Father’s Day: Why I Changed My Last Name

hello my name is

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.

 

 

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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?

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.

Missional Crisis #2: Psychological Distance

“Most of us have experience with setting goals we never reach.” –Adele Ahlberg Calhoun

goal

It’s no secret that many Christians today recognize God’s missional call in their lives. Yet something always seems to change in us when we leave our community gatherings and churches. It’s curiously routine how we can move from our Sunday readings of “Go and make disciples” into our Monday rhythms of “Get coffee, buckle down and survive.”

Why does this happen?

After I read this great post on goals, I started to think about what keeps me from living into what I desire. Almost automatically, I could name things that I desired to accomplish and yet often found difficult to achieve because of the psychological distance* that existed between goal and reality:

  • Goal: Running 2-3 times/week; Psychological Distance: My bed, french fries and planning not to plan.
  • Goal: Reading every night; Psychological Distance: My bed, Facebook and Fantasy Basketball

Take a moment and think about your goals. You’ll probably find some gaps that exist in your life, too. And it’s true – there is much that you and I can do to decrease the psychological distance that exists between our goals and reality, to create environments where we can better live into our goals (thankfully, I’m eating less french fries and getting out of bed now).

But psychological distance doesn’t just affect my personal goals; it affects my discipleship with Christ.  In relation to mission, it is the gap between my perceived value for mission and my actualized value for mission.

Psychological distance (PD) is what exists between our Sundays and our Mondays. PD prays about God’s mission and then fails to recognize how God is pursuing a friend experiencing turmoil or need. PD agrees with the sermon yet remains significantly silent in the workplace and with our peers. PD agrees with the Spirit of God in us but then practically lives into the spirit of this age – comfort, success, wealth.

So what’s the remedy? Jesus. Jesus is who we need (the Sunday school answer lives to see another day). In Scripture, we see that Christ’s mission doesn’t begin and end on Sunday. Jesus brings about redemption everyday. He crosses gender and cultural lines to talk with the Samaritan woman; he enters into the world of a tax collector (someone who was despised among the Jews) and shares fellowship with him; he heals a crippled man and forgives him his sins; he works out our salvation on the cross and in the resurrection. Jesus ushers the kingdom of God into the lives of men and women everyday, and he invites you to participate, to join with his activity in you and around you.

As you sense Jesus moving his mission forward, what are some things you can do to: 1) decrease your psychological distance from mission and 2) increase your awareness of Christ? Here are a few thoughts to get you started!

Decreasing PD from mission:

  1. Pray for those who are in your life (family, friends, co-workers, peers).
  2. Discover proactive ways to love and serve another person in Christ. And then do it. Write it into your calendar, schedule it with your friend.
  3. Invite conversations about faith and God with others.

Increasing awareness of Christ:

  1. Create rhythms of prayer throughout your day to ask for God’s perspectives. A short prayer like this can help recenter your life to what Christ is doing in you and around you: “God, help me to know Christ. Help me to see what you are seeing, to go where you are going and when appropriate, to speak what you are saying.” As we look to Christ, the danger is that we can think that we are somehow supposed to emulate Jesus. We make Jesus into an exemplar after whom we model our lives, when the call to follow Jesus really begins with Christ in us, transforming us. 
  2. Read Luke 10:1-10.
  3. Respond to God’s word by living it out in practical and contextualized ways.

Our life in Christ already resonates into Monday and the rest of the week because Christ himself has gone beyond Sunday. Let’s join him!

*Psychological distance is a phrase that comes from social psychology and the Construal Level Theory (CLT). I’ll leave it to my wife and other counselors/psychologists like her to provide a more robust definition than the one I’m providing, but roughly speaking, psychological distance describes the gaps that exist between our abstract thinking and our concrete realities. 

Missional Crisis #1: Entitlement

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Mission dies when entitlement lives. When Christians feel entitled to the best and the brightest, there is little room for God’s mission to grow and thrive in us.

How can we share the Gospel with more intentionality? How has the Spirit of God uniquely called you to embody a costly discipleship? When these questions are pursued wholeheartedly in Christ, they can turn your world upside-down. Over the recent years, there has been an upswing in the church’s focus on mission. Conferences have rallied around mission, books have been published on creating missional culture and small groups have re-imagined themselves as missional communities. It’s been encouraging to see a renewed focus on God’s call to our neighbors and the nations. But beneath the surface of all our missional talking points, I wonder – how many of us are actually living in life-on-life, real-time, Gospel-centered relationships? How many of us actually care?

One of the greatest dangers within the North American church is our sense of entitlement. Entitlement kills God’s mission from being fully embodied in your life. It robs you from faithful risk-taking. It renders you immobile. It staves off any real response to Jesus. Entitlement, or I-want-ism, shifts your focus from Jesus to self. And when that happens, the results – probably all too familiar to you and to me – are both devastating and sad. When Jesus ceases to be the Caller in our lives, we not only lose sight of mission but also worship, community and faith. Without Him, we begin to make futile attempts to reclaim calling and passion as we desperately cling on to our sense of entitlement to great messages, better worship sets and an ever-growing appetite for more knowledge, all of which can functionally leave us with little room for real discipleship. Instead of simply responding to Matthew 28:18-20, entitlement thrusts us into a cycle of consuming more “stuff” and makes us the center of the Gospel. Under the deceptive guise of preparation or growth, we’ll spend time on a missional study of the Great Commission, unpacking the nuances between sovereignty and free will. We’ll jump from church to church and ministry to ministry, taking in what we like but never really committing to the local body in worship, community and mission. We’ll go to this year’s mission conference and hear the same things we heard last year. We’ll look for the next great sermon or talk. We’ll even take the time to train others in what we’ve downloaded into the reservoirs of our minds yet have never actualized as tangible, experienced knowledge. All the while, Jesus’ call remains, beckoning us to abandon ourselves for the sake of joining-in with God’s kingdom coming. Will you GO?

The mission of God always goes forward because the mission belongs to the God of mission. But it will wither in our lives if we cater to entitlement and oversaturate ourselves with “Christianity’s best.” How many churches and ministries do you have to sift through for that perfect convergence of everything-you-wanted (but probably nothing-God-envisioned)? How many missional conferences do you need to attend until you’ll actually go? Missional gatherings are great; they’re meant to equip the saints. But equipping is always for the sake of something else.

What if we pursued something different? What would it look like for you to simply hear, know and respond to Jesus?

Know Christ, and surrender your sense of entitlement to live out His call.

Hebrews 13:12-13 (ESV)

12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.

Photo Credit: Sharon Drummond