I had the privilege of returning to my “home” church in Los Angeles, Bel Air Presbyterian Church, where my wife, Kati, and I helped minister to hundreds of college students and young adults during our time there. Pastor Mark Brewer and I did a team-teaching format at all three services talking about God’s heart for the city.
Every week it seems as if God brings someone else into our lives to join us in this adventure to bless the neighborhoods of downtown L.A. and see God’s blessing emanate throughout Los Angeles. Just this past week our family had the privilege to getting to know several women from the Anne Douglas Center at the Los Angeles Mission who are going to join our faith community as we continue to grow as a diverse community reflecting God’s family. God has also brought several leaders into our lives that want to join us in what God is already up to in the city: educators, community leaders, counselors, interior designers, lawyers and entrepreneurs who want to use their time and resources to bless the great city of L.A. Perhaps God is calling you to join us in this work. We’d love to build a friendship with you and talk about how we can do this together.
The Greater Los Angeles area makes L.A. one of the great global cities of the world following only Tokyo and New York City in significance. It’s the media capitol of the world that likely has more impact creating culture than any other city. So in one sense it’s already a great city because of its global influence. But can L.A. become the greatest city for Christ?
I get to share at Bel Air at all three services on August 14 about my family’s call as missionaries to downtown L.A.. They’ll hear me share about the 7-11 Principle and why our call is personal, strategic and biblical. They’ll also be invited to work with us to bless the city as God commands us to do in Jeremiah 29.
I am excited to join with other Christians who seek to to live in L.A., not to make a great name for themselves, but to make a great name for the God they worship and serve.
I had the privilege over the past several years to spend some time with a professional tennis player, David Martin, who sees his time on the Tour as an opportunity to minister anyone he comes across. I’ve often told Dave, “You are the only pastor most of these people will ever meet.” Dave has taken that responsibility to heart and seeks to be a loving presence who is ready to share about Jesus on and off the court. Recently a church in London highlighted Dave and produced this video.
Our church in downtown LA realizes that we can’t simply expect people to show up at our church. We are prayerfully having conversations about what it might look like for us to engage the neighborhood in a way that reflects how Jesus would.
How do you see your own vocation as an opportunity to reveal God’s love in your everyday lives and encounters with people?
I see myself as a missionary to downtown Los Angeles in my role as pastor of Union Church in Little Tokyo. With a missionary mindset I am seeking to hear the stories of the church community and surrounding neighborhood. Myself not being of Japanese descent (I am a third/fourth generation Chinese-American), I am just beginning to learn of the stories of the people who have built and sustained Union Church for nearly a century. I am working to listen to the stories of the people and the ways the church has impacted the neighborhood in big and small ways as an extension of their call to serve Christ.
On a recent waking tour of Little Tokyo I was reminded of the numerous contributions the Japanese Americans made not only to downtown L.A. but to the greater Los Angeles area and throughout California. Their contributions have had national and international impact as well as the following story of the 442nd Battalion demonstrates.
My friend Steve Yamaguchi summarizes the story well:
“This is the Story of the Rescue of the “Lost Battalion” — a group of 260 National Guardsmen from Texas, how they were trapped, surrounded by ferocious German troops in the Vosges Mountains in France, and how they were saved in October of 1944.
Every effort to rescue them had failed, so the tenacious and accomplished 442nd infantry (all Japanese American volunteer soldiers) was ordered to liberate the Lost Battalion. In spite of seemingly impossible odds, the 442nd broke through the lethal German firestorm and liberated the Lost Battalion. 211 of the 260 Texas guardsmen were saved. Of the 442nd infantry, 216 gave their lives and 856 more were wounded while liberating their Texan fellow soldiers.”
These brave and highly decorated Japanese Americans volunteered to serve even though many of their own American-born families were being held in internment camps. Though treated in many ways as non-Americans and enemies of the U.S., they were determined to prove their loyalty to the country they were born in (yes, all of the 442nd were American born) even as their government took away their rights, their property and their dignity during this disappointing chapter in American history.
As Americans celebrate Independence Day, I want to encourage people to remember the story of the 442nd Battalion. It forces us to reject the opposite poles of romanticizing the U.S. as the world’s savior or demonizing the U.S. as the world’s oppressor. Though many of you may have already heard this story, I find that most Americans are largely unaware of the incredible sacrifices these Americans made in serving our country in World War II and the immense confrontation they faced of serving their country even though they themselves were treated as enemies before, during and even after the war. I’ll spare you from theologizing too much but I think there’s a story about Jesus somewhere in here. The amazing thing is that this story actually connects to the neighborhood I work in now. What redemptive stories are in the communities where you work, live, shop and play? As I watch fireworks this weekend, these Americans are some of the faces I want to remember as I thank God for the freedom we experience in this nation.
I was sharing last Sunday from John 20 where the disciple Thomas gets his famous nickname “Doubting Thomas.” How would you like it if you were remembered in infamy for your worst moment? Drunken Doug. Arrogant Andy. Cheater Chuck. Strike-out Sam. Walk-of-Shame Sandy. You get the picture. Some of you still mourn that you can’t shake a certain reputation no matter how hard you’ve tried to undo it.
I’m glad that I’m not remembered for my worst and weakest moment. I would be known as Suicidal Tim. It was period in my teens when I felt like I couldn’t match up to the crushing expectations I had for myself. For two years I actually spent each morning sad that I had woken up because I wish I had died in my sleep. I was that depressed. I should have reached out for help but I was able to hide my depression well enough that I had none of the normal signs. It was a horrible two years of my life trapped in this depression that I had no idea how to talk about or find a way out. Thank God that He literally intervened and brought me out of this self-absorbed obsession with trying to make myself feel valued by adding external things to my life. I realized that only God can satisfy my deepest need for purpose in this life and my hope for a better world. I’m so glad that I’m not remembered as Suicidal Tim. What would your nickname be if you were remembered for your worst moment?
But poor Thomas. He will be known forever as Doubting Thomas. This is totally unfair since Thomas boldly travelled to India to share the gospel and was martyred for his commitment to proclaiming Jesus as Lord of all. In fact many seem to overlook that Thomas’ doubt was quickly erased once he saw Jesus in that room where he immediately proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Thomas was one of the first people to rightly identify Jesus as “God” and not merely a prophet or teacher or even a messiah of some kind. Thomas has wrongly been remembered as Doubting Thomas so I hope I can do my part to undo his reputation. We all get a new start once we encounter Jesus, don’t you think?
What nickname would you have if you were remembered for your worst moment? In Christ we are offered a new identity as God’s adopted children, friends of God, ambassadors for Christ and many other wonderful realities that I feel like I’m only beginning to live into. Spend time with Jesus this week and get to know the real you instead of allowing others to define you by your worst moments–or even your best moments, too! We should never allow ourselves to find our identity in the things we do but in who we are in Christ. Never allow the worst moments or best moments define you and be free from finding your value in external things which change and fade. Find your nickname in Christ because He thinks the world of you and died so that you could reclaim your eternal significance that He created you for.
But I also admire Thomas for the very questions he seemed to be asking. I’m glad that Thomas is a thinking person. I’m glad that Thomas demanded some evidence before he would be willing to believe. I think people should have a healthy skepticism when coming to matters of faith. In fact, even those who doubt Jesus’ claims as God in the flesh actually are espousing a kind of faith. We all have faith in some way and what differs is what we put our faith in.
Fridays have been my sermon preparation day since I started my new call as a missionary to downtown L.A. So far, so good, as no one has booed me out of the pulpit yet (not that I literally use a pulpit since I usually sit on a stool). People at least humor me by laughing at the jokes I make and most return the following week. So writing sermons on Fridays–and usually more time on Saturdays–seems to be working so far.
But I remembered today that when I first started LApastor.com I added a category called “Personal” so that I would post photos of our family for those who wanted could keep up with us, especially our 23-month-old Avery. So before I dig into my sermon for this weekend here are some recent photos of our little one who has become fascinated with shoes, sunglasses and hats. This could be a problem…enjoy!
In my last post I said Jeremiah 29:11 promises that God has plans to prosper you but that must be understood as intricately linked by the preceding command in verse 7 to “seek the prosperity of the city” that they were exiled in. So before we start memorizing Jeremiah 29:11 as a mantra for personal comfort in a chaotic world we should recognize that the promise comes with an assumption of our outward-focused positive engagement with the cities, neighborhoods and communities that God has placed us in. This is the essence of the 7-11 Principle: “You don’t get 11 without first doing 7.” God is assuming you are committed to bless whatever Babylon He has placed you in (that could be in the suburbs, downtown city-centers or rural countryside) and that you understand your prosperity is directly linked to your commitment to seeing the prosperity of your city as a Christ-follower.
The 7-11 Principle highlights the challenge for Western Christians who have been placated by the myriad of churches that have sincerely worked hard to meet spiritual needs and keep people interested in spiritual things. Even the best of our churches feel this tension each week as we recognize if the music is off or the preaching isn’t passionate enough or the parking is too difficult or the children’s ministry isn’t captivating enough or the hospitality team was too “in your face”…that we might lose a significant amount of parishioners to another church nearby that does one or all of these things better. It’s not a secret that the for the vast majority of churches, 80-90% of “growth” is via church transfer and not from reaching those who are unchurched.
As I think about how to help people (including myself) engage with the 7-11 Principle on a daily basis, I think we must confront the reality that many of us Christians are better at plundering our cities (to borrow a Tim Keller term) as consumers rather than prospering them as kingdom-minded Christians.
God commands us to “Seek the welfare of the city” but we love to plunder instead of share. What do I mean? Jeremiah 29:5-6 says:
5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
Too many Christians read verses 5 and 6 and stop there. Jeremiah is describing the good life: building homes, starting families, eating good food, having parties…isn’t this why we choose to live in certain places over others? If we have the choice, we live in the city we do in order to get all we can from it. You might have chosen your city because of its weather, proximity to work, closeness to friends and family or the lifestyle. We choose the places we live for the good life. But Jeremiah forces us to ask: How many of us are here to make our city a better place to live for everybody else so that people will see God’s goodness? We too quickly stop reading at verses 5 & 6 which talk about our own prosperity when verse 7 tells us that the means of this is first seeking the prosperity of others. Did you notice that the Bible commands us to “Seek the prosperity of the city” instead of seeking the prosperity of ourselves, our families or our pocketbooks? God is a sharer not a plunderer. To paraphrase John Piper: “God’s love is a conduit, not a cul-de-sac. Perfect love always shares. Perfect love always overflows.”
Do you love your city like God calls you to or is your natural inclination to plunder it? God promises that if you’ll seek the prosperity of the city, you’ll prosper as well.
I have a friend who passed away last year. He owned a manufacturing company but had spent the last several years focusing on improving the lives of the poor around the world through business mentoring and supporting indigenous Christian leaders. He sought prosperity of others before himself. But what most people don’t know was that he had the same commitment to help others in the very community his business was located in Southern California. He was committed to seek the prosperity of the city that he lived and worked in.
He made sure his company was profitable and running efficiently so that his workers could have jobs. He helped employees rise within the company so they could gain confidence and build a better life for their families. At his funeral I saw dozens of his workers who all could share stories of how they personally experienced him as their boss seeking their best just like he did for people in Africa and Asia. He truly lived out the 7-11 Principle. He lived as a sharer, not a plunderer. He sought the prosperity of his city.
God does not command us to seek the prosperity of ourselves or even our own families…but of the city, the community, our neighbors. Why? Because in seeking the prosperity of our city we reflect the heart of God. God is sharer of His goodness. And guess what? Jeremiah says that the prosperity of the city is directly linked to your own prosperity.
Pastor Tim Keller comments on our call to live out Jeremiah 29: “The most powerful way to show people the truth of Christianity is to serve the common good. The monks in the Middle Ages moved out through pagan Europe, inventing and establishing academies, universities, and hospitals. They transformed local economies and cared for the weak through these new institutions. They didn’t set out to ‘get control’ of a pagan culture. They let the gospel change how they did their work and that meant they worked for others rather than for themselves. Christians today should be aiming for the same thing.”
Unfortunately, many Christian leaders (again including myself) have been distracted from helping people seek the prosperity of their city because we have kept congregants busy with church programs and events meant to keep them interested and engaged–often on our expensive church campuses. We have spent far too many resources in a viscous cycle of trying to be cool and relevant and do whatever it takes to keep people interested in a media-saturated world that has produced droves of neighbors with small attention spans and even smaller tolerance levels of anything uninteresting. In the midst of this very real challenge, I want to take small steps today to seek the prosperity of the city God has placed me in and find myself in the middle of God’s plan of prospering my family with a life infused with God’s goodness. I want to live out the 7-11 Principle today by allowing Christ to subdue the plunderer in me and release the sharer that God has meant for me to be. It’s the only day God has given me so I’ll spend my time prayerfully asking God to show me where to take my next step today.
In my next post I’ll take a deeper look into what prosperity means in the biblical text and applying it to our everyday lives.
In my last post I talked about how the exiles in Babylon were likely hearing two divergent invitations as to how to live in the city they were held captive in. Should they succumb to the pagan culture and become like the Babylonians to survive or separate themselves from Babylonian ways and trust Yahweh to deliver them like some prophets were saying (false ones according to Jeremiah)? The prophet Jeremiah offers a third way in chapter 29: Be faithful to Yahweh by seeking the welfare and prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7).
Jeremiah instructs the exiles in verses 5 & 6 to build houses, settle down, invest in the economy and grow families. He then tells them in verse 7 to pray for Babylon and that their prosperity is directly tied to Babylon’s prosperity. If Babylon prospers, they will prosper as well.
This is all very important to understand before we decide to memorize and apply verse 11 to our own lives in the specific contexts in which we live:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)
Verse 11 must be read within the context of verse 7. The prosperity promised to God’s people in verse 11 is all part of God’s plan to use a 70 year captivity in order to bring prosperity, hope and a future about. Yahweh has already said that any prosperity that will come to them will be directly tied to them seeking the prosperity of the city (not of themselves).
So this is where the 7-11 Principle comes in: “You don’t get 11 without first doing 7.”
You don’t get God’s plan to prosper you outside of you being committed to seeking the prosperity of the city, your neighborhood and community. God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t a verse intended for personal improvement or self-actualization. God’s promise is to a faith community committed to seeking the prosperity of their city as their primary mission.
The problem is that most of us Americans are better at plundering our cities (to borrow a Tim Keller term) as consumers rather than prospering them as kingdom-minded Christians. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
In my last post I began explaining the 7-11 Principle. I shared how Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…”) is one of the most popular memory verses amongst Christians (with various products available for purchase as proof) but largely is not understood within its context of the Babylonian captivity. Take a look at what Jeremiah shares in the previous verses to the exiles in Babylon:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:4-7, NIV)
The Babylonian’s invasion of Jerusalem not only resulted in the plundering of precious resources like gold and silver, they also plundered the people. Jerusalem’s exiles were the best and brightest of the city. One can imagine that the Jewish exiles in Babylon were being pulled in two directions. The Babylonians were likely saying, “Give up on Yahweh and follow our gods. Become one of us!” But Jeremiah 29:8-10 reveals another voice the exiles were hearing:
Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.”
Jeremiah 28 records how the prophet Hananiah claimed that the LORD was going to free the exiles from under the yoke of Babylon, exactly opposite to what Jeremiah was saying the LORD was saying. If the Babylonians were saying, “Become one of us and embrace Babylon” then the false Jewish prophets were saying, “Stay true to Yahweh by resisting Babylon!” Who were the exiles to believe?
Jeremiah comes into the middle of this and offers a third way: “Stay true to Yahweh by blessing Babylon.” What? This doesn’t make sense at all! Bless our enemies? Being faithful to Yahweh is being faithful to prosper the city that we are held captive in?
This whole section of Jeremiah 29 deserves a more thorough reading within its context than I can provide here but even a surface reading reveals that verse 11 needs to be understood within the context of verses 4-10 (I know that sounds obvious but it’s amazing how often we fail to know the context of Scriptures we recite!)
This is the basis for the 7-11 Principle: You don’t get 11 until you do 7.
I’ll explain this more in Part 3 next week.