Happy 124th Birthday, Martin Niemöller!

January 13, 2017

OK: One day early! Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor during the time of the Nazis, and initially, he was a supporter of Hitler. Later, he awoke to the horrors of the Nazis, and he began to align himself with the Confessing Church. Apart from his well-known quote, he was going along as faithful German pastor, and remained largely indifferent to politics. The war and the extreme violence toward Jews and other non-Aryan peoples confronted the quietism of many Lutherans like Niemöller.

As he awoke, he observed the various groups of people being selected by the Nazi for “removal,” and finally, having moved theologically and politically to resisting the state control of German churches, the Nazis came for him, and he was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1937 to 1945. His personal move also included becoming a pacifist. He went to be with the Lord in 1992.

Below is his famous quote.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”


2017 is starting out just… epic… #not normal

January 5, 2017

So, in the last 48 hours, I’ve had remarkably encouraging and remarkably disappointing experiences.

First, I attended a challenging and brilliant lecture given by Kirsteen Kim of Leeds Trinity University. Some background regarding the challenge and brilliance of the lecture.

For those unfamiliar, a significant amount of my ministry with InterVarsity involved international student ministry at Fresno State and Rice University. Of the many facets in this cross-cultural ministry, one involved the training and mentoring of American Christians. Often, these devout followers of Jesus were completely unaware of how much of their theological commitments represented the American dream. Yet, one could hardly fault them for their readiness to host and welcome low-English speakers into their homes week after week, befriending I-students, and including them in their lives in ways that demonstrate a generosity and sincerity that cannot be explained as other than a genuine commitment to Jesus.

Kim recognized that often we in the West perceive hospitality as mission. How easy it is to welcome the stranger into our home for a meal and care for them: such behavior and attitudes represent a significant practice throughout the Christian tradition. We care for and seek the welfare, best interests, and offer our love to the guest.

Similarly, migration receives a strong perception as mission. As Jehu Hanciles asserts the consensus perspective, “Every migrant a potential missionary.” And, there is much to support this viewpoint. The sheer volume of migrants from the southern hemisphere who hold the Christian faith deserves better attention from the western church. Moreover, such followers of Jesus merely assume that the proclamation of one’s faith still has validity wherever they may find themselves in the world. Kim did a great job of explaining this phenomenon.

But, she took this a step further. The tricky part involves a pair of pairs that give evidence of cultural commitments that inadvertently displace the gospel. Take the last perspective: The prevailing assumption of myself and my colleagues involves that our students know their culture best. Kim confronts this: How can we demonstrate this? Only by asking questions? Not a bad start, but we cannot confirm that any migrant intends to reproduce or “bring with them” all of their culture with themselves to their new home and relationships. Some may have a variation in how and what they disclose of their faith commitment. My critical realist heart swooned.

But, she took all of this into another pair: Often we perceive hospitality as a binary: the host and the guest. As you might guess, Kim exposed how peoples from the west can preserve unequal power differentials. I observed this all the time in my interactions with Americans with the best of intentions. They deftly kept the I-students from making their own theological conclusions in reading the Bible, settling for “teaching the truth of the Bible.”

Kim proposed a different way of identifying ourselves: what if the Christian also perceived themselves, theologically, as a sojourner? One could look to Abraham, or the early life of Israel, and the early church found in Acts. This proposal for identity allows for a mutuality of learning and serving together, each person, instead of host and guest, contributing to the flourishing of the other and the created order. Furthermore, such a response to grace positions one toward the Holy Spirit in ways that allow for empowerment, healing, and local movements of mission that occur through life in proximity to one’s neighbor.

Suffice it to say, I was deeply moved by this robust description of Christian identity and mission. Kim’s presentation deserves publication, and I hope that happens soon. One of the adjacent ideas that sprouted during her presentation regarded the development of self-awareness of one’s powers. More often than not, most of my white friends have no clue as to their privilege. Merely telling them that they can enter a room, an office, a grocery store: and no one will question their location or their intent, simply bounces off of them. It’s not as though they’ve ever had to consider the question—literally— in their lives.

This matter of self-awareness of one’s powers really benefits from the long game, as it’s rarely the case that anyone can flip the switch and know how much power they possess as a function of their ethnic identity, especially if they are white. Put another way: one of my colleagues in smaller group settings of students will ask aloud, “What’s it like to be white?” Without fail—I’ve observed this several times—the white students will begin a nervous laugh, and then fall into embarrassment. Why? Often, as I later hear, such white students discover the answer to the question involves a scandalous reply: It’s normal. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s my way. They may not utter the answer right away, but they instantly realize the power and privilege that inhere their social location as a function of their dominant ethnicity. Remarkably, when the silence to my colleague’s question has lingered long enough to become awkward, he turns to a Black or Latin/x or Asian student, and asks if they can answer the question. Boom. They already know the answer, and articulate the sense of privilege that white students possess with easily accessible narratives that happened: even the same day, right before the event.

Friends: That just begins to account for ethnicity, this need to develop our self-awareness of power. I haven’t touched gender, or socio-economic status. Or even political identity, i.e., citizenship.

Returning to my historical observation above, through Bible reading and an explicit attentiveness to how one moves through the West as a function of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, I began to imagine the Holy Spirit might generate painful but fruitful ways to prune back our western privilege from life as “hosts.” Such identities have a unique way of sustaining privilege, but a relocated identity in Christ as a sojourning follower of Jesus allows for one to receive the power from the Holy Spirit to set aside that culturally and socially conferred advantage. Again, Kim’s lecture was excellent, and if I catch that it gets published, I’ll link to here.

However, following the lecture, I learned of power employed to suppress and to threaten: all coming from, unfortunately, from Christians. Following the Kim lecture, I observed some paternalistic comments made about women in the academy that made me pause. The comments occurred in the flow of a public meeting, and I wondered, “How do people get away with these statements?” Then, I received an earful from some of my female colleagues who also heard the comments, and I realized that those comments landed with so much more offensive power than I had realized. I imagine I have an upcoming conversation with at least one of the offenders in the near future about such egregious statements; it won’t be easy (see preceding conversation about power differentials and “hosts”) but I’m sure it needs to happen: because too much of Christian leadership these days really relies upon social location instead of pneumatology.

Also, even within InterVarsity, I observed some remarkable uses of power in the last 48 hours that made me wonder about the ongoing decay of western evangelicalism. One colleague has received…how shall I say this?…ominous prospects of termination. Others find that the absence of many of our colleagues at our triennial national staff conference is, of course, due to their disagreement with either the new theological statement on human sexuality and the roll-out of the employment policy related to the statement: and we miss their presence and ministry.

Adjacent to the statement and the new policy stand Black colleagues and friends on InterVarsity staff, for whom the presence of Michelle Higgins and her dynamic message at Urbana signaled a new day for InterVarsity: and this remains an unfulfilled symbol for them and their students. The palpable sense of anger and disappointment emerges from a displacement of the movement of the Holy Spirit at Urbana to attend to the roll-out of the new policy. The levels of trust continue to lower, and morale proceeds to descend among staff of color who wonder if the movement to preach Christ crucified for our sins and to call for justice will ever received the same kind of energies and funding that the statement and the new policy received.

The serendipitous lecture of Kim still rings in my ears and in my heart: the sojourner as Christian identity, and for mission.

So, 2017 has started, and much of it is the same as 2016: epic, in its peculiar inattentiveness to personal power and privilege. But it is not normal.

 


Christian Identity: Yet Another Reply to Tim Keller & Brian McLaren

December 27, 2016

In a recent conversation, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times asked Pastor Tim Keller, “Am I a Christian?” Although posted on December 23, the op-ed has generated more than 900 comments through today. Almost immediately, people from around the blogosphere affirmed, critiqued, and interrogated Keller’s many and nuanced replies to questions from a friendly Kristof: including Brian McLaren. I want to highlight the posts from Kristof/Keller and McLaren, as each have cast a certain light upon Christian identity, and raise important questions that we would do well to consider.

 
For Keller in his conversation with Kristof, the replies flowed from “literal” belief in the Bible, textual criticism, confidence in one’s faith in tension with questions generating diffidence, skepticism, attraction to people in mission but incredulous reaction to the same people with antagonistic beliefs, the range of Christian salvation, religious plurality, and finishing on the doctrine of God. Whew! What a tour!

 
For the most part, Keller framed the Christian faith, right from the get-go, as “a body of thought”, one which contributes to forming social boundaries for the church, so that one could have “a cohesive, integrated organization.” Then, his all important claim: “Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people though his death for sin and his resurrection.”

 
Now, let me first of all say: Bravo. I like and endorse the move that links Calvary and the Empty Tomb; Keller links the two, and that deserves further elaboration from him. I need to follow that by asking: Whither the Kingdom of God? I make mention of this, chiefly because Redeemer Presbyterian Church has a remarkable history and presence of witness and service within Manhattan: such practices offer valuable signposts toward the reign of God in Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I found it strange that Keller omitted any response about Christ’s preaching on the Kingdom of God. Finally, it’s hard to know the importance of mission from a single interview about the aforementioned commitment by Keller and his congregation; so much of Kristof’s questions centered on identity, and—as I will get to below— Keller consented to keeping the discussion within that ambit.

 
For McLaren, though, the interview became an occasion to recollect (sans pleasure) how Keller’s version of “Christian identity is primarily defined by a list of beliefs, as it was for me in my upbringing.” As he continues his journey through his memory, McLaren knows first-hand that such a identity both secured a destiny in Heaven and one could have repellent list of personal sins left intact and impervious to transformation: simply because “if you held the right beliefs, you were going to heaven when you die, and in comparison with that, nothing else matters much.” This kind of propositional-based belief still has currency (see any of your friends from neo-orthodox churches), and empowers a long view of being safe in Heaven, while completely diminishing any value of other persons, the need for justice (or correcting injustice), holds dominion over the earth as a primary value for human existence thus authorizing environmental decay, and simply affirms a dualism between body and soul. McLaren suggests an alternative… or does he?

 
McLaren also takes up the question of Christian identity, although his angle of entry initially appears sympathetic to one I would endorse: “As we approach Christmas, it’s a good time to reflect on why Jesus was born and why it matters.” From there, McLaren approves of people entering a journey of discovery of significance: “It’s a good time to note that according to the Gospels, Jesus himself gives a number of reasons for the ‘main point of his mission’.” From here, McLaren cherry-picks some excellent topics: repentance, liberation and healing, truth-telling, preaching the Gospel: and then this: “Yes, a meaning-rich and world-changing suffering and death were among those many reasons (Jn. 12:27), but it’s a mistake (a popular mistake) to let that one reason silence all the others.” Well, yes and no.

 
Yes, McLaren is correct to elevate and celebrate the importance of Christian identity becoming generated, practiced, and competent through practices of mission. Amen. But, as Newbigin once said, “Words without deeds are empty. But, deeds without words are dumb.” Put another way, and even Keller and Kristof recognize this: the Christian faith does not have the religious market on caring for the poor, the widowed, and the orphan. Actions like these, in which as Keller recognized as “the importance of the individual person and … love as the supreme virtue”, deserve interpretation from beliefs and doctrines. But, we need those practices to assist in developing maturity as Christians.

 

So, No, we can’t discard some of our espoused convictions regarding soteriology and the doctrine of God just because a different system of beliefs is asserted to be superior or to be more inclusive for the naming and creation of Christian identity. To wit, that different system merely addresses different questions: “Do you love the least of these? Do you love the earth as God’s creation or money that can be made from exploiting the earth? Is love— for God, self, neighbor, other, enemy, and the earth— your highest aim and deepest desire?” McLaren raises these questions and more in his conclusion. He is correct to interrogate static models of Christian identity that only rely upon assent to theological convictions.

 
But, we don’t check in our theological traditions along the way in identity formation. We need to recover a process of identity formation that involves a constructive, dynamic response to the imperative of the one we are convinced of who offers us life: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of humanity.” (Mk. 1:17)

 
But, I wonder how “local” the questions of McLaren are, especially relative to Jesus. Put another way: even Jesus had a context, one of a long religious tradition that permeated every aspect of life. That tradition underwent several changes during internal political changes, external influence and military invasions; these changes took place during forced migration from home and in repatriation.  But, the Jewish tradition endured, and long expected another exodus-like saving event from YHWH. So, whether the changes enacted by family politics or Roman imperial forces acting upon the tradition, the Jewish people kept their faith in a multicultural and multiethnic milieu. Jesus had no problems engaging with Gentiles, (e.g., Mk. 5:1-20) and he certainly directed those who followed him to do likewise. (C.f., Mt. 28:19-20)

 
Now, one might push back on me: “McLaren observes “the other”, and “the outsider.” True. But, here’s the snag: For McLaren, (and for that matter, Keller) declare through their silence that belief and service occur in an ethnically-neutral context of North America: that is how Christian identity becomes formed. One wouldn’t know from either of these pastors that racism is America’s original sin. While McLaren (and we could presume Keller, as well) would champion a wholesale rejection of racism, violence, and structural injustice, and especially in light of the increasing events of white hostility following the recent presidential election, their omission of such makes me wonder how far their observations extend to Christian identity. How can we discuss caring for the poor, or the healing of the sick— who are often people of color— without consideration of their ethnic identity and our own ethnic identity? How can we make any prescriptions—or recommendations— about beliefs or practices for Christian identity without some consideration of the racialized society we dwell in?

 
Other friends chimed in on my FB page: surely the NT doesn’t drive a wedge between belief and practices. Similarly, if one wanted to press the whole notion of identity, we could look to the rite of initiation: baptism. And, this initially appears warranted, at least theologically. Yet another observed regarding beliefs, that evangelicals like Keller and McLaren (although the latter may not want that label anymore) hardly can be affirmed for the inclusion of the creeds in their belief systems as constituting evangelicalism. Some version of “both/and” was called for. I made note that for both Keller and McLaren, they both draw boundaries, and they simply do it differently than each other. I wanted to address this element more thoroughly but in my prayers, I could not look away from the total absence of discussion of ethnicity and context as informing Christian identity. One might also wonder why suffering is omitted from either descriptions of Christian identity. (C.f, 1 Peter 3:8-22) Similarly: there’s not a shred of conversation about how our gender contributes toward the formation of our Christian identity: clearly, this last element needs a more thorough examination. To be sure, the differences between Manhattan and Manhattan Beach hold unique elements.

 
Christian identity becomes formed not only through beliefs and practices, but also in context; both engage the respective contexts and are engaged by the same. For Kristof, Keller, and McLaren, we would ask them: “Who is your neighbor? And, is your neighbor of a different ethnicity than yourself?” How they—and we— answer such questions may well help all us understand how we all are formed into our Christian identity.


Preaching at Advent

November 21, 2016

“And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure,
for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.”
Micah 5:4-5

This time of year is always my favorite for preaching. No, I don’t have anything scheduled! But, it brings back some memories that won’t go away: and I don’t want them to leave me.

Several years ago, through the unfortunate passing of a colleague, I received a call as what the Presbyterians call, “Temporary Pulpit Supply.” This call began in early fall of that year, and ran through the end of December. Thus, it fell to me to preach through Advent.

On another day, I’ll argue for why evangelicals (what’s left of them…) should preach from the Lectionary. But, as one who was already convinced, when early November showed up, and I cast my eyes ahead to Advent, I was delighted to discover: Every week contained a text from the Minor Prophets.

Not sure how else to explain this, other than: it was effortless study to reflect upon christological and eschatological themes (regarding the latter: it is “advent” after all…), as well as how such inform and empower a communal life that collaborates with God in mission. The ease at addressing evangelism and justice, as mutually informing responses to the anticipated coming of the Christ, really stood out as cohering well with the text of each week.

The feedback to my preaching was remarkably constructive and affirming. While all preachers admit to that being important, my overall sense was that God was drawing me into his mission, affirming my “temporary” status, preparing the local congregation well for their mission, and empowering me for service beyond the term of service. In short, God had a word for me about my anticipation of the coming of Christ.

So, for those pastors who haven’t committed themselves to an Advent series: the Revised Common Lectionary offers both the weekly texts and the resources needed for giving praise and witness to the Christ who has come and will come again.


My biannual reflections on the PCUSA

June 28, 2016

CORRECTED! HT: AMG!!!

 

Today, I received an email from an executive presbyter (EP) of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) that attempted a brief summary of the preceding General Assembly that met in Portland. Comments made celebrated the efforts of a delegate, who was also a pastor from the same presbytery, on to turn aside divestment from fossil fuel companies as a church. Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping the Faith Among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: For the Parents (Part 2)

August 23, 2014

I had a draft written about 3 weeks ago on this topic, and then the agonizing death of college freshman Mike Brown of Ferguson, MO, took place. I decided to pause, watch, and listen to what followed from Brown’s death. It will seem like a small matter here, but I trust by the end here, it will have some greater importance for parents of Asian American freshmen: namely, that Mike Brown was a college freshman. So, I have revised the topic.

The vulnerabilities of new students entering the university are many. Of course, nothing that happened in Brown’s death involved his campus, or the campus police. But, what of your children–adult children–and their early experience on campus? What kinds of conversations can you host with them, as you move in, unpack, and assist in the transition to classes beginning and the formation of their faith commitment?

I’m describing in this series some of the early discoveries I’ve made in my research so far. I’m attempting to describe how freshmen/first-year, Asian American students keep their faith in that first year of university life. Of course, most the background of this study emerges from a well known phenomena of Christian students of all ethnicities entering the university and abandoning their faith. I’ve taken up the question on the other side, so to speak: Why are some students keeping their faith, and how do they go about this, given their experiences of living in dorms, getting introduced to new ideas from their academics, and from their participation in extracurricular groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship?

In case you’re just joining the series, you can return here and here for some of the preceding discussion, but I would want you to know a couple of personal matters. For one, I am one of the multiethnic people you’ve always heard about (Asian-Hispanic-Anglo), and am married to a Chinese American woman: and we have a couple of great adult children. So, the research topic is close to home. The other personal matter is that I belong to the campus staff of InterVarsity; I’ve served for the most part among international students for 20 years. I’ve seen this abandonment of the faith up close, done by both domestic and international students who are freshmen, and beyond. This research really moves from observing what is taking place on campus to how such decisions to sustain one’s faith are made; I’m also aware that the experience of freshmen leaving their faith occurs in universities throughout the world (unfortunately), not just in North America.

At the beginning of the day, at the end of the day, and at the bottom of life: Your child is just like you: They will live in such a way to fulfill what matters most to them. That is an obvious statement, but needs to be kept in front of us more often.

And, if the interviews I’ve had so far with Asian American freshmen could be broadly applied: You may not know what matters most to your child. Of course, some parents are exceptions, and there is an interesting possibility here…

…Namely: That you’ve had a conversation in which you listened and your child did all the talking. That is the exception. I am not saying that those parents who listened agreed with what their child had to say. Far from it.

Rather, the few students I interviewed who had parents who listened to them, these students also had a pretty calm, secure sense of their faith in Jesus.

So, there’s my suggestion to empower your freshman/adult child: When you go out together this week or next, ask your daughter or son, if you can stop somewhere for a shaved ice/coffee/boba, and ask them, “If you had the chance to study anything at the university, what would it be?”

Then, no matter what comes out of their mouth next: Listen. Pray silently. Welcome their answers, and refrain from critiquing or commenting on those answers: even if you agree with your child…

I have a disposition: That we want our children to know that we love them, and of course, we demonstrate this by making sure that they have clothing, food, a home, and the resources they need for becoming a successful student.

What they also need is the kind of demonstration of love that cares about their social and emotional lives as well.

For some reading this, please don’t confuse what I am saying as, “You need to hug your children and tell them ‘I love you.’” That is not what I am saying. Listening carefully without criticism, even to the expressions of dreams and aspirations you disagree with, will inform your child of your affection for them.

Enjoy your time of listening.


Prayer for Freshmen: Thursdays, 8:55 AM

August 7, 2014

It occurred to me that I should include you in my weekly routine. Namely, every Thursday at 8:55 AM, I pause to pray for freshmen students, campus ministers, pastors, and universities.

I pray at 8:55 AM on Thursdays for a variety of motivations. It’s just before the top of the hour, and right about now is when work and life become animated for me. It’s also just before the weekend, and for a huge chunk of first-year students, of all the things they could reflect on, they consider what they’ll do with their weekend and who they’ll do it with: on Thursdays.

So, some intercession for wisdom and risk-taking that contributes to their present as well as their future makes it into my prayers.

But, the prayer that always makes it into my intercession is this:

How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?

Obviously, that prayer opens me up to all kinds of input, and that is good, given my research topic. And, that prayer alerts me to how and what freshmen students hear, how they respond, and how they interpret the Gospel engaging their present aims and future goals.

My Facebook feed is blowing up right now with announcements and prayer requests from my InterVarsity colleagues and students preparing for New Student Outreach, just a scant 3 weeks away from the start of classes at many universities in North America. I am full of joy for them, and pray the Lord grants them the fullness of his Holy Spirit as they proclaim that one name by which we are saved. (Acts 4:12)

Here’s my invitation: Please join me on Thursdays at 8:55 AM, wherever you are in the world, and pray for freshmen, perhaps your daughter or son, and for the campus and those who serve there, and this prayer in particular: “How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?