Coming Soon: Church Start-Up

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Just over two years ago, Gloria and I decided to make a home in South Austin. Now, coming fresh off of Gateway’s 20 year celebration, we’re getting ready to be on the move again.

As I reflect on my time with Gateway Church in South Austin, I can’t help but celebrate the life change I’ve experienced. This has been a healing and sending community.

In my time with our community, I’ve gotten a front-row seat to God restoring people, renewing relationships, and bringing hope to our city. I’ve witnessed broken marriages becoming reconciled and relationships discovering healthy boundaries and new vitality. I’ve gotten a taste of how God can bring together different cultures and ethnicities to pursue justice, truth, and healing. And it is so good. I’ve come alongside 20 and 30 somethings as they seek out purpose and begin to discover all that they are created to be. I’ve seen our upcoming generation following Jesus and impacting our world in places like Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Life by life by life, Jesus has demonstrated his faithfulness to us and to this world.

Our Gateway South Staff Team, 2018

Serving with Gateway South has been an unexpected gift. I’m grateful to work alongside some of the most amazing women and men who are on mission to serve our city and our world. My wife often jokes that I’ve been spoiled with incredible bosses and co-workers, and I can’t say that she’s wrong.  I’ve been blessed to partner with people who live and serve as wounded healers. The friendships I’ve developed with our staff and our people have changed me from the inside-out.

And yet Gateway Church is not a perfect church. No church is. When I first started, I had my doubts about whether I could sustain my well-being and thrive as one of the few people of color on staff (we have three campuses in Austin). This is not uncommon for many people of color these days. Women and men who have been burned by organized religion can also struggle with questions around safety and belonging. Given the political and cultural climate we live in today and a leadership team primarily composed of the majority context culture, I initially did not know what to expect. And while I have experienced incredible healing over these past two years, there have also been times of personal tension, pain, and frustration. When those difficult moments have surfaced, I have been grateful for our leadership’s commitment to journey with me and others as we strive to become a church that welcomes and pursues all people. From the time when I stumbled across Eric Bryant and Tasha Morrison’s talk on race to our Refugee sermon series and our efforts to serve our homeless neighbors, I saw glimpses of our church’s heart to serve all people.  I also experienced firsthand our leadership’s willingness to listen to pain, apologize for mistakes in diversity, and make concerted commitments to learn and grow organizationally. Don’t get me wrong – we still have much to grow in, but I have been surprised by what I sense God doing through Gateway. Even as we celebrated our 20 year, I love that the proceeds of our event will benefit Hope Clinic, a local non-profit that a Gateway participant started to serve refugee families and individuals. I can’t wait to see the new chapters our community will write!

We’re not a perfect church, but we are committed to becoming and being a come-as-you-are community that reflects God’s love and God’s coming kingdom for all people. Not just for some of us, not just for people who look, think, and act like us, but for all of us. Our world needs communities that are unified in loving all people, and we need leaders who are willing to lead through listening. And it’s Gateway’s commitment to those things that brings me to what’s coming soon:

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Gateway’s 20th Year Celebration, Sept 23, 2018

Yesterday, Gateway announced our hopes to start a new campus in Pflugerville, where I will be serving as the campus pastor! I’ve loved partnering and growing with our South Austin campus. There’s a part of South Austin, our people, and our leadership teams that I’ll always carry with me (I’m grateful that I still have time with South). I’m also excited about this next season! Recently, I accepted Gateway’s invitation to start something new, and I wanted to invite you to pray for me and my family during this next season. Also, if you’re in the Pflugerville area and want to learn more, leave me a msg below! I’d love to connect with you and explore partnership as we serve our neighbors and communities.

To find out more, check out a portion of the letter I shared with others at our 20 year celebration:

Hi Gateway Family!

5 Fun Facts

  • I married up. My wife’s name is Gloria, and she’s definitely the better half.
  • I love coffee. It helps me keep up with our little one.
  • I’m a Chinese-American who was born in Austria and grew up in Dallas (feel free to ask me how my parents ended up in Europe for a season).
  • I love pursuing reconciliation and justice, taking new risks, and inviting others to follow Jesus.
  • I have a double-jointed pinky. It made playing piano difficult for me.

Why campus planting?

I believe we all yearn for a different world, a better world. Yet within our lives and across our different cultures and backgrounds, we see ever-deepening divisions, confusion, and pain. While we all long for healing and unity, the vision for a better world often feels too far out of reach. But what if we could cultivate a community that brings healing and learns to celebrate and honor our cultures? What if we could help create that world and usher in God’s love and justice, here and now? Campus planting provides an amazing opportunity for us to connect and serve locally, grow, and point others to God’s heart.

Through campus planting, we will prayerfully join with God to cultivate a new Gateway community sent out to bring life and freedom to every people group we touch. I can’t wait to see what God will do, and I’m excited that you are exploring partnership!

Why Pflugerville?

As the city of Austin has grown, Pflugerville has grown right alongside it. With new families and individuals moving in from out-of-state and displaced communities seeking more affordable housing options, Pflugerville has quickly become a destination of choice due to its proximity to Austin and its attractive livability. The recent population boom of Pflugerville has created an opportunity for Gateway Church to serve the unchurched across several different demographics of race, socioeconomic status, spiritual backgrounds, and life circumstances.

Partnership Opportunities:

  • Pray: Commit to praying for our campus plant on a daily or weekly basis.
  • Give: Sign up for monthly giving to financially support Gateway’s mission in Pflugerville.
  • Go: Explore how you can be part of the Launch Team for Gateway Pflugerville!

You are also invited to join our Gateway U Class (Beyond Colorblind), which I will be facilitating at our North campus in October. Go to www.gatewaychurch.com/gatewayu for more info.

I’m looking forward to connecting more with you in the coming days! Thank you for your desire to see Pflugerville transformed!

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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.

A Journey in Missions, Pt. 2

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Circa early 2000’s:

“Have you ever considered ministry?”

Excuse me, what? Of course I have. A few years back, the parking lot, sun blazing. It was really hot. No thanks.

Throwing the last pieces of drum equipment into their respective bags, I searched for the best way to respond. I mean, I didn’t want to offend the guest speaker for our winter retreat. Awkwardly, I looked up for a second. I guess it’s kind of an honor to be asked. But in my own teenage world of friends, fitting in, getting grades, running and eating uncontrollably because my metabolism was like rocket fuel, ministry was the furthest thing from my mind. So in my best attempt to be respectful while also seeming semi-interested, I muttered to him, “No, not really….why are you asking?” Great strategy, put it back on him. As I was busy congratulating myself on a well-played hand, he said a few things. After a few moments, he finished up. Right on cue, I said thanks and walked off, wondering why this guy, who I just met a few days ago, would ask such a substantial life question. I bet he probably said something that would’ve been helpful when I asked why. Maybe I should have paid attention. But I mean, I’ve got my whole life in front of me. I haven’t even graduated from high school yet, and I’m just trying to enjoy my winter break. So I side-stepped his question and trudged through the snowless fields of that Texas retreat center, the ground’s dead grass crunching in cadence with my really cool Nikes. Time to get on the bus and head back to Dallas.

In the following weeks, though, I couldn’t shake off the question. It was like those words had made landfall on my imagination and were now moving further into my comfortably constructed life (Well, really it was more my parents who had constructed it. I was just basking in it.) Then, the second wave came crashing in. Prayer times were littered with snapshot visions of ministry and what could be. Uninitiated conversations about calling kept happening with people I respected. It almost seemed like my youth pastor and the leaders were all colluding together to execute some sort of masterful, step-by-step plan to ask me the ministry question each time I saw them (I got so paranoid that I even asked one of them if they were somehow in concert with each other. They weren’t). And finally, the kicker. During that time, I wrestled with a lot of different parts of Scripture. Chief among them were John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” and Mark 8:34 “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

At some point during those two months, I slowly began to learn how to surrender to Christ and deny myself. Jesus was showing himself to be far better than anyone or anything in my life. I wouldn’t say that I was saying “yes” to ministry or “no” to ministry. Looking back now, I don’t think I even knew what ministry really was (that’s another post altogether). I was simply learning how to follow Jesus, the Faithful One who was and is my life, my strength and my eternal hope. In this satisfying surrender, I started to meet with the God of mission, this Hound of Heaven, who pursues me in Christ and reveals His heart to me.

It’s surprising how a few words, strung along together into a question, can so radically affect us. God’s words are different for each one of us. No matter who you are, what you do or where you are, God is present and speaking to you. As you meet with Him, what are God’s words for you? Where might his voice lead you? What is his call for you today? Don’t just listen. Respond. Only then will you know Him as the One who says, “Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home. Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat-and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet-
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

…..

Now of that long pursuit,
Comes at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
“And is thy Earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me.
Strange, piteous, futile thing;
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said),
“And human love needs human meriting;
How hast thou merited –
Of all Man’s clotted clay, the dingiest clot?
Alack! Thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee, I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms,
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home –
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

– Excerpts from “Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson

 Photo Credit: “Hound of the Baskervilles” by Bialy

A Journey in Missions, Pt. 1

stained glass

I grew up in a Chinese church in Dallas that supported missionaries. Every year, we would have a missions conference, and families serving in China or India or some other seemingly remote place in the world would come to share about what God was doing overseas. One Sunday, when I was still in middle school, a missionary came and shared his testimony with the church. I’m sure everything he said was great, but my mind was somewhere else. All I could think about were the difficulties this guy and his family had to endure.  No nice bathrooms, no $2.99 Cici’s pizza, no air-conditioning… and their kids probably didn’t have recess…  (clearly, my middle school sensibilities about difficulty were very far-ranging and insightful).  After the service ended, I distinctly remember walking out to the back parking lot of my church. The sun was blazing that day, slowly baking all of those Toyota mini-vans, Honda Civics and occasional BMWs that were nestled next to each other in neatly organized rows. Beads of sweat started to form near my forehead. It felt like the temperature was already climbing close to 100 degrees again. Wiping those first droplets off with my hand, I started to make my way back inside. Need air-conditioning, now.

But for a moment before I entered the church again, a thought registered in my mind. Why would anyone ever go on missions?

Lost in my thoughts, I swung open the door. Suddenly, a gust of cold air rushed past me. I walked in, doing my middle school version of cost-benefit analysis. Not a lot of money. No cool toys. And I think the guy mentioned needing to raise money. So lots of costs, but what were the benefits? I couldn’t think of any that day. So as I rounded the corner and saw a few of my friends, I said to myself, “I’m never going to be in ministry.”

Photo Cred: Eddy Van 3000

One Thing

“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple.”

As the start of a new year student ministry begins, I’m reminded of how it’s so easy for me to approach ministry and life dualistically, as if the two were somehow disassociated from each other.  Ministry can suddenly become so external to my life with Christ. I can serve, meet new students, invite people to respond to Christ and lead teams – and never once experience how Christ is meeting me and my community. But when I retreat or step back from ministry, then I can experience Jesus. Then, I can take out my cup o’ joe, journal a little bit and interact with Jesus in my constructed and self-determined space. And yes, in case you’re wondering, it’s air-conditioned and well-lit, with some soft background music.

Oh how much I yearn to meet with you more, Jesus. Would you break down these boundaries and usher me to behold and know your Presence, the very Presence who dwells inside of this body, this temple.

Silence and Race

I’ll be honest. For a long time, I have sat at the edges as I’ve watched the Zimmermann case unfold, hiding in the background and avoiding any controversy. My wife and I have had few quick dialogues about updates we’ve heard or posts we’ve seen on facebook, but none of our exchanges have lasted more than 2 or 3 minutes.

As a Chinese-American, this type of veiled silence is often normal and deadly. Like a festering wound left untreated, it eats away at my soul and the collective well-being of our brothers and sisters. Of course, there may be an initial acknowledgment that something is amiss, perhaps even a certain amount of expressed sorrow shared on social media. But then, soon after, there is that silence that typifies so much of my own response. There isn’t an immediate uproar about insensitive comments, not even a response. Though I’m not Japanese, I’ll have to borrow this proverb because I think it illustrates a shared value that is often true for many, but not all, Asian Americans: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” While this proverb has some great truth, this is not a time for us to remain silent.

I’m not here to pretend that I understand. There’s plenty behind this case that I will never understand. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m part of the in-between. I will never know what it’s like to be stopped by an officer because of my skin color. I will probably never experience the looks of distrust or fear that others face daily when they enter into a neighborhood. I will not get it on that visceral, internal, gut level way that my black friends do.

I’m not here to take sides, but…. I’m torn up, and my heart goes out to all those involved and touched by this case. No amount of words could ever bring back Trayvon to his family and friends, and no amount of words could ever describe Zimmermann’s experience over the past several months and what he still faces beyond this trail. Given the complexity of this case, there’s not much more that I can write that will be helpful here. However, as I read posts and reactions to this case from different perspectives, I cannot escape this reality: race still divides. Yes, the civil rights movement has secured on paper an equality for us all, and yes, we’ve progressed in so many ways. But underlying all of our suburban neighborhoods, city planning, justice systems and cultural consciences, there’s something that’s seriously rotting in us around the issue of race. And it stinks, guys. Our perceptions of race still carry significant implications on how we treat one another. Have doubts? Check this racial profiling video out (Thanks K Khang!)

I’m here. I’m here to pray for the day when Christ comes to heal all that is wrong and bring it to right. I’m here to listen to my brothers and sisters and learn from their own experiences. I’m here to commiserate when appropriate. I’m here to encourage dialogue and growth rather than unquestioned assumptions or unhealthy silence. I’m here to take a stand for racial reconciliation, even as I find things in myself that need to be repented of. And I’m here to offer my voice rather than my silence.

A Plea to Asian Americans and Others Like Me. It’s easy to avoid being that nail that sticks out, to sit on the sidelines when you’re not primarily or essentially affected. But we’re not meant to live on the sidelines. When real injustice perpetuates itself in instances like racial profiling, God’s Spirit nudges us a bit because it runs counter to the Person of Christ and our very humanity as it is meant to be. It’s almost like he’s trying to shake us out of our slumber, saying “Pay attention! Don’t ignore this!” And if we really take a step back and consider what’s at stake, we would see that we really can’t afford ignorance. It’s too costly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to guilt or shame you into caring. Indeed, God intends for us to live in, through and by grace. But He also intends for us to participate in his kingdom breaking in as He makes all things new and transforms us “till we have faces.” So let’s get in the game. Talk with your friends. Ask what’s going on. Listen. Learn about the ways that racial profiling affects your own perspectives. And where we still might fall short, let’s lean on the One who will renew all things for his glory.

The Locomotion of Jesus [Pt. 2]

jesus_thumbs-up

Jesus to Naruto and Superman: “Take notes”

Finally back to blogging – thanks for hanging around guys =)

I’ve always found the idea of locomotion pretty cool. I think time travel, flying, Naruto and stuff I obviously can’t do. I googled the definition earlier this afternoon, and this is what popped up on Merriam-Webster: “an act or the power of moving from place to place.” I’ll come back to this idea in a bit.

In talking with my wife about our faith this past week, I was reminded that there’s an unmistakable desire felt in our humanity. Augustine called it the restlessness of our nature; sometimes, preachers describe it as a god-shaped hole. Any one of us might say that we experience it when, in our cultural ennui, we grasp for something more substantive than what we have or experience. In our own individual ways, we medicate ourselves on success, sex, prestige, power or significance. Even our innocuous pastimes – Kingdom Rush, reading, hobbies, NBA playoffs, movies – can morph into an unhealthy deterrent (or if you want old school, an idol) that keeps us from life. For the record, I’m bummed about the Spurs losing the Finals. Also, my wife and I are going to watch Man of Steel this weekend. We’re a week late, but can’t wait!!

Some claim that when you pursue God or gods, meaning or purpose are not too far behind. Yet in Christian faith, we find that the opposite is true. God, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, pursues us. He ascribes significance to us in the Person of Jesus. He draws near, miraculously and peculiarly entering into our humanity, the very thing he created and sustains. Why? Because Scripture speaks about how it is impossible for us to please him in our own damaged and sinful being (Rom. 3:23). So when we could not reach him, he lovingly reached us in Jesus Christ, the Logos who, through his death and resurrection, mediates on our behalf for our good.

What does all that mean?

Let’s say that the previous paragraph is a pile of rocks dumped in front of your lawn, and your life is a home under construction. (I know – it’s a random metaphor, but there’s a lot of construction going on around my neighborhood, so it was the first thing that popped into my head). As the framing that holds and supports you goes up, you recognize that you’re in process, and the pile of rocks is probably for you at some point in the future. But then construction stops. There’s no more visible activities – no walls go up, no electrical wiring comes in. Everything just ceases. Soon you grow accustomed to the rocks, acknowledging them while not really caring too much about them anymore. You learn to become comfortable, even though you are only half-complete, a shadow of your true self. But the truth is, without those rocks surrounding you, you’re naked, exposed and destitute to the elements. There’s nothing you can do now except maybe grasp out to catch a floating newspaper that that wind brings you. But deep down, you know nothing even comes close to making your complete. Nothing. Until suddenly one day, the builder and the architect show up. They take the rocks and all the other materials, and they finish the work they started. They even throw in the crown moldings and upgrade your bathrooms to Italian marble. Italian marble! You got your sink with that awesome insinkerator. Vegetable pieces, watch out! And your newly minted A/C unit, just in time for summer. You’re set.

That’s what God does in the Incarnation. He comes to us in Jesus, who completes each one of us. He removes the scraps of newspaper and surrounds us with the rocks that always pointed to his intentions and his person. He fills your home, your being.

In Jesus, who is both the builder and the architect of our lives, we see the locomotion of God. We see Jesus, who moves from his eternal divinity into our frail humanity, that he might renew us. In his historical life, death and resurrection, Jesus shows up to finish and redeem what he began in us. Coolest thing – as God, he embodied our humanity. In every way, he was like us, he “gets” us, yet he also remained God, conquering our sin, our cultural ennui, our shame, guild and fear, that we might have life in him.  In our paralysis, he moved to meet us.

And he’s still moving – in our world and in your life. Do you see his locomotion?

Picture credit: redletterchristians.org

For more on Christ, here’s a cool presentation that recently resurfaced on my radar.

“You can write the obituary. I’m not.”

I’m an avid basketball fan. Ever since college, my friends and I have competed in fantasy basketball, and if you’ve ever played it, you know how time-consuming it can become. For the most part, I have to admit that for all the time I invest into this hobby of mine (I’m not even sure you can call it that), there is little to no real significance. But every once in a while, I come across a quote or a line that cuts across the narrow sports spectrum and connects to my life of faith.

The story of the post-Rondo Celtics is a picture of the powerful effects of belief. When Rajon Rondo’s season ended with an ACL injury, talk about the Celtics’ potential fall from prominence weren’t just whispered but outrightly proclaimed as fact. Without their point guard, how could an aging roster compete and win? The pundits quickly pointed out that a 36 year old Kevin Garnett, a 35 year old Paul Pierce and a 35 year old Jason Terry couldn’t stand up to the likes of Miami or OKC. There seemed to be doubt even among the Celtics. Trade speculations ensued, and everyone wrote off the Celtics. Everyone – except for Doc Rivers.

“You can write the obituary. I’m not.” Rivers, known as the ultimate players’ coach, has always demonstrated a supreme faith in his roster to show up and play to their highest potential. Even in the face of conventional logic, troublesome injuries and the impossible opponent of time, Rivers continues to churn out the same messages of enduring belief into the ears of his men – “We can make it. Someone will step up. We will endure. We will succeed.” Thus far, the results after Rondo’s injury have been 7 straight wins, including one over the Miami Heat. In every possible way, Doc has demonstrated extreme confidence in his players, and the Celtics, in turn, have risen to match the belief of their coach.

Tonight’s loss to the lowly Bobcats may result in yet another test as the team awaits news on a potentially serious injury. But whatever the outcome, I expect the Celtics to dig even deeper as Rivers drive them forward in confidence.

If we move away from the Celtics’ world for a moment and hold onto Doc’s words, we will discover that we too can encourage each other for the sake of Christ. Every day presents us with fresh opportunities to see in others what God sees in them. We are called to build each other up in grace and to believe that God is not yet finished with any one of us, even when the stuff of life happens and trust in God’s transforming work becomes illogical. This is the privilege and blessing of being in community as we become more like Christ!

Os Guinness writes, “For those who live life as a journey and see faith as a journey, calling has an obvious implication. It reminds us that we are all at different stages on the way and none of us alive has yet arrived. Trouble comes when we forget this fact and pretend that life is static and settled, as if everything were a matter of sharp lines, clear boundaries, precise labels, and final assessments. So that some are in, some out; some have arrived, others not.” (The Call)

1 Thessalonians 5:11 – “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.”