Sunday 19 April 2015

Shed those leaves.

This week, I came across an honest book. It is simply entitled Shed those leaves written by a local pastor Jenni Ho-Huan. It is a short book of 141 pages but it definitely packed a punch, or a soft knockout blow to awaken one’s soul. Reverend Edmund Chan commented that the book is “remarkably engaging.” Rt Reverend Raphael Samuel, Bishop of Bolivia, wrote that the book “nourishes the heart.” And Dr Simon Chan said that it is “meant to be meditated upon – slowly, deeply.” And I did just that. In one sitting, I read and highlighted the book and reread and highlighted it again and again. It was a much relished spiritual experience for me.

Shed those leaves spoke to me because it started with a confession and ended with a kiss. I will leave the spoiler out on the kiss part for those who want to read the book but the author’s confession at the start is this: “Staying a Christian has been hard these nearly forty years.” The author sets the stage for a rough ride in the faith and she doesn’t mince her words. Personally I identify with her. Although it was not a positive start to the book, it was nevertheless her raw honesty that drew me in. She left no stones unturned about her rough ride. Here is her experiences in her own words:

Those niggling doubts about God that buzz like mosquitoes around you which you can never totally kill off.

Christians who contradict the Christian God of love by the way they irritate, disappoint, and even oppose.

Un-answered prayers.

…My rich peers who say, “It’s so good you do what you believe in” as they peer at me through their Gucci sunglasses.

Those darned feelings of being abandoned/alone/a loser.”

If anything, to me, she seems to be projecting the image of a struggling Christian leader fighting to be free from the anger that consumes her and the fear that shadows her. She is also tempted in every way conceivable and found life to be often hard, close ones to be energy-sapping, and the lures of this fallen world to be irresistible. In her own words, she wrote: “when sickness, injustice, and setbacks keep storming relentless and I don’t feel I can hold up much longer. When the enemy strikes a direct attack to weaken and even try to snuff out Life.”
I trust that many Christians can identify with her struggles. It is easy at this point to put on a front and pretend that all is and will be well as long as we believe. This is in fact what bestseller books about the faith are peddling to their fanfare-like devotees. Somehow, these authors know their members’ buttons and they push it with careless abandon. And the buttons are that God wants them to prosper, that He wants them to pray big so that He can bless them big, and that God loves them so much that He is all ready to give them anything they pray for.
While Calvary is a theology of suffering, dying to self and bearing one’s Cross, the prosperity gospel turns Calvary on its head with promises of a pampered life, free from suffering, illness and poverty. Shed those leaves eschews this glittering, easy, and broad road. It resists the lures, the sirens and the entrapments of this world. In fact, it takes the road less travelled; a road that is hard-fought, narrow and sometimes ugly. In other words, the author forces her readers to confront the Cross; to face the grotesqueness and beauty of it. It is somewhat ironic that the place of total surrender is also the place of total freedom. And the place of unconditional love is also the place of unmitigated suffering.
For the author, our faith and hope must start and end at the Cross and nowhere else. Our security cannot be found in this world. We would be misconceived if we think our constant striving for fame, riches and titles would bring about a life of purpose and personal fulfillment. Here is where the author throws the gauntlet down in the book. Here is where she goes full throttle.
While some books wax lyrical about a loving God serving the gilded community of believers in the name of never-ending grace, the author unveils a suffering Savior beckoning us to deny self, take up the Cross daily, and follow Him (Luke 9:23). It is an old, unembellished and timeless call by Jesus to true freedom. Nothing glamorous and self-profiting is to be expected of such an unassuming call. In other words, it is not a popular call to our modern sensibilities. And to say that it is an inconvenient invitation is to understate the cost of this long and demanding journey ahead.
In fact, the first condition is a radical one. Denying ourselves requires us to confront ourselves. It requires us to face our “discordant selves” and to deal with each of them with a heart surrendered. The book quoted the words of Thomas Kelly to make this point: “We are trying to be several selves at once without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us. Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self. And each of our selves in turn a rank individualist, not cooperative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes.
I can relate to this intimately. Without an anchorage in our life, we are constantly being bombarded by desires, goals and demands within ourselves that reduce our life into a morass of clamors, clutters and clashes. This bombardment has caused us to lose sight of what is truly important in our life. The author uses an interesting metaphor of fig-leaves to unravel our insecurities. When Adam and Eve found that they were naked, they covered themselves with leaves.
The same quick-fix methodology is applied here and the author writes: "We are thus born into crisis-resolution mode. Every culture on earth has a version of the shame ethic, and we must reach for those leaves to cover our deepest vulnerabilities. We pick up the fig leaves of achievement, performance, regulation, connivance and avoidance and they cover us enough to function - even very successfully - in this broken world." And to compound matters, we resolve the issue not by shedding those leaves to admit to our vulnerabilities but instead by acquiring more leaves to perpetuate the delusion. Imagine applying a tourniquet to treat a tumor or containing a leak in the dam with more tissues. This reminds me of the “streetlight effect” where one searches for his key under the streetlight when he has lost it in the park. 

In the end, all our earthly pursuits are worth no more than “heaps of leaves” that have drifted away from the tree of Life that once held it together. This makes the first radical call of denying ourselves so urgent for us. This is not a call for more add-on prosperity but for more in-depth scrutiny of our ideals, goals and dreams thus far. Facing the storms of our dark desires and denouncing them are the first step to meeting this call. Or as Kierkegaard put it, “Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.”
And unless we confront ourselves, looking inward and not outward for our redemption, all our religious effort to deny ourselves will ironically be self-defeating. The author put it this way: "Philosophers say we are "tranquilized by the trivial" - choosing to expend enormous amounts of energy on our daily activities which serve to distract us from really looking deep within our hearts."
The second call is to carry the Cross daily. I always wonder, what Cross is Jesus referring to? He is definitely not referring to the Cross he physically bore at Calvary. And I know it is symbolic for us, but what is it symbolic of in our life? Here the author tells it as it is by reminding her readers that it is about becoming "familiar with death and darkness on a daily basis".
You see, shed those leaves does not appeal to our natural appetites for more of the fabled good life after our conversion. It in fact turns that appetite around by urging us to "face our spiritual poverty" and explains it this way: "We who do not know, nor operate by Grace, must be led to the brook of Grace to drink deep until our other ways of quenching our thirst no longer satisfy." And I guess the "other ways" the author had in mind is the various glittering roads leading towards the deifying of self and not the denying of it.
Sadly, I feel that this is the unspoken direction our modern senses, culture and creeds are converging towards. The trend is unmistakable even in religion. If you step into some churches, you will find that the messages are more about what God wants to give to us rather than what we are prepared to give up for Him. We have thus taken the wash basin of servant-hood too far by expecting a full-body spiritual spa from our Savior and nothing less will do. Alas, the trend here is more about treating the fallen self, piecing it together, and slapping a "new creation" label on it rather than putting it to death or laying it down at the foot of the Cross.
In the end, it is not our ego, vanity and greed that are being denied but our spiritual growth and maturity and the effervescent joy and strength that come with it. Shed those leaves put it aptly: "The Cross shows us that we must lay down our sense of "achievement" - spiritual progress can become another trophy. We need to recognize that this tendency that has sprouted from our prideful independence of God, has been dealt a death blow so that now, we can lay it down again and again by recognizing the dark against the light...The Cross is a daily reality for us."
At this point, Shed those leaves makes the ultimate plea to her readers. The plea is to "have our whole lives redefined in order to truly live" as we follow Christ and this is affirmed in Romans 8:12-14: "So, don't you see that we don't owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There's nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is to give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God's Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go." And when we pursue the Spirit-led life and leave our worldly desires and accolades behind, denying its hold over us, we will then be able to experience true freedom expressed in this enigmatic verse: "...anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and external."

The last call of Jesus then comes naturally. After denying self and bearing the Cross daily, we - unwittingly - follow Him. It is as natural as the shadow trailing behind the object that cast it. We can't help the flow of things here. You can say that it is slavish obedience towards total freedom. We are like butterflies drawn to light, helpless but inevitable. Yet the journey will no doubt be arduous. It will test us to the core because the siren call of the world still looms large, foreboding even.
We will no doubt experience growth along the way but it is not without first making the daily sacrifice. Dorothy Day writes about this here: “We must be pruned to grow and cutting hurts the natural man. But if this corruption is to put on incorruption, if one is to put on Christ, the new man, pain of one kind or another is inevitable. And how joyful a thought that in spite of one’s dullness and lethargy one is indeed growing in the spiritual life.” And as we subject our conflicting selves under His authority, we enter into a new life where the exchange is one of our weakness for His strength, our disappointments for His hope, and our pain for His joy.
Shed those leaves describes it this way: "Recognizing and being willing to strip off the fig leaves and laying down our claims readies us to follow Jesus. It is not a walk in the park. It is, for each of us, a freshly beaten path - at times, meandering back to the old places - at other times, descending into the deep dark caverns of our secret lairs. It's no cub-scout adventure of collecting badges and spiraling upwards in holy headings. Rather, it is following that leads to our true self, true strength and therefore true meaning and difference to our world." Here the book goes on to offer practical steps to turn our Christian walk into a radical, serious vision pursuit. You will just have to read the last segment of the book for yourself to discover the effective simplicity of the author's suggestions.
But note they are not a formulaic, one-size-fits-all diet of prayer, fasting and ministry activities. Far from it, the author's suggestions are more like a distant glow of ember-dawn that beckons the weary seeker towards it. They are practical but not quick-fixes or superficial bandagers. At the ground-level, the journey is still for each of us to tread and to tread with our eyes constantly turned towards our Savior.
Shed those leaves spoke to me because I believe the author is not a romantic but a religious realist – so to speak. She resists the trend of spiritual upward mobility where converts are constantly fed with the equivalent of the American dream – that is, big faith equals emptying God’s abundant storehouse of material goodies. God is not conducting a 90%-off warehouse sale mind you and Christianity is not about getting the best bargains as the incentive for conversion. Shed those leaves shed the delusion and restores the Cross back to its rightful place, that is, in the center of our lives.
To be honest, the author doesn’t make Calvary attractive or glamorous, but she makes it essential, most times repellant, yet strangely desirous. She doesn’t put a new spin on self-denial, bearing the Cross and following Christ (or the grace of God for that matter) - for how can you makeover, accessorize or embellish the carcass of our old self and the bloody Cross?  And if a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, how do you then neutralize the stench of a cadaver except to give it a decent burial?
In her own words, she wrote, “After years of Bible study, setting goals, being active in church, and seeking out the wisdom of others, I came to realize that what I needed and will continue to need is healing. I needed to be made whole and set free, not try to fill myself with God-good ideas and skills to make the best of my life. I needed Life to enter my being and help me truly live and offer Life to others.”
Let me end here with a quote from Cynthia Bourgeault taken from Shed those leaves to bring us safely home: "As we actually taste the flavor of what he’s teaching, we begin to see that it’s not proverbs for daily living, or ways of being virtuous. He’s proposing a total meltdown and recasting of human consciousness, bursting through the tiny acorn-selfhood that we arrived on the planet with into the oak tree of our fully realized personhood. He pushes us toward it, teases us, taunts us, encourages us, and ultimately walks us there.” And the reward at the end, amidst the sacrifice and trial, is a decently buried self, a resurrected Spirit-life, and the eternal hope in our Overcomer. Cheerz.

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