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.
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.
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.
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?
For true peace of heart is to be found in resisting passion, not in yielding to it. And therefore there is no peace in the heart of a man who is carnal, nor in him who is given up to the things that are without him, but only in him who is fervent towards God and living the life of the Spirit. – Thomas à Kempis
Kant deplored inclination — either internal or external pressures on the will, and instead described the path to and from Reason, as the path to real freedom.
Kempis seems to somewhat share that analysis — that obeying our “carnal” desires (internal inclination) or things that are “without” (external inclination) weighs us down with disappointments and condemnation. The path to peace, however, is not obeying Reason, but in obedience to the Spirit.
To the Enlightenment philosopher, Reason is what makes us truly human; therefore we need to shun all inclination and live as perfectly rational human beings. To the contemporary individual, what makes us truly human is Passion (e.g., I should do what I ‘really want’ because my desires are inherently good, they come from who I really am, and unless I obey my passions, I will not truly become my true self). But from the perspective of Scripture, what makes us truly human is the Image of God; and unless we can resist our fallen inner desires as well as the external pressures to conform — and instead listen to the voice of God in whose image we are made, and in the example of Christ — who showed us what it means to be truly human — we will always be less than the people were were made to be.