Thursday, December 23, 2004

Love's sweetest mark

Caught up with Alvin and Huey Fern who are back from Vancouver for Christmas and the new year. Had a great lunch at Sri Melaka and naturally, among other things, our conversation turned to food. Malaysians abroad miss local food most, so everyone agrees. Alvin’s currently into patristic writings and counts his visits to monasteries to be among his most memorable this year. I hope we’ll have time to talk some more before they head back to Canada.

Christmas is almost upon us as I write. As a kind of resolution early this year I told myself not to use the word ‘busy’, ever, so while there’s been a lot to do, God has been faithful (my occasional bad mood notwithstanding) . There’s a pleasant kind of stimulation, a sort of buzz, sweet and tingly. I love Christmas and I don’t mind at all the many things that tend to converge during the season. The family meets tomorrow evening and there’ll be much to rejoice and thank God for when we all come together – brothers, sisters, our children, Mom and Dad – all twenty-one of us.

Here’s a poem by Robert Southwell (1561 ~ 1595) that I first came across in the Lion Book of Christian Poetry. Bought the book in 1985, and Southwell's poem is easily one of my favourites (this compilation did not feature the full poem though but I’ve got the complete version below).

Have a Blessed and Merry Christmas!

Let folly praise that fancy loves, I praise and love that Child,
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand no deed defiled.
I praise Him most, I love Him best, all praise and love are His;
While Him I love, in Him I live, and cannot live amiss.
Love's sweetest mark, laud's highest theme, man's most desired light,
To love Him life, to leave Him death, to live in Him delight.
He mine by gift, I His by debt, thus each to other due.
First friend He was, best friend He is, all times will try Him true.

Though young yet wise, though small yet strong; though man yet God He is;
As wise He knows, as strong He can, as God He loves to bless.
His knowledge rules, His strength defends, His love doth cherish all;
His birth our joy, His life our light, His death our end of thrall.
Alas! He weeps, He sighs, He pants, yet do His angels sing;
Out of His tears, His sighs and throbs, doth bud a joyful spring.
Almighty Babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Merry Xmas 2

Now it seems the 'informal ban' is nothing but a big misunderstanding:
Following talk of an "informal ban" on Christian symbols and hymns at the open house, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim today said no such restrictions were placed on the organisers.

"There is no ban issued officially or unofficially. I am personally overseeing the whole event," said Rais who will be at the full rehearsal on Dec 23.

"There is nothing wrong in singing songs such as Silent Night and Merry Christmas. These are joyous songs sang for the festival," he said in an interview.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Merry Xmas

It’s the silly season, and it kicked off with this bit of news from down under:
The lord mayor of Australia's largest city was under fire Friday over a decision to limit spending on Christmas celebrations, a move some critics see as an attempt to avoid offending non-Christian immigrant communities.

Christians have decried the trend to play down the importance of the season as anything other than a time of consumerism and overindulgence, with all references to the Christian message removed.
Then this news item about a kindergarten in Oregon caught my eye:
Kindergartners at a public school in Oregon were invited to bring cards to a Christmas party, but a teacher barred one student from distributing his holiday greeting because it mentioned Jesus Christ, prompting a lawsuit filed yesterday.

The Gresham-Barlow district near Portland said Justin Cortez could not distribute the Christmas card because it would violate district policies prohibiting school officials from promoting one religion over another and advocating a particular religious position.

The Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice filed the case on behalf of 6-year-old Justin and his mother Julie Cortez.
I don't think it's any surprise considering this has been going on for some years. Still, all these hint at more things to come, so it was interesting to know that at least in Arizona the Alliance Defense Fund has a pamphlet that explains a Christian's first amendment rights in the US. It's pretty tragic if you need something like this to tell folks it's okay to say Merry Christmas regardless of legal threats from the ACLU.

But what happens when the marginalisation of Christmas rears its ugly head in KL as reported in this recent news item?
The government has imposed an unofficial ban on all Christian religious symbols and hymns that specifically mention Jesus Christ at a national-level Christmas do slated for Dec 25 in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, said several church leaders.

Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God while Islam teaches believers that he is a prophet.

Kuala Lumpur-based Catholic Research Centre director Rev Father OC Lim has lodged a formal complaint with the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), the government’s liaison partner in organising the open house event that is expected to draw a crowd of between 30,000 and 40,000.

In a strongly-worded letter to CFM dated Nov 24, he stated his objections to the organisers’ “explicit and deliberate exclusion and prohibition” to include any Christmas carols bearing the name of Jesus Christ.

“To exclude (such) carols and to use (Christmas) for political gain is outrageous, scandalous and sacrilegious,” he said when met today.

Lim was more upset that church leaders had “condoned and sanctioned” the organisers’ decision despite the Holy Scripture proclaiming Jesus’s name as being “above all other names”.
I’m supposed to be mature enough to understand why it's inevitable without getting hot and bothered, but I am hot and bothered.

It’s one thing to rationalize it away as the PC thing to do in the interest of religious sensitivities, but where do you draw the line? The reality is, Malaysia has ordinances and laws that are used to prosecute those who insult Islam or hurt the sensitivities of Muslims.

In view of this, shouldn't Christians agree to keep their views out of the marketplace and the public square - to the extent of compromise even in public religious gatherings sanctioned by the authorities? 1 Peter 2:17 calls on believers to, "Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king." The question is, how do you make sense of of this injunction and give it public expression without selling out your faith?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Foot-in-the-Mouth Quote #1

The government will not investigate a US report which said a man with the same name as Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was involved in an oil scam with the former Iraqi regime. In the words of Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar:

“There is no truth in the allegation, so why should we investigate?”


Wednesday, December 08, 2004

DVD blues

This bit of news is supposed to make me feel good:
Toshiba claimed yesterday to have developed the first DVD that is capable of playing both conventional and high-definition content, in the latest move in the race for the next generation of optical discs. (Read more)
Almost 8 years after I bought my first DVD player, the industry is ready to move on. Okay, they have a transitional machine for folks like me whose movie library is going to be history before you can say "betamax."

In some sense it's weird, having lived through the VHS, LD, VCD (this one doesn't really count) and DVD revolutions. All in one lifetime. Of course, there's more to come.

I mean where music is concerned, I went through vinyl EPs and LPs, cassettes (and cartridges), CDs, skipped MIDIs, and now we're into MP3, and whatever digital soup tech industry barons are serving up. Last night I was in Jusco looking at CD trays and wondering if I ought to get a couple of them. Ethan chipped in saying, "Erm Dad, we're into iPods and downloads now."

Yeah, right.

That's how prophetic Negroponte's Being Digital is - we're moving away from atoms and molecules into a world of bits and bytes. You can read selected bits of his book online here.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Petition against terror

Now this is a positive development in an otherwise bloody civilisational clash. Arab News carried a news item in its Oct 30 edition headlined, Stop Terror Sheikhs, Muslim Academics Demand.
Over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries have signed a petition to the United Nations calling for an international treaty to ban the use of religion for incitement to violence.

It also calls on the Security Council to set up a tribunal to try “the theologians of terror.” The petition is addressed to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and to all members of the Security Council and its current chairman.

“There are individuals in the Muslim world who pose as clerics and issue death sentences against those they disagree with,” says Shakir Al-Nablusi, a Jordanian academic and one of the signatories. “These individuals give Islam a bad name and foster hatred among civilizations.”
Read the Arab News article here.
Read the complete petition in English in Middle East Transparent website

Apparently you can add your name too.

Bush = Osama?

LT Jeyachandran of RZIM (Singapore) visits for two evening talks at our church mid-December. In the last two years, we have had to abort a couple of previous engagements due to this and that, so I’m looking forward to his visit this time now that it’s on. He’s scheduled to speak on the relevance of Jesus in a pluralistic society, and Evil & Suffering. Two tough subjects.

Regarding pluralism, the issue we are dealing with is not that pluralism as a value is wrong - only when it is offered as an ideology that’s to be desired, and therefore by necessity levels every thought and truth-claim as if they possess no distinctives. Alister McGrath in his paper (Jesus:The Only Way?) is right when he wrote that it’s a “small step from essentially political judgment concerning toleration to the theological declarations that all religions are the same.” (The Truth About Jesus edited by Donald Armstrong)

That of course is what’s happening today, and that is why exclusive claims to truth are usually shouted down as unacceptable and divisive. Them are fighting words. Tolerance is usually what’s pulled out of the bag to defend pluralism. But are all ideas equal? Should all religions be treated on the same footing?

Aisehman quotes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who takes offense at the Left Behind series ugly send-off of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Agnostics, etc into everlasting fire:
“If Saudi Arabians wrote an Islamic version of this series we would furiously demand that sensible Muslims repudiate such hate-mongering. We should hold ourselves to the same standard.”
I am no fan of La Haye and Jenkins but you can see what the fuss is all about. Aisehman’s response to a comment I made asked:
“And just as George Bush is acting out of conviction borne and underpinned by his faith, so is Osama bin Laden. Care to show me any fundamental difference between these two fundamentalists?”

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Einstein's Dreams

A random find, a serendipitous gem, pulled out of a tightly packed shelf in a Pay Less Bookstore. Yes, I frequent that store once too often, like a junkie returning again and again for his fix. But this is an amazing book and I lose myself in the mesmerizing imageries drawn out of Einstein’s thoughts on space and time.

I am talking about Alan Lightman’s 1993 book – his first – called, Einstein’s Dreams. Lightman teaches physics and writing at M.I.T, which probably explains his precise prose and deft touch. His words have the feel of a stone skipping on water. It is a beautiful book, and Salman Rushdie is right to compare it to Italo Calvino’s whimsical Invisible Cities. Nevertheless I think Lightman’s book is the more fascinating, giving voice to humanity’s fears, vanity, and hopes grappling with worlds gone out of whack.

What is it like to live in a word where cause and effect are erratic? In the dreams of Einstein:
Most people have learned how to live in the moment. The argument goes that if the past has uncertain effect on the present, there is no need to dwell on the past. And if the present has little effect on the future, present actions need not be weighed for their consequences. Rather, each act is an island in time, to be judged on its own. Families comfort a dying uncle not because of a likely inheritance, but because he is loved at that moment. Employees are hired not because of their resumes, but because of their good sense in interviews. Clerks trampled by their bosses fight back at each insult, with no fear for their future. It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity.
Imagine possible worlds constructed out of different kinds of time! Although Einstein is referred to, the man is a mere visitor in the book, traipsing through the weird but wonderful vistas that are a homage to his ideas. Very clever and evocative. Some passages are suggestive of the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg (I think of the 'Wreck of the Zephyr') or the pointillism of Seurat (eg 'Sunday Afternoon'). Then you turn the page and you’re smack in the middle of a swirling current captured in bullet-time slo-mo photography (like Neo’s climactic fight with Agent Smith in the Matrix), or dodging buildings that are being rearranged at uncommon speed (like Alex Proyas' Dark City). Intriguing. Here’s another excerpt:
Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.

A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse of the ocean. A woman standing on a balcony at dawn, her hair down, her loose sleeping silks, her bare feet, her lips. The curved arch of the arcade near the Zahringer Fountain on Kramgrasse, sandstone and iron. A man sitting in the quiet of his study, holding the photograph of a woman, a pained look on his face. An osprey framed in the sky, its wings outstretched, the sun rays piercing between feathers. A young boy sitting in an empty auditorium, his heart racing as if he were on stage. Footprints in snow on a winter island. A boat on the water at night, its lights dim in the distance, like a small red star in the black sky.
Lightman's book has a way of making you think about the consequences of time. You go away a little more contemplative, a lot more appreciative of the time you have been given.