Preventable Tragedy.

Since the unexpected and shocking death of Anthony Bourdain, I’ve begun seeing articles about depression and suicide. Among these articles, the phrase “preventable tragedy” has been coming up on more than one occasion, and I’ve begun giving it some thought. The following is just a reflection on how I’ve engaged with depression and a period of going through suicidal thoughts earlier on in life—I recommend speaking with a friend, a pastor, or a medical professional if you’re finding yourself in this season currently; there is no shame in needing help because there is richness in seeking it out, and it can become a deeply meaningful experience for the one who is able to care for and sit with you through it.

After passing through a period of depression in high school, I heard something during college about how people who go through depression never really leave it behind (though they do get to a place where it is completely under control apart from moments here and there). I think this has been true of my own experience; many times, I blog to manage the oncoming waves of depression, but other than that, I rarely notice it. However, it is exactly these waves that betray the nature of depression’s influence on a person’s life. As far as it’s a “preventable tragedy,” I think it takes a strong community and faith, hope, and love to truly prevent victims from taking their own lives. But many times, the suicides we see in our communities are “surprising” or “unexpected,” and the victim is described as “cheerful,” “friendly,” and “caring.” In my experience, when the wave of depression hits, it begins a process of going down a dark and lonely rabbit trail. No matter how objectively well things are going, it is as if I am being led down a path of my own failures, shortcomings, and weaknesses, and instead of rejecting these images of myself, I become more and more enamored of them. I desire to see myself as coming up short. I want to explore why I am the worst. I can’t help but agree that I am worthless. I begin to shut myself up at home, I talk myself out of relying on friendships because 1) they never reach out to me (which is likely false), 2) I don’t want to burden them, 3) if they can’t even notice, then they probably aren’t going to care much if I do open up to them. The terrifying thing is that these thoughts can be compacted within a short span of fifteen minutes (or even less). Within fifteen minutes, a lifetime of relationship, friendship, and trust can evaporate. There is no way to prevent this kind of thing, and depression sequesters its victims as a quiet assassin. It crushes any hope of rescue, convinces me that resistance is futile, and controls my perspective. Someone with depression might be doing well for a season, but depression, like the wave you never quite anticipate at the beach, could wipe him out in an instant.

This is not to say that there isn’t hope for all my friends out there who are in the long, trench warfare with depression—I stand with you and will always be willing to pray for you. However, the only thing that I can confidently say has helped manage my depression (to the point where I have a healthy enough relationship with it) is slow, consistent, and meaningful relationship with God and with those around me. God has provided me the works of journaling and writing to turn depression into an advantage; the poems and blog posts that have healed me the most are the ones written in pursuit of exorcising depression from my life, deepening my appreciation for how God works even in the small, dark details of my life. With regards to my friends, I have a handful who are my safeguard and my resistance to the three thoughts that depression plants in me, and I show them off proudly as proof to depression that it’s not true—people do care, and I just need to be brave enough to admit that I need help. But above all, it’s life with God that grounds victory against depression, and I think this poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is perfect:

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

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What is Your Jericho?

Joshua 6:1-27 “What is Your Jericho?” by B. Fan

These are the sermon notes from a sermon that was shared with the Chinese Evangelical Free Church of Santa Barbara on May 20, 2018. The bold text references cues for main points.


Good morning, Resound family, it’s a pleasure to share this morning with you all in worship; it’s always refreshing for me to come back to Chinese Church. As we start this morning, I’d like to read the last verse of Joshua 6, and then I’ll open with a word of prayer.

Joshua 6:27

27 So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land.

Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for giving us this day to come and be before Your Word. We thank You for its power and sufficiency for us in our lives, and we thank You that by Your Word we come to know You more. Give us the energy this morning to be sensitive to Your work in us; help us to seek after You with fresh eyes and pure hearts. We love You, and we need You. In Jesus’s name I pray, amen.”

This morning, we are going to be going through chapter 6 of Joshua. You might be wondering why I began with the last verse (and I didn’t even put a spoiler tag on it!), and so I’d like to unpack the reason for that right now. Part of the reason is I didn’t know which verses to choose out of the whole chapter, and I know very few of us want me to read the whole chapter out loud. However, there’s another reason. Yesterday, my family and I had our funeral service for my grandma. When I accepted the invitation to speak for you all a few months ago, I did so without knowing that she was going to be gone – she hadn’t even gone to the hospital yet at that point, and she was still living with my grandpa in a retirement home. When I realized that the funeral and the sermon were going to be back to back, I started to stress a little bit. After all, it seems uncontroversial to say that giving a testimony at a funeral and preaching the next day is not something most of us would like to do. Nevertheless, God was merciful and made it easier on me.

Now, how many of us here have been to a funeral? (Maybe hands raise.) Okay, so some of us. I’m not sure how common it is at the funerals that you’ve been to, but for all of the funerals I’ve attended, there was always a “eulogy.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a eulogy is “a speech or writing in commendation of the character and services of a person, or the qualities of a thing; esp. a set oration in honour of a deceased person.” Hopefully, starting with verse 27 makes more sense. In most eulogies, we remember the highlights of the person’s life—Joshua chapter 6, verse 27 concludes what might have been a large part of Joshua’s own eulogy: the story of Jericho.

I want to preface this morning’s message by saying that there is a lot going on in Joshua 6; however, God has been drawing my attention to this idea of a eulogy in light of my grandma’s funeral, so I’m going to lean into that a little bit. When we think about the idea of a eulogy and when we think about Joshua, those of us who have grown up with children’s Bibles or going to Sunday school will probably point to the story of Jericho. After all, it seems a little unlikely that Joshua’s integrity in honoring his promise to Rahab would feature in a children’s Sunday school lesson. When we are thinking about Joshua’s life, we can’t seem to easily get outside of the walls of Jericho coming down, and I think that’s actually helpful for us to think about our lives and how we’re living as Christians today.

If it’s fair to say that Jericho characterizes Joshua’s life, it’s worth taking some time to unpack the many facets of what goes down in the town of Jericho. The question we want to answer today (or at least think about more intentionally) is: what is, or will be, your Jericho? When people are looking back at your life, people that you impacted, people you loved, people God put you next to, what will they say was the defining moment or aspect of who you were? In Joshua’s life, Jericho would likely be how people remembered Joshua. This morning, we’ll take a closer look at three aspects of Jericho both for Joshua and for us: 1) Jericho as Obstacle, 2) Jericho as Promise Fulfilled, and 3) Jericho as Testimony.

So, the first point: Jericho as Obstacle. Something that works well for the youth group that I lead back home is to really dig into the “weird,” awesome parts of the Bible; basically, it’s exaggerating everything so that the jadedness of Sunday school stories fades away and the Word becomes relevant again. At this point, I’d like to invite us to do the same. I listened to our brother Joey’s sermon last week (and it was a really great sermon, as usual—that’s a gifted brother right there), and he mentions the scene at the tail end of chapter 5, how Joshua comes face to face with the “captain of the host of the LORD.” WHOA. It looks like this will be the reinforcement that they needed. But when we get to Chapter 6, I imagine the start of chapter 6 like the scene in Infinity War—if you haven’t seen it, cover your ears—it’s like watching Thanos’s gauntlet ALMOST get taken off, only to have Star Lord punch Thanos in the face and ruin everything. Okay, maybe it’s not THAT extreme, but again, we’re going for exaggeration. The prospect of breaking into a tightly guarded city is daunting for sure. Despite how glorious the captain of the host of the LORD must have seemed, the city of Jericho was still a tightly shut city, and Joshua was just one guy. As he’s staring at the city, he comes face to face with a tremendous obstacle—THE obstacle, some might say. This is the start of Jericho becoming Jericho for Joshua, and we can take something from this too. If anyone thinks that being a Christian is smooth sailing and that you’ll never encounter a Jericho in his life, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but this is highly unlikely (though I grant that it could happen). On the opposite end, maybe you’ve been a Christian for a while, and I’ve rattled you a little bit by asking you about a “defining moment of who you were.” You might be thinking, “That’s just movie stuff – some people are just going to live normal lives without dramatic challenges.” Maybe you’re right. But maybe, you’re also missing out on something that God has been using to shape and form you. Each person’s “Jericho” is not going to be of the same magnitude, but how it characterizes us, challenges us, and changes us remains the same. It’s a transformative experience to encounter and conquer the “Jericho” of your own narrative. The important thing is, like in every great action movie, there’s a big obstacle to face.

However, if you’re sitting there this morning thinking, “Hm, I don’t have a Jericho…maybe I should go find one,” stop. Please don’t seek out a Jericho. You’ll be like the person who jumps into the lion enclosure at a zoo to kill a lion—no one asked you to jump in and risk your life just to get on the news. It IS different though, if you find yourself out camping and you need to successfully fight off a hungry bear. Jericho is not just a trial, it’s not just an obstacle in your life; Jericho is also God’s promise fulfilled. Before Joshua does anything else, the Lord gives him a command and gives him instructions on how he is to proceed. But God doesn’t just say, “Hey man, here are some strats you can use, and they might work, but maybe they won’t. Then you’ll need a plan B and a plan C—good luck, buddy.” God gives very precise instructions to Joshua on what needed to be done for the Lord to bring Him victory. When we’re younger and we hear this story, we might remember being excited because usually the Sunday school teacher would have us do a little skit and walk around a table or a room or something and eventually knock down some books or fake walls. But what we need to recognize is that God is inviting Joshua to participate in His work. He promises Joshua by saying, “I have given Jericho into your hand.” have given Jericho into your hand. You shall march around the city and do the rest of these instructions. But the thing to note here is that the promise and the fulfillment of the promise is on God’s end. And this isn’t a wimpy promise either. God is promising that the walls of a city are going to fall down. Everyone here is relatively familiar with Henley Gate, I’m assuming? This is like if God promised: “March around UCSB once a day for six days, then on the seventh day, march around it seven times, have some pastors blow trumpets, and have all the marchers shout, and Henley Gate will come down,” except BIGGER. It’s a pretty big deal, and it requires Joshua to have faith that God is a God who fulfills promises. After all, let’s dive into the narrative a bit again. It’s probably really hot out there, and maybe marching around so many times has Joshua and the people pretty exhausted. Is God going to really fulfill His promise? Or is this going to be another Egypt situation where they get led into the wilderness and have no food and water and get absolutely crushed by the people of Jericho once they’re good and tired? For us, this is the part of our walk when we know the Word of God, we know that God has the good of those who believe in Him in mind, but just looking at Jericho, we let it show through our body language a little. Maybe we start stooping over a little bit, maybe we sigh more often, maybe start losing sleep. We KNOW the promise that He’s given to us and we KNOW the instructions He’s given to us in how to follow after Him. But we can’t help but wonder—what if this all in vain? The start of Jericho is daunting because we can’t bring ourselves to believe what we haven’t seen happen yet.

So what happens then? Joshua does exactly as the Lord commands him, bringing them around town once each day for six days. On the seventh day, he has the people march around the city of Jericho seven times. The people shout, and the walls come crumbling down. Before this happens though, Joshua does something interesting. When you read the text—and I highly encourage you all to go home and read it because the OT reads a lot like a bedtime story in some cases—there’s an awkward pause in the narrative.After they finish the seventh round and the priests have blown their trumpets, we as the audience are thinking, “LET’S GOOOO!” But Joshua says something that seems like a momentum stopper, a buzz kill. He says in verses 16-19,

16 “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city. 17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. 18 But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.”

As Joshua recognizes that the promised fall of Jericho is before them, he takes a moment to check the hearts of Israel. He reminds them that the Lord has given them the city. He reminds them that the city is devoted to the Lord for destruction, and that this city is not to be looted because it’s going to be left as an example of the Lord’s power. In other words, he brings it back to God. Joshua knows that even though the he and the people are invited to participate in the fulfillment of God’s promise—hence the shouting bit of it and the commands that they have to follow—he sees that ultimately, it is about God fulfilling His Word. For us, we’re invited to participate in our Jericho just as the people of Israel are; God gives us instructions, but before all of that, He gives us His promise that He will deliver us. When we face our Jericho, or if we’ve already faced our Jericho, the hope is found in God’s presence. Just as they brought the ark with them, the sign of God’s presence, so too should we be concerned with bringing the Lord’s presence with us as we face Jericho.

The last part of chapter 6 ends with Joshua pronouncing a curse on Jericho and anyone who would try to rebuild its foundation, and verse 27, which we started with. Because of what the Lord had done, Joshua’s fame was in all the land. Jericho becomes his testimony of the working of the Lord in his life. We see all through the chapter how concerned Joshua is with what God is doing. As we face our Jericho, we ought to be just as concerned as well, just as ready to make sure that we attribute what is happening to the Lord. (Joshua is a type/foreshadowing of Jesus, so we’ve also been given a Gentile example; talk about Rahab and how the events at Jericho are also 1) obstacle, 2) promise fulfilled, and 3) testimony.) The OT comes alive in this story with a very real application—upon the fall of Jericho, the story asks us: where is our heart? Will we become consumed by our overcoming, by our “fame being in all the land”? Or will we remember to attribute it to the Lord being with us? When we’ve encountered and walked through Jericho in our lives, it’s the story we tell people of how God has accomplished much in us. Even if it seems like a small thing outwardly—maybe it’s just that your temper got better, you made a better relationship with your parents, etc.—we need to praise God and thank God for the Jericho in our walk. Who here finds it terrifying to share the Gospel? A few of us, myself included. But brothers and sisters, look! We’ve been given something to lean into. Jericho will be our testimony, not of how our great faith won it all in the end, but of our great God who promises and fulfills what He has promised. And while Joshua may have had one Jericho in his life, he had many battles; so too is it with us. And with each battle, we ought to approach it the same way we approach Jericho. For me, my Jericho is overcoming depression in high school. What’s funny is that I never turned from God, never questioned Him. My theology just got so warped to the point that I thought God would be pleased if I ended my life because I was sacrificing for my parents. But He promises to be a God who wipes tears away, who redeems us and loves us and makes us overcomers. He was faithful. Even though I wasn’t comfortable sharing about it at church or with the friends that I had in high school, He was still able to work through some close friends of mine to bring me out of the dark place back into His life. And I owe each day I live to Him and the fulfillment of His promise. That’s my Jericho, and that’s the testimony I’ll give to each unbeliever He surrounds me with.

So to cap it all off, I offer a challenge to all of us. As we’re facing the task of preaching the Gospel, what is your Jericho? Facing the obstacle of sin, God promised to redeem us through His great love for us by sending His Son to die for us, thus fulfilling His promise: what will our testimony of Jericho look like as we share the Gospel with the rest of the world? Let’s pray.

Processing.

[Disclaimer: I’m just writing to write at this point; ‘*’ denotes when I can’t quite keep track of chronological events I’m writing about.]

This morning, my grandmother passed away.

*

Since she was in the hospital (and eventually the nursing home), it’s been pretty hard to keep track of time. I posted earlier about how I felt guided by duty, and that has taken shape during this season through me constantly wondering about my next task. As a result, my ability to differentiate days has gone down the drain as my mind is filled with thoughts about how my dad is actually doing, how I can better support my mom, and when I should disobey my dad’s instructions to not visit my grandma because he didn’t want me to be distracted from my schoolwork.

As soon as I finished my New Testament exam, I went into duty-fulfillment mode, making sure any idle time I had was spent at the nursing home so that my parents could take a break. At first, I’d bring a book (The Faith of Christopher Hitchens) with me to read, but a few days after I began visiting my grandma during my available hours, her condition seemed to worsen. She would moan in pain and she would look at me with eyes that no longer recognized me—adjusting her head and putting the travel pillow under her neck for support felt almost like an intrusion of space. So, the hours would pass, and I would be caught in an internal struggle: do I keep attending to her every time she groans, or do I learn to just be there and sit through it all? I was never able to quite come up with a system, and I’d find myself holding her hand at times and needing to leave her room at others just to find silence.

*

My mom said that the previous day, she sang a hymn while sitting at my grandma’s bedside, and miraculously, she sang along. Despite not recognizing any of us anymore, she still knew the hymns she sang in church. “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 11:18 ESV). The day after she told me that, I visited her and she was moaning consistently. The patient next to her said, “I think she’s in pain; she’s been moaning all morning.” I think about the plaque that read “Rapid Recovery” in sans serif, all-caps, and it seemed like a cruel joke. I kept talking to her, asking her if anything hurt, but I never got anything coherent from her. As a last ditch effort, I opened Spotify on my cell phone, searched “hymns,” and began playing them. Immediately, she settled down. She began to nod slowly and nearly imperceptibly, given her weak physical condition. When “Rock of Ages” began to play, she even tried to sing along—I remembered how much she loved to sing, and I saw how she no longer could. It broke my heart, and singing along with her, even for her, I wept.

*

I could feel the toll the stress was taking on my physical health. Bowel movements were irregular and often frustrating. How were Mom and Dad doing all this? I needed to do more for them. I wanted the process to be as easy as it could be for them. My mom would talk about how she was sorry that when her time comes, it’ll be just as difficult for me because I have no siblings to rely on. Still, I made plans with friends knowing that anything could happen with my grandma at any time. I had to cancel a few plans because I decided the dutiful thing to do would be to go to the nursing home. My parents never forced me to go, but I felt compelled to go; sometimes, I would be compelled against my will. There were moments when I wanted nothing more than to be with my friends and leave the world of suffering behind. I couldn’t bear the load like I thought I could. I would hear her moans in the silence of my home. I began wondering how I could even begin to share about this with the new church community I’ve begun trying to be a part of. Who would want to hear such a depressing story when benignly asking about how my week was? I felt isolated in my experience, knowing that I would just be a conversational dark hole and ruin the mood for whoever was unlucky enough to ask how I was doing. It felt like no one ever asked. It felt like I was selfish for wanting them to.

*

I woke up this morning to vibration that shouldn’t have been what I woke up to. “Dad.” I pressed the green talk button and got the news. I got up, took my retainers out, washed my face, put on deodorant, and told my grandpa what had happened. Mom came home right after; she had been crying. I drove us to the nursing home, and I braced for impact. When I saw my dad, I knew it was real for him. She was there, silent and still. I felt peace, and I felt relief. The guilt of that initial reaction is still weighing on me. Why didn’t I cry? Why couldn’t I? I’d like to say that it was because I sat through hours of her groans, and her quietness was bereft of pain. Maybe that’s an excuse for how callous I appear to myself. Nevertheless, she was resting with the Lord. Maybe it’s the result of having been suicidal in the past. You come to envy the people who die before you do; as a Christian, there’s a strange limbo between hoping for death and embracing the gift of life.

She had paid her dues, as they say; she lived a life full of hardship from her youth until the very end, but never once did she express a thought of injustice. She loved to sing, to paint, to measure my height against hers every time she saw me. She knew and loved the beauty that she saw in the world her Father created. To think that a life filled with that many trials could still be a life filled with love for the Lord made me realize that if there really was nothing next for her, she was to be most pitied out of all of us. She was dealt a bad hand. If there was no comfort in life with Him, there certainly wasn’t going to be any comfort here. As I write this, tears are starting to come. Have I just been suppressing my sadness about her death?

*

This morning, my grandmother died. The body that caused her all the pain in her life was left in the bed for us to look at, to remember her by, to whisper to, to stand with, to let tears fall on. But she wasn’t there anymore. We’re left here with a body to lower into the earth, but we do so knowing that she has gone to be with Him. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Bedside Seasons.

When the summer fades,

Autumn paints in shades of

Red and yellow.

The leaves become crisp

As does the air –

Filling hearts with

Yearning for warmth.

Leaves are gathered,

And scarves are donned.

Light softly shines

Filling each day with just enough

Life to be thankful for,

As well as turkey and pumpkin pie.

Seek no solace in winter.

It lays us in bed, moaning,

Causing our bones to ache,

Seeking warmth not for comfort,

But survival.

We long to speak, but

the chill clasps our mouths shut.

Our eyes grow dim, as we

Put on masks to face the cold.

As we slowly step out the door,

We know not what the day has for us –

We know not if there will be a day.

Selfish.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been compartmentalizing my life more than I’ve had in a while. My grandma was admitted to a hospital a few weeks back on account of some internal colon bleeding, and she’s recently been spending her time in a nursing home. Because of finals, I’ve been compressing the situation down to a manageable size because I know if I let it get to me, I won’t be able to do the work that I’m supposed to do. But in the midst of that, I’ve also been wondering about how selfish it is to do something like compartmentalize. My grandma is looking at the tail end of her time on Earth, and all I can do is worry about getting my grades in order? The thought of it made me concerned about the patterns of prioritization I was setting.

Now that finals are over, I thought I would be able to relax. But on the very night of finals, I was asked to rush home and move my bed downstairs because my grandma was coming home from the nursing home. With a head full of steam, I stomped up the stairs and violently began lifting my bed up and taking it downstairs by myself, feeling annoyed that what I thought was going to be a breather turned into more work. As I was getting more frustrated by my grandpa making suggestions without being able to really help, I lost focus and my foot came down awkwardly on one of the steps, causing me to tweak my ankle and fall down the stairs with the bed in hot pursuit. It’s been a long time since that kind of language has left my lips. Nursing my ankle, I was furious with the situation, frustrated by my grandpa living in the past and trying to exert some kind of influence at the nursing home, and exhausted from all the emotional suppression I had been doing for the sake of stress management. Life felt like Murphy’s Law on steroids – everything I touched seemed to just turn out poorly. I felt the apathy of depression stalking me, reminding me what it was like to feel completely helpless.

As I picked myself up and finished the job running on pure adrenaline, I realized that my whole attitude towards my grandma’s health circumstances was entirely selfish. I realized how an ethics of duty is bereft of the tender compassion that characterizes virtuous living – the kind of life that flows from manifesting the life of Christ. I lived by duty, grudgingly doing the right things and following the rules of what ought to be done, yet all the while, I bemoaned my circumstance and staged numerous pity parties for myself. I didn’t consider the fact that my parents have been attending to my grandma while working full-time jobs. I didn’t consider that my grandpa was doing all he knew to try and cope with the situation of his wife dying. I have been utterly self-absorbed these past few weeks, and I now see an ugly reflection staring back at me.

As my temper cooled from spraining my ankle and finishing up the tasks I needed to do, I found myself reflecting and seeing that I didn’t even deserve the situation I was in. My ankle sprain could have been so much worse, but God had mercy on me. I could have lost my grandmother during finals, but instead, I’ve been given an opportunity to serve her and love her well. I had the opportunity to stay up really late and sit in sympathy with one of my best friends who has also hit a bit of a rough patch. The season I have been going through is no less vibrant than before—I just put on selfish glasses along the way, and I forgot to consider the mercies of God and His deliverance in the past, present, and future. Thank You, Jesus, that You live in me (even when it doesn’t seem like it from the outside) and that You love me.

Fighting Fire With Fire.

A bad habit that has been pointed out to me (and that I’ve noticed) is that I tend to put myself down in the few sermons I’ve given. When trying to understand why I make the self-deprecatory jokes that I do, my pastor wondered if it was because that was my way of dealing with my anxiety; I think there’s actually something to that. From my perspective, I’m no worthier of delivering the sermon than the people seated in the Chinese Evangelical Free Church of Santa Barbara pews (err, chairs), and those jokes are my way of being honest about how I feel positionally before God’s people.

As of late, I’ve begun to feel quite a bit of anxiety about what lies ahead. I am planning to apply for PhD programs in philosophy, and the same feelings of unworthiness seep into the potentially fruitful (though rarely utilized) downtime I have as a grad student. Instead of making self-deprecatory jokes to a congregation, however, I internalize the sentiments and begin to feel less and less qualified to even think about applying to the programs. Just this evening, I spent 26 minutes in a wild mental scramble, looking at different culinary programs and seeing if they would be financially responsible. I ended up stepping back and reach out to my best friends in the program (you know who you are, love you both!). As the delirium faded, I woke up to the fact that maybe I was so easily pulled towards something so drastically different because it was something in which I still felt competent. The philosophical tool of “running the reductio,” as some call it, led me to see that I would likely feel the same, if not more, incompetence upon enrolling in culinary school.

And that’s when I realized that philosophy has been a gift that God has given me. I don’t mean this in the sense of God making me a gifted philosopher, but God has made me a son with gifts. Knowing the nature of my heart, He provided me with the right kind of tool to see just how deceitful the heart is above all things, and how desperately sick it is (Jer. 17:9). It’s not so much that He desires for me to master (or doctor) philosophy or become a leader in a particular subfield of it, but regardless of how things all turn out, He saw that it was a way for Him to minister and speak to me. Philosophy—though it largely has not been reassuring—can be therapeutic; the anxiety that came from feeling inadequate was remedied through the same thing I was anxious about. It led me to remember my first desire in studying it: to show, by my works, my faith in the power and reality of the Gospel.

I recently purchased a “Morning and Evening: Daily Readings by C.H. Spurgeon” devotional, and today’s morning passage said this:

You carry the cross after Him. You have blessed company; your path is marked with the footprints of your Lord. The mark of His blood-red shoulder is upon that heavy burden. ‘Tis His cross, and He goes before you as a shepherd goes before his sheep. Take up your cross daily, and follow Him.

Do not forget, also, that you bear this cross in partnership. It is the opinion of some that Simon only carried one end of the cross, and not the whole of it. That is very possible; Christ may have carried the heavier part, against the transverse beam, and Simon may have borne the lighter end. Certainly it is so with you; you do but carry the light end of the cross, Christ bore the heavier end.

And remember, though Simon had to bear the cross for a very little while, it gave him lasting honour. Even so the cross we carry is only for a little while at most, and then we shall receive the crown, the glory. Surely we should love the cross, and, instead of shrinking from it, count it very dear, when it works out for us ‘a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory’.

“The world behind me, the cross before me; no turning back, no turning back.”

Nothing to Hope In.

Today, I shared something with my church that may or may not have shaken them up regarding my work in the youth ministry. I think I caught a lot of the people in the room off guard, and, on my end, I regret not voicing these feelings sooner. It hasn’t been the easiest time ever finding community at the church I grew up in—a surprisingly common experience, from what I’ve heard—but it’s also led to the deep experience of learning how to focus on what God is doing in times when my own needs aren’t being met. While some may question why I would keep going to a church that I felt didn’t meet my needs, I think it’s worth noting that the Christian life isn’t always about our own needs. A lot of times, it’s about being humbled and invited into deeper growth and reliance on God; it’s a bit like putting yourself in handcuffs and throwing the key away. (That’s an inside joke; looking at you, Modus.) But it can be difficult to keep one’s arms raised during the struggle; even Moses had to take a seat and get some help.

The point is, in sharing my perspective on the ailment of the church in the area I am most acquainted with, I learned that I am nothing to hope in. There were many moments on Saturday evenings when elders would reach out, bright-eyed, and ask how I was doing and encourage me to continue doing the good work of youth ministry, and today, I felt like I had really disappointed them. My mom (for whom I am deeply thankful) has been faithful in reminding me that the only person I serve is God and to not worry so much about pleasing others or thinking about how they see me, but I am learning that it is a very difficult, uniquely human aspect of church ministry. I want to make the elders who taught me in Sunday school proud. Whenever I stand up to speak in front of the church, there’s still a remnant of the really timid, on-the-verge-of-tears, young boy from years ago. This is not to say that I am immature (though in many ways, I still am); this is, in my estimation, an honest account of how the transition period in a young servant’s life looks. It’s not easy saying hard truths as a kid.

However, in saying today that with respect to the youth the church is sick, I hope I have not been misunderstood as making a judgment rather than a diagnosis. I said what I said partially because there is a dull fire shut up in my bones, and I have grown weary with holding it in, but also because sickness is still a sign of life. Too often, we take statements like “the church is stumbling in this way” or “the church is sick in this way” or “the church is weak in this way” as assaults rather than verifications that the church has breath. I believe that as long as there is life in the church, in a person, in a community, there is hope for God’s redeeming work. Sickness becomes praise, weakness becomes triumph, and sorrow becomes peace in light of the redemptive aspect of God’s actions. I often sadly share about picketers telling event-goers that they’re going to hell not because of how offensive their methods are (and they are offensive) but because they have put people (who may be innately and unknowingly craving the riches of the Gospel) in hell before they have even had a chance to be drawn by true grace. I wonder if we are too quickly defeated in our relational encounters and our experiences of life’s natural rigors, forgetting that though people may intend to harm us, God intends things for good to accomplish the saving of many lives (Gen. 50:20).

To close, I just want to say that I still love the church I grew up in. The church has been a model of faithfulness. Many members in the church have served longer and seen more than I have. I want to cooperate in what God has planned. I want the youth to know Jesus as their Savior, as their Friend, as their King. The church may be sick, but Jesus is the Great Physician. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

“fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isa. 41:10 ESV)

Remembering.

As he looked around the room, he saw faces. Unsure of how familiar they were, he tried to scan through the names he knew, but found he knew none. He felt his heart start to race, but what was it to race? Was it to erase? Was it to regain pace? Was it to replace? In a daze, he sat down, only to find he was laying on his stomach. He blinked. The room went black-white, and he squirmed right, throwing himself at anything solid; he needed to hold onto something, but he just kept falling in place. Losing composure, he tried to yell, but quickly bent over, ashamed at the thought of his own voice. What did he sound like? Could he speak? Should he speak? Becoming more and more disturbed by his own existence, he felt he did not belong to a world such as this. Everything went right so long as he remained a shadow. He detracted from the world, a negative, a minus, a subtraction, a distraction, a destruction, a reduction. The opposite of light, he hardly knew what light was besides the blinding he encountered now. What was it to live well? Well, live first, then worry about living well. Could he live? Should he live? His sight was a thousand mirrors, each bending the light until his sense of self was reflected a thousand times over, facing right, left, and up. If he looked down, he would drown in recognition. He hated what he knew and who he knew, but all he knew was to appear cheerful and the only person he knew was himself. He thought about jumping, but talking himself down from the ledge was followed by visions of the suffering he still had to endure because that’s all he could see ahead of him. The paper stacks, silver coins, moving metal objects, spaces filled with linen rectangles and wool sheets exhausted him. He was tired of what he desired. Loathing hate, his joy rang hollow as he found himself empty of substance, content, and content; he was substantially discontent with the moving parts of his consciousness. In a soft whisper, he echoed the sound of a still night, seeing stars for the first time as understanding. He didn’t know what to say to make things right, didn’t know if things had gone wrong, but he still felt the wave of apologies washing him, bathing him, caressing him. Shame and embarrassment were his solace; joy and delight were his guilt-ridden tribulation.

He remembered the smiles, the miles, the trials, the styles of living, of giving himself to another. Sunny nights and still days created canvases of nostalgia for paint to artfully express the colors in memories. Sense was lost as sensing remained; emotions warped as motion reigned. A flower, a card, the ocean, a tree, a road, the lake, the fulfilling silence of comfort and enough. He had lost it all before him, but before him now, he used to take it for granite, etching fondness into stone to carry him through the rest of the way home. At night when one pair of eyes reflected blue light back into the dark, he would remember. He would sigh, then he would sleep, a smile tracing itself upon the memories that his heart would keep.

Super Bowl Christianity.

pats eaglesPhoto courtesy of Philadelphia Eagles – Kiel Leggere

Here’s a link with 43 verses in the Bible about eagles: https://www.openbible.info/topics/soar_on_wings_like_eagles. They show why the Philadelphia Eagles were definitely going to win.

Today was Super Bowl LII, and it was the first time I had some younger brothers from my church over to my place to watch the game – it was the first time one of them had ever watched the Super Bowl. My cousin and I took them to Sprouts to shop for ingredients, and it was a good time to get some relationship building going not only because it’s valuable to invest in the younger generation, but also because they’re just genuinely awesome younger brothers whom we both taught in Sunday school. We made guacamole and had a taco bar going with some brown butter kale (don’t knock it ’til you try it), sautéed onions, pico de gallo, skirt steak (seasoned with salt, pepper, and fajita seasoning, cooked on a cast-iron skillet and finished with a squirt of lime), tortilla chips, corn, and a homemade corn salsa.

But before all of the feasting and beasting (looking at you, Nick Foles) happened, some thoughts occurred to me as I was driving them from church back to my place. Christians who happen to get deeply emotionally invested in the outcome of a game (like the Super Bowl) are often criticized for doing things like “praying for their team to win” or even saying things like, “_______ is the Lord’s team.” We also love when athletes profess their faith publicly, but sometimes turn blind eyes to the actions that they take that are less than Christ-like. I actually think the criticism is fair, and I agree that Christians should really stop doing absurd things like the aforementioned because it reflects a pretty serious misunderstanding of the Gospel in how we approach others. Nevertheless, I’d like to use the Eagles as a fulcrum for the point I want to make about how Christians ought to engage with sports in faith.

Here are some testimonies from the Philadelphia Eagles’ players. (PLEASE watch it, it’s actually really cool and encouraging, and I think we could all stand to learn from what the players have to say on how to reach their neighbors.)

Now, I can see the temptation on the Christian’s behalf to say, “Well, it’s clear why the Eagles won—they’re a praying team!” I want to resist this intuition. It suggests that there is a competing component within the faith of one team or group of people relative to another team or group of people; believing something like seems to suggest that “more faith leads to rewards now,” when we as Christians should be focused on storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). What we as Christians should be praying about in sporting events like the Super Bowl is not that the team we support would win games, but win hearts. At the end of the day, praying for another team to lose could very well amount to praying the sorrow of a fellow brother in Christ on the other team. This ought not be so. Instead, as Christians, we ought to examine where our treasure is; is it really in the momentary glory of triumph? (I know some might say that I’m downplaying the significance of this first Lombardi for Philly, but I’m searching for a deeper purpose than even that.) Even more, how does God look upon the players on that field? I may be stepping beyond the truth of Scripture here, but it doesn’t seem blasphemous to say that He cares for every player on the field. He knows their needs, their shortcomings, and their struggles—and He deeply loves and cares about each of them. The players all have families that they’re supporting, and it’s often too easy to use the television screen as an occasion to forget that these players are made in the image of God.

When Christians point to the faith of the Philadelphia Eagles, I hope they don’t use their on-field success as a measure for their faith. And for the Philadelphia Eagles themselves, as they continue to have their prayer meetings and Bible studies, I hope that their honest prayer is that in all things, God would get the glory, victory or otherwise. Whether they are successful or not on the field is of little eternal significance. What’s of lasting importance is that they continue to be faithful stewards of the platform that God has given them and set their minds on things that are above (Colossians 3:2).

Having said all this…#FlyEaglesFly. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (Romans 15:13 ESV).

ertz divePhoto courtesy of Philadelphia Eagles – Drew Hallowell

The Spirit of the Gospel.

Today, at my church, we had an open sharing service during which people gave testimonies somewhat connected to the theme of “the spirit of the gospel.” This is something like what I might’ve said if I had the time and the space to do so.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything, and I think it’s because I often feel like disappointment or disagreement follow soon after opening my mouth. Nevertheless, with regards to the spirit of the gospel, I’d like to think that the Lord has been teaching me about how the gospel overcomes. 2017 was had its fair share of disappointments. I started a college/post-college ministry at this church in which young people might have been able to discuss topics that interested and challenged them that weren’t traditionally available for discussion during youth groups or Sunday services. This was met with mixed reactions of outward encouragement and thinly veiled suspicion from some people here. Not too long after the group had been established, a large majority of the college/post-college aged individuals found work elsewhere or went back to school. After having expectations of finally finding community here that would be vibrant and challenging, I found myself feeling very isolated at church, especially during youth group on Saturday nights – I sobbed behind the steering wheel as I drove home one night because in a “youth group” consisting of five other middle/high schoolers and eight people over the age of 30, I came to terms with the reality of my loneliness. There’s nothing quite like feeling like you’ve built your house on shifting sands.

Fall 2017 was a semester in which I felt like I had fallen short in most of my personal relationships. Having been told that this semester would closely mirror the workload of a PhD program, I decided for once in my life to put school first. I had no idea that I would be worrying nearly every day about whether or not I was keeping up enough with the people I cared about in my life. Some days were so filled with work that I would not have time to reflect on the health of my relationships; the days following were usually filled with guilt and anguish about who I should reach out to first. I was not able to be as present as I would have liked with friends I kept in touch with online, and I would often catch myself in the middle of conversations just going through the motions. The price of doing well academically was a hollowing out of my relationships with others. As I wrestled with all of this, the weight of hearing people from church tell me that they didn’t want me to go to bible school or seminary bore down even more on my heart. There’s a constant clash between vision and voices, and 2017 was an embattled year for sure.

I watched and listened as a humble seven members of this church were singing hymns at 10:05 in the morning. In the testimonies of members of the church, I found it more and more apparent why people were less and less willing to engage with Christians. The tension between not caring about numbers in the congregation and being a fruitful congregation was tangible this year. I saw that many times, the way we spoke about our experiences and attitudes towards non-Christians demonstrated a departure from our own origins in Christ – His love and His love alone. We were quick to cry out against their practices, their thoughts, and their attitudes without stepping forth into the challenge of self-giving and discipleship of the nations. Listening to other perspectives was given second place as we pointed to our knowing the truth as a kind of justification for being an unhearing and unseeing people. Many times, I found myself wondering if we were the enemies of the gospel given the way we portrayed how Christ came to us in our sin. Forgetting that grace, mercy, and love overcame hearts bound by sin, we put on the hardened armor of salvation that was forged by the death of Christ for the sake of intimidating civilians without presenting them an opportunity to experience God’s absolute beauty.

In the midst of these trials (among many others), the Lord revealed that the gospel overcame in each circumstance. In my failure to lead and establish a post-college ministry, He led me to have a burden for the youth group that met on Saturday nights. He placed a conviction in me to see that “youth group” ought not to be in quotation marks – it ought to be for the equipping of the younger brothers and sisters in the church. Though some of the older ones in attendance sat stone-faced during youth groups, a desire for the gospel to be appropriated in the lives of our teens placed a glow on how I was orienting youth groups. As the middle/high-schoolers engaged with the book of James on their own terms, I saw them begin to think more and more about the influence of the gospel in their lives. In my failure to maintain my personal relationships as rigorously as I would have liked, I found that there was comfort in knowing that my academics were oriented towards the advancement of the gospel in future classrooms. Without this hope in being an ambassador of His kingdom in academia, I would have long counted my academic pursuits worthless compared to the relationships I valued. (I continue to hold onto hope that the truly valuable friendships have withstood this trying period.) Finally, with our failure to show love and mercy to those who might be traditionally considered “problematic” to the church, I learned that the gospel is capable of withstanding all assault. If we think that the gospel we preach is weighty, has value, withstands objection, and is, above all, true, why do we hesitate to bring it to those who need it? And when we bring it, why do we think we either convict or compromise? Alienation is not bound up with faithfulness when it comes to preaching the gospel, and I believe that our gospel is one worth sharing because all of the desires of the human heart are met by the gospel – it is precisely what the world is looking for but cannot accept. And so, I have been encouraged by the Lord to engage with a variety of different conversations – particularly ones I myself do not care much for – to see that the gospel overcomes in all circumstances. In fact, not only does the gospel overcome, but it also fulfills whatever is lacking to the utmost because it is founded in the perfect love of God. The spirit of the gospel, then, is one of overcoming; we ought not discourage one another from engaging deeply with the culture around us because there is simply no other way to test the foundations on which we’ve built as Christians. Our Lord is faithful to keep us as we share the gospel, so may 2018 be a year in which we give of ourselves, loving as Christ loved so that when the times come to a close, we will not have missed an opportunity to deeply engage with the souls around us, pointing them to the One who fulfills their every need.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” | Titus 3:4-7 ESV