Category Archives: Thoughts on East and West

COVID-19: Some Semi-factual Reflections

 

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With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of unanswered questions and incorrect information swirling around on the internet.  I am neither a medical doctor nor a virologist, but I’ve seen so much that is misleading and inaccurate, I couldn’t help adding a few semi-factual reflections to the confusing cacophony.  I do so with the hope that at least for some, it might provide a bit more sanity and clarity.

First of all, as much as no one wants to hear it, the main goal at this point is mitigation, not eradication.  I’ve heard many make the claim that the vast majority of cases (80-85%) are relatively mild and most will readily recover.  So far, so good.  The real problem is the 15% (using the more conservative figure), as well as the wildly disparate death rates from country to country.  It would appear the reasons for the disparity are many, but it’s not my purpose here to get lost in the numbers.  Others have already put out valuable and accurate articles along those lines to help explain the reasons for these disparities.

Because this disease is very contagious—almost twice that of the flu—so-called “social distancing” is the main way to slow the spread.  This ultimately achieves not eradication, but mitigation, and mitigation is necessary to keep those who will get very sick from the virus manageable in terms of numbers.

Italy (as well as China and Iran) is a good test case for this problem.  Italy failed to put serious restrictions in place until many people had already died.  When the numbers of sick shot up exponentially, medical resources were almost immediately stretched to the breaking point.  There were not nearly enough medical personnel, beds, medications, ventilators, etc. to meet the burgeoning demand.  If they had put restrictions in place earlier, they would at least have slowed the exponential spread of the virus and given the medical community a smaller and steadier stream of patients to be treated and released, making room for others to come in on their heels.

As it is now, Italian hospitals are deciding who lives and who dies based on factors like being a parent, being young and healthy, having no pre-existing medical conditions, etc.  This is triage of the most macabre and dreadful kind, but wholly necessary given the situation they are in.  Sad to say, all of that is now water under the bridge.  If, however, the USA can learn anything from all of this, it’s that they need to put widespread draconian restrictions in place sooner and not later.

While no one wants to hear or face it, quarantines, shortages, travel bans, online-only education, and the cancelation of large-scale social events (regular church services included) are likely to be the new normal for quite some time—likely months and not just weeks.  If we have learned anything from the lockdown in China, it’s that this virus is not going to be eliminated on a large scale for a long, long time.  On January 23 in Wuhan, China closed down virtually everything that did not pertain to vital services for a city of 11 million people.  The rest of China soon followed.  While cases of the virus have finally fallen to nearly zero, it has taken almost two full months to get to this point and the Chinese lockdown has been enforced in draconian absolutist communist style, literally locking and sealing people into their respective homes and communities.  Even so, it is still unclear when the restrictions will be lifted and to what extent.  One thing is for sure, China will not be allowing people from other parts of the world back in to re-infect them anytime soon.

I am deeply concerned for the situation in the US for many reasons.  First and foremost, Americans love their freedom way too much.  They also tend to distrust and disrespect their leaders and those in authority over them.  It’s difficult for most Americans to be told what to do.  It’s even harder for them to actually do what they are told.

Most Asians, on the other hand, have a much more communal mindset and clearly understand the value of making hard personal choices for the sake of the overall societal wellbeing.  Their Confucian roots also make them much more trusting of those in authority over them.  This combination makes it more likely that people will do what they are asked (not even required) to do by the authorities for the sake of the greater good of all.  We have seen the happy results of that here in Singapore where the virus spread continues to be kept from blowing out and overwhelming the medical system.

Beyond all of this, it’s still very hard to say what effect warmer and more humid days will have on COVID-19.  We can only hope that similar to other coronaviruses like the flu and the common cold, warmer summer months will help slow the speed of transmission.  We simply do not know yet, but very warm and tropic places in Asia (like Singapore) show that this virus is not easily contained in any climate.  We also hope for a vaccine to be developed sooner and not later.  But in the meantime, people everywhere need to be patient and take the governmental restrictions put in place very seriously so that hospitals and medical workers will not be overwhelmed and forced to make dreadful decisions about who will live and die.

So far, these are relatively factual (although admittedly debatable) reflections.  In the post that follows, I will reflect more on issues of faith and fear as we increasingly come face-to-face with the realities of a post-COVID-19 world.

The Reconciling Power of the Gospel

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Glancing around my theology class, I was struck by the mix of cultures present in the room.  Outside of the fact that I am from the USA, students hail from places like East Asia, India, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Suriname, and Singapore.

There is more significance to this list than might be appreciated at first glance.

Not only do the USA and Japan have a contentious past, Asian nations also have a long and bitter history of conflict and war with each other.  During World War II, for example, the Japanese not only bombed pearl harbor, they conquered the Philippines, Korea, as well as much of China and Southeast Asia.  As they advanced, they brutally killed and imprisoned many of the inhabitants.  Those allowed to live were sometimes raped, beaten, and treated like slaves and animals.

I mention this not to shame the Japanese.  All sides committed great atrocities against one another.  And Americans should not forget the countless innocent civilians indiscriminately killed in Japan when atomic warheads were dropped on two of their major cities.  I only share these examples to illustrate how deep the hatred and animosities still run between these countries up until the present.  For many, the pain and anger are still very fresh and very personal.

I also mention this to show the transforming power of the gospel.  Here at our seminary, these students are all sitting together peacefully, worshiping God, loving each other, praying, learning, and sharing together as devoted brothers and sisters in Christ.  In view of human history, only God could orchestrate this kind of unlikely fellowship of saints.

This is the radically profound power of the gospel.  It takes all the wrongs and atrocities of the past, all the shame, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, and searing loss, and brings it to the cross.  Here in Christ alone, the nations of the world find genuine healing and permanent reconciliation with God and one another.  It’s one more reason I am not ashamed of the gospel because it truly is the reconciling power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, whether they were previously fast friends or even mortal enemies.

Why are we returning to Singapore?

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In my last couple of posts, I might have given the impression that the primary feeling I am experiencing when I think about returning to Singapore is grief, but that would not be entirely accurate.  My emotions on this issue are multilayered and range from sadness to excitement.

Lately, as the time of return draws near, the sense of excitement is growing and makes me want to say more about the reasons for it.  I already mentioned in a previous post that God has clearly called us and we want to obey Him, but there are some very practical and strategic reasons as well.

First, after living eight years in Singapore, we have lots of valuable experience and will have fewer cultural adjustments when we return.  We’ve already been through a lot of the bumps and bruises that come with learning to live well in a foreign country and will likely have an easier transition back.

Second, what we at EAST do is meeting one of the primary needs of the church in Asia, namely the intentional development of biblically-minded, godly, indigenous servant leaders.  Christianity is exploding in Asia, but without adequate training and discipleship, immature leadership can create all kind of problems for the long-term health and impact of the church.  We help provide the firm foundation upon which church leaders can build and grow.

Third, this need for leaders is so great, Asians are seeking further training in droves, but they often do so in seminaries far removed from their Asian roots.  They attend schools in Europe and North America that sometimes confuse and squelch their spiritual passion, or lure them away from Asia with prospects for ministry in places where there is already a surplus of qualified and effective Christian leaders.  Such opportunities draw many gifted leaders away from returning to Asia where they are needed the most.  For those who do return, they sometimes bring unbiblical teachings and contextually insensitive methodologies that can cause further conflict and confusion in Asian church communities.  By training Asian leaders in Asia, we keep them engaged in their local ministries and help them return to the needy mission fields where they are needed most and can be highly effective.

Fourth, and closely related, I am reminded of the quote: “Do not do what others can and will do.  Rather, do what others cannot or will not do.”  The fact is, America is abundantly supplied with qualified, gifted, and godly seminary professors, so much so, that many cannot even find teaching jobs in their field.  In contrast, seminaries in Asia like EAST are sorely understaffed and pleading for qualified teachers to come and meet the growing need for advanced Christian leadership development.  Barbara and I are uniquely called and suited to help meet this growing need in Asia.

Finally, and most importantly, I think of the godly and amazing students we’ve had the privilege of teaching and mentoring at the EAST.

I think of Tunji, a humble pastor from Nigeria, who came to EAST after miraculously surviving a Muslim riot that took the lives of some of his congregation.  He is now a leader of leaders, developing pastors in the sometimes dangerous and spiritually challenging countries of northeastern Africa.

There’s Jackie and Cindy, Singaporeans faithfully working among a spiritually resistant and unreached Muslim people group in East Asia.  There’s Moses, a Korean, who is reaching out to North Korean refugees in both South Korea and East Asia.  Bataa, a Mongolian, is now the country director for a growing Christian ministry in his home country, and Singaporean Bessie is regularly teaching courses on spiritual warfare in East Asia, a subject where biblically sound and practical information is desperately needed.

I also think of Shirley who came from East Asia to our school as a relatively young Christian.  Through the process of her time at EAST, she significantly matured in her faith and discerned God was calling her to minister as a missionary in Cambodia where she currently serves and regularly helps coordinate ministry internships for EAST students.

Honestly, the list could go on and on.  There are many more graduates I cannot mention due to security concerns and space limitations, but the privilege of working with high-level faithful Christian leaders like these is one of the most humbling and exciting aspects of what we do at EAST.  And I would not trade the chance for anything.

Why are we returning to Singapore?  We are called, equipped, needed, willing, and privileged to be a part of what God is doing there at such a time as this.

Do I love Singapore?

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When we tell people we are returning to Singapore, they often respond by saying, “You must love it there!”  Well, yes and no.  I love many things about Singapore, but there are also many things I don’t.

I don’t love the pace of life and the crowds of the city.  I love wide open spaces and wild places.  I don’t love the year-round humidity and heat of the tropics.  I love the seasons; the beauty of changing leaves in fall, the crispness of snow in winter, and the bursting forth of new life in spring.  I don’t love the challenges of living as a foreigner in a foreign land, far from friends and family, constantly struggling with the feeling of being displaced and unsettled.  I love being close to long-time friends and family, rooted and grounded in one place without the fear and frustration of having to uproot and move again and again.

On the other hand, I love living in a clean, safe city where everything works and there is minimal corruption.  I love being a part of what God is doing in Asia.  I love watching the church there grow exponentially and see churches catch a vision to take the gospel to the world.  I love being part of the ministry of the East Asia School of Theology, training current and future world Christian leaders.  I love hearing the incredible stories of God’s faithfulness in the students’ lives and all the wonderful ways He has used and is using them for His glory.

During our assignment back in the US, I wrestled hard with these somewhat polarizing loves, especially as the wait to return became extended.  Was I waiting for some other call?  Was I hoping for a new (and presumably easier) assignment?

I think if I am honest, although I never sent out any resumes and made no inquiries, I secretly hoped God would put it on someone’s heart to offer me a teaching position somewhere—anywhere—in the US.  But the offer never came.  There was not even a hint or possibility raised by anyone.  The heavens and earth were both deafeningly silent with regard to this hidden desire to stay and enjoy all the loves I associated with American life.

In the end it was very, very clear—not as a matter of default, but as a matter of divine calling—that God wanted me back in Singapore.  And with that calling came a renewed sense of excitement for all the things He wanted to do in and through me there.

Do I love Singapore or the USA?  Well, much more than either, and above all else, I love God and want to obey and follow Him, wherever He leads.  Right here and right now, that means continuing to serve and seek Him in Singapore—and anywhere else He might take me on this marvelous journey of faith.

The Aged: Wisdom and Honor or Weakness and Decay?

“Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God.  I am the Lord.” —Leviticus 19:32

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In reflecting on the way in which the elderly are treated in the east versus the west, I am struck by the way in which elderly people in the east are rarely shut away from their families, are often involved in the regular care for children and grand children, and are treated with great care and respect by not only family in particular, but also society in general.  In contrast, people in the west often place the elderly in homes where there are lots of other elderly around, but few inter-generational friends, family members, children, and grandchildren.

In the west there is a corresponding social impoverishment by consigning the elderly to be with one another, rather than integrating them into a society and a family structure which desperately needs their wisdom, time, and expertise.

In thinking about all of this I cannot help but wonder if there is something of a circular, reinforcing process that creates more of this kind of honor and appreciation for the elderly in the east and a tragic tendency to ignore and overlook the elderly in the west.  Is it any wonder that elderly in the east often grow old graciously with dignity and grace, not seeking the kind of surgical beauty treatments so common in the west?  By conferring this kind of dignity upon the elderly from an early age, they become what they have appreciated and looked up to all their lives: wise, gentle, kind, and nurturing individuals with a wealth of knowledge and skills to bequeath to society in their old age.

In the west, we tend to worship and elevate youth and vigor far more than we do experience and wisdom.  When youth are energetically foolish and waste their time and efforts on the pursuit of trivial ends, we think it newsworthy, “sowing wild oats,” and just going through an adolescent “stage.”  Is it any wonder, then, that the aged often feel displaced, unnoticed, and unappreciated?  In the same way, the cantankerousness of the elderly, the desperate attempts to hide the process of aging, the cloistering (quarantining?) of them, all contribute to a process of dishonor and lack of appreciation that is reinforced throughout the lives of people as they grow from youth to old age.  Is it any wonder old people often become so unpleasant in ungracious and difficult to be with?  Their entire lives they have believed and been told that old age is to be fought against, avoided, denied, and hidden at all costs.  When it eventually overtakes them and they can no longer stem the tide of the inevitable, they become the very people they have not wanted to become.  And so they live out and reinforce the stereotype they have continually feared and abhorred, a tragic self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating prophecy.

As Leviticus 19:32 suggests, honoring the aged is not an eastern value pitted against a western one.  It is a biblical value and our attitudes toward the old reveal much about ourselves the societies we live in.  Lewis Smedes said it well on page 96 of his book, Mere Morality, when he noted this: “The people that loses its will to honor its aged eventually loses its humanity.”  May we honor our aged, not only because it humanizes them, but because it humanizes us as well.