Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Giving up Anger and Bitterness (1st in a series)

So what are you giving up for Lent this year? Chocolate? Coffee? Soda? Meat? Social media time? Screen time?

"More than Just Chocolate" was the title of a sermon series I preached a couple of years ago where we looked at the almost trivialized practice of "giving up something" for Lent. In the series, my congregation and I learned that the point of fasting is not to deny joy or pleasure. We say “no” to some things so we are free to say “yes” to others.

What if we are called to give up something more than just chocolate? In the next five weeks, I am going to explore with you aspects of our lives that God may be calling us to give up beyond the coffee and the soda.

Lent is really about giving up the things that hinder, the things that block, the things that prevent change and growth and new life. Its not just about giving things up. It's giving things up in order to grow. It's about being shaped, being pruned, so we become more and more like Christ.  
So we look to Christ to model this for us. Now, it’s been said that our words are mirrors or windows to our souls. I invite you to revisit Jesus’ last words on the cross in the hope of looking deep into Jesus’ heart and soul at some of the things he had to give up in order to take up his cross.

“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34, NRSV)

They had just nailed him to the cross. This after a long, sleepless night of standing trial, being beaten and flogged, being verbally abused, walking to Calvary with a cross on his back, being mocked, struck and spat at by the crowd. And as he was hanging up there, he could still see and hear the crowds mocking him, the soldiers at his feet were gambling for his clothes, the religious leaders were taunting him to save himself.

He could have cried out to God, “Father, look at what they have done to me. Punish them! Wipe them all out and save me!" Instead amidst all that abuse, he cried, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

More than just chocolate, God is calling us to give up anger and bitterness. Anger and bitterness eat up our souls like termites on wood. The longer we go on harboring these feelings, the more we will feel hollow deep inside. And pretty soon, we will just break and collapse.

Is there anger and bitterness in your heart today? Is there somebody who has hurt you deeply in the past and you just cannot forgive them? What if forgiveness is not really about letting them off the hook but more about freeing us from the bondage of anger and bitterness? 

Is there somebody you need to forgive? Why don’t you do that this Lent and give up being angry and bitter at them? Make that phone call. Write that letter. Say, "I forgive you." Then let go of the bitterness, not only for the sake of the person but more for your sake. For all you know, that person has already moved on. Now its time for you to move on.

Now you may say, “But you don’t understand. He harmed me. She hurt me.” Believe me, I know. I understand. And I know how hard it is to forgive. But will you allow that person to hurt or harm you over and over again just because you choose to live in anger and bitterness instead of forgiveness? Sure, harm and hurt and damage has been done. And justice has to happen. Consequences need to happen if they haven’t already. But for your sake, for you to move on, perhaps Jesus’ first words on the cross call you to give up the anger and the bitterness.

“Father, forgive them.” Jesus acknowledged that giving up anger and bitterness and forgiving was humanly impossible. And so he asked God for help. He asked God to forgive them. And if God would forgive them, then maybe he, too, eventually could and would. The most powerful words of forgiveness I have ever heard said to me was, “If God could forgive you, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t try.” Perhaps one of the prayers we are called to pray is “God forgive them and as you forgive them, help me to forgive them too.” 

Friends, it's more than just chocolate that we are called to give up. Lent is not just about giving things up. It's giving things up in order to grow. This Lent, what if we give up anger and bitterness and grow in forgiveness and love.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reflections of a Swim Dad

If you are Facebook friends with me, you probably know that I was in Juneau this past weekend to be with our older son who was swimming in the Alaska Age Group Championships. And you probably were inundated with the pictures and updates I posted about the swim meet.

On one hand, I apologize for filling your news feeds with swimming photos. You've probably unsubscribed from my posts altogether. I don't blame you. But what can I do. I'm a swim dad and proud to be one!

If you did read my posts, you definitely know that I am more proud of our son's accomplishments this weekend. In three days, he swam seven individual events, three of which he qualified for the finals where he finished decently and shaved-off seconds of his personal times. In one prelim qualifier, he even finished first place in his heat while shaving more than 12 seconds off his personal best! He also swam three relay events with his teammates. They likewise finished decently and improved on their times. What dad wouldn't be proud?!

Qualifying for Age Groups was a feat in itself to be proud of. There are certain time goals one has to meet in order to make it into an event. Last year, he only made two events which back then was already a pleasant surprise for us. This year, he qualified for eight individual events and had to pick because the maximum he could swim was seven. Again, what mom or dad wouldn't be proud?!

The meet was three days and started on Friday, which meant I wasn't in church on Sunday. It's the first time in seven years that I wasn't in church on Transfiguration Sunday! And it's OK. I said I wasn't in church. I didn't say I wasn't worshiping.

Being at the pool, in the bleachers, cheering for our son along with moms and dads from our team and other parents from other teams cheering for their children gave me a whole new perspective on transfiguration!

The gospels tell us that as Jesus was transfigured, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." These were the same words Jesus heard at his baptism when he was about to begin his ministry. These were words he lived by, words that defined who he was and whose he was. These words gave him encouragement. And now, as he was about to embark on the final chapter of his earthly ministry, these words gave him strength to carry on.

"This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." Words of a proud parent talking about his son. Words I believe every parent in that swim meet had in their hearts and minds as they watched and cheered for their children. This is my beloved son. This is my beloved daughter. I am proud of him! I am proud of her!

In a short period of time, my wife and I have watched the transformation of our older son from a non-swimmer to a competitive athlete! But we know that the transformation isn't complete. There are more things to learn, strokes to refine, flip-turns to work on and dives to perfect. And we will continue to be there for him and his brother, not just in their sports endeavors. They are our beloved sons in whom we are well pleased and definitely proud of. And we will make sure we tell them this at every opportunity we can. I think the transformation happens when they know and live into this truth.

God loves each one of us into transformation and calls us to do likewise. This was my biggest reflection as a swim dad this Transfiguration Sunday.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Celebrate the Small Milestones

A friend once told me that the key to running marathons and longer distance races is to break it up into "bite-sized pieces" and learning to celebrate small milestones. Having ran quite a few marathons already, I have found this to be helpful and true.

At the starting line, while I have the long-term objective of finishing the race and under a certain time goal, I also mentally set smaller intermediary goals that I try to meet along the way- like running the first few miles at a certain pace, or getting to the aid station by a certain time. Later in the race when I am already tired, my goal is to take it a mile at a time. Sometimes I set the goal at the moment, like getting up the hill without walking, or passing the runner a few yards in front of me, or at least keeping in pace.

As I reach each small milestone, I allow myself to celebrate. I clench my fist, say "yes!" or tell myself, "good job!" Usually, I just smile. And that is another tip from my running buddy. Smile while running! Smiling stimulates our brain to produce endorphins which are natural painkillers, something one needs in running long distances. Plus, smiling just gives you a better disposition all around.

So I celebrate the small milestones and I smile, for each small goal met means I am closer and closer to the big goal of finishing the race!

Last Sunday, I presided over my last church conference of this season which started in October. While I know that it won't be my last as Superintendent, I know it is my last until later this year. While I also know that my role is not just about leading church conferences, it's good to know that one church conference season is over for me! So I will allow myself to celebrate this milestone! I will say, "Yes!" and "Thanks be to God!"

Life is a long distance race. While the ultimate goal is to finish strong, or in the words of Paul, "to finish the race and keep the faith!", I hope and pray that you would be able to break life up into smaller, bite-sized goals. And as you meet those milestones, I hope that you would allow yourself to celebrate! And don't forget to smile!

Your fellow disciple,