Sunday, 13 August 2017

A strange wish an angel granted me.

I dreamt that an angel appeared to me one day to grant me a wish. He told me that I could have whatever I wanted, riches, power and fame. He said to just name it and claim it.

But silly me, I didn't ask for all that. I didn't ask for things that were external to me. I thought neither riches nor fame would last. I thought they would demand more from me than I could afford to give in the long haul.

Yet, to the world, I look silly, right? I mean, who in this world doesn't need more money, more attention, more affection, and more power to enlarge one’s circle of influence? I guess I wasn't thinking straight. Maybe I was too dumbstruck by the moment to think logically or in practical terms.

So, I told the angel I only wanted one thing and it was a strange thing. It was strange because I don't think any ordinary person would have wasted a precious wish on it.

I told the angel that for one day, I wanted to not be a Christian as it was understood in the world today. It was a strange request, I know, but I actually asked it.

Even the angel was surprised. I recalled that he asked me thrice whether I was sure about it, and I nodded.

"Very well," the angel said. "A wish is a wish, though a strange wish."

And in that dream, I got my wish. For one day, I was not a Christian.  

I was therefore free from that label, and didn't have to pretend that I knew everything. For that one day, I started to welcome doubts back into my life without guilt. I was free to question faith, hope and even God. Nothing was off limits for me.

Like a child, I began to explore my boundaries, pushing the envelop of my belief, passionately curious about everything. I was inquisitive again, this time with a fire that I could not quench. And I felt alive, renewed, even refreshed.

When asked about the pressing issues of the faith, I was free to tell people that I don't know without feeling ashamed, inadequate or helpless. Neither was I expected to know them since I was not a Christian for that day, remember?

So, I told them that I do not know why God allow gratuitous suffering. I do not know why God did not intervene when a child was inhumanely violated. Or why evil sometimes goes unpunished in this world, even living in opulence, and seemingly being protected from the short reach of retributive justice.

Or why loved ones die young, why the righteous on earth suffer under the hands of the unrighteous, and why the clergymen we respected most lived their life no different from the people we respected least. 

The whys could go on and on and on...

No doubt I could speculate, conjecture or suggest a plausible explanation for all that. But at the end of the day, and I only have one day before the wish wears off, I really do not know the answer. And I didn't feel compelled to answer them so as to give the impression that I should or ought to have known. I don't need to be cocksure about it anymore. At least on that, I was free.

Maybe Socrates was right after all. He once said that he was wiser than everyone else because he knew that he didn't know.

Am I then becoming wiser by acknowledging the extent of my ignorance? Mind you, not any kind of ignorance, but an educated ignorance.

Mm...maybe this wish is not that strange after all.

As the hours passed in that day, I also realized that there was another freedom I felt bubbling within my spirit. It was the freedom to accept reality as they are, as they present themselves to me. I felt no compulsion to idealize the faith like a Christian would often do in order to psyche themselves up to irrational exuberance of some sorts (As an aside, I recall here that Bonhoeffer once said that when we love the vision of community we effectively destroy it. Just love the people within the community and you will grow with them).

This means that I didn’t see the need to tell others that God only wants to prosper them, bless them and enrich their estate and then feeling fake about it later on. Thankfully, I can dispense with all that. I can accept my station in life, as the day presents itself and savor it for what it is or what it brings – the  positive and the negative, all of which works out for the good.

In other words, for that one day, I don't have to put words into God's mouth and pretend that God's will for every believer - without exception - is the same, undifferentiated and unchanging - as if God is one-dimensional. If God deals with each of us differently, at different seasons of our life, then his plans cannot be like factory outlet production – standard, mass produced, uniform right?

Anyway, who am I to tell them that having faith means they will eventually become rich, problem-free and sailing through life? Or who am I to pretend that God's will in their life is to see to it that their life will be one about earthly promotions and accumulated wealth at every turn of their Christian journey? 

I recall here that Reinhold Niebuhr once said that "man is his own most vexing problem", and I guess the issue with us as believers is our deluded hope that serving Him, attending church, and giving to the ministry means that we have done our part, and God will then do His part to build a hedge of protection over our life and shower blessings like raining rose petals in our Christian walk.

In any event, is our faith to be reduced into this simplistic equation - a life of religious devotion in return for a life of assured prosperity and successes?

If that were so, we can then expect most believers, and there are about 2 billion of them altogether, to naturally and progressively rise to join the top 10 percent of society, living in large exclusive estates and till a ripe old age.

Surely, a Christian life is more than that right?

Unfortunately, and most obviously, this is not the reality we are living in, and I am not expected to tell that to every believer I meet the way prosperity preachers dish it out to their congregation with such guiltless pleasure.

And for as long as my wish subsists for that day, I am also not obliged to squeeze one scriptural elephant after another into the reality-of-life fridge by telling every believers quite unwittingly that "God's plan is to prosper them", that "He was made poor so they may become rich", that "they don't have because they don't ask" or that "if they ask, they shall receive."

Alas, every one of those scriptures is to be read in its own proper context. They are not magical scriptural wand used to wish away all our problems. And "rich" and "prosperity" in the Kingdom of God have such different (deeper) meaning from that which is generally understood in this world. For you can be poor and still be rich in God.

I am therefore free on that day to look at my life through the lens of everyday reality, and not delude myself into believing that misfortune is kept at bay just because I once said the sinner's prayer, or that prosperity is my assured destiny in the way some preachers are living it up on earth.

More importantly, I can live an authentic life without pretending that all is well with my soul. The reality is that sometimes, it is not well, and denying it will not make it magically go away. Sometimes, I have doubts. Sometimes, I am not as confident in the faith as a father, husband, son and believer are expected to be.

Sometimes, I question myself. I censure myself. Sometimes, I question God. I question His promises. I question his love in a cruel and self-gratuitous world. In other words, I can be honest with God without losing touch with my flawed humanity. I can tell God, “You are beyond me" or "Why, God?" And I can tell others, “I really don’t know.

And if the deep reality of things out there like quantum mechanics, dark matter and dark energy, and the wave particle duality still eludes scientists, then maybe in the world of faith where God is the Creator of all that, the gap of knowledge will never be bridged. 

Not being a Christian for that day, this gap is readily acceptable, even embraced with an unhurried heart because His love, mind and ways indeed surpass all human understanding.

As it is said, the more we know, the more we know we don't know. And this is where the spirituality of the atheist scientist and the spirituality of the earnest believer intersect. This is also where their searching minds and wondering hearts meet. More relevantly, this is our common ground - our mutual ignorance. Alas, we are back to the wisdom of Socrates?

So, the one day where I am not a Christian is the day I can stand by the atheists and start an open and honest dialogue with them. I can listen to their grievances about religion without them suspecting my sincerity. I can also suspend all judgment and seek to understand without the extra religious baggage.

It would be a special day of learning from each other where our common ground will inevitably draw us together. Seen in this light, maybe it is not a strange wish after all. By shedding the pretenses, cocksureness and complacency of being a Christian, I might just end up being a more compassionate, understanding and effective believer in return. Cheerz.

The love of Jedidiah and Angeline.

Is love enough? 

That depends on what you are giving up?

9 years ago, Laura Ashley heiress Ms Angeline Francis Khoo married the love of her life in a modest wedding costing only £1500. They now live in a modest 2-bedroom apartment in Paddington. 

No one from her side of the family came to her wedding. She only had 30 guests, and here's why.

Her husband, Jedidiah Francis, is a data scientist with a doctorate in statistics from Oxford University and a first-class degree in biology and business management from Queen Mary University. 

But all that was not good enough for her tycoon father, Tan Sri Khoo Kay Peng, who owns lifestyle brand Laura Ashley and the Corus group of hotels, and is rumoured to be worth about £200m. 

Oh, did I also mention that Jedidiah is from the Caribbean islands? 

So, when Tan Sri Khoo found out about whom his daughter was dating and her plans to marry him, he gave her an ultimatum, that is, choose Jedidiah and lose your inheritance or dump him and keep your inheritance. 

She chose Jedidiah and never regretted her decision since.

For perspective, this is what she is giving up - Her family lived a lavished lifestyle with estates in Malaysia, Australia, Canada and Britain. "One of these was the £30m Rossway Park estate in Hertfordshire, which had a 15-room mansion and two lakes on its 405ha ground."

Nevertheless, Angeline said:-

"I've been fortunate to have that perspective - you can have money and it's a blessing. It allows you to do things, and gives you options, but there are also things that come with it, such as control. Money amplifies negative characteristics and that can cause problems. To walk away from that was actually very easy. I didn't even consider it."

It should be noted that Angeline's mom, Pauline Chan and her father recently went through a bitter divorce and she was awarded £64m from the ugly split.

Further, Angeline is the fourth of five adult children. Her older brother has Tourette's syndrome, and her older sister and younger brother are on the autistic spectrum. 

Angeline and her other brother took care of their three siblings since birth. 

In the bitter divorce proceedings, it was revealed that her father refused to provide any financial support for her three siblings who needed help, thereby forcing them to apply for welfare assistance. 
She said: "(My father) told me he expects them to work and support themselves because that's what men do." 

Lesson? Just one.

After 9 years of marriage, Angeline said that her husband is "brilliant, kind and has strength of character."

I have been wondering, what is strength of character? What does it mean to have strength of character as a father, a husband, and a believer? 

But first, let me preface by saying that I believe whether you are rich or poor, you can have strength of character. 

It is not something that the rich are denied or deprived of. In fact, the fact that they are rich, making many right corporate/strategic decisions, and persevering to reach their goals, shows they possess strength of character, to some extent.

But to me, the strength of character that Angeline talks about (regarding her husband Jedidiah) goes further than that. It means much more than persisting for a material goal.

You see, wealth, power and fame are no guarantee of strength of character. Neither is poverty a sure sign of the strength of character. 

However, one quality that stands out whenever one describes another as having strength of character is love. In riches or in poverty, love makes the enduring difference. 

Simply, to love regardless, in spite of and without ceasing, demonstrates undoubtedly the strength of one's character. 

A mother's love, a couple celebrating their golden anniversary, and a father dedicating his life for his children show the strength of character led and undergirded by a love that never gives up.

And if God is love, then as a believer, to love the way Christ loved, to give the way Christ gave, and to live and overcome the way Christ overcame is what it means to have strength of character. 

Love in a marriage is transforming the way mindless acquisition of wealth, fame and power will never be. While the latter takes possession of you, that is, your time and your personhood, love sets you free from the competing anxieties and egos of this world. 

And while the love of money and the envy and bitterness of poverty entrap you, the liberty of love empowers you. It enlarges your heart to give, and make room in your soul for gratitude, for joy and for contentment that nourish deep within.

Rousseau once said that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are." 

Love indeed frees us from the slavery of our own possessive desires, and allows us to give of our life as a husband, a father and a believer for others just as Christ did at Calvary. 

These three declarations before Jesus heaved his last breath totally redefined love for me. 

"Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Love indeed keeps no records of wrong. Love forgives because only through forgiveness is one released to grow even deeper in love.

"Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit." Ultimately, love is about sacrifices. No greater act characterises love than the giving of one's life for another. Jesus remained faithful to his covenant with God, in the same way those who love the way He does remain faithful to the covenants they promise to uphold. For a husband, it is into the hands of marriage he commits his spirit. For a father, it is into the hands of parental bond he commits his spirit. 

And "It is finished." Love never gives up. Regardless of the trials of life, love overcomes. It brings to completion what it sets in its heart to accomplish. And for Christ, it is to give of Himself without looking back.

For there is no greater freedom than to be defined by a love that always put others above yourself. 

For where is thy sting - death, where is thy fangs - greed, where is thy claws - lust, and where is thy hold - pride, when we embody love and live in simple devotion to a life dedicated not to please ourselves, but our loved ones, our community and even occasional strangers.

Indeed, we free ourselves when we free ourselves from ourselves, that is, our insatiable appetites. And love is the key that unlocks all that. 

So, is love enough? 

Well, in a world of endless cravings and striving for things most viscerally tangible but impermanent, love is truly enough. 

Love in fact transcends. Love is longsuffering. Love waters a lifetime like a fresh spring. And love completes humanity. Cheerz.

The Middle Finger.

The middle finger. Some call it the one finger salute. Others call it the bird, the sleazy flip or the rigid digit. 

The truth is, it is the symbol of the (male) phallus with the index finger and the ring finger acting as the bulbous testicles. It is insulting, and provokes. 

(But at times, at the right place and people, it can rally rebellious hearts against the establishment or injustice).

Across all cultures since Ancient Greece, the middle finger is a sign of contempt, rudeness and obscenity. It denotes sexual intercourse, and showing the finger is equivalent to telling the person who crossed you to go "sexually" off. 

Socrates deemed the gesture as boorish and childish. At its worst, it is a gesture of extreme vulgarity. At the least, it is a sign of disrespect. 

And this brings me to the Henry Park Primary schoolboy who recently did the socially and culturally unpardonable on our nation's 52th birthday. 

Thanks to the unsuspecting camera sweep in the closing minutes of the NDP on Wednesday, his infamous finger has become infinitely famous. 

For that split second, the boy coolly raised the middle finger, and he did it with his left hand slightly slanted. Since then, the media has gone bananas over it, with one of my friends, who is 40 plus, exclaiming with ironic sarcasm that when he grows up, he wants to be like the boy!

I guess my friend is the exception to the many decent and cultured Singaporean parents who are utterly shocked by the boy's show of nonchalant defiance. 

And let it be said that had it been any other situations, the boy would have gotten away with it. 

If he had done it to his classmates in the school's playground, he would have been reprimanded and unforgotten. If he had done it at home to his annoying younger siblings, he would have been reprimanded and forgotten. 

And if he had done it to passing strangers with his tongue stuck out, yes, he would have been reprimanded and forgotten. 

But no, he did it on national tv, on National Day, when everybody was belting out trite patriotic songs with hearts and voices joined as one, raising hands, flags and NDP packs, the boy had to sneakily raise his dastardly middle finger in overstated mischief. 

His meh moment of cavalierly dissing the purity of the celebrative spirit utterly shattered the exuberant festivity and mood of the parade in a night that was supposed to function with impeccable timing and clockwork perfection. 

Hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans, including foreign talents, who were glued to their tv set could not believe their eyes. Of course, the boy had to be disciplined for he had sullied the sacredness of the moment. 

And discipline was swiftly meted out by the school. Henry Park Principal Chia Soo Keng told Straits Times: "The student regrets his action and is deeply apologetic. The school and his parents have counselled him, and will ensure he learns from this incident." 

We should therefore move on, right?

Lesson? Just one. I guess we all have our gaffe moments, our blunders. 

The middle finger has been used even by Presidents including Ronald Reagan and George W Bush at provocative and mildly provocative events. 

Movie and music stars have used it against annoying paparazzi. Sports stars have used it against the boos of opposing crowd. 

And even Ho Ching had used it vicariously (with the help of a young Japanese Macaque) by mistake when she said she was experimenting with Twitter buttons, and had duly apologised for the embarrassment. 
Incidentally, it came about the same time as when her husband was being called "the dishonourable son" by his sister via email exchanges last year. 

So, it is tempting to ask, "What were they thinking when they employed that middle finger or commit a gaffe/blunder/lapse of good judgment?" 

What was the Henry Park student thinking? What was Josephine Teo thinking when she said that you don't need much space to have sex? Or what was Palmer, David and Shin Leong thinking when they had extramarital affairs - with two of them involved with married women? 

And what about Chan Chun Seng? What was he thinking when he addressed the Speaker of the House Halimah as "Madam President" in Parliament earlier this year? The first time Halimah heard it, she let it slip. But Chan addressed her for the second time. 

Halimah said that she approached him after that and was told that it was unintended, a slip, and she had accepted it. Well, I guess lightning can strike twice at the same spot. 

Panning out for a panoramic view, what are we thinking most of the time? If given a chance to speak our mind (with impunity), to do a catharsis of sorts, or to vent the pent-up frustration, what would we say and do to the target of our angst and exasperation? 

Sometimes I wonder, and to put it bluntly, do we have a "middle-finger" mind-set but a clasped-hand appearance? 

Do we show our best side in public and hide the malicious, disgraceful and contemptuous side in private? 

If we can look into our collective mind with a cerebroscope like what Prof Charles Xavier could do in X-men movies, what would we uncover about the secret lives of clergymen, politicians and ordinary folks? 

Alas, the closest thing we have to a cerebroscope is Google Trend where we get to see what a sample netizen population are searching on the net, and the words that comes up often are largely pornographic in nature. Sex is largely in the people's mind.

And if you type in "we're sorry", there is not enough search volume to show up a trend. It is also discovered that when the netizens type "my husband wants..." in India, the number 1 search is: "my husband wants me to breast feed him." Go figure.

So, at the end of the day, we are indeed more than meet the eye (or mind). Like the movie Inception, we are made more complicated by layers after layers of conscious and subconscious desires, fascinations and obsessions that we would never allow them to surface to see the light of day. It would cramp our style - so to speak. 

And while the primary school boy may have done what he did out of childish bravado or some mindless prank without fully appreciating the gravity of his act, we adults are more complicated, nuanced, and at times, even insidious with our private motives and thought-life. Cheerz.