Sunday, 26 June 2016

The bottom line preachers of today.

"The bottom line is that the Holy Spirit never convicts you of your sins. He never comes to point out your faults." - Joseph Prince (“JP”)

A friend Joe posted that a few weeks ago and below was my comment:-

"Mm...there is something fundamentally wrong with that Prince's statement Joe. I don't know if his congregants noticed it. No, it's not about the Holy Spirit. It's not about whether He convicts you of your sins or not. It is not even about whether the HS comes to point out your faults or not. What is fundamentally wrong is captured in these two words "bottom line".

Those two words - spoken by a mortal man in smooth leather - spells finality. It connotes the ultimate. It is unappealable. It infers the buck stops with him. Needless to say, it implies the Prince knows best, and possibly knows everything there is to know about the subject matter, that is, the works of the eternal Holy Spirit. It is a bold, sweeping statement.

The "bottom line" bottoms out every discussion, every debate, every query. Whether it was intended or not, it implies the Prince is the final fount of authority on the matter. And anyone who disagrees disagrees not just with him, but with the Creator, the Alpha and the Omega, the "I am the I am", the Jehovah God. Imagine mortality making immortality almost superfluous.

That is what's fundamentally wrong with that statement. Not so much its content, but the attitude that precedes it. That's what worries me. Cheerz."


I did not think much about what I had written above until recently. When I surveyed the landscape of the megachurches and their leaders, I realized that JP is not the only preacher who had issued bottom line declarations. And by bottom line declarations, I mean the absolute certainty these preachers display over the pulpit on the unerring knowledge they possess about the god they profess to worship.

Just like JP, these preachers insist that they are the final authority when it comes to the interpretation of scriptures and the understanding of God’s will. And whether it is explicit or implied, anyone who disagrees with them is on the wrong side of the divinity’s divide. These bottom line declarations come in many hues and shades, with some bordering on the incredulous. But trust me, they don’t lack those who will faithfully endorse whatever they say and they come in tens of thousands.

Victoria Osteen has had her fair share here. She once told a congregation of thousands this: "...when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God… we’re doing it for ourselves. Do good for your own self. Do it because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really — you’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”

In one sweeping statement, Mrs. Osteen demonstrated to her congregation that she had a firm grasp of the mind of God. Now that's what I call scrapping the bottom of the barrel of omnipotence, or bottoming out the inscrutable mystery of the divine. Recall making the immortal superfluous?

In fact prosperity preachers have been making bottom line declarations all the time to wow their congregation. Kenneth Copeland once said that "you don't have God living in you, you are god." One televangelist proudly said, "As you use your faith, God is going to wipeout your credit card debts." Todd Bentley once claimed that God told him to kick a woman in the face to heal her. These are declarations made by preachers who claim they know the mind of God better than anyone else. And since personal revelations are almost always subjective, there is just no way anyone can verify those declarations.

And our local Prince has made countless bottom line declarations not just about the works of the Holy Spirit, but about how God wants to make you rich, see you healed, promote you to high positions, deliver you from all debts, save your marriage, and cure you of smoking and gambling addictions. There seems to be no limit to his confidence and knowledge about what God wants to do in your life – and at any time in your life, regardless, in spite and notwithstanding. And if he is right about them, wouldn’t the world for believers be a very different place from what we are witnessing right now? Sometimes, what we really need is not to have more faith, but to make common sense more common.

Imagine a world where repentance after the altar call is made optional, even redundant; where all are declared righteous even when the declarant knows deep inside it just doesn't gel with the reality he or she is experiencing; where the Holy Spirit no longer chastises and disciples us for our growth and maturity; and where prosperity, good health and earthly successes are the inalienable and inevitable rewards of the believer even when life is often much richer, more resilient and meaningful in their absence.  

Let me end with a prayer offered by someone whom we know too well. She had kept it in her journal, hidden and held close to her heart, until her death. She wrote this:-

“Where is my faith? Even deep down…there is nothing but emptiness and darkness…If there be God – please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul…How painful in this unknown pain – I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal…What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

The person above is Mother Teresa.

Alas, you will never catch any megachurch preacher admitting that they somehow identify with those words or conviction. Even Jesus agonized greatly before he confronted the Cross. But not these megachurch preachers of today. Mind you, they are not called “prosperity preachers” for nothing. And the fact that they are living large, enjoying the material blessings of a thousand-fold (thanks to the generosity of their members) and reveling in the adoration of tens of thousands have absolutely nothing to do with it – of course. Even the preachers of radical grace will tell you with a straight face that with abounding grace, everything is simply a triumphant declaration of a “yes and amen!But is it really so? Do we bottom out common sense when we make such statements?

If we are honest enough, and true to ourselves, we’ll have to admit that we are all like the blind men and the elephant, trying to figure out the object of our scrutiny from our own limited perspective. And the discovery is the journey - not the end-point, or destination. Our feel is therefore restricted to only a part of the great omnipotence, and say whatever we want to say about our Creator, we will never fully understand the mind of God - what's more issuing one-size-fits-all assurances that God works this-and-this or so-and-so in our life, regardless and unconditionally. And for this reason, what makes bottom line declarations dangerous is that we run the risk of creating God in our own image instead of submitting fully to Him so that He could mold us, like a Master Potter, into His own likeness. Cheerz.

EU no more.

I woke up this morning (25 June 2016) to a disunited states of Europe or disunited Kingdom. The news in Straits Times went awry and viral with the great divorce. Is this then the perfect storm of things to come where the waves of economic, social and political uncertainties would lead many into uncharted territories or dangerous waters?

The internal and external repercussions cannot be denied. The pound has fallen to its lowest in three decades (S$1.80 to the pound). The stock markets all over are licking its wound, stumped and groping. Scotland and Northern Ireland are at a complete loss since they are forced to go with the anti-EU flow. Nothing short of a second referendum would extricate them from this invidious mess. And David Cameron told millions yesterday that he intends to resign. His self-assured gamble had cost him his job.

While some are calling it a knee-jerk reaction, with one comment saying that “a lot of people are doing it out of defiance (and) it is based on feelings, not logic,” and another lamenting that “I’m very disappointed…I think the older voters have, rather selfishly, voted to get a “quick fix” to their problems without thinking of the long term implications leaving the EU will have, particularly for the younger generation,” it can’t be denied that a win is a win, and in democratic lingo, the people have indeed spoken. But why the shocking win? - you may ask. (And I am quite sure this is not some kind of Trump-logic-defying-hysteria traipsing across the Atlantic).

One European correspondent, Jonathan Eyal, offers his two-cents worth here: “Those who voted against the EU were largely white working-class voters, people for whom the European Union is regarded, not as an opportunity, but as a threat; workers who saw their jobs taken away by the hundred of thousands of migrants from Central and Eastern Europe who poured into Britain over the past few years.”

Mr Eyal continued with this: “The referendum was also a revolution against Britain’s established parties, none of which proved able to address the growing sense of resentment in rural communities or decaying post-industrial towns. The vote was also a rebellion against globalization, a reminder that while the forces of global markets have created winners, they have also created many losers.”

That’s not all.

Here is another incisive observation by James Crabtree, a visiting senior research fellow at LKY School of Public Policy:-

“At its most visceral, this rejection (of EU) focuses on migration, one of globalisation’s defining attributes…Behind this lay a mélange of worries about an influx of Polish workers, Syrian refugees and Muslim terrorists – fears that are strikingly similar to those Mr Trump exploits in the US. In Britain, the Remain camp never did find a convincing reply. If the EU itself is to survive, it too must find better answers to the misgivings of its citizens over unfettered movements of people.”

This next part resonates with me somewhat:-

“Yet Brexit is also a forceful repudiation of a second set of views favoured instinctively by liberal metropolitan types, namely, that the present era of open globalisation could produce prosperity for all citizens. It is by now widely accepted that the last two decades have seen a highly uneven distribution of the gains from global integration, most of which have been enjoyed by those who, in Britain’s case, likely voted to remain in the EU. But so far, even Europe’s redistributive welfare states have failed to redress this.”

Lesson? One, and let me be clear, I am for EU (at least the ideals behind it), but it is her application under opportunistic, mercenary-like hands that is the unwieldy leviathan that needs to be addressed here. So, below is my musing of what had gone wrong, a reflection of sorts...

Is this the death of EU for UK? Or is it the death of idealism? UK has got more than six decades to get it right and the scorecard on Thursday has shown that she has got it mostly wrong.

The victory of Brexit could very well be headlined as the “the grave miscalculation of David Cameron” and this has cost him his job. The captain of the ship is going to gentlemanly alight at the next stop because he had steered his way into the Scylla and Charybdis of political self-destruction.

Arthur Miller once said that “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Have Mr Cameron’s party and ideology exhausted theirs? Have the ideals of a united states of Europe reached the morning hangover of its overnight bingeing party, and it is now reeling from its head-splitting effect?

Here, I wonder, if the Holy Roman Emperors, the Hapsburgs, Napoleon and Hitler united Europe by force (against the will of the people), haven’t the founders of the EU united the people of one continent by sheer popular will out of the ashes of the second world war? I mean, is not the idea of a united Europe the collective effort of a group of visionaries, and not a group of empire-builders, war-hungry megalomaniacs or deviant mercenaries? (Or has it become that way overtime - like all idealism that went full throttle and warped?)

I guess, when the honeymoon is over, what remains is the mundane duty of taking out the trash and changing the diapers, and the Brexit has shown that you can’t save a union with blind faith, detached idealism and disguised opportunism. Hypocrisy does idealism no favors.

Alas, the road to hell is indeed paved with good intention in this case, and however bedazzling and noble the concept of the EU is, it is an outright political suicide to pretend that if a tree falls in the middle of the forest and no one is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound.

It is more likely the case that a sound was made (a thunderous one in fact as Thursday has shown), but those high up there are either too busy lapping up the exclusive benefits of EU for themselves to hear it or hoping that it would all just go away if they ignore it for long enough. Cheerz.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Fatherhood: To fail successfully.

My father seldom spoke. He is a Hainanese. I guess that speaks enough. By default, I am a Hainanese too. But I speak. I speak quite a lot. I write too. As a father, I have spoken much more to my son in his 14 years than my father has ever spoken to me thus far (that is, 46 years and counting).

So, being the loquacious me, my son finds me talking rubbish sometimes. But my writing (as I am doing now) usually speaks volume. And here is how I celebrate Father's Day this morning. I celebrate it by looking back at my failures as a father. I celebrate it by looking at the gap in my commitment to my three kids. I celebrate this day by patting myself on the back and whisper, "You've a lifetime to get this right...don't lose heart."

Fatherhood is a strange virus of love. It grows within you. It infects your bloodstream. It makes your heart beat faster on some occasions, crazy fast if you get what I mean. This virus is resistant too. It fights to stay within and multiply. It seeks to survive and thrive. This virus consumes me sometimes; it sends me into fits of fever, rage and worry.

Now associating love with a virus seems strange. But when it comes to fatherhood, I think it is an apt metaphor about our imperfections. You see, a virus is a bad thing only if you succumb to it. It is a good thing if it strengthens you (your immune system that is). And in fatherhood terms, the love virus fortifies you as you learn from one stupid mistakes after another. And I have my fair harvest of errors as a father over the years.

Somehow, I thought I'd planted the right seeds to enable fatherhood to flourish, that is, I courted the first girl I kissed, married her after 9 years of courtship, and then determined in our hearts that we are going to turn our honeymoon night into future bundles of joy.

Then, when the first, second and third bundles arrived, I felt like I am juggling cats and dogs in the air. It's not the juggling that is hard though. It is keeping them from fighting each other that makes the whole juggling feat terrifyingly challenging.

And I have dropped them many times, ahem, I mean failed to live up. I lost my cool. I over-punished. I scolded to let off steam. I offered them the sunset of my energy. I imposed my wishes and stillborn dreams on them. I expected them to grow up faster than they can enjoy growing up. I demanded adult minds growing in young bodies. I didn't always do what I preach (or write). And at times, and this harvest of errors list can go on and on actually, I was judgmental, impatient and morose to them.

It is said that idealism increases the further you are away from the issue (or children). That's so true. Before the bundles of joy came, I had high targets for them. I aimed for the sky. After they came, I found that most times I am shooting blanks. The sky seems like falling. And the targets miles away.

At this juncture, you may be asking me: "What's your point, mike? It's father's day for heaven sake!"

Well, it's Father's Day I know, and fathers are once a child learning from their own father. They learn from examples and experiences - be it positive or negative ones. And when the child becomes a father, the learning doesn't stop (it in fact goes full throttle).

If you think fatherhood is about being a mentor, teacher or guide to your child, you are half right. The other half is about being a student, that is, learning the ropes as you totter along. And trust me, the learning is never ending because growing up is never ending as new learning environments present themselves to both the father and the child.

I guess what distinguishes a good dad from a bad one is one of presence. It is about being there, staying the course, and following it through. A good dad is an imperfect dad who just doesn't give up. He may stumble and fall, but he makes it a point to get up. He has his own mountain to climb, but he makes time, loves his best and, for his kids, he shows up.

In other words, however broken he may be, being bombarded by the storms of life, and struggling to overcome his own demons, he falls forward. He adapts and makes amends. He learns from his mistakes. He doesn't give up. He fights for what is important, and deep down, he knows viscerally what is enduringly important.

He makes a difference. He pushes himself regardless of his moods, emotions or sentiments. He takes two steps forward for every one step back. In all this, he fails successfully. And in the end, when he looks back, when the children have all grown up to become fathers (and mothers) to their very own, he would have realized that by failing successfully, he had it fact succeeded more times than he had failed. He would in other words have succeeded, most unfailingly. Cheerz.

Treasuring happiness.

How do you sum up a life? Well with a poem of course and Ong Tiong Yeow ("Ong") did it admirably. He penned it for his dad who died at 82 who was cremated yesterday.

It was a poem from the heart - raw, moving and honest. Ong took 4 hours to write it because he already had poetry in his veins. Ong said that "in his youth, he was rebellious and did poorly in school. But he was a prolific poet then and wrote more than 500 poems, though none was published."

His story caught my attention because it is a life that I can learn from. In a nutshell, this was how it went - and I am summing a life up in 4 brief paragraphs.

Senior Ong was born in 1935. He was born into poverty, fatherless from young. But he worked his way up from a slum along Kallang River and built a tyre business empire called Stamford Tyres. He became prosperous. But prosperity became complicated when he evicted all his three children out of his bungalow.

Ong's older brother was thrown out of the house for converting to Christianity and later married a Eurasian family. He left for Australia. His younger brother was gay, left for America after his father disowned him and stayed with his lover. For the poet son, he too was kicked out "when he fought with his father about the treatment of his mother." He dubbed himself the "samseng" son. Ong said "the poem is also a tribute to my mum. My father bullied her, scolded her, kept mistresses - but she tahan (Malay for endure) until the end."

When his dad "got lonely", he asked Ong to come back home a few years after he was kicked out. Ong recalled "returning laden with artwork from the beauty pageant franchising company he had set up, determined to show his father how successful he had been."

Ong said that "my father looked at me and said, "I don't care about all this, I missed you." After that, Ong never left his dad and stayed with him for 25 years. Both Ong and his mother took care of him through seven years of dementia.

Lesson? One, and I am going to make a really trite statement - we all need to be constantly reminded of it anyway. Here goes:-

"The pursuit of happiness will never make you happy. Get over it, please. Most times, it is the pursuit that leaves us high and dry, empty - and not the happiness we are pursuing. The end always gets lost in the means. It becomes a destination-less pursuit - a bottomless pit of endless desires. Our happiness is thus held hostage by the pursuit, and no sooner than we thought we had enough, it's never enough. One craving will inevitably replace another. It becomes an obsession, an insatiable appetite. Our personality soon merges with what defines us. And what defines us is that darned pursuit."

Don't get me wrong. Go ahead and chase your goals. Live it up. Enjoy your life. God knows it ends just as soon as it starts. But if Ong's father's life of 82 years has taught me anything - that is, being estranged from the people who love you to your end in life, sickness and death, and yet you often treat them as a means to your endless pursuit - his life has shown me that it is not the pursuit of happiness that brings happiness. It is the treasuring of happiness that brings happiness.

You treasure happiness by building and enjoying the relationships with your loved ones. You don't treat them as a means to your end. You don't take them for granted. You treasure them as an end in themselves. Happiness is not the destination, its the journey - stupid. This is another trite statement, but we never fail to forget it in our blind pursuit.

From the get-go, our government urges us to go for the 5Cs. But all we ever needed to be happy is just one "C" and that is community, the simple joy of charity, that is, the enduring love of family.

Let me end with the Ong family. The "samseng poet" said that "my father died before he had the chance to ask my brothers to forgive him...We have only one chance in life to be a husband and a father. We learn what we can from our parents, but we only have one chance to get it right ourselves."

Let’s hope we don't squander this chance by spending our whole life finding happiness when it has never been lost in the first place. Cheerz.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Is the God I worship the dragon in my garage?

This weekend, I stumbled upon the late atheist scientist Carl Sagan’s metaphor of the dragon in my garage from his book “The Demon-Haunted World.” It goes like this:-

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"
"Show me," you say.  I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.
"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely.  "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."  And so on.  I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Here is the cruncher in Carl Sagan’s own words:
Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?”
To Dr. Sagan, this world has no dragon, no god, no intelligent designer, no personal creator, no fairies, no elves, no globin, no pixie dust and no Santa. The evidence just doesn’t support their existence.
As a Christian, I read the dragon in my garage with an open mind. It is a powerful metaphor for the need to think rationally and critically because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Personally, I have come up with my own reflection along the lines of this indissoluble dragon in my own garage for the last 30 years. It starts off with “the God I worship” and here is how it goes… 

“The God I worship is not a straightforward being. He is in fact mysterious in his ways. He is less than obvious in his thoughts. He is not to be second-guessed because his words and deeds are not always readily understood.
To be honest, there is just no discernible pattern of what he will do next or how he will do what he will do next.
You can spend hours talking to him and he will spend the same numbers of hours just listening to you. Most times, you can’t expect anything more than that.
Alas, if listening is a undervalued trait amongst humanity because we talk too much, then it has to be an overvalued trait of the God I worship.
Sometimes, I crave for more than that. I crave for more interactions, more mutuality of responses - even an occasional nod or shaking of the divine head, so to speak.
But that is just me and I may have overvalued my needs for absolute certainty and undervalued his overriding sovereignty. And if there is one supernatural trait of this God I worship (among the innumerable), it is his extraordinary patience that is definitely out of this world.
This God I worship listens and he listens and he listens. Sometimes he answers. Sometimes he doesn’t. Most times, you don’t even know? And when he doesn’t answer, he doesn’t explain himself. He is not one to explain his actions or his silence.
The humble petitioner would just have accept that his silence is his answer or take the time to reflect on what he is really saying by his silence or wait upon him to answer even when the wait can take indefinitely longer than one can take.
Oftentimes, the God I worship has designated earthly agents to decipher the mystery of his silence on his behalf. They are earnest participants in this massive decoding exercise called religion.
They are highly revered for the sacred role they perform. They are basically the intermediaries of this grand divine quietude. These agents come in many forms with luminous titles and exacting devotion, but their vicarious answers are always indistinguishable from one another. Their answers are highly predictable in fact.
His silence is a test. His silence is a prerequisite for character-building or faith-strengthening. Others are more direct. They leave no stones unturned in their sleuth-like pursuit of self-revelation.
His silence is because one has prayed amiss. His silence is a response to one’s lack of faith or unconfessed sins. His silence is therefore a timely call for the petitioner to perform a ritualistic exercise of self-confession and self-purging.
Notwithstanding the unanswered petitions, the table is turned on the petitioner to get his/her life right before he/she can ever hope to ask it right.
Still, there are others who are more sensitive to the desperate plea of the petitioner. They rather err on the side of being less presumptuous of this divine hiddenness.
His silence is a call to wait a little longer. His silence is a mystery to be respected and not to be interpreted as a form of discouragement. His silence therefore demonstrates that all things will be made right at the end even when that end oftentimes means the end of the petitioner’s mortal life on earth.
Alas, the God I worship is surely more than meets the eye. He can’t be read like a book because he is not confined within a book -  not even a collection of books housed in a library the size of a universe can ever match the mystery surrounding the God I worship.
And he wouldn’t be so if he is readily comprehensible, held down by our own pet dogmatic interpretation of him, and captured by us in a sermon preached over the pulpit to thousands hungry for some sort of self-comforting certainty.
So, I will always struggle with this dragon in my garage, this insuperable omnipotence, this unseen mystery – silent and still. I have to accept it as part and parcel of my faith amidst the uncertainty, the veiled knowledge.
And whether the God I worship is Carl Sagan's garage dragon or not, one thing I know is that this divine mystery has set eternity in my heart and once appeared as a father, a brother and a friend in my dreams. As a father, he reminded me that I love because he first loved me. As a brother, when he foretold of the troubles I will have, but assured me to take heart for he has overcome the world. And as a friend, when he prodded me on to finish the race and to wait for his return. Those words are like seeds in my dreams, and dragon or not, I will strive to grow them into reality in my life.” Cheerz.

Postscript: Carl Sagan once said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” The truth is still out there for the atheists and theists. Ontology is still a probing question for now rather than a resolute (or provisional) answer led only by science. Theology is still a means to constructing a coherent reality rather than just another self-assuring, outmoded superstition. And God’s confectionery is busy churning out apple pies for those who are still searching for the truth of all things, the reality of all matter, and the theological framework for the ontology of all beings. God is not the dragon in my garage. He is the fired-up curiosity in my heart. He is the enabler of apple pies. Cheerz.

Emotional granularity.

Emotional granularity - that's what I learn today in the papers. A professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett came up with it. And it's good for you. But what is it? Professor Barrett explains: "In psychology, people with finely tuned feelings are said to exhibit "emotional granularity".
This is how it is applied. Professor Barrett wrote: "When reading about the abuses of ISIS, for example, you might experience creeping horror or fury, rather than general awfulness." So, don't just feel awful. Feel with more expression of feeling. Deepen the emotion.
She said, "Emotional granularity isn't just about having a rich vocabulary; it's about experiencing the world and yourself, more precisely." When you are miserable, don't say "I feel miserable". Use more precise words to gear your brain up for a more finely tuned response to negative news or events.
And mind you, emotional granularity has its benefits - lotsa it. "Accordingly to a recollection of studies, finely grained unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them...People who achieve it (emotional granularity) are also likely to have longer, healthier lives. They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalised for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower level of inflammation when they more frequently categorise, label and understand their emotions." Even students can benefit with improved social behavior and academic performance.
Lesson? Wow...I am overwhelmed with a tinge of bemusement coupled with a sprinkle of optimism mixed in a bowl of pro-activism to propel me to dissect my feeling into granulated bits for more palatable processing and responses (sweating).
Honestly, I feel better already. Writing all that made me smile and that was good for the soul, I guess.
But for emotional granularity to work, maybe you need to carry a thesaurus with you and when you feel really pissed off with people like, say, Donald Trump, Duterte or Alicia Fong, you can look under "pissed off" and these specific emotional concepts may just calm your jangled nerves down - "hopping mad", "hot under the collar", "burning with excitement" or "bent out of shape."
Here is my own emotional concoction to appease my entangled nerves when I read about Alicia Fong's dubious apology to the deaf and mute cleaner with qualification galore - "an insuperable sense of bewilderment tinctured by incredulity and shame but tempered somehow by a hued realism of the fallibility of all men and their eventual redemption." That somehow made me feel better...I think.
Levity aside, Professor Barrett does have have a point about being more proactive when it comes to one's emotional understanding and vocabulary. I myself am an example of it. I am an "emotional fine-tooth comber." If you read my posts and blog, you will know what I mean. And in some ways, it really helps to get to know yourself and your emotional makeup. Being more specific about how you feel compels you to confront your emotions - good or bad - and it increases self-awareness.
In today's world of 1-mins fame, superficiality and narcissism, god knows self-awareness is fast becoming a rare virtue. And losing that virtue, we lose our balance of reality and humility. More importantly, we lose an essential part of us - that authentic side of us. Cheerz.
Postscript: Below is an example of emotional granularity at work. I posted it two years ago. The lesson at the end is how I have always been breaking down my feelings when exposed to tragedy or irony of raw life. It's a long extract and you can skip it if it provokes in you a numbing sense of tedium.
"I went to T3 Terminal for dinner tonight and visited Times bookshop. One book entitled “City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran” by author Ramita Navai caught my attention. I turned the pages and read this passage which was deeply unsettling for me. I will quote it verbatim and be warned that it contains expletives.
“…a disabled man in a wheelchair entered the (police) station, shouting with the full force of his lungs. He was leaning as far forward as he could go. Anger had engorged his face with blood. He spat as he yelled.
“Yes, my wife’s a prostitute!” His left arm – his only working limb – was jabbing the air, his hand clenched so hard in rage that the white of his bones looked almost luminous under the stretched skin.
“She sells her body for money because that’s the only way she can pay for my medicine. This is how the Islamic Republic treats its war veterans!” Beside him, his handcuffed wife was weeping silently, wiping her eyes with the corners of her headscarf.
“And as if you haven’t emasculated me enough, now you want to arrest her. You think this is the way we want to fucking live?” Three policemen were trying to calm him down. “Please keep your voice down, you’re going to get into trouble.”
The author continued, “His wife had been caught having sex with a client in a car. Her husband was in his wheelchair at the top of the road. He always went with her when she worked, as it was safer that way.
“...fuck them all, this is what they’ve done to us! I can’t make love to my wife, and now she has to fuck other men so we don’t have to live like animals! Just kill me now!”
…”Just let them go.” The officers were perturbed enough to quickly acquiesce. They also knew better than to argue with the chief. The Ahmadi twins stepped forward. “She’s a whore! She’s defacing the name of Islam, and you want to let her walk free!” Majid and Abdul were also screeching their disapproval.
The police chief stepped towards them, bellowing so loudly that the whole station was shocked into silence. “If you don’t show some respect, I will have you dealt with…being a basiji (auxiliary force to maintain internal security) does not make you immune to humility and humanity. Get out of my station and don’t ever come back.”
As the boys left, Morteza turned around and saw that the war veteran’s head could not have been held any higher as his wife wheeled him out of the police station. Morteza saw her stroke her husband’s neck; in that tiny gesture he knew the police chief had been right.” End of passage quoted
Lesson? Three actually on life, love and religion.
First, counting your blessings while others are living out their curses is a very painful reality to swallow (Maybe you need more than emotional granularity may need emotional sub-atomicization).
Second, not all adultery in a marriage is caused by a love that has gone astray; there are the few cases – the even more heartbreaking ones - that are caused by a love that is prepared to give up everything she holds dear for the one she can't live without.
Lastly, in genesis, when God said to create man in his image, some of us somehow take this to mean that we shall become no less than gods on earth. Cheerz."

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A church-less cell?

Last Friday, I returned to my disbanded cell group. We gathered to talk about starting it up again – reviving the good old times. There were a handful of us with our spouses and kids. Here's a little background. I started the cell group in 2000. We disbanded in 2010. With that departure, all of us left our common church and went to different churches.

Some of us went to a charismatic megachurch. Some went to smaller independent churches. Others like me joined the Methodist church.

Before that, I had been in a mega-church for 25 years. Like all humble beginnings of megachurches, my church started with no more than 500 people in the early eighties. But it grew. The membership multiplied. And like horse and carriage, with numbers come funds. My church soon became a soul nurturing center as well as an administrative juggernaut as it exceeded expectation in growth and collection.

Up to a point, when my church hits the thousands, it became more organized, more professional, and more efficient. Ruth Bell Graham once said that "the church is scarred by wars, buffeted by storms and eroded by pollution, and God is at work restoring His own - repairing, cleaning, purifying." For my church, and the other megachurches locally, we were simply prospering.

I was a church pianist for all that time and I saw the transformation with mixed results. Initially, I struggled with the band – just trying to keep up. We were playing with irregular tempo, missed keys and false starts. But we were happy. We gave our all. We were worshipping from the heart. I was young at that time. 

Then, I tried to keep up with the band as my church grew in name, fame and financial gain. In 1990s, we bought a land and built a church on it. In the early 2000s, we built another. With a roof over our heads, my church started the formalization of worship where stage presentation became one of the priorities. 

Good intention aside, it was the start of the professionalization of worship for us. In other words, my church became kpi professionals and every Sunday service transformed itself from the unplug session of a sing-along to the immersive performance of methodical reverence  - that is, from intuited adoration to organized expression.  

You can say that it was the zeitgeist of the times for churches pushing the envelope of unprecedented growth. Of course, with greater growth comes greater responsibility, and it is the responsibility part that many megachurches seem to struggle with - that is, a responsibility torn between keeping the numbers in the healthy zone with even more contrivances in theology and worship presentation and controlling the numbers in the pursuit of genuine growth, resilient discipleship and enduring relationship with God. 

For me, at ground level, the music scores were written to exacting standards. The choir were impeccably groomed together with the synchronized dancers, the dazzling big screens (replacing the ancient OHP), and the avant garde worship leaders firing up the congregation like a lead singer would excite his fans. Overtime, spiritual discipline were mixed with organizational know-hows, evangelism mixed with competitive growth targets, and church leadership mixed with hierarchical accountability, management by objectives, and legalistic issues of succession.

If a metaphor helps, the church I used to go to every Sunday for home-cooked spiritual meals had somehow morphed into a classy restaurant with elegant services, well garnished dishes in small tantalizing quantities, and an awe-consuming ambience that aims to impress and attract, and she has been triumphant in doing all that through the years. Kudos to her for accomplishing just that.

If you look around you, that is, the megachurches in all, the trend is unmistakable. The new order of organized religion is undeniably about size, professionalism and a soft spiritualized touch of self-therapeutic finessing. It appears that some elements of consumerism have made inroads into the weekly practice of the evangelical faith.

I have been to City Harvest Church and the experience is largely similar. I supposed NCC is the same, that is, metaphorically speaking, it provides refined restaurant-like services with an immersive environment and a larger-than-life preacher offering a buffet spread of spiritual food high in fiber grace and low in cholesterol law.

This reminds me of the insight by David Wells: "The truth is that without a biblical understanding of why God instituted it, the church easily becomes a liability in a market where it competes only with the greatest of difficulty against religious fare available in the convenience of one's living room and in a culture bent on distraction and entertainment...The evangelical church, or at least a good slice of it, is nervous, twitchy, and touchy about consumer desire, ready to change in a nanosecond at the slightest hint that tastes and interests have changed. Why? Because consumer appetite reigns."

So, this leads me to why I left my megachurch four years ago for a more unassuming Methodist setup. But before that, let me be clear here. I left not because I can't find God in my former church. My faith was cared for, nurtured and developed in that church. It will therefore always hold a special place in my heart. However, I left because I can't find my bearings in the church. Somehow I felt lost in the frenzy of growth. It was both a blessing as well as a bewilderment for me. It is thus for a personal reason that I left.

As I had said earlier, the concept of the body of Christ seems to have undergone a modernistic overhaul over the years. And it is a progression that I unfortunately could not keep up. The size, the professionalism, and the hierarchical business-like leadership all culminated to give the body of Christ an executive business lounge feel rather than a cozy and homely setting.

I guess something just had to give with the relentless pursuit of growth. Paradoxically, a church can be both a victim as well as victor when it comes to runaway growth. Size comes with a price tag. And the way I see it, it is an unavoidable tradeoff for size or "mega-ness" at the expense of turning the running of the business of a church into the running of the church as a business.

Now, let's be clear that this is not so much the deliberate design of the pastoral leadership as it is the inevitable snowball of various factors involving managing growth numbers that goes beyond the pastor's calling, amassing millions in regular collection without sustained purpose of its use in mind, struggling with diverse congregants' needs by dispensing touch-and-go scriptural answers, and unwittingly putting the expression of worship before internalizing the object of our adoration.

I think the words of a missionary Jared Herd puts it best: "While our culture is filled with spirituality, it isn't filled with spiritual coherence. We are called on to give, to be moral, to be happy, all the while being transcendental, but for what purpose? Is it so we feel good? What is the end goal? Usually there isn't one. At the same time, we are really encouraged to be consumers, to do what we want, when we want; life filled without even a hint of spirituality. Our culture is calling us to ride two horses that are going different directions, with catastrophic result of fragmentation."

At this moment, I can't help but feel that the teachings of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount - where we are called to effect a counterculture - are as urgent and relevant then as it is now.

So, going back to last Friday's cell group, I told my members that if we'd to start off the cell group again, it would be an unofficial one (so to speak) since it will not come under the auspices of one common church where we all once came from.

My exact words to them were this: "It would be a church-less cell, but not a Christ-less one." I noted some nodding to that slip-of-the-tongue moniker - "church-less cell". And with that, we left for home to reflect about the road ahead.

My consolation that night was that while we may now be from different churches converging together to meet once a month, I can proudly say that our desire to edify and encourage one another remains undiminished, undimmed. I guess that will always be the end goal we are striving towards and the true purpose of what the body of Christ means to us. Cheerz.