Sunday, 25 February 2018

Eng Han and the travails of a delusion.

At first, I thought it was a joke. It in fact had all the trappings of a joke. 

Eng Han doing a pre-jail Mas Selamat was not how I'd conceived this sad saga would end.

Then, I thought it might be fake news. That is, how truth has been twisted to increase readership.

But then, the source was from CNA – a reputable name in news generation. And that got my attention. That was Wednesday.

And Thursday morning came with a front-page news fleshed out in the Straits Times. My incredulity slowly turned into believability.

On Friday, Eng Han was charged in Court. He was wearing glasses and clad in a blue polo shirt and dark shorts. He was expressionless, according to reports. By then, I accepted it as an unassailable fact.

The travails of Chew Eng Han being nabbed trying to leave Singapore with two similar kayaks in tow and a sum of $5000 cash was on the news since Wednesday to yesterday.

Eng Han claimed that he was fishing. They had their fishing gear in the sampan. They were still in Singapore waters when they were caught by the Coast Guard.

But what was jarring to common sense in the police coast dragnet was the cash of $5000.

I mean, who would bring that amount to a fishing trip in a sampan?

Alas, this was the same person who said that "he was going to "pray, pray, pray" to prepare himself for jail."" He even added that he was relieved that the whole legal saga was over.

This was also the same person who appeared to be mentally prepared and said it was "okay" to go to jail, according to a friend - who was also his witness at the trial - namely, former church executive member Jean-Jacques Lavigne.

And finally, this was the same person who said with entrenched resistance, "if he truly felt he was guilty, it would be easier to serve the sentence."

He also added, "But here is nothing I can do about it, of course. If I did misappropriate money, I would see the sentence as a way of repenting."

Even his family (he has two children 17 and 27) found it hard to accept the ruling.

Lesson? Just one.

Up to today, Eng Han still thinks he is innocent. He felt that he had done nothing wrong. He insisted that there was no personal gain. He was doing it for the church. He was doing it for God.

In his previous appeals, he posed ten questions to the Apex Court as a final bid to challenge the verdict in the lower courts.

Each of the ten questions was exhaustively dealt with and they were accordingly dismissed.

The CA held that he was in the thick of it all, in the eye of the storm.

In the justices' words, Eng Han was the "primary financial architect" of the sham bonds set up in order to channel church funds meant for the church building out of the church to fund Sun's ambitious, if not deluded, music career.

Unauthorised use was the keyword - whether for personal gain or otherwise, whether one's motive was for the greater good of His kingdom or not.

To cover their tracks even further from auditors and lawyers, the accused persons (with Eng Han playing a key role) came up with a series of fraudulent transactions (round tripping) aimed at removing these sham bonds from the CHC accounts so as to hide their dishonest conduct.

Over the seven years, the trial judge and eight justices were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused persons have been dishonest with the church by their stealth, deception, cover-ups and lies, whether it is concerning album sales, bond rates and transactions, the popularity of Sun Ho, or the goals and effectiveness of the crossover project.

Yet, while the other five have accepted their fate (since all legal avenues had been exhausted by them), Eng Han's latest offence demonstrated a deep-rooted defiance against it.

What's even more incomprehensible is the bail money of $1 million and the dire fate of his bailor who might come to certain financial ruin should the court order a full forfeiture. 

I guess what made it all so complicated for the accused persons, particularly Eng Han, was the perceived theological legitimacy of their intention and actions.

The crossover had effectively duped everyone involved into believing that it was the Great Commission 2.0 for the modern church. And they all thought that what was good for evangelism was good for the church.

So, as long as the numbers are up (reaching tens of thousands per service), the means by which such growth are achieved are clearly secondary to the host of angels celebrating in heaven for one lost soul being added.

When Jesus said to make disciples and count the cost, the former CHC leadership however turned that on its head to make the numbers at all costs.

In today's world, the convergence of easy money, religious tribalism and an obsession for mindless growth have turned some megachurch pastors into corporate ranchers shepherding the flock with the pastoral staff in one hand, and with the other, milking them for popularity, money and unquestioned allegiance.

Alas, this post may appear to be about Eng Han's bail violation pending a proper hearing, but in essence, it is not.

He is just part of or a pawn (willing no less) in a systemic culture that takes pastoral exploitation and personal indulgences to the extreme. This extreme has its embedded roots in the shallow soil of culture than the bloodied soil of Calvary.

In essence, this post is about the excesses of religion. It is about how religious leaders can be blinded by their own ambition for growth in quantity rather than quality.

It is about how - up to a point - leaders start to believe in their own invulnerability, and this imbues them with religious chutzpah to expect that every word they say over the pulpit is what God would have said from the burning bush.

It is also about how church members in a tribalistic trance can easily surrender their mental faculty in unquestioned support to a delusion they conveniently treat as synonymous with godly revelation.

And last but not least, it is about how jaded the believing/secular world is with the pretentiousness of some megachurch pastors who uphold with staged reverence the biblical virtues of self-sacrifices, humility and devotion to the cause, and then go about justifying their private mansions and lavish lifestyle preaching about a god who loves a cheerful giver; especially one who pours directly into their personal coffers.

After Billy Graham passed on at 99 on Wednesday, tele-evangelist Benny Hinn came out to admit that he was wrong about the prosperity gospel. He said that he is guilty of taking it to the extreme, referring to his living large and in excesses (like the many prosperity preachers living amongst us).

Benny added: “Did Jesus drive a car or live in a mansion? No, he had no lack. How about the apostles? None lacked among them. Today, the idea is abundance and palatial homes and cars and bank accounts. The focus is wrong — it’s so wrong.”

Well, I don't know whether we will see a transformation after his admission. Or, is it just another publicity stunt to project remorse that rides on the passing of a respected evangelist?

Only time will tell, and I won't hold my breath.

But at this juncture, the words of the late Billy Graham speak more deeply to me.

He once wrote this:-

"Why is it that money, success, and pleasure brings no lasting satisfaction? Why don't they provide us with a solid foundation for successful living, especially as we grow older? Because they ignore one of life's greatest truth: we don't have just bodies and minds, but we also have souls, also called spirits. If we ignore this truth - if we feed our bodies but starve our souls - our lives will be incomplete and unfulfilled, and we will find ourselves weak and unprepared for life's inevitable challenges."

Truly his words speak for itself. He lived a life unlike the prosperity preachers of our age. He led without the controversies that dogged many who lived extravagant lives while their flock struggle in poverty to out-give one another.

While they preach about being rich in God and live a life by increasing their net worth on earth, Billy Graham preached the same but lived a life by increasing his rewards in heaven.

In quiet servitude and a humble spirit, he pursued hope, faith and love in the best way he knew how. He was not beyond reproach though (who ever was), but for all the imperfections, it was his enduring faith that eventually led him to the narrow road his Saviour once took.   

In the end, he passed on exemplifying the salt and light of the earth both in human frailty and in His unsurpassing glory.

So, whether you look at it from scripture or the whole picture, Billy Graham had fought the good fight and completed the race. 

Now, I can't end this post without returning to Eng Han. I am sure we will hear the last of him after his last sampan antic. He is now in custody (bail denied naturally), and for the next three years (or more) will be serving time.

My hope for him is that he will eventually find peace. Because for a man who refuses to take responsibility even after eight appellate justices have unanimously found him guilty of all charges, running away (if proven) and serving time will not bring about any closure.

Alas, the greatest obstacle to closure for Eng Han is not so much about contending with the bars of prison. It is about unlocking the bars to his heart. Cheerz.

A tribute to Billy Graham.

Charles Wesley once said: "God buries His workmen but carries on His work."

Yesterday, Billy Graham left this world. He has passed on. 

At 99, he has completed the race. He once said that death is the finality of accomplishment. 

But for believers, he said that we have this hope of hearing our Savior say this to us: "Well done, good and faithful servant." 

And I am sure this will be the first greetings Billy Graham will hear as he moves from his earthly residence to his eternal rest. 

It was a long journey for him. 

After about 77 million who saw him preached in person, nearly 215 million more watched his crusades on television or through satellite link-ups, and ministering to several Presidents starting with Richard Nixon and ending with Obama, who personally made a trip to his home to see the man, Billy Graham wrote that the "greatest legacy you can pass on to your children and grandchildren is not your money or the other material things you have accumulated in life." 

He said the greatest legacy you can pass on to them is the legacy of your character and your faith. 

Why? He wrote that "because the memory of what we were like - not just our personalities but our character and our faith - has the potential to influence others for Christ."

Lesson? Just one.

Billy Graham had lived an exemplary life. 

At the end of it, he was driven not by the numbers he had evangelised to, his fame in this world, or the accolades he had received from millions who hail him as the greatest evangelist of all time.

None of that moved him when he was nearing his end. They may be the effect of his dedication for decades, but they are definitely not the reason for his faith and passion. 

But what moved him and driven him to live up to the calling of Calvary was the compelling love of Jesus at the Cross. 

He once wrote that when he think about the foundation of the Christian life, he was reminded of these words:-

All to Jesus,
I surrender;
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
 In His presence daily live.

There is a verse in Corinthians that reads: "Each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ."

I guess we have been building our own foundation all this time. 

In the rush to complete our piling works, we hammer in the steel bars of our own ideology, our own redemptive plans for the world, and our own concept of what would make life better, easier and whole. 

We do all this in the hope of finding resolution, peace and rest. 

But to Billy Graham, even unto death as a passageway to life forevermore, his hope was built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. 

Now, many may see this as a religious post where I write exclusively about blood, death and a man named Jesus. 

But when you write about Billy Graham, you can only say what he had repeatedly told the gathering masses in his thousands of crusades:-

"For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." 

I believe it is our misinterpretation or denial of this verse that is the ensuing cause of all our anxieties and grandiose, fear and pride, wishful thinking and ego. 

Some skip the sin part and find that there is nothing wrong with us. Some think that the gap can be filled with good human works. Some come to the conclusion that the only one that has fallen short is a hidden god. 

Still others argue that we shouldn't get too religious about it, and labelling it as sin is so not twenty-first century. 

At most, it is an evolutionary aberration that can be corrected with some charitable acts, some feel good sermons, and some positive confession. 

Still others feel that we are our own saviour. We make our own cross and we rest on it with personal mediation and discipline to redeem ourselves. 

But for Billy Graham, he lived life differently. 

He always saw the gap as unbridgeable by human works and ideas, even human-conceived theology. 

Alas, we all think that we have found the right way, the true way, but they have all led to disappointment and disillusionment. 

They have all fallen short of His glory. 

Let me end with a verse Billy Graham quoted. 

"Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands."

I always believe that there is nothing religious about Calvary. 

Hanging there, confronting death, Jesus is not calling for the world to organise themselves around a belief, set themselves up for a day to worship and sing praises, deliver up their first harvest every month to a trustee of men to advance their belief, and hold themselves up to be some authority in the word and having the final say on it. 

To Billy Graham, Calvary is about you and me; it is personal and intimate. It is not only about confronting our eventual death, but about challenging ourselves on how we are going to live today and everyday with every living breath.

More powerfully, Calvary is about how a man had lived, how he had died, and how he has overcome. And in His overcoming, how he has finally closed the gap for all. 

I believe that has always been Billy Graham's message from life to his death and beyond. Cheers.

RIP the good and faithful servant. Amen

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The separation of powers in a megachurch.

After the City Harvest storm, there are surely some lessons to be learnt.

Prof Goh Yihan wrote an article recently about the separation of powers in the Straits Times.

He concluded with this reminder: "The CHC case may have highlighted the inadequacy of our CBT laws, but it also provides an important example of how the legislative and judicial powers are separate under our system. It is a demonstration of how our system, founded on separation of powers, works in practice."

That's one good lesson about how our representative democracy works.

So, that about clarifies the CHC saga. The CA ruling about 2 weeks ago had sealed the case (and the accused persons' fate) for good after a grueling seven years, and it also set right a 40-year overreaching of the law on corruption (Section 409).

But it was a decision that didn't sit well with many, including many parliamentarians. They felt that the accused persons, who were charged under a revised section, didn't reflect (or do justice to) the gravity of the offences committed.

Now, admittedly, there is a lacuna (gap) in the law, and the law minister, working together with various government bodies, will be busy bridging the gap in the months to come. 

This however left me thinking about churches as a whole, especially megachurches.

The latter is singled out because of the large amount of people's money involved and the number of lives that will be affected should pastors go rogue, or does things in bad faith.

The reality is that religion, where powers tend to concentrate at the top, is most vulnerable (and tempted) to take the (broad) road often travelled.

While there are clear lines of the separation of powers in our republic, can one say the same about churches, especially independent churches of certain size?

In its secular equivalent, Prof Goh wrote that our judiciary is not here to legislate or exercise legislative powers, that is, to make law. That is clearly the job of the legislature.

He said that there are good reasons for that.

"For one, legislation is usually wide-ranging in scope and effect, Courts, which deal only with the cases before them, may not be well equipped to carry out such wide-ranging reforms. Furthermore, whereas Parliament has the resources to consult with various stakeholders on the effect of legislation, the courts cannot do so..."

The third reason is an obvious one.

The MPs are elected into Parliament, and each represents the voice and concerns of the electorate, while the courts are appointed via the process of Parliament, and their accountability is therefore to the Parliament, where representative voices converge.

As such, there is a separation of powers between the judiciary, the legislature and the executive (that is, the cabinet at the driver's seat of government).

The main purpose is to prevent the concentration of powers on one arm of government. The theory is that powers equally distributed amongst the different arms of government keeps tyranny of one at bay.

History has taught us (though learning from it is another question altogether) that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.

The key words here are "tends to" and that tendency can be potentially destructive not so much because we allow (with eyes wide open) bad leaders to take the helm of government. But it is because of the tendency of good leaders becoming corrupt after they are elected into office by the lures of self-preservation and self-enrichment. 

And in such cases, power, when it becomes absolute, tends to become self-serving too.

This again brings me back to the megachurches.

Is there a separation of powers in the megachurches?

And is it even practical (achievable) since the popularity of some of these churches unavoidably draws their strength from charisma more than theology, personality more than doxology, and personal revelation more than time-tested methodology?

Inevitably, as CHC has shown, powers tend to concentrate at the leadership. This may just be the inescapable evolution of charisma, that is, the unfortunate corporate culmination of the cult of personality.

Honestly, is it even conceivable to think of Lakewood Church without Joel and Victoria Osteen, City Harvest Church without Kong Hee and Sun Ho, and New Creation Church without Joseph Purcell...oh, I mean, Joseph Prince (Purcell is the adviser to NCC. And yes, Prince is the face of NCC - not Purcell).

How do we even parcel out (or divide) powers from them when the reason the masses come in busload every Sunday and form queue that snakes to long distances is largely because of them? Is the concentration of power in their hands inevitable then (or a matter of time once their popularity spills over in numbers)?

While the people in a democracy can check the power of the government via the ballot boxes, who is to check the power of these megachurch pastors when they stand before thousands every Sunday to tell the masses that God has spoken to them about this and that?

For never should anyone underestimate the power of exclusive revelatory knowledge to persuade even the staunchest of hearts and the most rational of minds when mob instinct takes over, especially in the inflammatory minds of the obsequious worshippers.

Mind you, millions of dollars have been raised by the prosperity gospel (with the promising lure that we could as believers find prosperity ourselves). However, it does not seem apparent to many that the ones prospering are the preachers themselves, with private mansions, jets and a large financial reserve that lies idle under one's absolute control. Maybe, that's a theological necessity because you can't preach prosperity without yourself becoming prosperous?

How about hyper grace? 

It has itself drawn in tens of thousands of believers looking for an exclusive front-row seat with their creator. And because the doctrine calls for a heaven-already-on-earth reception where once you walk away from the altar call, you are deemed as righteous and as prosperous as God by vicarious association, you are therefore largely subscribing to a faith by agency resting upon a convenient walk towards a deluded destination. 

And then, we have the recent crossover debacle. It has essentially helped to bankroll an unimaginably excessive lifestyle all in the name of a subversive kind of evangelism known as "the cultural mandate".

The more than 600-page judgment of how criminally wrong the obsession has driven the leaders to unbelievable cover-ups and misappropriation in the name of their god would surely have convinced any rationally minded believer of the danger of the concentration of powers. But sadly, not all who hear (or see) want to believe what they hear or see.

Alas, the obsequious worshipper generally suppresses - via an act of confirmation bias - the "deliberately oxymoronic" ubiquitous hint.

These are clearly questionable theology. However, in the hands of one who embodies the cult of personality, with claims that God spoke directly to him and no one else, they can fabulously spin a spiritual yarn from a desiccated heap of heretic bones to the awe of the besotted crowd.

I guess if I end here, it would be quite a letdown. But I can't say that I have any solution for the concentration of powers in a megachurch. 

How do you even contain charisma that is set aflame by power untrammeled then?

Through a rotational system of leadership (every four years to cut off the hydra head of power?) like what the traditional/mainstream churches do? How about through a tight check-and-balance system comprising lay trustees and leaders sitting on the board like the revamped structure of CHC 2.0? (but wasn't the last board made up of lay leaders too before the usurpation by a vision took over by stealth and deception?) 

How about through the regular and impartial church audits by independent agents and consultants free from conflict of interests?

Or, through the voice of the Holy Spirit, which so many fallen leaders have ironically claimed guided and ring-fenced their powers, charisma and leadership only to find that the voice that the sheep hears is not always the voice of the Good Shepherd, but the black sheep themselves?

Alas, like the ghostly whispers in the Field of Dreams movie, which echoes hauntingly this refrain, "if you build it, they will come," so if you build it (a megachurch, that is), they will surely come.

And they will come in floodgates forming a raging kerosene river of conviction that catches a light of revelation from the pulpit with such ferocity that it can either be a force for good or a bane for destruction.  

Let me end with the sound advice of Joseph Prince in his book, Grace Revolution.

At page 112, he wrote: "So if someone comes to you and tells you that they are preaching the gospel, don't just swallow everything, hook, line and sinker."

Yet, history has shown that seldom are ideas from the pulpit, or from any rostrum for that matter, “swallowed” in carefully digested bite-size, in moderation, and with circumspection like the Berean Jews of Thessalonica would exercise (in Acts 17:11).

Most times, the gospel, whether right or wrong, sound or unsound, is taken in whole, without much reflection, especially concerning preaching about prosperity (as a promising hallmark of spirituality), grace that risks broadening the ambit of self-indulgence, and evangelism that threatens to lead to personal excesses.

I guess the fisher of man comes in all shapes and sizes and intent. And if he happens to pervert the gospel with a bait reassuring enough to a beguiled believer so as to hide the hook of self-enrichment and self-promotion, the fish will not only swallow it hook, line and sinker, but may even go further to justify that sharp pain at the side of its gills as a form of god-sent persecution in order to test one’s faith. Cheerz.

Ps: And JP - of all preachers - should know that by now.