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Category Archives: church

I keep returning to Alan Jacobs’ blog. He is now becoming something of a digital pastor for me when my flesh and blood pastors fail to provide any clarity, observation, or any discussion of the events occurring in the world. That might be a harsh statement, but it feels true. As to whether it is true in fact, needs to be discussed with my friends.

Alan Jacobs provides history, calm, and reason in a world that has seemed to lost its compass and moral grounding. He reminds us that the struggle during the civil rights – between the KKK and Martin Luther King and all the others – were an intra-Christian struggle. He does not allow any validity to the Alt-Right / White supremacists’ claim to Christian faith – theirs is an atheist and counter-Gospel narrative that rests on racial insecurity and fear.

Jacobs also tells us that whereas in 60s and 70s the intra-Christian debate was somewhat held in check by our biblical commands, now, areligious groups such as BLM and the neo-nazi parties’ frays will become increasingly insidious and violent as they are not bound by the Christian command to love thy enemy.

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Reading his blog leads me to a rabbit hole of relevant links, like the one on how BLM activists have rejected the seemingly corrupt leadership of the black church when organizing against police brutality and white oppression.

In the article, the journalist quotes a young activist about how the spirituality of group protest might replace the spirituality found in the church. I find it very telling of a Millenial generation that fears labels, strict definitions, and structural authority. Here’s the quote:

 “You’ll hear them say, ‘I want a relationship with the Creator,’ but they don’t feel the need to manifest that relationship within the church space.” These encounters have made her rethink her understanding of what church and spirituality are, she said. “When I think about what the Bible calls for us to do, it is very much in my mind tied to the work we do as activists and organizers,” she said. “The church space is not always in the four walls of Pleasant Hope.”

It’s interesting to see how young black activists are moving on without the Church, and what sort of organization they can do without it. BLM is the manifestation of that organizational effort beyond the African American church. My question is, for me, personally, who feels deeply about the injustice in this world, how do I work with my church to care about justice and the wider world? Is that even right? I can already hear my pastors saying, “it’s not in the Bible” or it is marginal.


Some other links from the Gospel Coalition have proven fruitful in their distinction among terms such as white nationalism, white supremacy, and white identity.

White supremacy refers to the belief that the white race is superior to others. The ALt-right does not believe in supremacy, but believe in some complementarian conception of races – ““The Alt Right does not believe in the general supremacy of any race, nation, people, or sub-species. Every race, nation, people, and human sub-species has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and possesses the sovereign right to dwell unmolested in the native culture it prefers.” Weird.

White nationalists are racial separatists. Their greatest fear is the mongrelizaiton and integration of non-white peoples. They are definitely linked with white identity.


Okay, enough blogging for now.

 

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Posting a lot today on fb. Which probably means I’m procrasting.
I’m attempting to read Niehbur’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, and while it being highly theoretical, it has illuminated for me how sinful we really are as a society. This article briefly takes us through the major themes and conclusion of this book, of which I will leave you with one excerpt:
 
While individuals in their personal dealings often transcend self“interest (hence “moral man”), nations dealing with other nations, or social classes with other social classes, have little or no capacity for self“transcendence (“immoral society”). Nations and classes have limited understanding of the people they harm by their unjust self“assertion; they lack appreciation for the often complicated laws and institutions through which such injustice is perpetuated; and they are more inclined to embrace rationalizations of self“interest than prophetic denunciations.
 
I have witnessed friends and family members perform remarkable acts of selflessness (hence, “moral man”), and yet these very same kind people may add to a collective oppression of others. I think about how even an innocuous event like gift-exchanges at christmas or humorous white-elephant gift exchanges can serve up both a moral and immoral effects. We can solidify our bonds and communicate love to others with these gifts. But these very same gifts gather dust and add on to the already large pile of shit in our closets and basements and attics and car trunks. They are a hazard to our environment, and perhaps unjustly wrought by children’s hands or by underpaid workers who work on Christmas day. That money used to solicit a little laugh from others or to impress your girlfriend could have been used to purchase a life-saving cow for a family in a third world country.
And, if Wolterstoff is right, our privilege to enjoy security and the luxuries that come with it (e.g., useless gifts during holidays…which I enjoy), actually translates as theft from the poor. (“You who have two tunics, the extra one belongs to the one who has none”, or something like that).
If I am serious about becoming a disciple of Christ, should I not, in all my tiny power (economic, social, political, etc.), continue to strive to live justly a la Micah 6:8? And how does one do this from a point of a justified state? That is, how do I live a just life with the purpose of discipleship rather than earning salvation? How do I urge myself and others to understand the importance of living justly as part of our Christian calling with a gentle tone rather than a self-righteous and self-justifying one?
I’m tired. I can’t continue this train of thought.
etc. etc. etc.

But why should original sin alone, among core Christian doctrines, have the power to do that? What about the other powerful idea in Genesis, that we are all made in the image of God? Doesn’t that serve equally well, or even better, to bind us as members of a single family?

The answer is that it should do so, but usually does not. Working against the force of that doctrine is the force of familiarity, of prevalent cultural norms of behavior and even appearance. A genuine commitment to the belief that we are all created equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination, an imagination that Agassiz, try as he might, could not summon: “it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.” Instinctive revulsion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments almost every time. Black people did not feel human to him, and this feeling he had no power to resist; eventually (as we shall see) his scientific writings fell into line with his feelings.

By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and that, though that person is not all he or she might be, neither am I. It is true that not everyone can do this; the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t. (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word – to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others – than to lift up people ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.

  • Alan Jacobs in Original Sin – A Cultural History

For some reason, through all the times I’ve read the Sermon on the Mount, the blaring contradiction of the hidden vs. visible righteous life never occurred to me until now.

To begin, Jesus starts off his Sermon the Mount with a call to action:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven

But, for some reason, Jesus contradicts his call to action with warnings to hide our righteousness. This has completely escaped my notice until now:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

These contradictory commands confuse the reader and the sincere disciple. While he calls us to do good deeds before men, he also exhorts us to hide our righteousness before men? Naturally it follows that God will not be glorified if we do not somehow perform deeds in the open? How will the sinner know God if He is hid under the bowl then?

Bonhoeffer explains the seeming contradiction like this:

“How is this paradox to be resolved? The first question to ask is: From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship? Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light. No. We are to hide it from ourselves. Our task is simply to keep following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or of what we are doing. We must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only in so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural (Cost of Discipleship p. 158).

and,

“All that the follower of Jesus has to do is to make sure that his obedience, following and love are entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated.”(Cost of Discipleship p. 159).

I understand, and I don’t understand. How else are we to know if we are good or righteous before God without self-reflection? Practically speaking, how does one actually live so spontaneously (and irresponsibly) when Jesus does not literally tell us what to do in our day-to-day lives? Are we not left on our own then to make decisions that require self-reflection? When I do action X, don’t I need to first count, measure, and do some sort of opportunity cost analysis in order to move?

This is the testimony I gave at Urban Grace church in Oakland on May 18th, 2014 at 12:00(ish)pm :

Ever since I was a child, my mother and father dutifully took me to the local Chinese church every Sunday. I saw epic Bible stories played out on felt boards, and learned to memorize Bible verses each week for stickers. I did well at “church”. Sunday School teachers would always compliment my mother for raising such a “gwai xiao hai” – which roughly translates to a good, obedient child. As a natural progression, when I reached my sophomore year of high school, I got baptized as a public proclamation of my faith.

However, by the end of high school, I harbored doubts. Not only did I struggle with personal sins, I also began to question the exclusivity of my faith. One of my best friends was Mormon, so I wondered why God would judge people based on minutiae of some doctrine? Most of my Christian friends grew up with the propaganda being spoon fed to them since childhood – were we really that set apart as the Bible asserts?

I still went to church and led an ostensibly “Christian life” through high school and college – even serving as a leader in my college fellowship. You know, the guy on stage with the guitar. And, yet, the questions I left on the backburner began to boil over towards the end of my college years. Did I live it right? Am I faithful because Jesus is truly the son of God or am I faithful because I have found a place, the church, where I could exercise my talents and abilities and be recognized for them? Did I love and believe the thing itself, or only for its consequences? Did I do this to become and be recognized as a “gwai xiao hai” – except the people complimenting me were not aunties and uncles, but my friends.

With these questions in mind, I decided to remove the institutional scaffolds of my faith and joined the Peace Corps after college. I was sent to a Central Asian country, Turkmenistan, and there I sought answers, but came back with even more doubts. In the desert I made even more non-Christian friends, and, in fact, I chanced upon my best friend, my host mother. She took care of me in this alien environment, and showed me more love and grace than I had ever experienced in the church. It seemed that my doubts and queries of faith would never be resolved.

The uncertainty that these questions produced really took a toll on me after Peace Corps. When I returned, I avoided the church like the plague, out of the fear of succumbing to the familiar friendship and community it offered, but by doing so, I alienated myself to a very lonely life. I felt like a tired bird circling in the air, looking for a perch to alight on, but because of indecision and doubt, chose to circle above instead of settling. Additionally, life after Peace Corps was horrific. I came back to a flailing job market that had very little demand for young, hippy dippy Peace Corps volunteers, but I did manage to land a job at a giant tech company, which was essentially a job for oompla loompas and minions. Day in and day out, my coworkers and I labored in a digital assembly line by sorting out gigabytes of data, all the while fully aware that the sort of job we were doing would not help our future careers one “bit”, or shall I say, “byte”.

One night after a particularly grueling day of work, I laid on the ground and was horrified at who I had become: an isolated, unmotivated, 8 – 5 cog in a machine with lots of extra time to study or better myself but without the will power to do so. Instead, I spent hours numbing myself in front of the television, consuming and searching for whatever was even remotely entertaining – I watched many episodes of the wickedly entertaining, “The Dog Whisperer”– and even delved into the dark portals of pornography. Disappointed in my life, I crumbled. I began to believe in my own helplessness, and hopelessness, and would not let myself give myself a break.

Underneath the disappointment, however, lied expectation. Disappointment implies expectation of an ideal. What expectation did I have for myself? What image of myself was I beholden to for so long?

Ever since high school, I often found myself fantasizing myself as a sage, or someone to whom people could come for counsel. I always desired people to come to me for advice, imagining myself with the power and authority of a Rabbi. I call it, the Rabbi Complex. Perhaps this was why I was so fixated on growing a beard in college, though that was a failed experiment. I realized that I idolized this ‘perfect’ image of myself, and to further flagellate myself and refuse to accept the fallen nature of my estate only reaffirmed my selfish desire to craft my life into my own image. In fact, my own questions of doubt- important as they were – served as smoke screens that discouraged me from simple faith. I desired perfect knowledge more than faith. I wanted to be a sage more than a servant for Christ. And in my selfish ambition to appear wise, I muted the clear, clarion call of Christ for all of us: to repent and follow him to the Cross.

When we raise questions about our faith, we may be telling ourselves that we are truly sincere in our seeking, but in reality the same questions may prove our unwillingness to heed his demanding call to the cross. How much easier would it be to disobey if we  could obfuscate the message of the Cross with our “honest” questions? Furthermore, how much more can I raise myself up as a wise intellectual by probing the tenets of the faith?

It was here, from the bottom of the pit of my life that I cried out to God. I knew, deep down that I was a sinner trapped by not only the desires of the flesh, but also the delusions of the mind. I asked God to heal me of my delusions for self-aggrandizement, and to release me from my own expectation of self that leaves me isolated in the doldrums between reality and expectation.

I’ll end with a quote from “The Cost of Discipleship”, a Christian book by the 20th Century Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“When a man really gives up trying to make something of himself – a saint, or a converted sinner, or a church man (a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man,…when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God…then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and a Christian. How can a man wax arrogant if in a this-sided life he shares the suffering of God?”

 

 

Sometimes I wish I were smarter, more articulate, sophisticated, etc. so I could present the Gospel in a clear, understandable light. I want to be able to tell the non-Christian – “look! Here is the proof of God. Let me tell you (eloquently) of the story of Jesus and how he is the ultimate answer to our deepest questions and problems”. But, I cannot because I don’t have the ability or the knowledge. More probably, the poverty of my words and the deficiency of my intellect detracts from the Gospel message. The quiver in my voice, and the fear in my eyes betray a lack of confidence in my message, and myself. How could anyone believe in someone so obviously incompetent and afraid? In Poli Sci class they taught us that candidates must look sharp, healthy, and powerful so viewers can believe in the power behind their messages. McCain’s loss to Obama in the 2008 election was partly due to the indelible, tired wrinkles in his face, and the stumbling words in his speeches.

And, yet, God chooses the humble and foolish things to shame the wise. God chooses the weak things to shame the strong. God chooses suffering over comfort. God chooses the cross over the sword.

But who wants to appear foolish? Who will recount and admit his faults for the world to judge?

Each time I fall and fail to follow Christ, I react in one of two ways: 1) Bury my head in shame, flagellating myself for the stupid, stupid mistake. After which, I’ll dive into the Bible and read and pray and read and pray myself into forgiveness. Or 2) Parry aside the guilt assailing my conscience by rationalizing my behavior. What I’ve done is perfectly natural. It hurts no one. And, even if the action/thought is not generally accepted by society, I can measure myself by my peers and the rest of the world and rest comfortably in the fact that I stand far above most.

Jesus anticipates our human reactions to sin, and tells a parable that exposes the hypocrisy in both attitudes. Two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, make their way to the temple to worship. While the Pharisee gives thanks to the Lord for his earned righteousness (“I fast twice a week”) and his relative holiness (“Thank you I am not like other people”), the tax collector, so down trodden and weighed down by his own wretchedness, cannot even bear to look up to heaven and barely utters a few words: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.

When we are exposed – to others, to ourselves, to God – our instinct is to hide or fight. We do not want to own up to our own shame. We do not want to appear weak. We will lash out at anything or anyone that contradicts the images we craft for the world (and ourselves) to see. Or, if we fail to fight, we hide. We dress ourselves with good deeds, acts of kindness, and the like. These two channels of action springs from the same compelling source: guilt.

But God calls us to honesty. He calls us to weakness. And, now, I realize that my earnest desire to present the Gospel powerfully and eloquently actually fails to testify to the true gospel, which is this, Reader: I am a sinner, imperfect in word and in deed. But God forgives us through Jesus and the Cross, which we only need to recognize and accept as his way for our salvation. This is not only to save our petty selves from our final destiny, but it is God’s counterintuitive avenue to glorify, or separate, Himself from the banal and mundane. For the message of the cross is foolishness to the world, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

From one of Bonhoeffer’s sermons on death:

No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not  been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.

Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sigh of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already to be the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all there is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up — that is for young and old alike to think about. Why are we so afraid when we think about death?…Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.

How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?

Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.

On Sunday I visited my old college church and joined Sunday school. Shortly after we got into our small discussion groups, a young college student plopped down in the empty chair next to me, fussed about with his bag to find a pen, and immediately jumped into the discussion, offering his views of the passage without seeking the context of our own group discussion. He rambled on with observations that were difficult to follow, and, at the end of these long remarks, exasperated by his own loquaciousness, punctuated each statement with a, “Am I making any sense? Sorry, I just want to be clear”. His obsequious character reminded me of myself in college and high school, which was grounds enough to dislike him.

I thought I was rid of him after Sunday school, but I ended up sitting next to him at the picnic tables for church lunch. There were 4 of us – the young college student (let’s call him Bob), his friend (Jim), my friend and myself. Jim was handicapped who needed a walker that stabilized him when he walked, and also spoke with a slight impediment that made it difficult to hear and comprehend his speech. We were all conversing about college and their future plans when suddenly Jim requested a refill for his plate. With the same frantic eagerness he displayed during Sunday School, Bob jumped up immediately to fulfill Jim’s request. He clumsily clanged his own fork to his plate, abandoned his meal and took up his neighbor’s empty, greasy, paper plate and trooped off to the kitchen in search of seconds. I felt astonished both by the clumsiness of the action but also by the swiftness – Bob did not bat an eye or delay a second to serve his brother. He was so eager to serve that not only did he abandon his hot meal to the cooling wind, but also completely failed to remember that the Chinese congregation had not been served, which meant that he would inevitably be denied at the kitchen line and be told to wait until all church members were served. In other words, so eager was he to fulfill his friend’s request that he completely ignored the situation and himself!

From one perspective, Bob, in his blind and eager zeal, not only failed to bring back a second plate of food to his friend but also managed to let his own plate of food go cold as well. But, from a spiritual perspective, the lens through which Jesus sees us, Bob was working for the kingdom of heaven through his imperfect service to his neighbor. I felt humbled by the young man whom I had just only secretly derided in my heart for his bumbling deferential nature. His unselfconscious humility, or what I early termed as his “obsequiousness”, enabled him to serve his brother without any self-conscious thought to impede true service.

How often, do I do good to others and just as soon shout on the rooftops about my own righteous deeds? Or, even if I did not advertise my own goodness, how good do I feel when I sacrifice a little of myself for another? Do I not keep some sort of account of my good deeds in my mind, consciously or subconsciously, to monitor my own goodness? And, by that monitoring, obtain the reward of knowing my own righteousness?

But Jesus calls us to think differently. When Christ taught his disciples to give alms, he said that we should not let our left hand know what our right hand gives in secret (Matt. 6.1-4). In other words, we are to hide our discipleship, our deeds, from ourselves. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “we must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural” (Bonhoeffer 158). If the Christian is ever to give, or serve, He calls us to do it spontaneously and without self-consciousness lest we grow conscious of our own righteousness. And, now, I feel ashamed at my own judgment of this young, college student. For he, although unable to articulate clearly his own thoughts on serving our neighbors, has clearly understood the Christ’s message to love our neighbors.

I’ve been drawn to the passages where Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray as of late. These days, when I hear my own prayers I bristle at the paucity of my inspiration in the poverty of my words. Sometimes, when I pray for a friend – either to make good on a promise to them or out of genuine concern – I find myself stumbling and groping for authentic words and phrases.

Dear Lord, I pray for person A. Please give her the strength and courage to go through this trying time…

…and so on and so forth. The truth is, however, I’m lying in these prayers. While I’d love for God to instill confidence and strength or some other positive characteristic into my friend, in my inmost being I know that these supplications for these abstract nouns belie the urgency of what I really want to pray for: non-abstract, concrete miracles, like money for bills, friends when we’re lonely, jobs for security, recovery from cancer, etc.

My uttered orisons manage to tiptoe delicately around these urgent, concrete needs with beautiful abstract character traits – like courage, tenacity, acceptance – rather than the ugly, grotesque pleadings for material things or propitious events. Why do I do that?

Simply perhaps it’s because I have no faith. I am scared that God, in his almighty wisdom, will not deliver. Or perhaps I’m much more afraid of the possibility that he can’t deliver himself from nonexistence. From this place of doubt I can conveniently preclude any such disappointments by praying for abstract, character-building things that are more difficult to measure than job interviews, or money.

Or, maybe it’s because I know that praying for things or events isn’t the right way to pray. When I was young, I prayed to God for the San Jose Sharks to win, even when I already knew the outcome because I was watching a taped video of the game. I even picked my boogers and neatly wrapped them in tissue (as opposed to flicking them away into the nebulous living room space) as a pious bargaining chip in my attempt to sway God’s previous decision to rule in favor of the Sharks’ opponents.

I’m older, more mature now, and know the difference between praying for a hockey team and for a friend in need. And yet, I’m still afraid to pray for those specific necessities because I’m afraid God won’t, or can’t bring them to fruition. I’m afraid he will fail.

In Luke 11:1-13, Luke’s version of Jesus’s teaching on prayer, he recounts the story about a person who needs to disturb his friend’s sleep in order to find food to serve his guests. Surprisingly, Jesus states that his friend would not get up and help his friend because of friendship, but because of his “persistence” (11:8). Actually, persistence, though bearing most of the character of the Greek word, anaideia, does not completely capture the severity of the neighbor’s offense. The English Standard Version prefers a stronger, bolder, (more negative?) term, impudence; The King James Version translates it as “importunity”; and the NIV calls it, “shameless audacity”.

The word, according to Strong’s concordance, literally means “shameless”. When I think of this word, I picture a homeless person in rags begging for your coffee change. This word connotes a sense of either degradation, or a complete lack of self-awareness. Children are the most guilty of acting shamelessly, and perhaps this is what Jesus meant by being more like children in order to reach heaven. Perhaps the Lord demands us to lose our self-respect in exchange for his loaves and fishes. Perhaps before even presenting our requests before the Lord we must suffer indignation. And not just once, but consistently. We must persistently become shameless in our begging of the Lord.

But ask for what? In Matthew 7:11, while the author vaguely describes that God will give “good things” to those who ask, in Luke, Jesus specifically promises the nebulous, but thematically prominent, Holy Spirit. I don’t know what this means exactly, but according to what I’ve read in Luke so far, the Holy Spirit supposed to do much more than give American churchgoers some uplifting feeling to rock out to repetitive Christian songs.

I wish I could push out a quick summary of how I feel about this article on the tension between faith and acceptance, but I’ll let the article speak for itself. I have not found any other piece of writing that captures the torment I feel in choosing between faith and people.

http://islamicamagazine.com/?p=537