Sunday, 16 July 2017

The issue with megachurches (Part II).

This week, Pastor Eugene Peterson ("EP") was asked in an interview about whether he is "more encouraged or more discouraged by what you’re seeing in the American church?"

His reply will form the three lessons that I will write about concerning the megachurches (and this is a continuation of the other week when I wrote about megachurches based on the talk that Pastor Francis Chan gave to Facebook employees).

To the question above, EP said that he’s not sure whether it is an either/or (that is, more encouraged or discouraged). But he said that he doesn't feel like pastors are doing their job.

"Look at what’s going on in the church," he continued. "It has a consumer mentality. It’s about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church."

Well, I know no intelligent or respected pastor would try to find ethical sanction for either consumerism or capitalism to justify the running of a church. But these days, the megachurches can't get any more pro-consumeristic and pro-capitalistic in the way they are set up. 

If anything, they don't look like they are trying to push the counterculture of the Sermon on the Mount into the world. But they are on the contrary flowing with the culture of the world with particular flourish. 

You see, if the beatitude is about finding absolute dependency in God (that is, the kingdom of God belongs to those who are poor in spirit), you tend to squirm at the mindless acquisition of wealth by the megachurch pastors who are living in sheer opulence.

If the beatitude is about the resiliency and growth that come through our confronting trials (for blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted), you tend to question their pulpit messages that make prosperity one of the preconditions of faith.

If the beatitude is about guarding your heart against the temptations of this world (for the pure in heart shall see God), you tend to wonder whether the megachurch pastors have on the contrary burdened the hearts of the congregation with the worries and cares of this world as material blessings are deemed as a conclusive sign of spiritual maturity.

And I don't think I even need to talk about being persecuted for righteousness' sake, because the only thing that comes closest to "persecution" for a megachurch pastor is the many undivided attention he or she gets, and the blessed dilemma of how to manage them favorably.

So, EP has got a point when he said that megachurches have "a consumer mentality" and "it's about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church."

Second lesson?

In the above interview, EP thinks that what is most disturbing about megachurches is that they are not even churches.

Here's why in his own words:-

"My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that."

At the end of the day, what matters is essentially relational. Although saying that megachurches are not churches is a little harsh, I guess EP's point coincides with Francis Chan's when the latter said that preaching to a congregation of 5000 every Sunday is like doing a performance gig over the pulpit.

There is just no personal touch to it and you are no different from movie stars or celebrities. They saunter in, bedazzle and sashay off. They cast the seed on Sunday, excuse themselves for most of the week, and leave it to their online sermons, published books and subordinate pastors to do the "watering" in the hope that their congregant's faith would bloom in their own season.

Francis admitted: "Some days I think it was a lot easier when I could just preach, go back and drive off in my car and leave all of them like I will today. I don't have to care for your issues, you know? … I'll never see you again (until next Sunday comes of course)."

My third and final lesson here follows at the heels of what EP said:-

"Now there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places." Underscore "entertainment".

This sadly panders to the needs of the emotionally charged congregation. A consumer-driven environment favors a good Sunday service that is premised on a mediagenic show to keep the pious sentiments brimming over.

As such, a performance church has to religiously start on time, play the music right to rev up the emotion (not to mention the right songs), arrange it professionally to make every segment of public presentation seamless, and climax fitfully when the one they come to watch swaggers in to rousing applause to deliver the message they are expecting to hear.

This reminds me of what the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool JC Ryle once said: "There is a morbid craving in the public mind for a more sensuous, ceremonial, sensational, showy worship; men are impatient of inward, invisible heart-work."

This week, I met a friend, and our conversation is relevant here. She told me that she had left her church some time back.

I asked her why and she told that she'd discovered her ex-pastor had allotted to himself all proceeds from the sale of the merchandise he had used the church facilities to produce.

So I asked her what's wrong with earning a little on the side? She chimed in and said it was a lot of money on top of monthly pay.

I left that conversation with this thought in my mind: "Are we selling our own personalized brand of Jesus' teaching, thereby making more than just a tidy profit from it because religion sells really well?"

Don't get me wrong...pastors have to feed their family too. They normally don't stand in the middle of the field and wait for manna to fall from the sky. This is no Old Testament, and they are not escaping from pursuing Egyptians.

But then, one has to ask: How much above what is enough is enough?

Mind you, the last next I checked, a pastor is still a calling while a businessman is not. And while a businessman justifies his existence/purpose with increasing profit, a pastor cannot say the same without at least feeling that something is clearly amiss right?

Surely, Jesus' calling to his disciples to sell all they have and follow him (although that shouldn't be taken too literally in this day and age) cannot be translated to mean sell and keep all you can and then follow him, right?

Of course there are a number of verses that talk about God wanting to prosper us, but it is definitely not a bottomless blessing right? And how much of it refers to the material and how much refers to faith, hope and love is still a pertinent question to explore right? And isn't Jesus' warning about the insidious effects of riches peppered all over the synoptic gospel?

Well, the debate can go on and on in this century of prosperity we are living in, but I would let EP end here with this food for thought.

In his memoir "The Pastor", he wrote: "I knew that I did not want to be a pastor who took on the responsibility of "running this damn church". I didn't want to be a religious professional whose identity was institutionalized. I didn't want to be a pastor whose sense of worth is derived from whether people affirmed or ignored me. In short, I didn't want to be a pastor in the ways that were most in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture." 

Then, he wrote what Karl Barth, quoting Nietzsche, said: "Only where graves are is there resurrection." EP elaborated on that by writing: "there is a long tradition in the church's life that the pastoral vocation consists in preparing people for "a good death"".

Alas, in some megachurches, the pastoral vocation seems to consist of preparing people for a good life. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that.

It however becomes an issue of concern when we start finessing that Karl Barth's quote above by telling ourselves that the good death can wait as we lose ourselves indulging in the good life, which is promised from the pulpits of some celebrity pastors. Cheerz.

Postscript: As I was writing the above post, the Heart of Worship kept invading my mind, my heart.  You'd recall that the lyrics that goes like this: 

"When the music fades 

All is stripped away 
And I simply come
Longing just to bring 
Something that's of worth 
That will bless you heart...

I'm coming back to the heart of worship

And it's all about you 
It's all about you, Jesus."

How true. It's all about you. 

Yet, can we honestly tell ourselves that in a church of tens of thousands, where the attention is unavoidably directed to the one standing before the tens of thousands? 

I know he or she is going to tell you about Jesus, the Cross and the love that bled that day, but that is obviously not the heart of worship. That is the heart of the worshipper. That's what the heart of a worshipper is telling us. Right or wrong, inspiring or otherwise, it is what his or her heart is sharing. But it is not the heart of worship.

Come on, the heart of worship is relational. It is an exclusive relationship of two, and two only - you and Jesus. That's the heart of worship. It is a bond of intimacy between you and the lover of your soul. That is why the song says we are coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about you, Jesus. 

Where have we been then? Where are we coming back from? Why are we coming back to the heart of worship when we have been attending without fail a church with overflowing crowd, stunning in all her ways, and worshipping as one united voice? Haven't we always been in the heart of worship? Didn't the scripture say that "for when two or three are gather in my name"? 

Of course it did say that, the scripture that is. But I don't think it mentioned when 15,000 or 30,000 or 45,000 are gathered in my name, there am I with them. Alas, the numbers do add up, and the heart of worship at some point becomes just a crowd of worshippers. 

The numbers do count, because, as EP says, you can't have a relationship with tens of thousands. Jesus kept it at twelve because that is where the core of his influence would make the greatest impact and difference in the lives of those he touched.   

My point is not to implicate the heart of the megachurch pastor. That's not my place here. I stand judged myself. I am however appealing to the heart of the worshippers. You don't need to sit there and wait to be fed. You don't need to wait for that emotionally charged up music in order to reach a deeper level with the lover of your soul. 

The heart of worship is not a place, however big it is. The success of the kingdom is not the same as the success of this world. Neither is the heart of worship in how appealing the message is. The success of Jesus' message is already in the message of the Cross, and it is not in how glib or charming the tongue of man is.  Don't let anything or anyone get in the way of the heart of worship between you and Jesus.

Then, what about the church then? What do I do with the church of tens of thousands that I am currently worshipping in? 

No, this is not a call to leave the church. Of course not, make a difference wherever you are. It is just an appeal to search our hearts, me included. To take a long walk and leave the noise behind. Leave the floodlights behind. Leave that catchy beat, that alluring tempo and that fancy presentation behind. 

Like the song says, let all be stripped away, and then come back to the heart of worship. It is not about what the heart of the worshipper shares or says every Sunday, but it is about the heart of worship between two, you and Him. Have a blessed time searching, worshipping. Amen.

What ultimately defines us?

What intrigued me this morning is not so much that a father-in-law was reported to have stabbed his son-in-law in broad daylight (at a coffee shop at the junction of Boon Tat Street and Telok Ayer Street). 
What held my attention however was what he said after he stabbed his son-in-law. 
Mr Tan Nam Seng actually called someone suspectedly dear to him after seeing his son-in-law lying and bleeding from his stab wounds, and said calmly, "I have already stabbed him. Don't cry. I am old already and I am not afraid to go to jail. What is done is done."
Mr Tan even pushed away a passer-by who wanted to help, saying, "That is my son-in-law. Don't help him. Let him die."
Now, here's a little background. 
Mr Tan was described by neighbor to be "a bit quiet and reserved." He founded and owned various firms named after his initials TNS Group holdings and TNS Seacon. 
After his son-in-law ("Spencer") married his daughter, he joined the firm in 2003 and was its chief executive officer and director. 
They moved into the private estate at Sennet lane a few years ago and Spencer lived with seven people in the semi-detached house, namely, his wife, daughters and a son, his mother, a maid and Mr Tan, his 69-yr-old father-in-law.
It is reported that Spencer had a hand in prospering the firm from a turnover of $2m in 2003 to a turnover exceeding $100m in 2014.
He practically told August Man magazine that there was a time when he sold everything he owned when the economic crisis hit in 2008 and the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. 
Spencer said, "I even sold my watches for whatever I could get, just so that I could put it back into the company." 
It reports that Spencer's achievements "earned him a nomination as a finalist for the Outstanding Entrepreneur Award in Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry-DBS Singapore Indian Entrepreneur Awards in 2014." 
In any event, sacrificing all you have to bring your father-in-law's business back from the brink of bankruptcy, and turning it into a multimillion-dollar success over a short period of time ought to have won you accolades not only from the business industry, business associates and friends, but also, if not more so, from loved ones right?
At the very least, the founder of the once-dying company that is, your father-in-law, ought to be singing your praises right, and not attacking you with a knife? 
Am I too naive? 
According to reports, "anonymous family friends" have pointed to "problems in (Spencer's) marriage and money-related disputes with his father-in-law" over the company, TNS Ocean Lines.
And it is also reported that recent registration records for the company "listed a former director as Tan Nam Seng."
One of the neighbours, when interviewed, remarked that Mr Tan's family and his son-in-law "seemed harmonious and happy on the surface."
Lesson? One, and it has nothing to do with the case. I wish Spencer recovers well and my thoughts are with the family, even Mr Tan.
My point however is about the specific phrase used by one of the neighbours, "on the surface." 
I guess on the surface of things, everything always seems all fine and dandy. 
Unsurprising, the neighbours are mostly the last to know what happens in their neighbour's family. Their shocked responses when something unspeakable happens tell it all. 
The smiles, the "hi" and the "bye" along the corridor sometimes cover much of what is seething or boiling inside the walls of one's house or one's heart. 
Search a man's heart and it always tells a different story. His private thoughts and designs can be worlds apart from his public deeds or actions. 
Sometimes, the accolades that the world bestow upon a man or woman only reveal the tip of the iceberg of what is in his/her heart. 
Alas, what pushes a husband to commit adultery? What compels a wife to become obsessed with jealousy and hatred? What causes a father to abandon the family, a son to betray his father, or a good friend to sell out his buddy? 
Things are often more than meets the eye.
Dead calm waters are usually a buddy metaphor for still water runs deep. And what lies beneath is often what drives the current of thoughts, motives and actions of men - not the projected smiles and appearances.
So, what we see everyday of a person whom we thought we knew is often not what he or she is in living colours as he or she struggles with the inner demons (or the grey areas) that rage within. 
As such, decorum, civility and protocols are words that sometimes cover a multitude of sins, not so much love. 
If not dealt with, intentionally unravelled in confidentiality and allowed the moral courage of honesty and resolution to take hold, the undertow deep within will eventually rush out like a tsunamis ravaging the surface of all things visible to the naked eye. 
And the greatest enemy of resolution (or closure) is self-deception. We may even be ignorant (or blissfully unaware) of the grave consequence that awaits us as we persist in our shrink-wrapped bubble world of self-declared invulnerability, or shored-up fortress of self-denial. 
Alas, we always think that our greatest enemy is out there - our rival, our foe, our competitor, or our richer, more famous, or more well-received friends, even loved ones. 
But naivety is no excuse for the impoverishment of imagination. The raw reality, as we all know but simply refuse to admit and confront, is the raging and conflicting desires we secretly harbour, even obtusely nurture, within. 
Our appetites (for fame, wealth and power, for recognition and adulation) can turn the "tame-able" beast within us into an unmitigated "corporeal takeover" raider. 
And if we continue in blindness to feed it, living in self-denial, evolution dictates that it will grow to overcome or overwhelm us. 
For first, we take the drink. Then the drink takes the drink. And in the end, the drink takes us. 
I know this is the least popular of all my postings in the morning. For it attempts to drill in a message we do not want to hear, or do not think it applies to our neat, well-ordered and seemingly sterilised thoughts and life. 
But sometimes, the ugly truth (about ourselves) is the hidden motives/drive we often conveniently or discreetly cold storage in suspended animation because we either overestimate ourselves or underestimate its insidious progression from behind the foreboding shadows of our sub-consciousness.
Let me end with what one witness noticed about the demeanour of Mr Tan after he stabbed his son-in-law. 
She said, "He was very neatly dressed. He was very calm and looked like he was prepared for the police to come and arrest him." 
Well, this is my parting shot:-
"What does it take for a good man to commit uncharacteristic acts that are unmistakably characterised as evil?"
In other words, what would cause a man to lose himself? Would a gentleman turn into a beast if you strip away his wealth, influence, titles and reputation - layer by layer? 
That actually depends on this question: "What ultimately defines him?" Cheerz.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

What I learn from CJ John Roberts' speech to ninth-graders.

The speech that US Supreme Court CJ John Roberts gave recently is a powerful message to all – young and old.

It is powerful because it does not serve up platitudes to butter up the ninth-grade graduates (of Cardigan Mountain Boarding School), but tells it as it is, that is, raw, hard-hitting and practical.

Admittedly, I myself have learnt much from it. And here are my thoughts on his speech as I ride on the coattails of CJ’s wisdom.

For easy reading, I have taken the essence of his speech and condensed it into three lessons.

First, CJ Roberts told the graduates this, "It was not just success, but not being afraid to fail that brought you to this point."

Life has a strange way of teaching us. It is not so much about jumping academic hoops or garnering one accolade after another.

But it is about braving through our trials that we learn the most. The learning comes with experiencing and it is not going to be a smooth sail or a light paddle. They don't call it trials for nothing right?

Life's trials are going to test us to the core. The wind in our sail is going to pull us in all directions. We are going to get thrown from one side to the other because every determined step forward will be met with unkindly forces within and without that aim to shake our very foundation.

And if life is a masquerade party, then behind every ugly and threatening mask we meet is a friendly face waiting to smile at us if we do not give up the good fight.

CJ Roberts urges us not to hide or run away from, or fear adversity. In fact, our greatest failure is to fear failure, and as a result, never going forward when we are knocked down (and we'll have many of those knockdown moments as we journey in life).

While we can hope for the best in every situation, and strive to control the elements to our advantage, life is not going to sit still to allow us to dress her up like a doll or a mannequin. Life will not bend to our design or agenda.

In his speech, CJ Roberts had an ingenious way of teaching this important lesson. He minces no words here and gives it to his young listeners in a way that makes them think even deeper.

This is how he served it up with an ironic yet empowering sense of oblique realism in somewhat reverse psychological fashion:-

"Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why.

From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.

Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.

And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.

I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes."

The second lesson I learn from CJ Roberts is captured in this passage of his speech:-

"The most common grand advice they give is for you to be yourself. It is an odd piece of advice to give people dressed identically, but you should — you should be yourself.

But you should understand what that means. Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes.

In a certain sense, you should not be yourself. You should try to become something better. People say ‘be yourself’ because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be.

But you can’t be yourself if you don't learn who you are, and you can’t learn who you are unless you think about it."

Personally, this is going to take a lifetime to learn. As a kid or an adult, the progress of a life is the progress of learning/discovering who we are and how we can change from there for the better.

Needless to say, we regress in growth and maturity when we neither know who we are nor bother to find out who we are.

At this point, CJ Roberts cited Socrates when he said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Now, what is left hanging in that Socrates' quote is what does "worth" mean to an individual? How should one define “worth” so that it makes an unexamined life dull, regrettable and meaningless?

Sadly, there are some people out there who live their life without much reflection or examination. You can actually tell from and by the way they speak and act.

They may be wealthy and famous, but that does not make them any wiser in the way they conduct and carry themselves.

To them, "worth" is about padding themselves up with money, power and fame. That is, to them, an end in itself.

Their ethical values are built around what is most expedient in the pursuit of the superficial, the immediate and the material. Delayed gratification is often an alien concept to them. Little is thus required, if at all, for self-examination if one is obsessed with such pursuit.

To me, and gathering from CJ Roberts' speech, I believe the worth he is reminding his young audience to pursue is the growth that is intangible, unshakeable and eventually incorruptible.

More importantly, he's referring to the growth from within that you carry with you like an Olympic torch throughout your life, from graduation to cremation. And such fire of wisdom and the warmth of compassion come only through diligent and relentless self-examination.

He said, "And one important clue to living a good life is to not try to live the good life." (Emphasis on "the"). He continued, "The best way to lose the values that are central to who you are is frankly not to think about them at all."

You see, the world has its own idea of "the" good life. I trust its script has remained unchanged, predictable. It is unmistakably about a bejeweled stepladder where you spent most of your life scaling up to the top with an all-consuming, almost blinding, passion.

But CJ Roberts suspended that ladder for his budding sojourners by telling them to think deeply about who they are and where they want to end up in life. Here is how he cleverly did it, and that forms my third and last lesson.

He started his speech by asking them to give a standing ovation to their devoted, loving parents for their "extraordinary sacrifice for them." Now, that's gratitude - never forgetting your benefactor, your roots.

He then reminded them not to be afraid to fail because that is the seed of success. Now, that's about courage - a steel heart to confront your fear.

At one part of the speech, he taught them to do the seemingly small things when they get to their new school. He asked them to "walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shovelling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name." He even reminded them to "smile", "look them in the eye" and "say hello".

Now, that's kindness, that's compassion, that's developing a servant heart.

Lastly, his final advice was to write a note every week to their teachers, who had dedicated nine years to teaching, guiding, molding and inspiring them.

By the end of the new school year, they would have written and sent to 40 people their note of appreciation.

Now, that's making a difference in those lives. More relevantly, it is about living a life that is always thinking about the feelings of others - an others-centered life.

In the end, the CJ's urges the ninth-graders to scale a different ladder, one that is different from what the world deems as worthy of our pursuit.

This ladder is leaning against the side that is driven to building values within us, that is, values that grow our character and mature us as we brave through our trials. They are values that would stand the test of time. They are values that come to us only when we live an examined life. And that is what makes our life worth living. Cheerz.