer, who said, "Paradise is filled with men and women whose cancer saved their lives."

    This passing allusion stopped me in my tracks. How could cancer save a life?

    Cancer is an acute reminder of the fundamental truth that affects all of humanity: that we are mortal. Remembering our mortality snaps us out of our delusions that we are invincible or made for success. The Lenten refrain punctuates this season: "Remember that you are dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:20). And this awareness calls us to back to real life. Life that matters. Life that gives life to others. We are saved from the false life of power and achievement by remembering our common dust-ness.

    In a year of prolonged waiting and daily reminders of our pandemic vulnerability, we have been forced to reckon with our individual and collective weakness. C.S. Lewis, in trying to make sense of pain, stated it this way: "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

    The pain we're experiencing is calling us to attention. We must attend to it. We wish that the world was not shaped by injustice and racism. We wish we could continue running full steam ahead building our own Babel Towers to greatness. But our good God will not allow us to delude ourselves forever.

    Scripture recounts how our Sovereign God utilizes wicked nations, natural disasters, severe famine, deathly disease -- anything and everything to call his people to attention. Pain is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world, reminding us that we are not who we pretend to be. We are not invincible. We are not victorious. We are not God. We must contend with the reality we try to hide and ignore: that sin and its effects are still deep and present in and among each of us. When the daily whispers and hints, the explicit calls from a familiar pulpit, regular requests from friends and family... when all of this fails to get our attention, pain may be the way to save our lives -- being forced by suffering to slow down from our mindless forward "progress" or "success" and take hold of what life actually entails.

    As the Lenten season nears its end in Holy Week in anticipation of the Cross and Resurrection, it is my hope that we emerge from this prolonged period of suspended hope with a greater awareness of the life that Jesus gives us and calls us to enjoy.

    Oh Lord, teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Amen.


    Burnout and Serving

    Everyone is afraid of burnout

    Everyone is afraid of burnout. We talk a lot about spreading ourselves too thin, about over commitment, about work-life balance. Everyone seems to be concerned about self care… but is it really self care?

    I’m starting believe that what many are now passing off as “self care” when choosing not serving others or refraining from active participation in community is really a stubborn and perpetual self ignorance masquerading as prudence. We think, “Do less things and we’ll solve the problem of over commitment!” But this is a false peace, akin to Jeremiah’s challenge to Israel:

    They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
    saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
    when there is no peace.

    Our problem goes deeper than merely “doing too many things.” I’m sure all of us are guilty of over-commitment – promising to do more than we can handle. Maybe some of us ended up doing too much unintentionally: served too much at a previous church, felt pressured or obligated by leaders who were more concerned about us as workers than as people.

    And our reaction is to pull back.

    We don’t want to be taken advantage of again. We don’t want to be caught in such a position ever again. Our reluctance to service or commitment may be a way to avoid tension or conflict, echoing the belief that “if there is no stress, then there is goodness.” Our modern false call of “peace, peace,” healing our wounds lightly when the truth is that there is no peace.

    But this reaction is often a settling for a much lesser “good” at the expense of pursuing the greater good of self knowledge, growth, and transformation. We think the question is “how much?” rather than “why?” with regard to work and service.

    We often overcommit, not because we don’t know how much to serve, but because we don’t know who we are.

    Parker Palmer writes in Let Your Life Speak:

    One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess-the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

    We find ourselves doing anything and everything to fill this void within us… to heal the wound that festers within us… We burnout because we try to give out of this emptiness, trying to be someone other than ourselves.

    But why serve?

    Before getting into reasons why we should be serving one another in community, it’s just as important to lay out some reasons why we shouldn’t serve. Allow me two short disclaimers before diving into why serving is not only a way to show love for others, but to love yourself – true self care.

    There are some of us that are really good at serving. We have a greater capacity for work than others; we are high-functioning people who need less sleep than most. But there’s a danger in basing our identity upon our service and seeing yourself as a worker more than person. We can unintentionally hide from ourselves through our service. Sometimes we need to “take a break” from serving to find ourselves in the absence of service and work. We can ask ourselves, “Who am I without [this job/function/position/ministry]?” And if you’re willing, ask someone who can speak truth to you, “Do you sense that my identity is too attached to my work/ministry?”

    And I know there are some of us that do need to pull back from serving. Maybe you are coming from an environment where you really did serve too much but did not feel like you had a choice. Over time, your understanding and posture toward serving has really soured; the effects of that souring affect the whole person. And it will require more than just a new understanding in the mind about service; we’ll need our hearts and minds and our bodies – all that we are – to experience a “reset.” BUT this isn’t done alone. What’s often missing in the “break” from serving or commitment is any plan or purpose to the break. A break is not supposed to be permanent, but without purpose, we can easily get used to it and find ourselves stuck. Don’t take breaks without purpose, for there is and inherent good in serving.

    Transformed by love

    We should serve because it is through disciplined love to one another that we grow in Christlikeness. When serving others, we are bound to experience tension and conflict, but tension and conflict are not bad in of themselves. It is in conflict and tension that we learn more about our souls. If we avoid service and tension altogether, some of sinful and selfish tendencies will never be revealed.

    Thus, when tension arises, we should not treat it only as something to avoid or despise, but see it as an invitation to transformation; ask the Spirit to work as our hearts are revealed. For the LORD knows us intimately – better than we know ourselves! (and that is not just a figure of speech; Psalm 139:1!) And we can join with the psalmist,

    Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
    And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!

    In this we join with God’s work in the world and in our souls. What do our hearts tell us in conflict? What have you learned about yourself through difficult experiences? How is the LORD teaching us and shaping us to be more like Christ? It is in committed love that we are transformed. And we can confidently enter into this transformation because it is Christ who holds us, thus we cannot fail.

    Let us enter into this disciplined love of service with confidence.


    Reflections on Life Together in 2020

    Indeed, the past year has been one of much loss, grief, and pain. Challenges in identity, community, ministry. Please forgive me getting this out after the year has rolled over. These reflections have been a long time coming. Longer than most of my posts here. I'm sure we'll still be processing for many years to come, but as we're looking forward with hope in 2021, I do believe that this past year has been deeply revelatory and forming for us as a community.

    Sunday Worship

    A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend from another church. He was telling me about an end of the-year "think tank" of sorts between different church leaders on how to adjust and improve Sunday Worship via Zoom. He shared lots of ideas from that gathering: thoughts on music, streamlined processes, different uses of technology, etc. Surely this year has been one where we've been forced to adapt so it was encouraging to hear that these fellow church leaders were constantly innovating. But the more I considered these ideas and our church community, the more deeply I began to appreciate the ways God has sustained us as we are; that the big draw for our church wasn't our polish in worship service. It wasn't quality of the sermons or the music (even though I think we are faithful to the gospel and have great song leaders in our church!). What ultimately kept our people together was not any gimmick or good that we were broadcasting over Zoom; it was the people.

    PC: Uncle Sam

    PC: Treyton Moy

    Though we did not have true foresight when we decided on our Sunday Service format in March 2020, I'm grateful that every single week since lockdown, our Sunday Service has been live. Our church is not primarily an organization that produces goods for people to consume; we are the good, imperfections and all. I don't think any of our worship presiders is exaggerating when we say our favorite part of Sunday Service is the brief, chaotic, period when everyone unmutes their mics and greets one another. We're not listening to a recording. We're not consuming a good. The church -- the people of God -- are engaged in something beautiful and sacred... together.

    I had these thoughts in mind when I was giving the sermon during our last Sunday Service of 2020, when all of a sudden my Internet cut out (2020 must've thought, "this is my last chance. now or never to disrupt their service!"). If I were a pre-recorded sermon, it would be so easy for our church members to check out and "switch the channel" to another church service. If the sermon was just a good to be consumed, then that would make sense! Somehow in that moment, while no one in the church could hear me... but I was able to hear everyone else! I heard the awkward silence as people were hoping for my Internet not be "unstable" (as Zoom would soon inform me). And soon the Spirit got to work, hold us together. There were no changes to the number of participants -- no one checked out. And, Rob led the church to pray for my connection. I was back in a few minutes, preaching the remainder from my building's stairwell -- motion-sensor lights triggering on and off every 2 minutes and all. What a wonderful experience to see the church together in an unexpected moment of testing.

    Grace in Community

    Not only in our formal gatherings on Sunday, but what an encouragement to see the life of our church extend beyond our Sunday Service. From engaging in Q&A in our brief Bible studies that I've affectionately called "Three Pastors Walk into a Bar" to the song leaders in our church giving of their time and energy to encourage the church through InstaLive praise sessions in the middle of the week to encourage our congregation through some of the darkest months of the pandemic, I'm proud to be part of this community. And no reflection on our church community this year would be complete without mentioning the daily -- yes, daily -- video posts by one member of our community to lighten the mood and bring joy to our lives through reviews of garden tools, tours of semi-empty public spaces, Billy on the Street-esque encounters with people on the street, live drive-bys to see holiday home decorations, and oh so much more! You know who you are. You've left a mark on my memories of this year.

    I'm also grateful for how the Spirit has been doing this very same work in our community groups (CGs). Our CG Leaders really stuck it out in keeping our church community connected and together. I'm am so grateful for their commitment to gathering and meeting (virtually!) when the shock of Zoom fatigue was high for all of us. Our community groups also engaged in some difficult conversations -- many of which we are still processing and working through now. Different stories and histories on race. Different perspectives on politics and policy. Conversation topics which have divided our public spaces and threatened to divide us in our church community. I believe it was the grace of God and the presence and power of the Spirit that enabled us to weather the many difficult storms together, bearing with one another in love. One of our CG leaders shared with me that it was their grounding in Christ and the established love and fellowship between their group members that gave their group the confidence to engage in divisive topics and in so doing stretch and build one another in love and compassion. We're far from perfection on this, but this year has taught me that the people of our church are not one homogenous block. We don't always see eye to eye. But God has called us his own and our striving for unity in diversity is a testament to his Spirit at work in us. He's working still and we depend on him still.

    Advent Hope

    Because of our need of him was more strongly accented this year, the season of Advent took on a different tone. There was a need that we acknowledged not only in our minds -- with our theology -- and not only with our eyes -- in all the corruption we could see around us -- but a desperation that we could collectively feel in our gut. Our world is broken. We are broken. And we need a savior. Our theme for Christmas as we closed out the year together was "What does Emmanuel, 'God with us,' mean to you this year?" And the response from the church, testifying to God's presence with us through this year, affirmed God's promise: that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Various members of our church submitted testimony and videos. Bakers making cookies for our covid-19-adapted cookie swap. Artists sent in beautiful expressions of longing and hope. Musicians and readers lent their voices to retell the story of the birth of Christ through scripture and song. In many ways, our Christmas Eve Service was our culminating testimony of God's steadfast love and faithfulness to us when everything else in the world seemed uncertain.

    https://youtu.be/QBM1egCm2Cg

    This year has affirmed to us that God is ever with us most tangibly through the gift of his body, the church. This past year has forced us to slow down and see one another more fully, not for our gifts or talents, nor for the goods we can produce, but because God has bound us together in love through his Son. It is my hope that as we move forward together in 2021, we will cherish one another more and that this practiced gospel love will spread will be our testimony to the world that the Spirit indeed dwells with us.

    Because of Christ, let us look forward with hope.


    Advent 2020: We Wait

    In this Advent Season, we are reminded that all of creation longs for things to be made right. Everything is not right and longs to be set right. The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Romans that "creation waits with eager longing... to be set free from its bondage to corruption," and we know that this freedom will come when Christ comes again to redeem, not only his people, but the whole world (Romans 8:18-25).

    This past year has revealed to us how broken we really are. Sin is entrenched deeper in our hearts than we imagined. The pandemic has revealed selfishness and self-preservation over the love of one's neighbor. The moral and social evils that are interwoven with the structure of society are difficult to untwine and undo.

    In Advent we dare plumb the depths of our depravity
    because we know our depravity is not the end.

    In Advent we can name our evils without fear of being overwhelmed
    because we know our hope has already overcome the world.

    In Advent we know that even if we despair,
    we have a God who can lift us up out of it. And we wait on him.

    In Advent, we wait.

    Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, drawing upon the practiced testimony of Israel and the proclamation of the prophets, articulated the message of the prophets in this way:

    This is what the prophets discovered. History is a nightmare. There are more scandals, more acts of corruption, than are dreamed of in philosophy. It would be blasphemous to believe that what we witness is the end of God's creation. It is an act of evil to accept the state of evil as either inevitable or final. Others may be satisfied with improvement, the prophets insist upon redemption.
    "History" from The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel (emphasis mine)

    All our efforts to redeemer our world have failed. Many times all seems lost. But God has not given up. There's something good and true in our longing for a redeemer and in our conviction that evil is not the end.

    The Gospel tells us that God has come -- Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is with us in our brokenness to the utmost even to a gruesome death on the cross. He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust. But out of this dust he will once again create life. And so we proclaim with all the church through the ages, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"


    The EmbRACE Study / 03

    We're at this again?

    It's just after Thanksgiving -- and not a "normal" one at that. I must confess that the thought of having to engage in another race study... now... sounds... well... it doesn't fill me with excitement. My finger to the pulse of our church and immediate community is that we're tired of the subject, the outrage that once saturated our social feeds has reduced from a raging fire to a simmer (but I must add, still present nonetheless). But we expected this.

    When we, the pastoral staff, started mapping out how to help our church engage with the issues of justice in our day, we decided to "slow drip" our engagement with the issues for several reasons. One reason was our assessment that our church has many diverse perspectives on the issues, and it will take us some time to process and absorb. Many of us have histories and stories of our own (or stories inherited through our parents) which color our view. It would take some time to get to distill our experiences and stories to discern the gospel call in this particular moment -- we're still working through this as a community call together in love and harmony (Ephesians 4 and Romans 12).

    we must continue to pursue righteousness and justice long after our social feeds moved onto other subjects

    But one other reason was that we knew that these issues would not be resolved quickly. We knew that the wide public outrage could not be kept at a fever pitch, and eventually, we must continue to pursue righteousness and justice long after our social feeds moved onto other subjects. For many of us (though I recognize, not all), we can choose not to talk about injustice because we do not deal with it every day. But that may not be an option for many of our friends and neighbors -- people we are called to love and care for. This does not mean we ignore our own troubles, but we're called to follow in Christ's footsteps and extend ourselves for others around us.

    The missing lament

    For this third EmbRACE study, we'll be focusing on lament. As we enter the Advent season this Sunday, it is fitting that we enter into this lost (at least in the vast majority of the American church) spiritual discipline. The Advent season is not synonymous with what many of us call the "Christmas season" (jolly hot chocolates and cozy fireplaces); it is a season marked by longing. In the season of Advent we are to name the brokenness in our lives that require a Savior. Lament requires us to go deeper in our call to "love our neighbors as ourselves" by naming and entering into that pain to better see our hope. Sometimes, when we are faced with problems, we immediately look for solutions rather than taking the time to dig deep into the problems that plague us as a people. Lament requires us to restrain our assumptions about we [think we] know about the pain of our neighbors and enter into that pain. When Jesus entered into the company of mourners at Lazarus's grave (see John 11) he did not first offer the "solution" to their sadness (namely, himself). Rather, the scriptures tell us that he wept, he sobbed, he bawled. With this upcoming study, the challenge before us is to identify with those in pain.

    Does the brokenness of this world break your heart and deepen your longing for Christ in this Advent season? As you join your CGs in this next EmbRACE study, I encourage you resist the urge to bypass the sadness and ugliness of our world in order to get to the "solutions" to our condition. Rather dig deep into the brokenness around us and let that orient our hearts to the coming King who comes to save.

    Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
    Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
    where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
    hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
    Let me learn by paradox
        that the way down is the way up,
        that to be low is to be high,
        that the broken heart is the healed heart,
        that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
        that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
        that to have nothing is to possess all,
        that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
        that to give is to receive,
        that the valley is the place of vision.
    Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
        and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
    Let me find thy light in my darkness,
        thy life in my death,
        thy joy in my sorrow,
        thy grace in my sin,
        thy riches in my poverty
        thy glory in my valley.
    The Valley of Vision
    The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions


    Knowledge of Self

    "At exactly which point do you start to realize
    That life without knowledge is death in disguise?
    That's why, knowledge of self is like life after death
    Apply it, to your life, let destiny manifest!"
    Black Star

    Hip hop embraced the phrase “knowledge of self” as a call for people to be conscious of their inner thoughts and also of the outer forces influencing them. It was a call to recognize one’s dignity, intellect, emotions, ethnicity, genealogy, and history, as well as the surrounding social structures shaping one’s reality. “Knowledge of self” is what drove Brooklyn rapper AZ to proclaim things like, “You can try to blind me, analyze, but can't define me / My mind's divine, heavily entwined with Gandhi's.” In these lines, the rapper has an awareness of the layers of his own mind and of the confines of his broken society.

    But what does all this have to do with us right now? New York is still considered to be one of the most influential cities in the world. Its culture can be fast-paced, cutthroat, and powerfully innovative. But during this year’s pandemic, even New York City had to slow down and pause, making it an extremely difficult season for many of us. And as we trudged through 2020, there has been a steady exposure of our deepest emotions and sins, as well as the grotesque unearthing of our society’s moral corruptions.

    While I am not trying to diminish this year's suffering, I also hope we do not overlook that this year has offered us an opportunity for unprecedented knowledge of self, both individually and as a collective. It is possible to “just get through” Covid times, looking forward to the next time we can be at our “full potential” again. And it is possible, even after the pandemic, to live our lives focused solely on productivity, pleasure, parties, and pay, until the day we die. But, as writer C.S. Lewis says, insofar as we want to experience “real warmth and enthusiasm and joy” and healing, we will have to do more than surface-level living. Hip hop is beauty that emerged from trying times in marginalized neighborhoods, where artists decided to become more reflective in the midst of trial.

    Knowledge of Grace

    Sixteenth century French theologian John Calvin did not know about rap philosophy, but he spoke a similar truth. He said, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

    Christian knowledge of self first involves recognizing the patterns of our spiritual behavior and trying to explore why the patterns are there. You can see examples in Scripture, like Paul’s wrestling in Romans 7:21-25, Job’s monologues, and David in places like Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” Knowledge of self is the hard and repetitive work of peeling back our insecurities. We ask ourselves, 'Is there something (control, beauty, companionship, power, career, reputation) in my life that grasps me so strongly that if that thing is threatened, I would feel less confident, and even less worthy? Why do I obsess over things the way I do? Whose voice is most powerful in my life? How has my community influenced me; how have I influenced my community?' These are lifelong questions and journeys, not solved overnight.

    But then, of course, we cannot forget the second part of Calvin’s statement: the knowledge of God. The knowledge of self journey leads to the knowledge of God. This was the natural path for all the scriptural examples listed above. Knowing the depth of our sins and insecurities leads us to glimpse how profound God’s grace is for us. It leads us to find God’s mercy waiting for us, even in the darkest depths of our souls. We find the power of Christ fighting for us, even against things we cannot control, like our family histories and environments. And all of this can move us to worship.

    Family, finding God in our individual and communal vulnerabilities is among the most healing experiences we can have, over time. Resting on God’s grace allows us the freedom to finally admit our weaknesses but at the same time be confident in the gifts he provides. There is freedom in not having to sustain false confidences to cover our weaknesses but also freedom in emboldening ourselves as people, forgiven and gifted by God, going out into the world, as his workmanship (Ephesians 2:1-10).

    Sufferer, Sinner, Saint, Story

    As I am writing this, I am wearing a t-shirt that says, “Jazz is freedom.” Sometimes, jazz music does not have a set beat or key signature; it just sounds like random notes. But in the randomness, there is complexity, and in that, there is freedom too. Often, we want to assign ourselves and others into rigid categories of this or that; it is easier to "figure each other out" superficially than to learn our stories. But the truth is, as Christians, we are all a complex composition of saint, sinner, and sufferer, all at once. It is in living through this tension that we meet God, conforming us, and all his creation, to the image of his Son.

    Would you be willing at all to explore those messy details of being human? Is this something you would like to pursue, for change, both in yourself and beyond? If so, find somebody in your life who can help you to ask good questions in this journey of deep knowledge. And most of all, let us ask the Lord God to guide us in our reflections, one day at a time. Pray through Psalm 139, in which David sings,

    O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
    You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
    You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways (Psalm 139:1-3).


    Fighting to be Still

    Pastor Rob gave us a very good word to consider this past Sunday from Psalm 146 in anticipation of this week and all the anxiety many of us may be experiencing regarding the election. Yes, as citizens and members of society, we are called to "submit our ballots," yet, as believers, we are not called to "submit our hopes." Still I find it difficult to completely detach myself from this contentious election race. I've focused my attention to some books. I've played several games of AmongUs. I've joined some fellow anxious saints in prayer. I've been running around trying to distract myself with anything to not see the live updates. And I was convicted in my busyness to slow down.

    Psalm 46 ends with the familiar line, "Be still and know that I am God." If you're feeling anything like me today, I encourage you to stop where you are and take a solid few minutes to read and let this psalm get into the core of your being today.

    Psalm 46

    To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.

        God is our refuge and strength,
            a very present help in trouble.
        Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
            though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
        though its waters roar and foam,
            though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
        
        There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
            the holy habitation of the Most High.
        God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
            God will help her when morning dawns.
        The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
            he utters his voice, the earth melts.
        The LORD of hosts is with us;
            the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
        
        Come, behold the works of the LORD,
            how he has brought desolations on the earth.
        He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
            he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
            he burns the chariots with fire.
        “Be still, and know that I am God.
            I will be exalted among the nations,
            I will be exalted in the earth!”
        The LORD of hosts is with us;
            the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

    This psalm describes the raging nations of today so well. We make all this noise, and somehow distract ourselves into thinking and believing that this -- this -- moment is the ultimate moment. But this psalm lays down the truth that it's not; the LORD merely utters his voice and everything melts.

    The lead up to the familiar "Be still..." line shows a God who brings desolations on the earth. He allows our nonsense to ensue until all is dust. Perhaps only when we let the chaos and restlessness in our hearts stop, can we finally recognize who is God. God is found in the stillness. And we need to fight the noise of today to seek that stillness. Slow down. Slow down so you can keep pace with God. Slow down so you can hear his voice. Slow down so we can discern his leading in this tumultuous time.


    On Individual and Institutional Racism

    Dear King’s Cross,

    I, along with our session and pastors, wanted to help put some theological clarity as to what and why we feel convicted to denounce certain evils and injustices that we see in our present day and land. I hope that in reading this, it will hopefully give clarity where there might have been ambiguity, and reason where there has been a sense of skepticism.

    RACISM
    In 2004, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America was just starting to come to grips with ways we had promoted and aligned with racism particularly towards Black Americans. The definition given, states, “racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races.”

    Therefore, the inherent evil and sinfulness of racism is that we are distinguishing, favoring, judging and categorizing people and people groups by their particular physical features, particular ethnicity, cultures, and characteristics that God created, sees, and calls equally good, beautiful, honorable, and resplendent with His divine reflection. In other words, because God imbues his own glory into the uniqueness of being human, when we treat one another with anything less than the honor and dignity he has spelled out in Scripture, we are ultimately making judgement calls and estimations of God’s worth, beauty, and honor. That’s not to eclipse the real and tragic damage racism has on people—but I say that to show how offensive and personal God takes racism. When we are not in the wonder and awe of God’s character, we are bound to demean the realities he shows up daily in our lives through people.

    INDIVIDUAL AND INSTITUTIONAL RACISM

    One of the questions people at our church are wondering about and could be struggling with is the concept of institutional or systemic racism, (which are not precisely the same thing, but I am using them interchangeably here because they both refer to larger, culture-shaping means such as the education system, justice system, media, etc.) Institutional Racism is often seen as the systemic, unequal distribution of resources, power, and opportunity in favor of one race over another. Whereas, Individual Racism is often thought of as the acts and thoughts and beliefs that individuals harbor.

    I think there is a very unhelpful “either/or” mentality when it comes to these notions of racism, which only sees two options:

    • Some people believe that racism is only an institutional problem. But the problem with this is you are relieving individuals from the responsibility of being good citizens, and bringing change to their lives.
    • On the other hand, some people believe racism is really just an individual’s aggression and bias towards those different than themselves. However you’re failing to see the greater cycles of culture that continue to influence and shape the way we see and treat and oppress others.

    For many of us, because we don’t see a third option, we tend to go with whatever option makes us look less ignorant, and more informed and compassionate. However—how much of our responses are shaped out of genuine love, and not fear? Fear of being wrong, fear of being seduced by a political agenda, fear of being a bigot, etc.

    I’d like to propose a third option. It’s the option I believe God lays out consistently from beginning to end in Scripture. The fact is, God always holds both individuals and institutions responsible for sin. From the first fall of Adam and Eve, you have individuals being held accountable for their actions—and yet, the entire institution of humanity is corrupted. In Joshua 7, you have a man named Achan, acting out of greed and breaking societal rules God set in place for Israel. And while he and his family have to face the consequences of his sin—it’s not before all of Israel experiences loss and breakdown and failure in their campaign.

    For some of us, I can understand that the implications of Institutional Racism may seem outrageous. We love America and American culture—and the implications of Institutional Racism would mean admitting there is a malicious and grotesque mindset, pervading so deeply behind every chapter of our history. How could we ever take that sitting down? I get that, accepting this, paints a bleak alternative reality compared to how some, if not many, of us grew up seeing and understanding America.

    However, it seems to me that the Bible actually paints a far darker picture of human beings than maybe we’ve been paying attention to. Somehow, I wonder, if Satan has painted little flowers and puppies throughout our bibles, when it’s really the story of the desperately tragic state of humanity’s wallowing in vile filth and corruption—from the individual human heart, (Jeremiah 17:9) to the cosmic and spiritual forces of darkness ruling over principalities, powers, and institutions of this present world (Ephesians 6:12). This is why we need a powerful Savior.

    And something we have tried to stress in our proclamation at King’s Cross is that Jesus is not merely your individual savior—he is a kingdom savior, for a kingdom people. He is coming to overthrow not just your and my petty individual rule of our own hearts; he has come to overthrow the rules and authorities and principalities and yes, institutions of this world. He will bring all things under his good and righteous reign.

    Friends, that is the gospel of the kingdom. That allows us to pursue individual reformation, while seeing that there is a constant need for Jesus to come in kingdom power to restore broken institutional standards made by broken, sinful people.

    So, yes, because we believe the whole gospel that says the whole world is broken. Therefore we ought not be surprised or utterly crushed when we find human institutions failing us. The idea that a human institution (including the institution of American law and governance), where mere humans are the ruling heads and authorities could be free from bias, greed, slavery, and racism—ought to sound wrong to Christian ears.

    We see how some people have come to the conclusion in our day, in a fit of despair, that the enemy is actually the very existence of institutions, themselves, and these people have turned to various forms of anarchy. But as Christians, we know of only one institution that has the power to repent and turn from its wrong doing. The Church is the only earthly institution that has its authoritative headship in someone who is absolutely perfect, and in whom we can completely trust.

    Now, the Church body is composed of sinful broken people like you and me—and that means we have the potential to fall and fail just as hard as anyone else—and we do quite often. But when we are aligned to his will, and walk in the ways of his Holy Word, we begin to reveal something that the world is starving for more than ever, in this present age. And that means there is hope in this dark world as we live out the grace of Jesus offered to any and all who would see they are in need of so great a Savior.

    Yours in Christ,

    Pastor Rob