Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

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?


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.


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.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Condition-less Christianity

I helped the older Asian gentlemen put his backpack into the overhead luggage bin. I sat in the middle* and he had the window seat on our flight from London to San Francisco. It turns out he was an Oxford physics professor headed to Berkeley for a workshop. When I asked him about his travel, he told me he had visited the US too many times to count and he was always too busy to have time to sight-see. Later I praised Oxford as an exemplary institution of higher learning. He replied with a perfunctory "of course". After I told him I was a pastor, he kept calling me a priest and asked me about conducting mass. I couldn't tell if he was feigning ignorance or considered religion as beneath his superior intellect. 

I love talking to people on planes. I'm an extrovert and it's a captive audience. These situations are great opportunities to get to know people. Sometimes people aren't in the mood to talk and that's fine. They're also my favorite chances to share the gospel. Of course the person has to be interested but the fun part is figuring out how to pique someone's interest in Jesus. It typically happens through a complaint.

The toughest part is getting past the annoying aspects of a person (and the other person need to overcome the annoying aspects of me). In this case, the professor's arrogance was seriously turning me off. I had to find ways to distract myself from his condescending tone while also asking better questions that would help him to open up. 
When asked about his spiritual background, the professor claimed to have none, which is never true. In hopes of not explicitly offending me, he said he admired religion because it provided valuable guidance for how we should live. Direct questions about spirituality, especially when people find out I'm a pastor, are rarely effective in getting strangers to share their beliefs.

I finally got him going when I asked for an assessment of his current crop of PhD candidates. He commented that many of the overseas candidates were good at following instructions but lacked originality in their research. I sequed into asking him what he saw as the biggest problem in society today. He said it was the lack of morality, as exhibited by religious extremism like ISIS. He said the world suffered from a lack of fairness. If only the world was "fair" then we wouldn't have so many problems. He also made the common generalization that all religions teach people to be good but then observed that Islam extremism seemed to tends towards violence. From his standpoint, even Christian extremist groups tended to be more isolationist rather than promoting change through terrorism. We wondered together what the difference in the religions might be. Here's how our conversation continued:

Me: It seems that extremist violence often uses the rhetoric of justice and it's interesting that most Christians acknowledge that vengeance isn't a God-given right.
Professor: That's true - Islam teaches something about "an eye for an eye" doesn't it?**
Me: Yes, I've heard that. But as Christians we believe God's forgiveness is available to anyone, regardless of what he/she has done. 
Professor: You mean it's condition-less?
Me: Exactly. 

I've always used the term "unconditional" to describe God's forgiveness but "condition-less" works just as well. In some ways, it's more explanatory. I know the words mean the same thing but hearing it described with a different word made me think more deeply about how God's love reaches us without conditions, without barriers, without qualification. It was also insightful to hear someone unfamiliar with Christianity use a different word that helped me understand my faith better. It was awesome.

I also recognize our view on the difference between Christianity and Islam may be inaccurate. What I did find, after some Google research, is there aren't many clear explanations of how atonement works in Islam. Atonement is the process by which one's sin is forgiven. What was clear to me is atonement in Islam is primarily intrinsic to the person - emphasizing personal repentance and reparations for the sin. I did also notice the idea of justice and judgment is quite prominent in Islamic teaching. This emphasis appears in Christianity and Judaism but Jesus really messes this up. In any case, most of the stuff on the internet is Christians attacking Islam's understanding of the atonement and vice versa. I do wonder how a person can be capable of true repentance when evil is so pervasive and I look forward to future plane trips when a Muslim can help me understand this better.

*Sitting in the middle of a three-seat section is a great way to increase the likelihood of having a meaningful conversation. On a crowded flight, you have the opportunity to talk to two different captive people. However I'm pretty sure no one will actually follow this suggestion since the middle is the most uncomfortable seat and I got put there because I had booking problems.

**I didn't mention this but Islam, Judaism, and by extension, Christianity, all teach variations of this principle of justice but only Christianity has Jesus' corollary of turning the other cheek. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Introducing SinWin behavior tracker

LAS VEGAS - CES - February 11th, 2016 - LifeHacker Church, a leader in the spiritual fitness market, today unveiled SinWin, a behavior tracking app, which together with the wearable technology in the SinWinSkin bracelet, make up a comprehensive sin management solution.

Never before has behavior tracking been easier or more accurate. Instead of journals, logs, accountability partners, and the "leading" of the Holy Spirit, SinWin wearable technology allows you to monitor works of the flesh in real-time. When you fail to take a thought captive, SinWin will know and so will everyone else. SinWin technology incorporates sensors monitoring heart rate, speech, core temperature, perspiration level, ergonomic state, and electromagnetic radiation to derive your SinScale - a rating for your depravity.

The technology is complex but the result is simple.

And effective.

Here's how it works:

Each day your SinScale starts with a score of 10,000 points. Every sin detected reduces your score. Lustful thought? Minus fifty points. White lie to a co-worker? Take away twenty-five points. One cupcake too many? That will cost you fifteen points. Micro-transgressions such as pangs of jealousy and Facebook envy subtract anywhere from three to eleven points.

"Before SinWin, you would need to come to church to get your weekly dose of guilt, shame, and condemnation but now you can have  all those functions on your wrist," said Walter BeeBee, lead pastor and CEO of LifeHacker Church. "Before SinWin, pastors would have no idea how well you behaved in the past week but with our social media integration, your followers will know exactly how many times you viewed porn in the past hour because it will show up in their news feed."

In response to concerns that SinWin will make pastors obsolete, Bebe said this: "The beauty of this app is we pastors have always suspected you're sinning more than you think and now we can know for sure. Now we can focus on what we really should be doing - keeping you from tipping the SinScale. We all know the goal of the Christian life is sin management and now we can monitor your sanctification progress better than ever before."

In-app purchases include customized notifications such as "You have exceeded your husband nagging quota for the day" and even preemptive alerts such as "When you go into Starbucks, don't stare at anything in yoga pants".

Customer testimonials include:

"Before SinWin, I only heard 'recalculating' when I was in the car but now I get to hear that British-accented woman every time I do something wrong"

"Unbelievable. I was 200 points down before I even got out of bed this morning because I had a strange dream with leprechauns"

"I got a 1475 last week and earned the 1K crumpled angel wing badge. I'm hoping to get the Donald Trump hair badge for seven consecutive days of avoiding Muslims."

And the benefits of SinWin don't end with you. 

Steve Yang, LifeHacker Chief Technologist and father of twin toddlers, explained: "This app will also revolutionize parenting. We had helicopter parenting before but this will usher in the age of drone parenting. Parents can monitor their child's SinScale using their smartphone and have more time to do more spiritual things than waste time parenting their kids".

Asked how Jesus would have rated on SinWin: "Pretty close to 10K" Bebe replied. "We're still working on how our algorithm rates his death and resurrection on the SinScale but we're confident our programming team will have it down in the next release."

The SinWin app is available free in iTunes and Google Play. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

8 Ways Oprah's Ad Preaches the Gospel

The full text of what she says:
Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be. Many times you look in the mirror and you don't even recognize your own self, because you got lost - buried - in the weight that you carry.
Nothing you've ever been through is wasted. So every time I tried and failed, every time I tried again, and every time I tried again, has brought me to this most powerful moment - to say: 
"If not now, when?"
I feel that way and I know millions of other people feel that way. Are you ready? Let's do this together.

Let me first acknowledge that Oprah does not proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That's the sina qua non of preaching the gospel.

And yet there are more gospel redemptive elements of Oprah's ad than most thirty-forty minute sermons. In addition, Oprah is able to move our hearts in a way most sermons won't - and the fact she can do that in sixty seconds is incredible.
Note: As I've acknowledged before, I own stock of Weight Watchers in my retirement account. I think this company has a great program that applies 12-step recovery program methodology to weight loss. Like this ad, the 12-step is not explicitly Christian but also has strong gospel-redemptive elements.

1) Highlights the deception of the evil one: From Oprah's initial statement, it would appear Oprah's audience is overweight women but the gospel is for every person.  After all, we are all subject to the evil one's attacks. Satan's primary tactic is deception - to make people think they're sinners when they're really saints or saints when they're actually sinners. His ploy is to cause you to look in the mirror and not recognize your true identity.

On that note, I would change her verbiage to "Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she truly is". The flesh is not who we truly are in Christ. In him, we are new.

2 Corinthians 11:3  But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

2) Highlights the burden of the flesh: Paul's epistle to the Romans talks about how each person is a slave to sin. A person's compulsive relationship with food has all the elements of addiction. Every person is weighed down, lost, and buried by the weight of his own sin.

Psalm 38:4  For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.

3) Encourages the value of change efforts: No one who wants to change enjoys failure. That's why we give up. And yet Oprah recognizes the lessons of repeated failure as preparation for the future - a future which has now arrived in the form of the present. The suffering of past trials is the fertile soil in which seeds of victory will bloom. Failure doesn't kill hope but rather nurtures it.

Hebrews 12:11  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

4) Demonstrates vulnerability by sharing her personal failures: The grainy images of Oprah jogging and pumping away on the  stairmaster are poignant examples of Oprah's failed change efforts. We all have areas of sin and addictive behavior that we have repeatedly tried and failed to address. Oprah is saying you're not alone. She has been exactly where you are - discouraged, defeated, ashamed, and fearful.

5) Exhorts us to make most of our limited time: "If not now, when?" When is the best time for life change? Right now. This very moment. Don't keep putting it off. There is no perfect moment when you will have sufficient energy, willpower, support, and resources to transform your life.

Ephesians 5:15-16  Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

6) Speaks to the audience as one person: Oprah does not address the audience as "Are you all ready?" or "Are some of you ready?" or "Are any of you ready?". No, it's "Are YOU ready?" She is talking to you. Not the person next to you. Not a group of people who are better prepared. She is talking to you - the individual. Jesus did that too. 

Luke 13:3  "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." [Jesus speaking to a group of Jews who looked down on Galileans for their offering practices]

7) Makes a clear call to action: "Let's do this together". There are literally thousands of scripture verses where the biblical authors make clear calls to action. In the gospel, no one is simply a spectator. The gospel is a full-contact sport. What I find so genius is that Oprah never mentions Weight Watchers. It doesn't really matter. If you want to lose weight, then do something. Whatever personal change effort you know you need - controlling one's temper, quitting porn, ending a bad relationship - let's do this together.

8) Invites us to participate in her journey: Oprah is running the race and she has invited you to join her. We will pound the pavement together. The gospel is a journey we embark on together - with all the saints who have gone before us and all the saints who will come after - gazing upon the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 12:1  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Marital Readiness as Support

When should one aim to get married? How long should one know his/her significant other before tying the knot?

I often hear these two questions and they have all kinds of problems because each person and relationship is different. Plus, other people have answered better than I will.

Earlier is Better (sort of)

I generally believe opposing the prevailing culture for gospel reasons. The culture of overachieving Asian Americans  emphasizes delaying marriage until career, education, and finances have been sorted. If you're in that category, I believe earlier age-wise is better. I'm biased towards the start-up rather than merger aspect of marriage. Marrying younger has all kinds of benefits - namely building a life together when each of you is the most malleable. A good marriage trumps career, education, and finances. However, for impulsive and short-sighted people, waiting is probably a good thing. What's most important is to become the type of person that is malleable and desires growth. 

Realistic Expectations

What inhibits many from pursuing marriage earlier is high expectations. In the past, marriage was mainly economic and social. Now, marriage is economic, social, romantic, emotional, and self-actualizing. That's a lot to expect from marriage. It is important to recognize the sacredness of the spiritual, lifetime union and yet not expect it to fulfill all your needs. The Cinderella, sweep you off your feet, Taylor Swift fairy tale stuff does not exist. Having realistic expectations is key. We, with fractured bodies, wait for God to show up in unexpected ways in the midst of a fractured world. One way God shows up is through marriage.

Not How Long but How Well

Along with that, I don't think you need to know someone for a long time to get married. The more mature you are, the less time you need. It's helpful to have a sense of the person's character, values, and family background. By that, it's not what the person says, but the track record of the person's actions and behavior and their reputation from family and friends. It's easy to fool one person (you - the significant other) but more difficult to fool one's family, friends, coworkers, etc. In the end though, you don't actually need to know the other person well if you have other resources.

External Support Matters

One perspective of marital readiness is the idea of support. Imagine marriage or marital readiness as a bridge. The length and sturdiness of the bridge is determined by the span and weight of the couple's expectations. A heavy burden of expectations requires a long and well-constructed bridge.

In order to make the marital bridge capable of supporting the weight of expectations, a couple needs support. There are two kinds of support - internal and external. Internal support is the material used to construct the bridge. Internal support in marriage means personal qualities of the two individuals - responsibility, acceptance, work ethic, honesty, integrity, affection, trust, loyalty, gentleness, commitment, etc. When we talk about a couple's readiness to get married, we usually talk about these qualities. When a couple is intimidated by marriage, they're usually talking about inadequacy these areas. 

But internal support is not the only way to add structural integrity. You can externally retrofit a structure to augment its strength - adding beams, and whatever else civil engineers do. 

External support for marital readiness is the support of a community and its cultural values.
Western and postmodern culture is thoroughly individualistic and hence emphasizes internal support. But Eastern cultures value external support and the community surrounding the couple. External support is the culture you're surrounded by and people who are part of your life in the form of church, family, friends, and workplace. One reason I believe marriages fail isn't simply because the internal support could have been stronger but because the couple lacked external support as well. That's vital in a society where people are increasingly disconnected from social institutions.

I've been thinking about how arranged marriage works in India. It doesn't always work well in terms of happiness because the institution is not designed around individual choice and romantic fulfillment. But I've witnessed and heard of arranged marriages that both endure AND have a high degree of marital satisfaction. Were these couples ready when they got married? How well did they know each other? 

Some observations and comments on successful arranged marriages: 1) The couples didn't know each other very well and because they didn't, they likely had realistic expectations about marriage. They recognized the initial years of marriage would be a breaking-in period of getting to know each other and the romantic aspect might take years to develop, if at all. 2) The couples experienced strong external support for their marriage. Arranged marriage is an accepted social institution and there are structures that help guide the courtship process. There's active participation from both sets of parents - who are emotionally invested in seeing the marriage succeed (aka grandchildren). There's also the model of other successful arranged marriages in the community. Lastly, the surrounding culture places value on marriage.  

If you grew up in a broken family, you will lack external support in that area. If you're an active part of a church community, you will benefit from a source of external support. 

People often cite Judy and I as a model of fantastic internal support to have gotten married at 24 and 23 years old, respectively. We must have possessed exceptional maturity and courage to oppose the overachieving Asian American narrative of education, career, and money first.

It's a flattering narrative but not quite the reality.

If you look closer, we benefited from strong external support towards early marriage. We both came from intact families and even though we attended an academically prestigious university, we were heavily involved in a conservative evangelical fellowship. Going on a summer project with Cru was an eye-opening experience. We met predominantly white college students from the Midwest who often married during or immediately after college. Education, career, and finances were distant seconds to marriage. Our staff director introduced me to Josh Harris' Kiss Dating Goodbye and constantly badgered me to get married as soon as possible. A handful of close friends married within a six months of our graduation. 

For couples considering marriage, it's important to evaluate the internal support but don't neglect the external support either. It's not easy to open up one's lives to other people but it's a vital part of living in community as the body of Christ. One thing I've learned after seventeen plus years of marriage is external support is no less vital today than it was when we first married. We need therapists, older couples, both sets of parents, and the body of Christ to continue to model and counsel us through our seasons of marriage and raising children.

Ultimately, the idea of marital readiness is a misnomer because getting married is when the preparation begins. You don't know what you need until you're in the thick of it. It's like your first time playing basketball against a full court press or cooking your first full meal for guests under time constraints. You are clueless on what it's like until you've experienced it firsthand. But once you do, you have a much better idea about what you need to work on and how far you have to go. God is constantly training, molding, and equipping us for marriage, in the midst of being married. And we continually need support, both internal and external, for building a stronger marriage.