Reflection on Charleston and the resurrection of Jesus

  
To a large degree, the Church’s response in the US to Charleston (and other racially charged events) is based on how serious we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as God’s catalytic event that inagurates new creation. If Jesus is simply taking us “home” one day to a disembodied place called heaven, then our prayers are “Lord, come fast and get us out of here!” But if Jesus’ resurrection points to a day when heaven is coming to earth, then we have work to do. Our prayers should not be “come get us out of here.” They should be, “Lord, until you finally come, help us to work for what your good world will look like when your fully reign.” That means we work for reconciliation. We name racism and other dehumanizing sins that have permeated our country. We weep. We work. We wait.

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Some books I’ve read and recommend (January-June 2015)

Here are some books I’ve read so far this year. They have really helped to shape my thinking, spiritual formation and leadership in the first half of 2015. Click the links for a summary of the book.

1) The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your inner life will deeply transform your church, team and the world by Pete Scazzero

2) Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and Mission of the Church by NT Wright

3) The Practice of Saying No by Barbara Brown Taylor

4) More than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith by Nikki Toyama, Tracey Gee, Kathy Khang, et al. (1/4 through the book right now)

5) 24/6: A Prescription for a Happier, Healthier Life by Matthew Sleeth

6) Reimagining the Ignatian Examen by Mark Thibodeaux, SJ

7) The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ

8) The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser

9) Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Richard Rohr

10) Blindsided by God: Disappointment, Suffering and the Untamable Goodness of God:  by Peter Chin

11) Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No in the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann

12) How to read the Bible by Harvey Cox

13) Disarming Scripture: Cherry Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives and why we all need to learn to read the bible like Jesus did by Derek Flood

14) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

15) Jesus Outside the Lines : A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides by Scott Sauls

 

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My bout with Tuberculosis

January 7, 2015 3 comments

As I write these words, I’m in my 8th month of medication for Tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, also known as Mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis, or in simpler terms, scrofula. I am pleased to say that I’ve been in good health for a few months now. The medication that I began taking in June began to take effect in August. I write this blog of my experience for people who have had this condition, or will have this condition, somewhere in the world. When I was wrestling with this illness early on, I researched articles until I could find someone with a similar story. After some time, I found and read a blog of someone who had this condition. His words of hope fueled me. I’d like to do the same for others.

On March 23, 2014, I woke up with a terrible pain in my neck. I thought I had slept the wrong way, but after 10 minutes or so, I touched the side of my neck and realized that I had two very swollen lymph nodes. One of them seemed normal in shape. The other did not. The larger one, felt like a small ping pong ball. The week before I had a cold, so I figured this was related to it.

After a week, I decided to see my PCP. The swollen glands continued to bother me and the ping pong shaped gland seemed to have grown. My PCP did some initial blood work and gave me some antibiotics. Soon after I began to get fevers. Every single day. I also started having night sweats. I would go through a t-shirt every night and had to sleep with a towel underneath me. I was always tired. Every little task drained me. My appetite was gone. I wanted to sleep all the time. The medication obviously wasn’t working, but I wanted to be patient.

In the process, I began asking some of my doctor friends about this. They all said the same thing. “Rich, you need to get further testing.” After 10 days of medication, I began to feel anxiety flood my mind at various times of the day, especially at night. Within those 10 days I lost 5 pounds. For a slender guy like myself, this wasn’t good.

I walked in my doctor’s office, and after examination, she said I needed a biopsy. That word filled me again with fear. I went home to Rosie and asked her to pray for me. I was overcome with anxiety. More like dread. I tasted my mortality. That night, I slept a total of 45 minutes. For the next two weeks, I couldn’t open my bible. All I had was the bible verses I memorized (a good reason to memorize scripture!) and the prayers of close friends and family.

After a week, I had a biopsy done via FNA (fine needle aspiration). At that moment, the doctor had me take a TB blood test as well. Finally, I had an MRI done.

It took about 10-14 days for me to come to a place of trust in God’s love and power. I began to read Colossians, and came to the verse that says, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” At that moment, I began to let go of anxiety and lean more on God’s promises. The TB test came back positive. At this point, I was able to exhale. I’ve never been so happy to have TB!

At that point, I saw an infectious disease doctor who put me on a cocktail of medications. For the first 3 months, I had to take 10 pills a day. By month four, I was down to 4 per day. By the grace of God the medication didn’t affect me much. By the 3rd month, I noticed the swollen glands (at this point another gland grew larger than the others!) began to shrink. By the 5th month, all was back to normal.

For the sake of brevity, I’m leaving out other details, but I write this post for people battling TB (and other illnesses). If you’re reading this, take courage! See your doctor, invite friends and family to support you, and open yourself to the reality of a God who loves you and will sustain you.

In the process of all of this, I learned one great thing. It was more emotional and spiritual than cognitive. I learned how to have empathy with those who physically suffer. God unlocked the gift of empathy in me. I cry over people more than I did before. When I hear someone is sick, I truly intercede in prayer for them. My heart has been deepened by my sickness. I’m a better pastor as a result.

Finally, I want to thank the Elders of New Life, staff, my parents, siblings, my aunt Lydia (Gigi) for the prayers and words of encouragement. I want to thank Dr. Jennifer Jao and Dr. Linda Huang (New Life members) and Dr. Celeste Nieves who generously guided me through this whole ordeal.

And of course, I want to thank Rosie. Rosie’s non-anxious presence was the greatest gift. When I was freaking out, she was stable and reassuring.

Oh, yes…let me thank God, too. I’m grateful for Jesus, his love, the scriptures, and the Holy Spirit that produced a peace that passes all understanding.

If you are battling TB (or any other illness), and would like prayer, feel free to email me at rich@nlfnyc.org. It would be an honor to pray for you.

– Rich

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My top 14 books of 2014

December 29, 2014 1 comment

I love books, plain and simple. I try to read one book a week. Some weeks are better than others. In 2014 I was fortunate to learn from so many voices. The comment under each book is from the product description page on Amazon. My personal comments are in bold. Here are my top 14 in no particular order.

1) Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight

McKnight defines the biblical concept of kingdom, offering a thorough corrective and vision for the contemporary church. The most important articulation of kingdom was that of Jesus, who contended that the kingdom was in some sense present and in some sense in the future. The apostles talked less about the kingdom and more about the church. McKnight explains that kingdom mission is local church mission and that the present-day fetish with influencing society, culture, and politics distracts us from the mission of God: to build the local church. He also shows how kingdom theology helps to reshape the contemporary missional conversation. This book has given me better language to incorporate the church in the grand scheme of the kingdom.

2) Where God Happens by Rowan Williams

The fourth-century Christian hermits of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine understood the truth of Christian community profoundly, and their lives demonstrate it vividly—even though they often lived in solitude and isolation. The author breaks through our preconceived ideas of the Desert Fathers to reveal them in a new light: as true and worthy role models—even for us in our modern lives—who have much to teach us about dealing with the anxieties, uncertainties, and sense of isolation that have become hallmarks of modern life. They especially embody valuable insights about community, about how to live together in an intimate and meaningful way. Williams makes these radical figures, who clearly have a special place in his heart, come to life in a new way for everyone. This book had more spiritual formation gems than any book I read this year. I will come back to it every year.

3) Book of Not So Common Prayer by Linda McCullough Moore

The Book of Not So Common Prayer is a handbook that combines spiritual insight with practical action steps you can take to change your prayer habits—and change your life. It includes a prayer guide, useful tools, and “real” prayers—bypassing prayers that seem rote and routine and focusing on the kind of prayers we pray in private. This book gave me a magnificent vision of stopping 3-4 times a day to pray. Another book I will come back to regularly.

4) Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations by Kay Higuera Smith and Jayachitra Lalitha

Colonialism involves more than just territorial domination. It also creates cultural space that silences and disenfranchises those who do not hold power. This process of subjugation continues today in various forms of neocolonialism, such as globalization. Postcolonialism arose in the latter half of the twentieth century to challenge the problem of coloniality at the level of our language and our actions (praxis). Postcolonialism seeks to disrupt forms of domination and empower the marginalized to be agents of transformation. Addressing themes like nationalism, mission, Christology, catholicity and shalom, these groundbreaking essays explore new possibilities for evangelical thought, identity and practice. The contributors demonstrate the resources for postcolonial criticism within the evangelical tradition, as well as the need to subject evangelical thought to an ever-new critique to prevent the formation of new centers of domination. This book was a wonderful reminder of the need to see structural sin and the gifts of the poor and marginalized.

5) In the End -The Beginning by Jurgen Moltmann

”In my end is my beginning,” wrote T. S. Eliot, and Jürgen Moltmann’s new book is a powerful testament to personal hope in chaotic, even catastrophic times. As Moltmann’s award-winning volume The Coming of God laid out the systematic framework of eschatology (the doctrine of the ”last things”), so here he explores the personal meaning of that fundamental affirmation for Christians. Debunking the classic images of Christian apocalyptic scenarios, the final struggle between God and Satan, Christ and the Antichrist-Armageddon-Moltmann instead shows that Christian expectation of the future has nothing to do with these but everything to do with new beginnings and a horizon of hope. Three parts explore three particular beginnings: birth (childhood and youth), rebirth (failures and defeats), and resurrection (death, judgment, afterlife). This brief volume promises to be one of Moltmann’s most personal and compelling books. Moltmann is one of my favorite theologians.  I always walk away deepened and inspired after reading him.

6) A Broad Place by Jurgen Moltmann

Moltmann has marked the history of theology after the Second World War in Europe and North America like no other. He is the most widely read, quoted, and translated theologian of our time. Now, after Moltmann has celebrated his eightieth birthday, he looks back on a life engaged in forging a Christian response to the tumult and opportunities of our time. In this autobiography Moltmann tells his life story, from his Hamburg youth in an “alternative” parental home to the incomplete completion of the present moment, and he reflects on the journey of his own theological development and creativity. A wide-ranging document alert to the deeper currents of his time and ours, Moltmann’s work is at the same time an entertaining reconsideration of a life full of intense experience and new beginnings. Reading his autobiography helped explain so much of his theology.

7) Four pages of the sermon by Paul Scott Wilson

Doing justice to the complexity of the preaching task and the questions that underlie it, Wilson organizes both the preparation and the content of the sermon around its “four pages.”  Each “page” addresses a different theological and creative component of what happens in any sermon. Page One presents the trouble or conflict that takes place in or that underscores the biblical text itself.  Page Two looks at similar conflict–sin or brokenness–in our own time.  Page Three returns to the Bible to identify where God is at work in or behind the text–in other words, to discover the good news.  Page Four points to God at work in our world, particularly in relation to the situations described in Page Two. This book changed how I approach creating sermons. I have a new outline and I love everything about it!

8) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro

One of the most acclaimed books of our time, winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city’s politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today. Confession: I read only 800 of the 1300 pages. I’ll return to it in 2015.

9) Surprised by Scripture by NT Wright

In this challenging and stimulating collection of popular essays, sermons, and talks, Wright provide a series of case studies which explore how the Bible can be applied to some of the most pressing contemporary issues facing us, including:

  • Why it is possible to love the Bible and affirm evolution
  • Why women should be allowed to be ordained
  • Where Christians today have lost focus, and why it is important for them to engage in politics—and why that involvement benefits everyone
  • Why the Christian belief in heaven means we should be at the forefront of the environmental movement
  • And much more

Helpful, practical, and wise, Surprised by Scripture invites readers to examine their own hearts and minds and presents new models for understanding how to affirm the Bible in today’s world—as well as new ideas and renewed energy for deepening our faith and engaging with the world around us. Tom Wright is hands down one of my favorites. I try to read everything he writes.

10) Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

The health of your soul isn’t just a matter of saved or unsaved. It’s the hinge on which the rest of your life hangs. It’s the difference between deep, satisfied spirituality and a restless, dispassionate faith.

In an age of materialism and consumerism that tries to buy its way to happiness, many souls are starved and unhealthy, unsatisfied by false promises of status and wealth. We’ve neglected this eternal part of ourselves, focusing instead on the temporal concerns of the world—and not without consequence. Loved Ortberg’s systematic and accessible take on the soul.

11) Theology of Mission by John Howard Yoder

Yoder effortlessly weaves together biblical, theological, practical and interreligious reflections to think about mission beyond Christendom. Along the way he traces the developments in the theology of mission and argues for an understanding of the church that is not merely a corrective but a genuine alternative. The church is missionary by nature, called to bear witness to the coming kingdom, because it serves the missionary God of the Bible “who comes, who takes the initiative, who reaches across whatever it is that separates us.” Decades later, these lectures read just as fresh and relevant as if they were written today. As the editors state in their preface, “those who have followed Yoder’s work over the years will find this book to be some of his most striking unpublished material since The Politics of Jesus.” Not just a volume for Yoder enthusiasts, Theology of Mission is for anyone who cares about the mission of the church today. It only reinforces Yoder’s status as one of the most important and prophetic theologians of the last century.

12) Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.

Plantinga — himself a master preacher — shows how a wide reading program can benefit preachers. First, he says, good reading generates delight, and the preacher who enters the world of delight goes with God. Good reading can also help tune the preacher’s ear for language — his or her primary tool. General reading can enlarge the preacher’s sympathies for people and situations that she or he had previously known nothing about. And, above all, the preacher who reads widely has the chance to become wise. This beautifully written book will benefit not just preachers but anyone interested in the wisdom to be derived from reading. If you’re a preacher, you should read this. Now.

13) Technopoly by Neil Postman

In this witty, often terrifying work of cultural criticism, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death chronicles our transformation into a Technopoly: a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it–with radical consequences for the meanings of politics, art, education, intelligence, and truth. Written in 1993, Postman speaks prophetically to us about the nature of technology and how it hampers us.

14) How Not To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular is what Jamie Smith calls “your hitchhiker’s guide to the present” — it is both a reading guide to Charles Taylor’s monumental work A Secular Age and philosophical guidance on how we might learn to live in our times. Taylor’s landmark book A Secular Age (2007) provides a monumental, incisive analysis of what it means to live in the post-Christian present — a pluralist world of competing beliefs and growing unbelief. Jamie Smith’s book is a compact field guide to Taylor’s insightful study of the secular, making that very significant but daunting work accessible to a wide array of readers. I’ve become a big fan of Smith. This was super insightful.

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Holy Water and Spiritual Formation

December 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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I spent some time in prayer at St. Francis de Sales church in the Upper West Side today. When I exited the church I stopped by the basin of holy water, paused for about 7 seconds and closed my eyes.

In those 7 seconds (which actually felt like 10 minutes), I thought back to a conversation I had with a Trappist monk in one of my visits to a monastery in Massachusetts. He said to me that when we place holy water on our foreheads upon entering or leaving the sanctuary, nothing magical is taking place. However, something deeply spiritual is occurring. He proceeded to expound on the power of ritual for our spiritual formation. He said that the water is a simple yet profound symbol of our baptism. And our baptism reminds us that we belong to Jesus.

After thinking back to this conversation, I opened my eyes and applied a little dab of water on my forehead, and immediately I was reminded that I belong to Jesus. I walked out of the church different than the way I walked in.

There is something powerful about the sacramental nature of ritual. It takes ordinary things like water, oil, bread and wine, and infuses them with divine meaning. I wonder how enriched the evangelical tradition (my tribe) would be if we adopted a greater love and appreciation for sacramental practice and theology.

All I know is this today. That little dab of water recentered my wandering heart and reminded me that I belong to Jesus.

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An Advent Prayer for Ferguson

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment

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On this first Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of hope. Jackie Snape, one of our elders at New Life led our community in a prayer for Ferguson. I asked her if she could write out her prayer for the rest of us to pray and ponder together. She graciously obliged. For many years Jackie has been a pillar at New Life on multiple fronts. Always grateful for her wisdom and perspective.

Here’s her beautiful prayer:

A Prayer for Ferguson, Missouri (Sunday, November 30, 2014}

“Lord when something this devastating happens, we are at a loss. We feel sadness, anger, grief, hopelessness. We don’t know what to say or do. So we lift up the Brown family – broken, destroyed, hurt, angry and frustrated…we lift up Officer Wilson – fearful, confused, in the wilderness, not sure where to go next or who to trust…and we lift up Ferguson, Mo. – a city literally split in two, at war with itself. This situation has crossed the boarders of Ferguson into the greater Missouri area, into the rest of the US and even extending our borders into the rest of the world. They look and say “What are you going to do now?”
For some of us it feels as though we have seen this and been here before… and nothing ever changes. It’s hopeless…

But that is a lie.

Although we have no ability to solve this, nor do we know what needs to happen next, we know that You and only You have the answer – You are the God who brings dry bones to life, the God who resurrects the dead! The God who changed the lives of each one of us here, even those who thought they would never set foot in a church! So we don’t ask for retribution or revenge. We don’t ask for man’s justice – that is insufficient- we ask for Your Justice.

Justice and Righteousness are the foundations of Your throne. Your Justice brings redemption, Your Justice brings renewal, Your Justice brings resurrection – so come, Lord Jesus! We want to be the people of God you have called us to be – true peacemakers, not just in the best of times but also in the worst – but we can’t do it without you. Help us, and give us Hope.

Amen.”

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Practicing a Rhythm of Generosity

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

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John Wesley once said “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”

We like the first two parts of that saying. It’s the last one that gives us trouble.

You see, generosity takes work. Tedious work. When I became a follower of Jesus I thought generosity was something I did when “the Spirit led me.” While this is good and helpful, I have come to strongly believe that generosity is not something we simply wait for God’s leading to do, it’s something we are to take the lead in.

Generosity is to be a spiritual practice in the same way that prayer, scripture reading and sabbath keeping is. And chances are that if we simply wait for God to lead us to pray, read the bible or keep sabbath that we will do it sporadically. The same applies to generosity. Generosity is a discipline the same way prayer is. It requires us to say no to certain things (perhaps like this grande hot chocolate from Starbucks I’m sipping on) to say yes to giving to others. And for the sake of our souls we need a regular rhythm of generosity.

So, if you sense God leading you to practice greater generosity, here’s what I recommend:

1) Take 1 hour this month (and every subsequent month) to look at next month’s finances and such.

2) Prayerfully choose a percentage to give next month (and thereafter). Scripture gives 10% as a general starting point for generosity. If you can’t manage that, start with a smaller percentage. No shame. No guilt. If you are already giving 10% ask God if he’s asking you to give more.

3) Prayerfully set aside that portion of money and courageously give it away knowing that others will benefit and you will be protected from greed.

4) Know that God will provide for your needs. He loves you and will take care of you.

I pray you begin the spiritual practice of generosity this week.

Here’s the sermon I preached on gratitude and generosity at New Life last week. http://youtu.be/4kPe8VGfM6Q

To begin practicing generosity today, please consider giving towards New Life Fellowship and New Life Community Development Corp.

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