Mourning the Gentle Locusts of Egypt with mewithoutYou on the Way to the Promised Land

pale horsesThis last month has been one of great upheaval. For those of you unaware, my wife and I just uprooted our lives in Orange County, California to move to Deerfield, Illinois in order to pursue a Ph.D. in theology there. While this is a fantastic opportunity that I’m still pinching myself over, we had to leave our jobs, families, friends, and basically every regular feature of our life behind to do so.

Needless to say, this has not been without its challenges of various sorts. Wrapping up a ministry, leaving an office in the hands of another, charting routes, selling cars, packing up an apartment, driving across country, saying goodbye to friends and family, and the half-dozen other major steps I could list are all–taken simply by themselves–large undertakings. We praise God we’ve had wonderful friends and family who have helped us throughout the process, or we would never have survived.

As I sit here on the “other side” of the biggest steps in the ordeal in Trinity’s library, though, it’s all a bit surreal to think about. To be honest, I think it’s going to be a long time to process the meaning of this move for us just in practical terms, but the existential ones will likely take even longer.

One thought that’s struck me in the process, however, was triggered by the release of mewithoutYou’s newest album Pale Horses a month or so ago. It’s kind of been the soundtrack of the move for me. It was the album stuck on repeat in my car as I drove around Orange that last month, running errands, making final purchases for college group events, or the last drive to the coffee shop up the street, or over to our friend’s house for the final time before the trip out.

On it is one particularly powerful song called “Red Cow.” It’s one of the most mewithoutYou songs to ever mewithoutYou, full of lyrical gravity, gut-wrenching vocalization, rocking distortion, and passion. It’s why I love this band. Weiss’ lyrics on the song fall into a characteristically, stream-of-consciousness meditation that slips back and forth between scenes from, possibly a trip through the Midwest and a telling of the Biblical story of the Exodus. And in the middle of it, of course, he tackles issues of meaning, symbol and reality, the captivity of idolatry, and so much more.

Here, give it a whirl:

As I said, I listened to this album and this song a lot while I was driving around that month. There’s so much going on in there that I’d love to unpack. But listen after listen, the line I kept coming back to was this gem, sung in the mournful, longing voice of the Israelites:

O for the land we knew before the frogs withdrew,
And the fragrant pomegranate blooms where the tender locust flew.

In that one line, Weiss invokes the narratives of the wilderness wanderings of Israel after Moses led them out of the land of their slavery, Egypt. After the initial thrill of liberation wore off, the Israelites were quite prone to grumbling. A couple of days of thirst and hunger, a couple of hours too many of walking, and the newly-freed sons and daughters of Jacob were ready to throw in the towel and return “home.”

Exodus 16 gives the account of one such instance:

They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:1-3)

Here they are, just a couple of months after God stretched out his hand to work mighty wonders before them in order to make them his own. He brought frogs, flies, and locust, rained down hail and blackened the skies, bringing the mightiest Empire in the ancient world to its knees before their eyes. Not to mention bringing them out of grinding slavery of the worst sort.

And what’s their response? Grumbling and mourning ingratitude of the sort that actually caused them to misremember and distort their time in Egypt. It’s not just that things are tough out here, but back in Egypt they used to “sit by the meat pots” and eat until their guts were full. It was practically paradise in their telling.

Now, for years this story had frustrated me to no end. I just didn’t get it. I mean, I understood, theoretically, that all sin, all face God with that same gross ingratitude deeply lodged in their hearts. But there seemed to be something extraordinarily obtuse about the whole sorry affair.

And yet, here, as I drove along a number of those mornings, stressing out about all the things I had to get done–the hard conversations, phone calls, running around, managing stressful personal relations, my own rising sense of anxieties over the exposure of all my inadequacies that were sure to come–I found myself thinking a number of times, “This all would have been so much easier if I’d have just stayed home. I wouldn’t have to say goodbye, or worry about finding a car, or McKenna getting a job, or whether I’d measure up to the road ahead.”

Of course, nothing about my last gig was even remotely like slavery in Egypt. I loved my last job and church–that’s part of what’s been so hard about leaving. But here I was, preparing for a journey to the very good thing God was giving me–the “promised land” of challenging study and adventure–and I’m sitting there, longing for the lands that the “gentle locust flew.” A little difficulty, a few nights going to bed wired and waking up exhausted were managing to crowd God’s extraordinary mercy and provision out of my vision for the future.

Isn’t that the way of things? Our good, beautiful God promises a hope and a future just on the other end of hardship and yet, at the first taste of uncertainty and struggle, I clamor for the ease I used to know.

I’ve been slowly learning to thank God that his way of giving is not like ours, though. It is not tempered by our feeble and fickle gratitude. He doesn’t just sit there, waiting to see if you’re grateful enough, or trusting enough, or righteous enough before he continues to care and provide for you. He’s the good God who makes his sun shine on the righteous and the wicked and has patience with his children as the grow and make their way into the sun.

In the case of the Israelites, their complaint provides an opportunity for God to flex again, providing the manna, the bread of life that would feed them in their wilderness wanderings. For his children today, we have the promises of our Savior that he is the bread of life who sustains us day by day (John 6). Of his graces and mercy there are no end. He is the one who provides us our daily bread–both physical and spiritual.

And that is my hope in the middle of all the transitions and weirdness–wherever he takes us, Jesus will never stop giving us what we need most: himself. And if that’s true, it’s all gonna work out.

Soli Deo Gloria

All Things Go! (Or, When the Trinity Moved Us From Trinity to Trinity For a Ph.D.)

sufjan-stevens-illinoise-900My wife and I got married four years ago this Friday. When we walked up the aisle after pledging ourselves in covenant before God and a couple hundred witnesses, our recessional song was Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” At the time, we loved it simply because it was Stevens, upbeat, had a gospel center, and had that lovely chorus line, “All things Go, All things go” mirrored how we felt about beginning our marriage. It’s rather amusing to think about because, really, McKenna and I aren’t by nature the adventuring “All things go” people Stevens’ is talking about. We both lived at home for college. Our first place was literally 15 minutes from where we grew up. We are each other’s first roommates. Little did we know how pregnant with prophetic meaning that song selection for those first forty steps as a married couple would prove.

Trinity 1.0

At the time, I had just started working at my church Trinity United Presbyterian in Santa Ana, as the College and Young Adult Ministries Director. I cannot express what a privilege and blessing this job has been. I could not have written a better first ministry spot for myself. This congregation, with its rich history, worship, solid preaching, and godly people has been a wonderful place to begin pastoral work. Beyond that, it’s formed a crucial home for the first years of my marriage, and a place that my wife and I have grown as disciples of Christ. I cannot express how precious this place and its people (especially my students and partners in the Student and Family ministries) have become to us.

Working with students, young adults, and just spending time in the broader congregation shaped me as a preacher, teacher, discipler, and simply a child of God. What’s more, because of Trinity’s rich, Presbyterian, confessional and intellectual heritage, it was not seen as bizarre for me to spend time studying for sermons and writing as much as I have these last few years.  It has been encouraged as an outgrowth and proper part of my church ministry to my students and peers, and for that I could not be more grateful.

While Trinity has been a wonderful home to us, after a great deal of prayer, counsel, and reflection, we realized God was calling me to pursue further academic work for the sake of the church, specifically doctoral work in systematic theology. To be honest, it has always been there in the back of my mind, but I love the church, preaching week-in and week-out, meeting with students, and so forth. Still, the last few years of reading, writing, developing intellectually, significant academic relationships, and having pretty much every one of my groomsmen and their mothers look at me and say, “Dude, you need to get your Ph.D. or I’m gonna fight you”, had its effect. So, last fall I (or rather, we) began the application process.  While the process was a spiritually trying one, it has also been a strengthening one for us, which has been one of the various confirmations along the path that this road was God’s will for us.

Trinity 2.0

Of course, the most significant sign came when we received the news that I had not only been accepted to the Ph.D. program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), in order to study with a man I’ve been reading, learning from, and blogging about for the last eight years, (surprise, surprise) Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer. For those who don’t know him, he’s one of the most respected Evangelical theologians working in the United States right now. While I could say a number of things about the impact his work has already had on me, I’ll simply note that his emphasis on the crucial pastoral function of doctrine for the life of the church has been at the heart of what I’ve tried to do in my own ecclesial ministry. (Here’s a nice write-up of him in Christianity Today.) And that’s not to mention all the other stellar faculty at TEDS.

Beyond that, we found out that I had been awarded the new Dahl Scholarship. This is a fellowship at full funding of tuition plus a modest stipend for four years of coursework and research.  For God to open this door just seemed too obvious an opportunity to walk away from. So we took it.

I’ll be honest, “excited” doesn’t begin to cover it. If you’d have told me a couple of years ago, that I’d be getting this shot, I would have laughed in your face. (Though, McKenna insists she knew something like this would happen all along). And yet, that’s the reality. This Fall, Lord willing, I’ll begin coursework for my Ph.D. in systematic theology at TEDS with Kevin Vanhoozer as my supervisor.

For those of you who may be wondering, my provisional subject of research will be a be doctrinally-constructive account of the attribute of God’s holiness. I hope to examine God’s holiness in biblical theology (OT, NT), moving on through historical accounts, and in the end, formulating a systematic account that deals with what it means for the Triune God to be eternally holy, in both the moral and the ontological sense. From there, I want to develop some applications of God’s holiness for how we think about atonement and the church’s own holiness. At least, that’s the plan right now.

As for what the plan is afterward? We’re not sure. At this point, I’m comfortable with the ideas of teaching in seminary or returning to full-time church work. Honestly, after four years of preaching and teaching at least twice a week 50 weeks of the year, I’m actually kind of scared about how much I’m going to miss the pulpit (or, dinky music stand, really). Something in-between like a pastor-theologian sounds pretty appealing, right now. But a lot can happen in four years.

Moving and Prayers

Of course, as many of you have put together already, that means we’re going to move. We’ll be living at Trinity in Deerfield, Illinois, about a half an hour outside of Chicago, (hence my intro). After 29 (and 28) years of living in California, we’re heading out to the Midwest. As I told my students the other night, “The Trinity is moving us from Trinity to Trinity.”

Oh, and, by the way, it’s happening in about a month (end of July, beginning of August). Which is why we need your prayers. For everything.

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This is our, “We’re so excited about the future but please-oh-please pray for us” face.

But also, these specific things:

  1. Marriage. After God, our relationship as man and wife is job number one for us. We don’t want that to change. A Ph.D is great, but not worth our covenant. Please pray this time is a special one of strengthening and marital joy.
  2. Moving. We’ve never done that before. Not really. There’s a ton of work we need to do. Pray that God gives us wisdom and good deals on moving stuff.
  3. A good church and community. We have to find a church that I’m not working at. That’s weird for us. But we know the importance of being plugged into a good church where we can find godly community and fit well. Pray that we find a healthy, gospel-rich church, and that we’re ready to be flexible on non-essential preferences. Also, the TEDS community. I already know a couple of great people in it. Still, we want to make friends and contribute to whatever community we find there.
  4. Job. Yes, I’m receiving a scholarship, for which we are very grateful and without which we could not go, but my wife is leaving her job, so we want to find something for her fairly quick. For those in the area, or who know people, she’s got a B.A. in Social Studies and history, a teaching credential, and an M.A. in Education. For the last two years, she has worked in administration at a local K-8 parochial school and is super at administrative stuff. If you know of anything, feel free to shoot me a tweet or email me at reformedish@gmail.com.
  5. Family and friends. We love our families and friends and we’re fairly sure they love us. We’re gonna miss them. Also, they’re going to miss us. Please pray for our hearts and theirs in this time.
  6. Studies. Finally, please pray for my studies. This is a gift of time and resources that I want to steward well for the sake of the church and God’s kingdom. Pray that I focus, grow, and am dependent on and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be present in my program. I mean, seriously, if you’re not a cessationist, pray for me to receive the gift of tongues. Like French and German.

Wrapping it Up

A few last details are worth noting.

First, moving and getting a Ph.D. is likely going to be a time-consuming task. Just a guess. For that reason, I’m probably going to be doing a lot less blogging and popular writing for the next few months until I get my Ph.D.-legs under me. And even then I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do. I’m not stopping completely, of course. I don’t think I could. Still, part of stewarding God’s gifts to me in this program is stewarding my time and intellectual energies, despite the immediate joy and blessing I receive from writing in this format. So, if you see things slow down, that’s probably why. (Oh, also, I’m not likely to slow the podcast down, though).

Second, there are far too many people to thank at this time: parents, friends, students, co-workers, pastors, professors, fellow-writers, editors, and mentors from near and far. Suffice it to say that if there is one thing that this experience has taught McKenna and I, it is that God’s providential care comes through the community of God’s people. None of the fruit that this process has already produced would have been possible without the Spirit-empowered words and prayers of our spiritual family.

Well, there you have it: The Rishmawys are moving to Chicago. All Things Go! All Things Go!

Soli Deo Gloria

 

He Who Has Ears Let Him Hear (A Parable for Preachers)

Jesus talkingEvery preacher who’s been at it long enough knows that there are some sermons, or even series as a whole, that end up showing more fruit in your own life than that of your hearers. It’s as if God set you up to preach this to bless your people, mostly indirectly, through its effects in your own life than the particular lessons they learn from you in that time. I don’t know if that was exactly what was going on, but the first summer I preached through the parables, it certainly felt that way.

I had been at my job for about a year at that point, had maybe sixty or so sermons under my belt, a cycle of seasons, and the first taste of ministry growth I’d ever seen. We’d had bit of a spurt throughout the spring and with summer beginning we had old students coming home, new students showing up, and everything was shaping up to be a smoother summer. Two hitches, though.

First, we did this odd thing where we would run our mid-week program in the park all summer so we could BBQ, play frisbee, and take advantage of the weather. The downside is that I had to preach open-air with a ton of random distractions (dogs, babies, random flocks of–no joke–squawking parrots).

Second, I was still struggling with the fact I just couldn’t seem to get through to some students. I mean, some understood, they were growing, plugging in, maturing, but others just couldn’t get a handle on what I was preaching. It didn’t matter whether I’d grab coffee with them, prayed a ton for them by name all week, tailor my talks to hit at specific issues they were struggling with, or whatever, if I looked at their corner during my sermon, it would just turn up blank stares, distracted giggles, and an apparently total lack of fruit throughout the rest of the week. I mean, it’s not even just that they weren’t listening. It’s that in the conversations I had with them later, it was clear that many of them simply didn’t understand what I was saying week in and week out. I was pitching gospel and they were still catching law–or something else entirely.

That’s when God sent me the parable of the sower or the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).

Fairly rigorous young man that I was, I picked the beginning of my series carefully. I figured I’d open up with the parable about how to understand the parables, as Jesus speaks to the crowds about his own mission to re-sow the people of Israel through the preaching of the Word, the seed. Of course,  interpreting the parable can be difficult and possibly discouraging. We need to understand that the varying responses of the four soils are not intended as an example of Christ-centered statistics (Barna Headline: Only 1 in 4 Hearers will Positively Respond to the Gospel!). In fact, it’s something of an invitation on the part of Jesus to “be careful how you hear”–take these things with an open and honest heart so that you might bear fruit (Luke 8:15).

All the same, as a young preacher struggling with my understanding of the power of the Word, my own ability to preach it, immaturity, self-condemnation, and, likely, sinful impatience, I needed to reflect on Jesus’ words, “He who has ears let him hear.” Really?

I mean, this was Jesus. The Messiah. The Son of God. Easily the greatest preacher to ever walk the plane. Author and deliverer of the most famous sermon of all time (Matt. 5-7). Not merely a bringer of the word of God, but the Word of God made flesh, proclaimed to the world in concreto. There’s no possibility about the “lack of unction” for the one who brought forth in the womb by the power of the Spirit, or the lack of “prayer life of the preacher” in the one who possessed an eternal communion with the Father.  And here he is talking about people missing it. People whose hearts are so hard the seed never penetrates. People who show quick signs of life, but then quickly fade away. People who seem to have real faith, but who allow themselves to get choked by the cares of the world.

And this was their response to Jesus?

And that was when I had to take a breath, step back, and put my own ministry in context. Whether because of youthful arrogance, or that early (or later) tendency to try to justify your own existence through your preaching and pastoring, I realized I was treating the things of God as something fundamentally within my power. I was operating under the unspoken assumption that it was my words which would open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give hearts of flesh to those with rocks in their chest. And if it wasn’t happening, it was just clearly something wrong with me and my ministry.

But that’s simply false. If Jesus himself said there was going to be a mixed response to his preaching, why was I under the impression that I was going to have a better batting average than the Son of God? It was ludicrous.

Please don’t hear this as a deterministic shut-down of preachers who endeavor to preach with skill, prayer, and energy. No doubt there was serious room for improvement in my preparation, prayer, and ministry practice at the time (as there still is). Pastors, you can get better, preach clearer, pray deeper, and hope for greater grace in your ministry. Certainly it’s foolish to avoid those things. Still, for all that, there is a place for remembering that, though we do speak as one who preaches “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).

For myself, that summer I learned a couple of lessons I had to continually dwell on from there-on out. First, there is a comfort in those words for preachers to understand that not every hard heart in the pews remains so because of your failure as a pastor. Not every blank stare is reflection of your powers as an orator. Not every patch of dirt stays dry because you’re no good as a sower. If you believe that, you’re just setting yourself up for discouragement and self-doubt, both qualities which, ironically enough, will rob you of power in the pulpit.

Second, flowing from this, it gave me confidence to just preach regardless of the “perceived” effects. Of course you have to be aware of your people. Good preachers are students of the Word and students of their people. Still, looking at Jesus’ parable, you can’t gauge these things week by week anyways. There are plenty of false positives as well as slow growing seeds for your to be measuring your efficacy that way. the more I learn(ed) to stop judging my sermons by the reactions I thought could or couldn’t see, the more I focused on simply trusting God to do his work with the best I had to offer up every week. As I did that, my confidence in God’s backing grew as did my own clarity.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave wind things down here. I pray other young preachers might take encouragement from these reflections as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Apostate Spirit, or Convertitis

My friend Peter Escalante directed my attention to this fantastic quote by Max Scheler:

“Even after his conversion, the true ‘apostate’ is not primarily committed to the positive contents of his new belief and to the realization of its aims. He is motivated by the struggle against the old belief and lives on for its negation. The apostate does not affirm his new convictions for their own sake; he is engaged in a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past. In reality he remains a captive of this past, and the new faith is merely a handy frame of reference for negating and rejecting the old. As a religious type, the apostate is therefore at the opposite pole from the ‘resurrected,’ whose life is transformed by a new faith which is full of intrinsic meaning and value.”

–Max Scheler, Ressentiment

julianEscalante referred to it as “convertitis.” I think all of us have seen it at some point. And I do mean all of us. Obviously, it’s easy to spot the college-atheist in this picture. Walk into any classroom and you shall know him by his vocal unbelief, and obvious intellectual superiority to the superstitious, sky-fairy worshippers. He believes in #science, Reason, and “Tolerance” of all views and lifestyles he deems progressive enough.

But that kind of convertitis isn’t the only type out there. Growing up in the Church, I’ve seen sufferers of all stripes. I knew one pastor who regularly railed on his former Roman Catholicism and its superstitions and works-righteousness with a bit more gusto than his praising of grace and justification by faith. I think the first time I consciously noticed the phenomenon of “convertitis”, though, was in observing Evangelical kids I grew up with converting to other iterations of Christianity.

Fed up with some of the anti-intellectualism, or looking for deeper roots, I’ve seen some either swim the Tiber or make for the Eastern Orthodox faith. There they find “real” life, rich tradition, and a nuanced approached that their youth-group Evangelicalism never could offer them, because, doncha know, Protestantism just can’t pull off deep, traditioned, intellectually-sustainable faith. Plus, sola scriptura is a chimera because communal interpretation, hermeneutics, and so forth. Roughly.

Now, there are real theological issues to be parsed, but one thing that struck me was how often these conversions involved an attitude of scorning disparagement of the wing of the Christian family that included their parents, Sunday School teachers, and everybody else who loved them enough to share Jesus with them and put up with their adolescent foolishness. Obviously this was not all of them, and even the ones who were have moved on, but it wasn’t just a side theme, but a central feature.

In retrospect, some of this is what I suspect I was getting at when I wrote that piece on the Progressive-Evangelical package. While I think most of it was on point, one element I didn’t address was how much the phenomenon of convertitis is at play in the way various doctrinal stances are taken. Many positions are taken negatively instead of positively, and much of the ethos is one of rejection, rebellion, and negation.

Of course, having moved into the Reformed tradition, it’s not hard to search about and find Calvinistic iterations of the same thing. You can find that Reformed type who’s more concerned with not being the sort of traditionless, generic Evangelical he was raised to be, than resting in the assurance the doctrines he’s come to embrace. In other words, instead of feasting in communion with Christ at the Lord’s Supper, she’s more concerned with the mere memorialism going on down the street at the independent “community” church. Again, the focus is not the positive view we’ve moved towards, but rather, rejoicing in our superiority to what we’ve left.

I end with that last version on purpose. Readers of this blog generally tend to be of the Reformed Evangelical persuasion, so I don’t want to point out the phenomenon simply so that we might pat ourselves on the back about “their” sufferers of convertitis. Rather, I hope we may take this as a warning for ourselves.

It’s one thing to celebrate some of the riches of the Reformed, or simply Evangelical and Christian tradition that you’ve come into from some other wing of things, and another to live a life fixated on rejected what came before it. Instead, set yourself the task of cultivating a rich, joyful, celebratory stance. The gospel of a gracious salvation Christ is good news, and Reformed theology with all of its depth and history exists highlight that fact. What a terrible shame it is for people to only know what we are against, instead of what we are for.

Let’s not cultivate “apostate” spirits, but resurrected ones, for that is what we have received in union with Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Marriage Is All About

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Note the emotional tenor conveyed by the underline and punctuation. My wife is an expressive writer.

It’s February now, so thoughts of romance and love are in the air. As I think about my sweet McKenna I’ve realized that great moments have not been lacking in our marriage. She’s kinda the best for all sorts of reasons–one of which is her ability to constantly surprise me. This was easily one of my favorites so far. Admittedly I’ve only been at it a year and a half, but waking up to find this lovely little note on a Sunday morning, right before I had to get ready for church, was a humorous chance to be what I’m supposed to be as a husband–a sacrificial servant who dies to himself for the sake of his wife. (Eph. 5) And there was joy in that.

Obviously, killing one cockroach in the morning before work isn’t an extreme “death to self” moment. Yes, it was a truly GINORMOUS beast and put up a serious fight. At most though, I had to simply swallow the inconvenience of time wasted on a busy Sunday morning. Still, most of the time love looks like the little things. Yes, the dates, the romance, the big decisions, and all of the normal things that we focus on in a marriage are key, important, and foundational. And so is taking out the trash when she asks you the first time and cleaning up beard trimmings in the sink, even when you’d rather just sit down and watch TV, or read a book–without whining. In the end, it’s through the little acts of daily faithfulness and service that we honor God in our marriages.

As we look towards Valentine’s Day this month, a word to husbands: yeah, plan out the big date. Make it romantic–you know, put on nice clothes and stuff. Buy the flowers–make ’em classy. Try going to a restaurant that doesn’t wrap its food in foil. And while you’re at it, kill a bug or two, make sure your towel isn’t on the floor, vaccum something–seek out the joy of serving her. I’m not great at this, but by the grace of God, I want to get better.

Soli Deo Gloria

In Memoriam: Grandma Flora

grandma

Flora Rishmawy–My Grandma. I think she’s like 19 or 20 here.

This last week, my grandma, Flora Rishmawy, passed on to be with Jesus. I was honored and blessed to deliver the message at the memorial service in Las Vegas. Some people asked to see it, so I’ve reprinted it here with minor corrections. 

We’re all here to celebrate my Grandma, Flora Rishmawy’s life. And just looking around the room, clearly there’s a lot to celebrate. I’ll start with what I know:

Grandma –The first thing I knew about Flora Rishmawy was that she was my grandma. That was her name for years before I ever found out she was “Flora”. She’s just always been ‘Grandma’ to my sister and I. My earliest memories of her consist of trips out here to Las Vegas, or her and Grandpa coming out to visit us in Hacienda Heights or Yorba Linda. They were some of the biggest highlights of our year. Things I knew about Grandma back when I was kid:

  • Let’s be honest, she always had something for us. It didn’t matter what or when, like most grandmas, she liked giving us things. Connected to that, I knew she liked “finding” things, wherever. Shopping was a thing with Grandma. She wasn’t a spender– she was a shopper, though, and when it came to her family, it was a labor of love and joy to find us things we might like or need.
  • She always looked nice for my Grandpa. My Grandma’s hair was perfect at all times. Honestly, I can still remember the smell of her hairspray. When you’re a little kid, that’s impressive.
  • I also knew that whenever we were with her, we were going to eat good food. Everybody here knows, Grandma could cook. Whether it was snacks like sambuses, or large meals, or desserts, nothing was ever “okay” when she made it. It was great. Seriously, I don’t get how Grandpa managed to stay decently trim. Ironically, some of my favorite memories of her are not at the crazy intense meals she could make at holidays, but at the breakfasts she would cook for us. Whenever we were going to leave Las Vegas after a short vacation, she would cook up an amazing breakfast with bacon, eggs, bread, and all the basics. Nothing crazy, but somehow though, she made all the basics taste better.
  • Finally, I knew she loved us and we loved her. That was never in doubt.

Of course, over the years, I came to realize that she was far more than a Grandma.

Tino and Flora Rishmawy - 53 years solid.

Tino and Flora Rishmawy – 53 years solid.

Wife – I found that there was once a young woman, born in Honduras in 1933–a beautiful young woman who caught the eye of my Grandpa who pursued her and married her when she was 19. I remember Grandpa telling me about courting her as a young lady, and I got a kick out of thought of young Grandpa, dating a pretty young Grandma. I mean, you look at the pictures and you see it. My Grandpa looking like Errol Flynn and Grandma just a beautiful sweet thing. For 53 years after that, she was a loving wife to my Grandpa Tino until he passed 6 years ago. They kept their vows. She loved him—she didn’t just feel nice things about him, but actually loved him in word and deed, the way a wife should.

Friend – Flora was also a friend. Grandma had a lot of friends—friends she raised kids with, friends she played poker and bingo with, friends she cooked, and laughed and was a friend to. Some of those friends are here now and know a lot more about this than I do.

Mother – And of course, she was a mother—to my Dad, my uncles, my aunt, and a niece she loved like a daughter, my aunt Gera. All you have to do is look at her children and you know something about her: she was a wonderful mother. Their love for her, their devotion, is a testimony to her faithful care for them over the years. I specifically get to see it in the way my Dad is a father to me and my sister. I know he gets a lot of it from his mom. Actually, that’s part of why my mom calls him “Florita” sometimes.

Now, in all of these roles, she was one thing: she was hospitable. She took care of people, hosted them, and of course, cooked for them—it was a labor of love for her. She was a hostess, and everybody knew that—it didn’t matter if you were family, or friends, neighbors. People remember Flora’s kindness, her care, her hospitality.

This is why we’re going to miss her, and why we can rejoice: somebody else is taking care of her now.

Jesus is Taking Care of Her: – For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Phil 1:21-24

Grandma always believed in God. She was a good Catholic, brought my dad and family up in the church. Like my Grandpa though, towards the later years, she began to trust God in some deeper ways. She decided to trust Jesus to care for her as she was less and less able to care for herself.

The promise of the Gospel is that for those who let him, Jesus will take care of them, both in this life and in the next. The apostle Paul here is writing to his church in Philippi and he goes back and forth as to what he should do, remain there with them, or depart to go be with Jesus, which, he says, is far better. He ultimately says God has left him with the church to care for it, but he looks forward towards that day when God calls him to himself to rest.

Why? Because he knows that Jesus is the sum of all our human strivings. All that we seek in our lives with our families, our friends, spouses, works, the rest that we try to achieve for ourselves through our own efforts, that’s found in Jesus. And, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. If God is the maker of heaven and earth, then all the good things about this life, all the joys, the laughter, the meals, the reunions, all the meaning in every beautiful sunset we’ve ever experienced has come to us as a gift from his hand.

All of that beauty was in God before he gave it to us. And he gave it to us so that we might look up at him in gratitude, in love, and in delight. In fact, the NT says that Christ is the pattern for all of these things.

Now, sin, both ours, and others, has broken up that joy. There’s a brokenness in all of God’s good gifts.  It has shattered some things, twisted others, introduced tears and pain into that transcendent tapestry God wove in Creation. There’s disease, heart-ache, and worst of all, the sting of death.

This is why, for Paul, to go to Christ is to go to the source, pure and unbroken goodness. All the things that Grandma loved most about life, she is enjoying right now in the arms of Jesus. She’s no longer frail, or weak. And she has the joy of knowing Jesus, her love, her savior, her creator, better than she ever could have imagined. This is part of why Paul writes to another congregation:

Like Those Who Have No Hope. But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. (1 Thess. 4:13-14)

Paul says that we don’t grieve without hope—now, notice what that doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean we don’t grieve.

See, it is okay to grieve. We’re here celebrating her life, but it is okay to cry. The Gospel is not that there isn’t pain now—it’s that one day, all pain will cease. But that day is not right now for us. For now, death does have a sting. Grandma isn’t here with us right now. So, you know what, go ahead and cry. Go ahead and weep. Go ahead and feel that loss. God is not an unfeeling God that tells you to just smile and put a cheerful face on it. Jesus himself wept at the graveside of Lazarus, even while he knew that he was about to raise him from the dead. It says that he was moved to tears because of our pain.

The one thing that Paul says is that we don’t grieve without hope. I have hope because Grandma is with Jesus. And the thing is, Jesus is coming back. He came, he lived the life we should have lived, took the consequences our sins deserved, then rose to life again, and ascended to heaven. And the promise is that the resurrection he experienced isn’t for him alone. The promise is that for all who trust him to take care of them, all who put their faith in him, they will one day return with him, fully resurrected, with new bodies, perfect bodies, bodies that can love, and touch and sing and embrace and reunite with loved ones.

The hope is that, on top of seeing Jesus, we get to see each other again in the new world God has promised to make—because that’s what is happening—God is going to fix all things, and make all things new again, and everything we ever loved and hoped for, including Grandma is going to be in on it.

So, if you’ve accepted the Gospel, there’s hope. Grieve, but hope.  Weep, but let some of those tears be mingled with tears of joy at the fact that because Jesus lives, we’ll see her, and my grandpa, again. And on that day, the Bible says God will wipe every tear from our eyes—including the ones we weep for Flora today.

Please pray with me.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Prayer for My Nephew, Jack Emmet Stewart

My sister Valerie and her husband Shawn just had a baby.  Jack Emmet Stewart was born on November 16th at 10:20 pm, weighing in at 8 lbs, 3 oz., 21 1/5 inches long. Jack is my first nephew and a handsome little guy.  Although he was peacefully asleep when I met him, I am convinced he could, if he so chose, destroy Chuck Norris. The awesome contained in this little bundle is hard to gauge at this point.

Now, I’ve been joking around for the last few months about how excited I am to be an uncle–all fun, no responsibilities. Well, not really joking, I meant most of it. Thing is, I’ve been praying for this little guy for a while now and, as the months have progressed, the reality of the responsibility I have towards Jack has started to dawn on me.

One of the first things I figured out I have to do is pray for him. That’s one of my main jobs now—I’m part of the Jack Emmet Stewart Prayer Team. (We are accepting all walk-ons at this point.) So, to kick it off, this is a prayer I’ve written for him:

Father, thank you for Jack Emmet Stewart. We’ve been waiting for him for a little while now. You’ve known about him for an eternity. We’re excited that he’s finally here, safe and sound. We know you have good things in store for him.

I thank you that from the first breath he took, he’s been a testimony to the Gospel. “Jack” means “God is gracious” and it fits—he is an unmerited gift of your kindness. “Emmet” in Hebrew is “truth, faithfulness”, and his arrival is a reminder of the fact that you are true and faithful. I pray that these twin truths would be the rails on which Jack’s life runs: your grace and faithfulness. Let him be ever aware of your loving-kindness, your ever-present help, your deep, deep grace—that you are faithful even when we are faithless.

There are so many things I would ask for him, things I will ask for him when the time comes, but for today I pray that you would bless him with:

Salvation– God, you are his maker, I pray that you would become his Father in Christ; adopt him by your grace. Let him come to repent and believe the Gospel early and deeply, be united by faith to Christ, and given the gift of your Spirit. I pray that someday quite soon he could answer Heidelberg’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with the proper answer, from the heart:

“That I am not my own, but I belong– body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven:  in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Father, as much as I love having him as a nephew, I want him as my little brother in Christ. Let this be the reality that forms the core of who he is.

Strength Jack has strong parents. Shawn and Val are, in their own distinct ways, two of the strongest people I know. It is often over-looked because of their great gentleness, but it is a deep, deep strength that comes from being firmly planted by the streams of your grace. I pray that Jack would be planted by those same streams, drink deeply, and be rooted in such a way that the storms, the tempests, the breezes, the dryness, the spring—all the seasons of life—would leave him unshaken.

Empathy- Let that same strength be a source of strength for others. May it come with the ability to enter into the feelings, the concerns of others without being overwhelmed by them. Bless him that he might be a blessing.

Creativity Help Jack to see beyond the normal possibilities and fears that constrain most of us from living truly God-soaked lives. Form him by your Spirit into a man whose imagination is governed only by the reaches of your power and goodness. Help him to live in ways that amaze people, glorify you, and give Jack great, great joy.

 Joy Give Jack a deep, cavernous joy–joy that revels in the beauty of creation, that takes in all that you’ve made and wells up with gratitude for the redemption that you’ve wrought.

Depth Jack comes from a line of thinkers, let it be so with him. But Father, I ask that he not only have head-knowledge, but heart-knowledge—wisdom that comes from knowing his Father and the character of his Father’s world through Christ.

Assurance Give Jack a deep assurance about who he is in Christ, the man who you’re making him into, with all of the particular gifts, talents, and personality quirks you’ve written into his spiritual DNA. Let him know down to the marrow of his being that his Creator and Redeemer did not make mistakes with him.

Community- Finally, gather people around Jack—family, friends, neighbors, and most of all the covenant community of the church—who can pour into him, protect him, encourage him, love him, correct him, affirm him, and constantly point him to Jesus.

I ask these things with great faith and anticipation, grateful in advance for what you’re going to do, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria