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Friday, March 31, 2006

Christianity Lite

Several people have told me that I sound angry or bitter in my last post. My response to that is: I'M NOT ANGRY OR BITTER ... haha. Now that's settled, let's risk sounding critical and judgmental with the following post.

One of the fears I have for the modern church is that in order to penetrate into the mainstream, the chuch is diluting its message and portraying an unbalanced view of the Gospel. In our strive to change the common stereotype that Christians are intolerant and conservative, churches becoming more and more vague about its beliefs and tenants. Please don't misunderstand, I am all for being more culturally relevant and reaching out to the masses, but not at the cost of compromising our values. Yes, Jesus reached out to the outcasts and "sinners," and we should do the same by displaying love rather than condemnation. But even when Jesus saved the adulterous woman from being stoned in John 8, He said to her after the crowd left, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." (ESV) Notice that Jesus did not condemn the woman, but neither did He tolerate her to continue in her sin.

This watering down of the Christian message is actually pretty prevalent today. Take for example
Joel Osteen, the author of the famous book "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential." This is article about him in the NY Times, and here's an interview he did with Larry King last year. The gripe I have with Osteen can basically be summed up with this quote from the article,

"Mr. Osteen counsels patience, compassion, kindness, generosity and an overall positive attitude familiar to any reader of self-help books. But he skirts the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial, leading some critics to deride the Osteen message as "Christianity lite" ... He's not in the soul business, he's in the self business."

And some things came out in the interview were a bit questionable too. Where Larry King asked Osteen who would go to Heaven:

KING: What if you're Jewish or Muslim, you don't accept Christ at all?

OSTEEN: You know, I'm very careful about saying who would and wouldn't go to heaven. I don't know ...

KING: If you believe you have to believe in Christ? They're wrong, aren't they?

OSTEEN: Well, I don't know if I believe they're wrong. I believe here's what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God with judge a person's heart. I spent a lot of time in India with my father. I don't know all about their religion. But I know they love God. And I don't know. I've seen their sincerity. So I don't know. I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus.

How can you not give a straight answer to that question? Is this really the type of question to cop out on? If Osteen won't, I'm going to say it. If you reject Christ as Lord and do not have a personal relationship with Him, it doesn't matter how good a person you are, you are not going to heaven. Yes, there are tactful ways of answering the question, it's obviously not edifying or useful to hold signs up in public that say "YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!" Exercise your discretion, but don't refuse to answer questions you know the answer to just so you don't step on people's toes.

Oh I can go on and on, but I'm afraid people will think I'm ANGRY. Heck! Maybe I am. All I ask is a balanced Gospel message, is that too much to ask?

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Use you BRAIN!

Here are two of my pet-peeves:

1) When people make unsubstantiated claims about some obscure subject without even taking two seconds to think and confirm it with reality
2) When people, after hearing someone make a claim about something, quickly accepts it as truth without taking time to think whether it has any basis

I am not sure which group of people annoy me more, but I just can't stand it when I see that happen. This probably has to do with the fact that almost everyone in our society have developed ADD. No one wants to take some time to think about anything anymore. People just want to suck up knowledge like a vacuum, without digesting any part of it themselves.

Sadly, this reality has seeped into the Christian community as well. More often than not, people don't think through their beliefs as they should. They have no desire to engage with theology, to mull over topics they deem too hard to grasp. It's true that we may never fully understand the Trinity or piece together the ins and outs of predestination and free will, but shouldn't we at least try?

Let me know if I'm a snob and that I'm totally off.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sleep Debt

During my college days I took a number of psychology classes to fulfill my elective requirements. Not only were they entertaining, they also made me realize how fragile a person’s mind is and how easy it is to manipulate them (Not that I ever use any of my knowledge to play mind games with people of course). My first psych class was taught by Dr. Maas, a world renown sleep researcher. For the majority of the semester, he would convince us that an normal person needs an average of 9 hours of sleep each night to function optimally. If that were true, I would have been functioning sub-optimally almost all my life! Sad, isn't it?

For the past two weeks, I have been adding to my sleep debt: sleeping later and later. This turned out to be not good for me especially when I have tons of things on my mind. So all this emotional tiredness and physical tiredness drained the life out of me. I could tell that I couldn't focus or hold my thoughts together ... I become a walking zombie. So last night I couldn't take it much longer, and I crashed onto my bed at 9:30pm and slept until 7:30am! I really don't remember the last time I slept that early ... I think I need another couple nights of this, I feel like I'm still at 50%.

Well, if nothing else, maybe these funky alarm clocks will help me at least wake up in time. Here's one that shoots eggs at you when it goes off, and this one pops out puzzle pieces and won't shut up until they are back into place. OH this sure brings back memories. I had a chicken shaped alarm clock back in the day which would sing "WOOOOOOOOW .... YEEEEEEEAAAAAAH ... HEY BABY WAAAAKKKKE UP! COME AND DAAAANNNNCE WITH MEEEE ...." over and over again until I hit its head. Pretty interesting, huh?

If you want to take anything this entry, remember this: SLEEP!!!

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Food for Thought

"How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light."
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

I can't begin to explain how deeply this resonates with my heart. Life is easy when things are black and white, when boundaries are clearly defined, when you know exactly where you are heading. Sadly, life is never that simple or direct.

For the past week, I've been wallowing in a state of sadness and madness. I feel as if the world is collapsing on to me, but I find nowhere to hide or escape to. I reach for God and yearn for His sovereignty to sustain me but I realize that my faith is just too weak. Nevertheless I try, I pray that I have enough faith to believe His faithfulness to me, of the hope and the future as promised. Overall, my struggle is with the disparity between perfection and reality, of heaven and earth. My continual longing for perfection has left me depressed when I see the falleness and brokenness around me: in my work, my relationships, my family, my life.

There is no easy solution, just believe and trust that the best is yet to come.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

What's in a Name?

It's been almost one week since the accident, and I still feel myself going through the typical stages of grieving for my dead Camry. Since it wasn't practical to spend a couple thousand dollars fixing an old car, we donated it to the Red Cross. It's such a consolation to know that it's still doing some good even after its death. (I came across a great page while trying to find a link to the stages of grief ... click here ... now read the the page replacing the word "pet" with "car." Haha I find it hilarious.)

Sometimes you just need to let go, so I went out and bought myself a new car! Honestly, I still feel pretty guilty as if I was over indulging, but since I spend 1.5 hours each day driving to and from work, I don't feel quite as bad. So here she is, my new 2006 Acura TSX.

The challenge now is to give my car a name. Some people, like my sister, find it weird that I would want to name my car, but isn't it the normal thing to do? People name their boats, their guitars, their pets, their kids, so why not name your car?

I was joking with my friend that I want to name her Delilah, but that would almost be too cruel, even though I like being reminded of that sad story. Here are some suggestions I've got so far:

1) Christine - Clark thinks that it would be very fitting
2) Tyrone - Glo suggests that my car should be a guy instead of a girl
3) Cheech - Rob E. says that it should sound like qi-che (car in chinese)

Send in your suggestions, if I like the name you suggest, I might give you a cookie.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Six Weddings and a Funeral

The Good News:

I went to my first wedding of the year last Saturday and I had a blast! Weddings are always mood lifters, you really can't do much better than celebrating the union of two people, especially when they are your friends. Just look at Jennie and Andy ... aren't they such a cute couple?

Whenever I go to a wedding, I always feel this sense of hope and lingering joy. Even though human unions are but a faint representation of our eventual union with God, it is still a beautiful picture of love and faithfulness. Two people swearing an everlasting vow to be devoted to each other through the good times and bad, how awesome is that?

Luckily for me, I have another 5 weddings to go to this year, making that a total of 6 weddings this year. Next up: Matt & AJ: April 25th! I'm already excited.

It was such a good time because I got to see a lot of old friends too. The more I think about it, the more miss my college friends. Yea, they are a bunch of freaks and weirdos, but it's always so fun to hang around them. Can't wait until the next reunion.

The Bad News:

My trusty Toyota Camry is officially dead. **long moment of silence**

After church on a rainy Sunday, I was exiting off the highway when my tires refuse to grip, causing my car to slide into the curb and pinball to the railing on the opposite side. As this was happening, all I could think of was ... crap crap crap crap crap ... heard a pop when my right tire blew, a big smashing sound when the car hit the railing, then when it was over: THANK GOD! Interestingly, I was not a bit scared during any part of it, and I am not phyiscally hurt in any way. Just an accident with the railing and myself, how fun.

Luckily, I changed my tire in the rain and then drove the car home by the grace of God. The front is so messed up that it was hitting the wheel, so the whole time my steering wheel was shaking and I hear loud noises as the steel from the frame grinds with my wheel. I really don't know how it made it that far, but like all things good, the camry finished strong. Right now the engine won't start at all and there's too much damage to the car to be worth fixing it. *sigh*

I was really hoping to get this car over 200k, but sadly this will never happen. It's almost like having your heart pulled out of you and stabbed multiple times, which is why losing this car reminds me of breaking up with girls. So sad to lose this car ...

There's a old chinese saying, "If the old doesn't leave, the new will not come." How true, how true. Now that my car is gone, I'm forced to get a new one. But before I put too much thought into that, I must write a eulogy for my car.

92 Toyota Camry LE
~1992 to March 12th 2006
Dependable and Faithful Friend
Finishing strong until the End
Rest in Peace.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tim Keller is my Hero!

I happen to LOVE Tim Keller. Here's an article about him on NYTimes several weeks ago. When I was in East Asia, Keller would preach to us almost every Sunday through my trusty MP3 player. I listened to him for two years before I finally saw him face to face when I visited Redeemer last July. I can still remember how I couldn't focus on the message that first Sunday because he looked so much different than how I pictured him in my head for two years.

Preaching the Word and Quoting the Voice

By Michael Luo, Published: February 26, 2006

In the twilight of the biggest snowstorm in New York City's history, the pews of a rented Baptist church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were packed for the Rev. Timothy J. Keller's fourth sermon of the day. About 4,400 people attend the church; many joined after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The 600 or so who braved the snow for the evening service got what they had come to expect — a compelling discourse by Dr. Keller, this time on Jesus' healing of the paralytic, that quoted such varied sources as C. S. Lewis, The Village Voice and the George MacDonald fairy tale "The Princess and the Goblin." It was the kind of cogent, literary sermon that has helped turn Dr. Keller, a former seminary professor whose only previous pulpit experience was at a small blue-collar church in rural Virginia, into the pastor many call Manhattan's leading evangelist.

Over the last 16 years, Dr. Keller's church, Redeemer Presbyterian, has swelled to 4,400 attendees, mostly young professionals and artists who do not fit the prototypical evangelical mold, spread out across four different services on Sundays. Although Dr. Keller, 55, is hardly a household name among believers outside New York — in part because he has avoided the Christian speaking circuit — his renown is growing in pastoral circles and in the movement to establish or "plant" new churches, a trend among evangelicals these days.

Pastors from around the world are beginning to come in a steady stream to New York City to glean what they can from Dr. Keller and Redeemer. Their goal is to learn how to create similarly effective churches in cosmopolitan cities like New York, which exert outsize influence on the prevailing culture but have traditionally been neglected by evangelicals in favor of the suburbs.

"We're not giving them a turnkey template," said Dr. Keller. "What we're saying is, 'There's lots of overlaps between our big city and your big city. Some of these things you will use. Some of these you will discard. Some of these you will adapt.' "

Believing new churches are the best way to produce new Christians, evangelicals are making a major push to start new churches around the world, said Edmund Gibbs, a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary outside Los Angeles. But only recently have some evangelicals begun to turn their focus to urban centers.

Dr. Keller "has grasped the strategic significance of the city, of the urban culture and the need to engage that very diverse culture at every level," he said. "Our culture is urban-driven."

In New York City, Redeemer has become the central training ground for anyone planning to start a church in the metropolitan area, whether among Guyanese immigrants in Queens or streetwise youths in the Bronx.

Since 2000, when it established its own training center for "church planters," as they are called in evangelical parlance, Redeemer has helped start more than 50 churches in the city, from faith traditions and denominations as diverse as Assemblies of God, Lutheran and Southern Baptist. In addition, it has helped found 17 "daughter churches" of its own Presbyterian denomination in communities like Williamsburg and Park Slope, Brooklyn; Astoria, Queens; and Hoboken, N.J.

Meanwhile, so-called city-center churches modeled on Redeemer — also attracting audiences of professionals and creative types — have sprung up in places like Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Berlin, London and Amsterdam. The churches emulate much of Redeemer's approach, including its attitude of embracing the city and its focus on the Christian message of grace and redemption, which Dr. Keller argues has been muddled in many churches.

The Rev. Stephen Um, whose church in Boston, Citylife, began four years ago and now attracts about 500 people every Sunday, said he and other pastors had embraced Dr. Keller's emphasis on delving into the prevailing culture almost as much as into the biblical text. Along these lines, Dr. Um is just as likely to cite a postmodern philosopher like Richard Rorty or Michel Foucault in his sermons, as he is, say, Paul's Letter to the Philippians.

"This is Tim's thing," said Dr. Um. "He said, 'You need to enter into a person's worldview, challenge that worldview and retell the story based on the Gospel.' The problem is evangelicals have always started with challenging the worldview. We don't have any credibility."

Redeemer meets in three facilities: the Ethical Culture Society and the First Baptist Church on the Upper West Side, and Hunter College on the Upper East Side.

Unlike most suburban megachurches, much of Redeemer is remarkably traditional — there is no loud rock band or flashy video. What is not traditional is Dr. Keller's skill in speaking the language of his urbane audience. On the day of the snowstorm, Dr. Keller tackled a passage from the Gospel of Mark in which the friends of a paralyzed man carry him to Jesus. At least initially, however, Jesus does not heal the man but offers him a puzzling line about his sins being forgiven.

Part of the point, said Dr. Keller, is people do not realize that their deepest desires often do not match up with their deepest needs.

"We're asking God to get us over that little hump so we can save ourselves," he said. "It doesn't occur to us that we're looking for something besides Jesus to save us."

Observing Dr. Keller's professorial pose on stage, it is easy to understand his appeal. While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths, he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere. "A big part is he preaches on such an intellectual level," said Suzanne Perron, 37, a fashion designer who is one of many who had stopped going to church before she discovered Redeemer several years ago. "You can go to Redeemer and you can not be a Christian and listen to that sermon and be completely engaged."

Dr. Keller shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being "born again," and the full authority of the Bible.

An important lesson that Dr. Keller said he had tried to convey to other pastors is that the hard sell rarely works in the city. Becoming a Christian in a place like New York, he said, is more often the product not of one decision but of many little decisions.

"One decision might be Christianity is more relevant than I think," he said. "Or, here's two Christians that I don't think are idiots."

It was the Rev. Terry Gyger, an official with the church-planting arm of the Presbyterian Church in America, an Atlanta-based evangelical denomination, who persuaded Dr. Keller to come to the city to start a church in the late 1980's. At that point, Dr. Keller was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and the part-time head of the Presbyterian Church's mercy ministries.

His only previous pastoral experience was at a Presbyterian church in Hopewell, Va., a struggling factory town. Under Dr. Keller, the congregation grew from 90 to roughly 300 in nine years, but that was in the Bible Belt, of course, not New York City.

"I just saw in him the raw ingredients," Mr. Gyger said. "I felt he had the inquisitiveness. He had the intellectual capital. He was very articulate, even though he had not had a lot of preaching experience in the big pulpits of our denomination."

Even so, Dr. Keller was offered the post only after two other candidates turned it down. Within a year of its founding in 1989, however, Redeemer had grown from 50 people to more than 400. By the end of 1992, the church had swelled to more than 1,000 people. Since then, it has continued to grow steadily, all while renting space in several locations.

Sept. 11 proved to be a defining moment for the church. On the Sunday after the terrorist attack, more than 5,000 people showed up. So many people packed the church's Sunday morning service that Dr. Keller called another service on the spot, and 700 people came back to attend. While attendance returned to normal in other churches after several weeks, Redeemer kept attracting about 800 more people a week than it had drawn before the attack.

"For the next five years, I would talk to people about when they joined the church, and they said right after 9/11," Dr. Keller said.

After the attack, the church also began to increase its training for those working to found churches. His church's main goal, Dr. Keller said, is to teach pastors how to truly love the city, rather than fear its worldly influences. Unlike many evangelicals, Dr. Keller advocates an indirect approach to change.

"If you seek power before service, you'll neither get power, nor serve," he said. "If you seek to serve people more than to gain power, you will not only serve people, you will gain influence. That's very much the way Jesus did it."

As a result, one of Redeemer's hallmarks has always been its focus on charity, something it emphasizes in its training of urban pastors. It operates a program called Hope for New York that arranges volunteer opportunities for people from Redeemer with 35 different partner organizations. Last year, 3,300 people from the church volunteered their time.

A looming question for Redeemer, though, is how much of what Dr. Keller and his team have built can be maintained when he ultimately exits the stage. When he was out for several months in the summer of 2002 while undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, attendance dipped noticeably.

For now, the faithful of Redeemer do not have to contemplate that situation. Dr. Keller continues to preach nearly every Sunday, dashing back and forth to its different rented facilities and putting in unrelenting 80-hour work weeks.

On the night of the snowstorm, Dr. Keller closed his monologue with a moving riff on Jesus' love in spite of humanity's flaws, and a quote from C. S. Lewis, one of his favorite writers: "The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation."

And then he prayed for his congregation and his city.

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Look into my Eyes ...

and you will see the world.

Hmm ... it sounds like something taken straight out of a cheesy chick flick, but ironically it's something that I believe in. Perhaps it's more than just the eyes, but a mix of non-verbal communication, observation, and intuition. There is just so much you can gather by looking deeply into someone's eyes.

Don't get me wrong, I don't expect someone to know exactly what's going on inside my head with just a look. After all, most of us aren't mind readers. I just think that if you're keen, observant, and intuitive enough, then you should be able to grasp a general sense of what's going on inside someone's mind.

If you don't already, try really looking into someone's eyes for a change.

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