Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)

I first came to know about Studs Terkel when I was doing a book study on Working. I appreciate him for his incisive interview skills evident in his book: Working. In that book, 75 interviews were conducted with the man in the street about their working lives. That book was also part of my required reading for my first year residency doctoral program. When I first read the book, I thought to myself: "Wow! This book is a gem. It should be required reading for all pastors and people interested in marketplace work." It was a bestseller when it was published in 1974. I have mentioned to my classmates that there ought to be an updated version for the Millenium.

"Working" is a remarkably book of interviews, containing lots of no-holds-barred confession of what work means to the people in the different industries. Daily responsibilities were talked about frankly, and sometimes crude vocabulary was honestly inserted to depict the 'real-life' sentiments felt by the workers about their attitude toward their jobs. In doing so, Terkel allows the common worker to speak for themselves, yet loosely bringing together common themes like diligence, acceptance, pride, discrimination and office related politics. The range is so wide that it takes a master to be able to select which industries and to compile the interviews into the nine common categories. Terkel does it professionally and sensitively. One of the most memorable statements in that book is an interview with a banker-turned-fireman who said:
“I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s shit. You’re looking at numbers. But I can look back and say, ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.’ It shows something I did on this earth.” (Tom Patrick)
We may not have to agree with Tom Patrick but the fact that he is able to speak it with conviction is commendable. I am personally impressed with how he is able to draw out the inner person from his interviewees.

Called the world's greatest interviewer, Terkel died today at the age of 96.

In Addition...

"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6:33, NAS)

This is one of the most popular memory verse. It highlights the kingdom focus of Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount. It gives people hope that whatever they are concerned about from day to day, need not distract them from the main thing. It has spurred a popular song, which is sung in many churches each Sunday throughout the world. The Maranatha Singers version remains my favourite rendition of this classic.

 C        G/B      Am         Em/G
 Seek ye first the kingdom of God
 F       C        Dm     G7sus  G7
 And His righteousness,
 C             G/B             Am         Em/G
 And all these things shall be added unto you,
 F    C    Dm7 G7 C
 Allelu, alleluia.

 C             G/B     Am     Em/G
 Man shall not live by bread alone,
 F      C     Dm    G7sus  G7
 But by every word
 C        G/B           Am       Em/G
 That proceeds from the mouth of God,
 F    C    Dm7 G7 C
 Allelu, alleluia.

 C          G/B      Am         Em/G
 Ask, and it shall be given unto you.
 F        C        Dm    G7sus  G7
 Seek, and ye shall find.
 C              G/B           Am          Em/G
 Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.
 F    C    Dm7 G7 C
 Allelu, alleluia.

 C        G/B      Am         Em/G
 Seek ye first the kingdom of God
 F       C        Dm     G7sus  G7
 And His righteousness,
 C             G/B             Am         Em/G
 And all these things shall be added unto you,
 F    C    Dm7 G7 C
 Allelu, alleluia.

© 1972 Maranatha! Music
Words and Music by Karen Lafferty


There are several things that we can learn from this verse.
a) The Preposition (δὲ , de) 'but'
The preposition 'but' is critical. It ties in the two main needs of the human race. Firstly, there is a need for security like food, housing, clothes, our health, our daily concerns. I will call that daily provisions. Just like the sun by day and the moon by night, there are many events happening that we cannot totally be in control of. We cannot force the sun to come up sooner, or the moon to appear later. These simply happens without us having to worry about it. Secondly, the human psyche is one of restlessness. If one does not worry about Item A, his mind will start roaming around for items B and C, pulling in anxious thoughts like a long trailer, to even exceed Item Z. Such restlessness has caused much grief. (Remember, what good will it do to a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul?) Instead, we need to direct our attention to the front of the train. The driver. The author and finisher of our faith. The person leading our lives. Jesus is that person. He knows all of our needs. He wants people to avoid moving from one worry to another, but directs his hearers to focus on the kingdom of God. With the word 'but,' Jesus draws these two weaknesses of people, of worry about daily provisions, and the tendency of restlessness into one direct focus on the kingdom of God AND his righteousness.

b) The word (προστίθημι, prostithemi) 'add'
These things that people worry about, God will provide as an ADDITION. This small detail is significant. We cannot be too distracted by the provisions that we miss the loving hand of the Provider. We cannot allow the gift to hide the palm of the Giver. We cannot be so infatuated with things that we receive that we fail to give the person who loves us the attention he/she deserve. The word 'add' should conjure in us the question: "Add to what?" Jesus has taught the disciples to seek God's kingdom and his righteousness. That is the main thing. Along with this main thing, the hearers have been assured that whatever they need daily will be taken care of. These things will be "added unto you." Be careful not to think that the purpose of seeking God's kingdom is to receive provisions and daily necessities. No! God is our daily bread. God is our daily companion.

The verb 'prostithemi' (προστίθημι) is also used in several places in the New Testament.
  • In Acts 12:3, when King Herod saw that his arresting/killing of James, the brother of John, had pleased the Jews, he continued to try to (προστίθημι) 'add' to this 'pleasing-the-Jews' exercise by trying to arrest Peter too.
  • In Gal 2:6, Paul claims that the external facade of the false teachers will (προστίθημι) 'add' nothing to the gospel he is preaching.
  • In Rev 22:18, John warns us about the terrible consequences for anyone who (προστίθημι) 'adds' anything to the words of Scripture.
We need to ask ourselves, what are we adding to? Simply put, the main course of our holy meal is Christ. The entree is God's kingdom and his righteousness.

In these tough economic conditions, people are making increasingly desperate attempts to sustain their businesses. I saw a car workshop that is currently trying to promote their winter maintenance package. A banner screams: "Free MP3 player with every winter maintenance package." I ask myself, what has an MP3 player got to do with car maintenance? Absolutely nothing. It does not make the car go faster or smoother. It will not polish the car's exterior. Neither will it improve the fuel efficiency of the car engine. By using the MP3 player gimmick, car owners can easily get distracted from the main thing regarding car maintenance. Quality and reliability of the car mechanic. Location of the workshop. Type of equipment and the integrity of the workshop and so forth. If the car owner decides on the basis of the MP3 player, he is taking a huge risk, especially with an unknown car workshop.

Likewise, when we seek God's kingdom, we cannot be distracted by the 'mp3's of spirituality. Even our daily necessities can be MP3s of our spiritual life. Distracted people choose God simply because of his promises to deliver these human goodies. Far be from it. Remember that Jesus is saying that all these things will be 'added' unto you? But first seek ye first the kingdom and his righteousness!

c) Future Tense
The third observation is that προστίθημι is a future tense. It is not immediate according to our liking, but appropriate according to God's timing. The words 'will be added' should comfort us that the future is in God's hands. The very person who wants to give us his kingdom and his righteousness, surely, the goods promised are not going to be more important than the kingdom, isn't it? What God has promised, he will deliver, only wait in hope and persevere in faithfulness. That is what trusting God is all about.

Final Words
In the parable of the compassionate father (many refer to as prodigal son), the father who has given his younger son his inheritance, continues to long for his son to return from his willful ways. Thankfully the story ends with the return of the prodigal son. The father was overjoyed. He gives the unfaithful son clothes (the best robe). He puts a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. He feeds him with the best calf (food). Everyone in the household were asked to celebrate. What is important is that when the Father sees the return of the son, everything else does not matter anymore. God desires to have fellowship with us, so that he can shower his bountiful love on us. He knows we need a roof over our heads. He understands that we need daily provisions of food. He recognizes that we are human creatures with human needs. Yet, he is wise to continue to teach us patience, and not to give in to our desires prematurely. Knowing when to give us what we need, and how much to provide for us, requires not simply speed or efficiency. It needs love. It is from this gesture of love, that he tells us, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness," then all these things will be 'added' unto you.

What we should desire is God himself. For the younger son, his eyes is no longer on the clothes or the food, or the house and inheritance. His desire is to come back to the warm embrace of the Father. Henri Nouwen puts it very eloquently that there are indeed more important things than food, clothes, lodging and our daily provisions:
"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate now knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares." (Henri Nouwen's "Out of Solitude")
I will end with the picture of Rembrandt's work, the portrait of the parable of the compassionate father. This picture alone inspired Henri Nouwen to write one of his best and most popular books: "The Return of the Prodigal Son."

Take a moment and enjoy the picture.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Restoration House (NZ)

This is an inspiring video from a New Zealand documentary that someone shared with me today. I found it truly encouraging. It is worth watching and learning. Good to see modern efforts like this that prove to us that there is still hope after Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and many well-known samaritans in society. In tough times like this, by looking outside of ourselves and start helping others, we can get through and become better people, by helping others become better people.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

PI (a movie)

I watched this movie "PI" (pronounced as 'pie') a couple of months ago but have wanted to review it at that time. However, as usual, time and other commitments took priority. Darren Aronofsky, the 1998 Sundance Director prize winner, does a skillful job in bringing the viewer into the mind of the main character, Maximillian Cohen, a brilliant mathematician. Right at the beginning of the show, Cohen, in true scientific style states his basic assumptions of life:
  1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
  2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
  3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.
His unique ability to crunch numbers and detect patterns makes him a target for both religious groups as well as investment corporations. A Jewish sect, Kabbalah group seeks him out to find special codes hidden within the Torah. Lenny Meyer, the Jew in the movie assumes that the Torah is a series of numbers for people to decipher. The example used was compelling.
The word for father is (אב) 'ab' which is 2+1 = 3;
The word for mother is (אם) 'am' which is 40+1 = 41
Adding them together, we get 44.
A child is (ילד) 'yeled,' which is 4+30+10 = 44. (similar to adding father and mother)
So Lenny concluded that such patterns can also be found in the rest of the Torah.
As Cohen works with computers, and Lenny works with numerical details in the Torah, they realize their common denominator is mathematics. Both agree that patterns emerge in all of life. Lenny is interested in deciphering the Torah as he is convinced that it is a code sent by God, hidden in the holy scriptures. He desires to use number theory to find out the revelation, in particular the coming of the holy Messiah. Also on Cohen's heels is Marcy Dawson, and her associates of a Wall Street firm who want to manipulate the stock market with Cohen's mathematical prowess. The number '216' figures prominently in the movie, accompanied by Cohen's frequent struggles with his headaches. In a movie that presupposes an orderly pattern, the film progresses in a very chaotic fashion, interrupted by eerie pains and emotional traumas.

My Comments
In one movie, the film brings together science, religion and business, three powerful and pervasive branches of society. The assumption of the film is essentially, 'everything can be quantified,' even spirituality. Somehow, toward the end of the movie, Cohen, the man who believes in understanding life through numbers commits suicide when he could not escape his mental illness. Indeed, when man tries to comprehend life using limited tools, even mathematics, it will be futile. How can a finite person using finite tools ever comprehend an infinite God? The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a special insight into life. When God is excluded, everything is meaningless. Like the movie, math prodigies can become vulnerable to all kinds of exploits. People come to them not because they like them, but because of the skills that they have. Without these skills, they are of not much value. Like Cohen's case, when the Kabbalah sect and the Wall Street firm found out that Cohen has powerful mathematical understanding of numbers, they pursue him relentlessly. They offer him lots of goodies for a part of his mathematical prowess. Cohen gets reduced to a number crunching machine. He becomes something useful. He turns into a means for others to accomplish their ends.

The director of the movie, by filming in strong black and white, brings the suspense a level higher. After-all, black symbolizes (0) and white (1), the exact binary sequence of computers. In digitizing technologies, all images are rendered a series of 1's and 0's. Man, in all his desire to understand life, tries to quantify life in mathematical terms. As the movie turns out, sanity can only return once people realizes that there are many things in life not so easily explained by numbers. Moreover, if one tries, one essentially subjects himself to pressures intolerable to the human mind. The mental strain, headaches and schizophrenia behaviour of Cohen, coupled with the relentless and unscrupulous Wall Street people who desires stock market gains above all things, we have a world that is pitifully devoid of human compassion. Can we truly find true companionship with a robotic dog? Can we feel loved by watching and hugging a TV/Video program, even if it contains a recorded footage of our loved ones? Can we really quantify what we normally refer to as quality of life?

Quantifying Life?

Today, during coffee with my pastor, we talked about the way people tends to quantify life. People generally want to numericize values.
  • How do we know if our work is progressing well?
  • What are the quantifiables in such ventures?
  • How do we know that there is positive developments in this project?
  • How do we measure Church growth? By numbers?

Those in businesses measure success based on their bottom line. Profit = Sales - Expenditure.
Sales personnel measure their achievements on the basis of how close they have reached or exceeded their quota. In medical circles, people measure health according to numbers, like their high/low blood pressure, amount of sugar levels in their blood, how heavy or tall a person is. In the educational arena, success is determined by how many A's or how close one is to the highest GPA level of 4. Sports numbers determine the fate of a team. In hockey, a win during regulation time gives 2 points. Upon reaching overtime, both teams get at least one point. If a team wins in overtime, it gets an additional point.

It is not my goal to disregard the importance of quantifiable numbers. We need to use numbers to have a rough gauge of our progress. There are positive uses for numbers, like measuring our temperature to detect feverish signs, or measuring our blood sugar or harmful cholesterol levels. Having said that, if we were to use quantity as a chief measurement of life, we will be duly disappointed. Does it mean that if I invest $1 and get $100 return, I am a better investor? What about the company that I am investing in? Are there ethical considerations? Can we truly measure kindness? Though the director of the movie did not explicitly say, the way the story concludes speaks volumes. 'Pi' which refers to the [Area/radius squared] or = 22/7 gives us an infinite decimal number.

Lessons to Learn
Perhaps, there are some lessons to learn.
a) Firstly, at a macro-level, we may seem to keep things in our control. However, as we drill deeper, like trying to control the minor details of life, we falter easily. For example, if we try to understand everything before we actually believe, we leave no room for ponder and wonder. I remember admiring the magnificent beauty of nature, how the sun shines its orange ray across the horizon, how the waters flow gently down the river and how wind blows at the trees waving the leaves gently and casually. If life is devoid of mystery, it will no longer be the wonderful nature we have come to enjoy.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." (Albert Einstein, Scientist)

"Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the moral law within." (Immanuel Kant, Ethicist & Theologian)

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (C.S. Lewis)
b) Secondly, Christians do not need to be stymied into one way of seeing life, or the 'numerical way.' They have been set free to take another perspective, from God via the Spirit. Jesus disregards the use of quantity in the story of the poor widow who gave two copper coins, and the rich man with loads of money (Mark 12:41-44). Numerically speaking, the rich man gave more, much more. However, Jesus is not deceived. Our view of the world should not be limited by worldly philosophies.

c) Thirdly, greed remains a potent threat to any of God's gifts. Max Cohen's 'gift' of mathematical skills became exploited due to the greed to others. When we receive anything, the next test is not how we keep it, but how we become good stewards of it.

Pi is a unique show, confusing at first, even disturbing at several moments. Yet, it mirrors the terrible effects of sin in human people; of greed, of selfishness, and of utter dehumanizing use of people. If a person is reducible to a series of numbers, he can then be easily manipulated, divided, multiplied, subtracted or added. No! People have to be treated as a whole person. That means they cannot be simply subdivided into different areas. His entire being has to be respected, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and so forth. The moment we attempt to digitize a human person, we approximate the person unfairly to the nearest denominator. Pi is a movie that warns us against doing that.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hard Times (make you strong)

This past week, I have been hearing depressing news one after another. In retrospect, since the nightmarish financial fallout in Wall Street on the middle of September 2008, the dominoes have fallen hard. From large corporations to small businesses; from unemployment hitting high-flying executives to the blue-collar worker; from the subprime mortgage crises in the US to the very doorsteps of our favourite grocery or coffee shops, many are rapidly throwing in the towel due to the unsustainable business models they run on. "Doing More With Less," a corporate maxim since the beginning of the Millennium is slowly creeping into the regular household. People simply need to get the most value out of their few bucks. As unemployment rises and sentiment falls, the financial meltdown will impact many families. Canadians have been told to be prepared for the worse. Due to sharply reduced overseas demand, factories in China, have laid off thousands, triggering widespread anger. Singapore, one of the four economic dragons of East Asia reports of a double whammy: slowing business dealings with both the US and China. Europe calls the slowdown a 'huge threat' to all their economies. Times are bad, making many people sad. Amid the tearful, lies many fearful and frefful of things worse to come. It is important during such times to remember that many worries in life never actually become reality. In fact, the old saying that 'no news is good news' remains largely true.

Ten+1 Tips When Living in These Tough Times
Some tips I have are as follows:
  1. Watch less news (either on TV or Internet);
  2. Spend less time talking with 'doom-and-gloom' people;
  3. Spend MORE time speaking with words of encouragement and edification;
  4. Practice sincere speaking and avoid doing things just to 'save' one's face. (See my article on sincerity.)
  5. Read biographies. Many are inspiring;
  6. Encourage those who are affected, by simply being with them, or provide simple practical helps;
  7. Be responsible consumers. Do not simply save for the sake of saving. Help the smaller businesses where possible;
  8. Pray often, and practice sharing and caring for one another;
  9. Give your family a hug more frequently;
  10. Meditate on Matthew 6:24-34 (listed below);
  11. Sing. Christians are called not to be sinners but singers. (see below)

Mark Twain once said:
"I've had many problems in my life - most of which never happened."
Jesus, in his classic sermon on the Mount emphasizes that
24"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
25"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
28"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:24-34)
Hard Times Make You Strong
I learned this song many years ago when I was an undergraduate. A brother in Christ (I'll call P.N) played and sang this on a guitar. During that time, when I was struggling as a young adult, complete with academic pressures and various challenges, the song ministered a lot to me. Pray that it will help you too.
1) Is the rain falling from the sky keeping you from singing?
Is the tear falling from your eye because the wind is stinging?

&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 Now don't you fret now child, don't you worry
&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 The rain's to help you grow, don't try to hurry the storm along
&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 The hard times make you strong

2) Don't you know a seed will never grow if there are never showers
Though the rain may bring a little pain, just look at all the flowers

&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 Now don't you fret now child, don't you worry
&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 The rain's to help you grow, don't try to hurry the storm along
&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 The hard times make you strong

I know how long the day can seem when storm clouds hide His face.
And if the rain dissolves your dreams, just remember His amazing grace!

3) Don't you know the sun is always there even when the rains fall?
Don't you know the Son will always care when he hears your voice call?

&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 Now don't you fret now child, don't you worry
&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 The rain's to help you grow, don't try to hurry the storm along
&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160&#160 The hard times make you strong
If you do not know the tune to this song, click here. It is a song that uplifts a mother who lost her son some time ago, hence its rendition is more melancholic and solemn. If you like me to sing and record another version, email me.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Sincerity & 'Church of 80% Sincerity'

An Abbot Pastor once said: "If there are three monks living together, of whom one remains silent in prayer at all times, and another is ailing and gives thanks for it, and a third waits on them both with sincere good will, these three are equal, as if all were performing the same work." (Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Desert, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1970, p42-3)
The Chinese word word (誠, cheng) means honest, truthful, genuine. Put together with another word (恳, ken), it forms the word sincere (诚恳 cheng ken). In the book of Acts, the gospel writer Luke records the behaviour of the early church.
"Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:46-47)

46 他们天天同心在殿里恒切地聚集,一家一家地擘饼,存着欢乐和诚恳的心用饭, 47 又赞美 神,并且得到全民的喜爱。主将得救的人,天天加给教会。(Acts 2:46-47, CNV)
The word (诚) contains 2 separate words (言, yuan) and (成, cheng) which literally means 'speak and accomplish.'The second word (恳 ken) also has 2 words: (艮 gen) [forthright, blunt, straightforward] and (心, xin) [heart]. Put together, the words indicate a willingness to speak openly, growing in honesty and sincerity of heart, not withholding one's ability to tell the truth and openly engage in conversation. The Greek word for sincere (ἀφελότης, aphelotes) means singleness of mind/heart. Contrast this with a double-minded person whose thoughts and words waver between truthfulness and lies. Any community with people who are less than sincere will never become the kind of community like that of the early church.

Common Usage in society
Sincerity is something that I came across early on when learning the letters genre. My teacher used to teach that when I end my letter to an unnamed person or organization, I should end with "Yours faithfully." If I end the letter addressed to a named or known person, especially a friend, I ought to use "Yours sincerely." Common usage thus suggests that the latter is something more personal. Words matter. The way we use it reflects the level of intimacy required. In the business world, the words we use have to be legally vetted and proof-read in order not to compromise one's position or make one susceptible to unscrupulous actions. Contracts are carefully screened, sometimes using experienced lawyers. Many organizations publish important information in small fine prints which many consumers simply ignore. Web services practically force any user to click "I Agree" when entering their web sites. There is no other option, as the alternative "I do not Agree" automatically locks one out of the web services, isolating the casual surfer who merely wanted to find out what the services are all about. Perhaps, for cases like this, the web services provider or organization ought to allow a PREVIEW of the services, a sample for people who are not willing to commit to signing up, or agreeing to all the conditions stated in the list of terms and regulations. People should be allowed to do 'window-shopping' on the web, to check something out before making any commitment. Unfortunately, organizations are too ready to cover their own legal backs as a first move.

To Be Honest
Another way to describe sincerity is the phrase "From the Bottom of my heart" which has a 2-dimensional meaning, bottom showing the depth of one's desire and 'heart' indicating something that is of the most profound part of the person. In contrast, 'off the top of my head' symbolizes something that is quickly said, and superficially done.

It is more difficult nowadays to detect who is sincere or not. Even family members sometimes hide stuff from each other. The common usage of the words "to be honest" makes me wonder if the person saying it is simply trying to 'up his level of honesty' or has been lying all along? Society has generally accepted that honesty is expected but not assumed automatically. At the immigration checkpoints, it is assumed that all visitors to the current is assumed to be an illegal immigrant unless otherwise. Hence the passport checks and questions posed to visitors tend to be attempts to verify that it is not the case before allowing the visitor to enter the country. When applying for any services, be it government departments, credit cards or supermarket vouchers, one will need to show a valid photo ID for the officer to verify one's identity. It is not assumed that one's words is to be believed right-away, especially in official matters. I have since learned that when anyone uses the words "to be honest with you," it is the bottom line that the person is offering. I remember wanting to get the best price for an item in a bazaar. The shopkeeper was not willing to budge on his price, and I am not willing to pay the full amount. Finally, he said: "To be honest with you, the price is hardly enough to cover my cost of goods." That said, the shopkeeper is trying to tell me that his business is already struggling. I sense some exasperation in the tone of the shopkeeper. That is something happening a lot nowadays, especially with a worsening economy worldwide.

The Church of 80% Sincerity
Is it really that hard to be sincere? Is it a forgone conclusion that the world is no longer sincere and there is no hope in it becoming better? Not really. David Roche is one person who tries to buck the trend. Filled with personal testimonies about his struggles to be accepted as he is in society, Roche came up with the idea of a Church of 80% Sincerity. I came across the book, largely through Anne Lamott's Plan B - Further Thought on Faith. David Roche is an interesting character. Born with a severe facial deformity, aggravated by aggressive radiation, his left side of the face became permanently disfigured. Learning to express himself honestly without feeling sorry for himself took many years. He tried to compensate for his facial abnormality with pious acts, including four years of training to become a Roman Catholic priest. His desire to find female companionship often gets stuck at the first level: "What if they do not like my face?" He opts for the other extreme to grit his teeth and endure suffering from all corners of his life. He tries to live up to Marxist-Lenin ideals of self-sacrifice but eventually rejects it when he realizes that the Marxist leaders were more interested in their ideals rather than the persons behind the ideals. Soon, it dawn upon him the idea of a "Church of 80% Sincerity." This 'church' is not a physical church but an idea he carries with him in his head, to assure himself about the nature of people around him.
In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we think 80 percent sincerity is as good as it gets. You can be 80 percent sincere 100 percent of the time, or 100 percent sincere 80 percent of the time. It's in that 20 percent area where you get some slack and you can be yourself. [David Roche, The Church of 80% Sincerity, NY: Perigee Books, 2008, p7]
Roche's Observation of Basic Motivation Factor: 'Avoiding Embarrassment'
Roche has a rather incisive understanding of human nature. He says that the basic motivating factor for people is 'not self-preservation or sex or love' but the 'desire not to be embarrassed' (Roche, 61). This is an insightful one as it means that in many of our relationships, what seem to be done in the name of 'improving teamwork' or relationships is actually a guise to avoid self-embarrassment. The moment one becomes too concerned about the external facade or one's position in society, all kinds of possible sinful acts can happen. It could be a human attempt to protect oneself, doing things in order to "cover one's ass." One offers to trade security watches with the offer: "I watch your back, you watch mine!" In Chinese society, a common practice among many is to 'save face.' For example, when speaking in public, one does not wash the dirty linen of leaders in public. Doing so will not only be embarrassing to the leaders mentioned but in extreme situations, the leaders concerned will commit suicide. Matters of face-saving are not to be trifled with in Asian society. In Singapore, a prominent leader took his own life on charges of corruption. Roche adds:
Behind the fear of embarrassment is that deeper fear, of saying what you really think and feel and telling your story, because that is when you may be exposed as stupid, inarticulate, selfish or anything else that you would rather leave undiscovered. (Roche, 61)
Roche's antidote is to continually tell his story, about his facial ugliness (and laugh at it), frequently remember his emotional struggles, and to resolve to remind self and others until one's 'fear of embarrassment turns out to be a predecessor to grace' (Roche, 70). Beautifully put.

We need to remember that on our own, we cannot save ourselves. It is useless to hide, just like it is futile for Adam and Eve, in their nakedness awareness, to hide from the holy God who knows and sees all things. We can all learn to be sincere. However, our journey to sincerity is filled with a history of personal embarrassment. Learn to laugh at ourselves, and our clumsiness. Seek forgiveness and remind ourselves that we are not perfect. So do not behave as if we are perfect. Do not even attempt to try and make other people conform to our 'perfectionist expectations' of them. Learn to honestly take a look at ourselves and our inner being. For Roche, he is not afraid to take a hard look at his face and accept himself as he is. He is brave enough to engage his deep struggles with his self-esteem. All of us need to do the same. We do not need to be facially hideous in order to do something identical. If we are truly honest with ourselves, if we are sincerely desirous of becoming good and to spread goodwill to all people, we must move beyond a mode of self-preservation, of doing things merely to avoid embarrassment. We must embrace grace. We practice sincerity by being open and frank with one another without having to inject 'let me be honest' in our conversations. We practice sincerity by speaking the truth always, and doing the right thing without any prompting. We practice sincerity by being forthright and single minded to let the truth be made known.

For Christians, we have been accepted by God the Father, who takes us as we are. We have been taught by Jesus to forgive one another, as God the Father has forgiven us. We are expected to love one another in the Spirit of the bond of peace. As we move from a Church of 80% Sincerity, let us keep a hopeful outlook, that one day, we will all be practicing Christians of 100% Sincerity, in Jesus Christ.


Video of David Roche's Speaking

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"The Case For Faith"

I chance upon Lee Strobel's book "The Case For Faith" a couple of days ago. It is a book that investigates the '8 major conundrums' or 8 toughest obstacles to believing in Christianity. In a series of interviews with different people, Strobel lays down his questions and the possible responses to them, concluding with reasons why the harshest skeptic ought to positively consider the claims for Christianity. The following are the eight objections:
  1. If there's a loving God, why does this pain-wracked world groan under so much suffering and evil?
  2. If the miracles of God contradict science, then how can any rational person believe that they're true?
  3. If God is morally pure, how can he sanction the slaughter of innocent children as the Old Testament says he did?
  4. If God cares about the people he created, how could he consign so many of them to an eternity of torture in hell just because they didn't believe the right things about him?
  5. If Jesus is the only way to heaven, then what about the millions of people who have never heard of him?
  6. If God really created the universe, why does the evidence of science compel so many to conclude that the unguided process of evolution accounts for life?
  7. If God is the ultimate overseer of the church, why has it been rife with hypocrisy and brutality throughout the ages?
  8. If I'm still plagued by doubts, then is it still possible to be a Christian?
There are some rather good quotes from each of the 8 responses to the objections.
1) John Stott's take on Suffering:
"I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing around his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world, but each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hand and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ… is God’s only self justification in such a world as ours." (54)
2) Gary Habermas's on Miracles and Science
It is not just a provocative rumor that God has acted in history, but a fact worthy of our intellectual conviction. The miracles of Christianity are not an embarassment to the Christian worldview. Rather, they are testimony to the compassion of God for human beings benighted by sin and circumstance. (57)
3) That Evolution explains life
"If Darwinists are to keep the Creator out of the picture, they have to provide a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. .. they haven't been able to do that. Despite all their efforts, they haven't even come up with a single possibility that even remotely makes sense. And there's no prospect they will. In fact, everything is pointing the other way - in the unmistakable direction of God. Today it takes a great deal of faith to be an honest scientist who is an atheist. (110-1) (Phillip Johnson)"
4) That God kills innocent children
"“Let’s keep in mind,” he said, “that technically nobody is truly innocent. The Bible says in Psalm 51 that we’re all born in sin’ that is, with the propensity to rebel and commit wrongdoing. Also, we need to keep in mind God's sovereignty over life. An atheist once brought up this issue in a debate, and I responded by saying, 'God created life and he has the right to take it. If you can create life, then you can have the right to take it. But if you can't create it, you don't have that right.' And the audience applauded. ” "People assume that what's wrong for us is wrong for God. However, it's wrong for me to take your life, because I didn't make it and I don't own it. For example, it's wrong me to go into your yard and pull up your bushes, cut them down, kill them, transplant them, move them around. I can do that in my yard, because I own the bushes in my yard. Well, God is sovereign over all of life and he has the right to take it if he wishes. In fact, we tend to forget that God takes the life of every human being. It's called death. The only question is when and how, which we have to leave up to him." (119) (Norman Geisler)
5) Is Jesus the only way to God? Preposterous isn't it?
"Moses could meditate on the law; Muhammad could brandish a sword; Buddha could give personal counsel; Confucius could offer wise sayings; but none of these men was qualified to offer an atonement for the sins of the world. . . Christ alone is worthy of unlimited devotion and service." (R C Sproul) (145)
6) Hell
"Hell is God's great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice." (GK Chesterton) (169)

"Hell is not a place where people are consigned because they were pretty good blokes, but they just didn't believe the right stuff. They're consigned there, first and foremost, because they defy their Maker and want to be at the center of the universe. Hell is not filled with people who have already repented, only God isn't gentle enough or good enough to let them out. It's filled with people who for all eternity still want to be the center of the universe and who persist in their God-defying rebellion. What is God to do> If he says it doesn't matter to him, then God is no longer a God to be admired. He's either amoral or positively creepy. For him to act in any other way in the face of such blatant defiance would be to reduce God himself." (D A Carson) (193)
7) Of Church History Filled with Violence
"Over the long course of Christian history, the most depressing thing—because repeated so often—has been how tragically far short of Christian ideals we ordinary Christians so regularly fall. Over the long course of Christian history, the most remarkable thing—because it is such a miracle of grace—is how often believers have acted against the pride of life to honor Christ. Of all such "signs of contradiction," the most completely Christlike have been those occasions when believers who are strong—because of wealth, education, political power, superior culture, or favored location—have reached out to the despised, the forsaken, the abandoned, the lost, the insignificant, or the powerless. Christianity has sometimes made a difference by surrounding the use of power with humility." (Mark Noll) (220)
8) On Remaining Doubts
"If doubt and faith can co-exist, then this means people don't have to fully resolve each and every obstacle between them and God in order to have an authentic faith. In other words, when the preponderance of all the evidence tilts decisively in God's favor, and a person then makes the rational choice to put their trust in him, they can hold some of their more peripheral objections in tension until the day comes when they're resolved. In the meantime, they can still make a choice to believe - and ask God to help them with their unbelief. (Strobel, 244)"
Out of these eight objections to Christianity, he lists suffering and hell as two of the most difficult for him.
The more I delve into them, the more I find myself in jeopardy of losing my perspective. [Lee Strobel, The Case For Faith, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, p248]
Strobel, in tackling doubts and objections points out that there are three overarching themes that should guide one's intellectual search.

THEME #1: Finding Perspective Firstly, there is a need to find the proper perspective. This I call it the honesty of the mind. One must be willing to consider the full availability of the evidence stacked both for and against the case in point. We should not be foolishly swayed by one piece of evidence that we throw out the baby with the bathwater altogether. Allowing any one obstacle to dominate and crowd out our minds, we can easily lose focus of the main thing. The weight of the following evidence should be held closely even as we tackle these objections. The 'litany of evidence' listed include:
  • 'Big Bang' theory is more ridiculous than the creation theory
  • The existence of a well-ordered Universe points us to a Creator
  • Existence of a moral law indicates a person behind the scenes rather than concepts, systems or ideas.
  • Origin of Life is not simply described away by Darwinism. Facts point strongly to a DNA of life. Such a DNA cannot simply evolve. There needs to be a beginning.
  • The Bible is credible, and has a divine origin. Both the miraculous fulfilment of prophecies as well as the physical incarnation of Christ points to its authenticity.
  • Resurrection of Christ is the ultimate proof of the claims of Christ.
I think the last point is the strongest yet. Otherwise, even Paul the Apostle says that without the resurrection, our faith would have been in vain (1 Cor 15:2). Paul has given away the Archille's heel of the Christian faith: The Resurrection. Prove that the resurrection is false and the whole Christendom will fall. Anyone wanting to prove that Christianity is wrong simply needs to prove that this resurrection never happened. Josh McDowell wrote a rather convincing book on the resurrection claims and asserts that the resurrection actually takes place in "More than A Carpenter."

THEME #2: Making A Choice Secondly, there is a matter of the will. Some people will, in spite of evidence choose to hold on to their original stance, thinking that 'only time will tell' or prove otherwise. Like the saying that if the horse does not want to drink, no matter how cooling and refreshing the water is, it simply WILL NOT DRINK! Moreover, the most stubborn people will simply take the time to explain anything away. Like the example from Dallas Willard, that even in the sight of the most overwhelming facts, one can take the path of explaining anything away according to his/her own preferences. Like Pharoah of Egypt, who upon seeing the many plagues befalling his kingdom, and that the God of Israel is not to be meddled with, he chooses knowingly to rebel.

THEME #3: Changing A Life If the first theme deals with the mind, the second with the will, the final theme has to do with the heart. Strobel describes the life of William Neal Moore, once a convicted killer, who found faith in Christ, and pledge to share his new beliefs with inmates in prison. Moore said: ""
Nobody had ever told me that Jesus loves me and died for me. It was a love I could feel. It was a love I wanted. It was a love I needed.
During his time in prison, he won forgiveness from his victim's family. He became a peacemaker everywhere he goes. He shared that his journey to becoming a forgiven person is not the prison rehabilitation system, not any self-help programs, not medication, not transcendental meditation or psychological counseling. It is plain and simple. Jesus Christ.

Strobel boils down his spiritual journey in terms of "investigation - decision - transformation" (259)

Despite it being a very fine investigative book, there are people who objects to his findings. Some like Seth McBee argues that his reasoning has more to do with a Aristotelian leaning (understanding God via logic) which is more intellectual exercise rather than actual believing. Seth has a point. However, in all fairness, Strobel's title for the book, 'the case' should have prepared us for a reasoning journey. Moreover, Strobel has a legal mind, so such an approach should not be too surprising. Others are more aggressive that the book should instead be called "The Case Against Faith." Why did Strobel choose people to interview FOR the faith, and not include rebuttals in his 'investigative' purposes? Why did Strobel take an evangelical bias in the first place? I think the critique is fair to say that Strobel's arguments are weak at best, but the statement of saying that it is 'against faith' is unwarranted.

Strobel's book is useful as an introductory book for dealing with the 8 major objections to Christianity. It does well to include a broad number of interviews and perspectives on the questions. The most important contribution of Strobel is the need for one to be convinced, mind-will-heart in order to experience and to exercise authentic case for faith. Strobel helpfully brings out the 8 conundrums to openly share his personal struggles with all of them. I think he does Christians a service to start the ball rolling. Some Christians never bothered to talk about any of the eight for fear that they will stumble. Others will say they do not have the time to talk about such things, as faith is not simply an intellectual endeavour. Yet, others will claim that faith is something either we have it or not. I must say that Christians do themselves a disservice if they do not at some point deal with these 8 questions. It is important. It is necessary, not that we do not trust God, but we need to be honest that such questions are legitimate ones. More importantly, we must recognize that because of sin, our thinking on these objections and responses are easily flawed. A community of believers need to be in place to tackle these questions at some point. Every individual is on a journey of discovery. Every Christian is at different phase of learning at different times. It is important to keep the learning alive and active. In a nutshell, a person who only comes to God with his mind is at best a philosopher who thinks Christianly. One who approaches God by sheer will and grit alone is at most an adventurer wearing a cap with a Christian label. One who hangs on to God only with an emotional life-jacket will be easily blown away by the winds of philosophies and terrible realities of life. Authentic Christians need all three. The intellectual curiosity of a theologian (MIND), the zeal and intentionality of a pious fervent servant (WILL), and an emotional longing for God like a lover (HEART) forms the three-some qualities of true faith.

Finally, one of the most helpful quotes from the book comes from Madeline L'Engle:
Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself. (223)
Well said. Actually, this quote from Madeline L'Engle is remarkably similar to Miguel de Unamuno, et al's book entitled: "The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations," which says:
Those who say they believe in God and neither love nor fear Him, do not believe in him, but believe rather in those who have taught them that God exists, and those in their turn often enough do not believe in Him either. Whoever believes he believes in God, but believes without passion, without anguish, without uncertainty, without doubt, without despair-in-consolation, believes only in the God-Idea, nor in God Himself. And just as belief is born of love, so it be born of fear, and even of hate, as it was in …

…the thief Vanni Fucci, whom Dante depicts in Hell insulting God with obscene gestures. For even demons believe in God, as do many atheists.”
[Miguel de Unamuno, Anthony Kerrigan, Martin Nozick, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977, p211-2]
The last part, about even the devils believe there is a God should ring alarm bells in those who call themselves atheists. For anyone claiming to be an atheist, he/she sets himself against Scripture straightaway:
  • "The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."
    They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. (Ps 14:1)
  • The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good. (Ps 53:1)
  • You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:19)
God has promised that when one seek and find God with his whole heart, God will be found. Dare we believe it?


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Faith (in God)

A certain brother asked the abbot Pimenion saying, 'What is faith?' And the old man said, 'To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one's neighbour.' [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, Ann Arbor: Univ of Michigan Press, 1957, p149]
Wisdom indeed. In one simple sentence, the wise abba brings together the concise practice of the theology of faith. Faith is working out one's belief in holy action to God and fellow men. The trouble with theological students is that sometimes we become so absorbed into the concept of faith, that we unwittingly tumble into the rabbit's hole of analysis till paralysis. We use the latest archaeological findings to prove that data exists to verify the foundational facts of our faith. We use technological tools to prove that biblical information is not only highly reliable but hardy through the ages. We grapple with philosophies of each period to prove that there is a God who is worth believing. We engage the world using apologetics to sway the undecided to make a decision to believe. We press home our arguments to challenge both the agnostic and the atheistic. We use many different testimonies of the living and the dead to try to convince the skeptics that Christianity is worth believing. Yet, after the many engaging debates and intellectual tussles, it is beneficial to re-look at the question: "What is faith?"

John Wesley states:
"It is a divine "evidence and conviction of things not seen;" of things which are not seen now, whether they are visible or invisible in their own nature. Particularly, it is a divine evidence and conviction of God, and of the things of God. [John Wesley, 'Sermon 106 - On Faith' in The Sermons of John Wesley]"
Faith is invisible. We cannot really pin it down to any one image. The moment we do so, we risk creating a faith like that of a golden calf. Someone once said to me to be careful not to have faith in 'faith.' Useful advice. Our faith must rest in God. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. The key is the object of our faith. Interestingly, when Jesus healed the ten leprous men and one of them returned to thank him, he commented:
And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)
The sick men then were not even aware that they were practicing faith. Yet, it was Jesus who declares that their faith has made them well. Ironical.

Faith has more to do with a humble 'not' rather than any affirmative stance of certainty. Anne Lamott puts it succinctly:
that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk. (Anne Lamott, Plan B - Further Thoughts on Faith, New York: Riverhead Books, 2005, p256-7)
I think Lamott's astute observations is quite close to the mark. The Eastern Orthodox Church differs in part from the West for a form of theology called the Apophatic theology. In apophatic theology, God is described indirectly. The popular use is via negation, approaching God in terms of 'he is NOT this and he is NOT that.' Like the Israelites of old who chooses NOT to see God directly for fear of the blinding holiness of God that can destroy them. For example, take the statement about God.
  • Western: God is good; [Eastern - God is not evil]
  • Western: God is ..... ; [Eastern - God is NOT .......]
Lamott's observation of faith is a necessary one in our present society. When we think we know something, that we are certain about a particular train of thought, where then is that need for faith? The writer in Hebrews 11:1 says:
NASB:Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

NIV: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

MSG: The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.

NLT: Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.
It is important to capture the essence of what is the object of our faith. It is clear that we are not to have faith in 'faith' but to have faith in God. Our hope is in God. God is invisible. If there be any certainty, it is that hope in God that is given by the grace of God. We have no handle except what God gives us. As beggars on this earth, we may be promised a land of milk and honey, but until then, we are still beggars. No beggar goes around boasting that he is certain that he is rich especially when he is in rags. He can only hope. He can only believe and trust. He can only exercise faith in the best way possible: Living the present and be thankful. Faith is not only hoping for the future but being thankful for the present, and grateful for the past.

Herbert McCabe explains it brilliantly in his sermons on the faith chapter of Hebrews. He made two observations of inadequate understanding of faith. Firstly, he questions the use of faith as a form of 'testing.' Such a faith is like:
If we were humble enough to accept things we couldn’t understand, then we would eventually be rewarded for our devotion. The great enemy was always a thing called ‘spiritual pride’, which made you always want to understand everything.

That is one way of looking at faith. I don’t think it’s a very good way, but it’s one way.
[Herbert McCabe, God, Christ and Us, New York: Continuum, 2005, p1-3]
Rather than declaring that one 'knows' the kind of journey one is going to take, faith is essentially NOT KNOWING what kind of passage lies ahead of us. We can only hope. We can only trust. We can only cling on to God. THAT IS FAITH.

The second critique he has on conventional understanding of faith is that 'faith' is used like a badge of membership, just like in Galatians 6:10's 'household of faith.' Instead, McCabe argues that such a 'membership-like' thought is an inadequate expression of true faith. Instead, faith is something that WE DO NOT YET POSSESS. It is like Abraham, who is given the vision of a Promise Land, but he has not possessed it yet. He journeys into the unknown without any knowledge of how the Promise looks like. I think such an attitude is helpful for it prevents us from making the Promised Land into an idol for worship. Such a thought about faith as entering an unknown journey, using unknown resources, and entering an unknown place keeps us more focused and more desiring of God. In fact, faith is that anything that causes us to cling harder and walk closer to God. Like a deer that pants for the waters, so our souls should pant after God. Israel was called to live their faith by leaving the known comforts of Egypt to the unknown wilderness of Sinai.
Faith is about what is beyond the horizon of the humanly possible. Faith is exploring into what people could never achieve by themselves. Faith is the mysterious need in us to get to where we could surely never go. Faith, in fact, is about what we call God. Faith is the inking that we are meant to be divine, that our journey will go beyond any horizon at all into the limitless of the Godhead. Faith is not our power to set out on this journey into the future. It is our future laying hold on us. It is the crucified and risen Christ gathering us toward himself. Faith is not something we possess. It is something by which we are possessed. It is the Spirit of Christ bringing us to what we are meant for: the eternal love which is the Father. [McCabe, p5]
Faith can be a very slippery concept. We cannot grab it. Instead, it can only be received and lived. Lamott's understanding of faith ties us back to the desert fathers quoted early in this article.
She said that faith is not about how we feel; it is about how we live. And Anne lived her own eulogy, gardening, praising God, fighting the great good fight for justice, loving Dwight, playing piano..... [Anne Lamott, Plan B, p213]
This is faith. A faith in God that leads to humble action. It is a kind of faith that is alive. It is a faith that progresses knowingly (confidence in God) into the unknown (places, circumstances and so forth). In summary, faith is NOT a matter of possessing something in the present. It is NOT merely a badge of membership in the society of Christendom. It is also NOT a faith in faith. It is NOT an act of belief in ourselves or our sense of religiosity but a trust in God. It is hoping in God. A faith that is exemplified by love.

Mother Teresa once said: "Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." The humble lady also said: "the fruit of prayer is faith, and the fruit of faith is love."

Believe in a living God, and we will grow inside us a living faith. Faith in a loving God will grow in us a loving person. Personalize that love in a mighty God, and we will be called the children of God.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

a morning adventure

It is a beautiful morning. I open the doors to welcome the beautiful sunlight into the house; The cool air breezes in, along with some uninvited flies. I take in gratefully the fresh air. Sitting back on my chair with a coffee mug in my hand, I heard a noise. There is a hustle, and a bustle. Out pops a chipmunk-like animal with a dangling bushy tail. The black eyes look suspiciously at the surroundings.

It looked to the east, there was the TV;
It glanced to the south, it was the sofa;
It stared at the west and saw me.

I stand up and approach the suspicious mammal. Instinctively the rodent leaps on top of the box near the TV. I move toward the creature, shooing it simultaneously.

It runs to the curtain, dead end;
It runs to the corridor, looks like a scary tunnel
It runs to the kitchen, 'now i need a GPS' says the little furry thingie.
It runs under the kitchen table, debating between food or capture.

Quietly, I slide open the door and draw the curtain. With hand signals that I hope is universally understood by anyone in the animal kingdom, I motion toward the open door. With a final shoo, the tiny blackie scampers away, onto the black mat and into the green grass.

"I came to this strange place to look for nuts, and all I see is this human wearing something funny running around and chasing me all over, who only knows one word, 'shoo.' " says the squirrel clearly annoyed.

"The Homework Myth"

The title looks intimidating, especially for those of us who have grown up to expect our children to get homework from their teachers. We feed on such expectations (the giving of homework) readily like Octopuses gobbling up crustaceans for their snacks. Often, expectations feed on expectations and we allow such thinking to envelope any rational sense. We fail to question the merits/demerits of homework-giving. We simply accept them as a way of learning for our children. Question is: What if we are wrong?
  • Are we as parents guilty of using homework as a babysitting tool to make our kids behave?
  • Are we using homework as a defacto standard to make our kids learn?
  • Are we simply trying to sooth our own guilty consciences of not personally teaching our kids the basics of education?
  • Will the giving of homework and the doing of it truly teaches children the independence to learn things joyfully and purposefully?
Many of us simply expect teachers to give homework, for without it, what will our children be learning? In "The Homework Myth," the popular lecturer Alfie Kohn, argues against this trend. He feels that the widespread use of homework as an educational tool is not based on solid scientific proof but on an erroneous belief that homework is good for our kids. This ‘myth’ that homework is good is so well entrenched in society that people simply consume them without thinking through, and uses homework as a ‘default’ learning mechanism for their kids. There are three myths that Kohn tries to debunk, that homework:
  1. Promotes higher achievement;
  2. Reinforces learning;
  3. Teach study skills and responsibilities.
Kohn in the book gives 6 reasons as background why this 'myth' is so tightly held by society around the world.
  1. Homework makes one feel good, that something productive is happening. That means that many of us are not prepared to let facts get in the way;
  2. People rarely challenge this paradigm;
  3. Wrong understanding of what learning is all about;
  4. Blindly accepting that giving 'higher standards' (giving more homework) lead to better students;
  5. Taking it as the norm unquestioningly;
  6. Keep the children busy.
I think these are valid points. For me, the most powerful reason against homework is the conscious and unconscious substitution of one's personal involvement with the children's learning. We treat homework sheets like a automatic scanner for learning deficiencies. We force children to complete their homework simply because we want to assert the philosophy that childish and wilful behaviour that rebels against work must be put down. We insist on our children to do more homework so that they can be 'better' than the rest. Kohn attacks such thinking by asking "Why our kids get too much of a bad thing?"

  1. Change the default. Instead of homework as the standard bearer of learning, why not 'absence of homework' to allow kids to explore learning opportunities that suit them best.
  2. Quantity: Simply put, lesser homework means more time to do it well;
  3. Quality: If homework is not of a certain quality, why do them?
  4. Set appropriate assignments Like reading, suitable home-based activities and learning through constructive play;
  5. Choice: Give kids the chance to participate in proposing various avenues of learning;
  6. One Size Doesn't Fit All: Mass production of homework assignments does not mean it benefits all students.
  7. Stop Grading: Putting a check tends to force children to comply that their learning is right/wrong. Life have too many things that is gray already.
  8. Individualize: Personal attention is much lacking in our culture nowadays. How about personal attention to the needs of individual students?
If you are interested to know more, check here. A word of caution is appropriate here. While many ideas of Kohn make sense, Kohn has also been known to be rather controversial. His comments on teaching children the meaning of September 11 terrorist attack have not gone down well with many.

While some of his ideas are rather controversial, even disturbing, it should at least stir up some of us to question ourselves about the benefits of homework. Maybe Kohn does have some valid points. Homework can wear down a family, often create stress in an already stressful society. Not giving homework means time for other things. Unless of course the parents are too busy for their kids. That said, sometimes parents use kids as an easy excuse. In their adult circles, they will say they need to 'spend time with their family.' At home, they instruct their kids to 'spend time with their homework,' while they spend time pressing buttons on their TV remote control or flipping the pages of the newspaper. That said, I think Kohn's main contribution is to help anxious parents re-look and re-evaluate the traditional meaning of homework. Granted, there may not be much direct benefits in giving homework. There may even be a valid argument that kids do busywork instead of beneficial meaningful work. Traditions and long-held assumptions will take a long time to change. The next best thing is not ‘no homework,’ but better quality-over-quantity homework. It is an uphill task trying to change deeply entrenched beliefs about homework.

What I particularly appreciate is the trust element. If our giving of homework is due to our basic philosophy that distrusts our kids to learn things by themselves, we make them continuously study for the sake of the parents. Distrust of our children's own capacity to learn is proportional to our understanding of what true learning is all about. There is a Chinese proverb that says:
"A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study."

" The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. (Alvin Toffler, in "Foreword" of Rethinking the Future, p255)"
This is important. Some groups have taken on the challenge of re-looking at newer educational techniques for the new century. I think that education is not something that we learn, but something we have to 'unlearn' as well. With this technological age, with the deluge of data glut, leading to complaints about information overload, we should not be too concerned about getting information into our brains. Neither should we be paranoid about the worry of not getting the right information. We ought to develop our whole selves to be discerning about what we learn and to be humble that sometimes we can be wrong. Learning includes taking in useful facts, and releasing wrong paradigms. Learning is not only input, but unlearning the wrong things. We need a brain scrubbing now and then, under the guidance of a mentor. Education is lifelong. Not only should we expect our children to learn, we need to put on a learning attitude ourselves. This includes both learning and unlearning.

Alfie Kohn powerfully quotes a Katharine Samway who rationalizes as follows:
“You have our children for six hours, five days a week. Can’t we have some time with them to do what we choose?” so she determined to tell her son: “No, you can’t do your homework until we have returned from the show/returned from the bike ride/finished the ball playing/read the book, the chapter, or the poem.” If the schools’ priorities were askew, that didn’t mean she had to accept them. Family comes first, she decided. Children come first. Real learning comes first. (198)
Perhaps, as we reflect, we will not only learn to ask good questions but recognize that as imperfect beings, we cannot simply do things just because it has been done successfully in the past. This is because times have changed. The environment is constantly changing. Technology and science are accelerating such changes through many ways. People also change. If our educational beliefs do not change, or keep up with changing times, we risk becoming more ignorant, intellectual bigots in stale knowledge and worse a illiterate who refuses to unlearn the wrong stuff. Such a illiterate will speak like the Emperor who insists that his transparent new clothes are the best in the whole kingdom.
"Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still;
teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning." (Proverbs 9:9)


Monday, October 20, 2008

Church of England & Its Apology to Darwin

In 1859, the British biologist and naturalist, Charles Darwin published a classic work called: "The Origin of Species." The core argument of the document is:
"I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are linear descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any species are the descendents of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification."
A fairly readable analysis of Darwin's work can be found here.

The year 2009 marks the 200th year of Darwin's birth. It will be a memorable landmark for a man credited with the theory of evolution which many pro-Darwinian supporters say is an affront on Christian accounts of creationism. It is also a challenge to traditional Christian interpretation of creation via the Genesis narrative in the Bible. The Church of England recently made an apology for the years of attack on Charles Darwin and the theory of the origin of species. Rev Malcolm Brown of the Church of England, in a surprising offer of apology argues that "Good Religion Needs Good Science." He even calls the Church attack against Darwin as an 'error.' Here is the full apology:
Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.
In order to understand this latest action, we need to look back at 2006, where the Episcopal Church resolution A129 which made an ammendment from "in no way diminishes the centrality of Scripture in telling the stories of the love of God for the Creation and" to "entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith"SUPPORT FOR THE LATEST COE ACTION
The basis of the Church of England announcement is consistent with what is going on in the Episcopal Church in America. Reporting for the Episcopal Life Online, Rev Mary Frances Schjonberg reports the more embracing creation with evolution trend as:
"There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world," Brown writes in his essay, adding that "for the sake of human integrity -- and thus for the sake of good Christian living -- some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential."
On the Net, atheists are wild over the latest action, claiming victory for evolution and ridicules the Church for their age-old resistance of Darwinian theory. Scientific American followed up on this apology by saying "Better Late Than Never." It was also reported that there are two reasons behind the Church of England action. Firstly, the COE wants to 'distance itself from fundamentalist organizations.' Secondly, they want to imitate what the Vatican did for Galileo, by doing something for Darwin, which they castigated over the years.

The Daily Mail calls the latest Church of England action as 'ludicrous' in its article published 13th September 2008. A highly critical Ann Widdecombe, previously from the Church of England, now a Roman Catholic said: "It’s absolutely ludicrous. Why don’t we have the Italians apologising for Pontius Pilate?" The Roman Catholic Church officially said that there is 'no need' for an apology, as creation is not incompatible with Darwin's theories. Moreover, a descendant of Darwin, Andrew Darwin asks the Church not to even bother, saying that the action is simply a way to make the 'institution' (aka COE) 'feel better.'

Even secularists and some Christians agree that the Church of England's gesture is 'ridiculous.'

What disturbs me is the Church of England's actions as being too-rush, too-rash for comfort. Firstly, is there really a need for such an apology? Is the Church of England apologizing for its initial move to denounce Darwin, or are they also apologizing for the consequences of anti-Darwinian activists since the initial denouncement? Secondly, the theory of evolution is a scientific hypothesis, that is, it is something that is not directly proven but is based on assumptions that are drawn from human observations over time. As such, a scientific hypothesis needs to be resilient against scientific criticisms. If evolution is allowed to flow into arguments about God, it becomes a scientific ideology, that forces people to exercise their faith based on a set of assumptions. Hence, there is a popular belief that science and religion do not mix. That said, why should any institution that uphold traditional religious values be so worried about a science that cannot adequately play itself out in the theological realm? Can oil really mix with water? No. Thirdly, while it is one thing to apologize for any atrocities committed against innocent people in the pro-Darwin camp, it is yet another to compromise traditional beliefs itself, which is not based on assumptions but on the revelation of God. This is to say that apologizing for 'implementation mistakes' does not mean apologizing for the belief. Just like a parent wanting to punish a child who stole something, but used the wrong punishment approach. The parent can apologize for the inappropriate manner of discipline but that should not neutralize the need to mete out proper correction in due course.

Fourthly, if the Church can make a turnaround so readily, what makes one so sure that it will not turn around other beliefs as easily? Will they then start to question the deity of Christ? Will they compromise the gospel narratives? Will they then work on archaeological findings to re-interpret all aspects of the Bible, even though the Bible is not specifically a scientific book? Where will it end?

The Church of England has done something that is totally unnecessary. In Rev Malcolm Brown's statement, I can gather the intention as follows:
  • People make mistakes (of course, who doesn't)
  • The Church of 1860s have wrongfully attacked Darwin (nothing was specified, but could this form of attack been the best possible way at that time to prevent something worse?)
  • Science does not necessarily contradict Christian teaching (true, but the way it is used can)
  • We should not prevent honest scientific investigations (of course! but do not let such investigation be used by an atheistic wolf under the sheep's clothing of science)
  • The reaction then may seem to have been 'misguided' (but one is looking at such misguidance from the year 2008, 200 years later.)
  • social misapplication of Darwin (certainly. all are guilty, both the religious orders and the scientists)
  • avoiding dualistic education where students learning biology have to take evolutionary theories as 'truth' even if they have opposing religious beliefs (i think the crux of the matter is the unwitting mixing of science and religion)

You do not need to come out to say that evolution & creation is compatible/incompatible. Truth does not contradict. What perhaps is susceptible to disputes and controversies are the WAYS in which people argue against/for any of the theory/beliefs mentioned. The other difference is in the basic assumptions that people have. Perhaps there will always be grey areas in this life. Probably, some things will never be explained thoroughly or satisfactorily to all. If that is the case, let science be science, and let scientific hypotheses be scientifically proven using scientific means and measuring devices. As much as science cannot prove the existence of God, it cannot prove the non-existence of God either.

Worst School in BC? Not necessarily....

On Sunday, I was moved by one news article in the Province, BC Canada. This article focuses on a small community school in Burnaby called Edmonds Community School. The headlines appear dramatic: "One School, 48 countries.” Rather appropriately, it shows a grade 7 boy from the Czech Republic playing the ‘world’ sport called football. In North America, this is called soccer, as they rather reserve their ‘football’ for what we commonly refer to as ‘American football.’

Within the two pages, four things struck me:
a) The immense multicultural mix (350 students from 48 countries speaking 46 languages)

Apart from attracting headline attention, Edmonds Community School exhibits a welcoming culture that is humane, accepting and some will say, very ‘Canadian.’ Having lived in Canada for the past few years, I must say that Canada is one of the world’s most welcoming societies. With patience and understanding, many teachers will take the time to talk to new students and patiently guide them each step of the way. Two years ago, teachers in Vancouver actually went on strike and one of the reasons was the rising teacher-student ratio that the local Vancouver School Board was seen as slow to address. The long term repercussions feared was that it endangers the quality of teacher-student guidance.

Since 2002, the challenges have become greater. While it used to be refugee children in the 70s-80s who experienced poverty and hardship back home, the newer immigrants to Canada showed evidence of ‘post-traumatic stress’ arising from their exposure to violence and war-ravaged nations in Africa and Afghanistan.

b) ‘Worst’ performing schools in British Columbia

If reading and writing are the two measuring instruments of literacy, Edmonds school is viewed as the ‘worst’ in the whole province. Teachers at that school were quick to point out that such a label is ‘grossly misplaced.’ They prefer to take a broader perspective, saying that these kids may not be academically superior to other schools within BC, but the whole school community ‘exemplifies the best in teaching and fearless student drive.’

Come to think of it, I think they are right. In fact, many parents have tunnel visions when it comes to education. They want their kids to be academically better than sports. They want their children to get the best tuition resources in order to secure good grades so that they get good job prospects. For some, not getting an ‘A’ is anathema! Too often, education is restricted to merely good performance in the examinations. It is quick, efficient but grossly misleading. Education is much more than examination results.

c) More than 80% are ESL students, struggling with a new country and new language

I think immigrant children have many things to be thankful for, despite the lack of security of home and the confusion of identities on who they are and where they come from. Taken in a positive manner, this twin challenge can be a powerful motivator to look forward for a brighter and better future. In fact, having experienced the worst in life, and placed in a land of opportunity that is open and welcoming, they are poised to excel. They work harder than locals. They can compare the worst they have experienced with the best that they can look forward to. Young people especially has a huge energy resources and adaptability to change. They can be influenced and touched in order to help other people in more unfortunate circumstances. These students bear many different testimonies of a life from ‘rags to potential riches,’ from ‘zero to a budding hero,’ and from a world of despair to a place of hope. If they can survive, chances are that they are street-smart and can withstand the tough issues of life like unemployment, discouragement, poverty, sickness and low equity ratio. They can instead be more thankful for the little they have, in spite of the many they do not have. Treated well, these young children can be a powerful force for a gentler, caring and humane society that Canada is seeking to become more and more each day.

d) The hope held out

Finally, the words that ring out in my ears and touch my heart are those of the head teacher, Elin Horton.
“She pauses and brushes away the tears in her eyes, then adds: ‘We can’t do anything about where they’ve come from – but we can do an awful lot about where they’re going to go.’”
That is worth the price of education, the hope held out not only for teachers, but for teachers to remind themselves that education while it needs to be realistic (of one’s limitations), vulnerable to skeptics, it needs to embrace the human spirit and be optimistic about one’s potential to succeed.

My Comments

In Neil Postman’s wonderful book about the “End of Education,” Postman argues that young people need to be equipped with the necessary skills and attitude toward continuing to educate themselves. We cannot continue to depend on the umbilical cord of our parents’ expectations for our own learning. We need to wean ourselves from any forms of codependency that inhibits our individual prospective futures. We should continue to be learners all our life willingly, intentionally and compassionately. Life is more than grades. Like what my professor used to say: “One can score perfects A’s in his school grades and yet flunk life.”

Reading this article makes me rather embarrassed when I see friends of mine becoming so paranoid over their children’s academic results everytime the exam draws near. Often children’s anxieties feed upon the apprehensive nerves of the parents. Extreme cases will make the most fretful kid to take their own life, mainly for fear of not meeting up to their parents demands.

To these parents, my purpose is not to deter you from seeking the best academic performance for your children, neither is it to form guilt in your mind about the larger world outside our small perimeter of school-homework-extra-curricular-activities. It is to develop in our hearts a small and growing posture of thankfulness for what we have. In the process, inculcate hope in our lives that there is always a second chance, just as Christ who came down to earth to give all mankind a second chance.


The Province
19 Oct 2008
Justify Full

Latest Posts