Tuesday, December 25, 2007


I met the cutest little boy in church on Sunday. He was all dimples, gummy smiles and inquisitive eyes. He must have been about a year old or so - he was just learning to walk. He would take a few awkward steps before sitting back down on the floor - looking at his father, babbling meaningfully, waiting to be picked up and put back on his feet again. Looking at him I found it hard to imagine that God himself, the creator of heaven and earth, the author of the universe, was once a tiny, helpless little boy who could barely walk or talk.

And yet therein lies the miraculous beauty of the Christmas message. God did not enter human history with a blast of trumpet sound and an army of angels. He came as a tiny baby boy. And even then, he was not born into a powerful, royal household. He was born to a carpenter and a young Jewish girl, born under the rule of a tyrant who wanted to kill him, into a world that had no room for him, save in a lowly manger.

Yet in that manger, in that apparent servility, was the greatest majesty. In that apparent weakness was the greatest strength. In that apparent obscurity was the most history-changing event of all – the birth and life of Jesus Christ. In that manger, in that dirty feed-trough, absolute glory was at work. The infinitely high had condescended to become inconceivably low. The infinitely immense had become astoundingly small. But to what end?
(Tim Keller in Grace and Glory and Nazareth?!)

As C. S. Lewis says in Miracles, "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."

...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" — which means, "God with us." Matt 1:20-23

Blessed Christmas everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Jazzy Christmas

I watched this annual jazz concert last night (now in its fifth year) and I was completely blown away by the virtuosity and the sheer brilliance of the performers: Singaporean pianist/keyboardist Jeremy Monteiro, Malaysian guitarist/singer Paul Ponnudurai, and American husband and wife duo, Tuck and Patti (Tuck on guitar and Patti on vocals).

I was stunned with Patti started to sing - the sheer depth and richness of her voice filled the hall, as if we were all swimming in a warm, molten, chocolate sea. She sounds great on the CDs but she is completely amazing live. This is probably the closest I'll ever get to hearing Ella Fitzgerald live, I thought to myself. I was absolutely thrilled when they played Time After Time. (Both Tuck & Patti and Eva Cassidy have vastly improved upon this Cyndi Lauper original - I love both versions.)

But the real revelation was Paul Ponnudurai. I think we all had the collective reaction "I can't believe he's been playing at the Esplanade Harry's Bar all this while and I never knew about him". TODAY newspaper ran a particularly flattering write-up of him in its recent weekend edition.

Listening to his version of "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho" - "This is a song that I learnt at Sunday School" he had said by way of introduction - it was not hard to see why the May 2007 issue of TIME magazine called him "quite possibly the greatest musical interpreter of our time". He completely turned the tune from a happy-clappy kids' song into a soulful, gut-wrenching, blues number. Which Sunday school did he go to??? Because I'm pretty sure that I learnt a different song. And hearing his voice soar effortlessly as he sang Silent Night...

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth

I heard these words as I have never heard them before.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Brideshead Revisited: A twitch upon the thread

I've just finished reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It's been some time since I've read a good, no, great, novel - witty, urbane and profoundly moving all at once - mired as I am, in the more functional and prosaic prose of current affairs reporting. Even though I got through the novel in fits and starts, it is probably a testimony to Waugh's brilliance that every time I picked it up again to continue from where I had left off, I was immediately wrapped up in the poetic beauty of his words and transported to a different place, a different time. And yet, despite the rarefied air of the world that his characters inhabit, much of what they struggle with is universal.

The book is about one Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains, an eccentric (often comical), aristocratic, Catholic family, and the "rapidly disappearing world of privilege they inhabit" (so says the blurb at the back of the Penguin edition of the book). Charles Ryder first falls in with the enchanting Sebastian when they are at Oxford. This episode opens with one of the loveliest descriptions of Oxford I have ever come across.

Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days - such as that day - when the chestnut over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance...

Through his friendship with Sebastian, Charles is introduced to his "madly charming" family and years later is swept up in an adulterous affair with Sebastian's ethereally beautiful sister, Julia.

Here, after having been together with Julia for two years, Charles recalls a conversation that he and Julia once had.

'It's frightening,' Julia once said, 'to think how completely you've forgotten Sebastian.'
'He was the forerunner.'
'That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since, perhaps I am only a forerunner, too.'
'Perhaps,' I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke - a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace - 'perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.'

Earlier in the book, Charles declares that "to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." But by the end of the book the imperfection and insufficiency of love between two flawed human beings becomes tragically clear. And yet, all is not lost. The book ends redemptively, with the Marchmain family returning to their spiritual roots and Charles back at his beloved Brideshead Castle during the second world war, now a Captain in the army, saying a prayer - "an ancient, newly-learned form of words" - in the chapel, finally finding what he had always been searching for, even as he is found.

In the 1959 preface, Waugh writes that the theme of this book is "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters". In the middle of the book, just after their mother has passed away, Cordelia (Sebastian and Julia's younger sister) tells Charles:

'Anyhow, the family haven't been very constant [in their faith], have they? There's [Papa] gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone. But God won't let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk - I mean the bad evening. "Father Brown" said something like "I caught him" (the thief) "with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."'

Thursday, November 01, 2007


by Switchfoot

Twenty-four oceans, twenty-four skies
Twenty-four failures in twenty-four tries
Twenty-four finds me in twenty-fourth place
With twenty-four dropouts at the end of the day

Life is not what I thought it was
Twenty-four hours ago
Still I'm singing Spirit take me up in arms with You
And I'm not who I thought I was
Twenty-four hours ago
Still I'm singing Spirit take me up in arms with You

There's twenty-four reasons to admit that I'm wrong
With all my excuses still twenty-four strong

But see I'm not copping out
Not copping out, not copping out
When You're raising the dead in me

Oh, I am the second man
Oh, I am the second man now
Oh, I am the second man now

And You're raising these twenty-four voices
With twenty-four hearts
All of my symphonies in twenty-four parts
But I want to be one today
Centered and true
I'm singing Spirit take me up in arms with You
You're raising the dead in me

Oh, I am the second man
Oh, I am the second man now
Oh, I am the second man now
And You're raising the dead in me

I want to see miracles
To see the world change
Wrestle the angel
For more than a name
For more than a feeling
For more than a cause
I'm singing Spirit take me up in arms with You
And You're raising the dead in me

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Soweto Gospel Choir

I went to watch the Soweto Gospel Choir at the Esplanade on Friday. As their soaring, sonorous voices filled the hall - without any instrumental accompaniment - I was moved to tears. They sang songs of praise to the Lord in a language that I did not understand, but the joy that they exuded as they sang and clapped and danced... I think a had a little taste of heaven that night and it was absolutely amazing. "These are the gospel songs that we sing in our churches, songs of praise that echo our thanks to the Lord who means a lot in our lives," said one of the choir members by way of introduction. And sing they did.

Some say the zeal of the early European missionaries in Asia and Africa was just another form of cultural imperialism. In response to this, Tim Keller quotes Lamin Sanneh (an African theologian currently teaching at Yale) in his sermon on Culture. In his book "Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel Beyond the West", Sanneh points out that every culture has a baseline narrative. The apostle Paul, when he talked about the cultures of his day, said that the Jews wanted power and the Greeks wanted wisdom. Every culture has a theme. Sanneh says that African culture understands that the world is filled with spiritual forces, and especially a lot of dark spiritual forces. Africans were looking for a way to address that.

They looked at their tribal religions and found that even though they believed in those spiritual forces, they had no answer for how to overcome them. And they looked at the modern secularism that was coming and they realised that modern secularism laughed at their Africaness because it said, "Oh no, you can't believe in miracles. You can't believe in demons." (That, is cultural totalitarianism.) Then they looked at Christianity, and Sanneh says, "Christianity answered the great cultural challenge of our hearts. People sensed in their hearts, that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred, and Christianity did not mock their clamour for an invincible saviour, and so they beat their sacred drums for Him until the stars skipped and danced in the skies. And after they danced, the stars were not little anymore. Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans."

Africans have made Christianity entirely their own. They praise the Lord in their own tongue, with their own songs, with their own dances, as only they can.

But even though we sing praises in different languages, we praise the same God. And even though we come from different countries and different cultures, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. When He said all the nations, He meant it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Congratulations for a newly minted driver

Upon hearing that I had finally passed my driving test, my sister grinned broadly and said to me, "Congratulations! Now we have another menace on the road!"

Evidently prayers for the safety of all pedestrians and fellow motorists who are going to cross my path are very much in order.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hairspray (I Know Where I'm Going)

I can't remember the last time I watched a film that was as much fun as Hairspray. One late Saturday morning a few of us found ourselves in a rather empty cinema (11am not being the most popular time to catch a movie), thoroughly enchanted and captivated by this zesty musical about a round, bubbly teenager who challenges conventional norms of beauty and marches against racism in her hometown of Baltimore (it is set in the 1960s after all, the decade of the civil rights movement). Most of the song-and-dance numbers were buoyant, exuberant affairs that got you toe-tapping and head-bopping along in no time at all. The swinging, retro, dance moves were such a breath of fresh air - a much welcome change from all the sexually explicit bump-n-grind that dominates MTV. The people in Hairspray just looked like they were having so much fun moving to the music, while my general impression of the people on MTV is that they're trying so desperately hard to look sexy (more importantly, sexier than all the other people on MTV), that much of the fun has been taken out of it.

All the songs are fantastic, but my favourite one is actually one of the slow songs, "I Know Where I've Been". It's the rousing civil rights anthem that Queen Latifah sings as they march in protest against the local TV station's racist policies.

There's a dream in the future
There's a struggle that we have yet to win
Use that pride in our hearts
To lift us up to tomorrow
'Cause just to sit still
Would be a sin
I know where I 'm going
Lord knows, I know where I've been
Oh, when we win
I'll give thanks to my God
'Cause I know where I've been

I liked that the song acknowledged the profoundly religious roots of the civil rights movement, especially given that it is now fashionable to bash religion as the cause of a great deal of the world's conflicts. Many argue that religion should be relegated solely to to private sphere, while some say that we'd be better off without it altogether. But as Alister McGrath points out, "Why should not people exercise their religious faith in public, and press for changes in public policy in line with it, in a democratically accountable and responsible manner? What about William Wilberforce's refusal to relegate his faith in the created equality of all people before God to the private sphere, instead using it as the basis for his campaign against slavery? Or Martin Luther King's demand that black Americans' "God-given rights" be given political expression, despite the social confrontations this demanded?"

"I know where I'm going," sings Queen Latifah's character Motormouth Maybelle, de facto leader of the mini civil rights movement in the movie. This same certainty colours much of Martin Luther King Jr.'s monumental "I have a dream" speech. As Tim Keller points out, the reason the speech was so powerful was because it was completely infused with the certain hope of Christianity. King had no doubt that his hope would be fulfilled, that his dream would become reality.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..."

Here he is referencing Isaiah 40:4-5, where the prophet Isaiah talks about the future glory of God, when the Messiah will be bringing God's kingdom and God's justice into the world.

"This is our hope," King says.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

...We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." Amos 5:24

The hope that is spoken of here is absolutely certain. When Christ was resurrected, more real and glorious than he had ever been before, he gave us a foretaste of what is to come. At the end of the book of Revelation, we see heaven coming down to purge, and purify, to renew and restore, the material world. This world. And everything sad is going to come untrue.

I know where I 'm going
Lord knows, I know where I've been
Oh, when we win
I'll give thanks to my God
'Cause I know where I've been

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Who I am

Can we be significant? Lost in the vastness of astronomical space and geological time, can we as individuals have significance? What is man? What is woman? How many answers have been given to this question? I'm a supreme product of the evolutionary process, the master of my fate, the captain of my soul. I'm the great technologist, the manipulator of the world. I'm a product of time, plus matter, plus chance; if you boil me down I'm just a few dollars worth of chemicals. I'm the greatest murderer the world has ever seen. I'm acting out my DNA, but who wrote the code? I'm the result of dividing a crowd of a million by a million. I'm a creature trapped and tormented by desire, caught in an endless cycle of reincarnations. I'm a passing shadow. Like a drowning person I put my head above the ocean waves of time for a few moments, and then disappear forever. What is a man? What is a woman? What is a human being? What is our significance as human beings?

Rev. Howard Peskett on Psalm 8

I heard these rather provocative questions raised ever so eloquently at at a talk I attended some time ago, and it made me think about the ways in which people answer this most fundamental of questions. Who are you? Who am I? What am I? I think it's fair to say that how we answer this question greatly affects the way in which we live our lives.

Roughly a month after I had heard this talk, I came across this sign outside Orchard Road Presbyterian Church and it made me smile.


We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Isaiah 64:8

And I was reminded of this song, one that speaks to the deepest reaches of my heart.

Who am I, that the Lord of all the earth
would care to know my name
would care to feel my hurt?
Who am I, that the Bright and Morning Star
would choose to light the way
for my ever wandering heart?

Who am I, that the eyes that see my sin
would look on me with love and watch me rise again?
Who am I, that the voice that calmed the sea
would call out through the rain
and calm the storm in me?

Not because of who I am
but because of what You've done
Not because of what I've done
but because of who You are

I am a flower quickly fading
Here today and gone tomorrow
A wave tossed in the ocean
A vapour in the wind
Still You hear me when I'm calling
Lord, You catch me when I'm falling
And You've told me who I am
I am Yours

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A New Song

I discovered a new song tonight at the Festival of Praise. I haven't been in a few years and so I was quite determined to go this time. Your grace has found me just as I am... Empty handed, but alive in your hands... Eyes closed, I could hear thousands sing the words back to me in one voice. What else could have brought so many strangers here together on a Sunday night? Maybe any free rock concert might have had a somewhat similar effect, but we were all here not just to see the band. The band wasn't even here just to play to us. Everyone in the stadium was here for Someone who was not "here" in the literal sense of the word. And yet He is everywhere, all the time, and He was here with us tonight.

Majesty by Delirious

Here I am, humbled by your Majesty
Covered by your grace so free
Here I am, knowing I'm a sinful man
Covered by the blood of the Lamb

Now I've found the greatest love of all is mine
Since you laid down your life
The greatest sacrifice

Majesty, Majesty
Your grace has found me just as I am
Empty handed, but alive in your hands

So here I stand, humbled by the love that you give
Forgiven so that I can forgive
So here I stand, knowing that I'm your desire
Sanctified by glory and fire

Now I've found the greatest love of all is mine
Since you laid down your life
The greatest sacrifice

Majesty, Majesty
Your grace has found me just as I am
Empty handed, but alive in your hands
Majesty, Majesty
Forever I am changed by your love
In the presence of your Majesty

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Gabriel and the Vagabond

First heard it on Grey's Anatomy. Couldn't get it out of my head. Absolutely love it.

by Foy Vance

There's a man in the corner and his clothes are worn
And he's holding out his hand
You can see in his eyes as the people walk by
He knows they don't understand

You see they just think he's gonna take their money
And go and spend it all on dope
Then a man stopped by and I saw a smile inside him
As he gently whispered hope

Well the tramp started to cry, just kept saying,
"Why? Why? Why?
Can't you see I'm a dyin' tonight
Well I'm 32 and I've got this one pair of shoes
And a bad taste in my mouth
I think it's clear to see that even God don't love me
Or else why would He leave me this way?"

Then Gabriel just smiled and said be peaced my child
Salvation is here today

He got up to his feet and he sang Hallelujah
People were turning around in the street
He looked them in the eyes and he sang,
There's someone here you gotta meet
Someone you just gotta meet"

When the vagabond turned round without a sound
Gabriel just smiled and disappeared
When he looked to the crowd they were laughing out loud
But he could not see them for tears
When his vision came round
There was a young girl on the ground
And he knew she was finding it hard to cope
You know she never was a fighter until he lay beside her
And gently whispered hope

They got up to their feet and they sang Hallelujah
People in the street they were turning around
They looked them in the eyes and they sang,
There's someone here we have found"
They sang,
"Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Every knee will bow and every tongue confess
and the voice of one crying in the wilderness
Hallelujah, Hallelujah"

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Deeper Magic


I sped through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows over the weekend, thoroughly enjoying the ride (I'll have to read it again). The book did not disappoint; though some may have wished for a darker ending, I found the resolution satisfying. This is, after all, a children's book. I don't think Rowling can be faulted for happily-ever-after. I was, however, very much taken by surprise by the general tone of the book; the Christian symbolism which the earlier six books had hinted at came right to the fore in this one.

At one point in the story, Harry is led to the Sword of Griffyndor, a sword that will enable him to destroy the Horcruxes (objects housing parts of Voldemort's soul). Rowling writes, "The ice reflected his distorted shadow and the beam of wandlight, but deep below the thick, misty gray carapace, something else glinted. A great silver cross..."

Christmas Eve finds Harry and his friends in the church graveyard in Godric's Hollow, where Dumbledore and Harry's family are buried. On the Dumbledore family tomb, the inscription reads, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (from Matthew 6:21) and on Harry's parents' tomb are the words, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (from 1 Corinthians 15:26, part of a passage about resurrection).

When Harry meets Dumbledore in the existential in-between, Harry asks Dumbledore why Voldemort could not kill him. Dumbledore tells him that "That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped."

Right from the beginning of the series, we are told that it was Harry's mother's substitutionary sacrifice that saved him from certain death, for such love had power that not even the darkest magic could defeat. In the Deathly Hallows, Harry himself willingly lays down his life for his friends, surrendering himself to Voldemort. (Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. - John 15:13) In a sense, Harry dies and is resurrected. In Rowling's world, the deepest magic is clearly love.

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun in 2000, when Rowling was asked whether or not she was Christian, she replied "Yes, I am," continuing, "Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Somewhere over the rainbow

6 year old Connie Talbot sings on Britain's Got Talent

This video was brought to my attention today by a dear friend who titled the email "if angels sound infinitely more beautiful than this, how indescribably lovely heaven must be". I hit play and I must confess, this little girl's singing brought tears to my eyes. It was the song she was singing and the way that she sung, with the freshness and purity that only truth itself possesses.

The day before, the very same friend had written to say that one of her closest friends from university had been suddenly diagnosed with acute leukemia and was undergoing emergency treatment. She asked me to pray.

Sometimes it is so easy just to coast through life, untouched by any major heartbreak. Sometimes, we can even become desensitised to the mass violence and suffering that is reported in the news on a daily basis. But when tragedy strikes close to home, where is hope to be found?

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There's a land that I've heard of
Once in a lullaby

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves — that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image.

... For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true

In the last book of the new Testament, the apostle John writes about a vision of the future that he has from God.

The New Jerusalem

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"

Revelation 21:1-5
One day, everything sad will come untrue.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Of freedom and food

With the recent Singapore Day in New York (talkingcock.com's Top Excuses for NOT Protesting at 'Singapore Day' in New York is pretty funny) , seriouseats.com noted that "According to the late, great [New York Times food critic] Johnny Apple, Singapore has the best street food in the world."

In a September 2003 review, Apple writes:

"FOOD is the purest democracy we have," K. F. Seetoh [of Makansutra fame] said as we dug into breakfast bowls of bak kut teh, a peppery, restorative Teochew soup of pork ribs, mushrooms and kidneys. ''Singaporeans recognize no difference between bone china and melamine.''

Slurp, slurp. Yum, yum. The clear, aromatic broth, full of tender, close-grained pork, perked up by herbs and whole garlic cloves, was cooked in a hole in the wall next to a busy expressway and eaten at a sidewalk table. Cab drivers, teachers and a few junior executives slurped around us. Bak kut teh is the city's preferred hangover remedy, and Ng Ah Sio makes the best, which is why Mr. Seetoh took me there.

He continues:

I THINK the knock on Singapore is way overdone. Sure, it's squeaky clean and modern, but come on: does anyone actually prefer the beggars, rubbish and shantytowns that deface many large Asian cities? Not the poor souls who live in them. It's plenty tough on miscreants, but hardly deserving of William Gibson's woundingly dismissive tag line, "Disneyland With the Death Penalty."

Under Goh Chok Tong, Lee Kwan Yew's successor, individualism has gained a little more breathing room. The longstanding and much-ridiculed ban on chewing gum has just been relaxed. Censorship guidelines are currently under high-level review. Nightclubs, once invisible, now throb into the wee hours. And the louchest of Maugham's or Conrad's characters would feel right at home in the seedy bars and brothels off Geylang Road, east of the city center.

Singapore: A Repressed City-State? Not in Its Kitchens was the last article that was published in the New York Times while Apple was still alive. In it he writes:

With the country’s basic manufacturing jobs shifting to China, the younger Mr. Lee wants to turn the painfully strait-laced Singapore into a relaxed, appealing target for tourists. The primary lure will be a $3 billion resort and casino ...It will offer not only extensive facilities for gambling, an activity dear to Chinese hearts, but also, like Las Vegas, a wide array of top-end dining spots, in a nation where good eating is a national pastime.

But Singapore already has gastronomic attractions aplenty. Start with its unmatched street food — chili crabs and chicken rice, laksa and satay and fish head curry — served in hundreds of hawkers’ stalls. Fast, cheap and delicious, its hygiene is certified by the ever-vigilant Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

As a friend pointed out rather humorously - who needs freedom when you have food?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday: Sunday's Comin'

Once again, my weak and wandering heart is reminded of just how much it cost. Just how much we are loved. And just how much we have to look forward to.

Come and see, come and see
Come and see the King of love
See the purple robe and crown of thorns he wears
Soldiers mock, rulers sneer
As he lifts the cruel cross
Lone and friendless now he climbs towards the hill

We worship at your feet
Where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed
By love's pure stream
For us he was made sin
Oh, help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out 'Father, forgive'
I worship, I worship
The Lamb who was slain.

Come and weep, come and mourn
For your sin that pierced him there
So much deeper than the wounds of thorn and nail
All our pride, all our greed
All our fallenness and shame
And the Lord has laid the punishment on him

Man of heaven, born to earth
To restore us to your heaven
Here we bow in awe beneath
Your searching eyes
From your tears comes our joy
From your death our life shall spring
By your resurrection power we shall rise

by Graham Kendrick

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Love is...

We were made for God. Only by being in some respect like Him, only by being a manifestation of His beauty, loving-kindness, wisdom or goodness, has any earthly Beloved excited our love. It is not that we have loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. It is not that we shall be asked to turn from them, so dearly familiar, to a Stranger. When we see that face of God we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love. All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because His. In Heaven there will be no anguish and no turning away from our earthly Beloved. First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain, from the creatures He made lovable to Love Himself. But secondly, because we shall find them all in Him. By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do.

C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot wash it away.
Song of Songs 8:6-7

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

I was quite pleased to hear that Barack Obama had formally declared his intentions to wade into the 2008 Presidential race. These are early days yet, and of course the race is still wide open, but I've been an admirer of Mr Obama since his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (transcript), in which he rousingly proclaimed "Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead."

It would be great if he eventually did win the presidency, but more importantly, regardless of outcome, I do hope that he conducts himself with humility and grace, especially given his open profession of his faith. In a wonderful speech about the role of religion and politics in society, he speaks of how he came to this faith. (Slate magazine notes that Obama "doesn't recount the story of his conversion in order to establish his religious bona fides; he does it in the service of a broader argument ... for a 'deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country'".)

I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

And if it weren't for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship -- the grounding of faith in struggle -- that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Crowd or the Cross

This is a fantastic little video. I first saw it at a friend's church's Easter service in New York and it's stuck in my mind ever since. The graphics are great and it lays out very succintly the choice that we all must make - so who will we follow?

The lyrics to the song in the video can be found here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Movie of My Life

I feel like I'm living in a movie of my life
Someone else is playing me
someone I don't really like
I am just an extra and I don't have many lines
I'm just standing in the shadows of the
Corners of my mind

While the scene goes on
And the story rolls along

I'm just watching me and my life
I'm just watching my days go by
Can't I stop this action for a while
And find out "who am I supposed to be?"

I feel like I'm sleeping and the dream that I've dreaming
Is the nightmare I'm afraid I just might live when I'm awake
Will I miss my only line?
Will I miss my time to shine?

While the scene goes on
And the story rolls along

I'm just watching me and my life
I'm just watching my days go by
Can't I stop this action for a while
And find out "who am I supposed to be?"
Cuz that don't look like me

If I lose myself in life
Would you remind me please
To play my part as I'm assigned
And you'll direct the scene

by Justin McRoberts
from the album Intersections

I first heard this song when I was in New York, and it is one that always speaks so powerfully to me. I love everything about this song - the words, the music, his voice. For whenever I feel lost, disconnected, afraid... I find myself coming back, again and again, to the same unchanging truth.

A man's steps are directed by the LORD.

How then can anyone understand his own way?
Proverbs 20:24

Show me your ways, O LORD,
teach me your paths;
guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Saviour,
and my hope is in you all day long.
Psalm 25:4-5

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tell me the truth about love

It has just occurred to me that I have a penchant for admiring the work of writers who attended Oxford, struggled with their homosexuality all their lives, and eventually returned to Christianity. Actually, I only have in mind two writers but then they are both great favourites of mine. When it comes to favourites, there is another writer who could be mentioned alongside the first two, but then he went to Cambridge, swung every which way sexually, and, as far as anyone can tell, never returned to Christianity. The first two writers are Oscar Wilde and W. H. Auden, and the third, Lord Byron. Though Wilde and Auden were publicly villified for their homosexuality (Wilde more so than Auden), I think that they both recognised in Christianity something that the more extreme elements of the Religious Right are often loathe to remember: that we are all sinners who stand on equal ground before the cross of Christ.

Auden saw in Christianity "a radical levelling principle that eliminated hierarchies and distinctions between people—smart and stupid, even good and bad—and left them all sinners in a single boat." He wrote: The Catholic faith [i.e., the ideal Christian faith], while it condemns no temperament as incapable of salvation, flatters none as being less in peril than any other. In the same way [a Christian] has to make his public confession of belief in a church which is not confined to his sort, to those with whom by nature he feels at home, for in it there is neither Jew nor German, East nor West, boy nor girl, smart nor dumb, boss nor worker, Bohemian nor bourgeois, no elite of any kind [and in a sense no "gay" or "straight", either] ; indeed there are not even Christians there, for Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.

In a time where ethnic and tribal divisions were everything (perhaps they still are), the apostle Paul's words were absolutely revolutionary (and Auden almost certainly had this in mind when he wrote the previous paragraph): Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Colossians 3:11-14

Which brings me back to the question that I often ask myself, one that Auden clearly asked himself too -

So what is love?

(I love this poem, by the way.)

Some say that love's a little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer house;
It wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greetings be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
January 1938
XII, Twelve Songs
W. H. Auden