The Season Of Giveaways

Good-Christmas-Gifts-For-Your-BoyfriendAs the holidays stretch around the corner, we often get the charity season revved up.  And this can cut many ways.

Prepare to be generous as charity workers come looking for support. Also: Look for ways that we can be Jesus to people, offering a drink, a meal, an extra coat, and more. Let’s be generous for the right reasons.

Often churches aim to leverage the holidays as an opportunity to draw people in if they give something out. It might be toys for Christmas, meals for Thanksgiving, clothes, shoes, backpacks at the beginning of school and many more ways to give things away in an attempt to win people to the faith. We end up mixing two aims into one—the aim to love and the aim to witness become seen as the goal to grow our church.

I was recently talking to the pastor of an inner-city church that our church, The Connection Church partners with on a regular basis to see both churches extend their reach and the mission of the Church with a capital C. We were talking about the plan to help them with a toy drive and giveaway over Christmas. The fact we are working toward a Christmas event that includes giving away toys should demonstrate that our perspective includes a value for giving and showing love.

Pastor Perades, a long-time veteran of serving in the inner-city of South Central LA, shared his straight talk with me. Let me pause to say, I appreciate straight talk, especially when it comes to partnering. We cannot have true partnership if one side is holding back. This straight talk helped articulate the problem with mixing goals.

Pastor wanted me to be aware that we can give toys away, and they would be glad to receive them for a Christmas event. He said we can fulfill the mandate to love our neighbor in this way. As he talks to his people, we must have an attitude of generosity, to give as we have been given so much. In this, however, he wanted to caution me, and I believe more than only me as we look toward being the church, filled with compassion, mercy, generosity and love at Christmas. Why are we doing what we do? There are plenty of good, Biblical, and laudable reasons to participate in charitable activities at Christmas. Let’s just stay within these reasons and not hope that what we do will also turn into new salvations.

His caution came to limit our expectations. We can be a people that loves our neighbor or those less-advantaged. We can aim to bless others, but let’s not see this as an evangelistic opportunity. He went on and on to say he hasn’t seen these giveaways as evangelistically fruitful. He just hasn’t seen people come to Jesus because of a freebee. Maybe that happens, but more as a consequence of the church being the church, and the Holy Spirit doing his work.

Why?

In today’s society, He explained, people are sophisticated enough to find the giveaways and show up for the free stuff. People know how to get what they want and not stick around for more than that. People know how to see through the façade that the giveaway is the carrot at the end of the stick. They know how to go through the motions to come away with what they want. Pastor shared his conviction that he has not seen these acts of charity to double as an evangelistic tool. The savvy person sees easily through ulterior motives. It is sad to put it in these terms, as a person who wants everyone to know the love of God and finds it hard to see that as a negative. But we can be clear with love and don’t have to be sneaky about evangelism.

Yes, we should love, we should be generous to those less fortunate, we should give. If I could say it in my own words. Let us be loving and giving people with no strings attached.

Maybe this can be a good reminder as the season of giving comes. Let’s give not to feel good about who we are. Let’s give without an expectation that our giving will translate into new converts or new members into our church. Let’s give and give sacrificially simply to be an extension of God’s love to this broken and desperate world.

Have you seen this kind of giving? Where have you seen it done well?

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Advent Is For Hope

adventAdvent is for hope. Now, let me substitute the word anticipation for hope. See what I am doing there. It’s that feeling we get on Christmas Eve as we wonder about what is in that neatly wrapped box under the tree. I love Christmas for all the longing, yearning, and anticipation this season brings. But what happens when our anticipation dissipates into thin air. Our hopes are no longer on the back burner. No, they are not even simmering any longer.

I feel that is how it got with my two baseball teams. Anticipation fizzled. But I loved my teams and believed as an eternal optimist that baseball glory was around the corner. Growing up in Chicago and Orange County I had the luxury of two teams. Two teams with losing reputations. One team hadn’t appeared in a World Series since 1945 much less won one since 1908. The other team from Orange County had never even appeared in one until I was a college graduate. This team has now won a championship in my lifetime, the other still lives in that mythical place of maybe next year. In fact, it is so bad for the Cubs that they are saying maybe in 2016.

As for the Angels of Anaheim in Orange County of the greater Los Angeles area, I fell in love with them as a kid only to have my heart broken in 1986. If you don’t know what I am talking about, we can tell that story in another place. After that fateful year, their chances for glory were few and far between. Gene Autry’s dream of bringing a championship faded fast as he neared the end of his life and ownership of the team for 30+ years. He sold the team to Disney who at least improved the fan experience. I still think Angel Stadium is one of the best places to see a game.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2002. I am in my final year of Bible College. I loved my team. I went more than a handful of times which without a car or much money that is a pretty big feat in and of itself. Thus in my senior year, the Angels got my phone number, one way or another, this happened. Their marketing team called me to ask if I wanted season tickets. A full plan was out the window. However, I said, tell me more about these mini plans.

The bottom line was that they would end up costing me more money as I would buy two tickets (one for my friend who drove me or went with me depending on your perspective) and I would no longer get the half price deals I got game by game. I pushed back. They said, but this will get you priority when it comes to playoff games. Playoff games, I laughed. Oh yes, they made some big off season acquisitions. I laughed again. Now, mind you, as previously noted, I am an eternal optimist and believed that Darren Erstad, Troy Glos, Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon along with some young kids like David Eckstein, Adam Kennedy and Benji Molina would do some damage. However, I could not believe that a trade for Kevin Appier and free agent signing of Aaron Sele would bring home the bacon.

I don’t think their magical line about priority for the playoffs was grabbing too many other people’s attention, but it got me to laugh. The games that year like every other year were mostly played to half empty stadiums. I say half empty as a half full kind of optimist, because the less people in the stands meant the more options for me to sit closer as the game wore on. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a great salesperson to convince someone to buy what they want. I ended up buying tickets as I wanted to insure seats against the Yankees and Dodgers. There you have it. I went all in for my team but with little to no expectations that my tickets would pay off for playoff priority. I knew my eternal sunshine of optimism was rarely rooted in reality. I looked forward to a fun year.

However, a magical, Disney-like magical year ensued. The team started slow, but turned it on later. The Rally Monkey , in his third year on the jumbo tron did his magic. Comebacks became the norm. The bullpen gelled and a powerful offense carried the Angels to baseball heaven. Oh, and because I had playoff priority, I spent my life savings on all the playoff games I could get. I sat in the bleachers and banged my thunder sticks to play a part in the Series run.

I even remember when my loss of anticipation turned to expectation. When the Angels pulled off the improbable in defeating the Yankees with some great come from behind wins, I said, they can beat anyone. And they did. My hopes waned from belief to wish but back again to palpable anticipation as the World Series ring came into grasp. Only a series against the Twins and whoever the lowly NL presented stood in the way. All those years of hoping would finally culminate with a championship. It wouldn’t go down as incredible as the Red Sox beating the curse of the Bambino or one day when the Cubs finally win one again. Nope. But it did in my books go down as amazing. Most amazing was this play that turned the fortunes of a World Series from the Giants to the Angels. And Anticipation grew tangible.

Hope diminished but was reborn in anticipation as winning became realistic. That’s my story in sports.

angels

Isn’t that what the hopes of God’s people must have been like? But times a million. For more than a thousand years, they looked for the Messiah. They waited generation after generation through good king and bad, through exile and more exile, through the remnant and the dispersion they waited. I am sure patient longing turned into diminished hope, especially during those silent years.

But I bet when God started speaking again and again, the anticipation built like it did for me. The exciting thing about Christmas this year for me is the reminder of hope/anticipation. God is at work, and I anticipate him doing incredible things in my life. I look forward to the promises in our life being fulfilled as the promise of Jesus was fulfilled on Christmas.

Will you hope with me?

The Fourth of July and Identity

Recently, I mused on traditions and family holidays as we celebrated Halfway to Christmas. Now, comes the big, mid-summer bonanza topped off with fireworks.

One thing that ties people together as a people much more even than blood and ethnicity is a shared tradition and shared story. Our story becomes a part of us as we stop on those important days of a year to commemorate and remember who we are. Our identity as a people gets instilled into us as we grow up year after year celebrating together as a nation, reminding ourselves that we are a people.

Some holidays like Christmas and New Year have a global call even as Australia might celebrate different with poolside BBQ. Other holidays might have commonality like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Another holiday like Thanksgiving gets celebrated by both Canada and the US; albeit Canada thinks they have the right date in October. These days come each year to remind us of who we are.

Yet each people will have certain days that only they celebrate. These days remind us how our identity stands distinct from another people. The Fourth of July is one such day for Americans. Many nations have a day to celebrate their freedom, but only the United States of America claims the Fourth of July as their day when independence rings out. We are reminded all day long with patriotic songs, BBQ’s, flags waving, and fireworks of one of our key values as a nation. This is one day that gets celebrated much better in the US than out of it.

As missionaries, we get that the day means something to who we are. We never made it to the US Embassy in Bangkok for a celebration with dozens of other ex-pats. However, we always found a way to eat American food and remind ourselves who we are as Americans. Usually the celebration comes with its own set of hurdles in a foreign land.

For me, Liberty stands strong as a value for who we are as a people, and the Fourth of July sticks out as one of my favorite holidays. I love the fireworks, hanging out with friends, and baseball.

What holidays do you love for their meaning and significance in shaping your identity?

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Traditions in Family

If we are not intentional, as family grows us, we all go our separate way. Family needs to work intentionally for those spaces when we can just kick back and have fun together. Sometimes that means they need to invent excuses to get together. These excuses can grow into traditions.

My wife’s  family did just that as Christina and her sister were getting married. They wanted to insure the family had an excuse in the summer to come together no matter where in the world they lived. Therefore, they created Halfway to Christmas. They pull out a tree with Christmas lights and Santa on the beach. We listen to Caribbean Christmas music, and give out gifts. The gifts consist of practical items that we all need for the summer. I remember the first time I joined in with the annual party. I got a nice big beach towel and a fold up beach chair. I was set for beaching it with my fiancé. What started about 10 years ago in order to get the kids together has grown to include son-in-law’s and now two granddaughters. This year we celebrated on Friday, when all the kids have a day off.


What family traditions do you have to get the extended family together?

Reflections from Father’s Day

This was my fifth Father’s Day. But wait, Ellie is only two. How can that be? I got the added benefit of celebrating in December for Thai Father’s Day.

But this was the best. This year, my daughter had enough maturity to come and express her love. Mommy got her all prepped in the morning to come give Daddy three things first thing in the morning. 1. A big hug, 2. A kiss and 3. Say, I love you, Dada.

Well, she came out of the room a little fussy. Our slow wakerupper doesn’t always go fast in the morning. Top that off with a little first-child syndrome of I don’t like to do what I don’t like to do. Also known as not liking to perform for others. But she didn’t want to forgo giving dada a hug, so she sheepishly slinked over to her father’s loving arms for a hug.

All was good in my (Dada’s) world. That is until a little hyper dog bounded up and stole my Eliana’s attention. Pandy (Nana’s dog) bounced onto the couch next to us causing a big smile to form across Ellie’s face. She laughed and now was ready for her day to begin. I asked her once again if she would say what Mommy was trying hard to get her to say.

This time, she squeaked out, “I…love…youuuu…doggy.”

“What!?” I said. “Ellie, who do you love? I love you, Dada, right?” “No,” she replied, “I love you doggy.”

Well, I did get hugs didn’t I even if she didn’t know what made this day so much more special than the last day. I even got sweet kisses throughout the morning. Two out of three ain’t bad, right.

Note: She still thinks it is hilarious to say, I love you, doggy. I guess, she does have a mind of her own, doesn’t she.

What I Learned From My Mom

It is Mother’s Day in Thailand today. As I prepared for the special sermon for today, I got to thinking about how special my mom was, and what I learned from her.

First and foremost, the perseverance of my mom jumps to mind. I learned how to overcome obstacles and barriers in life from watching my mom’s dogged determination. I can remember hearing her say to friends, “some call it stubborn, but I like to think of it as determined.” She just wouldn’t give up or give in when life knocked her down. And she got knocked down plenty.

A single mother for a few years, she found a second chance with my dad. Well, years before he was my dad. Their love story is well worth another blog series. But as young people serving in ministry, their marriage got rocked, not once, not twice, but many times. Their tragic circumstances started when their first daughter, Angela came down with severe brain damage as a baby. Around eight month-old, Angela no longer could do anything for herself. She lived in this state until she was six when mercifully, God took her to heaven. I still hold faint memories of playing with her when I was around Ellie’s age, 1-2 years-old.

While their world was still upside-down, my parents were graced with their second daughter, Melinda. But, the celebration lasted only a short time as she was born with a heart defect. The doctors did what they could with the medicine of the day, but she only lived about 40 days. Who would blame this family for crying out and cursing God? They were serving in ministry, and this is what reward they get. It just is not right. But they did none of that. They clung to God through it all. Rather than running from God, they rallied their faith and pressed closer to him. Sometimes numb to the world, they knew the only place they needed to be was in the church with God’s people. Here they were touched as they worshipped. The clung to each other as they held onto God with all them had. One memory pops out to me from when I was a teenager running the sound board at the church we attended. The other guy up there with me looked down at my mom and dad, arm-in-arm with their opposite arms raised high in worship, and told me how fortunate I was to have parents that loved Jesus like that. My mom knew how to love God, because he met her through so much.

So much that seemingly never let up. Now a few years after Angela passed away, George, her second son, came down with Leber’s Optic Neuropathy which led to him losing his sight at the age of 17. How much calamity can one family take? It makes me think of John Wesley’s mother who had 19 children, but only 9 who reached adulthood. Yet my mom kept loving her family and giving each of these circumstances to God.

When I went to my mom at 19 years-old to tell her that my eyesight was going the same as George’s did, she burst out in tears. Tears of love and compassion. I still contend to this day that my mom took it harder than I did. She loved so much and cared so deeply.

She always wanted the best for her family, and never gave up on that. She kept putting her obstacles before God. I learned from my mom to persevere and push on.

Reflections from Songkran

As I get a few days away from Songkran, the Thai New Year, I wanted to give some observations of the Thai customs.
Songkran, once a polite and formal holiday in which young people splashed water and went to their families to show honor to their elders. Blessing, cleansing, and honor mark the holiday as people from all corners of the nation of Thailand come together to celebrate with their family. However, I realized through conversations with some of our Thai friends, we come to understand the chaotic water fights have existed always, but the bawdy and wildness has emerged stronger and stronger over the past generation. Last year, teenage girls were taking their tops off; drunkards were making things more edgy, young men look for opportunities to grope the female Songkran participants.
What happened?
People lose their moorings when celebration trumps meaning. When people begin to lose their cultural heritage when they start to forget why they do certain customs. When we decouple the meaning of a tradition, we lose the purpose for doing something.
I have loved watching the church, often seen as a foreign entity, come alongside of Thai culture and help the Thai people hold onto their customs. In some ways, they reinterpret what some of the meaning are or where the blessings come from. However, in Songkran, we do not see the future blessings coming from God.
One example comes from the water pouring blessing, or rot nam dam hua. The young people use this ceremony to show honor to their elders as they go on their knees before their family’s elders. They ask for forgiveness for the things they did in the previous year. They then pour scented water over their elders hands, who in turn pray a blessing over the youth.
The Christians can still participate in this without looking to the spirits of Thailand to bring blessings or curses, but to God. They can see forgiveness coming from Jesus and blessings poured out by their Father in heaven.
We enjoyed watching the church partake in this ceremony, culturally appropriate to Thailand and yet sensitive to Jesus teachings. Thailand has become a party place led by their tourist centers of Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket and others as they jubilantly celebrate their New Year. Others want to fight back against this and hold onto the traditions and the meaning of their deep culture that the New Year starts with a cleansing of the past and openness to the future year. Perhaps the church will play a pivotal role in helping reinfuse cultural meaning into the festivals of Thailand.