Sunday, 31 January 2016

Eugene H. Peterson: The Pastor.

Eugene H. Peterson was once asked by a young woman in his Church, “What do you like best about being a pastor?” Now you must know, Eugene Peterson, 83, has written books. Many books. And he had won the Gold Medallion Book Award for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. He has a degree in Philosophy and several honorary doctoral degrees under his belt. In 1962, he was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland, and he served for 29 years before retiring in 1991. So, what was his reply to that question: “What do you like best about being a pastor?

He said, “The mess.”

Yes, after all those decades, written all those books and even translated the whole Bible to layman language, not to mentioned pastoring a Church for nearly 30 years, Eugene Peterson’s reply about the mess was rather surprising – to put it mildly. One would have thought that he would at the very least replied with some confidence that he understood more over the years, maybe became wiser. Or he could say that he has seen many lives grow from the altar call to spiritual rebellion and to life-transforming repentance after a series of stumbles and then to a life of unwavering submission to God and nothing therefore surprises him anymore. But he didn’t. He didn’t reduced it all to a self-assured response of I’ve-seen-it-all-and-know-the-answer.

He simply mentioned “the mess”. He wrote that his reply was “unpremeditated”. In other words, it was spontaneous, uncontrived, unplanned. In fact, Pastor Peterson later felt the need to clarify his reply and he wrote: “Well, not exactly a mess, but coming upon something unexpected that I don’t know how to handle, where I feel inadequate. Another name for it is miracle that doesn’t look like a miracle but the exact opposite of miracle. A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context, in words and action that takes me off-guard. Theologian Karl Rahner was once asked if he believed in miracles. His reply? “I live on miracles – I couldn’t make it through a day without them.” Still another name for it is mystery. Pastors have ringside seats to this kind of thing. Maybe everyone does, but I often feel that pastors get invited into intimacies that elude a more functional and performance way of life.”

I guess the mysteries unraveled in each life by His grace take a lifetime to understand, and to deal with, because each of us are different and we are different because God created it that way. Just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two souls are alike too. And Eugene Peterson was well aware of this intricate mystery when he wrote, “I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls – immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions – place and time – that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries…I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truth. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention. Be ready…Repent. Believe.

This weekend I completed the memoir of Eugene Peterson entitled The Pastor (320 pages) and I was delightedly disappointed by the vast and humbling experiences (and knowledge) of a pastor who knows both his congregation and the Word of the Lord intimately. Let me explain why I used the word “delightedly disappointed”.

There is in fact no pretenses to Eugene Peterson as a fellow human being and a pastor. You can sit him down to chat him up and eagerly expect to find concrete solutions to church leadership and growth only to be disappointed by his answers. He boasts of none in fact. And that is deeply comforting to me. Unlike mega-church pastors, who can tell by first sight what ails you with a certainty that is out-of-this-world, Eugene Peterson readily admits that each life he encountered had ministered to him as deeply as he had ministered to them. To him, the learning never stops and he has no cut-and-dried answers to them. And the people he meet can sometimes leave him speechless.

In one encounter, he met an artist who had survived the Nazi occupation. But he hated the Church to the core as his pastor then was a fervent Nazi. His pastor even embraced Hitler as a prophet. To him, the Church was sleeping with the Devil. On one occasion, he invited Eugene Peterson to his house for a free portrait to be painted by him and this was how Eugene Peterson described the finished work, “He had painted me in a black pulpit robe, seated with a red Bible on my lap, my hands folded over it. The face was gaunt and grim, the eyes flat and without expression…he had painted me a sick man.” Accompanying the ominous portrait was this forewarning, “Eugene, the church is an evil place. No matter how good you are and how good your intentions, the church will suck the soul out of you. I’m your friend. Please, don’t be a pastor.” Thankfully, he did not take heed of that advice.

In his memoir, he wrote this about being a pastor: “But once we leave the sanctuary and are no longer calling the shots, we are functionally invisible. Our Sunday visibility no longer defines us. We live in a messed-up world, and the people to whom we are pastor are involved in the mess. We become witnesses to what cannot be seen or heard by a people whose senses are blunted by secularity, by oughtness, by a job description.

Eugene Peterson spent decades painstakingly ministering to the mess in the level and context where they occurred and he fully understood that each journey he took with the life of his congregant cannot be pigeonholed into a stereotypical category and then remedied with a toss of a few scriptures, parables and quotes here and there with a Benediction-like prayer of well-being to complete the spiritual prescription. A life and his/her struggles are just far too complex than what the world would have us think. And Eugene Peterson’s devotion to each life notwithstanding its uncertainty is what endears me to his humbling pastoral experiences and deep knowledge.

The world’s system and philosophy would tolerate no ambiguity and uncertainty. They are purely functional in nature (performance-based) and efficiency (that is, “doing things right”) has always been the touchstone of material success. If you look at the pastors of the mega-churches today, the one thing that distinguishes them from pastors like Eugene Peterson is that they – by the subtlest of deliberateness – seem to project the image that they have arrived, that is, they have the answers. Their one-size-fits-all pulpit messages (and books) are what draw the crowd by hypnotic droves. Every human problem to them can be resolved in the name of efficiency. You will never catch them by the tail of their ignorance. They operate vicariously with the certainty of the divine sovereign.

Unfortunately, we are hardwired psychologically to eschew uncertainty and anything that guarantees a solution (however incredulous or far-fetched) would have the alchemistic attraction equivalent to the offering of the elixir of everlasting youth. The crowd like lemmings will therefore come by the thousands. We are helpless suckers for the spam of certainty and this is why anyone who boasts to have found the key to unlocking the mysteries of life in God’s name has the ears of the masses (and their money too).

Eugene Peterson however avoids all that. After all the years of pastoring and authorship, he still stands in awe of the miracles and mysteries that God is unfolding to him. The process is never-ending. The journey is ongoing. And the learning is both daunting but rewarding. His is the humility of a subservient will and that is why the ministry of pastors like Eugene Petersen will always be a broken mirror that deflects all glory to his Maker and not like a prism that hordes it, manipulates it from within, and then converts it into a rainbow of many delights to charm its listeners.

In his own words, he wrote: “The pastoral identity I began with was clear enough: I knew that this is not a religious job; it is who I am vocationally…I knew that I did not want to be a pastor who took on the responsibility of “running this damn church.” I didn’t want to be a religious professional whose identity was institutionalized. I didn’t want to be a pastor whose sense of worth (was) derived from whether people affirmed or ignored me. In short, I didn’t want to be a pastor in the ways that were more in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture.”

Personally, for those whose ministry is set up to elevate a  prism-like leadership instead of a leadership of broken mirror, the glory that belongs exclusively to the Object of their worship soon becomes a shared property with the lead worshipper/pastor. It would then reach a stage whereby the two (the Savior’s glory and the charisma of one’s personality) become interchangeable and indistinguishable. The danger of this is that the celebrity-like preacher then becomes inseparable with (even indispensable to) the growth and identity of the Church. Take him away and the Church limps and gropes her way forward. Truly, the cult of personality is inevitably the personality of a cult.

Let me end with a metaphor the good pastor used in the book. He spent most of his youth in his father’s butcher shop and he learned how to deal with people by watching how his father cut his meat. Here is what he wrote about the art of meat carving: “I also learned that a beef carcass has a will of its own – it is not just an inert mass of meat and gristle and bone but has character and joints, texture and grain. Carving a quarter of beef into roasts and steaks was not a matter of imposing my knife-fortified will on dumb matter but respectfully and reverently entering into the reality of the material. “Hackers” was my father’s contemptuous label for butchers who ignorantly imposed their wills on the meat. They didn’t take into account the subtle differences between pork and beef. They used knifes and cleavers inappropriately and didn’t keep them sharp. They were bullies forcing their wills on slabs of bacon and hindquarters of beef. The results were unattractive and uneconomical. They commonly left a mess behind that the rest of us had to clean up.

If you substitute the meat in this metaphor for the life of a soul and the art of meat carving for pastoral leadership, you will realize that the theme that Eugene Peterson keeps returning to is to treat every soul differently with respect, dedication and patience. He also warns leaders not to be “hackers” who impose their will on the masses and insist that they are the final fount of authority on the interpretation of the Word. (Recently, I even heard a local mega-church pastor appealing to his congregation to grow in wisdom by equating his teachings with the Word of God).

More relevantly, Eugene Petersen urges leaders to take the time to minister to a life and avoid turning oneself into a blunt pastoral instrument that prescribes touch-and-go advice to problems that have far deeper spiritual roots and take far longer time to resolve.

In a Letter to a Young Pastor (in the Afterword of the memoir), he wrote this: “Here’s a Psalm phrase that has given me some helpful clarity in the midst of the murkiness: “Blessed is the man who makes Yahweh his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.” (Ps. 40:4). The “proud” for me in this context are those pastors who look like they “know what they’re doing” – who are competent and recognized as such, who have an honored position in society and among their colleagues. And going “astray after false gods” amounts to living in response to something manageable, turning my vocation into a depersonalized job that I can get good at. I’m probably reading more into this text than it warrants, but it has given me a couple of images (“proud” and “astray”) that set off little alarm signals when I have sensed that I was betraying or avoiding the uniqueness of pastor.

My takeaway in all this is, there can never be a one-size-fits-all solution thrown indiscriminately at the masses. A mature pastor knows that it invariably takes time to guide a soul to full personal growth and a mega-church of thousands that predominantly relies on the charisma of one or two lead pastors runs the risk of turning growth into a frantic rush to fill the seat in the sanctuary instead of an enduring call to feed the sheep in the spirit.

Sooner or later, in order to keep up with the numbers, the lead pastor will be compelled to shore up his sermons or teachings with pulpit materials of dubious sources. I guess the prosperity gospel is but one of its many manifestations. And the eagerness to over-promise (or over-entice) his congregation with a life immune from sickness, poverty and hardship is but another. Over time, he will gradually shed his role as a humble shepherd guiding the people along the narrow way to becoming a prima donna on stage who bedazzles the people with more of what they want to hear and less of what they need to hear.

In his memoir, Eugene Peterson quoted Truman Capote who remarked with disdain the work of a popular novelist: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” Maybe he would have accorded pastors who sought to wow the congregation with feel-good and controversial sermons with the same disdain. And an appropriately tweaked Capote’s remark reserved for such pastors would be this: “That’s not preaching, he’s just being charming.” Alas, the peril of such charm dispensed blindly to a wide audience is in the deepening of the mass delusion at the expense of authentic growth and maturity. Cheerz.

Friday, 29 January 2016

What are fathers good for?

What are fathers good for? I often wonder the answer to that question myself. As a father of three and married for 16 years, I think we fathers are the most bewildered group of people. At the risk of oversimplification, a mother's role is clearly defined. It's already set in the womb at her birth. Their reproductive organs have done most of the definition for them. They are wonderfully created to give birth to a life, nurture that life during her crucial growing years, love her unconditionally, encourage her in all she does, and show maternal resilience when they are called to do so. Full stop.

You can say that a mother's role starts at one end of her umbilical cord and ends at the other because while doctors can easily snip it off, the maternal bond is never broken. It in fact grows from strength to strength over the years. That's the definitive role of mothers. That is what they are good for and they are naturally indispensable. I dare say that those living owe them an immeasurable debt and gratitude.

Now comes the third wheel, the clumsy fathers. With apology, let me be crude. Don't let that erect-able organ fool you. Unlike mothers who are born with a nurturing, life-giving womb, we fathers are born with a hose that stands ready to fire at a moment's notice or arousal. Honestly, that intemperate organ has been the start and the end of most of our misery. Wars, murders, jealousy, and Machiavellian plots are waged and committed because of our lack of control of it. And when it comes to stretching it, we often stretch it to breaking point. Full stop.

So, what are fathers good for? We can't breastfeed, hug with maternal warmth like mothers do, encourage with tender loving care, love without manly boundaries, and play with the kids with sweet abandonment. Even changing a diaper takes forever.

Alas, after all's said and done, I guess we fathers still play a role in our children's life and it is no less important. I can think of three and here goes.

1) Be a blessing to your kid by blessing him always. When Jesus came to river Jordan and was baptized by John the Baptist, this was what God the father said to His son in its proper rendition, "This is my blessed child, in him I take delight." Here I wonder, "How many of us earthly fathers said that to our own children?" Do we bless them by telling them that we take great delight in them? Or do we give them the snort, the smear, the shuteye, the sidelong glance, the head shaking, the face-palm, or just the silent treatment? Whether we see it or not, all children are hungry for their father’s attention and approval and it is a blessing of immeasurable value when we extend that blessing to them instead of withholding it or worse, turn them away. The effort to bless is almost negligible but its transforming value is priceless. As fathers, that is the power we hold over our kid. We can transform them for good by telling them that we take great delight in them regardless of what they have achieved or failed to achieve or have yet to achieve. Or we can curse them into perpetual anguish by our insensitivity, nonchalance or disapproval. In fact, to bless is to speak well of, and like sunlight and rain, our words carry potential of growth and resilience in their young spirit.

2) Protect the marriage at all costs. It is said that in every marriage, there is the seven-year itch. But in today's quick satiation of wants, seven years is just too long. It is more like seven months or less. For some, it is a daily battle of hive-like itch and the scratching never stops. Temptations abound like locusts during harvest time. The truth is, there is always someone better out there - be it physically, or even character-wise. It is said that we marry our parents, that is, we are attracted to qualities similar to that of our parents and our parents, needless to say, are far from perfect. We are no different. A marriage is only made in heaven during the wedding day/night when the wedding bells of marital woes toll for the unsuspecting couple. Marital monotony soon comes with the dragging of a day, a month, and a year. Romantic love in a marriage is a myth and what counts as rock-solid faith is to conscientiously put in the time, effort and dedication in making the marriage work. The labor of love is often times more of the labor than that fleeting lovely-dovely feeling. We fathers (or husband) must elevate the marriage vows above ourselves, above our appetites, and above our capricious desires. We must protect this sacred vows by constantly reminding ourselves of it, never taking it for granted, reinventing our passion weekly, romancing with our spouse in more creative ways, deepening the intimacy via sharing the good, the bad and the ugly, and at all times, striving to be honest with our better half. Nondisclosure is often emotional betrayal couched in the flaccid labels of politeness, it's-for-her-own-good, or she-wouldn't-understand. A love that is conditional is a love that is self-serving. So there are surely many better persons out there, but there is only one that you have made a sacred promise to and however imperfect a father and husband you are, you nevertheless keep that promise to her.

And finally...

3) Be a farmer. I'll make this point a short one (I try). I think we are all familiar with the act of sowing and reaping. Yet what we often overlook is the process in the middle. That silent, unseen labor of delay gratification. You see, it is easy to sow, and the reaping part is no doubt its eventual reward. But it is the waiting, believing and working on what you have sown that is the toughest. What I have learned about life is that it seldom fail to reward the one who persists to the end (who runs and completes the race). In season or out, a farmer patiently sows, hopefully waits and deservingly reaps. There is no short cuts to that or to fatherhood, to parenting, to marriage or to success. The best example a father can be is not to just bringing home the bacon or ensuring that there is a roof over his family's head. Those are important no doubt. But the best example he can be to them is to stick it out to the end in fatherhood and in marriage. And if the marital vows can be summed up in 5 words, it would be this: "I'll never fail you guys." Of course fathers wear their pants one leg at a time and they will inevitably disappoint. But it is not the disappointments that mar him as a father. It is in his giving it up midstream. And a father who perseveres to the end brings home the greatest gift to his family and marriage. It is a gift of unconditional love. In a nutshell, that is what fathers are good for. Cheerz.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Ten reasons why Kong Hee and Sun Ho should remain as pastors of CHC.

What if I sincerely want to defend Kong Hee and his wife Sun Ho? What if I - like thousands of his church members - want him and his wife to stay in leadership and lead CHC into the future? What reasons would I bring to the table to defend/justify/rationalize their leadership in CHC in the light of the recent tumultuous events? How will I do it?

Well, I have ten reasons as listed below and it gets harder (to defend) as I reach the end. So if you are ready, here goes.

1) They started the Church (that is, CHC). They are her founders. This first reason is the easiest. In the same way that Joseph Prince found NCC, Kong Hee and Sun Ho led CHC from few to many, from anonymity to popularity, and from scraping the bottom of the coffers for finances to raising millions in one weekend donation drive. That kind of history or background cannot be forgotten or dismissed away. It is also one of the indefeasible reasons why the couple deserves lifetime pastoral tenure at CHC.

2) They are a loving couple. If there is any marriage that is made in heaven on earth, I trust their nuptial knot has to be it. Their love is displayed openly on stage with hugs, kisses and words of endearment. Kong Hee once said that Sun Ho is his advisor, his guiding light, his "Sun". He admitted that he wouldn't be where he is today without her (ignoring the biting irony here). Although Sun Ho is relatively less gushing (effusive) of her affection for her husband in public, theirs is a love that stays together and overcome together. It is also a shining city on the hill to set the marital example for their members. Their marital synergy is almost perfect for longtime CHC leadership.

3) Their leadership is recognized worldwide. Kong Hee and Sun Ho have started affiliate churches, training schools, mission centers and prison ministry. They are engaged by international church leaders to speak to thousands with positive responses. Many are studying their church-growth model and trying to integrate it into their own church. To them, it is a winning formula - some sort of spiritual franchising that has a proven track record over the years.

4) They still have the trust and support of majority of the church members. This is a fact. The show of support is rather amazing even after the conviction and the sentences meted out. I guess for the reasons I have given above, you can't find a better replacement for the dynamic duo for CHC - at least not in the immediate future. I really can't imagine CHC being led by someone else. Can you?

5) They gave, did charity, visited broken homes, helped in famines, restored lives and livelihood after an earthquake, and ministered to the poor and distressed. Now let's not talk about the very controversial church building donations and the hyper-driven efforts to bankroll crossover project. Let's accentuate the positive here. Those humanitarian effort I have listed above and initiated by the couple speaks for itself. Their collective Christ-like conduct should be applauded, emulated and humbling for all. Some critics might call it hypocritical but I choose to see it from the desperate eyes of those who are suffering and found enduring relief because of the initiatives of the couple. To the suffering, motives are secondary. Help in whatever form is primary because for most of them, their lives are at stake.

6) They are dynamic preachers and have gotten it right most of the time. Now the first point is an objective observation. The couple are definitely charismatic. I had attended CHC - just once - and I saw Kong Hee preached. He was impressive, well organized. I have also seen Sun Ho lead in worship and she sang reasonably well, sincere and even humbling. The second point (“gotten it right”) is my subjective view. I believe that they are not doctrinally unsound most of the time. Putting aside their arm-bending donation drive and megachurches' slippery slope towards a cult of personality, the couple don't dabble in controversies like Holy Spirit doesn't convict us of sins anymore (but of righteousness) or the muddling through of "I don't confess my sins to be forgiven...I confess my sins knowing that all my sins are already forgiven" (thereby making confession a misnomer). So, their message over the pulpit is still relevant for the church today and their members have every reason to want them to stay put.

7) They have penetrating, though rather unusual, vision of evangelism. Let's face it: the crossover project could have worked for God's glory. It started with good, humble intention. The dynamic couple were abroad watching music videos over big tv screens when the idea came to them. That vision of going into the world to intermingle with them so as to understand their struggles and pain without judgment and then ministering to them where it counts - that is, at the core of one's heart where all issues of life flow - is exactly why Jesus came in the first place and laid his life at the Cross. That vision united the whole church and endeared them to Kong Hee and Sun Ho rather passionately.

8) They love their church. Now, this is controversial. How can love be exploitative? - some may question. How can love put their members through the grueling 5 years of investigation and trial resulting in overwhelming convictions and another tortuous route to appeal that drags the congregational faith for another few months? Is it really love or is it simply the evolutionary instinct of self-preservation? 

Well, I am supposed to defend/justify them remember? And I have already forewarned you that the obstacles gets harder or tougher as it goes. But still, and this is all me, I sincerely feel that Kong Hee and Sun Ho love the church. In DJ See’s judgment, it is stated that "In their defence, all the accused persons testified largely to the same effect: they love CHC and would not have wished to do harm to CHC. They never intended to cause loss to CHC.” I try not to read too much into that because the decades of passion and struggle to build a church deserve more credit to me than a roving suspicion aroused from slumber by the somber words or folly conduct of men. What's more, there is always a "self" in love because in its absence, from where is the self to learn to be selfless then?

Alas, I have come to my last two defences why Kong Hee and Sun Ho should remain as pastors in CHC and they are the toughest yet. I would need my readers' understanding here as I will be sharing my mind/heart out. It would therefore be a lot of rambling me-speak, and quite raw and unwieldy. Here goes.

9) To defend them in the midst of the convictions and sentences (pending appeal, and for Sun Ho, being the main protagonist in the China Wine video, which started the 5-year-old nightmare) is not the tough part, trust me. I'll leave that for the final part below. But my point here is that we are only human. Who amongst us has not fallen? Living the Christian life is already tough enough, not to mention leading many Christian lives - thousands even - setting the example weekly, thinking of finances, growth, membership devotion, possible mass disillusionment, continual reinvention, keeping it all fresh, keeping up that almost invulnerable image expected of visible leaders who are only humans, and all that. 

Kong Hee and Sun Ho are not perfect. Their enthusiasm got the better of them. In their zeal, they have lost the way. And to cover themselves, they blamed it on the auditors, lawyers and even their once most trusted confidante. They panicked. They were scared, confused, desperate, lost, and are only human. I might just do worse in their shoes. All that are understandable. And this brings me to my last point chariot-led by this quote: "To err is human; and to admit it is spectacular."

10) Indeed, repentance is the crowning glory of a man's (or woman's) achievement in my book. It takes moral courage to do so. It takes the unconditional, take-no-prisoner's confrontation of self in the deepest and darkest cesspool of human consciousness to turn a life around for good and for God. That is why the Bible says that "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51:17). And neither should any of us. 

And this brings me to the toughest part of my defence of Kong Hee and Sun Ho. To date, neither of them have done so. Neither has said sorry, truly, unconditionally. In fact, Kong Hee had muddled it further by a theatrical apology on stage that basically and ironically deflected all blame and personal responsibility. And to aggravate matters, he appointed Sun Ho recently as lead pastor - (a stealth act of self-perpetuation rather than contrition). 

While I have listed the above nine points to defend or justify them remaining as pastors, and I stand by each and everyone of them, I am still struggling with this last defence. For how can Kong Hee and Sun Ho remain faultless or blameless in this whole debacle? Is this the perfection of leadership (we as lay members should unquestionably aspire to) or is this silent cowardice? Is it because they are advised by their lawyers not to admit their wrongdoings pending trial and appeal, and they would only apologize after they have exhausted all avenues of appeal? Are they then accountable to what is most expedient by riding on a legal technicality or are they accountable to the timeless principles of honesty, integrity and truth? 

And I will end here with this lamentation: How do you defend, or justify their stay in positions of leadership, especially one of moral and spiritual authority - where thousands look up to and draw moral courage from as ordained by God - when they simply refuse to turn the St. James' mirror of self-awareness, self-examination and self-reproach on themselves and then make the required and, in my view, long overdue changes so that the whole church can move forward not by a convenient change of name to CHC 2.0 or CHC 5.0 or CHC 39.7, but by virtue of a simple, thorough and enduring change of heart...? I guess I need to rethink my whole defence then. Cheerz.

My haphazard reflection about the Church.

A church is not a building. It is not about how nice the building looks. It is not about its interior. How grand the stage or how expensive the sound system. Even the pastor or founder is not the main draw or at all. Its programs and event attraction do not define the church. More relevantly, the church is not the melding together of people of one background, sharing one identity and culture, and worshipping under one roof. No. Not in my book. God has never intended the church to be so clear-cut, so simplistic. It’s not a modern-day Noah's ark where everybody is easily identifiable, and enter into its cavernous hall in adorable pairs with cozy lots neatly allocated to them. No way Hosea. On the contrary, the church is about stories. Many stories. Diverse stories. The stories are different because the experiences are different. They are life stories. These stories go deep into the heart of the matter. They are about individual struggles, endless pain, crippling losses, and disappointment and shame. The church is made up of these stories that are painstakingly unloaded, shared and exchanged among the congregation. And the pastor's role is to listen to them. He doesn't interrupt or impose. He doesn't insist that his story takes precedence over his member's. His weekly pulpit nostrum is not a universal panacea. It is not a one-size-fits-all indoctrination. His congregation comes to church to share their stories and not just to listen to his over the pulpit. A pastor therefore listens with a heart to understand. The pastor is not a magician, an event organizer, a corporate accountant or a fitness instructor. He is not obsessed with "making things happen", "bedazzling the crowd", "getting it right", "beating deadlines", "balancing the numbers" or "making everybody feel good about themselves". And surely, he is not there to make everybody feel good about him. He is given a place, a sacred place - regardless of its condition - and a time, kairos - regardless of its inconveniences - and he stands ready to pay attention, to understand, to stand in the gap, to serve with humility, and to never stop learning, even from the least of them. And in doing so, he confers dignity to each member's life, empowers their faith with hope, and disarms all resistance to them opening their hearts fully to the one story that timelessly transcends and enduringly heals all. That story is written in the blood that flows from Calvary. And the author of that story is Jesus. Cheerz.

Vanity of Vanities.

I read Ecclesiastes 1 this evening and wondered, what does the great sage mean by “vanity of vanities”? The elaboration that followed was quite abstract. He reiterated that “everything is meaningless.” The toiling under the sun, the sun that rises and sets, the wind that blows in circles, they all eventually return to where they first started. Nothing has changed.
Then, the great teacher went on to say that there is nothing new under the sun and our achievements however great will soon be forgotten. Even the understanding of men to pry open this world and to unravel all its mysteries is meaningless, and like the study of madness and folly, they are no more than “chasing the wind”.
So I digested the tautological lamentation and thought to myself, what does vanity of vanities mean in my context? What makes vanity even vainer in my day-to-day living? In other words, what compounds or aggravates the vanity? Here is a short list I came up with:-
When you don’t just think you are smart, you also think everyone is dumb…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just want to win, you also want the losers to concede that you have won….that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just think you’re humble, you also think you’re humbler than everyone else…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just think you’re right, you also insist that those who disagree with you admit they’re wrong…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you are clearly more successful than your peers and you just can’t wait to rub it in their faces and do it every time the opportunity avails itself…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just think you’re an authority on the interpretation of scriptures, you also think you’re the final authority on it…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don't just think that your way of living is superior, you also think that any lifestyle that is different from yours is unquestionably inferior…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just want to be the center of attention in a room, you also want to be at the center of everything…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just attribute all successes to your sole effort, you also think the collective effort of your team is merely incidental to it…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you’re having a bad day after committing a personal folly, and you vent it all out on your loved ones and children…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just think you’re an expert in something, you also think there’s nothing more to learn about it…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just judge a person by his looks or skin color, you also judge his company by his looks or skin color…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you're not only jealous of your friend’s success, you also want to see him/her fail some day, if not real soon…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just expect a free lunch, you also expect dinner and supper to be delivered to your door step…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don't just feel that your wife is old and becoming unattractive, you suddenly think you deserve better, prettier and younger…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just take your wife for granted, you also expect her to accept your daily oral abuses and apathy with understanding and grace…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you become complacent or smug after being conferred a title or an honor, and suddenly you feel you’re a class above the rest…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just believe that having more will make you happy, you also believe that those who have little can never be happy…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don't just think you understand the situation or emotion, you also think that there’s nothing more to understand about the situation or emotion…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just judge someone by his past, you also condemn his future by it…that’s vanity of vanities.
When you don’t just carry the hurt done to you indefinitely, you also make sure that the one who hurt you live the rest of his/her life regretting or paying for it…that’s vanity of vanities.
And last but not least…
When you don’t just regret the wrongs you have done in the past, you in fact never learned or repented from it…that’s vanity of vanities.
All the above is nothing more than chasing the wind. And the great teacher has seen it all coming before. Nothing is indeed new under the sun. Nothing surprises the wise anymore. Cheerz.

Friday, 22 January 2016

I see stupid people.

When Haley Joel Osment told Bruce Willis ominously in N. Night Shyamalan's movie The Sixth Sense this, "I see dead people", I too had a similar experience. Only this time, I experienced a different apparition. For me, it is this: "I see stupid people." No, seriously, I see them. They are alive and well, roaming the earth. 
They are actually not hard to find. Contrary to conventional belief, they do not hide under rocks or behind locked doors. Neither do they come out only at night and retire just before dawn. They are not discreet about it. Neither are they ashamed of it. These apparitions walk amongst us with a confidence that shines brighter than stadium floodlights. They also come in varying forms and shapes, hues and textures. But they all carry something in common. That common thread is ignorance. That's what stands out in them.
The hierarchy of these phantom menace works this way: The more ignorant they are, the higher they are in ranks. The generals with stars to boot are usually the politicians, preachers, intellectuals and a fair amount of common folks (especially when they come in a group to form an unthinking mob). And the lower in ranks are distinguished by their age. The younger ones are at the bottom and they inevitably progress up as they advance in age. Some are even in the fast track to generalship.
Now, the politicians are in this category for obvious reasons. They are elected – mostly by popularity (because the crowd are easily sway-able). But the votes cast for them really have nothing whatsoever to do with how well they will perform in office. It represents a vote of confidence at present and not the fulfillment of the electoral promises in the future. The bridging of the gap (between the present and future) has yet to be tested. This is as plain as vanilla of course. Notwithstanding the brevity of political tenure (just 4 or 5 years or 2 short terms), these politicians are however compelled for the purpose of campaigning to promise their voters the sky.
They will inevitably claim that they know more than the next candidate. Suddenly, they are all uber-knowledgeable. They readily project that image of "I know what I am saying and doing" - even when they haven't the faintest clue what awaits them the next day after election victory. And because their perceived image is that of the savior of the country, and at the same time, they have to struggle to wear their pants one leg at a time, you can imagine how a complete red-flashing derriere they will make of themselves in office. Donald Trump actually comes to mind here despite his burgeoning popularity and the widening margin at the polls. Mind boggling right?
Then, we have the preachers. These are usually the pulpit slamming, Bible stomping personality "A" type. Nowadays, they usually come in the rainbow-colored cloak of prosperity and everlasting love. Somehow they seem to have the eyes, ears and heartbeat of the Creator of the Universe. And if smoke can get in one's eye, then these preachers are the apple of God's eye. The well polished apple type.
On stage, they act as if they are more favored than the Jews by virtue of the New Covenant. They somehow know more than every other pastor down the street and they freely claim that their new spin on the scriptures have got the divine endorsement (or divine head spinning). They are cocksure that their word over the pulpit is wholly God-inspired and any other sermon against it is simply God-defiant. They preach about heaven and hell like they are its regular tourists, proclaim grace and love like God is at their service, and clamor for donations and prosperity like nothing is amiss.
But the reality - if one is discerning enough - is really far from it. This is where their ignorance shines brighter than a supernova. Most times, their messages are practically one-size-fits-all, their revelation is self-serving and even self-indulgent, and their teachings give the illusion that they have found the answer to all of life's most vexing mysteries - when in reality, they have merely found a better moonshine to suck out more prosperity for themselves. And thanks to the suggestible masses (who wants to hear what they want to hear), there is enough moonshine to go around the planet and back.
Actually, allow me to drop a thought here: I have discovered that the more ignorant you are, the more you claim you know. And the more you claim you know, the more glaring your ignorance. It’s like a butt-naked baboon climbing up a tree and the higher it climbs, the more visible his bottoms become. And it’s a vicious cycle too because the world is hungry (desperate even) for answers; or at least a surrogate or an approximate of it. And the approximation can be a galaxy away from the reality or truth we do not want to face.
Most times, it's all about the presentation, stage presence and packaging. Because all that glitters is not gold, but who cares about the gold when the shiny stuff works just as well right? It is the same with hope. Not all hope leads us to the truth, but who cares about the truth when empty hope works just as swell?
So, I am back to seeing stupid people. They are everywhere. They make their presence felt - sometimes too close for comfort. And they are real - sometimes stranger than fiction. In fact, just the other day, one of them passed me by. Surprisingly, he raised his hand in salute to me and called me "Colonel Mike". Alas, I have unwittingly joined their ranks. I am the ghost. The ghost is me. I guess that's the same twist with Bruce Willis' character in The Sixth Sense movie. Cheerz.