Don’t Believe the Christmas Lies

I am getting tired of this.  The so-called holiday commercials that are currently inundating the airwaves have already started to get on my nerves.  I suppose what irks me most is the fact that these commercials really have nothing to do with the “holy day” (holiday) of Christmas, but in fact companies use this special time to convince people to spend their money on things they don’t need.  And for the most part, it works.

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“I hate my job,” say the guys in the red shirts.

Of course these coercive commercials do so much more than just advertise; they manipulate.  They send deeply deceptive messages, banking on the fact that we will spend our funds on their product, in an effort to have a more fulfilling Advent season.


Annoying Ads

Here are a few advertisements that exemplify what I’m talking about.

1. A Levi’s Jeans commercial I heard on the radio starts out by saying, “Treat your family better than ever, with a pair of Levi’s Jeans.”  Because that’s what any good marriage and family counselor will tell you keeps a family together: quality denim.

2. K-Mart decided to go with this slogan for their holiday campaign.  Apparently, K-Mart is not just the source for Joe Boxer.  They provide Christmas too.

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3. And this one from Audi really gets under my skin.  Not only does it make a mockery of generosity–after they see the new Audi, passersby drop the  keys to their luxury cars in the donation box, as if to say, “Here, poor people.  Take my Lexus.  I won’t be needing it anymore.”–but it attempts to make people who already drive luxury vehicles feel discontented and go for a “better” one.  And it’s cleverly and humorously done.  See for yourself.

What’s the problem with these commercials and others like them?  The problem is they are full of lies.  Giving jeans shows you really care?  You need to go to a store to experience Christmas more fully?  The spirit of Christmas giving has been replaced with the spirit of Christmas dissatisfaction?  No, this can’t be.  And I’m begging you (and preaching to myself as well) not to believe the Christmas lies.  Don’t believe the lies that say your Christmas experience hinges on the deals you find.  Don’t believe the lies that label you a bad parent/spouse/friend/sibling if you don’t buy the right presents.  Don’t believe the lies that say Christmas is a time to spoil yourself into debt.  And don’t believe the lies that scream in your face like a crazy parrot who’s been listening to N’Sync, “Buy!  Buy!  Buy!”

Am I a Grinch?  Do I loathe this season, like pre-transformation Ebenezer Scrooge?

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No, this is not me. But this is what I feel like sometimes.

Confession

Actually,  I am a sucker for this time of year in my own way.  Last week, I commenced with what has become tradition for me: the day after Thanksgiving I couldn’t wait to bring our holiday stuff out of storage, and as soon as I could I played some of my favorite Christmas albums.  I have my own parents to thank for this tradition of enthusiasm over the start of Christmas season, and I was excited that this year I could continue it with my own kids.  Admittedly, I would much prefer getting lost in this part of the Christmas season over getting lost in the mall.

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See, I told you we get excited for Christmas decorating.

But even as I relished every moment, I took opportunities to remind my family and myself that this–yes, even the warm glow of lights and happy feeling of well-loved holiday tunes–are not what Christmas is about, in its essence.  In truth, Christmas has nothing at all to do with the toys, the decorations, the shopping, the songs.  I’m not against commerce, and I plan on having gifts for my loved ones come the morning of December 25th.  I am not against merriment, and I fully intend to plug in my lights every night and keep listening to my favorite Christmas songs.  (Please, no “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart.”  Thanks.)

But what if I had no money?  What if there were no lights?  What if I couldn’t hear?  What if I didn’t live near a K-Mart?  Could I still experience the meaning of Christmas, in its fulness?  If Christmas has nothing to do with any of those things, then what is left?

Some Perspective

Christmas has everything to do with this: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6)

And this: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.  (Which means ‘God with us.’)”  (Matthew 1:23)

Or, if you like, here is how Linus from “Peanuts” lays it out.

All the lights and songs and gifts, and the excitement that can go along with them, are all like party favors for a grander event.  And the real celebration, the truth that transcends all the lies, is that there is something so much more than the yearly frantic and futile grab for happiness.  God came close, in the humblest way imaginable, and this God is never going to leave us.  No matter what.  And that’s for everyone, everywhere, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or age.  That is something I can believe in.  That is someone I can celebrate.

And with that I joyously say, “Let the (true) Christmas season begin.”

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Redeemed Survivor: An Epilogue

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Last Sunday, I preached the final message in a sermon series called “Against All Odds: Stories of Survival and Redemption.” The main point: Every crisis is a spiritual crisis, a test of faith, an opportunity to grow. And whereas I had other church members share their stories in the three previous sermons, for this sermon I shared my own tale. And it was harder than I thought it would be.  It was hard to share the necessary details in the short time I had.  It was even harder to recount such a painful time in my life.

*Update: Just last night (Tuesday, the 19th) I went to enjoy dinner at Souplantation with my family, only to encounter not just a few people from my former church/school, but the former pastor himself.  I did not confront him, though I was very tempted to do so.  He walked in alone with a young girl, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.  It’s not that I am afraid of him, but I am nervous about what happen if I ever confronted him.  The emotion and pain is still very real for me.

I will not recap what I shared in the sermon, though you can hear the sermon and my story it in its entirety on our church website. No, I am writing this as a followup, as a way to fill in some details that I simply did not have time to explain. I know if I were hearing someone else tell this story, of many years under a corrupt church leader in a toxic church environment, and how he finally escaped and healed from it all, I would have asked me a lot of questions. So with that, some explanations.

Were touching women inappropriately and insulting people in church the worst things this former pastor did?

No, not by any means.  There is much worse, and as Ephesians 5:12 points out, there are some things people have done in secret that are too shameful to even mention.

Did my parents know about the abuse I was enduring from the pastor?

Yes, they did.  However, it wasn’t perceived as abuse at the time, by my parents or me.  Don’t get me wrong: I often felt a terrified hatred toward this man, and I was sometimes sick to my stomach with dread at having to go to school or church or basketball practice and face him.  Still, my parents had so much misguided respect for him that whatever seemed like harsh treatment was explained as “tough love” or “spiritual challenging.”  Eventually, I developed my own misguided respect for him, believing that everything he had done to me in my youth was for my benefit.  Obviously, that was not ever the case.

And this has been one place where God, in His amazing grace, has brought healing to my family: I have been able to forgive my parents for allowing my sister and I to endure years and years of this torture, and my parents have been able to receive this forgiveness and forgive themselves.  And hey, there is an upside to what all this verbal and emotional abuse did to me: You will hardly ever see me taking myself too seriously.

How come we didn’t just do some research ourselves to find out what this pastor and his church were all about?

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Spiritual blindness

Short answer: We were afraid to.  As I mentioned in my sermon, we had heard rumors, but no one that we considered credible had ever come to us directly to reveal something horrible that this pastor had done.  Nobody, that is, until this student whom we knew very well came and changed everything for us.  It even happened way back in the 90s that there was a lawsuit brought against many people in the church, including my parents.  A couple of families named all the people in the church who supposedly knew about some of these grossly inappropriate things that were going on, but just looked the other way.  I think some really did know all that was happening, and did nothing about it.  Others, like my parents, still had a limited knowledge of what was really going on. It was a civil suit, which was settled out of court.  The full details, of course, were withheld from the church members.

Other than that, much of it was simply a matter of having invested so much of our lives to this church and school–not to mention the foolish trust we put in this one man–that we were afraid of what the truth would mean.  And he was such a dynamic preacher and spiritually knowledgeable teacher, that we would often feel that it would be a sin to even question his integrity.  How could he be all these godly things, and yet be the monster he was alleged to be?  Good question.  How could he be?  I still ask myself the same thing to this day.

What did I say when the pastor asked, “Can God ever forgive a sinner like me?”

It was in his office, at the end of our third and final marathon meeting, in which I begged him to leave and get help, and he and continued to resist.  He was on his knees, crying.  This was as pitiable side of him as I had never seen before, one he would probably never dare show to the people who so fiercely follow him.  And I said what I still believe to be the truth: “Of course, God forgives sinners like you and worse.”  I remember what I prayed over him: “God, even when his own heart condemns him, remind him that you do not.  That he is your son, and that you love him.”  The thing I didn’t have the heart to tell him, which I probably would today, is this: “I don’t know if you are ready to receive God’s forgiveness, though, because you are not willing to change and actually repent.”  Never fails.  You always think of what you should have said once the moment has passed.

How have I handled forgiveness toward this pastor and the other church members?

I have forgiven this pastor and the church members who so quickly jumped to his side rather than hear us out.  However, forgiveness is almost never something that happens in a moment and then remains for the rest of time.  When it comes to deep, long-standing abuse and hurt, forgiveness is a constant, almost daily practice.  Every time I think of this man or that church or the things I saw and heard, I have to rely on God’s grace to forgive all over again.  And again and again and again.  This is certainly not something I can do on my own strength, and it is not easy.  More often than I like to admit, I have dreams–waking and sleeping dreams–about me confronting him, cursing at him, even fighting him.  Forgiveness is a choice, and while it’s not an easy one, it’s necessary if I’m to move on and heal from this ordeal.

People often say that the abused will abuse. How do I avoid this becoming true for me?

I have already taken healthy steps to healing, so that the abuse inflicted on me does not become my own way of living.  Shortly afteheartr leaving the cult church, I signed myself up for personal counseling, which helped tremendously.  I also landed at a church that was like a spiritual hospital for me, which I hear is the experience of many people at that church.  Just something about it heals the aching soul.  A year and a half later, I found another healthy place to grow and heal: Trinity Church.  Mostly, however, it’s been through conversation and counseling, reflection and healing, that I have come to a point where nothing of what I saw is desirable for me.  I want to be faithful and loving to my wife and family, and I have surrounded myself with men who desire the same.  I want to learn to control my anger, and I am out in the open about my endeavor to do so.  As much as possible, I try to be an open book, so that others can see what God has done in my life and what God can do in theirs.

What ever happened with the church, school, and that pastor?

Since leaving, my family, some other friends, and I have sought ways we can combat this school and church.  (Strange that we now so persistently fight what we spent many years helping to build.)  Sadly, there is only so much we can do, and the church and school are still in existence, and this pastor still has as much access as he wants to the people therein.  For a while after we left, he stopped teaching classes at the school, stopped preaching on Sundays, and basically pulled himself back from everything.  But, after a while, things went back to (grossly ab)normal.  Knowing him and the way he has operated whenever he’s gotten in trouble for the things he’s done, his temporary stepping back was only a way to try and get dissenters either off his back or to stay and keep towing the party line.

A bit of good news is that more people and organizations have seen this church, school, and man for what they are and have pulled their relationships away.  I feel bad for the students at the school, many of them international students who are desperate for a place to belong and all to vulnerable to predators like this man.  I feel bad for them because it is not their fault that their school’s inner workings are as they are.  But, this man and the church/school he leads are the epitome of injustice, and one way or another, God’s justice will be served once and for all.

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Act Like Men Conference: What Stuck with Me

This past weekend I attended the second day of the Act Like Men Conference, a large traveling event that made its So Cal stop in Long Beach, CA. Before I get to my real takeaways, here are some of my initial musings.  (Please read the following few thoughts with sarcasm.)

man-yelling-at-himselfApparently, men respond well to being yelled at.

Men like to insult, boo, and laugh at each other.

You must introduce each speaker at a men’s conference with no less than his name in big letters, and in the background steel being sharpened and sparks flying.

And finally…if you want to have a legit contemporary worship band, you need to have at least one guy with a British accent.

To be serious for just a few moments, I intended to wait a couple of days before sharing my thoughts, because I figured anything I can still recall two days later is what really meant something to me, both negatively and positively.  With that, here are my top three takeaways.

1) Matt Chandler- Stand Firm in the Faith

I got there just as this speaker was beginning, and I was glad I did. His message ended up being much different from what I expected to hear, especially considering the portion of 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 he was covering. I appreciated the reminder that it is possible to draw a line in the sand, dig my heels in, and be standing firm in completely the wrong place. My faith can be misplaced, dead set on a dead end. So, what is the “right” place to be standing firm? According to Matt Chandler, my faith needs to be in the all-sufficient grace of God. There is nothing that God in His great grace and love cannot forgive and transform. Who do I think I am that I can out-do God’s love with my sin? While this is not anything new to me, I can never have too many reminders like this. And it sure does keep me humble.

2) Mark Driscoll- Be Strong

I was most intrigued to hear this pastor speak, not because I am a huge fan of his, but because I wanted the chance to hear first-hand his controversial style and message.  I have actually heard a lot of negative commentary on what he teaches and the way he leads his church, so I was eager for the chance to hear him speak live for myself.  For better or worse, he did not disappoint.

He yelled.  He was opinionated.  He called out the “dirty old men” in the crowd.  He challenged men who were living as cowards, who were not living like the men God wanted them to be, to stand and identify themselves in front of everyone.  It would have been very easy to dismiss whatever he was actually talking about, based on what could rightfully be considered public shaming and verbal abuse.  Even if you are of the belief that men need tough and even harsh love in order to respond, it can’t be good to create a culture where a pastor regularly talks to people that way.

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Sums up my experience with an abusive pastor

But one of the things I learned during my years in a cult and under an abusive and manipulative pastor is to glean spiritual truth, in spite of the less-than-desirable approach.  So, what did I learn from this intimidating man?  I am a link in a chain, and the responsibility is no one’s but mine to be the strongest link I can be.  I am privileged to have a dad who loves God and who raised me to have faith in this God; he is a man who is a living example to me of integrity, hard work, and steadfast faith.  He is the first link in our family chain, and he is a strong one.  So, the big challenge to me?  Am I going to be the next strong link in the chain, and will I raise my kids to be the same?  Simple answer: Yes.

3) James McDonald- Let All That You Do Be Done in Love

Everything that James McDonald said can be summed up in these simple and easy-to-remember phrases: In the majors, action. In the minors, acceptance.  To explain, it doesn’t matter what I do, how I remain watchful, stand firm in the faith, or be strong; as I Corinthians 13 so succinctly puts it, if I do it all without love, I am nothing.  And love means knowing that I cannot and should not feel I need to win or even fight every single battle.  I must honestly assess every situation, and whether it is a major or minor issue.  If it is major, then do something about it.  Don’t fight about it, complain about it, don’t mistreat my family over it.  Do something about it, even if that means just listening.

And in the minor issues, the pet peeves, the personal preferences, learn to accept people.  If it’s minor, it’s minor.

This was by far the most powerful reminder for me.  See, I have an anger issue.  I have shared as much in previous posts.  I am generally able to keep it together in public settings, even under pressure and stress.  People have even complimented me on this, but I know the truth about me.  In reality, my beloved wife has asked me why I can be so patient and kind with others, but not so much with her and our kids.  And this kills me.

Me loving my wife

Me loving my wife

Who cares what I do as a pastor?  How I care for youth?  How I reach out to our community?  How I lead the congregation in worship?  Who cares, if I don’t act in love with the people closest to me?  In this way, I desperately want to see change in my own heart.  I am a jacked up man, in need of a Savior.  And I am so thankful that God still accepts me, though I’m sure he does not accept my behavior sometimes.  Still, I want to be a better man than the shameful one I know I can be sometimes.  I love my wife and my kids, but if I cannot show them the love they need and deserve, then I’m not sure I have any business being a pastor.  No, I am determined to show them the love they need and deserve.

In conclusion, there was nothing mind-blowing or brand new about what I received at the Act Like Men Conference.  But what did resonate with me were messages of truth that I needed to hear, and that I’m sure I will need to hear again.  I am a man in a dark and dangerous world, but also a man who puts his faith in a strong and steadfast God.  And I can never have too much truth.

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Live It

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Family Promise is Dangerous

“Oh photoand by the way,” I had to tell her. “Tonight the youth group is going to be serving you dinner.” I could tell it didn’t really matter to this single mother of three, who was probably just happy to have a place to stay, and to at least have someone providing dinner. But I had to tell her anyway. It meant more to me than anyone else.

See, my job at Trinity Church is two-fold. I am pastor of youth and pastor of outreach. For the one I work alongside parents and leaders to disciple students in their journeys of faith, and for the other I seek out opportunities for the church to impact our community, and mobilize them to do so. (Add in the occasional worship leader role, and I have somewhat become the triple threat I always wished I could be in my days of doing theater.) In all honesty, though, I do not always see my two main roles–youth and outreach–having much to do with each other. I would like to see that change, and Family Promise is a great place to start.

The way I see it, Family Promise can be dangerous. It could wreck you for the better, or it could wreck you for the worse. It could cause you to see people in a way you did not before, or it could thicken the scales over your eyes. It could soften and humble your heart, or it could reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. It could bring you closer to the heart of God, or it could make you think you are closer to the heart of God, just because you have gone through the motions.

Every time our host week comes around, my prayer is that God would use this ministry to wreck Trinity Church for the better, that we will never be the same, that we really would be closer to God’s heart and more like Jesus. And I pray that for no one as fervently as I do for the next generation. How wonderful would it be if they could, at their young age, develop a sense of compassion and empathy, an identity of Christ-likeness?  How world-changing would it be if they took that to their schools, their friends, their futures?

I have to remind myself why I always sign up the youth to serve the people of Family Promise. No really, I have to remind myself. When they start complaining about having to wash the dishes, or suddenly disappear when we give them a task to do, or say something immature and rude right in front of a guest–I do sometimes ask myself, “Whose idea was it to have teens make dinner for these families?” Then I remember: God’s plan is for this experience to wreck these students for the better. To wreck them like it has wrecked me.

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My wife and kids at dinner with Family Promise

There was a time when I thought I was doing enough because I gave my loose change to the homeless guy near the off-ramp. There was a time when I thought homeless people were mostly single men with scraggly beards and shopping carts, instead of often times whole families with kids, even newborn babies. There was a time when I pretended to care, but in reality I did not. But Family Promise was deadly to the type of person I used to be. Following Jesus has proven deadly to the person I once was.

The next generation and their sense of compassion matters to me all the more these days, as I look at my daughter and son, still in their very early years. I want them to see their mom and dad living out our commitment to following Jesus, not just talking about it. Sure, I want them to be all they they can be in this world, all that their Creator made them to be. But I don’t believe they can do that without living dangerously, letting their hearts be broken for those in need, and becoming more and more like The Lord Jesus.

May you too be ready to expose yourself and those you love to the dangerous, and let God wreck you for the better.

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The Pope is a Sinner (His Words, Not Mine)

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I have never liked the Pope. It’s not that I dislike whatever individual happens to be in that position–not that I know him personally anyway–but it’s the position itself that has never sat well with me. People crowd around to have him kiss their babies. Whatever he says is gold to those who revere him. People even address him as “Holy Father.” I thought that title was only reserved for God Himself.  I guess I, like many others, are wary of clergy who are put on a pedestal that no mortal man could ever live up to.

Granted, I have strong Catholic roots. Both of my parents came from Catholic families, and they both went through catechism, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation. They can still recite the prayers; my mom still remembers them in Spanish. Until he had an encounter with God that changed him forever, my dad was strongly considering entering the priesthood. One of my grandfather’s brothers was a priest, and until last year a cousin on my mother’s side served as Bishop of the San Gabriel Valley. I myself was baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church, though soon after my parents left the Catholic Church for the Evangelical Christian Church.  Growing up, my parents, sister, and I would often attend a Catholic church ceremony with my extended family members.  Though I was taught to show respect, I always felt out of place.

Still, I find myself having taken a certain liking to this current Pope, Pope Francis.  Apparently, many Catholics and non-Catholics alike have as well.  He doesn’t accept being treated as royalty.  He insists on taking care of himself.  He understands that the Church must change its approach on hot topics in our world today.  In sum, he comes across as genuinely humble.

In a recent interview, Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”  This is his real name, and he didn’t seem the least bit bothered to be called by it.  His answer blew me away.  “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”  For me, coming from the Evangelical Christian understanding, this is obvious.  But understanding how the Pope is lauded by millions across the globe, I could not believe my eyes.

He goes on to say that he feels like Matthew, being called by Jesus to follow as a disciple.  The book of Matthew, chapter 9, verse 9 tells of Jesus recruiting Matthew, who was a tax collector, one of the most despised professions of that day.  In love with money, and unafraid to be seen as a traitor by his own people, Matthew must have felt reluctant to leave his wealth, and equally unworthy of such an honor.

This is the very character with which Pope Francis compares himself.  “Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.  And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as [pope].  ‘I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.’”  When I see those words, he is not the Pope to me.  He is like me.  He is me.

I do not agree with much of Catholic theology, just as I am sure he would not agree with me.  I still feel uneasy about the praise given to those in his position.  But I can say that as a pastor, I wholeheartedly echo his words: I am not worthy, but in His grace God has called me to lead his people as a pastor.  And so, not because I am perfect but because God is faithful, I accept.  This is the true heart of a disciple.

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The Church of Today, Pt. 3

I am reflecting on the life of my ancestors today, on my great-aunt’s 83rd birthday. Sadly, it is also the day her sister, my Abuelita (grandmother), passed away 11 years ago. It is a bittersweet day: we thank God for every year we get to have with my Tia, yet we remember that my Abuelita is already gone. She went into a coma August 21st, 2012, while I was teaching English in Taiwan for the summer. I never got to say goodbye, and returned just in time to see her last days. Still, I am grateful for the time we did have with her, especially the last 7 years of her life, during which she lived in my family’s house.

I could tell of the epic journey of two young ladies–my Abuelita and my Tia–from way down south in Mexico to Los Angeles, seeking a better life for themselves and the families they were to raise. I could tell of their struggles to raise these families–7 kids altogether, including my mom–both of them as single mothers. And I could tell of the heartaches and illnesses they endured throughout the years, and how they survived. But today, I mostly reflect on the unshakable faith in God they passed on to their children, and which many of them carry on for themselves.

Strangely enough, I have been confronted recently with the memory of someone from my past, someone I used to regard as a spiritual father to me. Yet, it was really abuse and manipulation, not an accurate depiction of the God I now know, to which I was exposed. This person, and the environment he created by his own overbearing and dynamic nature, had more power to destroy my relationship with God rather than build it up. Somehow, by the grace of the God I believe in, I made it out alive and spiritually intact. Barely, but still intact.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that it was women like my Abuelita my Tia who had more of a positive and meaningful impact on my faith than any brainwashing tyrant ever did. And it wasn’t by their theological prowess, their dynamic preaching, or their penetrating psychoanalysis. It is their simple faith, lived out through hard work, commitment to the family God had given them, and their belief in a God who had seen them through some of life’s worst horrors. I remember in the last years of my Abuelita’s life, when she lived with my family and me, we would always hear her whispering prayers as she fell asleep. Every night, without fail, in complete sincerity.

This is the faith that was passed on to my mom, and which was passed on to me. I am proud of this faith. I own this faith. I will defend this faith, for it and the God in which it is founded have stood the test of time and argument. And if this faith was good enough for the courageous women without whom I would not be here, it is sure good enough for me.

This is the faith I want to pass on to my own children, and the young people to whom I am responsible as youth pastor. They don’t need fancy theology, or a youth ministry that resembles a circus. They need to see a man whose faith simply stands and speaks for itself.

The church of tomorrow needs examples of faith today, just as I needed those examples in my young years. I am so proud to call these women–my Abuelita and my Tia–the ancestors of my faith.

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The Church of Today, Pt. 2

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The team just before departure

I wonder what most teens in our city were doing this morning. I am sure some were up, maybe even up to something good. I know there are other churches, at least one or two, with sizable youth ministries. Maybe a lot of kids were there. I wonder because I spent the morning with a group of teens who have challenged and blessed me, and I cannot imagine spending that time any better.

On the night before we departed for our youth group mission trip to Ensenada, Mexico, a realization descended on me like a tree on an unsuspecting lumberjack: I felt no desire to go. The youth pastor was done, and we hadn’t even started yet.

And it did not stop there. A few times during our adventure, I knew I was at the edge of me. I had thought of myself as tough and accustomed to missions like this; I grew up going with a church to Tijuana every Thanksgiving, Easter, and summer break. And the work we did on those mission trips in my past was exponentially more physically strenuous than anything I did with the youth. I’m talking hard construction projects, where we wouldn’t stop for lunch sometimes until around 4:00 in the afternoon, and for dinner sometimes not even until 9 or even 10PM.

On this most recent encounter, I guess I didn’t account for how emotionally, mentally, and even physically strenuous it can be to lead a youth group. (I’m sure it didn’t help that our team was grossly unprepared for what we had to do.)

WIth all of that, how is it possible that I walked away feeling it was the most meaningful time to date I had ever had with a youth group? God showed up and showed off among the group of courageous and inspiring people I was with. They had energy to keep going in times when I was running low. They were intrepid where I was fearful. They reached out when I didn’t have it in me to care anymore. And they reminded me what it looks like when someone has an undeniable encounter with God.

I have had people commend me on a successful mission trip, telling me that I’ve done a good job and that my hard work payed off. To be sure, I poured myself into this trip, though I know next year I can sure stand to work smarter. But, I can honestly say I believe that the miraculous events of this trip happened in spite of, not because of me. So many times, my heart was not there, and God had to force His way into my experience and give my heart no choice but to pay attention and be broken.

I do not have to try very hard to see some of these wonderful young people as the church of today, and I am not embellishing anything to tell them that I believe in them. God did something to me in Ensenada, and He used a group of teens and leaders to do it. This gives me hope for the church of today, and for the church of tomorrow.

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The Church of Today, Pt. 1

While everyone one else is napping, I am blogging. And I’m happy with that decision.

So, next Sunday I am preaching a sermon called “Children of Hope.” It is part of our Family Ties series, encouraging strong family relationships by challenging everyone to do their part. Since I am the youth pastor, my job is to talk about the next generation: how they are to live and participate within their own (biological and church) families, and how those of older generations (their parents included) can guide them and raise them up.

My task is easy, right? I am the youth pastor, so of course I know what to say and how to challenge youth and adults alike to building stronger family bonds among us, right? Without hesitation, I can say that were it not for God working through one particular experience, I probably would have not much besides uninspired and cliche drivel to offer. And that one particular experience is the Next Gen Youth mission trip to Ensenada, Mexico.

I had countless reminders before and during the trip that we were not nearly as prepared as we should have been. We weren’t prepared with money, we weren’t prepared with supplies, we weren’t prepared with our ministry site planning, and we weren’t prepared even with our roster of students going. (We added a student and dropped another just a few days before the trip.) But here’s what made the difference: I also was not prepared for what God would do among our group, most prominently in the students who seemed hardest to reach.

Out of respect for their privacy, and out of respect for even the slim chance that this blog would ever get any widespread attention, I won’t divulge the details of the stories of some of these students. But let’s just say that some of their stories would shock and horrify most. When one of our students told some of the gritty details of his childhood to the Pentecostal church we visited in Ensenada, many in the congregation were aghast. The pastor even noted that it was revelational for him and many others in the congregation to hear this youngster’s story, because many Mexicans tend to believe that people in the US have lives of luxury, and they certainly don’t have serious financial or familial problems.

And yet, it was in some of these students with rough pasts and painful stories that I saw the biggest transformation. And it was through the influence of some of those students that I saw that transformation spread to others. Tears were shed, friendships went fathoms deeper than they were before, and God became more real to almost every student in our group.

I may have had something to say to the congregation before this trip, but it really does pale in comparison to what The Lord God has blessed me with now: a greater passion and vision for the youth I serve and the youth we have yet to reach. I hope that passion and vision spread like wildfire through the rest of the congregation.

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Life is Changing

I can’t believe how much has happened over the last few months, that I have not recorded in the annals of this blog. I started this blog to record my thoughts and feelings, through the ups and downs. But life is changing, so I hope this means I will be getting back on the horse.

Here are the top 5 things that have regrettably not made it into this blog:

1) My son being born. Shame on me.

2) All the life-altering reading and conversations, on my journey to becoming a Christian who openly loves gay people.

3) Preaching my toughest and most controversial sermon to date: Dear God, how do you really feel about gay people?

4) My baby sister having a son. Babies having babies. What is this world coming to? (Just kidding. She’s not really a baby, and I am really happy for her.)

5) The youth group mission trip to Ensenada, Mexico. It was life-changing, and I will probably be writing more about it soon.

Each one of these items could possibly be themes in themselves. Maybe they will be.

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