Reaping and sowing

I read with amusement as concerned and possibly well-meaning Christians defensively guarded their own entertainment habits after a respected pastor wrote a damning post of a television show. Small-minded, judgmental, and lacking in taste the pastor was, they claimed. Now that might well be true. Pastors today should know better than to criticize the lifestyle choices of modern churchgoers, for doing so is nothing short of high-minded snobbery. Christians today seem hypersensitive to such charges, as if there must always be an invisible space carved for every person why one can do anything immune to criticism, judgment, and sadly, rehabilitation.

“Everyone is entitled to post whatever they want.” said a friend indignantly as we discussed some of the issues related to social media. However much that is true, I fear that we have confused entitlement with self-entitlement. The former is a legal claim we can make upon the authorities, the latter is a kind of self-indulgence. One is protective, the other is provocative. One rests on self-knowledge, the other on wilful ignorance. Entitlement was absent amongst the faithful in the bible, much less self-entitlement. People were stoned, sawn in two, eaten by lions. They had nothing more than a promise, yet many failed to see it fulfilled in their lifetimes. They could so because the seed of eternal hope wasn’t crowded out by other anxieties and pleasures. There was only one thing in their hearts, and their careful tending to it reaped a life that sang of God’s wondrous works – even in their deaths.

In just about anything we do and don’t do, we are actively sowing something (or nothing). We shall not be surprised to find wanting a rich relationship with Christ if we are only content to encounter him on Sundays. In the same way, we shall find ourselves crossing boundaries, breaking promises, and losing hope if all we do is sow the seeds of sinful neglect and complacency. A prayer for humility should encourage us to find ourselves satisfied in humbling situations; and a desire for closeness with God should see us content with situations that call for nothing but unreserved dependence on Him.

No Godly man or woman since biblical times found their unyielding devotion to Christ simply by being enraptured by a tingling feeling of goodwill towards the father. Having received the faith, they had to work at it, for they found such a love worth dying for. If God were their object of desire, they were fully intentional, meaning they did not make their lover guess: does he or she really love me? Does he or she think of me? No, they expressed their love through an intentional and determined pursuit, tilling and sowing the soil of their hearts until it reaped a steady harvest. We may do the same if we desire: Lord, I want to love you deeper today, help me do so by hating what you hate and turning my sights upon you.

Perhaps we are often too ready to see besetting sins as those that are relational in nature. We only become aware of things that need change only when people express hurt, or only when our conscience is pricked. But I wonder if we spend enough time worried about how we are tending to our heart-vines; for every day, with every passing thought, comment, or decision to use our time, it either withers a little or grows a little more resolutely. In many ways, it is no different from making love grow in a marriage. We do not grow wonderful marriages just by avoiding relational ruptures and conflicts – perhaps they may save us from separation. But it is in what we sow that either binds two hearts ever closer together, or nudges them further apart.

It is not difficult at all to weed and prune; we need only ask: what is stopping me from ceasing this activity completely and in its place, to read, meditate, and pray? And one will be surprised at how many reasons we can think up to distract ourselves from God. But John Piper once said: “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God.” Indeed, life is not divided into morally or spiritually neutral activities like sleeping, eating, taking a break; then slightly more moral activities in the form of decision-making or treating others; and finally activities of utmost spiritual importance like praying and worshipping on Sundays. No, as I have been reminded, even with regards to bare necessities, we ought to eat, and sleep and rest to the glory of God. Therefore, we are either sowing in the spirit or sowing in the flesh with everything we choose to do.

Oh Lord please turn our eyes away from worthless things. May we experience the fullness of joy in meeting Christ and Christ alone.

Signing off,

Fatpine. 

 

 

A new chapter

Returning home for good has been more than disorienting and I have yet to fully comprehend why. Even as I have yearned so much to get my ‘real’ life back, I thought about how much I had lost. While I can be smiling almost deliriously when I’ve finally tasted food familiar to my upbringing, there has been far less joy than I had expected. Even as I have traded so many undesirable things for orderliness, cleanliness, and unparalleled safety – something I had been seriously pining for – there’s still a part in me that wonders if it was worth it. When I stepped out of the house for the first time, I almost felt embarrassed, abashed for my little foibles, however unseen they were, and it was a curious sort of anxiety.

Maybe it’s just me indulging in this reverie, as I sit and stare at familiar sights, I can’t really figure out where I had been or what I had been doing over the past year. It’s almost as if I never left, and the birds never stopped chirping, nor did anything really change in my absence. Well, not that I was expecting it to change, but the sameness of it all left me wondering if I was actually alive and well in the past year or so. All of a sudden, all the friends and people I was fond of now seem dead to me; well, metaphorically at least, for time now places such a great distance between us. But maybe there’s more.

Perhaps in returning home there’s this startling setback to the new life that I was happy to lead. All of a sudden, I was back to where I grew up in, where I had inculcated years of brattiness and wanton licentiousness. The moment I stepped back home, I saw ever so clearly the old pathways and patterns of sin that were beckoning to me and telling me to let down my guard. It’s almost as if I had gone on a pilgrimage, so painstakingly shorn myself of the worldliness of an old sinful life, and returned home to luxury and royalty – the very things that would burden and distress me. And this, I guess, was the existential anxiety that truly gripped me, now much more than ever before; and I can’t help but question the reality of any growth I had experienced, even my newfound identity in Christ.

And there goes the story of my travels in the ‘land of the free’, as transient as a short holiday and leaving no mark on me as I resume old patterns, revive old networks, and recollect train routes. The truth is, many of us place so much emphasis on travelling and international experiences, thinking they change us so much; but the reality is that they don’t. All these changes are but window dressings, good stories to tell and interesting perspectives that may or may not shape our worldview; but they do not change our cores. If anyone is expecting that going abroad will dramatically change them as a person, then they are underestimating that assimilating effect of home, engulfing us as a sure and wholesome tide, swallowing any other inherited quirk or bohemian tendency. Very soon, we realise our social media worthy rhapsodies give way to the realism of what I call ‘village life’.

Yet, thankfully, that’s still not all. Amidst the near anguish I felt at having ‘lost’ everything to an almost imagined world that I hardly could ever access again, amidst the self-doubt that ensued from this reorienting process, I had been silently reassured: my heart has changed. Even as the things around me are the same, even as my home culture constitutes the core of what it means to be familiar, I cannot believe that I’m the same person who left. And this is not because of the magical properties that the dust of a foreign land had on my poor soul; It is nothing more than the reanimating effect of the word that breathes new life into jaded lives. If anything, I have not ‘inherited’ something from this land that makes me stand out in an incongruent way, I have merely continued the pursuit of a glorious vision I had received. If I yearned for continuity, I would find that my bible remains by my side, and the God that I pray to remains unceasing in His faithfulness.

That itself was sufficient to remind me – amidst all the things that I have lost, never to return for good – that I was living, and it was not some dream. The question for me now, and my present task and struggle is: how do I live that life in an old environment? And I shall find that the answer to this question is that it’s no less of a fiery spiritual battle, out of which, complete reliance on God will result in the surety of deliverance and victory, now and forever.

signing off,

Fatpine. 

Ands & Buts

There seems to be several unique inflexions in our state of self in different periods of our lives. And these different states of being all invite us to respond to God in very different ways. As a newborn we cry out for attention; and, in our solipsistic states, we can only believe we exist, even if we see other beings. There is no empathizing, and we need to be served, to have our needs met by others. Yet when we grow far older, when we mature into adults and are capable of exercising our own judgment – when we are declared as citizens and capable of being responsible for our deeds, we become a far different creature altogether.

It’s easy to accuse a child of acting like a baby, demonstrating outward petulance and lack of concern for others. But adults are just as able to demonstrate the same concern for themselves, only that it’s a more sinister sort, a kind that is less willing to yield to another authority, a kind of concern that is willing to refuse all reformation or rehabilitation. It is no wonder that Jesus calls us to be like children – not babies – for the guileless candor of childhood has a unique orientation: it seeks, and it will inevitably find.

I’ve been wondering for a while about why there are few middle-aged men in the vicinity whose lives are worthy of emulating. It’s only when I stepped abroad did I find more models of Godly men and women in their middle-ages. And these men were like little children. What differentiates children from toddlers or grown adults is that they realize that the world is not about them. They begin to realize that they are without authority in this world of big people; yet adults have long cemented their authority and are happy to listen to no other people but themselves.

Yet life is not so straightforward. What comes with adulthood is added responsibility. It’s easy to have the innocence of doves and the nature of a child when I’m on my own. When I miss my flight, I still experience peace like a river. When I’m hard done, I simply shrug and walk away. But then when you are not alone, you realize there are some things that you have to be aggressive for, or people will go hungry, miss their flights, or be lost in the stampede. It’s hard to look at a few other familiar faces looking back at you for answers, and it’s hard to say: it’s okay, let us pray, let us be content with possessing God. It is no wonder that adulthood may change many of the most well-meaning Christians, for it is easy to turn to everything else we know, everything but God.

And so we must resist that kind of adulthood that presumes to know all things and has a ready solution for everything. We must resist that life – even when we are responsible for other lives, so that at all times, we possess a steady and peaceful demeanor, one that is beyond the reach of other men and circumstances. In the same way, we must be ready to propel God first in our thoughts, not just the highest ones, for in doing so, we simply reserve thoughts for God for certain occasions, confining God to some monastery or quiet place.

But it’s not only during situations of duress, or when we have lives to tend after that we lose sight of God. It is already present in our daily goings-on, as long as we would pay attention. Accustomed to a life distant from hellfire and brimstone, we have learnt to add more conditions – what Tozer calls “god-and”. And this is most evident in our ministries. When we become accustomed to everything-but-God, our own services to Him in whatever ministries we are apart of inevitably becomes God-and. What makes us think that our work style in church is so dramatically different from that in our own lives? God-and, as I have written before, assumes that God is the center, but it does merely that. It does not cherish it; neither does it tend towards magnifying it. Tozer is sharp to point this out – if we omit the “and”, we shall soon find God, and everything else in our lives that we have been secretly longing.

For the longest time have I been living such a life of “God-and”. Perhaps I don’t believe that I will be fully satisfied with the knowledge of God’s blessed assurance. Perhaps I look on with envy at others and want similar lives. I have unknowingly built a long list of ands – of friend to know and be fully known by, of one to walk the rest of my days with, of career fulfillment, of a happy family of my own and so on. Yet I may never enjoy any of these blessings.

Even so, as we look at children who momentarily feel a loss of purpose when they are denied an object of desire, we must also look at ourselves from a higher perspective. We may have lost our toys, but we have something better. Just as the tribe of Levi was not given an inheritance in Canaan, they received the Lord Himself. If it seems almost like a cold comfort, then this is the revelatory of our heart’s condition, a condition that will find contentment in God and a ton of other irrelevant things.

Such a state of mind reduces God to a consolation: “yes, we have God, but…” or, “yes, we need God, and…” Yet, is He not our main prize? Is he not our abiding possession? Will we not rejoice even when our property is plundered save our everlasting treasure? When living conditions went awry in the cold winter months, several missionaries turned their backs on the Chinese and left. Hudson Taylor said this:

 “I do not envy the state of mind that would forget these, or leave them to perish, for fear of a little discomfort. May God make us faithful to Him and to our work.”

We may lose our toys and our great desires, but we never lose God. We must be like children and yearn and seek for one thing in all circumstances great and small, on our own or with others, so God help us. Yet, we shouldn’t presume to foist this on others. For it is a consolation to tell a hurting soul: yes, you lost this, but you still have God, so don’t forget! For God will surely judge the hardness of our hearts in such a situation.

Signing off,

Fatpine. 

One thing

“Dear Father,” I prayed. “Of which of my endeavours today is repentance due?” I asked smugly. Well, see I haven’t actually uttered the funny but probably hurtful words in my head in response to friend, my conduct had been pleasing to my neighbours, and I had appeared saintly to all around me. No sooner had I thought this than it occured to me that my most affectionate thoughts were not placed on Him. And all my inflated sense of saintliness deflated and I became nothing more than a squeaking mouse. Repentance is always in want, there is never a day where we can congratulate ourselves and give ourselves a pat in the back.

The Psalmist makes a bold request: One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. Psalm 27:4

Yet, this one thing is what we are rarely told. The parents, teachers, friends, and even pastors that will read this to you as if it ought to be the only thing that mattered are few and hard to find. I hear of different things to pursue since the youngest days that I had some sense – education, friendship, wisdom, nutrition, entertainment and the like. We almost smell it in the air, the excitement that others feel for their one-thing’s, we hear it in their voices, the affection they have for their heart’s desires; and we see it in their brows, their dogged determination for their ambitions.

And then as we grow older and listen to the words of the wise, we realise that it’s a young man or woman’s naive arrogance that drives them to aggressively pursue one thing. Life is about being wholesome, doing all things in moderation, having respect for all things, giving sufficient attention to all areas of wellbeing. In other words, no one likes an extremist; don’t dwell at the ends, dwell right in the middle. But before long, we realise that this paints a picture of no blessed man or woman in the bible. Are we then to treat these saints as how we treat our nation’s patriots? Yes, they were good – no, great people. People who loved their country more than they loved their lives.

Their lives gave their sayings great power, which we like to repeat ever so often. Yet we rarely find as much resonance. Little do we realise that repeating their phrases is like sticking the flag of our country on a foreign land – it makes no sense without that same degree of love we share for our motherland. In the same way, the words in the bible are nothing more than great sayings by great people whose love for God we are far from. We use them in opportune times to meekly signal a kind of allegiance – much like planting a flag in a foreign land. It stands as a solitary pole, with little more than an inch down in the ground; and it flies timidly in the wind before it will finally fall.

And that is perhaps the perennial struggle in my life – figuring out what is the most important thing to do in life, and actually believing it. Indeed, if we believe in the bible and the seriousness of God’s commands, then we must believe that this is an expression of what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. And if even this we take seriously, then we must come to have it become the spring of all our thoughts and actions. And further, if this is true, then we must always be concerned about it. To the world, we must seem obsessed with our faith to the point of being seen as an oddity – a specimen of oddness, to be precise.

I would further venture, that until one learns to keep this as the ruling principle of our lives and waking thoughts, then we have no business of talking of ‘serving God’ through our talents, or through our work and studies – as is so often used by our guardians as devices to get children to expend efforts devoted to worldly success in a roundabout way. We say these timidly, almost abashedly – we claim to use our talents to win people to Christ, to serve the church, to glorify our king. But we know full well that He is farthest from even our wildest thoughts. We honour God with our lips but our hearts are often so far away from Him.

In fact, how often is being satisfied in God the unquestioned assumption of our church? Oh yes, let us partake in the ministry of x, y, and z which in all honesty, may have little relation to the word of God or the bride of Christ; but let us do it assuming that we all love God. Let us get along as Christian friends and enjoy the relationship as an outgrowth from being brothers and sisters in church assuming that we all love God. Let me marry the girl I meet in church and start a family assuming that we all love God. But we never question the assumption. We take it as it is, like a seal of approval and nothing more. Before long, we dabble and dwell in the grey, and the love of and for God becomes nothing more than one thing we manage among all others.

For this reason, it becomes awkward and even out of place to say a prayer, to quote a passage, to encourage someone in Christ, to ask for prayers, offer prayers, and to rebuke a brother. All’s well and good once we assume Christ is who we love, isn’t it? It isn’t; and may it be our live’s endeavour to continually unearth this shaky foundation and make it our conviction for each passing day.

Maybe it means we end up being party poopers because we want to place God above entertainment or other pressing things in life. But all the more so we should forge ahead, and fight the feeling that we ought to belong in the world, for I do not believe that we are called to live a balanced and wholesome life with Christ being merely a feature of it. We will  enjoy a wholesome life in Christ.

For this reason we never have an occasion to be smug. We are never done repenting. I have found that once an idol is down, there are other idols to down. Once a prayer is submitted, there are more prayers to submit, and many others that ought to be submitted for a longer period. The more contrite and heartbroken we are, the easier we are malleable, the faster we flee to Him, the deeper our peace and the more confidence we have in being indifferent to the world.

still smugly,

Fatpine. 

Vanity, possessions, and other thoughts

I finally set out on my travels, which is always exciting at first, until I begin to realise that I’m slowly dying inside, as if something is whittling away. Is this what it looks like to live as if bitten by ‘wanderlust’, as many young moderns call it? If so, there is hardly anything admirable about it. Maybe it is addictive only because it gives others something to talk about.

As I told my travel companions, part of what I’m learning in these recent days is also about my travel preferences, about what I actually get energised by. For this reason I have been open to trying just about anything. But then I finally realised that I really love looking at the wonders of nature, especially if these places are difficult to access. By that I mean that it requires a trek through slippery stones before we encounter a majestic waterfall, enduring through arid and dry heat before we are treated to the sloping gradients of a canyon, and to have to climb a steep hill before we take in the breathtaking view of the wide ocean – so wide and vast that its gravity we feel through the subtle tremors in the ground.

There are two reasons why these appeal to me. Firstly, we savour the things that require much effort to achieve; secondly, there is nothing more beautiful and more good than God’s creation.

Yet, in our own ways, we sully these beautiful moments – indeed, we disregard and steal the glory from our creator – when we allow ourselves to be distracted by our own vanity. How often have I been too eager to capture the moment, to be too concerned with representation of artistry from one angle to the next that I fail to soak it in, to imprint it in my minds eye. In our rush for time, I decided that it might be more profitable to take great photos of the famed horseshoe bend than to just marvel at its profound beauty.

Indeed, it was beauty beyond any description of words because it knows no human standard of artistry. It is not a mere symmetric blend of the right colours and the subtle touches that tell some queer story of the artist’s technique or even life story. It just is. It is beautiful. And perhaps Genesis will remind us – it’s beautiful because it was created good. But we try to transpose it so that it becomes a measure of something for our vanity’s sake. It becomes a been-there badge of pride, and in all our obsessions to show it to the world, it is reduced to a digital myriad of colours.

My short travels has also given me some thoughts about finding security in things we own. Here I sit in a great hall of a large house by the ocean – the house of the chancellor of a famed university that I can now call my temporary home by virtue of a friend of a friend. When we first stepped in we all had our mouths agape because it was no less of a resort. Aside from the luxurious carpets that spread across the wooden floors, there were thick beams of mahogany that lined the ceilings, original paintings by Dr. Seuss, great halls with premium leather couches and even a spacious patio that overlooks the far blue ocean. I’m told that this house is even a heritage site, and a week ago was graced by the Dalai Lama.

Impressive. At first, maybe. Beyond the initial awe, I quickly realised that the chancellor owned none of it. In fact, he owned nothing at all. Which is an odd feeling isn’t it? I wonder what really happens when we own anything at all. In fact, I think having a stake in something is more profound than we think. Ownership is not merely a matter of legally appropriating an object, there is almost a noumenal, spiritual, connection to the object; and it profoundly affects the state of our soul.

In a unique way, living as chancellor almost invites one to live fruitfully as a sojourner in this world. Even as these things are made of the finest craftsmen and are bought with the most precious jewels, we feel no attachment to it at all. Indeed, a diamond means nothing to us if we do not own it, even if left in our possession for the longest time.

If we can extend this view of stewardship to all areas of our lives, even the things and the people we can rightfully deem as ‘ours’, then we might be more fruitful in our devotions to our king – and the true owner of all the heavens and the earth. It would also then become clear what we are striving for, because nobody strives to live in the house of a chancellor; they strive to be the head of a reputed university, and the house is a mere perk, a little icing, a complimentary gift, if you will.

This puts to bed the idea that we need to live the austere life of a puritan constantly denying ourselves additional pleasures – so long as they do not serve as distractions. Likewise, if we find ourselves in luxury as a result of striving after God, we should be able to enjoy it fully knowing that it is merely complimentary, it is a grace, a blessing, but incomparable to blessing of being known by God. The difference is clear as night and day, and we needn’t make modest excuses of “struggling” with having the right motives, as some disingenuously claim.

If ownership matters so much then, what do we make of that which we own – our abiding possession of salvation? It is a difficult thought. Yet, as a read Mueller, it becomes slightly clearer to me.

Having given his life and all his possessions in service to God through his ministry to the orphans, one kind sir attached some money in a letter to him one day, asking that this money not be used for maintaining his ministry as is often the case, but be used to maintain himself and his family. But Mueller saw this as a temptation to put his trust in something other than God Himself. This was his reply:

My dear Sir,

I hasten to thank you for your kind communication… I have no property whatever, nor has my dear wife; nor have I had one single shilling regular salary as Minister of the Gospel for the last twenty-six years, nor as the director of the Orphan House… When I am in need of anything, I fall on my knees and ask God that He would be pleased to give me what I need; and He puts it in the heart of someone or other to help me. Thus all my wants have been amply supplied during the last twenty-six years, and I can say, to the praise of God, I have lacked nothing. My dear wife and only child, a daughter of twenty-four years old, are of the same mind. Of this blessed way of living none of us is tired, but we become day by day more convinced of its blessedness.

I have never thought it right to make provision for myself, or my dear wife and daughter, except in this way, that when I have seen a case of need, such as an aged widow, a sick person, or a helpless infant, I have seen the means freely which God has given me, fully believing that if either myself, or my dear wife or daughter, at some time or other, should be in need of anything, that God would richly repay what was given to the poor, considering it as lent to Himself. Under these circumstances, I am unable to accept your kind gift… towards making a provision for myself and family, for so I understand your letter…

What a great example indeed! May we live full and blessed lives, if not as chancellors, then as high priests of God, to own nothing but that one treasure, and have the knowledge of this possession condition our actions in our remaining fleeting days.

signing off,

Fatpine.

The route to love

How does love last? Why do we love who we love? Many of my friends around me are tying the knot; and sometimes, when I look at their wedding pictures, I wonder how different the relationship would be if I were there first – if I made the first move, if I pursued, if I was just there. Oh no, I’m not envious at all. What I mean to say is that if it appears that we are not admiring them for something that is more than themselves, then anyone can really fill the role. Sometimes people are so enamoured by their lovers because they are just the sweetest, nicest, most considerate boyfriend or girlfriend ever. I always wonder if it’d be any different if anyone felt the same feelings.

I was once asked many years ago which guy I would marry if I were female. And I remember saying that I’d definitely date, but not marry myself. I believed that I would do the most ridiculous things as a romantic. I would write the most beautiful poems, spend time on some detailed craft, shower the other with so much love and affection, and probably do unexpected things that surely causes some heart dysrhythmia. Even so, I was clear that I wasn’t ready to be that consistent husband able to love when the feelings have faded and when the excitement has died down.

Love is a wonderful thing isn’t it? We walk a million miles because we think we are in love. Unfortunately that’s but a shadow of what love is. I think the proper term is to be emotional. I have been there before. I could really give up the best of my time and of my days, to fight hunger and weariness, to walk and wait until I can reunite with the other again. It’s not difficult at all. In fact, it’s such a pleasure isn’t it? Because once we get there, time seems to stand still and then it almost feels like we’re in this state of emotional coma, completely unaware of all the goings-on around us. Before long the staff come to tell us that they are closing and you have to head somewhere. And then you bid an unwilling goodbye and go to bed with a smile on your face.

But when you want the very thing you want, the most curious thing happens. When the other person appears at every corner, when there is no need to guess at all because you and the other are pretty much one; when there is little jealousy or insecurity left. Quite simply, when there is no need to think of the other because they will always be around, then things begin to change. It’s quite subtle, quite simple, and it happens without our knowing. First it begins with a little bit of bargaining. Must I really walk that far? Do I really have to wait that long? Can you meet me halfway? Can we meet an hour later?

And then, you realise that you’ve simply become unemotional. You haven’t fallen out of love, because to do so requires that you were in love in the first place. You have simply gratified your emotional need to be adored; you haven’t changed, you’ve just returned to your normal state. And what is our normal state? It is that anti-God, selfish and self-serving state. Quick to anger, impatient, prone to envy and desiring personal glorification. This is not a criticism of how moderns love. This is simply what happens. As much as we try to be rational, this will happen, and we realise that absent that spark and pleasant uncertainty, we will find it harder and harder to be civil to another, to go another mile and to offer honest praise.

What if what we believe about the bible is the most important thing for our spousal relationships? What does it mean to be in love other than the fact that we are in God’s love? Perhaps true love manifests when we are all tethered not only to one another, but also to our master. In other words, it is in response to the love of our master that we do things that are loving – in spite of our natures – to our spouse. In Luke 12, we are reminded to “stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from he wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.”

Of the thousands of misquoted sentences and uplifting praises in the bible that give us hope and happiness, we often forget that we are supposed to be on guard at all times. As a result, maybe if we took the bible for its word in all its radical expectations and commands, then we may have hope to tide through all sorts of picayune squabbles with love. Maybe you had to wait for 2 hours, stay dressed for action. Maybe you had to take on more household burdens in her busyness, stay dressed for action. Maybe one party makes a really foolish mistake that causes unnecessary pain for both, stay dressed for action. What if the most loving thing we could do for the other is to stay dressed for action, and to help one another do so with excellence?

Perhaps once our hearts are already trained on our true master, then we can avoid the trap of making someone the most important person – and later, almost inevitably, the most unimportant person. Because if God is always our most important person, then all things must work around that, and this fact helps to mediate all our relationships, even our spousal relationships. But obviously, it is too foreign a concept in these days, for we have become too unacquainted with the idea that love must involve complete freedom, it cannot be tethered to anything, if not it would not be free. But this is my claim: if we want to learn to love another sacrificially, then we must first learn what it means to have an obligation to a master.

“Now you go to sleep first, Mr. Frodo” he said. ‘It’s getting dark again. I reckon this day is nearly over.’

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell.

We often think of Sam as being the consummate friend. But his self-sacrifice and great love of Frodo was rooted in his sense of obligation to Frodo as his master. There are no loyal friends. We do not owe allegiance to friends, but to kings. Loyalty has it roots in oaths or pledged of allegiance sworn by a vassal to his lord. We see that through and through in the bible. Jonathan wasn’t loyal to David, he was loyal to God, and thus would go to great lengths to defend God’s chosen servant.

Relatedly, it is not my wife that I am loyal to – for that may too often depend on my shifting sentiments and possibly, how both parties make such an oath untenable. Rather, I am loyal to my king in my relations with my wife. I honour my wife by first honouring my king. So let us be dressed for action, and aggressively prepare ourselves for the coming of our king, so that even the most difficult words to say and actions to perform for those closest yet furthest away from us will not cause us to cringe, will not require the right sentiments and emotions, will cease to become incredibly difficult. Finally, it will mean that we are not self-sacrificing, but only obeying. We are not being altruistic, we are only obeying the call to be like Christ and die for the other.

Signing off,

Fatpine.

The end of human wisdom; the fear of God

“I’ve been quite lost recently, not knowing where to go, having lost a bit of my bearings because all the things I have wanted have arrived, and things are coming to an end, and a new chapter is set to begin. There was a slight tinge of regret, a kind of bittersweet moment when one of my classes finally ended. And I went home not knowing what to feel (I still have about 2 weeks of stuff to do before it ends, and exams in a month or so). I’ve been rushing the four years, and wondering when it would finally end. And now that it’s about to end, I feel sad and I hated such contradicting thoughts. Perhaps it’s because school is an enemy I know – no matter how much I struggled, I knew how to feel safe, I knew how to cope, I knew how to learn to love the subject. But now, I’m faced with an enemy I don’t know.”

I wrote this more than a year ago when my classes ended. I was so convinced back then that my learning was not complete, and that I had only scratched the surface of my real education, that I was only beginning to get taste of what it meant to be intellectually challenged. Of course, sometimes it takes 4 years for you to get to such a position. And that was the position I was in. My final year had been the most mind-opening and the most precious. And going to Chicago was another shot at repeating that final year.

But there were also many other things that were inundating my mind. There was the fear of the future unknown, of how, for the first time, there was no next step, no next progression. Then there was also that desire to learn about life in general, of the rich lessons that could be gleaned from living uncomfortably for a short while in a completely different environment. Of the lessons I could learn, and the things I could be exposed to. But obviously, there were many fears. One does not simply traipse into a foreign and and culture and expect to fit like a glove. Have you ever noticed that anyone who comes back from a trip will almost invariably have this observation? They would always conclude: “the people there are really nice!” And with that reason begins a short to medium term love affair for all things related to that country.

But few realise such an infatuation does not last more than two to three weeks. At first, when everything is new, everything seems foreign but strangely appealing. It’s like dating a girl you’ve only just met. The newness and “otherness” of this foreign thing makes you keenly intrigued. You look at people getting along with their lives, you observe the goings-on around you and you just cannot imagine what normal life is like here. You are enchanted. Even the advertisements are different, and a trip to the grocery store always yields new surprises and findings that while very dissonant with what we are familiar with, are refreshing all the same. But beyond two or three weeks and you get tired of the dissonance. You begin to realise that you form preferences, and you seek the familiar to the new. You begin to settle in and realise that hey, this is what a normal salaryman feels like, and it’s really more often than not just dreary work and routine – no stardust.

I had just completed my undergraduate life. I went to a fantastic camp, toured Japan, and now I had to leave my community to begin a new life – a realistic and charm-less or stardust-less life in a school I wondered if I was serious enough to survive in. All of them were well-founded fears. But by the grace of God not one single one was realised.

In this one year I’ve gone through so many peaks and troughs and oscillating between wanting to go home and wanting to stay to keep learning. The friends around me can attest to these changes. One moment I can’t wait to go home and another, I realise my education is ending and I’m savouring every moment in the classroom. But here I am, at the end of all things, with my graduation over and having all been done and settled. I feel nothing but a sense of peace. There’s no attachment for the classroom and I don’t feel like I need to go back to school again. For some reason I feel that my academic education is done, and I have gone on to do the best that I can do. I have seen myself finally scale the peak of my human powers, and I am certain this is not what I would want to continue. In fact, the only reason why I would return to school is only to systematically study God’s words.

Well don’t be mistaken. I have not simply reached some pinnacle of my potential and am ready to return a vastly improved person. It’s just that there often are times in my life when I felt clearly that I haven’t had enough of something, or that the ‘time is not right’. And so, I went ahead a little more or waited a little longer. And then things just fall into place and I have no doubt that this is the time to move on to the next phase. And for me, there’s a clear stage of ‘progression’, even if I don’t see it as a concrete thing to move into. I am clear what I have to do for the next 5 years, if ever I am given 5 more years. This one year has given enough for me to envision the next 5. Not that I’ve thought a lot about it, or made plans or decided what to do. It’s just that every single thing, whether things I learnt in class, or the things I’ve seen, experienced, have all somewhat coagulated to create a tiny vision that’s bold enough for me to pursue it with passion.

It’s not a grand mission. It’s simply this: to pursue God as if He’s the only thing worth pursuing in life, and perhaps in doing so, help be a voice in a world that makes it near impossible to think otherwise. My education is complete because I have read all that I believe will help me on this journey and perhaps no further. It is over because I have also rubbed shoulders with perhaps the brightest in the world but have realised that neither education nor human wisdom leads anywhere further than where I’d like to go – it might change the mind, but not the heart. This is not a case of sour grapes, nor do I have a chip on the shoulder. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here at the university, and have been sufficiently engaged in most of my classes – having had many debates and sometimes, arguments. But it’s simply a matter of timing and a shift in perspective, a realisation that one brilliant mind may change the way we think but be mere soft soap in the tragedy of existential crises, much less a modest mind like mine. One brilliant mind can deliver the most thought-provoking statements and quotes that balances the ironies in life, but it may never resolve them. As Nietzsche said – that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Inspiring. But stronger for what?

Human civilisation is long and old. We have no shortage of Hemingways, toquevilles, Laozis, Saids, Marxes. If we break them down to bite-sized pieces, we get nuggets of wisdom that for the moment, help to numb the pain of what seems like cosmic ironies of life. And that is that. They inspire us to hope for a new day for more debauchery and the pursuit of good pleasures. Society is replete with these visions of the good life, and we mindlessly pursue it; until something tragic forces us to break that flow of trying to be busy to appear important, of trying to consume to feel secure. It is then, a matter of course that when death and rejection and pain knocks so close to us, we can’t help but wonder if our faith means anything at all. Why does it do little to comfort us? Why do we still feel afraid? Why is Jesus just a storied man who does little for our pain? Isn’t it because we have all the while been at the foot of Mount Sinai but choosing to worship the golden calf? How and when shall we realise that all these things are but a shadow – even the best joys are a mere copy of what we shall find in that heavenly Jerusalem?

And so here I am again at some self-imagined crossroad. I have nothing remotely philosophical or vaguely inspirational to tell myself. Because wherever I tread, I cannot deny this one thing that is firmly etched in my mind. And I must not do too poorly to forget this thing in the coming days. So God help me.

Fatpine. 

A Hobbit Complex

From the early years since I counted myself as having been saved, I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of humility. It’s not just because I realised how proud I was and am, but that there’s this very beautiful quality to it. Even seculars oppose the proud. Yet all we can have that appears to approximate humility – and doesn’t even come close to doing so – is modesty. Thus, there is much value in taking time to think about what exactly differentiates humility from modesty. The interesting thing about humility is that it almost seems as if it’s a quality that cannot be pursued. One author described it as a butterfly that will always elude your grasping fingers; and perhaps only in sitting still may we have a chance of it landing on our shoulders. As much as I looked into humility in my younger days, I was sure that I never got closer to it. Books and descriptions of it were always only rightful and biblical definitions of humility. Even so, getting an elementary sense of what humility is has given me much reminders of what it isn’t. And for sure, it isn’t modesty.

What I have learnt from Chinese culture about humility is that it is a denial of the self. This is not necessarily too far away from humility; but it’s not humility. Mere modesty denies any external validation but claims in totality, all the prize for our pride. It says, “oh no, I was lucky,” or “oh it’s nothing,” but we try our best to keep our faces straight. Perhaps I’m too used to such a culture. One day, after hearing a story from a good brother of mine, I said, “wow, I really admire you for that!” I expected an awkward silence or a change of topic – which is perhaps, how I would typically respond. Or you know, he could do the Chinese move (even though he isn’t Chinese) and find a polite way to deny such an accolade. But he simply said, “thank you!” That took me slightly aback. He took it all in. But knowing him and his character, he didn’t seem to revel in pride. I know him fondly to be a man after God’s heart. He did something godly, and he was encouraged. To me, it was him saying: thanks for encouraging me to be more like Christ.

Maybe encouraging humility also means we should also learn to pay the right compliments. Rather than say, “thank you pastor for your brilliant sermon.” We could try, “thank God for your sobering message, pastor.” Maybe we’d be better able to escape from modesty and find our true position before God if we would praise each other’s growth in Christ-like character rather than their external qualities. This lesson I remember vividly from writing the post titled: Soul-crafts, something something I can’t remember. To appreciate the soul is to say I admire your humility in spite of your intelligence, your patience in spite of your difficult circumstance. If this makes sense, then modesty is merely an external denial of praise, but an internal delight in our magnificence. It is to dissemble our true thoughts, a mere misdirection – to make you look one way or think a certain way while we do something else. We cannot count on culture to teach us humility.

As usual, I’m not going to write some treatise on what humility means. It’s not only because I’m not qualified to do so, but also because I believe the bible has given us sufficient directions that point to a perfect portrait of humility – a familiar image of emptying, submitting, counting others more significant. Yet, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about it. And I just feel that perhaps thinking more about it, as I have, helps me to peel away the layers of falsehoods, revealing to me what humility is not. And my hope is that it may provide fresh insights that may get us closer to identifying ourselves solely in Christ.

If you agree that humility is vastly different from modesty, then we have established the part about what we are or are not. For receiving and giving praise is part of affirming our qualities and who we are. But there are so many other facets to humility. It seems that the quality of humility, or dwelling on what humility really means serves as a suitable point of reference – an archimedean point, if you will – of understanding the saving grace of God, man’s true identity, and Christian growth in general. Humility is one thing that cannot be willed. It is a quality that is most difficult to consciously cultivate. We could endure something difficult, with much patience. Yet, we could endure it with pride, or endure it with humility. In other words, one might come away from an incident with the external quality of “being patient”. Yet, for that external appearance of patience, we may have endured it with arrogance – with a view that we are kind to be condescending; or, we may really have been patient in humility – enduring because we see others as more significant than ourselves.

No matter what, it always circles back to our view of ourselves, and the belief in what we are meant to do and who we are meant to be. With that, let me make a segue into one part of a story in the Lord of the Rings, where Sam takes the ring from his master Frodo whom he thought had been killed by Shelob. This passage details his struggles with the seductive power of the ring:

“As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.”

Sam had that one opportunity to see his wildest fantasies come true. And we all have fantasised a little about what a “successful” life would look like for us based on the paths we have chosen. Sometimes we dream them from the stories we hear of other people, of the pictures of glamour that we see online. And then we ask ourselves, “what would I do if I had…” because we want to imagine our own versions of that same life. On good days, however, we may try to limit these daydreams and snap out of it. Yet ever and anon even some that we consider as good Christian brothers and sisters deliver a great conditional: you know, it’s not mutually exclusive. What they mean of course is that there’s nothing wrong with pursuing these things with ambition and yet serve God all the same.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with giving our utmost to work and spend our time buried in books so that all the best institutions welcome us with open arms and strain their ears to hear our wisdom. Certainly there’s nothing wrong to know how invest with prudence and see our wealth and stock grow by leaps and bounds. Yet, we should always be careful with these conditionals, especially in dishing them out as advice. For they might well be mutually exclusive to some – or even most. In fact, I would venture to say that these conditionals are often rationalisations and we only stand unruffled in our strongest moments. But how often are our strongest moments? How do we glorify God with our ambitions when we are already so self-absorbed in the first place?

Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ quote here – which has got us really far – , will not help us further. Again, he says that humility is about thinking less about ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less. But this does not work if we are used to thinking of ourselves, aren’t we? If our problem is narcissism, then how would ignoring ourselves really help? The solution must surely be something else. The solution is to stare at God.

“In that hour of trial it was the love of his master the helped most to hold him firmly but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”

Sam delivers to us an important lesson of humility. He had an intimate knowledge of his own weaknesses, and sobered up after remembering what a “good life” meant to him. He reminded himself of his true identity and his lot, and what would really give him joy – even if it means just gardening a small plot of land. The Lord of the Rings is a story of humility. The ring is not destroyed by a race of deserving stature and honour. In fact, the ring is probably fashioned to prevent that – it brings out our greatest lusts and fantasies (which are not always inherently bad). And only great races have such high reveries. The small folk do not. The highest form of humility could only be found in the rejection of ring: Aragorn would refuse to take the ring knowing he would yield to it; and the hardest task of destroying it had to be done by the most unlikely person. The title almost beckons: who is the true lord of the rings? Not me, if I already know what a good life means.

If this is true, that humility is not modesty, then it should mean also that humility is also not harping on our weaknesses – to have some kind of inferiority complex. Perhaps it’s simply to remind ourselves of what we ought to be satisfied in: to have a hobbit complex. This is not to say we do not do our best and set goals. It is to say that our goals do not define us, they do not chart the trajectory of our joy, neither do they measure our success. It’s to have small thoughts – hobbit thoughts – about our own glorification. It is to know of the true and abiding possession that we already have in Christ. Perhaps it’s manifest in the willingness to take ourselves to the end of our days. Perhaps I may die a poor man, not worthy of any remembrance; perhaps I die a pauper and am mistaken to be a sluggard. Perhaps I have nothing worthy of boasting and I have no feat worth mentioning. But I think it is fine. It must all past, it must all past. Just tend my garden faithfully. This is my lot; this is my need and due; this is my wish. As the soul pants for streams of water so my soul pants for you O Lord.

Signing off,

Fatpine. 

The joyful song of coming judgment

In reading and listening to Revelation 14 again, I was reminded of how two visions bookended the entire chapter. The first was of the rousing chorus of the 144,000 – the redeemed, blameless and pure, those saved and pardoned by God, singing a new song that could not be learnt by any other.

At the end of the chapter, however, is the image of violence and bloodshed, and the son of man with a sharp sickle will reap.

“So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.”

And there we have it, two visions of Christ as reigning king. The first of him as one who is worthy of praise and who redeemed the undeserved with his love and by his blood; and the other, the figure with a sharp sickle that will judge mankind. He will not withhold his anger, he will pour full strength into the cup of his anger.  The impure will drink his wrath and be tormented with fire and sulphur forever and ever.

There is a present war, and Christ has already declared his victory in advance. Yet, his victory is not only in doing the work of mending and saving. We may think of those tending to the sick and wounded as undoing the brutality of war. We think of them as men and women who are doing the important work of restoring our faith in humanity. In one way, against the forces of evil and the depravity of the worst of men, Christ’s humble submission and undignified death is that very act of restoring faith, is that very attempt to make whole, to mend, to heal, and to restore. But that is not the whole story.

Part of that war must include a judgment of wrath and bloodshed. But how can war ever be justified or even celebrated? The bible seems to make light of pain, tears, and scattered limbs. Yet he must. For the sake of his holiness, he must; for the sake of the 144,000 – that they would not have endured in vain, he must. The leadership of Christ in charging into a glorious war where victory is certain is imitated in the image of a surging King Théoden as he rode to the aid of Gondor. Weary from age, his eagerness to deal judgment to the assailing enemies of Gondor gave strength to his comrades cowering in the shadow of the enemy.

“Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore. But Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromé the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they flew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the city.”

John said: and I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters. Tolkien wrote: the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore. John wrote that those who worship the beast will “drink the wine of God’s wrath”, and here we read of the judgment the “hoofs of wrath” the country of horsemen inflict upon their enemies. Indeed, Théoden and the Rohirrim were described as finding “joy in battle” – not in mere bloodshed alone, but in vindicating the dead and defenceless. In fact, such a swift battle must have proven to be such a relief to those struggling in the darkness. And to that the end, those who endured in that hopeless battle and those who died in their service can “rest in their labor”, for God will now vindicate them and earn a victory that will bless them forever.

This is why there is joy, even in battle. This is why the host of Rohan burst into a song, and that song was both fair and terrible in battle. It is a song of judgment and salvation. Surely, that song was both glorious and terrifying as John heard the 144,000 sing it, and surely it will be too as it will be sung on that day.

Signing off,

Fatpine. 

The human condition

Once in a while, as we immerse ourselves within the information vortex, scrolling along the many shared articles we find on our feed, we find articles of people – usually old people – who tell us about a discomfort that feel. This discomfort they have is usually a feeling that humanity is now marked by some loss, that it did not use to be what it was in the past.  Thus, they try to explain how undesirable modern society is, and how important aspects of humanity are now under dire threat. One recent article I read related to parenthood and adulthood.  The writer complained that young moderns are increasingly “hooked on screens” and “intellectually fragile”. Such arguments are put forth based on a gut feel, even if that feel is on the most part, right.

Yet, such assertions are not just indictments of something problematic about the trajectory of the human race in modernity, but are also criticisms of an entire generation after them: you are weak, unlike us. If it’s merely a problem of generations, then we might have to conclude that the human race is indeed regressing, and that the earliest humans were the most robust and worthy of praise. No, the problem is not with a generation, it’s with the human race as a whole. It is thus not for us to give self-congratulatory pats on our backs and despise adolescents for their lack of depth, for theirs is a condition that we have wreaked upon them due to our failure to consider the consequences of our actions. Thus, in order to make any kind of argument or indictment at all, one must consider the most fundamental question – what is the human condition and how has the human condition changed?

In understanding what it means to be a human, we can finally articulate what has been “lost”, and decide whether or not that is undesirable. And when I ask, “what is the human condition?” I’m not merely asking, “what was God’s plan for us?” or, “what is the purpose of man?” I would like to think I’m situating this in our particular and real situations on this earth. That is to say, I  want to ask – what does it mean to be a human on the planet called Earth, where there are trees, animals, berries, beetles, rivers, blood, death, and other human?. In other words, i’m not asking about the essence of human beings as we were created ex nihilo – abstracted from the reality we know. Rather, what are we like on the given earth – not on mars, or floating in space, but here and now?

To put it in another way, the answer to “what is the human condition” is: the behavioural effect of living in the situation that man is in. I think this is a question that needs to be asked of ourselves. And it’s a pertinent question to ask because it helps to slow us down; to temper our ambitions and imaginations about what could be. In imagining a future so vastly different from the present, we may have too often been seduced by the positive prejudice we have for the words like “progress” and “advancement” or some vague sense of improvement or betterment. Yet, in our eager anticipation of a “better” future, we leave questions of our human condition behind, thus threatening the very meaning of our existence as humans on this earth. In saying this, then, I imply that the human condition was not meant to be changed – at least, not so drastically such that we barely recognize it. In saying this, I’m also saying that this was the original condition that God planned for us. Having said this, let me try to articulate the fundamental human conditions, and how modernity is destroying them in one form or another.

To be human is to create artifices in reflection of the eternal. Humans do more than just labor to subsist, to survive. We have always found the ability to go beyond working for food, to break out of the cycle of the life process. Everything that animals do, they do as part of an inevitable cycle. They live, hunt for food, and they die, returning to the ground as part of a ceaseless process of nature. But man does things that has a value beyond immediate use. If this were not true, then we would not have museums of ancient artefacts like statues, carvings, and jewellery. What use were these? If they fetch little value at all today, whether as a matter of fashion or even monetarily, what other use could they have thousands of years ago? Their value lay not in their use, but in their ability to endure. It was not made to be consumed, but to be remembered, a treasure to be beheld. Having been made in the image of God, we all have an idea of the eternal, the enduring; and thus, we create things in hopes of breaking the cycle of meaningless, so that it is not all vanity. This is what it means to create enduring artifices.

Artifices range from anything like chair to a painting. I speak of these as uniquely created works – not mass-produced chairs. It must have taken months to fashion a chair that not only had use-value, but also embodied one’s signature style, an expression of one’s views on beauty and the good. And why we can create, and in fact continue to create artifices is because we can contemplate – we do not simply survive. We think of deeper things, of harder questions; we ponder about the pain of death, even if it’s inevitable. And in that pondering, we sometimes feel enriched, and sometimes we feel like we have learnt something and have grown in one way or another. These are all in fact great things. The ability for mankind to contemplate about the deep meaning of life must surely be because there is a sense of the eternal – we try to make sense of our mortality and our frailty, and we seek for that which will be everlasting. That is why legacies matter, that is why history matters, and why we fashion, and in our own ways, take part in creation. We are co-creators, because we know life is not a meaningless cycle.

If that is true, then we should produce more, should we not? It would seem so, but modernity has so radically twisted this human condition. Rather than create, we copy, rather than fashion, we mass-produce. In our world today, we have ceased to become artists and co-creators of enduring works, rather, we have become crazed producers of goods of mass appeal, in part because it is not longer a bashful thing to seduce our consumers with vulgar images or messages. And on the other side, we have become mindless consumers of cheap trills and vulgar entertainment. Art and theatre cease to be enduring works of contemplation, they are merely transient entertainment that we consume, inducing a passive state, like a coma. And when it ends, we go to sleep; and the next morning, we drag our feet to work, none the brighter, feeling none the richer. Rather, all that we do at work appears to be meaningless, because unlike the mindless high, we actually have to use our mental faculties. But sadly, we have forgotten how to use them.

In place of artifices that endure and spark contemplation and appreciation, we have a glut of mere things and objects that endure until they become obsolete. That is, we stop using them not because they have outlasted their use or have fallen into disrepair; rather, we stop using them because they are outdated. And so we continue to do only what we know, to keep on consuming. Think of a quilt so carefully woven and painstaking sewed with love. It might be an old piece of cloth continually re-patched and thus, renewed. It is an enduring work and essence of a beloved mother that has passed on, and it can bring so much comfort in times of anxiety, and so many pleasant memories in times of loneliness and despair. But the modern has no such place for sentiments. He must scour for sales and new clothing for new seasons, even if the seasons themselves cycle through every year. What was once current fashion becomes old, and there is an imperative to renew and accumulate.

Obviously there are implications for the human condition. The most important being this: we begin to lose sight of our mortality, and come to believe in our own immortality. Because things around us keep enduring, and they endure meaninglessly. What I mean is that we take their presence for granted, so much so we do not replace them, we only displace them. In other words, it is not taking something new in place of something broken, it is taking something perfectly new in favor of something that is out of season or out of fashion. This leads me to the second human condition.

To be human is to be aware of our mortality. It is this condition that necessitates the production of human artifices in the first place. In other words, it is because people know they are just a vapor in the wind that they want their existence to have meaning for others – they want their memory to endure. With our newfound and newly-imagined powers of immortality, we begin to live recklessly, with little concern for hurt or harm to ourselves and others, with little care to spend time meaningfully. With such thoughts, we expect that every morning, we are to have good health, no war or famine, or little existential hardship. What we don’t realize is that morality is an anchor, it anchors us onto a belief or a faith that propels us forward, that infuses our thoughts, actions, and speeches with meaning. Without such an anchor, we are fickle-minded people whose preferences and beliefs change like the wind. And we don’t mean what we say, are unwilling and unable to commit, honor promises, sacrifice or to suffer for the sake of another. We spend hours having friends over just to talk about happy but meaningless things because there will always be another day to go deep. But why not go deep now?

Part of why we have forgotten our mortality is also because we have distanced ourselves from nature. Our imperative to keep producing and to keep building meaningless artifices means we need more resources and space to do so. City-dwellers now only feel comfortable when they see skyscrapers and carpeted floors. They dare not sweat, nor can they really stand the smell of fatigue and hard work. If there’s any interaction with nature at all, we find ourselves state-of-the-art shoes that most effectively help us trek a mile or two – even if walking barefoot would suffice. In other words, we have become soft. We have become so vulnerable to nature that we fear it.

Yet we don’t realise that the natural world is so essential to understanding the human condition. How? Because the natural world is that which reminds us of the life process to begin with – that ebb and flow of birth and death, of sprouting and returning to the soil. Is there any wonder that the Bible has so many vivid images of mountains and seas and grass and flowers? Indeed, failing to relate to nature implies that cannot understand this fundamental fact:

For all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

1 Peter 1:24-25

There is nothing wrong with fashioning artifices that endure. Yet, we must always do so with appropriate humility, knowing these artifices – even the best of them – can only serve to prolong our most glorious days for a little while. Soon after our flesh and body fail, they will also wither, for they cannot endure in eternity.

Finally, to be human is to relate to other humans as being of the same kind but also different. In every speech and action, we disclose who we are and who we are not. We are constantly differentiating between each other. In understanding the differences between others, we also come to understand who exactly we are. If we lived in a world in which we felt no different from any other, we would cease to have a concept of the “self”. This is why relating to others is so important, for in speaking to others, we realise, “oh, I never thought of it that way,” or to come to realise that some people can like potatoes much more than we can ever bear. Yet, we find that we never have to bear the idiosyncrasies of others in modernity. Mass society has made us all the same – all desiring the same things, all dreaming to possess the same things. Our true thoughts and creativities are not important, what we think doesn’t matter, and how we create isn’t relevant – our personalities, in fact, our very being, becomes superfluous.

Rather, we exhume the very essence of ourselves in favor of a digital shell. We say: if you want to know who I am,  look at my profile; but we don’t realise that no individual human being can be essentialized, for I am a sum total of all the thoughts I think in the morning, the actions I take in secret, the aspirations, the histories, the dark past and the thoughts of death. None of these can easily be relayed at all. A person is not the schools he went to, the friends he takes pictures with, or the pithy statements invoking sympathy or applause. And because we think people are no different from their profiles, we fail to relate to one another as humans, we lack any desire to really know one deeply, because we think all that we need to know is there. The failure to relate to others as fellow beings means that when we hear of tragic news, or of people who live vastly different lives in war-torn cities, lives that hang on the balance, we are quick to find something else to blindfold ourselves or something else to drown out the sounds of pain and crying. We distance ourselves by donating a little, or perhaps by writing an essay or pledging for a cause, but we can’t wait to go home to numb ourselves, and what better way than through the modern-day morphine – entertainment?

Today I had the privilege of attending a sharing session by two North Korean defectors who enduring difficult trials to escape the country. They didn’t share too much about their arduous tale of survival, or the perilous journey across borders, but about how their eyes were opened to this new world – the modern world. Yet, for all the praise of freedom and liberty, I just had a burning question to ask. For, to me, they were like time-travellers that had come from the past into the present. With encouragement from a friend, I approached them to question them on their thoughts of modernity – was there some aspect of that “backward” life in North Korea that they felt was impossible to recreate in modernity? Both almost seemed to have ready responses. And my hunch seemed right. People in ‘modernity’ just don’t relate to one another as they did in their small villages. Poor and lacking in knowledge and freedom as they may have been, they looked out for one another, enjoyed each other’s company, and really celebrated each other’s uniqueness and their very existence.

On the other hand, moderns in America are too obsessed with their phones, too obsessed with indulging in the pleasures of entertainment. What does that tell us about the human condition? Simple. That freedom, prosperity, and knowledge are not essential components of the human condition. Even as slaves, we can still learn to relate to one another, and perhaps even better appreciate the beauty of nature and of our mortality. Might these people so deprived of modernity actually be enjoying their humanity more than we do? Might an obsession over “progress” and “advancement” actually be setting us back, that our natures change and we become less and less human? My answer is a resounding yes, at least, for the most part.

In gradually distancing ourselves from what makes us human, we distance ourselves from the necessary disciplines of the human condition: the discipline of mortality, of humility, of otherness. If freedom today means being free from these disciplines, it is no wonder that we feel so cold and lonely in modern society. And it is no wonder that young ones are so stricken with “wanderlust” – because in travelling to new places, one invariably finds that people are “nicer”, more “friendly”, more “hospitable”. We take our newfound loves back home and judge our society for being cold and dead. But, in reality, for all the external warmth we feel, we know nothing really has changed, and there really is little hope. What can we do but return to our fleeting pleasures? For little do we realise that the fallouts from the loss of humanity are being felt all around the world, and perhaps only in the most cloistered, ‘backward’, ‘unfree’ societies in the world are humans truly thriving and living their worldly existence as what they were naturally made to be.

Signing off,

Fatpine.