Sunday, 25 December 2016

A Christmas Prayer.

Lord, thank you for Cross. Thank you for the sacrifice. Thank you for sparing nothing to set an example that endures even in the worst of times.

If there is one thing that defines your act, it is love. The Cross is where love was hanged. It was a deliberate act, a premeditated deed. It stands as a mockery to what the world stands for. It is the world’s sore thumb. The world will never understand it.

You showed the world that there are things more lasting than gold or silver. At the Cross, you rejected the devil’s proposal twice. You neither bowed down nor gave in to his offers of riches, power and dominion over the world. In the wilderness, you rebuked him in words, and at the Cross, you rebuked him in deeds.

O Lord, the Cross drew the boundaries of freedom for me. It is a freedom to love without condition. It is a freedom to choose truth over lies. It is a freedom to give without taking, to sow in faith and to reap in hope, to persevere for a cause that represents the ultimate truth in this world, and to live an overcoming life.

The transforming power of the Cross is to set us free from desires that seek to imprison us. The Cross breaks all mirages of power, idols of ambitions and strongholds of blinding riches. It strips and lays bare the impoverishment of all human desires. Under its searchlight, the Cross unravel realities to show the ugly and destructive side of a heart that seeks only to serve itself and no one else. If the heart is above all deceiving, then the Cross is above all liberating.

For three days, as you hanged there, you captured the essence of what it means to be your follower. It was never about prosperity. It was never about possessing possessions. It was never about building mansions on earth. Neither was it about making this world our home nor using worldly culture to change worldly culture. For this love requires no human embellishments to reach the lost. Neither does this love need to be incentivized by the promises of abundant blessings to move hearts. The Cross has and will always be about love, your prevailing love. It transforms hearts just as it is. Just as we are.   

Oh Lord, what makes the Cross an exceptional guide in this world is that it stands apart from this world. The Cross is an exception to the rule because it is sustained by an enduring and timeless purpose that seeks to rule our hearts with exceptional love. It is therefore separate from the world to show the world that there is a better way, the way of love.

No theology, philosophy or science is able to capture this love in the way you have embodied it at Calvary. This love makes all things beautiful. It makes all things new again.   

History was a bystander to the deeds of this love. It witnessed this love going all the way. It did not fail. It did not give up. No flogging, nails or thorns could stop this love from finishing his work. And indeed it fulfilled the calling. It completed the race.

Oh Lord, that is what it means to be your follower. We are called to embody this love. We are called to demonstrate this love in everything we do. Only this love, this exceptional devotion, can transform both our hearts and the hearts of those who experience it through our words and deeds.

This love changes everything. It transforms all relationships. It nourishes the love of spouses. It sustains the bonds of friendships. It refreshes maternal and paternal devotions. It convicts and turns a rebellious heart around. It gives hope, deepens ties, encourages hearts, builds trust, empowers faith and breathes life into a broken and jaded soul.

For this reason Lord, this love will resist all human efforts to institutionalize it. It will resist our desires to keep it for ourselves. It will resist our misguided designs to imprison it within a building, trademark it to a person and tether it to human rules and regulations.

And this is why the Cross lies in an open hill, stripped bare and naked, broken and torn for our sake. No one owns it. No one has a prior right to claim it. No one can turn this love into a religious ritual to bind, a theological doctrine to impress, a commercial tool to exploit, or a charisma factor to entice, beguile and entrap.

This love is freely given, and it is freely received. It transcends time, institutions, personality and human rules. It is the cornerstone of our faith from the bleeding heart of our Saviour.

So, thank you Lord for the Cross. Thank you for the sacrifice. And this Christmas may mean many things to many people. But nothing defines the season better than the love that prevailed to the end – even to the end of time. Amen. Cheerz. 

Santa's mystery solved?

Father Christmas is mystery no more. While the Lord still works in mysterious ways, scientists have finally solved the question of how an overweight, loud and aged Saint Nicholas could deliver all the presents in one night, fit into a narrow chimney and maneuver undetected in the still of the night.
Thanks to Einstein, Dr Katy Sheen (from the geography department of the British college) applied the theory of relativity to unlock the time and speed factors of Kris Kringle's Christmas escapades. Here's how it works, and I am going a little rogue on the science.
Now, we all know that time and space is relative to that of the speed of light. So, according to Dr Sheen, "Santa Claus and his reindeer would have to travel at about 10 million kmh - more than 200,000 times faster than Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man - to deliver presents to every a span of 31 hours."
That's not all. The greater dilemma for the obese Mr Claus is the chimney. But as Santa approaches lightspeed, he takes on a more aerodynamic shape and he shrinks or gets thinner. That solves the weight issue. Then, how about his signature "Ho! Ho! Ho!" that would wake up the whole neighbour?
That's simple. Dr Sheen pins it down to the Doppler effect. Speed bends not just time and space, it also changes frequency - that is, sound waves - as the object approaches.
So, "as Santa Claus and his sleigh approach, the sound of bells and his deep "ho, ho, ho" would get higher and higher (like when an ambulance siren whizzes by) and then become completely silent, because he would move beyond human hearing range."
As an aside, for the philosophy student, so much for Occam’s razor (that is, when you have two explanations for a phenomenon, choose the simpler one). No one is thus going to die the cuts of a thousand qualifications here to explain that Santa Claus exists (aka Antony Flew).
Oops, you may ask: "How the heck is Santa going to travel that fast?" Dr Sheen sort of answered it. "Well, that's magic! However, he would certainly need a lot of fuel - so don't forget his glass of sherry, a mince pie or two, and some carrots for the reindeers!"
Lesson? ...
Alas, I am not going to lie to you guys anymore. I refuse to practise intellectual dishonesty. Santa Claus is a load of hogwash. He is as real as the fairies in the bottom of the pond or the little tiny teacup orbiting around the rings of Saturn.
But this doesn't change Christmas for us believers, right? They don't call it Christmas for nothing and the "Christ" in Christmas has to mean something right?
Maybe it has nothing to do with Einstein, the speed of light, or the Doppler effect. Maybe Christmas is about powers far greater than that, deeper and wider in effect.
Trust me, there is no magic in Christmas. No make-believe. No elves, pixie dusts or wishing wells. Christmas (not so much the day as it is the spirit of it) has always been about love. Love of family. Love of friends. Love of spouses and love of parents for their children.
And if we go behind the festivities, the champagne glasses, the presents, and the Christmas tree, Christmas is really all about relationship. More to the point, it is about a sacrifice that started it all.
There is therefore no magic in Christmas because Jesus needed no magic to demonstrate what his love means to the world. Yet far magical than magic, Jesus lived the most ordinary life to deliver the most extraordinary of transformations.
He was not intangible, a spirit or a hologram. He was no make-believe. He walked, talked and lived amongst the least of us. He is part of our history; not some fabled tale or rumored story.
Now, our Lord may work in mysterious ways, and he still does, but not Jesus. He came to redefine love, set the truth in our hearts, and burn a passion in us that would never die.
There are in fact three simple things that makes Christmas not only special but empowering: the towel and basin, the hearty supper and the Cross. The metanarrative in each of these things redefined and transformed the world.
And if you want to celebrate Christmas, whether you are a believer or not, you can't not talk about him, his teachings, his deeds, his sacrifice, his love. You may be hard-pressed to accept his claims, but you can't deny his acts, his heart and his impact.
No man I know came, existed and led with such clarity of purpose from birth to death, such humility of spirit from breath to breath, and such sacrifice of love from a heart that promises enduring rest.
So, this weekend, you can cut that juicy, stuffed turkey, slice into that bacon ham, and exchange the most expensive presents. But if you leave Christ out of Christmas, you leave out not a religious ritual in the celebration. You however leave behind the true meaning of Christmas, and that is, a love that gave all because it never gave up. Cheerz.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Are megachurch preachers narcissistic?

Spoiler alert: A megachurch preacher is no more narcissistic than the many people I have come to know in my life (myself included). And when it comes to narcissism, the general observation is that it is one of degree. 

In other words, the desire to feel special is a universal sentiment, and it is not necessarily always a bad thing. Find me a man who is at constant enmity with himself and he will likely turn out to be a very unhealthy individual who may just find the continuation of life unbearable or the cessation of life irresistible.

The inescapable reality about narcissism is that we are all guilty of it to some extent. And not surprisingly, in certain circumstances, it can even be healthy. Some call it positive illusions where we tell ourselves that we are smarter, faster, stronger, wiser, funnier, tougher, and even prettier than our neighbor or the general population at large. A little self-promotion is quite unavoidable (although for the religious, it takes forever to admit it).

Sportsmen do it all the time (that is, self-promotion) before a competition to gain that mental edge. Politicians do it to psyche themselves up just before a speech. Students often overrate themselves in intelligence, character and looks just to feel special, restore self-esteem, or give them a pat on the back. You can call it self-affirmation, self-assertion or self-assurance, but the semantics do not change the fact that a little touch of ego can firm up our resolve, lift our hope, and embolden our spirit. 

Dr. Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist and lecturer for Harvard Medical School wrote this in his book Rethinking Narcissism: “We need our grandiosity at times to feel happy and healthy. And a growing body of recent research concludes that a little narcissism, in adolescence, helps the young survive the Sturm und Drang (German for “Storm and Stress”) of youth; moderate teenage narcissists are less anxious and depressed and have far better relationships than their low and high narcissist peers. Likewise, corporate leaders with moderate narcissism are rated by their employees as far more effective than those with too little or too much. And my own research with my colleagues is pointing in the same direction: only people who never feel special or feel special all the time pose a threat to themselves and the world. The difference between narcissists and the rest of us is one of degree, not kind.”

So, if you view it on a spectrum with one extreme representing “psychopathic narcissism” and the other extreme representing “suicidal self-negation”, I trust the majority of us hovers safely around the middle goldilocks zone of a healthy promotion of self. Seen in this light, narcissism only becomes a problem of character when one moves to the extreme.

In a recent interview, Amos Yee - sporting a new haircut - declared to the world that he is a changed teen. He attributed feminism to his gentler change of writing style and approach to confronting controversial issues. But whether he is serious or sincere about it, I guess only time will time.

My point here is that this is the same individual who will readily tell you that he has made a huge difference in the pursuit of free speech in Singapore. He unabashedly said that he has transitioned from “entertainer” to “a full-fledged activist.” He calls himself a “public figure” who wields enduring influence with 50,000 followers on social media. In his own eyes, it is more likely than not that he sees himself as a star, a trailblazer, a revolution of one. In certain quarters, Amos may just fit the image of someone who is quite full of himself.

Then comes Joseph Schooling. He is our first Olympic gold medalist. He beat three other world best, including Phelps, to come up tops in the recent Rio Olympics. His story is all over the papers. Books have been written about him. Parliamentarians recently gave him a standing ovation. And he will go down in local history as the sportsman of all time.

Yet, all these accolades, rewards and recognition did little to change him. He is still as self-effacing as before. Unlike flies to light, he does not gravitate towards the limelight. His achievement came out of many years of quiet determination and unfaltering focus. He attributed his success to his devoted parents who have always believed in him. He gave credit to others especially his coach and even his domestic maid for 19 years. 

It is undeniable that Schooling is a down-to-earth guy and putting him on the spectrum, you can say that he has a reasonably healthy view of himself – mostly due to his upbringing. He would therefore flourish safely in the middle of it. As for Amos, well, on the same spectrum, my view is that he is somewhere biased towards the extreme.

So this brings me to why I wrote this post.

Recently, Kong Hee posted a video on his Facebook about his trip to Cipinang, Jakarta. His video showed him being offered the presidential treatment on his way to the Church in Jakarta with police escorts in the front and back. He said that he was grateful for the hospitality shown and wanted to express his appreciation to the organizer in his Facebook post.

His post and many others exclusively showing how he is making waves in the churches all over Asia led me to ponder on the title of this post, that is, Are megachurch preachers narcissistic?

Incidentally, in a recent article written by the vice-chairman of the medical board of IMH, Dr Chong Siow Ann, the title reads: "Is Trump a narcissist?" The consensus is unanimous here. Harvard professor Howard Gardner called him "remarkably narcissistic" Clinical psychologist Ben Michealis believed that Trump suffered from a "textbook narcissistic personality disorder." Yet another commentary in the august British Medical Journal reads: "It is obvious that Trump is sexist and racist. He is vile in his nastiness, undiplomatic and offensive; a true dog's dinner of a president candidate, if you really hated your dog. But none of this means he has a psychiatric condition. It just means that he's a horrible man." 

Now, while Trump fits the bill, unofficially at least, is it then obvious here with the megachurch preachers? In other words, what can one say about Kenneth Copeland who once encouraged believers to "speak an eighty-two-foot yacht into existence? Or Creflo Dollar seeking donation of $65m for a private jet? Or Robert Tilton's admission that he "had to undergo plastic surgery to remove the bags from under his eyes"? These are people who does not just cause a splash in the publicity world. They practically command a media tsunamis with their presence, stage antics and extravagant lifestyle.

So, going back to Kong Hee, it should be noted that, after his conviction and appeal, Kong Hee has neither moderated his visibility in social media nor stayed out of the media limelight. If you want to find out what he is doing, the impact he is making, the thousands of believers who adore him on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, it is just a click away on his Facebook.

He doesn’t appear to be someone who avoids the public attention. He is undeniably a celebrity evangelist who makes God known by making himself known too. At times, the public perception is that the adulation or recognition is shared between himself and God. At other times, and again in terms of public perception, he runs the risk of putting himself, the messenger, ahead of the message - intention aside.

At this juncture, the haunting words of a former megachurch pastor (and grandson of Billy Graham) who resigned from the ministry because of two affairs which ended his marriage are highly instructive: "...The shift from locating my identity in the message of the Gospel to locating my identity in my success as a messenger of the Gospel was slow and subtle...My confidence was severely misplaced: Confidence in status, reputation, power and position, the way I spoke, the praise I received, financial security and success." (Tullian Tchividjian).

Now, let me be clear, I am as guilty as Kong Hee when it comes to dealing with the struggles of self. It is a touchy subject where pride, ego, overconfidence and the hidden desires for self-significance has always been the root cause of many good men’s fall. The Bible is replete with examples of how power, wealth and fame have wrecked havoc in the lives of great men of God.

If the Bible is seen in the perspective of self, it can readily be surmised as such: God created self in His image; self enjoyed creation; self joined another as one; self was tempted; self fell; self killed another; self was destroyed in a flood save for the ark; self populated the earth once more; self grew into tribes; self clamored for a human government; self strayed from God; self took on other idols; self rebelled; self was taken to the Cross; self was crucified; self was redeemed; self was transformed; self was lost but now found; self is subjected to the Spirit of God.

Yet in all this, we still struggle with self, with greed, with lust, with pride, with envy, with domination, and with grandiose. It is a timeless struggle of varying degree of intractability. In fact, the history of the Bible is the history of our tumultuous relationship with self and how we endeavor by His Spirit to subject it to the redemptive power of the Cross (notwithstanding that we have been justified by faith). The struggles are nevertheless still ongoing, and for some, dauntingly monumental.

Kong Hee is therefore no different here except that he, like many other megachurch preachers, is constantly placed on a pedestal that is not only highly visible and highly adored, but is, by the nature of his calling, also highly susceptible to the relentless promotion of self. By this, I mean that every time Kong Hee makes a statement, performs a deed or even scratches an itch, he has the ears, endorsements and thumbs-up of thousands. At most times, he can’t help but feel special all the time. 

(Mind you, one does an alleged humble spirit and a contrite heart no favors by exacting a certain deliberateness to expose oneself to the glare of public and media attention. I sincerely believe that humility is not just the absence of pride or arrogance. It is also the absence of self-contrived opportunities that offer pride an environment to flourish and possibly take over - even unknowingly).

That is why I pondered on that question about megachurch preachers. Are they more prone to the siren call of the self for recognition, power, control, earthly praises and adoration? Will they one day at the height of their successes see themselves as not only highly favored and specially elected by God, but also invariably indispensable to the ministry? Are they thus more susceptible to get carried away, be deluded with power, be intoxicated by the constant attention, be led astray by inching unknowingly towards the other extreme of the narcissism spectrum?

Alas, this has happened to all great men who stand out in a crowd. King David fell when he was perched on a tower overlooking a certain showering event. King Solomon rode high on wisdom and entered into questionable marital unions that for a time led him away from God. And we have King Saul who was filled with murderous intent right till his death. He died an impenitent man.

Indeed, with great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes great accountability, and with great accountability comes great susceptibility. If Narcissus was cursed by the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, to a deathly plunge into the depths of his own unattainable image reflected in the waters, then isn’t the curse of mankind the image of self that is reflected in the depth of his soul which constantly calls to him to do her carnal biddings?

This is the essence of Paul’s struggles which he readily admitted to in Romans 7 at the time when he was beholden to the flesh: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…For I have desire to do what is good but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing.” Well, at the risk of oversimplifying, this is essentially Narcissism-101 and no man (or woman) is exempted.

Aristotle once asked this question: “Who should the good man love more? – Himself, or others?” And he answered: “The good man is particularly selfish.” I guess when John the Baptist said, “He must become greater and greater, but I must become less and less,” he was not calling for complete self-abnegation, but the constant subjection of self to the disciplines of the Spirit. In other words, in the context of the narcissism spectrum I referred to earlier, I believe John the Baptist would have placed the self in the healthy middle where we neither lose our self (in excessive self condemnation) nor allow the self to dominate wholly and mindlessly.

And this brings me to the risk that megachurch preachers face when they are constantly in the limelight, elevated to a place of prominence, showered with superlatives from devout fans, and god forbid, deluded into believing in their own invulnerability when they are surfing on the crest of their own popularity. What is disconcerting is when the members are prepared to overlook their leader’s transgressions or flaws by justifying them as a small moral price to pay in return for successes in numbers, growth and wealth, and thereby conveniently using it as an endorsement of the “rightness” of their support (the end is therefore made right by whatever the means).

In Kong Hee’s case, if the legal saga is anything to go by, Judge See’s words should give ample warning to other megachurch leaders of what a culture of secrecy and blind allegiance, and “a mindset of presumptuousness or boldness” can do to a leadership that believe they can do all that is expedient in the short term, with whatever dubious means possible, to achieve a project goal at all costs, and at the expense of full accountability, disclosure and integrity (that is, the misleading album sales). 

Again, for the church, the issue here is not that Kong Hee has done no wrong (that is, leadership wise - putting aside the criminal conviction, appeal and all). His members would readily admit that Kong Hee has erred. The issue here is ironically how the members are prepared to overlook all that by convincing themselves that he is only human, and leaders like him are expected (even allowed) to make mistakes. This collective mindset effectively absolves all such leaders of the need to be transparent, accountable and even repentant.

So, going back full circle, Are megachurch preachers narcissistic? Well, I guess it all depends. Since no men is exempted, the risk is always lurking not too far away. I am sure preachers like Joseph Prince, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes and the late Jerry Falwell have their fair share of struggles over the years. Each of them has their strength and flaws as with all human leadership.

The safeguard here is for the members to check their leaders, to hold them accountable, to remind them of their responsibility to the church, to assist, serve and respect them no doubt, but never at the expense of turning a blind eye, and to stand up for what is right, even at times when they have to stand alone. 

On this, I follow my Savior's lead. In living, he set the example. In dying, he lived the example. And in rising, he calls us to follow His example. It is an example that he was prepared to stand alone at Calvary so as to reign victorious in our hearts. Cheerz.