Friday, July 14, 2017

A Year Since We Returned, But I Never Came Home

It’s been a year since Emily and I left Grenoble France and returned to our native California. There have been a lot of ups and downs in this process of repatriation. It has been wonderful regularly seeing family; there is no substitute for proximity. Reverse culture shock is no joke.

We returned a year ago, but I never came “home” to the place I once knew. I came back changed and I came back to a changed California. Three years had passed, and though we had been back to visit, some of the changes were too subtle to notice during these short returns. It’s a bit like the uncanny valley if you are familiar with the term. There are idioms and pop-culture references we have had to catch up on. Our home culture did not pause while we were away.

Reverse culture shock is a strange experience. I have felt like an outsider in my home. I remember being surprised with how big the cars and the roads are here. My Honda accord would be a big car in France, and it is dwarfed by some of the trucks and SUV’s driving around our ten lane freeways. Also, there is always music playing. Everywhere. I remember feeling very unsettled when there was pop music blasting at the grocery store. Why is there music while I’m buying food? The worst is at restaurants. It is sometimes impossible to have a conversation because the music is not just present but drowning out all other sound. As Americans, are we so afraid of boredom or awkward silence? But as we have been back, these acute moments of culture shock have mostly subsided (a few weeks ago I did find myself confused why the store only sold 10-gallon trash bags instead of 30-liter ones).

I love being close to family and our friends here; we have missed seeing so many wonderful people. It has been wonderful to catch up on important relationships in our lives. I love where we live now, but my heart still longs for Grenoble. After 990 days of living in Grenoble, we had established our home, for the most part, in this city. We had our routines, our habits, and our favorite shops and caf├ęs. We knew how to get around town and take care of various tasks. We loved living in Grenoble so much, and this beautiful city, capital of the French Alps, will forever have a special place in our hearts. I miss being surrounded by mountains. I miss our friends. I miss walking down the street to my favorite boulangerie and buying fresh pastries and bread. I miss being surrounded by people speaking French and the opportunity to be immersed in a new culture, though it was exhausting to be an outsider. Most of all, the opportunity to work and learn from Mark, Dalene, and so many others there, has changed me for the better. I will never stop missing these friends and our time together in the alps.

We left one home for another and returned to the first with my sense of home divided between these two locales. I don’t know if I can be fully at home in either place now. The answer is not simply move back to France (we are not), because I would miss my family, friends, and my home in California. But I am also not fully content to be here either. At first, this sense of wandering between homes left me feeling lost. I have come to accept it as my new norm, a part of processing and my life building upon our time in Grenoble. This realization has helped me accept the desire to only be where God has us for that time. So I am learning to be content with feeling like native and a foreigner, and being excited and sad to be in California and away from Grenoble. And I rejoice to live where God has for us.

To our friends and family, near and far, we love you. Our lives are richer because you are a part of it. I hope that you too will be content to follow God wherever He leads you.

Monday, February 27, 2017

January 1st and John 11

I don't know about you, but January 1st 2017 was a very hard day for me. We have been in transition since moving away from France last July and readjusting to life back in the US. We originally planned to join some friends doing college ministry at UC Berkeley, but in October, as we were struggling to raise the monthly support to afford Berkeley prices, we learned that the Berkeley group was ending and our friends were moving to work at another university. From our experiences visiting Berkeley and talking with our friends, we knew this was God's timing. But where did He have for us now? Surely He had not called us away from France only to have us fall through the cracks in California?

We met with some mentors and talked about our confusion, our options, and our next step. We spent November and December seeking God and visiting different college ministries to see where God was leading us. We prayed and fasted and sought the Lord. In December God told us 'no' to one campus, so we turned to the idea of going back to Sacramento where we had lived before moving to France. Less than a week before Christmas, I spoke with our friend Jimmy, who is the current leader of the college ministry in Sacramento, about us joining the staff. We had a great dinner with the staff, shared about ourselves, and they agreed to pray about us coming on with them. So we found ourselves waiting to hear what God would say to them.

Which brings us to January 1st. I woke up to this new year and realized nothing was what I had expected it would be. We were still living in the mother-in-law unit at my in-laws. We were waiting to hear if Sacramento was where God was leading us. To top it off, we have been trying to have a baby and that morning we had our hopes up enough to take a pregnancy test only for the results to be "not pregnant." 

We arrived at church and the chorus/bridge to the first or second song was "you[God]'re never going to let me down." And I could not sing it. I knew these words were true from an eternal perspective, but in that moment at church I could not say it. I was not angry with God, but I was deeply disappointed. Amidst repetitions of "you're never going to let me down," I was reminded of the story from John 11.

I love John 11 and the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I love that from the beginning Jesus clearly knows the end of the story. He even tries to spoil it for the disciples by telling them "this illness [of Lazarus] does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it," (Jn 11.4). Then Jesus waits for Lazarus to die (Jn 11.6).

When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus's sisters, Martha and Mary, each come to him and say "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," (Jn 11.21,32).

And then Jesus joins with their weeping, (Jn 11.35).

Jesus already knows how this story ends, he gave it away at the beginning. He is God and he knows he is about to go call Lazarus back from death. But Jesus's eternal perspective does not prevent him from identifying with their sorrow. He empathizes with their pain. 

I love this about Jesus. He loves us and he is with us. He understands when we find ourselves in a dark valley surrounded by hardships. He does not reprimand us for our feelings. He cries with us. He feels our pain. Jesus's incarnation demonstrates how far God will go to empathize with us and show his love.

As I stood there at church, not singing "you're never going to let me down," I felt God tell me that I was being like Martha and Mary, saying 'Lord, if you had been here...everything would not be going wrong right now.' God then said "I understand your pain, I get it, and I am with you."

We came to the ending/outro of the song, which says "when the night is holding on to me, God is hold on." And I could sing this, because I know God is with me. Nothing had changed, we still were not pregnant and did not know where God was leading us. God never promises life will be easy, but He does say He is with us. Even when the hurt and the sadness are not yet resolved, God still holds onto us. He knows the good end of the story, He knows His will and timing, and He identifies with us now.

Praise God we can be open and vulnerable with Him, we can share our feelings, and we can have hope in who He is.

The song quotes come from “King of My Heart” by John and Sarah Mcmillan

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Advent Hope

It's that time of year again; Advent is upon us and Christmas is coming. I love that the first Sunday of Advent is hope. The season begins with expectation. Before peace or joy comes the anticipation of God's good work in the world. We are not alone or abandoned. The miracle of Advent is that Emmanuel has come and is coming again.

On a grand eschatological scale, I understand the hope we have in Jesus. He has overcome sin and death to bring us eternal hope. God’s story ends well because Jesus has won the victory. But sometimes it’s hard to see how this hope trickles down into the minutia of our everyday lives. It can be difficult to sense how Christ’s incarnation solves problems of work situations, difficult relationships, or desires deferred.

This is a problem of vision not God’s sovereignty. Perhaps it feels like a baby in the manger does not resolve whatever is weighing on our minds, but that child did change eternity. When we allow ourselves to think our problems are beyond the scope of our hope, we put artificial limits on God and His good work. Our hope is not dictated by our present conditions between the two advents of Jesus. Jesus has not overcome some conflicts and some sins, but all. He came to rescue us and He is coming again. This hope we have should recalibrate how we see our circumstances.

Recently I was praying about various fears, and the more I prayed, the more I became discouraged. Amidst my mounting anxiety, I felt the Lord say “stop focusing on the problems. Fix your attention on me.” When I stopped concentrating on my fears, and reminded myself of who God is, my anxiety began to wane. I was reminded of the passage when Peter walked on water until he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at his surroundings (Mt 14:22-33). I’m sure we have all heard sermons about needing to keep our hope and our attention on God, but it's a lesson we easily forget. God is very patient with me and my forgetfulness.

I don’t know what hardships you may be facing. On top of life, with its business, comes the bustle of the Christmas season. In the midst of everything, may we not lose sight of the hope we have in Jesus who came into this world and is coming again.

Monday, October 31, 2016

1099 Days Later

1099 days ago, my wife and I moved to Grenoble France. We lived there for 990 days, 
and have been back in our native California for 109 days. As I read those numbers, it makes my head spin. I can hardly comprehend my life before Grenoble, how long we lived in France, and that we have already been back in California for so long.

Time and numbers are such fickle things. Can life be quantified? Is it accurate to say we have been back in California for 10% of the time we were gone? Often, trying to quantify life glosses over the quality of time. Life is more than a string of moments: seconds and minutes and days slipping by. Hours and days each have a set duration, but they do not all have the same value. How we spend, waste, or invest our time shapes us.

Our (almost) three years in Grenoble were (about) 10% of my life, but they were a critical 10%. God used our time in France, away from family and our native culture, as a means of transforming me. I learned, experienced, and changed more during this season than many others. When I look back on my life, our time in Grenoble will always be a significant period the same way going to university or getting married were in forming who I am. The rest of my life has been irreversibly changed, for the better, because of our time and our friends in Grenoble.

How much we engage with our lives and our time, and how much we allow the Lord, who is always at work sculpting us to be more whole and holy, adds gravity and grandeur to our moments.

How are you investing your time? Are you spending it in meaningful ways? What is the Lord wanting to do in and through you? What has the Lord taught or transformed in your life during the last 100 days? What is the Lord wanting to do with the next 100?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Reason for Having Student Small Group Leaders

Do churches exist to perpetuate their own existence? Are ministries self-serving? As a leader of a college ministry, I have to consider these questions. Why does the group I am working to cultivate exist? What do we hope to achieve? There is an aspect of self-preservation in any group, church, or ministry.

Yes, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much upon maintaining the group. Many people have felt exploited and burnt out by serving, sacrificing, and bearing burdens beyond what they should have carried. Yes, ministries can abuse people to perpetuate their own existence, but we should not abandon the whole endeavor simply because there are pitfalls to avoid. We are called not to idolize, but utilize, institutions for advancing the Gospel and building God’s Kingdom. The college ministry I work for and the church you attend are not God, but they are vehicles for developing healthy faith communities.

My primary reason for asking students to become leaders is to empower them. I want to invite them into leadership to give them opportunities for serving and influencing their community. There is blessing in serving others, and I do not want to deny students the chance to experience this. Students should feel they are not just consumers in our group, but co-creators with us. I want them to know they have a role in helping our group become what God is calling us to be together. The goal of empowering students is negated by overtaxing them, and if a student feels overwhelmed I will see that he or she takes the necessary break from serving. God is not glorified by burnout or sacrificing someone’s well-being for the task; Jesus came that we might be whole and healthy.

Also, the ministry is not mine. I am not sole leader, and this is by design. As a leader, an important job for me is learning to delegate tasks, vision, and responsibilities. This can be a harder task than it seems. In the midst of our busy lives in our corporate world, it can be easy to concede to the old adage that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” There is truth in this saying, but the perspective is focused on the immediate results and my goal is the long-term growth of students. I have years of experience facilitating Bible studies compared to the sophomore student who never has, and while I may be better qualified to lead a small group, my goal is for students to learn how to do this. Rather than maintaining my control or the highest standard of quality, when we ask students to lead and serve it can involve lowering our expectations to create learning opportunities for them. Is the goal to have excellence now or enable others to learn how? There is a balance to sacrificing the short-term results in favor of the long-term goal of empowering of students.

I have also seen and experienced the impact that the opportunity to lead and serve has on student’s faith and relationship with Jesus. This is an important criterion to monitor in anyone who is serving our community; the sacrifice and experience should be developing students’ faith not draining it. Having student leaders also enriches the community. They breakdown the divide between student and staff, cultivating a leadership of peers within the group, and they are better able to relate and connect with students outside the group than someone like myself who has already graduated. While we must be wise and intentional with how to involve others in ministry, we should not miss this opportunity to see others grow through serving.

Why does your community exist? What is the vision and the goal for the group? Have you served in your church or faith community before? What was your experience? How did it affect your faith? What balances do you personally have from over-committing yourself? How are people able to serve within your body of faith? Does there need to be more invitations made and space available for others to serve? Does the group’s culture tend toward burnout? Are you in a position where you can help others avoid burnout? How do our beliefs about work affect our assumptions about serving our faith community?