Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What Good Beer I Have (so said Martin Luther)

When I first came to Christ and became a part of the Church back in 1990, I was perplexed with some inconsistencies that I found to be true about many Evangelical Christians. Joel Barker in his book Paradigm Shift has noted that it is almost always someone coming from the "outside" of a movement or an organization that has the clearest insight into the problems, blindspots, inconsistencies, etc. of that organization. Well, I was an 18-year-old coming from outside the Church and there were certain things I observed that many folks inside the Church didn't seem to get. An obvious sticking point for me was on the beverage use of alcohol. Most Christians I met at the time (this was in 1990) simply said "drinking is bad." I understood that using a fake i.d. was bad and that underage drinking was bad and even early on that drunkenness was bad, but nowhere could I find in the Bible that drinking alcoholic beverages in and of itself was bad. In fact, every time I came across wine in the Scriptures, it seemed to be described in a very positive way, as a "good gift from God" that "gladdens the heart of man" (see Psalm 104:15). Also, I have never heard an evangelical teacher teach on Proverbs 31:6,7, "Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more" (direct NIV quote). While I can't imagine the Proverb is endorsing drinking as a way of numbing one's heart to the real problems of life (as fallen man often uses alcohol for), what is strongly implied in the verse is that "wine" and "beer" are blessings that warm the heart (again, see the Psalm 104 verse referenced above) and that it is actually a matter of justice that kings and rulers should "remember the oppressed" by sharing the riches of God's blessings with those less fortunate. Of course, rich and poor alike abuse and overuse God's good gifts. We do this with food (gluttony), sex (adultery and other illicit uses) and even through the idolatry of family (Luke 14:26,27) and riches (Matt. 19:22) that keep some from the Kingdom. Idolatry is always bad. But really, no Christian dares to said, "family is bad" de facto or "food is bad" de facto or that "sex is always bad" de facto. But how often have we said, "beer and wine are bad" de facto? Why do we call bad that which God calls good?

Well, within a couple of years of my conversion to Christ, I became introduced to a Reformed understanding of Scripture. The Reformed confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), speaks very clearly about how "Christian Liberty" is to function in the Christian life. Gal. 5:1 says that "it's for freedom that Christ has set us free." And the WCF Chapter 20, Sec. 2 says this:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

Do you see what the penners of the WCF were saying? God is the Lord of conscience and men's consciences must not be bound by: a) anything that is against Scripture or b) anything that might be "beside" Scripture. In other words, we must not bind men's consciences to anything that is "anti-Biblical" or "extra-Biblical." I sense that Evangelicals have often gotten "a" but lost sight of "b," that to bind men's consciences to extra-Biblical teachings can be just as damaging as requiring them to follow anti-Biblical teachings. What is the teaching, "wine and beer are always bad"? Here's the answer: extra-Biblical teaching! 

Well, there's a long and tortured history regarding why it is that evangelical Christians stood so strongly against alcohol consumption of any kind, and they were in large part due to the social reforms of the 2nd Great Awakening and revivalistic and conservative Christianity's alignment with Prohibition all the way through the 1920s (in 1918, what would become the failed experiment of Prohibition, became codified into law). As Richard Lovelace comments, these changes that worked towards the "reforming of society" seemed logical at the time but were "not necessarily biblical" (see my previous blogpost here).

Lovelace even states that in the history of the Church, huge tendencies towards such legalistic tendencies resulted from a doctrinal loss, where the Church lost sight of the glorious Reformation (and Scriptural) doctrine of "Justification by Faith" and began teaching instead "Justification by Sanctification" (also see this previous post: Partial Disenculturation).

So what was it that I could see as an "outsider to Christianity" up until the point of my conversion? I could see that many Christians stood strongly against alcohol consumption of any kind, sometimes using the "my body is a temple" argument but then didn't have any problem with over-eating or gossip or general mean-spiritedness or other sin patterns. What was that all about? Well, Rose Marie Miller once said that legalism and lawlessness are really two sides of the same coin, living life in one own's strength (according to the "flesh" as the Bible describes). And what you often see is people vacillating from irreligious living to getting "religion." But their lives never seem to change and be transformed on a foundational level. Why not? Because as Miller says, "flesh cannot control flesh." So we go from trying "really hard" to saying "forget it" as far as the "righteous life of Christ goes." Why? Because the Christian life cannot be lived in one's own strength; instead, must be empowered by the power of the Spirit or "living by the Spirit" as Paul says (Gal. 5:16). Evangelicals have often sought to make the Gospel about moral reform while non-Evangelicals have had a tendency to say, "I don't need God," but either way whether religious or irreligious, life has been sought in autonomy from the risen Christ, and I know God has so much more for us. The inconsistencies in the Church were at times palpable. I was reminded early on that the Apostle Peter was right, that "judgment must begin with the household of God" (1Pet 4:17). How many Christians are empowered by "life in the Spirit" and manifest the peaceable fruits of Christ (Gal. 5:22)? How many Christians know and love the Word, so that their "arguments" come from the very lifeblood of Scripture itself rather than are merely cultural ones? How many Christians know what they believe about Scripture's teachings on these matters and are rooted deeply in the power of the Word and what it says, not necessarily what cultural movements among Christians have said? Did you know that the Bible says "beer is good"?

Tanya and I started Grace Chapel when we were 29-year-olds. We are both now forty. When I was younger, I wasn't always sure if I said things in order to get a rise out of people or because the Holy Spirit had led me to say them. I've always sought to submit my preaching to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but as a young man, how do you know? How much of my preaching was about Mike Hsu vs. being about Christ? I remember I said in a sermon when I was 29, that "when I drink Bud Lite, I do it to the glory of God." Here's the thing, I don't like Bud Lite that much because it is bad beer, but my point was that "eating and drinking" serve one primary purpose in life and that purpose is "for the glory of God" (1Cor. 10:31). If I think it's OK with God to drink Bud Lite (which I do), well then I have one option and that's to do it for the glory of God. I remember an older lady got right up at that point in the sermon and walked out of the doors never to return to Grace Chapel again. That shakes a preacher, especially a young preacher. Well, I'm a little older and wiser these days, and I've often reflected on what I said that day, and I continue to be glad I said it, because the Church needs to grapple with the life that Christ has for us in the Spirit and in submission to His Word. The Lord is indeed the Lord of conscience, and I'm so glad He leads us in His power and by His Spirit.

Here's the thing: I like beer. In fact, I've had the pleasure the last two nights of making "black and tans" for my dad and me (above, I've posted a picture of one of them). I've made two different types- last night I made one with Guinness on top and Hoegaarden on the bottom (delicious) and tonight with Guinness on top and Bass on the bottom (really good too). Dad and I have enjoyed the fellowship and laughter and beer has been a blessing. For that I give God thanks. I've not yet read this book, but I've heard great things about it. It's a serious book called The Search for God and Guinness published by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, and I hear it's a great book. As Douglas Wilson has said, "Put this book in a frosty glass and enjoy":

One final note, I've taught some about the question of the "weaker brother" spoken of in 1Cor. 8. I have a brochure at Grace Chapel called "Christian Liberty" and unfortunately haven't made it into the 21st century yet by putting it on an electronic file. But basically, I find Scripture to have a kind of flexibility to addressing sin issues in a person's life, based on precisely what those sin issues are. So for example, Paul says to the Galatians that "if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you" (Gal. 5:2). Why does he say that? Well, Paul says that because the Galatians struggled with legalism and making circumcision a part of the "salvation equation," adding the Jewish works of the law to their justification. But also notice that Paul is very comfortable circumcising Timothy for the sake of the Gospel's movement among a Jewish people (Acts 16:3). Was Paul contradicting himself? The answer was "no" but rather using his Christian liberty to help the Gospel's movement into peoples' lives. The Corinthians struggled with lawlessness, so abstinence from certain practices of eating meat sacrificed to idols made a lot of sense among other believers who had come out of such normative pagan-associated practices and might be tempted to turn back to such an empty way of life. It would be a bit like a Christian choosing to abstain from a beer when having dinner with a good brother who had a history of alcoholism. However, in other cases where alcohol abstention is thought to be the lot of the "righteous" and "religious" (where legalism instead of lawlessness is the shape of sin), it might make sense to expose such legalism by "having a glass of wine in the Spirit" and displaying the life of freedom purchased for us by Christ. In fact, didn't Jesus Himself do this in the midst of the Pharisees, to the point of receiving much criticism from them (Matt. 11:19)? Well, this is a long post about beer, so just like my wonderful 22 oz. glass of black and tan I enjoyed with dad this evening,... I'm finished. 

Christmas for the Affluent and Wife of My Youth

Tanya, kids are I are in Topeka celebrating Christmas with my family. So there have been some traditions set over the years as a "pastor's family" for us. For one, we are always in Lincoln Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so often it is the case that we travel to Topeka Dec. 26th and do the "Hsu Christmas" then. We've been here in Topeka since yesterday. Another tradition that is a bit more recent came out of the "Advent Conspiracy" we've encouraged people to do at Grace Chapel. The idea is to seek and give loved ones the gift of "presence" as well as presents and at times in lieu of presents. We began asking the question a few years back, what do you give parents who really don't "need" anything? Well, we came up with the idea that since mom and dad have lived in the same house since 1975, have never had a garage sale and are looking at retirement soon (and possibly downsizing at some point), that we would begin "taking things away from them" for Christmas every year. So each year we take a room of their rather large house and go to town on the room clearing out closets, taking many things to the local mission, yet others to the garbage, yet others things after a brief evaluation are kept and then organized. Mom and dad (and my sister Cassandra) enjoy the time spent together digging through each room, making decisions together as to what to keep, what to give away and what to throw out. I think this gift of "presence" is really meaningful to them. I figured this is a way to do "Christmas for the affluent."

Another thing that has been super-fun is going through my "old room" and digging through old college pictures, letters, etc. Tanya and I met when we were sixteen and so now have known each other for over twenty-four years. Here I found an old college picture- I'm going to date the picture somewhere around 1992 (when we were both 21-year-olds). The picture made me think of this Scripture:

Proverbs 5:18- May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Spirituals and the Blues, by James H. Cone

Throughout this year, I've been writing a lot about a kind of dualism we've seemed to embrace as American Evangelicals. Whether N.T. Wright describing how somewhere along the lines we turned the hope of the Gospel into an exclusively "heavenly hope," rather than emphasized the broader vision of the Bible that teaches us our ultimate home is the reunion of heaven and earth (think of the Lord's Prayer or the earthiness of the vision of the New Heavens and Earth at the end of the Bible in Revelation, its similarities with the original Garden paradise in Gen. 1&2). Andy Crouch shared with us how losing sight of the "earthiness" of our hope, we've lost sight of what meaningful "culture-making" is. Lesslie Newbigin pinned the blame for separating the heavenly from the earthly on the Enlightenment Project of the 17th and 18th centuries that began measuring purpose not so much by a deeper "telos," but rather by that which was measurable, by Newtonian physics built on basic laws of "cause and effect." What is "fact" is observable and measurable, but what is "value" is left to private judgment. The "facts" and "values" divide resulted coming out of the Enlightenment and much of evangelical Christianity acquiesced by emphasizing a less rational, more spiritualized, hope, rather than integrating a vision of life to include both the material as well as the spiritual, the heavenly with the earthly. A while back, William Placher spoke of the medieval tendency to see a self-imposed kind of asceticism as describing the "spiritually heroic" and that monastic life, rather than "ordinary life," began to represent those truly with a "vocation," i.e. calling from God.

Well, in James Cone's fascinating book The Spiritual and the Blues, Cone distinguishes between "Blues" and "Spirituals" in that the former tended to be located outside the Church while the latter tended to be within. The Blues that would later turn to Jazz spoke of the hope for beauty and love without "another worldly" hope while the Spirituals later turn to Gospel music gave an eschatological hope taking advantage of "pilgrim" and "sojourner" language to sustain a suffering and enslaved people. 

As Cone writes:

The hope of the blues is grounded in the historical reality of the black experience. The blues express a belief that one day things will not be like what they are today. This is why buses, railways, and trains are important images in the blues. Each symbolizes motion and the possibility of leaving the harsh reality of an oppressive environment. “Ef ah kin jes grab me a handfulla freight train- ah’ll be set.” The blues emphasize movement, the possibility of changing the present reality of suffering. p. 124

While the Spirituals tended to place their hope in an eschatological future instead, in a heavenly hope, nonetheless as Cone writes, both the Spirituals and the Blues "partake of the same black experience in the United States" (p. 129). I found these observations fascinating.

What is more, along with Wright, Newbigin, Crouch and others, so Cone takes his stab at the source of the problematic bifurcation between heaven and earth, the earthly and the spiritual, and he does so through the lens of power and sex. Cone makes a point that white evangelicals have tended to make "sex" a bad thing, while the music of the blues have tended to make central "joy, love, and sex.... hugging, kissing and feeling" (p. 114). I had to pause for a second and try this on for size. I've now been a Christian (and an evangelical one at that) for nearly 22-years. I've always been taught that sex is a beautiful thing in the right context, but there was also the sense when I first came into Christianity in 1990 that the Church was trying to right a ship that had emphasized for far too long the prudishness of Victorian values. Sex was good, but... qualify, qualify, qualify, ... and "whatever you do, don't listen to that terrible rap music!" In other words, it seemed that my evangelical past had once upon a time had a hard time affirming the goodness of sex, let alone even talking about it without blushing. Where did this come from? Well, Cone argues that it comes from people of power who have never had to grapple on a foundational level with the "exchange" of beautiful physicality in the midst of predominantly oppressive physicality. Again, listen to Cone here:

People cannot love physically and spiritually (the two cannot be separated!) until they have been up against the edge of life, experiencing the hurt and pain of existence. They (people of power, “white oppressors” as Cone calls them) cannot appreciate the feel and touch of life nor express the beauty of giving themselves to each other in community, in love, and in sex until they know and experience the brokenness of existence as disclosed in human oppression. People who have not been oppressed physically cannot know the power inherent in bodily expressions of love. That is why white Western culture makes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body, the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. White oppressors do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body. But for black people the body is sacred, and they know how to use it in the expression of love. p. 114

Even as I write Cone's paragraph, I find it pushing my evangelical sensibilities and making me defensive. Really, I can't go "all the way" with Cone (sorry about the sexual play on words there), because I do think those who have not been oppressed can know the sacredness of the body, in fact to know it is to come more fully into understanding the hope of the Gospel that has at its center the resurrection of the body and the honoring of the human nature (as Paul says, "sown in dishonor, raised in glory, sown in weakness, raised in power- 1 Cor. 15:43). To know its sacredness is to know more fully what it means to be human, most fully His as we were intended to be. To know its sacredness is to emphasize some of the evangelical church's emphases on uniting only with a spouse in marriage, since the Gospel itself is brought to bear more fully on our lives as husband loves wife as Christ loves the Church and wife honors husband, indeed "submits herself to him" as to the Lord. So I can't entirely make such a blanket statement with Cone regarding the inability of "people of power" to understand the sacredness of the body, at least without emphasizing nuance or complexity to the issue at hand; ... however, that being said, I think I see what he is getting at and believe I need to listen. There is less shame and bashfulness about bodily subject matters where beauty is involved regarding the body, especially among a people who have primarily known mistreatment, oppression and violence done against the body. I hate to do the comparison game because sin is sin and God hates it all, but let me go ahead and do it for a second since we evangelical Christians ourselves are guilty of separating "sin categories" whether intentionally or unintentionally, so here goes... what is worse, sex outside of marriage or a general disregard for the poor? Actually Ezekiel 16:49 answers this question in part when Ezekiel speaks of the "sin of Sodom"... which was??? Take a guess! You might say, "immorality!" However, Ezekiel's answer was "injustice!"... "She (Sodom) and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy."

The point here isn't to say that one sin is "better" than another but to give pause to the ways in which our particular "class" perspective as American Evangelical Christians has influenced and framed much of our thinking on Scripture and how we define the "good life in Christ." Unfortunately, there are bifurcations everywhere, the splitting up of that which ought not be split up, whether heaven and earth, the spiritual or the material, the professional religious people vs. those with ordinary jobs or the split between talking about spiritual matters but not that of the body.

Sex is good! Can I say that without blushing? Or without a million qualifiers? There are qualifiers, of course, but why be so sheepish about the subject matter? If my 14-year-old foster son wants to ask me what I mean, I think he will. Darius chuckled the other day when I told him sex sets off "pleasure centers" in your brain called endorphins and that food, drink and even drugs tap into a similar part of the brain, that there is a reason all these things "feel good." I told him that's why we have to be careful to partake (or delay or refuse participation) in such things in ways that will give us the life God wants for us ultimately, long-term, not just "in the moment." But he was still giggling because I a pastor said the "S" word. I know he's talking about it with his buddies. I know the rap songs he listens to speaks of sex. Why not talk about SEX in ways consistent with the beautiful portrait given us in Scripture? Why hide or blush or say, "shouldn't talk about it"? The human heart knows better, as do Cone's "people," as does my teenage foster son. Cone gives us interesting food for thought, at the very least.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Quick Update

Hi Friends,

I haven't been blogging much as of late. I had a busy November helping to prepare a team of twenty-six people to go to Haiti. We were in Haiti from Nov. 12th-19th. Then I returned to step right into the season of Advent, one of the fuller seasons for a pastor. By the way, I'm always struck by the Christmas themes this time of year of God coming to the lowly, the downcast and the disenfranchised. As Jesus calls the naked, the friendless, hungry, thirsty and destitute in Matt. 25, "my brothers and sisters." I think Advent has so much to teach us about these themes of the One who though rich became poor for our sakes (2Cor. 8:9). That's a short way of saying, Advent has been awesome so far. Also, since the end of October, I've been rehabbing an ankle that was pretty severely sprained. I haven't been playing basketball since late October :-( , something I like to do a couple of times a week when I'm healthy.

Well, I've been doing some reading, mainly on Haiti, Travesty in Haiti by Timothy Swartz which is a hard look at much of the corruption in Haiti, including the problems with many of the charitable organizations and the utilization of orphans to raise money. Also, I recently finished The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer, another "hard look," this time a very critical evaluation of the history of US Policy towards Haiti. Farmer is a trusted source, but his critique of our government's alliance with the Haitian elite and general disregard for the welfare of the peasant population in Haiti, is far from flattering.  I actually cannot recommend either of these books unless you have a sincere interest in doing long-term work in a place like Haiti. These are neither books for pleasure reading nor to "check off the list." After completing both or either book, I think one is compelled to a kind of moral obligation to "do something": just a fair warning!

Finally, I just started a book that will probably come across as a snoozer to many of you: Qualitative Research, by Sharran Merriam. It is both an expensive book as well as a technical book. I'm reading it because it describes the type of research I will be pursuing the next few years for my Doctor of Ministry program. Believe it or not, call me a nerd, but I'm enjoying it.