Saturday, January 01, 2011

Another year is dawning

Another year is dawning;
Dear Father, let it be
In working or in waiting,
Another year with Thee;
Another year of progress,
Another year of praise,
Another year of proving
Thy presence all the days.

Another year of mercies,
Of faithfulness and grace,
Another year of gladness
In the shining of Thy face;
Another year of leaning
Upon Thy loving breast;
Another year of trusting,
Of quiet, happy rest.

Another year of service,
Of witness for Thy love,
Another year of training
For holier work above.
Another year is dawning:
Dear Father, let it be
On earth, or else in heaven,
Another year for Thee.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Mary's Song

by Luci Shaw

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest ...
you who have had so far
to come.) Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigour hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world.
Charmed by dove's voices, the whisper of straw,
he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
all years.
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bono and Jesus (Love Rescue Me)

Love rescue me
Come forth and speak to me
Raise me up and don't let me fall
No man is my enemy
My own hands imprison me
Love rescue me
Many strangers have I met
On the road to my regret
Many lost who seek to find themselves in me
They ask me to reveal
The very thoughts they would conceal
Love rescue me
 And the sun in the sky
Makes a shadow of you and I
Stretching out as the sun sinks in the sea
I'm here without a name
In the palace of my shame
I said love rescue me

So what is this love that Bono sings about?

The following exchange between Bono and [music journalist] Michka Assayas took place just days after the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, an act of terrorism that left 191 dead and more than 1,800 wounded. The two men were discussing how terrorism is often carried out in the name of religion when Bono turned the conversation to Christianity.

Bono: My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don't let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that's my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that's not so easy.

Assayas: What about the God of the Old Testament? He wasn't so "peace and love"?

Bono: There's nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is. I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that's why they're so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. When you're a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules. But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross. [Later on in the conversation]

Assayas: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that's normal. It's a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma… I really believe we've moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Assayas: Well, that doesn't make it clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that "as you reap, so you will sow" stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.

Assayas: I'd be interested to hear that.

Bono: That's between me and God. But I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep s---. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.

Assayas: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled… It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

Assayas: That's a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it's close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world's great thinkers. But Son of God, isn't that far-fetched?

Bono: No, it's not far-fetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I'm not saying I'm a teacher, don't call me teacher. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying: "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying: "I am God incarnate." And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You're a bit eccentric. We've had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don't mention the "M" word! Because, you know, we're gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you're expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he's gonna keep saying this. So what you're left with is: either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we've been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had "King of the Jews" on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I'm not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that's far-fetched.

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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A beautiful sadness

Listening to Jay Chou, I can't help but wonder why so much of Chinese pop music consists of sentimental ballads about heartbreak, loss and regret. The compact beauty of the Chinese language, in which great depth of emotion is expressed in but a few words, seems to be uniquely suited for such lyrical lament. The end theme from the movie Curse of the Golden Flower, is a wonderful case in point. A valiant attempt is made to render the song in English, but even so, it is hard to capture the full richness of the original Chinese. The combination of poetic lyrics with intricate minor-key melody creates a feeling of exquisitely beautiful sadness.

Perhaps sadness is always preceded by joy, and a heart will only break for losing what it once treasured. Perhaps the beauty of sadness is in the joy of what once was. Perhaps joy and sadness are inextricably intertwined.

Is there no beauty, no joy, no love, that lasts?

The earth will never be the same again.
Rock, water, tree, iron, share this grief
As distant stars participate in pain.
A candle snuffed, a falling star or leaf,
A dolphin death, O this particular loss
Is Heaven-mourned; for if no angel cried,
If this small one was tossed away as dross,
The very galaxies then would have lied.
How shall we sing our love's song now
In this strange land where all are born to die?
Each tree and leaf and star show how
The universe is part of this one cry,
That every life is noted and is cherished,
And nothing loved is ever lost or perished.

Madeleine L'Engle, from A Ring of Endless Light

God lives in eternity, and although we live in time, through the grace of the Spirit we may also be freed from time. But that is difficult for us to understand in the dailiness of living. We are born into time. Our bodies age according to time, and in time they will die. It is not easy for us to understand that eternity is not a time concept, that it has nothing to do with time at all, but is that fullness of God's love which transcends time.

Madeleine L'Engle, "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth"

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Psalm 136

Sunday, April 04, 2010

If Christ rose not

If it be all for nought, for nothingness
At last, why does God make the world so fair?
Why spill this golden splendour out across
The western hills, and light the silver land
Of eve? Why give me eyes to see, and soul
To love so strong and deep? Then with a pang
This brightness stabs me through, and makes within
Rebellious voice to cry against all death?
Why set this hunger for eternity
To gnaw my heart strings through if death ends all?
If death ends all, then evil must be good,
Wrong must be right, and beauty ugliness.
God is a Judas who betrays his son
And with a kiss, damns all the world to hell -
If Christ rose not again.

By an unknown soldier killed in World War I

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Leaf Peeping

Leaf peeping is the art of being at the right place at the right time. To be there just as the perfect combination of sunny days and cool nights turns the leaves into the brightest shades crimson, orange and gold.

It was a perfect day. The autumnal air was crisp and fresh. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue. The sun set the leaves ablaze.

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing find the place where all the beauty came from ...the place where I ought to have been born.

Psyche, in Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

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. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can't. They tell us that "beauty born of murmuring sound" will pass into human face; but it won't. Or not yet.

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

Monday, September 07, 2009

Lost and Found

When Billy is asked at The Royal Ballet School auditions how he feels when he dances, he says:

I can't really explain it,
I haven't got the words
It's a feeling that you can't control
I suppose it's like forgetting, losing who you are
And at the same time something makes you whole self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm of all creation and of all being. For the Eternal Word gives Himself in mortal sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified on Calvary He did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces what He had done at home in glory and gladness. From before the foundation of the world, Christ surrenders begotten deity back to begetting Deity, in obedience. And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the Father glorifies the Son. ...From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever. This is not a which we can escape ...What is outside the system of self-giving is ...simply and solely Hell ...that fierce imprisonment in the self ...Self-giving is absolute reality.
C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain

Perhaps what is true of dancing, is also true of life.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
Matthew 16:25