Archive for category religion
Just reported a little while ago, the Supreme Court of the state of Connecticut reversed a lower court ruling against the recognition of same sex marriage. Connecticut is the third such state to move in this direction, though NY state’s supreme court has already ruled that they must recognize same sex marriages that have been performed in other states.
Gay rights, especially same sex marriage rights, are THE civil rights issue of our time, or at least that is how the issue is largely presented in the media. In the course of my adult life, homosexuality has moved quite rapidly into the conscience of mainstream America as an acceptable, though not necessarily welcomed, reality. Most people are still uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality and even more are opposed to gay marriage, though notably they often lack a sustainable moral philosophy to underlie their opposition. Mostly it comes down to a kind of “ick”‘ factor and some sense that it just isn’t quite right. Inundated as we have been as a society in the last twenty years with the normalcy and acceptability of homosexuality, most people really aren’t quite sure why they’re opposed to gay rights, and at minimum self censor lest they be thought to be homophobic. Certainly most people haven’t really thought through the issue in any way other than the bare minimum required to get on with their lives. This is most especially obvious among our youth for whom homosexuality is regarded as one reality of a diverse society among many, without any particular morality attached to it.
Due to the nature of the controversy, the same sex marriage issue is unlikely to be quickly resolved at the state level before it is kicked upstairs to the federal courts. Both candidates Obama and McCain are ostensibly opposed to gay marriage or want to leave it to the states, but it is very unlikely that either will have the luxury of maintaining their default position if elected to the presidency. This issue is not going away. The Defense of Marriage Act is unlikely to remained unchallenged, though the Supreme Court has heretofore turned down opportunities to take it up. It remains a controversial piece of legislation.
Christians have a different set of concerns as the church (and I speak broadly here) is currently convulsed with controversy over the issue. Few churches openly embrace homosexual practice as valid from a scriptural or historic point of view, and even those churches which are most “liberal” have not gone so far as to accept homosexuality entirely. Unlike politicians, pastors do not have the luxury of remaining uncommitted on this issue as it directly affects the pastoral, priestly, and prophetic roles of the church. Contrary to the beliefs of some, most evangelicals are not unconcerned about the impact of their theology on the lives of those within and without the congregation who are gay, nor are they especially homophobic — which is a word that is thrown around far too easily these days. They, and all Christians who hold to historic Christian orthodoxy on issues of sexual ethics, tread uneasy ground and the convulsions of a social earthquake shift the landscape around them.
Many Christians, having “failed” to act quickly during the Civil Rights era, do not know want to be seen as being on the “wrong side of history” and yet also want to remain faithful to scripture. Others believe that their embrace of gay rights is being faithful to scripture. Caught in the very center of this vortex are those Christians and their families who are themselves gay and seek to live with integrity and in obedience to Jesus.
All of this brings to mind the scripture from Psalms 11.3: If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The foundations of societal consensus on the meaning of life, what marriage is, the ethics that ought to govern social relations, and the role and function of the family have all been consistently undermined over the past 80 years with remarkably predictable results.
From the sexual revolution (the real one in the twenties, not the fake one of the sixties) onward, churches have been consistent in first actively fighting, then passively resisting, then grudgingly accepting and finally actively endorsing social change. The path from the acceptance of artificial birth control as a right to the normalization of divorce, straight through to women’s liberation (which has happened in ALL the churches complementarian and otherwise) is clear and will likely lead, inexorably to an embrace of homosexuality as a valid practice. The link between all of these seemingly disparate matters is clear as Mary Eberstadt says in First Things:
Before 1930, no Christian Church permitted the use of contraception, but that year’s Lambeth Conference, with its approval of contraceptive intercourse, was the beginning of the end. “If a church cannot tell its flock ‘what to do with my body,’ as the saying goes, with regard to contraception,” writes Eberstadt, “then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.” In short, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity will—and did—quickly follow.
And so it is. Are the foundations destroyed? If so, what can the righteous do?
On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.
I was the soloist.
Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.
Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.
What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.
In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.
The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.
Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.
Whilst perusing various blogs earlier in the day I ran across one that had a quite disturbing graphic depicting the steps undertaken by a physician performing an abortion procedure on a child at approximately 20 or so weeks. Though I have seen such graphics before, I was this time horribly disturbed in a way that I have not been previously.
If I am honest with myself I must admit that at least part of my reaction was likely due to the particularly sensitive state of my emotions following several weeks of intensive ministry, family and social obligations, all of which serve to make me more tender than I perhaps am in “normal” circumstances. Perhaps it is such tenderness that our Lord would desire me to always have.
Nevertheless and despite the cause, I was deeply moved and given the political season in which we are engaged, my thoughts turned quite readily to that arena. The political structure of our government and the evolution of political decision making alongside developments in the understanding of the role of the courts in refereeing political and social life in our nation make it certain that for many religious and otherwise socially conservative persons, the issue of judicial appointments to the federal bench is a salient issue in their minds as they weigh their voting responsibilities. It is fair to say that many, if perhaps not most of the so called evangelical vote that has been given consistently to Republican Party candidates over the last two decades has been heavily influenced by this political consideration.
The courts have become the most contested battleground in the long waging culture wars of American political life as evidenced by the recent California Supreme Court decision concerning homosexual marriage. It is also fair to say that many of these same conservatives have been likely disappointed by what they perceive as a lack of progress in overturning controversial decisions such as Roe vs. Wade and with the ongoing dissolution of what had been a large scale social consensus concerning such things as marriage and the family. The rabid unpopularity and arguably failed governance of the current president have left many evangelicals thoroughly disenchanted with these age old controversies and many, especially of the younger generation, are likely to see abortion and homosexuality in the same light as their secular non religious friends. It remains to be seen whether the California decision will serve to rally such “conservative” voters around a McCain candidacy that has received, at best, a lukewarm reception (something no doubt due in part to the tepidness of the candidate himself).
As an evangelical Christian it might perhaps surprise some that I have not always been “pro-life” as the terminology has it (though I know of no one who is publicly “pro-death”). In my youth I was quite settled in my opposition to efforts to limit the exercise of a woman’s freedom over her own body. It seemed to me at the time a potentially unjust imposition of state power and an unnecessary intrusion by the state into what was fundamentally a private matter of health and safety. At the time my greatest consternation with the issues was the exclusion of the father from the decision making process, as I believed (then as now) that the vagaries of our biology do not afford one parent greater rights of decision making vis a vis a child or potential child. Though the woman physically carries the child, he is no more or less responsible than she is in determining how best to proceed in such as case. Likewise I believed it to be reasonable that adult parents of under aged teens held primary responsibility for making the decision for or against abortion as it was a medical procedure and excluding them from the matter would be an uneven application of existing laws. As you might imagine, while it was simple to hold these positions from a political point of view, it became increasingly difficult to justify abortion theologically, though honestly in my youth, I never attempted to do so.
One of the fundamental problems with abortion and with other socially and politically challenging questions from a biblical perspective lies not simply in the application of seemingly arcane laws and mores from the Old and New Testament to a very different social context, but rather in an inherent contradiction between the social and political philosophy of the Bible and The Republic.
The political philosophy of the United States is the product of two distinct and important streams of thought that culminated in the production of the founding documents of the republic and which account for some of the tensions inherent therein.
The first is the tradition of English common law which stretched back several centuries and was influenced by its Norman, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon precursors and came about in a time of stark realism about the hardships of life. It was part of the feudal compact of European society that at core was conservative, agrarian, and individualistic and yet was cognizant also of the responsibilities of the common man to “do his bit” for his feudal master or, less frequently, the crown. This was all the government he wanted or needed.
The second is that of the French Enlightenment which was more recent, yet in some ways more potent. It was the product of educated elites who were, in the main, atheistic in their orientation if not in their actual belief. It was largely corporatist and viewed society as a series of “compacts” or agreements between groups, but most especially the “governed” and the government, which was the monarchy. It was also humanistic, anti-authoritarian (in the sense of its rejection of any authority deriving from sources external to the “people” i.e. divine right), and, like common law, rights oriented but in an idealistic sense. That is to say rights are common, rather than individual goods.
The joining of these two streams under the leadership of the elites who founded the country largely explains the tensions inherent in the American political system. It is a system wherein the corporate, utopian, group rights orientation derived from our Enlightenment roots are ever in conflict with the radically individualistic, dystopian and personal rights orientation of our English common law ancestry. Ironically, it is our Enlightenment legacy that, despite its anti-hierarchical bent, that lends itself more readily to domineering executive power utilized generally in the guaranteeing of perceived corporate “rights” and less frequently in the pursuit of utopian aims.
So then, how is the political philosophy of the United States fundamentally at odds with a biblical worldview and what does any of this have to do with abortion? Indeed there are some Christians who would argue against this characterization and point to many things within the intent of the framers original documents that have Christian antecedents, as well as pointing out that many of the framers were themselves Christians.
The Christianity of certain of the framers is not at issue here, nor is it particularly relevant in this argument. It is quite possible to hold and practice a solidly active faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and still adhere to, support, and even endorse a political philosophy that is not especially Christian or even biblical. Likewise the presence of certain Christian presuppositions within the founding documents does not mean that the entirety of such documents reflect a Christian or biblical framework. Indeed it is more likely a reflection of the fact that the United States was birthed out of a culture that had been influenced by Christianity for several centuries and whose predominant philosophic impulse was Christian.
The answer to my question is rather simpler than my arguably inaccurate and unhelpful description of American political philosophy and is at least two fold (though I suppose I could dig out another fold if I were so inclined).
Firstly, the Bible specifically and Christian thinking more broadly has very little use for the concept of “rights” in either the Enlightenment or the English common law sense of that word. As a religion, Christianity is preoccupied with cultic questions of proper religious practice and with ethical questions of proper social relations. Political commentary, where given, is generally sparse, situational, and at times prophetic. There is little said about how the government as an institution ought to function in relation to its citizens / subjects since government was largely personal and arbitrary in nature. Subsequent years of Christianization provided abundant opportunity for discourse on how princes ought to conduct themselves towards their subjects, but such advice was given with the understanding that the rulers themselves would be Christian, in word if not in actual fact. Even so, the way in which we talk about rights is a concept alien to Christianity. Much more is written in scripture about the responsibility of Christians to one another, to unbelievers, to God and occasionally to the government. In all of these cases, the over arching thrust is towards the giving up of ones prerogatives both as a spiritual discipline, and as a practical matter leading towards peace.
Secondly, the principle of majority rule or more elegantly, “the consent of the governed,” is as alien to Christianity as my critique of it is likely to be to those who are democracy’s most ardent defenders. Rightful critique of “activist” jurists often falls back upon a philosophical position that it is the responsibility (or right) of the people to decide upon certain issues and that courts over overstep their boundaries and usurp this presumably sovereign right. A counter critique is then launched about the need to protect the rights of the minority opinion from the “tyranny of the majority.” In this case, both positions are right and both in error. To prevent what would likely be an even more tedious post to finish I will deal only with the error of the former as I have already discussed the fallacy of “rights” inherent in the counter critique. The notion that “the people” have a right to decide anything is a clearly unchristian concept when applied outside of a covenanted Christian community as was present in Acts, and flies in the face of our common depravity and deceivability. It was after all a majority position to select a king in 1 Samuel, and we know well how the democracy of the Tower of Babel worked out.
Thirdly and finally (I knew I’d find another ‘fold’ in there somewhere), the Bible and Christian history hold Christians, not government, to a high standard of interventionist responsibility on behalf of justice for those most unable to assist themselves. The testimony of scripture is that government exists to “reward good and punish evil.” In such circumstances that the government inverts its function and begins to reward evil and punish good, it is the responsibility of Christians to resist (and of course to bear the consequences). In a democratic system, Christians can work more actively towards that metric through the democratic process by electing officials who will act towards that end. In any government system Christians can work toward eliminating or ameliorating the most detrimental effects of injustice, oppression, brokenness or sin on “the least of these” as we did in the earliest days of our faith when Christians actively rescued abandoned babies who had been left to die.
What a Christian cannot do is work actively or passively towards the support or institutionalization of those governments or official which fail to adhere to the metric of scripture to “reward good and punish evil.” This is not to say that Christians ought to be single issue voters or should otherwise ignore the promises, characteristics, and commitments of any candidate for the sake of his or her position on an issue such as abortion or homosexual rights. It is rather to say that due consideration must be given always for those who have the least ability to defend themselves or their own inte
Should Christian leaders endorse political candidates? In an election year when the presumptive nominees of both major political parties have had their share of “preacher problems” the question arises both for candidates and their supporters as to whether any association with religious figures is worth the potential backlash that may come when those leaders come out and say what they really believe, which in most cases is hardly politically palatable.
Beyond that and more to my own interest is whether Christian leaders themselves should be in the business of actively endorsing political candidate as author Brian McLaren recently did Sen. Barack Obama. It should be noted and is well known that Christian leaders have supported and endorsed candidates in elections for a long while, though in more recent history it has been the evangelical support of Republican Party candidates that has received the most attention. The term “Religious Right” has entered into popular lingo and the perceived wholesale support of evangelicals for President Bush is credited with much of his electoral success. (I say perceived because most African American Christians would theologically be considered evangelical but often vote Democratic).
I believe that such political engagement, while understandable and in some cases laudable, ultimately undermines both the prophetic and priestly function of the church in society. Any time a Christian leader, no matter how qualified and nuanced his phrasing, goes on record as saying, “This guy is better than that guy (or gal)” that leader runs the risk of conflating Christianity with whatever agenda that politician has. More than that is the implicit idea that to vote counter to the endorsed candidate is to somehow be fighting against God’s will or purposes.
As an aside, I find McLaren’s implicit characterization of the issues and the thinking which have motivated many Christians to often support Republican candidates as “wedge issues” and “binary thinking” to be insulting and dismissive. Many believers, though standing in full agreement with the Democratic Party on many issues, simply cannot in good conscience support pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage policies and see them as antithetical to their convictions. Further, he seems to imply (I’m being generous as he doesn’t imply it; he states it) in his endorsement that those who have voted in this way have been mindlessly manipulated into marching obediently in the parade of cynical politicians.
It strikes me as demeaning rather than flattering that political candidates so obviously fall over themselves to pander to the opinions of religious conservatives every election cycle. It is even more pathetic that we Christians go out of our way to invite such pandering and have become rather embarrassingly self congratulatory that we’ve final found issues “worthy” of being taken seriously enough to merit the attention of the presumptive nominees of the two major political parties in the US. Is it not obvious that evangelical interest in issues of poverty, justice, and environmental stewardship (none of which are new concerns for Christians, despite rhetoric to the contrary) is merely being used as a wedge to garner votes and that political elites both “conservative” and “liberal” have no interest in serious engagement with the intellectual and moral foundations of these ideas?
In many ways Christians in the US have become like the proverbial “easy” girl in high school who mistook her popularity with the boys with genuine interest rather than recognizing that her phone number was inscribed on the walls of every ill scrubbed toilet stall, “for a good time call…”. Cheap perfume and dime store flowers seem to be enough to win the affections of Christians in the US.
Having failed to take advantage of the “dial a date” availability of the evangelical vote for some time, the Democratic party conceded such votes to the Republican Party with a kind of attitude reminiscent of the high school know-it-all who claims to have read all the best sex technique books, but can’t get a date to save his life. He was above all of that; and besides who wanted to be part of the in crowd with all the popular kids when it was much more fun to join the chess club, play dungeons and dragons and hang out with the nerdy girls who wore peasant skirts and refused to shave.
Now like that same teen awakening from his adolescent slumber, the Democrats too have ditched the glasses for contacts, gotten a decent haircut, and learned to talk Christian-ese with flattering intonations of “faith” and “justice” and “God.” And like any desperately insecure girl, Christians fall for it all over again, lured by false promises and false hope.
Are we so easily impressed; so easily bought and sold by a political system that is primarily concerned with the preservation of its own power, and is decidedly and firmly not interested in the things of God and of the kingdom? Issues of “faith” have been all over this election, but not because of any substantive interest in the foundational issues of greatest concern to Christians. It has rather been a parade of pandering; a veritable side show of contortionist politics that would put the most flexible circus performer to shame. And we take much of it as complimentary; flattering ourselves to believe that this most recent shift shows that Evangelicals and other Christians don’t “belong” to the Republican Party and likewise that issues of “faith” and “morality” are not the exclusive preserve of the religious right. We borrow the language of a secular media and tell ourselves that we’ve “grown up” and matured despite the fact that Christian thought is nearly two millenia older than the republic itself.
I believe that we fail to recognize that the more Christians twist themselves to accommodate to the societal status quo – either through aggressive power politics of the last twenty years, or so called “subversive” hyper-contextualization that removes from the gospel all of its prickly and unpleasant rough edges (like the uniqueness of Jesus and the full weight of human sin) – the more we lose our witness. Even more, we will rapidly fall into the trap of those who “follow worthless things and became worthless themselves.” It is, in the end, against demonic principalities that desire nothing more than to keep millions stumbling in the dark without the light of Christ. Like those of ancient Israel, in our desire to be “like the other nations” that is, like unbelievers, we will readily trade our divine inheritance for something much more pragmatic and modern, or in our case, post-modern.
Since entering the vast wonderland of “blogging” some few years ago, I have had the privilege of electronic correspondence with people whose thoughts and ideas mirror, refine, and challenge my own. It has been a joy to read, and to be read; to challenge and to be challenged by people who I likely would never have met otherwise, and by some whom it is unlikely I shall ever meet. It is always a surprise when I find the circle of acquaintanceship somewhat larger than I had otherwise supposed. It is a small world after all.
One thing that has me pondering, however, as I return from overseas mission into the bubbling cauldron of U.S. presidential election year politicking and the ongoing self analysis done by me and like minded bloggers is the extent to which our commentary, well intended though it is, is often nothing more than complaint dressed in the acceptable clothing of critique or even prophetic engagement.
I think of this because I’ve just spent weeks with students who I taught and stressed the value and virtue, nay the command of scripture not to complain based on the well know Philippians passage. I stressed to them the importance of engaging the culture as servants and learners, and encouraged them to have a posture of openness as they encountered a different culture and worldview, and sought to have them learn from that culture and to allow themselves to be shaped by it. As we did so, I observed that much of the critique leveled by our hosts at the problems in their churches and in their culture more broadly were based almost exclusively in scripture. These were Christians who took very seriously their calling to be salt and light in the world, and who saw an urgent need for the gospel to be preached and practiced to and in society. Much of the worldview they inhabit is more similar to that of the Bible than our own, so for these believers, adherence to scripture and its radical call to discipleship is the prevailing challenge. To be people of integrity in a system that rewards bribery and corruption; to be people of holy devotion to the true and living God in a society where many openly practice false religion: these are the important things.
To the contrary, when I survey the scene in my part of the world, the picture is much different. There isn’t much emphasis, certainly not in the blogosphere, but not in churches either, on living holy and as aliens and strangers. Rather most criticism is ranged against the church itself with the charge that it is irrelevant to the culture it is to reach. The culture itself is rarely critiqued, at least not in blogging circles, and it is commonplace for Christian believers to be so immersed in the surrounding culture (from our dress to our music to our spending to our divorce patterns) as to be virtually indistinguishable. And when the critique comes, it rarely comes based on scripture, but rather based on sociology, psychology, or whatever other prevailing winds happen to be blowing at the time.
What is the difference between valid critique, prophetic engagement, and just plain old sinful complaining? The line is probably not as fine as I would like to make it. If I am honest, I am much given to complaint rather than to honest critique. It really isn’t even about what I say as much as the heart attitude behind it. It is very easy to judge “the church” for all its shortcomings, failings, errors, and misdeeds as though I were not myself the product and a full participant in the same church. “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” may or may not be true for nations, but it is definitely not true of church. What right do I have, and by what authority do I stand apart from this sacred institution and judge it? Indeed the fact that I esteem myself to have such a right is rooted not in scripture, but in American cultural values of self expression. This tension underlies much of the challenge faced in ethnic immigrant churches because one group chafes at the cultural constraints imposed by another without recognizing that the values in whose name they protest are not at all Christian, but neo-Enlightenment and in some cases anti-Christian.
I write this post from a nice comfortable guest bedroom in the home of a friend in Gentilly, a suburb of Paris, France. Just a few days ago I was in Ghana on mission, doing all the things that short term missionaries do, and some that they don’t (like discussing with our ministry partners what kind of woman I need so he can find me a wife). Now I am relaxing in Paris for the next several days – almost 10 full days before I return to my normal life and responsibilities. Hence the blogging hiatus since late May. Thanks Wayne for checking in on a brother.
As I rode the train from Amsterdam to Paris yesterday, I began my process of debriefing my summer experiences in mission. Anyone who has gone on missions knows, or should know, that how you re-enter your home country is as important a part of the trip as anything else you do. I debated, given my tiredness, if I was perhaps foolish to set aside quite so much time for recovery and “vacation.” There are lots of other things I could and maybe even should be doing. And I miss the students who were part of the team. But I also know that rest is important, and I have no choice now, since my plane tickets are already purchased. So I am stuck here until time to leave, and I have no agenda. I will see what I want to see and there may be many things I do not see. My priority is rest and refreshment in the Lord’s presence here in the capital city of the eldest daughter of the church.
In Amsterdam and subsequently on the train to Paris, I had many uncollected and random thoughts as I tried to piece together my experiences and my surroundings. Some observations…
The first observation, a recollection really, is just how big Dutch people are. I mean, they are just really tall and big people. I am six feet tall and easily at many points was the shortest person in the crowd. There were many women who were taller than me. It makes me wonder what the heck they’re feeding them.
The second is that Europe is far more diverse than America. The world was present on the train and in the Metro station – people of varied nationalities and cultures mixing and intermixing. There are lots of mixed race children around.
The third and easily the only really disturbing one is that for all the wealth and luxury of Europe (and it is indeed wealthy and luxurious – have you looked at the dollar/Euro exchange rate lately?) it is a spiritual and communally desolate place compared to Ghana. The reality of spiritual oppression in some communities in Ghana were idol worship is practiced is nothing compared to the oppression of a godless and unarticulated spiritual depravity that stalks the land here. I do not mean to suggest that God is absent; He is never absent. And amazingly I met someone on the train who quite likely is Christian, as he explicitly asked me about attending the Hillsong – Paris church after I told him I had come from Ghana on missions. He also mentioned that some of his American friends were coming to do church planting in Paris. No, the gospel is alive and well, and the kingdom is steadily advancing in quiet and not so quiet ways. But in just this short stay, the words of I Timothy seem even more prescient to me, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.” More thoughts on this later, but can it be that the very wealth of nations is a spiritual placebo, plastering over our spiritual destitution with the appearance of security?
Thanks to Wayne Park and also to David over at Nextgenerasianchurch for spurring my re-engagement with the questions of the integration of faith and culture, particularly in the context of the Asian American church; a community which by God’s grace I have grown to love.
Most Sundays I don’t think much about the challenges and joys of being part of a 2nd generation ministry at a Korean church. I have been there long enough that I feel mostly comfortable being the Black person in attendance. I’ve learned a few things along the way; enough that I avoid the most egregious breaches of cultural protocol. Yesterday, however, presented what may be the beginning of a new season of challenge for me and for my community; the challenge of authenticity and vulnerability.
The initial presenting issue was the Bible study I teach. Yesterday’s lesson covered Philip’s evangelization of the Samaritans, which raised all kinds of issues of racism and prejudice — for the 2nd week in a row. It was singularly uncomfortable for me to ask the question “Who are your Samaritans?” or as I suggested, “Samaritans are the people your parents would fall over and have a heart attack if you married.” Now this phrase in itself isn’t hard to say, but it is hard to say or talk about when you are the one Black guy in a church full of Koreans. Race just isn’t something we like to discuss, and as hard as it is between Black and White, I think it is harder between 2 ethnic “minority” communities with their own brand of prejudice towards one another. How does a Black man bring up the prejudices of the church community when he stands inside, and yet apart from that community? How can those listening be honest about their own prejudices or those of their family when doing so might very well hurt my feelings? It is a question of how vulnerable we dare be with a topic that rarely rears its head and in a place where vulnerability is not prized.
Which brings me to the second catalyst and the inspiration for the title of this post. In cell group last night as we discussed the fact that God saves us due to no merit of our own, the leader asked what is a very simple question: “Why do we behave as though we have to earn God’s grace?” A simple question, to be sure, but profound. There was some sharing; the giving of “right answers.” And then I shared, and as I did, I found myself surprised by my own emotion. “It is my pride,” I said, “that keeps me from receiving his grace. I don’t want to be the kind of person who needs grace. I want to be better than I am.” Our conversation went to another level of authenticity and realness. There was, to me, a palpable change in our willingness to talk honestly, authentically.
On the way home I was struck by the thread that ties these incidents together. There is an unquenched thirst for honesty, vulnerability and authenticity in my community. But there is likewise a stark fear, tinged with a shameful pride, that prevents us from going deeper. We long for more, but are ashamed of our longing. We desire to be deeper, but know how shallow we are. In other communities these issues manifest in other ways, but in ours, and I suspect in other Asian circles, it shows up as complaint, and angst, self loathing and blame. The first generation blames the second and the second blames the first and they all blame themselves secretly while outwardly pretending that everything is well, and if not well, then at least we are prosperous and financially stable. We’re out of the garden and everyone knows it, but no one knows the way back, and the grace that is on offer from God seems to be salt in our wounds because it serves to remind us of just how fallen we are.
Is it possible for us to ever move past our desire to repay our parents by attending the best schools and marrying the right person and getting the right job? Can we ever stop trying to repay our Father by the endless cycle of striving failure repentance and recommitment that has gone on so long that we cease trying altogether. Can we ever get to the place where we do not fear to admit our thirst and so have it quenched by the one who is himself that fount of living water?
Today we celebrated the festival of the resurrection. It is, or at least should be, the most holy and high holiday of the year, much more important than the festival of the incarnation (Christmas). In preparation for the day, I read a couple of books in defense of the Christian faith and also read through the four gospel accounts. As is customary our church had a combined service in which all segments of the church participated; children, youth, English congregation, and KM. I briefly debated whether I should participate in the service or if I should take the opportunity to visit a church out of my own Black Pentecostal tradition (i.e. my father’s church). I decided, after praying and experiencing the Lord’s conviction, to go to my church – the Korean Presbyterian one.
The service was, of course, longer than is typical; nearly three hours altogether, with 3 sermons, two performances by the youth, and a full fledged cantata orchestrated by the KM choir. My upbringing in the Pentecostal church put me in better stead than many of my co-parishioners from the English speaking congregation who were unable to endure such a lengthy service. Did I mention we also celebrated the Lord’s Supper and had a baptism?
As I sat in worship singing along to the cantata in my broken Korean watching as a silent video of “The Passion of the Christ” played on the overhead, I had ample time to reflect on such question as the evidence of the resurrection. As I sang, and read the English translation, as I took my bread and cup, bowed my head in prayer, celebrated the baptism (though I disagree with the method) of new Christians, I had lots of time to allow what I experienced to sink in.
It is Christ that is the center of the resurrection event. Perhaps that is why “Easter” has never quite caught on as a holiday – we are decidedly on the sidelines in the celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead. There are no gifts given, no special songs, and no customary foods. There is merely the reality that a man, once dead, was made alive again by the power of God. That truth, that sacred reality is what made it possible nay even enjoyable to worship with these Korean folks. I marveled that in English, in Korean, in Twi, in French, in Swahili, in Farsi, in languages unknown to me – the Lord Jesus Christ is praised. I marveled that this day, above all other days, is a day that levels the field – placing us all at the foot of the cross and yet also elevates each of us, making us more truly man, more authentically woman, more fully Black, more completely Chinese than any other day. Today is a day of grace, wherein God demonstrates his mercy and exonerates his son, forever banishing the fearful specter of death, hell, and the grave.
What does this have to do with my decision to go to the Korean church instead of my Dad’s church? Simply this; the resurrection is the thing that even makes it possible for me to have that choice. For all the failings of “the church” in general and of my church specifically, it is the creation of this special day. Despite the complaint of our generation about how often out of touch or irrelevant the church can be, the wonderful gift of God is that we can be the church, and that I am indeed family with these Korean believers and with believers all over the world. In no other place or way is such a thing possible. Indeed, had I been anywhere else in the world on this day and see that this gospel, this obscure faith that by all human measurements should have been snuffed out, started as it was by illiterate men and poor women, is not a gospel confined to a people, a language or a place. I thought to myself, the privilege of being called a son of God is worth the very minor inconvenience of worshipping in a language not my own.
This realization makes me wonder if the bridge between generations in the Asian American Church can be built by beginning at the ground floor of our joint inheritance as sons of God and heirs of the promise. Unfortunately, I suspect that many are much more ready to build those bridges outside of the community rather than within it.
I am attending a missions conference for one of the churches that supports my work with students. The conference is quite the “deal” with the entire congregation mobilized to welcome, support, care for, and encourage their “partners” in ministry. This morning I heard a wonderful sermon on John 3:16 about how we are all sent, and that wherever we are is the ends of the earth to someone else.
It is such a great gift to be in a place and among people who see that what missionaries, both here and throughout the world, is a valuable and critical component of the mission of God. I am thrilled that this congregation takes so seriously the work of caring for missionaries beyond simply sending a check every month, although that too is important.
This stands in sharp contrast to the many conversations I’ve had through the years with potential donors and supporters of ministry, some of whom are not quite sure what we do, or if what we do is valuable, or even worse, view us as competitors to the ministry of the “church” what ever that means. I sure people don’t mean anything by the sometimes harsh comments they make to or about missionaries, but as someone who depends on the provision of God through the generosity of his people, it isn’t easy to hear from someone that they “cannot afford to give” when I supervise college educated people who make less than $20,000 a year. Even harder to hear is the critiques often lodged against missionaries or pastors for their “extravagant lifestyles” when the lifestyles of the average church member is not allowed to ever be evaluated for its closeness to Biblical norms.
Nevertheless, I am not writing this primarily as a rant against the some time stinginess of the church, but rather to raise the question of how “missions” and the “mission” of the church go together. Most of the financial resources of the church go mainly to creating programs designed to care for the needs of the congregation with missions and outreach receiving whatever might happen to be left over. In some ways this would be fine if members were mobilized towards active mission, whether on their jobs or in their neighborhood, or wherever. However, in most cases, mission giving ends up being nothing more than a salve to the conscience of believers who know that they are to be generous, yet cannot bring themselves to sacrifice the comfort of padded pews and the latest high tech multimedia to give to some missionary somewhere. Besides, aren’t missionaries and pastors supposed to be poor?
What is the mission of the church and how is it connected to “missions?” Are they separate things, united only by their common name? Is the mission of the church accomplished through writing the monthly check or by doing the occasional inner city (read poor people that don’t look like us) service project? What about all those people hell bound and dying who look to all appearances that the don’t need the Lord? Are they not an appropriate target for missions? What do you guys think?