I am Grateful

As I sat today in our joint worship service at the Korean Presbyterian Church I attend, watching the youth execute a praise dance, listening to the adult choir cantata, hearing and seeing the confirmation of kids from the youth group, singing in broken Korean the words to the familiar song, “Because He Lives,” and partaking in communion, I found myself at points holding back tears.  These were tears, not of sorrow, nor loss, nor sighing, but were rather tears of joy and gratitude.

I was not especially struck by the beauty of the singing (though it was beautiful), nor was I impressed by the testimony of the young girl who talked about her conversion (though it was compelling), and certainly not by the baby who screamed and cried throughout her baptism.  No, I was rather struck with a profound sense of gratitude for the overwhelming grace of God. Here I sat literally with believers from the other side of the world, and figuratively with believers from around the world and down through history proclaiming again that Christ has Risen!

On Thursday night, my elder brother preached at my father’s church for Maundy Thursday service.  I almost always enjoy his preaching, but as my sister said today, the way he preaches about Christ’s death just simply shocks and moves you at the same time.  As he talked about the bloody Christ, the suffering servant, I thought about how undeserving is the life I have.  And this morning as I took the bread and the cup, I felt again deeply grateful.

“Resurrection Sunday is my favorite holiday,” I told my sister.  And it is.  It of all days, is THE day of grace.

“My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear them no more.  Praise the Lord Praise the Lord, Oh my soul!!”

“Oh Praise the One who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead.”

“God sent His son. They called him Jesus. He came to love, heal, and forgive.  He lived and died to buy my pardon. An empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives.  Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.  Because He lives, all fear is gone.  Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.”

Christ has Died!

Christ has Risen!

Christ will Come Again!

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Are Asians Sell-outs?

On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself  puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.

It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America.  Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs.  Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.

But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here.  The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans.  East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada.  And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .

This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black AmericansSo the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad.  It is quite easy to have  a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.

Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit.  A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy.  It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream.  It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it.  Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.

I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society.  We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice.  It has been worth it.   Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it.  However it has come at a cost, a high one.  Are you willing to pay it?

A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power.  Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it.  They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about.  They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding.  Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God.   It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.

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.

Complaint, Critique, and Prophetic Engagement

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.

Post-mission Mission

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?

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.