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.

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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.

 

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Connecting Faith and Work: Oct. 31 luncheon

Connecting your faith and your work is not an easy thing to do. I think about my context in downtown L.A. which has a daytime population of upwards of 500,000 people who have the potential to positively impact our city. I like to mention each week at church that our goal is to “Love God and Bless the City.” I want help Christians consider that God has brought them to L.A. for a purpose to bless the city, not necessarily to bless themselves, and this luncheon will be an opportunity to consider this call and recommit to living it out.

Our main speaker will be Livingstone Mukasa, a successful businessman and the founder and leader of Living Business Training in Kampala, Uganda. In this role Livingstone has provided practical business training to more than 5000 poor micro-entrepreneurs in Africa, many of whom now have successful small businesses.

You’ll also get to meet leaders from the Union Rescue Mission, Los Angeles Mission, Central City Community Outreach, Industrial District Green (beautifying Skid Row), Purpose Built Communities and Apartment Life. You’ll be challenged to use your professional talents and resources to make an impact globally and locally.

So I hope you’ll come to our luncheon on Oct. 31. You’ll be glad you joined us. ($5 suggested donation for lunch)

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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.

 

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Great video about helping people who are homeless: Imagining what’s possible

Down the street from Union Church is a great organization called the Weingart Center. They made this beautiful video so that we can imagine what is possible by contributing our time and efforts towards ending homelessness. You’ll be glad you watched this video. Be one of the first to see it and share it.

As our church seeks ways to Love God and Bless the City, we look for great local organizations like Union Rescue Mission and the Los Angeles Mission to partner with. The Weingart Center is another we hope to work with more in the future.

Whom can you partner with in your city? God has placed you there to seek its blessing, prosperity and shalom–which means weaving back together all the broken places you see. Keep your eyes open for where God might be calling to to participate in the good He is already doing in your midst and help people imagine a new future like the video challenges us to do.

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A Great Birthday Gift: The Story of the Bridge

Today I turn 42 and I’m sitting in LAX on my birthday waiting for a flight to Pittsburgh. The Bridge in downtown Los Angeles is being recognized at our annual national convention for its innovative partnerships as it seeks to be a blessing to the city in numerous ways.

I appreciate all the birthday love on Facebook especially since I’ll spend it travelling, SO my birthday request is that you’d watch and share the video so others will know our story and perhaps support us with prayer, a personal visit or sharing resources to reach the city.

It is truly a blessing to know that God is working in our little church in the second largest metro area in the nation as we seek to Love God and Bless the City. What a birthday gift!

Thanks for supporting me and my family on this adventure.

Tim

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Skid Row Mapping

I asked Curtis White, who interned for us at our downtown church this past year, to make a short list of resources in the Skid Row area that we could support and get involved in. So he created a Google map highlighting Skid Row. The map is a work in progress but shows the many opportunities we have to help adults and children who find themselves homeless just outside our doors at the Bridge at Union Church in downtown Los Angeles.

Though we primarily partner with great organizations like like Union Rescue Mission (led by Andy Bales) and the Los Angeles Mission (led by Herb Smith), there are myriad of resources downtown including a friend of mine who is starting a not-for-profit beautifying the streets of Skid Row through tree planting and community advocacy.

Check out our map here.

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Grateful

A word of gratitude is coming but I’d like to share a short preamble first.

I’ve been MIA for the past six weeks at LApastor.com as I had some mysterious 404 error when I tried to bring up my blog. After several attempts to fix this (not really), in the midst of the busyness of Easter in April and house-hunting in May, I simply took it as a “sign” to take a short sabbatical from blogging. The 404 error disappeared last week so now I have no more excuses!

I racked my brain about what has gone on the past several weeks to determine what to write about. So much has been happening that I couldn’t decide. There have been many highs and lows recently that would be worthy blog fodder. So I’m keeping it simple.

Having been at the Bridge in downtown. L.A. for just over one year, I am simply grateful for the blessings we have received in this short time. Perhaps you can think of what you’re grateful for as I mention a few things. I’m just trying to apply Colossians 3:15 for the next few minutes.

I’m grateful for partners like Bel Air Presbyterian Church, the main church partner that is supporting the Bridge at Union Church.. Today I’m spending the day with their pastoral staff and have been blown away by their generosity in supporting us. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, my previous church, sent three key leaders to encourage me and pray about possibilities of partnership in the near future. Fred Harrell, City Church of San Francisco, visited L.A. and got me excited about ways we can resource one another. The list can go one of the many exciting opportunities to partner with fantastics organizations that are seeking to bless the city like Purpose Built Communities, Apartment Life, I Am Second, Los Angeles Mission, Union Rescue Mission and Trees on San Pedro.

I’m so grateful for the hundreds of visitors who have come through our church doors this past year. I do not take them for granted. Each one is a special person whom God has created that God has placed in the city to do something special. The fact that about 100 of them have stuck around this past year is an incredible blessing as we continue to build a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and multi-socioeconomic church that seeks to Love God and Bless the City.

Of course, I’m grateful for my family and friends. Kati has blessed our church with hundreds of hours of her ministry gifts. Avery looks forward to coming to church and seeing all of friends. Yes, we have had many ups and downs, but we can truly say we have seen God’s faithfulness and experienced his blessings through the challenging journey this past year.

I’ll stop there. What are you grateful for? Where have you seen God the past 12 months? Where do you long to see God more clearly in your life?

 

 

 

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Planning a visit to Caine’s Arcade

If you haven’t seen this viral video yet then you need to. The LA Times did a nice story on this young man who created his own arcade out of cardboard boxes and used auto parts. I found out that he’s 1.5 miles from my church, in the adjacent neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Caine is my neighbor.

This Saturday April 14, rain or shine, I will be travelling to Caine’s Arcade and see if I can met the now infamous young man who now has over $100,000 in a scholarship fund for his college education. Having a science background myself, I am secretly hoping he becomes an engineer and be a geek like me.

I look forward to meeting Caine tomorrow and enjoying his arcade and will post again afterward.

It’s raining in LA but a little sunshine is bursting forth from Boyle Heights at Caine’s Arcade!

 

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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.

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