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.

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.

Old Hope in the New Year

The ball has dropped, the fireworks have burst, the toasts were raised, and it is now Day One of a New Year.

I don’t know about you, but 2016 has been a year I am happy to move on from.  Almost from the beginning, it seemed to be shaping into a year of pain.  Sometimes we saw that in the loss of beloved individuals in the entertainment industry.  Sometimes we saw it around the world in the sufferings caused by terrorism or the panic of families fleeing their homes.  In our own country we saw it in one shooting after another that broke or embittered the hearts of everyone.  My home congregation recently experienced it in the loss of two precious members.  So the heaviness of last year was a load I was happy to leave behind at last night’s last hour.

But even with the sense and desire of a fresh start, there is no guarantee that the New Year will be a great year.  More than optimism and resolutions are required.  So as Christians looking to put our best foot forward in the New Year, our faith must look backwards to a very old hope.

There’s a phrase in the Bible I want to familiarize you with; that phrase is “Ancient of Days”.  It’s a phrase that references the LORD God’s eternal existence and sovereign lordship.  It occurs only three times in the Bible and all three of those occurrences are in Daniel 7.  This is significant because at this moment, the prophet Daniel, along with his people, had been exiled to a foreign empire in the faraway land of Babylon, which itself would soon fall to the rising Persian Empire.  As both an exile and a favored court advisor, Daniel had a front-row seat to the crossroads of history and changing civilizations.  It was in this period that God gave Daniel a vision of the future where a Son of Man would appear before the Ancient of Days to receive a Kingdom that would never pass away and that would come to hold good dominion over all peoples and rulers of the Earth.

We believe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone upon which God’s Kingdom is being built; but I also want to draw your attention to the One from whom the Son receives the Kingdom—the Ancient of Days.  The LORD God, who has existed from before Day One, has lordship over all things throughout all time unto Day None.  God possesses lordship over history.  Every good and redemptive thing Christ affects through his Kingdom rule has its origin in the Father who holds all history in His good and holy hands.

Our hope for the New Year is a very old one.  Because God is Lord over history, the hope that holds our hearts transcends history.  In knowing that and entrusting ourselves to God, we are able to put our best foot forward in such a way that gives witness to the One who is not only shaping a New Year, but a future of newness that revolves around the King who sits upon his throne saying “Behold, I am making all things new”.

Why the Bethlehem Massacre Matters

Some weeks ago my sister came up with a great idea for our congregation’s December mission project: to collect baby clothes for local mothers who need to go to a local shelter for battered women in abusive relationships. 

The project seemed to me to do two things. Firstly, it would address a tangible need in our community.  And secondly, while celebrating the advent of hope in the birth of Jesus, the project would also acknowledge one of the most horrific and oft evaded scenes of the Christmas narrative. 

King Herod, in his insecure obsession to safeguard his rule, ordered all Bethlehem baby boys killed, in the hopes that one of them might be the Messiah he assumed threatened his throne. 

It’s not a scene you’re likely to see performed in any pageant this Christmas season, and understandably so.  It’s grisly and heart wrenching, and doesn’t maintain that positive holiday vibe.  Regardless, it happened.  And amidst the frenzy of our festive activities, we need to remember it happened. 

It’s good we celebrate the hope that has come into the world to save us from the horror that sin has wrought upon human reality; but if our celebrating ignores the reality of that horror, we omit what necessitates hope in the first place.  There can be no hope of shalom (God’s peace) without the horror of sin.  That Bethlehem was the place of both Jesus’ birth and Herod’s bloodbath shows how nearby hope and horror often are.  

Even now horrors are still close by. 

cogniet-massacre-innocents-rennes-copiebo-2As noted, our congregation’s mission project reminds us there are still women in abusive relationships, along with their children, who are being unleashed upon as scapegoats for an angry man’s insecurity. A Coptic Church in Egypt was recently bombed, killing several mothers and their children.  Civilian men, women, and children in Aleppo are currently suffering, and possibly being executed, in the latest chapter of the conflict in Syria.  

We need to remember these horrors in order that we might repeatedly comprehend that nothing good is ever created by them.  Whether cruelly inflicted upon people or utilized as a perceived solution to ending suffering, horror always gives birth to horror, explaining its constant existence within human reality. 

This is what makes the birth of Jesus so stark of an emergence.   His incarnate presence singularly exists as the substance of hope.  The horrors matter because the hope slowly supplanting them matters. To remember the horror doesn’t glorify it, but acknowledges that it is the background that accentuates the hope that is coming to the forefront of all reality. 

This Christmas season, abide in and embody hope; not only because we must, but for why we must.  All realities around us considered, hope is the only one of its kind.