Vancouver: Chinese Tour -Part 1

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As I write this, I’m in Vancouver, Canada on a much needed 12 day vacation.  We just ended a Chinese group tour of some of the national parks.  It was incredibly beautiful, with spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, culturally interesting, and stuffed full of amusing experiences with Chinese people.  If you have never experienced something like this, these are some of my experiences and what you might expect.

But before I get deep into my account, let me be clear about a couple of things.  Although my naturally sarcastic brain found many things to keep myself amused (some outright ridiculous, some simply culturally funny), that does not mean that I didn’t have anything less than a wonderful time.

The tour guide was an amazing man who did a great job, and said everything in both Chinese and English only for my benefit, since I was the only non-Chinese speaker there.  The people were mostly very friendly and respectful, and this type of group is a hidden travel secret to visit many places without having to drive yourself, and paying less money than you would almost any other way.

Having said that disclaimer, here’s what happened:

We met at the bus at 8 AM.  On vacation, one would expect to get to sleep in a little bit, but the 8 o’clock time was actually our latest of the whole trip.  We got on board a standard tour bus, the kind with areas to stow your carry-ons above your seat and the little fold down foot rest.  There were two more stops for others to be picked up as well.

By the time we were ready to go, the bus was full of excited and chatty Chinese people…well, except for the seats directly around the two of us.  Those sat empty as a sort of buffer zone from the white guy, apparently.  I wasn’t really offended.  This meant more space for me.

Our collective DMZ was short lived though, because the tour guide quickly announced that we had been given assigned seats.  These would change each day according to who had made him the happiest the day before (or something like that), and we would need to move to those seats after the first rest stop.

Yes, on vacation…assigned seats.  I had returned to Mrs. Zimmerman’s second grade classroom.  I was sure there would be homework later, but I looked forward to some dodgeball during recess.

Actually, it is sort of like your first day of school, or summer camp.  You are anxious about how your teacher/tour guide will act, and you know there will be certain roles each person will play.  Some people you will like, some you won’t.  There will be the popular kids, the nerds, and a group of bohemian iconoclasts who do their own thing.  I was in that group, naturally.  I was after all, the only white guy.

To Be Continued…

5 Keys to Reading the Bible

BibleHeaderHere is a list (by no means exhaustive) of a few guidelines to help in reading and applying the Bible to your life.

1. Read the Bible with an eye for genre.

Some biblical critics (meaning people who examine the actual literature of the Bible) look at the text as nothing more than ancient literature.  This causes some Christians to react with statements like, “I take the Bible literally.”  This statement sounds devout, but it is quite absurd.

Psalm 36:7 says “People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” Jesus follows this same metaphor in Matthew 23:37 saying, “I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”  No one actually suggests that the Bible is saying God is actually a bird.  The text is using a picturesque metaphor.

The Bible is quite robust as literature.  It contains narrative (Genesis, Matthew, et al.), prophetic literature (Daniel, Revelation), Poetry (Psalms, Song of Solomon), epistles (instructional books like Ephesians), personal letters (to an individual like Philemon), and others.  A person wouldn’t read a love letter the same way that they would read an instruction manual.  In the same way, they shouldn’t read Psalms the same way that they read Galatians.

A lot of problems in understanding the Bible come from not considering the intended purpose of the book they are reading.  For instance, the purpose of Psalms is to glorify God and remember His goodness, not to teach doctrine.  This is not saying that Psalms cannot teach doctrinal truth, or even that it is not the inspired word of God, just that doctrine is not the point of the book.

2.      Get yourself into the heads of the original readers.

Many Bible experts will make the statement, “something in the Bible can never mean to us what it didn’t mean to its original hearers.”  This doesn’t quite make sense, as original readers of prophetic books like Daniel couldn’t quite have understood the completeness of the prophecy.  But this is a generally good guideline to follow in most cases.

For instance, Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:10 both state provisions against eating blood.  Some religious people use this as reason for God to be against blood transfusions.  While the Bible neither speaks supportively nor prohibitively specifically about blood transfusions, an original hearer of God’s message in these passages would have not thought about a medical procedure to save someone’s life.  They would have connected it to pagan idol worship that required drinking blood.  Therefore, it is doctrinally quite dangerous to make a leap in applying these passages to a life-saving medical procedure.

3.      Practice Exegesis not Eisegesis

No, this isn’t misspelling Jesus.  These two words refer to interpreting scripture.  Gesis refers to the text of the Bible.  Ex (ek) means out of and eis means into.  For any student of God’s truth, the goal should be to find out what the Bible means, and then apply that meaning to life, even if that isn’t quite what a person really wants the Bible to say.  The opposite of this, eisegesis, is to twist the scripture (or cherry-pick verses out of context) in order to get the Bible to say what a person wants it to say.

A good way to remember the difference is that exegesis is to find out where Jesus is, and place an X in that spot (x-a-Jesus) as the marker for where God wants people to be.  Eisegesis is like putting Jesus on an ice rink, where a person could push him to wherever he’d like Jesus to be (ice-a-Jesus).

4. Allow the Bible be a little bit mean.

Actually, the Bible isn’t really mean.  It is the loving word of God.  But unless a person is perfect, the Bible is going to point out a lot of ways in which humans cannot meet God’s standards.  It has been reported that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, said that if we always find the Bible to be our friend, perhaps we haven’t read it.

The Bible was clearly not written as a self-image booster for humanity.  Whenever a person comes face to face with the presence of God, the first realization is always how unworthy, frail, and weak humanity is when measured by God’s standard.  The second understanding is that God forgives and loves us anyway.  Before a garment can be cleaned, a person must admit that it is dirty.  The same is true with a person’s soul, and the Bible is one of the major ways that God teaches this lesson to humanity.

5. Let the Bible change you.

The Bible is not meant to be merely literature.  The serious student of Jesus should read the Bible asking 3 basic questions:

  • What did God mean by this (especially to the original readers)?
  • How does this meaning apply to me today?
  • What should I do about this?

God never intended people to read His word, smile to themselves, and then go about their daily lives.  He meant it to be poignant, “sharper than any two-edged sword,” and potent for changing lives.  Swords were not meant to be decorative wall ornaments.  They were meant for stronger stuff, as is the Bible.

In Defense of “God Damn!”

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Now that I’ve gotten your attention, yes I am talking about the epithet, but no, I am not really defending the curse.  Actually, I would just like to discuss language in general and why it seems to me like we are damning the wrong curse while completely ignoring its far more dangerous cousin.

This weekend I worked an event at the Texas State Fair.  It was for a campaign to screen people for COPD (just google it).  I will be doing a lot of work with the company running this campaign over the next month.  I know that this information seems to move away from any discussion of coarse language, but a few events this weekend made me spend a lot of time thinking about the words that come out of our mouths.

During my work, I had a great time meeting a lot of the people from the advertising company running the campaign.  They were nice, bright, and around my age.  We talked about all kinds of things and as always, they eventually asked about what I do for a living.  I told them.

The life I have chosen is not one which goes by unnoticed when I mention it.  I often try not to broach this subject until I know people a little bit, not because I am embarrassed, but because they always instantly put me in a little mental plastic box.  I become the somewhat strange person that they can observe, but must be kind of careful around.  It is like I’m suddenly Hannibal Lector.  It isn’t very fair to me, I must say.  I haven’t had someone’s liver in years.

One of the most common reactions is “Oh, I’m sorry about my language.  I’ll try to be more careful.”  When they say this, I wonder if they secretly think that they are teaching me to use new forbidden words that I have never before heard.  Like some two year old child, I would be at the platform the next Sunday saying “Screw You” (OK—worse) and then claiming, “I dunno, I heard it at the fair.”

In all truth, I do appreciate their reaction.  It means that they recognize that some of their language is not healthy and that they should do something about it.  I know that it isn’t them fearing me feeling judgmental, because I always tell them it is OK, that they can be normal, and people always then tell me that they need to stop cussing so much anyway.

But in all of these situations, what never seems to change is their use of “god” as a random interjection in sentences.  Sure, if they get angry and say “God Damn it!” they look at me with a guilty look.  This has happened on numerous occasions.  But when they say “Oh god, I’m so tired,” or something like it, they think absolutely nothing about feeling guilty.

This isn’t unique to the secular world, though.  In church, almost on a weekly basis I hear the “God, I _____,” quote emanate from some teenager’s mouth.  In my little kingdom at church, I can say something about this.  I stop and kindly remind them that it is rude to God when we do that, and that He thought it important to even include this as part of the Big Ten.

When someone say s, “God Damn it!” what they are saying is that they are really angry about something.  This phrase literally means, “send this thing to hell.”  I don’t think that this excuses the comment  at all, really.  If someone had done something blatantly blasphemous, or persecuted God’s people, I suppose one could make a case for the appropriate use of that phrase.  I am not sure what I think on that.  It is not our place to play judge and jury, or to call for vengeance.  On the other hand, David and the prophets were often asking for God to do such things.

But when we slip “God” casually into every sentence, the word has no meaning whatsoever.   When I was a teen, I used to say “like” almost every other word for a while.  I wasn’t really comparing things.  In fact, like I didn’t know I was even like saying it at all usually.  Sometimes it still slips into my sentences.

I really think that was the point of God’s prohibition in the Ten Commandments.  In the Exodus 20:7 mention, the one that everyone knows, the word translated from the Masoretic text as “vain” is the Hebrew word “shav.”  In the rest of the Old Testament, this word either refers to meaninglessness, worthlessness, or falsehood.

Psalm 108 uses this word when it says “vain is the help of men.”  Psalm 144 uses shav saying “…whose mouth speaks vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.”  Both of these uses are commonly repeated in the Old Testament.  So which one is the case for the Exodus passage?

Partly , I think it doesn’t really matter.  There is no real doubt that God would want His name to be used falsely.  In fact, that would break another commandment anyway.  The real danger is in using His name without any meaning.  For when God’s name is used in falsehood, the person is trying to use God’s authority for trickery, not something we are commonly tempted to do.  That takes a real desire to rebel against Him.

But when we use God’s name without any meaning at all, it is lowering God’s position in our life to no different than an “and” or a “but”.  Yes, I know that this isn’t consciously done.  But doesn’t that make it even worse?  The fact that God’s people would be throwing His very name around with meaninglessness is deeply offensive to Him.  I think that this is just another reminder of the casualness that we have applied to God.

So let me say something a bit controversial in response to all of this:  There is no biblical precedent for approaching God casually.  It seems to me to be an American concept of God, that he is your best buddy who you can just hang out with.  When I was a kid, I used to tell God jokes at night that I heard during the day.  I still tell Him those jokes.  I think we all should, and I think that He loves that.  I bet He laughs—hard, even though He has already heard them all, and many of them were His inventions in the first place.

But under no circumstances is God our buddy.  He’s the Father, the Maker, The Omnipotent Mover.  Any response to truly being in His presence is nothing even approaching cavalier, but an immense feeling of being altogether different, and a healthy fear, reverence.  When we lose that, we lose our understanding of our place in the universe.  We begin to believe that it is all about us.

We talk about the cross as if God got in a really bad situation ‘cause He just couldn’t live without us, so He had to send His Son for a sacrifice, a last-ditch effort that luckily worked out.  This is very far from the truth, and dilutes power of the cross.  God didn’t need us, he loved us.  We don’t deserve this miracle of atonement.  We deserve judgment.  God never owed us.  He paid a debt we owed Him.

In response, we have changed His name to an “um” in the middle of our sentences.

I am not suggesting that we start screaming and acting like Pharisees to anyone who accidentally copies the same speech patterns of everyone around them.  Instead I am suggesting that His Church start acting Christianly.  I am suggesting that we stop making it cool to be a Christian because we can look like everyone else.  I am suggesting that we stop approaching church as a hang out time with God, because He misses us so much, and we really should stop by and see Him once in a while.

I don’t see God writing a letter to the Church today asking if we could tone down the fancy clothes and the formality.  He might see that as extraneous, but not offensive.  But I am sure that He is hurt by His people making the Cross nothing more than jewelry, His House a hang out place, and His name an interjection in our sentences.

Reference: James Chapter 3, Ephesians 4:29

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 6

grandma's housePeichi’s Amma must have decided to put all of the events I mentioned in my last blog entry behind her, though, as she was very welcoming to me as we showed up for Chinese New Year.  She didn’t even keep much of a watchful eye over me, as I might have expected.  I cannot be sure that she hadn’t carefully noted the home’s entire inventory and each item’s place prior to my arrival.

Amma and I hit it off quite smoothly this time, with few rough patches.  The most difficult breach of protocol for me to handle is regarding the “house shoes” that each family uses in Taiwan.  Most people know that Asian households require one to take off his shoes on entry.  In Asia there is an added step.  Each family keeps an armada of house slippers on hand just inside the doorway that each guest is expected to use while inside.  You may not opt out of this deal.  Yes, the shoes might not even come close to fitting your American-sized feet.  Yes, one probably will accidentally slip off halfway up the stairs and leave you to hop back down to find it again.  But make no mistake, they must be used.

This part was not the problem for me.  The problem is that each household has a place where you are supposed to take off your outside shoes Me in Tainanand put your house shoes on.  In Japan this is clearly marked by the presence of bamboo mats. In Taiwan, this place is marked by some sort of sixth-sensed hoo-bah, that I apparently do not posses.

I would enter the house from the screened in porch via the stairs, leaving my street shoes outside.  At some point after the doorway I would cross the invisible battle line of germ warfare where my “safe” shoes were supposed to come on.  I would usually miss this line somehow.  When the process was reversed and the house shoes made it past the line, sirens would go off in Amma’s head, and she would come after me, gently rebuking me in short vocal bugle blasts.  She was very gracious.  I don’t mean to imply anything less.

My most exciting story with the house shoes was when visiting a household outside of the family.  As I came in, I started to take off my outside shoes and was informed that this would not be necessary at this place.  I looked around for some sign of where the hoo-bah was.  It was invisible as usual.  I asked to use the bathroom and was told it was down the hall.  I gingerly advanced, pausing with each step in case this time would be different and I might actually sense the hoo-bah.  They laughed and told me that I would not need to remove my shoes there either.  I felt safe.

NY Eve DinnerA few minutes later, I went to view the kitchen and again was told that it was safe.  I was very confused.  I had never made it this far without using house shoes before. I did not know how to act.  I shrugged and enjoyed my good fortune.

After viewing the kitchen, I was ushered to the seating area where there was a plate of fruit.  Every Asian household I am invited to has prepared fruit.  It is expected.  It is wonderful.  Americans need to start doing that.  I eagerly went to take a seat and eat some fruit.  Everyone lunged at me noisily. I had crossed the hoo-bah.  I didn’t know.  There was not even a pile of shoes.   Nothing.  I retreated and apologized profusely.  They still let me eat the fruit.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 5

Peichi's AmmaIn Tainan, I met Peichi’s grandmother for the second time.  “Amma” is “grandma” in Taiwanese, which is exclusively spoken in most of southern Taiwan.  It is far different than Mandarin Chinese, sounding a lot like Thai would if it weren’t nasal.  Short staccato sounds punctuate each word.  Peichi and her immediate family of origin speak both languages fluently.  I don’t.  I barely speak some Mandarin, but know only a couple of Taiwanese words.  I have very few occasions to speak it at all.  Amma speaks no English and very little Mandarin.  This means that we cannot communicate at all without someone interpreting.  I often say, “Two people can always communicate if they want to badly enough.”  Amma is a slightly different story.  In some ways it doesn’t seem that she recognizes that I am not developmentally disabled, but just speak a different language.  I’m not saying she isn’t bright.  She is Peichi’s stock.  She must be.  She is just from a world that is much smaller than mine in some ways, and the idea of what happens so far away must be unimaginable to her.

The occasion of our first meeting was at Peichi’s and my engagement party in Taipei.  She came in and sat down at our head table as part of the bride’s family.  She is an adorable old lady.  She is only slightly above four feet tall, if even that much, and she looks exactly like you would picture an Asian “amma” should look like.  Just looking at her makes me want to simultaneously bear-hug her and show her great, gentle reverence.

She plopped down right next to me, with her purse set behind her on the chair, the way some Asian ladies do, both to prevent someone from stealing it and so as to not forget it is there.  It seemed to me at the time, that was probably not quite the most appropriate for the situation, and thought I would endear myself to her by being helpful.  Big mistake.

I patted her on the shoulder, smiled, and reached for her purse to hang it from the trestle on the chair back.  Her eyes grew wide and she reached for it as well, holding it in a death grip.  We played a brief game of tug-of-war as I tried to calm her.  I lost.  The purse was returned to its location.

It was a busy evening, and I was never able to revisit the situation with her.  But somehow I am sure that she was convinced I was trying to steal her, Peichi’s Amma’s purse at my own engagement party.  She must have been thinking that all of the rumors about these Americans must be true.  We are all uncouth charlatans and thieves.

Contextualizing the Gospel -Part 2

Neither of these church responses is appropriate, of course.   When a missionary takes the message of Jesus into a completely unreached people group, he must find a way to connect that message to their cultural and world viewpoint.  This is no easy task for the missionary.  Much of the way the life of Christian faith is lived out in a particular culture is not actually essential or biblically derived.

Many churches would make speaking in tongues an essential part of the Christian life, for instance.  While the Bible clearly talks about speaking in tongues, and Pauline letters mention it as a great gift of the Spirit, but no where does the Bible mention it as an essential.  Despite this fact, there are many Christian groups who would take my last statement as a fighting challenge.

It is easy to pick speaking in tongues as an example, but there are myriad ways that we Americanize our faith, and communicating that faith involves a stripping down of the gospel to its essentials.  If we truly believe that this is the word and will of God, then our cultural baggage is nothing but Astroturf lining the best of fairways.  The message of Jesus doesn’t need our cultural additions.

We cannot help adding these additions, though.  When any culture accepts the Christian faith, it makes it its own.  Korean Christians have a practice of prayer whereby all the members of the church pray out loud simultaneously.  It creates quite a holy ruckus.  It is good.  It is holy.  It also sounds weird to our western ears.  It is a Korean expression of Christian faith.  But Koreans can not hope to force Americans to accept their prayer style as necessary to being Christian.

This seems obvious, yet the Church in America sits as the American culture has been radically redefined over the last 40 years, hoping to contextualize American culture to our faith, instead of doing what any missionary would do and contextualize faith.  I think that part of the reason has to do with a general assumption that America is a Christian country.  Many people seem to subconsciously equate Americanism and Christianity.  The klaxon call is to not let the sinners take over our culture, and fight a cultural war to prevent this.  Of course, it is important to encourage our government to support healthy morality, but this is not a battle that the American Church should make our front line.

Instead, we should be seeking to contextualize our faith into the changing landscape of cultural America.  We should be finding out where people meet, what people want and need, the cultural touchpoints they have.  Once we do that, we can use these areas as introduction points, our cultural carriers of the message of Jesus.  This will be difficult for the Church to do, but it is absolutely necessary. -Ryan

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Contextualizing the Gospel -Part 1

One of my most-discussed topics on this blog has been the life of faith in a post-Christian America.  The most read section of this blog is the Church Tech section, about the use of communications technology within the church.  These two topics are not disconnected, though.  Any new culture necessitates new ways of communicating the message of Jesus.  Radical societal changes create a new culture.  Thus, the Christian message must be re-contextualized.  In order to understand the methods of communicating that, we must first truly understand the basic reasons behind this.

The difficulty is that the Church in America has largely missed addressing the massive changes in culture over the last 40+ years.  In some ways, the Church has insulated herself against these changes.  While the community is seen as increasingly ungodly, many Christians have banded together into Christian ghettos.  Over time the Christian culture has changed independently of the culture around it.

A great example of this has been seen in worship.  In the 1970’s the Church in America started to adopt the musical styles of the larger American culture.  In a relatively short amount of time the Church changed its worship style from the hymns of the last thousand plus years to the more modern praise songs.

A natural result of a more exuberant worship style was increased movement in worship and raising of hands.  Churches needed a way for its members to see the words of these new songs.  Songs were being frequently added to the musical canon, and older ones were being removed.  This was not conducive to printed hymnals.

As technology increased and prices dropped accordingly, churches began to display these words with overhead/slide projectors and more recently, video projectors.  So, visiting the average church in America on a Sunday morning, one will find a group of people clapping along to the music as they sway and sing at a digital projection of words and video.

This isn’t greatly different from a rock concert, but people staring at projectors with one hand raised as they awkwardly shuffle their feet is its own beast for sure.  While this has evolved in Church, the larger outside culture has grown into a greater variety of musical expressions depending on genre.  A rap concert might have a crowd packed tightly with people jumping and arms swaying, while hardcore and punk fans are moshing in the pit up front.  Although it has been modernized, Church music still looks and sounds very different than its secular counterparts, but for new reasons.  While the culture evolved, church culture has evolved too, but separately.

A second response to the changing culture has been for the Church to cling to the methods of the past, refusing any changes at all.  Many of these churches look to the glory days of the 1950’s when the sanctuary was packed.  Either because of political forces within the church resisting, or as part of a poor growth strategy (similar to keeping your Member’s-only jackets in hopes it’ll come back in style), these churches have tried to keep everything museum-quality.

In these churches one can find the only places in America with pews and pipe-organs.  Deep Maroon carpets and green pew hymnals sit locked eternally in 1962.  The pride of these churches is their history and they give even vocal approval of the fact that they haven’t evolved, as if the gospel itself is encapsulated by the accumulation of dust.   -Ryan

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10 Ways that Churches can Improve Communication

communicate It seems that the Information Age has been one of the most aptly named epochs in history.  The popular meme may be true, that the average American accesses more information every day than was accessed by our grandparents in their entire lifetimes.  But even if it isn’t, no one can deny that everywhere we turn some advertisement, announcement, print ad, or electronic message is vying for our attention.  The advent of the Internet has done nothing but make matters worse.  Now, instead of a couple dozen pieces of junk mail in my mailbox, I have an email box full of “cheap replica watches,” “free iPods” and unmentionable others.  Unfortunately, the church is doing a worse job at communicating that most of these spammers in my inbox.  Here are 10 ideas for your church to improve communication. Continue reading “10 Ways that Churches can Improve Communication”