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.



Why We Are So Impatient

24 12 2016

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”

-Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1964)

We live in a world so connected, so fast, and so efficient. We live in a world where I can send encouraging messages halfway around the world to my church college students during their time of exams. We live in a world where we can order our coffee on our phone and it awaits us moments later on the counter of Starbucks, leaving to imagination, the who, when, how of its manufacture. We live in a world where the game of phone stack could be one of the hardest challenges faced. We live in a world where music is seen in increments of bits and the art of the album has been long buried in the past. We live in a world where in some parts of the globe it’s easier to access wifi than clean water. We live in a world where the appearance given to us by our parents are suggestions or the template for the surgical artisans to shape into their modern Mona Lisa’s.

results-1But technology is not the problem. Even Ellul, in the quote above, was not indicting technology, per se, but was speaking of “technique”. He defines it as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” To put concisely, Ellul is saying that “technique” has converted spontaneity and unreflective behavior into behaviors that are only deliberate and rationalized. We’ve become obsessed with results and our prime concern becomes the best way in our life direction. In other words, the technical eclipses the organic, if you will. Perhaps, we see this played out in the sliver of economic life in Goudzwaard’s assessment of capitalism’s obsession with progress.

Setting aside Ellul’s ‘technical’ analysis, all of us sense that this world is in a rush. Time is measured by the second, and waiting for a friend has become obsolete through the invention of the cell phone (or as Koreans endearingly say ‘handphone’). Life is faster and we don’t have to wait. We are impatient because our muscle for patience is unpracticed.

But along with time, there is also space. The technical affects the shape of the world we live in; it even molds the shape we are as humans with personalities, souls, and bodies. Could it be that we are also becoming more impatient because we are so practiced in molding our world rather than being molded by the world? Our desire for independence, autonomy, whatever you want to call it, lends our hearts toward impatience. When we cannot create the world we envision or strive to shape, we grow impatient, sometimes even angry. When encountering people who do not fit into the world that we have created for ourselves, we don’t have the patience to change our world to welcome them in. Rather we are agitated, and further, we ostracize. Our impatience wants to change the other instead.

Then, is it a matter of practicing our moldability muscles? Perhaps, but not entirely. The irony of Ellul’s quote is it is saying that we are controlled, that is, molded by technique. Our problem is not only that our will to change ourselves has atrophied. Ellul is alluding that we are always being molded, ourselves, our world. The question is ‘by what’ or ‘by whom?’

It’s Christmas tomorrow and, whether you are on the East or West of the Greenwich meridian,manger-cross at Christmas you tell the truth. Sorry, couldn’t help it. No, but seriously tell the truth to your loved ones, but in addition, enjoy extravagance. Not utility, not efficiency, nor progress, but sheer lavish extravagance. Waste time with your loved ones, don’t plan, don’t rush, but be among them. Further, be molded by one another’s desires, one another’s wills (within reason of course). Do what you may not prefer for the sake of the other. Mold your desires to another’s. Because at Christmas we remember lavish extravagance. God came to earth to give us eternal life, but he also molded himself, if you will, into a human baby. He molded his will and desires, to allow us to do the same for others.

What are the marks of the church?

9 09 2013

We often say that the church is not the building, it is the people who gather. Then why do the answers to the question ‘What are the marks of the church?’ often seem to be impersonal concepts? Church 01One of the more extensive lists out there are Mark Dever’s nine: Preaching, Biblical Theology, The Gospel, Conversion, Evangelism, Membership, Discipline, Discipleship, Leadership. Of course, it would be unfair to say these ‘marks’ are all strictly impersonal as many of them have personal qualities embedded in them, but I look at the list and wonder, where is love, where is service, where is sacrifice? It can be said that love, service and sacrifice and anything else is subsumed under one of the earlier categories, but in the nine marks, where is the sense of hospitality and inclusion, where is the sense of imperfect beings walking together in repentance and faith? Brueggemann comments, in Peace, on possibly what we may have been missing.

This is what it means to take Jesus seriously as Lord. And. of course, we have forgotten that. We have made the mark of the church the right tag words of doctrine or of piety. Or we have preferred a certain social ideology of the left or of the right. But to love the brothers and sisters enough to raise and include them, that is a mandate of another dimension that comes to us with pain.

And he gives a possible prescription as to how the church can receive and take on this mandate that threatens our status quo theology. How to raise the lowered and include the excluded.

Clearly the only church that can practice such ministry is the one so sure of its own identity that it can confidently be a servant. The only church that can practice such a ministry is one so sure of its security in the face of its Lord that it can take a role not defined by competence and achievement.

The marks of the church. It is something necessary to identify and distinguish, batmanbut maybe with it’s emphasis we are falling into the trap of false batman theology, that is, “…it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Maybe it would be better to stop focusing on trying to figure out who we are and how we are different and to start figuring out who is out there, lowered and excluded, and how we can serve them, not because that makes us into a church, but just because, that is what happens when one is secure in the face of her Lord.

Loving God vs Loving Right

4 03 2013

A friend of mine tweeted this after the recent Justice Conference in Philadelphia, “Don’t be in love with the idea of yourself doing justice; be in love with the just King.” (If you’re curious as to his other insightful tweets, check out his blog: Kyuboem Lee.) In the wake of rising humanitarianism, which also encompasses the wider Christian population as conferences such as the Justice Conference seems to attest, Kyu’s tweet resurfaces some thoughts that are actually related to other aspects of the Christian conservative disposition.

It has come to my attention that I am not very good at loving God, and I think Christians (I should probably say American Christians) in general are not very good at it either. Of course, it would be an whole entire discussion to describe what the meaning of “loving God” is but to simplify one maybe has to take a peek at how one loves others. In Christianese (that is Christian lingo), it is often said that the vertical relationship affects the horizontal, which simply means that if you are correctly loving God, then it should show in your love for others. But it seems most do not understand how often that translation from the vertical to the horizontal does not happen so naturally. matt-22-381Most Christians, I believe, mistake loving what’s right with loving others, and in turn, mistaken loving God altogether. Lately, I have had the privilege of listening to a number of people who claim not to be Christian and it seems one big reflector of this ‘loving right’ tendency is reflected in the way Christians make them feel: dirty, unworthy, second-class. Even when Christians do not intend to do thus, mistakenly thinking you are loving God when you are only loving what’s right will naturally convey that sense. As somewhat of an aside, it is good Christian theology to think that all humans are sinful, dirty, unworthy, but the question of concern here is in reference to whom? Good theology says that it is in reference to God, but often in our practice of ‘loving right’ we make them feel unworthy in reference to us. This becomes very evident in Christian dealings with peccadilloes, not to say that condoning such things is the right thing to do, but raising the condoning or not condoning as the first question illustrates that our primary concern is with strictly ‘doing what’s right.’ This seems to fall in line with a critique stated by one of my professors concerning pastors of large (mega) churches, that they have the luxury to simply state unhelpful mantras like “Jesus plus nothing equals everything” because they don’t have to get into the messy lives of individuals. When throwing principles and mantras from a distance, one tends to miss the details, important details, and in worse cases, it can produce a culture of woodenly following principles as equal to ‘loving God’. This proclivity of ‘loving right’ is also illustrated in the inability of Christians to engage humanly with such complex issues as homosexuality, and in some ways, it becomes evident in almost trivial issues like underage drinking and smoking (i.e. partying). Christians are so concerned with finding what’s right, or to push the envelope, doing what’s holy, that they dehumanize those with whom they engage.

PictJesusHealsLeperRembrandt1655-60Part of the reason, which I don’t want to get into here, is that Christians a lot of times are not very humble people. The other part why this is so, I suspect, is because Christians (me including) suck at dealing with messiness. We hate it. We think it’ll taint us. We think we are actually clean ourselves. We operated in the Old Testament (Hag 2:11-13) sense that if you touch something unclean (dirty) you will become unclean (dirty). We proudly scream that Jesus gave us his rightness, but in practice, we act as if we’ve earned it by denying the manner in which that rightness was given to us. We forget that the manner in which Jesus engaged uncleanness was to plunge into it. And we forget that we live in the NT era where when the unclean touches the clean, no longer does the clean become tainted, but the unclean becomes clean (Mark 1:40-42). Ironically, the Pharisees were the ones who did not know this, they were NT people who operated in the OT schema. They could not deal with messiness around them. They made people feel dirty, unworthy, second-class. They loved being right, while thinking they were loving God. And while we think it may be so far from us, the ‘they’ starts becoming the ‘we’. We say we are loving God when all we are doing is loving what’s right. Maybe then, it’s time to pause… and acknowledge, “Maybe I don’t love God as much as I thought I did.”

Essential Extravagance of Festivities

26 12 2012

‘Tis the season to be jolly~ fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la~~.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAJolly. Joy. Jubilee. Christmas is a time to celebrate. The colors, the music, hot chocolate warming a set of cold hands, the tinkle of the salvation army bell, the crowds and floats of the Macy’s parade, chestnuts roasting on an open fire (yes, I had to throw that one in); the air of December twenty-fifth moves us to celebration. Of course, not all celebrate the same things. The Christian will obviously celebrate Christ. The Jew, Chanukah (of course not the same day but the same month). And the atheist and agnostic still celebrate family and friends, or maybe one just celebrates the day off. Regardless of what the object of celebration is, Christmas is a time to be jolly, joyful, jubilant.

Often the Christian message that I hear in this season of December is a message that contends against the swing of culture toward materialism and for bringing the day back to celebrating the one who started the holiday, Christ. It is a true and profound message. But as I contemplate this message of anti-materialism slash gratitude of the Ultimate Gift, I’ve come to realize one thing. I’m not good at celebrating. In having processed the message of anti-materialism, I have become a poor participator of festivities. I have subconsciously filed in my mind all extravagance into the category of frivolities. And I have to say, I blame Christianity.

grguer2The culture of Christianity has historically found difficulty in accommodating the extravagant. It has often, for the sake of ultimates and essentials, sidelined the extravagant. And along the way, function has taken over form as the better half of the created order. If an object has no usefulness or function, it is difficult to find a place in the realm of modern Christianity. Art, in particular, is a victim of this tendency. The artistic has become at times unnecessary. People have asked, “Why pour resources in such a frivolous endeavor when there are essential needs in this world?” Christians have said, “Fashion is so extravagant that it’s so unimportant compared to the essential needs of injustice.” Yes, it is true that the artistic, music, paintings, dance, comedy, musicals, films and fashion, are all things that do not scream ‘urgent’. But for some reason, the culture of Christianity has concluded that the extravagant is never essential. Jed Perl, the art critic of The New Republic, writes in his article titled, “Put In Your Oar“, that the arts are sometime shoved into places of being efficient, but he contends that the arts are necessarily inefficient, and that its extravagance is essential:

In perilous times, those who love the arts quite naturally go on the defensive. They try to prove that the arts are in fact cost effective. They are playing a dangerous game. Too much can too easily be reduced to crowds and numbers crunching. Some argue that public arts funding boosts tourism. Others theorize that arts education improves children’s brains. And in publishing, the defenders of the now-endangered mid-list author argue that you will only find the next bestseller if you take a chance on what may initially look like modest books. I am certainly not advocating fiscal or institutional irresponsibility. In my experience, creative people are among the more fiscally responsible citizens, simply because they cannot afford to be otherwise. But I think we must insist on the fundamental inefficiency of the arts, on their essential extravagance.

I do not know where Perl’s faith lies, but he does offer the modern culture of Christian functionalism some good advice. Extravagance and essential are not antonyms. To always pit extravagance against the notion of essential is to lose the full Christian worldview. It is to make Christmas decorating a wasteful endeavor. It makes gift giving worthy only if the gift fits the functional needs of the recipient. It turns us into robots of efficiency. It makes us incapable of being jolly, joyful, and jubilant. So at the turn of this Christmas day, I will remember the One who came to save those who would believe, but I will also learn to sit, frivolously enjoying the Christmas lights, music and company, and at times enjoying extravagance, because that, I believe, is the glimpse of the world into which He saves us.

What Christianity Can Learn from Confucianism

6 06 2012

If one of my professors read the above title, I believe I would be in for a world of correction. Just to be clear, I do still affirm that all knowledge is borrowed knowledge from divine Triune revelation. Now moving from the philosophical to the practical, there is much Confucianism can teach Christianity. One such lesson is this: Youth can be absent-mindedly tyrannical.

For those who are unfamiliar with Confucianism, here is a crash course. Proper relationships and conduct between them leads to order and peace, the five main relationships being: Ruler-Ruled, Father-Son, Husband-Wife, Elder Brother-Younger Brother, and Friend-Friend. Within these relationships, there is a certain etiquette that is expected. One commonly known, and known with some-level of aversion by second-generation Asians, is respect for the elderly. There are instances that this ‘respect’ is abused between people who are merely a year or two apart, or the culture itself becomes oppressive to the younger, but I have noticed that a culture without this tradition, namely Western culture, can be oppressive to the elderly.

To illustrate, an anecdote from the soccer stadium. Few elderly people were sitting at the soccer stadium desiring to enjoy the game, but to their surprise, when the kick-off took place people in the rows in front of them watched the game on their feet. The elderly had to shout, “Let’s sit! Let’s sit and watch!” without wanting to acknowledge that his physique was unable to handle an entire game standing. The people in the front rows had no malice, but neither did they have any sense of relational consideration. The mindset of ‘I want to enjoy this game however I want to’ overpowered any thought of those behind them. This silent inconsiderate demeanor of individualism screamed to the elderly, “If you want to watch, you stand on  your feeble legs too!” It was tryannical.

This tyranny of youth also occurs in Christianity, particularly relevant to second generation Korean Christianity. Any potential wisdom of the first generation is foolishly declared parochial, oppressive, or irrelevant. There are youngsters seeking guidance and wisdom from those who have only live half a decade longer than themselves. There is a vast lack of experiential wisdom, a wisdom that has been exiled by Western Christian individualism. To be clear, this is not a vote to adopt Confucian views in Christianity, but rather, to realize some of the communal considerations that Christianity has lent to other perspectives. And to admit, first, that our individualism can be tyrannical to the weaker elderly, and second, that there is much to learn from the weak and old, if we would only be willing to listen.

Same-Sex Marriage, Obama, and Christian Justice

10 05 2012

This past week was a milestone for same-sex marriage, both bad and good. On Tuesday, May 8th, voters in the state of North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment (called Amendment One) that bans same-sex marriage. Then yesterday, May 9th, the President of the United States announced that he endorses same-sex marriages. Among other things, the reasoning he gave was religious:

The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule — you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated, and I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.

A plethora of blogs and articles on both sides of the debate gave attention to these developments and I am sure more will come. As the debate (some would call it a battle) rages on, it is interesting that the conservatives, predictably, evoke the language of biblical authority. Some more nuanced conservatives, like Collin Hansen in “How to Win the Public on Homosexuality“, would point out that the issue isn’t merely homosexuality being a sin, but that it is idolatry, that is, fulfilling our desires inordinately is displeasing to God. Another conservative pastor, Kevin DeYoung, blogs “Five Reasons Christians Should Continue to Oppose Gay Marriage” to enumerate the reasons why Christians should continue to contend the legalization of gay marriage.

On the other side of the debate are Christians who evoke the language of love and peace. It may seem at first glance like a watered down argument of tolerance, but there are those who have very thoughtful, biblically legitimate positions on the issue. Jared Byas blogs “I Still Stand as an Evangelical for Gay Marriage” with some very compelling points to which the conservative side should at least give ear. Others who fall in this camp claim that the culture wars themselves are harmful to the Christian witness. Rachel Held Evans writes the very read-worthy blog entry “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” claiming the negative affects of politicizing the issue of homosexuality, she writes:

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-at-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

The danger that this second camp falls into is to argue from the lines of emotionalism (which Evans almost does), that is, to say opposing same-sex marriage is mean and mean people are never good Christian witnesses, so we should stop opposing same-sex marriage. As good as it sounds, this is a flawed argument, as opposing most culturally normalized sin is inevitably mean but necessary, and Hansen is right in that this line of argument replaces biblical authority with our very volatile emotions. But as much as I understand Hansen and DeYoung’s wariness and point that homosexuality is a sin, they do not understand that legalization of same-sex marriage is not exactly the same. And thus, I must personally side with Evans and Byas, but not because it is mean to be anti-gay marriage. But because of what Byas hints at, concerning Christian justice, in point one of his current blog entry:

I know it is hard to grasp, but this matter has nothing to do with whether or not homosexuality is a sin. If it does, then you are probably being inconsistent since there are lots of things that Christians consider “sinful” that they do not legislate against. For instance, if God wants us as a nation to live by his laws, why are we okay supporting the freedom of religion? Shouldn’t we be out trying to ban other religions? If we are okay with freedom of religion,which is a law that basically mandates that our country allow for idolatry (according to the Christian), aren’t we being hypocritical?

I am still not for same-sex marriage, but I am not for Amendment One. If I could have it my way, I think it is wrong to put into law either banning or legalizing of such a notion. In a sense, the government should stay out of it, but as we do not live in an idealistic world, I think that Christian justice calls for allowing same-sex unions (I am still uncomfortable of calling it marriage). Christians are not only called to evangelize, but our actions are to seal, in a sense, our message. Our actions are to viscerally convey that our message is true. How to do that is not homogeneous, but I know it is not marching to vote for a gay marriage ban and celebrating it. The co-existence of diversity is possible because of justice, and justice requires, like Evans says, the washing of feet, the feet of our friends, the feet of our so-called ‘enemies’. Because isn’t that what our Lord did for wretches like us?