Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joy to the World – Including Taipei

This has been the hardest Christmas season of my life.

That’s not saying very much – most of my Christmases have been anything but hard. I love everything to do with Christmas – the music, the decorations, the Christmas tree, the food, buying wrapping and getting presents, etc.

But what I’ve always loved most is being able to spend extra time with my family , both because I had a break from school, and because when I was a child my family always traveled to visit family members I rarely saw. Which brings me to the reason this has been a hard Christmas.

Last summer, I moved to Taipei, where I will be working for at least two years. I enjoy my job and have many wonderful friends here. And yet … I find it hard to be completely happy because I still miss my family and friends from home. A lot.

When the Christmas season first started, it felt like I had an open wound. Anything that had to do with Christmas felt like someone had just touched that wound, sending a spasm of pain and loneliness through my heart. One day, I felt slightly depressed all day because someone had sung “I’ll be Home for Christmas” in chapel that morning. (I still think it was a weird choice because it talks about both being home and snow. Most of our coworkers are from Taipei, so they would not have snow, even though they will be home for Christmas. Those of us whose homes would have snow, wouldn’t be home for Christmas, except for two foreigners who took vacation. So the song really only applied to the two out of the 250 or so people in the room. But I digress.)

This Christmas season has included lots of good things too. I’ve grown less and less homesick as it has progressed. I’ve really enjoyed several parties with friends here, as well as an amazing Christmas performance put on by my coworkers. My roommates and I put up a Christmas tree, and I love seeing it every time I go into the living room. I went to a church service on Christmas Eve where we went onto the roof of the church and sang carols by candlelight. Spending Christmas in Taipei has been a great experience overall, so I don’t want it to sound like I’m always miserable here.

Nevertheless, the moments of homesickness have made me realize that, for all my talk about how I know that Christmas is about Jesus’s birth, in practice much of my love for Christmas comes from things other than the point of the season.

This isn’t to say that parties, food, music and family are bad – far from it. These are good gifts that God has given us, and we should receive and enjoy them with thanksgiving. But as I wrote in my Thanksgiving post, being grateful includes recognizing these blessings as grace – things we don’t deserve and wouldn’t normally get, not things that we are entitled to.

For me, that means enjoying Christmas even without my family and the other things that I don’t have here. Because as important and wonderful as family and all the trappings are, they are not something I’m entitled to, and they’re not what Christmas is about.

Christmas is about God becoming human and experiencing everything we experience. That includes the joys of delicious meals and time spent with family and friends, but also the sorrows of loneliness and poverty. This Christmas, I am taking comfort in the fact that God Himself knows what it is like, not only to move to a new country, but to do even more. He moved to a whole new planet, a whole new way of existing (as a physical, mortal human being). The Son of God, Who is so close to His Father that they are a single being, lived as a human, communicating with God only through prayer and the occasional message that God sent to him. And the purpose for which He came was to eventually be completely abandoned by the Father as he hung dying on a cross for us! As His follower, I enjoy the blessings of a new family with God as my father and the promise of perfect peace and eternal life. And this is true no matter where in the world I am.

So this Christmas, I am choosing to rejoice. I am basking in His incomprehensible love that gave up everything for me. May this love surround you and fill you with true joy this Christmas and throughout the year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Mystery

We have now reached the last week of Advent, which also means that I am posting the last of my Christmas hymns. For most of my hymns, I use all or part of the first line as a title. But this one is instead entitled “Christmas Mystery,” a title which more or less summarizes what I love about Christmas.

 When I was 10, my father volunteered to preach at a church we had been going to for about four months. It was near Christmas time, so he was preaching on the Incarnation. One part of his sermon particularly stood out to me. He listed a series of paradoxes about what happened when Jesus was born: “The One who had no beginning is born, the Almighty becomes weak, the unchangeable God changes, the One who has everything gets something he didn’t have before – a human nature.” I was blown away by the amazingness of Christmas, and by how much of a mystery it is. For years, that awe remained with me, mostly unconsciously, until I began writing hymns. This hymn tries, as best I can, to capture the beauty of Jesus, especially in the miracle of His birth.

Christmas Mystery

He who forged Earth’s iron core
And scattered stars to distant skies
Came shattered beauty to restore
And answer lost ones’ mournful cries.
A God who stands among the weak
To lift each burden that they face
To lift away their bondage bleak
And give them strength in holy grace.

The star of hope for all the years
Though spoken of through ages past
Lies born in dust and blood and tears
Without His glorious trumpets’ blast
Yet in His tiny hand He holds
The power that built the mountains high
His glory shatters earthly molds
As angels’ voices split the sky

The angel heralds call out clear
To tell us of the infant King
Who comes to crush the power of fear
And let the notes of justice ring
Yet first He comes to serve and die
Not yet to take His rightful place
That those who chose to crucify
Their king might still receive his grace.

He calls us now with signs and stars
To find the child born a king
To give him all that once was ours
And songs of love and praise to sing
So as we journey through the night
And seek our true Desire’s star
We find that Jesus, through His might
Has sought us from our exile far.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Voice that Called

I posted this poem on Christmas day last year, but since I only have four Christmas/Advent hymns, I’m posting this again. Plus, more people are reading the blog now than last year at this time.

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.

I really love talking about the theology of Christmas. The idea of the all-powerful God becoming a human, with all the weakness and suffering that entails, is amazing to me. The main theme of this poem is Jesus was God, and therefore all-powerful, but was also human, and therefore as helpless as any other newborn baby. One common feature in most of my hymns is paradox – I love writing about things about God that don’t seem to fit together but are true. I think the Incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas, is one of the greatest paradoxes.

Whenever I read the third verse, I remember the experience of writing it. The words came more and more quickly, in an almost frenzied rush, and to me it still reads that way. I think that’s because my emotions played a larger role in writing that verse. I’ve struggled with depression for several years, so the experience of crying out desperately to God is quite familiar to me. The first line also alludes to Isaiah 9:2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

I think the last verse speaks for itself, marveling in Christ’s love that chose to deal with all the struggles of a human life. It points out that God chose to answer our struggles by sharing in them, and returns to the paradox of Christ’s power and weakness (the infant’s might).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Child of Heaven

Many churches celebrate the season of Advent during the four Sundays before Christmas. It is a time when we remember the people who waited for Jesus’ first coming, preparing our hearts to celebrate Christmas. As I mentioned last week, it is also a time when we look forward to the day when Christ will return.

Advent was a big deal in my family. In early December, my mom would fill the house with Christmas decorations – garlands around the windows, a snow village on the mantle, and of course a manger scene. I loved decorating the house. I loved choosing an advent calendar from the pile we had at home and opening the doors one at a time to see Bible verses relating to the Christmas story. But my strongest Advent memory is of the advent calendar that we would light before dinner once a week. (That is, in theory. We didn’t always do it as consistently as we’d wanted to.)

The Advent wreath had four candles – one for each week before Christmas. Each one had a different symbolic meaning, and a story associated with it. This hymn has one verse inspired by each week of Advent. I go into more detail about each verse below.

Child of Heaven
Tune: Finlandia

Children of Earth await the child of Heaven
Throughout a thousand thousand empty years.
The mountains’ weight is piled on their shoulders.
The ocean’s waves are salted with their tears,
But in the dark, a single candle shining,
Proclaims, “God comes to banish all your fears.”

The child of Heaven without an earthly father
Within a virgin’s womb enfolded sleeps.
While fragile flesh enfolds eternal spirit,
His loving mother patient vigil keeps.
May we as well, courageously submitting,
Yield ourselves to the father’s love so deep.

Now as we hear the child of Heaven approaching
We leap for joy to honor Earth’s true king.
A barren woman pregnant with His herald,
From frozen ground, hope’s tender bud shall spring
He lifts the poor while casting down the mighty
Ashamed no more, His humble servants sing.

On Earth’s bare planes, a voice of heavenly power
Tells poor and powerless shepherds not to fear.
Their awestruck eyes behold bright hosts in glory,
While songs of worship echo in each ear.
At peace, Creation joins the holy chorus;
To make Earth whole, the child of Heaven is here.

The first candle represented hope. On the first Sunday of Advent, we spoke about the prophets and others who waited for thousands of years for God to send the promised Messiah. I tend to associate this week with the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” So during the first stanza, I tried to evoke the sadness and darkness of the world we find ourselves in, in which God’s promise, like a single candle, provides us with the hope we need to go on.

The second week, we talked about love and the Annunciation. The two are connected because of the love that Mary, like most mothers, had for her child. But I also wanted to point out that the greatest love shown in this story is God the Father’s love in sending Jesus in the first place.

The third week was one of my favorites as a child, because it was the only time when my name was mentioned in our Sunday School lesson. That week, we talked about Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who had been barren but was now pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, John leapt for joy in her womb, which is why the third week is about joy. Following this incident, Mary sang the Magnificat, a song about how God has lifted up the humble and cast down the proud.

The last week celebrates the angels telling the shepherds that the baby Jesus had been born. The theme for that week is peace, because they sang, “Peace on Earth, good will to men.” The last line plays on the Hebrew concept of shalom. Usually translated as “peace,” shalom is actually a state of wholeness and flourishing. As I point out in the last line, Jesus came to give that kind of wholeness to the whole world.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Borne of Wings of Stormy Grandeur

This year, for each Sunday of Advent, I will post a hymn I have written that relates to Advent or Christmas. Here is the first one.

Advent is the season in which we await Christmas, the celebration of God stepping into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. But at one time, Advent was also the season when we remember to wait for Jesus’s Second Coming, the time when He will return, not as a baby but as a king and judge the world. One hymn that exemplifies this is “Lo He Comes,” a hymn that served as one of my main sources of inspiration for this one.

My other inspiration came from a former hurricane that made its way to my home in Connecticut one autumn. Although the winds were no longer strong enough even to qualify it as a tropical storm, they were far stronger than most of the winds we get in Connecticut. It was the evening of a football game. As I practiced my routine with the marching band before, I felt a rush of excitement as the cool wind whipped past my face and as I watched a pile of dry brown leaves swirling between the band members, carried by a whirlwind.

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.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Feel Grace Day

I hear all the English teachers I have had screaming as they read the title, “No! After only five months she has succumbed to the Chinglish that permeates her new home. How can this be?”

It is true that “Feel Grace Day” is not an English term. It is a character-by-character translation of the Chinese term for “Thanksgiving.” But I think it highlights an important truth about the nature of thankfulness.

In Chinese, most words are two syllables long, and each syllable has its own meaning. Native speakers are not always consciously aware of the meaning of each syllable, just like most English speakers don’t think of “hospital” as being related to “hospitality.”

The word for thanksgiving in Chinese is “gan’en,” and the holiday is “gan’en jie.” “Jie” means “holiday,” “gan” means “feel,” and “en” is grace.

I don’t think all Chinese terms make much sense when translated (for example, their word for “turkey” means “fire chicken”). But I think this one has a deep lesson.

I’m a little obsessed with the idea of grace. What it means is an undeserved gift. Something that we had no reason or right to expect, but that we receive anyway. Grace is central to the Christian message, because the whole point of Christianity is that we receive salvation because of what God has done for us, not what we do for God. But grace includes many other things that we experience in our lives.

What thanksgiving really is, is feeling grace. It’s knowing that we have received many things in our lives that we did nothing to deserve. As Americans, we tend to think in terms of our rights, but many things we need are not our right; they are things that no one was obligated to give us but that we have received anyway. God was not obligated to provide us with healthy bodies, sound minds, opportunities for education, loving families, comfortable lifestyles, oxygen or any of the things we take for granted. If you have received any of those things, that is grace, and it is something to be thankful for. Even things we earn are only possible because of things like talent and health which enable us to earn them.  

So, with all my heart I wish you a happy “feel grace day.” May you enjoy what you have today and every day, and realize that every person on earth has received far more than we have earned.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 4: Creation

This is part 4 of a series comparing and contrasting Daoism and Christianity.  For part 3, click here.

One major similarity between Zhuangzi’s Dao and Christianity’s God is that both are believed to be the creator and sustainer of the universe. 

Zhuangzi explains creation by saying, “The bright and shining is born out of deep darkness; the ordered is born out of formlessness; pure spirit is born out of the Way. The body is born originally from this purity.”  In other words, the Way is the ultimate origin first of spirit and then of physical things.  The Way also causes the physical things to continue and flourish: “But what the ten thousand things all look to for sustenance, what never fails them - is this not the real Way?”  Although the Way is beyond creatures’ comprehension, it is their “source” and “root” that “shepherd[s]” them in accordance with their natures.  Zhuangzi sees the Way in the nature of creatures: “Heaven cannot help but be high, earth cannot help but be broad, the sun and moon cannot help but revolve, the ten thousand things cannot help but flourish. Is this not the Way?”  Since these beings originated in the Dao, Zhuangzi sees understanding the nature of things as one key to understanding the Dao.

Similarly, Christians see God as the source and sustainer of everything.  The Bible begins with the statement, “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1).  Like the Dao, God wants his creations to flourish; when they are first created, he blesses them, telling them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22).  This blessing means more than that God wishes his creations well.  The Bible describes creation as happening in response to God’s commands, which means that God’s words have the power to shape reality.  Thus, when God tells creation to be fruitful, he causes it to do so.  The Bible portrays God as acting continually to enable creation to endure; “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).  Thus, Christianity and Daoism both consider something outside the universe to be its source and sustainer.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 3: Morality

This is part 3 of a series comparing and contrasting Daoism and Christianity.  For part 2, click here, and for part 4, click here.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes about ethical standards that are shared across cultures, arguing that they are a part of moral law that everyone knows.  He calls this shared moral law the Tao (a different transliteration of Dao).

I’m definitely a fan of C.S. Lewis, but unfortunately, his concept of the Tao is not at all the same as the Daoist idea.  It bears some resemblance of Confucius’s idea of the Dao (yes, he talked about it too), but much Daoist work was written to contradict Confucianism.

Zhuangzi’s Dao is more like the Force in Star Wars than like a shared moral law.  Just like the Force has the Light Side and the Dark Side, and both are held in balance, the Dao incorporates all opposites, including good and evil.  This is why the yin/yang symbol has a black dot in the white section and a white dot in the black section.  Yin and yang don’t just represent good and evil -- they also include heaven and earth, male and female, hot and cold, etc.  However, the point of the symbol is that for any pair of opposites, even in one extreme there are still some aspects of the other.

Since everything is part of the Dao, this means that distinctions between things are just illusions caused by our inability to perceive the whole Dao at once.  This includes the distinction between good and evil.  Zhuangzi claims that trying to do right and avoid wrong “is like saying that you are going to make Heaven your master and do away with Earth, or make Yin your master and do away with Yang. Obviously it is impossible.”

Zhuangzi sometimes describes the Dao as a principle that governs the way things change.  It itself does not change, but everything else is subject to the “wheel of Heaven,” a cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death that all things pass though.  It applies to everything, including seasons, the lives of individuals, and dynasties.  Zhuangzi believes that it also applies to moral principles, which means that what is currently moral will decay and become immoral, and what is immoral will be reborn and grow into the new moral norm.  Put differently, he thinks that right and wrong are determined by people’s opinions, and opinions are destined to change.  Thus, nothing is objectively good or bad, since each has the power to turn into the other.

Let’s contrast that with Christianity for a moment.  Christianity says that even though everything that is created is subject to change, ethics is rooted in God’s character, which does not change.  Unlike the Dao, which includes everything and does not distinguish between things, God clearly distinguishes right from wrong by giving His people a moral law and sending prophets to evaluate how well they did in keeping it.

Yet these distinctions are not arbitrary choices on God’s part; they reflect who He is.  Lying is wrong because God always speaks the truth.  People should love each other because God exists as three persons who love each other, and yet are one.  Murder is wrong because people are made in God’s image, so an attack on people is effectively an attack on God.  Since God deserves to not be harmed, so do people.  Thus, rather than transcending morality by incorporating both good and evil, the Christian God is inextricably connected with morality.  In fact, for something to be good means that it conforms to God’s character.

On a practical level, Zhuangzi is not consistent with his own denial of absolute morality.  He criticizes the Confucianists for replacing the Dao with manmade rules, and says that people should not pursue wealth or status but should try to follow the Dao.  However, these points contradict his other claims, which I see as a problem within his philosophy itself.  (It’s also a problem with other philosophies that deny objective morality.  Even the staunchest relativist will get mad if you plagiarize their work, for example.)  Maybe Zhuangzi sees these as recommendations, not absolute moral rules, but the strength with which he denounces his opponents suggests otherwise.  I view the issue of morality as Daoism’s single biggest weakness, as well as its most significant difference from Christianity.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Christ is Lifted on High

Mr. Spicer, the choir director at my home church, First Church of Christ, is very aware of the church calendar.  Even when the rest of the church didn’t even notice that it was, All Saints’ Sunday, for example, he would choose hymns and anthems appropriate to the occasion.  This, combined with the fact that my mother grew up Lutheran, has given me a sense of appreciation for the church year.

A few weeks ago, I received the best voicemail message ever.  It was from Mr. Spicer, asking me to write lyrics for a hymn about the Ascension that would go to the tune Personent Hodie.  (The reason it was the best message ever was that he accompanied what he was saying with appropriate music from the organ, such as Pomp and Circumstance when he mentioned that I was graduating.)

Ascension Sunday was yesterday, so we sang the hymn in church.  It’s always gratifying to hear my words with the melodies that they were intended to go with.  But the best part was the way the lyrics interacted with the sermon.  After some thought and prayer, I had decided to focus on the Ascension as proof of Jesus’ kingship and glory.  Amazingly, our pastor had independently prepared a sermon based on Daniel 7:9-14 that focused on Christ being king of all, and especially of the Church.  It sounded like the hymn had been written to match the sermon, or vice versa.  In fact, I am sure that the similarity was not the result of our planning but of the Holy Spirit working through both of us.

Here are the lyrics to the hymn:

Christ is Lifted on High

Christ is lifted on high.
Angel hosts glorify
Him who once came to die,
Rose alive and glorious,
Over death victorious

All creation sings
To the King of Kings
Joy will shine; love divine
Soon will rule the nations

Lifted up from our sight,
Up to sit at God’s right
He will rule with God’s might.
Sin and evil cower,
Conquered by His power.


Christ is King, all must know.
In His strength we must go.
To the world we must show
His true saving story:
Death and life and glory.


He shall come from on high,
Breaking down every lie
Heaven and earth glorify
Him who rules the nations,
Savior of Creation.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Wrong vs. Stupid

I’m going to take a break from my comments on Daoism to discuss something that concerns me about some personal interactions I had.  The interactions are not necessarily recent, but I drew the conclusion only recently.

The first interaction took place during a summer internship.  I was having a discussion with an intern I’ll call Mary (not her real name) about another intern, who was a devout Catholic.  Mary commented that the other intern seemed to think that Protestantism was wrong, which made her feel awkward.  (Mary knew I was a Protestant.)

Me:  Well, I’d hope he doesn’t believe Protestantism; if he did he shouldn’t be Catholic.

Mary: But I think he doesn’t just think Catholicism is right for him; he seems to think it’s right for everybody.

Me:  I’m sure he does think that, but it doesn’t offend me that he thinks I’m wrong.  I’d only be offended if he thought I was stupid or didn’t respect me.

Mary:  But how is it possible to think someone’s religion is wrong and not disrespect them?

Mary and I had talked about my belief in absolute truth in religion before, but it seemed like she still didn’t understand my position.  I thought for a moment about what I knew about Mary.  She was politically conservative but very open-minded and regularly read books she disagreed with to see what she could learn from them.

Me:  It’s the same way you might respect someone who’s a socialist.  You think they’re wrong in their political views, but they may otherwise be really smart, and you might even be able to learn from them in other areas.  Similarly, I can think someone is wrong about religion without thinking they’re completely stupid.

A look of comprehension dawned on Mary’s face, and she said, “Oh, that makes sense.”

In contrast to Mary, I have another friend who I’ll call Brian (not his real name either).  Brian has a tendency to get into arguments with people on the internet.  Before I go on, I should admit that online discussion boards scare me.  They tend to quickly turn into heated arguments that go around in circles while both sides rehash the same arguments and neither side actually listens to what the other says.  I realize that this is not true of everyone on these sites, but there are enough angry, argumentative people to stress me out and convince me to use my time another way.

Brian, like Mary, is politically conservative, but he tends to have more or less the opposite attitude toward those who disagree with him.  He tends to take his political and religious views very seriously, and unfortunately becomes overly upset by the people he argues with.  Although he is very nice under most circumstances, when political or religious issues come up, he sometimes turns into one of those angry, argumentative people who turned me off of internet discussions in the first place.

In defense of Brian, his argumentativeness is caused by a commitment to truth.  He believes that his views are true and that false beliefs have negative consequences.  More importantly, he sees the arguments for his views as conclusive, which he thinks means that people who disagree with him are denying the facts, either out of stupidity or just from blindly believing what they have been told.

Even though their actions were completely different, I think Brian and Mary ultimately made the same mistake.  They both failed to separate the issues we were discussing from the people who held opposing views.  They concluded that, at least in dealing with certain issues, thinking someone was wrong meant thinking they were stupid.  Mary was so concerned with respecting people that she was unwilling to think they were wrong.  Brian was so concerned with the truth that he said they were wrong and then concluded that they were stupid.

I think there should be a middle way in relating to people.  We need to recognize that even smart people occasionally make mistakes, and sometimes even make mistakes about very important things.  I think we need to address those mistakes and confront the people who make them, but we can’t afford to forget that there is a reason that religion and politics are some of the most divisive topics of conversation.  They are very important but also very complicated.  The people we are talking to may simply have overlooked, or not been exposed to, an argument.  We should have the humility to recognize that we might be wrong and the grace to recognize that other intelligent, intellectually honest people may also be wrong.  As my father says, “I’m absolutely sure that my theology is wrong on some points.  I’m just waiting to find out which points those are.”

On the other hand, these issues are important, and there is a true answer.  Knowing the truth is important, so if you believe that your view is true, the most loving thing you can do for someone is to show that to them.  Just make sure your tone and attitude show that you are acting out of concern for them, not hostility or arrogance.  Otherwise no one will be convinced, either because they won’t know what you believe or because they’ll be so turned off by your attitude that they won’t take you seriously.

Monday, May 30, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 2: Transcendence

This is part 2 of a series comparing and contrasting Daoism and Christianity.  For part 1, click here, and for part 3, click here.

“In the beginning was the Dao, and the Dao was with God, and the Dao was God.”

Obviously, the most important aspect of any religion is what it worships.  (Arguably, that is also the most important aspect of any secular philosophy, but arguing for that would be a long tangent.)  Although philosophical Daoism does not include prayer, rituals, or other behaviors we would categorize as worship, it does hold the Dao to be transcendent and utterly beyond human comprehension, characteristics Christians attribute to God.

John’s claim that “in the beginning was the Word” reflects a Christian belief that Christ existed before creation, which relates to the fact that He is eternal, without beginning or end.  “The beginning” means the very first beginning, so if God already was at “the beginning,” He must have always existed. Otherwise, God’s beginning would be the first beginning.  On the other end of the spectrum, Paul calls Jesus the one “who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1Tim 6:16).  This means that not only does Christ have no beginning, but He also has no end.  The reference to “unapproachable light” means that human minds cannot fully comprehend God.  Note that this is not because God is irrational, which would be symbolized by darkness.  Rather, God is supremely rational, but just as our eyes are not equipped to look directly at the sun, our minds are not equipped to understand the truth of who He is.

The Dao also has many of these properties.  It is eternal, which makes it fundamentally different from “things,” whose lifespans are limited to a set amount of time. As the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi says, “The Way is without beginning or end, but things have their life and death - you cannot rely upon their fulfillment.”  Similarly, although the Dao affects the things that make up the universe, it does not change; “We speak of the filling and emptying, the withering and decay of things. [The Way] makes them full and empty without itself filling or emptying; it makes them wither and decay without itself withering or decaying.” This unchanging nature of the Dao resembles the Christian doctrine of God’s immutability (the idea that God’s essential nature does not change).  Zhuangzi also believes that the Dao is incomprehensible.  He consistently criticizes those who claim to understand it, and argues that “understanding that rests on what it does not know is finest.”  In other words, thinking you know something about the Dao is proof that you actually know nothing about it, because the Dao goes beyond logic.  This is one difference between Daoism and Christianity; while Christianity sees reason as one aspect of humanity being made in the image of God and therefore as a good thing, Zhuangzi sees reason, and all language, as an artificial human invention that prevents us from truly experiencing the Dao.

In a speech to some Greek philosophers, Paul claims that God “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24-25).  The people he was addressing believed that gods lived in their temples, and would not think of a god living anywhere else.  By claiming that God does not live in a temple, Paul invites the reader to draw the conclusion that God has no physical location because He transcends space.  Moreover, this verse claims that God does not need anything that people could give Him, which is because God is self-sufficient and thus has no needs.  These characteristics demonstrate transcendence, an attribute that God has in common with Zhuangzi’s view of Dao.

However, the passage that describes God as transcending space and existing independently goes on to touch on a significant difference between God and the Dao; God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).  Although Zhuangzi would agree that everything comes from the Dao and could not exist apart from it, he would never claim that the Dao “gives” things to humanity.  Zhuangzi sees people as a part of the natural system, which the Dao does not value any more than anything else.  Moreover, the Dao is impersonal, so it does not “value” or “give” anything. 

The Bible depicts God as a personal being who speaks, makes decisions, has feelings, and makes moral judgments.  In Exodus 20, God speaks to the people of Israel and tells them what actions are right and what actions are wrong.  Christians believe that these laws are not simply arbitrary, but that they reflect God’s nature.  Later, when the Israelites disobey these laws, God sends prophets who tell them that they will be punished but that God will not completely destroy them because his “compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8).  God’s moral standards and emotional attachment to his people indicate that he is a personal, relational being, despite his transcendence. 

In contrast, the Dao incorporates everything and treats everything as one. It cannot relate personally to any one thing, since that would require distinguishing it from other things.  From the Dao’s perspective, everything is fundamentally the same, since everything is part of the Dao itself.  This means that all distinctions are illusory, including the distinction between good and evil, as I will discuss in the next installment.  Zhuangzi also believes that all things are subject to change, and will eventually be transformed into their opposites, so distinctions between things are also temporary.  However, to have a personal relationship with someone requires distinguishing that person from other people.  A friend is by definition someone that one knows uniquely, as an individual.  Similarly, emotions require a change in state, which the Dao, being eternal and unchanging, is incapable of.  Thus, Dao and God are both believed to be transcendent, in that they are independent of time, and space, but they differ in that God is a personal source of morality and Dao is an impersonal entity that incorporates both good and evil.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 1

My final paper as an undergraduate (eek!) was for a class I took on ancient Chinese religions.  The class was fascinating, as was my topic for the paper: a comparison between Christianity and the thought of Zhuangzi*, a Daoist philosopher. 

Zhuangzi was sort of the Apostle Paul of Daoism.  He didn’t create the system of thought (that was done by his predecessor Laozi, whose name means “old master”), but he did develop it and expand on its implications for ethics, society, language, and more.  Most Daoist thought is based on Zhuangzi.

Western philosophy since the time of Socrates has emphasized the importance of defining key terms before one starts making arguments.  Unfortunately, no one told this to Zhuangzi.  He never explains exactly what the Dao is.  The word “dao” literally means “way,” a straight path with a single destination.  Thus, the translation I quote will use “Way” where I would say “Dao.”  Zhuangzi held that the Dao was so far above our understanding that “There is no name that fits the Way.”  There is a sense in which the Dao incorporates everything in the universe.  Zhuangzi says that just as when we see all the parts of a horse’s body, we treat it as one unit (a horse), the Dao is “the generality that embraces” everything.  Everything other than the Dao is composed of varying amounts of yin and yang, two fundamental principles that correspond to earth/cold/dark/female and heaven/hot/light/male, respectively.  The Dao is the source of yin and yang, which are the source of everything else.

However, this idea of the Dao as a general term for everything that exists falls short of the reality of the Dao; as Zhuangzi says, “the distance between them is impossibly far.”  This distance shows up in a passage in which Zhuangzi addresses a philosophical debate about whether the universe came from something or from nothing.  Zhuangzi argued that both views were wrong; the universe came from the Dao, which is not nothing, but it was more than a mere “thing,” as calling it something would imply: “The Way cannot be thought of as being, nor can it be thought of as nonbeing.”

When I got my first Chinese Bible after just over a year of learning Chinese, the first thing I did was turn to John 1.  The main reason was that I wanted to see how they translated the word “logos” or “word.”  To my delight, I recognized the character, which was Dao.  This is actually a far more accurate translation than the English “word” – both “Dao” and the original Greek term “logos” refer to transcendent principles that create and govern the universe (for more on “logos” see the post on my blog’s name).

This raises a question: how much of John 1 would a Daoist philosopher like Zhuangzi agree with?  This is the issue I plan to examine in future posts, using John 1 as a starting point to compare and contrast Daoism with Christianity.  At this point, it looks like it will be a fairly long series, which made me wonder whether it would be worthwhile to spend so much time analyzing a worldview that few people in today’s world (including China) really believe.  However, I decided to go ahead for three reasons:

1. I think it’s interesting, so I’ll enjoy writing it, and others may find it interesting too.

2. Daoism has a fair amount in common with other Eastern religions, and it still influences some people through the New Age movement and Star Wars.  (Hint: force = Dao)

3.  I already had a fair amount of analysis written for my paper, so why not use it?

I hope that you enjoy and benefit from this series.  Feel free to leave comments about the comparison itself or places where you’ve seen similar ideas.

*Elizabeth’s Guide to Not Completely Butchering Chinese Names:  “Zh” sounds more or less like the “g” in “giraffe,”  “zhuang” rhymes with “long,” not “clang,” and the “i” at the end is pronounced more like the “i” in “igloo” than like “eee.”  This gives you a pronunciation that isn’t exactly the way the Chinese say it, but it’s much better than the average English speaker does.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Change, Death, and Opportunity

I know basically nothing about tarot cards.  In fact, the full extent of my knowledge of the subject consists of:
1. Tarot cards are a deck of cards that some people use to predict the future. (aka the definition of the term)
2. There is a death card, which actually represents change, not death. (thank you, Castle)
3.  Tarot cards are associated with the occult, which is opposed to Christianity and are not something I want to know any more about.

In spite of point 3, I'll use point 2 as an example because of the connection it creates between change and death.  Certainly death is the ultimate change we experience.  And conversely, a big enough change in our lives can mean we are no longer the person we were before, which is a kind of death.  And as with death, on the other side of change is something unknown, mysterious and, for many people, terrifying.

And yet, my generation does not shy away from change.  Thousands of us were swept off our feet in the idealistic fervor that got Obama elected.  Although I did not campaign or even vote for Obama, I do share some of the sentiments that he so effectively appealed to.  I, too, believe that it is possible to make a positive difference in the world and see change as a golden opportunity for improvement.

So, change is death.  And change is also opportunity

I am standing on the brink of the biggest change of my life so far.  I am 21 years old.  I have been a student for 17 of those years, which is almost as long as I can remember.  Now, I am graduating in less than three weeks and moving to Taiwan one month later.

As I think about this change, I find myself pulled in two different directions.  On the one hand, leaving the campus and the people that have shaped my life over the past few years will be difficult.  Brandeis has been a wonderful school for me.  I have grown amazingly as a person and gained experiences that I will remember all my life.  Leaving this behind and stepping out into an unknown future sometimes seems like death.

And yet, the opportunity that my job in Taiwan offers is tremendously exciting.  I will work for an organization whose mission I believe deeply in, make new friends, and experience life in a completely different culture.  I am confident that this time will continue the growth that I have experienced at Brandeis, and I am thrilled and delighted by the opportunity to go.

But for now, I am left here in my room, torn between dreams for the future and nostalgia for the past, trying to make sense of my conflicting emotions.  And yet, I would not want it any other way.  I have a wonderful experience behind me and another wonderful experience in front of me.  What more could I ask for?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Thine is the Glory

Thine Is the Glory

1. Thine is the glory,
Risen, conqu'ring Son;
Endless is the vict'ry
Thou o'er death hast won.
Angels in bright raiment
Rolled the stone away,
Kept the folded grave clothes
Where Thy body lay.
2. Lo! Jesus meets us,
Risen, from the tomb;
Lovingly He greets us,
Scatters fear and gloom;
Let His church with gladness
Hymns of triumph sing,
For her Lord now liveth;
Death hath lost its sting.

3. No more we doubt Thee,
Glorious Prince of Life!
Life is naught without Thee;
Aid us in our strife;
Make us more than conqu'rors,
Through Thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan
With Thy power and love.

Thine is the glory,
Risen, conqu'ring Son;
Endless is the vict'ry
Thou o'er death hast won.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Week Hymns: The Weeping Sky

This year, each day of Holy Week, I will post one hymn, with a meditation or explanation afterward.  Some will be hymns I have written; others will be ones I just find meaningful.  I hope you will join me each day, at least to read the hymn if you don't want to take the time for the prose that follows it.  Today's hymn is one of mine.

The Weeping Sky

The icy, grasping hands of fog
Grip every barren, gnarled tree.
Their shadows in a stagnant pool
Like iron bars encompass me
The fog surrounds my breaking heart,
Veils even Heaven’s constant light.
My eyes turn back to Earth below,
Where what is true cannot be right.

Now Goodness dies by Hate betrayed,
So every cloud in heaven weeps,
Descending to a muddy grave,
The pool in which my spirit sleeps.
The shining teardrops of the sky
Descend to taste the parched earth’s pain,
To bind the earth with Heaven’s love,
A chain of ripples forged in rain.

The teardrops soak an ancient tree
To turn its bark to mournful black,
As purest water turns to mud
And sinks, no hope of turning back,
For Beauty lies, forever scarred,
And Innocence is stained with sin,
Eternal ruler, helpless slave
They mix and die as lives begin.

Weep for your maker, distant clouds.
His blood now soaks the earth like rain.
On icy mud His love pours down
And carries off my heart’s black stain.
A single bird’s cry chimes out clear,
A bell that lifts my eyes to see,
When every hope seemed drowned in fear,
White flowers on the twisted tree.

This is probably my favorite of the hymns I have written.  I wrote it while looking out the window on a rainy day during Holy Week.  I’d been taking a class on East Asian poetry, which certainly influenced the way I wrote it.  For instance, the first verse focuses mostly on setting the emotional tone by describing natural surroundings, which I later realized is a common feature of Japanese poetry.  Another class I was taking introduced me to Platonism, which also worked its way in.  Plato talked about forms, the essence of a given property, so I used “Goodness” “Beauty” and “Innocence” to describe Jesus, the one who fully exemplified these characteristics.  I don’t really believe Platonism, but it’s very poetic, as long as you don’t take those lines literally.

Throughout the poem, I used rain as an image of Jesus.  The second verse focuses on the idea of the rain falling from Heaven to Earth, just like Christ did in the Incarnation.  A pool outside my window (which I mention in the first verse) became an image of death and sin; the first verse compares the reflection of the tree branches to bars, symbolizing imprisonment, and the second verse directly calls it a “grave.”  Since the raindrops represent Christ, I attribute feelings of love to them, saying that they fall to share the pain of a world which is “parched” – desperate for what they offer.  The ripples the raindrops form in the pool look like links of a chain, which I used as a symbol of the love that binds people to God.

The third verse focuses on the idea of a perfectly innocent person taking on the sins of the world.  It suggests that, just as the pure raindrops become mixed with mud when they fall, Christ took on the pollution caused by sin.  This mixture also symbolizes the combination of His power and His self-sacrifice.  Yet the last line of this verse signals a change, pointing out the hope that comes from the Crucifixion and the beginning of new lives that are transformed by it.

The last verse changes the metaphor a bit.  Now, the rain represents all of creation “weeping” for Christ, but the comparison between Christ Himself and the raindrops continues, becoming more explicit.  A third aspect of the comparison also appears; Christ’s blood like water purifies things.  In this case, it purifies us from sin. 

Halfway through the last verse, there is a twist, leading to a hopeful ending.  I wanted to end the poem with a hint of the Resurrection to come.  This begins with the bird’s song, which gets compared to a bell, a symbol of joy and an instrument often used in Easter celebrations.  The flowers similarly symbolize new life coming out of the tree/cross.  They are white because it is the opposite of black, which has been representing both mourning and sin.  (Confession: there were no flowers on the trees that day.  It came from an image in my head, which I realized much later had come from the movie “The Return of the King.”  Don’t judge me.)

There was a lot more going on consciously or unconsciously as I wrote this hymn, but in the interest of keeping this brief, I’ll stop there.  I hope you have enjoyed and/or learned from this series.  And stop in tomorrow, because I’ll post an Easter hymn (without commentary).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week Hymns: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

 This year, each day of Holy Week, I will post one hymn, with a meditation or explanation afterward.  Some will be hymns I have written; others will be ones I just find meaningful.  I hope you will join me each day, at least to read the hymn if you don't want to take the time for the prose that follows it. 

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

O sacred Head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down;
Now scornfully surrounded, with thorns Thy only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was thine,
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

What Thou, my Lord has suffered was all for sinners’ gain.
Mine, Mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior, ‘tis I deserve Thy place.
Look on me with Thy favor; vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

Be near when I am dying, O show Thy cross to me;
And for my succor flying, Come, Lord, to set me free;
These eyes, new faith receiving from Jesus shall not move;
For he who dies believing, dies safely, through Thy love.

I had mixed feelings about featuring “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” on this blog.  On the one hand, it’s more or less the classic Good Friday hymn, which means most Christians already know it.  On the other hand, it’s a classic for a reason, and I think it is theologically correct and emotionally powerful.  As you may have noticed, I compromised by using a different translation from the one found in most hymnals.

Like several of the hymns I’ve featured, this one is powerful enough in itself that I don’t think it really needs commentary.  However, I’ll point out a few lines that I find particularly moving.

In the first verse, I like the rhyme between “glory” and “gory” because the words sound so similar but have such drastically different meanings.  It draws attention to the paradox I’ve been pointing out all week between Jesus as God and Jesus as the suffering servant.  The end of the first verse adds a powerful emotional twist with the line “I joy to call Thee mine.”  Generally, when I sing this hymn, joy is not my primary emotion (to use a drastic understatement).  However, by adding that line, the hymn reminds us that this suffering actually led to our salvation, which is something we can and should rejoice in.

I think this hymn’s greatest strength lies in its expression of the singer’s reaction to the events it describes.  I particularly like the lines “Lo here I fall, my Savior; ‘tis I deserve thy place,” and “Let me never, never outlive my love to Thee”.

The final verse does not show up in most hymnals; in fact I had never seen it before I found “O Sacred Head” in the anthology that gave me this translation.  Maybe it’s because I’m so young, but I don’t think this verse is as generally applicable as the others, since it focuses on death.  I suppose, though, that none of us really knows when we will die, so it is important to have the right attitude toward this possibility.  I like the phrase “dies safely” because it seems contradictory but actually expresses an important truth.  Since people are eternal beings, death is not the worst thing that can happen to us, so if we believe in Christ, we can be safe even when we die. 

Overall, I think that “O Sacred Head” is worth meditating on as an expression both of Christ’s love for us and of the love we should have for Him.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Week Hymns: How Does the World not Cease to Spin

This year, each day of Holy Week, I will post one hymn, with a meditation or explanation afterward.  Some will be hymns I have written; others will be ones I just find meaningful.  I hope you will join me each day, at least to read the hymn if you don't want to take the time for the prose that follows it.  Today's hymn is one of mine.

How does the World not Cease to Spin?

How does the world not cease to spin
When He who charts its course is slain?
How can the powers of darkness win?
Does Heaven’s King no longer reign?
You, living God whose breath is life,
Give up Your life for those who died.
The Lord of Joy in Heaven’s light
For broken hearts in anguish cried.

They raised You, not on golden throne
But roughest wood of agony.
How can salvation’s sweetest fruit
Be grown on such a bitter tree?
No earthly nail could hold You there;
Love bound You firmly as You died
Now pierce my heart with love so deep
To draw me to Your spear-torn side.

Blood pouring from the Healer’s wounds
Should call my eyes to pour out tears
Yet evil reigns within my heart;
My laughing lips shout mocking jeers.
How is it that the lips of Truth
Instead of mine are sore and dry?
Lord, pour your grace into my heart
To love You deeper as You die.

So though the sun may cease to shine
Your hope illuminates my heart.
This love that sought me in the grave
Through life and death will not depart.
For all the sins that held me down
With You were lifted up to die.
Your victory in defeat is sure
For longer than the earth and sky.

I began writing this hymn by imagining what the disciples must have been thinking and the confusion they must have felt after the Crucifixion.  Although they probably didn’t understand that Jesus was actually God, recognizing this makes what happened even more confusing and amazing.  Since God created and sustains all things, if God dies, shouldn’t that mean the universe is destroyed?  The death of God the Son did not actually destroy the world because God did not cease existing, but I think these sorts of questions can lead to a healthy recognition that God’s plan is beyond our comprehension.  This sense of stunned admiration continues into the rest of the first stanza, which plays on the paradox of God, whose nature is the source of life and joy, giving up life and joy for people who have neither.

The next stanza also refers to a variety of concepts; the first couplet points out how Christ, who rightfully should have been king was instead executed.  I particularly like the lines, “How could salvation’s sweetest fruit be grown on such a bitter tree?” because it plays on the image of the cross as a tree and points out the paradox of sweet coming from bitter.  The last couplet in that verse intends to draw a parallel between Christians and Christ; just as He was bound by love to the cross and just as His side was pierced, our desire is to be “pierced” with love that binds us to Him.  We ask God to bring to fruition the Biblical promise that believers are given the life of Christ, even if this means that we share in His sufferings, taking up our crosses to follow Him.

In the next verse, I picture myself at the scene of the Crucifixion as part of the mocking crowd.  As I discussed yesterday, being part of the sinful human race makes us complicit in Christ’s death.  In this verse, a person’s lips represent their moral character, so I contrast the perfectly truthful lips of Christ with our mocking lips and marvel that He is being punished instead of me.  This verse, like the last one, ends with a plea for God to help us to love Him more.

The final verse becomes a bit more hopeful, looking away from Christ’s suffering toward its results.  In particular, it points out that Christ’s love endures forever and that sin itself died on the cross.  Although He appeared defeated, Jesus was actually victorious over sin, destroying its power completely.  The last line is meant to connect back to the beginning of the hymn; even if the world had been destroyed, God would still be victorious.