Thursday, June 28, 2007

Chicken soup for the soul

Actually, it was more like chilli con carne and lettuce, since that's what I had for dinner. But it was really good to see old friends again, to hear of what God is doing in their lives, and to be encouraged and humbled once again. It's always good to know that God is bigger than you.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wrestling and the breaking of the fourth wall

Most of you probably don't know this, but I am a bit of a wrestling fan. While I didn't follow the WWF (as it was known then) religiously as some of my peers did, I did enjoy the occasional match. When I was around 13, I remember actually following WCW for a few months - I thought they were more interesting than their more famous (in Southeast Asia anyway) competitors. I don't follow it that closely now, but whenever I'm home I would tune in to an episode of RAW just to see what was going on in the wrestling world.

I guess it was a combination of cartoonish elements, the soap opera storylines, the straightforward "good vs. evil" fights - and as I got older and understood better how the business works - the interest in how the creative team booked matches to further a particular angle that got me hooked. Of course, there were plenty of unsavoury elements as well, such as the shameless objectification of women or the ridiculous stereotyping, but it was quite enjoyable as a form of escapism. And I always thought that wrestling as sports entertainment also provided some fascinating insights into human psychology and behaviour (but that's a thought for another time).

Unlike most of my friends, I wasn't a big fan of people like The Rock (too mouthy for me), or Stone Cold Steve Austin (Austin 3:16 struck me as being blasphemous). But I remembered finding myself attracted to Chris Benoit. Even a casual fan like me could see that technically, he was one of the best, and that he was nothing if not professional. I find I naturally like quiet heroes(thus I am a big fan of Tim Duncan) so it's not big surprise Benoit became a favourite of mine. It seems that his on-screen persona reflected much of his true character as well.

Which is why I was as stunned as anybody to discover that not only has Benoit and his family died over the weekend, but it appears to be a murder-suicide. The details are a little bizarre and seem to be at odds with what everyone backstage knew of Benoit. It comes as the WWE had recently been running a storyline of the "death" of "Mr. McMahon" (the on-screen character of the WWE boss) and is just one instance of life imitating art in the most unfortunate manner. The story has been big enough to receive mainstream news coverage from places like ESPN and someone even called it "the biggest sports news of the year". I guess to non-fans it all seems a little bewildering, but someone mentioned that it was like OJ Simpson in that it transcended categories of sport.

I don't know, but the details don't look too good. If it is confirmed that Benoit was guilty, then he has tainted his own legacy permanently. And I guess that's what made people so confused, so unsettled: that the person they thought they knew could have done this. Secondarily, it would also turn the spotlight back on the wrestling industry and the problems they have with things like drug abuse, but primarily, it is is the human tragedy that people are dwelling on. John Cote, on the Slam Sports website writes:

I am so angry right now at Chris Benoit. I am do not know what led to these events so i will not voice my opinion on them, someone far greater than me will be judging Chris Benoit. From a selfish standpoint, Some of my greatest memories of pro wrestling involved Chris Benoit, and with this single act, he has tainted them, not just for me but for millions of people who looked up to him and admired his work.
One of the most obvious things I noticed is that many people's reaction is that of anger, a sense that some sort of justice must be exacted. In a very emotional piece and by no means untypical of what I've seen so far, GRUT rages:
The saddest death of the three is Chris Benoit. He got to take the shortcut...He gets to fade into the darkness instead of facing the truth...God, don't let him get off that easy. Let there be a Hell...
Best commentary at the time of this posting, complete with references to Dostoyevsky, is from Eric Szulczewski:
Until we get an explanation, we have to deal with this. We're fans of a medium where violence is inherent. But we know that the violence is make-believe. People do get injured, but it's accidental. They're not trying to cause injury in the ring. That's what makes this situation so shocking to us. We've seen Chris Benoit get down and dirty with opponents for two decades. We just can't imagine him doing it outside the ring. We certainly can't imagine him committing acts of violence on his wife and child...

There was once a man who was a specialist in this area, attempting to explain the inexplicable. Fyodor Dostoevsky's books are crammed full of irrational characters performing actions that violated every precept of what was considered moral society...Evil had this tendency to lose, because Dostoyevsky always had faith that morality would win out in the end, no matter how despicable his characters were...
Read the whole thing
. I don't really have anything profound to say. Have a look at some of the pieces above and I'm sure you'll notice quite a bit to chew on, on God, on justice and judgment, on humanity. Some of the people I quoted above have already made quite overtly theological statements, and I think the majority of my readers, as Christians, already know all about total depravity and the fallen world. I see no reason to expand on this for the moment, I have reflected on it more in this post from a couple of years back. I guess I just feel a little sad, a little disorientated. Kevin Jones on SLAM talks poignantly about being unable to convey the reality of death to his nine-year old son, who doesn't quite understand that the wrestling world is fake, but this isn't. Death and tragedy never gets old, never quite gets explained away.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Fiction roundup

I have been reading a lot of fiction lately – the most I’ve ever read for fun in years!

World War 2 is a favourite setting for many novelists, and I remember reading many young adult novels that used it as a teenager, eg. Joan Lingard’s Tug of War, Summer of my German Soldier (I can’t remember the author offhand). As far I can tell, the supply has not been exhausted – the 2005 Carnegie Medal winner Tamar (Mal Peet) is a WW2 novel. But Scott Turow’s Ordinary Heroes is the first so-called “adult” WW2 novel I’ve ever read. Turow, of course, is well known for his legal thrillers, and I’ve always wanted to pick up one of his books. At the same time, I had been looking for a war novel to read, and so this proved to be the ideal choice.

Mourning the death of his father, Stewart Dubin decides to find out more about the man he has always looked up to, but who always remained something of a mystery to him. "All parents keep secrets from their children," Dubin says. "My father, it seemed, kept more than most." He digs through personal letters and discovers a portrait of a conscientious legal officer in the army, who is nevertheless court-martialled when he fails to obey orders. The mystery lies in the motivations behind his act of defiance.

The story is told through flashbacks, and effectively touches on the corrosive effects of war, the way it transforms people, the moral ambiguities and the startling clarity of how a desperate need to survive overrules everything else. Turow was especially praised for one particularly pivotal battle scene, and it lives up to the praise. It was evocative and I felt like an eyewitness. Another big theme was the importance of memory and how much the past should be allowed to shape the present. The book did drag in places, although I felt the pace really got going once he parachutes out of the plane about a third way through the novel, and I suppose some will accuse Turow of breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule towards the end, but those are minor complaints.

Atonement is Ian McEwan’s masterpiece, by all accounts, and it was another book I greatly enjoyed. In it, he shows how one misconstrued event can change lives forever. Like Turow, WW2 also serves as a backdrop of this novel, although war is not really its concern. The first third of the novel is the strongest, as McEwan effortlessly shows life in an upper-class mansion pre-WW2. His big theme is that of the power of the imagination. He also shares with Turow, although it is emphasised more strongly, the question of how our past affects our present. What makes McEwan different though, is that he questions the reliability of memory and how dependent we are on textual mediation. Classic postmodern themes. Expect plenty of musings on the role of the author-narrator and how the distinction between the external world and that of the inner life (imagination, consciousness etc.) isn’t so clear-cut, i.e they affect each other in suprising ways.

The biggest (pleasant) surprise, though, was George Pellecanos and The Night Gardener. Prior to the aforementioned novel being hailed as the best American crime novel of 2006, I had never even heard of the writer, although crime aficionados have been in the know for years. I was expecting a straightforward police procedural, but Pellecanos transcends all the generic conventions and turns it into a social commentary on race and society’s ills. A lot of the novel is spent simply detailing the day-to-day family life of Gus Ramone, the protagonist, as well as painting what life in inner city Washington DC looks like. He painstakingly chronicles what racial prejudice sounds like in the daily banter and conversations of normal people, and he shows us his beliefs that escape from the ghetto of drugs and violence is somewhat of a lottery, aided in part by good education and upbringing. The actual solving of the crime is almost incidental. I suppose if you want to place him on the spectrum of crime writing, he will probably belong in the James Lee Burke/Dennis Lehane category of so-called “literary” crime fiction.

Anne Tyler. Wow. I devoured both Saint Maybe and Digging to America in the space of 5 days. Tyler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, delights in following the lives of oddballs in her hometown Baltimore, and her art lies in that she manages to accomplish so much with such simplicity of language. The former follows Ian Bedloe, who is saddled with guilt after some ill-informed accusations leads to his brother’s suicide and the mental breakdown of his sister-in-law. (Atonement would also have been an appropriate title). He finds solace in a rather strange if endearing version of Quaker/Anabaptist religion and in bringing up his brother’s orphaned children, and Tyler simply just lets us vicariously live Ian’s life. The latter, not quite as strong as Saint Maybe, deals with what it means to belong: two Korean babies are adopted by an Iranian immigrant and classic American families respectively. Both sets of families have very different parenting philosophies, but somehow manage to forge a friendship in spite of the inevitable cultural clash. Tyler is always gentle with her characters, we love all of them in spite of their flaws.

If you’ve read any of the above or read something you’ve enjoyed lately, I look forward to hearing from you!

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

The confused researcher

ingenious algebraIt sure feels strange to know that it's been a year already since I sat for Finals and began worrying away over my future. What do you know, I thought my student days were over, but in the end, I ended up staying at school for another year, no doubt trying to put off entering the big bad world for another year.

It's summer again, and what does it have in store for me? Well, not a long holiday, that's for sure! I am in the process of starting to write a thesis and so I only finish in September. I have to say, being a first-time researcher, it's been fairly intimidating so far. All this talk of "paradigms" and "methods", and trying to figure out which one is best suited for your purposes! And I can foresee the literature review getting out of hand if I'm not careful. Any experienced social science researchers out there want to offer any useful tips?

And this time, I probably can't put off entering the big bad world any longer. I will be job-hunting, which is probably my one biggest worry. God has been good, I've just gotten a work placement at the beginning of July with a medium-sized publisher, and am looking forward to it. Hopefully I will be able to find something more permanent!

And hopefully in between get some summer reading done. To be fair, I've actually had a lot of free time this year to read, and I doubt I will ever get that amount of time ever again!

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

If Fix You needed fixing...

An absolutely, absolutely lovely acapella rendering of Coldplay's Fix You, probably their best song off X&Y. I'm in love with this version. Couldn't not share.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

The wrap special: Britain's Got Talent

UPDATE: An interesting article by the Daily Telegraph attributing the success of the show to its essential Britishness. I'm not convinced, but not being British, what do I know? :-p

I knew vaguely that Britain's Got Talent was on, but not owning a TV, didn't follow it at all. I've also seen the Paul Potts video doing the rounds in the blogosphere so on Saturday night, with nothing better to do and feeling a little curious, I decided to go hunt around on YouTube and before I knew it, 2 hours of my life had gone!

There are a couple of reasons why I think that the show has been so popular. Firstly, I think people think of variety shows as harking back to a more innocent time, regardless of whether such an age actually existed and notwithstanding some of the more risque acts on display here. Secondly, the show consummates a wish-fulfillment trope, for who doesn't like the idea of a dream coming true? Thirdly, the show is a great leveller, for it spotlights the Everyman, the guy or girl you see everyday on the street and gives hope to those who despair at the professionalization of well, everything. (This reminds me of something the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin said, something along the lines of how a carnival culture suspends all hierarchic distinctions in society, i.e that people whom you don't normally come into contact with are now mingling with each other). Lots of the good acts are genuinely likable as well. And of course, it's great fun!

Anyway, for your entertainment, here are some of the auditions. Warning: don't watch them if you have something more important to do! Also, for those of you who can't stand too much sweetness, they occasionally lay it over the top with the inspirational music at the end of some of the auditions. :)

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Friday, June 15, 2007

What would you say to the McCanns?

Madeleine McCannMadeleine McCann is still big news in Britain and in some parts of Western Europe, more than a month after she was abducted. For those of you who don’t know, just over 40 days ago, the McCann family was on holiday in a Portugese resort. The McCanns had just laid their kids, soon to be 4-year old Madeleine and her twin siblings to bed in their room while they dined just a 100 yards away, going back to check on them at half-hourly intervals. Sometime between 9.30 and 10 pm, Madeleine disappears, believed to have been abducted. A window and a shutter in the room has been opened.

Since then her anxious parents have done, as any parent would, anything in their power to try to find their missing daughter. What is different though, is the intensity of their campaign. They have gone through normal avenues, making TV appeals and utilising CrimeStoppers. Since then, celebrities such as David Beckham and J.K Rowling have got in on the act, appealing to anyone and everyone to help. Maddy’s big picture was on the big screen during the Champions League and UEFA Cup final. Businessmen have offered rewards. The McCanns themselves are in the midst of a European tour, making stops in places like Germany and Morocco and even managed an audience with the Pope, being Catholics. They have hired a media professional. When I was in Heathrow 2 weeks ago, Maddy’s picture was plastered everywhere, and she was news in Spain as well.

Since then, there has been a backlash of sorts: with some questioning the McCanns parenting and their decision to leave the kids alone in the first place. Others wonder whether the McCanns are just publicity hounds, and whether too much attention has been paid to this particular child. Indeed, some have questioned the politics, wondering whether Maddy would have received any attention at all if she were not photogenic, British and her parents not upper-middle class (both are doctors).

It’s a truly heartbreaking story. There’s nothing worse than being in limbo. In a sense, it’s even worse than death, because at least with death, there is some sort of closure. In this scenario, only uncertainty reigns. All you have with you is a 1001 possibilities, all of them darker than the last, as much as you don’t want your thoughts to stray there.

And I begin to wonder: as a Christian, what would I say to the McCanns if I knew them, or could speak to them? I cannot accept the brickbats that have been thrown their way. Many have condemned them. What sort of parent leaves 3 year olds alone, they ask? How could they be so selfish as to think of their own enjoyment instead of their child’s welfare? Yet I believe that the McCanns already harbour such thoughts, for who among us will not succumb to such harsh self-criticism when such a horrifying thing happens? I cannot imagine the bouts of self-doubt both of them go through, the what-ifs, whatever their public face. The McCanns obviously love their kids, having opted for IVF treatment to be able to have them in the first place. And so there is nothing to be gained from self-righteous condemnation. In fact, all the McCanns have experienced is abruptly having the chimera of a completely safe world shattered more cruelly than most.

And so compassion must be an obvious starting point. There are valid points made about the politics of the media, about the attention given to them when many other children go missing every day, but now is not the time to have that debate, or at the very least the McCanns are not the conversation partners for that discussion. India Knight is right: Two wrongs don’t make a right: would it be preferable for Madeleine to become an anonymous statistic too? Would ignoring the McCanns and their desperate appeal somehow honour the other 100 nameless missing children? It’s hard to see how.

But let us keep wrestling with the question of what to say to the McCanns. Do we urge them not to give up, to hold out hope that Maddy might still be alive? Is that a kind or cruel thing to do? For the statistics are grim: I think I read somewhere that once you don’t find someone whose missing within the first 48 hours, the chances of finding them drop drastically. But how can you ask them to move on? I still remember the time when the helicopter carrying 7 people, including 3 from our church and one I knew personally went down in the interior of Sarawak in the summer of 2004. I have blogged about it. We knew nothing. One day we heard that they had been found, only to discover that was a false alarm. I still remember going to church night after night and praying, with so little information, that they might still be alive, that they would be able to find food and drink, that the rescue personnel will find them. It was like grasping at straws. It’s difficult to move on when you’re not sure you’re supposed to, for anything less only feels like a betrayal.

We were lucky, in a sense. We found them. And in so doing, we could grieve and process our loss, as I did for Uncle Jason. But what if Maddy is not found? Can business as usual ever resume?

So then, what should we say? Should we say nothing? Do we have no words, or perhaps only words which sully, offerings too trite for consolation? Is silence the only appropriate statement?

I don’t know. I don’t know the words to say or not to say. I can only suppose, unsurprisingly, that our response in the end must still be conditioned by God and the gospel. For how can I offer comfort? I can’t, not much, anyway. I am a fellow human. I can only choose to speak forth about the One who can, one who is “other” but also became one of us. Yet how can I do that without being callous? But if I were a Christian who knew the McCanns, that has to be the way. I cannot speak about things I do not know. I can know, with confidence though, that God loves his children. He deals with sinful, wayward people like you and me, and through his Son, he shows his love. He will not blame Gerry and Kate McCann for what they did, or chastise them for not parenting better. The cross alleviates their shame, should they cling to it. And that must surely be part of our response, a gracious approach that is different from the world’s condemnation.

Maddy’s loss is hugely painful, and the uncertainty surrounding her circumstances only makes it worse. It feels so…random. Why her? Why others as well? And if we push this further, we begin to ask well, why is the world around us so…terrible? Why Iraq and Darfur? And so any response, anything we might say, must truly be sorrowful at the way things are. The McCanns must constantly struggle with anger, with frustration, with melancholy. As they should, for such emotions begins to see the world without blinkers, their world without rose-tinted glasses, a recognition that injustice has somehow been served. And again, this is one way we can offer a response different from the world. David Aaronovitch, somewhat bitingly, tells us of what our natural thought processes are:
The next thing is hard to write. If I’ve heard one parent say that they’re now holding their own child a bit tighter, a bit closer, then I’ve heard a hundred. But it isn’t our child. Our child is safe. The mother who takes the toddler to the Maddy shrine may be congratulating herself on her own good fortune, as much as commiserating with the McCanns. Another, placing the poster in the window, may – like the supporter of a football team – be associating themselves with the big story, with the historic moment. They may, in short, be getting a subconscious thrill. They may, as they comb the papers or scan the bulletins, be feeling a pleasure.
But as Christians, we know better. The world is a terrifying place. It’s full of risks. It groans. Fallen is the Bible word. And if we’ve absorbed that, we can truly empathise with the McCanns. Then comes the hard part. It’s saying, it won’t always be like that. We won’t always be like that, holding onto the cross. The McCann’s tragedy won’t be minimised. There probably won’t be a time when it doesn’t hurt. But according to God, one day it will be transformed. After the cross comes the resurrection. And God says, how about I start my redemptive work in you right now? Would you be willing to trust me, even after the Maddy affair?

Actually, I won’t be able to say that to the McCanns, because I find it difficult to trust God even without suffering as they have. That part is best left to God, I think. God will issue that invitation himself. But a faithful God and a promise-keeping God is who we signpost.

We become so aware of our limitations, our lack of authority to speak into such situations. Thankfully, we have a God who speaks, and we can speak his words after Him.

Bring Madeleine Home, the official website

Comments open.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Follow up to Worship and Hebrews

This was originally a reply to Tim's comment on my Worship and Hebrews post but it got too long and needed a whole separate post by itself!

Was wondering if you were going to pop up. :-p

My post wasn't really about song lyrics per se as it was about letting the Word shape the practices of our worship, in this case, Hebrews. I hope you'll read my post again and see that. I have no problem with simple songs. In fact, I think we need them as well! So I'm a big fan of Chris Tomlin, for eg., because I think he writes songs that are great to sing and easy to understand. Another eg. would be Vicky Beeching - I really like Awesome God and Yesterday, Today and Forever.

OK, let's try to deal with your comments a little more systematically. :)

1. Because we are sinners, and depending somewhat on our temperament/personality, there is always the danger that we start looking for faults in just about everything, in the name of doctrinal purity and such. We want to score points for our team. So yes, of course it is possible, and we need to guard against that and repent if we are guilty.

2. You speak of the "moment" and "worship time". Do go back and read point no. 2 of my post. Firstly, I want to stress again, as I did in my original post, that I don't doubt that there are moments during our singing when we palpably feel God's love, or his mercy, or his assurance. In fact, we should be suspicious if we never ever feel them!

But what if we don't have that moment? Does that mean somehow God is not with us? Or he is with us, but not in such a "powerful" way? I think you will agree with me here that the answer to the above questions is negative, but if so, then surely we must be careful that the language we use must not perpetuate such beliefs?

This is where Hebrews come in. In the OT, we get plenty of instances of sacred ground, sacred space, sacred time etc., places where individuals met with God (eg. Moses and the burning bush). But the point is that when Jesus came, he negated the need for such, or perhaps, it's better to say he re-sacralized all of space, time etc. That's why we use the language of "living sacrifices" (Romans 12). The Hebrews were tempted to go back to OT systems of sacrifice and priesthood, and the writer tells them "Don't do it!". For our worship to God is only acceptable because Jesus is our Priest and once-for-all sacrifice. Music doesn't need to act as a mediator between God and us.

I feel this is important because I think it is ultimately a pastoral issue. The Christian who does not feel that God is near needs to know that he is always able to call on His Father even if he does not feel him. The harried mother who is constantly struggling trying to keep up with her two kids needs to know that her imperfect attempts to raise and instruct her kids is worship.

In my experience, many charismatics would affirm this, which is why my plea is that they employ language that reflect this. "Worship" has become a confused term, and we should reappropriate it as a biblical word.

3. Back to lyrics. Again, I am not arguing against simplicity, or even songs that employ romantic imagery. But surely there can be songs that tell us more about the person of God? Let's take Vicky Beeching's song Awesome God as an eg.

Your voice is the voice that
Commanded the universe to be
Your voice is the voice that
Is speaking words of love to me
How can it be?

Brilliant! She immediately draws attention to our Creator God, who speaks creation into being. And then she draws attention to the Living Word, who demonstrated his love for us. When we see the connection between the two: "How can it be?" is certainly the appropriate response! See, you don't need to be Charles Wesley or Fanny Crosby!

Don Carson talks about how sometimes our worship songs actually defer worship. For eg., sometimes we repeatedly sing lyrics such as "We'll magnify your name, we'll give you all the praise", but what are we actually doing? We're singing about how we're going to worship him without ever actually getting around to worshipping him! Rather, surely the right way to adore God is to talk about his attributes, his actions etc., just as you would when you talk about another person! Moreover, we should be singing truthfully about God, which is why we can't simply ignore a wayward lyric. Again, that doesn't mean we can't ever sing such lyrics as above, but it shouldn't stop there.

When we do so, we help each other because we are reminding each other about God.It doesn't matter if it's a song like Forever or How Great the Father's Love for us. And surely this becomes worship as well, loving our brother?

I guess you might have picked up by now that my original post was especially for my charismatic brothers and sisters. As someone with a foot in both the conservative and charismatic camps, and who is very encouraged by the fact that in Britain at least, the dividing lines are no longer so prominent, I'm hoping that the charismatic movement in Malaysia will come to a similar point of maturity. And I think charismatics need to think about their own tradition(!) of worship. At the same time, I acknowledge conservatives should learn from charismatics that our worship has an experiential dimension to it as well.

So those are my off-the-cuff remarks.

P/S I realise that in this post, I used the word "worship" in more than one way and apologise for adding to the confusion! Read it in context of the sentence, that should clarify how I'm using the word. :)

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Agora: Asian Perspectives of Jesus

I want to highlight a really good article, Asian perspectives of Jesus, by Tan Kang San, formerly of OMF Malaysia over at The Agora. It deserves widespread circulation. It's stimulating and thought-provoking on a difficult issue that demands more reflection. Here's the intro to whet your appetite:
Jesus came from Asia. Hypothetically, Jesus is more Asian than Western in outlook and cultural values. But Christianity was brought to Asia by Western missionaries. Did Western missionaries faithfully deliver the biblical, Jewish Jesus to the people in Asia or did they betray Jesus and his message by presenting a Western Christ? Today, Asian churches are actively sending out missionaries. How can missionaries, from Asia and the West, preach a faithful and biblical portrait of Jesus who is true to his Jewish roots and dynamically related to the hearts and minds of local peoples?

Missionaries seek to faithfully transmit the life and message of the historical Jesus found in the Bible. However, in the process of gospel transmission, there is always a danger of foreign cultural additions that Jesus became portrayed as an Englishman or Christianity is seen as a Western religion...

Read Asian Perspectives of Jesus in its entirety. And do share your thoughts!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Technical notice

If you've visited my blog in the last couple of days could you do a quick scan of your computer for viruses or spyware? Not to alarm you or anything, but I'm trying to trace a niggly problem on my computer and it's possible that it might be related to this blog. Then again, it might not - my internet connection has only just revived, after all!

Update: I think I've identified the problem. If you visited my blog today (Tuesday 12/6) then I would especially encourage you to scan your computer as there might be a Trojan lurking somewhere. I think those from the past couple of days are safe, but you might want to make sure.


Worship and Hebrews

This has been lingering in my mind on and off for a while now, so I thought I’ll just commit some of it to paper (or screen) to help me see where I’m going with this.

For me, the so-called “worship wars” have been a bit of a dead horse for a while now, in that it hasn’t been a matter of controversy. In truth, the “worship wars” on one level misses the fundamental question, since worship should transcend the debate over how we should sing songs. I think most of us are aware of this, and we understand, at least in theory, that worship encompasses all of life. It can reasonably be said that every act we perform is an act of worship, although perhaps it isn’t always directed to God, but to self, or to money, or to status etc. However, in this post, I will actually be using “worship” more narrowly to mean either the act of singing or the songs we sing, as well as to mean the time when we gather corporately as a church (what we might normally mean when we say “service” as in the morning service).

So what about the second part of the title? When I read parts of the book of Hebrews a while back – this was quite long ago now – I remembered thinking to myself that there’s actually quite a lot of stuff here which speaks to the issue of worship, especially in offering some correctives to some conceptions and practices in contemporary worship today. So what follows are just some half-formed thoughts and I’ll let someone else run with it. If it doesn’t exist already, somebody should write a monograph on “Worship and Hebrews”, methinks. Anyway, here goes.

1. Christ needs to be accorded the highest place in our worship.

This is apparent in the book of Hebrews right from the start. By the time we hit verse 4 of chapter one, a picture of Jesus as sustainer of the whole universe and purifier of our sins has been painted; he is far superior than even the angels. In fact, even our worship owes something to him, the only reason we can sing to him now is because God first "[spoke] to us by His Son". (1:2) The rest of chapter 1 demonstrates this, as the writer lays the foundation for his claim by building a cumulative chain of Old Testament passages, all of which demonstrates his exalted status above even the angels. In 2:1-4, the writer seeks to tell us what our appropriate response should be. "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away". (2:1)

Jesus really permeates the whole of Hebrews, and we learn different things about him. We learn about Jesus as our brother (2:11), as our apostle and high priest (3:1), as the Son of God (4:14), as high priest (5:5-6), as mediator (8:6-13), as judge (10:37-38), and so on. He is the one we’re encouraged to fix our eyes upon. The historical context of Hebrews is one of persecution, and followers of Jesus were certainly tempted to compromise to gain an easier life. For the writer of Hebrews, his pastoral response is to look back to Jesus.

So far I guess it might seem as if I’m belabouring an obvious point. Yet I’m not so sure this always comes out in some of the songs we sing. I still remember going to a concert by a popular Christian band two years ago, partly out of curiosity, and I remember one song which encouraged us to “jump in the house for God” (which also reminded me of my early teenage days of a similar song). I don’t doubt the sincerity and enthusiasm of the band, nor do I doubt one can sing this song out of genuine love for the Lord, but it had minimal biblical content.

We need songs too that tell us about the person of Jesus in its entirety, as the writer of Hebrews does. I like Matt Redman’s O Sacred King and Jarrod Cooper’s King of Kings, Majesty which do a really good job of this. In doing so we truly exalt Jesus. People have heard the “Jesus is my girlfriend” critique plenty of times, but I think one aspect of that critique which is missed isn’t just because such songs can be banal, but that it actually robs Jesus of his glory, for we unwittingly might not be giving Jesus the rightful role he plays in our lives as say, judge, for example.

2. Christ is the great High Priest and once-for-all-sacrifice.

The recipients of Hebrews were likely Jewish, and it seemed as if one of their temptations was to go back to the old Jewish system of sacrifice, priests, the works. Priests are the mediator between God and his people. They bring people before God. In 9:1-8 we get a summary of how worship under the old covenant takes place. Basically, the temple had plenty of walls erected between outer and inner places, and inner places and even more inner places, if you see what I mean. Lots of doors to pass through, showing the separateness of God from his people. Jesus changes all that. He becomes our representative (5:1), and a perfect one at that (9:10-15). It is once-for-all, and he now supersedes the temple and the old system of sacrifices and priesthood. "The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by men." (8:1-2)

Unfortunately, I think we sometimes unwittingly make the same mistake, mainly due to the imprecision of our language. How many of us have often heard our “worship leader” say something along the lines of “Oh God, we welcome you into this place” or “Oh Spirit of God, fall upon us”? What happens when we say this? Without realising it, the “worship leader” functions as a priest who mediates between God and us. And so we take Jesus' place without realising it. We make the same mistake as the Hebrews in wanting to hark back to the old system when Jesus has already fulfilled it.

I don’t deny that there are times when the feeling that God is among us is particularly palpable, and that God could certainly make his presence felt in such a way. The problem arises when we don’t feel it, and we automatically think that God’s presence is not among us. But it is clear from Hebrews that we can "approach the throne of grace with confidence", regardless of our feelings. “Worship leaders”, a term that I find increasingly hard to use because it implies a higher priesthood, as it were, need to be more cautious about their use of language.

Nor am I wholly comfortable with the language of, for instance, “clap offerings”. Again, I think it’s more due to our imprecision that a matter of being unbiblical. Sometimes this is communicated in such a way that it puts the focus back on what we’re doing. I have no problem if someone says “let’s clap in response to the great truths of what we’ve just sung” (OK, that’s a little wordy). But it’s so important because I think many people imbibe certain wrong beliefs from our words during our singing.

3. Worship should be tinged with hope for the future of the people of God.

As I’ve already said, the Hebrews were living during a time of persecution. In light of this, it’s quite striking how much the writer urges them to look forward to a better day. Indeed, the language of perseverance, such as in 12:2-3, presupposes an end goal, a destination. Or take for example the writer’s words in chapter 4, where he talks about finally entering the rest of God, he isn’t merely talking about chilling out on Sunday, but looking forward to a day when salvation-rest is complete. Even 10:23-25, which some of you may recognise as a well-known text about not giving up meeting together but to keep encouraging each other, tells us to do so "all the more as you see the Day approaching".

In other words, I believe that an important facet of worship today is to act as a focal point of hope. One way we do this, of course, is by celebrating the Lord’s Supper, since in doing so we remember not only Jesus’ sacrifice for us, but we remember it in light of the fact that he is coming again. Sometimes some of our songs have an overly triumphalistic tone to it, as if we have it all now. This strikes me as being a heavy burden on those who might be struggling at that moment. It is also precisely because we are awaiting the new creation that we don’t need to subscribe to models of a special time where our singing will particularly invoke God’s presence. (For a good song that focuses particularly on the future, try Keith Getty’s There is a higher throne. Also, I remember thinking that Brian Doerksen’s Hope of the Nations was pretty good, although I can’t remember offhand its lyrics or melody.)

4. Worship is communal.

This will just be a brief point, but I wonder if when we sing, we are singing not only to God, but to one another. 10:23-25, already mentioned, gives us a basis to worship together, and in chapter 13 the writer urges us to love our brother. That’s why I think words are so important to a song, because they can express truths which will uplift our fellow brothers and sisters. Just a couple of Sundays ago, I was not having a good day and was singing with less enthusiasm than usual. At the end of the service though, a middle-aged lady in front of me turned to me and thanked me for my singing because it encouraged her back to Jesus. I have to say that was the last thing I expected to hear!

Also, I think that if we imagine worship this way, we wouldn’t be so hung up over “worship wars”. Instead, we’ll seek to serve those of us who prefer hymns as well as those of us who prefer modern choruses.

That’s it. I hope I didn’t come across as being critical because that is not my intention at all! I hope you can see how Hebrews can shape our reflections on worship and that someone else will pick this up eventually because I’ve reached the limit of my thinking!

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

10 random facts about me

Deb's asked me to do this meme, and I'll oblige.
  1. I have good hand-eye coordination – I played catcher on my class softball team – but I have poor motor skills. To this day I cut things slowly and crookedly, and I can’t draw a straight line without the help of a ruler. On occasion I have trouble discerning what is straight.

  2. I tend to make up imaginary worlds, even today. I still remember in Primary 1 how I concocted a whole story in my head about two guys fighting each other and using my fingers to enact the whole scene, and one of my classmates looking at me in puzzlement. Now sometimes I see someone or something and find myself inventing a narrative for them.

  3. I once attacked somebody with a badminton racket. Yes, you can close your open mouth now. Hey, I’m a sinner too! As you can imagine, my parents weren’t too happy with me about that one.

  4. And I was once attacked by a reindeer. Yes, a real reindeer. No, he didn’t have a red nose, he had fearsome antlers!

  5. For those of you who don’t know already, I love playing chess, and played on my school team. I haven’t played often in the last 3 years though.

  6. I can often think of something eloquent to say...12 hours after the conversation has passed. Don’t you hate it whenever you suffer brain freeze?

  7. I love cats, although it’s probably morally superior to love dogs. :-D My late cat was a much cherished companion growing up, and I once contemplated kidnapping Pogo, the cat at Somerville College, Oxford.

  8. I never planned on applying to Oxford, and only did so at the encouragement of my tutor and my classmates (they were mad that the principal didn’t regard me as Oxbridge material and wanted me to sock it to him. Ah, such loyalty.) I was so convinced I wouldn’t get in that I didn’t bother waiting at the appointed time when they said they might call if I got an offer. Instead, I went with my church into the interior of Sarawak to a longhouse! So my mum received the call instead and I only found out two days later.

  9. I struggle with self-confidence, and I suspect that it’s something I’ll struggle with the rest of my life. The up side is that it means sometimes I’m driven to be more dependent on God, the downside being that I’m frequently unwilling to leave my comfort zone. I get scared when I’m in a big crowd where I know no one.

  10. I tend to see things other people don’t, and miss the stuff that’s just plain common sense to others.

I won't tag anyone, but feel free to pick it up if you're so inclined.