On My Birthday

Because I missed my post last week, I decided to make it up by posting twice this week.

When people know you’re a Christian every move you make, for better or worse, gets put under the microscope. Whether it’s what you do or don’t do, eat or don’t eat, everything somehow gets called into question.

The other day a student asked me what I had planned for Halloween and when I said I didn’t celebrate it, a concerned look passed over their face. I assured them it had nothing to do with religious conviction as much as it was the fact Halloween is my birthday so I celebrate that day instead. Often when people discover I was born on Halloween they ask me what it’s like (i.e. if I get candy and presents, if I’ve ever thrown a Halloween party, if I like having them together, etc.). Detecting their excitement, I try not to spoil their fun but ultimately I end up telling them like it is: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Anyone else who shares a birthday with a holiday knows exactly what I’m talking about (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TLvl0vG2Zo).

For the longest time I disliked having my birthday on Halloween, to the point where I started telling people my birthday was November 1st. I figured I could save them the agony of choosing which day was more important to them. While to me, and a close community of people, my birth deserves to be celebrated, for the majority of the world Halloween carries the heavier weight. For kids it’s an excuse to get free candy and for young adults, it’s justification for debauchery. And because I’ve never been big on the holiday in either phase of life, I’ve always felt outside of the party; like it wasn’t for me but I was invited nonetheless.

In recent years, though, I’ve found that it’s the group of people I’m surrounded by that makes my birthday special. Just this past weekend I was reminding of the time my entire InterVarsity chapter made matching yet distinct t-shirts saying “Happy Birthday, Tomy”, wore them to church, and garnered the attention of our leader (who was/is one my greatest heroes). He then put one on, joined us for lunch, and convinced me to come on staff with InterVarsity. I floated on Cloud Nine for days. Even as I write this I’m reminded of last year when my wife surprised me by having all my friends in Cayman show up on our date for frozen yogurt. It was my first birthday in Cayman and I just about melted from the love I felt in my heart. But even that doesn’t encapsulate the homemade Aquaman birthday cards, the misadventures in Berkeley, Last House on the Left watching, and all the great moments I’ve had the fortune of sharing with great people. Yes, Halloween can be tragedy ridden. Yes, my birthday can be saddened by that fact. However, the reality is I’m overwhelmingly blessed with friends and family that make having a birthday on Halloween all the more enjoyable.

Since seventeen I’ve maintained a tradition in which at midnight I listen to a song that somehow incorporated the age I was turning in it to inaugurate my day. The older I get the less my self-imposed traditions and metaphors matter to me. Nevertheless there is a song that does come to mind and I’d like to share that with you.

“Twenty-Four” by Switchfoot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuWJ0LMCotI

Thank you for all the love, support, and birthday wishes. You guys are the best.

My Lack of Faith

“Why haven’t you invited me to church?” she asked, looking me straight in the eyes.

I wasn’t sure what caught me more off guard: the fact she’d been so straightforward in her inquiry or the fact that this was actually the second time in a month someone asked me this exact question. Searching my head for answers, I did my best to explain why I hadn’t been so forthcoming in our interactions. Something about post-modern, post-Christian culture and asking nonbelievers to attend your church being a greater threshold for them to cross. I’m sure it sounded very educated if not convincing. But if I’m honest my lack of invitation had nothing to do with “mission” or “effective evangelism.” The real reason I hadn’t invited her to my church was because I lacked, and still lack, faith.

We’ve all heard stories of people bringing their friends to church for the first time only to have it completely backfire or, just as bad, leaves them completely unchanged therefore increasing their skepticism. I was afraid that if I invited them to church, God would not meet them there. I doubted my church, God’s ability to use it, and God in general.

As I try to figure out where my own skepticism comes from, my mind goes blank. God has been nothing but good to me. Yet somewhere deep down in the recesses of my soul I’m still waiting on that one moment God fails me. More than questioning his ability to act in certain situations, I doubt whether or not he will.

But when we look at the miracles of Jesus, we’re hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t involve the faith of the recipient to some extent. They believe Jesus can do something and he does it. In fact, there’s a time in which Jesus doesn’t do any miracles because of the lack of faith around him. Maybe the reason I don’t see God at work in my life is because I don’t believe he is. In my doubt, I remain stagnant and refuse God the opportunity to prove me wrong.

Some people have the spiritual gift of faith. I am not one of those people and that’s okay. What’s not okay is that Jesus calls us to have faith the size of a mustard seed (something so small it’s almost embarrassing) and I don’t even have that.

I don’t know how to get more or stronger faith. I suppose prayer plays a part but perhaps in the same way we reassure children that a ride is just a ride or a movie is just a movie, maybe the foundation of our faith are the facts: God is good and he loves us. More importantly, he loves displaying His glory and he does not fail. Of course, in the throes of a roller-coaster it’s hard to remember it’s just a ride and in the moment, it’s hard to remember that God is God. Fortunately for us truth is not contingent on how we feel.

I want to be a man who believes God at his word and has the utmost confidence that God can do the miraculous, that he not only loves me but also loves his glory and will move on both his and my behalf to see his purposes brought forth. But at this moment I resonate more with the man in Mark 9 than anything else. I believe, help my unbelief.

Why We (I) Can’t Have Nice Things

Ten minutes away from my apartment sits a lovely two-bedroom, two bathroom townhouse on the canal waiting for renters. In it is a guest room so spacious it could pass as the master, enough storage space to make your friends jealous, and a master bedroom so gargantuan you’ll fall over at the sight of it only to find out that right outside is a balcony overlooking the canal. Fully equipped with a table and chairs, a perfect view of your potential neighbor’s boat, big enough for you and your friends awaits. Apparently he could use the company.

Sounds perfect, right?

Yet whenever my wife asks me if I want to move there, I’m overcome with reluctance. Not because it’s too expensive (though it would cost us a bit more) or because it’s further from everything (though it is), but because it’s too nice.

I struggle with having nice things. I look at magazines of huge houses in breathtaking locations and I inwardly hope I never own them. I’m afraid that comfort will cause me to forget the brokenness of the world and disengage from God’s mission. I’m terrified that I’ll forget Jesus in the midst of luxury, which is probably the hardest part about living in Cayman. While nice things have the potential to remind of us the Giver of said gifts, more often than not they cause us to lose sight of him.

As Christians we model ourselves after a man who identified himself with the poor, called people to sell all they have and give it to the poor, warned us we could not serve both God and money, specifically instructed us not to store up treasures on earth, and told us It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God all while having no place to lay his head. To pursue luxury almost feels like direct disobedience.

So instead I buy books either free or cheap on my gifted kindle, wear the same shoes every day, and resist using air conditioning at all costs. But in my pursuit of simplicity I’ve become a Pharisee, judging people based off the amount of money carelessly spent. But here’s the thing: I do it too. I buy five dollar smoothies at least once a month, get breakfast with a friend at least once a week, and even when I refuse to spend money on something because “it could go to the poor” more often I spend it on something else. There are plenty of people who put me to shame with their spending habits. But maybe that’s the issue right there: I’m looking at what everyone else is spending, which has allowed pride to rear its ugly head into my life.

I value simplicity and believe that combined with generosity, it frees us from the idol of materialism prevalent in our culture. But this week I’m recognizing that without Jesus at the center, we end up worshipping the same idol dressed differently. We, as Christians, are allowed to own nice things. Perhaps the solution comes in offering our niceties as well as everything else to God with open palms instead of clenched fists, recognizing it was never truly ours to own, while also understanding He is standard by which we base our lives, not society.

The Religious Skeptic

“Hi Tomy. There are some missionaries here on island and I invited them to speak to the students this week. I hope that’s okay,” one of the faculty advisors for our high school group said to me.

Because the Caribbean has taught me a lot about flexibility, I didn’t consider it an issue. Instead I did my best to think through how we could best utilize our time with the students and after running through a few options, I decided to let the missionaries share whatever they felt God laid on their heart. What came next wasn’t what I was expecting.

Whereas most places suffer from having never heard the gospel, Cayman suffers from having heard it too much. As a result the challenge then becomes presenting the good news in unique ways that challenge the hearer actually wrestle with the offer Jesus is making. For nearly two years I’ve done my best to earn trust and be mindful of my context, being strategic.

But not these guys.

These guys spouted Scripture left and right. They prayed mid-sentence with eyes closed and outstretched arms, pronouncing the blessings of God while rebuking demons. They were the some of the strangest Christians I’d ever met. There even was an interpretive dance, which in theory isn’t weird but it was literally one woman and a couple of moves in front of a room of 16-17 year old students. Right when I thought it couldn’t get any weirder, they asked students to hug them if they wanted a hug from Jesus. I was done. I racked my brain for what to say to act as damage control when a student got up and gave them a hug. Then another got up. And then another – until each student received a hug from Jesus. One girl was even in tears. It was absolutely remarkable.

This past week I started reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ and in the first chapter she mentions that when she first came to faith she saw every Christian, regardless of denomination or background, as family. But as she continued to grow she began to develop frameworks for what Right Christians and Wrong Christians look like. She argues, both hilariously and poignantly, that this occurs as a result of belonging to a homogeneous group. The longer you exist in a particular group, the more convinced you are that your group knows what’s best.

Because I don’t come from a mystical tradition, I’m skeptical towards those who do. If I’m honest, I believe my way of following Jesus is the only way. But this week I’m challenged by the fact God is more inclusive than I am. Doesn’t God reserve the right to be bigger than my conceptions of who He is? Doesn’t Paul specifically warn us not to view one part of the body as less important than another? Is it not possible that there’s something to be learned from those who follow Jesus differently? The truth is I did learn something that day: more important than my strategy is the Holy Spirit – and they’re not always the same thing. As nice as reading books, attending seminars, and listening to sermons, nothing compares to sitting in the presence of God and allowing him to mold you.

That day they weren’t concerned about being cool or accepted, they were concerned with exemplifying the love of God no matter how awkward it may have been. They followed the Spirit and made the Father smile. And you know what? I could afford to be more like them.

Spiritual Weaknesses: Recognizing the Limitations Within our Gifts

I’m fascinated by personality. In fact, sometimes I think I went to school for the wrong thing because often when people are telling me about their lives, I’m silently psychoanalyzing them. This interest only intensified when I began the journey of discovering my spiritual gifts. But if there’s one thing I’ve found these past couple of weeks is that in the same way every personality has its strengths and weakness, every office mentioned in Ephesians 4 has its limitations, often for the same reason it’s a gift. More than being a truth I cognitively assent to, it’s become a reality I’m seeing in my ministry.

Recently, I’ve had friends tell me I’m an evangelist and I’ll be honest: that excites me. Evangelists are heralds of the good news, motivated by God’s grace. With one foot in the church and the other in culture, they easily blend with people from various backgrounds without needing to be one of them and invite them to say yes to Jesus. Nothing excites them more than seeing people come to the kingdom and nothing disturbs them more than hanging out with a bunch of Christians.

This explains why I sometimes have a hard time getting along with other believers and why I’m bored to tears in most “churchy” environments. It explains why I have a better relationship with some of the skeptics and seekers on campus than I do with some of the Christians I encounter and why I get such a high from spiritual conversations. Whether I’m on a plane, train, in a café or a bar, I’m always looking for people to talk about God.

But for the same reason it’s a gift, it’s also a challenge. Because evangelists are outward-focused the challenge for them is to actually care for a flock of people under their leadership. They have a tendency to love someone for a time and then leave without actually showing people how to proceed after making such the decision to follow Jesus. Because their desire to see people come to the kingdom, the temptation is to present a reductionist gospel in order to gain numbers. And they’re not the only ones: Shepherds, in their love for people, can create codependent disciples; prophets, in their love for God, can be so passionate about truth they fail to speak it in love; and teachers, in their love for knowledge, can solely exist in their ivory tower. The list goes on and on.

If I’m honest there are certain gifts I’ve idolized, thinking to myself some are better than others, when the reality is all gifts are created equal and function together to establish, build, and strengthen his church. None of them can exist independently: each gift has its strength and its limitations. But more importantly, they’re never more important than the One who gives the gift. While the temptation is to restrict ourselves to ministries that only require our abilities, our job is to recognize our weaknesses, surrender them to Jesus, and allow him to grow us as we empower and learn from those who have what we lack. While I’m still grappling with what that looks like tangibly looks, recognition and confession is the first step.