lessons along the way

Being on a sabbatical has been very interesting. As it so often is following the Lord, it hasn’t gone as I expected. Dale Wolyniak wrote in a very helpful booklet, Sabbaticals for Minsters, “A ministry sabbatical is ideally quite different from a traditional academic sabbatical or a sabbatical practiced in business. It is about the spirit and soul being refreshed, renewed, and redirected.” Preparing for this sabbatical, I began to relish the thought of being refreshed.

Being in ministry all these years and starting a church have been amazing. I cannot imagine doing anything else. Enjoy the friendships, serving alongside the greatest people, and making new friends along the way have been the greatest! I thank God all the time for the privilege of serving him in this capacity. It’s been awesome! But little did I know how much emotional energy was spent and how “tired” I had become. Entering my seventh decade adds to this as well. All the leadership challenges, the weekly gearing up for worship services, administrative responsibilities, emergencies, tragedies, relational challenges and conflicts, criticism, and continual spiritual warfare does take a toll. Yup, after 27 years of ministry, I realized I was a bit weary. It showed up in sleep challenges, physical ailments and difficulty dealing emotionally with things that should have been no big deal.  Now, this is not meant to be a sob story. No, not at all. Yes, during this sabbatical, I discovered how weary I was. But more importantly, far more importantly, I have experienced the extreme goodness and love of God my Father. It has been a humbling but gratifying experience to see and experience firsthand how much God loves me. I am beginning to see the light!

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I struggled with the idea of taking a sabbatical, especially at this important season in our church. Honestly, I really didn’t want to go, not now. But through the counsel and encouragement of some amazing individuals and elders, I decided to go through with it. The quote from Dale Wolyniak resonates with me more and more during this sabbatical adventure. Being refreshed was so appealing to me as I began. My spirit and soul cried out, as well as my body, for refreshment. And yes, God has been faithful.

Eugene Peterson wrote in an article, Sabbatical Is Not Study Leave, words that have challenged and inspired me during this sabbatical.

“If we are going to take sabbaticals, let them be real sabbaticals: a willed passivity in order to be resorted to alert receptivity to spirit-prayer, silence, solitude, worship. It is outrageous that we acquiesce to the world’s definition of our word and let our unique, biblical sabbatical be put to the use of career advancement, psychological adjustment, and intellectual polish–with all the prayer and contemplation laundered out. The original intent of Sabbath  is a time to be silent and listen to God, not attend lectures; a time to be in solitude and be with God, not “interact” with fatigued peers. If help is to be given to the pastor in midcourse, it is not going to come by infusion of intellect, but by renewal of spirit.” 

Powerful words that I am taking to heart. I marvel how God has so orchestrated the events in my life to teach me a great lesson–how to abide in Him. I often think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I am praying more and more, especially in this sabbatical season that Jesus would teach me and I would find rest for my soul. I have slowly begun to feel refreshed. I am slowly understanding what is at God’s heart for my sabbatical. I am slowly learning that “…it is not going to come by infusion of intellect, but by renewal of spirit.”

Believe it or not, I am enjoying the journey more and focusing less on getting to wherever I am going, physically and spiritually.

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As far as being renewed and redirected…well that’s a story for another day. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me to rest. Thank you for your faithfulness, patience and goodness. I am humbled by your love for me. Thank you!

another step…

btw, props to my son John for taking the pics. Thanks, John!

 

 

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Let My Son Shine in!

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a month since our return from Japan. How quickly time has flown by! The joy and wonder of being in the city where my family is from, now fading into the busyness, activities, challenges of being back home.

Amidst all the things swirling around in my mind, thoughts wander back to Don’s message we heard as a family in Japan. Whether in Japan visiting a part of my heritage or back home in Hawaii, or wherever I find myself, the question, and really, my challenge is: Am I continually seeking Jesus and walking on that narrow path or am I just taking the easy, comfortable and convenient way? Only two options. I am either on one or the other. There is no third road. Too bad. Don’s challenging questions come to mind often:

  1. Is my response to sin characterized by repentance?
  2. Is my will surrendered to God’s will?
  3. Does my life show forth the fruit of obedience?
  4. Do I sense the affirming voice of the Holy Spirit?

On our last full day in Niigata, my family’s hometown, I spent time with God in the peacefulness of the rice paddies bordering our hotel. It was a good time. It was a time to honestly reflect on those four questions.

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  • Is my response to sin characterized by repentance? I wrote in my journal that day, “On a scale of 1-10, I would say a 6, maybe. But it should be way closer to 10. So often I choose to ignore sin.”
  • Is my will surrendered to God’s will? Continuing my reflection and evaluation, “6 again. But sadly too often, only when I want to. In those weak moments, the answer is no.”
  • Does my life show forth the fruit of obedience? “Not sure how to rate this. I often try to put my best foot forward. But is it obedience to God or a show to the people around me? Is it more a sense of duty or an expression of my love for God?”
  • Do I sense the affirming voice of the Holy Spirit? “Succinctly put, no. It’s hard to hear His voice above the din of my feelings of guilt, condemnation, and lies from the accuser of the brethren.

I thoughtfully considered my words written on that page, reflecting upon the condition of my heart. As I shook my head in disgust at sad excuse for a follower of Christ I was feeing at that moment. I closed my eyes in prayer. Then, sensing the gentle voice of my Father, I began to write words I felt whispered in my ear:

“Mark, see how refreshed and alive you feel sitting along these paddies? You are so often worn down, stressed, fatigued, sick and weighed down because you don’t take time to just be with Me. Even 30 minutes rejuvenates, doesn’t it? My word to you, “Remember to take time and let the Son shine in. Let My Son shine into your life. Make time to let My Son shine in. Do that and you will experience the health and vitality you will need for this decade. Remember this. Even in the midst of the busyness of your life, let My Son shine in on your life.”

“I am the light of the world.Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Jesus in John 8:12

“Let My Son shine in on your life!” Special words on a very special day in a very special place. Words of hope, encouragement and instruction. Words from a loving Father to his discouraged son. What a moment! That day and that place seems like a million miles away right now. How quickly I allow stuff to come in and steal the preciousness AND My Father’s exhortation that day! But today I remember. I choose to remember. Today I go that special place in His presence, open my heart, my soul and my arms and let the Son shine in.

I am learning that abiding is not attained the way I too often strive for something, through hard work, determination and human effort. Abiding is simply remaining in the Vine and letting His Son shine in. Simply, not easy. But I’m learning. Today, no more striving. No more listening to the inadequacies I feel in my heart. No more listening to the lies. Today I simply choose to let the Son shine in.

“Thank you Father for your love and patience with me. Thank you for your words. May your Holy Spirit continually remind me to let your Son shine in to my life. I am humbled by your stubborn love for me. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

another step…

Only God!

We have been in Niigata for about 3 days and it truly has been a really meaningful time for me. From the minute we got off the train, I felt something stir in my heart. I can only describe it as being in a place for the first time and yet feeling like it is strangely familiar. As funny as it sounds, I had to stop, take a few deep breaths and collect myself. As I scanned the city from the train station, my mind wandered and wondered how many of my relatives and ancestors, unknown to me, walked those corridors and climbed the steps of that station. “What ifs” entered my mind., “What if my grandfather stayed in Niigata?” “What if he never came to Hawaii?” Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about God’s wonderful plan. 


I thought of Ps. 139:13-16 in a more profound way. 

“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.Ps. 139:13-16

To think that God handmade me and saw me before I was even born, that I was thought of while my ancestors were still living thousands of miles away and born on an island in the middle of the Pacific is mindblowing! Only God! Only God has the love and power to think about and do that. 

Being here has touched my heart in a very special way I never would have expected. It reminds me in a very real way that I am here for a reason and purpose. It is no accident that I exist. What a crazy and amazing truth! Every day of my life was recorded in God’s book. Every moment laid out before a single day of my life had passed. How is that even possible? Only God. Only God. 

May we all experience the grace and truth of God’s Word. May we experience the reality that we are God’s masterpieces, personally handmade, created with a divine purpose. To which I can only say, “Only God!”

Thank you, Father. 


Another step…

Props to my son, John for the pics. I don’t do pictures very well. But he does!

Created to be God’s masterpieces

I have always had a heart for the younger generations. I can’t explain why, it’s just something God has implanted in me. A few days ago while walking around Ikebukuro, here in Japan, we happened upon what was seemed like some sort of anime convention or gathering. At least that is what my kids surmised. The family wanted ice cream and a place to rest for a bit but I wanted to explore this fascinating niche of Japan’s younger generation. As I walked up the stairs to where the main gathering was, along the way were young people dressed as characters in very elaborate costumes and make up. It was fascinating and weird at the same time. 


As I continued climbing the stairs to the top, I wondered what were in the hearts of these young people that motivated them to work so hard to transform themselves into these characters. Then I saw something weird, sort of sad, and maybe even a bit disturbing, to be quite honest. Along the sides of this walkway and stairs, young people, mostly girls and some guys dressed as female characters, took up their spot to pose for photographers. Some of them must have been quite popular as there were lines of photographers, waiting to take their pictures. The sort of disturbing thing was the photographers were mostly older men. 


Now I could comment on a lot of things at this point but I will share what was stirring in my heart. I am not saying that this is gospel truth or from the Lord or right. It’s just what I was feeling in my heart. I began to wonder if how these young people saw themselves was so unsatisfactory that immersing themselves in a fantasy world, being someone else, at least for a bit, was better. Did they feel better about themselves when dressed as these characters than in real life? If so, why? Was this just a way to escape their real lives? All these thoughts and more flooded my mind and began to pierce my heart. Again, I don’t mean to be judgmental or condemning in any way. It’s just that the more I walked around, the more my heart was drawn to the young people behind the  costumes. I began to pray asking God to show them how much they are loved by their Heavenly Father. To touch their hearts with the truth that they are fearfully and wonderfully made. As Ephesians 2 says, they were created to be God’s masterpieces! 

“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”  Eph. 2:10

I didn’t make it to the top of those stairs. I decided to turn and go back down. My heart was heavy and I had seen enough. As I walked back down, I asked the Holy Spirit to speak to me. I felt His leading to keep praying for these young people and for the younger generations. God has given me His heart for them. The stir in my heart is the stir of the heart of a father that God has implanted in me. A father loves his kids and that is why my heart was drawn to them. I felt Him say that a lot of people hide behind masks, costumes, and all kinds of stuff because they are so unhappy in their real lives, or they believe their lives are disappointing or they are trying to escape. 

As I sensed the Holy Spirit’s leading, I began to see that I hide behind masks. I fall into the temptation of trying to be someone I’m not. Yes, I’m no Billy Graham. No real surprise there. There are times I feel I’m inferior the way I am and wish I could be someone else. I wish I could sing like Freddie Jackson. I wish I could dunk a basketball like MJ. I wish I could be an effective communicator like Tim Keller. An evangelist like Billy Graham. A compassionate yet powerful leader like Mother Teresa. A person with the faith like George Mueller. But I’m just me. And the Holy Spirit said, “Yes, you are just you. You are God’s masterpiece. He has created you anew in Christ Jesus so you can do the good things He has planned for you long ago.” 

So I decided I am going to pray more intentionally for the younger generations. I am going to pray for all my friends who dress in elaborate costumes at these anime type gatherings. I don’t feel like it, but I guess I’ll pray for all those photographers. And I’ll pray for me. That we would see and believe in our hearts that yes, we were created to be God’s masterpieces. I’m going to pray that they would find the love of a Father who loves them like no other. I’m going to pray that they would turn to the Lord Jesus, so they can find what their hearts are yearning for, what all our hearts yearn for, love and acceptance. I’m going to pray that I would rest in the truth that yes, I too, am God’s masterpiece. To me, that sounds like a plan. Thanks, Father! 

Another step …

Two options, one choice

Yesterday was Sunday here in Ikebukuro, Japan. I searched around for a church to visit but there weren’t any relatively close by. That’s kind of sad to me. A thought came to mind and I decided to have gather the family to watch a message preached by Don Cousins at Discovery Church. Don is a great friend who God has used much in my life. About a week ago, we were chatting about our upcoming trip as well as things in my heart. He suggested I watch his message from a few weeks ago that was right along the lines of what I was sharing. God has been leading me to read and reread the Sermon on the Mount. Don has been preaching from the Sermon on the Mount for the past several weeks. Great minds think alike. Anyway, we watched Don’s message, “Two Options, One Choice,” as a family. It was so good. Just what we needed. Isn’t it awesome how God meets you right where you are at?

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”                  Matt. 7:13-14

Don’s main point was in life, there are just two options, two choices, two paths to take. The broad way that leads away from God to destruction and the narrow path that leads to life. Jesus said one is easy, wide, with lots of people on it and the other is hard, narrow with very few on it. 

Later that morning, we decided to walk to this interesting place called Sunshine City. You could probably spend an entire day there with the Observatory Deck with VR stuff you can do, an aquarium in the building, shops and shops and shops and all kinds of food, even Kua Aina, a hamburger joint from Hawaii!


One of the fun things getting around in a new place is bumbling around trying to find your way. We started on our way to Sunshine City with Google Maps, which I am horrible at following. As we tried to find the way, a thought came to mind. Just follow the crowd and we’ll get there. It’s crazy how many people are walking around and how few cars there are in a a city of over 370,000 people with a population density of almost 23,000 per km. Following the throng of people, it struck me, “This is like the broad way! It’s easy. It’s wide. And there’s a lot of people walking on it.”


As we walked, I thought about how easy it was. “All we need to do is follow the crowd and we’ll get to where we want to go.” For me, Google Maps was too confusing and too hard. It took too much work for me. It was too easy to get lost, if you took a wrong turn. Following Google Maps took way to much concentration for me. My verdict: Too hard. Following the crowd, so much easier! Then “BINGO!” Ding, ding, ding. Winner, winner, chicken dinner (KCF of course)! There it was! The lesson from Matthew 7 that Don spoke about only an hour or so earlier, literally before my very eyes! Two options, one choice. Following all the people on the broad way was easy! Following a specific source, Google Maps, in this case, was hard, again at least for me! Too much work. Following the crowd, so much easier. 

As I took in the scene around me, some thoughts came to mind:

  • It is so easy to just go with the flow. So easy to just follow popular opinion. You don’t draw attention to yourself. No one if offended because you’re going a different way. It’s easy. You just follow along. 
  • As I watched the hundreds and really thousands of people around me, I wondered how many of them knew Jesus. It kind of broke my heart, seeing the broad way before my eyes and how many people are on it and how many are headed to destruction. I wondered about that as I saw mommies and daddies, smiling and carrying their precious babies. Little children, so cute, skipping along, seemingly without a care in the world. Young people. So many young people. Couples in love, oblivious to the mass of humanity around them. The elderly off to the side, avoiding the rush of those around them, heading in the same direction, at a much slower pace. So many people! I thought, “Is this like that broad way that Jesus spoke about?” My heart was filled with love and compassion and a renewed passion to share the Good News.
  • Am I continually seeking Jesus and walking on that narrow path or am I just taking the easy way and following the crowd? There are only two options, two roads. I am either on one or the other. There is no third road. Don’s challenging questions came to mind: 
  1. Is my response to sin characterized by repentance?
  2. Is my will surrendered to God’s will?
  3. Does my life show forth the fruit of obedience?
  4. Do I sense the affirming voice of the Holy Spirit?

Good questions for me as I continue this adventure in Japan and more accurately, as I continue this adventure to truly abide in Christ. There’s just two options and one choice. Am I walking on that narrow, harder, path less traveled? 
Another step …

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

We have been walking a lot from the minute we landed in Tokyo. A lot! Walking is great as it gives you time, or maybe more accurately, gives God an opportunity to speak to you. The big question is will I listen to what He says. As we continue our adventure, I think I will really focus on this. 

The earnest counsel of friends

I am on a plane on the way to Tokyo and whatever God has for me  and for our family. According to the information on the screen, we are traveling at a speed of 531 mph and should arrive in 7 hours and 21 minutes. A few months ago, I felt God’s leading to go to Japan and to visit the city my family comes from, Niigata. God graciously supplied the provisions for us to God. I am so very grateful and thankful to God!

At the airport, while waiting to board our plane, I got a call from a very good friend. He had a very good word for me. I have been saying how I need to really press in to God which I need to. But he shared a perspective I had not thought about yet was very enlightening to me. Pressing in to God gave him the feeling of working hard to find God, like somehow He was playing hide and seek. His thought was perhaps seeing how God is there and wants to be found might be another way of looking at my pursuit. By pressing in to God, he felt that it was work and that I was becoming weary. By trusting that He was there with me and longed to connect with me might ease my sense of striving. And you know what? He was absolutely right. My loving Father spoke through this brother to teach me something very important. Important for this trip, important for some burdens that weigh heavy on my heart, and for this sabbatical. 

“Be still, and know that I am God.” Ps. 46:10                    

I also got an email from another very good friend with more great words from God to me. Words along the very same lines as the ones from my other friend. He saw us gather and pray as a family in the morning then sharing what God laid on our hearts. Decisions were made by the whole family, thoughts and words freely expressed. Again, what a great word for me and our family.

“Oil and perfume make the heart glad,
and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” Prov. 27:9         

I am looking forward to learning to rest in God, trusting Him to lead us and seeing where He leads. So exciting!

Thomas Aquinas said, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” I concur. 

Thank you Father for great friends and for speaking your words of truth through them to me.  In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Another step!                                                                     

God whispers

It’s easy to follow when the person you are following goes where you want them to go. It’s easy to trust when you know the outcome. It’s easy to submit when the person you are submitting does what you think is right. And it’s easy to abide when things are going great.

This is true, at least for me. I am so willing to do something so long as I think it is worthwhile, right, good or what I desire.

“You want me to follow you where? Oh, I always wanted to go there, so yes, I will follow you there.”

“You want me to trust you for what? That’s always been no problem for me, so yes, I will trust you.”

“You want me to submit to that? Well, I feel that is the right decision so okay, I will submit.”

“You want me to abide in You now? You caught me at a great time. I’m really not too busy at the moment so yes, I will abide in You.”

What’s wrong with this picture? So often I fool myself into thinking that I am following and abiding in Christ. I think that what I am doing is good enough. But when I read what Jesus means when He calls me to follow and abide in Him…

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Luke 9:57-61

“Hey Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go.”

“Really, Mark? If you follow Me, it’s not going to be like you might imagine. Where I am going is not going to be easy. It’s not going to be comfortable. Foxes and birds have homes. But this isn’t my home. I have a mission to accomplish and I will be on the move.”

“That’s fine. But first, I have some very urgent and important business to attend to. I’ll get it  done right now and then I will follow you anywhere. Honest! Just wait right there.”

“I don’t think you understand, Mark. If you want to follow Me, there will always be “important” and “urgent” things clamoring for your attention. But there is something far more important if you want to follow Me. My Father gave me a mission to accomplish and I have come to do only the will of My Father. If you want to follow Me, that is what is primary, above all else.”

“Okay…I still want to follow You, Jesus. But I have a family. I love them. And by the way, You gave them to me. Didn’t you say Jo was your gift to me? Aren’t children gifts from You? I’ll follow You but I have some very important responsibilities. I’ll make sure I stay on top of my time management. I’ll fit you right into my schedule. Okay, Jesus?”

Yup! The story of my life. I realize the challenge for me is not necessarily doing. It’s not necessarily behavior. It’s not even about sacrifice. The great challenge for me is orientation. Too often, I have a different orientation from what Jesus has in mind. Too often I start with behavior and actions. Mistakenly, I often live with the idea that following Jesus and abiding in Him is about what I do. It’s about what I do and how I sacrifice for Him. It’s about all the time I give Him. There is some truth in that but I think Jesus has a different orientation, the heart. At the heart of it all, it’s about my heart. Following and abiding in Christ is about my heart first and foremost.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  1 Sam. 16:7

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.”  Jer. 19:9-10

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.    Mark 7:6

As I truly considered Jesus’ words in Luke 9, I confess that I fall short in many ways. I haven’t considered the heart of Jesus’ words. What a painfully great time of soul searching and evaluating. But then something great happened. In the midst of the contemplation of my soul, God whispered to me. I sensed His encouragement. It was as if God wanted to encourage me to keep moving in the direction I’m going. Unfortunately, I am easily discouraged at times, especially when I feel I fall so short of God’s instructions. But how wonderful God is! As I considered the challenge of truly abiding in Christ, He whispers in my ear, “Mark, if you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” (Jere. 29:13) I felt His encouragement to keep on going. That I am on the right track. I sensed His smile. What an awesome and loving Father!

Thank you, Abba! I know I fall so short. And You know how I fall so short. You know how much I want to follow you. And you know how often I get distracted or choose to go my own way. Yet in the midst of all this, you whisper, “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” Thank you. Please give me the grace to keep looking for you. To look for you in all circumstances, in every minute of every day, that I may find you. Thank you!!! In Jesus’ Name.