Can I be myself?

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.

Unquenchable Thirst

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?

The Joint

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.

How is this fun?

I have just returned from spending some hours with folks from my church; not the regular EM crowd with which I hang out, but with the chongyonbu… roughly translated as Korean young adult group. They range in age from around twenty to about thirty four. Since I was unable to participate in our EM ski retreat (why we organize a ski trip is beyond me) and because of an engagement at another church, I missed worship. I decided on a whim really to visit their Bible study. From the Bible study we went on to dinner at a Korean restaurant, and from thence to coffee and hanging out at one of their houses. The conversation was carried on mostly in Korean, which didn’t really bother me.

The truth is that I thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite the language barrier. We managed, somehow, to have conversation about things, about life, to laugh and to joke together. It was surprisingly refreshing, although I was admittedly lost a few times. The few words of Korean I know combined with being an astute observer of body language and gestures took me only so far. Nevertheless it was fun.

What I find more challenging and indeed disturbing is the extent to which such interaction and camaraderie is a rarity in the EM. In just a few hours of very limited conversation, I experienced hospitality on a level that it took months to achieve in the EM congregation. Indeed in one segment of the conversation, I and other member talked about the perception some of the chongyonbu have of the EM as being inhospitable and cliquish. And all this time I thought it was just my experience.

Yeah, I know it’s different and all that, but sometimes I just wish the EM folks would stop whining and grow up.

We already knew how to sing, we only needed to know the words

Singing, like worship, is an expression of the human soul that is universal in scope and yet as diverse as the myriad people that populates the globe. People every where and throughout history have puts words to music in order to somehow articulate their inmost thoughts and feelings. Music is like art, or poetry; it gives voice to the inexpressible in a way that actually communicates transcendentally. Is it any wonder then that almost every religion in the world incorporates music in its expression of worship to God?

When the holocaust of American slavery met the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, an entire culture of Black church that is as unique and diverse as the Black people who inhabit it was born. What a glorious multifaceted expression it is. This expression is made all the more glorious by the fact that it reflects the authentic African-ness of a people living in America. It was not that these Africans did not know how to worship, or were somehow deficit in their ability to relate to the transcendent reality of God as over against their European subjugators and would be interpreters of scripture. They simply lacked the language and understanding of the good news of Jesus.

When they received this gospel (though not the first Africans to do so) they “ate the meat and spat out the bones” of a gospel that said they were less than human and worthy of nothing more than to be vessels of dishonor in the White man’s house. They refused to bow in worship at the altar of the White man’s god.

Instead these Africans in America contextualized the gospel message and found a savior in Jesus as well as heroes in Moses, the Hebrew boys, and Esther. They reinvented and rearranged traditional hymnody and gave birth to both gospel music and its cousin, contemporary Christian music. They took the art of preaching and combined it with the traditions of African storytellers to create a synthesis of that is envied and copied to this day. These Africans in America already knew how to sing; the coming of the gospel merely gave them the words.

If this is true in the Black American experience, is there any less reason for it to be true within the Asian American experience? It seems that there remains complex and insidious stronghold of neocolonialism deeply ingrained in the Asian America psyche that resists any true effort to contextualize the gospel within their own communities. Perhaps I am speaking out of school, so to speak, that is, outside of my range of experience or level of trust. If so, I implore your forgiveness.

Nevertheless, I marvel that on the one hand Asian Americans are some of the most gifted, highly educated, and creative people in evangelical Christendom today, and yet “with hands high and hearts abandoned” the gospel that is preached and sung sounds remarkably exactly like that heard in any White suburban church. Asians clearly know how to sing; there is no lack of cultural creativity within Asian and Asian American communities. And the words of the gospel are accessible and present to all, Asians and Asian Americans together. Can there be a generation raised up who would be willing to integrate these powerful realities into something that can speak in a lovingly prophetic way to multiple generations of Asian Americans and invite them into the choir? Oh Lord God would you be so gracious as to raise up people who will indeed seek to be faithful to you in this generation; a generation who will sing the Lord’s song with their own melody but with your words?

The Peril of Privilege

I am just exhausted from a wonderful weekend of service in the inner city with over 50 students from around the state of Tennessee. My church was gracious to host us, although some students sleep was cut a bit short by an overly zealous chipsanim* opening the sanctuary for early Morning Prayer on Saturday. Lesson: 6 AM prayer really means 5:30 AM.

In any event, I and the students had a great time and we learned quite a bit about God’s passionate concern for our “neighbors”, and I had the privilege of mounting the pulpit Sunday to preach to both the normal English Ministry crowd, and the InterVarsity students who were gathered. It was great to stand at the “Intersection” (note subtle but shameless insertion of my blog name!!) of at least two parts of my world.

I preached from Exodus on the call of Moses by God, and emphasized our need to get beyond our reasons and excuses for not being involved in God’s purposes. God had placed in our hands the very instruments we need to achieve, by his grace and power, the things he calls us to.

As I reflect on this sermon and the weekend, I am reminded about how much of my preaching focuses on our responsibility, on our stewardship, on our need to get involved actively in what God is doing. These sermons are so different than the ones I preach to my father’s congregation, which is much poorer, and ironically needs much less motivation to serve either in church or in the community. It seems that more privilege people enjoy in terms of wealth and education, the more effort it takes to goad them into service.

It is a well attested fact that poor people are more generous in their charitable giving than wealthy people (as a percentage of income), and that poorer people tend to be more religious, and more committed in their religious observance. In fact, Christianity was initially and currently is globally, a religion of the poor and disenfranchised. It seems that privilege carries with it the increased perils of loss of generosity and even of faith.

A recent article in the New York Times citing a Pew Research poll indicates that an increase in wealth is correlated with a decrease in religiosity. How prescient are the words of the apostle that “those who desire to get rich fall into a snare and find themselves pierced through with many sorrows.” Unfortunately we don’t hear much preached about this.

Could it be that part of the reason for the so called “silent exodus” of Asian Americans from the church (which is paralleled in the Black community as well) is partially caused by the wealth experienced in these communities? Although the average household wealth and income of Asian American families is higher than even that of Whites, what is often obscured is that it is the wealth of families, many of whom work very hard and sacrifice greatly in order to send their children off to the best schools.

In the process of securing the future for their children financially, are they perhaps selling them out spiritually in the same way that Israel’s decision to move to Egypt to avoid famine eventually led to the enslavement of his descendants to the Egyptian pharaoh? The irony of their enslavement is that they were so busy working at the behest of Pharaoh, they did not even have time for a three day spiritual retreat. Even more ironic for us is the ways in which this pursuit of wealth has routinely been spiritualized and made to seem itself as an exercise in discipleship.

If Asian American and Black Christians are to have a future as people of vibrant faith, we need to take a serious look at the our wholesale swallowing of the pursuit of economic security (really wealth) and what such pursuit does not only to our souls, but to the faith of those who will come after us.

*chipsanim = deacon