Thursday, September 29, 2005

Birth (by C-section) of a preacher

It seems as if there's been quite a lot of talks and presentations going on lately among my friends in the Malaysian blogosphere. Over at The Agora, a few people will, over the next couple of weeks, do several informal workshops on various social and cultural issues and proposing ways of approaching them as a Christian. Meanwhile, Emergent Malaysia has what appears to have been a very fruitful session on what it means to live as a Christian in both a postmodern and a Malaysian context - see here and here for an account of what happened. (Would have loved to listen in!)

The night before I left for the UK, I too had the privilege to speak to the youth group of my church. No lofty philosophical issues or penetrating analyses of society however - no sirree, all I did was humbly deliver an exposition on Titus 2:11-14.

Or as my mum puts it, I made my debut as a preacher. :-)
Haha...don't say that to me though; I still feel uncomfortable with that label. Initially I wasn't even going to do it. My youth deacon and a dear friend, Mac had approached me about expounding on a biblical text - he proposed Daniel - and I said I'll think about it. Which I did, for all of 20 seconds (ok, maybe it was a little longer than that) before I mentally decided, nah, I can't do it. I'm just not cut out that way. Sure I fantasised about being some eloquent, charismatic preacher, but I knew that the reality was *ahem* a little different. Public speaking is NOT my forte.

It was the trip to KL that changed my mind. Firstly, this crafty lawyer subtly pushed me to reconsider my decision without ever being direct about it, and then Hedonese told me to just have a stab at it. So I got back and told Mac that I'll do it.

Number of times I questioned my sanity over the next 2 weeks: at least 10.

I decided on doing that specific Titus passage for a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to give a "back-to-basics" talk as I wanted something that strongly emphasised how important it is that we remain gospel-driven all our lives. (Also, it meant that I could connect with both groups in my anticipated audience - committed Christians and those that still weren't sure about making the faith their own). I thought that the youth group had heard quite a lot on the "what-to-dos", and that perhaps they might need to take a step back and regain a look at the big picture of why they were choosing to live as Christians. Also, my talk was scheduled the week after a big PlanetShakers concert in Kuching, and remembering how my younger self would have been hyped up after such an event, I wanted to encourage the youth group to be keep on going even when the going gets tough. Finally, I was quite familiar with the book of Titus, and it's a good idea to go with what you know.

The entire sermon transcript is sitting on the desktop back home now - this is the outline of what I said. Broadly speaking, I went for the 3-point sermon format...hehe, despite that I think my preaching was more narrative-based that proposition-based. I opted to use the question of identity as my angle into the text - so I started by showing the myriad ways we all answer the question "Who am I?". So for eg. I could answer that by saying: "I'm [my first name]". (Btw, they were quite tickled to know that some of my friends really call me BK. Naturally, jokes about Burger King ensued.) Or I could have said "I'm the brother of [AK]". Or I could have defined myself by where I come from, in this case I used schools as the subject, and discovered in the process that the makeup of the youth group had changed since I was a Youth myself. (I come from a secondary school that has a umm....certain it was really interesting to see their reactions when I told them where I was from, and when I pointed out how they reacted.)

I found the segueing from the intro to the main body of my talk really difficult. I chose to do it by stating that once someone becomes a Christian, it forms an eternal aspect of his identity and illustrated it by using an example from the Lion King when Mufasa appears to Simba in a vision to remind him of his heritage. I'm not sure how well that worked. I then quickly gave the background for the book of Titus, and especially on 2:1-10, the text preceding the passage I was preaching on, showing essentially how it was a list of instructions. Then I showed that Paul's emphases throughout the letter, however, was 2-fold, in that it wasn't just a list of detailed instructions so Christians on the island of Crete lived in a way that was consistent with their beliefs, but also that Paul continually made sure that their focus was always on Jesus as God and Saviour (so for eg. 1:1-3, 2:11-14, 3:4-7). In other words, it was both retrospective and proactive (although I didn't use those words).

The thrust of my talk, then, was that our identities as Christians derive not from what we do but from what Christ has done for us. It was on to my 3 points then, of which I hoped would each answer 2 question: what does it mean to be a Christian, and how does this teach me to express my identity authentically as a Christian?

Since I'm not preaching the sermon all over again, I'll give you the barest bones of my talk:
1. People who know grace (v.11-12)
Viewpoint: past
→ Changes our motivation
2. People who know hope (v.13)
Viewpoint: future
→ Changes our perspective
3. People who are being purified (v.14)
Viewpoint: present
→ Changes our attitude
And I ended it by a quickly addressing the question of whether we can lose our salvation (I borrowed liberally from Mike Raiter at KVBC here), and the importance of community.

So what did I learn from this? Loads of things. I was very surprised by the lack of nervousness I felt when I was up-front, compared to my sweaty palms beforehand - maybe that was God's doing. My audience was pretty responsive whenever I interacted with them - I guess it helps that I'm not that much older than some of them. But it's hard to tell; I can't judge for myself how well or badly it went. I thought it did, but then again, I'm delivering the talk! It might be different if I was in that 15-year-old's shoes. Two people told me afterwards it was excellent, so that's a plus point I guess.

I seriously underestimated the length of my talk; I had 40 minutes, but ended up preaching just over an hour. I know how hard it is to keep up your concentration however good the talk is. Also, I know that some of my sentences and illustrations could have been further honed if I had the time - I now have a renewed appreciation for how much work a pastor has to put in in preparing for his sermon! And I included at least one illustration that went over the heads of my audience - I realise now that it was probably more appropriate to a college-age audience than a high-school one.

I also discovered how easy it is to lose yourself in the minutae of preparing for a talk that I forgot that ultimately it will be the Holy Spirit who convicts, not how brilliant your sermon is. It's very easy to become dependent on yourself and forget to pray.

Also, and I know this is often true too of bible study leaders, I think although I may have been the 'teacher', I learnt loads from the text I was preaching on too. There were plenty of times when I had to ask myself: "Actually, am I walking the talk?" or exclaiming: "Hey, I need to practice this myself too!"

And finally, perhaps the most surprising thing of all, how much fun I had. Maybe it's because I was more comfortable with the youth group, which meant that I could banter with them from time to time during the sermon, but I was so animated throughout that I wasn't sure if I wasn't channelling someone else out there.

So did I regret doing this? Definitely not. Would I do it again? Dunno, I think I'm still not ready to face a more mature audience.

† Expand post

Friday, September 23, 2005

Summer's come and gone

You say you wander your own land
But when I think about it I don't see how you can
You're aching, you're breaking
And I can see the pain in your eyes
Says everybody's changing
And I don't know why

So little time
Try to understand that I'm
Trying to make a move just to stay in the game
I try to stay awake and remember my name
But everybody's changing
And I don't feel the same

Youre gone from here
Soon you will disappear
Fading into beautiful light
Because everybody's changing
And I don't feel right
- Keane, Everybody's changing

I'm leaving for the UK this Sunday, and I have mixed feelings about it. It's been a summer of transition, I guess, knowing that I'll be passing a few milestones soon - turning 21 at the end of the year, graduating in a year's time, etc. And yet it feels like a summer of limbo too, where one is unsure of everything but he can't really do anything about it until the time comes when push becomes shove. I feel like I want to stay in 'pause' mode for a while longer, but time doesn't wait for anybody, so I have to come out of hibernation, whether I want to or not.

I've met with a few friends, some who don't seem to have changed one iota, but others who have - although I realise that often, it's also me who has changed. It's an inevitable part of the drift of life, but sometimes it sure disturbs my equilibrium.

As I look ahead, I'll have many challenges and responsibilities to take on in the coming year - a lot of them scary - and I think that means blogging will not be near the top of my priorities. I will try to blog as regularly as I can, but please don't be surprised if you find the frequency of my posts diminishing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

On the core of sci-fi

Subtitled: Is perfection a dirty word?

The following post is founded partly on the feelings of whimsicality and moodiness of this blogger. :-p

Sci-fi, or at least, good sci-fi, is and never really will be about giant robots, alien beings, or galaxy exploration. The setting might normally be remote or futuristic, but like fantasy, the genre it has most in common with, its themes and probings are often very contemporary, timeless even. At its core, sci-fi is always about the exploration of humanity itself, and what it means to be human beings in this universe.

I don't really know why I've been thinking about this a little recently, apart from the fact that I was watching this Disney Channel original movie which had the usual plotline whereby an entirely human-looking nonhuman entity is created for a specific purpose. (In this case, it was a hologram instead of the usual robot, created to front a band - hey, it was a movie for younger teens after all.) Usually, in sci-fi plotlines, we are human because
a)we have a 'soul' (which will, of course, be interpreted differently by different people),
b)that we can 'feel' things (and we ain't talking merely about nervous systems!), usually love, unlike robots - perhaps Pinnochio is an early forerunner!
c) we have an inherent identity of some sort; think of movies that dramatise our fear of world-conquering robots or rogue computers, such as Terminator 3 or The Net
d) and so probably can think of a few more.

One thing I notice however, as I see it, is that one notion which seems to pop up again and again that to be human is to be imperfect.
Perfection, and one ceases to be human. Actually, I'm oversimplifying this, as the really good sci-fis surely don't put it as crudely as that. Yet it seems to me that often, a reader/viewer will come away with that impression, even if it's unintentional; there does seem to be an abundance of books/movies which usually involves the creation of a so-called 'perfect' being(robot/computer/hologram/whatever) which has not-so perfect consequences. It could be the machine goes bad - the word 'robot' was actually coined by a sci-fi author in the 1920s about mechanical humans who rebel against their masters. Or we discover they have limitations such as being unable to emote - think of Lieutenant Data in Star Trek.

I was a little uneasy about this at first. On the surface, it seems obvious - yes, of course, humans are imperfect and limited! I think even humanists don't dispute that too much. But then I thought, wasn't Jesus, 100% human as well as 100% God too, perfect? And aren't all Christians called to be perfect? So, is being human really about being imperfect?

Then I realised that a lot revolved what we mean by 'perfect'. Often, the machines in sci-fi are 'perfect' in terms of their cognition, or ability, or technologically, even looks, but very rarely, if ever, from an ethical viewpoint. And I guess that sci-fi authors often want to challenge our own personal definitions of perfection. Whereas, we're often talking about moral perfection in the Christian context. Or Christ-like perfection, to put it another way.

Still, it is quite interesting to briefly probe a little more. I think it can be pretty telling that a genre normally associated with science, technology, progress etc. is one which is most ideally suited to the question of what it means to be human, often by the means of contrast. Again, our ideas of what perfection means comes under the microscope - can 'perfection' be achieved via these means? It seems as if we instinctively know that we're more than just robots, even if some of the sci-fi worlds portrayed are very Darwinian, where everything happens at random. (Even a light-hearted book such as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy portrays such a world.)

Or that the concept of the perfect mechanical being has long both fascinated and repelled us. It seems as if we cannot desist from such a quest of finding a thinking but unfeeling machine, because we long for the order and peace that they ostensibly could offer us. It's a quest for perfection, but at what price?

There is also a hint of the creator-creation relationship gone wrong, as frequently we find tales of humans enslaved or preyed upon by the machines they created with their own hands, although interestingly, the characters who are 'perfect' and 'imperfect' are inverted from that in the Christian narrative, as the creator-human in sci-fi are the latter.

Probably the best protagonists are those who strive to do right in spite of their flaws, and not despite their flaws, and it is no different in sci-fi. And perhaps this is the best clue to what it really means to be human. As a Christian, I believe that all humans are made in the image of God. But what does that really mean? I'm still working that out, but perhaps we can pinpoint some things. The word 'image' in the Old Testament apparently was often used to refer to three-dimensional statue of something or someone, a representation. These statues in the ancient world carried about connotations of fragility, of being breakable. That, I think, is perfectly suited to what we know about the human condition. But who are we made in the image of? God, the king of the universe! What this means is that each human is imbued with dignity and value, far above mere animals, or robots for that matter. And we represent one who is certainly far from fragile.

Perhaps this does give us a little pointer as to what being human means, and our love-hate relationship with the idea of perfection. We know that we're imperfect, yet at the same time we know that that's not the way it was meant to be.

OK, I think that's enough for this post - don't want to keep droning on (pun intended?). One last comment. Thinking about this also forces me to confront with my own imperfections, my own hypocrisy - recognising my own weaknesses as a human and as BK in particular. And here I admit I fall short - here I think of that All American Rejects song Dirty Little Secrets. My own confrontation with imperfection needs to be balanced with a renewed striving to do better, not by my own strength, but by the grace of God.
† Expand post

Sunday, September 18, 2005

I'm taking a break from theology

"Our commendation of the good news of the kingdom of God comes most powerfully in our obedience, not our defense. A credible intellectual defense does not carry the same weight as active submission to our King. When the world sees that He reigns in us, they will be forced to confront His claim of Kingship. If we merely speak of Him, He is not honored and the world is not drawn." - Stephen at WhollyHis.
OK, so I'm not really taking a break, not if theology is simply defined as the knowledge of God, or as John Frame puts it, the application of the whole Bible to the whole human life. But in reacting against the anti-intellectualism of the day, let us not swing to the other side of the pendulum and over-intellectualise what being a Christian means as well. Even propositional truth has relational implications.

And if you're wondering why I'm posting this, it's because I need to remind myself that I'm not just a student of the King, but His subject. Amen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Tension is a passing note...

"But tension is to be loved,
when it is like a passing note
to a beautiful beautiful chord."

- Tension is a passing note, Sixpence None the Richer

I've always been fascinated by the topsy-turvy, oxymoronic nature of being a follower of Jesus. Jesus seems to delight in the paradoxical, often reconciling two polar opposites. Dying to live. Loving your enemies. Last shall be the first. Kingdom of God is here, but in the future. Divine sovereignty and human freedom. Assurance of salvation, but working it out. Entering his rest, but making every effort to enter it. Fallen world, but common grace. Sinner and saint. God and man.

And over the past couple of years I've become even more aware of just how much our lives are characterized by all these tensions, and how hamstrung we feel sometimes, pulled both ways. For the Christian, of course, we know that this is the way it will be until Jesus comes again. But even those who don't share my faith also know of various tensions in their lives, I'm sure. Family, or career? (Of course, the answer will be both, but it's quite a wobbly tightrope to straddle!) To keep on the go, or to put down roots? And so on.

And blogging is full of this tension too. It invites intimacy, but retains distance. It asks of the blogger to be selective in his material. So I think it appropriate to rename my blog "Tension is a passing note...", for as I seek to capture the tension that shapes our lives, I recognise that my own writing may be fraught with opposing forces wrestling within it as well.

Then tension sometimes can be unbearable, and we snap, crashing to the ground faster than a plunging lift. Which is why I think that little chorus from Sixpence None the Richer is such a beautiful reminder that the stretching and straining, this interplay of opposing elements will not always be forever. Till then, however, we live in the passing note, which feels so prolonged to us, but is in fact a brief dissonant tone, anticipating the transition into a harmonic symphony.

Meanwhile we look for little respites, a rest - a musical notation indicating a silence of a specified duration. It has been said that the rests in a piece of music are as important as the notes. Maybe blogging will be part of those little pauses, a break between acts before the drama moves on.

Hebrews 4:1-11