Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Thank you for taking  the time to look at my blog.  I hope you all have a blessed Christmas.  Enjoy the time with your families and friends, but also take time to remember the first Christmas and the Child whose birth we celebrate.To help you remember, here's another Christmas poem I wrote.

The Voice that Called

The voice that called to unformed light, commanding it to be,
The wisdom that for ages planned creation’s destiny,
The might that holds the earth in place, suspended in the sky,
How can they be the essence of this helpless infant’s cry?

The hand that molded every star and guides it on its way
Clings, helpless, to his mother at the start of newborn day.
This ordinary moment all of history transforms,
Molds terror into beauty, and brings peace to all life’s storms.

For in the darkened void of sin, the shadowed land of death,
To You, who into us breathed life, we cry with every breath.
For even in Time’s darkest hour, when life seems ruled by wrong,
The light of life, the word of hope, has given us a song.

The child who chose his birth into a world of toil and pain,
Who gave up heavenly garlands for this body’s choking chain,
Lies crying in a manger as the answer to our cries,
As angels sing the infant’s might and fill the star-flecked skies.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Transforming Light: A Shameless Plug

The book of poetry that I have been working on for over a year now is finally finished and available online!  It includes "Borne on Wings of Stormy Grandeur," "Christmas Mystery," and many more poems and hymns.  Some of them have been paired with melodies, while others have not.  You can purchase a paperback copy of the book here or download the content here.  To give you another taste of the book, I've reprinted the title poem below.  It's designed to go to the tune "Bryn Calfaria," which is usually sung with the hymn "Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending."  You can listen to the tune here.

Transforming Light

On this rugged, rocky mountain,
Earth is raised to heaven’s height.
Here the Son of Man stands shining,
Inner glory beaming bright.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
God revealed to mortal sight
Shining with transforming light.

No more doubt and darkness hide Him:
Lies dissolve as truth is shown.
No mere mortal stands before us,
God now speaks to make Him known.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Earth transformed into His throne,
One true God, He reigns alone.

As we stand before His presence,
As we gaze upon His face,
Now our eyes reflect His glory,
Now our hearts pour out His praise.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Entering in His holy place,
By His true transforming grace

Soon upon God’s holy mountain,
We’ll extol our savior’s might.
Soon we’ll see God’s Son stand shining,
God revealed to reborn sight.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
In His glory we’ll beam bright,
Shining with transforming light

Christmas Mystery

One of my poems has been posted on Bob Kauflin's blog Worship Matters.  You can read it here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favorite Christmas Carol

Aside from having an opportunity to see my far-away relatives, my favorite aspect of Christmas is the music associated with it.  Many Christmas carols have a way of cutting through all the distractions and commercial trappings and focusing on Jesus’ birth, which is, after all, the point of the holiday.  Unfortunately, for many people, these songs lose their meaning because they are so familiar.  Since I began writing hymns, I have come to appreciate the lyrics to these carols more.  If you stop to think about the words, you will find that many of them have tremendously deep theology expressed in a way that mirrors the beauty of the Incarnation.

One carol that I find particularly powerful is also one of the most common: Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  Here are the complete lyrics:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The words mostly speak for themselves, but there are a few things I’d like to point out.  First, even from the beginning, the focus is on Christ’s role in mediating between God and humans – “God and sinners reconciled.”  At Christmas, it’s easy to celebrate the birth of Jesus without thinking about who He grew up to be or what He did.  These lines help us focus on the reason we should celebrate Jesus’ birth, the truth that he opened the way for us to have peace with God.

My favorite lines in this hymn come in the second verse:  “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity.”  Jesus’ flesh in one sense acts as a veil; although He is God, people who looked at Him only saw an ordinary-looking human.  And yet this veil paradoxically makes it possible for us to see the invisible God, the “incarnate Deity.” 

I also love the following line: “pleased as man with man to dwell.”  Incidentally, please NEVER try to make this line politically correct by changing it to “us.”  If you’re OK with performing Shakespeare using the original words, you should be OK with using the older sense of the word “man,” which just meant “human beings.”  If you’re not OK with performing Shakespeare without modernizing the words ... we need to talk.  Changing the line to “with us to dwell” destroys the poetic repetition of the word “man,” which as a poet I know was put there intentionally.  In this case, the repetition not only sounds nice, but also emphasizes that Jesus lived a completely human life, complete with all the problems people face.  Most problems in life arise from some combination of our own limitations and interactions with other sinful human beings.  Although Jesus wasn’t sinful, He was finite, and could definitely be hurt by the people with whom He was “pleased to dwell.”

The first few lines of the last verse refer to Malachi 4:2 “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.  You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”  The last few lines are also incredibly profound.  The line “born that man no more may die” includes a cool contrast between life and death, while the line “born to give them second birth” focuses on the idea of birth by repeating the word with two different meanings.

That’s enough of this poetry rant.  In this week leading up to Christmas, I’d like to encourage you to think and meditate on the words and the theology in some of the familiar Christmas carols.  There’s a lot more in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” than I pointed out here, and many other carols are equally profound.

I’d also like to encourage you to leave a comment.  What are some of your favorite Christmas carols?  Are any particular lines especially meaningful to you?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Borne on Wings of Stormy Grandeur

As my last post indicated, I write a lot of hymns.  This is one I wrote a few years ago for advent.  For those of you who don't know, advent is the season of the church calendar that lasts for the four Sundays before Christmas.  It is a time of preparation and waiting, both for Christmas, when we remember Jesus' first coming, and for the Second Coming at the end of time.

Borne on Wings of Stormy Grandeur

Borne on wings of stormy grandeur
Now the Lord Most High descends
Suns dissolve before His splendor
Every mighty mountain bends.
Every tower built against him
Crashes to the foaming sea.
None now doubt that He is holy
Or deny his majesty.

Those who rose against their sovereign
Now before his armies flee,
Recognize their guilt and treason
When pure holiness they see.
Yet He runs to those who trusted
Holds them in a king’s embrace.
He who wields the sword of justice
Reaches out the hand of grace.

How is it that the eternal,
Infinite and great I Am
Could be bound within a body,
Gentle sacrificial Lamb?
Can infinity and weakness
In one soul be intertwined?
Why would He who spins the planets
Reach to touch my shadowed mind?

To the void His voice cried out once;
Every word He spoke came true.
Still His word, though now incarnate,
Sounds forth, making things anew.
He from Heaven to Earth descended
Us from Earth to Heaven to raise;
By His brokenness He mended
Souls who now adore and praise.

My Plans

I'd like to give all of you a better idea of what to expect from this blog.  Actually, first, I'd like to apologize for starting it up with a flurry of activity and then not touching it for two weeks.  I have one word to offer in my defense: Finals.

Now that I'm (almost) done with the semester, I'll definitely have a bit more time.  I think when school starts again I'll try to post once a week, but until then, I'll be posting more often, so check back every few days.  Some of the posts will be commentaries about Christianity, philosophy, and how those ideas relate to everyday life, like the posts I've done so far.  I also plan to post some poetry and hymns I've written.  I'll also include information about Transforming Light, a book of poetry I'm self-publishing, which should be available later this week.  And lastly, I'll probably write a little about hymns that mean a lot to me.  I think many people sing these songs without thinking about the words, but since I started writing poetry of my own, I've come to a deeper appreciation of some earlier hymns, which I'd like to share with you.  And, of course, I'll share links to anything cool that I find on the internet.  If you have questions, or things you'd like to see me comment on, feel free to post a comment.  I'm always looking for suggestions on what to write about.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chinese Politics: Power, Ideology, and the Limits of Pragmatism

The following is another article I wrote for the Acton Institute last summer:

Chinese Communism is no longer about ideology.  Now it is about power.

I reached this conclusion on the basis of six months spent in China and extensive conversations with my Chinese friend and fellow Acton intern Liping, whose analysis has helped me greatly in writing this post.
China began moving away from Communist ideology under Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms disassembled communes and created space for private businesses.  He justified these reforms to his Communist colleagues with the saying, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mice,” implying that even “capitalist” policies were justified if they succeeded in bringing economic growth.  And they certainly did.  Since that time, China’s economic development has been tremendous, so now Chinese people overwhelmingly approve of the reforms.

Despite the success of the opening of China’s markets, the country has not completely embraced free enterprise.  The PRC’s 60th anniversary celebration last fall featured signs boldly proclaiming, “Socialism is good.”  The government still controls key industries such as oil and runs enterprises in many other industries.
Further, all land in China is owned by the government.  Home buyers are technically only leasing land for 70-year periods, a policy established assuming that by that time, the houses will need to be rebuilt anyway.  The government sometimes sells land inside cities to developers for vastly inflated sums of money, evicting the people who already live there.  The remuneration that these people receive is frequently less than the value of the house, forcing them to find inferior housing elsewhere.  These policies have made housing within cities prohibitively expensive for most Chinese people, forcing them to commute from the suburbs.

Despite these continued regulations, economic freedom in China has made significant advances compared to its previous completely collectivized state.  Enterprise is permitted and even encouraged, as is trade with the outside world.  As people come to recognize the benefits of free markets, more and more are becoming eager to participate, which will make it much more difficult for the government to restrict these freedoms again in the future.

However, this economic freedom does not imply political freedom.  Deng Xiaoping, the same leader who had spearheaded the economic reforms, was responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters for political reform.  That incident twenty years ago is only one of the better-known examples of the political suppression that still occurs today.

The government holds a monopoly on the media, dominates the flow of information, and censors any ideas it finds potentially threatening.  It blocks access to web sites that range from information on tense political issues to social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube.  When I was studying there, during a one-on-one session a teacher asked me what I knew about the Tiananmen Square massacre, admitting that due to censorship I probably knew more about it than she did.  When we had finished the discussion, she erased all relevant vocabulary from the board, saying that she didn’t want anyone to know what we had talked about.  Through the high school level and frequently afterward, students are indoctrinated with Marxist philosophy, and studies of literature are focused exclusively on nationalistic or patriotic themes.  Political dissent is strictly censored, and dissenters are often denied work or restricted from moving or publishing their work.

According to Liping, most new members of the Communist party do not actually believe in Marxism; they just see membership as a way to improve their chances of finding a good job.  Similarly, officials suppress opposing ideas, not because they are persuaded of the truth of Marxism but because they want to prevent dissent and opposition to their own party. Promoting Marxist ideas serves as a way to silence political rivals and to enforce popular support for their own rule.  The first Chinese communists sought power to serve their ideology, but today’s Chinese communists use ideology to preserve their power.

The expansion of economic freedom coupled with the continued political repression may seem like a contradiction, and indeed areas with more trade connections like Shanghai also have more political freedom than government centers like Beijing.  Yet fundamentally, this paradox exists because of the shaky foundation for what freedom they do have.

Deng Xiaoping’s justification for moving away from Communist economic ideology was based solely on pragmatic reasoning.  He figured that since the Communist system was failing miserably, changing economic systems might bring prosperity, a prediction that has been proven true.  Yet abandoning the one-party state did not have any such obvious benefits.  In fact, retaining a monopoly on political power was in the leaders’ personal interest.  They could even argue that it was good for the nation, creating what current president Hu Jintao euphemistically calls a “Harmonious Society” unified by common political beliefs.

In the West, arguments for freedom are closely tied to belief in individual rights which the government cannot legitimately violate.  These beliefs originated in the Christian view that people have special dignity because they are made in the image of God.  This foundation means that even if it would be expedient for the government to restrict freedom, it has no right to do so.  Officials may not always act to preserve the people’s freedom, but in violating freedom, they behave inconsistently with their own ideals.

In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party is consistent in pragmatically following policies that they think will be beneficial, whether they increased freedom or not.  Freedom can bring tremendous practical benefits, which is what one would expect of a concept based on a true vision of human nature.  Yet these practical benefits alone do not constitute freedom’s foundation.  The freedom the government gives pragmatically, it can take away when freedom is no longer practical, or when the benefits it provides are less obvious.

Thus, what China lacks is not merely policies that allow people to act freely but an understanding of the essence and importance of freedom.  Freedom cannot be guaranteed by government pragmatism, but only by a genuine understanding of the rights of the people within the country, coupled with leaders who are willing to restrain their desire for power in order to respect these rights.
This is another article I wrote last summer for the Acton Institute.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Salary and Significance

The following is an article I wrote last summer as an intern at the Acton Institute
During a recent conversation, a Chinese friend of mine commented on the lack of political involvement that she has observed in her peers, especially in comparison to American college students. She attributes this lack of involvement to the fact that the Chinese do not believe that political action can change the policies or even the identities of their leaders. As a result, non-politicians in China do not get involved in politics, and politicians there focus on achieving their own goals rather than on improving society, resulting in a tremendous amount of corruption. This attitude is the result of a variety of cultural and social factors, but one of the most prominent is the single-party system in which the dominant (Communist) party actively suppresses dissent.
This attitude seems sharply different from attitudes in America, where everyone holds political opinions and political action is seen as the primary vehicle for social change. However, the Chinese attitude toward politics has a close parallel in the prevailing American attitude toward work.
Just as the average Chinese citizen does not see political action as an activity that will affect social conditions, the average American does not see work in relation to society. We tend to consider work a necessary evil that provides for us and pays our bills, possibly providing some satisfaction. As a result, Americans who seek social change do so through politics or volunteering, while disregarding the effect of their work. Just as this attitude toward politics in China results in widespread corruption, our view of work as a self-centered activity bears some blame for the unethical behavior that contributed to our current recession.
People naturally desire significance and a sense that they have affected the lives of other people, so many are frustrated by the necessity of spending so many hours every week working on something that doesn’t satisfy.  Executives dream of retiring early so they can “give back” to their communities. Workers do just enough to get by, figuring that it does not matter whether they perform their job with excellence. And when they hear about needs not provided for in society, they look to the people whose “job” it is to fix these problems, in particular the government, never thinking how their own work might contribute to providing for people’s needs.
In contrast to this, Christianity considers work a positive activity that builds up society. Genesis 1 claims that humans are made in the image of a God who worked for six days creating the universe before resting from this labor. When God first created Adam, He gave him jobs of tending and keeping the garden and naming the animals, indicating that work is a natural part of nature, not a result of sin. Further, the Garden of Eden was filled with fruit that could be easily picked, showing that the goal of Adam’s work was not merely to provide himself with sustenance. Instead, the purpose was to improve on the garden’s natural state for God’s glory and to benefit nature and other people.
Clearly, there is more to life than work. People should be willing to give, volunteer, and perform their roles within their families and neighborhoods rather than devoting everything to work. However, we need to recognize that work itself is also a way for us to obey God and love the people around us.
In his book Work: the Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster argues that in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, God separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of their attitude toward work:
The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!
On the simplest economic level, any company that does not provide goods or services that customers desire to purchase will soon have no customers and go out of business. Customers are only willing to pay for goods or services that benefit them, so any company, and thus any worker, is in some way working to meet people’s physical, intellectual, or emotional needs.
Certainly, our salaries compensate us for the acts we perform at work to serve others, but this in and of itself no more diminishes the service we perform than being thanked for volunteering diminishes its moral status. Jesus forbids giving to the poor solely for the purpose of receiving praise (Matt. 6:2-4), but in the same sermon He commands us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16). Clearly, the problem is not with being observed in doing good; it is in seeking the earthly reward rather than being motivated by love for God and neighbor. Similarly, receiving a salary can become an end in itself, or it can be a just reward for one’s service to others.
Someone I met at my church demonstrated his understanding of the significance of his work when I asked him what he did for a living. With a grin, he replied “I help people by helping them to figure out what kind of insurance to buy.” His understanding of the benefits that his work brought to his customers filled him with a palpable enthusiasm for his vocation.
On a societal level, this type of enthusiasm can benefit everyone, as it stimulates people to do their jobs better, since they have a goal larger than filling up the hours they are paid for. But it is even more essential for the workers personally.
People made in the image of an eternal God have a desire to make contributions that will last. People made in the image of a triune God have a desire to be part of a community, to be in relationships with other people, just as the members of the Godhead exist in relation. To reduce people’s vocation to a means to provide for themselves, or at best their families, and to see workers as only cogs in a corporate machine is to deprive them of the opportunity to fulfill these desires in the one area that consumes most of their time and energy (with the possible exception of family life). Recognizing the significance of one’s vocation is more than a motivational management technique — it is an expression of human dignity.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why this title?

Given that this will be my first blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to explain why I chose the title "Logos and Love."  This will tell you a good deal about me and also about what I hope this blog will become.

I chose the title to express the most important thing about me, the fact that I am a devout Christian.  My faith, and the relationship with God that it allows me to have, are the most important things in my life.  Thus, most of what I blog about will reflect this perspective, although I will sometimes discuss other topics.

Logos is a Greek word that means "reason," "logic," or "word," but its meaning is far richer and deeper than these translations.  It referred to the fundamental principle that governed the universe and held reality together.  Logos is the word translated "word" in John 1, my favorite passage in the Bible.  John 1 begins, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  Without unpacking this completely (which may become a post in itself), I can say that each of these claims was commonly said by the first-century Greek philosophers, who saw the logos as the principle or idea in the mind of God that began the universe, and some even saw it as equal to God.

What I love even more about the passage, though comes in verse 14: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."  This was a radical claim that would have blown the minds of the philosophers who, up until then, could have agreed with John's text.  The philosophy of the day saw the physical world as evil and corrupt, so their main goal was to transcend it and reach the spiritual reality.  The idea that the logos, which controlled all spiritual reality and was completely pure and transcendent would become flesh, would descend to touch the physical world, was completely unthinkable.  This is what sets Christianity apart from every other world religion.  In other religions, we work, pray, meditate, or do other things to reach out to the divine, but in Christianity the divine first came to reach out to us.  Everything we do is a response to this radical act that gives us the ability to know God.  The statement that the Word became flesh also silences the voices of the anti-materialist philosophy; if God Himself was willing to become part of the physical world, this world cannot be fully evil.  Suddenly, everything from food to work, even washing each other's feet, becomes sacred.

This leads me to the second word in my title: Love.  Although God is rational, as indicated by the word logos, He is also personal and relational.  The greatest commandment, both in Judaism and in the New Testament, is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." (I'm using the New Testament wording, but the same concept exists in the Torah).  This means that God is ultimately concerned with love, both for Him and for people who are made in His image.  The proper response to the Logos made flesh is to love Him completely, and that is the goal toward which we must strive.

Anyone who knows me personally will know that I have not met this goal.  I have times when I am impatient, shy, or lazy and do not love the people around me as I should.  I fail again and again at loving God with all of who I am.  But thanks to God, I know that I am forgiven and I keep trying, toward the aim of loving the Logos in all of my life.

The title of this blog is meant to remind you, my readers, but also to remind me of who God is and what I am striving for.  As I share more and more of myself, I hope you will see some reflection of these most important realities in my words.