The gospel is courageous

Archbishop Oscar Romero; April 16, 1978:Romero

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises,
a gospel that doesn’t unsettle,
a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin,
a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed —
what gospel is that?

Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone,
that’s the way many would like preaching to be.
Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter
so as not to be harassed,
so as not to have conflicts and difficulties,
do not light up the world they live in.

They don’t have Peter’s courage, who told that crowd where the bloodstained hands still were that had killed Christ: “You killed him!” Even though the charge could cost him his life as well, he made it.

The gospel is courageous;
it’s the good news of him who came to take away the world’s sins.

The truth about dishonesty

A fun animation to go along with Duke psychology and behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely’s talk, based on his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves. Includes some fascinating insights into confession, forgiveness, and sin, as well as the financial crisis.

Teach me, O Lord, to care

TDC_Prophets_PPT_finalAs we’ve been going through our series at The District Church looking at the Minor Prophets, I’ve definitely noticed a heightened sensitivity to sin and evil and injustice–both in my own life and in the world around me. I don’t think it’s that more bad things are happening; I think it’s more that I’m more aware of them. It’s kind of tough to take in; it makes each day a little more challenging to get through when there’s always something to mourn (even as there are always things to be thankful for).

But as a Christian, I want to be more in tune with God’s heart, and I believe God is grieved by a whole lot of things that go on in the world (and in myself), just as I believe God rejoices over a whole lot of other things that go on in the world (and in myself).

With that in mind, I’m grateful for my friend Sandra posting these words, from a 1970 song by Broadman Ware: Teach me, O Lord, to care.

I see the poor, I see the lame,
I hear the sobs the cries of pain;
yet with this hurt I seldom care,
teach me, O Lord, teach me to care.

I see the hungry, sick and ill,
I see them as I sit and fill
a body clothed with clothes so fair,
teach me, O Lord, teach me to care.

I see the lost and dying world;
I watch as Satan’s darts are hurled;
I know the answer, yet I don’t share;
teach me,O Lord, teach me to care.

Teach me, O Lord, to care;
and then thy message may I bear;
may I a witness always share,
teach me, O Lord, to care.

Dealing with differences in relationships

Holding handsA couple weeks ago, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area, John Ortberg and clinical psychologist Rick Blackmon sat down to have a conversation about relationships — marriage in particular.

I found it immensely helpful, not just for marriage but for relationships in general. Pastoring in a church that’s over 70 percent single means that there’s a lot swirling around in the dating/relationship/engaged sphere, and learning how to be in relationship in a healthy way is an important part of … well, being human!

John began by asking, “What’s the biggest obstacle to having a great marriage?” To which, Rick replied:

The biggest obstacle to having a great marriage [and, I’d say, to having a healthy relationship, period – JF], one that continues to be life-giving and close and healthy, is dealing with differences.


I can attest to that with my friends, both in the context of married life as well as in the context of interacting with others in the political realm here in DC. Because it’s not a question of whether we’ll have differences — as my counselor put it, “As long as you’re dealing with someone who isn’t you, you’ll have differences.” Instead, it’s a matter of how we deal with those differences.

“In any relationship,” said John, “sin is always inevitable but grace is always available.

Sin is always inevitable because human beings are sinful, selfish, prideful, self-righteous, unaware, and oblivious, and we hurt one another, both intentionally and unintentionally, even just by assuming that we’re always right and that the other person must therefore be wrong.

But grace is always available — the grace of God, first and foremost, and then as Christians, the grace we are called to show one another. “Forgive us what we owe, just as we have already forgiven what others owe to us,” is a paraphrase of a line from the Lord’s Prayer. We have been shown grace; and so we are called to show grace and empowered to do so by the Spirit of God living within us.

Rick also suggests a helpful tool for dealing with conflict, using the acronym CRAFT. See below for my notes (or listen to the podcast here):

  • Get back to a Conversational level
    • When we get reactive, our response moves from the cortex (calm, rational) to amygdala (bird brain, 100% self-protective, fight or flight, limited capabilities), so we often see either fast, loud, outlandish responses (fight) or complete shut down (flight).
    • Prov 29:11: “A rebel shouts in anger; a wise man holds his temper in and cools it.”
    • It can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to calm down enough to talk, so make sure you create that space.
  • Recall what happened
    • The goal of this exercise is not to unify views on what took place, but to learn how the other person experienced that, to develop a curiosity for the other’s perspective, to cultivate empathy.
    • James 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”
    • The first example of marital discord in the Bible was Genesis, where Adam throws Eve under the bus.
    • The sinful self always wants to blame the other; the redeemed self aims to speak the truth in love (Ephesians).
  • Apologize
    • Say “I’m sorry.” James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another.”
    • “It’s not possible to be in a relationship for a long time and not to wound them and be wounded by them.” – Rick
    • There are two forms of apology:
      • “Oops” or apology for impact: “I can tell that what I did hurt you so I’m sorry for that, but I’m still not sure I did anything wrong.” The more serious the offense, the less appropriate this response is, but this kind of apology is still better than nothing.
      • More heartfelt and genuine: actually owning intent, e.g. “I did this because …”, e.g. the prodigal son.
  • Forgive
    • There are two responses to being hurt and wounded by somebody:
      • Get even (the normal, natural response, certainly a bird brain response).
      • Forgive (asking for forgiveness or extending forgiveness)
        • Look one another in the eye and say, “I forgive you.”
        • Jesus said, “Forgive one another up to seventy times seven times.”
        • Paul also said, “Forgive one another.”
    • It’s actually difficult; it takes practice.
      • Especially with Christians, it can be easier to ask for forgiveness than to extend forgiveness.
      • Understand also that it takes time.
  • Talk
    • Talk about what you wish had happened instead, what you wish you had said or what your spouse/friend had said.

Some final points:

  1. Rick emphasized that conflicts often end on the same note on which they begin; that is, if it begins with a harsh tone, it’ll probably end with a harsh tone, and if it begins with a gentle tone, it’ll probably end with a gentle tone. Be aware of how you approach differences and conflict.
  2. John reminded us that growth is always possible. The alternative is stagnation and to remain trapped in sin. (And that doesn’t sound pleasant or healthy at all, does it?!)
  3. We need wisdom in dealing with conflict, but more foundationally than that, we need Jesus and we need grace. After all, true wisdom is to properly fear and reverence God — to understand who he is, who we are, and how much we need him.

Race, a black president, and the gospel

As I read, tears came to my eyes, my heart broke a little, and a sense of (what I pray was) righteous anger began to rise.

Bill Sanderson

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest piece in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “Fear of a Black President,” which looked at race, racism, and how both had thus far impacted Barack Obama’s campaign and presidency, and the pall that they continue to cast over the future of this country.

I was heartbroken and angered at being reminded that this is the world in which we live. Where racism still flourishes. Where politicians can’t speak the truth openly or address issues head-on because it will rile up a small but powerful base of people who prefer ignorance or to maintain a status quo that privileges them. Where we are reminded that sin and brokenness and evil are real, not only on an individual level but become enshrined and ossified on a structural and systemic level, that they can become a part of a nation’s history and culture. Where, despite all protestations to the contrary, despite all the declarations about liberty and freedom and equality, our actions and inactions demonstrate that our actual values fall far short of the mark. Where, though large swaths of the country declare their followership of Jesus Christ, neither he nor his prodigal love and grace and welcome are to be found in the public square: not in our policies or our politics or our practices, not in our treatment of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant, nor–to speak more broadly–of our fellow human beings.

I was heartbroken and angered because I am complicit in this, as are we all. I am not a black man; I will never fully know or understand or experience the realities of life as a black man. I can empathize, I can learn, I can fight for equality, I can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ that breaks down all the barriers that humans have built to divide us–race being not the least of these–the gospel that raises valleys and topples mountains, and I can pray for change to come in the hearts and minds and lives of all people by the power of the Spirit of God. But I am who I am, and I am not who I am not.

As an Asian American, growing up in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, experiencing life in Southern California and now in Washington, DC, spending all of my life in cosmopolises, I have rarely been faced with overt racism. I suppose that in some ways, I have even benefited from it, perhaps unbeknownst to me, in the form of the myth of the model minority. I have never been told that I needed to be “twice as good” but “half as Asian.”

There is much in the Asian American experience to be mourned over too, much that remains largely hidden in the pages of history, not often brought to light, much that even I have yet to familiarize myself with. The Chinese people who came to work in gold mines and on the railroads. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

But injustice is injustice, and the first step is acknowledging the reality of the world in which we live and our part in it. I’m reminded of Nehemiah, who, upon hearing of the state of Jerusalem, came before God to confess and repent on behalf of his people and their history of disobedience. He didn’t apologize simply for the sins of others–as if he were blameless–but recognized his own complicity in the situation: “we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6).

The second step was to act: Nehemiah gained permission from the king of Babylon, whom he served, to return to Jerusalem and restore the city (Nehemiah 2).

Likewise, we are not called simply to be upset by the injustices of the world–whether it is abuse, modern slavery, sexism, or racism. We are called to partner with God in proclaiming the kingdom of God, in announcing–by the words that we speak, by the actions we take, by the lives we lead–that we are under new management, and that the God of the universe, who revealed himself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, is at work to make all things new.

There’s a misconception that the concept of forgiveness means that the offense doesn’t mean anything any more, that there are no consequences. But true forgiveness is acknowledging the reality of the offense and understanding the full impact of the consequences, and then restoring and renewing right relationship. And this is possible for us as Christians because Jesus took on himself the consequences of our offenses.

Saying that race doesn’t matter, or “They should just get over it,” not only misunderstands the reality of the offense and the full impact of the consequences, it not only denies complicity in the system and culture in which one lives; it prevents true reconciliation, true restoration, and true freedom.

From the day God broke my heart over issues of injustice, and over the years, as I’ve continued to learn just how big God really is, how expansive his mission, how all-encompassing his love, and how far he goes to reconcile all things to himself, until the day that I die, I have chosen to follow, to love, to serve, and to obey Jesus–whatever that means, and in this case, whatever that means for race and racism.

To be humble, cognizant of my part in a system built on injustice and oppression. To be attentive, discerning the movement of the Spirit of God to bring good out of all things, even the most heinous. To be loving, welcoming and honoring of all human beings, created as we are in the image of God. And to let my heart be broken by the things that breaks God’s; to be angered and upset by the things that anger and upset God–wherever one of his children is denigrated and oppressed and marginalized; and to be at work wherever God calls me to be at work.

And all by the grace of God.

I’ve included some excerpts from the piece below, but I’d encourage you to read it yourself. It’s worth it.

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police.

… aggregating his findings nationally, Stephens-Davidowitz has concluded that Obama lost between 3 and 5 percentage points of the popular vote [of the 2008 election] to racism.

While Beck and Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president. More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced “birther bills” demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961.

Thus the myth of “twice as good” that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—­enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said in his “More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.

The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.