Monday, November 30, 2009

"We're about to go out for lunch..."

That's what the nurse/receptionist told me when I registered for my check-up at the Kumpulan Medijaya in Damansara Utama. I gave a disgruntled non-smirk and eventually I had my check-up, though one can easily tell from the demeanor, the eyes, the faces (and the lack of colour in them) that they didn't want me to be there.

I left swearing I'd never go there again, not unless I was stretchered in because a hydrant, then a tree, crashed into  me and my car.

We're about to go out to eat - can you come back at 2.00 (the time was 12.15-ish). So let me get this right: You do not wish to serve me because you're hungry? Well, why don't you pop a biscuit whilst you scan me for rabies?

Blurred categories and marginal concepts are great for creativity but c'mon, when it comes to lunch you're EITHER "In" OR "Out". When it comes to your doors, they're EITHER "Open" OR "Closed". If you want them to be closed, then say we're closed. Nobody wins if you want to be closed but are forced to admit you're open.

That's messed up - and it shows in your service.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Christian Core Doctrines and Apologetics : A Workshop Outline

(Note: The below outline is almost certainly unsuitable for the group of U-20 participants in January and will be modified accordingly)

Next January's 2-day workshop at the Residential Bible School should be fun. The outline below obviously leans heavier towards apologetics but I hope to slip in additional basic beliefs throughout:
1. Trinity and the Question of God
  • How do we know that God exists?
  • Why choose Christianity instead of another faith?
  • How can we make sense of the Trinity?
2. Jesus: Person, Message, Work and Resurrection
  • Who is Jesus? Did He really exist?
  • What did Jesus mean by the Kingdom of God?
  • Why should we believe what the Gospel writers wrote about Jesus' miracles?
  • What happened on the Cross?
  • What is the significance of the Resurrection? How do we know Jesus truly rose from the dead?
3. Suffering & Evil
  • Why does a God of love allow evil? What is He 'doing' about it?
  • Why doesn't God stop tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, etc.?
  • Why must God create Hell for non-Christians?
4. The Nature and Process of Revelation
  • How can we be sure the Bible is reliable?
  • Why can't God do 'sky-writing' to make His revelation unambiguously clear?

If You Sell Jesus, People Won't Buy

There is a prevailing temptation among Christians to focus on 'selling' Jesus instead of helping people discover and know Him. In marketing parlance, it's the tendency to be product-oriented instead of being marketing-oriented.

Christians generally have this 'thing', this template, this experience, this absolute truth, that they expect others to appropriate and embrace, failing which we judge (albeit quietly and sometimes not so) that everyone else except us are the ones who need fixing.

And may be the case that people need to find the Lord in their own ways, come to Him with their own hang-ups, their own categories of thinking/doubt, their personally nuanced questions. I recall (with regret) my response a colleague some years back. She told me she found that church services were kinda boring. I was thinking in my heart that if she tried to live the principles taught she wouldn't find it boring i.e. either she didn't understand or she didn't try.

This was my problem (and still is in some sense): I focused entirely on what she hadn't been doing right.

I didn't ask her what her spiritual-emotional needs were. I didn't ask her what she expected from church.
I didn't ask her how she felt church could be improved to present Jesus in a more accessible manner. I didn't ask her what she was in fact 'looking for' in life.

I all out fired my guns, mentally (and triumphantly) categorised her as a hedonistic anti-religious dud and. Of course I didn't say all this to her. I ended up telling her, well why don't you just switch church? She eventually left it - whose 'fault' was that, you think?

Apologetics: 6 Pre-Answer Attitudes to Adopt

In a typical 'Christian apologetics' session at a local church group, the typical mix of questions (based on my experiences) would roughly consist of the following:
  • 60% Apologetics/Philosophy/History (e.g. "If God was good, why [fill in your favourate global problem]?", "How can we be sure that Jesus was raised from the dead?"),
  • 30% Christian Education (e.g. "What is the rationale for infant baptism?")
  • 10% Misc/Uncommon/Weird Questions (e.g."Why is God referred to in the Bible as HE and not SHE?").
Whislt it was tempting to focus on the answers to most of the above, I'm glad I didn't (and besides it was only an hour-long gathering). Instead I tried to target the pre-answer attitudes, especially when doing apologetics (i.e. 'defending' the faith intellectually). Here are some:

1. It's okay to remain silent or say, "I don't know" - especially if you don't know the answer (duh) or the malice/hostility index is too high, or you're too emotional or angry, and you just know it's no longer a debate but a debacle. We don't see Jesus arguing very much during his passion, right?

I still remember Glenn Miller saying that we can raise more questions in 5 minutes than we can answer in 50 years. Read: There is simply NO NEED to feel helpless when barraged with questions you can't respond to. Because if satisfactorily answering EVERYTHING asked was a criteria for legitimate belief, no one could believe anything!

2. It's more important to communicate lovingly than logically - basically an extension of no.1, and this wouldn't be worth saying if not for the fact that there are many apologists and theologians who are EXTREMELY logical but whose logic seem to correlate very well with their arrogance and unkindness.

Apologetics is about ministering to people. It's a good chance to prove not only that Christians have good reasons for their faith, but also to demonstrate that we care MORE about merely giving answers (and sometimes we make the 'point' that scoring argumentative points can be a bad way to live).

We're not mini-professors each one of us; we are mini-replicators of Calvary. And Calvary was one BIG BLOODY answer beyond answers and reason and even words.

3. Think about (or find out) the real question/charge being thrown, not just the presenting one - "Why do Christians have so many denominations?" may be a simple historical inquiry OR a thinly veiled insinuation (i.e. "Why are you Jesus freaks so messed up and always breaking away from each other?"). When we focus on the real issues, as always, time and energy is better spent.

4. Ask what you can learn from the question - it keeps your eyes fixed, if not on ministry to the questioner, then on self-development. Much better than aiming for just another intellectual triumph which usually comes along with the idea that, "Ah, this is just another ignorant anti-Christian attack by a dude who has an attitude problem and who's either stupid, incoherent, heretic or all three!"

5. Read 1st Peter 3:15 and 16 - take to heart the 'gentleness and respect' (15b) parts, the Christlike behaviour part (16a) and the slander-reversal parts (16b). Don't get carried by the 'always be ready to give an answer' thinggy, as if you just GOTTA respond like a pro if you're challenged (grin).

(Finally a more 'technical' one...)

6. With simply outrageous, near-illogical questions, refrain from answering and work on the questioner's logic - e.g. for something like, "If we're made for God's glory, does this mean we are puppets for His amusement?", it's best to ask - gently and respectfully - for the thought patterns and the process leading up to the conclusion. Like, "I'm really curious as to how you went from one point to the other...I'm really interested to understand why you would equate A and B, etc."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ravi Zacharias - God's Prophet of Logic

The last time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak, I was riveted. Who Are You, God?, his sermon delivered at Calvary Church about a dozen years back, made the 45 minutes seem like less than 4.5.

Razi Zacharias is eloquent, verboise and strong. His mission is absolute/exclusive truth, absolute morality, absolute meaning. Zacharias' no.1 target is moral relativism, religious pluralism i.e. the idea that morality is entirely a private matter, that it's "up to us" to choose our beliefs. His main instrument is logic, the system of thought seeminlgy hard-wired into our thought-lives.

His chief tactic of demonstrating this is to throw the issue back to the questioner. For example:

1. "How can you say that your religion is the absolute, exclusive truth? Isn't this disrespectful of other religions?" (Response: All statements are necessarily exclusive. When you insist that "All religions are the same", are you not excluding those who DISAGREE with you?")

2. "How can you say that logic is an Either/Or affair? What about those worldviews in which logic is Both/And?" (Response: For these worldviews with a Both/And way of thinking, is it EITHER Both/And OR nothing else?)

3. "How can you believe in absolute truth? Aren't all truths relative?" (Response: Is that statement, "All truths are relative" also itself relative?)

4. "Who says life must be coherent? Can't people live incoherent lives?" (Response: Do you want my answer to you to be coherent or incoherent? This last one was a (relatively) new one I picked up from the Mp3.

It is not surprising that Ravi Zacharias is the model (almost) every young Christian thinker aspires towards. There are few occasions more scintillating in intellectual dialogue than to be able to demolish another's argument using the person's own explicitly stated premises or theses. Trust me I've had my share of such fun a long time ago (of course, problems arise if we get life from such occasions, as if every apologetics question is a chance yet again to use such intellectual judo).

Like Aristotle, who once said to someone who challenged the laws of logic, "I can prove you're wrong. Just say something.", Ravi Zacharias' intellectual ministry is securing this foundation of truth and using it as a platform to bring out the message of Jesus. In this endeavor, Zacharias is second to none.

He has made the "toughest questions" also the easiest to respond to, at least on a logical basis.

Perhaps Zacharias could consider moving on to the "other", less logically-oriented questions and issues. For whilst he has established there is no other answer to given set of questions, one sometimes wonders if apologetics all about the law of non-contradiction?

Must one establish absolute truth/meaning/morality before, or as a precondition to, one's sharing of the story of Jesus? The lectures sound great in a public forum but I get a feeling there's demonstrably less enthusiastic response if used in private. Do we really expect people to say, "Oh, yeah, I didn't realise I was being illogical?" to you?

And if a person remains reluctant to submit to the law of logic, can the law of Christ work via another less absolute route?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Real Music From Heaven : My Mum-in-Law's DUMC Experience

Last Monday my mum-in-law shared an incredible experience she had at DUMC.

It was a choral session after the Chinese worship service on Sunday. The instructor was teaching my mum-in-law (together with about 50 other people) how to sing 'spiritual songs', which took the form of chanting "Hallelujah-Hallelujah-Hallelujah" over and over again in a melodious manner. Not quite a mantra but not exactly a hymn either.

(Nothing particularly bizarre about this practice, IMO, as one could see it meditatively focusing on God, with the quasi-chant as a kind of psychological 'cursor'; it helps to channel the mind.)

Then something strange happened. According to my mum-in-law, they were singing, humming and crooning until at one point they stopped - but the sound of singing continued!

It was sense-surround, everywhere. My mum-in-law said it was the most beautiful singing (sans words) she had ever heard. Everyone else in the room heard it.

After a few minutes, the instructor explained that it was the singing of angels (see Rev 5:9-11, 14:2-3). Two words: Awe-Some!

No, I'm sure it wasn't a hoax (I know there'd be more than a few DUMC-ers who would've exposed it by now). This wasn't a pre-recorded CD somewhere (but even if it was, I reckon my mum-in-law wouldn't mind purchasing the track!).

No, this wouldn't count as a hallucination because - as Christian apologists are fond of pointing out apropos the Resurrection - mass hallucinations are non-existent unless all of them have been given a certain drug (in which case it'd be mass-drugging).

No, it isn't a (gimme a break) "natural phenomenon of sound" which results from a group of senior (non-professional singers!) singing a single word.

So what was it? Was it really angels?

Frankly, until I hear it myself, I can't be sure if angels were actually singing in the 'vicinity' of my mum-in-law. But I can be sure that the sound brought joy to my mum-in-law; I can be sure there was no strong/direct contradiction with Scripture (I mean, it's not as if the angelic choir began telling the group to buy Genting shares...); I can be sure that the hearts of the people in the session were in the right place (or rather, I have no reason to suspect otherwise).

So as far as I'm concerned, I have little reason to doubt that it was an angelic cum kingdom effect the group experienced. A touch of God in a special way. A group of people were blessed deeply by a Biblical-oriented spiritual experience of some kind. And if we can't live with that, what can we live with, right? (smile)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Salesman

The salesman was passionate, knew his product better than I knew the back of my thumb, was well-groomed and had a good voice. But I swear I wanted to dash from the room after about half an hour (but, out of the boundless courtesy of my Asian heart, decided to stay for the full 75 or so).

If he was working for my organisation, I'd have to remind him to NOT:
  • dispense with the small talk inappropriately - now if the client wants to move on, fine and super-good, but if the client is doing the small-talking, it's plain yippee-doo-daa RUDE to jump straight into the sales pitch
  • talk for 96% of the time - ever come across the illusion that more words equates to greater control of the situation? the operative word: il-lu-sion
  • keep repeating himself - of course, unless you're an expert comedian or scholar how can you talk non-stop for more than an hour on one particular subject WITHOUT repeating yourself? and, most importantly, how can you expect folks to enjoy a monologue which could've been 50% shorter without loss of content?
  • frequently employ emotive/subjective non-content fillers - e.g. "It is my passion to say this...", "All I want to do is give this away...", "I can't believe why some companies say No..." and other en-crap-sulating phrases
  • start the slideshow really late - a full 45 minutes into the meeting, in fact; worse, the slideshow repeated much of what he said, wasn't all that great and he was reading from the slides (whilst continuing at least three of the bullet-points above)
  • ignore asking even one question about the client and his institution's needs/wants/methods - this is worse than a date where the other person talks about only two people and you're not one of them

The item in question was a good (if incomplete) offering. I would've said Yes in a third of the time taken. I would've learnt more if the pitch from the reading the materials and viewing the slides myself.

Instead I was treated to a guy who cared too much about himself and his stuff - which is to say a depressingly ordinary dude.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

5Ps' of the Lord's Prayer

What follows is an attempt at 'structuring' the Lord's Prayer. I'm assuming since Jesus taught us to pray thus, it would reflect what God Himself 'looks for' in a prayer (content-wise, at least). I'll also assume the prayer should reflect a sense of priority, completeness and cogency. So here goes:

1. Praise - all due reverence and honour; without privileging any particular 'form' of worship / adoration / practice, it's pertinent that hallowing God's name is a supreme priority
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.

2. Praxis - nothing here about believers 'going to heaven', rather it's about us 'bringing heaven down'
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven

3. Provision (both physical as well as spiritual) - it's worth reflecting on the possibility that forgiveness is a form of inter-dependent spiritual nourishment(!)...
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.

4. Protection - temptation and evil (all personally- and relationally-destructive forms of anti-life) seem to encompass all we need to be wary of
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

5. Purpose - that which makes sense of and completes all the fore-going i.e. we pray all of this because ultimately it - everything - 'goes back' to He Who is the Source and Lord of it all
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. for ever and ever.

Game Show vs. Reality Show

The program I'm teaching now has an assessment structure where Multiple-Choice Questions portion is allocated 30% and a Group Report 20%. Another 50% goes to a final exam which, alas, also includes an MCQ segment.

I confess this gets to me. I mean, MCQs' are more often than not a memory game. Not only is pointless memorisation of definitions encouraged, answering via elimination and guessing will always be a temptation. It's like we're preparing our students to be game-show experts when in the real world, the skills required to succeed usually approximate those in reality-show scenarios.

  • GAME show: general knowledge/trivia, guessing, luck, fastest to the timer, individual memory, abstract and 'useless' information, closed book, IQ, etc.
  • REALITY show: people skills, organisation/managerial skills, planning / forward-looking, negotiation / persuasion, relationship-building, conflict management, "open book", EQ, etc.

It may not be a bad idea to introduce Apprentice-style projects to high-school kids as a main form of assessment (instead of merely something the Entrepreneur Club organises once in a while). Likewise, as I suggested to a group of Form 3 kids, it might be better to reduce the number of subjects taken for SPM and spend the time/effort doing, say, free-of-charge internship at a local bank or corporation.

A good education isn't about the number of As' one scores at the end of school. It's the portfolio of skills one has mastered for use at the start of the next phase of education - life itself.