Saturday, 31 August 2013

China Wine: I don't get it.

I will be honest. Dead honest in fact. China Wine is a difficult wine for me to drink as a Christian. The lyrics is largely unintelligible and at most times, gibberish. But there are certainly parts that are clearly sexually suggestive. That cannot be denied; however much you paint-brush it with the gospel vinyl. The video itself confirms this. The lusty hip gyrations, the sensual touching, the smooth caressing, the booty shaking, the frontal and rectal dry-humping, the seedy night club ambience, the endless booze, the intoxicating smoke, the insinuation of infidelity, fornication and lewdness, all conspires to give the video a it-can’t-be-edifying-to-the-faith feel. Or, is it just me?

So, when the defence for the City Harvest trial this week gave a summation of the case, I was baffled. Under the guise of theological legitimacy, it reads, “If members of the Church had donated money for the investment of property, and the monies were used by the church as an investment into Crossover, you would not regard that as dishonest. It would be an act in good faith because that investment was for the (church) purpose.

Having spent dubious millions on the album, the music videos and the songs “China Wine” and not forgetting “Kill Bill”, and I can take it that these investments were a crucial part of the Crossover project, I find it difficult to accept that one can draw any theological legitimacy from them, or that the investments were ultimately channelled for the glory of God and the expansion of His kingdom on earth.

In other words, even giving China Wine the benefit of a doubt, it is a very very long shot from protraying oneself as a scantily clad geisha, working in a nighclub, gyrating those hips in an awkwardly seductive way with equally clothes-deprived dancers intermingling lasciviously to winning souls for Christ, discipling them and spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. I guess my 8-year-old daughter’s reaction said it all when she happened to chance upon me looking at the music video. She turned away, muttering, “shame, shame.”  

I know pastor Kong Hee once tried to explain that the music video was merely trying to protray “the reality of a fallen secular world”. As such, it was necessary that his wife serves it up for real, even if she had to pretend that she liked it. In fact, the megachurch couple tried their darnest best to give the impression that they were sincerely doing it as a tactical move to win souls in a world that conservative Christians largely avoided, whether self-righteously or otherwise. It was somewhat like a gospel-packed-in-a-trojan-horse kind of evangelizing or a great-commission-by-no-hold-barred-worldly-immersion kind of gospel blitzing that lends it a shiny veneer of theological legitimacy.

But still, with China Wine and the unnecessarily large amount of money spent on it, the message of the gospel for me turns out to be more stupefying than glorifying. And didn’t Jesus say that in this world there will be trouble but take heart, he has overcome it? It appears to me that China Wine is more a case of succumbing to the world rather than overcoming it. At its best, it is throwing good money after bad albeit with the best of intentions. At its worst, it is throwing good money after a “theological purpose” which had backfired more than it has set hearts on fire.

However I see it, I cannot find any justification for even considering such a project to start with. Surely, there are better ways to turn a culture over to God; however worldly the culture appears to be. (And as an aside, to be fair to City Harvest, they have many worthy projects to reach out to the lost and I applaud the Church for them. Unfortunately, China Wine is just not one of them. Considering the works that Sun Ho and her church members had done in China, especially during the Tsunami and the Sichuan earthquake, and her humanitarian efforts of building schools in China, it is timely to be reminded here that one should never throw out the missionary Baby together with the China Wine bath waters).

Andy Crouch, the author of Culture Making, once wrote, "The only way to change culture is to create more of it." I guess China Wine took that advice and turned it on its head. It had in a drunken stupor reversed the order of things. Instead of creating more of the Christian culture in the world, it has created more of the world in the Christian culture. This is what makes China Wine so spiritually constipating for me. I mean, shouldn't the world be drawn to us by our Christ-likeness rather than vice versa, that is, by our contrived, even if well-intended, “Christ-lessness”? Aren't we the Light of the world and not the "dimmer of the world"?

My concern is that China Wine may give this impression that Christians are encouraged to venture into the secular world, to intermingle with their culture, to create an osmosis mix of sort, to blend biblical teachings with the world’s, and to dance to their music, all in the hope that every gyration of the hip would sow the first seed towards an authentic conversion of the heart. That being said, is there a risk that one may blur the distinction between "being in the world" and "being not of the world"?

Here, I recall what the late Reverend John Kavanaugh once wrote, "…having patterned ourselves after the image of our commodities, we become disenfranchised of our very humanness. Reduced to commodities, we lose the intimacy of personal touch. We cannot truly see or listen as vibrant men and women. We do not walk in freedom, since we are paralyzed by what is. Such is the result of idolatry." Is there therefore a fear that with China Wine, we Christians have commodified our faith by mixing ourselves up with the world? What truly are we crossing over to? Is there a risk that we may mix up our allegiance to the wrong master? Will we also run the risk of becoming christian schizoid "busy sowing wild oats for the first six days of the week and then go to church on sunday to pray for a crop failure?"

I think, quite unfortunately, Pastor Kong Hee has turned the Great Commission where Jesus send out his disciples into the world to change it to the Great Attraction where leaders invite the world into the church and run the risk of being changed by it. The contrast I see here is unnerving for me. The great commission is to impact the world with Christ centeredness but the great attraction is to join the world with program-centeredness. My concern is that it is more a case of attracting and less a case of convicting.

Further, there is another concern about the definitional scope and extent of theological legitimacy, that is, using church funds to do God’s work. My question here is this, how deep must one enter the world in order to bring the world out of the world? In other words, how much must one conform to the world in order to transform it back to God? One author wrote, “The common belief is that if we change our outsides, we can change our insides.” Obviously Jesus reversed that approach. He had come to change hearts and to allow changed hearts to change lives, and ultimately to change the world. I guess changing our world in the hope of changing ourselves runs the risk that this quote seeks to admonish, “it is not the ship on the water but the water in the ship that sinks it.”

In the book Wise as Serpents Harmless as Doves: Christians in China Tell Their Story by Jonathan Chao, the author recounted a story about a Christian named Sister Chen who was thrown into prison for her faith during the Cultural Revolution. This story is telling of how a life can change another by standing out and not blending in. Here’s the full extract of it.

Another sister, who was born in Guangdong, was arrested in 1958. She continued to preach the gospel in prison…she was imprisoned along with all kinds of prisoners: corrupt officials, robbers, immoral persons, political prisoners, etc. There was one prisoner who gave everyone a hard time. Not even the prison warden could do anything about her. She would not wash her face, brush her teeth, or comb her hair. Whenever she got a chance she would open her mouth to scold others.

No matter what the warden did to her – and he applied all sorts of punishments to her – still it was useless. The Communist prison keepers then asked the Christian sister to talk to this hopeless prisoner. “Alright, I’ll try,” replied our sister. Sister Chen then lived together with the other woman prisoner. She prayed for her. Gradually the woman changed. She bathed herself, changed her clothes, and even combed her hair. The prison warden was greatly surprised and asked, “How did you change her?”

“I had no strength to change her. I prayed for her, and I believed that God could change her.”

The transformed prisoner expressed her desire to receive Christ as her Savior and Lord of her life. Many other prisoners in the same prison also came to believe in the Lord. They said to the sister, “In the past we did not understand you. Now that we have lived together with you, we have discovered that you are different from others. Through you we have come to understand what it means to believe in the Lord.

I sincerely wonder whether those unbelievers can say the same thing, or even experience/express a fraction of that sentiment, after watching China Wine.

Let me end with Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. You will recall that he told her that she shall drink of the river of life (living waters) and shall thirst no more. I thank God that he did not, in the spirit of the crossover, sit her down, gossip about her past husbands, and hope that she would treat him as one of them before dropping a few hints of salvation here and there. That's not Jesus' MO.

Jesus stood firm, he laid down the keys of the Kingdom, he spoke to her with authority, conviction and most of all, love, and won her over by his character. The woman knew that Jesus was different, that is, not like those she knew. In other words, Jesus did not crossover to the world to save it because I guess the Rock of Ages does not move but everything else around it is moved by him. This is what I’d call culture in the making. Cheerz.

Image is taken from here.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Fallen pastors, wounded healers.

When I read that Sam Hinn, Benny Hinn’s younger brother, was recently re-ordained at Orlando-area Church on the Living Edge just eight months after he resigned from Gathering Place Worship Center at Sanford, Florida, for admitting to a four-year extramarital affair early this year, my mind went on a tailspin. At the center of this mental vortex are the following questions:- 

Are all pastoral sins equal? That is, should there be a shorter restoration period if the pastor is caught for theft (or tempering with the petrol meter when entering KL) as compared to adultery? Should there be a difference between a pastor who engages in a drunken one-off, one-night stand and one who commits an extramarital affair over time? Should the restoration process be even longer if he compounds the sexual sins with malicious cover up so that he could perpetuate the sexual sins behind the congregation's back? 

As an aside, this quote comes to mind here, "He who is required by the necessity of his position to speak the highest things is compelled by the same necessity to exemplify the highest things." (Gregory the Great). 

Here are more questions: Does forgiving mean that the pastor will be restored in full over a reasonable period of time? What is a reasonable period of time? Or maybe it's not about the time duration but the demonstrable fruits over time (with less emphasis on time and more on verifiable words and deeds with character references?) Should the church carry out an agent provocateur stunt to test the sincerity of the so-called repentance of the fallen pastor? (too paranoid?) 

Or, is wounded healer more effective, more empathetic? Is a restored pastor more respected by the congregation because he shows human fallibility (to err is human and to admit it is spectacular) and demonstrates a heart of repentance, devotion and sincerity? Should the church apply the King David's approach and, after the fallen pastor pays the penance and do the time, proceed to restore him in full with no probationary period? Because if His grace is sufficient for us, and in weakness we are made strong, and a broken reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out, then shouldn't the church restore and trust that the fallen pastor will return to the pulpit stronger, better and more effective? 

Or, should the fallen pastor never be restored to his former glory but relegated to a secondary/auxiliary role since sexual sin taints his personal credibility as a pastor, and it smears the church's reputation quite permanently, and it further puts the fallen pastor beyond the biblical standard of "to be beyond reproach"? Mmm...fruit basket for thoughts?

Now, let’s return to Sam Hinn’s case. Pastor Ron Johnson at the Gathering Place (TGP) was asked to do what Prophet Nathan did with King David but minus the ominous prophecies of course. He was asked to set a course to restore Sam Hinn back to ministry as they knew each other for more than 30 years. It was planned to be a two years’ restoration process. But unfortunately, Sam Hinn wanted to renegotiate the terms. When Pastor Johnson disagreed, he withdrew after three months and in the words of Pastor Johnson “has since found a group of men willing to endorse his leadership in a more expeditious manner.” 

This led Pastor Johnson to express his views with regrets in an article written on 12 August 2013 in CharismaNews entitled “An Overseer’s Response to Sam Hinn’s Re-Ordination (and the Restoration of Other Fallen Leaders)”. I can’t put it better than what he has written and here is the relevant extract. 

"Restoration is a not a quick fix but a systematic process of transformation that deals with a person’s deep-seated sinful and narcissistic tendencies...The restoration process begins with deep sorrow and brokenness over failure and sin. (And I must add here that I sincerely believe Sam is sorry for his sinful failure.)... 

The Bible teaches that we must bring forth the fruit of repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke3:8). The only way I know if a person has truly repented is not by what he says but by what he does. It is through demonstrating a tested, proven lifestyle of change that I can know. Then and only then can I know it’s real. That is fruit!... 

I know many who will say, “Aren’t we supposed to forgive and move on? Isn’t what you are suggesting ignoring God’s grace?” Absolutely not! Restoration is not only about forgiveness, but also about trust. We are all called to forgive just as Christ has forgiven us. Sam asked for and received my total forgiveness—as he’s done with numerous people in his life.

However, trust must be earned. Only when a person is serious enough to take the time to fix what he has broken and systematically walk out a process of transformation should we trust again." 

I fully endorse what Pastor Johnson has written above. It just makes simple perfect practical sense, especially the part about trust, and that it must be earned. Trust is a two-way street and for a public personality like Sam Hinn, the trust of the whole congregation takes time; and definitely more than three months in my view.

If you think about it, it’s not just about repentance, forgiveness or penance-paid. It is not even about remorse, a broken heart or a sincere apology. At its core, it is about assurance, about trust. I know that without vision, the people perish. But without trust, the leadership is tarnished.

Personally, I see the process of restoring trust as the proverbial planting of a seed. Unless and until the seed is given the required time to grow into a tree and to bear its fruits, there is no other way to assure the congregation as to whether the harvest is going to be a time of celebration or disappointment. Trust therefore comes to fruition with time and time is the bridge that closes the gap between the fallen pastor and his congregation. The process cannot be abridged because it is not about the fallen pastor and how strongly he feels about his repentance. It is more importantly about the congregation as a whole and how secure they feel about the pastor’s restoration. The fallen pastor must understand that his repentance cannot be a private affair since a public figure like him demands nothing short of a public acceptance of him.

MacArthur once wrote, "Hideous or scandalous sin leaves a reproach that cannot be blotted out. The persistent memory of betrayal made public leaves such a man unable to stand blameless before people and lead them spiritually." 

And the prince of preachers, Spurgeon, has this to say "Alas! The beard of reputation once shorn is hard to grow again. Open immorality, in most cases, however deep the repentance, is a fatal sign that ministerial graces were never in the man's character... my belief is that we should be very slow to help back to the pulpit men, who having been once tried, have proved themselves to have far too little grace to stand the crucial test of ministerial life."

My view? Well, apart from Sam Hinn's case, whose re-ordination may be pre-mature, and this is in no way a reflection of his character but an issue of public trust, I would cast my lot somewhere in the middle of it all. In other words, I take the road nestled in between Sam Hinn’s almost-immediate restoration and Spurgeon’s hard-to-re-grow reputational beard.

Of course, there are degrees to an act of moral lapse and public betrayal. As such, I would expect different treatments for a thoughtless speech spoken in an unguarded moment and an extramarital affair or a financial misdemeanor involving church funds, the latter being a criminal offence. In the same way that there are grey areas in most issues, there are also degrees of culpability which ranges from carelessness, willful blindness, negligence, momentary lapses and intentional, premeditated acts.  So, the restoration process varies depending on the acts.

But having said all that, I ultimately believe in repentance, forgiveness and restoration. No man is beyond redemption; even in public ministry as long as he or she has truly repented and his congregation can trust him again. Although the duration of the restoration process is secondary to the fruits the fallen pastor produce post-sin, it is undeniable that all the great fallen men of the old testament took time to heal and repent. As such, I would be more comfortable with a longer period of restoration than a shorter one. But still a longer period doesn't necessarily mean a more thorough repentance. As Jesus said, “By their fruits.”

Of course, there is never a guarantee that a fallen pastor will not reoffend or fall for the second time. But between a world of suspicion and a world of trust, I’d rather choose the latter anytime. I believe that nobody is perfect. I somehow understand the heart of a fallen man (or woman). I appreciate how difficult it is to keep pride at bay and to bring humility to the core; especially when you are constantly being showered with praises and your every word, however humdrum and bland, is treated like sanitized gospel gold. I also somehow understand and endorse what Mandela once said to the effect that if you treat someone well, even if he is of ill repute, he would usually live up to your expectation.

In the end, I sincerely believe that a society that goes beyond paying lip service to forgiveness and shows unreserved sincerity to help the fallen (instead of giving them the unconscious prejudgment and the inadvertent aversion) will bring out the best in a person. Sometimes full repentance takes its responsive cue from the degree of social acceptance shown and received. As CS Lewis once wrote, "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you." 

I think our society cries out for more authenticity. And a truly authentic society appreciates deeply the fallibility and vulnerability of men in public offices, especially the church. I believe that a "life beyond reproach" takes more than personal integrity and self control. Sometimes, it takes a brush of circumstantial fortuity.

You see, pastors wear their pants one leg at a time (that is, they are only human) and they are also a product of their own congregational culture. They no doubt lead. But they are also "led" by their followers at the same time. Sometimes the followers influence them more than they influence the followers. And they can be led astray by the followers. In other words, it takes two hands to clap.

Here, I recall a story told by George Orwell about himself as a British police officer stationed in Burma. One day Orwell received a call about a raging elephant creating havoc and killing a helpless man. When he rushed to the crime scene with his rifle, and donned in his full colonial regalia, Orwell saw the reverse of what he’d expected, that is, he saw a raging crowd of people clamoring for justice and a helpless elephant, cornered and lost. Orwell knew instantly that he ought not to kill the harmless animal but the crowd had already gone wild by this time and were chanting for blood. Orwell wrote that although he was the one in the position of authority, and the one in possession of the rifle, he felt powerless, completely unable to stop “two thousand wills, pressing me forward, irresistibly.” Under the pressure, Orwell pulled the trigger and shot the beast.

At times, a pastor of a large congregation may face similar pressure to perform, to comply and to live up to public expectation. And this pressure is self-reinforcing in that the pastor may be swayed to do what is popular instead of what is right. And like Orwell, he may feel two thousand wills, pressing him forward, irresistibly, and making him the puppet instead of the puppet master. In this case, what is often popular is to live up to an image of unblemishness and invulnerability even though the poor pastor may be at the verge of a mental breakdown for being under the constant pressure to keep up with apparent perfection.

And insidiously, because perfection is an illusion, it is sometimes an illusion perpetuated and worsened by pretension. I believe that self-righteousness comes in many forms and one of them is to expect an office holder to be perfect, or to embody a semblance of perfection, and nothing less. I think it is a lamentable fact that we, as the congregation, sometimes live out (or project) our expectations on the pastoral leadership just because we can’t live it up ourselves. And because of that, our pastors sometimes have no other choice but to pull the trigger on our behalf. 

Of course, by saying this, I am not excusing the conduct of the fallen pastor. I am just trying to understand the larger context of his conduct and the other seldom-considered factors that may indirectly contribute to his fall. For it is said that the more we understand, the more readily we forgive. Cheerz

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Beautiful Question

"Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question." (e e cummings)

Beautiful questions. Brilliant discovery. Better learning.    

Why? Why beautiful question? Because answering some questions eviscerate the answers. But questioning a question liberates the answer.

Here's how the beautiful is realized...

Why God? Why not?
Why believe? Why exists?
Why faith? Why trust?

Answers often come from a foreground of self-knowing.
While questions often come from a background of deep learning.

Why labor? Why rest?
Why sow? Why reap?
Why fail? Why learn?

If answers are like gated community exclusive to few, then questions are public landscape inclusive of all.

Why wait? Why hurry?
Why give? Why take?
Why pain? Why growth?

The right question opens the door that some answers shut.

Why die? Why live?
Why live? Why love?
Why love? If not, hate?
Why hate? Why forgive?

The "answer" tree often misses the whole "question" forest.

Why toil? Why hope?
Why doubt? Why so sure?
Why fear? Why dare?

Why me? Why we?
Why suffering? Why calvary?
Why sin? Why Jesus?
Why evil? Why God?

Indeed, always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.

Just as an answer exalts needlessly, a question humbles selflessly. So always seek after an enduring beauty that defies the smugness that comes from an unthinking answer. Cheerz.