“Faith involves using the imagination. The greater the faith, the greater the imagination.” – Dr. Jeffrey Garner, Pastor of San Francisco Lighthouse and adjunct Professor at Western Seminary
“…whenever anyone is in extremis (going through any kind of crisis), their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see” – Robert Friedman, “The Failure of Nerve”
Those who are weary of living a life of hiding and shame needs new pictures and an imagination to step into them. But this new picture needs to be true and trustworthy. The most true and life-changing picture of all that we can step into is the picture of how God sees us through His Son Jesus. It’s in this relational picture of love and acceptance where the most fulfilling “coming out of the closet” can happen and where the most radical, healing transformation of one’s soul can take root.
But America is the kind of place where either head knowledge alone, or false pictures sabotage the invitation into THAT picture in the slide above. I myself have been sabotaged by the lure of false pictures for much of my life, the false picture that knowledge brings intimacy with God, and that’s because I saw myself more as an encyclopedia rather than allowing God to see me through Jesus. It’s not that I actually have encyclopedic knowledge, but I saw myself that way, and gave that impression to others. It started when I was a kid, first by memorizing San Francisco’s streets, (my aunties tell me I was able to draw detailed maps of San Francisco to scale at seven.) then by memorizing memory locations for CPUs along with the top 100 pop songs for several years. Yes, I was a hexadecimal-reading geek who loved music. I carried these false pictures of myself well into my adulthood. When I married, the officiant even announced in his homily, “If you were to ask Steve anything about anything, you’d get a 10 point outline.” When I left engineering for vocational Christian ministry, I simply added biblical knowledge to my mental vaults of encyclopedic knowledge. I was pretty deep in believing these false pictures in my own heart, and it cost me a lot of intimacy with others, notably God and my loved ones. When we’re that deep into a false picture, God may do some radical things to awaken his children. For me, that journey of how God snapped me out of my false pictures can be found here:
When we value, promote, and enable these false pictures, we’re in fact discipling, and digging deeper trenches of false pictures that rob people of the experience of God’s love. Ironically, I’m concerned that Christian churches in America often enable these false pictures, which is why “true” disciples in America are more rare in America proportionally then in places where following Christ is persecuted. In America, we give too much space to promoting people based on Bible knowledge alone. The fallout? Top-heavy Christians who have little integration of love for God and love for neighbors. Whereas churches in persecuted places test heart pictures and naturally weed out people with false pictures, churches in America need to be proactive to test these pictures, to assess what pictures currently lie in our hearts, then to replace those old pictures with new ones. Disciples with true pictures of God naturally find expression in love for God and compassion for others. One simply can’t know the compassionate Savior without having compassion on others. A Christian can’t see oneself as God sees them AND and be a “rabbit-hole” Christian (no compassionate interaction with those who don’t know Jesus) at the same time. I find it tragic that discipling erroneous pictures of God in America might even help you to grow your church!
Let’s apply this dynamic to Asians:
The quest to identify false pictures and then to replace them with true pictures of the Kingdom and how God sees us is quite the daunting task for many Asians. At minimum this quest requires one to “go back” to the past then to honestly assess what picture is currently written on the heart. Essentially, this is the same task as identifying the “masters” of our hearts before we can replace that with the One Master of all, the Lord Jesus Christ. (a thought inspired from the late USC philosophy professor Dallas Willard). But in cultures where this looking back is frowned upon, and where old masters promote quite the pragmatic world view, true pictures to bring ultimate honor to shame is buried. Asian culture is that culture! I can’t tell you how many churches I’ve been in that have built up “biblical” apologetics against “going back” to identify current pictures. And pragmatism? One of the biggest blind spots of the Asian church is the dismissal of the emotional qualities needed in Christian leadership, the same qualities that makes up a majority of elder qualifications in the pastoral epistles. Instead, I see people promoted to leadership because they fulfill a function; they know how to “lead worship” or “teach the Bible.” But relationally and emotionally? Some of these leaders still have old pictures in their hearts defined by their intellectual prowess, or old pictures based on how their parents see them and not how God sees them.
Pragmatism has been around Asian cultures for generations. It’s a false picture; it’s a world view. It is a “partner in crime” with shame. It hides the very qualities needed in churches and replaces them with initiatives that steamroll true Christian virtue. There ARE Asian movements cropping up to address these false pictures, but they are still the exception, the odd man out, and still somewhat the underdogs.
There is hope. I know, and work with both traditional Asian churches and Asian-American churches who are willing to wrestle with these false pictures of pragmatism and head knowledge. I know many faithful pastors of traditional Asian churches who are questing to embody the invitation in the slide above. Whether or not these leaders and pastors can navigate the tricky waters upheld by a critical mass who cling onto “old” pictures remains to be seen. That critical mass is certainly much more manageable in churches with less history, or less ties to those who insist on old pictures and paradigms. As a recovering pragmatic, head-knowledge driven Jesus-follower myself, I’ve come alongside a good handful of these Asian churches that are questing to embody new pictures WITHOUT giving up being Asian, or whoever they are for that matter. Embodying new pictures actually brings greater beauty to whatever culture people come from.
The journey toward these new pictures and the transformation and fruit that will grow from it will involve a tough road of surrender. That journey will be heated, will feel uncertain, and will certainly be filled with darkness at times. But the journey is worthwhile. The fruit of living in these new pictures is unimaginable from the perspective of the old. The picture is imaginable, but the fruit can only be experienced from the “after”side. This has certainly been my experience. My journey of following Christ is decades-old now, but I can say life is more renewed now than in the past. As I teach and preach from my “newer” pictures, one of the most common comments to my messages regards how my messages have become a lot less theological and much more real. I still love theology, but I’m able to steward whatever vaults of knowledge God’s given me a whole lot better, not to control, not to hide, but to serve, and to be. I feel like I’m just beginning this journey. Perhaps years from now, I’ll feel the same way. I sure hope so. I quest so.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about (imagine) these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Phil 4:8-9