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?

Trump is Elected: A letter to our church

Dear Great Exchange Church,

America is not the kingdom of God. And this election had reminded us of that.

I’d like to warn us of two dangers and offer a few thoughts on what it means to live under Jesus as king.

First, if your candidate won, you have reason to rejoice, but I caution against over-jubilation.

I came to Christ at a church that identified Christianity with a certain brand of conservative politics. And it was dangerous because it breeded hypocrisy, made us blind to injustice, but mostly because it caught us up in a narrative that if only we took America back for God, by voting for the right leaders or laws, then God would bless us or he’d make America great again.

This of course should have made us ask when did this country belong to God? When we slaughtered natives and stole their lands? When we enshrined slavery into the Constitution? Or when we preserved the subordination of women? Or when we excluded Chinese or interned Japanese-Americans? America is a great nation for a host of reasons, and has produced some truly great Christian leaders, but we should always be wary of selectively nostalgic tellings of history. And even if it was great, was it great for everybody or even most people?

In any case, this political view encouraged us to seek worldly power in order to make America into God’s kingdom (again). It is not. So if your candidate won, you may have reason to celebrate, but this man is only our president, he is not our king. And our hope is not in what we can make of this nation.

But for those who are dismayed by the election of Donald Trump, I also caution against too much despair, or too much “if only…” thinking. The Christian left on the face of it seems like a good corrective to the Christian right. But the error is the same, but instead of placing our hopes in a conservative America, it’s placing our hopes in a progressive America. If only we had enough social justice, or more progressive leaders or laws, then God would bless us. And the Christian left can be just as power hungry.

Being sad or angry is justifiable. But being overly dismayed suggests that our hopes are pinned too tightly to the politics of this world.

I do believe Mr. Trump poses a special danger to our country and the least of these. But we should not be surprised when our nation or it’s leaders disappoints us.

And if we needed further proof that we can’t place too much hope in our country’s politics: Without much notice, assisted suicide is now legal in California for the terminally ill – including those who are mentally ill. And the death penalty was reaffirmed by a majority of voters. Brothers and sisters, this is not what the kingdom of God looks like.

Does this mean then that we should withdraw from public citizenship and focus only on “spiritual” things? No. We should still engage our world to the best of our ability, but as people whose primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, not America’s. We are called to live in this world well, incarnationally, but knowing full well we don’t ultimately belong to it’s leaders, or its politics.

So what does it look like to live under the kingship of Jesus in this nation?

1. Pray for President-Elect Trump and his Administraton.

2. Seek the Common Good. What’s good for all, especially the most vulnerable, will ultimately be good for you. Buck the political trends of fear and self-interest. Both Jeremiah and Paul taught us to seek the peace of our city because peace floats all boats. And peace promotes the flourishing of the gospel. And it’s an expression of loving our neighbor like good Samaritans.

3. Be a Prophet of Peace. The work of peace will sometimes call you to speak up, to take a stand, or even take action. Worshiping Jesus as King is dangerous business. Don’t be afraid. Do it peacefully. But be aware what kings have historically done to prophets.

4. Build the Church and Your Family. The early Christians of the Bible didn’t and most Christians today still don’t live in democracies. Most were and still live under persecution. Most had no access to the levers of political power. Let’s not be so full of ourselves. Building good or just societies are outside the reach of most Christians. We should do it. But our primary calling isn’t to build America but to build the church. Jesus said that our unity and sacrificial love is what will inspire social change. But unity and love is hard work, even harder when we have differing political views in a divided country.

And the same applies to our marriages and families. Don’t underestimate the power of a Christ-like marriage or making little rascals for Jesus.

Advent is just around the corner. And Advent means the coming of our King. Let’s prepare the way by waiting not for some president or some law, but by watching out for our King—and living like it.

Affectionately,
Pastor Brian

How Christians Should Vote

As a (non-white) evangelical pastor, it’s not uncommon for me to see stuff on my feed about “how Christians should vote.” But this is actually a strange and complicated question. Let me rattle off a bunch of reasons:

1. Voting was not even in the imagination of the early believers. Christians, like most people in those days (and most people today!) didn’t choose their rulers. Most people in history were slaves or peasants.

2. Not only did Bible-time Christians not have the right to vote, most were persecuted; the opposite of political power.

3. Around 300 AD, when Christians finally got political power by some wacked stuff that happened to the Emperor Constantine (He saw a vision of the Cross leading him into battle—which, guys, the cross was how Jesus was killed, not how he will kill others! Hence: whacked), the Church lost its identity and we ended up with fancy clergy and churches and crusades. That’s why people became monks, to disconnect from the system.

4. There are really just two types of passages in the New Testament (NT) that speak about the rulers.

4.1. Those that ask us to pray for peace and live lives of peace. You can tell these guys were living under hostile governments. The idea is: If there is peace for everyone else, there will be peace for us and peace for the gospel to flourish.

4.2. Those that are critical of rulers for being cocky, oppressive, and persecuting. But even for these people, the idea was never “vote them out of office”, because, again, that didn’t exist. Instead, prophets wrote poems for the people to recite that promised these rulers would one day meet their Maker. Most Christians believed that justice was out of their hands (they had no power), but that the God of Justice would one day make things right.

5. The NT never thought about how to establish a Christian society (whereas the OT did, a Jewish one). The NT was about strengthening a viral network of tiny little living room societies, called churches, who were a part of something much bigger: God’s Kingdom.

6. The clarion call of the NT is not whom we should vote for, but simply that Jesus is Lord. And in a world that said Caesar is Lord, it’s no wonder the early Christians were deemed disloyal and even unpatriotic.

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With the above in mind, I think we need to be much more humble and honest about the reasons for our vote.

Christians, most likely, you are voting the way you vote because of where you live. Or because of the media you consume. Or because of your demographics. Or your education. Or just because you’re liberal, moderate, or conservative. Not purely because of the Bible. If I’m honest, that’s true for me. Check it.

We are just as prone to voting for self-interest as anyone else. Check it.

At our best, we vote as an expression of loving God and loving our neighbors. But in reality, it’s not always that clear which is the more loving choice.

And there’s always the law of unintended consequences. Politicians lie. Or discover governing isn’t like campaigning. Or laws look different in practice than on paper.

I believe we should take our votes seriously. I believe as members of a democratic society, we should do our best to build a better society. I believe we should debate. And I do believe (collectively), our votes can make a difference. But as the late Rich Mullins once sang, “O, we are not as strong as we think we are.”

So I believe, if we want to take a biblical perspective, these three things remain:
1. Pray for peace and live like it
2. Love your neighbor like a Good Samaritan
3. Seek God’s Kingdom first

Review: At Home in Exile by Russell Jeung

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This is a truly unique book. And the best book I’ve read this year. Part memoir / sociology / theology / Asian corny hilariousness. It’s funny, it’s educational, it’s deeply moving.

Russell moves into and ultimately finds home in the Murder Dubs of Oakland. But it’s not a triumphant American superhero story. Nor is it a sappy romance about ‘the poor.’ It’s a complex, humble story about how he found community, identity, and ultimately Jesus in his mostly Cambodia refugee & Latino neighborhood.

It’s a story that asks: What if Jesus wasn’t as much an American superhero, but more like a Chinese Hakka exile (his ancestors)? What if Jesus was more like my Chinatown grandma than that powerful hipster pastor I’m always jealous of? He re-explores things like MISSION, JUSTICE, COMMUNITY, FAMILY & CALLING through this lens.

I finished this book richly proud of my Chinese ancestry, broken over the plight of disenfranchised non-model-minority Asians in the Bay Area, hopeful about what God is still doing through amazing yet mostly “invisible” people, but challenged to live my faith in a way that may run counter to the power and reward structures of our world.

Entering 2016 as a Loser

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UFC’s Jose Aldo, weeping in his locker room, after his crushing 13-sec loss. He was undefeated for 10 years until December.

As someone who only really started to get into both watching and playing a sport these last couple years, I’ve come to realize why athletes and coaches so often compare sports with life.

In the sports I watch, losing has been one of the predominant themes this year. In boxing, Wladimir Klitschko, who has been the reigning undefeated heavyweight champ for 10 years—lost in a stunning upset to Tyson Fury. In MMA, the invincible superstar Rhonda Rousey got taken to school by Holly Holm; longtime champ Jose Aldo was KO’ed in 13 seconds by Conor McGregor. And the championship Niners I grew up with are currently tied with the Cowboys for last place in the NFL.

Perhaps these losses speak so loudly to me because I have felt the sting of loss more than once this year. Not the losing of loved ones, as I know some of you have, but the losing of battles. Some of the losses are a little too personal to share, but suffice to say, they are battles I’ve lost in my work, in personal relationships, in my spiritual life, and in my journey to pick up boxing at the same age most boxers retire.

One of my favorite TV characters of all time is Coach Taylor, of Friday Night Lights fame. And in the midst of a 26-0 shellacking, Taylor gives this storied locker room speech to his team during halftime:

Every man at some point in his life is going to lose a battle. He is going to fight and he is going to lose. But what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle he does not lose himself. This game is not over, this battle is not over.

When a new year comes around, we usually look for that fresh start. But as a wannabe athlete…and mostly as someone who is now squarely in my adult years, there are rarely true fresh starts in life. Nor should there be. You can’t push the reset button in between rounds or during halftime. In real life as in sports, you must continue to fight. And even once this fight is over, the next one is just around the corner.

And while winning and losing does matter, it is not what ultimately matters. Most athletes, especially in fight sports, will tell you that the real battle isn’t with your opponent; the real battle is within yourself. Will you lose yourself in the face of this contest? What will be revealed about your character? And even if you end up losing, will you let that loss change you for better, or for worse? What makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle he does not lose himself. Even after we’ve left the ring or the field, this game is not over, this battle is not over.

And even if you ended up winning the game, it’s still possible to have lost…yourself.

As I enter into this new year, my losses are not far behind me. Some of them, I am still in the middle of experiencing. But the invitation that God has been giving to me at this threshold isn’t an invitation to a fresh start, but to keep fighting. And not just in the external battles of life; in fact, the invitation is more so into the internal struggle. Will I lose myself? Will I sacrifice my character, my values, or even my loved ones for the win? Or will I remain true? Will I grow? Will I allow the crucible of battle press and refine me to become the man God sent his Son to die for me to become?

With God’s grace, I sure hope so. We’ll see in 2017.

Reflection: Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Dear Sons,

I recently finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. I expected to come into a deeper encounter with the experience of being black in America—and I did. But what I did not expect was to come into a deeper awareness of my love and responsibility for you.

See, Coates is a journalist and a brilliant writer. He recently won a Macarthur Genius Award. But this book, although a memoir, is written to not only to convey his story, but also his love for his one and only son. By birth, Coates was thrust into the chaotic streets of Baltimore, where even his loving, unreligious, but strict home were living legacies, the ongoing fall out of the subjugation of “black bodies.” He went to Howard University, a historically black college, and found a safe place to explore the full spectrum of blackness. Yet even there, was reminded ‘safe’ is a relative word when one of his friends—a young man who turned down Harvard for Howard, whose mother was Chief of Surgery, a man who was bound for success—was shot by a police officer. Coates met his wife at Howard too—another black person, similar but different from him. They travelled to Paris and experienced not only a sense of foreignness by geography, but also because of they were no longer viewed as especially dangerous or suspicious, i.e., black; he felt like a fish out of its water; and even if that water was poisonous, it was familiar. But then he had his son. Not born into the same chaos Coates knew when he was young. Yet he saw how his boy, born into a new era, could so easily be pushed aside. He saw how his son ran into his room to weep when he saw Michael Brown lying in the middle of the street on the TV. And Coates realized that as far as he’d tried to struggle and live well into being a black man in America, that he would not ultimately succeed if he did not pass the baton to this son whom he loved.

I have not been the worst father, but I have not been the best either. It’s not fair to you guys that the person who is responsible for fathering you is still working out his own identity, his own insecurities, his own imperfections, his own demons. It’s not fair to you guys that Daddy isn’t perfectly selfless, that Daddy is still learning to be Daddy. I didn’t grow up on the chaotic streets of Baltimore, but I did grow up in confusion. I grew up in a loving Toisanese family, but felt embarrassed by them at school. I grew up in a world, that still makes me feel unwelcome. I look back with shame at how, in struggling to be an American teenager, I disrespected my hard-working immigrant parents and made them feel hurt and rejected. But, also unlike Coates, I found God, or better put, Jesus found me. And things have been changing. And the world continues to change too. But not that much. Even as an adult, even as someone who’s been following Jesus for over 20 years now, I am still someone who is just beginning to grasp the edges of self-knowledge, and far from self-mastery, and even further from Christ-likeness. Yet this is the Daddy you have.

There’s a part of me that wants to apologize. And I do. But what all of me wants to do is love you. And by love you, I do mean hug and play with you. I do mean teaching you ride a bike and run a route. But I also mean teaching you what I’ve learned about life, about being a Chinese-American Christian man. And ultimately to be better than Daddy. Because by default, you will be no better than me.

One day, you will read the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and you will at first think they are wise pithy sayings. But eventually you will learn that these are hard wrought lessons of a king to his sons, the future kings of Israel. And that’s what you are. You are my princes, you are the future kings of this world—even if the world will not have you. And I promise to not only father your strength, but also your mind, heart, and soul.

Coates with his son Samori.
Coates with his son Samori.

What’s it mean to live with Hope?

 

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On Easter, I tried to give flesh to the idea of what it means to live in light of the Resurrection, aka Hope (listen here). The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just some isolated divine magic trick. It was the first taste, first scent of what God has been promising us all along: the redemption of us all. One day, God will heal our wounds, erase our sins, reconcile our relationships, and reward us for our faithfulness. One day God will renew all of creation, and bring about a new creation ruled by worship, love, justice, and peace. One day we will all be resurrected.

But what about now?

I’ve been coming across a spate of “Dear Me” letters. Older, wiser people who write to their 16- or 25-year old selves. These letters are moving because only someone who knows you so intimately could write with such a compelling combination of deep love and incisive kick-in-the-ass. So it occurred to me, living in light of the resurrection is not only about living with the living Jesus “in my heart”, but also about living in light of the resurrection to come. So what if I fast-forwarded to beyond my 60s and 80s–but into my true glory years, in the resurrection? So here’s what I wrote:

Dear 35 year old Me,

I’m writing from the future. And I’m just dying to give you some advice. Just kidding, I’m alive again.

First, you’ve still got a lot more failure ahead of you. But God still loves you. And God will still raise you from the dead.

Second, it’s ok to relax to Netflix, but don’t waste your life on it. Learn how to enjoy life, not just to veg out. It’s good practice for eternity.

Third, it’s ok that loving people is hard. It’s worth it. And it’s not like you’re that easy to love either.

Fourth, tell more people about Jesus.

Fifth, don’t worry about changing the world. Just raise good kids. Make disciples. And love the poor in your neighborhood really well.

Yours,
Brian

Granted, a “Dear Me” letter has its flaws. Is it based on what Scripture tells us about eternity, or just my own fantasies? It’s still kinda self-absorbed (“Dear ME”). And honestly, do I really know what I’d actually say to myself?

But it’s been a helpful start for me. Because so much of what bogs me down is getting consumed in my present circumstances. So much of what makes me despair is fixating on merely what I am able or unable to do about my life or my world. Zooming out, WAY out, has turned out to be a much more helpful way of living in the present. What has helped you?

The Real War on Christmas

It’s that time of the year again when journalists, bloggers, and politicos debate over whether or not there is a War on Christmas. This is one of the humorous yet uncomfortable realities of living in a post-Christian pluralistic society. I happen to believe that there is a war. And I think it’s well captured in the picture above.

Yesterday, we had a worship service that some might call “wonderful”. Not least because it was closed out by our children’s choir. All our iPhones were out to capture this mildly chaotic/boldy cutest of affairs (one child had to make an early wailing exit because my son poked him in the eye). Because this is what we love as Americans. A Christmas that is cute, heart-warming, and involving children. The children were leading us to sing songs of Christmas.

But what was the story of Christmas, sung from the mouth of babes? A story whose central characters, whose key eyewitnesses were the likes of Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, and Magi. Watch enough holiday TV and these guys get reduced to cute cartoon characters. But read the actual story and it’s a story that begins with the least believable, least reputable of characters. Mom was a rural pregnant teen. Dad, a disgraced church leader caught up in another sex scandal. The key eyewitnesses: the night-time office cleaning crew. The first worshipers?  Not the local pastors association, but a cell of Muslim imams. And the man who is supposed to save us from empire, terrorism, and ourselves? Not a man at all, but a bastard child. This is the story our children led us to celebrate.

But what’s the Christmas story that gets told on our TVs, malls, and (gasp) school musicals? A story that celebrates sentimentality and unbridled consumerism. As long as we can all cram our sinful selves into the same Norman Rockwell painting, then we can call it Christmas. We think this season is different, but it’s just a sanctification of the status quo.

But what could be more anti-Christmas than the status quo? What could be more anti-Christmas than to silence the people of ill-repute in our society and our lives? The real war on Christmas isn’t the loss of freedom to utter the name of CHRIST in the public square (that’s something troubling, but different). The real war is the violence we do to Christmas by neutering it of it’s subversive power. The real war is giving the Christmas story such a whitewashing that it fits better in the annals of American mythology than the annals of Scripture. (In fact, wouldn’t it be truer to the Christmas story if we Christians expected more persecution each Christmas, not less?)

You want to fight back against the war on Christmas?

  1. Give up war. And hatred and violence; there was enough of that when Jesus was born. Practice humility instead.
  2. Tell the real story of Christmas. Give more credence to children, marginal characters & people of ill-repute. Spend less on those you already spend all your money on – and give more of it away. Contribute to justice, not just charity.
  3. Give more of your heart, soul, mind, and strength to Jesus. Because at the center of Christmas isn’t family, charity, presents, or peppermint lattes — but the one we’ve been waiting for, the one called Immanuel, the one who can save us from our sins.

“I Can’t Breathe”

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I can’t breathe
The unbearable weight of history
Of subjugation, segregation, stop-and-frisk-ation
Boring down into my back
Crushing my chest
Strangling our souls
Let me tap Uncle
I will let you win
I will surrender my cig
If you will just let me breathe
Now beneath the weight of dirt
I’m waiting for justice

I can’t breathe
The loss of another
Son of a mother, a father, a brother
This shitty record is broken
Injustice rolls like a motherfuckin waterfall
Away with the noise of your songs
I can’t listen to the music of you harping on
Why won’t you just stop and frickin listen?
Now beneath the weight of your laws
We’re waiting for justice

I can’t breathe
I’m choking on these fallen tears
I can’t breathe
I’m exhausted from the fight
I can’t breathe
I’m holding my breath
Because if there is no Advent
There can be no justice
If there is no rising again
There can be no peace
Just the status quo
Holding up the weight of the world as we know
And we will be waiting for nothing

But as for me
I will walk
A prisoner of hope
Waiting for that sigh of relief
Waiting for justice