Sunday, December 28, 2014

My 33rd Christmas

      Why do we celebrate Christmas? Where do these holiday traditions come from?  Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus when the bible doesn’t tell us to?  These are the questions I found myself asking as the Christmas holiday neared this year. After all, this is my 33rd Christmas so it's probably time I figure this out. (Ironically 33 was the same age as Jesus when he was crucified)

         In America Christmas has become super commercial.  People fight in stores over toys and electronics shortly after devouring a giant meal and talking about what they are thankful for. It has also become a giant controversy because of 2 little words that come off as offensive.  We say "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" so we don’t offend anyone but then Christians get offended cause you didn’t wish them a Merry Christmas (eish).  The meaning of Christmas gets lost in all the commercialization, materialism, arguing, and fighting.

In South Korea, Christmas isn’t a big deal.  In fact, it is a day where couples dress alike and hang out, going shopping, to the movies, or dinner.  With the exception of some churches rarely do you see the stores, streets, and people’s houses decked out with lights and decorations.  However, this year I did notice more decorations when compared to last year. Also, one of the malls in Seoul decided to do their own version of “Black Friday.” (Not really sure how that went) It was nice to see more decorations but I still wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit.

That Faith Hill song, “Where Are You Christmas” from the Grinch movie starring Jim Carrey kept playing over and over in my head all month.  I was really concerned when I began to think how I have allowed things such as presents, lights, trees, decorations, Christmas scented candles, a nativity set, Christmas music, Christmas movies, Santa Clause, stockings, a candle lit Christmas Eve service, and even Christmas dinner with my family put me in the “Christmas spirit.”  I decided to do some research about how the holiday came about so I can better understand how Christmas has developed into what it is today.  Up until doing this research the only thing I knew about Christmas was the story of Jesus’ birth and that it isn’t actually Jesus’ real birthday.  Taking the research I found from several Christian and secular websites here is a brief explanation, from what I understand, on how Christmas began. 

At first, Christians were focused on remembering just Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  By the early Middle Ages, (somewhere around 273 - 336 A.D.) Christian leaders in the western part of the Roman Empire had decided to set aside December 25 as a day for celebrating the birth of Jesus. As Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 as “Christ’s mass” was adopted (around 1038 A.D.).

 Before this the Christian church held an annual feast on January 6 called an Epiphany to recognize the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  The Epiphany remembered the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, the baptism of Jesus, and his first miracle of turning water into wine.  Some Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches still celebrate this today.  Many of my Hispanic friends call this “Dia de los Reyes Magos” or “Three Kings Day.”

If you think about it, the ancient Christian leaders setting aside a day to celebrate Jesus’ birthday is a no brainer.  Annually we celebrate the birth of our loved ones because they are special to us.  As Christians, Jesus should be even more special to us.  What other event throughout the history of time is more significant than the birth of our Savior?  It marks the arrival of Immanuel, God With Us.  He came as a servant though he was Lord.  His birth is the most important birth in the history of mankind because it is though Him we were able to obtain salvation.  Without His birth there would be no cross, no resurrection, no salvation.  The plan for freedom, justice, salvation, and liberty for all mankind was implemented on the day of Jesus’ birth, way before July 4, 1776. (Hey, I’m American;)  

In my research I also discovered that some of the customs we as Christians celebrate are “secular” in origin.  I have come to realize that these secular elements can actually add as good reminders of whom God is when applied sensibly. (“The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it” ~Psalm 24:1)  Things such as the Christmas tree reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world, Santa Clause reminding us that God is a giving god, presents to remind us of the gifts the Magi brought to worship the King, and a candy cane that looks like a shepherd’s staff or a “J” for Jesus when upside down, can all be used as lessons to share the gospel with Christians and non-Christians alike.   

This Christmas I intentionally asked people not to get me anything because I have become so disturbed by all the stuff I have.  I’m so insanely blessed beyond measure, why do I need anything more?   This Christmas I didn’t have my family or gifts under my tree. Yeah I decorated my office and put up a small tree in my apartment but that was out of tradition and habit.  As I looked at these things every day my heart ached to get more than I ever have from Christmas.  In the past I would open up Christmas gifts that people gave from the generosity of their hearts feeling so discontent after because it wasn’t what I wanted or something was wrong with it, or the things on my list that I felt were the most important, were forgotten.  What a shameful, ungrateful, Christmas attitude.  As I aged that discontentment grew into guilt.  I missed out on the meaning of Christmas for so many years because I was so discontent with things I didn’t deserve in the first place and so distracted by the commercialization, materialism, arguing, and fighting that surrounds Christmas in America.

This year Christmas became more.  The loneliness I thought I would feel without family near was filled with the presence of Jesus in my heart.  The discontentment I was afraid would haunt me another Christmas day was chased away by the joy I found in praying for others and extending kindness and hospitality to friends who also didn’t have any where else to go for Christmas. 

So back to my first question: “What is Christmas and why do I celebrate it?”  Christmas does not celebrate the day Jesus was born: it celebrates the fact that he was born.  Christmas is about hope in a world that desperately needs it. Christmas is Immanuel, God With Us.

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so?  It came without ribbons.  It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” ~Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Disclaimer: I'm not saying any of this is bad. It is important to do things in moderation or else all the small stuff can take away from the true meaning.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Pride of Christian Entitlement Vs. The Humility of Jesus

 In a recent book I read called “Humility” by Andrew Murray he says that we who are called by His name may have a desire to love others, but that desire is pointless when we are indifferent to the needs, feelings and weaknesses of others.  When we as believers “excuse ourselves from making sharp and hasty judgments and utterances upon others, all in the name of being outright and honest,” our actions are rooted in nothing but pride because we have lost touch with the humility of Christ.  What if, instead of being guided by pride, we were actually guided by the humility of Christ?  Would people listen to us the way they listened to Jesus?  What would the effect be if we asked God to fix our own lack of humility instead of pointing out the pride and arrogance in others?

Recently, a young man has entered my life. He is young, kind, full of life, cares for others, and we both share an eagerness to see justice being done throughout the world.  He has really shaken things up; causing me to think way more than I ever did before speaking.  God has used him to reveal the pride of my own conservative, Southern Baptist heart. Ironically this man that God is using is gay and he comes right before I enter the mission field.  I really believe his timing couldn’t be more perfect and here is why. 

This man is really challenging me and I am beginning to notice my faith and heart grow and change for what I firmly believe will be for the better.  He is helping me understand the hurts the LGBT community has faced and is currently facing.  He is showing me how to genuinely love a people group that a majority of the church looks at the way the Jews looked at the Samaritans. 

Unfortunately a majority of Christians are doing the same thing with the LGBT community that the Jews did with the Samaritans. They want nothing to do with this community except tell them how horrible they are.  Instead of being encouraged by the humility and love of Christ, the LGBT community has been hurt by the pride of those who are suppose to be holding the Good News.  Instead of being told that there is hope for them and that Jesus loves them too, they are being condemned to hell the minute they come out of the closet.  I’ll tell you right now that I have no doubt Jesus would be hanging out with the LGBT community Sunday mornings before stepping foot in church because He was always where he was needed most.   

God has used this young man to reveal the pride of my heart, the pride of entitlement I believe many Christians share because they claim to be a Christian.  I’m no better than any person on this Earth.  In fact, because I am a Christian I am held to an even greater accountability and I mess up DAILY!!!  This pride is something that needs to change in my heart before I enter the mission field so I can be a more affective missionary.

This man has helped me to see how important it is to listen to other people first, like really listen to them, before telling them what I think about their culture or lifestyle.  Listening is important because if I am able to understand someone’s beliefs and culture first, I can be more affective in sharing the gospel with them, without denying their cultural background.  Also, I will know how to better love them by speaking love in a way they understand.  A love that will look different from those I share the same Conservative American, Christian culture with.  

In return, I pray they would be open to listen to the message God has given me to share with them and that they would accept the love God has for them because the most important thing isn’t their lifestyle but whether or not they love God.  This relationship between God and a person is more important than the lifestyle one chooses to live.  It is the thing that must come first before any change in the person can begin.  As this relationship grows God, and only God, will work on the heart of the person He is in relationship with.  We as brothers and sisters in Christ should participate by playing a supporting role through prayer and discipling.

How dare we as Christians tell a homosexual they better quit their lifestyle or to get that idea out of their head because it is sin, if they don’t even have a relationship with God?  That my friends, is absolutely, 100% judging them.  Also, how can we reach them to have a relationship with God if our initial response to them is hate?  Our purpose for remaining on this earth as a Christian is to show others their need for God and that they were created to be in a relationship with Him.  He wants that more than anything and shows us that in and through the Bible.  God didn’t give up on us the minute sin entered the world.  He decided to give us another chance and that is why He sent His Son.  The laws written in the Bible are there to show us the need for the gift of Jesus.

I have heard stories and known of several people who struggle with homosexuality that grew up in church and genuinely do love God.  They have prayed to God about what to do.  Some have even asked God to take these desires of same sex attraction away, but the desire still remains.  Some have decided this is who they are and that they are going to live their life based on their feelings.  They have left the church and are very bitter in their reactions to Christians.  Others have decided not to give into the desires of the flesh but instead to live a life of celibacy.   

What on earth does this mean?  Does it mean they are not really Christian? Does it mean they are going to hell?  Does it mean they were born this way?  Well, I don’t know the answer to this and I don’t think it is my place to say.  I believe first and foremost the answer depends on their relationship with God.  A majority of the time those I mentioned above, who decided to embrace their homosexuality and part ways from God and the church, were hurt.  Those I mentioned above who decided to live a life of celibacy were encouraged and loved on by people in the church.

Some of you may ask, “What about the verses in the bible that call homosexuality a sin?”  Well, here is my response to that question.  What about lying, cheating, speeding on the interstate, or unrighteous anger?  Are these not things people do unknowingly every day without even thinking about or asking for repentance.  What about idolatry; the idols of money, work, family, success, Facebook, Internet browsing, our appearance, our hobbies or any material thing that we put before God?  Idolatry is also a sin. 

Back to what I said in the first paragraph, what are your convictions rooted in?  Are they rooted in the pride of your “Christian entitlement” or are they rooted in the humility of Christ?  People should know we are Christians by our love, not our pride. 

Before you go blasting one more homosexual I want to encourage you to first listen to them, completely and entirely, before butting in with your thoughts.  Second, ask God to give you the humble heart of Jesus so you will interact with them in a more loving, caring way, the way Jesus would interact with them (if you need help knowing how to do this read the 4 Gospels and take notes on Jesus interactions with the people the Pharisees called “sinners”).  Finally, pray for them.  Pray for God to guide and direct them to live the life He has called them to live.

In case you are wondering, even though I was born in Southern California, I spent most of my life in Tennessee with two conservative parents.  I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and soaked in every single bit of information they fed me during my childhood-adolescent years.  While I am grateful for that foundation because Conservative Southern Baptist stand firm in their faith and beliefs, not being easily swayed by the world, I also realize that sometimes they can be misleading and close-minded about things (as all people, including liberals, can be).   My question is, can we all just live at peace with one another and calm down?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

When a Leader Leaves

     In lieu of the recent, surprise announcement from my Pastor last Sunday that he is stepping down, and the varying opinions and feelings from my friends who also attend OEM, I was reminded of a lesson that I learned many years back from a story found in Daniel 3.  Allow me to give those of you who are not familiar with this story a brief summary.

     In the third chapter of Daniel, 3 Jewish men, (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) were called out by some jealous, Babylonian rulers for not bowing down to the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had made.  They were summoned to the king’s palace and given another chance to bow down to the statue or suffer the wrath of a flaming furnace.  They refused to bow down because bowing to this statue went against the commandments that God had given to Moses for the Jews to live their life by.  When they refused the king ordered that they be thrown into the furnace.  The furnace was so hot that the heat instantly killed the guards who threw them in.  The three men however survived the furnace and were called to come out by the king.  When they exited not a hair on their bodies was singed and they didn’t even have the smell of smoke on them.  King Nebuchadnezzar realized that the God they serve was the one true God and ordered that anyone who speaks against God be destroyed. 

     So you may be wondering, what does this have to do with a pastor stepping down from his position?  Well, in this chapter, a key character in the book of Daniel is missing.  That character is Daniel himself.  In the first 2 chapters of Daniel the four men collectively, didn’t back down from the laws God had given them centuries past, even though they had several opportunities to do so in this pagan nation.  While other Jews gave in these four didn’t.  They trusted God through all the trials and were saved every time.  The reason this is so important is because in the first two chapters Daniel was the leader of four men.  He was the mouthpiece for speaking on behalf of God’s will and plan for the Jews in Babylon while the other three followed his direction and leadership. 

     In chapter 3 Daniel is nowhere to be found and these 3 men have to stand up for what is right themselves, without their leader to guide and support them.  I believe the same holds true for the members of OEM and the Onnuri Korean Ministry.  Pastor Eddie has done an AMAZING job of bringing awareness to some major issues throughout the Korean peninsula and the rest of the world; issues such as the injustice in North Korea, human trafficking, and defending the orphans.  He has attacked injustice daringly and boldly; fully aware of the danger that he could face, because of his obedience.  He has stepped on the toes of government officials and church leaders in the Korean church, causing some major uncomfort to their comfortable lives.  He has done what God calls each and every Christian to do and that is fight against injustice, defending the vulnerable, the widow, and the orphan.  While doing this he has also instilled a heart for justice in some who never knew.  For me, God used Pastor Eddie to reignite the flame dulled inside me that once burned passionately about these injustices.

     Now it is our turn.  Soon our leader will be gone, fighting and bringing awareness and justice somewhere else.  He is the Daniel in this story and we are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  God is making a way for us, and the Onnuri Korean Ministry, to continue fighting this battle we have been made aware of, a battle that defends those close to the heart of God, fulfilling the commands He has given to us as Christians.  Will we be successful like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or will we have another ending, one that is sad and cowardly? 

     So my question to you OEM family is what are you going to do now?  Are you going to continue to fight and bring awareness to these justice issues; standing up to defend those that are vulnerable?  Are you going to give up, stay angry, be the cause of a church split, and let the enemy win, stopping the work that has already been started in Korea and other parts of the world?  The choice is yours so be wise about the decision you make.  I really believe this is God’s way of testing our loyalty.  Is it to Him or to man? Someone is waiting on the other side of your obedience.  

     I’m gonna call some of you out now, Why do you even go to OEM?  Is it because of Pastor Eddie or is it because you firmly believe this is the church community God has called you to while living in Korea?  If you are here because you feel called to the community and work of OEM then I want to encourage you to stick this out, pray for Pastor Eddie on his new journey, pray for the Korean church to continue fighting for the vulnerable in Korea, and support whatever pastor comes to OEM in his place.  If you are only here because of Pastor Eddie please pray about your motives before joining another church.  People come and go but God is forever faithful.  His faithfulness should cause us to desire to be faithful to Him, not to man.

     “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste.  He declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered and said, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.’” ~Daniel 3:24-25

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Thailand Recap

     So I've finally processed my journals and thoughts from Thailand.  This is just a glimpse of the multitude of writing I have composed from this trip.  Now I'm not an expert by any means.  All I am is a person with a big heart who has hated injustice from a young age, being nicknamed a bully to the bullies.  I can see, and most of the time, for whatever reason, the bigger picture of what I see is usually revealed to me, sometimes without my asking. 

     When I went to Thailand a couple weeks ago, I went with a closed heart.  I just wanted to get away from Korea, see my friends, encourage them, and laugh my head off (which is so easy to do with this bunch "circle!" =]  I don't know why I'm so afraid of Thailand but I am. Unfortunately for my selfishness, God didn't allow my heart or eyes to remain closed for very long.  Within the first 24 hours I met some amazing, funny, adorably cute Thai Christians, (one in particular who wouldn't leave me alone, until I finally gave in, even though I tried to pretend I was shy). In the same day I also saw a sketchy looking scene at a McDonalds between an old white man and a young Thai girl. It was something that I've only seen in the movies but I can't erase that girls face out of my mind and the look of horror in her eyes. Angela and I didn't know what to do but walk away and that choice still bothers me. Needless to say, the first day opened my heart and eyes wide for the rest of the week.

     So I have a heart to prevent trafficking and have ever since my time in Brazil in 2010. I'm not knocking the rescue, it's important, but I believe that if we don't focus on the prevention aspect then trafficking will never end.  We can rescue women and children all day everyday, but if we don't get rid of the root, the issue will continue to come back and grow and women and children will still need to be rescued.  So what is the root of trafficking? Well, that has been something I have been asking God for a while now. While I believe there is more than one factor causing trafficking I do believe a big player in this issue is the family, (more so than ever after my trip to Thailand.) 

     Another thing I noticed through research and my time in Thailand is the tiny flame of Thai Christians and churches who are established and have been for several years.  They have built relationships with the community and it shows that the gospel is making its way through Thailand, penetrating the hearts of this extremely Buddhist nation. I really believe the gospel is ready to explode in Thailand. Thai Christians just need resources to help them be more effective in the spreading of the gospel.  They also need the large Christian bubble in Chaing Mai to pop leaving their comfortable Christian bubble by going to other parts of Thailand. Church planting is important, but I think church planting in Thailand needs to wait for this explosion to happen so the weak church isn't spread thin.  It needs support and accountability.  Build up the Thai Christians that are already there.  Disciple them, train them, and equip them to take the gospel to their own people.

     Lastly, drug abuse seems to be an issue in the region of Thailand I went too.  I'm still doing more research on this but there seems to be a lack of extra-curricular activities and programs to help Thai people.  If the opportunities aren’t available, spare time and money are being used on drugs instead of cultivating talent and developing skills that could help improve their future. Again, still doing research on this.

     So, what does all this mean for me? Well, I'm still not sure.  While in Thailand I asked God to close doors that were open and pick for me since I obviously can't choose.  Now I'm down from five to two choices.  God has definitely given me a vision for Thailand while I still hold on to the vision I received for Brazil 4 years ago.  Both visions are similar but attacked in different ways.
     As of now I'm inquiring with Liberty University about getting my Masters online in marriage and family counseling while on the field.  This would be extremely beneficial for me because I have never been one that learns by reading a book.  Application and hands on experience is the best way for me to learn and this would definitely be that sort of learning.  From the things I learn I would put together programs that I would share with church leadership, training them and equipping them to bring healing, wholeness, and restoration to the families in Thailand (which is my biggest heart break from this trip.)

     I pray my decision is finalized by the end of the year.  I'm really excited about the vision I've been given for Thailand and it continues to grow. I'm waiting to speak with some people about it to see if it lines up with the need there so I don't want to share too much yet.  As I know more I will share.  Also, I will be coming back to America in March to raise support and awareness on the trafficking issue. 

     For now I ask for a prayer of guidance as well as peace about everything.  As I have said before, it only took me 2 1/2 months to get to Korea when it wasn't even on the radar, God can move fast and I trust He will take care of everything but I want to make sure I cling to this trust and hold it near.  I'm very excited to think I can finally be on the mission field next year after 10 years of praying, waiting, and training.  I’m so grateful for the training I have received in Korea through various non-profit organizations (in particular Pastor Choi and his ministry) and my church, Onnuri English Ministry through Hope Be Restored.

Anne and I with some of the students from a nearby poorer school where the Isaan team goes weekly to teach English.

Angela with some students.

Udon Thani is the place I went.

Jacob and one of the cutie pie students.

Jonathan and that same cutie pie student.  I love the look on both their faces.

Nhing! <3