Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino
Age group competitive soccer in the San Francisco bay area is essentially comprised of two social classes: the affluent, predominantly white families that at away tournaments eat at nice restaurants and stay at expensive hotels and the non-white predominantly Latino immigrant families that bring their own food and extended family to games. At a recent tournament, I made small talk with one of the dads as we attempted to fit into the first group. He's a middle-aged Russian immigrant and I asked him what he did for work. It turned out he's a data scientist who works for a large insurance company. He creates data models that predict things like bay area housing price trends.

He in turn asked if I was a programmer. I told him I was a pastor but it was a good guess. He agreed. After all his algorithm had calculated the probability was high. I love immigrant candor.

This question encapsulates why I live in the bay area. Where else do I get mistaken for a software engineer? In the bay area, I can walk into a nice restaurant wearing outdoor performance gear and because the wait staff will presume I'm a stock option baller who works at Facebook or Google or some start-up company with a clever-sounding name that has a tenuous relationship with the product made, I will be seated pronto. They treat me well because I'm a nerd and in the bay area, nerds rule the world. If I lived in some rural town in the Midwest, people would see me and think "Who are you? Why are you here? Are you bringing me Chinese take-out?"

Asian American privilege, in its highest form, exists in major metro areas with a high rate of professional employment, a prestigious university, and a large immigrant population. In my new church, we have white people moving out of the area to quaint places like Shingle Springs, CA and Bend, OR. Educated Asian Americans don't move to those areas. We have no privilege there. What kind of work would we do? More importantly, how would we eat? Who is going to seat us immediately when we walk in wearing a Patagonia 100% recycled fleece pullover? Who is going to serve Japanese noodle soup that we wait two hours for and then post pics of on Instagram? Where are Asian women going to dine with their white boyfriends? Where are Asian guys going to congregate? That stuff is important to Asian Americans like me.

My wife's cousin from Taiwan can tell if someone at first glance is an American, including Asian Americans, not based on their attire but by their body language. There's a difference in posture. We stand up straighter and we strut. We tend to look down on people rather than look up in submissiveness. We take up more space. If you're a male, it's called man-spreading. Our facial expressions are more expressive and we use expansive hand gestures. We are louder in public - not just louder in groups but louder in public as individuals. An American is the only person in the world that can be as loud solo as in a group.

I have British-born Chinese friends in Scotland. Their parents were Chinese immigrants (mainly from the Guangdong area) and came over to open restaurants. I observed their body language. When we were in public, it felt like they crept around the margins - not quite fitting in and feeling sort of invisible. That doesn't happen very often to me in the bay area. When it does, it's when the white to non-white ratio is worse than 10:1 like at an Irish pub in Los Gatos. And then I'm only invisible because everyone is taller than me. You'll never see anything approaching a white:non-white ratio of 10:1 in any high-tech company except perhaps in the sales or HR department.

Therefore, body language is a proxy for the degree of privilege you enjoy. The greater the privilege, the more expansive the body language. That's another metric for Asian American privilege. You'll see it in the way bay area Asian Americans move. We strut around like we own the place. Because we often do.

Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine, writes:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites.
She doesn't provide support for the first claim. And her second statement contradicts the claim of the first. I agree with her second statement but the adjective I want to challenge is Kim's contention that Asian American privilege is "priceless". That's inexcusable hyperbole coming from a professor because it is simply not true. Privilege is quantifiable and it is bounded. The price of Asian American privilege in the bay area is between $1.5 - $2M. You can come straight from China with a boatload of cash and your suitcases of money will buy you an older three bedroom, two bathroom house in a predominantly Asian (or significantly affluent immigrant) city like Cupertino or San Jose neighborhood like Almaden. For the money, you will receive social cachet and the privilege for your children to go to school with their Tiger Mom-raised peers. This is where the future software engineers of America will grow up. For the same price, you can buy 5-8 decent homes in rural Missouri but you will be utterly priced out of the social cachet market. That's why affluent Asian Americans live here. The housing may be ridiculously expensive but at least there's access to social capital. Asian American privilege absolutely has a price tag. Your dollar can buy you privilege here whereas in other places it gets you pennies on the dollar.

Let's take the economic perspective even further. Consumer demand theory dictates people consume goods and services in order to to maximize utility. Utility is the abstract amount of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a good or service. Given a scarcity of goods and services, a consumer will spend his money in a way that maximizes utility. Now replace "utility" with "privilege". Privilege is the social status conferred from the purchase of goods and services - specifically, the house you live in (and its surrounding neighborhood) or your occupation. I'm absolutely arguing that privilege can be bought. So with that in mind, here's my hypothesis:

A consumer will spend his money to live in an area or pursue an occupation that maximizes the amount of privilege he will receive in return.

This explains why ethnic enclaves (or "ethnoburbs") exist. Immigrants move to an area/neighborhood, bid up home prices, make the schools more competitive, and once a critical mass is attained, the momentum of privilege will shift in their favor. That is what has happened in cities like Cupertino and neighborhoods like Almaden. The homes are ridiculous expensive but Asian consumers understand the privilege their money is buying. It's privilege that can't be bought in Shingle Springs or Bend. It's the privilege of having your kids grow up in an atmosphere of software engineer aspirations and the accompanying pressure to excel in math and science.

It also explains white flight. The author of this article about white flight from "ethnoburbs" like Cupertino and Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, thinks it's all about racism. She writes:
Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it. I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.
The half-Indian author presumes racism is the motivation behind white flight and yet somehow when we Asian Americans segregate in ethnic clusters, we aren't guilty of the same thing because racism. And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we're all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It's not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they're really saying is "The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians". Of course they're going to seek more affordable white privilege. They're behaving as rational consumers.

Racism means privilege costs more when you're not white but it doesn't change the underlying economics. On the price spectrum of minorities, it's cheapest when you're Asian and most expensive when you're black. But when you view the world solely through the lens of race, you're holding a hammer and everything looks like a nail. There are other possible ways to view segregation. So before we start whacking on all the racist nails sticking out, it might help to put on a more pragmatic lens. It will lead us to an important possibility: it may be more helpful to understand segregation in economic terms rather than solely racial ones. At least that's what my predictive data model says. You can trust me because even though I'm not a software engineer, at least I look like one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Same-Sex Marriage and Gladwell's Generous Orthodoxy

I've been loving Malcolm Gladwell's new podcast, Revisionist History. A recent episode is called Generous Orthodoxy; it tells the story of a 98-year old Mennonite pastor named Chester Wenger who loses his pastoral credentials for performing the wedding ceremony of his gay son. This podcast attempts to reconcile the tension between relationship (generosity) and moral principles (orthodoxy). Without a doubt, he falls on the generosity side of the question. His appeal to orthodoxy consists of personal sacrifice and respect for the institution.  There's a lot to disagree with:

1) Gladwell does not espouse conservative Christian beliefs: One of my friends couldn't finish the podcast because of Gladwell's "smarmy and superior tone". It's also immediately apparent, especially if you've listened to his previous podcasts, that Gladwell is politically progressive. In one of that three-part series, he attacks Stanford, Bowdoin, and other elite colleges for their insatiable endowment appetites. It should then come as no surprise that Gladwell is LGBTQ affirming. 
 
And yet I've listened to plenty of smarmy and superior Christians. Their tone hasn't stopped me from hearing them out. I've also been known to have a smarmy and superior tone myself so how can I judge? If conservative Christians expect others to listen to us, shouldn't we be willing to listen first?

2) The Princeton protest segment is tangential: I revel in Gladwell's ability to weave disparate sources seamlessly into a compelling and cohesive narrative thread (a la Tim Keller). And yet his side story about Princeton students protesting Woodrow Wilson's name displayed all over the university campus was distracting and detracted from the gravity of Wenger's story. The protesters did indeed choose to go there and their sense of entitlement was repulsive.  It was only partially salvaged by Gladwell's suggestion that a generous orthodoxy must give up something costly - i.e. if the students truly believed in their cause, they should decline to return to Princeton and encourage potential applicants to avoid the school.

3) He only focuses on one side of the story: He says a generous orthodoxy is costly but every orthodoxy is costly when tested. I pay a price for holding the traditional Christian sexual ethic. It is unpopular, not trendy, condemned as regressive, and against "love wins". 

And yet there are tremendous gospel redemptive elements in this podcast. It's hard to deny Gladwell's implicit understanding of the gospel albeit indirectly through his admiration of Wenger and this episode had me in tears. Ultimately, Wenger's example asks the question of how would you feel about same sex marriage if the person getting married is your son or daughter?

There's a couple things to get out of the way before wrestling with that question. First of all, is Chester Wenger aware of all the Bible passages explicitly forbidding and/or condemning sexual intercourse between two people of the same gender? Any mention of these passages in his letter is conspicuously absent. The most common ones are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, and Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. The fact Wenger does not mention them does not mean he is ignorant or uninformed. I actually appreciate he doesn't talk about them. After all, his letter states he and his wife have read and reread the scriptures. I'm sure Wegner has pored over those passages and not only those particular but ALL of scripture. He has wrestled over this issue regarding his son and his parishioners FOR DECADES. And thus paying attention to which scriptures Wenger chooses to mention in his letter is important.

So if I were to pick the verses that are most important, most compelling, most revealing of God's heart verses from chapter 1 of Romans, I would choose v.16-17 over v.26-27 any day of the week. And that's how Wenger opens his interview with Gladwell - he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. It's ultimately about faith. And if there's one thing I would proclaim to the world, it's v.16-17.

Of course, acknowledging sin and brokenness is crucial and Wenger's letter makes reference to the vast array of sexual brokenness in our world today. In that regard, I appreciate the letter's reference to eunuchs in Isaiah 56. These men were sexually dysfunctional in the most literal sense of the word. And yet there is room in the kingdom for the sexually dysfunctional. There's something so gospel redemptive about this. Another helpful example I would bring up is Jesus' love for tax collectors. Being a tax collector is an ongoing lifestyle that is inherently exploitative and disreputable. And it's not clear this group of people changed their despicable occupations yet they were loved in their present status. 

Second, is Chester's son a follower of Jesus? If you believe being gay and being a Christian is mutually incompatible then you already have an answer. I'm not buying that. Chester is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt his son is a follower of Jesus. And that's where personal experience comes in.

I'm limited in how I establish my beliefs. I value the here and now. I cannot staunchly believe something solely in the abstract and thus require some type of personal exposure or experience to fully reinforce my convictions. So when dealing with same sex marriage, I need gay friends to process these issues with. And fortuitously, over the past fifteen years, God has provided men - through high school, college, and ministry - who have come out to me as gay. Some of them are still close friends and followers of Jesus today. None of them have been "cured". I've walked with these men through various stages of their journey in coming to terms with their sexuality. Each one has a different story that does less to explain the origin of his sexual orientation and rather does more to highlight the sexual brokenness of all people including my own.

Therefore I don't have a special discipleship agenda for gay men. If we're all sexually broken then we're all equally in need of the gospel. My commitment is to help someone fully understand who he is as a new creation in Christ. This means viewing and managing our sexuality as a God-given expression of our desire for relationship, intimacy, and pleasure. Sexuality is about being known and loved. Unfortunately, our flesh is fractured, self-centered, and weak. In that regard, I'm with Christopher Yuan in that I cannot support "same-sex marriage as a faithful and godly choice when blessed by the church". I base my stance on my understanding of scripture, my theological convictions, AND my personal experience. 

I discussed the podcast with a fellow believer and he responded without hesitation that if it was his son or daughter, he would have adopted a similar stance as Chester Wenger. I appreciate his honesty. I would absolutely love my child but I'm not sure how far I could go in affirming his lifestyle. I know for some that's tantamount to denying his personhood. I would like to think I could go as far as Wenger but without having gone through what he has, I don't know that I can. That's how I'm limited. 


And yet I can say his example challenges me to re-evaluate my convictions, to assess how well I understand the gospel, and to ponder the depths of God's missionary heart. For all that, I am grateful. And though I do not agree with Wenger's decision, I have no judgment - only respect and admiration. I look forward to meeting him, his wife, and all his sons and daughters, in heaven.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

3 Reasons Not to Go to College

In the Chinese church I grew up in and later pastored, I remember mentioning to a group of high school students that going to college is not the highest priority. One of them snickered, "Some kind of pastor you are - telling us not to go to college!" In another instance, a couple of parents complained that preaching in the English ministry was decidedly anti-college. Now that I no longer pastor there, I can fully flesh out my thoughts without recrimination.

The value of a college education is one of the unassailable tenets of affluent Asian American culture. Having one's child obtain a bachelor's degree is a given for Asian immigrant families arriving in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly those coming to Silicon Valley. Outside of family, there is hardly a more a sacred cow than getting a university education. It's like a fish learning how to swim. You are not fully alive if you don't have a bachelor's degree.

I grew up never questioning these assumptions. I never questioned my K-12 public schooling until I became a parent. I sat in the classroom of our parent participation school and realized Judy and I could do better (OK fine just Judy). So we embarked on the adventure of homeschooling and it remains to be seen how well that decision turns out but it's been a good ride. And since we're out slaying cows, I might as well set my sights on this plump one. 

As the holder of a master's degree and a bachelor's degree from arguably the world's finest public institution of higher learning, I'm saying a college education is not all that. It is absolutely not required to fully function as a citizen, a follower of Jesus, or even a successful economic participant. I make this argument from a Christian perspective. There is no eternal value in a college education in itself.  The point of this post is not to persuade people to forgo college but rather to carefully evaluate what one intends to receive out of a college education and to pursue learning accordingly.
 
1) College is not worth the money: I'm not saying college is a complete waste of money. Well OK, some majors are. I'm saying there are better uses for your money.  College is a great investment you pursue it wisely. The problem is the higher education system is moving away from a classical model of learning while the expense of a college education is growing. If your parents are willing to pay for college, then you don't lose as much if you attend. However, if you're paying for college on your own in full or in part, you should absolutely weigh the cost of a four-year degree against the opportunity cost of working. For example, if a four-year degree costs you $150K and you're able to make the same amount of money over four years working full-time, then you are $300K in the hole. Over a career spanning thirty to forty years, $300K is not actually that much money but if you have more ambitious goals like financial independence by age 40 and/or need to care for family, starting out in that big of a hole is something to consider.
 
That's where community college and other low-cost education options are attractive. These options don't carry the same social status as four-year institutions but if your interest is in learning and not the appearance thereof, then affordable college equivalents are worth considering. I have a friend who never went to college and makes great money as an programmer and entrepreneur. He was homeschooled and taught himself how to code. He was an auto-didact like Alexander Hamilton. This is arguably the greatest gift of homeschooling - the ability to teach one's self and the confidence that comes from doing that often in every new area. 

In any event, if you do pursue higher education, the most important question of college is what you intend to get out of it. What is the purpose of college?

2) Spiritual formation happens more effectively outside of college: You might argue the goal of a college education is to become a stronger believer in Jesus - to be grounded in the gospel, have one's values drawn from biblical values, and to learn and adopt the Christian world view. I don't believe that's the point of higher education but I'll save that argument for last.

First, if you see the main goal of a Christian education as providing a moral foundation for your children, then you do not understand the gospel. In 20+ years of vocational and lay ministry, I've witnessed many parents send their kids to church because they see church as a third parent that teaches kids ethical values and helps them make friends - all for free. But as my non-Christian friends contend, you do not need religion to live a moral life. And most importantly, the goal of the Christian life is neither behavioral modification nor holy living. The goal of the Christian life is to know Jesus and the power of his death and resurrection. Holy living and moral behavior are byproducts of believing the gospel and not its goal.
 
So, if in fact your greatest interest is in your kids knowing and following Jesus, then once you model this for them in childhood, there are many organizations - churches and parachurch organizations - that do a far better job in fostering spiritual growth than colleges, Christian or otherwise. You might check out Discipleship Training School or Ravencrest or Master's Commission. These schools are shorter in duration, far less expensive, and more intentionally focused on discipleship than a four-year university. I have friends who participated in these programs and though they are a self-selecting population, it's hard to over-state how much these schools have helped young people fall deeper in love with Jesus. These programs will alter one's life trajectory towards eternity and yet do not masquerade as institutions of higher learning. Their goals are specific and explicit. 

It's also easy to argue from personal experience that because spiritual formation happened to you during college, it's a great spiritual context. Perhaps. But that's not my point. There are superior contexts to grow as a follower of Jesus than paying tens of thousands of dollars to listen to lectures on evolution and feminism, play console games all day, and get drunk. Perhaps you grew to love Jesus in spite of college more than because of it.

3) Most colleges fail to meet higher education's primary purpose: There's a lot of confusion about education's primary purpose. Some might say you need a degree to get a job. Other might say college is helpful in "finding yourself". Going away to college also teaches independence - how to cook, do laundry, and live on one's own. College is also a great place to meet people and find one's future spouse. Those things are all true but that's not higher education's primary purpose.

After the spiritual rationale, the real reason affluent Asian Americans go to college is to secure a well-paying job. Educated Asian Americans view college as an economic necessity. It is the socially acceptable pathway to a stable financial future. If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer then a four-year degree is a mandatory stepping stone for one's vocation. I get that. After all, the stuff you learn in school directly relates to your future career. Biology is a prerequisite in the study of medicine. Understanding math is crucial to be an engineer. But equipping for a specific career is not the same thing as an education.  

The purpose of higher education is to learn how to think. It is less about learning what to think (indoctrination) than how to think (reasoning). I see so many people who do not know how to do this. They read the clickbait title of an article, make snap judgments about the subject, and demonize the person or group the article targets. They might read a study about the increased meat consumption in China's middle class and it's link with a greater likelihood of heart disease but because they cannot distinguish between correlation and causation, don't know how to factor in food processing, urbanization, a sedentary lifestyle, and pollution. A pro-life Christian might read Psalm 139:15-16 and cite it as evidence of life beginning at conception without recognizing the theme of the psalm is God's intimate knowledge of us and that poetry does not place its highest value on precision. You might also interpret that response as indicating I'm pro-abortion but that does not have to follow logically - just because I don't fit in your category doesn't mean I belong in the other one.

How to think is the ability to evaluate ideas. Stanley Fish argues "education's primary purpose is to advance bodies of knowledge and equip students to do the same". With respect to that definition, a university exists to equip students to evaluate ideas so that in every area of study, its respective body of knowledge is advanced. The scientific method is a lens - a set of criteria - to evaluate the material universe. Therefore, the study of politics is not about adopting a given political position as much as about comparing and contrasting political systems and their consequences. 

Colleges inadvertently focus on the narrow task of increasing one's knowledge (what to think) while losing sight of the bigger and more important questions. You will be taught a political position but be ill-equipped to evaluate the merits of any particular position and ignorant of the history of political thought. As a business major, almost all my classes were either vocation-specific or totally unhelpful. The vocation-specific skills I could easily pick up on the job (and later would through employee training). The only learning-oriented classes I took were economics and statistics. They offered a different lens with which to analyze the world. 

If you're intent on going to college, I would suggest focusing on the greater task of learning how to think - that is how to evaluate ideas. I didn't learn how to think in college but I got a taste of it from people who did. During my senior year, I took classes from the most well-known and best professors - Chinese law and African American history - both examples of ways to view the world through a non-white lens. My best lessons on thinking came after college, through the influence of mentors and having intellectual discussions. College started a journey in thinking critically that is is only now gaining momentum today. And this intellectual progress came more in spite of college than because of it. 


And yes, I will ask my kids to read this post. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Kevin Durant and the Brotherhood

I've always imagined starting a company with friends. I can't think of a product we would make. I'm not sure it even matters. I just want to work with people that inspire me. I want to work with a team where we have similar values, close friendships, and are working to accomplish something big together. 

When Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Andre Igoudala came together on the US national team in 2010, they were inseparable. Not only did they share a preternatural work ethic - they would get shots up in the evening after practice - they also shared a common devotion to their faith as the guys went to chapel together before every game. From what I understand, USA basketball and the NBA do not require chapel attendance. It's for guys who are both serious about their faith and not ashamed to be public about it. There's something significant about being devout believers on a professional sports team. I can't imagine the NBA being an easy place to live out your faith. There's constant travel, gobs of money, adoring fans, the sexual temptation that accompanies those aspects, 24/7 media exposure, and criticism on all fronts. Befriending a fellow believer who is not ashamed of his faith is vital. Curry's Christian beliefs are well-documented and so are Durant's. Iguodala's faith is less-documented because of his lower profile. But make no mistake - these guys love Jesus. During the 2014-2015 season, it appears ALL the Golden State Warriors were professed believers and attended chapel together. I'm not sure many NBA teams can make that claim. 

The term "brotherhood" has formed a conversation thread in the aftermath of Durant's decision to join the Golden State Warriors. It's language that describes the relationship between Durant, Curry, and Igoudala. It indicates a bond that transcends a typical coworker relationship. Brotherhood means deep kinship and it goes far beyond what happens on the court. That's the premise of the epic TV mini-series Band of Brothers. It details the World War II exploits of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. War glues men together in a way nothing can match not even marriage. Veterans often report a stronger affinity with their fellow soldiers than with their wives. This is what Kevin Durant is after. And who would not want that? To fight for a worthy goal with like-minded companions. That's the way God designed us. 

Being on pastoral staff of a church, I've been privileged to serve with a great team for a great cause for the past decade and that continues to this day. It's a trust I'm grateful for. It's interesting though because when I imagine starting a company with friends it's because we get to choose to do so. The value of the journey comes from freely choosing each other. And yet the men of Easy Company did not choose each other nor did they choose the war they fought. Their comrades and their mission was placed on them.

Perhaps then we value the freedom of choice too highly. I did not hand-pick my companions nor did I choose my cause rather God gave me my mission and teammates. And yet, when given the choice, like Kevin Durant, how many of us would forgo the opportunity to serve with elite, like-minded teammates in pursuit of a lofty goal?

I can't help but sense Durant, as he pondered his decision, thought about what the stories he would tell his grandchildren after his playing days were a distant memory. Perhaps his sentiment is best summed up by the closing moments of Band of Brothers in which a former member of Easy Company is interviewed in the present day and says:
I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked the other day. When he said:
"Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?"
"No" I answered. "But I served in the company of heroes."

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Joys and Regrets of My Twenties


Reflecting on my twenties from the vantage point of forty

Meg Jay's book, The Defining Decade, for and about twentysomethings is excellent. She has street cred as a psychotherapist who has worked with dozens of twentysomethings in the San Francisco bay area and on the East Coast. Her book is filled with real-life twentysomething case studies I've heard many times before as a pastor who works with young adults. My first exposure to Jay came her through her excellent TED talk and then a friend loaned me her book. The gist of it goes something like this: 

Stop putting off your most important decisions in your twenties. The life you envision will not happen overnight so start planning and working on it today. 

It probably takes at least ten years of distance to determine whether a major decision you made turned out well. So as a forty-year old, I decided to look back on my twenties and evaluate the life choices that gave me the greatest joys and those that gave me the greatest grief.

Biggest Joys

1) Being ministry-minded: When I became a follower of Jesus at thirteen, it never occurred to me that Christianity was intended to be a spectator sport. I didn't understand how Jesus could die for you and that not affect the way you live. Perhaps it's because I didn't grow up in a Christian family and when my parents became believers at the same time I did (forty-one years old!), their transformation was gradual yet dramatic. It left a deep impression on me that being a follower of Jesus meant obedience and laying down one's life. Otherwise why bother? 

My parents, brother, and I helped plant my previous church, CCIC-SV, twenty-four years ago. Almost immediately, my brother and I began leading the youth group. From that point on, I don't remember ever not being part of Christian leadership. Jay writes about taking work and career seriously.   It means doing interesting things in your twenties ("building identity capital" she calls it) that challenge you and help you write a better story. My nine-year tech career shaped my ministry story in ways that vocational ministry could not. And ministry is the best story. 

2) Learning from mentors: The greatest contributor to my ministry-mindedness was the role of disciple-makers. My first mentor played basketball with me while I was in high school. We went on a couple missions trips together and he was one of the best models of discipleship I could ask for. Finding mentors during college and the first couple post-grad years was easy because so many resources are focused on twenty-somethings. It became tougher after I got married and had kids (it's even harder in your thirties but that's for another post). But apart from being ministry-minded, no other set of decisions has had a bigger impact on my life. In fact, it is disciple-makers who shaped me to be ministry-minded, shaped my trajectory of life, and influenced my view of marriage. Even my corporate career benefited from mentoring. I didn't know such a thing existed until I was assigned one. My mentor's investment helped me become an almost competent project manager. My mentors gave me a grid with which to evaluate the most important things in life. They taught me what was the highest priority and modeled and encouraged me to live accordingly.

I find it puzzling Jay doesn't write more explicitly about this. She mentions the power of weak ties, which are valuable at every decade but I find it curious she doesn't talk about the importance of mentoring as she plays that role for her twentysomething clients. I would recommend every twentysomething have at least two older friends who are not in their twenties and at a point in life where you want to be at their age.

3) Marrying a ministry-minded person early: You might think this should be at the top of my twenties' joys. In terms of personal happiness, it certainly may be highest. But the first two joys set me up for the third. Being ministry-minded meant a rapid ascent into leadership at Cru (formerly Campus Crusade of Christ) in Berkeley. Leadership meant I received mentoring by older college students and Cru staff. These men had a profound impact on me. We talked about dating and marriage all the time. It was embedded in the culture of our campus fellowship. And as part of my ministry-mindset, I found myself living in the same dorm with other Cru women during my junior year. I led a men's Bible study and the Cru women led a women's Bible study. Two years later, one of the female leaders would become my wife.

One of Jay's points about one's twenties is seeking first what's most important. Who you marry carries far more weight in determining your lifelong personal fulfillment than your career. My mentors told me that before I entered my twenties, and I'm so glad I listened. And yet the majority of Jay's twentysomething clients want to postpone mating for career. And due to our culture's romanticism, they're simply not as thoughtful and intentional about mating as they are regarding work.

If you want to be married by thirty then don't wait until you're twenty-nine and expect it to happen in a year. My late-teens set up my twenties. I began thinking seriously about marriage right when I started college at eighteen. Even though I got married at twenty-three, I had already been contemplating marriage for five years. People have commented our courtship was serendipitous. Certainly. And yet I had a pretty good idea that marriage was an important calling, what qualities were non-negotiable in a spouse, that Judy had those qualities, and finally, that I should not balk at pursuing her. If you're in your twenties and you want to get married by thirty, stop the shenanigans and get serious. If you don't know how to do that, start with 1) and 2). 

4) Having kids early and seeing them as a ministry: Most people don't want to be parents in their twenties because kids limit personal freedom and are hard work. But if you view children through a ministry mindset, then, just like marriage, having kids is something that is worth giving up freedom for.

Caleb was born when I was twenty-six. The others came about every two years or so. It's tremendously enjoyable to be a dad. I love that I have the energy to appreciate my kids to the fullest extent. I love the stage they're at now and I love that I still can keep up with them (when I'm uninjured). I love to talk with them about life and the books they're reading. I have great memories of dinners laughing together, playing Just Dance, throwing them around in the swimming pool.

Having a ministry-mindset helped me avoid the temptation of idolizing my children. I see many parents make children the sun in their universe and they are orbiting planets. If that's the way to raise children, it's no wonder families delay having kids. Jesus is the sun, my wife and I are planets, and our kids begin as moons that grow to become sun-orbiting bodies.

Here's a couple more perspectives Jay offers on having children: First, a woman's fertility is bounded by time. It peaks during the twenties and then gradually declines until the mid-thirties, when the drop steepens. I love that Jay has the courage to address this unpopular, anti-feminist notion. You can certainly find exceptions among celebrities but it's not something to roll the dice with and not everyone has $50K to spend on multiple IVF treatments. Second, one of the greatest gifts you can give your parents is grandchildren. Some people don't want to give anything to their parents but as the child of immigrant parents who slaved to give me a better life, having kids has been a joy to both Judy and me AND our parents. Jay writes:
There is something profoundly sad about seeing an eighty-year old grandmother come to the hospital to meet a grandchild. It is crushing to realize there won't be many sunny days at the lake with Grandpa or holidays spent in Grandma's loving presence. It feels almost wrong to look at our children and wonder how long they will have their grandparents in their lives - or even how long they will have us.
Biggest Regrets

1) Investing my worth in my job: I worked too much. I thought my job was important. I thought the quality of my work, the number of emails I received, and the status of my position indicated how significant I was. I worked long hours not because I knew otherwise, at least intellectually.  I read Search for Significance and other books about the gospel and knew that my worth wasn't found in my work but I couldn't overcome that in my heart. I honestly don't know how I could have overcome this as I'm twenty years into working life and I still struggle with finding my worth in my job. It is part of the curse. The consequences of this mindset affected my marriage, my relationships, my ministry, and my contentment. I can recall moments when I missed out on vacations or was emotionally absent from Judy or the kids because I couldn't stop thinking about my job.

The one thing I might have done differently is establish better boundaries around my work. I don't know how to stop working and I wish I had done a better job turning myself off. I recognize now it's an integral part of my personality - I tend to work too hard rather than not hard enough. What's interesting is that I could have worked fewer hours and done just as well but I would stay at work because I felt guilty for not getting more done and ashamed at leaving the office earlier than other people. I would waste time surfing the web because I was anxious about certain tasks and would put them off for the end of the day. It was a bad cycle.

2) Taking friendships for granted: Friendships came easily during my early twenties. College was an oasis of friendships. I could afford to be picky about who I spent time with. And yet somehow close friendships eluded me. When I started to get close to someone, I would get bored and move onto someone else. I would bemoan the fact I didn't have close friendships like my brother but it was me that was the problem. It was Judy who repeatedly pointed out this pattern to me but I didn't start to change until my thirties.

When Judy and I first got married, we experienced a rapid drop-off in our friendship circles. We simply weren't as available to hang out, had few friends that were married, and were not interested in what our single friends were doing (my guy friends were playing a lot of video games). When we had kids, the drop-off was much more severe. At that point, it didn't feel like we had a choice, we had to turn down social invitations. In my thirties, I began to have much more gratitude for friendships. You don't know whatcha got 'til it's gone.

Lastly, as part of this friendship regret, I was reluctant to seek marital counsel when our marriage became strained. Judy and I waited until things were really bad between us before asking for help. It's not easy to recognize a marriage need help because the negative patterns don't appear instantly - they gradually introduce themselves over the years. And they're never a mystery - it feels like you could overcome them if you tried harder or had a different perspective but somehow you're never able to do it on your own.

3) Living conservatively for the kingdom: I wish Judy and I had taken ourselves less seriously and planned more spontaneous trips together. I wish I had taken bigger risks for the kingdom of God. I wish we could have done an extended ministry trip or vacation together. I wish I had spent more time with Judy our first year of marriage and really enjoyed her. We could have built a stronger foundation of memories and affection before we had children. It's not too late but it's harder to do now. I wish I had eaten out less and been more generous with our money. I wish I had taken more risks in living out the gospel to my IBM/Hitachi coworkers. I wish I had failed more so that failure wouldn't have been so humbling when it happened to me in my thirties. If I had learned to fail well, it would have helped me develop courage but instead, I often played it safe. 

4) Seeing my interests and work experience as meaningless: I spent nine years out of college as a business analyst and project manager at IBM and Hitachi. I distinctly recall working on step forms and process flows and feeling dismayed that this was what my life had come to - copying and pasting data fields and moving symbols around on a diagram. I hated doing that stuff. I thought work should be constantly exciting and creative. Looking back, those were my Karate Kid moments. It was like Miyagi-san teaching Daniel how to wax on and wax off. The discipline, skills, and perspective that helped me crank out work has helped me slog through tedious work today (and every job has tedium), helped me be detail-oriented, and honed my critical thinking skills.   

As a kid, I loved playing with LEGOs, reading, singing, dancing, and daydreaming. I never thought those interests would amount to anything. Now I see how those interests have shaped me as a communicator of God's Word. My love for books and learning is a boon to my preaching and teaching. My critical thinking skills have helped me understand people's hearts. And my kids' love for musicals stems from my love of music and dancing. Your interests and dreams matter - perhaps not in the way you think - but they matter for the kingdom and God wants to use them.

What are your joys and regrets from decisions you made a decade ago?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Grace in Practice: One-Way Love Made Visible

This is not an easy book to read. It takes awhile to get going. The first half alternates from tedious to infuriating. But the payoff in the second half is more than worth it.

If you allow God to speak through Paul Zahl, it's a thrilling, life-changing ride. He defines grace as one-way love. Zahl is rigorously insistent and comprehensive on this definition and its application throughout the course of the book. I highly respect that because I find that I'm inconsistent about grace. I preach the importance of unconditional love but there are vast swaths of heart landscape that lay untouched by grace.

Zahl's style is unique. The dude is old and he constantly makes movie references from the 1960s and earlier. He acts as if you should know what he's talking about. That's the infuriating part. At certain points, I had no idea what he was talking about. If that happens to you, give him the benefit of the doubt and keep going.

The book is organized like the book of Ephesians. The first half is the theology and the second half is the practice. The second cannot exist without the first. It's tempting to skip the first half of the book in favor of getting to the application. If you did, you would find it easy to critique the application without understanding how he got there. He talks about familiar theological concepts like original sin and total depravity. One idea that got me was the concept of the un-free will. We act like people freely make choices but the reality is we all have sin patterns where we feel completely helpless. In those situations, our will is un-free. It is constrained. Zahl gives an example in the area of anxiety. How often have you been helped in a moment of worry by someone telling you to relax? He writes:
The more the other person tells me to relax, the more jumpy I become. If I had "free will", I would be able to switch from high-intensity to easygoing in a heartbeat. But I cannot. I cannot. (pg. 107)
Zahl quotes from Romans 7 the idea of the un-free will. I would do the same.  What I appreciate most about the book is Zahl is showing how the theology of grace is not some abstract concept that has no relevant application to daily life. Grace changes everything. Grace affects our relationships. Grace changes how we interact with our parents, our kids, our coworkers, our neighbors, our spouses, everyone.

Zahl's point is once one understands un-free will, he is free to exhibit compassion on others. Zahl argues, on one hand, the thing that drives people away from Christianity is judgment and ironically, on the other hand, it's the absence of judgment (grace) that drives people towards Christianity. Therefore, let us understand Christianity correctly - that we have been set free from judgment by the grace of Jesus Christ. 

Of course there are minor things I disagreed with. He says sermons should be ten to twenty minutes in duration and any longer is narcissistic on the part of the preacher. He says the role of the pastor in counseling is to listen and not judge. Which I agree because most people are terrible listeners and yet I believe our role is greater than that. He gives some hilarious advice that grace destroys shopping malls and if you can't destroy the mall, then you should stay away. I agree but it feels like a weird application. 

Zahl has a section for grandparents that I found absolutely stunning. He tells them not to focus on their grandchildren but to minister to their adult children in grace. He gives one example that he has found so often true: When a family arrive at the airport for a visit home, the grandparents greet the arriving grandchildren with hugs, kisses, presents, and abundant affection. The adult daughter receives a warm tap on the arm. The son-in-law, lagging behind, does not yet even receive a nod of acknowledgment. Zahl's point is grandparents can focus on exhibiting grace to their adult children and not solely to the grandchildren. After all, it's natural and easy for grandparents to love their grandkids and yet it's the grown children that most need their parents' support. it's the grown children that are struggling with work, with a strained marriage, with the stress of parenting young children. And of course grandparents can help by watching the grandkids. 

And yet it's grace exhibited by the absence of unsolicited feedback and judgment and the presence of emotional support that adult children crave most. As a parent of young children, I certainly value my parents for their ability to watch my kids but I value them so much more for their wisdom, counsel, and compassion. And in that area, the gospel of grace has changed them most and I am so grateful. Anyone can watch my kids but my parents occupy a unique role in knowing and loving me and my wife. God has given them a unique opportunity to exhibit grace to me and Zahl understands so well with decades of experience in pastoral counseling. His real-life examples are heart-rending cautionary tales of the destructiveness of law in the absence of grace.

His stuff on parenting teenagers is golden. For young children, grace is about the mother being present. For teenagers, it's about the dad. Zahl writes:
Saying it more concretely, the role of the father for teenagers is to embody grace by simply not leaving. The father must stay involved, emotionally and not detachedly, in the tempestuous emotions of his teenage children. They are begging you to leave so that you will stay! . . . One the surface, adolescents are asking for the law precisely so they can break it. At a deeper level, adolescents are asking for grace, again and again, so they can return to the love that always gives thanks.
So so good. There's much more than all this and it was helpful for me to take my time going through the book to savor the insights that are most relevant to my life stage. I definitely found myself fighting him at the beginning but his insight into Christ, scripture, and people eventually won me over, as grace is wont to do. I wait with eager expectancy the harvest to be reaped as my heart's fields are sown in grace. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Are Christians sinners or saints?

You know the drill. The worship leader opens his set with a catalog of petty sins he's committed in the past week. He talks about how we're all sinners, how we're unworthy of God's grace, but now we're forgiven. After that brief but necessary bath in self-pity and self-flagellation, we have the appropriate sense of guilt to begin singing songs.

I frequently hear Christians describe themselves as sinners. It's being humble and authentic and I respect that. After all, everyone is broken and messed up in some significant way. When a follower of Jesus says he is a sinner, he is coming to terms with his fallibility. He is aware of his weakness and he has the courage and humility to acknowledge that. That's a good thing. I don't want to detract from that. And yet I wonder if sin is the core identity of a follower of Jesus. Some might argue we're both sinners and saints and we must get used to the tension. Thus the fundamental question is this:

Once you are redeemed by Jesus, are you still a sinner?

No.

You are a saint. The sinner in you is dead. This is the unseen reality of who you are.

If you are a Christian, you will not believe this according to your experience. You are surrounded by the daily evidence of your sin - from the rage fantasies you wake up with, to the foul language you utter when someone cuts you off; from the coworker you throw under the bus, to the boss you spread rumors about behind his back; from the panhandler whom you ignore on the drive home and to the way you escape to your smartphone instead of connecting with your spouse or children.

But what if the evidence of your behavior is not what is truly real? What if your acts of rebellion are the physical manifestation of a lie? What if they're the product of an illusion that you have believed all your life and the world is constantly bombarding you to believe?

What's at stake here is a correct understanding of who you are. If you regard yourself as a sinner and live out of that belief, what effect does that have? Most Christians have kind of schizophrenic understanding - you're regarded by God as a saint but you feel and act like a sinner. So you live in this kind of peculiar state where God tells you you're righteous but you don't feel righteous in any concrete way. What if God has substantively changed you so that you are actually righteous? What if that's more real than the ground under your feet?

First, the term "sinner" and "saint" must be defined. A sinner is one whose life trajectory is characterized by rebellion against God. A sinner's thinking is characterized by the pattern of this world and its cultures. A sinner's behavior and emotional life is characterized by the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). And yet for many sinners, especially religious ones, there may not be outward signs of evil but rather superiority and arrogance that is internal and not obvious. For example, although Jesus does not explicitly label the Pharisees as "sinners", he has other choice terms to indicate what is inside their hearts (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:25-33). I recognize this definition of sinner is broader than the definition in the New Testament gospels. In those cases "sinner and tax collectors" meant people on the margins of society who were known for overt evil acts. And yet this broader definition captures how Paul described himself as I will explain below.

What then is a saint? Saint in the original Greek means "holy one". A saint is one whose life is characterized by the trajectory of going towards God. According to Romans 6, a saint is no longer a slave to sin and is now a "slave to righteousness". A saint is holy, blameless, and beyond reproach (Colossians 1:22). A saint

You might disagree on my definition. A saint, as defined by the Catholic church, is someone who has been vetted through the extensive canonization process. It is not a sinless person but a person who has accomplished significant things for God. This is not exactly the way Paul and other New Testament writers use the term.

Second, everyone sins - including Christians (saints) and certainly including me. This is not an argument that saints do not sin. This is an argument that the authors of the New Testament, primarily the apostle Paul, regarded followers of Jesus as "saints" and not "sinners" and that therefore, we are to view ourselves primarily as saints and not sinners.

Third, "saint" is not merely a statement about a believer's status. Being a saint is not a costume one puts on to look good. Being a saint describes a follower of Jesus both externally and internally. When one follows Jesus, God changes him on the inside. His old self dies and he is born again and given new life. He is now substantively different. One would not say that Christians have the righteous standing of saints but are otherwise sinners in every other meaningful way.

You are a saint

From the New Testament (English Standard Version) occurrences of the term "saint": Matthew 27:52; Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Romans 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25f, 31; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:1f; 14:33; 16:1, 15; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:4; 9:1, 12; 13:13; Ephesians 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Philippians 1:1; 4:22; Colossians 1:2, 4, 12, 26; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 5:10; Philemon 1:5, 7; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; Jude 1:3; Revelation 5:8; 8:3f; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:20, 24; 19:8; 20:9

The most comprehensive argument for the fact that a follower of Jesus is a saint can be found in chapters 4-8 of Romans. A thorough exposition of those chapters is outside the scope of this post but let the following be noted: 1) the term "saint" is not used in used in these chapters but the ideas of being a "slave to righteousness", "freedom from sin", "alive to God and dead to sin" are exactly what being a saint is about. 2) It is possible to show you are a saint without using Romans 4-8 because the rest of the New Testament evidence is overwhelming and that's the intent of the rest of this post. And yet I can't resist one implicit reference to what Paul's understanding of sainthood is:

Romans 5:19  For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

What is the opposite of a sinner? A saint. A saint is characterized by a righteousness not of his own doing but that of another's. Certainly, we will indeed sin after we trust Jesus but that is not the defining pattern of our lives - we are now saints - not because of our works but Jesus'.

Ephesians 1:1  Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

In seven (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) of Paul's thirteen epistles, Paul introduces his letters by referring to the church as "saints". Was he joking? Was he being sarcastic? I highly doubt it. He is affirming the reality of who these Christians are. They are not saints because of what they have done but because they have been saved and redeemed

Colossians 1:3-4  We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,

It's possible when Paul opens this letter, he's telling the believers in Colossae that they've shown love towards a group of super Christians in their midst. But it makes far more sense to understands "saints" to mean fellow believers - either in their city or outside it.

Colossians 1:11-12  May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

This makes it more clear that Paul did not understand "saints" to be a separate category of Christian but one which the church at Colossae was included. They are also saints and enjoy the inheritance along with the saints in the light. What is so awesome about Paul's statement is his emphasis: You are not qualified to be a saint according to your achievements but according to what God the Father accomplished on your behalf. You are not a saint because you did something amazing, you're a saint because someone did something amazing for you.

Colossians 1:22  [Jesus Christ] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

Again, no explicit reference to "saint" but in the same chapter where Paul makes reference to saints, he is also defining the essence of sainthood - you are holy, blameless, and above reproach.  

Outside of Paul, there are references to early Jerusalem believers in Acts, to fellow believers in Jude, references to "endurance of the saints" in Revelation. In each example, the understanding of a "saint" as a follower of Jesus is consistent with the meaning of the text. I do acknowledge the interpretation of these verses could allow you to think "Super Christian" but I disagree based on Paul's usage.

You are no longer a sinner

1 Timothy 1:15  The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

The verse above could be used to indicate post-conversion Paul thought of himself as a sinner. But if you examine the context, it's clearly a reference to his pre-conversion state. The use of the present tense is intentional - it underscores the proximity of his sin - both chronologically and the fact that he is still able, at any time, to indulge the works of his flesh, which is irredeemably evil and bears the residue of his old self. Paul was judged faithful not because of his works but because of the cleansing work of Jesus Christ.

1 Timothy 1:12-14   I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Paul was a sinner saved by grace and he is now a saint - not because of his inherent, unique gifts and spirituality but because of Jesus Christ. He indicates he was previously a blaphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent - all overt indications of being a sinner. Again, pre-conversion Saul would not have understood his behavior as sinful as he was a well-respected Jewish leader but Paul recognizes truly that's who he was. Regardless of how you come down on this passage, Paul no longer considers the primary identity of his audience to be sinners. There are no epistles where he addresses the church as "To the sinners in Rome".

Luke 5:31-32   And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

What do we call sick people who recover? Healthy. What do we call sinners who repent and are made righteous? Saints.

Galatians 2:15-17  We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!

Paul was writing to the church in Galatia to defend against a heresy that justification came by faith and works of the law. In v.17, Paul is explaining that just because a saint commits a sin, that evil act does not transform Jesus nor the saint into a sinner. Paul's point is believers have been set free from God's moral standard in the Mosaic Law and that we now have a new existence in Christ - we are no longer sinners but saints - Jesus lives his life in us.

John 9:31  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.

God listens to believers because of the cleansing and resurrecting power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who dwells in them to empower them. If you're a sinner, God will not listen to you. God only listens to saints and you are a saint because of Jesus.

Implications


Imagine waking up in the morning knowing exactly who you are - a saint. You no longer need self-pity, self-flagellation, guilt, or shame to get you moving or to prepare your heart to sing worship songs. If you gossip about your boss or cut someone off, you confess your sin and you move on to live righteously because for that moment, you forgot who you are. In fact, being a saint allows you the freedom to acknowledge and confess your sin - it does not threaten your worth or security because you are not holy, righteous, and blameless. Sorrow over your own sin is temporary and the Spirit immediately leads you into repentance to gently point you back to the truth - that you are a beloved child of Most High King and you have an inheritance in the saints - because that's who you are.