This is not just a "good" book. It is a fantastic book! Those who know me well will know that I am one of those measly types who do not offer compliments easily. I have found Parker Palmer's book profoundly moving and, at the same time, intensely provocative. As I read, I find myself developing a love-hate relationship towards the work. I hate it for the way it confronts me with my
unquestioned assumptions about what I most cherish; and I love it for the insights it offers on aspects of values and spirituality.
This is really a book on "spirituality". People tend to think of spirituality as disengagement - like going on a retreat or into a monastery. Essentially, we think of it as "withdrawal". Palmer radicalizes it by suggesting that one can be
profoundly spiritual while being actively engaged with life - sometimes at its utmost perversity. "Perversity" may sound like stretching it a bit; but it is quite consonant with Palmer's idea of plumbing the depths of degradation to engage with the
monsters in our psyche if we are to find our "integrity".
The substance of Palmer's argument comes in the first three chapters; the remaining five
chapters are a counterpoint of different texts that explore the theme of meaningful action borne of a truly contemplative spirit.
Palmer begins by arguing that the choice between action and meditation is a false antithesis. Just as meaningful action has to emerge from a centred mind, so also has meditation to find expression in activity. There is such a thing as misdirected action that leads to frenzy and violence that leave us exhausted and unfulfilled, even as we inflict agony on both self and the world. Think "hello kitty" frenzy; and think Al-Qaeda-style violence.
We are spiritually lost. And the panaceas of withdrawal that we have been offered are fake
remedies that do not work. We go on holidays. We try to master contemplative techniques which, in Palmer's words, are an echo more of the "hubris of technology than the humility of the spirit." Think how deeply ironic it is and how confused we look with all our "how to" books and courses ranging from developing spiritual sensitivity to the
motivational platform with its promise of wealth and success.
True contemplation, according to Palmer, is when we catch the sleight of hand of the spiritual con-man (whether secular or religious), and we become"dis-illusioned", i.e., have the illusions of life stripped away from us, and we see the truth for what it is.
What follows in the rest of the book is an attempt at uncovering truthful action borne of the fruit of genuine contemplation. There is the story of the woodcarver from Taoist tradition - a story which hints at the possibility of excellence no matter how prosaic one's existence may be - when mind and matter blend in the stream of universal consciousness.
There follows a story from hasidic tradition as recounted by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. The story tells of an angel who really messes things up because he thinks he could do better than the Almighty. The story in its own way is really a satire on how the noblest of human endeavour often breeds yet more awesome trauma.
The book ends with three stories from Christiantraditions. Two are familiar to us: Jesus' temptations in the wilderness, and the feeding of the 5,000. The temptation story invites us to think about how we respond to the challenge of self-authentication- prove that you are somebody worth your salt (isn't that so Singaporean!). The other looks at how passivity prevents us from experiencing the miracle of God's abundance (think kiasuism). The final story, based on the poems of Julia Esquivel, with its intriguing title, "Threatened with Resurrection", is an in-vitation to embrace the dynamism that life can be with all its promised trauma of facing death again and again.
Why read the book? It prompts us to think about spirituality not in terms of sitting down (whether to pray, or read the Bible, or listen to a sermon), but of living and learning through engaging life with all it has to offer of both trauma and dynamism. It affirms that truth is not to be found by avoiding the evil we fear, but by encountering it head on and know that it is less fearsome than we think. Is this why salvation is possible, because "He descended into hell"?
I hope you will find this review stimulating enough to want to read the book for yourself. I cannot guarantee that you will like it. The text actually quotes Andre Merois, "There are certain persons for whom pure Truth is poison." For me, it has been a health-giving antidote. I hope it will be for you as well.
(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)
[PS. The book is not only available at the BGST Library for loan. It is also available on sale! And this is certainly one book worth buying and reading, and re-reading.]
TESTING ... 1234
1. When pressures come and faith is tested
How will I handle all of life's stresses?
Will I dig wells, that hold no water
Or call upon God who has infinite resources?
2. When people fail me and trust is tested
How will I handle life's disappointments?
Will I shut my heart, and never trust again
Or learn to depend on His divine appointments?
3. When promises are made and character is tested
How will I keep commitments with perseverance?
Will I give up once the going gets tough
Or pay my vows with God's assistance?
4. When the squeeze is on and priorities are tested
How will I show my heart's true desires?
Will I cut back in time and tithe
Or seek first His kingdom amidst the trials?
- Debbie Lee
Chapel today was led by the team of Tay, Tay and Lim. Winston led in worship, accompanied by Edwin on the guitar, and Timothy shared some thoughts on possible
perspectives towards Chinese New Year celebrations.
The theme was very much along the lines of thanksgiving for past blessings, and a sense of anticipation for what the Year of the Goat might bring. Our thoughts were very much directed towards the Chinese pictograms for
blessing (fu), and goat (yang).
We began with the hymn, "Showers of Blessing", and were led on to reflect upon the chief blessing of having been redeemed in Christ in the hymn entitled, "Redeemed". This was to find expression in the thought of belonging to Christ, as encapsulated in the old-time BGEA (Billy Graham
Evangelistic Association) favourite, "His Sheep Am I."
The audience was then divided into two groups, the sheep and the goats - and put through a quiz of Bible verses on sheep and goats (what else?). This was meant to set the mood for thinking about the Year of the Goat. The fact that the Chinese word does not make a very clear distinction between "sheep" and "goat" (unless prefixed by shan or mian) provided the basis for a more neutral or open stance towards issues of religion and culture.
Whatever one's view might be on this issue, we are certainly agreed upon the truth that our future is in God's hands, and we can therefore be confident and grateful for what has or might come to pass. Chapel ended on that note with the singing of "Thanks to God".
Looking back now, it has been an interesting experience as BGST students attempt to grapple with relating their faith to a secular context or cultural issue. It has been fun too, as we sang at one point a Christianized version of the popular Chinese New Year spring festival song, "Ta Di Huei Chun". Is this a promise of better things to come, with chapel run by energetic students, rather than tired and overworked lecturers?
Chapel speaker next week (19 Feb) will be Rev Ng Seng Chuan.
We continue our presentation of our recent graduands. Praise God with us for Ng Kai Seng and David Tan Kim Hong and for others to be presented next week.
DIPLOMA IN CHRISTIAN STUDIES
Ng Kai Seng
B.Acc., University of Singapore
Dip CS, Biblical Graduate School of Theology
Kai Seng is trained as an accountant, and worked for an insurance company before beginning his studies at BGST. He is a member of Mount Carmel Bible Presbyterian Church. After graduation he will continue his involvement as a lay leader in his church. His life verse is Mt. 6:33: 'Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.'
David Tan Kim Hong
BA (Physics), Jesus College, Oxford
Ph.D (Mathematics), St. John's College, Cambridge
Dip CS, Biblical Graduate School of Theology (magna cum laude)
After his undergraduate studies David served as an officer in the RSAF for nearly 10 years. He then completed his doctoral research and worked for a year as Manager in the PSA corporation. He and his wife Sharon are now involved in full-time mission work. David is graduating in absentia. His life-verse is Ps. 37:4: 'Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.'