Monday, April 27, 2009

the power of clean

I just finished detailing the exterior and interior of my car after two hours of grueling work. I guess you could say I used to be an enthusiast, where I would clean my car every two weeks, undergo the tedious task of carefully applying car wax, grow frustrated, and then carelessly buff off the wax to create an impeccable shine. Well, not so much impeccable. But the car did look shiny.

Sadly, the only motivating factor in this week's edition of Clean My Car was the fact that I'm picking up the president of our organization tomorrow from the airport and I felt ashamed for having such a disgustingly dirty car.

Lately, I've been thinking about the power of cleaning. It seems like a waste of time to scrub away the dirt and detritus from the surface layers, only to have those layers magically reappear within the span of weeks. It seems terribly inefficient.

I used to not wear deodorant in high school.

I'm not sure why. I think it began with the fact that I really had no idea that people were supposed to wear deodorant. This was something my father did not inform me about when I was growing up, along with the birds and the bees, and also how to use tools. This progressed onto the stage where I really didn't care if I took showers, and eventually I was a walking pandemic.

After a few complaints and some instruction on deodorant, I realized that, even though it seemed like a terrible waste of time, cleaning myself was more of a necessity than a luxury. More than anything, the way I present myself to people, odors notwithstanding, was the way I viewed myself, in many ways. And now I dutifully paint on layers of deodorant every day – yet I still haven't had a date in years.

Redemption was the same for me. I used to wonder why I would have to come before God as a repentant sinner every week on Sundays when it was quite obvious that I would end up sinning again. It just seemed to make more sense to let a lot of sins accumulate over time until I figured it was time. That time usually came during church retreats, when the speaker would boom the importance of redeeming ourselves before God, and then our group would collectively sob and feel clean again.

The tough thing, the lesson that I didn't learn early on, is that being clean is immensely important in spirituality. The word 'clean' appears in Leviticus at least 55 times. Lepers throw themselves before Jesus, asking them to make them clean. Jesus tells people to wash themselves, and those people find themselves miraculously healed.

I'm not saying that washing ourselves or maintaining a clean lifestyle will cure our diseases. Well, not all our diseases.

It's a metaphor that God is tracing out for us, where He's telling us that to receive grace, we must first admit that our souls are dirty. It makes perfect sense, really. You don't ask someone to clean your car if you think it's immaculately clean – even if the car is disgustingly dirty. No, rather, what He wants us for us to admit that our souls are not clean, so that He can do the work of cleaning it for us. And Jesus illustrates the point as well when he's out curing the populace of lepers, who all openly admit that they are diseased. Had those lepers approached Jesus and said, “I don't really need to be healed, I'm sure my ear will reattach itself somehow,” I doubt Jesus would have cured them. I doubt Jesus would have even committed to having a conversation with them.

On the flip side, the Pharisees refused to admit that their souls were dirty, and that's probably why Jesus disliked them so much. They believed that their maintenance of the rituals that had been passed down for so long, that to avoid touching a corpse or cleaning their hands a certain number of times a day had somehow made them exempt from the power of sin. And the truth, which Jesus knew, is that it didn't.

Bottom line: we can't be cleaned until we admit we're dirty. And when we do admit we're dirty, we find our souls, heavy with the soil of sin, wiped clean.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

lessons on being human: love, pt. 1

Whenever I think about grace, I always think about a shirtless friend of mine.

The story goes like this: An hour before service was going to start at my college ministry, a few of us were lounging around the sanctuary, chatting about our plans in the near future. I was planning to go back to college at Santa Cruz, and I was sharing this while my friend Big Joe was playing the keyboard. He was playing in his undershirt, his buttoned shirt hanging nearby on a chair, when an older woman wandered into our sanctuary.

It should be noted that Big Joe has the mammary glands of a pregnant walrus, and he, for obvious reasons, refuses to go anywhere in public with anything less than an over shirt unless he's comfortable. Until that woman walked in, he was completely comfortable.

Big Joe, with an uncharacteristic shriek, scampered back to his shirt and hurriedly buttoned it up with special care given to his modesty. It took a few minutes and by the time he had finished, the woman had disappeared, probably frightened by the feral scream emitted by my friend.

This image always comes to mind when I think about God and the grace He bestows unto us, the human race. I don't know why, but when I think of how our sinfulness has stained our souls, we can't help but run from fear of shame that we have done. The human spirit has an overwhelming sense of pride, and sometimes I feel that it will go at any cost to preserve it.

I have ambiguous feelings towards Adam and Eve. On one hand, you have to think they must have been pretty bored, being naked and living in a garden all day. There's really only so much you can do in that situation. And, if you're not a firm believer in Darwinism, they're essentially the ancestors of everybody who has ever existed, so I feel like a bit of an ingrate when I resent them.

On the other hand, you have to hate them, just a little bit, for exposing humanity to the concept of sin. Just think: you've never had to want for food or companionship, and your soul is completely at ease knowing that you're perfectly connected to the One who created you, and suddenly, with one bite, your world comes crumbling down. You then realize that you've been naked for most of your mortal life and must make clothes out of leaves to cover yourself, introducing the human race to Abercrombie and Fitch and, worst of all, shame.

There's a basic essential truth that as humans, Adam and Eve (and, by extension, the human race itself) took a cosmic love for granted. And that's something we tend to do with anything in abundance, really, whether it be with friendships or money, that regardless of how we behave it'll always be there.

However, God created us with that very intention in mind – to create us as beings who run exclusively on love, as entities who crave one of the purest emotions; on top of that, He created us to function only with one cosmic love: Himself.

The funny thing is that when we're missing a vital part of ourselves, we tend to fill it up with other things that don't do so well as a replacement for a cosmic love – sex, money, coffee, you name it. C.S. Lewis wrote a particularly poignant passage, where he described a car engine that was designed to run on gasoline, but when given water as a substitute, it never seems to work in the way that it's intended; in the same way, humanity was a machine designed to run on God, and by replacing God with something else incapable of filling our souls, we inevitably fall victim to sin.

Some people see Adam and Eve as a cautionary tale, but I really see something more there – I see it as a portrayal of the human race, who, despite itself, is constantly yearning for something that overwhelms our sense of loneliness.

Monday, January 12, 2009

conversations with god

A long time ago, I once wanted to write a story called “A Conversation With God.” It was going to be a story about how someone could speak personally to God. The narrator was going to be an everyday, common man, one who could really ask the difficult questions about why life, like how girls seem to only chase the boys who were jerks, or why we hurt ourselves physically and emotionally, or why God decided to make the sea blue, instead of green. It was going to be brilliant, and I could imagine myself being on TV and explaining the depth of the conversation.

Ultimately I never wrote the story, because as it turns out, talking to God is not an uncommon idea. I saw Bruce Almighty, which featured Morgan Freeman as the Almighty, and heard about a television show called Joan of Arcadia which featured a girl who could talk to God, and recently I read a book called The Shack which featured a man who spoke to God, who was portrayed as a large black woman, and you know, I'm guessing there's thousands of stories like that out there nowadays.

So I guess it wasn't so original after all.

I somehow feel that there is a yearning out there to communicate with a Being unseen, to touch the intangible. Someone once said in the absence of evidence, there is faith, and I believe there is truth in that, but at the same time, humans cannot live on faith alone. Like I said before, humans are designed for reciprocity. We can't exist without some sort of reinforcement.

I used to feel like prayer was more like leaving a voice mail on some cosmic cellular phone, instead of a two way conversation. I would lie in bed and think about the ways that God would touch my life, and it was comforting to know that I could feel His presence on a consistent basis, but it was never about give and take. I guess what I mean is that when I spoke to God, I expected an immediate response.

Lately, however, I have come to realize that God speaks in more ways than directly. In the times when I feel discouraged or depressed, He paints breathtakingly amazing sunsets. He speaks to me with encouraging words from a friend. In some ways, yes, He does answer prayers directly, but in many more ways, He can talk through ways that we must strive to perceive and receive. And there is something comforting in that, because when we expect only the standard response to our problems or fears, He is always ready with a pleasant surprise. To think that He created us to simply live in relationship with him is an idea that I sometimes have trouble grasping, but it's an idea that I gratefully accept.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

to a God known

Nowadays, when I think about stories of God speaking to humanity, I don't quite imagine it as being accompanied by a thunderous lightning storm, or a great flood, or even fire from heaven. Mostly I wonder whether God had ever spoken to people subtly, quietly, reassuringly, in ways that transcends the Dungeons & Dragons way we expect God to speak to us nowadays. The old days are not these days, I guess. Or maybe it is and I'm expecting something different.

There's always some sort of disbelief that creeps through my veins when I hear people speak excitedly about how God spoke to them. Maybe it's the cynic in me – all I know is that when God speaks to me, He speaks to my heart. It's never been about grand ambition or sudden epiphanies (although those have happened).

God has always been about the quiet, slow realizations, and He speaks most effectively to me through people.

Someone who I admire greatly once told me that I had a gift for people, and whether he meant it literally or not, it seems that I find my encouragement (and sometimes my own frustration) in people. Having meaningful conversations gives me strength, something I cannot easily find with sleep or entertainment or a good book.

I remember a few months ago when I was preparing to go to bed. I was pretty mentally and physically exhausted – working two jobs can do that to you – and I was just burnt out spiritually. You can pray for ten hours straight, but if you don't have a sincere community to fall back on, you'll sink faster than the Titanic. And I wasn't praying for ten hours straight.

Suddenly my phone rang, with a friend who had just read what I had written before, an entry on the riskiness of love and how God is the constant when people are not. As we talked, I could feel my weariness leaching out of me. We shared our hearts to one another, and as she spoke to me and I responded with my own insecurities, I could feel God touching my soul, telling me that He provides for me when I feel as though there is nothing there. It was nice, and it was unexpected, and I think that's how God loves to surprise us, in ways that we don't fully expect but yet fully appreciate.

At night, when I'm drifting away to sleep, I have whimsical conversations with Him, quiet revelations about myself that I know is reciprocated by the way people can form intimate friendships with me and the confidence that I am loved.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

superstition in the pigeon

There's not many things about Santa Cruz that I miss, to be honest. I went there for school because that was the only college I had been accepted to, and I quickly found that life there was composed of surfing, marijuana, and parties, with the exceptional dosage of hippie pessimism. Which, in my opinion, is some sort of paradox that will eventually explode. Still, I have to admit that one of the few things I miss about my school are the classes.

One of the more memorable classes, Psychology and Religion, was taught by a local psychologist named Ralph Quinn. He had an odd habit of referring to himself in the third person as “little Ralphie Quinn” whenever he waxed nostalgic about the past, but every quarter, his lecture hall would be packed with students who were attracted to his stories and the fact that he required no textbooks.

Over the course of the quarter, the material ranged from Freud to Jung, from clinical psychologists to Herman Hesse. Admittedly, these were all interesting people, but there was one that stood out in my transitional period, while I rejected legalism and embraced the freeing power of grace: B.F. Skinner.

Skinner was a psychologist who performed experiments on pigeons – he would first begin by dropping food into the pigeon's cage at regular times of the day. Eventually, the pigeon would get used to the scheduled food and expect the food to drop in at the predestined time. After a period of time, Skinner began observing that the pigeons associated a random act, performed right before the food was dropped, as the causative factor. Soon, pigeons began turning in circles, flapping wings, poking heads in a very particular manner that suggested the birds had somehow developed superstitious behaviors that, in their minds, was the main reason for the food dropping.

After that particular lecture, Ralph Quinn spoke about the illuminating power of Skinner's study, and how it could plausibly explain the existence of religious rituals today. “Imagine you're a primitive human being,” he began. “By clapping your hands together, or dancing in a particular way that precipitates the arrival of rain, you've now become one of the mightiest humans in the world,” he said, looking uncannily mystical with his round glasses as he swept his gaze over the lecture hall. “Now guess where superstition comes from.”

It had been nagging in my mind for the past year, because sometimes I look at people who profess a great love of God and yet have reduced some of our most cherished practices to superstition. Prayer is no longer about meaningful conversations, worship is no longer about really having a connection with God, and fellowship has been reduced to shallow blurbs about the past week without any real emotion. Instead, religion has replaced interactions with quick sayings to ward off bad luck, and worship is more about the performance than the heart.

Jesus was never about superstitions, at least not the Jesus I know. He got ticked off at people for maintaining the letter of the law, but missing the spirit entirely: the Pharisees attempt to convict Jesus based on the fact that he healed people of maladies on the Sabbath. Jesus knew that loving God and loving one another was never about empty gestures.

Through it all, I've constantly been reminded that genuinely speaking to and loving God does not make you impervious to whatever life may throw at you, but it does make you whole. And that is what separates us from the pigeons.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Sometimes I take it upon myself to perform social experiments, or at least a few observations, while in a church setting. What I've found most interesting in the past few months is how a few pastors can speak for half an hour to an hour and yet not mention Jesus once during their entire sermon, which is actually pretty sad considering the fact that he is the basis of everything we believe.

Whenever I read Jesus' parables, I wonder whether he meant something deeper. For some reason, I don't buy it when pastors perform a straightforward translation of Jesus' words for us – I think he wanted to demonstrate something deeper than outrage towards mere greed when he overturned the tables in the outer court of the temple, and I think he wrote something more profound than mere sins in the sand when the Pharisees were prepared to stone a cheating woman.

I've been thinking a lot more about when Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. For some reason, every explanation of this parable has always been simple and straightforward, a call to evangelism to expand the “kingdom.”

Lately I've been thinking that Jesus was very deliberate in the way he describes the kingdom as a mustard seed. Whenever you plant a seed (or even the mere act of gardening itself), the process is never simple. You have to break through tough soil, pull out the weeds, dig through the manure and dirt just to place the seed in some soft, vulnerable soil. It never guarantees that the seed will succeed, because you always have to tend to it, water it, watch over it. You can't just toss the seed on top of some dirt and expect it to survive.

In the same way, you can never just throw some evangelism shtick towards people and expect a response. You have to break through the tough exterior of people, dig through the manure and dirt of people's lives to really be meaningful... and even then, you have to keep in touch with people, have overpriced coffee and entertaining conversations, tears and laughter. In other words, in order for the Gospel to be meaningful and relevant in people's lives, you must be meaningful and relevant in people's lives.

I don't think the mustard seed was ever about “expanding the kingdom” in the traditional sense... I think Jesus was talking about how big the Gospel could get inside of you, how it could expand to the point where you could start touching people's lives just by how full of love your soul could get.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


I believe one of the major weaknesses of human beings is our own pride.

Even if you don't believe in Darwin, you can naturally assume a number of our emotions are tied to some oblique survival mechanism, something intended to help us survive, just like how adrenaline is pumped into our system at the first instance of fear. I just wonder sometimes why humans are seemingly the only species where we worry about the length of our hair, the aesthetics of our clothing, the size of our biceps, or the symmetry of our own face. By that same token, we are the only species that attempt to (and sometimes successfully) hide our own flaws from each other.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend time with two friends I had grown up with inside of the church, and we were able to engage in candid conversation. Take this with a grain of salt, but I think if three guys get together and speak openly about a subject, it will invariably wander to the opposite sex, regardless of what subject you began with. You could start with the chemical composition of Splenda, and end up talking about your past crushes. It's just a simple fact of life.

"You liked her just because she's intellectual?" Eugene asked, sometime after two in the morning.

"Yeah," I affirmed.

"I don't buy that."

Eugene is a bit more blunt than most people, which is simultaneously endearing and infuriating. He is unafraid to say what he really means and feels. As I am someone who loves to save face whenever possible, he is my worst enemy in an honest conversation.

"I do," I said, defending myself. "She's just so smart, which is really attractive. At least, it is to me. I've met a lot of pretty girls who were dumb, but it's a different kind of attraction."

"Well, you're shallow," Eugene concluded.

"I'm not shallow."

"Let's say you had a fat girl who was intellectual, and another girl who was intellectual and pretty. Which one would you choose?"

Fact: I hate hypothetical situations. Who really knows how life plays out?

Joe interceded, the peacekeeper of our little pow-wow. "The physical aspect of it has a lot to do with our initial attraction to someone, though."

"But you have to admit you're shallow," Eugene said.

"Okay, I'm shallow," I admitted. "But I'm not that shallow."

Both of them sighed.

I think pride interferes with faith, in the sense that we can't really accept the fact that we are broken people. Accepting the beauty of grace means that we also accept the fact that there is something amiss in our own lives, that there is a cosmic hole of loneliness eating away at our hearts. Grace only comes when we admit that we are wholly incomplete.

The more I explore my own spirituality and heart, I'm coming to the conclusion that we sin because we are not whole, and we desperately need to distract ourselves from that gaping internal emptiness.

I love how Jesus makes a point to heal and love those who openly admit that there is something wrong with themselves, how he loves the sick and the prostitutes and the corrupt who have lost any semblance of pride during their life journeys, the people who ache so desperately to be loved in a way that makes their cosmic loneliness nonexistent. I want to love and be loved in that way, but truthfully, I think a cosmic loneliness can only be counteracted by a cosmic love.