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Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Truth About Birthdays

On the 29th of May, I will turn 29.  It will be my golden birthday. 
*This post will sound very narcissistic and self-centered, but 1) it's my birthday, leave it be and 2) I promise that the insights are worth trudging through my self-indulgences.

Every year as my birthday draws near, I realize that I get a sort of anxiety that seems to loom over me.  At first, I thought they could just be insecurities that are unmet - which, at the core of it, is true, but an incomplete diagnosis.  Then I wondered if they could be byproducts of past hurts or just a normal reality that other people face.  I don't think that everyone necessarily experiences this anxiety in the same way that I do or about the same things, but I do think that at the core, we all share the same reality.

I've noticed that I try to downplay any effort to celebrate my birthday, but deep down inside, I want people to "up play" it.  When I was young, it was all about how many people I could get to my party.  I have pictures somewhere that show me in our backyard with 40-50 kids, none of whom I know at the present time.  There was a clown, a mountain of presents, and of course a slip and slide.  Then when I hit junior high, this one birthday made me the coolest kid in a new school I was attending for two weeks.  Kids somehow got wind of this legendary birthday party that was going to happen and started to introduce themselves to me - I felt so powerful.  We would go to eat at some awesome restaurant (probably TGIFridays or somewhere like that), then go to Navy Pier to play laser tag and games, and then have a basketball tournament on my driveway.  The capacity was 12 kids (including me) so I could only invite 11.  When people found out what we were doing, everyone wanted in, so kids I never knew existed or kids that never even acknowledged me, one of maybe 7 Asian kids in the predominately Jewish school, would come up to me and befriend me like never before.  I wouldn't be surprised if they went on to be lobbyists in Washington D.C.  Exclusivity was the key to fame. 

Fast forward to my 25th birthday.  After junior high, I began to move like it was my job.  I moved from Chicago to Korea to Hawaii to Los Angeles to Guatemala back to Los Angeles then to missions in Kona, Hawaii and China back to Los Angeles to Wheaton (where I went to college) to Barcelona (where I studied abroad) back to Wheaton then back to Los Angeles.  By this time, I was spending birthdays with new people every year.  Not a single person, except my sister was present at any given birthday party that I had with friends.  I've had some special ones while I was travelling, on missions, and even back home, but the most memorable was my 25th birthday. 

For my 25th birthday, over the course of 5 celebrations, which included intimate dinners with friends in Beverly Hills and Anaheim, large gatherings at bars in downtown Fullerton, meals with friends at our local spot, and a large dinner at Yardhouse in Brea, I realize now that it was so special because people showed up to celebrate my life with other people.  I can't say I remember everyone who was there at the time, maybe just 10-15 or so of the maybe 100 people over 5 events who I am still in regular contact with today.  I would like to say that I mattered to every single person that came that that would rearrange their schedules to make celebrating my birthday their top priority, but most of the people who showed up, simply showed up because we had hung out in social settings and they probably had nothing better to do.  But there were a few people who really made it special.  Showing up is important, yes, but its what these few people did that really made it memorable.

I have learned to become someone who feels most loved when I feel prioritized above other things - especially when people change their schedules last minute for me - and when they express where I stand with them.  I think a lot of this was caused by the fact that I was always moving around and never really knew where I stood with people, thus I just had to stand wherever it was I was standing and see if anyone would simply stand with me.  I had been betrayed a couple times by people who were standing with me, then decided to stand next to someone else because they were a longer and more important friend (which I understand), but the understanding doesn't always alleviate the pain of being tossed aside or neglected.  And being the new guy, you were always the first to go - especially if your friends were in high demand.  Because I moved around so much, I grew a need to know what to expect so that I wouldn't be disappointed when I found out that I meant less to them then they did to me.  As long as I knew, and as long as people were sincere with me, I could decide whether I wanted to be in their lives and whether it was worth having them in mine.  I've been fortunate to keep many amazing friends along the way, but that was not without the great cost of being discarded by others as well.

The reason my 25th birthday was so special was because my sister, along with a small handful of friends took the time to see what made me excited and created a celebration that would make my favorite things the mode by which they showed their attention to me.  I believe that care is demonstrated by attention to details, especially details that are unspoken because the person doesn't yet know how to articulate them quite yet.  They knew I loved fine dining and fine wines - I was a snobby kid.  They certainly knew that I appreciated home cooked meals - acts of service are my love language too.  They also knew that I loved it when people made a big deal out of me - because when I moved, I had to be the one to gather people to celebrate instead of having others plan for me.  Furthermore, they knew that I liked it when people I knew got together and got along - something about bringing the past to the present and the sporadic to the consistent together was enjoyable to me.  Of course, I couldn't articulate this at the time (except that I liked fine dining and wines and thoughtful home cooked meals), but they picked up on it.  It probably helped that most of my friends had always been older than I.  Thus, the nice dinner in the Hills, the home cooked meal, and the mega-celebrations at Yard House and Downtown Fullerton were so special to me.  It wasn't simply because I had 5 celebrations - although quantity does make up for lack of quality at times -but because each of the celebrations were perfectly catered to maximize my scale of feeling loved.  People I knew for 2 years, paid attention to me, and made it their focus to make me feel special. 

This anxiety that people feel, that I feel, can only come from these looming questions that we all have, "Do I matter to someone else?  And how much do I matter?" 

I think with some people, they simply adapt to their current realities in a way to minimize disappoint.  This is a great thing as long as they aren't detaching themselves from the fact that we actually do need others in order to make it through this life in a meaningful way - not by using people opportunistically, but to be nourished by deep and genuine relationships that shape you and yes, can hurt you because they leave you exposed. After all, who wants to be forgotten as soon as they are of no use to someone else? These people who try not to need people take whatever they experience and build up theories about the world, how they cannot trust people and how they cannot let others in and how they cannot expect anything good to happen unless if they take it into their own hands, and they are all compelling experiences.  One person betrays you, another person manipulates and uses you, another person attacks you, and the last person kicks you while you are down.  Yes, its true, people make you want to give up hope, build up walls, and not jump into anything.  They don't want to let go of the anchor of self-preservation, even if it means that they are drowning at the ocean floor.  They don't realize that there is a 1000 foot chain that would give them plenty of freedom to rise to the ocean's surface without losing themselves in the process.

Other people elevate mattering to others too much.  How others view them, what people think about them, how they come off, and whether people care about them become everything to them.  They are unanchored.  They jump from one person to another looking for safety and validation.  They feel slighted quickly and don't have the patience to look beyond an isolated incident and focus on the trajectory of the relationship.  They look at one performance without paying attention to the patterns.  They become devastated when people ignore them, often times feeling rejected completely about minor things.  They don't push through difficulties if they see that someone else is quick to take their side.  They are unanchored, without a strong identity, adapting like chameleons without a spine.  They cannot leave destructive relationships because the stability of being in a bad relationship is better than not being any one's significant other.

Some people need to learn how to keep people out.  Other's need to learn how to let people in.  Everyone needs to learn wisdom in all things.

As for me, I am both of these people.  On the one hand, I am anchored and clinging to my anchor because I don't want to be hurt.  After all, I've experienced it many times without really knowing that it isn't normal to accept feeling betrayed as a constant in life.  On the other hand, there is a people pleasing spirit within me.  I want people to like me and care about me, so at times, I give up who I am for it.  Every relationship requires give and take, don't get me wrong, but Giraffes shouldn't try to be Ostriches.  They should try to be the best giraffe they were intended to be.

So what then?

Inside all of us, there is an anchored person and an unanchored person.  But beyond that, there is a person who wants to be cared for.  I've realized that my anxieties about my birthday derive from a deep insecurity about whether or not I matter.  This is why birthdays can be the most nourishing or devastating day of the year for people.  For those who minimize expectations, they do so because they are tired of being looked over, they convince themselves that they matter by looking at other things they have been validated in, and move on with their lives.  For those who want to matter too much, they scramble and scramble until they know that enough of the people they want to show up will be there.  Then when people are there, they are counting to see if everyone who is supposed to be there actually showed up.  One person becomes numb, the other person becomes too sensitive.  Now, do birthdays really make that much of a difference?  Probably not, but I think that we all experience these things to various degrees.  Some of us talk ourselves out of it, which others of us freak out because of it.  Whatever the case is, we must not ignore the deeper meaning behind the cry of our hearts.

For me, my birthday is a revelation that at the core of who I am, I want to know I matter to someone.  The reason birthdays are so great in my opinion, are that people can demonstrate that care for you.  By paying attention, carefully planning, meticulous consideration, and a pleasant understanding that your efforts to celebrate the life of someone will edify and enrich them is truly profound.  We all get insecure, wondering if we are good enough, if we are worthy, or if we actually do matter to others.  We all have our own lives, our own priorities, and our own responsibilities as well.  When we take the time to make someone else's life our priority, I think its the truest form of magic.  It brings a sense of wonder and awe, far greater than David Blaine or any other magician can perform on stage, because it reaches the center of someone's heart. 

Here's the truth.  We do matter.  And we matter to the most important person in the universe.  So much so that Jesus wanted to celebrate our existance.  He did so even though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  (Philippians 2:1-11).  You see, the way Christ celebrated our existance was by dying to himself so that we could enter into the ultimate celebration in eternity!  He made us a priority, completely disregarding his own self, and then demonstrated that we mattered by footing the bill himself!

For me, I think birthdays might just be reminders of how we should celebrate the lives of others everyday - at least those that are closest to us.  When its someone's birthday, you won't let them fall off the deep end (unless if you are at a pool party and throwing them in), you don't care about how much they make, what you get out of the relationship, but you simply just value them for living.  You put aside any conflicts, any past wrongs, any present issues, and focus on them, because your aim is to be there to let them know that they matter to you beyond all the junk that goes on in life.  You consider the ways they feel loved and you show up, standing with them, and assure them that you will not betray them or go stand with someone else.  And I think, just maybe, if we learned to live like this, we can be, see, and show glimpses of what Jesus describes as the Kingdom of Heaven will be like here on earth to the rest of the world.  After all, heaven will be the greatest celebration known to eternity.

*To all of you who made my birthday special, thank you.  Especially those of you who took the time to help plan it, drove from long distances, shared words of encouragement, and went out of your way to make my joy a priority in your life.  I doubt any of you will have actually read this, but just in case you did, know that I cherish you from the bottom of my heart for simply liking me and being my friend.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Psalm 44: When you know in your head, but not in your heart

I find it extremely therapeutic when I encounter a Psalm that seems to connect with the current state of my life and heart. For the past several days, a chasm between me and God seemed to be forming without any particular reason. I have been wrestling through this from a theological perspective, a psychological perspective, and a life experience perspective with no real avail. It felt like I was trying to crack a safe trying to figure out why even though I kept turning to God, my heart found itself feeling distant from the God who just a week ago, abounded in intimacy. Then I stumbled across Psalm 44.

Psalm 44 is the Psalm that someone can turn to when you seem to be in the eye of the storm. You have come to understand and accept that God is good in your head and remember His faithfulness on the Cross, but for some reason, still feel like there is a disconnect between your head and your heart. Essentially, this Psalm is for those who feel like their circumstances, immediate needs, and most pressing issues in their lives seem bigger than God to them. You have come to accept that nothing could really be bigger than God, but for some reason, there is something that seems bigger than Him in your life.

The Psalm opens up with a reflection and an acknowledgement of God's workings throughout the history of their people. How it was God who drove out the nations from Canaan, planted the people there, and then saved them from their enemies. The Psalm then goes into a recognition of how it was God's favor, not their abilities that had been the source of their blessings and their well-being. (v. 1-7)

Then in verse 8, the people say that they have boasted in God and that they will give thanks to Him forever signifying that God has gone above and beyond in proving His faithfulness and provision and involvement in their lives.

The Psalm then takes a rapid turn into the present where the people feel rejected, abandoned, and disgraced for they are being defeated by their foes and being put to shame by them. Using statements like "those who hate us have gotten spoil," "you have made us like sheep for slaughter," "you have made us the taunt of our neighbors," and "you have sold your people for a trifle," it would seem that everything in their lives are going wrong. (v. 9-16)

Then as quickly as the Psalm entered into a dark place based on the reality they were experiencing, it makes a surprising turn when the people say, "All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way; yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." (v.17-22) One would expect when reading this Psalm that they would say that they have been wrong and repent of their disobedience, but instead, they speak of their faithfulness, knowing that God has a much more clear perspective of the conditions of their heart and the realities of their obedience.

The Psalm concludes:
"Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!" (v. 23-26)

Many times in life, we find ourselves distant from God because we have distanced ourselves from God through sin. Other times in life, we find ourselves distant from God because we simply haven't spent much time in fellowship with Him and only turned to Him when time was available because of our busyness. Then there are times in life, we find ourselves distant from God because we have made small compromises that have led us to a place that when we looked up, created a gorge the size of the Grand Canyon simply because we opened up a small portion of the dam that prevented the water from overpowering its way in. However, there aren't many times when sin, small compromises, or the busyness of life aren't the source of the distance we experience. There are times, when God just seems to be absent in the midst of our faithfulness to Him.

The Psalm clearly points out that the people have not forgotten God's provision and His activity in the history of their people. It also demonstrates that they have been true to the covenant and that they realize that God is a sovereign God - all seeing, all knowing, and all powerful - and that nothing could evade Him. Yet, even in the midst of their boasting in God and gratitude (v.8), God seems to be an absentee landlord who is letting those who dwell in His house get overtaken by thieves, robbers, and murderers.

Experiencing God comes in three forms: emotional, mental, and volitional. If God is at work in your life, there is a contemplation that begins to happen about the attributes of God and our lives in light of those attributes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it is the answer for eternal life, and how we ought to live based on the truth we know. You also experience God through a peace and joy that cannot be sustained on our own or be offered by anything in this world. There is also a surrendering of the will, to obey God through whatever circumstances you face because you trust in the Gospel, the goodness of His character as demonstrated through the Gospel, and His great sovereignty over all creation and all time. However, what do you do when God seems distant despite your obedience? What do you do when you know that all you want is more of God and He seems to be giving less of Himself? What do you do when you organize your life in a way that seems to align with His commandments and you keep getting slaughtered? What do you do when it seems like God has abandoned you?

The answer is in the Psalm.

1. Remember (v. 1-7)
The people remember God's faithfulness and they remember beyond their own lives. We have a tendency to become so egotistical that we think that if God's faithfulness is not demonstrated in our lives in the most clear ways, then He must not be faithful. We forget the Cross and the experience we had when the Gospel message worked in our lives. We forget the small and large ways He has sustained us throughout our own lives, giving us the grace we needed to get through some tough circumstances, and readily pouring out His love when we turned to Him. We forget the ways that unlikely events took place to allow us to get to certain places throughout our lives. We forget the times that there was no way we could have gotten out of a hairy situation or a difficult dilemma, but somehow, the check came in, the person walked through the door, the phone call came, we were given an extension, or we were found by someone who did not do us any harm. We are creatures who forget far too often, and for this reason, must practice the discipline of remembering.

When we remember, we are able to step back and see the current circumstances from a 10,000 foot view. It helps put things into perspective, to remind us that we are not the center of the universe, but that we are in just a moment throughout history. Remembering removes the weight of the current situation and gives us the ability to respond more clearly and not place more significance and meaning onto something than it really deserves. Remembering gives us the ability to connect the dots and rest in the truth that history proves God's faithfulness.

2. Boast in God and give thanks (v. 8)
To boast in God means to credit God for all good things. It also means to place Him as the object of our pride. Pride caused the fall, and it is the goal of pride to place ourselves at the place in our own hearts that God deserves to be. When we place God as the object of our pride, we no longer live for our own glory, but for His. This means that we let go of the things we want most in life that aren't God and thank God regardless of what circumstances befall us. This means that you have reasons to still worship when your someone you love gets cancer, or you still rejoice in the Cross when you hear of a dear friend getting killed by a drunk driver, or you still find God praiseworthy when you lose everything, or you still glorify Him when people are out to kill you. This is a tough calling to consider, but I would urge you to consider Stephen before he was stoned to death by those he went to share the Gospel with in Acts 7:

"Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep." (Acts 7:54-60 ESV)

If you consider Stephen, you will notice that as he was being stoned to death, he asked God to not let this act of murdering him be held against them. He was asking God to show them mercy, to forget the way he was killed, and to give them a chance as stones were pummeling his face. What could cause such forgiveness to overpower someone as they were being murdered for sharing the Gospel? The answer is in the beginning of the passage when Stephen said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Stephen's murder is the ONLY recorded time in the Bible where Jesus is standing, not sitting, at the right hand of God. This picture is beautiful because you can see Jesus full of empathy as He experienced an unjust murder Himself as well as an anticipation to be able to say to Stephen, "Well done, good and faithful servant. The first moment of eternity with Me will quickly vanish all the pain, sorrow, and misery of the life past and the rest of eternity will be full of a joy and love that you could never have fathomed. Welcome."

When we boast in God, we boast in the work of the cross to find it perfect and complete, healing and restoring, allowing us to have patience with all the problems we face in life, knowing that there is a greater day to come in either this life or the next.

This boasting allows us to be filled with gratitude because we quickly recognize that it is not our efforts or even how meticulous we are with our faithfulness that gets us in right standing with God, but it is His love demonstrated through the cross and resurrection that give us the ability and strength to walk faithfully. We are thankful because we recognize that we aren't doing any of the good in our lives, and that God is blessing us with His favor.

3. Pray (v. 9-25)
Throughout the Gospels, we see Christ constantly going off into lonely places. Prayer is the point by which we express our dependency on God. We must not forget that God has created specific channels by which we can gain access to Him on earth. Of all of them, prayer is the most responsive in the sense that we can take all that is going on in our lives and just share it with Him. Prayer is also the mode of communication that God has allowed us to partake in to participate in Kingdom work.

However, in this Psalm, prayer seems to take a different role than what we would often times expect. Though we see the people acknowledging God and lifting His name up, we also see them describing their reality as they see it. They say things that would suggest that they feel pathetic, put to shame, humiliated, and defeated without an end in sight. They go on and on telling God that they don't just feel like God has left them, but that God has indeed left them. Sometimes, the reality is that things not only don't go our way, but the world seems to work against us.

In this Psalm, it appears that as they move from remembering the past faithfulness of God to describing the present turmoil of being destroyed, the people come to a place where they remember through prayer that they must connect the faithfulness of God in the past to a dependency on His immutable faithfulness throughout all time, including the present. Once they finish going through the realities that life is miserable and that there is no way out, they ask God to "awaken" and to "show Himself." This prayer from v. 23-25 demonstrate that they understand that intimacy is what God is looking for, not just acknowledgement. For through intimacy, we find deliverance. After all, Christ died so that we could enter into an intimacy with Him throughout all eternity.

4. Wait in trust (v. 26)
The difficulties in life often come in times of transition. The waiting periods between jobs, the agony of not knowing if she will say yes, the misery of waiting to hear back from a potential client, and of course, waiting for God to provide. The thing about God is that He wants to make it very clear to us that He is enough for us and is better than life. Everything in life seems to revolve around making the name and work of Jesus Christ to be central and completely sufficient for everyone who encounters Him. If God loves you, He will make sure that you get to a place where Christ is more than enough and you find that you lack nothing because you have Him. That means that you are more than fine if you applied to a million jobs and have not heard back, that you are more than fine when your boyfriend/girlfriend breaks up with you out of nowhere, that you are more than fine when everything you worked hard for slips through your hands, that you are more than fine when your best friend betrays you. Yes, you will experience the pains of life, but they will knock you down, not keep you down. You will find that Christ can lift you up from whatever it is that has brought forth pain in your life.

In Romans 5, we are reminded as Christians that we have been justified by faith and that we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God because of the access that has been granted by grace through faith. Not only that, we rejoice in our sufferings because it produces endurance, that produces character, that produces a hope that does not put us to shame - the hope of Christ. Rejoice in suffering? That sounds like psychological mumbo jumbo until you consider what it means. It means that this life isn't the end. That if we live in affluence or poverty, that if we were born into slavery during the 1800's or if we were born as royalty in the Middle East, that if we had nothing and gained everything or had everything and then lost it, that if we have Christ, we have every reason to celebrate every single day. However, there are times when God will feel distant or seem distant, and in those times, we can remember Psalm 44, the truth that nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8), and the promise that He will never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). During these times, its easy to look for substitutes. We will be tempted to turn to other things to bring us fulfillment and satisfaction, but we must remember that the enemy works in times of our weakness as God is made strong in our weakness. If we hold onto His promises and remember that there is a greater eternity to look forward to, that this life is but a blink of an eye, and that in all that we do, we can bring glory to God, how we respond to the times of dryness and the times of difficulty shift in a way that we remember that we are loved and that we are lights to the world, and that the world is watching us to see if what we believe is actually true. That the times when it seems like God has abandoned us (which in John 16 promises He would never do), what He is doing in us is to refine our hope so that it remains only in Him. It is precisely in this time that He is doing the slow work of building endurance which does not come in ready made packages, but through a careful growth process. That in this time, we can remember that He is producing within us an endurance that leads to character, and a character that recognizes Him as the source of all meaning.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Our Trials, Christ's Temptations

I find myself speechless from time to time as I examine the claims made in the Bible. There is something about taking time to consider what is being said in the Scriptures as life giving. I am convinced that if we spend time in the Bible through meditative prayer, meaning we actually think about what is being said and ask God about what is being said, we come to a place where Jesus becomes more clear to us. I think we can see this in both the Old and New Testaments.

In the books of James and Hebrews, we learn that the Greek word used for trials, peirazo, is also used for temptations. How can this be? Are all trials temptations? Are all temptations trials? How then do we escape the trap of falling into temptation? Certainly, we must consider the context in which the word is used, but more than anything, I think what is being communicated is a matter of the heart.

Everyone faces trials of various sorts and what I believe every trial ultimately does is one of two things: it draws us closer to God or it repels us away from Him. Every trial is worth acknowledging, even the trivial ones. The reason being is that every trial affects the human heart in a way that leads us to believe we must rescue ourselves from our circumstances or we must trust that God is our rescuer.

Trials repel us from God in more obvious ways to almost invisible ways through slow compromises and notions of self-reliance and self-dependance - these are the moments when we fall into temptation. We are tempted anytime we want something more than we want God, thus falling into the belief that what we cannot gain in Christ can be gained on our own. The most obvious ways are clear rebellion against God through immoral and unethical behavior to a blatant hatred of God for not giving us favorable outcomes in life. We become bitter, calloused, cold, and angry with God because we heard that God was a loving God and if God was a God of love, He would not withhold things we wanted from life. We expect to be blessed beyond our abilities, or at least at the same level as our peers. After all, what good is it to believe in God if we don't get anything worthwhile out of it?

The less obvious ways are generally only evident in the heart and visible through close examination. People who do not interact with you on multiple levels cannot say much about this. In our hearts though, we turn to God as an ultimate savior, but not an intimate one. He is only welcome into the places where we already have things figured out or into the places where we cannot figure it out on our own. In the space where we believe we can figure it out, we go in and out of debating whether or not we should fully surrender to the flow of things or if we should hold back and practice restraint on any sort of impulsivity. However, it is not even these things that really define the events taking place in our hearts. What we must constantly question is 1. am I trusting God or my own wisdom in this? 2. are humility and love driving my behaviors? and 3. what would Jesus encourage me to do in these circumstances?

Our souls are after control and power, and our hearts are after approval and acceptance. We allow fear to creep into our veins and drive our decisions more that we allow love to. This usually happens when we feel inadequate, unsafe, or threatened by something unfamiliar, unknown, and things that can potentially be painful. We often dismiss the need for faith by utilizing "wisdom" as our guiding light. I don't ever see wisdom and faith (trust and surrender) juxtaposed against each other. Instead, it seems as if wisdom requires an extreme amount of faith because wisdom is often used in times when there is no clear moral answer. Our hearts fortify themselves instead of fortifying our faith with walls instead of boundaries, defenses instead of treaties, and wars instead of feasts. We refuse to get lost again, to get hurt again, to be betrayed again, to be fooled again, to fail again, to experience pain again, so we hold onto what we know is familiar and inch forward when the tides are telling us to go with them so as to not get caught in the coral. Fighting the waves never pan out well for anyone, I know because I've tried and almost broken my neck, twice.

Every trial we experience, at the end of the day, whether its the struggle to put food on the table, or a conflict between loved ones, or learning to forgive someone that has wronged you, or trying to find ways to protect those you love, or coming to a place where we need to let go of your need to be respected, be in control, or gain approval and praise will affect the heart in ways that steer the direction our hearts face. They are either moments that measure how much you actually trust in God or moments that tempt you away from Him into other things. All of these things come from a place where we want something and whether or not what we want gets fulfilled.

The temptation of Christ is recorded in three of the four Gospels. Jesus was led into the the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. After fasting for 40 days, Satan came to tempt Him in three specific ways. Studying this, after also reading through Henri Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus" has given me insight into how our trials can turn into temptations if we are not careful.

Temptation 1: Stones into bread

Matthew4:2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be relevant. In other words, the temptation first set forth by Satan to Jesus was to do something that would make him matter - to give himself a way out of his hunger. To do something utilizing power, instead of expressing a type of gratitude that comes from experiencing grace regardless of the circumstances. We have to remember here that Jesus had been fasting for 40 days and thoughts of His provision of Manna to the Israelites for 40 years must've been flashing before His very own eyes. After 40 days, Jesus was completely empty in body. He had entered into this trial full of the Holy Spirit - in essence, in fellowship with the Godhead. After 40 days however, his body was calling out for nourishment, just a drop of something to fill His stomach. At this moment, Jesus was completely empty and as with anything else that is empty that needs to be filled, He was looking to be filled as well. Anytime we are hungry or in great physical pain, every reality outside of that one becomes null to us if we ascribe to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. However, Christ demonstrated that there was a greater reality He ascribed to, a reality where He would be able to rely on His relationship with the Father and the Spirit to be sufficient.

Henry Nouwen says that he is "convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal Gods love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God's Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life." The temptation Jesus faced, that we all faced is to do something that matters. To leave a mark on society as someone who left a legacy worth noting. After all, how great would it be if we could feed the hungry, house the homeless, nurse the children, heal the sick, and care for the elderly? These things, Christ certainly called us to do, but that is not what the temptation is. We often times ignore how weak our hearts are. We are all trying to find significance somehow, to find meaning. Those that try to numb themselves by trying to distance themselves from allowing anything to matter to them are trying to cope with the reality that the things they have found meaning in the past have only brought them pain, so it would be better to disengage, then to engage.

The problems in being relevant come when we consider our strengths, assets, gifts, and abilities to be more important than they actually are for the kingdom of God. God does not use strength, but weakness, and we see that over and over again. For it is in weakness that we find that the only relevance we have is in our standing with Christ. It is in weakness that we can remain humble, to be patient, and to exercise a level of understanding that allows us to trust in the sovereign hand of God instead of relying on our own efforts. In other words, we learn to recognize that God doesn't need us, but His love for us drives our fulfillment regardless of the circumstances we face.

In life, there will always be immediate needs, deadlines, problems, burdens, and things to fix around us. No one wants to go hungry, and no one wants to see anyone else fall into a deadly sickness because of the lack of accessibility or into sex slavery because of our apathy. Sure, we always want to increase our capacities to be more effective in life, and there is nothing wrong with that. What should drive us is God's love, but the thing is, we cannot feel like we are full of God's love when we are searching for meaning in other things. The moment we try to be relevant, to define our own search for significance, is the moment we elevate ourselves above others and place ourselves at the pinnacle of importance. We come to a prideful conclusion that without us, there would be no way that things would get anywhere. The truth is, the world would be fine without us. God would still accomplish His will whether we were gracious to participate or not, so we shouldn't ever find ourselves feeling pressured to have to do something. The only thing we have to do is make sure that we allow God to love us, and even that is something we cannot do on our own strength. What makes us relevant to God, is the only thing that should matter - for in our relevance to God, we will become all the more relevant to the world through love. Relevance is a matter of the heart.

Temptation 2: Find out if you are who you think you are

Matthew 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,

lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

We all have identity issues. We go through the majority of our teens and twenties trying to figure out "who we are." Again, in a weakened state, Christ is put to the test. As Christ forewent food, a tinge of doubt might have crept in (theologically debatable: don't call me a heretic because I don't know where I stand on this yet), but the moment it might have, Christ was there prepared with the Truth of God's Word to stand on. He made a claim that what gives Him life is not food, but fellowship with God. This time, Satan attempts to throw Jesus off balance by making Him question WHO He is. We must remember that throughout all of eternity past, there was no want unmet, no desire unfulfilled, and no need that was felt in Christ through the Trinity (I won't go into the doctrine of the Trinity here). Christ was perfectly satisfied and delighted in the fellowship He had.

Then, to share His great love, God created the heavens and the earth and placed man on the earth. This was God's going public with His love. We know that Adam ate of the fruit tree, that Abraham was called by God, and that God used a bunch of imperfect people to be the spiritual bloodline that would lead to the Messiah. However, here he was, weak, empty, hungry, and exhausted. The devil wanted to throw Jesus off balance and made Him question the core of who He was, his identity.

The thing we have come to believe is that our identity is constructed from within. There is a belief that we are who we are because of something that we generated by ourselves versus being influenced and conditioned by external forces. We ignore the cultural variables that shaped our thinking, the relational experiences that shifted our thinking, and the value decisions that affected our choices. At the end of the day, we somehow draw the conclusion that our lives are a product of our skillful planning and strategic thinking over almost everything else. We start to take credit for where we ended up if successful and only if we fail, do we blame the world. Somehow, we made it. Of course, very few people believe this to this extreme, often times giving credit to their parents for having foresight or a mentor who decided to give them a hand up or just sheer luck, but you know that there is a seed of this "I did it mentality" when people get angry with others for being incompetent, impatient with people who are slow, show little compassion to those who are below them, and get frustrated when things don't go their way.

Our identity, if it is rooted in our abilities will always lead us to look down on people, to consider ourselves better than others, and to try to be the ones to humble others. We find a place we belong in the social stratum and exploit that position for our own gains, intolerant of people stepping on our toes, making sure that we get the respect we deserve for having reached a certain position, being affiliated with a particular group, or a member of a certain association.

At this moment, Jesus' entire foundation was being shaken. He was weak, yet was not overpowered. In this weakened state, Satan was trying to get Jesus to shake His belief in Himself - in God! Often times, our faith gets weak. Fortunately for us, it isn't the strength of our faith that saves us. It isn't our good works, nor our church attendance, nor our involvement in community service, nor our ability to be kind to the person that just irritated us. It is sheer grace - the undeserved love that God gave to us by coming to us so that we could receive Him. At this very moment, Satan was trying to get Jesus to question the Father's love for Him. After all, what Father would let their child plummet to their death if they had the ability to prevent it or to save them? When our identity is placed in anything outside of God's love for us, there is a great propensity to be insecure when the thing we place our identity in is threatened or depleted. If our identity is in relationships and our significant other leaves us, we become devastated. Our identity was placed in something that couldn't sustain it. If our identity is in our career or ability to make money, when that doesn't happen, we become depressed and driven by worry because our ability to provide was the reason we were worthy of love. Our identity was placed in something that couldn't sustain it. We place so much of our identity in things that we think would make us worthy to receive love that if they start falling apart around us, our security falls apart within us.

When Christ was tempted, He made it clear that God was God, and that God was not one to change. He understood the Gospel. His entire being was so oriented to bringing honor to the Father that there was nothing that could stop Him from trusting in the leading of the Spirit into the wilderness. He knew that He could rest in the Father's love for Him and the Spirit's good intention for Him even in the midst of extreme difficulties. His identity was in love, not in anything that He did or could do, not in proving that He was a somebody worth saving, and especially not in anything rooted in selfishness. Satan's attempts are always to tell us that God's love for us are not enough and that we cannot trust in the works He accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation.

Temptation 3: God is not enough, I will give you the world.

Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

How do you tempt God (Jesus) away from God? Again, we must remember that Christ was fully God and fully man - you will get a wrinkle in your brain from trying to understand that one. Essentially, Satan was attempting not for Jesus to disbelieve in God, but to disbelieve in God's goodness.

In this world, we must realize that there exist pulls and pushes to go in one direction or another. The temptation is to believe that these pulls and pushes are neutral, which if we considered them in their objective state, would be true. However, our subjective motivations are what defines whether the neutral becomes detrimental to flourishing. Our hearts are wired to desire. That's the good part. The sad part is that when sin entered the world, our desires became distorted. We began to want things we shouldn't want (think of kids wanting sweets before a meal) and the things we should want somehow became cloudy. We were intended to desire God because God is the only one that could fulfill all of our hearts desire without leaving any space. Our hearts began to take what it gathered through sight and make it the fulfillment of their desires. We must guard against this.

Satan knew that for Christ to even potentially give up His relationship with God, even in the midst of being weak and with the knowledge of what was to come on the Cross, that He would have to offer the world to Jesus, literally. No great job, no sexy spouse, no perfect kids, no amount of money, no amount of power, and no amount of fame would do the trick. It had to be everything the world had to offer bundled up into a package. Satan knew this because He knew the infinite value of God and the only way to distract Christ might have been to shroud His ability to see God clearly and to show Him something more attractive. Of course, Christ prevailed.

As we think about this, one thing that stuck out at the end is that after being tempted, Jesus was ministered to by the angels - almost as if He finished 10 rounds with Mike Tyson, Goliath, the Titans, and Hercules at the same time. We must remember that God will never leave us nor forsake us, that the times when we want anything more than we want God are times when we aren't letting God's love be sufficient in our lives. That in all things, even if we go through difficult moments in the present, it will pass. He will never abandon us, and will always be with us until the end.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Gospel in Genesis: The Father's Heart

Over the last couple of months, I have been reading the Genesis account to see if I could glean something from it that I had missed before. I think I've struck gold.

Its evident that the creation account, the fall of man, and the story of how God established a covenant with Abraham and his decendents are the highlights of the story. Then, the entire narrative of Joseph is placed before us to show us how God is always at work - even when in the middle of it, it may appear that He has abandoned us.

However, I never liked looking at the book of Genesis as merely a series of sequential stories that just convey what happened. Without a doubt, you can see elements of God's nature and character throughout the book. You see His creativity as you read the creation account in the first two chapters of Genesis and then see an invitation to participate in a creative process as He calls Adam and Eve to rearrange the garden . You see that the form in which we have a place with him is through believing in Him and His promises as demonstrated through the statement, "He believed and it was counted to Him as righteousness." You see His patience as demonstrated in the life of Methuselah (I got this from my cousin Peter) whose name means "his death shall bring." We know what happened in the story of Noah and the ark. Those of us who went to Sunday school know that Methuselah was the oldest person to ever live at 969 years. It was upon Methuselah's death that the earth experienced the great floods and Noah was saved because he chose to believe God when everyone else thought he was a lunatic for building the ark. But the fact that Methuselah lived so long gives us a picture into how God does not delight in destruction, but in extending His mercy for as long as possible with fair warning. You see His involvement in our lives, not as a God who rules from above, but one who gets into the muck of things to bring about redemption to humanity. You see his sovereignty and providence as demonstrated through the life of Joseph.

As wonderful as these things we're, they did not connect the Genesis narrative in a way that was satisfying until now. I didn't want episodes, but a seamless movie from beginning to end with a clear picture of what was being painted. This is what I believe the book of Genesis' theme to be: the Father's story.

You see, we are set up in the beginning of Genesis with harmony that is broken through infidelity. God asked Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree not because the tree was evil, but becasue it would break the trust relationship that existed between them. Pride caused Adam and Eve to question God's goodness in their lives, and that led them to draw the conclusion that they needed to know what God knew. This is foolishness for even those who have just a conceptual idea of what God mihgt be like would draw the conclusion that if God existed, then He would know more than we could ever fathom to understand.

Once this peace was broken with God, we recognized we needed to be saved from the consequences of brokenness. In other words, we needed to be put together to be made whole. For all of history until now, we can see the effects of this as people are trying to find meaning in things that can only provide meaning temporarily, to find fulfillment in things that cannot ultimately fulfill, and to make something of themselves so they are someone worth loving, caring for, and knowing completely. We strive to find ways to satisfy our need to be loved by building up an image that we think will withstand scrutiny. We try to find ways to save ourselves from despair and hopelessness and a lack of motivation to live. We attempt to prove to the world that we are worth noticing. We search for significance in things like success and relationships only to find that they lack their luster once we are ingrained within them as we hold them to the highest esteem, and then justify the menial existence as just "the way things are."

We then either drop our standards and our hope for fulfillment or find ourselves depressed as we jump from one thing to another thinking that the next relationship, a little more money, a few more friends, another car, a different hobby, an extra purse, or earning a new title will give us everything our hearts are crying out for. The thing is, this plague called sin made our appetite for fulfillment so ravenous that it has forced us to search out satisfaction until it is met. The problem is that the type of satisfaction we can obtain can only come at the ultimate price, the priceless life of an eternal King who chose to humble himself as a sacrifice for his rebellious subjects. There is no sacrifice that could satisfy the brokenness that existed in the severed relationship between God and humanity except the sacrifice of God Himself. This, as we who have read the Bible know, came through Christ (God the Son) being severed from a perfect relationship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Throughout all of eternity existed a perfect unity between the three, all of whom are equally and fully God. As Christ was severed from God, he crossed over a barren desert to rescue us from the eternal thirst we had and quenched it as we returned to Him. Genesis, is the story of what the Father went through.

After the fall, and the continued rebellion of humanity against God, God knew that there would be nothing that humanity could do to once again be restored to Him unless if He came 100% of the way to us. We learn elements of what God the Father had to endure through the picture he painted with the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Abram, who later become known as Abraham is one of the most well known figures in history. His story about how he was called by God to father the nations and how he was given a son at the age of 100, an age far beyond the years of reproduction and child rearing. After receiving a son, we see that God tells Abraham to kill him. Of course as we continue to read, we see that Abraham is stopped as he is about to, but what was that about?

Isaac, we know, had to learn a tough lesson early on as he probably lived with the image of his father trying to kill him. Must've been traumatic. He married Rebekah and almost got conned by Laban, who was actually his cousin's child. He clearly favored Esau his first born as his wife Rebekah favored the younger, Jacob. But apart from a close call with Abimelech, we really don't see much happening through the life of Isaac except for an experience with flourishing.

Jacob was michevious an opportunist at heart. Early on, he got his brother Esau to sell his birthright in exchange for a bowl of food. Then he stole the blessing by disguising himself as his brother. Then he served Laban, who this time succeeded in the con, by getting 14 years of labor from Jacob in exchange for his two daughters Leah and Rachel. Through a series of birthing competitions, they had 12 children between the two of them and their servants, a cause of much tension in the family. One of their children was Joseph, whom most of contemporary culture knows as the boy with the technicolor dreamcoat.

So what is it about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that is so significantly intertwined with the Gospel? I think that their lives depict the very heart of God as a process that God had to engage in, in order to release His Son Jesus to be slaughtered so that we may live for eternity with Him. In Abraham, we see that as Abraham learned what it meant to be willing to give up his son Isaac, that God had to first be willing to give up His Son Jesus for us as a sacrifice.

In Isaac, we see that Isaac had to esteem the younger above the older. We are the younger brother, and in no way, do we deserve the inheritence that was Christ's. However, as in the story of the prodigal son, we notice that in order for the younger to be restored, the elder had to give up a portion of his inheritence. For us, though, Christ had to give up everything in order that we may be able to gain what He had and to share in the kingdom with Him. God says in the Bible that "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." This has thrown, and continues to throw people off as one of those things we have to learn to simply accept. Until now, it has been a great source of frustration for me in my own theology to reconcile what it would mean for God to hate His own creation. When I examined this further, my attention was brought to how Jesus said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." Clearly, God calls us not to hate, but to love. But He always calls us to prioritize our love. That is why a husband or wife takes precedence over all other earthly relationships, because it depicts the relationship closest to that of Christ and the church. So when it was said that God loved Jacob and hated Esau, it was a deliberate choice to elevate the less valuable son to the level of most valuable. This was the only way God could give up His Son as a ransom for our sins.

As Abraham had to experience what it meant to be willing to give up his son, and Isaac had to experience what it meant to "hate" the more valuable son so that the less valuable son could be loved, we learn that Jacob actually had to experience what it meant to lose his son. For Jacob, there really was only one son, Joseph. Sure, he loved them all, but he most loved Joseph, as is demonstrated through the coat that was given to him. This coat was significant because it displayed the position of Joseph as a signet ring or a crown would in Medieval times. As Jacob loved Joseph, he was stripped and sold off into slavery in Egypt. We learn that God had greater purposes through this horrible experience which include Joseph's development as a leader, but more importantly as a humble servant of God, and eventually as the savior of Jacob's clan as he was charged with managing the harvest of the land during a famine and could provide them with food. But we must not forget that the experience of Jacob was one of complete agony and pain as his prized and precious son was stripped from him. This is what God the Father must've known He would experience as Jesus would be stripped from Him.

The beauty of the Gospel is that it is indeed good news. That means that what we hear and what we experience through it is a work that goes beyond what we only see in the here and now. That what we see extends beyond our past and present into a reality far greater in the future. What we see portrayed through the life of Jacob is that Joseph is restored to him after he completes his mission to save the world from a brutal famine. This is the truth that is illustrated for us: we are all in a famine. We may not realize it the implications of how severe this famine is, but God has made a way for us to be able to live through it, and not just live, but to thrive. As the world turned to Joseph during the time of the famine in his days, he was able to provide them with food that would bring them life. As we come to Jesus, we see that there is salvation from this famine we are experiencing, and that is the message of the Gospel - that God so loved the world, He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Lessons from Almost Dying: Free Diving then Climbing up a Cliff

HOPE + FAITH -> MISSION
-----------------------------------

LOVE

Anyone who has been in a major accident knows what I am talking about. So do those who have faced life-threatening circumstances where every odd was stacked against them. My experience isn't really all that unique, except I think that what I learned from it is extremely enlightening. This is the story of how I should've died, but didn't, and what I learned through the experience.

The day started off nicely. I snoozed my alarm 4 times before actually getting up, then spent some quiet time with God - always a good day when you begin the day with the person who loves you the most. I prayed for a while, and then got ready to meet my friend Erik (think Asian Survivorman meets Emeril Lagasse) who was going to take me free diving in Palos Verdes.

When I walked outside, the brisk weather made me question whether I should go in the water that day even with a wetsuit on. I started my car and my dad called me to pray for me, something he does when I travel, but not something he does when I am just running around LA for the day. I prayed with him and arrived at Erik’s place by 9am to find that we are taking a slow morning. I ate some hard-boiled eggs and cereal with granola at his house and we headed out. We stopped by a store to rent a wetsuit and diving equipment for myself and buy a fishing license.

When we arrived at our dive spot, we checked the spear guns to find that one of the bands on one was worn out and the trigger on the other was busted. We only had one gun now between the two of us. Then, we headed down a hidden trail about 300 feet to the bottom of the bluffs.

When we arrived at the bottom, Erik noticed that his wetsuit had completely split apart at the seams around his crotch area leaving his family jewels fully exposed. We contemplated returning, but he had a strap called a beaver tail that covered the exposed area. As I put my hood on, I noticed my circulation was significantly constricted, but since this was the first time I dove in cold water, I thought it was normal. I felt like I should pray for the day, so I said a quick prayer with Erik asking God to prevent the waters from overcoming us and to allow us to see his creation in a new light.

The water was murky with a visibility of about 5-7 feet. On our way out, there was an army of purple sea urchins – catch and eat the red and black ones, not the purple ones – that greeted you with warnings to stay away. My fins were only good for calm waters, not for choppy ones, and I was struggling to keep up with him as we got out 100 yards from the shore. On top of that, I was only given 10 pounds of weight, which didn’t allow for me to dive further than 7-10 feet below the water’s surface, which meant that I was practically an invalid as a spear fisherman that day. I tried my best to make the most of what I had, but after an hour, I decided that the day was unsuccessful so I told my friend that I was going to wait on shore for him and told him to catch something delicious for us to eat that night. He ended up catching a kelp rockfish that he pan-fried and six sea urchins (4 red and 2 black) that he made uni pasta with – delicious.

The Palos Verdes bluffs are like a series of coves – similar to Big Sur in many ways. They are crescent shaped plateaus that overlook the Pacific Ocean on the south side of Palos Verdes. The area we dove is made up of about 8-10 rocky coves that without shoes, is extremely difficult to navigate around. We started off on the third cove from the right. I thought we had swum to the second cove from the right, but we didn’t, so I passed the cove we started off at when I headed back. The problem is, the only two trails up and down these monstrous 300-foot bluffs were at the first and third coves from the right. I found myself being tossed and turned like laundry as I neared the shore. Because I was at a different cove than the one we had started from, I miscalculated the positions of all the reefs along with their spiny sea urchin friends. As the waves crashed down and tried to find their way to shore through the spaces between the reefs, I was simply an object to get through. Fortunately, as I bumped into two reefs with a cramped left calf, and low oxygen levels because of the hood on my head, none of the sea urchin’s spines penetrated through the wetsuit. When I made it ashore, I immediately took off the hood, unzipped my wetsuit and just sat for 10 minutes to allow my blood to circulate again.

I started to look around for our things and the trail as I started to feel normal, but everything looked different. First of all, the trail was gone. Second of all, I couldn’t see our bags and shoes anywhere. So I was standing there just scanning the entire cove for our things with a wetsuit, snorkel, knife, and 10 pounds of weight in my hands trying to figure out where our things could be. At first, I thought someone had stolen our things because we ran into ONE person as we headed down the trail to the cove. After thinking about it a little more, I assumed that we swam a little further than I had thought – since we were in the water for about an hour together and it took me only 15 minutes to get back to shore – so I decided to walk over to the next cove.

The rocks on these coves are not made of pillows and cotton candy. They are randomly placed and are no friend to bare feet. Add a cramped calf, a strained knee from hiking, 20 pounds of equipment, and a blazing sun to the equation and you have a recipe for misery. Trying to keep balance as I hopped from rock to rock with nothing, but 3mm neoprene socks on (which I am grateful that I had because it absorbed all the cuts my feet should’ve gotten), was miserable. Each cove is between 100-200 yards, which almost every football player could easily run in less than a minute on turf. But barefooted, with imbalanced equipment, it took me about 20-30 minutes to get from cove to cove. Add to that the even greater challenge of actually making it past each v-shaped point that connects one cove to the next, as you have to either climb boulders or get back in the cold water. I walked 5 coves, then came back one to make for a grand total of six – something to the likes of 800 yards or so.

HOPE

As I approached the end of one cove to anticipate the next one, which I thought would be the cove that had my 1. shoes and 2. exit route, I realized that something very real was going on in my soul. The first cove was difficult, but my assumption was that just around that cove would be the trail that would lead to my salvation. I sang praise songs, thanking God I was even alive as I realized how constricted my circulation actually was, assuming that just around the corner would be my place of rest. After walking a hundred yards to the end of the cove and turning the corner, I was elated to see what looked like our bags. However, when I looked upward, I did not see the trailhead as these bluffs we’re a straight shot up. I thought maybe the trail could only be seen from certain angles. When I approached what I thought were our bags from afar, I realized that it was a dark rock in the shape of a duffel bag. I thought to myself, maybe I really did swim a lot further than I had thought to begin with and continued my trek to the next cove.

The entire way, I kept asking God to help my feet from hurting and slipping – both prayers that he didn’t answer. In fact, the neoprene socks, were now full of holes from walking on the rocks. As I made it to the next cove, one painful step after the next, I was discouraged to find that there was a sewage pipe in this cove. This meant that I was not yet at the cove we launched out of. I felt like everything I had hoped for was just destroyed. I was certain that our bags and the trail was going to be at this cove, and instead, was discouraged to realize that it wasn’t. I asked God over and over how I could bring Him glory in circumstances like these and my thoughts narrowed down to two: 1. If Jesus were my hope, then I would be ok losing my life today, and 2. If Jesus were my hope, then I would be filled with peace and joy. I stopped, stared out at the beautiful ocean and simply asked God to help me to embrace the truth of the Gospel. I tried calling up to the people walking along the tops of the bluffs, but they could not hear me and even if they saw me, they ignored me because my spastic arm waving was incoherent to them. This entire process of hope to disappointment repeated to the next three coves. My feet hurt more and more, the exhaustion from being hungry made each step harder to take and balance almost an impossible thing, and the sun setting made me wonder if the water would consume the coves at high tide (they don’t). I started to plan for a night in the coves as no one had found me after 2.5 hours of being missing. I knew I could sleep with my wetsuit on and stay warm through the night so I debated if I should put it on then, but realized that I would dehydrate from all the sweating as the sun was still out. It was about 4pm.

I didn’t actually think I was going to die, but I had no idea if I would really live. I didn’t know if Erik had died himself, or if he had been looking for me and couldn’t find me. I didn’t know if the helicopter I saw twice was a rescue helicopter and they just couldn’t see me. I simply didn’t know. My hope was placed in finding a way back up so that I could live, but around every cove, that hope kept getting demolished.

To be honest, when you are that exhausted and in that much pain, you want to give up. A part of me was ready to go to Jesus, but not because I was in despair and hated life. There are situations – usually where there is injustice and oppression – that people are justified in their despair and hatred of living. I didn’t have anyone pointing a gun at me, I was not enslaved, I was not fearful that someone was out to get me, and by no means do I equate my experiences to that, but I simply felt ok with the idea of death. Sure, I was utterly exhausted because by the time I had reached the fifth cove, it was 4pm. I only had a bowl of cereal and a couple of eggs in the morning, and with the sun blaring down at me, my energy levels had depleted to next to nothing. But I sat there for a 20 minutes asking God if it was my time to go. This last year with God has been the most incredible yet. It’s almost like the aftermath of what people experience during retreats and Christian conferences, but sustained for a much longer duration. I compare it to getting plugged in. If Christians are all called to reflect the light of God to others, then the only way we can function as lamps is if we are plugged into the power source. No lamp can generate power itself, and batteries can only last so long. We must completely rely on a power source that is greater than us in every way. This experience of being plugged in has revolutionized the way I experience life.

This is what I felt God was teaching me. How I react and respond to things matter, that in every circumstance, I could place my hope in God, or I could place my hope in anything else (including myself, my family, my skills, my social networks, my career, my resources, etc.). God was showing me that if I became disappointed, fell into despair, wanted to give up, or got angry because I wasn’t getting what I wanted, that my hope was not in Him, but in something else. I think we all do this in varying degrees with relationships, careers, success, and reputation. It becomes difficult however, when your life is on the line and you need God to help you get through the challenge. Through my diminishing hope around each cove, I experienced a little more of what it meant to place my primary hope in Jesus. When I got to the fifth cove, I contemplated on going to the next one, but instead, sat on a rock to think and pray. At this point, I was almost certain that I had swum further than I should have and passed the cove that the trail and my glorious Teva’s (sandals) were on. However, I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure and debated rounding just one more cove to be certain. I passed a lighthouse and was now certain that my salvation from this mess was now six coves behind me. I had to make a decision.

I didn’t want to put the wetsuit back on as it really made it difficult for me to breath and with the exhaustion and low levels of energy, didn’t think that I could swim against the current with limited circulation. My feet were murderous as I agonized over each step trying to find ways to ease the pain, sometimes going fast and falling and at other times taking it slow to allow the pain to really work its way into all parts of my feet. I asked God to give me strength, and began to head back, but this time, I didn’t feel hopeless. I felt that everything was okay the moment I surrendered my desire to find a way out to God and allowed Jesus’ reality to define my own. I honestly wanted to just sit there until the coast guard picked me up because I remembered this one joke about how a woman refused the help of a neighbor who warned her of a coming flood, a man in a boat escaping the flood, and the coast guard who came to rescue her as she was standing on the roof because she only wanted to be saved by God. When she went to heaven and asked God why He didn’t rescue her, He told her that He sent the neighbor, the man in the boat, and the Coast Guard, but she refused His warning/help every single time. I was okay waiting for the Coast Guard because I wouldn’t deny them if they came. I was at a place where peace filled my heart and joy began to flow through my veins. It came in the form of being restful in soul, but understanding that I could exhaust myself to the end and I would be just fine as it would bring glory to God through my short time on this Earth. My hope was no longer in living, but in the fact that I have already received eternal life. This allowed me to look beyond my physical pains, my exhaustion, my wants, and my struggles. This allowed me to be filled with the hope of Christ when I honestly felt like there was no hope in the world – even if I thought the Coast Guard would probably show up at some point.

FAITH

I felt like I was being a bit selfish and putting God to the test expecting Him to send the Coast Guard for me, so I looked around to see if there was another way out, even though it would be a bit more challenging. I double backed one cove to analyze the cliffs. This one wasn’t a 90-degree straight shot up. It was more like a 70-80 degree incline the entire way up. I calculated what seemed to be the shorted distance up – still about 300 feet – and the pathway with the most angles to be able to leverage myself upwards. I was not going to attempt to be Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 1, 2, 3, or 4. The first 20 feet were fairly easy and I thought I was making good progress until every rock and protruding surface I grabbed onto either fell downwards or crumbled in my hands. At this point, I was determined to go up, praying to God every single second for help, while thanking God for the great lesson of singular hope in Christ I had just learned.

With every movement, I had to wedge by body against the surface of the hill, burrow my feet into the clay like terrain, apply pressure to every limb on my body, and keep moving forward. As I made it to 50 feet, I was breathing in entire clouds of dust that I kept kicking up as I tried to grab for a branch that would break off or a rock that would fall loose. Around my waist was an extra 10 pounds of weight, with fins, a snorkel and a knife in one hand, and my wetsuit tied around my neck like a person I was piggybacking would.

In my pathway, I encountered, tree branches that had broken off and somehow gotten lodged in the dirt, loose gravel, and an endless supply of twigs. There were two areas which I could only use my arms to climb with absolutely no certainty that it wouldn’t crumble as I clenched onto it at 60 feet, then again at 280 feet. I was sweating profusely, and the dust started to cake around my face and then run into my eyes as I kept climbing. I felt like I was climbing a sand mountain in the middle of a dust storm.

The incredible thing along the way was that as the majority of branches and rocks I grabbed onto kept breaking off or loose, there was always one that I could rely on. I spent a lot of time during each movement upwards to test and re-test the strength of every upward step I would take and as much as I was disappointed that the rocks and branches that seemed the most sturdy and stable were actually the flimsiest and loosest, I found great joy in knowing that there was at least one I could rely on. Just after learning about hope, I was now learning about faith.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, frequently states that it isn’t the strength of our faith that saves us, but the strength of the object of our faith that saves us. He uses the analogy of someone falling off a cliff – how ironic – and seeing a branch and grabbing onto the branch. He says that if the branch is weak, then no matter how much you hope and wish for that branch to be able to save you, it cannot. If you grab onto it, it will simply break and you will plunge to your death with a broken branch in your hand. However, if the branch is strong, then no matter how certain or uncertain you are of that branch being able to hold your weight, by simply reaching out and grabbing onto it, it will hold you up. I experienced this first hand grabbing onto rocks that fell loose, jutting surfaces that crumbled in my hands like sand being poured between my fingers, and literal branches and even entire bushes that broke loose because they were not rooted deeply enough. However, as I kept trying, I kept finding the one branch, the one rock, and the one surface that could hold me up, even during the times that I had absolutely no faith that it would. In fact, there were three times I lost my balance and almost slipped to fall back and grab onto a protruding rock that stayed lodged in and a branch no thicker than an inch in diameter that didn’t break from the tree. I knew that as long as I grabbed onto something that was able to hold me up, that I would be fine. What I didn’t know was, what would actually hold me up?

As I started getting to the last 50 feet I started to see patterns in the rocks, branches, and surface areas that were reliable to hold me up. I didn’t have to test every surface area as I was able to make snap judgments based on my former experiences as I was climbing. Instead, I could simply look for the indicators of a reliable rock or branch. When I was in Panama with the Peace Corps, I went hiking with some of the people in my village who were about my age. One time, we went on a 7-hour hike to a waterfall through one of the muddiest areas I’ve ever been. Later, I found out that it was actually not mud, but a mixture of mud and cow poo because there were a ton of cows. I fell face first into it as my rubber boots got stuck and I fell thigh deep into it, but that’s a different story for a different time. This was all unfamiliar terrain for me. I had never hiked in mud, especially mud that acted like quick sand. As we started the hike, everyone, even the 13-year-old girl that tagged along was faster than me. They simply didn’t sink into the mud poop like I did. They had learned at an early age which spots they could step on so not to sink that they glided across the terrain like Kim Yu Na skates across the ice. Not me. Every three or four steps, I was knee deep in crap (literally). However, after a while, I started to see which dry areas were credulous for me to put my weight on and which ones were deceiving. I made it to the waterfall, rinsed off like it was the most glorious shower I’d ever taken, and then headed back. Because I became familiar with the terrain, I made it back faster than everyone except one guy who I needed the help of to navigate home – otherwise, I would’ve been lost.

This experience made real to me that faith is really minimally about us. It is actually about the thing we place our faith in. This makes sense if we come to grips that all things are created for the glory of God and sin is the act of taking that glory and attributing it to yourself or to something else besides Him. It’s easy to think that our faith is the thing that saves us, but it’s really just a means by which grace is dispensed to us. Faith then, is something for us not to boast about, but to remain humble in. The minute I started to believe that I could hoist myself up on a rock was the minute I lost my balance and the rock fell loose. No matter how well I positioned myself and no matter how strong I was, if I placed my faith in my own abilities then the Coast Guard would have scraped me up from the base of the cliff. If I didn’t respect the rock that could hold me up, then I wouldn’t be able to humbly submit to it.

I know a lot of people that think they do these great things for God because of their great faith. They quote Hebrews 11 and scour through the Old Testament for stories that would validate their claims. This is dangerous because God becomes a means to a different end. Truly honoring God comes in the form of great humility, something I am still being worked on, which only comes from seeing that it is His grace that allows us to have faith to begin with. The beauty of faith is that it is the substance that makes up our relationship with God. It is, in other words, our way of saying Thank You to the God who saved us. It is a response to something He did on the cross for us. It is trusting that there is no greater hope than the hope He offers.

MISSION

When I neared the top of the cliff, I was faced with a major challenge. My head was less than 5 feet from the top; however, the only way up was to completely rely on a branch to hold me up. The edge of the cliff crumbled in my hands every time I put a little pressure on it. Below me was a near vertical decline of 80 degrees that if I slipped now, would plunge me to my death. I needed to either trust in a branch that seemed reliable based on the measures I had learned throughout this journey, or turn back without any certainty that I would survive. I threw everything I was carrying atop the ledge with my wetsuit almost falling back twice. I nearly lost my balance and almost fell with it. Fortunately, I was lodged in deeply enough to the dirt that it held me in place.

If I grabbed the branch with all my weight, which I would have to do in order to use it to climb up like a rope, it meant that if it broke, I would fall back, but if it didn’t I would’ve put my life in the hands of a branchy bush. Of course, since you are reading this, you know that the branch was able to support me and I survived, but to be honest, as I grabbed onto it with two hands and completely depended on it for 20 seconds, I spent 18 of those seconds praying for those I loved and asking God to console them if I died. Fortunately, the object of my absolutely weak faith was strong enough to bring me to safety.

As I made it up and put my arms on the last ledge to climb over, I saw something that baffled me: people. Standing there by a whale watching station only 15 feet away were 30-40 people who were staring at me like I was Sponge Bob Square Pants - dirt made me even more yellow and all the scratches put a few holes in me. As they stared, I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t come to help me. I clearly needed it, and as I threw things over, they knew someone was trying to make it up the cliff where a sign about how dangerous it was, was posted. When I was contemplating holding onto the final branch that brought me to safety, I threw a snorkel set, two fins, a pair of gloves, a knife in its holster, a wetsuit, and weights; there was no way they didn’t see these things plop onto the pathway like fish jumping out of the water. But they all just stared, not one person asking me if I was ok as I was scratched up, dusty, and bleeding at the knees. I felt like instead of whale watching, they were Ray watching and I was unlike anything they had seen in their lives.

When I walked away abashed, I was speechless, yet enlightened by how their posture and expressions were very much like mine in my own faith. How often do I walk around ignoring all the signs that people are lonely, hurt, in need of help or a friend, struggling to provide a meal for a friend, needing support to fight an addiction, or just in need of someone to show them that they care? I walk by so many people on the streets of Los Angeles, and when I am in Chicago or New York or San Francisco, the same is true there. I wonder what would happen if I started to look for signs in them that demonstrate the desperation for some good news to break into. I wonder what would happen if I stopped seeing rude people and annoying people as nuisances or menaces and instead saw the place of pain they were coming from. I wonder what would happen if I simply decided to become even more inefficient with my life, to throw my schedule aside so that I could help the wounded person on the side of the road who smelled and was cursing away at everyone because they kept on passing him by. I wonder what would happen if all of us who call ourselves Christians did that once a year, once a month, or even daily. I wonder what would happen if people saw my hurt and my pain when I feel far from God because I chose to believe that something else would complete me. I can’t help but imagine how the world would then begin to see that Christians are not the problem, but they bring the solution, which isn’t simply justice or provisions, but something so much greater: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

LOVE

This Gospel is not advice about how we can become better people. It is not a series of steps you can take to become more liked by people, or more successful in life. It also is not a manual for how we should live our lives so that we can gain a status in this world that makes us respected or admired, or people worth taking note of. The Gospel is the news about a God who loved us so much that he gave up the thing He most loved so that we could experience that love for ourselves. It is the news that what we once had with God, which was peace, acceptance, joy, and intimacy could be fully restored free of charge to us because He paid the bill himself. The only thing required by us is that He actually took care of the bill.

Jesus came down, relinquishing all that He had so that He could make our reality His own. This is love. Jesus came down, replacing all we deserved and took it upon Himself so that He could give us all that He gave up. This is love. Jesus came down, relinquishing his title as King to become a pauper so that He could make us heirs to His Kingdom. This is love. Jesus came down to give up His life as a ransom for our own so that we may live with Him throughout all eternity. This is love. Jesus came down forsaking a perfect state of existence and unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit so that we would never be forsaken. This is love.

Love is the foundation for everything worthwhile. Apart from love, nothing is of any real value. Love should transform the way we spend our time, spend our money, and spend our energy. It should motivate us to serve people not to fix them, but to show them the beauty of Christ as we come to see it. It should fuel our lives in a way that gives us vigor to live and to share life with others. It should help us to forgive fully, seek always to understand, and to seek justice around every corner. As God is love, we must never depart from Him. In Him, we look to the pains of others and carry them ourselves. In Him, we withhold condemnation and judgment on others. In Him, we look to find ways to demonstrate love and to serve those around us. In Him, we are always humble, empathetic, and aware of our utter weakness.

Without love, faith and hope would be self-help tools to get me from one destination to the next. These tools would one day become dull, as they would never allow me to realize that I have everything that I could ever need from the very place I am standing; and that is love. It is because of love that living life brings joy and the idea of death has no sting whatsoever. It is because of love that we can celebrate in times of plenty and in times of poverty, in times when we have many friends and in times when we have none, in circumstances where injustice is being done to us and in circumstances we are being condemned – it is because of the love of Jesus Christ, demonstrated on the cross, that we can find freedom from every circumstance of this world. The question is, will you choose to believe it and keep believing it?