Today, I met Damian at the park.  He has the frame of a bodybuilder or football player.  When I greeted him, he looked me in the eyes and seemed genuinely glad to meet me.  I didn't have much with me when I drove up so I asked what they needed.  He paused before answering, "We don't get asked that much."  We settled on some pizza, water, some beanies and gloves.  The previous night saw rare snow in the Inland Empire.  More of the same is expected tonight.  The beanies and gloves have become essentials.

When I returned, Damian seemed surprised to see me but recovered quickly enough to help me unload the few bags from my car.  He and his friends couldn't stop praising God.  That, in itself, would've made the experience worthwhile.  But I got so much out of it than just that moment.

I sat in my car for a few moments to gather myself.  For some reason, I had to fight tears.  Perhaps it was the realization that that group of men would have to sleep there even as the temperature dropped to freezing again.  At 3:30 in the afternoon, it was already cold enough that I couldn't wait to get back in the car.  I couldn't imagine sleeping out in the open.  Throughout the day, people have posted pictures and video of snow in the Inland Empire.  Everyone seemed to welcome the uncommon weather...well, not quite everyone.  How easy it is for us to forget about the less fortunate.

As I drove home, I toyed with the idea of starting a Bible study in that park.  Maybe once a week, I could bring pizza and read through the Bible with anyone there.  We could pray and maybe even sing some worship songs.  Maybe....

Still Giving Thanks

Yesterday, America celebrated Thanksgiving.  Many gathered with family, friends, loved ones and counted our blessings.  For many, the blessing came in the form of abundant food.

Today, I give thanks.  Tomorrow, I will give thanks again.  Rather, I will give thanks still.  I don't say this to be contrarian though I don't mind the label.    As a Christian, we're admonished to give "thanks always for everything to God the Father."  (Eph 5:20)  There are no conditions and there are no time limits.  We're to give thanks, not because of our circumstances but because of God.  God is immutable -- He was, is, and will be the same God.  Part of His immutable nature is of love.  That love led His Son to come in human form so that we may have the choice of being reconciled with Him.

Like many in America, as I write this, I recount in my mind my many blessings.  But those blessings may be lost at the blink of an eye.  Those blessings alone will not keep me grounded in giving thanks.  It's only in staying focused on a loving God that I can always give thanks.

    Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
    His faithful love endures forever.  (Ps 106:1, HCSB)

True Beauty: Selfless Love (My Beloved Wife)

Peggy embodies the idea of selfless love.  Scripture teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:39) and to treat others as we would want to be treated (Mt 7:12).  Peggy, however, loves others so much more than she would ever consider loving herself.  For our children and loved ones, she would fight and argue to protect them.  For herself, she would tend to demur.  For others, she gave up months of Zumba to train for and complete the marathon.  For others, she cooks marvelous means while she, herself, would be content with microwave popcorn.

Tomorrow, Peggy will shave her head to support our beloved cousin who's undergoing chemotherapy.  For some, it may not seem like much.  In fact, Peggy doesn't think much of it...except that she wouldn't consider doing it if not for someone else.

We've been preparing for this day for two or three weeks.  As we've prepared people (so they're not shocked or worried when they see Peggy), the reaction has varied.  Luke and Bella aren't sure what to make of it.  With some encouragement this morning, Bella admitted that it seems weird.  That's understandable considering Bella's never had her precious hair cut.  I tried explaining to her that sometimes it's okay and even good to be weird.  Even as I spoke, I realized that she wouldn't fully appreciate what Peggy is doing for many years.  But as a parent, I can't imagine a better example selflessness than from their own mother.

As her husband, I've never found her more beautiful.  I say this while she has a full head of hair; but I have no doubt that I'll feel the same, perhaps more, when I see her on Monday.

Sisters: "Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God."  (1Pe 3:3-4, NLT)

Brothers: Honor and appreciate God-given beauty, a beauty that's timeless and ageless.

I had debated whether this post should be written.  I haven't asked Peggy's permission as I suspect she wouldn't grant it.  Is it wrong for me to "brag" about my wife?  No.  I believe that Peggy's selfless acts are a reflection of God's love and grace; so that in shining light on Peggy's selfless acts, I point others to our Lord Himself.

Love Without Borders

By all accounts, the Ebola virus is horrid and not to be taken lightly.  Today, it was confirmed that this highly contagious and often fatal disease has reached the United States.  No doubt, this story will be in the news for days.

Christians, let us not overreact.  Or, more accurately, let us not think it worse just because it has crossed our borders.  This outbreak started months ago for our brothers and sister in Africa.  I understand that physical proximity can make it seem more threatening.  But, let us not show greater concern for that reason.  After all, our love ought to be without borders.  Ebola needed to be cured everywhere and for everyone.

Knowing Our Limits - Knowing Our Calling

It's been a hard week.  We agreed to watch 2 year old and 4 month old brothers while mom found stable housing.  Peggy picked them up on Tuesday morning.  Twenty four hours later, we were done.  Don't get me wrong, they're good boys.  But they're still boys.  Two year olds are fun: they climb, run, jump and "play" with the puppy.  In short, they require full-time attention.  Four month olds eat, poop, cry, and never seem to sleep quite enough.  Oh, and in this case, he also spits up -- a lot.  None of that was necessarily surprising.  Maybe that's why our decision was so hard.  We should've known better.

Late Wednesday morning, after a night with little sleep and a morning trying to keep the boys quiet so I could take conference calls, Peggy was emotionally exhausted.  By the end of the day, Zack, our puppy, was growling at the two year old every chance he got, the two year old was crying inconsolably for his mom, the four month old was screaming at the top of his lungs, and Bella was crying because she wanted her mommy back.  At one point, Luke, always the trooper, stood between the three younger ones with a panicked look, trying to figure out how to make the chaos stop.

Though this post may sound like I'm complaining, that's far from my intent.  Rather, I want to commend the single parents out there.  And, I want to encourage everyone to empathize and lend a hand.  Between Peggy, Luke and me, we had the younger ones covered; yet, we felt like we were drowning.  And this was after only 36 hours.  Single parents do this every day, every night, with no relief in sight.  If you are able, offer them that relief.  It may be through organizations like Safe Families or it could just be a call to a single parent offering to babysit for a night, or two.

On Thursday morning, Peggy had brought the boys back to their mom.  We fell short of the two weeks that we'd promised.  We knew it was the right decision, but that didn't make it any easier.  My real mistake was in agreeing to take the boys without fully assessing our situation.  With a new home with hard floors and a pool, new puppy, working at home full time, Luke/Bella trying to adapt to a new place and school -- we accepted two boys who deserved more of us.

Even after realizing that we needed to return the boys to their mother (or have Safe Families find another host family), we asked ourselves whether we were being faithful servants.  Peggy and I have been reading Chasing God, about a couple who, by their faith, dedicated their lives to the downtrodden in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco.  Pastor Huang and his wife Maite have been in ministry for almost 30 years; and, yet, we couldn't give even two days to these two boys and their mother.  What we had to realize was that full time childcare is not our calling.  To serve those boys and the mother right, I would need quit my job.  Otherwise, I was being disloyal to my employer and unfair to the boys in trying to serve both at the same time.  The mistake, in this instance, was in running too far ahead of God's will and trying to do too much.

Will we continue to serve with Safe Families?  Without a doubt.  Peggy offered to take the boys for a day or two at a time to give the mother relief.  Weekends are fine.  Older kids may even be okay -- especially if they're in school during the day.  Serving God, we've learned, requires more than recklessly throwing ourselves at a need.  Sometimes, serving God means being faithful in our current circumstances while remaining watchful for His calling.

65th Anniversary: Covenant

Last Saturday, my parents-in-law celebrated their 65th anniversary.  I wanted Luke, our son, to appreciate the rarity and significance of the event.  So I gave him some facts on why 65 years of marriage is so rare:

  1. It's hard to stay with someone that long.
  2. You'd have to get married early (by today's standards).
  3. Both husband and wife would have to live to their 80s.
In thinking back now, I realize I missed the most important point.  Mom and dad didn't stay married this long just because they happened to marry early or that, by the grace of God, they've lived this many years.  They've stayed married because they took their vows seriously.  The covenant (of marriage) is valued.

The idea of keeping our word is almost viewed as old-fashioned and those who insist on it as sticks-in-the-mud.  Miss an appointment -- no big deal, we can reschedule.  Late for a gathering -- it's okay, as long as we're not the last to arrive.  Break a promise -- they'll understand that I meant it when I said it.  Individually, they may seem like minor, isolated incidents.  The problem is the slippery slope effect.  As we justify each situation, the value of our word erodes.  Further, the nature of justification is that it's one-sided; in our minds, what we've done is excusable.

I don't say this claiming to always keep my word.  My wife and children know that I don't.  What I would like to demonstrate for them and others, though, is that it's a big deal to keep my word and a bigger deal when it's broken.  When I promise to take Luke on a camping trip and fail to do so, it grieves me.  I seek his forgiveness.  I want him to understand that I don't take it lightly and will seek to do better.  Peggy, my wife, is very forgiving.  When I promise to do something, I know that my failure will be forgiven.  But that shouldn't make it easier for me to break my word.  Or, if I'm not certain I can keep it, I won't promise it.

Mom and dad have offered us a wonderful legacy.  They've chosen to keep their vows.  They've lived through trials in such a way that the choice doesn't even seem like a choice; the alternative was never considered.  By God's grace, I pray to continue such a legacy in my marriage but in everyday dealings.  

    Never let loyalty and faithfulness leave you.
    Tie them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart.

The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009). Pr 3:3.

Chasing God

Roger Huang was born in Taiwan to an abusive father and a seemingly unloving mother.  After his family moved to America when he was 15, Roger's hope for a new start was quickly dashed as his parents' abuse remained unchanged.  Soon after graduating from high school, he left his family home with no plan but to escape.  Life on the streets led him to his wife, Maite, and steady jobs.

Thus is the humble beginnings of Roger Huang, the founder of City Impact Ministries in San Francisco, where thousands of lives have been changed for the better.  Their ministry started with "Maite and me and the kids going door-to-door, praying for people, offering hope with one hand and bologna sandwich with the other."  Their ministry exists to serve the Tenderloin district, described as, "San Francisco at its seediest."  Starting with those sandwiches, the family soon began to spend Saturdays playing with children in the district.  With the parks occupied by drug dealers, an abandoned hotel ballroom became their playground.

Each step of their ministry's growth was linked to their faithful dependence on God's provision.  Realizing they couldn't continue to trespass in the abandoned hotel, a business man from their church rented them a storefront.  When that business man moved across the country, the owner of the building suddenly and surprisingly agreed to lower the rent.  Through God's blessing, their ministry continued to grow.  A nearby building became available for purchase.  The missions committee for their local Assemblies of God took up their cause.  One afternoon, several older Chinese men and women, previously unknown to Pastor Huang, dropped off checks and cash for thousands of dollars.  It turns out their Bible study group, which had been together for thirty years, had been praying for a transformation to the Tenderloin district.  In Pastor Huang's ministry, they recognized God's answer.

Following God is simple.  It's not easy -- far from it.  But it's not complex.  Pastor Huang prayed for a way to serve God and responded obediently when he felt the prompting.  When a need arose, he prayed.  And he prayed.  And he fasted.  And he fasted some more.  When people suggested that his fasting signified some super-spirituality, he replied simply, "I fast because I am desperate."

Pastor Huang's story resonates with me.  Born a year apart in Taiwan, I, too, carry pains and doubt from growing up without a loving father.  His simple practice of spending time alone with God and fasting as a way to focus on God holds great appeal.

Christians, this is for you.  Serving God starts small.  It may never become as big as Pastor Huang's ministry, but that's God prerogative.  We don't need to wait for a church program.  God may not reveal His will in a startling revelation.  Sometimes, it's a s simple as packing a sandwich and meeting people at their need.

Purchase the book.  You won't regret it.

Faithful Love

My Marvelous Wife
Over the 12 years we've been married, I've had many reasons to marvel at my wife, Peggy.  However, never before have I been more touched and inspired.  Ever since she made the decision to run the L.A. Marathon to raise awareness and funds to acquire land and build a home for a family in Kenya, she has steadfastly and selflessly dedicated her life to that single cause.

Lots of Pain, What's the Gain?
Five days each week, she methodically puts on her gear and gets mentally prepared to train.  Deciding to run the marathon doesn't mean waking up one morning and signing up for the run.  Our bodies are not built to run that distance.  To run a marathon requires months of training, an alteration of diet, and perseverance through pain and injury.  Not a moment goes by where Peggy doesn't feel aches in her feet or legs.  Anybody who has run the marathon (or a similar distance) is familiar with the process and the sacrifices involved.  However, I dare say that most who choose to run find at least some satisfaction in running and finishing the race.

But what amazes me about Peggy is not what she's doing or even how she's doing it -- but rather the degree to which she submits to the why.  You see, Peggy is not a runner.  She never has been and never will be...at least not by her choice.  Growing up, her talents and interests drew her to flamenco dancing, not cross-country or track.  At the gym, she would get on the treadmill only while waiting for her Zumba class to start.

So Why Run?
Don't misunderstand what I'm saying; Peggy cares greatly for Muia and his family.  But, if that was the only reason, she could just as easily choose a shorter distance or seek other ways of raising money.  And, she could have quit when her ankle was fractured during training.  Running is so unnatural to Peggy that the purpose must transcend her.  In running the marathon, Peggy is exhibiting love that can only come from God -- a love that costs.  She's obediently living out what the apostle John taught:
This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life  for us.  We should also lay down our lives for our brothers.  If anyone has this world’s goods  and sees his brother in need  but closes his eyes  to his need—how can God’s love reside in him? Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action.  This is how we will know we belong to the truth  and will convince our conscience in His presence, even if our conscience condemns us, that God is greater than our conscience, and He knows all things.  (The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009). 1 Jn 3:16–20.)
What Then?
I marvel at Peggy's heart and her actions, but, most of all, I marvel at her faith.  In her actions, she has shown reliance on His strength to carry her through.  As I marvel, I'm challenged with the following questions:

  1. Is there something that's unnatural (in my own strength) toward which God is calling me?
  2. Am I exhibiting God's love in a way that's undeniable to those around me?
  3. Am I showing his love in truth and action rather than just in word, speech and blogging?

Review of Clear Winter Nights by Trevin Wax

Sometimes, the smallest books with the simplest of premises pack the biggest punches.  Such is my experience with Clear Winter Nights by Trevin Wax.  When I received the book, I had no real idea what to expect.  Is it a theological treatise?  Nope, because those require at least 500 pages, right?  (Clear Winter Nights has fewer than 150 smaller than usual pages.)  Is it a guide to “Christian Living”?  That would require a Table of Contents with catchy section and chapter titles.  Closer inspection of the cover says this book is, “Theology in Story.”  Hmmm…I still wasn’t sure what to expect.

The story is of Chris Walker, a young man raised in the church.  His past and future pointed to a life of faith as he and his fiancĂ©e prepared to help start a new church plant.  But his faith is shaken and that “shakening” reverberated through different parts of his life.  The book is centered on a weekend Chris spends with his grandfather, Gil, a retired pastor, with whom he wrestles with questions of faith and the role of Christianity and Christ in the world.

Theological treatises take time to digest the nuggets of insight.  Stories tend to flow faster, particularly when engaging dialogue is involved.  This book, somehow, represents both.  I copied down more than twenty quotes that I want to chew on some more.  As each of these nuggets affected me, I couldn’t help but to immediately tweet some of them to share with friends.  It’s the type of book that I can’t wait to share with friends, small group leaders and pastors. 

The relationship between Chris and Gil is one we can all wish for.  With Gil, Chris felt free to express his innermost doubts.  Before the weekend with Gil, Chris wondered whether a faith that could be faked so well meant that “faith itself was false.”  On that springboard, Chris and Gil parried and danced with questions that many, both Christian and non-believers, have:

  1. How does Biblical truth stand in a world that values open-mindedness?
  2. What’s the role of religion if not to make the world a better place?
  3. Why would anyone follow a worldview that seems to condemn natural temptations and lifestyles?
  4. Are Christians right to proselytize or evangelize?  Or does that wrongly impose our view of God and our values onto their neighbors?
  5. And ultimately, what is the ultimate goal of a Christian life?
Some in the church may find some of these questions distasteful.  We may wish that the answers would be clear and discussions unnecessary.  However, wishing such things does not make the questions go away.  This book reminds me that we must allow such hard questions to be asked while remembering to ask, “Where do you want all that wrestling to get you?”  (Pg. 40)  We must allow (and encourage!) honest questions and dialogue where, “The goal is to know more about God so that you come to know Him better.”  (Pg. 41)  In a world that values open-minded-ness, we, in the church, should value the same with the added caveat that, “An open mind is like an open mouth.  It’s meant to close on something.  We ought to make sure it’s on something good.”  (Pg. 42)

I enthusiastically recommend this book to all who have an interest in this thing called Christianity.  There will be those who have grown up in the church and relate to Chris Walker’s questions and struggles.  But just as much, this book will prove useful to those outside the church looking in waiting for some important questions to be answered before they consider putting a foot in the door.  Though the book is not written in a traditional Bible study format, the discussion question will make this book useful for small group study.

[Wax, Trevin. Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes after. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2013. Print.]

NOTE: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Review of Real by Jamie Snyer

“Would people know I’m a Christian if they didn’t see me at church?”  With that question, Pastor Jamie Snyder, embarks on this gem to examine and uncover what it means to be a Real follower of Jesus.  By allowing Sunday to become, “the axis on which their faith spins,” (Pg. 22) Christians have allowed our faith to be too closely entwined with Sunday and all that Sunday represents.  Our fellowship, worship, and study happen in the confines of a single morning and forget that “church is not a place but a people.”  (Pg. 23)

Snyder organizes the book into three sections:
1) The Real Question: The shortcoming of many Christians today
2) The Portrait of a Real Life: Based on Scripture, the characteristics of a Christ-follower
3) The Real Answer: How we bridge the gap between shortcomings and Real-ness

The book is compact (173 pages, which includes discussion questions and prayers) and packed with excellent points and information.  Snyder focuses on seven characteristics of a Christ-follower (Section 2): unbridled generosity, daring courage, rebellious joy, risky faith, relentless hope, scandalous grace, and mad love.  Readers will likely find some room for improvement in their walk in one, if not all seven, of these traits.  For example, our generosity ought to be driven by God’s love rather than out of compulsion (Chap. 6).  Happiness, which seems to be a primary aim of the world, is situational and not sustainable; Joy (Chap. 8), on the other hand, is of God, which means that it can and will sustain us in all circumstances.

The book could be useful for small groups, accountability partners, or individual study. Each chapter concludes with three Reflection/Discussion questions and a prayer.

Real from Amazon
Real from CBD

I recommend this book without hesitation.

[Snyder, Jamie. Real: Becoming a 24-7 Follower of Jesus. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013]

NOTE: I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House for the purposes of this review.