Writing is a Privilege!

I can’t believe my new Mark commentary has hit the bestseller Christian book list in HK this week. Works like that don’t usually sell that well. It’s been a little while this year since I made it on that list. I’m under no illusion that I’ve written anything profound to deserve that number one spot. I’m also under no illusion that I’ll top the chart with that one for long. After all, academic books are mostly written for those who REALLY care about what the biblical text says. Your average evangelical readers tend to exclaim, “Who cares?” Throughout my writing career, I’ve had a great run in the Chinese world. Every year, at least one or two of my books are in the top ten. I’m under no illusion though that it’s necessarily some sign of divine blessing (though I’d love to think so). It’s just the way the market falls. Throughout my writing career, I’ve also heard other writers complain about deadlines and criticism. Don’t we all hate deadlines? Sure, we do … except I really don’t. Let me explain.

You know what deadline is? A deadline is a way for someone to keep us accountable to the discipline of writing. Good writers need discipline. Good writers read, think and write every single day. A deadline is there to remind us that we aren’t here just to enjoy popularity and fame. We’re responsible to a reading public. Therein lies the problem. In this internet age, anyone can be a writer and almost anyone can become popular (e.g. look at Kim Kardashian). The problem is, writing with longevity isn’t something you can solve with popularity because in order to have longevity, you have to have substance first.

You know what a deadline is? A deadline is a blessing. It’s a reminder that people have chosen to read our articles, columns or books instead of playing the latest video game on their phone or merely google for information. If someone chooses to pay us for our columns or our books, we’re in no place to complain. A deadline isn’t a burden. It’s only a burden for the undisciplined.

Why do people complain about deadlines? It’s because they fail to have a clear vision and mission as to why they write. They don’t like to be criticized. They just want to be liked. Some have very fragile egos. They can’t take any criticism. They have to be right all the time in the same way the immature child stomps his feet. Others like to criticize others but don’t like criticism back.

Why else do people complain about criticism? It’s because they don’t like being misunderstood. Well, if you look at the criticism someone launched on Amazon about my book Right Texts, Wrong Meanings, you’ll see that he’s looking for apples while I was delivering oranges. The ironic thing is, my PhD is mostly in “apples”. I have published journal articles in “apples”, but of course, the keyboard warrior doesn’t know that or bother checking his facts (who checks facts anyway these days?) I’m thankful for this negative critique though because frankly, most people don’t even bother to put any negative criticism in writing. If someone feels passionate enough to engage your writing to write a critique, perhaps it means that someone is reading! We write to be read! As long as someone is reading and engaging my stuff, so what if he misunderstands? In some cases, I can do a better job communicating. In other cases, maybe the critic is just an uninformed idiot who himself isn’t published but loves to play keyboard author. So what? Grow thicker skin, smile a little and shake your head. That’s what you do with those people. If you don’t like to be misunderstood, stop writing.

Why do people complain about criticism? It’s because they fail to realize that writing is a responsibility. You’re responsible for what you write. You don’t have the right to sprint to the shelter that has “you misunderstood me” at its doorframe every time someone retorts against the writer’s literary battle. If you dish it out, be prepared to receive the same amount of backlash. Writers who play victim are most pitiful because they’ve misunderstood that their mission is to be popular and well liked. In this internet age of click baits, they’ve mistaken the cyberspace for reality. Don’t want criticism? Don’t criticize others, or just stop writing altogether.

Why do people complain about criticism? They complain because they see writing as the means to fame. Popularity isn’t the essence of writing. Integrity, truth and depth are. If you want popularity without responsibility, you can sell your integrity to appeal to the lowest spiritual taste of the simpleton. That’s how life goes. Just look at the Daniel Diet book where Rick Warren and co. hijacked a perfectly great biblical character by promoting a diet plan that’s about as far from the historical Daniel as could be. Now that appeals to the popular ignoramus. When the Bible clearly indicates that Daniel and his friends followed a vegan diet, the book has Teriyaki stir fried beef, or chicken noodle soup etc. That’s what selling your soul looks like. That latest Rick Warren’s bestseller, now translated into Chinese, is what I call a spiritual joke book, but you can get hugely popular with spiritual joke books. Want fame? Make a sex tape. It’ll get you more famous than writing. Stop writing!

Why do writers complain about deadlines and criticism? Let me summarize: they fail to see writing as a privilege. Writing is a privilege, and popularity demands responsibility. Writing isn’t something we’re entitled to because no one HAS TO read your stuff. If you fail to see writing as a privilege but see it as entitlement, then you clearly don’t belong to the guild of serious writers. Writing is merely a means for you to get famous, but that isn’t the essence of writing! IF you’re allowed to write, and people actually read your writings, you should thank the heavens above for your great privilege and never complain about the burden. It doesn’t have to be a burden unless you seek fame without responsibility. Thank God everyday for the deadlines and criticisms. That’s what we writers should be doing!

Encouragement through Church History

I’ve written recently about how African pastors I met have been courageously speaking without being scared to offend politically powerful people within their congregation (Chinese version here). I want to follow up with a blog about situations when you speak truth and offend others. These days, you almost can’t preach anything dealing with serious issues without offending somebody. I was called plenty of names in my time as a preacher of the church, sometimes blatant to my face. Even the way you dress, you look or you speak, can bother somebody. Sick people have fragile emotions. If you travel the globe as often as I do speaking in different contexts, cultures and denominations, you’d get backlashes in multiples. Of course, the nasty comments from the annoying grapevine that eventually leak back to us also can discourage. Besides being reminded of the sinful brokenness of Christians (yes, even Christians and sometimes especially Christians), some can wallow in that discouragement for a bit too long. Here’s some good news to help you cope.

When faced with criticism, the first thing we often do is to look at what we did realistically. That’s best done on a Monday or a Tuesday after the Sunday sermon. Some may take longer. After our honest examination of the content and delivery, if we’re still fine with what we did, we should focus on a few truths that’s sure to help us to grow a bit thicker skin. First, someone else always has it worse off than you. Think about church history. John Knox the great Scottish reformer was exiled for speaking the truth, but he never shied away from speaking the truth even with the queen attending his church. Back in the day of John Chrysostom, people could tell about the theological orientation and spiritual health of the church by whether Chrysostom was in exile or not. Pope Leo put a price on Martin Luther’s head. Even now, people in various parts of the world are murdered and raped for speaking and believing the truth. These thoughts should make our annoyance seem trivial. Second, you aren’t called to be popular. Truth isn’t a popularity contest. It’s infused with properly nuanced questions and proper solutions, whether people enjoy the questions or adopt the solution or not. At the end of the day, courage is gained through having an accurate big picture. If we don’t want to be criticized, then either speak in mundane topics that entertain rather than change or just stop speaking altogether.

Sometimes, when we put things into perspective, it’ll give us the strength to face whatever critics throw at us in the coming days. I hope my readers find that strength.

Do’s and Don’t’s in Public Presentation (and also Sermons)

I’m finally back from the Global Proclamation Congress, after more than a month of teaching an intensive preaching course, speaking at various places and launching my new commentary (in Chinese) on Mark’s Gospel. Such a tour of various cultures and venues allows me to review some of the principles of basic presentation skills that every public presenter should have. This is especially true for preachers in the church. These observations are directed at no one in particular. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of great speakers, but hopefully such observations also help my readers to review their own habits. I’ve blogged about this topic extensively. Anyone interested in more extensive discussions can search this blog on more topics on preaching and public presentation. This is not an exhaustive list. It’s just stuff that hits me as I listen to various speakers and observe my own habits.

Let me start with the “Do’s”.

  1. Pause and explain. When talking at length for more than 15 minutes, the audience needs pauses so that they can reflect. Pausing sometimes for the sake of explanation especially at the beginning of a presentation is important. Sometimes, it’s easy just to throw cliches around but without explanation, misunderstanding rather than understanding will occur.
  2. Master your powerpoint. I’ve made this point wherever I go. I’ll be the first to say that I’m no master of the powerpoint. In fact, I’m a bit of an old-fashion guy who isn’t always keen to use powerpoint. I’ve noticed most masterful preachers don’t need powerpoint to get their point across. IF one must use powerpoint, please master its use. I’ve seen many examples of speakers pressing the button for the wrong slides or not knowing which slide comes next in his speaking outline. This only confuses and disrupts the otherwise decent presentation. Some have chosen to ask others to operate the powerpoint. That’s a wise decision only if the speaker provides clear transitions so that the operator knows when to switch slides. For many cases I see, the speaker is better off not using powerpoint.
  3. Stay on point. Although this would seem obvious, many speakers don’t stay on point. Some speeches have so many unrelated points that the audience is caught in a thick fog. Either that or they’ll fall into a coma. IF you’re a biblical preacher, stay on point within the text that you’re preaching. Don’t make stuff up in your exposition that explains more your own agenda than the purpose of the text. Let the text set the boundary for the sermon. For other public presentation, let your big idea set the boundary for your speech. Leave other stuff for another day. If you don’t, people won’t learn more. They just get confused and learn nothing.

Let me now go with the “Don’t’s”

  1. Don’t set up straw men. A straw man is a caricature often of an opposing position in order for the speaker to knock down easily. Unhelpful cheap humor is one good way to set up a straw man. The problem with straw men is intellectual dishonesty. It’s intellectually dishonest to go for a cheap laugh at the expense of opposing opinions. It strikes at the problem of integrity. A good speaker has integrity enough to represent other positions accurately. If speakers can’t represent the opposing opinions accurately, it’s best not to even try.
  2. Don’t moralize. Moralization is different than speaking about ethics. When ethics ARE the main issue, we need to address them. However, when ethics aren’t the main issue and the speaker makes the main issue ethics, then s/he is moralizing. Moralization is immensely annoying for the intellectually engaged listener. Especially bad is when someone brings in an unrelated moral illustration as a hobby horse in order to beat the dead horse. If the main issue of the text isn’t that topic, skip it for another day. People who moralize in church honestly give preachers a bad name.
  3. Don’t quote random verses (even if done in context) for rhetorical effect. Every verse has a context.This principle also applies to any quote. If you quote and haven’t read the book, just don’t quote. Misquotation only impresses the ignorant. Quoting a verse doesn’t infuse it with magical power. Many Christian speakers like to quote verses to back up their points to make their points appear more biblical. Most of the time, the text they quote doesn’t really say what they want it to say. Perhaps a few more people need to read my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings book. Most of the biblical quotes are there to bait for cheap “amen’s” from the audience. Is that really what we’re supposed to do? Just stop!
  4. Don’t equate hyperactivity for true passion. Some speakers speak passionately. Others speak to appear passionate. I’m unsure of what the main cause behind that is, but perhaps they feel that the louder and more hyperactive they are on stage, the more they look like they really mean  what they say. It’s hard to pinpoint the main cause, but I can tell when this is going on. One of my fellow listener gave a keen observation, “Even loud sermons can make you sleepy.” That’s so true. Louder doesn’t mean truer. Volume and truth aren’t necessarily the same thing. Plus, it’s hard on your blood pressure to be that hyperactive unless you do regular cardio.

The above is the short list of do’s and don’t’s. I think the bottom line is this. The final product of any speech depends on the person of the speaker. Much of it has to do with integrity, whether it’s moral, intellectual or spiritual. You can’t fake integrity.

The Entitled Millennials?!

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Well, if you read what older folks (people my age) say on social media, you’d think the millennials are the laziest, dumbest, ignorant, and the most narcissistic generation EVER in human history. I think reality is much more complicated than these general statements.

What is a millennial? These are the young people born between the 80s and mid 90s. In other words, they’ll (barely?) reach adulthood by the beginning of the 21st century. From my observation, laziness, stupidity, ignorance and narcissism aren’t the sole commodities of the millennials. In fact, I bet baby boomers (the generation to which I belong) have heard the same complaints about our rock music, our weed smoking and our tendency to get too groovy. Have our old memory so easily forgotten the psychedelic 60s? Does anyone remember the event called Woodstock? Some of us are known for smoking enormous amount of weed while listening to rock music or demonstrating against the Vietnam War or having sex with our unshaved bodies in the great outdoors. Far out? I think we’re all products of our own generation and our weaknesses express themselves in different manners through different media. We’re all humans with huge flaws. The unfortunate thing for millennials is that they now have the social media (which they’ve mastered) to demonstrate those flaws for all the world to see. They aren’t both masters and slaves of social media. My generation luckily has no means to show off our own stupidity.

Before we blame millennials, let’s be very clear that our generation (the older folks) invented things like the internet, the iPhone or whatever favorite toys these “annoying” little millennials are using. In other words, WE made THEM (if our complaint is indeed legit). The problem isn’t the age of the millennials that made them flawed. The problem is that our invention of new media (and all sorts of advanced technology) have run way ahead of our wisdom (and this includes old guys like me). What we have isn’t a millennial problem. What we have is an ethical problem. What we have, indeed if we do have a problem, is an educational problem. If we criticize the millennials, we need to ask harder questions to those who educated them, starting at the home. Are we bringing them up in wisdom? I don’t have concrete answers, but I believe we often are asking the wrong questions and launching half-true accusations.

Therefore, every time we look at some social media meme that mocks the millennials (or any generation), we would be all the wiser to say that these are only individual cases of stupidity. Every time we read statistics, we would be all the wiser to cast a critical eye at the framework that resulted in those statistics. I think as Christians, we need to avoid blanket statements that may be partially true without pausing to reflect on the deeper issue that may reveal the whole truth.

Meanwhile, anyone wants a selfie with me?

Doing Church and Politics Right: What I learned from My African Friends

I’ve met many prominent African ministers while attending the Global Proclamation Congress in Thailand (see photo in this blog I got from the congress Facebook page). These people are in charge of congregation of thousands. The mega church in the US would be considered “normal” for them. Naturally, many politicians attend their churches. This lesson coincides with the news that Donald Trump has enlisted many evangelical leaders to be his spiritual counsel. How do my African friends handle the situation?

  1. The politicians only attend as a regular member. If they come to the minister, they come to the minister as church members in need of pastoral counsel, not as politicians in need of publicity.
  2. The pastor doesn’t allow the church to be a political platform for any party. The pulpit isn’t a place for politicians to make their political speeches in order to gain support.
  3. The pastor freely speaks about social justice even before officials because that’s his pastoral charge. He doesn’t take sides in terms of political parties, but he does speak on issues clearly, loudly and boldly.

Compare just what I described to many Hong Kong churches. We possess the opposite traits. Many don’t have enough integrity to practice this healthy separation between church and state as my African brothers and sisters do. As a result, we repeatedly allow politicians to use the pulpit or pulpit endorsement to get votes. Others don’t want their preachers to preach on sensitive issues in fear of 1) losing their own financial interests locally with China 2) offending someone who may be pro-government. I’ve heard one assistant minister getting a good “talking to” by his seniors for seeking justice for the victims of Tiananmen massacre in his pastoral prayer. Apparently, God doesn’t care much about justice for victims or families of mass murders. Others fail to understand their role in the church by naively participating in a hopelessly fraudulent system not by changing it (because so far, nothing has changed for the best) but by being complicit in its crimes. At the end of the day, we’re left with three questions. First, what God do we serve? Second, what should be the duties of a pastor? If preaching the gospel doesn’t include the justice of God and His love for those who’re in need, then what kind of gospel are we preaching?

I think this comparison shows why so many African churches are growing and making impact in their societies, even under oppressive conditions and why the name of Jesus is often reviled in Hong Kong. Others’ hatred of Christians has nothing to do with persecution. I hope one day the right people (e.g. those who represent oppressive evil forces) will hate us for the right reasons (e.g. social conscience) because our present immaturity, cowardice and greed have murdered our reputation.

Formal, Non-Formal and Subpar Education

I spent this week attending the Global Proclamation Congress in Thailand. Besides speaking in one morning chapel, I spent my time mostly thinking, listening and learning. The biggest takeaway is the discussion about education. Since Christianity isn’t always a popular religion in many countries, access to theological education isn’t always readily available. Some obstacles are persecution and English literacy along with general educational level of local population. I also heard about a number of Protestant (quite often evangelical) theological institutions doing away with the tenure system in favor of a more “practical” approach to education. How are these related? I will discuss below.

Let me go with some definitions first. Formal education is one that goes through all the necessary steps with the goal of receiving a degree at the end. Non-formal education trains up students in a practical way that forces them to go through necessary steps without necessarily getting a degree at the end. Sometimes, non-formal education is an abbreviated version of formal education for practical reasons. Informal education may be anything that is done informally without necessarily going through all the steps of either formal or non-formal education but the student learns something. Whatever that “something” is probably depends on the effort of each student. Most likely, the vigor of formal education is greater than non-formal and informal.

In formal education, there’s a system in place not only to ensure that the student passes qualifying steps but also to ensure that the instructors go through their own qualification for ranking. In non-formal education, students also go through the qualifying steps but probably in a less vigorous manner. As far as instructors are concerned, in non-formal education, qualification can vary because quite often, there’s no requirement for the instructors to enhance their professional growth.

Let me now turn my attention to the formal education in terms of a tenure system. Traditional formal education has a tenure system. It’s a system set up for ranking so that the instructor has something to shoot for. Instructors with fresh PhD’s with good potentials are often put on a tenure track, a journal that qualifies them for a tenure position, typically lasting 5-7 years. After qualifying through publications, administration and teaching, the instructor achieves tenure usually given a title of associate professor. In non-tenure formal education, instructors often teach in such a way that they earn their ranks also through publications, administration and teaching. Yet, there’s less security with job security without a tenure. In recent years, the second form of formal education has deteriorated to such a degree that in some cases, only adjuncts are used. In such a case, there’s no requirement to publish. Everything is geared towards the “practical”. This is a tragedy.

I suspect there’re two possible reasons why the deterioration happens. First, the institution doesn’t have the budget to pay so much benefit to tenured professors. Second, the cry of the church for practicality is so great that the institution sees keeping tenured professors who sit around contemplating huge concepts and writing about them as luxury, or worse yet, as dinosaurs of a bygone pre-internet age. I believe the main cause however is the lack of clear direction and understanding of the role of the formal educational institution. As a result of this tragedy, the formal has slowly faded into a non-formal structure while insisting that it’s still giving a formal education. It’s little wonder that some instructors have mistaken writing in social media, blogs, popular magazines, or other forms of non-traditional medium where there’s no quality control or refereeing as serious writing. Such aren’t serious writings. They’re pretending to be serious writing but the goal of such writing merely expands one’s cyber footprint and quick fame. These media aren’t serious scholarship. Neither are the resulting watered down courses serious education. The deterioration of the institutional understanding quickly spreads to the deterioration of the understanding of each individual instructor. We need to ask some serious questions at this juncture. Who will research and write future commentaries and dictionaries etc.?  Who will further our knowledge database? Without new horizons, teaching becomes a rehashing of old class notes (which happens more often than you’d imagine) and old knowledge. This regurgitation of overnight vomit will surely destroy the church ultimately.

I’m not saying that the tenure system is the answer, but I believe the complete abolition of the tenure system is surely not the answer. In fact, such a move towards all adjunct faculty only indicates deeper problem of lack of understanding of what education is. Perhaps, we lack a middle ground non-formal education at the church level. So, when the student arrives at the seminary, s/he isn’t really ready to absorb the seemingly irrelevant material for ministerial use. The cry of irrelevance is often a cry of ignorance due to the inability to absorb intellectually challenging material. The funeral of the mind starts at the lack of non-formal training at the local church in favor of other priorities. Until we get that piece of non-formal training in place, the misplaced blame and uninformed pressure put on the seminary will continue to cover over the real problem. We may as well sound the death knell for the church. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls? It tolls for the Protestant (often evangelical) church.

A Wounded Child or a Terrorist Brat? Accessing China with the Christian Voice

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There’s a popular (but, in my view, highly misguided) theory that China acts like a hurt child who needs to be coddled. The dialogue usually goes something like this. Usually, people point out that China behaves badly in human rights violations. Inevitably, the official answer is the immediate kneejerk victim drama. The China apologists would immediately say that China was a hurt child, a kind of victim from western colonialism. Its past hurt and its present inferiority complex cause it to behave badly. So, our job is to heal their wounds by talking about it and denouncing it and so on without always harping on present bad behavior in hope that the bad behavior will correct itself. I’ve seen Christian leaders who want to do more work in China fall into this communist myth and defend China’s action regardless of gravity of the situation. I say this theory is total balderdash, utter bunk. I would in fact call China a terrorist brat rather than a hurt and abused child.

According to Wikipedia, a terrorist state is one that is willing to commit acts of terrorism against a foreign target and against its own people. Terrorism, at its heart, is systemic use of violence to cause fear in a certain population in order to achieve a certain political objective. The substance of the word “terrorism” is about “terror” or fear. FBI defines an international terrorist as someone who operates outside of his own national boundary to coerce and intimidate a particular population. The common tactic of a terrorist is to threaten and kill soft targets to achieve ideological goals. We see the pattern of threat against soft targets quite often since the fateful day on June 4, 1989 at Tiananmen. According to some definitions, what happened on June 4 fits perfectly internal terrorism. That’s the most recent memory for most of the world. China’s attack at soft target has never stopped from day one. The kidnapping of Hong Kong dissident bookstore owner Lee Bo and Taiwan tourists in Kenya are just the latest examples. In Hong Kong, as we recall, Mr. Lee ran a dissident bookstore of assorted quality (I heard some of the books are good while others are very so so). In a strange turn of event, Lee called off the British help (Lee is a British passport holder) to get him released and said that he voluntarily went into the mainland. Most sources state that Lee’s statements were coerced by threats. The Taiwanese nationals who were kidnapped had already been acquitted for their alleged crimes in Kenya, but apparently, China wasn’t satisfied. So, instead of letting them leave with their Taiwanese passports, China had brought their own security force to “arrest” these Taiwanese with the cooperation of Kenya. Five men who ran that same store had been missing in the past six months, disappearing from various locations including territories not belonging to China. In many cases of such kidnappings, the usual pattern surfaces. First the kidnapping happens. Then, people discover that the kidnapped victim holds a foreign citizenship. China then is in violation of international law kidnapping its victim overseas. Finally, in dramatic fashion, the family members of the victim would plea for international community not to try to rectify the situation and that the victim somehow was either guilty of trumped up charges or was willing participant of a visit back to the motherland. How is it the ones making the plea for the international community not to go after China’s bad deeds are usually family members?

There’s only one explanation. Family members are regularly threatened within and outside of China. Do I know this for a fact? No. Do I know there have been cases like that in the past? Certainly. The hideous tactic of threatening one’s family to get compliance is a clear indicator of a terrorist state.

If we follow the metaphorical logic of China being a child, we have to say that it’s been 60 odd years and many lives lost. A one-year-old child is cute. A 60 years old child is dreadful. Why would such a theory of the wounded child even work in light of everything logical and historical? It’s because China takes the Marxist model that has a built in element of oppression. The narrative goes something like this. The peasants were oppressed. So, as victims, they rise to revolt. The so-called revolt would take on the powerful in order to finally find parity among classes. This all sounds good until the victims who stubbornly pretends to be victims forever become victimizers. A country with the most corrupt officials in the Panama Papers isn’t a victim. It’s a victor pretending to be a victim, a gangster pretending to be a gentleman sitting at the international negotiation table. This Marxist drama continues to plague us even to today. The wounded child whose wounds we can often debate has become a full-grown monster. Its terrorist action is indefensible in light of international law. Using teargas to kidnap 45 Taiwanese citizens who had committed minor crimes in Kenya in order to extradite them back to the Mainland China isn’t the action of a child. 45!!! Christians who defend that warped narrative have no excuse.

Most likely, Christian leaders who defend this myth want to do more mission in China. By defending China, they hope they can convince China to behave better. This is as absurd as the myth by Deng Xiaoping who insisted that economic growth would spur more human rights. Deng’s theory didn’t materialize thus far. Neither has the theory of China’s immaturity given any excuse for this old country. If you’ve evolved for 5000 years and remain a wounded child, something is wrong. Those Christian leaders who continue to prop up this myth should think about what they’re really thinking. Their strange psychology and delusional logic simply can’t cover up their ulterior motive. Calling China a wounded child instead of a terrorist state is like calling heaven hell or calling a deer a horse. Is preaching the gospel more important than justice? If so, then we have a very flawed gospel that is neither true to the Bible nor the church tradition nor to recent history of China. Speaking in favor of a terrorist state is a serious sin. I don’t see the same people speaking up for ISIS. Why would they do so for China? Just because they think they can get access to preach the gospel? Those who do so will risk standing under the judgment of a God they claim they believe in. It’s time to just pronounce the simple judgment. China is a terrorist state. The pussyfooting around in our churches (both Chinese and non-Chinese) should just stop!

What solution is there if we read the whole situation as diaspora Chinese looking in from the outside? I think it’s ultimately not just logical and historical but theological. Many of us diaspora Chinese (aka Chinese immigrant to the West) have forgotten that as Christians, we mistakenly thought that the MOTHER-land is China and somehow the honor of that mother deserves protection. No! Our mother isn’t China. As Christians, if we say that God is our Father, we forget that the Church is our mother. Whose honor matters most? Clearly, it’s the witness of the church for justice and truth! It’s bad to defend a whore like a mother when we’re supposed to be the Bride of Christ having received our spiritual DNA from our Mother Church. If we defend an unjust system we consider (falsely) to be our mother, we’ve sold out the real Mother and the true faith we profess to believe in. The cost is too great.

Ethical Use of Social Media: Entitlement of Opinions

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Award winning writer Harlan Ellison once said, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” That aphorism ought to be framed and put in front of every modern-day keyboard expert’s desk.

We live in an age where people who have never had any real life training or experience writing on subjects on how to defend themselves, people who have never fought one MMA fight talking about how the fighter ought to do this or that, people who have never thrown a rock, had a street fight or fired a gun properly talking about revolution, people who never trained at a higher level talking about fitness and strength, people who have never had extensive full-time pastoral experience talking about the problem of preaching (repeating the same sermon 100 times in 100 different churches doesn’t count), people who have only read a few books by an author writing their “expert” opinions on the author, people who have never worked in or research media writing about electronic media and people who have never served the poor talking about the poor. In other words, within our social media boom, we’ve created a whole generation of expert keyboard warriors, Facebook athletes and cyber theologians. They’re neither warriors nor intellectuals but pretenders. I love a meme on Facebook that says “May your life be as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook.”

In this age of social media boom, all we need is an appealing website, a little blog, Instagram, youtube channel and an attractive Facebook page, we can instantly become the expert. A bit more entertainment and humor, we can practically say that the sky is green (by the way, the sky isn’t blue) and someone will believe you. Package is everything. If you dare to write, someone will dare to follow. That’s the sad reality of our times. In the social media age, we aren’t saturated with too much information. Too much information is the least of our problems. We’re saturated with too much misinformation. The easiest way to spread misinformation and half-truths is to first build a straw man to knock down. The straw man is the best friend of the intellectual eunuch. Then, after knocking the straw man down, we can quote a few famous people whose opinions seem to agree with our opinion. We can even misquote them, sometimes out of ignorance often just for rhetorical effects, in English if necessary. After all, social media is all about impact and not intent or content. Rhetoric has overtaken truth. Should it be the way forward?

There’s only one small problem with this mess: integrity. Christians who participate in the public sphere of social media have a social and religious responsibility. They can’t simply write up whatever opinion they want because misinformed and ignorant opinions don’t lead people to truth. In order to participate in the social discourse, the first thing Christians needs to do is to have integrity, and that means to discipline our keyboard activities. I’m not here talking about simply refraining from colorful language. Some of us are so pious that we think a responsible usage of blog sphere or social media is just staying away from cuss words (of course, I’m not advocating chronic cussing on social media). In fact, sometimes, colorful language may be the best way to address certain issues passionately. I’m talking about giving informed opinions that will help people to truth. The informed opinion needs to primarily inform and not go for entertainment. That’s what Donald Trump often does, to the dissatisfaction of many American people. We’re already entertaining ourselves to death via youtube or hundreds of TV channels. The last thing we need is more “Christian” entertainment. What we do need is informed opinion. No one is entitled to his opinion, especially if it misleads.

In my own life, I’m going to try to write on subjects with which I have real experience and stay away as much as I can from stuff with which I have zero experience. I hope you would do the same. May your opinion be as informed as you pretend to be on Facebook or blog sphere.

PS: Just in case anyone wonders about the list of examples I listed above, I do have experience in all my examples: martial arts, street experience from working security in college, firing a gun, full-time pastoral experience where I had to preach a “different sermon” every single week for a number of years, a PhD in Paul, around 40 published books, published research on media and preaching, set a record in lifting as well as training my younger son to set a record in lifting, camera experience from doing commercial modeling and movie/TV bit parts in LA as well as being filmed for lecture DVD’s, projects helping City Team to serve the poor, and film research.

Foolish Generous Grace

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The longer we roll around in the Christian circle, the more we’ll realize that people aren’t always grateful for our friendship. Whether political differences or misunderstanding or, worse yet, unspoken reasons, it’s easy to cut off friendship in this social media age. The thread of friendship is thinner than ever even when we have the pretense of being more social than ever.

How often do we think that we cared for this person in his time of need or helped that person in that search for a job or that we have promoted that person’s work to others or that we took care of one of their family members or defended them when people were criticizing that person? The list of favors comes into our minds when someone cuts ties with us. The more we feel like the person owes us, the more we feel indignant. The worst of course is when we try to figure out or find out directly from the other person and that person ignores us or gives us some lame passive aggression, “We ARE friends. What do you mean? You misunderstood me.” How should a Christian deal with that kind of rejection?

I think of the patron-client society of the New Testament. NT scholars have often noted that the society of the Romans, patrons would do favors for those in a lower class than they and those recipients of favors were to repay with obligations. If they didn’t and decide to be ungrateful, they would suffer reprisal from the powerful patron. While there were many exceptions, this model of describing the NT society is probably commonplace among the sociological interpreters of the NT. In such a society, grace was always filled with unspoken obligations. When you cut the strings of obligations, you also cut the ties of friendship. Powerful patrons could withhold any future favors if such a thing actually happened.

The kind of grace the NT advocates however is beyond this system, though it still works within that system. The grace of the Bible is completely free. The disciples of Jesus were the best examples of grace. As followers, they were dire failures. They failed Jesus repeatedly, but Jesus allowed them to carry his ministry on earth. Paul was one of the greatest enemies of the faith and grace allowed him to become one of the greatest influencers of the early church. What does this have to do the situation when people you have done favors for fail your friendship?

First, we have to look at what wars against grace to get a better picture of how we should respond to betrayal by those who were supposed to be friends. Obligatory transaction is the enemy of grace. Grace that’s freely given isn’t grace. Obligation ruins grace. Using others is the enemy of grace. Some see friendship as a transaction between two parties. Some purely see friendship in those transactional terms. They only show up when they need something from you, by going over the top to act as your best friend. This transactional model of friendship isn’t grace. Yet, when we first meet people, we too can fall into the thinking pattern of “Now, you owe me one.” It’s easy to think like that when we live in an age of cheap transactional friendship. However, if we think “He owes me one, but he’s so ungrateful,” then we fall into the transactional model of grace. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn lessons about whom to trust and distrust from life’s harsh realities, but treating friendship as means to an end (even professionally) tarnishes the relationship God had originally designed for humanity. I experience often in my professional relationships. There may even be people who want to befriend you because you have something they want. They could act like your biggest fans because by associating with you, they get what they want. They get to say, “Did you know I know so and so?” This too is a form of relational transaction. Such things reduce the beauty of relationship to a cheap self-interest or frigid judicial procedure. How do we restore the beauty of grace in light of our terribly tarnished and often selfish relationships?

These situations remind us of two things. First, it reminds us that when we do favors as a gracious Christian act, we should expect it to be completely free. Someone once told me that if I were to lend money to someone, expect to never be repaid. I suppose that’s just helping without expecting returned obligations. It seems stupid, but grace can be quite foolish in worldly standards. We Christians, as people of grace, should live graciously, but quite often, we create threads that link the recipients to our obligations of friendship and loyalty. Expect nothing! That’s grace. When we are faced with the choice between valuing grace or loyalty from others, we ought to choose grace. Second, at the same time, our hurt feelings can often be a reminder that we should value loyalty to our friends by giving loyalty. Quite often, we too fall into the trap of cheap exchanges that lack deep ties. Our hurt feelings shouldn’t cause us to be jaded. Instead, we should be more ready to give favors without expectation of returned loyalty while building loyal friendships by being loyal to our friends. If they don’t repay us with loyalty, we aren’t part of the problem. Instead, we become part of the solution. If we preach grace, we should live in grace.

 

Lessons from 25 Years of Marriage

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Today is my silver anniversary, but marriage isn’t always about silver lining in the cloud. The blog photo is us twenty five years ago. My wife and I have been married for a quarter of a century. We’ve been with each other just shy of half of our lives. This really is nothing to brag about compared to some old couples who have been married twice that long, but in our day of quick divorces, twenty five years are supposed to be a long marriage. Here, I would share lessons I’ve learned in my marriage. I’m under no illusion that we’ve gotten this whole marriage thing figured out. I’m fairly sure that we’ve got much more to learn than what we’ve learned so far. Since each marriage is unique, this is only MY lesson. It may not apply to you, but if it helps somebody, I’m glad to share it.

Quality time is also quantity time. Make time to do stuff. I think many couples get caught in the busyness of life so much so that they no longer spend time together. When they do, they celebrate it as spending quality time. Quality time can’t come without quantity time because everything worth cultivating takes time. A lot of couples thrive on spontaneity, but I think planning is underrated. My secret is planned spontaneity. Sure, the movies want us to believe that a great relationship is about ripping off our clothes and making wild love everywhere in our house with no regard for timing or occasion, but life functions the very opposite. Sometimes, we can do things on the fly, but rarely do we do it well when we don’t plan. Even if we want to surprise our other half, we may plan badly and completely flop.

Never say die. Many couples give up too easily. I certainly am not saying that all   divorces are unjustified, but many couples could’ve tried harder. Our marriage has experienced numerous trials in two specific areas: finance and relocations. With my ambition to study for my PhD, finance had been hard at times. Helen’s been quite gracious to accommodate those tough times. The worst thing is we move a lot. I don’t think we as a couple have lived in anywhere for more than 5 years. Helen is the detail-oriented person in our partnership. With every move, the details would drive both of us crazy, me being not so careful about important details and her being quite meticulous about every detail. Especially harsh are our moves across the globe to England and Hong Kong. Of all those involved, I think she sacrificed the most. Through it all, I think our commitment to each other and to our faith held us together during those hard years. By God’s grace, I hope I can stop moving now. People ask us often whether we’ve ever thought about giving up. Of course we have.  We’re human after all, but the bottom line is our commitment to each other and to God make the mess work out somehow. Marriage is an endurance race. There’s no glamor of quick successes and struggles are ugly, but we soldier on.

Overlook the small things and a few big things. Every couple fights, and with every fight, people experience anger and hurt. Sometimes, trivial things bother us. Sometimes, bigger issues make us angry. I think love is at least half blind. The sooner we accept that both we and our spouses are imperfect human beings or just humans wired differently, the happier we will be. Not everything is worth arguing over. I’m sure there’re days when Helen just wants to lay into me for some missteps, but most likely, she’s decided to overlook them because in the greater scheme of things, these things aren’t the core values of our marriage. In other words, if we have to fight, we have to fight over stuff that’s worth fighting about instead of fighting over every trivial thing. One reason why couples fight over trivial things is because they want to create their other half in their own image, and sometimes, fighting over trivial things is an excuse to take one’s anger out on hidden and more important grudges. The longer I live, the more thankful I am that Helen isn’t exactly like me. The similarity would be freaky. That acceptance should help us to iron out what exactly should be the core value of our family, and we just operate from there. The longer we’re married, the more we figure out what the petty things are. The process can be painful, but it’s well worth it.

Never correct your spouse in front of others. This is a big one. I see this a lot. Whether the issue is clothing, hairstyle or just getting some facts right, remember your other half has his or her personal dignity. No matter how right you feel you are, when you correct your spouse in public, it’s never going to end right for you. I’m talking about respect. Respect your spouse in front of others by withholding your tongue, and he or she will blossom with confidence. If you don’t, watch your other half wilt. The marriage will wilt along with the lost dignity. A professor commented to me in a counseling course during seminary that he could always tell how great a husband was by how beautiful the wife had become by being married a while to him. I hope I’ve made Helen more beautiful. I think his point is simple: dignity gives beauty genetic can’t.

Never speak for your spouse. This is a big one that’s also related to respect. I’ve seen partners representing the other half all the time in public, sometimes even with their partners present. While there’s no intent to disrespect, let’s think about this. Your spouse has her own mind and heart as well as her own mouth. She can decide on when and what to say when a topic needs to be addressed. Sometimes, when we speak for our other half, we deny her the right to speak for herself. In some relationships, this creates unnecessary conflicts. Sometimes, even when the spouse is in agreement, she still deserves the right to her own voice. If respect is one key ingredient for successful relationships, then respect is the main ingredient in this instance.

Always say something edifying, daily if necessary. Probably every failed marriage lacks one element: praise. For some reason, many are quite generous with praising others but stringent in praising their spouses. The only explanation I have is that they’ve gotten so used to living with their spouses that they’ve taken everything for granted. Sometimes, they’ve lived with their spouses so long that they saw only flaws and miss the praiseworthy. Nothing is “fresh”. Freshness is overrated. Freshness can wane, if we let it. However, if we LOOK FOR stuff to praise our spouses, we’ll inevitably find freshness. In other words, we CREATE freshness in marriage. Saying something edifying takes work and takes observation. If we can just stop and observe the good in our other half, our marriage will certainly stay fresh. The most romantic thing my wife can do in our marriage is simply saying “You know what I love about you? …” One thing I must caution couples is to never badmouth your ex’s in praise of your present partners. Comparison is always negative and can inevitably lead to unnecessary conflicts, even if the comparison is a positive one. Get your mind out of your past and focus on the present. There’s enough to focus on in the present as it is. There’s no need to drudge up the past in saying something edifying or otherwise. She doesn’t care to hear about your ex. Neither should you care. Focus on her.

Don’t change your spouse. Change yourself. So many people marry in hope that somehow their spouses over time will be the ideal they’ve been dreaming of. Never mind they themselves aren’t the ideal. The worst is when people talk about their ex’s as if their ex’s were the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Then, how did the “ex” become the ex to begin with? We can’t change our spouses. When I hear people break up badly, they often put the blame square on the other. One question I often want to ask (but don’t often do in fear of offending people) is why in fact they fell for such a terrible person in the first place to either live together or get married. Whatever fault we find before we marry will magnify manifold after. For the singles reading this blog, you should keep your eyes wide open and be realistic when you’re dating because your fantasy will ride away with your rainbow unicorn as soon as reality smacks you right in the nose. Some couples try living together for a few years. Try 25 years! As a Christian, I trust that God is changing my spouse for the better. I’m sure she can say the same thing even more so. Many of us are trying to be a therapist and a parent all at once to our spouses. Some of us even try to play God. If you want your marriage to last, you have to stop doing that. Sure, there may be critical issues that are exceptional dealing with abusive behavior or moral faults, but these are few and far between compared to the mundane and normal.

Support your spouse in front of your children. Almost nothing causes greater anxiety and insecurity among children than inconsistent parenting. Some parents play the good guy to earn the children’s good will. This unhealthy pattern creates manipulative children. More importantly, this parenting pattern hurts the marriage. When one person in the marriage tries to team up with the children for his own purpose, he robs the other person of her dignity. When we parent, we have to do it together as a team. Parenting is tough enough. Without teamwork, it’s nearly impossible to raise healthy and happy children. Obviously, I’m talking about normal household here. There’re exceptions when abuse happens. I’m not a perfect parent, but I don’t abuse my kids. I also appreciate Helen’s gentle private words to remind me of my shortcomings in parenting, but not in front of the children. Her reminder allows me to think and improve my communication with my kids. We don’t need to agree with everything our spouses do in raising our kids, but we also don’t have to make the disagreement disagreeable, unhealthy and worse of all, public.

Make time to do your own things. Helen and I couldn’t be more different. While we share some interests, we’re basically opposites. Early on, the differences can play havoc in our marriage. Over the years, we’ve learned to give each other space. Some days, she meets up with her friends in a book club to discuss the books she reads. Some days, I meet up with my soccer buddies to play ball. This healthy separation makes our time together special when we finally find something we both like to do, whether it’s as mundane as watching a TV program or as exciting as taking an exotic vacation. Every couple can find the balance between their time of separation and times together. Each couple is different, but time of separation is healthy and necessary.

Feel free to add to this list if you decide to share. Someone will benefit.