Someone for Everywhere

Trinity Sunday    Psalm 8 and Matthew 28:16-20

“Don’t settle for less than God, whose reality transcends our ability to imagine and define.“


Graduate students hoping for future careers as university professors or public servants (either elected or appointed) are often encouraged to be careful about the ways they present themselves online, at sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others. Things posted don’t go away, they seem to live eternally in cyber-space.  Hiring committees at universities often contain members who have their “preferred” candidates. These will search out negative information…. posts, pictures, profiles… anything, that could be used to disqualify all who threaten their “favored ones.” If we’re thinking about political candidates, nowadays people dig deep to find evidence that a person once did or said something that would stop voters from choosing her. If the office is gained through appointment and confirmation by a committee, then anything that might embarrass the nominee and the one who nominated her is fair for use in the process.

This has always been so, but it’s worse in the age of the internet, because we leave so much information about ourselves as we move through life, and it is so easy to access. Just ask the Russian hackers who have been so much in the news this year.

The point of starting here is that we need to be careful what we assert to be true, especially if we want to use the Bible to back us up. Today is Trinity Sunday

I : “Baptize in the Name of…” and Reading Back

Trinity is an attempt to come to terms with stuff found in the New Testament. For example, when, in a Bible story, we read about Thomas confessing faith in the risen Jesus, he called him, “Lord and God.” In John’s Gospel we meet Jesus in one place saying that he and the Father are one, and in another place breathing on his disciples and imparting the Holy Spirit to them. If we just take the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we find all kinds of stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit together well, even with the ways that St. Paul and others tried to work them out elsewhere in the New Testament.

If we go historically, trying to put the writings in the order of their original production during the era that the early church was creating its beliefs and scriptures, we find things that the Church, which didn’t even EXIST before Jesus’ ascended, had come to believe and do written back into the stories of Jesus, sometimes put into the mouth of Jesus as quotations.

The bits and pieces about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are clearly there in the New Testament, and they form the basis of how Christians have come to understand and relate to God ever since they were written down. But that doesn’t mean that people were clear about the RELATIONSHIPS between the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as Sustainer. The New Testament writers and those who followed them in the early centuries of church history struggled. It wasn’t until sometime in the 4th century that an Asian, Theophilus of Antioch, who wrote in Greek, came up with the explanation “three in one and one in three.” It was even later that an African theologian, Tertulllian, put it into Latin and we got the term “Trinity”. The explanation and the word satisfactorily explain much of what we read in the Bible, but the actual word “Trinity” is not found anywhere between its covers.

So, what are we to do with what we read from Matthew 28 this afternoon, where Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples to baptize people “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?”

In the Bibles we use here at Tainan International Community Church, there are quote marks around the words that Jesus said. The author of Matthew didn’t put them there. Greek written back then didn’t have things like upper and lower case letters. It didn’t have punctuation, and not even have spaces between words! Written Greek of that time looked like someone shouting in an E-mail does today.

We can do several things with what we read, but all of them require that we trust the translators, and keep the original writer in high regard.

Starting with a “highest respect for the author” position means that Jesus actually said exactly these words about preaching and baptizing, and when the author of Matthew got around to writing it down, he accurately reported what Jesus said. The identities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are clearly set apart from each other. However, this isn’t the Trinity doctrine that we mark today, because the “RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN” Father, Son and Holy Spirit isn’t explained. That didn’t come for a few hundred years.

A “less high regard” for the author has the story being that Jesus told his disciples something about going into the world, preaching the gospel, and baptizing believers. When writing this down decades later, the author inserted the words “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” from the way baptisms were being done in the local church that he was part of at the time he wrote things. This still keeps us in the “early years of the church”, but it reads a current practice back into the “original story”.

A third option, which I must admit I don’t really like, is to imagine that a long time after the author wrote the story as a command to go, preach and baptize, someone else inserted “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” into the text, putting these words into Jesus’ mouth to settle an argument he was having with some other group in his church at the time. Those words have stuck to Jesus’ lips like glue ever since. This way of explaining things trusts the translators, but doesn’t respect the author.

Today we affirm that God is present to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is Biblical revelation. As to HOW the relationship works, (three in one, one in three, co-equal, without rank, etc. ) we have to trust the 4th century theologians and accept some degree of mystery. We have to be very careful about reading contemporary understandings back into the scriptures and claiming them as original. This has happened, on the topic of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can find it in I John 5:7&8. Compare different English translations of I John 5:7&8. There are about 40 that you can easily access at, and get them all on one screen without too much scrolling. The translations done in the 20th century, that are based on ancient Greek manuscripts, don’t have some of the words that we find in translations done from about 1400 to 1899. Those “earlier” English translations were done based on “not so old” Greek manuscripts. It appears that between the “ancient” manuscripts and the “not so old”  manuscripts, someone added extra words to I John 5:7&8 to give “biblical proof” for his group’s idea about the Trinity.

        I like the mystery of the Trinity. It works for me. As for the relationships BETWEEN Father, Son and Holy Spirit WITHIN the Trinity, I can’t explain much, if anything, for you. But in terms of my own life, the relationships between myself and each of the three “persons” in the Trinity vary with my needs in helpful ways.

When I am in need of protection and assurance, God as “Father” is the most comforting place I go. When I’m seeking a friend who listens, God as Jesus the Son is most precious to me. And when I’m in need of guidance and power for life, the Holy Spirit can’t be beat.

Is that satisfying for me? Only partly. Should it satisfy you? That depends on you.

II “Your Wonderful Name” and Reading Forward

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you know, was NOT a Christian. The religion of his people is found in the collection of stories, poems, law codes, wise sayings and weird stuff that we find in the Old Testament of the Bible. We read one of those poems today, Psalm 8 was part of the hymnbook of Jesus’ people way back then (and even now). It’s the source material for the hymn we sang as we began worship today, “O Lord Our Lord, how Majestic is your name in all the earth!” For Jesus’ ancestors, and for Jesus himself, there was no “Trinity” to explain. God was ONE. When at worship they said “a little bit of what they believed”. they didn’t use as many words as we do here each week. There said a single sentence, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!”

We sang the first and last verses of Psalm 8 today in our opening hymn, ‘O Lord, Our Lord, How Majestic is Your Name in all the Earth”. Though we may have been a little more “rock and roll” about it than Jesus and his friends in their worship, we mean the same thing they did, that God is wonderful EVERYWHERE, in all the earth. This is not just a little God of one remote province of the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian or Roman Empire. This is the God of ALL the world, whose praise reaches outward to the moon and stars and inward to the mouths of children and babies. Any of us who may be vegetarians may argue with the verses about humans being of greater worth than animals. That would be an interesting discussion. There’s a lot for me to learn from people who regard animals as equal to, or higher than humans, and I have little to teach them.

The point of using this Psalm on Trinity Sunday is to emphasize the ONENESS of God that was part of Jesus’ religion, and is very much at the center of Christianity. In some of those confusing bits of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is quoted as having said, “I and the Father are One”, he was firmly grounded in this “God Is One” belief. He didn’t say, “God and Me and the Spirit makes three.”

Hear O Church, The Lord our God… Father, Son and Holy Spirit…the Lord is ONE!  In practical terms, that means:…

  • When getting a thesis done so I can graduate or getting a job application accepted so that I can stay where I want to be is most on my mind and heart, I don’t mess around with “which person of the Trinity”, I turn to God, who is wonderful in all the earth, and as far as the moon and stars.
  • When the wonderfulness of life is just too wonderful for words, I give thanks to God for help.
  • When terrible things like terrorist attacks in Orlando, Teherah, Kabul, Mosul, London or Paris occur, it is to God I cry for justice and compassion.


Did that solve anything? Probably not. What we’re left with, on Trinity Sunday, is not a neatly wrapped up package of answers, but a wonder and a mystery. Too much of human life around us is neatly wrapped up, so the wonder and the mystery are gifts of God for us. We don’t need all of the answers, we don’t even need to understand completely. We are accompanied in this life and eternally by God, whom we know as One in three different ways.

Thank God there won’t be a final exam.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN



Someone wants to be a Doctor

29 May  Someone Wants to be a Doctor

Soon after the current president of Tainan Theological College & Seminary stepped into his position in 2012 he hired a promising young woman with Master of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees to be a junior faculty member in the undergraduate division. The long-term plan was for her to take a Doctor of Theology degree and move into the graduate school. A year or two later he sent her to the Netherlands to get a research degree. She returned and started teaching undergraduates. Within two more years, the president sent her to Scotland, where she is now at Edinburgh University, working on a Doctor of Theology degree. This month she’s working to present a proposal for a dissertation. Still not confident in her English writing ability, she asked the president for help, and he has assigned the project to me.

The first file arrived for editing on a Friday afternoon late in May. It was 20 pages long… not bad until I realized that it was single-spaced. It took all day on the 29th, a day that was supposed to be a national holiday (but because Char never rests, I had nothing much else to do anyway.) Looking at what she was proposing to write for a doctoral dissertation, it didn’t really appear to be “enough” to me. But, then, I never wrote a doctoral dissertation. Thinking of what I had done to her original, I dreaded hearing back, and even more, dreaded having to do more.


3 June  Payback Saturday

May 29 and 30 were national holidays, but only the 30th was officially so. Everybody had the 29th off, but had to go to work on Saturday, June 3rd to make up for it. Char taught her Monday classes on the 22nd, then not on the 29th, only to have to teach them almost back to back on the 3rd and on the 5th. Since theological students have weekend field education assignments, they didn’t have to make up missed Monday classes, but staff and faculty were to be in our offices. I spent the morning working on a giant wall hanging for the library and neatening up stuff for church the next day. The house got picked up & dusted, and the bathrooms got cleaned, but the floors didn’t get mopped.


4 June  Substitute Sunday

I was originally scheduled to do simultaneous translation in church on the 11th, but the person scheduled for the 4th had to go out of town, so we were switched at the last minute. Turned out OK. It was Pentecost Sunday, and there were confirmations, a baptism and the Lord’s supper. Those have already been translated, so I mainly just followed along in the book, reading the service in English as it was spoken in Taiwanese.


5 June  Delivery Day

The big wall hanging that I had finished the previous Saturday was checked and rolled up for delivery. The director of Library services was attending some theological lectures, so I left the 12 foot long pole wrapped in cloth in an inconspicuous spot in the church music room. I asked one library staff member to inform the director of the delivery and my need to talk about installation.  We saw each other (visually) several times in the succeeding days, but as of June 12 not a word has been exchanged and the hanging isn’t yet hanging.


7 June  Invitation to Love Taiwan

The phone rang and a young man from Taipei invited me to deliver a 20 minute sermon at the opening worship of the annual “I Love Taiwan” summer camp. This event, put on by the Presbyterian Church’s Youth Committee, will start on June 29th. It involves international youth from around the world coming here for two weeks of education and service alongside a like number of local high school and college students. I was thrilled to be invited. I asked what they wanted, and was told, “20 minutes”. That’s when the fun began. As a minister of Word and Sacrament, I like to preach something remotely biblical. He was surprised. He sees me as a missionary, and wants me to give a testimony of how and why I got involved in Taiwan, but that story is over 40 years old and doesn’t really thrill me anymore. When I characterized his request as a “testimony” he demurred, saying that it should indeed be a sermon, but include a testimony. I think he doesn’t know WHAT he wants. When I asked what language they wanted, he said English. OK, that’s easier for me. But there will be translation into Chinese too. I mentioned that it would cut into the 20 minutes allowed, making my content about 11 minutes long and the translator’s time the remaining 9. We’ll work it out.

Two days later I got a note from the translator, wanting to see, already, the sermon that I intend to give. I’ve written nothing yet (today is the 12th). I’m tempted to send something that is already 25 minutes long WITHOUT translation, then switching it out at the last minute for something more fitting. BUT, that would be unkind, so I shall not yield to that temptation. Whatever I do, I’ve gotta start thinking ahead.


7 June  Snakey Decoration

A few weeks ago I stretched 6 transparent fishing lines across the nave of the chapel at Tainan Theological College. That afternoon I hung lightweight butterflies, birdies and feathers from a few of the lines. Some faculty don’t like what I did, some students do, and most people don’t care. Since nobody claims to have “authority” over the chapel, I’ve moved into the empty space and given myself permission.

On the 7th I moved the butterflies from the line at the front to one near the back. As I was doing that, I found a long pink balloon, kind of a spiral thing, sitting on a pew. Apparently it was left over after a wedding.  I wound it around one of the lines at the middle of the chapel. It looked like a snake.  I was mindful that the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church would preach that afternoon, so I shoved it all the way against one wall.

During worship later, every air conditioner and fan in the building was turned up on high. The breeze caused the balloon to began a migration towards the center of the room. It remained there for the next couple of days, slowly deflating. By the 12th it was back against a wall, looking like a tadpole or spermatozoid.


8 June  Scratch & Sniff

I lead morning prayers at Tainan Theological College on the 8th. The assigned text was a Pentecost reading from John 20 in which Jesus breathed on his disciples, conveying the Holy Spirit to them. That made me wonder what it might have smelled like.

At a second-hand book store I purchased a 2 year old copy of Vogue Magazine to use as a prop. From the pulpit I pointed to perfume ads and mentioned that sometimes these have places for you to scratch in order to get a whiff of what is being advertized. From there I moved to the idea of “scratch and sniff” Bibles. These could give us chances to smell the breath of life in Genesis 2; the stench of death in Genesis 7; the smell of Saul in the cave in I Samuel 24; the smell of war in Job 39; and the smell of one’s lover in Song of Songs 4. Turning to my assigned text, I asked what smell should accompany the story of Jesus breathing on the disciples. Would it be Jesus himself, his breath, or the Holy Spirit? Leaving people to think about that, we sang a hymn and went out.


8 June Toe Day

Before heading out to Chang Jung Christian University for office hours on the 8th, Char phoned my office to ask that I meet her in the next-door hospital’s waiting room upon her return that afternoon. A toenail that had been injured over a year ago finally decided to come loose, and she wanted medical attention. She had already made an appointment to see a family practice doctor.

We met at 3:30 and she saw the doctor, who could do nothing for her. He made an appointment for her to see a plastic surgeon later that evening. We were back at 6PM and, after a short wait, Char had minor surgery in the office and got bandaged up. Because we’re covered by Taiwan’s National Health Insurance, the 2 doctor visits, office procedure and 3 days worth of medicine set us back only about US$12.The other supplies for wound care that we bought at a drug store amounted to another $5.

When we retire in 2018 and move to the USA, and have to get into the medical system there, it’s going to be a shock!


10 June Baptist Tour Group

As the semester draws closer to its end, it seems that more and more groups of people want to see the campus. Folks from Wu-Chang Baptist Church in Kaohsiung were here on Saturday. I escorted them around for about an hour. I always ask if they want to hear about buildings, history or stories, and usually I get asked for stories. There’s enough around here to tell, so an hour goes pretty quickly. Great people, too.


11 June Good News for One Indonesian

After worship at the Tainan International Community Church on the 11th we were sitting around eating snacks when one of the Indonesian women in the group, and engineer who had finished her master’s degree in January, mentioned that she had secured a job about 40 miles from here and will get to stay in Taiwan rather than returning to her home country. I’m really happy for her. Though she won’t be part of the Tainan Church any more, she will be able to continue here in this wonderful land.


12 June Doctor-Redux

The junior faculty member of Tainan Theological College who is writing her dissertation proposal in Scotland sent another file on Friday. This is the kind of stuff I DON’T do on weekends. Though it was only 10 pages long this time, it was still single-spaced. They required a lot of rewriting, consuming most of my morning. Though her language ability hasn’t improved, she’s getting better at making things look academic. Her plan involve 3 more years of work in the UK. I wish her the best, hoping that I’m out of here before the actual dissertation needs editing and rewriting.

Something for Everybody

Numbers 11:24-30 and  I Corinthians 12:3-13


Different places around the world do different things with birthdays. In Taiwan only a few decades ago people didn’t mark birthdays at all. A person was born in a particular year of the Chinese Zodiac, in a particular month, but since the months move around, and in some years weeks or even months are doubled up, the exact date on the Western calendar was not of any importance. Besides which, since everyone celebrates another year of life together at the Spring festival, so an individual birthday was comparatively unimportant. “Paying attention to Western dates and marking them with parties” was an American thing.

In many places, though, beyond MARKING the day, what people DO on that day differs from culture to culture. There’s a custom that is assumed to have begun in China, then moved to Europe, and got carried to Latin America. It’s called the piñata. A container, sometimes in the shape of a donkey, other times looking like a 7 pointed star, is filled with candy and small gifts and hung from a string. A person is blindfolded, spun around, and given a stick. He or she must hit the container, breaking it open, so all the good things fall out.

Though the piñata has come to be associated mostly with Mexican culture, and in that with Christmas and birthday parties, it’s not limited to that place or those times. In the Philippines it’s part of different celebrations year round. For our purposes today, just remember that when a piñata bursts, stuff goes everywhere

I: The Piñata and Sharing: Numbers 11:24-30

The Old Testament story we read today was set in a situation where ONE guy, Moses, was holding onto all of the power in his community, and it became a problem because one man couldn’t do everything. He got tired. In the part of Numbers before the bit we read, he complained to God about having to do everything. So he was told to assemble a group of 70 social leaders, already considered to outrank common members of the community, and God would distribute some of Moses’ spiritual power to them.  When they received the power, they began to “shout like prophets.” They did this one time, and not for long. Having received the power, and shown it, now they had to get to work.

Apparently Moses wasn’t universally popular, even among the social leaders of his people, because a couple of them didn’t bother to come to the meeting. That didn’t matter to God. The power that was being distributed fell on them, too. They didn’t even have to show up to get it.

Moses had an assistant who was NOT one of those leaders, Joshua. It seems that he was secure enough in his position as Moses’ right hand man that letting others have spiritual leadership powers was no big thing to him. EXCEPT for, he couldn’t bear that guys who didn’t come to the meeting got power too. He wanted Moses to order these two to stop. They hadn’t kept the rules, so shouldn’t have what God had taken from Moses and was giving to a select group. Moses didn’t care. He wanted everyone to benefit.

Joshua represents the people in all times and places who believe in an economy of limits; that there’s only so much resources to go around. People like Joshua in this story seem to feel that immigrants, non-citizens, undocumented aliens, and those who don’t “contribute” to society should not receive like those who already have money and power.  We see this dynamic in contemporary politics in more and more countries around the world now. Where refugees are turned away, fear of the foreigner is basically fear of losing what we believe is limited.

Moses represents those who believe that God’s grace and gifts are not limited. He wished that “the Lord would give his spirit to all his people and make all of them shout like prophets!” When God’s piñata bursts, the gifts of the spirit are showered out on all people. God doesn’t hold back, and when a piñata bursts, lots of different stuff that falls out of it

II:I Corinthians 12:3-13

A Mexican piñata, hung from a string on a pole, is filled with good stuff. Much of it is candy, but there are other things in there, too. We read about what falls from God’s piñata in the New Testament today. It starts with the Holy Spirit guiding us to believe and confess that “Jesus is Lord”. That was a radical thing to do at the time that these words were written by St. Paul. It was considered in parts of the Roman Empire to be extremely political to believe in a Lord other than the emperor! To claim “Jesus is Lord” was to be politically subversive.

Beyond that, though, and back to the piñata metaphor, the Holy Spirit is the container of different kinds of spiritual gifts, listed here as: 1) service; 2) wisdom, 3) knowledge; 4) faith; 5) healing power; 6) miracle working power, 7) the gift of speaking God’s message; 8) the ability to discern truth; 9) the ability to speak ecstatic language; and 10) the ability to interpret what people are saying when speaking ecstatic languages. All of these fall from the same piñata. All are sourced in the same Holy Spirit. All are distributed because God wants them distributed. There’s something for everybody.

It’s not uncommon for preachers to build an entire sermon or series of sermons around listing and describing each of these gifts. Twenty to thirty years ago in Taiwan it was not uncommon for some churches to have people fill out questionnaires about their interests and take multiple choice tests, the results of which would help them determine exactly which of these spiritual gifts they might have.

But at the time that St. Paul originally penned this list, people weren’t wondering “Which gift do I have?” It was sent to a church with a different set of problems; one where some people were ranking themselves higher than others because of what they perceived were their particular gifts. Based on their perceptions, some claimed themselves to be more important than the next person. The emphasis on “one Spirit” was put there to help those people find unity in their church, where many different spiritual gifts were in evidence. This emphasis serves the discussion of oneness and solidarity that begins in verse 12.

I know a couple of brothers. They’re about 4 years different in age. As adults they genuinely like each other, but when they were children between 6 and 12 years old, they fought like devils. Their parents had to be very clear when presenting gifts that each child got the equal of the other, and on occasions when each would receive a gift, like at Christmas, care had to be taken that these were identical.  One year at Christmas the only difference between the gifts was their color, and the brothers argued whether the purple one was better than the green one.

Maybe you know brothers and sisters like that. Maybe you know churches where people have fought with each other over small things like “whose spiritual gift is better.” The Bible presents us with a picture of exactly that kind of church, and guides us on how to solve that sort of a problem if and when it might occur in our church. We all need to learn how to appreciate and practice the oneness that comes through the Holy Spirit’s generosity.

Last of all, when a piñata bursts, everyone is happy for everyone

III: Numbers 11: 24-30 and I Corinthians 12:3-13

Many decades ago, in order to make sure that merchants would collect sales taxes at the retail level, Taiwan’s government crated the system of numbered receipts. Before the era of cash registers with automatic printers, these had to be written by hand on pre-printed forms. Shopkeepers didn’t like the hassle of writing the receipts, or of reporting and paying the taxes they collected onward to the government, but people wanted the numbered receipts because they were one form of lottery ticket.  Computerization took care of the merchants’ hassles of writing receipts and the reporting their collections. As for paying the taxes forward, well, you’d have to ask a shopkeeper.

Do you collect your receipts and check the numbers every couple of months? If you do, you know how hard it is to win anything big. About 25 years ago I once won NT$1,000, but it hardly pays for all the time I spent before or since on saving & sorting receipts and comparing the numbers.

When you hear that someone else got a big prize, how do you feel? If this is your friend or lover, you are probably very happy. If it’s someone you don’t know, you might be interested, and if it’s someone you don’t like, you may be jealous.

You may feel that YOU are more deserving.

Some years ago the wife of a foreign friend of mine really wanted to take a short trip to America to see her relatives. This couple couldn’t afford to just “pop for a ticket” during high season, so she put her hopes on winning a drawing for a free round trip ticket to America from Kaohsiung that was being offered as a door prize at the annual Independence Day Fair sponsored by the Kaohsiung American Chamber of Commerce. I knew about her hope because her husband was my friend. So I hoped with her and watched when the prizes were drawn. Of course, the drawing starts with the small prizes, and as she didn’t receive any of those, her hopes rose and rose. When, finally, the winning number was drawn and it was not her, he face fell. The free ticket went to someone who could easily have afforded to buy one without thinking twice. Though it was a happy thing for the recipient, I doubt whether my wife’s friend was able to be happy for him.

What we learn from the scriptures today is that: 1) God is generous with spiritual gifts and power; 2) these are given so that we can serve our communities; and 3) whatever spiritual gift you may have did not come to you because you earned it, but because it has been given to you.

Because there’s no rank or merit, there’s no need for jealousy. Celebrate God’s generosity, and if you have trouble doing that, go to a piñata party.


Pentecost is sometimes called “the church’s birthday”. Whether that’s theologically or historically accurate or not, it DOES mark a time when a metaphorical piñata burst over God’s people, and there was enough Holy Spirit Candy for everyone. So rejoice and share. Don’t forget to celebrate. Happy Birthday, church of Jesus Christ. Happy Birthday everybody.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

Stories About Both of Us

Char’s Evenings Out   May 18 and 23

The Interpretation and Translation department of Chang Jung Christian University, where Char has been teaching since 1996, has an annual “Drama Night” every spring. Student-run plays are presented in Japanese, German, Spanish, French and English. For the past few years Char has been a language and pronunciation ‘consultant’ for students in the English plays, meeting with script writers to get the language correct and with many of the actors to get their pronunciation fine-tuned. Of course, when the plays are presented, she attends.  On the 18th she sat through all of the plays and the presentation of awards afterwards. For the first time in 4 or 5 years, the Spanish play did not win first place.  It was a big upset to the Spanish juniors when the Japanese play came out on top.  Neither of the English plays (freshmen and sophomores) won awards, but everyone did an amazing job.  Staying for the 3 hour event meant getting the next to last train back into the city, and reaching home after 11PM.  On the next morning, she didn’t want to risk having to drive out to school for her first-period class, so I drove her to the station for the train. Her class that day was “light” in comparison, both because students were tired and because their teacher was under-slept.

Every year graduating seniors honor their teachers (and themselves) with a dinner, and reach all the way back to those who taught them as freshmen. Char attended the dinner held by this year’s graduates on the 23rd. She was happy that it was arranged at a hotel within walking distance of our house, and that apart from eating together, there was no program of singing acts, speeches and over-sentimental slide shows to sit through. The hotel buffet was wonderful and after eating, the only ‘program’ was for people to run around and take pictures with each other and teachers in different groupings. It was fun.  These seniors are particularly special to Char since she taught all of them for 4 semesters, both freshmen and sophomore years.  She walked home, full of memories and buoyed on the fond wishes of students with whom she had spent many, many hours a few years back.


Farewell, Dear Sister (May 10 and 27)

Four years ago, Wang Jen-wen (Ong Cheng-bun), who taught Christian History, Liturgics and Feminist Theology at Tainan Theological College, made an emergency trip home from a tour in Turkey and checked into a hospital. She was found to be suffering from ovarian cancer. After surgery she began chemotherapy. Of course, she was on medical leave from her teaching duties.

The therapy worked, and she returned to teaching the next year, but the cancer didn’t stay away. She was on “light duty” at the college between the times that she was on “no duty at all” and going through yet another course of chemo.  Earlier this year the final chemotherapy stopped working, so she stopped taking much of anything at all.  We saw her on campus from time to time, she would listen to and advise graduating students’ about sermons. She pronounced the benediction after one such service in April.

On May 10th, while the college was at worship, the news came that she had died at 5:17 that afternoon.  Later that evening I joined some faculty, staff and students from the college to go to the municipal mortuary to give condolences to her parents and sisters. Jen-wen was 52 years old.

Screenshot 2017-05-29 at 4.15.10 PM

On May 27th a memorial service was held in the college chapel. The place was packed, and an overflow venue was set up in the college dining hall.  Representatives of church and civic groups where she had been influential spoke. Samples of her artwork were shown, two of her hymns were sung, and a lot of reference was made to the novels, poems and essays that she had written. Her twin sister, Chao-wen, who was with her to the very end, remarked that Jen-wen smiled all the way. We all trust that she smiles even now, and even more broadly. A role model and encourager especially to women in the church, Jen-wen will be sorely missed at the theological college and in the wider church and society.


100!  (May 28)

When, Dr.James Maxwell M.D, the first British Protestant missionary to arrive in Taiwan, set up shop in Taiwan in 1865, he established a clinic in Tainan City. The facility had two rooms: a preaching hall in front and a medical office in back. It was only a matter of a few weeks before he was run out of town and retreated to Kaohsiung and the safety of the British community, 50 kilometers away. But eventually he returned to Tainan and set up again at a different location in town.

In 1917 a firmly established downtown church opened a preaching station near the location of Maxwell’s original clinic. That preaching station became “Khoa*-Se-Ke” Presbyterian Church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary on May 28th. To do so, the congregation rented an entire elementary school campus for the day and invited 11 other churches from around the city. Members of each church wore distinctive colored t-shirts and sat in designated areas of the school gymnasium. The combined choir was a rainbow!  Following morning worship and lunch, a field day was held with events both in the gymnasium and out on the field.

Screenshot 2017-05-29 at 3.34.37 PM

In his sermon to the massed congregation, the pastor of Khoa*-Se-Ke Church reminded everyone that we are not separate congregations united by a common history or theology so much as a united people, caring for each other and for our society in Christ.

When we walked home, wearing our bright purple t-shirts, we were inspired by the gathering, the word, and the enthusiasm of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

Tour Guide (29 May)

Long before making toys moved to the third world, the American Mattel toy company had lots of stuff manufactured in Asia.  From 1970 to 1987 Taiwan was a major manufacturing center for Barbie dolls.  I thought of Barbie, specifically “Tour Guide Barbie” as I escorted an interfaith  group of graduate students from the religion department of a university in northern Taiwan through the campus of Tainan Theological College on the 29th. I told them stories of the school’s history, pointed out landmarks, took them to touch a 300-year-old camphor tree and narrated the history of the movable statue of the college’s founder (and the reasons behind its moves over the past 10 years). The 29th was a national holiday, so lots of tourists were looking around the campus, and some of them joined the group to hear the stories.  Someone was supposed to have opened the chapel, but hadn’t. So one of the students climbed through a window and opened the door from the inside, making it possible for lots of people to go in and hear about the background of that building, which is a historical structure in the city.  

The school official who had booked the tour and asked me to lead it had said, “Just lead them around for 30 minutes and let them go on their own to take pictures and such.” She didn’t bargain on the wealth of stories about this place, and me joy in showing people around. Maybe someone in Taiwan should make a doll in my image….


If and When You Pray

If and When You Pray     Ephesians 1:15-23        28 May 2017   Ascension Sunday

As we move to digital formats around the world, fewer of us are reading newspapers that are actually printed on paper. Here in Taiwan, in 1999 one of the larger Chinese language newspapers began printing an English edition to compete with two English newspapers that had been publishing in this land for decades. A few years later, one of the “original” English newspapers moved from a “broadsheet” to a “tabloid” format, and eventually went “ online only.” The other broadsheet ceased its print edition only earlier this month. It, too, is now “online-only”.  The surviving local (to Taiwan) English language print newspaper is the one that started in 1999. But it has shrunk from about 16 pages a day to only about 8. It steadily drops content, including the page to which I habitually turned first, the cartoons.

Sometimes newspaper cartoons mention religious things. I recall one of a little boy, dressed for bed, shouting to the other members of his family, “I’m about to say my prayers, does anybody want anything?” It was honest in a several ways: Many children are taught to say some form of prayer before going to bed. Many children conceive of prayer as mainly asking God for stuff, and many people of all ages primarily pray when we want to “get” something.

As a teenager and a young man, more than once I was told by youth leaders at church to keep a “prayer diary.” I should list the things that I was asking God for and review the list at the end of each month. It would demonstrate to me how faithful God was in hearing and answering my prayers, and would be an encouragement to me to pray about all things. The youth leaders encouraged me, but I didn’t follow through.  I was too lazy. Now I fear that if I had honestly kept a prayer diary, it would mainly include things about my academic, romantic and economic desires.  Things like, “O Lord, make me smart,”  “O Lord, make women want me,”  And  “O Lord, make me rich.” At my currently advanced age of 65, any such diary that I might keep would likely have more things about ‘O God, keep me from falling down,” or “O Lord, don’t let me get sick.”  A lot of our praying, when related to ourselves, is selfish. I don’t condemn that…, at LEAST we’re praying. And, hopefully while we pray, we take time to listen, too.  

Sometimes, like that little boy in the cartoon, we pray for other people, asking God to give them the kinds of things that we want for ourselves: health, comfort, strong faith, healing, etc.. Sometimes we report another person’s “defects” to God, asking that God guide that person to “know the right thing to do.” (At these times, we really mean we want God to tell that person to do what WE want that person to do, because we view ourselves as knowing what is best for others.)

Today we’re going to look at Ephesians 1:15-23, seeking guidance from one person who prayed long ago for how we might be praying in the 21st century.

I:  Pray for others’ Spiritual Growth. vv. 16-17

The letter to the Ephesians is assumed to have been written by St. Paul. Some doubt about his being its author was thrown into the mix in the last 200 years. Each argument: “Paul wrote it,” and “Paul didn’t write it,” has strong and weak points. But that makes no difference for what we’re doing this afternoon. The writer of Ephesians, whoever he or she was, cared about the people in the church or churches that it was sent to. Whoever wrote it had something to say to them. Whoever wrote it prayed for them. What I hope is that we can learn from THIS prayer for OUR praying. (And because we don’t know if the writer was St Paul,  or someone else, possibly female, I’ll try to alternate the pronouns.)

Starting at verse 16 we learn that in her praying, she was steady (“I have not stopped…”) I don’t know what this does for you, but it reminds me how un-systematic I am in my own praying. Though I have a set time each morning, I don’t have anything else “set” about my praying, and I become lazy in it. So, whether or not you have a set time and format for your own praying, I make one request of you, next time you do pray, ask God to fix me.

And again from verse 16, In his praying, he began by thanking God for the people he prayed for(“…giving thanks to God for you…”). How often do we start praying for ourselves or for anyone else with, “This is what I want.” We’re reminded here to pause and consider the things in ourselves and others for which we are thankful. That sets us in a different frame of mind as we go on to make requests.

From verse 17 we learn that she prayed to ALL of God. ( “…I ask the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, to give you the Spirit”)  Among the mysteries of Christian belief is that God is 3 in one. Not three Gods, just one God, but with a “threeness”. God is not a committee of three in which votes are taken, but a fellowship of love. Our prayers may be addressed to “God”, to “Heavenly Father”, to “Lord Jesus”, to “Holy Spirit”. It’s all OK. There’s no competition in the Trinity. Remembering the wholeness of God as we pray changes US for the better.

About 10 years ago I escorted a group of international students to Hsin-chu, in northern Taiwan for a service project with youth. The church where we served had organized a program run by a young man in training to be a church leader.  They even arranged for a translator… a Taiwanese woman who had spent a couple of years in Australia. She was an enthusiastic believer and a very good translator. Because she was there, I had it pretty easy. But on the first day, as I listened to her translate, I noticed that when the young man leading the project  led us in prayer, using Chinese, whenever he said “Lord Jesus”, she would translate it “Father God.” 

The leader’s way of dealing with the mystery of the trinity was to reduce everything to “Lord Jesus”. The translator’s method was to talk only to “Father God.” Though there was NO PROBLEM AT ALL in heaven where the prayers were heard,  there was a problem in each of these enthusiastic Christian praying persons. The pattern of St Paul in these verses, to pray consciously including Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is not a RULE for us, but it is a helpful guideline.  (When I mentioned the matter to the translator, I stayed out of the theology of the thing and mentioned only the translation part. If she was going to be a faithful translator, she should say “Jesus” wherever the guy speaking said “Jesus”, and “father” where he said “father”.

Verse 17 has ONE more thing for us: Purpose. The writer  prayed that God might give the people “the Spirit.” Not just to “have” the Spirit (like we might pray for God to give us a new motorbike or a good job), but so that they would, through being associated with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom, revelation, and knowledge. We could spend the rest of the day, and into next week, talking about wisdom, revelation and knowledge, but let’s be brief. Start from the end. Knowledge is what we “learn” and “come to know”. We get that from experience, from school, from what our parents and others tell us, from Wikipedia, and from any online or in-print newspapers that we might read.  Revelation is what God shows us directly. Wisdom is the ability to use what we know, whether that came from learning or revelation, correctly.

In sum, then, verses 16 and 17 guide us to pray regularly, thankfully, “wholly” and “purposefully”.

II: Pray for others’ intellectual growth (vv18-20)

Remember that little boy about to say his prayers before going to bed? He asked whether anybody wanted anything that he could pray for. We get a few suggestions in verses 18-20 about what to pray for. The list is not comprehensive, but it offers a good starting point. Part of its pattern is that we pray for others’ intellectual growth. That might surprise you a bit, because, talking about prayer, you might assume it’s all about spiritual stuff. But prayer is not so limited.

Verse 18 indicates that the writer, thinking of the folks to whom the letter was addressed, prayed, “…that they may see God’s light.” In Western history there is a period known as “the dark ages.” It’s mainly about “Christian Europe” from the end of the Roman Empire to the time of the Renaissance: 500 to 1400 CE. Though a lot was going on during those 900 or so years, in “Christian Europe” it moved very slowly. Outside of that area, though, classical knowledge, arts and sciences flourished in the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, and science galloped along in China.

To see God’s light means to see things in the light of God’s presence in all things, all places and all times. During a time of my own intellectual and spiritual struggles about 20 years ago a good friend once told me,  “all truth is God’s truth”. Perhaps that’s a bit simplistic, but it really helped me when I needed it.  

“Seeing God’s light” gets more specific as we look a bit further in verse 18. God’s light will help people, including we who pray, to “…know the hope and blessings that are present” for all of us. In an environment like a university, in which many of us toil, sometimes “hope” often seems almost impossible, and “blessings” seem seem to be postponed until after we receive our diplomas. But both of these are “present” to us. In God’s light, we see them.

Moving further along, we pray for people anticipating that they might “know and experience the power of God available to them.” This is not just about “knowing things in our hearts” or “believing things to be so in our heads”, but about EXPERIENCING! What would it mean for someone about whom you care, for whom you pray, to EXPERIENCE the power of God? That’s something to ask God to do for them in whatever situation they may be in. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask God to do it in a selfish way, for yourself, either. We need EXPERIENCE as much as, perhaps even more than, we need knowledge.

So, in prayer,  be regular, thankful, “whole” and “purposeful”. When we pray, seek intellectual growth, hope, blessings and the experience of God’s presence.

III: Pray In an Orderly Way (vv 21-23)

Verses: 21-23 are not part of the author’s prayer. In this place, they are not even ABOUT prayer, but they show us something that may be useful when we pray: the sense of orderliness.

The verses speak of a “heavenly hierarchy” in which Christ is above all other heavenly beings, and above the church. This “order” exists in the world beyond our own.  God is at the top. Heavenly beings (the ones mentioned here are rulers, authorities, powers and lords) are next, and the church, a human thing, is below them.

Orderliness might also help us in prayer. The people who tried to get me to keep a prayer diary when I was a teenager failed in that pursuit, but they did give me an “order” for prayer that has stuck with me. It only works in English, so you’ll have to find a different one if you prefer a different language.  It goes: A.C.T.S.  The recommended order for prayer is to start with “Adoring”(praising) God, then, having noticed that you’re not very good compared to God, “Confessing” your sin, followed by Thanking God, and then “Supplication” (which is a fancy word for asking for what you want and need”.

Is it the only way or the best way?  Certainly it’s not the only way. Maybe it’s far from the best way.  Whatever word you choose in your own language to help you remember orderly prayer might put these things in a different order. The point is to have an order, NOT because it changes how God hears or responds to your prayers, but because it changes your own awareness of what you’re up to if and when you pray.

When I come to church on Sunday afternoons, I carry my “Tainan International Community Church” bag. It’s just a bag without special compartments.  Things get mixed up in there. I’ve learned not to carry too many different things in it because I can lose them. Keeping it simple means that the bag works for me. But this is “too simple” to use as an example for prayer. The bag works for church, but prayer, for me, needs something with separate places. In that way, it guards against my my personal selfishness.


Like engineers who read about engineering, scientists who read about science, and managers who keep current on the literature of management, I try to keep current in reading about education. Recently I read an article about a new system being tried in community colleges (2 year schools) in America. Data had revealed that many students who were unable to either take a diploma from their college or to transfer to a university and enter at the 3rd year dropped out. The problem was that at the community college, though they had taken enough credits to graduate, they hadn’t studied enough in any particular area to fulfill the requirements for a degree OR for a university to accept them as 3rd year students on transfer. By assigning students an advisor who could guide them to make more orderly selections based on career plans, graduation rates and acceptance into good universities increased. The difference was the structure and order by which students took classes in the overflowing cafeteria atmosphere offered by the community college.  

Though it might seem strange to compare prayer to community college, there’s a parallel. If and when any of us prays, a bit of structure from the moment we begin speaking to God is helpful. God hears any and all prayers we offer up. But when we choose better; when we order things better; then we understand better, ask better, and find that ordered prayer enriches and grows our spirits.  If the result we are seeking is to grow, then we “grow better.” If it’s only about “getting stuff”, then probably it doesn’t matter.

May your prayers, and mine (such as they are), benefit from the guidance of the writer, and the pray-er, whose words we read today in Ephesians.  AMEN

Too Much of This, That and the Other Thing

9th May: Tax Shock

In Taiwan, income taxes are reported, filed and paid in May. Most people with simple returns can do the entire thing online. Because our income is mainly from overseas (we’re paid for our work here by the Reformed Church in America), one of us has take all of our paperwork (passports, ID cards, local income reports, letters from the Reformed Church about foreign income, etc.) to the tax office and report in person. Someone there computes everything for us. Many people put this off until the end of the month, when the lines are long. I learned decades ago to go before the middle of the month.

In 2017, we report and pay taxes on 2016 income. During 2016 we were in the USA on home assignment for a few weeks more than 6 months. Those were expensive weeks. Had we returned to Taiwan on July 30th (rather than August 20th), our tax rate would have been about 8%, and deductions would have been allowed. But because we were 21 days short of 183 days in residence, we were assessed a flat tax of 18% on the income received during our 163 days here. No deductions either. Without guessing the amount, I expected a difference. Now I understand what new car shoppers experience with sticker shock.


10th May: Expected Unwelcome News

During community worship on the afternoon of May 10th, our friend and colleague Ong Cheng-bun died. She was 52 years old and had been on sick-leave while undergoing cancer treatment for most of the past 3 years. She still participated in some college activities, still advised senior thesis papers, and still smiled every time one met her, but her battle finally ended. Later that evening about 30 people went to the municipal mortuary to meet her family members and say our goodbyes.  Cheng-bun’s twin testified that her sister had smiled all the way to the end, and that’s how we like to think of her now…smiling, dancing and creating art eternally.


14th May: Mothers Day

That it was the 5th Sunday in the season of Easter was not even noticed in churches around Taiwan on the 14th, because Mother outranks all other considerations. This year, Char and all the other mothers in church received gift certificates amounting to about $10 for a local supermarket (better than the bottle of laundry detergent she came home with one year or the big package of toilet paper another year.) The church’s combined recorder groups (kids, youth and old folks) played the prelude and postlude at worship.

The longer we live here, the more it becomes apparent that a church can neglect things like Lent, Ascension, Pentecost and Advent, but had better not forget Mother (and I don’t mean Mary)!


19th May: Taxes Paid!

After the shock of reporting and computing income taxes on the 9th, it took a while to gather the cash, some of which we already had here, the rest of which had to come from overseas. Making our payments at the bank, even the teller was amazed at the amount. I told him that it’s worth that much to be able to live in Taiwan. When I went back to the tax counter to file the forms, there was a couple there doing their computation. I had a trip down memory lane. They had two little kids with them. I remember how, before our own kids went off to all-day school, I’d take one of them with me every year to the tax office. A cute blonde kid at one’s side makes everyone feel better.


20th May: Sweaty Bodies

National Cheng-Kung University which has about 40,000 students, is here in Tainan. It is home to Medical, Engineering, Business and Arts & Sciences colleges. However, there is no music department.

Students solved that problem themselves, organizing a university chorus and hiring a director. Every year they present a concert. This year it was first presented at the University’s Assembly hall on May 13th and a week later at a church around the corner from where we live. We went to the second concert. The men wore black, and the women wore long white gowns. The number of people on the risers varied depending on the mix required for what was being sung. People walked in or out the side doors of the church so that only those involved in making music were required to stand at any particular time.

For one song, the risers were filled with men in black, and things started in a lower register. Then, from the back of the church came the sound of sopranos and altos, who were entering through the door and singing their way up the aisles. This kind of thing excites me, and as the women made their way nearer the front, I was excited by the music. Then reality struck. These women had been outside the air conditioned hall, waiting to come in. Beside that, they had already been performing, off and on, for an hour. The beauty of their music was accompanied with a particular olfactory sensation, generally experienced in locker rooms.


22nd May: Repeat

The student who preached to the community at Tainan Theological College on May 10th didn’t pass. Her sermon was a hodgepodge of poor work and the service she led had no liturgical integrity. The prayers of intercession, for instance, were a train wreck. Not passing can mean waiting another complete year to graduate. BUT, she was given a reprieve. Using the same text, she reworked the sermon and shortened it to fit the format of morning prayers (only 20 minutes long). This time she passed. She still has a lot to learn, but will have to do that in the context of a local church, which may, or may not, be as forgiving as the college.


22nd May: Sewing Day

There’s a central staircase in the library at Tainan Theological College that has a giant blank wall. It’s been that way for 50 years. All that’s ever been up there is paint, the current coat of which is oxidized and peeling. I volunteered to make a fabric art piece for it, and was given tentative approval late in April.  A few weeks later I was asked how things were going, and the truth was that they hadn’t moved past my concept. So I spent Monday at my sewing machine and ironing board, doing “Applied Theology”.  The piece is now pinned up against a wall outside my office, waiting for approval before I actually assemble it, iron everything well, and do the installation.

One student who saw it asked, “What does it mean?” She wanted an explanation that would sound theological or biblical. In reality, the meaning of this thing is already in her, she just has to listen to her heart.  Now having been prompted to entitle my artwork, I’m pondering, “Meaning Comes From You”.


24th May: Failure to Connect

The class in Platform Skills and Creative Preaching that I lead uses a lot of internet materials and videos. I’ve found TED talks produced in Taipei in Chinese, and wanted to use several this week. Instead of downloading them to re-show, I thought we’d connect directly to the internet in the classroom. FAILED.  Because most people here go to the internet from their smart phones, the wires that serve the classroom are not well maintained. Insofar as this involved the TED talks it was no great loss. But I also wanted to demonstrate some software for dealing with audio but couldn’t get online to show it. Now I’ll have to create a screencast and send it to everyone, but the skill to do that is a little beyond me at this moment.


24th May: Loud!

A few weeks ago someone mis-adjusted the soundboard in the college chapel, and the entire service sounded bad. Students have begun to use a hand-held microphone, which sounds better but presents speaking technique problems.  On the 17th the guy had the mike in his right hand, so never looked at the people seated on the right side of the chapel. The guy on the 24th was just flat too loud! One evaluator even got a headache. I’m pretty sure that the grade suffered.


26th May:  Questioning the Implications

Living in Taiwan, one learns not to present certain items as gifts, because they have implications. A gift of an umbrella, for instance, implies that the giver wants her friendship with the receiver to end. Even worse is the gift of a clock, which means one is considering the recipient’s death. When Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, made a visit to Texas in January of 2017, Greg Abbott, the state’s governor, gave her a Texas shaped clock. NOT the right item for one hoping to develop a trade relationship!

With all that in mind, we come to May 26th, upon which the students who are up to graduating from Tainan Theological College next month held a meal in honor of their teachers. The seniors in the social work bachelors’ degree program, whom I had taught for 5 semesters at the beginning of their time here, presented me with a small token of their esteem.  It is appropriate in Taiwan for a gift to be received, then taken home and opened later, after which thanks are given.  When I opened the package, it held a bar of soap!  I wonder what they’re trying to tell me.

Dealing With the Indescribable

 Acts 17:22-34


After a person has been trained, the trainers, and especially the people who PAID FOR the training run exercises to discover whether anything has been learned or not.

In one language-training exercise, people are put into pairs (Person A and Person B). Person A is given a sheet of paper and a pencil, and Person B is given a card with a diagram on it. Person A is not allowed to see the diagram. It may be something simple, like a circle and triangle, or it may be something complex, like the diagram on the front of our bulletin today. Person B describes what she sees, and person A has to try to draw it. This tests both of them…showing whether one has learned to speak understandably, and the other has learned to listen well.

Of course, most people fail. We’d probably fail even in our native languages, whether the diagram was a simple as the one inside the bulletin or as difficult as the one on the front. Imagine yourself trying to describe either one of them to another person so that he or she could draw it without seeing what you’re seeing!

In the New Testament story we read this afternoon, St. Paul was trying to describe God, in whom he believed, to a bunch of people who had no experience with God. Because he was educated in their language, that wasn’t the main problem. As he prepared for his speech, he walked through their city and observed their environment. He found some connections in their religion and even an altar that he respected. And from the background that he had in their literature, he pulled up a couple of quotations. He began dealing with “God Indescribable” at a place where he assumed there would already be agreement.

What we read is not a report by a journalist who took notes of what went on and what was said. It’s a well-written story by Paul’s friend and doctor, Luke, in which a basic set of ideas is laid out for the presentation of beliefs created in the Asian cultural context (of Paul and Jesus) for people of a Western cultural context. That Western culture had invaded the Asian homeland of Paul and Jesus, and was causing all kinds of cross-cultural conflict. In this story, the Asian ideas are presented in Athens, the very center of the invading culture’s headquarters.

There’s an English idiom for what St. Paul did there, It’s called, “Taking the tiger by the tail.”

I: vv 24-25  Describing God in Relationship to the Cosmos

When I started to get accustomed to living in Taiwan some decades ago, I had to learn different orders of writing things as simple as dates and postal addresses. I’ve no idea why it’s this way, but in Europe, dates are written from small to large,(day, month, year) while in Taiwan they’re written from large to small (year, month, day). Americans get both of those orders mixed up.  And when you write an address on an envelope, in Taiwan you start from the County or City and write the smaller things after that. Not so where I grew up, where we, again, do things in a mixed up order.

When St. Paul began to describe the God of his people, his culture, and his faith to the city council in Athens, he began with the “BIG”, and worked his way down. “God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in man-made temples.” Now, those in the audience who listened to him knew the second part, that gods didn’t live in man-made temples. Their gods lived on Mt. Olympus. But as for the first part, that God made the world and everything in it and was the Lord of heaven and earth…. This was new stuff. Their creation story was full of wars between gods and giants and “titans”. It included a lot of violence, a lot of sex, and a lot of lying. Compared to what they had learned as children, what Paul was telling them sounded pretty good. They kept listening.

Their religion had no priests or clergy. If you became the mayor of the city or the governor of the province, part of your job was being the priest there. People made offerings of the kinds of things they, themselves, needed, because they assumed that their gods needed the same things, so food, drinks, precious objects, and even animals were given. The worshippers would eat the parts of the animals they liked, and burn what was left over as an offering to their gods.

In telling the folks at “Western Culture Central” that his Asian beliefs were different, St Paul told them that the one who had created everything didn’t need anything. That’s quite a switch, isn’t it?

In the Greek folk religion, people were created along with all creatures by Promethius, who outsourced the details to a friend. This friend gave all the good stuff to animals and left nothing special, like flying or fur, to the humans. Out of sympathy, then, Prometheus made people stand on two feet, and gave them fire.

The description of the relationship of humans to God that we find in verse 26 is quite different, and is designed to stand “over against” the belief already held by the people who were listening.  But note, in presenting it, Paul never says, “you guys are wrong. Let me tell you the truth.” The humans are made by God, but not limited. Humans are spread all over the world.

II: v27-28a and Psalm 113:7-9  Describing God’s Presence with Human Beings

Probably many of us here have, at one time or another, made some plans for the future, whether for the long term or the short term. Probably upon telling our plans to another person, we’ve been challenged with the question, “Why would you want to do that?” For example… if you said, “I’m going to Taiwan to study at a university there,” then probably someone asked you, “why there, why that…?”  Sometimes Taiwanese acquaintances ask me “why did you come here?” These are natural questions.

So Paul sets out the answer to them. God created all of humanity and spread them out over the whole earth “so that they would look for him and perhaps find him.” This was not a new idea for Paul, who had been educated in his own people’s culture, religion and bible. We read from Paul’s bible (the Old Testament) this afternoon that God “…raises the poor from the dust; lifts the needy from their misery and makes them companions of princes… (and)… God honors the childless wife in her home, he makes her happy by giving her children.”

In contrast to the gods who lived unapproachably on Mt. Olympus, he asserted a God who would bend down from the heavens to see people, who was not far from anyone gathered there, in whom, as had already been mentioned by one of the Greek poets, “we live and move and exist.”

OK, if God is our creator, then what are we? Once again, taking his cue from a Greek poet or two, we are God’s children.

III: vv 29-31 Describing the formlessness and intentionality of God

We all know about children. Though we may not see many of them on the University campus, they are all over the place. Children are smaller and less experienced people than you and I. And most of us probably have a few memories of what it was like to be a child. We wondered when we would grow, when certain parts of our bodies would take larger shape and form (a very natural thing for a child to consider), and if we would end up looking more like our father or mother, or maybe hoping not to look like either of them.

We know fairly well what we look like. Paul used that knowledge to draw a comparison of images made of gold, silver and stone that were in the folk religion temples of Athens. Those things didn’t look like people, so they couldn’t be gods, because children look like their parents. BUT, because God (whom he was presenting) is without form, was indescribable, knowledge of God is found not in form, but in “intention”.

It’s God’s intention that makes the difference. God wants to be found, and wants all people to turn from evil. According to Paul, a judgment day has been set and a judge has been appointed.

People could hear him up to this point. They may even have recognized certain things as “evil ways” (and pointed out that OTHER people were the ones whose ways were evil and had to be changed. They may even have agreed that some other people they knew should be judged, sooner rather than later, and were happy that a judge and trial date had been set.) But it’s here that things broke down, because in declaring all this to the men of Athens, Paul played his high card. PROOF!

God’s genuineness is known in Jesus, and most excellently in that Jesus had died and risen. For folks who already believe in Jesus, this seems obvious. For those hearing all this stuff for the first time, it’s really REALLY weird.

CONCLUSION: vv 32-34 Honest responses in Athens

But that’s what it comes down to in the Gospel. Jesus Christ, and him crucified and risen. Leave out all the stories of miracles Jesus did, all of the parables he told, all of the things he taught his nearest friends and all of the kind deeds he did for people who came to him in need. Leave all of that, but keep the death and rising, and you still have a savior.  Keep everything else and deny rising from the dead, and you’ve just got another guy, like a lot of other religious leaders through history in any and all religions.

The story we read here, written by Paul’s friend Luke, ends with the responses of the hearers.  They were all honest responses. Some people made fun of him. What he said was BEYOND what they could accept. Others were mildly interested and agreed to hear more, later (maybe never, but they were polite about it), and yet others believed.

As we live and move and exist in Taiwan, we may be seeking God (as was described in verse 28) or we may be sharing the good news of Jesus with others in very natural ways, or we may be attempting, like Paul, to bridge the gap between cultures of different beliefs. Whichever of these, or of many other positions we may take, people will respond to us, and we need to accept their responses as being honest.

Our way should be like God’s way, seeking to relate to people, to be present among people, and to do so intentionally. Because God has created us, called us here, and given us life.

May God who is near to each of us, be present to everyone in this city through us. AMEN.


Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

“Not Just Another Brick in the Wall” 1Peter 2:2-10 and Psalm 31:1-5


Apart from your textbooks and your facebook accounts, what do you read? Some of us may keep up on the news from a website, or from a newspaper. Some of us may read special interest magazines about our hobbies or our dreams. There was a period of about 10 years in my life when I read a lot about cars. Every month I’d buy the new magazines about them. Then life moved on, and I no longer bought those magazines.  Decades later, recalling the thrill that reading about cars had given me, I bought a magazine at an airport news stand. Within an hour I discovered that I had lost interest in cars. I no longer cared about driving fast.  A few years later, finding myself in another airport magazine store, I bought a couple of magazines intended for professional writers. After an hour I decided that I wasn’t that desperate.

Across the past few weeks I’ve been reading the novel, “The Lotus Eaters”,  first published in 2010. Part of the story involves the culture clash between a very “individualistic” Californian and a South-east Asian man who believes that he belongs to his family and culture as if he were just another brick in the wall.

In 1979 the British rock band Pink Floyd released a double album entitled “The Wall” which included the song, “Another Brick in the Wall” It was very anti-schooling, and rather adolescent. The MTV video that was eventually made to go with that song characterized British education as mainly existing to turn children into industrial products with no individuality to them, to make them just “another brick in the wall.” Do you feel like that sometimes? Like “just another brick in the wall?”

I: LIVING STONES  1 Peter 2:5-7

From the bit of the New Testament we read today, 1 Peter 2:2-10, we got quite a different vision of what it means to be built into something. In verses 5-7 We are invited not to be “bricks in the wall” but to be “living stones, used in building a spiritual temple.” But, what could that mean?

Stones can be used as symbols for many things in human life. After the Indian Ocean tidal wave of December 2004, the photographs of places in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia showed absolute devastation and everything not built of concrete or stone as having been washed away. Stones symbolized what endures.

Stones are symbols of death when there’s a landslide, as there was here in Taiwan in August of 2009 when a mountain washed down on a town in Kaohsiung County and 465 people died.

Stones symbolize resistance in the Middle East where, from time to time, young Palestinians find their only way of resisting Israeli soldiers is by throwing rocks.

Stones are symbols of past glories, gone but never to return, in places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Pyramids in Egypt.

In these verses we are encouraged to come to Christ, who is described as a living stone, and, like him, to also be living stones who will be built into a spiritual temple.

A “Living Stone?” OK, Christ is certainly life, but US?

So, for the time being, let’s read it this way, “Give yourselves to Christ, for God’s purposes. Don’t throw yourself onto a fire or throw your life away. God wants you alive. God wants you to be part of what God is doing, and that “something” is connected to Christ, who is the most valuable living one of all, and you’re with him.”

People have built up stone walls around the world, and have used stone to make monuments that remain in many places long after the people have gone. The cities in the high mountains of Peru are testimony to great civilizations that built them, but now, except for tourists, they’re empty, and many of the walls have fallen down.  Stonehenge in England sits there, mysterious and un-functioning for whatever it was originally designed to do, some pillars standing, others lying flat on the ground. The great stone heads on Easter Island in the Pacific remain a mystery. The civilization that built them left that place centuries ago. Many of the heads were toppled by those who believed they might have some power. (The “tipping them over” began to happen LONG before the gospel of Christ arrived, so we can’t blame the missionaries.)

II  REFUGE  (Psalm 31:2)

Many stone walls, intended for one purpose or another, have fallen. Stones that were piled up to protect people from enemies have become useless in these days of war by cruise missiles and drones anyway. Even brick walls of fortresses, like the one down by the harbor, made of bricks brought to Tainan from Indonesia about 400 years ago. Though it’s still standing, it protects nothing.

There’s another image we found in our readings today. It’s in Psalm 31:2, where we read NOT of a stone building (living OR dead), but of God as a refuge, a place where persons who are threatened can be safe. “Refuge” is the word from which we get the term “refugee”, which doesn’t mean (as some in Europe and America would have us believe), “an enemy who is sneaking in to attack us”, but “someone who has come away from danger to find safety.”

Whoever the poet of psalm 31 was (lots of people like to imagine it was King David, but I find starting down that path runs us towards fantasy), he or she felt their safety was threatened, and turned to God for protection. In OUR lives we experience threats, too. Though Taiwan is generally friendly towards everyone, foreign people included, from time to time over the past decades there have been seasons during which different groups or ALL people here have felt threatened. Because of highly publicized kidnapping and ransom situations, rich people sometimes felt threatened. At one time, when the persons kidnapped were the children of the rich people, all parents, even those with not enough property to attract a kidnapper’s attention, have felt that their childrens safety was in question, so even people who lived next door to or across the street from a school would escort their kids back and forth every day. A couple years ago all riders on the Taipei MRT felt that they could be attacked by someone with a knife at any time. About 20 years ago when a prominent woman politician disappeared after getting into a taxi in Kaohsiung. The result was that all women feared all taxi drivers for quite a while.

Those are physical threats. We were invited in the New Testament to consider spiritual things. Are there threats to our spiritual safety, too? Yes, but they’re probably NOT from the places we would suspect (from false religions spread by other preachers or from ‘scientific’ professors, from the internet, or from ‘demons’ that come out of the folk religion temples). The threats to our spiritual safety more likely come from the things that are already in us, our anger, our incompleteness, our selfishness, our wanting to hold onto what we have rather than share it.

It’s because of the threats to our spiritual safety that we seek refuge in God. For those of us who don’t regularly evaluate our lives, that’s why we have that little bit at the beginning of worship here every week   “Telling God about our Lives….” It’s there to give us a chance to do on Sunday what we likely forget (or not feel a need) to do any other time during the week, which is to admit that we are far from complete.

In Psalm 31:4 the writer asks God to “keep me safe from the trap that has been set for me…” No doubt whatever trap he or she was writing about was real. In my own life, however, if I were to honestly use these words in a prayer, they would have to be more like, “Keep me safe from the traps that I have set for myself.” I wonder if that might be true for others here, too.


        Refugee lives need more than a safe place away from the conflict. There are whole cities in Gaza, in Jordan and in Lebanon, created in the late 1940s, where Palestinian people who were pushed out of their homes in the territory that is now part of the modern and sovereign state of Israel, were given temporary refuge. The places were named “camps” because they were intended to be temporary. In 2017, almost 70 years later, they are still there and still called camps, but the houses streets, wiring and water systems are solidly installed.

One of the largest cities in Kenya is a camp that was created for refugees from Somalia. Some young people now of age to begin university studies were born in that camp and will become adults there.

After an earthquake that devastated large parts of Haiti in 2010 there are people still living in tents provided through the United Nations. Living “under canvas, they are safe from another earthquake making a roof fall on them, but they are still refugees.

When we say that God is our refuge and our defense, our savior (in Psalm 31:2), and reiterate the bit about our refuge (in Psalm 31:3), we are saying more than that God has taken us into a safe place. It has not been God’s intention that we live long in a camp. We have a greater role, a greater future. We are called and equipped to be built into a spiritual temple, as LIVING stones. Our life hasn’t ended, our mission has begun.

The cornerstone of that temple gives us an idea of its design and purpose. It brings us back to what we read from 1 Peter. The cornerstone is Christ, whose purpose was not just to give people a safe place to wait until eternity comes. His purpose was to redeem us (buy us out of our sorry state) and to rebuild us (to make us new creatures) so that we might do some of the same kinds of things that he has done.

In America and a few countries trapped in American culture around the world (Taiwan among them), today is marked as Mother’s Day. We’ve used a lot of pictures of mothers on the screen today, and we’ve used songs with “motherly” themes as our hymns. One thing that will probably be said over and over today in churches that center on Mother’s Day goes something like, “because God couldn’t do it all, so he created Mothers to carry the rest of the load.” I don’t agree with that kind of crap. Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, Brothers, Friends, Enemies…, ALL of us carry the load, and God promises us all refuge, redemption and rebuilding. We are ALL invited to be part of the spiritual temple. We are all commissioned as priests in it.


In Christ, we’re more than redeemed and rebuilt. We’re made into a spiritual temple, in which, because we have been chosen to be God’s own people, to be the ones who have received God’s mercy, we serve as priests to and for each other. All people are God’s creation and God’s possession.

Today when we get to the part of the service where we “say a little bit of what we believe,” we’ll hear ourselves saying, and hopefully believing, that being part of that spiritual temple, being numbered among those priests, means we “go beyond legal requirements in serving and helping our neighbor, treat our neighbor’s needs as our own,and care passionately for the other’s good.”

In this way, we fulfill our calling to be living stones, built into a spiritual temple, in which people find refuge, redemption and rebuilding.  AMEN

Shepherd of our Souls

Shepherd of our Souls      1 Peter 2: 13-25   and Psalm 23

Secure in our relationship with God, we can order our relationships to human authorities



You may, or may not, like visual art. There may be some kinds of pictures you like to see on a wall in a museum or even in your home. But there may be others that, if someone were to give it to you, if you were going to put it on a wall, it would probably be in the closet. If a picture of a person or a thing that be recognized, then which way is “up” and which way is “down” is pretty clear. But a lot of art produced in the 20th century was not “representational”, so unless something came with a big arrow on the back saying, “this side up”, people were sometimes confused.

Henri Matisse who was born in 1870 in France, was an important 20th century artist. He did a lot of painting, drawing, and sculpting. He lived to be 84 years old. In his later years his production took the form of paper cutouts, sometimes framed and other times as murals going all the way around a room. After he died in 1954 many museums around the world put on special showings of his work. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City did one of these in 1961. They got quite embarrassed though, when after Matisse’s paper cutout “the boat” had been on one wall for 47 days, someone was able to point out that the museum had it hanging upside down.

I guess someone thought it looked better that way.

There’s a system that many churches use to determine what parts of the Bible will be read in worship from week to week. It’s called, “The Lectionary”. Not everybody has to use it, and some people are straight against it, but I try to go with its flow here. On a three year cycle, there are four suggested readings for each Sunday: One from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the Gospels and the last from the rest of the New Testament that’s NOT the gospels. Thinking back over which I’d been choosing since I started here in December, I noticed that I rarely preach from the New Testament (except for the Gospels), so I decided that’s what I’d do today.

My problem began when I discovered that the suggested reading was 1 Peter 2, which has a lot in it about submitting to the authority of emperors and slave masters. You see, as a young lad, I wanted to grow up to be a teenager, and as a teenager I wanted to grow up to be a Hippie. Submitting to authority is NOT part of the atmosphere of either of those goals.

The result is that in preparing this week, I’ve treated the reading from 1 Peter the way that the Museum of Modern Art treated that Matisse artwork. I’ve hung it upside down, (and I think it looks and works better that way.)

I: You have been brought back to follow the Shepherd and Keeper of your souls.

So, starting from the end, we read that we have been brought back to the shepherd and keeper of our souls. We begin with considering shepherds and keepers, and then continue on to thinking about souls.

Though few if any of us have ever seen a shepherd with our own eyes (there’s only one place in Taiwan where we can go to see sheep anyway), we’ve probably got an image of someone not unlike the gentleman on the screen who is involved in taking care of sheep, and especially of the one that he’s carrying. The well-being of all of the sheep is his job. At the time of Jesus there wasn’t any industry, nor all that much commerce, nor were there any universities. Most people were pretty close to agriculture, whether growing of crops or taking care of animals, or just seeing that go on. So a LOT of Bible images come from farming and herding. Jesus compared himself to a shepherd sometimes. The Old Testament the prophets sometimes criticized their nation’s political leaders and priests for being “bad shepherds.”

There are some “keepers” in the Bible, too. A “keeper” protects some sort of an institution and those who reside in it…, an innkeeper takes care of a hotel (there’s one in the Christmas story and another in the parable of the Good Samaritan), a jail keeper takes care of a jail (there are several in the Acts of the Apostles).

Though some psychologists, sociologists and biologists have trouble with the idea of the existence of a soul, it’s fairly clear that the people who brought us the image of God as a shepherd and keeper thought that human beings have souls. What, exactly, a “soul” might be is something for philosophers, theologians, psychologists, biologists, sociologists, lovers and haters to discuss & debate, doubt or believe. If you believe that you are a soul having a bodily experience, then the idea of one who will shepherd and keep your soul is comforting. After all, while we have bodies, there are doctors, barbers, beauticians, trainers and massage specialists to take care of us, and for souls, there is a shepherd and a keeper.

Backing up another phrase, but still in verse 25, note that we’ve been brought back (we didn’t return on our own), back from having lost our way. Don’t go pointing your finger and saying this is about “him” or “her”. It’s true of all of us. And beyond being brought back, we’ve been healed. We needed healing because life is not easy, and like someone who has been attacked and left for dead beside the road, we need to be cared for.

II: God will bless you if you endure suffering even when you have done right.

        Every religion starts someplace. Within every religion, there are different “places” and different ideas on which of them is the most important place to start. My personal favorite starting point for Christianity is that God is love. It can be hard to defend, though, because it can’t be proven scientifically. A skeptic would ask that first I prove that God IS, and then go on to show that God is LOVE. (Other Christians might want to start somewhere else, but NO Christians would deny that there is an absolutely necessary connection between God and Love.)

Buddhism starts with something much easier to prove. You only have to look around and can see that it’s true. “Life is suffering”. Though different groups in Buddhism interpret the “Four Noble Truths” in slightly different ways, ALL of the groups agree that suffering is the first of the four as taught by the Buddha himself.

Of the 13 verses we read from 1 Peter this afternoon, 5 were about suffering. We read that some of the suffering in the world starts from people’s wrong behavior (and the suffering is a natural consequence of that wrongness). But we also read about suffering that comes, not because someone has done anything wrong, but because the wrong person is in charge. When you’re suffering because someone else is harsh to you even when you’ve done no wrong, you’re being like Jesus (who did no wrong, but got crucified). When you find yourself suffering like Jesus, you’re told to endure. Worse than that, you’re told to accept the authority of those who cause you to suffer, to honor them, and to regard their being “in charge” as legal and right.

Originally this letter was written to people whose identity (in the version of the Bible we use here at Tainan International Community Church) is “servants.” In the original language, the word can mean both “servant” AND “slave”. The result, since none of us here is a slave or a servant, may be that we regard the instructions as being for others. When we meet people such as the foreigners who do domestic caregiving and industrial & construction work in Taiwan, we may think that these are Biblical instructions for them, not for us. But we all have “bosses”: teachers, managers, landlords, dormitory supervisors, and parents. We’re told here that we are to submit to these masters, NOT because it will make THEM kinder to us. Not because it will change anything about them. We are to submit, just because we should. That’s not a very satisfying answer, is it? (And maybe that’s why I didn’t like this assigned bit of scripture until I turned it on its head.) We read that when our masters treat us harshly and unjustly, and we respond by enduring, respecting and honoring, then we’ll be blessed by God. If getting God’s blessing (which I want) can be done some other way, without requiring me to endure, respect and honor harsh masters, I’d rather follow that road. But, hey, I generally want to take the easy way out.

III: Do the right thing

One of the biggest companies in the world is “Alphabet”. It owns Google. In fact, Google STARTED Alphabet. When it was only Google, way back in the year 2000, it’s corporate mission statement consisted of three words, “Don’t be evil.” When Google got too big and reorganized as “Alphabet”, making Google just one part of the whole thing, a longer, corporate mission statement was developed. 4 words, “do the right thing.”

“Do the right thing” also summarizes verses 13-17, where we’re instructed to respect everyone, love people who have the same religion as us, and give honor to God and to the emperor. (When this was originally written, the emperor considered himself to be a god, too.) Nowadays, other than the one in Japan, there are very few crowned emperors in the world. But there ARE leaders of some nations who might consider they have imperial power to order people around, have people executed, and to demand respect from the citizens of the places where they rule. Thank God, that’s not true here in Taiwan.

Like the people who work for Google, we’re not to do evil. We’re free to do whatever we like, but to be careful not to use our freedom to conceal evil. We are instructed to do the right thing so that foolish people who would criticize us for having faith might be silenced, they should find nothing to say against us.

There’s a further reason for doing the right thing here. It comes back to that emperor thing. Whoever is in authority: gentle or harsh, honest or corrupt, wise or foolish, has authority and can use it to praise or to punish. We “do the right thing” so that there will be nothing to punish. That’s an ideal. We’re told that it’s God’s design for passing out authority to the people who are in government. Sometimes those people get it wrong. Sometimes they “hang the picture upside down”. Sometimes they have hung innocent people on crosses. Sometimes WE get it wrong, too.

When Christian religion begins with “God is love” and winds through an image like “the shepherd and keeper of your soul”, it is attractive and comforting. I think that’s why I preferred to look at the verses we read today “from back to front”. When I started with “submit to every human authority,” I was immediately both combative and sad. I discovered too many personal memories of loss.

As a teenager, though I wanted to grow up to be a Hippie, I didn’t. Partly that was because I was part of a church youth group that emphasized discipline, respect of authority, and keeping the rules. We had to do this or, we were assured, God would punish us. Something about the “hippie” life seemed too undisciplined to me. I was afraid. However, for most of the other young people in that church group, and for many of my classmates at school, the “undiscipline” was more attractive than the “discipline”. By the time we were 18 or 19 years old, it seemed that almost everybody else had left the group, left the faith, and wandered away from the shepherd and keeper of our souls. When I reflect on that process, I see myself not as the most righteous one, but as the most cowardly.

By now I’ve lost contact with most of those friends of my youth. It’s my prayer that the shepherd and keeper of souls might bring them back, NOT to the discipline and authority thing, but to the “care” thing. And that’s where I hope that we, here in Tainan, can start, too.


Sometimes turning things around and looking at them upside down looks better to us. Beginning with “you’ve been brought back to Jesus, the shepherd and keeper of your soul, and you’ve been healed,” attracts me to “endure the suffering, including what you’ll suffer from obeying.” That feels better than what I grew up with, “Obey or suffer for not obeying; and, by the way, Jesus is your good shepherd.”

Matisse’s paper cutting and Peter’s musings on authority aren’t the only things that look different when turned onto their heads. We read Psalm 23 this afternoon. Probably half or more of us stopped listening immediately after we heard “The Lord is My Shepherd.” So I ask you to listen as I try it from back to front. Listen for new things that it may be telling you.

“God’s house will be my house as long as I live, with my roommates: God’s love and goodness. There will always be enough food and wine for me and for my enemies. At God’s feast, they won’t be scary, because God’s protection will surround us all and God’s presence will never leave. Even death will hold no fear, because God keeps promises, guides and strengthens. The pool is cool and the bed is soft. It’s all here, provided by my shepherd, the Lord.” AMEN

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