Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gratitude for 2013

There is so much to be grateful for in this year. This is not to say that there wasn't time of mourning, disappointment, confusion, and anxiousness. There were. Nonetheless the year has to be concluded by thanking God for all the good things that have happened.

First, it has been a year of adjusting to married life. There were happy times as well as times when we argued over petty misunderstanding. And the amusing part is when grievance is over, we can look into the past and laugh away those silly quarrels. For all the experiences, I give thanks to God.

Second, I am grateful for the well-being of my family members in Malaysia. I didn't get to visit them as often as I wanted to. I constantly ask God to provide for my family as my contribution to them is insufficient. God has been faithful. My father has decided to join back the work force after having rested for 2 years. God has provided him a managerial role that oversees the logistic operation in a British company. My brother and sister have graduated and are now working. My mother's health has been good. So my parents do not need to support any of their children anymore. Grateful for God's provision for all these years.

Third, my friends have always been around and well. I thank God for all of them. As I am a more introverted person, I don't have many friends, but God has blessed me with 6 close ones (including my wife). These are people whom I can be vulnerable to. They are people whom I trust. The present age is re-defining "friendship" through social network technology such as Facebook. People think that friends are those on your Facebook's "friend" list. I work with youths and young adults, and this is a concern. Young people should be more savvy with social network technology. The form of virtual "friendship" promoted by social network website is not real. Real friends are those who know us and desire to spend time with us face-to-face. Such desire means that they like to be around you. They have such desire even though they have thousands of things to do on their daily diary. This real gesture is ontologically irreplaceable by social network technology. For this reason, I don't even wish "Happy Birthday" to those on my Facebook list. And likewise, I don't indicate my birth date on it. 5 birthday wishes from those dear to me are much more meaningful than getting spammed by 200 wishes on my Facebook timeline. Therefore I was very happy to receive birthday wishes from the few close friends. And I celebrate their birthday by meeting up to eat and laugh together. God knows that I need friends, and God has provided. 

Fourth, earlier this year, Yale University's Center for Faith & Culture's Singapore Institute graciously sponsored my participation in their 5-days conference on Christian-Muslim relation. It was a marvelous learning experience. There were representatives from the region's religious organizations for the program. I have learnt much from my fellow participants. It was also the first time I met Christopher Choong, a sociologist from Malaysia, after having corresponded over emails and Facebook all this while. He is also one of the contributors in The Bible and the Ballot.

Fifth, I received scholarship from Cambridge University to attend their summer school on inter-faith issues. It was a great experience to study at one of the top universities in the world. I vividly remember the moment I first saw Cambridge on the bus. My heart was filled with so much joy that I couldn't stop thanking God for the opportunity. David Ford, the Regius Professor of Divinity, gave me a ride to the Madingley Hall, where the program was held. Jews, Christians, and Muslims spent 3 weeks learning, engaging, eating, and living together. (The photo above was taken by Sarah Whittle when we visited Cambridge's Selwyn College, where Prof. Ford is a Fellow.) I also took the opportunity to visit my good friend Nathanael Goh and his wife at Durham University. Nathanael is currently pursuing his doctorate there. After the summer school, my wife flew to meet me. We spent the next 2 weeks traveling around London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. All these are possible only because of God who have blessed us through scholarship and friends' love gift.

Sixth, my second co-edited book Christianity and Citizenship is published in electronic form recently. The introduction reads: "[The book] is a follow-up series to The Bible & the Ballot that focuses on Christians’ participation as citizens. Like the previous series, the present one is also a collective effort by Christians from different parts of the theological spectrum. Six writers weigh in on topics ranging from governance to education, political movements to the gospel, as well as things that often go unspoken and avoided."

To God, in gratitude.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Reflection: God plays Lego so that Jean-Paul Sartre may receive life

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When I was a kid, I received Christmas present from my parents every year. But if you ask me if I remember what they gave me each year, I can only say that I remember one. It was a Lego set. I simply don’t have any impression of other presents. So, what’s so special about the Lego set? 

There are two kinds of presents in this world. One kind is an end in itself. For example, chocolate is an end in itself; you eat it and that’s it. The other kind of present is not an end in itself; it leads to new possibility. Lego set is the second kind. From one set of Lego bricks, we can build castle, ship, cars, animals, robots, towns, and islands. It fires up our imagination. We can bring an entire imaginary world into existence. 

I like to think that God’s gift of Jesus Christ for us is the second kind of present. He is like a Lego set. He is the divine present that leads to new possibility for the world. During one Christmas, a Jewish family went shopping in the mall. The young son in the family saw a beautiful Christmas tree and was fascinated by it. He turned to his father and asked, “Daddy, why can’t we have a Christmas tree in our house?” The father very gently said, “Jewish house cannot have Christmas tree.” Then the little boy thought for a while and then replied, “Daddy, why did we buy a Jewish house?” 

While the young boy in the story thought that Christmas is just another holiday with decorated tree, his father knew very well the symbol behind the festivity: It is about the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world. The Almighty came in human flesh. And to the non-Christian religious Jews, this is blasphemous. Yet, this is what Christmas is about. 

What Christmas stands for is not only a blasphemy to the Jews, but it is also a threat to the rest. Jean-Paul Satre was a household name in France in the 1960s. He was a national hero partly due to his works in philosophy, particularly his contribution to the school of thought called ‘existentialism’. Sartre provides the definitive character for existentialism with his famous slogan “existence precedes essence”. When he died, there were about 50,000 people attended his funeral held at Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. (Something that is very unlikely to happen for a philosopher in Singapore.) Sartre remains the father-figure for many existentialists today. 

In Sartre’s big book Being and Nothingness, he talks about how other people are a threat to us. He gives the example that we are most absorbed in ourselves, true to our own nature, when we stalk at other people through a keyhole. We are so preoccupied peeping at how people behave, gossip, laugh, and live their lives that we are not conscious of our own shame anymore. Yet, in the midst of us looking through the keyhole, suddenly we hear a noise behind us. It appears that another person is stalking us! At such realization, suddenly we feel threatened. We feel ashamed. Other people are threatening! (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness [UK: Routledge, 2003], 282-284.) In his popular play No Exit, Sartre wrote that, “Hell is other people.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays [USA: Vintage, 1989], 45.) May be because of this reason, Sartre doesn’t believe in God. Having the divine ‘Other’ looking at how we live at every moment throughout our life is a terrifying threat to our human nature. As if that is not enough, God became one of us to sneer at us, showing us how far off we have been from God’s standard. Christmas, in this sense, is a threat. 

However, that is not all there is. It is precisely because God became one of us through Jesus that we have the assurance that God truly knows us. And despite all our guilt and shame, God died for us. And because of this, we received new life in Jesus. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) 

There was a mother with her three children went for Christmas shopping. As she was alone, she had a very difficult time watching the three kids while at the same time trying to shop for all the presents on her list. The three children were nagging at her, wanting every toy on the shelves. So the mother spent the whole day juggling between watching her kids and shopping. She was fed up. At the end of the day, when she took the crowded lift to go to the basement carpark, she sighed aloud and aired her frustration, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be arrested and hang!” Then someone in the lift replied quietly, “Madam, I believe they have crucified that guy.” 

Living through life can cause us frustration. We get that in our work and in our relationship with other people, and may be also in our Christmas shopping. Sometimes, like the frustrated mother in the story, we are too caught up with what we set up for ourselves to do and lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. Let us not forget, amidst our festive busyness, that Christmas is the new life that God has given us through Christ. Through Him, we have new approach to deal with our work. Through Him, we have new way to relate to other people. Through Him, there is new life. That is God’s ‘Lego bricks’ for the world. 

Therefore, what Christmas stands for is about Jesus’ birthday and our birthday. Because of Jesus’ birthday, all of us have a new birthday, a new possibility, a new future. We may not be able to choose which family should we born into, which country should we born into, how do we want to be born as. But because of Jesus’ birthday, we can now choose to be born into a new life in Him. Christmas, like Lego bricks, opens up the possibility of new life for us. Like how Rowan Williams said it, “He comes to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God.” 

We may dislike our life, with the flaws and shortcomings in our nature. We may be terrified by the ever-presence of God looking at our every movement. Yet Christmas brings about the possibility that despite all this we can have new life. A life touched by divine love that is completely renewed by what Jesus has done for us. A life that welcomes every existentialist to receive.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: 'A Gentle Touch: Christians and Mental Illness' by John Ting

This book seeks to address the common issues surrounding mental illness from the perspective of a Christian pastor. The 5 areas discussed are psychosis, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, addictions, and self-care.

In his introductory chapter, John lays out his assumption of human being and his approach to healing/remedy for mental illness. Humans are regarded as multi-dimensional being. Our composition is not simply physical but also emotional, mental, psychological, social and spiritual. These dimensions are mutually affecting one another. For this reason, John advocates a holistic approach for healing that combines psychiatry, psychotherapy, pastoral and communal care. By including the spiritual dimension in his framework, John is caution that there should not be any imposition of one’s Christian faith to the client. Following this, John sets the dynamic between prayers and medicine on the understanding that “God is the source of healing.” Therefore those who are struggling with mental illness should continue to prayer while at the same time seek after medical/psychological treatment. This is a holistic framework.

The book’s second chapter deals with the discerning between demon possession and schizophrenia. The suggestion he gives is to approach such cases with an open mind, without excluding either possibilities. On one hand, symptoms of being possessed may be the result of delusional behaviour. On the other hand, behavioural disorder may be due to possession. Sometimes, it could be a combination of both. John helpfully suggests that a way to diagnose which is which is by investigating the client’s history, whether did the person participate in demonic or occult activity in the past. “If things occult and temple are absent but emotional traumas, failures and disappointments in life have occurred, the more likely the disorders are due to mental illness.”

The third chapter on mood disorder highlights the legitimacy for Christians to take antidepressant. Seeking therapy and medical course does not make a Christian less dependent on God as all healing comes from Him. John points out that mood disorder such as depression is caused by our body’s dysfunction, very much like other physical illnesses. Therefore medicine can regulate the biochemical balance in the body. In some cases, those with clinical depression may have to depend on antidepressant their whole life. To John, “God may choose to heal miraculously in answer to faith and prayer,” and if He so desire, “He also heals through medication and therapy.”

In the same chapter, John shares about his own journey of going through clinical depression. For a long period of time during the depression, he felt unproductive and procrastinated a lot. Due to the stress that weighing him down, at one point he considered suicide. It was through medication and an extended time of spiritual exercises such as prayer, reflection, and fasting that he managed to be healed from it.

The next chapter deals with anxiety disorder. John notes that “anxiety has a large cognitive component.” As such, the spiritual resources in Christianity such as God’s sovereignty and faithfulness in providing, caring, and loving His children can help to deal with anxiety. Yet, that also depends on whether is the person’s anxiety caused by “cognitive, voluntary component” or “emotional, involuntary component.” If it is the latter, then medication and therapy may be needed before the spiritual guidance is given. For this reason, counsellors and pastors need “wisdom and sensitivity to discern whether the presence of crisis, anxiety and stress mean it is not an appropriate time to inculcate a biblical worldview or it is an opportunity to learn experientially God’s sovereignty and faithfulness.”

Chapter five addresses the issue of addiction. John distinguishes 2 types of addiction. The first type is addiction is with objects that are sinful such as obsession with pornography and drug abuse. These by themselves are “intrinsically sinful.” The second type is addiction with objects that are not sinful such as alcohol, computer games and Facebook. We can consume or use them in moderation. In any case, the starting point to break an addiction is by confession and repentance. It is only through the power of Christ that one can be fully rehabilitated from these vices. I think John could discuss more on diagnosing the causes for addiction, which will help to pinpoint the cause of it in order to begin the healing process from there.

The last chapter is dedicated to discuss self-care as a way to avoid burnout. John differentiates burnout from stress where the former is characterised by disengagement and lethargic while the latter is over-engagement and anxiety disorder. Steps of prevention are recommended as burnout is often unnoticeable when it happens. These steps are self-education, participate in support group, know our own limits, accept our feelings, and confide in others. The last of them is the best defence against burnout.

This book is not only instructional but biographical. Besides sharing his thoughts and experience, John has included the personal story of others who have suffered from mental illness. I find this combination of theory and stories enhances my understanding of the issues on and remedy for mental illness with more vividness. Whether we agree with him or not in his diagnosis and suggestion, we need to listen to his exhortation to remove the stigma of mental illness in the church. “There are clinically depressed brothers and sisters in our churches who are active in some form of ministry. Most are afraid to let others know about it for fear of rejection and being judged untrusting and lacking in faith when this is probably not  so.” It would be very unfortunate if Christians with mental illness do not find it safe even in their church to talk about these matters. Thanks to John for this short yet urgent reminder.