How Do I Get: The Right Answers

Can life make any sense? Or are you doomed to make the same mistakes and hope Fortune will smile on you once in a while? In all the apparent randomness of our world, what’s surprising is for anyone to claim to have the answers. Because as we all know, no one can have all the answers. And that seems like that’s just what I’m doing here and what my church St John’s is attempting to do in October as we seek to do a series of online talks on honor, joy, fulfillment, meaning, certainty, and the most Aussie value of all: a fair go.

But whether you think there’s an answer or not, your response and attitude to the big questions of life like meaning and fulfillment will impact how you live. I was encouraged to watch our pastors David ask his barista about why she believed fulfillment was the important question and Ronaldo who interviewed his barber in a similar way. Despite all the corruption in the world, I was reminded that in each of us the pursuit for life remains. Whether it is man’s search for meaning as Victor Frankl recognized or Pascal’s observation that “all men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

So why ask these questions? Because while I believe no one but God alone has all the answers, everyone looks for them. But why would we look for something that we would never have a capacity for? As CS Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Without joy or fulfillment, meaning or certainty, honor or equality, death is the only logical choice. We need these answers. Not because we can know all of them. But because we were made to know the ones that matter to us. We need them to live a proper life.

I suppose what I’m saying is not to waste this opportunity. You can avoid thinking about these things. You can live hedonistically only for your own pleasure. But that is still an answer. And we would love to know what you think. How is it working out for you? Join us online athttps://www.facebook.com/stjohnscathedralparramatta stay tuned for Oct 18th, 25th and Nov 1st where we’ll answer a survey of the people of Parramatta to provide some and not all of the answers. But we hope they’ll be the ones you need.

Revelation 1 and meta narratives: what story is shaping your life?

The crazy apocalyptic guy has existed in society for a long time. After awhile it can be easy to tune out. You can only predict the end of the world or the return of Jesus at decade intervals so many times before the whole thing starts to look like a sham. And besides, who’s more convincing – the guy with the billboard on the streets or the climate apocalypse espoused by Greta Thunberg on a UN podium?

But interestingly enough with Greta Thunberg is that the amount of attention and press she was receiving (before the coronavirus shut down that whole thing) I think showed that more people than I think know inevitably that the curtains will be drawn up, the show will end and leave us looking at one another in the dark. We differ as to how to handle that or what the end will look like but we can agree that this life is not going to go on forever.

Yet we so often live our lives as something infinite until the day death knocks on our door or we face the catastrophe of a crushed civilization. As a postmodern millennial whateveryounameit, it seems like the rejection of meta narratives in the West have reached they completion at times. But at other times, that search for a transcendent meaning to life and something universal leaks through our daily facade. Beyond self development courses and career progression, beyond hobbies and investment properties, we see something wrong with where the world is going and we inevitably care. But a transcendent yearning without a transcendent framework means all we can do is vaguely empathize and hope and maybe…protest? I don’t know what else society would expect us millennials to do.

It’s becoming harder and harder to live in our self secured bubbles. We can’t turn a blind eye to the injustice and suffering we still so often see in an interconnected, constantly available media. But at the same time, we can’t go back to religion. Our parents jumped off that cliff years ago. We can only fly as Ichabod did towards the vague and distant sun. In such a helpless position, what else can we do?

Here’s a novel thought. Maybe it’s time to believe in the transcendent again. We’ve had enough little stories. What we need is a big one, one that we can see and touch and taste for ourselves, like all the ones we were told when we were children which break through the screen of our superhero movies into the world as we know it. One that has a beginning and an end and of course a battle to be fought in the middle, inclusive of every nation and people and with a final and complete ending. It’s one that John receives ironically in the book of Revelation. “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.” (Rev. 1.4-5). To the one who has ears let him hear!

Don’t Scratch That Itch

Restlessness is a lot like a vague itch. It hides under your clothes. And sometimes it feels like no matter how much you try to scratch it through your sweater it’s hiding right under the surface of your skin. Itches are rarely seen and most of the time they’re pretty benign. But sometimes you take off your coat and realize you’ve been nursing a pressure sore that is slowly eating you away.

I listened to Tim Keller’s sermon on Hebrews 4 last week and realized that restlessness is seen in the boredom of being alone and the inescapable cycles of busyness we live in. We like to deal with our restless itch by scratching it with our activities and rituals and relationships, as though being busier would make that itch go away rather than eventually break out of the skin and bleed out our soul.

Some people have a megaphone conscience and acutely feel the restlessness it generates. Others more self assured, pour themselves into their accomplishments, unable to stop, not so much ignoring the restlessness but being unaware of what truly drives them. They can only sense a vague unease and the inability to be alone by themselves. No wonder laying down to sleep can be a terror for so many. Restlessness can have many masks and who knows where else she lurks? Underlying all of that is a relational problem of your self’s inability to relate its self to its self.

I wish I was like a child again! When we were children we would fear the boogeyman at night but as adults we dread ourselves. While half of me is faced with my shortcomings the other looks up into the blinding radiance of God’s being. The infinite gap between God and myself, is like a beautiful woman that terrifies and makes you conscious of your own deficits. As Keller preached on Hebrews 4, I was reminded that we’re always trying to cover that up by our own priestly sacrifices to get rid of that unclean restlessness.

Like every human, I long to be okay. But what do you do when the measuring stick is an infinite being and the chase is endless? What sacrifice is ever enough? Sometimes I think maybe if I just knew a little bit more anatomy I would be a better physiotherapist. Or if I just could make some money I would be a more loving husband. And so on until what I’m really hoping for is to be a better person. With each sacrifice, I secretly hope it’s the final one.

A popular saying is that ‘there is no rest for the weary’. Restlessness doesn’t go away no matter how much we sacrifice ourselves to appease our conscience because they’re never good enough. We often think that rest comes at the completion of our work the way God rested on the 7th day of creation from his. But true eternal rest is a gift of God. What blew my mind as I listened to Keller’s sermon was that entering God’s rest meant putting down every pretense in our life, to recognize our shame and nakedness before his piercing Word and to come weary to Jesus who would take our burdens. I only wish that entering that resting was as easy as I heard it preached. I guess that’s why it’s a gift. It’s something to ask for not earn.

The Half Time Review: In Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam

I think that to truly understand a book you have to both know what it’s about and understand it enough to give your opinion about it. Unfortunately there are few books I have time to truly understand. But it doesn’t mean that I haven’t benefitted from reading them. First impressions are important and so I wanted to start writing ‘half time’ reviews of books that have shaped me during my first reading. I don’t claim to give an analysis of the book. I’m simply reflecting on its effect on me and what I think it’s about. This week, the book I read was In Praise of Folly by Eramus, the last medieval humanist of the 16th century.

In Praise of Folly is a speech given by Folly who’s personified by a woman. In it she extols herself as the god above gods because underneath all appearances, it’s folly that makes the world go round. Life is absurd. The foolish truly know how to live. The wise are truly fools. Folly shows no quarter as she goes after peasants and knights but especially priests, popes and kings. It’s almost as if she’s saying, ‘is life really what we think?’ The world of folly is a world up side down and yet…it’s the real world she’s referring too.

Folly of course mediates Erasmus’ voice through biting satire. It doesn’t come across as bitter but playful. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which meaning he intends to convey because of his paradoxical prose and double entendres. It’s common wisdom never to listen to someone sing their own praises. But at the same time, truth is found in the strangest places. If Folly is the jester’s voice to the enthroned king shouldn’t we pay attention to her? I think by the end of Folly’s speech the message is clear: while much of what passes for wisdom in this world is folly like the scholar who publishes works no one will read, what is foolish is what is truly wise. A Christian is God’s fool – a holy fool whom no one takes seriously but is really how life ought to be lived.

I loved Erasmus’ wit and use of irony. In a dark world, humor refreshes the heart and cuts through hardened spirits. He rightfully exposes the corruption in much of Christendom at the time. But for all his perceptiveness, I can’t help but pity that he couldn’t link his high sense of morality with the truth of Christian faith. He is like an artist who paints a clear picture of the world but then walks away when it finally looks like his painting. He had no problem poking the stick at bad popes but never paused to think about whether there was a problem with what the church had taught herself. Either way, In Praise of Folly made me laugh and smile and I hope it’ll do that for you too.

Ashamed to be Human?

During one’s life there are many memorable moments. Some moments bring smiles to your face as you ride the subway in an otherwise dull day, leaving others wondering why you look so stupid. Others droop your eyes as they fill with longing. Still others force your body to inwardly recoil as you perform the dreaded ‘cringe’. Moments like these have always fascinated me. It seems like they just blow about like winds over the sea, turning you one way and the next and surprising you when you least expect it. My mind just can’t help recollecting things. And life just always wants to be understood backwards. And yet I try desperately to live it forwards, striving for what I still don’t know and what I hope to be. But there is a type of moment that pesters me most over and over again until I give in to it. They’re moments of shame.

Besides the existential feeling of guilt, the presence of shame haunted me most in my childhood. It would have been better to die than to raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom. The severe leakage that occurred afterwards will always be associated with the first day of school and the struggle of skipping kindergarten. Looking back, trading a possibility to interrupt class for the reality of a wet patch on gray pants was not a good deal. They had to call my mom, something infinitely worse than being the first guy to leave class. I wish that would have been the last instance of shame. But if death is the last humiliation then I’ve still got ways to go.

The shame of wetting your pants grew up. Nowadays I’m much more likely to be ashamed of how little I seem to have accomplished in life or how different I live in comparison to the rest of society. God knows we’re shameful creatures! We reek of it. And we long to expunge it from our pores once and for all. Those who quell in their boots at the prospect of public speaking understand what it’s like to be in the presence of people to be judged. The shame we bear is a naked one, a constant awareness that we fall short of who we’re meant to be. And to learn as a Christian that man is made in the image of the infinite God! Contrary to the media, it makes ‘falling short of God’s glory’ nothing less than a terrifying statement.

So as I read these words in the book of Hebrews, I had to pause over them as I pondered what they really meant.

‘For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.’ (Heb. 2.10-15)

Shame, as I learned from Ravi Zacharias, does not necessarily come from something you’ve done. But it is who you are seen to be. It sticks to you like the label ‘leper’ or more contemporarily ‘bigot’. Hebrews shows us that Jesus took on the shame of being human and became its ideal. He had to be perfected being obedient to God while bearing the shame of suffering. His desire was for us to share his honor by sharing our disgrace. But we have to share his disgrace to have his honor. This is how it works in a family. If we’re to be made the same as Jesus the true son of God, we’ve got to share in flesh and blood and yes, even his honor and shame.

Avoiding the shame of living and dying like him ironically gives us esteem in the world’s eyes for a fickle time. But embracing such a life gives us the honor of God’s approval for eternity. Without such faithful suffering, he could never to bear our shame of finitude and sin and bring us to glory. Being made like him and he like us makes us have one source and unites us with God. Overcoming such suffering means sharing in the victory that he has achieved and the future reality of being liberated from death.

So it’s okay to be weak and frail, and reproached and scorned. It’s okay to be afflicted and persecuted and betrayed. It’s okay to suffer. It’s okay to be human. Because Jesus was human and unashamed. At the end of the day all of it is working to make us perfect and mature and strong so that Jesus himself would not be ashamed to call us brothers nor God to call us his sons. I know which deal I would rather take.

Is there room for a Christian minimalism?

Lately I’ve been observing the religious spectacle that is our malls. And as I’ve walked past the stained glass screens of Westfield’s saints I can’t help noticing something. That so much of the happiness these models portray seem associated with what they’re wearing. Of course having a great body helps too. But why are people so fixated on objects?

I think the attachment to objects is something that’s built from infancy. We associate our first blanket with security. And hot Ribenas with a motherly caress. Every time I go back to Malaysia, I eat at a McDonald’s there. The food probably isn’t even that good. But I can’t help associating my childhood with the same place. The connections we have to people spill over into objects. And the stronger the attachment, the harder it is to get rid of it. Hence why it’s easier to throw away a box of food than a box of letters from those you love.

We adorn our rooms with objects that promise wholeness, peace and contentment which we know deep down we need. But what happens when we confuse our toys with the things they symbolize? Rather than having a car as a useful tool, the Audi becomes a symbol of our social value. And when objects become who we are, we’re not far from using people to get the toys rather than using the toys for the people. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable when we try to use objects to fill the hungry void in us. Like ravenous wolves, we consume forests and mines and we still can’t get enough.

The modern person is faced with a never ending struggle of accumulating things. The modern world is so comfortable, tasty and convenient. But maybe the outside of us has changed much faster than the inside can handle. Though your environment has changed, you’re still the same person deep down inside. So like a kid with a bowl of cereal after school, you eat and eat from the discontentment that still ferments in you. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for. We may not even know what that is. The ancient Greeks once said that the most important task was ‘to know yourself’. But our age has forgotten such ancient wisdom in the pursuit of the perfect present. We can never get enough of what we don’t want, treating the symbols for its reality.

Making and consuming products isn’t too different from ancient religion. We just don’t call our things ‘gods’. But they promise all the same things — fertility and wealth, power and success. As the Protestant reformer John Calvin pointed out, the human heart is an idol factory. And in the 21st century, its idols are on a permanent 24/7 clearance sale. They’re on every street corner and every browser tab. They peek from articles and videos and podcasts, beckoning passersby and following them even after they’ve clicked away. But there’s nothing behind its smiles and sheen. These idols are masks that only pretend to give you what you want. And the more we buy, the more they demand. What will we sacrifice for it? People become competitors and tools. Habitats become business opportunities. And we ultimately become just a hat rack for our things, inanimate and devoid of life like Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt.

Joy That Cannot Be Shaken: The transition from circumstance to perception as a Christian

Can you be always happy? As a human being probably not. There just always seems to be something in the way – a date who’s late or a dog who won’t stop dropping his doodoo in your bathroom. But it doesn’t stop people from trying because the drive for your own happiness is universal. You try to get to bed earlier so you can wake up refreshed. You try to jog to lose weight and feel better about yourself. You try to read more books. You try. But you can’t stop. You can’t pulling your phone out as soon as you get up. You can’t stop shouting at your wife. And you just can’t stop…well, being you. All of these failures take their toll, leaving us with a vague disappointment and an even vaguer cynicism. We’ll never be happy.

Why is it that we seem stuck on a treadmill of happiness? We pursue it at every moment but can never grasp or find it. Maybe it’s because we’re too often searching to change our circumstances rather than first letting ourselves be changed. Happiness is not a thing. It is not the weather, rainy now and sunny later or blazing hot and chilling cold. Happiness is a perception. It’s our attitude to life. When joy shows up it can happen anywhere, no matter the circumstance. We can always find that reason to be thankful or to rejoice or to hope.

Happiness doesn’t mean being okay with what’s going on. No one rejoices because their child got cancer. No one should rejoice when they’re lied to or exploited. It doesn’t exclude being disappointed or angry. Happiness can spring out of these areas. Because having an unshakeable joy means having the right view of what’s really happening. It’s hopeful that wrongs will be righted. It knows that things will not always be that way. And it trusts that all that’s happened, happened for good reasons. Can you see what this means? Happiness is personal. It always has been. From when you were a child wondering if your mom would return to school to pick you up till now as you wonder if you’ll be there for your kids. I wonder if joy is the answer to the question: can you trust me?

Not if the universe is impersonal. Not if we’re just loose collections of atoms floating from here to there. Not if we came from nowhere and go to nowhere. Not if all that is all that will be. Existence is simply an accident without rhyme or reason, purpose or plan. Goodness is simply what helps us survive and those we want to survive. The will to survive is the will to power. And so all of life will be a fight for life before an unwanted death. After that all memory of ourselves will be wiped away. And in a billion years when the earth no longer ceases, the universe will scarcely have remembered the land we soiled.

Happiness doesn’t come from accidents.

An unshakeable joy comes from an unshakeable person. It comes from seeing the Creator behind creation. And it’s so hard to come by because we’re so short sighted. I think it can be hard for Christians to accept that it was meant for Jim Eliott to die to the Huaorani he wanted to reach. It’s hard for Australians to accept that it was meant for many ANZACs to forfeit their lives in the battlefields of Europe to keep Australians free. We ask: How could this amount of suffering produce any justifiable good? We just can’t see it. But if only we knew. If only I knew. What would I be? If I knew what glory would reveal for me. All I see all glimpses of light. But I long to see the mirror of delight.

A Reflection on Augustine’s Confessions, Book 2

I recently caught up with a friend to discuss chapter 2 of Augustine’s confessions together. It started smooth but we derailed towards the end of the chapter when Augustine began talking about the story of his disordered loves. Like many good stories it all started with a piece of forbidden fruit.

As a young man, Augustine took a pear from a farm. But to be more precise, he stole it. And as he reflected back on his life, he was puzzled at why he would do such a thing. It’s one thing for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But Augustine realized that he had done it for no reason at all. There was nothing attractive about the pear other than the sheer pleasure of stealing itself and the joy of doing it in company.

We were both confused. Not just because Augustine had previously described the human condition as a case of loving the wrong things. But now he was pointing out that there was something wrong about our love itself. It sounded much worse than what we had originally thought about people’s motivations. Can you imagine forgiving someone who admits to hitting your car not because he was in a rush but simply for fun? The sympathy we feel towards those who wrong us often come from seeing them as noble people with misplaced intentions.

But Augustine is honest about you, me and himself. I can see what he means. There’s a certain mystique that draws you in to sin. It’s alluring. Lustrous. Forbidden. Scandalous. Just look at a Tim Tam ad. Remember the old msn status? ‘If loving you is wrong then I don’t ever wanna be right.’ There’s also the sweet, sweet feeling of vengeance – that feeling of being gloriously right and no apology will ever be good enough for you. We don’t just love badly but we love the bad.

I think Augustine provides some hints to help us understand the difference between the 2. When we sacrifice our lives for money we show how desperately we want security. When we sacrifice children for the sake of our jobs we show how much success matters to us. We’re enslaved by whatever we sacrifice ourselves for. That’s worship, the ‘for God’ part. And as Bob Dylan says, ‘everyone’s gotta worship something.’ And though our hearts are restless seekers until they find God, they’re also restless imitators of God. Even perversity doesn’t stop us imitating the one we were made for. We enjoy the freedom that comes with exercising autonomy and control over what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want. McDonald’s all day, everyday. Children when I want and how I want. So we become like gods.

This unlimited freedom we’re exercising is simply a superficial imitation of the one who is truly free. This cheap copy of God is what Augustine had in mind when he stole the pear. And I think this role of playing god is probably more destructive because by doing it makes its doers accountable to no one else. But as I spoke to my friend over the burnt raisin toast of a late night McDonald’s, I was reminded that God’s work is not so much to make us what we’re not but to remake us into who we truly are. We are what we love after all and we love best when we love what is true, good and beautiful.

On The Unexamined Life

One man has gone so far as to say that ‘all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.’ I’ve read about Socrates’ last days and his defense of his own life. I’ve read about his life from Kierkegaard and many others he’s inspired. Behind his thought stands one driving desire: to live the good life. For Socrates this was the unexamined life. And it would be the same life that he would give his up for. Rather than escape to exile or face his accusers in an execution, Socrates would choose to drink hemlock and die. His crime? Corrupting the youth of Athens by persuading them that the unexamined life really wasn’t worth living.

I want to explore why this man was willing to die for such a belief. After all, not many people die for any beliefs. It happens a lot less than we think. Whoever died for the ontological argument for God? Or whoever died to over whether God and evil could co-exist? It seems to me that our lives can extend no farther than our actions. There and there only, lays what we truly believe.

That’s where the problem begins. When I think about a life of self-awareness and examination, I find that it’s hard to tell what I’m willing to stake my life on. Are the values I hold something I believe or just what the crowd tells me? Some people say fruit is good for you. Others say it’s too sugary. I haven’t made up my mind. But I just ate a banana. The most obvious difficulty of the examined life is during high school. Critiquing everyone AND trying to fit it? You’ll have a better chance of scratching your belly… with your foot. This is okay for small matters like the color of your shoes or the lunch you’ll eat (for most at least. Others may need a psychologist). But this applies all the way up to the meaning of our lives.

This is a dangerous game. By living the unexamined life, our identity will be inevitably determined by the masses – ‘Christians’, or ‘Doctors’, or ‘Family’ eventually makes the unique YOU not so unique at all. You’ll just be the clone of whoever or whatever people want you to be. This means that at the end, there’ll be nothing particularly valuable about you. There exists only the amorphous blob ‘Christian’. No one wants to be just a face in the crowd. Everyone wants to be known and loved as themselves. But what we trade off individually we gain communally. Money, status, security and even power. ‘Oh you’re a doctor??? Tell me more.’ At least that’s how I imagine how some doctors expect people to respond.

Is the reward of fitting in worth the cost of meaning and identity and truth? Man’s search for meaning is as unquenchable as the thirst for $10 McNuggets on a midnight drive. All of my life has been a search for meaning. If I just knew my purpose in the grand scheme of schemes, then somehow even the dishes I wash with my little hands would have some value. But for an authentic individual, meaning can never come from the crowd. So the value of the examined life is first revealing who we truly are and if our thoughts and actions align. But Christians know that the examined life can’t provide the truth we need to live by. Only Christ can. But as the early church fathers saw it, it seems like Christ and Socrates can be pretty good friends.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell

Has it been so long

Since I met the morning

Instead of it meeting me

Sometimes it’s hard to tell

Has it been so long

That clouds were white dreams

Instead of leering faces pressing

On the earth’s window pane

Sometimes it’s hard to tell

Has it been so long

That the Word kindled flames

Instead of a gray wilted ashtray

Sometimes it’s hard to tell

Sometimes I think the trees

Have an answer for me

As leaves rustle and whisper

‘Sometimes it’s hard to tell’.