Evangelicalism does NOT define Christianity!

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I was browsing my friend’s Facebook, and I came across the church where I got married.  Under it is an article discussing the demise of Crystal Cathedral and the deterioration of evangelicalism.  It is an article written by Jim Hinch who often writes for Orange County Register. In fact, I’ve had dealing with Jim in the past and find him to be informed enough on the religious/Christian landscape.

This article is worth reading only because it was written by a religious correspondent for a reputable newspaper.  One thing struck me when I read the article.  Hinch basically draws the parallel between the demise of popular evangelicalism (fundamentalism? revivalism? evangelism?) with the demise of the Crystal Cathedral. His mention of the Christmas programs, Easter programs and the Hour of Power brings me back the memory of us attending their Christmas program one year as a family.  However we feel about the Crystal Cathedral, we have to admit that it has experienced some incredible success for a number of years.  This is not a post to criticize or praise the ministry of Robert H. Schuller.  Rather, I find it just a bit curious that someone as informed as Hinch uses the Crystal Cathedral as a metaphor for evangelical demise.

In case someone thinks I’m criticizing Hinch, I’m not.  Rather, I’m noting the comparison Hinch makes.  It is a comparison that is more telling about evangelicalism than we may give it credit for.  To be sure, neither Schuller nor his ministry had ever been considered evangelical by evangelicals.  Sure some evangelicals do not mind associating with Schuller because of Schuller’s success.  That’s what evangelicals do.  They cling on to anyone with an appearance of success to further their own success.  Church is all about effects, results and instant impact.  As a Christian, I do not even doubt that Schuller “has led plenty of people to Christ.”  Whatever he might have done, he was not evangelicals.  Many hard-line evangelicals would’ve be mortified if they were to find Schuller associating himself with their camp (and he has not).  No church historian who has gotten his data right would’ve considered Schuller evangelical.

This brings me to my small point.  Hinch had associated the Crystal Cathedral with evangelicalism because of the impression (i.e. effects, results and the desire for instant impact) evangelicals have made.  To make matters worse, due to the evangelical’s temporary PR success, many who lust after success also call themselves evangelicals.  Let’s look closely at Crystal Cathedral for its impression.  It is grand and successful.  Its preacher tries to preach a user-friendly sermon to attract membership.  In that sense, it IS “evangelistic” in the same way evangelicals claim to be.  Hinch has wrongly associated Crystal Cathedral with evangelicalism because evangelicalism’s appeal parallels directly with the Crystal Cathedral.  Evangelicals have, in essence, tried to it clear as day that Christianity IS evangelicalism.  Since Crystal Cathedral is the symbol of a past success of Christianity, it too must be evangelical.  Now that the Roman Catholics have taken over the building, evangelicalism represented in the symbolism of that building is DEAD!

What should we do with this piece of ironic observation?  Evangelicals have mistakenly conveyed that its very western and lily white version of the faith is the entire Christian faith.  Evangelicals have become the victim of the gigantic PR machine that they have created (evident in recent scandals of Mark Driscoll).  When you rely on impression, whatever impression you create is up to the interpretation of the world. Sometimes, they do not interpret the sound bytes correctly. Then, perhaps it is time to think about the impression we create rather than trying to prop up the idol of hegemony.  After all,  Christianity is not the same as evangelicalism; it is so much bigger and better.

Whatever is PC for YOU is MY life!: What Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson Can Teach Preachers

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a cave somewhere, you can’t miss the entertainment news of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson being ousted from the show for his comments about homosexuals.  After all the uproar died down, old Phil was reinstated again followed by choruses of indignant “praise the Lord” and self-rightoues claims of Satan’s attack by conservative Christians. I didn’t want to blog on poor Phil too quickly just so that we progressives don’t all appear to pile on him at once.  All that has been said probably was already said about the situation, but it would be a shame if no one learned anything from this situation.  Bravado about Christian victory aside, most preachers could learn a thing or two from this episode.

One important common characteristic between Phil Robertson and any preacher is the position of public figure (well, in fact, Phil also preaches, as he’s shown here).  Preachers do not preach to church walls.  Preachers preach to an audience.  Every sermon is not merely some explanation of the word of God, much less the very word of God.  Rather, every sermon is a text that communicates between the preacher and audience, much in the same way a TV show is a text between Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty and its viewing audience.  Every text is open to interpretation, and the audience is doing the interpretation.  While preachers can’t prevent misinterpretation, they can use more caution to make sure that their communication hits the mark.

One of the excuses for Phil’s usage of language I heard two weeks ago is age.  Let’s face it.  Phil is from the older generation (i.e. old school) where this coarse usage of language about homosexuals, women’s pelvic cavities and blacks was acceptable.  In that bygone era in that particular geographical situation, there’re plenty more Phil Robertson’s. I’m not saying that ALL the people from that era who lived in that area all held the same disposition, but the person making the excuse for Phil was pointing to that historical stereotype.  For argument’s sake, let’s presuppose that the excuse was valid and that age did play a part along with geographical location.  It doesn’t make Phil’s statement any less offensive to homosexuals, women and blacks.  Let’s go further (just to be the devil’s advocate) to say that back in those days, no one would’ve bat an eyelid to such language, let alone object to it.  News flash!  Today isn’t THOSE DAYS!  The national TV audience also doesn’t live in the Jim Crow Era Louisiana either.  Language usage is evolutionary.

If evolution of language is indeed Phil’s problem (and I’m not suggesting that it is his only problem), we need to take heed to know that our communication should also evolve with time.  Although we serve a merciful God, the public sphere is not merciful.  In the Christian circle, many preachers (even young preachers today) insist proudly that they are not politically correct (i.e. PC) or that they like “being real”, as if being non-PC and being real are the highest expression of Christian godliness.  Many are even proud that they’re preaching the good ole gospel, that vintage stuff that Jesus once spoke.  There’s only a slight problem.  The same preachers also do not use Greek or Aramaic or wear robe and saddles or grow a huge beard like Jesus (or Phil).  Why not?  It is because time has changed.  We too change!  Thus, being proud of being non-PC only demonstrates the narcissistic stubbornness and calloused immaturity rather than spirituality of the speaker.  It really means, “I really don’t care about your feelings. My feelings (i.e. what I want to say in the guise of what I claim God says) come first always.”

As Christians, why do we even value PC?  We do so because feelings are involved.  When those feelings are from our public audience, you have an explosive mix of a pastoral disaster.  The author of Colossians 4.6 recognized the importance of the public audience when he wrote these words, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Whatever is PC for you is someone else’s life.  When we preach, we’re publicly dealing with lives.  Preachers can’t afford to stick to their own guns while proclaiming arrogantly that they speak the very word of God.  The public sphere will hold us accountable. Sometimes, we do deserve the backlash we get for not caring about the feelings of others.  Preaching the same old gospel doesn’t mean you have to wear the same old robe and sandals.  Neither does it mean that PC is our most dangerous enemy.  It’s time to cast aside the old and crusty clothing in favor of new and smoother cloth.

A Christmas Hijacking: Megyn Kelly and the Baby Jesus

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Poor Megyn Kelly (MK henceforth)!  She just can’t get any respect after her comment about the white Jesus and white Santa.  The responses range from hilarious mockery to indignant outrage.  The outcry of racism has filled my social media wall for two solid weeks at least, as we debate the color of Jesus and St. Nick.  Certainly, her comments and the responses have implications about the race issue.  To be sure, race is an issue, but I want to look past the race issue in this blog. After all, Jesus was white according to a certain formulation of the semitic race, though many interpret Kelly’s comment to assert that Jesus was Norther European white.  The same can be said of St. Nick, an Asian Minor person.  The fact is, all this discussion about color is anachronistic because people did not always see things in terms of skin color back then. At the center of it however comes a theological question.  What does this discussion say about the Incarnation and Christology.  So, in the spirit of Christmas today, I share my thoughts on how MK’s idea have to do with Christology.

My friend Prof. Greg Carey makes the cogent and valid point about people making Jesus their weapon for their ideology in his article for HuffPo.  Whether MK is intentionally using Jesus or St. Nick as her weapon, I do not know.  In the spirit of Christmas generosity, I’m going to extend her some grace.  I want to propose that MK has done something many have done, and this is not limited to liberals or conservatives: she has identified Jesus with herself.  She’s doing, what theologians call, Christology.  Now, I have no idea what her faith status is, and I’m not in the position to judge that status.  She does receive a lot of flak simply because she is a celebrity who stubbornly insisted on her own ignorance.  Her Christology is simple; Jesus is like MK, and MK is like Jesus.

After all, I’m fairly sure the Jesus we like most is the baby Jesus.  I think a lot of stuff could make this harmless and cute baby Jesus cry, such as “dirty diapers” (or “nappies” as my British friends would call them; well, maybe he didn’t wear a diaper. Who knows?) or just an empty stomach.  This cute Jesus is not the same as that Jesus who used colorful words to vilify his opponents and beat up people in the temple.  That Jesus is a bit “out there.”  Of course, there’re those who also identify with that Jesus, the radical Jesus who would occupy Wall St. and Central District, HK, all at once.  Baby Jesus however doesn’t offend anyone.  He’s a baby after all!  That Jesus is our skin color because he’s definitely the “good guy”, and we so separately want to identify with the good guy, in this case, the Son of God (or St. Nick).  That’s what MK did, only her construct came out of a secularized version of Christology. So, no theologian took her serious, amidst raucous public mockery.

At the heart of her misinformed comments is Christmas and the Incarnation (and of course, baby Jesus).  The popular formulation for the Incarnation has much to do with Jesus coming to be one of us.  The problem MK created is the classic dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ imagined by the church, except in this case, we have a Christ imagined by MK.  In the imagination of the church or sphere outside of church, the Christ emerged in OUR image.  Those who laugh at MK are reminding her about the Jesus of history.  Yet, we must be reminded also that veneration of Jesus started very early even in the lordly language of the New Testament.  The Jesus of history received early imagination and contextualization among first-generation Christians.  People felt the need to imagine Jesus to be themselves, even though MK’s form of imagination was a bit extreme.  Every time we say something about Jesus, we intentionally or otherwise are doing Christology.  No wonder Jesus asked his followers the very important questions, “Who do people say I am?  Who do you say I am?”

There’s however an area where we don’t think about too much, but I want us to think about now.  What if Jesus were really different from us.  What if Jesus was black, yellow, red, purple or green?  What if Jesus were an alien?  What if Jesus were the Other?  In our deep desire to have a Jesus who is just like us, we often neglect the fact that the Incarnation includes the Otherness of Jesus.  God forbid if Jesus had a different shade of skin color, different cultural habits and different worldview than we.

Jesus’ Otherness was evident throughout his career.  Many rejected him even though he was a popular teacher.  The disciples misunderstood him over and over again.  After all, how was it possible to love the enemies?  How was it possible to make the way to the cross (much like our electric chair) be the way of discipleship?  Even his own family thought he was a bit off his rocker.  For Jesus, eternal life came from a process of understanding of his Otherness.

The problem with the MK controversy is not merely race.  It points to a greater problem in our society. We’re unwilling to learn from the Other (i.e. people or people groups that have nothing in common with us).  By identifying ourselves with the “good guy,” we not only hijacked the historical good guy but also made those different from us the bad guys.  Sometimes, just sometimes, the white Jesus represented white supremacy without always meaning to do so.  There’s a need for people to be identified with the good Jesus they imagine him to be, and people outside of that identity are either inferior or worse, evil.  The historical Christian understanding of Christmas tells us that there is no separation between the humanity and Otherness of Jesus.  Perhaps, the Incarnation is not talking about how much Jesus was like us only (i.e. Jesus was white, black, yellow, red, or blue) but how much he was NOT like us also.  This paradox combines the humanity and divinity perfectly without sacrificing or even separating one from the other.  Maybe Christmas tells us that the mission for the baby Jesus was to take us out of our familiar environment to unsettle us by showing Jesus to be the Other.  The Otherness of the adult Jesus really started with the baby Jesus.  Perhaps, Christmas also reminds us that there’s some truth “out there” in the Other.  We can indeed learn from the Other.  Therefore, I wish everyone a merry Christmas and happy holidays, even MK.  I’m thankful for all of my readers and friends from whom I learned much, even though we can disagree agreeably most of the time.

Preparing the Advent Series 4: Getting the focal point right

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I’ve written on this aspect in my book as well as in a previous blog post in my other blog, but let me summarize some of the details people still get wrong when reading the Christmas story.  Preachers should not assume that these details are already within the database of their congregation’s thinking.  Rather, these details should be taught to avoid the popular myth that is Christmas.  Especially important are the following.

1)    Jesus was not born in a manger.  If we read carefully, he was place in a manger in Luke 2.7.  How in fact could Jesus be born in a manger? Did Mary sit on the world’s largest manger ever to give birth?

2)    Jesus did not check into a hotel.  The word for inn is very possibly a large room from one of Jesus’ relatives.  After all, with the close-knit family structure, people who returned to their place of birth would find hospitality among relatives.  The focus is the smallness of the overall dwelling so much so that they had to place the baby Jesus in a manger and not within the small birthing quarter.

3)    The focal point shifts to the shepherds and not to Jesus in Luke 2.8-20.  The entire birthing detail was not to show Jesus’ humble circumstances, but to allow for the shepherd to find Jesus in a manger.  IF there were room inside for the baby, the shepherds would have a tough time identifying where the baby Jesus was.

These are just a few of the myths that deserve to be busted for good.  There may be many others but these are the popular ones.

As I always say, the text is never the problem. The interpreter is.

Mark Driscoll and Evangelicalism: the Church Hijacked by Its Celebrity Machine

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Introduction

The news Mark Driscoll (henceforth MD) had plagiarized some 14 pages of his book Resurgence once again rocked the evangelical world.  Jonathan Merritt first broke the news in Religious News Service and picked up by CT later.  Since then, the host of the show, Janet Mefferd who first challenged MD had apologized for the manner she brought this up.  Yet, the damage is done, as Mefferd had exposed even more cases of plagiarism in MD’s other works (quite possibly 4 more books) before her apology and Merritt immediately latched on to giving the most accurate report.  With Mefferd’s apology came the resignation of the part-time assistant show producer Ingrid Schlueter whose statements cannot be interpreted as anything other than a loud protest against the “evangelical celebrity machine” (Schlueter’s terms).  The situation got more complicated as it appears that the organization that owns the radio station also owns MD’s publisher Tyndale House.  Perhaps, an order has come from above to silence Mefferd because her show would cause financial conflict of interest.

I have restrained myself until now to speak to this because I want to look at all sides of the situation.  Not to my surprise, I still come up with the same conclusion: the business model evangelicals operate on has got to go.  Let us first examine some of the more interesting and insightful responses to this crisis.

Responses

Many worthy responses (and some unworthy ones) came as a result of this fiasco.  Let me categorize the responses as follows:

1) MD deserves better

Christian Piatt points out that MD is wrong but deserves basic dignity apart from the “witch hunt” (his words) he has to suffer right about now.

2) MD should understand his responsibility as a writer

Kevin DeYoung, almost a lone voice from the Gospel Coalition, talks about the responsibility the pastors has to the reading public.  He spends the most space on the idea of honesty or integrity, talking about ghost writers and humility.

3) Silence

Merritt has since contacted D. A. Carson’s office and this is the response from Daniel Ahn, assistant to D.A. Carson: “Thank you for your email of 27 November. I apologize for taking so long to respond back to your email. Dr. Carson was out of the country last week and just returned. At the moment, Dr. Carson does not want to comment on these accusations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll. “

4) MD’s Non-Respnose response and Western Seminary

After this whole thing broke, here’s MD’s initial non-response response by announcing … get this … Western Seminary will open a campus on Mars Hill.  MD peppered his video with all sorts of churchy vocabulary about loving God, and secular vocabulary about bringing “accredited” seminary education to Seattle, never mind that Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University both have accredited divinity programs and never mind that many can love God without going to Western Seminary located at Mars Hill.  The highlight for me in this video is MD calling himself one of the professors for this program. I thought professors have to contribute to the wider academic world and to the institution in order to get the title.  Perhaps, MD is the exception.

5) Moving the goal posts

John Piper of the Gospel Coalition finally calls out MD. In his Twitter, he decries ghost writing.  The problem with all this is that Piper is playing the game by MD’s rule.  The original problem stemmed from plagiarism.  Piper makes it only about ghost writing.

6) Mars Hill PR response

Mars Hill eventually responded after about two weeks since the story broke.  The premise basically says that this was an in-house mistake originally meant for congregational consumption but was eventually published into a book.  The blame also comes in a backhanded comment about the research assistant in Mars Hill who could help MD produce thousands of pages of content per year to allow for the ministry to flourish.  The question remains whether in-house plagiarism and ghost writing to help a ministry flourish are actually acceptable.

7) MD represents a bigger program about evangelicalism

The above responses leads to a more original interpretation by Dr. Justin Tse who has the most interesting and insightful response.  A geographer, a practicing Christian and an expert on American religion, Dr. Tse demonstrates step-by-step how MD’s case is yet one more instance where the privatization of American religion is falling apart.  Whatever the church tries to hide has become public recently from mega-church clergy housing allowance to LA Preachers reality TV show.  We used to call the church’s public face “our testimony” but now it’s just called PR.  To many Christians, especially public figures, privatization of a public dialogue is the only way to go.

My Response to the Responses: Issues to Ponder

1) Whatever is published is public, whether it is Rick Warren’s Facebook Red Guard joke (Facebook is the only publishing platform for some people) or MD’s book.  If we don’t like this public aspect, we should get out of the writing business. There’re plenty of ways to communicate other than writing.  Matthew 18 says exactly nothing to this kind of situation.  I’ve already blogged about it.  So, I won’t do it here.  In light of this present captivity of the church by its own celebrity machine, Christians ought to stop abusing scriptures to make exceptions for bad behaviors.  Piatt’s calling the outrage against MD’s trespasses as “witch hunt” clearly misses the point.  It is not a witch hunt. It is a passionate public discourse and a public outcry.  Publication is a public business.  MD gets no special treatment.  Whatever gibberish (aka spiritual vocabulary) his fan base and other sympathizers use just makes Christians look that much more foolish.  Thus, I agree with Collin Garbarino who said that he would flunk MD.  Review of someone’s work, whether it is on radio, academic journal or TV, is a public act.  Whether we like Mefford’s tone, she did what any radio show host would do in this challenging situation.  Whatever we write in published form will get reviewed.  I’m a published author.  I know how the game is played.  Just because someone disparages my books in a journal, I do not have the right to tell that person to shut up or tell that person’s boss to tell him to shut up.  To do so violates the very essence of public discourse, Christian or otherwise.  I can however choose to give a timely response (which MD has failed to do) if I think that’s a good idea.  I agree with the blogger Colin Foote Burch that Tyndale House and the company that owns it cannot be taken seriously if it operates in such a mickey mouse manner.

2) Bad behavior is habitual and not occasional.  Yet, if people are famous enough, we enable them to live by a different set of rules, even when we have to abuse scripture to justify our double-standard.  If we can prove beyond doubt that the 5 books were plagiarized, then we have a problem of habitual plagiarism.  Many are shocked that someone didn’t just stumble overnight.  Why?  Sins are habitual and they build up until one day they get exposed.  The problem however goes beyond MD because he has many enablers around him who are ready to say nothing (aka Christians speaking in love by remaining silent).  The silence (or lack of confrontation over sins) of Peter Jones and D. A. Carson speaks louder about the enablers in this drama than any other words can do.  Suspicion over Driscoll’s bad behavior is not just this one case, but possibly a few more cases.

3) Evangelicals are great at making up their own rule as they play along.  One great game is what I call “goal post shifting”.  Although the original problem was plagiarism, many want to make it something else.  Piper’s example is only one.  There’re others.  They try to shift our focus from thievery to substitution.  It’s like calling the handball that gives a team a win in soccer a substitution problem.  It’s like saying, “It’s because a substitute was played in the game, that’s why the team won.”  No, it is not a substitution problem.  It is a cheating problem.  Just because we are Christians, it doesn’t give us the right to use dubious logic to argue our untenable cases.

4) The business model evangelicals are using to “grow” their churches and organizations to be bigger “to spread the gospel” appears to be backfiring.  I want to use the term “business model” because in the case of MD, business is what the whole silencing of his critic is about.  Western Seminary must build more campuses to train up Western-style graduates even if Seattle already has theological institutions (not to mention Fuller).  Whatever MD has done, we need him and we need to prop him up with many spiritual explanations for the exceptions (aka “grace”) we provide.  Western needs Mars Hill.  Maybe even the Gospel Coalition needs MD.  Yes, the “celebrity machine” is working.  Tyndale can lose millions for its partnership with a plagiarist like MD. Thus, instead of cutting ties with MD and cutting business loses from 5 books, Tyndale relies on the system from which it benefits to silence even a radio host.  We can’t lose money and glorify God now, can we?  Religion is big business.  Size matters. Bottom line matters.

My conclusion is that Christian celebrity lives by exceptionism because the systemic evil of evangelicalism.  We have bought into the myth that God’s work can’t be done when we are not a big business that has a multimillion dollar bottom line to show for because we worship a God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who cares about how much we make.  The church has succumbed to the temptation the devil set before Jesus “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.”  As such, profit will always trump integrity.  The idolatry of the bottom line will always supersedes true spirituality.  We will serve mammon rather than God.  The evangelical machine has become the temple of Baal.

Why do I even write about this?  Many of the readers of this blog are church leaders or pastors.  American evangelicalism (and evangelicalisms elsewhere that are affected by the American missionary movement) is deteriorating because it goes by a utilitarian or business model.  This event and many others like it reminds us to get our philosophy of ministry right.  What exactly is the church?  Is the church only an organization?  If so, this “business” will carry on to the utter detriment of everyone involved.  No amount of evangelism or evangelistic meetings will save this mess then.

Preparing the Advent Series 3: Myth Busting in Christmas

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I’ve had a Muslim roommate when I was in the university.  I’m always impressed by how much more some people outside of the faith know more about our faith than those who claim to be evangelicals.  We had many meaningful conversations mainly because he knew the Christian scripture much more than most of my evangelical friends at the time.  There are times of the year that preachers can make use of to educate their congregation by busting up a few myths. I’ve written on this in my previous posts in my other blog, but I think it bears repeating some highlighted points here.

Christmas is one holiday where myths run amok about exactly what the holiday is about.  Besides getting out the traditional and sometimes cliché message of Christmas, preachers can do well to bust up a few myths so that their congregations can be better informed about the birth of Jesus.

The biggest myth I suggest is the blending of all the elements of Matthew and Luke birth narratives into a single story.  The real birth narrative in Matthew is in Matthew 1.18-25.  It is quite condensed with a focus not so much on the birthing details but the prophecy that precedes the birth.  Most Christmas stories mix the visit by the people from the east in Matthew 2 with the Christmas story.

We may notice that the alleged genocide by Herod covered children around two and under (Matthew 2.16).  What happened in Matthew 2 is that it took a while for the eastern visitors to come see the baby Jesus after the birth.  It did not happen straight away at birth.  Herod’s killing was timed to the extended period of time between the birth and the visit.  It is therefore a mistake to blend the visit with the Christmas story.  The Western Church traditionally commemorates Matthew 2 by the day of Epiphany which happens to be January 6, 2014.  As much as many evangelicals decry the Roman Catholic’s worship of tradition, at the very least the Catholics got the details right from its tradition by separating Christmas and Epiphany.  In this case, it is the popular Protestant imagination, fueled by commercialized nativity scenes, that is at fault.

Now, in summary, in order to get the order right in Matthew and Luke, Matthew 1.18-25 happened first.  At the same time, Luke 1 fills in more details.  The real birth detail can be found in Luke 2.  Then, Matthew 2 happened.

Preparing the Advent Series 2: Faith in the Faithful God

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The theme of faith continues to run through the preparation of the Advent in Luke.  The first account talks about the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Zechariah.  The crux of this account is in Luke 1.18. In parallel, Mary also asked a question in Luke 1.34.  Both of the questions were based upon the circumstances of the impossible birth: Zechariah’s age and Mary’s virginity.

The outcomes however were different.  The cause of Zechariah’s silence was due to his inquiry in Luke 1.18 while the angel did not rebuke Mary.  What can we say about this?

Clearly, the angel did not interpret Mary’s question as a lack of faith. The narrative proves that indeed Mary was full of faith in her response to Elizabeth’s prophecy in Luke 1.39-56.

We have already noted that the situation of both parties show impossible circumstances.  The responses however were different.  Therefore, the author was a realist in dealing with life’s circumstances.  There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the impossible circumstances sometimes we encounter in life.  Our response though is the real key.  Here, God has done the impossible for His people to accomplish His good will.  The stories tell us that we too must put our faith in this God who had the very best purpose in mind for His people Israel.  His good purpose continues still.

In preparation for the Advent, we must build our faith foundation on the faithful and sovereign God of history.  Thus, if we want to preach series faithful to the spirit of Advent, faithfulness of God is a good place to continue.  Our response is equally important.

Preparing the Advent Series 1: The Faithful God and History

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I’ve been writing a commentary on the Gospel according to Luke recently.  As I’m writing, I thought about the Advent season where a preacher is often wrapped up in trying to come up with a fresh series based on very traditional Christmas themes to prepare for Christmas.  I think Luke’s Gospel actually has the most complete record of the birth of Jesus among the Gospels.  Within Luke 1-2, Luke gave us some important concepts about preparing for the Advent.   Instead of trying to retell the story of Jesus’ birth, why not look at Luke’s themes in Luke 1-2 to see how the characters were prepared for Advent?  In turn, we can see how Luke prepared Theophilus for appreciating the greater ministry of Jesus.  I hope my writing of this series will give fellow preachers ideas on how to prepare for Advent.  I honestly do not think we have to stick completely to the Christmas story for four weeks to achieve what Luke had done with these stories.

The very first idea Luke conveyed in preparation for the Advent was the importance of history in the greater plan of God.  The very beginning of several of the Advent stories has historical notes.  Luke 1.5 talked about Herod being the king.  Luke 2.1 talked about Caesar Augustus.  Why indeed are these historical notes given?

At the most basic level, these notes set Jesus within Roman and Jewish history.  Such notes show how God worked.  God worked within history. History was important.  These notes showed that these aren’t just myths.  They were real historical events.

Second, besides the importance of the historical setting, these notes Jesus did not come in some kind of alien form.  He arrived among humans within difficult circumstances.  Jesus did not come as a grown man and a king.  His arrival contrasted against the powerful and wealthy kings of the earth.

What did all this mean to Theophilus who was a Roman official?  The historical notes challenged him to check out history to see what Luke recorded was indeed the truth.  It also declared to him who the real boss was.

In preparation for the Advent, we must build our faith foundation on the faithful and sovereign God of history.  Thus, if we want to preach series faithful to the spirit of Advent, faithfulness of God may be a good place to start.

Race and “Cultural Intelligence”: a Response to Helen Lee’s Blog in CT

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I read Helen Lee’s latest blog for Ed Stetzer in CT.  You may enjoy reading the full blog in order to understand how my blog relates to hers.  In her blog she talks about many people of color, especially recent immigrant families and their descendants, are made to feel like the perpetual foreigner even though they are fully American.  She specifically talks about the need to exercise more cultural sensitivity or cultural intelligence to navigate an increasing changing demographics of the evangelical faith.

Helen’s blog starts with a story about her kid who thinks that that he is not American enough to have girls like him.  Another Asian kid told me, “The girls in my class think I’m hot, but a few of them think that my eyes are a little small.  Of course my eyes are small. I’m Asian, man. What were they thinking?”  This kid has the opposite problem of Helen Lee’s kid who thought that he was not “American enough” to be liked by girls.  This kid was not even considered Asian.  These situations are two sides of the coin, aren’t they?  One is self-conscious about his race while the other faces a strange kind of color-blindedness.  However, there are more serious problems in this world than teenagers having dates.

There are additional problems, as our recent Halloween costume controversies point out.  Many costumes were stereotypical or worse, racist and sexist.  Sure, stereotypes have aspects of truth in it.  Some may even be mildly flattering, but they reduce the person to “brainy Asian” or “kung fu fighter Bruce Lee”.  Of course, there’s just simply no excuse for racism (e.g. “we are niggers on Halloween” by painting our faces black.)

I quite appreciate Helen’s experience which happens to be my experience here as well.  However I’m not as comfortable with the word “culture” to describe this nebulous catch-all “thing” out there that we can conveniently pull up whenever racially tense issues arise.  I prefer to frame this kind of experience differently to offer some perspectives.  I take two major angles when I look at the issue.

First, I wish to look at the issue not from cultural intelligence (because it’s so nebulous) but from the perspective of the melting pot.  This is a deliberately secular angle, deliberately taken from the point of view of being a US citizen. We’ve been taught that we are a melting pot since childhood.  Sure, many may prefer other more appropriate metaphors such as mosaic or kaleidoscope but the melting pot is still a dominate narrative of our country.  The trouble with the pot is that the ingredients are changing.  The pot presupposes that we all brought something quite different from our “motherland” (whether it’s Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, Mexico or China etc.), unless we’re Native Americans.  As the immigration pattern changes, the flavor that comes out of the pot will change.  The real issue is whether we will create a pot that represents the kind of society we wish to have by being inclusive and tolerant of each others background or whether we will insist that certain ingredients will never be included no matter how tasty this ingredient is.  It’s like insisting on not having tomato sauce for pasta in the Old World simply because tomatoes are from the New World (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read any book on history of food).  Many people are still eating dry and tasteless pasta and calling it gourmet.  In order for the pot to work, assimilation may be required from incoming ingredients but accommodation must also come from within the pot. For some, the pot is so hopeless that perhaps chucking out the old pot for a new pot may be in order because many scholars on race have already pointed out that certain non-European races (e.g. blacks and Asians) look so different that assimilation into the primarily European-race narrative proves impossible.

Now that I’ve looked at the situation from the perspective of a secular citizen, let me bring in the Christian perspective.  One thing struck me when I keep hearing and reading about the shifting of demographics when today’s minority may become tomorrow’s majority in evangelicalism.  The language often smacks of secular pragmatism, built purely on numbers that come from effective outreach.  I’m not totally comfortable with such a model simply because it breeds a kind of pragmatism of “whatever it takes” to make it work.  Christianity is not merely about “let’s convert more by doing this or that.”  Jesus used different vocabulary when he described his followers.  One major metaphor he used was the “kingdom.”  The vision of Jesus’ kingdom was so grand that multiculturalism became the norm less than two decades after his death and resurrection (e.g. Acts 1.8; 8.26-40; Acts 10-11).  The progress of the church ought to inform our pragmatic minds that the kingdom was first and foremost about representing the vision of the king.  Its mission is merely the outworking of that vision, and that vision is multicultural.  Jesus also talked about discipleship.  In order to become a good disciple, the student has to follow the instruction of the teacher.  If the church is a discipleship community, it needs to represent the teaching of its teacher.  This representation does not have to happen in a faraway place like Hong Kong, China, or Africa.  It can happen right where we are in a multicultural society in the US.

At the end of the day, our faith is not about being multicultural in order to get more converts, though Paul did talk a little bit about that (e.g. 1 Cor. 9.20).  Numerical growth is only the byproduct and not the main essence.  At the end of the day, our faith IS multicultural with no culture (including many variations of the white culture here in the US) dominating over the kingdom vision.  If mission starts at home in our multicultural society, why is the evangelical church still treating the race and culture issue like it’s the white elephant in the room instead of actively dealing with it?  The final question people may have to ask is, What kind of church do I want?  But when asking such a question, the answer should somehow relates to the biblical question, What kind of church does God want?  The answer may prove uncomfortable.

The Preacher’s Preparation: A Quiet Day

For a long time, one preaching book inspired me.  I occasionally read John Stott’s Between Two Worlds.  It is not a technical book.  It’s quite practical in its approach.  For the discipline of homiletics, obviously there’re other really good books besides this one, but not many can beat the practical advice in this book.  One of the best advices I read is the “quiet day” for the preacher.  Some may even prefer an entire weekend away.  What is a quiet day?

A quiet day is a day for studying and planning.  In some ways, it isn’t just a day to relax, though it may do just that.  It can also be a day of vigorous work.  Whether this occurs once a quarter or half a year, the quiet day helps many a preacher to refocus.  With the very busy pastoral duties, many ministers will get caught in the rat race of wedding, funerals, sermon preparation and counseling.   These are all good things, but this busyness will cause the loss of focus.  The quiet day brings back the focus.

During the quiet day away, the minister should have an electronic fast.  During this time, it is tempting to check emails and get caught up in busyness again.  Of course, people’s Facebook can have endless updates also.  A quiet day should eliminate all clutter so that the minister can have time to clear his head.

The quiet day for a preacher can be devoted to planning series for sermon.  What are the next several series going to be about?  Think about the congregational need, whether intellectual or spiritual.  Sometimes, we get so caught up with their spiritual need that we may forget that their brains also need feeding from sound knowledge.

If that planning is already done since the beginning of the year, then a quiet day will also allow the minister to look at whether the goals for the previous series have been accomplish and to think about what can be done better. Sometimes, we can get caught up with the praises of our fans and lose track of self-evaluation process.  The quiet day is good for that reflection.

If evaluation is done, the quiet day can be necessary to read up on the next series or two.  What I mean by reading up is not merely reading what other sermons are saying about the topic or series.  What I mean is for the minister to do his or her own academic reading whether it is an updated series of books on the topic or biblical passage.  Everyone needs a refresher course on what is going on “out there in the ivory tower”.  This is the only way preachers can improve intellectually.  For some who haven’t been reading academic stuff, the quiet day enables them to get rid of mental rust and cerebral cobwebs.  The reason why this is done on a quiet day is because reading stuff like this is tough with all the distraction of the parish office.

The quiet day is also good for prayer.   Every minister could use a little time away to pray.  Prayer can be useful in sorting out all the planning and reading.  It can keep the mind focus on the ultimate concern of the pastoral office.

The location of the quiet day is also important.  Many of us will be tempted to go in when everyone is gone from the office to have that quiet day.  I would advise against it.  A quiet day is best spent in a different location.  Locations have symbolic significance.  The office, thought quiet, can still inundate us with that feeling of work.  Some may prefer a seminary library when the seminary has no class on that day.  Others may go to a cabin.  We all have to figure out what works for us.

In order to plan the quiet day, I would recommend that each minister take time out by marking on the calendar and informing his staff when this will occur so that people can anticipate and work around this.  If you’re a senior pastor reading this, I think you should also allow your pastoral staff to have the same privilege to have the same amount of quiet day away.  Let them go with a quiet day and come back to share with you what they’ve learned.  Many will think that this is not practical and shrug off this blog.  Many will think that the parish work is so busy that this would be impossible.  Sometimes, working fast and hard doesn’t mean working smart.  The quiet day might just be the solution to our problem. Those who shrug off the quiet day might be the ones who need it the most.   For many, the quiet day should not be a luxury.  It should be a necessity.

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