Friday, April 30, 2010

Book - "The Great Emergence" (Phyllis Tickle)

TITLE: The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (emersion: Emergent Village resources for communities of faith)
AUTHOR: Phyllis Tickle
PUBLISHED: Baker Books, 2008.
The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (emersion: Emergent Village resources for communities of faith)

This review has been posted on I have entitled it as "Strong Looking Back, Weak Looking Forward." This book is especially helpful for those who wants to make sense of what is happening to the church (ie a shrinking church!) in the West right now. In fact, Church leaders will benefit from the insights in this book.

Phyllis Tickle is a prolific writer. This latest book does not disappoint. She has an amazing ability to weave nearly 1500 years of history into one book. The title of the book is compelling and very inviting to many observers of the Christian scene nowadays. The premise is simple. If we want to look ahead, we need to look back and learn from our past. Otherwise, we risk repeating past mistakes.

Tickle brings the reader through a fascinating journey into the early centuries; from papal domination to the Protestant Reformation; from the first Schism to the next; from Reformation to Renaissance. She did not stop at religion. With skill, she harnesses amazing scientific insights from Einstein, Jung, etc; philosophy from Hegel, Marx, and others; technology like automobile, the computer, the Internet and many others, to carefully remind us that any religious institution like the Church is never immune from these factors. What I enjoy most is the way she identifies the changing nuclear family, gently comparing and contrasting the traditional grandma image in the early 20th Century to the modern working couple family structure in the late 20th Century. She shows a keen understanding of women roles in society. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about her comprehensiveness with regards to the male gender.

Throughout the book, she poses an important point: Who/What is the authority during each era? Indeed, the Great Emergence is not exactly in terms of what shape Christianity or the Church is going to become. It is actually upon what kinds of authority does the world at large recognizes during each period. While she has a very clear sense of what kinds of authority exist per historical era, this mood fizzles out in the final part of the book. In fact, I think the weakest part of the book is in Part III, the strongest in Part II. I will commend her book with regards to learning from the past (Part I and II), but will hesitate to recommend her prescriptions for the future (Part III).

Rating: 3 stars of 5.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book - Committed (Elizabeth Gilbert)

Title: Committed - a skeptic makes peace with marriage
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Published: NY: Viking, 2010
Reviewed by: Conrade Yap

Eloquent and honest. These two words sum up the book. This book is a follow up of Gilbert's previous mega-seller, Eat, Pray, Love which chronicles the author's travels through three different cultures around the world, seeking healing from her divorce and her depression. This travelogue continues in Gilbert's second book. I must say that this book is written more like a helpless woman struggling to make sense of something she thought she does not believe in anymore: the institution of marriage. As the saying goes, once bitten twice shy. Gilbert tries to recover from her first marriage, by seeking to bury any future possibility of ever marrying again. That was not to be. The book flows eloquently like her second memoir of life; beginning with the end of her first and straddling toward the beginning of the second. This time, the journey to marriage was not via love, but enforced upon them by the Homeland Security of the United States of America.

My Comments
In the book, Gilbert pleads for readers to understand where she is coming from. She confesses that she supports same-sex marriage, even though she does not fully embrace the idea of marriage. She reluctantly admits that she needs to give love a second chance. Throughout the book, it seems like she has never really gotten out of the marriage idea altogether. While she claims that her marriage to the Brazilian-born-Australian-citizen Felipe was a case of administrative convenience in order for both of them to live in the USA, I doubt if that is the main reason. As the book progresses, it seems like she is looking for reasons to support, rather than for reasons to deny marriage. She is giving marriage a chance simply because, she has not truly gotten over the whole idea of marriage.

Gilbert is simply brilliant in her narrative of conversations with the village people in Cambodia, Thailand and Bali. Filled with both amazement of the natives' perspective of marriage, as well as her library of knowledge gleaned understanding of Western culture and history, she tries to meander through both cultures in order to reach a position palatable to herself. She meanders through history. She meanders through the role of men and women. She meanders through marriage counselors and psychologists. She even picks up a book written by a conservative Christian, and confessed that she agrees that it makes a 'compelling point' FOR marriage.

Not Exactly a Marriage Memoir, but a Toleration of Marriage
Unfortunately, I sense that Gilbert's pathway to not exactly making peace but keeping the peace. The former is more active, while the latter is more passive. Although her struggle is an active struggle to make sense of marriage, it remains a less than full struggle. It makes no extra effort toward total commitment. It plays on the level of tolerance, rather than a fully blown commitment. Note that the book 'committed' is not the same as 'full commitment.' It simply means that Gilbert is ok with marriage. Not fanatically embracing it, or enthusiastically campaigning for it. It is just accepting it, minimally, as far as being able to live with Felipe is concerned. As far as marriage is concerned, from a scale of 1 to 10 (most committed), reading the book makes me feel that Gilbert is hovering around 5.5, maybe pushing 6, in terms of her commitment to marriage. The reasons being:
  • Gilbert writes that marriage is essentially a game. (267)
  • She wants the intimacy without the commitment;
  • She opposes the traditional motherhood role, or traditional housewife model, and seeks a 'wifeless' as well as a 'motherless' marriage. Isn't that a marriage of convenience, rather than commitment?
  • She is still struggling, and at various points of the book, she still feels unsure about getting married.
  • At the root of her struggles, lie her battle with what it means to be a woman. This she does from the perspective of a single woman looking into the household of marriage, like a window shopper.
I feel that her negative view of marriage in itself, is already a biased view. Perhaps she is coloured by a failed first marriage that caused her to suspect the benefits of marriage. To be fair, Gilbert bravely confesses her faults as well, chief being her unwillingness to forgive others. (128). Some of the ways she uses 'malay' may not sit well with people who are ethnic 'Malays' in South East Asia.

Having said that, COMMITTED is a good book. There are snippets of wisdom from marriage psychologists and a first person experience into the little known culture in the Far East. In fact, I think she is more an agnostic, albeit a skeptical agnostic. In summary, this book is eloquent, honest, but as far as commitment to marriage is concerned, it is only as committed as Elizabeth Gilbert's toleration scale. Only she knows what her own commitment is, even though at present, she has committed herself to marrying her lover, Felipe.

Book rating: 3.5 stars of 5.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Differences between Prayer and Benediction

Those of us who have been attending churches would have noticed that prayer happens at the beginning and throughout the Sunday Church service. Usually, at the end, before the congregation leaves, the pastor or preacher will say a final blessing called the Benediction.  However, many Christians are still not aware of the differences between prayer and benedictions. Enters Dr John Stackhouse with three helpful distinctions between prayer and benediction.

Firstly, he says that prayer is a form of 'us speaking to God' while benediction is a 'good word.' Secondly, we usually close our eyes when we pray, but when the benediction is given, it is acceptable for congregations to open their eyes and receive the blessing. His third point is somewhat muddled as he talks about praying by invoking the Trinity. Is it a difference from the perspective of the typical church-goer, or between 'prayer and benediction' per se? My reading is that while he views benediction as an explicit way to pray in the name of all the members of the Triune Godhead, in prayer, it is implicitly understood that while we pray in the name of Jesus, the rest of the members are involved, even though they are not verbally mentioned.

My thinking is, perhaps, one way to avoid the confusion in the modern words is to paraphrase the word 'benediction' into a form like, "Let us receive the word of blessing." Often, a simple instruction and advice from the pulpit will do wonders, to teach church people the meaning behind what they are doing each Sunday. I think as educators, we need to play our part to explain from time to time, the meaning of certain things we do in church. Even the singing of songs during worship has a reason, and we may need to explicitly state them.

Thanks Dr Stackhouse for bringing this up.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: "The Geography of Thought" (Richard E Nisbett)

Title: The Geography of Thought - How Asians and Westerners Think . . . and Why
Author: Richard Nisbett
Published: NY: Free Press, 2003, (263 pp)

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why
This book is a fascinating read about the different ways that Asians and Westerners think. It all began when his student makes an observation that Westerners see the world like a 'line' while Asians see the world like a 'circle.' This sparked off a search into the background, the ecology, anthropology, philosophical and various aspects of culture that affects the Western and Asian thought. Some of the interesting questions posed are:

  • Why do Asians excel in Maths and Science? Yet, why does that not translate into more Nobel prize winners in that category, compared to Westerners?
  • Why is it more difficult for Asians to file lawsuits compared with their Western counterparts?
  • Why do Asian infants learn more verbs than nouns compared to the Western young?
  • How do all these cognitive differences affect International Relations, educational approaches, science, legal matters, perception and various cultural idiosyncrasies?
  • Why do Westerners tend toward individualism compared to the community preferences of Asians?
All of these questions alone should heighten anybody's curiosity. In fact, I think there are important in order to facilitate better understanding between the West and the East. The author begins with a philosophical treatment, Aristotle for the West and Confucius on the East. Westerners find it easier to approach life with a logic mindset, while Asians are more comfortable on a dialectic angle. In other words, Asians tend to be able to handle contradictions better, for they believe that truths can be derived from the understanding of both extremes.

How They Differ?
Westerners tend to go it alone, while Asians prefer community environment.The former tends toward independence, while the latter prefers interdependence. Westerners are comfortable with insisting on one 'correct' point of view, while Asians are more comfortable with a diversity of views. The Westerner thrives in individual brilliance and creativity, while Asians work better in groups.

Asians are more relational compared to the Westerner. This is because Westerners are able to deal with objects, while Asians tend to understand objects with reference to the contexts.

My Comments
At one look, it is easy to dismiss Nisbett's view as overly simplistic. I will ask that you hear him out first. Nisbett is a Westerner, teaching in a Western institution and an ardent admirer of Eastern culture and values. This unfortunately gives him a pointed biasness toward the East. Thus, his conclusion is predictable as he contrasts Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations with Francis Fukuyama's The End of History. While the former argues for increasing irreconcilable differences as cultures 'clash,' the latter predicts a convergence of the world driven by Western influence. His third way comes out of Fukuyama's thesis that there will be a convergence, but of EASTERN culture instead.

I feel that at times, Nisbett tends to be overly optimistic about the merits of the East, and too skeptical on the West. There is a lack of critique on the downsides of East, and a surface criticism of Western ideas. It would have been better if Nisbett can engage a co-author from the East to bring some different perspective to his work on cultural psychology. That would have given the book a better representation. Instead, what we have is a geography of thought based on a particular interpretation. In fact, the repetition can become boring at some point. Fortunately, the epilogue is an intelligent and forward looking anticipation of how the future will look like. If only he has spoken more about globalization, technology, mixed marriages, immigration, and various cultural convergences happening right now.

Good book, but it has to be read with an open mind.

Ratings: 3 stars of 5.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Musings on Outreach using Technology I (Problems)

Technology has become the new distribution champion. According to an article in 'Ministry Today,' a web and print magazine based in Florida, there is a quote from Walt Wilson about reaching the 'entire world' through technology.
"We are the first generation in all of human history to hold within our hands the technology to reach every man, woman and child on the earth by 2020. Our generation has within its grasp everything that is required to fulfill the Great Commission." (Walt Wilson, founder of Global Media Outreach)
Using evidence such as the extent of WiFi in the world, and the way people can talk to one another on the Internet, the mood is upbeat and 'charismatic.' After all, this is not much of a surprise as the magazine is openly claiming it is Spirit-led. Now, I do not want to argue about charismatic. I have many friends who attend charismatic churches, and I sure thank them for helping non-charismatics to be more aware of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead. I suppose while I do not dispute the promises of technology, let me offer some food for thought about the problems that threaten to derail the promises of technology.

1) Problem #1: Uncritical Use of Technology
This is like saying, 'just because everybody is using it, it must be good.' I remember that this is how fads like the Sudoku puzzles, the Tamaguchi, robotic pets, and even 'William Hung' of American Idol fame become. Technology is something that is most associated with the 'greatest-and-the-latest' label. Walking into any electronics store, we can hear salespeople readily telling us the latest release of the cell-phones, the latest notebook computer, or the newest digital TV, camera or MP3 player, depending on what we are interested in. It is amazing how fast any 'latest-and-greatest' becomes obsolete. An executive from Intel has famously quipped what is now known as Moore's Law, something like, technology improving 2x every 2 years, or any variation that says one gets more 'oomph' for less buck in the future. In this manner, my question is, using technology as an outreach: Is it a mere fad phenomena, especially when the technology becomes the message, rather than the gospel itself? This will reduce the gospel to merely keeping up with fads, that are mostly short-term.

2) Problem #2: Digitizing the Gospel
The underlying assumption of outreach is essentially being able to transmit the Word of God (the Bible) in digital or electronic form. What does it mean to reach the world? If it means simply to send a Wifi signal to a distant people group and then consider it job done, I suppose the best organizations to reach the world are the telecommunications companies. Get a Christian foundation, set up or buy over a major satellite company, and beam the gospel down anywhere. Even the polar bears in the Arctic and the penguins in the Antarctic cannot avoid such WiFi signals. This will reduce the gospel to a digitized format, distributed easily via a Wifi transmit and receive mechanism.

3) Problem #3: Technology Replacing Personal Touch?
We have long known that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. No doubt, technology has aided the renewal of old ties. Social networking medium has been extremely helpful in connecting people up. However, nothing beats meeting each other face to face. It is one thing to highlight the benefits of technology. It is yet another to REPLACE a personal touch with a technological connection. I am not arguing against using technology. I am cautioning anyone from assuming that technology is 'THE' way to reach people. If people think that it is the 'only' way, I think we are in trouble. What happens is our Wifi is down? Does that mean people cannot share the gospel anymore? Does simply clicking a 'send' or a 'share' constitutes an evangelistic job well done? That will reduce sharing the gospel to a series of 'pick-send-and-click' keystrokes. In a hit-and-miss scenario, chances are there will be more 'miss' than 'hits.' This is especially when the Internet is flooded with information, misinformation and disinformation.

4) Problem #4: Lopsided Toward Mind
The gospel of John begins dramatically, that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus become man, come into the world and dwell among us. In Jesus' times, Jesus lived out the gospel, for He is the gospel. It is the LIVED Word. In the early Church, the Word becomes shared by word of mouth. It is the SPOKEN Word.  By the Reformation in the 15th Century, with the invention of the printing press, the Word turns into the PRINTED word. By the 20th Century, the Word has become the DIGITIZED Word. With the Internet, the Word has become the DISPATCHED word. Looking at it carefully reveals the changing philosophy behind each medium of distribution. The original version has Jesus walking throughout Palestine, praying, learning, teaching, sharing and living the gospel. Jesus lived out the Word in head, heart and hands. In our modern world, technology helps in disseminating intellectual information more than anything else. That is one reason why digitized information are classified as 'Intellectual Property,' more than any other legal notation. Technology has that insidious ability to reduce the gospel to a intellectual device. The question is: Are we sharing the whole gospel (ie head, heart and hands) with technology? Chances are, such a distribution mode tends toward a lopsided mind approach. Are we moving back to a Rene Decartes' era of 'I think, therefore I am?'

5) Problem #5: Projecting Our Assumptions
I remember the saying, that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others. It is an idiom that reminds people to be aware of their own vulnerabilities. At the same time, we need to learn to recognize that those with first-world luxuries, cannot assume that other worlds have easy access to first-world technologies. That will be ivory-tower thinking. Even though the Internet has become ubiquitous in many parts of the world, we cannot assume all people will be comfortable with them. We cannot assume all people use English. We cannot assume that the material we read in English, is automatically available in other languages. We cannot assume that people will be able to handle newer technologies thrown at them. In the movie 'The Gods Must Be Crazy," viewers were treated to a humourous film about an African native with a Coke bottle. It is a classic display of technology being used differently by different cultures. Assuming that the Coke bottle is from a deity above, it was initially very fascinating to the native African tribe. However, the very possession of that bottle soon ushers the tribal population to experience greed, hatred, anger and even violence. My point is, we cannot assume that without training and proper guidance, people in other lands will appreciate the gospel through technology, in the same way we do.

I will write another article on the redemption of technology, and how we can use technology wisely. Comments are welcome.


Friday, April 23, 2010

The Ethical Flip-Flop

Act I - The Invitation
Susan Elliot was happy to receive an invitation to speak at an International Conference. She submitted her CV and was duly confirmed.

Yes, she is going to the conference.

Act II - The 'Miscommunication'
Then come a 'miscommunication.' Due to her hearing impairment, her invitation was rescinded. Her invitation to speak was taken back by the organizers.

No. She is not going to the conference.

She checked again a couple of times. The officials were said to wish her all the best in her future endeavours.

No. She is definitely not going to the conference.

Anthony Mullen found out about this, and wrote an article to highlight this. Many people soon become aghast and upset over the way Miss Elliot was treated.

Act III:  comes the 'misunderstanding.'
The organizers of the conference quickly assembled a message to rescind that rescission.

Miss Elliot accepted the apology. Yes, she is finally going to the conference. See the official MOE apology, that a friend of mine received from the ministry. The speed of that reply indicates that they have received lots of brickbats and made this ready-statement for quick response. That's the power of the Internet!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day (22 Apr 2010)

Today (22 Apr 2010) is Earth Day. Check out this article which contains 25 wasteful things you can do WITHOUT. Those in Canada can look for EarthDay events here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Heart-Warming Story of a Lion

This is a very heart-warming story of a lion named Christian. We need friends. Friends need us. Why not get in touch with someone you have known long ago, to simply say 'Hi.'The message at the ending reads as:

"Love knows no limits and true friendships last a lifetime. Get back in touch with someone today."

Thanks Albert for this.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Francis Chan Leaving Cornerstone Church

I have been listening to Francis Chan's honest and powerful testimonies called "Crazy Love" and "Forgotten God." A senior pastor with a vibrant church in California, he believes that the Church congregation benefits more from a simple reading of Scripture, rather than indulging in complex theological debates and arguments. That aspect has helped Chan to grow the Church he founded into a nationally recognized church with many church plants. Chan himself is a rising star in evangelical circles, thanks to his bestselling books mentioned above.

Just yesterday, he announced to his church that he is not only stepping down from Cornerstone Church, but stepping out as well. The specifics are not out yet, but he is leading by example to venture out where he has never gone before. If you have been following his stories in the books he has written, you will not be surprised at such a decision. Chan is passionate about preaching against lukewarmness and prosperity. He says that Christians need to begin with an awareness of God as an awesome God. Then and only then we can start to live passionately for Christ, and to discard our human tendency toward lukewarm behavior. Prosperity and comfortable living are factors which often prevent Christian people from living out their full potential. Thus, Chan is known to radically invert the giving paradigm. Instead of tithing 10% of income to the Church, Chan is known to have given away 90%. Instead of relaxing in a cushy job, and glittering lights of popularity, he prefers to step down and move ahead in faith.

It will be interesting to note what next steps Chan will be taking. His options are many. It takes a man of faith to distill these many into one main goal that God is calling him to. I think for the modern Church, it is more difficult to choose one from the many, instead of one from none.


Book Review: "The Leadership Pill"

The Leadership Pill: The Missing Ingredient in Motivating People Today
Authors: Ken Blanchard and Marc Muchnick
Published: NY: Free Press, 2003.

The Leadership Pill: The Missing Ingredient in Motivating People TodayThis is an entertaining fable filled with snippets of leadership insights from a master story teller. The main idea is that leadership is not a short-term magical pill to be swallowed, but a long-term sustained discipline to be followed. It contrasts a Leadership Pill (developed by LPI) and a Secret Bland (advocated by an Effective Leader) via an entertaining competitive game. One group is lead by a leader who practically pops pills to get work done. The other group is led by an 'Effective Leader' who spends much time motivating, coaching, mentoring and supporting the team members. So we have the Pill-Full team vs the Pill-Free team.

The judges will measure both teams based on a Triple-Bottom Line, which comprises of being recognized as a 'provider of choice,' 'the employer of choice,' and 'the investment of choice.' (29)

The provider of choice is a measure of how well customers' expectations were met. The 'employer of choice' represents how good is the work morale and team performance. The 'investment of choice' is about financial profitability over the long haul.

The LPI team touted their special pill:
"The Leadership Pill enhances your ability to lead. When you take the Leadership Pill, you become more task-focused and action-oriented. Your ability to direct others and ger results increases. Ultimately, the Leadership Pill works fast, putting you in control as a leader. There's nothing quite like it." (9)

Meanwhile, the Secret Bland promises four components, namely integrity of the leader, partnership of all members of the team, bidirectional affirmation between leader and team members, and continual efforts to perfect these three.

The bulk of the book deals with how the Effective Leader turns a group of unmotivated, skeptical and dismissive people into a highly motivated, hopeful and enthusiastic learners.

My Comments
This book is simple but its ideas are never simplistic. It teaches leadership through an easy fable, using simple formulas such as 'Triple-Bottom Line,' Secret Bland,' as well as catchy snippets of leadership wisdom. It tells the reader the following:

  • There are no shortcuts to good leadership;
  • Trust and respect needs time to develop;
  • Short-term solutions seldom lead to long-term results;
  • Working with people is more an art rather than a science;

Below are three of my favourite quotes:
  • "Leadership is not something that you do to people. It's something you do with people."
  • INTEGRITY: "Leading with integrity means being the person you want others to be."
  • PARTNERSHIP: "The key to effectiv eleadership is the relationship you build with your team."
  • AFFIRMATION: Leadership is the process of getting everyone to the place they are supposed to go."
  • "The highest achievement as a leader is winning the respect and trust of your team."
  • "Profit is the applause you get for taking care of your customers and creating a motivating environment for people." 
Some Reservations
While the story has a predictable end, it is still after all a fable. While the authors view of the Secret Bland appears to be a runaway success, real life is never that successful. There are setbacks that can bring the most optimistic leader to his knees. In some cases, even the best application of the Secret Bland is only something that is internally controlled. What about external factors? What about competitors who have BOTH the secret pill AND the Secret Bland? I guess that is where the helpfulness ends. The main purpose of the book is to jolt short-termers to realize that leadership is an art that needs time, and sustained attention. It is not a scientific formula that can be readily used for immediate success. All leaders will benefit to learn this well.

This book can also be used as a coaching guide.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Did the Geese Cross the Street?

This picture warms my heart. On Sunday after church, at a busy Overland Park street in Kansas, Rene, the wife of my friend, Phillip saw a family of geese struggling to cross the street. Out of a warm and compassionate heart, she got off the car, stopped traffic and motioned the gander family to cross the road safely. My mind was thinking. Over here in Vancouver, especially the West side, it is common practice to stop our cars to let pedestrians cross the street. This is laid-back West coast lifestyle.

My head was musing. Wow. Her kindness and care for people, extends to animals as well.  How many people would have bothered to show such tender care to geese? Uncommon kindness indeed. Well done, Phillip and Rene.


Honesty Costs Golfer the Championship

Will you do everything in order to win first prize? In sports, where prize money and public recognition is in hot demand, the temptation is to do everything, even anything in order to stay ahead of the pack. Today, I am encouraged to read about a golfer who conceded his victory to his competitor by honesty pointing out his faulty golf shot to officials who fail to see it. Brian Davis could have won first prize, but he realized it would have been based on a fault no one else but himself noticed. He took home the runner-up prize, to the bewilderment of the media and the public eye. Who would have done such a thing?

Life is more than simply winning the gold. It is one thing to win at all costs. It is another to win honestly and with integrity. If one wins based on unfair practice, the guilt remains throughout his life. If one honestly admits his own faults, he has personally overcome temptation to let integrity remain intact. He forfeited his chance for a first PGA title, but earned a lot more respect. Brian Davis may have lost the PGA 2010, but he has certainly won many fans. I am one of them.  From what I see, the true winner is Davis himself, and for the sport.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

BC Prayer Breakfast 2010

I was at the BC Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning. Thanks to a brother in Christ who invited me. It was in a word, worthwhile. I was early at the Westin Bayshore, basking in the cool sunshine that blanketed the Stanley Park horizon. At 7am, people in cool business suits start to pour into the Westin conference center. Soon, I felt I stick out like a sore thumb. In contrast to the tuxedos and well-presented suits, I was wearing a simple warm hoodie, and casual pants. Gone were the days where I dress myself up to meet CEOs and executive leaders of businesses. This time, I was caught unprepared. I didn't know that a simple thing like a Prayer breakfast could attract dignitaries like the BC Premier Gordon Campbell, the Mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson, CEOs from reputable businesses in Canada, as well as political leaders from Ottawa and the Opposition. They were seated at the head table in front of us. Among the 1000 over people in the conference room were pockets of newly elected leaders for the province of British Columbia.

I should have known. BC Leadership is exactly that: Leaders in British Columbia Canada. I read the printed program on the table. There was a prayer for each person in the room to pray together. It was about praying for the province and the nation. Straightaway, I noticed that while there was a prayer to God, there was no reference to the other members of the Trinity. I suppose such a prayer will be more palatable to the Unitarians (those who believe in God, but not in the Trinity), the other theistic religions like Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Despite this omission, I think that is still okay. After all, the Prayer breakfast is not just for evangelicals. Even the guy sitting next to me on my table does not attend any church. It is meant to bring community leaders together to pray for a common cause: Leadership in the beautiful province we live in.

The emcee, Glenn Wong did a marvelous job in guiding the whole event. His masterful use of humor lightened the occasion and brought about a warm hearty atmosphere. The keynote speaker, David Bentall, President of Next Step Advisors gave a talk that addresses the needs of leaders in general. Beginning with a rousing flashback to Canada's amazing gold medal game at the recently concluded Olympics, Bentall gave the audience a real treat about "I Believe." He honestly shared his thoughts about the need for 'belief' in order to attain great heights. Yet, at the same time, he was honest about the fickleness and skepticism about whether 'belief' can bring about a positive change always. After all, not all of Canada's 240 plus athletes won a medal at all. Everyone of them claimed to believe, yet only a handful were rewarded with medals. So what exactly ought we to believe in? Warmly, Bentall shared about his business struggles with balance of work and family. He struggled with belief, when he saw that believing does not always work 100%. He experienced disappointment. Only when he is able to see belief in the new perspective, he is able to bring some faith back into "I Believe."

Three Aspects of "I Believe"
1) Believe in Human Relationships: Forgiveness
In forgiveness, he recognized that work can bring a tremendous toll to people with families. His wife nearly walked out on him. Fortunately, he was able to survive his marriage through the willingness to seek forgiveness.

2) Believe in Commitment: First Things First, the Family
Never give up on what one believed in. This is the key that unlocks the potential inside. He talked about his trauma about being retrenched from his top job. Others would have considered suicide at that time. Not him. He knew that life is more than a job. He knew that there are more important things to care for. 

3) Believe in the Future: Do Not Worry
This is such a common disease. There was a reading of Matthew 6:25-27 during the Prayer Breakfast, that speaks to us about worry. Why should we worry about things of the future, especially those that is outside our control. We can only control so much. Why worry about things outside?

My Reflections
Leaders are people who believe in a goal bigger than themselves. In fact, leaders are ordinary people who just have that additional difference: Faith. In order to be a leader, we need to have faith. Faith in something. Faith in following a purpose. For me, it is that faith in God. Without this faith, we will not go. We will not grow.

The talk is a simple one. It needs to be, especially when the audience comprises not only business leaders of old, but budding ones of new. Leaders are called to a higher purpose. They are selected out of a few, to represent the many. They are there to serve, not to be served. In a Prayer breakfast like this, I think it can be a humbling experience to know that amidst the power leaders hold, and the attention they receive, lies a very temptation of pride. In prayer, we put aside such pride that threatens to stumble us. We approach people with humility, knowing that we serve not based on our own abilities or strengths, but utterly dependent on Someone else greater than us. It is not the people of the communities we represent. No matter which way we look, it is God we serve.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Busyness As Usual?

I am starting a series which I call the "Anti-Busyness Campaign." I have not decided how many articles as yet. This will be the first which talks about work.

Here I am again, talking about one of my favourite things to bash. It is the face of busyness. Signs can be intriguing. Sometimes, while construction is going on within part of a shop, the owners will put a prominent sign to tell customers that they are still in business. In other words, despite the ongoing construction, business will be as usual. I want to contend that no matter how we look at the word 'busyness,' it is not the normal state for the human being. In other words, man is not created to be busy 7 days a week.

A) Busyness As Usual?
We live a busy lifestyle. One major factor is survival related. We have bills to be paid. Without a job, one can ill-afford the monthly mortgage for the house, the preferred car or the dream vacation to an exotic destination. We push ourselves to meet the quarterly targets, and to reap our financial rewards. We push ourselves to meet deadlines, and to accomplish an important milestone for a significant business project. We push ourselves to get things done, to stay ahead of the competition that threatens to eat our lunch. We become pushy people. We push the authorities. We push for our voices to be heard. We push others. We push ourselves. Busyness is a continued state of pushing without pausing.

For some, every meeting we attend seems to conclude with a longer than before to-do list. In a culture of cost-cutting and retrenchment, having more things to do, is better than having nothing to do. What is the cost to our inner souls? Can we continue to push and push without harming ourselves inside? Caffeine can only perk us up to some extent. Our bodies are never meant to run non-stop. They are not meant to be in a ‘busy’ mode all the time. In our regime of continual pushing, caffeine perks the mind while tobacco soothes the nerves. Alcohol numbs the worries. Sleep makes us forget our problems, at least for a while. When the alarm sounds in the early morning, the busyness cycle returns, and some of us restart our routines like a headless chicken. Busyness as usual?

Another factor behind our busyness is because of our search for identity, via success. This reminds me of a story of a man who worked his head off in his job, spending so many hours in the office in order to own a nice bungalow, a beautiful car and a large swimming pool. He hires a domestic maid to take care of his property whilst he worked. After calculating the hours, it appears as if his domestic maid spends more time living in the bungalow, polishing his car, and enjoying the garden and swimming pool more than he does. That is quite ironical. The one who owns the properties end up letting others use it. That is so true for people struggling to maintain a vacation home, a time-shared overseas property or a country club membership. When people gets so busy, all these rewards seem to go to somebody else. Perhaps, the satisfaction behind the hard work is the ‘thought of owning,’ not the actual using of the assets concerned. The writer of Proverbs reminds us to pursue wisdom. Otherwise, all of our hard-earned efforts and results will be given to someone else who did not even work for it. We cannot retain our possessions forever. However, we can share our wisdom, and allow our wisdom to guide us in our quest for success.

B) Idolatry Becomes Work
Some of my readers will be quick to point out that nothing is new. Everyone knows we live in a busy lifestyle. So what is new? That is true. There is nothing new in saying we are smack right in the middle of a busy society, where busyness is the norm, and unbusy is unthinkable. My question goes beyond the recognition of busyness. It is summed up:

What are we going to do about it?

Yes, we all know we are busy, but what active steps can we take to address this? Unless of course we are all too happy being busy now and empty later. What about a rhythm of intentional busyness and purposeful unbusyness? The writer of Ecclesiastes calls the reader to wisdom, that there is a time for everything.  Robert Levine, in The Geography of Busyness describes busyness as essentially having two parts. The first part is the activity itself. The second part is the speed of doing that activity. These two components form the ultimate subjective feeling of feeling important because of our activities, and because of our SPEED in accomplishing such activities. In other words, the reason for busyness is the way it makes us feel important.

The trouble is due to our over-emphasis on good works. One good deed leads to many more. We sometimes forget that the key to good works is not the work per se, but the 'good' a person has that is lived out via good works. In other words, it is because of the good in us, before we can authentically do the good works. If we fail to let our hearts be in sync with our hands, we will feel dissatisfied, no matter how altruistic our works are.

Soon all that remains is a busy person frantically working in such a way that work itself becomes a god. When work becomes an idol, busyness is simply another way of justifying our worship of work. We work the activities as if our whole life depends on them. We work hard so that we find a sense of fulfillment. We work feverishly as if our identities depended on it. That is why when unemployment climbs, depression and identity crisis situations climb as well. However, all is not lost. We have wisdom from the Bible.

C) Toward A Rest Day of UN-busyness
The Word of the LORD has a unique prescription for mankind. It is enshrined in the Ten Commandments.

"Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” (Exod 34:21)

The Sabbath is one way to halt our own factory that manufactures idolatry of work. Once a week, we do something different. Once a week, we say to the work-idol, ‘I do not need you to define me who I am.” Once a week, we proclaim again, that we live not to work, but to worship God. Once Martin Luther had a friend called Melanchthon. They regularly have debates and discussions over theology and the wonderful things of God. On the Sabbath, Melanchthon was eager to continue his discussion of how God governs the Universe. Instead of agreeing, Luther tells Melanchthon that he is more interested in fishing, and to let God deal with the governance.

It is important to set limits even to the things we enjoy doing. Once a week is a good start. Do something different. It will bring a much-needed respite from a busy world, using ‘busyness as usual’ as a cloak to mold into a workhorse, that knows how to work, but not know how to rest.
The really idle man gets nowhere. The perpetually busy man does not get much further." (Sir Heneage Ogilvie, British Physician, 1887-1971)
Indeed, work can be an idol. It feeds on busyness. It makes us feel important in a false sense. Thus we need to regularly take stock of our lives.  The Sabbath will bring some sensibilities to our culture that worships "Busyness As Usual."


Thought: Are we defining ourselves based on the activities we do, or are our activities based on our identity in Christ?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Sad Bye: No National Day of Prayer

This is a sad development. President Obama has canceled the traditional National Day of Prayer in the White House. In stark contrast to the past first Thursday every May, this year is a year where there will be no official day of prayer at the office of the President. So on the 6th of May 2010, the White House will not be bowing their heads, officially, that is. If the leader of the White House is not going to lead by example, does he expect others to follow? Even if the proclamation of the Day of Prayer will continue, his very non-observance of a significant day of prayer inside the White House is already of some concern.

By canceling this significant event beginning with his own office, Obama is sending a message that his change campaign is not done yet. There are still more sacred cows that need to be slaughtered, and he is going to embark on this aggressively and non-apologetically.

Three Reasons Why This is Wrong
Unfortunately, I think this time, he has made a wrong step. It reflects an attitude that bases its foundation on humanism, which in its essence imperfect and sinful. As a leader of the most powerful nation in the world, he is sending a message that his country has better things to do than to pray. He is telling the atheists that it is their time to be heard. He is telling the religious groups that his government is a secular government, and does not need to hang on to religious practices. I have three problems with his decision to cancel this significant day of prayer. This is despite the huge, enthusiastic preparation for that day. See this site. According to the history,

"The National Day of Prayer is a vital part of our heritage. Since the first call to prayer in 1775, when the Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation, the call to prayer has continued through our history, including President Lincoln’s proclamation of a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863. In 1952, a joint resolution by Congress, signed by President Truman, declared an annual, national day of prayer. In 1988, the law was amended and signed by President Reagan, permanently setting the day as the first Thursday of every May. Each year, the president signs a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day. Last year, all 50 state governors plus the governors of several U.S. territories signed similar proclamations." (NationalDayOfPrayer History)

Firstly, it removes one more item in the long process of remembering the tradition of the ancestors. The National Day of Prayer has a long history. History is important, more so especially in a society that is increasingly run by technology and techniques. According to Neil Postman, if we do not know our past such as history, instead of man controlling technology, technology may control man instead.

"I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The "forum" that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it." (Neil Postman, Technopoly)

Secondly, it is an erosion of an identity of a nation. The moment anybody forgets their roots, it is the beginning of an end. When any people group do not expressly believe in something, the alternative is worse: they believe in anything.
"Because of the faith of many of our founding fathers, public prayer and national days of prayer have a long-standing and significant history in American tradition. The Supreme Court affirmed the right of state legislatures to open their sessions with prayer in Marsh vs. Chambers (1983)." (National Day of Prayer History)

For a quick understanding of this matter of identity, imagine children taking on different lastnames or surnames from the parents. Without a family name, the kids are on their own as far as their ancestry is concerned. A 'Smith' gives birth to an 'Anderson.' A 'Lee' gives birth to a 'Ho.' A 'Subramaniam gives birth to a 'Swaminathan.' Any relation, any remembrance is limited to the memory banks of the computer system. Our society is already challenged with identity crises at different points of one's life. We do not need to throw another monkey wrench into the works.

Thirdly, the National Day of Prayer is a day to remember our limitations of humanity. It is a day to remain humble, and avoid shaking our fists at others to say that we can do it ourselves. Our society's infatuation over increasing self independence are increasing the problems of society at large. Excessive independence breeds unhealthy individualism. Unhealthy individualism breeds loneliness. Loneliness breeds indifference. Indifference destroys the fabric of community building. It is when we come together to pray, we recognize that not only we need the help of a Higher Power, we need one another.

It is not just the recognition of the importance of religion that matters. It is a recognition that man alone cannot help themselves. They too depend on Someone beyond themselves.When any people group believes in nothing, they believe in everything. Is this the beginning of the end of America?

Do Not Fret
So, is there any hope? Is there anything positive to take from here? I do not think we need to fret too much. At this time of writing, there are gathering of people all over the world. If the American government does not want to continue a National Day of Prayer, this should not prevent religious institutions and groups from holding their own prayer houses and prayer gatherings. Maybe, without an officially sanctioned day of prayer, religious groups can sieve out those who WANT to pray, from those who simply felt FORCED to pray.

If we believe that God is higher than any legislation, we need not worry. We ought to continue to speak up and urge for the reinstatement of the National Day of Prayer, for reasons of history, identity and humility among other good reasons. We ought to continue to avoid becoming so critical of Obama's decision that we cannot pray. Most importantly, we must not stop praying. Maybe, it is indeed a more pressing moment to pray for our leaders. May Americans pray for their leaders, especially those in the White House.

May leaders lead by example.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Another Video Bites the Dust (On Dr Bruce Waltke's Resignation from RTS)

It begins as a video, stirs up controversies all around, which ultimately leads to one esteemed Professor resigning from his seminary. Dr Bruce Waltke, on the 6th April 2010, resigned from Reformed Theological Seminary after his views on Theistic Evolution put RTS in hot soup. On the surface, it seems to be that Dr Waltke is urging the Church to accept evolution. Yet, on closer examination, it is more a problem with technology rather than theology. Let me explain.

1) Beginning: The Background
Dr Bruce Waltke is a world renowned scholar Old Testament scholar. With a prestigious doctorate from Harvard, and a respected Old Testament expert, he consented to an interview with Biologos, to share about his ideas on creation, science and evolution from a biblical perspective. With thorough explanation through biblical exegesis and Old Testament theology, Waltke affirms that it is 'possible' for Christians to accept evolution without compromising the Christian faith. In trying to make sense of God's Word in the light of science and faith, Waltke attempts to engage science from the angle of faith. In doing so, a video was made and released on the website at BioLogos. No one was expecting this little video (technology) to boil over to multiple interpretations and reporting of the issue (blogging, Internet), which led to an 'embarrassment' to the institute that employs Dr Waltke.

2) The Controversy
On April 6th, 2010, Reformed Theological Seminary announces farewell to three faculty members, one of whom was Dr Bruce Waltke. The official word is that Waltke has resigned from the Orlando campus. With such a famous name at stake, the Internet rapidly picks up on this news and all kinds of viewpoints spread like wildfire. It caught the attention of theologians such as Dr John Stackhouse and Dr Ross Hastings, both colleagues of Dr Waltke at Regent-College. You can follow some rather passionate arguments from different parties at the comment section of Dr Stackhouse's blog. Christian media like ChristianityToday has also picked up on this, as well as public media such as USAToday. The blogmosphere is filled with all kinds of reporting and opinions, including my little blog here. Some notable ones are at Henry's Web, JDKirk, Brandon Withrow, and Dr Robert Cargill. There has been talk about whether Dr Waltke was forced to resign or does it on his own accord. Anyway, it seems like the bigger controversy is not the theology, but how the technology is being used to handle theological differences.

3) The Revelation 
From day one, the Internet has the potential to provide both information as well as misinformation. Given the spread and ease of information distribution electronically, it is important for us to be wise and discerning on the use of information. Right use leads to enlightened minds and grateful hearts. Abuse leads to unhealthy controversies and bitter arguments. If we can engage one another not with bigoted views but open minds, it will be very educational for all of us. I believe that when controversies occur, even though we cannot stop it, at least let us learn from it. Let the different groups try their best to articulate their ideas. Let them have the benefit of the doubt that they are honestly and earnestly trying to be faithful to the Word of God, according to their gifts. The one with the final say is not them. Neither is it us. It is God. For lack of a direct access to the actual circumstances surrounding the Waltke Resignation from RTS, I think it is important for Internet users to stay with the official statements. With that, Justin Taylor has helpfully given us the open letters from Dr Waltke and the Reformed Theological Seminary to try to clarify what actually happened.

See Waltke's words:
"As noted, I did not have a chance to vet the video. How would I have edited it?"
Information is useful, but it can also lead to misuse. Like sugar, if we take too much of it, it can lead us dangerously toward diabetes. Same with information. With this note, I respectfully urge all Internet users and Christians online to respect Dr Waltke AND RTS for their positions taken and leave them as that. If there is any desire to debate theistic evolution, creationism or all kinds of theologies surrounding evolution or creation, let them continue at the level of ideas, not people, not institution, and especially not use arguments as ammunition to hurt and divide the Church. In other words, the technology, the video has caused in a major way lead to a prominent resignation, and has distracted RTS from their work. For those of us who are concerned about theology, let us also maintain a tight leash on the technology that is used to spread the theology. May God's wisdom and discernment prevail in a climate of peace and love.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book: "Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow"

Title: Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow
Author: Nancy Guthrie
Published: Tyndale, 2009

"In times of deep sorrow and disappointment, everything we believe can be called into question." (xv-xvi)

How true this statement is. This book is written by a mother of two deceased young children, Hope and Gabriel, to a genetical disease. Written as part journal, part struggle, and part sharing of insights, it invites the readers to learn that Jesus is the Ultimate companion in our suffering. Using 11 phrases of Jesus, Guthrie honestly and earnestly lets her own struggles with these 11 difficult statements become statements that let Jesus comes into her life. Each chapter describes one insight, with brilliant juxtaposition of her questions and insights. Each chapter ends with a revealing perspective from Jesus. The book concludes with a helpful discussion for groups.

All in all, this book should provide a great comfort and companion to people going through pain and suffering.

My Comments
This is a deeply honest book. It does not mince emotions. It takes a suffering person, to understand a little more of the Suffering Christ. This is exactly what has happened as I read through the book. I find myself being moved from self toward Jesus; more willing to live with unanswered questions instead of hastily assembled answers; more able to appreciate the presence of Christ, over and above the availability of solutions. In a world filled with Do-It-Yourself manuals, technique driven stuff and solutions seeking problems, Guthrie's personal odyssey of pain and loss of her two children renders such solution-based literature shallow. As I reflect, after reading this book, I think of three things.

  1. Jesus has suffered more than anyone on this earth. Our sufferings only give us a glimpse of what Jesus has gone through. 
  2. When we seek God to find meaning about our pain and disappointment, we find next to us, not a solution but a Person. 
  3. Some of the most profound truths in life, cannot be understood but felt and experienced. Then and only then, can we hear Jesus speak. 
This is an appropriate book to read and to pray with, for people undergoing pain at difficult points of their lives. Filled with prayers, with insights from Scriptures, and an authentic oscillation of faith and doubt, the author guides the reader through the journey of pain and suffering. It can be heavy going at times, but once you have ventured through it, you will come out stronger and more trusting of Jesus, our Friend and our Guide.

Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5.


Friday, April 09, 2010

Book: Chaotics

Title: "Chaotics - the business of managing and marketing in the Age of Turbulence"
Authors: Philip Kotler and John A Caslione
Published: NY: Amacom, 2009, (208pp).

This is an updated business book for the new age of turbulence and uncertainty. Marketing guru, Philip Kotler, most famous for his marketing classic, "Marketing Management," has updated and applied marketing concepts for the new environment. Taking a leaf from Alan Greenspan's voluminous work (The Age of Turbulence), the authors assumed turbulence, rather than questioning it. Essentially, the authors seek to call businesses to recognize the age of turbulence as the 'new normal.' They urge businesses to exchange old paradigms for new ones. They propose a new system called the 'Chaotics Management System.' In this system, the authors teach the need for 3 Rs:
  • Responsive to the 'new normal;'
  • Robustness of their responses and strategies, designed toward tackling the challenges of a rapidly changing environment;
  • Resilience of the business organizations.
A) The New Normal
In a passionate plea for companies to recognize that turbulence and uncertainty is going to be the 'new normal,' the authors argue convincingly that old strategies are unhelpful, even fatal. Economic cycles are no longer present. Booms and recessions are no longer predictable. Potential losses are high. More investors are becoming more cautious and risk averse. Customers are increasingly insecure and they prefer options that enable safety and security. The authors further comb the landscape and identify the factors that lead to chaotic situations. Factors like:
  • Technological advances and Information Revolution;
  • Disruptive technologies and innovations
  • Impact from the small guys
  • 'Hypercompetition' that makes competitive advantage unsustainable
  • Sovereign wealth funds
  • Social concernsand,
  • customer empowerment.
B) The Chaotics Management System
This model is specifically geared toward managing vulnerability inside, and maximizing the use of opportunities outside. There will be chaos and companies must do more than simply recognizing it. They need to make decisive strategic plans and steer the company with focus and resilience. The authors put it very well:

"Today and into the future, it may not be as critical to ask what businesses own and produce as it is to ask about their ability to detect turbulence, anticipate chaos, and manage risjs. Identifying and managing risk is far from straightforward. Constructing scenarios and strategies to deal with anticipated risks, and conversely, exploiting opportunities, requires business leaders to instill new strategic behaviors and disciplines in the organization. . . . . And when these new and necessary behaviors are instilled in the daily decision-making processes, it creates a momentum and a culture that systematically overcomes turbulence's chaos and routinely beats the competition. Such companies will succeed in the Age of Turbulence, despite the turbulent gale-force winds blowing forcefully against them." (100)
In a nutshell, the CMS proposes the following
  • When approaching turbulence, be prepared to change organizational behavior;
  • In confronting turbulence, broaden one's strategic resources rather than blindly cutting resources across the board;
  • When coming out of turbulence, maintain a steady stream of focus, to pick up speed when necessary.
My Comments
At one look, the reader may be tempted to dismiss Kotler and Caslione for adding fuel to the fire of panic. I will hesitate to do that. I think the book does exceptionally well to remind all that 'the new normal' has come. We must not behave like ostriches that stick our heads into the sand of old thinking and archaic paradigms, while the world screams for a wise response. If one does not embrace the opportunity, it could mean the end of one's business. I like the way the authors instill the idea of change that is broad-based throughout the organization. With attention to detail, the authors apply the strategy to all parts of the company, like Human Resources, Marketing, Sales, Technology, Management teams etc. This represents a desire to build resilience to all parts of the organization. The points brought up are easy to understand and should provide fodder to stimulate thinking rather than supplying ready made answers. Strategic management is never one that can be canned like processed food for consumption. It involves hard work and a clear recognition of the culture and identity of the company's mission and vision.

However, my main gripe is that it is still very North American focused. One can argue that it is primarily written for the American audience. Though there are some references to international matters, I think this American-centric presentation will limit the usefulness of the book at an international level. Moreover, this book will be less impactful due to the limited examples, compared to the classic 'Marketing Management' which contains frequent illustrations and anecdotes of real businesses.

I guess, this is because of the nature of the 'new normal,' we cannot rely too much on examples as they would have become irrelevant by the time the book is printed. Sigh. Welcome to the new normal.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

Book Review: "There is a God" (Anthony Flew)

Title: There is a God (how the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind)
Author: Anthony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese
Published: HarperOne, 2007, (222 pages).

This book has atheists all up in arms against one of their foremost champions of atheism. In a remarkable turnaround in 2004, the British philosopher, Anthony Flew, turned from atheism and embraced Christianity. This comes about simply because of his shift of assumptions. Instead of waiting for proofs of God as his primary stance before belief, he decides to adopt the evidence against God attitude to deter his belief. It is like taking the position that God exists until He is proven otherwise. Written in two parts, the first part of the book contains three summary chapters of why he was an atheist for so many years. In fact, it was his paper, 'Theology and Falsification' that first propelled Flew to worldwide fame. He was frequently cited as a top advocate for atheistic thinking. In a remarkable testimony of his conversion, he describes himself as a person who has progressed from 'Denial of the Divine' to 'Discovery of the Divine.' He attributes this conversion to 3 key points.

Main Ideas in the Book
Philosophically, Flew reasons that
  1. The Universe came into being because of an Intelligent Creator;
  2. The laws of the Universe reflects a Higher Mind, called the Mind of God;
  3. Life and Reproduction is designed by a Divine Source.
Scientifically, Flew explains the three ways science points to the existence of God:
  1. 'Nature obeys laws' 
  2. The universe is intelligently organized and has 'purpose-driven beings.'
  3. The very existence of nature explains the presence of God.
On the point of suffering and evil. He argues that this perennial sticking point against the existence of God is not exactly a proof against a Divine God. In itself, they cannot be used to deny the existence of God. They can only manifest the presence and man's awareness of the existence of evil.

Against his former group of atheist friends, he pleads with them to answer the simple central question:
"What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a Superior Mind?" (88)

He criticizes the 'New Atheism' and the antics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for promoting another version of fundamentalism, that sinks in a 'denying God unless otherwise' as an illogical and bigoted assumption.

Part I - My Denial of the Divine
The son of a Methodist preacher, Anthony Flew was a reluctant religious person when he was young. As a result, he begins with a denial point of view, and uses that to see everything, especially Christianity. He believes in following the 'argument wherever it may lead me.' (56) He takes part in meetings organized by CS Lewis's Socratic Club. He admits that his journey into atheism begins with a 'presumption of atheism' which assumes the denial of God as the first premise (53). With his brilliant mind, Flew was able to strongly argue for atheism and gained a sizable following for his debates. He begins to soften his stand when he acknowledges that atheism cannot disprove or explain the existence of the intelligence happening in the world. In a criticism of Richard Dawkins' 'selfish gene' thesis, Flew writes:

"If any of this were true, it would be no use to go on, as Dawkins does, to preach: 'Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.'" (80)

Moreover, if the selfish gene is true, Dawkins' philosophy describes a process of natural selection as 'elimination' rather than 'production.' While Dawkins's process seeks to eliminate and deny, he allows such a philosophy to eliminate and deny the existence of God, without adequate proofs!

Part II -My Discovery of the Divine
Seven chapters of the book is allocated to outline Flew's conversion experience. When one is a philosopher, one ought to think as a philosopher. When one is a scientist, one thinks as a scientist. Of course, a philosopher can think scientifically, and a scientist can think philosophically. Both however, needs wisdom, and this wisdom has to be from Somewhere, or from Someone. The seven chapters seem to be a submission to the existence of God, instead of fighting against it.

My Comments
This book will certainly be an embarrassment to atheists. Some of them will predictably distance themselves from Anthony Flew, and accuse Flew of senile and unstable age. Some even accuses the co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese of using the name of Anthony Flew to disprove atheism.

Such accusations are incredulous. Will a well-known philosopher be easily manipulated? Will it also be possible that given time to reflect and a rich history to make sense of, that Anthony Flew has finally attained a level of wisdom that he has never before discovered? Didn't he suggest a posture of being willing to listen and be open to the existence of God?

This is a commendable book. It goes through the mind of an atheist, and diligently engages the questions and many legitimate puzzles of life from both fronts, a belief and an unbelief perspective. The Appendices provide a powerful re-statement of Flew's theistic arguments as well as a re-statement of the core tenets of the Christian faith. In particular, NT Wright's treatise on the Resurrection is in itself worth the price of the book.

I get a sense that Anthony Flew's conversion is still somewhat more deistic rather than theistic.  The former means that God is a distant clock-maker, uninterested in the happenings in this world. The latter reflects a personal God. Anyway, Flew's decision to embrace the existence of God is something that we can all learn from. It is a reasonable challenge not to let the atheists get away with everything they want to say. Scientists and philosophers alike need to let the evidence guide them. More importantly, they need to recognize that their faith and beliefs are the ones usually the key to helping them interpret these evidence.  For those of us who embraces God, we have something even better: Wisdom from above, through Jesus.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Book-"Free of Charge" (Miroslav Volf)

Title: Free of Charge
Author: Miroslav Volf
Published: Zondervan, 2005 (247pp).

We all like free things. However, many of us struggle with giving things away for free. Even more difficult is the willingness to practice ‘giving’ and ‘forgiving’ in a culture of ungrace. However, in God, this is possible. This is in essence the point of the book. We need to give and forgive. We need to sustain it with an environment, and we cannot do it on our own. We need one another and above all, we need God.

Beginning with a description of a personal encounter with an American traffic cop, Volf highlights the alarming culture that is ‘stripped of grace.’ His antidote: Giving and Forgiving to be given and received freely. I read this book not simply to see examples and acts of giving and forgiving. ‘Giving and forgiving can be done very quickly. Doing it consistently is not so, especially in a culture that is selfish and lack the grace everybody wants.

In part One of the book, Volf deals with the subject of giving, starting from God as the foundation of giving. Firstly, the idols of ungrace must be broken. Then we need to learn to adopt a disposition of recognizing the knowledge of God. Finally, we ‘look in the right places with a ready heart,’ with an attitude of readiness to receive the expected and unexpected. In a nutshell, this dependence on God is a theological statement that we cannot become givers on our own strength. We need God to give us ‘new birth’ first (120). True giving involves a ‘triangle’ of giver, receiver and God. It is only in God when we know when to give and when to receive. Without God, we fail to discern what, where, when, who and how to give or receive.

Volf lists four ways in which we can give:
1) Give according to our talents
2) Give according to the fruit of the Spirit in us
3) Give according to the hope we have;
4) Give according to the need to sustain a community of giving.

Before entering Part Two, Volf highlights the immense difficulty of moving toward a culture of forgiving. We live in a culture of assuming revenge as the norm. We easily blame others for the ills of society. We then endure helplessly the effects of retaliation and injustice. These are the ways of the world. There are the effects of a fallen world. Volf brings us back to God as the Forgiver. In ‘How Should We Forgive?’ he maps out the way toward true forgiveness:

Revenge corresponds to illicit taking, the demand for justice corresponds to legitimate acquiring, and forgiving roughly corresponds to generous giving.” (158)

Instead of revenge, consider justice. Instead of dwelling in justice, think forgiveness. Forgiveness, restores, reconciles and gives all a chance to repent. I take delight in learning about one forgiving, that leads to two victories. The act of forgiving is the first victory. The fruit of forgiveness is the second victory. Ultimately, both go toward honouring God.
For instance, in the United States, we live in an increasingly litigious culture. It hasn’t always been that way; we’ve become such a culture. There are many reasons for that, which I don’t need to explore here. But once a culture has become litigious, forgiveness starts making less and less sense. We can still hold onto forgiveness on our own, but we are then swimming against the stream. We start questioning our commitment to it and often give up. To forgive, we need an environment in which forgiveness is valued and nurtured.” (212)
My Comments
I will add that we all need to build an environment of ‘giving’ and ‘forgiving.’ Starting with outselves, let us contribute toward toward developing ourselves to become ‘givers’ and ‘forgivers.’ Do not simply pat ourselves on the back once we do one act of giving or two instances of forgiving. Do it often. Do it regularly. Do it.  We need to create an environment that encourages giving and forgiving. May I encourage the Church to begin one, wherever they are.

Book Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Book: "Reconcilable Differences" - 7 tips to keep marriages together

TITLE: Reconcilable Differences - 7 essential tips to remaining together from a top matrimonial lawyer
AUTHOR: Robert Stephan Cohen
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster, 2002, (223 pages)

This is a strange book. Written by a 'top' divorce lawyer, who himself is a divorcee, it tries to suggest 7 ways in which couples can avoid walking the path of divorce. The book is arranged in terms of 7 'reconcilable differences.'  Below are some of my brief notes on his seven tips.

THE PROBLEM: Many couples live parallel lives that do not intersect. Thus, they grow further apart as they become caught up with their careers and their other pursuits. As a result, four things happen. Firstly, couples spend less time together. Secondly, they start taking each other for granted. Thirdly, they start talking less, having less things to talk about as well. Fourthly, there are lesser common ground.

THE WORSE WAY: The problems worsens as couples start blaming each other. Otherwise, they ignore the problem. They start to accept boredom in their marriages. They belittle each other. They compromise their personal identity.

THE BETTER WAY: Schedule time to work out differences. Start with little gestures that are subtle but important. Renew vows over and over again everyday. Do a role reversal in order to understand one another's perspective. Return back to the time when it was 'just the 2 of us.'

Monday, April 05, 2010

Book Review: "The Noticer"

Title: The Noticer
Author: Andy Andrews
Published: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

The subtitle of the book says it all: "sometimes, all a person needs is a little perspective." This is a book about change. It is an easy read, but the lessons contained within them require time to take effect. Change is never immediate, though the decision to change is. Written in a narrative format, seen from the eyes of an observer, Andy sees how one person called Jones positively brings back into perspective the various people at difficult points of their lives.

In begins with Andy's personal encounter with this mysterious old man called Jones.  With a remarkable ability to observe the ordinary, Jones seem to know every person by name. He calls Andy by name, and teaches him the art of 'focus,' and to bring a new perspective to meaning in life. For whatever one focuses on, it will incidentally increase.

Then there is a troubling marriage between Barry and Jan. Jones not only played the role of the mediator, he guides them through the 'dialects of love,' much like the Five Love Languages first popularized by Dr Gary Chapman. Next Jones touches the life of Walker Miles, who was on the brink of ending his life. Jones gently guides him not to let history control his future. The next lesson (chapter 5) deals with another marriage issue. Using wisdom as a guide, Jones defines wisdom as:

"the ability to see, into the future, the consequences of your choices in the present." (65)

Three friends, Ritchie, Caroline and Amelia were pointed toward a new perspective of being able to see the future, through believing that true friends and family have been placed on one's life for a reason to gain perspective. One should pay attention to such personal treasures.

With many other stories of lives changed to a better perspective, finally Jones mysteriously disappears the same way as he appears. He leaves behind his familiar looking brown suitcase. After looking in vain for the old man, the grateful ones gathered one day in a coffee shop to ponder and see what is inside the suitcase. In it contains lessons for the people to share the good that they have received from Jones.

My Comments
This is a simple but fascinating book of stories. It is weaved together artfully, without being condescending. The central character, Jones looks like a type of Christ, who happens to know each and every name, and their problems and challenges faced. Through some insightful questioning and pointed comments, lives were changed for the better. Indeed, sometimes even in the darkest moments of life, we may not have all the money and resources in the world, nor the power to change the world. All we really need is a little perspective. Nothing else.

This ability to shine a little perspective into the difficult challenges of life makes this book a worthwhile read and a necessary purchase.

My Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Believing is Seeing

Yesterday was Easter Sunday. As a Church, we celebrate the Resurrection of our Beloved Lord Jesus. It is a time of celebration and remembrance of how Jesus overcome death. It is symbolic of Jesus proving that what He has said, He will do. In my regular Sunday Bible gathering, we have a good discussion surrounding the sermon topic: "The Road to Easter." I list the five key ideas outlined in the sermon:

1) Jesus Makes Sense of Things;

2) Jesus Waits for the Invite;

3) Jesus is Present in the everyday;

4) Jesus Needs to be shared;

5) Jesus Brings Hope to the Hopeless.

As I probe the group with questions about how the disciples felt during the moments right up to the resurrection, there are common feelings of disappointment and sadness. The fifth point about Jesus bringing hope to the hopeless comes as very comforting. The first point about 'making sense' encourages us to keep feeding upon the Word of God, and wait for the Spirit to illumine its truths according to God's perfect timing. I talk about Jesus meeting us at our respective points and phases in life. As I recall the sharing, some comment that it is not possible for us to even understand the mood of the disciples at that time. I agree.  Others talk about the will of God, and about God journeying with us in our ups and downs. I remind them that asking to know God's will is a two-pronged request: to know as well as the strength to obey.
Spiritual Eyesight 
One particular insight was particularly interesting for me. It is about spiritual eyesight. Our Christian lives ought to be more of "Believing is Seeing," rather than "Seeing is Believing."

As I think about this insight, I cannot agree more. Faith is our spiritual eyesight. Faith marks the uniqueness of our journey. Faith is believing first, question later. For the Christian, we use faith to see the world with new eyes. Like the writer of Hebrews who say:

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for." (Hebrews 11:1-2)

I remember CS Lewis's words about 'believing is seeing.'

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

(C.S. Lewis, "Is Theology Poetry?" in The Weight of Glory and other Addresses, New York: Harper Collins publishers, 1980, p140)

By faith, we learn to see everything else. In fact, one way in which we can understand believing-is-seeing, is to ask what is the other alternative. What if there is no Jesus? What if there is no Resurrection? What if there is nothing we can believe in? What if we can only believe when we see with our own eyes?

Then the alternative is far more depressing. It is like saying that because I do not see with my own eyes how I was born, I deny that my parents are my true parents. It is like saying that because I do not see how milk is produced, I do not believe that the process is taint-free. If I do not see with my own eyes, that my friends do exactly what they promised to do, I do not believe them. These alternatives signals the beginning of suspicion, ending with a distrust of everything and everyone I see. These alternatives are worse, preferring to see the worst in people instead of learning to give others the benefit of the doubt. It is like saying one is guilty until proven innocent. Living in a world of suspicion kills relationships. Faith is less an intellectual debate but an attitude of trust.

Dealing with Moods that Fluctuates
Another of Lewis's understanding of faith is also worth reflecting upon.

"Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods 'where they get off,' you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habits of Faith." (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Bingo! Lewis hits the mark. Faith is not simply connecting the intellect with Truth. It connects the whole person to embrace the Truth, to see God for Who God is. Knowing that our limited eyesight can only see certain aspects of Truth, we need to let Faith guide our eyes the rest of the way. It is in moments of utter weakness and full awareness of our limited capabilities that Faith helps us appreciate the ultimate Strength and perfect understanding of God. Such attempts are never the tendencies of the natural mind. Our minds are too fallible. Our hearts are too fickle. Our souls are too fragile. None of us has moods that remain on a spiritual high all the time. Neither can we bemoan our lows constantly. If you are like me, our normal moods reflect a more up and down swing. Yet, believing-is-seeing does a remarkable job in steering our ship through waters of all conditions. It maintains. It directs. It stabilizes.

In a world that prefers to see before believing, let us who profess faith in Christ, adopt believing-is-seeing. Through suspicion, we put our ownselves on the throne. Through faith, we let Christ take the throne.


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