For Mom

Proverbs 31:28 Her children rise up and call her blessed

In the 38th year of my life, there are few things which have endured since my beginning. In our modern age of impermanence and unsettledness, life is constantly changing.  Life looks very different today for me than it did 5 and 10 and 20 years ago.

But one of the few blessings which have remained constant through it all is my mom. For as far back as I can remember, she has been a constant expression of God’s goodness to me.

Some of my earliest memories are of my mom patiently reading to me Bible stories before bed.

I remember mom taking a break from playing tennis in order to play catch with me and encouraging me when I caught the tennis ball.

I remember one my first birthday parties (6 or 7?) when mom invited the neighbor kids and made some fried chicken.

I remember visiting America for the first time and going to Disneyworld with mom in December and having hot chocolate.

I remember coming to America with dad and how mom remained behind to manage the store and wrap things up.

I have a general memory of the countless hours she spent working with me on my handwriting, on my math, on my Chinese homework.

I remember as a little boy going on walks with my mom when she was expecting Jennifer and sitting with her in the living room trying to feel the baby kick on her belly.

I remember the birthday party she organized for me during those awkward middle school years and having friends over to my house.

I remember how I always seemed to get caught by mom playing video games when I shouldn’t have been… and how wisely and graciously she responded.

I remember going to my uncle’s dry cleaners after school where she worked and looking forward to getting a meatball sub.

I remember when dad hurt his back and mom asked us to pray for her as she managed our store all by herself.

I remember being broken-hearted over a girl and being able to talk to my mom about it.

I remember many times when I was sick and when you’re sick, there’s no one quite like mom to care for you.

I remember being an ungrateful teenager, and yet how graciously and patiently mom dealt with me.

I remember praying together with mom as she wept over the death of her brother.

I remember regularly seeing her reading her Bible and praying for God’s grace up on her children.

I remember the weekly prayer meetings and Bible studies she would host in our home.

I remember her taking me to countless church and school functions and waiting patiently for me (and this was before smartphones to keep her entertained).

I remember going off to college and missing mom’s cooking so much.

I remember how I was able to save so much money by moving back home after college and being reminded of how mom never stopped being mom (and that’s a good thing!).

I remember how mom encouraged me not to give up when I was frustrated with my job, and to pray for God’s direction for my life.

I remember when we sold the store and mom worked for the school district in a job she was way overqualified for, but still did it with the humility and grace that comes from the gospel.

I remember mom sitting up front during some of my earliest sermons (and they were pretty bad) and encouraging me in them.

I remember mom’s patience with me as I became more obnoxious and argumentative in my theological views.

I remember her encouragement and prayers for me as I headed off to seminary and eventually to pastoral ministry.

I remember my mom going with me to Washington DC and helping me get settled as I started the internship at CHBC.

I remember how kindly my mom welcomed and accepted Stephanie when I first brought her home to Houston.

I remember how happy I was to have my mom and the rest of my family and extended family there in DC for my wedding.

I remember how my mom stayed with us when Jubilee was born and helped care for Steph and pack the home as we prepared to move to Portland.

I remember how my mom cried when we were leaving after our first visit to Houston with Jubilee.

I remember how well my mom has loved all my kids and has prayed for them just as she prayed for me.

It’s an amazing thing to trace my life through the love of one person. Yet in God’s kindness, this is the blessing that my mom has been all my life.

On this 70th birthday, Ma, thank you. I love you.

 

The Gospel Advances through Suffering

Last night, the elders met with a young member of the church who shared his desire to be sent out to join a work among an unreached people group. We’ve seen this young man serve in our midst for several years now, discipling, evangelizing, and being fruitful. For many years he has felt the call of missions upon his life, and now, he senses God’s calling to partner with an existing work that we support. But he doesn’t want to just go off on his own. He wants to be sent.

As the elders listened to him, asked questions and affirmed what we’ve seen in him, one of us asked him whether or not he’s counted the cost. This young man is single. He comes from a large tight-knit family with many brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. And there, in deep emotion, we saw him express the sorrow it would be to be apart from them, for his children not to grow up with their cousins, for the sacrifice of distance. In that sorrow, we were sobered by the reality of the cost.

But then, in faith, he affirmed that Christ is worthy of such sacrifice, that He may be praised among the lost.

This is the way of God’s kingdom in this fallen world. The gospel does not advance through worldly success and power and techniques. The gospel advances through the sacrificial suffering of God’s servants.

The Lord Jesus himself modeled this:

John 12:23    Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds…
John 12:27    “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

It was persecution and suffering which mobilized the early church.

Acts 8:1    On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria….
Acts 8:4    Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

And was through the suffering of the apostle Paul that the gospel broke through and churches were planted throughout the Gentile world.

2 Cor. 11:24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

And so it goes on today. Again and again, the gospel advances not as the church experiences the favor and blessing of worldly authorities, but as Christians lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel.

As we listened to our brother share of his desire to be sent out and felt the weight of his sacrifice, we also knew that we had a sacrifice to make. In sending out workers, churches should send out their best. We want to send out workers like Paul and Barnabas. We want to send men and women who are gifted to teach, integral to the ministry, spiritually fruitful… Most of all, we want to send out men and women who are well-known and loved by the congregation. And so we sacrifice members of our very Body, for the sake of Christ and his gospel among the lost. And yet in that sacrifice, both of the senders and the sent, we have a promise:

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single seed.

But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

A Christmas Funeral Meditation

A year ago this week, my good friend Bozy went home to be with the Lord. I had the honor of preaching at his memorial service on Dec. 22, 2016, reflecting on the Savior who was born to give his life for us.

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When I arrived in 2010, one of my first visitations was to Bozy, who had recently returned home from the hospital. Little did I know that Bozy would become a dear friend to me, as we would often talk on Sundays, go out to lunch, he would have my family over to his home… of course there would also be more hospital visits and assisted living visits over the years, but even in the hard times, Bozy was always an encouragement to me, pointing me to Christ, reminding me of God’s goodness. I’m grateful to have known him as a brother in Christ, and as a friend. And it’s an honor to be able to open God’s Word today.

As you know, Bozy died on December 11. Here we are, on December 22, just a few days before Christmas. And for those of you loved Bozy, especially family, it’s hard going through Christmas without someone so dear. We associate Christmas with joy and family and togetherness… and yet this funeral speaks of separation, loss, and death.

The juxtaposition of Christmas and death can be discouraging, confusing. But then again, perhaps this forces us to ask ourselves: What is Christmas really about? What good is the warmth and sentimentality of Christmas, if it crumbles before the reality of death? Or is Christmas good and glorious enough to deal with a day like today, even in the face of death?

Oh friends, in the midst of a Christmas season that is so often filled with distractions, we want to look to God’s Word, and be reminded of the real reason for our hope.

Let me read from Luke 2 of the account of the birth of Jesus:

Luke 2:8        And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:13     Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

Luke 2:14     “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Christmas is about the arrival of Jesus, the Savior. But this Jesus is not just a mighty prophet or a powerful warrior. No, as we see in vs. 11, he is Christ “the Lord”. The Lord is the divine title used throughout the Old Testament to refer to God, the Maker and Ruler of Heaven and Earth.  And now, as the shepherds watch in terror, God’s angelic armies have come to announce His arrival on the earth. This is the promised Messiah, the descendant of David who would rescue all of God’s people and bring about peace on earth.

But how are these poor shepherds to find him? What is the sign that God has done this?

12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

What a strange sign. Not what we would have expected. With the angel armies announcing the arrival of the Savior… you would expect something different…maybe a royal coronation or priestly ceremony. But instead, you have two humble signs: a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. What does this sign mean?

Wrapped in cloths

Well, let’s think about the first part of the sign: You will find a baby “wrapped in cloths” or as the old King James put it, “wrapped in swaddling cloths”. And of course, that would be a perfectly normal thing for any newborn child in any Jewish household in the first century… or for that matter, in any household today. Babies are helpless. They need to be protected, to be warmed from the cold, and so a mother swaddles her baby.

Perhaps what’s so extraordinary about this, is simply that it is so ordinary, so human. The God of Angel Armies is now a swaddled baby, as much a baby as any of us were at one point. But the sign here is not only about Christ’s humanity. It’s about his frailty, his mortality, and points to his coming suffering. Here at the outset, we see what will characterize Jesus’ life. Not comfort and ease and worldly power. But as the prophets foretold, he would go on to be “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”

Hated by the religious leaders, misunderstood by the fickle crowds, experiencing the hardships of a homeless life… Jesus was familiar with suffering. But this suffering would only be a foreshadowing of the greatest suffering he experienced. At the end of his life, he was abandoned by his disciples, betrayed by his countrymen, and handed over to the Romans to be crucified on a cross, dying the shameful death of a criminal.

After his death, a man would ask for permission to bury Jesus’ body. And so Luke records:

Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.

The body which once was swaddled in cloths at the beginning of his life, is again wrapped in cloths at the end of his life, and placed in a tomb. It’s no accident that so much of religious art depicts the nativity scene in a cave, reminiscent of the tomb that Christ, wrapped in cloths, would once again be laid in.

What kind of Savior is this?

A funeral reminds us that our biggest enemy in this life is not the government, or that difficult co-worker or neighbor, or global warming… No our biggest enemy in life is death. Because no matter how good life may be today, we are all headed for death.

One of the things I loved about Bozy was how young at heart he was. He lived a life marked by vigor. Rosemary Clow tells me about the Hinson retreat a number of years ago, where Bozy, in 70’s (or maybe 80’s?) rode a zip line down and dropped into a frigid lake.  I’m sure our insurance agent would not have approved of it.  But that’s the point.  He was full of life.

And yet Bozy also knew the reality of death. The tragic loss of his son, Ken. The weeks and months spent caring for his wife Shirley through her terrible decline all the way to her death. And certainly he saw the deaths of many, many dear friends here in his church family. Along with that, he saw his own decline… my last visit to Bozy, to see him bedridden, working hard to breathe… Bozy understood that death was his enemy.

Friends, this is why Jesus came. Death is God’s judgment on us for our sin. All of us here have sinned against God, have lived as if we were God, rejecting His good and loving reign over our lives.

But God, in His mercy, sent His Son into this world, taking on our humanity, living the life of obedience that we should have lived, and then offering that life as a sacrifice on the cross, bearing the judgment and death that we deserved, in our place.

And yet three days later, Jesus rose from the dead in glory, proving His victory over death! And He ascended to heaven as the Lord of Life and Savior of the World. Friends, this is what Christmas is all about. Not the sentimentality of a swaddled infant. No, but the arrival of the Savior who would slay death by his own death, and who guarantees eternal life for all who will repent of their sins and trust in Him. As one ancient theologian said,

“He was wrapped in swaddling bands, but at the resurrection he released the swaddling bands of the grave.”

Friends, as we grieve the death of our friend, realize that this is why Christmas matters. A Savior has been born to you. A Savior who bears your sins, and conquers your death.

Lying in a Manger

Let’s think about the second sign given by the angels: You will find a baby “lying in a manger.” A manger is basically a feeding trough for animals. Now this is an unusual sign. You normally don’t find babies lying in a manger. Luke repeats this sign three times throughout the narrative, pointing to the uniqueness of the sign. We would have expected to find the Lord in a palace, lying on a royal bed. But instead, we find him in a stable, lying in a manger.

What does it mean? Well, we see something of the poverty of the Messiah in this. Jesus came not as a ruler, but as a servant. As He himself proclaimed, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And this serving is what would characterize his life and ministry…. proclaiming the truth, healing the sick, befriending the outcast, feeding the hungry, confronting injustice, casting out demons… Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. And he didn’t do this for money or fame… No, he did this because of love.

But the greatest service that he offered was his passion at the end of his life. Because there, at the cross, he gives us, not blessings from afar, no, he gives us Himself.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Passover meal. And during that meal, this is what Luke records:

Luke 22:19               And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Luke 22:20               In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

 And so the one who once lay in a place of feeding for animals, now goes to the cross, offering his body and blood for the feeding of mankind.

Friends, this is what it means to come to Jesus.

For some people, they think receiving Jesus means knowing about him intellectually.

For others, it means having a kind of sentimental attachment to him for past memories or during the holidays.

For others, it means seeing him as an example of virtue or justice.

Those things aren’t necessarily bad. But they miss the most important point. To receive this King most fundamentally means that we partake of His body broken for us, His blood shed for us. It means we receive His death for us, personally. We lay down our efforts to justify ourselves, to commend ourselves to God, to try to make ourselves right before God… and we accept his service for us. We come to that manger, dirty, imperfect, brutish… and by faith, we feed on the Bread of Life.

We’ve talked a lot today about Bozy’s service to the church. And we could go on all afternoon with more stories. He had a plaque hanging in his room, commemorating over 40 years of service in Hinson’s children’s ministry. One of my recent memories is Bozy in his 80’s with his bad back and bad knees volunteering to clean and disinfect toys in the nursery. Bozy was a servant of God’s people. But this makes sense, because he was reflecting the character of his Savior. His Savior did not come to be served, but to serve, and having been so lovingly served by Christ, Bozy wanted to serve others too.

During my last visit to Bozy, I asked him what he would want for his memorial service. And this was his response:

“Don’t praise me… I didn’t do it… The Lord did. So you can say that He used this old guy with a silly nickname who was around there for a long time… but I’m so thankful that He did it.”

As much as Bozy served, he was convinced that fundamentally, he was someone who had been served and loved by Christ.  And he looked forward to seeing His Savior face to face. We trust that Bozy has made it home, and is rejoicing with his Savior.

But this service is not for him. It’s for us. For us who continue to experience the suffering of this world and sin in our hearts. For us who will one day encounter death and stand before God to give an account for our lives. Oh friends, what are you relying on for that? Your past religious performance? The family you’ve come from? Your own standard of goodness?

Friend, all those hopes will fall short of God’s glory. But our hope was never meant to be in ourselves. Rather, Christmas reminds us that God has provided a far better Savior.

Oh friend, even today, turn to Jesus Christ… the Lord who was wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger, in order that death might be defeated, and that we might partake of his life.

Friend, this Christmas season, in the midst of death, hear what the angels declare: a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

The Blessing of our Differences

In preaching an advent sermon in 1 Samuel 1, I had a chance to consider what it would mean for Hinson to be a church for troubled people like Hannah. There is no such thing as “normal” and “not normal” in the body of Christ, but in Christ, all people, single, barren, foreign, old, young, etc… belong every bit as much as the other. As I reflected on this question, it became clear that we come to know God’s goodness as He brings people with all kinds of differing life experiences, backgrounds, and even sufferings into one body. Here are a few ways that this happens:

  • Thankfulness – The parents who are overwhelmed by the task of parenting are reminded of God’s blessing in giving them children as they walk with couples who are childless. The Americans who hear stories of all that the refugee went through to come to America are reminded of the kindness of God in their freedoms and prosperity. And as the childless and refugee share their stories, they see the unique opportunities that they have in the body.
  • Stewardship – As those who have been given much walk alongside those who have been given little, they grow in their sense of their stewardship of what God has given them. These blessings are given not merely for their own enjoyment, but in order that others may share in them. And in their faith and prayers, those who have little also have a role to play in encouraging the body and modeling hope.
  • Witness – A diverse congregation will reach a diverse world. The single person, the foreigner, the ones who have experienced tragic loss, they will reach a community that the “average” person in the church will never reach. As the church comes together in our differences, we realize that those differences are strategic gifts for gospel witness.
  • Humility – It’s always a gift to be able to see ourselves as others see us. The church provides a place where those who are different from us can lovingly point out our blind spots, within the security of the gospel. In our comfort and in our suffering, our differing perspectives guard the community against pride.
  • Worship – When we see the greatness and reality of the gospel in bringing hope to the barren, the outcast, the grieving, the celibate, and all the rest of God’s people, we worship. We praise God for his all-sufficient grace.

What else would you add?