Friday, August 06, 2010

The life that I have

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

by Leo Marks

This poem started out life as part the Allied resistance in WWII, but has since become a favourite at weddings. (The New York Times reported that a friend of the couple read this lovely little ditty at Chelsea Clinton's wedding.) The reasons are not hard to see. There is something so instinctive in its description of love and self-giving, the giving of oneself to the beloved, one that is reiterated in countless love songs. I belong to you. You have my heart. I am yours.

The very dynamic of love draws out total commitment, complete vulnerability. Love is self-giving, because Love, gave Himself for us.

In the person of Jesus, God’s self-giving love becomes a particular human being – God truly with us as one of us. In a world that has become increasingly deaf to God and broken in its life together -- God enters, and never leaves. God the creator is God the redeemer – God, the repairer of all brokenness.

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days;
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Lost in translation

At the 5:30 mark -

CNN host: Jay, you're a wealthy, single guy yet you still live at home with your mum. How come? Doesn't the bachelor life appeal to you? Having your own space?

Jay Chou: I don't think I'll move out. My parents divorced when I was a kid, and I've made up my mind that even if I get married someday, I'll still live with my mum so that I can take care of her and keep her company. I've been having this thought for many years. No matter what happens in the future, I'll live with my mum.

CNN host: [Laughs] You're kidding!

Jay Chou: Yeah, perhaps there are some cultural differences between Chinese and Western people. The Western kids grow up to break away from their families, to become totally independent and make their own lives, but I think Chinese people are very different. We value our roots a lot. No matter how much money you make outside, you still have to go home because we have this duty, this responsibility to take care of our parents. This is the difference I see, at least, from what I know.

I found this part of the interview particularly fascinating. I had a similar conversation with my British friends when I told them that I would live with my parents when I returned to Singapore. In the Western context, living with one's parents post-university comes close to an admission of personal failure - you do so because you cannot make it on your own. It's also seen as a compromise of personal freedom and individuality, signifying a prolonged adolescence and an inability to fully assume the responsibilities of real adulthood. It’s also seen as a failure of parenting, the failure of parents to equip their children to be independent adults. A recent example would be Matthew McConaughey's character in Failure to Launch. The title says it all. As a single man living at home with his parents, he is like a rocket that has failed to launch. In fact, his parents are so desperate to get rid of him that they hire Sarah Jessica Parker's character, a "professional motivator", specifically to achieve just that.

Almost the exact opposite is true in the Asian context. Asian graduates tend to live with their parents until they get married. In fact, parents are often dismayed when their unmarried adult children express a desire to live on their own (if they work in the same city where their parents live). Parents like to be able to provide and care for their children as long as possible, even when they are grown. Family unity is more important than individual liberty, and generally, the most "acceptable" reason for moving out of your parents' home is to start a family of your own.

Instead of individual independence, in the Asian context, being a responsible adult includes caring for your elderly parents. The Confucian ideal of "filial piety", a respect for parents and ancestors, is one of the most important virtues in Chinese culture. The point of view that Jay Chou expresses in this interview is not considered strange, but admirable. Though not all families would choose the same living arrangements, many adult children choose to live near their elderly parents so as to better care for them. There are also attendant benefits for these adult children, such as free child care for grandchildren, which elderly parents/grandparents are more than happy to provide in most instances. This happily symbiotic relationship is openly encouraged by the Singapore government through generous public housing subsidies.

This is not to say that one approach is necessarily better than the other. Each culture tends to be built around a dominant cultural narrative and the potential ill-effects are not hard to see. Excessive individualism can lead to an overly atomised society in which people only care about their own selfish interests, to the detriment of the greater good. Casual viewing of any Chinese TV series based on a large family would sufficiently inform the viewer of the potential pitfalls of exalting the family above all else. These shows are generally peopled by overbearing patriarchs, unreasonable mothers-in-laws and beleaguered adult children.

Different cultures hold up different versions of the good life and so very often, people are driven into the ground chasing after it. Tim Keller points out that the Bible says that all cultures are fallen (because all people are fallen), and that all cultures oppress. Every single culture, puts in front of men and women certain objects and says, "If you don't have them, you're nothing. If you don't have them, you have no worth, no significance. Your existence isn't justified."

Traditional societies tend to make the family unit and the clan into an absolute, ultimate thing. This can lead to honor killings, the treatment of women as chattel, and violence toward gay people. Western, secular cultures make an idol out of individual freedom, and this leads to the breakdown of the family, rampant materialism, careerism, and the idolization of romantic love, physical beauty and profit.

In Ezekiel 14:3, God says about the elders of Israel, "These men have set up their idols in their hearts." ... God was saying that the human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.

In Romans 1:21-25 St Paul shows that idolatry is not only one sin among many, but what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:21, 25)

Paul goes on to make a long list of sins that create misery and evil in the world, but they all find their roots in this soil, the inexorable human drive for "god-making." In other words, idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. No one grasped this better than Martin Luther. In his Larger Catechism (1528) and also his Treatise on Good Works he wrote that the Ten Commandments begin with a commandment against idolatry. Why does this come first in the order? Because, he argued, the fundamental motivation behind law-breaking is idolatry. We never break the other commandments without breaking the first one. Why do we ever fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? Of course, the general answer is "because we are weak and sinful", but the specific answer in any actual circumstance is that there is something you feel you must have to be happy, that is more important to your heart than God himself. We would not lie unless first we had made something — human approval, reputation, power over others, financial advantage — more important and valuable to our hearts than the grace and favor of God. The secret to change is always to identify and dismantle the basic idols of the heart.
Tim Keller in Counterfeit Gods,
and How to Find Your Rival Gods

One has only the choice between God and idolatry. If one denies God ... one is worshiping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them.

Simone Weil