Overthinking

I don’t know if it’s my pride talking, but I kind of like overthinking.  I know.  It makes a situation harder than it needs to be, adds on anxiety, hastens the fuse of my aggravation, makes me appear pretentious, it’s haughty, and…wait, why do I like it again?  I guess I like the feeling of having a more sophisticated and erudite take on all things life.  Don’t associate me with other philistines and their simpleton’s desire for the drab.  (I’m just kidding, for those that don’t have a built-in sarcasm radar on your Google Chrome.) 

I was texting with a friend last night during the final moments of the Oscar’s.  I’ve always appreciated his take on film, mainly he’s affirmed most of my opinions on film, which is a selfish reason to like anyone’s opinion, but I’ve said it and now let’s move on.  But I appreciate his opinion more now that he graduated from film school and is aiming to work in the “biz”, as they say.  But as we were texting, I realized one stark difference in his take on movies since our undergraduate days: he was definitely more critical.  And I don’t think he was critical in the worst sense.  Like, he isn’t the berating P.E. coach that rips into you when you don’t run a 5-minute mile.  He’s critical as a result of being a recipient of good pedagogy of all things film.   I don’t blame him.  He, now, has a much more elevated lens in which he defines a “good movie”.  He has so many more filters in which he distills a movie.  He has to evaluate the authenticity and credibility of the characters and the dialogue.  He has to observe the quality of the cohesion and plot development.  The tuning fork that is now embedded in his mental checklist is so fine tuned that it almost takes on a curmudgeon-esque tone.  And I think that’s great.  For him to appreciate movies on a higher plane is something that I don’t think I can ever exist in.  

But at what point is overthinking criticisms a detriment to ourselves?  When does the analysis end and enjoyment take over?  This friend of mine was visibly (or as visible one can be in a text message) upset over La La Land’s near win of best picture.  He was so elated that the movie didn’t win.  The kind of relief he expressed is the kind of relief you get when your professor allows you to use a note card for your final.  And I almost felt stupid for peeping, “I liked it.”  I felt like so bad I also had to follow up by texting, “don’t kill me”.  And I realized that although this dear brother of mine has gained many tools to become a writer in the film industry (I am writing it like this because it’s going to happen), it seems that it is also put him in a stratosphere where it is increasingly harder to simply just enjoy a movie without any qualifications.  And that’s a tough place to be.  

This is not a critique, however, of my friend.  I am actually thankful for his microscopic and meticulous take on film.  It challenges my own ignorant opinions and helps me grow.  At the same time, I want to also watch “Dumb and Dumber”.  Can I like “Dumb and Dumber” and still have a high palate for film?  I don’t know.  

bcf
Here’s me, trying to analyze a praise song.

I realize seminary did the same thing to me.  I don’t blame seminary, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as I become more learned in theology, I’ve also become much more critical about things of the church.  Ask my wife.  I am a walking, talking asterisk.  I am an overthinking theologian who always has to have an addendum to a statement.  I used to love Hillsong worship songs.  Now I have to dissect it like a frog and break it down to see if it is theologically sound.  I used to love retreats and alter calls.  Now I treat it like a fat kid treats kale.  I used to love WWJD paraphernalia and bible covers, but I’d never be caught dead in them.  I used to read the The Message.  Now I’m ESV or bust.  

I hate what I’ve become.  How do I silence this ticking mechanism that is obsessive over all things?  The worst part of it is (and a real reflection of my own sin), is that it’s really hard for me to get blessed from some sermons.  Rather than receiving the words of life, I find myself making a checklist to see if it’s preached in context, or if he is preaching from the text at all (or using it as a jumping off point for his own opinions).  Did the preacher give a solid application for me to take home?  It’s bad.  And I’m a recovering sinner who’s trying to find my way back.  I want to be that young kid who was so enamored with the Gospel, that the Gospel is truly all that I wanted.  I miss the days in which I would be so blessed by Francis Chan’s Crazy Love.  I miss being so easily moved by God’s love.  Would I even like Blue Like Jazz, if I read it today in my current state?  I’d probably called Donald Miller a crazy person because of his view of the church and he’s not “reformed enough” (although I wouldn’t because I still love him).  In a not forced example, the most elevated form of sushi, one would argue, is just the fish itself.  If the fish is good enough, it is not necessary to serve it with tempura flakes and spicy mayo.  But I’ve become to guy who orders the Super Saiyan Seattle Roll with extra tobiko and then thrice fried.  Where have I gone wrong? 

There’s a lot of parallels between the chefs and pastors.  Every time I watch a culinary show, it sometimes leads me to a rabbit hole of reflection on my own journey as a pastor.  I recently binged a show called Ugly Delicious.  I am a huge fan of David Chang and I think he’s a genius.  I really appreciated the main thrust of the show, in which he challenges the precocious culinary world that good food also has to be pristine in its presentation.  (On a side note, it’s really weird to see an old youth group friend married to him and on the show).  

In the first episode, the talks about pizza and David talks to Mark Iacono, who is, in his own right, a pizza making legend.  But David brings up the idea of Domino’s Pizza, Mark almost writhes in disgust.  He not only denounces such a poor excuse of a pizza, but says that other pizzas such as ones with salads and other ingredients are flatbread and not pizza.  Here I am, watching the episode (whilst in the season of Lent in which is self-imposed cruelty), and thinking, “I like Domino’s”.  David, as the mastermind behind the show, champions the cause for the franchise, even calling it good for what it is.  As a James Beard award winner and considered one of the more important chefs in the world, genuinely likes Domino’s pizza.  

I want to be in that place where I can simultaneously push the envelope of my own learning and appreciation of the sophisticated, but be humble enough (especially in this Lenten season), to appreciate the most basic, simple and trite sayings.  What a shame it would be if the most familiar phrases or lyrics no longer touched the cockles of my heart?  

This is something that I have been eschewing for so long, but I am reminded of the first Sunday school song I learned as a child.  Let it be enough.  

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong
Yes Jesus loves me
Oh, yes Jesus loves me
Yes Jesus loves me for the Bible tells me so

 

 

 

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Perspective pt. II

It’s been a few months since I was let go.  It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been coping.  I’ve been coping in the form of copious amounts of carbs, but coping nonetheless.  A strawberry Pop Tart can be the kindest of companions.  A buttery, flaky croissant is more coveted then a massage.  But writing is a forsaken therapy too.

One source of solace has come from some providential fellowship with some other PCA pastors in the area.  Even though I am not ordained in the PCA, I was invited to participate by a dear brother who was responsible for guiding me to go to Covenant Seminary many years ago.   And by participate, I really mean act as a wallflower and absorb the precious pearls of wisdom coming from pastors who have done ministry longer than I have lived.  With that, however, comes with a sense of insecurity too; while these guys are quoting the most obscure books and pontificating on the nuances of theological truths that I am still wrestling with, I am sitting there, feeling like I don’t belong.  On one hand I’m grateful that I’m invited to absorb things, but I almost feel like one of those kids who get to play a game of HORSE with an NBA player–it’s quite an honor but I know cannot compete.  I know this is an all-too-familiar scathing voice but the feelings of inadequacies definitely surface.  But that’s not the point.

In my previous post, I talked about perspective (specifically the lack thereof).  I struggle with perspective similar to how I struggle with uni.  I want to love uni and I feel like to qualify as a true foodie I have to broadcast my love for uni, but I just struggle to love it like I love a steak.  Usually the meetings consist of very intellectual and socially conscious discussions, but the most recent meeting took on a different tenor.  We had a local pastor, Andrew, come and speak on perspective, essentially.  If you have time, I encourage you to watch/listen to his testimony here.  It will help you put things into perspective.

To give a little background, Andrew was called to church plant, which is a trying endeavor.  As he was embarking on this call, he found himself constantly tired.  He thought that it was the stress of planting a church, but his condition continued to get worse.  At the behest of his wife, he begrudgingly decided to go to the hospital to have the doctor look at what he initially thought was the flu.  But on February 23 2016, the CT scan revealed that Andrew had stage IV lung cancer.  Four days later, the doctors gave him a 3 month prognosis.  More than a year later, here he was sitting among us, talking about how good God has been to Andrew.  And I’m sitting there, simply aghast at my own pettiness, complaining about things that now seem trivial.

His story isn’t unique.  Many people have been affected by cancer and it is one of things that has carries with it, a crippling and ominous feeling.  But what was so powerful was the unwavering stench of faith in his testimony.  There were times in his testimony, where he would refer to his death, as if it were imminent.  He had already bought the coffin, which I can assume would be the most eerie purchase anyone can make.  He is figuring out the right words to tell his daughter.  It was strange.  But here is, praising God and giving thanks, and imploring everyone else to do ministry with that heart.

Another aspect about his testimony that pierced my own callous heart was his current ministry–to his family.  I can’t speak for other pastors, but I would feel completely lost and useless if I weren’t doing ministry.  Part of that comes from the self-entitlement I got when I graduated seminary (which I am trying rid of).  But part of it also comes from how I define myself: I find worth in preaching and other ministry related duties.  Andrew spoke on that, and for awhile, he felt completely useless and out of sorts.  But God graciously shifted his focus where his ministry was now to his family, even making repairs on the scars that exist from his overexertion in church work beforehand.  And he says that it has been the sweetest ministry he has experienced thus far.  I had to repent upon hearing Andrew’s testimony about the mistakes he has made regarding his family.  Even in my relatively short time of being a pastor, I find the temptation to choose ministry over family enticing.  Suffer and sacrifice for the church, as my parents’ generation would say.

A final note regarding my reflections on the work that God has been doing in the life of Andrew: in a sick and twisted way, I was overcome with a momentary envy of Andrew’s cancer.  It’s not so much that I wanted the disease itself, though; rather, I want the profound and the slew of lessons he has learned, and the intimacy and depth in his relationship with God.  In the past few years, I feel stymied by my own overthinking and over complicating ministry.  I find myself addicted to embellishing on a simple yet beautiful truth of Christ resurrected, mainly as a way to shield and overcompensate for my insecurities.  In that moment, I wanted to have what Andrew had.  How messed up is that?  Swift is the perversion of my heart.

Andrew boldly stated that he wouldn’t change anything.  Could I have that same courage?  Probably not.  And in the few hours with a bunch of men, mouths agape, Andrew is both asking the question, “is the Gospel enough?” and in light of his condition, unapologetically affirming it.   He’s lived it.  He’s living it.  As I ask my question that, I want to say “yes, the Gospel is enough”.  I am preaching on John 4 this Sunday, and how providential.

Andrew shared that he has been reading through a book called Farewell to His Friends and Church by Adolphe Monod.  He was a French Protestant preacher in the 19th Century, and like Andrew, was diagnosed with a terminal disease.  In his last days, he would preach sermons to his friends, and thankfully, they had transcribed his last words.  I want to quote him, sans commentary, that nicely wraps up everything that I wanted to convey: I am to take ownership, but I am not the owner.

If we act in this spirit (I say it with deep reverence), our vocation is God’s affair
rather than our own—it is His work, and not ours; and the activity, the individual
exertion that God always requires of us, consists only in following where He leads,
in a spirit of faithful and childlike obedience. In that we shall find perfect peace.
God cannot mislead us. We are often tormented with the thought, that we do not do
enough, or that we do amiss, or that we do not do the work which God appointed
for us.

During the first weeks that followed the declaration of the doctors (that my disease
was beyond their skill), I recollect how much I was troubled by the idea that my
work was not done. By the grace of God I am now delivered from these thoughts,
because I understand that is not my work, but God’s; and I acknowledge that, by the
sufferings and the afflictions He has sent me, and by the hope of eternal life that
will follow, the Lord teaches me to exercise a new ministry, probably a more
important one than what I had purposed, and at all events more sure, because it
comes more directly from the hand of God, who mercifully constrains me to walk
in this path for His service and glory. It is in such cases that we can say, like Jesus
Christ before He suffered death, “I have finished the work thou gavest me to do.”
And why could he say that? Because He sought only to do the work of God, and
God withdrew Him, as a ripe fruit is gathered, when His mission was accomplished.

To God be the glory.

Perspective

Football, and all different kind of sports, is quite the peculiar creature.  We all acknowledge it to be a simple game, but the kind of emotions that it elicits would prove to be contrary.  Some of the more heated exchanges that I have been a part of revolved around sports.  It’s kind of scary to see how the hope and joy of so many people hang in the balance of a 3-hour game that, in the grand scheme of things, means absolutely nothing.  But I get it.  I actually live it too.  After all, my room used to be a shrine for all things Seattle Sports, with newspaper clippings and SI for Kids articles taped on ever square inch of that room.  

There has been a gnashing of teeth over the local football team and the inability to make the playoffs since 2011.  The vitriol and digital pitchforks that have been making the rounds on social media doesn’t seem to match the level of importance sports really has on all things life, but sadly this is the time and place we live in.  And the most pathetic thing about all of this is most of the criticisms seem to come from people who started to cheer for the Seahawks when they started to get good.  That’s a different point for another day, but I highly doubt most of these guys could name five Seahawks who played in the 90’s.  The indifference felt in the 90’s when we were losing double digit games makes these outcries lose its credibility.  There are people demanding a pound of flesh, for people to lose their jobs, over a season that was, yes, disappointing, but overall more good than bad.  We won more than we lost.  Yet the sense of self-entitlement that has run its course has suddenly made us, as fans mind you, not enjoy the present but rather pollute our perspective.  

But I get it.  I’m frustrated too.  

As I get older, my love for sports has not waned, but I think I have been able to keep it in its right perspective.  But also, as I get older, I’ve grown to realize that part of my enjoyment in sports, and all of life for that matter, comes down to perspective.  

The Seahawks have had a great five year run in which they went to two Super Bowls, won one, made the playoffs every year, and is considered one of the greater five year runs in the history of the league.  There is so much good that came from this era, of which the caretakers of the team are still in tact.  And I wouldn’t be wrong when I say the comments I hear on the radio and social media is overwhelmingly negative, many times knee-jerkingly reactionary and overly dramatic.  

This is two things.  First, this is a failure to contextualize.  It is not crazy for me to say that the past five years have been the franchise’s best run.  But in the decision to complain and stew in the negativity proves that the fan base is unable to contextualize the 2017 season.  Yes, be frustrated.  But I’d rather reflect on the great seasons that we’ve had, especially since some of these cornerstone players won’t be returning.  

Second, and this is more of a meta-observation, but I don’t think this issue is only plaguing fans.  This is a problem in my own life.  If I am so brash in my analysis of perspective, how much more should I revel in the work that God is doing in my own life.  How much more embarrassing, then, is my own lack of joy and perspective over fleeting issues, in context of God’s love and grace in my life?  

So while sharply criticize certain Seahawk fans for blowing things out of proportion, I, too, must confess that I have failed in contextualizing.  I always implore my church members to choose to never isolate circumstances on its own but to bracket it with the grander narrative of God’s plan for you, which is good.  Complaining, similar to anger, feels strangely comforting.  It boosts the self.  It makes you feel right and superior.  It makes you feel self-entitled.  But in it, you ironically lose what is it that you were seeking in the first place: joy.  It robs you and the vicious cycle only hardens the callous of the heart.  But in choosing rejoicing, there’s an air of surrender and levity.  In rejoicing, we continue to draw from the well of concrete examples of great things that have happened (like how about the cool fact that Jesus did something pretty awesome for me on some tree), and using it as an elixir to certain hardships we might presently be enduring.  

Perspective is a choice and it is a choice with very real consequences.  I guess this is my quasi-resolution to have a better perspective.  I hate the word resolution.  So I don’t know what to call it.  But I want to try.  I will try.  

The Mess

Note:  This post will have some spoilers regarding The Last Jedi.  Consider yourself adequately warned.  

I don’t know what you thought about the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise, but it has caused quite a stir among the audience.  In fact, my own brother-in-law refrained from even entering in the octagon of dissent because he knew just how divisive the topic of Star Wars can be.  In my unsolicited opinion, I thought the movie was great.  I thought it was both entertaining, original, and a refreshing deviation from the trite trope of the previous narratives that preceded the Last Jedi (TLJ).  I almost felt insecure about enjoying the movie.  Whenever I talked to someone that actually liked TLJ, I almost felt like clandestine secret agents that were on a crusade to persuade the masses that their opinion was faulty.  

But this post isn’t about Star Wars or the cinematic qualities (or lack thereof) of the flick.  In a frenzy to find well written reviews about TLJ to fill my own quivers as way to defend the movie whenever asked, I stumbled upon a powerfully written analysis of the movie.  It can be read here.  

It’s long and NSFW, but do yourself a favor and please read it.  I read it last night around 10:30, thinking it’d be a nice little analysis about the movie, and it ended up being the gateway to a sleepless night of existential contemplation.  It’s one of those.  It’s just that good.  I’ll give you a few minutes to read that over.  

While I must resist the temptation to dissect and fawn over every point that was made and scream “this!  just this!”, I will whittle it down to a few points. 

First, I love that this post, while using concrete examples from the movie, is actually a meta-analysis about life.  But let me give you a few crumbs:  

Stories can never be written for the fans.

Fan service isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it is sometimes a fairly lazy thing — it’s a comfortable signal, a soft chair, it’s Norm from Cheers where everybody knows his name. It’s to say, “You’re lost here, but look, here is a familiar friend to help you through. It’s to let you know that despite all the strange flora and the eyes glowing in the dark, you’re still a known quantity in a known land. This is a safe place.” When done overmuch, fan service does more than just introduce a few friendly faces. It burns down the trees. It lights up the dark. It slides a jukebox over and slams the top of it like it’s Fonzie and suddenly, the Greatest Hits begin to play, just as you love them. Maybe in an order you don’t know, but still the songs you know and you adore.

The Last Jedi is not without its fan service moments, but they are few and far-between, and even when they exist, they exist to challenge you more than they do to bring you succor.

The Last Jedi will not meet your expectations.

For me, this lesson speaks to the precise moment in my own story in which I long for a fan service moment.  I yearn for safety and comfort.  I want familiarity.  I want things to make sense.  I do not enjoy floating in murky waters.  

As I reflect on this past year, there have been great moments and moments that have caused chagrin.  I am, by no means, without blame.  And while it’s easy to construct an argument that makes me appear blameless, at the end of the day, the milk is still spilled and now I can’t go to Disneyland anymore (an anecdote for another day, which literally involves a glass of spilled milk).  

For those that I haven’t really been in touch with, I apologize for the ambiguity; I recently resigned my post at my church because of the session’s decision to let me go in December.  It is something that I am processing and while it has been difficult, and a transition as smooth as a barnacle-laden rock, sitting idly and receiving repeated punishment by the merciless waves, I embrace the story because of my faith in the author in which constructs an even grander narrative in which I know the outcome to be good and favorable.  

And so I understand why people get upset at TLJ; it’s unfamiliar, and invites us to the uncomfortable.  It’s human and it’s tainted with unsymmetrical and an obvious lack of pristine beauty.  Yes, Kylo Ren is petulant.  Rey is ambivalent.  The famed and most pivotal character in Luke Skywalker is cynical to a point where even I am disgusted with his lack of optimism.  And he dies.  Like, what the heck?  

But for me, redemption is only as sweet as the pangs of despair.  Grace is only as powerful as the weight of sin.  And so it is with this understand in which I try to navigate through the tempest of the unknowable.  

Second, I love the beautiful mess that is TLJ.  Again, quote followed by an unspectacular commentary on my own life. 

This film tries and messily succeeds.

And the resultant mess — the splatters, the ripples, the broken glass, the unfolding mutations — changes our understanding. It frees Episode IX from fitting a known pattern. It frees us from knowing what’s to come — we are gloriously, wonderfully lost. Just as the characters are themselves lost. I pondered that this film could’ve just as easily been called The Lost Jedi, because that’s how it feels. Luke is wayward. Rey is lost to her own powers and place in the world. Kylo is lost in his rage, fallen into the chasm of his heart and spirit. Poe is unmoored from his heroism. Finn is pinballing between his cowardice and his own heroism. Rose is lost without her sister. Leia is lost without Han and the Republic. The Resistance is lost under the might of the First Order. Everyone is lost. Everyone is failing. The entire movie presents us with failure after failure: characters trying to do the right thing and missing a step, every damn time. (Emphasis added)

…[I]t’s broken, yes, but into new shapes, new tastes. It’s failure in the way a mirror is broken: one image becomes many, distorted and new and beautiful in its way. It’s failure as the butterfly effect. It’s failure as Yoda tells it: the greatest teacher, failure is.

This failure of Luke, of Rey, of the Resistance, of all the characters, leads to a resurrection — the Phoenix Firebird of the Rebellion — rising anew.

This failure of these characters is a success for the film.

It’s a mess in the best way. Because in that mess, the patterns are lost, the expectations are destroyed, the tropes are broken and bent. For the first time in a long time, I had literally no idea what was going to happen, and that felt like madness in the best way…

In being lost, we have become found.

It’s hard not to feel like a failure.  I already struggle with being an impossible critic who cannot be satiated, but to be in a situation in which I don’t get to do what I absolutely love to do, I feel like I’ve let down many people.  I feel like I’ve let down God.  I feel like God gave me a few talents to invest in, and I didn’t even bother to dig a hole to bury it in, but rather bet it on black, only to have the ball trickle onto red.  And now I’m lost.  

I’m not trying to kid anyone; this feeling that is sitting in the pit of my stomach is like an existential heart burn that is lingering without an end in sight.  But if anything, in a weird way, I was calmly comforted, through a random blog post I stumbled across while perusing a Seattle Mariners blog.  I used to cackle at people who would proclaim that something “spoke to them”.  But this post, and specifically this portion of the analysis, spoke to me.  Not to hyper-spiritualize my moment last night, but I believe God was simultaneously reprimanding and reminding me.  He was reprimanding me for my Poe-like delusional zeal, in which I try to concoct my own ministry success, but he was also reminding me of the future that he holds and that in my own failures, and in my own shattered glass as I try to find my own identity in its monstrous reflection, that God will mend the seemingly unmendable shards of glass so that it will be whole again.  It’s so easy to preach, and it preaches well, but even after a degree in theology and several years under my belt, to speak such powerful truths and to live them out is another lesson in which I need 10 more lifetimes to perfect.  

Finally, a pertinent challenge to myself.  And again, I gratuitously quote:  

The challenge comes for the viewer is this:

Do you need need your Star Wars to be comfort food? No harm, no foul if you do. Some look to Star Wars and need it to be the perfect mirror it has been — they don’t want that mirror broken so that other stories can be told, so that other people can see themselves in the shared shards. Some want the tropes. They want the familiarity. They need nostalgia.

I can understand why people did not enjoy TLJ.  I think there are definitely cinematic reasons for it.  But maybe I’m just in this weird place in my life where it resonated with a certain part of my pschye that the transcendent narrative of the broken actually brought me a semblance of peace.  I could have done without the weird Leia floating in space, or Luke Skywalker milking whatever that creature was, but all in all, in a very misdirected way, it was yet another reminder of the power of narrative and importance of the mess.  In the mess, I am forced to fix my gaze upon Jesus.  I don’t know what is going to happen in the next few months.  I might not even be in Seattle for that much longer.  I might even be doing ministry or the type of ministry that I envisioned.  And no, the pain still lingers and the uneasiness of the future is nauseating, but today, I feel a little better about my mess.  Here’s to tomorrow in which another page of my story will be revealed.

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.  

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.