Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lost Generation. Is it?

Someone sent me an email about this video clip about the apathy and lethargy of a new generation. Watch this video and be surprised.

The power of choice...


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Playing the Numbers Game

The Myth of Numerical Supremacy

"The Bigger the Number, Something must be right. Right?"
Wrong. The bigger the number, the greater the temptation. The higher one climbs, the harder the potential fall.

It is often argued that when an organization is growing in numbers and in profits, something must be going right. These people point to the receipts each month, and justify the collection as something truthful and in the right direction. While it may be true that things are more pleasant when the numbers are beating forecasts and the wildest expectations, to develop that into a doctrine is another matter altogether. In 1998, Citigroup became the world's largest financial conglomerate with assets of over 300 billion US dollars. In Mar 2009, even the humble Bumiputra-Commerce bank of Malaysia has a larger market capitalization than Citigroup. The higher one climbs, the harder one falls. Citigroup is currently in deep trouble, requiring the US government to bail them out.

Look at what happened to the former National Kidney Foundation (NKF) in Singapore. It was the largest charity at that time, with numbers so huge that they can afford to organize their own branded charity show called the NKF charity fund. In June 2001, they raised $11.6 million which broke the fundraising record for the country. True enough, in 2003, they raised a record $15.7 million for their charity show. Record setting proved to be an annual affair until the scandal. If records are being set, and the money continues to pile up, does this mean that they have done something right? What happened in June 2005? The CEO, TT Durai and some key board members were convicted of fraud and financial mismanagement. They were growing in numbers but have they done things right? Not really.

Fast forward to our current economic downturn. He founded Madoff Investment Securities in 1960, which had an initial investment of $5000. By 2000, it became one of the top securities trading company in the US. As of March 12th, 2009 the numbers reached in excess of $65 billion. Swindled, that is. His company investment holdings grew to humongous proportions, but what happened? Does numerical superiority equals rightful management? Madoff became the symbol of our modern recession which has since affected the global markets. Madoff was said to have been 'compelled' to make more money after hyping up expectations of his fund capabilities. The way to sustain his corporation and current clients is simple: Bigger and richer investments to assure a rich payback to his existing customers. However, there is a major risk. What if he cannot attract newer and bigger investors?

Numbers Cannot Quantify Everything
I am not trying to speak all things negative about 'numbers' per se. I am simply adding a more critical component. A number is merely an indicator, but it can be used two ways. Firstly as a possible marker of what is working. Secondly, as an warning that subtle deceptions can be actively at work. Discerning which is which is important. It is great to see growth in terms of numbers. Likewise, it is encouraging for a church to have increase in numbers. Numbers excite. Numbers affirm to some extent the work of any organization. However, they can also deceive and distract people from their actual purposes. Most crucial of all, the higher the climb, the greater the temptations. Now, you my reader may be perplexed about it all. What's wrong with growth in numbers? Isn't that a common measurement of life? True. The society we live in thrives on the economics of numbers. Almost everything can be quantified. From the amount of bean sprouts we buy at the supermarkets, to the number of options and rights we exercise at the close of a corporate stock offer. I am not against these things. What I am concerned with is the uncritical use of numbers to quantify even our basic living.
  • Can we quantify love for a girl by the number of flowers we buy?
  • Can we quantify the quality of our transportation comfort by the number of cars we own?
  • Can we quantify the vitality of a church by how many members registered?
  • Can we quantify success by the number of companies we own?
  • Can we quantify ethical behaviour?
  • Can we justify sacrificing one person in the name of helping 10 other persons?
The answer will be no. There are many things in life that cannot be measured by quantity alone. Quantity carries not much meaning outside the domain of time, relationships and things unseen. Ask Jesus, who reminds us that a man's life does not comprise of abundant material things.
"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)
Life examples abound. The National Kidney Foundation in Singapore (NKFS) was expected to grow their financial base, with each successive record-breaking collection adding an additional layer of expectation. The Madoff scheme was dependent on increasing his investor portfolio. When the numbers rise each year, his scheme works like a champ. When it falls, the whole pyramid collapses, bringing everyone down with it. The higher one climbs, the greater the temptations. It is easy to live with more, but not so easy to climb down from a high portfolio pedestal, especially if it is tainted by scandals. Ask Ted Haggard or Jim Baker.

The science of numbers is not restricted to the kidney charity or the Madoff financial scandal. In the gospel circles, there have been probes into at least six ministries (Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Paula & Randy White) in the US. ChristianityToday reports that many of them are also in financial trouble. There are many video clips on the prosperity gospel preachers on Youtube, one of them here.

The Parable of the Talents
This parable in Matthew 25 is sometimes used as a parable to teach the prosperity side of the gospel. Time Magazine in its September 2006 issue had the front cover: "Does God Want You to be Rich?" In it, references were made to the parable of the talents, and sermons were preached in terms of monetary growth and investment gains as the mark of a true believer. Prosperity preaching essentially believes that God wanted people to be rich. It is for their inherent 'right' to receive 'blessings' and 'success.' Those who are poor need not be. People with a low income can have more. Those who are rich can be richer! The logic is simple. Christians no longer need to be living under the law, but under grace. Since they are living under grace, and God is the generous 'Daddy,' should not Christians receive the full blessings which include material goods? They then go on to demonstrate the goodness of God in terms of their multiple 'blessings,' like a brand new car, new house, exceptional money earned, and so on. Using numerical means, they claim that God is 'blessing' them because they dared to name the blessing and to claim it in faith.

Using this parable, it is easy to assume that Jesus is telling us that if we invest more, more will be given to us. Is this what the parable is teaching us? Well, if we were to take a pair of scissors, cut out Matthew 25:14-30 and say that it is the gospel, perhaps one can draw this conclusion. Unfortunately, taking a text out of its context is what we call a 'pretext.' 'Pretext' is a word (related to pretense) that describes a sly way to hide the original intent of the passage. Here is what I can read. Without going too far back, the parable of the talents is a warning that directs us to be aware of a coming judgment. Matthew 23 parades the seven woes against those who insist on their Pharisaic brand of the law. Matthew 24 warns us of signs that the end is coming. The parable of the talents is sandwiched between two other judgment parables, Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) and the Sheep & the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The judgment within the parable of the talents is not so much of wisely investing of one's talents. Rather, it is a rebuke on anyone seeking to live less than what he is called to do. What a person is called to do cannot be primarily measured in terms of numbers, even though numbers is a popular way of measuring progress. The parable of the talents tells us why. Both the 5-talent man and the 2-talent man invested their talents and were praised by the Master. The rewarding compliment in Matthew 25:21, 23 is remarkably identical. Every word, every punctuation and language inflection is exactly the same for both the 5-talent man and the 2-talent man. Only the 1-talent man was rebuked sharply and punished accordingly. I believe that if the 1-talent man have faithfully stewarded his 1 talent, he too will receive a similar compliment from his Master. My point is, it is not much quantity that we have or eventually earn, it is the attitude of the heart that demonstrates our love for God. The key is: Be Faithful. Much is given, much is also required, but the rewards are the same. Thus, one should not feel guilty about not having enough talents to start with. He ought to be ashamed when he is not actively engaged in putting to good use with what he has. This is different from a Name-It-Claim-It scenario, which in the sight of greedy hearts comes across as a spiritual form of gambling. When one is too pre-occupied with the numbers, how can one stay focused on seeing Christ for who he is? When a person is infatuated with the need to see 'blessings upon blessings,' what is there to prevent one from using God as a means to his material gains?

Worse, it abuses the Name of our good Lord, and undermines God by measuring the faithfulness of God by using the tools of Mammon. The kingdom of heaven is not to be equated with a spiritual domain that is full of material things. Instead, it is to be understood as the manifestation of the goodness of God that is far BEYOND material things. The moment we 'materialize' God or the 'blessings' of God, we form within ourselves an idol to worship. Jesus's main point before the parable of the talents has been to prepare us to expect the coming Judgment.

I am not saying that God does not give us good gifts for our present existence. He does, and continues to do so in many different ways. However, that is strictly a secondary or a third or fourth-degree consideration. Our primary call is to love God, REGARDLESS of material increase or decrease. In fact, material things should not even be in the picture. After-all, did not Jesus say that . It is not simply to love God because he gives us so many things. It is to love God because He has already given fully of Himself at the Cross. So whether one receives or not receives any blessings within our own timeframe is immaterial. What matters is that God has already given us, and is preparing much greater blessings for us. Equating material blessings with God's blessings can misrepresent God. After all, we know that the evil ones can duplicate material increase with much ease. The deceiver will use anything that can distract us from God. Jesus warns us in the parable of the Sower, that only one out of four will survive and become fruitful. The third kind of soil is that of riches of the world which deceives and prevents growth toward maturity. Scripture thoroughly warns us against any form of materialistic spirituality (Luke 8:14). This is the primary weakness of prosperity theology, which focuses so much on material riches in the name of blessings, that the line between "Worshipping God for who He is" and "Worshipping God for what He can give" becomes increasingly blurred and diminished. Of course, there are encouraging signs within the prosperity gospel camp. People are reinvigorated with a spiritual thirst for God. They are energized to evangelize the world for the kingdom. They are experiencing a kind of spiritual vitality never encountered before in their traditional churches. These are wonderful results of the movement. Unless one matures right to the very end. Unless one perseveres to know God more, regardless of the things and blessings one can receive. Unless we learn to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow the Risen Christ, we cannot call ourselves disciples of Christ. The grace of God is given to all, whether one claims it or not. If God sends rain on both believers and unbelievers, will he not do the same for people who Name-It-Claim-It as well as those who don't?

The Apostle Paul warns us:
"Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. (1 Tim 6:17)
Proverbs teach us to be careful of riches, something that threatens the rich more than the poor.
"A man’s riches may ransom his life,
but a poor man hears no threat.
" (Prov 13:8)
As Christians, our receipt of salvation is Jesus Christ. We cannot enter the kingdom on our own merit or possessions. Our desire to enter heaven is not merely to buy a membership fee in Christ. We want to enter heaven as joyous people, seeking to honour God and tell him how much we love God for all he has done. We give of our own possessions to all who have need. In doing so, when we present our receipts of goodness and charity, God will say to us,

"Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"
Let us not play the numbers game, lest the evil one deceives us. Let us not be distracted by numbers, for it is the Lord who gives the increase in his own quantity and according to his own perfect timing. Let us look beyond the numbers to hold on to the cross of Christ, recognizing that whether in good times or in bad, God still loves us. It does not matter if we are a 5-talent conglomerate, a 2-talent church or a 1-talent individual. All are called to be faithful according to what God has given. Much is given, much is also required.

The French novelist, Victor Hugo, famous for Les Miserables, said:

“There is no such thing as a little country. The greatness of a people is no more determined by their numbers than the greatness of a man is by his height”
In the epic Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, a small rag-tag army of 300 Spartans was able to hold back a million soldiers of the great Persian army. In the Old Testament, a puny sized David was able to overcome the giant Goliath. If God is for us, who can be against us? Don't play the numbers game. Whether your church is small or large, all belong to Christ. One soul that comes to Christ is as important as hundreds who come to the faith. There is no reason to boast about numbers. Numbers are silly things to trumpet about. Not only will such actions annoy others, they invite temptations of the highest order. I used to ask the question: "How can anyone ever move Mount Everest? How is it humanly possible to build the Great Wall of China?" The answer: one bucket of sand at a time. One brick of the wall at a time. In the Name of the Kingdom of heaven, it is one soul at a time.

What can we make of the $19 Million raised in 24 hours?
Pray. If you are a member of New Creation Church, continue to bless others as much as you have been blessed, but do not be deceived by numbers of plenty. Instead, watch out for any forms of temptations that can make you arrogant or prideful. If you are not a member of NCC, also pray. Pray that you will examine what you are doing in your own churches, whether there is anything you can learn biblically from them. You too must NOT play the numbers game. If you see yourself as a member of the church universal, in solidarity with churches around the world, pray too for your brothers and sisters in NCC. The greater problem they have is not the criticisms from the other churches or from the public. The bigger problem is to beware of the insidious nature of temptations that lurks behind attractive numbers and fashionable style. Don't play the numbers game, for numbers can lie. Ask any accountant, about window dressing and statisticians about how people can lie with 'facts.' Pray in the Lord's Name, to be humble, be gentle and be full of love for God in good works.

Much is given, much is also required.

There is a Hasidic story of a very rich but miserly man who died and was awaiting final judgment. He watched anxiously as the people in front of him submitted their acts of charity at the judgment gate. It so happens that the heavenly Judge gave each of them a welcome smile as the charitable acts were read out. When his turn came, he brought out his cheque books and various financial credit instruments and said that he is willing to write a cheque for any amount asked of him. The Judge replied: "We do not take credit cards. Neither do we take cheques. We only accept receipts."

In heaven, only receipts are accepted. It is not how much we gain in possessions but how well we USE these possessions for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Beware of the numbers game, for where the numbers are, there the temptations will be also. Be faithful with what we have, and let the Lord decide on the results according to his good time. The 5-talent man produced a receipt. The 2-talent man produced a receipt. The 1-talent man had no receipt. Much is given, much is expected. In Christ, we shall enter the Kingdom. In Christ we honour God. In Christ, we give our all, on earth as well as in heaven.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Very Creative Video

Everybody loves a good story. Especially those that move from rags-to-riches; from gloom-to-boom; and those that rise from the ashes of desperation to resurrect flashes of bright anticipation. This video "Markbyben", is created by Ben Gullet, a 14-year old son of Mark Gullet, former Marketing VP of Tampa Bay's NHL hockey team. The marketing brilliance and ingenuity from father to son, is exemplified by this innovative job-hunt clip. Even during these hard economic times, jobs are still available out there, but only the fittest, creative and diligent ones find them. At the time of this blog posting, news agencies have reported thousands of website hits and a couple of job offers as well. Simply do a search on the Internet for "Mark By Ben."

Elements of a good story, which I shall coin "EXPERT":
  • E = Element of Suspense
  • X = X factor, a mystery
  • P = Progression of thought
  • E = Engaging Audience toward a desired outcome
  • R = Relationship of Plot to the Actor(s)
  • T = Touches the Heart
This video shows flashes of brilliance in all of them.

Ben, hope your dad gets a good job, and thanks for the creative ideas.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Living Messily

When One Feels Messy
  • “My life is in a mess. There are so many things to do, and I simply do not have enough time.”
  • “I try hard to be a good Christian, but I feel like I do not pray enough. Each time I sit down to pray, but things always distract me.”
  • “I know Bible Study is important. So I sign up for classes in the Bible Study Fellowship. However, the timing clashes with important household chores. Now, I want to study the Bible more, but I can’t.”
  • “I guess I am not as spiritual as I wanted to be.”
  • “It is hard for me to share my faith, unlike some who had training before. Don’t depend on me to share the gospel. Let the pastor do it.”
  • “I suppose you can simply call me an ordinary Christian. Anyway, how is it really possible to live a balanced life of prayer, worship, fellowship and Word?”

Not a Good Christian?
If you feel that some or all of them reflects how you feel, welcome to the club of struggling silent majority of the Christian world. Many of us live hectic lives. If one is not actively doing something, one feels unfulfilled, exacerbated by the sight of a world filled with people whose life personifies B.U.S.Y. Michael Yaconelli, the author of “Messy Spirituality” feels that people tend to have a wrong sense of what ‘spirituality’ means. It is plain unhelpful to expect people to live as if they can only be saved if they lived ‘rightly’ or giving their time to prayer, Bible and all other common spiritual disciplines taught. The first step is to recognize that Jesus came to save us as we are: sinners. Every other step stems from this very acceptance of our brokenness.
Sadly, spirituality is most commonly used by Christians to describe people who pray all day long, read their Bibles constantly, never get angry or rattled, possess special powers, and have the inside track to God. Spirituality for most, has an outerworldly ring to it, calling to mind eccentric saints who have forsaken the world, taken vows of poverty, and isolated themselves in cloisters.” (Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, p12)
‘Good’ People in the Bible
Is there any spirituality not reserved for monks or spiritual super-people, but for ordinary folks like you and I trying to eke out an honest living? Yaconelli replies in the affirmative.
Spirituality is not a formula; it is not a test. It is a relationship. Spirituality is not about competency; it is about connection. The way of the spiritual life begins where we are now in the mess of our lives. Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the beginning of spirituality not because the spiritual life will remove our flaws but because we let go of seeking perfection and, instead seek God, the one who is present in the tangledness of our lives. Spirituality is not about being fixed; it is about God’s being present in the mess of our unfixedness.” (13)
If we were to recall the Scriptures, many biblical characters were not simply not perfect people. They do not have a clean-shaven spirituality. They come as they are, flaws and all.
  • Noah, after a triumphant building of the Ark, after surviving the great flood, went on later to become‘drunk and naked.’ (Gen 9:20-21)
  • Jacob was a cheat, (his name means ‘he deceives), but was still considered a biblical patriach. (Gen 25:26)
  • Joseph, though he was a favoured son, foolishly boasted about his interpretation of the dream without considering how it would affect his other brothers. (Gen 37:9)
  • King David committed adultery. (2 Sam 11)
  • Peter the apostle, denied Christ not once but thrice!

Unfortunately, sometimes when we do character study of biblical persons, we tend to overemphasize their ‘rightness’ and make them so ‘perfect’ that we revere them. What is most left out is not what they did, but how God has been merciful and faithful to them DESPITE their weaknesses. Likewise, when we go to church, sometimes we over-exalt those people in our churches to an uncomfortable altar of ‘spiritual’ rightness.
- “The pastor must be correct. After all, he has years of theological training.”
- “I can never understand the Bible myself, unlike the theologians who are so skillful.”
- “How do you expect me to pray like how the elders prayed? That’s why I’m not an elder.”

Now, I am not saying that those in pastoral positions or areas of leadership influence are never right. Neither am I saying that it is ok for layperson to be always wrong. What I am saying is that we should not put people on an unrealistic high pedestal which can turn them into hyped up professional spiritualists. In fact, the main point is that for people who find it a struggle to live a Christian life, it is ok. God accepts you as you are. That does not preclude the need to live the life demonstrated by Christian disciplines. Messy spirituality is basically to encourage these tired, discouraged individuals who loved God. They want to make a difference for God in their lives, but felt weak and uninspired. They are what we call, honest to God people.

Messiness as Workshop of Authentic Spirituality
Yaconelli argues that ‘messy spirituality’ is actually the ‘workshop of authentic spirituality, the greenhouse of faith, the place where the real Jesus meets the real us.’ (15) He continues:
Messy Spirituality is the scandalous assertion that following Christ is anything but tidy and neat, balanced and orderly. Far from it. Spirituality is complex, complicated and perplexing – the disorderly, sloppy, chaotic look of authentic faith in the real world. Spirituality is anything but a straight line; it is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride full of unexpected turns, surprise bumps, and bone-shattering crashes.” (17)

Some advantages of recognizing ‘messy spirituality:’
  • It stops our pretense
  • It reflects our imperfectness and lots of projects that will eventually remain ‘unfinished
  • It reminds us that we are often not as competent as we had wanted.
  • It tells us that all of us, can be driven to a point of desperation

One of the most profound things in ‘Messy Spirituality’ is the dispelling of the myth that God can only meet us when we have gotten everything right and worked out correctly. Like living correctly, living cleanly and staying righteous in all we do. Unfortunately, imperfect people cannot do that. Instead, until we confess we cannot save ourselves, to acknowledge we are already in a mess no matter how hard we try, God will not be pleased with us. We have to stop on our tracks upon seeking our own salvation through obedience to the law, but submitting ourselves to God’s grace even as we faithfully discharge our responsibilities and good works. In the New Testament, Jesus is constantly attracted to the outcasts, the undesired and the detested in society.

My Comments
I think it is important not to misinterpret Yaconelli’s ideas. As much as the book is to encourage people that it is ok, it is alright when we fail to do what we ought to be doing, it is necessary to point out the audience he is writing for. He is writing for people who are discouraged when they could not live a balanced life as a Christian. He writes to comfort people struggling endlessly with practicing Christianity while interacting with the world at large. He is NOT writing to tell people to continue doing mediocre jobs. He is NOT saying that it is always ok to give less than our best. He is above all, NOT saying that it is ok to continue living a life of sin. Such a book can be easily misinterpreted, and this point is the single most glaring weakness in the book. While it is true that all people struggle, some more than others, it is also true that people find strength to persevere in spite of their struggles. Paul the Apostle, while recognizing his weaknesses, chose to boast in the Lord’s strength. He is purposeful in what he does, making three great missionary trips. He tries his best, and practiced forgiveness and grace in his ministry. While Yaconelli may not be trying to promote mediocre spirituality, he is trying to console wounded believers trying honestly to live a honourable life for God. That put, it is an honourable task.

Is ‘Messy Spirituality’ then for us? My answer is simple: "Do we really have a choice?” The key to life is not whether one makes it through messily or squeaky clean. Avoid extreme nonchalant messiness which tend to shame rather than glorify God. Similarly, detest any tendency toward self-righteousness that puts people off, and bring dishonour to God. It is simply to recognize that at whatever state we are in, we live for the Lord. Live truthfully to oneself, to neighbour and to God. There is no other way.

There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. ” (Romans 3:22b-24)


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Joining Up the Dots

I am a student of the meaning of work. The Bible does say, that if one does not work, one does not eat. In a sense, all of us are working, some for more money, others for less. Few gets paid at all, like most charities and social organizations. In fact, getting paid for charitable work sometimes makes one feels weird. Where then is faith? What is the relationship between faith and work? Before we get headlong into a series of endless debates over faith and work, it is important to note that when Paul wrote his statement in 2 Thess 3:10, that those who will not work not eat, he is writing against 'idleness.' He does not mean that only paid-jobs are considered work. What he is saying is "Never tire of doing what is right" (2 Thess 3:13). There are two types of narrow thinking that limits one's understanding of work. Firstly, one erroneously equate work only to paid-work and secondly, then work is only confined to a 9-5 situation.

1) Only paid-work is work.
We live in a world where people increasingly become more interested in 'success' rather than 'salvation.' Success related books and seminars are getting more popular, while talks about salvation rarely reaches half the room. If one is only successful in life when one has paid work, I guess in these hard economic times of retrenchments and job losses, there are too many failures that we lose count of them. If work is defined as one that is 'paid-only,' where is the incentive for people to volunteer community service to the needy? How are we going to cultivate a life of faith, when we need to see the money first before giving of our time? Who then will even bother to volunteer anything at all?

If only paid work is work, then housewives and students represent one of those most 'workless' communities in our society. Students not only fail to earn any income (those who do earn, make little), they pay exorbitant tuition fees as well! We can tell students to study hard, but can we honestly tell them to 'work' hard? If we define work in terms of paid-only activity, I guess we cannot equate 'study hard' with 'work hard.' Moreover, if one is simply studying hard for the sake of earning future money, this current economic depression is no encouragement or motivation to study hard at all. For new graduates with this mentality during this economic downturn, that only paid-work is work, the future is spelled 'gloom and doom.' Self-esteem if it is defined in terms of paid-work gets another rude slap in the face. The recent news of suicides in my former University are testament to such a problem. One was a student who slashed his wrists after stabbing his project supervisor. Another was a lab technician, and both suicides occur within a week. Now I am not saying that they have a wrong view of work. What I am saying is that when one fails to see any more reason to live for, suicide is a popular route of hopelessness. Thus, thinking about work remains an important consideration in the life of every worker, every student and all who walks this earth. Some of us are gifted with the ability to make money. Many are not. Few are called to help others, even at the expense of not getting paid for that help. Is this a reason for Jesus's saying:
"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few." (Luke 10:2a)
I am a student, serving in church, and also taking on a huge amount of household chores. If work is defined as paid-only, I guess I am not working at all, even though I have a small stipend. I study hard. I serve diligently. I prepare extensively for church work. I collect materials for a new book I am writing. I take on large errands at home. All these evaporate into non-work if we define work narrowly into dollars and cents. Having said that, I do not mean that paid-work is unimportant. What I am saying is that we need to have a bigger picture of work.

2) Work is only 9-5
This brings us to the next narrow form of thinking, that when we work, we only do so from 9am to 5pm, or only within the confines of the office walls. The truth is, work is actually the use of our human faculties for the benefits and advancement of all mankind. An engineer can design a working model of a concept. A technologist can solve a computer problem so that others can run their software applications. A doctor can diagnose the health of his patients during the normal office hours. An expanded view of work must take into account the fact that work is the act of creating meaning out of our daily activities. This has tremendous repercussions. In many studies of work motivation, job satisfaction and significance of their work contributions regularly rank high up on the list. What is the point of working in an environment where one feels meaningless in what they are doing? What happens if there is no job fit? It is only a matter of time before the inevitable happens, either the worker quits unhappily, gets fired sensationally or continues to endure the drudgery of office hours. If work is only 9-5, how about after 5pm? Will one become less an engineer, a programmer or a doctor after 5?

This leads us to the next problem surrounding the 9-5 definition of work. What about 5-9? How about a parent fetching their children to school? What about kitchen and household chores? What about buying groceries so as to feed the family? What about cooking? Does that mean that one can sit back and relax after office hours? Dishes do not clean themselves up automatically. Even dishwashers do not have robotic arms to put dishes inside, or add their own detergent from the pantry. What about laundry? What about grocery? Childcare? Even paying bills requires one to be actively involved.

Joining the Dots in Our Life
This quote is particularly insightful:
"If you want to build a ship, don´t drum up people to collect wood and don´t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This statement points us to the importance of knowing the reasons for doing what we are doing. If one does not love the sea, one will fail to notice the different behaviour of waves and winds. When one fails to notice the unique features of the sea, one simply build according to schematics without relating to the practicalities of a seafarer's life. The word passion is relevant here. If one merely discharges his duties according to the tasks, one is simply doing his job. However, if one is passionate about his work, he finds ways to improve. He seeks better ways of efficiency and productivity. He teaches them to others, and tries to excite others about what he is doing. I will venture to say that if one is passionate about the sea, collecting wood, or building schematics takes on a whole new meaning altogether, beyond engineering, beyond design, beyond safety, toward love. Vocation. Bill Gates famously replied, when asked about why he puts in so much energy into Microsoft. He said: "It's fun."

Saint-Exupery is also well known for the popular children's book: "The Little Prince" which talks about the perception of life/human nature from the eyes of a child. As I was about to graduate with my first degree in 1989, I told myself to look for a career, not merely a job. It took me nearly 3 months of intentionally finding out about the reasons for work before I actually embarked upon a job hunt. The process while enriching for my soul, was hard for those around me. They berate my 'passive' mood in terms of making a living by earning money. They criticize my attitude of not doing anything to bring in the daily bread for the family. I understand where they were coming from. After-all, after so many years of study, should not I start to make my degree pay off? Things in life are not free. Rental, food, and daily necessities of life need dollars and cents to sustain. One may claim that money is not everything in life, but everything around us cost money. Perhaps, I have not explained myself clear enough to them. Eventually I got my first job, but it was not my first love. It was simply a job that feeds my desire to do other things, to study and to serve. It wasn't my calling, even though the bank statement thinks otherwise.

This brings us to a helpful saying from Woodrow T Wilson (1856-1924), the 28th President of the United States:
"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget this errand."
(Woodrow T Wilson)
In one statement, we realize that anything we do, if it is simply an unrelated dot in our life, it remains an island by itself, disconnected from the world and everything else. There are books for little children for them to join up the dots on the page before seeing a full picture. What kind of dots are we joining? Are we joining the dots at all? Do we see the dots in the first place? Are we simply content in meaningless pokka dots, or are we living a life confident that we have God guiding our hands to join up the seemingly unrelated dots of our life, to form a picture of our vocation?

Yes some of us are called to be engineers, some teachers, others doctors and lawyers etc. In the Church, some are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers, all are needed to be part of building the kingdom of God. Regardless of what jobs or work we are called to do, all are called to be part of the community they are in to share and care for one another. What about you?


Monday, March 09, 2009

The Economics of Fear

“In vain you rise up early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat –
for he grants sleep to those he loves.” (Ps 127:2)
The daily papers say it all. The old-age adage is true: No news is good news. People talk about it on the streets and the natural instinct during tough times is to cut back, save more and wait until the storms of uncertainty abate. Most of the Western society is now on a deep financial deficit. At the rate the bailouts are going, one begins to wonder where the money is all going to come from. If we were to graph our faith in human leaders, each bailout announcement together with an unanswered question: "What happened to all the previous money?” only goes to register another major dip of confidence mortal leadership. In the economics of fear and despair, the graph looks more or less the same. Charting downwards sharply and rapidly. In a chart by JP Koning (see below), which graphs all the significant depressions since the early 1929 to the present, we note that the Great Depression lasted for nearly 150 weeks and declined a whopping 90%. Anyone of us can easily become a Doomsday prophet by simply saying that this is only the beginning of the end. Our current economic fall began in 2007 (70 weeks), declining more than 50% with no end in sight! If there is one graph to decelerate confidence, this is it! Unfortunately, this hides a more serious problem: Disappearing emotional assurance.

Fear is very profitable. Just look at insurance premiums and stock market spikes. Market performance is usually driven by consumer sentiments. Consumer sentiments are affected by current events as well as fear-driven pessimism. In the same way, any forms of optimism is in turn encouraged by good news. However most react quickly based on more tangible things rather than invisible future, as far as good news is concerned. Sometimes, the market does not accurately reflect actual health of the economy. The system is far too complex. Even Alan Greenspan has famously admitted that his view of the free-market economy has its flaws. Yet, it is arguably the best that we now have. Unfortunately, it is based too much on the economics of fear.

Fear that kills?
I like what people say about the “old skydiver’s wisdom”, that in skydiving, it is not how far one falls in the air that kills, it is the ground that one falls upon. Like in a movie I remember, where a lady driving at night is trying to shake off a mysterious car tailing her. She becomes so fearful of the car behind, that she loses concentration on the road in front of her. Eventually she dies from a head on collision against the trees. In medical circles, I remember hearing doctors claiming that one's lifespan can be shorted by worries alone. In other words, it is the worry, not the illness that accelerates any fatality. The famous poet, Robert Frost says it well:
"The reason why worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work." Robert Frost
I like this statement by an unknown author:
"Blessed is the person who is too busy to worry in the daytime and too sleepy to worry at night." Author Unknown
This has biblical evidence. The Psalmist in the verse at the beginning of this article reminds us of the gift of sleep. Psalm 127 does not begin with contention with the enemies of the world. It begins with the Lord, that we need to recognize the source of all good work, otherwise no matter what good anybody tries to create, it is but in vain. No matter how much time and resources we pour in, without God’s blessings, they are usually not as significant as we think. In other words, any activity that is God-‘less’ is essentially HOPE-less. Take God out of any equation, and we are left on our own, an susceptible to all kinds of devices that will surely fail our deepest expectations.

Patricia Pearson in her new book: "A Brief History of Anxiety" (Random House Canada, 2008) has a chapter that talks briefly about the different fears faced by men and women. Men tends to be more vulnerable to anything that impacts their self-esteem, like being rejected relationally or in terms of their career advancement. For women, anxiety tends to come from a different source: exclusion from decision-making networks. Interestingly, the feminist movement, while championing equal rights, is essentially an attempt to try to graft themselves forcibly into a society perceived as dominated by men. In other words, if we were to extrapolate Pearson's argument to the economics of fear, men is relatively more affected. We may agree or disagree with Pearson, but if you are male, it does not hurt to pay yourself a little more attention. Be prepared and be ready to demonstrate the hope you have in your life. How? Let the psalmist help.

A Ps 127 Perspective
Ps 127:3 draws us back from the worries of the world of work and activity, back to what matters more: the family and the children we love. The psalmist intentionally interrupts one’s train of thought about work, and draws the reader to reflect on children as a reward from the Lord. Gradually, the Psalmist builds up his picture to incorporate the idea that it is not one’s responsibility to battle, but to BUILD UP one’s household for battle. If the battle is the Lord's should not the warriors be of the Lord? We can think of warfare in terms of three levels. At the first level, the battle is not our individual responsibility. In fact, we are called to be faithful to God, not to be fearful of the devilish schemes of the world. The Lord seems to be reminding us that any battle for God is never going to be an individual crusade. In the army of God, there are no Rambos. Secondly, our immediate responsibility is to build up our household of faith, with children our reward of faith. If forced to make a choice between a “successful business” versus a “strong, united family,” many of us will claim that the family wins hands-down. The first thing in any battle is to ensure that the soldiers remain highly motivated. Building up the family effectively assures that one's unit remains intact and solidly assured. Likewise, in the arena of fear, do not let the economics of fear bring down the harmonics of family. The English author, William R Inge gives a financial twist to worry saying:
"Worry is interest paid on trouble before it is due." (William R. Inge)
For the pessimist, the ground is one that is hard and anyone falling on it can hardly survive the impact. For the optimist, at the bottom, there will be a cushion with firemen and emergency crew holding up the edges of the safety platform to catch us when we fall. For the Christian, we know that at the end of the downward spiral, we need not panic about not having man-made cushion, nor worry about when we are going to die. Instead, we know that at some point of the seemingly endless tumble, we will be scooped up, and placed safe in the hands of our Loving Father. Even better, for the Christian, Jesus has promised never to leave nor forsake us. That means in all of our struggles, Jesus is with us, yesterday, today and forever. Do not be taken in by the economics of fear. Be received into the confidence of God, via the Hand of the loving Father in heaven.

Let me end by saying that we need not be victimized unnecessarily by the economics of fear. Yes, times are hard, and jobs are being lost everyday. At the same time, can we also see that the sun rises by day, and the moon by night? Many events in life remain much the same. The simple pleasures of life can still be appreciated without extravagant spending. Things like a simple sandwich, a cup of coffee, a medium sized muffin, and even an occasional trip to the video store. Rarely do we have anyone so poor that they cannot afford to buy a friend a Cappucino, or a yummy delicious cake for a beloved birthday child. The simple pleasures of life can also be free; like a walk in the park, or a game of chess over tea with your favourite buddy. There are battles to be fought and wars to be won. Let our sense of God's timing comfort and deliver us from worry. The important thing is that, when we are safely residing in the will of God, we will not fear the unknown, or to wonder what is going to happen tomorrow. God is our Father who knows best, a General who sees ahead, who has never and will never ever lose any war. The war has already being won, at the cross! We are now waiting for the glorious ushering in of the Kingdom in its fullness. Until that happens, Jesus remains our example, who chooses to serve without expecting to be served. The Spirit enthusiastically dwells in us as our Helper and our Comforter to guide us along physically, emotionally, spiritually and in all aspects of life important to us.

The economics of fear can derail us from our true purpose: Kingdom Living. It can twist apart any hopes we have may about contributing to the expansion of the Word of God. Leave our economics of fear to God. Instead, put on the harmonics of love and goodwill. Let our light shine before men, and not our worries before the world. Ps 127 closes with a picture of contention with the enemies at the gate. The key is to be ready. When the time to battle comes, blessed is the one who has full of soldiers prepared to fight. When the moment of war begins, blessed are those who are so charged up with hope and victory-seeking, that they engage the opposition with strength, courage and exceptional motivation of love. The battle is the Lord’s. The economics of fear is but another attempt to make us doubt God, to decrease our faith in kingdom work. We have to nip this spiritual disease at the bud quickly and intentionally. Lest our seed gets eaten away by birds; or our seed grow without roots; or having our seed suffocated by the worries and deceits of the world. Let our seed grow not in the economics of fear, but in the hope of God. Then and only when, when we contend with the enemies at the gate, when we face the enemies at the front, we close our backdoor of vulnerability, cutting off the devil’s most potent weapon in the economics of fear: Deception.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Looking at the "Present Future"

Reggie McNeal The Present Future[Reggie McNeal, The Present Future, Jossey-Bass, 2003]

What is the current state of the church? If the present churches were to continue in their current forms, what future will they have? Bleak and increasingly extinct. That is what church consultant and author Reggie NcNeal believes. In a provocatively written book, McNeal poses 6 wrong questions and counter them with 6 'tough' questions. The questions are tough because they are aimed at forcing a change in current forms of thinking about the church and its role. As we all know, old habits die hard, and hard habits need to be shaken up real bad before they can be altered. Unfortunately, there are some serious problems with existing paradigms. There is a visible pattern on some of the basic presuppositions of current ecclesiology:
  • When we do church 'right,' the church will naturally grow.
  • When the church grow, evangelism will expand
  • When evangelism expands, the world will be reached for God
  • All these meant that better planning for church 'growth' is the way to go.
Unfortunately, despite the most well-intentioned plans and programs, people are still not coming, save for temporal surges due to one-time events like disasters or terrible calamities affecting the wider community.

Briefly, the questions mentioned in the book are:

1) How do we do church better? [How do we Deconvert from churchianity to Christianity?]
2) How do we grow this Church? [How do we transform our community?]
3) How do we turn members into ministers? [How do we turn members into missionaries?]
4) How do we develop church members? [How do we develop followers of Jesus?]
5) How do we plan for the future? [How do we Prepare for the future?]
6) How do we develop leaders for Church work?[How do we develop leaders for Christian movement?]

These questions are meant to shift the old paradigms toward something which McNeal calls 'biblical Christianity.' What Reggie is saying is that the traditional church structure needs to adapt in at least six ways. The six shifts are:
  1. From Churchianity --> Christianity
  2. From Church Growth --> Kingdom Growth
  3. From Membership --> Missional
  4. From Church Development --> Followship of Christ (Spiritual Formation)
  5. From Planning --> Preparing for the Future
  6. From Developing Leaders for Church Work --> Leadership of the Christian Movement
I approach Reggie's ideas with an initial question: Is Reggie saying more of the same thing, with a different slant?

Brief Notes on the Book
1) First Reality: The Collapse of Church Culture
The first point is about refocusing on the Kingdom of God rather than the Church Empire. The trouble is, there are too many people equating kingdom-work with church-work and Reggie is spot on. Reggie's statement right from the start says it very well:
The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out (80 percent of money given to congregations comes from people aged fifty-five and older) or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off or both.
McNeal argues that this first point about moving back to 'biblical Christianity' from church-based ones is 'foundational' to the next five.

2) Second Reality: The Shift from Church Growth to Kingdom Growth
This is not easily understood especially when the layperson does not see a difference between church and kingdom. Unless of course, one defines church as simply the institution or human structures and kingdom as something more God-centered. Reggie argues rightly that churches that base themselves on a consumer-type mentality, preparing programs simply to feed insatiable appetites of members are not really doing kingdom work. They are simply a spiritual aspect of the total consumerist culture. Ouch!

3) Third Reality: A New Reformation, Releasing God's People
This is partly related to the second point above, that people be freed from stifling church structures. The idea is that when people are liberated, they can do more kingdom work.

4) Fourth Reality: The Return to Spiritual Formation
This has to do with living both internal and external significant lives for God, rather than mere extrinsic toeing the line of basic church expectations.

5) Fifth Reality: The Shift from Planning to Preparation
The word 'planning' is more to describe a form of organizing activities merely for sustaining church or archaic building strategies.Instead, 'preparation' is key. This is a little strange as preparation does entails planning. I'm sure there is a better word to use, like 'old-paradigm plots.'

6) Sixth Reality: The Rise of Apostolic Leadership

This is a new twist to the phrase 'people of God as priesthood of all believers.'

My Comments
This is a book about Church. The theological word for it is ecclesiology.
Positively, Reggie has made some helpful observations about the current church environment. There is a need for the Church to change their mindsets surrounding church and the kingdom of God. Indeed, one cannot substitute church activities and call them fodder for spiritual growth. Creating activities may be part of the church life, but if done without a vision of what kingdom work means, it can easily wear out both paid staff and unpaid volunteers very quickly. While high in criticisms of the current traditional church, Reggie has a rather pessimistic view of the church in general. This leads us to some negative points about the book.

On a negative note, Reggie's work can easily be misconstrued as another attempt at church bashing. One can say that we already have lots of other books doing that, and we do not need another to break the already-fragile camel's back. Secondly, it is written specifically from a North American viewpoint, and we need to read the book in that context, and not blatantly apply them on a global scale. Thirdly, while he is spot on in saying that churches need to reconnect with people, by dissing current churches without proposing an appropriate alternative, apart from framing the provocative questions, McNeal is less than helpful. In conclusion, the best way to read the book is not to see it as a solutions-provider. Neither should we see it as a manual for battering any church. See the book as a wake-up call, as a way to re-frame our perspective of what church means and what its mission entails. Then and only then, can we gain something positive and edifying. Perhaps, Reggie's approach appeals to anyone holding the the idea of 'whatever there is out there, challenge it.' Read by responsible and mature believers, this book is a welcome addition to the school of constructive criticism. However, placed in the hands of a young, brash believer, it may unwittingly become ammunition for further wounding a bruised church. For some, it may become fatal.

Read with care. If it helps, use it. If not, do not be too discouraged about it.


The Future According to Microsoft

While many in the world seems to be preoccupied with bad news and economic turmoil, it is good to keep our minds up and anticipate a future that does hold lots of promises, if we can just imagine....... imagine ......imagine .......... One company is doing that and more can do the same. While it is nothing really out-of-this-world, it is a creative extended look at what our current technologies can do more of. As of every kind of technologies, we can only get most out of what we put in, or in geek terms, GIGO or (Garbage In Garbage Out).

Thanks to for the publicity. Hint: Start with the first video, and then choose which sector of interest if you want to see more.

(A) The Future of Technology (1:54)
<br/><a href="" target="_new" title="Future Vision Montage">Video: Future Vision Montage</a>
"Most of the advances tend to be touch-based."

(B) The Future of Banking (2:49)
<a href="" target="_new" title="Banking Future Vision">Video: Banking Future Vision</a>

(C) The Future of Health (4:07)
<a href="" target="_new" title="Health Future Vision">Video: Health Future Vision</a>

(D) The Future of Manufacturing (3:26)
<a href="" target="_new" title="Manufacturing Future Vision">Video: Manufacturing Future Vision</a>
"I like the way that one can take notes immediately off the digital board. "

(E) The Future of Retail (2:27)
<a href="" target="_new" title="Retail Future Vision">Video: Retail Future Vision</a>
"This is amazing, especially the quick feature for labeling the individual prices of the products."

My General Comments
Note how people interact frequently with their gadgets. We are already trying to cope with minimizing interruptions in our daily human interactions with ringing cellphones and emails etc. Could this worsen the situation? The technologies do make things more efficient and colorful. Presentation is more crisp and sharp. Yet, the possibilities require a lot more rebuilding from the ground-up. Will that lead to more waste, when people rush to get the newest and casting out the old. There is also a scary concern that technology can further accentuate the paradigm that 'new is good; old is bad.' Unfortunately, while 'new is better' may work for technology, there are many other things that are not, like wisdom.

In summary, these series of videos are too lopsided toward images and touch. Remember that there are 5 basic human senses, and for some a 6th?


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