Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Letter To Budding Christian Thinkers

Happiness is to discuss Worldviews with a bunch of curious, fun and smart young people at the D'Nous Academy camp and arrive home to a pair of suffocating bear hugs from my son and niece. The two-day training (5 & 6 Dec) is certainly one of the highlights of 2013 in my calendar.

I would like to write down something short and sweet (hopefully!) to interact with some great questions and comments from the students... so here goes!

Dear "DNA 2013" guys and gals,

Thanks very much for the encouraging words in your card! They mean a lot to me (and I'm not just saying it). It's a great motivation for any speaker/pastor/youth ministry worker to learn that others find something helpful and inspiring in their message.

Hope this will be an encouragement for you to continue on a journey of learning and discovery about how your faith relates to all of life...  These are some questions that I could not address earlier so here's a try at them now:

a) We have discussed about the fatal flaws in relativism. But believing that moral absolutes exist (i.e. human life has intrinsic dignity and worth) doesn't mean that it's easy for us to address some hard cases (biotechnology, euthanasia, abortion etc). If you would like to explore more, I am happy to recommend this example of how the theistic worldview is applied to the complex issue of abortion as an example.

Start with the Kairos magazine on Biotechnology that I distributed to get an overview. Then dive into those videos/notes by Scott Klusendorf and Scott Rae. It's not easy but then again, life is often complex also.

b) In every culture, you can always find similarities and differences between the Jesus story and non-Christian stories ("son of God" in Egyptian/Chinese/Jewish/Roman cultures). Question is: Did the Gospel writers copy from pagan myths?

Some biblical examples may help: The ancient people in Greece believe in a rational Logos (Word, Reason, Logic) that gives order and structure to the universe and human life. They also pray to many gods and in case they miss out someone, they also put up an altar to an 'unknown God'. When Jesus is revealed as who He is, the disciples point to these existing ideas in the pagan worldview and have a conversation with it:

"Yes, there must be some rational principle that created everything. This Logos you are talking about. That's true, but let me tell you something else: The Logos (Word) became flesh and dwell among us. His name is Jesus. He is the embodiment of that principle of rationality that you talk about. And He can relate to you as a person. And this unknown God you are talking about, let me share that He has made himself known now in Jesus... what you try to worship without knowing is actually the God who speaks and He has already come." You can read this in the Gospel of John and Book of Acts.

So they are 'borrowing' ideas from others' worldviews but re-shape them in a distinctly Christian worldview. It's not copy cat. It's like you are writing an assignment and quote from a text book somewhere to make your case. You will say how this book supports what you say and where you may disagree with it also.

Indeed, one may even say that Jesus is the real thing while all these pagan stories are the copies (shadows, signposts, clues) that point the way to Christ.

Same for the 'son of God'. Lots of human kings claimed divine relationship and authority. But they are all idols, fake copies of the real divine King (Jesus). At best, they express the hope for a perfect, divine and just king. When the true Son of God comes, this dream and longing is fulfilled and completed in Christ.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the Comments section here. Luv to hear what you think of this.

c) So many worldviews claim to be absolute/truth, how do you know which is true?

Here is a simple outline to help organize a possible way to answer why the Bible is inspired by God (and stay tuned to a blog post on the Bible that I'd do for IMU in January 2014.)

Many Christians would do it like this:
- The Gospels/Paul's epistles to Corinth/Rome are historically reliable documents. That's where the facts come in about how they are written early, eyewitness accounts, many copies of the text, etc.
(You haven't shown that it's God's authoritative word YET at this point)

- From this reliable account, we learn about Jesus (what He has done, that He claimed to be what the Torah/Psalms/Prophets says God will do and be for Israel). He also vindicated His claim to be God through the cross and empty tomb. All the other crucified (supposed) Messiahs were forgotten and quickly replaced. Why is Jesus so unique that His movement grew? The resurrection makes most sense of these historical clues and the spread of the Christian movement. This miracle vindicates His claim to be true.

- Therefore Jesus is who He claims to be and has authority over our lives. And we follow what He teaches us about the Scriptures i.e. that the OT is inspired by God, and He trained the NT disciples who will write down and interpret His work later. As a result, we believe the entire Scriptures to be inspired by God.

The above is an inductive method i.e. working from particular facts to come to conclusion (bottom up).

Another approach is deductive. You start with a broad hypothesis and apply it to the facts you observe (top down). You begin with a thought experiment that the Bible is what it claims to be. Take it at face value and then see how it makes sense of suffering, of the order in the universe, of the moral law in our hearts. Hey! If you start with the Bible, everything else starts to fall in place and makes more sense now. That's a characteristic you would find since it is really God's inspired word.

d) New heaven and new earth... Will the old one be destroyed?

When the Bible says the present earth and heaven will ‘pass away,’ it does not mean that they disappear or go out of existence. It does not mean that the old car is destroyed so we need to replace it with another one. What we mean is: the same car that was destroyed is now fixed, restored, transformed, upgraded and given a complete makeover into a brand new car.

We might say, ‘The caterpillar passes away, and the butterfly emerges.’ It means that there will be such a radical change that the present condition will pass away but there is also a real continuity, a real connection to the new heaven and new earth. 

Through fire, the present earth will be dissolved, refined, and purified to give rise to a future world that will be more substantial, more tangible and more solid than one we know. God did not create this material world only to abandon it. Rather, He will renew and rescue it. So Christians have every reason to care for the material world, to protect the ecosystem and to heal the sick and work for social equality and relieve the suffering of the poor and marginalized. Because our hope of eternal life is not to escape from the world. But to renew and transform it… In the meantime, while we wait for that day, we pray and work so that God’s will is done and His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. (For more details, check here)

e) There are lots of conspiracy theories out there about 'secret societies' and 'occult stuff'. I think the most relevant one to us in Malaysia is the fictional novel on "The Da Vinci Code" which a lot of our friends have read. The way I approach is that it's irrelevant who the Priory of Sion, Merovingian or Templar Knights are (so I don't spend time chasing shadows). All I need to show is the 'secret' that they are supposed to hide, oppress and defend is actually no secret at all.

It doesn't really matter what these "secret societies" are since we can be confident about the reliability of the Bible and who Jesus was (is). If you like to explore more, check this out

Keep on Loving Jesus with heart and mind

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Homosexuality: Biblical Perspectives and Pastoral Concerns

Dr Ng Kam Weng: While Malaysian Christian leaders have maintained a silent indifference towards the homosexual controversy, young Christians are daily exposed to aggressive homosexual proselytization by the Western elite through the Internet and global entertainment culture. Not surprisingly, young Christians today are increasingly sympathetic towards homosexual practice. To be fair, this tolerance among young Christians is simply reflective of their easy going attitude in moral and religious commitment.

The church does not need to react defensively to these developments and resort to censorious condemnation of homosexuals. It is more important that the church educate and exhort Christians, both young and old to uphold a sanctified life based on scriptural integrity and covenantal faithfulness. Following the full counsel of God’s Word would encourage individuals to maintain respectful, responsible and restraint courtship intimacy, fidelity in monogamous heterosexual marriage and challenge the church to develop pastoral models to address constructively the homosexual controversy.

I am pleased to share with you two papers that provide a scripturally and scientifically informed approach to homosexuality written by my friend Dr. Roland Chia. He is presently Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Arts and the Glory of the Lord
Three months ago I was interviewed by a postgraduate student who is currently researching for King’s College London on the relationship between the arts and Christianity in Singapore. Seated beside me were an award-winning poet and two producers of stage drama. I was not in any way as active in the art scene as them. My only contribution in the 3-hours long interview was a theological reflection on pop culture, especially the movies.

Throughout the interview, we were shown 10 different art pieces such as T. S. Elliot's despairing poem The Hollow Men, Andres Serrano's controversial photograph Piss Christ, Rembrandt's sketch of Abraham dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, and John Lennon's atheistic utopian song Imagine. After the interview, I wonder what is the place for arts in a church?

Some of us relate the arts to high cultures of classical music, renaissance paintings, ballet, and perhaps also to exquisite cigars and vintage wine. Others think that arts are related only to beauty or aesthetic contemplation.

To Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Reformed philosopher and theologian, the arts are much more than these. They are first and foremost "instruments" which are "inextricably embedded in the fabric of human intention" that equip "us for action" with respect to the world, to other people, and to God. (See his Art in Action [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980], 3-4.) Wolterstorff is saying that arts are something we intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context.

For instance, how food is presented on our plate affects how we act; in this case, it either encourages or discourages our anticipation to eat and savour the food. That’s why a nice photograph of food is so important in restaurant’s menu, on hawker stall’s signboard, and on food blogs. Can you recall the last time when you felt disappointed, if not cheated, when the actual serving was not as tasty as portrayed in the photograph? That‘s how art affects how we re-act.

Talking about food, I remember someone I met over lunch last year. That man seemed to be very familiar with food. While we were waiting for our order, the waiters at the restaurant would occasionally exchange foodie jargon with him. And when the food arrived, that man would describe the uniqueness of each dish to us. He would advise us to begin with certain dish first so that (to paraphrase him) “our palate is not confused.” As one who grew up eating at hawker stalls, I thought that was new. It is common to hear that our mind gets confused; but tongue? Anyway, that noon I had a glimpse into to the art of eating. Certain skillsets or instruments are needed to enjoy food, to help us to act in the context of food appreciation. Only after the lunch that I found out that the man was a Senior Vice President of Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (Shatec Institutes). His job was to perfect the art of eating, the act of savouring food.

The arts are instruments humans intentionally make in order to help us to act accordingly in our respective context. They serve human life. Wherever there are humans, there is art. As Wolterstorff wrote, 
"We know of no people which has done without music and fiction and poetry and role-playing and sculpture and visual depiction. Possibly some have done without one or the other of these; none to our knowledge has done without one or the other of these." (Ibid., 4)  
Art is part of the clothes we wear, food we eat, shopping complexes we patronize, films we watch, games we play, novels we read, songs we listen, hymns we sing, and the myriad of other things we intentionally make. This reminds us of what apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthian 10:31, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

This verse tells us that all that Christians do, including our creation and appreciation of the arts, is done for God’s glory. 

Christians create arts for a different context from non-Christians. "The ultimate distinction," wrote Daniel Siebell, "is not between Christian art and autonomous modern art but between art that…. can bring forth or testify to an embodied transcendence…. and art that denies such transcendence." (God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art [USA: Baker Academic, 2008], 164.) Christians create arts in the context of the sublime glory of the Lord. As the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach is believed to have said, "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."

Whether the world can see or hear or taste the glory of God through the arts is another matter altogether. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear. Whoever has eyes, let them see. Whoever has tongue, let them taste. However, there will always be those who see yet not perceive, those who hear but not understand, and those who taste but not feel—Like those who heard Jesus’ parables but did not comprehend (Luke 8:8-10). But to the Christians, "The whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3).

This reflection is just a sketch. The arts are too huge a subject to be addressed here. Nonetheless, I hope this reflection able to provide some pointers of where to go and what to look for, especially for those whose vocation are in the arts. So the next time you take a photo of your food with a phone, try to find how it can be God-glorifying. Then post it on Facebook or Instagram. Whether or not people will see God’s glory through it is another matter. What is important is that you have created an art for His glory. You have acted accordingly to the context. I think the same principle applies to everyone in other creative act be it in design, dance, fashion, musical, cooking, eating, filming, etc.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Sacred And The Silver Screen: Engaging Movies Through The Eyes Of Faith

Sermon podcast for download and listening is available here

Let’s have a show of hands: Who hasn’t heard of Nicole Kidman? Brad Pitt? Shahrukh Khan? Or Andy Lau? Karl Barth? Probably more people here know more about these movie stars than about famous theologians. For those of us in their teens or twenty-something’s, movies are just a part of life. Our young people are more up to date with what’s coming soon from Hollywood, TVB or Korean drama than perhaps, any other topic.

Because we live in an image-driven culture, a film-watching culture. Otherwise Tanjong Golden Village and Golden Screen Cinemas would not be jam packed during weekends. Or if you need more evidence, try to find a home that does not have at least one television set. Or walk around the neighborhood and count the number of homes now installed with Astro satellite dish that can transmit more than 50 different channels to your living room at the press of a button. How wonderful is that?

When the lights dim and the silver screen is lowered, something magical happens. Movies are a magical portal that transports us into another world. To the grand fortresses of Gondor in Middle Earth. Or the wonderful ecosystem of Pandora. Or a galaxy far, far away where Jedi knights roam amongst strange alien creatures. Movies can enchant us and thrill us, make us laugh out loud or scare the living daylights out of us. They can change the way we think and how we feel. They convey values and meaning, what is good and what is important.

A good movie takes raw materials from the stuff of life – friendships, conflict, our quest for significance and redemption – and turn them into an experience, creating characters and a picture of reality that we can all relate to. It’s a visual storybook that could show us new insights about our world that would otherwise remain hidden from our untrained eye.

Like the short clip we watched a moment ago from the Pixar movie “Up”… It not only makes you smile and draws you emotionally into the story. It drives home gently some lessons about life too. It’s not just a cartoon for kids, I tell you. The scene where Ellie lost her unborn baby especially brings back memories of a similar episode in my own married life. Combining the ancient art of storytelling with cutting edge special effects, movies are, of course, very entertaining. But at the same time, they have also become a powerful medium by which people today discover and interpret meaning in their daily life.

Let me show you how different patterns of communication have evolved in human society: at the dawn of history, stories are passed down by word of mouth, focusing on the ear: an oral culture. Think of our grandfather’s stories or the penglipur lara. Then we move into a literate age where the focus is on the eye: Think of libraries, reading books, the Renaissance, the invention of the printing machine. About a hundred years ago, we crossed over to a post-literate age that focus on both the ear and eye: think of television, movies, and news broadcast. And now with the Internet, Youtube, smart phones and social media, perhaps we are coming to a digital age where people not only consume culture, they also want to actively create arts and culture. People want to share stories, create music videos and short motion picture of their own. In fact, some talented youths in CDPC are already doing that, aren’t they? Have you checked out the recent cover songs uploaded by Eugene See and others? CDPC’s got talent!

If that is how people tend to communicate today, how should our Christian faith relate to the movie world? Or put another way, what has Jerusalem to do with Hollywood?

Well, for a long time, the church has a love-hate relationship with movies. They are often frowned upon for promoting worldliness, profanities, violence and sexual permissiveness. And that is quite often the case. And we are right to reject these elements. But sometimes, we can throw the baby out with the bath water.

For some people, movies are sometimes seen as helpful or acceptable when they depict biblical stories like the Jesus film used for evangelistic rallies. Apart from that, some of us don’t see much spiritual value in them.

On the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps more descriptive of us city folks, we may just mindlessly go along and consume whatever is offered at the box office. “All my friends watched it so why I cannot watch? Aiya… I just want to have some fun only. Don’t think so much lar.”. We don’t discern between good and bad movies. We just switch off our brain and allow our minds to “drift” along with the show. Just as a fish in water doesn’t realize that it’s wet; television and movies are so much a part of our lives that we hardly notice their impact on us. For better or for worse.

So I would like to reflect with you today how we can engage with movies with an open mind and yet, to do so in a discerning way. It’s a practical application of earlier CDPC sermons on “being culture maker” and “cultural engagement”. So, here are three ways we can approach movie culture

1) Dare to say no! (Avoidance and caution)

It may sound obvious but there are many movies that we should intentionally avoid. We mustn’t be afraid of saying no. There’s benefit in leaving some films unwatched, some horrible music unlistened to, some junk food unconsumed. We must not worry about being labeled uncool, uncultured, or legalists. It’s more important that we learn to discern what we see in the light of the gospel and know where our own limits are.
For example, food (nasi lemak) like every gift in God’s created world is a good thing. But it can become a bad thing if we eat it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good if we consume it not as something we must have (“My preciousss... Gollum must have it”) but as something we can have, delighting in God’s good creation.
So ask yourself: Am I free to abstain from these good things as much as I am free to enjoy them? Am I able to say no? There’s no clear command in the Bible against watching movies or drinking coffee. But if we are not able to go without television or Starbucks for a whole day, then it has become an addiction. Or if we are so insistent on our Christian freedom to enjoy these things, that we look down on others who don’t like arty films or whatever, that’s also a form of legalism pretending to be “free”.
There are times when we need to say: Yes, I am not forbidden from watching this film. It is not evil, but because of my particular weakness and tendencies in this area and so that it won’t stumble my children and friends, and for the sake of my gospel witness, I think the wise thing to do is to abstain. I choose to, not because I have to. For example, if you give me a remote control I can surf channels for hours. If that’s also your weakness then you need to be extra careful how you exercise this freedom.

Cultural exposure is always related to a person’s spiritual and personal maturity. Even an excellent movie like Shawshank Redemption may not be appropriate for a 12 year-old.

You are in the best position to decide what films you are comfortable with, and where to draw the line. Ask yourself: How is my habit shaping my desires? Are they drawing me closer to God or to self? To holiness or to worldliness?

We all know of the glorification of guns, sex and materialism in some films. But there are less obvious spiritual dangers. French philosopher Jacque Ellul notes that the person who has the power to edits images in sequence chooses for you; he condenses or stretches what becomes reality itself for us. We are utterly obliged to follow this rhythm.”

Remember how our mainstream media covers the Bersih rallies last time? Someone has already decided for us what is “reality”– you don’t get to see a peaceful multi racial crowd of thousands. We are just fed with images of a few scattered samseng walking down an empty street, throwing bottles at police. A movie director has the same power of propaganda by making fun of certain people as stupid or intolerant in an unfair manner. As passive spectators, we are constantly being fed with a stream of images. Reality is substituted with an artificial construct like the Matrix that distorts our perception and manipulates our opinion. 

Kairos research director Dr Kam Weng warns us that this image-driven culture can have negative impact on our education and spiritual health. TV, i-Pads and video games may over-stimulate children with fast paced sights and sounds. If we are not careful, it can stifle their ability to sustain attention on their own, to read patiently and use language actively. They just can’t sit still: Here we are now, entertain us!

CDPC Puchong has a library ministry that seeks to inspire children to be a lifelong reader. Why? Well, reading a book allows you to control the pace of information input. It invites you to think over and connect the words printed on the page. You can sit down and pause to explore this imaginary world of wonder, beauty and adventure that the author describes. Real learning needs patience, careful reflection.

After getting married, having a son and working on projects at the office, I can hardly find the time to watch a lot of movies these days. So I need to choose carefully which movies to watch so time/money are not wasted. One way to do this is to find out what is the genre of that movie: Is it a romantic comedy? Is it an action thriller? Is it a ‘slasher movie’ like I know what you did last summer? If it is a slasher movie, it is usually about a mysterious psychopath on the loose killing a lot people in all sorts of interesting ways until the final girl (it’s always a girl, don’t ask me why?) defeat him or escaped. Once I know the genre, I have some idea what is the formula of the story and I’d say: No, thank you. And that’s just me.

There are also solid online Christian resources that can help us make such decisions. They give you a good summary of what to expect, background info about the production and biblical evaluation of its major themes. Sometimes I would browse around and pick one or two recommended ones

2nd Approach: Dare to say yes! (Dialogue and Engagement)

Having said all that, we cannot totally abandon the movie world that modern folks are already immersed in. Otherwise, we will only let this conversation be dominated by other voices and lose our ability to take part and influence it.

We need to talk about the movies we watch in order to celebrate what is good and perhaps clarify our own position on many of life’s questions. This means that we need to "train" our eye to understand the language of movies and not just offer knee jerk response like just counting how many curse words are spoken in it.

In fact, there are many movies that can be watched “redemptively” – when we enter into a conversation with the film on its own terms. As we listen to the story, to ourselves and to God, we may leave the cinema with fresh insights and new inspiration. But to do that, as with any work of art, we need to lay aside our preconceived ideas and biases and listen fairly to what the film has to say. We must first allow another point of view to enter in, to interact and dialogue with our own view before making any judgment. Theological analysis should come AFTER (not before) the aesthetic experience of appreciating a movie. It’s a kind of open minded/suspend-judgment approach that says: “I hear what you say, but I don’t have to believe all you say”.  

When we do that, we may be surprised by some “A-ha” moments that enrich our outlook on life. I’m sure many of you have encountered magical movie moments like that before.

But let me share with you a real story how the movie Awakenings (1990) can impact the life of young man named Yoke Yeow. It appeared at that time of his life when, as a pre-U, he worked hard to get good grades but he has no idea what to do with his life! In this movie Awakenings, Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a neurologist who ends up devoting his life to victims of a coma caused by degeneration of nerve cells. He accidentally discovered a wonder drug that brings these coma patients back to life! They have a short but exciting timeframe to recapturing their lost youth. But unfortunately the effect is not permanent. They are doomed to slip back into a prison of catatonia again: living zombies, trapped behind frozen, empty stares.
Struggling through the tragedy, Dr Sayer says: "We can hide behind the veil of science,.. but reality is we don't know what went wrong anymore than we know what went right. What we do know is as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place. The human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished."

That movie changed Yoke Yeow’s life. He cried bitterly as he felt for the patients’ suffering and inspired by Dr Sayer’s passion for his work. Unknown to him, a vocation was being defined: to involve himself passionately in the lives of suffering patients and share in their struggle to keep alive their God-breathed identity. He has found his calling to be scientist, healer and friend.  
Good movies can serve as vehicles of common grace and touch our lives just like that. He who has eyes, let him see.  

Of course, the fun part of a movie is not only in finding some hidden spiritual message hidden inside. But many films actually explore and confront us with themes that relate to faith, relationships and important social issues. They convey our society’s myths, symbols and fundamental beliefs about the meaning of human experience. So we are invited to enter into a dialogue over these overlapping themes where the Bible and film meet together. We need to watch with eyes wide open to appreciate them. Here is just a short sample of such films.

Abortion (Cider House Rules)
Death punishment (The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking)
Biotechnology/eugenics (Gattaca)
Faith and Reason (Life of Pi / Contact)
Freewill/consciousness/Artificial intelligence (I, Robot/The Matrix/Minority Report)
Environment/consumerism (The Lorax, Wall-E )
Conflict diamond trade/child soldiers (Blood Diamond)
Social control/Media ethics (The Truman Show)
Nuclear war (The Sum of All Fears, Terminator 2)
Slavery (Amazing Grace, Amistad)
The Holocaust (Schindler’s List, Life is beautiful)

So as parents and Christian leaders, we can wisely select and use some of them to guide and explore such issues with our children or cell groups for group conversation. A movie study may keep more people interested than a book study, right?

To do this effectively, we need to ask the right questions. In almost any movie, the story of the main character(s) is an argument for a way of living or a world view in the form of a drama. Something is lost and needs redemption: But, how? As the hero changes his attitude or assumptions about the world through his experiences in the ‘reel’ world, so we see what the filmmakers are trying to persuade us about how we see the real world.
When watching a movie, ask yourself,
·                      “What is the character flaw or problems of the hero at the beginning?”
·                      “What makes him change his mind in the story about the way he sees the world?”
·                      “What does he learn about the way life ought or ought not be lived?”
·                      “What is different about the way he sees the world at the end from the way he sees it at the beginning?” (Brian Godawa, “Hollywood Worldviews”)

This could be a good way to start a conversation. Asking such questions and offering answers biblically help us to apply and connect our Christian beliefs both in the ‘reel’ world as well as the real world.

3rd approach: Divine encounter  

A lot of people experience a sense of awe and wonder when they are confronted with something heart-stoppingly beautiful – whether it is listening to an orchestra playing Handel’s Messiah, or gazing at a masterpiece painting in a museum or even scuba diving on a breath-taking coral reef. People often come way from encountering beauty with a small glimpse of the divine. 

Have you experienced something similar? In the movie American Beauty, a broken young man from a dysfunctional family came across a plastic bag swirling around in the wind. It was just dancing around, like a little kid begging him to play with it. And he stood there and video taped the whole thing for fifteen minutes. He said:
“That's the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Sometimes there is so much... beauty... in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” It may seem like a mundane event but that encounter with a graceful dancing plastic bag gave him a sense of transcendence.

So it is with a well made film like any great work of art… It can be an opportunity for a burning bush experience if we watch with our hearts open. Common grace is everywhere, ready to burst forth when we least expect it.

Now, let us try to apply these three broad Christian approaches and see how they work with a Steven Spielberg war film “Saving Private Ryan”. Then you can compare and see which one(s) works for you. This is a story of 8 soldiers who were given a mission to rescue one man Private James Ryan from behind enemy lines. Why is he so important? Because his three brothers have all recently been killed in action; leaving him as the only child of a single mother. So the military leaders want him to be brought back alive. At one point, Captain Miller (the Tom Hanks character) says, “This Ryan had better be worth it. He’d better go home, cure some disease or invent the longer lasting light bulb or something.” And it turns out that the rescue mission claims the lives of all these eight soldiers, one after another. At the final battle scene, as the Captain himself dies, his last words to Private Ryan were: “Earn this – earn it”. In other words, look at the sacrifice we have made to save your life. You must earn it. Live a life that is worthy of our sacrifice.

Fifty years pass, and in the closing shots of the film, we see an elderly Ryan returning to the Captain’s grave with his wife, children and grandchildren. He kneels, and as tears fill his eyes, he says: “My family is with me today… Every day I think about what you said to me that day. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me”. Then he turns to his wife and asks anxiously, “Tell me I’ve led a good life… Tell me I’m a good man”. He has lived his entire life with the last words of his savior ringing in his ears. Earn it.

How should we respond? Some Christians may choose to avoid this R-rated film because of the graphic, violent battle on the beach of Normandy at the opening sequence. Or they may be offended by the soldiers’ foul language. That’s one possible response.

But others may recognize that this is a realistic description of World War II. They may be cautious about excessive violence, but they will seek a dialogue on the theme of war. Can war ever be just? Or is war always evil for everyone involved? The discussion becomes less abstract as you ‘see’ the concrete messiness of war. Or we may engage the human values of self-sacrifice and courage portrayed by Captain Miller and his men? How would you feel? How would you live differently if someone really gave away his own life so you may live yours?

Perhaps, some may even be drawn to a divine encounter though it is not be the director’s intention. Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command.” The fact is, Someone has already died for us and gave His life on the cross so that we might live to the full. And if we really get it, emotionally and personally, how can we live in the same old way again? It’s going to change everything. Your life is not your own. You have been bought with a precious price. How can we not love and sacrifice for others? How can we not live in a way worthy of the gospel? But there is a big difference: The Savior’s last words were not “Earn it. Earn my love”. His last words were: “It is finished!” It is done. The price has been paid. I have earned it for you. My love is costly and yet it is free.

As we talk about the movies we have experienced, we celebrate what is good and reject what is evil. It can serve as a bridge to connect with others who otherwise would never walk into a church or talk openly about their beliefs. Imagine your small group or family coming together to watch a good movie and then discuss and pray about them together. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Movie, like art and culture, is a wonderful thing. It’s a gift immersed with general revelation and at the same time, tainted by sin. So we must be good stewards of it.

Sometimes that means having the courage to say no. Other times, it means we need the courage to engage and have a meaningful conversation. On some rare and sacred occasions, they can even be the humble tools by which the Spirit of God works to change and enlighten us. Or perhaps for some of you gifted young people seated here - you may consider film-making as a calling from God .

Phillipians 4:8 – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gospel-Centered Worship: Seek And Celebrate God

Colossians 3:11-17: 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Sermon podcast is available for download here

The first church that I attended after becoming a Christian was a Cantonese speaking Methodist church in Ipoh. It was around 1990’s: And soon I found myself part of a youth group caught up in the charismatic renewal that was sweeping across many churches in town. We wanted to see revival come in our neighborhood. We wanted signs and wonders, healings and miracles and God’s power to be displayed. Along with that came choruses and contemporary music sung during our time of ‘Praise and worship’. Back then, contemporary music by Don Moen, Graham Kendrick, Ron Kenoly, Bob Fitts were the ‘in’ thing. We were quite free to do what we wanted in the youth meetings but the main worship service for the adults was quite traditional. There were old hymns accompanied by the church organ, recital of the Apostle’s creed, singing the doxology and threefold Amen. The youths (including myself) never knew why we did those things. Frankly we thought they were boring if not spiritually cold and lifeless. So we prayed hard and pestered the pastor to include more new songs in the main service. And boy! We were so happy when we first bought a drum set. It was so cool: “Hallelujah! Revival is finally coming to our church…” 

Welcome to the worship war! Hymns on the right versus choruses on the left…

Sad but true, worship that is supposed unite all believers regardless of race, age, gender and social background often becomes a battleground that separate and divide us. But thank God, I’d like to think that Malaysian churches seem to have matured beyond such debates today. Some churches would have a separate service with different music styles. Others will have a blended worship service that makes use of both (like what we do in Puchong). I guess most of us today have come to realize that the line is drawn not between the old and the new. There are emotionally rich hymns and horrible hymns just as there are doctrinally solid choruses and lousy choruses as well. The line isdrawn between good songs and bad songs.

But what counts as ‘good’ music for worship? Or a more basic question: What is worship anyway? What is it that we come to do every Sunday morning as a family of believers? Why are we doing what we do in CDPC Puchong? If the gospel is not just the basic ABC of our faith but the comprehensive A to Z that shapes everything we do, then how does the gospel shape our worship? Hopefully some of these reflections will help us to do just that.  

In the passage we read just a moment ago, we see that the gathered church is God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved – here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, Malaysian or African or American, male or female, young or old. These distinctions no longer separate us because Christ is all and is in all. So worship is not about me. Or my individual or cultural preference? It is not what I feel when I am by myself. Worship is all about Jesus. Christ is all in all. Therefore, we are all united in Him. The walls that divide us are broken down as we stand equal before God. It is our response to what God has done in loving and choosing and rescuing us. It’s about us coming together as a family to encounter Christ and be transformed by Him in the power of the Spirit.   

So first of all, Worship is God-centered. We give to God the adoration, honor, praise and glory that He deserves. Because He is worth it 

The first letter in our SIMPLE DNA is “S: Seek and celebrate God”. It’s all about God. Sometimes we can get caught up with “what I can do for God” or “what can God for me”, that we forget about God Himself at the center altogether. In worship, we seek and celebrate God for who He is.

There was a popular worship song called "When I look into His holiness" but it was often sung with a terrible mistake in the lyrics. Do you know where the mistake is? "When my will becomes enthralled in Your Love". Very often, people (including myself) have sung "When my will becomes enthroned in Your Love". Huge difference! My will becoming enthroned in God's love means my will is exalted, my will is made to sit on the throne in God's love, that God's love revolves around me and therefore, I am more important. On the other hand, my will becoming enthralled means I am captivated by and submitted to God's Love. Of course, it’s not an intentional mistake. But it goes to show that if we are not careful, worship can become deeply self focused and man-centered instead of God-centered.

Pastoral guru Eugene Petersen warned us that if we put human requirements above God, we may be entertained, we may feel distracted or excited in such worship; but we will probably not be changed. Our feelings may be sensitized but our moral direction/compass will be dulled when we make a god from our own imagination. 

Now, what is worship? The Anglican William Temple provided perhaps the best and most famous definition of worship that I have ever read. He said:

Worship is the quickening of the conscience by the holiness of God, the feeding of the mind by the truth of God, the purging of the imagination by the beauty of God, the opening of the heart to the love of God, and the devotion of the will to the purpose of God.

Note how God is all over the place in this definition. In short, in worship we encounter God and all that He is – His truth, love, beauty and holiness. And we are changed by Him – all that we are, mind, will, heart and imagination. In worship we encounter God Himself and we are changed by Him. There is an exchange: We give Him all that we are for all that He is.

Jesus says that His Father is looking for true worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth. To worship in spirit and in truth, we must engage our heart and mind. Truth without emotion is spiritually cold and dead. Emotion without truth is shallow and based on a wrong idea of god. We need deep affections/warm desire for God (the spirit side of the equation) rooted in a true vision of God’s greatness and love (the truth side of the equation). Otherwise we may honor God with our lips but if our heart is far away from Him, we are just wasting our time.

John Piper has a vivid picture to describe this dynamic. Imagine a red-hot, fiery furnace. You need to feed the flame with wood or fuel so that it generates heat and light. Imagine this all-consuming refiner’s fire. He says: The fuel of worship is the truth of God, the furnace of worship is the spirit of man, and the heat of worship is the vital affections/emotions of reverence, repentance, trust, gratitude and joy… pushing its way out in confessions, longings, acclamations, tears, songs, shouts, bowed heads, lifted hands, and obedient lives. (Desiring God)

So we want to be captivated by a true, biblical vision of who God is and what He has done and we want to express our heartfelt affections for God – joy, trust, awe, tears, lamentation and so on.  

How do we strike this balance in worship? You may realize this in CDPC Puchong that we work towards a blend of traditional hymns and contemporary songs (quite unique, considering the fact that hymns are like the Malayan tiger. They are both endangered species nowadays).

So what are the strengths of newer worship songs? They are often celebratory, upbeat and help us express spontaneous joy in our heart. Think “Celebrate Jesus Celebrate! He is risen, He is risen! Come on and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord”. They also tend to be personal and intimate. They don’t just talk about God; they allow us to speak directly to God. “I worship You, Almighty God, there is none like You”. The new songs help us to experience and express this closeness, this intimate relationship with God.  

Yet there is a real need to balance intimacy and awe in God’s presence. Yes its true that Christ is my Friend but He is still God. What kind of God is He? Here, the ancient hymns with their solid theology help us to remember. Their exalted lyrics teach us not to be too familiar or too flippant coming before Him. Hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty, All Thy works shall praise Thy name, In earth and sky and sea” opens up for us a grand vision of God as holy Creator and as the blessed Trinity.

So as a preacher, it is very humbling to realize that people probably won’t remember what I said next week but many people even children will memorize every word in a worship song they have learnt. I get the chance to see how children learn in Sunday School. The teachers (Mandy, Crystal and others) did a wonderful job teaching them bible stories and simple catechism. But when it comes to singing a song, they can almost memorize every single word along with the action sequence. It’s amazing how much they can learn through music.

And so are hymns and worship songs– they are powerful teaching materials. Especially today when we just cannot assume that people read the Bible very much. Like it or not, most people learn their doctrines by singing them. Not many people read books on systematic theology. But all Christians sing. And important truths about the faith were passed from one generation to another through songs. So Paul says this to us: “teach and admonish one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”.

A balanced blend of hymns and modern choruses can help us to worship in truth and worship in spirit. There should be passion and theology, heat and light, truth about God and feeling for God. That’s God-centered worship. We need to encounter afresh the beauty, holiness and love of God Himself.

2. Worship is corporate or communal

It is not just vertical (relating to God above). It is also horizontal (relating to others). It is not a solo performance. We can see this already in the Colossians passage just now that reminds us of identity as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. So Paul calls us to “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Worship is corporate.

Of course there is a place for private worship at home but Christian worship is primarily congregational. It’s personal but it’s not private. We worship as a family. When we worship, we assemble as a people belonging to Him. We are not just individuals who just happen to be in the same place at the same time. It is more important that we are in harmony than for our music instruments to be playing in the same key. It’s far more acceptable to have an instrument playing off beat than our hearts spiritually out of tune with one another. That’s why Paul stresses “forgiveness”, “love”, “peace” and “unity”: words that can have meaning only when we relate with other people.  He also calls us to a life of “singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in our hearts to God.” For God deserves the best music we can offer Him.

Our SIMPLE DNA says that we seek and celebrate God “By glorifying Him in creative, contemplative, heartfelt and celebratory worship, joining the global church through the ages”. That means when we worship, we do so in unity, in solidarity with true worshippers from different cultures, denominations, nations, languages across space and time. The global church is much bigger than we think. And we want to honor that inclusive diversity. 

If worship is corporate, then we should look for songs that bring people of different ages together because singing is an act of unity. When CDPC first started, we experimented with intergenerational worship service where children and adults would feel welcome. That’s why the furniture and sofas are arranged the way they are. That’s why we did the Kid’s talk. And we can flesh this ethos out in creative ways like when we sing songs in Bahasa, when we include our brothers/sisters from different countries to pray in their native tongue, when the music team joyfully plays from the back. That’s another unique thing that we do. Almost every musician that I talk to enjoys this arrangement. It is less distracting to others and draws less attention to ourselves. Some are just relieved because it doesn’t appear like a concert where we are performing in front while the audience passively enjoys the show. There is only the audience of One. It’s all about God. 

But how do we connect with the global church through the ages without a time machine? As good evangelicals, we don’t pray for the saints who have died. Well, one way we can link up our worship with worshippers in the past is through hymns. They remind us that Christianity is a historical faith. They connect us to our past.

When we sing, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” for example, we are reminded of the Reformation and the courageous stand that Martin Luther took in defense of the gospel. Here I stand so help me God. When we sing, “And Can It Be That I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” by Charles Wesley, we capture again the wonder of being strangely warmed by God’s grace during the Great Awakening revival. Soo Inn wrote: “Many hymns serve as snapshots of key moments in church history. They remind us that the Christian faith has come thus far because many others have come before us, many of whom have paid a heavy price for the name of Christ.” If we don’t do that, we will forget who we really are. A church without history is like a person without memory.

Not only that, we need to be shaped by the story of God’s people in redemptive history. For many centuries, the Jewish family would celebrate Passover. They eat unleavened bread, drink wine and partake of the roasted lamb. The child would ask, “Papa, why are we doing this?” And the elder in the family would explain, “Son/Daughter, we celebrate the Passover because we remember that the Lord delivered our forefathers out of Egypt with a mighty hand. On that night, the angel of death passed over homes on which the blood of the lamb was applied. That is how we pass over from death into life, from slavery into freedom. We are now part of this story.” In the same way, when we celebrate the Holy Communion as a Christian family, we remember that on the night Jesus was betrayed, He broke bread and said: “This is my body broken for you and as you eat it, remember me”. Then he lifted up the cup, gave thanks and said, “This is My blood of the new covenant, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins”. When our children ask, “Why are we doing this, Daddy/Mommy?” And we say: “We are now part of this story. Jesus the perfect Lamb of God delivered us from sin to life, from slavery into freedom”. We act out again and relive the story of God’s deliverance on the cross as it has been done for centuries.
One more way that we join the global church through the ages in worship is through our shared beliefs. There are historic summary statements of our faith that have been recited for hundreds of years such as the Apostles creed/Nicene/Chalcedon creed:
 I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
When we recite and memorize creeds like this together, we are saying to God: Here are the core beliefs we share in unity with each other and with others across the ages. We hold to the same faith that once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). Churches that do this make it difficult for people to be led astray by strange teachings.

Lastly, worship is gospel-driven

Worship is often understood narrowly as just the “singing before the sermon.” But again, the Scripture passage today reminds us that worship is much broader: whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to the Father. That’s holistic worship. All of life is to be an act of worship and thanksgiving. 

But having said that, we also need a rhythm of work and rest so that we set apart a day to come together and worship God as a congregation. Keeping the Sabbath reminds us that we are not machines. We are not in total control of life. It is a space and time for us to be refreshed, to remember who God is, what He has done, who I really am, what I have been called to be. And that’s what we do on Sunday mornings when we gather and it prepares us to be sent back as God’s people to the world.

So worship includes the singing before sermon. But it also includes our prayers, our responsive Scripture readings, our silent reflections, our confession of sin/guilt, our tithing, our listening to the Word preached, the Holy Communion. Every element of a worship gathering is a tool in the hand of God to shape and mold us in His own image. Let’s unpack these elements a bit more to see how can we "re-present" and act out the gospel in our worship? How can it be meaningful so that even a first time visitor will get to understand and experience the good news week in, week out?

When we first got together to discuss the ethos of worship in CDPC Puchong, we ask ourselves: What should the worship service look like? We leave a lot of room for various worship styles and I personally enjoy different personalities of worship leaders to shine through each week. But there is one thing in common that binds us together.

Our worship tells a story. We want to tell the gospel by the way we worship. It’s the simple yet profound story of God creating us, we have sinned against Him but Christ has redeemed on the cross and He shall return in glory. When we worship week in week out, this pattern of adoration, repentance, assurance of forgiveness and dedicating ourselves to God’s purpose becomes a habit. It becomes natural. It becomes our second nature like driving a car after many years.  The shape of the Bible story of creation/fall/redemption and hope guides our worship so that we do not just drift along with the leaders’ preference, or denominational tradition or what’s appealing to the surrounding culture.

Here is an example of how our liturgy may look like. It is not a strict to-do list, we can be very creative with the arrangements but it can serve as a helpful sample template:

We begin with the Call to Worship where we invite everyone to gather and worship the Creator, we call them out from their daily activities to come into His presence. Reading the Psalms (the prayer book and hymn book that Jesus used) together is a wonderful way to do this. For example, Psalm 95 is a beautiful call to worship that we like to use.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.
For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
    let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    the flock under his care.

Then, having come into the presence of a holy Creator, we search our hearts and confess the sins that separate us from Him. This can be a public confession and/or private confession. It gives us an opportunity to repent, ask for forgiveness and renew our trust in God’s faithfulness and follow Him more closely.

It’s appropriate to follow up confession with an assurance of pardon so that we do not just leave people with a sense of guilt and condemnation without any hope of grace. Again we can find many Scripture promises of God’s mercy i.e.
1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. These promises from Scripture come alive and become precious to us.  

We continue our worship with the collection of tithes where we give back to God from what He has blessed us with. That is also worship, thanksgiving and an offering to God.

And during the sermon, we listen actively to God’s word being preached from Scripture. God speaks to us through the reading of Scripture, through the words of the speaker and through the Holy Spirit convicting and comforting us. He gives us promises, warnings and reveals His will to us.

Having heard from God’s Word, we cannot remain passive and just ignore it. So we respond by dedicating our wills to the purpose of God. We renew our commitment to follow Him in response.
Then we end with a benediction or blessing that the gathered church is now dispersed and sent back into the marketplace as ambassadors of the gospel in word and deed. So we can see an inside-out movement in worship where having been gathered inside to encounter God and renewed, we are again sent outside to be salt and light in the world.

Without this inside-out movement, worship becomes too inward-looking and self-focused. In the Disney cartoon, The Hunchback of NotreDame, a gypsy girl Esmeralda prayed for the outcasts who were marginalized by her society. Then in contrast some religious-looking people prayed:
I ask for wealth, I ask for fame
I ask for glory to shine on my name
I ask for love, I can possess
I ask for God and His angels to bless me

Finally, Esmeralda prays this prayer:
I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I
Please help my people
The poor and downtrod
I thought we all were 
The children of God

Whose worship do you think is more pleasing to God, I wonder? That’s why I really enjoy it when we close our worship service last week by kneeling before God and sing “The Worker’s Prayer”. It is a great inside-out movement that prepares us for the challenges that we will face throughout the week in the workplace. Another one of my favorite “inside-out” songs is called: “God of the poor” that intercedes for people who are sick, dispossessed, unemployed and ask God for compassion for the poor and marginalized. It also prays for the ravaged earth that is poisoned and plundered by our carelessness and greed. It’s quite comprehensive, really. Songs like that help to connect our spirituality with the real pains we experience in the world.

Friends, if our worship is shaped by the gospel, we cannot help but realize that many others who have yet to know Christ need His grace also. Evangelism exists because worship does not. Worship is the driving force of mission – Once we have tasted God’s goodness, we want others to be included into this joy of enjoying and delighting in His love. The goal of evangelism is not just to save souls from sin (that’s true, of course). But the ultimate goal is so that people can enjoy and glorify God in fellowship with Him forever. Worship is more than a song. It is what we were made for. The ultimate purpose of our lives. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Here In My Home: The Role Of Church And Civil Society in Nation Building

Sermon audio may be downloaded here 

In 2008, a group of Malaysian artists - filmmakers, dancers, singers, musicians, producers got together to produce an anti-racism national unity music video. Nobody would be paid. Nobody was threatened with a knife. Only because they love Malaysia. It’s a gift to the nation, from those who love this beautiful country to those who feel the same… I first shared this song in church for a Merdeka Day sermon in 2008. It’s still as inspiring and relevant after these five long years… And I think it sets the tone well for how we can approach the topic today: The Church and Civil Society in Nation Building.

Do you find that meaningful? The song was written by Pete Teo and directed by Yasmin Ahmad and Ho Yuhang. You can’t help but feel a sense of loss thinking how much we need people like Yasmin Ahmad and her vision of an inclusive Malaysia.

Merdeka Day is just a month away. Where are we going, as a nation? Where is Malaysia now after the 13th general election? Barisan Nasional is still in power with a comfortable majority of seats even though it lost the popular votes. “Ini Kali-lah” turns out to be “Lain kali-lah”. BN is unable to regain its super 2/3 majority, but it took back Perak and Kedah states. There is a continuing crisis of confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. Pakatan Rakyat has filed a lawsuit against the Election Commission in a bid to annul the election results. Many people that I know feel a sense of disappointment, disillusionment, anger with the results. Once upon a time, there was a dream where Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazan, Melanau and various ethnic groups grow up happily together, we smile and hug each other like in those heart warming Petronas Hari Raya advertisements, we eat together in the school canteen and not inside smelly toilets. That is the narrative, the storyline that we have been brought up with.

But looking at the depressing headlines these days, you really wonder if it’s all just a myth: Allegations of non Muslim students having to eat in a changing room during fasting month and non-Malay doctors refusing to treat Malay patients. Alvivi’s idiotic stunt on Facebook received swift action (they were charged for insulting Islam and denied bail) but the Perkasa f’lers walk free as a bird. No action was taken even though Zulkifli Noordin had earlier insulted the Hindu faith and Ibrahim Ali called for the burning of Bibles with the word “Allah”. While we reject insults to any religion, the government needs to show that it works without fear or favor in acting against all those who do so. And we have to be concerned at the level of polarization in our society today. We need to actively pursue this elusive thing called “national reconciliation”. 

Because when the rakyat couldn’t care less or passive or silent or “tidak-apa”, that’s the perfect condition for injustice. Tyranny of the majority can very easily happen in a democracy. 

If you hang around CDPC for long enough, you’d realize that this kind of topic like cultural engagement is something we try to be intentional about… to nurture a kind of spirituality that is grounded in the real world where we live, work and play. Just this year alone, Michael/Tom have preached on Engaging Culture (how God has given us the cultural mandate to rule over creation as responsible stewards, transforming the world instead of isolating from the world or conforming to the world), Meng has also preached on Christian engagement in politics leading up to the general election, and Eugene has encouraged us to be culture makers (how everyone is called to bring the gospel story of creation/fall/redemption/hope to bear on every area of life, wherever we are). They have laid a solid biblical foundation that we can build upon, so I’d try to apply that to our Malaysian context. Nation building is a complex issue that requires much praying, thinking, doing and feeling. I hope our reflections today may point towards some ways in which we as a church can be a blessing to the country.

Let me begin with a hot cili padi question: What kind of nation are we building, anyway? Who are we, really? What is our national identity? More specifically, is Malaysia an Islamic state or a secular state?

During election campaigns, both PAS and UMNO would try to appeal to Malay Muslim voters by out-Islamizing each other. PAS promises to implement shariah laws and hudud laws when in power, and Umno steals their thunder: “Excuse me. But we are already an Islamic state, lar”. Prime Minister Najib Razak once said: “We have never been secular because being secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern a country… But we have never abdicated from those principles. Malaysia have been always been driven by, and adhere to the fundamentals of Islam”.

Ambiga Sreenevasan who was the Bar Council president then represents the other view: "No, Malaysia is a secular state, not an Islamic state. The law is clear about this whereby the supreme court in a 1998 case stated clearly: we are a secular state and the civil court administers secular law. Certainly, Islam receives special treatment in the Federal Constitution but that does not mean Malaysia is an Islamic state…”

Is it possible to find a way beyond this deadlock? Imagine you find two entrenched people arguing past each other and refusing to budge an inch. It’s always risky when you try to be nuanced and say, “I see what you mean but have you thought about this concern that she brought up?” You are likely to be shot at from both sides. But Jesus says blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called sons of God. Our role is to break down barriers, tear down walls and build bridges even if it means bearing the cross, isn’t it? What can Christians contribute to this conversation?

I believe Christians are in a strategic position to bridge this divide. Because we can better understand that for Muslims, Islam is a comprehensive way of life that speaks to every aspect of human life (from how they eat, how they dress, how they worship and pray, and how laws govern a country, its legal and banking system). For Christians, the gospel is about God’s grace reconciling humanity through Christ’s sacrifice for our sins instead of just a set of rules and regulations. A transformed heart is needed first before obedience to the law is possible. But the gospel also has a social dimension in that God’s rule has now begun to renew and transform every area of our lives. So we pray: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. It’s for all of life. If you ask Muslims to leave out their faith from public life totally, you will hit a wall. I think Christians can see a valid concern here where secular-minded folks just don’t get it.

We can also appreciate that secularism as an ideology can be extremely oppressive as well because it insists religious ‘values’ be kept at home while public policies are shaped by value-neutral ‘facts’. This can be seen in Marxist countries during the time of MaoTse Tung, Stalin and Pol Pot where people try to create a paradise without God. And the result is not exactly what John Lennon would imagine when he sings of a world of peace and brotherhood without religion. When people push away God, they always find a substitute god in an idol, a dictator hero, an –ism that is as oppressive, if not more oppressive than any cult.

 The fact is: every moral decision you make in public policies (whether it is on corruption, divorce, environmental conservation, same sex marriage, education) is influenced by your assumptions about what is ultimately real, what is human nature, what is right/wrong, your worldview. So when the secularist asks us to “check out your faith at the door before discussing public issues”, he’s actually taking a very narrow, hostile approach that “You must adopt my worldview before I allow you to talk”. That’s quite dogmatic, is it? Isn’t it more open minded and inclusive to hear and discuss views from various beliefs, bring them to the table and evaluate, critique them in open dialogue instead? It doesn’t matter if they come from secular or religious assumptions… 

So on one hand, we can see why our Muslim friends insist that Malaysia is not a ‘secular’ state in that ideological sense. It may be surprising to some of us how much common ground and bridge building can happen here.

But on the other hand, we can also understand deeply that the state must respect the multiracial, multi religious nature of Malaysian society. We are a pluralistic nation and that’s a rich diversity to be celebrated. If we impose laws to force minority groups to conform to another religion it will only violate their rights to believe and practice their own beliefs. In an Islamic state, Muslims may enjoy full legal status under Shariah law but non-Muslims are seen as ‘dhimmis’ – they are excluded from full participation in the legal system and public policy. Would it not amount to a form of religious segregation? Second class citizens? 

Ambiga is right that the supreme law of Malaysia is the Federal Constitution that says: “Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” During the formation of Malaysia the original framers of this document assured the Sabahans and Sarawakians that this clause “does not imply that Malaysia is not a secular state.” Put positively, Malaysia is therefore a secular state.

But that doesn’t mean that the state is hostile to religious faiths. It simply means that the state respects the integrity and equality of diverse religions. The government deals with temporal matters (such as education, fighting crime, economic policies) instead of making itself the supreme authority in religious matters. For example, the state is simply not competent to tell others how the Alkitab should be translated in Bahasa Malaysia. Separation of church/state or separation of mosque/state just means that politicians should not be allowed to exploit religion for selfish gains. So institutions like the church/mosque can be independent from state control. They can hold the state accountable to a higher moral authority. Instead of undermining Islam, a secular state in this sense actually lifts up the dignity of the mosque from being manipulated by self serving politicians. So it is not true that a secular state is inherently anti-religion.

The world is eagerly looking for examples of how a Muslim majority country can function with democracy and diversity. Whether you are Muslim, secularist or Christian, the challenge is for each one to bring resources from his or her respective beliefs to address practical issues, how to build an inclusive and just city. But what alternative vision of Malaysia could Christians work for? How can the gospel enter into this story line and bring some sort of resolution to its tensions? 

Dr Ng Kam Weng, a scholar at Kairos Research Center, suggests that we move away from the predictable, emotional reactions in the ‘either Islamic or secular state’ debate and focus instead on strengthening a pluralist democracy as a positive agenda. A pluralist democracy seeks to build a platform to resolve differences among the rakyat so that consensus is built from grass root interaction rather than imposed from the top. A pluralist democracy does not favor a particular religion to the extent that it discriminates against other religions. It does not require you to give up your faith or secular beliefs in order to join in the conversation.

Kam Weng draws on the biblical theme of a covenant as a framework for nation building: Throughout the Bible, God deals with humanity through covenants - he commits himself into relationship with them, binds himself/His people to obligations and responsibilities, blessings and punishments. It is not a uniquely Christian concept because the prophet of Islam made covenants with Jews and Christians during his time too.

A covenant is a moral agreement based on voluntary consent (it's not being forced on you). A covenant is established by mutual loyalty and promise keeping (rather than a concept of ketuanan/master-slave relationship). A covenant is witnessed by some transcendent higher authority between peoples having equal status/mutual respect, with obligation and responsibilities. So it balances freedom with social order, allows diversity in unity. It is realistic about human weakness in dealing with power.
Reinhold Niebuhr said: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Because we are all made in the image of God, blessed with common grace, we expect to see a lot of goodness, wisdom and integrity in our fellow Malaysians who do not share our faith. I have a lot of admiration and respect for the leadership, wisdom and courage of people like Marina Mahathir, Zainah Anwar, Farish Noor, Ambiga, Rafizi, Nurrul Izzah, Lim Teck Ghee and others that make it possible for democracy to function. If everyone is hopelessly greedy and easily bribed by promises of “you help me, I help you”, then there is no hope for democracy. 
But at the same time, man is inclined to injustice… he is fallen and power corrupts him just like the ring of Sauron can corrupt even the innocence of Frodo or a well-meaning Gandalf. So democracy is necessary because we cannot put absolute power into any person or group’s hands. C.S. Lewis says: “I support democracy because I believe in the Fall of Man… Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellow men”. Because God is Trinitarian, relational and love at the core of His being, we are not interested in creating any “Christian” state that imposes our will upon everyone else. You cannot trust me with absolute power because I am also a fallen sinner and I will turn into an ugly, twisted Gollum if you do.
So we do not want to build a state that is all-powerful and sets itself up as god. Instead, the state must see itself as only one institution among many players in wider society. Its authority is limited in scope. Churchill: Democracy is the worst kind of government except that it’s better than all the other systems.
How could the church then be publicly relevant without being coercive?

Which also brings us to the question: What is Civil Society? Perhaps the simplest way is to see civil society as a "third player" distinct from government and profit making business (the market). Civil society refers to "intermediary institutions" such as professional associations (Bar Council for lawyers), religious groups (the church/mosque/temple), labor unions (MTUC), citizen advocacy organizations (BERSIH, SUHAKAM, SUARAM) and interest groups (WWF, Himpunan Hijau, Dong Zhong, Perkasa) that give voice to various segments in society. These groups enrich public participation in a democracy. Volunteering is often considered a defining characteristic of civil society, which in turn are often called Non Government Organizations, or Non Profit Organizations.

This definition is helpful but there are always grey areas. For example, the news media is called the fourth branch of government (judiciary, legislative (Parliament), executive (The Cabinet – Prime Minister and all the ministers). If not for the online media raising a public uproar over the recent amendment to allow one parent to convert their minor children to Islam, nobody would have known about it. But because people spoke up, the amendment was pulled back for now. So a free and independent press is a crucial element in civil society. But most newspapers and TV stations including Malaysiakini are run as profit-making organizations, so are they part of civil society or part of the commercial world? Anyway, the definition gives us some helpful idea on what civil society is.

Perhaps by your work, education, calling or industry experiences, you can see that you gravitate to one of these areas already. That’s why we have Faith and Work conversations every Sunday, so we can pray for, challenge, equip and send out people to be salt and light in the different corners of our world.

Abraham Kuyper is a well known Dutch reformed pastor, artist, journalist, founder of the Free University of Amsterdam and Prime minister. I don’t know how he does it, but his life demonstrates that the lordship of Christ covers every area of human existence. He also argues that there are different spheres in society such as business, schools, family and church that should have its own freedom and sovereignty. They are all related to one another and build up each other. And the state should not encroach upon their independence. Civil society represents different voices and stakeholders in building a healthy democracy. And the church needs to get in there, and be a part of that.    

How can we contribute to nation building? What can the church do to strengthen civil society?
Even though the church is a small minority, we can make a difference by focusing our effort on a few key strategic things like

Caring for the poor regardless of race and build greater respect and trust among different groups. Think of the orang asli ministry and English tuition ministry to children at the Enggang Flats. Malaysian Care is an NGO involved in that.

Support and lobby for transparency, integrity and anti-corruption in society. NGOs: OHMSI, Transparency International. Are complaints of corruption ignored while the whistleblowers penalized?  

Promote greater freedom to be informed. Write to the newspaper editors or online media. Write a Facebook comment to MP or speak up for a cause? Ken Yeong set a good example by writing on environmental issues at the Bakun National Park, which is also a social justice issue for indigenous peoples.

Does our education system produce students with character, creativity and critical thinking skills? Or are they insular, boxed in and unemployable? A member of our church (Grace Boey) decided to go beyond complaining and be part of the solution. She went back to school to teach. 

And she posted this on her Facebook in April:  
Today as I was walking to class, I saw a few of my students borrowing sejarah text books from the class next door and my mood immediately lit up. Then I went into the class and they proudly showed me the books, telling me that they borrowed it just for my class (their own books got confiscated). I couldn't help myself but put on a wide grin. I acknowledged and praised them publicly and they brimmed with pride. It’s so ironic because these are the exact students who kept challenging me in class at the beginning of the year. These are the students who refused carry out my class activities or pay attention when I am teaching. These are the students who asked me to stopped trying to change them because there is nothing that I can do to help them and that they are useless so please stop wasting my time. Today, they showed me a different side of them. A side I have patiently waited and hoped to see. And when one of them (the most notorious of the group) started copying my notes, I almost wet my eyes. I am so proud of you guys. You have proven everyone else wrong about you. Please keep up the good job. I am cheering for you. People ask why do you teach? I teach to help people live better lives and that is why I Teach For Malaysia. 

If you would also like to make a difference and stop education inequity, apply now for Teach for Malaysia. (NGO)

What about you? What about me? How can we be a part of this? Be part of what God is doing in Malaysia. Things are changing fast… maybe not fast enough for some of us. But never underestimate the power of little platoons, small groups committed to acts of mercy and justice to effect social change. It can happen organically, one heart at a time, from bottom up. Not necessarily from top down, political change. Jesus says that the kingdom is like yeast that permeates and influences the whole dough silently, unassumingly.

 Do we feel a sense of ownership of the problems and potentials of our country and take action? Many people will engage in protest, but even more will follow if you offer them a better way. To give an alternative is harder, requires more work and creativity than just shouting and chanting "Hancur BN"! Don’t get me wrong – there are times when we gotta be angry with the nonsense happening around us. Some of us have been on the streets for BERSIH 1, 2, and 3. And we will probably go for a 4th, if there is one. 

But the power of protest is not in its anger but in its promise, in its invitation that something more beautiful is indeed possible. Not in a common hate, but a common love. That’s what excites people to give their lives for something bigger than themselves. That the ugliness we see today will not last. We shall overcome one day.

If you see the photos or experience the gathering of peaceful, passionate, multiracial, united Malaysians at the BERSIH rallies, you begin to imagine and realize that in principle, another Malaysia is possible. Standing together, we are proof that this other Malaysia is now coming into being; tangible evidence that its time is near. The old social order is dying, but the new is yet to come. In the midst of all the ugliness in this transition, the primary responsibility of the church is to be itself, a people who have been formed by the gospel story. Every Sunday, when we worship, we retell and re-enact the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption and hope. The gospel shapes us to be true to who we are - a new humanity, an alternative society in this fading evil age.

That means: If we want to see transparency and accountability in our leaders, we should begin with ourselves. If we want social equity, then we ourselves need to live simple, sustainable lifestyles and care for the poor. Change starts at home. If we want to see racial harmony, then the church has to be a diverse and reconciling community first.

Someone wrote: The Christian community is the only community in Malaysia that has no single dominant ethnic group, and embraces all ethnic groups with the exception of Malays. Even the last caveat is misleading since there are believers like Lina Joy and substantial numbers of pri-bumi peoples (Sengoi, Iban, Kadazan, Melanau) are very closely related to the Malays linguistically, culturally and ethnically. It is the only non-Muslim community in Malaysia with a strong interest in the Malay language since Bahasa Bibles have been in use for over 150 years. (excerpt from Proclaiming The Peacemaker, by Peter Rowan)

Friends, how we relate to each other, how we deal with gender roles, social class and ethnic relationships will be a witness to this fragmented society. It’s a long, long road. It's not going to be easy. 

Let me end with another quote from Niebuhr: Here’s the thing. The other Malaysia we long for may not happen in our lifetime but "Nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.” Hope: that God will bring it to completion one day even when we don't live to see it. "And nothing true or beautiful or good ever makes complete sense in our immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith". Faith: that God is able to lead when our sight is dim, and we do not see how we fit in the bigger scheme of things… "And nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love". Love overcomes the walls that divide us and walks alongside us when the shadows fall. The night is always darkest just before dawn.

And now these three remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.