Saturday, 26 October 2013

The many uses of a Church.

Early this week, this caption in the Straits Times caught my attention:-
Religious fire pit in Toa Payoh used for barbecue.

Thereafter it kept me thinking. Mm...using a place meant for religious activities, in this case, a designated pit to conduct taoist rites and offering, for personal and family leisure, that is, a barbecue outing. I see a parallel here in the churches. Taking this news as a metaphor, I can think of 6 uses of our modern churches that depart from its original purpose.

1) As a social gathering. This is unavoidable. Many famous atheists including the late philosopher extraordinaire Bertrand Russell enjoyed the gregarious culture of the church. The people factor is infectious. If no man is an island, then the church is great place to meet people. We flourish through social interactions and many find their life partners there too. Frienships are also forged and ties are strengthened when people come together. But what is unavoidable is also that which distracts the most. There is always a risk that we attend and stay in church because of the company and nothing else. For some of us, the attraction is in the numbers and big churches today lack neither the numbers nor the opportunity to make the social connection. Some churches tend to measure themselves against the three Bs: buildings, budgets and bodies. And at most times, it is the latter (bodies) that exerts the greatest hold over the people. In our eagerness to meet people, mingle with the crowd and regale them with our knowledge, accolades and spirituality, we often bypass the one person whose presence and attention we need most. No points for guessing who that person is.  I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it well, “Anyone who loves the dream of community more than the Christian community itself (warts and all) becomes a destroyer of the latter even though the devotion to the former is faultless and the intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.

2) As a personal, exclusive club. This is another unavoidable outcome that flows from the first usage above. As the numbers get bigger, people will invariably polarize. People with certain interest will gravitate towards group with similar interest. It is therefore not uncommon to find cliques forming within the church that discriminate against members who do not see things their way. Although such discrimination is not blatant or open, they are felt nevertheless after a while and they all add up. For example, I heard of a cell group that endorsed Calvinism wholeheartedly and believed that only those specially elected were saved. Such doctrinal differences can be divisive and those who did not accept their view were generally tolerated. The key word is tolerated. Most times, such toleration percolated through  the group's patronizing smiles, condescending squints and arm-length association. Sooner or later, the toleration will reek of discrimination and the lone ranger will soon feel alienated. Friendships and faith can be undermined because of such unspoken discrimination.

3) As an entertainment center. I guess this is a very tempting reason for people to join the church, especially the megachurches. The annual passion plays, the exciting church camps, the high energy stage performances, the awe-inspiring media and video presentation, and the larger-than-life preachers all elevates the church into a carnival-like, mediagenic, pyrotechnical prominence. When the wisemen were looking for the manger where Jesus was born, they followed a star over Bethlehem. Nowadays, just entering the sanctuary of a well-equipped church, you will literally see stars. The ambience is electrifying. It is like a night in a visually stunning pop concert. Gone are the days of monosyllabic welcome, monochromatic wall colors, and monologue-like sermons. I can therefore understand how the attraction can be irresistible. But this is unfortunately the same reason why some members are losing their spiritual bearings after a while. As the environment gets more complicated, the vision also gets less focused. This is also where the church becomes more of a “feel-good” entertainment hotspot rather than an unpretentious place of personal devotion and worship. In other words, instead of becoming more relevant to God, the Church becomes more relevant to the world. The keen observation of Carl Braaten in The Gospel for a Neopagan Culture is instructive, “The church is tempted to become relevant to the people of this culture by using their wishes and criteria rather than those of the church. Evangelism is then driven by a market or consumer-oriented mentality. The church can “meet people’s needs” as people define their needs. Thus the people who may have little or no recent experience in the church develop the evaluation of the church and the church struggles to fulfill their expectations.”

4) As a personal wishing well. I once heard a testimony about a member thanking God for blessing her with a timely win in the national lottery. For the undiscerning, this peculiar kind of testimony never fails to whet their appetites for the same blessing. The enticement is like a kid going into a giant Toys R Us store and filling up his trolley with all that he can carry totally free of charge. Although many would be discreet about making their Christmas shopping list public to the god they view as their divine Santa Claus, it is undeniable that the promises of the Bible may be misinterpreted by them to mean that God is their personal celestial butler or their uncondtional material provider. Some may even come to Church expecting more blessings than sacrifices. Somehow our needs come first and God seems to be the means of fulfilling them. Here, the words of Os Guineess hit the nail on the head, “The exaggerated half-truths about the church’s needing to meet needs...breeds unintended consequences. Just as church-growth’s modern passion for “relevance” will become its road to irrelevance, so its modern passion for “felt needs” will turn the church into an echo chamber of fashionable needs that drown out the one voice that addresses real human need below all felt needs. After all, if true needs are a first step toward faith and prayer, false needs are the opposite. As George MacDonald observed, “That need which is no need, is a demon sucking at the spring of your life.” Alas, the ferris wheel of greed is further greased up by the pulpit teachings of prosperity preachers who make personal enrichment an inalienable right of the believers. There is in fact a dubious teaching that is making its rounds which gives the impression that those who serve a big god should expect big things from him. And the only limitation to such unlimited blessing is the believer’s limiting faith. I guess the irony is that the people who are truly profiting from the prosperity teachings are the teachers themselves.

5) As a platform for the ministry of self. This is one usage of the church that is most hard to detect but most unsurprising since the journey of faith is always one of self versus God. The tussle is almost endless. For some, the self unfortunately wins with God taking second place. But such carnal and empty victory is often discreetly masqueraded on the stage or in the ministry. Leaders are particularly vulnerable to this adulteration. As the church gets bigger or the ministry gets more successful, the attention and adoration also follow suit. With attention and adoration, the leaders will start to believe in their own invulnerability. And invulnerability invariably nourishes pride and pride inevitably elevates self. This cycle is not only vicious, it is also viciously self-reinforcing. I recall 2 Corinthians 12:10 which reads, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” For those who privately believe in their own invulnerability, it is a case of “for when I am weak, then I am not strong.” In the book The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero, I learn that one can be “spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.” The author went on to list down some very interesting observations about leadership as follows:-

* You can be a dynamic, gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.

* You can function as a church board member or pastor and be unteachable, insecure and defensive.

* You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.

* You can fast and pray a half-day a week for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as discernment.

* You can lead hundred of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.

* You can pray for deliverance from the demonic realm when in reality you are simply avoiding conflict, repeating an unhealthy patten of behavior traced back to the home in which you grew up.

6) As a competitive corporation. It is strange that this last form of church usage is even considered here. Isn’t the church set apart from the world? But the reality is that megachurches do compete with one another whether they admit it or not. There is always this my-church-is-bigger-than-yours or your-members-are-defecting-to-my-church mentality, which is of course kept close to one's chest. Running a megachurch is often a case of running a business. As members and money roll in, the church becomes bogged down by regulations and rules, protoccols and procedures, doctrinal stasis and inflexibility. Suddenly, filling up the seats becomes a sales quota to meet. Church staff are all suit up to offer their best side without showing the side that really matters. Members’ feeling are treated with kid gloves; especially the influential and rich ones. And the services become a series of weekly clockwork arrangements with zero tolerance for errors. As the church grows even bigger, partly as a result of people attracting people, it becomes less souls-oriented and more program-oriented. Even the winning of souls turns into a competitive sport between churches. Soon, the leadership becomes inward-focus and the staff under pressure are expected to produce tangible results; most of which are measured against a worldly benchmark. In the end, the irony is that the same qualities that helped the church to grow into a spiritual behemoth are also the same qualities that caused her to become bloated and overbearing. Alas, I guess there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the problems that come with runaway church growth. Each leadership will have to come to God in their own way to borrow His lamp to light the path under their feet. One author puts it this way, “I stopped waiting on the Lord for a growing church and started to simply wait on the Lord for him alone.” (Peter Scazzero)

Let me leave you with this poem by John Newton about growing as a Christian and about how God works in ways most disagreeable to our human expectations.

I ask the Lord that I might grow
 In faith, and in love, and every grace,
Might more of his salvation know
And seek more earnestly his face.

I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.”


Saturday, 19 October 2013


I went to a bookshop recently. While I was browsing through the shelves, a book called out to me. It was a small book. It was totally black. It was entitled “The BOOK of ANSWERS” by Carol Bolt, a professional artist living in Seattle. It was a strange book. Each page had an advice, a short message. That’s all. There were hundred of pages of such brief counsels. If you were looking for a novel-like book or a non-fiction replete with facts, then you will be sorely disappointed. There was no story to start with. No conclusion. Neither a beginning. Not even a content page.

Here’s what made it even weirder. At the back cover of the book was this “HOW TO USE” section which reads as follows:-

1)  Hold the closed book in your hand, on your lap or on a table.
2)  Take 10 to 15 seconds to concentrate on your question. Questions should be phrased closed-end, e.g. “Is the job I’m applying for the right one?” or “Should I travel this weekend?
3)  While visualizing or speaking your question (one question at a time), place one hand palm down on the book’s front cover and stroke the edge of the pages, back to front.
4)  When you sense the time is right, open the book and there will be your answer.
5)  Repeat the process for as many questions as you have.  

Yes, I know what you are thinking. Drop that crap-alogy and run. Save your soul while you still can! Unfortunately, I held the little black book for longer than I should and was duly tempted. Alas, I gave in. I squirreled over to one corner of the bookshop and started to list down a few questions of my own; some open-ended and the rest closed-end. Here are the questions I listed:-

1) Does my son have a future?
2) Will I remarry?
3) What will my career be like in the future?
4) What would make me really happy?
5) Am I in the right religion?
6) Does my future look bright?
7) Is my wife right for me?
8) What is the meaning of life?

Out of curiosity, I rubbed the edge of the pages, back to front, like stroking the top of my bare-belly, and gingerly turned a page. To the first question “Does my son have a future?”, I got this answer, “USE YOUR IMAGINATION”. I was puzzled at first. Then I scratched my forehead and reflected. Mm…maybe it is all about imagination. With imagination comes innovation, and with innovation comes invention. Ok, that sounds satisfactory. My son would just have to imagine out a future for himself. Let’s go for another spin or flip, I mused.

I then recalled my second cheeky question, “Will I remarry?” Of course, I was just being playful and wanted to see what the Book of Answers had to offer. Was it for real? So, after the usual stroking, I turned another page and the pulp oracle answered, “BET ON IT”. Ouch! That was weird. I was confounded, speechless.

I quickly dismissed it and went on to the third question without thinking, “What will my career be like in the future?” The page that found me was, “DON’T FORGET TO HAVE FUN”. Well, that’s interesting. For me, the book was telling me to stop thinking about my career as work and start thinking about it as fun. Profound, I thought to myself. Then, I progressed to the fourth question, “What would make me really happy?

A sense of anticipation lingered in the air before I flipped and this was what my eyes set on, “DON’T IGNORE THE OBVIOUS.” Mmm…that’s deep, enlightening even. Is the book trying to tell me that happiness is right before my very eyes? That is, in the laughter of my daughter? In the kiss I had this morning with my wife? In the times I enjoyed with my son jogging together? Wow, for a moment, I thought the Book of Answers was really up to something. It was timely and sagely. It knew me. It knew about life. It was like it “had been there” and “had done that”.  

Then, as I got my senses back, I let out a sustained chuckle. How silly. I guess out of the one reader who got most of the answers spot-on from the Book of Answers, there are five or more who walked away in disappointment or ridicule. The Book of Answers is just about as randomly correct as tarot cards, Ouija board and fortune cookies. There is just no logical explanation for its so-called tailored and timely advice except by a stroke of pure chance. This reminds me of what the late physicist Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Indeed, we are easily fooled. As a human race, we are incurably and indissolubly gullible. We believe anything and many things (me included). In the book, Why we believe what we believe by Dr Andrew Newberg, the author summarizes the following reasons why we believe:-

1) They help us to organize the world in meaningful ways.
2) They give us our sense of ourselves.
3) They help us to take action in specific ways.
4) They allow us to accomplish our goals.
5) They help to regulate the emotional centers of the brain.
6) They allow us to socialize with others.
7) They guide us in our moral and educational pursuits.
8) They heal our bodies and minds.

So, it can be seen from the above that our beliefs, whether they are scientifically verified or not, help us to navigate this complex world. It gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. It defines us in a way that helps us to define the world and make sense of it. But sometimes, or at most times, our belief can be self-sabotaging. It can suppress truth (reality) or ignore it. It can thwart common sense. It can also ossify our position and make us resistant to purposeful changes. Especially when beliefs become self-serving, we can be led by the nose by them because as a Greek statesman/orator once said, “Nothing is easier than self-conceit. For what each man wishes, he also believes to be true.” Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of religious fanaticism.

I guess it is easy to entice anyone with the gospel of health, wealth and all round goodness.  In fact, just yesterday, I was surfing Facebook and I stumbled upon this post, which reads, “If you worship a small god, you are serving the wrong god,” said Katherine Kaufman (sic – “Kuhlman”). When the Lord asked me to trust Him as my sole provider, I told the Lord very bluntly, that I will not accept eating porridge and salted fish everyday or wear lousy clothes. Because I am not serving the king of beggars but the King of all kings on earth and the Lord of all lords in heaven…” 

For me, it is difficult not to accept that a loving and all-powerful god wants me to be rich, happy and healthy. It is almost heresy to expect anything less. But the reality is far from my wishful thinking. I know this is hard to accept since everyone of us wants to feel special, singled-out, and different from the rest. This is only human nature, especially for the immoderately religious. Our disappointments and disillusionments with the world inevitably draw us inward to seek solace, hope and encouragement in our beliefs. But at times, the refuge that we seek unfortunately ends up on the wrong side of the faith. We mistake our needs and wants for God’s and we enlarge our own estate rather than His. This is also where we use God as a ladder to scale up our hierarchy of wants. We therefore run the risk of telling God what we want instead of allowing God’s will to unfold in our life and at His own time. This is also why we are putty in the hands of miracle healers who claims to have supernatural powers.

Take Adam Dreamhealer for example. He claimed that a large black bird once revealed to him the secrets of the whole universe. Thereafter, he has the powers to heal. He has many followers and patients who put their faith on him. If you can make sense of it, his website reads, “Adam uses energy healing in a unique way to merge the auras of all participants with healing intentions. Then he uses holographic views to energetically affect through intention those present.” Then we have Natasha Demkina who claims that she has x-ray vision to diagnose diseases. This is what she has to say about her preternatural abilities, “I was at home with my mother and suddenly I had a vision. I could see inside my mother’s body and I started telling her about the organs I could see. Now, I have to switch from my regular vision to what I call medical vision. For a fraction of a second, I see a colorful picture inside the person and then I start to analyze it.” Move aside, Superman.

The gullibility galore does not end here. There is the all-pervasive magnet therapy. Proponents of this unusual and unverified therapy claim that placing magnets close to the body can treat various ailments, even heal bones and improve blood flow. Mind you, this is an industry that has more than $1 billion in sales of magnetic bracelets, shoe insoles, neck braces and even pillows.

How about homeopathy? This is a very strange form of alternative medicine. In the book Trick or Treatment, the authors Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst describes it as such, “A system for treating illness based on the premise that like cures like. The homeopath treats symptoms by administering minute or non-existent doses of a substance which in large amounts produces the same symptoms in healthy individual. Homeopaths focus on treating patients as individuals and claim to be able to treat virtually any ailment, from colds to heart disease.”

I seriously can’t imagine how a near complete dilution of a substance can cure an ailment which a proper dosage of that same substance is responsible for causing. Yet, people all over the world blindly put their money into such treatment even when there is a mountain of evidence to disprove it. I think this doggerel from the first Episcopal Bishop of Albany is most apt to put homeopathy in its place, “Stir the mixture well/Lest it prove inferior/ Then put half a drop/Into Lake Superior/ Every other day/Take a drop in water/You’ll be better soon/Or at least you oughter.”

Bloodletting is another form of treatment that was popular in the eighteen century. It was believed that cutting skin and severing blood vessels could cure many ailments. Patients were literally made to bleed out in order to balance the four humors in the body, that is, blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. George Washington was suspected of being bled to death via bloodletting. Another perverse treatment is trepanning. It was once used to treat many ailments in particular migraine. No further details is required to describe this most bizarre medical intervention except to say that it involves drilling into the human skull in order to relieve pressure from the brain.

Many of us may not be familiar with Dr John R Brinkley. He was a twentieth century medical quack who believed that transplanting the gonads of billy goat into men would reverse or at least halt the ageing process and improve the patient’s sexual experiences. I can’t understand why many men would stand in line to offer their family jewels to a fraudster to be replaced with those of goats! (and why goat’s anyway and not lion’s?) I guess anything that promises youthful virility to men of certain age is definitely a balls-grabber (pardon the pun).

And then, there is Prince Charles. In the disgusting revelation of the so-called “Camillagate” tapes, he talked of reincarnation as his mistress’s tampon! (Honestly, most honestly, in my craziest moments of spousal affection and admiration, I didn’t even come close to that thought) Of course, in the privacy of lovers’ chatters, one can be expected to be flippant and liberal, almost nonsensical, about things. That’s most understandable. It was therefore more likely a joke that was made in very bad taste than an endorsement of a belief. But this was also the same man who once encouraged people to talk to their plants. In a 1986 interview, he was caught saying: “I just come and talk to the plants, really – very important to talk to them. They respond.” I know many plant-lovers chat with their plants. They are more like social monologues with oneself as I do it often when driving or in a train. But for the future heir to the royal throne to go on air to say that the plants respond when they are talked to may be stretching the science of botany a tad too far.  

Anyhow, there you have it. The crazy things that people believe and do. (Actually I am tempted here to write more about how it is legal to engage in festive intercourse with donkeys in a northern Columbian town of San Antero, but then I think that would be an overkill). I guess we will always believe in such things as long as they hold out something for our benefit; even if they make the remotest of sense to us. Alas, it is often the bait that hides the hook. But sometimes, I think that you don’t even need a bait for some people. You just need to polish the hook to make it glitter, throw your line into busy waters, and wait for the definite tug. They will surely come. I call it the tug of fools.

Let me end with this thought from Sherlock Holmes. “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it; there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.Time for some mental spring cleaning? Cheerz. 


I think I owe it you my reader to finish what I first started. So, for the sake of completeness, here is what the Book of Answers has to say about my remaining questions (and I leave it to you to make sense of it):-

1)  Am I in the right religion?

2)  Does my future look bright?

3)  Is my wife right for me?

4)  What is the meaning of life?