I Need A Father

“Can you be my father?” I was asked this question several times by local people I met in these Asian churches I am visiting. I could tell from their eyes that they were serious. One man came to me and said: “I have no more father. I need a father. Can you be a father to me?” He then brought his wife by his side. She also asked me the same question.

I am in an Asian city here in the island of Sumatra. I am visiting several of our partners and spoke at a few of their gatherings. I noticed in this visit that the fathers in the local culture are the dominant type. This is a very patriarchal society. I thought to myself that this is the exact opposite of my personality. I am more egalitarian and encourage self discovery. Why are they asking me to be their father? 

I have no answer to this question. But I see the people’s desire to connect very appealing. It is another opportunity for me to build relationship with God’s people in this locality. I said yes to many who asked me this question with a prayer for God to lead the way as we become closer as a family. I responded to each request with affirmation knowing that God in heaven is our true Father. I will be a father to these Asian friends just as the Heavenly Father is a loving and merciful Father to me.

Shaky Prayers

He comes to me in measured steps. I reach out to hold his hands. His whole body is shaking. I draw him in closer to my side. I smell alcohol, but I do not care. He cries out and utters words that I do not understand. The local pastor beside him looks at me as if asking me if I could pray for this man.

I am in a small village church somewhere in Southeast Asia. This is the evening for our Revival Service. I just finished sharing the word and have encouraged the participants to come to the altar for prayer. Several people are up front standing in line waiting for the team of pastors to come and pray for them. The pastors and I are taking turns going around praying for the ones who responded to the altar call.

I am praying for this man. I hold his outstretched hands in my right hand and place my left arm around his shoulders. The shaking gets stronger. I can tell that he is struggling. He is moving uncontrollably  like someone suffering from a cerebral palsy condition. His words are garbled. I look straight into his eyes. I said words of comfort saying: “You are special before God. The Creator is delighted with your life here on earth. Reach out to our Savior and receive His blessings.”

It dawns on me that I could have been this person with limited strength and speech impediment. I am no different from him. His physical limitations make him no less than a person. He is my brother. I move his two hands together in a prayer stance. And I place my right palm on his chest. I continue speaking words of assurance to Him. I know he does not understand me. His gaze however, is telling me he hears my prayers. We keep looking into each others eyes as I keep imploring God’s mercy and kindness for both of us.

I raise my left hand towards heaven and cry for God’s visit in our midst. Suddenly, in the midst of the smell of alcohol and noise of the people’s loud prayers around us, I feel his shaking body slowly relaxing. He closes his eyes and tilts his head like he wants to lay down on a soft pillow and to fall to sleep. I motion to the local pastor nearby to bring this gentleman to a chair for a time of rest.

I go around to pray for the other people who are still standing in line waiting for the prayers of the pastors. I pray until the conclusion of the service.

Servants of God

As servants of God, we are to follow the example of Christ. Peter speaks of this as a calling, stating: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter‬ ‭2‬:‭21‬ ‭NRSV‬‬).
Below are some quotes from John Ortberg, in his book The Life You've Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines For Ordinary People. (2009).
“When Jesus came in the form of a servant, he was not disguising who God is. He was revealing who God is” (2009:115).
“That is the kind of servanthood Jesus calls us to—a society of sinners helping each other” (2009:117).
Read our Lectionary Reading from the New Testament for this week, April 30th, from 1 Peter 2:19-25, and see the calling to suffer for Christ. The question now is “Are you following the example of Christ?” May the Lord lead you in his path.

Perfected Obedience

Just like a gardener watching her garden bloom and her trees bear fruit. Or just like a shepherd leaving the 99 and seeking out the one lost sheep. He exalts in jubilation when he hears the cry of help from the lost sheep. What about the joy of a parent seeing one’s children come home? Just like that popular story of a father seeing his wayward son come home. He jumps with joy and runs toward his son whom he sees from a distance. God’s joy is made complete when we surrender our selves to Him in all His perfection and love.

Allow me to share a real life story—the experience of watching a small child take his or her first few steps. Now, if the child falters and falls, we do not say: “The child is a failure” or express some other discouraging words. We encourage the child and cheer on the whole family. The important thing is that the parents are rejoicing with the child learning how to walk for the first time. The first few steps may not be perfect, in the eyes of the adults, but they are enough for the parents to celebrate. They are perfect in a sense that the child’s attempt to walk completes the joy of the parents. Perfection is in the side of the parents.

In the same way, our feeble attempts to love our enemies may not be perfect. But if we surrender them all to our Heavenly Father, and draw strength from God’s perfect character, then we can be hopeful and receive some encouragement. Our obedience to God’s command to love our enemies (and our neighbors and all our friends), this life of obedience will become perfect in God’s eyes. God finds joy in watching His children obey Him. Simple acts of obedience celebrate God’s perfection. Little expressions of surrender complete the heart of God.

A Life of Surrender

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48.)

In the text above, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. Our obedience should flow from God’s character. We love our enemies because God is perfect. This is the sum of what I want to share with you today.

But loving our enemies is a very hard command to follow. Let me suggest three levels of obedience that will help us understand this command and hopefully make it easier for everyone to “love their enemies.”

Here are three levels of obeying God’s command to love our enemies. One is the level of behavior. Two is the level of identity. Three is the level of motivation or spiritual surrender. Let me explain each level and show you how they relate to the act of loving our enemies. Towards the end, I will encourage everyone to pursue the third level. Now, let us go to the explanations.

The level of behavior is the first level where practicing our obedience is made observable by human standards. Anyone can see whether or not one is loving one’s enemies. Love is presented in action.

We are commanded to pray for those who abused us and bless those who cursed us. We are to offer our cheeks, our cloaks, our money to others without expecting any favors or returns. This is summarized in the verse; “Do to others as you would like them to do to you” (Luke 6:31 NLT). In other words, our outward actions reflect the love of God for all people.

The level of identity is the second level where the internal values of the Christian believer are identified. One’s identity is challenged. Jesus calls his followers to a life of goodness, a life different from that of the “sinners” of this world.

We are mandated to love others, do good to everyone, including our enemies, because we are different.  The Gospel writer made the strong point that everyone practices good works—even sinners show love to their friends. But Christians are different. We not only love our friends, but also practice love for non-friends. We ought to bless those who cursed us and love our enemies. This is what separates us from other religious persons. This is our identity as a follower of Jesus.

Now, these two levels, the level of behavior and the level of identity, are sufficient ways of explaining the life of loving one’s enemies. However, if we do not move deeper into the third level, then our acts of obedience will still be difficult to practice and the command will continue to be hard to follow. So, let us proceed to the third level.

The level of surrender is the third level, the deepest level, where one submits his or her motivation to the being of God. In other words, a person surrenders to God all that he or she wants to do to love one’s enemies. One obeys because it brings him or her closer to God, and not just following ethical standards or human laws. One’s surrender is founded in the character of God. We are commanded to be perfect because God is perfect, and so we surrender in obedience.

This is a level of spirituality that is soaked in love—loving our neighbor as our selves, and loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, as stated in Matthew 22:37.

We are to love our enemies because we want to be like God, to practice mercy because He is the God of mercy. We love because God is love. Since, it is very hard for us to love our enemies, then we surrender ourselves to God, to His perfection, and let Him do His work in our lives. We ask Him to change our behavior, to strengthen our identity, and to deepen our surrender, deepen our obedience in a life of love. And so, we move to the deepest level, a life of surrender to our God.

Worship In A Language You Don’t Understand

Have you ever been in a gathering of Jesus-followers expressing worship and celebrating God’s goodness in a language that you do not know or in a tradition that you are not familiar with? And after your visit, did you still come out of that experience with a sense of Divine Presence and a touch of the Spirit of God?

One pastor suggested that every Christian makes it a practice to go and “visit a worship service with a different tradition or style than you are used to” (Calhoun 2015:51). I would even go a little further and encourage everyone to seek out a worship celebration where the gathered ones are using a language you do not understand. (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. 2015. Rev. edition. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. IL: IVP Books.)

Our Lectionary Reading for this week (03/12/2023) is from Psalm 95, where the Psalmist is exhorting the readers to make a joyful noise, to come into God’s presence with a grateful heart, and to bow down to the Maker of heaven and earth. On the same breath, the Psalmist reminds everyone to listen to God’s voice and not harden one’s heart—to not follow the example of the people of God.  “Don’t harden your hearts as Israel did at Meribah, as they did at Massah in the wilderness. For there your ancestors tested and tried my patience, even though they saw everything I did. (Psalm 95:8-9 NLT).

I think, going to a Christian celebration where the medium is unfamiliar to you, is a good discipline, an excellent practice of reminding ourselves that worship is all about God. This exercise will force us to listen to the Spirit of God. It will be a perfect time to soften our hearts before the Maker of heaven and earth and remember our life of disobedience and surrender them at the feet of Jesus. In these kinds of experiences, we will find rest for our soul and our joyful noise will come straight from our heart and go directly to the heart of God.

So, go and seek out a “worship service” where the gathered ones are singing in a different language and speaking to each other in a tongue you do not understand. God will be with you there and the Spirit of God will be your Interpreter—your Friend and Counselor.

"Drop everything and listen, listen as He speaks." (Psalm 95:7 MSG)

The Goal of Prayer

When we close the door to our prayer room, we achieve some form of privacy and a level of intimacy with our prayers. Jesus said: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). So, what is our goal in practicing this form of prayer?

There is a posture in prayer which leads us to the goal of prayer. Our goal is to receive and enter into His Presence. When we pray, we long for the Father to see us in secret and reward us. When we are in His Presence, surrounded by His purity and holiness, then we are blessed and we see God. This is when the blessing makes sense, the one where Jesus says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). We see Him and we are seen by God. 

In the Gospel of Luke, when we come to the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, Luke mentions a parable of a neighbor who receives his request from his friend because he asked with shameless persistence. Here in Luke 11:1-13, we read of the Lord’s Prayer and various teachings about prayer. In verse 13, Jesus states: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

The goal in prayer is that everyone who prays can receive and enter into the Presence of the Spirit of God. And when the Spirit is in your deepest thoughts, your inner sanctuary, then you can experience peace, become pure, practice mercy, receive humility, and offer your poverty, pain, and persecution as gifts to your friends around you. So, go ahead and ask the Father the question: “How much do you love me?” Celebrate His presence in your life and through your prayers.

Listen To Jesus

Listening to someone is hard when we are talking. And sometimes, even when our lips are not moving, we still can’t tune in to what others are saying because we are busy thinking of words to say on the next available opportunity we get. Listen! God spoke from the cloud on that mountain saying: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). We are to listen and align our hearts to Jesus. We need to be silent before our God and listen to His Son. 

On this Transfiguration Sunday (02/19/2023), please read our Lectionary Gospel Reading from Matthew 17: 1-9. We will be ready to listen to God when our hearts and minds are soaked in the “silence of God” or the quiet assurance of His presence. It is only after we have learned to be silent before God that our words will take on deep meaning for others.

“Words can only create communion and thus new life when they embody the silence from which they emerge. As soon as we begin to take hold of each other by our words, and use words to defend ourselves or offend others, the word no longer speaks of silence. But when the word calls forth the healing and restoring stillness of its silence, few words are needed: much can be said without much being spoken.” (Nouwen 1981:57. -- from: Henri Nouwen. 1981. The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. NY: Harper Collins Publisher)

His Face Is Shining

His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. Something wonderful was happening with their Lord, and all Peter could say was: “Let us camp out here.” This was the day when Jesus was transfigured before the disciples’ eyes. Prophets appeared before them. A bright cloud covered them and a voice from heaven said: “Listen to Jesus.” Something precious was unfolding. God reached out from His divine abode to reveal a beautiful encounter, and all Peter could do was talk about building some tents there in the mountain.

Tomorrow is Transfiguration Sunday. Please read our Lectionary Gospel Reading from Matthew 17:1-9. In our present day, we have similar experiences, akin to the mountain-top encounter of this Transfiguration. Most of us are quick to go and tell the world of our spiritual encounter. We start opening our mouths like Peter. Just like the disciples, our sharing is more of a response out of fear, distress, and confusion. Look again how Peter and the rest of the group responded in verses 6, 19, and 23. Henri Nouwen suggested that when we have a spiritual encounter, we need to nurture it in silence. Remembering God’s visit guards the fire from within. It is only from this sanctified quietness that words will start forming and a time for sharing will be revealed.

Nouwen states: “But let us at least raise the question of whether our lavish ways of sharing are not more compulsive than virtuous; that instead of creating community they tend to flatten out our life together. Often we come home from a sharing session with a feeling that something precious has been taken away from us or that holy ground has been trodden upon…. What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us.” Nouwen continues: “Our first and foremost task is faithfully to care for the inward fire so that when it is really needed it can offer warmth and light to lost travelers” (1981:53-55).

(Henri Nouwen. 1981. The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. NY: Harper Collins Publisher)

Anonymous Generosity: Silent Service

Can we really be anonymous in our giving and service? Jesus said: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). It looks like it is very clear cut: no public display of generosity. Let me ask the question in a more tangible way. If we are focused on giving in the ways of the kingdom of God, should we then disregard the affirmation of our friends when we are serving them? Maybe, we should go around serving others with a mask or a hood over our head so that they can not see that it is us who are serving them. Or maybe, we should just help others virtually, so that the persons receiving our generous gifts won’t know who we are. We could go on and on. The question is: “Do we need to be silent about our service?” I propose a rephrasing of the question. We should focus on our proximity to the kingdom of God. The question, rather, should be: “How close are we to the kingdom of God?“

In the 21st Century, it is very hard or even impossible to practice serving others in the way Jesus describes it in Matthew 6:3. With today’s high speed data transfer and everyone owning a mobile phone with a camera, any act of service will surely move from the left hand to the right hand—everyone knows quickly what one is doing, good or bad. Anonymity is now a near impossibility.

Thus, we ask question: What does closeness to the kingdom of God mean when we are out serving others and practicing generosity? The answer is stated in the question. We focus on the closeness to the kingdom of God. When we are intimate with the King, then our service is full of mercy and comfort. We give help to others, but we know only the King can satisfy them and the peace of God is the only thing that can comfort them. We offer our gifts to our friends, but we also confess that we are fellow travelers and we are poor just like them, and continue to hunger and thirst for righteousness just like them. We practice generosity and a life of service not that people will see our benevolent acts, but so that God will see us. We do these acts of kindness not to hear our friends appreciation, but to hear the affirmation of our Lord, when he calls us sons and daughters of God. We give, help, serve, and become generous because we are seeking the kingdom of God.