Who Is My Neighbor?

http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2017/04/peter-brown-late-antiquity

“Nevertheless, Brown’s productivity continues. Every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m. He then studies up to three languages, each for an hour, using books and recordings… Language learning constitutes Brown’s main hobby. He dismissed his familiarity with over 20 languages as “not so difficult,” given the numerous cognates involved. “I speak as many as I need for traveling,” he said.”

WOW

[also:

“His profound interest in others, whether now or in the past, equips him to reconstruct social relations. Brown helps countless people by listening to them, talking with them, and sending them feedback with an exceptionally fast turnaround, according to Reimitz.

Tannous said Brown closely reads the books of even complete strangers, then emails them with compliments and suggestions. Some of the recipients have fixed the messages on their walls, to reread when overcome with despair about their prospects in academia.”

and

“Brown impressed upon his students that they needed to learn by traveling, not just reading. He taught them to understand history from the perspectives of the people involved, rather than from a supposedly omniscient Western historian’s viewpoint, Michelson said.”

and

““I had to make a real effort to understand, often, my own next-door neighbor,” he said. “So I was constantly aware — and I think this is important, because this is one of the primary things a historian can really teach people — that people are different, and that it’s your duty to understand them.””]

what a truly fascinating man… incomplete and piecemeal a picture as it may be, it brings me delight to imagine a warm, kindly old genius of a man who loves learning and loves people. it is one thing to be a supreme academic, and quite another to use your marvellous mind to encourage and uplift other budding brains around the globe.. :–)

20/04/17

Here is an article that is very important:
 
 
Two more thoughts:
 
1. Singapore is big on ‘meritocracy’, and the narrative that ‘Hard Work = Success’. This is good for encouraging people to slog it out and be all inspired and driven and inspirational.
The other half of the narrative, however, is that ‘those who fail must deserve it’.
 
Consider this: if you are born into a middle-class family, the package deal includes all the benefits that parental connections bring – access to schools as part of a suite of alumni privileges, opportunities for mentorships and internships – and an overwhelming access to resources like tuition, extracurricular programmes (the dreaded piano or ballet class), and money to pay for secondary and tertiary education.
 
Sure, the poor can catch a break – snag a scholarship, be a genius and outthink other tuition-stuffed kids, meet the right teacher or professor or Powerful Person roaming the streets looking for a worthwhile charity cause. It helps that we celebrate the occasional ‘rags to riches’ or ‘school dropout’ story. But this is the rare exception, not the norm.
 
If we (middle-class kids with a stable job) think that we’ve earned our present position and deserve to enjoy its fruits without regard for those who struggle, then we are wilfully closing our eyes to the accident of birth that brought us so much of what we now have.
 
2. “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
 
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
 
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
 
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”
 
(courtesy of the late Terry Pratchett)

Hello! It’s Easter again.. :)

If you can spare seven minutes, I have a very old story for you.

The Christian concept of ‘sin‘ is a heavy one. The word has settled into a space in popular culture and parlance that is associated with ‘human vice’ or ‘wrongdoing’, and that’s half of the picture. The full picture of sin, as the Bible would have it, is ‘wrongdoing against God‘, or rebellion, and so the heart of sin is not some unspeakable mythic evil, but a persistent love of self and self-absorption.

Easter is not exempt from human self-absorption. Some two thousand years back, a captive and oppressed Jewish people thronged about Jerusalem as they eagerly awaited the coming of a promised Savior. To them, this Savior’s arrival would mean their rescue from Roman rule, and their personal victory over the Roman captors. And Jesus – in Hebrew, Yehoshua, or ‘God rescues’ – was the candidate for the job.

He was wise, he amassed a huge following in just three short years, he was pretty fit (he walked everywhere, even on water – see Matthew 14 for the full story), and God seemed to really really like him. He also said this:

the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Which his disciples (or ‘dedicated followers’) heard, and dismissed, because here was Jesus! Here was their personal victory and triumph over all the humiliation and oppression that they had suffered. They had been brought low for centuries now. It was their time to rise up and be the ones in power. Then Jesus was captured, charged, and crucified on a cross, and the disciples scattered like stray sheep, their hopes of a better life dashed to bits.

Some two thousand years on, human triumphalism and self-assertion remain firmly in the picture. If you’re not a Christian, think for a moment about all the ‘good things’ and ‘good causes’ that you’ve ever wanted to contribute to and give your time and money to. A pet shelter, or a humanitarian crisis that plucked at your heart-string, or a charitable cause that you swore to volunteer for during some school holiday. And if you are a Christian, think about all the causes that you pray for in church but forget in the six days in between services, or how we treat God like a pocket genie that we try desperately to summon when exams encroach or our career trajectories need a boost.

Think about that, then think about self-righteousness: how swiftly we decide someone’s true nature for them when we would protest and hope for a thousand chances for ourselves. At work – a perceived slight, a raising of the voice, a terrible scolding or tongue-lashing, and bitterness and anger swell our heart till it almost bursts. We fortify our rage and prop up our wounded ego till we sit justified in our righteous anger. How dare they. How dare he raise his voice at me, how dare she take that tone with me. I would never do that, I will never respect this person, (and in that angry and rage-filled moment), I wish them all the worst.

But if you have heard of this man, this Jesus – as his own people, the Jews, screamed for Jesus’ death, as they jeered at him and pressed thorns into his skull and stripped Him naked and spat on Him, He was not moved. Before he made it to the cross, in a small garden called Gethsemane, Jesus fell to his knees. He knew what was coming, he knew the suffering and humiliation that was right before him, and he was scared to death and afraid to bear it. Mark 14/Matthew 26 tell us that Jesus fell to his face in the garden and begged: Father, all things are possible for you. (God, you can do anything). If You will, take this cup of suffering from me. It doesn’t get any less heroic than this. Jesus is saying: Dad, please, please please do this some other way, if there is another way please not this, not the cross.

It is terribly easy to move us. We have little love in our heart for those who cannot help us. But it was impossible to move Jesus, who had unending love in His heart for those who would crucify Him, and for those who watched silently, and for those who turned their backs and ran, and for those who would call themselves ‘Christ-ians’ two thousand years on, yet be so unlike this Christ in so many ways.

And so on this Good Friday, this day of Easter, I am reminded that we are not beautiful. When the pomp and show and compulsory CIP hours have faded away and we are left to ourselves, there is very little in us that cares for our neighbor and for those in need, whatever the religion we embrace or abhor. But there was a man, a divine man (how strange!), who looked at us and said: I will die for you not because you are lovely, but to make you lovely. And with that picture of us set firmly before him, radiant and beautiful and unblemished, he walked resolutely to the cross, scorning its shame, and bore it for us.

Today, two thousand years on, he calls us to do the same. It is the rallying call of any Christ-ian – Matthew chapter 16, verse 24.

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.”

And that’s as far as I can tell this story. But it’s not just a story because – I think and I hope – there is a very old truth in it that your heart can hear and taste and see. You see, all the selfishness, all the striving and struggling for meaning in a world that feels broken – all the stories point to this one. Lord of the Rings – a darkness has fallen on the land, and it longs for the true King to return. Beauty & the Beast – I am a monster, not the person that I want to be, I am trapped but I long to be free, and there must be a love that can break the curse. Sleeping Beauty – there must be a love that can break death itself. There must be a way. If only I could get out of myself and into the story.

And there is a song by a very old band, Relient K, that sings out the story of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

it’s always winter

but never Christmas

it seems this curse just can’t be lifted

but deep inside our hearts we know

that You are here and we will not lose hope

This is the true and better story that doesn’t end when we close the book. That on the morning of Easter, there was a God who so loved our world that He gave us His only precious and begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but will have eternal life. So when I am mired in my own selfishness, and cry out:

What a wretched man I am! who will save me from this body of death and sin?

The answer rings out as clearly today as it did all those years ago – thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A very blessed Easter 🙂

Esther Deer Pants For The Water

(the following is from a short sharing that took place at Prayer Group on 22 March 2017 and was inspired by passage from ‘Every Good Endeavor’ by Keller. thank God for brothers and sisters who come together to study the Word and to encourage each other towards good works in Christ Jesus 🙂 )

the trying climate of the time

We’re not going to go into a detailed study of the book of Esther today, but it helps to locate it in Israel’s broader story – the book of Esther is placed in a period of cultural and racial marginalization, where what remained of the 12 tribes were under the rule of Xerxes, the Persian king who reigned as Israel was picking herself up from exile.

And the interesting bit about Esther is that, much like her two pals Daniel and Joseph, she was a Jew/Israelite that was plonked into a secular, or even pagan context. All three of them occupied high positions in empires and kingdoms that were Not Israel, and we know that they eventually managed to serve God’s purposes where they were, despite the challenges that they faced. Joseph rescued nations from famine (and his own family too!), and Daniel stood up for what was right though it meant that he had to make his bed among hot coals and hungry lions. But from the outset, we can note several differences in Esther’s narrative.

In Esther 2:10, we read about her entry into the palace as one of the entrants for the ‘Who Wants To Be Xerxes’ New Queen’ tournament that was taking place, and we are told that:

“Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because (her uncle) Mordecai had forbidden her to do so.”

When we compare this to Daniel (Daniel 2:28, 46) or Joseph (Genesis 40:8, 41:16), both of whom were immediately and consistently public and open about their lineage and their faith, it can seem rather strange. Aren’t we, as ‘Christians in the marketplace’, called to live out our Christianity loudly and proudly? To be a public witness? To be ‘unashamed of the gospel’? Yet here we have Esther, who won’t even divulge her race.

Then in Esther 2:15-16, we read that:

“Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai who had taken her as his daughter, came to go in to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign…”

 

Which is a very polite way of saying that the king summoned her so that he could look her over and decide whether he wanted to have sex with her (which he did). And this bit of the story is jarring and painful to read for different reasons to different people – to our feminist sensibilities (a man??? treating women as purely sexual objects??), to our religious rules and upbringing (she sleeps with a married man?? who is also a pagan idol worshipper?! and she’s not married herself??)… and we think – what happened to “taking a stand”, or “living a life that is a testimony to the Gospel”?

The short answer is that we do not know. The book of Esther offers no easy answers to these questions, and in that we see the stark reality of life in a sinful and fallen world. Whether it is Esther and her many struggles, or any one of us in our workplaces, we know (if we are willing to take a long hard look at ourselves) that we fall far short of righteousness. Circumstances are tough, we face pressures on all sides, and oftentimes, we find ourselves caving in to things that we know are wrong.

But the question at the end of all this is: “in such a morally, culturally and spiritually ambiguous situation, does God still work with and through us?”

the cost of obedience

We know that Esther became Queen Esther and saved her people. But let’s take a closer look at how she got there.

After all the stage-setting that we did above, we find Esther in an even more precarious position. In Esther 2:17, under the section titled ‘Esther Finds Favor’, we are told that

the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” It looks like she’s lucked out big time, yet if we bear in mind the events of Esther 1, we know that her position is far from secure. At the king’s whim, she could easily be banished. So she is the Queen of all of Persia, but she is also a mood swing away from exile. Immense power, but also immense precarity.

Then we get to the rising action (Esther 4:7-11), and an evil man called Haman[1] has persuaded King Xerxes to destroy the Jewish people (just as they are recovering from exile), and Uncle Mordecai writes to the Queen to ask her to “go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people”. And Esther’s reply is immensely practical. She tells Mordecai:

hello uncle, everyone knows that if you anyhow go before the king when he never call you, you will CONFIRM die (unless he point his golden scepter at you)

And she adds a very interesting line: that she has not been called to come in to the king these past thirty days. We do not know the precise significance of this – did she mean that the king would only call her in every 60 days, and that going in early was unacceptable, or did she use to get called in daily till recent times, when the king had begun to tire of her? However you interpret that line, her point is clear – the king had not called her, and to march into the inner courts would be to court death itself.

Esther had a lot to lose – she entered the palace a humble Jewish girl from the tribe of Benjamin, niece of Mordecai, and now she had a crown and banquets in her favor and ‘safety’ from the coming genocide.

But Mordecai’s reply is simple and piercing: “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?

It’s true. Of all the places she could be, she really lucked out!! From exiled immigrant girl to the queen of all the land, which explained why she had so much to lose.

Well surprise surprise – that’s us. And I don’t mean to compare us to our associates, or to other fresh graduates even. What I mean is – people who cannot afford counsel when they appear before the criminal Court, and end up receiving far harsher sentences than they should, or end up misrepresenting themselves because it’s really difficult to appear before a judge and stay coherent, or elderly persons and those from low-income families who queue in long lines to meet their MP but wait for ages and don’t see any change, or just anyone who didn’t get where they wanted to go – to university, or poly/JC.. to be a trainee and a graduate from NUS Law is to have immense financial and social and intellectual capital. We are “in the palace”.

But what are we working towards? With all this capital, all this immense blessing, are we building up a nice nest egg (not wrong), or hunting for big cases and prestigious firms to pad our resume (not wrong either, BUT)… Why have we been placed where we are, with all the knowledge and income that we already have and are about to receive? And I don’t just mean people who are in the Big 4 or offshore firms – any law student with a job at a firm has the immense ability to do good by virtue of the knowledge we possess and the position that we are in.

In ‘Every Good Endeavor’ by Timothy Keller, he quotes the following passage that a preacher preached to college professionals:

“there were poorer people across the city who needed their connections and talents. inside their circles of influence and fields of work, there was corruption that needed their attention. he admitted that if his listeners conducted themselves in that way, they might make less money or move up the ladder slower or run into conflict that could slow or hurt their careers… but that doesn’t matter, he said. don’t just get into the palace and bend every rule you can to stay there. SERVE. you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”

And that was how Esther eventually decided: I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:44)

All of us have struggled with compromise, and will continue to struggle. To make unethical choices, to tell clients that we did work in a certain way when we did not, to bill in a way that pads hours so we can meet targets, to stay silent when we should have spoken, and our conscience feels very muddy. Was Esther’s clear? Is anyone’s ever really clear? A message from the book of Esther is that it is never too late – obedience can begin right now, regardless of all that has come before.

You may think you have been given little because you are always striving for more, but you have been given much, and God has called you to put it into play. It is natural to root your identity in your position in the palace; to rest your security in the fact that you have a certain measure of control over the variables in your life; to find your significance in having clout in certain circles. But if you are unwilling to risk your place in the palace for your neighbors, the palace owns you.

We are much like Esther – perhaps not quite as brave yet, but certainly as flawed, and perhaps as besieged on every front. But there is a true and better Esther, who did not say, “If I perish, I perish”, but “When I perish, I perish.” And He did it for you and for me. This is the Jesus that we know and love, and it is only through Him that we can have the courage and the love to step up boldly, and to choose to live a life of love and service to others, no matter what that might cost us.

[1] pronounced ‘Hey Man!’, which partially explains why he struggled to forge a genuine connection with another human being.