Month: October 2011

When I was Korean for Halloween

Halloween is a fun holiday.  Reality can be harsh so the annual ritual of dressing up in an outfit completely outside the spheres of our realities can be a much needed escape for both children and adults alike.  One particular Halloween during childhood, my mother was adamant that I go trick-or-treating wearing a hanbok.  What is a hanbok, you ask?  This is a hanbok:

A hanbok is traditional Korean formalwear.  My mother kept saying to me, “Why dress up like something you’re not?  Just wear a hanbok.  You’re Korean.  This is who you are!  Go as who you are!”  I was probably 9 or 10 at the time and embarrassed out of my mind.  But my mother wouldn’t budge.  And I wanted my candy.  So there I was, a little Korean kid, trick-or-treating as…a little Korean kid.  My friends made some fun, people handing out candy didn’t know what I was supposed to be, and I felt clumsy wearing my oversized hanbok, but all in all it was a good night and I ended up with more than enough candy.

As I think back to that Halloween, I think my mother was on to something.  The truth is, we wear costumes everyday that misrepresent us.  I know I do.  Every morning when I walk out of my house and into the world, I put on a face, an attitude, and a demeanor.  I try to exude certain things to certain people… confidence, humility, intelligence, wit… I wear whatever costume I need to wear in order to keep myself sitting comfortably perched on a certain plane in the tower of others opinions.  But I am so very often faking my way through things.  I am not what others think I am.  Or maybe I am exactly what others think I am but am too misguided to know.  Most likely, I am something in between.  Regardless, I think it’s safe to admit that I feel much different on the inside than I try so hard to look on the outside.  This routine of putting on the costume is wearing me out.

Seeing so many people wearing their costumes today reminds me that Halloween is only fun because we know this isn’t who we really are.  My wife and I hosted a Halloween party for a few friends over the weekend.  Mary Poppins was there, as were Katy Perry, Russell Brand, and an Oreo cookie, among others.  My wife and I were Mr. and Mrs.Potatohead.  We’ve got some great pictures.

And maybe this is the secret to becoming more honest, real, and genuine people.  Maybe the act of gathering together and admitting that we really aren’t the people we’re portraying can be the catalyst for collectively embracing the reality that there is something more flawed but beautiful behind the costume.  Maybe it is when we, in unison, admit that we have all been playing a role in a very fabricated story, we can finally begin to live into a different story together.  A more honest and genuine story, full of failures and successes but uncompromisingly hopeful.

So here’s to admitting that we’re all a little fake most of the time and, in doing so, becoming a bit more comfortable being the real us with each other.  Even if it means wearing a hanbok on occasion.  Happy Halloween.

Our God?

I’ve been hearing this worship song Our God everywhere lately.  We sing it a bunch at our church.  I sang it at a conference I attended this weekend.  I sang it again on Sunday night at another worship gathering I was a part of.  I’m sure you’ve heard it.  I think Chris Tomlin wrote it.  As is the case with most of his songs, it’s not overly complicated, it’s pretty catchy in a Christian-pop sort of way, and every worship leader in America is going to be singing it every other Sunday for the next few years.  The song builds into a massive chorus (or maybe it’s the bridge?) that goes like this:

And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us?  

And if our God is with us, then what could stand against?

I was struck by these lyrics this weekend.  If not received thoughtfully, the phrase “our God is for us” can sound subtly, maybe even arrogantly, exclusive.  When we add questions like, “then who could ever stop us… then what could stand against [us]?”, the song can begin to sound like an anthem of the chosen few singing against all those who would stand in opposition to God.  By no means am I implying this was the original intent of the songwriter.  However, we must be careful to think through what it is we’re singing, not just in this case but with any song we may sing as an expression of worship.  Music is a uniquely powerful medium that can connect our hearts to God in a way that words alone cannot.  But music also has the dangerous potential to throw us into a thoughtless and irresponsible rendering of our theologies and worldviews.

When we sing that “our God is for us”, let us remember that the “our” includes more than just fill in the blank here with whatever religious, ethnic, cultural, social and/or economic category you would neatly fit yourself into.  Let us remember that God is God of everything and everyone.  Acknowledgement or lack thereof does not dictate his singular position as the one, great Divine Reality ruling and loving over the entirety of his creation.  This is not a matter of or statement regarding salvation or acceptance.  It’s simply a reality of both our present and eternal condition.  God is God because he was before time began and it is he who made us, to love us.  Let us remember that, as Paul wrote, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness.”  Our opposition is never flesh and blood.  In other words, people are not our enemies.  This includes all people.  Muslim people.  Atheist people.  LGBT people.  Conservative people.  Liberal people.  Westboro Baptist people.  Church people.  Wall Street people.  Non-documented people.  Drug people.  Hipster people.  We are all loved and we are all children of God and we can all say that he is our God.  

So sing the song, loudly and boldly.  He is our God.  He is God of every single one of us.  And because he is for us and with us, no power of hell will ever stop us.  Our God wins every time.

William Kamkwamba, windmills, and the Holy Spirit

This is William Kamkwamba.  William is from a small farming village in Malawi, Africa.  In 2001 Malawi was struck by a devastating famine and families like William’s lost virtually everything.  Secondary school in Malawi is not free and like many, the Kamkwambas could not afford to pay for their children’s schooling when the famine hit.  So William was forced to drop out.  But his desire for learning never waned.  He spent most days at the library, teaching himself to read English and taking in as much information as he could on a wide variety of subjects.  When he was 14, he read a book in the library called Using Energy.  In the book William discovered a diagram of a basic windmill and decided that he’d build one himself to provide electricity for his family.  Using an old bicycle frame, a pulley, and plastic pipe, he created a windmill that provided 12-watts of electricity, powering a few light bulbs and a couple of radios in his family’s home.  His is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve come across in a long while.

William’s story reminds me of a significant truth regarding the Christian life and, specifically, the work of the Spirit of God.  The Greek word for Spirit in the New Testament is the word pneuma (πνεῦμα), which is also translated as wind.  This double meaning is not accidental.  I think the wind reveals to us something about the Spirit.  Much like the wind, the Spirit of God is present and active, moving all around us.  It is here and there and everywhere, at the same time, at all times.  We feel it come over us, sometimes like a winter storm strong enough to knock us down and sometimes like a gentle breeze giving us reprieve from the heat of summer.  We don’t choose if, when, or how it engages us but the Spirit does engage us and we must be responsible with this undeserved grace of God.  For the Christian, a simple recognition of the Spirit is not enough.  As kingdom people, called to live out the ways of God’s kingdom on earth, we must remember that our personal, internal experience of the Spirit of God is not the end of the story.  We are called to make ourselves available as apparatuses designed to express the life-giving power of the Spirit of God in ways that not only benefit ourselves but the communities within which we live.  Our hands and feet, our voices, our time, talents, passions, our ingenuity and our resources, all for the intent and purpose of bringing heaven to earth in a real and tangible way.  As long as there is darkness in the world, our work is to allow the Spirit of God to move through us in ways that will bring light.

You can read more about William’s story in the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.  You can support his work, as well as the efforts of other young inventors, on the website Moving Windmills.

Rob Bell and public platforms

When I first heard the news a week or two ago that Rob Bell was leaving Mars Hill, I was surprised to find myself suddenly struck by a mixture of trepidation and loss. 

Why would he leave?  Where is he going?  What’s happened?  What will happen to us?   

Then it dawned on me: I don’t attend Mars Hill, I don’t know anyone who attends Mars Hill, I’ve never been to Michigan, and I’ve never met Rob or his family.  And so, with my premature anxiety squelched, I went on living my life in peace.

Then a few days later, I read the news that Rob Bell was in fact moving to Los Angeles with plans to work on a television show loosely based on his life.  Though my instinctive response was, “Uh… why?”, I eventually came to the conclusion that if I were offered a chance to have my life loosely depicted on network television, I probably wouldn’t say no.  The available options as to who would play me are limited.  It’d have to be either John Cho or Ken Watanabe, depending on if they wanted to portray the younger or older me.  Please bear in mind, I am not nearly as easy on the eyes as these men but it’s all we’ve got.  I’m Asian.  Or they could go the way of, “Screw ethnic accuracy, let’s just get someone to play Jay who really captures his ‘essence’!”.  If this were the case, the options open up quite a bit.  Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Danny Trejo… these men all embody my core essence in one way or another and I’m certain any one of them would do a fine job playing me on television.

As expected, the news of Bell’s departure from Mars Hill to engage culture in a different context invited all sorts of vitriol from certain segments of the Christian community, some subtle, some not so subtle.  Over the years, Bell has become an intensely polarizing figure in the Church.  He goes on club tours where people (myself included) pay to listen to him talk for a couple of hours.  He wrote a little book last year that you might have heard of.  It caused a wee bit of controversy.  And in many ways, he has made the transition from being the pastor of a local community to a performance artist whose stage is growing larger and more global with every video he puts out and every tour he puts on.  But as I think about this transition, I must admit that most of the angst I have about his position in the world, both within and outside of the Church, is at its core driven by nothing more than my own insecurities and my tendency to compare.  No one has ever paid $25 to see me talk for two hours at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco.  In all likelihood, no one ever will.  I’ve never been featured in a Nooma video and people don’t blog about my one way ticket to hell, not because I’m a saint but because no one knows who I am.

But this idea that Bell is any more significant than I am is false.  The notion that he is a “famous” Christian whose voice resounds while the rest of us are “unknown” Christians, here only to listen, is a product of the sick, disturbing phenomenon called “Christian celebrity.”  My friend Tim Neufeld wrote an inspiring and challenging piece on the matter a little while ago and it’s worth reading.  I think we’ve all got something significant to say and this makes us all significant.  The conversation of life is less without your voice and mine.  Public platforms are powerful and must be stewarded with great care, caution, humility, and responsibility.  This holds just as true for someone like me, teaching a small community of college students on Tuesday nights, as it does for someone as deeply engrained in the public consciousness as Bell.  It holds just as true for you in the platform you steward in your relationship with your spouse, kids, coworkers, classmates, colleagues, friends, church family, etc.  The way I treat the one barista who makes my drink at Starbucks is as important as what I say to the hundreds who sit in the seats on a Sunday morning in my church.  We are all in the public eye.  We are all called to be light in a dark world.  As such, we must all take seriously our call to steward well any and every public platform we are given.  We all live and breathe and journey in this world, amongst people both lost and found, both alive and dead.  And in it, we are all called to speak loudly, clearly, creatively, and passionately the good news of God’s kingdom.  So whether you are making a television show about yourself, caring for your children at home, taking 22 units a quarter to graduate on time, or working the 9-5, remember that you are significant, you have something to say, and people are listening.

Leave fear on the ledge

A number of years ago, I went on a rafting trip at the Klamath River, near the Oregon border.  At one point, our guide stopped us and we got out to do a little cliff jumping.  He led a few of us up a narrow edge to the top of a cliff about 60 feet above water.  My friend Cody was first to step up on the ledge, just a few feet in front of me.  Before I continue, allow me to tell you a bit about my friend Cody.  He drives a big pickup truck and shoots guns for fun.  He likes beer and red meat.  He has chest hair and goes hunting on weekends.  He’s arguably the most masculine guy I know.  So Cody stepped up on the ledge and stood for a minute.  Than two.  Than three.  At this point we were all yelling at him to jump.  He looked back at us, his face more pale that I’d ever seen it, and calmly replied, “You have no idea how high this is until you get up here.”  Shortly after, Cody jumped.  I heard the splash and than an exuberant scream proclaiming victory.  I anxiously stepped up on the ledge.  As I looked down at the river beneath me, it made sense why Cody had taken so long to jump.  Sixty feet looks much different from above than it does from down below.  I hesitated and quickly flipped through my mental rolodex of subtle excuses I could make for not jumping.  But our guide behind me sensed my fear and simply said, “There’s no other way down.  You’ve got to jump.”  After what seemed like hours and a few encouraging words from Cody down in the water, I jumped.

By nature, most of us are risk-averse.  This is a common, maybe even universal, human condition.  But it is reversible.  And it ought to be reversed.  Recklessly taking risks for the rush of it is foolish and irresponsible.  However, this should not stop us from considering the reality that we often allow fear and anxiety to paralyze us.  There is a life God offers that flows like a beautiful rushing river.  It is dynamic and always moving and we’ve been invited to jump in.  But this requires trust and confidence.  In Psalm 56, the Psalmist writes, “In God I trust and am not afraid.”  Trust is the remedy to fear.  When trust begins to fill our hearts, it removes the residues of fear and washes over us like a calm morning mist.  In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul writes that, “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid but gives us power.”  Confidence is the understanding that the Spirit of God is not only around us but it is in us.  God has given us the Spirit and the Spirit is not timid or afraid.  The Spirit is full of power and we are asked to place our confidence in him.

I have no idea what you’re going through.  I don’t know what sorts of challenges or anxieties war with your soul.  But I know that when I jumped off the ledge and into the river that day, the fear was gone in an instant, replaced by an exhilaration I didn’t know was possible.  As I fell through the air, gravity desperately pulling me down, bitter that I’d defy its laws for a moment, it dawned on me that I’d left my fear on the ledge and something new had taken over.  I’d been taken over by a heightened awareness of being alive and with it came a gratitude for both the moment at hand and the many moments lying ahead.  Fear on the ledge had kept me from experiencing anything other than the anxiety of the situation at hand.  But once I jumped in, all I wanted to do was climb back up to the ledge and do it again.

So whatever it is you’re going through, whatever circumstances are paralyzing you and keeping you from living the life God has for you, let it all go.  Trust that God will not leave you.  Place your confidence in the power of his Spirit, alive and working in you.  Leave your fear on the ledge and jump in.  You won’t regret it.

Just say it. We’re listening.

Have you ever experienced the sensation of your stomach knotting up a bit because there’s a conversation happening and something someone says sparks something in you and in an instant, you realize that you have something to contribute, something to say, but you’re nervous because you’re not sure that it’s any good?  Have you ever felt that?  Maybe it was during a lecture in undergrad or a group discussion in grad school?  Or maybe it was a conversation amongst friends that had some weight to it, with some depth and texture?  Maybe it was in a church setting, in a small group or a Bible study?

I’ve experienced this countless times.  I still do.  I thought it’d get easier.  When I was a freshman in college, it was understandable that I’d be nervous about saying anything in class.  I was 18 and dumb.  I didn’t know anything and I knew it.  But I thought that with age would come confidence.  While this is true to a certain extent, I’m still apprehensive about speaking up sometimes.  What if what I have to say is wrong?  What if everyone thinks I’m an idiot?  What if I have no clue what I’m talking about?  But I know something now that I didn’t know when I was 18.  What I have to contribute to the conversation, whatever the conversation may be, has less to do with what I say and more to do with the fact that I say something at all.

Any vibrant and worthwhile conversation is one that is ongoing.  And as such, the goal for those involved in such conversations should not be to give the perfect, end-all answer that emphatically marks the period at the end of the sentence… Rather, the goal should be to point the conversation forward, asking questions, presenting angles and perspectives and paradigms others would not have thought of because we are all different, results of unique stories, carrying distinct perspectives necessary for coloring our conversations so that they do not grow old, stale, and gray.

So remember that you have a voice.  And your voice matters.  You’ve got something to say to this world.  So please, just say it.  We all need to hear it.  We very well may need to hear it right now.  And it may be your hesitation that allows the moment to pass, untouched, full of potential for change, but gone like yesterday.  It’s not about right or wrong, deep or shallow, serious or playful.  It’s about your unique voice, carrying the strength of your particular story, adding its own one-of-a-kind color to the mosaic of a larger conversation, moving all of us forward.  So just say it.  We’re listening.