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

Monday, May 30, 2011

United States & United Kingdom: Special & "Essential"

President Obama has just returned from a State visit to the United Kingdom where he and Prime Minister David Cameron cemented the ongoing "special relationship" between the two countries and then took it up a notch noting that it is no longer only special but essential. 

President Obama has often been criticised as being a "Pacific" president who is more focused on Asia than America's traditional allies in Europe.  With today's emerging economies in the Pacific region, a focus on Asia is important until one remembers that the U.K. still is America's # 1 trading partner with total import and export totalling over 100 billion dollars annually.  Couple that with the shared history, language, and culture and it becomes very important that the President spend some time in Mother England keeping the special relationship "special".

Although the relationship has been strong since the 19th century (forgetting the War of 1812 when the Red Coats burned down the White House) it was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase "special relationship."  Since then the relationship has had its ups (Thatcher & Reagan) & its downs (Kennedy & Macmillian) depending on the President & Prime Minister at the time. 

However, despite testing and strains at times the two allies have had a diplomatic relationship almost unprecedented in history.

Said Prime Minister Thatcher, "There is a union of mind and purpose between our peoples which is remarkable and which makes our relationship a truly remarkable one. It is special. It just is, and that’s that"

To which President Reagan responded, "Prime Minister, the United States and the United Kingdom are bound together by inseparable ties of ancient history and present friendship"

For myself, I remember the pride and solidarity I felt when President Bush, while addressing Congress just after the attacks of September 11, publicly thanked Prime Minister Tony Blair for Britain's unwavering support with us at that time. He declared, "America has no truer friend than Great Britain. Once again, we are joined together in a great cause. I'm so honored the British prime minister has crossed an ocean to show his unity with America. Thank you for coming, friend."

It is for that reason that I am happy that the present leaders of the two countries have cemented the bonds that have proved so valuable to each country for more than 200 years.  A relationship both "special" and "essential."

Friday, May 27, 2011

How well did I understand grace before I understood grace?

My friend Paul over at Escape to Reality had recently thrown out 10 years of sermon notes because of his realization that he had not been preaching God's Grace to people even when he honestly thought he had.  So when Paul was recently asked by a mutual friend about "how much he understood grace before he understood grace"...he sat down and penned the following response. What follows is a Holy Spirit inspired explanation of the Grace of God.

Look down at some of the things he lists below and see how many you can identify with:   

How well did I understand grace before I understood grace?

Have you ever seen those Magic Eye 3D pictures that look random at first glance but then reveal a hidden picture? Maybe there’s a group of you looking and someone says, “Wow – look at that! It’s a ship!” Then another person sees it and now they’re both describing the picture to you. But try as you might you just can’t see it. They try to encourage you. “Look – it’s right there. It’s huge!” But still you can’t see it. You’re starting to think there’s no picture at all and they’re all deluded when suddenly, revelation comes and a ship appears! If you’re like me and you’re usually the last person to see these things, you’ll no doubt embarrass yourself at this point by shouting, “I see it!”
That’s how it was for me with grace.
I knew people who looked into the Bible and saw radical grace but I didn’t. Sure, there were pockets of grace but there was a whole lot of other stuff as well. Then one day, revelation came and I saw Grace! He’s right there on every page and in every book! How can you miss Him? He’s huge! I now find myself reading old scriptures with new eyes and saying, “Look! This is speaking of Jesus! This is all about Him – I never saw this before.” Now that I’ve seen Him once I see Him everywhere. I was saved decades ago and I have always loved God with my whole heart. But when I got this revelation of His amazing grace, it was like being born again, again.
A friend recently asked me, “How well did you understand grace before you understood grace?” Here’s my answer: I thought I understood grace perfectly well. For as long as I can remember I’ve considered myself a testimony of His grace. But when Grace Himself came into focus, I was floored. I realized that I had barely understood grace at all. Looking back I can identify nine signs that showed I did not fully grasp the grace of God.
1. I understood that I was saved by grace but not that I was kept by grace
I had received Christ by faith and without doing a thing, but I was not continuing in Him by that same faith (Col 2:6). Although I would never have said it, I had taken out a little works insurance. Faith is a positive response to what God has done, but I liked to initiate things. And so my walk became “do, do, do,” rather than it’s “done, done, done.” There was no rest, only performance anxiety. There was always another meeting to lead, another plank of truth to teach, another stray sheep to gather. I thought this was normal. I could get excited about the idea of being saved and saving others, but I was not drawing from the wells of salvation with joy (Is 12:3). I was constantly stressed and I treated grace as grease for my engine.
2. I felt obliged to serve
Jesus had done everything for me, what would I do for Him? Of course I didn’t use the word “indebted” – that would’ve alerted me to the poverty of my theology – but much of what I did was motivated by a sense of obligation. I thus cheapened the exceeding riches of His grace (Eph 1:7) by trying to pay Him back for His priceless gift. Inevitably this shifted my focus from Him and His work to me and mine. Instead of being impressed by what He had done, I was trying to impress Him with what I was doing.
3. I motivated others using carrots and sticks
Because my own motives were screwed up it was inevitable that I would preach rewards and punishments to others. Do good, get good; do bad, get bad. At the same time as I was preaching against legalism I was putting people under law! My gospel was like an ash-tray – full of “buts”! God loves you but… Jesus died for you but…  God’s gifts always came with a price to pay. But grace is free – you either receive it or reject it but the moment you start charging for it, you’ve missed it. There’s only one motive in the kingdom and that is love. The Son of Man didn’t come to threaten us, judge us, or scare us, but to demonstrate love (Rm 5:8). I no longer believe that evangelism means scaring the hell out of people. The good news that the world needs to hear is that God is good and He loves us. The new covenant of grace is the formal expression of His unfailing love for us (Is 54:10).
4. I saw myself as a servant rather than a son
My identity was in the things I did rather than in my Father. I saw myself as working for God (a noble cause!) rather than doing the works of God. I would not have said I was justified by what I did for I knew that grace and works don’t mix (Rms 11:6). Yet I was mixing grace with works like there was no tomorrow! But here’s the strange thing. Even though I preached servanthood more than sonship, whenever there was a crisis I was quick to relate to Him as Papa. It was only when I was strong and healthy that I was seduced by the religious need to do something for God. Happily, there were many crises!
5. I kept asking God to provide things that He’s already provided
I knew enough about grace to approach Him boldly in my hour of need, but I didn’t know that He has already given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). If someone was sick I would ask for healing when I should’ve just healed them (Mt 10:8). I would ask for more faith instead of living by the faith of the Son of God (Ga 2:20). Like the prodigal’s older brother I felt that God would bless me as I did my part. I didn’t realize that I was already blessed, deeply loved, and highly favored. In my ignorance I wasted a whole lot of time doing a whole lot of nothing. I thought I was being active and fruitful but in reality I was passive and faithless. God had already come but there I was face down asking Him to come again.
6. I was more sin-conscious than Christ-conscious
Like many Christians I was afraid of sin (keep it out of the camp!) and I was not known as a friend of sinners. I defined sin as bad works only and I taught that the solution to sin was repentance. I had read that the grace of God teaches us to say no to ungodliness (Tit 2:12), but I wasn’t quite sure how that worked. So when preaching against sin I used inferior incentives like fear and punishment that led, at best, to temporary, will-powered changes in behavior. I emphasized what people must do (repent!) more that what God has already done (forgiven us!). I kept the focus on us when it should’ve been on Him and my preaching was powerless as a result. If anyone failed to experience victory over sin, I just figured they were unacquainted with God’s transforming grace – even though I had given them none.
7. I always tried to do the right thing
Someone under grace says, “I trust Him from start to finish. He will lead me in the right path” (Ps 23:3). But in subtle ways I preferred rules to relationship. What I craved were clear Biblical guidelines for living. I thought I was choosing good, but then so did Adam. We both had an independent spirit that led us to eat from the wrong tree. I felt particularly good when people came to me for guidance. I thought I was giving them wisdom when really I should just have got out of the way and taught them to lean on Jesus (Jn 10:27).
8. I had a stronger relationship with the written word than with the Living Word
I did not read the scriptures to find Jesus (Lk 24:27) but to learn, what should I do? I read indiscriminately and was often confused by scriptures that seemed to contradict each other. My solution was to go for balance: A little of this, a little of that, for all scripture is profitable. But by failing to filter what I read through the finished work of the cross, I unwittingly poisoned myself. I was mixing the death-dealing words of the law with the life-giving words of grace. Although I was zealous for the Lord, in truth I was lukewarm. I was neither under the stone-cold reality of the law nor walking in the red-hot heat of His unconditional love and grace.
9. I knew I was righteous, but I didn’t feel righteous
When I stumbled I would more readily confess my sins to God than allow the Holy Spirit to remind me of the gift of His righteousness to me (Jn 16:10). I knew I was a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), but in many ways I acted and spoke as if I was merely an improved creation. I thought honesty about my struggles was the key to getting more grace. But I probably would not have struggled so much in the first place if I had just learned to see myself as God sees me – redeemed, righteous, and holy.
I am convinced that grace comes by revelation. If you don’t yet see it this post may sound like the ramblings of a man who is unbalanced. (Thank God I am! I’m done with balance!) If you do see Grace, then right now you will be resonating like a tuning fork. So let me finish with a few words for those of you in the first group. Please be patient with those of us who are leaping for joy. Don’t walk away from the Magic Eye picture scowling, “I can’t see it, there’s nothing there.” Just keep looking! Grace really is standing right there in front of you. And He’s huge!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

U.S.S. Carl Vinson steams into Hong Kong

Ah,  Americans, even when we're broke we can still throw a party and have the world come to it. Last night, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson hosted a cocktail reception for a number of Hong Kong VIP's after arriving in the colony, er, I mean, Special Administrative Region over the weekend. The Carl Vinson of course has been made famous for being the ship that received the bullet riddled body of the late Osama bin Laden and then ceremoniously dumping it into the sea.

Apparently I am not yet VIP enough to secure an invitation to last night's event but my friend Francis and his wife did.

(Note to self: You are not jealous; you are happy for them :)

In fact my friend, being a professional chef, noted not the aircraft, but the chocolate chip cookies at the reception.  He says via Facebook: "Seriously though, nobody has better chocolate cookies than the U.S. Navy... For all I know, they might be bringing them in. If so, they're better than a lot of freshly baked ones I've tried. Waaay better than Mrs. Fields."

Over the 4 day visit 7,000 sailors will descend on Hong Kong's shops, bars, and restaurants and word is they are forbidden to discuss with
anyone details of the Osama burial or even to indicate from where
 on the ship his body was "dumped".

Anytime a U.S. carrier comes to Hong Kong it is a huge affair. They are too large to enter Victoria Harbor so they park just off Lantau Island and I usually get to see them from the ferry that takes us from our home to downtown. They are absolutely massive and I do admit to a surge of patriotism when you see something that impressive with an American flag waving from it.

As one local paper commented, the fact that it is parked off Lantau Island
 puts it nearly within sight of Hong Kong Disneyland displaying a
combination of American "hard" and "soft" power in the world.

But if I'm honest, the thing I really care about is finding out how to get an invitation to the cocktail reception the next time a carrier group comes to town.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Social Media Meltdown: TED style

Just saw this on TED!  It's a great parody of our societies all consuming need to be connected online ALWAYS...and to share EVERYTHING with our social media "friends" most who we haven't seen since high school.  Since I'm sharing it with you I realize I'm part of the societal psychosis it caters to my love for Broadway musicals!  Enjoy!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Smallville: The Finale Review

Last week's series finale of Smallville was a geekfest for all Superman fans young and old.  After ten years of waiting, the little farm boy from Kansas ( by way of the planet Krypton) donned his suit, took to the sky, and became the Man of Steel.

For the Hackman clan, it was a big evening as we've been following the series for a while now.  It's one of the few shows Tammy refuses to watch one week at a time.  She generally insists on waiting till a whole season is available and then "inhaling" 24 episodes in over the course of a week on DVD.   Surprisingly even though the show had been on for 10 years, we only started following it back in 2007.  Being a bit of a Superman fan I avoided Smallville assuming they were going to do to Superman pretty much what the Twilight series did to the vampire genre; turn it into something only appreciated by teenage girls.

Besides Superman always has a strong moral center and in case you haven't noticed T.V. doesn't really do strong moral centers anymore.  The idea of a teenage Clark Kent waking up in bed with a girlfriend and jumping up to throw his jeans on while he rushed off to school would have been more that my Superman sensibilities could have stomached.

And so I let the series pass... but in 2007 I was recovering from surgery and had to spend a couple weeks on my living room couch.  A good friend sent me the first four seasons by mail to watch while I recovered and bingo, not only me, but Tammy and Gabriel were hooked.

Anyhow, the finale was, as I mentioned, a geekfest. Pretty much everything a Superman afficiando would be looking for was to be found.  This whole season (spoiler alerts ahead) was focused on the 'darkness' covering the Earth and capturing the souls of men.  Clark Kent finally realizes his destiny as the "Light" of the world and goes toe to toe with, essentially, Lucifer.

Mmmmm, a father from beyond the stars sends his son to Earth to be raised by adoptive parents.  He is in constant contact communication with his "heaven" father, displays super powers, and when the moment is right, becomes the chosen one and savior of humanity.

Ring any bells?

Yeah, the Superman story always had the a strong Christ allegory.  Director Bryan Singer admitted he intentionally fostered that image in 2006's Superman Returns and the writer's of Smallville carried on that tradition.  When a resurrected Lex Luthor returns for a reunion "chat" with his old friend Clark Kent in the finale he says,
"they foretold of chosen savior , a light that would inspire this world out of darkness…you are the Light, Clark."

"You are the Light Clark"
The writers of Smallville had a strict, "no tights, no flights" policy.  Essentially it was the story of Clark Kent's inner journey to become the hero he was meant to be and not the adventures of Superboy.  But hey, we all know Man of Steel can fly so when it was pretty cool.  While in combat during the final minutes of the finale, Darkside (the Lucifer character) knocks Clark across the room.  As he is falling, there is a moment frozen in time and he's suddenly standing back at the Fortress of Solitude.  His father Jor-El shows Clark all the trials he has been through in his life and we viewers got a look back at 10 seasons of series highlights all accompanied with inspiring orchestral music.  Clark realizes that these trials prepared him for this moment and Jor-El tells him, "Your final trial is upon you, my son, you are ready...Now, seize your destiny."

Suddenly the moment reverts back to the action and Clark is no longer falling...he's flying!  I kid you not, the three of us started clapping...we really are a family of geeks!
Clark finally becomes "Superman"

The finale finished showing Metropolis seven years in the future.  Lois and Clark are working at the Daily Planet and preparing for their wedding.  Suddenly someone yells that there is bomb in an elevator up town.  Clark looks knowingly at Lois as (oh my God, can it be) the theme music made famous by the Christopher Reeve Superman movies begins building up.  Clark tells Lois, "Tell the minister, I may be a few minutes late"

As he steps onto the roof of the building the crescendo of the Superman theme reaches its climax and, with an American flag waving in the background,  Clark opens his shirt to reveal the the familiar "S" as it goes to credits and the show ends.

Whew!!! In the words of Nigel Tufnell, "this one went to "11"

Friday, May 20, 2011

I'm back... and some thoughts!

I had made it a point at the beginning of this year that I would get much more frequent with my blog posts.  I've come to like this little trafficked corner of cyberspace and enjoy the interaction with new friends as well.  Though since the end of March I have have been traveling for business 4 weeks and in the intervening time I finished my University work to get my teaching certification.  (My thoughts on that process are forthcoming).  With those two issues pressing in plus the taking on of a new project at work (and a new baby at home) means I've been "crazy busy".  So the thought of putting even more thoughts to paper, or computer screen, was unthinkable.  In the last 7 weeks I've managed to travel to Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, the earthquake area of Sichuan, and all across Greece (and no, contrary to what you may have heard, I was not in Pakistan doing anything a couple weeks ago :)

So...some thoughts on things that I would have blogged on had I been around:

* The Royal Wedding- I'm an unashamed Anglophile who remembers being about 14 years old when Charles & Diana were married.  Our whole family got up at about 4:00 AM Detroit time to watch it together.  The wedding of William & Kate was just as beautiful and, I suspect, will turn out much more successfully.  As a family we went to a little reception at the home of some British friends of ours.  We ate scones, cucumber sandwiches, and drank Earl Grey Tea (which admittedly gave way to red wine as the evening progressed).  It was a fantastic event for Mother England so God Save the Queen!

* It appears that while the Royal Wedding was going on, President Obama was giving the order for Navy Seals & CIA para military to engage in an operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden.  U.S. forces entered deep into Pakistan entered the house he was suspected to be in, found him, killed him, brought him back to a U.S. ship, performed a Islamic funeral and then dumped his bullet riddled body overboard into the sea.  I don't usually celebrate the death of anyone and to perhaps say I "celebrated" would be an exaggeration...but I'm glad he's dead and I have no problem with how we did it.  I'm against the death penalty so perhaps that makes me a hypocrite...but thats OK, I can live with it.

* This kind of is an add-on to the previous point but an issue I wanted to blog on.  Do you think we can not invoke religion, and specifically Christianity, in every argument that has little to do with religion?  I was seeing Facebook and news articles where the lines of argument started out on the legitimacy of U.S. actions in the death of Osama, meandered into the views of evangelical Christians, which eventually descended into the Old Testament, Leviticus, and homophobia. It's like 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon.  Take an issue and somehow link it to homophobia in 6 degrees or less. I think debate on serious issues may be better served by not linking them to Leviticus!

Just some thoughts...oh, and I'm back