Sunday, 30 August 2015

The idols factory

My weekend reflection led me to Psalms 115. Here is a full extract from verse 2 to 8:-

“Why let the nations say,

“Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens,

and he does as he wishes.
Their idols are merely things of silver and gold,

shaped by human hands.
They have mouths but cannot speak,

and eyes but cannot see.
They have ears but cannot hear,

and noses but cannot smell.
They have hands but cannot feel,

and feet but cannot walk,

and throats but cannot make a sound.
And those who make idols are just like them,

as are all who trust in them.”

Have we placed our trust on the wrong gods? Are we now being punished for fashioning gods in our own image? Have we effectively atomized our society to serve the individual and to put his/her needs above the society? What have become of us in this age of technology, market-driven economy, wealth creation and post-modern values?

I scarce to think that our "self" has never really been crucified at the altar and it is now making an insidious comeback under the covers of self-help, self-actualization and freedom of self-expression. It seems that the modern message is about helping the self rather than dying to it. The psalmist wrote most prophetically when he said that our idols have been silver and gold and the idols themselves differs little from the idolaters – from us. For we are blind and deaf to the dangers of materialism, having no sense of direction, unfeeling and helplessly seduced, wholly subservient and imprisoned to the gluttonous zeitgeist of the time.

There is no doubt that the post-war era has been most lavished and indulgent to the development of the human desires. Runaway economic growth has definitely catapulted prosperity and wealth to the economic stratosphere and way beyond our wildest imagination. From millionaires to billionaires, from humble inventors to captains of industries, and from travelling evangelists to prosperity preachers, our modern society has rewarded men for their inventiveness and re-inventiveness, and in return, they are heartily reaping what they had sown. Yet, something is still missing. There is a hole in our heart that cannot be filled. The irony here is captured in this observation by the economist Richard Layard, “There are many clear cases where people became objectively better off but felt subjectively worse.” We have returned to become an island in ourselves, languishing and lost, in a human archipelago of self-isolation.

Nothing can hide this anxiety that most of us are feeling and reeling from. All that glitters is indeed not gold. We have replaced the Source of life with the accessories of life and this has only added to our anxiety, depression and emptiness. This is how a theologian Walter Brueggemann sees it, “It is only God…who can deal with the anxiety among us…The causes for anxiety among us are wrongly discerned…Our mistake is to pursue autonomous freedom. Freedom which does not discern the boundaries of human life leaves us anxious. The attempts to resolve anxiety in our culture are largely psychological, economic, cosmetic. They are bound to fail because they do not approach the causes. The public life is largely premised on an exploitation of our common anxiety. The advertising of consumerism and the drives of acquisitive society, like the serpent, seduce people into believing there are securities apart from the reality of God.

Earlier I wrote that the self has made a triumphant comeback and it is not without assistance from the prevailing culture of our time. It is actually a vicious cycle of self-gratification that is fast changing how we process our values and beliefs. Technology itself is a mixed blessing for us. It has opened up a whole vista of efficiency, convenience and even hope for humanity. But this hope also comes with a cost. In the book Virtually You authored by psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, he writes that we are developing an online personality where nothing is really off limits. In other words, it is boundless and that’s the problem. Where we fail in the real world, we have become gods in the virtual worlds. In other words, we are taking self-worship into a whole new level with games like Second life, and have become less inhibited with our thoughts and actions. 

Dr Aboujaoude explains, “More specifically, against this background of disinhibited, disassociated personhood, five psychological forces will vie to assert themselves: grandiosity, or the feeling that the sky is the limit when it comes to what we can accomplish online; narcissism, or how we tend to think of ourselves as the center of gravity of the World Wide Web; darkness, or how the Internet nurtures our morbid side; regression, or the remarkable immaturity we seem capable of once we log on; and impulsivity, or the urge-driven lifestyle many fall into online.

Examples abound in this area. The cult of fame (or infamy) has produced a litany of 7-minute starlets who parade themselves online doing the silliest and most mundane thing conceivable. We have oversized men in semi-nude parodying various art forms, young surgically-transformed girls promoting food and product lines, mindless display of superstar wannabes singing and dancing to cover-hits, desperate teens offering to “rent” their girlfriends for dates in order to buy the latest electronic gadgets, companies inviting married men to commit no-strings-attached adultery, and people selling illegally harvested kidneys and livers at competitive prices. And I have yet to include sex-depraved and morbid sites where online customers are invited to a pay-per-view to watch live executions, child rapes and other sadistic acts in what is commonly labeled as “polymorphous perversity”. In such a private, self-gratifying and boundless online environment, where everything is accessible to the young suggestible minds, depravity with deluded impunity is the order of the day.

Indeed, we have become idols-making factory. And in running helter-skelter to escape from the Truth that is immutable and transforming, we pursue, mimicry and embrace transient concepts of fame, power, superficial beauty and materialism. One author challenges us with this question, “Who are we without buying, owning or experiencing?” Alas, we may just discover that we are running empty. We have lost our core identity for we have traded it for the idols of this world; a world that caters only to the worship of self.

Let me end with the sagely thoughts of John Kavanaugh: “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. Those who make idols and put their trust in them become like them.” 

For the Creator’s image has become the images-creator and is now a slave to them. Cheerz.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Am I wiser?

Am I wiser?

I can't really tell. Sure I know better. I have mature in some measure. I understand widely, deeply. I see clearer and further. Knowledge wise, I have read more, much more, since my school days. At 45, married for 15 years with three children in tow, I have definitely grown. I have grown through making mistakes and learning from them - not all of them but most of them.

Life has been both kind and unkind to me. I could have done better with regrets. I could have acted with more understanding and grace towards friends, loved ones and my kids. I could have given more, humbled myself, demonstrated patience, reflected holistically, and lived with more optimism, faith and trust. All of that are in the past. The time spent is irredeemable. They are gone.

Although I would not consider it a wasted journey thus far, it was surely a journey that could have been more transforming for me and the people whose paths I had crossed. Taking stock and looking back from where I stand now, I realize that I have made some good choices and some bad ones. And I am here today because of the choices I have made.

Overall, my life has been a fair game and the hand that has dealt me the deck of cards has been both punishing and rewarding; with the former being a rite of passage of self-discipline to the latter. I thus accept it all as growing pains and I have nothing much to complain about.

But am I wiser? Am I?

Coming back full circle, have I learnt enough about life to know, think and act with wisdom, with love and with hope? This is hard for me to say. For me, the goalposts keep moving back as I strive towards it.

I guess the greatest battle is really inside me. If anything is standing in my way, it is me. I am the one that either screw things up or makes things better. Didn't Shakespeare say that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves?

Ultimately, the best lesson in life is how I choose to respond to it. Isn't that the only reason why I am alive? Every moment I consciously - even unconsciously - choose life, and by virtue or default of that choice, I live. So responsibility is responsibility for living. And living is all about responding. That is, how I deal with a situation? How I behave (or ruminate) when my pride or ego is slighted? Am I a hostage of my desires-torn emotions or a commanding captain of them? 

What do I think about when I am tempted? Do I give in to greed, lust or envy and allow them to ruin me? Am I feverishly solving one problem after another instead of astutely avoiding them? Is wisdom about mindlessly trying to live up to a concept, a belief-system, an ideal, or is it about admitting that I am not able to live up to them and then be realistic, even pragmatic, about it? Is wisdom about taming my expectations or taming me? Am I in control of my feelings or am I the weather that changes with the climate? 

I read one definition of wisdom from John A. Meacham that intrigued me deeply. It goes like this: 

"The essence of wisdom is to hold the attitude that knowledge is fallible and to strive for a balance between knowing and doubting. To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness.

Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills. Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known."

All this dovetails to this quote which still resonates deeply in my heart: "Doubting everything and believing everything are two equally convenient solutions that guard us from having to think."

In short, wisdom is my attitude, my response to knowledge acquired or to a situation that presents itself to me, and it is tempered by humility and deepened by an open mind to all things. It is to be humble enough to acknowledge what I don't know and will never know. To be humble enough to admit that I may be wrong and to change course thereafter - and not cling on to dead-end desires. And to be humble enough not to rely on what I know as the gospel truth and close my mind to views that may contradict or threaten my jealously-guarded beliefs or pet-peeves.

And humility per se is why to that question "Am I wiser?" I hesitated. For if I were infallible, I guess humility would serve no other purpose except to make me even more infallible?

But far from it, humility is a treacherous journey for me where the way is narrow, the upward climb is steep and the road is arduous, long. I often take long, complacent rests in this journey, making little headway because arrogance beats another path for me; a broader path where the heart as a bottomless pit seeks recognition, the mind craves after fleeting praises from men, and the soul takes cover under the pretense of humility for its own sake.

And if there were a worthy mentor in this journey to the Calvary of my fleshly desires, in particular pride, envy and discontentment, it would come in the unassuming form of errors, mistakes and blunders to bleed and bruise me silly, in sheer soulish shame and torment, so that it may just make the narrow path more alluring for me than the broad way. And in doing so, I may come to my senses and embrace the enduring wisdom embodied in a heart that is made light by brokenness, made resilient by hope, and made whole by humbleness. Cheerz.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

I want Pastor Prince's God...(even if it kills me).

Yesterday, I stumbled upon Pastor Prince’s sermonette over the net. It started off with Jeremiah 32:17, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You.”

Below is the full extract of his personal interpretation of what that verse means:

“Our minds tend to see our problems as big or small. Even when we pray for the sick, we say things like, “You have a headache? No problem. Let’s pray for your healing.” But when it is cancer, we say, “Oh, let’s tell the senior pastor about it. It would be better if he prayed for you.” We think of headaches as small problems and cancers as big ones.

But that is not the way God thinks. There is nothing too hard for Him who made the heavens and the earth! With God, there is no such thing as a “big” problem. In fact, the “bigger” the problem, the “easier” it is for Him! In the feeding of the 5,000, it took only five loaves to feed the multitude. (Matthew 14:15–21) But in the feeding of the smaller multitude of 4,000, it took seven loaves. (Matthew 15:32–38).

In man’s scheme of things, it should take more loaves to feed more people. But this is not so with God. It took fewer loaves to feed more people. This is God’s way of telling us that the “bigger” the problem, the “easier” it is for Him. I am not saying that small problems are hard for God. But it is so encouraging to think that it is “easier” for God to heal cancers than headaches!”

At this point, honestly, I do not really get the analogy of the feeding of 5000 (referred to as “big problem”) with only five loaves and the feeding of 4000 (referred to as “small problem”) with seven loaves and Pastor Prince’s statement that “this is God’s way of telling us that the “bigger” the problem (feeding 5000), the “easier” it is for Him (only 5 loaves)”. Is it even biblical to deduce/infer a direct proportional relationship between the size of the crowd and the size of the problem and the number of loaves and the level of difficulty in solving the problem? Was that the author’s intention when he penned the biblical accounts? Is this biblical exegesis (drawing the meaning out of a verse) or personal eisegesis (reading one’s own meaning into the verse)?

If it were so, Pastor Prince would have to explain why it took God “more loaves” (presumably harder?) to feed 4000 (presumably smaller problem?). The only touch-and-go explanation he gave was this, “I am not saying that small problems are hard for God.” Nothing further was added to that thereafter. In any event, one might just plunge into a morass of hermeneutical entanglements if one should choose to go down that road. 

But then, to be fair, it’s just a sermonette, a condensed message, and Pastor Prince did caveat the words “bigger” and “easier” with open and close inverted commas. Or maybe it's just a form of sermon illustration and I just need to chill out a little. Mm...

So, let’s read on.

“Imagine coming to God with a big problem. “So, what is your problem, son?” God asks. You say, “Father, it is a huge financial debt — not thousands but millions!” He says, “Easy. It is already cancelled.”

In another scenario, God asks, “So, what is your problem, son?” You say, “Father, I have lost my job and I can’t find a new one. I am already in my fifties and I don’t have the necessary qualifications.” He says, “No problem. Consider yourself employed. And in this new job, you won’t just have a job, you will have a position.”

Beloved, with God, it is never a problem because there is nothing too hard for Him!”

That’s the end of Pastor Prince’s sermonette. Now, here comes the commentary.

As a believer, a jaded one no less, I still think Pastor Prince’s message is both captivating and inspiring. With God, nothing is too hard for Him. Nothing is impossible! How wrong can that triumphant statement be? He is God after all, right?  Imagine all the problems you have - be it a financial ruin, a terminal illness, a deep betrayal of a broken heart - are all resolved and cancelled; just like that. No questions asked. Or your money back – so to speak.

Imagine a world that works that way for believers and only for believers mind you. As Pastor Prince had preached, it is that simple because God only has to ask, “What’s your problem son?” (even though He already knows them, but this is just for dramatic effect) and we just have to tell Him this-and-that and God’s answer would invariably be: “No problem son. Consider it done, cancelled, solved, dealt with, erased, removed, fulfilled, settled.” I presume one can expect no time lag between the sincere petition and the reply. It will be immediate because nothing is too hard for God. Nothing is impossible, remember?

As a believer, I can’t deny that it would indeed be a wonderful, wonderful world. It would be a world only the non-believers would envy to their dry, atheistic bones. I imagine the non-believers would be gatecrashing into churches everyday, and not only on Sunday, rushing down to the altar call even before the message ends, and going on bended knees for hours just so that they could bring their problems to God. Miracles would be dispensed like an overflowing water tap and no one can resist this “No problem” God that Pastor Prince has so wholeheartedly subscribed to. I for one would desperately want to believe in it too – with all sincerity and truth.

But the gatecrashing doesn’t stop there. I would expect not just a worldwide revival of sorts, even in the remotest parts of the world, but an immediate conversion of every soul on earth who is mature enough to say the sinner’s prayer. A God that can cancel debt by a snap of his fingers, find immediate employment at top positions, heal instantly, completely and permanently would be a God that only fools, imbeciles and idiots would reject, rebel and renounce.

As such, atheism and humanism (or agnosticism, even deism) would be the silliest, brain-dead position that any rational being on earth would want to hold on to. A God this miraculously tangible and wonderfully obvious would make everyday reality a reality of “heaven on earth”. Every living being on earth would therefore stand in awe of Him at every waking moments of their lives. Indeed, the God Pastor Prince preaches about would leave all other religions and the gods they worship stranded in the dusty trail, blanketed in the smoke that his God leaves behind.

Now, this is where I end. I think Pastor Prince's God can do no wrong. He is truly perfect. He promises and He delivers. His believers will not go away disappointed, disillusioned or disconsolate. How could they? 

Of course, I can't say whether the believer's everyday reality would unfailingly conform to this triumphant declaration, but at least His God fulfills all the definition we have come to embrace of what an all-powerful and all-loving God should be. The idea itself is impeccable, faultless. In other words, regardless of whether there is a palpable - and sometimes exasperating - disconnect between what is presented behind the pulpit and what is experienced by the believer when he/she has to struggle privately with a reality that's just isn't so, Pastor Prince's God is still the reason why believers are stubbornly clinging on to with uncanny fervor and devotion.

I myself am praying for at least three loved ones in my life, one of whom is my mother, for healing and I sometimes wonder, quite childishly, whether I have cast my lot with the wrong deity when compared to Pastor Prince's awesome God. Or, have I missed the hallelujah train traveling on the radical grace tracks and is now left in the cold licking my wounds of regrets? Alas, maybe there is some ironic truth in this admission that it is better to go to your grave with hope unfulfilled than to go to your grave with no hope at all. And that's the reason why  - in moments of sheer helplessness - I want Pastor Prince's God...even if it kills me. Cheerz.