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?

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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.

Why I’m not a Fan of Mother’s Day

2009

One of my favorite adult moments with my mom when I pranked her with paper clip earrings on Christmas.

I am not a fan of Mother’s Day. At least not the way it is typically done. Don’t get me wrong – I love my mom and will be forever grateful for her. On Sunday, I will still call her and celebrate her. You should, too. But Mother’s Day is not high up on my list of favorite holidays for a couple of reasons:

  • The Other: Aside from my distaste for its commercialized veneer (yes, I know I need to spend $ in some way, but how are you going to charge me an extra $24.99 on top of your regular delivery fee for a bouquet of flowers?!), I know that Mother’s Day can be difficult for many people who have lost mothers or experienced emptiness or abandonment. These realities, of course, do not mean that Mother’s Day needs to be scrapped. Instead, it must be reimagined. There are so many incredible mothers around the world and in our lives, and they should be thanked and joyfully celebrated.  But we also need to recognize that this day can bring up memories of pain and suffering for others. I think of friends who have lost their mom or their grandma this year or grew up without a mother. How can we honor those who have experienced loss, barrenness and motherlessness, even as we express our heartfelt gratitude to our mothers? In many of our settings, it may not feel appropriate to take the time to acknowledge these other narratives on Mother’s Day. And yet it is absolutely needed if each of us is to fully participate in community. Our call and our example to engage in other-ing comes from no one else but our God, who radically “others” when he sends Christ into our world and pursues you and me. What might it look like to put on Christ during Mother’s Day?  Giving voice to the other side of Mother’s Day honors the multi-faceted experiences of our humanity while also celebrating our moms.
  • Crutch: On a personal note, I am also discovering that Mother’s Day has become somewhat of a crutch for me, an easy calendar item to leverage as a means to express my love and appreciation for my mom. I don’t know about you, but I can tend to rely on Mother’s Day as one of the few days throughout the year when I intentionally serve and love my mom. And that’s only scratching the surface of my heart issues. If I were to pry a little bit deeper, I would find that on certain years, even mailing a card to my mom has been a perfunctory exercise: go to the store, fight the crowds congregating at the card section, select something sentimental, and then write my heart out, ending with a classic line like: “I hope on this day and every day, you feel celebrated for being the wonderful mom you are.” Hallmark and mom, cry your hearts out…. We need to love and celebrate our moms more regularly.

Uncovering My Story: At the risk of potentially sounding like someone who is being too hard on himself, I’ll be straight-up and say that I know I am not always the greatest son.

Simply put, I have recognized two things:1) My mom is one of the most gracious women I know and 2) I am really great at taking advantage of her grace. There are countless stories of how I’ve seen both of these realities. Here’s a more recent experience: One of my mom’s only requests over the past several years is that I call her once a week to say hi. Regrettably, I don’t have a great track record with her. When I make 1 phone call to her in a month, I feel like I’ve accomplished something significant . 2 or 3 phone calls, and I feel like I’m verging on the miraculous….and I only hit this number with my wife reminding me. Yet despite my slow progress over the years, my mom has always continued to believe in the best of me. She’s given me space, continued to pray for me and my wife and displayed an undeserved kindness and understanding towards me. But I should be clear here – my mom is no pushover. She will still get in a playful verbal jab at me once in a while (“lei mm gai dut ngo!”/you forgot about me), in which case, my heart will momentarily crumble with shame, only to be redeemed again when we come back around to share a laugh over our now familiar exchanges.

My mom is a picture of God’s incredible grace. As an immigrant to the United States, she has sacrificed more than I will ever know to raise me and my brother. Leaving the familiarity of her home, her language and her culture, she chose to bless our family in the most extraordinary ways. On this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my mom! Thank you for embodying Christ to me.

I am also aware that many do not share the same types of feelings and memories I have described regarding their mom or their experiences. To those who have suffered loss associated with a mom or motherhood, my prayers go out to you. You are seen and acknowledged, and more than anything else, God meets you in the midst of your own experiences.