Monday, July 30, 2012

Who am I in this messy world?

We are in a mess of relationships with people, things and circumstances. While managing many different expectations and demands (physical, intellectual and emotional) in the life of work, social and family, we get tired and lethargic.

This morning, I had to start my day with a song to remind me of who I am in the midst of all these.

[E]ach one of us is already in a relationship with God before we've ever thought about it. [...] every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they're in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn't make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don't know what will.
(Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief [USA: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007], p.35.)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

For Christian market analyst: What's the meaning of your job??

(The following is a reflection that I wrote for 22nd July 2012 church bulletin.)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:10-12)

A couple of weeks ago I met an old friend at a wedding. Like all meetings with old friends, we catch up with each other by asking about what are we doing. He told me that he is currently working as an analyst at a major investment bank (which I shall not name). I told him that I’m now working in the pastorate. Hearing that, my friend said that his job doesn’t have the sort of meaning-fullness compared to mine. I asked him why so?

He replied that his daily job is all about analysing and designing investment products that generate profit for his company’s clients. He doesn’t see any godly value in his job except the interest in making money, which has to do with capitalizing and promoting greediness in his industry. His job is not like the pastorate that helps people connect with the values in life and live faithfully for God.  

I looked at my friend and nodded in acknowledgement of his sense of meaninglessness in his work. The marketplace is about making profit. This is the reality that we who live in the urban city experience. Those in the pastorate also experience this reality in one way or another. We live in the same economic system. Our daily spending and earning are inevitably done through the same system. However, it is understandable that this experience is much amplified for those, like my friend, who are in the business of creating wealth for others. Nonetheless I think there is something more to this experience.  

In 2009 there were 12 academicians gathered at the Royal Society of Edinburgh Conference Centre for a symposium discussing the works of Adam Smith, the guy who is known to have provided the framework for our modern economy system. Part of the discussion at the symposium was about the moral and theological values that underlie Smith’s works. One political scientist remarked at the symposium,

“…Smith views the market as a divine regulation of human sinfulness and an instrument to serve God’s providential plan. Indeed, the ‘invisible hand of the market’ represents a nominalist realm where human cooperation intersects with divine providence, blending self-interest with the public commonweal.”[i]

Smith himself commented that, “By pursuing [our] own interest [we] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when [we] really intends to promote it.” (The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II)

The market is envisioned by Smith as God’s instrument to promote the society’s good. However, wealth creation may not always be good when it is pursued for its own end. Pursuing wealth for its own sake is a manifestation of greed, if not a sense of false security. Money has the characteristic of God in promising us a secured future. Money in tangible ways builds nations out of its promises. As my market analyst friend said, “The economy of every country is built on credit.”  Or, as how a philosopher puts it, “Money produces nothing---not even desire. It gives credit. It appeals to the future. To put it another way, it prays.”[ii] In theological language, money has eschatology dimension. The power of money is undeniable. Whether is it a power “of this dark world” remains a question each of us need to face and struggle with. Have we set money to be the god who secures our future?

There are evil forces roaming the world that corrode whatever means to godliness. The market may be envisioned to deliver “public commonweal”, yet it is also subjected to the enticement of these forces. Besides, as John Calvin has cautioned us that, “Our human nature is like a factory that never stops producing idols.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book One: 11.8) If we are not strengthened in the Lord and His mighty power, if we do not put on the full armour of God, we are hopeless in our struggle against idolatry, in this case the dark forces in the ambivalent world of economics that we live in. So, whose side are we at?

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

This is as much a reminder to my friend as well as to me. In this ambivalent world, we should not lose sight of whose side we are at. Perhaps the godly value and meaningfulness in my friend’s job is in his resistance to subject himself to dark forces in the market. And by doing that, he is connecting with godly values and living faithfully for God, while being a light for others, not least me, to do the same.   

[i] Adrian Pabst, ‘From Civil to Political Economy: Adam Smith’s Theological Debt,’ in Adam Smith as Theologian, ed. Paul Oslington (New York: Routledge, 2011), p.107
[ii] Philip Goodchild, Theology of Money (USA: Duke University Press, 2009), p.69.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to decide which (pastoral?) job to take?

It has been one and a half month since I started working in the pastorate. Who would have guessed that the first job that I take up after graduation is pastoral work. That was not in my mind when I enrolled into theological education. 

Just a few weeks ago one of my seniors from Trinity Theological College, who is in the same denomination as I am, told me that he was surprised to know that I have joined the pastorate. Besides him, there were other friends who were similarly surprised when they got the news. This testifies to the unexpectedness felt not only by myself but also by my peers that I am doing what I am doing. Major part of the reason that I was open to consider serving in the pastorate was due to the two essays I wrote while at theological college. One was on the importance of ecclesiology. The other was on the political theology and life of Karl Barth, the great Reformed theologian who spent twelve years in the pastorate before assuming his professorial position.

How I landed on my current job is not without much consideration. I was earnestly seeking, fearfully praying and discerningly going through interviews with six Christian organizations in Singapore between the end of April to the end of May before I came to my decision. One of them was Brethren, one independent Evangelical, one Methodist, and three Presbyterians. There were also two Presbyterian churches in Malaysia that have graciously corresponded with me over the possibility of working there. 

How did I decide among them? Here is my experience which I hope may be beneficial to the readers.

First, I had to see which was the least logistically troublesome for my family in the immediate foreseeable future. For this reason, I had to pick a job in Singapore although I would really love to work in Malaysia.

Second, just as my interviewers (who were my potential superiors) evaluated me to discern whether would they enjoy working with me or not, I had to evaluate them in the same way. Some of them googled me and read my blog prior to the interview. Some requested to add me on Facebook so that they can browse through my Facebook personality. I of course did the same with them. However, my personal evaluation was not enough. So I asked around to find out about them. And the critical part in this matter was to discern among the different impressions I gathered from those I consulted.

Third, given that I was deciding which Christian organization to work in, I had to discern the theological dynamics between me and the interviewers. This was very important exercise because I took theology seriously. I cannot join an organization or work with superiors who do not prioritize theological education. This does not mean that we have to have 100% theological convergence. Such is rare if exists at all. Rather, it means we share the same vision for formal theological education and placed similar degree of priority in it. Only by this that my presence in the organization will add value to it, while the organization will continue to provide platform for me to grow and so add value to me.

Fourth, I had to be honest to the interviewers about my long term plan. At each interview, I shared with my potential employers that I have given myself ten years to serve in the pastorate before deciding to teach in the capacity of a lecturer in university or theological college.

Fifth, I had to discern together with my family to see which organization is best for us to settle in and to grow together.

These five areas were all equal in importance. 

After I have filtered through the options, I was left with two choices. Although both were Presbyterian organizations, yet the jobs were very different. One was more of administrative at the policy-making level, while the other was more of pastoral work at ground level among congregation members. I liked both of them equally.

Besides attended interviews, I have also participated in the activities organized by both to get more exposure to their work in real time. Both parties have prayed along with me in that critical period. For two weeks I was torn between the two. And the decisive factors that helped me to choose between them were... dreams and hymn.

In the early morning of 23rd of May, Wednesday, around 3am, I was awakened by a series of consecutive dreams of the organization that offers me pastoral work. (Possibly that was due to a forty minute long chat that I had with one of the influential senior member of that organization during the day.) And very strangely that when I awoke, the hymn 'Take my life and let it be' was ringing over my ears. That was strange because I had not listen to that hymn nor sing it for a long time. (I don't have the habit of listening to Christian songs and hymns.) 

I knew that that was not how decision should be made (based on dreams and hymns), yet the occurence helped me to see what my vocational preference was. I couldn't fall back to sleep. So I sat up and wrote an email to the interviewers of the organization, informing them of my decision to join them. Then I went back to sleep again. And when I woke up at about 8am, another hymn was ringing in my ears. This time was Charles Wesley's 'And can it be that I should gain'. Strange!

When simplified, one can say that my decision to serve in the pastorate is shaped by much prayers, much discernment, familial concerns, two essays, a series of dreams (which may be caused by a phone call) and a hymn... Of course there was a sense of calling too. But that will be another story which goes back to year 2000 or 2001.

Is any of these also part of your consideration when you were at a crossroad between jobs? What are the other areas that you think are important which are missing in the list?

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Illustration on misreading

We know that words change their meaning over time (and place). For example when we read the word 'unicorn' in the King James Version of the Bible (Numbers 23:22, 24:8), we immediately think of a horse-like creature with horn on its head. 

However, in the 16th/17th century, the word 'unicorn' in the KJV is transliterated from the word used in the Latin Vulgate, unicornis, which means 'beast with a horn'. Therefore contemporary translations of the Bible such as the NIV replace 'unicorn' with 'wild ox'.

So sometimes when we read the Bible, regardless which translation, we impose the present meaning of a word onto the same word used in the past. D. A. Carson called this 'semantic anachronism'. (See his Exegetical Fallacies [USA: Baker Books, Second Edition, 1996], pp.33-35.)

Here's a picture to illustrate this form of hermeneutic: