Thursday, 28 June 2012

Don't handicap your children by making their life easy.

(Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy - Robert A. Heinlein, prize winning author)

Let me start this letter with a few real life examples and Reverend Harold Wilke's upbringing is most relevant here. The good reverend is a minister who was born without arms and he is an advocate for the disabled. He recounted how his mother taught him to be independent through solving his own problems unaided. And she did it the hard way.

"I was two or three years old, sitting on the floor of my bedroom trying to get my shirt over my head and around my shoulders, and having an extraordinarily difficult time. I was grunting and sweating, and my mother just stood there and watched. Obviously, I now realize that her arm must have been rigidly at her side; every instinct in her had wanted to reach out and do it for me.

Finally, a friend turned to her and said in exasperation, "Ida, why don't you help that child?" My mother responded through gritted teeth, "I am helping him."

Contrast the above with these two examples adapted from the book, Raising Unselfish Children in a Self-Absorbed World, by Jill Rigby.

The first incident happened in an airport where a mother and her teenage son were waiting by the luggage carousel for their luggage.  As a crowd huddled to get their luggage, the mother reached out to grab her large black duffle bag. At this time, her son was standing behind her. He was plugged into his iPod and did not lift a finger to help her.

As the mother retrieved her second bag, feeling a little strained from it's weight, her son remained completely oblivious. With her hands full and struggling for her third bag, a passerby pushed past the young man to assist his mother with the bags. He then threw a look of incredulity at the teenager. Instead of feeling ashamed, the young man glared back defiantly.

The man then turned to his mother and said firmly, "Ma'am, you better do something about your boy or one day somebody else will."

The next example is even more disturbing as told in the author's own words.  "A Massachusetts couple and their three year old daughter were returning from a Florida vacation on an Air Tran Flight when their daughter refused to take her seat for takeoff.

When the flight attendants insisted the girl had to be buckled up, she threw a "you're not the boss of me" tantrum.  The parents asked for more time to talk with their daughter. (Remember, she was three!) The kicking and screaming continued. Fifteen minutes later the attendants asked the family to leave the plane because the child refused to be buckled up."

Well, that's the end of the examples and here comes the commentary.

Have no delusions, parenting is tough. There is no doubt that we love our children dearly and love per se is not the problem here. It is the expression of it that is. Many of us as parents want the best for our children. But somehow along the way we lose sight of what is important and we quite unwittingly turn our kids into our little pet science project; to be molded and shaped by our own idea of how we want them to be when they grow up.

This mentality pushes us to become obsessed with perfection in our kids. And, at the same time, it pushes us to crave for their affection so that we become readily compliant to all of their whims and fancy. It is like trying to be "Miss/Mr Congeniality" to our children. Parenting of this sort is extremely confusing and we often end up a nervous wreck; loss and unfulfilled.

One comedian once said, "No matter how calmly you try to referee, parenting will eventually produce bizarre behavior, and I'm not talking about the kids." This is very subtle. Parenting changes us and sometimes more than we can even keep up. The quest for the perfect child makes all of us victims of our own making.  We become obsessively competitive, helplessly protective, and hopelessly self-centered; a disastrous alter-ego that we would most readily disavow before the arrival of those little attention-grabbing, life-sucking monsters.

In the book, Under Pressure, by Carl Honore, the author hits the nail on the head with this observation:  "The urge to upgrade our children has taken on a Frankenstein edge. Inspired by research showing that taller people tend to be more successful, some parents now pay to inject growth hormone into their healthy, normal kids, with every inch of height costing about $25,000

...A doctor in Sao Paulo, Brazil, tells how a 16-year-old girl recently broke down on his operating table just before the anesthetic was administered. "She was sobbing and asking why her parents couldn't accept her face the way it was, so we sent her straight home," he says. "Her mother was furious."

I am concerned that children of affluent families may just be more depressed than those who come from lower income families. In most cases, this is not the result of the lack of love for them, it is unfortunately the result of misplaced priorities.

One mother wisely said, "When you're raising children in an instant gratification society, the most valuable lesson you can teach them is restraint and respect for others, and the only way to do that is for the children to be children and the grown-ups to be grown-ups."  And this misplaced priority is to refuse to allow our children to enjoy their childhood because we as parents want to live our "adulthood" through them.

In other words, we act like children when we are supposed to be the adults and we expect them to be adults when they are only children. Make sense?

A particular strain of this inverse order of parenting is that we tend towards overindulging our children. When we overindulge, we blur the distinction between their needs and their wants. In fact, we blindly and conveniently treat every "want" they have as a need - to be immediately satisfied. At its worst, we try to be our children's genie in the lamp or a butler at their beck and call.

Dr Connie Dawson, author of the book "How much is enough?", defines overindulgent parents as this: "When parents give children too much stuff that costs money, do things for children that they can do for themselves, do not expect children to do their chores, do not have good rules and let children run the family, parents are overindulging."

This strain of overindulgence is further compounded by the reality of smaller families due to the declining birth rate and the holding off of marriages until couples are financially secure. This is where parents start to micromanage their child's life. For some families with only one child, the overindulgence can reach stratospheric levels.

Parents literally plan their collective lives around their "can-never-be-wrong-and-do-wrong" offspring. While they elevate their child to demigod status, they relegate themselves to be their humble coolies. As a result, the child becomes the center of their universe and an extension of their ego while their own marriage and individual identity get sucked into a cosmic black-hole of sheer neglect.

This reminds me of the inflight emergency procedure where we are directed to always, without fail, put on our own oxygen mask first before we assist our children with theirs. The logic is simply to look after ourselves before we can help others.  I guess parenting borrows from this simple enough logic.

But parents who neglect their own well being and their marriage often find themselves shortchanged and emotionally sapped as they give and give without receiving back. Their over-involvement and over-investment in the child leave them little or no time for each other and for themselves. This strains the marriage and causes the parents to be running on empty.

Sometimes, I think that parents are overcompensating for the breakdown in their adult relationship. Living in denial, or just refusing to confront their partner, the parents loose themselves in their children, overprotecting and over-scheduling them with one activity after another, and living their hopes and dreams through their children's lives. They turn their children into showcase trophies which are expected to shine at all times for the world at large to see. As the trophy shines, part of the glory is deflected back into their own life; which always plays second fiddle to their children's.

One author wrote: "We are raising a whole generation of kids to please us, to make us happy and proud, to be what we want them to be." Sadly, by hedging our own happiness on our children, we forfeit our own and we also hijack their childhood.

But overindulgent parents also affect their children adversely in other ways.

First, their children generally turn out expecting the world to bend over backwards for them. They basically expect all others to kowtow to their wishes.  Unless one is born to royalty or into an oil-rich Saudi family, this is of course unrealistic. It is said that it is a great obstacle to happiness to expect too much. These children will be sorely disappointed when they grow up to realize that their greatest fan are their parents while they get egg-on-the-face treatment by the rest of society.

Second, overindulgent parenting sends out a bad message for the growing kids. As they are always permissive parents, giving in to their children to please them and to maintain harmony within the family, their children usually interpret it as a lack of care/interest for them. As such, they begin to take liberties with their parents and exploit the parents' soft-heartedness for their own gain.

To test this theory, a study was conducted to show how permissive parenting affect the children. The study concluded that when parents are most permissive, their children tend to lie to them more often. Here, a saying by the actress, Bettie Davis, is most apt, "If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent."

Lastly, one author describes children of overindulgent parents as "putting them on a pedestal." Here again studies have shown that such children are so bubbled up in their own world that it makes it harder for them to take risks, to experiment, and to stick with difficult task. They are also less likely to make mistakes and to learn from them.

As failure is seen as a taboo by these overindulgent parents, their children would rather remain in their comfort zone than to go out on a limb to try and learn new things. This unfortunately stifles their maturity process.

A parenting expert commented, "Children thrive when they have the time and space to breathe, to hang out and get bored sometimes, to relax, to take risks and make mistakes, to dream and have fun on their own terms, even to fail. If we are going to restore joy not only to childhood but to parenthood too, then the time has come for adults to back off a little, to allow children to be themselves."

The above shows that overindulgent parents should learn to let go as their children grow. Just like a flower in a pot, our constant hovering over it only chokes it from getting the sunlight it needs for growth.

But, at this juncture, let's be honest. Who as a parent is not guilty of some form of overindulgence? Aren't we all also guilty of over-controlling, striving to compete with other parents, overprotecting and even over-scheduling our children in one way or another?

In today's relatively affluent society, I understand that there is a race to "clone" our children in schools, tuition centers, extra-curriculum courses and enrichment classes to be that dream child every parent can be proud of. We want to mold them to become the right child with the right attitude in the right school to secure the right education and to pass out into society with the right job and the right mate. Then the whole cloning process is recycled for our children's children.

I guess as parents we will always want the best for our children and our love for them cannot be faulted.  In fact, in all parenting, and I say this with absolute confidence, love is and must be the starting point and the whole journey.

In the book, The price of privilege, the author, Madeline Levine, wrote, "We can learn all kinds of techniques for disciplining, but they are bound to fail unless, at heart, we have a loving relationship with our child."

If I'm given a Hobson's-like choice between discipline without love and love without discipline, I jump at the latter in a heart beat. I see a greater and an irredeemable evil in discipline without love. It is basically indistinguishable from physical and mental abuse. I dread to think how these children will turn out. This letter is not about this form of parenting anyway.

My concern here is with parenting that is blindsided by love and not its absence. I sincerely believe there is an effective form of parenting that is motivated by love and not abusing it. This is where love guides the parents to seek a balance between over-controlling and overindulgence,  between perfectionism and spoiling the child. Such parenting avoids the extreme of either.

In the book Boundaries, the authors Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend give a glimpse of how this balance could be achieved: "Successful parenting means that our kids want to get out of bed and go to school, be responsible, be empathic, and be caring because that's important to them, not because it's important to us. It's only when love and limits are a genuine part of the child's character that true maturity can occur."

The authors emphasize the importance of limits or boundaries for effective parenting. And discipline is the tool parents ought to use to set boundaries for their children. Parents should set the rules of conduct in their home and enforce compliance of these rules with proportionate punishments and appropriate parent-and-child engagement. The authors remind parents that "discipline is an external boundary designed to develop internal boundaries in our children."

When a child steps out of line or breaks one of these rules, the parent should do two things: punishment and engagement. Of course punishment must fit the infraction or else the child may live in fear or rebellion, or just withdraw from social interaction altogether. A man once recounted this about indiscriminate punishment: "I got whippings for little things and for big things. So I started getting more involved in big things. It just seemed more efficient."

As such, our punishment must be tempered with fairness and moderation. It should be done when we are most calm and cool-headed. This is easier said than done because given an inch, our children will test us with a mile. So, I expect parents to fall short sometimes, especially myself.

But the point is not our shortcomings. It is our sincere attempt to make it work. It is a process of trial-and-error and because our discipline is motivated by love and for their well being, I trust that our consistency in disciplining our children will bear fruits in the long run.

Secondly, we must always bear in mind to engage them as they grow older and mature. At certain age, based on our discretionary observation, we will have to switch from corporeal punishment to meaningful engagement. This requires us to reason with them and also allows them to reason back with us.

Parents must understand that it is a two-way street. There are some conflicts between parents and children that are beneficial for their maturity and parents should not avoid them.  One of these conflicts is meaningful engagement. When we give them the airtime to ventilate their grievances and frustration, and to allow them to bargain with us on curfews, purchases and night outs, we are developing in them a sense of responsibility and making them learn to take ownership of their choices together with the consequences that come with it.

Needless to say, when we engage them and allow reason and empathy to prevail, and not dominate like a dictator over all issues, the bond with our kids will grow and they will feel safe and secure with us. This allows them to see us as a friend rather than just another authority figure.

Further, when our relationship is deepened by positive and constructive conflicts, our children's trust and confidence will develop in lockstep.

Lastly, in the book Boundaries, the authors also wrote about the concept of  "safe suffering". This means to allow a child to experience age-appropriate consequences. What is age-appropriate will depend on each child's maturity. Some will be able to take up more responsibility than others of the same age. As parents, we have a part to play and not allow our children to make decisions that they do not have the maturity to make. One example is to permit a 10-year-old to go out on an overnight road trip with friends.

When we give our child space and freedom to grow (instead of smothering them with toxic love), it is unavoidable that they will have to learn from the consequences of their choices. This is where safe suffering comes in when our children have to live with and learn from these negative consequences.  As we allow our children to take responsibility for their own need, we must be ready to be there for them as a friend and mentor when they fail. But our role is largely that of a facilitator or teacher and not a shock-absorber to shield them from the lessons of life.

I recall a saying about teachers, for whom parents are in the same category, which says, "A teacher is someone who makes himself or herself progressively unnecessary." I believe this is the true test of maturity where our children are able to make their own decisions, take up responsibility, learn from its consequences, and move forward in life with greater resiliency. And when that time comes, we will find our role as parents to be less about interventing and more about guiding and consultative.

Here, Dr Levine's advice also strikes a resonant chord, "But appropriately involved parents know the importance of stepping back as soon as it is practical, and of respecting their children's striving for independence. It is the capacity to know when your involvement is moving your child forward and when it is holding her back that distinguishes the appropriately involved parent from the over-involved or intrusive parent."

On this, we can take a page off from Madonna. Yes, the patron saint of so-called "bad behavior" has a thing or two to teach us about parenting.  As a mother, Madonna, enforces strict rules on chores, homework and keeping bedroom tidy in the house. No doubt she allows her children some freedom within age-appropriate boundaries but regarding bedroom tidiness, she has this to say, "my daughter has a problem picking things up in her room. So, if you leave your clothes on the floor, they're gone when you come home."

When her daughter returns, she would have to reason and bargain with her mother for the return of the confiscated clothes. I believe this exchange between mother and daughter, if done with mutual respect and love, promotes a sense of responsibility, understanding and trust.

On a personal note, I have found it useful to internalize these rules I've read about being a human and I see it as my mission to instill the same in my children in this challenging journey:-   

• You will learn lessons.      
• There are no mistakes - only lessons.     
• A lesson is repeated until it is learned.      
• If you don't learn easy lessons, they get harder (pain is one way life gets your attention).     
• You'll know you've learned a lesson when your action change.

To complement the above lessons, this quote is most instructive: "The world is not divided into those who succeed and those who failed; or winners and losers. It is divided into learners and non-learners."

I have come to the end of my letter about parenting. On this subject, I am at quite a loss to bring it to a close. I mean I can easily put my pen down and leave it at that but as a parent myself I feel that there are many experiences along the way that will be difficult to put on paper. I believe there is a discernible gap between theory and practice.

Try as hard as you might, you cannot sculpt you child's destiny the same way you can shape a clay vase or paint a portrait. A child is unique and the life he will lead is unique too. Many factors will come to play to influence, mold, shape, direct, nudge and transform him. And yours is just one amongst many; although no less important of course.

On my part, I strive to spend one-to-one quality time with my 10-year-old son. I do this by bringing him on recreational jog twice a week. We jog in the park, around a reservoir and along the road.  After the run, I would take that intimate thirty minutes walking back to deepen our relationship. We talk openly. I would ask him about his day. And I would share with him my experiences.

This mutual sharing is how I keep my bond with him fresh and interesting. Although I do not expect him to fully understand what I share with him, I believe the time we spend together will remind him of my love for him and he can draw strength from it.

You see, I am a firm believer in "defining moments" or "points of inflection". As we grow up, the journey is full of distractions and interruptions. Everything whether negative or positive clamor for our attention and we hardly pay any heed to them.

So, we must create a conscious bubble where our focus for that brief moment is concentrated with purposeful intention; more like creating a mental hermitage. That's the defining moment for me and I strive to create those creative bubbles for my children by consecrating time with them one-to-one.

Then, as best as possible, I plant a seed in their heart and pray for its growth. While I don't expect every seed to blossom into practical understanding, those that do will agitate (or cogitate) a point of inflection, or a moment of deep learning which will positively influence their thoughts and behavior in the long run. And the rest is really up to them as they face the challenges of life.

A professor of psychiatry, Melvin Konner, once wrote, "Children are born as individuals. If we fail to see that, if we see them as clay to be molded in any shape we like, the tougher ones will fight back and end up spiteful and wild, while the less strong will lose that uniqueness they were born with."

So, parenting is a full time job with no retirement in sight and no guarantee of a smooth ride. However much you love them unconditionally and unsparingly, your children will one day grow up and branch out on their own. And the road they take will sometimes challenge them beyond all that you can and have carefully prepared for them. For isn't it true that we are never prepared for what we expect?

The only thing you can be sure of when that time comes is that you have done your best to teach them to internalize sound principles so that they may be able to face whatever life throws at them with resiliency, hope and courage. And most importantly, in this journey that you take with your child, he will have this quiet assurance that you will always be there for him when he needs you. To know that he knows that is half the battle won already.

Here is a poem by Khalid Gibran to bring us home: "Your children are not your children. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts."

Blessed parenting. Cheerz out!

(Ps: I dedicate this letter to all parents, especially, my in-laws. Dad and Mom, your love for each other is the love we desire to refresh ours daily. Although it is not perfect (wouldn't that be scary?), it is the closest thing to perfection this side of heaven. Sharing your love is like catching but a glimpse of why Christ forsook all to take that painful road to Calvary. This is my little appreciation for your dedication).

Friday, 15 June 2012

Is Religion the Problem?

Is religion the problem? Well, maybe.

If you see religion as a group of people congregating together for a common purpose (that is, evangelism and discipleship), then religion as a whole may be the problem. This is prevalent in all organization, religious or otherwise.  Let's follow the trail.

Think about the Catholic Churches and the shameless child abuses. Think about the evangelical churches and the funds embezzlement and sex scandals. From a secular point of view, think about Enron, Madoff fund, Worldcom, and the financial institutions that caused the recent crash.

So, on a superficial sweep, it's easy to smoke out the culprit: it's religion or the church (pls note that I am using the church and religion interchangeably).

Many faults can be found in a church. As it expands, the daily business of God shifts from people's life to roof maintenance, from spiritual growth to conflicting dogmas, from worship to the music arrangement, from intimacy to rules and procedures, from salvation to money matters, from evangelism to membership exclusivity, and from discipleship to personality cult.

It therefore comes as no surprise to many when in July 2010, Ann Rice posted this on her Facebook: "Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity".

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer even speculated that Christianity might be "over" as a religion and he wondered, "What is a religionless Christianity?"

But careful thought will reveal that the common thread  is not the common purpose or the set of Christian beliefs, it is the leadership. Isn't that what corrupts the ideal that initially joins its members together?

I mean, shouldn't we fault the conduct of the believer rather than the belief and the rules that hold the believers together?  They say the fish rots at its head. So, in a church, the head is the pastoral staff. And in a business, it is the board of directors and the chairman.

No one is immune from personal corruption. We are all corruptible. It is said that people often do the right thing for the wrong reasons. The church is no exception.

The church finds it's humble beginning with Jesus gathering one disciple after another to form the formidable twelve. What happened along the way and over the centuries is the downside of runaway growth.

As the church grows bigger, with more members, attracting all kinds of worldly attention, and getting more money than it can manage, the church conveniently takes the "broad road" instead of the narrow road. Left unguarded and given to excesses, the church, like any organization, can go astray quite naturally. And there's a saying that "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancerous cell."

But, considering the vulnerability of any organization, and how easy one can fall prey to fame, money and pride, can religion/church flourish in the absence of an organized, hierarchical platform as the membership grows? Can religion/church be disorganized, with members dispersed and isolated, where their only means of communication is in cyberspace, and yet still prosper and grow?

When Bonhoeffer wondered about "religionless Christianity", I too wondered: What's the viable alternative to a church? Asceticism? Ashram-like exclusive club? Home cells? Morning meditation by the beach?  Bloggers' network? Downloaded sunday sermons in the comfort of one's bedroom? Nomadic tent meetings? Or, should we just limit the gathering to twelve and no more; to keep it in a family setting?

I used to think that religion is the problem and sometimes still thinks it is. But, here's looking at it from a different angle. If religion is about a group of people pursuing a common purpose, then didn't Jesus start one with 12 disciples; which mushroomed into a worldwide phenomena?

Didn't the Bible talk about religion in terms of a simple gathering of "two or three" in his name?  Doesn't that eventually grow into an organized religion one way or another? Do you honestly think that the great commission is about converting one soul after another in isolation? And then placing each new convert in an island?  Surely, Jesus must have foreseen that organized religion is an unavoidable development.

With the gathering of "saints", isn't the forming of a church inevitable. And with the advent of the concept of a church, don't you think you will need rules to manage the people?  With people, comes attention, and with attention, comes money. With money, comes temptation and pride. And with pride, comes a sense of invincibility. And the rest is history recycled ad nausea! While some churches fall, others nevertheless thrive.

So, Is religion the problem? Maybe, maybe not.

Nowadays, I am trying my objective best to accept this ugly truth: Organized religion (or church) is a tool used by men to further their own purpose. And since men's heart is as crooked as corkscrew, it is equally inevitable that the means (church) often gets contaminated with the ends (men's self-serving agenda).

By analogy, I see religion as the vehicle and men as it's driver. When a car knocks a pedestrian, you prosecute the driver and not the car. This may seem obvious enough but the distinction is subtle and conveniently overlooked by those who have a religious axe to grind.

You see, it is easy to blame the whole church for one man's transgression, which has contaminated the leadership. And without a clear distinction, we throw the baby together with the bath waters out! We therefore cast stones at the church instead of its leadership.

True, some organizations are pure evil like the third Reich, the Davidian sect, and the church of satan. And we should drop a boulder on them. But the church, no matter how imperfect, is still a "hospital for the sick" and not a "museum for flawless art".

After all is said, the church or organized religion has some redeeming qualities. There are converts who are sincere about their faith. There are pastors who work tirelessly to comfort the dying. There are new comers who are eagerly looking for the truth.  They should be our focus and they are what make up the church. They are in fact the raison d'etat for the existence of the church.

They may not be perfect but at least they know they are not. Their self awareness is comforting and empowering. Humility is what distinguishes them from the modern day pharisees. In any event, we stand tallest when we are on our knees; not when we are placed on the pedestal.

So, Is religion the problem?

From the perspective of the people with genuine needs and seeking the truth in earnest, it is clearly not. In fact, it all boils down to our focus. If we see it through the lens of Jesus, religion is not the problem: We are.  And Jesus did not die for religion: He died for us.

At this juncture, I am reminded of this quote: "The world is...a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks."

In matters of religion, we think we are adults. But most of the time, we act like children, complaining, sulking, playing, finger-pointing, smarting, criticizing, pranking, snubbing, quarreling, fighting, backstabbing, snorting, pontificating, and ganging up to oppress others. In jest, Charles Colson once said, "As has been said, the church of Jesus Christ would be like Noah's Ark; the stench inside would be unbearable if it weren't for the storm outside."

It is said that many will fight for religion, write about it and even die for it; anything but live for it. This is why our attempts to spell God with blocks often ends up with a convenient misspell of "I" instead of "God".

So, each worshiper should search his own heart and question his motivation in attending church. Sometimes the bulk of the problem may lie with him.

As for the church, the leadership have an important part to play and it is best captured in this quote, "churches cannot be clubs for the righteous, institutions that maintain religious conformity in the face of change, or businesses that manage orthodoxy and personal piety...they must grasp - in a profound and authentic way - that they are sacred communities of performance where the faithful learn the script of God's story, rehearse the reign of God, experience delight, surprise, and wonder, and participate fully in the play." (Diana Butler Bass).

Like a marriage, the membership and the leadership would have to work together to expand His kingdom.

And like a marriage, success can only come when one party puts the interest of the other first.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

God, cancer and a woman called Shin.

Hi all, here is a life that will and should challenge your safe harbor of faith. This life is Shin. Some of you may know her. She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in December 2005. She passed away about 3 years ago after a never-say-die fight.  She is survived by her husband and two beautiful children.

I admire her fight for life, love and family and her blog:, stands as a testament to her courage, humor and sheer determination to live on her own terms.

Shin is remarkably bright and resilient, and it is her straight-shot and unpretentious view of religion that drew me to her blog. Below is an exchange between her and another blogger on God and cancer.

"A blog reader (Stephanie) wrote the following comment to me (Shin). I thought I should post my answer here to share with others so that those of you who are still talking to me about God saving me will see where I stand on this issue. 

From Stephanie:

"Think about the life of Jesus. He did nothing but good for people. He healed the sick and cast out demon spirits who tormented the thoughts of people.  Yet no matter how much good He did in His life He was still crucified. Jesus came so we would have the Holy Spirit in our lives.

A good Spirit that tells us the truth about our present situation.  A Holy Spirit that is our guide so that in everything we go through we might gain understanding through our ability to believe that God can and will help us no matter what cancer might do to destroy our lives.

Why does God allow cancer? God hates cancer! Cancer is the result of Satan's power to hurt people in the world. God is ready and able to help us fight. Even if the fight leads us to death, God promises us that  He will reward us in Heaven for the pain we have endured.

We are His Christian soldiers. Soldiers who fight against Satan and this evil world. God takes the evil of cancer and He shows how our determination through everything we suffer is an example to others what God can do in our lives even when the prognosis is bad.

God changes the lives of our friends and family when they see that we will not let go of our faith no matter what happens to us. I pray this encourages you.

Please know that if you believe in Him, he will give you everlasting life. This world is not your home. God is able."

Here is Shin's answer:

Stephanie, "Jesus might have been a good guy but there have been many, many good people throughout history who have sacrificed far more than he. He wasn't given a choice. Nelson Mandela, Xanana Gusmao, Mother Theresa, even people I personally know who are not famous have sacrificed a lot more than Jesus - with choice, unlike Jesus.

So I have to say I'm not that impressed with Jesus or what he did for anybody under duress, without choice.

If God hates cancer and cancer is Satan's power, then if follows logically that Satan is more powerful than God since cancer exists. Hmmm.

God will let Satan's cancer kill us but that's okay because he will reward us in heaven for the pain we suffered.  Sorry. Not good enough. I don't want any rewards in heaven. I want to be with my husband and my kids here on Earth. There is absolutely nothing, nothing that God can offer me in heaven that I'd prefer to being with my family here on Earth.

So I resent that this supreme being is telling me what I should want.  I don't want everlasting life. That's greedy and selfish, vague and obscure. What IS everlasting life anyway? What do you do with it? This world IS my home. It's a beautiful world, despite all the problems. I don't want something else.

I think people want something else, seek something else, when they're not happy with what they have in front of them. Well, I'm quite happy with what I have in front of me, even with cancer.

So I'm not asking for anything else. I don't need God to be happy or strong. I have the love of family and friends to help me through this, but most of all, I have me. I believe I have inner strength that no God, friend, or family member can give me. I believe I have it within myself.

You say that God "shows how our determination through everything we suffer is an example to others what God can do in our lives even when the prognosis is bad."  I think I'm an example of what the strength of the human spirit and love can do, without God.

I don't need to give credit to something external to me or lean on something outside of myself.  I understand that some people think they need God. But I wonder if some of these people could find strength within themselves instead. I wonder if God is just a crutch."

- END -

Dear all, the above seems a tad defiant and even militant from Shin. But please understand that Shin meant well. She was merely expressing how she really  felt and was very open about her feelings; which accumulatively, were exclusively tormenting.

In fact, in later exchanges, Shin realized that all three men she had mentioned above are either Christians or Catholics. And she cordially gave this comment: "Hey, it didn't even occur to me that the three people I mentioned were Christians! I guess that's a pretty good argument for people finding strength through God."

The next statement from Shin showed her fair and open mindedness  in the whole issue concerning religion: "...I have many friends who are Christian, plus three family members who are ordained pastors. I know they want what they think is best for me. How can I be angry about that?"

Further, in one letter, Shin was asked, "What's the best thing about having cancer?" She replied, "I think cancer has brought out the best in my friends and family. To put it another way, it's made me see the best in my friends and family...that's the best thing about having cancer - getting the chance to see the goodness in people around me."

I am deeply ministered by Shin's life and her fight for it. It's real, visceral at times, and her faith in humanity, especially her husband and children, taught me many things about my own struggles as a father, husband and friend.

I recall a saying that goes like this: "People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out. But in the darkness, beauty is seen only if there is a light within."

Shin's life is genuine and she shone brightly for me even in the darkness of my own life.

I too have my own doubts and, inspired by Shin's fight, I wrote a letter to my cell group years ago about theodicy as I understood it. It started off with my son, then six years old, who innocently asked me this question, "Daddy, how come God can hear us, and we cannot hear God?”

Below is my reply to my son addressed to my cell:-

"Dear Cell, let me caution you first: this letter is not a letter about answers. It is in fact a letter generating more questions than answers. Answers to what, you may ask?  Well, answers to all the questions you have about God, His existence, His love and His power. For those of you who attended Cell last Friday, the discussion was a challenge to our faith.

The challenge was this: How do people come to the conclusion that there is no God or that God is cruel and sadistic? How do you answer them?

Let’s go for the jugular. Professor Richard Dawkins, an atheist extraordinaire, will take the first shot at our religion with this shockingly invective quote:-

“God is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. Jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloody thirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic homophobic racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicial, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously, malevolent bully.”

When you finally come exhausted after poring through the Oxford dictionary to find the meaning of those big, long words, you can take this rabid quote as the signature, all-compassing mantra for non-believers with a religious axe to grind.

But, the above begs this question: Does Dawkins have a point?

Well, maybe not the whole spiteful load of it. But the undertones and sentiments behind his quote are unmistakable. Without misquoting Dawkins, I think we can say that he is of the view that there is no God. Or, at least the probability of His existence is so negligible that it is as good as taking it as a confirmation that there is no God. And you don’t need to be a Professor to share this sentiment with Dawkins.

You can be a preschooler and still be able to identify with him in less disconcerting way.  A year ago, my son, who was only six years old, casually asked me this question, “Daddy, how come God can hear us, and we cannot hear God?”

Of course, this is not exactly an expression of doubt by a young boy but it is a foreshadow of all theological questions about the existence of God. It always starts off innocently enough and, if left on its own to fester, it can grow into something quite problematic for the devout Christian parents trying to keep the faith in the family together.

So, we as Christian parents have this sacred duty to protect our children from the intemperate thinking that comes with Dawkins quote. But how do we do that? Do we have better answers to offer that will dispel all doubts?

When Jezer asked me that question, I took it quite seriously. I thought it was too early for him to challenge me in that way, so disarmingly and so innocently. But of course, I knew Jezer didn’t realize the full theological weight behind that question, not yet at least.

But I knew as the years roll by, when he grows older and wiser, the question may become less innocent, less amiable and maybe more confrontational. The older Jezer may want an intellectually satisfying answer and expect me, as his father, to give it to him.

But honestly, can we provide an intellectually satisfying answer to questions concerning theodicy even before one is sufficiently transformed by the renewal  of his mind (Romans 12:2)? Isn't that "putting the cart before the horse" or "putting on one's shoes before the sock"? Just musing...

Along this musing line, many religions have come forward to offer their answers to a variant-form of the question posed by Jezer.

When the tsunamis struck South East Asia and took the lives of fathers, mothers and young children alike  (altogether 250,000 lives were taken that fateful boxing day of 2004), the religious journalist, Gary Stern, went around mosques, temples, churches and secular communities to scout for answers.

He wrote a book about it entitled, Can God Intervene?

His question was simple enough but the answers were far from simple. He started off with this:-

“Is the mystery of God’s role in the tsunami any different than the mystery of God’s role when one innocent person suffers?”

I imagine that the question was posed as a non-starter. To give an answer, of any acceptable merit, would require one to be familiar with the mind of God. This is as insurmountable a task as expecting  an ant to understand why there is a sudden, all-consuming flood in the sink. Well, I guess you can say that this example is limited since the ant in question is not our image bearer unlike our relationship with God.

As an aside, I also dread to speculate how some cynical quarters would have approached the question. To them, there is a sensible difference that goes beyond the question. And it is reducible to God's existence.

You see, while a single innocent death creates only a small dent on one's faith, and can be explained away as part and parcel of life, a mass obliteration seems to render His existence, as a loving and powerful being, much less tenable and defensible and the same may just wash away one's safe harbor of faith.  This difference therefore unravels and exposes one mystery (of mass innocent death) while accommodates the other (of one innocent death).

To whom should I pass this theodicy baton?

Anyhow, going back to the question, I think one shouldn't be too far from the truth to say that there is no difference. God is equally mysterious in both situations.

While there is no way to know why natural disaster happen in a place and time we least expect it to strike and take away so many innocent lives and why an individual has to suffer unexplained illness, our ignorance doesn't mean that God is any less indiscriminate.

In other words, in all things, in particular misfortune, God sets them against the backdrop of the cross and eternity, and seen in that perspective, our vain attempt at tipping the scales of justice and keeping scores pale in comparison. Such attempt is analogous to a man trying to measure a sunbeam with a ruler.

In the end, on this side of heaven, if it is a mystery, it will always be a mystery and explaining it away will only take the mystery out of it.

Of course, telling my son that it is a mystery will do little to sate his intellectual appetite. He would want to know why it is a mystery. Or, is it just another tactic Christian parents employ to avoid answering the question?

Here, the atheist’s answer would be the easiest and even most tempting.

In the book, Gary interviewed David Silverman, who is the national spokesman for American Atheists, and David's reply was quite expected:

 “If you combine benevolence with omnipotence and all-powerfulness, you can’t have natural disaster…Either God sent the tsunami, which means he is not a nice guy, or he didn’t know it was going to be there, so he’s not omnipotent, or he couldn’t stop it, which means he isn’t all-powerful. You can’t get all three. If you think about it, natural disasters disprove most religion, especially Christianity.”

What is even scarier is that Silverman became an atheist when he was only 6 years old (my son’s age) when he said, “I realized that God is fiction. I kept asking questions and getting non-responses.”

Silverman did not stop there.

His religion bashing was most frightening and vitriolic with this conclusion in the book:

“(Silverman) thinks most people are atheists. They innately understand that life doesn’t make sense and that no one is in charge. But they pretend to be believers so they don’t have to face the truth. They don’t want to deal with it, so they pretend that they believe in the invisible, magic man in the sky.  That’s why when you challenge them on it, they get so defensive, angry or withdrawn. Prayer is a form of self-hypnosis so that people can convince themselves they’re not going to die. A natural disaster is a shot of reality. People doubt mythology when they’re confronted with reality.”

Well, my only wish is that my son is not as “enlightened” as Silverman was when the latter was six years old and took a path wholly different from mine.

At this juncture, I can get a little creative with my answers. I can tell my son what Reverend Tony Campolo once said.

Basically, Campolo conceded that God was not in control of everything.  He said that God limited His power by personal choice. It was the same choice He made when He sent His son to be slaughtered by His own creation.

By sending Jesus, God made a conscious choice to limit His power by not interfering when Jesus was scorned, whipped, bound, tortured, ridiculed, misjudged and crucified. The bloodied, wretched and dejected face of Jesus at the cross was the epitome of God’s self-imposed restraint of power.

It was therefore for a greater purpose that God had tied up his own hands. It was for universal salvation that God chose to turn his face away from Jesus at Calvary.

As for the tsunami and all such natural disasters, I could tell my son that God chose not to act because that was the only way we could experience the full plethora of what we humans constantly clamor for, that is, “freedom of expression, will and choice.” Imagine a god, like a genie, at our disposal? We would never grow up.

Take a personal example in this case. If I want my son to grow and mature, to learn from his mistakes and be independent, I would have to let go and let him do things his own way sometimes. I cannot be controlling him 24-7. I cannot be telling him what to do, how to do it and why he should do it the way I would do it.

In the same way, I cannot tell my son who he should love, how he should run his adult life, and what career path he should take. My son just has to muster the courage to take that first step on his own and sometimes suffer the consequences arising from his own personal choices.

Furthermore, it is not on every occasions that the adage “Father knows best” is fully applicable. I could be wrong about things, misjudging them, or just being careless about it. So, my son should be left on his own to grow and mature.

By extension, this example, however imperfect, is the same reason why God left us alone at times to learn, grow and mature. In other words, God cannot be chaperoning us all the time.  And by leaving us alone, this will inevitably result in some hurt and pain in our lives as we face life’s challenges head on.

Of course, this explanation suits us fine when we are talking about pains of life that bring about our growth. There are many lessons to be learned from failures. Many people are invariably stronger, wiser and more resilient after a personal trial.

But how do I explain to my son about the meaningless and pointless sufferings in this world?  Surely, God shouldn’t restrain His power to help when an innocent wife is crying out to Him for healing from Aids when the same was passed to her by her unfaithful husband.

Yesterday at cell, we also talked about a little Thai girl sold into the brothel at a tender age of 12. When they raided the brothel and entered into her tiny squalid room, they found many prayers for help scrawled on her wall – most of them were left unanswered by the one person who had the power to rescue her.

She had suffered so much despite her constant, daily cry for help. It is therefore tempting to ask: Where was God when she was forcibly taken by greedy mercenaries and sold like a cheap chattel to be repeatedly violated by perverted, STD-infected men, thereby ruining her life for life?

Wouldn't any earthly father want to save his own daughter from such macabre fate? What's more our heavenly father?

At this point, if my son is intuitive enough, he would pester me with these questions: Why can’t God be more discerning and discriminating about his choices to limit His power? Can’t He protect the innocent, defend the weak and make a way for the sincerely earnest without compromising the integrity of our free will and choice? Can’t a perfect God strike a perfect balance between divine intervention and humanity’s freedom of will?

Maybe, I should change tack or strategy.

In respect of natural disasters, I should look at my son eyeball to eyeball and tell him that there is a scientific reason why tsunami happens. It is call shifting plate tectonics.

I should tell him that there are several plates in this world holding continents and countries together. There are the Indo-Australian plate and the Eurasian plate. And when these dynamic plates shift or move violently, they cause natural disasters. There is therefore nothing supernaturally sinister about it.

How about cancer?

Maybe I can tell my son that cancer works almost the same way – sometimes they strike because of man-made choices in the food they take and the lifestyle they adopt and sometimes because of blind random genetic mutation with impunity. And sometimes  it is a convergence of all possible natural causes.

In fact, another way of looking at it is that cancer is the disease of the rich, well-off and long-lived. You see, during primitive times, where mortality rate is  high, many died young. By dying young, most were spared the pain of contracting cancer because cancer is generally the disease of the relatively old.

When we age, our cells become more unstable and they tend to mutate and these harmful mutation multiplies or metastasizes, causing the dreaded cancer. So, in biological terms, there is always a trade-off; that is, the good and bad in all things.

It is generally a blessing to grow old. But in growing old and enjoying the fruits of old age, there are also the despicable weeds of old age and they come in the form of neurological decay like dementia or genetic haywire like cancer or vascular entropy like stroke.

In like manner, in geological terms, the earth we live in is the only planet that can support a bio-diversity of life. We thrive on this planet because the conditions are just right for us. Some call it the "Goldilocks zone".

It is somewhat like a beautiful Garden of Eden on Earth except for some expected trade-off like earthquakes, tsunami, volcano eruptions and hurricane.  In other words, in order for the majority of us to live and thrive in our own habitat, some unfortunate minority would have to pay the price in a way that seems unfair, cruel and even mysterious.

Lastly, my son should know that no action stands alone on its own. There are ripple effects for every action sowed. One man’s policy may result in another’s tragedy. If a mother chooses to smoke, she risks a miscarriage, or worse, her child may bear the consequences of her actions with congenital defects that will handicap him for life.

If a man seeks easy and quick profit, he may sell his young daughter to a man three times her age for a price. If a corrupt leader of a nation gives in to peer pressure and chooses to engage in war with a country for the flimsiest of ideological reason, we can expect a lot of civil casualties, resulting in future recriminations and revenge, and the cycle of violence can go on and on without stopping. And innocent lives may be caught up in the cross-hair of these wars as human casualties.

So, there you have it, the ever-expanding cycle of causes and effects are part of the reason why sufferings are so prevalent and persistent in this corrupt world.

In the end, I fear that my adult son may not be completely convinced by the above answers; because they appear to generate more questions than answers or more heat than light.

So, when that day of reckoning draws nigh, when my adult son comes to me for answers,  I would share with him this passage from the book, God on Mute, authored by a church-planter Pete Grieg:-

“A story is told of the Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he was imprisoned by Stalin in a Siberian gulag.

One day, slaving away in sub-zero temperatures, he finally reached the end of his endurance. Discarding his shovel, he slumped onto a bench and waited for a guard to beat him to death. He’d seen it happen to others and was waiting for the first blow to fall. Before this could happen, an emaciated fellow prisoner approached Solzhenitsyn silently.

Without a word of explanation, the prisoner scratched the sign of the cross in the mud and scurried away.  As Solzhenitsyn stared at those two lines scratched in the dirt, the message of the cross began to converse with his sense of despair.

“In that moment, he knew that there was something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that the hope of all mankind was represented in that simple cross. And through the power of the cross, anything was possible.”

Picking up his shovel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn slowly went back to work.”

Beloved, the cross is where God met humanity on the latter's term. The price was paid and the way was made. God gave no excuses for the cross. Neither was it a divine apology. It was a framed charge that Jesus accepted without protest with us in mind.

You can ridicule, spit or snarl at the cross but one thing you cannot dispute about it: it's a selfless act of a stubborn and preposterous passion. Who is to understand this strange, irrational passion unless our eyes are truly opened to its gruesomeness? Boethius once said, "the mind not redeemed by the cross is like a drunk who is unable to find his way home."

In conclusion, I will have to tell my son that our faith is not anathema to understanding. In the science of faith, our faith is one that seeks understanding. It is therefore not a dialectics of faith versus understanding or faith against understanding.

My son must realize that the search for understanding may sometimes take half a lifetime and he should not give up just because a stenciled answer is not readily available.

Further, John Calvin once commented that our mind is a factory of idols and only when we have foreclosed them can we see clearly and know deeply the secret things of God. This is in line with what Richard of St. Victor wrote: "Whoever thirsts to see his God - let him wipe his mirror, let him cleanse his spirit...when the mirror has been wiped and gazed into for a long time, a kind of splendor of divine light begins to shine in it and a great beam of unexpected vision appears in his eyes."

Son, if you are reading this, my hope is that you will, at your own time, see His light in the shadow of your own trials because as Psalms 36:9 puts it, "For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light."

While this light may not represent full understanding for you, it will be one that you'll be able to live with in quiet confidence all the days of your life.

Cheers out!