Thank God for Critical Race Theory (Part 2)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, SNL featured a skit entitled ‘Election Night.’

In this skit, all the white progressive friends in the apartment are shell-shocked that America has elected Donald Trump. “Oh my God, I think America is…racist!” a white friend exclaims. The two Black friends (Dave Chapelle & Chris Rock) look at each other, unable to contain their laughter, “Oh my God!” they reply with smirky sarcasm. Implication: And what else is new? This is lack of surprise at the enduring reality of racism is the perspective that CRT comes from.

In my previous post, I said I thank God for CRT because it’s given me “eyes to see” the less obvious, but no less insidious incarnations of racial injustice, which has helped me better live out my vocation to love God and my neighbor. In this post, I will share the second insight I thank God for, something that is not so ‘insightful’ to most Black people: that racism is permanent.

CRT founder Derrick Bell—who looked back, after years working for desegregation as a litigator, and saw racial inequality get worse—came to this sobering conclusion about America:

“Racism is permanent. It is an essential. It is not an aberration. It is not what most of us believed it was 30-40 years ago: a pimple on an otherwise beautiful complexion of America as a place of freedom and equality for all.”

Bell is clear to say that America is not unique in being oppressive, but it is unique in that systemic racism (of Blacks, in particular) is in the very foundation of our nation. Just read our Constitution, racism is part of our institutional and cultural DNA. Imagining America without racism is like imagining Las Vegas without Sin. Racism is permanent. We should not be surprised that racism hasn’t been defeated yet.

This stands in stark contrast to the story I grew up with—that with the Emancipation of slaves, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of our nation’s first Black president—that we are on the path of inevitable progress towards racial equality. It also stands in stark contrast to our current racial justice movement that suggests that with more cell phone videos, with more protests, with more representation, with more reform, with more justice, then we can end racism; something that is palpable in our current moment is an impatience with racism. But Bell counters with this warning: “Yearning for racial equality is a fantasy.” CRT is a form of ‘Racial Realism.’

How depressing! Doesn’t this pessimism about racism just lead to despair? It can. But Bell says, facing the enduring reality of racism is like facing our inevitable death. If you learn you’re going to die, you can respond with despair and suicide—how can you possibly beat death? Or, in accepting your death, you can resolve to overcome in a different way: by determining to still live a meaningful life.

Some people believe CRT is anti-Christian. But Bell was actually inspired by the Christian spirituality of slaves and those living in the Deep South. Did the slaves of old have any real hope of escaping slavery in this life? No. But listen to their negro spirituals. Did they resist the power that slavery had over them? Yes. Did they give into despair? No. Did they still fight against the realities of racial oppression? Yes. Did they find other ways to overcome within the brutal reality of racism? Absolutely. The resilient, life-giving, hope-filled faith of the Black slaves reminds me of the saints of the Old Testament: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (Hebrews 11:13, 39). While they believed that racial equality would not be achieved until the next life, their faith still taught them how to live in this one.

Does this mean Bell sought to merely ‘spiritualize’ victory in the face of physical oppression? No. He tells the story of an old Black woman in rural Mississippi who fought relentlessly against systemic and cultural racism in her town. In response, racist Whites would drive by in the night shooting through her house, trying to take her farm away. There was no indication that she was making significant progress against racism in her town. Whites had more money, more power, more everything. “Why do you keep fighting?” Bell asked. The old woman replied, “Derrick, I’m an old lady and I lives to harass White folks.” Now, before you misinterpret ‘harass White folks’ as hateful, remember this is like a mouse who lives to harass cats, not the other mice. It’s not hate; it’s a refusal to give up, it’s resistance against dehumanization, it’s a smiling middle finger in the face of Death—what Bell calls a kind of existential triumph.

Racism is permanent, but that didn’t stop her from holding her head up high, it didn’t stop her from fighting for her community, it didn’t stop her from living a truly meaningful life. If she believed that she could defeat racism, then perhaps she would live in greater frustration and bitterness. But since she knew racism was bigger than her, that sobering reality freed her from having to wait for racism to end before living a meaningful life.

And aren’t the parallels to the Christianity plain? On this side of the resurrection, aren’t sin and death enduring realities? Even Lazarus would eventually die again. One of the great conceits of our times is that, by our own knowledge, we can actually solve the problem of sin and death. Most of us actually believe we are less sinful than previous generations. Most of us are willing to throw the kitchen sink and more to stave off age and death. Yet Christianity, one of the original critical theories, says that we are just as wicked and perverse as the generations that have come before us. But far from plunging us into despair, the Gospel tells us two things:

  1. Christ will defeat sin and death once and for all. While we are called to fight against sin, to resist the wiles of the Evil One, to speak truth to power, the Bible never says that we will defeat sin and death. For people with power, this is news. But for people without power, it’s Good News. As a Black sister in Christ recently told me, “We don’t expect you to solve 400 years of racism.” Or a Black pastor, “We aren’t going to end racism, only Jesus can do that when he returns.” The burden isn’t on us. And thank God! But because the burden is on Christ, we have a real hope to the end of racism—and all expressions of sin and death.
  2. In Christ, the fight against sin and death is still meaningful, even when we don’t see victory. The meaning of our lives will not be measured by our success over sin and death any more than that old lady in Mississippi will be judged by how much she prevailed over White supremacy. Rather, meaning is found in choosing to love our neighbors, even in the midst of so much indifference; choosing to forgive, even when there’s so much hurt; choosing to strive for justice, even when injustice seems so entrenched; speaking truth to power, even when they are so immensely powerful; choosing to thank God, even when it looks so dark; choosing to hold our heads high, even if Death will inevitably bring our heads down to the ground. Because in the end, we won’t be judged by our fruitfulness—that was never in our control; instead, the word we will wait to hear is whether or not we were faithful.

“For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭37:28‬ ‭

Thank God for Critical Race Theory (Part 1)

There’s been a lot of concern within the evangelical community about ‘Critical Race Theory’ (CRT) in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Some are sounding the alarms over ‘cultural Marxism’, calling it incompatible with Christianity; some suggest that it even undermines Western civilization itself. In some ways, it reminds me of our collective concern about postmodernism in the early 2000s. Others offer more specific critiques about things like “cancel culture”.

While I share some concerns, I’m actually grateful for the the insights that CRT has given us—especially Derrick Bell, its founder. And while I’ve read a number of evangelical critiques of CRT attempting to be ‘balanced’, I’m concerned that our attempts to be balanced are giving us cover to feel like we’ve done the hard work of thinking about racism in America while mostly maintaining the status quo. As people of the Word who believe that righteousness and justice flow out of the very character of God, particularly in America, we’d benefit by listening to the insightful criticisms that CRT makes.

So what is CRT? CRT seeks to answer the question: If legalized racism is over, then why are Blacks still worse off?

Derrick Bell tells the story of how his career began. An eminent Black federal judge asked Bell what he planned to do with his life. “Become a civil rights lawyer,” Bell told him. The judge laughed. This was right after the Supreme Court banned school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. “Son, you were born 15 years too late.” The judge’s esteemed legal opinion—reflected in broader society—was that with the end of segregation came the end of racism.

Bell would go on to have a prolific career in civil rights, working for the Justice Department and the NAACP, supervising over 300 school desegregation cases. And yet after desegregation, he looked back on his early life’s work only to see that the plight of Blacks was actually worse off. Black schools were closed, teachers were fired. Blacks were usually integrated into the worst White schools. And where integration happened, it tended to lead to White flight. Bell came to realize how wrong he was, “We thought that segregation was the enemy, the evil. We came to recognize tardily that it was just the manifestation of the evil, just the symptom, and that the real evil was racism—the determination of White America to remain dominant over Black America.”

And so CRT is first and foremost a hermeneutic of suspicion. Like postmodernity, it’s a deconstructivist lens for looking at racial progress in America. (This is probably why most solutions—especially ones sloppily lumped under the umbrella of ‘CRT’—are rarely satisfying; prophets rarely make good architects.) CRT is a sleuth’s magnifying glass, helping us see why after a slew of civil rights victories, dramatic racial inequalities not only persist, but can reincarnate in worse forms. CRT asks critical questions like:

  1. Counter-Storytelling: What stories are racially marginalized communities telling about this? Black communities shared stories about greater disparities after desegregation. But now, they had no more legal recourse.
  2. Interest Convergence: How might this advance White interests more than the racial minorities it’s supposed help? Segregation was finally banned not in response to its injustice, but in response to Communist critics during the Cold War. Also, many were afraid of how Black veterans would respond if they came back to segregation after fighting for “Freedom” abroad.

    (‘White’ here doesn’t refer to one’s ethnic identity, but a social label given to those at the top of our country’s racial caste system.)

By digging deeper, CRT uncovers the less visible, but often more insidious forms of racism.

As Christians, we know God’s disdain for injustice. The prophet Micah spells out the ways Israel failed to shine the light of God’s justice to the nations:

Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
    you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
    and distort all that is right;
who build Zion with bloodshed,
    and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,
    her priests teach for a price,
    and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
    “Is not the Lord among us?
    No disaster will come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you,
    Zion will be plowed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
    the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets. (Micah 3:9-12)

And for those who think Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom shifted away from justice merely to “souls”:

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. (Luke 11:42)

But how can we address injustice if we can’t even see that it exists?

Like many, I also was raised in the belief that after Emancipation, Civil Rights, and even the election of the first Black president, that racism was mostly over; it still exists, but mostly in hurt feelings; its worst forms mostly in certain corners of the country. But CRT has helped me see what most of our Black (and Latino and Indigenous) neighbors have known all too well—that racism is alive and well, still oppressing communities of color all over America, even if it isn’t as obvious to mainstream society. By asking more critical questions, CRT has helped me step outside of my own limited and privileged perspective to see the experience of race from the perspective of the oppressed. And if there is one perspective that the Scriptures are written to and from, it’s the oppressed.

And so because of CRT, we’re able to see that while we no longer have segregation, we have an even worse education gap; while we no longer have slavery, we now have mass incarceration; while we now have affirmative action—the net result is (a) greater resentment towards Blacks but (b) even greater advantages for White women; and so on.

In short, CRT has given me “eyes to see” the less obvious, but no less insidious incarnations of racial injustice. And in seeing it more clearly, it’s helping me live out my vocation to love God and my neighbor more faithfully as I seek His Kingdom. CRT helps me see the truth more fully. And for that, I thank God.

Up Next: CRT and the Permanence ohttps://brianhui.blog/?p=1987f Racism

Risk and Faith in a Pandemic

We are notoriously bad at thinking about risk. For example, I avoid surfing for fear of sharks. However, I’m embarrassingly less afraid of checking my phone notifications while I’m driving. My chances of dying in a car accident? 1 in 100. My chances of a shark attack? 1 in 11 million.

Right thinking about risk, however, is essential as we come to accept that we’re still only in the beginning stages of a long pandemic. It’s too late to bring the virus down to Taiwan or New Zealand levels. A vaccine isn’t expected until next year, at the earliest. And with only 5-7% of the population infected, we are years away from herd immunity. As they say: Pandemic is the new normal.

So should we keep sheltering-in-place until we find a vaccine? No. Lockdowns are important but short-term measures to curb a pandemic. An indefinite lockdown is not only unrealistic, but as a Christian, I believe it’s unjust. It’s a luxury for only a percentage of privileged white collar workers. And, over time, it severely stifles human flourishing for all.

So should we shrug off the pandemic and “go back to normal” instead? Also, no. Even if we feel sturdy enough to stand up to COVID, we may spread COVID to others who may not stand the same chance: the sick, elderly, incarcerated, and the poor—basically everyone that Jesus calls us to show extra concern for. Going back would not only be foolish, it would be unethical.

During the HIV epidemic, people knew that while unrestrained promiscuity was a death sentence, abstinence-only until there was a cure or vaccine wasn’t realistic either. So instead, advocates and virologists developed a foundational guide for the gay community: “How to Have Sex in a Epidemic.” Now, I know it’s strange for a Christian pastor to draw on such an example, but if we are to live in between lockdown and back-to-normal that is precisely the sort of guidance we need today.

First, this will mean staying informed about the science of COVID. COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus—meaning it’s new! So scientists are constantly in the midst of learning, debating, and correcting themselves—not because they are unqualified or partisan, but because we are living in the science experiment.

Thanks to science, we now know some important things about COVID we didn’t know even a few months ago. For example:

  • it’s spread through airborne particles more than surfaces
  • you can be contagious before you’re symptomatic
  • masks do help
  • most catch it through super-spreaders
  • it’s a vascular infection (blood vessels) not just respiratory
  • it’s especially deadly for those with certain underlying conditions.

And in time, we will learn even more.

Since most of us aren’t scientists, though, best practice is to listen to experts and established consensus more than viral posts or breaking news.

Second, we must each learn to evaluate risk. In a recent debate about reopening schools, there was a meme going around saying that the only number of deaths that was acceptable was zero. While I sympathize with the sentiment and would absolutely not want any of my three boys to die, is that really reasonable? When I asked if classrooms could keep doors and windows remain open for cross-ventilation, I was told no, for fear of school shooters. Schools have never been risk-free places. And as resurrection-believing Christians who don’t believe God has guaranteed us a risk-free life, should we be perpetuate such thinking? The question shouldn’t be if there’s risk, but how risky is it.

On the flip side, faith doesn’t mean we rush foolishly into risky situations either. People who say we don’t need masks if we have Jesus don’t really understand what biblical faith is. Risk-aversion or risk-tolerance has to be more than just a feeling; it must be informed by facts. But how we use those fact—that requires wisdom.

We are fortunate that intelligent guides are finally being published. For example, Dr. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, suggests we evaluate risk along several spectrums:

  • Contact Intensity
    • Close —— Distanced
    • Prolonged contact —— Brief
  • Number of Contacts
    • Many households —— Few
    • Mixed circles —— Stable bubble
    • Presence of at-risk people
  • Mitigation
    • Indoor —— Outdoors
    • Enclosed space —— Ventilated
    • Wearing a mask
    • Hand washing
  • Community Spread
    • High infection rates —— Low

Of course, guides like these will change. And I hope we will learn more about what other things can help lower risks for socializing, reopening schools, churches and businesses.

But as we continue living in this pandemic, each of us will need to make individual and family decisions about what risks we are comfortable taking—or have little choice but to take. And we will not all make the same decisions depending on whether we live with elderly parents, have children with special needs, can work from home, live paycheck to paycheck, have stronger social needs, or live in a densely populated area. We all live different lives and must make different decisions. But I pray they will be well-informed.

Third: How will my risk-taking impact my neighbor? Some young adults have been flagrantly ignoring physical distancing orders, going to bars, throwing COVID parties, believing they can handle the virus (by the way, this is nothing new: college students have been doing dumb things for generations). While most young people will probably be fine, they are unknowingly increasing community spread to vulnerable populations.

Now, community factors can’t completely control our decisions, but it’d be wrong to ignore our neighbors’ well-being altogether. Outside of the West, what we call individualism is called selfishness: putting yourself before your community. This is particularly important for us to consider as Christians. The Apostle Paul teaches us that our freedom must be guided by love: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10)

Fourth, this perspective should tone down COVID-shaming. Occasionally, people act in extremely fearful or foolish ways. But most of the time, people are acting just a few degrees more or less risky than we’re comfortable with. If risk isn’t binary but a spectrum, is there always one right or wrong way? And again, we all have different factors we are balancing. In general, I find most people think they are being reasonable—whether I think they are or not. Plus, shaming boosts our self-righteousness more than it changes people. Try an actual conversation, suggest some mitigation, or just hang out with others instead.

Also, COVID-shaming can lead people to stay silent if they contract COVID, making contact tracing difficult and isolating them from much needed support.

Fifth, we must take informed risks not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors too. As Christians, we of all people know that safety is not the ultimate goal in life. We have been saved for a purpose. And so while love in a pandemic usually means staying distanced, it will sometimes mean taking calculated risks for the sake of others. To put it another way, followers of Jesus shouldn’t just be finding the most responsible way to attend a family BBQ, but also the most responsible way to share meals with the poor. And sometimes, it may mean taking even greater risks, by faith.

This is especially important as the poor are disproportionately hit by this pandemic but have much less support; after all, most of us are simply too afraid to volunteer anymore. For those of us who can, following the example of our spiritual ancestors, including Jesus himself, we should consider what calculated risks we can take to serve the least of these.

More than Charity, We Need Justice

Most of us get the importance of charity. But charity alone is not enough. And that’s become even clearer in the wake of this pandemic.

This week, I had the privilege of serving as a chaplain to low-income families while they came in to receive free meals & groceries through the CompassionNetwork. Upon receiving their groceries, I sat down to ask how I could pray for them. Most were polite, giving answers like they were just trying to get through the conversation. But two themes emerged:

  1. Most had lost their low-wage jobs as cooks or cleaners as result of sheltering-in-place and are now being evicted for not making rent. I suspect most were undocumented, which means they were ineligible for the $1000s of federal stimulus and unemployment checks.
  2. Once I began praying with them, nearly all of them began weeping. I was caught off guard, considering our masks and distance, but sometimes that happens when we feel God really is near. Their helplessness, though, was palpable. Who was I to receive these tears?

That afternoon, the bags of groceries we were offering felt insultingly small. Groceries don’t pay rent. And even if we wanted to help with rent, when rent in the Bay Area starts at $2,000/month, how many families could we reasonably help—and for how long? Our charity was needed, but it was woefully insufficient.

I also serve on the board of Missio Dei Oakland, a group of house churches dedicated to sharing Jesus with the poor. Recently, the pastor shared about being poor during COVID:

One of the biggest ways the poor live through this pandemic differently from those who have wealth is around employment and safety. Most of my friends outside of Oakland still have their jobs. Most of them also get to telecommute/work from home. And that’s really great. Truly. But I don’t know one family in our whole church who hasn’t had a family member fired, laid off, furloughed, or might have to close down their family business permanently right now. Not one.

And if you’re lucky enough to still have a job you often have this choice to make: Do you want to work in unsafe conditions or do you want to get fired? Many of our members work in supermarkets, warehouses, shipping, restaurant/food delivery, security guards, fast food, Walmart/Target. You’re around dozens or hundreds of people everyday during this pandemic. You probably don’t own a car so you’re taking the bus, BART, or an Uber to work for even more exposure. On top of that you’re probably living in a crowded apartment with others who are out everyday.

Clear reasons why the virus is infecting so many people of color and the poor. There’s nothing hopeful here, it’s just hard. 

This is from a Bloomberg article, and the chart was titled “Only The Rich Work From Home.” Which is, of course, not true. But it’s a good headline grabber. Doctors, nurses, and so many others who are middle-class/wealthy are out there working and serving like crazy. But in general, the more you make, the more likely you’re working at home and social distancing is pretty easy. If you’re at the bottom of the income percentile, you have really hard choices to make. If you have a choice at all.

The mantra I keep hearing these days is: We’re all in this together. But take a few minutes to sit with someone who’s poor or undocumented. And it’s hard to not to walk away thinking: If we’re all in this together, we are in vastly different parts of the ship.

And how much can your or my charity really do to relieve the disproportionate burden that the poor and undocumented bear because we are sheltering-in-place (an order which I happen to support)?

I’m reading through the Book of Deuteronomy right now. And one thing that stands out to me is how God was trying to build a society that was not only charitable, but just.

Now we usually think of justice as ‘being fair’. We like to say justice should be ‘cold’ or ‘blind.’ And those notions of justice were certainly part of God’s vision for Israel as just city on a hill:

  • You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. (Deut 16:19)
  • Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deut 19:21)

But in his book, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Chris Wright shines the light on aspects of God’s conception of justice that are larger than our ideas of mere fairness or ‘blind justice’. For example:

  • If you lent to the poor, you were allowed to take various forms of collateral.
    • But not his millstones, because that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security‘ (Deut 24:6).
    • If you took their cloak, you were required to return it by sunset ‘so that your neighbor may sleep in it…and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God’ (Deut 24:13).
    • And for foreigners, or fatherless, or widows—you weren’t allowed to take their cloaks as pledges in the first place (Deut 24:17)!
  • In the context of just treatment of the poor, God also says: ‘When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this’ (Deut 24:21-22).

In both cases, the stronger party had the ‘right’ to take their security or fully harvest their fields. Yet it would’ve been unrighteous and sinful to do so. A just—not just a charitable—society is one that protects the dignity and basic needs of the poor.

Moreover, Israel was commanded to provide a basic safety net for immigrants and the poor through the tithe (similar to our taxes): ‘When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied’ (Deut 26:12). If God only cared about charity, he would’ve encouraged almsgiving—voluntary charity to the poor. But this was more than charity. It about building a society that promised to never let the floor fall out from under the poor.

Friends, what we have done to the poor in the midst of this pandemic is UNJUST. They must risk their health to work as ‘essential workers’ so the rest of us can shelter-in-place—while making barely livable wages (and their CEOs get praised for donating to charity). And those who are losing their jobs? People working in restaurants, hospitality, and construction—industries that require the undocumented—who we then let fall through the federal government’s pandemic safety net. I still have my job AND I get to work from home—and I got a stimulus check. Heck, the entire airline industry’s barely working and got a stimulus check. But the laid off cooks and cleaners I met this week? They got nothing. Not only are we not holding up the floor for the poor, we are pulling it out from under them.

And what can our charity do for these people? Only so much. The solution to injustice isn’t more charity. The solution is justice. It’s making things right so charity is no longer needed in the first place.

If you’re reading this, then I presume that you not only have some money, but you also have some power. I urge you to give money to either of the charities I’ve shared about above, knowing it provides short-term relief. But I urge you to also use your voice to advocate for a more just society. In particular, a society that works for the poor and the undocumented.

Now what should we advocate for? Extend federal safety net to the undocumented? Improve PPP? Stop privatizing gains and socializing losses?Adjust SIP orders to balance public health and economic impacts on the poor? Ensure a living wage and health insurance for ‘essential workers’? Recruit contact tracers first from communities of color? I don’t know. But whether you’re a conservative or progressive, if you care about justice, we’re all ears…

Top 6 Reasons We’re Busier

I recently conducted a completely unrigorous, unscientific survey among a self-selecting group of Facebook friends. I asked:

Here are the six most common reasons shared:

  1. Must tend to kids while working
  2. Must create new systems at work
  3. My industry is busier now
  4. No boundaries between work and home
  5. More meetings
  6. More housework

Now, for some, the workload’s already tapering off after the initial uncertainties and stress of having to create new systems. But for most people, especially if your industry is in higher demand or if you have kids: This is the new normal.

The first question we should ask though is: Does it have to be?

Must I say yes to all these meetings? Is this pace necessary? Are all these tasks and projects equally important?

Can I train my kids to share the load—or to create less work in the first place? Are there expectations I must let go of?

Can I afford services to make life a little easier? Are there webs of relationships I can lean on?

When there’s a short-term crisis, most of us can afford to abandon restraint and go all in. But what if this is life for the next year? What changes can no longer wait? What investments can I make today for the sake of the future?

But there’s a second question: Am I busy with meaning?

Most of us can only life-hack so much of our busyness away. Even after some trimming, we’ll still be quite busy!

But do we know why we are busy? Do we have a deeper Why? That deeper Why is what Christians have historically called a sense of vocation. How does my labor contribute to the glory of God and the good of humankind? It’s what imbues our labor with meaning and turns it from toil into what can properly be called work. Work, after all, is one of the first things we learn that God does.

And it’s a mistake to only think that those who are helping the poor, preaching the gospel, or saving lives have a vocation. Changing your child’s diaper, helping her with math, or teaching him self-control—doesn’t all that effort contribute to the common good? Or supporting technologies that allow businesses to operate and people to stay connected, or providing meals so people can shelter-in-place, or cleaning the family room (again)—how do these things not participate in the Creator’s work?

Sometimes we are stressed because our work is meaningful, but we forget why it’s meaningful to God and our neighbor. We have so much work to do, which is stressful in and of itself. But without a sense of purpose? It can become almost unbearable. No wonder some of us retreat into self-pity and addiction. Sometimes, what we need are boundaries; but just as often, we need a purpose. I’ve found that sometimes even the busiest of doctors, pastors, and charity workers must be reminded that they don’t just have a career, they have a vocation.

An easier life alone cannot be our purpose in life.

Lastly, there’s a third question: What must I never compromise?

We all have people and deadlines we must answer to. And if we don’t, they will let us know.

But what are the central values, practices, or people that I refuse to compromise in the midst of the busyness? The ancient Israelite prophet Daniel and his friends served the flourishing of Babylon, but they held sacred their diet, integrity, and the worship of their God. Jesus literally gave his life away for others, but he always reserved time for rest, friendship, and God. You couldn’t buy Him off with the kingdoms of this world.

And here’s the thing: If you compromise on these central things, most people won’t notice! Not only will people not send you reminder emails, but they will praise you for your hard work and success!

But you will have lost your very self.

Busyness may be unavoidable. But losing our selves doesn’t have to be.

I Miss Small Talk

I’m an introvert. And I can’t believe I’m gonna say this—I miss small talk.

The other day, I had to drop off something at someone’s house. We ended up catching up, shooting the breeze on his front porch—at a responsible radius. He’s an even stronger introvert than I am. But we both sighed something rarely heard among introverts: It was nice to catch up. We miss small talk.

In churches and even society, we tend to prioritize, dare I say idolize closeness and intimacy. As an introvert, I prioritize meaningful conversation. And while we’re all sheltering-in-place, many of us have probably had more literal ‘face-to-face’ conversations than ever, especially over Zoom or FaceTime. 

But in his book The Search to Belong, Joseph R. Myers offers a fuller picture of belonging. Myers says that we experience belonging across four different spaces. And they are all important.

spaces of belonging

  • Public belonging is like being a fellow Warriors fan, a veteran, or member of the same church. We may not know each other’s names, but we aren’t strangers.
  • Social belonging is the connection we have with people we ‘socialize’ with. That could include coworkers, the barista; most small groups and Zoom calls are in social space. We know each other and regularly exchange ‘snapshots’ of our lives.
  • Personal belonging is what we share with close family and good friends. Some small groups are more personal than social. These are people that we wouldn’t mind FaceTiming with.
  • Intimate belonging is what we share in marriage or very close family or friends. It’s the relationship(s) where we can be ‘naked and not afraid’.

Myers’ first insight is that all four spaces are important to feel connected. We tend to think the only important connections are personal and intimate ones, especially if you’re introverted too. That’s why so many of us at first rushed to FaceTime and Zoom. But one of the things I used to denigrate—small talk—I now see with painful clarity just how important it is.

For example, I miss that time before and after worship and small group —when we’d catch up on seemingly ‘shallow’ aspects of our lives: what we did over the weekend, common gripes, funny stories, sports, shopping, upcoming plans. While ‘shallow’, it connects us even if we aren’t exchanging sins and social security numbers.

But it’s also where we would make bids for deeper connection. Most conversations last less than a minute. But I cannot tell you how many shallow conversations turned into deeper conversations. Or maybe follow up conversations: Hey, what was that restaurant you went to last week? Is your mom still sick? You free for lunch next week? How do we ‘accidentally’ make new bids for deeper connections?

But Myers has another insight: While we have a God given need for intimacy, the more public the belonging, the more we need of it. I need intimacy in my marriage and close friendships. But after a while, you can only take so much of it! Plus, do we really want to have deep intimacy with 100 people? No wonder so many of us feel there’s too much online ‘face’ time—it’s too much intimacy. Meanwhile, what greater feeling is there than being in a stadium full of your fellow sports fans? Or sharing in the cultural experience of watching Game of Thrones together? Our need for public belonging is fullest when shared with lots of people.

Small talk falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Now, being part of a church community, it turns out I have a reasonable amount of social connection—we have small group and ministry meetings over Zoom. And I need them all! But they all have a level of intensity and orderliness; they straddle the line between social and personal connection. But those side conversations at the dinner table, the freedom to move around to mingle, letting go of one conversation that’s going nowhere, going deeper with another that is, the cooler talk—I cannot think of a way these casual yet important connections happen in a socially-distanced world. And so it wasn’t until recently did I begin to miss them. Because I needed them. And still do. I don’t need tons of small talk. But I desire more than what I have these days.

There’s a part of me that’s thinking of ways to cultivate more small talk while we’re all keeping our distance. I can’t be the only one.

At the same time, I wonder if it is something whose absence we must simply accept and miss. Like so many things during this time.

A Few Things, Now That I’m 40

I have to get up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. Every. Single. Night.

I have aches and pains that take turns afflicting different areas of my body.

I really value feeling good. But feeling good now means things like: feeling well-rested, feeling light on my feet, and having a clear conscience.

I care a lot less about most things. But I care a lot more about a few things.

I think of my life in decades rather than years.

I feel more competent than ever. But I am more suspicious of meritocracy than ever. After all: most good things in my life, I did not earn. And hard work has not always led to success.

I realize how important character really is.

I find it easier to trust in God.

I accept that I am basically like my parents.

I realize my kids will basically be like me. Scary.

I am grateful for freedom from (certain) sins. But I’m sobered by the ones that still have roots. I have less time, but more at stake.

I’m still surprisingly self-absorbed. Look at how much I’m talking about myself here!

I’m much more aware of how much I need God.

I still feel young.

I believe my most important work is still ahead. But still don’t know exactly what that work is.

If I reach 50, and all I have to show is that my wife still likes me, my kids still want to be in relationship with me, and my kids still want to follow Jesus — that will be enough.

But even that will be a gift.

RIP Anthony Bourdain: A personal tribute

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this news and the significance Bourdain has had on me — a guy I never knew.

First, if you are in what feels like hopeless pain, deep despair — you’re not alone. I personally know what it’s like to have lived there. A couple Sundays ago, a member of our church shared about how God saved him from suicide through faith and his community. I beg of you to reach out.

About Anthony Bourdain: I remember coming upon him as I was becoming fascinated with restaurant cooking. I was becoming a “foodie” (I term I now regret). I cooked daily for my family, regularly for friends. And during my darker moments, I dreamed of quitting it all to become a chef. Sometimes I still do. Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” was my first tour book into the underbelly of the restaurant world: a world that wasn’t glamorous, where chefs were more like pirates than captains, where the best chefs were actually Latin American & N. African. And where we cooks knew how to switch between serving BS to the elites or demanding customer — while enjoying the truly good (often comfort) food himself and with his fellow shipmates. A favorite story is how he blew his culinary school teachers away with his “model consomme” — when in fact he just slipped in bunch of beef powder.

Along came his seminal show, “A Cook’s Tour”, the first cooking/travel show I know of that began with a parental warning about explicit content. He showed us not only the best food in the world, but food that I WOULD EAT. But he also resisted reducing people down merely to their food, something TV personalities often do, as if these foreign peoples were exotic animals, and their food alone was some tiny token of their true essence. Later when he moved on to “No Reservations”, I remember vividly his episode in Beirut that was interrupted by, well, armed conflict. He did not spare us the beauty of Lebanon nor the frightful reality of living underneath hellfire. Bourdain cared about food, but he was a lover of the world and the people who inhabited it. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy his more recent stuff. Sometimes it felt like even he knew he was playing into a caricature of himself, satisfying the very foodies he’s always despised. Except when he would mess with Eric Ripert. He delighted in taking his 3 Michelin star friend into the ghettos of the world forcing him eat weird stuff. I ate that stuff up.

Bourdain was no saint. He had a biting words for celebrity chefs. Sometimes I think he veered toward the unkind, esp for the Rachel Rays, Tyler Florences & Guy Fieris of the world. He also had personal life stuff that simply raised eyebrows. But he’s a distant celebrity, not some close friend. I only knew 1% of the story.

But perhaps the greatest impact he had, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, but he was the first universally respected white chef/foodie to unapologetically say that the best food in the world is in Asia. I know that as a Chinese guy, I should not need the white validation. But growing up in a food culture where even most of my Asian American friends were climbing over themselves for the next culinary peak — which were almost always French, Continental, or “fusion” — here was a respected white guy, hovering over a bowl of noodles in China or Vietnam and simply saying THIS is the best food that can be found on the planet. Not trying to make that bowl of noodles into some commentary on Asian culture, not comparing it to some European equivalent, but saying: Damn, it just doesn’t get better than this. Asian food doesn’t have to become “fusion” to be good. It’s already good. You just have to eat the real stuff. I’ve always believed that. My family & friends have always believed that. But it felt so good to hear him say it, not only with his words, but with his joy.

🍜 RIP.

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Photo Journal: My trip to Israel & Palestine

I visited Israel & Palestine this past June during my sabbatical. What I saw, experienced, and learned opened my eyes and heart in a way few trips ever have.

This wasn’t a pilgrimage per se. But as a student of the Bible, I was interested in exploring the lands where the biblical stories unfolded. But also as a lover of history and politics, I also wanted to learn more about the reality Israel and Palestine. Even by calling it ‘Palestine’, I am making a political statement. My tour guide, Sami, was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian Christian—a double minority—and I’m grateful for his invitation to see his home through his rare eyes.

If you’ve been following me on Instagram, this is just a compilation of my posts…

You’ll notice I began my trip feeling more like a tourist. Please also forgive the occasional Warriors posts—this was during the NBA Finals! Notice also my strong Anabaptist bent as I visit these illustrious church buildings and shrines. And my poor Instagram skills. But as the pictures progress, you will see how my experience evolved.

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Thanksgiving in a Divided World

Those who say our country is more divided than ever forget that there was this little thing called the Civil War. The Civil War is the bloodiest war we’ve ever fought. And 11 states so detested Lincoln that they literally seceded. Talk about #notmypresident.

But in 1863, Lincoln did something remarkable. For the first time ever, he issued a national day of Thanksgiving. States had their own days, which were different. But this was the first national one.

Why was this remarkable? We were in the midst of a frickin’ Civil War! And 1863 was the bloodiest year of the war; and victory was still uncertain. Even so, Lincoln called on the nation to give God thanks for the relative peace and abundance that existed outside of the theatres of civil conflict. This wasn’t just silver lining, this was fact.

I personally don’t know if our country will ever be as united as we think it should. I hope for it, but honestly, I don’t know.

But I do know that Jesus commands the Church to be one. That’s right, we are called to be one with the brothers and sisters we like, but also the elitist or racist ones we don’t; who’ve hurt us. It’s messy business; individuals and communities have to listen, forgive, and change. And in the absence of change, we will have to love Jesus enough to accept each other. It’s hard work, but it’s not optional.

And Church family, if we can’t be one, don’t even dare ask our Nation to be one. But if we can figure out this unity thing in Jesus, what a gift that’d be to our country!

But being one must start with the heart, with desire. And I can think of few things that soften our hearts towards God and one another as Gratitude. And so…

I thank God, that despite this bitter election, we will have a peaceful transition of power and relative unity compared to so many other nations.

I thank God, that despite the continued fascination of the American church with political and economic power, we still lead great work in caring for the poor, the unborn, refugees, those in prison, those in forced labor, those affected by natural disasters, those suffering grave injustices, those who don’t yet believe, etc. in the US and abroad.

I thank God for my neighbors.

I thank God for all the unspectacular believers who will never make the news and who have no illusions of “making a difference”, but still made daily choices this year to love their families, to be good neighbors, to stand up to bullies, to share the gospel in word and deed.

I thank God for the Warriors and Andre Ward! And the many local and national diversions and sources of even temporary happiness that are available to us and all people regardless of their station in life.

I thank God for daily bread, clothes to wear, roof over my head, and indoor plumbing. And enough that we were able to replace some broken items this year.

I thank God for my church. We love each other. We’re small but strong in faith, hope, and love. Why our footprint is bigger than our foot, I can only credit Jesus.

I thank God for the Dragon’s Den. You’re my third family. You’re OUR third family. RIP Sifu Nico.

I thank God he called me to be a pastor. I’ve never felt the burden, but also the privilege of that as much as this year.

I thank God for my family. My wife still likes me. My kids still look up to me. These are miracles! My parents, siblings, and in-laws—we have great relationships. This is a blessing.

“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” —Abe

What do you thank God for?