Thursday, 31 December 2015

My greatest fear this New Year is to be forgotten.

My greatest fear this new year and the many new years to come is to be forgotten. To be treated no better than an afterthought. To fade away completely after I am gone. To quietly enter into the night and be lost for all time in pitch darkness. That is my greatest fear. It is the mortal fear that I will leave little or no memory in the hearts and minds of the people I have met, lived with and loved dearly. Or worse, to be quickly forgotten having lived an inconsequential life.
Now let's be clear, I am not seeking immortality in the way it is claimed by the wise sages of all times (or thrust upon them by their votaries). That said, no matter how great and accomplished they are, they all come and go, leave their mark - some deeper than others - and eventually pass on.
And ironically, even the most evil of men are not forgotten. But theirs is a different remembrance altogether. It is a remembrance to avoid at all costs; an ignominious call to mind just to stay away in the heart.
For me, I am merely striving for easy retrievability, not immortality. In other words, I am looking for some form of permanence in the hearts of the people I know and love. And it would be enough for me just to leave a small dent in their lives for easy recalling. They can then draw strength from it to know that I had somehow been there. And being there, I had beaten a little path to guide them in their own journey, in their own trials.
This is how I believe I will remain in their hearts even long after I am gone. This is how I will not be forgotten. This is how I will not go so quietly into the night.
For this reason, the legacy I leave behind will be one driven by love, courage and hope. They shall be my lodestar, my anchorage, my compass when I am lost. My new year’s resolution of all time is therefore to beat a path in their direction. And in beating this path I will no doubt stray or derail. But I will endeavor to return to it because I know with all my heart that it is not what I own in this life that matters - it is how I live that truly counts.
Let me end with a brief personal tribute to love, courage and hope; my journey's companion for life.
I understand now why love never fails. It cannot help but succeed because it gives of himself completely to the object of his desire. A devotion like that will bridge all gaps, answer all calls, and heal all wounds. It is the most powerful force in this world. A force that moves the heart that moves the world. A legacy of love is never forgotten.
The courage to stand for what is right is the will of champions. It is the unshakeable resolve to pursue timeless truth regardless of the personal cost. It is a call to rise up and step up to be counted.  Sometimes this is the loneliest road one is called to take. It is also an exacting and demanding road. But a man of courage leaves behind an indebtedness whose beneficiaries of such courage will never forget. It is a legacy that lasts many lifetimes
Hope is the spirit of celebration. It rejoices even when things are not going well. It is the soaring spirit that sets its sight on the continuously emerging horizons - each horizon bringing its own challenges and rewards. The most potent aspect of hope is that it will never allow itself to stay stagnant in one position - frozen and transfixed in time and space. Hope glides with time and when one season of trials and growth ends, another season awaits. A person who lives with hope is never discouraged by setbacks. Neither is he overwhelmed by successes. He takes it all in with a perspective that surpasses the superficial, the immediate and the sensational. Hope is the legacy of winners who refuse to accept adversity as final. It treats all things with a touch of enduring optimism. Needless to say, like love and courage, a life of hope inspires all to always remember to never forget. Cheerz.

Monday, 28 December 2015

A Dawkins Christmas.

I spent my Christmas weekend reading the book, Brief Candle in the Dark, by atheist extraordinaire Dr Richard Dawkins.
Now here's being candid, I am a Christian - for the last 30 years. Still am but I have grown over the years. The word "grown" is a subjective and loaded word. Loaded because I am one believer who enjoys the simple brilliance of atheist authors like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Some fundamentalists may describe me as sleeping with the enemy, playing with fire or traversing to the dark side. But I see it as keeping an open mind, always. While my faith is not the cherry-picking type to suit my convenience, my personal conviction is to travel always in pairs. That is, to walk in the shoes of others, to see things from their vantage point, and to understand sufficiently before I form my own opinion. And my journey in an atheist's sneaker is never unexciting.
My disclaimer is that I will never attain perfect knowledge for as long as I live. It is just impossible. And should the fundamentalist chant with vehemence that nothing is impossible with God, then they will have to admit with grit teeth no less that it is impossible to fully understand God's thoughts and ways lest we stand in parity with omnipotence. Dare us?
In fact, in the book, Dawkins mentioned a Jesuit Father by the name of George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, who once said matter-of-factly in an interview with the author this: "God is not an explanation. If I were seeking for a god of explanation...I'd probably be an atheist."
Now, I sense the ire of fundamentalists aroused by that statement, but let's keep the mind open, the soul cool and the heart tempered. The Jesuit Father has got a point - if not directly. Strictly from a secular, empirical angle (underscore "strictly"), God explains little and his role is at best to fill in the gap/void where science has yet to bridge. However, this is not a source of revelation, but is one borne out of desperation. For as science progresses rapidly in the last few decades, the gap on which the divine authorship occupies is shrinking fast. Here's just a foretaste of what I mean.
To the creationists, the earth is no more than 6000 years old - give or take a few hundred. This clashes head on with the time of dinosaurs roaming the earth 65 million years ago. Then the earth used to be flat until science set the record straight. And Galileo downgraded us or the earth from being at the center of the solar system and the universe to an insignificant blip hidden in one godforsaken corner of an immeasurably huge universe(s). This reality took the Catholic Church only recently to concede. But of course the sun is not going to wait until an ex cathedra or council decision is pronounced before it switch places with the earth.
I dare say that the Bible is just not a scientific book because God had never intended it to be one. And if it ever were a science book, it would be an extremely thin one with every subject on physics, chemistry, biology, geography and astronomy starting and ending with phrases similar to this: "God somehow created it" - full stop. And it is that "somehow" that science is currently trying to unravel with empiricial precision.
So as a firebrand atheist, Dawkins does have a point about there being no reason of any persuasive gravita for him to believe in God. That's just him I guess.
For a believer like me, the book comes alive when Dawkins talks about the many debates and encounters he had with Christians. And in the past 70 years, he had met the worst and the best of them.
In the former category, the name of the former preacher Ted Haggard was mentioned and not because he was caught with a man in a sexual act. It was however because of the brazen, ignorant and arrogant attitude shown by the preacher. Dawkins also met a so-called Reverend (Michael Bray) who "had been in jail for violent attacks on doctors who carried out abortions."
The weirdest one was a self-styled Pastor Keenan Roberts. He interviewed him because his main pastoral preoccupation was to scare children with self-made videos about how sadistic Satan was in hell. Dawkins wrote this about him, "He ran an institution called Hell House, devoted to performing short plays designed to scare children out of their wits with threats of being barbecued for all eternity. We filmed rehearsals of two of these playlets. The lead character of both was a sadistically roaring Satan, noisily gloating, in the "Ha-Haar" manner of a Victoria melodrama baronet, over the eternal torments prepared for various sinners - a woman having an abortion in one play, a pair of lesbian lovers in the other. Afterward, I interviewed Pastor Roberts. He told me his target audience was twelve-year-olds."
Nevertheless, the best of Dawkins' encounters were deeply encouraging. In this honors roll, he mentioned Rowan Williams (retired Archbishop of Canterbury) and this was the impression the Archbishop left on him:
"I have had four meetings with Rowan Williams...and found him to be one of the nicest men I have ever met: almost impossible to argue with, he is so agreeable. And so obligingly intelligent (in the literal sense of intellego = I understand) that he actually finishes your sentences for you, even when those sentences - in my understanding of them - should have been devastating for his position and he doesn't seem to have any comeback to them!" The other affable illuminaries were Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Jesuit Father George Coyne.
What I like about the book is that there is much to respect and to learn from those who profess to be godless. They can be an endearingly unpretentious lot of highly intelligent people. Dawkins once asked the co-founder of the double helix, Nobel laureate James Watson, this question "What are we for?" and his candid reply is this: "Well, I don't think we're for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, "Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose." But I'm looking forward to a good lunch."
Further, there is just a pervading and unperturbed sense of down-to-earth serenity about the atheists. Take the author of the Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy, the late Douglas Adams for example. Dawkins devored one of his books and they quickly became close friends. The respect is unsurprisingly mutual.
When Dawkins asked him this: "What is it about science that really gets your blood running?" the cosmic comedian said, impromptu: "The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity, and the richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably absolutely out of nothing, is the most fabulous, extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened - it's just wonderful. And...the opportunity to spend seventy or eighty years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned."
Now the book is quite a revelation into Dawkins' world and how he was "almost in tears" writing about his daughter, Juliet, who was only twelve when his second wife Eve was diagnosed with adrenal cancer and how she lovingly cared for her mother "through the ordeals of successive chemotherapy cycles, hiding her own foreboding and grief in a way that no child should be expected to do, keeping calm and sensible when the rest of us were not doing so well at that." Eve died thereafter.
In 2010, Julie qualified as a doctor and Dawkins wrote, "Eve would have been deeply proud of her, as I am."
In the end, the book is about what Dawkins holds dearly and that is a restless, daring and questioning mind. Never take things at face value - that's my takeaway. He urges his readers to probe between the cracks of religion, keep an open mind, challenge dubious authority, be courageous even when one is standing alone, and as best as is humanly possible, to keep your cool about it.
This is one man who lives his life on his own terms just like his fellow like-minded compatriot, the late Christopher Hitchens - whom the fanatic believers just love to hate. And there is no better end to this brief review about his memoir than to draw out extracts of a speech Dawkins gave to his friend Hitchens when the latter won the Richard Dawkins Award of the Atheist Alliance of America shortly before he died of oesophagus cancer.
"Today I am called upon to honor a man whose name will be joined, in the history of our movement, with those of Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Pain, David Hume
...Though not a scientist and with no pretensions in that direction, he understands the importance of science in the advancement of our species and the destruction of religion and superstition:
"One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody - not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms - had the smallest idea what was going on.
It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).
Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.
...And in the very way he is looking his illness in the eye, he is embodying one part of the case against religion. Leave it to the religious to mewl and whimper at the feet of an imaginary deity in their fear of death; leave it to them to spend their lives in denial of its reality.
...Every day he is demonstrating the falsehood of that most squalid Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to muster.
And in the process, he is showing himself to be even more deserving of our admiration, respect, and love." Cheerz.

Friday, 25 December 2015

A Christmas Contrast 2015.

I see the contrast in two Straits Times reports yesterday. One report is entitled “A quiet Christmas in Brunei” and the other reads “Gathering place for the Karen.”

While the Bruneians are having their muted Christmas celebration because “the government has banned open displays of Christmas trees and Santa Claus figures since last year,” the Karen Baptist Church (KBC) – the only Church in Singapore formed by Karen Christians – are celebrating their “Karen New Year” openly and it has an attendance of 1500. Last year, 5000 of all religious persuasions came.

KBC began with 30 in 1997 and today, their weekly services conducted in Karen language has about 500. In Myanmar, the Karen people are still facing persecution and the refugee problem is heartbreaking.

Pastor Saw, who came to Singapore in 1995 and worked as an electrician for 15 years before “swopping his screwdrivers for sermon notes,” said, “My motivations are not political. I just want to help our community here, especially the lower-wage workers.”

In addition to the Church service, once a month, KBC members "make their way to the farms in the Lim Chu Kang area with food and necessities for Karen workers at the chicken farm.” At the roadside, lit by the streetlamp, Pastor Saw held “mini services, using the back of lorries as a makeshift stage.”

While one of the rationale for banning public Christmas celebration and disallowing Muslims from joining such celebration was explained by a cleric from Brunei’s Religious Affairs Ministry’s Propagation division as this, “If Muslims offer wishes of Merry Christmas, it means they give recognition to that religion and consider it to be acceptable to Allah. But that cannot be, as our religion says there is only one God, not many Gods,” Pastor Saw of KBC however has this to say about the mini-farm services held at the back of lorries, “some of the farm workers who come are not believers. But we welcome all; I will not turn them away because they are not Christians.”

Lesson? I have three.

1) Shared values.

In 1991, our government came up with the shared value white paper. GCT then wanted “to facilitate the formation of a coherent Singaporean identity.” He proposed five shared values and the sixth about “belief in God” was rejected because Singapore was to remain a secular state.

Now, secularism doesn’t mean hostility to religion and religious harmony has always been one of the cornerstones of our society. This is in fact the last and fifth value in the white paper. The other values has to do with “community and society above self” but this is balanced out by “regard and community support for the individual.” The other shared values are “family as the basic unit of society” and “consensus instead of contention” to accommodate different views.

More importantly, Singapore takes an open-minded and open-ended perspective on religious pluralism and not a closed and narrow one. It takes the good of religion and blends it with its national purpose of peaceful co-existence, and at the same time, is cautious about its excesses and possible political subversive tendencies when left to its own devices.

Personally, I am glad our government took the pre-emptive step/measure to set afoot and apace the firm and reassuring direction of our nation.

2) Community.

When the Maintenance of Religious Harmony white paper and Act were produced, there was a concern that Christian evangelism was getting too aggressive and the movement might be perceived as insensitive to the other religion. So, the government again took pre-emptive steps. GCT said in parliament that the Act was introduced “more in sorrow than with joy.

Now, our government is not perfect, but I am glad they did some things right with vision and foresight. If you read the history of great empires, you will see a common thread that runs through them just before they begin to fall. Intolerance is one of the signs.

A great civilization always starts with enlightened tolerance or “intolerant with intolerance” where all are invited to build the community together. Then comes a regressive attitude I call “tolerant of intolerance.” This is where one powerful section of the community starts to break away and assume a form of racial, language or religious exceptionalism.

The fallout comes when this attitude sours into what I call “Intolerant with tolerance.” This is where the nation becomes demarcated, divided, and divisive. Our government therefore forestalled that eventuality with the passing of the religious harmony Act and the enunciation of the shared values.

Essentially, our government has made it clear that they are “anti-theocratic” but not “anti-religious” and “secular but not atheistic”. You can say that ours is a secular leadership with an agnostic soul.


3) Charity.

I want to end here with the humbling work of Pastor Saw of KBC. His all-embracing, non-discriminating attitude towards Christians and non-Christians alike is especially encouraging, uplifting, even refreshing.

His Church sets the example as Christ had set it when he invited all to come to his table of mercy, love and communal joy. At Calvary, the love of God is offered to all without exception, and it is offered free, unconditionally.

When Jesus was hung there, he had criminals for company. At his final moments, he offered them salvation regardless, and it matters not to him whether they are Jews or gentiles, penitent or not.

Jesus knew he did not come to save an ideology, a language, a government, a form of patriotism, or to preserve and perpetuate a race. He came to save us – a broken humanity and a common soul.

At Calvary, for that defining moment, Jesus had placed himself below humanity so that none of us can ever claim to be above it. And this is why we celebrate this season so openly. Because our joy for such a Savior cannot be contained. Merry Christmas to all! Cheerz.