Manifest Hero

A father is not
Just a guy with some kids
But a man who bestows
The know-how to live
He’s generous with time,
He serves in his strength,
Through the wisdom he wields
We’ll grow to have what it takes
He gives us the courage to
Be bold and be strong
To pursue what is right
And abstain from what’s wrong
When the storm clouds are gathered
He is first into the fray
Giving light to our night
While guiding our way
When our hearts are downcast
And can no longer cope
He’s the manifest hero
Who exemplifies hope

A father is not
A guy who’s just there
But a man whose presence
Fills the spaces laid bare
In his hands there is healing
In his heart there’s resolve
He brings mercy and grace
To the sins he absolves
He facilitates peace
With the calm of his head
And the temperance he keeps
Leaves no room for dread
With a patience that’s gentle
And a might that is kind
His demeanor is what we hope
The world will soon find

So as we listen for the beat
Of our father’s steady heart
Knowing its rhythms will
Show ours where to start
May this man for all seasons
Who looms large in our minds
Make us manifest heroes
To love those in our lives

An illustrative encouragement for God’s wonderful women

Several years ago I was a cabin dad at a week of youth camp at Rock Lake Christian Assembly. The theme that week was the “armor of God”, Paul’s illustration in Ephesians 6:10-17. Each day began with an assembly where the campers would be shown a movie clip that helped illustrate the particular armor piece being focused on that day. For example, a clip from Clint Eastwood’s “A Fistful of Dollars” was used to illustrate the “breastplate of righteousness” (bonus points if you know the scene). I remember the camp dean remarking later how it was difficult to find movie clips for certain armor pieces. In the years since, my mind occasionally recalls his remark and subsequently tries thinking of certain films that might help for future illustrations.

Last week, the superhero genre’s newest and brightest cinematic gem, “Wonder Woman”, was released to glowing reviews and reception. I saw it with both my mom and sister; not only one of the best superhero movies released in a while, it was one of the most encouraging and uplifting of any movie I’ve seen of late. I’m not going to talk about the movie, but just wanted to comment on something.

Wonder Woman’s outfit has become more than a comic-book costume; it has been remodeled after the armor of Greek warriors. A few days after watching the film, it occurred to me that most of the time in ministry settings when we’re attempting to illustrate the armor of God, the illustration is never that of an armor-clad woman. It makes me wonder if during all those times we were encouraging believers to “put on the full armor of God”, how often did the women and girls feel empowered by the message being preached at them. I’m not saying it wasn’t; just that illustrations must serve the message. “Wonder Woman” helps provide that message.

Knowing one’s value and significance is no small thing. We want God’s women and girls to know they are included in God’s call to arms. We don’t want them to fear, as Tolkien’s Eowyn did, “A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”

I want my mom and sister, the women of our churches, and my future wife and daughter to know they are free to fight the good fight with as much sacred fury as they can muster. That while the insignia upon their brow proclaims salvation and the eagle etched into their breastplate screams righteousness, their boots that were made for marchin’ will move them through desolations as they bring peace, their lasso will bind falsehoods, and by taking up shield and sword, they wield faith and fiery goodness.

Paul writes “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm.” God made his women to be strong and mighty. Their every courageous effort to press further into Christ pulls them deeper into that for which they were designed to demonstrate and we would do well to celebrate—God’s strength and wonder.

“With those who…”: A Post of Joy and Sorrow

A few weeks ago our congregation was able to participate in a joyous occasion. The Hmong ministry that holds their afternoon services in our building was having ten (!) baptisms, and they wanted to do it with us during our morning service. Both congregations watched, clapped, laughed, and rejoiced as one by one each new believer entered the water and was baptized into Jesus the Messiah, assisted by our minister, Pastor Charles Robinson, the Hmong minister, Pastor Don Vang, and myself. It was a wonderful time, full of joy and thankfulness.

Then this past Saturday afternoon the news came that Pastor Don Vang had suddenly passed away of an illness. We were all shocked and speechless, and saddened for his family. He leaves behind a delightful, hardworking wife, sons who are also ministers, and a very sweet and encouraging daughter in high school. Because of timing and clarity, his wife wanted the news broken to their congregation all at once at their service the next day. She asked my father, Pastor Robinson, if he would break the news and deliver a brief message to the group.

Running a church errand, I arrived minutes after the service had started. The scene was heavy. Pastor Vang’s teenage daughter has been acting as their ministry’s worship leader and there she was, leading the team and congregation in worship, barely a day after her father’s passing. She wept as she struggled to sing; my mother went up, stood behind her, and held her as they all continued to sing. Her mother was standing near me, also crying and singing; I hugged her and together everyone cried and sang.

After my Dad’s words, there was more crying and hugging; but there was also prayer and encouragement. Pastor Vang’s wife went around to everyone, embracing them and telling them “he loved you very much”. His daughter knelt down by the smaller children, explaining what was happening and that “we will see him again”. I got to speak and pray with a woman Pastor Vang baptized twenty years ago who said she wasn’t “ready to let go of him yet”.

These moments felt like a complete contrast to the joy and celebration of the baptisms weeks earlier; yet they also felt quite connected, as if the other side of the same coin. The Bible verse that kept running through my mind was one of Paul’s instructions he gave for how to be the Church Body: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans12:15).

Paul’s emphasis on this “with-ness” promotes a love that does for each other what Christ did in being “God with us”. The test of a congregation’s genuine love for each other is their willingness to dive with each other into the deep—the deep joy and the deep sorrow. Being willing to enter into someone else’s joy and sorrow demonstrates that the love we always talk about is genuinely there. When the darkness overwhelms, it’s another’s love that brings the light. There’s always someone in your Church community who needs it; I encourage you to be the one who brings it.

What is the purpose of prayer?

Over the past year, I have prayed for several people fighting illnesses. A number of them did not make it. All were committed Christians. One, a pastor’s wife, shined God’s light into a great many lives. Upon hearing of her death, I remember thinking if God didn’t heal such a woman, what hope would I have were I in a similar situation. With each passing, I struggled with what felt like a combination of health anxiety and a faith crisis. Through time and prayer, I eventually moved through it. In recent days, however, the struggle has returned.

Last August Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim and Christian author and apologist, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. As he proceeded to undergo radiation, with so many praying, things seemed hopeful. But recently he learned the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes and, while options are still being discussed, things are not looking great. I can’t begin to imagine what this must be like for him and others in similar battles. For myself, I feel all prayed out. A frustrating, panicky question has started to emerge in my mind—“why pray if God would say no?”

Yes, the attitude of prayer is guided by Jesus’ words “not my will, but Yours be done”. We try to maintain this attitude before God through all our prayers, but I wonder if we’re able to fully appreciate this attitude unless we are possibly going to our death. In these prayers, people are not asking for a job promotion, relationship, or certain conflict to work out; people are asking, begging God to not let them die. To let them live. What good is prayer if God would say no to that?

While attempting to navigate and struggle through this subject and its inherent sadness, probably not as much as so many others have and do, my thoughts gradually turned from “why pray if God would say no?” to “what is prayer’s overall purpose?”

As Jesus prepares to go to his own death, he tells his disciples in the upper room “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

We know this passage; we cite it often to God when we want something of Him. But is there more to it? Jesus’ comment here occurs between two segments of a larger conversation stream.

The first segment is a series of comments (John 14:9-12) wherein Jesus reveals he is the image of the Father (v9), is speaking the words of the Father (v10), and is doing the works of the Father (v10-11). And just as he is able to do these things because he abides in the Father, Jesus also goes on to say that after he leaves, whoever believes and abides in him will continue in his work (v12). The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s salvation work being carried out on Earth through the Son, and those who continue to abide in him as his Church body.

So in v13 when Jesus says “whatever you ask in My name, that will I do”, it is on behalf of the Father’s salvation work being facilitated through Jesus that he answers those prayers—“so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”. God will answer our prayers in order to support his Christ-centered salvation work continued through the Body of Christ because they are how the Son now glorifies the Father.

The second segment is a series of comments (John 14:15-26) in which Jesus conveys that for the sake of living in holy behavior (v15), our lives are being immersed into a Trinitarian reality (v16-26); an existence that consists of living to glorify the Father by abiding in the Son through the operative power and guidance of his Holy Spirit. Participating in the Father’s work of exalting the Son requires a holiness born in the Spirit. The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s sanctifying work being carried out through the Spirit within Christ’s Church body.

How is this related to Jesus’ preceding prayer instructions in John 14:13-14? The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is the Father’s answer to our prayerful requests to continue in His salvation work of exalting Christ. The purpose of praying and asking in Jesus’ name is to get us in on the Father’s salvation work in Christ by first getting us in on the Father’s sanctifying work in the Spirit.

Are we to petition God? Yes. Are we to ask God for provision? Yes. Are we to ask God for healing? Yes. Can we trust God? Yes. But over and beyond, the purpose of prayer is not as much about getting or being given something as it is about growing into and becoming someone. Prayer is a privilege given us to bring us into God’s abiding presence. We pray because prayer is formational; prayer shapes Christ in us. Prayer takes us beyond ourselves and plunges us deeply into the presence, perspective, and personhood of Christ.

How might this message edify or encourage? For the Christian believer who is nearing death, the one who still has years to live, or one who is all prayed out, Christ-exalting, Spirit-formed prayer expands our perceptions to see that the magnificent work of God fills a span of time whose vastness is far greater than that of our own years. The work of God is transcending history, transforming life, and ultimately, translating existence into Christ’s newness. God’s salvation and sanctifying work is never finished; it was ongoing before our birth and it will outlive us. Prayer places us into his work as participants, to become a people whose lives are conformed to Christ. And after our time is over, our prayers keep us connected to this work that is greater than ourselves, for a plea from our spirits to God’s Holy Spirit does not die with us; it continues on through the work for which it has pled.

Entering and Embodying God’s Kingdom | Matthew 7:21-29

The Sermon on the Mount is not a series of unrelated teaching clips randomly jumping from one topic to another. There is thematic rhythm flowing through every bit of it. Topically, the sermon pieces together various aspects of the ethical demands for living within Jesus’ kingdom community; as a whole, the sermon is designed to set Jesus’ followers apart to embody a way of living whose root and fruit is his holy character. The Sermon on the Mount is very much a curriculum for creating kingdom culture “on earth as it is in heaven”; to give specific shape to a citizenry whose lives and the way they do life glorifies the Father by reflecting his goodness. As Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he puts a final touch on the uniqueness that is to characterize his kingdom community.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”

Jesus’ comment that the Father is in heaven and those who do his will will enter the kingdom of heaven suggests the reality of the kingdom is not exclusive only to the Father’s heavenly location. That is, the kingdom of heaven is also setting up shop on earth where those who do the Father’s will may enter. The expansion of the kingdom’s earthly presence can be further seen in Jesus’ comments in Luke 11:20 and 17:20-21.

As God’s heavenly rule is implemented on earth, there will be those who will name-drop to get in on it. There is always something about knowing a name or identity that somehow makes us feel like we get it or are “in the know”. Jesus makes it clear that knowing his name or using it will not benefit us. The kingdom of heaven is for those who have received the King’s grace and whose lives are committed to reflecting the King’s character.

Clarifying what he means with an example, Jesus says Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’”

Normally we view these actions as quite exemplary. Books are written, ministries launched, and guest speakers fawned over because of activities like these. But are these activities the actual problem? Jesus continues “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Jesus’ declaration hangs on two words or phrases.

“I never knew you”: In the Greek, the word knew implies a deep level of intimacy; in some cases that level could be sexual. In this case it appears Jesus is speaking to those who use his name or title, engage in religious adventures and wear spiritual façades, but whose lives are not actually intimately acquainted with and characteristically distinguished by the righteousness he embodies and calls his followers to. 

“You who practice lawlessness”: The psalm Jesus quotes is one in which the writer, finding graceful relief from his dismay, discards the iniquitous influences from his life, or, as Jesus puts it here, those who “practice lawlessness”. Just as the integrity of an Israelite’s righteousness depended on their abiding by the Law, the Christian disciple’s righteousness depends on their abiding in Christ. We can’t call Jesus ‘Lord’ if we’re not abiding in him and by his righteous way of living.

This is the uniqueness that is to characterize the followers of Christ, setting us apart from not only a world wanting nothing to do with Christ, but those content to merely mimic Christian habits. Called to be a people whose lives are to be salt and light, we are to embody a righteousness surpassing “that of the scribes and Pharisees, [lest we] will not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as God’s kingdom reality was initially manifested in the person of Christ, it is currently expressed in the lives of Christ’s body, the Church. Kingdom reality requires cultivating; a nurturing of habits that emulate Christ’s holiness. This is not done quickly or assertively, but often quite carefully, as one builds a durable home.

Thus Jesus concludes Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

Both the beginning (5:20) and ending (7:21) of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contains a theme of entering the kingdom of heaven. Now Jesus concludes his message with imagery conveying how those who have entered may sustain their commitment to the kingdom. It’s not just about hearing Jesus’ words, and then thinking that somehow entitles us to something, but acting upon them. Letting Jesus’ entire message mold our habits and direct our steps. That as his words shapes our ways, the reality being emitted from our lives will imbue the lives around us with sacred seeds that could grow into a kingdom culture rooted in Christ’s rule.

“When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Reality is always made compellingly clearer when conveyed by its author. As Jesus’ words and actions author a new reality in which we are being redemptively restored to God’s good reign, we gladly receive and embody that which is worth seeking first above all things throughout our lives, the good news of the kingdom of heaven.

Translating Baptism

This past Sunday, our congregation had a special event: the Hmong ministry that operates in association with our church was having a series of baptisms; ten to be precise. I had the privilege to assist our Pastor Charles Robinson, and Pastor Don Vang, in carrying out these baptisms. One by one each person stepped into the water, confessed Jesus as Lord, and was immersed into Christ’s death to emerge into Christ’s life.

While each baptism was special, one of them had its own uniqueness: a mother who is deaf. As you can see in the picture to the right, for this baptism her young daughter came and knelt by the opening. When the Hmong minister asked the mother if she believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, her daughter began signing those words to her mother, to which she promptly nodded, at which point she was then immersed. The act of translating always seems neat, but I can’t recall another time when it seemed so beautiful. It’s as if the interaction going on between the mother and daughter mirrored the interaction going on within her soul.

When we think of translation, we probably think of it as nothing more than the conversion of information. It certainly is that. A sequence of thoughts and sentences containing meaningful data is received, processed, then conveyed again through an alternate sequence that, we hope, translates to the same meanings.

But if in the conversion of information the meaning of the words transcends the constraints of information, then information becomes something else entirely: revelation.

Revelation is different than information. Information offers knowledge that can be leveraged. Revelation is knowledge that invites us to surrender to something greater. Revelation reaches into our innermost person, divulges its true self and asks our hearts to then do the same. How we respond to revelation determines whether or not our lives will be transformed by it.

This woman’s baptismal event is the climax of many prior hours of teaching, conversation, and prayer; all of which were facilitated through translation—information conveyed to her about Jesus. But at some point that information transcended into something that was transforming her, the revelation of someone who transforms us all. Her response to Christ’s revelation was committing to him through immersion into Christ’s death so that she might translationally emerge into Christ’s life.

Like her daughter, attending her mother, translating her good confession, we can all be instrumental in giving voice and expression to the blessed reality God so longs to reveal and thus embody the beauty that adorns the bearer of God’s good news.

The Bond of Baptism and Communion

This past Sunday I was given the opportunity to deliver the communion meditation, that part of the service where we pause to reflect upon and rejoice in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. This opportunity would also occur on the same day our associate Hmong ministry would be baptizing ten new believers. Thus I felt this would be a good opportunity to discuss how the sacraments of Baptism and Communion are inseparably linked together.

While both are pilgrim rituals through which we identify ourselves with the Lord who redemptively identified himself with humanity, each is a unique phase of the same journey.

The practice of Communion was established at the Lord’s Supper when Jesus took the bread, as it says in Luke, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”

And then taking the cup, he said “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”

In the bread is the sin-atoning death of Jesus. In the cup is the abundant life of his new covenant. Christ’s death and Christ’s life. As often as we take this bread and cup throughout our journey of faith, this Communion practice helps us to remember and proclaim to observers that our lives are to be identified by Christ’s death and Christ’s life. But before we can live out that journey, we must first begin that journey.

Paul speaks of this journey’s beginning in Romans 6 where he writes “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

The act of Baptism, of being immersed and then emerging, is meant to mimic or mirror Christ’s death and resurrection. By being immersed into water, we are being buried into Christ’s death, so that the death he died is a death that covers us. And by emerging from the water, we are rising into the life for which he was raised. We die to sin through the death that Christ died so we may rise to life through Christ’s resurrection. As Paul’s words conveyed, we do this Baptismal practice so we might “walk” in life’s newness, thus beginning this journey of faith.

While it is through the continual practice of Communion we are reminded and proclaim that our lives are to be identified in Christ’s death and life, it is at the one-time practice of Baptism we declare that our lives will henceforth be defined by Christ’s death and life.

Baptism marks the beginning of this journey in Christ; Communion keeps us on this journey in Christ. Baptism is not simply a one-time event that exists in our past; it echoes throughout our life through Communion. Christ’s death, which we receive each week in the bread, is the death into which we were immersed; and Christ’s resurrection, which we drink each week in the cup, is the new life for which we were raised. The practice of Communion ripples out from the practice of Baptism.

Why does this all matter? Understanding the connection these sacraments share clarifies their mutual purpose. They clarify how this covenant we have with Christ must remain rooted in Christ. They do not make it difficult to have access to Jesus; they give sanctifying structure to that access. A structure that is meant to conform us to Christ. These sacraments shape in us the type of covenant relationship God designed to share with his people, one that through Christ’s death may encompass those who will embody Christ’s life.