Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The best thing about the Chinese church


That's it. The Chinese immigrant church attempts to replicate the extended nuclear family of one's ancestry. It is the most redeeming aspect of the Chinese church in a nutshell. 

It is best because of the unity, harmony, devotion, and respect inherent to the family unit. Nothing I have observed in mainstream evangelical culture rivals the Chinese church's ability to cultivate a family atmosphere. Chinese churches place tremendous value on unity, harmony, and conflict avoidance. There are five aspects to how a Chinese church builds a family: food, communal worship, caring, size, and resistance to change. As one woman put it, coming into a Chinese church/fellowship group has a "homey" feel - it's like returning home.

The family that eats together stays together: Like many immigrant churches, Chinese churches host lunch immediately after worship service and everyone dines together as a family. Food is pivotal in Chinese culture and a special bond occurs when you break bread with others. Mealtime is as chaotic festive as any authentic Chinese restaurant (if the restroom doubles as a storage closet, it's authentic) and that's exactly how a Chinese family gathering should function. It's hard to over-state how important food is to Chinese people. People feel connected to being Chinese through the crazy stuff we eat. A woman in our church recognized my dad was from the same hometown in Guangdong because of a particular dish he brought to a church potluck. That's how diverse Chinese cuisine is. 

The family that worships together stays together: A Chinese church's mid-week activities usually occur on the same night. Even though there are separate activities for children, youth, and adults, everyone gathers under the same roof at the same time. It's frenzy of laughter, shouting, and children running around, like any raucous family gathering. Where a number of parents who attend a mainstream church will elect not to have their kids participate in their church's children's program, the participation rate of families in a Chinese church's children's ministry gets close to 100% and the youth group participation rate lags closely behind. If you grow up in a Chinese church, it's assumed you'll be part of the youth group. You're family and you don't have another choice. Consequently, if you go to the same school with kids from the youth group and your parents are in the same small group, and you go on a vacation together as well, you will forge lifetime friendships. You do everything with your church - they literally function as your extended family. I still keep in touch with members of my youth group even though we didn't attend the same high school.

The family that cares for each other stays together: Just like in a Chinese family, you don't have individual rights in a Chinese church. Anyone can give you unsolicited advice about what you should wear, who you should date, and how you should raise your children. In a true sense, we belong to each other and we exercise privileges in how interact with each other. My wife received a tremendous amount of advice through four pregnancies - all of it well-intentioned and some of it helpful. But once we had the babies, our church came through amazingly in providing meals and even childcare. It almost goes without saying the food was incredible. Our kids got to the point they could taste a dish and determine who the cook was.

The family that doesn't grow too big stays together: I joined a Korean immigrant church in college. It was also like family but there was a strong spiritual hierarchy that I never experienced in a Chinese church. I also noticed there was greater ethnic solidarity among Koreans than Chinese. Lastly, Korean American Christians had a passion for God that I never experienced before. This manifested itself in a militant focus to expand the kingdom in whatever way possible, including opening the church to other ethnicities. Korean churches have a unique commitment to missions and evangelism. They are not content with the family staying the same size. Not so much with the Chinese church. In contrast to the Korean church in the US, there are few Chinese churches with over a thousand members. Instead, in the bay area with hundreds of thousands of Chinese, there are hundreds of small Chinese churches. Our commitment is to retain the intimacy and familiarity of the family atmosphere. I wonder if it's because China is such a populous nation and so easy to feel anonymous, that Chinese desperately want to re-create a hometown sentiment.  My dad was an atheist when he started taking our family to church after we moved to Georgia in 1989. He wanted to meet other Chinese people and unconsciously yearned to replicate the Chinese family atmosphere. Chinese favor families not empires.

The family that doesn't change stays together: Most institutions resist change but the Chinese church is uniquely impervious to transition. A 6,000 year old culture is conditioned to withstand upheaval. Like any immigrant church, the Chinese church in America functions as a refuge for cultural exiles. That means most of its members are going to be conservative in their approach to assimilation. The role of the church is to retain cultural elements that immigrants do not want to lose. The Chinese church's resistance to change makes it an extremely stable institution. You always know your place and for better or worse, that place does not shift easily. 

The best thing is also the worst thing: As with any culture, every positive aspect has it's corresponding dark side. The family unit aspect of a Chinese church is the worst because Chinese culture worships blood. Chinese people value kinship ties over other bonds. It idolizes the nuclear, biological family and all its accompanying pathologies - respect for elders, idolatry of parents and ancestors, the enmeshed family unit, obligation and duty, honor and shame, and worship of children. It's not difficult to recognize the fleshly elements of these qualities. I've spent a lot of my adult life bemoaning these negative aspects - the loss of individuality, shaming and saving face, the lack of privacy, the emphasis on tradition, the lack of evangelistic fire, and the emphasis on educational attainment and knowledge.

Gospel redemption of Chinese culture: On the other hand, many 2nd generation Chinese Americans like me often fail to recognize the value of our immigrant church upbringing. There's self-loathing because we can only see the dysfunctionality of what we've been through and our mainstream context does not know how to make sense of our church experience. I get it all the time - white people are surprised that I have an English-speaking ministry within a Chinese church. They have no clue what that might look like and their response makes me feel like my background is invisible. 

It's easy to feel ashamed of who we are. 

So without recognizing the positives of Chinese culture, many find themselves disillusioned or disconnected with their mainstream church experience.  It might be because we're accustomed to a form of family that is difficult to replicate in the mainstream American church. I've noticed that my peers have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to do just that - replicate the intimacy of the Chinese church family in other church contexts. I applaud the effort. But many more peers have simply not made the effort and flounder around, seeking to belong in some other family context apart from the church. Some rely on their high school or college group of friends, other have a network of relationships through work or common interests. And sometimes it's there and sometimes it isn't but I'm convinced there is no better context to reproduce a spiritual family than within the body of Christ. 

When Jesus saves us, he doesn't just save us as individuals. He saves us as a community. We enter into and become a new people. And contrary to what we might want, the gospel does not make our cultural background irrelevant. Rather the gospel redeems our culture into newness of life so that all the good aspects of our church culture are increasingly put on display and the broken aspects are healed. 

Our unique contribution to the body of Christ in North America: The power of the gospel means our cultural background as both Chinese and American is a unique asset to both mainstream and Chinese churches in the US. That means the diversity of Chinese cuisine and emphasis on Chinese hospitality is a unique gift to the body of Christ universal.

If you're part of a mainstream church (white culture), then your commitment to unity and harmony is both a blessing and a rebuke to the individualism of western Christianity. Your leadership and communication style might not be fully appreciated so don't sell yourself short. Don't be discouraged because Western culture does not place high value consensus building and group harmony.  You have much to offer if you're willing to invest in the redeemed community.

And if you're part of a Chinese church, then your individualistic mindset is a blessing and rebuke to the communalism of Eastern culture. You may simultaneously feel self-loathing and superiority because of your dual cultural citizenship. Learn to humble yourself and see the value of your context. 

Wherever you are, you are free to stop playing the victim and from feeling like a second-class citizen. Your hunger for home and your commitment to fostering community is a blessing to believers everywhere. Your love for family is a gift to the church.  

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Man Makes Man

Dedicated to all the men who have shaped and formed me over the years

Only steel forges steel in the smithy's store
              Where bellows blow and fan                    
The hammer strikes where iron burns bright give 
        Glory when man makes man              

Father's bond with son is fire-forged not
By blood but force and heat
Discipline fans flame and wisdom's thunder
Pounds sound in measured beat

A boy may declare himself fully grown
Thinks he's great, thinks he can
Yet boy needs furnace to mold his heart since
Only man can brand man 

Shall a tender flower wield the hammer
That batters steel to form?
Can a willow withstand the withering heat
Of the forge's scorching storm?

A woman's birth pain ends but a man's true
Labor is forging soul
The contours, the hewed lines of character
To shape is mentors' role

No man forms another on his own but
Each smith serves his design
Chisel, tongs, and bellows work as one while
Anvil with sledge combine

The fraternity of brothers join to
Unite as master guild
Where apprentices attain the higher craft of
One's purpose to fulfill

Male female alike emerge from the womb
Without woman who could stand?
So honor due our mother-roots but cry       
Glory when man makes man

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Seeing Christ in 1 and 2 Samuel

This article highlights some of the tension in reading too much Jesus into the bible. It's a struggle that every preacher and teacher should wrestle with. 

In our preaching fellowship, we've been discussing how to discover Christ in the Old Testament while honoring the authorial intent of the human writer. How definitively can one say that any particular Old Testament passage points to Jesus? What kind of criteria can we use?

On one hand, I can't overestimate the centrality of Christ as the overriding message of the scriptures. Though the bible is 80% law, the show piece of scripture is the grace of God revealed in Christ Jesus. On the road to Emmaus, the post-resurrection Jesus told his companions, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." In light of this statement and others, I view the Old Testament through the lens of the New.

On the other hand, it's very tempting to read Old Testament passages allegorically and see Jesus in every nook and cranny. It feels clumsy, forced and is disrespectful to the intent of the earthly authors. Can we really claim Messianic foreshadowing if the writer had no clue nor intention to do so?

For Tim Keller, it seems no matter the text, Christ is the better, older brother. And I'm uncomfortable with this approach when the better, older brother doesn't show up in the text. Ray Stedman and Ligon Duncan are much more restrained in their exegesis. And yet I feel they could be a little more flexible and creative in making connections with a macro understanding of scripture.

But the devil Christ is in the details. So let's take 1 and 2 Samuel as an example of how this works in our church's latest preaching series.


In hermeneutics, the macro perspective is primary. How one interprets the larger context of a book will inform how one reads its component passages. And any Christ connection in a particular passage must somehow connect with the grander theme of the book.

1 and 2 Samuel concern the king and his kingdom. The books concern Israel's quest for the ultimate ruler who will lead the nation in battle and execute justice and mercy on behalf of its citizens. The narrative arc follows the rise and fall of king and is a transitional book for all future kings of Israel. The peaks and valleys include: the rise of Samuel (Hannah), fall of Eli and his sons, rise and fall of Saul, rise and fall of David, and the subsequent triumph of David.

Each ruler in 1 and 2 Samuel foreshadows the ultimate king. Eli, his sons, Saul, Absalom, Joab, and even David negatively contrast with Jesus. Yet only This type of symbolism is called typology and is the most common and therefore abused form of Christ connection in the Old testament.

David is the destined king after God's own heart. He is a type of the king to come whose reign is eternal. He is the warrior king who defeats the enemies of the kingdom. He is the ruler who executes justice on behalf of his citizens. He is the obedient and gracious priest king who instead of taking vengeance gives grace and makes offerings on behalf of his people.

Unlikely Hannah gives birth to the subversive prophet, Samuel. Her story parallels Christ's birth and her song matches the humble-prideful motif in Mary's song. The story ends with climatic battle imagery of a king triumphing over spiritual forces of darkness (2 Samuel 22) and beautifully parallels the darkness and quaking during Christ's crucifixion (Matthew 27:45;51-54).

- Some of these make sense without much explanation like Mary's song vs. Hannah's song described above.
- Eli and his sons parallel the Pharisees, temple merchants, and corrupt modern-day religious leaders.
- I love 1 Samuel 5 - it's one of the few sections of the bible where the hero and point-of-view is that of an inanimate object.
- Spirit of God does amazing things in Saul, even though he's a fearful and reactive people pleaser.
- The point of David vs. Goliath is not so much that we can defeat the giants but that we have a champion in Christ, our warrior king, who fights our battles.
- The true king does not grasp for power or take vengeance in the same way that David spares the house of Nabal, sandwiched by two passed up opportunities to kill Saul.
- Climax of 1 and 2 Samuel is chapter 7 and its Davidic Covenant. Jesus is the fulfillment of this covenant. The gospels of Matthew and Luke mention David 30 times, not counting the numerous instances David's words are quoted or referenced by Jesus. If you can't get to Jesus from here, I'm afraid I can't help you.


But Jesus is not everywhere. In particular:

- Just because someone dies, doesn't mean that person is martyr in the manner of Christ. For example, Uriah, Abner, and Amasa are killed in stealthy under-handed ways but they are not Christ-types. There was no intentionality in their death nor did their death save anyone.
- Just because an offering is made, doesn't necessarily point to Christ. For example, Saul inappropriately offers a burnt offering in 1 Samuel 13. He is a foil for David and his offering is a direct contradiction to Samuel's instructions. The only Christ parallel might be as a contrast with how Jesus, our high priest and warrior king would behave.

In the end, as my friend Brian Hui puts it, we focus on "good honest exegesis" before jumping to Jesus.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

You can't be friend zoned if you want friendship

Marc from the UK responds to my last post:
I have to be honest, the "friend zone" concept that seems to be prevalent in today's culture (particularly American culture) is a little strange to me. Perhaps it's just a cultural thing.. But I don't find it useful to look at things in that way, this is why:
I agree that believing you can win a girls' affection by being a good girlfriend is a myth, and I've often witnessed a "nice guy" who's chasing a girl that isn't into him, the more he does for her the more she loses respect for him.
However, I believe that developing a friendship with someone you're interested in is a good thing. It seems that in US culture (I've never lived in the US but I went to an American school in Germany for a year) when a guy is interested, he'll often make his intention known straight away and ask the girl out on a "date". The issue I see with this is that often an individual will form romantic relationships very quickly with a person they barely know, most of the time it will end just as quick. Sometimes this causes a lot of heartache and hurt.
I think that by getting to know someone before you jump into a relationship can most often tell you whether the relationship is worth pursuing. Sometimes you will realize there just isn't that much chemistry, the attraction will wane. Or you realize the person is simply not someone you can really picture yourself with in the long run after seeing a little more of them. 
Furthermore, as you mentioned "In high school, I found out how easy it is for attraction to develop between a guy and girl who share a lot with each other." Often attraction doesn't happen for both parties simultaneously, feelings can develop over time and rushing the friendship step by putting someone under pressure with an advance very early on and then walking away when they say no can sometimes ruin a potentially good thing. Of course, if you do develop a friendship in someone that you are interested in they might turn you down eventually. They may simply not be attracted to you in that way. I'm not sure you have put yourself in the "friend zone". It just means she's just not that into you.
I completely agree that "Being a man means not being casual, flippant, or covert about building emotional intimacy with a woman." But like you said, if ultimately rejection can result in a good friendship that can be a great thing. I don't think there's anything covert about first building a friendship with someone you may be interested in- if you do eventually clearly demonstrate to her how you feel. And with any relationship, if you avoid losing the other persons respect by becoming a "lil' bitch" by waiting on her hand and foot but rather develop a friendship that is reciprocal, I don't believe you are playing with fire in developing a friendship.. 
Let me know if you have any thoughts on this.
I agree with everything Marc writes. My issue is that he misunderstands what the friend zone is. Just because a guy has female friends does not mean he's being friend zoned. The determining factor is if he wants and is content with friendship. Making female friends as a means of determining mate potential is NOT the friend zone. Certainly friendship can result in something more significant but the friend zone means nurturing an unexpressed and unfulfilled desire for a romantic relationship. Because you're insecure about expressing your sexual desire, the friend zone devalues your friendship and emasculates you.

So of course it's a good thing to be friends with a girl you're interested in. Observing a woman in a variety of social contexts is the most effective way to get to know her. It's also the best way for her to get to know you. But the point of being friend zoned is that you're discontent with the friendship. You want something more but it's not happening and it upsets you. You only see the friendship as a vehicle to romance and if it doesn't happen, you keep hoping the ship will read your mind and alter its course.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Friend Zone and the Christian Male

Fake crying over fake friendship
The friend zone refers to a person's unintended relationship status. It usually begins with a man who pursues a romantic relationship with a woman by building a friendship. His failure to do so is referred to as being friend-zoned. 

Being friend-zoned implies the girl consciously chooses to plant her male girlfriend in a platonic hypostasis. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you're a guy, you chose it. If you're a Christian guy, you doubly chose it. Unintentionally or unconsciously, you made the decision to get locked up in friend prison. Here's why and some ways to break out: 

1) You're a man and that means you're not a girlfriend: Feminism minimizes the difference between men and women. Therefore, men can be friends with women the way women are friends with each other. And women can be friends with men the way men are friends with each other. Unfortunately, reality doesn't work that way. One or the other fails at some point. 

Men and women think, communicate, and behave differently but we've come under the mythology that somehow, as men, we can be a shoulder to cry on for women - the way a good girlfriend should act. And the worst mythology is that a guy thinks being a good girlfriend will make a woman want him as a boyfriend. 

Women aren't completely innocent here since they can emasculate men through friend zoning. But since I'm talking to guys, my point is as follows: If you build emotional intimacy with a woman without any expressed romantic intent, you're playing with fire - either to be friend-zoned or to emotionally prostitute yourself or both.

Being a man means not being casual, flippant, or covert about building emotional intimacy with a woman. You keep a certain emotional distance unless you decide there might be something more to pursue. In high school, I found out how easy it is for attraction to develop between a guy and girl who share a lot with each other. The experience helped me to be wary about who I was vulnerable with. 

2) You're a Christian and therefore friendship has high value:  Tucker Max unintentionally describes this beautifully in his friend zone podcast transcript:

So, you actually liked her as a person, is what you’re saying?

I liked her as a person.

So, women can be something besides a vagina, right?


And that can benefit you.

Guys, if you have a sister, does your sister add value to you even though you’re not—

No. She put me in the [brother] zone! It was total bullshit! 

Tucker Max is far more prophetic than he realizes. Our primary identity is as brothers and sisters in Christ. The relationship we have with each other as members of the body of Christ is the only enduring human relationship we will have. But being friend zoned means we rate our sexual relationships as having far greater significance than our family bond.

How can being friend zoned be a tragedy if it doesn't threaten the primary relationship you have with this person? It means you have screwed up expectations to begin with and/or you find nothing beneficial about being friends with a particular woman. She adds nothing to your life. As Tucker Max so bluntly puts it, she's just a vagina to you. Once we understand our corporate identity in Christ, it is impossible to view another person as a penis receptacle. We can learn to enjoy friendships with women because God gave us the gift of sisters.

3) You're a Christian male so make your intentions clear: Being a man means being goal-oriented and risk-averse. In Christ, we have the capacity to manifest courage, initiative, and honesty. We are not called to be disingenuous about our desires. So if you like a girl and decide to pursue her, let her know in no uncertain terms. If in the course of friendship with a woman, you develop feelings of attraction, you need to decide whether you want to risk the friendship and the possibility of rejection. If expressing romantic interest isn't worth the jeopardizing the friendship, then learn contentment and self-control (by not escalating the emotional intimacy). If it is worth it, put your interest out there and trust God for what happens. If you get rejected then deal with it, move on, or stop being friends. I received a soft rejection in college - it was a "I don't know you well enough to say yes". In that instance, I valued the friendship and knew I might have an outside chance over time so we kept in touch. Give her a chance to validate that you're the kind of person you claim to be. You never know what might happen if she gets to know you better. But it can't happen until you stop cowering behind your hidden agenda and make your intentions clear.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Who's Afraid of the Holy Spirit?

I am.

I have a lot of knowledge about the Holy Spirit. I have a biblical basis for understanding his unique role in the Trinity. I know he is present in my life and guarantees my eternal salvation. He is my counselor and he empowers all Christians. 

And yet I am afraid to talk about the Holy Spirit explicitly in daily life. I'm scared of miracles - of supernatural manifestations of the divine. I don't have 100% certainty of when I'm walking with the Spirit. I'm suspicious of people who claim to regularly experience the Spirit's power in a tangible way and the way they talk about it. I'm uncomfortable when Christians say "I felt the Spirit leading me. . ." I've always seen this lead-in as impossible to argue with and a spiritualized excuse to justify an action. 

And yet it's good to express confidence in one's faith. And Jesus does indeed promise the Spirit will guide us into truth. And there's so much biblical evidence for what the Spirit does. So I, a struggling cessationist, find myself troubled by my skepticism about the Spirit - as if I have missed out on something vital concerning the Christian life. If a Christian worship gathering is just about expounding a text and giving encouragement, how is it any different from a TED talk? Where is the manifestation of the Spirit's power?

I used to call the Holy Spirit an "it". Like the way I referred to unborn babies before I became a parent. I know now he's not an "it" but sometimes I treat him like an "it". Having been brought up and now pastoring in a non-charismatic church context, the Holy Spirit has always resembled an untamed monster that has to kept properly restrained by the confines of scripture, reason, and tradition. 

What happens if you let it loose? Havoc. Healing. Crazy things. Strange words coming out of people's mouths. People falling on the floor, slain by the invisible creature unleashed.

But if the Spirit is God then he cannot be a beast. He cannot be out of control and driven by manic impulses. So what am I afraid of?

I'm afraid of certain specific manifestations of the Spirit. I'm uncomfortable with healing, miracles, exorcisms, tongues, and prophecies. I'm not saying they're not possible. I'm not used to them and I have witnessed and heard about excesses and abuses. I don't pretend to have the discernment to know when the Spirit is leading and when He's not.

A friend lent me Francis Chan's Forgotten God (subtitle: Reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit) recently. I got through half of it and it was quite good. Chan gives a wake-up call to the church to stop neglecting the confidence, intimacy, courage, and encouragement that comes from being led by the Spirit. The third member of the Trinity wants and has so much good for us. My only concern was the book, as with some of Chan's teaching I've heard, is that it places too strong an emphasis on how the Spirit is supposed to show up in our lives. Sometimes I feel Chan talks more about activity than identity. Chan repeatedly says that if we understood the Spirit then our lives would not look the way they do. I agree but focusing on the external manifestations feels like putting the cart before the horse. Everything the Spirit offers us is a byproduct of understanding our new creation identity in Christ. Living according to our identity in Christ IS living by the Spirit. They're inseparable and this presents a far more integrated vision of how the Spirit works in our lives. It's too easy to dichotomize the different persons of the Trinity when they always operate in unison. Unfortunately, my background lopped off the third person of the Trinity so addressing any specific aspects of the Spirit is going to feel awkward as I fumble around trying put his head back on his body.

I also have a couple friends who have also been on a journey out of cessationism. They're farther along than I am and I think they're scared too because even though the Spirit is controlled, he is unpredictable. For a couple years now, I've evaded materials they've shared with me. But now I'm ready to stop running away.

And here's what I'm convinced of: Our church doesn't talk much about the Spirit. 

It's like sex. 

Sure God made it but it's bad out of the right context and therefore we should avoid talking about it unless it's about what not to do. And we talk it/him intellectually and abstractly but we rarely mention how it/him is supposed to work. But not talking about it/him doesn't mean it/he will go away. I would rather we be explicitly opposed to charismatic teaching then remaining silent and pretending he just works covertly. God shines light and this exploration is important. 

So it's time to start talking about him and how he's supposed to work. And since I have the Holy Spirit, I know I don't have to be afraid of him. What ultimately what I'm afraid of is having to change my conception of who God is. And that's both scary and exciting at the same time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Recovering the Manhood Ritual

Lake Schmidell, Desolation Wilderness
After attending the bar mitzvah of a friend of Caleb's earlier this year, I got excited about doing some kind of manhood ritual for him.  It was my first bar mitzvah and I was deeply moved by the experience. I identified two aspects of the Jewish coming of age ceremony where the adolescent male invests in the process. First, he must sing a large section of the Old Testament in Hebrew from memory. Second, he must perform a community service project and present a report during the ceremony. There was incredible symbolism throughout the worship service. Everything is sung in Hebrew and the rabbi did a great job explaining the meaning behind the objects. The Torah is held up and people touch it as it passes to demonstrate reverence and obedience. This ceremony represented the confluence of four distinct identities: spiritual, ethnic, family, and gender. The closet Protestant equivalent is baptism, if baptism were also ethnic and gender-oriented. As a pastor, it was exciting to participate in a religious ceremony from which our faith is derived and witness the myriad ways in which our faiths are intertwined.

Three things impress me about the manhood ritual

1) The status of manhood is conferred by another: Ideally it is given by a boy's father. It can come from other male mentors and role models. But these are all surrogates for our ultimate and intended father God. But the purpose of the manhood ritual is that a male doesn't just declare himself a man one day but that one becomes a man through a rite of passage or manhood ritual. 

2) The manhood ritual involves separation, transition, and re-incorporation: Separation means saying good-bye to your former life and distancing yourself. It means you leave your childish ways behind you. The military uses boot camp and particularly hell week to create separation. Transition is the testing phase. It's where you endure pain and hardship. When you emerge, you're re-incorporated into the rest of the community. You're no longer the person you used to be.

3) A rite of passage is costly: The more a person invests in the process, the more appreciative he is of the new status. In order to make manhood meaningful, something must be given up. The South African tribal tradition of ritual circumcision can result in the death of the initiate. I'm certain it's an experience you never forget.  It helps me understand why fraternities and sororities haze their pledges - the more something costs you, the more devoted you'll be to that identity. After all, you value what you pay for.

I have no role models when it comes to these kinds of ceremonies. My dad is the most non-traditional Chinese person I've ever met as he was born in Hong Kong and raised apart from both his biological and adoptive father. He literally has no rituals that he grew up with. Consequently, he is ruthlessly pragmatic and skeptical of tradition and up until my brother and I started going to school, he never celebrated any holiday including Christmas and Chinese New Year. One year my mom forced him to buy a fake Christmas tree and my brother and I began demanding birthday presents from them at an early age.

Protestant Christianity also eschews tradition and rites of passage because we're so suspicious of anything that might reek of idolatry. Kissing a scroll as a symbolic gesture of faith is akin to burning incense in front of a statue of fat Chinese man. We're scared that anything we do might be construed as legalism. My church background is also dramatically sparse in tradition. A friend shocked me one year when she asked me to dedicate their infant child. I had never attended a baby dedication and had no idea what to say. It turned out to be a significant spiritual event that I am grateful to have been part of.

I'm not throwing Caleb the Protestant equivalent of a bar mitzvah (whatever that is) when he turns thirteen in November. But I wanted him to experience a rite of passage that would mark his foray into manhood and give him memories for years to come.  

Three years ago, I read about how Warren Buffett's father would take each of his  kids (he had three) on a trip anywhere in the country to celebrate their tenth birthday. It inspired me to want to do the same thing for each of my kids. Judy gave me the green light, so when Caleb turned ten, I told him excitedly about my idea. Unfortunately he couldn't think of anywhere to go.

In the past year, one of my friends took his twelve year old son to hike Half Dome. Another took his thirteen year old son on a five-day bike ride down the coast to Los Angeles. Another friend shared the joys he experienced backpacking the John Muir trail for two weeks just him and his dad. So recently Caleb mentioned that he'd like to do a backpacking and fishing trip. We've been backpacking a couple times before but never accompanied by dropping line. Caleb loves fishing. He doesn't even mind when we don't catch anything. I hate anything requiring attention to detail, delayed gratification, and the possibility of rejection. Fishing is all of that but learning to angle has helped build my character and my son wanted to do it. So I started planning.

I picked the Desolation Wilderness area southwest of Lake Tahoe. I went there on a five day fifty mile boy scout backpacking trip after my sophomore year of high school. I have fond memories of the excursion including breaking my finger on the third day while doing trail maintenance. For the rest of the trip I wore a yellow glove like a 1980's Asian Michael Jackson. It was definitely a rite of passage for me. I remember beaming with pride when Mr. Shough, the dad leading the trip, thanked me for helping the group navigate a treacherous snow descent. I felt so freaking manly. 

Disappointed with two pathetic little trout
Not one to have realistic expectations, I looked forward to lecturing Caleb about biblical manhood, courage, the meaning of life, philosophy, gender roles, how to talk to girls, all the kinds of things I'm an expert in. I made a list of of thirty or so ideas ranging from personal hygiene to puberty to understanding women and dispelling the soul mate mythology. I envisioned the two of us gazing at the stars while discussing Plato and open theology.

The first morning I told him we were going to do a devotional after breakfast and he did a half-grunt, half-sigh of resignation. I had barely read Genesis 1-3 when his eyes started rolling back into his head and his body language screamed wanting to crawl down a hole and die. It dawned on me that both the physical pain of the hike and the emotional pain of my lectures might overwhelm him and he might not survive to manhood. I shortened my lecture to cover the finer points of body hair and odor and we got back on the trail. 

We also got caught in a fifteen-minute storm that felt like an hour. We were knee-deep, fishing in a shallow pond when the sky darkened. There is nothing like being caught in a thunderstorm in the Sierras. When lighting strikes in the mountains, the thunder clap is deafening.  Few encounters are more terrifying (i.e. bears and avalanches). Caleb quickly learned to count the seconds between flashes and cracks to judge how far off the strikes were. 

Here's the primary manhood lesson I impressed upon Caleb over twenty miles, 2000 feet of elevation gain, and three days and two nights: As Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once said, adventure is just bad planning. Our trip was unintentionally costly to Caleb. He learned meal rationing because I miscalculated how many freeze-dried dinners to bring. He learned to share light because I dropped and broke my headlamp in the trail head parking lot before we even got on the trail. We couldn't do a proper bear bag because the rope I brought was too short. We ended up hiding our food under large rocks and fortunately, no animals got to it. I forgot cooking oil and open fires are not allowed so we stove burnt the two little fish we caught. My poor planning offered numerous opportunities to overcome adversity. 

Caleb is excited to spend three days with his dad
Caleb is an amazingly responsible, helpful, and reliable kid. He helped with cooking, filtering water, setting up and breaking down camp, orienteering - pretty much everything and often without me asking. He is in ridiculously good shape and has great mental toughness. He did not complain at all even when his eczema flared up and his hand became a big open sore. It will be very different with my other two sons but it's nice to practice on the easy one. 

Looking back, I pretty much failed on all three aspects of the manhood ritual. Caleb didn't get a diploma, certificate or seal as a result of the trip. I doubt he remembers anything I said. The hike was strenuous but didn't cost him very much and I didn't get him involved in the preparation as much as I should have. The separation was limited and somewhat superficial. And we didn't have the deep, profound conversations I had imagined.

But it was a step.
I'm looking forward to taking further steps when I celebrate his next phase of manhood - high school graduation. I'm thinking to invite some other father-son friends to come along so that together we can exponentially multiply our bad planning and thus, adventure. 

When we returned to the trail head parking lot, Caleb turned around and high-fived me. We made this trip happen together as a team. Caleb and I are traveling companions to two different destinations - he strides towards manhood while I stumble around fatherhood. In this journey, if he wins so do I.