Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Honoring of Ancestors

Here's an instance of the first worship idea in the "Examples" section of the book, "Honoring our Ancestors" (p. 195). This took place at the Confluence Korean Music & Worship conference at Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, Georgia) in July 2012. Pastor and artist Timothy Chon of Michigan created the setting.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Art of Limitations

Before he said, "We will sell no wine before its time," Orson Welles (creator of some of the most acclaimed stage, radio, and movie productions of all time) said this:
quotes by Orson Welles

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” 

(quoted in The Movie Business by 
Jason E. Squire, 3rd ed., New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, p. 54)

This is a word especially for those of us in free worship traditions. We think our freedom from prescribed liturgies and service books as a boon to creativity. But in practice that freedom--that absence of limitations--is very often a creativity-killer.

You can't actually do anything without limitations. So what happens is that we end up employing unhelpful limitations, especially the limitations of "What's the latest thing?" or "What are other people doing?" or, "How did they do it in that YouTube video?" or, "What's the latest tech feature we can use?" or, in fact, "How have we usually done it?"

It's much better to consciously choose and accept your limitations and make a good use of them. So, for instance, if you plan your worship themes using a liturgical calendar (getting beyond Christmas and Easter, to include Advent, Epiphany, Pentecost, and so forth) you will probably be much more creative within those thematic limitations than if you are mostly just trying to come up with themes and series from scratch all the time.

Likewise, there is probably more creative potential in working within the limitations of consciously engaged cultures than in treating cultures as merely optional features. There are neither main dishes nor side dishes apart from cultures.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Why switch from Buddhism?"

About my book, I was asked, "Why should Asian Americans bother with Christianity when they have a perfectly beautiful religion in Buddhism?" Part of my reply was, 

"No question that the combo of colonialism + Christianity in Asia got toxic esp. in the 19th century. But there was good too, e.g., Christianity helped end footbinding, which Buddhism (which itself came as a foreign religion to China, from India) had long tolerated. Meanwhile, Jesus' culture was actually rather more Asian (e.g., emphasis on tradition, family, shame/honor, paradox) than western. I suppose one of the main points of the book is to help Asian American Christians see their faith through their own bicultural eyes."

That Buddhism originally came to East Asia and Southeast Asia very much as a missionary religion is generally neglected. Likewise neglected is the very long history of Christianity in places like China, where it can be documented to at least as far back as the seventh century (e.g., via the Nestorian monk Alopen, as described in the Nestorian Stele).

I am all for the western emphasis on freedom of conscience in religion: that each individual and family should have the freedom to weigh and choose its own religious commitments. To say that "People X should be religion Y" is itself more or less a colonial attitude.

But is this not clearly one more example of the need for cultural contextualization--why did my questioner assume that Christian = western in the first place? Well, if Asian North American Christians simply assimilate into western/majority-culture worship forms, who can blame him?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Worship Stations @ the Asian American Equipping Seminar III

For the closing chapel service at the ISAAC - Fuller Seminary Asian American Equipping Seminar III (March 20, 2012, in Pasadena, California) we used Travis Auditorium to set out three worship stations:

1. "Release," by Olga Lah (click to see the very excellent narrative by S. Edward Yang). This was a full-scale art installation, which served as the visual focus of the worship space.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Waterwind Papercuts

Waterwind Conference, March 22, 2003, American Baptist Seminary of the West, Berkeley, California

Papercutting works and workshop by the superbly gifted Alice Helen Masek. She approaches papercutting as both a liturgical art and a spiritual practice.

The "Water of Life" tryptich was a fully stunning backdrop in the chapel, which was our main gathering space.
The materials are simple: backdrop paper, X-Acto knives, some colored cellophane, tape, and fishing line. The biggest challenge seems to be in the design, deciding what is light and what is shadow, what is outline and what is fill.

Alice suggests cutting more than one copy at a time if a piece will be on extended display. It's fairly trivial to cut multiple sheets at the same time, layered on each other.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Teaching the Cambodian genocide to a new generation"

Click here for an excellent KPCC (Public Radio for Southern California) story on younger Cambodian Americans learning about their parent's and grandparent's experiences in the Killing Fields and now in Long Beach, California. Features Prach Ly, one of the first Khmer rappers. Audio, video, and transcript.

So, what would it take for the church to be a place to bring such memories, to honor them, to meet Jesus in them, and to find healing?


89.3 KPCC | Southern California Public Radio

Elizabeth Chhom - "Grey to Knew"

Elizabeth Chhom performing her song, “Grey to Knew,” about her mother's wartime suffering and despair in Cambodia, and turn to Christian faith:

Shared at the annual meeting of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada,
meeting at First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, July 2008. Note the Khmer fabric decorating the lectern.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Black-Asian Worship Banner

Custom worshp banner created for our 2004 "Crossings" Black-Asian worship conference at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, supported by a worship renewal grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship; designed by Marie Pueblos Onwubuariri and made by Wally Bryen. The combination of Kente cloth and a Chinese brocade felt risky, both symbolically (e.g., did we really know what each pattern "meant"?) and artistically. But we decided to take the risk. It turned out magnificently.

Here's the banner in place at the front of the chapel we used. Jae Choung is performing his song, "Do you see us, O God?" (from the 2003 "Waterwind" conference). Seated behind him are James Abbington, Aeri Lee, and James Choung. Note the green African fabric covering the lectern in the foreground.

We came up with the original ideas when we put together this promotional postcard for the event:

In general, visual expressions of identity and culture seem to be an especially useful entree into cultural contextualization. They communicate a lot, quickly; they communicate throughout the worship event (unlike things that are said or sung, and thus come and go); and they are relatively easy to create and install.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Invisible Colors

Freeway underpass in Oakland, California : Interstate 580 x Park Blvd.

One of several in the series, "Words by Roads" (1992) by Iranian-born Sayed Alavi, 
working with Oakland high school students.

This is right down the street from my (Russell Yee's) house!

It's a critique of aspirational honorary whiteness generally. Might it apply to many of our worship settings? 

Majority-culture worship belongs to minority-culture worshipers as much as to anyone. But if we mostly aspire to just majority-culture worship, then our worship is left with invisible colors.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Lord's Table at the 2010 Southeast Asian Leadership Summit III, San Jose, California
Russell Yee and Linda Hawes partaking
Note especially the cross, "Jesus, the rice of life."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Do You See Us, O God?

Do You See Us, O God?
Jae Chung at Waterwind 2003
Written and performed by Jae Chung

(c) 2002 Jae Chung
Permission granted for non-commercial use only.
Please do not republish in any form.

From the opening of the
Waterwind Asian American Worship Conference 
(Frederic I. Drexler Lectureship)
American Baptist Seminary of the West, Berkeley, California 
March 22, 2003

Do you see us, O God
Am /G F
Do you hear when we softly sigh
Do you know, we often cry
Come now and touch, O God
Am /G F
Creating in us a brand new song
Helping us to get along

We know that there's no easy answer sometimes
F G C C7
The pain is so much greater than what we can bear alone
F G Am
O Christ our Savior, came to suffer, loving to the cross
Gave us the hope to carry on

(c) 2002 Jae Chung
Permission granted for non-commercial use only.
Please do not republish in any form.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

James Choung's "Ethnicity Matters"

Here it is: instead of reading Worship on the Way you can just watch this video! (In chapter 6, "Explorations,"  I talk about some of the ideas James shared at the 2004 "Crossings" Black-Asian worship conference in Berkeley.) James is the big cheese with Asian American things at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Check out his site at www.jameschoung.com

Ethnicity Matters from InterVarsity twentyonehundred on Vimeo.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Grapeiness Strikes Again

Sri Lanka, 2008: Fanta Portello

This is what we used for a Communion service at a Christian retreat site outside of Colombo. Scripture certainly gives us the freedom to serve artificially flavored western grape soda at the Lord's Table, but should it be the beverage of choice in a place like Sri Lanka? In parts of the world where there is no history or practice of grape cultivation, should Christian worship depend on access to imported or foreign-licensed foodstuffs? Given the multitude of wholesome staple beverages around the world (Sri Lanka has been renowned for centuries for its teas) why do we get so stuck on grapiness?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Moment (SEALS 2008)

A beautiful moment of generational reconciliation at the South East Asian Leadership Summit (SEALS), March 2008, Open Door Presbyterian Church, Hearndon, Virginia

As described in Chapter 6, I attribute the possibility of this moment in part to the attention we gave to culturally contextualized worship, such that these first-generation pastors could see that second-generation leaders were not forgetting who they were.

Elder Chiv Taing, translated by Pastor Amra Phou
On behalf of the first generation . . . 
We do have that dream
Of coming to the land of opportunity
And, you see, we came from a war-torn country
And we came here
And we tend to have that protectiveness, 
Not allow the second generation
Not allow, our children
To be led by the Lord
We tend to be too protective
And we failed to recognize the leading of God
To move to the next generation

And on behalf of the first generation
I would like to apologize for that

Let you go, let you go . . .

[ I want to cry too ]

I would like to seek forgiveness from all of you,
On behalf of the first generation
I should have recognized the power of God 
And allowed God's work within the church
To prepare the church, to build a bridge
For the next generation
And from this conference I will go back 
And educate my people
And let them realize that we need to let go of the next generation
Allow God to work
To build a bridge to bless throughout generations
Not just words, but I'm going to go back, and commit to pray to the God of Jacob
To lead you guys in the way of the Lord

You guys, its O.K.
God bless you guys from now on
And be strong

And I would like to bless you
And encourage all of you to continue to be the light of the world
And the way you continue to serve each other,
The first and second generations
And allow God to lead all of us
Thank you.

(Of course, the younger generation surely has plenty to ask forgiveness for as well. For an excellent reflection on the differing generations and what they can learn from each other and give to each other, see Ken Fong's Pursuing the Pearl, especially his "Three Letters" in chapter 9.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Gospel and My People

The Gospel and My People
by Nhuanh Ly
Used by permission

As presented at the 2008 convention of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, meeting at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley

Never Not in Need of Grace
Words and music by Russell Yee
(c) 2000 by Russell Yee, please do not republish without permission
Art by Art: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (German, 1794--1872)

This video is piano only. Full music score available at: Never Not - full score

Downloadable mp3 file of piano only: Never Not - mp3 (same audio as above video, but better quality)

(Anyone want to record a sung version for me?)


Jesus tells the story of two men who went to the Temple to pray [Luke 18:9-14].

The first man was feeling pretty good about himself.  He figured that whatever is wrong with this world, it wasn’t his fault, because he’d lived such a good life.  So he prayed: “God, thank you I’m not like other people.  I work hard, I do everything I’m supposed to do (and a little more), I stay in control and don’t mess up; I keep it all together.  Thank you, God.”  And he went on like this.

The other man was different.  He knew he was no better than other people.  Oh, he was a law abiding citizen, he paid his taxes and he even helped others pay their taxes too.  But in his heart he knew his thoughts and desires were not pure, he worried about all the wrong things, and his heart was not whole.  So when he prayed, he simply said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That day, only one of these men went home right with God.  I want to be like that man.

  am          C          G         am
I work really hard and I rarely complain.
  F          C/E          G   F  G    GFG
I try not to show it when I’m in pain.
  am          C          G          am    G am
I plan what I say, and I keep to my space;
        F            C       G      am
But I’m never not in need of grace, no,
    F            Bb      C
I’m never not in need of grace
Chorus   C                Eb/C
Please save my soul not just my face--
       F                 G  am
   I’m never not in need of grace
     C                     Eb/C
Not “Sometimes,” “Maybe,” “Just In Case”--
          Ab           Bbdim7              C
   No I’m never, never ever not in need of grace.  ***

  am       C            G             am
I optimize things and I don’t like to wait,
  F         C/E        G  F G    GFG
I watch, consider, and calculate.
  am      C          G       am  G am
I usually live at my maximum pace;
        F            C       G      am
But I’m never not in need of grace, no
    F            Bb      C
I’m never not in need of grace

  am         C           G           am
I never make waves and I pull my own weight.
    F        C/E      G F  G    GFG
All favors I always reciprocate.
  am       C           G        am   G am
I honor my parents and honor my race;
        F            C       G      am
But I’m never not in need of grace, no
    F            Bb      C     
I’m never not in need of grace.

1, 2: G Ab C  Bb Ab C  Ab4 Ab C
3: C Bb Ab Eb Db (to bridge)
4: F Ab Bb C (end)

C              Bb2/C
Dearest Jesus, how I need you--
    F               Ab/F  G
at my worst and at my best!
C              Bb2/C
Save me from myself, I plead you!
    F            Ab/F    GFG   GFGFG. . .
Only you can give me rest!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lisa Golden and Elice Leong

Water Lotus Easter Banners

New Life Christian Fellowship
Castro Valley, California

The water lotus symbolizes purity and rebirth, and thus well expresses Jesus' victory over sin and death. The association with water also brings to mind Christian baptism, which in the early church was often received during the Easter Vigil, so to spend Easter as one's first day as a baptized believer.

Russell Yee

The Last Supper


On permanent display at
New Life Christian Fellowship,
Castro Valley, California

Using items typically found on a Chinese-American restaurant turntable, I have depicted Jesus' Last Supper with his twelve disciples.  By so recreating that momentous meal, I have drawn together Jesus' transcultural offer of his life, together with the specifics of my culture, through which (in part) he makes that offer to me.

The bowls, spoons, and teacups are plain white china, from China.  They are matched and touching, expressing Jesus' solidarity with his disciples.  Their chopsticks are likewise touching, with Jesus' pair forming a cross, the place where he will offer up himself.

In the center are a rice serving bowl and a teapot representing the body and blood of Christ--his very life, which he gives to all who would receive it.

Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, is depicted by the isolated, overturned teacup and bowl/spoon (which he will not be using, since he will leave the table early), and by the solitary pair of chopsticks, also isolated, and bent.  His chopsticks and spoon point to the dish, in which he will dip at the moment Jesus identifies him as the traitor.

The red napkin expresses both the Chinese sense of health and vitality, and the liturgical sense of Jesus' cleansing blood.

A restaurant name appears on the menu cover in Chinese (gé lóu, "loft, garret") and English ("The Upper Room").  The location is given in Hebrew: "Jerusalem, Israel."  Inside the menu are the accounts of the Last Supper taken from the synoptic Gospels and the First Epistle to the Corinthians.