Life for Leaders: Daily devotional resource

last supper stained glass

I’m a new guest contributor to this fantastic resource called Life for Leaders. You can sign up for this daily devotional and be encouraged by a team of incredible leaders including Dr. Mark Roberts and Uli Chi.

As we head into this lenten season I hope you will find my first attempt to write for a broader audience meaningful and helpful for your daily leadership challenges. Tim

http://depree.org/god-can-use-our-brokenness/

Search Me and Stretch Me

search me stretch me band

Psalm 139 begins with David’s recognition of God working intimately in his life and ends with him praying similarly for God’s initiative in his deepest being: “Search me, God, and know my heart…and lead me in the way everlasting.”

I had the privilege of being the guest preacher at a partner church in LA and over 700 people responded to dare to pray this week “Search Me and Stretch Me” as they toured the Sacred Streets exhibit.

How is God stretching you into a new area of ministry, perhaps inside the walls of a church or outside in your everyday life? As He searches you have you considered the “ways of pain” that you are stuck in that are keeping you from seeing your inherent value that God has created you with? Are you stuck in a cycle of toxic thinking, unhealthy relationships and limiting yourself from believing God wants to use you to be a blessing in the city?

Search me and stretch me is a prayer for all of us and I’d like to hear what God is revealing to you as you pray this. I trust you’ll rediscover a God who not only had to come to save you from your sin and brokenness, but One who wanted to come because of deep love for you and His joy in inviting you to partake in His kingdom expansion here on earth as you bless others in His name.

Search me and stretch me…into new ministry…into moving on from habits that hinder me…into courageous trust in God who surprises us with plans and dreams that we would have never come up with on our own.

How is God stretching you? I want to know!

Beauty in Skid Row

My church in downtown Los Angeles is in the beautiful and diverse community of Little Tokyo, but also happens to be just two blocks from the homeless capital of the U.S., Skid Row.

Many groups come to bring Jesus to this needy community where hundreds sleep on the streets every night and thousands more have found temporary and permanent housing with great organizations like Union Rescue Mission, where I serve on the Board of Directors with Andy Bales. But like my friend, O.G., who leads a Skid Row Clean-Up Brigade, always reminds me, “God is already with us in Skid Row!”

A young artist has set up a temporary art exhibit called Sacred Streets and I hope you will come and visit. The artist has not only made beautiful art but captured the beauty that exists amidst the dehumanizing conditions that Skid Row is known for. God is truly among the least of these whom Jesus knows by name.

Come and see the people that Jesus already knows very well in a new light on their own turf. I believe you will leave with great hope that God has not forgotten the tens-of-thousands who find themselves without a home in L.A. County every night. You’ll see the beauty that God sees in the darkness and perhaps you will choose to be part of the solution. It begins by seeing with God’s eyes and this project is a chance to see in a new way.

You can even come and worship with us in downtown L.A. and then walk down to the exhibit this Sunday afternoon. I hope you’ll join us!

Knowing God’s Will

Our church in downtown Los Angeles has been reflecting on Romans 12 to discern some spiritual habits that might help position ourselves to be shaped into the likeness of Christ, which is the destiny of every believer (Romans 8:29). Habits like prayer, generosity, celebration, silence, slowing down and, of course, Scripture reading.

But the purpose of Scripture is not to simply memorize more. God wants us to soak in Scripture not for information, but for transformation. An amazing promise that Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2 is that as one in being transformed by renewing of the mind–certainly including Scripture as part of this renewal training–is that God’s will would become more clear to the believer.

A writer tells a story of when she was seventeen and went on a mission trip to the Amazon River sensing God’s call to be a missionary. She spent days working with kids and doing the work of the Lord amongst the poor. One night, toward the end of trip she stood alone on the edge of the boat and marveled at the beautiful water before her and asked,“God, just tell me. Please, just tell if I’m supposed to be a missionary.” What she received was not an audible voice but what she believes to this day to be a confirmation of the Spirit speaking to her:

“Look at this river. Look at its depth. See how wide it spreads. My love is like this, as wide as you can see but moving. Always moving. This is what you need to know: Stay in the river. Let it carry you. Let it cover every part of you, head to toe. Dip under it. Swim in it. Float on it. But always choose this river. Stay in my Love.There will be different boats. You’ll get on and it will move you along. You’ll stop at a village and you’ll get out. Love the people in that village. Give them what you have to offer. And when I tell you to, get back on the boat.There will be different villages and there will be different boats. You don’t have to worry about those things. What matters in the river…Stay on the river.”

We get caught up in which boat and which village, but God wants us in the river of His will. We want to know whom to marry, which house to buy, where to go to school, what job to accept? God’s will has more to do than the questions most of us like to ask. In fact, God’s will becomes more clear when we begin asking the right questions.

When my wife Kati and I worked with college students at our previous churches, there were always some predictable things students wanted God to reveal to them. Questions about who to date, when they’d get married, what career path to take and which graduate school to go to (UCLA of course!). I liked to challenge them to consider that they’re asking the wrong questions. What if your conversations with God sounded more like this: How can I be filled with more contentment? What kind of habits will help me be more generous with my time and money? What areas in my life do You, Lord, want me to deal with so that I can serve You better? These are the kind of prayers that align more readily with the good, acceptable and perfect will of God that Paul promises will be revealed when we spend time in God’s Word. It’s not so much like getting the answer to which door has the prize behind it leading to money, success and happiness, but how we can go deeper with God and be changed into the people God wants us to be.

God’s will has more to do with staying in the river than the specific village you are in. Imagine being with God for a million years and then realize how every village or city in which God has called you is a certain call but for a season. For that season work with everything to serve the Lord and bless the city. But His will is that you stay in the river of His love. Spend time with Him. Make unhurried time for others. Practice generosity. Position yourself to be shaped into His likeness. Sit with God’s Word, even when it doesn’t seem to be improving your life! Ask God the kind of questions that focus more on Him transforming you then Him informing you. You want to know God’s will? Read John 14:1. “Trust in God. Trust also in Me.” (NIV). His will is always that you will trust Him more, as you offer your body as a living sacrifice.

Psalm 1 is worth meditating on as we seek to spend time soaked in Scripture to be transformed and not just informed. My paraphrase: “Blessed are those who delight in the Law of the Lord for they are like trees planted by the streams of water who are fruitful and don’t wear out.” And Jesus’ words in John 15 emphasizes this as well: “I am the Vine and you are the branches…Remain in Me…You can’t do anything without Me.”

If you don’t want to wear out then stay connected to Jesus. Start asking better questions that position yourself to take in all that God has for you. Spend time in God’s Word to be transformed and step into your destiny as ones who are continually being shaped into Christ’s likeness, giving a hurting world a glimpse of the goodness of God until He returns again.

Let’s stay in the river.

What Solar Panels Have to do With Following Jesus

I tend to lean on the frugal side growing up in a modest Asian-American family. Perhaps I inherited it from my grandpa Lim who used to twist off the stems of pears before the grocery clerk weighed it because, “Every little bit counts.” That’s a true story. It should come to no surprise, then, that amidst this cold weather in downtown and throughout Los Angeles (34 degrees in January!) that I tend not to turn on the heater in our house because it just ends up escaping through our poorly insulated walls, doors and windows and costs us a fortune. I’d don’t like being cold but like even less wasting money. In an ideal world I’d have solar panels installed but they’re still quite a bit out of our price range as it stands. Plus, I want to save up for this new kind of solar panel that will revolutionize the industry.

Rotating solar panels adjust the angle of the panels on your roof depending on the position of the sun during the day. It makes sense to position the panels to maximize the intake of sunlight that is already there. I can’t wait for these to come to the residential market. My wife can’t wait, too, and until then we’ll keep layering to stay warm!

The spiritual life has some connections here. Reading through Romans 12 with our church in downtown L.A. has brought us into a season of heeding the Apostle Paul’s challenge to be “transformed”. It’s a passive verb which means that God is the instigator and we are the recipient of this transformation. So what’s our role in the transformation process? It’s like the solar panels. God’s love, light and grace are constantly present but often we aren’t positioned to intake all that He offers. If we want to grow more like Jesus we need to rearrange our lives around habits that will help us to live and act as Jesus did. In this sense the spiritual disciplines or habits aren’t an end in themselves but rather help us position ourselves to intake the Christ-shaping love and light that is constantly available to us. Being shaped like Christ is actually our destiny (Romans 8:29) and God is the One ultimately in charge of shaping us (Philippians 1:6) but we are called to position ourselves as to maximize the process. The spiritual disciplines and habits like prayer, reading the bible, practicing generosity, silence, solitude, serving, celebrating, etc.

We hinder the process of transformation by making the disciplines an end in themselves. You would never think that the purpose of putting up solar panels is to put up solar panels, right? Likewise when we add prayer, bible reading or fasting to our spiritual training regimen, the goal is not to simply add more stuff for us to do but to be shaped into Christ-likeness.

What could you do to position yourself to make yourself more available for God’s constant love, light and grace? What is your heart and mind currently positioned toward that might be hindering your transformation into Christ-likeness? In other words, what are you seeking to fill you your life (a job, spouse, reputation, achievement, justice for a past wrong)?

As we approach Lent, let’s consider how God might want to position ourselves to intake all that He wants to gift us with so we can step into our destiny as Christ-shaped people, full of joy, who impact the cities in which we live. If you’d like to listen to our sermon series at the Bridge  you can click here.

 

Updated with new details: Miracle Moments Amidst the Trial

[UPDATED WITH NEW DETAILS!]

Last June, Martin came to the Bridge at Union Church to help at our worship service, just as he’s been doing the past several months with us in downtown L.A. I met Martin after he entered a Christian rehab and ministry training program last year called Teen Challenge. He was miraculously discovered by his estranged sister while homeless and begging for change on the streets. But that story is for another post!

Martin came to the Bridge that Sunday in June and happened to mention to one of volunteers, Nick, that he had to go back to Fresno to face a judge because he unknowingly still had two outstanding arrest warrants that he was never notified of. Martin already had two strikes and these two arrest warrants were part of his former life of drugs and gangs. Even though he had gotten his life straightened out through Teen Challenge these warrants meant that Martin–now clean and a life of crime behind him–was facing a possible 10-25 years in prison.

Nick mentioned that we had a young lawyer, Josh, at our church and perhaps he could help Martin out with some advice. Martin shared with Josh his predicament and Josh explained that he was a corporate lawyer with no criminal defense background, but he did have a friend who was a criminal defense lawyer and would be willing to write a joint letter that Martin could bring and show the judge. Josh didn’t think his letter would do much but he promised to pray for Martin.

As Martin travelled up to Fresno to face the judge, Josh and his wife Lindsey spent the week in prayer that the judge would be gracious to Martin, this man who had sincerely changed the trajectory of his life and now wanted to give his life in service to the community to help others leave a life of homelessness, drug abuse and crime. Martin faced the judge and the judge asked Martin what his life was like now. Martin explained he was in Teen Challenge and that whether in prison or free, that he would serve the Lord. Martin knew that he could easily spend at least 10 years in prison for these outstanding warrants. Martin handed the judge the letter from the young attorney Josh and his friend the criminal defense lawyer. The judge asked, “How do you know these lawyers?” Martin explained that he went to this church in downtown LA called the Bridge and that one of the members was a lawyer who had a friend who was a criminal defense lawyer. The judge then said, “I know this lawyer. I went to law school with him!” Then the judge also shared another amazing fact: his own brother went through Teen Challenge as well, so he knew that integrity of the program!

Miraculously, the judge deemed that Martin would not serve any prison time and was released into the ongoing care of Teen Challenge! Instead of Martin spending 10 to 25 years in prison, he is free to serve the Lord and tell others of the miracle of God’s redeeming work in Christ.

A friend who is in Teen Challenge with Martin shared this word of encouragement with me recently: “Pastor Tim, if you and your wife didn’t obey God and leave Newport Beach to come to downtown LA, then Martin would probably be sitting in a prison right now!” I couldn’t help but think about Ephesians 2:10 which talks about how God prepares good works in advance for us to do. Think of all the details that had to come together for this miracle to happen. First, the miracle that Kati and I would leave our wonderful ministry in Newport Beach to serve in LA. Second, that Josh and his wife would make the Bridge their home church. Thirdly, that I would build a relationship with Teen Challenge a year ago such that they would send two volunteers every week to the Bridge. Fourthly, that Martin would be sent to serve at the Bridge out of the dozens of other men who could have been assigned to us. Fifthly, that Josh was there that Sunday before Martin faced the judge. Sixthly, that Josh knew this criminal defense lawyer who cowrote the letter for Martin. Seventhly, that the judge had gone to law school with the criminal defense lawyer. Eighthly, that the judge’s own brother had been in Teen Challenge!

Josh would be the first to tell you that his letter didn’t do a thing. Martin would be the first to tell you that it wasn’t any words that he shared with the judge that brought this gracious decision. I would be the first to tell you that I had no idea coming to the Bridge would bring this kind of modern-day-miracle. God did this and His goodness is revealed through all of these little details.

God’s graciousness was revealed in this moment and Martin continues to study ministry at Teen Challenge and serve us at the Bridge. Josh continues to work his corporate lawyer job but has also now connected Teen Challenge to Christian Legal Aid, to assist others like Martin with legal issues related to their troubled pasts.

In the midst of desperate but hopeful prayer, God removed a judgement that society could have legally leveled against another third-striker like Martin. God had been at work far before I ever even considered coming to LA. I was an unknowing vessel in God’s intricate plan. God can do the same through you. 

I’m so grateful that at the Bridge we are building a community of diverse people who offer unique gifts and talents as we share our unique brokenness and needs. The Spirit is working amongst an imperfect people who are making themselves available to be used by God.

Scripture says that God has been planning good works for you to discover and walk into as you make yourself available (Ephesians 2:10). I don’t understand why God’s goodness is revealed clearly in some trials and not in others, but let’s walk in the confidence that our God is good and is ready to help those who call out to Him, whatever their circumstances.

Are you willing to be available for God to use your time, talent and treasure to accomplish God’s work? Be available today for God just might use you in a small way to carry out a miracle for someone else who is facing devastating circumstances or everyday trials.

 

Can Charity Be Toxic?

I finished reading a book by long-time community developer, Bob Lupton, callled “Toxic Charity.” I think every Christian organization should read this and I have a few people at my church reading it and engaging in discussion about its implications of how we do ministry at Union Church.

Among the many great things he said from his decades of first-hand experience, he talked about the “betterment” that most well-intentioned Christians engage in when they really should focus on “development”.

Betterment does for others. Development maintains the long view and looks to enable others to do for themselves. Betterment improves conditions. Development strengthens capacity. Betterment gives a man a fish. Development teaches a man how to fish” (167).

Lupton argues for a lot more thoughtful considerations in his book but this idea of betterment versus development ended up in the back of my mind as I had dinner tonight with some very special people.

I spent a couple hours with a few new friends that I met through the Skid Row Housing Trust. It was a great night to have some good food and build community with the diverse population that lives, loves and works in downtown L.A. My friend, Katherine, was there as one of the hostesses of the night and I had the pleasure to sit with Hal and Amy who are both professionals with ties in L.A. But the real pleasure was the chance to sit and chat with Lavonna and Tracy, who are both formerly homeless but now residents in one of the Trust’s many developments. Hearing Tracy share her story of how she ended up on Skid Row and her struggles to get out of chronic homelessness was both heartbreaking and inspiring.

One surprising but significant conversation we had was more than sheer coincidence. We discovered we had a mutual acquaintance who ended up on Skid Row after getting out of jail and that we both unknowingly were trying to help around the same time last year. She told me that’s he’s back in jail which explains why I hadn’t heard from him in months. We both talked about if we could help him better the next time by doing some things differently.

We wondered out loud when helping becomes enabling and when saying “no” can actually be a compassionate answer, especially when someone is asking for help for something he can do for himself if he put more effort into it. We didn’t come to any dogmatic conclusions about how to help our friend better, though Tracy definitely encouraged me and my church to keep helping. Unbeknownst to me, our mutual friend was really appreciative of our church even though we ended up saying “no” quite a bit in the last weeks before he left our church. She did remind me that there’s a lot of enabling that goes on when well-intentioned people are trying to help without putting more thought into what their actions might be doing to undermine peoples’ self-sufficiency and responsibility.

She’s a living example of the need for all people, and Christians in particular, to keep Lupton’s principles in mind regarding betterment versus development while also valuing being a listener: “LISTENING COMMUNICATES WORTH” (147).

Talking with Tracy tonight and rethinking Lupton’s wisdom reminded me that relationship building is so essential. Your help becomes toxic in particular when no relationship is built and when actual listening isn’t happening. Lupton emphasizes this in the book as well. I was relearning how to listen by spending time with some new friends from Skid Row and our coincidental mutual acquaintance also forced me to revisit how our church can truly help those we come in contact with.

I highly recommend not only reading Lupton’s book but to also place yourself in new situations where you can build relationships with people with from diverse backgrounds. Listening is important and so is reevaluating if some of the help we try to do is more toxic betterment instead of dignifying development. Let me know what you think of Lupton’s book and how you are pursuing relationship building through listening to those you seek to come alongside to help.

Something to Smile About

Avery drew her first picture of her “Papa” all by herself with just a little encouragement from yours truly (that’s a belly button on my body in case you were wondering if she was drawing a mole of some kind). She’s pretty proud of herself as you can see and her Papa is impressed even though my arms are coming out of my chin!

I thought I’d bring a little Lenten joy amidst the ashes of our lives, reminding myself at least, that God’s beautiful and creative Spirit resides in two-year-olds trying to draw for the first time. I know I need a little help seeing God’s presence living in a big city with a lot of brokenness that surrounds me.

I’m not sure how this becomes a post about Palm Sunday or Holy Week or Lent (perhaps posting a cute picture is the main reason for this post) but it is about celebrating the good things of God this Lenten season right in the middle of our difficult situations.

I encouraged our people at Union Church in downtown L.A. during Lent to remember that amidst the ashes of our lives that we look forward to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a real historical event that matters because it means that even though we are surrounded by ashes–relationships dissipating,  living in broken cities, struggling with finances, faith dismantling–we have hope because Jesus has the last word over death, destruction and dismay.

I’m simply enjoying a little beauty that God has brought my way today and celebrating the fact that our King Jesus gave everything so we could embrace His beauty and goodness.

I hope you have a wonderful Holy Week and Easter!

 

A man pushed to the limits

It appears that viral stories don’t only belong to the sports world (remember Jeremy Lin?) or world criminals (Kony 2012 can be seen Sunday night March 18).

Now the business world has its own Twitter frenzy over the very public resignation of a key executive at Goldman Sachs, a man named Greg Smith. It’s already been parodied by The Daily Mash, likening the resignation of this multi-millionaire in the 1% Club to Darth Vader resigning from the Empire. But let’s listen for a moment and assume that Mr. Smith has something to speak into any organization, whether a business, a church, a not-for-profit or even a family. How do you know when the culture of the organization has gone awry? What would it take for you to confront your bosses, take a stand and even quit your position for moral reasons? What are the toxic areas in your workplace or organization? Are there any unhealthy patterns in your family or circle of friends that if they were public, you and others would be greatly embarrassed?

To make it more personal, ask yourself: What would it take to push me to take such a public stand against a wrong that I perceive? What are the consequences of me taking this stand? What are the consequences of me being silent? Do I have a right to speak even knowing that my own life is full of contradictions and imperfections?

Jesus calls His followers in Matthew 5:14 the “light of the world”. Where is God calling you to shine a light in your workplace, organization, church and family? That’s why knowing and living the 7-11 Principle is so important because without this clear call to live a life to bless the city, it’s easy to lose focus and think your job, art or circle of friends are all of your own doing and meant to bless your own life when we have a responsibility to help cities, organizations and relationships flourish the way God intended.

I hope you’ll take time to read Greg Smith’s letter and even the Darth Vader spoof and ask yourself some of these questions. Take a stab at writing your own secret letter that only you will see about some wrongs you know need to be righted and pray that you’ll have the courage to do something about it.

Why would you sue somebody for helping the homeless?

That’s exactly what LA CAN is doing, an organization that opposes the work of Union Rescue Mision. URM’s CEO, Andy Bales, blogs about it here. Even though URM is one of the most efficient organizations when it comes to stretching each dollar to maximize the number of homeless men, women and children it serves, there are still service costs that are underwritten largely by generous private donors like you (not government money). But URM launched a bold and controversial Gateway program last April that has shown some great results in less than one year. I’m not saying every non-profit should follow URM’s lead in charging its guest to help underwrite services (some of which goes into the individuals own savings account, by the way) but I applaud ingenuity and experimentation that seeks to give dignity to those whom they serve. What URM is doing is adding to the conversation about how to end homelessness,  empower people to change their lives and launch people into independent lives free of addictions and destructive patterns. What they are doing is helping the neighborhood by working to get people who are homeless off the streets and into permanent housing. They do this tirelessly week in and week out.

But LA CAN doesn’t think what URM is doing is good and they certainly have a right to their own opinion and to advocate for what they think is in the best interests of the homeless population. I hope somehow all the different constituencies can sit with community leaders, activists, residents, artists and business owners and discuss how to create safe, healthy and generative communities that benefit everybody. Personally, I think organizations like URM are doing good and should be applauded for their experimentation and commitment to serve thousands of people who are homeless everyday. I personally have witnessed the dignity they try to instill in those they serve. I’m assuming LA CAN is doing good as well but hope they will see things differently and decide to focus their energies on eradicating homeless in Los Angeles instead of throwing stones at others who have the same goal.

As someone who’s church is adjacent to Skid Row and has homeless friends join us each week at the Bridge at Union Church, I know the importance of having safe, clean and healthy environments for people to find restoration and hope. Not every organization agrees as to how to do this but suing URM–an organization our church is partnering with–isn’t going to help anybody.  And it doesn’t promote helpful conversation between groups who are each trying to serve the homeless in their own ways.