The Parable of the Sower (revisited)

The temptation is real.  As a pastor, my unbridled enthusiasm and expectations can spill into the dangerous territory that is impatience and frustration.  Similar to a novice bull rider, I get rocked to and fro by the violent whipping that is the natural cycle of ministry.  And I say this in the least masochistic way possible: I love the cadence of ministry for both its callous inducing yet character producing moments.  

With that said, I’ve been really stewing on the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13; Mk. 4; Lk. 8).  It gives me good perspective.   It helps me relinquish this obsession that somehow the perfectly worded sermon or counseling session is the skeleton key to salvation.  It’s pretty easy typing that, though.  It’s another thing to believe it.  

Another reason I love this parable, or any parables for that matter, is its confounding yet simple nature.  Specifically with the Parable of the Sower, it’s told in agricultural nomenclature that would have been understood by many of the stakeholders.  They wouldn’t be tripped up by idiosyncratic nuances of the different soils.  However, for many, the true message of of the parables were hid in plain sight.  Hence, after he tells said parable, Jesus even declares, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

I’m sure many of us, myself included, aren’t as familiar with these farming rhetoric.  I think it’s helpful that we are privy to Jesus’ explanation to his disciples, and I think that the different types of soils is a helpful analogy, I thought to myself, what if there was a more pertinent analogy that depicted the different hearts or seasons in which we receive the Gospel of Christ.  Before I begin, however, I it is of the utmost importance that I stress the fact that I am not making an extension of the parable or imputing my own clever and relevant similes on top of the statements that are already made by Jesus.  What I am about to do is just expanding on my own reflections about ministry and the different hearts that I myself have experienced as the Word of God has hit me in different ways.  So before I go on, please understand this.  

Jesus talks about the different soils which resemble the types of hearts as the Word of God is sowed into their proverbial soils.  The following list resemble a similar but not so different list of hearts that I have had and the seasons that I have endured.  Not only that, these are the hearts/seasons in which I’ve experienced in people that I have ministered to.  And similar to how Jesus was able accurately exegete his audience, I, too, will try to speak plainly so that you may understand as well.  

 1.  Mr. Goodbar  

A Mr. Goodbar Christian is someone who is straightforward.  The beauty of a Mr.mrgoodbar Goodbar is that while it’s not the worst chocolate bar, it’s far from the best.  It’s not risksy nor is is spectacular but it’s consistent.  Sometimes the cookie in the Twix or the wafer in the Kit Kat can get stale.  Sometimes the nougat in the Snickers Bar can get too tough.  But I have never bit into a Goodbar and been disappoint.  At the same time, I’ve never simultaneously taken a bite out of a Mr. Goodbar and slowly close my eyes in delight.  In fact the only time I ever eat a Mr. Goodbar is during Halloween (or Hallelujah or Hosanna night if you grew up with conservative Korean parents).  I’ve never bought a Mr. Goodbar out of my own volition.  The fact that it’s called a Mr. Goodbar and there is a prefix affixed onto the bar implies a sense of politeness about it.  

I’ve been a Mr. Goodbar.  As long as I do enough, I’m safe.  As long as I pray enough, serve the Church enough, then I can make it into those Hershey’s mixed bag, with the likes of Krackle, regular Hershey’s and the Special Dark.  Compared to those guys, I’m great.  But sometimes, when I’m stuck in that season of being a Mr. Goodbar, the Gospel falls onto a hardened heart of pride because I think I’m all that, when in reality, I’m not that great at all.  So it’s during these seasons when I am ironically in this season of being a Mr. Goodbar when in reality I should consider myself the chief of all sinners so that I am more receptive to the sweet graces of God.  

2.  Take 5

dsc_4558Don’t get it twisted; a Take 5 candy bar is delicious.  If I were to combine pretzels, caramel, peanut butter, peanuts and cover it with delicious milk chocolate, you would have your interest piqued too.  When my dad introduced it as a topping at TCBY, it was one of our top selling toppings.  It makes sense.  The contrast of different textures as well as the complex taste nodes that it offers makes it quite an adventure.  And we’re just talking about a candy bar.  But sometimes, the complexity of it can be Take 5’s downfall.  Sometimes, there is just so much that’s going on that it can be a sensory overload.  

I know a lot of people who go to church and do so many things of the church.  They work full time jobs, with families and head two or three different ministries.  They lead a small group and help with welcoming team.  But sometimes, there is just too much going on that it’s hard to really take a moment to rest, reflect and bask.  It’s not even the busy-ness that is what’s causing the problem; it’s the reason for such a frenetic life.  Some mask their insecurity about their salvation, or were mistaught the Book of James.  I’ve been there.  I’ve been so caught up in doing that I neglected the “being.”  And so whenever I feel like a Take 5 bar, it’s hard to be still and know that He is God.  

3.  Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

You’re probably thinking this is the “good soil” example right?  The tagline for Reese’s has always been, “there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s”.  I’m not going to challenge this notion, but I do want to say that Reese’s and all its permutations are downright delicious.  Reese’s Pieces, Puffs, Fastbreak, Reese’s White Chocolate cups, and the rest of the Reese’s 42-g-lteeses-theres-no-wrong-way-to-eat-a-19372060family are welcomed snacks in the Lim Household.  

But let’s rewind to that motto: there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.  I think there are many who practice their faith in such a way.  I am not saying that there needs to be an agreement of issues such as baptism, polity and other theological hills, but there are many desire to be a Christian without the necessary brackets of theology.  The irony of someone who declares a disdain for theology or claims that theology is too legalistic is in itself a theological statement; they are saying that the study of God is unimportant in the pursuit to live for Him.  

“Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives. As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesmen to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it .The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were , with no sense of direction, and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.”   –  J.I. Packer, Knowing God

Yes, it might be popular to attempt to live, not just as a Christian but a human being bearing the image of God, to abandon the discipline of getting to know God, it is a very daunting task.  In this day in age of the pursuit of the mystical and experiential, and as someone who has been a Reese’s, it’s not all fun and games.  Life suddenly becomes an unhinged roller coaster where my circumstances, and not my identity in Christ, become the ultimate dictator of my joy.  

4.  Toblerone  

Toblerone is next level.  It’s not like Godiva level, but it’s definitely a step up from Hershey’s or Milky Way.  Let me put it this way: I’ve never got them in any of my many Halloween hauls and it’s so fancy that it’s considered a desired gift that gets stolen many times during White Elephant.  I don’t think Tootsie Rolls get that kind of treatment.  

giant-10-lb-toblerone-bar-0And I must admit, Toblerone is delicious.  First of all, it’s Swiss.  You already know the chocolate, the most important component of any good chocolate bar, is going to be finer.  Maybe it’s because it’s European.  I don’t know.  I feel a bit more elevated and classy whenever I break a piece of that Toblerone.  Second, it has made with honey.  Honey just makes everything taste better.  It’s the Earth’s natural sweetener.  If bees are working so hard to make this stuff, I have to assume that it’s far superior to normal sugar.  Finally, it’s shaped in such a way that is iconic; it’s perfect triangular form makes it seem majestic and a candy bar that stands out from the rest.  

In fact, whenever I eat a Toblerone, I never want to finish it.  I just want a taste, a tease, a smattering, a modicum.  I want that ever fleeting moment to create a deeper desire and anticipation for the next experience.  I never have this with Snickers.  I just want to have an eating competition without any other competitors.  So there’s a sense of pretentiousness about a Toblerone bar.  

But this is another heart that I have had, and perhaps the current season that I am in currently.  I’m realizing more and more, that theology is not enough.  And I am aware, now more so than ever, that theology has its own connotations and preconceived notions.  People are intimidated by it.  They have had bad experiences with the academic and cerebral bashing that goes on, especially on social media.  So while theology in itself is not bad, people combine it with their lived and very real experiences and now it becomes a trigger word.  They almost treat it as the antithesis to love.  And that’s unfortunate.  But I’ve been that pretentious preacher, spouting off theological truths and hoping it changes hearts and minds.  It has become an identity marker.  So for many people who sinfully take pride in their knowledge of God, which in itself should be more humbling since the study of God can never be exhausted, they have hardened hearts that do not follow a path of humble worship but rather, they cultivate a garden of self-entitlement because they know a few things.  I think this is where I am currently at.  

5.  Tootsie Roll  

If you know me, you know how much I hate Tootsie Rolls.  They don’t do anything for me.  Even the chocolate that is used is so vastly inferior to everything else.  It’s so bad, I’d rather get an apple or floss rather than a handful of Tootsie Rolls.  The fruit flavored Tootsie Rolls are great (sans the vanilla one), but having that alternative is just another 131130487_439691bc93reminder of how bad chocolate Tootsie Rolls are.   

But to be honest, that’s where I want to be.  Normal and unassuming.  Malleable and mundane.  There are a few catch phrases that I have seen lately on the bumpers of many Honday Odysseys, such as “He>I” or “I Am Second,” and while that notion is noble, it’s impossible to achieve on our own merits.  Now, do I want to be regarded in the same way I view Tootsie Rolls?  That’s a negative.  But if I am going to, not only preach but live the words of John the Baptist (God increase and I decrease), then it is the way of the pedestrian and unimpressive Tootsie Roll.  I know.  The analogy is corny, forced and at this point, just trying to squeeze my mind for even the tiniest of globules of creative juices, but I’ve had a combination of a hankering to write and a conviction to be more of a Spirit-led leader so that I can point my congregation members to Christ as I pursue, holistically, the life and ministry of Christ.  And if that means a relinquishing of all the other styles of hearts and motives that I have had, then let it be.  

So yeah.  Tootsie Rolls.  Not quite as an eloquent and profound comparison to soils, and I don’t even think young hipsters eat Mr. Goodbar, but at the very least it’s relevant to me because I lived it.  I never thought I’d make a Gospel comparison, but I guess that’s just the way my mind works.  Next up, how the way we eat our Pho is an example of the Gospel.  

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Petty

Pettiness is one quality about myself that I am ashamed to admit.  In fact, to call it a quality is a complete misnomer: there’s nothing “quality” about being petty.  Pettiness is something that I refuse to share in a small group.  I put it in the same bin that contains all my “serious” sins.  I have no problem sharing about my idolatry of things in my life, but I am surreptitious about my pettiness.  After all, I did punch a friend over a game of Sorry.  This, children, is a story for another day.  

As I mature, I find some solace in knowing that I’ve grown in my pettiness.  But today was one of those days where I struggled to really stifle my petty feelings.  

Christy and I were invited to one of her co-worker’s brother’s Vietnamese restaurant.  Myoc-xao-sa-ot-stir-fried-snails-with-lemon-grass-and-chili-recipe initial enthusiasm was stifled by two things; first, there were over 12 people there, which already triggered my social anxiety, but worse, this place specializes in sea snails.  As a food.  As something you eat to enjoy.  Savored and satisfied.  I didn’t even know there was a snail called the Periwinkle; I only thought of it as a shade of blue in which I would opportunistically shout out to appear as a learned color connoisseur.  I don’t care how much I love the flavors of Tamarind and Lemongrass, I am never going to crave snails.  

Despite my ironic desire to hide in my proverbial shell, I thought I’d be engaged with an over-the-top smile and more eye contact that I’m comfortable giving.  I completely abandon my three-in-the-key philosophy about eye contact.  I’ll do my best.  And so Christy introduces me to everyone and their significant others, and I offer a teethy smile and pithy remark, I forget everyone’s names immediately.  

Due to traffic, we were a tad late to the dinner, but not so late that the food had arrived.  We were grateful for that.  I hate watching people eat or vice versa.  But because we were tardy, we sat at the the far part of the table.  The dreaded corner where I’m close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation but far enough where I can’t really let my personality and story-telling shine.  But it’s all good–after all, I came to support my wife.  I didn’t go there to perform my stand up material.  

butterflycatcher089The dinner progresses, and it’s all fine.  There aren’t any social catastrophes and I go without spilling any food or drink on my clothes.  All in all, a pretty good night.  I don’t do much to engage, but there were moments here and there, where I’d interject a comment or a succinct story, and I’d get a pretty good reaction.  And I’m not even trying at this point.  As you guys know, I “thrive” off of observational remarks.  These little laughs that I’d accrued, like a butterfly catcher, got my juices flowing.  Maybe I was high off the sugary Thai iced tea, but I wanted to make myself known.  

But here’s the thing: I was sitting at a very disadvantageous spot.  It was the worst because I could hear all these wonderful dialogues, but I was just far enough where if I wanted to be heard, I’d have to speak in a voice that’s slightly softer than yelling.  Imagine someone who is listening to music with high quality noise cancelling earphones and being asked a question.  About that level.  Not quite screaming, but like the level you need to order some peanuts from the vendor who is across the isle.  

This is a bad thing, though, because my comedy juices have already started to percolatewhat my entire being.  The plane has left the runway.  So I tried to interject here and there.  I would try to make a witty comment or ask a funny follow-up question, and no one hears me.  The worst part is, Christy is next to me, so she hears all my attempts to join the this lively discussion, and she suggests that I say it louder.  She suggested, not in an innocuously helpful way, but a way to put a microscope of my utter failure to join the party.  

There were a few promising moments.  One time, I brought up the new Halal Guys that opened up, and that conversation lasted a few minutes.  But someone hijacked the controls by describing it as great clubbing and drunk food.  Or this one time, Careless Whispers came on (the instrumental version), and screamed, “yo, this is my jam!”.  I thought this was a great opening for me to get in, another guy took it, as if I were handing him a baton, and talked ad nauseam about the sexy saxophone player and the viral YouTube video.  

This is where my pettiness comes in.  This one guy, who has the perfect placement in terms of seating, is just killing it.  And he knows it.  He milks each and every story, and I can tell they are his go-to stories.  Everyone has them.  Stories people stash in their back pockets to use to ease the tension.  All eyes were on him and I realize that more and more I felt like I wanted to get involved.  I felt like a kid trying to enter the double dutch, but as soon as I garner the courage to go in, another kid just jumps in, greeted by the raucous laughter from the crowd.  

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At this point, my train has lost some of its steam and I decided against my comedy routine.  Like a crestfallen child, I crumple up my mental comedic notes I had made, and was resigned to being one of the audience members.  “It’s ok”, I thought to myself.  There’ll be more opportunities.  And then this guy, I don’t even remember his name, but offers me a bone.  He sees my lifeless eyes, and asks me if I had any pets growing up.  

“Aha!  This is my moment!  Carpe Diem!”  

I told them that I used to have fish, none of them lasting longer than a month.  I told them that I liked reptiles and said I was allergic to cats and dogs.  My one shining moment.  The climactic moment in which I could regain my throne as comedic giant.  And I give the answer that I did.   

Nothing.  You could probably hear the sound of an empty periwinkle snail hit the floor.  

I wanted to tell them I wasn’t ready and that I had a terrible seat to really thrive.  I wanted to tell them that I was funnier and that I was caught off guard.  But in that moment, I was just a blowhard that tried too hard.  And the worst part was, this guy rebounded off my failure, and slam dunked with a joke about how he had a pet cow named Petey and that how he provided enough meat for six months.  You could’ve sworn Dave Chappelle was doing a special gig right at our table.  And it was at this point I excused myself to the bathroom, but I didn’t have to pee; I had to look at the mirror and wonder what’s wrong with me.  

And so this is me and my petty self.  I’m glad that these moments happen less as I grow older, but I realize that I’m never immune to succumbing to such moments.  But more than anything, I’m glad that I put something on paper and I was able to share this moment.  

Adam Dunn

Adam Dunn was a professional baseball player, but when I have mixed feelings about his career.  While he put up prodigious power numbers, there were also glaring holes in his game.   He could hit a ball 450 feet, with ease, but also strike out over 200 times in a year.  But let’s not kid ourselves: the dude made a reported $112,695,000 in his career.  However flawed he might have been, he’s made a shiny penny and then some.  

But the one thing I’m sure he bemoans is the fact that he never played in a playoff game.  I mean, I can’t say for certain because I have never talked to him in person about this topic (let alone any topic, like his predilection on Slurpee flavors), but anyone in the business of playing competitive sports must have a sliver of desire to win a championship.  A championship is invaluable.  It validates.  Just ask Robert Horry.  

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I don’t really feel bad for Adam Dunn.  I don’t think he feels like he’s a failure.  But I’m sure there are moments in which he probably would’ve liked to be a part of a team that had a chance of winning it all.  Would he have taken a pay cut?  I don’t know.  

I don’t know what the ministry equivalent of making the playoffs would be.  But if I were to make an unreasonable connection here, and if there’s anything I’m learning as I’m preaching through the book of Ecclesiastes, is that there is a time for everything and that a God-less life is like chasing after the wind.  As existential as Ecclesiastes can be, I have been extra contemplative about my current season in my life.  I don’t want to look back at my ministry and talk about it like I talk about Adam Dunn’s career.  Good but lacking.  

I’m not sure how to land this plane.  I feel like I’ve started this locomotive, this upbeat praise song, but somewhere I got carried away, and now I just feel like best solution is to come to an abrupt and unpleasant halt, causing literary whiplash and the bitter taste of unresolved lessons.  There is no bow on this beaut.  Maybe I just need to slightly crack open the pressure cooker that is my heart.  Although there are other ways for me to deal, but I find writing about it to be more therapeutic.  I hate one of the best ways for me to process also happens to be so public.  And as a pastor who needs to straddle the fine line of the 24/7 business of building an winsome ethos yet striving to be vulnerable, the only answer is to be frustratingly ambiguous.  And for that, I am sorry.  

A final note: I am thankful, however, regardless of the seasons I go through, that I have people in my life to walk this life with.  They are a unique bunch that have been picked out by God in His perfect wisdom to speak truth and love into my life.  I find it providential, then, that as I was preparing and preaching Ecclesiastes 4, that I found myself blessed to have people who keep me (proverbially) warm (even though I hate sleeping in heat).  

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

[9] Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. [10] For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! [11] Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? [12] And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (ESV)

Thanks.  

Living in Tension

I want to make it abundantly clear: I love pastoring.  The joy that I get when I see people grow spiritually is an unparalleled experience in the best sense.  It’s a tricky calling, however, because being a good pastor, in my humble (teetering on self-deprecating) opinion, requires a healthy dose of self-awareness.  I love the verbiage my preaching professor would always use: we are proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ as ones with contaminated hands.  That imagery will always stick with me.  I can almost imagine myself trying to wipe off the smudges of galbi sauce with my own hands that have been dirtied by eating galbi myself.  I guess one might suggest that I used a handkerchief or a rag of sorts, but you’re overthinking it.  And yes, we must be really good friends for me to even attempt at such an act of kindness and for him to give me permission to do so.  

This hasn’t been proven by any reputable academic journal, but I think what makes Christianity difficult is the constant tension and paradox that we are called to live in.  I’m not even referring to the societal under and overtones of what is deemed as good, successful, and beautiful.  I think the tension exists deeper than that.  The tension is nestled in the cockles of the heart, violently shaking at any sign of dissonance.  I’ve experienced this myself.  We are to be in the world but not of the world (John 17).  Those who lose their lives will gain it (Luke 17).  And there is that darn Pauline concept of already but not yet.  There are many things that are taught in Scripture that rattles the cage of the beast known as “what feels right”.   There isn’t an internal compass quite as strong of as the one that is ingrained in our intuition.  So in that moment of tension, the proverbial fork in the road will force you to choose between what feels right and what is right (not that they are always antithetical to each other, but you get what I mean).  You either choose self-denial or self-preservation.  Self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement.  I can’t think of a third set.  I apologize.  You know that third set would have made the parallelism perfect.  You get the point, though.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus made it a point to talk about self-denial in the pursuit of discipleship.  It’s not an option.  It’s not like upgrading your regular fries for sweet potato fries for an extra $1.  Mind you, the self-denial that Jesus refers to here is not to be understood as depriving yourself of pleasures and considering all things as evil.  We are called to enjoy the things God has created.  But to pursue Christ is to, in those moments of tension, is to deny the inkling to choose what feels right (at times).

So it is in the trenches of the constant tension in which many people, especially myself, feel stagnant, stale and, well, stymied.  I don’t mean to get all philosophical, but it’s something that I’ve been pondering myself: how do people flourish in Christ?  This is especially relevant in my heart because I hate the mundane and mediocre.  No one delights in lukewarmness.  Lukewarmness is like the word “sure”.  Whenever I ask someone for a favor or if they want to meet up, and I get a “sure” sans emoticon or punctuation, I die a little inside.  “Sure” connotes someone who happens to have an opening in their schedule.  Even the phonetics of the word make it to seem like a sigh, the most melodramatic way of exhaling.  Such an over-the-top way of fulfilling a basic human need, isn’t it?  

In this circuitous (yet scenic) route of getting to my main point, I believe that my call to be a pastor is also a call to lead the charge against the ravaging epidemic of spiritual staleness, if not a spiritual slumber.   I must confess that I’ve focused too much of my time and energy (and prayers) on the economy of ministry and the mechanisms that allow it to function from week to week.  How many people did I meet up with this week?  How many books on leadership am I reading?  Did I go to early morning prayer today?  Did I fill out the correct sheets for my ministry expenses?  Do I look good in the eyes of my superior?  Am I losing weight (yes, for the sake of ministry)?  I admit, I feel like I’m barely wading the waters of ministry and somewhere along the way, I’ve lost sight of the main thing.

As someone who likes a neat and ordered resolution, this is a tough reality.  And in a weird way, my desire to see growth in myself and the people that I minister to means an ever growing and ongoing clash with the old self (Ephesians 4).  But tension seems to be such an odd thing to desire, but I suppose there is no other way.  The way of the Spirit and of the flesh, as we read in Galatians 6, are two, diametrically opposite things.  

How do I reconcile these things in my heart?  Maybe I’m asking the wrong question.  But I see the wheels turning.  I see the tension in their eyes.  I see curiosity and yearning.  What I initially thought were hollow, quizzical looks, I pray and hope, are actually remnant embers of the fiery altars of their youth.  I mean, they very may well be simply looks of confusion, and I’m just writing this to assuage my insecurities.  In many ways, I am still unsure of what I’m doing.  It’s like jazz improvisation.  I know all my scales, I have sound music theory and I even have a bevy of memorized licks to boot, but now I am thrusted into my own 32-bar solo in What Is This Thing Called Love, in front of a live audience at the Blue Note.  Well, maybe not the Blue Note.  Most likely not the Blue Note.

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The GOAT

To be honest, this post took on a life of its own.  I was going to write about how people around me have been grossly taking Psalm 37:4 out of context to serve their own purpose.  I don’t really have any resolutions or answers to the very questions that I’m asking.  I don’t even know if I’m doing an adequate job.  But something tells me that as long as I’m fighting that battle, daily, living in that tension, and concurrently helping some willing passengers help live in that sweet spot, I think that’s a good sign.  

Blessing Song

There are many quirks about working at a Korean church.  Quirks aren’t bad things as much as they are strange things.  Among the many things that I am passive-aggressively asked to do is to attend our church’s 8:30 worship service (among other things like all-night prayer meetings).  I don’t mind coming to the first service, but it’s definitely different.  If you’re used to eating Gogurt your entire life and now you’re asked to transition to cottage cheese sans buffer.

The first time I attended the first service, it seemed like a normal service, except in a language that I understood but couldn’t speak (well).  The opening set was, well, what you typically expect from any Korean church that attempts to be more relevant by playing more contemporary Christian music (CCM for short) but stylistically, falling a decade or two short.  It’s like they want to be Bethel but the end up as Vineyard.  I love you, if you got the reference.

Take, for example, Exhibit A:

A couple of things to note here (and usually typical of Korean worship):  

  1.  The trademark clapping of the wrist or the hip.  Even though the minimal sound will be completely drowned out by the instruments, they are a persevering bunch.  
  2.  A true marker of musical progression comes in the form of whether they clap on the down beat or the off beat.  I can’t tell you how annoying it is, leading worship when they are clapping on beats 1 and 3.  So props to this specific group here.  
  3. Every prominent Korean church as one of those transparent pulpits with a single stem mic. 
  4. You have three back up singers and zero harmony.  
  5. The praise leader will scream out the lyrics or some exhortation, and even though he’s not singing, he still has somewhat of a vibrato, which is kind of weird.
  6. And if you have an electric guitar, they’ll usually do a 90’s palm mute or do some hard rock lick all throughout the song.  

Anyway, as soon as the opening set is done, we all take our seat and the piano player is still playing some nice chord progressions with heavy synth.  Like, it’s too R&B for worship.  And then we’re asked to get up again and stretch out our hands.  Immediately, the church goes into another song called “The Blessing Song” or something like that.  The people, then, start extending out their arms and pivoting left and right, kind of like a creepy Chuck-E-Cheese mechanical animals, and just singing this song at people.  No, I did not misuse that preposition.  They are singing this song to other people.  And some of them, they have their hands stretched out so far, it’s as if they’re shooting out blessing rays to ensure our blessing.  

What’s worse, is that they make unflinching eye contact with you while they are shooting you with this song.  And as a new hire of the church, I sing along.  I reciprocate these actions.  I don’t dare for a second to blink.  Some of the church members bob their heads, side to side, to the rhythm of the song and naturally, I follow suit.  The best part about this part of service is that there are two ushers, the same two every week, who walk down the aisles to make sure everyone is covered by the blessings.  They are the cavalry.    And just as I’m about to sit down, they run the song back!  They do a second time, but it’s awkward because I feel like I did a thorough job of shooting everyone with a blessing.  Most people, then, just look forward, still with arms out, and continue singing this blessing song.  And in typical Korean fashion, we end with a robust and heartfelt clap offering.  

So this is part of my church and it’s kind of weird, but weird isn’t bad.  I think differences can be the garden for growth.  And so I choose obedience over obstinance.  And so now, every time I hear the smooth R&B grooves (with those jazzy dominant 7th voicings), I’m the first one to zap my church peoples with some blessings!  

When Character and Class aren’t enough

The last breaking sports news that forced me to stop everything I was doing and to process what had just transpired was in 2008.  The 2nd of July, to be exact.  What was supposed to be a celebratory day (my brother’s birthday), I remember hearing the news over the radio, and feeling the incredulity spread throughout my entire body.  This cannot be happening.  In hindsight, it was a bit rash and melodramatic, but I immediately pulled over to the shoulder, shut off the engine and just sat.  I texted a few friends, updated my Xanga and just saw my childhood walk out on me without any room to prepare.  That was the last sports related news that had me shook.

Then there’s today.  Except, instead of halting my car in the middle of a congested highway, I just had to lower my treadmill (at level 12 incline at 3 MPH yo) and find some footing somewhere.  Lorenzo Romar has been fired.  

Let’s start with the obvious: Romar revived what was a dead basketball program.  Before his arrival, the team had only won 31 total games in three years.  For those wanting a bit more commentary, that’s not a good statistic.  And for the record, Romar, who was an alumnus of the program, wasn’t even the first choice for the job.  To say that I had an iota of interest in the UW basketball program would be a lie.  UW basketball was a joke, if a joke were ever so unfunny that it induced painful awkward silences.

2004 happened.  It was an unexpected run where the team strung together an impressive number of wins to make the tournament.  One of the team’s star player was a former cornerback and was about my height.  We made it to the dance and lost an exhilarating game to UAB.

2005 happened.  We had such a great team.  We had the #1 bestowed upon us, which is pretty much saying you’re one of the hottest girls at the dance.  Maybe not Rachel McAdams, but probably Lacey Chabert (movie reference, anyone?).  We made it pretty far, but lost a tough one to Louisville, which I feel like is a strange place for basketball to be great, but then again, what do I know.  One name that I will never forget is Taquan Deen, who had a monster block that actual gave me some heart pains.

2006 happened, although I wish it hadn’t.  This was the year when Brandon Roy exploded onto the screen.  He was tired of playing King Duncan and wanted to play Macbeth.  We made it to the Sweet 16, but it ended in such a horrific way.  I remember where I was during the game: we were setting up decorations at church for Easter, and we had the game playing on the projector.  But the whole time, rather than focusing on holding ladders, me and Steve would just osciliate between high-pitch squeals of celebration or muffled swear word substitutes as we had the Arthur fist.  I’ve never said “frickin’ a” so many times in my life.  Also, I still have a Mike Jensen voodoo doll on my dresser.

There were some other good years as well, including a 2010 run that was pretty awesome.  All this to say, Lorenzo Romar had some pretty good years being the head coach at UW.  But to be honest, the reason why the firing of Romar hurts me so much isn’t because of all the deposits into my wonderful yet fictitious chest of sports memories.  Rather, today’s a sad day for me because he was a man of great character and also a man of faith.  He has been on record to say that if it weren’t for basketball, he’d be a minister.  But more than the faith aspect, by all accounts, everyone close to Romar as well as the media members (who tend to be cynical and suspicious) have been effusive about the high character of Romar.  And while being a good guy is the preamble to the friend zone, it’s a rarity, especially in college basketball, to find a guy who is both talented and of high character.  Less than 1% of all college basketball players eventually make a living playing the sport, so it’s imperative that the coach mentors the kids to become men, and there was no one who cared more about the future than Romar.

And he loved UW.  In an industry where it’s a bit mechanical and mercenary-like (especially in the slimy recruiting realm), Romar chose class.  And unfortunately, the heaps of accolades of him being a great man and mentor were swallowed by the complaints about the losing.

I get it.  Romar is in the business of winning.  It’s a testament to his character, actually, that he was able to survive for as long as he did.  But he is yet another causality of the brutal reality of the coaching game.  I am, however, a bit miffed at the ridicule and relief that was met with Romar’s departure.  Look, I get it.  Just don’t have so much mirth in your heart.  The reason why you care so much about UW basketball in the first place was because of Romar.  I get it.  He didn’t win enough.  But can we take a moment and be sad?  I mean, he’ll be fine; he’s getting a $3.2 million buyout and he can live comfortably (if not luxuriously).  But I’m just a bit crestfallen today.

I can relate so hard though; when it comes to ministry, I feel the pressure to grow my ministry and have it flourish.  Whether that be my own internal idolatry manifesting into an unhealthy self-criticism or just the visions of grandeur implanted into my head by the people who had been waiting for the ministry to start, I can relate to the heat.  I’m not sure how to reconcile my faithfulness, God’s sovereignty, and success.  I’m not sure what that looks like.  But more than anything, especially today, I’m reminded that while Lorenzo Romar is in a business of winning (even if it costs you your character and integrity), he still chose to be a man of high character.  And I’m rebuked by that.  If my job was on the line, I would probable contemplate the temptation to cut corners.  But I am challenged all the more to make that my prayer request as well as my mid-March resolution: to be a man of high character.  Lorenzo Romar, especially now more than ever, has challenged me to pursue the higher calling of godliness.

Read Romar’s response to his firing:

“As a former student-athlete, and an alumnus of the University of Washington, this is definitely not an easy day for me.  I was really looking forward to coaching our team next year and beyond.  However, God had a different plan.  I am proud of a lot of things we were able to accomplish int he 15 years that we were here.  I want to thank all of the aoches, players and staff who played a part in that success.  I will always support the University of Washington, and pull for the Huskies.”  (via Christian Caple’s Twitter; emphasis added)

If I can have such perspective in difficulties, I think I’d be a happy man.

If it sounds like I know Lorenzo Romar personally, I don’t.  But I have met him once.  There was a time when we didn’t have internet access at home, so I would study at the McDonald’s close by.  I remember preparing a sermon there, and I saw a man, rocked out in all UW basketball gear, come in and wait in line.  I can’t tell you how many times I got out of my seat, only to sit right back down.  But finally, I mustered enough courage to finally greet myself to the coach.  Giddy and flush with color, I introduce myself and told him how I was such a big fan of his.  I was just going to do a hit-and-run compliment.  As a coach who is constantly on the run and trying to recruit all kinds of players to the program, I was expecting a terse “thanks” and I would’ve been set for the rest of my life.  But he was so kind and warm.  The crazy thing is, he took his meal, which he had ordered to-go, and sat down where I was studying.  Saw my Bible, and we talked a bit about our faith and church.  I told him that I was planning on going to seminary, trying to be a pastor, and his eyes lit up.  He was all kinds of encouraging and even gave me a bro hug.  All I know is, he was willing to let his fresh fries become cold just to get to know and encourage me.  I will never forget that moment.

Coach Romar, you will never read this.  In fact, if you’re reading this, please comment.  But thank you.  You used basketball as a platform for the glory of God, and I am so thankful for the reminder that while a vocation in basketball has an expiration date, ultimately a Christ-like character and class is what your legacy will be remembered for.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 Washington v USC

Progress Report

I’ve always hated progress report.  It was a tacit reminder that I wasn’t perfect.  Even if I did my best, there was always room for improvement.  The worst part of progress reports was the awkward moment when you had to have it signed by a parent.  It must have been tough for my dad; on one hand, he wanted to be the gentle and affirming father yet he’sreport-cards-education1 trying to hold back the years of cultural conditioning of the idolatry of education.  The result was a contorted face, pursed lips and the most neutral statement, something to the effect of “ah a report card” or “I wonder when dinner will be ready”.  And I’m just sitting there, just wanted a signature like one of those people standing outside small businesses, asking for signatures to save the Earth.  If you want to save the Earth, you’d summon Captain Planet (not the Don Cheadle kind).  

Well, I assure you, I’m not holding onto those moments any longer.  This illustration is merely a bridge to get to my real point: I want to self-evaluate and think out loud.  

I want to preface everything by saying that I love what I do.  This is especially astounding because I am naturally an opportunistic complainer.  Either I’ve been able to closet and process it better or I really am loving this moment in my life.  Like most things, it’s probably a little bit of both.  Also, I realize that I cannot be my usual (hopefully refreshing, bordering uncomfortable) honesty.  So I gladly impose a bit of a self-censor, of sorts, but know that I do it for the pastorate.

The ministry aspect of my job is awesome.  As an idealist with the propensity for day dreaming, I have found that the usual outcome of having high expectations is disappointment.  I’ve often asked myself, what is the upside of being an idealist?  I’m still trying to figure that out.  For the five and a half years in St Louis, I’ve only fantasized belle-library-ladderabout what it would be like to be participate in ministry as a living.  I’ve literally had dreams of myself, reading through the books that I want to read, prepare sermons like a mother would prepare a meal for the family, meet and counsel the members, and even finding joy in the menial like responding emails (sorry, Joanne!  I’ll respond to your email soon!).  And to be in it, day-by-day, has been great.  In fact, it’s better than what I had imagined because the visceral, real-life experience of all that I had drummed up in the vats of my imagination is real.  And it’s amazing.  

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of John and I’m not sure what fruit looks like, but personally, it’s been powerful for me to study the book of John.  I’m a lot better than I used to be, but I’m still self-conscious as a preacher.  I think I find my self-worth, as a pastor, by the quality of my preaching (which is an inherently self-centered, sinful and insecure perspective).  Either way, I have a clear conscious in terms of my faithfulness to the text.  I realized, as a sidebar, just how faithful exposition of the Bible on the pulpit is taken for granted.  What I mean is, in my experience in Seattle, there seems to be a dearth of expository preaching and an abundance of experiential preaching.  People are more interested in proclaiming the convictions of their hearts rather than proclaim the truth of Scripture.  And we wonder why 80% of Korean-American students leave the Church after graduating high school. (a bit outdated, but the thesis is still pertinent).  

Off the soapbox now.  I don’t know how I got there.  But speaking of the sudden shift in tone, I do realize, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, that in my desire for reformed theology, I’ve also become quite the jerk.  Again, I try not to let the beast out of the cage, and I try to mute the voice, but it’s difficult when I’m leaving the incubator that was my former church in which I aligned with everything, theologically, and entering the tundra where not only is there is a palpable theological clashing, there are many instances of no theology.  I mean check the prophetic word of John Stott, written 34 years ago:  

Thus Word and worship belong indissolubly to each other.  All worship is an intelligent and loving response to the revelation of God, because it is the adoration of his Name.  Therefore acceptable worship is impossible without preaching.  For preaching is making known the Name of the Lord, and worship is praising the Name of the Lord made known…[Worship and preaching] cannot be divorced.  Indeed, it is their unnatural divorce which accounts for the low level of so much contemporary worship.  Our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor, and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor.  But when the Word of God is expounded in its fulness (i.e. faithfully preaching the text), and the congregation begin to glimpse the glory of theliving God, they bow down in solemn awe and joyful wonder before his throne.  –  Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century.  

So what do I do with said situation?  Well, up to this point in my life, I guess I would have cacophonously, if not cantankerously, complained about it, probably wear my passion for reformed theology as a license to judge and ridicule, and internally grow a garden to

sierra-turkey-sandwich-panera1
RIP Sierra Turkey; you were my fav.

exacerbate and cultivate feelings of self-righteousness and a Pharisaical legalism.  Now, am I completely without lapses and relapses of sinful thoughts?  Hardly.  But, I am encouraged by my more-often-than-not decision to choose love and grace over disdain and disparagement.  But like my workout regiment and diet, there are moments I don’t exercise and instead go to Panera, order a You Pick 2, but upgrade it to a full sandwich and a bowl of soup.  And yes, I will treat myself to a pastry for 99 cents.  Throw in those  devilish delectables you call muffies.  I’ll take two of those, one for my “friend”, which is code for, “I’ll eat it en route to not working out”.  

 

The relational aspect of the ministry is great, but also a lot different than what I had anticipated.  There’s a lot more initiating that I had hoped for.  Here I thought, alas, we have a newfound English ministry, and a new EM pastor, and the flock would just flock, eagerly awaiting my counsel, being the resident erudite that I am.  Ok, that’s a bit of an embellishment, but it’s not far off.  I admit that reaching out is not my strong suit.  I’m great when people need something.  But I realize that for me, initiating is tough, not because of rejection; I can certainly handle rejection.  What is tough is the ambiguous and over-politeness of me feeling like I’m crowding their busy schedules or if they feel guilty because in their experience, the pastor only meets up when they know that they are in sin.  There are other random assumptions that I have, but the point is, I don’t know if they want to meet up with an almost 30-year-old dude who is still coming out of his social cocoon of awkwardness, and is desperately holding onto the small piece of thread called 101992345-348x198-348x198relevance.  Maybe, I’m over thinking it.  Like, what do I talk about?  What else is there to say?  What do I do with my hands?  And so it’s the relational aspect, and the murky waters of how to build one, that is making me pull out my already thinning hair.  I think the lines of being their friend and being their pastor can get kind of blurry; one one hand, I want to be their friend, super down to earth and non-threatening, but on the other hand, I also want to exercise the prophet/priest/king, their spiritual shepherd.  And, if for some reason I was exposed to radiation, on the other other hand, I’d also want to be their comic relief.  

But growth takes time.  Like anything that is dependent on time, you cannot rush it; you can only hope that said growth comes into fruition.  Ultimately, as I analyze my still very much green tenure here, I am at peace with what lies ahead.  So I guess this isn’t so much a progress report on the visible success, but I guess a progress report on my heart as the assigned pastor to this local church.  I realize I’m not the most pastoral pastor nor the most hyper spiritual on social media, but I am beginning to feel like I’m being faithful in a place that really isn’t my element, on paper.  I think that’s ok.  I’ll take ok.  Ok means I’m not bitter.  Ok means steadfastness.  Ok means contentment.  And I’m ok with that.  And so I’m thankful for God’s grace and provision, to give me now what I want but what I need.  I’m grateful for his infinite wisdom to give me a place and platform to wrestle through some of my issues (like my obsession with Reformed theology) and strengthening my own convictions (ironically, Reformed theology).  

The seeds have been sown and the irrigation system has been set up.  As I learned (and preached), I am merely reaping what God had started and there’s nothing I have done, regarding their salvation (John 4:38).  It has not been lost on me the privilege and joy it is to be doing what I’m doing.  I think there is a unique struggle and a constant tension between trusting God and the temptation to lean on my own understanding (and gifts and strategies), but I feel like the kid who got invited to the coolest kid party.  I’m just happy to be here and why yes, I would love some cake.