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.

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.

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.

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Today is Halloween, or as the church has historically recognized, All Hallow's Eve or All Saints' Eve -- the day of preparation before All Saints' Day. The church has had a rich history with death and what it means to those in Christ, but it is lost to many of us today. Since death seems nearer to us in these past months of pandemic, I believe we can draw richly upon the witness and testimony of the church that has lived out its faith through the observance of All Saints' Day.

When I first watched Pixar's Coco, a film about Día de Muertos ("The Day of the Dead," which is concurrent, perhaps not coincidentally, with All Saints' Day), I was surprised that the portrayal so accurately captured aspects of our Christian hope associated with death. The observance of this holiday typically takes the form of celebration, rather than mourning -- acknowledging that death is not the end and those who left this earth before us have not left us completely. In the story, Miguel Rivera, the main protagonist goes on a journey between the land of the living and of the dead and discovers a richer understanding of himself, his family, and the beautiful and storied inheritance he has as a member of his family. While it is unlikely that Disney/Pixar would put an explicitly religious backing to their films, we in the faith know that it is because of Christ, the living and the dead are not forever separated, and we live out our faith "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12).

In the Apostles' Creed, we affirm this in the line, "I believe in... the communion of saints," which confesses the truth that both the living and the dead share a fellowship in Christ that cannot be broken. Our practice of communion (The Lord's Supper) touches upon this truth every time we partake; we do not partake alone, but with all the saints present, past, and future. At the table, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we do it with all the saints -- including those recently departed -- proclaiming the death of our Lord until he comes again in glory.

I know for many of us, there are many whose presence is sorely missed. As the holidays approach, the heavy presence of empty chairs in our homes is a weight we'd rather not bear; the idea of observing All Saints' Day seems too painful in light of our grief and fresh wounds. For some of us we'd rather keep feeling that pain, because we think without that feeling, we'll lose what we have left of those who died. Sometimes we only dare to take sips of our grief for fear we'd be overcome with despair and spend all our grief at once and then forget. In Pixar's Coco, Hector, a character from the world of the dead, explains the conflict to be resolved when we says, "If there's no one left in the living world to remember you, you disappear from this world. But you can change that!"

But the gospel that proclaims the communion of the saints gives us a better promise and hope than Hector's. The lives of those we have loved do not exist based on our keeping of them in memory; surely there may come a day when we will adjust to our grief and "move on" in some form or another. The gospel gives us confidence to mourn and grieve deeply because it is Christ who remembers our names and knows each of our souls better than we know ourselves. Because of Christ, we can mourn deeply and fully, not worrying if we will drown ourselves in our grief or expend all our sadness at once because we are completely sustained by the grace of God.

I invite all of you to observe All Saints' Day. Not to focus primarily on our friends and family who have passed, but to turn that longing-for-their-fellowship to worship of our loving and gracious Savior who sustains our communion. In both the Apostles' and the Nicene Creed, we affirm the resurrection of the dead/body and life -- full and vibrant life -- in the world to come. Our Savior and fellow saints cheer us on in faith. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith."

Sing to Your Soul

These days we find ourselves locked at home, physically disconnected from friends, family, and community. It’s been difficult. Challenging. Our work is strained. Our relationships are tested. We’re managing — or at least trying to. We’re making the best of our circumstances.

But Sunday Worship is the time for the church — even if we’re scattered on Zoom — to reset. We gather to realign ourselves to the truth of the Gospel when all week long we may have aligned ourselves with other goals: scarcity, loneliness, helplessness. But one thing we lose in this day of online virtual worship services is the real feel of the community encouraging one another in the Gospel. This is especially apparent when we gather to — online — to sing.

How easy it is to watch the singing on the screen rather than participate.

It might feel awkward to sing in our apartments, especially if we’re just one of a handful of voices — every out-of-tune note or early-entrance-become-solo clearly heard by all. Maybe we think it’s easier just to listen to those in the call singing. But don’t give into that. Sing!

Surely, I can remind you, “God cares about it.” Or I can tell those of you who are parents, “Your children are watching and learning about worship from your example.” These are both true. But I’d put forward to you that…

Your soul is listening.

There’s a well known refrain in the psalms (scattered throughout Psalms 42 and 43) that goes like this:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

Here the psalmist is ministering to his soul. This part of us is really all of us. It is in our soul — our very being — that we are united with Christ. But our souls are “prone to wander” as the hymns put it. And now, when all is stripped away from daily routine, our souls are raw. Every grim announcement and every sliver of hope tugs our souls this way and that; they toss us to and fro in the stormy waves of our present situation.

So as we gather tomorrow to worship; resist the temptation to sit idly and watch. Sing! Remind your soul where our hope lies. Remind your soul that even if all gives way, there is a sure Anchor that keeps us steady in the waves. It’s the Anchor that we can never lose because He holds onto us.

Sing! So your soul will not despair.

Sing! They your soul may know the Hope that keeps us even now.

Worship Formation During Covid-19

Like many congregations in our city, our church leadership has been evaluating what to do for Sunday Service.

Should we cancel service?

Should we “not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing?”

Maybe divide up into small house churches and give house leaders an adapted service to lead!

Maybe just do a live stream!

People who are very vocal on the matter seem to have already arrived at the best solution: “We should definitely cancel.” “Let’s continue to meet in faith! (with some precautions of course!)” “Online would be best. Imagine not having to find parking!”

I don’t know if they’re able to be so vocal because they’ve already had endless thorough discussions and I’m only seeing the result of hours of discussion and meetings. But I know whatever our church ends up doing (and at the moment, it seems like we’ll do a live-streamed minimal service), the concerns underneath still linger for me.

What is our public witness?

No matter what we decide, there is the ever present public witness of the church on display. While the news and news feeds are rampant with misinformation and fear-mongering, how does the church witness to the hope of the gospel? Do we feed into the fear, throwing off all other concerns “just to be on the safe side?” When fear and panic set in, most of us automatically go into self-preservation mode. We stock up on rice and toilet paper. We ignore those in need because we see our own needs more dire than they really are. We “pass by on the other side” to avoid injury to ourselves.

I am not advocating that we mindlessly and foolishly run headfirst into dangerous situations; we are not called to seek danger — we are not called to be stupid. But what does it mean for us in this period of social upheaval to live for others? What does it mean to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors?

In the early church, there were two great epidemics — one immediately after the other — that wiped out a large portion of the population. While there was mass panic and flight from the city centers, Christians stayed behind to care for the sick and the poor. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers who lived through this period, praised the efforts of those Christians, many who died caring for others:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

This was in stark contrast to how “the heathen” responded to the outbreak. Dionysius also wrote,

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

This powerful witness lingered in the hearts and minds of the public.

This powerful witness lingered in the hearts and minds of the public. Even when Emperor Julian (commonly known as Julian the Apostate) tried to squash out the faith by providing alternate services to the poor to serve the gods, he wrote of his frustration with “the Galileans,” being unable to counter their witness:

Those impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into the agapae, they attract them… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity… See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.”

I hope that we can rise to the challenge to be the Church during these times. While we must be cautious, may our caution not hinder our witness. We do not want to be the foolish congregation that further spreads the contagion and endangers our neighbors. But we are also called to live by faith, rather than by fear. It is my hope that the Gospel will compel us to live our faith before others that all will see and know Christ.

Jesus, help us. Give us wisdom to discern and act. There is much confusion and anxiety; we confess our need for you to lead and direct us. Give us hearts that are willing to follow even into the places where we are spent for the sake of others. Help us to follow you in your death and resurrection that we may “shine [like stars] as lights in the world.”

How are we being formed by the new normal?

Another great concern is how our congregation will readjust to the new normal. If we’re doing an “online service” how will this affect the weekly and daily life patterns of our congregation? We are habitual creatures, forming habits and being formed by habits all the time. How can we offer guidance when the seeming “convenience” of WFH and online worship leave a vacuum of order in our schedules?

Can an online worship service be a manifestation of the church gathered? I’m not sure. I am not saying that it can’t happen; I’m just saying that a recorded service (the default for most online services) is a poor substitute for the church — if a substitute at all. If the aim is merely making sure our members get some good teaching, we could just send them some podcasts, or a YouTube playlist and be done with it. There are times when we reduce corporate worship to theology consumption (often via sermon); this is especially true in our tradition that tends to value knowledge, systematics, and education over wisdom, nuance, and practice. The former you can get on your own, the latter requires relationship.

I’ve seen this pattern repeatedly in my time with the church. Meetings merely become venues to get information and get on with our lives and respective ministries rather than opportunities to practice love and fellowship with others. Growing up with a fairly conservative Christian upbringing, the question often posed upon church gatherings is what makes Christian fellowship different from a mere social gathering? And the glib answer usually involves some form of Christian instruction or practice like a devotional sharing or prayer. But I’ve witnessed an issue that’s equally concerning from the other end: people who go to meetings (that are full of Jesus-mentions and theological teaching) but these people are there to get quick answers and logistical instructions without recognizing other humans in the room who need fellowship — social relational connection — and without recognizing that they themselves are humans that need fellowship.

The issue of getting people to recognize the corporate body of believers — the people, the community —in the existing in-person Sunday service is hard already. An online service (as I currently imagine it to be) would be even harder. In our culture, convenience and efficiency are highly esteemed, but there is nothing convenient or efficient about the gathering of people. The messiness of the church gathered resists efficiency; efficiency doesn’t build relationship. You never want to get to know someone who is always in a rush to be somewhere else or do something else. The mystery of the Gospel is manifest in the church gathered (or the “hermeneutic of the Gospel” as I am fond of quoting from Newbigin).

The challenge for us in this interim period is to work out a way for the church to be expressed while we maintain “social distancing.” I have no idea how. One day when we have Ready Player One virtual halo worlds, maybe that would be more straight forward, but that’s not today. The longer we do this compromised worship service, the more we will be seduced by the convenience of “doing church” from the comfort of our homes. For some (not all) I suspect it may be hard to go back. New patterns will form and habits will undoubtedly set in. Just last month I left for a trip with my family for a little over a week. How easy it was for my weekly rhythms to be completely lost when I got back.

Holy Spirit, who lives and breathes in us, we ask you to breathe into your people as we are scattered about our city. Stir in us a longing for one another every time we meet. Give us love for people. Release us from selfishness. Give us discipline to form and develop habits that form us more and more in the image of Christ.

Lent 2019: Embracing Death in the Land of the Living

was crucified, died, and was buried.
The Apostles’ Creed

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about human flourishing. What makes a human flourish? What does real flourishing look like? One prominent Korean scholar and writer made a keen observation that one tragic reality of this world is that people don’t think about death anymore. He thinks it’s tragic because human flourishing takes place when we truly embrace death. I deeply agree with him but how do we embrace this truth?

Our family watched a fascinating documentary about Pacific salmon a few weeks ago. One amazing fact I learned is that it only takes a few drops of water from their stream of birth in the ocean for salmon to find the path to where they were born. Their journey upstream is plagued by hungry bears and birds. Their lungs don’t function properly in fresh water so they get less oxygen as they get closer to their home. Thus, the moment they embark on their journey, the dying process begins. When they make it to their birth place and lay their eggs, all that remains is to await their last breath. This death brings life not only to hungry animals but also to the whole forest. The flourishing of the ecosystem depends on their dead bodies. All three of us were awestruck by the life and death of salmon, by their determination, bravery, and instinctual sacrifice. The image of a dead salmon completely absorbed in the soil and becoming the source of food for plants and trees captured my imagination and kept me thinking about the fascinating cosmic design for flourishing encapsulated in the life and death of a fish. 

Today is Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. This is the day Jesus’s body embraced death. Jesus’s body in the tomb. No voice from heaven. Everything stopped. The disciples likely spent the day in fear or in immense grief. We, thankfully, can spend this day contemplating the world of darkness that would exist without the hope of the resurrected Jesus. Jesus died and conquered death. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been moved from the land of the dead to the land of the living. Our eternal life is sealed. However, that’s not the end of the story. 

Now we are invited by the indwelling Holy Spirit to this profound paradoxical truth that embracing death will lead us to true living and flourishing. That’s what we should also think about on this day. Jesus strongly exhorts us: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24-26) 

This is the picture of true flourishing for us: embracing death in the land of the living. Christian writer and speaker Andy Crouch, in his book Strong and Weak, describes embracing death as “relinquishing power and authority, embracing a position of unequivocal vulnerability.” Where our selfish passions and desires die (Gal 5:24), we will begin to see our lives truly flourish. Jesus calls us to a life of flourishing, life lived to the full, living rather than merely existing. He wants us to flourish so that the rest of the world can flourish. How will we respond? 

Prayer (from Psalm 27:13-14)

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD
        in the land of the living!
Wait for the LORD;
        be strong, and let your heart take courage;
        wait for the LORD!

Lent 2019: Flushing Art Tours / Part 3

This is part 3 of a 3-part series.
Please see part 1 for context.

I recently started a project called “Flushing Art Tours” in which I invite other Asian/Asian American Flushing residents to share their perspective on the neighborhood and engage in different hands-on ways to slow down, observe and reflect. I invite one person who then invites another person forming a small group of three. Each person chooses a place in Flushing that is significant to them for any reason, and then at the site they lead an activity that helps the group share in that person’s perspective. For this Lenten season, I’ll be sharing the contents of the first walk of the project with hopes that it will help us to slow down and reconsider the places that we may pass by regularly and see the different ways that people from our community are shaped by them.