428:我是牧师,我上街了。

Almost all of the articles in the Micah Mandate have been in English, so it is refreshing to have an entry in Chinese.  A personal story and reflection (inclusive of the photos) under the title “428: I am a Pastor, I’m walking the Streets now.” is reposted with permission from Malaysian Lutheran pastor Calvin Lim. We look forward to and welcome contributions in Tamil and of course  Bahasa Malaysia.

There is no doubt that many of our pastors have chosen to walk with the Rakyat during the recent Bersih 3.0. Let us not forget, pastors wear two hats during this walk: one as shepherds who walk with their sheep, i.e. many of the members under their pastoral care, and the other as a fellow citizen concerned with the state of our nation.  They are part of the Rakyat too!

It is tempting, especially given the many recent controversies , for the public to perceive the Christian community in Malaysia  as preoccupied with religious issues affecting ourselves.  But the evidence of Christians and Christian leaders participating in Bersih 3.0 reflects that we are attentive to and will make our voice heard on issues that affect ALL of us in Malaysia.

May the words of a pastor who struggled  not only externally with injustice, but also internally in prayer and reflection with great intensity give all of us encouragement during these critical times.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”  ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[Editorial Note by Sivin Kit]

 

下午一点,艳阳高挂,苏丹街已经热血沸腾。所有的人都预备好了,大字报,海报,奇异的服装帽子,黄色大雨伞,黄绿的衣服都挤在一起。在大街上,大家都异口同声的高喊“Bersih!”每个人都很有次序,就算太阳再大,大家也愿意慢慢的步行,有时喊着口号,有时唱着国歌,大家一条心,不管是为了反lynas,要bersih。 当时在当场我们已经看不见马来人,华人,印度人,你也看不见新山人,KL人,你只看见马来西亚人。大家聚在一起,互相高喊口号,大家互相扶持,每个人面带笑容,一起和平漫步,唱着国歌向独立广场前进。虽然太阳高照,大家却是面带笑容的前进,因为原来我们都有共同的理念,因为我们深爱着我们的国家,就是因为爱的太深,才要上街。

我与4位牧师一起走上了街头,因为其中一位牧师是残障人士,他也拿了拐杖要与我们一起走。本来大家都想要预备轮椅给他,他拒绝了,他说只要他拿两只拐杖,还是可以走的,(结果他都走得比谁都快)。在心中我敬佩他,对他来说,上街他可以有一千零一个理由不需要来的,可是他坚持要来,因为他也不想错过,我们还能说什么呢?

前进的时候,我们在苏丹街口遇见了一群天主教的神父和修女,他们也在人群中漫步。因为神父穿着那厚厚的牧师袍出来,我心里敬佩。他们看见我们就邀请我们一起上街走。说真的,那天真的很嗮,很热,可是我的心里很温暖,因为我们并不是孤单上路,我们有千千万万的同胞,弟兄姐妹一起走这条“干净”的路。我感谢上帝给我有这样的有机会与他们一起走,唱着诗歌前进独立广场。

这次的上街漫步,我遇见了很多老朋友,甚至一些FB的朋友。最让我惊喜的就是我遇见一位只是在FB聊过天的医生,他从砂劳越飞来参加这次的“上街”,虽然口里没有说出来,可是我深深的感受到他那份真诚爱马来西亚的心,在行动上已经彻彻底底的表露出来。真的,很高兴见到你。

一直到下午三点,大家都在一个很和平的气氛底下漫步,我们从苏丹街一直走到独立广场外围,再从哪里走向Masjid Jamed,可是人太多,所以大伙就后来退回kotaraya。因为时间也到四点了,所以很多人都慢慢散去。那时我们看见很多民众向苏丹街方向离开,也有很多人也都上了巴士,快铁,准备回家了。我心里想这次的428,情况还不错,大家都很和平的散开,没有不愉快的事情发生。结果就在当时,我们前方masjid jamed的方向,有人大喊undur undur(退后!)。烟雾从哪里散开,警察开始攻击了。那时我们都挤在这些人群中,烟雾慢慢飘过来,那熟悉的刺眼的感觉回来了,脸上立刻好像被人用辣椒水涂上的感觉立刻来了,我赶快戴着口罩后退。一直退到kotaraya的starbucks。看见所有失散的牧师都在哪里。我们以为警察只是要驱散人群而发射一些催泪弹而已,结果后来看见starbucks老板赶快锁门,我们知道他们继续攻击,整个人群四散,大家红着眼睛,捂着嘴巴逃命。
我心凉了,我们不是已经要回家了吗?我们不是已经要散去了吗?为什么还要这样呢?

(沿街派盐的朋友)
我们留在starbucks里,一直到四点,然后才回去拿车离开。我们离开时还载了一位来自丰盛港的uncle,他不知道怎样回去与他的bus集合,我们就顺路载他一程。原来bersih带来的是各区各族的人民都团结,合一在一起。就算有再大的催泪弹,水炮,大家还是在一起。我在709看见黎明的曙光初现,现在看见这改革朝阳慢慢的攀升。

5点,我回到PJ,当我的思想慢慢的沉淀下去的时候,我忽然想起几天前在教会与弟兄姐妹讨论的一个课题。“基督徒可以参加bersih吗?”
对我而言,今天上街是我履行身为一位马来西亚公民最基本的权利,因为我有义务,也有权力去要告诉当权者:“我们要的是公正廉洁透明的选举” 如果我们看见不义的事情,看见欺压穷人,寡妇,寄居的人,我们就应该挺身而出,尽我们的所能,为他们伸冤。

回家后,才看到那些血腥,暴力的画面,我心在淌血…为什么一个文明先进的国家会发生这些事情?

你今天问我,难道不怕吗?709的经历,我真的不想再重复。可是如果只是给催泪弹,水炮的摧残可以唤醒更多的人民,这些牺牲应该值得。可是你再问我,会不会恨这些警察,我只能说,我很遗憾,我恨愤怒,我却不会让这个恨意主旨我的人生,我不要中他们的计。

Prayer of the Day: Ash Wednesday

O Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil. As we begin the Lenten journey, make this season holy by our self-denial. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

adapted from International Committee on English in the Liturgy (via Verse and Voice)

There are two seasons which has a special place in my own spiritual journey. The first is Advent, the other is Lent. Both seasons somehow concentrate my attention towards a climatic point, the two pictures that capture this climax is the cradle and the cross of Christ.

This is my first season of Lent away from my home country. So, the Lenten journey opens up a a different possibility to reflect on the regular themes only in different geographical location, but also in a different spiritual location in this season of my life.

My connection back home to Malaysia, is primarily through the internet either on Facebook or reading the news and views online. A quick glance of the thoughts in So, why is Malaysia on the Human Rights Council again?, especially the following caught my attention:

The dialogue on human rights in this country has been strange and very often contradictory. It’s not for nothing that we have been accused of being “champions of double talk.” Consider the fact that time and again, our policymakers have repeated the line that human rights is solely a Western device not suited for Asian communities. A number of religious figures have even stated that human rights is not compatible with Islam, never mind that the Quran is in fact, when read and interpreted properly, chock-a- block full with the spirit and principles of human rights and justice. The Malaysian government has also argued that international standards of human rights are not applicable to Malaysia because of the over-emphasis on the rights of the individual as opposed to the rights of the community.

So why then are we on the Human Rights Council? Why did we make those pledgesduring the campaigning and lobbying to be elected for a seat (yes, Malaysia did work hard and made several pledges to be on this august group). Malaysia stated clearly as one of its pledges that it would “engage constructively in the evolving modalities of work of the HRC to make it a strong, fair, effective, efficient and credible vehicle for the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.” If Malaysia doesn’t believe in human rights as it is understood by the international community, why then continue to be a member of the HRC?

So my mind comes back to the opening utterance from the prayer:

O Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil.

In this season of Lent, our struggle against evil not only includes confronting the rights and wrongs – good and evil within us so we can be an ‘Upright Human’, but this whole debate on ‘Human Rights’ alerts us to the struggle of right and wrong – good and evil outside of the comforts of computer screens and the solitude of our souls.

We are very well aware that when our ‘souls’ are corrupted by evil, this corruption is destructive to our ‘body’ life and our relations with other people, culture and even nature. I doubt it is that different when the ‘soul’ of a nation is corrupted by evil in and through self-deception, questionable intentions, methods of control, and a range of other expressions would in any way help the ‘body’ life of our society. The lines from the Lord’s Prayer is shouts aloud in the classic translation, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.

So, as I enter this Lented journey as an individual, and together with a corporate body as a church both institutionally and organically, I wonder what this Lenten journey might mean for us in Malaysia as we are gearing towards what some have labeled as potentially the ‘filthiest’ general election in Malaysian history.

 

For me, my prayer is for all who are struggling against evil expressed in varied shapes and sizes – whether is corruption or a ‘dirty’ election. This does not mean that when we pray this prayer everyone who is not like us are ‘demonized’, it’s a call to ALL to recognize the ‘war against evil’ is truly a struggle because no one is exempt from its temptation.

“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” – Psalm 51:6-9

Religious dialogue: whose responsibility? – Part 2

The challenge of approaching ‘Dialogue’

Next, I would like to raise three concerns on the way we approach the question of interfaith relations with the aim to clarify how we may understand the challenge of inter-religious dialogue, and specifically Christian-Muslim dialogue in the case of Malaysia. These concerns are pertinent because often we may not be talking about the same thing even if we use same terminology.

First, in the discussion on religious dialogue, perhaps we need to clarify what are we describing by the word ‘dialogue’?

Which level of ‘dialogue’ are we discussing?

Is it at the ground level – a personal neighbourly dialogue between Uncle Ali and Grandfather Surin?

Is it the academic ‘dialogue’ between Professor Bakar and Professor Ng?

Is it the dialogue between the church institution and the Home Ministry of the Malaysian government?

Is it a dialogue between an NGO like Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) with the young wing of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM Youth)?

We can add to the list and have different ways to narrow down which ‘level’ we are focusing on. One may assume the ‘rules of engagement’ would be different at different levels depending on who are the participants and the shared goals -implicit or explicit – one has.

Secondly, we may ask what are the different types of ‘Dialogue’?

The contribution from the Federation of Asian Bishop (FABC) is helpful place to start as there has been substantial reflection on this.

Is it a ‘dialogue of life’ where the focus is on the ordinary day to day contact?

Is it a ‘dialogue of action’ where the point of contact is first when different religious communities work together and also reflect together on a shared project?

Is it a ‘Dialogue of discourse’ focused on theology and beliefs? So, besides clarifying the levels of ‘dialogue’ we are addressing, we also consider the types of ‘dialogue’ in operation.

One could even ask whether it is a direct dialogue where we are comparing religious understandings of respective teachings, or more indirect dialogue where we focus on shared concerns and common issues but drawing from the reservoir of the best our faith traditions and the lessons where we have not met up even to our own standards.

Third, and I see this as the ‘biggest’ critical concern because, for each level and types of ‘dialogue’, direct or indirect, there are different conditions that might facilitate or hinder the progress for either subjects or structures.

These conditions have an important impact on pre-existing animosities orsuspicions, and also corrective and creative possibilities.

Put in concrete terms, even if we imagine that the Christians and Muslims in ABIM and CCM youth for example, have to at least some extent disciplined their psychological state of minds, the socio-political context that was generated from incidents such as the recent ‘JAIS-DUMC’ controversy, cannot simply be ignored.

In short, the personal or in this case, between two NGOs, while can be distinguished analytically from the political, one might even try hard to ‘bracket’ the political out for a moment, but the complex relation between the two still needs to be attended to, sooner or later. Therefore, the political returns. Or more specifically, the politicians return to the picture again.

The ‘political’ strikes back

Therefore, while one must not get too personal with regards to Mahathir, and after some critical distance, we may entertain a qualified critical agreement that Mahathir probably cannot be held solely responsible for “the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths”.

Perhaps we hear the overtone that, “We were all in this together” past, present and future. The implication of Sven’s argument suggests a challenge to the people i.e. religious communities is a welcome one but not at the expense of neglecting the political conditions that the people – religious or non-religious – live in and need to contend with.

We still need to look at the policies or structures during Mahathir’s premiership, and more importantly, for today, what are the policies and structures post-Mahathir during the administration of Abdullah Badawi and now Najib Razak, that are pertinent for our current situation. This is clearly political in both the broad and narrow sense of the term.

What I mean by the political thus far at least is the policies, the existing structures and also one must add the public articulation of the vision of Malaysia especially through the various media networks. Following the Centre of Dialogue, we could consider that at least ‘Dialogue implies a relationship between ‘self’ (in-group) and other (out-group) which is characterised by a degree of empathy, the result of which is to curb the severity of intercultural, inter-religious and international conflicts.” Now applied to the Malaysian politicians across the political divide, how have they fared in fulfilling their responsibility to facilitate the conditions where at least the kind of ‘dialogue’ described in the definition of the centre can be successful?

So, from the perspective balancing the ‘weight of responsibility’ on the people or the politician, the weight should lean more on politicians, especially current and future politicians who desire to be remembered as ‘Statesmen’ defined even in its simplest, “a wise, skillful, and respected political leader”. I would like to stress the whether one is wise and respected, it will depend on how the politician concerned carries out their ‘responsibilities’ mentioned briefly above as the elected representatives of the people. The final verdict is rightly up to the jury of the Malaysian public to decide, and perhaps with the hindsight of history a more complete picture in due time. It appears at the mean time that religious communities are engaged in ‘meaningful inter-religious dialogue’ in spite of unfavorable conditions.

Moving forward

After all is said and done, we still need to keep the conditions that enable or disable religious dialogue on the table for critical discussion. In that way, the people of Malaysia are then included in two ways, first, to have the potential and capacity to change the personal conditions, i.e., addressing possible uncritical inheritance of animosities and suspicions (as recommended in Sven’s argument). And at the same time, the people – yes, even religious people can then be empowered to address the political conditions in ways that will hold our elected representatives responsible on how they are helping or hindering the shared project of religious people with the wider civil society that is “to build consensus for action on the truly great issues facing humanity, including pervasive greed, the increasingly unjust and inequitable distribution of wealth and power, racism and hatred committed in the name of God, nuclear proliferation, violence and exploitation of earth’s finite resources.”

I must confess it is hard to keep the ‘political’ out considering the grand vision for a better humanity implied in an earlier paragraph! It is almost a common mantra to hear that we should not ‘politicize’ religion. If that means religion must not be abused for political mileage, who is to disagree? However, with a cautious note, we are reminded that “Everything is political, even though politics is not everything!” Perhaps, in our reflections, we are tempted to simply ignore or separate the religious from the political since it might be too ‘sensitive’, or maybe what we really need is actually to critically reclaim ‘the religious’, and at the same time, we might as well reclaim ‘the political’ in the process. Hopefully, through confronting the issues head on respectfully we will then live happily ever after – yes, maybe inMalaysiathat is still possible.

In closing, I offer a counter hypothesis:

“The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue” in the case of Malaysia is not “historically grown animosities and suspicions” assumed to be in religious leaders or religious people.

On the contrary, the biggest impediments are the social-political conditions generated by the concrete actions of politicians directly or indirectly, through the government institutions, agencies and media networks.

Over to you now – the ones who have the ability to respond – the people!

P.S. perhaps the politicians too?

Religious dialogue: whose responsibility? – Part 1

Mahathir not personally responsible?

Sven Schottmann’s argument is simple and important: First, he offers a defense on Mahathir’s contribution to interreligious relations, and second, our attention is turned to the people – the religious people – with due attention to historical factors that impacts their disposition to people of other religions. Both ideas are summarised succinctly in the following:

“Mahathir himself, while in power, personally fostered such encounters and frequently spoke to Christian and also to Buddhist and Hindu audiences, both locally and overseas. It thus seems inaccurate to hold Mahathir personally responsible for the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths.

The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue, in particular a more meaningful Muslim-Christian dialogue has been historically grown animosities and suspicions that will take time to overcome.”

In non-academic terms, one might read it as (1) Don’t put all the blame on Mahathir, because he has personally fostered and encouraged interfaith encounters, and (2) It’s really about the social psychological state of mind of religious people due to historic upbringing that is the main problem. Therefore, (3) it follows that we should turn away from the blame game on Mahathir (or perhaps by implication politicians in power?) and focus on addressing ingrainedanimosities and suspicions in religious communities, and in due time we will live happily ever after.

Who is responsible then?

As a result of reading Sven’s essay, a more general question emerged in my mind, whose responsibility is it – the politicians or the people? My main concern is not so much on the notion of ‘historically grown animosities and suspicions’ as one of the ‘impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue’. The word ‘biggest’ is what in my view warrants a minor intervention. Even if we answer both the politicians and the people, in the case of Malaysia, where does the greater ‘weight of responsibility’ lean towards?

Admittedly, most of us are aware that assigning singular causes to the complex realities in which religious people seek to negotiate their relation to ultimate mystery and the daily grind of earthly matters is a dead end street. Making Mahathir the sole cause for “the the overall failure of an inter-religious dialogue culture to take root in Malaysia” though might be therapeutic is not only contestable as suggested by Sven but might actually distract us from some needed self-critical reflection, is where I think Sven is leading us. In that sense, I appreciate Sven’s contribution. But, is it not equally simplistic to unload the ‘weight of responsibility’ from those in positions of power – I am speaking more generally now – to overburden religious communities with unnecessary guilt?

To begin, let me state that I believe both Sven and I are on the same page when it comes to the significance of inter-religious dialogue as part of the solution to prevent, as well as overcome ‘religion’ being used as a source, justification, and even ‘scape-goat’ for conflict and violence.

To add value to Sven’s original contribution, I would like to mention contributions of Christians and Muslims critical reflection on interfaith dialogue that has already been done that addresses some of these animosities and suspicions. For example, Malaysian theologian Albert Walters’ (2007) work on Christian-Muslim relations, Sociologist Syed-Farid Alattas’ (2008) reassertion on the Islamic commitment to dialogue and Robert Hunt’s (2009) emphasis on identity and narrative are most illuminating, just to name a few.

A side note to mention, the discussions here in New Mandala on ‘Apostasy’ from at least two perspectives are a breath of fresh air even though it might be uncomfortable to some, and counter-productive for others. The main value is that we are engaged in a form of dialogue that others can build on.

However, as contributors to the challenge of inter-religious dialogue, so often, we recognise that our work is necessary but not sufficient. Hence, I would like to raise a number of concerns from a civil society perspective, hopefully in order to develop a way to understand the Malaysian situation, and subsequently find ways together in true dialogical fashion towards some solution/s. The perspective I am hoping to bring aims to take into account the struggle of people – especially religious people – on the ground in the current conditions of Malaysia post-Mahathir.

Voices from the ground

As a point of entry, in the case of Malaysia, religious communities have historically recognised the need for a healthy environment for living together. For example, from a non-Muslim perspective, since 1983, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has dedicated, at the institutional level, towards the following:

(a) To promote understanding, mutual respect and co-operation between people of different religions.

(b) To study and resolve problems affecting all inter religious relationships.

(c) To make representations regarding religious matters when necessary.

(d) To advance and promote the religious, cultural, educational and social rights and interests of the religious bodies.

Besides the presence and the work of the MCCBCHST, in recent years, I would like to suggest that in civil society there are indicators that perhaps Malaysians of different faiths and persuasions do not have such strong animosities andsuspicions that might be assumed prior to further empirical investigation. And especially in times of controversy and tension, it is the religious communities together with other civil society groups that have taken the lead in public to confront what potentially can be disastrous outcomes if left unattended. Below are some significant excerpts from non-Muslims, Muslims and other civil society groups during times of tension:

“We, the undersigned civil society organizations are shocked, angered and saddened by the “Cow-Head protest” in Shah Alam last Friday, 28 August 09, against a proposed Hindu temple in Section 23 of the city. The carrying of the head of a freshly slaughtered cow, a sacred animal to the Hindus and the unveiled threat of bloodshed on the eve of Merdeka celebration suggests that all Malaysians need to reflect deeply about our 52 years of nationhood, and the clarion call of 1Malaysia.

From the outset, these heinous acts of crime perpetrated by the irresponsible few must NEVER be seen as a conflict between the two faiths or the two faith communities. All major spiritual traditions, Islam and Hinduism included, uphold peace and human dignity as their common and core values. Our spirituality and love for humanity mandates us for the perpetual quest for peace and abhorrence of all forms of hatred and civil disorder.” – The Cow-Head Lesson for Merdeka: Delegitimize Violence and Hatred

“This act of arson, committed presumably in the name of Islam desecrates the very religion it purports to protect. The Holy Quran unequivocally prohibits destroying the houses of worship of all religions, as warned in Surah Al-Hajj, Verse 40.

“ … Had not Allah checked the excesses and aggression of one set of people by means of another, surely would be destroyed monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated …” – MPF Statement On Church Torchings

“As in the past, Malaysians of other faiths see the attack on Islam as an attack on their own faiths. In an immediate response, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) have condemned any such violence on any house of worship as “a sin of the highest order”.

The inter-faith solidarity of Malaysians is a clear and loud testimony that Malaysian society has passed another test on communal relations and emerged only ever stronger than before. No cow head, pig head or fire can set the fraternity and goodwill amongst Malaysians on fire. The agent provocateurs are only burning themselves in stark desperation devoid of any modicum of civic consciousness or religiosity.

The indomitable spirit of mutual respect and muhibbah of the Malaysian society in the face of challenging inter-faith issues is however tarnished by the continuous failures of the Malaysian state of law and order. The police must stop dismissing such attacks as purely acts of vandalism or juvenile delinquency.” – Police investigation on mosque attacks must pursue the political operators

“In a multi-religious country such as Malaysia, adopting views that disallow non-Muslims to enter mosques, which are established in some school of thoughts, is inappropriate. Nobody from other faiths should be barred from entering mosques or any places of worship for Muslims, as long as their purpose is good, respects the sacredness of the place of worship and is modestly dressed. They should also be allowed to deliver speeches, provided that the speech is in line with the spirit of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil.

It is in the interest of maslahah or common good of Islam that non-Muslims should feel welcomed and not intimidated from visiting mosques. Calls to ban non-Muslims from entering mosques or any knee-jerk reaction by the Islamic authorities to bow to certain political pressure in preventing the commendable attitude of cooperation and mutual respect are regrettable and uncalled for.” –IRF Stand on the Issue of Non-Muslims Entering Mosques

The above suggests strongly that religious communities can draw not only from within their own spiritual tradition, but also from the shared understanding of living together as part of a mosaic Malaysian society. This does not however mean that there is harmony, no prejudices and good understanding among the different religious communities. But perhaps at the ground level, hostility is not the point of departure in the interfaith relations between ordinary Malaysians, rather the capacity for solidarity seems to the greater force at work here.

First published in New Mandala

Second Thoughts on “Speed”

”Speed” – I’ve been thinking about speed lately. In a lot of discussions on making choices and making judgments, it’s reduced to limited options of whether one should or shouldn’t choose, can we or must we judge. But perhaps the issue is more about speed than anything else.

The fact is, it’s impossible to live life without making choices. We make judgments whether we like it or not. Sometimes, the way we act is birthed out of sincerity combined with some wisdom; other times we’re plain prejudiced and wrongheaded. Upon deeper reflection, our troubles often spring from allowing our judgments to leap forward a little too quickly.

Too fast, before we step back a little and get a better picture, which to me means a fuller picture. Not perfect, not one with every single detail sorted out. It’s a picture which will be subject to revision or at least fine-tuning. This “slow to anger” business, an ancient author reminded a bunch of fast shooting church members of old, has good sense in it.

”Quick to listen” was what James was advocating. Slow down judgment but speed up the understanding. Simple. But it’s hard. Because there’s so much within us—experience, reading, insights, lessons, tons of “wisdom”—waiting to ooze out and fix the “problem” before us.

Being “slow to anger” and “quick to listen” to me involves emptying oneself at least for the moment. It involves creating space for the “other” to simply be, for a moment. Our role is more as a companion, to walk alongside those who are genuinely seeking to make sense of life in all it’s complexities. This act of “kenosis,” i.e. the emptying of ourselves, or by implication the restraint of or limiting our “power” doesn’t mean we jump into the mud of these complexities uncritically; but it does give the phrase “getting our hands dirty” a fresh twist.

When we are in the midst of this process, we will need to confront the insecurity and uncertainty it brings. But we don’t have to be afraid, especially when our faith is in the One who holds on to us (somehow and in some way!). Our experience on earth however at times borders on hell-like—we don’t need to die before we step into “purgatory”—and the intensity of limping through our daily hours might purge us enough.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? It might not feel that way at first, but the struggle hints that there is. And gradually, the hints become a real hope. But this too cannot be hurried.

I got a phone call the other night. A little surprised but delighted. Surprised because it was totally unexpected and really out of the blue. Delighted because it became another “ceremony of closure” on an episode of “emptying” on my part during a period when I sincerely rolled into the mud of some serious pain and hurts of “others”. Again, it’s often on hindsight that we are able to make some sense of these matters.

1 month, 1 year, is too short to really have a fresh look. 5 to 10 works a little better. That’s too slow? But then I’m still talking about speed right?

Second Thoughts on “self-centered prayer”

”Simple Prayer is necessary, even essential, to the spiritual life. The only way we move beyond “self-centred prayer” (if indeed we ever do) is by going through it, not by making a detour around it.

– Richard J. Foster, Prayer, p. 11

My earliest memories of prayer is when I prayed for my mom to win the lottery. It was one of those, “I challenge you, Jesus, to show me you are God and can answer the prayer of a 12 year old!”, kind of prayer.

Even when I was “born again” at 13, this lost Lutheran now turned Pentecostal on fire for Jesus brought my needs to him daily in intercession, claiming on the promise that he truly hears prayer.

The climb to grow in prayer had an interesting interlude after being challenged by a Bible study teacher in the church student fellowship who always seems to “hear from the Lord”, to pray the Lord’s prayer everyday. It took me about 5-7 minutes to walk to high school and I recall praying the Lord’s prayer (as opposed to mere reciting it) while I walked passed my neighbors.

Since then, I’ve been exposed to the wide riches of all that the best of church history has to offer from the Spiritual gurus of the old the desert fathers to the best-selling authors of the present … not the millionaires but the mystics! And when one grows in theological understanding, and sharpened by the hard knocks of on the ground praxis, one is suddenly more sensitized by any smell of “self-centeredness”.

My mind wonders on a little comment from a younger Christian when she said that she was so impressed when she heard older Christians pray (sincerely) for the troubles of the world, and the suffering of others and not themselves. And when she’s just struggling to make sense of her daily work challenges, praying for that appears to be so “unspiritual”. And yet, these “other-centered prayer” older Christians, who are more sophisticated in their prayer are mostly missing from corporate worship, walking on their individualized custom made spiritual track, honest but not re-engaging older less sophisticated spiritual habits and maybe, just maybe there is yearn for a deeper spiritual maturity but in the words Foster used above, could it be a little too “detoured” from the “self.”?

So, it’s not about “other-centered prayer” is a mark of a higher spirituality than “self-centered” prayer. Both are part of the whole relating to God, self and world equation. The “self” is an honest place to start, it’s when we stop there – and move into self-indulgence that’s where the spiral downwards occurs. I see some kind of interaction between the self and others in prayer now. Whenever, I’m praying for the world out there, I bring my”self” and how I view all this into the conversation. Whenever, I’m troubled and perhaps bring very mundane stuff from my children’s safety to the next council meeting, I connect these concerns with the what I read in the papers, and the what we discuss in the council is informed by current affairs.

Back to “going through it”, Christ came not to destroy our “self”, but to redeem it. “Self-centered prayer” is redeemable too. During those times, we may sound selfish and self-absorbed … but when we stick long enough in prayer, God does wonders. And combined with some healthy scriptural meditation, the content of our prayer changes … because the content of our concerns evolves. It’s hard to hangout with some One who’s self-less and remain selfish. “Going through” self-centered prayer is part of bringing our true selves into contact with the Spirit who recreates us step by step. The Self will then turn outwards and follow where God’s voice prompts us to … the self will still be part of the process, not sidelined by pseudo-spiritual maturity, but a self which is responsive to “others” and truly open to the “Other” who created us, redeems us, and molds us. This is a good route to go …

A Modest Faith?

The classic four weeks in the season of Advent leading to Christmas has become for me a significant way for reflection. Of course, the word “reflection” might seem a little passive where one just sits back to observe and do some thinking, but for me it’s little paths to grow as a person and lead to better ways of living. This is so important for people who take our “faith” seriously.

After one of events where we sang Christmas carols in MPH, a young man came up to me and thanked us. He remarked that it brought back memories for him as a former Christian who has now lost his faith. I asked what happened and then he shared how he felt his study of philosophy has brought up questions he feels Christianity is unable to meet the challenges. I probed further and mentioned that this has been an ongoing struggle of Christians through the ages. Perhaps it’s not as settled as this young man might think it is. I appreciate his honesty, but I wonder why such certainty too prematurely.

Sadly in the style of the Richard Dawkin’s brand of new atheism or Bill Maher’s mockumentary “Religulous” there is now what some would call a militant atheism and anti-religious sentiment in the West which has become downright “condescending” on anything religious. I get some of that in some Facebook interactions on and off. Atheist Michael Ruse seeks to distance himself by saying,

“how dare we be so condescending? I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.”

Then again, it’s not uncommon to meet sincere zealous Christians who write off even honest inquiry, some would even go as far to say just believe and stop asking all these hard questions. So, I can understand the reaction to unthinking anti-intellectual forms of Christianity. While not everyone will be very sophisticated in their Christian faith, but we are all called to an honest faith with a strong dose of humble inquisitive spirit. To rephrase Ruse”s words, I would want to be modest in my belief as I seek to continue in the way of Christ,

The reality is that it’s hard not to ask tough questions when one is exposed to real challenges. How do we respond not just to intellectual challenges like this young man, but then there’s real moral challenges we see in society like the state of the refugees in Malaysia. Without going to far, have we seen the living conditions of some migrant workers, and how they are treated. One day, a migrant worker complained to me that he had a bad boss. I confess I was deeply confronted because this boss is a card carrying Christian!

Bringing it closer to home, many of us deal with unresolved challenges and questions in our own personal and family life. When we honestly look at ourselves or those whom we relate too, there are multiple experiences and reactions often out of our control which might push us away from being a Christian. There are barriers for us to respond to the Good News of faith, hope and love which this Christmas season.

In a way, while some of us was doing Project Hope, I noticed in a similar way it was not easy to Hope when everything around us seems to black and colorless. It’s rare to find optimists these days, many conversions to pessimism. We tried to carve a new path for Hope-timists to emerge, So, in the same way, as people of faith perhaps it’s not about no faith (e.g. being a skeptical atheist or agnostic) or blind faith (being a religious zealot or mindless believer). May I recommend in the spirit of Project Hope, a kind of Project Faith where we can be honest with our questions, humble in our answers, and hunger for what is authentic and life-changing for the good of our own well being but even more so for the good of all people. I’m imagining here people who not only sing with our lungs but with our lives these lyrics below:

…A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
… Led by the light of faith serenely beaming, With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
… The King of kings lay thus lowly manger; In all our trials born to be our friends. He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
… Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.

As we embrace the Good News of Christmas in a world full of Bad News, we are taking our “faith” even more seriously. It’s not just the fact that we want to believe, but even more important is the quality of the content of that belief. “Stupid, Bad or whatever” faith is not the faith promoted in the Bible, and neither is it advocated by Jesus Christ. A little more wisdom, more dosages of goodness, and every kind of maturity would be a wonderful gift we can offer and receive this season.

I believe Christmas would be even more meaningful for those who are beginning their journey of faith and also those who continue to persevere in this long road of faith, when we can move beyond all categories, limitations, frustrations, and disappointments which disempowers us. Christmas at its best gives us a chance to pause, listen, revisit, and reengage not only sweet memories of the past, but meaningful possibilities for a more enriched faith for today and tomorrow. Let’s join the chorus of all those who have gone before us with a crescendo …

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

Originally published in the Christmas edition of The Mustard Seed, the newsletter of Bangsar Lutheran Church, Kuala Lumpur.

CFM Statement of Concern on the Sudden Death of Mr. Teoh Beng Hock

Dear Bishops and Christian Church leaders,

Warmest Christian greetings in Christ Jesus from the CFM.

In recent days the Christian community in Malaysia has been truly appalled and saddened by the sudden death of Mr. Teoh Beng Hock in strange and unclear circumstances on the morning of 16 July.

The Prime Minister himself has personally promised Mr. Teoh’s parents that every effort would be made to find out the cause of the political aide’s death (NST, 29 July 2009). To this end the Government of Malaysia has convened an inquest to look into the circumstances of Mr. Teoh’s death and to inquire if anyone was criminally liable. At the same time, a Royal Commission of Inquiry will be set up to inquire into the investigatory procedures of the MACC.

Collectively as a community we want to express our deepest condolences and sympathies to the family of the late Mr. Teoh and our prayers go out to them for God’s grace and comfort to face this difficult period. We encourage church leaders to express their prayers and condolences to the family.

As Christian citizens of Malaysia we pray that Almighty God will guide the inquest and the Royal Commission of Inquiry to unearth the truth, to uphold justice and to bring closure to the very unfortunate death of a young man with a bright future ahead of him.

We also pray that the Lord God will help us to seek an end to the many deaths in custody that occur all too frequently in our prisons, detention centres and lock-ups. [According to SUARA RAKYAT MALAYSIA’s 2008 Human Rights Report, citing government statistics, in 2008 itself there were 13 cases of deaths in police custody while 255 deaths were recorded in prisons.]

The very least that must be demanded of the relevant authorities and which they in any event should at least do is to thoroughly investigate every loss of life in ambiguous circumstances while in the custody of our law enforcement agencies so that any element of foul play may be ruled out.

We call upon our fellow Christians in government and in the political parties to also seek to leave no stone unturned in seeking the truth of the death not only of Mr. Teoh but the many others who have died whilst in the custody of our law enforcement agencies. Every human life is precious in the sight of Almighty God. Every family of each deceased person has the right to know the truth behind the death of their loved one.

May we together in love and patience grapple with the issues of the day in seeking to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly before God (Micah 6 : 8). This is the very least that God demands of us.

Bishop Ng Moon Hing,
Chairman and the Executive Committee
Christian Federation of Malaysia
31th July 2009

Ripples Of Hope ..

I’m glad the “People Like Us” Open Forum on Friday, June 12, co-organized by Muslims Professionals Forum and Friends-in-Conversation went well. In fact, it was much better than I expected! Marina Mahathir was kind enough to give the event extra publicity on her blog which generated some interesting comments.

As I saw some of the comments reflecting attitudes which this forum was designed to deal with, for example, I decided to leave my take on it since I was directly engaged in the organization and facilitation of the event:

Friends, the last time I stepped into the Bangsar Mosque for a forum organized by Muslim Professionals Forum at their invitation, I received a warm welcome. They didn’t have to, but the chairman was kind enough to publicly welcome me – a Christian pastor.

Sure, there maybe an initial feeling of awkwardness as I was the only non-Muslim (as far as I know) there. But my Muslims friends put me at ease. And I found the interaction enriching.

The back story for the organization for this particular open forum tonight was initiated by Muslim Professionals Forum, and Friends-in-Conversation (the Christian group I’m part of) felt this will be a good grassroots effort for us to work together.

So, as one of the organizers, I’m not worried about shouters or stone throwers. Based on what I know, we’re going to have some curry puff and drinks for those coming early 🙂 We’re having a conversation among friends not a grand debate.

Frankly, I think it’s time for us to drop such generalizations of people whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindus, atheist, or whatever. Each person is different. and in all faith communities there’s a wide spectrum on how we express our faith.

For me, tonight we’re in conversation with friends who believe we must not surrender this important space for us to engage to the so called “experts” or “activists” (whom both may not really speak for any of our communities). So often, we are clouded by the issues and forget the human being before us.

On arrogance, the Bible does clearly say, we are all sinners. So that will keep us all humble and ready to seek for repentance and after that work on better ways to relate.

And one thing for sure, we can’t just relate from a distance on the web. Face to face encounters where it’s based on mutual respect and trust, and friendship is a good place to start. A safe place.

I’ve long decided that if I don’t want to be part of the problem, then I want to do every bit I can to be part of the solution.

Anyone else want to join?

My friend Aloysius Pinto started the ball rolling with a written response which he sent to me after the event and now published online. I only need to correct some details because on paper those who came,  registered and left their contact information were 103 people in total!

But Aloysius was absolutely right in observing that it was a beautifully mixed crowd. Below is what he wrote, in the next post I’m happy to share from two younger voices, one Christian, and the other Muslim:

Excerpts from Friends in Conversation
full post at Malaysia Today

Through the conversations by these four persons, something interesting struck me!

It dawned on me that what is really happening is that there is a real battle heating up. The battle is not among races and religious groups, but between the Believers of TRUTH and the manipulation by PERCEPTION. Believer of all faiths have so much in common, and this event clearly showed the vast similarities.

Believers of various FAITHS must continue to engage with each other, not only in forums and formal events, but more so in our daily lives.

I’d also like to share insights from my two younger twenty something friends wrote two wonderful blog posts.

The first is from a young intelligent medical student Husna. The second one is from another young wise beyond his years lover of nature student Ben. Both wrote with sincerity and a good dose of deeper thought. If their tone and thoughts are what we can expect from today and the future, it adds fuel to the little fire of hope I keep burning.

Here’s an excerpt from Husna’s post:

Excerpts from Ikhlas Part 2
full post at Everyday Husna

We should eliminate the superior supremacy we have in the recent days, we should treat each other as equal as possible without any discrimination despite the differences in religious understandings, cultural practices or simply ideas. Sometimes, we prefer talking to people who would perhaps agree with us for we are afraid of conflicts that may arise when in fact there is a way in approaching or dealing with conflicts in the most civil manner as possible.

Respecting one another is also an important virtue to learn and the one way to do this is to learn about others perhaps by exploring their religion then only conversation as such would bring about mutual respect, and indeed benefits to both parties and to the society as a whole.

And another by Ben:

Excerpts from People Like Us .. At BLC
full post at ThirtyOne

More often than not, if you’ve been keeping up with the conversations and developments in society, there is little that is novel in a dialogue. But dialogues do serve as agents of confluence, and it is the bringing together of threads already floating about out there that is the purpose of dialogues.

All in all, I feel the conversation called, however indirectly and subtly, for more thorough self-examination, both in moral (our own shortcomings and prejudices, and not those of others) and spatio-temporal (our history, and where we are now) terms.

Abridged from the originals posts by Sivin Kit entitled Ripples from “People Like Us” Parts 1 & 2. Original photographs by Benjamin Ong.