Letters to My Past & Future Self

Before graduating high school I was asked to write a letter to my future self. For six years my teacher held onto this said letter but this past week I finally got it delivered to me. I decided to share it, as well as my response, here. I’ve taken the liberty of deleting names to protect the innocent as well as fixing grammatical issues to protect my dignity but aside from that this is the original letter (with all its adolescent naiveté). Hope you enjoy.

Dear Future Me,

Well by now you should’ve finished college and started a real life. I understand if you haven’t, things tend to get in people’s way. However, I still expect for you to accomplish extraordinary things. Everyone always thought you were this brilliant kid with a bright future. Hopefully, you’ve proved them right.

How’re mom and dad? I expect for you to take care of them. Remember: at the end of the day family is all you really have. How’s your brother? I still expect you to lead a model life for him. He’s young and needs guidance. And friends? Tell me 1’s not an alcoholic? Just lie to me. Tell me 2 is successful. Do you still talk to 3? I swear if you two go out again, she better treat you right. Whatever happened to 4? Remember all that you’ve done for her.

Anyway, how are you? It’s been five years. Right now “life” is just beginning. You’re about to graduate tomorrow. I’m pretty freaked out. I have to give a speech (so much for my public speaking skills). You better not smoke, you better vote, and you better be having the time of your life because life is too short not to live each day like it’s your last.

Hopefully that major earthquake hasn’t happened – and if it hasn’t MOVE TO CANADA! They have gay marriage, heath care, and maple leaves.

How’s music? Speaking of which, I’m handing out free copies of Life As We Know It. Hopefully you’re not poor. If you are, it’s probably because of this album. Well, I don’t want to get all mushy on you but I love you, man and I hope you take good care of yourself.

                                                                                                                              Love,

                                                                                                                                                Tomy a.k.a. You

Dear Past Me,

The gift and the curse of time is that it, by very nature, is linear (though I’m sure some would disagree). Letters can be sent to the future but none can be delivered to the past. I recall you having this thought as you were writing me years ago. Still, you wished I could write you back so here we are. Though I know you’ll never receive it, I owe you the response.

Of course there are the superficial things I could respond to in your letter but more important to me is responding to the heart behind those inquiries. If there’s one thing I wish I could tell you it’s that you will live. You will go on to finish school, find love, meet God, and move to another country. You will lose friends, make new ones, and it will be okay.

Part of life’s beauty rests in its uncertainty. All we know is this present moment. But, Tomy, the worries of the present have no place in the future.

God loves you; and your inability to fully comprehend that statement doesn’t make it any less true. You waste far too much energy fighting for the approval of people when your worth is independent of those things.

I know you don’t believe everyone when they say you’re a brilliant kid with a bright future but you are. I just pray that you’ll eventually come to see it. You’re a good kid.

Love Always,

Tomy a.k.a. You

P.S. Everyone’s fine.

Advertisements

The Awakening

There’s a train loaded with passengers barreling down a set of railroad tracks at full speed. Up ahead are two children playing on the tracks. You, watching this take place from a bridge overhead, scream to no avail. The conductor, who doesn’t have time to stop, can’t hear you and neither can the children who are oblivious to what’s coming. Your only hope lies in the stranger standing next to you. If you throw him off the bridge, it could stop the train and save the lives of the children. If you don’t they die. What do you do?

This was a situation a friend of mine teaching an ethics class gave his students. While it’s an extreme example I pray I never experience in real life, the image of screaming from a bridge trying to warn people of what’s coming has been hitting home with me the past couple of weeks in terms of the spirituality of Cayman.

Some days I’ll sit on campus surveying the student population as they interact with one another, ponder their thoughts on God and the role He plays in their lives. More often not I’m overwhelmed by the reality that very few people actually care about Jesus in this “Christian nation.” It’s as if a veil is over their eyes that prevents them from being cognizant to the reality, and the gravity, that with every passing moment we are one moment closer to His return. I’m reminded of Luke 17 in which Jesus says the time of his coming will be similar to that of the days of Noah: people will be eating, drinking, and marrying when everything will unexpectedly change.

This past year there’ve been multiple visions concerning a disaster hitting Cayman and at first I was skeptical. In comparison to the United States, Cayman is practically a saint. Oftentimes I’d pray in anxiety only to be met with certainty and peace. It wasn’t until recently disaster felt like a possibility.

It’s brought me back to Ezekiel 33 in which God calls Ezekiel to be a watchman for the people of Israel. In those days ordinary watchmen were responsible for alerting the people of danger. They’d stand in the gap of the wall and if they saw an enemy approaching they’d sound the trumpet to warn everyone. If the watchman fell asleep or decided not to say anything, it meant destruction for his people. Ezekiel gets called a watchman to warn the people of Israel of God’s judgment towards them. If he should fail, the punishment gets executed but it’s on his head for not saying anything. It’s his responsibility to stand in the gap for Israel and plead their case before God.

In talking through the ethical dilemma my friend posed to his students, we agreed that from a Christian perspective self-sacrifice is the best solution. The question is whether or not we’d do it. God has called me to be a watchman for Cayman, awakening those around me from slumber and complacency to the reality of who he is. For Him, and for them, it’s worth giving everything I have.

It won’t always be easy. Not everyone wants to be woken up. But what I can say is that the awakening is growing.

Random Thoughts.

So this post will seem as if I’ve run out ideas or that I’m too lazy to write an actual post. On the contrary, I actually saw this on a pastor’s blog a few months ago and have been collecting thoughts about everything and nothing since. I want to share some with you. Without further ado…

Cayman has lots of traditional, institutional churches. It even has a few contemporary, evangelical churches. But where is the missional church? And what does it mean if I’m the only person who sees this as a problem?

I’ve written songs I believe in, but don’t know if I’ll ever have the pleasure of pursuing them. Should I sell them? How does one even go about that? Furthermore, who’s even interested in generic pop rock songs? Not sure there’s a huge market for that.

Male privilege is real.

Sometimes I wonder if we intentionally allow the complexity of certain issues/situations to be an excuse for our passivity.

I don’t think I’m a “fun” person. I don’t say that as a critique to myself. It’s an honest assessment.

As activists and prophets, how do we create instead of simply destroy? In general, what does it look like to be known not only for what we are against, but, more importantly, what we are for?

This year I made a goal to read at least five books over 500 pages. Next year I want to read at least five (auto)biographies.

What does a church for people disillusioned with the church look like?

I strongly dislike social obsessions.

Why is it so much easier to listen to critics than to focus on Jesus?

What if the ultimate measure of happiness is when you no longer feel the incessant need to post it all over social media?

We will never experience community as long as we’re looking for a way out of it.

At the heart of what it means to be a Christian is to stand for justice. You can’t turn a blind eye toward injustice and call yourself a follower of Jesus.

There are certain things more important than our fears.

Lastly, I’m wondering if I’m wrong about who I think God is and if so, if I’m honest enough to admit it. That sounds very cryptic. I promise you it’s not. I’m still Christian. I still love Jesus. I just realize I still don’t know everything.

Experiences in Planting, Part 2: Creating a Core

Mark Driscoll in his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev. talks about the moment he stopped wasting time on people who were never going to be on board with the vision God laid on his heart and started investing in people who were interested in being missionaries to the city of Seattle. It was then things began to change for Mars Hill.

It sounds harsh but it’s reality: as a planter you are one person trying to create something from nothing. With limited time and energy, every move you make is important to the life of your ministry. Every move must be strategic and forward-looking, including whom you invest in.

Central to starting something from the ground up is finding faithful people who embody the mission and core values of our group. As nice as it is to love, nurture, and, sometimes, chase after each person that comes our way, we can’t. It’s simply not strategic. This isn’t to say we neglect those entrusted to our care – absolutely not. Jesus calls us to care for and feed his sheep. If someone, Christian or not quite there yet, is eagerly searching for God they are to be stuck with. The thing I’m trying to beware of is wasting time trying to corral people who don’t want to be corralled. There’s a difference between a sheep that accidentally wanders off and one that looks both ways then runs for hills.

In the past I’ve spent too much time focusing on the wrong people but now I’m concerned about doing the opposite: giving up at the faintest sign of struggle. The flaw in the first one is that in spending time with all the wrong people we’re wasting valuable time and energy that could be spent investing in the right people, moving progress forward. We’re ignoring the people the Holy Spirit has prepared for this moment. However, in moving on too quickly we run the risk of passing over those same people. If we expect to find leaders without a struggle, we’ll never have a core. There must be a balance. The trick is in finding it.

One way I’ve been trying to sift the two groups is by creating opportunities for missional engagement. As we embody our values, people almost naturally self-select their level of participation. Those who are serious rise to the surface whereas those who aren’t remain on the fringe. In the process, a natural core begins to form and it’s those people we intentionally invest in. It’s taken a while but it feels like we’re just beginning to see this with our university students and let me tell you, they’re not who I had in mind.

Last spring was probably the most productive season of ministry I’ve ever experienced. I met with more students one-on-one than I ever had before, did more evangelism than I was used to, and hosted more events than I intended. Yet it’s this semester a core is taking shape almost unbeknownst to me. Somewhere in this is a lesson about compromise, patience, and the sovereignty of God in planting but this will do for now.

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.