“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.

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”.

Advent III: The Substance of God’s Salvation Hope

angel3Coming. That is what Advent means. More specifically it means Someone is coming. And He’s bringing Something with Him. The angel Gabriel has already conveyed rumors concerning the nature of this coming when telling Zacharias his son will be “a forerunner” to the Messiah. It is now time to confirm the rumors of hope with reports of good news. To an ordinary girl in an ordinary town, Gabriel now proclaims something extraordinary.

In the town of Nazareth, as a young Mary enters a room, Gabriel appears and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Perplexed, Mary can only ponder what will come next. Then Gabriel announces good news of salvation: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Thus far in these reflections upon the season of Advent and its story of hope, we’ve examined the settings into which God’s salvation will be placed, but now we turn our attention to the substance of God’s salvation and it is defined here both in the sense of Someone who is coming, and Something that is coming with Him. The substance of God’s salvation is a King and His Kingdom.

After God delivered Israel from Egypt, He revealed who and what they were to be: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

By giving Israel laws for righteous living, God’s desire for every Israelite was to cultivate a righteous character so as to create a culture of holiness, a people whose entire lives bear witness to a historical and communal reality being born in the delightful submission to sovereign LORD. This is the holy, royal reality God has always pursued for His people. But generations later, this is not what they resembled. Determined to be “like all the other nations”, Israel ambitiously asked for a king. God gave them one, a tragic trial run. Then David came to the throne. Though quite imperfect, David was a man after God’s heart. Ultimately God made David a promise that “someone will always sit on David’s throne”. Sadly none of the subsequent kings came close to pursuing God’s heart as David had. Israel gradually and fractionally faded into shadows.

But Gabriel’s words to Mary reveal God is still authoring His salvation story. The reality of God’s redemptive reign was still coming and its initial advent would be witnessed in the birth of its king. The good news of God’s kingdom is so much more than just a solution to sin or an eternal destination; it’s a redemptive reality encompassing the whole of humanity, redefining history, people, purposes, values, culture, and mission in the holistic submissiveness to its King. When this frames our understanding of God’s salvation, we begin to see we are not just saved from something, but we are also saved for something. This is the substance of our salvation hope.

But knowing the natural order of things, Mary asks how this can be, considering she’s a virgin; Gabriel replies “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

Come upon. Overshadow. In order for Advent to reveal God’s salvation story to the people and places of Earth, the salvation hope being brought must come from beyond. That is the whole supernatural nature of this Coming, that Earth is encountering Someone it has never seen before in a way it does not understand and cannot control. God lets us manage many things, but He will not permit it with salvation. God alone works salvation so God alone is on display and worshipped. We stand powerless before this salvation work in history as the mysterious supernatural God infuses the natural with all of His glory, majesty, and wonder, conceiving and cloaking Himself with a human form that is nevertheless divine. He would appear to all as just another son of man, yet be indeed the Son of God. God implants Himself into the natural order here so we can understand salvation rightly—the infinite incarnate.

To reassure Mary, Gabriel adds that Elizabeth, her elderly and barren relative, is sixth months pregnant with a son, to which he concludes “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Her humble response is exemplary: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”

This supernatural salvation puts us in our place; we add nothing to it and can take nothing from it. As Mary, we can only receive it and respond as willing participants in it as God powerfully performs it. In this Advent season, prayerfully ponder the coming of your King; may the hope it sets in your heart shape an awareness of how the redemptive reality of His Kingdom is good news for all the world. Peace of Christ to you.

Recovering hope by remembering God

A while back I was in a season of deep frustration where it was a real struggle to hope or trust God (as if it’s ever easy). I was having doubts about God’s presence and insecurities about my own capabilities. Whether memories of past failures or fears of future possibilities, worry and anxiety saturated most of my daily awareness. Many times it felt like the ground was crumbling beneath my feet; trying to find my footing seemed an hourly battle.

Around this time I read through Psalm 77. The psalmist is feeling distant from God. Disturbed in his soul, he asks several questions we would likely ask in our own sorrowful seasons; questions I was asking. “Will the Lord reject forever? And will He never be favorable again? Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise come to an end forever? Has God forgotten to be gracious, or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion? Then I said, ‘It is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’”

One of the most profound aspects about the Psalms is how often we can find ourselves and our own seasons amid their prayers and thoughts. Our tragedies, fears, failures, and all various reactions echo in the copious cries of the psalmists. That’s why the Psalms teach us how to pray. They also show us how to hope again, how to respond out of that hope. It often starts with simply going back to the beginning, as if for the first time, which the psalmist does here: “I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds.”

Here the psalmist moves from his frets and fears to instead fixate his mind on memories of salvation moments. He concludes the psalm pondering the great God who worked wonders and salvation by delivering his ancestors from Egyptian slavery and leading them through the Red Sea.

Salvation memories like these are life-giving moments, wells to drink from when the soul is dry. In the midst of his questions, fears, worries, and doubts, the psalmist recognized the unchanging goodness of God in the past is inherent hopefulness for again encountering God’s goodness in the unseen future. Instead of fretting with fear, he fixates on the One in whom our faith is formed. It is this kind of thinking that expands our capacity to look beyond the factors we are often afraid control our fate and see the LORD God who holds us securely in his good sovereignty, restoring hope to our hearts.

This gave me an idea for a devotional project. First I would take some time to let my mind drift back to all the moments I could remember where God had taken care of me. Secondly, as each moment was recalled, I would write a brief statement summarizing God’s provision or protection. Finally, I would attach a post-script to the end of every statement that read in big, bold letters “GOD TOOK CARE OF ME”.

By the time I was finished, I had over three pages of chronologically-listed single-spaced bullet statements testifying to how God’s power, presence, and protection carried me through precarious and perilous moments. As I looked back over the completed list, which amounted to the past twenty years of God’s faithfulness (and that was just the moments I could remember), a contented hush of wonder and gratitude held me.

Just because we can’t see our hope doesn’t mean that it’s not there. When we choose to prayerfully remember the LORD and how he has worked wonders, hope comprised of Him is revealed as plentifully present.