Lent 2019: The Lamb Has Overcome

Have you ever had a great conversation with friends about what they’ve given up for Lent, all while hoping they don’t ask you the same? Or cringed in the awkward silence when they do ask, and you’re forced to admit you’ll still be consuming processed sugar and/or social media all through Easter? Have you ever wondered if your friends or church leaders secretly judge you as a heathen for not fasting? I have done all of these things―because I didn’t give up anything for Lent.

To be completely honest, Lent caught me by surprise this year. After a few days of berating myself and brainstorming options for fasting that suspiciously started to resemble self-improvement tactics under the guise of spiritual discipline, I ultimately decided against it.

The story easily could have ended there: the forgetful Christian neglects to prepare for the most important season of the faith, feels guilty, and then walks away questioning the legitimacy of their faith and their love for God. It’s certainly a practice that I often find myself slipping into easily. But thank God for grace―for while our sins and imperfections are unending, Jesus does not walk away from us; his love for us is never in question. God accepts us not because of our ability to complete the “to-do list” of being believers, but because of His loving mercy and grace.

It’s a fundamental concept that I struggle to accept on a daily basis, but God has been using this Lenten season to help me relearn this truth and deepen my understanding of His grace. He assures me that my salvation is not dependent on my ability to give up bubble tea for 40 days (though don’t get me wrong—fasting is a meaningful discipline that I still aspire to practice). He reminds me that His limitless grace enables me to offer the same to others, no matter how many times or how severe I feel the grievance may be. He also convicts me of my pride when I only consider the instances where I’m in the position to extend grace, because I most certainly need it from others more often than I can likely imagine.

In a song that has become somewhat of our Easter anthem (if you guessed “Forever (We Sing Hallelujah)” by Kari Jobe, you are correct!), a clear celebration of victory comes through in the chorus as we jubilantly sing, “Forever He is glorified, forever He is lifted high.” But this season, I am reassured and encouraged by the quieter bridge: “We sing ‘hallelujah,’ the Lamb has overcome.” Jesus has overcome death on the cross for every sin that we have and will continue to commit. He has overcome our doubts and overwhelms us with His love and ceaseless grace. He has overcome every obstacle that might keep us from Him, and He gives us hope.

Prayer, from Psalm 103

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
   nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
   so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
   so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.


Lent 2019: Flushing Art Tours / Part 2

This is part 2 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.


Lent 2019: Learning Helplessness, Cue to Rest

I had once read an opinion piece from the NYTimes: a personal account in a German hospital that was more or less a commentary on America’s overuse of painkillers — and even more profoundly on the function of pain. She was preparing for a hysterectomy and was asking (or pleading) her physicians for any prescription of painkillers. Beyond the ibuprofen, of which she complained was for headaches and not organ removals, she was prescribed rest, tea, and drinking coffee slowly. The philosophy was to tune in to the discomfort, since they are important cues from the body to rest and recover.

The most difficult part of her recovery process wasn’t the pain. It was the boredom, the deep desire for distractions, and the dread of sitting in pain for the long stretches of time. Taking painkillers would have allowed her to seek distractions, unhindered by the pain of movement and action.

This same attitude permeates my practice of fasting and self-denial. I am counting down the time until it is over (someone once told me that the passage of time is more bearable when counting down rather than up). As an avid planner, I pack my days with activity after activity to avoid boredom and indulge in distractions. I find myself grateful for the days when I have work, because in my busyness I fail to notice the discomfort of my hunger.

The hardest days are always when I sit still. 

With a fasting period as long as Lent (and especially as we near the middle of it), it is important for me to have those reminders to tune in to my discomfort, not seek painkillers to mitigate it. I need those reminders not to just “get by” nor desperately strive to make things easier. I am reminded to rest.

I identify with the NYTimes author when she writes, “I know how to sleep but resting is an in-between space I do not inhabit.” When I fast, there’s an in-between space I traverse that feels adversely foreign. As pain is the body’s mark of vulnerability and weakness (and thus, a physical cue to rest and heal), discomfort in my fasting is a mark of my own helplessness (oh, the many many things I unfortunately depend on). It’s a space I am programmed to avoid using education, work, and sometimes even faith to build my competency so I’d never need to ask for help. For me to fast without distraction and to sit and dwell in my discomfort is to learn helplessness. It is my spiritual cue to turn to God in admission that I need His help — my cue to find rest. 

As we’re seeing hints in our study of Ruth in community groups, our ultimate rest is found with our Jesus, our Redeemer, and discomfort in fasting serves to remind us of this. It drives us towards this truth. We, as Christ’s church and redeemed bride, can find our rest because he redeemed us in our helplessness through the cross. The LORD indeed has granted that we find rest, and it is well with us. 


Lent 2019: Flushing Art Tours / Part 1

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.


When we talk about the Flushing community, what do we mean? Who would represent it? The recent immigrant, those who moved in during the 80s and 90s or their children, or those whose families have been here even longer? What places do we think of first? Is it the frequently visited restaurant, or that place on the third floor with no sign outside? We may all walk around the same places, but depending on who you are, your joy may be another’s sorrow. The comforts that draw many to this neighborhood may also partly mask over things that repel people and make it a difficult place to live. 

I want to see how Flushing residents, starting with Asians/Asian Americans, relate to their neighborhood and to do so in a way that people can learn from each other. Perhaps because of the diversity and constant change, it can be difficult to point to strong consensus or collective consciousness about cultural/neighborhood identity or even its assets and needs. However, getting a feel for these things is a necessary foundation to determine what actions might be needed to help the broader neighborhood flourish.


Lent 2019: Wretched Man that I Am

I have a tendency to start things enthusiastically but not finish strong; like a match that burns brightly when first lit but quickly dies down to an ember. Along with others at church, I decided to give up something for Lent. The first few weeks were exciting as we shared with one another about our fasts. But now as we enter the fourth week of Lent, I feel the adrenaline wearing off and it’s not as exciting anymore.

I’ve always loved the rush that came with trying new things or starting new projects. It’s helped me grow in my career where everything is fast moving and you have to adapt to changes very quickly. But when it comes to my personal growth and my relationship with family and friends, that mentality doesn’t help me at all. Instead of moving on, I need to slow down and stay in the moment rather than looking for the next new thing. 

When it comes to my messy and dark issues, I will do everything I can to distract and numb myself so I don’t have to deal with them. It’s only in the past few years where I’ve learned to sit and face what Paul calls, “the wretched man that I am.” — not to wallow in self-pity or shame, but to see Jesus in my sin and filth as much as my salvation and joy. 

Becky and I do our devotions with Tim Keller’s Songs of Jesus, and we recently were on Psalm 38:9-10:

O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes-it also has gone from me.

That is a prayer from someone that knows how to sit in the mess and cry out to God within it. It’s a prayer that I’ve been too scared to pray. But this Lenten season is challenging me to slow down and be present for all the moments, both good and bad. 

As we look ahead to Good Friday, I think about Christ at Gethsemane, the night he was betrayed and how he sat in his own tears, sweat, and blood. He reached deep into his humanity and held onto the ache and fear of going to the cross. 

It was our sin that drove Christ to the cross. He knew that we alone could not bear the weight of our brokenness so He went through the suffering that was meant for us. He stayed in the darkness and overcame it so that we can be in the light. Because of the resurrection, we can now “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” We no longer have to be scared of seeing our faults, or wish that we can just get Lent over with and move onto the next thing, because we are “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Prayer: 

May I never lose the wonder
The wonder of the cross
May I see it like the first time
Standing as a sinner lost
Undone by mercy and left speechless
Watching wide eyed at the cost
May I never lose the wonder
The wonder of the cross

— Vicky Beeching


Lent 2019: Embracing Lament

We are excited to explore the Lenten season this year as a church. It is a season that postures our hearts for Easter through practices of fasting, prayer, and generosity. Join us as we ruminate in this season together and share reflections every week.


I’ve been experiencing this season of Lent with prayer and fasting against a backdrop of pain, suffering, and grief within our congregation. I’ve spoken to many who are dealing with sickness, depression, loneliness, doubt, discontent, financial instability, violence, marital woes, and loss.

When we deal with pain, usually there are two reactions: withdraw or ignore. We withdraw from God, community, friends, church, and people that love us; we turn inward and think we are the only ones going through these difficult times. Or we pretend that everything is okay and ignore the real issues that we are facing. How many times have we told ourselves that everything is in God’s plan and everything is going to be okay? Or how many times have we heard Romans 8:28, that “God works all things together for good,” abused?

As we’ve been studying in our community groups, Naomi was a woman who understood grief. At the start of the story we learn her husband and two sons died. She is left with nothing and ends the first chapter, saying, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

As the story continues, we see her make a complete change when Ruth, her daughter-in-law, meets Boaz and their family is saved through Boaz’s kindness. Here Naomi says to her daughter-in-law, “May he [Boaz] be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”

I won’t spoil chapters 3 and 4 (attend a CG if you aren’t already!) but we can learn a lot from these brief interactions. Naomi did not isolate herself or shy away from her grief; she did not pretend that everything was okay. She leaned into her suffering and was real with how she was feeling. Naomi cried out to God in her anger and despair and God responded on his own time, gently reminding Naomi through Ruth and Boaz that she has not been abandoned.

I don’t know where you are right now but I hope to encourage you to dwell in the difficult times you are going through. God is present even in the darkness. Cry out to God. Be angry. Weep. Engage with God and be honest with where you are. Honestly I can’t say that everything will be okay and we’re all going to get fairy tale endings. BUT, I do know that Easter is coming which is a reminder — more than that, an assurance — that one day Jesus is coming again to redeem the world. Just like Boaz was Naomi’s kinsman redeemer, we have Jesus as our eternal redeemer. Our current plight is just like our Lenten fasting, and denying ourselves makes Easter and the coming of Jesus all the more sweet as we anticipate the greater glory to come.

Prayer, Psalm 13

    How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
        How long will you hide your face from me?
    How long must I take counsel in my soul
        and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
    How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

    Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
        light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
    lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
        lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

    But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
        my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
    I will sing to the LORD,
        because he has dealt bountifully with me.


Lent 2019: Fasting that sees

We are excited to explore the Lenten season this year as a church. It is a season that postures our hearts for Easter through practices of fasting, prayer, and generosity. Join us as we ruminate in this season together and share reflections every week.


After this first week of Lent, much of my conversations with you all have centered around fasting — what we have decided to give up — and how that has affected our devotional and prayer life. But in the back of my mind, I've been thinking about how fasting and prayer ought to connect to the third practice of the season: generosity.

To be honest, it is much easier for me to practice fasting and prayer than it is for me to practice fasting and generosity. 

Fasting and prayer is safe; I can do it by myself. But that is not the fasting that scripture calls us to practice. Isaiah 58 calls to question the kind of fast that I safely practice:

Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the LORD?

"Woe is me because I can't have ice cream / fried chicken / bubble tea" is incomplete. There's no doubt we will feel the physical affects of fasting, but it should not end there. The LORD continues through Isaiah's words:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

It's that last line there that gets me. Generosity involves people. People are complicated. Their situations are messy. The truth is I'd rather hide from others in pain. Avoid eye contact. Walk away from the stench. Go to the next subway car. Move to the far side of the sidewalk. New York has trained me to turn a blind eye. I'd rather not see them. I have contentedly grown a heart of stone. 

The invitation to practice generosity in the Lenten season is an invitation to transform a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. It is not merely cutting a check for a good cause (that may be a practical part of generous living but it is never the heart of it), but cutting our hearts to be shaped more and more like Christ's heart. Jesus placed himself with broken people to see their needs and let them know they are seen. 

John Ortberg writes, "Allow yourself to see need and eventually you'll want to help. Maintain your distance and you probably won't." As we seek to be like Jesus, may we enter into generous giving not only of our finances, but also our time and presence to be with others and see them.

Prayer:
Lord, help us to see. Forgive us for walking around our city blind to our own flesh crying out for justice. Enable us by your Holy Spirit to follow in the footsteps of your Son to walk alongside the marginalized. Give us generous hearts to love others as you have loved us in Christ Jesus. May your name be glorified in us. Amen.


Lent 2019: Ash Wednesday - formed from the dust

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. We are excited to explore this season together for the first time this year as a church. In the next few weeks we will welcome some new voices from our church body to share their reflections during this Lenten season.


For much of my life, I've always put the invisible parts of faith first: theological doctrines, understanding of grace and salvation, acceptance of Jesus as the savior, etc. But I gave very little attention to actions and the physical and tangible dimensions of faith. In fact, I stayed away from it.

If anyone ever prescribed a spiritual discipline to follow, I would easily slap a "LEGALISM!" sticker on the practice and declare, "This isn't in the Bible!"... and that's how I originally approached this season of Lent. 

This is more work.

This is a system imposed on my freedom.

This is works-righteousness!

I imagined that those who enslave themselves to Lent-like constraints must be the saddest Christians in the world. But I had not experienced the power of those words that are pronounced upon believers at the start of the Lenten Season:

All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 
—Ecclesiastes 3:20 (echoing Genesis 3:19b)

To return to the dust is an invitation to rest, not to work. To live into the words we love to sing in In Christ Alone:

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

We cease trying to "make it" for ourselves, and we put into practice a kind of surrender that recognizes that it is only on Christ that we stand. Every day we are trying to make ourselves; we want to shape our own lives and define our own success. Yet the invitation to return to dust is to allow Christ to shape us; to surrender our efforts and allow his perfect effort to conform us into his image.

The ashes we receive is not merely a smudge, but it is shaped into a cross, recognizing that only in our surrender to dust that we can be made in his image. As we enter into this season together, it is my hope that we will see how he is shaping us to be more like him.

Prayer:
Loving Father, give us rest as we enter into this Lenten season. Holy Spirit, help us lay down our burdens; free us from trying to be something apart from you. May we welcome you to form us again from the dust into the image of your Son as we follow him in his death that we may realize his glory. It is in his name we pray. Amen.


Living into the life of Jesus

We're doing something new this year: we are moving through the liturgical calendar as a church. Well… the truth is that it isn’t “new.” In fact we’ve been practicing part of the calendar already through the years with Advent, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and a few others. But for us as a church, these were independent holidays and seasons; we selected bits and pieces that seemed important, but we didn’t see how they fit together as a whole for our formation as a people — the the church. This year, we’re hoping to bring more of this historical practice of the church into view and discover how it can shape and form us.

What is the liturgical calendar?

"What is the liturgical calendar?" you ask? The liturgical calendar is gift from the church to the church, inviting all her members to participate in living out the story of Jesus Christ.

The purpose of the calendar is not to impose rote practices upon us, but to help us remember the story and life of Jesus in all of our living. Just as we may say a worship sanctuary is holy and thus are called to “take off our sandals on holy ground,” when we practice the liturgical calendar together, we recognize that time itself belongs to the LORD — it is holy — and we remind ourselves to take the our spiritual sandals off our feet for we are bathed in the presence of God in time.

Approaching Lent and Easter

We are nearing the beginning of Lent (it starts on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019), one of the great seasons in the liturgical calendar. Historically it is a season of penance where we remember the Temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13), who gave up all worldly desires to obey the will of God — an obedience that led to the cross. We move together into the practices of prayer, fasting, and giving as a way to lead our hearts to the cross and prepare for Easter.

All too often we only think about “giving something up” for Lent (we’ll get to that below), yet we are also called to engage more deeply in prayer, and open our hands and our hearts in generosity to our neighbors. During this season, pray with one another, consider practices that can shape our hearts to sacrificial love for our neighbors. Share with one another in your community groups how God is speaking to you and calling you to take up your cross and follow Jesus.

Some notes about fasting...

First thing: as with any practical discipline of faith, there is the danger of thinking that we accrue favor with God through our obedience. We are not more or less loved based on our obedience or severity of our fast, but we are seen through the person of Jesus Christ who imputes to us his righteousness.

Fasting should never lead us to think more or less of ourselves or of one another, but always point us to see more and more of our savior, Jesus Christ. 

Don't know what to fast?

  1. Give up something that will affect your day to day and by its absence remind you to remember Christ's presence with you and move you to pray and love your neighbors.
  2. Don't give up something you shouldn't be doing anyway. (e.g. "I'm gonna give up stealing from my boss"... you shouldn't be doing that anyway!)
  3. Some, instead of giving up something, take in a new practice or disciple. e.g. Setting aside every afternoon to volunteer at a community organization. Some have discovered, through such a taking on a new way to live into their faith that continues after the Lenten season.
  4. If you still have no idea, ask your friends; they can often see us better than we can see ourselves and may be able to vocalize what we may fear to fast for Lent.
  5. Some common suggestions: alcohol, sugar, red meat, bubble tea, social media, video games, tv shows, etc.

All in all this is a time to move into the basic movement of Christian life: to deny ourselves, turn to Jesus, and follow him.

In our community groups, we will be practicing a fast together and then breaking that fast together on Easter Sunday. It will be a way for us to move together as a church and point one another towards Christ during this season and prepare our hearts to remember Christ at the cross and resurrection.


Love in the city

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. A day when every street corner sells roses, when ads for 1-800-FLOWERS show up everywhere, when many scramble to craft a perfect date night, and when many stay at home trying not to care. It's very difficult to not be affected by all the public displays of love... not just during this season, but every day as we seek to live out our faith in the city.

One of the areas of growth that our elders laid out for us at our first congregational meeting is to grow in understanding and practice of love, relationships, sex, and marriage. How are followers of Jesus set apart by these categories in a city like New York? The question lies not only in (1) how we are called to live, but more importantly (2) how we respond to one another with grace.

We know that Christians set themselves apart in the early church. One of the earliest written descriptions of Christian community portrays life in contrast to what was typical in Roman society: "They have a common table, but not a common bed" (The Epistle to Diognetes, c. AD 130). We also know that the early church treated women differently than Roman society and engaged in different practices that protected them from dangerous marriages and family support (Rodney Stark, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief). It's clear that the church took seriously the call to be holy as God is holy in their relationships and sexuality. Seeking to live according to God's word brought them many freedoms and joys and that should be an encouragement to us to live out our faith in these areas. However, but freedom and joy doesn't seem to be the sentiment in many of our church communities.

My guess is that many of us have had our fair share of less-than-helpful interactions with the church on the subject of love, relationships, and sex. Church community can place so much pressure on someone in a dating relationship it can suffocate the life out of a new relationship. Sometimes it feels like the church indirectly teaches that we are not complete until we are married, or have a child, or at the very least it seems like everything is moving in that direction; where does it leave those of us who are single?

Unfortunately, these sentiments often go unaddressed and lead to feelings of inadequacy and shame... and ultimately to hiding. The church becomes an unsafe place to talk about such things. And the few times we do mention it, we find ourselves needing to insert a joke, perhaps to make light of an uncomfortable subject. Very few of us can claim to have perfect records when it comes to love and relationships, yet somehow it seems like we can't show up at church with anything less. But by hiding from one another we've also separated ourselves from one of the gifts God has given us in this area: the community of believers

Within our church body there are members who have made mistakes, but also found grace. We have those who hid for fear of exposure, but unexpectedly found love. We also have people that are "in process" or feel trapped and alone, but are unsure of who is "safe" to talk to. If we as a church community are to grow, we need one another and the Holy Spirit to speak through us. We need to teach one another how to share the grace that we have received from the LORD in all of life. Only in a community that is saturated by the gospel of grace and seeks to restore instead of condemn can bring transformation into our lives to be more like Jesus. Only in such a community will singleness be a gift and marriage a worthwhile work of sanctification.

Jesus called us to a life together. That because of the resurrection, we can have the faith to live into the words scripture even in our brokenness: "Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16).

Our panel discussion this coming Sunday is merely an invitation to grow with us. To cast light on subjects of conversation that have been hidden in the shadows. To reconnect on topics that have alienated us from one another, and to seek the Gospel to be active even in this part of life. 

If you haven't considered joining us for this first step, we invite you! Our aim is not to lay out every bit of dating or marriage advice nor give definite instructions for singleness. We only want to start the conversation and to practice that there is a wealth of wisdom and experiences of brokenness and grace from within our community. Our panel is not one of "experts" but of sinners who have received grace. Come, listen and share life with us. We also have a form where you can submit questions so our humble panel to consider. It is our hope that we can learn to be a church that is open to the work of the Spirit in our midst and that we would be able to witness growth, maturity, and grace in abundance.