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Jason's Story: Lent Testimony Series

2018 Lent Testimony Series

Introduction

Today is Palm Sunday. It is when we followers of Jesus remember His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem where throngs of the Jewish people lavished Jesus with praises, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” The scene must have looked like “The Return of The King.” Many were sure in their hopes of this messianic figure saving them from the Roman empire and to restore their former glory as God’s chosen people.

But Jesus, unbeknownst to them all, was entering not to the kind of victorious establishment of an earthly kingdom. He was going to the cross, he was heading to his death. His Kingdom was not to be of this world. In fact His Kingdom would not come to pass unless He were to go through betrayal, suffering and death. This Kingdom would cost Him nothing less than His everything.

As Lent season draws to a close, and we contemplate the coming Holy Week climaxing in the passion of Christ, I cannot help but imagining this God/man, man/God living in the extremity of tensions, joy set before Him and sorrow of abandonment by His Father & friends, one mortal life ending and eternal life for all humankind beginning, powers of empire and religious systems of sin and death crashing over Him but to be exhausted forever.

The story we’ll hear today also treads that thin line of tension. How do we wrestle with the reality of Kingdom that is coming but not yet here in the fullness? In our experiences of the “inbetweenness,” who is Jesus?

 

Jason’s Story

Hi, my name is Jason, and I’ve been a member at this church for two years. I’m also in the Justice Prayer Group. Today I’ll be talking about how God is showing me what it means to be a citizen in the kingdom of heaven.

In elementary school, there was a new kid who transferred in midway through the year. She didn’t speak much English. Luckily for her, there were many kids of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, myself included, who spoke enough Mandarin who could help her understand what was going on. Except all of us feigned ignorance and didn’t speak a word in Mandarin to her. It was clear that we didn’t want to be associated with those who didn’t speak English. We weren’t about to broadcast to the rest of the white, Indian, and Latino kids that we were anything other than “all-American.” To protect the sense of acceptance I held, I had to draw a line between myself and someone else. I needed someone else to be more different than I was, and not speaking English was a very clear difference.

Over the years I’ve come to wonder what my place is in the social fabric of this country, what my parents’ new home demanded they give up, and what they got in return.

It’s easier to start with what they got. They traded the instability and repression of Taiwan for the prosperity of the United States. My dad got a great education and became an engineer to provide a comfortable life for his family. He was able to raise his kids in Fremont hoping they wouldn’t have to go through the pains of remaking home in a new place. So that my brother and I, by growing up speaking English, could avoid the embarrassment of fumbling over accents. So that we, by growing up going to school here, could make sense of the labyrinthine institutions my parents struggled to understand. Perhaps most importantly, my dad hoped that we would be natural citizens of this country and not have to enter through the immigration process.

It’s more difficult to admit what we had to give up. My dad told me once that he chose to study engineering in Taiwan because it was safer than studying law or the humanities. Becoming a lawyer could lead to advocating for people against government policies and actions which would undoubtedly invite persecution. This conversation made me wonder: in exchange for prosperity and comfort as a tech worker, did I waive my right to speak up against injustices in America for the fear of being cast as ungrateful? Do I let others tell my story and use it to blame those denied justice for their own suffering? When I have something I want to say, in … , I feel hemmed in by all that I am and all that I’m not.

For a lot of people who’re not born in the right skin color or continent, it costs a lot to be a citizen in the U.S., and the benefits feel temporary and fragile. I’m reminded of the internment of persons of Japanese descent, many of them American citizens, during World War 2. Of the verbal and physical assaults against my South Asian neighbors in Fremont in the wake of 9/11. How they had worked so hard to integrate and assimilate into American society only to be treated as the enemy.

In all these questions about my place in this country that seems so ambivalent towards her citizens, God is showing me that there’s another kingdom I can be a citizen of if I so choose. We’ve been studying the gospel of Matthew; in it I read about a man, Jesus, who was in the form of God took the form of man to identify with outcasts and unwanted, eating with tax collectors and sinners (9:9-13).

I read that it similarly costs a lot to be a part of this kingdom: it costs everything. But instead of temporary and fragile benefits, I get something lasting. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a pearl that a merchant sells all of his possessions to buy (Matt 13:44-46). Citizenship in the kingdom of God is so valuable it beckons me to immediately give up everything for it. And it’s what I’ve longed for this entire time. Instead of losing my voice, it now becomes my duty to call out injustice. Instead of excluding others to preserve my precarious status, my duty is to invite others to join the kingdom.

However this kingdom isn’t here on this earth in fullness yet. The world we’re in now doesn’t look like the kingdom ruled by the king who gave everything to serve and redeem his people. It looks very far from it. I find myself asking, “Jesus, why did you leave before restoring everything? What’s the point of being a citizen in a kingdom that isn’t here yet? How much longer do I have to feel uncertain and unsure about my place in this land? How much longer will I and the Asian American community allow the model minority myth to be used in the denial of justice?”

I haven’t gotten a clear answer to these questions. Sometimes I hear bits and pieces from the LORD. He tells me as a citizen of the kingdom-that-has-come-and-is-coming-but-not-quite-here-yet, it’s my privilege to build the kingdom here brick by brick.

There are days where I can’t really even see what we’re building. I only know where God’s telling me to put the next brick, and even that isn’t always as clear as I’d like. I feel that God is calling me to be engaged with the city of Oakland and to pray for the city. These prayers sometimes make me wonder how much worse it needs to be before it gets better.

But God has been telling me that it’s not primarily about how or when. It’s about who. When confronted with the brokeness and injustices that go back generations, it’s easy for me to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what’s happening. My mind tries to think of solutions that encompass all of the interests and institutions on my timeline, but it always comes up short. When I cry out to the LORD in despair about how stuck we are in this mess, he reminds me that Jesus is the only one who will bring about restoration and its through his ways on his time.

God has also been reminding me that this labor is not in vain. He’s been showing me examples of those that have gone before who saw the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living, and those who did not see what they had prayed for and labored towards come to pass in this life. Heroes of faith like Tom Skinner, my personal inspiration, prophetically reminding us that the Gospel is both personal and societal transformation. It’s a result of their faithfulness that I’m up here today.

I know who my king is and I know that he’s coming back.

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Joel's Story: Lent Testimony Series

 

2018 Lent Testimony Series

Introduction

As many of us know--and some of us in the congregation are participating--we are in the season of Lent, a traditionally 40 days of fasting observed by millions of believers all over the world. In Lent, believers remember Jesus’ wilderness temptations and His life of sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. For some, this looks like giving up meat or sweets or social media, all meaningful practices to abstain from everyday pleasures to meditate on Jesus’ sufferings. Even those who do not participate in Lent can reflect on how, for centuries, the global & historical Church has commemorated the days of anticipating the cross and the resurrection life of Jesus, our hope. The Justice Prayer Group here at the Ark has been reflecting on how that hope of life after death shows up in spaces where evil, pain and unanswered questions or prayers remain and how these uncomfortable stories strengthen our trust in God’s larger narrative of redemption.

The stories we’ll share do not always have a “happy ending;” they aren’t about miraculous encounters of provisions. What we’re doing is acknowledging narratives, processes, and unfinished stories of God's faithfulness when no visible breakthrough or victory is present. We want to make a public declaration to the congregation that these unfulfilled desires for healing & wholeness are worth retelling and “celebrating”. Because to speak when we see no fruit is a testament in itself of our hope in God's unchanging character.

Let's hear from members of the Justice Prayer Group who have experienced a particular grief, a sense of wrong, an ache for restoration that Jesus’ resurrection promises. Our hope is that this encourages you, because in the midst of pain and trials, our brothers and sisters stand in hope that the story is not finished yet. The God of Jesus’ death & resurrection hears and is working in the unseen to bring about promises of new life.

 

Joel’s Story

Today, the grief I share with you is about racism. Specifically, the racist myth of the “perpetual foreigner,” that for people of Asian descent, no matter what we do to make our homes in America, we will never be seen as belonging because we are not white. In the midst of that grief, my hope is that we Christians in this country will repent of our unbiblical, unjust belief that people of one race are inherently better than others and therefore “belong” while “others” do not. I want to share what God has shown me about His heart against racial injustice and praying for healing and restoration.

Several years ago, I was in San Mateo, heading to dinner with a friend. As we were walking to the restaurant, a car came toward us. A white man leaned his head out the window and yelled out, “Go back where you came from!” before driving away.

Immediately, I felt angry and upset. Because I knew what he meant. He didn’t mean “Go back to Berkeley!” where I was living. Or “Go back to Los Angeles!” where I grew up. Or “Go back to Atlanta!” where I was born. This white man saw my friend and I, both Asian Americans, and saw people that don’t belong in the same place as he. He didn’t see me as a whole person, but assumed so much about me based on the way I look.

Every so often, that memory would come to mind, and I would put it aside. And then last year, I came across a news article about Srinivas Kuchitbhotla.

Srinivas was an Indian man who was working in Kansas as an engineer. One night, he went to a bar for drinks after work with his friend, Alok Madasani, also from India. At the bar, a white man came to them and started yelling racial slurs, asking if their “status was legal.” After some arguing, the man left the bar, and came back with a gun. He shot at Srinivas and Alok, wounding Alok and killing Srinivas. Srinivas died a few weeks before his 33rd birthday.

Do you know what that man said to Srinivas before taking his life? “Get out of my country!” Later, the man said that he thought they were Iranians, and potential terrorists.

This happened last year, in 2017. And when I heard the story, my heart hurt for Srinivas and his family. My heart hurt for his wife, now a widow. I also thought about what happened in San Mateo and wondered whether the same thing could happen to me. Could it be that the last words I will ever hear, before someone takes my life from me, are “Get out of my country. Go back where you came from. You don’t belong here?”

In the book of Revelation, we get a picture of the Kingdom of God. A vast multitude is gathered, people from every tribe, nation, and tongue, worshiping with one voice. No group claims exclusive ownership over that room. No group can say to the others, “This is our territory. We don’t want you here. You don’t belong here. ” In heaven, there are no strangers or foreigners, only brothers and sisters. As I pray through this vision of heaven, I see how God’s heart breaks for our current reality. We were made to relate to each other as brothers and sisters. But sin has caused us to relate to each other as included and excluded, belonging and not belonging, insider and outsider.

The scripture tells me that the Kingdom of God stands in opposition to the hateful words that I, Srinivas, and so many others have heard. Then I think about the Christians throughout American history, who have used the same Word of God to justify so much violence. How Christians have sought to steal, kill, and destroy the lives of those who do not look like them, all in the name of Christ. I also think about the book of Matthew and Jesus’ message to the followers, “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” And I wonder: have we, as Christians in the U.S., repented of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, hate crimes like the murders of Vincent Chin and Srinivas Kuchibhotla?

A couple weeks ago, I went on an amazing walking tour called Berkeley South Asian Radical History. The tour ended at Berkeley High School, where we heard about the personal attacks that people of South Asian descent faced after 9/11. How South Asians were called terrorists, physically assaulted in the streets, and told “go back where you came from.” As I reflected on these stories, I thought about how I have tried to keep my distance from this conflict. “I’m not South Asian, so this doesn’t concern me.” But if I truly believe that all humans are made in the image of God, and that racism is an attack on that image, then I have to repent for my willingness to stand by while the image of God is under threat. I also need to repent for my own indifference to attacks against those who do not look like me and my acceptance of injustice that doesn’t seem to directly affect me.

Racism is a heavy burden. We can become overwhelmed by the brokenness in which we live. We can become so uncomfortable that we can’t even discuss race and our history. For some time, I tried to put the incident in San Mateo out of my mind. I felt uncomfortable and burdened by what happened. But I believe that God is highlighting that memory to bring newness to that experience. I have the opportunity to sit in that discomfort, to wrestle with it, to pray through it, to have it fuel intercession for myself and for our country. And as I repent of my indifference and lament for our country, Jesus comes to meet me. Jesus reminds me that His faithfulness encompasses our history, His compassion imbues our present, and His courage emboldens our future.

I want to invite you to journey with God and have an honest conversation about the ways in which we may still be living with indifference towards injustice that seemingly do not directly affect us. San Mateo, Srinivas, and the walking tour all remind me how any practice of exclusion are attacks on the image of God that grieve His heart. As we continue to seek out heaven on earth in every dimension, I am hopeful that God will restore that which is broken.

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Joel's Story: Emmanuel, the God Who is Near

I want to tell you about a breakthrough I experienced in my relationship with Jesus. This isn’t about the first time I met Him, but it’s about when I was fully honest with him.

After graduating from Berkeley in 2008, I served as an intern with my campus fellowship. That was a difficult year; I had come to believe that God only cared about my service, and that He was constantly disappointed with my failures. I struggled with lies that I had to earn my place in the family of God. By the end of my internship, I was worn out. One day, I ran into a friend who invited me to an Ark service. I had visited before, but it had been a while, so I came.

That service was wonderful and painful. I remember the beautiful worship and the time of response at the end, during which I spoke truth against the lies. I embraced the truth of God’s acceptance against the lie of my worthlessness, a lie that had been revealed several years before and for which I had experienced healing. But, as soon as service ended, all those lies came back. I immediately felt out of place, like I didn’t belong. The social anxiety and insecurity returned, and I felt powerless. The lie said, “People would be wasting their time talking to you. Get your dull, boring, tedious self home.” I left the service feeling horrible and cried to sleep that night. The worst thing is that I had thought that, after years of prayer and counseling, God had healed me of these lies, and it was crushing to feel them return.

The next day, some friends came to visit. I told them what happened and how awful I felt, how the relief and acceptance at the end of worship gave way to old deceptions. They gathered to pray, but I stayed silent. Then my friend said “Joel, I see you standing in a boat with Jesus on a lake, and you’re yelling at him, but He’s just listening. The rest of us are on the shore. We can see you, but can’t hear you, but we’re just supposed to watch here.” What this told me was that Jesus wanted to hear me, that I didn’t need to pretend everything was ok.

So I was honest. I started yelling “God, why is this still happening?! I thought the healing was finished. But I’m still stuck here. I’m angry, I’m frustrated, and I’m hurt. Why aren’t you doing anything?!”

That was the day that I learned to be honest with God. I learned that I didn’t need to have my emotions all in the right place. In the past, I would patiently wait for the healing to come; this was the first time that I was openly frustrated with Him. But God could take my emotions. He doesn’t diminish what I’m feeling, doesn’t demand that I come to Him in perfect clarity. I didn’t receive any major revelations during that prayer. But I can look back now and see how that frustration was part of the healing. I needed to trust Him, even when I didn’t understand the path He was taking me. Instead of hiding those feelings, I needed to bring them out to Him.

That first instance of openly sharing my feelings with God allowed me to truly connect with Him in a way that I hadn’t been able to before. Giving him my emotions became instrumental to my healing process, but the most significant impact of that prayer was that it allowed me to truly meet God by bringing all of me to Him.

First shared at Ark Sunday Service, December 13th, 2014

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Teressa's Story: He Sets the Lonely in Families

After I graduated from college in 2012, I moved to Southern California to stay with my family temporarily while I searched for what would be next. During that time, I struggled to feel connected to the Ark, despite the fact that it had been my church home for 3.5 years by that point. I isolated myself, and told myself that it wouldn’t matter if I returned to the Bay, that my relationships there were based on geographical proximity alone, and that if I never went back, my relationships would dissolve as though they had never existed. Fortunately, I had two Ark members with whom I had pledged to look for housing, and eventually we found and made a home together. The year we lived together was one of the most difficult years of my life to date, as I was struggling through depression, hopelessness, and aimlessness, but I was met with incredible grace and patience from the ladies I lived with. At the end of the year, we decided not to renew our lease, and to part ways. I left the Ark to travel in November 2013, with aims to return in January 2014 and learn to truly live a “life of faith” and dependency on God. He has far exceeded those wishes.

When I returned to the Bay at the end of April, my plan was to look for housing on my own. I’ve lived with friends and I’ve lived with strangers, and though I preferred the former, I didn’t mind the latter. In reality, it wasn’t until I had a conversation with one of my friends that I realized I actually really wanted to live in community, but simply didn’t believe it was possible – not only logistically impossible, as I didn’t know anyone looking for housing at the time, but on a much deeper level, I feared the thought of living with someone who I cared about and had relationship with, because when I looked at myself, I saw only the ugliness, the ways in which I am difficult to love. I thought that my prior roommates were an anomaly, and that it would be impossible for me to inflict myself upon a new set of roommates whom I actually cared about, and for them to love me when they fully saw who I was.

Nevertheless, with my friend’s encouragement, I reached out to some Ark members, and a small group of us banded together and began to search for a place to live. I was reluctant, still unsure of how we could really bond, but trusted the principle that living in community is a good thing. We met so many challenges – open house after open house, crazy competition in the market, a limited budget, a very near miss in what seemed like an ideal situation – and through those trials, God genuinely changed my heart to love the women of the group even before we moved in together. I felt that God was laying a foundation even before giving us a home, so that we wouldn’t have to forge relationships from scratch, but would enter our house already as a unit.

What happened next was, actually, that our group disbanded. We didn’t end up finding a place together, and in fact, most of us are still looking for a more permanent housing solution. But God has also more greatly expanded my understanding of living in community, and what it means to be in a covenant relationship.

I’ve been throwing this phrase around, “living in community,” without clarifying exactly what I mean. For the most part, when that phrase is used, it means being intentional in your relationships with your roommates or housemates; it is a choice, a commitment to share your lives as a family, rather than live as isolated individuals under one roof. This is what I’ve meant by that phrase up to this point.

I have been couch-surfing for over six months now. Never before have I been so dependent on others, so in need of physical assistance and the material provision of God, and you know what? God has moved mightily through this family to take care of me to this point. Many of you, members of the Ark, have welcomed me into your homes, sometimes for weeks on end, sometimes for just a few nights; you have let me do laundry, you have fed me, you have driven me places, you have given me spare keys and held onto scattered belongings when I couldn’t manage them all at once; you have even given me money when I was just scraping by. Whether I eventually live with members of the Ark community permanently, or find random roommates on Craigslist, or live nowhere at all, I now know what it means to live in community within the body of Christ, and that the only thing that can prevent me from living in community is myself. The decision to join a church, become a member, is a covenant decision. In making it, you are saying “I am one of you; I am one of your people, and you are one of my people.” It means you lay yourselves down for one another, you love each other into inconvenience, you share in the joys, you carry the burdens, you comfort, you know, and are known, and this extends beyond four walls and a roof. Though I’m still searching for an apartment, I know where my home is, and I know who my family is.

First shared at Ark Sunday Service, November 9th, 2014

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New Student Reception 2014: Stories of an Active God

When I began my studies at UC Berkeley, I had already been struggling with clinical depression and an eating disorder for 3 years. No matter how many trips to the psychologist I took, nor how many types of medication we tried, nothing could really shake me from these cyclical behaviors.

God met me at an InterVarsity conference during my freshman year. At altar call, a few staff members invited students to come ask for prayer -- something that I hated doing because I believed coming forward would reveal that I was struggling, and that my struggling would reveal that I was spiritually immature. In spite of my hesitations, I walked forward to a visiting staff worker who guided me through healing prayer. The Holy Spirit showed me memories I had suppressed long ago -- traumas including sexual and emotional abuse.

Together, Auntie Brenda (the staff worker) and I walked through the painful instances; she held my hand  as we asked Jesus where had been during those moments and their aftermath, and for Him to reveal my true identity beyond the false identity that I had assumed as the result of these traumas; it was freeing.

But a crazy and wonderful prayer session is only the beginning of the journey towards lasting transformation. I am a firm believer that sustainable healing can only occur in the context of community. The Ark was the place where I learned to walk off my former identity, where Pastor Suky Longfield took me under her wing and taught me how to put old habits and pathologies to death, where countless brothers and sisters (many who didn’t even know they were doing it) showered me with love and acceptance when I was at my least presentable - showing up in sweatpants to church to probably roll around and cry in the back - when I had nothing to offer back (something that was particularly hard for me to grasp, having come from communities that are often governed by tacit rules of reciprocity).

They made the Ark a truly safe space to shed protective pretenses and heal: feeding me soup and ice cream, patting my shoulders as I, snot-nosed and sobbing, brought myself to God every weekend, and continually inspiring me with their earnest hunger for God and their own victories that spurred me to not dally in realizing Him as worth the pain and arduousness of healing.  

I would urge you to feel free to lose your composure at this church, to not fear how despicable or even insignificant your pains and struggles may seem - because something really important that I learned here is of God’s insistent goodness: He wants to see you whole even more than you do, and He will kindly and firmly guide you through that healing (if you let him) to realize life, joy and freedom beyond what you’d ever be able to reckon.

First shared at Ark's New Student Reception, August 13th, 2014

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