The TCK issue that won’t go away


Being a Third Culture Kid has its pros and cons.

Pros: global travel, cross-cultural exposure, international awareness, and geographic adaptability.

Cons: answering questions about where you’re from and determining where on the planet you belong.

Manila streets, c. 1999

Manila streets, c. 1999

Indeed, TCK life is a mixed bag full of goodies.

I remember first hearing “Third Culture Kid” terminology when I was about 15 years old. Although it was helpful to know someone invented a label for people like me, it initially sounded like a fancy way of saying “missionary kid,” which I had already known I was since age six. Plus there was another small problem with the TCK acronym, namely that pesky T for “third.” You see, the textbook TCK must grapple with three cultures: where you live, where your passport is from, and the nebulous region suspended between the first two. Identifying as a TCK seems to work better if your life is contained between two countries.

But what if you attend a boarding school in Manila, Philippines nine months out of the year, you spend your school breaks in Kathmandu, Nepal where your family lives (the place where you completed grades seven through nine), your passport says you’re an American citizen, and you still have vivid memories of DR Congo, where you finished grades two through four, back when it was still called Zaire before the First Congo War?

What does that make me? A Fifth Culture Kid? Do you want fries with that?

And what if I include attending first grade in French at l’école Notre-Dame-du-Sourire in Jonquière, Québec? Or the fact that I am the product of an interracial marriage between a white American man from California and a Chinese American woman from Hawaii? Or what about splitting my sixth grade year between Hawaii and Kentucky, which surely earns me some points on the cross-cultural scorecard, right? Do I get to be called a Seventh or Eighth Culture Kid? More accolades, please!

I always felt like the new kid in school, probably because I was.

While I don’t remember all the words, I’ll never forget how it felt when some of my high school classmates talked about things they did together in elementary school. It would begin with, “Remember when we were in fourth grade?” or “Remember so and so?” (in reference to a classmate/teacher/school incident). At this point in the conversation, it became clear I could not participate in reminiscing about what Southeast Asia was like in the fourth grade because lo and behold, I was in off in Central Africa at the time, wherever that is. Thus I would answer the question internally without speaking a word. No, I don’t remember that story. Because I wasn’t here. Because I’m the new kid. Again.

Third Culture Kids feel “alienation in every cell of their body,” writes Megan Hustad in her memoir, More Than Conquerors. “My people never found groups we wanted to remain in… We had a knack for sullen independence. This sullen independence got us to the margins, and we felt most alive there. Wherever we belonged, we wanted out.”

My High School Graduation Day, 1999.

High school graduation day, 1999.

Like Hustad and many other TCKs, I’ve struggled to find social and spiritual belonging at various points along my journey. By the time I graduated from high school, I had attended seven different schools on three continents including most combinations of public/private, large/small, religious/secular, domestic/international, homeschool/boarding school one could imagine. My school friends have included Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists from Montreal to the Maldives. Since finishing high school at Faith Academy 15 years ago, I have attended a private Christian college, a public community college, a public graduate school and a private seminary—each with its own campus culture.

I’m still the new kid. Sometimes I desperately want in. Other times, I’m ready to fly away.

They say that going to school is about getting an education, developing life skills and cultivating a love for learning. Perhaps so. I’ve always enjoyed school, apparently so much that I’ve been enrolled somewhere 10 out of 15 years since my high school graduation day. Yet I wonder if my pathway in and out of so many schools has more to do with what school is really about for most kids: fitting in and finding your place to belong.

To declare, “My home is in Christ, and with Christ” is both the easiest and most difficult thing for a missionary kid to say. It’s easy because our parents taught us all the right answers. It’s difficult because we know how elusive belonging can be.

Almost as hard as telling you where I’m from.

What about you? What alienates you? Where do you find belonging?

Book review: Creating a Missional Culture


Creating a Missional CultureWho has time to read every new book with the word “missional” in its title?

Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of how this buzzword gets used, whether to baptize PR strategies aimed at boosting Christianity’s poll numbers or to unveil ecclesiological secrets promising to revolutionize the face of ministry as we know it. Protests of market-driven megachurches and program-driven pragmatism may still have their place—complete with nifty charts contrasting specific straw man A with nebulous ideal B—but many of these critiques spend more energy deconstructing dystopias than supplying a sustainable way forward.

In other words, I don’t buy into all things declared “missional.”

But this book is a gem.

With its unique blend of realism, optimism, practical how-to and theological why-to, JR Woodward’s Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012) integrates the very best of recent contributions on mission and culture into a compelling vision of the local church equipped for the world’s sake. This is not another how-to-replicate-my-results-in-your-church book. Nor is it another predictably peevish protest of church caricatures. On the contrary, JR (who follows me on Twitter so I can call him JR, right?) has served up a delectable feast of multi-layered insights gleaned from his years as a church planter and ministry practitioner.

In Part 1, JR defines key terms and details the power of culture dynamics, both in society at large and within the local church. Synthesizing influential thinkers like Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Jamie Smith, Tim Keller and Andy Crouch, JR describes six elements of the “cultural web” (language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, ethics) as well as five kinds of environments needed for the creation of missional culture (learning, healing, welcoming, liberating, thriving). Citing Suzanne Morse, he introduces the concept of “polycentric leadership,” first as an outworking of Ephesians 4, then as an alternative to both centralized and flat leadership structures.

Part 2 looks at how shifts in media, philosophy, science and religion provoke a shift toward polycentric leadership. JR contends these shifts have “highlighted the vulnerabilities of a hierarchical leadership structure” and therefore, “shared leadership engenders greater trust in those who are cynical to truth and power.” (p. 76) Asserting that structures are theological statements, he proposes that “the church ought to be led by a Spirit-gifted polycentric team of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who model and equip their fellow priests in the communal way of life patterned after our triune God.” (p.92) JR further submits that polycentric leadership can be good for one’s emotional health, enhancing the pursuit of wholeness and interdependence in community.

Part 3 forms the book’s core, providing a detailed look at each of the five-fold equippers, rooted in an understanding of Jesus himself as the ultimate culture creator who was concurrently the archetypical apostle (dream awakener), prophet (heart revealer), evangelist (story teller), pastor (soul healer) and teacher (light giver). Employing a mix of ministry anecdotes and vivid examples, JR’s chapter-length portrayals of each role are where the book shines brightest. The chapters on five-fold ministry close with reflection questions to help readers discern which equipper they are. While reading these winsome depictions blending freshness and familiarity, I often found myself thinking, “I’ve never thought about it that way, but it totally makes sense.”

In Part 4, the book concludes with practical implications for embodying a missional culture in one’s particular context. Recalling the cultural web’s six elements introduced in Part 1, JR suggests ways to apply core practices and liturgies to the rhythms of a neighborhood church. Using Jamie Smith’s notion of “thick, bodily practices that engage our senses, grab our hearts, form our identities and reshape our desires,” (p. 188) JR advises specific practices corresponding to each of the five equippers, such as solitude for prophets and confession for pastors. The final chapters offer further specifics on possible strategies for multiplying disciples, commissioning equippers and implementing polycentric leadership.

Tightly written with thoughtful eloquence, this is not just another book with a trendy title. Creating a Missional Culture is a gold mine for anyone desiring to see Christians flourish in their giftings. If you are new to the missional conversation (or skeptical of its veracity), here is an outstanding primer on the local church’s role in God’s redemptive purposes. If you are steeped in the latest church-planting lingo, this book will spur imaginative reflection on the possibilities of polycentric leadership. Thanks to its accessible, yet expansive theological vision loaded with practical wisdom, I suspect this will become an essential text for ministry practitioners of diverse backgrounds, especially those with an affinity for Newbigin’s thought.

[Also: A free online five-fold equipper assessment can be found at JR’s website.]

Why the local church?


church artThe church is no ordinary organization. We know this intuitively, as even the word ‘church’ can provoke strong reactions. Many of my postmodern peers seek deep spirituality, but resist the concept of church, preferring instead to identify as spiritual but not religious.

Comparing the church to other kinds of organizations is tricky. Every local church has a financial component, yet is not a business. It helps those in need, but is not strictly a non-profit. It facilitates teaching and learning, but is not a school. It offers encouragement for weary souls, but is not merely a support group for insiders. It cares about issues of public justice, but is not a political action committee (despite predictable schemes to use it as one).

Indeed, there is no organization of people quite like the church.

Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “The church lives in the midst of history as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God.” (The Open Secret, p. 110) If Newbigin was correct, the church is not just another interest group gathered to make a difference, but the community through which God does his best work. Started by the Holy Spirit as an alternative community proclaiming the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return, the church is Christ’s body in the world. Each local expression forms the visible community through which all lasting differences are made. Together we are a sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom.

That the church has made a ton of mistakes over the centuries is undeniable. Our shortcomings have been well-documented, our failings familiar to postmodern ears. Now as ever, our flawed attempts at mission hinge on divine grace and continual repentance. Since the early days, quirky collections of Jesus followers have found ways to locally gather, break bread and share life. In community, we find God’s remedy for isolation, immaturity and individualism. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no church. But without the church, there is no true communion of sinners and saints.

If anything, the church’s failures point to a greater, not lesser, need for common unity centered around Christ. When considered from a global perspective across time and cultures, the church is remarkably resilient. I cannot think of another voluntary association of people representing all ages and backgrounds that meets weekly, year-round in almost every nation on earth and has a 2000-year history of adaptation and survival.

The church has outlived the rise and fall of tyrannical empires, philosophical movements, socioeconomic conditions, cultural shifts and technological advances. And while Euro-Anglo religious structures decline in the West, the global, multicultural church has risen to unprecedented vitality in places like China, Nigeria and Brazil. According to historian Mark Noll, “Close to half of Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now.” (New Shape of World Christianity, p. 21)

As former Christian “majorities” of North and West reverse roles with former “minorities” of South and East, I believe the global church’s best days are yet to come—not because we’re so clever in keeping it afloat with the latest techniques, but because God’s hands are all over this project.

2012: A pivotal year for Honolulu rail transit

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morning commuteIt’s been an eventful year from nearly every news angle. 2012 saw tightly contested races of both the Olympic and electoral variety. Headlines were dominated by stories of devastating loss domestically (mass shootings, a superstorm) and internationally (Syria, Libya, Israel/Gaza).

If that’s not enough to think about, consider the humanitarian crises we largely ignored in 2012: Myanmar, DR Congo, and Yemen to name a few. In the past year, we lost Trayvon Martin, Whitney Houston, Neil Armstrong, Ravi Shankar and Dan Inouye, but Joseph Kony is still at large.

What a year. What a world.

Closer to home, 2012 marked several major victories for Honolulu’s long-debated rail transit project. When construction began in April, a familiar band of rail opponents pointed to four looming obstacles, each with potential to sink the project before operations can begin as scheduled in 2019:

  1. The 2012 mayoral election. Ben Cayetano made opposition to rail the centerpiece of his campaign, promising to scrap the project if elected. Outcome: Cayetano lost the election to his pro-rail opponent (Kirk Caldwell), but said he would continue the fight against rail. While it wasn’t the first time city voters defeated a distinctively anti-rail mayoral candidate (i.e. Panos Prevedouros in 2008 and 2010), it was the first election since construction began and the last one prior to the arrival of federal funds.
  2. Federal funding. In the months and years leading up to December 19, 2012, rail opponents focused tremendous attention on the question of whether Honolulu’s anticipated federal funds would arrive. Outcome: The project secured $1.55 billion from the Federal Transit Administration, but prominent rail critic Cliff Slater downplayed the news saying, “This doesn’t change anything.”
  3. The City Council. Six of the nine council seats were up for election in 2012, with rail as the dominant campaign issue. Outcome: Oahu voters elected pro-rail candidates in 5 out of 6 races (Ann Kobayashi holds a somewhat complicated position on rail), while the other three council members also support rail. Vocal tea-party incumbent and rail opponent Tom Berg was defeated by a 25% margin, and earlier this month used one of his final votes in office as the sole dissenter in the council’s 8-1 decision to accept federal funds for rail.
  4. Lawsuits, the final frontier. Last year, rail opponents (led by Cayetano and Slater) sued the city to halt the entire project while archaeological surveys were completed on the project’s fourth and final segment, although surveys were already completed on the first three segments as per the FTA’s Record of Decision. Even so, construction was halted in late August at an estimated cost of $10 million per month of delay while the case went before a federal judge. In the meantime, survey trenches were completed ahead of schedule along the entire 20-mile route. Outcome: Yesterday, the judge upheld the FTA’s Record of Decision, ruling that Honolulu can proceed with construction on the first three phases while working to resolve feasibility/design issues on the fourth phase. This probably won’t be the end of anti-rail litigation, but it should be the last time construction is halted because of it.

A few short months ago, the fate of rail hung in the balance on all four fronts. But after going 4 for 4 in 2012, the project continues steadily forward as the year draws to a close. Amid some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion, 2012 was a banner year in the struggle for a greener, cleaner, more reliable, efficient, equitable and sustainable infrastructure for Honolulu’s future.

Growing up evangelical: A sacred-secular chronology

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Raise your hand if you grew up evangelical. Does anyone remember those CCM store displays attempting to lure customers with comparisons like, “If you like Sting, you might like Steven Curtis Chapman” or “If you like Jewel, you might like Rebecca St. James”?

Among the peculiar realities of growing up evangelical was navigating the strange dichotomy of “Christian vs. secular” spheres of product consumption, exemplified most vividly in the realms of commercial music and book distribution. In high school, for example, I can remember listening to both the Beastie Boys and the Newsboys on my precious Sony Discman, enjoying the percussive grooves and cheesy lyrics of each group in their own special way. Around that same time, I also read novels by both John Grisham and Frank Peretti—a page-turner is a page-turner right?

If you’re anything like me, you daydream about the past when you should be living in the moment. Or you get fixated on what’s current when some historical perspective might be more appropriate. Rather than attempt any profound reflections on the various writers, artists and entertainers I’ve been “into” over the course of my life from childhood to the present, I thought it might be trippy to compose a list (yes, another list) chronicling some of my favorites fluctuating from year to year. You’ll notice I’ve tried to include samples from both “worlds” in keeping with the contrived sacred/secular paradigm of my upbringing. Funny how quickly one’s interests can change.

  • 2012: Rachel Held Evans / Flight of the Conchords
  • 2011: Tim Keller / Lauryn Hill
  • 2010: Bethel Music / Sigur Rós
  • 2009: Scot McKnight / Pat the Bunny (Vincent’s favorite)
  • 2008: Richard Mouw / Barbara Kingsolver
  • 2007: Derek Webb / Matisyahu
  • 2006: Shane Claiborne / Ben Harper
  • 2005: Brian McLaren / Jon Stewart
  • 2004: Jim Wallis / Franz Ferdinand
  • 2003: Any book promising a lifetime of marital bliss / Coldplay
  • 2002: John Piper / The Strokes
  • 2001: U2 and Bob Dylan (oh no, my categories!)
  • 2000: Delirious / Goo Goo Dolls
  • 1999: Burlap to Cashmere / Counting Crows
  • 1998: Matt Redman / The Chemical Brothers
  • 1997: Audio Adrenaline / Beastie Boys
  • 1996: Jars of Clay / Michael Learns to Rock
  • 1995: Sports Spectrum (magazine) / Sports Illustrated
  • 1994: Newsboys / The Eagles
  • 1993: Petra / Queen
  • 1992: DC Talk / MC Hammer
  • 1991: Adventures in Odyssey / Will Clark
  • 1990: McGee and Me! / Joe Montana
  • 1989: G.T. and the Halo Express / Magic Johnson
  • 1988: Superbook / Wayne Gretzky (we lived in Canada)
  • 1987: Clubhouse (magazine) / Highlights
  • 1986: Psalty the Singing Songbook / ThunderCats
  • 1985: Flannelgraphs / The Transformers
  • 1984: Sesame Street
  • 1983: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
  • 1982: Lowly Worm
  • 1980-1981: Anything that smelled like milk

April’s beautiful game


At least one of three things comes to mind when I hear the word baseball: my dad, my childhood and of course, the San Francisco Giants. The above photo was taken at blustery Candlestick Park in the summer of 1991. As you can see, Dad and my 7-year-old sister didn’t need to be reminded to look at the camera. Meanwhile, yours truly can be seen staring intently at the field, pencil in hand, heels on edge, eager to document the next pitch’s fate.

Over 20 years later, I had a great conversation with a friend yesterday about baseball. We talked about starting rotations, no-hitters, ballparks, superstitions, offseason trades and Ken Burns. It didn’t matter that we cheer for different teams on opposite coasts or that my favorite team is playing against his this weekend. For baseball fans, April represents the height of speculative hope enmeshed with thinly-veiled pessimism, precisely because no one’s fate has yet been sealed. Every team still has a chance in the new season—even the Cubs and Royals, mathematically at least.

The start of baseball season is America’s socially approved annual ritual when introverted adult males are permitted to act like giddy little boys who consumed too much Kool-Aid before recess. And while people unfamiliar with the game (especially grown-ups) might scoff at how “slow” or “boring” it is, baseball’s true allure lies in its captivating moments of situational beauty, when fans are drawn into the delicate dance between victory and defeat:

  • A bare-handed pickup of a slow-rolling grounder becomes a crisp, run-saving double play.
  • A baserunner overslides on a stolen base and is called out because the infielder continues to apply the tag.
  • With one out and runners at the corners, the batter tries to hit a sacrifice fly, but faces a series of pitches low and outside, designed to induce a ground ball.
  • A full count with two outs places additional pressure on the fielders, who now have less time to throw someone out since the baserunners will get an added jump.
  • In a feisty late-inning at bat, the hitter falls behind 0-2, but fouls off several pitches and manages to draw a walk, bringing the tying run to the plate.
  • A well-timed (or ill-timed) diving catch, pinch hit, double switch, squeeze play, defensive substitution, pickoff, pitch out, punch out, throwing error, bad hop, stolen base, infield shift, wild pitch or well-executed cutoff can change everything.

Alas, there’s nothing quite like baseball in the month of April. So buy me a hot dog. I’m still 10 years old.

Grief journal (7 months)


Grieving has been surprisingly easy this month. Maybe it’s because we’ve been in the Philippines for the last 5 weeks, removed from most of the common “triggers” associated with routine life at home. Or perhaps it’s because of a more frightening thought: I’m moving on.

Let’s stick with the first option.

It’s one thing to read about life in poor countries, but spending a significant period of time overseas is a different matter altogether. According to a recent government report, a Filipino family of 5 needs an annual income of about 85,000 pesos ($2,000 US) to stay out of poverty. And while 26% of the nation lives below that level, Rizal province (where Rebecca’s parents live) is among the most well-off areas at around 5%.

So here we are, relaxing in one of the wealthier parts of Metro Manila, yet the crowded roadways overflow with street children playing in open sewage ditches. The stench of air pollution wafts between endless rows of dwellings cobbled together from trash and stray sheet metal. You can show me an official document stating that 95% of these people are not in poverty, but the social worker in me is not buying it.

Of the world’s 50 most densely populated cities, 10 are in the Philippines. Only India (with 18) has more. I cannot explain how 100,000 human beings can inhabit a single square mile in sweltering heat, but it happens not far from here. While our family has the privilege of exchanging American dollars to enjoy an “affordable” shopping spree at one of Manila’s many cavernous air-conditioned mall complexes, we’re among the fortunate ones. As awful as it is to lose a child, my life is pretty stinking easy.

On top of it all, people here in the Philippines smile far more than I do. In fact, they seem to always be smiling. It’s not just in markets or tourist spots where something is being sold. It’s everywhere—in kitchens, schools and churches; on hillsides, basketball courts and jeepneys. They laugh and joke among each other, not merely around foreigners. [I should have recalled this from my days as a missionary kid here, but that’s asking a lot from a teenager more concerned with climbing the high school pecking order.] For better or worse, this is not a stiff, competitive, commercially-driven culture but a relational, sociable and gregarious one.

I wish Vincent could have seen the Philippines. I wish the Philippines could have seen him.

Humans are resilient creatures. Suffering is rampant, but we somehow find ways to keep singing, laughing and dreaming about a better world. We lose our children to cancer and typhoons, yet we adapt and survive. I’m still not ready to admit that I’ve accepted Vincent’s death, but I’m starting to think that tears are not the only way to honor his memory.

Jesus is my mental illness


“It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” –Matthew 9:6

True story. Last night, the instructor for my mental health practice course referenced the fact that people who are diagnosed with a severe mental illness will sometimes wander into churches because “they want to see Jesus.”

Makes sense, I thought. If the sick, afflicted and oppressed were brought before Jesus in the first century, why would they not continue to seek him today? Having worked as a mental health professional in a variety of settings, I have observed such phenomena first hand. Hallucinations and delusions with spiritual content are not uncommon, although the underlying factors are multifarious and complex. In any case, I would hope one could seek an encounter with God without necessarily being deemed psychotic.

Now back to the classroom. After describing a case in which a mental patient claimed to hear God telling him to do this or that, my social work instructor offered the following explanation for why mentally ill persons are often drawn to Jesus, the Bible and places of religious significance. Direct quote: “People are socialized to read the Bible for comfort.

Hold on a second, I wanted to say. Is that really the main reason why people choose to read the Bible? Inherited societal norms? Seriously?

But just like that, the most influential, poetic and bestselling text in all of human literary, archaeological and theological history was reduced to a coping mechanism. Apparently, human beings are not reading the Bible because of any actual comfort, wisdom or good news to be found in its pages. Rather, the Bible merely serves a cultural function akin to double fudge ice cream, video games and Chicken Soup for Soul spinoffs—a childish security blanket the enlightened have now outgrown. According to the skeptics, this explains why the mentally ill look for solace in the escapist fairy tale of God rescuing the world through the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

To be clear, I’m not saying socialization theory is a complete myth either. Despite my instructor’s naïve assumptions regarding the Bible’s multifaceted significance, she is correct in alluding to the myriad of psychological and societal factors impacting human behavior within the social environment. We are each undeniably shaped by our families, life experiences and prevailing cultural norms.

This points to something else about the human race: we are quick to adopt simplistic cause-and-effect formulations whenever something threatens us, be it the scourge of mental disorders or the vast implications of the Bible’s claims. For some, mental illness is too disturbing to be explained by complicated social and environmental factors. It’s much tidier to say that supernatural forces are pulling every string behind the scenes to the point where mental illness and demonic oppression become one and the same. The study of behavioral and psychiatric health is then dismissed as “psychobabble” since we’re more comfortable framing the discussion on a moral level of good and evil while automatically viewing every mental illness as a manifestation of spiritual warfare.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the notions of God, morality and the spiritual realm evoke intense suspicion (especially where Christianity is involved). Belief in a omnipotent Being gets written off as a regressive and unenlightened form of superstition designed to perpetuate discrimination against vulnerable minority groups. In this framework, Scriptural inspiration and devotion to Christ are viewed as socially conditioned coping mechanisms concocted to escape reality or preserve cultural dominance. If my instructor’s assumptions are correct, my Christian faith can be largely attributed to brainwashing by parents who taught me to ingest Bible verses like psychotropic medications. The beauty and richness of the Great Tradition are excluded from the equation.

But what if the mentally ill have it right, desperate for divine rescue, stumbling toward the church hoping to approach the Lord’s Table? What if the ancient texts are indeed the compass pointing to a True North found in the person and work of Christ, the ultimate display of unconditional grace and unmerited acceptance?

And what should be my diagnosis if I, like a vagrant street wanderer, long to see the face of this Jesus and find deep comfort in his words? What if I wish to talk to him aloud or hear his voice in my head? What if I want to touch his cloak or share a drink with him? What if I choose to ground my hope in the Resurrection story and throw my life at his feet? Does this make me mentally sick or spiritually alive?

If following after Christ is a mental illness, then let me be acutely sick. If Jesus is a coping mechanism, may he socialize my soul.

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