Rogue One: Audio and Notes

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Audio for Sunday’s Msg? Click here.

And if you’re a reader – see below for a quick outline!


Psalm 34:8 – Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

Have you tasted? Have you seen how good the Lord is?

We all know that we come with our own baggage. We’ve experienced brokenness, pain, or confusion. Perhaps we’ve even contributed to the mess of this world.

And life can be a struggle. To have responsibility when we haven’t even fully arrived. To know that we have brought pain to others. It can be tough to trust ourselves b/c most of us are hardwired to go one way or the other.

  • To break the rules and rebel.
  • To follow the rules and judge.

And the things we leave in our wake can really damage ourselves and others.

What does God think about all that? And what if there was another way for us to go about our relationships?

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

The Prodigal Father and His 2 Sons (Luke 15:11-31) – Read it for yourself!

Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, I want to invite you to listen to what God’s grace for you today.

The Younger Son

  • Younger son asks for his inheritance, which is dishonorable and culturally unacceptable. He’s essentially telling his dad to go and die. He’s a mess-maker.
  • The younger son goes off into another land. A distant land. And he foolishly squanders his entire inheritance. He lives it up. Uncontrolled spending. Poor choices.
    • This son eventually ends up in a pigsty. Sleeping among the smells of these pigs and their crap. Imagine how destitute and hopeless he must have been!
  • The younger son hits rock bottom and has a moment of clarity.
    • He says, “I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, “Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” So he starts the journey back to his father.
  • God’s grace is an amazing reality. But like the younger brother, many of us struggle to even entertain the notion of God’s grace.
  • On his way back home, the younger son resigns himself to taking a lesser identity.
    • He says: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” (Luke 15:19)

The Father’s Love

  • God waits and searches for each one of us, no matter what kind of baggage you have.
  • As the son returns home, the father doesn’t see a mess-maker. He sees his beloved son. He sees you and me. And he restores us. He wraps us in the best robe and gives us his ring – symbols of his love, protection, and acceptance.
  • The father shames himself and bears the weight and cost of his son’s offenses.
    • God, in Jesus, has borne the weight and cost of your offenses because he loves you!
  • There is no distance you can go where God’s love does not pursue you.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

The Older Brother

  • As the story ends, we find out that the older brother is really ticked off.
  • The older brother is the exact opposite of the younger brother. He’s responsible, faithful.
    • Can’t stand what’s happening between his father and his mess-maker brother.
  • The reality of God’s grace:
    • It’s SHOCKING. It’s SCANDALOUS. And it calls you to respond.
    • The father comes to the older son and reminds him – Come celebrate! What was lost is now found! And all that I have is yours.
    • God operates on an economy of abundance, not scarcity.

“A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.” – Thomas Merton

Whether you’re more like the younger son, the older son, or a combination of the two, no matter what you’ve experienced, no matter what your default is, God searches after you day after day. He went to the top of the hill and was nailed on a cross for you. He took two knees to the ground. He died and rose again because you’re worth it.

How will you respond? For some, your next step is to simply accept God’s grace and love for you for the first time. For others, God might be inviting you to go rogue like the Father.

How to Go Rogue: 6 Markers

  1. It challenges you to love those not like you.
    • When was the last time you had someone over who doesn’t look like you? Who doesn’t think the same way you do politically?
  2. It grants grace to the undeserving.
    • Who in your life doesn’t deserve grace? It may be time to release yourself from the anger and bitterness you’ve held onto for so long.
  3. It uplifts the marginalized.
    • Weep with those who weep, and celebrate with those who celebrate.
    • Who’s hurting in your community? In our society? Instead of judging, listen and choose to see others.
    • Luke 4:18-19: “Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord.
  4. It costs you something – time, resources, reputation.
  5. It serves others rather than yourself.
  6. It points you and others to Jesus. Can’t do it on your own.

How is God calling you to respond today?

Taste and see that the Lord is good.


For Life Group Next Steps, click here.

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Father’s Day: Why I Changed My Last Name

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What’s your first and last name?  Jonathan Ng. That’s spelled N-G. N like Nancy and G like George. And it’s pronounced like king, but without the k.

Since I was a kid, every time someone asked me to identify myself, I would rattle off the spelling of my last name. On occasion, I’d even copy my dad’s M.O. and throw in Nancy and George for safe measure. You learn to do these things quickly when you hear your parents on the phone, repeating tag lines after their last name. Or when you get puzzled looks from your teachers when they try to read your last name on the first day of school. Spelling and pronouncing my last name made it easier for everyone. It was efficient and anticipatory (my Chinese parents would be proud). But doing these things can only go so far.

Despite anything that I might say, I cannot hide the fact that my last name points back to my heritage and culture. Like so many other Americans from non-European backgrounds, my sovereign foundations are hardwired into my being and reflected in my skin, my person, and my name.

At times, people can choose to overlook my difference. That my last name distinguishes me as Chinese can be quickly passed over (Colorblind narrative). On other occasions, my difference can serve as a catalyst for celebration among friends and neighbors. Whether our shared experiences of diversity move past the superficial, though, often remains the ongoing question and invitation for each of us.

2 Minutes in My Shoes

When I was recently at the store trying to exchange a wrong-sized lightbulb, I experienced another approach to difference, one that shrouds itself in mainstream American expectations and the assumption that white is right.

As I walked up to the counter, I explained why I wanted to make an exchange. In customary fashion, the Lowe’s cashier lady asked for my name and contact to process my request. After spelling out my last name to her, I expected a brief silence, a quick line about how interesting my last name is, or maybe some surface-level chit-chat.

Instead, I got this:

Oh…. Huh! That’s so…You would think there’d be a vowel. There needs to be a vowel in there. I mean, I don’t get it, we’re in America.
And if you’re going to live here, you should just spell it the way the English language is supposed to work. I don’t understand why…

The Lowe’s cashier lady keeps going. I force a smirk and shake my head ever so slightly. Ignorance I can handle, but when my sense of belonging and being are called into question, we’re trudging in something much more nefarious. For a moment, I feel like I’m back in grade school again. I breathe and count to 3. But my mind has already kicked into overdrive…

I can’t believe she just said that.
Oh right, I’m not in downtown Austin.
…And she’s still talking.
Should I play this one off? Or should I call her out? Is it even worth it?

I remind myself that I still need her to give me a new light bulb. The smirk turns into a forced smile. But behind my constructed exterior, something inside of me burns. It’s been a long couple of years for so many POCs (people of color). I’m angry, and I’m tired. And all I can muster up in the moment is a sarcastic retort: “Yeah – I guess you can blame it on the people who named me.”

….And there’s that other last name….what is it … N-G-U-Y-something. That’s even worse – they pronounce it win.

Are you serious?

I try another tactic. Having just welcomed our first baby into the world, I just don’t have the energy for a full-on confrontation. So I opt for something more indirect: “Yeah – that can be tough. The English language can be tricky. There’s so many grammar rules. I used to be an English teacher for middle school in Dallas actually. And it was so annoying because I’d teach my students a rule, but then immediately, I’d have to teach them all the exceptions to the rule.”

Oh yeah – I guess that’s true. English is kinda tricky. There are a lot of rules that we just break….(awkward pause). Alright, well, we’re good to go. Here’s your new lightbulb. 

Finally.


Enduring Evil

Every time I experience racism this blatantly, I’m reminded of the lie that I’m less-than, that I don’t belong. I’m reminded of how I must fight against the powerful, dismantling forces of division, even as I struggle to love the ones perpetuating them. I’m also reminded that I can’t do this on my own. I need you. We need you.

This kind of racism shows up frequently enough in my life that I’m no longer surprised when it does. It’s what I grew up with, and it continues to remain a part of my experience. But my familiarity with this entrenched evil does not make it unimportant. The beliefs of this lady are not trivial. Unexamined, they can go on to fuel more tragedies and hate crimes that we’ve seen far too much of. Unchecked, they can rob people of their God-given glory and lie dormant within our communities.

For our communities to move forward in unity and equity, we need to recognize the lingering vestiges of white supremacy within our organizations. We need to repent of our complicity. We need to acknowledge the failings of colorblind narratives and theologies. We need people of all backgrounds and colors to step up, to use whatever power and influence they have to combat the ugly sin of racism.  When we begin to take these steps, I believe we will see the stronghold of structural racism being dismantled within us and also our communities.

But we have a long journey in front of us. Throughout this past week:

  • The Southern Baptist Convention struggled to pass a resolution denouncing the racism of the alt-right movement, and it only did so after extensive revisions.
  • The #PhilandoCastile ruling on Friday signaled yet another fissure in our society when it comes to race and justice.

Silence is no longer an option we can afford. 

A Choice in the Midst of Injustice

In a culture that only tenuously accepts us, difficult choices become our reality, and impossible situations become our norm.

With my baby daughter now in the world, there’s nothing more that breaks my heart than knowing that she will face the same things that I face. Don’t get me wrong – I’m an optimist by nature. But on this front, my optimism unquestionably yields to the sad reality that my difference, and hers, will not always be acknowledged and appreciated. Racism, both on the personal and systemic levels, is a part of this broken world that I’ve learned to endure and fight against.

I wish that all I needed to do is remind my daughter that Jesus loves her, that we love her.  I yearn for the kingdom to come in its fullness and make all things right. But in the here and now, I’ve had to learn how to cling onto the promise of Revelation 7:9 while also holding onto my present reality:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Rev. 7:9)

News flash: Heaven won’t be colorblind. One day, we will celebrate, know, and enjoy each other’s differences as God intends. But until that day, I will keep striving to cultivate communities that live as a picture and preview of God’s coming kingdom. I will keep battling against the surface-level diversity that has shackled our imagination. Until that day, I will keep living in tension, making choices that I do not always like making. 

Changing my last name’s spelling is only the latest choice I’ve had to make. (Don’t worry – it wasn’t some split-second decision I made because of what happened at Lowe’s. It’s been an option for years, and ironically, we got it done a few weeks before all this happened. All that’s left is for the paperwork to be processed). The choice isn’t a great one. A change in my last name’s spelling only moves the needle slightly for my daughter. In the eyes of some, we will still be seen as perpetual foreigners.  This is the lived reality that so many POCs wrestle with, and it’s painful.

So why the spelling change? (hint: it’s not about making it easier for others)
As I teach my daughter how to courageously respond to a world that may not always value her whole being, I’ve also chosen to try and protect her, however marginally, from the injustices I’ve experienced. 

Showing Up

In pockets of our communities, racism runs rampant in our world today. It shows up in our everyday interactions, and it will show up in the way my daughter experiences the world. But racism goes far beyond interpersonal relationships. It also shows up in the structures of our institutions, our churches, and our communities. As a new father, all I can do is keep showing up, too – to pray, resist, call out, lament, teach, and hope, even when I don’t want to. Even when I don’t want to change my last name.

So that’s what I’ll do.

And the next time someone asks me to identify myself, I’ll say: Jonathan Eng. That’s spelled E-N-G.

Hopefully, when that happens, Nancy and George can stay home with their little one, Elmer. Hopefully, you’ll show up instead – to listen, to learn, and to advocate for a different world.

Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

Yesterday Is More Important Than You Think

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. And yes, it’s significant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Japanese American WWI veteran reporting to the Santa Anita Assembly Center after EO 9066.

What’s Executive Order 9066?

Don’t be too surprised if you’re unfamiliar – it’s not often taught in our schools, and it’s mostly overlooked in our US history books (scrubbed might be a better word). Personally, I was unaware of it until a few years ago. Yet Executive Order 9066, signed during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, remains an important part of our history that must be remembered, even if recovering such memories proves to be difficult or disconcerting.

On February 19, 1942, FDR signed an order that paved the way for militarized zones to be set-up throughout the United States for the internment of Japanese Americans. While official language cites “militarized zones,” presidential speeches, interviews, and internal documents reveal that the government referred to these zones as concentration camps – a place where people are imprisoned, not for any crime, but on the basis of who they are. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and communities, labeled with tags, and forced to relocate in concentration camps, where military personnel set up machine gun towers with the guns aimed inside the camp. The collective trauma and communal devastation that Japanese Americans experienced under EO 9066 cannot be understated.

Learning from Our Yesterdays

It took decades of advocacy, activism, and even failed attempts within the court system for Japanese Americans to be heard, but in 1976, Gerald Ford officially rescinded EO 9066. Subsequently, Jimmy Carter created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980, which published its findings (Personal Justice Denied):

In sum, Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity…The broad historical causes that shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance about Americans of Japanese descent contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan.  A grave personal injustice was done to the American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.

Personal Justice Denied, by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians

Never Stop Questioning

In times when fear and anger seem to be high within our country, we have the opportunity to move forward together. And as a Christian, I believe the church is called to proclaim and embody the gospel – particularly in this tense space. Yet without a willingness to dialogue and reconsider our assumptions, we will miss that opportunity and opt for a more segregated and more divided nation.

However you identify politically, and whoever you might be ethnically or racially, consider these next steps:

  1. Fast from your Facebook feed.
    • Take a break from social media, especially if it’s damaging your relationships. Your newsfeed is a mirror of yourself. It’s designed to reinforce your views. Let’s learn to look outside.
  2. Make time to listen to those different from you.
    • If you’re Caucasian, would you be willing to seriously consider a POC’s (person of color) perspective that differs from your own? Invite a friend to coffee, and come with honest questions. Ask for permission to learn from their experiences. And then listen with an open heart – without interrupting, correcting, or judging.
    • If you’re a POC, would you be willing to sit down with a Caucasian friend and begin the journey of reconciliation? You may have legitimate fear in doing this. It might be awkward. But your story is valuable, and without you owning it, our voices will remain unheard. And who knows, you might learn something new, too.
  3. Read, Listen, and Watch Widely.
    • Personal stories are great, but they only scratch the surface. Here are a few things that I’m reading (let me know if you’re interested in discussing these!):
      • The Making of Asian America – Erika Lee’s work covers a wide breadth of Asian American history and experience and examines the complicated function of race (from ‘despised minority’ to ‘model minority’) as it relates to Asian Americans.
      • Divided by Faith – From over 2,000 individual surveys, Michael Emerson & Christian Smith dive into evangelical white America and investigate the racial divide that plagues the American church.
      • “I Overlooked the Rural Poor – Then Trump Came Along” By Tish Harrison Warren
      • The Warmth of Other Suns – Written by Isabel Wilkerson, this book documents 3 individuals through their migrations in America. Winner of several literary awards.
      • Silence – Set in Japan during the 1600s as it experienced colonization and the Portuguese mission, this historical fiction presses into the question of God’s silence in the midst of faith, pain, and suffering. By Shusaku Endo. Now adapted into a motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese and in theaters.
    • Find several reputable news sources. Get outside of the vacuum.
  4. Ask questions out of curiosity, not judgment.
    • It’s easy to ask questions simply to assess whether a person is on your side or not. It’s more difficult, but much more rewarding, to ask questions out of genuine curiosity. Engage in the art of learning. Listen with empathy. Consider whether you might need to surrender any of your preconceived notions or deeply held beliefs.
  5. Advocate with conviction and civility.
    • We all have different starting points. It takes a journey, a process, and a community of trusted friends to move forward in racial reconciliation. I’m not the same person that I was 5 years ago, and sometimes I have to remind myself of that as I learn to love and serve among differences.

And – if you’re out in Los Angeles, make a short trip to the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. My family just did this last weekend, and we found it incredibly insightful and historically significant as we learn to interpret our times. EO 9066 literally changed our American landscape and severely impacted the generational consciousness of US citizens.

Our times offer us an opportunity to move towards something different than our current narratives. Let’s start questioning, friends.

“The important thing is to not stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

A Pastor’s Response to the Refugee Ban

Living in Tension

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In this time of political turmoil, the consciousness of the church is being stirred, poked, and prodded. Will we wake up? As we’ve witnessed an executive order to ban refugees and the subsequent responses from the ACLU and the judicial branch, where is the church? Will we respond in ways that reflect what Jesus taught and embodied, or will we remain asleep, blissfully ignorant or complacent as we silently slumber away with our comfortable, self-interested versions of the gospel?

As a pastor, I serve at an Austin church that is predominately Caucasian, politically diverse, and spiritually made up of people who fall between a wide spectrum of faith, from questioning to leading. I love our people, and everyday, I’m learning more how to love and serve people who may think, look, and act differently than me. And everyday, I’m reminded that God’s call was never meant to be easy. The call of Jesus has always entailed dying to ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus. There are days when this feels nearly impossible for me. But there are also days when I catch glimpses of another world entering into our own, giving us a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Oh, that this would be a day when we see the kingdom of God coming!

So I pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it in heaven…”

So What’s With the Uproar?

If you’re reading this and you’re wondering why some have responded so viscerally to the executive order to ban refugees, I invite you to listen, just for a few moments. Aside from serving as a pastor, I am the son of immigrants, the child of a refugee mother who fled to Hong Kong during the political unrest of China’s “Great Leap Forward,” and I am deeply disturbed at the rhetoric that is now priming to become policy in our country.

The executive order to temporarily close our country to refugees does not only assault my personal sensibilities, it offends the very fabric of our Christian faith and our shared humanity with all people. As Pope Francis, speaking on Matthew 25, recently stated,“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

The imago Dei in each of us runs above any nationality that we might claim, or any religion we might profess. Human dignity does not primarily reside within our citizenship; it arises out of God’s image being placed inside of us. So when our neighbors seek our help, no matter their political, religious, social, ethnic, or racial background, we are called to recognize their God-given dignity, to love them, and to welcome them. Refusing to love and advocate for those in need breaks relationship between us and our neighbors and also between us and God. 

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But What About..?

As Christ followers, we may disagree with how we vet refugees. We can debate over the efficacy of our current process. Some of us may rightly fear terrorism and ISIS and desire governmental action. What we cannot escape, however, is God’s call for his followers to “love the stranger among you, for you were strangers” (Deut. 10:19). Ultimately, we are not people of fear, but people of faith, hope, and love. As theologian Miroslav Volf has written, “Exclusion is barbarity within civilization, evil among good, crime against the other right within the walls of the self” (Exclusion & Embrace). Myopic exclusion on the basis of religion, race, or national origin leads to violence towards ourselves and the other. It feeds into the cycle of hate and division in this world. It results in things like the slavery of African Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese internment camps in 1940s America, and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in describing his approach to nonviolent resistance, minced no words when he wrote against faith that is useless:

“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of [humanity] and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” (Pilgrimage to Nonviolence)

Both Volf and MLK show us that faith, if it is any faith worth having, must always find a concrete expression in our everyday ethics and relationships. For MLK, an embodied faith led him to struggle against segregation and the racialized structures he saw around him. Following Jesus cost him.

What will an embodied faith look like for us today?

The Refugee God

For some of us, we may want to consider who our faith is built upon before we consider what our faith should look like.

It was Jesus who showed us to love those who are different from us. When he entered into Samaria on the way to Jerusalem, he intentionally crossed over political, religious, social, and gender lines to meet a woman who had been tossed aside by her own people (John 4). While most Jews would have traveled around Samaria to avoid its people, Jesus intentionally opted to enter into the region. He risked ostracization among his own followers. He challenged the social and political norms of interaction because he was on a mission – “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus refused to bow down to fear, hypocrisy, and hatred.

It was also Jesus who taught us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31), and to love your enemy (Matt. 5:44).

And finally, it was Jesus who came to us as a refugee. In Jesus Christ, our God entered a world in which his parents were forced to flee from a political leader set on eliminating him and an entire generation of Jewish infants for fear of losing his power and authority. Jesus is the refugee God who came to rescue us.

This Jesus calls us to follow him and discover life (Mark 8:34). Faith is much more than belief. It involves actively following Jesus and living out God’s commands.

Let’s act.

A wholesale ban or a religious test on refugees should alarm us, for it runs counter to the very faith that Jesus calls us towards. While we have yet to fully determine the long-term aim of the current ban, we can begin to embody our faith. Throughout the expanse of scripture, God has always called his people to care for the orphan and to welcome the foreigner among you:

  • Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17)
  • When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19: 33-34)
  • How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 John 3:17)
  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

God doesn’t call us to love people who are just like you; God calls us to love strangers – the very people who are not like you. If we were to modernize the parable of the good Samaritan, we might call it the parable of the good Muslim (see Luke 10:25-37). We are called to choose faith over fear, to risk love for our neighbors, to compassionately welcome those who are different from us, and to seek individual and systemic justice for others who are powerless to seek it for themselves.

Today, we are faced with the largest refugee crisis in human history. Refugees represent some of the world’s most marginalized and victimized people. Through no choice of their own, they have been forced to flee their war-torn home and neighborhoods, only to enter into a foreign country that may not altogether want them there. Their future in our country remains unclear. In the midst of these realities, our faith urges us to love out of a prophetic imagination.

How will you respond?

May your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Where Do We Go From Here?

On the anniversary of September 11th, I’m reminded of the sheer evil that can be manifested in any and all of us. I remember the shock and horror I felt when I heard the news of planes crashing into the twin towers in NYC. I remember the confusion, the theories, and then the crushing reality of terrorism. I also realize that this day in history continues to impact us. It is not a distant memory but a moment that still shapes us as we recall the precious lives we lost, grieve, and reflect. Today, as I stare down the long, dark corridor that hate and fear have since carved in the wake of 9/11, I wonder like I did back then – where do we go from here?

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“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s one of the most well-known maxims of our day. It’s taught within our communities and our families. It’s found within our ancient religious teachings and emerging spiritualities. It runs across our different cultures, capturing the higher imaginations of our broken humanity. Yet despite its near universal value, it remains one of the most difficult teachings to live out. Try as we might to struggle towards progress, more often than not, we find ourselves backpedaling in futility, tripping over each other and ourselves over and over again. Fear of the “other” grips us. Ignorance leads us to unwelcome. What would it look like if we truly learned to love our neighbors as ourselves? How would the landscape of our cities change if we saw beyond labels?

Something’s Missing

How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does it mean for us to serve our city? And as the challengers to Jesus once remarked, “Who is my neighbor?”

As I settle back into Austin, I sometimes wonder what the contours of my compassion will look like in the coming weeks and months. Will I only love those like myself, or will I learn to recognize the pain and need of people trapped in the greatest refugee crisis in history? Will I sit callous at the turmoil of others, or will I see into the plight of Native Americans who are protecting their land and their way of life? Will I remain sure about my convictions, or will I listen to the forgotten, small town, white Americans who are struggling with the economic changes of today? Will I live my own life, or will I hear the long cry for justice from my black brothers and sisters while also recognizing the sacrifices, the risks, and the responsibilities of our police officers? How I choose to define neighbor signifies an important decision. It changes everything, and yet it changes nothing. Good intentions alone have never moved us towards greater love and equity. 

Serving the Other

Several months ago while I was still in LA, I had the opportunity to serve the homeless in Rosemead with a friend of mine I’ll call J . I met J a couple weeks earlier, and his compassion to serve others was evident from the first moments we interacted. With an uncontainable excitement, J shared about his desire to serve the community. I could sense his joy and his genuine heart. Despite having very little for himself, and still struggling to maintain regular work to support himself at his trailer park home, J counted himself blessed. This took me by surprise. I soon found out that he had recently experienced God’s love breaking into his life and helping him out of his drug habit. With a renewed sense of identity, J discovered a passion to help others with his same background. So he acted upon it. He looked around his neighborhood. He saw the homeless with the eyes of Christ and, with echoes of the four friends bringing the paralytic to Jesus (Mark 2), J’s heart compelled him to seek the good of his neighbors.

J started simple – he wanted to meet the physical needs of those around him, so he hatched a plan to cook food for those on the streets. On his own dime, J bought ingredients to prepare tacos for his homeless neighbors.

J then invited me to join him. That weekend, I met him at his home with a couple other friends. Together, we put together care packages that included J’s tacos, socks, water bottles, and basic necessities. As we started to make our rounds to the pockets of homeless communities in the area, we introduced ourselves and provided them with gift bags. But it wasn’t this activity of serving that I found significant. Instead, it was the act of getting to know our neighbors and praying for them by name that began to place me into shared relationships with others. There were people like Frances, Bobby, and Vu, who lived within the fenced confines of an abandoned industrial building and parking lot. There were also those hanging out at the park – Jeanette, Jamie, Richie, Robert, and Roy. And Mando, Chris, and Ambrosia.

Learning their names moved me towards kinship with my homeless neighbors, and something about that felt beautiful and right. It mirrored, if only in a faint way, the kind of love God first loved us with. The act of neighboring taught me to see the homeless, not as objects to be served, but as subjects created in the image of God, full of dignity and worth.

Compassion as a Precursor for Love and Justice

When J, my friends, and I jumped into conversation with our neighbors, my initial hesitancies and prejudices subsided. In place of those things, I started to see something vibrant and new appearing. In our mingling, talking, praying, and crying, compassion had somehow emerged. People were acknowledged. Stories were heard.

Over the next few weeks, we visited our neighbors more. With each interaction, our compassion for one another increased, leading us to experience mutuality with each other. We heard both their triumphs and their struggles. We prayed for each other. We even began to explore how we could bring about restorative justice to those on the fringes of society. There was something divine at work.

Imagine how different our world would be if we lived with compassion rather than fear? It’s a worthwhile  question for us to ponder as we seek not only to serve others but to know and love them for how and who God has created them to be. How might you love where you live as you learn to respect, love, and empower the dignity of another? What kind of world do we want to leave behind for those who come after us?

“For the measure of our compassion is not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them, in mutuality.” – Father Greg Boyle

In Austin and Interested in Serving the City? 

Photo by refreshment_66 (Flickr)

 

 

A Call to Embrace

A Syrian refugee child who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud.

Photo Credit: Reuters

While I will always have roots in Texas, there have been times when I have wanted to disassociate from the land of BBQ and football. This is one of those times.

An Assault on Humanity
Over the weekend, ISIS attacked and bombed Paris and Beirut, leaving hundreds dead. On November 16, 2015, Governor Greg Abbott released an open letter to the POTUS, stating that Texas would not be accepting Syrian refugees. Several other state governors joined him in a position that reeks of xenophobia.

Attempting to hide behind the guise of self-preservation, Abbott’s statement is nothing less than violence on our shared dignity as humans. It assaults the basic humanity that all people share and all governments should protect. And it makes me concerned.

The letter that Abbot penned is held together by a loose and fragile argument. It argues that in order to protect Americans from the possibility of danger, Texas will no longer accept refugees. Abbott’s letter (and many of the other letters from US governors) operates behind a thin veneer of good intentions and misinformation. Break through it, and we find the festering issues of fear, elitism and a hardened moral conscience. Abbott would have us think that an American life is more valuable than a Syrian refugee’s; he would have us believe that Syrian refugees are ISIS militants (the identified attackers were all EU nationals); he would have us say to those with their backs up against a wall, “I will not help. Your suffering is yours to bear”; he would have us turn away from Syrian men, women and children and exercise a willful ignorance of human suffering.

Abbott’s brand of nationalism sets up a false barrier that obscures our shared humanity with all people in the world. There is a place for nationalism (and also a robust vetting process). But when we decide to primarily see ourselves as Americans and the “other” as foreigner, we place our national citizenship above our God-given humanity. At best, this results in a distance between me and the “other,” and at worst (and this is more often the case), it creates fear, distrust and the false belief that others do not deserve the protection and preservation of their universal human dignity.

Good Samaritans?
Self-preservation at the cost of neglecting refugees is something that we must wholeheartedly refuse. Accepting Abbott’s position pushes refugees into a more precarious and threatening situation than they are already in. It selfishly attempts to abdicate our moral responsibility as we “pass by on the other side of the road.” While I recognize that not all readers of this blog are Christ-followers, I believe most of us are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

As a society, it’s curious and ironic how we have chosen to apply the Good Samaritan principles to our everyday life. We teach our children to help those in need. We rehearse to each other that we should find ways to seek the welfare of our neighbors. Yet we also find ourselves afraid. In our culture of litigation and self-preservation, we have found ways to hardwire ourselves to not help.  Being a good Samaritan often comes at the cost of fearing for one’s own well-being. We have actually made laws to protect those who help others in dire situations – and we call these our “Good Samaritan” laws. In the name of self-preservation, we have created a culture where it has become dangerous to help. We have inoculated ourselves from compassion and justice.

Practicing Embrace
It is unlikely that the states  have the legal authority to refuse refugees. So I wonder how we will ultimately respond to this global crisis. When Syrian refugees come, will we embrace them in our common humanity, or stand at a distance, refusing to allow them into our own neighborhoods and schools? Tolerating refugees is not acceptance, but rather a continued marring of our neighbor’s human dignity that contributes increased disillusionment and resentment.

As I write this, I am thankful that other governors have expressed welcome to refugees. France itself is maintaining its commitment to accept 30,000 refugees. However, I am still shocked and ashamed at the response of so many of our governmental leaders.  I am appalled at the amnesia of our country on our history. One governor recently cited the Japanese internment camps as a positive example of why it would be prudent to close our nation to Syrian refugees. Smh….Have we learned so little? I currently attend a church with former Japanese internees, and I cannot imagine the collective pain they had to endure during WWII as US citizens. If we want to dismantle the fear of terrorism, then our call is one of embrace. We must sit and listen to our global neighbors; we must learn their stories and lament the evil that has robbed them of their home and way of life; we must stand side-by-side with refugees, understanding that our journeys are inextricably shared. Embrace teaches us to love each other and find our identities in our interconnectedness, not in isolation from each other. As Desmond Tutu has expressed, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

The assault on humanity must be confronted with our commitment to embrace. I pray that we will not repeat history, that we will not stand on the sidelines in silence. I pray that we will practice the mission and embrace of Christ – “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord.” I pray that we will choose compassion and justice.

4 Ways to Practice Embrace:
1. Write your governor and your political representatives. Organize and make our voices heard.
2. Contact your local refugee services. Ask what they are currently doing to help Syrian refugees. Consider partnership.
3. Serve local refugees already in your area. Listen, lament, serve and embrace.
4. Support refugees internationally through reputable organizations.

  • International Rescue Committee is providing immediate medical and emergency supplies.
  • American Refugee Committee is partnering with local communities to provide safe spaces for women and children, prevent violence against women and deliver emergency supplies.
  • Shelterbox is delivering tents and lifesaving supplies.
  • Save The Children is addressing the need for educational access, providing alternative learning services and training teachers. Also providing emergency relief.
  • World Relief is developing local partnerships and empowering local communities and churches to serve the needs of refugees. Also providing immediate tents and supplies.
  • World Vision is providing immediate aid, shelter, food/water, and sanitation services.

 

Exposed: Gay Marriage, SCOTUS and the Church

exposed

Exposure: the moment or instant when what was hidden becomes revealed

Background: For the past few days, I have typed, deleted and struggled with writing this. However, in what has been a rapidly polarizing issue, I could not help but hold onto the hope that we might finally see each other as brothers and sisters who share a common humanity, even amongst our difference.

There is a movement in this country towards something different, and it has been a long time coming. No doubt, Friday’s Supreme Court decision on gay marriage has already been hailed and derided, celebrated and challenged. Whether you and I see it as progress or regression (or something else altogether) will largely depend on a number of factors, including: your political associations, your moral frameworks, your friendships and family, your culture, your theological convictions, and your understandings of identity and sexuality.  I do not intend to unpack all of those issues, but I acknowledge that there is no shortage of perspectives out there. For some, emotions, questions and thoughts are still effervescing towards the surface: How should I respond? Should I agree or disagree? Is there another option?  How can I be in solidarity with others?

Context: I believe that any response must be couched within context. Gay marriage is a deeply complex issue embedded in our national consciousness and history. It touches upon a multi-layered arena of politics, humanity, society and religion. But beyond the complexity, it is also a surprisingly simple issue. For our culture, gay marriage has primarily become an issue about equality, about common humanity. And this will not change anytime soon. As a Christian, recognizing how the primacy of our common humanity intersects with the issues of gay marriage and gay rights has been the single most important lesson I have learned from my LGBTQ and same sex attraction (SSA) friends. 

Whether you support gay marriage or not, I would encourage you to recognize the context in which you and I live. This IS our reality: America is no longer a Christian nation, the law of our land has changed and sexuality has become an identity-constituting reality.

Considering Marriage and Hegemony: No amount of praying and pining for a bygone era of Christendom will change the reality we live in. The way forward is not backward. And I’m not really sure that’s where we would want to go, even if we could. Consider how a Christian majority championed reparative therapy, a set of practices that were psychologically painful for many and has now been abandoned by Exodus International, the very ministry that had advanced it (Exodus International officially closed its doors in mid 2013). Consider how a Christian majority watched, perhaps unknowingly, as many of its own struggled to understand their faith in the context of identifying feelings of attraction towards the same gender. Consider also that a Christian majority produced the hate-filled invectives of Westboro Church. While I recognize that many of our churches never actively participated in picketing gay parades with signs reading, “God hates f*gs” and “You’re going to hell,” neither did they challenge nor correct the misplaced views of a judgmental few in any substantial way. Instead, silence generally prevailed (which makes me grateful for those who have stood in the gap and have built bridges with LGBTQ communities over the years). Whether this silence arose from fear, ignorance or resistance is a matter of our own hearts. But in our silence, a vacuum was created, which hate, fueled by the frenzy of media and the often myopic cluelessness of the church, quickly filled. Hate became the dominating message that the LGBTQ communities and individuals (including those within the church) received from the evangelical Christian church, even if it was not a message that many of us would have ever intended. Hate localized itself against the identity of the individual, and the church largely did very little to display God’s love.

So, no, I do not believe the answers we seek reside in a time before the SCOTUS decision. Even if you might disagree with gay marriage, going back to where we were before would only mean returning to a scarred land, where, for years, much of the church already functionally redefined marriage through its treatment of divorce. That is what hegemony produced – the unassailable and affronting ability to decide which matters matter, and which ones don’t. And that is not what the church or the world needs today.

Confession: 

For the church: There is much to confess in the church and to the world. Perhaps we can begin where we are, laying ourselves prostrate before the God who is neither surprised nor taken aback by the SCOTUS decision. What might confessing our silence and inaction when our neighbors were labeled as subhumans look like? What might confessing hypocrisy around marriage and divorce mean for us? And how can we do confession, not just with God, but with those who have been hurt? Perhaps we can see those who are gay and lesbian as people first. Perhaps we can attempt to understand our context – instead of responding out of context in a blind attempt to maintain a cultural hegemony that no longer exists (For starters, the legal definition of marriage can be different from the church’s sacramental definition of marriage). If nothing else, perhaps we can turn to the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe then we will begin to see a way forward.

For gay marriage advocates: I have been grieved to hear how Christians who have civilly and respectfully disagreed while still recognizing another’s humanity are being derided as bigots. It would be a mistake to ignore differences, but I hope and pray that we can be a nation of people who see each other’s humanity before the difference. I personally refuse to believe that all LGBTQ communities are perpetuating a response of hatred and division. If I have learned anything from the lives of LGBTQ and SSA individuals whom I call friends, it is that hate cannot be given residence anywhere. So as the right to marry now legally extends beyond it’s traditional definition, can we find a way forward where the humanity of all is respected?

Whatever your response might be in light of Friday’s decision, the archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has written this insightful statement, which I quote from directly:

This judgment, however, does not absolve either those who may approve or disapprove of this decision from the obligations of civility toward one another. Neither is it a license for more venomous language or vile behavior against those whose opinions continue to differ from our own. It is a decision that confers a civil entitlement to some people who could not claim it before.

I believe the Spirit of God is hovering over our churches and our communities. He hears our questions and our confusion. He sees our best (and worst) intentions. Yet ours are not the only voices he hears or people he sees. Our LGBTQ neighbors – their cries and their questions – also make themselves heard in the ears of God. And as the noise of our sometimes disparate voices come together in cacophonous fashion, I wonder what this triune God might be saying to us all. What is he speaking to us, this God, who acts according to his love, his mercy and his justice? And are we willing to listen?

To Non-Blacks: On Charleston

PC: Matella Merlo

Do I sit shellshocked from tragedy,
Or do I stand beside those suffering,
Remembering the saints shot down?
Do I find solace in the capture of a terrorist,
Or do I struggle to find a pulse for justice and shalom,
Among the rubble of our failing communities?
Do I remain silent,
With words unformed and thoughts untethered,
Or do I lament over a nation so fractured, frightened, frail?
—————————————————————-
Charleston, voices suddenly summoned,
Joining the song of black men, women and children,
Too long obscured or placated.
Do I hear mine among them?
Or do I find my silence masquerading itself,
On the sidelines of convenience?
Do I hide behind the comfort of my non-black skin,
Or do I awaken, finally, this day,
marred by the residue of black blood spilled?
—————————————————————-
Constructed from the unarmed, now still,
#BlackLivesMatter,
The anthem rings.
A church prayed,
Shots pierced the sky.
9 dead. June 17, 2015.
Racism, stark and unfiltered indeed,
Quick to distance ourselves,
Are we still so blind, so naive?

Saying Bye to Aloha’s Whitewashing

aloha

photo credit: columbia pictures

Why Hollywood continues to think it’s a good idea to cast white people to play the role of Asians and Asian Americans is confounding. I mean, I’m glad that Emma Stone’s character in Aloha, Allison Ng, shares my last name. At least people will finally get a chance to learn how to pronounce it (if you’re wondering, Stone’s character apparently helps here: “It’s ring without the r”). But that withstanding, have we really progressed so little, Hollywood? Did the offensiveness of Charlie Chan not catch your ears decades before?

To his credit, Director Cameron Crowe has issued an apology to the litany of responses regarding his casting choice of Emma Stone to play the character, Allison Ng. I only wish he arrived at his cultural ah-ha moment earlier. It would have saved him the bad PR and several critical reviews of his movie.

Asian American history is nuanced yet powerfully compelling, sometimes subtle but always worth discovering and retelling. Our history gives voice to the experiences of immigration, identity and cultural adaptation and preservation. It includes the stories of global icons, like the Filipino boy who rose from abject poverty to success in the international boxing scene. It also resides in the lives of lesser-known individuals who live in our midst, like the Chinese-American grandmother I met last year who grew up in Tennessee and navigated her ambiguity during the largely black-white polemic of the Civil Rights Era (she also happens to have one of the thickest southern accents I’ve ever heard). The more recent emergence of hapa voices add to the diversity and richness of what constitutes Asian America, reminding us to safeguard ourselves from making others into “Others.” This brings me to why I am so disappointed at Aloha.

Cultural research cannot fix the screaming omission of a people. While I admire Crowe’s willingness to learn about Hawaiian culture and history and applaud him for partnering with Hawaiian communities, no amount of research can replace representation. Through its actors, a movie always take on a certain form, regardless of motivation. Iron Man would not be the same if comedian Jim Carrey played Tony Stark. He just doesn’t fit the part. Carrey could try to play the role against the backdrop of meticulous, director-driven research, but he would still not be the right fit for Iron Man’s comic book persona coming to the big screen. So also Emma Stone, a white actress, cannot convincingly play the part of Allison Ng, a hapa who is 1/4 Hawaiian, 1/4 Chinese and 1/2 Swedish. Form matters. And so do people.

Casting aside, some say Crowe has done a respectable job of representing aspects of Hawaii (caveat: I probably will never fully know since I have no plans to see the movie). I believe he falls woefully short. If representing Hawaii was what he was after, choosing a nearly all white cast did not position him well for achieving that goal. Instead, Crowe reinforced the practices of whitewashing in Hollywood that continue to ignore the multi-ethnic America we live in.

Save the $12 friends. We don’t just need better story-telling, we need better forms of story-telling. We need more accurate depictions of our experiences, our cultures and our peoples. And Disney if you’re wondering, we don’t want a white Mulan.

Why Worship is Connected to #blacklivesmatter

“This worship is so distracting.” Ironic and surprising, it never occurred to me that in the very act of worshipping God, the worst parts of my heart would be revealed. Judgmentalism. Ignorance. Even my own cooked up version cultural imperialism, complete with my Asian American preferences. And all this from someone leading in ministry and accustomed to multi-ethnicity and diversity.

Connecting the Dots: Worship and #blacklivesmatter

Blacklivesmatter

Throughout this year, the #blacklivesmatter movement has highlighted systemic issues of injustice while also raising urgent questions and concerns that we must address together. The loss of life has pained me, and the issues that have emerged have catapulted me on a journey of reconciliation. I have marched with activists and communities in Austin, prayed for God’s justice to renew our land and mourned with others over the senseless loss of life. All of these activities suggest that I stand together with my Black friends and for the cause of justice. But my move to LA revealed otherwise.

One recent Sunday, when I was visiting a church and worshipping in community, my focus subtly turned from God’s glory to my comfort. Seamlessly and without circumstance, this change was not even noticed at first. It was unmeasured, unquestioned and remarkably ordinary. Then, as quickly as that mental switch had occurred, I found myself entertaining thoughts both familiar and foreign to me: “This worship is so distracting.” “How come they can’t play some other songs?” “Maybe I should go somewhere else.”

Cloaked in the shadows of my heart, I soon came to realize that I did not appreciate certain expressions of worship. As someone committed to a biblical vision of diversity, this was both ironic and difficult for me to accept. I didn’t like seeing myself as someone perpetuating marginalization. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter that I believed myself to be respectful and appreciative of other forms of worship. In that moment, all my convenient and self-realized niceties were exposed. And there beside them laid a seedbed for injustice, racism and disunity. How did I get here?

Worship: Disintegration or Prophetic Witness?

The tendency to make sense of the world pushes us to categorize differences. Chinese/Korean, Black/White, Vegetable/Fruit. Whether in worship or in life, it’s human, and it’s normal. (For some solid reading on this, check out Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ.)

Categorizing, however, rarely stands alone. It latches onto other thought patterns, like meaning-making or jumping to unfair assumptions, and becomes a powerful source of disintegration.  In worship, when I choose to disassociate from the unfamiliar and gravitate towards my “normal,” I am asserting that my style is better and more authentic. At this point, worship becomes self-centered. And anytime worship becomes self-centered, it reinforces corporate disintegration, not just through our (non) participation of praise but also between our lives and in the ways we view each other as less-than.

Our churches must not succumb to the disintegrating tyranny of self-centered worship. Instead, we must begin to see Sundays as an opportunity for us to participate in the familiar and unfamiliar patterns of worship.* Diverse worship is a source for transformation. It is an invitation to enjoy our differences and acknowledge the beauty, pain and redemption that are captured within our unique worship styles. Diverse worship is also an act of prophetic witness. It bears testimony to the day when #blacklivesmatter is no longer chanted, when microaggressions are no longer experienced and when systemic injustices are no longer in power. Diverse worship points to the day when God’s kingdom has come and Christ has renewed all things and all peoples.

But what about that distracting song?

“Still, that worship is distracting.” Granted, maybe that worship is genuinely distracting. Not every form of worship glorifies God (e.g. the golden calf was clearly not a good idea).  But what if that distracting worship was actually a foretaste of God’s kingdom? What if it revealed that our cultural styles of worship were more than something to be consumed? What if that distracting worship served as a signpost for God’s very heart for “a multitude of people…from all tribes, tongues and nations”? (Rev. 5:9, 7:9). Worship is a litmus test for our actual values for multi-ethnicity and racial reconciliation. As you invite His Spirit to search your heart, I hope you will discover, like I have, that there is much room to grow. The journey of racial reconciliation is always an ongoing, iterative process, and worship serves as a means to creatively pursue it in community.

The Fruits of Diverse Worship

Engaging in diverse worship transcends my preferences for church. It is a call to recognize my myopic entitlement, to die to my self-preservation and to glorify God through the different gifts of worship. It is a call to listen for the voice of God resonating out of every culture around me. It is a call to see beyond my world and into the world of others, where #blacklivesmatter. To engage in diverse worship is to answer the call for reconciliation and to see the other as infinitely valuable and worthy in Christ.

Resources:

*While worship in its full sense involves a lifestyle, I am primarily writing to address worship in song.