Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Monday, September 29, 2008

The New Sacraments: Authenticity


Authenticity is pretty much in vogue with the church these days, especially those embracing a "postmodern" slant. In previous generations the sacraments of the church- that is, those aspects of church life that were generally regarded as fundamental to our relationship with God and fellow man- included such things as baptism, marriage, and Holy Communion. Although still with us, these sacraments have largely been replaced by what I call, "The New Sacraments" which include Uncertainty (also called Mystery), Relevancy, and (today's winner) Authenticity.

Authenticity is HUGE in the church today. Books, magazines, and blogs churn out a seemingly never ending diatribe chastising the church about how "inauthentic" it is and that it better start getting "authentic" real soon. I like to browse church websites on occasion and its very common for those sites to market how "authentic" they are. They usually explain how "this generation" only responds to authenticity, which always makes me think, "as opposed to my generation when we responded to in authenticity??"

What is the reason for this sudden rush to the authentic? There are a number of reasons of course and this simple blog entry will not begin to cover them all. However, I think part of the reason centers on evangelism and hell.

For the last 50 or so years evangelism has been centered on very overt techniques. Because the focus was on a very real hell of which only belief in Christ could save, evangelistic practices where designed to produce a very definite "decision" for Jesus in the least amount of time. The guiding adage was, "if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity." These evangelistic techniques (such as the Four Spiritual Laws) were often noble in their intentions, but over time get marketed and packaged until evangelism begins to be viewed as an impersonal, assembly line, cookie-cutter entry road to the Christian faith. Or otherwise known as "inauthentic".

Authentic evangelism (and I use the evangelism term cautiously as even the term is viewed with suspicion in "authentic circles") centers on more passive practices. These passive practices focus more on introducing friends into a journey with Christ rather than escape from hell. With eternal damnation put on the back burner, the Christian becomes more the life coach, helping those around them in their joys and sorrows, rather than the fireman breaking down the door to save those inside from the flames.

With this transition, authenticity becomes key. If a fireman is saving us from a fire, we don't really care about his motivations. He could be doing it for his image, to get on TV, or for his own ego but we don't care as the life he is saving makes those secondary issues moot. However, if we are looking for a life coach, authenticity is essential. We don't want someone guiding us in the ways of Christ who is hypocritical or false.

The problem I see is that with one focus, lots of people get "saved" but lack discipleship and the teachings to help us deal with life this side of heaven. On the other side we have a lot of people liking Christianity much more than they did before, but often not really believing in Christ. I can't tell you how many times while living in Boulder (where authenticity is a major sacrament)a friend would tell me that I was a __________ (better, different, more real)Christian than what they have known." I used to feel good about that. I was "sowing seed" in these friendships and that one day when they were ready, they would accept Christ. Trouble was, that day never came. And the answer to this lack of impact was not that perhaps I was diluting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but that I was not being "authentic" enough.

The Apostle Paul addresses the issue of authenticity in Philippians 1:15

"15 It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. 16 They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. 17 Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. 18 But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice. 19 For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance.

For Paul, the message itself was more important than the heart or motivation of the one bringing the message. Obviously, Paul makes mention of the fact that pure motives are better, but even that is secondary to the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know that statement is anathema to those who have come out of years of evangelical "games" and are enjoying the Christian life that is a little more relaxed and "organic". I am with you and have been there...but I cannot ignore what the Word says on these matters. There is an imperitiveness which Paul brings in this passage that is being overlooked by the church in "emerging" circles.

It would be mindful to note as well that there is no inherant goodness in authenticity. I think we can all agree that both Gandhi and Hitler were very "authentic" people. However what makes us respect one and despise the other was not the authenticity they had, but the message they brought.

As for me, I am renewing my commitment to authenticity, but focusing on my message that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and through belief in him we can have everlasting life.

Now that is Good News!!!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman: 1925-2008


I was saddened to hear of the passing of actor Paul Newman. Mr. Newman was an icon for a number of generations starring in such classics as Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, and my personal favorite, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

But Paul Newman was more than just an actor. He was a dedicated philanthropist whose company to date has given more than 200 million dollars to charitable organizations. Organizations such as his "Hole in the Wall" kids camps that focused on gravely ill children. According to CNN, "He saw the camps as places where kids could escape the fear, pain and isolation of their conditions, kick back and raise a little hell,". There are 11 such camps around the world including Africa and Vietnam and they have touched the lives of over 135,000 children.

Paul Newman leaves his wife of 50 years, actress Joanne Woodward, and five children. In Hollywood, where marriages last about 5 years, to see a faithful and devoted husband, is extrordinary. Again according to CNN, "He observed that just because he was a sex symbol there was no reason to commit adultery."

"Why would I go out for a hamburger when [I] have steak at home?" said Newman.

A reunion movie featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford was always talked about, but a script was never decided upon. Much to our loss. I'll close this entry with a remark by Robert Redford on his friend's passing:

"There is a point where feelings go beyond words. I have lost a real friend. My life-and this country-is better for his being in it."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Chinese Space Walk

In the last 24 hours, two notable events occured. Senators John McCain & Barak Obama squared off for their first televised debate for the U.S. Presidency. On the other side of the world, astronaut Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese national to perform an orbital spacewalk. Having watched both events, I decided to write on the more interesting of the two.

Let me start off by saying I am a HUGE fan of manned spaceflight. When I was a child, all I wanted to be was an astronaut. My parents have pictures of me standing at Kennedy Space Center as a five year old with the ill fated Apollo 13 resting on it's launch pad in the distance. I got to stay home from school the day the Space Shuttle first launched in 1981 because it was so important for me to see it live.

It's been unfortunate that with the end of the Cold War, NASA's budget has been slashed dramatically. The fact that we landed on the moon in 1969, but have not been to Mars by 2008, is inexcusable. President Bush setting a goal in 2004 of returning to the moon and then funding a Mars landing has been one of the higher points of his presidency. (Although it lacked the charisma of John Kennedy casting the vision which originally took us to the moon.)

That is why I was so excited to see China beginning to develop a serious space program. This afternoon, Astronaut Zhai Zhigang stepped out of his spacecraft and performed a 15 minute spacewalk. True, its something America did 40 years ago, but China has set a serious goal of landing a man on the moon by 2020.

I watched a clip of the launch today on the BBC and realized that it doesn't matter whether it's China, Russia, or the United States, when man reaches for the stars, I get goose bumps. Perhaps a little interplanetary competition is what the U.S. Congress needs to get it's act together and fund NASA adequately.

Until then, "God Speed Zhai Zhigang"

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Addicted to I Tunes

Since moving to China, the availability of English speaking TV shows have taken a bit of a nose dive. I always knew people that watched TV on their computer either by streaming or download, but that always seemed a little inefficient to me when all you had to do was turn on the TV and flick through 100 channels. Besides, my internet usage at home consisted of me manipulating my laptop in strategic postions to catch my neighbor's wireless signal and get my e-mail out.

Now I'm in China and frankly am quite happy to be (mostly) TV free. However, we have discovered some shows that we enjoy watching as a family that are available on I-Tunes. Like any addiction, it starts out small. An episode of "Friends" here, a Travel Channel selection there. (Ironically, I download almost no music)

Soon though, its not enough. You begin to experiment. "I've always heard about such and such a show...think I'll give it a try" And like any good dealer, the first one (in this case, the pilot episode) is free. After trying an episode of Jon Faverau's "Dinner for Five" I immediately downloaded another...and then another...the next thing I knew, I downloaded the whole season telling myself, "I'm saving money this way". Like many people say, "The more I buy, the more I save" mmmm....yeah...right!!

Now last night, I discovered I-Tunes University. Its the section with college lectures and documentaries from all over the country on every subject imaginable...and they are free! For an ENTP personality type, this is like winning the lottery. (Believe me, I had a much more witty line in my head on that one but in the interest of not offending anyone, and more importantly my Lord, I scaled it down a bit :)

Last night I downloaded lectures on Astronomy, Theology, Politics, and Art as well as documentaries on presidents Reagan, Carter, and Nixon...all for Free!!! I never have to leave the house again. Did you know that because of a velocity of 6,141 MPH, the first stage of the Apollo / Saturn V rocket would climb another 30 miles unpowered after separation, eventually falling into the Atlantic Ocean 350 miles out from the launch pad? Amazing!

Excuse me though, I have to leave. Tammy is calling me for my 12-step recovery program now.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tina Fey or Sarah Palin???

Last Saturday the 34th season of Saturday Night Live premiered. After hearing the buzz of Tina Fey's performance portraying vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, I decided to download it and see for myself. I watched it three times in a row...and it just kept getting funnier. Now in the name of full disclosure I, like most thinking men, harbour a small crush on Tina Fey. Its OK, my wife is fully aware of this. (As a disclaimer to anyone reading this with no sense of humor, I don't REALLY have a crush on Tina Fey, it was just a witty attempt to convey my very real respect for her comic genius)

Anyhow, Tina, who looks like Gov. Sarah Palin's twin sister, performed a 5 1/2 minute opening sketch with Amy Pohler playing Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, the whole sketch seems to be removed from YouTube (except clip pieces which I include) but is available from I tunes.

It's also unfortunate that the McCain camp lashed out of the portrayal of Palin who was made, admittedly, to look like an airhead (The "And I can see Russia from my house" was priceless). However, Sen. Clinton was made to look like the ambitious, Lady McBeth character she is usually portrayed as but no accusations by the left were made on her behalf.

To her credit, Gov. Palin found the portrayal of herself "amusing" so come on McCain camp- it's comedy...lighten up!!

Now, if only Tina Fey can be convinced to continue moonlighting from her gig at 30 Rock to shoot over to Saturday Night Live and play the role she was practically born to play. If she does, this election could get a whole lot funnier!!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Stuff White People Like

Ok, first book review! In the closing days of my tenure at Barnes & Noble I was asked by a customer if we had a particular book. I asked the book's title and the lady replied, "Stuff White People Like". I was startled at first. That sounded...racist? This was Boulder Colorado after all. This was White People CENTRAL!! Any good white person worth their salt knows that the celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity is one of the highest of all possible virtues...except the celebration of white culture which is racist.

The woman went on to explain that it was a satire book making fun of white people and the stuff they like. "Whew" I thought, "we're safe. Making fun of white people is certainly OK."

Plus, the lady said she heard the book review on NPR. (Just to digress, White People love to start their conversations with, "You know, I was listening to NPR this morning and...". As a side note, my cultural elitism runs to the other side of the pond so my conversations start out with, "You know I was listening to the BBC the other day and...")

Anyhow, as I was thumbing through I found myself laughing outloud and realized when I left for China and was missing Boulder, all I had to do was pull this book out and I'd be right back at home.

Its all right there. 150 topics such as:

Gifted Children: White People love gifted children. Do you know why? Because an astonding 100% of their children are gifted. Isn't that amazing?

Awareness: An interesting fact about White People is that they firmly believe all the world's problems can be solved through "awareness"- meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, magically causing someone else, like the government, to fix it.

Whole Foods: White People need organic food to survive, and where they purchase this food is as important as what they buy. Whole Foods stores have replaced churches and cathedrals as the most important buildings in society.

Knowing What's Best for Poor People: White people spend a lot of time worrying about poor people. It takes up a pretty significant portion of their day. They feel guilty and sad that poor people shop at Wal-Mart instead of Whole Foods, they vote Republican instead of Democratic, that they go to community college or get a job instead of studying art at college.

Anyhow, the book has been a runaway best seller and is based on the popular website www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com

If you want to spend a couple hours repeating, "Oh God, thats so true" make sure to pick up a copy,

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Obama Question


My biggest facination this political season has been listening to people (and particularly Christians) talk on why they will, or will not, be voting for Barak Obama.

Sometimes they mention his strong points, such as his ability to cast an articulate vision and his charasmatic persona, but often their first response is because of "George Bush", "the war", or "the Republicans". I'll be honest, I get nervous when we start electing presidents based, not on record and accomplishment, but as a reaction to something else.

One of my first political memories was of another time when the country was just extracting itself from an unpopular war and scandal was rife in the White House. It was during this time that a young governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter burst on the scene. He was charming, sincere, and seemed to posess so many of the qualities the embattled Richard Nixon lacked. He was embraced by the Christian community by being the first president to publicaly proclaim of being "born again" and he rode a ground swell backlash all the way to the White House.

The problem?: He wasn't a particularly good president. His foreign policy left us neutered, his domestic policy left us broke, and his liberal social policies alienated the very Christians that once embraced him. My father, a life long labor Democrat to that point, voted for Carter the first time, and never voted Democrat again.

Let me just say, "I like Barak Obama" I think he is a genuine, sincere man who truly wants whats best for this country. (and I will say the same for John McCain). Its just that to much of this ground swell of popularism relys on him "not being George Bush" and thats not good enough for me.

Many Christians I know also worry me because their support for Obama seems to be a declaration of their independence from the Republican party rather than a conviction to vote Democrat. They remind me of the girl who jumps on the back of the bad boy's motorcycle, not because she's in love with the boy, but because she wants to show her parents she's her own person. Living in Boulder I met many people who were Buddhist. When I would talk with them, I realized (many times) their Buddhism stemmed not from an internal conviction of having reached some truth, but as a tool of self-expression, often to convey that they were NOT Christians.

I agree that the Christian community needs to disentangle itself from its complete devotion to the Republican Party, But voting for Obama seems (often) to be an expression about what you are against, rather than what you are for...and that makes me worry for this country.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

T. Austin-Sparks

There are a number of Christian writers and ministers who have influenced me throughout my life. Some years ago I went through a "dead writers" phase with another missionary while living in Hong Kong. By dead writers, I mean I would only read the writings of teachers who had passed away. The logic behind it was that writers who had passed away and still had an audience had "stood the test of time" Their teachings were not the "fly by night" writings of thousands of books that line the impulse purchase tables at the latest Christian convention. No, THESE were the respected writings of the great pillars of the faith who had gone before.

Of course, then you develop cocky arrogance as you look down your nose at people who DO buy "pulp" Christian teachings...and then the Holy Spirit has to come in and give you a spiritual spanking and...well, OK you get the point.


Lately I have been drawn back to the writings of one of these pillars of the faith. If you have never heard of T. Austin-Sparks or read any of his books, I encourage you to do so immediately. T. Austin-Sparks was a British evangelist who was born in 1888. He published the bi-monthly magazine A Witness and a Testimony from 1923 until his death in 1971 and his teaching ministry brought the Gospel of Christ across the globe.

During my personal prayer times this week I have been reading from his pamphlet, The Alter (The Cross) Governs Everything

"A truly crucified people are never in danger of the world. It is only when the Cross has not done its work that the world has a place. The world has no place with a crucified man or woman, or a crucified company of believers. The Cross is the great defensive against the world. If you want to keep the world out, put the Cross in its place. If the Cross is truly in its place in fulness, then everything else will come into order"

I find as I read this, the things that I thought were important burn away and are replaced by what is truly important. The Cross of Christ is a refining fire that will transform us if we let it.

Anyhow, if you want to check out some more Sparks, I encourage you to visit the online library and resource page http://www.austin-sparks.net/

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

McCain & Obama: The VP analysis

After weeks of debate and discussion about who were going to be the presidential nominee's picks for Vice-President, the answer is in. Surprisingly, both Republican and Democrat chose running mates from small electoral states (3 votes apiece). This goes against the conventional wisdom that says your running mate should be from states able to deliver crucial electoral votes, particularly in swing states. Neither Alaska (Palin) or Delaware (Biden) are going to do that.

Instead, each VP pick completely balanced out the resume (and glaring weaknesses) of the top of the ticket.

Obama: By choosing Biden, Obama chooses the experience cred he so desperately lacks. Biden is a seasoned veteran with more than 30 years in the Senate. He has chaired the powerful Judiciary Committee and Foreign Relations Committee and is highly respected by senate members on both sides of the aisle. He also balances Obama's "liberal" moniker by being a Democrat with more centrist tendencies. The downside is that a liberal nominee choosing a running mate from the blue state heartland of the New England coast has not been particularly successful for the Dems in the past.

McCain: Completes his own balancing act by choosing Alaska governor Sarah Palin. As Democratic pundit Paul Begala notes, "Alaska has more reindeer than people" so adding Palin to the ticket was not to deliver the "Alaska" vote.
Instead, Palin brings conservative credentials to a ticket that was not winning over that demographic. She has been recognized as being a tough talking, anti-corruption proponent that has proved to be an effective governor. More importantly though she brings a breath of fresh air to a party that is often perceived as full of old, stodgy, white men (of whom McCain could be the poster boy). She is young and attractive, and more importantly...a woman. With thousands of Hillary voters still seething at the upset of their candidate by Obama, there just might be enough of a "lady vote" to deliver the election to McCain. The downside is that the recently announced pregnancy of her 17 year old daughter may make a mockery of her conservative cred and create enough media fodder to sideline her.
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