Obedience and Grace

20 11 2017

“Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.” -CS Lewis in The Weight of Glory

In hopes of gaining some advice on how to plan for the future, I was rebuked, almost to tears. As the coffee hour before the 2016 Annual Westminster Korean Alumni gathering began, I sat next to Reverend Yoo, the senior minister of the host church (Chang-shin Church). A long time professor who stopped teaching 7 years ago to pastor his current church, I asked him about his experience teaching and why he stopped and perhaps any words of guidance for myself looking to get a grasp of the lay of the Korean scholastic geography. His response was soft-spoken yet weighty, and utterly unexpected. Instead of giving me strategic advice, he spoke of obedience. ‘우리는 하나님의 부르심의 따를 뿐이지 아들이 아버지 한테 ‘전 이거 때문에 여기, 저기 갈 겁니다’ 하면 진정한 아들이 아니요, 순종이 아니지. 예수님이 자기 의지로 지구에 오셨나?’ [Rough Translation: ‘We are merely to follow God’s calling. If sons (or daughters) say to their fathers ‘I will go here because of this reason and because I prefer it, he (or she) is not acting as a true son (or daughter), and such is not obedience. Did Jesus did come to earth because he preferred it?’]

As my long, long (too long) education nears its end, I do keep thinking about the choices before me, the preferences before me, instead of Kingdom principles and Godly desires. But is that really the issue? The dichotomy of my preferences versus Kingdom principles seem in some ways two sides of the same impersonal coin of principles. What I mean is, my preferences and principles of God’s Kingdom detached from a relationship with God are both the same legalistic obedience to a principle. The political theologian, Oliver O’Donovan, explains that obedience to a command that does not account for the personal authority of God is the same as being responsible without knowing why one has to be responsible. It is, in other words, not only wrong but nonsensical. Real obedience in essence is not doing good things, but it is following a person. Bonhoeffer explains in Discipleship,

“Struggling against the legalism of simple obedience, we end by setting up the most dangerous law of all, the law of the world and the law of grace. In our effort to combat legalism we land ourselves in the worst kind of legalism. The only way of overcoming this legalism is by real obedience to Christ when he calls us to follow him; for in Jesus the law is at once fulfilled and cancelled.”

Even Kingdom principles without relationship to the King is nothing more than legalism. The pharisees realized this only too slowly.

More thoughts of the future, lately, have been emphasizing the command Jesus gives us in Matthew 16:24 after rebuking Peter for not understanding His reuncertain_future2demptive agenda. “Follow Me,” Jesus says. More accurately, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (NIV). But how the heck do you follow someone who is sitting at the right hand of God, right now? Do you sit next to Him? What does it even mean to follow Christ? To deny oneself? Take up my cross? How do you obey God when obedience itself is a doing of God, a grace? So many questions, or… is it too many questions? Grace and obedience, how do they happen together in planning of the future? Perhaps CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, is helpful here:

“And, in yet another sense, handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”

It seems I forget that obedience and grace is both in the context of adoption. I am his son and He is my Father. He commands and He is good. Obedience is not following a principle, but it is trusting a person, the one who denied Himself, carried the cross, and was nailed and bled upon it.  Trust: not having faith but faith-ing. Like a child following the back of her mother, without a care for all that is happening around.



“The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law”

31 08 2016

acceptance_letterYesterday, over a comforting bowl of roast pork egg noodle soup, my sister and I had an interesting conversation about the recent, potentially discomforting University of Chicago letter to new students (written by John Ellison, the dean of students) about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The main thrust of the letter can be seen in this paragraph:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

A debate that has been brewing for some time now as one can see from the overview well laid out by Scott Jaschik in the Inside Higher Ed article, a survey worthy of a read, with accounts of both critics and supporters of the debate. Even my local university publication, The Daily Pennsylvanian, reports and chimes in on the current debate of psychology, free speech, education, and human development. But in continuing this discussion, it is perhaps, helpful to refer back to an earlier accounting of the social phenomenon of ‘trigger warnings.’

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law” was the title of the article by Jeannie Suk Gersen in the New Yorker (Dec 2014) concerning the rising concern for words that trigger memories of traumatic experiences. Most likely not the earliest but one of the earlier articles considering the issue at hand. Suk Gersen describes the legitimate ‘phenomenon’ of a “second rape” that victims experienced in the courtroom reported as devastating in a 1991 book by Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble. In September of the following year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind” taking the thrust that trigger warnings and safe spaces are doing more than ruining the higher eduction of America, such ‘coddling’ hurts the mental health of the next generation, the article’s point perhaps encapsulated in the two questions that it rhetorically asks:

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?

And here’s another article for good measure assessing Ellison’s letter and trying to explain the use and mis-use of the terms “trigger warning” and “safe spaces” in the entire discussion. But as much as the details of the meaning of words, the policies and the how’s of education, and sensitivity to trauma and emotion are all important, I think David Brooks contributes a fresh perspective in the discussion.

Perhaps it is our loss of purpose, or a life mission, that has inconspicuously contributed to the emotional volatility and lack of mental grit in the younger generation. Of course, this is, again, not to deny the reality of people having experienced trauma, but it is very much true that the mental grit of the younger generation is, to put it mildly, different. David Brooks asks veteran college teachers and administrators, in an Op-ed column titled “Making Mental Toughness“, how students have changed over time, and the answer he quotes is this,”Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.” But the insightful point that he ends on is the point that much of this is due to people’s lack of life goals, goals beyond personal comfort and success, goals that are, quite frankly, bigger than oneself.

John R. Lewis may not have been intrinsically tough, but he was tough in the name of civil rights. Mother Teresa may not have been intrinsically steadfast, but she was steadfast in the name of God. The people around us may not be remorselessly gritty, but they can be that when it comes to protecting their loved ones, when it comes to some dream for their future self.

People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If I may end with a bit of semi-introspection, Brooks’ insight is very instructive for myself as one in the position of educator and guide for younger folk. My tendency is to take out the whip (metaphorically) and try to create some grit through some old school suffering and discipline. But as tempting and easy as that may be, Brooks is convincing me to create a ‘telos’ for the younger folk, to offer a goal that is worthy of ‘throwing ourselves with abandon.’ A goal that is more than the prestigious college, secure well-paying job, the loving family, and the house in the suburbs (Perhaps the church has been dropping the ball by preaching morality without mission). For the strengthening of the modern mind, it may very well be that what this young generation needs is to find a purpose, a purpose not created from within but one that comes from without.

Money Can Buy Happiness

7 05 2014

To begin, happiness is overrated. Our culture thinks otherwise as Pharrell’s number one song “Happy” seems to indicate in these lyrics: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” Well… it’s not. It is true that Pascal said “All men seek happiness. This without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.” But Pascal’s use of the word needs qualification, which we will not go into here. Happiness has always been a by-product of other things, which the well known quote from W. Beran Wolfe illustrates well,

If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that had rolled under the radiator, striving for it as the goal itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four crowded hours of each day.

Interestingly, this seems also true for one’s use of money. The old adage, ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ is contested as untrue by Michael Norton, not because money never leads to happiness but because we spend it wrongly. He finds in his studies that what we buy with our money contributes very little to our sense of happiness, rather, what he found as more important is who we spend it on. As interesting as the study findings are, Norton could have saved a lot of trouble if he just believed Acts 20:35 to be true at face value: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” But even so, his talk is worth watching:

Stop Talking

19 03 2013

In a casual conversation with two friends, the topic of preaching length arose. In their comments they pointed out the correlation they noticed between the length of sermons and the age of the preacher. They, interestingly, pointed out that many of the preachers who give lengthy sermons tended to be the younger ones. Of course, this claim was merely a claim of individual observation, but one comment my friend made particularly seemed to resonate: ‘When you’re older, you just understand that what you have to say isn’t really that important.’

At first glance, one may think that this friend has a hardened heart or is just immature to sit through a sermon of forty-five minutes plus. raul-calla-al-now-campBut that is because, of the two italicized words in the comment, most of us find the stress in the latter: ‘say’. That is, when we find the stress in ‘say’, we are believing that preaching is important, and rightfully so, but the above comment wasn’t stated to mean that preaching isn’t important. The actual stress was on the ‘you’, meaning, older preachers seem to have a better sense of their place in influencing change in people’s lives. They understand that 15~30 more minutes will not necessarily be of positive impact (or sometimes it’ll be of negative influence). Theologically speaking, they have a better sense of God’s sovereignty. It was interesting to notice after pondering upon my friend’s comment how much young leaders (me including) preach in our prayers. There is a level of guidance that is good in group prayer, but sometimes as one leads, they start to preach again, a prayer topic becomes a sermon as if the listeners must pray in a very specific manner, almost countering the sovereignty of intercession we can find in Romans 8:26. Ed Welch, in a CCEF blog (titled “Edit Your Counseling“) about understanding that more words are not necessarily a good thing, corroborates the goodness of brevity with an anecdote:

I submitted a chapter for a book. The editor suggested that I should aim for 8-10,000 words. After I submitted it, the publisher pulled rank and mandated that all chapters be 5,000 words or less.

I labored to cut it back but it was still over the word count. I told the editor I was at bare bones—there was nothing else I could cut. I assumed (hoped?) that he would say something like, “Oh, don’t worry about that silly word count from the publisher. Your chapter is so good they will make an exception,” or something like that.

What he actually said was, “No problem, I will edit it down to 5,000 words for you,” which he did, and the chapter was better than before. As you might guess, this word butcher is a highly skilled editor. Greater editing skill produced a chapter that is more succinct and clear.

But this is not only true in writing; the same principle applies to preaching and counseling.

David BeckhamWelch’s concern in the post is practical for the listener as his main point is “The more words you say, the less people understand – at least as a general rule.” But my concern, though also practical, is for the speaker. Preaching a long sermon is not inherently wrong or bad, but the concern is the heart and mentality of the preacher, where if the length of his/her words becomes a safety net for that person’s ability to change. If that is the case, maybe we place too much weight on the ‘your’ of ‘your words’. Maybe in our minds we think the words are important, when in fact, WE have become important. Again, this is not a post to say that hour long sermons are in it of themselves a negative thing, but it seems healthy to ask, “Do I have to say everything?”

At the same time the other side of the issue is not to stop talking. The Word must be preached, it must be known. But maybe the issue is that we have far detached listening from our talking. We have assumed all the questions, and forget to ask ‘one more question’ as Welch teaches in his class lectures. Harvie Conn, in Evangelism, puts it this way:

Maybe it’s time we stop asking, “Would you like to come to our church?” and begin constructing surveys around the sincere statement, “We’d really like to know why you’re not going anywhere.”

And he quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together,

207d544bca3a110df4f6a9749695568The first service that one owes to others… consists in listening to them… Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening…. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they would share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.

This is not to say that young preachers must replace speaking with listening altogether, as listening by itself is rarely useful, but rather to put them together. For some this may mean that they listen more and talk less, for others it may even mean that they begin listening. Whichever it may be, behind our behavioral change it may be good to remember my friend’s earlier quote on the wisdom of old age, that it’s quite ok NOT to say everything, all at once, every time.

Minority Report and Christian “Pre-Crime”

16 12 2011

No one can predict the future. No one owns a palantir. Not even Harold Camping. Thus, we don’t have to worry about the frightening consequences of ‘pre-crime’ seen in the movie Minority Report, that is, endangering the legal principle ‘Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat‘ (‘innocent until proven guilty’). Or do we?

It seems that Christians, maybe more so Christian pastors, have this ‘minority report tendency’. Over the years, in conversations with friends in the pastoral occupation concerning their ‘flock’, I have noticed that what they look for or are sensitive to tendencies and underlying motivations. Maybe it is because of the American popularization of psychologizing ourselves. Now, you may ask, what’s the big deal about that? Nothing, really. That is, until judgement or suspicion is channeled into the action of confrontation. To explain… Take a moment and think as if you are NOT a Christian. I could be wrong, but I observe that most judgement, accusation, or correction occurs, for a non-Christian, post commitment of the ‘crime’ or ‘sin’ (whatever you want to call it). Before the action of ‘wrong’ occurs nothing is suspected, no mention of changing any behavior, no red balls from the Minority Report. Such a nonchalance to immoral potential is, quite frankly, refreshing. It makes the company fun to hang out with. Christians, on the other hand, tend to judge, accuse, or correct before the action of the ‘crime’ is committed, such accusations  are based on tendencies or assumed motivations and happen ‘pre-crime’. We predict the crime and attempt to prevent it from ever happening, in the days of the Pharisees (‘1st century Jews’), it was called “fence building”. Rules were added on top of each other so that you would not get close to breaking the original rule, that is, if walking 10 miles on the Sabbath was prohibited, then maybe walking 9 miles was later prohibited, then 8 miles; fences built to protect oneself from reaching the original fence of ‘resting on the Sabbath’. Such unreasonable wariness makes Christians into unlikable company. It’s in a word, stuffy, like the Pharisees.

Of course, this is not to say that there is no value in Christian ‘pre-crime’ tendencies. It is important to inspect one’s motives, one’s tendencies, primarily because sin does not hit you like an eighteen wheeler head-to-head collision, but rather, it creeps up on you, like a frog in slow heated water, swimming nonchalantly insensitive to the incremental rise in temperature, until eventually, it dies. But ‘fence building’ is no better. Those who ‘build fences’ live lives like people with OCD, keeping a mile of a distance from any potential ‘sinfulness’ that we become unenjoyable company to those around us and in a sense, miss out on vibrant life (let alone one’s evangelistic capacity to enter the broken, dirty, sinful in order to be a redeeming presence). Certainly, crime is bad, sin is deadly and predictions still an impossibility. But in such a mix, which is our reality, how do we prevent ourselves from ending up  as a dead frog or a despicable pharisee?

Korean Dramas? A Female Addiction?

22 07 2011

It is not hard to see why pornography is so harmful and dangerous to not just the individual psyche but to relationships and even just human interaction. But Betsy Hart interestingly raises the other side of possibly the same coin: Romantic Pornography. At the risk of being unattractively prude, she writes in her column article titled “Beware Romantic Pornography” of how romantic comedies unreasonably feminizes the ideal man and guises chivalry with over sensitivity. She shares an experience illustrating the phenomenon:

That’s where the pornography comes in. Just as sexual pornography twists an understanding for men about real women’s bodies and sexual appetites, so romantic pornography twists the perception for women about real men and how they “ought” to behave toward women, which tends to amount to, well, behaving like a woman. I have a dear friend who once didn’t like a fellow I was dating. Among other shortcomings, he didn’t arrange spa treatments for me, she explained. Seriously. No more chick flicks for that girl.

The lines she draws in terms of the appropriate sensitivity level in a man is definitely arguable, but there is something to the point that being a civilized man is not the same as a feminized man, and that though enjoying rom-com’s is not bad in itself, watchers must be clear on what is fantasy and what is real.

In this discussion, there is one question that arises in my mind. That is whether Korean dramas fall into the same category of rom-com’s of which Hart speaks. And this is where it gets less clear because I know plenty of men who watch and enjoy Korean dramas and rom-com’s (though I’m sure they do not publicly advertise this affinity). So then, how does this affect the male psyche?

A Touchy Subject…

7 06 2011

Most conservative Christian women may have the tendency to look down upon dressing up, make-up, beauty products, and other activities assumed to be frivolous. This perspective that is pejorative towards placing effort on improving outward appearance also bleeds into the purchase and use of expensive brand name items. I remember a friend commenting in a conversation how he was disgusted to see a pastor drive around a super nice, new Mercedes Benz, as if expensive items and holiness are incompatible, like oil and water.

The topic of female beauty is similarly overshadowed by the vestige of asceticism in our culture,  and thus, it is both interesting and very pertinent to ask how far can one go in self-beautification and remain “ok”. Especially now, with the prevalence of plastic surgery (in particular, in my motherland: South Korea), this subject goes deeper than just “you can” or “you can’t”. It strikes at the heart of our desire to be mesmerized by beautiful things and our desire to be desired. Mary Kassian writes “Female Beauty Matters” on this rather touchy subject, and mentions several interesting points:

It’s even a touchier subject for women, because as Evans points out, “many are so burdened by the impossible standards imposed by our culture that they feel as though their efforts will never be enough.” Like Evans, I have never in my life met a woman who did not want to be beautiful for her husband.

When it comes to beauty, women react against the burden of expectation, the fear that they will fall short of the desired standard, the inevitability of decay, and the resentment that the script is different for men than women. A woman wants to be loved and accepted as she is. From a wife’s perspective, a husband’s attraction to/desire for beauty can magnify her feelings of personal inadequacy and insecurity, and she may fear that his love/acceptance depends on her ability to measure up.

And her tentative, working conclusion provides practical insight for both sides:

So girls, let’s give the guys a break. Let’s stop condemning them for feeling attracted to beauty and wanting us to make a reasonable and sustained effort in that department. And guys . . . give us a break. Please understand how very personal and painful this issue can be for women. It’s very difficult to stay engaged in fighting a battle we know we are destined to lose. The beauty of our youth will inevitably fade. And most of us don’t have a hope of even remotely resembling the airbrushed model on the cover of the magazine.

The whole article is a worthy read, in particular for men (and one thing to note is that Kassian speaks to the married couple, does the discussion change for single men and women?). Coming from the male side of the discussion, one thing that can help is for guys to realize the potential for hurt, not in the sense of the dumb “guard-your-heart” nonsense (if you don’t know what that is, don’t ask), but hurt they can render to a real human being. Pain to a person’s sense of worth and being, which goes deeper than romantic heartbreaks.

It is good to want to be beautiful. It is good to want to behold beauty. The question is “For whom?”