Thursday, November 19, 2009

May the Bride Not Lose Her Humanity as She Grows

This evening I went to a small restaurant selling local delights. The food was inexplicably good. The curry chicken was just nice, not too salty. The side dish of century egg with tofu was excellent. I don't think I was trying hard to eavesdrop, but in the small restaurant with only two occupied tables, it wasn't hard to hear the conversation 4 metres away.

Two men were talking about church. In slightly formal fashion, one was asking how the other was planning to take over a new cell group. "Multiplication" as they call it. The Senior one (not in terms of age but in terms of his position) started to throw some rather interesting questions at the other.

"Do you know what your skill is? Are you more of a leader or a follower?"
"Who in the group do you think you can groom?"
"Do you think X can help you?"
"What do you think is the purpose of multiplication?"
"What do you see your role as?"

As he continued asking, a little bit of nostalgia crept up my spine. After all, I've spent the last ten years in a 'growing' church. We were packed into small groups, called cell groups, told that evangelism and reaching out were key. Everything in the group setting had to be done well. If there was to be a worship session, the guitarist had to prepare well. Song sheets had to be prepared well, and if not, the whiteboard should be written on prior to the starting time so that we don't hold back anyone. The buzzword (or buzz phrase) was "excellence for God". So we tried our best. Even if you didn't feel particularly comfortable you had to try harder, have more faith and press on. All this was done in a bid to grow.

I can't help but correlate the two men's conversation to my own experience. There was a tinge of strategizing. There was a tinge of organizational propriety. We have to get it right and do it right.

As with all descriptions, they are a caricature and often one-sided, viewed from the lens of the author. So it is with my experience spending the last ten years in a cell church. Leaders had to be spiritual mentors, fathers, guides. Leaders had to set the example and spearhead growth. Regular trainings were held. Equipping sessions were organized.

After 4 years in University, I've learnt that ironically, people grow best when there is sincerity, transparency and humility - and not organizational excellence. (I don't say we cannot have organisational excellence. On the contrary I think it is important. But I think we miss the point if it becomes that all-consuming desire of ours - "Grow the Church! Grow the Church!" we may yearn.) As I struggled with sin on a personal front, I found it difficult to share it with people in the cell group. First and mainly because I was at those times, the "leader" - how could the figure fall? It would be disastrous. And even if saving face was pushed aside, confessing your sins to your "followers" would stumble them greatly. I shared this with a close friend who spent hours and hours throughout my Varsity days praying with me and crying with me. While men cry little (haha), he cried tears of empathy over my struggles.

Ironically, some of the most thought provoking conversations I've had on spirituality and things about life (and death) have been with a church friend, but never in church - always away from cell group time and in the privacy of long drives. This friend often tested the way we (the church and its leaders) did things and tested the ideology behind many of the things said and preached about. If there was anyone who sharpened my then shallow faith. It was this brother, outside of church.

I have nothing against the church. Yet, I wonder if the organizational look and form the church is taking is at all helping its people. More fundamentally, whether it is biblical. The community of the early church was certainly ad hoc. There was some semblance of an organization as they had apostles and elders and leaders, but the church grew organically, by their word and deed and not by great organization-growing skills. They split the work of feeding the poor and preaching the word between two groups of apostles, and also, split the type of work (whether coincidentally or not), Paul to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. Still, I can't help but think the early church did not run on the same organizational structures we did, and more importantly did not rely on them as the cornerstone for growth.

We say that Jesus is Lord, we sing it loudly with neatly played rock music. We hear it preached over shiny pulpits and we leave to live it on nice carpets. The church of today (in modern Singapore) is well equipped and resourced. But resources aside, we must be very careful not to become an organization alone, instead of the body of Christ.

How much time do we spend on meetings and surveys in a bid to be organizationally better, sharper, more relevant, more appealing? How much time do our people spend in the coffeeshops, volunteering with the poor, understanding the plight of their fellow man? Do not the ways we spend our time and money speak boldly of what we think is important? If we organize the church so well that 20% of its people are focuses on mercy ministries, and 20% on music/worship and 20% on evangelism, etc. have we not compartmentalized the church in such a way that the gospel is presented in skewed forms? Every believer must be a worshipper, a giver or mercy, a person who lives the gospel. While God gives us gifts, different gifts, these are given for the benefit of the church, not for the efficient specialization of an organization. Sure, the lines are thin and the differentiating distinctiveness from compartmentalization is grey - yet, we need only ask ourselves where do our time and money go and we would more certainly have the answer.

An organization has further dangers. Efficient it may be, but getting work done is its purpose. If a church, as organization sees X as its goal, then everything must be aligned with it. There is no time for divergent views. No time for wastage. No time for people who can't align themselves with the system. Those who struggle or find it difficult to adhere to the programs and the plethora of activities become "problems". We need to sort that person out. We should pray for him or her, especially that they stop backsliding and become spiritual again. People start to become digits and mere statistics in the system.

Worst still, an organization may start to idol worship its leaders. "Everything rises and falls on leaders" so says John C Maxwell. Really? I recall somewhere that a wise Jewish anti-Christian leader in Acts commented that "If what they (the early apostles do) is not of God, they will fail." Is it not God who upholds his bride and washes her in His word till she is white as snow. No, everything does not rise and fall on leaders unless and until we deem it so. When we get used to seeing certain faces of people, we start to think that the stability, longevity and sustenance of the church depends on them. Jesus is not longer the source or wisdom, guidance, forgiveness and acceptance. Leaders are. What they say and do, how they "direct" (as the Senior in the restaurant told the other to learn to do more of) their "followers" is the last word on the issue.

I have visited several mega churches. Sadly, it is often these churches who have grown large (more than 1,500 as some benchmark) which prize themselves on such organizational know-how. Sure, I must admit that being organizationally excellent helps us as Christians do a lot better. It cuts away that slack mentality that the church will grow on its own. It makes us all involved. Organization may make us evaluate what we do and question our practices. Organization can bring certain blessings. But we must beware the trap of seeing the church only as that one prime organization which needs to grow and grow and grow.

In John Wesley's time, small groups were meant for deep confession and sharing of everyday life. They asked the very difficult questions of "when did you last sin?" and "when were you last tempted." Fellowship was the key because the Wesleys (Charles included) believed that it was through this that the sanctification of God took place. Faith and works flourished in the context of genuine, heart to heart conversations. Lives were open beyond the other. There was no agenda they needed to stick too, apart from holiness.

I once heard a Pastor say that a church should be no bigger than 500 people. I sniggered at it when I first heard it. He did say also that it was merely his opinion. But I have come to realize the beauty behind that statement. He said that this is the size to which the pastor can know his flock. But in addition to this, I think that smaller sized churches counteract the organizational ambition we might have to grow, grow and grow. A recourse to rigid rules never serve us well. 500 is not a magic number. But the idea is there.

Sometimes, we mistake growth and organizational excellence for maturity and vitality. It may end up being a shell for pure numbers and activity. Worst of all, the bigger we are as a church (organizationally), we may actually lose that unique personal touch and connection with each other. We can all choose to go to different services, do different specialized ministries and yet never ever really connect soul to soul. In that sense, while we may grow, we may yet lose our humanity.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Danger of “I Feel”

Contrasting Practices and Contrasting Effects

In a 21st Century society, more than we like to admit, people adhere more readily to a post-modern perspective than a modern one. To avoid a confusion of terms, a simple definition of either terms are as follows: A modern believes in objectivity and that there is a right or wrong. Everything should be tested and proven and feelings be thrown out of the window. A postmodern is one who believes there is no right and wrong, all we are is about feelings. You may feel that eating a fruit a day is the right thing, but that is the right thing for you, not for me. Whether it is right, is up to me to decide. Obviously, the postmodern can be said to be more relativist – believing that value judgments are all relative.

Both positions taken to the extreme are unbiblical. Firstly, a Christian is thought that there is an element of subjectivity in the way he or she learns. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin on the inside. While one man may be deeply convicted of his unkindness, another in the same situation may be convicted of pride. The Spirit leads us and guides us in His best timing. Yet, an understanding of the bible based entirely on feelings is dangerous. For the bible sets out clear propositions. Thus, without more, one cannot say “I feel like God is telling me to leave my family and quit my job for the mission field” and simply do so. Our feelings must be placed against the ruler of the word to be tested if it measures up to biblical principles.

Our church has a blend of both contemporary and traditional worship. Both strains are the result of certain religious movements. For example, more church historians would identify the more enthusiastic, youthful, emotive kind of worship with the Pentecostal movement. A visit to our 915am and 1030am services will largely prove so. This is to be contrasted with the more liturgical and structured 8am and 5pm services.

Because of the structure inherent in the traditional services, little room is given, perhaps to expressive manifestations of the Spirit’s work. Order is key. Structure is key. An honest critic may say this rigidity may inhibit the Spirit from touching lives and allowing people to respond, if at all this form of worship errs in inhibiting God’s work, it errs on the safe side (though not necessarily on the better side).

But the centrepiece of this article is to critique the more emotive forms of worship we have, and the theology implicit in the form. Form is not just form. For after all, a car built low and aerodynamic implies the maker’s belief that cars should be fast and built for racing. Likewise, an emotive, more expressive form of worship has its many benefits, but likewise has its dangers – and as keen students of the bible, we must test the spirit and philosophy behind it and do our best to align ourselves to biblical practice.

Charismatic Inclinations

The Pentecostal movement in the US which has influenced greatly the form of worship in churches all over the globe, has its immense benefits. While many have felt stifled by the ‘high church’ format in liturgical services, a more vibrant worship allows one to respond to God, not only in head, but largely in heart. Such services are often (though not always) characterised by more modern forms of music (electric guitars, drums, electric keyboards, violins, bass guitars) and more expressive forms of singing. While liturgy often means repeating the same tunes with different lyrics, charismatic worship sometimes does the inverse, which is to repeat the same lyrics, but with different chords. More than the musical form, charismatic worship is often stylised by emotive singing, praying aloud and the usual pauses to hear and feel what God is saying. And it is this practice which may be troubling.

Very often, emphasis is placed on ‘hearing’ from God. “What do you think God is saying to you now?” “Spend a moment to ponder God’s word for your life.” “I sense God wants me to tell the downhearted that he will heal them.” A lot of emphasis is placed on the individual searching introspectively and deeply in the recesses of his being. It is emotive by nature.

Dangers of “I feel...”

The bible does not inhibit emotion. In fact, a perusal of the Psalms, the book of Job, the life of the Prophets and the life Christ will show us that emotions play a huge role in our relating to God. In the Garden Christ cried with painful tears, and if He did not, perhaps his going to the Cross might appear easier to us. King David often ‘yells’ through his Psalms, petitioning for God’s salvation in the lows of his life. Emotions are not omitted.

Yet, the danger of worship which thrives on our emotions and personal sensing is that we will interpret things in light of how we want them to be. When asked “what do you think God wants you to do in this situation?”, one may rightly say “I’m not sure, after all, it is a grey area.” In fact, it is at this point of time that a keen student of the bible, like the Bereans in Acts, should study the scripture to look for principles and to glean wisdom.

In many worship services, we are told to press deeper, to search more, to reflect deeply. While these are all healthy practices, there may be a tendency to overdo them, leading to these consequences:

(1) Young Christians will think that the answers come from deeper introspection;

(2) Christians may be inclined to make decisions based only on the strength of their feelings;

(3) Christians may be inclined to think that the predominant way God’s speaks is through that still small voice, that inner prompting.

The danger is all of this is not that God does not do these. In fact, he does. But the danger is twofold: Firstly, God has given us many other resources to help us make decisions or think through issues. The wise counsel of matured believers, the bible and all of its commands, books by Christian authors who have thought through certain issues deeply, etc. Secondly, and I argue more dangerously, we may end up arriving at a conclusion or solution which we want to arrive at.

The postmodern, and perhaps Freud will tell us that in our sub-conscious, we already have certain desires which we want to accomplish. Maybe it is a zeal for fame, recognition, money, vindication, etc. So when we press deeply and ask “God would you want me to buy a car?”, the short answers we may get is “Yes, that you may bless others with it.” But could it be because we want the car for our own pleasures and enjoyment? Further, have we considered other important commands in the bible such as honouring our parents, being good stewards of our time, living with justice. If we have refused to help our parents in paying some of their medical bills, does buying a car bode well? If we have had a habit of spending much and accumulating debt, does buying a car testify of God’s wisdom in our lives? If we will buy a petrol-guzzling SUV only for our own use, does it speak well of our care for the society and the environment?

To all decisions, we must be thought how to think biblical, wisely, rationally and also emotionally. If we neglect the emotional aspect, we may miss the passion and conviction of God’s word spoken to us. But if we only focus on the emotional aspect, we testify poorly about the God we worship, portraying a lack of wisdom, love for justice, and lack of common sense even.

I argue that emotive forms of worship, especially those with a great emphasis on ‘feeling’ and ‘deep inner searching’ can be dangerous because there may be a tendency to normalize the hearing of God as that only guided by our feelings. We must think biblically and holistically, with our emotions, but without jettisoning our heads.

Looking at the demographics of these charismatic services scares me further – for the people who fill the pews are the youthful (often with more energy but perhaps lacking in the wisdom of the old). The pews are filled with those who would meet major crossroads in their lives with important decisions to make. If we normalize emotive thinking as the only way, we endanger our future generations but handling them a blunt tool.

Throw the Bathwater, Nurture the Baby

The solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – not to close down all contemporary services and shut down all forms of emotive practice. In fact, I very much enjoy contemporary worship as much as liturgical worship because at times, it engages my entire being. I not only sing with my mouth, but clap with my hands, and raise them to Heaven in gratitude. The flourish of emotions in a contemporary worship teaches us to identify God not as a stoic but as a passionate God – passionate for His Creation, for His redemption work and passionate for our lives. Rather, the solution, I suggest, amongst others, is threefold:

(1) That Youth leaders teach and model for their youth members how to make decisions holistically (I admit this is easier said than done but surely is it the prudent thing to do as compared with the abovementioned dangers) – teach them how to read the bible, that we can learn great truth through the different genres of biblical literature available;

(2) More intergenerational meetings/events are organised that the young will feel comfortable with the wisdom of the mature;

(3) That a sense of community is imbued such that young Christians grow up knowing they make decisions not in a vacuum, but in a community, with people cheering them on, helping them, and also people affected by their choices for good or bad.

As a short sidebar, Gordon Smith, the ex-Dean of Regent College in Canada, has recently highlighted that church anthropologists have suggested that the persons who play the biggest role in the lives of 2nd generation teen Christians are the parents of their friends. Surprising? Indeed. Not their parents, nor their peers, nor even their Sunday school teachers but their peer’s parents. Whether it be because of a sense of acceptance and initiation into God’s community or the sterling examples of Godly and matured believers whose lives are openly displayed, studies have shown that choosing not to isolate our youth from a bigger (and arguably older) community has its benefits.

I feel like God is telling me to stop here, and maybe I should, since wisdom may have it that an overly lengthy article would lose its impact. But jokes aside, when people look for the gospel, they read it best in our lives. If the best we offer if a people making unbiblical decisions and poor ones at that, it’s no wonder the God we preach is of little relevance nor attraction to their lives. If the best we offer is essentially a biblical-postmodernism, then all is relative and the gravity of God’s commands will certainly be diminished.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Will the Meekest Always Lose in the Public Square?

The past few days have been days of upheaval and deep thinking for me. The AWARE saga has produced such rich seed, though potentially painful, for political thought. Married with my present study on moral and political philosophy, I felt like the entire rhetoric in the end missed the central issue. I frame it as such:

"What is the best way to integrate divergent views in society?"

I take no stand on who is right and wrong but say that I appreciate both sides of the story. Being a religious person, I find that as objective as I try to be, and as much as I try to wade into the pool of pluralistic views, there will always be a core set of beliefs and morals that form me. I think religion is but a label, for all of us hold dear to a set of beliefs - a worldview. Religious or not, unless one is willing to morph and take on any views which marks the prevailing trend, one faces the same dillemma of being unable to move away from the beliefs they feel strongly for.

I'm not exactly sure of the exact facts of the AWARE case from start to finish. I have heard that the media was very much skewed in support of an anti-religious position, and from start to finish painting the debacle in a certain light. Far from alleging bad faith, I think I want to evaluate it in this framework:

(1) First, that the use of a pro-feminist NGO to publish views tending toward accepting a homosexual lifestyle grieved many religious conservatives (in particular the Christian community).
(2) Second, that the initial takeover, however good intentioned, grieved many pro-homosexual and liberal persons. (In the rest of this article, I use the term 'liberal' to mean persons who mostly do not have a religious view)
(3) Lastly, that the EGM became highly adversarial and polarized dominant views on a live issue.

As I see it, the printing of T-Shirts with "Feminist Mentor" and "Josie and her Pussycats" were a way of signalling the liberal camp's distaste of using religion in the public square. My question is where do we go from here?

It is easy to say that in a marketplace of ideas, the best ideas win. However, that begs the question of how those ideas become the best. For example, with no fault of theirs, it was clear that many of the supporters of the liberal camp were quickly mobilized, with great solidarity and had great media exposure to their benefit. The Online Citizen which is a growing online publication followed the issue and had great applause for their coverage. There were many YouTube videos which had video shots of worship services in Church of Our Saviour, in an attempt to portray the narrowness of the Christian view on sexuality. In a marketplace of ideas, the best ideas win.

But turning the argument around, the result is 'might makes right'. And to be utterly consistent, this would have to mean that if one day the Christians in Singapore become an elite group with the most savvy media coverage, most money for publicity and best ability to mobilize people, then if their view wins, we would settle for it. Surely not. As much as I am I firm believer in my Christian views, I cannot accept that the majority wins if the win is not a fair one even if the view that trumps is a Christian one.

People ask if ever fairness can be achieved, and because they deem it is impossible we throw it out altogether. But the same way many liberals perceived the first takeover to be in bad faith, parochial and a use of unfair force, isn't the latter EGM a similar means to use force and might to edge out a victory? The most common argument is to fall back on the fact that in a marketplace of ideas, you let all things be and the ones who gain the most support for their ideas win. Sure, but this again negates the impulse we have against an unfair jostling and majoritarian triumph.

To be consistent, one must reject the idea that a view, X, wins simply by sheer fact of more resource, more publicity, more awareness.

Everyone has a "comprehensive moral position". This idea was mooted by John Rawls and it means that religious or otherwise, everyone has a set of beliefs they won't trade off. Whether it be a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Post-Modernist, Christian, Mormon, etc. worldview, there are some core beliefs we won't fudge on. Yet, at the penumbra, there is also a ring of beliefs that we are able to share and cooperate on. This, Rawls calls, the "overlapping consensus". While Christians cannot believe that homosexuality is morally correct, surely they can belief that fairness and justice are essential in any contest. While liberals cannot except that homosexuality must be criminalised, they will be more than happy to promote the ideal of tolerance. These common values bind almost all groups. Freedom of conscience, fairness/justice, charity, poverty alleviation. Most of us can agree on these things.

It is here that I think the concept of fairness and civility is lost in the whole debacle.

Today, many celebrate that civil society won. That the conservatives and their desire to push back homosexuality is defeated. But at what costs? Civil society won today not because of tolerance or fairness but because they had the louder voice. What if one day Christians mobilize the most resources and trump in terms of their influence and voice. Or for that matter, any other religious group? Taking this to the extreme, so long as a group raises the loudest voice, it wins. To give extreme examples not present in today's debate: if we reject witchhunts we must surely also reject persecution? Surely we must reject the false notion of religion or liberalism but embrace a willingness to ask "what then is the right way we should do this?" What are the shared or common values that we can use, even in our contestation in the public square. Much has been said about the intolerant dispositions of the religious groups. Then the same intolerance we cannot accept, whether as a retaliation or a first instinct.

The sad take-home of the whole debacle is that we now lie very divided as a society. Surely Christians can learn things from liberals which do not augment their core beliefs, but which make them better people, and in their own words, more God-fearing and more people-loving. Ask Christians who have visited Mosques and they will tell you they learn a lot about devotion from the 5 daily prayers. Ask a Christian who has been to a less sheltered secondary school and he will tell that fact that his friends smoke, drink and gamble are no issue in his befriending them. But likewise, what are some things religious people can teach us? Boths sides have things to learn, and things which do not necessary aim at conversion.

Today, the losers are Christians who support Josie Lau and her team because the winners had the larger voice and support. Tomorrow, it may be the Muslims or Buddhists. Soon, it may also be that a overzealous religious group wins and outlaws alternative views. Can we live to accept that in the marketplace of ideas the one with the biggest voice always wins?

Some question to ask include:
"Can the government clarify the role of any comprehensive moral position in the public square?"
"What can be do to ensure contestation shows respect and is civil?"
"Can we live with the idea that might makes right in the marketplace of ideas?"

As I discussed with a friend, I would be very uncomfortable if a Christian organization used 'moral education classes' to convert little children in primary schools where parents do not consent to it and where the authorities are blind to it. But to be most consistent and fair, this must work the same for any comprehensive moral view that any group takes.

I admit, lamentably, that I can't think of a framework which sets limits on the public square. Perhaps if you push me, I might say that core beliefs should never be criminalised because we should have that freedom of conscience (which I correlate as a person's core beliefs).

Well, highlighting the similarities between an idea of reciprocity and the notion against judgmentalism, the Bible has it that you should never judge your brother and look at the speck in his eye when there is a plank in your own eye. But if we all inspected ourselves and helped each other, we may all be able to see better.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Accusations of Bigotry Should Make Us Think

It's tough to be a Christian in America. This doesn't for a moment mean that my convictions are any less firm. But it does mean that many of those positions are refined, less coarse, and more sensitive to the genuine thoughts and concerns of many who don't share the same convictions.

The AWARE case in Singapore brought to mind a familiar strand of Christian thought: "Where there is sin, we must fight a battle to eradicate it." Of course, the question of what sin means is very open ended. Even if one is biblically accurate in what he/she understands as sin, the word 'battle' leads to very potentially dangerous consequences. Any form of battle in the public square is potentially divisive, and history tells us that much blood has been spilt in 'god's name' whether it be Christian crusades, witch burning in America, Hindu extremism leading to the assassination of Gandhi and oppression of Indian muslims, and of course, 9/11.

But its all too familiar. Many religious people pride themselves so much with a religious cause they fail to see beyond their own view. This view, they often claim is correct and the only truth. Worst still, this view, as they interpret, leads them to spare no efforts in establishing it as a kingdom, a rule, a revolution.

I do not for one think the bible is false or relativist. As a bible believing Christian I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. I believe that the church is His bride, whom he will come for when He comes again. But the question is if much thinking or critical scrutiny has gone into our beliefs.

Sure, few people have the luxury of searching all historical texts and scriptures and first hand accounts to prove every facet of the faith. But there are entry-level texts citing firm evidence for the person and resurrection of Christ. There are also good books explaining the inerrancy of Holy Scriptures. While these secondary sources do not dictate our faith, they strengthen and refine it, and makes our faith more credible and less assuming in the public square.

Questioning is important and crucial. For when we don't, we often accept what we are told at face value. I suppose most people would agree that the aim of questioning is not to deconstruct everything but to find a meaningful worldview. Yet, this crucial bit in forming a holistic worldview (religious or otherwise) is very much lacking in the minds of the most zealous followers of any religion.

Part of this questioning is also exposing ourselves to different people from different cultures and background. When one does a genuine immersion to the different views, perspectives and worldviews others have, then one becomes less assuming of his view as being authoritative, but more quietly confident of his own position.

Take the issue of homosexuality for instance. For far too long, the church in America has demonized homosexuality. I must take a bold stand and affirm my belief that the bible argues that homosexuality is not God's design at all and is sin. My belief is firmly rooted in my faith and trust in Christ as my Lord. But believing that something is wrong and then demonizing the people who practice the act is a wholly different thing. And I do not feel ashamed of holding this view just as a non-Christian should not feel ashamed believing that humans are a result of evolution. A marketplace of ideas allows each man to be entitled to his own beliefs. None should triumph in bigotry over the other.

I once had a friend confess to me he loved going to church but struggled with the double life. Why so? Because in his re-discovery of his Christian faith, he still could not put down drink and cigarettes. I sighed in lament. While we may generally agree that smoking and drinking are unhealthy and ill-discipline triats for one who believes God has given us this physical body to care for, why does insitutional Christianity make a meal out of it more than other sins/wrongs?

Is smoking worst than gossip? Is drinking worst than the rude comment we make to a janitor when no one is looking? Is homosexuality worst than cheating on one's parking ticket by 5 minutes? Is shoplifting worst than taking office stationery? If every Christian came to church pasting a post-it pad on his body for every sin/wrong committed we would probably all don the same amount of yellow.

But, institutionalized Christian likes to focus on visible sins. Because institutionalized Christians have been brought up in the institution and find the social forces and norms compelling enough to avoid these visible sins for fear of shame, we then demonize them as worst and more derogatory than other 'smaller' sins. But the bible makes no distinction. James says when you break the law at one point you break them all. Yes, some sins/wrongs have consequences bigger than others - legal or otherwise. Sleeping around may hurt your spouse and break your family up and cause you sexually transmitted diseases. Compared with gossip which may ruin a friendship it seems objectively larger. But God never quantifies our sin merely in the weight of the consequence. To the pharisees who looked perfect in form, he chided them for neglecting the finer acts such as mercy and justice. And maybe, to the man who loves justice but is sexually promiscuous, Christ may tell him to 'go and sin no more'. Thus, all sin is sin, and no sin is greater and worst off.

Yet, very often, the way Christians act in the public square betrays our small-mindedness and our ability to demonize the other and turn the sin-spotlight from ourselves. When we publicize the more visible sins, ours are hidden by contrast. Why don't we first take the plank out of our eyes before looking at the speck in our brother's eye. It is not to ignore both but to check our own faults first. And when we do, we often check our brother's failing in genuine love and humility because we have seen our own.

So with the AWARE case, thought I'm not entirely sure of the facts and the genuine intent of the new exco, the secrecy and subtlety of the takeover surely leads to a suspicion that there is mistrust, lack of good faith, and maybe the same religious zeal which wants to 'battle against sin'.

Its disappointing. If you really do believe that your faith is the truth which people needs to hear, it is this same truth which instructs you to live in love. Love would mean humbling oneself to esteem others as better. This may also mean being willing to question your own views and not accept them parochially in a bid to show that you love your neighbour.

Ironically, it is often those with the most zeal, though definitely not all, who push others away from the very faith they profess to be salvation for the soul.

Please stop demonizing people. God loves them and made them in His image. They weren't made for you to use them as means for your religious ends. Kant himself would disagree with this blinded and parochial form of Christianity.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Everyday gods

A False Dichotomy between Physical Idols and the Intangible Ones

Have you ever wondered what motivates you to do what you do? There was a story told of a 9 year old who entered a Thai restaurant in midtown New York. Brought up in a Christian family, the boy curiously peered at a statue placed near the doorway. "I didn't know there are idols in New York?" he asked his dad, puzzled.

Christian doctrine has long appeared intolerate of other gods or idols. Sadly, much of the intolerance is not so much characteristic of the God of the bible and Jesus Christ, the lover of our souls, but characteristics of the human heart, ever quick to judge, prejudice and set aside things different from itself. Rousseau lamented in the Social Contract that Christians make the worst citizens in a civil state. This is because true Christianity is about being slaves. They care not about public felicity and do not think ill of their neighbours. They would make the worst soldiers for in war, they would fight with a deep sense of duty but without passion for victory.

While Rousseau's opinions may not accurately describe the emotions and passions a devoted believer may have for his/her state and country, he got the next point about the intolerance of religion correct: "Now that there no longer is and never again can be an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be shown to all those that tolerate others..." In an earlier passage, he adamantly claimed "the sovereign can banish from the state anyone...for being unsociable." Reading from a couple of yahoogroup emails the story of the Singaporean couple who were sent to jail for their severely erroneous tracts on the Muslim faith, I lament that too few of us seriously consider why the God of the bible hates idols. It is not so much that He is intolerant (for He made us and knows our propensity for mistakes) but more that he is angered by the subtle destruction to our lives idols do.***

***[Please note that I do not refer to idols here in the physical sense. I do not attempt to categorize religious items, statues and relics of other faiths as idols. "Idols" here is a generic label for the intangibles that our souls desire, and the sometimes tangible that we make as a form of chasing the former. Please read on.]

True Idolatry - Genuine Loves in Wrong Positions

Today, Dr. Tim Keller spoke about the capacity of the human heart for idolatry. Quoting from Romans 1:21-25, he stated that men inevitably want to create idols, and have created a great range for them. In the Old Testament times, the prophet Isaiah chided the nations of Judah and Israel for worshipping idols made of everyday material. He said, the same tree that was chopped for firewood or cooking, portions of it are used and carved into a creature or image of praise. The same bronze, silver or gold which is used in buying and selling, is molded into a delectable image for worship. The contrast was that created things (wood, gold, silver) were used to created items of worship as opposed to us worshipping the One who created them.

But the dangers of idolatry are deeper and scarier and poses big questions for all men. Keller alluded to the fact that all men have an inclination to worship something. Just looking around, we ascribe praise to great men and women. Celebrities are given endless attention - attention to their latest fashion, their lives, their football club transfers (which seem to last months!). Statemen and Generals are erected statues in their honour. Intangible things like 'love', 'anti-racism', 'human rights' are celebrated and form such a core in many peoples lives. We love to attach value to things and then by association, want our lives to be valued by finding ourselves in them. But many of these gods we celebrate don't give us what we truly need.

If we agree that there are several goods a man requires, them being love, attention, acceptance, esteem, security, etc., then many of these items of worship hardly deliver them. Keller mentioned some illuminating examples.

Where the Search for Acceptance, Esteem and Security Fail - Money, Sex, Power

First, he allued to the idea that there are near and far idols. A Wall Street banker may have his near idol as money. He desires a higher pay, bigger bonuses and a fat bank account. But his far and concealed idol may be security. He is afraid that he would be penniless and face the downside of a free-market economy. He searches frantically (though appearing calm and composed) for ways and means to earn the next buck and to store them in his account. When Lehman collapses, he reacts more than others because he fears the dimunition of value in his wealth.

The same near idol, money, can lead to a different far idol - acceptance. For a lawyer to be like myself, my near idol may be money, not so to provide security, but to buy acceptance. I want to drive a slick looking car which will obtain my friends' praise, a decent looking suitcase to fit my tailored blazer. Maybe some neat furniture in a nice apartment. A nice refridgerator to store delightful gourmet food. All this so that I can mix with and be accepted by a certain crowd. The jet setters and high-lifers will certainly feel at home with me, and I at home with them. But from the above two examples, clearly the idols don't deliver. One crisis - the fall in currency, or the rejection by someone important - will cause us to crumble.

Keller also mentioned the result of painful emotions. Guilt he says, results from making an idol of the past. We want our past to look better but we can't change it. But because of this, we wallow in guilt, unable to tell ourselves life is not central upon what we have done or omitted to do. Bitterness, results from making an idol of the present. We want our present to be perfect. We desire for life to be just the way we want it. Our plans fail and we feel mistreated.

Before the religious person become elated from hearing all these deprecatory examples, how about moral rectitude? When we make an idol out of being a moral person, we think being moral will get us what we want. Thus, when suffering or failure hits us, we blame god and turn away, or hide our sore emotions because we felt that by our morality we deserve better.

In sexual or romantic pleasure, we may be seeking both acceptance and security. For that moment, instead of showing love and pleasure in the one we consumate with, we read our partner's willingness to give his/her body or romantic expressions to us as a sign that they accept us for who we are, and we are secure in this. Sexual addiction prove the contrary. That while for a moment we may feel that way, the act of sex itself never cures our need for acceptance and security. A Christian book once reported that Playboy Magazine did reveal that in order to attract readers, models are to pose in a manner that says "I desire you" to their readers. Inately, it attempts to lure the human heart to the false god of sexual pleasure by telling them they are accepted and esteemed. Yet, it never fulfils and is illusory.

One need not go far to imagine how obtaining power can be an idol.

Ordered Loves

CS Lewis in the Four Loves and Augustine in Confessions both alluded to the same idea - that our hearts are restless till they have found their peace with God, and that God must be the centre of all our desires/loves. For God Himself claims to be able to fulfil all our needs. That's why he is angered by idols. Because by chasing the near or far idols of wealth, moral rectitude, achievements, beauty, sexual pleasure, etc., we fail to reach the true source which will provide us with security, trust, love, acceptance, forgiveness, esteem, and a sense that we are finally at home and at rest. Christ sacrifice speaks boldly of this. Romans 8:32 says:

"He who did not spare His only Son, but gave him up for us all - how will He not also, along with him, graciously give us all things."

We know God accepts us for who we are because of the Cross. We can find security because we know He holds our world in His hands. We can trust Him because He disclosed his heart and chose to be first vulnerable to us. We can find true forgiveness, not condoning of our wrongful acts, because a price was paid for us. We can find esteem because by giving Himself for us, he is redeeming us, his adopted children to return home.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that when men are most miserable when they get what they pray for. There is a sense of truth to that in that we often feel gratified and lulled into a sense of tranquility when we obtain our near idols. When we seek for acceptance, more achievements make us feel happy. Yet, this sense of acceptance is never really there. One mistake, one bad grade, one failure to achieve the highest position may mean you've "fallen". At times, it is when we don't get what we seek for that God allows the situation to reveal our false gods.

Not all false gods (idols) are bad in and of themselves. No one would say "since I have sought my wife as an idol I shall leave her." This is contrary to reason and biblical understanding. Yet, the key is to place our loves in order. Wealth, beauty, sexual pleasure and the like must be ordered in their places and assigned the right motivations and values. The love of the Creator and Divine and for what He has done for us and how He has loved us, when placed at the apex of our desire pyramid, allows us to fulfil all our souls' desires. When the need for acceptance, love, trust, esteem, etc. are all met, others pleasures and gods we seek will fall into place and are hardly dangerous since we seek them for their intrinsic value - wealth to provide and multiply for others, sex as an expression of love and appreciation, beauty as an appreciation of what is fine and delightful. Ordered loves is the key.

Unless we order our loves, there is always the danger that our unfulfilled desires for acceptance, affection, security, esteem and love turn the things we possess and treasure, into an idol which enslaves. Why should we allow our loved ones, wealth, moral rectitude and romantic pleasure to a victim of our disordered loves and enslave ourselves to them?

Human Trafficking - A Descend into the Heart of Darkness

This will probably be my last entry before either shifting to a new blogsite or to use a new format. The latter is most convenient so maybe I'll stick to that. After much reflection and prayer, I've sensed a need to be careful of taking pride in my own "brand name". Before it sounds smug to you, for me to even think I have a brand name, let me explain.

For some time, I have allowed compliments and praise to build up my self-image. I began to feel comfortable being praised or esteemed. Yet, recently, as perhaps reflected in my previous posts, I've come to realise how human I am and how I must be careful of thinking myself too highly. Pride is subtle. People may not see it, but God knows, and when its revealed, we know too. For example, people always know me as a 'good Christian' or 'model/moral person'. But it is only when I see the true plight of my own hypocrisy - appearing moral but feeling upset and contemptuous of others on the inside - that I begin to be wary of myself. All in all, I think its been a good time of learning, of realizing how important to be grounded, avoid being built up by praise and to beware of pride.

Confidence is a good thing. Seeing yourself as esteemed by others and being unable to accept criticisms, comments and differing views is another. I guess its best to beware of the latter. My decision to shift blog or to change the format to in part to get away from having a blog named after me. It was named that way because I didn't want to hide behind a label, and I want to be me, transparent and open. Yet, there is that danger of me celebrating my own blog, personality, thoughts and reflections - i.e. being happy about my name being publicized. Its a thin line between "self-desecration" and moving away from subtlelies of pride, but I hope I have support and trust that all I am trying to do is disassociate myself from my name and still blog in the spirit of open thinking.

Human Trafficking

On Thursday, I went to the UN for the appointment ceremony of the Goodwill Ambassador to the UNODC (Office on Drugs and Crime) and the launching of the official report on the state of Human Trafficking. It was an eye-opener for me. After hearing much about human trafficking, it was a chance to learn more and gain a depth of knowledge.

As I arrived at the Balcony, I was surprised that every seat was littered with an "Amazing Grace" DVD. The movie, featuring the life story of William Wilberforce and his lifetime battle to abolish slavery and its ills in the British empire, was given for free! Glad as I was, I pondered why they would be giving this DVD. What was the link?

As soon as the speeches got underway, I heard sad statistics on the state of affairs with regard to Human Trafficking. If you're one for facts and figures, do check out these websites and the report:,

The link to "slavery" and thus the link to the "amazing grace" dvd gift was that Human Trafficking is modern day slavery. Whilst "slavery" in its primitive form was abolished, human trafficking accounts for similar and arguably worst and more clandestine effects. The syndicates running human trafficking do a significant damage to humanity, theirs being ranked the 3rd biggest illegal organised crime, after arms and drugs.

Human Trafficking includes many facets. The main ones are the smuggling of children for paedophelia or child labour; and the smuggling and kidnapping of women (mainly, as opposed to men) for prostitution or illegal domestic labour. While on the surface the words "smuggling", "prostitution" and "domestic labour" seem merely technical, in actual fact, this trade subjects fellow humans to the worst forms of emotional, physical and psychological harm. (See the story of Dora and Sondra below)

More interestingly, was the speech by the new ambassador against Human Trafficking Mira Sorvino. An Academy Award winning actress, Mira Sorvino spoke eloquently. She was introduced as a Harvard Graduate in East Asian Studies who finished with a Magna Cum Laude. Unlike the 3-4 speeches before her which were clinical and factual, she gave a soft yet sterling speech. As she spoke, she mentioned two true stories of victims she had met, who had been trafficked.

The first story was of Dora. (not her real name). Dora was a Mexican woman who lived in a poor shanty. She was tricked by an elderly lady in her village that she would be promised work in sewing clothes. Once she reached Texas, she realised she was tricked and soon she was forced into selling her body for money. When she had the courage to ask to get out, the elderly lady told her she was an illegal immigrant and would be subject to very strict laws. The elderly lady furthermore, told her that "no one will listen to you. Here in Texas, a dog is more important than you. They care more about their dogs than they would for you." After being held for years in this kind of economic, emotional and psychological bondage, she had the courage to escape. Ironically, law enforcement agencies only managed to put the elderly lady under 1 year of house arrest because of her age. Further, despite relocation methods and means to help Dora get a new life, this elderly lady who is back in Mexico, constantly tries to bribe or threaten Dora's family so as to track her down.

The second, and even sadder story is that of Sondra. When she was 15, Sondra was sold to a paedophile for USD$200. He raped her several times a day. To scare and manipulate her, he locked her in a room with an occult altar. He placed a picture of Jesus on the altar, together with bones and jars of black powder, and he also told her he could read her mind, every of her thoughts. In the earlier years, he threatened to kill her and she believed him because she saw other garbs lying around in the room, and was fearful due to the presence of bones. After being raped on end for days and feeling helpless and wanting to give up, she asked him to kill her. Her only desire not to die was to provide money for her family. After 5-6 years of keeping her locked in his house, the paedophile then sent her to work in a factory. But upon her receipt of payment, he took all her money. Some neighbours finally gave law enforcement agencies a tip off saying they saw Sondra constantly mopping the floor dressed in shabby rags. This lasted for 20 years.

Mira Sorvino mentioned that Sondra looked like a "burnt out soul". Who could expect more after 20 long years of emotional torture, physically abuse and the snuffing out of any soul-fire on her wick of dignity?

According to social workers on this field, victims of human trafficking can be sold multiply times a day. This is because the cost for 'maintaining' them is so low. In fact, apart from the scraps of food, perverse clothing and drugs given to hooked them, very little is required to keep modern day slaves.


Indifference Perpetuates Inhumanity

"Sad" is far too mild a word to describe the emotions that should grip us as we hear these stories. While we may be in safe and secure settings, many others part of our common humanity suffer under perverse systems. I was thinking to myself as I heard those stories, how would I react if a female loved one was raped? Heaven forbid it happen, but I would be outraged. Even as a practising Christian, the issue of forgiveness would be a huge struggle. Yet, these women are raped several times a day. Some are put on drugs so as to ensure they do their masters' bidding - a literal depiction of slaves - without dignity, freedom or any form of self-control. Anger and outrage, equally inapt phrases, must surely be part of the cauldron of emotions stirred up by such true stories.

I wonder if, secure from grevious ills, we have become accustomed to ignorance or indifference. A poster on the walls of the NUS lifts reads "Indifference is the essence of inhumanity." (George Bernard Shaw) I fully agree. Sometimes, we often think away the need to be aware, involved and engaged by saying "look, these things are so far away, since I can't do anything about it, or can't change anything, why should I be involved?" While one can understand the sentiment, a descend into the heart of darkness will show us the wretched potential and seeds of wickedness all human beings have. Evil may not surface in its ugliest or truest forms, but the subtle forms of oppression which appear in greater volumes in sex/human trafficking often appear in our everyday worlds.

In some countries, the poor sleep on dirt roads and continue in a cycle of poverty. Unable to have conducive school, proper and minimum healthcare and proper housing, almost none of these children grow to break out of the poverty trap. In developed countries, indifference is practiced when we think only of our gain and protection and security but bother not about the genuine concerns of others. What about domestic workers in Singapore? If I told you your son or daughter were to work in a foreign land 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without a rest day, how would you feel. Perhaps you will gleefully agree only if he/she is an investment banking or international commercial lawyer. Manual labour aside, many maids aren't accorded basic human dignity. Last to eat at the table, given the leftovers and scraps, made to do dangerous tasks like cleaning windows from the outside of a HDB ledge - surely some decency can be afforded them. "But nah, this job and life we give them is better than they have back home." Sure. Turn the tables around and we would be the ones crying to heaven against the oppression, subtle or otherwise.

A most quoted phrase is "the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." However idealistic it may sound, its truth is evident. We don't need to be world changers like Martin Luther King Jr, or as hoped for, the recently inaugurated President Obama. We can be who we are, in whatever station we are, but working and living against the grain of indifference. If we aim high, the dignity we accord to another person may lift him or her up to be a history maker. But even if we aim low, you may have made a stark difference in the life of one who has never felt dignified.

Talk to your maid, ask her how she's doing. How's her family? Talk to the road sweepers, greet them. Don't pity them. We don't act out of pity or sympathy because we know we are equals. But don't perpetuate the neglect and act in the stream of indifference this world feels comfortable to live in.

Mira Sorvino gave a personal testimony which was most inspiring. She said, "with all the evil and hurt I've seen in this world, it was a very difficult choice in wanting to have children. Yet, I chose to and today I have two girls, age 2 and 4. This is because, amidst all the evil, I believe in hope. I am banking on hope and I am writing my cheque with my own sweat, blood and tears." Essentially, she chose, by bringing children into this world, to have a stake in the battle against evil, indifference and inhumanity - to fight for it because it would cost her something otherwise.

Aptly, the title of the talk that day was "Exposing Denial and Benign Neglect". For the evils in society to persist, all it requires is for us to do nothing. Benign neglect. Years of bullying may cause a man to lack total self-esteem. Years of racism and oppression may cause a person of a minority race to lash out and react in violence. Years of subtle put-downs may cause a wife to see herself as emotionally small in her husband's eyes. Years of undignified treatment may cause a person in poverty to think that there is no way he/she is going to get better, so why try? These abovementioned problems aren't murder or torture or violence. Yet, the indifference we show allow time through years to compound the inhumanity.

By looking at our loved ones and imagining them subject to these forms of oppression, hopefully we can say like Mira Sorvino that "we are banking on hope, and we will write our cheques with our sweat, blood and tears." The great news is, everyday indifference hardly costs us sweat, blood or tears, but a kind word, a smile and an outstretched palm.