Thursday, April 30, 2009

"When Bad Things Happen to Other People"

Title: When Bad Things Happen to Other People
Author: John Portmann
NY: Routledge, 2000 (242pp)

Schadenfreude. You either love it or hate it, but it reveals a part of the human psyche that people will rather not discuss it openly. This German word has no English equivalent. It refers to what goes on inside people’s hearts when bad things happen to other people. In a world where people tend to think that they are good, rationalizing adults, Schadenfreude jerks one backwards when traveling a path of bizarre inner thoughts that revel in tragedies and mishaps other people face.
  • Why do we laugh at a person when he slips over a banana skin?
  • Why do newspapers sell better when they report more bad news than good?
  • Why do we feel good, when a bad person in the movies receive his ‘deserved end?’
  • In a competitive scenario, why do we take pleasure in seeing fellow challengers stumble so that we can get the prize?
  • Why do we find it easier to laugh at others rather than ourselves?
“Character drives judgments of whether other people deserve to suffer.” (xv)

MAIN POINT: Schadenfreude or one’s eerie inner delight in seeing bad things happening to other people, tells us more about our character than our conduct. It is the character that determines the conduct. That is why one have to be clear inside of us, our motive and our ability to isolate the good from the bad feelings in us before knowing what moral actions to take when we see suffering.

Brief Review
Often people do not make any serious attempt to isolate important emotions in the mixed messages our heart grapples with. Whether our heart takes delight or ‘thwart pleasure’ in the misfortunes of others, Portmann argues that we have to distinguish the two of them to avoid any anxiety that can erode our humanness and views of morality. By addressing adequately what goes on inside us (character), we will then be on the right side of the moral question in our thoughts and our actions. He points out that ‘love for justice’ is a stronger motif than pleasurable glee in the misfortunes of others.

The author’s first book explores the universality of such a human emotion in a very fascinating way at two levels. He insists that his book is not about what people do (‘conduct’) but about what goes on inside them (‘character’). He also says that the way we react to other people tells us more about ourselves. Thus it is insightful to recognize our emotions whenever bad things happen to other people. At the first level, people tend to show some sympathy. At a deeper level, there is a strange feeling not only of ‘thank God it is not me,’ but somewhat eerie, even gleeful thought. When this happens, it makes our first acts of sympathy look fake, even hypocritical. It is like showing sympathy for a small lamb, while gleefully waiting for the lions to pounce on it for food. Watching Discovery Channel on how lions hunt or how sharks feed allows feelings of Schadenfreude to float upward.

I watched Toni Morrison’s Beloved a couple of years ago, and was appalled at the way black slaves were treated. One such slave in the movie eventually commented after many years of mistreatment by her white masters, that there is no such thing as bad luck in this world, only ‘white people.’ The scary thing about Schadenfreude is when people participates in the ‘bad things’ that happen to others. In fact, the only moral thing about bad things happening to other people is when we jump up in triumph over the victory of justice over wrong.

Moral Problems of Schadenfreude
Three Problems.
  1. People are largely confused about what is right and what is wrong about their feelings when bad things happen to others;
  2. This confusion leads one to further confusion when one cannot differentiate between their feelings and the actual suffering of others. When this happens, people tend toward self-deception that they should ‘feel this way,’ or ‘feel that way.’
  3. All these leads one to try to inadequately rationalize what justice actually is.

By clarifying what Schadenfreude is within us, we can make better attempts to recognize the need for justice, while at the same time be ethically moral in our hearts. Nietzsche says that there is no justice in suffering. Harold Kushner and Maimonides say suffering is random. Is justice a revenge or justice a form of right behaviour?
“Philosophically, the assumption that benevolence must aim at the full good of another works to collapse any distinction between Schadenfreude and malice. Religiously, the particular visions of appropriate suffering that various creeds generate blur the boundary between human satisfaction and divine Schadenfreude. What is most surprising is that our most conspicuous producers of codes of appropriate suffering should purport to be dead set against the idea that persons might take pleasure in the suffering of others.” (201)
Tragedies are differentiated into ‘pretty bad things’ and ‘really bad things.’ In the first part, Portmann describes life as a comedy where people are condemned when they inappropriately celebrate the misfortunes of others. Yet at the same time, such condemnation is not a helpful step to help work out some form of justice in the world. The better emotion to have is to slow our rate of condemnation of 'trivial misfortunes.' Contemplate instead. The second category is the more serious one. It is only fair that we are measured with the same measurement we use on others.

My Comments
This book is another of those attempts to try and make a ‘bad’ thing look good eventually. Everyone loves the evergreen plot in any story. First, bad things happen to the hero. Second, the hero encounters problem after problem. Third, a sense of despair steps in. Fourth, a ray of hope appears from somewhere or from someone. Fifth commences the recovery process. The story culminates in a final brutal battle in which the hero wins and the villains are slain or extinguished. People live happily ever after. It is essentially a book about the morality of human emotions, the inner character rather than the outer conduct.

Portmann begins shockingly to state that bad things which happen to other people are not necessarily bad but morally acceptable. Instead, it can be very good as long as justice eventually prevail. Not only that, one can also learn more about oneself, and in doing so, be able to finally fight the wrong end of the emotional morality, toward the right object of love for justice. There is also a sense that while Portmann is well read, his references circulate among Nietszsche, Freud , Schopenhauer and Kant. He combines the philosophy of Nietszche, the psychology of Freud, the conservative Schopenhauer and the ethics of Kant. The result is somewhat confusing.

The book highlights a very important human condition, but fails to address the problem of human sin. Granted, it is not a religious book, but mainly a moral philosophy. Yet, there is a biblical verse that gets illuminated in the 244 page scholarly work. Taken from Ps 1, where one delights in the law of the Lord, people generally desire justice. Here is the main point that Christians ought to take home with. It is not the continued reflection on one’s emotions regarding Schadenfreude that tells us more about ourselves. It is in the delight and constant meditation on the law of the Lord that not only reveals to us the purpose of our being, but nips any budding evil thoughts that a heart tainted with sin, so readily releases. Portmann also assumes that people have that inherent tendency to want to get justice done. The problem is who defines the justice? What is the yardstick of right and wrong? Not much light is shed beyond the assumption. There is also a sense of ‘there is no point running away from suffering, so why not celebrate it?’ (105). Such a mood is unhelpful. No all suffering can be explained, least so to celebrate it. Rather than studying our emotions to make sense of justice and suffering, meditate and study the law of God. We cannot depend on flaky human emotions or the study of it, to teach us morality or the rule of ethics. We, as frail creatures need the solid Word of God, just like a human body requiring bones and muscles to maintain our body structure.

Portmann mentions that the threefold moral problems of Schadenfreude are largely because people fail to distinguish the conflicting emotions sufficiently. In other words, people remain perplexed and without addressing such feelings adequately, people will miss the opportunity to exercise justice accordingly and morally. However, his attempt to do so fails to lift the general reader high enough from the quicksand of confusion. Philosophically challenging. Theologically inadequate. In conclusion, Portmann’s book is thoughtfully addressed but still morally confusing.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jolt Quote XXIII

"Plant a word in the mind, and you will reap an act. Plant the act and you will reap a habit. Plant a habit and you will reap a character. Plant a character and you will reap a nature. Plant a nature and you will reap a destiny." (Source unknown)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Seductions of a Competitive Culture (#1)

A CULTURE OF COMPETITION - a 4-part series
This is the first part of a group of four articles, tackling the seductions of a competitive culture. It will be released over the next two weeks. Each article will highlight the dangers of a competitive culture creeping into the aspects of our life at home, in the church, at our workplace and finally our personal well-being. At the end of each article, there is a suggestion for thought. Here is the introduction and Part I.
We live in a competitive environment. In the morning, we rush to beat the rush-hour traffic. In the office, we engage in strategic planning, organizational matters and operational issues in our workplace. Some try to outdo fellow colleagues performance-wise so as to gear oneself for a good annual performance appraisal. Others seek out customers to bring in more business, competing tooth and nail with fierce rivals. Eating can become stressful too, when we have to stand in the line early to order our delicious food. With limited parking lots, many rush to grab the closest available parking lot. The culture of competition is here to stay. With supply exceeding demand, the scuffle for the main prize gets more intense. One way to upend the competition is through strategic initiatives and business strategy.

The business guru from Harvard, Professor Michael Porter shot to fame with his venerable five forces of competitive advantage. For Porter, any business strategy is to design in order to gain competitive advantage. The basic premise is that all firms are not equal, and some can become more competitive than others. At the heart of his five forces is the concept of ‘rivalry.’ The level of rivalry increases whenever:
• Supply exceed demand;
• Slowing market growth;
• Low switching costs;
• High stakes involved;
• And many others….

Welcome to the adult world of hard competitive work. The advantages of competition are too many to list. Consumers will gain in terms of choices and greater bargaining power. They drive down prices. They offer choices. Competitive pressures keep suppliers in check to observe better quality and to adhere strictly to standards. On the other hand, we need to be aware of the downsides as well. In this series, I shall attempt to tackle four trends that we need to take note of, when living in a culture infatuated with competition. My main point is not to dismiss competition totally but to wisely think through any repercussions of a competitive spirit that affects us in our home, the church, the workplace and finally the self.

A) Creating Anxious Children (in the home)
I read an interesting article sometime ago about children forced to grow up too quickly. Instead of being allowed to be children, they are increasingly being forced to take upon adult-size problems. Private tuition takes priority over playing intuition. Topping competitive examinations supersede cooperative affiliation. School resembles a circular racing track rather than a garden for self-discovery and group co-operation. Fun and growth have succumbed to the competitive demands of productive efficacy and efficiency. Extra-curricular activities are increasingly deemed essential, rather than ‘nice-to-have’s. Many parents, want their children to grow up to be ‘better’ than them. Some will even force their children to do what they, the parents cannot do.
“I have always wanted to be a doctor, but since I can’t, I will do all I can to make sure my children can pursue the medical profession.”

“Since I have always wanted to be a _______, I believe that it is the will of God to let my children carry the baton of my dreams.”

“I know my son can do greater things, so I will invest all my resources to help him succeed.”
There is a deep-seated psychological tendency among many Asian families, that what a generation cannot achieve, the responsibility falls on the next. My parents often shared with me their unfulfilled dreams. At one time, they even swear that because they grew up poor, they are determined to make sure that their children will never suffer like them. While the intention is honorable, the end-result can be regrettable. We can unwittingly create a generation of anxious children becoming worried adults, dying unfulfilled when old. Why should children worry about performance and exam results, when they ought to enjoy the privilege of being a child?

Here is a deeper problem which is more disconcerting; that is, the stunted development of self-identity. This is especially acute when parents repeatedly impose their expectations on children at a young tender age. Instead of taking a role of a guide by the side cheering them on to walk according to their gifts and vocational inclinations, some of them brow-beat their children to submit to their demands, in the name of "It is all for the sake of your future." I have met people who selected a course of study for the sake of their parents. Last weekend, a gentleman bowing to parental pressures, chose Engineering instead of Art school. He was never truly fulfilled. These people gave up their choice in favour of their parent's preferences. They yield their vocational choices to that of the parents. Some adapted well. Others not so well, as they continuously endure the mismatch between their dreams and their parents’ expectations. When they enter the workforce eventually, they continue to live under their parents’ ideals instead of pursuing their own dream. Life is more than simply making a name or a living.

Parents, let children be children. Watch them play. Better still, play with them. Observe their inclinations. Preserve their childhood innocence. Do not create a fretful generation who feeds on competitiveness and activities that epitomizes human restlessness. These are adult problems that adults have to tackle, not the children. Do not let the anxieties of the competitive future world crowd out the any effort to identify the gifts and talents each child has. Above all, let the children be who they are meant to be: Innocent Children. A well-lived child in his childhood augers better than a pressurised child struggling to understand 'adult-size' problems in his/her innocent childhood years. It is a well-known fact in psychology that if a child is not given a chance to be a child when young, he will attempt to fulfill this need to be a child, deep into adulthood. Perhaps the seduction of a competitive culture is a test of our faith. Proverbs provide us some wisdom pertaining to the need for children.
In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence,
And his children will have refuge.
(Proverbs 14:26, NIV)

Fighting the seductions of a culture of competition can also be seen an act of faith. Who do we fear? Who do we want to be? Do we fear men? Or do we fear God? I submit to you, my reader, that children pick up not only our genes but our fears as well. Is our confidence in the Lord? How does your faith play out in a culture of competition?

THOUGHT: What if we keep the expectations and troubles of the adult world to the adult world? What if we do not carry over our work worries, or economic turmoil into the innocent domain of children at play? Perhaps, by letting children be children, we are helping them to become healthier persons as they reach adulthood.


Seduction #2 - Unhealthy Spiritual Competition (in the church).....

Karen's Favourite (I Know I Need to Be In Love)

What makes a favourite song? I suppose it must be that one special connection in that quiet and special moment. The Carpenters have collected many hits over the years. Many of them have achieved Platinum status, their albums hitting the bestseller charts year after year. I cannot find any equivalent singer of their stature these days. It strikes me as I was listening to this song, that out of the many popular tunes belted out, this song: "I Know I Need to Be In Love" is Karen's Carpenter's all-time favourite song. I was asking myself, "What makes this song a top favourite?" According to her brother Richard Carpenter, it was because the song reflects exactly the deepest emotions of her heart at that time. That is what makes anything a favourite. It has to be able to echo our most personal self. As you listen to this song, you cannot help but feel that it is something that has been troubling Karen for a while, and she was truly singing it from the bottom of her heart. In order to become a favourite, the song must possess:
  • Meaningful Lyrics;
  • Melodious Tune;
  • Powerful Singing;
  • Deliberate Tempo;
  • Well choreographed music;
  • Echoing the heart.

This song contains all of the above. The chorus is especially powerful:
I know I need to be in love
I know I've wasted too much time
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
And fool enough to think that's what I'll find

What is your favourite song? I suppose it has to be something that is able to connect you with the past, giving some hope toward the future and to help one be rooted in the present. This song may not do all three for you, but it sure brings back wonderful memories of Karen Carpenter, my favourite singer. I love this song, even after all these years.


Korean Guitar Child Prodigy - Sungha Jung

I am completely amazed at this gifted 12-year old boy, Sungha Jung who is indeed a guitar prodigy. Here are 4 videos of some of my favourites. You'll be stunned by his prowess.

1) Mission Impossible Theme (link)

2) California Dreaming (link)

3) Yesterday Once More (link)

4) Cherry Blossom Time (link)

If you enjoy his music, you can check out the playlist here or listen to his MP3 steaming here.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Do not Prejudge Anyone

Susan Boyles is a 47 year old participant of Britain's version of American Idol. Her performance is amazing. The saying that one should not judge a book by its cover, is overwhelmingly true in this stunning performance. You can also watch it on Youtube.

Sometimes it makes me wonder. If we have sought to see the best of anyone, we would not be surprised at all when one gives his/her best contribution. However, the fact that people can be so astonished reveals not so much of the singer concerned, but the level of prejudgment each of us inherently does inside us. The tainted trails of sin are in many places. That is why we need to constantly watch our ways, our thoughts, our words and seek forgiveness regularly for our trespasses.


Victory in defeat

It was a sheer gut-wrenching performance. For 45 minutes, I thought the impossible could happen. For 45 minutes, I harbour hopes of a great comeback in honour of the spirit of remembrance of the Hillsborough tragedy. For 45 minutes, I thought how wonderful a testimony it would have been, to tell the world that a ‘fighting spirit that never says die’ lives longer than winning games. That’s the strange thing in life. People often remember only the winners. However, winning is only made sweet when there is a long journey of heartache, disappointment and great suffering.

My favourite soccer team, Liverpool is one example. Not only are they an entertaining side (partly due to their inconsistency), they are one of those rare teams that never say die. Take the 2005 Champions League final, where they fought from 3-0 down to AC Milan, and bravely fought back. Yesterday’s game against Chelsea, their arch-rival is another classic. At half-time, they were one goal away from overturning a 3-goal deficit to Chelsea. Hopes were high. Doubts were low. The press was stunned into silence, from what seemed ‘impossible’ to start imagining that it is still possible. Unfortunately, the comeback that many hoped will happen, could not be sustained. The game ended in a thrilling 4-4 draw.

Amid the cries of agony, there are voices of victory shouting out with gusto. The irony is, there can be victory in defeat. I am certainly proud of the way the Liverpool players held their heads high to produce a performance that speaks volumes of the spirit of Liverpool Football Club. Take nothing away from Chelsea. They won deservedly. My point is that we can learn a couple of things from the amazing comeback spirit, the never-say-die attitude demonstrated in the Liverpool fight-back.

Firstly, life is not about winning or losing. It is about living as meaningfully as possible. Only then one can play with passion and work with commitment. It tells a lot when one says ‘To be a Liverpool player is to be a pleasure.’ As goalkeeper, Jose Reina was reported to say:

"At Stamford Bridge we were better, at Anfield they were. But it doesn't matter who was better, only who goes through. In the first half I thought we were going through, we were playing fantastic football and dominating them.

"We played for Liverpool with heart. All we could give was passion and commitment. To be a Liverpool player is a pleasure."

Reina has revealed his side were determined to honour the 96 Liverpool supporters killed in the Hillsborough disaster 20 years ago.

"We tried our best for 96 as well but couldn't do it," he said. "We were playing as 11 guys with a lot of passion but we were also lifted by 96 souls.

"We were moved by that and tried everything we could but in the end we did not manage it.
" “”

(Credit: Soccernet, 15 April 2009)
Secondly, learn to look forward. Even in loss, one can still look forward with a more determined stance for the next challenge. Sometimes, victory can introduce pride and invite seduction of laziness. Sometimes, the better thing to happen to us is not a win, but a loss. Liverpool’s inconsistency has cost them many titles over the past few years. They were topping the Premier League a couple of months ago, but some erratic performances cost them dearly. Now, in order to win, they will not only need to win all their games, they have to hope that their opponents falter along the way. It is a tough position to be in, knowing that one is not in full control. The only thing one can control, is to look forward positively and continue to do one’s best. Without a healthy view of the future, one’s view of the present moment can become easily buried in the suffocating soil of yesterday’s misfortunes. Look forward with hope, and press on with a constructive attitude to learn from past mistakes. There is no shame in losing. After-all, in sports, what matters more is spirited sportsmanship rather than childish tantrums that blames everybody else except oneself.

Thirdly, create a personal collection of great comebacks. There is nothing to be ashamed of when we have tried our best. In yesterday’s remarkable game, Liverpool has nothing to be ashamed of. Mistakes were made. Silly missteps were committed, but we cannot fault the positive attitude of playing a good game and making it really terrifying for the opponents. Other teams team would have called it quits after a first round loss. Others may write off the chances of any great comeback. However, the history of great comebacks is a worthwhile book to write. It brings much hope and encouragement. It could even save one’s life especially in the deepest despair. Interestingly, none of the recent Champions League victories in 2008 (Manchester United), 2007 (AC Milan) and 2006 (Barcelona) ever come close, in terms of fanfare and media reporting to the one won by Liverpool in 2005. This goes to show that winning a game is not the only thing. What is more meaningful is the manner in which it was won, or lost.

I am a Liverpool football club supporter and I am proud of it, regardless of victory or defeat. Can LFC win the English Premier League this year? With a ‘never-say-die’ attitude and careful performance, there is only one answer.


Monday, April 13, 2009

A Complaint Free World

A 21 Day Challenge toward a Complaint Free World

Will Bowen has a great idea. One may not be able to change others, but that is not going to stop anyone from changing him or herself. In “A Complaint Free World,” Bowen lays out a plan to help people stop complaining and to start enjoying life as it was meant to be. Structured as a challenge as well as a guide through four phases of the project, Bowen presents us a map to help people move from a state of “Unconscious Incompetence” to reach the “Unconscious Competence” state. The key is to move from an incompetent (complaining) attitude to one that is competent (non-complaining). Even better is to become a non-complaining person without us even knowing it. His premise is captured in the quote by Maya Angelou:
If you don’t like something, change it.
If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.
” (Maya Angelou)

“Our thoughts create our lives and our words indicate what we are thinking.” (Will Bowen, New York: Doubleday, 2007, , p10)

The Idea
  1. First pledge not to complain, criticize or gossip verbally about anything. As long as it comes out of the mouth, it is considered a complaint.
  2. Wear a bracelet (or any tangible movement like moving a coin from one pocket to another, or switch your watch to the other wrist) to keep track of the complaints. Each time a complaint, criticism or gossip is muttered, switch the bracelet from one arm to the other. The moment this happens, you have to restart your day count.
  3. The objective is to do this for 21 consecutive days WITHOUT complaining. Each time
  4. Like many, you will probably realize that there will be a dramatic change in your attitude beginning with a significant drop in your complaining, criticizing and gossiping.
  5. Typically, most people complete the 21-day experiment between 4-8 months.

The four stages are:
I – Unconscious Incompetence
In this phase, Bowen addresses two major reasons why people should address the complaining attitude; namely keeping mental sanity and secondly for better physical health. The first reason is due to the erroneous way society places on complaining in order to get what they want. At the heart of each complaint, lies the feeling of grief-pain-discontent. Many companies set up booths that deal with ‘customer complaints,’ as if it is a very normal thing to do. The second reason why it is important to address this is a health reason. Making use of research findings in psychology, Bowen points out the negative impact on health that complaints bring. Robin Kowalski’s research reveals that people complain mainly to invoke sympathy from others. Moreover, nearly two-third of all illnesses have a psychological origin. In order to move to the next stage, one will need to become conscious of one’s tendency to complain.

II – Conscious Incompetence
A complaining attitude is a drag on relationships. In fact, choosing to complain is likened to a drug. It is addictive and feeds upon an environment of complaints. Relationships will become unhappy, worries more common and leads to a host of situations that fuel more complaints. It is important to wake up from this conundrum of whining and take action to change. Using the computer term GIGO (Garbage-In-Garbage-Out) as an example, what one puts in (complaining) will result in similar outputs.

III – Conscious Competence
A key way to address the complaining attitude is to adopt the language of silence. Bowen was often asked how he get things done without complaining. He gave an example on how he handle a telemarketing nuisance call. He called the hotline and shared the following
“Instead, I called again and said to the customer-service person, ‘I know mistakes happen, and I know this isn’t your fault. I’m committed to not getting these calls from your company anymore and am willing to work with you until we find the challenge and fix it together.’ Within ten minutes, she had found the issue… and the calls ceased.” (96)
As I think about it, it is indeed a helpful way to resolve problems. Instead of berating the other poor soul on the other side of the line, we can treat the other person as a human person, another one who is simply working to make ends meet. In controlling any rage in ourselves and start behaving more considerately, we can help bring positive change in this world.

Bowen suggests the following change of vocabulary and language.
- Not “Have to” but “Get to”
- Not “Setback” but “Challenge”
- Not “Enemy” but “Friend”
- Not “Tormentor” but “Teacher”
- Not “Pain” but “Signal”
- Not “I demand” but “I Would Appreciate”
- Not “Complaint” but “Request”
- Not “Struggle” but “Journey”
- Not “You did this” but “I created this”

The point is the language we use reflects our intention. This world is better off with one more ‘supporter’ and one less critic of human beings. When one determines to become a supporter instead of a critic or complainer, one is on the way toward the final stage: The Unconscious Competent.

IV – Unconscious Competence
Philippians 2:4 says it clearly to do everything without complaining. When this happens, one learns better to adapt to the environment rather than to force one’s expectations on society at large. Not only will one be happier inside, one can influence change outside to bring about positive behaviour in others. The first beneficiary is the family. Bowen quotes Gary Zukav who says: “Complaining is a Form of Manipulation.

My Comments
This 21-day experiment is worth a try. Although Will Bowen is of a theological orientation that I do not subscribe to, this Complaint-Free idea is something that I feel is worth supporting, mainly because it helps reduce the complaining tendency in this culture. Bowen is a Unitarian minister, who does not believe in the Trinity doctrine. Moreover, there is also a New Age flavour in his theology. Some of his deep seated ideas come from such a philosophy that sees the good in mankind available to all persons. The book appears to be written for a secular audience and thus is emptied of many religious connotations. That partially explains the book’s wider audience of acceptance. I will suggest that evangelicals substitute their motive for not-complaining to one that is consciously aware that one lives for the glory of God, and to cultivate a thankful spirit from within. This ability to do good is not sustainable on our own. We can only be sustained by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit.

The book, “A Complaint Free World” is an easy read, with interesting ideas. However, replace the motive for not-complaining with one that is God-glorifying. That way, we can become salt and light to the world, not only for 21-days but for all eternity.


Friday, April 10, 2009

When the Economic Crisis Gets Really Bad....

(Photo credit: Vanillaseven)

"Grace is Gone" - Movie

I watched this movie on Maundy Thursday. Inspired by a true story, it is a film about a family that needs to cope with the death of the mother serving in Iraq. When he heard the news, Stan Phillips was stunned and didn't know how to react. He decided to keep his two girls in the dark, until he can give them a time of their lives. He decided on a road trip with the girls. His work, children's school responsibilities and all other usual chores become a distant concern. Driving across far distances, he decided to give the girls whatever they have always wanted. Watching movies throughout the night, going to the Enchanted Gardens theme park, skipping school, shopping for gifts and getting their ears pierced. Played by John Cushack, Stan gave a riveting performance as the father in grief. In his own private moments, he would call back home to listen to the voice recording which contains the sound of his wife. It is clear that he was grieving with the loss alone, while at the same time, keeping this news from his two girls. Only toward the end of the movie, Stan brought the girls to the beach and told them the news. It was the most touching moment of the show, to see how the father and his daughter weep uncontrollably as they embrace one another over the loss of their mother. That was a weepie. Some of the reactions I felt were:
  • Importance of learning to cope with bad news, applying both self-control sometimes, and letting oneself go at other times;
  • Take a long drive away from home, and familiar places;
  • Never underestimate the need to grieve. All other things will become a distant second priority;
  • Spend pure time with loved ones, without needing a plan;
  • Talk with people;
  • Pray a lot;
  • A Good Sleep is needed in coping with loss;
  • Reveal Bad News at an appropriate time; Plan carefully;
  • Do not underestimate the depth of a loss.

Losing a loved one is something profoundly deep. I recall how the people who witnessed Jesus's death at the cross as follows:
When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance, watching these things. (Luke 23:48-49, NIV)
Imagine the grief and pain they were going through at that time, watching someone they love die on the cross, horribly, unjustly and undeservedly.

It is a very meaningful movie, tears and all. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Think Different - 4 initiatives

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a renowned Harvard professor of strategy and leadership in the famous business school of the same name. I came across many of her articles and writings during my MBA studies. It is also interesting to see new perspectives of management over the years. One of her most memorable pieces include the Change Master, which talks about how to bring about changes in a corporation's culture. Change is one of the hardest things to employ in any organization. In her latest article entitled "Thinking Differently in the Recession: Today's Whole Earth Catalog," she blends management, leadership, organizational dynamics and environmental concerns together in the light of today's tough economic climate. She links four strategies necessary not only for organizational survival but environmental sustenance. She hopes that such initiatives can inspire innovation and present an opportunity for people to think differently.

She writes:
"That counter-culture's elements hardly seem threatening today. Respect the land and learn to grow your own food — how radical! Recycle garbage into compost to fertilize the gardens — doubly radical! Make your own herbal tea, cut electricity use, preserve water, ride bicycles or walk — how revolutionary! Share your living space with other people and create a sense of community — over the top! Be skeptical of establishments, and value the earth more than earthly assets — too much! Make love, not war — what will they think of next?"
In it she says that there is hope in four ways, namely;

1) Green Awareness
2) Self-Sufficiency
3) Healthy Behaviors
4) Communal Living

Firstly, efforts must be invested to recycle, reuse and rethink ways to make old things new. This contrasts with a throw-away culture where businesses simply adopt convenience over conservation of scarce resources. I will venture to argue against the problem of low cost. In my experience, when things are cheap, people tend to buy more and throw more. Recently, I saw a special sales offer at a major supermarket that sells chocolate milk at 99cents per litre. In contrast, a larger gallon of milk retails at nearly $5. If we do the math, it is cheaper to buy four small bottles of chocolate milk at $3.96 compared to $5 for one large container. The waste generated from four to five small containers may be marginally less than 1 large container. However, multiply that with the many families that do the same and we have a larger pool of waste to deal with. Low cost is no friend of environmental considerations. Another problem is plastic bags, where many places simply use them like public water.

Secondly, she advocates more focus on equipping people to do it themselves, such as DIY kits, even the growing of food. She suggests that products that 'build capabilities' rather than increase dependence are sorely needed.

Thirdly, a healthy lifestyle. The other day, I was watching a documentary on CBC entitled: "Ten Trillion and Counting" about the rising financial deficit the US government is incurring. Based on current and projected spending on healthcare programs like Medicare and MedicAid, the country is increasingly making not themselves in debt, but their children's. Indeed, it is better not to even need to tap onto health insurance programs, to keep oneself healthy in the first place. For in the future, it is likely that even if one is eligible to make a health insurance claim, he/she may have to wait in line for a long time.

Fourthly, communal living is even more important for an aging population.

Looking at these four areas, businesses will be wise to focus their resources on caring for the planet, to equip people in DIY programs, to embark services that promote healthy living and to live in community. These four things are acceptable initiatives as far as the Christian is concerned. It is also biblical. The first instruction from God to Adam is to care for the earth. We need to learn to be environmentally conscious in all of our actions. Reuse. Recycle. Renew our natural resources. The second point about equipping others is also something very consistent with Paul's exhortation to the churches. Empower one another to do the will of God. That' s what spiritual gifts are for, to build up. Thirdly, the care of the body is also a consistent Christian virtue. After-all, isn't the body a temple of the Holy Ghost. Finally, the emphasis on community. This should have been championed by Christianity first and foremost, instead of being reminded by business dons at Harvard. I am not sure about Professor Kanter's religious background, but these four initiatives she suggested are beneficial for all to adopt. Let's think differently.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Way of the King (Holy Week 2009)

Last weekend was Palm Sunday. My church held a special session as Palm Sunday coincided with its 11th Anniversary. Founded in April 1998, Lord’s Peace Chapel began with three families, headed by the Chees, the Lees and the Yongs. For 11 years, the seed of faith was sown, water of care was showered, the discipline of loving toil was adopted and the fruits became visible. With more than 100 members attending each Sunday, the Church can be considered a medium sized church in the city of Vancouver. Pastor Josh’s skill in weaving the different ministries together was masterly. Testimonies were shared by children to adults, English speaking to Mandarin speaking, from the young to the not so young. It made the church service a real people affair as individuals appear up on the pulpit to share and to let the rest know that they exist for the benefit of the whole church for the glory of God. The worship service was intentionally led with songs that tell of God’s goodness over the years. I enjoyed the service, not only for its uniqueness but the purposefulness in thanking God for all He has done.

Was it a step in faith at that time? Yes. That was a giant step out of their comfort zones. These families have a church to attend, comfortable environment and predictable routines. Is it tough? Certainly. Planting a church is tough. On a scale of 1-10, many pastors will easily put a 10 in terms of toughness. I have helped plant a church before back in 1993. What made the church plant meaningful was the fact that excitement overwhelms the uncertainty; faith outruns fear; and the desire to be witnesses for God overpower the trepidation of embarrassment if the planting efforts fail in any way. Skeptics may claim such an initiative then as foolishness. Let me add that the very act of following Jesus is already considered foolishness as far as the world is concerned. Why will a heavenly king like Jesus, bother to come down to earth to suffer humiliation? Why will a universal Judge, willingly suffer acts of injustice in an utterly ridiculous trial that convicts the innocent (Jesus) and frees the guilty (Barabbas)? The story of such an irony begins positively on Palm Sunday, but tragically on Good Friday. Palm Sunday begins remarkably with another fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9.

Say to the daughter of Zion,
Behold Your king is coming to you,
Gentle, and Mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.
Three observations can be made. Firstly, only the first part of verse 5 refers to the Isaiah passage, namely “Say to the daughter of Zion.” The rest of verse 5 are not from Isaiah. The prophecy being fulfilled is actually in the coming of a king, and the entry on a donkey. This is an amazing contextualization of the Old Testament texts fulfilled in the person of Christ. In order to make such tight integration, one needs to be well immersed and studied in the Scriptures, so that the Holy Spirit can guide one unto all truths at that time. It is interesting to note that the putting together of the prophecy is understood from Matthew’s point of view, and his interpretation of what Jesus has said in verses 2-3. I guess when he was observing Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem that day, he would not have comprehended what they all meant, except to remember that such an event happened, then and understood only later on. Secondly, the reference to the one being king. It is explicitly stated βασιλεύς (basileus) which is ‘king’ who is coming. This is the same word with 'kingdom.' Unabashedly, Jesus declares himself as king. Thirdly, the use of a donkey represents a reference to the use of the donkey as the mode of transport for kingly figures during the Old Testament times, which is also known as the Ancient New East. Scholars have identified many royal leaders riding into cities on donkeys. This contrasts with the idea of a horse which is used in war. When Jesus chose a donkey instead of a horse, he was declaring to all that the spiritual war is not going to be one that is fought using weapons of mass destruction, or might of military prowess. Instead it is going to be gently done in humility and peace. Wow. A triumphant entry into Jerusalem is like a declaration of war on God’s terms, not the world. Palm Sunday kick starts the Holy Week, one of the most significant weeks of the Christian year, leading up to Easter.

As we approach the last days of Lent, it is good to ponder at the way we embark upon adventures or projects we have planned. The three observations made above can help us approach our lives as follows.

1) Integrating the Word into Our Ways
By reading the Word of God on a regular basis, and reading widely, not only the New Testament, we will be able to understand not only the context of the passages we read, but the whole Bible as well. Read the Poetical books in the evening. Meditate on the Pentateuch in the morning. Dwell in the gospels throughout the day. Read intentionally the epistles of Paul and John. Wrestle with the Prophets. Marvel at the history of the Church and the nation of Israel. When one is well soaked in Scripture, he does not need to depend on external expertise of scholars on any one verse, but he will actually be able to link Scriptural truths together with the Spirit of God as Guide. Howard Hendricks, in his classic book on the art and science of Bible reading asks: “If my spiritual life depended on my knowledge of Deuteronomy, how would I make out?” (Howard Hendricks, Living By the Book, Moody Press, 1993, p21). This reminds us that when we say we are Bible believing Christians, it is the WHOLE Bible, not simply selected books or pet verses.

2) Truth in the Name of the King
In “Truth Decay,” Douglas Groothuis seeks to warn readers about the threats of half-truths from postmodern influences. Absolute has given in to the relative. Objective is upended by the subjective and universal truth becoming more customized in the form of ‘what is good for you may not be good for me,; in the name of free choice. He is exceptionally critical of television, calling it the chief agent of truth decay.
The truth is that truth, and the most important truths, is often not entertaining. An entertaining mentality will insulate us from many hard but necessary truths. The concepts of sin, repentance and hell, for instance, cannot be presented as entertaining without robbing them of their intrinsic meaning. Jesus, the prophets and the apostles held the interest of their audience not by being amusing but by their zeal for God’s truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable it may have been. They refused to entertain but instead edified and convicted. It was nothing like television.” (Douglas Groothius, Truth Decay, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000, p292)
Jesus does not mince his words, but tells the truth as it is. He knows that he is king. There is nothing to be shy about. He calls himself as king because he indeed is king.

3) Humility as the Life
In his commentary on Matthew, the RT France from the London Bible College observes that Jesus does not need a donkey in the first place to travel. After-all, he has been traveling on foot all the way from Galilee. Surely, he does not need a donkey to complete his journey? Yet, the very reason he does so is to tell the people to take note and recognize that he is coming as king. RT France calls it a ‘deliberate gesture.’ (RT France, Matthew, IVP, 1985, p296)

Humble living ought to be the mark of any disciple of Christ. No matter what status in society we are in, regardless of the background we possess or the qualifications attached to us, we need to practice humility. Charles Spurgeon made an insightful comment about humility:
Humility is to make a right estimate of oneself.” (Charles Spurgeon)
Donkeys are also used not to represent humility but to contrast with the ways of the world. In the face of power and might, the disciple of Christ must not cower in fright but attest in the light of truth. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) The Christian fight is not something that is evaded in fear. It is something vigorously fought albeit with different tools. In teaching his disciples not to return an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth, Jesus said:

But I say to you, do not resist the evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39).
Surely this introduces a new perspective of the Old Testament law that does not nullify but fulfills the law. It tells us that the way of the law leads to unending vengeful acts, but the way of Jesus leads to love and goodwill.

Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly, as king riding on the humble donkey. Yet, that is not the biggest declaration of victory. It is the bigger victory that is yet to come, but first, Jesus will need to go to the cross to carry the sins of the world that will be horribly nailed on him.


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