The Convenience Trap

I’ve been writing about integrity. Within the flawed system in which we operate, how do we keep integrity?

 

I get invited to different conferences to speak. In fact, that’s how I make a living.  For me, conference speaking is a business to sustain my livelihood and to feed my family.  It’s a fruitful endeavor that I enjoy almost as much as my classroom teaching and writing.  In this business of freelance speaking, I depend on networks.  As I do more and more speaking, the networks become more and more complex.  I get to find out more and more the dark side of ministerial business (as if I don’t already from growing up in a pastor’s family).  Probably the biggest lesson is that everything is political to a degree.  How do you keep your integrity in such a political situation?

 

I use the phrase “the convenience trap” to describe our temptation.  Let’s be honest, a lot of people befriend us not because they really want to be real life friends – they have plenty of those –  but because of the benefit they may gain.  Lest anyone thinks that I’m complaining, I’m not.  I also benefit from this system of “friendship.” It’s called networking.  I’m under no illusion that it’s anything other than networking.  How do I keep my integrity in check?  It’s hard.

 

I think the one lesson I learn is to avoid the convenience trap.  These days, my reflection is often to ask myself whether this networking is merely for convenience.  This is an important question to ask.  IF convenience is the criterion along with personal profit, then integrity is at risk.  A lot of people wonder why Christian celebrities fall.  My answer is because they too have fallen into the system and have become part of its machinery.  They too have fallen into the convenience trap.

 

These days, I’m no longer impressed with how large a conference I get to speak for or even necessarily the speaking fee (which is another book-length topic in itself).  Number is probably the least important thing on my mind right now.  I’m much more careful about the people who invite me because I don’t want to lose my integrity in earning a quick dollar.  Sure, my family needs to eat and I like to have some nice things in life, but you can’t buy integrity.  That should really be our bottom-line. When financial bottom-line takes over, our spiritual bottom-line will blur.  Money and power can numb the conscience, not just in church ministry or the business of church but in life itself.

 

When the Game Stands Short

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I love sports movies.  One of the recent ones I enjoyed was “When the Game Stands Tall.”  It’s a story about De La Salle High School football team, the winningest football team of any level.  The movie doesn’t only show when they won. It also shows what happened when that winning streak of 151 game came to a halt.  The team that broke that winning streak was Bellevue High, a school my son may have to wrestle in upcoming seasons.  Bellevue is also quite a powerhouse.  Even today, Bellevue is still a sports powerhouse with a football ranking in the top ten nationally.  I followed this movie because it includes teams I’ve known about first in my former home of the Bay Area (De La Salle) and my present home of the greater Seattle area (Bellevue).  The movie gives a very good moral about what happens when the chips are down.  The appeal of the movie isn’t when the team was winning.  The appeal is when they have to bounce back from losing.  After all, who likes to lose?

 

I think as Americans, we love to win, even sometimes at all costs.  Christians are no exception.  Recently, we first have the scandal of the boy who after all didn’t go to heaven.  Before that, we have Mark Driscoll’s fall through a number of mishaps (e.g. plagiarism, abuse of authority etc.).  Lest you think that I’m harping on conservatives only, I am not.  The latest storm actually came out of the progressives, implicating some big-name leaders.  There’s one thing in common with all these events: money is involved.

 

When stuff like this breaks, two reactions typically happen.  One, someone will denounce the wrongdoing.  Two, someone will defend the wrongdoer calling him a “good  guy” etc.  The troubling thing about the recent events is that there’s far less condemnation of the progressives both among its own ranks and from the opposition.  I’m not sure why. I’m sure somewhere along the line, personal interest is involved.  After all, this is a game of reciprocation, profits and gains.

 

One thing is for sure.  Recent scandals show that Christianity in America isn’t only in decline.  It’s rotten to the core from every side.  I’m not saying individual Christians are rotten, but the system, whether conservative or progressive, is rotten.  It’s a system that is immune from public scrutiny. It is a system that negates accountability. It’s a system that acts more like the Illuminati than the organic Body of Christ. Unlike sports where the rules (besides making money) matters, this system rises above its own rule (i.e. biblical principles on integrity and righteousness).  It urinates on the rules.  The problem is not merely money.  The problem is not merely sin.  Both money and sin have been around since humans existed.  The problem right now is the marketing machine that is part of the system.

 

In the internet age, we have a greater temptation to market ourselves not as we are, but as the way people want us to be.  If enough of this marketing goes around, we will have rampant hypocrisy.  This hypocrisy goes unchecked because of Christian tendency to worship celebs, even the most dysfunctional celebs who may abuse their family members at home or others in the public place, take illegal drugs, drink excessively or commit martial infidelity.   We want to see the marketing image instead of who we really are, a bunch of messed up folks who need healthy Christian relationships.  This machine generates success or the appearance of it.  We love it.

 

At the moment, the silence about the latest scandal only confirms one thing. We love success more than God.  God forbid if anyone or anything interferes with our appearance of success.  With failure, we can stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars and we’ll then look less successful being poor.  Poverty is not sexy, though speaking about poverty is.  What we have here is integrity in crisis.  Integrity is the first thing on the alter in a sacrifice to success.  The machine generates success.  We mustn’t let the machine wind down into its rusty sinful reality.

 

Back to When the Game Stands Tall.  I love the movie not because it’s a mega hit. I love it because it deals with failure. In failure, we learn about honesty and integrity.  We learn about pain and grow.  The machine we create forbids that.  Unlike a football game, we don’t have score boards to give us black and white answers for our successes and failures.  It’s easier to hide when there’re no scoreboards.  Yet, we aren’t keeping score. We’re dealing with real lives and issues that are far more significant than a football game.  Yet, we do so with much less seriousness and integrity.  If there’s a movie to be made about this moment of American Christianity, it may be called “When the Game Stands Short.” We don’t know the score. Neither do we care.

Neo-Reformed Celebration of Terrorism: ISIS drives Yazidis to Christ?

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I did a double take when I saw headline: ISIS drives displaced refugees to Christ. I saw this on John Piper’s Facebook which contains a load of Christian cliche responses ranging from discussion about God’s sovereignty to God’s mysterious ways.  Here’re the sample responses I’ve read that have the most “likes.”

- Praise the Lord! To hear of how the Lord is using even this terrorist organization to drive out the Yazidis from their hard to reach homes so that many of them might hear the gospel of Christ and believe – that is good news indeed!

 

– Praise God for His beautiful paradox in growing life out of death!

 

– My hope is that ISIS will spark a huge spiritual revival in America and around the world. One thing I know for sure: Jesus is building His Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

 

– God is good!

 

– The failures of ISIS? Appears to be the Creators gain.

 

– Everything that happens is in the end all for the glory of the Lord…

 

– “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Gen 50:20

 

– When Stalin displaced Koreans into parts of Central Asia, he thought he was being clever, but you see God is over all. Those Koreans became some of the most on fire evangelists in all of Central Asia. Glory be to God.

 

Let’s now turn to the article itself. The article talks about all the work being done to help the Yazidis who were being driven by ISIS to flee into the border of Turkey.  The Christian aid workers set up tents for church and camp for residence for these unfortunate souls.  The result is the conversion of many Yazidis.  It’s a good story of Christian action, but then you have this headline.  It’s hard not to read more theology into headline simply because it’s so amazingly theological.  The logic applies to any disaster, whether it’s natural or manmade disaster. It goes something like this, “Since X disaster happened, this many came to Christ. Therefore, we praise God for using disasters to bring people to Christ.”  Essentially, we’re praising God for lost lives so that we can generate global conversion numbers.  If we turn that logic around on these mostly Western church organization and say, “Thank God 911 happened because it drove so many people to church,” I wonder how they would feel.  Of course, THIS is different.  It’s American. However, if it’s the Yazidis or the South Asians who lost lives in the Tsunami, it’s OK to use that logic.  Apparently, even God’s sovereignty favors the West.  Surely, we must be joking.

When some people do mission these days, it’s more about numbers than compassion.  These are real victims here, people!  Have a heart!  What’s the problem?  Our doctrine of God’s sovereignty has completely vanquished our compassion.  Those of us who teach and preach in our churches need to take serious responsibility to educate our people about the real expression of Christianity through compassion.  People shouldn’t know us by our warped religious logic in the guise of doctrine.  People should know us by our love and compassion.

Words Matter! The Danger of Music that Rocks

It was Remembrance Day or Veteran’s Day a while back. Bruce Springsteen, the famous rock giant, gave a concert to honor the occasion.  One particular song the Boss sang was  a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”  The writer of this song was a war veteran who was a bit critical of the US military policy and the unnecessary deaths it had caused.  Well, singing that in front of the military crowd certainly didn’t help matter and some were offended by the song.  I was struck by one particular comment someone wrote, “If you think ‘Fortunate Son’ was in appropriate for tonight’s concert, you’ve clearly never never paid attention to the lyrics.”  I suppose the comment is directed at the lyrics of many of Springsteen’s songs because many of his songs are critical of many US policies from military to labor market.  It also strikes me odd that many who decide to show up to Springsteen’s concert would be shocked at what took place.  If we listen carefully the lyrics, we will surely understand where Springsteen stands on political issues. This leads me to further amusement that on such a “patriotic” occasion, who thought of inviting Springsteen to sing?  Perhaps this is meant to be a ingenious stroke of irony or satire. Who knows?

 

I suspect that most of Springsteen’s fans don’t really pay attention to the lyrics.  His music is usually catchy and upbeat.  I know because my wife is a big fan.  How is this related to our church ministry.  Have you ever noticed that we do the same in church?  Much of church music is there not because of its meaningful lyrics but because of its catchy beat or tune.  I bet most people don’t think of music as something that has meaning, at least not consciously.  When was the last time you hear a bunch of people coming out of your average worship saying, “Wow, the theology of the song is so great.”  No, usually, people would say that the song sounds cool.  The average worshippers could care less about the words in our worship.  There lies the danger.  Music is dangerous.

 

Music can hide a lot of ideas that people may not normally accept but somehow attaching them to music makes everything okay.  This is relevant because as we may notice, the Psalms came to us in words.  I’m sure the music has changed but the words remain the same.  Words matter.  For our worship leaders, just because your congregation doesn’t care about words, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful about words.  Our wonderful music can be the channel for communication of truth or a shelter for our false ideas about God.  Words matter.  For the average worshipper, I would encourage a more careful examination of what you’re singing in church instead of merely moving to the beat because words matter, not only for Springsteen’s audience, but also for those who sing praises to God and about God.

 

The N-Word and Racism: A Response to Andy Gill’s Blog Post

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Last Monday, we commemorated Martin Luther King Jr for all the work he had done for civil rights.  Was MLK perfect? No!  Nevertheless, he did important work that moves us towards a better society where humans are judged by the character rather than skin color.  As an Asian-American, I can say amen to that.

 

Then comes mega church pastor Perry Noble’s untimely use of the N-word on last Christmas Eve, followed by Andy Gill’s excellent response.  Noble in his apology told people not to fight over his remarks.  Not to fight?  Those are fighting words!  Who exactly does he think he is to feel that he has the privilege to tell us what to do?  I can imagine the black folks telling him and his people off, and his fans defending him to their death.

 

Rather than simply dismiss the hurt as “fighting” and telling others to stop it in the name of the Christian mission, Noble ought to admit to his role in dividing the church via a racially divisive and hurtful word.  He should further tell his fans to step back from defending him!  This sort of behavior reminds me of what so many big-name pastors do when they get it wrong.  They post a Facebook or Twitter apology that sounds like a “I’m sorry that I offended you” and allow for their fans to get on the attack and creating further damage.  I’ve seen this happen to my Asian-American brothers and sisters. Now, it’s going to happen to my black brothers and sisters.  I’m not a race baiter. I’m just stating facts.  Such apologies should accompany by further qualifications such as “please don’t get online and defend my behavior, my people. I’m just a flawed human being in need of God’s forgiveness.”  If he is really faithful to his contrition, he should start deleting the hurtful comments from his defensive fans. Up to this point, they’re running wild, writing on every critic’s blog and youtube video.

 

The response of his apologists like many apologists for these celebrity pastors are pitifully predictable.  Many will put it down to Noble being careless with his words.  “Careless” is relative.  If he slipped in a few cuss words like Hauerwas or Brueggemann, that would be careless because those cuss words can slip into our daily frustrations and excitement, but not the N-word.  No!  I don’t allow my children to use such a word in our conversation EVER.  It is simply not even on our radar screen along with many other racially charged words. Why? It is because words have history.  Everyone who uses the N-word knows that history of white racists beating up, hanging, burning and killing blacks.  Unless we’ve been living under a rock for our entire life and skipped history classes in school, we can’t possibly not know that history.  Words don’t just have meanings. They can also have violent force and lingering effects.  If you don’t believe me, just read my blog this week about how Rick Warren’s words a year and a half ago describes Hong Kong today, and those words aren’t pretty.

 

Noble claims that he’s not racist.  I really want to believe him.  I mean, why would ANY Christian want to believe that a pastor is racist? Not me!  But he is.  Armed with such historical information about black history, the word is obviously part of his vocabulary in his private conversations. Otherwise, why would it slip out into his sermon?  At such a stage, I would ask why a privileged white use such an unfortunate word in his normal vocabulary database? Why would such a thing happen?  This is not about political correctness. It’s about self awareness.  Is he even aware that the private usage of that word indicates that he IS racist?  I don’t care what sphere, private or public, in which he uses that word.  That isn’t really the problem. The problem is, deep down in his heart, he IS racist.  He doesn’t about reconciliation between races. If he does, he wouldn’t so easily use his privileged position to dismiss his critics are those peeing into the wind just to get a few cheap laughs (yes, he used that urinary analogy in his apology video).  That doesn’t smack of reconciliation. Biblical reconciliation seeks to understand the offense from the perspective of the offended party.  Noble has no such understanding.

 

Let me translate and summarize what his apology sounds like to me.

 

“You all just need to relax. I wasn’t even kidding when my hearers think that I’ve said the N-word.  Come on, I wouldn’t do such a thing. Sorry, people.  That word was ‘at most’ in my mouth, but never in my heart. I’m all about reconciliation.”

 

Does that sound like someone who’s all about reconciliation? The only thing I’m glad for is that he didn’t add a “just kidding” in there somewhere.

Words Matter, “Red Guards” in Hong Kong?: Revisitation of Rick Warren’s Red Guard Controversy

The Charlie Hebdo situation has everyone in the West thinking about free speech recently. Free speech can be deadly.

 

When Rick Warren made his little Red Guard quip a little over a year ago, or more accurately , with the picture depicting women of the Chinese Red Army, his fans zealously defended him to the point of using inflammatory and racist language (yes, these are “Christians” who told us to eat some dogs and cats. After a few months, Warren belatedly but wisely took the thread down.).  If you don’t believe in my claim of his cult-like worship by his fans, just look at the comment section of the original blog post on the event.  My buddy Justin said that we should’ve commemorated that exact date when all this kicked off, but it would’ve distracted from the HK Umbrella Movement which was a much more important event that Warren’s careless and racially insensitive post.   The post has since been eliminated.  His reluctant non-apology apology eventually progressed to a hesitant apology. While his representatives told some of us privately that “we”, the Asian-Americans, should apologize instead for dragging his name in the dirt of secular media, no one understood the consequences of his words.  We will not apologize for our criticism and no one should be laughing now.  Instead, this week’s news proves that we’ve been right all along. In fact, Warren’s tasteless joke had an ominous and even apocalyptic link to the Umbrella Movement that calls for more freedom in HK.  Warren let on more than he knew.

 

This week, I bring you the distressing news from Hong Kong, the land of Warren’s church plant, Saddleback HK, that HK now has its own version of the junior Red Guards (a paramilitary group of teens who attend training camps) who pledged their undying loyalty to the motherland China.  No, I didn’t get this from a tabloid outlet. I got this from HK’s prestigious local paper Ming Pao which even overseas Chinese read.  Yep, that’s it.  The situation looks more like China’s version of the Hitler’s Youth and the SS than some youth group in a mega church.  Wonder what Saddleback, or better yet, Saddleback HK, will say about THIS.  What I do know is that the silence had been deafening from both Saddleback US and Saddleback HK when their pro-democracy Christian brothers and sisters were arrested and severely beaten in the Umbrella Movement.  New jokes, anybody?  See, this blog is not about my personal feeling towards Mr. Warren. I don’t know him. For all we know, he’s probably the nicest guy you’d can ever meet.  No, this blog is about something much more serious than a Christian celebrity’s personality.  It’s about the kingdom of God and the social conscience of the church. It’s also about how words can kill!

 

During the controversy, mostly white Christians accused Asian-American Christians of being divisive and thins-skinned.  It’s mostly because they hardly understand another culture from another perspective.  Most of us understood what it means to suffer because our parents came from a land with foreign occupation, human rights violations and religious persecution.  Some of us, like myself, still go back there for ministerial work (and other types of work).  We already have incredibly thick skin from all those cases of suffering that most average white American has no idea about.  The thinness of our yellow skin is the least of our problem.   Also divisiveness is the least of our problem.  We’re united in suffering and in unity with the sufferers.

 

What exactly is the problem? The problem is the lack of unity between the US brand of popular Christianity with the global church, and we’re spreading that brand by planting our own version of Christianity all over the place in the name of mission. THAT is the problem. Warren’s jokes typify that problem.  The very fact we think we can speak in everything and anything without understanding that our humor and our words are just that, jokes, is indeed the problem.  Our lack of introspection and circumspection, fueled in our colonial arrogance, cause the problem!  We’re such masters of bad timing that when we’re supposed to shut up, we speak and when we’re supposed to speak, we keep quiet.  This has nothing to do with political correctness.  This has everything to do with political awareness (and a genuine need for humility and human compassion).

 

The purge against pro-democracy advocates has begun after the Umbrella Movement in HK.  It’s potentially as deadly as another Cultural Revolution.  Rick Warren was a prophet, and he didn’t even know it.  Sadly, if his prophetic nonsense does come true, HK churches would have to choose between Caesar and Jesus, much like German Christians had to choose between Hitler and Christ.  Warren’s brothers and sisters in Christ would have suffered, not just being beaten for their role in the pro-democracy movement (which has already happened) but even death for their allegiance to Jesus Christ.  Words have consequences.  Temporary humor at the expense of “the other” can result in lost lives.  Hurtful humor happening locally can often have a global scale in its disaster.  If anyone can laugh at lost lives and religious persecution, I think s/he should stop claiming to be Christian.  Think about this on the week we celebrate Martin Luther King.  All I have to say is this! Pray for HK! More importantly, pray for the social conscience of the American church.

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo/I’m NOT Charlie Hebdo: Race and Dangerous Humor

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The recent tragic killing in Charlie Hebdo, Paris shook us all so much so that many world leaders joined together to march in support of Paris.  The now viral saying “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) fills everyone’s Facebook wall.  Meanwhile, you have people acting offended at Margaret Cho’s edgy humor at the Golden Globe.  These are related events.  Let me explain.

 

When people look at satire, they tend to have two distinct reactions. They might say that the satire offensive or perhaps non-offensive. These reactions are problematic mainly because it’s a judgment made on personal opinion. The Charlie Habdo case, or cases like The Interview, isn’t based on our personal opinion. These are public pieces gone wrong. We’re an individualistic culture with horrible blind spots. Sometimes we Americans don’t get why the world doesn’t find our humor funny. To expand to the West, sometimes people in the West don’t get why the rest of the world don’t have our sense of humor. The fact is, the problem is not merely about freedom of speech. If our freedom of speech is offensive to the rest of the world, why would they want our version of freedom of speech.   The problem comes from somewhere else.

 

In an insightful article, a writer points out that we simply don’t lampoon 9/11 or Holocaust. How about THAT for a blind spot, huh? We can make fun of Muslims or Koreans or any other people group, but God forbid if anyone makes fun of our Twin Towers or the Holocaust. Why? It is because there’s something quite sacred about those towers and the horrible Holocaust. It’s because we consider our unique American (or Jewish) experience that no one else can speak into other than those who are directly affected by the disaster. So, if anyone wants to discuss the 9/11 situation, let him or her be American.

 

The problem of the whole Charlie Hebdo, Margaret Cho and the Interview situation is singular. The problem is this question, “Who is doing the humor?” If it is the West that doesn’t hold seriously the sacredness of Islam, of course the humor is offensive. Why would it not be? It would be like someone telling a dead baby joke with reference to 9/11. I’m not condoning violence as a solution. What happened in Paris was horrible. I’m also saying that there’s something beyond “let’s stop the violence” or “I am Charlie Hebdo” here. Margaret Cho could make fun of North Korea a bit more (though I’m unsure whether that’s necessarily the best idea) because she’s Korean. She’s in THAT culture. She can make fun of racist situations because she’s a minority who is constantly reminded of her place in society. For instance, “I” can make fun of China or the communists simply because I’ve lived in Hong Kong and have taught there a number of years. I’ve had family members who experienced communism first hand. My father participated in WWII in China and so on. I UNDERSTAND the situation. The fact people asked Cho to apologize shows that people completely miss the point.

 

Now, James Franco and Seth Rogen ought to apologize. You know what? It’s because they aren’t Korean. I don’t care if they eat kimchi or have Korean friends who aren’t offended.  They were lampooning with Asian stereotypes to get his point across, and making money from it. We aren’t the punchline. If we want to have a punchline based on our own ethnicity, we’ll do it on our own term and in our own much more qualified way.  In so doing, Franco and Rogen didn’t offend Kim Jong Un. He offended all Asians, especially his fellow American aka Asian-Americans. People like Franco, Rogen and all the people who march around self-righteously as world leaders need to learn one thing. Their privileged position doesn’t qualify them to make fun of stuff they have no business making fun of, least of all in the name of free speech, simply because they haven’t earned the right to.   Humor and free speech aren’t the inalienable right of the privileged. Far from it! The privileged ought to use their position to do something more meaningful than to lampoon other cultures and cultural sore spots which they know nothing about. Whether YOU are offended is the least of OUR problem!  Sometimes, humor is not the best channel to get a message across.

 

Many readers of this blog are ministers or at least Christians.  I would say that this issue applies to Christian leaders who preach.  Where does humor fit in pulpit ministries?  I would say to stay away from humor we aren’t qualify to use.  When we use lampooning humor, we always risk causing unnecessary offense.  I believe we need to get away from the free speech fundamentalism of being Americans.  As kingdom citizens, we need to be careful of our freedom, lest our freedom becomes a stumbling block to our true message.  For so many of us, we worship humor.  We think humor is as important as the Virgin Birth.  Sometimes, not having a sense of humor in a sermon is not the worst offense.  The worst offense is having the wrong humor. The damage would be irreparable.

 

Count me out!  I’m not Charlie Hebdo. Anyone else who doesn’t want to be is fine by me, though we should all grieve for the victims of the shooting much like we should grieve for victims in the killing of Boko Haram or Central African Republic.

Relearning the Basics

I was going to write about pulpit communication, but I’m going to write about soccer first.

The other day I was playing soccer against some guys who play NCAA division one.  These guys were running all over the pitch on us. I had the task of defending against one of them. I kept hearing from my French teammate, urging me to jump in to try to get the ball from one of the players. I was very hesitant because I was afraid he would dribble past me again and make me look like a fool. My French teammate who’s a better player kept nagging me throughout the game. So, I finally got fed up and told him why I didn’t dive in to get the ball. After all, I’m fifty years old and my speed is long gone.   My French teammate explained to me that if I were to jockey (standing more sideways) the player, I would do better. Of course, I had this knee jerk reaction to tell him off, but cooler head prevailed. He was right. I should’ve jockeyed instead of squaring up against the opposing player. That would’ve kept the other guy from making me look like a fool.

Having played soccer for a while, I should’ve known this very basic defensive move, but it’s so easy to forget the basics.  I’m thankful to my French friend who reminded me of what I lost.   What am I saying? Many of us have spoken in different settings and denominations through the years. We’ve risen in ranks in our denomination or church.  We take for granted that we’re effective communicators. In short, we’ve arrived.  Whenever someone gives us advice, whether that someone is better or worse than we are, our automatic reaction is very much like my knee-jerk reaction. The fact is, a lot of times, we could’ve forgotten the basics along the way. Before our knees jerk, it’s probably best to pause and reflect. Maybe we need to relearn our basics.  It’s never too late if we have a humble heart, a listening ear, and a closed mouth.

Stop Preaching the “Gospel” Already!

A friend asks an interesting question, “How can someone go to a church for this long and still not become a Christian? He’s heard the gospel for so long.” Just to give some background, this church he’s talking about is his home church where the preacher hardly ever stays with the text when he preaches and he’s done it for years.

 

My initial challenging question to him is, “What is ‘gospel’?” In many of our congregations, the gospel follows the familiar plot of “believe in Jesus, get a better life, and go to heaven.” At best, this is a half-truth. At worst, this is a myth. If my friend’s friend has been going to church for years and hearing only this, no wonder he can’t believe. The fact is, many pulpits work this half-true plot into almost every single sermon, no matter the sermon is about creation or new heaven and new earth. The end result is a kind of tired and cliché sermon for years. How can anyone believe in something so irrelevant?

 

My encouragement to all those who preach out there is this. If you want people to understand the faith in a holistic manner, then you need to preach as if YOU understand the faith in a holistic manner. This means that we have to do our homework and understand what scripture really says instead of inserting what we want it to say. This means that we’ll have to snap out of our comfort zone in our old-fashion exegesis and dive into areas we don’t really enjoy or feel comfortable with. While the gospel can be simple for salvation, it can also be complex. Human beings are complex. We simply can’t assume that the same plot impacts every listener the same way. Different and varied plots of the Bible have something for everyone. If we learn to communication that variation, I bet both believers and unbelievers in the congregation will learn to appreciate the Bible much more.  In other words, stop preaching the “gospel” already, and replace it with the real thing!

Hurt People Hurt People: Sitting with the Traumatized in the Post-Umbrella and Post-Ferguson Era

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“Would anyone want to stab an enemy with such force as to leave his own hand in the wound and be unable to recover himself from the blow? But such a weapon is anger; it is hard to draw back.” Seneca (De Ira 2.35.1)

 

The Ferguson protests have demonstrated vast differences in worldview between blacks and whites in the US. The Garner case in NYC sure didn’t help. Two camps emerge.  The Christian church is no exception. The first camp, composed mostly of whites and Asians, says that rioting is always wrong. The second camp, composed mostly of blacks and other minorities, says that the whites do not understand the largely unjust treatment of blacks in this country especially in certain cities. Whether Michael Brown did this or that cannot be ascertained right now due to the complex and mixed reports coming out of Ferguson but the damage is done.

 

Let’s fly over to HK, the place where the Umbrella Movement had taken place and has finally ended for now. The injustice was very blatant there by many involved with the government or the police force. Many had shed blood over there as they seek justice and more freedom. All of this was painful to watch. Since I’m a lot more involved with HK, I’m beginning to learn more about Ferguson and the American blacks through HK.

 

Since I won’t get to HK until the movement was over, I really couldn’t be there to support it, but there hasn’t been a time when I thought, “What’s the point? What people need is to have a violent revolution in order to achieve democracy.” South Africa was a one-off. Both the US and France got their independence through a bloody revolution. Why not HK? I’m not here to discuss whether bloody revolution is the right means to democracy. That’s another book or two in Christian ethics. I’m here only to discuss the sentiment. I was angry and frustrated.

 

Below are some lessons I’ve learned from HK that also transfer to cases like Ferguson.

 

It is easy to talk about non-violence and anger when one isn’t involved. The fact is, those who aren’t involved intimately with events really haven’t earned the right to tell those involved how they should feel. I find many who say that the Ferguson protesters should behave this or that we have never been involved with cases of discrimination and even if they did, they were involved in cases where they were the privileged within the system of power rather than underprivileged and outside the system of power. It’s easy to be the moral armchair quarterback.

 

Imagine an enraged teenage boy who’s used to physical expression of his emotions. In frustration, he punches the wall. Unfortunately, the wall becomes the object he damages. Does that mean this kid is always bad and the summary of his character is the hole in the wall? Of course not, but those who have had teens know exactly what I’m talking about (just in case anyone wonders about my boys. They do not punch walls). The same goes for those who work with youths. I’ve seen perfectly sane kids from a church where I used to pastor do this. These are generally good kids, but when I get a call from the family (sometimes quite dysfunctional families) about this or that, I walk into holey walls and falling doors. Imagine a perfectly normal community having been discriminated and abused to the point of rage, much like this normally good child. You have Ferguson. I’m not saying all the rioters were like this normally good kid. Some weren’t, but certainly some upright citizens also did illogical things because of their rage.

 

One of the saddest stories I saw in the riot was this black woman who lost her cake shop from rioters. The good news is that someone had bothered to raise money for her. Instead of celebrating a good ending to the sad story, many of my white friends point out almost gleefully, “Look! Black on black crime.” Wait just a minute! If we look at the analogy above, the door or the wall is innocent, but it just happens to get in the way of an enraged teenage boy. While we can’t condone crime of any kind by any race against any other race or its own race, the dynamics are about the same. The shop of this black woman was like that door or the wall. It had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at that time. Rage is not rational. Neither is rage racially discerning but still, many victims of racism who are normally upstanding citizens are now hitting doors and walls.

 

Why do people feel angry? There’re two reasons based on what I’ve seen in HK and perhaps some of that applies to Ferguson and the racial situation. First, people feel hopeless and that’s why they contemplate the violent option. Second, people feel like no one is hearing what they’re saying. When discussing with my HK friends who contemplate the violent option, I hear their anger and hopelessness from the repeated government abuse and deliberate ignoring of their plea for justice.

 

Before we sit on our moral soapbox, I think it’s important to just shut up and look at the bigger picture. The crime that precedes the crime is the issue. The violent crime itself is just a smaller part of the picture. Sure, we can condemn violence and I often do, but that is not the big picture.

 

We should bring back a faith dimension to this discussion. When I watch a lot of my white and Asian evangelical Christian friends respond to Ferguson, I frankly feel very disappointed. We get a combination of condemnation and pontification in the guise of “Look, violent blacks. WE don’t do violence around here. It’s so unchristian.” When we’re in a faith community, in a time such as this, our job is to listen to the anger and the hurt. When I get a call on a teen beating down his own door, I don’t go there to say, “You, stop that crap! Don’t you know that Jesus wouldn’t approve?” If I did that, all communication channels will be closed for future pastoral care. What we need, in the post-Umbrella and post-Ferguson world is a faith community that will listen to the voice of the angry sufferer. Hurt can lead to anger, and anger can lead to further injury to the innocent whether the innocent comes in form of another black shop owner or a decent white police trying to do his or her job. We can’t heal a world of the hurt when we’re on our soapbox. In order to break the vicious cycle of hurt and anger, hearing and not pontificating can begin the healing process.  Hurt, anger, hatred, and eventual violence hurt everyone involved.  It’s time to get our faith community EQ to fall in line with our so-orthodox doctrines or all we’ll have left will be rules and regulations with our dead morality.

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