Book Review of Here I Am


Female involvement in full-time vocational church ministry has been a hot topic among some and taken for granted by others. While it is a worthy topic to dive into both exegetically and theologically, we often miss the human dimension of this topic. We aren’t talking about women in the abstract here. We’re talking about real people leading real lives with real struggles. Here I Am provides such stories.


This book shares the stories of Korean-American women in full-time vocational ministry, or as Neal D. Presa the foreword writer notes, “the stories of Korean American clergywomen … by them, on their terms, in their way.”


In the introduction, Dr. Grace Kim, the editor, briefly surveys Asian-American immigration history.[1] She frames the arrival of Korean women to the US as a need for greater freedom from the patriarchy of the homeland. The book begins by talking about the founding of the Korean American Presbyterian Clergywomen, a twenty-five year organization providing support for those who fit the group name. The stories within this book show the varied experiences of many women. Some struggle between being a mom and being in ministry, others with being a perpetual foreigner, others with patriarchal alienation within their own faith community, and still others with sexual orientation issues. What we have in these stories are three issues and they mix nicely with each other: race, gender and sexual politics. We don’t only have a single issue though each story might emphasize one. We have a hybrid of issues. With these stories, the book discusses a theology of resistance within Korean context both here and back in the motherland.


One important theological point brought out by some stories is the function of the Korean church. This aspect seems universal in all Asian American circles. The elephant in the room points to the social function of such churches. If we move the discussion negatively, the church becomes an ethnic social club. If we move the discussion positively, the church is a faith community for people with the same cultural background. Either way, we need to discuss this issue. What is a church? There’s no easy answer because the church is much more than a spiritual entity. So was its predecessor: the synagogue. To deny social needs in favor of spirituality is to be unrealistic, but how much is it social and how much is it religious? These are questions some of the stories raise. Touching stories about community building, returning from exile from the immigrant church and serving the homeless informs us that the church is capable of being so much more than serving a niche ethnic group. The starting point is the ethnic niche but the horizon is almost limitless.



In reading this book as an advocate of women in ministry, I have mixed feelings. I think her basic framework probably fits some (or maybe even large) portion of the Korean population. Dr. Kim’s statistics also show that it is a problem among Koreans both here and overseas. The low statistics on Korean American women being ordained as teaching elders are quite telling of a problem. Just because it doesn’t happen as much in my own faith community, it doesn’t’ mean stories like these don’t happen in some widespread way in a certain faith community. Without any doubt, I’m not an expert on the Korean population at all. I ought to state that I’m reading this as a Chinese-American. I think the idea of patriarchal framework while still quite alive and well is really more of a passing trend now overseas at least among my own ethnic group. It would be inaccurate for me to portray simply that my birthplace (i.e., Hong Kong, a place where I travel to often) is a place of harsh patriarchy. Yet, the Asian-American milieu I know here in the US (i.e., immigrants and children of immigrants and children of children of immigrants) have a much more patriarchal framework. What is it about America that causes this framework among Asians? I believe this is something this book can potentially explore more in other narratives. I’m not saying that overseas Chinese and other Asians can’t improve on making ministerial work much more gender equal, but the Asian diaspora’s situation in general is far more dire here in the US.


On a much more positive note though, marginalization is a real issue as is racism. As a man, I experience such and I can’t imagine the kind of experience women must go through. This book does tell that story very well. It’s a story that denies the claim of many overly optimistic voices that claim that racism and sexism here in the US are the thing of the past. One feature that really strikes me is the way title is used to describe the various contributors. Dr. Kim holds the title “the Reverend Doctor …” which is quite peculiar. Certainly, we don’t often find this sort of title being used in most published works. I suspect that this very rich description of titles shows that for these women, there’s often a lack of recognition for their contributions, and that’s why the titles are important. By doing so, they provide a kind of literary resistance not only in talking about the problem but by active resistance in their praxis. This detail, though small, tells a great deal about the experience of these women.


It is also worth pointing out in reading the history that the names of certain seminaries continue to come up in the support of the work of Korean American clergywomen. While many seminaries are trying to move towards greater diversity, some mentioned here are quite active. One such example that strikes me is McCormick Theological Seminary. That effort shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Overall, I believe we need more stories being told in book form in the study of both this and the next generation of Asian diaspora. These stories should be inclusive of what’s going on here as well as what’s still going on overseas. I believe this book gives us a good conversation starter.

[1] There’re some gaps in her survey which probably shouldn’t be missed. Even though she notes Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and Indians, she hasn’t noted the arrival of Chinese, arguably earlier than Japanese and definitely much earlier than Koreans, and later Vietnamese Americans. To her credit however, she does mention the Chinese American Vincent Chin, the victim of racist attack.

Wage Peace? Advent Culture War Cease Fire Please!


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This week and last week see us facing yet another Muslim-related firestorm. First, we have the professor from Wheaton, Lyricia Hawkins, being put on leave for her remarks about the Muslims worshipping the same god as the Christians. Then, this week, we get news that the Muslim Council of Hong Kong is going to have a missionary campaign by wearing shirts that says, “I love Jesus because I’m a Muslim.” These two events have everyone talking about what kind of God the Christians and Muslim worship. I’m not here to discuss the deep theological issues involved. What I’m here to talk about is one particular reaction by some of the Hong Kong pastors. Some, rightly or wrongly, became quite alarmed. A Christian group sent out a text to all the churches and pastors that there needs to be a response, quite possibly a negative one, towards this campaign. Who are these Muslims to say that they can use the name of Jesus in this way? Many were outraged. Without any doubt, this will deepen the already existing Islamaphobia that exists in many churches. As it happens, one of my students know one of the Muslim guys who started this campaign and lucky for us, this Muslim isn’t from ISIS. Most of the Muslims from Hong Kong many of us meet aren’t from ISIS. In fact, quite a number of them are genuinely nice.


While the issue can be theological regarding the t-shirt, the rhetoric is definitely and mostly cultural jihad. In a free society, where Christians are allowed to share their belief (accurately or inaccurately), Muslims are also allowed to share their belief (accurately or inaccurately). Christians MAY want to make statements to clarify or they can take other strategies. Many conservative Christians just want to launch their cultural jihad while preserving their own free speech. That just simply won’t work in any free and civilized society. EVERYONE gets the right to free speech.


I suggest a different path for HK Christians, both at the leadership and lay level. Why not take the path of peace? I’m not suggesting silence. Far from it! I suggest active relationship building with those who wear those t-shirts and find out from them WHY Muslims would love Jesus and what they believe about Jesus. This is a great opportunity to both build meaningful relationships with Muslims and to share our view about Jesus with them. Why not take the peaceful and missional route? After all, they aren’t the enemy. Why treat them like heretics who deserve to be burnt? In fact, many of them hold more similar values than the secular humanist.They also aren’t some leper. Why avoid them like they carry some foreign plague? They’re real human beings just like you and me (oh yeah, I know this comes as a real shock to so many of us Christians). For this Christmas, I wish for western Christians and all Christians in free societies to wage peace because God cares so much about relationships that He sent Jesus to build that peace with humanity. That really is a core message from Christmas.


So, Christmas isn’t about pageants in church programs or singingly biblically inaccurate carols. It isn’t just about hanging about with our own holy huddle or even our families (biological families or spiritual family). Christmas is about living out the kind of peace Jesus brought even in the midst of our chaotic and terror-filled world. If our mission is impede by hatred, paranoia and misunderstanding, we have a very weak faith. Of course, we should also pray for Christians who had to live under extremist regimes and vouch for them or work for political solutions that eliminate senseless religious extremism, but we’d better not forget our duty at home or every shadow will look like an enemy and every Bible verse will look like a bullet ready to be fired into our enemy’s head.

Speaking ABOUT Someone versus Speaking TO Someone



Over the weeks, I’ve seen a lot of inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims in general. People make various general statements about the Muslims being this or that. I’ve addressed this on a previous post and I believe I ought to address it a bit more.


“Muslims are terrorists.” “Muslims are unbathed goat smelling extremists.” Of course, I just gave the most extreme statements I see, but there’re many such statements all over social media. Now imagine saying that to your friend, “Peter, you’re a terrorist” or “Jane, you’re an unbathed sour milk smelling extremist.” Well, that doesn’t sound good, does it? Most people say stuff like that because they really don’t know a single Muslim friend, let alone a bunch of them.


My first Muslim friend was a university roommate whose father was a Jordanian airforce general. He was finishing his engineering degree at the time. Of all my friends, he’s one of the best at keeping in touch after his graduation (which happened before mine). He would check up on me even after he landed his first job somewhere in New York City and often called me. I found him interesting because we both have habits that annoy one another. We’re culturally different, but we don’t hate each other. To my surprise, he did know the Bible fairly well and would often challenged my belief. He was often curious about the differences in our respectful faiths. We didn’t get along perfectly, but we did get along most of the time. I certainly can’t envision myself saying the above statements to his face because first, the statements aren’t true and second, we have a relationship.


On my weekends, I help run a soccer meet up where a group of soccer enthusiasts of all levels get together to play pickup games. Most of the time, we have a great time. Within this meet up, I’ve gotten to know quite a number of Muslims not just of middle eastern descent but from all over the world. It’s fascinating to befriend such diverse people from different culture, all saying that they’re Muslims. Now, I certainly don’t see myself saying those statements above to them. Why? It’s because we have a relationship and from what I’ve observed, they aren’t terrorists.


This leads to the real point of this blog post. We don’t say extreme and general (or often misinformed) statements to our friends because we have a relationship. We don’t just cite statistics and somehow think that those stats represent my friendship with my friends. When we make such statements, it’s mostly because we don’t have a relationship with these people. Quite often, due to the fact we have no relationship with such people, we make such statements out of ignorance or partial truth rather than the whole truth. Many of us refuse to make friends with them simply because our ideology tells us that they’re unworthy of our friendship. Somehow we think we’re better than they are. As a Christian however, I don’t believe I have that choice of choosing ideology over relationship. My Facebook friendship is quite varied. The reason why I don’t unfriend my ideological opposites is because I always value relationship over ideologies. I hope people will learn to build more relationships and hold on less to their ideologies because ultimately, relationships make us better people.


The final question to ask is, “Can your ideology survive your Christian relationships?” I have a feeling that many of us have to honestly answer “No.”

Make Disciples of All People … Except for Muslims of Course


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“…Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I’m with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28.19-20


I’m writing this blog post purely for Christians. So, if you aren’t a Christian, feel free to ignore (only if you wish). The above is a part of what some call the Great Commission. These are verses we often memorize even in our early Sunday School lessons, but I don’t think a lot of Christians really believe this Commission.


Franklin Graham, in a Facebook post on December 9, wrote that he’s opposed to receiving Muslim immigrants until they’re properly vetted. In his post, he agreed with Donald Trump on a similar point. I believe that his concerned about security is real. At the moment, our government does have a stricter vetting procedure than a lot of Europrean countries. There’s extensive followup on the refugees as well once they’ve entered in the country. The problem isn’t always what Graham says. The problem is the position from which he wrote those things.


Graham, as most of us know, is the head of a mission organization that organizes the Operation Christmas Child/Samaritan Purse campaign. He’s done some good work among the poor. More importantly, the organization is mission-based. All mission organizations recognize at least the importance of the Great Commission. By the traditional idea of mission, we send missionaries OUT THERE to convert the pagans. However, it’s important to note that mission these days also involves home mission. Mission is no longer out there. Mission is both home and abroad. This brings us back to Graham and his supporters.


Graham, like so many other Christian leaders, isn’t qualified to speak to national security issues. He doesn’t work for the FBI or CIA. He really doesn’t know enough to say whether we have a good enough vetting procedure or not. What he does know is Jesus’ teaching. He should know that Jesus’ Commission is pretty much indiscriminate. In fact, Jesus’ saying could be translated, “As you’re going, make disciples …” In other words, wherever God’s people settle, mission should happen. At least, that’s what Jesus seems to have taught. We must notice straight away that the Commission also talks about all nations or people. The Greek word for “nations” is where we get our English word “ethnic” from. It basically means people groups. Sometimes, the word is used in contrast against the word “Jews” to denote gentiles (Acts 14.5; Romans 3.29). In other words, all sorts of people groups, even (or especially) groups that are quite different from us deserve to have the chance to become the disciples of Jesus. Jesus didn’t say, Make disciples of all nations except for Muslims.


The implication of Graham’s rant from the stance of a mission organization is alarming. It really means that even if these other people groups come into the US with some of them coming into the Christian message for the first time, we Christians (especially many conservative Christians like Graham) aren’t ready to welcome them. Never mind what Jesus said. This is a very serious problem. A mission organization refusing to do home mission shows that we have lost the sense of mission. With that mentality, our mission is really very selective based solely on our personal interests and safety. Let’s face it, we aren’t ready for mission. Even if the refugees come into contact with our message, we aren’t ready to help them understand it because we ourselves aren’t practicing what we preach. If what Graham said represents the vast majority of evangelical Christian mindset, we aren’t even ready to live out our faith, let alone mission.

All Lives Matter … Except for My Enemies’


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You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5.43-48 (NIV).


I call this passage the “terrible commandment”. It teaches a kind of love that borderlines on insanity. This week, we had the tragic shooting of San Bernardino, California, a relatively quiet and sleepy community (in comparison to LA). Now is a good time for prayer for the victims and their families and of hoping for the justice against perpetrators of terror all over the world. The tragedy also provides an opportunity to talk about lots of issues such as guns, Syrian refugees and of course terrorists, but I’m not here to talk about governmental policies on these issues (though we certainly need to dialogue more about governmental policies that can guarantee justice and protection for its citizens). Neither am I talking about combative situations where soldiers have to kill or be killed. This post is much more basic than that. This post is written for Christians addressing a very narrow and basic issue. I’m here to talk about Jesus’ teaching and how it impacts our personal piety. If you aren’t a Christian, you can think that I’m a moron. I’m okay with that because sometimes, my gospel is that foolish.


In the process of my discussion with people, I notice a trend among Christians. This is truer for many of my white Christian friends than friends of other backgrounds. The same people that respond to the “black lives matter” movement with “all lives matter” also respond most violently against Muslims and in most cases, against ALL Muslims. I find this so interesting because if ALL lives matter, then should there be exceptions? I hear a lot of silence even among well-known Christian leaders about this question.


When we say all lives matter, we aren’t really saying that all lives matter. We’re merely saying all lives of those with whom we can identify or love matter. All lives matter except for some! In our present case, we’re talking about the Muslims among us. I don’t think many Christians will be too sorry (let’s be really honest here) if a few Muslims were gun down here in the US in the aftermath of San Bernardino.


Many pay lip service to following Jesus, but in all reality, most don’t understand how tough and crazy Jesus’ teachings are. They enjoy praying to him for things, but they don’t enjoy listening to him for change. In Matthew 5.43-48, Jesus wasn’t “suggesting” some self-therapy advice; he was commanding us to love our enemies. It’s hard enough to pray for people we don’t know, but Jesus was talking about praying for people we KNOW to be enemies. I personally struggle with that. In such situations, sometimes cuss words might come out while I pray. Who knows? Many Christians plain ignore it. Others refuse to acknowledge that they too struggle with this command. Many mistakenly see the enemy as some abstract thing “out there” we can pray for, but Jesus is talking about known enemies, real people. I have a number of Muslim friends. I have no problem praying for them. I have no problem praying for victims or advocating for better usage of guns. That’s easy. Is it ever easy for me to pray for the enemies? No, it isn’t. Jesus wasn’t asking us to do the easy thing.


What does our treatment of our enemies look like? I hear a lot of people who don’t even have a single Muslim friend saying that no Muslim leader was denouncing such acts of terror and the leaders are as guilty as those who do this terrible thing. In fact, many Muslim leaders did denounce and have continued to denounce such acts of terror. However, many Christians, in their tone-deaf politics, ideology and hatred, have already made up their minds that these Muslims, all lumped into one group, are either actively or passively guilty of terrorist acts. In the situation of the US, treating others like the enemy means to demonize others without even identifying who the real enemy is. In reality, many Muslims are more than willing to be partners with Christians in many parts of the world to make the world a more peaceful place. Many American Christians have had their minds made up to hate, and that’s that.


Is it possible that when push comes to shove, when matters really reach a boiling point, we’d rather choose being a good and safe American over being a radical and unsafe Christ follower? It’s easy to act Christian when nothing is at stake but when everything is at stake, I see a lot of Christians turning tails from Jesus’ teaching to their violent and vitriolic rhetoric. These aren’t the days we can be proud of as Christ followers. Their patriotism to America has completely overrun their loyalty to God’s kingdom.


I know a young man who was a child soldier, your stereotypical terrorist. I will withhold his name and identity because those aren’t really the point. He was conscripted into a terrorist troop in Africa (I won’t tell you which country) after terrorists slaughtered his family right in front of his eyes. His life was full of bitterness and hatred. One day, he had the chance to escape from this destructive life he left behind and made his trek across country lines to find asylum. Eventually, he moved to a developed country where they accepted him only as an asylum seeker but no possibility of full citizenship (at least not without great difficulty). He had no employment prospect. As a result, he turned to a life of crime and was eventually arrested. While incarcerated, someone from the church began visiting him and sharing the Christian faith with him. He later found the Christian faith. Since then, he went to the local university making honors grades and married a local girl. Today, he’s one of the most productive, joyful and helpful young men I’ve ever met in my life. If no one bothered to visit him in his alienated state, I don’t think he would be the man he is today. I believe in the redeeming power of the gospel. I don’t think many Christians do. So, during this Advent, why would anyone believe in this fairy tale about some divinely born baby that was supposed to save humanity from their sins (Matthew 1.21)? We don’t even believe in redemption ourselves.


Many of my readers will think that this passage has nothing to do with us because honestly, Jesus’ time is very different from ours and surely “enemies” doesn’t mean the same thing. I’m here to tell you that Matthew was writing to a church that was undergoing alienation and oppression. They knew what persecution means. If what we read in history was accurate, Matthew’s readers had already seen crucifixion and burning of Christ followers by Nero and many other forms of barbaric acts against those who believed in Jesus. They also knew about the destruction of Jerusalem where many were killed by Roman soldiers. They weren’t as ignorant or somehow idealistic as we often presuppose. Matthew wasn’t writing some ideal. He was recording Jesus’ commands for believers to follow in his time and ours.


So, before you say “all lives matter” again and appeal to the fact that God thinks all lives matter, think really hard about what you’re really saying because to God, all lives truly matter, Muslims and Christians, gentiles and Jews, enemies and friends. We really should hear what we’re saying or such sayings are mere polemical platitude against ideologies we don’t agree with. In the internet age that is devoid of substance, it’s yet anther case of blowing in the wind. I personally am not hopeful that this post would get shared because honestly most Christians care more about what their neighbors think than what their invisible Jesus thinks. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you will. I prefer to see myself as a Christ follower who continues to wrestle with Jesus’ issues in our world. Sometimes, I think it takes more courage to love than to hate, to pray than to avenge. Now may be such a time, lest we betray the very gospel we preach.

What the Annoying Christmas Songs Mean to Me


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I’ve heard a lot of stuff about war on Christmas by Christian preachers. I’m sure my atheistic friends (yes, I do have a few of those) would think that this blog post is about that. I hate to disappoint you. I’m not going to preach about the war on Christmas. My Christian friends (I have loads of those) probably think that I’m going to talk about the general meaning of Christmas or what the real meaning of Christmas or some other historical facts about Christmas (due to the fact that I’m a New Testament PhD). Well, I’ve covered those in a series of Advent blogs in my previous years. So, again, I’m going to disappoint you. I’m not going to talk much about that either. Instead, I’m going to please neither atheists nor Christians by talking about what Christmas means to me when I hear the too-early Christmas carols in the stores.


When I hear the songs in the store, I always smile because this is (cliche warning) the “most wonderful time of the year.” This is the year my older son left home to go to the university. He’s done quite well. When I hear the songs, they remind me that he’s going to be home soon, and I can’t wait. I think of the time he was my best lifting partner in our home gym, always knowing when to spot me and when to let me push through. I also remember his wise reminder, “Dad, are you sure your back can handle it? I think you’re a bit injured. Maybe you should rest it today instead of putting twenty more pounds on the deadlift. Your right shoulder doesn’t look good today. Maybe ease up on the incline bench before you seriously hurt yourself.” He’s my lifting conscience. I’m also reminded of the times when we got into heated disagreements probably not because either one of us was entirely wrong but because we’re so much like each other with strong personalities, strong principles and even stronger opinions. I miss my older son (the one on the right in the photo). When I hear the song, I also recall that this is the time when I have to lift alone in that frigid weight room because my little sophomore son, the other “best” lifting partner (the one on the left in the photo), is going to be in wrestling practice or the school gym to get strong and technical for yet one more varsity season. It’s a reminder to put on lifting gloves not because I’m afraid of callouses but because the bar is so unbearably cold. The gym misses the heat of the two boys.


Christmas is the time when we spend one of the few days off as a family. My wife usually gets very little time off because she works IT for a giant fashion retailer. Christmas is a busy time for retailers. My little one gets almost no time off as he has to go to wrestling practices to prepare for a huge state-wide tournament during Christmas break. There’s always practice on December 26. The team must be ready to roll. My older son would be the only one on break until his university starts up again. I always fly out early on December 26 because there’s always someone inviting me to teach or speak somewhere, and usually I fly somewhere far far away for half a month, but I’m not complaining. The bills have to be paid and my students and readers always warmly welcome me. So, I will probably get my last heavy workout in to make sure I’m in good shape before flying (this year, I squat on Christmas day).


Christmas morning is one day when we will sleep in to whenever we feel like. So, Christmas is precious in my household where we sit back and perhaps watch some of the football or soccer games we DVR’d or rent a DVD. My lovely wife usually makes a production of cooking and baking. Luckily she’s the best baker because if I were to do the baking or cooking, our entire family would be eating some very lousy food. I can almost smell the raspberry chocolate cake. For just one day, both my little one (who’s on strict diet for wrestling) and I will slightly indulge ourselves while looking at the snow outside our beautiful neighborhood. These are the happy memories of Christmas. This to me is the big picture in my mind.


What I’m sharing above is only one interpretation of Christmas because other things do matter, things such as Christmas being a consumer holiday that has stopped being meaningful. I get that! Or the historical facts that Christmas probably wasn’t in the winter and Bethlehem wasn’t snowy are important. I get that too! And there’s the Syrian refugee crisis and the homeless in the cold areas of our inner cities. Goodness, we certainly can’t forget those poor folks. Various charities are going to raise some money from do-gooders to help these folks. For some, Christmas is a time when they suffered loss of loved ones. It isn’t a joyous time. I accept that. Our lives shape how we experience Christmas. Christmas isn’t merely a historical event that requires us to dissect its meaning based on this or that fact so that we can feel good about how righteous we are or how wrong others are. History is important, but how we interpret history matters. Neither is Christmas some kind of celebration that should make us fight self-righteously about this or that ideology. And self-righteousness exists in abundance on both sides of the fence whether one is pro or against Christmas. All this takes away the experience of Christmas.


As a Christian, I’m going to conclude about the universal (i.e., for people of faith or no faith) significance of Christmas ironically through the exclusively Christian lens. When Jesus came to identify with weak humanity, he came with a goal towards a tragic death. Yet, he came as a baby, tolerating our every experience and bearing with our many shortfalls. While standing up for truths, he stood tolerantly with those who might be rejects of society. He even stood with those with different moral or ideological standards than he. The true experience of Christmas demands that we open up our hearts just a little to empathize with other meanings of Christmas for all people and take it a little easier on others who have a different interpretation of Christmas, whether they’re Christians or not. We do so in the way Jesus opened up his mission to everyone. If someone doesn’t enjoy Christmas, find out why instead of forcing that person to enjoy Christmas. If someone enjoys Christmas, don’t rain on his or her parade. Why be such a pain in the neck and spoil sport? Why sweat the small stuff? Christmas isn’t merely about tolerance of different ideas. It’s about learning to empathize behind different voices not by talking AT them, but by listening TO them. We can’t understand everyone’s interpretation of Christmas, but we can take the chance to listen and build meaningful relationships. On that note, I wish everyone a happy holiday and of course, a very early merry Christmas.



On Usage of a Pen Name: My Experience


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Recent controversies involving my colleague using a pen name had caused a big stir. In this day and age of free speech in the free world, I’m shocked that anyone using a pen name becomes a problem. I won’t weigh in on his case, but I’ll share my story and why I don’t use a pen name. I’m sure there’re many good reasons why people use pen names, and my purpose isn’t to stop people from doing so. They can call themselves Luke Skywalker for all I care.


My first (and last) encounter with pen name in the Christian publishing world has to do with an invite to write for this Chinese Christian magazine, with a predominately evangelical readership. The editors had invited me to critique the literature on this movement called biblical counseling on its theology and exegesis (interpretation of the text based on Greek and Hebrew). So, that’s what I did. I took their major handbooks and began looking at the sample verses they used to back their claim. My conclusion is that the biblical counseling movement is neither very biblical nor very theological. Unless they’ve changed their material (and honestly, their personnel), I stand by my statement.


Now, after having read my examination in the article, the editors were already anticipating backlash. I myself had passed the article to two academic colleagues in theology and in counseling and both of them said that it’s a fair article. Due to the fear over backlash, the magazine had asked me to use a pen name. I’m a pretty easy guy to work with, if I may say so myself (until you start asking me to do stuff against my conscience). So, I told them that if they’re really that scared, I’d use a pen name. Obviously, they thought that even having my name on their magazine would invite backlash. To be honest, I was a little insulted because after all, THEY invited me. I was not in any great need for extra writing gigs that don’t pay a pretty penny (the pay was pitiful). The last thing I needed was for a publication not to be able to stand by their decision to invite me to write. I’ll say this as loud and as clear as I can, IF you want Dr. Sam Tsang to write (or to speak) for you, don’t expect chicken soup for the soul. It’s against my nature. Go find someone else to sooth your uneasy conscience. Dr. Sam Tsang is NOT your man.


So, I was already agitated but the story isn’t even close to being half over. Once the article went out for review, the “corrections” came back. Like I said above, I’m an easy guy to work with. So, I told them that I would look into making the necessary adjustments so that the article wouldn’t hurt anyone’s fragile feelings. After that, there were a few more lists of corrections. At this stage, I was really getting irritated. It isn’t like people didn’t know about my writing and books, and if the magazine didn’t bother looking into how I wrote, then they and not I had a problem.  I had several books in the queue waiting for me to write, and I spent close to three months dealing with all the possible scenarios this or that so that no donor or reader of the magazine would feel indignant. If I were to look back at all the writing experiences I had with countless articles and around forty published books, I have to count the correction phase of this article among my very worst. Everyday for three months, I was stressing over their demands and corrections. This is the funniest part. Upon publication of this article, the “fan mail” began pouring in threatening to boycott the magazine or pull funding for the publication. In other words, when you try to make everyone happy, you make everyone angrier than ever. As a writer, I’m determined that I’ll just do what makes me happy within my conscience from this point on and never use a pen name ever again. If someone wants me to do a list of corrections not because s/he wants me to get my facts right but because s/he is afraid to offend the constituents, I’m going to start charging my time per hour because the lost income and time for writing REAL books in those three months isn’t something I can buy back.


If anyone thought that this story has ended, it’s far from over. I had forgotten about that unpleasant article for a while because I honestly try to screen out all the unpleasant experiences in my life so that I can be a happy go lucky person. Soon enough, someone had notified me that certain Chinese websites that are created to attack psychology and advocate biblical counseling began mentioning me. Now, the writer didn’t mention my name, but the description of who I am would be quite obvious to anyone who has read any of my books. Obviously, someone had leaked to her the real face behind my pen name. In other words, the pen name is totally useless. I did all that for nothing. What lessons have I learned?


First, if you write, you’re a public figure. If you aren’t ready to face the consequences of being a public figure, don’t write. It’s really that simple. Publishers that want to deal with a controversial topic should also have the guts to face the consequences or perhaps they should deal with something more tepid like watching grass grow. Miscalculated risks are never the fault of the writer, but is always the fault of the publisher. Deal with it.


Second, in this social media age, pen names can’t hide anyone’s true identity. The reason is simple. The secrecy/protection of pen names depends on trust, but how many truly trustworthy people are there. Christians or non-Christians play by the same rules of the jungle. They’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish whatever agenda they wish, even if it’s betraying the trust of a friend. However, trust is the means for some people to gain secret to use for later gunpowder. Somehow survival of the fittest depends on how low one is willing to go to accomplish something, whether it’s settling personal vendetta or otherwise. I’m a realist, and I trust very few people. So, in order to avoid that awkwardness of having to deal with untrustworthy people (which are dime a dozen all around me), I use my real name. I’ll make my bed, and I’ll lay in it.

The Demise of Hong Kong Education and the Multiplicity of Doctorates


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Recent uproar over the many so-called PhD’s among HK’s politicians and corporate board members have me thinking. I feel the obligation to comment simply because I feel that this trend of cheap PhD’s has been happening for a while and has finally now come to a head. The recent news started when someone was digging around the origins of some of the doctorates held by some of HK’s politicians and higher society. The end result is very dire. i don’t we’ve had more people with more higher degrees but know less in recent history than now. The church is no different. Christians don’t really read the Bible much. Neither do they have informed Bible studies because they simply don’t read. Forget about theology.


I believe our problem comes from two sources. First, with increasing competition in a society, people need a measuring stick to look at qualification for promotion. This problem is prevalent in the US. We have so many sorts of “doctorates” running around that just about everyone’s a “Dr.” something. This renders the degree almost meaningless.


Second, many in the Chinese culture are taught that getting whatever “doctorate” is the ultimate academic goal. It makes for good family conversation. “Meet my son. He’s a medical doctor specialist in internal medicine.” “Meet my daughter. She has a doctorate in law and practices in a large firm downtown.” etc. The problem is that a PhD isn’t the pinnacle of academic achievement.


We have an educational crisis here.


How can we figure out what is what? One way to find out is to look at the academic pedigree of the person. Did s/he earn the degree from a top-tier university? This is important not because every top-tier university doctorate can guarantee quality or every second-tier university doctorate is automatically subpar, but the university does matter. Top-tier universities usually have stringent requirements in order for the candidate to be admitted. Top-tier universities also get their rankings from research. A place of good research breeds good PhD’s.


Another way to figure out whether a person’s doctorate is worth its salt is to change the entire mentality that has plagued the Chinese community! PhD ISN’T THE PINNACLE OF ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT BUT IS THE BEGINNING OF IT. There’re measurable yardsticks to look at the the quality of a PhD besides the academic pedigree. The quality I’m referring to is publication. I don’t mean any kind of publication but academic publication. Any PhD worth his degree should be able to publish academic work to contribute to the field and to stimulate new way of thinking. This is the crisis facing HK right now.


Writing academic work is a thankless job. It doesn’t pay the bills for either publishers or the writers. It doesn’t even make one famous unless one is in the academic world (which is a very small circle of egg heads). There’s an alarming decrease of meaningful academic work being done in HK. Without this kind of work, indigenous theology will die a painful death. Many have turned to short few hundred word blurbs on social media to try to create impact. The problem is, any intellectual problem that can be solved by a 200-word update with a catchy photo isn’t a real issue. Can some long Facebook update really talk much about the theological development locally or globally? Can a blurb really dig into why Paris got bombed or why certain animosities exist between groups? Can a half sarcastic little satire really address why China is in such control of HK politics? Nope, nothing is ever that simple. Social media hoodwinks us into thinking that sound bites equal to reality, and we’re buying into the lie hook, line, and sinker. Any person who has half a brain knows that sound bites aren’t reality, and to propagate that impression is criminal.


Among those who have long-term impact in HK and whose work we consult when we’re stuck in our studies, two names stand out in HK: Ronald Fung and Arnold Yeung. Let’s take Dr. Fung for an example. His Pauline studies, although read from a different perspective than mine, is unsurpassed. It’s because he’s published both in the western world (the NICNT Galatians commentary) and the Chinese world. To that end, he continues to labor away even when he’s already well over 70 years old. He’s a true role model for all PhD’s. If anyone who’s getting a PhD only to get a bragging right or to get famous fast without the desire to contribute academically, that person is a user and a consumer. He isn’t a contributor. The last thing the church needs is more consumers.


Another example I use is Gusto Gonzalez the famous Cuban-born liberation theologian. Although he’s famous for his Hispanic theology, my first encounter with his work was when I did my MDiv. He wrote a great and readable work on church history called The Story of Christianity. This book changed my view of history. I’m thankful to my professor who assigned this book. Gonzalez’s grasp of so many different characters and their works in this gigantic undertaking showed to me that in order to do meaningful indigenous theology, it isn’t enough just to specialize in a few theologians here and there. Gonzalez propelled me to read all of the church fathers in their original sources which I finished in that one 12-week semester of church history (yes, both the Nicene and Ante-Nicene fathers). It’s primarily because of Gonzalez that I read everything from Turtullian to Rene Girard even while I was in my MDiv. While he clearly shows that his own context needs to be decolonized, he still understands the greatness and importance of the Christian tradition. He does theology in conversation with the forefathers and his contemporaries. He does so in community with them and not apart from them in some la-la land of his own fantasy. These books I read have a deep impact on my own understanding of biblical interpretation, a subject I’ve been teaching for years along with preaching. Gonzalez shows to me that depth of scholarship doesn’t start at the specialized PhD level. It starts way before and continues way after. Without that depth, indigenous theology is just rehashing of local ideology with very little progress. Calling anything local ideology indigenous theology is then just a cheap game.


What solution do we have? We must send people with intelligence, creativity, integrity and discipline to get their doctorates from the best universities of the world. When they come back, we need to require them to do real academic publication before they get rank. Otherwise, we’re going back (indeed we’re already on our way) to the 70s and 80s where Chinese publishers only know how to translate safe, popular and outdated western work. As teaching professionals, we can only use books the publishers give us. Of course, many HK’ers can still read English textbooks and we can force them to use English textbooks but again, the problem with English textbooks is that they don’t solve indigenous problems. The end game is still in the hands of HK academics who can publish in Chinese strong academic work and if possible, also do so in English (like Fung and Gonzalez) in order to dialogue with non-Chinese contexts. Only then will we make progress. Otherwise, within 10 years, we’ll revert back to 20-30 years ago.

PC is NOT the issue: “‘Happy?’ Columbus Day?”


Columbus (photo taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection) Day is now Indigenous People Day in Seattle and Minneapolis. Since Seattle is now my hometown, I think it’s great.

In an article by the Smithsonian from last October, the headline says that the purpose for renaming is to be more politically correct and inclusive. Inevitably some people will be upset. One person said in the article interview that Columbus is some kind of symbol for Italians and so on. So he felt disrespected. Well, this is not Cinco de Mayo, buddy! Columbus isn’t a symbol for Italians. Want a symbol? Try having a Leonardo di Vinci Day.

Instead of being a symbol for Italians, Columbus is a symbol of historical ignorance that has plagued American educational system. Now, the new generation of teachers are beginning to teach a bit more of what actually happened. Knowing what happened should cause people to change this day to a more accurate reflection of historical reality. One article summarizes just some of the facts that Columbus is a symbol of. Let me summarize. First, Columbus never reached the shores of the US. He’s only reached Cuba. Second, Columbus misrepresented the local populations to be cannibals even though they had given him help. Third, based on de la Casa’s letters (all accessible online now), his crew were rapists and murderers. Fourth, he killed a quarter of a million (though I’ve read scholars who said that he killed much more) of natives for gold. Fifth, he sold children into sex slavery. Sixth, he killed the natives using hunting dogs to hunt them down. Seventh, Columbus was brought back to Spain as a prisoner for mismanagement of Hispaniola but was pardoned. So, in short, Columbus is a symbol of genocide and dishonesty.

If Germany has a  Hitler Day, would renaming it be for the purpose of political correctness and inclusiveness? No! So, why should anyone call it political correctness and inclusiveness when it comes to Columbus Day? Isn’t it because of the privilege position of not being directly affected by the deeds of Columbus? If you use words like inclusive and political correctness to describe this move, you really aren’t part of the solution. Instead, you’re part of the problem. Think about this. Some people just don’t get it.

As a Christian, Galatians 3.28 is a manifesto I can get behind. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all in Christ.” Every Christian pays lip service to this verse, but do we really believe it. If we do believe it, then why would we celebrate anyone who made racial discrimination and slavery his main means of getting rich? The simple answer is, We shouldn’t.

The Missing Christian Mission



“Sam, can you pray for me,” said one of my Muslim friends who just had knee surgery from a long-term soccer injury. Of course, who can resist a prayer request, if you’re a Christian? Of course I said “yes.”


The week after, he saw me again. He asked, “Sam, did you pray for me?” I try not to be a guy who just says he’ll pray without really praying. So, throughout the week, I did say a casual prayer or two for his injury. So, I said yes. He joyfully exclaimed, “I bet you did. Look, I’m getting better.” He flexed his knee that’s still in the knee brace.


If we would pause for just a second to reflect on that conversation, I hope it occurs to you that a Muslim guy just asked a Christian guy to pray for him, and the Muslim guy was holding a Christian accountable for his prayer. This is extraordinary. It’s moments like these that build small bridges between two sides. I’m not saying that we believe in the same thing but that’s something we can talk about in some near future. Now isn’t the occasion. What is so extraordinary about our conversation is simple but hasn’t often occurred: a Christian and a Muslim can exist peacefully together as good friends even when we discuss religious matter like prayer. We CAN get along!


Another friend wrote on his Facebook this week that he’s very distressed about the extreme Islamophobic posts from Christians regarding the Syrian refugees. I can’t say that I disagree. The fact is, it’s very easy to demonize all Muslims if you don’t know any. It’s true. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I know those Chinese folks. They’re dirty.” Well, I’m ethnic Chinese. I’m fairly sure that all my friends will agree that I have impeccable hygiene (okay, maybe a few of them have some questions). It’s easy to talk about “them” when we have never known enough sample of “them.” While the above story with my friend is somewhat unusual, good and warm friendship with Muslims has been fairly typical of my past and present relationships with them.


It is interesting that a lot of remarks on Facebook are (wrongly?) based on what the media chose to show in order to bait for clicks. Some are even fake news. Sure, there’re some misbehaving refugees and they’re some who’re misbehaving simply because of the stress they’re under. Yet, for some strange reason, many Christians can lump them all together as this group called the “Muslims.” I understand there’re difficulties in policymakers and financial resources, but the way we talk about the whole group can use a lot of improvement.


When I had the above encounter with my Muslim friend, I think of the Good Samaritan parable where the perceived enemy by the society, the Samaritan, acted more like a brother than the true ethnic brothers. I often wonder how often we can be that Samaritan to others because he’s the truly good neighbor. Jesus’ command was very simple, “Go and do likewise.” He didn’t put conditions on it. He simply (and to some, quite naively) told the teacher of the law in Luke 10 to go and do it. How much more should his followers change their minds? In principle, we really need to create space for compassion towards people like the Syrian refugees.


My prayer is that Christians will do better both in their own faith and in their online presence so that they can prove once again that CHRISTIANITY is a religion of peace and love, not by historical facts or some other data but by their speech and lives. We haven’t done too well lately in the media. We can do much better.