Monday, August 31, 2009

Hosanna! (led by Brooke Ligertwood)

Let's take a moment. This is my current favorite rendition of the song 'Hosanna,' led by Brooke Ligertwood. . . . . Let's worship.

The Fine Details:

  • Seamless flow
  • Audience sang with one voice; they seemed to know the words well;
  • Music Accompaniment does not drown out the voices;
  • One can sense the flow of worship;
  • Lighting effects;
  • Hands up together;
  • The Song leader, Brooke Ligertwood actually leads.

This might be a small glimpse of one kind of worship in heaven. Important to note that we are not supposed to parrot after such styles. The key is the Holy Spirit moving in the hearts of people in churches wherever they are. Hillsong did what they did best. We too should do what we do best, with whatever we have.


Reflections on Miracles (eg Miracle of Sarah)

Miracles - A Divine Blessing or illusory Bluff?

From time to time, we would hear news and testimonies of 'miracles.' A man who had terminal cancer became healed. Suddenly, the lame are able to walk, and the blind can see. When an episode defies natural laws, or an experience that cannot be scientifically explained, one will quickly proclaim that a miracle had occurred. The media regularly report on people mysteriously missing an ill-fated flight, or accidentally come up on the right side after a wrong turn of events. Some of us are deeply moved by such miracles. Others observe from the point of wonder mixed with suspicion or skepticism. Yet, there are also those who are downright disgusted when these same 'miracles' happen so randomly that they fail to explain why it happens only to a lucky few. Worse, what about those who received the shorter end of the miracle stick? This brings us to the question on how are we to make of miracles? How can we explain events that defy the laws of nature? The many bitter questions fail to rendezvous with satisfactory answers.

Some events can be part of the cruel zero-sum game played out in this world. A person who misses an ill-fated flight may have thanked his or her god for the miracle of being late to the airport. The replacement passenger on that same day unfortunately died in the tragic plane crash. This is a bizarre dramatization of the proverbial: "One man's meat is another man's poison." For additional evidence, we need not look further than the September 11 terrorist attacks in America. From firemen who happened to be inside the building to other office workers at the upper floors of the two towers, an individual rescued outside is cruelly nullified by another life killed inside in a ridiculous zero-sum game. Are miracles a part of what we call zero-sum games, where one's miracle is another person's tragedy? If so, this will pop the dreamer's 'miracle' balloon, releasing all air of fantasy to drive one back down to earth, which lives and breathes reality much like M Scott Peck's "Life is Difficult." Before we dismiss miracles altogether, let me reflect on what miracles are and are not. I believe that miracles exist. I too believe that we need to discern any phenomenon, whether it is a blessing or a bluff. That said, I too hold to the view that some special visions may not have an immediate explanation, but are kept in a mystery box to be revealed according to God's own good time. This reflection will be in 3-phases. Firstly I will make some brief observations of miracles recorded in the Bible. Secondly, from a Christian perspective, I shall try to offer seven ways to understand the purpose of miracles. Finally, I will reflect on one particular miracle encountered by a Christian family: the Miracle of Sarah.

1) Miracles in the Bible
Miracles do happen. The gospels show it. The Old Testament has much to show for it. The Early Church lived it. Missionaries and faithful workers witnessed it. At the onset, it is important that there is not literally used in the original languages. In John's gospel, 'miracles' are signs (σημειον, semeion) to point us to God. Another Greek word widely used in the New Testament is dunamis (δυναμις, strength, power). When used as signs, miracles are meant to point us to a Higher Being or higher purpose. When used as dunamis, the miraculous act becomes a work of wonder. Taken together, when we read about miracles in the New Testament, the reader should not be trapped into miracles per se, but to ask that as signs, what are they pointing us to? As power, what is the purpose or the meaning behind the miracle. In other words, as we wonder about the power of God, we should not forget that miracles are not to take a life of its own. For instance, Jesus performed signs, that people may believe in him (John 4:48, 20:30). Signs demonstrate the power of God (Acts2:43). Signs and miracles confirm the great salvation promised by God (Heb 2:4).

In the Old Testament, the miraculous signs performed through Moses and Aaron are to demonstrate to Pharaoh that the Hebrew God is above other gods Egypt has ever known. They are used to sustain the Israelites in their desert wanderings, where manna was provided daily, guided with a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night (Num 14:14). In the Psalms, miracles are also used to remind the Israelites of the LORD's faithfulness (Ps 77:11).

In both testaments, we see the consistent thrust of miracles, that while they are amazing feats of a supernatural origin, they point us to something bigger, or Someone.

2) Purpose of Miracles
We are now ready to deal with the meaning behind the miracles. Miracles mean so much to the recipient. It provide the last gasp glimmer of hope for those who have no other means of trust. Yet, I am aware that there are many observing from the outside. They hover between hopeful faith in God, and measured suspicion about its authenticity. In between, they curiously hold out for alternative explanations. This section perhaps will bring some sanity into the confused understanding and roles of miracles. In the process, we can at least shed some light on what kind of answers are probable to the questions posed earlier.

Let me offer 7 ways we can understand the purpose of miracles.
  1. Miracles point us to something or Someone larger than ourselves;
  2. Miracles offers us a channel of hope, amid a sea of despair; Helps us pray more fervently. It affirms our faith.
  3. Miracles are not an end in itself. It is part of some larger scheme.
  4. Miracles provide us another angle at life; We need not despair when science or human philosophy cannot answer all our questions. It humbles us to realize that there is a Creator behind.
  5. Miracles are not bound by earthly laws of nature; Thus miracles periodically relieve us from the grasp of a cursed land.
  6. Miracles happen for a purpose, sometimes for us to savor, other times to wonder, but always a mystery to ponder, even savor.
  7. Miracles bring joy and transformation that no other explained puzzles can release.
Our ability to cast suspicions on miraculous happenings is not altogether a bad thing. It is part of our effort to stay authentic and honest to what we know and understand. Miracles can sometimes fill in the gaps of mystery and knowledge. Yet, it is not the end. They point us somewhere, to Someone, for some purpose. In our scientific age, it is hard to accept something that defies the natural laws. This is because we have grown up accustomed to hearing and then giving explanations about everything from cradle to grave. Miracles sometimes are not meant to be explained, but to sustain a spiritual curiosity about our Creator and the purpose of his creation. It keeps us humble and thankful. True miracles that are of God always point us back to Christ.

3) Miracle of Sarah
SKEPTICAL VIEW: One way to answer the question of miracles is to take the consequentialist approach.
  • What if miracles never truly happen?
  • What if the miraculous things are mere hallucinations?
  • What if we are all part of a big gigantic practical joke?
These are the questions that some skeptics and non-religious people readily put forward. The questions may sound cruel. It puts Christians on a pedestal of fools. However, if we say there are no miracles, we will be hard-pressed to find alternative explanations for unexplained phenomena. Perhaps, the astute observer will modestly confess that while they do not know the answer, they believe that the answer lies in the future. After all, for such stoic matter-of-fact individuals, the truth is out there and is very much alive. Maybe, for the skeptic, the whole idea is that miracles is part of a sinister conspiracy theory. This view shuts all miracles behind the curtain of mere human understanding.

VIEW OF FAITH: What if we put miracle under the umbrella of faith? When we attribute miracles to act of God, we take the pressure of explanation off our shoulders, to change our skepticism into a state of wonder and appreciation that there is a higher Being. When a person has exhausted all possibilities, they can still maintain a semblance of hope if they believe in miracles. Indeed, people pray fervently for miracles in their darkest moments. The clue to the understanding of miracles is not to see miracles as an end in itself. Miracles point us to something larger than ourselves. This is the kind of miracles John write about in his gospel. The seven signs all point to the person of Jesus Christ. If we believe in God, we have to believe that miracles are part and parcel of our faith expression. If we let God be God, and every man a liar, God has absolute prerogative to allow or to deny any intervention in the laws of nature. Put it another way, if everything in this world can be explained by science, philosophy, technology, knowledge, social schemes etc, life will no longer be wonderful. Something that can be totally explained may satisfy our intellectual curiosity, yet leaving an emotionally empty aftertaste. In a Catholic journal entitled UScatholic, Leslie Scanlon writes:
A miracle is not primarily for the person healed, but for all people, as a sign of God’s work in the ultimate healing called ‘salvation.’” (Leslie Scanlon, It’s a Miracle, US Catholic; Jun2009, Vol 74 Issue 6, p12-17)
This rings familiar as we remember the presence of spiritual gifts, which Paul says is given for the edification of the body of Christ. Maybe there is some validity in acknowledging the place of miracles in our faith. Remember how Jesus refrained from performing miracles in a land where few believed?
"And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith." (Matt 13:58)
Have we ever wondered why miracles happen in certain places more often than others? For instance, I hear that people in third world countries in Africa, South America and parts of Asia had seen and experienced various kinds of miracles. In the affluent West, occurrences are less frequent. Is the affluent West lacking in faith when compared to the poor in Third World countries? If miracles is connected to faith, is the lack of miracles a consequences of a lack of faith? Such a question ought to trouble the conscience of every believer in Christ. Perhaps, the miracle of miracle for us is not right knowledge or right behaviour. The miracle we all need is faith. In other words, the greatest miracle we may have witnessed is the supernatural conversion of hearts toward God. Two quotations help elaborate on this miracle of faith.
"God does not sell himself into the hands of religious magicians. I do not believe in that kind of miracles. I believe in the kind of miracles that God gives to his people who live so close to him that answers to prayer are common and these miracles are not uncommon." (A. W. Tozer, Rut, Rot, or Revival)

"It is my opinion that miracle is an essential element of biblical faith. . . Miracle, however, is not to be understood in terms of the 19th century argument between science and religion, but in terms of the biblical doctrine of Creation. From this perspective, miracle is strange and offensive not only to modern man. but to ancient man as well." (Millard C Lind, "Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics," in Kingdom, Cross, and Community)
While Lind brings the essence of miracles to the level of biblical faith, Tozer ties it back to a personal relationship with God. God intervenes in his own good time. It is through the lens of faith that we make sense of miracles. It is also through the lens of faith that we may occasionally need to suspend judgment, to wait in hope for the great Revealer to answer our deepest questions about miracles. Perhaps, when the kingdom finally arrives in its entirety, the answers are no longer important, when all we ever need is the Giver of all life, and miracles.

For the "Miracle of Sarah," I reject the skeptical view. Not only is it an insensitive affront to the love shared and rejoiced by the family, it carelessly treads upon pearls provided lovingly to the family of Sarah. Instead, I prefer to view the Miracle of Sarah with two eyes of faith. It is not blind faith, as we are still grappling with the meaning behind all of it. The first eye is an experiential one, one of rejoicing with the family that a good thing has occurred. The second eye is a philosophical one. CS Lewis believes that any miracles cannot be understood from experience alone. There needs to be sufficient philosophical enquiry. Experience alone can neither prove nor disprove a miraculous event. By viewing with both experience and philosophy, we recognize that the miracle is part of an overall plan. Secondly, we participate in the revelation of the grace of God via faith. This sums up my current position on miracles. Miracles are to be seen through the eyes of faith through grace in Christ, with both mind and heart. One more thing. No matter what, it is never too costly to simply utter a small word of thanks for miracles that has happened, and those are are waiting to happen. As we ponder, discern and pray for wisdom to know the difference between 'divine blessings' and 'illusory bluffing.'


Amazing Feet

This is another amazing video of how a person overcomes her handicap state by doubling up her available limbs. Watch this video and like me, be humbled.

Let those with hands, be faithful with them. Let those without, be faithful with whatever they have.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Google Money Tree" Scam

Money scams are becoming more sneaky nowadays. It continues to feed through unsolicited emails and various attention-grabbing headlines. Some pops up are cleverly done to force one to click on it, bringing the user to a whole new domain of unknown and strange websites. Even searches on Google are not as safe as it used to be. Search results have their fair bit of unsafe links, which led to modern browsers to implement a safety mechanism that protects or warns users of suspicious websites.

One of the latest tricks is the "Work for Google from Home" scam. It comes across as a seemingly reasonable proposal, masquerading as a reputable and rich Google, offering to give their 'work-from-home-kit' free in exchange for a small delivery fee. This "Google Money Tree" scam works on the premise that if one user clicks and pay $2.95, 100 users will make the scammer $295 richer for nothing! When people make a fortune without putting in their fair share of work, or when they set about with an intent to cheat other people, these are examples of bad business ethics.

FTC investigations are ongoing (link). More warnings are available from and NeedMoneyScam. MSNBC offers a Top-10 tips against becoming a victim to such schemes. Snopes reported this as a blatant fraud. Google placed warnings on their blog and their help page. The media has also picked up on this. There is also a Twitter equivalent. Unfortunately, even the safest websites or browsers can easily be spoofed. Just like the age-old saying given to little children, "Don't talk to strangers," in the Internet age, it is translated as: "Don't click on unknown sites."

You have been warned.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Downside of Multitasking

Here is another research that points to the downside of multi-tasking. Essentially, the big conclusion is that 'media multitaskers' perform worse when they switch from task to task due to their lack of concentration as they multi-task from one activity to another. The study, led by researchers from Stanford University points out several interesting findings. I have added in sub-phrases (underlined) to aid understanding:
  1. Diminishing Returns: "the more media people use the worse they are at using any media." [My comment: Better know the limits of our multitasking]
  2. Myth of Better Productivity: "The researchers thought people who do a lot of multitasking would be better at it. "But they're not. They're worse. They're much worse," "They couldn't ignore stuff that doesn't matter. They love stuff that doesn't matter," [My comment: Do not deceive ourselves that a few mediocre tasks are better than one excellent job.]
  3. Constant Distraction: "They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," lead author Eyal Ophir said. "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds." [My comment: beware that distraction can grow to affect our relationships too.]
  4. Information Accumulation-Driven: "High multitaskers just love more and more information. Their greatest thrill is to get more," [My comment: Aaah. This may be the key to knowing at what point multitasking becomes unhelpful.]
The four points above show the downside of multi-tasking which can be added to my previous observation about the multi-tasking phenomena that seems to be picking up speed in any culture of discontent. You can read my 2007 article entitled "Taking Multi-tasking to task" by clicking the link here.

My Comments
Since the finding was presented at the Proceedings at the National Academy of Sciences (, it has generated some lively debate. I guess many who object to it cannot accept the results without a vigorous fight. More importantly, it presents a dilemma to those who deem multi-tasking work as absolutely essential to survive in our present age. Without dwelling on the details of the merits or demerits of multi-tasking, I think some wisdom is always needed. The paranoid multi-tasker has to realize his/her limits. This study will be helpful to prevent such perennial life-jugglers from thinking that the solution to every problem is via multi-tasking. Such an attitude will eventually lead to a crash. Remember how a computer slows down or deteriorates in performance when it opens too many windows and processes?

On the other hand, if we fail to optimize the use of our time, it can be a waste of resources. For example, if we are preparing to go to work, brewing coffee and checking the weather report, getting our kids ready for school, and insist on finishing one task before the next, we'll probably be late for work. Our kids will have another late slip from the school principal.

Multi-tasking is something that is a part of our life. I think we can manage our lives better when we understand ourselves and our idiosyncrasies clearer. In other words, it is not multi-tasking or the external circumstances that define our personality and our achievements. It is the reverse. Based on our knowledge of personal strengths and weaknesses, we plan the essential tasks based on what is essential, and what is not. Based on our understanding of the needed resources of our projects, we arrange the requirements accordingly, instead of blindly copying or following others. The main lesson in the Stanford research which I feel is useful is this: It is not the multi-tasking that defines the person. Rather it is the person that ought to plan and do tasks that is consistent with the planned objectives, the available resources and a keen awareness of one's potential as well as limits.

Multi-task, but do it with wisdom and understanding.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Miracle of Sarah (short film)

This well-made short film (made by Skylight Productions) brings to life the powerful testimony of the Lyn family from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Malaysia. It occurred on 26th August 2002 where the family confronted tragedy directly in the face. The parents, Andrew and Nancy Lyn then were about to lose their daughter, Sarah. . . until a miracle happens. In a day or two, it will be the 7th year since the turbulent days in 2002. Yet, the declaration of the Lord's faithfulness continues to grow and shine. What should we make of miracles like this? I shall do some reflections later in the week. Until then, enjoy the video below, and be warmed at how the story is told from a perspective of a grateful heart.

Part 1 of 2 (link)

Part 2 of 2 (link)


Blessed be the Name of the LORD.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Childlike Rest in God

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matt 11:28)
What do we do when we feel thirsty? We drink.
What do we do when we are hungry? We eat.
What do we do when we feel tired? We rest.

Lack of water leads to dehydration, and in severe cases, even death.
Lack of food leads to starvation, and dire situations raise tempers to a dangerous level.
Lack of rest leads to depression, and in extreme cases, suicide.

Lack of Rest Impedes Worship
Jesus knows and understands. True rest is not something that is forced upon. Sometimes, we tend to think that 'rest' is a form of recharging our drained batteries. Far from it. Rest is not to charged us up for more works. Neither is it another opportunity to play 'escape from reality' games. Let me suggest that 'rest' is learning to enjoy creation and the happiness in simply 'wasting time.' Ever see how kids jump for joy at playgrounds? They are carefree and enjoys simple things in life. Even an ice-cream cone perks a little child up, instead of injecting steriods or modern drugs to sustain our awakeness. Learning to 'waste time' is something we fail to achieve. I suspect that our lack of restfulness is a major impediment to worshiping God. How can we sing when our hearts are bogged down with anxiety and worry? How can we honestly say the words of praise and thanksgiving when we do not feel authentic about it? If a person's inner being is not at rest, external serenity means little. If we do not learn to still the inner noise, we cannot have real peace.
  • Have we forgiven someone who has hurt us in the past?
  • Are we too engrossed and lost in present concerns?
  • Are we constantly worrying about the unknown future?
  • When a heart is not at peace, how can anyone truly rest?
Eugene Peterson paints a livid description of Matt 11:28.
"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest." (THE MESSAGE)
How to Rest? Learn from Children
The context of Matthew 11: 25-30 is Jesus talking about little children. Unless we become like little children, and approach God with childlikeness (not childishness), we will fail to appreciate the depth of rest.
  • Adults take control (even 'wrest' control of rest); Children LET God take control.
  • Adults strategize and plan; Children simply wonder in trust;
  • Adults design grand plans; Children enjoy simple pleasures;
  • Adults run infinite laps of many works; Children take regular naps.
  • Adults take sleeping pills; Children dozes off listening to a sweet lullaby.
Helen Keller reminds us of at least one advantage of rest. We begin to notice open opportunities instead of closed ones.
"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us." (Helen Keller)
Isn't that so true for many of us, adults? We get fixated on the closed door 7 days a week and fail to make any headway. Perhaps, when we rest 1 day, our refreshed minds and hearts will learn to pause and see with new eyes the next day. I remember bee that constantly see the light but fail to get past the glass pane. They become so focused on the sunlight and yet fail to buzz beyond the clear barrier. If the bee had taken a break to sense the fresh breeze coming from the gap not too far away, it would have liberated itself. Let us learn to rest. Not only will we stop ramming our heads against closed doors, we free ourselves to notice open opportunities.

My friends. Rest is simply letting God be God. In us. Among our loved ones. The world at large. Only God is big enough to care for the whole world.


Friday, August 21, 2009

"Here We Are To Worship" - another reminder

How do we worship? From time to time, we are compelled to grapple with this word, especially when we start to question the purposes behind why we do certain things. For example,
  • Why must there be electric guitars in the band?
  • What happened to traditional hymns in a 'contemporary' service?
  • Why are some modern choruses so catchy and moving, and yet seems theologically shallow?
  • Should we employ new technologies in worship services?
  • Can the congregation worship eloquently, without having to hire a professional worship leader?
  • How do we design a worship service that caters to a multi-ethnic, multi-age and and multimedia-intoxicated society?
Brad Harper and Paul Metzger shines the light back on the age-old quarrel between 'traditional' and 'contemporary' forms of worship. In their latest article, "Here We Are To Worship," published in ChristianityToday (Aug 2009), they remind us how important the role of cultural awareness is. They begin by highlighting Regent-College's John Stackhouse's article "Memo to Worship Bands" as proof that the debate is still alive and sometimes highly charged. They point out 6 peace-making principles that should calm the most radical 'contemporary' worshiper, and to assure the ever resolute 'traditional' member. Essentially, Harper and Metzger believe that the understanding of the culture is critical in order to bring a worship 'truce.' Briefly, the 6 pointers are:
  1. All liturgical action is culturally conditioned.
  2. The relationship between liturgy and culture is theologically framed by creation and the Incarnation.
  3. Integrating liturgy and culture requires us to be critical of our own cultural context.
  4. The extremes of either complete identification with or rejection of a given culture should be avoided.
  5. Worship must reflect common elements of the Christian tradition through the unique expressions of a particular cultural context.
  6. The liturgical actions of the church—including proclamation of the Word, common prayer, baptism, and Eucharist—are among the "universal" or common factors in the Christian tradition.
My Comments
The key question asked by the authors is:
"Do changing worship forms adapted from popular culture facilitate an authentic encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as described by the Scriptures and understood by historic Christian orthodoxy?"
They answer this question in 6 ways above. These 6 'affirmations of worship' were drawn from John Witvliet's "Worship Seeking Understanding." While all refers to culture, the first three relates liturgy with culture. The fourth warns against extremes of acceptance/rejection of culture. The fifth insists that tradition be included in any cultural adaptation. The final one maintains the 'must-have's in any worship service design. By noticing how much additional coverage the authors put toward #3 and #6, we can roughly surmise that the authors are seeing cultural adaptation from a 'tradition' (not traditionalist) mindset.

CRITIQUE: I am disappointed that Harper and Metzger did not talk more about the Holy Spirit, despite putting the 'Spirit' as a sub-heading in their article. In fact, they focus so much on 'culture,' ' symbols,' 'liturgy,' 'forms' and 'styles' that all the attention seems to be on the 'visible' work of human hands instead of the 'invisible' prompting of the Holy Spirit. For this, I believe this article is handicapped severely by the lack of a Pentecostal perspective: experiencing God, not by mighty traditional hymns, nor by powerful contemporary songs but by the Spirit of God.

POSITIVES: Nevertheless, there are some good points. For instance, the authors highlight once again, the need to include good tradition. This reminds me of the difference between tradition and traditionalism as aptly summed up by the famous words of Jaroslav Pelikan:
"Tradition is the living faith of the dead,
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
— (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition)
In other words, we should not be too quick to banish the word 'tradition' from the vocabulary of the most ardent contemporary activist. Distinguish the good and the not-so-good. Do not throw the proverbial baby out together with the dirty bathwater. Eventually, the authors come to a middle ground with the infamous 'yes-no' answer. What is the value of reading this article? It all boils down to one word. It is not 'truce.' Neither is it 'balance' in terms of "sometimes we sing hymns, sometimes we sing choruses' in a 50-50 proportion. It is certainly not "yes-no.' Quoting the theologian Marva Dawn (another Regent professor), the real reminder to all traditionalists and contemporary-ists when it comes to worship is that E-word: 'Education." I could not agree more.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

"World's Strictest Parents" (Alabama)

There are many reality TV shows. Some has excellent educational value in it for families. For every successful product, I wonder how many others failed. While I remain skeptical about the Reality TV genre, "World's Strictest Parents" does speak into a cultural need surrounding the challenges of parenting rebellious teenager.

One of the latest ideas in Reality TV is dealing with hard-to-handle teenagers. Thus the idea is born, whether these teen challenges can survive in an environment created by "World's Strictest Parents." This first episode contains a strong message in that teens and strict control sometimes do work out well.

I attach the links to the Youtube videos below (in 6 parts).
  1. Part 1 of 6 (link)
  2. Part 2 of 6 (link)
  3. Part 3 of 6 (link)
  4. Part 4 of 6 (link)
  5. Part 5 of 6 (link)
  6. Part 6 of 6 (link)

My Reflections
Some positive take-aways:
  • INTEGRITY: Practice What You Preach. The Garnett family in Alabama puts into practice their core beliefs. They do not shirk away from their responsibilites to educate, to teach, affirm good deeds and reprimand fairly bad behavior.
  • INTERNET: Ross, one of the teens is an avid Internet user. His own lifestyle of using the computer non-stop throughout the day led him to do all kinds of online activities, like finding intimacy with strangers on the net. Undoubtedly, this is one of the biggest causes of his rude attitude toward his own parents.
  • SETTING EXPECTATIONS: I am intrigued at the way that the host dad, Mark ensures that his expectations are clearly understood. He even gives the two teenagers time and double opportunity to ensure that their personal belongings adhere to the strict standards.
  • ENFORCEMENT: A rule is useless unless it is adequately enforced.
  • ENVIRONMENT: Without a supporting community, it is tough. Look at like how the organizers at the Homeless volunteer site reinforce the parents' expectations. A community that works in tandem with parental education reinforces one another in sending a common message.
  • ENGAGE IN COMMUNITY WORK: One of the key things to deal with teenagers is how to translate their bursting life and energy into some productive and meaningful work.
  • PUNISHMENT: Naomi and Ross learns that some of the things they do, have consequences that affect others negatively.
  • CREDIT/DEBIT: Maintain a fair and just admonishment and encouragement posture. Give credit or verbally reprimand in an appropriate way.
Some Reservations
  • SUSTAINABLE?: The immediate change in behavior of Ross and Naomi, after a strict week-long stint with the Garretts is commendable. However, are they sustainable? Will Ross and Naomi revert back to their previous ill-behavior when the environment they return did not change?
  • SELECTIVE COVERAGE: No matter what they say, anything on TV cannot be believed 100%. This is because we are only seeing the whole episode from the perspective of the producer and cameraman. Surely, the Garretts have their set of challenges which can help TV viewers to appreciate their humanness as well? Selective coverage is like putting make-up on a normal face, hiding the pimples and dark eye rings behind expensive cosmetics.
  • IDEALISTIC?: Some people may accuse the series as being overly idealistic, and the Garrett environment is more of an exception rather than the norm. Surely, their methods cannot be easily duplicated by mere methods alone.
  • STATISTICS: How portable can such parenting methods be? Are there statistics to support the claim that these methods can work over the long run? In other words, I am keen to know how many families were rejected in the auditioning process.
  • CONTEXT: Psychologically speaking, people behave much better in front of the camera. It is often what goes behind the TV lens that shows up the true being and nature.
  • CULTURE: What about a pluralistic culture, where there is a complex array of philosophies, beliefs, self-rights and various expectations of parents and teens?
  • NATURE/NURTURE: The series is geared toward the 'nurture' side of the perennial tug-of-war between nature and nurture. Little is said about the 'nature' side of the teens.
I think the most powerful reason why the Garretts are able to successfully bring up their own kids (as well as the 1-week lesson with Naomi and Ross) is because they are supported by an environment (75% Bible believers, common understanding of discipline, non-profanity, sustained and consistent approach to correction and prise). This reminds me of Hilary Clinton's book: "It Takes a Village" which proposes that a child grows best within an environment that comprises places both inside and outside the family walls. Picking up on this idea, Tod Bolsinger presents a version suited for Christians called: "It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Live." Maybe, the best thing the series has done is to recognize openly that parenting is difficult, and we should not worry about doing it alone. While the challenges are formidable, it is possible that one can raise up their kids well. Perhaps, we should indeed pray more fervently, that the day will come, where God's will be done both in heaven as well as on earth. When that happens, not only the angels rejoice. We do too. Let's build community.


Why Prayer Meetings are Unpopular

Periodically, I will re-post articles of interest on this site from Sabbath Walk, my weekly devotional. This week's issue contains a theory I have regarding the low attendance of typical prayer meetings. See the original posting here. If you like you can subscribe with your email address at Sabbathwalk.

Comments welcome here or there.

Empathetical Praying


Prayer meetings are one of the most unpopular meetings in the Church. People will gather for food. They readily sign up for social and food events. Many do not mind coming for Bible studies. However, prayer meetings occupy the lowest concern of any typical Church member.

I remember a pastor cheekily give tips on how best to disperse a Christian gathering: “Let’s have a prayer meeting.” Believers will then give all kinds of excuses to leave, like bees that scatter at the smell of smoke. Soon, the group will be reduced to a paltry few, as the rest carry on with their respective businesses. Amid the humor, there is a cloaked sense of sarcasm in the way this pastor has said about the attitude of Christians toward prayer meetings. It is common knowledge that in many churches, prayer meetings are unpopular. In a way, why should anybody bother with a ‘passive’ activity, when one can be engaged in something more active, like planning to make things happen? Why depend on something that works sometimes, and not other times? Why spend time doing something not proven by technology or science? Perhaps, prayer meetings are for sissies and those who approach Christianity like a crutch. People with such a perspective are those who tend to ask: “Why pray when I can simply pay for the solution?

The pastor above may have been right about the unattractiveness of coming together merely to pray. However, if he thinks that coming to prayer meeting makes one more ‘spiritual,’ he is on the wrong track. People do come for prayer meetings, albeit under special circumstances. An emergency medical operation, a serious illness, a tragic accident, a major retrenchment or loss of income, frantic students seeking some comfort in the middle of exams all creates urgency for people to come. People need a reason to come for a prayer meeting, not simply because someone says so. When one realizes the limits of one’s ability and the world’s poor handling of the deepest human needs, one will come crawling back to the Heavenly Father, just like the prodigal Son, of the famed parable of Jesus, seeking Divine Intervention. When all else fails, the slender thread of hope lies in Jesus. These people tend to assert: “Pray only when all else fails, or when I sense a need.

The first reason I talked about is a practical one that seeks to free God from mundane requests. The second reason I mentioned above is a tactical one that seeks God to intervene when nothing else helps. Let me propose a third reason for why people find prayer meetings unattractive. This third raison d'être why people find prayer meetings undesirable or boring is not the prayer meeting itself, but an incomplete picture of what prayer is. The reason why we find prayer meetings unappealing is because prayer is in many ways, an ‘empathetical’ one. We incorporate empathy in our praying. It is because we do not comprehend the magnitude of listening to God, to others and to ourselves, that we fail to pray well.

Three Reasons for Praying

In practical praying, we look for excitement and to some extent, entertainment. We are more interested with what works, what inspires or what makes things happen. At that place, some people say a few words, sing a few songs, complain a little frustration, share a little needy request, and hear a little prayer lesson. Nothing seems to happen, at least during the prayer meeting. In tactical praying, we wait for emergencies to occur before committing ourselves to that dreaded meeting. We are more interested only when the need arises. When there is no need, or no emergencies, why bother to come?

In empathetical praying, the reason why we come to pray is chiefly to listen. How well we listen to others reflects how well we listen to God. We listen because we want to know. We want to know because we desire to care. We desire to care because our friends matter. Our friends matter because we love. We love because we are first loved.

In empathetical praying, our listening goes far beyond the ear’s audible range. In other words, our listening device is not restricted only to our ears. We train our eyes, our hands and our hearts to listen.

  • Listen for the pain when one shares about hurts.
  • Listen for the joy when one shares about happiness.
  • Listen what was spoken, according to what is audible;
  • Listen out for what that was unspoken, according to what we know of the person;
  • Listen with our eyes, to see the facial and timing of the person doing the talking,
  • Listen with our hands, by holding the person gently with care and grace.
  • Listen with our hearts, to challenge the highly motivated, to comfort the discouraged, to stimulate the bored, to soothe the agitated, to be the brother or sister we were meant to be.

We loved because he first loved us. A simple prayer exercise is an opportunity to love, to show our gratitude to God because He first loved us. We come to prayer meetings to listen to God, to know over and over again, why does He bother to come down to earth to die for us. We listen to God to ponder his great initiative. We listen to God to wonder how the new heaven and new earth will look like. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatise, “Life Together” has a beautiful description about the office of listening to one another. Let me share two segments, the first one a rebuke, and the second an exhortation to listen to one another. It is necessary for us to take note of both.

A REBUKE (-ve)

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and so get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here to our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. ” (D Bonhoeffer, Life together, London: SCM Press, 1954, 75-6)

I remember times when people are sharing their prayer requests in a circular manner. As individuals are sharing, I will be thinking of what things I should be sharing, instead of noting the details of each person’s prayer needs. As a result, when it comes to my turn, I would have half-forgotten what others have previously shared. When that happens, I am forced to depend on my presumptions of my fellow brothers and sisters, and to pray very generally. Things like, “God bless Alex for all his needs. Amen,” hardly brings justice to Alex’s eloquent sharing about his life.


This leads us to the next. The simple act of loving our brother or sister through genuine care and concern via listening, is an act of worship to God.

Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.” (D Bonhoeffer, Life together, London: SCM Press, 1954, 76)

This act of listening, in empathetical praying not only connects us to our brother/sister in Christ, we participate with the Holy Spirit prompting to pray for others, even about needs that our loved ones do not even know.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; (Rom 8:26)

Let us not be caged up with practical praying, using pragmatic approaches to prayer so much so, that God is reduced to a nice-to-have but not always necessary spiritual mechanic. Let us also be careful not to indulge in tactical praying that sees God as a spiritual surgeon. Instead, see our whole praying discipline as empathetical praying that tries to see what others see, to look from God’s camera lens and in the process, recognize that we are made not for ourselves. We are made for God, for one another, and in that process, we find our deepest calling:

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. (2 Thess 1:3)

May we practice empathetical calling more and more.Perhaps, when we wear this attitude, it helps us see prayer meetings in a totally new way. Blessings and enjoy your praying, empathetical ones that is.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You Know You're From Vancouver . . .

The following is hilarious. If you have experienced Vancouver in any way, you'll be laughing your heads off. (Thanks Cheryl for the list.)

You Know You're From Vancouver (or a resident of Vancouver)......... IF
  1. You can pronounce Coquihalla, Tsawwassen, Squamish, Osoyoos, Ucluelet, Esquimalt, Sooke, and Nanaimo.
  2. You know what these abbreviations mean: PNE, GVRD, VPL, RAV, YVR.
  3. You know that West Vancouver, the West End, and the West Side are different places.
  4. If you hear someone is doing the Grind, you know they're not hitting the books.
  5. You make over $250,000 a year and still can't afford a house.
  6. You car insurance costs as much as your house payment.
  7. You don't even listen when the forecast announces "chances of showers."
  8. If there's a day of snowfall, you consider not going to school or work.
  9. You can't imagine what a front yard would look like without green grass and green leaves.
  10. You had a barbecue at the beach.
  11. You know more than 10 ways to order coffee.
  12. You can name 10 Starbucks locations in less than a minute.
  13. You can tell the difference between Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Horton's coffees.
  14. At 8:30 AM, the guy at Starbucks wearing the baseball cap and glasses who looks like George Clooney IS George Clooney.
  15. You know the mountains are located north. In fact, you use them to get your bearing when lost.
  16. Finding parking takes longer than it did to drive there.
  17. You're sure that you're the only one on the road with a REAL driver's license.
  18. The more expensive the car, the worse the driver.
  19. The gym is packed at 3 PM--on a work day.
  20. You pass an elementary school and the children are all busy - with their cell phones or pagers while waiting for their personal rides home.
  21. You realize there are far more Rainbow flags in the city than Canadian flags
  22. Your hairdresser is straight, your plumber is gay, and your next door neighbour grows weed.
  23. You don't even blink at the same sex couple holding hands on the street, but it shocks you when you meet a couple married for 40 years!
  24. Your co-worker has 8 body piercings and none are visible.
  25. You can tell the difference between Japanese, Thai, and Chinese food.
  26. You've had a California roll for lunch.
  27. You take the bus and are shocked to hear two people carrying on a conversation in English.
  28. You feel guilty when you throw paper or aluminum cans in the garbage.
  29. The sound of the 9 o'clock gun doesn't startle you.
  30. You can't remember: is pot still illegal?
  31. You're not surprised to see geese throughout the whole year.
  32. You know what an orca looks like.
  33. You can read a decent size novel before being admitted into the hospital.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ten Questions For Spiritual Diagnosis

How do we know the state of our spiritual health? Are we spiritually healthy or spiritually busy? Dr Donald Whitney in his book, "Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health, (Navpress, 2001)" raises 10 questions to help us inspect our soul.

  1. Do you thirst for God?

  2. Are You Governed Increasingly by God's Word?

  3. Are You More Loving?

  4. Are You More Sensitive to God's Presence?

  5. Do You Have a Growing Concern for the Spiritual and Temporal Needs of Others?

  6. Do You Delight in the Bride of Christ?

  7. Are the Spiritual Disciplines Increasingly Important to you?

  8. Do You Still Grieve Over Sin?

  9. Are you a Quick Forgiver?

  10. Do You Yearn for Heaven and to be With Jesus?

Have a go. In other words, do not be a Christian by name or through external acts. Be a Christ-follower by our actions, driven by an inner spiritual vitality. Use the 10 questions like a spiritual thermometer. The first step toward growth is a correct diagnosis.


A Touching Car Commercial (Taiwan)

My kids are all at camp this week. Although it is only a week, I missed them. This Taiwan-made video is a car commercial, that creatively blends in the Chinese cultural affirmation of fatherly love, and the universal human need for affection. For some of you, this may bring a tear. For those of us who need translation, I have included a brief synopsis below.

This is about a girl, reflecting on her growing up years. It begins with the daughter making a phone call saying that due to work commitments, she could not return home that weekend. She goes on to narrate her father's faithful efforts to fetch her to school, waiting at the provision shop to personally pick her up, just to make sure that she knows the way home. Memories of her riding behind on her father's bicycle, as well as times when she enjoys her favorite Popsicle. As the daughter grows up, graduates and gets a decent job, the father's faithfulness remains. It culminates in a startling contrast in lifestyles and transportation methods. The one thing that never changes, is the commitment of the father to wait for his daughter. The final scene fast forwards to another phone call. This time, the daughter calls back again saying she wants to go home, this time driving back in her new car. Despite her asking her father not to bother, the father continues to wait at the same old place, apparently concerned that his daughter might get lost. The daughter was concerned about how long her father had waited. It doesn't matter to the old man. He is glad that his daughter's home.

As expected, the commercial squeezes in the name of the car that helps bring all together, but for me, the name of the car is furthest from my mind. It is that family love. With Willie Nelson's song on the background, the melancholic video clip blends the emotions well.



A 'Beautifully Imperfect' Video

This small video clip is a reminder that amid our imperfections, there are elements of beauty. Love overcomes all. In love, we shall all be overcomers. The intent of the commercial is to encourage more marriages, especially geared toward those who are 'waiting' for a perfect partner. This is not new, as the Singapore government has been actively encouraging marriages (and children!) among the educated portion of the population. Having said that, I think the clips are not only well done, but should speak direct to the perennial perfectionists among us, that we learn to accept one another as we all are. We all have our faults. Some can be corrected. Others not. The key is to know the difference, by creating a mood of discernment and understanding: Unconditional love. (Direct link here or see the embedded clip below. )

This TV commercial clip was made by Singapore's 'National Family Council' (website). Created by the late Ms Yasmin Ahmad, the video is brilliantly clear and emotionally engaging. The official condolence and tribute is here. I too, appreciate the contribution and life of Yasmin, and the 'Beautifully Imperfect' movement that has begun.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Book: "What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage"


TITLE: What Shamu Taught About Live, Love and Marriage (lessons for people from animals and their trainers)
AUTHOR: Amy Sutherland
PUBLISHED: NY: Random House, 2008 (168pp).

Shamu is the famous killer whale made popular by the world-famous San Diego SeaWorld. When I last saw the black and white orca a few years ago, it seems that the world world world (sea-world, that is) revolves around the famous star attraction.

This is not about animal training. Neither is it a manual for making relationships work. Well, not exactly. It is one person's creative attempt to incorporate animal-training to the human world. The author in 2006 wrote an article in the New York Times which quickly topped the most emailed articles list for the NYT in 2006. I came across the book almost by accident, having not encountered the article myself. Back in 2006, I was too busy writing papers for my theological school, so I am not surprised I missed out on this fad.

Sutherland is a journalist. Her writings are both creative and often hilarious, making her work a delight to read. In a nutshell, Sutherland brings to the table the technique of animal training to the world of human relationships. Believers of the theory of Evolution, like most scientists will find no difficulty in the basic premise that humans are animals too. After all, biology often classifies living things in terms of the Plant (vegetabilia) and Animal (animalia) kingdoms. Human beings being living creatures will be entered into the column entitled "Animal Kingdom."

TRAINING: Sutherland's basic thesis is that techniques used in animal training can be applied effectively to human relationships. Essentially, by using encouragement by positive reinforcement methods, people can be coaxed to behave in the manner that is desired. This contrasts with the fear-of-punishment technique, also known as the stick approach. For example, when a dolphin does something the trainer dislikes, it is completely ignored. When the 'right' moves are made, the trainer throws the bottle-nose mammal a reward, usually a fish or two. Sutherland then applies this observation to her own marriage, which can be rather amusing. Here's an illustration on one incident when her husband was getting frustrated about not finding his car keys. Instead of joining in the key-hunt, which throws in suspicions and careless accusations, this is what Sutherland did.

The answer is 'nothing.' Dolphin trainers, in fact all progressive trainers, reward the behavior they want and ignore the behavior they don't. So I'm ignoring behavior I don't want - Scott's rising temper. I don't even call out places to look. Rather, I, lips sealed, keep at the task at hand, rinsing a plate. At the sink, I hear my husband bang a closet door shut, rustle through papers on a chest in the front hall, and thump upstairs. I pop the plate into the dishwasher and rinse another. Then, sure enough, all goes quiet. A moment later, Scott strides into the kitchen, keys in hand,
and says calmly, 'Found them.'

Without turning, I call out, 'Great, see you later.' Off he goes with our much-calmed pup. The drama averted, I feel like I should toss him a mackeral, maybe toss myself one too. It's not easy thinking like an exotic animal trainer. (Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me..., 12-13)

Lesson for Life, Love and Marriage

  • We know that animals aren't perfect and are prepared to accept them as they are. Why not our human-to-human interactions?
  • Fear can be conquered. However, they need to be done gradually, just like the technique of habituation for animals.
  • Punishment is one of the worst ways to train as it can be very unreliable as far as animals are concerned. Rewards are better. This positive reinforcement is the major thrust of the whole book. One observation of parents is that they focus too much on stopping bad behavior of their children and forget about teaching their kids what they want (good behavior). If one can get people to behave, and at the same time make them happy, why not?
  • Looking the other way is another method of avoiding the use of the punishing stick. Interestingly, when one ignores unwanted behavior, chances are they will not be repeated, just like killer whales do not go on strike when a behavior is ignored.
What I learned About Positive Reinforcement
  • TIMING: Trainers know the right timing in order to motivate their animals. Animals link simultaneous behavior for they are creatures who live by the moment. Thus, it is important to link the desired behavior IMMEDIATELY with a reward, to encourage the animal to repeat the act. This is used in conjunction with a whistle, which is the main instrument to control timing. This is also applied to when to use the reward and when NOT to use it.
  • REWARDS WORK BETTER: Use positive reinforcement more.
  • SIZE MATTERS: Offer the smallest bit to entice the largest response. This keeps the animal hopeful for a larger reward next time.
  • MIX-IT-UP: Have multiple forms of rewards, the more the better. Animals do get bored sometimes. Likewise, it is good to have plenty of options to motivate people. For instance, ice-cream and candies can be used in conjunction with hugs and kisses, thrown in with a junk cruise. Use different training techniques when any one fails to produce results.
  • NOW YOU GET IT, NOW YOU DON'T: This is especially when new tricks are being taught. Trainers try not to be too predictable, and introduces a sense of mystery to the animals' curiosity. In other words, not every time the trainer is compelled to give the reward. Sometimes, the trainer will withhold the food and hint the animal to do it one more time.
  • KEEPING ONE HAPPY: Trainers often have to know the balance between food deprivation vs optimal/minimal food offering. That can be crucial when dealing with dangerous animals. Too hungry, they will rather bite the hand rather than the most delicious looking fish. Too quick too soon makes the creature lazy.
  • BABY STEPS: This is a rather perceptive technique. It is like learning the alphabets before we form words and sentences. In life, we too can benefit by making sure that we learn the basic blocks of communications in our understanding of one another, like vocabulary, the meaning of words we use and the various idiosyncrasies we all have.
One benefit I have learned from this book is the Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS), the technique of ignoring negative behaviors. In a way, it is being able to cool tempers down without having to do anything substantial. In fact, ignoring unpleasant behavior, is one of the most effective ways to stop it altogether. This can also be applied to non-family members. If we don't like a stranger to look at us, don't stare back. He/She will eventually look away.

My Comments
The book is not rocket science. It is simple, practical and downright common sense in every sense of the word. Not everything the author prescribes should be seen as gospel truth. Yet, the same concept described can also be applied to the book. Whatever that works, use it. Reinforce it. Share it and broadcast it widely. Whatever that does not work for you, you can use the LRS by simply ignoring it. Like the author, I agree that life is full of surprises. Having said that, it is a very good reminder that it is often not the external event per se but OUR RESPONSE to it that sets the tone for all of our relationships. We can react to it, or simply ignore it. Thanks Sutherland. Thanks Shamu.


Free Bible Audio Courses (Koinos)

Here is another excellent online resource for those too busy or too poor to go to Bible School. Sponsored largely by Richmond Chinese Alliance Church, BC Canada, the site comprises many lectures associated with Regent-College (my alma-mater). You can listen to lectures ranging from Bible knowledge, Old Testament, New Testament, Ethics, Worship, Church History, Theology, Mission as well as Christian ministry. There is also a section on Chinese culture, taught by a non-Chinese! Cool. Those of us familiar with Regent will recognize names like Miriam Adeney, Ward Gasque, Carl Amerding, Susan Phillips just to name a few. With Ward Gasque as the senior pastor of RCAC, it is no surprise that his passion for theological and biblical teaching is translated into such a wonderful resource for the Church.

KOINOS is developed by Pacific Association for Theological Studies (Seattle), some churches and institutions. Their seminars are updated here online. All the lectures from the previous seminar held at RCAC have been released to the public for free. Thanks RCAC. I think KOINOS is able to work with various churches to design a Christian education curriculum. You can contact them directly if your church is interested.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Safe-Living or Saved-Living

Is Our God Too Safe?
Mark Galli's latest article, "Danger: God" touches on the tendency of modern Christianity to play it safe rather than sorry. Beginning with the suburban context, Galli notices that Christians try to make this world a 'safer' place in many places. Mothers start writing 'safe' romance novels for their daughters to read, instead of allowing them to be seduced by worldly offerings all over the popular bookstores. People read the Bible or go to churches mainly for inspirational stuff to feel good, rather than agonizing through controversial material that can dislodge one from his or her private perch. It reminds me of Mark Buchanan's "Your God is Too Safe" which reiterates much of the same theme Galli is writing about. Buchanan argues that Christians are mostly 'stuck in the borderlands' which is exactly the safety zone that Galli is talking about. Like CS Lewis's depiction of the mighty lion, Aslan in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Lucy talking to the Beaves asks about Aslan, “is he a man?
Beaver says “A man, He is the king of the woods, king of the beasts, Aslan is a Lion.”
Lucy goes “oh, a Lion, I am nervous about meeting a lion, is he safe?”
Beaver- “Oh no… he is not safe but He is good.”

Safe vs Good
Remarkably and very perceptively, CS Lewis reveals the human tendency to prefer 'safe' instead of something far better: 'Good.' This is precisely the same thing that tempts the rich man to opt for 'safe' riches rather than the 'good' of following Jesus (Matt 19:22). This is also chosen by Demas, who prefers the 'safe' confines of this world, rather than the 'good' of sticking with Paul (2 Tim 4:10). Even within the community, remember how Ananias and Sapphira's act of choosing what is 'safe' for themselves rather than what is 'good' for the community (Acts 5)? Mark Buchanan gently exposes the enigmatic nature of the human predicament.

We are deeply ambivalent about God. Sometimes we flee Him; sometimes we seek Him. But our motives in either case are complex, mixed. " (Mark Buchanan, Your God is Too Safe, Multnomah, 2001, p19)
Both Galli and Buchanan, as well as CS Lewis all force us to confront our human tendency that shies away from danger. Like knee-jerk reactions, we prefer the false sense of security of riches that earth possesses instead of the true treasures in heaven. The human self gravitates toward any miserable earthly refuge of today rather than the solid heavenly security of tomorrow. It is against such a human instinct that Jesus has to state emphatically:

"Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." (Matt 6:33)

While Galli criticizes the tendency of Christians to prefer the safe hinterland of suburban Christianity, Buchanan points us to something far more subtle and dangerous: the playground of being 'stuck' in borderland. In other words, Christians often know the path to take, but they have not ventured far enough to finish the journey. They prefer to know it, but reluctant to practice it radically to the end. They are happy to remain at the middle, albeit stuck into inaction. Buchanan, a fellow Regent-College alumni, gives a no-nonsense, no-holds barred, piercing diagnosis of many Christians' spiritually cancerous condition, even indicting those of us who have been theologically trained:
We go to Bible college, hoping that will innoculate us against spiritual languor, will create in us robust faith. But many theological schools and Bible colleges are built on borderlands. There is the danger in such places that we will learn much about God and at the same time grow distant from God; we will study the intricacies of doctrine but lose passion; we will become eloquent at God talk, but cease talking to God.

We go to church, we sing, we pray, we listen to the Word read and preached. Maybe we take notes. Maybe we even lead some of it. And maybe our slow hearts burn within us. But walking away - just strolling to our car in the church parking lot, fifty-seven steps away - the conviction, 'He's alive!' dribbles down lile water held in the hand. Monday morning, it's still hard to get out of bed." (
Buchanan, Your God is Too Safe, 21)
Let me put it another way. We drink the cup of Christ, but we intoxicate ourselves with the wine of the world, rather than the costly blood of Christ. I am not talking about becoming blood-thirsty. I am referring to being fully identified with the person and cause of Christ. As the saying goes, 'blood is thicker than water,' which refers to choosing one's family members above other people. Likewise, we choose the kingdom of God above all other kingdoms of the world. We choose the cause of Christ above all other causes of the world. I am not arguing for a dichotomous reading of the world. That will be dualism or gnosticism. (One understanding of Gnosticism is the heresy that sees the physical as bad, the spiritual as good. In Christianity, one believes that in Christ, all has been redeemed.) I am talking about dying to self, taking up the cross of Christ, and following after Christ, warts and all.

Faith: Safe-Living vs 'Saved'-Living
I like Galli's description of: "The normal Christian life is in many ways the antithesis of safety," mainly because it mirrors the encounters I have with many evangelicals today. Perhaps, it has nothing to do with the people themselves, but more of the culture that we live in. Suppose I were to live in the Third World today, under the barrage of gunfire and religious persecution, maybe I will see Christianity much different than now. Having said that, I think not running into physical danger does not mean there are safe passages in the comfortable rich West. In fact, one can argue that it is an even more dangerous playground. An illustration from history can help.

When the early Church was persecuted, we see Christians being fed to the lions, with martyrdom as fodder for first century entertainment. Foxes' Book of Martyrs was classic reading for the early Protestant movement. Being a Christian then is extremely costly. Nowadays, we emphasize grace so much as if faith is cost-free, forgetting that it costs Jesus his life. Martyrdom is largely forgotten in the West. It is referred occasionally only as a passing thought. Reading through the persecution era reminds us that the faith that we have, has been preserved not with wine but with blood. Christianity was not transmitted to us in air-conditioned buildings, complete with modern hi-fidelity sound and audio-visual technology and an inspirational nice-to-listen exciting sermon messages. The Christian faith came to us at a huge cost, paid in full by none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Think about it. If God felt it better to play it safe, would he have allowed his Son to come down to earth to suffer and be tortured? The phrase "Be safe not sorry" can be misleading as far as a Christian is concerned. It places safe as the antithesis of danger. Christianity is not about being safe. Neither is it about avoiding 'sorry' conditions. Lest we forget, it is about following Jesus, regardless.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny
himself and take up his cross and follow me
." (Matthew 16:24)

Let me elaborate more about the differences between safe-living and saved-living.

  • Safe living prefers the present world. Saved living prays heavenly living on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Safe-living accumulates riches on earth. Saved-living accumulates treasures in heaven.
  • Safe-living worries about present needs and future requirements. Saved-living leave the worries to God.
  • Safe-living protects oneself and loved ones from harm. Saved-living seeks to inculcate love to all, including those who can potentially cause harm.
  • Safe-living keeps things for oneself. Saved-living gives things up for the sake of others.
  • Safe-living reads the Bible for information, for personal inspiration and motivation. Saved-living reads the Bible for transformation.
  • Safe-living isolates one from others, by locking oneself within a fortress of weaponry and security. Saved-living frees one to live a transparent life, to be willing to connect with others.
What kind of living reflects our choices? Safe or Saved?

I concur with Galli's reminder, that even as we worship God, we should not be too distracted by the kinds of songs or the missing Powerpoint slide before our eyes. Neither should we become too judgmental of the way the whole service is put together, or to complain about the lack of help or resources to serve God's people. We need to approach the God's presence with fear and trembling. We need to put on the shawl of Christ's grace and to bow our hearts with thankfulness.
"If we lose the sense that worship is a dangerous place, well, we're probably
not in the presence of the biblical God."

The best attitude that we can adopt is not to play it safe, but to approach life with a grateful heart, and to share this thankfulness by sharing Christ with all. In other words, lived as saved-people, not as safe-seeking-people. After all, the gospel is not to be canned and stuffed into our storerooms of convenience. Like the woman with the alabaster jar, the gospel is to be poured out. If need be, let our 'safe' hardened vessel be broken so that the fragrance of the love of God can fill the whole house, and permeate the communities we live in. Be saved, and not be sorry that we have missed the opportunity to bring the gospel to the unsaved.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book - "When Jesus Came to Harvard" (Harvey Cox)

Title: When Jesus Came to Harvard - making moral choices today
Author: Harvey Cox
Published: NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2004

The well-known Harvard University was first founded in 1636 as a place to train Puritan clergymen for ministry. Through the years, it has shed its religious affiliation to become one of the world’s most famous secular institutions of higher learning. The title of the book can mislead readers into thinking Harvard has become more religious recently. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key incentive lies in the authors belief that Jesus is relevant today. Moreover, in the light of many recent moral failures, there is a greater need to cultivate moral values into the premier institution of learning, so that Harvard graduates will live with integrity and stay on the right side of moral behavior. Harvey Cox's course, "Jesus and the Moral Life" at Harvard is consistently one of the most popular undergraduate courses at Harvard. The teachings of Jesus form the bulwark of this book of moral reasoning from the point of view of Jesus the Rabbi-Teacher. In this book, Jesus is translated not only as a teacher to students of the Bible, but a Rabbi for the world. The course curriculum is based largely on the life of Jesus and the stories he told.

Why You Should Read This Book
Jesus' teachings have universal application. Both Christians and non-Christians have everything to gain and little to lose. Cox says that ‘there is no generation gap’ with regards to Jesus’s teachings (10). Cox maintains that Jesus is relevant and morally significant, especially in a corrupted world of today. The challenge is connecting yesterday's teachings with today's relevance. Two keys are necessary. The first is to remember Jesus is himself a rabbi, a skilled teacher who uses stories as a key teaching tool. The second is to relate Jesus’ stories yesterday via creative imaginations of today.

Key Observations
  • Cox focuses not on the content of the stories but the narrative style itself, connecting it to the way people learn, ie via stories.
  • Some of the gospel narratives are meant to be sung, rather than analyzed, such as the genealogies (50); [This connects to the need to be imaginative in our applications]
  • Jesus read the signs of the times accurately (84); [this forces us to read our own modern signs]
  • Religious imagination is necessary in order to see Jesus’s relevance; this is especially when Jesus’s teachings can have more than one interpretations (90);
  • Reading the gospel introduces a more personal touch, like Jesus’ road to the crucifixion being of one with anguish; much like modern ethical processes that puts decision-makers to agonizing tough choices (104);
  • One conviction Cox maintains is that the declining interest of religious studies does not mean people do not need to grapple with issues religions have long wrestled with. In other words, religion is still alive and well. An interesting observation was when Cox, at one year decided to simply pause from introducing the many interpretations of Jesus, to simply let the students interpret the Sermon on the Mount themselves, as if Jesus words were like Jesus’s Fifth Symphony.
  • One of the touching points of relevance is the healing scenes of Jesus. It sparked off many lively discussions and students were typically more receptive to the topic of healing, and Jesus as a Healer (183-4). [Healing is everybody's business.]
My Comments
This is a not exactly a book for Christians, but that does not preclude believers from learning from it. In fact, some Christians may find Cox's interpretation refreshing. The book treats Jesus primarily as a Rabbi. Some Christians may be uncomfortable with this approach. Yet, I feel that I can understand where Cox is coming from, as his course is supposed to be as open as possible to people of different faiths. What I like in particular is his personal reflection, on Jesus as a person. After all is said and done, he sums up his personal preference, choosing to see Jesus more as his ‘friend,’ highlighting his favorite hymn, What a Friend we have in Jesus. Even though large portions of his book concentrate on Jesus’ teachings, and how they can be applied to daily life, his view of Jesus is remarkably more reverent and respectful than some liberal theologians. Some liberal theologians even question the deity of Christ. Cox’s fascination with Jesus as a person is a surprising admission by the Harvard don. I am personally glad that he decides to tackle the question: “Who is Jesus?” more seriously toward the end rather than simply relegating Jesus to the rank of a 1st century University Professor. His two observations of the theological confusion surrounding Jesus sum up the essence of his view of Jesus' relevance today.

1) Jesus is able to survive all the different views about him, and remained himself;
2) There is nothing new about multiple interpretations about Jesus. Personally, I feel that every person in the world will have to interpret Jesus for him or herself.
He is where he always was, doing what he was always doing: teaching, chatting, eating and drinking without regard to rank. Today, like then, he meets the same mixture of ‘welcome and hesitation, skepticism and rejection. He runs the constant risk of real trouble with both the religious and the political establishments. But he gently forces people to look at life differently.” (302)
There are not many books that openly talk about Jesus, and also appeal to both Christians and non-Christians. Cox is open to his students and also to his own discovery of who Jesus is. For this, I must say I enjoy this book.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Smaller Playing Field? No need to fret

When a New York Times reporter visited a classroom in New Jersey a couple of years ago, the students were discussing a case of someone who found $1000 and subsequently returned it to its real owner. All the students in the class said that the honest woman was a fool. Instead of making a stand that the woman did the right thing, what was shocking is response of the teacher who said that it is not up to him/her to tell the students what is right and wrong. What if we live in a world where our understanding of right and wrong becomes defined according to each of our fanciful philosophies and materialistic desires? What if we live in a society when anyone who stand up for truth gets blown away by a barrage of accusations and orders to mind their own business? What happens if religious institutions have their hands tied and their voices silenced because our society is secular, and secular places have no room for religious talk? What if truths are only truths when secularism says so, and truths become relative when religions take over the mike?

It will be a sad day when truths are perceived to be so relative that people no longer have any ability to distinguish right from wrong. Ethical behavior in the past becomes increasingly questioned. It is a sad day when integrity is no longer important when compared to profitability and selfish material gains. Values compromise becomes the business strategy of the day under the title of 'competitive advantage.' It will be a sad day when morality is given up in favour of amoral behavior. In fact, our secular world is fodder for amorality as all other forms of standing up for morality can be easily gunned down by the order: "Mind your own business. Don't impose your views on others."

The secular world is generally much happier when religions such as Christianity is bottled up in convenient canisters, capped tightly by policies instituted by secular authorities. The evil one is pleased when churches simply focus on their own prosperity and social comfort. For secular authorities, nominal forms of Christianity are best. When problems in society occur, the nominal church gets accused of not doing enough for the community. When the church tries to speak up, society blames them for disrupting the peace and wants them to mind their own business. Unless of course the church is paying lots of money toward the material desires of the community. The "damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't" feeling for churches rings familiar. On top of this, infighting within churches is the icing on the cake for the evil one. The deceiver is also pretty happy when believers communicate less, or speak to one another in a manner that leads to loss of love that gives rise to mistrust and suspicion. In our secular world, deceptive strategies are the tools of the secular environment. One of them is via legislation. In this article, I shall argue that the Church needs to keep in mind that secularism is not the chief enemy. It is merely a vehicle used by unscrupulous forces of evil. It is the deceiver that is trying to attack the church under the cloak of secular behavior. Do not attack the one who is repeating the mantra of secularism. He is mere flesh. Instead, expose the underlying false philosophies that mislead people into thinking that secularism is the savior of the world.

Caging-Up Religion
In a secular world, religion is increasingly chained from influencing other aspects of society. From political chambers to the school classrooms, from fast food restaurants to various businesses, religion needs to apply for permission from secular authorities even before it can enter any space to minister to fellow people. It is increasingly out of bounds from many places, like the school, the workplace, general public service places and almost every form of communications arena. Religion's curriculum to educate society has also come under the scrutiny of people advocating secular behavior. Some justify their actions on the basis of tit-for-tat behaviour, accusing religious people for having fired the first shot, of pushing a curriculum in the first place. The evolution-creation debate is one example. Anyone who accuses creationists for bringing their agenda into the classroom conveniently forgets that not everybody believes in the 'religion' of evolution. In fact, secularism has been championed so much under the guise of advancement in modern science and technology, socio-political progress, and democracy, that they are marginalizing religion to the edges of society and culture. Yet, let us remember that these things do not happen overnight. There must be some sinister forces that are driving people to behave in such manner.

Shooting the One Who Make a Stand
The Canadian coffee icon, Tim Hortons recently chose to participate in a rally that promotes traditional marriage between a man and a woman. In its official statement, it claims that it is "a great opportunity to take a stand for marriage as it was created: between a man and a woman." Even though the organizers say that they have not meant it to be any form of religious or political stance, online gay activists accuse the coffee chain of discriminating against the homosexual public. (report)

Rightly, or wrongly, Tim Hortons decided that it is best to pull back from participating in the event. Whether Tim Hortons' actions is pro gay or not is not my concern here. What is more disconcerting is the force of the online activists. What is wrong with one group standing up for traditional marriage? For instance, if I were to publicize my belief of marriage being rightfully a man and a woman, why must I suddenly be accused of being anti-gay or homophobic? If my intention is to encourage my children and their friends that a man should marry a woman, is my very encouragement an explicit act of attacking gay marriages? The logic of the anti-gay activists is simply too binary: Standing up for '1' means not standing up for me, '0.' They seem absolute about such 'absolutes.' My question: is it ever possible to promote traditional marriage without it being seen as a direct attack on gay rights? If gay groups see this as an infringement on their rights, can the reverse be true, in that traditional marriages are infringed upon?

For example, if I were to promote my new brand of toothpaste as the best in the world, am I attacking the other brands from the right of being called toothpastes? If I were to state my belief that there is a God in this world, am I infringing on the rights of other people NOT to believe?

There is nothing new in this line of argument. There will be arguments back and forth about who is right and who is wrong. This is where I want to highlight the seductive nature of spiritual warfare. When such disputes become heated, it spawns activist groups that incite hate and anger on all sides, resulting in bad blood and broken relationships for many. When this happens, there will be no winners. Everybody loses and the evil one will have swept the chips off the table. The evil mastermind will be utterly pleased when mankind fight each other, without the evil one having to lift a finger.

How Then Should the Church Live?
When the playing field for Christian belief shrinks, it makes it more difficult for the Church to express their stand in anything. If the Church is silenced, or their voices drowned out by dissenting views, it is easy to be discouraged and start to mind one's own business of nominal Christianity. Is that the way Christ wants the Church to live? Certainly not. Charles Colson in his book: "How Now Shall We live?" proposes a paradigm for a proper worldview. In any worldview, it needs to consider three perspectives.
  1. Creation
  2. Fall
  3. Redemption
A Church must continue to remind the community they are in that we are all created by the same God. All of us wears the common badge of humanity. We eat, we breathe the same air and we struggle with illnesses, work problems and sometimes matters of life and death. There are no differences.
Secondly, we live in a fallen world. Ask anyone in the street and they can witness to the fallen behavior of fellow human beings, themselves included. Thirdly, ask if there is hope for the future. This is where many people will start to struggle to find a reasonable answer. Some will entrust the future to 'good luck,' and 'let's hope for the best.' This is where Christianity is strongest. This is where the spiritualities of the world finds it most formidable.
Church, do not forget that we are members of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is not of this world, so do not fret over the allegedly decreasing playing field for the Christian voice. Do not worry if one is silenced for making a stand. Chances are, when the right nerves are touched, the enemy becomes more sensitive and the attacks become more pronounced. When we battle for truth, it is critical that we distinguish the person from the philosophy, lest we harm the very people that Christ died for. Let us maintain a cool disposition and to patiently wait for the right moment to speak the truth in love. When our first and second attempt to speak out for truth fails, there is always a third and fourth opportunity.
What do we do when we are attacked for our views? Let me suggest three ways, all of which are mindful of who the real enemy is. Firstly, do not be discouraged. Do not give up and compromise on your stand. You may choose to communicate your points on another platform, or another manner, but always do it with courtesy and respect to the person who disagrees. This prevents one from becoming angry at the person, and be mindful that there is a deceiver behind what is happening. Secondly, do not react, or overreact. Cooly walk away when tempers flare. In fact, we can always disagree as mature persons without having to take potshots at our accusers. Like St Francis of Assisi, seek not to be understood than to understand. Perhaps, one can learn more of others' behavior and in the process be more humble that we are not perfect in the first place. Remember how the mob screamed at Stephen when he stood for truth (Acts 7:54). Finally, pray for the right opportunity that allows truth to shine forth freely. In a nutshell, this is the posture of being prepared. Peter goes on even further, that if need be, let us prefer to be wrongfully accused for doing something right, instead of slandering others.
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Pet 3:15-16)

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