“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.

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A helpful insight on the Prodigal Parable

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-sonI recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a dual contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and Jesus’ parable upon which it was based.

Within his book, Nouwen shares many great reflections that are likely familiar to you from the multiple sermons, devotionals, and teachings you’ve heard through the years on the oft-taught parable—the younger brother discovering his father’s love, the older brother realizing he is not forgotten in his father’s love, the father throwing dignity to the wind to share with his sons his loving and joyful heart.  There were many fine and thoughtful insights throughout the book (and for that reason is well worth the read), but there was one I had never heard before that touched me very deeply.  Nouwen himself, having already spent years contemplating the painting, the parable, and what God conveys through them, hadn’t thought of it, either.

It was pointed out to him during a difficult season of his life while he wondered if he should continue ministering at a community for the handicapped.  While speaking with a friend of his, Sue Mosteller, he was postulating whether he was more like the younger son or the elder.  She eventually commented “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Nouwen said her words struck him like a thunderbolt.  She continued “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.  We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother.  We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”

For many years, I’ve also lived from a position of one who is seeking affirmation.  By trying to be the perfect son, a good older brother, or the best kind of friend, I’ve longingly searched for acknowledgment of my existence and the affirmation of my worth.  In the deepest sense, I long to be loved.  Oddly, I know that I am, and yet I frantically continue the search.  It’s as if continually living from a position of one who continuously needs affirmation repeatedly prevents me from being affirmed.  Like with Morpheus’ quip, it’s like I’m trying to draw strength from my weakness.  If I really wish to experience the strength of affirmation, I must experience it from the stronger position of one who gives it to those in need of it.  Therefore, while the short term result of Jesus’ parable is how two brothers reclaim their sonship in their father’s joyful presence, the long term outcome may be that of sons who grow up into fathers themselves, reflecting in their character the love and joy of the father whose compassion shaped it in them.

Such an outcome can be our own if we take the love we’ve received as God’s sons and daughters and through it step up to take our place as fathers and mothers from whose hands of blessing flows the compassion that welcomes back the hungry hearts who’ve been longing for their home.

Just a recent baptism story

Every once in a while, you’re reminded of the joyfulness that saturates the Christian faith.  Yesterday was such a day for our congregation.

A man who had been invited by another congregation member has been attending for some time now.  He has listened to the messages, engaged in conversation, and has been experiencing a genuine joy in it all.  He also eventually began bringing his young daughter with him.  Yesterday he committed his life to Jesus through baptism.  That in itself was a joyous moment.  However, he wanted to express his joy in a way that really brought out the celebratory flavors of being born again.

In the weeks leading up to his baptism, he invited twenty friends and family members to attend; around fifteen came, one of whom even flew in from Canada to support him.  After he had made his good confession, was immersed, and then commissioned to servanthood, he provided lunch for the entire congregation and guests.  We all sat around eating like long lost friends.

When Jesus delivered a trio of stories to the scribes and Pharisees in Luke 15 about how we should view those returning to God, three times he emphasized joy and celebration.  In one clarifying comment, Jesus said “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Baptisms are a moment of joyful wonder for congregations.  By sharing in the joy of the one coming to Christ, we infuse joy into the whole congregation, learning anew the joy of knowing Jesus.  By celebrating with the one, we kindle afresh the candle Christ alights in us.  And in that light we see what put Christ in pursuit of that one in the first place—a beloved value that drives God’s pursuit of us all.

Reacting to the Idea of Jesus | Matthew 2:1-12

Some time after Jesus’ birth, 1-2 years possibly, a star or comet appeared in the sky; interpreting it as the birth of a king, pagan astrologers followed it from the east until they came to Jerusalem where they inquired “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 

Considering the political tension permeating Jerusalem, the notion these magi raised was troubling for Herod “and all Jerusalem”. When Herod inquired of Messiah’s birthplace, the chief priests and scribes cited Micah’s prophecy: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel”.

The unmistakable Davidic imagery of ruler and shepherd are at the heart of the promised Messiah, and were the very concepts startling those hearing the magi’s inquiry. As a toddler, Jesus was no threat; but as an idea, he was like gasoline on a great fire. The incarnation was an incendiary idea; it still is. Consider the reactions we observe in the text.

Upon learning of Messiah’s birth, King Herod the Great is alarmed, presuming he could soon be deposed. Paranoid and provoked by such an idea, his response was to conspire and manipulate the magi, telling them to return and report to him once they had located the child so he, too, could worship him. When they did not return, however, having been warned by God in a dream, we later learn Herod vented his rage and fear with horrific hubris, ordering all Bethlehem males two and under to be mass slaughtered. The ruler/shepherd idea stoked his fear, pricked his pride, and suffering flowed.

When the chief priests and scribes heard Messiah may have just been born, their reaction seems practically nothing. If they were included in Matthew’s v4 comment of how all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod, they also would be stunned. If these chief priests were members of the Sadducees, they would have considered the Messiah role metaphorical; the birth of an actual child would therefore trouble their minds. The most Matthew mentions of them is providing Herod with the Scripture text referencing Messiah’s birth, but overall the text reveals no eagerness on the Jewish leaders’ part to search out this Chosen One for whom the Jews have spent much of their lives prayerfully waiting. While this text portrays them as fairly neutral, we know from Matthew’s later texts, however, the Jewish leaders switched out of neutral and chose to react to Jesus similar to how Herod once violently did. Eventually there is no neutrality when reacting to Jesus.

The reaction of the magi is perhaps the most interesting. These are Gentile pagans with no covenant relationship to the LORD, studying their zodiacs and scanning the sky; and while a lofty idea has captured their attention, they are allowed to see there is so much more to this idea, and this is what sets the magi apart from the others. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The magi were not satisfied with the idea of Jesus; they needed to pursue that star until they encountered Jesus.  Finally beholding boy Jesus as he actually was, their idea of him took on flesh.

One of our most common struggles in the faith concerns Jesus as idea versus Jesus as person. With Jesus as idea we can dissect him, rationalize, shrug him off, mold him in our image, use him as a good luck charm. With Jesus as person we have to deal with him as he actually is. We prefer Jesus as idea because we can control it. Jesus as person we have to follow. Jesus himself is like an incarnate crossroad who calls us to choose.

Like the chief priests and scribes, we can seem interested, speak “Christianese” or project a generalized spirituality, but ultimately go silent, until, that is, the person of Jesus becomes unavoidable.

Like Herod, misconceptions or hard-heartedness may cause us to perceive Jesus as a threat and reject him outright with hostility and derision or snubbing.

Or like the magi, wonder and contemplation fills our imaginations to overflow in a faith that will follow after the person Jesus.

Wonder and worship. This is how the pursuit of Jesus starts and is sustained. It captures our attention, inviting us to step off the sidelines to participate in how God’s salvation plays out in the person of Jesus. Wonder and worship calm our reactionary rage to receive him who gives what is far greater than what we were trying to keep for ourselves. As Matthew reveals how God’s salvation is beginning to bring in the Gentiles, these magi teach us something important about how discipleship plays out: wonder brings us to Jesus, and worship forms Jesus in us. As these magi returned to their eastern lands, salvation as person went with them.