But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
~ Philippians 3:7 – 9 (NIV, 1984)
ELEVEN DAYS AGO, on a cold November evening, I returned from a three-day Thanksgiving church retreat hosted by a multi-ethnic church called Gracepoint. Looking back and reflecting upon just those three days, I feel I was gradually being transformed mentally and spiritually—that some strong conviction inside of me—perhaps my conscience, or even deeper, my moral compass—my superego—was convicting me that I had to go to this retreat for a specific reason, and not just because I wanted to.
Prior to the actual retreat—and the long seven-hour drive back up to NorCal—my honest expectations were to only meet up with my long-time high school classmates—now college students at UC Berkeley—whom I haven’t seen in at least an entire summer. But during the actual drive, I conversed with one of the Gracepoint staff members, my driver, John Cai, who advised me to not just to view this retreat as simply a friendly get-together. But I only half-listened to what he had to say. I was still focused on reuniting with my old classmates and youth group friends.
And I got my wish. The first person I was able to see again was my long-time hyung (형) Eric Choi. I called him on the way up to let him know my caravan had arrived in Berkeley, and everyone later gathered at Pepe’s Pizza (now one of my favorite pizza places in the city) for dinner on a cold and rainy Veterans’ Day evening. The re-encounter was simply rejuvenating for me emotionally, as I had somehow longed for Eric’s presence to be near me, as I had previously viewed him as a spiritual guide and brotherly role model in high school.
But given the passage of time and our correspondences together, both in-person and electronic over the years, I have had to picture Eric in a more human sort of light, to recognize his flaws and his burdens as well as his openly extending arms to a little Brother (남동생) like me, and this encounter yet again reassured me, though Eric would not always be around for me, in the right situations, he would show up to lead the way.
Moreover, the Retreat in itself was both eye-opening and soul-opening to the nearly fourteen hundred students who had attended. Besides viewing the amusing videos of all the church plants and Gracepoint ministries, the uplifting worship music filling the auditorium every day, and the deeply contemplative sermons Pastor Ed Kang addressed during those three days, I still had this per-conceived notion that this was all just “church” and nothing more.
I recognized, late on Saturday night, that I was still as stubborn and selfish in my ways as before—that I still deeply despised the Church and the creeds for which it has stood for, and more importantly, that I still let the deeply scarring wounds of my family’s past experiences with the Church continue to haunt me, in the form of open wounds, wounds that I have to continued to let open time and time again, so that even I will never forget the pain—but all that slowly began to change when Sunday morning dawns.
Though I have been moved emotionally by the testimonies I have heard in-person by the vast majority of the Gracepoint staff and members from all church plant ministries—Berkeley, Davis, Riverside, San Diego, Austin, Minneapolis and Hsinchu, Taiwan—intellectually, I dare not budge. I was still resistant…and maybe even now, just thinking over these very matters, I might still be. But simultaneously, I could feel that my perception could and had undergone a change—reflectively, I’d say a change for the better.
As I—and the few other thousand attendees filled the pews on Sunday morning—staff workers passed out a Reflection Sheet, later, followed by a Commitment handout. As I gazed at the questions posed on the sheets of paper before my very eyes, questions still arose within me. I still wanted to intellectually argue with my superego, and on a concurrent level, to argue with God about why the Church had to hurt my family so deeply in the past.
Because growing up in a strongly-knit Christian house, I’ve always had this notion, this idea, this value that all Christians are loving, forgiving and considerate people—and that belief has remained with me after all these years.
I knew God planted this idealistic notion in my heart long ago as a little kid, but when I had to come face-to-face with a harsh reality, I grew increasingly heartbroken—and even more so, increasingly bitter, and a strongly convicted backlasher of anything to do with church in general.
Occasionally, it’d come to the point where my nearest family and classmates began questioning whether I was truly a Christian or not anymore.
In my isolative periods, quite frankly, I still believed in Christ with all my heart and soul, but I could never fully mentally process the hurt I’ve been holding inside for so long—and it is only now that I fully come forward with the issue at hand yet again.
To make matters simple, I do consider myself to be a Christian in every aspect of the word—Bible-preaching, evangelistic, apologetic, and a dedicated Jesus Freak—but I never fully agreed with the Church’s teachings. Therefore, I also came to realize I hold strongly liberal beliefs and values.
In my time away from the Church, I also wanted to create this concept where my liberal opinions and beliefs could reconcile with my perspective of Christianity—one of the main driving reasons why I started this series of columns roughly just a year ago in September 2010—and the other main reason being I became very self-absorbed and passionate in my former high school teacher, Jaime Richards’, ideals and enthusiasm.
And so I still carry this highly spiritual zeal with me to the present day, but I am not even close to ending this chapter just yet. That is why I continue to write, working through long hours of restless nights and a swarm of ideas conjuring up in my head every now and then.
Returning to that Sunday morning service though, before I could muster up the guts and the heart to sincerely (and in my perspective, apologetically) write down any thoughts on that initial piece of paper, that Reflection Sheet, one of the leaders of the worship team called for everyone to rise. And so I lay my sheet and pen down and rose with the multitude as well.
As the music begins to play and the crowd begins to sing, I too sang as I had just the day before.
But this time, the experience felt a little different—a little alien to me.
That deep conviction—that spark of the divine—maybe even the voice of God Himself—begins to speak to my bitter mind, heart, and soul, in the middle of my singing and praying.
I simultaneously consciously and subconsciously could notice that God was literally melting away my pains and burdens, as I felt those hurtful images flee from my mind in the midst of my meditation.
Internally, I wept and cried out to God to heal this wounded soul of mine, this heavy heart of mine.
In time, I can now feel His presence working wonders in me—one step at a time.
As the music fades, and as I gasp out of the awe and the admiration of feeling God right in front of my being, my mind doesn’t seem to compute with what had just happened. But my heart knew.
I had come to the realization that the following words spoke their truthfulness to me:
Lord, now indeed I find
Thy power and Thine alone
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone
Cause Jesus paid it all
All to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow.
~ An excerpt from Jesus Paid It All
The experience was truly breath-taking, and reminded me of a time, many years ago, when I was touched by God’s presence as an elementary school kid in children’s church at one of my former churches, Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose, CA.
I still have feelings of nostalgia of that time…lots of bittersweet memories there too.
After the crowd quiets and the prayers cease with a final “Amen”, Pastor Ed strolled to his pulpit to give his Sunday morning sermon from Exodus Chapter 3 while I jotted down some thoughts on my Reflection Sheet.
As Ed explained the significance that God does hear, see, and rescue in the days of the Old Testament, so He does in the days of the New Testament.
God can still see, hear, and rescue—and I do believe He is doing so with just one individual like me.
It takes time, as I have come to understand how the Lord reveals Himself to me, and more importantly, how I choose to accept Him in due time as a generous, compassionate and abundantly loving Father, how the very belief, and faith even more so, can turn any person from being dejected and feeling rejected into a person showing this newfound godly love to others.
It is not easy, as I have said before, and the road ahead is often long and rocky, but if any of you were to ask me, “But is it still worth it? Taking such great risks to go out there and show people what a Christian really should look like?” my answer would still be a “Yes, but the significant part is in the risking itself. That is where most men seem to fail the test of life, succumbing to their inner hatred and guilt, rather than sticking it out and persevering on through.”
But here’s the question we should all ask ourselves deeply, “Why do we do that? Why do we seem to like to play things out safely?”
I’ll tell you the answer straight-up. We play it safe because we think that’s the safest route to go, and plus, it’s within our comfort zones.
We have an inherent nature that says, “I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything dangerous and out of my bounds. I like to stay in my cozy room, where I feel safe and secure.”
And indeed we all do. Even I do as well.
But, on the other hand, when I do feel I am being called to do something, when my flag is up, when the timing feels just right and when my gut says, “Do it” that’s when I make my move; and I don’t hesitate or second-guess on that thought either. I just go for it, and give it my all.
While the masses choose to conform by staying in the comfort zones of their own reach, every now and then, a handful of nonconformists have to step up to the plate and break that sense of comfort and security.
Jesus did so, and in showing an example to His apostles, they did so as well—most of them ending up in the cruelest of fates. But their faith kept telling them that this was worth it.
They made the bold decision to be martyrs of a man who claimed to be God incarnate, when they could have simply gone home and waited for a couple years for this whole pandemonium, excitement, and confusion to die down—and in turn, making the masses believe that Jesus was just another man who said great words and performed great miracles, but would be another “failed messiah” to the Jewish people.
What would early Christianity have become of if it wasn’t for the sacrifices of these men?
Just another ancient meaningless religion, right?
I ended up making a re-dedication commitment that Sunday morning, on November 13th, 2011. And honestly, I do not regret it one bit.
Because I felt I needed to take that stand for myself, and for the rest of my peers, to show them what a dedicated believer I am—and most importantly, that I have indeed somehow changed.
That was the highlight of the Retreat in my perspective—and in addition, being able to witness my fellow Brothers turning their hearts, souls, and lives over to Christ as well. It was a crucial spiritual turning point in all of our lives, and I honestly cannot look at fellowship the same way I used to.
I know that I don’t want to keep getting hurt time and time again, but this time, I want to be genuine.
Cause this isn’t some fancy-schmancy show. This is the real deal.
Fast forward ten nights later.
After spending an entire afternoon trying to figure out how to go back home to the Bay for Thanksgiving weekend, my parents told me to stay to catch up on schoolwork. And so I am still here in Riverside.
I planned ahead of time to go to Acts 2 Fellowship’s Bible Study session last night, and since I figured I could stay, I spent most of my Wednesday evening at Bible Study, and I liked it.
The main focus, again, was on gratitude, and why we should be grateful for the things that God has allowed us to see in our lives, and paraphrasing Steve Jobs, “connecting the dots looking backwards.”
So my group went through a brief Bible discussion from the Book of Deuteronomy and going over the concept of not forgetting about God in our lives, and why it is always important to remember that He alone is our source of strength. That was an important lesson right there, I’ll say.
But to make things even better, my group created a beautiful collage made entirely out of ripped up pieces of construction paper, and writing all of the things we were thankful for looking back and reflecting on our whole lives. It was just deep, and I mean philosophically deep.
So, as to close this extremely long piece, I apologize in advance if your eyes are about to fall out if you’ve already read this far.
But here’s what important and great to remember from everything I’ve shared here (and it’s a lot of information to digest and mentally process, I know, and I can understand where you’re all coming from).
Gratitude: what does it really mean to each person out there in this great big world?
Is it simply to show a sense of mere appreciation, or can gratitude be expressed on an even deeper level?
I want you all to think about that answer, as it will be slightly different for each of you, but all the same I believe, as the main theme for Thanksgiving is to:
Give thanks where thanks should be given, and it’s simply just to show that there are people that you care about in your life, but maybe they deserve to hear and see some compliments and acts of gratitude every once in a while from somebody like you.
That’s the real message here for this year’s Thanksgiving, and may the Lord watch over all of you during this Holiday Season.
Enough said, and God Bless everyone! 🙂
~ A Fellow Columnist, Josh Chen.
P.S. If any of you want to see the finished mosaic of gratitude, here it is:
P.P.S. If any of you are interested about Gracepoint Church, go to their website: http://www.acts2fellowship.org/riverside.
The verse written on the collage is referenced from 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NIV):
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO EVERYONE! 😀