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.