All posts by Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

A long-overdue update

It’s been two months since my last ‘official’ update, and I apologize for that. Life has, as you’ll see, been pretty full.

SEATTLE (AUG 30 – SEP 5)
As a wedding gift, Carolyn bought us tickets to the Seahawks-Packers opening day game. So we got to head to the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a week, see friends, eat good food, and watch my Seahawks beat her Packers. (We’re not going to talk about our teams’ fortunes since then.)

Seahawks-Packers

H ST FESTIVAL (SEP 20)
The District Church had a booth at the H Street Festival, an annual celebration in our neighborhood, where over 100,000 people make their way through our part of town. We served ice cream and BBQ sliders (not combined) to folks passing by, and had a number of great conversations.

H St Festival

CCDA (SEP 24 – 27)
One of the organizations The District Church is connected with is the Christian Community Development Association. CCDA’s founder, Dr. John Perkins, has preached at our church a couple of times, including this past August. This year, the conference was held in Raleigh, NC, making it a great opportunity for us to take a sizable crew down — about ten of us from TDC made the trip: we learned a lot, prayed a lot, worshiped in community together, and got to stay together at my in-laws’. (Thanks, Tom and Dana, for the hospitality!)

IMG_8198

TWO SERMONS (SEP 28, OCT 5)
I got to preach back-to-back weeks on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and then Jesus’ birth. It was my first time preaching about Mary, and my first time covering Christmas in October! (You can listen to them here: “When God Chooses You,” and “The Most Dangerous Baby Ever Born.”)

Preaching

EUGENE CHO IN DC (SEP 29)
The District Church was able to host an event for my friend Eugene Cho (pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, founder of One Day’s Wages). His new book, Overrated: Are we more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world?, just came out and (as I’ve mentioned) is absolutely worth the read.

Eugene Cho

BFFS IN DC (SEP 29 – OCT 2)
My best friends Tim and Tiff were able to swing through DC on their way back to London. Tim was my best man in July, but this time he was able to bring his wife and 6-month old daughter, Zoe, with him. It was a tremendously life-giving time; I miss these two (now three!).

McD's, Fungs

ALSO
We attended the wedding of one of Carolyn’s co-workers and Carolyn’s 10-year high school reunion. Oh, and perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, I got sick right around the beginning of October (I think I’ve finally shaken it); and then pulled my hamstring playing flag football this past weekend.

PRAYER REQUESTS
As always, there is much to be thankful for, and much to lift up in prayer:

  • for grace for Carolyn and I as we continue to figure out life together in marriage. When we’ve had our own way with work schedules, rhythms and routines, and communication styles, for a combined 60 years, there’s a lot of room for … teachable moments. (On a positive note, somebody has learned to stop sleeping diagonally, which is definitely something to be thankful for!)
  • for a successful (and still in-process) transition into my new role as teaching pastor. I’m still figuring out what my new rhythms and routines look like.
  • for Matthew in his transition to pastor of the East Side parish. Figuring out how to love and care for dozens of neighborhood kids who show up every Sunday is just one of his challenges/opportunities!
  • for a new communications coordinator for the church. We’re looking to hire someone who’ll take on (and expand) the communications responsibilities that I’ve been taking care of for the past few years.
  • for The District Church. Pray that as we continue to grow, we also continue to steward our resources well and to make disciples who make disciples. We’ve seen tremendous things happening in the last year, but we never want to lose sight of our vision (“To exist for Christ and the renewal of our city”) and mission (“To make disciples who are living out their God-given mission in life”).

3 things I learned from Mary about God

Annunciation, by He QiLast Sunday I preached on Mary, the mother of Jesus, for the first time (you can listen to the full sermon here). As a church, we’ve been going through the Gospel of Luke, and I got to study Luke 1:26-56. Here are three things I learned:

1. God does not see as the world sees.

Mary was one of the most powerless people in the patriarchal society of the day—she was young, she was female, she had no husband or child, and, as we’ll discover later in Luke’s gospel, she was poor. On the social ladder of first century Palestine, Mary was pretty close to the bottom. In the eyes of the world, Mary was no one special. But God does not see as the world sees.

Young, poor, unmarried Mary is the girl to whom Gabriel says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary, the Bible says, “was much perplexed by these words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29). From Mary’s point of view, for someone like her, a girl from a small town, who wasn’t anyone special, who didn’t have any accomplishments or accolades to her name, being visited by an angel and greeted as one favored by God … well, it just didn’t really make sense.

But God chooses her to be the mother of the Messiah, the Chosen One. At the time, the people of Israel were living under Roman occupation—in fact, they had endured several hundred years of oppression, and they were holding on to the ages-old promise of God that he would send a deliverer, a rescuer, one who would reestablish the throne of the great king David, defeat the oppressors, and restore the fortunes of the people in their Promised Land. Mary’s child, the angel said, would be this savior:

1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

God does not see as the world sees.

You think you’re unattractive? God does not see as the world sees.

You think you’re a failure? God does not see as the world sees.

You think you’ve got nothing to offer? God does not see as the world sees.

You think you’re down and out? God does not see as the world sees.

You think you can never change? God does not see as the world sees.

Thank you, God, that you do not see through our dim, myopic eyes, that you see much deeper within, to the things that really matter—the image of God within us, the presence of the Spirit within us, the plans you have for us, the future you have in store for us, the ways you want to write us and invite us into your great story of life.

Some of us need a little God-perspective on our situations; some of us need to share that truth with someone who’s having trouble believing that.

2. Nothing is impossible with God.

Gabriel said to Mary (1:36):

Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and she who was said to be barren is six months pregnant. For nothing will be impossible with God.

Zechariah and Elizabeth, an elderly couple long considered barren, conceive because nothing is impossible with God.

A young, unmarried virgin from a no-name town in a backwater province in the Roman Empire bears a child because nothing is impossible with God.

The God of the universe chooses to effect his rescue mission of humanity by coming down to earth not in a blaze of glory with armies of angels around him but by emptying himself and being conceived in the womb of a girl called Mary, because nothing is impossible with God.

Jesus grows up, full of faith and wisdom, full of grace and truth, is crucified and raised to life three days later, all to win us back for God, because nothing is impossible with God.

His disciples, who are scared and have locked themselves in a room one Saturday, become the most fearless band of brothers the world has ever seen, taking the good news of salvation and redemption and restoration and reconciliation to every corner of the world, because nothing is impossible with God.

I pray that that perspective infuses the very core of your being, that that kingdom-reality changes everything you ever thought about what you can, and, more importantly, what God can do in and through and with you.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary’s response reveals so much about her: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). Theologian AW Tozer says:

God is looking for people through whom he can do the impossible—what a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.

When I was a single guy, one of my friends pointed out to me that I had the capacity and the tendency to talk myself out of any relationship; in other words, I could always come up with a convincing and persuasive reason why it wouldn’t work out (because there’s always at least one) and then I’d end up convincing and persuading the other person as well that it wouldn’t work out. And so I’d basically sabotage the relationship before it even had a chance to begin.

I think we have the capacity and the tendency to do that with God, too. “God is looking for people through whom he can do the impossible—what a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.”

God wants to change you and transform your life but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.

God wants to break your addiction to pornography but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.

God wants to transform your anger problem into a truth-speaking love but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.

God wants to bring reconciliation to your family but you’re at the end of your rope and you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.

God wants to save the life of your neighbor, your coworker, the drug dealer on your street, but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.

God wants to effect change in your neighborhood—real change that’s not just economic growth but relational growth, racial and socioeconomic reconciliation, a community that flourishes together—but you’re resigned to the fact that the problems are too big for you to understand and you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.

God wants to reconcile all things to himself but you can’t see further than your own problems.

What a pity we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.

God of the impossible, expand our horizons, enlarge our eyes, blow our minds, explode our imaginations, give us a vision for your kingdom on earth and for your will in our lives.

 

I know things can seem impossible. I know things can feel impossible. We all have things in our lives that seem impossible:

I’m never going to get that job.

I’m never going to get married.

I’m never going to have kids.

I’m never going to find my calling.

I’m never going to settle in a place.

I’m never going to make friends who know me and love me.

I’m never going to beat this problem that keeps coming up.

I’m never going to be reconciled with my family.

I’m never going to recover from the hurt that was done to me.

Every single person is dealing with something that seems impossible. For some, it’s been that way for so long that it’s become part of the furniture, it’s just part of life.

But God is the God who does the impossible.

3. God is setting all things right.

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Magnificat—Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55—has been called one of the most revolutionary documents in the world; it’s been called a song of reversals, and it’s easy to see why. In those days, those who were rich and those who were proud were seen to have come to their positions by oppressing others, particularly the poor. Theologian Leon Morris writes:

In the ancient world it was accepted that the rich would be well cared for. Poor people must expect to be hungry. But Mary sings of a God who is not bound by what people do. He turns human attitudes and orders of society upside down.

Chiara Lubich, a Catholic activist, wrote:

In the Gospel we find the highest and most irresistible revolution.

You may have heard that we are a church that cares about justice here at The District Church—and the reason we care about it is not because it’s cool, not because everybody’s supposed to care about justice nowadays, but because God cares about it, because God has always cared about it, because justice is part of God’s character, because in God’s economy, the lowly and the hungry—the most vulnerable—are not trodden down or oppressed or marginalized but rather they are lifted up, they are fed, and they are seen by the God who sees.

I want to tell you today that God sees you, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from or what you’ve done—God sees you. I want you to hear that. But I also want to point out the challenge of God’s kingdom, because I know that we have a tendency to place ourselves in the role of the protagonist, the underdog, the one whom God favors; and if the Magnificat—and Jesus and the Bible, for that matter—

doesn’t give us some pause about what kind of God our words and our actions reflect to the world,

doesn’t make us think about what we’re doing with our lives,

doesn’t force us to wonder if we’re rightly stewarding the opportunities and resources God has blessed us with,

doesn’t drive us to ponder what our role is in God’s upside-down—or right-side up—kingdom,

then maybe we need to reexamine what Jesus means to us.

Here in America, and particularly here in DC, it’s all about upward mobility—the next job, the next promotion, the next campaign, the next rung—so that we can make more money, earn more prestige, look better, have more power. Sure, we may reason, we’ll be better positioned to help more people, we’ll have more resources to be more generous; and I think that’s good—great, even—but I want us to really examine ourselves, to be brutally honest with ourselves about our motivations and our dreams.

Are we using God, thinking that he’s a ticket to a better, more materially prosperous, more trouble-free life? Or are we really allowing God to use us to bring restoration and reconciliation to a hurting and broken world, so that it might be as it was created to be?

William Barclay wrote:

Nowhere can we better see the paradox of blessedness than in [Mary’s] life. To Mary was granted the blessedness of being the mother of the Son of God. Well might her heart be filled with a wondering, tremulous joy at so great a privilege. Yet that very blessedness was to be a sword to pierce her heart. It meant that some day she would see her son hanging on a cross. // To be chosen by God so often means at one and the same time a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow. The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it. God chooses us in order to use us.

Blessing for a purpose. Chosenness for a mission bigger than ourselves. Freedom so that others might also be free. We are loved by our Father in heaven far more than anyone has ever loved us or could ever love us, and he desires the best for us—and, in case you were wondering, that isn’t your comfort. God desires to use us to bring healing and hope, to point people back to him who created them and who desires to be in relationship with them, and to see the kingdom of God come on earth. And according to Mary, the kingdom of God, the world where God is sovereign, is not one where the proud, the mighty, the rich are the ones who will have the last word, but one where God is setting things right on every level: individual and national, personal and systemic, social and economic and spiritual and relational.

This is the trajectory of history. This is the story of God. Thanks be to God.

An important book for our generation

OverratedJust finished my friend Eugene Cho’s new book, Overrated: Are we more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world?, and I’m so thankful for his words. Notably:

I fear that we might be more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world.

I fear that we might be more enamored with the idea of changing the world and are neglecting to allow ourselves to be changed.

I fear that we have an unrealistic and glamorous perception of what it means to follow Christ and what it means to pursue justice. In truth, we have not taken the time to count the costs of following Jesus.

I fear that we might be tempted to compartmentalize the action of changing the world rather than seeing it as a key part of our discipleship journey that will impact the whole of our lives.

I fear that we’re asking God to move mountains, forgetting that God also wants to move us. And in fact, it may be possible that we are the mountains that need to be moved.

It’s a confession that is his–and mine too, and he articulates the challenge that a lot of people in our generation face, that doing the work of justice is much more difficult and challenging than supporting the idea of justice.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited that Eugene will be coming through DC next week. The District Church will be hosting an event for him, where he’ll be sharing from his book, having a Q&A session, and then signing books.

Space is limited (and people have been signing up real quick!) so get more details and RSVP here.

Eugene Cho

You can follow Eugene on:

J.R.R. Tolkien on the purpose of life

J.R.R. Tolkien, Myth, Morality, and Religion:

The chief purpose of life, for any of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.

(Thanks to Joshua Dubois’ The President’s Devotional.)