Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Auld Lang Syne (Harry-Met-Sally style)

As New Year's Day approaches, one of the most touching things to do is to make amends, show grace and forgiveness one to another. For lovers wanting to make up to one another, New Year's Eve is a special moment. The three words "I love you" is not simply telling it, but SHOWING it.

I like this film clip from "Harry Met Sally." It wonderfully captures that spirit of honesty and expression of heartfelt love. The acting was humourous but superb.

Have a Happy New Year 2009.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas Smile - 2008

I like this front cover from the printed version of the Vancouver Sun, Christmas Issue. The Christmas spirit is best expressed through little children.

Have a Merry Christmas 2008!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas 2008

Some say: “Christ is the Reason for the Season.” Many chime that: "This is the season to be jolly, and a season for giving." Others will seek to win the mind-share battle by pitching Christianity against the ever-popular Santa Claus. Many will be singing Christmas carols and sharing songs of peace and goodwill to all people. With the Christmas shopping craze rising to a crescendo by Christmas Eve, shopping malls and merchants will be playing up all kinds of Christmas songs to entice and sustain the Christmas mood.

Christmas a Pagan Festival?
What exactly is Christmas? Is it simply the singing of carols, the buying and giving of gifts? Is it joining the mad crowd of busy shoppers to get some last minute gifts? What if after all the bustle and jostle, we end up buying things for people we love, that they don't need? What if we miss out the opportunity to give to the people who needs the things more than we do? What if the heart of giving is actually a disguise for trying to keep-up-with-the-Christmas-Jones? It will not be fair for me to paint all shoppers in that light. Christmas time is a good opportunity to start giving of ourselves to show our appreciation for the people we love. It is the thought that counts, not the bills that mount, especially in this uncertain economic climate. Sometimes, it makes me glad simply to know that retail outlets are given a rare revenue boost during this festive season, after struggling through many months of drought in terms of shopper dollars. The word 'Christmas' is not a word recorded in Scripture. It comes from 2 words: 'Christ' and 'Mass', a reference to the Roman Catholic ritual of attending Mass. If it is a gathering of people in the name of Christ, then we are celebrating 'Christmas' every Sunday, or every time Christians gather together. If that is the case, what do we make of Jesus's birth? I have heard many times that Christmas is actually a pagan celebration. The date Dec 25th being chosen as Christmas Day goes right back to the Roman era to coincide with the Winter festival. There is a brief BBC report that talks about this. If Christmas is paganistic, why should Christians be so worked up when commercial organizations twist the Christmas story into a merchandise glory? After-all, if Christmas has pagan elements (at least in its origins), should not businesses take-back what was originally theirs? If Christmas is pagan in origin, should Christians celebrate it?

I guess some will choose not to. A good ex-colleague of mine insists that his church never celebrates Christmas because of this reason. In fact, to him, Easter is much more significant. In that sense, I can see his passion as the reason for hope is because Christ rose from the dead. For me, I will not be too disturbed if people choose to celebrate Christmas by things alone. However, when people try to twist and turn the birth of Christ and the story of Christianity, it is a different matter altogether. For instance, if one puts Santa Claus in the same league as Jesus, that will be deception blatantly paraded in front of shoppers and gullible children. I submit that Christmas time, like any other time, is a time to pray, and to cherish one another in the name of Christ. There is no need to rush out to grab gifts just to show people we love, of our affections. What makes us think that 364 days of neglect can be easily compensated by one day of showering gifts? What makes us think that the name of Christ can be 'protected' by attacking effigies of Santa Claus on this one day of the year, when Christians have the opportunity to share the name of Christ all year round? Don't get me wrong. I am not against Church-wide remembrance of the birth of Christ. I am even inclined to get the thought of 'Santa Claus' out of Churches and sanctuaries. What I am curious about is, does the remembrance of Christmas Day actually make our love for Jesus extra special, like caramel or strawberry topping on a fragrant blob of French Vanilla ice-cream? No. Christmas is special, but it should not be that special, especially when everyday of the year is a day given unto God.

How then should we view Christmas?
If Christmas has a pagan origin, and if Christmas Day should not be treated anything more special than the rest, should Christians celebrate Christmas Day? My answer will be both 'no' and 'yes.'

Why NO: 'No' in the sense that as Christians, we are free to remember God anytime in prayer, to sing praises to Christ all year round. The kingdom of God is always close to us but never closed from us. Jesus hears us every time we call. He does not need a birthday cake with more than 2000 candles for us to struggle with. That will be a logistical headache. He does not need a birthday party bash that comprises invited guests from all denominations and all other church affiliations. It might trigger lots of doctrinal disputes in one building. Mark chapter 1 gives us a clue on how then we should view Christmas. You might be surprised, but the gospel writer of Mark actually skip the Nativity narrative, and goes straight to write about the adult Jesus rather than the baby Jesus. It is a quotation from Isaiah.
"It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way' -
a voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" (Mark 1:2-3)
Why YES: On the other hand, I will also have to recognize a 'yes' in terms of an opportunity to present Christ in a special way during this season. Yes, while Christmas festivals do have smacks of paganism in its origin, Christians ought to make use of this time to share the gospel in a way that people will normally not be as open. After-all, if the name of Christ is in the word 'Christmas,' there is a good chance that people will not resist the gospel as much, compared to other days of the year. Of course, Christians still need to observe decent courtesy not to shove the gospel down unwilling throats. While Mark ignores the nativity story, Matthew and especially Luke take the trouble to describe the humble beginnings of baby Jesus's time. Matthew gives his Jewish readers a genealogical treat before his historical entry point. Luke goes even further by describing the birth of John the Baptist BEFORE the birth of Jesus.

What then do we make of the differences of the nativity stories and Mark's version? There is at least one similarity I want to highlight. All of the synoptic gospel writers refer back to the Old Testament. Mark points to Malachi and Isaiah, Luke (Isaiah) and Matthew to Micah and others. The point is: All of them link back to the Old Testament story, about the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ. It is not simply a birth of a little baby. It is the FULFILLMENT of the Word. It is like John say: The Word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood. That is the meaning of Christmas: a sign that reminds us Christ became human and lived among us. It is like God telling us: "I told you so." It is like God assuring us: "I am with you in person."

My fellow readers, celebrate Christmas, but do so with an eye on the coming kingdom of God. Christmas is not a closed event where we forget the birthday person after blowing the flames off the candles, and then eat the cake and leave the mess behind. It is not even a time to be jolly frolicking in the madness of the shopping rush, or anxiously keeping up with the carolling demands by various singing groups. Instead, it is a time to remember that Scripture has been fulfilled in the past, being manifested in the present, and that the kingdom of God will come in all its glory in the resurrection future. While it is true that Christ is the reason for the season, it is more true that Christ is not simply a little baby in the manger, stuck on the plastic or wooden arms of the nativity toy set. It is not even the use of the word 'Christ' in greeting cards and electronic wishes traveling round the world. Christmas is a time to remember once again that love is meant to be shared with one another, because Christ first loved us. The first testament has been fulfilled. Let us enthusiastically await the fulfillment of the second testament, the eschatological hope for all. Let me conclude with just one more way to remember Christmas. The best way to honour Christ is to remember why Christ came in the first place. He came to do the will of God. He came to glorify and complete the prophecy of his heavenly Father. In that light, if we really want to remember Jesus during this season, remember to do the will of God, to think on the thoughts of Christ. That is the best way to celebrate Christmas. Giving and Forgiving, Sharing and Caring, Loving and Belonging one to another.

Have a Blessed Christmas with family and friends.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fun With History (Old English Sayings)

One of my favourite authors, Neil Postman once said that the only subject worth studying in schools is history. In Technopoly, he argues that every curriculum should include a historical survey of that subject. This is especially when technology seems to grab society by the neck and makes us feel helpless about the relentless changes and new gadgets flung at us by many commercial initiatives. Indeed, everything has a beginning. I am not sure how true the following is, but it sure makes an interesting case to argue that history indeed can be fun.
The next time you wash your hands and complain that the water temperature isn't just the way you like it, think about the way things used to be...real honest to goodness facts about the 1500s:

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children -- last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it-hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Houses had thatched roofs -- thick straw -- piled high, with no wood supports underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. Which posed a real problem in the bedroom, where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with tall posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how Canopy Beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, like slate tiles that would get very slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping out. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway to catch the thresh -- hence, a "thresh hold."

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while-hence the rhyme, "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

Sometimes, they could obtain pork. This would make them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man "could bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat."

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes. So, for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Most people did not have pewter plates, but did have trenchers. They are a piece of wood, with the middle scooped out, to form a bowl. However, trenchers were often made from stale bread, which was so old and so hard, they could be used for quite some time. These trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. And after eating off these wormy, moldy, trenchers, people would get "trench mouth."

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, which was called the "upper crust."

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up--hence the custom of holding a "wake!"

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places,to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a "bone-house" and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground, and tie it to a bell. Then someone would sit in the graveyard, all night long (on the " graveyard shift") and listen for the bell. Thus, the expression, he or she was "saved by the bell" or considered a "dead ringer."

And...whoever said, "History was boring?!"
(source: unknown)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Reflecting on the Economic Crisis

We have all been hearing it for the past 2 months. Bailouts, business downturn, recession, layoffs and negative reporting about the economy. Chances are, reading the news each morning is like consuming a daily dose of depression. If we want to find hope and encouragement in the media, we will need to look hard and invest some effort. Recently, three helpful articles were written by Jim Coggins, associate editor of CanadianChristianity.com. The first deals with a diagnosis of the situation. The second identifies possible solutions on a government and corporate level. The third exhorts Christian leaders to act. In this article, I will briefly discuss the three and then suggest a bailout, proverbs style.

In the first article entitled "Crisis due to more than greed," (Dec 5th, 2008) Coggins collects a sampling of opinions to help make sense of what is going on. In what is more a diagnostic of the problem, Coggins argues that the crisis is not a simple matter of greed. Rather, it is something far more 'complex.' Without dismissing the greed factor altogether, Paul Williams of Regent College helpfully points out the short-term and long-term causes. The short term was attributed largely to the collapse of the housing market, known as the sub-prime problem. The longer term problem is caused by ill-conceived systems such as the pyramid structure affecting housing, stock market and others. The recent Madoff scandal where a pyramid style fund structure meant that in order to pay out older investments, newer and larger investments must be found. As long as new and larger investments are available, the profits for older investments are significant. However, when the credit crunch occurs, the structure crumbles like a stack of cards. Another view is that the current crisis is precipitated by 'over-consumption,' 'over-valuation' and materialism. As to the latter, it is a false idol which sooner or later will fall. Coggins ends the article by reminding people of the folly of trusting in false gods of materialism, and possessions. Such a disease affects both rich and poor.

The second article "Fixing the Economic Crisis," (Dec 11th, 2008) talks about fixing the problem. Here, it tries to suggest different ways which the different players can contribute toward stabilizing and helping the recovery of the economy. Governments must 'bolster consumer confidence.' At the same time, corporations should take the opportunity to level the playing field in the sense that having felt vulnerable like the poor and marginalized, future policies should be aimed away from any forms of exploitation. Badly managed companies should not get off scot-free. Inefficient companies should be allowed to fail. Governments should employ both short and long term solutions. Regulation is necessary and it is also noteworthy that any government intervention or financial stimulus should be temporary. Hopefully, when the economy of the rich is fixed, it will take a newer shape in that policies that come out of it will be fairer and gentler on the rest of the poor developing countries. Coggins concludes again with another reference to the economic divide between the rich North and the poor global South.

The third article "The economic crisis: What should Christians and the church be doing?," (Dec 18th, 2008) touches on the role of Christians and the Church. 8 points were suggested.
  1. Get Out of Debt: All Christians ought to make a point to get out of loans, to avoid spending borrowed money long-term.
  2. Teach: Churches to continue to teach about money and possessions, otherwise the church risk becoming irrelevant. There is a real battle to teach against making materialism a god.
  3. Sabbath-Keeping: I like this emphasis where each time we practice a day of rest, we take back control of our lives from the daily routines in the world, to pause at 'sabbath, jubilee and hospitality.' Not only should the Sabbath help us note self-control and our boundaries, it makes us celebrate the good creation God has given us. The first tells us how to say enough. The second urges us to point toward God.
  4. Practise Jubilee: This frees people from bondage of the past and help free those in bondage.
  5. Practise hospitality: he argues that if Christians have been prudent consumers all along, they are the ones most able to help drive the economic recovery.
  6. Prudent Spending: That one does not panic but spend wisely. For me, this also means not hoarding our wealth.
  7. Pray: Unfortunately, Coggins did not go far enough, and I sense that this is added as an after thought.
  8. Preaching the Gospel: People are more open to the gospel during this period, an opportunity to engage people with the good news.

I like Coggins' articles. The three parts neatly summarized the probable reasons for the current crisis, some solutions and some useful actions we as Christians can take. However, I will like to add one thing, that the way we see the current economic crisis reflects the kind of our relationship with God. Christians ought to be people who can live with plenty and also to live with very little, even nothing. Like what the Apostle Paul write to the Romans:

"If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord." (Rom 14:8)
Whatever it is, Christians with a mind focused on God will not be easily distracted by commercial realities or economic uncertainties. Of all the actions suggested by Coggins, I feel that the one on prayer is least developed but the most potent. I will prefer to give Coggins the benefit of the doubt, that given time and space, he would have expanded on prayer.

Bailing Out - "Proverbs Style"
Perhaps a brief example how we can pray from Proverbs will suffice.
7 "Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-9)
This remarkable prayer request recognizes the weakness of men to fall into either extreme poverty or excessive possessions. Both are not desired at all. The former tempts one to steal. The latter seduces one to ignore God altogether. Perhaps this is the prayer that Jesus is trying to teach us when he says: "Give us this day our daily bread." We do not need a 9-course dinner for a satisfied stomach. Neither do we deserve starvation that lasts for days. One of my favourite authors, Parker Palmer, suggests 3 ways to combat the dual extremes of scarcity and abundance. They are a) Education; b) community and c) Prayer. Bingo! That's the prayer emphasis again.
"...I do not mean 'saying our prayers,' ..... I mean a life that returns constantly to that silent, solitary place within us where we encounter God and life's abundance becomes manifest."
(Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox, San Francisco :Jossey-Bass, 2008, p114)
Today (Dec 19th, 2008) is another bailout day, when President Bush announces US$13.4 billion to bail out the troubled US auto industry. To date, $350 billion has been used in bailing out Wall Street and Main Street, ie over 77 days.

My question will be: Will the money be used to bring the whole system back to its unhealthy beginning? Or will it be a humbling experience for all the players to start repenting from bad governance and make an effort to reform their companies, and themselves? Much remain to be seen. For Christians, we have this clarion call: Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations. I believe this includes the economy as well. Pray without ceasing.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cut-n-Paste Culture

Ever since the popularity of Graphical User Interface (GUI) platforms, cut-n-paste has become a common way of life for many people. Call it copy-n-paste, print-screen, screen-capture, content extraction or whatever. Replication technologies have never been so advanced. Gone are the days of looking at old bookstores digging for lyrics of old melodies. Few people bother to dust ancient paper files as many of the archaic documents have been digitized. Technology is not only an efficient replicator but also a great distribution tool. Like all inventions, there is a downside to it. Easily copied, easily posted, and easily manipulated. The rise of high technology can lead to a drop in human creativity. The fallen race risk falling even more. In schools, plagiarism is a rising concern and seems to be a problem that can never go away. Stealing and storing information can be effortlessly done. It has become so much of a problem that legal firms now have huge departments that deal with Intellectual Property rights. Scholars are constantly warned to give due credit to the sources they quote. This is standard fare. Common standards have been published to allow authors and researchers to adhere to, like Chicago, MLA, Turabian, and many other styles. Many things can be copied, but is it possible to duplicate everything? In this article, I will argue that there are at least 3 things, namely relationships, prayer and experience, that cannot be easily cut and pasted.

A Culture of Cheating
Cut-n-Paste technology has become an expected feature in many software applications. It helps us avoid re-typing repetitive phrases. It enables us to save time, and avoid typographical errors while retyping. It is more accurate even to the finer details like commas, semi-colons and font sizes. Unfortunately, the technology has been abused. Some bloggers have called it ‘cut-n-paste-gate,’ an allusion to the Watergate scandal. There is a website called 'Famous Plagiarists' that is dedicated to exposing famous plagiarists.

Stealing has become a high tech enterprise. In a conference paper entitled: “PLAGIARISM AND NEW MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES: COMBATING ‘CUT ‘N PASTE’ CULTURE,” Caroline Miall says that new technologies have spawned many ways of cheating. Calling it ‘New Plagiarism’ and ‘culture of cheating,’ such actions like plagiarism swim against decent efforts at educating minds for the longer term. [Miall, C. (2005). Plagiarism and new media technologies: Combating ‘cut ’n paste’ culture. A paper presented to the OLT 2005 Conference, QUT, Brisbane, 168-176.]

I think Miall is on to something. The phrase ‘culture of cheating’ is cleverly chosen for it reflects how pervasive the practice has become. Culture is a simple word, yet it can be quite sophisticated too. Students of organizational behaviour will know that it is easy to replace personnel, office hardware, location of the business and other aspects of the corporation. However, when it comes to culture, it is not such a simple matter. How do we change the culture of an organization? I gather that it is one of the most, if not the most difficult thing ever to be changed. Chances are, those who try to change the culture will see themselves be changed out. Moreover, any results of change may be evident only long after they have left the company. If the culture is one of cheating, then not only technology but anything can be a possible device used to cheat. Like the popular saying: If you are a hammer, everything you see is a nail. However, is this a fair statement of calling our culture a cheating culture? Frankly, I think it is more accurate to describe people as having the TENDENCY to cheat, rather than being called cheaters directly. The problem becomes multiplied once we take on the first rung down the ladder of cheating. We can learn something from the Old Testament.

Adam/Eve and David
Sin is that all pervasive failing which began through Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were deceived by the serpent into thinking that they can ‘cut’ the knowledge of good and evil and ‘paste’ it onto themselves. Together with Adam, both of them gave in to lust and ate the forbidden fruit, going against God’s explicit instruction. As a result, all mankind fell headlong into the depths of sin. This pattern of cut-n-paste is often done through lusting, like the mighty King David’s whose reputation became tarnished through that act of lusting after Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. He thought that he could ‘cut’ out the juicy part of his affair and to cover up Bathsheba’s pregnancy, simply by pasting it back onto Uriah (2 Sam 11:8). Of course, some people can claim that Bathsheba was already pregnant. The writer’s meticulous reference to 2 Sam 11:4 on Bathsheba’s ceremonial cleanness tells us clearly that Bathsheba was never pregnant before David slept with her. Moreover, that also tells us that Bathsheba was most ready for impregnation at that time, and having Uriah to sleep with her will perfectly disguise David’s ‘cut-n-paste’ strategy. What makes David think that he can quietly cut out what is not his, and quietly paste back to make it his property? An initial lust, followed by cunning scheming, a murderous act, all coalesces toward havoc in his kingdom. If sin is allowed to take root, the results are never good. John warns us:
“For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16)
Sin is the root of grave evil happening in the world now.

Having said that, despite its seductive appeal, there are still things in this world that cannot be easily cut-n-paste. I will now describe the 3 things that we cannot cut-n-paste.

How can we cut-n-paste relationships? David tried, but suffered serious consequences, which includes the death of his first son with Bathsheba. Like heart transplants, medical know-how enables one to make a physical swap of a bad heart with a good. The surgery can be done, but not so with the emotions. Can we reasonably download a personality into an empty human shell? Are we like the Cylons, seen in the hit TV series, Battlestar Galactica, where these machines looking like humans can be conveniently resurrected after each death, with their personality downloaded whenever necessary? These things are fictional and represent the imagination of the storytellers and the drama producers. David Gushee confesses in his book “Only Human,” how his quarrel with his wife resulted in his physical shutdown. It affects his relationships with his children, his desire to work, and his energy to do things. He could not simply cut away his anger over the argument and live his usual routine. What he needs is a touch of forgiveness, and everything will then fall back in place. (David Gushee, Only Human, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005, 57-8)

Reconciliation is the superglue of any broken relationship. We cannot simply cut ourselves out of the problematic situation, and paste back into the new, thinking that everything will be all right. Gushee, in his reflection writes:
“The extraordinary importance of our relationships is never more obvious than when they are disrupted.” (Gushee, 65)
One example is the disruption of our routine with news of the loss of a friend or loved one. For pastors, one of the quickest decisions to ever make is deciding whether to go for a wedding or a funeral when both are happening at the same time. The funeral usually takes priority. One may say, that the person is already dead, so why bother? The counter argument is that people feeling a loss is more needful of human companionship and pastoral presence than anything else.

2) Prayer
One can cut-n-paste other people’s prayers by mouthing it or memorizing it. However, it is never one’s own prayer until it is internalized and uttered meaningfully. Sometimes, saying the Lord’s Prayer can be a dangerous act of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Now, I am not against going through the motions, in terms of saying together in the congregational prayer. Human emotions constantly shift and change, and some consistent ritual help the soul to sit still amid the tides of uncertainty and all manner of whimsical thoughts. When something becomes overly familiar, we risk falling into the familiarity-breeds-contempt trap. Dallas Willard warns those of us who have been Christians a long time about this danger.
“…presumed familiarity has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt, and contempt has led to profound ignorance.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Harper San Francisco, 1997, xiii)
Thus his Divine Conspiracy offers Christians who feel jaded to have a fresh go at their spiritual walk with Jesus. In a nutshell, Willard’s main point is that Christians do not have to be mere consumers of God’s goodness and gifts, but disciples of God’s kingdom through faithful and meaningful living now (xvii). His take on modern society is brilliantly encapsulated as:
“… most of us as individuals, ad world society as a whole, live at high-speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference – or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant.” (Willard, 2)
It is especially during times like these that we find much healing in prayer. George Herbert, a celebrated English poet in the 17th Century writes a profound prayer poem.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.”
(George Herbert: “Prayer” 1593-1633)
Beautiful words coupled with a vivid reflection of nature and the universe. Herbert connects the wonders of heaven with the things on earth. He weaves together elements of earthly nature with vibrant glimpses of heavenly realm. Prayer is like ‘reversed thunder’ in which human beings need not shudder in fear over the sight of lightning or the sound of thunder. Instead, a prayer silently uttered is like a reversed thunder from earth back to heaven. Sheer potent power of prayer indeed. Herbert gently transposes familiar cultural symbols like banquet, spear, manna, spices and sets them in communion with divine ecstasy. I particularly like “The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,’ as it describes prayer in terms of constantly expressing the prayerful person in many different ways. Just like we try to express one feeling of love for God through multiple ways. Our soul constantly paraphrased is that peppering God continuously to long for and seek God. Like the deer, which pants for the waters, so our soul ought to long after God. Can such prayerful moments be cut and pasted as an when we desire? No. It has to be lived, gradually and surely. That is why the human heart is described as one in pilgrimage.

3) Experience
CS Lewis calls experience as the “that most brutal of teachers. But you learn. My God do you learn." We cannot simply paste another person’s experience into our resume and call it ours. That would be cheating, and even if we land that job, we can be fired when found out. Likewise, our experience with God is not easily replicated from one person to another. The desire to experience God is clearly a popular one. Henry Blackaby’s bestseller: “Experiencing God” comprises 7 steps toward achieving such a divine encounter.
  1. God is always at work around you.
  2. God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.
  3. God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
  4. God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
  5. God's invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.
  6. You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
  7. You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you.

(Henry Blackaby et al, Experiencing God, Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2008, p54)

While Blackaby’s book has helped many people, I want to point out that God cannot be easily strait-jacked into such a methodology. There will always be people who, after going through the seven steps still find themselves confused and unsure what kind of experience they are expected to have. Blackaby’s formula is helpful, but only up to a certain point. We need to live out God’s Word according to God’s guiding Spirit. The Holy Spirit could use Blackaby’s techniques. He can also choose not to. A prayerful and discerning heart will be most helpful for us. Done with a community of believers, this discernment gets elevated closer to the divine heart of God. Didn’t the Lord teach us to approach the Lord’s prayer by starting with a plural?

I have argued that our cut-n-paste culture is yet another potentially sinful expression of cheating. Then, I submit that there are at least 3 things that cannot be easily cut-n-pasted, like relationships, prayer and experience. Having done that, I now propose that the way to counter the negative tendency of cut-n-paste culture is to discern our spirituality with God, especially with a Christ-loving community. Within a community of faith, we build relationships. Together with a community of faith, we offer up our prayers together to God. In our pilgrimage together as a people of God, we learn and grow together and encounter God, with our experiences enriching one another in the Lord.

In his conclusion, David Gushee writes:

“The strands of human nature – our need for relationship, the way sin disrupts them, and our potential for moral greatness in demonstrating loving concern for others – could be woven together to point to the conclusion that the destination most deeply worth cherishing would be reconciled and peaceable relationships in every dimension of human existence.” (David Gushee, Only Human, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005, p194)

A ‘reconciled and peaceable relationships’ in all dimensions. That is indeed needful for a world in need for healing. I will end with Mother Teresa’s A Simple Path which aptly describes the experience Gushee writes about.

The fruit of silence is
The fruit of prayer is
The fruit of faith is
The fruit of love is
The fruit of service is

(Mother Teresa, A Simple Path)

We cannot depend on Cut-n-Paste to mend relationships, do our prayers or gain our experiences. The solution is forgiveness and reconciliation. This is what we all need. This is what the whole world needs. Once we all recognize this, life will be more bearable for all.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Corporate 'Wisdom' Tidbits

Here is some 'wisdom' for the workplace to help spread some cheer amid the gloomy climate. I got it from a friend's email to me. The one on Murphy's laws is available from many places, and placed here for your convenience.

Corporate Lesson #1 - (Crow & The Rabbit)
A crow was sitting on a tree, doing nothing all day. A small rabbit saw the crow and asked him:"Can I also sit like you and do nothing all day long?"
The crow said:" Sure, why not?" So the rabbit sat and rested. All of a sudden, a fox appeared. It jumped on the rabbit and ate it.
Moral of the story: To be sitting and doing nothing, you must be sitting very, very high up.

Corporate Lesson #2 - (Turkey & the Bull)
A turkey was chatting with a bull.
"I would love to get to the top of that tree," sighed the turkey. "But I haven't got the energy."
The bull replied:"Well, why don't you nibble on my droppings? They're packed with nutrients."
The turkey pecked at a lump of the dung and found that it actually gave him enough strength to reach the first branch of the tree.
The next day, after eating more dung, he reached the second branch.
Finally, after a fortnight, he perched proudly at the top of the tree. Soon, a farmer spotted and shot the turkey out of the tree.
Moral of the story: Bulls..t might get you to the top, but it won't keep you there.

Murphy's Laws on Work (more corporate lessons
  1. A pat on the back is only a few centimeters from a kick in the pants.
  2. Don't be irreplaceable, if you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.
  3. The more crap you put up with, the more crap you are going to get.
  4. You can go anywhere you want if you look serious and carry a clipboard.
  5. Eat one live toad the first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.
  6. Never ask two questions in a business letter. The reply will discuss the one you are least interested in, and say nothing about the other.
  7. When the bosses talk about improving productivity, they are never talking about themselves.
  8. If at first you don't succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a fool about it.
  9. There will always be beer cans rolling on the floor of your car when the boss asks for a ride home from the office.
  10. Mother said there would be days like this, but she never said there would be so many.
  11. Keep your boss's boss off your boss's back. This is what I'm doing wrong.
  12. Everything can be filed under 'miscellaneous.'
  13. Never delay the ending of a meeting or the beginning of a cocktail hour.
  14. To err is human, to forgive is not company policy.
  15. Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing.
  16. Important letters that contain no errors will develop errors in the mail.
  17. The last person that quit or was fired will be the one held responsible for everything that goes wrong - until the next person quits or is fired.
  18. There is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there is always enough time to do it over.
  19. The more pretentious a corporate name, the smaller the organization. (For instance, The Murphy Center for Codification of Human and Organizational Law, contrasted to IBM, GM, AT&T ...).
  20. If you are good, you will be assigned all the work. If you are really good, you will get out of it.
  21. You are always doing something marginal when the boss drops by your desk.
  22. People are always available for work in the past tense.
  23. If it wasn't for the last minute, nothing would get done.
  24. At work, the authority of a person is inversely proportional to the number of pens that person is carrying.
  25. When you don't know what to do, walk fast and look worried.
  26. You will always get the greatest recognition for the job you least like.
  27. No one gets sick on Wednesdays.
  28. When confronted by a difficult problem you can solve it more easily by reducing it to the question, 'How would the Lone Ranger handle this?'
  29. The longer the title, the less important the job.
  30. Machines that have broken down will work perfectly when the repairman arrives.
  31. An 'acceptable' level of employment means that the government economist to whom it is acceptable still has a job.
  32. Once a job is fouled up, anything done to improve it makes it worse.
  33. All vacations and holidays create problems, except for one's own.
  34. Success is just a matter of luck, just ask any failure.



Friday, December 05, 2008

Canadian Politics

This week is rather tumultuous at least within the domestic political environment in Canada. Some calls it a crisis that is unprecedented in history. It all began When the Prime Minister, who is also the leader of the Conservative Party proposed a budget with two main thrusts. Under the goal of cutting costs, the first is a stimulant for the economy which the opposition denounced as overly 'frugal.' The second is more damaging, at least for the opposition, in that political party subsidies will be pegged back. While the first is rather consistent for the Conservative way of governing, as far as the opposition is concerned, it is the second that is the proverbial feather that breaks the camel's back. Financially, the opposition parties are heavily reliant on such political subsidies (paid from the public coffers). The Conservatives can comfortably hold their sway due to their financial stability. Since then, Harper, the Prime Minister has backed down from his two proposals and promised to revise and submit a new one in January next year. However, the opposition has not backed down, opting to go ahead to topple the minority government as their goal. Actually, no matter what has been said in the press, that seems to me to be the only goal: Government toppling, under the name of democracy, that the people wants to see a coalition. For me, the logic is simple. Harper has already made concessions, Unfortunately, the opposition insists on the pound of flesh, just like Shylock in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice." Not only was the initial proposal withdrawn, a new one was promised, which will be more palatable to all. However, the Opposition does not want it anymore.

For me, there are some things which troubles me.
1) Firstly, what are all these political leaders trying to do? Isn't fixing the economy more important now?
2) Secondly, the Conservative Party has already realized its folly and offered to back down from its initial impetus. Yet the Coalition, comprising the Liberals-NDP-Bloc, are hellbent to force down the Conservatives. That will mean usurping the reins of power by playing with numbers.
3) Currently, the opposition Coalition are united under one main goal. What are the goals AFTER the current Conservative government is toppled?
4) For keeping Canada as a united country, is the Coalition the best way to go? The current economic stimulus proposed by the Coalition includes a $30b injection of funds into the economy. Why must such an act be done in such a dramatic fashion? Canada's situation is very different from the sub-prime mess that the US is in. Moreover, it is among the top countries that is deemed solid in terms of resilience during this worldwide economic downturn.
5) Political squabbling is normal in any country. The timing in which such squabbling is done reflects the level of maturity. Unfortunately, the country does not need such political infighting to distract the people from getting the economic vehicle going.
6) I think Canada wants a fairly even distribution of power for all, which is why on the one hand the Conservatives is given the right to lead, on the other, such leadership requires the cooperation of the other parties. A minority government seems best. If the current Conservatives government is lousy (according to critics), I am not sure how much better will the new Coalition be? There are far more uncertainties with a Coalition than the current Conservative setup. Just two will give you an idea. The proposed new PM is one that the people has recently rejected by means of an increasingly unpopular vote against him. Secondly, the Bloc, who seemed more concerned with Quebec than the rest of Canada, promises to stay with the Coalition for only 18 months. That to me is building more uncertainties in an already fragile political climate.

Looking at the whole situation, I think the best next move for all is to call for a new election and let the people decide. We all have better things to do than to be constantly disturbed with such political upheavals, either way.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Theological Training (free!)

During these tough economic situations, there are still some places which charitably offer an online theological education without charge. My seminary, Gordon-Conwell is one of them. The "Dimensions of the Faith" program is free for anyone to take online. You will need to create an account here. You can then get 10 dimension courses which you can follow. Upon completion of each module, you can take an exam and after 10 exams, you get a free Certificate! However, it will be difficult to work on it alone, so if you are really keen to start and finish the course, better get a study partner or a study group.

A second site is Biblical Training, which does not offer a certificate but comprises good lectures. Several of them are from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as well.

Do pray for Gordon-Conwell which is currently going through tough financial challenges.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Busy Life

Busyness ('mang')
Sometime ago, I mentioned that busyness can be mistakenly interpreted as virtuous. Some have even called acronym B.U.S.Y as ‘Being Under Satan’s Yoke.’ There are three words which I like to talk about.

The First Word - 忙
The Chinese word for busy is 忙, pronounced as ‘mang.’ It consists of the word 心 ‘xin’ on the left, and 亡 ‘wang’ on the right. 心 means heart or feeling while 亡 means flee, lose, or die. Put these two words together and we get the word busy. It is an interesting play of words, joining two seemingly unrelated words of heart and death to make up a word for busyness. Literally speaking, to be busy means killing the heart. This sounds gruesome, but if we were to think about how many relationships have suffered due to thoughtless acts of rush, it will profit us to learn some early warning signs behind the Chinese word for ‘busy.’

The Second Word - 忘
忘 (wang, 4th sound) is another word that contains the two radicals 心 (xin) with 亡 (wang, 2nd sound). One can try to forget the past, by burying the feeling (心) below the death (亡). However, suppressing feelings by trying to stop thinking about the past is not very helpful. It may even increase the fear of bad memories and constant nightmares. By putting to death all thoughts and feelings of the heart, one tries to imagine away the past. Yet, stifling our natural memories is not particularly helpful. After-all, memories form a large part of our identity. It is not the memories we ought to forget, but the way we encircle meaning around these memories. A psychologist who is also a Christian, David Seamands said: “We cannot change our memories, but we can change their meaning and the power they have over us.

I think this is a more useful advice, than simply asking people to disregard the past. Take the Holocaust as an example. The evil that happened should not simply be forgotten due to the horror. Instead, we can use this example to show how evil a human being can become, when indoctrinated with bad stuff. If we failed to remember, we risk re-creating the very nightmare we wanted to forget. When I was visiting Boston last year, I walked through the New England Holocaust Memorial and was deeply moved by the many personal testimonies engraved in granite/marble. Comprising 6 tall towers, each tower contains about a million names, who perished during the Nazi regime in World War II. The testimonies made lots of people who walked the memorial, cry. The mood was solemn and I tear up several times.

Truly, horrible events and nightmares cannot be simply forgotten. Memories should be healed, not merely swept under the carpet of busyness. Using busyness as a way to forget the past does not slow down the ticking time bomb inside. It may cause one to foolishly ignore there is such a device in the first place, just like an ostrich shoving its head into sand at the first sign of danger.

The ‘Death’ Radical
The word ‘death,’ reminds me of the Christian doctrine of sin and death. Scriptures declare it so vividly:
For the wages of sin is death….” (Romans 6:23a);

Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” (James 1:15)

The two compound words ‘forget’ and ‘busy’ include the radical word ‘death.’ Such is the reality of a world that is mired in sin. Isn’t it a curious thing that many people suppress their bad memories by simply adopting techniques of trying to forget the past? By immersing ourselves in busy activities, can one really believe that one can forget bad events in history? The trouble with such acts of forgetfulness and busyness is that in the process, the one who suffers is self. By ignoring the bad past, without adequately finding a reasonable closure to setbacks or disappointments, we are simply sweeping the negative dust of the past under the carpet of busyness. Things get delayed. The search for solutions gets trapped under the suffocating cloud of busyness, and refusal to acknowledge the need for healing and forgiveness.

A Third Word - 妄
There is also another word that shows the effects of sin. The word 妄 (‘wang’ 4th sounding) has the woman 女 (nü) under the 亡 (wang 2nd sounding). Put together, it means rashful acts. A casual interpretation will mean that the human race as of today are descendants and are children of Eve, the first woman created. If we all constantly live under the cloud of death and the fear of dying, we are susceptible to all kinds of carelessness and rash behaviour. We are all born of a woman, a mother. We do things in the name of speed and efficiency, risking the ire of others from hasty decisions and ineptitude.

Death is a capital sentence that leads us on a journey toward a dead end. Practically all the words we talked about in this article that deals with the word 亡 (death) have negative connotations. What then is the antidote for busyness (忙), forgetting (忘), and rashfulness (妄)?

Some Attempts at Antidotes
Lloyd Thomas proposes that the antidote for such busyness be stillness and silence. There is a certain mystical aura in stillness and silence that I do not dispute. There are advantages of trying to balance out our hurry with a sensible dose of stillness and silence. The trouble is, in that moment of silence and calm, what do we focus on? Thomas’s prescription does not go beyond advocating for stillness and silence. Many different forms of spiritual activities teach the need to be still. Buddhism calls the practitioner to be still and to empty oneself from all sensualities. The Sanskrit word ‘nirvana’ means that perfect state of mind where people cease longing for any desire at all. Daniel Mutt, a professor of Jewish mysticism, advises in his book: “The Essential Kabbalah,” that the key to self-fulfillment is through a greater knowledge of God. For Mutt, the practice of Kabbalah is all about self-fulfillment. This is contrary to Rick Warren’s repeated chorus of ‘It is never about you,” which is vividly printed in the first sentence of the first chapter. This others-centered advice is prevalent in Warren’s best selling book: “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

My Comments
Thomas starts off well, by reading the Chinese word ‘Busy’ the same way I have described. At the writing of my article, I was not aware of Thomas’s article. He approaches the problem of over-busyness by suggesting the brakes of silence and stillness. Having provided a temporary respite, my question is: “What happens next?” Thomas did not elaborate further, but I guess it was not the intent of his article to go beyond the emotional reminder stage.

The Buddhist philosophy is not something I subscribe to. This world is filled with all kinds of spirits and demonic activity, that emptying oneself of everything makes one vulnerable to all manner of spiritual sabotage and demonic infiltration. The Buddhist idea of 'nothingness' is mind boggling.

Kabbalah, as according to Daniel Mutt is again too self-centered, and uses spirituality like a magical device to attain one’s end. Rick Warren's philosophy of helping people look beyond self-needs and self-fulfillment is a helpful first step in the right direction. However, even though it repeatedly insist that if we know God, we will know our purpose for life, it is too ‘purpose’ centered for my comfort. In other words, it makes life like a giant problem puzzle waiting to be unlocked by solutions provided through understanding God’s ‘purpose’ for us. With a formula of 40-days to discover our purpose, Warren’s book became a bestseller.

Personally, I do not have any grudge with Rick Warren. Neither will I dispute the immense amount of help his book has given to Christians all over the world. There is a small problem in his book. Some people may still utilize the book as a self-fulfillment manual using God as a way or a means to their own end. If Israel tolerated 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai before entering the Promised Land, what makes us think that 40 days of activities will give us a ticket to enter Purpose Land?

That said, I do not want to appear as one thinks he knows the antidote to the modern symptoms of busyness, forgetfulness and recklessness. I dared not. Only God has the ultimate cure. However, we do have some clues in this short life on earth. The Chinese word 性 (xing) means nature, character and disposition. It also means gender, property or quality. Interestingly, it also contains two words, 心 (xin, heart) and 生 (sheng, life). The key to living well is to be alive to our vocation, our calling in life. Who am I? What am I created for? What is our identity? By understanding ourselves more, we will learn to live well. Otherwise, we will constantly struggle through our daily chores behaving like square pegs in the round holes of activities. Such work is seldom meaningful.

Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)

We learn to know ourselves only in Christ
Christians live for Jesus, because Jesus first lived for us. We love because God first loved us. Believers in Christ have been made alive in Christ, even though in the past, they were dead in sin. The way to the Father in heaven is through Jesus, according to the Scriptures. Silence and stillness can be attained through intentional slowing down of our external activities, by turning our sails to catch the wind of God, and anchoring ourselves in Christ. We long to see God face to face. We become embraced in the loving arms of our Father in heaven. We draw warmth of the relationship with the Triune God. We learn to acknowledge that because God is overall, and has forgiven us of our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness, we are able to forgive. This is much better than simply straddling along the arduous path of forgetting. It is through forgiveness that Corrie Ten Boom was able to practice forgiveness, even to her bitter enemies. She shared in the book: "The Hiding Place” about her overcoming the tough difficult struggles through forgiveness in Christ.
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie's pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggle to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

We have come a long way, from busyness, to forgetting the bad memories, to acts of rashness. We have talked about the antidotes of busyness, and a small critique of each. I have also suggested that the better ‘antidote’ is Christ himself who gives us life. In Christ, we will be able to do what we normally cannot do on our own, like forgiveness. In the process, we know more about ourselves and are able to live meaningfully not simply out of self-fulfillment needs. Neither is it to sacrificially live for others only. Instead, letting God be our anchor, Christ as our chief Sailor, we catch the wind the pneuma (Spirit) of God. For in Christ, we are no longer dead (亡) but alive in God.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Life Without Limbs but not without Hope

Each of us sometimes dream of an ideal life, sometimes an ideal lifestyle. What if one fine day, we lose the very ability to achieve our goal under 'normal circumstances,; let alone eat with our hands, or walk with our legs? What happens when we fall down not once, but over and over again? What do we do? Very often, we talk about what our strengths are and plan our vocation according to our forte. How many of us become motivated because of our lack, and inspires others through our weaknesses? Not many. Check out this video of Nick Vujicic from Australia, who started a ministry of hope (called 'Life Without Limbs',) and whose life easily shames those people constantly deep in self-pity, apathy and selfishness. More importantly, we see how a man's faith moved him to focus on others rather than self.

More videos can be found here and here.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Dying Wish That Never Dies

This is a touching story of a 11-year old boy who died of leukemia last Friday (Nov 21st, 2008). Perhaps as some of us head into Thanksgiving Day, wondering what to be thankful about during depressing times like these, remember that it does not take a big wallet to be thankful. One only needs a big heart. This video can bring a tear to some viewers. Rest assured, it is a tear that is worth shedding.

There is also a CNN edition. More photos and videos can be found here.

So my friends, if an 11 year old Brendan Foster, who struggles with a debilitating illness, can't those of us who are healthy and able do more? Forget about the bailout talks going on to help Wall Street and Main Street. Forget about the worries over job losses and bills to be paid. Such worries only help add oil to the flames of fear. Instead, put on compassion. Wear the clothes of grace and the shoes of peace. Don the hat of sharing and goodwill. As much as we receive, give generously. Do not only do the tangible things. Remember, for many of us, a word of encouragement and forgiveness can help touch hearts more than anything else. One does not necessarily need to be tough in order to survive rough times. Simply being a good neighbour everywhere we go helps take the venom out of bites of fear. Do not depend on bailouts or handouts to feel better. Instead, let sharing and caring be the hallmarks of our faith in God, in hope for the kingdom to eventually touch all creation.


Monday, November 24, 2008

The Opposite of Fear is . . .

Fear is the other four-letter word that begins with the letter 'F.' Compared to the other infamous word, the word 'fear' is more acceptably used in books as it is considered less vulgar. It does not soil the English language terribly. The Greeks has a word for it from where we derive the word: 'phobia.' Claustrophobia refers to a fear of being in a confined space. xenophobia is an irrational fear of strangers. Social-phobia is a general term for people afraid of being criticized in public. Homo-phobia is a term generally used to label people who are scared of being associated with homosexuals. If one is frightened of a particular animal or creature, one simply attach a prefix to phobia. For example, Arachnophobia is a term for fear of spiders. Musophobia is a fear of rodents such as mice or rats. Technophobia is used on people who are afraid of advanced technology while Cyberphobia is a term used for those who are paranoid over the Internet. A full list of different kinds of phobias can be found here. I counted a total of 659 different phobias on the list! Some of the fears border on the ridiculous as well. The fear of thinking is Phronemophobia makes me wonder how that can ever happen? How can anyone not think at all? Others seem to be interesting, like Hamartophobia which is a fear of sinning. This is one fear which may be of interest to the pious saints.

Is it love?
Some people say that the opposite of fear is love. They argue that a spiritual path driven by fear is inferior compared to one that is motivated by love. I agree that love cannot be forced but willingly given. We must not presume that the opposite of fear is love. I know that 1 John 4:18 tells us:
"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."
This verse does not conclusively tell us that the opposite of fear is love. No! This verse basically says that true love is without any fear. If love is likened to a giant cream cake, fear will be the smudges wiped carelessly on the lovely creation. Making fear the opposite of love gives fear too much credit. In the same way, we can misinterpret the meaning of sin. Sin is not a matter of doing right or wrong. Sin is essentially 'missing the mark.' The opposite of 'missing the mark' is 'hitting the target.' We cannot see sin as the target itself. John Cassian in his Conferences writes perceptibly about the spiritual life by distinguishing the goal (scopos) and the end (telos). The 'scopos' is hitting the target like an archer that hits the bulls-eye. However, the 'telos' is something better. It is the prize of hitting the mark. Using similar logic, the opposite of fear is not love, for love is the ultimate union with God. The opposite of fear is something more like the 'scopos' rather than the 'telos.'

Fear draws in punishment
A phobia-led kind of love is not perfect love. It is driven by external circumstances rather than internal. Phobia-driven love is done out of a lack of options instead of willingly given up DESPITE one's list of options. For instance, if a man forces a woman to marry him, failing which he threatens to reveal her dark secrets, that is not love. That is coercion. In the law courts, some testimonies can be nullified if it is found out that they were given under external duress. The Police or investigation teams are expected to ensure fair treatment of all persons in their custody.

A hint at the understanding of fear is punishment. If one does not do this, there are consequences to bear. This kind of cause-effect relationship bears testimony of a soul marred in sin. Christ came to offer all mankind a way out of such a spiritual quagmire. In spite of Jesus's secure position in heaven, he willingly gave them all up to come down to earth. In spite of Jesus's bountiful possessions in the heavenly realms, he willingly surrendered all for the sake of becoming poor and lived among us. Jesus chose to take upon human flesh, along with all the limitations instead of exercising his deity to the full. Here we encounter the age-old theological problem. Is Jesus fully human or fully divine when he is on earth? Allow me to make a brief detour from the fear topic to touch a little on this theology. It is important.

Q: Did Jesus give up his divinity and exchanged it for humanity?
If we were to say yes, then when Jesus is incarnated as a human being, he is not divine anymore. If we were to say no, we may go to the other position in which Jesus is never human in the first place. The evangelical position is that Jesus is BOTH human and divine, at the same time. What makes Jesus's incarnation on earth so amazing is that he chose to limit his own divine powers WILLINGLY. That is love. He was not driven by fear, but he is fully conscious of the consequences of fear. Hence, he is most qualified to tell:

- the disciples: "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid." (Matthew 14:27)

Subsequently, Jesus rebukes the disciples of their little faith due to their folly of falling into fear. The disciples did not truly believe that Jesus is divine, and when Jesus walked on water, they thought that he was a ghost. Peter, who was also walking on water toward Jesus was doing ok, until he starts to look at the looming winds and begins to sink. Jesus reprimands Peter for his lack of faith (Matt 14:31). Fear is essentially due to a lack of faith. The opposite of fear is faith. Pure love is without fear. Loving God is one that is done in faith, which is without fear.

What then do we mean by the fear of God?
This is another big theological question. The fear of God is not 'phobia' but the agony of not being perfect enough for God. Like a mother who bakes a special chocolate cake for her child. She puts in her best efforts and ingredients in order to make that cake as perfect as possible. Any 'fears' is out of not being able to do her best, rather than a phobia of being punished.
  • Selfish fear puts oneself in the center of attention. Fear of God let God be the center.
  • Selfish fear is afraid of being punished. Fear of God yearns to be as perfect as possible.
  • Selfish fear seeks to protect and defend one's possessions or territories. Fear of God renders property and possessions as secondary to the love of God.
  • Selfish fear is worried of the future. Fear of God anticipates a bright coming of the Kingdom.
  • Selfish fear looks back with regret. Fear of God reflects with thanksgiving and gratitude.
  • Selfish fear agonizes over present uncertainties. Fear of God reflects confidence in God's timely presence at any moment.

Fear can be a very potent weapon. Under the hands of the unscrupulous, a matchstick of fear, struck wickedly by a tiny evil stroke, sparks a deadly flame. Driven by the winds of uncertainty and the storms of gloom, the flame consumes weak hearts and inflict deep hurts. It easily spreads wildfires that burns and feeds upon anything and everything. An angry fire cannot be easily soothe. It seeks to consume until everything is destroyed, including itself. It can burn uncontrollably the positive expectations of many. It can snuff out any small glimmers of hopes.

A Five-Letter Word
Deep faith in God begets a first step against fear. It is a formidable defense against depression and anxiety. What then is the opposite of fear? It is faith. Actually, the opposite of fear is faith, which has elements of courage, fearlessness and positive outlook. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Without faith, one easily gets distracted by the unnecessary and loses direction and focus. Interestingly, we read of the many instances in Scripture when Jesus or the angels from heaven appear. Their first words are often: "Do not fear." We read that when Peter asked to walk to Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus invited Peter to do so. Peter was doing very well until his eyes shifted from Jesus to the winds around him. He then started to sink.
Matt. 14:30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Matt. 14:31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and *said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Thus the opposite of fear is 'have faith in God.' Faith in God leads us on the path of faith-hope-love, of which the greates of all is love. Thus, the opposite of fear is not another four letter word. It is instead a five-letter word: F.A.I.T.H.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Article on "Misplaced Zeal"

Christian workers can sometimes fall into the extremes of "knowledge without zeal" or "Zeal without knowledge." Both cases are not desirable. The former leads to lack of action, like what James warns about dead faith; the latter can lead one down the path of foolishness. My recent article, written for Cook International Partners tries to address this. There is a study guide as well. Do check it out here.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Fear Marketing

The marketing of fear can be a very profitable enterprise. Knowing the fears of another person/organization gives one an amazing upper-hand. If company A fears losing out on a deal, and competitor B finds out about it, B can easily out-maneuver A by taking advantage of A's fears. Fear marketing is sometimes used to boost sales but is ethically suspect. Forbes magazine published an article that talks about a pharmaceutical company trying to boost its sales of an anti-nerve gas drug. The drug, Atropen is an antidote for any nerve gas effects on the human body. Should the company start to tell the public to be prepared always for terrorist acts like nerve gas attacks? Should one start to stock up boxes of such atropine related medicine 'just in case' the enemy strikes?

I have worked in high technology companies before, and also with top executives of reputable firms. Actually, the reason why these executives are paid much more than the lower level staff is because they are charged with addressing the issue of risk in the marketplace. Hence, fear mongering techniques are one of the most popular ways to get such executives to give salespeople a listening ear.
- "What happens if the corporation's assets are threatened?"
- "What keeps you awake at 3am each night?"
- "What is keeping your biggest customer from embracing your biggest competitor?"
- "What if your organization's most precious information falls into the wrong hands?"

Even in churches, we get fear-filled situations. What if your biggest church financial contributors stop giving? What happens if half your congregation leaves for the church down the next block? What happens if the guest speaker does not turn up this Sunday?

I think fear mongering is a technique that hits below the belt. Just because the competition is doing it does not mean one has to copy the ugly cat! Why not be creative with one's offerings. Talk about what the competition cannot do. Emphasize the positives and the benefits that the customer can gain. Surround the product with excellent service that aims to provide true and honest value for the buck. Customers generally prefer to work with honest vendors and suppliers who have demonstrated integrity in the past. Those who compete on price alone may gain a little in the sprint race but will be humbled big-time in any marathon. Of course, some will argue that the world nowadays is too fast and too short for any long-term thinking or planning. I will reply by saying: "Easy come easy go." Which is better? A bean-sprouts quickie relationship or a solid tree built on a strong foundation of trust and goodwill?

Fear mongering methods are sometimes employed due to a lack of faith in one's offerings. Certainly, many companies will aim to do both. Highlight one's good points and at the same time, downplay the competition. My submission is that one's ability to stand on the basis of its own strengths (even weaknesses), is a mark of true leadership. Companies lead the way because of their overwhelming edge in their products and services. It is one thing to win on one's own merits. It is yet another to gain at another's expense.

I am very fascinated by companies that are first-movers. For example, Sony popularized the Walkman more than 20 years ago. Apple invented the iPod and a whole new industry. Google came up with a search technology that practically blew away the competition. All of them had that something special that is not easily copied. They do not need to engage fear mongering techniques. They simply became likable.

Another company that I find interesting is General Electric. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE talks about the 4E leader, one who
- who has tremendous levels of ENERGY;
- who ENERGIZES people around them;
- who constantly produces an EDGE;
- who produce measurable results as they EXECUTE.

I look at the way these 4Es are arranged, and the first three has to do with a sense of self-understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses. The 4Es are not dependent on what the competition does, though it helps one's ability to EXECUTE when one is more aware of what the next competitor is doing. I feel that if one spends less time worried about others, and spend more time developing one's core strategies and skills, the organization stands a better chance of building a unique culture of innovation and creativity. Otherwise, the organization is simply a carbon copy of the competition. Have faith in one's sense of identity, not in the fear of one's insecurity. Welch is a great proponent of EXECUTION. Part of his execution strategy is to keep high levels of leadership at all hierachies of the organization. This means doing all they can to develop key leaders and talents. In fact, one of the interesting things is when GE went on the offensive even when others are retrenching. In times like this, with news of job losses reported daily in the media, it is quite the acceptable thing for company to simply lay people off. This is an unhealthy environment richly fertilized with fear. Thus the key is not to use retrenchments as a general tool. Re-focus on core competencies. Spend where it is needed especially. Continue to invest in people. Those who retrenches simply because everyone is doing it are poor examples of leadership. Increase spending in selected areas. This is a mark of a leader who truly knows the core capabilities of the company. One of GE's core competencies is leadership development. (I met this project engineer from GE last year who graduated from the famous MIT, and learned that the organization actually allows employees to talk to their superiors SIX levels up. That is a lot of trust and openness.)

Keep fear marketing far away. Have faith in God who has made us unique. Believe in our uniqueness and may creativity be there to chart out new growth opportunities, even during this economic downturn.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Piling Up" (our hopes, not unemployment figures)

This is a pictorial grimly summarized (Credit: The Straits Times Singapore, Nov 20th 2008 page A3) the latest unemployment figures worldwide. Leading the way are the financial and technology sectors which are cutting jobs more than 5x-7x the rate of the third largest. We are talking of a huge number of job losses. Aong with it are tumbling of hopes.

Hope even in bleak moments
Are there any reasons for hope during such bleak times? As a news reader, it is difficult to develop any inspiration or positive outlook of the future by reading bad news. As a news reporter, bad news attracts more attention than good news. After-all, readership numbers are important. Hence the saying, 'no news is good news' still rings true. As a Christian reader, should we succumb easily to such depressing headlines? No. We do not need to fret. We have been taught by Jesus:
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:32-34)
Just before this exhortation to bless others, Jesus reminded the disciples not to worry. As much as the sparrows and the lilies are cared for, without them having to worry, how much more will our heavenly Father care for us? This is what I understand as "From Empty --> Full"; upon transformation of our focus from things to the kingdom of God, we move from "Full to Emptying of ourselves."
A) FROM Possessing Nothing TO Having Everything (Luke 12:22-29)
B) It is not about things. It is about God's kingdom. Seek kingdom first, these secondary things will be ADDED unto us as we glimpse and receive the kingdom (Luke 12:30-31)
C) Having received the kingdom, we felt blessed to bless others (Luke 12:32-34)
The key verse in the Luke 12 passage is this:
"For Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:34)

Hope Comes in 'Little' Ways
I am intrigued by a small detail in verse 32. Jesus used the word "μικρὸν" which is Greek for 'little.' It is pronounced as mikron ('mik' as in 'Mic'key and 'ron' as in 'Ron'ny), reminding us of 'micro', or 'micron' size. This is the often the smallest standard unit of measuring tiny stuff. I remember when I was working in a semiconductor cleanroom environment, we measure tiny particles in terms of microns. Such measurement is critical as the particles are not allowed to go near sensitive electonics that require a 'clean' environment. What is invisible to the naked eye can cause visible damage to micr-electronic components. There are 25400 microns in one inch. Other examples are:
- Human Hair (30-300 microns)
- Pollen (10-1000 microns)
- Saw dust (30-600 microns)
- Mold spores (10-30 microns)
- Carbon Monoxide particle (2.5 micron)
- Liquid droplets (0.5-5 microns)
- Smoke (0.01 - 4 microns)

Even our breath emit particles large enough (sub microns) to damage electonics, hence all workers need to wear protective face masks to avoid releasing harmful particles that will affect semiconductor yields. Jesus knows the state of a worried being. We feel 'micron' sized when faced with huge challenges. Like a small lamb hiding itself in fear when facing a large lion, we too have a tendency to feel small and discouraged when confronting large and seemingly impossible situations.

Interestingly, Jesus encourages the hearers at that time with a brilliant use of contrast. The tiniest of all, can receive the greatest. If anyone of us feels extremely small and discouraged, we are prime candidates for God to inspire and encourage. When Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will also be, he is strongly pointing to an important truth. We may feel small but our hearts need not be small. A small wallet in the hands of a generous heart will reap huge dividends. A small set of arms hugged with a big gentle heart creates far more warmth. A small voice spoken with a loving heart reaches beyond the ears into the bottom of the heart. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. May that treasure of our lives, be the kingdom of God. Possessions, security of jobs and general well-being are important. Material stuff are essential for our daily needs. God knows all our needs. In fact, he knows our greater need is not these things. Our deepest need is God. For when we experience God, not only these earthly things will be ADDED unto us, we become ever more willing to give them away to bless others.

Yes. Unemployment figures may be piling up but that is no reason to be dumbing down our hopes. In fact, hard times are great opportunities for us to be God's beacon of hope for the world. We can look up to God, look out for others, and above all love ALL for God. That is a sign of a transformed life for Christ. Let not unemployment numbers shut us down. Let not the doom-and-gloom economists depress us with their 'intelligent' analysis of the world economy into helplessness. Pile up our hearts with hope. Then we can look up to God, look out for others and let God's love manifest mightily through us. We do not need to have a big bank account or a big physical body or possessions to do big things. All we need is a big heart of hope.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Faith Evidenced by Good Works

Last Sunday, in our regular Sunday adult class, we were talking about ups and downs of our faith works. The sermon that day was about “Faith that works.” We were discussing James 2:14-26 on the sermon entitled: "Faith That Works." Some in the class were concerned about Christians who ‘over-intellectualize’ their faith. Others desire to go more in depth, saying there is a great need for it in the church. It was a tough but profitable time of sharing and engaging one another. Like iron sharpens iron, all of us came away feeling refreshed and challenged. In my summary, I described the spiritual life as likened to a sine/cosine wave, or sinusoidal wave of ups and downs. The goal is to exercise a faith that is consistent (represented by the blue lines “Faith evidenced by good works.”) Human motion is never a straight line. Even when we walk, our left leg tends to swing us to the right, and our right to the left. By alternating the use of our legs with a central focus, we are able to move in a direction we want. There is a word that describes the Christian life very well. It is the word ‘meandering.’ Being human, we have a tendency to meander through twists and turns. The primary description of what being human is all about is sin. Due to sin, the human nature has a propensity to sin and move AWAY from God and the things of God. Only in the Spirit can one be led back to the center of God’s will. In the diagram, human nature tends to meander along a set path. It is difficult to ever walk in a straight line. When human tendency leads one to over or under-intellectualize our faith, we need to let God direct us back to the center to exercise a faith that is evidenced by good works. Walking and talking becomes one and the same act.

In talking about human nature and the spiritual life, David Gushee, an Ethics Professor lists 4 things we need to be aware about when planning toward a spiritual destination.
1. A clear sense of where we are going;
2. Directions on how to get there;
3. Knowledge of hazards and challenges one may face;
4. Whether our equipment is suitable to the task at hand.

He argues that the ‘starting point’ is highly critical, and it stems from the knowledge of one’s human nature. This starting point rests on our acknowledgment that human nature is essentially a quest for wholeness. It cannot be done by ourselves. To be truly human is to be able to embrace God’s way, not our way; God’s will and not our will.

Gushee concludes:
It is impossible ultimately to embrace the Christian account of humanity without embracing the Christian account of God. When we do, we find that true wholeness in life’s journey happens when God’s hopes become our hopes and God’s dreams become our dreams.” (David P Gushee, Only Human, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005, p200)
When we put more faith in our own abilities or skills, we risk moving to either extremes of over or under-doing anything, even the things of God. We talk more when we should walk. We run faster than our heads could think. Either way, we have to constantly pause from what we are doing in order to re-set our bearings. Running headlong quickly does not give us any head start if it is in the wrong direction. Procrastinating on the good that we ought to do when we are able to do so, wastes precious time and resources. Only when we are constantly mindful of Christ and discerning the movement of the Spirit in our hearts can we evidence our faith through good works.

Let our spiritual walk not become a series of haphazard actions that lead us nowhere. Neither should we allow our spiritual talk toward ‘analysis till paralysis,’ constantly talking theology that is devoid of action.

Four Examples of Faith Evidenced By Good Works
a) William Wilberforce (1759-1833), was a keen intellect well trained in Christian theology. He spent many years in school, entering Cambridge at the tender age of 17. It took a personal revival that makes these years of learning into constant moments of yearning to do God’s work. Wilberforce became a leading figure in charitable work, in providing leadership in the marketplace and most certainly the eventual abolishment of the slave trade in Great Britain and ultimately influencing similar actions around the world.

b) Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) grew up with a silver spoon. She was not content to simply listen to ‘boring’ Christian talk. She burns with a desire for a more active life, a life that is exemplified by walking the talk. In 1850, against the wishes of her family, she voluntarily entered nursing school so that she can exercise her faith in the area of health care. Her efforts to reform medical care was long and arduous. She is a religious thinker whose faith requires her to work out her faith enthusiastically and passionately. She believes her calling was to help improve the world through proper health and medical care. She has been largely credited for founding the modern nursing profession we have come to take for granted.

c) Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was also a keen scholar of Christian theology. His stature was well known that he was even offered tenure at an American University, safe and far away from the horrible wars in his home continent. However, his faith does not allow him to relax and sit comfortably in the corridors of academia. He felt a calling to return to his home country, Germany to resist the Nazi regime. He spoke against the Nazi theology at the risk of arrest and torture. He was martyred in 1945, but his work and writings have lived on to inspire many generations.

d) Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) is a famous civil rights activist in America who fought bravely for establishing equal rights for all races, especially the blacks. A brilliant intellectual, he was well trained in theology. He read widely and soon his heart felt moved to action. He saw society being eroded by bad principles and wrong ideals. If no one does anything, the black people will continue to live unjustly under the tyranny of an evil system.

All these four figures have one important similarity. Their faith is evidenced in action, rooted with a conviction that God’s word is living. We dare not presume we can have the political successes of Wilberforce. Some of us dared not dream of replicating a Nightingale. Even fewer are those who are willing to give up their lives like Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. God knows us. After all, he created us. Lest we get discouraged by not being able to emulate any of these great people, let me end with the words of the first astronaut to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11:

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Likewise, as we take our faith seriously and let our actions walk our talk, no matter how small or insignificant our steps may be, any step done for Christ, is a step forward in expanding the kingdom of God. One small step in faith, one giant leap for the kingdom of God.

Walking our faith is never too tiny. After all, a mustard seed is never too small.


Latest Posts