Thursday, 27 February 2014

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Mmm…Just musing about the one who claimed to be the king of kings but rode on a donkey on palm Sunday instead of a bejeweled chariot in the sky led by a brilliant host of stallions. Jesus is really something. Even if you were not a believer, you would still have to give it to him for his achievements. Napoleon, Gandhi and Einstein had all paid their personal and individual tributes to this man who had taught and lived a life that is emulated even till today, and for decades to come.

Even atheists would have to admit that no man, or very few of them, had attained equivalent posthumous status like Jesus did. And mind you, none of them would say that Jesus’ life and ministry were merely incidental or coincidental to the widespread popularity he is still receiving today. In other words, it is not a fluke. And Jesus did all this without an itinerant biographer or the hounding media or a proper printing press. My god, he lived almost one thousand and five hundred years before the printing press! Eat your heart out man, Gutenberg.

Secular historians may deny or resist his claim to messiahship or savior-hood or his proclamation that he had come to fulfill the scriptures. But they would be hard-pressed to deny him his rightful place in the annals of history as the one who, in living, had touched lives in the most personal manner conceivable; and who, in death, had given his life in the most intimate sacrifice possible; and who, in his self-proclaimed resurrection, has revived hope in the most sustainable way imaginable (to his believers worldwide).

The standing churches, the charities established in honor of him, and the modern world formed on the back of his radical, almost counterintuitive, ideas beginning at the sermon of the mount, all stand as a testament to the fact that Jesus was sui generis (an exception to the general rule), a class above the rest, and a cut not made from this worldly cloth. 

If I were to study Jesus as a humanist or a secularist, I would have to admit that he was no ordinary person. Putting all my bias aside as a Christian, I would have to come to a point to acknowledge that he was more than a history maker in the likes of Alexander, Genghis Khan or the great helmsman Mao Zedong (not that I particularly admire them). There is just something about Jesus that distinguishes him from the rest of the history movers and shakers.

He changed lives in the most intimate way. He liberated women. He mixed with the rejects of society and gave them hope. One author wrote, "In Jesus we have the holiest man who ever lived, and yet it was the prostitutes and lepers and thieves who adored him." Further, he offered more than the other cheek at the Cross. He represented non-violent resistance or submission. He lived a humbled existence, rejecting what this world would deem important like fame, fortune and power. He died in the worst manner possible in order to secure the best alternative conceivable. A modern day psychologist once remarked, "Jesus approached each individual with a psychological brilliance that was compelling. No one who met him could ever forget how it felt." If first impression lasts, then meeting Jesus meant that it lasted for a lifetime and more.

But above all, what captured me most about Jesus is that he was born not to rule a kingdom on earth but the kingdom in our hearts. I truly believe that that is the only way to change the world, that is, changing hearts - one heartbeat at a time.

I guess that is why Jesus did not say that he wanted us to be "fishers of political systems", "fishers of ideologies", or "fishers of fashions, fads or trends". He simply wanted us to be fishers of men. And in so doing, he wanted us to reel in the hearts of men (and women) and change the world from inside-out, one soul at a time.

Napoleon once waxed lyrical about Jesus, "I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between him and every other person in the world, there is no possible terms of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him." What high praise from a conqueror of empires himself!

Sometimes, we have to give credit where credit is rightfully due. John Ortberg wrote to the effect that Jesus was never married yet he knew the heart of women more than a husband knows his. He never held office and yet he ruled as a prince of peace in the hearts of many. He never wrote a book and yet books have been written about him, his teachings and his claims. And the collective impact persuaded great minds, transformed hardened hearts, and inspired the most stubborn spirit.

Let me end with this unconventional thought and I hope the atheists can appreciate this. Jesus seemed very much like he came from another world. He talked about the other world most of the time. It is rumored that he knew the way, the truth and the light. In fact, he said that he was the embodiment of all three in one. He even declared that he was God, the son of God. What audacity if such were the twaddle of a trickster! In fact, CS Lewis narrowed the options for us: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Of course, there are always other options. Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins hinted that Jesus could be  mistaken and not know about it; a kind of self-deluded grandiose.  Some are even claiming that Jesus was no different from Joseph Smith, Jim Jones or David Koresh.  Well, I am sure the difference is obvious from the life Jesus led and the life he eventually gave up. In any event, I am not here to argue for or compare those questionable lives with the life of Christ. But my point is this, whichever way you see it, Jesus had really left us with no other choice; for those who take him seriously of course.

For me, I guess there is no middle way or a sit-out at the back benches or a straddling-on-the-fence position. And the real tragedy of man is ironically not so much about making the wrong choice. Surprised? I think the greater tragedy is never to have made that definitive choice and then carry on living a life pretending that one had already been made.

I can think of a no more insufferable existence than one that is stranded between two great unknowns, be it of glory or otherwise, after the expiry of a life because of a refusal or a neglect to make that choice. At least an atheist or a theist can't say that they have not made their choices. And as they have made it, they can then proceed on their chosen paths of discovery. What then is the hanged fate of the luke-warmer, the half-hearted or the undecided?

You see, Jesus came not to run for office, campaign for presidency or chair over board meetings (its modern equivalent that is). He came for us, for me – so says he. His visitation is personal. He claims to be God reconnecting with his creation; a divine reconciliation, a meeting of hearts. It is literally the deep calling to the deep. It is not disputed that he spent 3 decades of peaceful co-existence to devote 3 years of ministry and teaching so as to endure 3 days of unspeakable cruelty for us. The least we can do is to take the time to make this choice and to either live it up for him or walk away for good. But to live somewhere in the muddling middle and never coming to a decision is to live an existence no different from the proverbial Buridan’s ass that died of hunger and thirst because it could not decide between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Cheerz.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Money or nothing

This happened last Sunday. It was after church service. I joined two families for lunch. Our children all played together. The parents were chatting at a pizza cafĂ© beside the kids’ play area. It was one of those usual lunch gatherings. We were talking about why my friend had to work so late into the night almost everyday.

Then, out of the blue, my friend asked me this, “Do you have one million in your bank account now?” I shook my head. “How about 500K?” I said I don’t think so. At this time, the kids came over and the questioning was truncated.

After that, on my way home, my friend’s questions kept me thinking about life and money. I mused about the questions asked. Of course, my friend told me before that he wanted to provide for his son (he has only one child). He wanted to give him the life he never had. He wanted to have savings of a few hundred thousand or even millions for him when he grows up.  

I guess that was all prudent on my friend’s part. Who could fault such a future plan? Isn’t it the goal of all money-wise parents to provide for their children (and themselves)?

But then, my thoughts turned to something less money-oriented and more insubstantial, that is, less tangible than cold hard cash. I started to think about relationship, about hugs and kisses, about sharing a joke with your loved ones, about spending time with them, about playing in the park, about showering together, about enjoying a picnic, about singing in the car, about dancing in the rain, about running aimlessly in public, about baking with your kids, about hands painting and getting all dirty, about cleaning the house together, about praying as a family, and about savoring every moment with them that is out of reach of money’s purchase.

I then asked myself: Is there a tradeoff? Can we overwork for something while we underwork for another thing (even unknowingly)? Can we be barking up the wrong tree by chasing the wrong whiff? Can we go to one extreme or the other and never finding a balance as the breadwinner? (who are we winning the “bread” for anyway?) What is the tradeoff at the end of the day?

Of course, I would like to put on record that money or financial security is about up there in terms of familial priority as are good health, character building and personal resiliency, to name just a few. But that which is important can sometimes take precedence over those things that are equally, if not more, important right?  My fear is that we may miss the whole family forest for the money trees.

You see, when you start a family, the whole shebang about financial security kicks in whether you like it or not. Most Singaporean families on the average are leveraged up to their ears with housing and car loans. The monthly food, transport, school, utilities and recreational bills will keep most families looking at their bottom line most of the time.

There are always these concerns for our children’s future: Will he make it? Will she pass the exams? How much will that university degree cost? Can we afford it? Will I lose my job? What will happen if I do? Can I hope for a promotion? Can we pay for the tuition? Should we cut down on this and that? These are all legitimate concerns and as parents we should never lose sight of them. It is our sacred responsibility to provide for our children and to provide for them to the best of our ability.

But the irony is that, being a money-driven, status-conscious, anxiety-deluged society, where meritocracy has narrowed the options for most parents (and their children) to good grades, good schools, good jobs, good house, good car and good pay, we risk feverishly chasing after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow just to find out after the long and tiring journey that the pot is really empty and the real gold in life is in fact the rainbow.

In other words, it is the journey and not the destination that truly matters in the end. This is trite but what is often trite is often overlooked. Oftentimes, we are so busy making money, climbing up the career ladder, beating the competitors, pursuing that first-mover advantage and meeting deadlines that we forget to take an intermittent deep breather to survey the landscape, enjoy the view and take stock of what is becoming less important (working without end) and what is becoming more important, if not urgent (like the company that our loved ones miss).

Of course I am not advocating a vagabond, bohemian-like, cavalier lifestyle like the travelling band of nomads, wayfarers or gypsies. But I am just hoping to throw some cold reflective waters into the faces of those who have gone from one extreme to the other extreme.

There is no denying that my friend works hard, coming home late and sometimes returning to work during the weekends. But I think the questions he asked in the beginning of this letter risk mistaking money for life’s purpose or financial security for family priority (and I am sure he will not argue with that).

Money is no doubt important for that rainy day, for that medical emergency, for that long hauled education, for the down payment for that wedding or first home, but my more pressing concern here has to do with always being mindful or watchful of how that desire to possess can quite unknowingly mutate into desires that ultimately obsess. When that happens, we may lose sight of the big picture and get lost in a morass of self-serving, materialism-driven catch-ups that have no definite end in sight. Much will always want more, and more will always want much, so to speak.

In the end, we may spend most of our life becoming rich in everything that we had ever wanted but poor in everything that truly matters. Of course, money can be its own reward and all things may just work out well somehow. I mean who had ever complained about having too much money, right?

But the real loss in such a case is not about having everything you ever dreamed of when the final curtain falls. The real loss is missing out on the golden opportunity to build, deepen and enjoy the relationship with those who loved you unconditionally. It is again trite to say that during such time all they ever wanted was you and not what you’d promised to give them in the future at the expense of your presence with them.

I guess there is some truth in the saying that a fortune lost can be earned back, but the time lost is irredeemable. Cheerz.       

Monday, 24 February 2014

An Unusual Funeral

Recently I was invited to a funeral wake. I went to see what had died. I pulled up the courage to walk towards the coffin where they kept what was dead for subsequent cremation.

Standing above the head post of the coffin, I took a peep inside. And there lying in padded velvet comfort was what was dead. It was dead alright. It did not move at all the whole time I stared at it. It laid still, motionless.

I was tempted to touch it, to feel it, and to test how far into the process of rigor mortis the dead thing had been. But I resisted that urge knowing better that what is dead is dead. I should let dead dog lie. I shouldn't stir the hornet's nest.

I came to the wake to bid farewell to the death of my friend's conscience. I came to say goodbye to his moral standing as it remained there, lying in that box all dolled up for the incinerator.

As I stared at it, at the well embalmed corpus of dead conscience, the irony was not lost on me. What a waste of formaldehyde, I muttered under my breath.

For what is there to preserve or disinfect? What is there to show to the world when death had taken over? What good is a beautified exterior all flowing in embalming fluid when what truly matters inside is rotting and decomposing? Alas, how effective are you formaldehyde to hide the true intention of man by covering the empty ethical shell with a transient sheen of deception?

Of course, I didn't expect a large crowd to attend the wake. In fact, it was a by-invitation-only crowd. I could count with both hands the number of witnesses who came.

We all took turns to pay our last respect to the corpse in the coffin and solemnly walked to our seat. The service ended with this eulogy prepared by the one who once shared an inseparable bond with the dead conscience. He is none other than my friend. There was no better person to offer the last words and rites.

Standing before us, the exclusive crowd, and looking forlorn, my friend read out his eulogy in tribute to the demise of his conscience.

"Dear friends, thanks for coming. I know this is most unfortunate. I know it is hard to witness this. But honestly, this day cannot be avoidable. It will come anyway, sooner or later.

My conscience died the way he had to die. It was a slow and unexpected death though. I hope it was a painless one because I didn't feel a thing when he left me.

While I am not proud to say this, he always get in the way of what I wanted. That sense of right and wrong always slowed me down. He clipped my wings and limited the heights of my personal happiness in this world.

I sometimes get this feeling that my conscience does not understand me. Neither I him. I detested his timing. He always came in to tell me off at the wrong time. With him, my freedom was curbed. I was unable to soar, to really enjoy life, to free myself from the chains of tradition and its many man-made values.

You see, I needed to live my life too; at least in the way I saw fit. So I knew one day we will go our separate ways. But his death was not really the departure I had in mind. It was quite unexpected.

Anyhow, I will miss him. We have been together for as long as I could remember. We had our good times. We shared much thoughts and many experiences together. We were even inseparable once. But I guess we grew up. Or at least I grew up and he didn't want to. He still had those old fashioned ways or outdated ideas about how I should live my life.

He's a stubborn one like a bull in crimson rage sometimes. He refused to change or flow with the world or reality. I guess his premature death was the price he paid for his inflexibility.

So, good bye my conscience, my friend. You will be dearly missed. The memories we had together will stay with me forever. Take care buddy, and wherever you are, I hope you find peace." Cheerz.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

How I avenged my hurt

Hurt can be such a game changer for me. It changes how I see life. It changes how I trust people. It changes me and how people see me.
I recall my first hurt. It was nearly 20 years ago. She was my girlfriend. My first love. I was a sucker for love and still am. One evening, she told me that she was going out. I asked her with whom. She kept quiet and walked away. 

I wanted to trust her but couldn't. So I did the silliest thing expected of a man in helpless love. I followed her. I tailed her like a shadow. What I found out hurt me deeply.
She went to watch a movie with another man. It was in fact a romantic movie about inseparable love (I guess watching a comedy would be less hurting? Especially one played by Danny Devito?)
I was devastated. I tried to dissuade her from entering the theater but she was as muted as an antique. She went in nevertheless and I was hurt, really hurt.
For once in my life (and never so intense before), I could feel my heart's vigorous pounding as if it was trying to break free from my rib cage, trying to make a run for it. I tried my darnest best to keep it all in. This struggle lasted for what seemed like an eternity. I guess descriptive words during such time could only scratch the surface (drama of youth?)

Till this day, decades later, I still recall that night. And I remembered that I carefully plotted my revenge after that. I didn't want to let her do this to me. I can't let her get away with it. I thought through my revenge; every step of the way. It was an elaborate plan and it took three years or more to come to fruition.
I wanted it to be equally, if not more, hurtful to her. Of course, I was not thinking of murder. That would be too juvenile. I did the next best nefarious thing. I
 actually married her. I married my hurt. I was a sucker for love remember?
It has been 14 years now and this "hurt" has given me three lovely children that I cannot live without. Just before I said "I do" at the altar in year 2000, I muttered under my breath that I love her. That was my "revenge". And as I kissed her, my plan came to fruition.
Life is a strange spiritual lodestar. Hurt's backfire was love's desire. I came around to love the one who hurt me. I love her more than I want to hold on to my hurt. And doesn't love sometimes hurt? 

My hurt was the game changer for me. But it was love that changed me in ways I cannot imagine. It was love that led me to let go of this hurt. I cannot imagine a better, more enduring therapy.
Life nods sagely when I came full circle. I have learned that nobody is perfect. That phrase is so trite that it has acquired a gangnam-style, semi-conscious, horse-riding coinage. But to me, I 
understood it intimately, deeply.
Everyone has their flaws. Mine can even be more hurtful than hers over time. During this 14 years, the struggle has been no less intense. Marriage is no park-in-the-park or a piece of wedding cake. You have to make up your mind and make it up everyday. It is a case of remembering to remind and reminding to remember. You can't go on autopilot or assume or presume or take for granted. This is another trite advice I  guess but it is so crucial to a marriage if it's understood and internalized.
Let me share this. I remember I was in court for a case involving bankruptcy and I pleaded with the judge on behalf of the debtor that he was heavily in debt. There were many creditors coming after him, I said. I told the court this metaphor, "the wolves are at the door."
I think this metaphor applies in a marriage. The wolves (of temptations/materialism) are indeed at the
 door. If we allow them in, even opening a small gap thinking that it is safe, we are courting trouble of the most regrettable kind.
So, going back to my love, it has been 14 years and counting. The three children, no less wolverine-like at times, are the consummation of this enduring, life-changing passion. And if this consummation has a mantra, it would be this: Love over-powered hurt and overcame all.
Although two of us seldom went 
to watch romantic movies together, I guess you can say that we have done something even better: we live it out with all the romance, lovers' tiff, embracing, hand-holding, reconciling, intimacy, reproducing, and the best of them all, growing old together and stronger. Now that's at least worth a mid-lifetime achievement award?
And come to think of it, I guess there is no sweeter revenge than the "revenge" of giving myself wholeheartedly to
 the one I love. Cheerz.

(ps: Thanks dear for allowing me to publish this. The silly things we do in our youth only make for endearing memories to be treasured during our golden years together).