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November 2019

God’s Story Is Now Our Story

    What I will share today is about God’s covenant and his promise of restoration in our lives. This centers on the idea of re-building houses and cities so that “songs of thanksgiving” will come to us. When God is our covenant God, then God’s story becomes our very own story. We will look at the example of Jeremiah and the experience of the people of Israel during their time of exile in a foreign country.

    Jeremiah 30:18-22 states: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold,  I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt on its mound, and the palace shall stand where it used to be. Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving, and the voices of those who celebrate. I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.  Their children shall be as they were of old, and their congregation shall be established before me, and I will punish all who oppress them. Their prince shall be one of themselves; their ruler shall come out from their midst;  I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me, for who would dare of himself to approach me? declares the LORD.  And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.’ ” (Jer. 30:18-22, ESV.)

    Let me start with the idea of restoration. What do we do when we are restoring an old house? Do we destroy the old structure? No. We try to repair what could be repaired and enhance some parts to bring its original beauty. The bottom line is that people will see the restored house and respond with admiration and words, like “beautiful” and “wonderful.” Because of the restoration, the story of the old house will be a new story.

    There is the story of restoration and recovery from the life and witness of Steven Curtis Chapman. He wrote a song “Beauty Will Rise.” It is based on a verse in Psalm 30:5. It says: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5b). The song is a response to a family tragedy. Chapman went through the earth-shaking experience of losing a child. Anyone who has gone through this type of loss knows how devastating it could be. And yet, Chapman testifies of God’s restoration. The whole album and series of songs highlights God’s grace and the beauty that comes from God’s presence.

    In a similar way, the whole book of Jeremiah speaks of God’s grace, restoring Israel from out of their ashes, the whole humiliating experience of being exiled to a foreign land. Jeremiah 31:31-34 speaks of God’s renewal. Renewal involves restoration. Included in this “new covenant” is the promise of giving “the law within them” and prophetic description of God’s abiding presence to every person of this new covenant (Jer. 31:33, ESV). Just like a tragic loss of a family member, the exile experience of the people of God will become a part of God’s story. The main difference is that God’s grace and restoration shall be written within the heart of the person, engraved into the stories of the people of God. God himself will make this happen.

    In our text in Jeremiah chapter 30, the verses refer to God restoring the people of Israel and Judah. He will bring them out of exile and lead them to their homeland. The phrase “I will” is repeated 18 times in this chapter. In verse 3, God is saying “I will restore my people.” Restoration is an act of God. He will be the one to do it. In the end, people around will look at the restoration and say, “God restored this city, or this house, or this family, or this person. He alone did it.” God’s story will become the people’s story.

    The exiled experience of the people of Israel was not a glamorous life. On the contrary, it was a sad and depressing time. Families were separated. Friends were left behind when they moved to Babylon. Life in a foreign land was full of unfamiliar things. There were a lot of strange food, misunderstood conversations, and religious practices were not as free as they should be. (Most of us can partially relate to these foreign land experiences.) In all these depressing moments, God is saying he will be the one to restore the people. Later, everyone will look back to these past exiled experiences and say, “God was with us. He restored us, even though we were in a foreign land.” God’s story became their story. 

    Honestly though, it is hard to claim there is joy in our lives when we look back at our past experiences that were depressing and sad. Take for example the experience of the death of a love one. We have to admit it is difficult. And some nights, we just cry out all alone. In my life, I have to admit I still have feelings of regrets whenever I think of the death of my mother in 1990, or my father in 2001, or my brother in 2018. I keep thinking, I could have done more. I could have spent more time with them. Nonetheless, God always reminds me that he is in control. He keeps saying: “I will write my story in the pages of your life. I will be victorious in the midst of your past life. Just follow me with all your heart, and I will give you joy.” In the end, God’s story will become my story.

    God’s promise is that we will find his restoration when we seek him “with all our heart” (Jer. 29:13). There is a hope for the future. There is also an assurance of restoration in the present. God’s promise is not only for Israel, but to everyone who comes and prays to him. His promise states: “I will hear you” (Jer. 29:12). This covenant language in the Book of Jeremiah resonates with the promise of Jesus to everyone who comes to him. “You will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30). Restoration is promised to anyone who comes to God.

    This idea of restoration brought about by God’s story and work in our lives is what is meant in these few verses that we read in Jeremiah chapter 30. Verse 18 speaks of “rebuilding cities on its mound.” What is a “mound?” Let me pause a little bit and give a short background description of what a mound is for the people from the Ancient Near East region.  

    What is a mound? A mound is an elevated place, like a hill. When a city is destroyed or abandoned, the ruins of the city become a mound. After many years, the remains of the old city, its fallen buildings and wild vegetation and trees, they all form to cover the ruins of the old city and they form the “mound” that people see.

    The idea of a mound is that in the past, there was a city, but at present there is only a mound. Whereas, before, there were the sound of singing and the sight of families happily living in houses, but now, they are all ruins—just a mound. When other people pass by the mound, they will say: “Before, there was a city here, but now, it is gone. Before there was laughter and joy, but now, there is silence and absence of people.” The mound becomes an object for taunting and a place of shame. It represents everything that is unwanted and depressing.

    So, the question is this: “How can God bring stories of joy and laughter to an empty mound?” The challenge is to see God working in our lives when we feel like an empty mound. Can there be songs and thanksgiving again? Can God’s story become my story?

    Let me share at this point a short personal reflection from my past. There was a time in my life that I almost decided to abandon my Christian faith. I was so tired of being a pastor, being a Christian, being a good person for everyone to see. At that time, my discouragement took away the freedom from my faith. I was losing hope, and felt like everyone was judging me. I felt so empty and wanted to escape. I felt like a mound. People were looking at me and all they could see is silence and the absence of laughter and joy. I wanted to quit.

    Perhaps, you feel like an empty mound at this moment. Maybe, you think, the people who pass by, they look at you and say: “Before, there was laughter and joy, but now, there is despair and the absence of loving friends.” Do you feel this way? Is this your life? Rejoice! Be glad, because God promises to bring restoration. God said: “From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained.” (See, Jeremiah 30:19, NIV)

    Pray and come to God with all your heart. The “mounds of your life” will still be there, but God will help you build, rebuild houses and cities on top of these mounds. God’s restoration will come. There will be laughter. Friends will sing songs of joy. Everyone will celebrate God’s goodness in your life. Strangers will come and see your life, including the “mound of pain and sorrow,” but, instead of defeat, they will hear singing and see celebration. They will experience God’s victory through you. Because, you are at a point when God’s story has now become your own story.

    Here is another story. Babylove is my sister’s grandchild. He suffers a very rare form of epilepsy called infantile spasm. These spams disrupt normal childhood development. Without treatment an infant will regress and completely lose muscle control. Babylove is doing well despite all the necessary procedures he has to go through at every hospital visit. He undergoes treatment by various neurologists and many other doctors. He also has physical therapy, occupational therapy including vision treatment and even speech therapy. He's a busy boy with all the appointments and hospital visits that he's made in the past few months but almost always keeps a cheerful attitude through all the medical procedures. In spite of all the obstacles he faces a real joy for life fills Babylove and he frequently shares his joy at being alive quite loudly with everyone nearby.

    Why am I sharing Babylove’s story here. For one, I want to share Babylove’s joy for life as friends and family pray for his healing and help his mom and dad take care of this precious little one. Also,  I want to testify to the spirit of gratitude and life of victory the family is demonstrating to everyone. Despite this “mound” in my sister’s life, the difficulties that come with Babylove’s medical condition, the family is demonstrating God’s love and thanksgiving. They continue trusting in God’s restoration and healing. God’s sustaining grace and comforting presence is always an integral part of their narrative. God’s story has now become their story.

    I mentioned earlier the story of Steven Curtis Chapman, an American Christian songwriter. On May 21, 2008 his youngest adopted daughter, Maria Sue, age 5, was killed in the driveway of their home in a tragic vehicle accident. Steven wrote songs as he was grieving of his family’s loss. The songs from this album (Beauty Will Rise) is a reflection of the heart of the Chapman family since that tragic event. God’s story of beauty and grace is now rising to become the central story of their family life.  

    "Beauty Will Rise," the title track, brings the listener through the events of those depressing days. Here are some lines front he song: "It was the day the world went wrong, I screamed till my voice was gone / I watched through the tears as everything / came crashing down / slowly panic turns to pain / as we awake to what remains / and sift through the ashes that are left behind / but buried deep beneath of all our broken dreams we have this hope / Out of these ashes / beauty will rise . . . for we know joy is coming in the morning." You can almost feel the raw emotion behind the words. They are overwhelming, but the lyrics come full circle, from pain to joy, and the hope of the promise. "It will take our breath away to see the beauty that He's made / Out of the ashes." Listen to the song. The music itself is beautiful. In the midst of the desperate and difficult themes, the song still manages to create a sense of being uplifted and inspired. You can tell that God’s story of grace is very real to this songwriter. God’s story of restoration has now become Chapman’s story of victory and songs of inspiration.

    In summary, the covenant-God promised to do these things for us—to give joy and hope in our lives. He promises to restore our brokenness. He will take our past and renew it so that our lives can be a source of blessing for others. We will be overflowing with gratefulness. He promises to rebuild our houses, so that there will be songs of thanksgiving again. He said: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Jer. 30:22). God’s story is now our story. 

Different Strokes For Asia

Different Strokes For (Maybe) Different Folks

In the Book of Acts, Peter gives two different sermons for two different groups of listeners. The first one was the Sermon at Pentecost and the second one was the Sermon at Solomon’s Porch.  Both sermons highlights the resurrection of Jesus and the eyewitness accounts of the apostles and disciples of Jesus. (See Acts 2:32 and 3:15) Also, both sermons resulted in thousands coming to salvation in Christ.

Allow me to give you in broad strokes some differences that is obvious in Acts chapters 2-4. Sermon one was a response to the speaking of tongues phenomenon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). Sermon two happened after the healing of a lame beggar and when the people gathered in astonishment to this miraculous healing (Acts 3:11-26). Sermon one was given to “devout men and women from every nation” (2:5). These were Jews from many places, proselytes, and God-fearing gentiles from other countries who came for the temple celebrations. Sermon two was preached to curious onlookers at the Temple. They maybe the same group of people as at the first sermon. But the writer describes these onlookers as coming together to watch a formerly crippled person who is now walking with Peter and John (3:11). Later, the group was extended to include the priests, Sadducees, and other temple personnel (4:1-12).

In the content of the sermon, I already mentioned the similarity in the narration of the resurrection of Jesus. The differences in the content are expressed in the citations of the Old Testament prophecy. Sermon one uses the prophet Joel and the prophet David arguing for the coming of the Holy Spirit on all people (2:17 and 2:33).  Sermon two refers to “God’s covenant with our fathers” and the promises of God to Moses (3:13 and 3:22). It also cites God’s covenant with Abraham to be a blessing for all nations (3:25, and also in Genesis 12:1-4).

In both sermons, Peter strongly leads his listeners to respond in repentance (2:38 and 3:19). Many came to salvation in Jesus; 3,000 from the first sermon and 5,000 from the second (2:41 and 4:4). Both sermons were a precursor to more sermons, great fellowship, and a sharing of properties or everyone having “all things in common” (2:44 and 4:32). Both sermons opened the doors to persecution, imprisonments, and resistance from religious authorities. Overall, miracles and healing were happening in their midst and God’s Spirit was present at every instance. “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (4:33).

Do you think these events in the Book of Acts could happen in South Asia? Please pray that we will be ready and be filled with God’s Spirit.

Common Themes

Here in South Asia, I had the privilege of meeting two prayer warriors, Mr. Tamang and Mr. Abishek. They are already in their mid-70s, and yet, they are able to walk for days in the mountains, slowly traversing mountain trails for the purpose of praying for churches, local pastors, and families. They give a little twist to the Christian meaning of “Prayer Mountains.” What they would do is visit an area whenever there are Christian events or ministries that are soon to take place. They came to our meeting place in Bear-jet and prayed for our time of training and celebration. What I learned later was that they have this practice of coming to the area of prayer days before the actual dates, and they stay in the nearby mountains praying in the early morning, interceding for God’s blessing on the people. The other pastors told me that Mr. Tamang and Mr. Abishek would sometimes spend the night on a mountain trail simply because they would run out of time before reaching their destination or before finding a nearby village. I am glad I saw them in our gathering, and not “lost” in some mountain trails. I am so privileged to be a part of a mountain ministry that was covered by the prayers of these two warriors of God.

This is one description of a prayer ministry here in South Asia. Let me elaborate more on one church ministry that I saw during my last visit.

Bear-jet Free Methodist church is located on top of a mountain with a 5686 feet in elevation. The members of this church prays and sends one of their lay pastors, to go to another mountain area for two nights on the weekends. It takes about three hours of walking and hiking through a mountain trail before this volunteer lay pastor can be at the newly planted church. One member of this church-plant donated a one-bedroom house. The 30 or so members meet in the living room and the only bedroom becomes the living quarters of the visiting church planter. Financial contributions are very minimal and yet the work continues. Simple and yet very effective.

I met John when I was in Bear-jet FM church. We talked about the ministry and the many ways God is blessing the work. I met his family, his wife, daughter and two sons.  His wife has been spearheading the prayer ministry of the local church. His daughter and son are involved in the music ministry. A simple family and yet God is using the family members effectively for this mountain ministry in South Asia-NP.

What would this ministry above look like if we are in Michigan, USA? In what ways would a US ministry look like that of this South Asian work? How would we imagine it to be?  What are some common themes?

Imagine a Free Methodist church from Grand Rapids (MI) sending one of their volunteers to the the U.P. for a weekend ministry.  The volunteer would drive his car to the Upper Peninsula in probably less than three hours. One would certainly connect with a friend and have coffee or be invited to family dinner. There maybe a room available for him to stay in as a guest, but if not, the volunteer can always stay in a hotel for the weekend. The opportunity to share the gospel will happen during any of these meal times and fellowship with the host. I would assume the Grand Rapids congregation would be financially supporting this church plant effort. Members will be praying for the church planter. Reports will be given every so often and encouragement will be shared. Simple efforts and yet this could be a very effective way of sharing the gospel outside the confines of the local church.

Who would this church planter and volunteer be? He or she would definitely not look like John from the Bear-jet church. But, maybe, the spouse could be a prayerful partner. Maybe, the children would be involved in the local music ministry of the Grand Rapids church. Maybe, they could even join the trip to the U.P. for the weekend. This could be just a simple family. However, we rely on God to take all our simple things and he will do the rest. God will take ordinary people and make them effective tools for the work in His kingdom.

Bear-jet church is one of our Free Methodist church here in the hinterlands of South Asia. I was there in the mountains for four days, teaching and visiting our leaders last October 2019. The next time I visit there, I will talk to John and share with him some ways of developing a church plant ministry. I hope I can encourage him to continue in God’s work.

What would these ministries look like in your part of the world? Do you have prayer warriors like Mr. Tamang and Mr. Abishek? Do you have someone like John and his family? I would love to hear from you and we can compare notes and find some common themes in our stories.

South Asia Problems

    “Houston, we have a problem.” So, the saying goes. But this time around, it is a good problem. We planned for our Annual Meeting here in this South Asian city for a time of teaching, meetings, certifying our (Conference Ministerial Candidates) CMCs, and consultation with our local partners. We prepared for 50 people to meet here, but we counted 80 persons in attendance. Most of us are here because we want to celebrate this first meeting for this region and to encourage our first candidates (CMCs). We certified 20 pastors. In the years to come, these will become ordained and will be commissioned to lead the many districts and clusters of churches in the many municipalities of this country. So, in the meantime, we will have to dig deeper into our pockets and pay for the extra expenses and settle our account with the manager of this rented facility here. Good problems. Problems indicating that we are growing. 

     Today, our Country Leader reports that we have planted 25 new churches this past year. And just like in the Book of Acts, we anticipate many more problems. There is constant persecution here in South Asia. There are laws that prohibits the conversion of persons to Christianity. Poverty is a constant reason for local people’s struggles. False teaching are present in some of these village churches. We face all of these problems with the strength and enabling of the Holy Spirit. And just like in the Book of Acts, we will prevail because the Spirit of God is with us.