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?”

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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

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“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.

Leadership Lessons from My Son’s Wrestling Coach

This year has been an interesting year for my family.  Ian, my younger boy, became the only freshman in Woodinville High School varsity wrestling team.  In fact, out of the 30 years of the school history, he’s the only freshman. The school district just required all freshmen to participate in high school sports now instead of the previous junior high stipulation.  While this is something we can all celebrate, it was a rough ride for the little guy. He’s had a total of 6 junior high matches of wrestling in this entire life.  Although he’s a fairly talented grappler, he’s also not used to all the wrestling rules and strategies.  The team also lost nine seniors. These guys were the county champions and some of these guys were at the state level with the coach’s son winning state (the kid had gone to state every year in high school). This school also boasts of having someone as famous as the former UFC champion Randy Couture and his son Ryan Couture as alums.  Some of the Ultimate Fighters from the TUF show also wrestled here.  Those are huge shoes to fill.  Then came my son’s team.

 

This year, the team was very thin.  In fact, there were a lot of sophomores and a few juniors.  Only three boys returned from last year to be among the four seniors, with one senior being a transfer student.  The year wasn’t just a rough ride for Ian. It was a rough ride for the team.  How does one adjust from being a county championship team to a struggling rebuilding team?  Ian’s coach demonstrates that it means.

 

During the season, the coach had never demanded from the kids more than they could put out.  In such an adjustment of being the coach of the winningest team last year to the losing team this year, he never asked anything unreasonable.  Those who had wrestled know that it’s important to drop weight to the right amount in order to wrestle most efficiently.  Our school hired a nutritionist to come in to test every boy to stipulate the maximum weight loss each child could have.  Wrestling coaches are notorious for skirting those boundaries in the search of one more W in the win-loss column.  A nearby school that had taken many state championships is known to make a kid drop 10 lbs on match day (in fact, MTV had made a documentary about them).  Ian’s coach had never made such demands, even though the team needed wrestlers in all weight classes.  He let the kids drop naturally while giving them good nutritional advice.  Everything was said for the kid’s own welfare.

 

One of the things I’ve really appreciated about the coach is his off-season mentoring program.  He knows that kids need to be mentored by peers.  Kids need to be accountable not just to the team or to the coach but to the team’s future.  Both of the captains of the varsity team would come in to the junior high school to mentor and coach the little ones.  Ian has also started doing some of that. This trains the more senior wrestlers to lead.  While the team didn’t do so well this year, mentoring is for the future.  The coach recognizes that winning comes from a long legacy of mentoring and long-term development.  The more senior wrestlers get recognition for their contribution but at the same time, they learn more about their own skills by teaching. Having been involved in martial arts for some time, I think that the best way to know your own skill set is to teach it to someone else.  At the same time, the older wrestlers get the recognition in school because of this leadership development.  They become the big men on campus not by beating up little kids but by coaching them and being big brothers to them.  The more impressive thing to me however is the loyalty former wrestlers have to this coach. During almost all holiday practices, I saw former star wrestlers come back to coach the little ones.  They do it on their own holiday for free.  We’ve had some NCAA All-Americans coming back to show techniques to little kids like Ian.  How lucky is it for a little boy to see someone who would probably be a potential US Olympic team member coaching him?  They come back to show the little ones what it means to be at the elite level.  I attribute this to the coach’s ability to create an edifying environment.

 

Lest anyone thinks that the coach is a softie, he also has very high standards.  During practice, I’ve never seen kids fool around or even take a break to chat. Everyone worked 100% in the entire three and a half hour period.  Every kid learned to clean the wrestling room and keep excellent personal hygiene.  Many kids were formerly chubby athletes and had now looked lean and mean.  The fact is, the coach garnered so much respect from the kids that hardly anyone dared to make a pip in practice.  He hardly had to yell.  The most he ever said was, “I hear talking.  I don’t think that should be happening.”  He also gave firm nutritional advice to the kids who were not losing the proper weight not because of genetics but because of bad eating habits.  The only time I’ve ever seen the coach lose it was from last year when a kid took off his headgear and threw it in disgust after he lost his match.  To him, character and sportsmanship are more important than the win-loss column.  He’s shaping the kids to be men, not just to be wrestlers or famous MMA fighters.

 

Ian’s coach can teach many of us ministry and coaching lessons.  It’s great when things are going so well and the team is winning everything.  It’s also great when our churches are healthy and growing in numbers.  True winners are those who persevere in spite of a harsh winter.  The fact is, sometimes winning takes away from the fun of the sport.  I’ve seen very harsh coaches on some of the winning teams this year in both county and regionals, and I can say honestly that they weren’t harsh for the kid’s own good. Several required the kids to wrestle in spite of serious injuries to their joints.  They put the W ahead of the PERSON of the wrestler.

 

A true winning leader takes care of those in his charge, no matter whether the season is spring, summer, fall or winter.  Such a leader looks to the future of not just building a team that gives himself a bigger salary or stronger legacy but a future for all the kids who may not all have full scholarship to wrestle in NCAA. Yet, those same kids could be our future CEO’s, professors or chefs.  They all won’t make the Olympic team, but they all may end up being winners in the game of life.  In our faith communities, we often sacrifice PEOPLE for numbers.  Although numbers are also composed of people, numbers can be generated via methods.  Sometimes, real lives become sacrificed on the altar of statistics.  Ian’s coach demonstrates that each kid is important to him.  Each kid can fulfill his own potential.  Each kid can somehow mentor another kid the way his coach mentors him.  These are also the essential elements of faith.  When we value people, we allow them to develop their gifts based on what God has given them instead of what we want them to be.  When we value people, we create a system of accountability and care not for the present but for the future.

 

Satan and the System: Injustice in the Global Textile Industry

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Every Christmas, we have to think about the kind of goods we buy.  Not much after Christmas is the outcry over textile industry and all of its unsafe practices in the third-world.  I have friends in the textile industry.  Some of them are very good Christians who try their best to make sure their business practices are just.

 

I’ve also been writing articles on Revelation for the HK Christian daily, Christian Times.  It seems that we’ve made Satan so irrelevant that we no longer see him and his work in our everyday life.  But he does work in mighty and disturbing ways through the imperial system established by powerful people.  In Rev. 12-13, Satan’s work was manifested through the two beasts.  Some traditional churches try to see these beasts in the EU or some other entity.  As Scripture functions like analogy, I prefer to see these beasts as systems represented first of all by Roman power, now manifest in every part of history. The moral is not to identify ONE particular power as the anti-Christ (e.g. Obama comes to mind for the conservative Christian).  The moral is to identify all such satanic powers and expose them.  The wisdom behind John’s vision surface in the climax of his vision at Rev. 13.18, the economy hegemony of such a power that affects buying and selling.

 

Back to Christmas shopping.  Our household has been trying to take advantage of the sales so that we won’t have to spend so much the rest of the year.  Discussion comes around on jeans.  We’ve discovered that more expensive fabrics are probably manufactured in more humane ways.  The problem is, we also want to save money.  So, instead of getting a cheap pair of Calvin Klein, maybe I need to get a pair of Diesel or True Religion.  The poor would end up buying cheaper products made without humane treatment of other poor workers in different countries.  The problem of poverty doesn’t just plague the poor.  It plagues the middle class like us also.  The only people who aren’t plagued by such a problem are the truly rich folks who control the trade of these products.

 

When reading the Bible and especially Revelation, the wisdom of the book doesn’t lie in the superficial reading of a verse here and there.  The wisdom comes in the broad narrative that exposes the satanic forces hurting the entire humanity.  The force doesn’t have a singular figure. Rather, it has a system with real people sitting up top.  Everyone else is a victim of the system.  Many middle class Christians may not agree with me because they too can afford to fork out for a pair of True Religion. To them, I would ask, “Have you ever ridden in a Rolls Royce where you don’t have to worry about how much to spend on a pair of jeans or on your kid’s college tuition because you make multiple millions of USD a year?”  Will you ever, through honest hard work, get to sit in that Rolls Royce and have that kind of money?  Most of us will answer with a definitive “No”.  The satanic system has its elite.  It will continue to eat up the rest of humanity.  In many places, it already is.  In HK where I teach, the city is owned by four major real estate corporations.  When one of the local Catholic fathers called out this fact in colorful language, even the Catholic church had to apologize to one of the corporate bosses Li Kar Sing, in fear of reprisal.  In Tibet, Chinese real estate moguls bought up most of the land in its capital Lhasa and renting to Tibetans with outrageous prices.  These are just the more blatant ones.

 

As Christians and as leaders of the church, we may find ourselves feeling helpless.  It is difficult to fight the system but we should at least be aware that Satan exists in such systems. We need to call out the evil and think about what to do.  The status quo was never an option in the Bible.  Neither is it an option now.

 

PS. Some of the stores such as H & M, Tommy Hilfiger, or Marks and Spencer use Better Cotton Initiative products or fair trade cotton products. These stores probably deserve our support more than other stores. Of course, this is only a small part of the big puzzle.

Navigating the PC World: Political Correctness in Christian Communication

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With the situations of Charlie Hebdo and Margaret Cho about which I blogged previously, we are forced to reckon with political correctness (henceforth “PC”) in our own pulpit ministry. Every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to have an opinion about this or that and some confidently and at times, offensively, speak on variety of subjects.

 

Many people automatically say that they’re not PC when they speak their version of the straight truth.  Reality is much more complicated.  How can we be sure that we’re not being offensive jerks versus being non-PC truth speakers?  Here’s the litmus test.

 

The offensive jerks usually haven’t participated in the issue about which they speak.  They could be speaking about race or political freedom without ever being a participant in either.  For example, when I wrote about the Rick Warren Red Guard controversy, many of his (mostly white with token privileged Asian) fans just say that I’m being PC, and by speaking up against me, they’re not going to go by the PC rule of society.  A small problem surfaces.  The same critics haven’t even read a book on the Cultural Revolution, and certainly, many of them don’t understand the Chinese (and in many cases, Asian-American) culture at all.  Sure, they might have a token diffident Asian friend who’s too afraid to call them on their prejudice, but that doesn’t qualify them to criticize or make a comment on my culture.

 

The non-PC truth speaker is different.  S/he has participated in the issue on which s/he speaks.  Such speakers speak with authority.  Why do Cornel West or Cameron Carter speak plainly about race?  It’s because they’ve worked in a system that discriminates against their people all their lives.  It’s really very simple.

 

The litmus test is simple.  Participation is the key. In other words, unless a person has participated, that same person is not really qualified to address the issue. Not all opinions are valid.  In this internet age, we’d do well to remember that when we speak on the pulpit, lest we’d be discounted for our opinion.

Sexual Fortress Made of Paper

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The church seems to have more bad news on sex lately than any other time.  I believe the internet has exposed a real fundamental flaw in the teaching on sexual purity in the church.  Famous names fall like flies. Bill Gothard, and Josh Guggar are among the most famous on this list.  These are extraordinary sets of failures that can only defined by the word “perversion.”

 

The common theme that joins such a thread is the teaching on an extreme form of sexual purity.  What this does is that it provides a smokescreen for unsavory activities behind the teachings.  The most legalistic teachings overcompensate to provide a cover for criminal abuse.  It’s really plain and simple.

 

What about those who fail in their marriages by moral shortfalls?  Countless fundamentalist leaders have fallen more in this area than the aforementioned perversion.  It seems that the problem with the moral shortfall has to do with the sense of naive invincibility.  Such teachings have built up such a fortress that the residents in it has a false sense of invincibility.  There’s only one small problem. The fortress is made of paper.  Invincibility breeds careless arrogance.  It’s always the problem of other people.

 

In dealing with this problem, one colleague reminds me that our biblical doctrine of human sinfulness ought to dictate our attitude in our possible moral shortfalls.  No amount of strictness can compensate for our carelessness.  We often like to point our fingers at King David who had practically violated all the ten commandments.  What we fail to realize that we could easily end up in the same boat.  None of us is immune.  The paper fortress of extreme purity can’t keep us from sinning. The only way to prevent moral shortfalls is humility, knowing that it can happen to the best of us.  Overcompensation isn’t the best security blanket against moral failures.

Sometimes, a broken power pole is just a broken power pole

A while back, A tornado just ripped through Oklahoma, killing one and injuring many others.   At least 1100 insured homes were damaged.  Since I had gone to the university there, I was quite concerned.  My university roommate and one of my best friends still lives there.  He was fine.

 

What struck me about this storm was one photo that got passed around that says “God is with us” with a snapped power pole hanging off some power lines that looks like a cross.  It never fails to amaze me how Christians are able to spiritualize every little sign that may resemble some object in the Bible.  This time, the cross got the call.  To the world, we just look completely silly, but somehow within church walls, it’s all OK.

 

Many Christians have mistaken fiction for facts when it comes to letting our faith saturate every part of our lives.  When it comes to a living faith, I don’t believe God is calling for us to see sacred objects and superstitious signs everywhere.  How do we know that power pole was a reminder by God that He’s with us?  Do we honestly need that kind of reminder?  The best reminder often isn’t some crazy pronouncement right after such a disaster.  Neither should we be pontificating on the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The best way to make the faith a living faith is to practice our faith everyday.  In such a situation as the Oklahoma storm, perhaps the best way is to donate, or to send a mission team to help rebuild or to help a neighbor with a fell tree.  Superstition and subjective pronouncement does nothing for our faith.

 

Sometimes, a broken power pole isn’t the cross or a reminder that God is with us. Sometimes, it’s just a broken piece of wood.

Readiness or Laziness

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“I’m astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel …” Galatians 1.6

 

My PhD is in Galatians. I haven’t written about it for a long time. I ought to get back to writing something on it in the near future.  Quite a while back, a church was trying to invite an academic to be a speaker for a special weekend conference.  The church has had some history. In fact, it is one of the older churches in the town.  As a subordinate made suggestion for this speaker, the more senior leadership said that they didn’t think the church is mature enough to take such intellectual vigor.  This whole scenario probably occurs more often than everyone realizes.

 

Readiness is something quite tricky. When exactly is the believer ready to tackle hard questions of faith? When is the believer ready for some real meat?  I believe it all boils down to philosophy of what we can expect from the church.  Some people these days even propose that we really don’t need anything like this. All we need is something practical, “grounded”, and adhere to tradition. The problem is, “What is that tradition?” I used to work with youth a long time ago, after I first graduated from seminary.  Most youth groups are just programs to babysit teens.  The fun factor is the focal point.  I even saw one advert that says, “Lots of fun and some Jesus.”  When will the young people be ready for hard studies.  I suppose many leaders expect them to just “get it.”  The fact is, most teens never “got it.” They go to the university, drift away from church and never come back.  Some eventually “got it” and wondered why they didn’t get it in their youth groups.  A normal and healthy upbringing for any family is to prepare children to grow up. A normal and healthy youth group prepares the teens to face adulthood, and adulthood is not always pretty or fun; adulthood is tough.  In the same way, what is the church for?  A standard answer is that it is a place that builds up believers to grow into adulthood.  Will a lot of fun and some Jesus do the trick?  I doubt it.  Believers will NEVER be ready if they aren’t challenged.

 

Paul’s letter to the Galatians above expects the Galatians whom he left for a short while to have the ability to distinguish one kind of knowledge from another kind. Paul expected intellectual vigor in new converts.  I suspect Paul taught with intellectual vigor when he first conducted his mission.  How far off we are today in our churches in the way we approach faith?   We certainly talk about readiness. The fact is, people are never fully ready to become adults.  Many adults have the EQ of a teen (or below). That’s why we have so many relational problems.  In the same way, the spiritual journey of the Christian should start with strong intellectual nutrition.  No way should we use “readiness” as the excuse for laziness.  I propose that we don’t waste young believers’ time (and also that of the older believer) by teaching the fluff.  I propose that our church should be the hotbed for creating mature believers right off the bat.  This goes for our preaching and our Christian education program. I believe many churches need an overhaul, but the most important overhaul doesn’t come from the program level; it should come from the ideological level.  If more of us think like Paul and have higher expectations for our churches, we won’t be in the mess that we’re in now.

Breaking the Bondage of Entitlement

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“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, apostle Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians
As my family and I moved into our Paris apartment, our departing guests from North America informed us that the place lacks good curtains, and the bathroom definitely need an upgrade, but they added, “Although we aren’t used to this, you’ll have fun in Paris.” Right!

 

 

I travel a lot. Generally, two types of travelers annoy the locals the most: Mainland Chinese and North Americans. I’m going to talk a bit about traveling in Europe in this blog.

 

 

When the two annoying groups travel, these are the stereotypical ways they fail to respect and appreciate local customs and history. Here’re some tips to help blend in so that when we’re not the sore thumb that stand out among tourists.

 

 

First, don’t talk loudly in your own tongue. One of the most annoying thing is to listen to my fellow Americans give uninformed opinions about local customs. In one particular instance, I heard a trainload of Americans chanting “USA, USA, USA” as they passed the Statue of Liberty, probably not knowing that the giant statue sitting in NYC harbor was actually a gift of friendship from the French who have always been a good ally to the US. The chant was one of those moments that I felt the immense shame of being American. I notice that in most relatively classy places, it’s best to lean over to talk to your dining buddies instead of carrying on in English in the normal tone simply because hearing another tongue is annoying for locals. I was having tea in Le Train Bleu. I notice even the locals lean forward to talk just out of courtesy to the other diners. A toned down volume is the best way to go in public places anywhere.

 

 

Second, learn to speak some local language. If you can’t, at least try not to butcher its pronunciation. When we land in a place, we should at least know how to ask someone in the local language, “Do you speak English?” I find that most people are very friendly, to a fault, AS LONG AS WE ASK HUMBLY. A lot of Americans just go right up to people and start speaking English. I find that a lot of countries I visit, the locals speak some English. Many actually speak excellent English, almost without any accent (e.g. some Germans and French). I don’t patronize them by saying, “Oh, you speak such good English.” I just speak normally or maybe slow down a tad just knowing that they aren’t native speakers but please, stop butchering the local language. They show enough respect to speak to us in English, the least we can do is to try to speak their language. Sometimes, knowing that we’ve made the best effort would earn local good will. And for goodness’ sake, “thank you” in French is pronounced “meahk-see” not “mercy”. “Thank you” in Italian is “glot-zee” not “graaaacee.” Mercy me! Goodness gracious. In Spain, their “c’s” are like “th’s” if it’s between letters. For example, “garcias” (the Spanish word for “thanks”) is pronounced “gra-the-as” in Spain. This is different from the Mexican pronunciation of “gracias” with more of an “s” sound.

 

 

Third, learn to dress appropriately. This is a big beef with me. Most who can afford to holiday in Europe can afford to dress appropriately. We can always spot Americans because they’re hands down, the worst dressed tourists of the bunch. Typically, we dress in lousy Nike t-shirts that don’t match our equally lousy basketball shorts along with our odd looking sneakers (what the British call “trainers”). We then expect all the places to be casual. Usually, we stand out like TWO sore thumbs. In most establishments, people simply don’t dine in tank tops and t-shirts and sneakers. Rather, people dress in some kind of suit jackets or dressed shoes. Smart casual is the rule. It’s best to be overdressed than underdressed. No matter how bad off we are financially, if we can holiday in Europe or in many places in Asia like Hong Kong or Tokyo, we can at least afford to keep ONE pair of well cared for dressed shoes (as my buddy Keith the fashionista remarks).

 

 

Third, don’t expect others to take on our lifestyle. Every culture has expectations. In the US, restaurants have waiters that want to rush you in and out quickly. They want to earn money because time is money. Not so in Europe. In Europe, waiters give customers plenty of time to order. So, we have to adjust for more time to eat. Supper is serious business with Europeans. They don’t rush it. They dress up to meet with friends as an important social occasion. They don’t just get together to stuff their faces with high calorie junk they serve up in American restaurants. If we’re in a rush, we shouldn’t expect the locals to be in a rush also. They don’t have bad customer service. They just work at a different pace and define “service” differently because the locals value sitting down over a meal more than most Americans. There’re pluses in adjusting because waiters in France don’t come by to ask that intrusive question just to ask, “How’s your food?” In the US, that’s extremely annoying because we all know that the waiter doesn’t give a rip about how the food is. The US waiters often ask that question before we even dig into the first piece of the main course just to get that question out of the way. Not so in Europe. When they come by to ask, it’s usually after we’ve had a few bites. They notice details like that. Once again, different cultures, different expectations. We adjust to theirs. We shouldn’t expect them to adjust to ours.

 

 

Fourth, learn to listen and research local customs. Even admit we know nothing! “Back in China, we …” “Back in the US, we …” are two of the most annoying phrases I hear. Please, if you want to go back to China or the US so much, don’t come over. It’s imperative to research local customs. If we don’t know, instead of saying what we think, asking a question may be the best way to go. Say something like, “I notice you … can you explain why?” instead of “These people call appetizer entrée. It’s so confusing …” Say “What’re the in-season fashion colors” instead of saying, “These people dress funny.” How can we say OTHERS dress funny when Paris, Rome, Milan, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are the fashion capitals of the world? To them, WE dress funny (if funny dressing has any humorous at all). One big custom adjustment we have to make is the rhythm for dining in culture. In continental Europe, dinner is very late. Hardly any restaurant is open at 5 pm. People might also have later lunch. The rhythm is just different. Assume nothing unless you’ve researched the local customs. We should adjust to their vocabulary and customs. We shouldn’t expect them to adjust to ours.

 

 

Fifth, be friendly but not stupid friendly. One special characteristic of Americans is the “smile”. I’m not talking about the slightly shy smiley “bonjour” I say to my neighbors every morning. I’m talking about the stupid oh-look-I-found-my-puppy grin followed by “Hey, hello, how’re YOU doing?” Different cultures have different verbal space with strangers. Our superficial “How are you doing?” just doesn’t work with strangers in a different country. Honestly, how often do we even ask that to fellow Americans without caring how they’re doing? If you don’t believe me, try this. Next time, someone asks you how you’re doing, as a rule, say, “I’m doing really bad.” See what happens. We do theatrical friendliness as conversational fillers. Even our grin is often a non-verbal filler. Fillers don’t work for many cultures. Look for verbal and non-verbal cues that work. Observe, and turn off that crazy grin.

 

 

I think in order to travel well, we need to have this “off button” for our Americanism. We need to turn down our culture much more and that’s just basic courtesy. Tart tartare is better than humble pie any day. How does this relate to Christians?

 

 

One of the most influential Christian is the apostle Paul. Paul’s greatness came from his ability to adapt. He could blend into local culture even as a Jew (even without losing his Jewish distinctions). That’s why he had such a positive influence in the world. Many Christians can learn so much from Paul when traveling. Many Americans can learn so much from Paul. Paul was an ambassador for the gospel. He knew that in order to represent properly his gospel, he had to adapt to local cultures. In order to represent the gospel or our country, we too need to know when to push the “off” button on our own culture. Paul had a goal in mind, and that goal caused him to have flexible perspectives. With flexible perspectives, we buy ourselves potentials to have positive influence, sometimes even for the sake of the gospel.

 

 

As I moved into my apartment, I found out that the curtains were indeed a tad old, but the view off the street is spectacular (okay, I’m an urbanite. I love street views). Although our hot water tank didn’t work perfectly, our hostess was gracious in providing us immediate help for early move-in and for when we locked ourselves out of our flat. We also live in an area where we can access relatively affordable but excellent food. We can look at the beautiful architecture just outside our window knowing that our building is probably as old as the United States. These are things a perfectly new curtain can’t buy. Once again, everything is a matter of perspective.