Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Sermon - Prayers

Today at church, the pastor gave a sermon on prayer based on the scripture reading from Luke 11: 1-13. The pastor was saying that the Lord’s prayer is a model prayer from which we can emulate when one prays to God. So within that passage of the Lord’s prayer, there are several qualities that can be identified. First, it identifies God’s interest as the priority of the prayer as shown from the words ‘your kingdom come’. The pastor juxtapose this quality of prayer with prayers which he says are self-centred in nature, which in the pastor’s words, are due to the sinful nature. It got me thinking of the kind of prayers that I usually say to God. I would usually say the Lord’s prayer in the morning. I added in the Lord’s prayer to my daily routine because I was concerned that I might not be praying enough about God’ kingdom in my own constructed prayers, and it would be best to copy wholesale what is said in the Lord’s prayer. I do try to be as deliberate and thoughtful when I say the Lord’s prayer, reflecting upon the words when I mention the Lord’s prayer. I would usually have to pause for a moment at the part about forgiving the trespasses of others. It causes me to think how I should respond to people whom I feel have wronged me in the past if I truly forgive them. Also, it does cause me to reflect upon the sins that I want God to forgive me for. I guess I could spend more time reflecting when I pray the part about ‘your kingdom come’ because I feel that for the most part now, I simply recite those words, probably with the attitude that God will bring the kingdom on his own initiative and I am simply welcoming it with my words.
I used to say only the following as my morning prayer – “Lord, at the beginning of this new day, let not my will but yours be done, for I have no true knowledge about what will bring me true happiness. Grant me the self-discipline to do whatever you will. Bless and protect my friends and my family. Amen.” Now, I say this prayer after the Lord’s prayer. I suppose one might think that my way of saying prayers sounds mechanical, but I find having a routine prayer nice because I don’t have to think too much when saying my prayer. I guess, in this latter prayer of mine, I am reminded to trust in God’s good will for me, even as if life might not seem to be going so smoothly for me. I constructed this prayer when I was in Junior College, and back then, I was quite a proponent on the virtues of self-discipline as a way of accomplishing things, so I included it in my prayer. And one thing that worries most in life is the safety and well-being of my family members, as well as my friends’, and by praying the last phrase, I am also reminded to be concerned for them, and prayer is the least I could do to effect my concern.
Now, I have a constructed prayer for meals that I believe Christians might criticize as the self-centred kind. It goes – ‘As I partake this food, bless me with good health, good strength, good intelligence, good looks, good social skills, good wisdom. Bless me with your presence and your guidance. Thank you for the food. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.’ I made up this prayer when I was in secondary school, and I think it has kind of stuck with me. I guess I really do wish for God to bless me with a lot of good things in life, and shouldn’t the least I should do if I really want these good things is to ask them from God? Now, I try to structure some personal praying time with God that is not composed in nature during meal time if there is no one eating with me.
It seems I got carried away with talking about my personal prayers, so I shall end my writing on it with my bedtime prayer. I get it from a wallpiece that I see in my bedroom which shows two little cartoon children kneeling down to pray. It goes – “As I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee Lord my soul to keep, guard me through the starry night, and awaken me at morning’s light.”
I have been rather angry at God these days for not healing me from my tension headaches, and from tinnitus. Sometimes, when the anger kicks in, I would refuse to pray to God. But then when the angry thoughts go away, and I have that thought that God is a kind god after all, I would pray to God again. I am quite confused about my religion at the moment, and do struggle with doubts about the existence of God. I guess I just want God to heal me of my tension headaches, and of tinnitus as well.
There were other things said by my pastor for his sermon. He mentioned this phrase which I thought quite beautiful – “The tithes of a church may build it up, but it is the tears of prayers that gives it life.” Another thing mentioned was about the intercessory function of prayer for other people. The pastor referenced the part about Abraham praying for God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if at least a quantity of righteous people could be found. The pastor went further by referencing the Romans passage about how no one on earth is righteous. I have become apprehensive of too far-flung a reference of biblical passages in order to make a point, but I guess what the pastor is trying to say is that we should pray for everyone on earth because everyone requires intercessory prayer for their unrighteousness. I just say that I am a quite apprehensive about imputing the same sort of unrighteousness of Sodom and Gomorrah on everybody, and think that unrighteousness over there is different from the unrighteousness used in that Romans passage.

Synopsis of Japan trip

I was in Japan for a holiday with my Dad for a week last week. We resided in Tokyo, in the suburban area of Higashi-Shinjuku. During our trip, we visited various places in Tokyo like Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku, the Tsukiji Fish Market, Shinjuju Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo University, the Imperial palace, the national science museum, Tokyo University, the Supreme Court of Appeal, and the Japan National Diet (or Parliament for those not familiar with the word Diet being used to describe parliament), as well as Hakone where Mt Fuji is, although we didn’t get to see Mt Fuji because it was cloudy that day and the clouds blocked the horizon view from the cable car station we were from.

I had wanted to visit Japan back in 2011, and had bought the tickets for tour guide trip from the travel agency at a tour fair. Unfortunately, the March 11 earthquake struck, together with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. As I was worried about the possibility of radioactive contamination of the region, I cancelled my trip to Japan. I guess from what I have read online, Japan should be a safe place to go once again.

Being a fan of girl groups like AKB48 and C-ute, I was rather keen to go to Akihabara where all these Japanese pop culture elements are featured. Indeed, the entire town was like dedicated to Japanese pop culture, a concept which I believe unique to Japan. There were quite a number of Japanese girls dressed up in Maid Café costumes on the street handing out leaflets. There were many shops in the area selling Japanese girl group merchandises, like music CDs, photobooks, and picture cards containing images of the various female celebrities on the girl groups. Merchandises of anime figurines and comic books are also sold there, although I would have to say that I am not as much an anime fan as I am a girl group fan. If I could have gotten concert tickets to see a performance, I would have liked to, but I haven’t been taking the trouble to make efforts to check up the concert event listing and procedures to obtain tickets. The pornography laws there are really lax though, and explicit materials can be seen in the shops as well. In fact, the casual convenience stores and bookshops in Tokyo sell magazines containing explicit-content materials. It is a much too sexually liberal for my liking.

It is unfortunate that my Japanese language abilities are rather sub-par. I did take up a course in the Japanese language at my neighbourhood’s community centre before, and have gone through an entire coursebook on Japanese, but I haven’t touch the Japanese language for a long time ever since I entered law school. As such, I didn’t really converse with the Japanese people, although I think it would have been a more meaningful trip could I have strike up a conversation.

I do think that the Japanese people are well-mannered. They have strong work ethics as well in my opinion. This is based on my observation of Japanese people I came into contact with such as the stall owners and train operators. They are also quite efficient in the way they do things, and quite diligent as well. You can see this from the way they design their products, as well as the way they perform their services. The cashier at the restaurant counts the money verbally before giving back the change. The train operator follows a procedure of gesturing while doing his check on the train which may seem odd in nature. The taxi drivers are dressed up in suits and have their cabins poshly maintained. Their food are ornately prepared and fresh ingredients used. There are certainly a lot in their culture that I think Singapore can learn from to improve its service industry. It was a sharp contrast to when I got back to Singapore and was met with snappy aunties operating the toast box outlet at Changi airport when I went to order a meal.

Election was around the corner back then when I was in Japan, and there were campaign vans patrolling the various places in Japan with loud hailers on blaring campaign materials in Japanese. There were posters everywhere featuring images of various Japanese politicians, including the newly-elected Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. My experience in Japan has been a very positive one, and I look forward to visiting Japan again, perhaps other areas of Japan like Kyoto or Osaka. It has also got me more interested in studying Japan culture, and I stumbled onto a book titled a History of Japan at a bookshop that I am thinking of giving a read.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Sunday sermon on evangelism – Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The sermon at church today was by a lady who works as a staff at the Singapore Youth for Christ. She is an occasional speaker at my church when she comes round to give a sermon. She gave a sermon about evangelism based on the text of Luke 10 where Jesus sent the 72 to evangelise to the towns. Regarding evangelism, it is something that I do hear a lot about from my Christian leaders, be it the pastors, or the youth workers at the Varsity Christian Fellowship.

She was saying that there are people who spend their entire lifetime trying to convert a particular someone, and that this is admirable. But she also referenced to the passage where Jesus told the 72 that if they did not succeed in their evangelism, to wipe off the dust off their feet on the household and move on. According to her, a Christian is not obliged to spend effort beyond a certain point to try to convert the nonbeliever, in so far as he has really done his reasonable best. I suppose there may be certain circumstances in which as a Christian, one would want to convert a particular nonbeliever, especially if that nonbeliever is a loved one. I don’t think my grandmother was particularly active as a evangelizer, but at least one thing that she did was try to convert my grandfather to Christianity with the best of her efforts, and she succeeded I suppose. My grandfather now attends church every Sunday, but he doesn’t seem to be particularly a religious person.

But like a fisherman trying to catch fish, or a salesman doing his sales pitch (actually, that is the awkward feeling I sometimes get when I am evangelising), it would be a waste if one focus on converting a particular person at the expense of evangelizing to many other people in the midst.

She was talking about how she reached her wits end in an evangelistic endeavor during her secondary school days. Her friend, whom she was trying to evangelise to, taunted her to prove that God really exists by praying for God to appear right in front of her. She responded that if she indeed made God appear in front of her friend, her friend would die from the sight of God, and that would defeat the purpose of her attempt at redeeming her friend. The conversation between the speaker and her friend ended off in a rather caustic manner with she pulling out the stopline argument of “If you do not believe in God, you will go to hell!”, to which her friend retorted in an off-the-cuff manner that she would be happy being in hell.

I can identify with the sentiments of the friend. Sometimes, I wish that god would just show himself to cure my doubts, in a manner that is explicit enough for me to know that god exists, but yet at the same time not to the extent that I would be condemned for being a skeptic, or to death. And it can appear to me to be sore attempts at defending God’s apparent absence by throwing out answers such as “if God appeared before you, it would remove the necessity of faith in order to believe in him and you thus can’t love him genuinely.”

The speaker said that she had a surprising encounter with her friend again long after their days in secondary school when she saw her friend at her church one day. She was pleasantly surprised to see that that friend continued attending the church regularly. When she approached that friend, the friend quite responsively replied, seemingly with the recollection of that unsightly episode in their secondary school days, “okay lah, I believe lah”

From hearing this testimony at evangelism presented in the sermon, I would say that the way evangelism works is also very much mysterious. The speaker could have indeed been an extremely bad evangelizer to her friend, causing more ire and defensiveness in her friend than convincing her in any manner. But perhaps, it could also have sown the seed in the mind of the friend, which in quite inexplicable manner, moved the friend to attend church on a particular occasion. It could be that she was somehow reminded of that event, and decided that she would give church a try. The attempt at evangelism worked after all, by tapping into some unknown, perhaps even irrational aspect of the human psychology.

I do understand the impetus for evangelism, and why the church, as well as the varsity Christian fellowship I attend pushes for their members to evangelise. It is afterall, what Christians call the Great Commission. I have heard a fellow Christian framing his evangelistic endeavor in what appears to me to be a rather incentive-oriented manner by borrowing from the verse in Matthew 6:20 to “Store you treasure in heaven.” Can’t say I am too impressed with this belief-system as a way to compel evangelism. It seems to me to run counter to the virtue of selflessness that Christianity preaches about.

I try to do my bid for Christianity as well, and to carry out this aspect of what seems to be my obligation as a Christian. I try to do so even though I am not exactly sure that God exists, or that Christianity is true. You can call me a Christian agnostic, the sort of Christian who believe it wiser to hang upon the safer side of the Pascal wager. Still, I evangelise because I am concerned about the afterlife of my loved ones such as my friends and my family members, and I believe that it is good for people to take practical and moral instructions from the Christian religion in their living. Also, I believe that Christianity is good for society if people live out the charitable values preached in the religion.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On obsessive worries and persistent preoccupying thoughts

What should one do about an obsessive worry, or a preoccupative thought that bogs the will of an individual, to the extent that he finds himself quite unable to function in any other manner in life. I guess one method of resort is to pray. It beats worrying silly and putting one’s thoughts obsessively on the issue. But of course, one could argue that it is just as unhelpful to pray in an obsessive manner to God about an issue. But I believe that there may very well be a difference, in the sense that if you believe in God, and accept the teachings of the church that one can and should correspond with God in a manner that is personal to oneself, then it might be considered virtue to talk to God about a worry. The usual teaching that I have hear from my church is that God cares about the things that affects you, and nothing is too small as to be insignificant in his eyes.

I know that in the world of psychology, there are methods employed by a psychiatrist to treat conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder. I get my impression about psychologists mainly from the media, and from television dramas. One of my favourite US sitcom is the detective show Monk, which features a male detective who suffers from what is palpably the condition of obsessive compulsive disorder. While the psychosis in one sense debilitating to his social life, it is also on the other hand the underlying trait responsible for his genius in his feat of detective sleuthing with his attention to details. Now, one recurrent side archetypal character in that sitcom are the psychologists that Monk, the eponymous protagonist, attends to help him with his obsessive compulsive disorder, which had gotten worse after the death of his wife. The meetings with the psychologist typically features a room with two chairs placed facing each other where the psychologist sits on one of the chair whilst his patient sits on the other. And the dialogue that proceeds follows a certain stereotype where the psychologist sits by the chair with a pencil and a notebook in hand, and scribbles points of notes as his patient rattles details according to the questions prodded by the psychologist. Thereafter, the psychologist makes comments based on his observations, articulating the unspoken thoughts that lies within the recesses of what they call the “region of unconsciousness” that exists in the individual. Traumatic childhood experiences and repressed sensualities are the common lingos of the psychiatrist in explaining the world of the unconscious.

In some ways, praying is quite akin to visiting a psychiatrist, with God as the psychiatrist, and you as the patient. And I do feel that there is something quite therapeutic in the process of simply rumbling on about one’s worries to God, in manners that may be considered incoherent or irrational by others. Does prayer work? Perhaps as much as how psychotherapy may work. The ability to articulate one’s worries and to believe them heard has a calming cathartic effect. But whether prayer works further than that, I do not know. If one expects too much of prayer as a way of obtaining subsistence to his petition, I am afraid that he may go away sorely disappointed, or that he might become disillusioned at the apparent absence of response. That is my experience. And I have found myself railing at God for his seeming lack of response. I thread on the lines of committing grievous sins such as blasphemy in my rancor. Perhaps, if I were more rational or even-headed about how prayer works, I would not have found myself so perturbed and could have avoided the excess of emotions. But perhaps, there may some significance to which anger over disappointment works in one’s correspondence with God. It is like a stage of maturation, in passing, to which its ends lies in some repose obtained from a transcendent enlightenment to the state of affairs, or simply from resignation and acceptance of circumstances. A psychologist appealing to more secular paradigms would probably reference the Kübler-Ross model, also commonly referred to as the five stages of grief. And such stages are quite manifestly expressed in the prayer process. Ranting at God fits in somewhere between the stage of anger and bargaining.

There is another paradigm which is quite beautifully expressed in a show named Joan of Arcadia, and it is called Desolation and Consolation. See this post by James Bradford for an excellent write-up about this paradigm. It’s like what Solomon, or
Qoheleth, writes about in Ecclesiastes – A time for everything. There is a time for desolation, or to feel aggrieved and have misgiving towards God, and there is a time for consolation, where things seems to make sense, there is a sense of inner peace, and God seems loving and kind.

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