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”).

The story of your life

Journal[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Story.”]

Today we’re going to talk about “Story”: about the story that we’re telling with our lives, but perhaps more importantly, about the story that God is telling in, through, and with our lives.

Story, #1: God never wastes an experience.

A mentor of mine first said this to me about ten years ago, when I could agree with it in theory but I couldn’t attest to it in experience—and maybe right now you’re where I was, but stick with me.

Let me give an example: I remember feeling for the longest time that the fact that I didn’t have one place where I could call home—I spent 16 years in Hong Kong, 8 years in England, 3 years in California, and 3 years here in DC; my parents are in Hong Kong, my best friends are in London, one brother is in California and the other is in Australia—the fact that I felt a constant sense of not-quite-fitting in, not-quite-feeling-at-peace-with-life was a deficit, something to be overcome.

But over the years, as God has continued to fine-tune my soul to his reality and his presence, he’s been showing me that this longing for home, this present discomfort—even this—is what he’s used to ground myself fully in him—that God is my home, in a way that no place ever could be.

All along, God has been weaving all the disparate and—what I thought were—mismatching threads together into a tapestry that has me here now at The District Church, doing the things I love and feel called to (theology, music, and justice)—after a long time wondering how those things would ever fit together. I’m in a place where—for my job—I get to cultivate a community that might be—even just for a few—a home away from home and a family away from family, because through my experience, I know what it’s like to not know where home really is.

God isn’t done yet, by any means, but the point is that it wasn’t until I realized what God was calling me to, less than three years ago, that I began to know in my experience—and not just in my head—that God doesn’t waste an experience. And that’s true, whether you’re in a place right now where you can see that or not.

Maybe the thing is that you’re in the middle of something right now—a degree, a job, a relationship, a chapter in your life—and you don’t actually know where it’s going, you don’t see it going anywhere, you can’t figure out how it’s connected to anything meaningful. Maybe you know what God’s called you to or what passions he’s placed within you or what kind of life he’s asking you to lead, and what you’re doing right now—well, they don’t seem to be lining up or meshing.

I wonder if the Apostle Paul, when he was a young man, learning his father’s trade as a tentmaker, wondered what on earth he was supposed to do with that craft. He already knew he loved studying the law, he knew he loved rhetoric and philosophy and debating with people; there must’ve been occasions where he thought to himself, Who needs tent-making? And yet that same skill would pay the bills for him to do just what God called him to do—though perhaps he wouldn’t see this for many years; and that’s just one—very small—way in which Paul could attest, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (8:28). In other words, in the story that he’s writing, God doesn’t waste an experience.

Story, #2: Conflict is an opportunity, not a setback.

In our day and age, we like things to be a certain way, specifically our way; we like things to be comfortable, and we do whatever it takes to keep from being uncomfortable, from facing any sort of conflict. But, as author Don Miller writes, every good story involves—indeed, needs—conflict:

Conflict fills a story with meaning and beauty. Not only this, but conflict gives value to that which we are trying to attain. And conflict is the only way a character actually changes. There is no character development without conflict.

Think about it: every time you’re faced with a challenge or a hurdle or an unknown, you have a choice, either to go back to the comfort of what you knew and the way things were, or to move forward, through the discomfort, and learn a new skill, a new way of life, a new perspective, and to grow.

In American culture, we’re conditioned to avoid conflict.

  • We build highways that bypass poor neighborhoods so we don’t have to walk through them and be reminded that there are people in need living right among us.
  • We watch news channels we agree with and read books we’re pretty sure we’ll agree with and subscribe to blogs we already know we’ll agree with, so we don’t have to deal with that opposing viewpoint or how it just irritates us.
  • We hang out with friends we mostly agree with and we avoid those difficult conversations, those conflict moments, where we’ll realize how different we are and we’ll have to talk about why we think what we think; or maybe we don’t give our friends permission to truly love and care for us by challenging us, having difficult conversations with us, saying the things we need to hear but we really don’t want to.
  • In our relationships, we avoid commitment and vulnerability and genuine intimacy—not just physical or sexual intimacy because we run to those things, often using them as facades to block out genuine intimacy—so that we won’t have to deal with things like sacrifice and confrontation and tough but honest conversations, those things that are integral to the success of a healthy relationship.

And yet each of these moments could be an opportunity instead:

  • an opportunity to be challenged to mobilize your community to help the poor;
  • an opportunity to see things from a different perspective, to see how God has been working in someone else’s life in a way different from how he’s been working in yours, and to experience a little more of the vastness of God;
  • an opportunity to see growth in your character, to become a better person, more like the person God created you to be;
  • an opportunity to love and be loved, to know and be known, to see and be seen, to experience genuine intimacy.

So don’t let conflict moments drag you down; don’t let difficult encounters drop your head; don’t let yourself get cynical and jaded or whiny or self-pitying; don’t simply shrug your shoulders. God wants so much more for you than that; God is capable of doing so much more in your life than that.

Instead, look through God’s eyes: how can you instead make this—whatever it may be that’s in front of you—an opportunity not just to speak out the story of what God has done in your life but to live a better story, to allow God by his Holy Spirit to tell his story in and through and with you? It’s an adventure we’re on, and we get to be a part of the best story that’s ever been written by the most imaginative and resourceful Artist that’s ever created!

BUT it’s not all sweetness and light; that’s not the world we live in. Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that one of the characteristics of a great leader is that he or she faces the brutal facts of reality, so here’s the honest truth:

Story, #3: We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.

You may have seen the amazing video, “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You,” by now. Kid President is a boy called Robbie Novak, and he actually has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta—that’s “Brittle Bone syndrome.” In his ten years of life, he’s had over seventy breaks. But Robbie hasn’t let the tough parts of his life get him down, he hasn’t seen his condition as a setback but as an opportunity—the pep talk video is actually dedicated to a two year-old girl who recently had a liver transplant. And he’s not trying to be successful—it’s not about fame or money; he’s just trying to do a little something to spread hope and joy and to encourage people to make the world more awesome and maybe to dance a little more. That’s the story he’s telling with his life. [See below for “The True Story of Kid President.]

It was actually Mother Teresa who said, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.” There is no guarantee that if you follow Jesus, if you seek the kingdom first, if you allow God to use every experience, and to see conflict as an opportunity rather than a setback, then you’ll immediately be wildly successful and life will be smooth sailing.

Actually, you may face more trials and more opposition, and you may be asked to give up more, to sacrifice more. One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was, “In this world you will have trouble.”

I’m sure you can attest to that; I’m sure you can see in your own experience that life is not easy, that opposition is great, that things are not as you wish they were, even when you’re trying to do what God asked you to do or what God called you to do.

  • God called you to love these kids, but man, couldn’t he have made them easier to deal with?
  • God called you to be in this city, but couldn’t he have made it a little less expensive or a little safer?
  • God called you to be generous with your time and with your money, but couldn’t he have made it cost a little less?
  • God called you to safeguard the sanctity of marriage and to value the gift of sex, but it’s hard to be faithful, even in your thoughts, and it’s hard to wait.
  • God calls all of us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him, but the world in which we are called to do justice is so broken and sometimes seems to be beyond redemption, and the people to whom we are called to be merciful are just so irritating and ungrateful and unworthy and sometimes just plain bad, and it’s so hard to walk with God when there are a hundred other things pressing on our time and, “Well, God, you’ve just been too quiet lately …”

But do you remember what else Jesus said to his disciples, several times just so that they wouldn’t forget it? “I am with you.”

Whenever I’ve had to make big decisions in my life—about a school or a job or a relationship or moving to another country—God has always said the same thing to me: “You choose; and whatever you choose, I am with you.”

Maybe God didn’t tell me what to do at those moments so that I couldn’t blame him if things didn’t go the way I thought they would; maybe God wanted me to grow up and take responsibility, to think through my decisions wisely, to exercise stewardship over the intellect and the relationships and the community and the connections that he had given to me—we’re not just called to be responsible with our money, after all.

That’s what faithfulness is: to do what we can, where we can, when we can, with what little knowledge and resources and time and faith we may have. If you have but a mustard seed of faith, God will use it. If you have only two pennies to give, God will use it. We’re not called to give what we can’t give; but we are called to faithfulness, trusting that God will do the rest.

Remember, as Kid President says, “You were made to be awesome,” because you were made in the image of God and our God is an awesome God. So:

What story are you telling with your life? What story are you allowing God to tell through your life?


The Comfort of Being Called

[Part 2 of the blog adaptation of yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Promise.” You can read Part 1 here.]

The more I live, the more I experience, the more I reflect on life and Scripture, the more I spend time with God and participate in his mission, the more I realize that at the very core of our being, at the very depths of our soul, we were made to find our satisfaction and our end—our home and our comfort—in God, the One who made us, the One who loves us, the One who saved us, and the One who calls us to something greater—something, in fact, that we were made for: to be in right relationship with God and working with God to help make the world right again. There is so much more to life than what the world tells us.

Every day, I have to remind myself that God calls me his child, that through Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins and for the sin of the world, and through his resurrection and vindication by God, the Father was able to adopt me into his family and call me his own, that I am loved by God—by God. This is such a different kind of comfort than the world offers; this is the comfort of being called. This comfort is true: it doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of life, it doesn’t pretend that you’re something you’re not or that life is something other than it is; but it also doesn’t pretend that God is not who God is—mighty and majestic, high and holy, intimate and immanent, constant and close.

Here. Now. In this place. With us.

I have to remind myself of that every day, because every day I am faced with voices that would say otherwise, that would call me in other directions, that would pull me from my mission, that say you have to be successful in order to be loved; you have to make yourself attractive in order to be loved; you have to get this job or this education or live in this place or drive this kind of car or own this kind of phone in order to be loved, in order to be accepted. And every day, God says, “No. I love you as you are. I have always loved you and I will always love you. There is nothing you can do to make me love you any less or any more—that is how much I love you, how much I accept you, and how much I am pleased with you, my child.”

Some of you need to hear this: to hear that the grace and love of God are greater than anything you’re facing, anything you’ve done, anything that’s been done to you, any addiction you’re struggling with, any doubts you’re wrestling with. You need to hear that God promises power to his people—the power of his Holy Spirit, a power that enables us to know God’s love—and, as Paul writes to the church in Rome, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). You need to know this love that will empower you—and not just empower you but so overwhelm you with its truth that you will be unable to do anything else but be a witness—and testify. And in this, you will know both a calling out of the comfort of the world—that is a false comfort, a veneer of comfort, indeed no comfort at all in reality—and you will know the true comfort of being called by God.

Bob Dylan, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, said:

Everybody has a calling, don’t they? Some have a high calling, some have a low calling. Everybody is called but few are chosen. There’s a lot of distraction for people, so you might not never find the real thing. A lot of people don’t.

It’s really easy to get distracted from the call of God.

  • The call of the Father that says, “You are my beloved child,” gets drowned out by the voices that tell you that you’re not good enough or good-looking enough, you’re not successful enough, you’re just not enough—and so you keep trying to change yourself to please the wrong audience.
  • The call of Jesus that cries out, “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest,” gets drowned out by the distractions of a world that rewards busyness and activity and earning your way in the world—and so you work harder and try harder and wear yourself out trying to change the world in your own strength.
  • The call of Jesus—the mission of God—that says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” gets lost in the advertisements that sell comfort and convenience as the highest goal, and the voices that trumpet safety and security as the measure for success.

And so you stay on your couch, you watch another episode of TV, you don’t get to know your neighbors, you don’t take the time to learn that language so you can go to that country—or even a next-door neighborhood, you distance yourself from risk, you make your life about pleasure, about yourself, about what you feel like.

I confess, I do these things too.

And let me tell you, when we do this, when we let ourselves get distracted from God’s call, from God’s mission, we miss out on a life that could be so much fuller than it is, a life so much more stable (and not stable in a boring way, but stable in its foundations), a life in which we are truly alive.

Bob Dylan’s right: there is a lot of distraction for people—and we inhabit a world full of people that are so distracted that they haven’t found their calling: not even their calling in the sense of “God is calling your name; God desires a relationship with you; God is seeking you; Jesus loves you,” let alone their calling in the sense of “This is what I was made for; this is what I was made to do, who I was made to be.”

And maybe that’s you, too. Maybe you’ve been trying to figure out what your calling is, what God wants you to do with your life, who God wants you to be; and it isn’t becoming any clearer. God’s taking a long time to answer and you’re getting worried that you may have missed his reply!

In one sense, I can’t help you: I can’t tell you for certain what that thing is that God would have you do. God has made each of us unique and uniquely gifted to bring our contribution to the body of Christ and to be that part, to play that role, in the work of the kingdom of God. It took me until I was almost twenty-eight years old and only after I’d actually started in full-time pastoral ministry here at The District Church that I knew for sure that this was it—and it came after a lot of twists and turns and trying to make the best decision I could, trying to listen as best I could, trying to discern—with others as well as on my own—where and how God might be leading me. But when I did realize my more specific calling, when I did figure out what God had crafted me for, I also realized that God had been molding me all along—on the journey, in the process.

And I realized that everyone has a calling in another sense: everyone has the calling to play a role in accomplishing this mission, to be—as Jesus said—“my witnesses”: the calling of following Jesus, of being like Jesus, of telling others about Jesus, of inviting others along on the ride and to the relationship, of living in such a way that the world is put to rights. And that—you can do that wherever you are; you don’t have to wait around for that. And you know, I think it’s in following that broad calling to be Christ’s witnesses that we may well discover the more specific calling that God has prepared for us.

I want to point out a couple additional things from Acts 1 to bear in mind as we consider this mission. First, verses 10-11:

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

It’s as if they’re saying, “Jesus just told you what to do: ‘Go back to Jerusalem, wait for my Spirit, go be my witnesses.’ Why are you still standing around?” John Stott commented,

There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the sky when they had been commissioned to go to the ends of the earth. … Their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers.

Sometimes we can do that too; sometimes we look up to heaven as if God hasn’t said anything at all and we’re just waiting for him to say something before we do anything. Tell me what to do, God!

And God says, “I have. I have given you a mission: be my witnesses. Testify, in your words and in your deeds and by your life, the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of redemption, the good news of restoration, the good news of grace and mercy and love and justice.”

The last thing I want to point out is from the end of the chapter, when the apostles are choosing a replacement for Judas. Out of the hundred and twenty who are there, they narrow it down to a shortlist of two: Joseph and Matthias. Matthias gets chosen. There’s no suggestion that he had a better heart or that Joseph was less worthy, or that God favored or disfavored one or the other. One was simply chosen to be an apostle and the other was not. And you know, we don’t hear anything more about either of these two in Scripture—we don’t know what happens to them. And the point is, as N.T. Wright puts it:

Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.

So it comes down to this: if we are Christians—followers of Jesus Christ—we have been given a mission to be Jesus’ witnesses, to testify to what we know, to what we believe, to the evidence we’ve found, and to be credible in telling and living out those truths. It is a mission that may seem impossible at times, and it will call us out of our comfort zones, out of what we know or what we think we know, out of the false comfort of the world and its distractions. But it is also a mission that we are not expected to accomplish on our own. Indeed, on our own, it is an impossible mission; but Jesus promises us power, the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God, the life-saving, world-changing, soul-awakening power. And as we enter into that mission, as we walk in the power of that Spirit, we will discover the true comfort of being called: called by name, called sons and daughters of God, called friends of God, called to join God in the adventure, in the story, that he is involved in.

And so your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:

Receive the power of the Spirit of God; be Jesus’ witnesses wherever he calls you and whatever he calls you to, shaking off the chains of what this world calls comfort; get out of your comfort zone and discover the true comfort of being called by God.

A Promise, a Mission, and a Call

[Part 1 of the blog adaptation of yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Promise.”]

Remember the 60s TV show, Mission: Impossible, that Tom Cruise successfully shifted to the big screen? Remember that famous line: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it …”?

In Acts 1, we are sort of given a mission by Jesus. In verse 8, he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

To unpack this mission and hopefully to help us understand it better, I want to break it down into three parts: “Promised: Power,” “Wanted: Witnesses,” and “Called: Out of Comfort.”

PROMISED: POWER

Here in DC, power is a common concept. Decision-making power. Budget-setting power. The power to craft policies that impact people. We might define power as “the possession of control or command over others,” or the strength to make decisions over (and sometimes against) others. And because it affects others–often drastically, we can shy away from it a little.

But in the Bible, power isn’t portrayed as a necessarily bad thing—and more importantly, power isn’t understood solely as a political concept. For Luke, our author, power is the work of the Holy Spirit. And so Mary is, it says in Luke 1, “overshadowed by the power of the Most High,” and she conceives. Jesus has power as he is anointed by the Spirit of God; he stills the storm with power; he exorcises demons with power; he heals the sick with power; he raises the dead with power; and here in Acts, he tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Jesus has power and he isn’t afraid to use it. Why? Because he understands where it comes from, how it is to be used, and what it is to be used for.

In the prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul talks a lot about power–only he seems to use it in a different way to how we’d use it. He talks about power to be strengthened by the Spirit, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts; power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ; power to know this love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Power isn’t simply the ability to bring about whatever you desire, to exercise or effect control over others. True power has a source; true power has a proper exercise; and true power has a purpose—where it comes from, how it is to be used, and what it is to be used for: it is the power of God by his Holy Spirit, working through his people, to see more of heaven come on earth—as it says in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is the power that is promised to the disciples in verse 8. This is the power that is promised to us. This is the power that will change your life and that will make this mission possible.

WANTED: WITNESSES

But Jesus doesn’t just stop with the promise of power. Jesus’ last words are, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses …” (v.8)

Last week, for the first time, I was selected for jury duty—picked to be one of the twelve jurors (more on this to come!). In a jury trial, the two sides call their witnesses and they examine and cross-examine these folks, asking questions about what they saw and what they remember happening and were they really sure that’s what happened or did somebody else tell them that’s what happened. It’s on the basis of these witnesses’ testimony, their credibility, and the evidence shown, that the jury is called on to make their decision.

Here in Acts, the Greek word that’s used for ‘witnesses’ carries that same connotation of testifying in legal matters: testifying to what you know, to what you’ve experienced, to the evidence you’ve found, and being credible and trustworthy.

So it is with us: not only are we promised the power of the Spirit, we are also charged to be witnesses in that same legal sense—to testify to the truth, to what we know and to what we have experienced and to the evidence that we have found, and to live our lives in such a way that we are credible and trustworthy as we also speak the truth.

And the truth that we get to proclaim is no less than the gospel: the good news that Jesus Christ is alive, that our sins are forgiven, that a restored relationship with God is possible, and that this God—the Creator of the cosmos—is offering us a mission, should we choose to accept it, that will change the very world we live in.

CALLED: OUT OF COMFORT

But as with any mission in any adventure or story, however impossible it might seem, there is a call—and it is a call out of comfort.

In less than three months’ time, the first installment of the movie adaptation of The Hobbit will come out. In The Hobbit, for those of you who don’t know, the main character is a hobbit—or a Halfling—by the name of Bilbo Baggins. Actually, let’s turn to the first paragraph of the book:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

But very soon—in that very same chapter, in fact—Bilbo finds himself agreeing to go on a mission: a very noble mission with great companions and a lofty purpose, a mission in which he will encounter all sorts of weird and wonderful folks—dwarves, elves, wizards—but a mission that seems somewhat impossible and a mission that will take him out of his comfort zone, out of the comfort of his hobbit-hole and take him into places and situations that, if he had known about them beforehand, might seriously have led him to reconsider.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when this man approached them and said, “Come, follow me,” but there was something about him that drew them in, something about the way he carried himself, something about the way he talked and the things he said. And now, risen from the dead (as if that weren’t crazy enough!),  he comes to them and gives them this mission:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (v.8)

Jerusalem sounds good: capital city, center of power, happening place. That’s where change will happen—that makes sense; good call. Judea might be the opposite way to where we want to go—that’s away from the decision-makers, away from the influencers of the world. And then, Samaria?!

Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. At all. There were ethnic, cultural, and religious differences between the two, not to mention hundreds of years of animosity and rivalry. Jews looked down on Samaritans as dogs, not even human, not worth interacting with. In fact, if you look at the map above, if they were traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem or the other way, Jews would go around Samaria rather than through it; that’s how much they didn’t get along—which, by the way, makes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and his parable of the Good Samaritan all the more powerful, and which makes his instructions to the disciples—his mission—all the more uncomfortable.

And then, “to the ends of the earth.” Even if this is hyperbole and he’s referring to the limits of the known world at the time, it’s a long way. If we look at how far the Roman Empire stretched in Jesus’ day: Egypt, North Africa, modern day Spain, France and parts of Great Britain, Italy, Rome, Greece, Turkey. Remember, the people Jesus chose as his disciples weren’t sophisticated world travelers; they weren’t high rollers or hobnobbers with the movers and shakers of society. At least four of them were fishermen and one was a local tax collector. Moreover, many of Jesus’ followers were women—in those days, not considered the most reliable or credible of witnesses nor the most valued members of society—and yet Jesus calls them too, as it says in Acts 1:14: the eleven apostles were “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.” The women were part of this, too. All of Jesus’ followers were given this mission and called out of their comfort zones—out of the comfort of the jobs they knew, the families they knew, the lives they knew, their hometowns, out of the comfort of everything they knew—to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

For much of my life, I have struggled and wrestled with the idea of home. I was born an American citizen in Hong Kong, went to an English school in Hong Kong, learning English as my first language, speaking Cantonese at home, going to a Southern Baptist church. At fifteen, I decided I wanted to leave, to explore the wide and wonderful world, and so I headed off—newly baptized—to the UK, where I spent the next eight years, an American (who’d never lived in America) in London. Then, sensing a desire to do something in church—and it wasn’t too much more defined than that at the time—I moved to California to go to seminary; and then after that, discovering a love for politics, I moved to DC to pursue advocacy.

Over the last three decades, with my parents in Hong Kong, my brothers now in Australia and California, and my best friends in London, there has never been anywhere that I didn’t feel at least a little bit at home; but more strongly than that, there has never been anywhere that I have felt completely at home. My journey, like Bilbo Baggins’ and like the disciples’, began a little inadvertently—I didn’t know all of what I was getting into, I couldn’t have foreseen where the road would lead, the relationships it would lead me to and through, the trials and struggles I would encounter, the failures I would endure, the people I would hurt.

Jesus called me out of my comfort zone: God broke my heart for the poor and those in need, and called me to the city—a place of transience—to DC, in fact—the epitome of transience—which, for someone who desires roots, is not the most comfortable thing.

Maybe you can relate: you’ve been faithful, you’ve followed God where he led, and you can say, without a doubt, that God pulled you out of your comfort zone—and it doesn’t just have to be geographic, though it may be:

  • you’re from a small town and now you find yourself teaching in an inner city school or working in an inner city hospital;
  • you’ve been working hard and for many years on a degree in one area and now you somehow find yourself doing something completely different;
  • you’re finding yourself stretched at work or at home or at school—or all of the above—in ways that you don’t know if you can handle;
  • you’re in a marriage or a relationship or you’re a parent, and you’re discovering that it’s far more work than you thought it’d be;
  • maybe you just realize how much God still has to do in your life—with your heart, with your words, with your thoughts, with your actions, with your soul.

It is not comfortable.

But the good news is that we aren’t called out of comfort—out of our comfort zones—just for the sake of it. Jesus doesn’t simply ask us to give things up that we love or move to a place we don’t know or invest in a city we’re not sure about or make friends with people we wouldn’t normally hang out with or to allow him to do his sanctifying surgery on our lives—just for the sake of it. Jesus calls us out of comfort for a couple reasons:

  1. So that we might be in the best environment in which to grow. When everything is going your way, when everything is sweet and easy, when everything is comfortable, there’s no reason to change anything, is there? There’s no reason to do anything different in our lives. And when everything is comfortable, we too easily forget the grace and goodness and generosity of God.
  2. So that he can redefine it for us, and to do so in relation to God. When Jesus comes, he redefines a whole lot of things and helps us understand them as they were meant to be understood. He redefines power as something that comes from God to be used for the purposes of God; he redefines love as a central characteristic of who God is and says, “This is love” and then gives of himself even to death so that others might live; he redefines what it means to be human by living the life that we were made to live. And so also he redefines comfort—true comfort—as something that can only be found in companionship with God and as we choose to carry out God’s mission. I want to call this, “The comfort of being called.”

[To be continued … tomorrow.]