Saturday, September 27, 2008

"The Dream Giver"

He started the Walk-Through-The-Bible
ministry in 1976, to guide people through the 66 books of the Christian Bible. His "Seven Laws of the Learner" remains etched into the minds of many people, used by many Churches and helped in the discipleship of young Christian believers. You can read about the 7 laws here, here, or here. His book, the "Prayer of Jabez" released in 2000 continues to be popular. "The Dream Giver" comes hot on the heals of that success. The Dream Giver is Wilkinson's update of the age-old classic: "Pilgrim' Progress." In The Dream Giver, Bruce Wilkinson shares his journey through the different stages of his life pursuing a dream he has. Through the parable of "Ordinary," who is a "nobody" in the "Land of Familiar." One day, Ordinary receives a Big Dream from the Dream Giver. Much like Abraham who was told to leave his country of origin to go into the land of Canaan, Ordinary is given a dream. To move from being a 'Nobody' to a 'Somebody.'
The Big Dream told him that he, a Nobody, was made to be a Somebody and destined to achieve Great Things. (Bruce Wilkinson, The Dream Giver, OR: Multnomah,
2003, p14)
The story has a very familiar line for many people who feels stuck in the rut. Here's a brief synopsis with some excerpts from the book.

In the Beginning........
It starts with a dream and novel excitement. As Ordinary embraces his big dream, he gets all pumped up. He decides to pursue his dream, say goodbye to his 'Ordinary Job' and leaves his comfort zone.He moves from the safe & secure familiar for the scary & unknown unfamiliar. Ordinary on reflection writes:
It was hard to leave my comfort Zone. But it would have been even harder to leave behind my dream, and I'm glad I didn't.... My Big Dream was on the other side of that invisible Wall of Fear. I had to step through it. I didn't think I could but I did. (26)
At the Border
Sometimes, it is at the threshold of change that fear and uncertainty peaks. It is the last exit before the border, the final parachute to jump off the plane, the remaining last moment to turn around and go back. All that combines to lift fears up to a chilling crescendo. Often this is made worse by please from loved ones. At the border, the dream-seeker meet 'nobodies' who try to dissuade him. Finally, he has to choose. Either to please the nobodies and the Familiarzoners, or to obey the Dream-Giver. Based on a promise, he proceeds in pursuit of his dream.
Ordinary, if you've found this boat, I know you've chosen to please the Dream Giver. Enjoy a dry crossing! Your dream is waiting for you in the Land of Promise. I promise! (Champion) (32)
Temptations and Discouragement Steps In
Once the enthusiasm wears off, reality seeps in. The dream-seeker travels into wasteland where he quickly consumes his food. He needs replenishment. Dryness and Exhaustion forms a potent combination for despair. He allows doubt to make the whole situation worse..until he found Faith.
Now I see that the Wasteland was not a Waste! It has taught me to trust the Dream Giver, even when he's nowhere in sight. (41)
Entering the Sanctuary
The dream-seeker soon arrives at a sanctuary. Here he receives a shocking request. The Dream Giver spoke to him and asked him to give back the dream. It was a difficult struggle. Eventually, he learns that "I am surrendering my Dream to you, Dream Giver. I've decided that it's you that I can't go on without." It was hard at first but greatly liberating for the dream-seeker. Toward the end, amazingly, this dream was returned back. Just like Abraham who was asked to offer Isaac as a sacrifice unto the Lord, and who eventually receives Isaac back alive as the Lord provided another sacrificial lamb. It made the dream-seeker realize that:
The Dream Giver gave my dream back to me. Now it is part of his big dream - and that means my dream is a lot bigger than before. May I always use it to serve him! (49)
Defeating the Giants
Journeys toward any dream are never easy. There are giants to overcome. The dream-seeker realizes that the biggest enemies are not the physical presence of danger but the insidious presence of unbelief. He writes:
Before I met my first giant, I met the Commander. He told me that I am a Warrior! He showed me that my weapons are every Truth I've learned on my journey. Unbelief is dangerous. So far, I have chosen to believe. But it feels risky every time. (59)
The Land of Promise
Dear Father,

I'm writing to you after a very long journey.
but I made it! I'm living in the Land of Promise and
watching my Big Dream happen all around me. And
to think it all started with sticks and mud when I was
a boy!

Father, I discovered that every Nobody has a
Dream, and it's never too late to pursue it! I know you
thought your Dream died, but a Big Dream never dies.
your Dream is here somewhere, waiting for you.
and if you don't pursue it, something very important
won't happen.

Of course, Mother has a Big Dream too! I can't
wait to see both of you!

Father as you see, I'm sending you my feather. It
will help you on your journey. It will lead you straight
toward a miracle that has your name on it.
I miss you!

Love your son

In summary, the Christian journey is like this parable. One starts with a high, gets challenged along the way, and only through perseverance and faith, one gets into the land of promise. This modern rendition of Pilgrim's Progress is a simple idea. It aims to spur one to leave the comfort of the ordinary which makes one nobodies. Instead, they should venture into unfamiliar territory in order to become somebody. Right on. We are indeed what we choose. What kind of life will you choose? Pursue your dream at the risk of uncertainty, or protect your current assets which is safe and secure (for the time being)? You choose.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Quitting One's Job

“I hate my job but I have to feed my family!”
“Why should I keep doing this crummy job when there is another better paying position elsewhere?”
“I am not happy with my job.”

There are many reasons why people quit what they are doing. Some do so for medical reasons, some due to retirement age, and others due to the end of a contractual agreement. Others want to quit but couldn’t due to financial reasons, relationship or other legitimate concerns. Scandals are one of the worst reasons to quit. Sometimes they are necessary but should not be the case if due diligence has been exercised. Some of the top reasons for quitting one’s job

  • No prospect of any career advancement;
  • Lousy boss;
  • Unhappy about it;
  • Better pay elsewhere;
  • Location;
  • & many others

More popular reasons to quit can be found here. I remember a time when I used to answer queries about my ideal job. I would jokingly reply: “It should be one that is conveniently near, work short hours, relaxing and pays very well.” Well, I learned it the hard way. My first job was nearly 2 hours of travel each way, not relaxing and pay was peanuts. That gives my idealism a rude jolt of reality. In this article, I want to look at the aspect of quitting one’s job at the early stages, the middle and the end stages. Regardless of the timing, I want to argue that wisdom and discernment has to be in place. It does not simply mean a higher pay or position elsewhere, nor a significant level of personal satisfaction or perceived happiness. It has got to do with a constant exercise of discernment and wisdom together with a community.

Money is one of the worst measurements of happiness at work. Having a high paying job often means high sacrifices. Huge monetary gains can often mean significant sacrifices for personal, family and social relationships. Stress and strain goes up. Meaningful quality time with people comes down. Nothing is for free. Another inadequate measuring instrument is one’s perceived happiness or self-satisfaction. The job can remain the same but the worker’s mood varies considerably. The job scope does not change, but one’s emotional level and experiences undergo changes in time. What seems absolutely awesome today may become the most boring job tomorrow. Expectations from people, especially one’s superiors also change. The most vulnerable time for anyone is the day after a peak performance, a successful sale or a promotion. In one moment, the potential for a fall gets elevated many times. Expectations from others become sky high. Self-belief becomes exaggerated over one’s actual ability to perform. I know of people who simply could not cope with their increased role, whose job performance deteriorated after a high-profile promotion. During such times, they get special treatment just because management simply cannot afford to let them fail. They get pampered, protected and preserved from external scrutiny, even putting up a façade to show that not only the man deserves to be promoted, management has made an excellent choice too. Thus begins the new era of the charade. Another lousy measurement factor is desperation. Sometimes it is plain and necessary. We need to feed the family. We need to pay our bills. We need to do something useful with our time. It is easy to relax and take our own time when one has huge reserves in the bank. It is yet another situation when we are running out of cash for our basic needs. Having said that, the question remains: When do we quit? My quick reply will be, When you begin to sense that what you are building is a golden calf for self rather than God, it is time you either change direction or start the quitting process.

There is a famous poem about not quitting. It is readily available on the internet. There is even a nice slideshow with music on a dedicated ‘Don’t Quit’ poem website.
Don’t Quit!

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
when the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but do not quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow—
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than,
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might have captured the victor’s cup,
And he learned too late when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out—
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit—
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

While this poem is inspirational and should help people press on and persevere to succeed in their respective roles, that is not the case for everyone. For many of us who are honest believers in Christ, we know that there are times in which wisdom demands we recognize when to stop and make a change. Our goal is Christ-likeness, not mere self-fulfillment, or simply because the world needs it. The need does not determine the call. The call however can create a need.

“What matters most in the Christian’s work life is not what matters to the world. It’s not the size of the paycheck, the impressiveness of the business card, the prestige, or the number of battles won. It’s not even your productivity or the quality of your work, although hard work is certainly a worthy pursuit. Instead, when it comes to your job, what matters most to the Man with the microphone is the extent to which you were Christlike from 9 to 5.
” (Michael A Zigarelli, Faith At Work, p11-12)

When should a Christian consider quitting?
- When he realizes that what he doing is making a golden calf after one’s image.

All of us will quit one day. Nothing on earth is ever permanent. Everyone has an expiry date. The common question is when? I tend to agree that one’s level of spirituality plays an important role in answering this question. In a study of ‘Spirituality and Job Satisfaction among Hospice Workers,’ researchers found out that there is a tight connection between self-actualization and spirituality. Those who have a deep spiritual view of their role in life performs better. Those who performs better grows in their spirituality. Like pairs of metallic plates spinning within an electromagnetic field, the momentum of each propels the other to spin faster.

“…members who integrate their spiritual beliefs into their work are more likely to self-actualize and those who self-actualize are more likely to integrate their spiritual beliefs into their work as well.” (Leah Clark et al, Journal of Palliative Medicine Vol 10, No.6, 2007, 1328)

First, there is an ethical reason. When we know for sure that the organizational values do not match ours, we should make plans to quit. Ethical considerations are one of the most common factors for people to terminate their employment relationship. It could be the boss using you to exploit others. There is a time to fight against injustice. There is a time to work toward an improved just environment. However, there is also a time to realize that one’s effectiveness in that role will end. That is when it is time to quit.

Second, there is a relationship factor. People often claim that family comes first. When the job takes one away from the family at ridiculously long periods of time, it is time to consider quitting. Given the financial loss and prestige, it can sometimes be very difficult to throw in the towel. It will require courage to terminate the work relationship on this factor. Once I had to advise a friend to consider talking about his family situation with his boss. If his boss does not agree or does not seem to bother about the employee family situation, it is a fair estimate that the boss is not someone worth working for in the long run.

Third, there is an economic factor. As much as money is not everything, we need to realize that money is still necessary. A job with a higher pay may be necessary in order to sustain foreseeable increase in expenditure. It could be due to the need to finance our children toward their college education. It could be the need to earn more money so that one parent can afford to stay at home to care for the children. Single income families do go through certain levels of stress.

Fourth, there is the productivity factor. When one’s level of energy comes down due to the loss of focus and distraction toward other things, it could be a time to re-adjust the sails. While there are people who hold on to life-long jobs that does not change, many of us will have changing interests over time. Coupled with a desire to take on greater challenges, it is far better to move on and let other people more enthusiastic and capable to do the job. I know of a professor who willingly resign from his post so that he can take on more speaking engagements. At the same time, he makes room for younger talent to come in and earn the experience. In a world of limited budgets and opportunities, it is often a zero-sum game. If one does not leave the cubicle, he denies others the opportunity to enter. I admire this professor for the self-sacrifice and willingness to think for the organization.

Fifth, there is the greater awareness of one’s vocation. Not many of us can claim to hit our perfect job first time. In fact, for many, we will never ever get a perfect job. However, there are times in which we sense that God is calling us to change roles and take on newer challenges. This is an act of faith. Henri Nouwen is one such person. A successful and highly sought-after speaker, and a Yale & Harvard professor for many years, he willingly surrender his academic prestige in order to give his time and talent to the L’Arche Daybreak organization in order to work with people with developmental disabilities. It was a sacrifice of academic glamour and prestige. It comes with a much lower pay, and calls for lots of humility and patience. Imagine a highly qualified intellectual working with people who struggles with their mental thoughts. Such an action requires a tremendous sense of vocation as discerned in the Lord. It also demanded humility which Nouwen earnestly sought. Nouwen’s sense of vocation is not tied to a tenure at a University despite his solid qualifications. It is tied to the need to be humble before God and men. He allows his faith in God to become grace with people.

Sixth, there is a health or physical aspect. When one’s job becomes more hazardous to health, it is also time to reconsider one’s level of involvement, tone down and if necessary quit. We have heard of karoshi (death through overwork) and the negative effects of overwork. There are other aspects like lack of needed exercise, or the increase in stress that the poor heart cannot take. For example, if one already had a history of stroke, no matter how minor, one ought to take that as an initial warning sign to change his current lifestyle. If one works until there is hardly anytime to eat, the problem is due more to the lack of control over one’s work rather than the work itself. Take control. Take charge and make changes.

Seventh, there is the spiritual factor. We are reminded of Jesus’s teaching of what good does it bring if one can gain the whole world and loses his soul (Mark 8:36). We can easily turn the work we are doing into a golden calf. It is all too easy to continue plodding away and erroneously thinking we are doing it for the worship of God. Sometimes, our overwhelming desire to build this calf looks more like a worship unto self rather than God.

I have a lot more to say on the spirituality of quitting, but I'll deal with it at a later article. At this time, allow me to present a dilemma of a human resource officer who faces the issue of truth-telling. Here goes......
Rita was asked to enter the CEO's office that morning. She was in charge of the company monthly newsletter. Knowing that the economy is at a sharp downtown, given the turmoil going on in the entire industry, she knows many employees are suspecting that they might be layoffs. The CEO does not want to leak out any information about the impending retrenchment, for fear of damaging staff morale. He instructed Rita specifically not to mention anything about it in her newsletter. 'Keep writing the safe stuff,' the CEO said. Rita left the office with a heavy heart.

What should Rita do? Should she speak up on behalf of the employees? Should she tell the whole truth? Should she go against the instructions of the CEO? Or should she quit?
Your turn.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"The Secret" Laid Bare

My first glance of this book a few weeks ago already raised some warning bells. Last Sunday, the book was mentioned by the preacher. I decide to take a second look at the book, and true enough, it only confirms my initial suspicions. I have been reluctant to give this book any more attention than it already has. However, with the rising interest and the runaway sales at major book stores, it is becoming more of a concern that people are starting to show interest in such a book that enthrones the self almost completely. Here is my take on the book.

It has sold more than 7 million copies, made into a film and even recommended by Oprah. Touted as an ancient ‘secret’ waiting to be discovered, the author Rhonda Byrne, brings together a host of success, motivational speakers with famous people from ancient times under the guise of ‘The Secret.” Riding on the credibility of 24 contributors, and many prominent people from history, and selected testimonies from the public, she provides a formula on the secret toward all kinds of things people desire in this life.
  • Secret to Money
  • Secret to Relationships
  • Secret to Health
  • Secret to the World
  • Secret to yourself
  • Secret to Life
What exactly is the secret? It is the way to persistently think one's thoughts into tangible things. No reference to any need to renew the mind. No teaching about the need to love one's neighbour. Everything about the secret is self-fulfillment to the power of self interest.

In June 2007, ChristianityToday published a scathing criticism on Byrne's book, arguing that Oprah and millions of readers can be wrong. The main problem lies with the overwhelming obsession with the self. This is very true. For example, the 'secret summaries' in the book lists some very disturbing narcissistic teachings. Let me quote from the book:
  • "You get to fill the blackboard of your life with whatever you want.
  • "The only thing you need is feel good now."
  • "Do what you love..."
  • "....Whatever you choose is right. The power is all yours."
[Rhonda Byrne, The Secret, NY: Atria Books, 2006, p184]
The Australian online newspaper recently published a "Secret to Rhonda's Secret" that reveals the controversial author's legal problems.
Newsweek magazine's senior editor Jerry Adler is not very forgiving in his review of Byrne's book.
Adler concludes that on an ethical level, “The Secret” appears deplorable. It concerns itself almost entirely with a narrow range of middle-class concerns - houses, cars and vacations, followed by health and relationships, with the rest of humanity a very distant sixth. And on the scientific level, the law of attraction is preposterous. Two of the “teachers” in the film are identified as quantum physicists, which they are, although on the fringes of mainstream science. One, Fred Alan Wolf, is mostly an author of science books with a quasi-mystical bent, and the other, John Hagelin (who has run for president on the Natural Law ticket), is affiliated with Maharishi University of Management, in Fairfield, Iowa, which does research on transcendental meditation. Both of them, contacted by Newsweek, distanced themselves from the idea of a physical law that attracts objects such as necklaces to people who wish for them. “I don’t think it works that way,” says Wolf dryly. “It hasn’t worked that way in my life.” Hagelin acknowledges the larger point, that “the coherence and effectiveness of our thinking is crucial to our success in life.” But, he adds, “this is not, principally, the result of magic.” (Quoted in ReligionNewsBlog)
Dr Donald Whitney of BiblicalSpirituality commented that
The Secret is nothing more than Name It-Claim It, Positive-Confession, Prosperity Theology (without God and the Bible), built on a foundation of New Age self-deification.
The Law of Attraction
Basically, the book is about a self-help device that uses the mind to call upon things that one desire. This law claims that you can essentially think your way into getting what you want. The mind is like a magnet that one can use to attract things using thoughts. If one think positive things, it will eventually become reality. These positive thoughts exist on a secret frequency that when summoned will flow into the hands of the one thinking it. Weird isn't it? Not to many people who are believing the book contents log, stock and barrel.

This book belongs to the library of New Age spirituality. In a world where people are increasingly unhappy, they will grab at ANYTHING that offers some glimmer of hope.
  1. Rhonda is an experienced TV producer. She knows how to attract attention via skillful use of the media.
  2. Her book includes 24 popular success personalities. "The Secret" is like a Yellow-Pages of Success helpers. The so-called contributors (who are currently alive) of the book have included their web contacts for readers to call them. Are they 'attracting' more gullible people to buy their wares too? Pages 185-198 are not simply bibliographical material. They look more like advertisements.
  3. There is a disclaimer on the book which states clearly: "The information contained in this book is intended to be educational and not for diagnosis, prescription, or treatment of any health disorder whatsoever. This information should not replace consultation with a competent healthcare professional. The content of the book is intended to be used as an adjunct to a rational and responsible healthcare program prescribed by a healhcare practitioner. The author and publisher are in no way liable for any misuse of the material."

    By including this, the author essentially protects herself and her contributors when anything does not work from the book. What exactly is 'educational?' Is grabbing things for self-sake at the expense of others educational?

  4. How do we explain situations which did not work? What about the timing in which it can or cannot work?
  5. There is no mention of God, though there were some references to a mysterious unknown force. Any god is most likely the god that one wants to be. The anything that one can summon includes the deification of self.
  6. It is deceptive. Marci Shimoff seems to be suggesting that having an inner life is more important when suggesting a backward format. She claims that the outer things in life, do not guarantee happiness. Only after getting inner peace, inner vision and inner joy can one obtain the outer things. In a nutshell, she teaches that one uses everything in one's arsenal to get what you want, including inner spiritual stuff.
  7. The book tells the self-absorbed reader all that he/she wants to read/hear. What if it is wrong? What makes the attainment of something right/wrong? How will anyone know what he/she really needs? Isn't this a case of looking for fulfillment in yet another wrong place?
  8. Don't buy the book. It is not worth it. If you want, borrow from the library.
  9. There are already many selfish people in this world who think only of themselves. We don't need books like this to create more.

After all the hype and publicity, I think the secret is nothing more than another self-help book that credits the author/contributors when things go well, and cleverly shifts the blame to the reader when things does not turn out as expected. Simple formula isn't it? They take the credits if any, and you take the blame if any. Why will anyone want to buy such stuff? It baffles me.

Monday, September 22, 2008


This venerable white creamy candy is a favourite of mine in my younger days. It is chewy, creamy and utterly yummy. I enjoy licking the edible tracing-paperlike inner wrap which sticks well to the candy itself. Occasionally when I browse the candy section of provision shops, seeing the White Rabbit candy on the shelves brings me back to those nolstalgic years. Today, it brings me forward to a realization of how much profiteering and the length that unscrupulous merchants would go to sell their products. Melamine is a chemical substance that is widely used in dairy products as it can boost a higher protein read, thus increasing sales of their products. Knowing that protein is a desired element for growing babies, would not parents be willing to buy a high-protein diet for their kids? Moreover, in a fanatic demand for cheaper-and-better products, wouldn't it entice manufacturers to do whatever possible within their arsenal to increase profits via lower cost and higher benefits? Alas. Though melamine has been commonly used over the years as an additive in dairy products, all it takes is one bad apple (in this case Sanlu company) to damage the rest of the fruit. Even the manufacturer of my once fond White Rabbit candy is not spared. The fallout is long and growing: The scandal continues to grow. The question I pose: If Melamine has been added to dairy products as a standard practice, why are people behaving like abandoning EVERYTHING that has melamine in it? Is it an over-reaction? I think the answer is both yes and no. Let me explain. While it can be true that adding melamine is commonly done in the past, what is worrying is that this 'standard' practice has been re-adjusted unscrupulously by more than one party. Coupled with inter-dependence of distributors and manufacturers, and the keen competition, it is a temptation not to follow suit. "If Joe does this and makes so much money, why not follow or perhaps better what Joe did?"

On the other hand, I think the mass media played scaremonger role extremely well. Take a look at the headline statements:
  • "The discovery of melamine, used to make plastics and tan leather, in additional dairy products raises more questions about how many consumers in China have been exposed to the chemical, which has been linked to kidney failure in babies leading to at least four deaths." (Bloomberg)
  • Tainted Milk panics Hong Kong parents (ie after 1 case) (Bangkok Post)
  • Milk Scare Escalates (China Post)
  • Taiwan Bans Imports of Chinese Milk (m)
Coupled with government wholesale ban of milk products from China, and the supermarkets move to remove all Chinese based milk, the fears over Chinese milk spins itself effortlessly toward paranoia. Finally, it hit my favourite candy. Sigh. After all that is said and done, as far as babies are concerned, the age-old ardage still rings true: Breast is best.

Some things that we can learn from the melamine scandal.
  1. If something is too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Put on discerning eyes and adopt careful minds when we read news on the media. Start with a 50% discount on what we see/read right from the start.
  3. Go as natural as possible. You may spend a little more upfront, but you stand to save a whole lot more in future.
  4. You are what you eat.


Financial Upheaval and Leadership Matters

The US financial world went through a tumultuous upheaval last week. The colossal AIG nearly collapsed and was rescued by the powerful US Federal reserve and Treasury Department. I think it is the beginning of an end. The US situation is rapidly affecting the rest of the world. The common people's confidence has been shaken. For example, in Singapore, more than 5000 policies (and counting) have been terminated. In Europe, shock waves were felt from the unprecedented Fed move. Meanwhile, the fallout continues. Just today, it was announced that the Wall Street era of US investment banking have finally ended. The last two titans, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs have abandoned the sinking Investment-Banking titanic, and jumped aboard a more stable but highly regulated banking structure. The question is, how could huge companies and their reputations built up over so many decades collapse within days? Answer: Little by little over the years. Last week was what we call the tipping point. Ed Brenegar suggests that the main reason is the lack of accountability and the presence of greed.It is also political. Jeff Vail agrees, and gives us a helpful description of how such credit derivatives devices work and the inherent risks that come with it. Without over-simplifying the matter, I think it has got to do with some form of lack of accountability required when no one is looking. Character and integrity are two of the most crucial aspects of leadership. Who are you when no one is looking? This is the key question that Os Guinness poses to leaders and leaders-to-be. Thus, the true test of leadership is who we are on the inside. Guinness asks three important clarifying questions to zoom into the character question.

1) What is character?
2) Why is the understanding of character so confusing today?
3) Why character matters?

I will focus on the second question, as there is some relevance to the financial setbacks from last week's crazy rollercoaster ride. Moreover, these have deep implications for leadership in general for the society in our day. Guinness argues that there are at least 6 reasons for the confusion over character need.

1) Changes in the Cultural
2) Caught up in controversy
3) Craze for power
4) Contrived, not real
5) Closed institutions in an open society
6) The conundrum of perversity.

The present culture dare not boast of any William Wilberforce or Abraham Lincoln. In fact, I will not be surprised that the first response by anyone in crisis is not a phone call to a leader figure, but a immediate click on the Internet via the Google search engine. Together with an increasingly individualistic and self-sufficient culture, people self-medicate, make purchases online, buy Do-It-Yourself furniture and buy instant meals all without any expressed need to relate meaningfully to another person. The result is the fragmentation of societies created by rusty human hinges that lacks the oil of human fellowship and social concerns. Guinness quotes a survey from a journal:
" the period 1890-1910 at least a third, or 33 percent, of the articles were on character. Yet suddenly by 1920 the number collapsed to 3 percent." (Os Guinness, When No One Sees (Navpress, 2000), p19)
In another survey,
"Studies of Middletown USA show that, whereas, 54 percent of the people in 1924 said they valued 'strict obedience,' that number had fallen to 25 percent fifty years later. In this later survey, 76 percent said they valued 'independence' and 47 percent 'tolerance.'"
This is alarming. Independence to do what? Tolerance about what? Perhaps independence to do whatever-that-seems-right-in-their-eyes (remember the book of Judges?) and accepting mediocre results and efforts in the name of tolerance? Financial prudence must include accountability and firm corporate governance.

The second worrying factor is the tendency for people to get caught up in controversy. People argue on the matter of principle and derails many from the main track. For instance, controversy over homosexual matters suddenly become the main issue. How does that play in discipleship matters? Don't get me wrong. Obeying what the Bible teaches is important. My concern is the tendency for people to get so caught up with domestic interpretive issues that they forget that millions of people out there have not yet heard the gospel. Which is more urgent? You tell me.

Thirdly, the power factor. Politics is a dirty business, so says many people. Put in one hundred innocent persons through the cave of politics and out comes nearly as many personalities more concerned with power issues rather than people matters. Political concerns are important but character traits are more important. True leadership is not synonymous to powerful political status. The sad thing is that power-hungry people tend to put on a facade of strength and pander to the wishes of popular opinion. When one is filled with power, where is the need for authentic character-based leadership?

Fourthly, if it cannot be real, contrive it. Keeping a good public image becomes paramount. Faking and flaunting it under the guise of style and display exceeds the expectations of the ordinary TV-fied generation. Life is not TV. Guinness says that style is the 'lifeblood' of modern politics. I think of Carly Fiorina (ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard) who thrusts a venerable technology icon into Hollywood-style popularity. I think of David Beckham, whose boyish charm exuberates more fashion appeal rather than his footballing skills which was his foundation to fame in the first place. At last check, his current team, the LA Galaxy is at the bottom of the soccer league table after a streak of 12 winless games. Unfortunately, popular opinion chooses the facade over facts. They prefer movies where heroes miraculously miss hundreds of bullets without a scratch. They love news which highlights the sensational and the extraordinary. Unfortunately, these do not represent the real life. The mass media, in desiring to capture a larger market share chooses to print and splash bedroom details of high flying politicians and Hollywood stars instead of poverty and justice in the impoverished parts of the world. With the stakes so high, isn't it then any surprise that the first thing politicians tend to do is to cover up? Look at the recent case that surrounds John Edwards?

Fifth, Guinness accuses traditional institutions like churches and synagogues for becoming too accommodating of modern culture. Instead, these institutions are marching off to a 'different drummer.' The foursome relay team of dedication, discipline, self-sacrifice and honesty have been overtaken by a more seductive quartet of choices, convenience, self-indulgence and showmanship. However, do not fret. While tradition has been overshadowed and overtaken by fashion and fad, the race is not over. There is still hope.

The sixth factor is the perversity inclination. People have a strange fascination for weird stuff. The Brangelina interest and the constant headline news on Britney Spears' messy life seems to feed public curiosity on a minuscule portion of what is happening in the world. Imagine 90% of the public knowing more about 0.01% of the world? We call that education?

Having listed these six factors that contribute to confusion about character matters, I would like to add a seventh: The loss of a vertical focus, while we gets embroiled in horizontal issues. Essentially, when we lose the awareness of the divine, that we are first accountable to God, we lose our personal ability to check ourselves. Who are we when no one is looking? We can do sneaky things when no one is looking. That is why we need accountability partners. What if we do not have another human person at any one time? When we know that God is looking, we will know that we have to be honest and faithful to God first. A word about the Church. When things in the church seems to be going well, this is when we must pray and seek God even more. Do not fall prey to the enticing charms of convenience, popularity, free choice, self-indulgence and fame-fad showmanship. These things are temporal. On the other hand, it is the bit-by-bit exercise of dedication, discipline, self-sacrifice, honesty and accountability to one another that will build up the church. It has more permanence and relevance to the expansion of the kingdom of God.

In summary, the financial mess from last week is but another depressing case of leadership failures due to the accumulation of lax controls and weak leadership. It is not restricted to any one person. Leadership can be in the form of individual decisions built up over the years. Sadly, many such decisions come from a confusion of what a leader should be, and the falling into the temptation of showmanship rather than character. I end with a quote from King David, who prays frequently and displays his character not before men, but before God.
"O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD." (Ps 139:1-4)
If we can live as honest people before God, we will be able to live as honest people before men.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

'ON' Our Hearts

"You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead." (Deut 11:18, NAS)
A Hasidic tale describes a Rabbi who told people that if they studied the Torah it would put Scripture on their hearts. When someone asked him why he always used the word “on” instead of “in” he said, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and when your hearts break the holy words will fall inside.” [Anne Lamott's Plan B - Further Thoughts on Faith, (NY: Riverhead Books, 2005), p73]
I encountered this story twice this week; from Anne Lamott's "Plan B - Further Thoughts on Faith" and Parker Palmer's "A Hidden Wholeness." I prefer Lamott's version. Many English translations of Deut 11:18 miss the subtle difference in the preposition. The meaning is correct, but the preposition misses the timing aspect. In this sense, I think the literal translation works well. The Hebrew preposition (עַל) 'al' can be translated as 'upon, over, above.' However, some modern translations miss this.
  • "Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds ... (NIV)
  • "Fix these words of mine into your mind and being..." (NET)
  • "You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul. . . " (NRSV)
  • "Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul..." (NKJV)
The NASB hits it right on. The translators of NASB that adopt a word-for-word literal translation hit the mark for this passage.
"You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul.." (NASB)
Every English translation is in themselves a form of interpretation. That is one reason why serious Bible students ought to take interest in going a little deeper into the original languages. With the availability of electronic tools, every layperson should be able to get some idea. Of course, having a trained person in the original languages to guide him will help tremendously. When this option is unavailable, the next best step is to do it yourself humbly and earnestly like the Bereans. Another option is to use several English Bible translations. There is much wisdom in the Jewish outlook. Man's heart is essentially rebellious, especially against the things of God. God encountered repeatedly the walled resistance from his people. Frequently we read about the hearts of Israel that gets hardened.
  • "Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When he treated them harshly, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?" (1 Sam 6:6)
  • "Blessed is the man who always fears the LORD, but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble." (Prov 28:14)
  • "But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate." (Ezek 3:7)
  • "Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?" (Mark 8:17)
Scriptures declare the hardness of heart that rebels against the will of God. Hardened hearts will refuse to respond positively to the best reasoning. We do pray that the hardest of hearts will eventually break. When that happens, may there be the presence of the word of God, on, upon and over that shattered heart to fall in and renew the soul.

I think about those of us who teach Sunday School each Sunday. The kids does not seem to listen attentively enough. They parrot the 'right' answers without showing evidence that they have truly understood it. There were even jokes about Jesus being the answer to everything. Another story tells of a teacher trying to liven up a monotonous Bible class of young kids. The teacher asks:
"What is small and brown and comes with a bushy tail?" After a while, a young boy meekly raises up his hand: "Teacher. I know the answer is Jesus, but it sounds more like a squirrel to me."

Yes. Jesus is the answer to the world. However, we need to recognize that we are not to literally plaster Jesus's name all over the world's problems and assume that the name itself will do the magic. Jesus is the answer. More importantly, he is love and if we claim to love him, we will obey his entire word, even though we may not understand it at the present moment. Be continually immersed in the Word. For the time will come, when the heart breaks, the Word will enter and change lives.
"Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." (Hebrews 4:7b)


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yours Generously

In my previous posting, I have argued that the oft-used phrase: ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ is something that has been overused, overstated and in dire need of a major overhaul. It is something more easily said than done. The best it has done is to force an intellectual truce or a verbal armistice. I assert further that ‘loving the sinner’ is unconditional, and it is not helpful to tie it to ‘hating the sin’ in such a way that that ‘loving’ and the ‘hating’ are to be uttered in one and the same breath. Instead, I propose an alternative toward accepting one another as Christ accepted us, so that God can be praised (Romans 15:7).

In the New Testament, Jesus’s desire to do good, colours all his actions. The NIV translates the adjective (αγαθος ) ‘agathos’ in Matthew 20:15 as ‘generous.’ It can also be translated ‘good.’ Together with 'ego eimi' (εγω ειμι), the (I AM), it reads I AM GOOD or I AM GENEROUS. The works of God cannot be separated from the person of Christ. It captures the works of Jesus that arises out of the character of God. It is the essence of God’s goodness that leads to the generous acts. In that passage, Jesus shows us that he is able to summon the overwhelming power and resources of God to issue edicts of goodness to the world. In the light of the discussion of loving the sinner, will God love the man who sinned only rarely MORE than the man who committed 100 sins? God chose to give the same reward to all who worked for him, regardless of their start time. Martin Luther consistently argues that we are saved by faith through grace instead of good works. The path to any goodness in us is faith through grace from God. In his preface to his commentary of the New Testament, Luther writes:
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures.” (Martin Luther, Faith & Freedom: Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther, ed. John Thornton et al, NY: Vintage, 2002, p95)
Jesus was able to do good works because of his steadfast faith in the heavenly Father. All good works flows from this unshakeable belief. The working out of such wonderful deeds emanates boldness, joy and happiness. No grudging feet dragging. No complaining attitude. True faith is evidenced in good works. Jesus’s ability to show generosity stems from a thankfulness to God, and the desire to glorify the heavenly Father who gives faith through grace. I like the word ‘generous.’ It showcases a goodness that is delightful externally and warm internally. Audrey Hepburn, the English Emmy award winner gives a brilliant illustration of generosity.
“You will discover that you have two hands. One is for helping yourself and the other is for helping others.” (Audrey Hepburn)
This simple statement expresses very well what it means to love self and to love neighbour. Whether it is the left or the right hand, it is the heart that moves the limbs to help. Another Englishman, the remarkable WWII UK prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill offers another great statement on generosity.
"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." (Winston Churchill)
This is the strange paradox. We become better people not by grabbing stuff for self but giving things away to others. Generosity is a Christian virtue that if practiced more, will touch more hearts than years of mere tract distribution to meet a quota. Such charity is more effective than hellfire-and-brimstone forms of preaching that strikes fear into the hearts of the unbeliever. Decisions made out of fear will fail to see the light of love. When we give of ourselves to the good of others, we are living in faith. When we welcome people from different walks of life into our community, we are recognizing in them a person made in the image of God. When we generously offer others the benefit of the doubt, we allow space for people to open their lives up to us so that we can understand each other more.

Generosity Does Not Mean Affirming
When we welcome another person of a different sexual orientation into our midst, it does not necessarily mean we agree to their lifestyle of choice. Stanley Grenz, on the gay issue, puts it very well in suggesting: “Welcoming but not Affirming.” This is less confrontational. We can welcome believers who are gay into our fellowship, yet not affirm their behaviour. This may be difficult for some people as they find it impossible to detach the ‘sin’ from the sinner.

A generous HAND means that one is willing to give away the extra coats in our closet, or the best meals we have cooked. A generous EAR enables us to listen more intently even though it may mean we lose the opportunity to speak our mind. A generous EYE helps us to see matters and various issues from another party’s standpoint more willingly. Even though one may smell something fishy, a person with a generous NOSE will control self and seek ways to bring the truth of the matter out in love. A generous LEG is ever-ready to run the extra mile, beyond the standard requirements or obligations. A generous MIND is open to the different viewpoints, and allows dissenting views to surface in the spirit of conversation and grace. A generous FACE gives an authentic smile that reassures the other person(s) that it is ok to agree or disagree. Gregory Jones, a professor at Duke Divinity School says it well.
“We can learn to be generous regardless of our situation in life. Indeed, I have encountered generosity both in spirit and in sharing resources among the poorest of the poor as well as the richest of the rich. I have discovered that the two kinds of generosity are often linked: those who are generous with their time and energy, those who have capacious hearts and hospitable spirits, are also generous With their resources. Similarly, those who are stingy financially tend to be rigid and bitter in their relationships with others.

How can we help people learn to be generous? One key way is by intentionally teaching certain practices, especially in families. A familiar problem in family foundations is that children and grandchildren often lack the generous spirit of the founding family members and want to clutch onto the resources for themselves. We must help children cultivate both the habits of giving and the interior dispositions and capacities to sustain those habits over time.”
[Jones, L. Gregory. 2007. "Be generous." Christian Century 124, no. 20: P33.]
Generosity can be transmitted to our next generation. Happy is the family that produces generations of generous people. Behind a generous person lies an intricate family practice of bountiful favour extended to one another. One need not have big wallets in order to do big things. One can be poor financially, but rich in heart. All it takes is a generous heart, extensive enough to hold the love of people inside, with care oozing continuously on the outside. Incidentally, the heart is a very strange organ. A heart has 4 lobes and it pumps blood physically only to the body of one person. A person can give blood via transfusion or by donation at a blood bank. A generous heart can pump limitless love. It can move mountains of emotional debt that is accumulated by years of selfishness and stingy living. How do I know? Ask Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10).
A Story of Generosity
A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

"I've been thinking," he said, "I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me something more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone. "

Author Unknown
In the example of welcoming people with gay/lesbian sexual orientation, if we practice generosity of the heart to love these people through welcoming but not necessarily affirming, we pray that they will be more attracted to the God of love. No longer will they simply ask for sympathies for their homosexual tendencies. No longer will they accuse conservatives of being homophobic. No longer will they be constantly bickering about the law and the gospel. Instead, they will desire Christ, so much that they are willing to choose a non-homosexual lifestyle in the spirit of "Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone."

May God raise up people with generous hearts, that the kingdom of God will prosper abundantly.


Monday, September 15, 2008

LTSHTS - An Overplayed Statement

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” (LTSHTS)

This statement is often flung as a catch-all statement to ‘resolve’ any dispute surrounding homosexuality perspective in the church. Unfortunately, those who inflict it are usually against any motion that supports homosexual practice. Like a plane trying to fly on one wing, one wonders that if this statement is so true, why aren’t the other camp more pro-active in endorsing this statement? I guess no one disputes the first part of the statement. It is the second statement that is more controversial. Not everyone agrees that homosexuality is a sin, especially when one claims their sexual orientation is a gift or something they cannot help it. Indeed, the gay issue is one of the most divisive issues of the 21st century church. It cuts across virtually all denominations. The results of any effort to resolve this controversy are pathetically ambiguous. For the Methodists, from April 22 to May 2nd, 2008, at the general conference of the United Methodist Church, the motion to ordain homosexuals, gay marriage and reword the constitution were all defeated, thanks to the votes from the more conservative Africans. A small victory for the pro-gay group was the agreement to renounce homophobia and any forms of violence against gay people. According to the UMC report, the sensitivity of the issue makes people more careful about the statements they make. One UMC representative, Kent Millard said:
“The truth is, we are divided. Let’s just acknowledge that it doesn’t say one is right and one is wrong. It just says we disagree.”
A refusal to state what is right or wrong. This shows how difficult it is to make any strong stand these days, simply because the world has changed. There is greater individual awareness and courage to speak out one’s mind. Any ‘strong’ statements can be branded judgmental. Hence, anything that can ‘soften’ the blow is a welcome relief. However, not making a statement can be worse, especially in a society paranoid about ambiguity. A society that lacks maturity finds it more difficult to swim the waters of ambiguity. The Singapore Methodist Church took a step further. They put up an official statement that tries to anchor itself back on history and tradition. They re-affirm the belief that:
"We consider the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teachings. However, we do recognize that homosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. They need the ministry and guidance of the Church as well as the spiritual and emotional support of caring fellowship."
This address to the Methodist population in Singapore can be found here. Alas, it is another statement of LTSHTS advocated mainly by those arguing against homosexuality sympathies. ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ is a summary mantra that aptly describes this stance. Advocates for gay rights hate this statement as it seems to be a popular blanket used in the name of ‘biblical’ to smother any flames arising out of the gay controversy. It is often the ‘conservative’ circle that unleashes this statement. Like a broken record, the words ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin (LTSHTS)’ gets played to the point of annoyance. What does that actually mean? Is this statement biblical?

Conversion Instead of Conversation
I like what Eugene Cho writes in his blog about the gay debate. He says: “The church can be so obsessed with morality and conversion that it loses out on the beauty of conversation.” That is something that we must take note as we discuss on the gay topic. Any impatience to make a statement can prematurely end any conversation, and as a result effectively burning the bridges of understanding. It is my sincere wish that there be a spirit of openness and conversation instead of moral judgment and antagonism. One can say all the right things, but if it is uttered in the wrong way, all credibility goes down the sink. Before going any further, I will like to take another look at LTSHTS and contrast that with Romans 15:7.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
The first chapter of Romans is a popular portion of Scripture used to call homosexuality a sin. I think the intention of Romans 1:18-32 is not meant to be a summary judgment against homosexuality. In other words, it is not to be interpreted as Anti-Gay 101. The symptom must not be seen as the main disease. It is meant to showcase the depravity of unrighteous people who do not live by faith. They suppress the truth. They become godless people. Romans 1:21 refers to these people as:

“..they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…”

We must be careful that we do not simply read one or two verses from the passage and diminish the rest. The entire context has to be considered. In other words, it is not the homosexual act that is the specific sin. It is the act that LEADS to worshiping the partner as an idol. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138AD) was grief-stricken when his lover boy, Antinous drowned mysteriously in the Nile in 130AD. He was devastated and later decreed that Antinous be worshiped as a god. This is the extent of the dangers of homosexual behaviour that made Paul’s letter to the Romans a warning not to let homosexual acts lead to acts of idolatry.

I think LTSHTS is more easily said than done. Firstly, it cannot be done in our own strength. Overstating it is downright risky as it puts one almost immediately on the seat of judgment. I do not condone homosexuality. What I am concerned about is the use of high-handed behaviour that tries to silence honest dissenting voices. Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary, made an observation of the current evangelical landscape. Calling Christians a ‘spiritually stingy people,’ he says:
“A recent Barna Group survey, for example, offers evidence that many young people in the larger society think of evangelicals primarily as "judgmental" types, hostile toward folks in other religions and mean-spirited in our attitudes about homosexuality. Even many young evangelicals share some of these assessments of the older generation.” Richard Mouw, An Open Handed Gospel in Christianity Today , April 2004).
The second reservation I have is that when we overstate LTSHTS, we will soon find it very difficult to separate the sin from the sinner. One may hate the sin so much that one gradually becomes more willing to discard the baby with the bathwater.

An Alternative – “Accepting one another”
My point in this article is that LTSHTS is an overplayed statement. It becomes unhelpful when it is used mainly as a vehicle to suppress non-conformists. Like a silencer used on a revolver, the gunshot may be muffled but the damage is equally deadly. A spiritually stingy people do the cause of Christ no special favours. One can be theoretically right but practically wrong. We must keep the doorways of conversation open, simply because we are still trying to grapple with the rising consciousness and expectations of different people in different generations. There is a time to make dogmatic statements. There is a period where doctrinal declarations are followed to the letter. Without followers, no amount of leadership rhetoric can help.

Mouw asks the question: “How do we convey our Christian convictions while displaying a spirit of generosity in our relationships with others?” He calls for spiritual generosity. I think Mouw is right. True acceptance of one another in Christ has to be generous. We do not love conditionally. Love must be done with no strings attached. In fact, LTSHTS should not be used all the time. It tempts one toward greater spiritual stinginess. LTSHTS can be superfluous as well. If one is intending to love the sinner regardless, then ‘Love the Sinner’ should be a universal endorsement. Why pair it together with ‘Hate the Sin?’ By twinning it, does it mean that we love the gay person less if he insists on his homosexual ways? That is why we need an alternative. That alternative is ACCEPTING ONE ANOTHER, AS CHRIST ACCEPTED US.

Romans 15:7 is one that is more reflective of spiritual generosity.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Rom 15:7)

Let me make myself clear. I assert that I do not condone homosexual acts. Homosexuality is something that is unnatural and not according to the divine intention of God. I believe that we ought to use LESS of LTSHTS and use MORE of “Accepting one another, as Christ accepted us.” It is less intimidating and exhibits greater spiritual generosity. One note of caution. We cannot read Romans 1, and then jump to read Romans 15:7. We need to follow the flow of Paul’s letter to the Roman church. It is from Romans 12:1-2 that helps appreciate the new perspective in Christ. When our minds are renewed, our bodies offered to God as a living sacrifice and our lives totally conformed to Christ rather than the world, accepting one another becomes more doable. Without the work of Christ in our lives, we cannot authentically accept one another. We will always attach conditions to our ability to accept one another. The Greek verb (προσλαμβάνεσθε) ‘proslambanesthe’ is an imperative (a command) which consists of ‘pros’ (to/toward) and ‘lambano’ (accept in addition to oneself). Its preceding clause ‘dio’ is translated therefore which implies that the context of accepting one another where the strong will need to bear with the failings of the weak. It calls one to treat one’s view as important as the others. There is no room for any kind of chauvinism. If there are, then we need to seek God for forgiveness, and to ask him to teach us acceptance. True spiritual generosity must be cultivated in a land of harsh words and tough statements. I will take the plunge to assert that ‘accepting one another in Christ’ is much more beneficial than plainly declaring LTDHTS. We cannot change people. Only God can do that. We are but vessels of testimony to carry God’s grace and love to all.

Everyone needs love. No exceptions. When LTSHTS gets used like homophobic bullets against gay-rights proponents, it can be extremely unloving. Love is not love until it is given away lovingly. If one insists on using LTSHTS, let me suggest that all parties reserve the right to use it. Make sure that it is not used as a projectile to force others into conformity, but a mirror to teach us humility. Let all who sing the tunes of LTSHTS obey the same rules they trumpet.

In summary, let me say that LTSHTS is a statement that becomes unhelpful when overplayed. It becomes less inclusive when used exclusively only by any one side. It becomes downright unpleasant when its purpose is to 'silence' any dissent. I propose that we do away with this and adopt the attitude of accepting one another, just as Christ accepted us. We must be so Christ-centric that we refuse to allow any inner chauvinism to impoverish our levels of spiritual generosity. We must have big hearts. Let me end with a story told by Mark Buchanan, a pastor in British Columbia. It is a beautiful story of accepting one another. It is taken from ChristianityToday’s Leadership journal here entitled ‘This is It.’
A few years ago, a friend assembled a weekend work party to lay sod in his yard. The sun was shining. He had fresh coffee and cinnamon buns. And the crew he'd called together were all good friends. We liked each other immensely.

Then Al said, "Guys, do you realize something? This is it! This is it!" We stopped.

"Al, this is what?"

"This is community."

We all murmured our assent and congratulated one another. Yes. This is it.

But then I said, "Al, this is great, but I don't think this is it. I like you all too much. Add a person or two to this company who lacks social graces, who looks different, who's needy, smelly, and irritating. If we truly loved a person like that, then that would be it."

Silence. Then one of guys said, "Uh, Mark. We've accepted you, haven't we?"

We all laughed, but they granted my point.

We're always tempted to turn the church into a club. With our kind of people. With a strict decorum designed to keep up appearances and keep out the, shall we say, undesirables. But Jesus said it's no credit to us if we love those who love us – our kind of people. We don't need God to love them; natural affinities are sufficient. But you, Jesus said, are to love the least of these and the worst of these – losers, enemies. That takes God: a supernatural subversion of our own prejudices, and a heaven-borne infusion of God's prodigal love.

I preach that. I try to live that.

A year or so after our sod-laying party, Wanda arrived. Wanda was not our kind of people. She was thirsty alright, for beer, port, rum, vanilla extract, whatever. She had only one way to pay for that. I'll let you guess.

But she was desperate, and thirsty for something else. She called the church one day, wondering if she could see a pastor, and now! Two of us met with her. She told us her troubled story. I told her about the woman at the well whose life, like Wanda's, wasn't going well. But she met Jesus and he offered her living water. I explained what living water was, and asked Wanda if she'd like some.

"Oh yeah!" she said. We prayed. She confessed, repented, surrendered. Drank deep.

The other pastor said, "Now, Wanda, this Sunday will be your first time in church. Don't feel you have to fit in right away. You can sit at the back if you like, come late, leave early. Whatever is comfortable."

Wanda looked at him sideways. "Why would I do that?" she said. "I've been waiting for this all my life."

That Sunday, Wanda was the first to arrive. She sat at the front, and loudly agreed with everything I said. She was the last to leave. The next Sunday, same thing, except she brought a friend, one of her kind of people. I preached on servanthood. My main point: if you've tasted the love of Jesus, you'll want to serve. It was Communion Sunday. In those days, we called our elders The Servant Leadership Team. I asked the Servant Leaders to come and help with Communion. That day only two of our team were in church. They straggled to the front.

All Wanda heard was the word servant. And she had been listening intently to my sermon: if you've tasted the love of Jesus, you'll want to serve.

She walked straight up to serve Communion with the other two "servants."

I flinched.

Then I remembered Luke 7, Jesus' words to Simon the Pharisee as a woman, not unlike Wanda, washed Jesus' feet: "Do you see this woman?"

Do you see her?

I leaned over to Wanda and said, "Since this is your very first time doing this, do you mind if I help?"

So Wanda and I served Communion. The best part was watching the faces of the people I love and serve and pray for and preach to.

Not one flinched. They saw her.

This is it.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Does Nature Drive Choices?

I remember a time when I was working on an engineering project which manufactures advanced circuits for a robotic production line. With tight schedules and frantic rush to get work done as quickly as possible, invariably some things did not work out as planned. It was a minor oversight that led to a major overhaul. Until that day, no one truly comprehends the impact of a small decision: Choosing which colour corresponds to a live, a neutral and a ground. Complexity gradually grows during integration of different parts made by different groups. The problem: What happens when group A (which wires RED for live) and group B (which uses BLUE) come together? The result: Total chaos. The top brass demanded that the entire system be re-wired. Over a period of five days, every able bodied person lept onto the production floor heaving and shoving wire bundles, splitting and re-labeling individual strands. For anyone working alone, it is painfully toilsome. With a group however, there is that strange sense of togetherness that lifts away the gloom of additional work and dispels the doom of a premature end of a promising project. That week, I experience a camaraderie never felt before. Everyone, from manager to engineer, from technician to storemen, all hands were on deck. We saved the project and met the deadline TOGETHER.

Two professors from Harvard, Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria argue that human actions is a direct outcome of the conscious choices made. They whittle down these deliberate choices into FOUR ‘innate, sub-conscious, brain-based drives’ [Paul Lawrence & Nitin Bohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, (NY: John Wiley, 2002)]. They are:
  1. Acquisition Drive
  2. Bonding Drive
  3. Learning Drive
  4. Defending Drive
The drive to acquire things, experiences and objectives help improve one’s lot relative to others. The drive to bond, to relate to people helps one to encounter and experience care and commitment. The drive to learn depicts the need to understand the world and ourselves. The drive to defend is essentially a need for security and safety. These four drives have to be balanced. People whose engines run on all four drives will be more fulfilled than those who only managed to do one or two, even if they excel better than others in simply one. In other words, a person who achieves average results for all four drives performs better than one who excels in only one of the four drives. What made the project I mentioned earlier to be memorable is because it allows one the opportunity to practice the 4-Drive theory. Tools and skills were acquired in order to do the task of wiring restoration (Acquisition Drive). Individuals joked and coordinated their efforts, and in the process, they not only talk about work, they shared openly their own personal lives and families. They bonded with one another (Bonding Drive). Since different people were involved, everyone was given the same set of instructions to learn from (Learning Drive). All had a common goal of delivering the project on time, and not fail the bigwigs of the organization (Defending Drive). Of course, I am able to write this only on hindsight. At that time, I hear of frustrations and anger at the ‘additional’ work expected. The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard said that life is essentially lived FORWARD but understood BACKWARDS. Only through reflections I find some semblance of meaning behind the work, and the nature of being human.

It is important to recognize that Lawrence & Nohria’s 4-Drive theory is more conjecture than empirical fact. It is their earnest attempt to bridge basic theory and applied science in trying to explain human behaviour. I think they have done it commendably. Yet, their proposal is not without flaws. Firstly, at an individual level, they found that people at a higher level of hierarchy lived a more fulfilled life. In other words, high achievers lived longer and were less likely to die of certain illnesses. They are not able to quantify the same for the rest of the drives. At an ORGANIZATIONAL level, the problem is similar, but the measuring indices will vary. A further complication will be the rationale behind the choices of each measurable. At the COMMUNITY level, it is relatively easier to understand the Bonding Drive, but not so easy to clarify the other drives. Nevertheless, this model is a useful framework to help us think through the linkages between human nature and the choices they make.

I believe that both nature and choices reinforce each other. Just like the nature-nurture debate, it is far too simplistic to conclude that the nature drives the decisions one make. While it is true that an angry person can make rash decisions, a calm person does not give perfect assessments either! Lawrence and Nohria, concludes somewhat positively:

The challenge is to find a course forward that fulfills all of our basic drives in some creative, balanced way. It is not an answer to deny or frustrate the reality of any of the four drives. The way forward must be to use the best side of each drive to check the dark, excessive potential of human nature.” (283)

This argument is appealing, but I feel it is not good enough. Seeing from the perspective of Christian redemption and holy restoration, it is not simply preventing the bad from happening or stimulating the rise of the good side. The best side of the human person is the WHOLE person. No more Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde distinction. The Christian man is fully redeemed, renewed and restored.

What makes a person human? It is living a holy life. It is learning to forgive one another. It is seeking the good of self and neighbour. It is living under the fear of God in order to excel in the love of people in our respective neighbourhood at work and at home. Herewith is my statement (non-exhaustive) of what it means to be human:
  1. We are created human because of that one purposeful act of love by God.
  2. We are made in the image of God.
  3. Human beings have an eternal dimension, which is why we have that keen interest in life beyond. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
  4. Our true happiness lies not in fulfilling our needs but in obedience to God.
While it is true that human nature shapes a large extent of the choices we make, it is also the choices that we make that affirm our human nature. Only in God can we realize which comes first at any point of time.


Monday, September 01, 2008

Loving People More

I was thinking over this long weekend about the smallness of one's attitude. Sometimes, it is a struggle to put up with people simply infatuated with small little details that they forget the big picture. They are so self-focused that they lose sight of the external environment that they live in. They think only of themselves and conveniently presume that the world owes them a living. Truth is, this is a harsh world and hardly anyone bothers what is happening to another, even one's neighbour. If everybody were to live like that, would not life become tough, depressing and utterly lonely. It is so easy to get into skeptical mode that our whole being becomes a living critic.

The Smallness of Humanity
Like a pendulum, we have a tendency to swing our moods between positive and negative thoughts; between hope and despair; between naïveté and skepticism. The difference lies in how long we remain in any one place. Sometimes it is triggered by external events. Bad news drags us down. Good news lifts us up. I wonder if the popular saying "No news is good news" is an escape from the negativity that surrounds us all the time. A former boss of mine once said to me: "This is a cruel world." For most of my adult years, this has largely been true. Since coming to faith in Christ, my perspective has gradually changed. We need not succumb to the world's depressing state of affairs. We need not expose ourselves constantly to the vengeful ways of the world. We need not lift up our hands in despair and surrender ourselves to the elements. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns us:

"There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know quite well that we have no right to do so, and that it would lead us into the most sterile relation to our fellow human beings." (D Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p9)

The Bigness of God's Heart
Bonhoeffer is a prisoner for the Lord during the evil Nazi era. Leading a ragtag group of Christians who protest against the Hitler regime, he charged many German theologians then of pandering to the wishes of Hitler by compromising their theology. Given an opportunity to live a good life as a professor in the US, he chose instead to return to Germany to suffer with his own people. He even led the fight underground against Hitler, involved in an assassination plot. Imprisoned because he refused to toe the official Nazi line, he saw the worst in people. He also felt the love of Christ who constrains him. In his reflections, three things struck me, the third one mine.

Firstly, he realizes the need to see things not from his own perspective but from the perspective of the sufferers. When we see a bad tempered person behind the wheel shouting at the motorist in front, instead of rebuking his impatient behaviour, why not take the time to scan the environment to look for the source of his irritation. Not only will it take the sting out of our own critical stance, but it gives that person room to cool off. Any loud or bad response to a bad tempered man's behaviour is like pouring petrol into flames. Bonhoeffer says it well:

"We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."

We are all sufferers in one way or another. Learning to adopt a mode of empathy keeps us at the level of human understanding. It helps to prevent us from being too judgmental from the start. Didn't Christ teach us not to judge, lest we too be judged?

Secondly, Bonhoeffer reminds us that "Nothing that we despise in the other person is entirely absent from ourselves." Indeed, how we react to others is a reflection of what we dislike in ourselves. That can be a shock to some of us, that the very thing we hate about other people, is the very thing that we are struggling to address ourselves. There is a strange connection that exists among human people.

Thirdly, I have learned from my walk with God, that God has a big heart that is large enough to love the world. Sometimes, I see certain prayer requests as frivolous. Philip Yancey describes frivolous prayers as follows:
"Some prayers go unanswered because they are simply frivolous or selfish. 'Lord, please give us a sunny day for the soccer match' trivializes prayer, especially when local farmers may at the same time be praying for rain. A last ditch plea, 'Help me get an A on this next test', will likely not succeed if the pray-er has not studied, just as a chain-smoker has no right to pray, 'Protect me from lung cancer.'
I tend to disagree somewhat with him on the extent of frivolous prayers. I think that even if some 'frivolous' prayers go unanswered, there are others that DO get answered. That is not on the merit of one's effort but is entirely due to God's immense grace. Essentially, God has a big heart. God's big heart determines the answers to prayer, not the rightness of praying. Having said that, it is important that we do not always presume that it gives us a right to live sinfully.

This is comforting. It is not difficult to see the evidence of God's big heart. Despite man's continued rebellion since the infamous disobedience of Adam and Eve at the Garden of Eden, despite Israel's continued rebellion against God; despite the warnings to the chosen people through judges, kings, prophets and many spokespeople for God; despite the continued stubborn hearts of the people, God chose to come to earth, to be incarnated as a human person so that he can reach humanity. He willingly allowed himself to be arrested, whipped, tortured, spat at, rebuked and suffered all manner of undeserved evil. Why? He did not despise humanity. He did not come to judge but to love. He came in the person of Christ, the Lamb of God. Intentionally, willingly and humbly he came. Such a disposition is only possible with a God with a big heart.

Inside, we might protest that we are no where like God. We are not even close to the saints of this world. How can we be expected to have a big heart. Let us take a leaf from Mother Teresa.

"In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."

Mother Teresa did many small things with a small built. It is God who weaves all of these little deeds that clothes humanity with the warmth of love. Indeed, we may be sinful in many of our thoughts, but God is merciful to forgive us, as we surrender ourselves and let God work his ways into our lives. Do small things with a big heart. That is the best medicine for a sick world.

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