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.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ravi Zacharias on the Problem of Evil

As part of Holy Week (or Jesus Week, or Passion Week), Ravi Zacharias came to speak at Columbia. I attended his first talk where he addressed the problem of evil - this was meant to be an extension of the discussion that was started at the Veritas Forum. I've heard of Ravi Zacharias but I've never really heard him speak (I believe he has a weekly radio programme) or read any of his books. He spoke at the Roone Arledge Auditorium. The place was packed, and with good reason. He's a very charismatic and very brilliant speaker. I think we all walked out of that auditorium knowing God just that much better.

His first response to the question of 'Why does evil exist?' and 'How can there be a good God if evil exists?', was to point out that the questioner needed a philosophical and existential basis on which to justify the very question. He spoke about how the problem of evil is not merely a problem, but a mystery. Quoting Gabriel Marcel, "A mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and its initial validity". In other words, when one is faced with questions where there is no objective standpoint which one can adopt to answer such questions, we have a "genuine" mystery. The subject is involved in, and a part of, that about which he is asking. A mystery is thus "a problem which encroaches upon its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem".

He told a very funny story about attending a lecture at Cambridge where Stephen Hawking discussed the question "Am I determined or am I free?" After lengthy and brilliant analysis that weighed arguments on both sides of the question, Hawking concluded with, "So are we determined? Yes. But since we do not know what is determined, we might as well not be."

There is no neutral standpoint in answering this question; no worldview proposes an answer without also smuggling in life's essential purpose. Additionally, how does one really raise the problem of evil in an amoral world? The question would make no sense. A purely materialistic understanding of reality would have to admit that at the bottom, the idea that we are equal is a blatant lie. The logical conclusion of naturalism would be what Nietzsche rightly concluded. It is only the under-dog, he says, that believes in equality. It is only the groveling and inefficient mob that seeks to reduce all humanity to one dead level, for it is only the mob that would gain by such leveling. "'There are no higher men,' says the crowd in the market place. 'We are all equal; man is man; in the presence of God we are all equal!' In the presence of God, indeed! But I tell you that God is dead!" so thunders Zarathustra. For Nietzsche, the superman seeks to elevate himself to the heights of power by trampling upon the masses. "Disregard your neighbors! Man is something to be surpassed! Surpass yourself at the expense of your neighbor," says Zarathustra.

Dr Zacharias pointed out that materialism does not give us the resources to say that racism is wrong. If this world is all there is and it all ends with the burning up of the sun, right and wrong are just purely constructed categories that have no independent truth. Objective moral values must exist if we are of essential worth. And we are of essential worth only if we are created by a being of essential worth, and not the random result of natural accident.

How many times does Jesus question his questioners? Dr Zacharias asked. Some of the Herodians and the Pharisees, trying to trick Jesus, asked him, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But as Luke records for us, He saw through their duplicity and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Dr Zacharias pointed out that Jesus could have asked them another question. “Whose image do you bear?”

He argued that objective moral values only exist if God exists. Because objective moral values do exist, God exists. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once said, “if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind.

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A E Housman put it:

For Nature, heartless, witless
Will neither know nor care.

DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

Dr Zacharias went on to share a very funny story that he’s also written about here:

Some time ago I was speaking at a university in England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God.

“There cannot possibly be a God,” he said, “with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!”

I asked, “When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?”

“Of course,” he retorted.

“But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?”

“I suppose so,” came the hesitant and much softer reply.

“If, then, there is a moral law,” I said, “you must also posit a moral law giver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no transcendent moral law giver, there is no absolute moral law. If there is no moral law, there really is no good. If there is no good there is no evil. I am not sure what your question is!”

There was silence and then he said, “What, then, am I asking you?”

He was visibly jolted that at the heart of his question lay an assumption that contradicted his own conclusion.

You see friends, the skeptic not only has to give an answer to his or her own question, but also has to justify the question itself. And even as the laughter subsided I reminded him that his question was indeed reasonable, but that his question justified my assumption that this was a moral universe. For if God is not the author of life, neither good nor bad are meaningful terms.

This seems to constantly elude the critic who thinks that by raising the question of evil, a trap has been sprung to destroy theism. When in fact, the very raising of the question ensnares the skeptic who raised the question. A hidden assumption comes into the open. Moreover, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, the moment we acknowledge something as being “better”, we are committing ourselves to an objective point of reference.

The disorienting reality to those who raise the problem of evil is that the Christian can be consistent when he or she talks about the problem of evil, while the skeptic is hard-pressed to respond to the question of good in an amoral universe. In short, the problem of evil is not solved by doing away with the existence of God; the problem of evil and suffering must be resolved while keeping God in the picture.

Dr Zacharias said that ultimately, we must ask ourselves this question: If the evil around me bothers me that much, does the evil within me bother me, then? And it must, he said. For that evil within, only Christ has the answer.