Saturday, December 30, 2006

Christmas Greetings: East Timor PM to Osama

East Timor's Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, sent a message of peace and goodwill via the BBC to Osama bin Laden. Ramos-Horta won a Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resistance to the Indonesian occupation of his tiny homeland, which won its independence in 1999 in a U.N.-sponsored ballot. Listen to his message here.

ON this occasion when we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, my words, words of peace, are sent to my brother somewhere in the mountains, in the caves, of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Osama bin Laden. Yes, I consider you to be a brother.

We share some common beliefs, beliefs that come from God the Almighty, that teach us about love and compassion. Yes, there are some differences between yourself, my brother Osama bin Laden, and myself. The differences are that while you seem to have a profound resentment towards those who have done centuries of harm to Muslims, and today to Palestinians - I do understand those grievances - and yet I fail to understand why you carry this resentment, this anger, on to attacking innocent civilians, and that includes also Arabs and Muslims who do not share your vision of Islam.

I come from a small country, East Timor, that was invaded by the largest Muslim country in the world. I lost brothers and sisters, yet I do not hate one single Muslim, I do not hate one single Indonesian. That's the only difference between you and me, my brother Osama bin Laden. I beg you to rethink and extend your love, your solidarity, your friendship, the same ones you feel about Palestinians, extend to the rest of the world, extend to Europeans, to Christians. You will then win them over that way, more than through hatred and violence. I thank you, may God Almighty and Merciful, bless us all.

If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us.

Hermann Hesse

C. S. Lewis writing just after the second world war.

says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. "That sort of talk makes them sick," they say. And half of you already want to ask me, "I wonder how'd you feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?"

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you ... what I could do--I can do precious little--I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us." There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

It is going to be hard enough, anyway, but I think there are two things we can do to make it easier. When you start mathematics you do not begin with calculus; you begin with simple addition. In the same way, if we really want (but all depends on really wanting) to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo. One might start with forgiving one's husband or wife, or parents or children, or the nearest N.C.O., for something they have done or said in the last week. That will probably keep us busy for the moment. And secondly, we might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbor as yourself means. I have to love him as I love myself. Well, how exactly do I love myself!

Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently "Love your neighbor" does not mean "feel fond of him" or "find him attractive." I ought to have seen that before, because of course, you cannot feel fond of a person by trying. Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can at look some of the things I have done with loathing and horror. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.

For a long time I used to think this is a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life--namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact, the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.

Consequently Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again.
From The Joyful Christian

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Christmas Gift

This being the season that it is I’ve been thinking about gifts, giving and receiving. I wasn’t as well-prepared as I would have liked to been this year, gift-wise. I was quite organised with the cards, but not so much with the gifts. There were times in which I found myself being presented with a gift that I had not prepared to reciprocate. Then came the attendant feelings of guilt, and feeling that I had let the other party down; because they had given me a gift I felt obliged to have had one prepared for them too (which I didn’t, not really). Sometimes, giving a gift is so much easier than receiving one, especially when you have nothing to give.

We sang this song at church and at our Christmas Eve party.

As little children
We would dream of Christmas morn'
Of all the gifts and toys
We knew we'd find
But we never realized
A baby born one blessed night
Gave us the greatest gift of our lives

We were the reason
That He gave His life
We were the reason
That He suffered and died
To a world that was lost
He gave all He could give
To show us the reason to live

As the years went by
We learned more about gifts
The giving of ourselves
And what that means
On a dark and cloudy day
A man hung crying in the rain
All because of love, all because of love

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing - or should we say ‘seeing’? there are no tenses in God - the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of’ Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves

In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.
C. S. Lewis in Miracles

In this season of giving we remember most of all, God’s gift of love. Infinitely costly yet freely, and gladly, given.

For to us a child is born
to us a Son is given
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6

Perhaps the greatest challenge that we all face is learning how to receive a gift that is, all at once, both incredibly humbling and hopelessly exhilarating.

Heartfelt thanks to all my dear family and friends.

Wishing everyone a joy-filled Christmas season, and a very blessed New Year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him — give my heart.

by Christina Rossetti

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

love has made me hollow, love has made me whole

I came across this beautiful, moving poem in a wonderful book called "Finding God at Harvard - Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians." It's a collection of essays published in 1996, and this poem was written by one Poh Lian Lim. She's a doctor who grew up in Malaysia and graduated from Harvard in biochemistry, before receiving her M.D. from Columbia University. She is currently practising in the States.

De Noche

I am hollow for loving
without return.
I am chambered, echoing
only your name.

falling from wretched fingers,
a handful of shriveled grass
died this long hot shimmering summer,
in the little well-loved garden;
to the eyes worn with wearied hope
the rains never came
(and tears cannot sustain life).

a whole year the wound waited,
willful with venom, throbbing with desire;
alternatively a fever and a shaking chill,
bone-deep, world-vast, consuming as a fire.

rising on a morning sweet with spring
the light spills warm onto the windowsill
the violets purr, delighting in the sun.
all the world is radiant blue and gold;

and far beneath, the distant traffic hum
beside the gray-blue Hudson
murmurs ten o'clock silences
and a leisurely cup of coffee.

and wondering if I'm missing much
of that lecture when it's really
so much nicer sitting here,
listening to the gurgle of pipes;

till, piercing deep and twisting
some thought of you comes, swifter than desire
(vivid sunlit flickers of the now-closed past)
pain catches on my breath; I recognize
familiar as only an adversary is,
in one vast inchoate cry
blotting out all affections and appetites merely human,
my old and hopeless yearning.

I wrestle, reaching wildly for a grip
on this pain that lives by the pulsing of my heart;
and in the darkness of my unknowing,
bitter with tears,
flung out like rope into the abyss
paying out endlessly
prayer yet brings easing
for this one night.

I am come into a Presence.
passionate with patience
familiar as sorrow,
stern as a rock that questions dash against
and die like waves away

into a stillness
worn and dear as a mother's hands,
a space of mercy, a space or quiet
a dear and gracious place.

and shall I truly know
some day
that high, glad, lifting joy
that lilting happiness?

I am open to the earth and sky
washed by rain and dried by sun,
the scarecrow stands in empty fields
as happy and as free.
And wheeling seasons circle like the birds
in my embrace
transparent now of any fear

and love has made me hollow
and love has made me whole.

De noche iremos, de noche - By night we shall go, by night
que para encontrar la fuente - seeking to find the source
solo la sed nos alumbra - thirst alone our light
solo la sed nos alumbra - thirst alone our light

I don’t think I really understood heartbreak until last weekend. A dear friend’s father had passed away so very suddenly.

I went to the first memorial service on Friday, and the burial on Sunday. Seeing a family torn apart by grief, yet hearing my friend thanking God for so very many things, and singing hymns of hope as the coffin was lowered into the grave, I could not help but weep.

We are none of us, immune from hurt. It's a fact of life in the fallen world that we live in. Sheltered as I am, I never had such a close encounter with heartbreak until that day. Lesser things than death, like break-ups and broken relationships, break our hearts. The thought of being completely cut off from someone whom you have known and loved all along, never to see them or to speak to them again, things never again being the way they used to be, the end of a cherished relationship as it were… I don’t think I ever knew how badly I could hurt till that Sunday.

The only thing that comforted me in the midst of all that despair, was knowing that God himself is not immune to heartbreak. God himself knows exactly what it is like to lose a loved one. God himself suffered infinite heartbreak, ultimate loneliness, and complete abandonment when He was cut off from the Father on our behalves - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – so that the Father can say to us, I will never leave you nor forsake you.

When Jesus died on the cross, God the Son was cut off from God the Father – they who have known and loved each other for all eternity – so that we could be brought in from the dark. It must have been agony beyond comprehension. It must have been hell.

So maybe this is love. Unchanging, unfailing, and completely unconditional. Self-denying, self-giving, and utterly sacrificial.

So maybe this is freedom. So maybe this is peace. So maybe this is joy. To know that you are loved that much.

So the seasons whirl around me - the tender buds of spring, the bright blue heat of summer, the golden leaves of autumn, the silent snow of winter (there is a season for everything) - but I hold them all lightly in my embrace.

Transparent now of any fear.

Dominus Illuminatio Mea. The Lord is my light.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I know the heart of life is good

Two Sundays ago we went to watch The Philharmonic Orchestra play at the Esplanade. I’m not a massive classical music fan, more of a philistine than an aficionado, but we were there to watch Cherfy and some other friends play. The second, and longer, piece that the orchestra played was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, more popularly known as “Leningrad”.

I confess to be largely clueless about a lot of the finer details of classical music. I never even made it past Grade I piano – I was (and still am) one of those bad Asian children who never properly applied themselves to the violin or the piano. However, I’ve often found myself enjoying symphonies about revolutions and wars, finding them vigorous and exciting. But in my limited forays into the world of classical music, this is the first time that I have found myself confronted with pain so stark and anger so raw.

The symphony was written in the midst of World War II, and is dedicated to the city of Leningrad. The German siege of Leningrad started in 1941 and was only lifted in 1944. Almost a million people died. The concert programme quotes musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky: "No composer before Shostakovich had written a musical work depicting a still-raging war, and no composer had ever attempted to describe a future victory, in music, with such power and conviction, at a time when his people fought for their very right to exist as a nation." The programme notes tell us that Shostakovich wrote the finale for the symphony, titled "Victory", while seeking refuge in Kuybyshev, having been evacuated from Moscow in the face of a looming German attack. The Moscow premiere of the symphony was performed to the sound of air raid sirens by musicians who were themselves ravaged by the war.

I simply could not imagine how Shostakovich could write of victory in the midst of despair, and how those musicians could play to the sound of falling bombs and wailing sirens. At the time it must have seemed like complete and utter madness. Or was it, a hope so improbable, so outrageous even, that it just might be true?

No it won’t all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good

sings John Mayer on his (rather excellent) new album, Continuum. 60 years on, many of us only know the second world war as a series of movie vignettes. Pearl Harbour. Schindler’s List. Saving Private Ryan. Life is Beautiful. But the horror of death and destruction remains a daily reality for so many. How do you know that the heart of life is good? How can you know that? Is that just the privilege of the lucky few who happen to have been born into conditions of (relative) peace and prosperity? Is hope the prerogative of the powerful? How do you look despair in the face and still hold out hope?

The Bible speaks of hope in the strangest of terms. Hope does not disappoint. Romans 5:5 Since when was hope ever certain? When faced with so much brokenness in the world, and in myself, I want more than just a vague altruistic belief that it will all be all right in the end. I want to know, for sure, that everything wrong will be put right. Is this nothing more than a naive fantasy, mere wishful thinking on my part?

When confronted with the premature death of a beloved brother, Jesus said to his grieving sister, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." John 11:25-27

Jesus raised her brother from the dead, bringing him out of the tomb alive.

It’s so amazing, that in the face of tragedy, death and despair, Jesus promises us more than just escape, or even compensation. He promises us resurrection, both spiritual and physical. The complete redemption of all creation. There will be hugging in heaven (as Tim Keller likes to say).

At the end of history, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. No more death or mourning or crying or pain. God will make all things new. Everything sad is going to come untrue. Because nobody expresses this better, here is Dostoevsky once again.

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.

And so this is the certain hope that we have. I know that the heart of life is good, and that it will all be good in the end. Because at the heart of the universe is a God who does not stand aloof and apart from our suffering, but directly involves himself in it. Jesus suffered infinitely so that he could eventually defeat suffering once and for all without destroying us, for so very often we are such a large part of what is wrong with the world. But I know for certain, that one day everything will be put right, everything broken will be mended and made new, for when Jesus rose from the grave, triumphing over death, he gave us a taste of the coming victory.

Tim Keller's 9-11 sermon (based on John 11, preached the first Sunday after 9-11-2001) is freely available

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reductionism and Redemption

All newbies in our division have to fill in this "get to know you" questionnaire. Among other things, we were asked to "list the physical and non-physical traits that you want your ideal mate to have."

At first I didn't know what to do with this question because I didn't even agree with its very premise. Granted, the whole questionnaire was deliberately provocative (I think they were also aiming for humorous, but much of that was lost on me) and was not meant to be taken seriously, but I still could not help feeling somewhat saddened by the question itself.

Since when did we start reducing people to commodities?

I found myself very encouraged by some of the answers that my colleagues gave. One chap wrote, "I don't believe in such reductionism. I feel that it diminishes the worth of each individual." This made me want to cheer. Another opted for a more tongue-in-cheek approach. "One head, one body, two arms and two legs. Female." This made me chuckle.

In the end, I settled for "I don't really believe in shopping lists for people. The only "requirement" is that he's Christian." I don't even know if "being Christian" can be considered a trait. I don't really think so, but if deep friendship is the essence of marriage then I think it's crucial that you see reality the same way.

The consumerism that pervades all of society has also coloured the way in which we view our relationships. We are, first and foremost, consumers. How much am I getting in return for what I put in? Am I getting a bad deal? How well does this arrangement meet my needs? If we could, I suspect we would customise relationships the way we customise playlists on our iPods to suit our individual preferences.

Tim Keller draws a distinction between consumer-vendor relationships, in which you relate to the vendor only as long as your needs are being met at an acceptable cost, and covenantal relationships, in which you commit to the good of the other whether your individual needs are being met or not. He notes that in modern culture the marketplace has become so dominant that even personal relationships are now based on the consumer model, but Proverbs tells us that “A friend loves at all times” (17:17). Not just when it suits my needs, not just when I am receiving as much as I put in, not just when I feel deep affection for the other, but all the time.

I used to hold to this warped theory of “reciprocity in friendship.” When I felt that my friend was not being the friend to me that I was to her, I got angry and upset. This is not fair! I deserve better than this! This relationship is not a one-way street! I had absolutely no idea what love is, and what true friendship really means. There was a complete failure on my part to see just how true a friend Jesus was, and is, to us; how unconditionally, and how sacrificially he loved us, and loves us still. We gave him nothing, yet he gave us everything, giving up his rightful riches in heaven to descend into the depths of hell. We turned our backs on him and spurned his love, yet he never gave up on us even though it cost him his life.

Most people think of love and relationships in terms of what they want, but that is just emotional hunger, that’s not love. The real way to know how much you love somebody is how much you’re willing to give, not how much you’re willing to get.

The Bible always speaks of love in strictly covenantal terms: How much you love a person is always defined in terms of what you are willing to give, how much you’re willing to curb your choices to meet the needs of someone else. But the modern world tells you: Don’t you dare ever limit your choices. Keep your options open! Never ever bind yourself and make yourself vulnerable to anybody that way. Never!

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves

If you think, that if you would commit yourself to somebody else like that, that that would really be scary, that that would really be frightening, that you might get hurt – you will be more hurt in the long run if you refuse to submit yourself to anybody that way; if you rule it out, if you take your heart so it will never be broken, if you never commit yourself and never allow yourself to be vulnerable (which is what the definition of marriage is), your heart will become impenetrable, irredeemable. You will experience the alienation and dislocation of the modern society that you are listening to in the news, as it sings to you, and you march to its beat. Society is full of alienated and dislocated people because they are looking out for number one, because they refuse to find love in terms of commitment – in terms of what you will give, and how vulnerable you will be.

Love is not primarily a feeling (feelings go up and down), but an action first. The feelings follow after. The most supremely loving act there ever was, and ever will be, was when the Lord of all creation laid down his life for us, becoming the servant of all, making himself completely vulnerable, not thinking of himself in the least, loving us when we were utterly unlovable.

Now that’s love.

Do we know what love is?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Driving in Taiwan

Last week we went on a field trip to Taiwan as part of our foundation course, and one of the Singaporeans we met there told us that many Singaporeans find Taiwan messy and disorderly. He said that you can tell the difference between Singaporean and Taiwanese culture just by looking at the way people drive. In Taiwan, cars swerve in and out of lanes and traffic lights are more like suggestions rather than legal requirements. The Taiwanese have this proverb that means "order in disorder", and they are very tolerant of inconsiderate driving. If you pull up alongside the road to let people off, causing a backlog of cars behind you, people will just wait because everyone recognises that they would have done exactly the same had they been in your position. But if you did that in Singapore, the drivers stuck behind you would be pounding on their horns.

We Singaporeans are a very law abiding lot, but we are extremely intolerant of people who do not obey what we perceive to be the rules. At the same time however, the Taiwanese are also extremely intolerant of intolerant people. Quite of few of them see Singapore as inflexible and authoritarian, and China is regarded as the antithesis of democracy and a system that just cannot be accepted.

I was keenly reminded of how Tim Keller once pointed out that all cultures are oppressive - they set up an ideal (say, of law-abidingness or liberal tolerance) and everyone who does not conform is "condemned". The Bible tells us that all cultures are fallen (because all people are fallen), and that all cultures oppress, because every single culture puts in front of people certain objects and says “If you don’t have them, you’re nothing.”

Ancient cultures, and traditional cultures today, tend to have collectivistic idols: Follow the rules! Obey the law! Toe the line! But modern Western cultures tend more to have individualistic idols: Break free! Define yourself! It’s your choice, so choose! Every culture that ever existed and that exists today, is telling you to build your identity on something.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
Mark 12:28-31

It is no accident that Jesus tells us to love our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength first, before telling us to love our neighbours, because the latter would be completely impossible without the former.

It is impossible to love your illiberal neighbour just as much as your avowedly liberal self, if you do not love God more than your liberal credentials.

If you build your identity on being liberal, you will despise illiberal people. If you build your identity on being law-abiding, you will despise "law-breakers". Only if you build your identity on God, a God who loves you with an everlasting love despite your weaknesses and flaws, a God who will tear himself apart to make you whole, will you be completely incapable of despising anyone.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Oscar Wilde: Come down, O Christ, and help me!

I have nothing to declare except my genius.
Remark at the New York Customs, Jan. 3, 1882.

E Tenebris

COME down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
‘He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.’
Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.

It is hard to believe that these are all words uttered by the same man.

I have been a big fan of Oscar Wilde ever since we did The Importance of Being Earnest back in secondary school. His effortless wit and his literary genius captured my imagination. I read all of his plays and as much as I could about his life. A few years later when I found myself at Oxford I got to see Wilde's old rooms at Magdalen College (they are still being used as student accomodation and a friend of a friend had the good fortune of having been given those very rooms). I also managed to catch a wonderful production of A Woman of No Importance in London.

Wilde's own words in De Profundis (his last work of prose, written while he was still in prison) would sound horribly pompous if not for the fact that they are largely true and that he has indeed persisted as one of the literary giants of his time.

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards...

The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring: I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: ... drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

For all the celebrity and acclaim that he enjoyed (and still enjoys), he died penniless and alone, exiled in Paris. Though married with two young sons, he had intimate relations with one Lord Alfred Douglas which led to his being charged with the crime of homosexuality (then illegal in Britain). His triumphant public career ended in utter disgrace - he was sentenced to two years hard labour. He died shortly after he was released.

On his death-bed, Wilde was received into the Catholic Church. In An Oxford Reminiscence, his friend and contemporary W. W. Ward, commenting upon a bundle of old letters written to him by Wilde, recalls that '[t]hey show, too, that his final decision to find refuge in the Roman Church was not the sudden clutch of the drowning man at the plank in the shipwreck, but a return to a first love, a love rejected, it is true, or at least rejected in the tragic progress of his self-realization, yet one that had haunted him from early days with a persistent spell.' (Son of Oscar Wilde. Vyvyan Holland. Appendix B. Pp. 251-2.) See also The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde.

I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand ...This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still ...I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.

There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.

from De Profundis

"Humility is not another word for hypocrisy; it is another word for honesty. It is not pretending to be other than we are, but acknowledging the truth about what we are."
John Stott

It took complete financial and social ruin for Wilde to come to a place of "absolute humility", where he cried out in desperation "Come down, O Christ, and help me!"

When an English teacher assigned the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, she was surprised at the responses that she got.

The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.

I did not like the essay "Sermon on the Mount." It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.

The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard.
cited in Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew

Lest we are inclined to think of Jesus as some cuddly religious teacher who waxes lyrical about love, much of what he says is extremely challenging if not downright offensive. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Leo Tolstoy recognised the impossibility of Christ's standards. "The test of observance of Christ's teachings is our consciousness of our failure to attain an ideal perfection. The degree to which we draw near this perfection cannot be seen; all we can see is the extent of our deviation."
from The Kingdom of God is Within You

In a way, we are all desperate.

Fortunately for us, the Sermon on the Mount is not just an impossible set of standards to make everyone feel completely rotten about themselves (apparently Tolstoy felt this way a lot of the time), but a picture of what God is like. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, among the very last words he spoke were "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing". He loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted, and crucified, him.

We cannot live up to God's perfect standards. But seeing more clearly the vast chasm between the perfection of God and the wretchedness of man, we see the infinite distance that Jesus traversed on our behalves. We see just how much He loves us.

Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.
Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew

Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bid me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot
To thee, whose blood
can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many conflicts many doubts,
Fightings and fears within, without
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come to thee.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Everything sad is going to come untrue

Somewhat belatedly, I came across this short sermon that Tim Keller gave at the 9-11 Service of Peace and Rememberance for Victims' Families this year in New York. Slightly more than a year ago, on the 11th of September, I went on a sunset cruise around Manhattan (one in a series of activities organised by Columbia for incoming international grad students). The cruise had been specifically arranged for this date because every year they commerate the day with the Tribute in Light. From where the twin towers used to stand, two towering beams of light shine, in turns a piercing blue and a ghostly white, illuminating the velvety night sky.

I guess that nothing makes us doubt God as much as suffering, in our own lives and in the world around us, and so this is a rather apt follow-up to the previous post.

This transcript is provided by Michael Keller at


Ground Zero/St Paul’s Chapel
Tim Keller
Sep 10, 2006

As a minister, of course, I’ve spent countless hours with people who are struggling and wrestling with the biggest question - the WHY question in the face of relentless tragedies and injustices. And like all ministers or any spiritual guides of any sort, I scramble to try to say something to respond and I always come away feeling inadequate and that’s not going to be any different today. But we can’t shrink from the task of responding to that question. Because the very best way to honor the memories of the ones we’ve lost and love is to live confident, productive lives. And the only way to do that is to actually be able to face that question. We have to have the strength to face a world filled with constant devastation and loss. So where do we get that strength? How do we deal with that question? I would like to propose that, though we won’t get all of what we need, we may get some of what we need 3 ways: by recognizing the problem for what it is, and then by grasping both an empowering hint from the past and an empowering hope from the future.

First, we have to recognize that the problem of tragedy, injustice and suffering is a problem for everyone no matter what their beliefs are. Now, if you believe in God and for the first time experience or see horrendous evil, you rightly believe that that is a problem for your belief in God, and you’re right – and you say, “How could a good and powerful God allow something like this to happen?”

But it’s a mistake (though a very understandable mistake) to think that if you abandon your belief in God it somehow is going to make the problem easier to handle. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail says that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if a particular human law was unjust or not. So think. If there is no God or higher divine Law and the material universe is all there is, then violence is perfectly natural—the strong eating the weak! And yet somehow, we still feel this isn’t the way things ought to be. Why not? Now I’m not going to get philosophical at a time like this. I’m just trying to make the point that the problem of injustice and suffering is a problem for belief in God but it is also a problem for disbelief in God---for any set of beliefs. So abandoning belief in God does not really help in the face of it. OK, then what will?

Second, I believe we need to grasp an empowering hint from the past. Now at this point, I’d like to freely acknowledge that every faith - and we are an interfaith gathering today – every faith has great resources for dealing with suffering and injustice in the world. But as a Christian minister I know my own faith’s resources the best, so let me simply share with you what I’ve got. When people ask the big question, “Why would God allow this or that to happen?” There are almost always two answers. The one answer is: Don’t question God! He has reasons beyond your finite little mind. And therefore, just accept everything. Don’t question. The other answer is: I don’t know what God’s up to – I have no idea at all about why these things are happening. There’s no way to make any sense of it at all. Now I’d like to respectfully suggest the first of these answers is too hard and the second is too weak. The second is too weak because, though of course we don’t have the full answer, we do have an idea, an incredibly powerful idea.

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress to me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God’s son, divinity became vulnerable to and involved in - suffering and death! He didn’t come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn.

But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means? John Stott puts it this way. John Stott wrote: “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it. And therefore the Cross is an incredibly empowering hint. Ok, it’s only a hint, but if you grasp it, it can transform you. It can give you strength.

And lastly, we have to grasp an empowering hope for the future. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and even more explicitly in the Christian Scriptures we have the promise of resurrection. In Daniel 12:2-3 we read: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake….[They]… will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and…like the stars for ever and ever. And in John 11 we hear Jesus say: I am the resurrection and the life! Now this is what the claim is: That God is not preparing for us merely some ethereal, abstract spiritual existence that is just a kind of compensation for the life we lost. Resurrection means the restoration to us of the life we lost. New heavens and new earth means this body, this world! Our bodies, our homes, our loved ones—restored, returned, perfected and beautified! Given back to us!

In the year after 9-11 I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was treated successfully. But during that whole time I read about the future resurrection and that was my real medicine. In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up, thinking everything is lost and discovering instead that all his friends were around him, he cries out: "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

The answer is YES. And the answer of the Bible is YES. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going TO COME UNTRUE.

Oh, I know many of you are saying, “I wish I could believe that.” And guess what? This idea is so potent that you can go forward with that. To even want the resurrection, to love the idea of the resurrection, long for the promise of the resurrection even though you are unsure of it, is strengthening. I John 3:2-3. Beloved, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope purify themselves as he is pure.” Even to have a hope in this is purifying.

Listen to how Dostoevsky puts it in Brothers Karamazov: “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.”

That is strong and that last sentence is particularly strong…but if the resurrection is true, it’s absolutely right. Amen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Your grace is sufficient

Entering the workforce has made me realise how performance-driven our entire society is, and just how much I've bought into it. Even though I was ill and given a whole day of medical leave by the doctor, I only took half a day off work because I had already taken two days off work last week, and I thought that there was just no way that I could miss any more work. (I have been stricken with the most stubborn sinus-throat-infection ever - I am currently on my sixth day of antibiotics). Even though my absence didn't really affect the productivity of my division (I'm still learning the ropes and we're in a bit of a lull period), I just felt that I had to show up at work. My worth as an employee is entirely determined by how I perform.

More often than not, we think that our worth as a human being is entirely determined by how we perform. Even the starting point of our relationship with God, our personal profession of faith, seems to be entirely in our own hands. And so, when we find ourselves in doubt, we either start to panic or we deny it entirely, ashamed of the weakness of our own faith. At times like these I always think about this sermon that I heard Tim Keller preach some months ago in New York, The Fear of King Herod. In it he talked about how we are saved, not by the quality of our faith, but by the object of our faith, which is Christ himself.

Sometimes, the gospel is so counter-intuitive that we fail to grasp just how revolutionary it is. The grace of God, his freely unmerited favour, his unconditional love, extends all the way down to the foundations of our relationship with him. Faith, and its continued sustenance, is entirely a gift of grace (and here perhaps I betray my theological leanings). It would seem almost impossible to produce and sustain faith all by ourselves.

One of my favourite stories in the Bible can be found in Mark 9. A father comes to Jesus, beseeching him to heal his demon possessed son.

Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?"

"From childhood," he answered. "It [the demon] has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."

" 'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."

Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. "You deaf and mute spirit," he said, "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again."

The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, "He's dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

Jesus did not wait for the father to possess an unshakeable conviction and a rock-solid faith in his power to heal his son. A half-profession and a humble plea was all he needed. Perhaps this expression of doubt requires an even deeper faith - not in ourselves at all, but in God and God alone.

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-11

Your grace is sufficient for me
Your strength is made perfect
When I am weak
And all that I cling to
I lay at Your feet
Your grace is sufficient for me

written by Martin Nystrom, performed by Shane & Shane (Clean, 2004)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Love Song

We had a rather amusing conversation about whether a bunch of Christians singing karaoke could be considered "godly", especially if one was karaoke-ing instead of fasting and praying. How could gathering together to sing a bunch of secular songs about romance be "godly"? But of course, enjoying the company of others is one of the most amazing blessings that a radically relational God has given us. Lately, I've also been thinking about how if we are truly in Christ, then that would touch every single part of our lives. God created everything - and all the world speaks to us of him in all its beauty and brokenness. Even secular pop songs about romance. Maybe especially secular pop songs about romance.

Recently, I came across the brilliant, brilliant words of Philip Yancey in a book (excerpted on the Christianity Today website) that I hope to buy.

LYRICS FROM THE LOVE SONGS broadcast on pop radio stations tap into romantic yearnings but promise more than any person can deliver. "You are my everything." "I can't live without you." Sexual desires and romantic longings are a kind of debased sacrament. If humanity serves as your religion, then sex becomes an act of worship. On the other hand, if God is the object of your religion, then romantic love becomes an unmistakable pointer, a rumor of transcendence as loud as any we hear on earth.

...Romance gives intriguing hints of transcendence. I am "possessed" by the one I love. I think of her day and night, languish when she leaves me, perform brave deeds to impress her, revel in her attention, live for her, even die for her. I want to be both heroic and meek at the same time. For a time, and only for a time, I can live on that edge of exaltation. Then reality sets in, or boredom, betrayal, old age, or death. At least, though, I can see in it a glimpse of God's infinite capacity for such attention. Could this be how God views us?

Charles Williams, a colleague and close friend of C. S. Lewis, wrote that romantic love gives us a new vision of one other human being, an insight into his or her "eternal identity." For a brief time, at least, romance gives us the ability to see the best in one other person, to ignore or forgive flaws, to bask in endless fascination. That state, said Williams, gives a foretaste of how we will one day view every resurrected person, and how God now views us. Romantic love does not distort vision but corrects it, in a very narrow range. The Bible uses explicit romantic images to describe God's love for us: What we feel in passing for one person, God feels eternally for the many.

Excerpted from Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Happy Birthday

I’ve taken a summer blogging break of sorts, and now the summer is almost over. This was made powerfully apparent by the arrival, once again, of your birthday. Another year has rolled on by and we find ourselves older, and dare we say, wiser? We talked about hope and transformation, and how everyone hopes for transformation. But how are such hopes fulfilled? Is it possible to rise above the fundamental concern of what we can get out of any relationship in order to focus on what we can give?

As these questions were carried along on the cool evening breeze, I thought about love. Michael Ball once sang, Love changes everything. I think about how people are changed, by the love of a mother, a lover, a friend. And if human love has the amazing ability to change us, what more the love of God?

This is one of fourteen sonnets written by Madeleine L’Engle following the death of her husband.

Sonnet 13

O God! You ask the deepest darkest things.
You blind with light more frightening than dark.
You tell me: Fly! And then you give no wings.
Your sharp sword pierces as it hits the mark.
You gave me love as human as the earth
And earth to earth you’ve gone as all must go.
So we are torn apart twixt tears and mirth
And where your you has gone I do not know.
Oh, God! your loneliness came into flesh.
You taught us love as you let all love go,
And with your life our lives are deep enmeshed.
We know you as we know we do not know.
Oh, God! you ask us all to be like you,
And what you love will truly be made new.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

The most hilarious movie-cum-book-review, ever.

The New Yorker
"The Da Vinci Code."

The story of “The Da Vinci Code” goes like this. A dead Frenchman is found laid out on the floor of the Louvre. His final act was to carve a number of bloody markings into his own flesh, indicating, to the expert eye, that he was preparing to roll in fresh herbs and sear himself in olive oil for three minutes on each side. This, however, is not the conclusion reached by Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a professor of symbology at Harvard, who happens to be in Paris. Questioned by Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), the investigating policeman at the scene, Langdon starts rabbiting about pentacles and pagans and God knows what. But what does God know, exactly? And can He keep His mouth shut?

Help arrives in the shape of Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptographer. She turns out to be the granddaughter of the deceased, and a dab hand at reversing down Paris streets in a car the size of a pissoir. This is useful, since she and Langdon are soon on the run, convinced that Fache is about to nail the professor on a murder charge—the blaming of Americans, on any pretext, being a much loved Gallic sport. Our hero, needing somebody to trust, does the same dumb thing that every fleeing innocent has done since Robert Donat in “The Thirty-nine Steps.” He and Sophie visit a cheery old duffer in the countryside and spill every possible bean. In this case, the duffer is Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), who lectures them on the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. We get a flashback to the council in question, and I must say that, though I have recited the Nicene Creed throughout my adult life, I never realized that it was originally formulated in the middle of a Beastie Boys concert.

Fache is not the only hunter on Langdon’s scent. There is also Silas (Paul Bettany), a cowled albino monk whose hobbies include self-flagellation, multiple homicide, and irregular Latin verbs. He works for Opus Dei, the Catholic organization so intensely secretive that its American headquarters are tucked away in a seventeen-story building on Lexington Avenue. Silas answers to Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), who in turn answers to his cell phone, his Creator, and not much else. Between them, they track Langdon and Sophie to England, where a new villain, hitherto suspected by nobody except the audience, is prevented from shooting his quarry because, unusual for London, there is a gaggle of nuns in the way—God’s Work if ever I saw it, although I wouldn’t say so to a member of Opus Dei.

The task of the Bishop and his hit man is to thwart the unveiling of what Teabing modestly calls “the greatest secret in modern history,” so powerful that, “if revealed, it would devastate the very foundations of Christianity.” Later, realizing that this sounds a little meek and mild, he stretches it to “the greatest coverup in human history.” As a rule, you should beware of any movie in which characters utter lines of dialogue whose proper place is on the advertising poster. (Just imagine Sigourney Weaver, halfway through “Alien,” turning to John Hurt and explaining, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”) There is a nasty sense in “The Da Vinci Code” that, not unlike Langdon, we are being bullied into taking its pronouncements at face value. Such nagging has a double effect. First, any chance to enjoy the proceedings as hokum—as a whip-cracking quest along the lines of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—is rapidly stifled and stilled. Second, one’s natural reaction to arm-twisters of any description is to wriggle free, turn around, and kick them in the pentacles. So here goes.

There has been much debate over Dan Brown’s novel ever since it was published, in 2003, but no question has been more contentious than this: if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o’clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03, shortly after I read the opening sentence: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” With that one word, “renowned,” Brown proves that he hails from the school of elbow-joggers—nervy, worrisome authors who can’t stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don’t yet require. (Buried far below this tic is an author’s fear that his command of basic, unadorned English will not do the job; in the case of Brown, he’s right.) You could dismiss that first stumble as a blip, but consider this, discovered on a random skim through the book: “Prominent New York editor Jonas Faukman tugged nervously at his goatee.” What is more, he does so over “a half-eaten power lunch,” one of the saddest phrases I have ever heard.

Should we mind that forty million readers—or, to use the technical term, “lemmings”—have followed one another over the cliff of this long and laughable text? I am aware of the argument that, if a tale has enough grip, one can for a while forget, if not forgive, the crumbling coarseness of the style; otherwise, why would I still read “The Day of the Jackal” once a year? With “The Da Vinci Code,” there can be no such excuse. Even as you clear away the rubble of the prose, what shows through is the folly of the central conceit, and, worse still, the pride that the author seems to take in his theological presumption. How timid—how undefended in their powers of reason—must people be in order to yield to such preening? Are they reading “The Da Vinci Code” because everybody on the subway is doing the same, and, if so, why, when they reach their stop, do they not realize their mistake and leave it on the seat, to be gathered up by the next sucker? Despite repeated attempts, I have never managed to crawl past page 100. As I sat down to watch “The Da Vinci Code,” therefore, I was in the lonely, if enviable, position of not actually knowing what happens.

Stumbling out from the final credits, tugging nervously at my goatee, I was none the wiser. The film is directed by Ron Howard and written by Akiva Goldsman, the master wordsmith who brought us “Batman & Robin.” I assumed that such an achievement would result in Goldsman’s being legally banned from any of the verbal professions, but, no, here he is yet again. As far as I am qualified to judge, the film remains unswervingly loyal to the book, displaying an obedience that Silas could not hope to match. I welcome this fidelity, because it allows us to propose a syllogism. The movie is baloney; the movie is an accurate representation of the book; therefore, the book is also baloney, although it takes even longer to consume. Movie history is awash, of course, with fine pictures that have been made from daft or unreadable books; indeed, you are statistically more likely to squeeze a decent movie out of a potboiler than you are out of a novel of high repute. The trouble with Howard’s film is that it is far too dense and talkative to function efficiently as a thriller, while also being too credulous and childish to bear more than a second’s scrutiny as an exploration of religious history or spiritual strife. There is plenty going on here, from gunfights to masked orgiastic rituals and mini-scenes of knights besieging Jerusalem, yet the outcome feels at once ponderous and vacant, like a damp and deconsecrated Victorian church.

This is grim news for Tom Hanks, who has served Howard gamely in the past. How does the genial mermaid-lover of “Splash,” or the jockish team player of “Apollo 13,” feel about being stranded in this humorless grind? Apart from Paul Bettany, who finds a leached and pale-eyed terror in his avenging angel, the other players seem bereft. Molina, so violently vulnerable in “Spider-Man 2,” is given no room to breathe, and, as for Audrey Tautou, it is surely no coincidence that Howard sought out and hired almost the only young French actress who emits not a hint of sexual radiation. “The Da Vinci Code” may ask us to believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that she bore him a child, and that the Catholic Church has spent two thousand years not merely concealing this but enforcing its distaste for the feminine (and thus for all bodily delight), but did the movie have to be quite so pallid and prudish about breaking the news? Whose side is it on, anyway?

Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, except at Columbia Pictures, where the power lunches won’t even be half-started. The Catholic Church has nothing to fear from this film. It is not just tripe. It is self-evident, spirit-lowering tripe that could not conceivably cause a single member of the flock to turn aside from the faith. Meanwhile, art historians can sleep easy once more, while fans of the book, which has finally been exposed for the pompous fraud that it is, will be shaken from their trance. In fact, the sole beneficiaries of the entire fiasco will be members of Opus Dei, some of whom practice mortification of the flesh. From now on, such penance will be simple—no lashings, no spiked cuff around the thigh. Just the price of a movie ticket, and two and a half hours of pain.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

See! The winter is past (Sakura Matsuri)

Spring is well and truly here. Flowers are erupting into colour everywhere you turn. The sky shines the deepest blue and all the world is drenched in sunlight. The cherry blossom trees on campus are in full bloom, and not even deadlines and exams can get me down at this point. Speaking of cherry blossoms, we went down to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens today for Sakura Matsuri 2006, the annual cherry blossom festival. Everyone was there to see over 200 cherry trees in full flower, among all the other flora and fauna, and I’m sure that no one was disappointed. The gardens were a riot of colour, and the flowers were just stunning. Looking at the cherry blossoms, each flower utterly perfect and delicately beautiful, it occurred to me that all the world is an open love letter from God to us, in all its pain and beauty.

It is in the depth of suffering that we know it is only the manna from heaven that will fill us, and only the springs of living water that will never run dry.

It is in the midst of beauty that our souls soar towards eternity, and we know, in the depth of our hearts, that no joy this profound could be an accident.

My lover spoke and said to me,
"Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, and come with me.

See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.

Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.

The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.
Song of Solomon 2:10-13

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter Sunday

The Amalfi Coast

Seven Stanzas at Easter
by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
In his great mercy he has given us new birth
into a living hope through the resurrection
of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into
an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade —
1 Peter 1:3-4

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Good Friday

This was carved into the wall of the Colosseum in Rome.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

See from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did ever such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown

Oh the wonderful cross
Oh the wonderful cross
Bids me come and die
and find that I may truly live

Oh the wonderful cross
Oh the wonderful cross
All who gather here
by grace draw near
and bless Your name

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:5

Friday, April 14, 2006

Maundy Thursday

I went with my fellowship group to a Maundy Thursday service at All Angels Church. We were all there to remember the night before the crucifixion, the night of the Last Supper, when Christ instituted the practice of taking communion and when he washed his disciples' feet. In rememberance of Christ, we (including the pastors), in pairs, took turns to wash each others feet.

[Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"

Jesus replied, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

"No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet."

Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me."

John 13:5-8

The pastor spoke about how we often try to deal with our own sin by ignoring it, or trying our best to live a good life, taking our salvation into our own hands, trying to work our way into heaven ("I am good, therefore God owes me"), or, we try to beat ourselves up and make ourselves feel bad, thinking that our guilt could wash us clean. But the surest way we know why none of these approaches could ever work, was because Jesus chose the cross. If there were any other way for the God of the universe to reconcile fallen humanity to himself - we who had wilfully rebelled against his rightful lordship - would he not have chosen that? It was not only Jesus who suffered infinitely on the cross, the Father's heart was wrenched apart also - for which father would not hurt to see his son suffer?

The words from the hymn Rock of Ages speak beautifully of this:

Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law's commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

It is only Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross, Jesus dying in our place, bearing upon himself the full punishment for humanity's sin - it is only Jesus' blood that washes us clean.

...When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."
John 13:12-15

As I knelt at my friend's feet, I poured water into the basin, and taking each foot in turn I washed them. I thought about how Jesus humbled himself infinitely, washing the feet of his disciples, and ultimately, becoming a man and laying his life down for us. The Lord of the Universe knelt at his disciples' feet and washed them. Even washing the feet of the one who was to betray him. The great love that is evident in the laying down of his life for all at the crucifixion, is also demonstrated in the humble service of footwashing. It spoke powerfully of the new organising principle of God's kingdom, for Jesus' message was radically counter-cultural then, and it still is now.

Tim Keller put it most eloquently in one of his recent sermons, "The Openness of the Kingdom." Jesus proclaimed, ""The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15) Keller talked about how everytime a new leader comes in, he always brings with him new organising principles: new priorities, new values, new policies - things get done differently. What then, is the central organising principle of the kingdom?

The way up, is to go down
the way to influence and power, is not to seek influence and power,
but only to serve
the way to get rich is to give your wealth away
the way to be really happy, is not even to try to be happy,
but to try to make others happy
the way to reign is to submit
the way to magnificence of character, is humility
the way to find yourself - that is to really know that you are distinct, unique and valuable - is to not try to find yourself but to lose yourself in service to God and others
the way to be free, is to go to God and say, "Command me."

The kingdom of God is just the world turned upside down - it's the absolute reverse of how the world regards money, power, recognition, status, comfort and happiness.

It is the Lord of all the universe stooping to wash his disciples' feet.

It is the Lord of all the universe clinging to the cross, so that his blood may wash us clean.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ravi Zacharias on the Uniqueness of Jesus Christ

On the second night Dr Zacharias spoke about Jesus' claims as the only way to God in a pluralistic world. He is, of course, very well-equipped to discuss this subject. Having been born into the Brahman caste in Delhi, the highest caste of the Hindu priesthood, he grew up surrounded by Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. It was at the age of 17, on the bed of suicide, searching for meaning, searching for the answers to life's basic questions, that he came to Christ.

He talked about how there were four fundamental questions in life: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. How did I come into being? What brings life meaning? How do I know right from wrong? Where am I headed after I die? We have all asked ourselves these questions, he said, but only Jesus Christ gives us all the answers. He gave us several reasons why.

Firstly, Jesus gave a very accurate description of our malady. He told us that none of us escape this condition, and that we will end up tumbling down the slippery slope if we continue to deny it. We all fall short of God's standards, not primarily in our actions, but in our very intents and motives. The heart is desperately wicked.

He told us a very funny story about two brothers.

Two brothers were notoriously immoral. They were synonymous with the vice that had overtaken their city. When one of them suddenly died, the surviving brother asked the local pastor to perform the funeral service. He offered him an enormous sum of money if, in his eulogy, he would refer to his deceased brother as a saint. After much pondering, the pastor agreed. As the service came to an end, the pastor (in the thick of his description of the departed individual) said, “The man we have come to bury was a thief. In fact, he deserves every vile description the mind can muster. He was depraved, immoral, lewd, hateful, and the scum of the earth. But compared to his brother, he was a saint!”

The pastor may not have received the promised gift, but he certainly got across a vital point! We set up an arbitrary hierarchy of vices, and then exonerate ourselves by how far we are from the bottom.

The trouble is, we are all saints compared to somebody else. But the truth is we are all as equally wretched in our hearts. And if we do not understand this, there is no way to stop the human heart. He spoke of an encounter with an aid worker from on an airplane. She told him chillingly that she had just rescued an 18 month old baby girl from the hands of a man fuelled by snake blood and hard liquor, intent on sexually abusing her. Never in her life had she seen such a thing. Can anyone say that that is not evil? Not just the actions of that man, but also the people that offered her to him. In the history of humanity, there are some things that have transpired, things that we have done to each other, that are just pure evil. There are really no other words to describe it. The unchecked human heart can justify anything. It was G. K. Chesterton who said that, When a Man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

Secondly, Jesus provides uniquely for our malady. Dr Zacharias said that Christianity is not an ethical system calling us to a more moral life. Christianity is about becoming a self that the self itself, could not produce. The depravity of man is the condition of his heart - the moral life cannot fix this. He talked about how he was asked to speak at the United Nations Annual Prayer breakfast about absolutes in a relativistic world. He was asked not to specifically mention religion - he reached a compromise with the organisers that would allow him to speak about his personal beliefs in the last five minutes of the speech. He spoke about the absolutes of evil, how it exists, justice, how we all seek it, love, how relationships of love are of fundamental importance to us and forgiveness, how we all need it sometimes. Twenty minutes had passed and the audience was in full agreement with him. In the last five minutes he shared with them how he believed that it is only on the cross of Christ that all these absolutes converge. We see the harsh reality of sin, borne entirely by Jesus on the cross. On the cross, Jesus did not just suffer physical torment - he suffered infinite separation and alienation from the Father whom he had known and loved for all eternity. Death. God the Son went through hell on our behalves, that we may never have to bear it, if we repent and acknowledge him as the Lord of our lives. This speaks of God's justice, in that sin is punished, but it speaks also powerfully of his love, in that he bore it in himself. And in all this, we have every hope of forgiveness.

He told a very moving story about his encounter with Sheikh Talal Sider in Palestine, a Hamas sheikh. He spoke about how killing innocents is wrong, but now suicide bombing had become the only way that they could fight. He had lost several of his children to the conflict.

Dr Zacharias asked him if he remembered the story of Abraham or Ibrahim, who walked up a mountain, not too far from where they sitting, 5000 years ago. He was following God's orders, to sacrifice his son. As the axe is about to fall on the child, what does the Lord say?

"Stop, I will provide," replied the Sheikh.

Dr Zacharias told him, that on another hill, also not too far from here, God did not stop the axe from falling on his own Son. Until we receive the Son that God has paid with, he told the Sheikh, we will be paying with our sons and daughters in battlefields all over the world. When they wrong you, you want to wrong them. It goes on and on. But when insult and violence was hurled upon Christ, sin didn’t bounce back. Sin stopped.

The Sheikh was silent.

As Dr Zacharias stood to leave, the Sheikh reached out and embraced him tightly. "I hope I see you again," he said.

Thirdly, all philosophy has been about the search for unity in diversity.

In 585 B.C., a man named Thales correctly predicted a solar eclipse. It was Thales' love for ordered knowledge that gave birth to philosophy, but Thales fervently sought the answer to another question. He knew the world was made of an infinite variety of things — plants, animals, clouds. What, he wondered, was the one basic element that pulled it all together? Thales thought that element must be water, but his students went on to expand the underlying reality to four elements—earth, air, water, and fire. Since then the quest for the philosopher has been to find unity in diversity.

This very search has made inroads into our cultures. For example, the word quintessence literally means "the fifth essence." Every American coin reads E Pluribus Unum—out of the many, one. Out of our diversity, unity. And the very word university means to find unity in diversity.

How did diversity come about, and how do we locate or identify the unity?

When you think about it, diversity is on every side. We speak to others. We love others. There is an I-You relationship with which we live. May I suggest that only in the Christian faith can these diversities be explained. There is unity and diversity in life because there is unity and diversity in the first cause of our being — the Triune God. Before the creation of man, personhood, love, and communication existed in the one Triune God — what we call the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity gives us a key to understanding unity in diversity, for there is an implicit difference in the persons within the Godhead that does not negate equality of essence. We too have a unity of essential humanity, originally made in the image of the Triune God. Jesus spoke of how we recover that which was lost.

We long for this unity in diversity within, between passion and reason, rationality and desire, between body, mind and soul. There is no other concept in the world as diverse and unified as the Trinity. God from the beginning is a being in relationship. Made in His image, our hearts hunger for relationship, and all other relationships are secondary until we find relationship with Christ himself.

William Temple, the renowned archbishop of Canterbury, defined worship as quickening the conscience by the holiness of God, feeding the mind with the truth of God, purging the imagination by the beauty of God, opening the heart to the love of God, and devoting the will to the purpose of God.

We were made to live lives of worship, for all things come together in Christ.