words of life

Today marks 5 years since cancer took my friend Esther. Last week, I learned of another college friend who walked from earth into eternity. The list of people I know who have passed away grows at a rate that I’ll never be comfortable with. And I hate it.

We always want to say things, anything, that might offer comfort in times of loss, but the reality is that it’s often little solace. Pithy statements like, “he’s in a better place!” and “she’s with Jesus” do not take away the sting of death. They are well-meaning and true words, but they do little to change the situation. I am reminded of the limitations of my words every time I try to console a grieving friend. Every time a friend tries to offer me words of encouragement. Our best words cannot undo sin and its end product: death.

There is one place that I’ve found comfort and hope, especially when dealing with death, and that’s in the words of Jesus. You can chalk it up to religious sentimentality or fanciful feelings, but there is a very real peace in the red letters. Almost as if they have power.

After all, when Jesus spoke, people were healed and demons went scrambling. When Jesus spoke, the winds and the sea obeyed him. When Jesus spoke, a dead man walked out of his grave. John 1 tells us that Jesus was the very Word by which all things were created out of nothing back in Genesis. Jesus has power. And the power was displayed when he was resurrected from the dead, the firstfruit, proving our spiritual resurrection and future bodily resurrection.

We also know that the Bible is God’s revelation to us, so that that when it speaks, God speaks. Thus, it makes sense that reading Scripture would bring peace, because it is the power of God working in you, not just your brain processing the words on paper.

The words that I have been resting on today are some of the last words in the Bible. They describe a vision of what is to come, a reality that draws nearer with every passing day.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new.  – Revelation 21:1-5

This is what we look forward to. Not for a future of floating around playing harps, but a future where heaven is on earth, where death and crying and pain will be a thing of the past. It is a place where the dead in Christ will live with God in newly restored, resurrected bodies. Esther. Patrick. Ronnie. Ommar. Christ the Redeemer will return to finish what he began and redeem everything fully. The earth. Our bodies. Our lives. He is working all things toward this redemption.

Jesus said it, and they are true because the One who spoke it is Truth. He is God.

Behold! Jesus is making all things new!

your hand in mine

It wasn’t my first time through a haunted house.

It was Halloween weekend and some friends and I had decided to visit a local scare house, one that promised to scare our socks off, if we followed the course, of course. We walked past caged monsters and shrieking zombies, mummies with searching arms and mazes determined to separate our pack. It was enough for a few yelps, jumps, and spooks, but nothing that truly frightened us; it was more the stuff of “Goosebumps” and less the stuff of nightmares. But the exhibits did succeed in dividing our group of friends so that after a while, I found myself with one other person, unsure of where everyone else was.

Then we saw it: the door that led out into the crisp October night sky. We hurriedly walked toward the door, certain that we were in the clear, when we both suddenly jumped in surprise. A deranged, bloody farmer wielding a chainsaw walked menacingly toward us, chainsaw loudly buzzing. And as soon as our feet landed back on the ground, her hand reached out and found mine.

And the world fell away and the scene popped into focus with electric clarity.

It was the most natural thing, to reach out and find a hand of safety in a moment of fear, but in that moment, it was as if a jolt ran through me. It was as if there were explosions in the sky. I hardly noticed anything else; the only thing I cared about was saving my friend from the maniac farmer. I shielded her from his threatening advances (and may have back-handed him with my left fist) and we rushed into the safety of the open night. As we rejoined our friends, I let go of her hand, but still clutched onto the memory. I’ve never been able to let it go.

It’s a memory that has resurfaced from time to time simply because of how vivid it was. Her hand in mine. My hand in hers. Instinct displayed in the most innocent form. You don’t want to face fear alone.

I’ve been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes and found in a brilliant piece of prose that Watson experienced something similar:

“Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.”

— John Watson, “The Sign of the Four” (written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

There is something so basic about looking to someone else in a moment of crisis, in a time of trepidation. We instinctively know there is strength in numbers, and two is better than one, but more than that, there is the silent acknowledgement, “I’m with you on this. We’re facing this together.” There is solace knowing that someone else is there.

I was able to protect my friend from a masked actor in a haunted house, and in a display of chivalry, could probably protect her from a host of other physical things that threatened her. Watson was able to offer comfort and protection to Mary Morstan in light of her father’s death and the strange mysteries behind it. And when I get married, I hope to guard my wife’s heart and keep her safe and comforted to the best of my ability. But if I’m honest, there are many terrors where my cold and clammy hands would provide little help because “the dark things that surround” are often more than just physical fears. Sin, death, depression, anxiety, a broken past, guilt, all these and more are shadows that stand menacingly over us, things which we often have no power over. My comfort and my protection have their limits, and as much as I try, I make a shoddy savior. So where do we turn in our fear?

In the midst of the dark things that surround, what do we grasp?

God the Father, who promised from the beginning that he would never leave us or forsake us, sent his Son Jesus to the earth so that the dark things could be overcome and shown to have no power. Jesus overcame temptation in the midst of his weakness, cast out demons from the afflicted, and even conquered Death by being raised back to life. This Jesus, who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), is our source of comfort and hope, our God victorious. He who faced suffering and death for our sake promises that he is trustworthy and in control. We can rest in his shadow because he makes the shadows of darkness disappear. We have the promise that we can turn to him and not be disappointed, and so when fears assail and tragedy strikes, we can slip our hand in his.
We don’t have to face fear alone.

We never face anything alone.

the Story of stories

I learned to read at a fairly early age. Between Sesame Street and my mom, I began recognizing letters and words before I entered Kindergarten. We didn’t have any of the normal children’s books around the house; I cut my teeth on the pages of Scripture. While most kids were making their way through Dr. Seuss and The Little Engine That Could, my parents had me read stories in the Bible like Abraham offering Isaac up to God as a sacrifice and David killing Goliath. Between many “thees” and “thous”, and a horifically long time in Leviticus,  they were my first reading lessons, my bedtime stories and the lessons I heard week in and week out in Sunday School.

Although I understood that the Bible was one book composed of 66 books and countless stories, I wasn’t quite told how all the stories seemed to fit together. I viewed it as a collection of stories (true stories!) with morals. They were stories that ultimately showed us how to live rightly and serve God better.

  • God asks Abraham to offer his only son, the son God had promised him in his old age, as a sacrifice to show Abraham’s commitment to God. Abraham is willing and obeys, but God prevents Abraham from slaying Isaac by providing a ram to take Isaac’s place. Moral of the story: be willing to sacrifice anything for God like Abraham.
  • The Philistine giant Goliath taunts the Israelite army, and no one is brave enough to fight him. Shepherd boy David finds out what the fuss is about and goes out to battle Goliath, not with sword and shield, but with his staff, sling and five smooth stones. Young David kills Goliath, the Israelites oust the Philistines and David eventually becomes king. Moral of the story: be courageous like David and you can slay the giants in your life.

I learned all the morals of the stories of the Bible and thus tried to model my life off the specific stories that were in them, and that is how I was taught to view them. What I did was turn the Bible into a sort of Aesop’s Fables. The Bible was primarily a book on how to live life. I became a really good moralist, trying to model my life after the examples in Scripture of what to and not to do, trying to thus ensure my acceptance by God and His love.

And I missed the big picture, the greater Story that God is telling us through His revealed Word.

God created everything, and it was good: the heavens, the earth, the entire cosmos. He created man and woman to rule over creation and to live in relationship with Him, but they rebelled against His one rule, and it fractured everything. Sin, death and a broken relationship with God were the consequences of this rebellion and became our inheritance. Everything was broken and the Bible is the story of how God has been  relentlessly pursuing sinful people and restoring relationship with them (us) and repairing everything that was broken. God did this by sending His Son Jesus to earth, and in His life, death and resurrection, everything broken is being made right; this is the big picture, the greater Story that God is telling us through His revealed Word. And every story points to this Story.

  • The story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t just about one man’s willingness to sacrifice the most precious thing in his life. It points to a Father who was willing to sacrifice His one and only Son and let Him die. There was no ram; Jesus actually died. It is a story that shows how deep the Father’s love for us is.
  • The story of David and Goliath isn’t mainly about a young boy that courageously slays a giant. It points to a desperately weak people who need an overwhelmingly great savior to overcome an overwhelmingly great enemy. It is the story of how God sent a Deliverer at the right time to rescue His people from this enemy of sin and death.

When we see the Bible this way, as one Grand Story, we see the heart of a loving, redeeming God who is after us, after our heart, not begrudging obedience. We see that there is a cohesiveness to Scripture that points to a Grand Storyteller.

And we see that we’re not the center of this Story. Jesus is.

miss america and the great kaleidoscope

I was born in New York, a jewel of a million different glints of color. Growing up, it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t look a lot like my classmates, and English wasn’t the language my parents and grandparents spoke at home. However, many of the kids in my school looked different, from all sorts of different racial and cultural backgrounds, and I learned that although we looked different, we were all somehow in the same boat.

But as I grew older, racism would rear its ugly head here and there. During recess in the third grade, a student told me to “go back to Mexico!” After the September 11th attacks, “Bin” (short for bin-Laden) became my nickname by a certain group of people in my school. While walking through West Campus late one night at the University of Texas at Austin, a car full of white boys driving by slowed down, shouted, “go home, sand nigger!” and sped off. And although these weren’t devastating insults, they reminded me that I looked different. That I was a minority.

Nina DavuluriNina Davuluri from New York was just crowned Miss America 2014, the first winner from Indian descent. Amid the celebration, many took to social media to express their outrage that a “real American” didn’t win. Hateful comments about her skin color, her ethnic heritage, religious background, cultural “voodoo” dance, and Indian stereotypes in general spread through the Twitter-sphere. Other ignorant comments called her Arabic, Muslim, and a part of al-Qaeda. Because, you know, if you’re brown, it’s all the same thing.

But the overwhelming sentiment among these racist tweets  is that she’s not really American. Her skin doesn’t look American. Her name doesn’t sound American. Her dance certainly wasn’t American. This is America, and colored people aren’t supposed to win American contests. In case you missed it, “American” is a race and ethnicity. Never mind the fact that this country was occupied long before the first Europeans ever sailed across the pond and “discovered” it. Look over the fact that my parents (and nearly every other colored immigrant to the United States) were looking for many of the same opportunities that every other immigrant from the last 300 years were looking for.

My initial reaction to seeing all this wasn’t anger, but sadness. When I began perusing through the Twitter profiles of some of the people who expressed their bigoted remarks, I couldn’t help but notice how normal they seemed. They looked like many of the people I went to school with, that I work with, that I’m neighbors with. Some of them even touted Bible verses or “Christian” labels. I don’t think most white Americans are racist, my experience has shown me otherwise, but I was reminded that bigotry and wickedness still remain in the land of the free and home of the brave. I was reminded that racism is common even among minority cultures like my own, where we would freeze and stiffen whenever a black person walked into our South Indian church. It’s a tragedy and distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ when racism exists in the church.

I was reminded that even though some of these xenophobic tweeters may have been exposed, my own heart is capable of overwhelming wickedness and prejudice. Sin is a universal curse.

But wickedness and prejudice and sin do not have to define us. The Bible reminds us that we’re all created in God’s image and that in Christ, we are part of a great, multi-cultural family where the thing that defines  us is the righteous, saving work of Jesus Christ. There is no place for prejudice in the Kingdom of God.

America certainly isn’t the Kingdom of God, but it is the country God has placed me in. I’m saddened at the ignorance and prejudice of a few people, but as an American, I dream of a better tomorrow. We are more than the Melting Pot of the West, we are the Great American Kaleidoscope. We are a mosaic made beautiful by the diversity of color and culture that make us up.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

-Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream”

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

-Revelation 7:9-10

Let’s not lash back in vitriolic hatred, but pray for our brothers and sisters and show grace in the face of hate. The gospel of reconciliation requires no less.

suffering in the hands of a sovereign God

Pain and suffering are not things that are foreign to Christians. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if we have more of it.

Following Christ doesn’t mean life gets easier. Loved ones will still die. Disease will steal health. Life will not be kind. People will talk negatively about you. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may break your spirit.

Following Jesus isn’t a ticket to health and wealth, but a surrendering of your life and taking up your cross, because that’s what Jesus did. We follow the leader who fell to the ground while carrying His instrument of torture. He was bruised and crushed and spit upon and reviled; the King of kings suffered to the very point of death on a cross. He, who could call angels to strike down His persecutors, who did not deserve to hang like a criminal, submitted Himself to suffering because He knew that the Father was still in charge. God still sat on His throne.

Following Jesus means that sometimes, we don’t get to come down from our cross.

This song reminds us that whether it be cancer or criticism, death or disability, our suffering is not just random bad luck or the universe out to get us. It does something in us. Our suffering has purpose in the hands of a sovereign God.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering

Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

For the stories behind the song, click here and here.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21