To Be #1

Every Sunday afternoon, I teach an English Literature class to a small group of Chinese high schoolers. These days we are reading through The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, occasionally pausing for discussion and reflection.


Last Sunday, however, only one student showed up: Sophia. Not wanting the others to fall behind, I decided to shelve Narnia and instead use this time to get to know Sophia, asking her questions and – if my boss asks – helping her with her English conversation skills.


Even in this ‘free’ time, all Sophia was able to talk about was the overwhelming amount of homework waiting for her, and how she needed to do it as soon as possible. “I am top of my class,” she exclaimed. “So I must work very hard to stay on top.”


Hearing this, I asked Sophia about something I’d been pondering for a while. “I often find myself riding my bike behind the Tang Lai students,” I told her. “Their uniforms say ‘To Be Number One’ on the back. How do you feel about this motto?”

 


Sophia thought for a second. “If you try your best, then you are at the top. If you are not at the top, then you are not trying your best. This slogan is an encouragement. Anybody can be number one.”


Later reflecting on Sophia’s words, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for my students. They are under such intense pressure from their teachers and parents that they think there is no room for failure and that there is little worth in trying their best if it does not result in top marks. Life is too short to think only of status, I thought. Even the lowliest, most imperfect person has a purpose and can make a meaningful impact on this world.


After all, that’s what Jesus did.


Jesus – the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation. He did not live a life of royalty and high class while he walked this earth. Instead, he lived a life of submission and humility. He made himself lowly, being born in a stable, spending time with sinful people, and enduring ridicule, condemnation, and death for them. For us.
 

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
— 1 John 4:10


Thinking about competition and measures of status reminded me of the disciples’ argument on their way to Capernaum. When Jesus confronted them, they were embarrassed and remained quiet, until finally posing the question to him:
 

Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
— Matthew 18:1


The disciples were not doubting Jesus’ greatness; rather, they were wondering which one of them would have the greatest job in heaven. Each man loved the Lord so deeply and wanted desperately to be his number one, to serve him as his right-hand man.



What the disciples failed to realize, however, is that there is no competition in God’s kingdom. There is no valedictorian or salutatorian, no class president, no Assistant to the Regional Manager. In his kingdom, greatness is not a matter of title and status. Why, earthly greatness has no place in Jesus’ value system at all. The disciples completely misunderstood the concept of greatness in the Lord’s domain.


It’s only human, after all. In our studies, our jobs, our relationships, our hobbies – you name it, we want to be the best of it. All too often we see greatness as a material, measurable thing. A status-marker. And all too often, we have the audacity to whip out our life report cards and compare them with each other, thinking we somehow have the authority and ability to judge who is the greatest. We willingly choose to identify and rank ourselves based on our own sinful disposition.


God in his almighty and gracious mercy, however, refuses to define the greatness of our lives the way our sinful hearts try to. Through his word and example, Jesus corrects our ignorance, just as he corrected his disciples following their argument so many years ago:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
— Matthew 18:2-5


Jesus instructs us to redefine greatness not by status or hierarchy, but by humility, love, and service. He directs us to a child as an example of greatness in his kingdom because of the child’s great humility. Like the child depends on his father, so do we completely depend on G0d’s merciful love, forgiveness, and salvation in order to enter his almighty kingdom.


As God’s children, we must recognize that we cannot do anything to earn or deserve God’s love. We must look to Jesus Christ and humbly throw ourselves at his feet, knowing we rely completely on his mercy for forgiveness and salvation. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). In order to inherit his kingdom, we must not put ourselves first, but last, and without any regard for personal greatness, just as our Savior did for us.

At the end of our conversation, Sophia mentioned a time when her class rank momentarily dropped from number one. “You should be at the top,” her father had said to her, angrily. “Why aren’t you at the top?” Thanks be to God that he does not identify us by our report cards or lifetime achievement awards. Praise be to HIM who made himself last for me so that I might have greatness in his kingdom as a daughter of the King!
 

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
— Mark 10:43–45

The Most Regal Way to Travel

The Queen Mary

It was an unusual day in sunny Southern California. We were in Long Beach and planned a stroll along the jetty across from the Queen Mary, permanently docked for tours. She had been a magnificent ship, first launched in 1934, and according to Facebook, now provides “a unique glimpse into an era when steamships were the most regal way to travel.”

But it wasn’t the Queen Mary that caught my eye that afternoon. It was a young mother ahead of us. Like a human steamship herself, she clasped her tiny sons’ hands, and pushed forward around the walkway toward the parking lot, amid howls of protest.

From behind, we could not blame the boys for resisting. Weather-wise, it was far less than what we expected. Normally, Long Beach has near-perfect 70-degree weather. Today it was gray, cold, and sleet began to assault our faces.

Moving quickly together, we headed toward our destination, boys in toe with their mama. She was determined to lead us safely around the walkway. We trekked toward the car, heads down, pushing through the inconvenience of the uninvited shower.

Here is our view that day. The memory of it brings a smile to my face and a scriptural parallel to ponder.

Royal Ambassadors

These boys pictured, our grandsons, are now approaching their middle grade-school years. We are thankful for our daughter, who is persistent as a mom. While she does not bear a worldly title of royalty, in God’s eyes she is regal. By grace through faith, she carries the honored position of being in the royal priesthood of believers, one who shines her light for Jesus.

I smile because I can see a glimpse of that heavenly light reflecting off a crown, one I imagine is perched on her head. She’s a capable and caring wife and mother, raising her children to carry out their duties as kids of the King. They learn Bible stories, pray before meals, sing praises, worship regularly, and they listen to countless admonitions to be kind, to share, to forgive.

There’s immense joy in watching young mothers who are bringing up the next generation of royal ambassadors for Jesus. My heart is grateful as I think of how this training has played out in the family. Just a few years back, one of these little guys initiated an invitation to his grandpa to come to church and learn about Jesus.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
— 2 Corinthians 5:20

Praise God! A small boy implored his grandpa, and the man’s relationship with the Savior has blossomed! A child, taught by mama to love the Lord, became God’s tool, walking in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul at age four.
 

Not So Royal Duties

So many times the tasks of being a mom, and especially a believing mom, are not glamorous or filled with publicity.

  • Who can count the myriad number of times moms watch for teachable moments and talk to their children about the Creator, the risen Savior, and the Spirit living in hearts?
  • Who knows the number of times mothers encourage prayers before meals?
  • Who sees the bone-weary look on a mom’s face as she tucks her children into bed with a bible story, a prayer and a song about Jesus?
  • Who hears the innumerable times her name is called out and she answers with love and kindness?

Only God knows and often only God sees. The task is frequently daunting, exhausting and thankless to be truthful. Most times, it takes a surreal kind of Godly strength to keep going.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
— 2 Corinthians 4:1

Rest assured, all mothers out there! Your faithful work to share God’s Word with little ones is not in vain. Keep walking your kids through the storms of life, full steam ahead, in full view of their heavenly destination. Remind them of their humble yet invaluable position as sons and daughters of the King. Teach them to perform their royal duties to honor their King, share him with others, and bring him glory!
 

A Unique Glimpse

Maybe you think my ponderings are a bit hokey. That's okay with me. Just try it anyway and you will see that by grooming ambassadors for God you will…

  • fulfill your own royal purpose.
  • put the Gospel on display.
  • dare to demonstrate to others “a unique glimpse into an era"… where Godly mothers are… "the most regal way to travel.”
     

Don’t give up on this journey. The final destination is worth the effort. In the end, we pray our children will all lay their crowns at the feet of Jesus!

Strength in Silence

My whole life people have told me I would make a great teacher. “You really know how to engage people,” they would say. “You use your whole body to tell a story!” I guess that’s just the aspiring actress in me. (Hey, it could still happen.)
 

Insisting that I’d rather be a student than a teacher, I have always laughed off these claims. And yet, here I am – seven months into my new career of teaching English as a foreign language to children in China. I’m definitely still a beginner, and I’m far from perfect, but I feel like I’ve come a long way in my ability to lead a classroom.

A few weeks ago, however, my Saturday class really challenged me. In a moment of chaos, when even my translator couldn’t get the students to quiet down, I impulsively decided to jump in the air and smack my boots back on the ground, thinking the noise might bring my kids back to attention.

 

But it didn’t work. All that my efforts earned was a bewildered look from my translator, who then told me to calm down. “I wasn’t angry,” I later explained. “I was just trying to get them to listen.”

 

Later that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about my foolhardiness. I felt ashamed. In the midst of disorder, I thought I could get my students to listen by being louder than they were. Even if these kids don’t understand a word I say, they can surely understand my manner.  And what sort of manner did I display that day in class? Certainly not one of quiet composure and grace. Certainly not one that Jesus would have shown to his little lambs.

 

When confronted with the loud confusion of unbelievers, Jesus did not slam his feet onto the ground in impatience and desperation.

 

When faced with the temper of the armed mob come to arrest him, Jesus did not need to be louder than his captors in order for his voice to be heard.

 

When the angry crowd shouted “Cruc¡fy him!” and the governor’s soldiers tortured and ridiculed him, Jesus did not fight back.

 

Instead, Jesus was quiet.

 

Under public scorn and temptation, Jesus maintained a manner of quiet dignity, graceful understanding, and perfect love. Even in the face of certain death, Jesus endured with humble majesty. He did not give his enemies the satisfaction of a cheap, impulsive reply. In fact, his calm was often a more effective and more powerful response than any words could have been. He was quiet not only because the taunts thrown at him were unworthy of an answer, but also because he knew he would have to suffer and die in order to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies and God’s promises to his people.

 

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
— Isaiah 53:7

 

When Jesus did speak, it was not to defend himself or to hush his scoffers. After being falsely accused and forced under oath to identify himself, Jesus without hesitation broke his silence and boldly confirmed that he is the Chπ¡st. He did not speak for the sake of being heard; he spoke so that we may know the truth. He spoke to set in motion his own condemnation – because he loves us.

 

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent.

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: in the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”

“He is worthy of death,” they answered. Matthew 26:62-66

 

Jesus provides the greatest example of what it means conquer the noise of doubt and evil because he did so with selfless love, humility, and grace. He took on the s¡ns of the world and ultimately accepted his own death sentence because “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” Matthew 20:28. Even at his weakest moments, he did not return any slander or give in to anger and temptation. Rather, he continued to pray to his Father, often on the behalf of those who hated him.

 

When God’s children were noisy and unruly, Jesus did not need to shout in order to be heard. To this day, his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection resound more thunderously and magnificently than any spoken word, whether bellowed or whispered.

 

The way I see it, with a little training and experience, almost anybody can be a teacher. But it takes real patience, humility, and love to be a great teacher. I have a lot to learn before I even come close to reaching that point. Luckily, I can trust in Jesus’ perfect example of quiet strength to guide me. I’ve always been a better student, anyway.

 

Be still, and know that I am God.
— Psalm 46:10