Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Religious Politics: Reflections from the 2012 Election

Through a combination of the Election season and my unshakable impulse to check Facebook every time I lose focus on what I'm doing right now, I have learned so much more about the political leanings of my friends that I care to find out. I've discovered that I have at least one Christian friend in every major political category: Apathetic (gotta start with that one, right?), moderate, left-leaning, right-leaning, God is going to abandon America if Obama doesn't win, and God is going to straight up Sodom-and-Gomorrah everything from sea to shining sea if Romney doesn't win.

I fall into one of the categories that I listed above, but what bothers me most during politics time is not how other people can be a Christian and have a different political view, but how exclusively and explicitly some Christians have connected their religious hopes with their political alignment. This blog has written about how our politics have revealed that our eschatological hope isn't ultimately in Jesus. I should back up and define eschatological hope: When you think about the future, and whether things in our world are going to end well or poorly, on whom or what does it all hang? When you think about the defeat of evil, the overcoming of sin, the end to poverty, the eradication of disease... how are we going to get there and who is going to get us there? However you answer, that is your eschatological hope.

I fear that in America we may have so religiously charged our politics that we've accidentally gone overboard in our heads and made the next president our savior or made our political party the instrument through which God is going to redeem the world. I can think of a couple of reasons why this may be and they both have to do with a poor understanding of how God is actually working to accomplish those things:

Weak Missiology: The entire message of the Bible is the story of God's mission to save his people and redeem his creation. Whether you're a Christian or not, chances are if you're reading this, then you are a socially-aware, civic-minded, loving, and compassionate person who is genuinely concerned about the state of your country, the welfare of its people, the economic climate, and the deteriorating state of international relations. I want to say that in an indirect, but very real way, God is concerned about those things too and he is much more capable of bringing about a resolution. I say indirect because I don't think that God's interests are limited to the affairs of the U.S. So I'm not a fundamentalist crazy; I don't think that God loves America to the exclusion of all other nations, but God loves his world and seeks to save it. It's just that God recognizes that the REAL issue behind every other issue is actually human sin, and that's what he's dealing with.

If we understood that God has been on mission through human history to save us, and he's doing that through Jesus Christ, who has died to sin and overcome it with his resurrection, then would our hopes be devastatingly crushed or overwhelmingly lifted depending on who our next president is?

Weak Ecclesiology: So God is on mission to save the world to him by dealing with sin through Jesus. How does that affect the welfare of our nation, and how does that actually play out to the benefit of our country. The answer to that is through the church.

In 1 Peter, the Apostle Peter is writing to Christians who are scattered across the Roman Empire and being persecuted for their beliefs. Throughout the letter, he encourages them by reminding them of who they are, "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's possession" (1 Pet 2.9), a people who have been brought together and given significance through God's work of mercy in Christ. And he also encourages them by reminding them of their purpose in the world. "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." (2.11-12)

Peter says that our job right now is to live such stellar lives, lives that bring good, peace, and prosperity to our neighbors and to our countries, that glory is given to God. We may be citizens of another kingdom, but being good citizens of God's kingdom makes us stellar citizens of whichever one we are a part of in this world. We're called to seek the peace and prosperity of the country that we are a part of today, pray to God  on its behalf, and love those who are there.

Contra Bono, America isn't God's country. Neither is present-day national Israel, Ireland, or any physical piece of land in the world. That means that the way that God's kingdom is going to grow won't be from a Christian moving into the White House; it is ultimately through the people of God reaching out in love, mercy, and with the Word of life in every city, nation and world. A Christian doesn't need to be living in White House for God to be glorified in the U.S. The church can impact the nation from the margins of society.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't vote or take part in the government process. Just a few verse later, Peter urges the Christians to live as God's slaves, but also honor the emperor (1 Pet 2.16-17). Citizenship on earth and in the kingdom isn't an either-or affair. We're to honor those that God has put in authority and submit to them (Rom 13) regardless of their political affiliation, and we're to use our vote selflessly and in a way that most brings honor to God and good to our neighbor.

At the end of the day, whoever is elected president is still a sinful human being; he isn't our savior. He didn't conquer evil and death. He won't rule with perfect justice and righteousness and love. But that's okay because our ultimate hope isn't in him. It's in Christ.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reflections On Preaching

In my three years of doing ministry in Sydney, I've written and preached about fifteen to twenty sermons, which means that I'm still a very, very young and inexperienced preacher. And in my endeavor to become a a better preacher, I've noticed that whenever I go back to read one of my sermons, if it's older than six months, I end up hating it and wondering how anyone could have ever let me read THAT on the pulpit.

You might have experienced this same phenomenon, especially if you keep a journal. Have you ever gone back to read something you wrote a long time ago and start feeling the flush of embarrassment, like "How could I have thought or written those things?" It's a sign that you are growing as a person and maturing in thought and intellect. In the case of my past sermons, it's a sign that I've growing and maturing as a preacher.

Now don't get me wrong; as far as I know I haven't ever preached heresy or mis-exegeted the Bible, or at least not grievously. I get my sermons checked by people before delivering them, but I do learn to go deeper into the text, to apply the passage better to the congregation that I'm speaking to, and to use more vernacular.

And because of this, inevitably after every preaching gig I have, the thought that always pops into my mind is, "I want a mulligan." I want a do-ver. I messed up the main point, I thought of a more relevant way to apply the passage, my illustration made no sense and went around and around in a confusing way, I looked down at my notes too often and didn't engage the congregation with my eyes.

But lately, I had read the book of Acts, and had a thought about Acts 7, where Stephen gives a speech before the Sanhedrin. Many scholars say that this sermon, of the 25-30 found in the book of Acts, is the most significant because it so clearly explains the universal scope of God's salvation plan in Jesus.

My thought about the sermon was, this is perhaps one of the best sermons recorded in the whole Bible, and possibly one of the most important ever preached in all Christendom... but what came out of it? Stephen's audience became enraged at what he was saying, accused him vehemently of blasphemy, and rage-stoned him on the spot. Could there have been a more negative response to a sermon than that?

Contrast this with another sermon from the Bible. The prophet Jonah, in his book, preached possibly the shortest, worst sermon, ever recorded. In Jonah 3.4, this was the extent of his message, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." That's it! No illustrations, no points, and no word of grace. Yet what came out of that? Immediately in the next verse, it said, "The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth." Jonah hadn't even proclaimed a word of hope, yet the Ninevites believed and repented!

Now, I know that neither of these are examples of typical sermons that a preacher would give on a Sunday, but in these message, you couldn't have a greater contrast in the proportion between sermon quality and sermon success. I doubt you could find a prophetic word today better constructed than Stephen's magnificent biblical exposition of redemptive history, and I doubt you could find a preacher who cared less about his audience than Jonah. Yet I doubt you could find a more discouraging response than Stephen's Pharisaical accusers and I could you could find a more impassioned repentance than that of the wicked, amoral Ninevites.

What I mean to say from all this is that ultimately God accomplishes his will through his word. Every preacher is an imperfect, sinful person. We are not infinitely wise and we don't know the hearts of our people perfectly the way that Jesus does. Moreover, most regular preachers have to craft their sermon each week while keeping up with all of his other demands and responsibilities in the church. I at least have the luxury of having weeks and months to prepare my sermon.

But as inadequate and rushed our work is, we have the comfort and assurance of knowing that we have a perfect God who works out his will through imperfect people. And how do I know this?

What happened immediately after Stephen's preaching in Acts 7? He was lynched by a mob of hardened, ungrateful, unloving people who hate God and reject the Holy Spirit. But what happened right after that in the next chapter? Stephen's death triggered a great persecution against Christians all across the city of Jerusalem, and as a result Christians were driven out of Jerusalem and scattered all across the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria. It's like you had this great field of dandelions that you tried to stamp out and destroy, but instead you scatter the seeds through the wind to all the nearby fields, and you end up spreading the plant even further because of that.

So was Stephen's speech really a failure? Or was his martyrdom, seemingly the ultimate defeat, actually a profound victory because it was used by God to bring his good news to all the world? Remember who else bore witness to the whole thing? Saul, the guy who later became the greatest missionary and the one who brought the gospel to the entire Roman empire?

As a young preacher, I know that by God's will I'm going to grow and improve. But I also know that God will use my work, however good or bad, however rushed or imperfect it is, for his will. And that's a great comfort that motivates me to trust in him, depend on him, and be faithful to him, giving him my best. I hope that you, whether you're a preacher or just a layperson who leads Bible studies and disciples people in church, can take comfort in this truth as well, and let it motivate you to serve him with joy, regardless of what results you seemingly produce.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It was a fat and exciting night: Home-made mad-libs

Here's a mad-lib that I wrote that I had Jo fill in for me. You'll see why later, but what I learned from this experience was that you can put bananas in any dessert and it will still sound tasty:

It was a fat and exciting, night. In the kitchen, an cat stood, running stupidly. Bob had just finished a long day of work at the buffet. He made a living doing plumbing in the Eiffel Tower. It was a job of meager means, but he was happy with his wife with a wooden leg and three kids. That night was banana night, a cherished tradition of the family where Tanya would cook up a delicious meal where everything had banana in it. There was banana with pomelo, banana with tapas, and the grand finale, banana with creme brulee for dessert.

Tonight was extra special, because Javier, the broken friend of the family was coming over and joining the family for dinner. Javier was Bob's best friend from back in the days when they were in Spanish teaching academy together. Javier had a very ghostly arm, due to his conjunctivitis, which he contracted 403 years ago when he was a volunteer coach driver. Furthermore, ever since the tragic bicycle accident he walked with a lopey gait reminiscent of a ferret.

BONK! went the doorbell as Javier arrived. Bob's noisy son, Fred, quickly got up from the TV room, finished playing tennis, and funnily laughed his way to the door. Gee, your chin is huge!” Javier exclaimed as he came in. Why aren't you at gym, poking bellies? Fred replied, “Because it's Easter! Everyone knows that you don't need to poo when it's Easter!” From the kitchen, Bob's wife Tanya called everyone to come downstairs for dinner. Little Lena came bowling into the room, took a sniff, and made scrunched face. “It smells like a baton digested a lightbulb in here!” Bob replied, “Come on, just ask them!” THE END

In case anybody is curious, here is the template that I made up:

It was a adjective and adjective, night. In the room of the house, an animal stood, present progressive verb, adverb. He, she, it had just finished a long day of work at the place. He made a living job. It was a job of meager means, but he was happy with his way you would describe a human wife and number kids. That night was food night, a cherished tradition of the family where name of main character's wife would cook up a delicious meal where everything had food in it. There was food with other food, food with other food, and the grand finale, food with dessert food for dessert.

Tonight was extra special, because name of friend, the adjective friend of the family was coming over and joining the family for dinner. Name of friend was main character's, best friend from back in the days when they were in occupation academy together. Friend had a very adjective body part, due to his disease, which he contracted number years ago when he was a volunteer occupation. Furthermore, after the adjective, form of transportation accident, he walked with a gait lopey gait reminiscent of a animal.

Onomotapoeia, went the doorbell as friend arrived. Main character's way you would describe children son, name, quickly got up from the room in a building, finished activity, and adverb verbed his way to the door. Something you'd say to a friend” friend exclaimed as he came in. Why aren't you at place in a city, something you would do in your free time? Son's name replied, “Because it's calendar feature! Everyone knows that you don't need to something everyone needs to do regularly when it's calendar feature!” From the kitchen, main character's wife girls name called everyone to come downstairs for dinner. Little daugher's name came verb into the room, took a sniff, and made face face. “It smells like a thing verbed another thing in here!” Main character replied, “Punchline to a joke”. THE END

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Instruments In The Redeemer's Hands: Book Review

This was a book I read with my pastor, Owen, last year while I was doing ministry apprenticeship. It's one of my favorite books on not just ministry, but Christian relationships in general. I highly recommend it to all Christians.

  “As we listen to eternity, we realize that the kingdom is about God radically changing people, but not in the self-absorbed sense our culture assumes. Christ came to break our allegiance to such an atrophied agenda and call us to the one goal worth living for. His kingdom is about the display of his glory and people who are holy. This is the change he came, lived, died, and rose to produce.” (5)

       Paul Tripp's book, Instruments In The Hands Of The Redeemer, reads, more than anything else, like a chameleon. Different people with different life situations will pick up this book and read it as exactly what they needed to hear. A pastor will read it as a guide for doing biblically faithful pastoral counseling. A married couple may read it as a guide for understanding what is wrong with their troubled marriage in God's eyes. Any Christian can use it as a resource for understanding Christian relationships and what God intended for our marriages, our friendships, our families, etc. Perhaps the most fundamental way to describe this book is, “a biblical treatise on God's agenda for his saved people in a world still broken by sin, with a focus on its implications for Christian relationships.
       Tripp's book is is divided into two sections. In the first section, he establishes his central thesis, which is that “the heart is the target”. And in the second section, he outlines the implications of this thesis for ministry as well as Christian relationships in general.
       Tripp's main point is that, in personal ministry and Christian relationships, the focus must first and foremost be on an individual's heart orientation and the object of his worship rather than on errant behavior or sinful habits. He reasons from a biblical view of human nature. Every person's life is oriented in one of two directions; towards God or away from God. That orientation is determined by the heart. “The Bible uses the heart to describe the inner person. Scripture divides the human being into two parts, the inner and outer being.” (59) Tripp goes on to argue that an individual's entire life is determined by the state of that inner being, even his actions and behavior.
       For Tripp, true healing and transformation takes place when the heart is changed by the gospel. The source of every kind of brokenness, anxiety, depression, insecurity, neurosis, identity issue, or addiction is rooted in the idolatry of the heart. “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.” (66). Thus the main task of every kind of personal ministry, pastoral counseling, 1-1 discipleship, or even a simple Christian friendship must be to help the other individual to re-orient his heart to worship God. Tripp repeats this idea throughout the entire book and grounds all of his practical insights for personal ministry on this.
By stating that idolatry is anything that steals a heart's affections from God, Tripp also grounds his personal ministry in God's glory. To bring healing and transformation into a broken life is not only to bring them joy and liberation from the bondage of sin, but also to bring praise and glory to the great healer, Christ, whose saving cross work is the enabler of true healing.
       Tripp's thesis is invaluable not just because it is so thoroughly biblical, but also because he identifies a tragic mistake we tend to make as pastors. Oftentimes, we are too concerned with the errant external behavior of our people rather than the fountainhead of that behavior, which is idolatry. We do this to our own detriment and to the detriment of our people. By addressing behavior, we are allowing sin to rule our people while at the same time merely suppressing the symptoms of that sin. In doing this, we do an incomplete job of transformation that stops short of helping a person become a new creation in the gospel. For pastors, the challenge of seeking heart change is intensified by people's natural propensities away from dealing with heart issues. “When most people seek change, they seldom have the heart in view. They want change in their circumstances, change in the other person, or change in their emotions... But when the focus is put only on the outward circumstances, the solutions are seldom more than temporary and superficial” (109). But according to Tripp, the only gospel-centered and gospel-informed way is to do the messy work of dealing with the heart.
       In the second part of the book, Tripp seeks to set out some practical principles for dealing with the heart. The framework that he uses is “Love, know, speak, do”. By starting with love and knowledge, Tripp asserts that truly effective personal ministry requires both enormous commitment and Christ-like sacrifice. It requires sacrifice in order to love a flawed, sinful, and oftentimes disagreeable person, but it is a necessary start. The chapter on “Knowing” was perhaps one of the most insightful chapters to me. It highlights the importance of seeking a deeper relationship that gets beyond a casual acquaintance. “Our effectiveness as ambassadors (of change) is blunted because we don't know others well enough to know where change is needed or where God is actively at work” (163). In the chapter, Tripp implores people to avoid making the mistake of assuming certain knowledge, to take the effort to make sure that our conclusions are correct, to ask good, focused questions, and to be committed to the often slow, laborious, and confusing process of really understanding a person.
       The transformation process does not stop at “knowing”. It must be followed by ascertaining where change is needed, and speaking truth about that change. Personal ministry seeks to apply the gospel and the implications of the gospel into a person's life so that his errant, idol-worshiping heart seeks to reorient itself towards God. It is only by the application of the gospel that a person can find true, lasting transformation.
The great strength of Dr. Tripp's work is that it is eminently biblical and gospel-centered. In his first chapter, rather than diving straight into the main substance, he first outlines God's grand redemptive agenda in the world as it centers on Christ. In doing so, Tripp sets the context of Christian relationships within the redemptive story, thus making sure that our agenda for life transformation starts with and fits into God's greater agenda for his world. And all throughout the book, Tripp makes an exceptional effort to connect the practical to the theological, reminding his readers that ultimately all of the work of personal ministry, discipleship, pastoral counseling, or simple “iron sharpening iron” Christian friendships must be grounded in the gospel.
       I highly recommend this book to be used as a resource for churches. Another strength of Paul's book is that its principles can be contextualized in all manners of Christian relationships. To that end, I would recommend this book for pastors seeking to improve their pastoral ministry, for husbands and wives seeking to strengthen their marriage and make their spouse more Christlike, for Bible study leaders working out how to better understand the needs of their people, or even simply for a Christian seeking to put all of his relationships with other people under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Brief Theology Of Clothing And Fashion

          A couple of weeks ago, I turned up at church wearing the new outfit that I had purchased back in New York last December. Blue dress shirt with a Navy Tommy Hilfiger top, DKNY jeans, and a pair of Polo Ralph Lauren boots. That was the first time in a long, long, long, long time that I can remember being complimented for my clothing. No fewer than three people responded with some variation of "Dan! Nice shoes!" when I said hi to them, and Roy Wu actually saw me from across the whole hall and came over just to comment on my attire. It felt nice. It made me smile. It confirmed that I like it when I wear nice clothing and people notice.
          Truth be told, I didn't acquire a single article of clothing that I was wearing that day on my own. My fiancee Jo picked out the shirt and jumper, I was assisted with the jeans, and my friend Phil Thai practically had to hold a gun to my head to make me buy those nice brown shoes. "But, why would I need them?" I protested, "I don't even have a brown belt and I've already got a pair of nice shoes." "Dude!" he cried out, exasperated, "They're on a ridiculous sale and you can't get through life with just one pair of twenty dollar loafers!" And then at some point, he said,

"When you preach, you should look good"

          My fashion sense has changed a lot in the last year. For example, I now know that, as itchy as scarves are, people often don't wear them for the warmth so much as for the style and the way that it complements their coat. I used to have two kinds of clothing in my closet; my suit, and everything else. I had one pair of dress shoes (with shoelaces because I didn't know that loafers are now in), one pair of sneakers, and one pair of football cleats. Now I have going-out sneakers and every-day sneakers. I have going-out jeans and every-day jeans. I even have a brown AND a black belt. I'm even looking to buy a scarf!

What changed?

          I used to be one of those guys who didn't care about what I looked like or how I dressed. But now I do, and it's not because suddenly I am materialistic or vain or my self-esteem is tied to what other people think of my and my outer beauty (if I were, then I would have definitely lost that extra 10kg that I've gained since starting ministry apprenticeship). What changed was, sometime last year, I decided to learn what the Bible said about clothing and fashion. Here's a brief summary of what I've learned.

The Bible has a LOT to say about clothing and what people wear
          The first thing that I did was go on Bible Gateway and do a word search on every Bible passage that contained "clothes" "clothing" "dress" or "wear". What I found was, from Genesis to Revelation, there were endless references to these terms. Now, of course in a search of this kind, a lot of the references have nothing to do with fashion or clothing, for example, ones that were just detail used to bring a narrative to life. But not all was like that. What's interesting is, God actually cares a lot about what people wear. For example, in Exodus, there are two whole chapters (28 and 39) of instructions on how God's priests were to dress. The high priest's fine clothing both covered up nakedness (Ex 28.42 and gave him dignity and honor (Ex 28.40) You can bet that God didn't want them to turn up to a sacrifice ritual in trackpants, crocs, and a Harvard University hoodie. Speaking about John the Baptist's modest wear, Jesus says, "those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces." Joseph' beautiful coat got him into a lot of trouble. Elijah's mantle was passed to Elisha, along with his divine commission. And in Galatians 3.27, Paul says, that we're all baptized into Christ and have now clothed ourselves with Christ.
          What this means is, at the very least, what we wear is NOT inconsequential. The sheer volume of meaningful references that the Bible makes to clothing, from Adam and Eve's nakedness, to priestly wear, to how Jesus was adorned when he went to the cross, confirms that clothing and dress is a significant part of the human experience. To wear is human.

Fine clothes = Glory and Beauty
          In Genesis 3, God responds to Adam and Eve's newfound awareness of their nakedness by sewing for them fig leaves to wear. A lot of Christians fixate on this passage to make the point that clothing was a concession of the Fall. It is there to cover up our shame. God created us to be naked and unashamed, just like we were in Eden before sin entered the world.
          But what I found interesting is that, when we skip ahead to the end of the Bible, in Revelation where we're given a view of what's the come, it doesn't say we end up being naked again! Oh you can definitely be sure that shame is gone, but we don't return to a state of nakedness any more than we return to a garden. Just as history ends in a city, history also ends with the saints of God clothed in fine linen, bright and clean (Rev 19.8)*. 
          Fine clothing is a way that God's people are adorned with beauty and glory. Just as today there is a connection between a woman's nice dress and a woman's beauty, one day God is going to lift up his people and make them beautiful by dressing them.

Fine clothes = Righteousness
          Job says he puts on righteousness like clothing, and justice as headwear (Job 29.14). The theme is repeated in Isaiah, where he rejoices because God has clothed him in garments of salvation and robes of righteousness (Isaiah 61.10). Of course, ultimately, we will be clothed with Christ (Gal 3.27) and be counted righteous by the life that he lived.

In all this, we can conclude that in the Bible, clothing is a way that God blesses his people. It's a gift, a means of blessing, and the content of a promise that, one day, what we wear will show that we are beautiful and loved and valued and prized, God will make it so. One day, God is going to clothe us with beauty and honor and glory and wealth. We will be living and wearing luxury and true decadence. It is one of the perfect gifts that we can look forward to when our God comes to dwell with us. Amen, hallelujah!

In my research, I've discovered two things. The first is that the Bible really does have a lot to say about everything that is meaningful to mankind. It sure has a lot to say about clothing and I haven't even thought through half of it. And the second thing is, there are a certain oversimplified views of clothing that need to be folded up into and balanced by a richer, more robust, biblically faithful view of clothing. Here are a few:

The "be all things to all people" oversimplification
          The "be all things to all people" people use 1 Corinthians 9 as a lens through which they understand how they are to dress. The principle is, what I wear is simply another tool for completing God's mission. It's another area of my life that I need to sharpen in order to do ministry well. So the reason that I would wear nice clothing when I preach is because if I don't, then no one will listen to me. People respect well-dressed people, and if I want to preach to them the gospel, then I am going to need to invest in a nice pair of brown Polo boots, down an absurd 50% to $50.
          The problem with this view is that, taken to the extreme, it doesn't recognize the richness of fashion and fine clothing as an asset to human existence. Ironically, these are well-dressed people who don't actually fully appreciate God's gift of clothing. Yes, it's true that what I wear has implications for how I do ministry. I wouldn't wear a gold rolex to a soup kitchen any more than I would preach in torn jeans and a Steelers NFL jersey to a congregation of upper-middle class men and women who wear suits to work five days a week. But if we think that clothing is nothing but a missional strategy, then we aren't truly comprehending how deeply connected it is to human life. C.S. Lewis famously said, "Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival." And I would say the same thing about fashion and fine wear.
          In other words, it's okay that I feel good about what I wear. It's okay that I am complimented. It's a joy that God has given us, much like the joy of being able to dunk a basketball or brew the perfect cappuccino or architect a skyscraper from the ground up in the style of art deco. For the sake of the ministry I ought to dress prudently, but I don't dress well only for the sake of ministry.

The "all clothing is evil" oversimplification
          The "all clothing is evil" people have a deep sensitivity and a painful awareness of our fallen world and of people's sinfulness. Because of sin, the good gift of fashion and beauty have become tarnished. One of the interesting things about my research of clothing and fashion is how many of the references to clothes refer to them as gifts, or objects for the sake of others. We wear clothing for the sake of others. We wear suits to honor the bride and groom on their wedding day. We wear black to grieve with those who've suffered loss. We dress nicely, not just for ourselves, but in order to make us pleasing to look at, and thus, for others.
          The people in this oversimplification only see how in sin, fashion and dress have become more tools of self-advancement and self-glorification rather than love. We wear nice clothes to give ourselves meaning and significance; a meaning and significance that only God can truly give us. We use fashion and make-up to try to make ourselves beautiful, or at least to hide how ugly we truly are or to hide from ourselves how ugly we truly feel. We use clothing only as a way to replace fulfillment from God.
          These people believe that, since God looks at the heart, and all clothing by nature sits outside of the self, all clothing is therefore evil. it's just another manifestation of sin; another way that God can be replaced in our lives.
          While all of the above is true, it is again an oversimplification. How else could what I wear make me feel beautiful if it was never meant to in the first place? Of course what I wear makes me feel beautiful! And that's okay! Just because pornography is wrong doesn't make sex evil, and just because you can use fashion and dress evilly doesn't make it all evil.
          Before I really gave this issue some serious thought, I think I was implicitly a member of this group. I dressed like a bum because I just didn't care. And I reasoned that if I didn't care how I looked, then neither should anyone else. And by that reasoning, I thought that any Christian who tried hard to dress nicely was a vain, shallow, self-focused sinner. And then one day last year, I was at a church-planting event where my former pastor from Boston, Stephen Um, was speaking. I remember being excited that he had come all the way out here and I was able to meet him, so after the session I went up to him to chat and to take a picture. And there I was in the picture, wearing my ugly, frayed neon green t-shirt, basketball shorts with one side of the draw string hanging lose, and my flip flops, next to a well-dressed, well-groomed, sharp looking man. It was embarrassing!
          The reality is, clothing can be used to sin against and hurt others, but then again so can anything else. You can use a microwave oven to kill someone. It doesn't mean that you're sinning if you use it to reheat your cold tea. For the sake of my neighbor I ought to dress prudently, but not all dressing well is sin.

The "inner-beauty" oversimplification
          This one is quite closely related to the last oversimplification. People who fall into this category tend to have a keen understanding of true righteousness. True righteousness is, of course, found in the heart. And in Scripture, fine clothing is so closely tied with true righteousness. Peter says that beauty should not come from outward adornment, but from the inner self (1 Pet 3.3-4).
          The problem, again, is when you take this to the extreme and say that NOTHING else matters except your heart.
          I've been leading music teams in church for years and I hear the whole, "it's not about the outside, but about your heart" line a few times each year. Sometimes, it's sincere, and on occasion, it's uttered as a justification for inexcusably poor musicianship, laziness and unwillingness to practice, and generally poor quality service. If it's about the heart, does that mean that I can play the piano so poorly that my congregation's ears bleed and still call it worship? No! Because what's outside usually reflects what's inside.
          The same principle applies to the whole inner-beauty thing. The reality is, people whose hearts are so captivated by God's beauty and overflowing with love for Jesus will perfect every part of their life to bring God the best. It's why God was pleased with Abel's offering but not Cain's even though nowhere in Genesis 4 were there instructions for what kind of offerings pleased God. Abel just knew to bring the best.
          Look, I'm not knocking on people who turn up to church dressed like dags, and I'm not saying we all should wear suits to church no matter what context. I'm saying that outer beauty, when done right, reflects inner beauty. The whore of Babylon in Revelation 17 was dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and precious stones, but that didn't mean that God said, "Oh well, let's forget the bling then and just hand out a pair of Uggs and a onesie to everyone in my kingdom."

Fashion and fine clothing
          Fine clothing, like fine arts, fine dining, or fine anything else, points to a wonderful, magnificent, glorious God who knows how to live it up. The yearning in our hearts for nice things confirms the fact that we once knew what was truly lavish, but have it not today. The richest people and the most powerful kings in the world were never able to attain it (see Ecclesiastes). Today, we have the gift of fine clothing, but only a shadow of it. No royal dressed in the best that the world can offer would look presentable in God's future kingdom.
          In a sense, sin is when we take what we have today and make it into the ultimate. If I make my fashion and style ultimate, if I replace God with the joy that I get from being complimented about my clothing, then I am not only an idolater, but I am also robbing myself of the anticipation of a future glory that I cannot even comprehend now.

I am thankful to my good friend Phil Thai and my wonderful fiancee Jo for patiently giving me a fashion sense and teaching me the joy of nice clothing. I hope that what I wear doesn't stumble anyone, but reflects a grateful sinner who is allowed to enjoy God's good gifts, reflects my inner beauty and glory bestowed by God, and reflects a seriousness about the gospel ministry that I have been commissioned to take part in.

-Dan Shih

*And comfortable, as C.S. Lewis repeatedly insists in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Falling From Grace

       I really like words. I like phrases, I like wordplay, and I like finding out the origin of certain words and phrases. Well earlier this week, I found out where the term “falling from grace” comes from.
       Nowadays, the definition of “falling from grace” is to fall from a position of high esteem. We often talk about celebrities who fall from grace when news of something bad they've done hits the presses. But it doesn't have to be celebrities. You can “fall from a friend's good graces" if you do something bad like betray him or deny him, or put up embarrassing pictures of him onto facebook. In my mind, the term “falling from grace” invokes this picture of walking on some tightrope way high up in the air. Every careful step you take is another chance you might slip up and come crashing down. The way that we use the term today, you have to work so hard not to fall from grace. You have to be good all the time, look good all the time, never fail anybody, never let anybody see your weaknesses, you have to guard your true self so carefully. According to the world, every single one of us is walking this tightrope in life and we're all just one step away from falling from grace. According to the world, to not fall from grace depends entirely on YOU and YOUR efforts.
       It's really funny, because in Galatians 5.4, Paul, who originally came up with the term, uses it in a radically different way. In this verse, Paul accuses the Galatians of trying to live up to a certain standard. The Galatians didn't think that faith in Jesus was enough and that in order to live we must also obey certain rules. And Paul says because they are trying so hard to walk that tightrope on their own strength, they have fallen from grace! Today “falling from grace” is a failure to save yourself through your own works, but when Paul used it, “falling from grace” meant a failure to remember that you CAN'T save yourself through your own works!

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith...” - Eph 2.8

       What does it mean to be saved by grace? It means to believe that instead of me, Jesus had walked on that tightrope. Jesus had walked it perfectly; he lived a life of complete obedience to God. He was tempted in every way, yet was without sin (Heb 4.15). In my place, Jesus avoided embarrassment and humiliation, he avoided moral failure of every kind, he never embarrassed a friend, never handed in an assignment late, was never caught in a public scandal, never treated someone harshly, never cheated anyone, never failed to obey the word of his Father perfectly. And to be saved by grace also means to believe that though he was perfect, he took the fall in my stead. At the end of his life, he was pushed off of the tightrope and he crashed. He was embarrassed and humiliated, made into a public spectacle. His reputation was ruined. And ultimately he was alienated from the Father.
       Jesus died on the cross because of our failures. Though he was the only one who never needed any grace, he “fell from God's graces” and was crushed by his righteous judgment. But because he died even still out of obedience to the Father, he was resurrected on the third day and vindicated. And as a result, he is not only the righteous King, but he has saved us all to live for him!

       Paul says to the Galatians that they have been set free, but free from what? The Galatians are free from having to obey the law perfectly in order to be saved. They are freed by Christ Jesus from having to walk the tightrope. And in the same way, you and I who put our faith in Jesus are also free. We are free from the anxiety and burden of living perfectly. We are free from that constant fear of being found guilty, weak, or inadequate. We are free from always watching our backs or always having to delete our google search history. No matter what terrible, perverse things I've done in my life, my record is spotless, because it's Jesus' record!

What does this mean for me?
       This means that if you are in Jesus, you don't have to perform! I think there are many people in the church who are still living thinking they need to walk that tightrope. I get a pang of guilt if I miss Bible study, and in order to make it go away, I need to read the passage and listen to the sermon online. I always need to measure myself up against other people in the church in order to make sure that I'm not the most wobbly tightrope walker; as long as I'm ahead of someone else in the way that I pray, the way that I serve, the way that I get excited about church camp or Christian conferences, I'm okay.
       To live by Christ doesn't mean that I am free from obeying the law. It means that I'm free from obeying the law out of fear. I am free to obey the law out of love, to follow Jesus in my life. So if I am in Jesus, I no longer do good things in order to perform. Performing is for tightrope walkers. I obey Jesus because I love him and he is my king and he has freed me to love him. So if you're in Jesus, keep going to Bible study! Keep getting excited about church camp! Keep praying fervently and growing in the way that you pray! Use big words if you want! Be eloquent! Impress your Christian friends with how you pray! That's all okay; just don't think that doing those things can add to your resume in the eyes of God. Because Christ has already accomplished that and given you a perfect resume. Amen, thank you Jesus!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

My Philosophy Of Ministry: Intro

I've been meaning to get back into blogging this year now that I'm a full-time theological student again. Starting today I'm going to post weekly insights and reflections from my classes, ministry, or life in general.

For one of my classes this semester I was assigned to develop and articulate my philosophy of ministry, which is a theological and philosophical framework that I would use to focus and guide my ministry. This project has been immensely helpful for me to order everything that I've learned over the last two and a half years. In a sense, I am drawing a line in the sand and declaring, "Here is where I am right now with all things in life. This is what I declare to be what my life and my work is about. So I think this would be a good place to restart my blog.

My philosophy of ministry is ordered into two parts. In the first part, I establish my raison d'etre by explaining the "who, what, why, and how" of my life and my ministry. Since God is at the center of all of life and from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom 11.36), all of these foremost principles relate back to him:

Who: God's Servant
I am a servant of God, created to rule over the earth and cultivate it (Gen 1.28). I am also a new creation in Jesus Christ, redeemed in him to do good works (Eph 2.10). From the onset, my identity is established and determined by God. Thus the meaning of my existence is to live as he created me to live.

What: God's Mission
The grand narrative of the world, humankind, and all of life in general is God's redemptive plan; his mission to redeem and restore a world that is broken by sin. The what of my life; my purpose on earth is to participate in God's own work.

Why: God's Glory
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Even as we participate in God's cosmic redemptive work, our ultimate motivation is the everlasting joy that comes from treasuring Christ and making much of him.

How: God's Character
One of the most crucial lessons that I've learned these last few years is the importance of my own spiritual walk. I am called to lead people firstly by living a life that of repentance and daily renewal in the gospel. "God desires leaders after his own heart".

In the second part, I identify and elaborate on four key ministry values; lessons and insights that I have acquired and incorporated into my ministry and that I consider essential:

The Primacy Of Gospel Proclamation
The chief work of ministry is to proclaim the gospel to all people so that they may repent and be saved in Jesus Christ (Col 1.28). For Christian ministry to be valid, the gospel must be central and it must be a proclaimed message.

Evangelism And Community
Though the proclamation of the gospel is supreme, Christians are called to let their life and conduct testify about Christ. Though we are citizens of another kingdom, we are presently called to be stellar citizens of earth, that God may be praised by how we live (Mt 5.16, 1 Pet 2.12). Jeremiah 29 and Christopher Wright's exposition in his book The Mission Of God's People has been formational to me.

Gospel-Empowered Transformation
We are not only justified by Christ, we are also sanctified by Christ. The gospel is the power that doesn't just save us but also makes us holy. What's been key to helping me see the implications for ministry is Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney's Dmin class, "Preaching Christ In A Post-Modern World", available on iTunes University for free.

Evangelism And Discipleship
The call to make disciples of Jesus is a call that's not just horizontal, but also vertical in dimension. It is the task of ministers to identify, train, and equip the next generation of gospel workers and to entrust them with the message of Christ. It almost goes without saying that this ministry value runs deeply into the core of the GracePoint mission, given that they'd even identify a young, fresh-faced New Yorker and fly him all the way out to Sydney to train him up to serve Christ.

Over the next two months or so, I'll write a separate post for each of the eight topics. It's been an immensely enjoyable project to articulate my philosophy of ministry and clarify for myself where I currently stand. And in the process of doing so, I've come to realize how truly amazing God is, that I can learn all of these things and be so equipped to do his work, for his glory and for my joy. Thank you, God, for your sovereignty and guidance in every step of the way in my life.


Important Books
Christ-Centered Preaching - Bryan Chapell
Desiring God - John Piper
Instruments In The Redeemer's Hands - Paul David Tripp
The Mission Of God - Christopher Wright
The Trellis And The Vine - Colin Marshall And Tony Payne
Total Church - Steve Timmis + Tim Chester