Archives for category: frustration

The headline of the September 3, 2007 issue of Time magazine made me hold my breath for a moment: “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa.” In this day & age, scandal among leading figures of faith is nothing new — but Mother Teresa?

Well, as it turns out, her “secret” is that she suffered a crisis of faith. I suppose in a culture where Mother Teresa is more of a cultural archetype than an actual human being, the fact that she struggled — mightily, at times — in her faith would be a shocking “secret” worthy of an expose. I would never wish a dark night of the soul upon anyone. The pain, the emptiness, the grief — these things can almost tear a person apart. But I find myself oddly reassured that Mother Teresa was a real human being, with very real questions, doubts and struggles. It gives me hope that, by the grace of God, I can become the person God intends for me to be. As Eugene Cho writes in his post about this article:

While I have joy in my convictions as a believer of God and follower of Christ, I am not afraid to call Mystery and Doubt my friends and acquaintances. They have accompanied my journey for some time…and have actually strengthened my walk with Christ.

It is almost human nature to love the idea of a person more than the physical human being in front of us. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that is a large part of why many relationships fail — we develop this idealized version of our beloved that can only lead to disappointment and failure. I love this quote from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community, even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.

Even though I’ve been serving in a first-generation immigrant church context for awhile now, I still struggle with understanding the Asian idea of saving face. At times, it feels like we are willfully misleading people in order to maintain the dream of the community, as opposed to entering the messy reality of one another’s lives. It’s safer and simpler to keep each other at arm’s length. But what costs so little yields a similarly cheap result.

I have really struggled over the last couple of weeks because of the circumstances of a family we know. The husband and wife have been contemplating divorce — difficult in any circumstance, but made even stickier in a first-generation immigrant setting. On top of that, the husband works for their church as a member of the first-generation staff. Unfortunately, their resolution seems to be sending off the husband to another country for “mission” work. This ridicules not only the sanctity of marriage, but also the calling to cross into another culture and serve in the name of Christ. The frightening thing is that I’m sure many of us could repeat almost verbatim the same story from our own church experience — it’s not love that covers over a multitude of sins, but a holy facade.

What would happen in the Asian American church if we acknowledged, and entered into, the mess of one another’s lives? We might have to fight our inner Homer Simpson shouting “Too much infor-mation!” and deal with the awkwardness of actually getting to know each other, but isn’t it worth it? The mess could become beautiful if we lived in it together. If you need a little inspiration, or a soundtrack to your messy spirituality, listen to this track, I Live In The Mess You Are, by Zookeeper (Chris Simpson of post-rock powerhouse Mineral and shoegaze wonders The Gloria Record).

Preaching that we should always trust in God can feel kind of trite and condescending when done from the comfort of a sleepy Southern California suburb while yet another South Korean hostage has been murdered in Afghanistan. It’s bad enough that such a terrible series of events is happening, but I start to despair when the response of the body of Christ here is either deafening silence or outright hostility.  One outstanding voice has been Eugene Cho, through his regular updates and insights into this situation.

There is a time and place for critiquing and questioning this group’s purpose and methodology in their trip to Afghanistan, but now is not that time. When people are being murdered and held hostage, we should mourn, weep and pray — not stand on our comfortable soapboxes, point fingers and blame the victims.  It saddens me that a powerful voice such as Christianity Today barely mentions this tragedy — and, even then, focuses their coverage on critiquing Korean missionary efforts rather than sounding the call to prayer and solidarity.

Regardless of whether or not this particular group was there to overtly share their Christian faith, it frustrates me to hear criticisms such as, “Well, they should have known something like this would happen in such a dangerous place” or “They have no right to try to be there.”  Maybe one day I will share some of my thoughts about the shortcomings of Korean and Korean American missionary efforts, but I will say this right now — I have known many Korean missionaries who have given up very comfortable lives in order to go live in hard places, often without electricity or running water and usually without recognition or applause, simply because they are compelled by the love of God in Christ.  By the same line of reasoning many critics are following, the martyrs of Hebrews 11 should never have gone into difficult places hostile to Christ.

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

While we don’t want to overschedule our daughter, we have signed her up for a couple of fun activities this summer. She will be a part of our church’s VBS, of course, and a really cool day camp at SeaWorld later this summer — but today marked the beginning of this fun season. My wife and I tried to play it cool as we dropped her off this morning for the start of her two-week day camp (it’s still harder on us than it is for our daughter).

We like to interact with our daughter’s teachers. As people who have been involved in youth & children’s ministries for awhile now, we value the participation and input of parents. When we returned to pick up our daughter, the main teacher (out of three) greeted us with a big smile and said that our daughter had done really well. I was relieved to hear this; some of the older kids in the Pre/K group at church are pretty mean, and it has kind of given our daughter a complex about making friends. She is still a very friendly & outgoing kid, but this stress about not being able to make friends surfaces from time to time — resulting in huge heartache & frustration for us. A quick aside: if you find time to pray for us, this is the one thing that is constantly on my mind. My sincere thanks.

My relief was short-lived, though, as the teacher completed her thought. It went something like this: Your daughter did really well… I mean, her English is pretty good. It took me a second to realize what she had said. We explained that English is actually our daughter’s first language, because she was born here. The second teacher followed this up with, “Where are you from?” With wide-eyed disbelief, my wife responded, “Well, we’ve lived here in the States our whole lives, but our parents are from Korea.” The main teacher tried to brush it off with, “Oh, I could tell you were pretty Americanized, since your daughter brought pizza for lunch. Some kids bring those Hello Kitty lunchboxes with sushi, you know.”

A couple of caveats: I realize that they probably meant no harm. I’m sure they’re nice and all; just a little bit ignorant. I also realize that they probably don’t deal with many non-white people. This neck of the woods can be a little bit like that. I also understand that this is the world in which my daughter will be living for the rest of her life — I can’t shield her from ignorance forever.

Nonetheless, I am still extremely frustrated. This line of questioning — “Where are you from?” — reinforces the idea that of course we’re not from here. I mean, how could these Asian-looking faces be American, like the rest of us? Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t want my daughter to assimilate, to feel like she has to run from her Asian-ness or push it aside for the sake of fitting in. Later, if one of her well-meaning white friends says to her, “I don’t even think of you as being Asian,” I don’t want her to take it as a compliment. I want her to be very confident in who God made her to be. While alienation and self-hatred has been the unfortunate story for many Asian American youth, I don’t believe that it must be part of the equation — and I am hoping & praying that my daughter can be spared as much of this heartache as possible. So, when her teacher asks her, “Where are you from?” and thinks it is really funny when she responds, “San Diego,” perhaps you can see why that would bother me.

On a personal level, I am really praying that I would have a thicker skin about things. Sometimes, the intensity of my emotional reaction to these kinds of situations precludes any kind of reasonable, constructive, or appropriate response. I don’t want to live with some kind of chip on my shoulder — I don’t want to give ignorant people that kind of control over my life. And, in all honesty, I think I have been better able to handle these kinds of things — at least when they deal directly with me.

For example, I am usually pretty patient with older Caucasian people who ask, “Where are you from?” just because they come from another world (these teachers from today, however, are not old at all — thus compounding my frustration). I can very politely tell these people that I think I know what they’re asking, but that it is actually pretty rude to ask in that manner (and, if they ask why it is rude, I will explain the whole alienation deal to them). I’m not sure why our racial ethnic background matters so much to some Caucasian people — I don’t often hear them asking each other, Are you German? Irish? Dutch? If one must know, then it is marginally better to ask, “Where are your parents from?” although this still carries much of the same outsider-connotation with it. Probably, it’s best simply to ask the question directly: What is your ethnic background or heritage?

However, when it comes to my daughter, my father-bear instincts kick in big time. I held back today because I don’t want to bias these teachers against my daughter just because they might perceive me as being some uppity Asian person.

Despite protests to the contrary, ignorant and racist attitudes persist today as systemic and institutional issues.

Remember the Skit Guys controversy from a little while back? I don’t mean to dredge up the past — certainly, the response of Youth Specialties, Marko, and the Skit Guys themselves showed that something good could come out of a bad situation. But, judging from the response of many people both at Marko’s and the Skit Guys’ blogs, we still have a long, long way to go. Some highlights:

Part of humor is laughing at ourselves. I hope we don’t become so sensitive that you guys can’t even minister. You guys characterize pastors, janitors, deacons, blondes, Christians, girls, boys…and all of those on purpose. And I love it! Is an Asian character not supposed to speak with an Asian dialect? I have not read the skit, but…at this rate you’ll be writing more apologies than skits.

Well, I have read the original skit and, though it might be pointless to try to help this person understand the underlying issues here, there is a world of difference between poking fun at a Caucasian pastor/janitor/blonde, etc. and laughing at the Engrish-speaking “oriental” buffoon, who clearly is not from here and does not, and could never, belong.

Or how about this little gem:

I pray that you don’t let this discourage you because in today’s society everyone is offended about something. God has truly blessed you two with the gift of ministry through comedy. I have seen you 3 times at the International Church of God Youth Conventions and you were awesome. Just remember that satan will use anything or anyone he can to try to keep us from glorifying God and spreading his Word. Just keep doing what you are doing….showing the love, mercy and grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ through the gift of christian comedy that he has given you!!!

Right, right… now I see — It’s the fault of uppity people of color that they are offended by blatant, degrading racial stereotyping. And speaking out for justice is obviously satanic. Our God (the same One who said, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” and commanded His people, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt”) would clearly not approve of this.

I’m really hoping this works out.

Serving in a Korean American church creates a strange sense of both being intimately connected and profoundly disconnected from the first-generation (1G) congregation. At times, I experience almost a sense of extended family when I spend time with the 1G congregants. For example, over the past several Sundays I have been playing tennis with a group of 1G families. Usually, we will end the evening by sharing a nice meal together (pho, even!). At the same time, in my ministry to second-generation (2G) students there is a deep sense of disconnection. The only time anyone seems to notice the youth ministry is if there is a major problem (or a cluster of heavy boxes to move). Other than vague notions of raising “good Christians,” there is no sense of purpose or mission when it comes to the spiritual formation of these 2G students.

In this third installment of this series of thoughts, I would like to continue to engage some of the thoughts Marko shared here at his blog. His third observation about Asian American youth ministry centers around the idea of integrating youth into the overall life and ministry of the church. As Marko notes, this isn’t really a choice for most AA youth ministries — whether we like it or not, we exist as the lopsided little 2G ear, attached to the larger 1G “Mickey” head.


Most of the churches I have served have at least attempted to organize some kind of ministry to families. Unfortunately, though they have had good intentions, these attempts ultimately failed. Perhaps the most frustrating of these programs were the ones we called “family” ministries but did not integrate a holistic sense of cross-generational ministry. For example, unless we count being in relatively close physical proximity as being a meaningful inter-generational ministry, it is wrong for many of the churches I have served to call their programs “family” retreats or “family” worship services. In my experience, at these retreats there are usually completely separate worship & activity programs set up for each group and at these worship services the 1G parents often refuse to sit with their 2G children.

I applaud the attempts of a couple of forward-thinking 1G senior pastors I have known who have tried to break through this kind of thinking. Unfortunately, they have encountered seemingly insurmountable walls when it comes to the actual practice of cross-generational ministry. For example, attempts at integrating both 1G and 2G language and culture into one worship service usually makes it very long, and not particularly meaningful for either group. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and in the end, no one is happy with the result.

After a couple of frustrating attempts (and numerous complaints), the natural tendency for churches is to stop trying. It’s easier to walk away than to work through the awkwardness.

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“why should he run the meeting in english?! we all speak korean here! he should speak korean, too!!”

i am a big believer that youth ministry is actually family ministry. there is no way a couple of hours a week at church can shape the heart of a young person. if we’re going to reach students for Christ, then we must reach their families.

and herein lies the dilemma. most of the time, i find myself completely unable to navigate first-generation korean culture. it’s not just that i cannot speak the language (although there has been perhaps a 15% improvement in comprehension over the last couple of years); the cultural gap seems to be growing larger the longer i serve in this context.

last sunday, we had a pta meeting here at church. knowing that very few people look forward to these poorly-attended meetings, the education pastors did our best to keep it short (only about 15 minutes total, between three different ministries — not bad!). we closed in prayer together with the parents and i gathered my things to leave.

it was then, about five or six feet behind me, that i heard one particular dad start ranting, loudly, to a small group of people around him about how unhappy he was. apparently, since i had made all of three announcements in english, he was about to blow a gasket. in the couple of months since we’ve been at this church, i have heard numerous comments from this particular man about how he wants things to be run and the mistakes others have made.

i really wanted to turn around and tell him to calm down. that if i could, of course i would have run my part of the meeting in korean. that there were plenty of other people here who also struggled with english, but seemed to be handling it fine. that, even if i could not communicate well with him, i am reaching his kids. but, of course, since we don’t speak each other’s language (in more ways than one) i chose not to say anything. plus, i was pretty steamed, which is not always the best way to engage a conversation with a church member.

i want to be pastoral with him. his life has been really hard — not only as an immigrant to this country, but with a family life that would make anyone bitter and frustrated. most of the time, this man is very nice, even charming, with church people. but i think he must feel the need to flex on someone. all of his disenfranchisement and disappointment with life come bubbling to the surface, and he lashes out at the youth and education ministries (on whom he must feel like he has the upper hand).

i don’t mean to bad-mouth our church. most of the people here have been very kind, and i certainly don’t expect anyone to cater to my needs. as a pastor, i’m here to serve, after all. however, i am getting worn out by this kind of attitude. it’s not like this church is unique in this. while it might only be a small percentage of people, this type of attitude has been present in almost every ministry in which i’ve served.

grow a thicker skin.
pray more.
learn korean.
i know there’s a laundry list of things i can/should do in response to all of this. but it’s still frustrating.