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Category Archives: Religion

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.

 

I just finished the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, and I am numb. The cruelty, horror, and inhumanity depicted in that short little book of roughly 75 pages disturbed me. I am shook to the bone.

My first emotion: anger. How did this happen? How did our world allow this to happen? How did God allow this to happen? Why are men so evil and so blind to their own evil? Why did institutional Christianity not only fail to prevent cruelty but even endorsed and underwrote it, and thereby defiled the name of Christ. After reading about the white nationalist rally in Charlottsville, I wonder how much evil and hatred reside in the hearts of men even 200 years after abolition? How can evil take root and fester and spread in man for so long? How is it possible for a man to fold his hands in prayer, or hold the hands of his family, embrace his fellow man in a hug, wipe the tear of his child, while with the same hands tie a woman to a post, strip her naked, and lacerate her with leather until her skin raises one end like flaking bark off a tree? What kind of man is this? Does this man exist in me?

Douglass adds an appendix defending his love for Christ and true Christianity, while excoriating the religion of America as Jesus did the Pharisees. He applies Matthew 23, the hell raising tirade against the hypocritical Pharisees and scribes, to the religious people of America in both the north and the south. I am nearly ashamed of my association with Christianity, and even Douglass still stays faithful to God and even acknowledges his providence in his escape from slavery in the book despite Christianity also being the religion of his captors and robbers.

I wonder – is there a blind spot for me, for us, today that causes us to ignore the cries of the oppressed? Who are the oppressed around me? Why have we chosen to ignore rather than to help? 

I once talked to a pastor about church, and he said we would never be a “social justice” church. That is fine. I love our church and how it strives to learn and know the word of God. But I wonder – does attending a mono-ethnic upper-class church affect the way I see the world? Do the sermons, Sunday school lessons, and more importantly, the discussions with people in my economic class help me become more generous and aware of oppression? Do we even give a fuck?

I wonder – will we hear anything from the pulpit about Charlottsville? Will we condemn evil when we see it? Hear it? Does mentioning this mean the polluting of our religion with politics? Is our desire to preserve unity going to muzzle our ability to speak against evil? I mean, we had no problem promoting Prop 8 when that was up for election, why do we shy away now?

Sigh. I need to remind myself your church is fallible and not the Word of God. It cannot do everything. Maybe all it is good for is potlucks and feel-good discussions about the Bible so we can feel spiritual about ourselves. Maybe it’s a place where we can feel less lonely and find roles to feel significant.

I understand these are not new arguments or sentiments. They have been around since the beginning of time. I know that such facts, especially put forward by others, are used to dissuade us from trying and from moving. And I am disappointed by my own lack of movement and understanding.

Reinhold Niebuhr is right – we can be moral towards our personal friends and family members but lack the necessary empathy towards out groups and the Other. And I am devastated.

 

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Random thought: Frederick Douglass deserves to be called a Founding Father. He pioneered his way into freedom, and in a way his narrative became a pamphlet for a new nation for his black brothers and sisters who suffered the lot of dogs and pigs for hundreds of years, and was not granted entrance into a new nation until Civil War. His short book should be required reading for every high school student in America. If they want to keep Robert E. Lee on the hill, then we should force every student in America to read and confront the history of our past with this book. History books, with their pictures of tattered black backs and cool analyses of the cultural, economic, and political conditions that allowed the institution of slavery to occur, do not even come close to demonstrating the utter depravity of the situation as Douglass’ short narrative account does.

 

I woke up with the stomach flu. I puked a couple of times this morning, hacking up bits of lettuce and saliva-infused water. I felt hot and my skin was sensitive.

I became a little delusional in the early morning. I said things like, “what’s the point, God?”, “Fuck that shit”, “Why the fuck did you have to take her?” (referring to my mom). All sorts of weird things came out.

To cope, I entertained fantasies that I will not pen here.

And then I forced myself out of bed, poured a can of chicken broth into a pot with old rice, ate it, and took an ibuprofen.

Then I played Douglass Moo’s lecture on the book of James on YouTube, the book we are studying in church right now. I respect Moo because other people respect his scholarship, but I also like listening to him because he’s an eloquent but gentle speaker. He fields all questions with respect and does not talk down at his students.

The book of James is a mess. According to Moo, it’s unlike the Pauline epistles and more like the intertestamental wisdom literature, stuff protestants like me don’t know about. The structure is not easily discerned, if there is one. Luther classified the book as a secondary letter, since it disagreed with his “justification-by-faith-alone” ethos and others seem to have labeled James as “weak” in theology. It’s just a bunch of exhortations, like Proverbs.

Moo replies that while James does not have much explicit theology, it is still theologically written. Its content is concerned with pastoring a flock gone awry, not with indoctrination or fine points of theology. In light of this revelation, we can read and appreciate James for what he tries to accomplish – the exhortation of brothers and sisters in the Christian diaspora to act properly.

James starts off with:

Count it all joy, my brothers,[b] when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

It’s hard to be joyful in moments of disappointment and loss. In our 30s, I can already see some of my friends suffering from deep disappointment in themselves for not accomplishing the things they wanted to have accomplished by this age. Some want to be married. Some want financial stability. Others want to be more advanced in their careers. All of us compare ourselves to others. “He’s younger than me, but he has a child already”, “he’s got millions and a house and a great girlfriend…God’s favor is on him”, “he went to a great law school and has a job set up for him already”. Living in the bay area, where so many young, talented, highly motivated, and rich professionals populate the area, I think envy and anxiety are creeping around at every corner. We want to hang our heads high but the competition is just too fierce.

Moo reminds us that trials come from God. Much of the Old Testament, he says, report God giving his people trials to test their faith. Perhaps the most famous being Job, and, in the New Testament, Jesus.

If we see our failures in life as trials from God, I think we could have some sort of joy. James encourages his readers to persevere in trials because it renders the believer mature or perfect, as the ESV puts it. Moo comments that the NIV translation, “mature”, is too weak of a word to get across the finality and strength of what James means by teleios. “Perfect” is too loaded a term in English because it connotes a sense of OCDness or impossibility, and, thus, a despairing word. And yet, James pushes us to have faith in the testing process, which will achieve for us some wholeness, and, of course, “a reward of the life of the crown” (v.12), that is, life itself. With this end goal in mind, perhaps it might be easier to see our tests as occasions for joy, for we will not only have eternal life but also transform into the healed, whole person that we all truly desire to be.

In our trials, however, we are tempted. We are tempted to curse God, like I did. We are tempted to self-console through the usual or unusual vices like gambling, alcohol, sex, porn, overeating. We are tempted because we have inherited this strange desire to rebel against or thwart God. I’m not entirely sure why or how we are programmed like this – perhaps our hearts and minds are so fed on a diet of pleasures and rewards of the world that we seek to make friends with it to receive our due reward. In other words, we work hard in order to play hard.

In the face of utter failure of our designs, then, is an opportunity to rejoice in the trial. There is some purpose behind our failure, and it’s not merely if at all the reason to succeed later on in whatever worldly way we conceive. Our capitalistic society does a good job at convincing us that dogged determination will help us be like Mike or Bill Gates or Jack Ma.

James also advocates for a single-minded perseverance, but not in the same worldly sense. He tells us to persevere under duress, because that single-minded pursuit of the kingdom will reap for us wholeness, and rebirth. An existence not predicated on our own expectations of what the “good life” is, but one that rests solely on the glory of God.

On a personal note, as mom’s death anniversary comes up, I can’t help but try to apply this to my mom’s situation last year. She died a painful death. I saw her deteriorate rapidly like a broken plane sputtering across the sky crash into a fiery blaze into the earth.

She cried because of the pain. She vomited from the pain medicine that she received, which in turn created more pain. I saw her drench her bed with urine. I heard her complaints and cries for help. I will never forget the day I sat next to her, massaging her aching hip, hollowed out by cancer, when she suddenly buried her face into my shoulder crying, “hao tong, hao tong” – “it hurts, it hurts’.

My mom always said with a sad, childish face, “I’m not afraid to die, but afraid of the suffering leading up to it”.

1 year later, it is still hard to see the joy in that trial, one which we will all experience soon enough. And yet God promises us that these are the things we shall undergo in order to become whole and complete. May God grant us the faith to believe in this truth, may he give us the wisdom to endure it. I know he will. He wants to.

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.

Foundations of Christian life:

  1. You are created in the image of God.
  2. You/Satan/fate/God corrupted your image via temptation -> sin.
  3. Sin reigns through your body. Result: death
  4. (Insert something about law here.)
  5. Christ became man in flesh (in likeness of sin and in sin – Ro 8). Aka, sin reigns in his body.
  6. JC experienced the wages of sin (i.e. death)
  7. He rose from the dead…conquering it? So he paid the wages (death), but then now he rises so he can save others from the wages of sin? What’s the purpose of resurrecting? So he can show what we have to look forward to? So we can live resurrected lives? As a sign of future glory? etc. etc.
  8. You died, like Christ, in baptism, with Christ in 33 AD.
  9. Christ rises in you. (Does this mean sanctification is about letting go of your identity? Or at least the parts less savory to God?)
  10. You have been predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. This means returning to the pre-corrupted, or uncorrupted state of man in Gen 1. (Ro 5)
  11. Therefore, your uncorrupted self is justified/state of grace/state of righteousness/free of sin.

I am someone who bathes in grief and remorse. I soak it in and enjoy the sickness because I can feel something. Better pain than numb. Don’t want to be numb because then I can’t remember. Or I won’t remember. When I returned from Tstan I remember dwelling on how much I missed and loved my host family and students. I dwelled and dwelled and still dwell. I prefer this captivity to sickness because I think without the infection I shall wander about in homeostasis unaware of the people who loved me and whom I love. I hope this longing never leaves, even if it debilitates a little, because to me then it measures how much I loved.

Jesus wept when he learned Lazarus died. The onlookers remarked that it was a sign of how much he loved him. Others wondered whether Jesus could have prevented his death. There is much speculation as to the motive of God’s sobbing – after all, he knows that he will raise him in a matter of moments. He knows that this melancholic moment, like water to wine, will be transformed into triumph and glory for himself and life for Lazarus. Why does he weep?

This question could be asked of any Christian as well, I suppose. With faith we know that our mourning will turn into celebration, our tears to smiles, and our lethargy into dancing. And yet in this inaugurated-but-not-yet interim period between his coming and his coming, I still struggle to have faith that we will be reunited again. The tomb’s rock is rolled over, still and unmoved by human tears or earthly hope. And realizing that the rock that guards the body or the soul or both of a loved one will not move any time soon, I now must pray and hope that it does one day. And what is there to do otherwise? You cannot walk away from the tomb. Even if you did it will roll with you.

I keep returning to Bonhoeffer in these times.

“Dear Eberhard,

It’s your birthday in a week’s time. Once again I’ve taken up the readings and meditated on them. The key to everything is the ‘in him’. All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask him for, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine him, could do and ought to do. If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of his presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is then impossible for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without his will, and that that danger and distress can only drive us closer to him. It is certain that we can claim nothing for ourselves, and may yet pray for everything; it is certain that our joy is hidden in suffering, and our life in death; it is certain that in all this we are in a fellowship that sustains us. In Jesus God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand.

In these turbulent times we repeatedly lose sight of what really makes life worth living. We think that, because this or that person is living, it make sense for us to live too. But the truth is that if this earth was good enough for the man Jesus Christ, if such a man as Jesus lived, then our life would be meaningless, in spite of all the other people whom we know and honour and love. Perhaps we now sometimes forget the meaning and purpose of our profession. But isn’t this the simplest way of putting it? The unbliblical idea of ‘meaning’ is indeed only a translation of what the Bible calls ‘promise’.

I feel how inadequate these words are to express my wish, namely to give you steadfastness and joy and certainty in your loneliness. This lonely birthday need not be a lost day, if it helps to determine more clearly the convictions on which you will base your life in time to come. I’ve often found it a great help to think in the evening of all those who I know are praying for me, children as well as grown-ups. I think I owe it to the prayers of others, both known and unknown, that i have often been kept in safety.

Another point: we are often told in the New Testament to ‘be strong’ (I Cor. 16:13; Eph. 6:10; II Tim. 2:1; I John 2:14). Isn’t people’s weakness (stupidity, lack of independence, forgetfulness, cowardice, vanity, corruptibility, temptability, etc.) a greater danger than evil? Christ not only makes people ‘good’; he makes them strong, too. The sins of weakness are the really human sins, whereas the willful sins are diabolical (and no doubt ‘strong’, too!). I must think about this again. Good-bye; keep well, and don’t lose confidence. I hope we shall celebrate Renate’s birthday together again. Thank you for everything. I keep thinking faithfully of you. ”

Letters from Prison, page 391-92.

Quick Reflections:

What does Bonhoeffer mean when he says that the “truth is that if this earth was good enough for the man Jesus Christ, if such a man as Jesus lived, then our life would be meaningless”? I don’t understand that bit. There are billions of people who live on without knowledge of J.C., and they seem to get on well enough. At least from the outside. How and why is life meaningless? Perhaps the finality of death renders all things vain?

Bonhoeffer encourages us to meditate on Jesus – his life, teachings, and especially his death. I notice that he somehow forgets to mention his resurrection. Why did you fail to mention the most important part of that story? Is Jesus a man – even the best – to follow as an example? Or is he the son of God? The fulfiller of God’s promise?

What is that promise, by the way? I love Bonhoeffer’s way of putting it – what we really mean by our unbiblical search for meaning really translates into search and fulfillment of God’s promise. Promise of life. Of Spirit. Of love. Of salvation from enemies, sickness, physical and spiritual death. Jesus is the ultimate for-the-other. But isn’t this all abstract?

And the truth is, at the end of the day, we are weak and long for someone to hold your hand. I don’t want a for-other god. I want joy complete.

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.