Midweek Message (Sept 16-Sept 22)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

Are science and Christianity enemies?

The short answer is “no.” But *scientism* and Christianity don’t get along at all.

What’s the difference between science and scientism? Science is the human endeavour to gain knowledge through observation and testing of hypotheses about the physical world. I’ll come back to science and Christianity in a bit. Let’s talk about *scientism*, which we’ll define as any view that says “the only way we can reliably know anything is through the scientific method.” Or stated differently, scientism is the view that *only* the hard sciences—biology, physics, chemistry, etc.—provide strong, genuine knowledge of reality.

Scientism is surprisingly common—it can be seen in figures like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye, among others. And it’s not just public figures—I think most people just think this way without even realizing it. For example, how many times have you heard someone say something like, “Science gives us facts; religion/philosophy/theology/ethics just give us opinions.” It is in the cultural and intellectual air we breathe.

While there are many problems with scientism, the main one is quite devastating: it’s self defeating. Scientism is actually a philosophical claim—an ideology—masquerading as a scientific one. Scientific inquiry could never support scientism: it is a philosophical position that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It’s self refuting. It’s like saying, “All English sentences are shorter than 5 words.” It doesn’t even meet its own criteria.

Ok, so much for scientism. What about science? Science can be a good gift from God. It is a powerful way to know certain things about the physical world. Christians should support science but reject scientism.

As we study the universe, we work our way back to the “Big Bang”, where the cosmos exploded into existence. Somehow along the way, life came along, with all the complexity of DNA and immune systems and all that. Studying how these things work is good, but modern people have made the mistake of thinking that scientific knowledge is *the only* reliable knowledge. Physicists and geneticists have become the new high priests of reality, giving us access to what we want and need from the world. But science cannot answer any “why” questions, only “how”. And that leads to another problem: Not only is scientism self refuting, but it also leads to a dead end. If there’s nothing more to reality than matter and energy, then reality is impersonal. A cold, impersonal universe of chance has no purpose. In a Godless universe, capricious chaos becomes a looming threat to us. So we give in to nihilism or seek deliverance in distraction. In a purposeless universe, which is all scientism can give us, anxiety becomes our god.

Christianity makes truth claims. (Of course, the Christian faith is much *more* than truth claims, but it’s certainly not less than that.) It makes claims like, “God exists”, “murder is objectively wrong”, “Jesus died and rose again by the power of God”, “you should love your neighbour”, “you have a body and a soul”, “every human being is objectively valuable and should be respected”, “you should worship and obey God”, and more. These claims can be known to be true, but through other ways than science.

But who said science is the *only* way to know truth, anyway?

Midweek Message (Sept 9-Sept 15)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

God has called you to your occupation. Not just me as a pastor, but you, too. God has given each of us a vocation. Your work is just as much a way to obey God as being a pastor. For real.

I’m talking about what is sometimes called the “creation mandate” or the “cultural mandate”. The label isn’t important; the idea is.

Here’s the idea: God created humans in his image; in the image of God, he created them, male and female. Then he called us to a task. Gen. 1:28 reads, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” Similarly in Gen. 2:15 it says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

God made us in his image, and this means that we are to represent God to his creation. He is the king over all creation, and we humans have uniquely been assigned the role of vice-regents—or maybe “junior partner” might be a more helpful term.

So what do we do as God’s “junior partners”? Through meaningful work, we keep order and cultivate thriving. We develop the social world: families, schools, cities, governments, laws, economies, etc. We build cultures and civilizations. We shape the world around us by developing its potential into something new, and in so doing, to display the glory of God the creator.

This is the call from God for the human race. Don’t limit your imagination to literal gardening. This includes teaching and business and making music and architecture and caring for one’s children and driving a Didi and accounting and farming and homemaking and construction and civil service and web design and politics and sculpting and …

This is the mission given by God to all humans, whether they know it or not. It’s built right into our DNA, so to speak; we have the drive deep in our bones to fulfil the creation mandate. In one way or another, we all have the impulse to take the world as it’s given and make it into something else.

At this point I imagine you might be muttering at me, “yeah, nice idealism, pastor. But most days it seems like my job doesn’t matter much or make a difference. More often than not my work feels futile and toilsome, like I’m pushing a rock up a hill just to have it roll back down again. Get real.”

I hear you. Those of us who now live after we lost Eden find that we are working against the grain. It’s toilsome. There are weeds choking out the good fruit of our efforts—weeds like exploitation and futility and scarcity. It can all go very wrong—just look at the tower of Babel in Gen. 11, for example. Some culture-making is obedient, and some is disobedient. Sometimes it reflects God’s shalom—peace and harmony—of the original creation, and sometimes it can become a nightmarish, discordant distortion.

But when it goes more right than wrong, we might notice that we are participating in what God has called humans to do. This is good. This is noble. This is a calling from God: a holy vocation for everyone, not just pastors and people in ministry.

Midweek Message (Sept 2-Sept 8)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

“Sometimes I feel like God is angry with me when I mess up.” I think we’ve all felt this way at some point. We feel like God is really mad when we sin, like our failures make him steam with rage against us.

We know that God takes sin very seriously. So when we feel this way, we shouldn’t say, “Sin is no big deal.” What we should say, “God’s grace is bigger than my sin.”

As Christians, God has shown us grace. Grace is ultimately about God’s attitude towards us: he is *for us*. He is for us not because we are innocent, not because we have earned it, and not because we deserve it. He is for us because of him, not us. He is for us because, even though he is not at all required to do so, he loves us. He just does. His love for us is completely free.

God’s gracious love leads him to act to save us undeserving people. In Jesus we have the fullness of God’s grace. Jesus saves us and gives us his right standing before God, so we are free from the guilt of sin. He also gives us the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.

And so, if we are in Christ, we are free from guilt. We are forgiven; God is not angry with our sin or with us. So we shouldn’t feel like God is mad at us or distant from us.

So what should we do with feelings of guilt when we sin and fail and disobey God? We know we do not stand guilty before God, but what about when we still *feel* guilty? Should we just push those feelings away? Is there any room at all for guilt in the Christian life? Yes, I think there is, but only a certain kind. We do not feel guilty because we think God hates us—in Jesus Christ, we stand in the love of God. But there is a certain type of healthy Christian guilt. Although because we are “in Christ” we are not objectively guilty in our standing before God, we should experience certain feelings of dissonance when we do not act like who we are—in that sense, “guilt.” The struggle against sin is ongoing throughout our lives, and when we sin, we are not *being ourselves*: we are not in congruence with who we actually are in Christ. As the Holy Spirit works in us, when we sin in response we should say, “this is not right, and this is not who I really am. I am in Christ and I am loved by God.”

That’s why regular repentance is important, and why we have a time of confession and a pronouncement of forgiveness every Sunday morning. We each made a fundamental turn when we first came to Christ—we turned away from sin and turned to Christ in saving faith. We reaffirm and re-enact that first repentance over and over as God works in us. In response to God’s grace, in gratitude, we make ongoing repentance part of our lives and our discipleship as we become more like Jesus. But we do this not to earn forgiveness or to make God love us more, but as a free response to what he has done for us.

Midweek Message (Aug 26-Sept 1)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

How do we know God?

It’s a great question. One of the best Christian thinkers of the last 2,000 years starts his most famous book on this topic. John Calvin starts Institutes of the Christian Religion by saying:

“Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”

This is the way of wisdom: knowing God and knowing self. Wisdom is not lifehacks or cultural savvy or the honed ability to read people or anything like that, as helpful as those might be. Real wisdom is a certain knowledge that has two inseparable parts. And since they can’t be separated, we can’t understand one without the other. That’s our human condition, our existential situation.

So although knowledge of God and knowledge of self are inseparable, one has to start somewhere. Calvin says considering our self should turn our thoughts towards God.

Now, this is not to say something like, “look inward, into yourself, and you’ll see that we all have the spark of the divine inside of us.” While that seems more New Age than Christian, it hints at an important truth: we are all made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). But that means that we reflect and display his nature rather than something like “we each have a little piece of God inside us.” This is not about introspection or some Freudian analysis. It’s not about getting in touch with our inner self to discover that God was really just the friends we made along the way, or something like that.

Of course, self-reflection can be helpful. But Calvin’s point is that certain things about ourselves point us to God. We see that we have many gifts that aren’t from ourselves—things like our intellect and our conscience. Even our existence depends on our creator. We also see the many blessings in our lives and trace them back to God, like how someone following a river upstream will eventually get to its source. But then we begin to become displeased with ourselves. We are not self-existing. We fail morally; we sin. We know we should be better, which means that there is someone who is ultimately The Best to whom we are comparing ourselves. We are frequently unhappy and miserable and by implication we know that it is possible to be fully blessed, so we have at least a slice of knowledge of the God who is Fully Blessed. Calvin says, “To this extend we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.”

On the flip side, we can’t really know ourselves unless we know God. “…man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinizing himself.” Real self-knowledge is knowing your condition *in contrast* with God. We don’t see how much we fall short until we look into the face of God, where our pride is melted and our infirmities are laid bare. This is why so often in the Bible, the presence of God causes overwhelming fear and wonder in people.

So experientially, our knowledge of ourselves points us to knowing God. But theologically we know that God is greater than us, and knowing him is the greatest knowledge of all. Knowing ourselves also means knowing God, and knowing God—being in the presence of God—makes us forget about ourselves and turn our gaze entirely on the Lord.

We must know God in order to understand our need for God. We must know ourselves enough to know that we need God. We must know God to know that we are not gods.

And when we really know God, we see that he is loving and gracious towards us, despite our shortcomings and our sin. In other words, God is no more fully known than in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Midweek Message (Aug 19-Aug 25)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

Congregation of the Good Shepherd is a liturgical church, meaning our worship services are in a liturgical mode. The front page of our website ( https://www.cogs-bj.org/ ) says, “We offer liturgical worship each Sunday at 10 a.m.” So what is liturgy and why do we do things that way?

The original meaning of the word “liturgy” is “a public work of the people.” The liturgy is a collection of prayers, scriptures, creeds, and other words used for the public worship of God. It is a holy “work” where all worshipers are expected to participate—it is not a spectator or entertainment event. It is shaped by the Gospel: we confess our sins as part of our ongoing repentance in following Jesus, and we hear words of forgiveness based on the promises of God’s Word. It emphasizes Scripture as we read from the Old and New Testaments, Psalms, Epistles, and Gospels. We are washed in God’s Word as we hear it read and receive it explained in the preaching. In the liturgy we pray words that have been labored over, thoughtfully constructed to bring the very best expressions of our hearts to God. We speak together the great truths of the Christian faith in the form of the creeds, connecting us with the church of the past, present, and future. We sing old and new songs from different time periods and cultures. In the liturgy, we express a range of human emotions: joy and sorrow, praise and lament, fear and assurance.

And there’s more. The liturgy shows our roots. It’s important to be connected with the Christian tradition, and the liturgy is one way to do that. It is centered on God and Christ, not on us. Worship is not primarily about “me” or “us” but about God in Christ reconciling us and the world to Himself. The liturgy helps us stay focused on the Father, Son, and Spirit in our worship.

Also, the liturgy keeps a corporate focus. We each worship God continually with our lives (Rom. 12:1), but on Sundays (and with other worship services) we come to worship God together. Worship is not mainly about “what I get out of it,” it is about God and about our fellow worshipers receiving the gifts of God that bind us together and to encourage each other to love and good works. We confess our sin, we sing and pray, we hear the Scriptures read and explained—and we all do it together.

Worship is formative, not expressive: it’s not about us expressing something that God needs to hear, but about God forming us. The intentionality of a well thought-out liturgy can make us more like Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Midweek Message (Aug 12-Aug 18)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

In my sermon last Sunday, I said, “In the Bible, justice in our relationships, including social relationships, is an act of obedience to God. That is clear from our passage in Isaiah [1:10-20]. It’s grounded in our faith. Justice flows from Jesus.”

In this reflection I’d like to consider two questions related to those statements. First, does this mean that Christians have some sort of “inside track” or monopoly on justice?

In one sense, we obviously do not: non-Christians can seek justice. All are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) and all have a conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). God gives a ‘common grace’ to everyone (Matt. 5:45), and I think this includes the possibility of recognizing, valuing, and working towards justice in all sorts of domains of our shared public life. I’ve marched arm in arm with all sorts of different people to protest injustice. I’ve learned much from people who don’t share my Christian faith who are experts on, poverty, police brutality, and much more.

In another sense, we do have a category that (many) others don’t: sin. We understand that, theologically, things like abuse of the poor, white supremacy, and gender-based violence are not mere social ills and are not just harmful—they are breaking of God’s shalom. They are against our very nature, the way we are created to be. Further, we understand that sin is not just something individuals do and that it has aspects beyond the aggregation of each of our actions and attitudes. In other words, we understand corporate sin and sinful systems. We aren’t always the best at understanding the ‘how’—we need sociologists, psychologists, and the like—but we understand the ‘what’. It is sin. We have a category that enables us to more fully name what is happening.

The second question is, What is unique to the Christian pursuit of justice?

This is a big question, one that I can only begin to answer. But a sketch might look something like this: Christians have a unique hope and a unique love.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is not a statement of historical determinism, although some have taken it as such. If we only have eyes on this world, there’s no guarantee things will improve. There’s no inevitability to it when we consider the human spirit or the workings of politics or the hearts of men and women (if anything, those ought to leave us rather pessimistic). There is no magical force that is pulling us towards some Utopian progress. It is only in view of the gospel of Jesus Christ that King’s oft-repeated line makes sense, and that.

And that means Christians should have confidence when it comes to justice. Not because people are good and justice is without our grasp, but because God is good and justice comes from his hands. Christians have a unique hope.

We also have a unique love (or at least we should). We bring the love of Jesus to justice work. Neighborly love. Indiscriminate love. Love that will not allow us to hate the oppressor, even as we hate the oppression. Love that will not allow for violence. It is a love that we find only in Jesus, and so it is love that will bring justice, as we strive to hear and obey our Lord and savior.

Midweek Message (Aug 5-Aug 11)

Midweek reflection by Pastor Shawn:

We Christians are called by God to carefully speak to the issues of our day from the perspective of the Kingdom of God. Jesus certainly did as much (ex: Matt. 22:15-22). However, I am convinced that public hot takes are generally not wise, and so I tend to avoid writing or preaching reactionary responses to the latest item in the news cycle. However, there are occasions when silence is not an option.

Just hours before our Sunday service in Beijing, a shooter in the Texas town of El Paso shot and killed 22 people and injured dozens more. At that point in time, we at COGS didn’t know much about it, other than it was deadly. We spoke of it in terms of a tragedy. We prayed for the victims and their families, as is right for us Christians to do. Our hearts, once again, were heavy with the news of a mass shooting.

As more details emerged, it has become clear that this wasn’t a tragedy. Hurricanes and heart attacks and the like are tragedies. This was horrific, a horrendous, intentional act of evil motivated by the ideology of white supremacy.

White supremacy is evil. It is a murderous idol. It is completely antithetical to the Christian faith, where, I should emphasize, we worship a dark-skinned Middle Eastern Jew as God. We condemn white supremacy without hesitation or qualification.

Now that I’ve said that, please understand: that doesn’t exculpate us.

We cannot define white supremacy into near non-existence by limiting it to overt racists, KKK members, neo-Nazis, Tiki torchers at Charlottesville, and those who post racist vile in the dark corners of the internet. Those manifestations of white supremacy are the kinds that are unambiguous, that have given up on polite company, and that have stopped caring about plausible deniability. No, white supremacy is much bigger and runs much deeper than all that.

Most of us at COGS come from countries marked by white supremacy, both in historical heritage and current culture. We have all been racialized by some form of it (different countries have different manifestations of it—the white supremacy of the USA is different than that of South Africa and India, of course—but it is truly a global phenomenon). It’s in the air we breathe, so to speak, and we don’t even notice it most of the time. We’re adventurous, open-minded expats, and so we might come to think that we’re above it. But we all carry it, in different ways.

Here’s one example: I just called us expats. But in many contexts, “expat” is a term for white people who move overseas. Black and brown people tend to be called immigrants, regardless of education level or socioeconomic status. Why am I usually called an expat and my friend Matthew, a highly-trained and educated computer programmer who moved from India to the USA for work reasons, called an immigrant?

We all have been shaped by white supremacy. We all carry it, often unconsciously. And this is true even for people of color (who are, of course, affected by it in complex ways different from the way it affects us white folks). We are not immune. It is in our institutions, our culture, our communities, and buried in our minds and hearts.

The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to respond to the sin of white supremacy with condemnation. But because of nature of white supremacy, it also calls us to respond with reflection, self-examination, and repentance. I have found that it has subtly formed me and taken residence in me and it takes intentional effort to weed it out. And I know I’m not alone in that. As part of our Christian discipleship—being made more like Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit—we must take this seriously. White supremacy is not just in horrific, evil acts of violence. It’s in you and me, too.

Midweek Message (July 29-Aug 4)

Midweek message by pastor Shawn:

My family and I took a trip to see family and friends in the USA recently, and last Saturday was my ordination service for pastoral ministry. While most of the process was completed before I started as pastor at COGS, it just worked out that the service—which is the final step—was scheduled for when I was back in the States. It was a very happy, encouraging, and affirming day for me, and I am very grateful for everyone who participated in it.

One typical element of an ordination service is a charge to the newly ordained, and a dear friend delivered mine. I’d like to share with you part of what she said on that day:

May hope and humility define all you are and do.

May you speak words of wholeness mending fragmentation, words of healing rather than hurt, words of life over death.

May you find connection in a world bent on separation.

May you find the courage to continue the prophetic cry for justice when others would prefer you be silent.

May you laugh more than you cry.

May you live your theological convictions louder than you speak them.

May you be blessed with friends and family who don’t care what degrees you have or what you know but love you with all your competitiveness, justice mindedness, and adventurous spirit.

May others be drawn to Christ more than they are drawn to you.

These challenging and encouraging words have stuck with me. As I’ve prayed and reflected on them, it has occurred to me that I should also adopt these as prayers for all of us at COGS. May all this be true of all of us, more and more each day!

Midweek Message (July 8-July 14)

World leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells a story about being a College Chaplain in Oxford. It, in a nutshell, reveals the problem that we seem to all think we mean the same thing with the word “God”.

He writes:

“It is important to begin by clarifying the question. When people ask ‘Was Jesus God?’ they usually think they know what the word ‘God’ means, and are asking whether we can fit Jesus into that. I regard this as deeply misleading. I can perhaps make my point clear by a personal illustration.

For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, ‘You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.’

I developed stock response: ‘Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?’ This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word ‘God’ as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally ‘intervening’ to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of ‘spy-in-the-sky’ theology: ‘Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.’

At this point the undergraduate would look startled. Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. ’No,’ I would say; ‘I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.’ What most people mean by ‘god’ in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning.”

-N.T. Wright, Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42–56

Midweek Message (July 1-July 7)

Midweek reflection by pastor Shawn:

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we all struggle with idols, myself included.  Idols are tricky things, so easily catching the eyes of our hearts.  I saw a line in passing (I don’t quite remember where, even) that has been ruminating in my heart this week:

“Your idols don’t love you.”

This is not about boy bands or rockstars.  (Although, it is true that John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Justin, JC, Chris, Joey, and Lance, Beyonce, Jimi, Britney, and all the rest don’t really love you.  I mean, they don’t even know you.)  When I say, “idol”, don’t think of pop culture icons.  Think of statues with dead, lifeless eyes.

Ancient idolatry was forthright enough to say it plainly: here is a physical embodiment of the god you seek to meet your needs.  When you were uncertain about how you’ll eat in the future, or even today, you could go sort it out with the god responsible for growing crops, Ba'al.  If you could make him happy with you and get him on your side, he’d (probably?) help you out.  Or when you felt insecure about the large army threatening to attack your nation, you could turn to Anat, a violent war-goddess.  Placating her could be the difference between victory and defeat.  And so on… for all your needs, you could turn to an idol.

Modern idolatry is much more subtle but no less insidious.  We all worship something; no one doesn’t worship.  We all have a tendency to turn to idols instead of to the Lord with our needs.  One modern idol is control—we feel uncertain, so we try to control our career, our family, our environment, and our bodies.  Another is approval—we feel rejected and insecure, so we seek approval with complements, with social media “likes”, and with group identities.  Another is comfort—we fear stress and demands, so we seek distraction, convenience, and pleasure.

Just like the ancients, we moderns worship our dead-eyed idols in an attempt to get our deepest needs met.  But here’s the thing: your idols don’t love you.  You might love it, but it doesn’t love you back.  Idols don’t care about you and they don’t keep promises.  They don’t think about your well-being, they only think about what they might get out of you.  When you worship them and build your life around them, they suck the life out of you and destroy you.

In his ministry, Jesus had a way of calling out people’s idols (ex: Matt. 6:24).  Jesus, over and over again, calls us to turn away from worshiping not-god (idols) towards worshiping and following him.  Why? 

Because your idols don’t love you, but God does.  God is genuinely concerned for your well-being.  He loves you so deeply he would give himself, his only Son, for you.  He wants what’s best for you.  He will take care of all of your deepest needs.  Seriously. 

Idol-worship de-humanizes us.  We become what we worship, and worshiping idols make us like them.  As the Scripture says about idols, “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:5-8)

Worshiping Jesus secures our humanity.  We become like him, the one who was truly and perfectly human.  We worship and trust our Father, like he did (see Matt. chs. 5-7).

I know I can’t do this alone.  So as a church community, how can we encourage each other to clean out our idols?