Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Cultural Engagement and Alignment

So where have I been these last two weeks since my last posting? Well, you know how I said that I might buy a motorcycle, possibly in 2009? Well, the timetable got moved up just a little, . . . I bought a motorcycle last week! Yikes! My neighbor asked me if it was an impulse buy. Now, . . . that's a hard question to answer because as my last post read, it's a decision I've been mulling over for twenty years now. So was it an impulse buy? Well, being a guy who tends to make decisions slowly, in a sense had I waited twenty-one years, there is something in me that says it would have been less impulsive than waiting a hasty twenty years. So what have I been doing these last fourteen days? Well, isn't it clear yet? I've been riding my motorcycle and trying to think great thoughts about God, at the same time! Actually, the key word in that last sentence is "trying." You see, if you get too caught up fixing your thoughts on heaven while on a motorcycle you're likely to miss the driver who pulls out in front of you in heavy traffic! As they teach you in class, it's probably better to scan the road at all times, "Searching, Evaluating and Executing" (comprising the nice acrostic SEE- sure enough, that's me as the diligent student practicing SEE! and "yes" that is the new hog I'm riding).

I know this is a weird way of getting around to my subject today, but I remember years ago, after having received Jesus as my Savior, thinking that the only point to life in this world was to get to the next one. I've since changed my perspective in a fairly dramatic way. The Lord's Prayer has now become my central vision for life on earth, that "His Kingdom come and will be done 'on earth as it is in heaven'," that so much of what we are to be about in the here and now, is living rather "earthy" lives holding onto the grand vision that one day all of creation be renewed (Rom. 8:20,21 and Matt. 19:28). The implications in all this are that we see our lives here on earth to be terribly important to God and that we set living well for Him now as a chief goal in preparation for the world to come!

This brings me to: 1) an incredibly encouraging observation I've made the last couple weeks about the church at large in our city and 2) a somewhat discouraging observation as well though I do believe the discouraging part isn't for lack of sincerity on the part of believers here in this city (and as I'll explain later that I, Mike Hsu, contribute to the discouraging part as well). I'll explain more on this second point, but let's start with the incredibly encouraging observation.

The last two weeks, I've been to two different churches each led by dear friends of mine. Both of the men who lead their respective congregations are men of integrity, prayer and great passion for Christ. The two churches are both of very different denominational traditions and backgrounds from Grace Chapel as well as from one another. However, what they both share in common with Grace Chapel (and one another) is that they see a purpose for the work of God to impact this world in dramatic and powerful ways. Along with Grace Chapel, they both see cultural engagement and transformation as a central part of the mission of the church. I think that is so exciting and encouraging, that fellow evangelical churches would see engagement of the world for the sake of Christ as a central aim of the Church universal. That we should engage the world for Christ is agreed upon- that’s the encouraging part, but as mentioned there’s also a discouraging part as well right? But as I proceed, to guard against any “us against them” tone as if we at Grace Chapel have this cultural engagement question figured out, know the following observations come with my identification with the struggle rather than the belief to stand above or outside it.

Let me flesh this out more specifically by describing some of the content of the worship services these last two weeks. First of all, two Sundays ago a key part of the message was addressing the importance of housing and feeding the poor in this city and making a difference by meeting the needs of people in Lincoln. So far so good right? But the tension began to arise for me when my pastor friend went on to talk about how certain local leaders and representatives were now looking to the various churches in our city to participate in state-sponsored programs designed to address poverty in Lincoln, and the pastor concluded by saying with excitement in his voice, "Government is now looking to the church for finding solutions to poverty in our city,” and with excitement and passion declared, “This could be the church's finest hour!"

Secondly, this last Sunday just a couple of days ago, Tanya, kids, Darius, his friend Ben and I went to another church also led by another good friend of mine and seeing that we were in memorial day weekend, there was an extended time during the service to give thanks for the great sacrifice that our US soldiers had given for this country, especially for those who had paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Various servicemen both past and present stood to be honored. And in this 2nd church, my pastor friend prayed for our soldiers to be blessed and protected as they served overseas especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan seeking to preserve our freedoms as Americans. In so many ways, to honor our men and women in uniform was a beautiful and wonderful thing. Yet at the risk of sounding like an ungrateful or unpatriotic American, I felt a kind of tension arise in my heart as had happened at a similar point the previous Sunday.

Again, at the risk of sounding ungrateful or unpatriotic, the tension for me was that we were praying for American soldiers who carry arms across the globe, yet as people with our first allegiance to our citizenship in heaven, shouldn't our message be primarily about our missionary armies who carry Kingdom weapons across the globe [like the sword of the Spirit (the Word of God), faith and prayer], for the sake of the Gospel? that the Church militant (as they said in the old days to describe the people of God progressing the Gospel) should always be front and center in our message, perhaps?

Please hear me now, I am sooooooo grateful for our men and women in uniform, but I don’t agree with Billy Sunday, America’s best known preacher before Billy Graham, coming off the heels of WWI when Sunday said that “hell and traitors are synonymous terms.” Also let me clarify further, I am not a pacifist, . . . but I do see the argument of pacifist people like William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas who challenge their readers with the question of imagining a brother in Christ in one army of one country killing a brother in Christ in another army serving another country, that such a scenario is unthinkable participation for all who claim to follow Christ and hold an ultimate allegiance to a heavenly citizenship. Of course, in this new age of a "war on terror," here in the West we might tend to think that none of the "bad guys" are Christians at all but only terrorists and extremists. . . even if we grant that such were the case, would that somehow make it OK to kill them when Jesus said to love our enemies and do good to them? Just challenging your thinking and especially mine (seeing that I am a just war theorist and stand by capital punishment as well).

OK, I've probably said about a ca-zillion things to light some fires under people, but here's the tension in all this whether we are talking about riding motorcycles, feeding the poor or military involvement- for the church of Jesus Christ and the progress of the Gospel, what is an appropriate alignment with state-sponsored agencies, programs and institutions? OK, so maybe riding motorcycles doesn't so much belong in this discussion, but it was a nice try wouldn't you say?

It seems to me that as a corporate group of people called the Church of Jesus Christ, we have to work hard to make our Gospel message clear, that we don't fight with weapons of power and coercion to accomplish our goals and that the transformation of the world begins with transformation of the church. It seems like the power of the early church in places like Acts 2:42ff. was in how they shared possessions in common to rid fellow believers of want. Or that the admonition in Deut. 15 was about Israel dealing with poverty from within her own ranks, that what makes the Church a transformational presence in the world is that our seeking solutions for the world's problems has always been motivated by one central message about a Savior who became poor for our sakes that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). And while I do see so many occasions to give thanks to those who serve so faithfully in uniform (and what better way to commend such dear people than during memorial day weekend?), nonetheless believe the corporate witness of the Church must first and foremost be about commending a missionary army who, around the world TODAY, are sharing Christ, loving people and dying for the preaching of the Gospel as spiritual weapons of love, evangelism and prayer are utilized. Maybe Richard J. Neuhaus was onto something when he once said, "the best thing the Church can be for the world is the Church."

Now, please hear what I am not saying here. I am not saying we should remove ourselves from involvement in government agencies, military service and other forms of cultural engagement. Remember I am not a pacifist nor a separatist. I say with humble confidence that the Amish and Mennonite traditions have gotten some things wrong here. What I am saying is that as a corporate group of people who comprise the Church, we have to be careful how we align with "world agencies" so that the message of the Gospel is communicated with clarity; that others see a people who believe the way up is first the way down in God's economy; that the pattern of their Savior as a suffering servant is clear; and that His people are willing to die for those on the other end of our spiritual swords called "The Word of God." As for involvement in politics, government agencies and the military, this must be the call of individual believers particularly but never the testimony of the corporate Body of Christ that testifies to Christ crucified and nothing more (or less). Isn't this what the Apostle Paul was trying to convey in claiming ignorance to all other matters (1Cor. 2:2), that the light of the Gospel might shine forth with clarity and power?

I understand the tensions revolving around the cultural engagement question, and lest you hear me saying these other two churches have gotten it wrong and Grace Chapel has gotten it right, know that I understand myself to be a part of “the perennial problem” as H. Richard Niebuhr once described in his classic work, "Christ and Culture." Niebuhr recognized these great tensions and identified at least five approaches that various church groups and traditions have taken through history. I think Grace Chapel would be adequately described by Niebuhr's classifications of "Christ Transforming Culture" and "Christ and Culture in Paradox." The former establishes for us that cultural engagement is our call as the Body of Christ (just as with the other two churches mentioned in this posting), the latter establishes more the method by which we accomplish our Kingdom task, by working on ourselves and our communities as a group of people set in distinction from the world's value systems (something perhaps all evangelical people can struggle with more rather than less), that the best thing the Church can be for the world is the Church.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Motorcycles, Cigars and Other Taboo Misc.

This last weekend, I invested fifteen hours into a motorcycle safety class at Southeast Community College. The class was tough, exciting, challenging and rewarding all at the same time. I've wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle for almost twenty years now. I entered the weekend with neither the knowledge nor the skill to do so. I came out of the weekend with both. Now that's pretty cool huh? Why did it take me so long to do it?

When I was in my teen years, I asked my parents about getting a motorcycle, and the answer on the part of my parents was simple, "no way, no how, not on your life bud, what are you crazy?!" When I got to college, the desire never left me. In fact, here are some true confessions. In 1992, I spent two months in Hungary with Campus Crusade for Christ, and our entire summer was spent sharing Christ with the Hungarians who were under a communist regime until 1989. The people were hungary to learn about spiritual matters (I know, bad Hsu humor), and over the course of the summer, our team of twelve people saw over seventy people place their faith in Christ! What a great summer it was, yet there is a confession here, right? All summer long, I thought about and devised a plan to come home and make a case before my parents as to why I was ready for a motorcycle. The reasoning went something like this, “I am about to become a senior in college and am mature and responsible enough to be a motorcycle owner.” Some of you might say, "heck Mike, you're a college senior, just go do it apart from your parents' approval!" Well, it's kind of hard to explain but that's not how 2nd generation kids with Asian parents roll. My parents' response? "no way, no how, not on your life bud, what are you crazy?!"

I graduated from college, got a job as a youth pastor (and school bus driver to supplement my youth pastor income), later got married to Tanya (yee ha!), went off to seminary, graduated, and then moved to Lincoln in 1998. I made a mental note in 1998 that while living in Lincoln, there were two things I wanted to learn: 1) how to golf and 2) how to ride a motorcycle. I learned how to golf in my first few years in Lincoln, though I'm still more of a hacker than a golfer. And then self-doubt kept me from taking motorcycle classes those first few years (another piece in all this is that when dad was young, his good buddy was killed in a motorcycle accident plus Tanya’s mom worked as an ER nurse for a while and had many horror stories of motorcycle crash victims). My plans to learn how to ride a motorcycle were put on hold further when in 2001 we started having kids and of course all kinds of cautions arose in my own head as well as from people around me who cared about me (not just parents). The cautions went something like this, "now you're a father Mike, you can't possibly in good conscience get on a motorcycle. Before you do something stupid like that, just think about those three little darling children of yours!" But another inner voice kept whispering (you know the two shoulders' thing? I'm just not sure which one was the angel and which the devil. These things are always far more clear in the movies!), but the voice said "all these years I've just wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle. At this point in my life the question of owning a motorcycle really is secondary. I just want to learn."

So this last weekend, I learned, . . . and it was awesome.

Will I buy a motorcycle? Yeah, probably at some point. I do have my M endorsement now you know? The riding test was one of the most difficult things I’ve done in a long time. If you don’t know much about motorcycles, understand that every limb is simultaneously operating but in different ways and at different rates. Imagine the right hand is on the throttle and front brake. The right foot is on the rear brake. The left hand is operating turn signals and clutch while the left foot is shifting gears (maybe there is something here connected to 1 Corinthians 12 about the Body of Christ and all its parts working together in perfect unity?). I know about IQ and even EQ (emotional intelligence) but this is something different altogether. Maybe MQ? Motorcycle Intelligence? By the way, the instructors at SECC were incredibly knowledgeable, very much aware of the great dangers of riding motorcycles and committed to providing the highest quality training so as to maximize the greatest potential for the future safety of their students. I was very impressed with the class and its instructors. When will I buy a motorcycle? I don’t know. I’m trying to be patient. I have waited twenty years for this you know? Maybe some time in 2009? but admittedly the itch to ride is pretty strong now.

Is there some kind of “moral lesson” I draw from all this? I think it’s pretty simple. I smoked about 2-4 cigars a month for the better part of five years and currently have taken a two-year hiatus from cigars. Let's just call it a cigar sabbatical. Along with motorcycle-riding, any form of smoking is “taboo” to the acceptance capacities of many people. There are certain “taboo” things that hit our grids a certain way when we hear about others’ participation in them and those things are a little different for everyone. For some it is politics (or a certain political affiliation). For others it is lifestyle choices. For some, doctrinal differences, yet others, parenting decisions. For my parents it just happened to be motorcycles (and to a lesser extent cigars). For me it’s gambling (which ironically my parents love and enjoy a lot), my children getting out of bed after they’ve gone down and a few other things. Yet, when we find those things we’ve deemed “taboo” to be in the lives of people with whom we interface daily, will we have the spiritual maturity to be slow to make judgments, first engaging in meaningful and gracious conversation and ultimately seek understanding before drawing our conclusions? There's something here, I'm a long ways from it myself, but there is something here. After she does something to violate one of my "taboo grids," my six-year old Mia in the midst of my scolding, unable to get a word in edgewise (man, I hate admitting this), on the verge of tears and desperate to find her voice sometimes will cry out, “daddy, you’re not listening to me!”

I want to listen. I really do. I want my daughter always to have a voice with me, especially as she grows, develops and seeks to find that voice in this big, uncertain and often hostile world. . . .

So I've envisioned this scenario and prepared myself in advance for how I will handle it. I imagine Mia comes to me when she’s fourteen and asks, “dad can I go on a date with a boy? He's really nice.” I envision I respond by praying for the spiritual maturity to listen, by being slow to make judgments, seeking understanding and genuinely engaging her heart. And then after doing those things, I envision saying to her in a loving voice, “no way, no how, not on your life bud, what are you crazy?!”

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

SWEET land

I thought I'd pass on to you this remarkable film Tanya and I watched last night. The cinematography and beauty of this film touched some pretty deep parts for me, especially as someone who grew up in the plains and will always have them as a part of him. While Tanya might have a different angle, the best part of the film for me was that even the minister and the church people found redemption (or it found them), though early in the film being terribly lost in their bondage to a form of soul-deadening Midwestern moralism.

By the way, if you are like me and have very limited opportunities to watch films and really want to make it count when you do, take advantage of Sam McKewon as an incredible resource at Grace Chapel. Sam heads up our film ministry, loves Christ a lot and is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to film. Sam can be reached at swmckewon@hotmail.com.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Creation? Junk? No Way. Go Berean!

This last Sunday we went to Berean, that little church of 5-6000 people down the road :-). It was a remarkable experience for a number of reasons. First of all, Ryan Dudney (a Grace Chapel guy) graduated from Berean's Christian Leadership College and along with three other graduates was honored during the worship service. The CLC is a challenging one-year program primarily designed to equip believers in the marketplace to think through questions about a biblical world and life view and to confidently engage the culture for Christ. Secondly, we saw about a zillion people we knew at Berean (who would have thunk it in a miniature city on Sundays five times the size of Tanya's grandparents' hometown of Pender, NE?). Thirdly, we had with us our ten-year old "former foster son" Darius who lived with us when he was three. Darius had a good buddy named Marquis who was five at the time and died of a rare blood disorder that year. The message series at Berean was on "heaven" and Marquis' family came on in a video clip to talk about Marquis dying and now being in heaven. Though separated by two children in our seating arrangement, I could hear my wife Tanya crying during the clip.

Fourthly and finally, I WAS WRONG! Hallelujah! Last week in my sermon, I made the comment that we would be hard-pressed to find in any corner of Lincoln an evangelical church proclaiming that in God's eyes the banker's job was as significant as the pastor's job or that for the Kingdom, the plumber's job was as important as the missionary's. I WAS WRONG! Hallelujah! Pastor Bryan Clark of Berean was preaching that our call as believers was to create a bit of heaven here on earth and that the things we do now, if done in the power of Christ and by His Spirit, in a mysterious way, would carry on into the New Heaven and Earth. I was SOOOOO encouraged to hear Pastor Clark seeing the goodness in God's material creation and the importance of "tending to the Garden" rather than seeking escape from it. This message coming out of Berean is even more remarkable in that the history of fundamentalism and a separatist attitude to the world runs right through the center of Berean churches (this is not said in a critical way, simply by way of observation and fact). While PCA churches have tended to this same separatist attitude, our history and the foundations of our theology have more readily lent themselves to thinking intentionally about engaging the culture in meaningful ways to redeem rather than scrap. Pastor Clark even quoted Romans 8:21! a key text to help us think through bringing renewal and redemption to the material world, i.e. creation! Man was I encouraged. Go Bryan and go Berean!

If you are wanting to think more intentionally about this idea of cultural engagement and worldview, please take a look at the challenging but worthwhile book, "Creation Regained : Biblical Basics of a Reformational Worldview," by Al Wolters. In the book, one of my favorite Wolters' quotes is, "God does not create junk and He does not junk what He creates."

Friday, May 2, 2008

Technology Dinosaurs and the Kingdom

So . . . here's my first stab at this "blog thing." Perhaps before I begin, I ought to make a bit of a confession. I am a technology dinosaur. Don't get me wrong, I like technology, computers (am a bit of a Mac snob to be honest), the advantages of being able to disseminate information quickly via email, etc. Yet there are some things about me that may seem a bit backwards to others. For example, I think it is borderline sacrilege to read a book online. Books were meant to be held, bindings admired, pages turned, copyrights consulted, dog-ears testifying to a journey in time, engagement and refreshment. "But aren't you hoping people will read your online blog Mike?" My blog is not a book. It is one guy reflecting on this thing called a summer preaching sabbatical and who may or may not have meaningful things to say regarding what God is doing in his life and the world. I invite you into this blog, yet at the same time admit that I do not read the blogs of others save for the occasional forwarded link with the comment from a trusted friend, "you gotta read this!"

Some more true confessions, I had a dial-up connection with AOL on my home computer until January of 2007. I've now had hi-speed for a whoppin' fifteen months. Hey don't knock it. My dial-up used a 256K modem which back in 1995 when I used a 28K modem was the stuff only of which technological dreams were made. Do we really think that 13 years represents that much progress when to the Lord a thousand years is like a day? and when my friend Loren, who faithfully folds our bulletins every week at Grace Chapel and has lived a lot of life, was seventy-eight years old back in 1995? I humbly suggest to you that my 256K modem was a technological feat to be celebrated rather than mocked because without it, there would be no such thing as "hi-speed" as we know it today. Cool? More confessions . . . "what is facebook or my space"? I don't know. "But have you started to text message Mike?" Well, I refused until January of this year when my friend Joie showed me how to use T9 English and now I can't imagine a world without the advantages (and joys) of text messaging. . . . and today this technology dinosaur starts blogging!!! So here we go . . . [oh, wait, . . . one final thing, whatever blog etiquette exists, I apologize in advance for my lack of manners. I don't plan on reading my blog anymore than anyone else's, so sorry if you were hoping for some kind of blogalogue- you know, . . . "blog dialogue." I am not looking for some sort of pseudocommunity- you know, . . . "artificial community" (now I 'm getting just plain condescending!) that causes people artificially to feel closeness and connection when in reality sitting in the privacy of their own homes behind a computer screen. Yuck! However, coffee and lunch I do do, so let me know]. OK, now let's try this blog thing . . .

This last week I was at a Midwest leaders conference that talked about vision and church planting. I was captured by one speaker who talked about asking God to give us a vision for the Kingdom of God that was larger than our church budget. And I thought, "I know this is true, but it's God who builds His church right? And if that is so, shouldn't we ask Him to do things that are beyond us?" I know it's simple thinking but it made a lot of sense and has begun to shape some of my prayers about the future of Grace Chapel, especially as we look at a third service in the Fall and what a move closer to the city at some point might look like. Could the "cost" of such an endeavor be a lot higher/bigger than anything we've been able to accomplish so far in our seven and a half years of existence as a church? Possibly? Probably? Yet isn't it exciting to think about loving God, one another and others so much that we begin trusting God for His Kingdom to grow not apart from but through our seemingly limited resources as a young church?