Thursday, July 10, 2008

God's Way or Our way?

"The contrast between God's way of doing things and our way is never more acute than this area of human change and transformation. We focus on specific actions; God focuses on us. We work from the outside in; God works from the inside out. We try; God transforms." (Richard Foster)

Foster is best known for his best-selling work: "Celebration of Discipline." In that book, he essentially revolutionizes the disciplines of Christian living. Describing vividly the 12 disciplines (8 personal and 4 corporate), Foster weaves in the personal inward practices of prayer, fasting, meditation and study with the outward alliteration of simplicity, solitude, submission and service. Then he outlines the four basic corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Published in 1978, the book has remained a popular and often used as the benchmark for the practice of Christian disciplines. He has continued his desire of going deeper by founding Renovare. "Superficiality is the curse of our age" represents his conviction that people needs to grow deeper in the faith. "Growing deep in God" is also the desire of Rev Edmund Chan of Covenant Evangelical Free Church, whose book reflects the title of the same name. In that book, Chan hits the mark with the intent to integrate theology and prayer in wanting to grow deep in God. I believe Chan has approached this correctly. Prayer is the pathway to deepening our faith in God. It is essentially a book about prayer. The desert fathers have constantly focused on prayer as the way to knowing God. Cassian's Conferences for example, is a classic for prayer. In Conference 9, Cassian writes:
"That still higher condition....that fiery prayer known and experienced be very few, and which properly speaking is ineffable, transcending all human thought, marked not by any sound of the voice, not movement of the tongue, nor speaking of words. The mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light speaks not with human and limited language but richly pours forth [its prayer] with a mass of feelings, as if from a copious fountain, ineffably uttering such great things to God in the shortest possible space of time that when it returns to its normal state it cannot easily express of relate them. (Conf 9.25)"
Cassian's contemporary, Evagrius of Pontus describes ecstatic prayer as that state of praying in an unaware manner, just like sleeping. Thus prayer progresses beyond duty toward pure desire. Prayer transforms into a lifestyle rather than mere activity. Prayer becomes invisible as it becomes infused into our own being and soul. That is what growing deep in God should be.

Indeed, God's way and our way are so different, that the only way for us to be united with God is not to choose our way but God's way. Humans need to be transformed and renewed. Otherwise, we will always be trying to straitjacket God into our mortal ideas which are fallible and imperfect. One consequence is divisiveness. Take the Corinthian church for example. The Corinthians were divided by various interpreters of God's truth: the Pauls, the Apollos, the Cephas's, and even the Christ's. All of them had one thing in common: Divisiveness. In other words, if we are too focused on self, divisiveness will often be the price to pay. Inflating the self at the expense of deflating community building.

1 Cor 12 reads:
Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” (1 Cor 1:12) The Greek is even more dramatic.
ἐγὼ μέν εἰμι Παύλου, ἐγὼ δὲ Ἀπολλῶ, ἐγὼ δὲ Κηφᾶ, ἐγὼ δὲ Χριστοῦ. [I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas, I of christ]
The word ἐγὼ is pronounced as 'egg-go.' It is the root of the English word 'ego' which is often referred to perjoratively as a self-inflated sense of importance. I have made bold the word 'I' in the translation, to indicate that when Paul uses the word ἐγὼ on the respective quarters in the Corinthian church, he is directly accusing them of putting themselves as more important than Paul, Apollos, Cephas and Christ. This gives us the clue to the root of the problem of Church divisions in Corinth. People see their own opinions and interpretations as so important that they are prepared to fight for their 'rights' at the expense of the broader unitive aspect. Verse 13-17 confirms this interpretation. The Corinthians' self-exaggerated sense of importance, have clouded their understanding of biblical truth. Paul goes on to use himself as an example, that to follow Christ, is essentially to do what Christ has done, that is, to preach the gospel not with human wisdom but in the cross of Christ. The question is how did the members of the Church become so self-focused? Where did they get this sense of high individualism? The use of Pauls, Apollos, Cephas and Christs means that there is a climate of spiritual competitiveness. People in the Corinthian church tried to upend one another, even to the point of dropping famous names. This level of self-importance gets raised a bar higher when one drags in other names as well to their points of view. Individualism has a corporate component as well. Some other examples of spiritual competitiveness is trying to upend each other in saying the last word in Bible studies questions. Or competing with one another to choose the best and popular style of worship. Or to preach based on one's oratory powers rather than depending on the unction of the Spirit at the pulpit. Spiritual competitiveness also rears its head at the boardroom.

It is common that when one tends to garner support from more reputable sources in order to substantiate a personal argument. Scholars quote from many sources in order to make their papers more credible. Established scholars do not have to quote so many. When a person runs out of arguments, the next option is to ride on the back of a famous name. This happens in discussion groups too, and it is frequently noticed that people quote from sources more sympathetic to their point of view. Like what one of my professors used to say: "If we copy from one source, that's plagiarism. If we copy from many sources, that's scholarship! (sic!)"

There is a very subtle difference between "telling the whole truth as is" vs "telling the truth that is welded to a personal point of view." The former is seen more from a distant observer viewpoint, while the latter treats the whole matter very personally. It has been said that when one is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When a person views the world from an individualistic perspective, global matters become sharply skewed to the one's scope of understanding. 2 to the power of 5 makes it 32. Likewise, seeing the world to the power of self increases individualism in the world. In the 80s, a group of social scientists surveyed the American cultural landscape and concluded that the "vocabulary of individualism" has damaged community living in a big way. Four major research projects were described, 2 about the private lives and the other 2 about the public life of Americans.
  1. Love and Marriage (older forms, private)
  2. Therapy (newer forms, private)
  3. Local Politics and voluntary organizations (older forms, public)
  4. Political Activism(newer forms, public)
Alarmingly, Bellah et al states
... that the family is no longer an integral part of a larger moral ecology tying the individual to community, church, and nation. The family is the core of the private sphere, whose aim is not to link individuals to the public world but to avoid it as far as possible. In our commercial culture, consumerism, with all its temptations, and television, with its examples, augment that tendency. Americans are seldom as selfish as the therapeutic culture urges them to be. (Bellah et al, "Habits of the Heart", Harper & Row, 1985, 112)
The enthronement of self appears to be on the rise.

Activist Individualism
Recently, Dr Henry Morgentaler, the pro-choice activist, was awarded the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award by Canada on distinguished contributors to Canadian society. This has generated much controversy and resulted in a former Order of Canada recipient returning the award, saying that it has tarnished the Order of Canada. As of July 10th, four persons have returned the award as they continue the uphill battle against the 'pro-choice' movement. Indeed, the pro-choice, and pro-rights movement is growing at an astounding rate judging from the report that two-thirds of Canadians support Morgentaler's award. Another observation is that many of those who spoke against the pro-choice movements continue to be among the older generation. It is one thing to fight for one's right to do certain thing. However, we must make sure that one recognizes his/her responsibility to society too. There is a small tiny island on the Cul-de-Sac (semi-closed roundabout) near my place. Some people simply dump old unwanted garbage like torn sofas, old TV sets, and damaged furniture in the middle of the island without due consideration for the neighbourhood. I was told that the municipal authorities have posted a fine of $1000, provided the culprits are caught. Still, the dumping continues as if dumping indiscriminately has become their divine right. What will happen if society continues to fight tooth and nail for the rights, but are soft hearted about their responsibilities? Individualism reigns to the detriment of the human race.

That is why we need to arrest Individualism and ask ourselves daily: "Are we obeying God's way or our way?" The first step to spiritual renewal is to seek for divine help. The second step is to listen for the response and obey.

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