Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Raising the fragmented child

A little boy came home from school and complained to his mother,"I'm not going back tomorrow. I can't read yet. I can't write. And they won't let me talk."

The idea of shipping our children off to a warehouse where they are educated by strangers from a curriculum designed by politicians and academic theorists is so strange and disconnected from the reality of a child that we have to wonder how this could come to be a fact in our society. Why would be want our children treated like this? Only by being convinced that it is for their own good - or if we don't happen to agree, by being subject to fines and imprisonment if we don't comply - would we go along with this. After all, we allow ourselves to be sent off, indeed we transport ourselves to be warehoused at work, so we can imagine such a fate would be acceptable to our children.

The world that we live in has this kind of fragmentation to it. We are fragmented: our workplaces, our schools, our society. Yet, we must find a way to raise a whole child, one who can meet the future fully, without fear, with an intelligence that can understand and move in new and challenging situations.
Steven Harrison

Monday, September 27, 2004

Carson in KL

I had an enjoyable two nights listening to Prof Don Carson. No, not merely enjoyable - it was a stirring two nights joining the full house crowd at Tropicana taking in a very able exposition of 3 key chapters in Revelation. Missed the third lecture though, because I had to be in Kota Kinabalu. It didn’t seem so long ago that he was here in KL for his lectures on Ezekiel - that was 3 years ago right after Sept 11.

The lectures on Revelation 12 and 13 (missed 14) were excellent. Taking a somewhat circuitous route, he explained what apocalyptic literature was about as he drew lessons for God’s Church today. There were the usual head-scratching references (Dragon! Beast with horns and heads! Woman with wings! War! Blood! 1,260 days! Anti-Christ! 666!) but he deftly sidestepped popular end-times hype (ala LaHaye et al), perhaps not to dignify suspect eschatology with his comments. Yep, not one word, not even an aside.

I’ve always been bugged by the wholesale acceptance of such a misreading of Revelation by so many in the Church (and I am not just referring to the Left Behind series). It’s not an easy book, what with their fantastical symbols and mixed metaphors, I know. We’re so caught up in the imageries and their purported meaning we tend to overlook the focus of history from God’s viewpoint. Sure, one can’t be dogmatic about interpreting the last book of the Bible, but while eminent New Testament scholars keep their options open - about the meaning of 666, Carson looks straight at his audience and says, “I don’t know” - the pre-trib horde corners public consciousness.

After a long day at the office, just sitting through an hour plus of Bible exposition, even by a classy rhetorician like Carson, taxes butt and brain. Not to mention the absolutely messy traffic situation en route that almost made me want to turn back. Real bad jam. Beside me was a woman, Bible on her lap, who couldn’t keep her eyes open. After Carson closed in prayer, she woke with a start and asked her partner, "End already-ah?"

Monday, September 20, 2004

China's Cross

"In 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, 188 western missionaries, and 20,000 Chinese Christians were killed. In the following fifty years, more western missionaries came to China. They established 13 universities, over 6,000 elementary schools and high schools, and more than 900 hospitals. The number of Chinese Christians grew to 700,000. Fifty more years have passed and today there are approximately 70 million Christians in China, an increase of 100 fold." The Cross - Jesus in China
One of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen lately is, The Cross - Jesus in China, a four hour series on the growth of the church in China produced by China Soul For Christ. The four episodes titled The Spring of Life, Seeds of Blood, The Bitter Cup, and The Canaan Hymns, look at the slow but astonishing spread of the gospel in the face of violent persecution in China. Beginning with a brief history of missionary activities in the last century and ending with an episode on the hymns that have defined the soul of the Chinese church, the documentary is literally the book of Acts come alive.

I have always known that God was at work in communist China, but nothing quite prepared me for the vivid images of crowded churches and joyful congregations in villages and cities across that vast country. The inspiring live testimonies and heart-warming stories of faith and perseverance on screen reaffirmed once again Tertullian’s words that the seed of the church is built on the blood of the martyrs. Watching the documentary moved me deeply, leading me to praise God for his grace and faithfulness. You can’t simply take in a documentary like this without examining the state of your heart as well.

Sadly the release of this documentary has drawn the attention of China’s political masters, resulting in a new crackdown. Christianity Today reported that dozens of unregistered church leaders and personalities interviewed in the documentary (and David Aikman’s book Jesus in Beijing) have been arrested. It appears to signal the renewal of a major campaign against the Chinese church, possibly on the scale of the recent brutal repression of Falun Gong.

Talk about authentic Christianity. It does make me wonder about the things that preoccupy Christians in first-world countries and developing nations such as Malaysia. In China, they're living it at the cost of their lives.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Rodger's travels

Rodger Sellers on a fact-finding mission. 12,864 miles later, his blog details snap-shots and impressions of visits to a number of emergent church communities around the U.S. I found this interesting link on Karen's submergence.org blog. Coming from a church with a congregation that fluctuates between 50 and 70, there's so much I can connect with and learn from the church communities Rodger describes.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Eavesdropping on a conversation

Finally made a download purchase of Don Carson’s lectures on the Emergent church movement - US$4.50 - to find out what the fuss is about. TallSkinnyKiwi’s take on the subject is mirrored in some ways in Messy Christian’s blog among others, while Sivin Kit is making plans for a get-together. The ongoing discourse is in a wildly creative flux although the shibboleths of the emerging movement do need some getting used to.

The traditional/institutional/evangelical church - postmodern/network/liquid/emerging church divide has been galvanized somewhat by Carson’s criticisms, and folks are digging in. How the church should confront postmodernism is a conversation that to my mind dates back to the late Francis Schaeffer’s writings. Charles Colson (whose apologetics is shaped by Schaeffer) is himself wary of the church courting postmodernism, and his columns in Christianity Today here and here tell you why. Brian Mclaren’s thoughtful response to Colson touched on truth and relativism, all within a whiff of an epistemological dust-up. Aah, sweet semantics. What McLaren is asking for is the same kind of encouragement that Colson gave to Catholic-Protestant dialogue several years ago: Why not do the same for a church and postmodern conversation, Chuck? Colson's reply? Here's the link to McLaren's website.

The point is, whatever the position, people are talking. Where there’s a 'conversation' (used loosely in normal context and as an emergent vocab) there’s bound to be difficulties because of the emotions invested into the arguments both sides of the divide. Innuendo, nuance, tone, even body language, frequently colour our words (spoken and in print) in ways that are unintentional. Okay, sometimes it’s intentional - harsh, sarcastic, malicious, condescending, etc - but I won’t be the first to cast a stone in anyone’s direction. It’s a delicate situation.

[As an aside, our allegiance to the Word made flesh is evinced in the integrity of words. Our feelings may sometimes be dictated by which side of the bed we get out of, but the word that gives life cannot be deconstructed (after Derrida), amorphous, shifting, or nebulous. Any concession and you’re walking too close to the edge, and - I’m getting out of my depth here - here be dragons!]

The trouble is, whose 'definitions' are we talking about? Hence, gatheringgrace’s Sept 11 blog entry:"I get irritated by the way Traditional Church interprets the Gospels."

Don Carson will be in KL giving a series of public lectures (20 - 22 Sept) from Rev 12 -14. They’re being billed as, “Understanding the church from God's point of view” which should offer a counterpoint to popular end-times hype. But judging from the passionate online exchanges on church and worship, traditional and postmodern, some of us will be paying real close attention to Carson’s talks for other kinds of clues, starting this coming Monday evening.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Cheap buys & online summaries

I have been visiting and buying from Christianbook.com for awhile now. Some time back I bought Mark Noll's Seasons of Grace from the online bookstore at an unbelievable US$0.99! (Okay, it's an old book, but isn't it a steal?) Mark Noll whose Scandal of the Evangelical Mind caused ripples when it was published in 1994 is still a provocative read. Seasons of Grace on the other hand, is a book of intimate poems with several inspired by and dedicated to friends and family. The online bookstore has a bargain section and if you're lucky, you can get good stuff at basement prices, like Mark Noll's.

And for those who aren't so sure about a book, or who can't afford time and/or money on new books, you might want to check out Christian Book Summaries.This is a neat service that offers FREE online summaries of recent titles. They're not condensed versions (like Reader's Digest) but proper summaries that actually run several pages. Great idea, smart marketing. I wonder however, if there could be a downside - instead of drawing readers to purchase a summarised book, it does just the opposite. Dallas Willard, Philip Yancey, and Gene Edward Veith Jr are among recent summaries.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Bali Hai

What an ominous arrival in Bali.

When we touched down Thursday in Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar, the weather was sunny and welcoming. Yet over 500 nautical miles away in Jakarta a deadly bomb blast outside the Australian Embassy took 8 lives and injured almost 200 people, all locals. It was the sort of thing that we were warned about by friends and family when they heard about our company trip to Bali.
"What, Bali? Not scared-ah?"
"Remember the Bali bombing?"
"Isn’t it the anniversary of September 11?"
On TV, the reality of the massive car bomb greeted us with painful displays of its aftermath - mangled bodies, burnt vehicles, shattered windows (from 7 buildings around the embassy, they said, some up to 10 stories) and wailing people in hospitals. After a nearly 3-hour flight from KL to Bali, I said to myself, oh-oh there goes our holiday.

Still, thousands - mainly Aussies and Japanese - thronged popular destinations like Kuta and Ubud without a hint of anxiety. Bomb or no bomb, the livin' is easy when it’s summer all year round. The beach was all bodies and limbs pallid and tan, and the pasar (market) was alive with colour and laughter. Rupiahs exchanged hands in a dozen garbled tongues. Like all the other tourists, we haggled over kitschy gifts, t-shirts and collectibles while our camera clicked away endlessly. In an art gallery, a man asked if we knew about the blast in Jakarta and I said I saw the news on TV. He wanted to know if we were afraid and told us that Bali wasn’t Jakarta.
"Jangan takut ya, orang Bali aman. Disini aman, ya." ("Don’t be afraid, Balinese are peaceful people. It’s peaceful here.")
Indeed I found the Balinese gentle and gracious, on the whole. They expressed embarrassment and some resentment however at the latest assault on their way of life. Our tour guide Asta agreed it was going to affect tourist arrivals. He mentioned the 2002 blast in Paddy’s Bar in Bali’s tourist hotspot Kuta and blamed 'outsiders.'
"It’s not Bali people....how can a chef burn down his own kitchen?"
The majority of Balinese are Hindus (90%) while Islam has about 5% of adherents and Christians less than 2%. Hindu shrines and statues were everywhere. Passing by Nusa Dua, our guide pointed out to a Hindu temple, a Mosque, a Church, and a Buddhist temple standing side-by-side. He told us that locating these places of worship in such proximity was the state government’s way of promoting religious understanding and tolerance. The cynic may scoff at it as nothing more than symbolic, but Asta said the locals in Bali enjoyed a deep sense of community and culture. "Agama lain tetapi wajah sama," ("Our religion is different but we are the same") he added in Bahasa Indonesia.

On the last night, our family had dinner in Jimbaran by the beach among hundreds of nonchalant visitors. It was delightfully cosmopolitan...and reckless, if you were to take the advice of friends who told us to avoid congregating with westerners.

There was a troupe of buskers singing Elvis and Beatles in tight harmony. A few tables from us, it was the Carpenters and the Righteous Brothers. Stopping at a group of Japanese, they broke into a Japanese song while their audience whooped and clapped. Then they sauntered over to our table as we were picking at our grilled snapper.
"Hello guests, where are you from?"
The leader nodded to his mates, said something I didn’t catch, and they sang an old Mandarin hit. Eh what, not a malay song? I thought, and we laughed.

It was windy, not at all humid, and the surf roared relentlessly. In the Bali night sky millions of stars were out like so many pin pricks of light that refused to be subsumed by the darkness.


Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The Teacher Chose Death

A remarkable story of heroism has come out of the the Beslan school-hostage tragedy:
In an act of unlimited devotion and dedication, to the bitter end, an elderly teacher insisted on remaining with his students. He protected them, bandaged their wounds, and with his death, saved their lives.

Children who escaped from the school told of how they owed their lives to elderly Yanis (Ivan) Kanidis, age 74 – a man of Greek origin who worked as a gym teacher at the school. He was among the hundreds of teachers, students and parents taken hostage last week when Chechen rebels invaded the large school.

On Thursday, in what was an unusual humanitarian move in the midst of the horror, the terrorists agreed to allow a group of women and babies to leave the building. The commander of the terrorist squad, saw Kanidis -- a sickly elderly man -- and offered to allow him to walk free as well.

But Kanidis refused. “I will stay with my students till the end,” the teacher insisted.
Read the rest of the story here, which is a translation from the Hebrew press.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Another day, another tragedy

It is possible to avert your eyes, but it is impossible not to be utterly repulsed by the violence visited upon fellow human beings in our neighbourhood and across the globe. Acheh. Darfur. Najaf. Iraq. Gaza. West Bank. Beslan. Another day, another tragedy.

Neil Postman complained how the fragmented juxtaposition of news and frivolous reports (compressed into 60-second sound bytes set in a ‘pseudo-context’) on TV blunt the thrust of reality. Without exposition, you lose the point, and so risk losing sight of what’s significant. It’s all reduced to entertainment, you see.

That was before the age of the Internet.

Now, we’re not only amusing ourselves to death, we are drowning in data. What’s happening today is a massive overload of information in print, sound, and images...undistilled, unfiltered, and inexhaustible, in all their callous abandon (Don’t some people love this excess!) Every catastrophe, decapitation, mutilation, desolation, disintegration, and anguish, numbered and served in heartrending and blood-spattered minutiae.
42 million with HIV/AIDS
8,000 die of AIDS daily
4 million displaced in Sudan
2,500 die daily in Darfur
10 million street children in Africa
34 Shiite militants killed by joint Iraq-US forces
330 killed in Beslan; more than half are children
16 bus passengers in Beersheba killed in double suicide attacks
14 Palestinians killed in Israeli retaliatory attacks
1,041 coalition soldiers dead (919 Americans) in Iraq as at 4 August
425 inmates die in police custody between June 2002 and July 2003 in Malaysia
5,517 snatch thefts in first 5 months of 2004 in Malaysia
3,228 individual robberies in Malaysia in 2003
8,060 violent crimes reported in Malaysia in 2003
Numbers are anonymous. But put a picture to a report, it hits closer home. Add a name to a face, and it’s personal.

On the other hand, you cross a threshold and you just don’t care or don’t want to care anymore. Until it involves yourself, that is. Our capacity to register or process the horror and pain is so seared, can you blame anyone for their indifference? Say, we just want to get on with life, you know. Working memory runs on selective attention, ticking off on a kind of neurological slate what to prioritise, what to retain and what to discard. If the brain were not selective in what it processes, it would be near impossible to maintain sanity. Or live normally.

How does one put some distance between the carnage and one’s own personal space without giving in to compassion fatigue?

Seeking the community's shalom 2

When we seek our community’s shalom, we find ours. When the city prospers, so shall we. In giving we receive. In loving our neighbours, we fulfil the ‘royal law’ of God (Jas 2:8). As Martin Luther said, "God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbours do."

Can you imagine what would happen if we really lived as we preached?

Monday, September 06, 2004

Seeking the community's shalom

Post-home invasion/armed robbery responses vary depending on the seriousness of the encounter. What happened to us is nothing compared to the school-hostage tragedy in Beslan, North-Ossetia, but if I have to list the thoughts running through our minds, they would include the following:
1.Tell church members to be more careful and look out for suspicious characters

2.Fix grilles, security cameras, change locks

3.Hire a security guard

4.Reschedule meetings away from times when the block where we are located is quiet

5.Write to the press and express concern at rising crime rate

6.Speak to the MP of the constituency and demand action

7.Galvanise residents and businesses in the vicinity to consider joint action and mutual support

8.Move into a safer neighbourhood
Listening to a message from Jeremiah 29 Sunday was timely as it spoke to the trauma some of us suffered last Merdeka weekend. I think it was God telling us to look beyond our fears and personal security to meet larger and similar needs of the community.

Jeremiah’s word from God to the exiles was that the people were going to be in for the long haul. No quick repatriation, whatever the yearning for Jerusalem. Instead of merely waiting to return to their homeland, they were told to seek the welfare of Babylon: build houses, marry, have babies, plant, work – the sort of things you do when you put down roots. "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

The Hebrew word that the NIV translates as ‘peace and security’ is shalom (NASB - welfare). It’s a word with no English language equivalent encompassing peace, security, completeness, tranquility, safety, well-being, welfare, wholeness, etc.

I think all of the above measures bear consideration, but #3 seems a little excessive and #8 doesn’t seem right. Point #2 is a given, but where does caution end and paranoia begin? We are a small congregation after all. Yet, we’ve got to seek the ‘shalom’ of our community. We would be remiss if we cut and run at the first sign of trouble or inconvenience. If the church is to be a ‘city on the hill’ (Philip Ryken), salt and light, it will mean taking the hard decision and staying where the need is.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Radical church

When our church was robbed a week ago, you can imagine what everyone was thinking about: security, grilles, locks, etc. Someone suggested we move since the neighbourhood was getting kinda unsafe. I mean, how would you feel if you were one of the eighteen who had to face three men brandishing foot-long parangs?

A friend who read my blog at xanga had this to say:
"Personally, I would rather have an open church (like those shrines by the roadside) with no valuables to worry about, where people can come in anytime to pray and seek God (and counsel?). One that is filled with all sorts of expensive equipment and decoration may appeal to church members but not a troubled stranger, drug addict, or social misfit who’s looking for an answer from God. But I guess it would be most difficult to change the present church culture into something so radical."
Hmm, churches that are merely meeting places, devoid of ‘things’ and maybe ‘emblems’ too. Well, this one did not stop 3 troubled but armed strangers from walking through our doors anyhow! I'm not sure about churches being like 'shrines' but there’s real merit in having simple premises: less ostentatious, not showy, but functional. Then there’s Roger who wrote this in his blog:
"Churches, themselves, are not cool. House churches are not cool. Traditional churches are not cool. Emerging churches are not cool. Mega-churches are not cool. Seeker churches are not cool. Cell group churches are not cool. Churches with buildings are not cool. Churches without buildings are not cool. We have such a human tendency toward unhealthy self-centeredness that we want to take our human expressions of God's grace and admire the human aspects of them. Churches are not cool.

We are the church. How we express the church, or "do" church, or gather, or build, or worship when we gather, doesn't make it any better. How we be the church, today, ourself, is the only point. How we, as humans, reflect the wonder and grace and beauty of God, and point to Him, and let Him express His glory through our weakness and brokeness, is the point. God's grace seen is the point. God's redemptive work displayed through us is the point. God's Kingdom revealed is the point."