On Turning 40

three weddings

Today I have just turned 40 years old. I have never been one to put much stock in such things (e.g. I didn’t make a big deal about turning 18 or 21 or 30), and I’d be the first to use the hashtag #ageisjustanumber—but for some reason this turning of the digits seemed more profound to me than other transitions.

Maybe because it just sounds old—anybody in their 20s and 30s can still claim to be on the younger side, but not once you’re 40. I am no longer a “young man” anymore. If an average lifespan in the U.S. is 80 years, then I’m exactly at the halfway point, and society tells me I’m now on the downhill. (Of course, this is coming from a society that idolizes youth, which is the opposite of most societies in history which value maturity.)

Or maybe because there’s biblical precedent for 40 being a significant number, but in a good sense: 40 represents a time of desolation (Noah’s 40 days of flood; Moses’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness; Jesus’s 40 days of fasting before he began his 3 years of public ministry) after which comes rest, home, and flourishing. I much prefer the biblical way of looking at it!

Here are some reflections:

  • 1) The glass is half full, not half empty. I once heard someone say that when you hit your 40s, your limitations are greater than your opportunities. I don’t agree. I think I’m much better equipped and confident in the second half of my life. My “tool box” or “utility belt” is much more diverse and competent now than it was 10 or 20 years ago. I am no longer trying to prove myself, or trying to “find” myself. I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not, and I don’t have to spend my time exploring options. Which stage of life is preferable: would I rather be applying for grad schools, or trying to finish my Ph.D., or be post-Ph.D. writing books and teaching? Having done all three of them, I’ll definitely take the last scenario. I can’t wait to write more books, mentor more people, run more marathons, and do more missions work overseas. This is living life, not just preparing for it.
  • 2) Stability. Speaking of not spending my time exploring options, I am getting married in two weeks and it is really nice to not have to date anymore. Uncertainty may be fun for a while, but it can get old fast. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what I’m good at; I’d much rather just know what I’m good at and start doing it. In the same way, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out who is going to be the love of my life; I’d much rather just know and start living life with her.
  • 3) Learning from my mistakes. I now see so clearly so many of my immaturities that were blind spots to me even just a couple of years ago. It is really hard to reflect on my younger, less mature years, but this process is absolutely necessary for me to self-correct and grow. As a historian, I always think of the famous mantra “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” This also helps when dealing with people much younger than me. I can think back and remember how I behaved at certain ages, and thus give a lot of grace to those going through the same life stages.
  • 4) Relationships. Many friends and family are lifers, some were only in my life for a brief but necessary season, and some have betrayed my trust or I have betrayed theirs. But to those who have stood the test of time, thank you. You are truly my closest friends through thick and thin, and I’m so appreciative of your intentionality. To those who were friends for a season, that’s fine too. I’ve learned that that does not mean your friendships were worthless or disingenuous. Seasonal gifts are also gifts, and I couldn’t have made it through some stages of my life without you. I now have friends in many nations around the world as a result, and though we do not keep in regular contact, when I do see them it seems like no time has passed. And finally, the people I have had falling-outs with: I have to also thank God for what I learned through the difficulties and hardships. Learning to forgive, learning to say I’m sorry, learning that not all things can be restored on this side of heaven, are some of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned, and they humble me. A good dose of humility, and a broken and contrite heart, are all things that are good for the soul and that God is pleased with.

Speaking of relationships, I ushered in my 40s in the best way possible: with two weddings of dear friends on the last day of being 39 years old. Surrounded by many close friends and joyous celebrations, how can anyone feel lonely under such circumstances? Even though the parties and cake were not for me, I didn’t care. The “gifts” were the people around me. And the party isn’t over: I have my own wedding to look forward to, just around the corner, where I’ll get to see everyone all over again. It’s like a party, followed by an after-party! And on my actual birthday, I get to spend it with my family in the morning and evening, and my closest friends in the afternoon.

The Bible highlights the value of community. Here are two great verses, one from the Old Testament and the other from the New:

Ps. 133— “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head… For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”

Heb. 10— “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

And to think, I may have another 40 years (or more!) where new friendships will form, some of which may be my dearest for life. And, in a couple of weeks I am marrying my best friend. But most importantly, our Lord said in John 15,

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit… This is my command: Love each other.”

I’m so passionate about this subject that I’m co-authoring a book on friendship next year with my wife.

I think my 40s are going to be sweet. I have a feeling it’s going to be much better than my first 40 years of life. Like commencement, it’s not an ending but a new beginning. So let’s get this party started!

My Engagement Story

I haven’t written a blog post since Chinese New Year. That’s because I’ve been kind of busy…

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This is the story of two seemingly separate paths which eventually converged and coalesced by a Spirit-led coinciding of events.

The first point of confluence was the Lord. Both Allen and Arianna grew up with a strong faith from youth due to positive family influences. Another is an intellectual curiosity and love of learning which drove both of them from childhood. And a geographical commonality was the city of Los Angeles. Though Allen was born in Guam and Arianna grew up in Seattle, both have L.A. connections: Arianna was born in the City of Angeles, and Allen moved to the city at a young age—so actually they overlapped in Los Angeles for a few years! And of course both are professors at Biola now which is in the greater Los Angeles area. But God brought them through a multitude of geographical destinations to arrive where they now are: Arianna came back to L.A. via Portland and Denver, and Allen via New Haven, Boston, Scotland, and England.

Allen started teaching at Biola University in 2008 and Arianna in 2012. Because they teach in separate departments, they rarely ever see each other on campus. Initial contact was made via their mutual friend Teri. Allen had joined a faculty integration group in the Fall of 2012, and he got to know Teri through that. Teri was (and still is) one of Arianna’s closest faculty friends on campus. It was during the December 2012 Christmas tree lighting (Allen’s favorite annual Biola event) that he saw Teri sitting next to Arianna and the introduction was first made. Allen immediately was drawn to Arianna’s beauty and outgoing personality, and that night friended her on Facebook. Arianna noticed how truly kind Allen was to his students, and how much they seemed to adore him. She accepted the friend request and he noticed that, other than Teri, he was her first Biola Facebook friend! Still, that led nowhere because Arianna is the type of person who is not drawn to anyone based on initial impressions—a fact which would not only play into Allen’s favor later, but would be one of the qualities Allen would most admire about her. She is not impressed by looks or money or charisma, but values the heart and spirit above all else. Actually there was another, more important reason nothing manifested itself just yet: Allen asked Teri in confidence if Arianna was single, and Teri’s discreet reply was, “This is not a good time.” Arianna was still in a relationship and Teri saved Allen the embarrassment of being denied—not to mention, unbeknownst to Allen, any man who desires a relationship with Arianna who she does not have a solid basis of friendship with, she views with suspicion, because how can she trust someone without knowing them?

Fast forward half a year to August 2013. At the faculty conference which immediately precedes every academic year, Allen talked with Arianna briefly. He found out she was now single, and suddenly his interest was renewed—but alas, again the timing was not right. Still just acquaintances, both exchanged pleasantries but nothing further arose from that. Later that spring Arianna ran into Allen at a technology conference on campus. They sat among a group of friends and colleagues. She noticed that he quietly and prayerfully paused before eating his food. While this was a small gesture, it caused her to regard Allen with esteem, valuing his clear heart for the Lord.

Another year passed during which both Allen and Arianna tried dating other people. Many were good learning experiences (and some were outright disasters!) but none were “just right.” Allen, in fact, had just ended a major relationship the day before the August 2014 faculty conference. During that conference, Allen had a fateful conversation with Arianna in which long-distance running was discussed. Arianna knew that he was a marathon runner, and she was in the midst of a year of discovery in which she was willing to take risks in trying new things, such as kayaking and online dating and everything in between! That led to the running conversation, though the two of them cannot remember who initiated the topic of running (Allen thinks that Arianna asked him to be her running coach, and Arianna thinks that Allen brought up the idea!). Allen was heartbroken from his prior relationship so the last thing he was thinking about was a romantic relationship with Arianna, but he accepted the challenge of coaching her because it would be a welcome distraction from his heartache to help her with this project. This was God-ordained because it led to a solid foundation of friendship with no ulterior motive whatsoever. (Plus, it probably helped to defuse any potential romanticism in that they saw each other several times a week not on campus dressed professionally, but in workout clothes and sweating!) Arianna, likewise, had no other motivation other than to try something new (a goal she made over the summer): she confessed she could not even run a mile but would like to courageously tackle the unknown—another quality about her that Allen (as an Intercultural Studies professor) would find immensely attractive: her openness to new things, such as always being willing to eat new foods and experience new cultures and travels, as well as social justice concerns for those who are oppressed and disadvantaged. She continually likes to challenge herself for personal growth, and her positivity and constant learning posture proved to be disarmingly charming to Allen. Allen was patient and kind as Arianna learned how to run. She began to feel increasingly at ease around Allen, looking forward to talking to him, learning from him, and sharing her own observations. As a Communication Studies professor, she noted that he seemed to house many qualities she admired in a friend: He was generous with his time and words of affirmation, witty and observant, had a thirst for learning, and a shepherding heart.

Thus began four months of running together, from August to December. The first training run was at Balboa Island in Newport Beach. That eventually led to her first race—a 5K (3 miles)—at Dodger Stadium. Later would come a 10-mile race at Huntington Beach, a 10K at Disneyland, and eventually three half marathons in a calendar year, so her perseverance truly paid off! Allen initially wondered if Arianna would really stick it out, but she did indeed, a testament to her faithfulness and loyalty, one of her greatest hallmarks. Ironically, just as important as the races were the training runs—so the journey proved to be as valuable as the destination, as is often the case. Two times a week Arianna and Allen spent literally hours in running and conversing along the way. They discussed everything from pop culture to theology/spirituality to personal struggles to academic work. Allen was so impressed by Arianna’s intellectual curiosity in everything—so often people would tell Allen that he overwhelms them with words as if he’s “lecturing” about everything, but Arianna’s response was patient listening and learning—and vice versa! Arianna was so impressed with the depth and breadth of Allen’s character. Not only did he seem to be able to handle whatever questions she posed, he liked talking through things! Arianna realized how much she loved “chewing” on ideas with Allen, pondering through all sorts of layers and implications and hearing his perspective. Arianna, who won the teaching award at Biola and the senior class choice award for favorite professor, also helped Allen with improving his classroom teaching, and Allen—as a researcher and writer—helped Arianna with advice on that side of things. Thus they discovered they complemented each other well. They had a lot in common (e.g. that The Lord of the Rings ranks among her favorite movies—a fact that Allen found so hot about her!) but they also brought a lot of diversity of experiences to the table that the other has never had. She loved discovering that Allen’s rich knowledge of missiology, travel, and scholarly territory was balanced with a fondness for movies that included The Sound of Music and Indiana Jones, Disney culture, community events like baseball and live concerts, and of course, really good food.Yet, what remained consistent was their like-minded spirit. The training runs took them all over Southern California, from Manhattan Beach to Palos Verdes to Laguna Beach. Many of the runs would end with lunch or dinner: exploring new restaurants or simply cooking together. They began to watch a new sitcom called “Selfie” due to their mutual interest in social media. And there were also other memorable events such as Arianna’s first baseball game (where she finally understood the game because Allen explained it so well), her visiting his church, and watching a movie together (Exodus). The two of them just felt so comfortable together as friends that trust really began to be built. Inevitably, people began to ask if anything was going on romantically between them. The honest answer from each of them was, “No we’re just friends.” But it was a friendship based on a lot of commonalities. Allen remarked, “Arianna, you’re such an agreeable person!” To which she replied: “I don’t know if I am really; I just happen to agree with you in just about everything!” It occurred to her in that moment that her level of trust in Allen made him one of her closest friends.

But something began to change—perhaps it was friends planting the idea in their minds (Allen’s House Church friends certainly encouraged him in this direction to take things to another level!), or because their mutual respect began to grow, but suddenly Allen began to change in his feelings for her a couple of weeks before the end of the Fall 2014 semester. He wondered if he should broach the subject with her, but feared damaging their friendship if she did not reciprocate. He finally worked up the courage on the last night of the semester before she went home for Christmas vacation in mid-December. Both gave a Christmas gift (without knowing the other was giving one, similar to the Gift of the Magi story!) and Allen said: “Arianna, we’ve been friends for some time now… and people have been asking if there’s something going on between us.” And Arianna’s reply (much to Allen’s dismay) was: “Oh, Biola people!” and she laughed it off. Allen then nervously continued: “Well, I was wondering if there might be something more than just friendship…?” At which point Arianna’s demeanor changed, her countenance grew thoughtful, and to Allen’s great delight, said, “I’ve considered it.” Allen was expecting her to say no and put him firmly in the friend zone, so this was a hugely pleasant surprise! But her answer ended up being a little anticlimactic: “I don’t know. I have to think and pray about it over Christmas. I don’t know if it is wise to date a colleague. My calling is to be a Biola professor and I don’t want to jeopardize that.” Allen would have almost preferred a straight-up “no” answer because then he could just clear his mind of this over the holidays! But he realized that a hope, a possibility, was certainly better than a denial. So he said, “Take your time. I will be waiting for your response.” His kind and patient reply put Arianna at ease. It affirmed the sense of safety she consistently felt with him – safety to be herself. More than that, his concern for her welfare was paramount, so he also said, “If it has to be a choice between me having you and Biola having you, I will let Biola have you because I do not want to jeopardize your calling. However, if it is a possibility that Biola and I might not be mutually exclusive, please let me know.” Allen’s integrity and selflessness made an impression on Arianna.

Thus started four weeks of patient waiting. But it was not passive; it was quite active in fact. Allen and Arianna kept in touch literally every day during the entire month of the Christmas holidays—every day there was the minimum of at least a text message, if not an email—and oddly enough, one phone call which felt pleasantly strange because phone was not something either of them ever used with each other since they had so much in-person conversation time on all their runs! But the phone conversation went so smoothly and it helped them to each consider that this may, in fact, work.

When Arianna returned in mid-January, she said she had an answer for Allen. But first things first: of course they had to go on another run! They started in Balboa Island again, coincidentally symbolizing coming full circle from their first-ever run together. That afternoon they also watched a Seattle Seahawks playoff game in which the Hawks came back against the Colts in dramatic fashion (Allen credits the Hawks victory with putting Arianna in a joyous mood and thus contributing to her positive answer that day!). Finally there was dinner, during which Allen was ready for Arianna’s answer. After all this waiting, how did she reply? “I still don’t know.” !!! Or rather, it was not “I don’t know” in terms of being unsure about Allen, but more of an “I don’t want our friendship to be ruined and I’m not sure how to proceed forward because I have some fears.” But she gave it more thought, and helpfully articulated, “You know, we’ve already moved forward by discussing this as a possibility; so really, it’s impossible to go back now to what we were before.” This relaxed both of them. And so Allen suggested: “Why don’t I take you out on a date then. Just on a ‘probationary’ status of dating—no commitment, you can back out at any time, but let’s just give it a try and see how it goes.” So Arianna agreed. Allen asked if he could pray for them at the conclusion of their talk. Arianna took note of how much she enjoyed hearing Allen pray – a true conversation with God. He asked that the Lord would help them be kind and generous to one another.

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That led to four official dates—the first one exceeded both their expectations (Arianna commented, “That was the best first date I ever went on!”) and each successive date unbelievably trumped the one before. Before long, they had decided to be in a committed, exclusive relationship. Though their relationship happened naturally and organically, there was also intentionality behind it: 1) They created a figurative “cookie jar” which contained profound questions written on strips of paper which they would pull out one at a time on their dates to get to know each other better. Such questions really helped to lay a strong foundation for their relationship. 2) Meeting loved ones also helped. Arianna and Allen both agreed that inviting friends to join them was an important part of their relationship-building. Their first-ever date included a double date dinner with one of Allen’s closest friends, Tran, and her husband Yun. Another double date was with Arianna’s cousin Romy (who is like a sister to her) and her fiance Jeff. And of course, the parents: Allen introduced Arianna to his mom and stepdad over coffee, and Arianna introduced Allen to her parents over Skype because they live in Seattle—nevertheless that did not stop Arianna’s mom from shedding tears of joy at the encounter!

One day, Arianna and Allen just spontaneously brought up the idea of engagement. They both were thinking about it simultaneously, thus characterizing the nature of their relationship: they’ve always been on the same page. They were just friends through the running; they had a romantic awakening at the same time a couple of weeks before the end of the Fall 2014 semester; they were tentative but consistent with the Christmas vacation long-distance contact maintenance; they were willing to try dating; and they both were on board with the exclusive boyfriend/girlfriend relationship when it came to that. And now, with the other in full agreement, they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Allen asked Arianna’s parents for their blessing, and they wholeheartedly gave it!

While from an outside perspective the pace of their relationship quickened quite a bit, their closest friends remarked, “You two already knew each other well, after spending a whole semester running together. You are not beginning dating; you are really in the middle of dating. Also, you are both in your 30s and you know yourselves already.” Those reassuring thoughts confirmed that this was right, and both Allen and Arianna felt that the Lord was in this. Arianna’s parents’ support was further confirmation, because they had seen this whole process play out from the beginning.

Only one more problem remained: Allen was on sabbatical in the Spring semester 2015 and had a two-month research trip planned through Asia, during which time they would be physically separated. But through it all, Arianna and Allen kept in touch and their love only grew for each other despite the distance. April saw their happy reunion in Hong Kong and Taiwan (as Arianna came to visit Allen at the end of his Asia trip) and in New York City for her birthday weekend—their first trips together.

In April, Arianna and Allen got formally engaged, and in August they are getting married!

After the wedding in early August in Seattle, Allen & Arianna will go on their honeymoon and return back to L.A. for a late August reception for those who can’t make the Seattle wedding. That fateful day when they had the running conversation was August 21, 2014. The Los Angeles reception is a year to the date that their whole story together began!

The future remains to be written, but as long as the double-As remain faithful to God who wrote this whole story, the future looks bright.

Fun with numbers:

-Allen went on an 8-week, 8-nation trip through Asia for his sabbatical: symbolic because “8” is the Chinese number of fortune; and they said goodbye to each other the day before Chinese New Year which is appropriate for Allen’s Chinese heritage.

-Their time apart also had biblical, not just cultural, significance: the last time they saw each other was Ash Wednesday, and they reunited the day before Easter: so their separation mapped exactly onto Lent: 40 days, symbolizing fasting. Forty is the biblical number of desolation (40 days of Noah’s flood; 40 years of Moses’s wandering in the Exodus; 40 days of Jesus fasting in the wilderness); but at the end of the 40 comes hope and new life. Allen is also getting married just a couple of weeks after his 40th birthday, so 40 also marks the end of his old life and the beginning of his new one.

-Easter is Arianna’s favorite holiday, and it was the day of their engagement! It was also Passover which is appropriate for Arianna’s Jewish heritage. It was also the first day of the new baseball (Allen’s favorite sport) season, but instead of a baseball diamond Allen and Arianna were focused on a real diamond! Also, Allen and Arianna’s first ‘date’ was a baseball game on the last day of the regular season in 2014; and their engagement happened to be on the first day of the new baseball season in 2015.

-Their wedding date is 8/8—once again the Chinese lucky number!

-It’s not just the double-8s which are significant, but also the double-As (as Arianna’s dad Bill dubbed them): symbolizing Allen & Arianna’s initials, as well as their engagement and wedding months of April & August!

-Arianna’s father Bill’s birthday is August 19, and Allen’s father Leon’s birthday is August 20. And our Heavenly Father had them first discuss running on August 21!

-Arianna’s mother Johanna’s birthday is New Year’s Eve. Allen’s mother Vivian’s birthday is Chinese New Year’s Day!

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The Proposal

For those of you who want to know how it all unfolded, here’s the story:

Spring 2015 was Allen’s sabbatical semester. Arianna, meanwhile, was hit with her most stressful semester (teaching an overload of 5 classes, serving on 5 committees, a number of independent studies, and a new outside consulting project). To compound matters, they were apart for 40 days of Lent: they said bye to each other on Ash Wednesday, then Allen proceeded to travel to Asia for research for 8 weeks in 8 countries. Before Allen left, Arianna wrote him 8 notes as part of her Valentine’s Day gift to him, one each to be opened upon arrival in each new country (Allen, in turn, sent Arianna a postcard from every country he visited). Every week they made sure to have a FaceTime date on Sunday, and daily texts and Allen’s email morning prayers to Arianna daily kept their love for each other alive through the distance.

Arianna had a 10-day Spring break and came to see Allen in his final 2 countries on his trip: Hong Kong and Taiwan. Allen had wanted to allay some of the stress of the semester by rolling out the red carpet for her on this trip. Arianna stopped for half a day in Seattle to see her parents before flying to Hong Kong. Allen got the ball rolling by sending her flowers right before she got on the plane. Meanwhile, he had a Cinderella idea: get her a shoe, but instead of a glass slipper it would be a running shoe, symbolizing the marathon training that caused them to fall in love over the course of 8 months. He wanted to reconfirm Arianna’s running shoe size and color preferences, so he texted Arianna’s mom who stealthily took pictures of the shoes while Arianna was in the shower and texted them back to Allen!

Their happy reunion occurred in Hong Kong, at long last, on Good Friday. It just so happened that Allen’s father was traveling with him during this portion of the trip as well, and Allen’s church friends Paul & Esther also coincidentally were visiting Hong Kong for Spring break. Allen knew that Arianna’s favorite holiday was Easter so he had planned to propose that morning. She was wearing a lovely yellow dress which made her look like her favorite Disney princess, Belle. He started by taking her to Easter Sunrise Service at 6am in Discovery Bay in Hong Kong—on a remote part of Lantau Island. After a series of comedic mishaps of ending up in the wrong place twice, they finally got it right on the third try but by then had literally just missed the service! They asked the pastor for the liturgy sheet and had their own personal Easter sunrise service as the soft sun rose higher in the sky. God’s timing, as usual, was perfect.

Next, Allen and Arianna took a ferry boat across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island where they met up with Allen’s father and Paul & Esther for an 8am tram ride up to the top of iconic Victoria Peak. This was where the action was scheduled to take place. Allen got very little sleep the night before due to nervousness, but his “Mission: Possible” teammates got his back. Paul & Esther literally had flown in the night before with the ring that they had picked up from Allen’s mother in Los Angeles (Allen’s mom and his Aunt Lillian, who are jewelers, had put together the most amazing ring back in California), and Dad was carrying the running shoes. Arianna, meanwhile, was completely unsuspecting. Normally, Hong Kong is hazy and has gray skies. That day, the skies were sunny and blue—a sight that Allen has never seen in Hong Kong! It seemed that God was smiling on them that day. Allen had prearranged with Paul to make the ring exchange in the bathroom, so he loudly announced that he was going to the bathroom and Paul said he was going too. It turned out, there was no bathroom on the observation deck on top of Victoria Peak! Esther then immediately distracted Arianna with questions about her trip thus far, and Allen and Paul ducked around the corner and made the ring exchange. Allen quickly tied the ring to the shoelace of the left running shoe and stuffed it inside the shoe.

Arianna came over to Allen and he announced to Paul & Esther and Dad, “Guess what—Arianna so thoughtfully gave me Easter gifts this morning: two running shirts! So I have a gift for her: a new pair of running shoes!” Allen had Arianna sit down on a bench and he took out the right shoe and put it on her foot, playfully saying that this was like a Cinderella moment. Then he put the left shoe on her foot but she felt something stuck inside. So she pulled out the shoelace and out popped the diamond engagement ring! Allen just happened to already be on his knees and Arianna suddenly focused hard on him and what he was saying because she knew this was a special moment—and one she totally did not expect or suspect (because she thought to herself: “How could he already have the ring prepared?”). Allen then held up some signs that he had written ahead of time so that he wouldn’t forget his lines and so that Arianna could visually read them as well as hear his words, and he said, “Arianna, do you remember one time you quoted an African proverb to me: ‘If you want to run fast, go alone; if you want to run far, go together’? Well, why not both? Because here are a pair of new racing shoes—so that you can run fast. But I have bought myself a matching pair [at which point Allen got the shoes from Dad and put it on himself] so that we can run together. Will you partner with me and run this race of life together with me? Arianna Molloy, will you marry me?” At which point she exclaimed “Yes!” and they embraced in joy! It just so happened that Victoria Peak also had this kiosk where lovers write their names on a red paper heart and pin it to the kiosk, so they also did that.

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Afterward Allen brought Arianna to Hong Kong Disneyland (it’s like in the commercials: “So you’ve just done X [this incredible thing], what are you going to do now? I’m going to Disneyland!”) where they not only enjoyed the rides but had lunch in the beautiful Disneyland Hotel. Allen had further surprises in store for her: he pulled out some Cinderella cosmetics and an actual glass slipper he had purchase from the Disney store, saying, “Though I gave you running shoes, you are also my princess and you deserve a glass slipper!” Then he had arranged a cake ahead of time with Disney that had the line from Cinderella: “Be kind and have courage,” a quote which Allen thought exemplified Arianna’s persona. It just so happened that both had seen the movie separately a week earlier. That night, Allen and Arianna were able to indulge in a beautiful dinner on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong with a skyline view of Victoria Harbour with Allen’s aunt Sylvia (a Hong Kong movie star and director) and uncle Billy as they watched the “Symphony of Lights”—a fitting end to a blessed and “magical” day.

Allen and Arianna just wanted to highlight the extraordinary help of friends and family in making this story possible: both sets of parents, Allen’s aunts Lillian and Sylvia, church friends Paul & Esther, and many others.

Happy Chinese New Year 2015!

CNY 2015

 

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

 

Today begins the Chinese New Year. I guess if Jesus had a Chinese New Year animal, it would be this year: the Year of the Sheep/Ram/Lamb!

 

Yesterday was also the beginning of Lent.

 

So there are two happy coincidings of events:

 

1) Timing: It’s interesting that Easter (and thus Lent) is the only Western holiday that we celebrate which is on the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year is also according to the lunar calendar. This year, Chinese New Year’s Eve and Ash Wednesday occurred on the same day (yesterday, February 19, 2015).

 

2) Animal: Lent is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament Passover. Passover is when the lamb was sacrificed to save God’s people. This year, it is the Chinese Year of the Lamb!

 

Here are two passages to meditate on today:

 

John 10:11—I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

 

Exodus 29:38-46—“ 38 “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly. 39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight. 40 And with the first lamb a tenth measure[a] of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin[b] of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. 41 The other lamb you shall offer at twilight, and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord. 42 It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. 45 I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. 46 And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.

Review of “Fresh Off the Boat”

Fresh Off the Boat

Two weeks ago, I was visiting New York City and went out to dinner with two of my friends who live there. My pick for restaurant: Baohaus, a fusion Taiwanese-American restaurant which serves Taiwanese pork buns in a variety of variations: fried chicken, fish, tofu, etc. Why did I choose this restaurant? Because it is owned by Chef Eddie Huang who wrote the book Fresh Off the Boat which just became a new sitcom this week. To my delight, Eddie was behind the counter cooking our meal!

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Dinner at Baohaus in New York City with friends

Well, Fresh Off the Boat (the book) has just been translated into “Fresh Off the Boat” (the TV show) this week—they aired the first two episodes back-to-back. “FOB” (as I shall abbreviate it henceforth) is only the second Asian American TV show in history (the first being “All American Girl” starring Margaret Cho, which came out 20 years ago and was canceled after one season). Of course, Asian and Asian American actors have had multiple roles on the small screen, with people like Sandra Oh in “Grey’s Anatomy,” Daniel Dae Kim in “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-0,” Harry Shum Jr. in “Glee,” Lucy Liu in “Elementary,” Ming-Na Wen in “Agents of SHIELD,” John Cho in “Selfie,” Maggie Q in “Stalker,” John Kim in “The Librarians,” etc. But this is only the second time that a TV show is self-consciously majority Asian American and deals with themes pertaining to that people group.

I had mixed feelings:

On the one hand, I was a little apprehensive because it is a sitcom, and I didn’t know how they were going to pull off comedy without resorting to stereotypes. And the last thing Asian Americans need is further negative stereotypes about the culture, reinforced by a sitcom which by definition necessitates exaggeration for the purpose of entertainment. Every comedy is intentionally over-the-top but would audiences not “get it” and think that Asian Americans are actually literally like those portrayed in the show?

On the other hand, not only is “FOB” about an Asian American family, but specifically a Taiwanese American family, which is my culture. So I was pretty excited about it.

So what was my assessment? Not bad. Sure there were stereotypes: the family never verbally says “I love you” but shows it through actions and food instead; the parents are mostly just concerned about grades; one of the kids was lactose-intolerant; they’re good at math; the mom is, um, frugal, and she is a Tiger Mom; the Chinese food smells very different from American food. But many of these stereotypes were actually true—though it must be qualified that they were true of first-generation Asian parents in the 1990s (which is when the show is set; after all it is based on Eddie Huang’s real childhood), and not necessarily what second- or third-generation Asian Americans are like today. I also wonder if they’re “milking” the stereotypes too quickly, because at this rate they’re going to run out by the fifth episode. But maybe that’s a good thing, because too many stereotypes can get old fast.

But the struggles were real too: wanting acceptance among friends, being called racial slurs, not knowing whether we are black or white and wanting to be both, that Asian Americans aren’t always necessarily wealthy but struggle to make ends meet like everyone else. It also showed that there is a wide spectrum of how Asians are treated by non-Asians: hostility to genuine friendship to curiosity to simple misunderstanding.

It also showed flip sides of the same coin: though Eddie struggled to adapt, his little brother Emery effortlessly found acceptance in every facet of his school community. Though the mom ran a tight ship and counted every penny, the dad tried an Americanized “customer service” approach and thought that keeping the employees happy would ultimately trickle down to the customers. This illustrates that Asian Americans don’t always have the same experience and approach to life, even within the same family.

It illustrated comedically some of the realities of the different expectations of Asian parents vs. American parents, such as having to spend time in the Chinese Learning Center, or caring more about when the report card is issued rather than the fact that there is a drug dealer on campus, or the fact that though the Asian kid was happy to get straight A’s, the white kid was happy to get straight C’s and even got rewarded with a basketball hoop.

I found the characters mostly endearing. Randall Park, who plays the dad, did a very good job as Kim Jong-un in the movie “The Interview” (even though I wasn’t a huge fan of that movie) and he was a very kind and loveable dad; Constance Wu, who plays the mom, was still likeable even though she had to play the part of the cheapskate and the Tiger Mom (but clearly she is American because her Asian accent was obviously faked badly, but oh well it’s a comedy); Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang carried the starring role well; and his two little brothers are just adorable.

I learned something new too: why do some Asian American kids talk like black people? And right from the get-go, Eddie Huang explains it: because hip-hop represents the “other” which is how he often felt. I always wondered about that: now I know!

Overall, I liked it. I hope that it will continue. But ultimately TV comes down to the almighty dollar, so unfortunately that may be the decision-maker in whether the plug gets pulled on it after a season (or even half a season, as “Selfie” was). And the profit is determined by viewership. Unfortunately, although Asian Americans are well represented in major metropolitan areas, we are only 5% of the U.S. population and thus are just not seen in rural areas which is the majority of America. So even if people are watching “FOB” a lot in New York and Los Angeles, they may not be in Mississippi, Iowa, Kansas, and Montana. But hopefully this won’t see a quick demise and maybe this will blaze the path for more Asian American shows in the future!

The Mysterious Magi Explained

Magi

For those who celebrate the liturgical calendar, today is Epiphany Sunday.* It is the day when the so-called Three Wise Men, aka “We Three Kings,” aka the Magi, came to see Jesus.

*The actual Three Kings Day is January 6. But for liturgical calendar purposes, Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday closest to it, which is why it is today (January 4, 2015.)

 

One thing that Christians in the U.S. often don’t get is the Twelve Days of Christmas. I mean, we sing the song, but we don’t understand why there are twelve days (and why the heck do almost all the days have to do with birds? Swans and geese and calling birds and French hens and turtle doves and partridges in pear trees? I have no idea to that question actually). But that’s because Christmas is actually a season: from the birth of Christ (what we mark as December 25) all the way to the visit of the Magi (the feast day of January 6) which marks twelve days. I have spent a lot of time in Mexico City and New Orleans, and I noticed a similarity (though the former was a Spanish colony and the latter a French colony, what they have in common is their Catholicism): both eat a certain cake to celebrate those Magi. In Mexico, it’s called Rosca de Reyes. In New Orleans, it’s called King Cake. The only difference is, in Mexico you eat Rosca de Reyes on Epiphany Sunday; in New Orleans, you eat it right before Lent. It’s basically a donut-shaped multicolored cake with a little plastic baby Jesus baked inside. If you happen to choose the piece that contains Jesus, you are the one obligated to host the next party.

Rosca de Reyes

Rosca de Reyes in Mexico

King cake

King Cake in New Orleans

 

But historically, who were these Wise Men? Where did they come from? And what was the point of them?

 

There are many Christmas misconceptions that need to be cleared up, and some of them pertain to these guys. Their story only appears in the Gospel of Matthew, so let’s take a look:

 

-The number 3. There weren’t three of them, there were three gifts that they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that there were three men. There could’ve been any number of men present.

 

-They are called kings or wise men. The Greek word used here is magi. That word has somewhat of an equivalent meaning in our English language to astrologer. There is no indication that they were kings! However, as scholars of the stars, “wise men” may be an apt description.

 

-Where they came from. If you know European (and later passed down to Latin American) high church traditions, the three Magi are assumed to have come from three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Though inaccurate, I like this fiction for this reason: the intention was for it to be symbolic of the nations (or the entire known world at the time) coming to worship the Christ child. Actually the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is correct in this regard. They came from the Orient (the East). Because the word magi is a Persian word, likely they came from somewhere in Persia (which meant they were not just astrologers but Zoroastrians who worshiped the god Zoroaster)! The famous Richard Strauss orchestral piece Also Sprach Zarathustra (translated from German to English as: “Thus Spoke Zoroaster”) is known popularly as the theme song to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and is in reference to this ancient deity.

 

-Their names: in addition to being assigned to three continents, they also have been given fictional names: the European one is Caspar, the Asian one is Melchior, and the African one is Balthazar. Some traditions alternatively say that Caspar is from India, Melchior is from Persia, and Balthazar is from Arabia (at least they got the middle guy right!). These names were likely later saints of the church posthumously and anachronistically attached to the Magi. In addition, many artistic depictions show Caspar to be an old man, Melchior to be middle-aged, and Balthazar to be young, symbolizing that not only does Christ rule over all the nations, but he is Lord over all ages and generations. That’s kind of a nice artistic license.

 

-When they came. Often in Nativity scenes, they are depicted at the manger right after the birth. But in the Biblical account, Herod questions them about the time they saw the star, then proceeds to kill all boys two years old and under. This means that the Magi came to see Jesus when he was about two years old. This makes more sense, as traveling all the way from Persia to Israel meant they couldn’t have arrived right at the birth! The journey took them a good two years to complete. It emphasizes the journey (like the Exodus) which makes the destination, the Promise, all the sweeter upon arrival.

 

 

So why am I excited about these guys? Because they point to missions in two ways:

 

1) They’re Gentiles. In fact they’re the first Gentiles who come to know and worship Jesus! It is commonly assumed that the first Gentiles to accept Jesus as the Messiah were the Samaritan woman or the Roman centurion. Not so—it was these Magi. OK, so maybe they didn’t come from Europe, Africa, and Asia. It doesn’t matter—they were not Jews, and they came from afar, and they worshiped the Christ child. Jesus was acknowledged to be King, even of the Gentiles, from a very early age.

 

2) They represent hope to the world. The fact that pagan occult astrologers (the word “magic” comes from magi) came to know Jesus without anybody preaching to them or without having Scriptures—this is nothing less than the Principle of Redemptive Analogy! So this means that God can save people without missionaries (in case you were ever wondering what happens to people who never hear the name of Jesus), just by showing himself to people in a vision (that’s what the word “Epiphany” actually means: a manifestation of God). That doesn’t take away our responsibility to go to the nations (anymore than grace gives us license to sin); but it does show that God has a way to make up for our lack when we fall short. I want to qualify, however: theophany or epiphany is not the usual way that God saves people. He may have done that with Abraham, Melchizedek, the Magi, and Paul the Apostle, but most of the time he employs us humans to act as his agents in this world, to bring the Gospel to those who have never heard.

 

3) Matthew is the most Jewish gospel. You’d expect the Magi to appear in Luke, the most Gentile gospel, right? After all, Luke also wrote Acts which is all about missions! But the fact that Matthew is telling the Jews that salvation has already started to come to the Gentiles by the beginning of the first book of the New Testament—that’s pretty cool.

 

Speaking of artistic license, last week I taught Sunday School for the Junior High kids at my church, using the Magi as an illustration. This is what we did as an analogy for the Magi: I had them make their own “treasure box” out of a paper cup and markers which they decorated lavishly. Next, I had them take three pieces of paper on which they had to write three labels: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On the back of the “gold” paper they had to write down what is their most prized physical possession on earth (their basketball? Playstation? etc). On the back of the “frankincense” paper they had to write down words of praise to Jesus—because incense in the Bible was a sweet smell representing the prayers of the saints that floated up to God. And on the back of the “myrrh” paper they had to write what aspect of themselves they hoped to change for the New Year (the sin within them that has to die)—because myrrh was traditionally used for embalming dead bodies. I had the kids fold up the three pieces of paper and put them in their treasure box and give it up to Jesus as worship to him, like the Magi did. They took these home as a reminder for themselves. I think that we, as adults, need to do the same: hold loosely to our physical possessions, lift up true words of worship in spirit and in truth, and die to ourselves daily by casting off the sin that so easily entangles.

 

Thank God for these Magi! Because they are the forefathers to us Gentiles who worship Jesus. They are worth studying as more than just a footnote in Biblical history.

 

P.S. The fact that Christmas stretches from December 25 to January 6, that gives you ample time to take down your Christmas decorations without feeling guilty! In fact January 6 is the last day that Disneyland has their Christmas decorations up. Hmm, could they be working off the liturgical calendar too…?

The Death of the Generalist and the Rise of the Specialist: Why This Bodes Ill for Christianity and the World

Janus

Today is New Year’s Day, 2015, and I’m not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions—largely because it’s so disappointing when we inevitably can’t stick to them. (Not that I never stick to them, but more often than not they’re short-lived). However, New Year’s Day is a good time to assess and reassess: where we’ve been and where we’re going. January is named after the two-faced Roman god of transitions, Janus (pictured above) who looks toward the past while simultaneously looking toward the future.

 

I’ve been reflecting today on what kind of person I’d like to be known to be. I suppose when you’re a kid you think about what you’d like to be when you grow up; in middle age, you start thinking the opposite way: what kind of legacy you’d like to leave the world. I turn 40 this year and I figure this could be the halfway point in my life. And it’s best to start thinking about this in the middle of your life, while you still have time, and not at the end because by then it’s pretty much too late.

 

By “legacy” I don’t mean that we need to have statues erected in our honor. Most of us live normal existences. Yet, I’m sure we all want our lives to count for something, to mean something to at least some people. It could be accomplishments, it could be kindness, it could be inspiration. But to have nobody care that you’re gone, to have made no difference in this world, is a sad thing.

 

I’ve been reflecting on what the world wants vs. what God wants: especially when it comes to specialized vs. balanced. It is my contention that the world wants the specialized person, and God wants the balanced person. But our world (including the Christian world) is increasingly pushing us toward the specialized, sometimes to our detriment.

 

Let me provide some sociological and historical examples to show you what I mean. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, famously posited that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become really amazing at something. However, what he fails to mention is that it is a zero-sum game, because time is the great equalizer: everyone only has 24 hours in a day. Whatever hours you are pouring into practicing your violin, or basketball, or making money, or flying a plane, those are hours you are not spending with your loved ones, praying, or staying healthy. But though, in theory we laud the all-around person (“he/she spends a moderate amount of time at work, and a moderate amount of time with their family, and a moderate amount on leisure, and thus everything is in order”) the well-balanced person doesn’t get much consideration, and it is almost always the extreme cases (both positive and negative) that garner all the attention, especially in this day and age of media: the things that are YouTube- or movie-worthy are what go viral. We want to see the extreme of humor, the epic fails, the most eye-popping feats, and the most spectacular romances.

 

We want to see the Peter Jacksons who create 4-hour films about Middle Earth and win Academy Awards, but who give up years of their life to do it—and who are very physically unhealthy (just look at him). We can’t get enough of the George R.R. Martins who lock themselves up in their offices and write nothing but Game of Thrones novels which are a thousand pages each and get turned into major HBO series—but he looks even more unhealthy than Peter Jackson (not to mention very socially awkward-looking)! Look at famous painters like Modigliani and Picasso—their marriages were wrecks, and they were addicted to alcohol and other substances. Or Van Gogh who committed suicide. Don’t even get me started on professional athletes, like Wilt Chamberlain of the NBA who infamously boasted that he bedded 10,000 women in his lifetime, or golfer Tiger Woods whose marital failures are legion. Even Billy Graham spent so much time evangelizing the world that he ended up with a prodigal son. And William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions, was a terrible husband but the greatest missionary to India. King David likewise was a horrible father and husband, and an adulterer and murderer, but a man after God’s own heart. Perhaps the Catholic Church is wise in insisting on celibacy: imagine what kinds of marital difficulties Mother Teresa would’ve had if she had not been a nun! I don’t know that many husbands could’ve tolerated her lifestyle, yet she is now canonized as a saint. And St. Paul, Mr. Extreme Apostle himself, traveling to innumerable cities and founding churches and writing half the New Testament, but getting beaten up and stoned and eventually beheaded, was anything but a well-balanced person. But at least he was single so he didn’t have a wreck of a marriage (or many marriages!) like David.

 

You might say: but c’mon, we celebrate Renaissance Men! But the original Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci, was not simply well-rounded: he was extreme and well-rounded at the same time. He was an amazing writer, a sublime artist, a genius inventor. If he were just moderately good at all those things, we never would’ve heard of him. He had to be a Michael Jordan at everything he touched.

 

This is a trend: it is those people of the stunning successes and crushing failures who are immortalized in history. It is the extreme people, the overly-specialized and thus imbalanced people, who put their stamp on the world. And the well-rounded generalists pass through the world, touch the lives of a few, and fade into oblivion, to be remembered by few or none—but they are remembered by God. This is indicative of the sickness of our American society: it is the same reason why Barry Bonds mashing home runs on a steroid-fueled rampage is interesting to people, but not a 1-0 soccer game. It is the over-the-top and the sensational that makes the headlines.

 

In the world of missions, I have often pondered our drive toward social justice and what that means for the receiving country. So if we in the West are “rich” in material things, we often think that social justice means bringing the rest of the world up to our standard of living (never mind that if everyone on earth lived as Americans do, we’d run out of fuel and food so fast, because we don’t have enough resources to sustain our lavish lifestyles). But let’s take Mexico as a contrast, for example: they have far less money than the U.S. but they are far “richer” in relationships: they have large families and lots of friends who they spend much of their time with in fiestas and quinceañeras and other such celebrations. They have siestas where they (from certain Western points of view) are just “wasting” time but they are far less stressed, less suicidal, and are actually happier, than many of us in the modernized wealthy West who have a lot of material possessions but need to uphold a certain work ethic to maintain it. My friends who are lawyers call this the “golden handcuffs.” Once you land a job with a six-figure salary, you buy a house and a car which are commensurate with said income. And when you end up being stressed out and miserable in your lawyer job and have to work 80 hours a week and have no time for family, you can’t escape it because you have to keep that job to pay for the big house and the fancy car and to pay back your debt from law school.

 

All that is to say: if we lived a simpler lifestyle, but had more time to enjoy life and family, would we be happier? I think most people would agree, yes. Then why do we try to get Mexicans (or Africans or Indians) to live like Americans and call that social justice? Perhaps, in many ways, they are better off as they are, and it is we Americans who need to downgrade our material possessions and upgrade the riches of our relationships. Again, it’s a zero-sum game: whatever time you’re not spending at work, you could be spending cheering on your kid at their soccer game or school play. Just sayin’.

 

As I reflect on my own life, I think I am at times specialized, and at times balanced. My specialized side comes out in extreme ways. I like being extreme (because it adds color to life!) with two important qualifiers: not sinful or dangerous. Examples of me sucking the marrow out of life:

 

1) Hanging off the edge of Victoria Falls in Zambia

2) Spending Christmas in a random little village in Poland

3) Hiking four days roundtrip over mountains into the heart of the Colombian rainforest to visit the Lost City of the Tayrona Indians, and eating roasted guinea pig

4) Sneaking to the top of the Sears Tower after closing hours

5) Meeting the Princess of Bhutan

6) Sitting alone at the edge of Wailua Falls in Hawaii

7) Seeing Roger Federer break the all-time men’s Grand Slam tennis record

8) Living on a World Vision boat and sailing down the Amazon River for four days visiting indigenous villages

9) Going to the mecca of coffee and having a cuppa with the author who wrote the textbook on coffee

10) Petting a tiger in Thailand

11) Watching a game at all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums in America

12) Pulling an Indiana Jones by learning to read Mayan hieroglyphics and visiting all the major ruins of Mayan pyramids in Mesoamerica

13) Running a marathon on every continent

14) Visiting 60 countries on earth

15) Voluminous writing (my WordPress Annual Report told me: “The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 53,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 20 sold-out performances for that many people to see it. There were 300 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 238 MB. That’s about 6 pictures per week. The busiest day of the year was July 4th with 990 views. The most popular post that day was Reflections on the Death of a Friend. In 2014, there were 94 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 118 posts. Readers were from 117 countries. Most visitors came from The United States. U.K. & Canada were not far behind.”) I also have three books coming out in the next two years.

 

These things made Biola magazine feature me in a recent article. Of course they’re going to write about my marathon running and violin playing and world travels. What they won’t be writing about (because who wants to read it?) are my quiet days at home or teaching the junior high kids at my church. Because those are “boring.” This world (including the Christian world) values the spectacular specialist, not the well-rounded generalist.

 

But belying my extremist tendencies are the following ways in which I try to keep balanced:

-Both mental and physical activity. As a professor, I think a lot. This is why I run marathons, so I can give my brain a rest, and not let my body become obese if I am solely sedentary.

-Both extrovert and introvert sides. I enjoy my job because I am with people all day at work, and I love spending time with friends, but after that I need to just come home, be by myself, pray, and/or watch TV without talking to anyone. In this way, I recharge and am ready to face people again.

-Both home and away. I love my job because I am home for 7 months of the year teaching at the university, and I have 5 months of vacation where I can travel the world. Having a home base makes me itch for exotic far-flung locales. And traveling makes me appreciate home sweet home so much!

-Both work and play. When I am charged with a task, I try to do it excellently. But I also love to have fun! For example, every time I do a missions trip I always tack on a couple of days at the end for me to just be a tourist in that country.

-Both goal-oriented and people-oriented. Yes I love checking off lists of accomplishments, but I also love sitting for hours on end talking with a dear friend over coffee and just catching up.

 

The thing is, I feel the tug of the specialist. The world, my job, potential romantic partners, are all wowed by Superman, and demand that I be him. Public speaker Brené Brown, in one of her TED Talks, said that a man once confessed to her, “My wife and daughters would rather see me die than fall off my white horse.” It is sad that men are demanded to be the stoic warrior rather than a human being with hurts and flaws and vulnerabilities that they can express. Everyone wants men to be the pinnacle of everything we do. And it’s how I was brought up to be: the over-achiever. Go to Yale, go to Oxford, get straight A’s, get a Ph.D.

 

But I think my New Year’s resolution is: let go of the need to be spectacular, and be OK with balance, even if that makes me mediocre at many things. I could spend all my time grading papers and getting them back to the students in a timely manner; or I could get them back to the students a little bit late and make sure to have dinner with my mom regularly. I could try to make my lectures a little more perfect in every way, with the consequence of not ever having time to go to the gym, to the point where I eventually have major health issues; or I could care of my body. I could speak at more conferences and publish more, but suffer through more nights without full sleep; or I could choose not to run on fumes, because lack of sleep is linked with obesity and risk of cancer and memory deficiency. But it’s not just work—I could be less extremist in traveling the world, running marathons, Facebook posting, and blogging. I could invest in people local in my life instead of in a different time zone. I could pray more and eat out less.

 

So maybe I won’t be the best professor on campus, and maybe being Mr. Overachiever is relegated to my past rather than being part of my present; but that’s OK because I feel like being balanced and healthy is a priority for the second half of my life. Instead of doing something at a 10 level and everything else is a 3, I keep everything at a 7 or 8. Because it’s a zero-sum game.

 

It’s ironic, because American Christian culture is like the two-faced Roman god Janus. One face accuses us of being “too busy to pray.” And best-selling authors like Henry Cloud and John Townsend write books like Boundaries to try to get us to keep everything in balance. But the other face of Janus tells us to be the knight in shining armor. We professors are celebrated for how many books we write and how packed our classes are and how many committees we chair, and our rank promotion depends on such things. But if you try to keep everything in balance, you inevitably will not be Prince Charming on the white horse—you’ll be Joe Normal riding a donkey. But Jesus came like that—and if that was good enough for God, it’s gotta be good enough for us.

 

What The Hobbit (and other Mythologies) Can Teach Us About Missions

Hobbit

Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth has come to an end. From the release of the first “Lord of the Rings” movies (Fellowship of the Ring in December 2001) to the last of “The Hobbit” movies (The Battle of the Five Armies in December 2014), this sextet of films is now complete. I watched the last movie rather wistfully, knowing that there would not be any more offerings to come. The Billy Boyd (Pippin the Hobbit) end-credits song only punctuated it for me, rather poignantly.

 

Unfortunately I felt that Peter Jackson pulled a George Lucas: the original trilogy was a masterpiece; the latter prequel trilogy, though full of shiny CGI, was somehow lacking in the magic that made the original trilogy great. Nonetheless, Jackson’s “Hobbit” series did get progressively better with each film, and I thought The Battle of the Five Armies (though I am upset that they changed it from the original There and Back Again which was Tolkien’s subtitle for his novel) was the best of the trilogy.

 

This blog post is not a review of the movie but a discussion about mythology and its place in Christian missions.

 

For the first three years at Biola, I taught in the Torrey Honors Institute which is a Western “Great Books” program. The curriculum included books by C.S. Lewis, Plato, Shakespeare, Homer, etc. Then for my next three years at Biola, I switched over to teaching missions in the School of Intercultural Studies. Some people have asked me what, if anything, the two have to do with each other. “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” as Tertullian famously queried. Or in my situation, what does the Western canon have to do with non-Western missions?

 

First of all, this presupposes a falsehood: that Christianity is indigenous to the West, and missions is always toward the non-Western world. I teach a class on the book of Acts and I point out to my students that Christianity started in Asia: specifically, Israel and Asia Minor (what is today Turkey). Then it spread to Africa in Acts 8 via the Ethiopian eunuch. Christianity did not reach Europe until Acts 16 when Paul received the Macedonian Call—therefore Europe was the last of these three continents to receive the faith! So, this means that, contrary to popular modern opinion where people have no sense of history and perennially accuse Christian missions of being Western imperialism, Christian missions originally went from Asia and Africa to Europe! The first missionaries in Paul’s band were Asians and Africans. Christianity is not indigenous to the West. The West was a recipient of Christianity.

 

Three questions I always ask my students, as a sort of pop quiz: what countries (three different answers) do these three foods originally come from: coffee; the potato; the orange (fruit).

 

Many people will say coffee comes from either Latin America (Brazil or Colombia) or perhaps Java in Indonesia. For the potato, people often guess Idaho or Ireland. And for the orange, people surmise Spain or Florida, or even California! The answers often surprise people: coffee is from Ethiopia; the potato is from Peru; and the orange is from China (the German word for orange is Apfelsine which literally means Chinese apple; and don’t forget there are Mandarin oranges)!

 

The point is, sometimes something is associated with a country for so long that people actually think that country originated it: like British tea. Tea is as British as the Queen, but think about it: tea is a tropical plant. It grows in warm weather, and Britain has anything but. You can’t grow tea in Britain. The British appropriated tea from their colonies in India and China. And now it’s inextricably linked to the culture.

 

In a similar manner, the West has become so associated with Christianity that G.K. Chesterton’s friend, author Hilaire Belloc, infamously stated, “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith.” How far from the historical truth! Nevertheless, we must study how the West appropriated the faith and how people arrived at such conclusions.

 

Most cultures around the world have similar origin stories—for example, almost all have a flood narrative, though they differ in the details. What does this prove? Simply put, there actually was a real flood, but the tale of that has been passed down in various iterations. But this begs the question: which iteration is the truth? Which was the original one, the mother of them all? My contention is: the Biblical account.

 

So what does this have to do with missions? Don Richardson in Eternity in Their Hearts calls this the Principle of Redemptive Analogy. Every culture in the world has kernels of truth in them, for two reasons: 1) all cultures derive from an original Mother Culture when humanity was one, and 2) we are all created by the same God. The similarities, therefore, are not coincidental. The task of the missionary, then, is not to give truth that is imported and foreign, but rather to uncover truth that already exists in native cultures.

 

For example, this was true in China when the missionaries Matteo Ricci (Italy), James Legge (Scotland), and William Boone (USA), all argued over the proper translation for the name of God (which, incidentally, is the hardest word to translate in the Bible). Ricci argued for Tianzhu, Legge contended that Shangdi was the right word, and Boone wanted shen. Each of these words was problematic, as they had linguistic and cultural baggage (much as what would arise from using Allah for the name of the Christian God while talking to a Muslim). But, despite the differing opinions of these three missionaries, they all agreed that using Yehehua (the transliteration of Yahweh) was the wrong word to use, because the Chinese would never accept an imported word; it had to be indigenous. You see this in Acts 17 when Paul preaches to the men of Athens on the Areopagus and claims that their worship of an “Unknown God” proves they were unwittingly worshiping Jesus this whole time, they just had to have someone uncover it for them, and provide some correction for some of their theological errors regarding this God; nevertheless this does not detract from the fact that they were on the right track all along.

 

Biola professor J.P. Moreland contends that Plato was 70% Christian—without ever having Scripture or having anyone evangelize him. He somehow just “knew,” and came so close to the Truth, because of the Principle of Redemptive Analogy. In fact he was so “Christian” that Augustine, the greatest theologian in the history of the Church outside of the Bible, built much of his theology on Plato. This means that Plato, despite being a pagan Greek philosopher, somehow was embedded with the Truth unknowingly, and it came out in his writings. I would argue the same with Buddha or Confucius, that they are 60% Christian—so if Augustine can build on Plato, then an Eastern Christian theologian can build on Buddha or Confucius as foundations for Truth. There is much overlap between these two Eastern philosophers and the teachings of Jesus. Natural Law imprinted on them something very close to the Divine Reality, even if it does require some course correction.

 

In fact, biblical examples abound: Abraham, Melchizedek, the Magi, and Cornelius were all pagans who received theophanies (visions of God) and that’s how they came to know the True God; not because of Bible or evangelism. The men of Athens and the Ethiopian eunuch were also on the right track, and just needed someone to slightly correct their theology, and reveal to them the True Name of Jesus.

 

C.S. Lewis recognized this when he wrote his Chronicles of Narnia and the Space trilogy. Consider the following examples:

 

In The Last Battle, there is a character named Emeth (which, incidentally, is the Hebrew word for “Truth”). But he is not a Narnian, he is of the race of the pagan Calormenes. Yet Lewis writes the words of Aslan speaking to Emeth:

‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he had truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’ I said, ‘Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’

 

And in That Hideous Strength, the Director (a sort of Christ figure) talks to Jane about Maleldil (the name for God in the trilogy):

‘Do you place yourself in the obedience,’ said the Director, ‘in obedience to Maleldil?’ ‘Sir,’ said Jane, ‘I know nothing of Maleldil. But I place myself in obedience to you.’ ‘It is enough for the present,’ said the Director. ‘This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. He will have you for no one but Himself in the end. But for tonight, it is enough.’

 

This inclusivism is definitely not universalism; it is not suggesting that all religions lead to Heaven, nor is it saying that a halfway knowledge of God is sufficient. The men of Athens and the Ethiopian eunuch both needed someone to lead them all the way after they had gotten halfway there already without human assistance—this is why missions is still necessary. Plato and Confucius and Buddha also needed someone to take their hand and lead them the rest of the way; I would never presume to call them Christians. But they had some great semblance of the Truth and we cannot deny that.

 

Now back to The Hobbit: like Augustine building on Plato, Tolkien built on Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology in order to tell his Christian story. So what is the point of myth? C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien debated this, to the conclusion that myth is not a fabrication but rather a way of telling truth. Watch this video for an excellent recounting of Lewis & Tolkien’s conversation. If the West needs myth to point to the truth of Christianity, then so does every other culture in the world. Whenever we do missions in other cultures, whether it be the West or the non-Western world, we need to look for indigenous footholds to explain the Gospel in their own cultural idioms and paradigms. Missions is not Christians telling non-Christians 100% of what they don’t know. It is using what they already know, but perhaps only see dimly as in a glass darkly, and building on that to show them the Light. It is saying, “You already have half the Truth; let me show you the other half.” So it becomes an equal partnership and not paternalism. This is why myths, and stories, and culture, are all so important.

 

P.S. Don’t believe that the West received an acculturated view of the faith? Here are some proofs that Western Christianity is baptized paganism:

 

-The word “God” is as pagan as the Chinese using the word Shangdi (which implies the Supreme God in a pantheon). “God” derives from the Goths who believed themselves to be divine.

 

-You might say, “Well what about the Greek word Theos that is used in the Bible? Surely that is a pure Christian name! Actually it’s not: Theos is totally pagan. It and its corresponding word Deus in Latin are derived from the Greek Zeus, which is like Shangdi because it implies the Supreme God in a pantheon. Another Greek word used in the Bible is kurios which means “Lord” but was a shockingly pagan word to be applied to Jesus at the time because it originally was used for the divinity of the Emperor, Caesar.

 

-Other pagan Greek words that Christianity has baptized and used in the New Testament: ekklesia (church—but it originally meant a pagan assembly); oikumene (the whole household of God—but it originally meant the Roman Empire); logos (the Word—but it originally was used for pagan reason and philosophy); baptize (baptize—but originally it was an economic term, meaning to immerse or soak something, like a ship sinking or cloth being dyed); Hades (the word Jesus uses for “hell” is obviously from Greek mythology).

 

-Our calendar: like Thursday which is Thor’s Day, and July and August which are named for Julius and Augustus Caesar. Even us switching our Sabbath to Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday was a departure from the Bible.

 

Christmas: it was originally a pagan holiday, and corresponded very nearly with the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year. The peoples of northern Europe made Jesus their own, coming to celebrate his unknown birthday (which historians say likely was in April) when the sun was just beginning its long slow climb in the sky every day toward spring, toward new light and new growth. They lit candles in balsam and burned a Yule log to help the cosmos along. Yet these were their pre-Christian, “pagan” celebrations, the time when they recognized the rebirth of the life-giving god of the sun, of the twelve dark days seen as “the nights of spirits,” when spirits seemed especially present and branches of mistletoe and winterberry were hung to appease them. It was also traditionally a time to reach out to Freyr, the god of fertility for whom the “Friday” is named, through the sacrifice of a pig (his favored animal) and feasting on ham.

 

-Easter: just as Christmas was on the Winter Solstice, Easter was on the Vernal Equinox, when day and night were of equal length. Though it does have its roots in the Passover of the Old Testament, it derived its name from the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar. We have basically overlaid our Christian holiday on this pagan one, which is why we have symbols of fertility like bunnies and eggs.

 

-For more, read Frank Viola and George Barna’s book pagan Christianity: everything from our church building to the order of worship, and even the sermon, pastor, and sacraments, had pagan origins.

 

But I wouldn’t worry that our Western Christianity is baptized paganism. There’s nothing wrong with that—because that’s what all Christians are: baptized pagans! But the awareness of our own pagan roots means that we Westerners should not try to expunge all indigenous culture from non-Westerners as incompatible with Christianity, but rather see it as a great potential supporter of the faith to make it truly acculturated, because God is the Father of every culture in the world, and it all belongs to him. Our own myths and legends are not lies or opponents to Christianity but can point to the ultimate Truth, because all truth is God’s truth.

Tolkien quote