Six Questions to Start the New Year

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There is a memorable line in The Shawshank Redemption that movie buffs quote regularly. At one point during a prison yard conversation, inmate Andy Dufresne says to Red” Redding, “Get busy living or get busy dying”. This statement becomes a key theme throughout the rest of the movie. It’s a great reminder to people that there really is no sense in which a person can put life on hold. For the Christian, even in the midst of hard situations, it’s imperative that we look for gracious opportunities to grow in sanctification.

With that said, here are some self-reflective questions that might help you get on the path of getting busy living life that has an eternal quality (John 10:10). In many ways, these questions reflect the heart of a person who follows Christ intently and not as “part of the crowd”.

1. “In what area of my life do I need to grow in wisdom?” (God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life by Timothy and Kathy Keller). I would recommend starting Keller’s year-long devotional book as a way to “get wisdom, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5). All of us could use a bit more wisdom, with Jesus as the ultimate embodiment of wisdom (Col. 2:3).

2. What is one thing I can learn about the gospel in a fresh new way? How can Jesus become more real to me in my everyday life? We never get beyond the gospel. It’s something that is quite easy to understand yet it will take us our entire lives to reflect on both its beauty and complexity, noticing just how nuanced the good news to us really is. The more you think you are past the gospel and cease to wonder, the more you need to awaken to the fact that you missed something.

3. What is one spiritual practice that I can adopt as a “rhythm” or a “regimen”? A rhythm in the Christian life would be something done repeatedly daily or weekly as a natural rhythm (e.g. morning devotion or joining a Life Group). On the other hand, a regimen would be a spiritual practice done intensely for a short period of time (e.g. fasting, solitude or simplicity). If there is not some natural spiritual rhythm to your life (and I’m not counting, “I just go to church on Sunday morning”) then 2018 is a time to start by taking small steps. But for those of you who already have a natural spiritual rhythm to your life, it might be time to up the ante a bit. Remember all spiritual practices are a way to get you to the end of you and your power so in your weakness you rely more on God’s strength; to get you out of your comfort. As my friend Purity Nyamu wrote recently, “His abundance and my emptiness are a perfect match. I am designed to have no sufficiency on my own.”

4. Where is my life too comfortable and in what ways do I need to “lean into” faith in Christ in greater ways? A short word here. The default mode of our hearts is always to coast or to put our spiritual life on hold. Look at the number of justifications we offer why something would be “too hard” or “it’s not my calling” as a way to defer and deflect. In many ways, while my suburban life is pleasant, it can lead to a Christian faith that is nice and safe, without challenge. Jesus becomes something more like a cul-de-sac God than one who invites us into a life that feels unsafe. The issue for most of us isn’t toning down our faith because we are too “radical”. Our issue is that we don’t take the gospel seriously enough as it consistently should take us out of what’s safe and comfortable by challenging the status quo.

5. What is one topic I can learn more about? Take a topic in theology and spend a month reading, studying, and thinking more deeply than before. Or take an issue that connects to your faith, say, the wide divide between the races. Ask for suggestions of a book to read and go at it. You might find that the topic is more complex than you originally thought!

6. What is one vice (a habit or attitude of the heart that given the right conditions seems to consistently “leak” out of you) you can identify and begin the process of rooting out the sin that is really underneath the sin? Let’s face it, all of our behavioral sin has something ugly underneath it all. Where many bible teachers go wrong is they focus simply on the behavior without addressing anything that’s going on in the heart. Thomas a Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ, “Let us lay axe to the root, so that being purged of unruly passions we may have peace of mind. If every year we uprooted a single fault [vice], we should soon become perfect [mature]” (Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, translated by William Creasy). This is a great place to begin in prayer and then continue in conversation with a good friend who can offer a wise way to move forward. Remember that what we are aiming at is character transformation in us and not behavior modification.

These are just a few questions but hopefully it provides a great start to 2018 as you think about what God wants to do in you and through you! Solia Dei Gloria!

Do Dogs Go To Heaven?

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c & stormie copy.jpgThis Christmas morning I stood at the window looking out this beautiful sunny day with newly fallen snow and I had tears in my eyes. This weekend we had to put our family dog, Stormie, to sleep. It’s a brutal way for the family to spend Christmas but he was ready and it was time to say goodbye. In many ways, the house has been quieter without him. I’ve wondered if it’s crazy to feel so attached to a dog and to treat him as a part of the family but maybe writing this out will be a kind of therapy.

IMG_0005.jpgIt seems like a culturally western thing but it’s really amazing how dogs are a special gift from God. You bond with them in such a way that they really are a part of your life and all the traditions you have. In the story of our lives Stormie seemed to be this underlying consistency in the ups and downs of our life narrative. It was as if you could have the worst day in the world and for Stormie, this really was what the world was like – lots of kisses, snuggling, let’s play, and it’s time for a nap.

“Remember the time when Stormie…” was a constant thread in our family conversations. After hard days when the world was spinning off its axis, he greeted you at the door baring his teeth to give you his Aussie “smile”. When we were relocating to the Midwest and pulled into the hotel in Las Vegas, he was so excited to be in the room that he ran around and jumped up and down on both beds. Eventually he chose a bed to sleep on and let Chris share it with him.

IMG_0072When we were heading up to Milwaukee for Justin and Abby’s wedding a few years ago, Stormie bolted out the door and jumped right into the driver’s seat. It was as if he was saying, “I’m part of the family too!” It took us quite awhile to coax him out of the car and I think he was mad at us for being left behind (he would pee on one of the beds to punish us).

Or the time when we took him out to the high desert in California to test his herding instinct. He was put in a pen with three sheep and a border collie. As the sheep nervously bleated with this new “intruder” in their space, Stormie seemed more interested in the collie than he was with the sheep. After running around for awhile, Stormie jumped over the border collie and all of a sudden his herding instinct kicked in as he circled around the sheep. When one broke off, Stormie would go chase it back to the other two then circle around the other way. All I remember hearing is my boys proudly announcing, “That’s our dog!!” We knew he had it in him as he would often “herd” the boys nipping at them from behind leaving holes in their t-shirts.

IMG_0118.jpgThe last few months it was clear he was getting old but it never occurred to us how quickly his health would decline. His back legs had been giving out probably riddled with arthritic pain making it harder and harder for him to stand. On Saturday he just got tired of struggling to get up and it seemed like he knew it was time. The boys were home so we gathered in the kitchen to talk about it and we all agreed that it would be selfish for us to ignore reality. Stormie left quietly and peacefully with no struggle. It was if his face told us that he had finished what he came to accomplish in our family.

The last gift Stormie has given us (besides all the dog hair around the house) is learning how to grieve well. In all of this I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a family member. A dog is one thing but to lose a family member must be so terribly frightening that it immobilizes a person. When C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer, he wrote in A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” At times I have felt like throwing up and the realization of little things like leaving a light on at night or getting ready to feed him often leave me feeling strangely sad and lonely wondering if there’s enough grace for tomorrow.

I have thought about the theological possibility of dogs existing in heaven. I had a respected philosophy professor in seminary who believed this to be true based on a dog’s soul and the imagery we are given of animals in the new creation. I tend to agree and I’d like to think as well that eternal life with the Triune God will be the fulfillment of our happiest memories in this life with Him at the center. Sometimes all we are left with are memories of what we lose in this life but maybe God gives us even these as gifts to hold on to an eternal hope.

IMG_0097.jpgStormie & Me.jpg

 

Did God Really Forbid Interracial Marriage in the Old Testament?

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It’s hard to believe that fifty years ago it was illegal to marry interracially in some parts of the U.S. The landmark case Loving v. State of Virginia, rightfully connected miscegeny (marriage across races) to a continued establishment of white supremacy1. All of this is important to me not only because of the ethics but also because in some states, my marriage to Kay might not have been possible.

If one does a cursory reading of the Bible a few strange things appear. On one hand, it seems as though God is committed to bless the entire world. In Exodus, Moses married a Cushite, an Ethiopian. Miriam seemed really concerned (Num.12:1) that her brother was marrying someone with “darker skin”, and for that God judged her with leprosy. Rahab, a Canaanite, is included in the “Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11) and is actually included in the ancestry of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5).

Yet, on the other hand, we read Deuteronomy 7:3-4, which seemingly bans interracial marriage being used by some who desperately want to keep white culture pure.

You shall not intermarry with [the nations]; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you. (NIV)

This can be either a strong view which calls for complete separation as a way to purity or a weaker view which says, “Well, it’s better for their culture that those people stick to their own kind.” A good example of this was Bob Jones University which affirmed that the gospel is for the entire world yet in the same breath disallowed interracial dating a mere seventeen years ago!

Does the Bible prohibit marriage across racial lines? Can we affirm that in the Old Testament Yahweh warned Israel about marrying people outside of Israel’s boundaries because that would pollute racial purity? It seems very odd that in certain places the gospel seems to cross racial boundaries yet at the same time God calls for racial purity.

It’s best to see God’s warning as pertaining to religious devotion rather than racial purity. In other words, the point of the Old Testament warnings were to not to create a supreme racial/religious group but rather to protect God’s people from drifting religiously toward idols. So as John Piper wrote, “The issue is: Will there be one common allegiance to the true God in this marriage or will there be divided affections?’2” This also captures the New Testament exhortations to believers that marrying someone who is not “in Christ” (1 Cor. 7:39) and an active follower of Christ is only asking for problems (2 Cor. 6:14-15).

When Jesus brought His Kingdom all the conventional values were turned on their head. It’s the religious insiders who are really in trouble. How do you become rich? By declaring your poverty before God. How do you become strong? By embracing your weakness. How do you get a greater sense of self? By being humble. Who really gets included as those whom God loves and is committed to? Anyone who embraces Christ, regardless of their skin color, gender, and socio-economic status is welcomed into God’s family. In many ways, the visible church then is to picture this to a world that still seems to get stuck on differences.

1 I would encourage everyone to listen to NPR’s story this past week,“50 Years Later, ‘Loving’ Revisits The Landmark Supreme Court Ruling” NPR Loving v. Virginia

2 John Piper, a href=”http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/racial-harmony-and-interracial-marriage”>Racial Harmony and Interracial Marriage

 

Resources on the Spiritual Discplines

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IMG_0262This is the last blog after last Sunday’s sermon. Some have asked me what are some good resources out there about the spiritual disciplines. Rather than giving you academic resources I’ve included more accesible resources.

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. A must have resource that not only describes the practice but offers some spiritual exercises that help “drive” the practice deeper than simply a bodily exercise. Calhoun also connects the action to a heart desire. Don’t be overwhelmed by the long list of disciplines nor should you approach them like a check list. Remember, you have a lifetime to practice!

Spiritual Disciplines for Life by Don Whitney. What’s outstanding about Whitney’s understanding of the disciplines is he connects real freedom that comes from the gospel to discipline – those who have disciplined themselves are most free. My only hesitation is I wish he had emphasized more that there is not a direct correlation between these spiritual practices and godliness (as if you do them and you will be godly). The fact that godly character will naturally come out of us as we “get on the highway” focusing our attention on the beauty of Christ, is apparent in later interviews and lectures he gave.

Habits of Grace by David Mathis. This is the newer book on the spiritual disciplines written by Mathis, who works for Desiring God Ministry. It’s a thoughful book that emphasizes not only our part but also God’s part in cultivating the fruit through His Spirit’s work. Where it succeeds in its practicality is he takes into account the multi-layered lives people are currently living and how we practice these disciplines.

Beloved Dust by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. Yes, I forgot this but while the focus is on prayer, there are connections to our devotional time in God’s Word as well as the practice of silence. I know these two and they are gospel-centered while focusing less on moral formation but formation by the Spirit of God. That is a very important distinction as many of these practices can be taught by appealing directly to people’s will to “just do them”.  My first Life Group read through this and I would say we would all agree our prayer life benefitted!

Here are a couple of harder reads. As JP Moreland would say, “It’s always good to throw a few high and tight fastballs to keep people honest.”

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. Truthfully, this is a book that you need to read with someone who can help you as a “guide”. It can be “thick” reading for some (I’ve had seminary students who had difficulty). That said, many of us look to the late Dr. Willard as the one who helped clear the fog in our thinking about what sanctification looks like in the Kingdom of God. From my experience, people get stuck with Willard’s anthropology (chapter 2 – The Heart in The System of Human Life) but reading the book is like sitting with your grandfather who turns out to be the wisest (and smartest) person you know.

Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Practices of Jonathan Edwards by Kyle Strobel. I wanted to list the book as pretty accessible but I’ve found that the theology of Jonathan Edwards and his practice is often difficult for people to fully take in.  This book will take some digesting on both ends of the theological spectrum. I wrote a note to myself in the beginning of the book that it will help those who are theologically minded to think more spiritually (the heart) and the spiritual formation fok to think more theologically.

 

Resources for Practicing Prayer

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During the sermon I promised to post some resources that have helped me cultivate some of the basic spiritual disciplines. There are so many good resources to aid us in our prayer life! You can find very practical books on prayer such as Philip Yancey’s Prayer: Does it Make a Difference and Bill Hybel’s Too Busy Not to Pray.  Let me share a few that I think are helpful – some are about developing a prayer life while others include actual prayers.

A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie. I’ve given some people the assignment of reading his prayers out loud in their devotion time for a week straight and the consensus is they are very helpful. First published in 1949 by the professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the book is filled with marvelous prayers that leaves one with a sense that written prayers can often unite the heart with God’s heart. There is a morning prayer and an evening prayer over a period of thirty one days.

A Praying Life: Connecting With God in a Distracting World by Paul Miller. If you struggle with a life without prayer, this is a great book to start with. What I absolutely loved about the book is it takes the idea of prayer and brings it down to our life in very practical ways.

Prayer by Timothy Keller. Really any book by Keller is outstanding because he takes differing ideas on subjects and finds what’s helpful in each then connects them to the gospel. What sets this book apart is Keller is the master at getting people to think about what prayer actually is. So while there is very practical application, it’s main thrust is to get people to contemplate what prayer is.

The Prayers of Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard. He tends to get a bit of a bad rap among Christian thinkers yet when you read his prayers you sense what we call “passion for God.” This collection of prayers by Perry D. LeFevre has been a staple in my devotional time for quiet awhile.

One last book that I didn’t have space in the photo (and I couldn’t find it) was Prayers From the Confessions by Father John Rotelle. We can learn something very important from early Christians as they wrote and then seamlessly broke into prayer. One example would be Anselm’s Proslogion, which was his reflection on the character of God. Before Anselm offers arguments for God’s existence, he breaks into a marvelous prayer! This is the same with Augustine’s Confessions which is his account of God’s faithfulness in the past, present, and hope for the future. He seems to be writing an account of his life and then it’s as if his mind can’t fathom God’s goodness to him as he breaks to pray! In fact, the whole book has rightly been called one long prayer. Rotelle has simply collected all of Augustine’s prayers in The Confessions and made them available to read.

The Interview with My Parents (Pt. 3 – Final)

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imagesFor two and a half years my parents endured the forced removal at their final destination, a Relocation Center called Heart Mountain in northwest Wyoming. In total, 14,025 Japanese were sent to Heart Mountain where weather conditions were extremely harsh – hot summers and brutally cold winters. Families shared a small barrack so privacy was non-existent (and some of you know how much Japanese value privacy). It’s good for people to try and get their arms around a forced relocation where you leave all your possessions behind. Initially you aren’t sure where you are going and for how long. Then you find out that you will live for an indefinite period in a location where even today there is not much human population. They, many of whom were American citizens, endured this for two and a half years…

My parents were young when they were shipped off so they did a lot of things kids normally do to keep busy. For my father it was sports and for my mother it was dance and flower arrangement, and in the winter it was an ice rink built out in back of the barrack. Over the three nights we spent talking about their experience, the word racism never came up. As I mentioned earlier my parents rarely spoke about their experience. For sure, it was probably related to shikata ga nai but some, I think, was related to the fact that they pieced life together once they returned. Evidently, a Caucasian friend of the family on my father’s side watched over my grandmother’s possessions until she returned from Heart Mountain. Others returned to find out they lost everything. I have often wondered if my parents didn’t complain much because they thought they didn’t have it as bad as others.

While many of my relatives are/were Buddhist, it was my paternal grandmother whose Christian faith heartmountain_a060-1x-akistood out. My parents told me that she was a Christian before she immigrated to the U.S. which is amazing in itself since the Protestant Christian population in Japan has been historically low.1 When she returned from Heart Mountain and found her home had been kept for her, she opened it up to Japanese families returning from relocation. Again, many people had lost everything so, despite the fear that she and others felt with racism still lingering, in Christian hospitality she invited others in when they didn’t have a place to stay.

One of the marks of the early church was the virtue of hospitality. However, in modern times the virtue has been relegated to some sort of Martha Stewart definition limited to decorating or entertaining people in your home. In most every instance the word or concept is used it refers to caring for strangers or the alienated person, the foreigner in need (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2). In fact, the word means “love of strangers”. The early church thought this was so important an outworking of the gospel that it’s listed as requirements for elders (Titus 1:8; 1 Timothy 3:2). So we’re clear, it’s easy to be hospitable to people we already know and are similar to. But biblically the word means something closer to inviting in the immigrant or foreigner, people that are different than you!

Some people might think, “I’m just not that kind of person that opens up my home.” What’s important to understand is the hospitality in opening one’s home is simply a picture of one’s heart. In reality, one can be a hospitable person without opening up their home. Hospitality is the Christian virtue of creating space in your heart to invite people into your life that are closer to the foreigner or immigrant or someone who doesn’t fit your close group of friends.

There seems to be this underlying fear currently surrounding people that are foreign. In adopting “Make America Great Again” it’s easy to forget how much of the contribution to greatness was from immigrants. Hospitality, as a Christian virtue, invites us to be courageous to lean into our fear of the “other” or “stranger”. The good news is that God had enough space in His heart to invite us in to an eternal kind of life through Christ. He was shunned and shut out for our good, that through Him we would embrace His invitation to come in to feast with the Trinitarian community for eternity. For us then to embrace hospitality is one of the best marks of how well we understand the gospel.

Footnotes:

1Estimates are the entirety of Christians in Japan currently less than 1% of the population. A very good article to read is Michael Hoffman’s article, “Christian Missionaries Find Japan A Tough Nut to Crack” at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/20/national/history/christian-missionaries-find-japan-tough-nut-crack/#.WKsoBxiZPMU

The Interview with My Parents (Pt. 2)

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c1fed30af4b9e22cd985c60a1695140dFebruary 19th marks 75 years since Executive Order 9066 was signed and enforced. Recently, I sat down with my parents in Los Angeles, to talk about how the EO affected them as second generation Japanese-American (Nissei). Discussions about internment were never a huge topic in our house growing up. I think my parents like many of their friends lived with a Japanese proverb, “Shikata ga nai (shee-kata-gah-nai). The meaning is something like, “What will you do?” or “It can’t be helped”, or “We just have to accept it”. Truthfully, it’s not the rational realization that we aren’t in as much control as we think, but it reflects a more stoic fatalism and a reluctance to speak up for fear of upsetting things. It’s only been in their later years that I’ve noticed a willingness to talk about it.

Over a three night period we talked about the events that led up to the roundup of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans only on the west coast of the U.S. What should shock people is that nearly 62% of these people were American citizens, some of whom had served valiantly in WW1. When the EO became law in February, the government needed time to build “camps” (notice how the word connotes something different than it really was). What shocked both Kay and I was when we lived in Phoenix we connected with a Japanese-American church. When we asked where were the Japanese-Americans in Phoenix sent, the answer was, “they didn’t go.” For some odd reason the government arbitrarily decided the dividing line was the railroad track that ran north and south through the city. Of course, everyone designated for internment who lived on the west side simply moved over to the east side.

My father was twelve and my mother was seven years old and living in Los Angeles at the time of the 71365-004-603b22b3EO. They remember family and friends having to get rid of everything. All you would be able to bring with you in internment were the clothes on your back and a few minimal possessions. Everything else either had to be sold or left in the possession of neighbors you thought you could trust. The problems were two-fold. First, people didn’t know where they were going or how long they would be gone. Second, who could be trusted to care for your possessions? People asked Caucasian friends to watch their property only to find out when they came back that those possessions were no longer theirs. Others sold their possessions for pennies on the dollar as some perceived this as “justice” for the enemy. My mother told me that her brother had just bought a new Chrysler and asked a friend to store it. When he returned from internment he found out it was no longer his…

Neighbors looked suspiciously at Japanese-Americans, often concerned that they were spies. Early on after EO 9066 was put into effect, Japanese people were required to register with the Department of Justice. My father remembers the FBI coming to their door asking for my grandfather who had died right before. Still they searched the house for anything that suspiciously looked treasonous. A doctor friend of my grandfather’s was taken in, interrogated, and beaten up to try and get “information.”

8f35a9cb186b8ae17a8f0c9c07d732e8Soon after my family was put on a train and sent to a temporary holding ground, a section of Pomona Fairgrounds surrounded by barbed wire fence. Other friends of my parents were sent to Santa Anita race track where families lived in horse stalls until the internment barracks could be built. My mother recalled families in crowded hastily built barracks with no running water or toilets. There were no beds so you had to make your own mattress out of straw.

Looking back on history I think it’s really easy to put yourself in the role of hero where you would have stepped in to love your neighbor. It’s easy to say to yourself, “I don’t see a person’s skin color”. But when in that place where fear and anger are whipped up, while there were white people who actually cared for my extended family, most either ignored what was going, or joined in, or maybe even worse, took advantage of people who suddenly were demonized. And trust me, we all see people’s skin color so let’s not buy into the clichè that somehow we have evolved into a colorblind society.

Who then is your neighbor? When Jesus told the story of the Samaritan who actually stopped to give aid (the unlikely “hero” of the story), it was meant as shock value to a people who were glad they weren’t born a Gentile. In his book, What Jesus Demands From the World, John Piper writes, “”When we are done trying to establish, ‘Is this my neighbor?’ — the decisive issue of love remains: What kind of person am I?” In other words, in trying to answer the first question you have to ask yourself another question – Are you the kind of the person who knows the Father’s love lavished on you that you would be able to recognize your neighbor and have your heart go out to them in compassion?