Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reflections From A Kingdom-Warrior

Last night, Pastor Scott, some members of the Boon Church servants team, and I had the wonderful opportunity of having dinner with Reverend Wayland Wong at Pastor Don’s house. A seasoned minister, Wayland is one of the most respected Chinese-American pastors in the country. Based out of Orange County, CA, he has been working with Chinese churches and is incredibly knowledgeable in the area of Chinese ministry and the unique cultural challenges with running a one in America. He has more decades of ministry experience than I have years (even including my years in HS as a youth leader).

I was really excited to meet him and drill him with questions because Chinese-American ministry happens to be my passion. I had been reading articles from a newsletter called FACE (Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals) that he started in the 70s. In addition, I had spent the last summer interning with ISAAC (Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity) and was all ready to pick his brain about all the challenges and strategies of running a Chinese church. I had pictured him as someone very strategically-minded, a visionary, an outside-the-box thinker. I imagined he was sly, clever, perhaps even a little devious. I couldn’t imagine a person with any other kind of personality who would survive that long in his chosen field. As someone with so much experience, I was all ready for him to lay down some secrets, some dirty moves, some trick plays in order to get ahead of all the church bureaucracy. I was really expecting him to say things like “This is how you get a Chinese board of deacons on your side” or “When you start a ministry you know that they won’t like, make sure you do this and this”.

It turns out my expectations were way off. Instead of church-building strategy, he spent most of the night preaching to us, imploring us to have unity and love in Christ. He warned us multiple times about the dangers of “doing church” and missing the point of all of that church-building. He reminded us that ultimately we are called to build God’s kingdom, and not fight the Chinese board for more rights. He reminded us that no matter what circumstances we’re placed in, whether the English Congregation has its own budget or not, whether our voice is heard in church governing or not, we have the command from Christ to make disciples and to strengthen one another in Christ through the Word.

I was surprised, but when I got home, I began to understand it all. After a lifetime of serving the church, Reverend Wayland Wong had learned this precious piece of wisdom, and that is to bear in mind always what our ultimate purpose of doing church is. It is to glorify God and to see him magnified in the eyes of as many people as possibly in the world. He had probably seen time after time how easy it is for church leaders to lose sight of this and disintegrate into bickering, gossiping, slander, and church-splitting. He had probably felt the passion in each of our hearts in PD’s house that night, and recognized that same danger within us, and that was why he chose to spend most of the night reminding us of the true purpose of church.

He gently encouraged us to seek change and revival not in grand church changes, not in a parallel church-leadership (that is to say, a Chinese board AND an English board), not in new programs or events, not in coffeehouses or praise nights or revivals, but in individuals. He reminded us that revival starts with individuals gripped with a powerful desire to return to God, and those individuals seeking out other individuals to teach, admonish, encourage, rebuke, pray with, and search Scripture with. And those individuals forming groups, and those groups coming together to be the body of Christ. As he spoke, my eyes were opened to how much more I could be doing RIGHT NOW, with the circumstances that God has placed me in.

I am so young. Within me there is still so much fight, so much fire, so much youthful passion. Yet another thing Reverend Wayland said was how important it was to choose your battles, and not just that but know who you’re battling. The enemy is not other people. It’s not another congregation or another church or another church leader. It is Satan, who’s work is to divide God’s people and destroy the work of the gospel. If we don’t keep that in mind, we’ll be lost within our own selfish desires and deceptively personal causes and the work of the kingdom will not be done.

I want to challenge you, Christian. What’s important in your life? What battles have you fought and are they the one’s that will win ground for Christ’s kingdom? If you’ve lived your life safely, always seeking stability, keeping your head down and trying not to offend anyone, then where is your passion, your urgency to see the gospel go out? Do you have that fire in your belly, that devotion in your will? Tonight, I was reminded of what ought to be the most important thing in my life. I hope reading this gives you an opportunity to reflect on what that is for you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Habits Of Reading

Last week, my brother Andrew shared that he has been trying to read through the gospels and is having a hard time focusing. While I don't doubt for many of us, a big reason we have difficulty reading the Bible consistently is a mixture of heart and discipline issues, I think for people who have been Christians for a long time, reading the gospels pose a different problem.

I've gone to church since the second grade, and between that time and now I've probably heard, read, or encountered in some way every story in every gospel at least a dozen times. I suspect this is true of many people reading this note. So when we decide to read Matthew or Mark or Luke again, we get bored. What am I supposed to get out of this? I know these stories backwards and forwards!

The truth is, familiarity breeds negligence. As soon as our eyes graze the heading, "The Calling of the First Disciples", "Jesus Calms a Storm", "The Parable of the Lost Son", we recall all we know about the story and then just read through it on auto-pilot. So we zoom through it, not carefully taking time to note the details and to savor each sentence or word. Because we've read it so many times, we think there's nothing left for us to learn from Scripture!

Well, right now as I prepare a sermon series on Mark, I realize that we are all SO WRONG! Our familiar style of reading the gospels (or really anything in the Bible we think we know well) is just POOR READING. It's a careless, haphazard, missing-many-details habit that we have to change or else risk never growing and never encountering the Bible in a deeper manner.

The truth is, right now I'm only beginning to learn to develop right habits of reading and asking the right questions. "Why did the author put this story in between these two stories?" "How come the author included this detail about Jesus?" "Why does Jesus take only these disciples with him?" It's really a discipline of productive reading that is applicable to any literature, not just the Bible. And, to risk being unscientific, I would even claim that part of the reason why we don't have good habits of reading is because of our TV and internet culture, where the goal of new products and applications is to make things as accessible as possible (hence, as brainless as possible).

If God is really the God about which Paul extols, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge!", and Scripture is his Words, then how can we possibly ever declare (even in our subconscious) "I've learned all I can from this passage". It is intellectually prideful and downright wrong. What we need to do is learn how to humbly approach the Word of God and have our spiritual ears opened. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear". How do we do that? We must prayerfully approach our Bible reading. We must avoid being in a rush, or treating it like an item on your to-do list that you are seeking to check off. We must avoid approaching the text too academically, like a reading for a class that you must work through. But at the same time, we have to approach it with right techniques to understand the meaning in the text.

Ultimately to do this, it's about time, persistence, and humble, prayerful, willingness. It requires that you do acknowledge that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that it was written for you. It requires that you acknowledge that it is first and foremost, His Word, and that you must let it speak to you instead of you probing around for your own answers.

Try this exercise. The next time you go over a gospel, instead of just reading through it blindly, pay particular attention to one aspect of the stories. Pay attention to the different factions of people (the Pharisees, the disciples, the evil demons, the crowds) and how they view Jesus as the story progresses. Try to get your head around this complex interplay of recognition and confession from each of the groups. Have you ever paid attention to that before? What does that teach us about our hearts and how different people recognize Jesus differently?

If you develop right habits of reading, every time you read the Bible, you will learn something new. It's a practice, one of eternal spiritual value, and one that doesn't come naturally but must be worked at.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The God of Aristotle, Hume, and Christianity

Greek mythology used to be called Greek religion. We forget oftentimes, but the characters of lore that we love so much, mighty Zeus, evil Hera, regal Apollo, beautiful Aphrodite, at one point they were gods. These gods were anthropomorphic, which means that they were modeled after humans. They ate and drank heavenly nectar, they slept, they fought each other, they bled when they were cut, they felt fear and jealousy, they exercised deceit. In short, they did all things humans did. And yet the humans, the real humans venerated them, prayed to them for prosperity, and offered sacrifices to them in fear.

The Greek gods were not all-powerful. They were not all-knowing. They were certainly not ever-present. They did not create the world. They all had weaknesses, they all suffered just like the people who invented their image. They lied to each other, kept secrets from each other, forgot things about the world and themselves. They left Mt. Olympus to visit earth. They utilized the absence of one god in order to set a trap for that god. In short, aside from a few supernatural powers, these Greek gods were human.

And then there came a point in Greek history when the people became skeptical of their deities. They started noticing that the correlation between rich sacrifices and abundance in crops was of little statistical significance. They started realizing that their prayers went unheard, that no one they knew had ever actually seen one of these gods in person (of course, there were reasons for that. “A friend of a friend of a friend once told me that they saw the goddess Artemis in the woods, but he can’t really tell you because he got turned into a deer), and that those “Oracles” at Delphi were often wrong (my brother Andrew says to watch the end of this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuJY27kfqIc).

Also around this time, a man named Socrates wandered the streets of Athens, questioning everything from Greek religion to the nature of knowledge. His student, Plato publishes an alleged dialogue of him questioning the moral character of the Greek gods (Euthyphro), and his grand-student, Aristotle, develops the ground-breaking concept of the “unmoved mover”, which forever changed Western thought.

The “unmoved mover” is a speculation necessitated by Aristotle’s metaphysical structure. Briefly explained, one of the varieties of arguments (the cosmological argument) goes as such:

Every finite being has a cause
Nothing finite can cause itself
There cannot be an infinite regress of causes

Therefore, “There must have been an uncaused causer that began everything else in the universe”

Whether we use ‘move’ or ‘cause’ is insignificant. What is significant is that there arose in the foundations of Western thought hints and a foreshadowing of a different kind of god. This god isn’t human and finite. It was all-powerful and responsible for the creation of the universe. If the original Greek gods arose out of a cosmic loneliness felt by humankind, this new god arose out of a reasoned, philosophical necessity. There needs to be something that explains why there isn’t just nothing. And therefore, a god must exist. If the original Greek gods were born out of deep, reflective wonderment of the stars above, this new god was constructed out of pen and paper, in the study-room of philosophical writers.

The founding fathers of Modernism picked up on these ideas and elaborated on them. They were concerned with rationally proving that God exists. “These are truths which we can agree upon. I will demonstrate that out of these truths arises the existence of God as a necessary conclusion.” Out of these were born the traditional arguments for God* (cosmological, ontological, teleological, etc).

Sounds all well and good, right? The problem is that, instead of reviving religion in their time, which is one of the aims of at least a few of these philosophers, what it did was create a god that was cold and absent, and very much NOT the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The god that they imagined was simply some being who got the whole world started and then sat back and relaxed. It wasn’t a god involved in the affairs of everyday humanity. If all the philosophers needed for their arguments to work is someone to wind the toy up and let it run, then that was all they got. Why not have a God that was sustaining the universe every second with his mighty hand? Because we don’t need one! We have science, causality, and the principles of natural law to explain that!

These two conceptions of god/gods dominated Western philosophy from its inception and to some extent, even now. You had to choose between either a god that was human, all too human, or a god that was absent, all too absent.

What of the God of Christianity?

Somewhere in between Aristotle and David Hume, a man was born in a small town in the backwater region of Europe. A few hundred miles East of Athens, a baby sleeps in a trough. The baby grows up to be a boy indistinguishable from any other human on the planet. runs around and plays with the other kids in his town. He loses his temper, skins his knee when he stumbles, and cries when he bleeds. He eats and drinks, he defecates. He blows his nose, he sneezes and occasionally feels under the weather.

When this young man turned thirty, he does something that was surprisingly popular back then in that region of the world. He claims he is the Messiah of Jewish prophecy. But he goes one step further and explains that he will not just save the Jews, but all of mankind.

A few months into his ministry, he acquires for himself twelve disciples. He continues to preach about the kingdom of God. One late evening, after a long day of preaching and performing miraculous wonders this man finishes gets on a boat with his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. A furious squall comes up and threatens to overturn the tiny boat and everyone in it. The disciples stumble their way to the back of the boat, where their leader was sleeping soundly. Rousing him awake, they cry in terror, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Shaking off a yawn, and casually taking a moment to stretch, he gets up and speaks to the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” Immediately, the wind dies down sheepishly and the waves disappear, leaving the lake completely calm.

In the original text of this story, Mark 4.41, it says that the disciples “were terrified and asked each other, ‘who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” It is at this moment in which the God of Christianity and his true nature is revealed. It is a revelation more powerful and more telling than countless hours of reflecting upon the wonders of the skies or frantic writing in one’s study. It is at the moment when the disciples realize exactly who Jesus is. Jesus is the God of heaven and earth. He is the creator of the universe. He is the ruler of every drop of water, every slight breeze, and every inch of metaphysical reality.

And yet was this not the same man who was napping in the bow not a minute before? Was this not the same man who preached earlier today with a nasally voice because he was battling a cold? Was this not the same man… who was a man?

This is who our God is. He is the unmoved mover; the Bible says he is the originator of the world. By exercising his infinite power and authority, he speaks a beautiful world into creation. And yet, he was a human! The Bible also says that he came down, was found in appearance as a man, humbled himself to death, even death on a cross! Our God is not just a manifestation of a human being like the Greek gods. He is wholly good, wholly perfect, and wholly competent. Our God is not impersonal, unconcerned, an absentee Father. He is wholly involved in the workings of his creation and the affairs of his dearly chosen people.

This is the God we worship.

*Necessary footnote: To be fair, the Enlightenment thinkers, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and so forth didn’t create these. They had their origin in Aquinas and scholastic philosophy. But they did make them into the monster that I described.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

British Pop and Danish Philosophy

feel the rain on your skin
no one else can feel it for you
no one else, no one else can
speak the words on your lips
drench yourself with words unspoken
live your life with arms wide open
today is, today is where your book begins
the rest is still unwritten

People who are familiar with my random, short-lived obsessions for certain artists or songs might recall that around the time that I discovered the name of the song in that Pantene Pro-V commercial a while back, I developed an infatuation with Natasha Bedingfield. I've since cooled down a little, but another reason why I loved her hit single "Unwritten" was because the lyrics were philosophically enticing. There's a surface similarity between the free-spirit, "carpe diem" lifestyle that the song espouses and one of the foundational tenets of Existentialist philosophy.

Existentialism is a branch of thinking that arose in the mid-19th century as a reaction against Modernism, the Spirit of the Age. Existentialism says that one of the basic facts of life is that it cannot be understood or described in the general, abstract manner; it must be experienced concretely. This is a turn away from tradional approaches in philosophy, whose focus was on offering grand explanations of the universe as viewed from an outside perspective. Existentialism's ultimate subject matter is the existing, concrete, living, individual. It seeks to examine the facts of life from an insider's perspective; asking the traditional philosophical questions, but with a more subjective bent.

Existentialists believe that concrete existence cannot be explained in an objective, scientific, facts-based manner. Thus you must "feel the rain on your skin" because "no one else can feel it for you". In light of this, the individual and his decisions becomes of infinite importance. It doesn't matter what you should do, it's what you end up choosing to do that affects your life. In the absence of meaning and prescription, we end up creating ourselves each day one decision at a time. "Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten".

As we reflect into meaning of our own lives, "staring at the blank page before us", we can have different approaches and attitudes. The great Christian thinker, "Soren Kierkegaard", the first emo kid, and who Pyper calls the "favourite philosopher of anguished teenagers" developed the idea of "angst", or a sense of dread, insecurity, or even despair in the face of one's freedom to make one's own decisions. For Kierkegaard, the dread was a distinctly religious one, for our decision to choose Christ invites the possibility that we are wrong. To quote my favorite professor, David Aiken, "To sit at Christ's table is to run the risk that you are Judas".

There's also the absurd indifference of Albert Camus, as espoused in "The Stranger". In a "universe divested of illusions and lights", self-reflection becomes as pointless as existence in general, and thus in the end whether you make one decision or another doesn't matter.

Side comment concerning last weekend's VMS debacle: I find it fascinating that Taylor Swift's song "You Belong With Me" and Beyonce's "Single Ladies" were in the running for the same award. I can think of so many different ways in which these two music videos wouldn't even be in the same category. A few that come to mind are, "genre", "songs that don't blatantly exploit sex appeal", "songs that involve more than just three girls dancing in black and white", "songs in which the lead singer isn't wearing an asymmetrical outfit". Feel free to add some more.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Heavier Things

Today I completed a bike tour from Bear Mountain, NY to 103rd St. Manhattan. Forty miles of pedaling in silence offered me lots of time to reflect deeply. Here are a few of my thoughts:

There are some people whose greatest fear imaginable is to try their hardest at something and still fail. So they don't try. And there are some people who relish the opportunity to meet their limits and create new ones. They aren't satisfied with not failing; they must hit the wall and then push the wall farther back.

Which kind of person am I? After five and a half hours of biking I still don't really know. I just know there are uncomfortable hints in my life that point more towards one than the other. For one thing, my greatest fear isn't that I try my hardest and still fail; it's that I didn't try my hardest and that's why I fail. There was never a defeat in my life that I didn't attribute to my laziness or apathy or lack of discipline. Everywhere I am, intellectually, spiritually, musically, physically, I can be farther if not for my lack of effort.

I deeply fear that my greatest shortcoming is that I don't try.

What motivates me? The way a bike tour works is, if it's popular enough, loads of people sign up who aren't in the physical shape to actually complete it. So after everyone has taken off from the starting line, a few trucks lag behind in the back of the pack to pick up those who have thrown in the towel (or who've stopped for other reasons, like irreparable road damage or some other emergency). When I ride, I'm constantly pushing forward, trying to pass people and not letting them pass me. But what I realized today is that I wasn't doing it because I wanted to be first. I was doing it because I didn't want to be last. I was petrified that I would get left behind and have to ride that damn truck back to the festival and eat the free lunch that is supposed to be for the winners. There's a difference between someone who pushes forward because he's chasing something and someone who's doing it because he's being chased. What is that difference?

That's it for now. Oh, and biking in midtown sucks. Almost got T-boned by at least a dozen yellow taxis. Use your freakin' turn signal!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Proverbs wisdom, money, and righteous living

I'm taking my blog in a new direction and pledging regular updates. From now on, instead of ambitiously large posts that no one cares about, I will use this space for short little theological, philosophical, or homiletic reflections. They'll be easier to read and less time consuming to prepare.

Proverbs 10.16
"The wages of the righteous bring them life,
but the income of the wicked brings them punishment."

Pastor Don preached on Pr. 10 this past Sunday. In light of this chapter, I've been wrestling a lot with coming to terms with the American economy and Capitalism. The American economy (very broadly speaking) is run on the assumption that if you are rich, it's because you worked hard for your money and if you are poor, it's because you didn't try enough and you deserved your poverty. In short, "everyone gets a fair chance". But today no one can look at the folly of our economic system and turn a blind eye to the people that fall through the cracks. Everyone knows someone who's hard-working and disciplined and smart but simply can't pull himself out of his circumstances.

"bill, i believe this is killing me"
as a smile ran away from his face
"well i'm sure that i could be a movie star
if I could get out of this place."

Likewise we are all too familiar with the rich boys riding of the coattails of their father's wealth; we've all heard stories of Asian parents who sacrificed so much to bring their kids to the U.S. and give them a better chance, a better education, and those kids who didn't understand how much their opportunities cost their parents.

But then there's Pr 10.4 "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth." How do we understand money and finances in light of Proverbs wisdom? I think ultimately the Bible doesn't make any value judgments of any man-made economic system. Pr 10.16 acknowledges no correlation between righteousness and wealth or wickedness and poverty. All it says is, if you faithfully obey God, your money will bring you life. Likewise, no amount of gold or dollar bills will save the wicked from the ultimate wrath of God. Underlying all of the verses that we looked at on Sunday is the idea that righteous living far out-values monetary wealth. The bottom line is, regardless of wealth or poverty, the goal is to please God with whatever we have.

"Ill-gotten treasures are of no value,
but righteousness delivers from death" Pr 10.2