Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Dear God, if you want to talk, then talk...

Dear God, if you want to talk, then talk.
I desire more than a still small voice.
I desire more than a quiet nod.
I desire more than random white noise.

In times of doubt and searing pain.
It helps if you show yourself plain.
Rather than to allow clues so faint.
That my atheist friends mock me insane.

Many times I strain to hear.
Your plans and will for me.
I await with trembling fear.
To take the path I cannot see.

So, dear God, I am here, praying.
Show me a sign or two.
Don't keep my soul hanging.
Don't make me a common fool.

I don't want to wait forever.
I don't want to live unknowing.
I need to see your plan if ever.
You can show it to me, unfolding.

They say faith is not seeing.
Where you're going.
But I can't fight this feeling.
That my life is freewheeling.

Trusting in you takes a lot.
Especially when it's darkest.
I don't want to be found caught.
Defeated in doubts' shackles.

Like a lover would relate to another.
Like a mother would assure her daughter.
Like a siren would wake up the neighbor.
Let your spirit be felt for all to savour.

Let me suggest a helpful list.
To make your presence known.
You can use the aurora borealis.
And let your full glory be shown.

So, dear God, if you want to talk, then talk.
Make it loud.
Make it clear.
Make it last.
Make it sure.

Then, a silent pause weighed on my shoulder.
I felt a soft wind passing over.
Nothing momentous to make me shudder.
As my eyes fell upon the Cross of time immemorial.

If God had talked, he had talked indeed.
It was in a specter that few had paid heed.
History remembers His voice at Calvary.
When His love was nailed in crimson revelry.

So God has spoken,
It's His way of relating.
That His son was broken.
And our response, He's waiting.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Why an agnostic gets his cake and eats it?

Some years ago, I read a book entitled In God We Doubt: Confession of a failed atheist by John Humphrys.

I read the book in order to better understand the mind of an agnostic. Notwithstanding the shortfalls in that position, I discover that there are some apparent benefits to being an agnostic. And to give them the well-deserved byte-space here, I would like to take this opportunity to summarize their stand.

Of course, my summary is not a representative of agnosticism as a whole and I think most of them couldn't be bothered anyway. It is very much a subjective assessment. Further, I am quite sure that what I am going to write here will grate against the nerves of some fundamentalists/militants on both sides of the fence, that is, theists and atheists. So, let me just take this preemptive stand and qualify that this is a provisional exercise tempered with a little self-indulgence on my part.

Now, before I outline the five benefits of being an agnostic, I think a little background is in order here.

In case you are wondering who or what is an agnostic, well, it is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves the existence of the ultimate cause of all things, that is, God. He remains uninvolved with or apathetic to things immaterial and unseen. He endorses learning only through personal experiences as the ultimate source of knowledge. So, it is not too far from the truth to say that an agnostic is someone who straddles in the middle of all things, that is, he avoids either extremes. He is neither religious nor irreligious. He is neither a devotee nor a skeptic. He is neither hot nor cold. That’s one way of seeing it.

Another way of seeing it is that an agnostic is neither at either extreme nor is he in the middle of it all. He just doesn’t have an opinion about all things spiritual or supernatural. He lives his life in the here and now. He sees his birth as the start of personal surviving and thriving and he sees his death as the end of it. In between, he makes the most of his life by keeping his nose clean, his mind clear and his hands busy.

You can say that in the century-old debates about religion, where atheists and theists are arguing their hearts out, an agnostic is either a spectator in the crowd or he is someone who is not even in the crowd because he has better things to do at home or at work. I guess if an agnostic were asked about what he thinks about religion or atheism, he would simply reply, “Well, the atheist has the most convincing argument but the least inspiring. And the theist has the most inspiring argument but the least convincing.” Therein ends my definition of an agnostic.

So, without further ado, let me unfold the five basic benefits of being an agnostic as I see it.

1)           He avoids the silliness of religion and the bullheadedness of atheism. If you think about it, an agnostic is the smarter of the two extremes. He doesn’t go around looking for the face of God in a plate of spaghetti or interpret a single beam of sunlight, which manages to escape through the swirling mass of dark menacing cloud, as some kind of supernatural sign meant only for him. At the other atheistic extreme, he doesn’t close his mind to the beautiful wonders that this world has to offer. He is open to change his mind when changing his mind is justified. So, if one day, a supernatural being, like ET, would to descend from the sky with his index finger outstretched to make  the connection with an agnostic, the latter would readily and willingly embrace it. However, a bullheaded atheist in the same situation, I suspect, would readily rush off to make an appointment for a brain scan (uncannily, seen from this angle, an agnostic almost resembles a mature Christian minus the headless fanaticism or a level-headed atheist without the tightfisted militancy).

2)          The second benefit is this: An agnostic doesn’t really need to contend with one of the ultimate conundrums of life, that is, Why is there something rather than nothing? As far as the agnostic is concerned, there is clearly something rather than nothing because he himself is that something that no amount of nothingness can ever deny. And if there were really nothing to start with and it stayed that way, consistently and unchanging, then no amount of somethingness can deny that fact either (I know...semantic chaos). By plain logic, only one state can exist at any one time as they are clearly mutually exclusive. So, for an agnostic, he is satisfied just to enjoy the somethingness that is himself and the world around him and he is neither concerned with the “Why” of it all nor the “how come this way and not the other way” kind of existential highwire act that vexes most religious and irreligious people. In a nutshell, an agnostic chooses to travel light even if traveling light means depriving himself of the inspiring aspects of believing and the self-endorsed freedom of denouncing.

3)           The next benefit of being an agnostic is what I would like to call the blissful state of nonchalance. An agnostic understands that it takes a lot of hard work and discipline to stay an atheist or a theist. To be a full-blooded atheist for example, you must be able to stick to your guns and to daily repeat this Hitchen’s mantra taken from his book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, “Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children.” Any lesser sentiment or passion would not make the cut of being a bona fide, dye-in-the-wood atheist. And to be a full blooded theist, the never-say-die, stick-in-the-mud kind, you must always be looking to the clouds for the end of days, that is, the apocalyptic countdown to both universal destruction and selective deliverance - all happening at the same time.  So, both cemented and almost ossified positions (atheism and theism that is) are mentally and physically exhausting for an agnostic who honestly just want to punch out after work, enjoy a hearty family dinner, and have a good night sleep.  

4)   An agnostic avoids the disappointments of unanswered prayers and the disillusionments of unbelief. At least, when prayers are not realized, an agnostic (in the shoes of a theist) is not compelled to give some of the trite excuses (not that they are not credible but at times, they are too self-referential and arbitrary to be credible to an agnostic). Here are the usual excuses: “He has better plans for you”, “Keep believing, don’t give up”, “You are asking amiss”, “It’s not the right time”, “Any unconfessed sins?”, and this last one, “Maybe it’s redemptive suffering that you are going through, and so instead of taking this bitter cup away from you, you should be asking for a second helping?” To an agnostic, instead of coming up with the above excuses to squeeze the faith elephant into the theological fridge, he merely attribute them to random luck for things he has no control over and character flaws for things that he has. It’s all quite black and white for him actually. As for the disillusionment of atheism, the agnostic can do no better in explaining this than to endorse this sagely words of the great physicist Freeman Dyson, “Science and religion are two windows that people look through trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leaves out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.” Well, for an agnostic, he is not exactly going to be looking at both windows at any time soon since the only “window” he is looking at is the tv screen in his living room. However, Dyson’s quote still somehow resonates with him because it is about keeping both windows open instead of shutting them tight and thereby compromising the amount of light that is illuminating his mental room.

5)           Finally, and this is obvious, an agnostic gets the best of both worlds. He gets to remain un-religious, mostly uncommitted, free from the hypocrisy of religiosity and the clutters of its practices, and yet he can quietly savor or immerse himself in the rich historical culture and community of organized religion. In other words, to borrow a biblical phrase, he gets to be in the world of religion but not of that world. At the other extreme (atheism), he gets to embrace the latest scientific discovery, learn to accept and adopt, revise and update his storehouse of knowledge continuously. And yet at the same time, for those subjects that science has a short reach, like the mystery of our origin and the perplexity of our conscience, he can relate intimately to the sentiments implied in these words by John Humphrys, "Many atheists...say that people believe because of the way they were brought up: children are credulous and accept what they are told. As they grow older they get rid of their comfort blankets and often the beliefs with which they were inculcated. But not everyone does that - and even those who do may return to belief, in one form or another, in later life. There remains what the atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling calls "the lingering splinter in the mind...a sense of yearning for the absolute."" In other words, the agnostic keeps his options open. Therein ends the five main benefits of being an agnostic.

I guess it is this same “lingering splinter in the mind" and this "sense of yearning for the absolute" that led the once formidable atheist philosopher Antony Flew to come to this public declaration in 2004, “I now believe there is a God!” Personally, I believe an agnostic still sometimes crosses over to the supernatural just so that he could take a sneak peek into the void in case the divine decides to make a special, if not brief, appearance. Cheerz.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

7 Lessons on managing a megachurch

This is an extract from the trial of City Harvest taken from the Straits Times today.

"My client is in the dock and his life is in a mess. His instructions to me is that if you had told him what was right and what was wrong, he would have followed your advice...You are breaking his heart, the way you are denying things." (Senior Counsel Sreenivasan for City Harvest Church).

Auditor Foong Daw Ching rebutted, "They know very well they come to me on an ad hoc basis...They are intelligent people. You paint (them) as though they are 21-year-olds."

There are actually seven helpful lessons that I can learn here. And they are lessons about running a multi-million-dollar, media-grabbing, magnum-cool, megachurch. Here are the lessons for your digest.

1) Just like the movie censorship RA(21) rating, running a megachurch has an age-restriction too. You have got to be above 21 years old. This is a must because any age below that would make you look unintelligent or unintelligible. This is the all-important first lesson. If you are eighteen years old, eager to set up a megachurch, and think the world of yourself, wait long long.

2) Related to the first lesson is this second: you have got to be intelligent, and preferably be surrounded by intelligent people. This is basic common sense because dumb people would ruin the church's reputation by making dumb investments on dumb-enough music videos and dance moves on the dumb premise that they are all for the feet-tapping glory of god...oops, the whole pun is honestly unintended.

3) The third lesson is instructive and it is culled from the quote above, "They are intelligent people. You paint (them) as though they are 21-year-olds." The catchword here is "paint". To run a megachurch, you must be an artist, familiar with the art of handcrafting and better still painting. It's actually all about painting the right picture for your devotees to see. Just avoid any possible kaypoh-like scrutiny. As long as it is admired from afar, from a distance, your art will shine like a shimmering mirage. This is another basic common sense because the devil is often in the details. And for a megachurch, the angels are often traipsing on stage.

4) Do not ever seek help only on an ad hoc basis. This is the fourth lesson on running a megachurch. Being intelligent and artistic is one thing, but seeking help only on an ad hoc basis is like peeing once a month. It's bladder-ly ill-advised. You have to bear this in mind because running a megachurch calls for continuous commitment. And any discontinuity in seeking advice or doing so only at one's convenience may be interpreted by the narrow-minded critics as if you have something to hide. So, be consistent and not consistently inconsistent.

5) "His instructions to me is that if you had told him what was right and what was wrong, he would have followed your advice," so says City Harvest’s counsel. The fifth lesson is hidden in this sentence and it is this: Never base "what is right and what is wrong" on a man, especially if he is someone who has admitted that he's not even good with numbers. As a megachurch leader, what is right and what is wrong should always be premised on the Spirit of Truth and not on a numerically-challenged bookkeeper who is now apparently aloof.

6) The sixth lesson is about breaking hearts and it is taken from this line, "you are breaking his heart, the way you are denying things." In order to run a megachurch successfully, always embrace or steel your heart for lots of disappointments. These disappointments come in many forms and the most heartbreaking one is when your member no longer accepts what you say as gospel truth because his version happens to serve him better. But, let's not sidetrack. This lesson is of crucial importance and you ignore it at your own peril. In a nutshell, it is about keeping your heart pure and in this case, pure from those who only have their own interest at heart and not yours.

7) Here comes a practical seventh lesson and it is about airing public laundry. The cue here is in this opening line, "My client is in the dock and his life is in a mess." As the leader of a megachurch, this public confession is a big no-no. Never get yourself in such a messed up situation if it can be avoided. In fact, you are to avoid it at all cost. If it is possible, always resort to scapegoating tactics like blaming the accountant - he is always an easy target, since, in like manner that a cook can always whip up a storm, the book-keeper can always cook up the books. Or, maybe, pick the weakest link in the chain and smoke out the Judas character. He is not hard to find. He is usually the one closest to the money trail like the business development manager. Alternatively, and this should never be tried at home cell, you can always look up to the heavens and expect an apology. That way, the church of sheep-like members would always view you as one of them, that is, a poor, sacrificial lamb offered to the "secular dogs" for a "god-ordained purpose".

Therein ends the seven lessons I have learned from this City Harvest saga. I hope you had as much fun learning them as I had writing them. Cheerz!

Disclaimer: All errors and omissions found in this article belong exclusively to the author, that is, me, and all credit, if any, goes to the leadership of a megachurch.