Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Christian Worldview and Martial Arts

Once when I was in college, I was hanging out with a group of guys from our Christian fellowship group. The conversation turned to MMA, and one of them asked if anyone in the group knew martial arts. After a moment of hesitation, I said, “I have a black belt in kung fu.” One of them burst out laughing. It seemed ridiculous that a sweet, quiet girl like me would do kung fu.

But I wasn’t joking. My black belt came from the kids’ program at my kung fu school, but my school was run by a teacher trained in Taiwan who had very high standards for his students – even young ones. It took me about seven years of consistent hard work to gain the black belt. I’m really out of practice now, but it was a fun experience, and I can still do all the basic techniques and some of the forms.

That’s why I was so interested in a blog post by Warren Fox, another American Christian martial artist living in Taipei. Fox described how he began learning to fight as a child. He, unlike me, learned martial arts for self-defense; he was an African American growing up in a town full of KKK supporters. The post, which I highly recommend, also talks about some more general issues related to the origin and morality of martial arts.

As I see it, martial arts raise two potential problems for Christians. The first is that they’re designed for violence. If one is a pacifist, I see how this would make them unacceptable. But most Christians I know aren’t. And those who aren’t opposed to force in principle shouldn’t reject martial arts for this reason. My martial arts instructor told us clearly that we should only use the techniques we learned if someone physically attacked us. Even then, we were urged to run away, or do just enough damage to allow ourselves to escape. (Self-defense note: if you stomp on the top of an attacker’s foot, where the shoelaces would be, you can usually break a few bones, which will prevent them from chasing you.) Kung fu was not for showing off or picking fights. It was a powerful tool that must be used wisely.

The other potential problem is that eastern martial arts developed in a culture with an unbiblical worldview. That in itself doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t use them. The same can be said of tea, paper and fireworks. The basics of martial arts consist of punches, kicks, blocks and stances – purely physical actions. But at higher levels, the techniques begin merging with Buddhist or Taoist philosophy (depending on the style). They begin blending with what Fox calls “ritual” – chants and techniques meant to tap into energy, either within your body or from a source outside yourself. These, I believe, can be spiritually dangerous and even demonic. But those are distinct from the techniques themselves, and it is possible to study and learn the techniques without delving into this dangerous territory.

Fox came to the conclusion that the ritualistic aspects of martial arts are a corruption of a good thing God gave us. I would argue that using it for unnecessary violence is the same.

But if God did create martial arts, then it must have real benefits. The obvious benefits of martial arts are self-defense and defense of others. When I studied kung fu, I did it because it was a form of exercise that I actually enjoyed and was reasonably good at. I have miserable hand-eye coordination, so any sport involving a ball was extremely difficult for me. Kung fu required different skills, and it wasn’t competitive. My goal was to compete only against myself, to do deeper, stronger stances and crisper, more accurate techniques than I did the previous class.

Kung fu also taught me discipline – the willingness to practice and even endure pain for my own improvement. And it helped me begin to feel more confident in myself. It even helped my body image – my legs may have been large and lumpy, but at least I knew they could throw a mean roundhouse kick.

These are all blessings, and they should lead us to praise the God from whom all blessings flow. The God who created our bodies, who knows every joint, muscle, ligament and tendon, who describes Himself as a mighty warrior and the leader of an army of angels, reveals his glory even through martial arts.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Sun in the Night

Those who like me grew up going to church are aware that Christians like to draw a distinction between joy and happiness. The idea is that happiness is based on circumstances, but joy is not. We like to quote 1Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

And that’s all well and good, but for someone who struggles with depression, it can be confusing. The Bible says we should be joyful in all circumstances. Depression is a circumstance. Therefore we should be joyful when we’re depressed. What?

This seems impossible, so I started examining each step of the argument. I don’t want to deny the truth of Scripture (by saying we don’t have to be joyful always). Arguing that depression is a sin (not a “circumstance”) also doesn’t make sense to me (for reasons I can explain if people are interested). So, paradoxical as it sounds, there must be a way to find joy in depression.

I’ve come to a tentative solution: joy in the midst of depression looks less like happiness and more like hope. I think the details are better explained in poetry than in prose.

The Sun in the Night
Joy is the sun that fills my world with light,
That paints the flowers with their rainbow hue,
That crowns the dancing waves with diamonds bright
And shimmers out from every drop of dew.

But sorrow strikes – I spin into the dark.
Night rises up to steal the sunlight’s throne.
A hungry void devours every spark.
Night hisses, “Light is dead. You are alone.”

Yet though the sun is hidden from my gaze,
It does not for that reason cease to be.
I see it in the moon’s reflected rays
And grasp at hope’s unfelt reality.

Joy’s gravity holds me within my way,
Saves me from slipping out into despair.
It guards me till I spin back into day
And dawn paints roses in the morning air.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Two Poems on Suffering

It's been a rough month. My last post touched on a news item that hit close to home, but there has been a lot of other bad news since then. We've had bombings in Boston (which also hit close to home, since I went to school there) an explosion in Texas, and earthquake in Sichuan, China, continued civil war in Syria, and a collapsed building in Bangladesh, not to mention countless other tragedies, many of which probably didn't get reported. All this bad news has caused me to think a lot about how messed up the world is. These are my best attempts at expressing my thoughts so far.

Waiting for Hope
We wait within this world of pain
Where sunlit days explode in fire
Directed by some dark desire
The shrapnel falls like April rain

We wait within this world of fear
With trembling rocks beneath our feet
Our shelters crumble in the street
And with them falls all we hold dear

We wait within these feeble frames
Where battles rage in every cell
The parts against the whole rebel
Or fall to famine, flood or flame

We wait – but if we raise our eyes
To look beyond our dying sun
In heaven sits the Living One
Upon whose wings from death we rise

We wait, and through the night we sing
Undimmed, the hidden stars still shine
Hate will give way to love divine
As ice dissolves in certain spring

And the second poem:
Prayer of Suffering
O God who hears our every plea,
When darkness blocks the sunlight’s beams
When bomb blasts shatter tranquil air
And cheers and laughter turn to screams,
We cling to hope that you are there.

O God of glory, fiercely just,
The cosmos rests within Your hand,
O master of each hurricane,
Although we do not understand,
We beg You for the grace to trust.

O Christ who bore our every grief,
Absorbed death’s fullest agony
When grief and pain impale our hearts
Back to Your spear-torn side we flee,
Your blood is balm for our relief.

O Christ who overthrew the grave
Within Your triumph we find peace,
We thirst for Your returning day
When You will cause all war to cease
And Your tormented people save.

O Spirit who grants every grace,
Infuse our hearts with mercy’s power,
To break the bonds of fear and pain
And even in this evil hour
With selfless love the night to face.

O Holy Spirit, living flame,
Send out Your glory’s radiant beams
To pierce the heart of evil’s throne,
Defeating dark, demonic schemes
And bringing honor to Your name.