Thursday, February 28, 2008

At the National Pastors Convention

I'm in San Diego at the National Pastors Convention, and it's been a crazy busy time here meeting with folks. I've been connecting with several of my authors, like Andy Crouch, Shane Claiborne and James Choung. Nice to catch up.

Last night IVP hosted a dinner for our authors, and our guest speaker was Krista Tippett, host of NPR's Speaking of Faith. She offered a very encouraging picture of how public discourse about religion has been changing in the last few years, and particularly how people are coming to have a much better understanding of evangelical Christians. She said that people are moving beyond Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson stereotypes of evangelicals and are learning that within the broad category of evangelicalism, there's tremendous diversity and complexity. And folks are discovering that there's more to evangelicals, with evangelicals like Cal DeWitt and Richard Cizik championing issues like environmental stewardship and global poverty. Tippett was encouraged that evangelicals are now engaged in a broad range of causes, because evangelicals tend to get things done. It's certainly a different moment now than even just five years ago or so; it seems that evangelical Christians and the general public are less wary/suspicious of one another and can work together fruitfully for the common good.

I've managed to catch several of the sessions, with speakers like Chuck Colson and Bishop John Rucyahana of Rwanda. Brenda Salter McNeil was last night's plenary speaker, and she did an exposition of John 4 and the Samaritan woman at the well (which happened to coincide with last week's lectionary reading). Her material is available in her new book A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race, which was just published a few weeks ago. She does an excellent job of showing how the gospel requires both vertical reconciliation between us and God as well as horizontal reconciliation between us and other people. I highly commend her book.

Tonight's plenary is N. T. Wright. Looking forward to that. I chatted with him briefly last night at our dinner. I'd met him on a few previous occasions, and he's quite a gracious and winsome fellow (as well as amazingly brilliant, of course). As I've mentioned before on this blog, many of my theological mentors and heroes have been Anglicans like John Stott and J. I. Packer, and Tom Wright is the most recent in this line. His writings have been very formative for me in the past decade. So I'm glad that he's here at NPC and that pastors who have not previously heard him will have the opportunity to learn from him tonight.

Monday, February 25, 2008

On Shamrock Shakes, Girl Scout cookies and seasonal ministry

I'm not a big fan of McDonald's, especially after reading Fast Food Nation and seeing Super Size Me. But every February/March, they reel me back in with their Shamrock Shakes. It's smart marketing on their part that they only have them available for St. Patrick's Day each year. That way we are eager for them when they're reintroduced, and just about the time we get tired of them, they disappear, so we can look forward to them again the next year.

Same thing with Girl Scout cookies. They intentionally don't sell them year-round, just once a year, so we make a tradition out of picking up our annual boxes of Thin Mints. To a lesser extent, we see a similar dynamic with peppermint stick ice cream being available only at Christmas. (Is it just a coincidence that the above three examples are all mint-related? Or does that say more about my own tastes than anything else?) In a different way, Disney does a similar thing with their backlist animated movies by periodically cycling through old classics and releasing special editions of them for just a limited time before they go "back in the vault."

This past weekend, on the same day that I had my first Shamrock Shake of the season, I also got a newsletter from Samaritan's Purse that highlighted the results of this past Christmas's Operation Christmas Child, in which shoeboxes of Christmas gifts are distributed to kids around the world. Our family has participated in Operation Christmas Child for several years now, and Josiah is old enough to be wide-eyed and excited when he sees pictures of Christmas shoeboxes going around the globe. He eagerly told Ellen, "Guess what, Mommy? Our Christmas boxes went to China!"

And it occurred to me that the annual Christmas shoebox drive functions for Samaritan's Purse in much the same way that Shamrock Shakes do for McDonald's or Thin Mints do for the Girl Scouts. It's an annual reminder and reinforcement of the organization's identity. And it's also a very savvy way of building Samaritan's Purse's donor base, since shoeboxes are collected by churches, but individuals send personal donations to cover shipping and handling costs, and thus Samaritan's Purse gathers addresses of church members to whom they can send ministry gift catalogs and other mailings. All this would probably not work nearly as well if they tried to have shoebox campaigns year-round. But an annual Christmastime shoebox is very effective (and "sticky," in Tipping Point terminology).

This suggests to me that churches and parachurch organizations can likewise be intentional about finding annual occasions for particular ministries. We do this already with Christmas pageants, drive-through live nativities, Last Supper dramas and Easter cantatas. But perhaps there are other seasonal opportunities apart from Christmas or Easter that Christians can make the most of. In campus ministry, some parachurch organizations have annual Jesus Week or Christian heritage emphases to parallel things like Black History Month or gay pride celebrations. Some churches have annual summer fun fairs for their community. Other churches have annual garage sales that people look forward to every year.

As an Anglican, I'm quite conscious of the cycles of the church year and the regular rhythm of feasts and festivals. And I've occasionally been critical of evangelical churches that are often more prone to celebrate secular invented holidays like Mother's Day or the 4th of July rather than Christian holidays like Pentecost. But there's certainly room for Christians to participate both in our own Christian calendar as well as civic holidays, especially if Christians can find ways to connect with our neighbors through them. Perhaps we can celebrate environmental stewardship and God's good creation as part of Earth Day in April, or we can call for racial justice and societal shalom in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Whatever we do, we should find creative, sticky ways to share our faith that will linger in people's memories like shakes and shoeboxes.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Kingdom Sightings: The Vision Thing

My first CT column is now available online at (If you wandered over here from CT through the link, welcome! Thanks for reading.) Here's the behind-the-scenes story. This particular column actually started out as a possible blog post during the initial months of recovery from laser eye surgery. I had intended to blog my way through the (at many points frustrating) experience, and at first I was just going to comment on basic things like how we take our eyesight for granted, how the experience had been teaching me dependence on others (like having to be driven around during the recovery period where I couldn't drive), etc. But then the situation that I describe in the article happened, and it really blew me away. So it started to feel more like an article than just a blog entry. I was grateful to have the opportunity to use it as a CT column.

If you haven't seen it yet, here are the first few paragraphs:

The Vision Thing
Clarity came just as things got blurry.

My vision has never been good. I've worn eyeglasses since second grade and contact lenses since high school. Once during a Little League game, a line drive smacked me right on the nose, splitting my glasses' plastic frames neatly in half. My vision was so bad that at optometrists' exams, the only letter I could see on the eye chart was the big E—and then only because I knew it was an E.

For several years, I pondered whether I should have laser surgery to correct my vision. Friends and colleagues gave the procedure glowing reviews, and I read positive testimonies on websites and blogs. My main stumbling block was justifying the cost. Was it a vanity expense, like a facelift or a tummy tuck? But after losing yet another contact, I calculated that I'd spent enough money on lost lenses, contact fluid, and other supplies that it might be better stewardship to get my vision corrected.

Last year, I took the plunge. Encouraged by a 25 percent-off coupon given to me by a friend, I went ahead and had the surgery. My corneas were too thin for the normal slice-a-flap procedure, so I underwent a different procedure (which was more expensive, of course).

It didn't quite take. The doctor said that when you throw a football from 50 yards, it's harder to be on target than it is from 5 yards. My vision had been something like 20/400, and he was able to bring it to 20/40—tantalizingly close to clear vision, but still fuzzy.

[The rest of the article can be found here.]

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Suburban/urban musings: Transience and "relo" culture

Lee Huang over at The Musings of an Urban Christian has invited me to interact with him on some of his musings about urban and suburban culture. He posted several observations on the question of what it means to be a good neighbor in urban and suburban contexts. (Lee fully admits that they're overgeneralizations.) Here is his first musing:
* First, cities experience more residential turnover than suburbs. Where I live, you have a lot of people getting through their graduate studies, or immigrants making an initial stop in familiar enclaves before they branch out, or yuppies making the most of urban life before they have kids. So there's a constant moving in and out, which means more opportunities to help people (move in, move out, answer questions about the neighborhood) but less oomph to really build lasting relationships. Versus suburban neighborhoods tend to be more stable, where you can really get to know your neighbor over time.
My initial response to this (and all the other observations) is that the devil is in the details, and that any or all of them may or not apply to specific local contexts! On transience and turnover - it entirely depends on which particular urban or suburban communities you're talking about. He's quite right that certain kinds of urban neighborhoods are inhabited by the upscale yuppie that lives and works downtown for a few years in a nice loft before moving out to the suburbs. But it's also true that other (perhaps less prestigious) areas of the city are inhabited by long-term residents who have stayed put for decades. Indeed, in some of these local communities, it may well be difficult for newcomers to get plugged in if they're recent transplants, because they lack local history and connections.

And the same is true in some suburban areas more than others. Some suburban communities are fairly stable, but others have extremely high amounts of transition and turnover. The New York Times did an article a few years ago on suburban "relo" culture, relocators who are moved around by their companies every two or three years to different suburban areas all over the nation. The article described this as "the five-bedroom, six-figure rootless life," with kids that change schools constantly, make temporary friends and have the same kinds of activities but no ongoing, lasting friendships because they're just going to be transferred somewhere new next year. The article describes relos this way:

As a subgroup, relos are economically homogenous, with midcareer incomes starting at $100,000 a year. Most are white. Some find the salaries and perks compensating; the developments that cater to them come with big houses, schools with top SAT scores, parks for youth sports and upscale shopping strips.

Others complain of stress and anomie. They have traded a home in one place for a job that could be anyplace. Relo children do not know a hometown; their parents do not know where their funerals will be. There is little in the way of small-town ties or big-city amenities - grandparents and cousins, longtime neighbors, vibrant boulevards, homegrown shops - that let roots sink in deep.

I don't recall the exact statistic right now, but I've heard that on average people move every six years. I can't remember if that's suburban-specific or in general. While trying to find it online, I just came across a journal/blog for relos called ReloJournal. Interesting that there are resources for this, and that relos find community with other uprooted and displaced people.

I think suburban churches have a significant opportunity and challenge in ministering to relos who may only be in the community for brief periods of time but are starving for real connections and friendships. In some ways, relos are a contemporary suburban version of the alien and stranger. They may not be in the same socioeconomic category as international refugees or recent immigrants, but the spiritual and relational dynamic is similar. The ministry of hospitality is very important here, especially the need for people to have quick onramps into the life of the church since there's not much time. You can't be mentored for five years before being invited into service.

Ministering to relos reminds me of when I was a volunteer with an InterVarsity chapter at a community college. We didn't have the luxury of building leadership over three or four years of training and camps. Folks were there for a year or two, maybe even just a semester. So we had social activities pretty much every week, not just once a month or once a quarter, because we needed lots of ways for people to get connected and build relationships quickly. We also threw people in to responsibility right away. Who's coming back next year? Okay, you're chapter president. Who can play guitar? Okay, you're large group coordinator. Who has been in a small group before? Okay, you're a small group leader. Here's a handbook, off you go. It's perhaps not quite this extreme with suburban relos in churches, but it could be close.

It also occurs to me that one way to counter suburban transience is to commit to living in a particular neighborhood and suburb for the long haul. Someone once asked me how writing my book changed my daily life. Something I didn't think to say in response but should have is that while I was working on researching and writing the book, we decided to move to another house. And we considered communities that were farther away where we could get more house for the money. But I had been thinking a lot about the importance of locality and being embedded in a neighborhood and community, and you can't do that if you up and leave. So we ended up moving to a house just two blocks away from our previous one. That way we could stay in the same community and neighborhood, our kids could walk to the same park and see the same ducks, and we could be part of the same civic networks and institutions (one of which being our local library, which we really, really love).

Lee is also right that a key opportunity to minister to folks is at the point of moving in. I'd add that if you don't connect with people pretty soon after they move in, the window of opportunity to get to know them closes and they become people you don't know. There's a house across the street from us that a family lived in for a year or two. We saw them in their front yard occasionally but never really interacted with them. It was like we had mutually and silently agreed to remain strangers. Then they moved out, and a new family moved in. It just so happened that our association picnic was taking place shortly thereafter, and I went over with a flyer and invited them to attend, which they did. So they're not strangers like the previous family were, because we connected with them early. Suburban churches could have "welcome wagon" ministries to help relos get oriented to the local community, find grocery stores and other institutions, and get connected with people in the process.

So suburban Christians can be countercultural by practicing disciplines of stability and permanence, as well has hospitality and welcome for relos coming in and out of our neighborhoods. Lee writes, "Urbanites like me struggle to engage meaningfully with our neighbors, since we are never sure just how long they'll be our neighbors." I think this is a suburban struggle too; maybe it's just a universal human struggle! But if we commit to living in our particular neighborhoods for long periods of time, we can have more opportunities to practice hospitality and befriend our neighbors. And maybe some relos will get so embedded in our communities and churches that they realize that the relo lifestyle is not worth the toll it takes on them, and they'll likewise stay put for the long haul.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In honor of Black History Month

Ten years ago this month, I attended my first InterVarsity Asian American staff conference. I found it very helpful; I was glad to have a context for fellowship with other Asian American staff and discuss ethnic identity formational issues and such. The next year, I attended InterVarsity's triennial multiethnic staff conference, which had smaller gatherings within the larger conference for our ethnic-specific communities - black, white, Asian and Latino. I went into the conference looking forward mostly to the Asian-specific times and the opportunity to catch up with my fellow Asian staff.

Several things surprised me during the conference. One was that during the Asian track times, many of us were convicted of our own need for reconciliation with other Asian communities. Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese and others have long and complicated interrelated histories of oppression and pain. Many of us grew up in households that resented other particular Asian groups because of various wars or aggressions, or we looked down on other communities because they were not perceived to be "as good as us," whether educationally or socioeconomically or spiritually or whatever. So we needed to do some of our own pan-Asian community work and admit our own need for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Furthermore, when discussing whether Asians could play a mediating role between blacks and whites in racial reconciliation, one of our leaders pointed out that we were not quite in a neutral position. Many of our Asian parents were themselves prejudiced against blacks, and those toxic attitudes continue to affect how we relate with our African American friends and colleagues. Many Asian Americans, while still experiencing minority status, have not experienced the same degree of systemic injustices and racialization that blacks have endured. And Asians, while not immune to prejudice and discrimination, still tend to be in a somewhat privileged position in many ways.

This reinforced to us the significance of knowing and owning our own particular histories, as well as learning all we can about other people's stories. All of our communities have been shaped by particular historical events, whether the legacy of slavery, or the WWII internment of Japanese Americans, or the Trail of Tears and the loss of native lands, or discrimination against Americans of Irish or Polish or German or Jewish descent. We can't minimize any of these or relativize them - all of them continue to have repercussions in how society functions and how we relate to each other, sometimes as oppressors, sometimes as oppressed, always as broken people in need of healing and shalom.

So what ended up being most significant about this conference was not the ethnic-specific times, but the interaction between members of all the various communities, and learning from one another's perspectives. It was a powerful time of sharing joys and challenges together, and committing to one another in partnership and fellow travelers.

At the end of the conference, during an open mike time, I shared that what God had been impressing most upon me that week was my own indebtedness to the African Americans who have gone before, who for decades have suffered and fought for equality and civil rights. Even though things are not yet what they ought to be, I am grateful that our country has come a long way, and it is a far better place thanks to the perseverance of blacks. If Asian Americans have a place at the table, it is only because African Americans have paved the way for us.

So while I have said these things in various settings, let me blog this publicly to my African American brothers and sisters - thank you, thank you, thank you. It is an honor to follow in your footsteps and to walk alongside you in this pilgrimage toward justice and peace.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

[I noticed yesterday that people were finding my blog through Google searches for "Christian meaning of Valentine's Day" or other similar searches, which led them to my post from last year's Valentine's Day. So I'm reposting it here today. Happy Valentine's Day!]
Yesterday on a Christian radio station the host was talking about things to do for Valentine's Day with your sweetie, and it just seemed like an extended commercial with specific brand-name product placements for this or that kind of candy or flowers or whatnot. And it struck me that while Christians have long bemoaned the commercialization and secularization of Christmas and Easter, we haven't had as much of an outcry against the commercialization and secularization of Valentine's Day.

I think this is probably because many of us haven't really seen it as a Christian holiday. But it really is. As I mention in my book Singles at the Crossroads, St. Valentine (or Valentinus) was a priest and physician in third-century Rome. According to church tradition, Valentine was known for doing good deeds, caring for the poor, healing the sick. He was arrested during a persecution of Christians, and the Roman emperor Claudius Gothicus handed him over to a magistrate. While in custody, Valentine healed the magistrate's blind, adopted daughter, and the entire family was converted to Christianity. Upon hearing this, the emperor had Valentine beheaded--on February 14th.

From then on, Christians have commemorated this day in memory of Valentine's life of selfless service and ministry. And note what is missing from this narrative - it's not all about romantic couple love. Rather, the emphasis is on love of neighbor, agape service love, not romantic love. The romantic emphasis didn't come until the Middle Ages, and then of course it was heightened by 18th-century Romanticism and now exacerbated by modern Hollywood mythology and Western consumer culture. I think Valentine's Day should be reclaimed by Christians with a more holistic, trinitarian, agape understanding of love, not this narrow emphasis on romantic couple love.

After all, in Christian tradition, romantic love is not the highest love. Greater love has no one than this, that we lay down our lives for our friends. For much of church history, friendship love was acknowledged as the highest form of Christian love and service. And actually, romantic love was viewed suspiciously because it tended to be overly emotive, irrational and could create an idolatry of the love interest. So while we certainly should love and honor our spouses and significant others on Valentine's Day, we should only see this as one particular expression of the greater love that is agape love of neighbor.

Last night my wife said that she hadn't gotten me anything for Valentine's Day, and I said, "Great! Don't get me anything." Don't buy into the commercialism of the secularized holiday. I told her that if she really wanted to get me something, she could make a contribution to Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse or something else, or find some other creative way to share God's love with the world. And instead of spending lots of money on an expensive date out, we're exercising stewardship by having a quiet date night at home. Not to diss romance entirely (both of us are NF romantic saps on the Myers-Briggs), but this is our modest attempt to celebrate Valentine's Day more Christianly.

So commemorate Valentine's Day by being other-centered and honoring others in the spirit of Christian love. Get a pack of children's valentines and give them to your friends and coworkers. Use the day as an opportunity to call, write or e-mail someone you haven't heard from for a while. Honor Christ by serving him in the spirit of St. Valentine. Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Juno and suburbia

Ellen and I don't get out to first-run movies much these days, especially now that tickets are $9.75 each. (DVDs free from the library: priceless.) But this week we braved the Chicagoland cold and snow to see Juno. And it was well worth it. We decided to see it because of some positive reviews we'd seen, and Christianity Today listed it as #1 in their top ten movies of 2007. It's been compared favorably with Napoleon Dynamite, so if you liked that movie, you'll probably like Juno.

It was quirky, clever, fun, sweet, romantic, realistic, hopeful and life-affirming. The lead character is delightful and winsome. Every cast member fits his or her role extremely well (though I kept expecting Jennifer Garner's character to catapault into Sydney Bristow combat mode and take out lurking SD-6 agents).

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the movie takes place in the suburbs of Minneapolis. There are references to Minnesotan cities like Stillwater and Mankato and locations like Ridgedale, a nearby shopping mall sister to my home mall of Southdale. Much of the movie takes place in St. Cloud, which is an hour away but apparently now is almost an outer suburb/exurb to the Twin Cities.

This made me nostalgic for Minnesota, as I have fond memories of my suburban Minnesotan upbringing. I posted a Facebook status about liking Juno and its suburban Minnesotan locale, and a friend commented, "What is the deal with you people from suburban MN? It's like you're all some species of salmon, with an innate desire to return to your ancestral breeding ground." I replied, "What can I say? Minnesota is awesome. I miss it lots, and since I have few occasions to go back and visit, I do so vicariously through the movies."

There are a few implausibilities in the movie (who drinks slushies in Minnesota winters?), such as when characters coincidentally run into each other at the mall. This doesn't seem very likely to me, especially since one character lives in St. Cloud and the other lives an hour away. For all that has been claimed about shopping malls being suburban gathering/meeting places, I don't think they're very conducive to chance meetings with people you know. I think malls are far more prone toward anonymity than community.

The movie also strikes an interesting contrast between old suburbia and new suburbia and the class differences between them. The physical geography of different kinds suburban neighborhoods is also significant. Juno's neighborhood, in old suburbia, is a walkable community, with Juno walking to the corner store and Bleeker's track team running along sidewalks. But Vanessa & Mark's new suburban subdivision, while more affluent with bigger houses and yards, never has anybody walking around or out in the community. Everybody has to drive to and from there.

The movie also made me wonder about implications for youth ministry. I will readily admit to having next to no expertise in this area, but it seems to me that this is a movie that youth groups or families could watch and discuss together. It's not just about teen sexuality or pregnancy issues - it's also about relationships with parents, responsibility and growing up (Juno isn't the only character who has growing up to do), the effects of divorce, and the nature of true love and commitment. It's all there. Lots of good grist for the mill. So check it out. It has been nominated for four Academy Awards, and as far as I'm concerned, Juno should win Best Picture.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement

I just finished reading Scot McKnight's book A Community Called Atonement, which is a balanced exposition of atonement not merely as a doctrine but as praxis and a way of life. He argues that too many Christians these days have narrowly focused on one approach to the atonement to the excusion of others, and he says this is rather like playing golf with only one golf club. But different clubs do different things; that's the whole point of having a bag with fourteen different clubs in it. (It occurs to me that the only time we use only one club is when we're playing mini golf - which might be what the Christian life is like when we only see the atonement one way!)

So McKnight takes us on a tour of the Christian story to unpack all the various metaphors and components to atonement: recapitulation, ransom, Christus Victor, satisfaction, substitution, representation, etc. He says, "What we are most in need of today is not a continuance of the atonement wars for a privileged metaphor, but a vigorous discussion of the value of each of the metaphors so that each image is invited to the table. . . . I'm arguing instead for an embracive category, one that includes each metaphor in a larger, rounded whole. We need to use all the clubs in our bag and we need a bag that can hold them all."

The golf bag, so to speak, is what he calls "identification for incorporation." Jesus, in the incarnation, identifies with us, becomes what we are, and experiences our humanity and suffering. And this identification has the purpose of incorporation, that we are incorporated into Christ, the second Adam. McKnight does a fantastic job of showing how all aspects of the atonement are wrapped up in being "in Christ." Justification is in Christ (Gal 2:17), sanctification is in Christ (1 Cor 1:2), redemption is in Christ (Rom 3:24), new creation is in Christ (2 Cor 5:19), freedom is in Christ (Gal 2:4), new life is in Christ (Rom 6:11) and on and on.

So it's more than a cognitive matter of getting the "right" atonement theory or doctrine down pat. It's rather that all of the different vocabulary sheds light on the lived reality of being in Christ. It's more than holding the "right" golf club; it's actually playing the game. Or, to change the analogy, McKnight says that it's like playing the violin:
"The magic of a violin is the capacity for the violinist to make each string work in harmony with the others to create the appropriate sound. If a violinist somehow managed to play only one string on the violin, the sound could never be complete. Some theories of atonement ask violinists either to pluck all but one string or to play gospel music as though only one string really mattered. I want to contend that we need each of the strings, and that we need to seek for a violinist with a bow that can stroke the strings so well that the potency of each string creates a harmonious composition that puts our hearts at rest." (p. 114)
And in case anybody's worried about McKnight denying substitutionary atonement or penal substitution, he's quite clear that he affirms these and that the Bible teaches that Jesus suffered death on our part. It's a reflection of his identification (he died our death) for the purpose of incorporation (so we might partake in his resurrection and be raised with him). McKnight also notes that "substitution" is not complete enough as a metaphor. He argues that "we ought to use the term representation more, for it is true that Jesus 'represents' us the way a priest represents the people before God."

There's much more that could be said, but I'll spare the details here and simply commend the book to you. It's quite accessible and doesn't get bogged down in theological jargon or minutiae. If you don't care to get into all the theological analysis and would prefer a treatment that simply probes each of the various images and metaphors, take a look at Neil Livingstone's Picturing the Gospel, which looks at images from redemption and ransom to justification and new life in a very practical way and spins out implications for ministry and witness.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year!

Today is Chinese New Year, and as Google has commemorated, it's the Year of the Rat. This is my year, since I was born in Nov. 1972. A friend just posted on my Facebook wall that he came across this description: "Rats are said to be imaginative, charming and very generous to those they love - although they do have a tendency to be quick-tempered and over-critical. They are supposed to make good writers, critics and publicists."

I've seen that description before (probably on a restaurant placemat), and it's funny because I've been a writer/author, a book critic/reviewer, and a publicist. The Wikipedia entry says that rats' positive traits are: Meticulous, intelligent, shrewd, compassionate, charismatic, charming, ambitious, practical, industrious, honest, eloquent, versatile, familial, creative, hard-working, neat, organized, lovers of music, loving. But their negative traits are: Controlling, obstinate, resentful, lacks-a-sense-of-humor, manipulative, cruel, vengeful, power-driven, critical, possessive, stingy, bossy, fickle, defensive.

Hmmm. I think zodiac/horoscopes (whether Chinese or other) are generally a bunch of hooey, since if this were true, then everybody in each high school class would have basically the same traits. But a few of these are close to the mark. More than once I've been advised to be less critical and to let things go. My lack of humor came out recently when commenting on a blog about the use of humor.

The way these things are written are usually general enough that anybody can find themselves somewhere in these categories. Or we interpret these descriptions in light of our own experience to make them fit. Wikipedia says that rats' professions include "espionage, psychiatry, psychology, writing, politics, law, engineering, accounting, detective work, acting, and pathology." Well, that's long enough a list that folks will find at least one thing that works (like writing, in my case). I think it's interesting that espionage, detective work or acting are listed, as that might suggest a common theme of pretense/stealth/being someone you're not. I was in theatre in high school, read mystery novels and like James Bond movies. Played an espionage role playing game in junior high and dubbed my character "005." But I'd be of no use to anybody as an accountant or engineer. I'm not wired that way.

As I've mentioned before, I find Myers-Briggs and Enneagram typologies much more useful. One career book I have says that ENFPs are well-suited to be journalists, columnists, musicians, reporters/editors, copy writers, publicists and conference planners - all of which I've done in some form or another.

At any rate, this is far afield of my initial impulse in posting on Chinese New Year, which was to celebrate my ethnic/cultural background and to also to let it serve as a prayer trigger for the church in China. If the 19th century was the British century and the 20th century was the American century, the 21st century may well be China's. And despite decades of repression, the church in China has seen explosive growth, with estimates possibly running as high as 100 or 130 million Christians in China.

And actually, I'm a second-generation Taiwanese American, so I actually have more of a sense of affinity with Taiwan than with mainland China per se. Part of me resists Chinese identity because of China's oppressive relationship with Taiwan, but I also am reminded that Chinese history goes back 5000 years and predates the political situations of the 20th century. I'm proud of the feisty independence of the Taiwanese people, whose identity has been distinct from mainland China for generations. Christianity in Taiwan is minimal, with less than 5% of the population Christian of any kind.

But a century ago my great-grandfather Ong Liao came to Christ through the work of a British missionary. Though my great-grandfather was blind, he started a church and school for the blind and translated the Bible and a hymnal into Taiwanese Braille. This was the beginning of the Christian story in my family heritage, and I am grateful for God's work in Taiwan and in China throughout the decades. He has not left himself without witness. So happy Chinese New Year, and do pray for the church in China and Taiwan. Thanks!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A litany of penitence

[From the Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday.]

I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. . . .

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

My Big Fat Super Tuesday

In an interesting convergence of calendars, today happens to be both Super Tuesday and Fat Tuesday. Super Tuesday, of course, is the day that the largest number of states hold presidential primaries or caucuses. Fat Tuesday (better known as Mardi Gras in French) has traditionally been a day of self-indulgence prior to the abstention that comes with Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. (It's also known as Pancake Day in some places, as pancakes were a convenient way to use up perishable ingredients before Lent.)

While I've been as interested in following the races as anybody, I also really hope that the candidates will have settled out somewhat after Super Tuesday. I'm already getting tired of the electioneering, especially when I hear about how much money is spent on advertising. An Associated Press news story reports, "Sens. Clinton and Obama each poured more than $1 million a day into TV ads in the last week alone; Clinton buying an hour on the Hallmark Channel for a town hall meeting on Monday night, Obama seeing some $250,000 disappear in 30 seconds in his Super Bowl ad a day earlier."

Yikes. That's $8333.33 a second. So if someone contributed $50 to the campaign, that $50 would have bought a mere 1/167th of a second of a Super Bowl ad. I understand that money and advertising are necessary components to elections, but it all seems so ephemeral. Some estimate that the candidates are going to spend a combined half billion or more this election season. Which feels like typical American overblownness - a lot of other countries have much shorter election seasons and spend far less money.

Wouldn't it be nice if the candidates declared a cease fire for Lent and stopped spending money on commercials? Wouldn't it be great if the candidates used that money elsewhere, to actually accomplish some of the things they've been talking about, in terms of reducing poverty, providing international aid and development, covering health care costs and improving education? A half billion might be a drop in the bucket compared to the multi-trillion national budget, but still, that could accomplish a lot more concrete, tangible good than TV commercials that will disappear like vapor.

At any rate, I think it would be interesting if Christians gave up following the election for Lent. I'm not saying that Christians shouldn't be involved in politics - far from it. But for some of us, reading election news can be an unhealthy addiction that sucks up way too much time. And Lent gives us an opportunity to say no and let go of the need to keep up with every detail of the campaign.

Of course, all of us need to discern for ourselves what we most need to let go of this Lent. I think I need to give up Scrabulous and reserving new items at the library and actually read some of the stacks of books already on my shelves. (I'm not quite ready to give up Facebook, though. Maybe next year.)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Children's spirituality thoughts

This past Saturday our church had a dinner gathering for parents to talk about spiritual development in children, and we discussed how different ages and stages have different questions and concerns. Our speaker/discussion leader, Sibyl Towner, said that from ages 0-5, the main question is "Am I loved?" Ages 6-11, it's "What am I good at? What can I do?" Ages 12-18, it's "Who am I?" And from 19-35, it's "What can I give my life for?"

These general categories are something of an amalgamation of developmental theorists like Piaget and Kohlberg, and I think they ring true. They build upon each other, and for many of us in our twenties and thirties, we're still working out identity issues because these questions weren't really addressed or answered while growing up in our families of origin. I think many of us are still discerning how our life purpose flows out of our gifts/competencies and our sense of identity. It's especially interesting for us now as parents to think about how best to facilitate our children's development and spiritual growth even while we continue to discover our own calling and place in this world.

Sibyl provided a handout with possible reflection questions for journaling:

- Beloved: How do you know you are beloved? Who has communicated to you that you are loved?

- Competent: What do you do well and enjoy doing? How did that come about?

- Identity: How well do you know yourself? How have places of service or activities in which you have been involved helped you to discover who you are?

- Purpose: What do you presently understand about your purpose? "Is the life that I am living the life that wants to live in me?" (Parker Palmer)

In addition to these questions, our children's ministry director, Mary Gonzalez, shared a few simple questions that she uses with her kids at bedtime each night: "What was good about today? What was hard? And where was God in this day?" And she noted that nine times out of ten, God was present and experienced in whatever was the hard thing of the day. We've been asking our older son these questions, and he's been responding quite well. They've helped him name things and admit his own shortcomings, and they've also been entry points for gratitude and thanksgiving.