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When Your Faith is Questioned

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Sometimes when a person casts doubt on what we believe in, our initial reaction is to be offended. I’m not sure about you, but for me it might be because my pride makes me think the person is questioning my intelligence in believing something seemingly illogical or improbable.

My attitude radically changed when God reminded me that I used to be one of those people who questioned His existence when I was a student. When you are from a university that likes to pride itself in students who are critical thinkers, you can hardly avoid such queries. And personally, I LOVE THAT! We wouldn’t want people to simply conform just because Christianity is popular or because the people are nice. Real transformation begins when we fully believe in God’s power, sovereignty and love. And sometimes that entails someone throwing you off balance with a hard question. Here’s the thing though, I find that in seeking an answer to the question (from the right sources, of course), my faith is strengthened in the end.

And when my faith is tested and strengthened, I’m more likely to want to share it to others. You can’t help but talk to others about something you really believe in. Why would we be hesitant to share the Gospel to others if we are convinced that it’s the solution to our greatest problem (SIN) and it’s the answer to our greatest need (SALVATION), not just in this life but for eternity?

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,… (1Peter 3:15, ESV)

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Versace on the Floor

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Perfumes have always been a big deal to women (and maybe to men, I wouldn’t know). The price we pay for our precious perfumes make it difficult for us to let it go to any kind of waste. So I can’t imagine what possessed Mary, the sister of Lazarus, to break an entire alabaster jar of perfume worth a year’s wages on Jesus’ head! Translated to this nation’s annual minimum wage, that would be around Php115,000 (USD2,300).

Let’s backtrack a little bit. This incident is referred to as the “anointing of Jesus Christ” and although it is found in three of the gospels (some argue it is in all of the four), I find the one in John the most enlightening. I love the gospel of John because it shows Jesus’ emotions in a way that is not found in the other gospels and it makes him more vulnerable and more relatable somehow.

Before the perfume-breaking event in chapter 12, we find out that Jesus has a close friendship with Mary and her siblings, Martha and Lazarus. (Although the events of the gospel of John is not necessarily in order, we know the anointing happened after the events in chapter 11 because of the reference to Lazarus’ resurrection in chapter 12). Something strange happened that turned into something awesome.

In the first part of chapter 11, it is established who the siblings were to Jesus and that Lazarus was very sick and so the sisters, knowing the miracles of Jesus, sent a message to him. They weren’t precisely asking him to go and heal Lazarus, but if you are friends with someone, you’ll get the message. And Jesus is far from dense or insensitive. The strange thing is his response.  It’s ironic that verse 5 said, Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” and yet this statement is followed by “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” I mean, if your friend whom you loved is very ill and it’s within your power to do something about it, wouldn’t you go to him with all haste? And yet Jesus stayed where he was for TWO MORE DAYS.

After two days he goes to Bethany, where the siblings reside, but Lazarus was already dead AND buried. When Jesus arrived, it says in verse 20, “So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.” I just love John’s subtleties. I can just feel the emotional charges, even when they are not explicitly described. Mary felt betrayed and heartbroken, because she thought Jesus cared and it seems he didn’t really care after all. Honestly, I’d feel the same. And how many times in our life do we feel like Jesus does not really care, because he didn’t do things the way we expect him to? Because, come on, if he cared why does he let me experience suffering? You can feel her disappointment with Jesus in verse 32. “Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”” “Lord, if you cared enough, you would have…” “Lord if you really loved me, you would have…” And so goes our litany of disappointments.

But God’s ways are higher than our ways. In verse 14-15, “Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”” Yet the beautiful thing about Jesus is that he feels our hurts deeply, even if he has a higher purpose for allowing the pain. In verse 33, it says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.” He feels for you and I when we are in the depths of pain. And yet he sticks to his purpose because he knows how it will make us even more firm in our faith.

And he does go the extra mile. By raising Lazarus from the dead, he firmly established his power over death, making more people believe in him. And if I were Mary, I’d break my Versace and let it flow to the floor, too, in awe and extravagant worship of this amazing God, who loved me so much he was willing to be a lowly human for thirty years and die an excruciating death on the cross EVEN in the midst of my rebellion. If I were Mary, I would fall on my feet in tears and wipe His feet with my hair, too, saying “Lord, I’m sorry! I’m sorry for thinking you don’t care for me enough. I’m sorry for putting you in a box, thinking you can only heal but not raise the dead to life. I’m sorry I forgot how much of a sinner I was and that I deserved death and eternal punishment, yet you did not just come to give me life but to life it to the full.”

An additional note:

Although it is agreed by many biblical scholars that the woman who anointed Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, many dispute over the identity of the woman in the book of Luke, mostly because that woman is described to be a sinner (a prostitute, according to some sources). But come to think of it, we know nothing about the past of the three siblings. Who’s to say that Mary couldn’t have been a prostitute just because she is recognized as a close friend of Jesus? (I know, I’m breaking stereotypes here and ripe tomatoes might be thrown at me any minute, but isn’t Jesus the friend of prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners?) Besides, even if she were not a prostitute, I’m sure she’s still a sinner, for haven’t we all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Wouldn’t that be an even greater reason to worship him extravagantly?

 

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Does God owe us anything?

 

Entitlement.001When I started reading the Bible for the first time, there were parts of it that I liked best because they made me feel good. And then there were the excruciatingly boring parts (Leviticus and Numbers, anyone?). And then there were the parts that really struck the heart of the matter and I end up wasak (I could’ve used the term “broken” but it won’t have the same impact).

One of my favorite verses goes like this

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

–Romans 8:32 (NIV)

I’m not sure if it’s just my selfish nature, but the first time I read this, my eyes zeroed in on a particular phrase:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

And I thought, “Awesome! I have a mighty and powerful God willing to pander to my needs.” (As if HIS world revolved around me, but aren’t we thinking or acting that way more times than we’d like to admit?)

At first, it seemed that He was spoiling me indeed. I would pray for something and then I’d get it. I felt entitled, just because I thought I understood God’s love and generosity. But a few months after that, nothing seemed to go my way any longer and I’d question God, “I thought You said You’ll give me all things? Why didn’t You answer my prayer?” That line of thought led me to become ungrateful. It eventually escalated to bitterness when it seemed He no longer cared for me. And then I could no longer trust God fully, so that I could not give freely to others–of my money, of my time, of my love.

But God, in His goodness, did not allow me to wallow in my self-pity and entitlement. Instead, He gently led me back to the verse I was holding on to and redirected my focus. This time I was drawn to a different phrase:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

My selfish nature was exposed. My heart was convicted. My mind was washed with the truth.

And the truth is, HE IS THE EPITOME OF GENEROSITY. Never in our most generous moment would we think of sacrificing our child for anyone… not even for anyone like Mother Teresa. And yet God, in His unfathomable love, sacrificed His ONLY Son for a people who continually reject Him, who spit in His face, who wilfully rebel against Him. And in the light of that kind of love and generosity, who can ask for more? And yet, He does give more–more than I could ask for or imagine. And if I’m honest with myself, I could mostly understand why He would not give me something I asked at a particular time. And when I don’t understand, at least I could trust His love and His perfect knowledge–that He has a reason for His timing and that His will is always good, always pleasing, always perfect.

I may not have everything I want, but He has never left me nor forsaken me.  I have never been in want. And that is so so much more than enough reason to freely give of myself and of what I have.

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“Taong Tulay” Tales

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Taong Tulay –  In Filipino culture, a taong tulay (literally, a human bridge) is one who facilitates the courtship of a couple. This used to be very popular among young men and women, especially when the person being courted is not a friend of the one who would like to court. The taong tulay is usually a common friend. Complications arise when the taong tulay tries to usurp the place of the one who courts.

We’ve all heard or watched stories featuring the taong tulay. Most of the time, the taong tulay gets audience sympathy when he or she is hopelessly in unrequited love with one of the parties involved. But, for those who have put the desires of the couple above their own, there is great joy in celebrating the love between them. Take the story of our friend, John.

An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” -John 3:25-30

John understood that his sole role was to introduce the world to Christ. He never sought to usurp the bridegroom’s place. Certainly he sacrificed a lot in life. He wore camel’s hair (not the smooth, expensive camel hide used in modern coats, but based on Matthew 11:8, it must have been the rough, unprocessed kind). He was a Nazirite, which means he was hairy (and itchy, most probably) and he never drank wine (which was the ultimate hedonistic drink for the Jews, over which the special Hagafen blessing is pronounced by the rabbis). He was also on a special diet of locust and honey (honey-dipped grasshoppers, anyone?).

As someone whose role is likewise to introduce others to Christ, how can we complain? John fully understood both the bad news and the good news of being Christ’s messenger. We should too.

The bad news is, we can’t take credit for the changed lives of those we lead.

Yes, we invest our life, our time, our heart, our mind, our finances just to see one person’s life transformed as he or she gets to know Christ. But the reality is, it is simply a privilege for us to be part of this person’s life. It is God who works in their hearts. We simply plant or water, but it is He who makes the seed grow (1Corinthians 3:6). We lay the foundations, we share the Word, we encourage them to read the Bible and seek God, we model a life in Christ. That’s it. We should not usurp the role of the Lover by allowing the people we lead to be dependent on us or take the spotlight away from the Protagonist by claiming that we played a bigger role in the person’s life than we really have.

So yes, despite the hard work and the dedication, the ultimate credit of a changed life does not go to us. It is tempting to let the people recognize our role in a person’s life, especially when they turn out to become an even better leader than we imagined. But because it is God alone who can transform, He alone gets the glory.

On the other hand, have you ever felt the frustration and the stress of seeing someone you lead make foolish mistakes despite your warnings and admonitions?

On the upside, the good news is, we are not responsible for the bad choices of those we lead.

If you have taught the person you lead to seek God and be responsible for the growth in their relationship with Christ, then it is not your burden to soften hard hearts and stubborn heads. Any mess they make out of their own choice is not your fault and it does not reflect back on you as a leader. So, let’s stop lamenting over those who close their ears and turn away. Our role is to point the person on the right path to Christ through our words and our life. We have to trust the Holy Spirit to do His job of transformation.

Our taong tulay role is to facilitate a relationship between the Lover and the pursued. Our joy is in seeing the wedding take place. Let’s just be sure we are not a hindrance to the relationship.

So, how are you as a taong tulay?

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Confessions of a Campus Missionary

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I know you think that all kids teachers have natural affinity with kids and that all campus missionaries are automatically drawn to teenagers. Let me shatter your expectations.

I have two confessions to make.

1. I didn’t like kids.

Shocking right? I’ve been in Kids Church for a long time and yet I didn’t like kids–at all. I didn’t know how to communicate with them. I didn’t gush over them. I wasn’t looking forward to having a brood of messy tots in my life. I was more cut out to be a cool as cucumber executive who would mentor aspiring and ambitious young women professionals like me.

In 2003, we had a minor crisis in Victory Los Baños. For years, we had been a church composed mostly of students, but in the recent years, we were having more and more families join us and with them came the children. We had no experience with Kids Church. Most of us who became Christians as university students were not even familiar with Sunday school.

My leader, Cathy, gathered some of us and shared the need to start the Kids Ministry. My automatic response was, “Sorry, Cathy. I’m not good with kids. So I’m not even going to pray about it. I know I’m not called to be a Kids Church teacher.” Cathy, being the kind of person who does not easily give up, responded, “But you are so good with my three year old!” I said, “She’s different. I talk to her like an adult.” She replied, “Well then, you could treat the other kids the same!” I was stubbornly silent. And then divine inspiration set in and Cathy shared a verse:

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. – Judges 2:10 (NIV)

She caught my attention with that verse and I realized that I didn’t want to be party to the next generation not knowing about God and His love and faithfulness. I knew it was God speaking to me. It was not about what I’m comfortable with or who I would like to reach out to. It’s about His plans, His purpose, and His timeline. Obeying Him should not necessarily be accompanied with the love or the skills or the comfort needed for His calling.

The next Sunday, I was in Kids Church and almost 13 years later, I’ve never once regretted obeying God. I love kids now (I get to have random conversations with little people in airports and malls) and I know it’s the kind of love that transcends emotions–it’s the kind of love that is the fruit of obedience. Many of my first students are now adults and it is a privilege to see them serving God wherever they are. Despite my lack of compassion, God chose me to be a part of their lives and I will be forever grateful that my reluctance did not deter my leaders from strongly encouraging me to try.

2. High school students were the last group of people I preferred to reach out to.

Because I knew just how much angst I had as a high schooler, I was adamant that I would not choose to reach out to this age group. I’d rather stick to teaching the 7-12 year old kids, who are sweet and innocent and to reaching out to the university age ones, who I figured would not be as hormone-driven. Let someone else deal with the confusion of puberty.

However, I saw more and more promising young leaders sinking into depression and giving in to the identity confusion they normally experience when they step into high school life. And I thought, why wait to reach out to an even more broken person in college, when they could learn the truth earlier? I tentatively started to reach out to girls between 13 and 16 years old and am I glad I did! So many mindsets that I had about high school students were broken because it wasn’t feelings or comfort that dictated my decision (more about these mindsets in my next blog).

Not only do I now have so much love for these young people–I have a deep respect for them, especially when they choose to stand apart from their peers yet still respond in compassion in the midst of persecution at an age where rejection chafes the most. I look forward to the kind of leader they will become as university students, as professionals and as parents.

How about you? Is God calling you to fill a need, even if your feelings toward the people involved seem to border on apathy? Are you willing to obey and be in faith despite your feelings? Or would you rather stick to your comfort zone?

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Wisdom from the (Parent)Hood 2: A Mess Management

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Well, you can always give her a bath again :P.

It’s interesting when you find yourself in another nation with an entirely different culture, and yet because you share the same faith, you have the same perspective that transcends the differences. Today’s blog is in honor of a dedicated wife and mother, who taught me so much with how she lives her life and raises her children without the benefit of a stay-in helper (the way we have them in the Philippines) and with only God’s grace to back her up.

During one of our random discussions, Anna told me how she was able to raise her children to be responsible and capable at a very young age. Her 15 year old daughter can look after her two siblings with her eyes closed; her 10 year old daughter cooked a whole meal during my stay because their mom got sick (said daughter also brought up a tray of food for her); her 4 year old son is a pro in washing dishes (we’re talking about ceramic bowls and plates here).  On my latest visit, she taught me a very important lesson. All her kids were able to use chopsticks, spoons, and forks expertly at 3 years of age.  She started training them at 1 year and 3 months. ONE YEAR and THREE MONTHS? That must have made quite a mess! Laughingly, she admitted that she put layers of newspaper under her baby’s high chair when she started training each of them. After lots of food throwing and utensil banging, she could just clean up her baby, wipe the high chair, and then roll up the newspaper straight into the trash. You’ll have to learn to deal with a messy kitchen because once babies are past 2 years old and have not learned to feed themselves, they would expect to be spoon fed every time and it gets harder to wean them from it. So yes, take that short, opportune time that they desire to learn and just deal with the messy aftermath, because it will be worth it not having to pander to their needs every mealtime.

Come to think of it, there’s a parallel in our spiritual walk. There is an opportune time when someone new in the faith desires to go deeper in his or her walk with God. We should always take that time to encourage them to seek God daily, go deeper into studying His word, and obey Him no matter what to exercise their faith muscles. We remind them that their faith is their own, and that there are some faith journeys which they will need to walk by themselves. We also encourage them to share their faith and their passion by leading others to Christ. When we miss this golden opportunity, we end up with entitled Christians, expecting to be fed all the time and to be entertained all the time, and are unwilling to serve the church or reach the lost. Yes, the process can be messy–there may be mistakes in doctrine, there may be bursts of impatience with people who do not respond, or there may be offenses. But the mess is the best opportunity to exercise forgiveness, love, humility and dependence on God. To be honest, if the mess produces responsible servant leaders, I’d take the mess anytime.

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Never Too Early (or Too Late) To Play the Right Tune

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Can you imagine playing this piano while cool breeze flow in from the garden? *homesick*

Our life group of middle/high schoolers has been talking about identity and purpose these past few weeks. Somehow, it reminded me of an old childhood friend (a bit akin to Bing Bong, but more tangible. Lol.)

I miss our piano a lot.

Not because it was gone. It was always there but unfortunately, it could no longer do what it was supposed to do–which was to produce the right tone when you press the right key. (My sister, who shall NOT be named, told us that our music teacher commented on her singing–“You know, people sing on the ebony or the ivory keys, but YOU–you sing on the cracks!” That cracked us up!).

It had been with our family for so long (it used to be my mother’s when she was still in high school) that by the time I was 12 years old, just when I was starting to play the harder classical pieces, some of the keys were either mute or unbearably off-key.

It came to the point when no one could bear to play it anymore. Everyone in the family was heartbroken, especially our mom, since she was the one who could really belt out Haydn and Mozart and all the other pieces with the intimidating flats and sharps. (My mom is quite the polymath, what with being a scientist, a musician, a linguist, and an artist at the same time–a quality often developed in young women in her time.)

But I guess if the piano had feelings, it would be the one that would hurt the most. Imagine not being able to do what you are supposed to do–not fulfilling that sense of purpose in your life. It was just there, living from day to day, gathering dust, not living at all, but merely existing.

Finally after more than 15 years, my mom could not bear it any longer. She splurged on having it repaired to make it as good as new. Now she enjoys playing the classics again and I’m sure, if the piano only could, it would jump for joy. I’m excited to go home and play again as well. And we hope the piano will live on to see the next generation make good music with it.

If the piano had feelings, I’m sure no one could match the peace and the joy that comes with knowing you are in your turf, that you are doing what you are supposed to do.

We are like that piano. We may be young or old–whatever our age is, we sometimes feel that we’re playing life off-key. We feel we’re missing out on what we should be doing. It is not yet too late. Just like that piano, you can still acknowledge that you need repair. And when you subject yourself to the proper tuning in the hands of the Creator who knows what you were made for, you’ll feel the joy of playing the masterpiece called your life.