End of the School Year

Tomorrow is everyone’s last day of school. Sam went back with me on a quick trip to the US and had a truly great time. When he returned, we were fully into graduation mode.


Sam with his violin teacher, pre-recital

Sam did his first violin recital, playing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” He’s coming along. I can be a bit down on the Taiwanese education system (recently I met a parent who claimed they were working with their first grader five hours a night after she’d scored in the 80s on a test). At the same time, I’m really grateful for the focus on the arts, the high respect given to teachers, and the emphasis on practice and self-improvement. At school they do a wide range of instruments, beginning with harmonica and violin, but in later grades doing guitar. Students often elect to do ukulele or piano. Sam had done group class for violin but wasn’t improving so this semester we started him on one-on-one classes. He seems to like it. Right now it’s a father-son project (I’d never played before, but brought back a full-size violin on this last trip).

The twins also were part of various dance performances with their class. Eva had a truly great time, but Eli balked. It’s hard with Eli to parse out what is just personality (introversion) and what is cultural or behavioral. He can be talked into a lot of things, but it’s an imprecise art. When do you force a reluctant performer to perform?

This coming week we’re doing a church camp at our local Presbyterian church, Anhe.

Wednesday, our seminary grads draw for 傳道, to see where they’ll serve their first pastorates.

Emily is finishing up a variety of small projects.

It is looking to be a good summer. We were afraid we’d have to move on short notice, but things seem to have worked out and we can at least stay in our current house through next spring. Always a lot of moving pieces in our family….

Summer Plans

We’re approaching the end of the semester here. Classes for me ended/end this week. This means that we are in the midst of a mix of logistical questions (I renewed my passport a few weeks back, the twins’ passports are up for renewal, taxes were last month, and visa renewals come in a few weeks) and also summer planning. Oh, and grading and syllabi due for next semester…

I’m taking Sam with me to Wheaton, Illinois, where my aunt and uncle live and where there’s a conference in mid-June. Then, Emily’s parents will take him to Cincinnati for the week. Airplane tickets are a little cheaper and this way we can visit everyone.

The conference is the American Society of Missiology. It’s an interesting, ecclectic group. I used to attend the East Coast meetings, which were held at the Maryknoll retreat center in New York, and pulled participants from Boston, Gordon-Conwell, Yale, Princeton, Union Presbyterian, and other East Coast schools. At the annual meeting (usually in the Midwest) there tends to be more TEDS, Wheaton, Chicago schools, and so on. I like ASM because they rotate leadership through Catholic, conciliar Protestant and evangelical leadership. The annual meeting is nice because I get to see other Presbyterians and also classmates and friends. This time back I’m also to visit the local Presbytery meeting.

For kids, we plan to have all three off school in July and Sam will be off in August. In July, we’ve scheduled for church camps for Sam: the local VBS at Anhe Presbyterian Church, another VBS at nearby Dongmen church, a Taiwanese camp at Suanglian Presbyterian Church, and then for the first time we’re going to the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship retreat in Taizhong. The twins are too small for two of these camps, but we’re hoping to do a lot of zoo, pool, and museum trips. We just took the training wheels off Sam’s bike, so that’s on the agenda this summer. This is set to be our quietest summer for many years past (and probably to come), so we’re trying to really enjoy it.

Three Seminaries’ Gathering

11301353_996084310402237_1413642860_nThe Presbyterian Church of Taiwan has three seminaries: Taiwan Theological Seminary (in Taipei), Tainan Theological Seminary, and Yushan Theological Seminary (in Hualian). They often go by Taishen 台神,Nanshen 南神,and Yushen 玉神.

The seminaries are roughly similar in size and mission, but because they compete for students and resources, and serve different regions, they also work hard to distinguish their identities. The seminaries do really have different constituencies and spirits. Taipei probably really is a bit more metropolitan, more Mandarin speaking, and more academic. Tainan tends to be more “heartland,” more Taiwanese speaking, and more rural focused. Yushan serves more than dozen different aboriginal groups and sits on the East Coast. The reality, however, is that (in my opinion) this tends to be the exaggeration of small differences. Pretty much every teacher from Taishen speaks fluent Taiwanese and only a couple are from Tainan. Tainan has great academics, a wonderful international reputation, and some creative programs. Yushan’s pastors are as good (better?) than those produced at the other schools and its teachers probably do more original work than those anywhere else.

Today the three seminaries’ teachers came together to talk about ways to cooperate. Suanglian Presbyterian Church in Taipei provided support for the gathering and two elders from the church attended. For me it was a chance to connect to people I hadn’t seen in a while. I saw a former PTS classmate, Namoh Issing, who teaches in a similar field in Yushan. There were only four foreigners in the gathering. Besides me it was Chris Dippenaar, Ted Siverns, David Alexander, and a new professor, Bettina Opitz-Chen. The other foreigners are all at Tainan, although it was not always so.

In the morning, we had introductions to the three seminaries by their deans or presidents. In late morning we split into three groups: Bible, history/theology, and practical/mission. In the afternoon we reported back on these groups.

There were several key issues in discussion:

  1. Accreditation. Taishen has cleared its penultimate loop for government accreditation. All of the seminaries are seeking accreditation but it has been slow going (only the Baptist Seminary and the Catholic Seminary have succeeded). Initially there were high hopes for government funds and supports, but the concensus seems to be that accreditation is necessary but will not carry immediate benefits.
  2. Academic questions (plagiarism). One of the topics was academic performance. There is often the feeling here that three years of seminary is not enough for students, especially since the church work is so heavy and since students rarely come out of writing-intensive fields. I’ve struggled with what standard to apply to students, so this was helpful.
  3. Curriculum (church and society or social work; music). I was in the “prectical theology and mission” group which consisted mostly of the church musicians bemoaning their low status and need for respect in the church. I actually really do sympathize because church music is almost always unpaid here and hard to do as a career.
  4. Theology, ethics, etc. A background question is often how to relate to theological questions and problems. One of the elders shared that he often hears that the new pastors are not as effective as prior generations, even though the academics have become stronger. I suspect that part of what is happening in Taiwanese theological education is similar to the US, where ministry candidates’ immediate contexts are more and more divorced from the places and people they serve (instead of 30 year olds going to serve 4o year olds, it’s now 25 year olds serving 65 year olds).
  5. Relationship to General Assembly. There’s always an expressed hope that perhaps GA will better fund, equip, provide for the Seminaries. The schools are often turned away on the grounds that GA does not want to show partiality. What should/can GA do for the Seminaries.

All in all it was a good day. It was a bit of a trek to get to Tainan and back, but I enjoyed learning more about the other schools. I met the second reader for a student I advised this semester, and also connected to a friend, David Shinn, who is resident at Tainan this semester.

Lacrosse / Wooster

11072593_10153865383952678_2168308057147800547_nI went to a small college in the midwest, the College of Wooster. It has a Presbyterian background and graduates an outsized number of PCUSA pastors. I’m hoping to catch up with fellow interns from Westminster Presbyterian Church in a couple of weeks. There were six or seven of us that interned during these years, and almost all are now ordained. One’s a presbytery exec, one ran the main GLBT advocacy group for our church in NYC, one just finished a PhD in systematics and took a call in Illinois, another is an episcopal priest and author, yet another is part of a clergy couple team and is fifteen years into ministry, and the last works for another non-profit in the Chicago area. Curiously, every single one of these classmates is a first-born daughter (there are several other men from my class in ministry, but they tilted towards different activities in college). I got to be the little brother of the group and was always kind of amazed by the gifts within this network (writing, singing, preaching, speaking, organizing). We profited from several great campus ministers and local clergy. In general, it was a good college for me because it emphasized individual research (all students write junior and senior theses) and there was plenty of space to try things out. It was/is a school that rewards creativity and individual interest, and encourages internal motivation.

Another influence on me in college years was the start of a Chinese program. I did a summer of Chinese at the University of Michigan through a fellowship program to encourage people from the US to study less commonly taught langauges. When I came back, Wooster had just started offering Chinese, and then I went onto a year in Beijing. My advisor was David Gedalecia, who had studied the Yuan dynasty Cheng brothers and also advised several theses in my year. One of my roommates (also a Gedalecia advisee) went to law school but then passed the foreign service exam and was even here in Taiwan for some time.

This is all backdrop to say that in Taiwan, there’s a small group of Wooster alum: a pair of English teachers, a guy who has worked in mining in Asia for the last thirty years, and a string of visitors. Sue Min (who ran a Chinese restaurant and Wooster and is a member of Westminster) comes through regularly. This last weekend there was a lacrosse scrimmage at NTNU that included a mix of locals and foreigners. I didn’t play, but was able to talk for a while with one of the more recent graduates. She talked Sam into picking up a lacrosse stick and learning some basic skills. She had Gedalecia as an advisor, as did the older alum who’d visited. I’m also in touch with the three others in history in my year who had the same advisor.

I know alumni relationships can be unhealthy. In Taiwan, in many schools alumni get preferential treatment (the entire senior theology leadership at my school are alumni of Taiwan Seminary). At the same time, it’s really nice to connect to people who experienced the same place and had some of the same experiences, although in different eras. I try not to be overly rosy about my college years, but I’m grateful for the ways that college developed a calling towards ministry, teaching, and the cross-cultural life.


Student Gathering with Fu-Jen Seminary


Our Seminary has an annual student gathering with Fu-Jen Seminary‘s students and teachers. The two seminaries alternate hosting it, and yesterday it was at Taiwan Seminary. I learned that this gathering has been going on since something like 1967. Students broken into twelve groups and faculty had a two hour discussion period. There were two periods of worship, one praise music and the other Taize style.

There were around ten of us at the faculty gathering and it was a nice chance to get to know each other. I met an American Jesuit who had studied at GTU. Emily had been a Jesuit volunteer and we have a number of ecumenical connections. Our twins attend Xinguang Catholic Preschool, which is attached to a church. The fathers yesterday new it, as it’s one of the oldest preschools in Taipei and still has a resident priest and nun. I told them that when Eli’s having a tough day, the nun often takes him to look at the garden on the roof.

I’m grateful for the ecumenical connection. Fu-Jen has the critical mass to really get more specialization and it’s also attached to a university with a strong religions department, so it’s a great place to learn.


Jesus from the Islamic Perspective


Today on campus via an invitation from the PCT General Assembly office is a guest lecturer, Zeki Saritoprak, who is speaking on Jesus in Islam. The lecturer is Professor in Islamic Studies at John Carroll University. Our senior historian, Cheng Yang-en, is translating. It is a nice overview of how Jesus has been portrayed in the Koran, in Islam, and in modern interpretation. Saritoprak has published a book on this recently, Islam’s Jesus

Students at our seminary used to do a full semester of world religions and a full semester of Taiwanese religions, but now they take just one semester of Taiwanese religions, and can select an alternate course in its stead. It’s nice to have visitors who can fill in this gap. My experience is most students here really only know their own tradition (and sometimes another family tradition), but know almost nothing about Islam, Buddhism, etc. Many have never met a Muslim or talked extensively with someone from any other tradition.

In the spiel I do on Jonah I also talk about Jonah’s use in other traditions (the book is read on Yom Kippur and there’s a “Fast of Jonah” in the eastern Church). The Qur’an also includes several sections that treat Jonah (Jonah is the only minor prophet named in the Qur’an). These types of topics are also interesting to me–how does a figure like Jonah (or Jesus) appear in different traditions, and how is he interpreted today?

Presbyterian Church of Taiwan 150th Anniversary

pct 150A few weeks ago the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan celebrated its 150th anniversary on Easter Sunday. (The kick off was several months back.) The Easter celebration was actually just one piece in a yearlong sequence of celebrations, but this was the main event. (There’s another major event later in the year in the south.) On Easter, some fifteen thousand people gathered in Linkou for a three-hour worship service. During the rest of the week we’ve had a variety of events and anniversaries.

That week, there were actually four things happening together: (1) Easter, (2) the 150th, (3) Clear and Bright Festival and Children’s Day (two national holidays), and the annual General Assembly. This also coincided for us with Emily’s quick return to the US for her defense, so it was probably also the busiest week of the year (see also: taxes due, midterms, a visit with a church youth group, some writing deadlines).

PCT at 150

These events have been a blessing to the church, even as they are a time for reflection for the life of the church. The long worship service on Sunday had amazing music and meaningful reflection, but there has also been some after-the-fact discussion of the Church’s identity, including things like language (this GA has been more “Taiwanese” than most recent ones), ethnicity (to what degree should minorities accommodate majority preferences?), and representation (PCT has a one-third rule for women on committees but in practice it isn’t always followed). Response to the 150th has been 99% positive, but I’m also grateful for the discussions about the future of PCT. I’m also sometimes nostalgic for “committees on representation.” Several times this week I heard people say “it should be X because that’s what the majority of people speak/do/like.”

The 150th has also marked off several areas for growth, study, or development. The best publicized has been the One-Leads-One campaign, but there’s also been the creation of a new historical center, and a host of other projects. My hope is that the PCT can be both backwards looking (in the best sense) and also forward looking. Periods like this offer intense opportunities for review/planning.

The Missionary Tradition

For me, one blessing of the week has been the chance to get to see a range of current and former mission workers. The PCUSA contingent this time was:

Dr. Ed Senner is the mission worker with the longest tenure for Taiwan, having arrived in 1960 and served for more than three decades. One visitor was married in the Taiwan Seminary chapel. Both Faith Bradley and Anne Broom had multiple terms of service and could give some snapshots of mission work over the year. I hadn’t realized that Dr. Senner had done around nine months of archiving over a several year spread, so it was nice to meet him in person and hopefully I’ll be able to locate and use some of his records.

Guests and Visitors

A coup was to have the Board of Pensions (BoP) president, Frank Spencer, here. A BoP Board Member, Mark Lu, helped facilitate the visit and has been a source of information sharing on finances between the churches. I enjoyed talking with Frank and his wife, Melanie, who also has extensive experience in the medical world. I was able to spend a half-day with them and enjoyed sharing what Taiwan is like with them. Both of my parents, Emily and I all are in the BoP plan, so obviously we have some interest in its overall health. I think PCUSA’s pension plan is generally recognized as perhaps the best established and most sustainable in the ecumenical Protestant world (BoP’s tricentennial is coming up in a few years). In Taiwan, my sense is that attitudes towards saving, retirement, and work culture are different. This time we didn’t have any formal discussions, but my hope is that we might increase the flow of information between the churches.

Another blessing for me this time was to get to know David Shinn better. David’s a member of the General Assembly Mission Agency’s executive committee. He came to Taiwan in October as part of the bilateral conversation between PCUSA and PCT. This time I learned that when David went to the US in the 1980s he’d been invited to the church where my parents were pastors and remembers the time fondly. When I was in elementary school and he was in junior high, we were probably at times in the same Sunday School class.  I also saw Shun-Chi Wang, who’d visited us several times before and has brought PCUSA delegations through. It was a nice opportunity to connect to others.  Finally, we saw Stuart Vogel, a pastor-scholar from New Zealand who writes in some of the same areas I do. It was a really great time.

Going Forward

PCUSA’s moderator is to come to Taiwan for the October gathering, so we really feel grateful this year to have the chance to connect to people from “back home.” Our first years in Taiwan we felt a little on our own (some people from Outreach Foundation came through, and so did Shun-Chi, but otherwise we were a bit off the map). Between the gathering last fall and the visits for the 150th we’re feeling more in the middle of things. We’re also thankful to be downtown now, so that we can host events and visitors much more easily. It will be nice to attend the October gathering and meet more people there.

Oral History

I am interested in doing an oral history project with former mission workers from PCUSA or its predecessor bodies in Taiwan. This is a small project–not a single interview has been conducted yet–and I don’t know if it will come off. Still, it’s been really interesting. I’m in contact now with several of the missionaries who have been retired for a longer period of time. Today I was searching for info on the Gelzers and came across an AP article about their expulsion from Taiwan in 1984 for favoring Taiwanese independence. The article was written as the PCT General Secretary, KAO Chung Ming was in prison. The Gelzers taught at my Seminary for eight years. I thought I’d seen their names in old course catalogues, so it was fun to track down a piece of the puzzle.

I figure that there are have been about ninety mission workers in Taiwan with PCUSA or related denominations since the post-War period. Around twenty of these still are alive today. These include the Lims (now serving in Korea), the Kennedys, the Longs, the Dudleys, Robert Montgomery, David Gelzer, Faith Bradley, Ann Broom, John McCall and us. Some are pastoring in the US and some have been retired for decades. It’s not a group I know well but I’m grateful for their time here and for their service.

Christianity and Other Religions Site Visits: Xingtian Temple and the Shihlin LDS Church

For my religions class this semester, I have a smaller group so I’m trying to do more off-campus trips. Our first two trips were to a downtown temple and to the local LDS church.

Xingtian Temple

Two weeks ago we went to Xingtian Temple 行天宮. It was a pretty interesting trip. Xingtian Temple has five main gods. It’s a newer temple, around fifty years old, and there are two branch temples. I selected it because it is known as one of or the most popular temples in Taiwan and is associated with business success. There are electronic kiosks where you can get information, and on visits there are often a wide range of practices (people are seen consulting divination blocks or fortune sticks, praying with beads, there’s a side auditorium for preaching and teaching, and many people are just worshipping 拜拜 throughout the temple).

There are a range of workers in a side room who can help provide the meaning of divination attempts (where people may ask about a life problem or concern), and who also help visitors and assist with problems. It’s a more lay-focused, accessible temple. The helpers are 執事 which is the word Presbyterians use for deacon. People worship in two directions, which I hadn’t normally seen. There’s also a busy, separate underground divination alley, where diviners can study your hands, face, or birthdate to ascertain the future. I use this as a good place to talk about folk religion 民間信仰and students seemed to have a lot to discuss after the trip. Xingtian Temple has its own website, so I was able to print off an overview of the temple and a Q&A section.

Christians here are sometimes apprehensive about visiting temples but this group has seemed pretty open to these trips. One of the things that surprised me in my group is that two of four students had seen ghosts of some sort. I’m a fairly secular, westernized Presbyterian but try to be respectful of those who’ve had these experiences.

Shihlin LDS

Yesterday, we visited the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The original plan had been to do a walking tour of nearby religious sites, especially new religious movements. Because of rain, we just drove to the LDS church. They have distinct Shihlin and Tianmu congregations that meets about a ten minute drive from our Seminary at their local church. A characteristic of LDS is that they often offer English classes. In this case I’d seen the number for their English class on their gate when I was walking home, called it up and talked to Elder Hughes. He and Elder Rasmussen spoke to my small group of students yesterday and I was grateful for their very honest, straightforward sharing. One of the nice things about working with missionary religions is that the people who believe in their message so strongly are willing to share their faith.

In this case, one of the elders had picked out a nineteenth century hymn written by a Presbyterian in their hymnbook and asked us to sing it (one of our students played the piano for them—the rest of us were not very musically gifted but it was a nice icebreaker). Most of the event was an extended period of sharing by the two LDS missionaries (both Americans). They talked about church structure, membership, practices, beliefs, scriptures, and other topics and answered a lot of questions. They prayed for us and at the end I was asked to pray for us all. At one point they shared from scripture and we took turns reading (their Chinese is really good, so I’m glad I got my verse right). It was a pretty interesting event.

Next week I’ll debrief some with the students and we’ll talk about theological questions: scripture and translation, our understanding of revelation, our reading of Christian tradition, and different offices and practices in the church. (PCUSA has a guide that discusses the history of our relationship to LDS and key similarities and differences.) We’ll also talk some about new religious movements, how they grow and change over time, and why people are attracted to them. For this visit, students were very impressed by the intensity of faith and some of the core LDS practices (fasting, tithing, missionary service). It was a really interesting trip. One of the LDS missionaries had attended a Congregational-Presbyterian church in the past and the other is going to college in a place I know well.

On trips like this one of the things I often discover is that my students have a backstory I don’t know. The last time I taught the class, two of the women told me near the end that they were married to non-Christians, which is more common in the US but rare here. For Taiwanese considering church ministry, this can be a problem. This time one of the students told us that for a period in his youth he’d been LDS. He was baptized at the church of a cousin and attended for a few years. This was all fifteen years ago. In the past I’ve had students who’d come out of Yiguandao or worshipped in a range of different religious traditions. Around a quarter of the students at my seminary are first generation Christians. I think in the past my classes were two textbook-driven, so field trips are an improvement. They even seem to be a fairly substantial improvement over guest speakers or media. I’m hoping that these visits will improve over time and I’ll find ways to do more guided tours for students.

Spring 2015 Semester

We are now three weeks into the new semester. This is the first time since 2010 that I don’t have a Friday morning 8 am class and also my first semester with no required course. I have three small courses I’m running: a Doctor of Ministry course on Jonah and mission, a small class on “Christianity and its Relationship to Other Religions” (sort of a mix of theology of religions and anthropology of religions), and a four-session class for a visiting group.

I am also trying to start a small oral history project. This is the 150th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan and the annual General Assembly is in less than a month. There are about 20 living fomer PCUSA mission workers and I’m hoping to interview a number of them by skype or over the phone and then to give copies to several archives in Taiwan and the US. Looking at the names, I realized that they’ve worked in four or five languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, Bunun and perhaps other aboriginal languages) and done all manner of work (teaching, administrative, evangelistic, translation). It shouldn’t take a lot of my time, but clearly this is the year to do it (or not).

I’m also trying to stay connected to church work. I’m doing a four session study for local youth at a small, nearby church (“youth ministry” is understood expansively here, basically junior high through grad school). It’s only five minutes away and one of my students is doing field education there, so it seemed like a good time to make the connection. I’m also hoping to do a small adult ed series for Suanglian’s English Ministry. They only currently have a nursery in English, so we’re going to try to do a small “kids’ club” at the same time.

For writing, I have two small projects this semester, one for a conference where I’ll look at the “missional” language that is more popular, and then a small article on the Chinese church leader Zhao Zichen for a former classmate. I have a new chapter out in this book on Liang Fa. I didn’t see proofs, so I hope the final project is good.