Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Prelude - The Story Of My Life

Facebook has documented most of my religious journey from a pudgy little Matthew Ha, strutting around church like I own the place because everyone in church knows either myself or my parents, to where I am now. When I first got facebook before my first year of college, I think I was just "Christian". Two years later, I had changed my religious views to say, "Creation-Sin-Redemption", reflective of my frustration and weariness of wandering around lost in Gordon College, a veritable intellectual agora of competing Christian beliefs, and betraying my desperate longing to belong to a transcendent meta-narrative that explained my life, no matter how insignificant I was made out to be. A year later, my religious status once again changed to say, "Reluctant reformed evangelical Christian". God had my hand and was finally leading me out of the crowds. I was starting to realize what I truly believed but the realization was lined with an edge of wariness and a reluctance to admit that I had become a kind of person I had previously contemped. As I left Gordon College, I changed my religious status to say, "Rationally-reflecting reformed evangelical Christian" and to this day, I joyfully and unashamedly embrace that label.

The year of 2010 has, without a doubt, been the most transformative year in my entire life. I almost see this year and the next one as the final chapter of my bildungsroman and the rest of my life as simply the epilogue; the "and he lived happily ever after" portion of my story. At the beginning of the year, there were only two things that I held in my heart as essential to my identity and one fell away, revealing who I truly am. Today, I am no longer an incorrigible New Yorker, but I am definitely an incorrigible reformed evangelical, gospel-centered, Bible-authoritative Christian. Over the next few weeks or months, I wish to chronicle my faith journey and how I got to where I am.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A grace-filled letter to Ghandi

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ" - Mahatma Ghandi

A few months ago a young couple invited me to their house for dinner. I showed up and we had a wonderful time dining together. Shortly after dessert, the wife cleared the table and went into the kitchen to wash up. The husband was a friend of mine and so I said to him, "Thanks for having me over. It was truly kind of you. The meal was was delicious and I am thoroughly satisfied. You're a great guy. But your wife! I can't stand her! She's completely unlike you! I don't like her and I can't enjoy your company when she's around!"

"Look, don't get me wrong, man. I've got nothing against you. I think you're awesome. But I really dislike your wife."

Okay, that never happened. Let me be very clear about that. I should hope that I have more tact than that. But seriously though, WHO WOULD DO THAT?? That story is so unrealistic and outrageous, you couldn't even find that situation in a crappy sitcom. Even if you truly don't like someone, you don't badmouth them to their spouse!

It's ludicrous for more than one reason. On the one hand, anyone with more than a few milligrams of common sense know that there are certain social norms that you are ignoring when you're that blunt with someone about a person they care about. However, I think there is something more disturbing about this story than just the number of social rules of behavior you break. I think it's that intuitively, we know that no matter how much you dislike someone's wife, you CAN'T disparage someone in front of their husband. No matter what you have against someone, you can't just criticize them before someone who loves them!

Why? Because you have to figure that if he married her, he's got to love her. And that love is real whether it's love because of her character or love despite her character.

I'm thinking what the venerable Mahatma Ghandi said about Christians is just as denigrating to Christ as it is to his people. The Bible says that the church is the bride of Christ and that he paid no small price and went through nothing less than hell to have her. In Ephesians 5, Paul says that the love that husbands have for their wives should be modeled after the love that Jesus had for the Church, his people. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and worthy of him as a husband. He is at work to cleanse her and make her a radiant, beautiful bride, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Eph 5.25-27).

Ghandi, when you profess your affinity for Jesus but not his followers, you are in essence slapping his wife across the face while at the same time calling him your friend. What you fail to understand is that Jesus does not love his people because of who they are, but rather in spite of who they are. Furthermore, you fail to understand the nature of the Church; your presumption is that the Church is an organization of people who seek to look more like Jesus. While that is true in a different context, you miss the entire point of grace. You fail to understand that one does not become a Christian by what he or she does, but by what Jesus has done for him.

Ghandi, You make an astute observation that Christians are so unlike Christ. The reason is because Christ has become for us what we could not be; perfect in holiness, compassion, and love. The beauty of being a Christian is that its only requirement is to admit failure and come empty-handed before God to receive mercy. "The Church is a society of sinners - the only society in the world in which membership is based on the single qualification that the candidate shall be unworthy of membership" (Charles C. Morrison)

The failure of Christians to be like Christ does not merely point to the hopelessness of humanity in willing to be good; it also points to the depths of God's mercy and grace shown in the undeserved love of Jesus for a broken, evil, people. Ghandi, your presumption that Christians can flawlessly emulate the goodness of their leader, Jesus, is at best a deep misunderstanding of who Jesus is (that he alone is good), and at worst an arrogant belief that you're capable of accomplishing what other humans cannot (perfect goodness).

Your work in bringing peace to India and justice to her people is admirable and immense. As a Christian, I strive to bring justice to the world because I believe in a God who is perfectly just. I seek peace in everything because I believe that God wrought peace in his damaged world at great cost to himself. I do not call myself a Christian because I seek to be like Christ. I call myself one because by grace he has sought to make me more like him.

Your believe that peace in the world is attained through a system of moral values. I believe that peace is attained through a peacemaker and a sacrifice of peace. You believe that the world needs more good, compassionate, loving people like yourself and the person of Jesus Christ. I think the world only needs one perfectly good person.

Ghandi, my Christ is not like your Christ. Your Christ is utterly inadequate; powerless to save the world. If Christ were your Christ, the extent of his influence would be to inspire a bunch of miserable misfits to attempt to be loving and fail catastrophically. But the true Christ is not like that. The true Christ did not entrust the salvation of the world to anybody. He just went and did it.

I thank you Jesus, for you even though I am so unlike you.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What makes a boy a man?

Above is the subject of my current existential crisis. It's not something I haven't wrestled with before. It's something I tried and failed to get into the conversation of the Boon boys last year when I organized our first ever "Boon Church ExtravaMANza". It's something that Mark Driscoll originally got me interested in when someone sent me a near-viral youtube clip of him lambasting the boys in his church. And nearly three years ago, on my xanga page, I wrote that my lesson for the year of 2008 was:

Passion without temperament is immaturity

Anyway, as life cycles, I find myself revisiting this issue and experiencing a deep discomfort with where I am right now, prompting this following brain dump.

Last December, right before I left for my MAP internship in Australia, Stanley asked me how I saw myself in terms of maturity. My reply was, "severely conflicted". When I look around at those my age, I see many ways in which I am clearly ahead of my peers. I am wiser, more biblically literate, more responsible, more driven to pursue God, more articulate, and I had a car. But when I considered the spiritual giants that I endeavor to imitate, I feel miles behind and despair at the long way I have to go. I feel self-centered, self-conscious, irresponsible, uncaring, unthoughtful, unsteady, under-dressed, rash, temperamental, immoderate, immodest, and immature. I know that last one kind of covers the whole thing, but I needed a third "im-" for the poetic value. I feel like a sapling next to a mighty oak. I feel like the Stuyvesant freshman with the giant backpack taking the LIRR with all those well-dressed Wall Street big guns who live out in Manhasset. Like I said... brain dump.

Some days, I make decisions that surprise myself; decisions I wouldn't have had the godly wisdom to make in the past. Some days I make decisions so appallingly boyish that I wonder if I might have even grown backwards. It doesn't help when people remark about how young I am to be a MAP apprentice. Before I came to Australia, one of my desires was to work a year or two before locking myself into the ministry track. Conversations with Don eventually convinced me to dive right in. I wish I had thought about it some more. Back then, I didn't know that certain plumblines of worldly maturity overlapped with biblical maturity, such as financial responsibility. That one still really kills me.

On Friday evenings I feel like line (a) and on Sunday evenings I feel like line (b.)

In me is an ever constant fear that I may slow down in growth, regress to the mean, and even begin to lag behind those in my cohort. A great part of that fear is sinful. It arises from my desire to stay ahead of the pack, to shine, to be the young gun. It's pride and I need to daily repent of that, asking God to help me make less of myself and more of him to works in me and him whose energy I daily labor with. Actually, this fear is mostly that. It's mostly pride. But it reminds me of an issue I faced also about a year ago: the issue of whether I run to finish first or to avoid finishing last. For some people, the verb "to chase" is in an active voice and for others, it is in passive. Why are some people chasers and other people ones being chased? Why do I consistently find myself in the latter category?

It's not that I haven't considered the ways in which I've clearly grown. I've taken a major step forward ("Major Stepforward") in romance and relationships. Ironically, romance and relationships is the subject matter than launched me into this crisis. Another way I've grown is out of the pathetic shell of fatalistic determinism. I've grappled with the angst of my ownmost possibility and won. I can accept the responsibility of my choices now. My life is no longer ruled by cause but by will.

Having said that, last night I woke up in the middle of the night and made a major realization ("Major Realization"). I realized that demographically, there is no one in the world with a greater capacity to do ministry... nay, to do anything, than me right now. I am a young, healthy, single male with minimal relational attachments and very few financial obligations. I can survive on rent money and oatmeal. Actually, that thought's crossed my mind many times before. What was new last night was the frightening irresponsibility when I do less than more than other people.

So as not to end this post Psalm 88-style, here is an article by the world's most boring tweeter, Reverend R. Albert Mohler, on the marks of manhood. It is oftentimes hard and confusing to distinguish what the world says about manliness (enjoying the taste of rare meat, able to hold down large amounts of alcohol, opting to "walk it off" instead of seeing a doctor) and what Scripture says. It's really a mess of truths, half-truths, and complete lies out there. This article has helped me to identify categories that I may think about and reflect upon separately.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Thoughts From An INTJ

Thinkers run the world. Thinkers call the shots. It’s always been that way throughout history. It’s meant to be that way. It can’t be any other way. But knowing this fact and dealing with it means coming to grips with the inherent weaknesses of human leadership. It will always be that those who make the decisions struggle to understand the ones they make decisions FOR.

Has it really taken me 22 years and a college degree to learn this one fact, that humans aren’t robots? Feelings aren’t weaknesses. They aren’t diseased outgrowths of human evolution that need to be transcended, as some later, post-Wittgenstein Analytics would have it.

A warning to all foolish thinkers out there; future decision-makers and scientists alike. You have been born with a terrible deficit in your humanity. You have been born with the inability to speak a language that the rest of the world are fluent in. You have been born with the inability to speak the language of emotions, and until you come to terms with that, you will be distant, lonely, misunderstood, and inept at living. You pride yourself in understanding with effective clarity the language of logic? You pride yourself in cutting through the BS of emotions, in order to make the right logical decisions? Don’t be an idiot. There are depths of logic and understanding that you will never understand if all you know are propositions, conditionals, conjunctions, and disjunctions.

Your language isn’t better than the language of the poets. It is primitive. It is rudimentary, building blocks of REAL language. You are speaking binary code and assembly when the rest of the world is communicating on AIM and Gchat. Your language is the equivalent of the grunts and brutish gestures of cavemen.

It's been almost a year since I wrote these words into another journal that I own. To me now, what matters now more than reason or emotions is will.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Something I've seriously been struggling with is trying to understand why it is that certain churches so alienate people who are different. If the gospel transcends all boundaries and is really meant to destroy the dividing wall of hostility, then why do the churches of Jesus make it so hard for a Christian who is different to live and thrive and give glory to God? In my life, there have been three churches that I consider my church. In one of them, if you don't like softball, you're an outsider. In another one, if you're not studying at a prestigious Boston educational institution or able to converse about jazz or indie music, you will feel left out. In another, if you don't like meeting up to drink coffee and talk about life, you're not growing in Christ. In all three, if you're not committed to dropping 50 bucks a week eating out, then you're not fellowshipping with Christians. Call these observations unfair caricatures if you will, but caricatures only accentuate the truth; they never perpetuate it. Why are we still making it so hard for different people that God gifted with differentness to be lovers of Jesus Christ?

Perhaps the issue isn't as bad as I think it is and perhaps I am just amidst a season of emotions. I am still young and young people are not yet steady and set. Perhaps this is a part of the brokenness of a redeemed-but-not-yet realized-eschatology church. Perhaps it is God's way of reminding me that the church is a broken place that will hurt you and let you down, so don't place your ultimate trust in it the way you ought to place your ultimate trust in him.

Another related issue I've been struggling with is this: Why don't reformed evangelical churches do more things to love mercy and act justly in a social manner? This question is like a stench I can't scrub off that follows me everywhere and unsettles me. If the gospel that saves kings is the same gospel that saves beggars, why is it that so often I feel that what I'm being taught in the churches that I am a part of wouldn't work in most parts of the world? Is the theology I am being taught a bourgeousie theology? Why does it feel like these walls are too high and the gates too thick for the poor?

It goes much deeper than the pedantic statement that, "Evangelical Christians don't care about the poor". I have a deep fear that the claim only describes a symptom and that the real issue is systemic to the teaching that I've grown so accustomed to and so readily accept as God-inspired truth. Moreover, I have a deep fear that I am too much a part of the system to objectively understand it. I am a part of the problem. I need to think about this more.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Good Monsters

Dear friends,

This past Sunday, Eugene from GracePoint church reminded us from the Scriptures the following:

"The world's economy tells us to work so that we may gain, but God's economy tells us to work so that we may give."

Isn't it a beautiful reflection of the gospel when our lives are not oriented around personal gain, but in giving? Well here's a chance to put the gospel's transforming work into practice:

My birthday is coming up on July 17th! Instead of giving me a present, please consider donating to this charity in order to help people in the world get clean water.


1 billion people in the world don't have access clean water. ONE BILLION! That totally blew me away when I found that out. But we can help change that.

Since it is my 23rd birthday, I am asking for a donation of $23USD. If 50 people give that much, we can raise enough water for 57 people. But please feel free to give more if you are able to!

Please give if it is indeed in your heart to love as Christ has commanded us, and as a sign of the gospel's influence in your life practice. Even if you weren't going to give me a present, please consider giving!

"Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Luke 12.33-34

In Christ's service,

P.S. - If you'd like more information about this charity organization, you can go here. I've done my research and I can verify the honesty of this website.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why do you run? Because you want to be first, or because you don't want to be last?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On Respect

Respect is recognition of worth.
I would rather have someone hate me and respect me than someone contempt me and find me likable.

An enemy that I respect is an adversary. A friend that I don't respect is a utility.

Respect can be given or acknowledged. To the degree that I esteem someone who doesn't deserve it, I lose my own esteem.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What I fear vastly more than failure in trying is failure to try. To me the greatest buffoon isn't the one on the dance floor. It is the one coolly sipping his drink at the bar wanting to dance but paralyzed by uncertainty. I contempt those who've thrown in the towel before even stepping into the ring.
"His whole life was a million-to-one shot" Why wasn't Ivan Drago a hero? It's not because he lost. It was because he wasn't human. He was a caricature of adversity. At the end of the day, I can only believe in a hero who bleeds.
(As of 26th May: "It's been a long time since I've written a lengthy post. For the last few weeks, all my most profound revelations have come in brevity. Therefore, until further notice, I will be posting in the manner of aphorisms, perhaps with occasional commentary.")

It is a fallacy to believe that we can “want to want”. If desire is measured by action, then what you want ALWAYS prevails. You can want what you don't choose, but ultimately what you choose is what you want the most.



When I say, "I want to get in shape" but I stay indoors and eat an extra bag of chips, I make myself a liar. I do want to get in shape, but I want the immediate pleasure of food more.

When I say, "I want to forgive you" but my actions show otherwise, then I make myself a liar.

When you say, "I want to live for God" but you can't rock up for a weekly Bible study, then you make yourself a liar. I will take your statement at face value, but at best it's a white lie because you fail to mention that you want to live for yourself MORE than you want to desire God. Can you want to want God? It is a logical fallacy. It creates an absurd infinite regression of desire.

The phrase "want to want" is the pathetic, therapeutic, nonsensical utterance of a weak-willed human being who lacks the fortitude to overcome immediacy. You only hear someone "want to want" something when there is something he knows he should want, but he cannot bring himself to give up something he considers of lesser value. If I "want to want" being in shape, then I desire a greater desire to be in shape; one that will overcome my desire to eat delicious, unhealthy food. But it is meaningless because how can one desire desire? One who "wants to want" lives inauthentically; he cheats on that which is his greatest desire. With whom does he cheat? With the desire he thinks he should have.

If I hear someone say, "I want to seek after God, but I just don't have that desire within me", I am hearing someone who is burdened (or at the very least, discomforted) by his earthly lifestyle. Yet he does not have the tenacity to do something about it. He lives a lie.

The bottom line is, you either want or you don't want. Do not make up self-pitying statements of woe about how you wish you could desire more! Your actions betray your heart's deepest desires. In the Christian life, in the physical fitness, in staying off of facebook, pick your temptation; pick the poison that you drown in.
On Discipline: The thing about discipline is that it is cross-disciplinary. If you lack discipline in one area of life, you do so in others. Discipline is the skill of doing unpleasant things for the sake of growth. You want to know a man's diligence in Bible reading? Look at his diligence in physical fitness.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's been a long time since I've written a lengthy post. For the last few weeks, all my most profound revelations have come in brevity. Therefore, until further notice, I will be posting in the manner of aphorisms, perhaps with occasional commentary. Starting with this one:

"I will die before I let life curl me up into the fetal position."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Today was a completely normal day. And my life was forever changed.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Value, Beauty, and Perception

Three years ago, a world-renowned violinist named Joshua Bell dressed himself in nondescript clothing, took his 3.5 million dollar violin to a crowded Washington D.C. subway, and started playing as if he were a talented panhandler. After forty-five minutes he had performed 6 classical pieces in front of just over 1000 morning commuters and collected 32 dollars for his work.

You can read the entire article here.

Some of the points in the article really grated me because here in one place are so many things that I completely disagree with in the topics of beauty, art, and music. I've seen this article mentioned on occasion in my internet wanderings since the social experiment, and it is often cited to criticize common people for not recognizing beauty in the world. And then depending on what part of the human condition is your hobby horse, you're going to want to mention something about how we move along too quickly in life or how we're not attentive enough to our surroundings or whatever.

"If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made . . . How many other things are we missing as we rush through life?" - Bill McGee

Sounds really meaningful, doesn't it? Doesn't it make you want to just slow down in life, and try to take in everything around you?

I'm not one for that kind of sentimental stuff and what really pisses me off is how people who read things like this just nod in agreement without even thinking for a second about the presuppositions undergirding this experiment's conclusion. I believe the same exact experiment would yield completely different results if we moved the fixed point from the artist to the common people, and here's what I mean.

What assumptions are made? One assumption is that this guy is world-renowned, therefore he must be one of the best in his craft. One assumption is that because he sells out concert halls at more than $100 dollars a seat, he's definitely got the talent. One assumption is that because he plays a violin which, in a market, is worth more than 25 of these, he must be really good.

We can keep unraveling assumptions. We can go into how often people today automatically correlate quality with price and then I can spend the rest of this space ranting about gearheads and their fixation on expensive musical toys. Honestly, I judge someone whose musical skill is lower than the worth of their instruments. It may be something I have to work on, but if you went out and bought an $800 electric guitar with a $400 pedalboard and you don't know what powerchords are, please don't speak to me ever again.

In the experiment, the control was the musician. The quality of Mr. Bell's music was not a variable; it was fixed. We just assumed that he played really well. I am curious how the results might have been interpreted if, instead of assuming that Joshua Bell was a GOOD violinist, we assume that the MAJORITY is always right? Then what can we conclude?

We can perhaps conclude that to some stuck-up, snobbish, elitist classical music connoisseurs, Joshua Bell's name (and his 400 year old Stradivarius violin) means something, but to the average joe he sucks. We can perhaps conclude that good "high-brow" music only has substance in a very specific, artificially-constructed environment and that out in the real world, it's meaningless. We can maybe venture that good music is 25% objectivity and 75% elitist culture. And don't even get me started on hipsters.

I've stated before that musical quality does not occur in an objective vacuum. So whereas there are objective values that make art good or bad, it is fruitless to discuss it without taking into consideration culture and socio-historical situatedness. Simply put, we do not judge artistic quality from an impartial judge's standpoint; the critic is always and already in motion.

I love classical music but I cannot tell the difference of interpretation from one artist to another if my life depended on it. I love cheese, but put a gun to my head and blindfold me and ask me if I am tasting Munster cheese from Munster, Germany or from Monroe, New York and you'll have to shoot me. I love coffee, but I have a really hard time believing that there is an objectively better way to pour hot water over ground up seeds. And make no mistake; when you call something good or bad, you are making a value judgment.

I will not pay for Belgian sea salt or ask for Fiji water. I do not believe the North Face will keep me warmer than that jacket I bought for 20 bucks at Jembro. I will gladly eat "authentic" Mexican food made by Chinese people in the kitchen. I don't need key limes from Florida to make an awesome margarita. Itzhak Perlman does not create hauntingly beautiful music; he just follows instructions and plays the notes on the page. For every John Mayer or Eric Clapton, there are a hundred 17 year-old kids on youtube who are just as technically gifted on the guitar. Leonard Bernstein does not wave a wand better than Harry Potter. And for crying out loud, please do NOT get me started on female vocalists.

We do it in every area of life that is meaningful to us, be it cuisine or music or fashion. We construct value; we arbitrarily assign it. We don't deceive on purpose; most of the time we do it we're really just lying to ourselves. We so desperately want there to be more meaning on this earth than we see. We need the things we care about to bear significance, and all significant things have value; have good and bad. So we try to find value in everything.

And when we can't find it, we make it up...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Christianity and Social Justice

Sam Harris and the End to Religion
Dennis sent me this link to this short CNN article concerning atheist author Sam Harris. Titled, “Why we should ditch religion”, the article also includes a recent interview with him and outlines some of his basic beliefs. I wikipedia'd the guy and found out that Harris believes in discourse that he calls “conversational intolerance”. He doesn't believe tolerance and letting people believe whatever they want to believe is the solution to coexisting in a pluralistic world. Though I am a Bible-believing Christian and I have little to agree with him, I do agree on this point. I believe that blind tolerance is not sustainable in a society of such diverse beliefs; it is neither sustainable nor logically possible. So I credit him in his boldness in claiming that all religious people are wrong in their beliefs

Harris' basic claim in the interview is that religion is not only obsolete, but its continuing to linger on in the new secular society is actually harmful and dangerous. He believes that all the energy spent on arguing over gay marriage is taking away attention from real serious issues concerning human life. “We should be talking about real problems, like nuclear proliferation and genocide and poverty and the crisis in education....These are issues which tremendous swings in human well-being depend on. And it's not at the center of our moral concern“ According to Harris, it's not at the center of our concern because we are arguing too much over peripheral religious issues. Because we are so focused on meaningless religious issues like what God wants and what's going to happen in the afterlife, we “talk about things like gay marriage as if it's the greatest problem of the 21st century.” And while men in positions of power debate endlessly on those issues, people are suffering.

“It's completely insane”

As a morally-conservative, Bible-believing, Reformed evangelical Christian, I reject his claim that issues like gay marriage and abortion are completely irrelevant to human well-being. But as a born-and-raised liberally-educated New Yorker (and to some extent, a halfway decent human being), the recesses of my heart resonate deeply with his concern. His rejection of religion arises out of a deep compassion and concern for people who are truly in need. My heart breaks for the injustices that are going on in the world. From the homeless guy named John who hangs out around GracePoint to the women in all parts of the world who are kidnapped, forcefully injected with addictive drugs to weaken their will and make them dependent, and made to work as a prostitute for the rest of their lives; the other day I broke into tears at my desk for a good ten minutes just reading about it. It's horror and injustice of cosmically heartbreaking proportions.

And that is no hyperbole. These things break God's heart.

And for these reasons, I am often to tempted to say, “What the hell. Why are we focusing so much on these moral issues that don't even hurt anyone at the cost of compassion and mercy ministry and fighting social injustice?” And it still makes me sick to think of how much Christians squabble over meaningless things when people are dying and starving, when the economy worsens in our own country and the sins of the private sector screw over so many innocent men and women. When Christian men, in the name of God, stand up for big corporations that use child slaves and destroy ecosystems. And you can ask Euge or Owen 'cause I've talked with them about these things; this issue sickens me and tears me apart. How is a Christian supposed to be obedient to God in our world?

These questions fracture my soul. It's the natural reaction and temptation of any half-decent human being to say, “Let's stop talking about gay marriage and issues that aren't even harming anyone and start loving like Jesus did” “Let's stop wasting time with religion. People are dying.” “Let's drop these seemingly petty issues and help those who are truly in need”. The Levite passed over his neighbor because he was more concerned for his cleanness than he was for the life of a human being. Let's be the good Samaritan. You can be a good Samaritan even if you don't believe in God.

But what I've been realizing more and more is, it doesn't work like that. We cannot do that. We cannot give up the gospel, our only hope for true restoration and peace, for a temporary solution. We must still fight for Christianity, just as we fight for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. Why do we love them and care for them? Because God loved them and cared for them. Because Jesus loved them and had compassion for them.

If we give up fighting for Christ in order to bring short term relief to the suffering of the world, we are selling out any hope of a permanent end to suffering. It would be like cutting your finger and then selling your liver for a band-aid. Who does that? We cannot stop fighting. We cannot surrender God's truth in order to save a few people, and in doing so, damn those people, damn ourselves, and damn our posterity.

I confess, I have hatred for my brothers and sisters. Through my upbringing, it's natural to hate Southern Baptist Christians. I hate the Christian right. I hate James Dobson and George W. Bush and Pat Robertson and Gary North. It's a sin and it's something I have to constantly repent of and deal with in my heart. I still cannot, for the life of me, align myself with people like them. But this I do realize, that if it weren't for these men who are fighting so hard for Christian values and dying every day (at least in their public image) in order to uphold the gospel, Christianity would have fallen long ago in my country. If they stopped doing what they were doing and without regard to who hates them, our nation would have fallen completely over to Satan.

The Gospel and the End to Suffering
Mr. Harris may not realize that in his reasoning for abolishing religion he is making a value judgment that all forms of Christianity (minus the heretical ones) and virtually every monotheistic religion affirms at the core of their beliefs. Mr. Harris is saying that, human life is of value and therefore we should fight for it. Another thing Mr. Harris may not realize is that, as an atheist, he has no grounds for making this value judgment. All value judgments by definition carry with it the force of an imperative. An imperative is an “ought”; it is a claim that one SHOULD or MUST live a certain way. In this case, Mr. Harris is saying we value human life therefore we SHOULD be caring for it. But if he doesn't believe in God he has no grounds for telling anybody how they SHOULD live. In a world lacking a God or transcendent being, all we have are opinions.

The ironic thing is, in Christianity (and most monotheistic religions for that matter), there is a ground for valuing human life. As Christians, we believe that everyone is made in the image of God, and therefore all lives are of value. Our beliefs give meaning to our compassionate works. Our religion gives substance to that which we believe in our hearts. Without God, all Sam Harris has is a firm conviction in his heart that humans are valuable, but no way to substantiate that conviction.

In the gospel, we have more weapons for bringing peace and justice to all of humanity than any compassionate secular atheist. For one thing, we have a reason. God sees human life as important. It has value and dignity. Therefore we should fight against injustice. We should fight against the dehumanizing of women. We should fight against poverty and hunger. But more than that. We have hope. What good is it to fight if there's no guarantee of victory? But in the gospel, we have an assurance that one day, what Christ did will bring an end to all that is evil and unnatural in the world. In the gospel, we have a God who says that he will, “wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” In the gospel we have a God who will make everything new and gave us the assurance and receipt that it will come to pass through the resurrection.

Mr. Harris, you know in your heart of hearts what the right thing to do is. But without Jesus Christ, you have no reason to do it and no hope for every achieving its completion.

Jesus Anointed at Bethany
In Mark 14, a woman came to Jesus with a bottle of very expensive perfume, worth more than a year's wages. In an extravagant show of love and sacrifice, she poured the whole dang thing over Jesus' feet and washed it with her hair. Some of the social justice advocates among Jesus' disciples were outraged. “That perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor!” What is with this wastefulness, this callous lack of concern for the suffering?

I finally understand now why Jesus rebuked his disciples and said to leave her alone. “The poor you will always have with you. But you will not always have me” That woman out of all the people understood Jesus' true worth. She alone realized that Jesus was the end to the poor. He was the end to suffering to evil and persecution and injustice. So by making this show of sacrifice, a show that surely made the practical cringe at the thought of the wastefulness, the woman demonstrated that she love the poor. She loved the poor because she loved Christ, the solution to the poor.

The downtrodden we will always have with us. If we sell out our savior Jesus Christ, then we will sell out the final end to suffering.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The i*DENTITY Project Pt 1: Shot Across the Bow

I'm starting a new series exploring Western philosophical and socio-cultural issues centered around self-identity. I will be drawing together personal observations from contemporary culture and philosophy. I will be asking questions such as, "Why is individualism and uniqueness of such high value in our culture?" "What is with the obsession with being different?" "What are the historical and philosophical roots that contributed to the radical contemporary vacuum of corporate meaning and identity?" What is the relationship between individualism and identity? Why are our young people today so obsessed with being different and unique? What does this have to do with the presence of a pervasive loneliness in the hearts of Western individuals?

This is a monumental project for someone so young, inexperienced, ill-equipped, and relatively ignorant as myself, but it is a subject I find myself thinking endlessly about nowadays. I hope to receive encouragement as well as correction when merited. I hope readers who share in my experience can affirm its validity with similar stories and anecdotes of their own. I ultimately hope to put together an informative series that ultimately serves as both an encouragement and a warning to young and old Christians alike. An encouragement because I truly believe that all that we lack we have in our Lord Jesus, who has saved us into a radical new identity as members of God's household (Eph 3.18-22). And a warning for those who find themselves constantly being led astray by the cultural ethos of our day and finding more joy, identity, meaning, and significance in earthly categories.

I recognize that I still owe one last installment on "The Stanley Files". It is under way and will be titled "On Helplessness". I'm making it a regular habit to bite off more than I can chew.

"The world is meaningless, there is no God or gods, there are no morals, the universe is not moving inexorably towards any higher purpose. All meaning is man-made, so make your own, and make it well. Do not treat life as a way to pass the time until you die.
Do not try to \"find yourself\", you must make yourself. Choose what you want to find meaningful and live, create, love, hate, cry, destroy, fight and die for it. Do not let your life and your values and you actions slip easily into any mold, other that that which you create for yourself, and say with conviction, \"This is who I make myself\".
Do not give in to hope. Remember that nothing you do has any significance beyond that with which imbue it. Whatever you do, do it for its own sake. When the universe looks on with indifference, laugh, and shout back, \"Fuck You!\". Rembember that to fight meaninglessness is futile, but fight anyway, in spite of and because of its futility.
The world may be empty of meaning, but it is a blank canvas on which to paint meanings of your own. Live deliberately. You are free."

In the internet circles I frequent, I often stumbleupon web pages with philosophical inspirations such as the one above. I share this one in particular because it is exceptionally succinct and straightforward. It captures much of the post-modern ethos and it is an apt description of the worldview of most of my generation, Christians and non-Christians alike. The people that I am particularly compassionate for are Christians (usually younger, idealistic ones) who confess their faith in God but whose hearts and lives are much more aligned with this belief.

Essentially, the author of this anonymous post makes three claims and offers one imperative. The three claims are, "The world is absent of meaning", "Humanity is absent of normative behavior" (there is no universal morality), and "There is no hope for transcendent validation" (meaning, all we have is all we got). The imperative goes as such, "Therefore... go and MAKE YOUR OWN meaning!"

There is a fourth implicit claim involved in this post. This claim is the fulcrum upon which stands the author's entire philosophy of life. The claim is this: "It is possible, without the aid of transcendent validation, for humanity to create her own meaning"

In my next post, I hope to reject this premise and thus bring down this moral framework which, I believe, as it were, is already made out of ideas and thoughts more fragile than a house of cards anyway. So don't think my ambitions too lofty.

-Dan Shih

Works that have served as recent sources
Two of Tim Keller's sermon series, “The Necessity of Belief” (9/03 – 10/03) and “Living in Hope” (3/04 – 5/04), Eugene Hor's sermon series on Ephesians (9/09 – 6/10), various commentaries on Ephesians. The Next Evangelicalism, by Soong-Chan Rah. Various secondary philosophy texts. My peers.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why I think John Piper needs to listen to more Muse and Dream Theater

(A reflection on the use of contemporary rock-based music in corporate worship. I welcome peer-review)

John Piper and D.A. Carson, two of the most respected figures in the evangelical church, recently did a joint series of lectures titled, “The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor”. Piper lectured on the former title and Carson did the latter. In the last portion of the night there was a Q&A session with the two theologians and one of the questions asked was:

“What are some of the biggest issues that you think the church and evangelical scholars will need to deal with in the next 20 years?”

A lot of prominent things were brought up, including Islam and the exclusivity of Christ, the doctrine of Scripture, a cluster of contemporary issues relating to family life (e.g. homosexuality, spanking, submission of wives to husbands), epistemology, justification and substitutionary atonement in biblical thought, and redefining 'tolerance'. But one of the last things that was brought up was by John Piper. This is what he said:

(emphases added)
“I think that the explosion of... I don't want to just say contemporary worship music and contemporary worship forms, a very rock-oriented...whether or not the ethos generally associated with that on a Sunday morning can sustain the gravitas of the glory of God over the long haul... whether it can hold it. It is possible, there are contemporary worship songs that draw out my heart into the bigness of God in a most marvelous way. But there is a kind of low-brow, hip, cool, ya'll come, family, chatty, way of doing worship today. The question is, if it becomes more and more prevalent, what becomes of the majesty of God in this world? I is very hard to maintain the sense of bigness and the majesty of God if everything in the service is calculated to be chummy, and close and warm and touchy and feely...something's got to break there.”

As a Christian musician, my first reaction to Piper was defensive. “We're doing a plenty good job, and there are plenty of good songs that we sing on Sundays!” After I had a few minutes to knock down my pride, I realized that Piper spoke validly but from a unique and very narrow perspective. If you listen to the rest of his response (and you can hear the entire night's lectures here) he makes it clear that he is hopeful about the future yet skeptical. The implication is that contemporary rock music lacks the musical tools to adequately represent the weightier portions of doctrine and Christian themes. Some examples he gives of those things are the doctrine of God, the significance of hell and the glory of the cross; Piper doesn't believe that those things can truly fit into what he called the “talk show” atmosphere of contemporary worship liturgy.

I believe there are two issues here that need to be separately addressed. One is the long-term adequacy of rock music in replacing classical music for contemporary corporate worship. And the other is the tragic loss of the weightiness and primacy of God's glory in American Christianity. Though I have many thoughts on the latter, right now I am more interested in re-visiting the relationship of rock music to worship.
I think there are two reasons why Piper might not have distinguished these two issues in his statement. One is that the nature of a Q&A doesn't allow the speaker a lot of time to think through his response. In addition, it was one of the last questions of the night and they were running really short on time. I think the other reason is that Piper might not have as deep an insight into the nature of rock music as an average person. Bear in mind this is the guy who reads Scripture and prays four times a day, is involved in a multitude of Christian organizations, preaches almost every week at his church, regularly blogs and adds resources to an entire website devoted to his preaching and teaching, and when he actually does have time to read a novel, reads something as educational and soul-feeding as Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Human beings who do all that don't have time to listen to and reflect on rock music.

This is why I believe that John Piper's skepticism concerning the emotional range and depth of rock music is completely unfounded. I can understand where he's coming from and sympathize with him; he probably doesn't encounter that much rock music beyond the precious little Christian musicians offer. And I've gone over this time and again in my head and in my personal writings. I've tried to understand “where is rock-based contemporary Christian music in the scope of musical history?” and I waffle back and forth between, “dying and on its last legs” and “undergoing birth pains but ready for a glorious revolution.”
There are gems today. Keith and Kristen Getty consistently write lyrically-excellent, musically-accessible, cross-centered worship music. Chris Tomlin will usually have one or two keepers in every album. The wheat and the chaff are being separate as we near the midpoint of an entire century of rock-based worship music and good stuff is emerging as time is allowed to test them. But the bottom line is, still today, good worship songs are tiny oases lost in the desert of dry, base, cheap, crude, and stiflingly one-dimensional worship songs.

For the reasons and feelings stated in the last two paragraphs, I can sympathize with John Piper's sentiments. However, Christian rock music is such a pathetically narrow slice of what rock music has to offer that how can Piper think to simply write off such a magnificently deep and diverse genre? It's like saying, “starch-based products like bread are no longer adequate to eat in church because communion wafers taste bad.” It's laughably poor reasoning!
Before I go on, I must clarify what I mean by “rock music”. I am using the term in as broad a sense as possible; as any music that utilizes or has its roots in a traditional rock-instrument band. I am using the term in broad comparison with Western classical music”, which has historically been the medium of music in corporate worship.

Why is my definition of rock music important? Because I think the strength and salvation of its contribution to church is found in its diversity. Chris Tomlin's rock music, in mood, has never come close to “majestic” or “epic”. Hillsong has never confronted the weightiness of glory. I can't think of a worship songwriter that has even attempted, never mind succeeded at making me feel the pain of sin or the day of judgment. Contrast that with Bach's arrangement of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” or the Dies Irae in Mozart's famous Requiem Mass or Lotti's Crucifixus.
Oh, but in rock music, there's epic. There's majestic. There's deeply sorrowful as well as unfathomable rage and anger and wrath. When I think of epic, my mind immediately goes to Muse's “Knights of Cydonia”. How much more majestic can one get besides the slow-down towards the end of Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody”? The emo movement (of which I am the worst) has given us the full range of sorrowful musical tools, ready to be adapted into Christian themes.
An electric guitar with distortion and delay on and in the right hands can be more epic than a legion of violinists. Five men or women holding five different rock instruments with the right amps will make the NY Philharmonic urinate their San Pellegrino. Has the London Symphonic Orchestra melted anyone's faces lately?
When I think of glorious tunes, two works that come to mind so simultaneously that they both get stuck at the doorway into my consciousness are the powerful finale to Dvorak's New World Symphony and U2's “Beautiful Day”. Someone with more musical experience than I can probably name more adequate representations in both the classical and rock genre for every mood and emotion required in church music.
The difference between classical and rock, when you look at the masters of each, is no longer that of depth or complexity or virtuosity. It's a matter of high-brow verse low-brow. It's a matter of conceitedness, arrogance, and snobbishness. How was it ever a fair comparison, pitting Beethoven and Brahms against Kings of Leon and Blink 182? Why didn't anyone ever compare Franz Xaver Sussmayrr with Led Zeppelin or Coldplay?

Let me conclude with this. As a future pastor and lover of music, I am constantly thinking through in my head issues pertaining to the role of music in worship. When I ponder the state of contemporary Christian music, I experience equal parts nausea and faint, but real hope. Ultimately, I truly believe that we are at the cusp of what could be a beautiful revolution in corporate worship. All revolutions start with death. But when I listen to Third Day's powerful arrangement of Agnus Dei, or when I explore the ever-increasing number of non-mainstream artists who are writing genuinely Christian music* (cf. Downhere, David Crowder, and Chapel Band '08's Redemption Portrait), I feel hope. I feel hope that we will emerge from our shackles of the same old stuff and begin to tap into the vast wealth of musical richness the new era is offering us.

Pastor Piper, you think Jonathan Edwards is the only one who can convey the bigness of God? Listen to some rock music!

*One caveat I feel I must make. A warning to distinguish the sheep from the goats. The Christian music industry is large enough so that there are actually artists who will, in a clever public image move, pretend that they are Christians writing on Christian themes in order to garner the popularity and use Christian consumers as a springboard to get them started. A few examples that come to mind: Evanescence and to a lesser degree, the Blackeye Peas (Where is the love) and Kanye West (Jesus Walks). I also caution against Christians who are musicians who lack the desire to use their music for the good of the church. But that's a post for another day.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Stanley Files - An Interlude into "Fight Night"

(Dear Stanley, this is not the response I promised)

"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights." - Mohammad Ali

I've been thinking about this quote since I saw it on a poster in Jack Wang's frat house this past January. It strikes me that there is a string of wisdom that this motivational aphorism displays that cuts through many different areas of life. If you replace the word "fight" with "Christian life" and "dance under those lights" with "face trials", you get the following:

"The Christian life is won or lost far away from the witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I face trials of many kinds"

Isn't that so true? James says that the testing of our faith completes it, making it mature by the addition of perseverance. But too often we overlook the nature of our trials: as that of "tests"! Our trials grow us when we emerge from them faithful and victorious. But trials also reveal to us the level of maturity we've already attained. I am struck by the implication of James chapter 1, which is that trials and tribulations come along as the last step of maturation; it makes us "mature and complete, not lacking in anything" (1.3). That's got to mean that there must be growing to be done beforehand.

The truth for any sport, perhaps especially boxing, is that you don't win or lose the match on the day of the match. You win or lose the match every day, out on the running path, in the sparring ring, in the weight room. You win or lose when you decide whether to finish the last set of push-ups or let the last set finish you. You win or lose when you decide it's too cold to go running today, or you should take a break because you had a big workout just two days ago, or you decide that an extra meal out with the guys to a place where you KNOW will tempt you to eat poorly is a worthy setback. Each of those are mini-trials and tribulations that determine the outcome of the big game.

Does any of that sound familiar? What if I "Christianized" it? The truth for the Christian life is that you don't defeat or succumb to temptation when you're facing it down. You win or lose that match every morning before work or school, when you decide whether you want to read your Bible or not. You win or lose when you decide you're too tired to work hard to understand Scripture and instead choose to surf youtube videos or flip through boring programs on the television. You win or lose when you think that you've earned a break from praying 'cause you attended that big prayer meeting Sunday morning, or that you can skip your reading because you were preparing a Bible study this week. Wow! What kind of damned spiritual barometer have you been measuring with?

You win or lose the big battles when you win or lose a multitude of little ones.

On fight nights, we triumph because we are a finely-tuned, disciplined warrior for Christ. We lose because we didn't see the significance of daily training and let ourselves grow those spiritual love handles. We win by making the competition not look like competition; when we are so deeply hidden in Christ that the pleasures of the world beckon from an eternal sky's distance away. We get our asses knocked to the ground when we think that we can walk this earth safely and that there is always time later to seek after things above.

These principles don't only apply to the areas of Christian life pertaining to temptation. They apply everywhere; meaning that every area of your Christian living is affected by your determination to be spiritually prepared. How do you deal with tragedy? How do you deal with loss? Can you cope? Will you grieve or will you despair? Why is it that some Christian men and women who lose what they most wanted out of life can move on while others are destroyed by it? There is only one factor, and that is the degree to which you have already placed your treasures in heaven. Are you working towards this, Christian? Or are you going find on that day when you face inevitable mortal suffering that, to your surprise, your spiritual reserves are gassed?

How do you deal with frustration? Can you love your enemy? Can you love a church member who rubs you the wrong way? Can you love a good friend who's made an insensitive comment? Or will it cause you to lose your cool, to blow your top, to break out the cold shoulder, to bottle up feelings of anger? Have you been working on being completely humble and gentle, bearing with all your brothers and sisters in love, or were you waiting for fight night? Have you been actively pursuing this by drawing every day from the depths of Christ's love for you, or did you think that you can just rock up to the ring on the night of the match and overcome your enemy the great tempter?

I venture that our culture doesn't do this well. We don't value spiritual discipline and preparation because, like all disciplines, there are no immediate results. In our culture which so highly esteems immediate gratification, we don't think the work of preparing every day is worth it. Or even worse, we don't see the desperate need to start today. We don't read our Bibles because we don't notice a day to day difference in our behavior, or our temperament, or our mood, or our character. We don't acquire an immediate increase in knowledge of Christ or spiritual wisdom and understanding. So we let ourselves get saggy. We grow those spiritual love handles. We eat that spiritual garbage. We sit on the couch and watch TV. We go out and enjoy life; we pursue other treasures. (What are those other treasures to us? Ultimately, they are the things that we regard as having more worth than our spiritual health). And then, one day it hits.

Tragedy. Testing. Trials and tribulations. Or maybe perhaps an opportunity for spiritual blessing that requires a certain degree of maturity.

The first three, we understand what will happen. We'll fall. We might survive, but only as one escaping through the flames.

That last situation I mentioned is of deep significance to me. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I hope she doesn't mind me sharing this, but before I started dating Kat this time around, there were at least two other times that we could have gotten together. Both those times for us, the attraction was there but the maturity wasn't. And so we crashed and burned. Hard. Dear God, it took me so long to recover from each failure. For us, incidentally it was always the odd-numbered years that really kicked our tails.

But by the grace of God, those failures made me see this stark truth; that each time God had sought to bless me, I couldn't receive it because I lacked the faith and spiritual fortitude! So from that last time on, I was determined never to let this happen again. I would die in the spiritual weight room before I faced defeat of such bitter taste again.

I thank God for Kat because I know that our past attempts to date wouldn't have ended in such catastrophic, yet faith-building and life-saving manners if she hadn't so resolutely sought after Christ, despite giving up something that she wanted so badly as well. In quite a literal sense, I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for her. And we wouldn't be where we are now if it weren't for the past. And now we both know that if we're seriously going to love each other we better love God even more than each other.

Don't be fooled, Christian. You don't see the fight nights come. You aren't given 12 months to train. Just be thankful that you are given today to start.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Stanley Files - On Priority

and we know, new jack city gotta keep my brother
but to be number one, i'ma beat my brother
-Kanye, Big Brother

I've redacted my last post "On Pain" and the one on "Diligence" and have decided to work them into a 5-part series of posts inspired largely by the thoughts of my dear friend and mentor. ]

when it feels like livin's harder than dyin
for me givin up is way harder than tryin
-Kanye, Champion

A few weeks ago I wrote an entry in which I quoted Stan; "The euangelion for me is that anyone can be better with nothing more than diligence". I have since added to my understanding.

I was in Sydney city today meeting up with a couple of Gracepoint guys. As I walked down the street, I could have scanned over the street signs and ignored the cars driving on the wrong side and imagine myself back at home walking down Wall Street. "Power suit, power tie, power steering." The well-dressed men and women that passed me all exuded determination and confidence. They were winners. They were motivated. They were achieving life.

Across a busy street I picked out one suited gentleman. He was young and asian; skinny build and probably a little taller than me, with short, gelled-up hair. As I stood outside a busy food court waiting for my friend, I pictured that man walking into Boon church at 12.30 for English service. I envisioned him joining the Boon softball team or playing pick-up soccer after church. I imagined him coming home from college a few years ago to talk to Scott about working in VBS, or telling Don he couldn't serve this year but he definitely will after he gets into med school or after this long stretch of applying for jobs. I imagine him meeting up with the older career people at Saigon after Sunday service.

Then I realized that he was essentially indistinguishable from anyone I've ever met at Boon. Not because of his age or race (those features only aided my revelation); he was indistinguishable from anyone I've ever met in my entire life.

I looked around at all the people rushing past me. Anyone could be a church leader. Anyone could have given up church after college. Anyone could have been a concert pianist. Anyone could have entered the MLB draft. What makes us something and not something else? It's not just diligence; it's not just how hard we try. It's what we choose. Every choice we make is a thousand choices we didn't make.

Every win is a thousand losses in another competition. To become the best tight end in football history, Antonio Gates said no to being a really good power forward. To be the most well-known basketball player in the world, Michael Jordan said no to being the most mediocre #23 in baseball. Paul was never married, but Peter only wrote three Epistles. Don Carson will write more Christian books this year than the entire Boon church English congregation will read, but he won't win a VCF softball championship.

Every yes is a thousand nos. You make partner, but you lose your family and ability to lie (name that classic movie). You become a tri-athlete, but you only read three books of the Bible this year. You listen and understand rap music and memorize Kanye's entire Graduation album, but you forget which opus all your favorite Beethoven works are.

Lately I've been working harder than I have ever worked before, making sure not a moment is wasted, not a second goes un-redeemed, not a single activity I do impedes or stagnates my growth. I want to be growing every second, in every manner. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I am applying myself to the fullest extent and and racing towards the heights of my potential as a human being, limited only by physical decay and death. And along with this newfound determination, I have experienced grief and anxiety unlike anything I've ever felt before. Every time I spend half an hour reading the NYTimes, I ask myself why the hell I wasn't reading a Christian book. When I finish a chapter of a book Eugene calls "a quick read", I glance at the clock and can't believe the morning's gone by and I haven't even typed up my thoughts yet. I go for a run and cook dinner and my evening's gone. I write this blog and go to bed right afterwards and fall behind on the book I'm reading with Kat.

For the first time in my life, I truly understand what priority means. Priority is the deliberation of the thousand and one ways you can spend your next hour, your next day, your next ten years, and picking one. I contend that many people living full lives consisting of twenty four hours in each day have never had to deal with the issue of priority. You can't understand priority until you have driven that gas pedal into the floor. You can't understand priority unless you have pushed determination to its limits. How many have done this?

A week ago, I would have answered that question by saying, "Not anyone who has seen every episode of The Office, or won a beer pong tournament, or spent their summer waiting for VBS to end so that they can have nerf wars." But my realization is this: Yes they have. They have all done this. They have all chosen their priorities and applied all their determination and God-given cunning to achieve their goals. There is no lack in determination for the man who can shotgun ten Coors lights, and no little sacrifice; you only get one liver. There is no lack of determination in someone who's watched every season of Scrubs at least four times through and scored 30,010 points on Scrubs trivia on facebook. There is no lack of determination. There is only choice. There is only one yes and the thousand nos left behind.

What if we don't remember choosing? How do we know where are priorities are? A few days ago, I discovered formspring and so anonymously sent my friends this question, "If it's true that the way that your time is spent determines what's most important in your heart, then what do you love?" Last Fall, I asked my worship music class to fill in this blank, "You can tell a person's values by looking at ________" and some of the responses I got were, "What he talks about, where he spends his money, what he sacrifices for" You've already chosen. Everyone's already chosen their priorities.

Most of my readers are where we are by the decisions we make or by the way we allow decisions to be made for us. So where are you, Christian? Who are you? Where are you going and who are you going to be in a decade, at retirement age, when you're one breath away from ending your life journey? Do you realize that will be where you are when you stand before God to give account?

We don't waste time. We always spend time on what's important in our lives. No one has a minute more or less than anyone else and the way that you spend it will make you who you are. You can get into that better medical school. What will it cost you? You can get into that better conservatory, what will you say no to? You can read every reformed preacher's blog and every reformed book to have ever rested on a shelf. What will you say no to? You can be the best Settlers of Catan player East of the East river. What will it cost you?

I am still getting used to this. I don't like knowing that there are certain things that I won't be able to do. Read all the Christian books I set out to read, memorize all the Bible verses I want to memorize, not die: I can only pick two out of the three. Meet with every guy in my community group twice a month, talk to Kat on the phone five times a week, not die: I can only pick two out of the three. After I started keeping a regular prayer journal, I was astounded to discover how few people you can actually lift up in earnest prayer each day.

I believe that I can improve on the efficiency of the way I achieve life. I will roll out of bed tomorrow morning, body aching everywhere and then running 1.5 miles before rocking up at church with nothing but a banana and a doubleshot of espresso in my stomach, hating the bitter taste of determination. But a year from now I will hate it less.

At the end of it, your life will be a bar graph. Diligence will determine how high those bars go. Priority will determine how you label each bar.

As I proof-read all that I wrote above, I think the most tragic thing is that those whom I wrote
about and inspired my thoughts won't even know it. Maybe even more tragic than that is in preaching to the choir, I am contributing to someone's pious guilt.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Stanley Files - On Pain

"Pain is weakness leaving the body" - Gatorade ad campaign

"Discipline is the self coming to terms with the truth that pain is often good for you" - My 59th St. Bridge Revelation

There were moments during my wilderness period where I was so keen to avoid pain that I would avoid my mentors and anyone who I knew would kick my ass about my mind's thoughts and my heart's desires. Then I realized that there's no growth without pain and if I let this become a pattern in my life, I will get nowhere. If spiritual growth, nay, if growth as a human being wasn't a priority to me, I could spend my whole life not facing the music.

I am firmly convicted by the belief that every decision you make in life does two things: It takes you either farther along the road or backwards along that same road. On one end of the road is the likeness of Christ and on the other end is hell. Everything you do will cause you to move either up or down; there are no side-steps. It's like one of those old school side-scroller video games, like Super Mario or Sonic (Note to self: good future sermon illustration); if you're not going forward you're going backwards.

The second thing I believe choice does is it determines trajectory. On that uni-dimensional road called sanctification (or damnation, depending on which way you're going), you gain momentum. There are no harmless choices, no choices you can take a break in, no decisions you can throw the towel in. In every decision you make, you are setting for yourself a precedent by which you make future decisions.

I realized that if I continued to let that antiquated, primitive, primal, animal pain-avoiding instinct guide my actions, I will end up going down towards the wrong end of the path. So I began to face the music. The truth will set you free, says Christ, but it will make you scream and whimper and beg for mercy first.

Today, I have a healthier view of pain. I try to keep the pain-avoiding instinct off unless I am lighting a barbecue grill or taking on Stanley Lee in the Octagon (ironically, it stays off when I'm talking with Stan about life things). But my experience has also opened my eyes to all the people who live like I used to. I guess I never realized this, but there are people who live their entire lives driven by only one motivation: the avoidance of pain. Like squirrels, chipmunks and the like, they scamper at the first hint of danger. What marks a small woodland creature? Cuteness and feebleness. Cuteness because they are small and weak and harmless. Feebleness because they lack the capacity to become fearsome, intimidating; they lack the ability to transcend their limits.

How do we live? There are two ways. One is to see every situation as an opportunity to grow. The other is to see every situation as a potential for pain and discomfort. These principles that govern pain and growth are applicable to our Christian lives. In church issues, it often comes out in the areas of avoiding correction and rebuke. I've seen people who are SO GOOD at doing this, that they not only avoid the situations that might bring about correction, they avoid interaction with godly people altogether. How do I know it happens? Because I was so good at doing that myself.

What marks a small woodland creature? Cuteness and feebleness. And fear. To avoid facing the music, you can't just avoid people, you also have to avoid situations that will require you to open up. You have to avoid admitting your weaknesses, your sin, your sinfulness, your dependence on God. You have to hide away every hint of fallenness away from the rest of the world. And to hide who we are is to always fear that we will be found out for who we are. There is so much insecurity in living a life like that. Every single day it plagues you like an awful smell right under your nose that you can't get rid of. That fear discomforts you, never lets you relax like a wet sock inside a tightly-laced hiking boot.

It is a pathetic existence. To live in fear of pain is to live as if you're always being chased from behind. I don't think I've completely subdued this impulse within me; it is still more natural for me to take the path that avoids pain. I still have to consciously choose the path that leads to growth, even if it means cutting off parts of my body like my hand or my eye. I now I have a willingness to do it. Growth by pain isn't the natural impulse within me, but at least I'm getting better and better at choosing it. And it definitely gets easier over time.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dan Brown, Religion, and the Limits of Science

So I just finished reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. It took a little over a week, and reading it caused in me a similar sensation to eating crackers with vegemite spread; I felt disgust and nausea, but I just couldn't stop. Dan Brown is a good writer; there's no getting around it. He exploits the cheapest tricks in mystery writing to keep you hooked, and I still stand by my belief that there's nothing wrong with enjoying his anti-Christian, anti-organized religion fiction as long as you keep in mind that it is fiction.

At first, I didn't really understand what was causing my upset intellectual stomach. I couldn't pinpoint what it was that he was doing that just made me feel so much outrage. It wasn't just how he mixes truth and fiction so well that even the blatantly unhistorical portions are mistaken as facts. It wasn't just his oversimplification of very complicated historical and philosophical ideas and trends. It wasn't the way in which he portrayed all forms of established religion and doctrinal orthodoxy as a small step away from terrorism and the way he takes moral corruption, a tragic truth in Christian religion, and blows it up into preposterous, conspiratorial proportions. I can even forgive the overuse of symbolism (even the invention of a completely fictitious discipline, "symbology") because it makes for an excellent and gripping read.

I think this time around, one of the biggest bones I have to pick with Dan Brown is the insidious way in which he defines and categorizes big ideas such as reason, science, and religion. He does not merely over-simplify complex concepts; you can make the case that things like religion and science have quite simple definitions. Instead I would frame his offense as incorrectly portraying these ideas as they relate to each other. The entire premise under Angels and Demons is that science and religion have been at war each other for epistemological supremacy (of course, Dan Brown didn't call it that because it would encourage his readers to look up epistemology and when they do, the foundation for his entire story would crumble). Science wants to describe truth one way, religion another; but both can't be right at the same time and that's why over history blood was shed, men were martyred, and atrocious acts of torture and treachery were committed by "both sides" (but ESPECIALLY religion, says Dan Brown).

I call what Dan Brown does insidious because he wields such an enormous influence over popular culture. One of the difficult things for me to realize is that not everyone who reads the book, in fact not even everyone who is reading this blog, shares the same foundational philosophical convictions as I do. And that's part of the reason why certain presumptions he makes in the book leave me with intellectual diarrhea and leave others with a profound sense of enlightenment. Even though I immediately dismiss some of his presuppositions of life as wrong-headed to the point of being stupid, I can't assume that everyone agrees with me. So, even though I am painfully aware that I am once again late to the game and everyone else has already gotten past all this hype, for the rest of this blog, I hope to illuminate(i) the underlying philosophical premise that Dan Brown and I disagree on. And hopefully it will segue well into my next blog, on faith and reason.

It's true; there was a brief period of history (modernity) in which science and religion were forced like Roman political slaves to enter the coliseum and duke it out. The reign of science and Modernity's dreams of subjecting mother nature to the omnipotent laboratory was cut short by a bloody awakening. We were startled and horrified by the realization that even science could be used for destruction and atrocity; that the propensity of humanity for evil underlined all our other endeavors and aspirations; that the line between good and evil cut across every human heart, cut across every new technological discovery and man-made innovation, and poisoned every attempt to pull ourselves out of our own depravity by the bootstraps of our cunning and intellect.

To Dan Brown's credit, he did talk briefly about the horrible things that have been done in the name of science, but my point isn't to argue pragmatics; I didn't mean to begin discussing which system of belief works better in creating peace and social harmony. My point is, the argument of science verses religion is inherently flawed. You can't compare the two because the premises on which you define these two concepts is wrong.

In his book, Dan Brown creates a situation in which the reader can entertain two questions: 1) Which is better for creating social harmony, science or religion? 2) Which is more reliable for discovering truth, science or religion? I argue that both questions are logically nonsensical. It's like asking, "What tastes better, a poem or high-definition television?" or “What's more effective in getting rid of head lice, the Pythagorean theorem or Mike Ditka?” (actually, that last one has a reasonably defensible answer).

Dan Brown's operative premise for asking the first question is that both science and religion are man-made tools for enforcing social order. Science gives us bombs and cures for diseases, religion gives us a placebo in the form of a higher purpose for living. Now which one would you rather have governing society? I venture that to make this assumption is to do massive injustice to both things. It is taking two things, both of which have nobler objectives than a mere sedation of the masses, and defining them by the uneducated popular impressions that the public have, and then forcing them to do your will.

It took me 15 minutes to write my last sentence because I didn't know how to complete the part after “It is taking two-”. Is it taking two disciplines? Two beliefs? Two ideas? Two worldviews? And that brings me to my next point. Science and religion aren't even in the same category of objects! Wikipedia defines science as a “systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a prediction or predictable type of outcome”. In the broadest category of understanding, science is a methodology. It is a set of rules that you follow in order to arrive upon a certain conclusion, within the prescribed system.

What's important to point out is that science is a system. It is consistent and coherent. Working within the system produces dependable results. But it also presupposes that there are certain questions and conclusions that can be asked which operate outside the scientific system. What that means is, there are certain questions regarding life which science is not meant to answer. You can ask a chef how to make a poached egg, but you can't ask him to explain the chemical process of denaturing the egg proteins when heat is applied. You can and he might know, but his answer will be outside the discipline of cuisine. In the same way, you can ask a scientist why a baseball hit by Barry Bonds will land in McCovey cove instead of flying into space and he'll explain to you stuff about the gravitational force. But if you ask why there is gravity, he cannot, by virtue of the limits of his discipline, answer that question.

My point is, if you direct enough “how”s and “why”s to science, you'll inevitably solicit a frustrated throwing up of arms reaction followed by an aggravated, “That's just how it is!” And THERE you encounter the limits of science. Science does not have an answer for why every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It cannot answer why there are four fundamental forces and not three or five. It cannot tell you why energy cannot be annihilated but only converted to other equivalent forms. The most that a scientist can do when faced with these questions is offer a poetic speculation in awe and wonder, and refer to the inter-connectivity of these first principles in all areas life.

In understanding this point, whether you agree with it or not, it is important to distinguish the questions that science has not answered yet and the questions that science by the definition of its own system cannot answer. I am totally down with the whole idea of the inevitability of the scientific progress in answering our questions, just not ALL questions. You're right. We were stupid to think that the earth was the center of the universe. We were stupid to think that the heavens were a canopy and that God literally pitched a tent over the earth. But these kind of discoveries are different categorically from the answers that truly echo in the human heart. Does it satisfy your bones, secular humanist, that a star is a flaming ball of gas? Are you pleased with your discovery that love is a certain psycho-biological state?

In C.S. Lewis' book The Abolition of Man, he describes people who reduce all knowledge into scientific categories as “men without chests”. They have satisfied their intellectual thirst but for those who do have chests with hearts, after their victory they feel a deep hollow emptiness; a gripping loneliness and a sense of alienation and exile as they emerge into their new world, a world divested of illusions and lights. In this world, any question that science cannot answer must not be relevant to live. And therefore meaning and significance is abolished. Purpose and normative living was ejected out into the deep cold of space. Ethics is pragmatic but ultimately unfounded. Concerning the abandonment of value judgments, Nietzsche wrote,

“Indeed, we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel, when we hear the news that the is dead, as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the love of knowledge is permitted again the sea, our sea, lies open again, perhaps there has never yet been such an open sea” (Human, all too Human)

But in his prophetic brilliance, he also realized that this freedom was cold and vacuous; a freedom humanity was not meant to have. We've been untethered from the sun, and now we're plunging continually through space in all directions, backwards, sideways, and upwards:

“We have left the land and have embardked. We have burned our bridges behind us – indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity.... Woe, when you fell homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom – there is no longer any land”

I lament my inability to resist the temptation to sidetrack into my favorite philosopher in all the land. I venture that science is incapable of answering the same questions that religion answers, and vice versa. When religion tried to answer scientific questions, Galileo was scandalized and the church was disgraced. But when science tried to answer religion's questions, people quickly realized that the world it created was neat and orderly and cold and barren. We left Eden and quickly realized that the world was harsh and unsuitable for humankind, who didn't even have fur for warmth or fangs for hunting.

I conclude by stating that religion and science was never at war; at least not until the foolish humans pit them against each other by locking them in the Octagon, with disastrous results. Science is not in the same category as religion. It is perpendicular to her. Science can be used for immense good or devastating evil, but one thing it cannot be used for is telling us why we're here and what our ultimate purpose is.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Why Christians can have nice things

It took me a really long time to realize that if something is desirable, even pleasurable, it doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad thing. How tragic is our state of fallenness, that we consider good things to be evil in a world that God created and called "good" on the first day?

“Before the Lord God made man upon the earth He first prepared for him by creating a world of useful and pleasant things for his sustenance and delight. In the Genesis account of the creation these are called simply `things.' They were made for man's uses, but they were meant always to be external to the man and subservient to him. In the deep heart of the man was a shrine where none but God was worthy to come. Within him was God; without, a thousand gifts which God had showered upon him.” - A. W. Tozer, The Blessedness of Possessing

Idolatry had from the beginning been humanity's sin. The heart of idolatry is mistaking gift for Giver. When we take the treasures around us and elevate them to the status of God, that is idolatry. But the punishment is contained within the sin. The Διὸ παρέδωκεν, the “therefore God gave them over”of this sin is that we would cling with fervor onto something that is not meant to last; something that moth and rust destroy; something that will ultimately be lost with time. The self-contained punishment of God for our idolatry is that we would suffer loss and despair when that which was fleeting finally is gone.

However, enough Christian literature has been written about idolatry and wiser men than I have preached powerfully against it. I am interested in the antithesis to idolatry. What is the opposite danger? It is monasticism. It is a complete denial of earthly pleasures. Jesus never said, “do not enjoy treasures on earth”. That command is very different from “do not store up treasures in heaven” Treasures on earth are still that. They are meant to be enjoyed. They are the thousand and one gifts that God showered his children; gifts that were meant to be delighted in; gifts that were meant to direct worship back to the Giver.

Earthly treasures are vehicles by which God's children enjoy and treasure God. A gift is of worth to the degree that it points to and magnifies the One who ascribed its worth; the One who is by nature of infinite worth. Like a rainbow that leads to the pot of gold at the end, gifts are beautiful and enjoyable; but they are a means. God is the end of pleasure.

But this isn't the understanding of many Christians. Many sincerely pious but severely misled Christians believe that the less you enjoy life, the more you are glorifying God. If you are loving life, nurturing other hobbies, sharpening skills in other things, doing anything other than sitting at home and reading the Bible, you are committing idolatry. Isn't that the attitude that we have sometimes? How do we enjoy God, how do we treasure him and him alone; how do we worship him in the throne of our hearts? Only by reading Scripture and praying. It's not worship if you do something else. It's not worship if you enjoy life.

How is that treasuring God? I would like to say that those who live in denial of earthly pleasures are guilty of sinning against God. How? Because their actions undermine the goodness of Creation for the enjoyment of man. Their attitude throws the Lord's gifts back at him and declares them unworthy. And furthermore, the sheer dissatisfaction of living such a life of denial will inevitably lead to a deep-seated resentment in their worship of God. “Why is treasuring you so difficult, Oh Lord? I have given up everything for you, and life sucks now”

The person who lives in pious denial will eventually be crushed to death between a rock and a hard place. Anything they desire that is of the world will seem like idols by default. When they try to enjoy it, they feel guilt and shame. But when they say no and hide from it, they find that what they treasure isn't a treasure at all. “Oh Lord, if you are all I need, why did you make sports so fun? Why did you make video games so enjoyable? Why did you make the opposite sex so desirable?”

On the one hand, we have the temptation to turn gift into idol. On the other, we have the misguided notion of denying all gifts completely. So what is the aufhebung, the dialectic sublation of these two theses? The answer, at least practically in our Christian lives, is to get rid of the gifts and true joys that take away from your passion for Jesus. Those things that are prone in your life to become idols; those things that your heart desires more than their makers; those things must go. BUT, those gifts and true joys and delights that fuel your passion and love for the Lord, keep them and be thankful for them. To the degree that an earthly treasure increases your delight in the Lord, to that degree keep the treasure and glorify its Maker.

Take stock, Christian, of the treasures in your life. Which ones bring you into deeper delight and worship of its creator. Which ones take you farther from him?
Ultimately, a sign of deep spiritual maturity is the ability to guiltlessly enjoy earthly treasures in the context of God's gifts. The pursuit of academic excellence; a successful business; an art or work of art painstakingly perfected; the companionship of a girlfriend or boyfriend; the satisfaction of beating a video game; the elation that comes from achieving an athletic goal. All these things are gifts. They feel good because they're supposed to feel good. Our Father knows how to give gifts. He knows that we like fish better than snakes or stones. And those who are confident in that truth can truly enjoy life. In the end, those who are gripped with the goodness of God, who are confident in the security of their true, eternal, secure, heavenly treasure; they will not be afraid of going after what they desire.

It took me a long time to learn this. For a large part of my Christian life, I wasted away in despair; not understanding why not having any gods before Him made life suck so much. It was only after I worked all this out that I could guiltlessly live and enjoy. It was only after I made this realization that I could have nice things, do fun things, have a girlfriend, and all while give thanks to God that these gifts, though fleeting they are, are in my life.