縮沙:以色列人流浪曠野的教訓

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當年,以色列人從埃及的奴隸生活被拯救出來,在曠野中待了兩年多,與上帝立約,也受了上帝所頒的法律,終於到了迦南應許之地,只需要過河攻打便可以。以色列的探子去窺探迦南,回來時向民眾宣告,那地的確是好地,上帝沒有說謊。然而,他們眼前看見了那地的居民強大,竟然縮沙,嚷著要回到埃及去。上帝大發烈怒,懲罰以色列人要在曠野流浪四十年。

祝福明明已擺在眼前,怎麼在臨門一腳時半途而廢?更不可思議的是,以色列人竟然想回到埃及去過做奴隸的日子。他們不是才嚷著要上帝拯救嗎?人總是覺得隔離飯香,面對極美好的救恩時,原來也是這樣。

「埃及」是代表罪惡,人在「埃及」只會被奴役。上帝以重價將人從籠牢中救出來,並與他建立關係,提升他的地位到子嗣。但來到永生以前,人在世要緊緊跟隨上帝,可能要在「曠野」中煎熬,也要面對「攻克迦南」前的不安、恐懼、甚至痛苦。人不想入美地也就算了,但他怎能埋怨上帝從罪惡中把他救出來呢?對不明朗的前境恐懼也許是正常的,但忘恩負義卻難以赦免。難怪上帝會如此「絕」,要以色列人流浪多年才進入安息。

要怎樣怕都好,請不要埋怨上帝將你帶到今日的境況裡。昨天的境況一定不被今天好。祂的應許已擺在眼前,請不要縮沙,要勇敢爭取。只有在順境中順服上帝,在逆境中卻多多埋怨,又不按祂的旨意行,倒不如去拜黃大仙,尋求「有求必應」算了。

Greater than life: a reflection on Remembrance

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"We will remember."

At 11 am yesterday, Britain stood still for two minutes to commemorate the lives lost during the First World War and subsequent conflicts. The annual ceremony demonstrates the respect that the nation still has for the members of the armed forces, despite their now decade-long engagement in an increasingly unpopular war.

It is perhaps easy to account for the reasons why people join the military—the chance of adventure, the provision of a structured lifestyle, or simply the prospect of a stable job. But that does not explain why someone who has joined may later, under enemy fire, run into the open to drag a wounded civilian to safety, or jump on to a nearby live grenade to shield his comrades from the blast.

This type of selfless commitment helps explain why there is still so much respect for our armed forces, even though many of us have moral qualms about what they are trained to do. Some may say that that those selfless acts are brave; others may say that they are foolish. Yet I believe that it is neither bravery nor foolishness that drives people to commit these selfless acts, but passion—specifically, passion for something that is greater than one’s own life. Whether that passion is for God, country, duty, a mate, or even a random stranger, soldiers have often done things on the battlefield that contradict the natural instinct of self-preservation. In the heat of battle, the soldier displaying selflessness often put their own lives under great risk.

The ideal of living—and dying—for passion in something greater than oneself is cherished in the Bible. David claims in Psalm 63:3 that God’s love is greater than life. Jesus says in John 15:13 that greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jesus’ own life was about denying the self in the service of others). Other religions, in their own ways, also preach the virtues of self-denial. There are, of course, limits to the benefits of a self-denying act, especially if the same act denies others of certain rights, as a suicide bomber would be doing. But the mentality of self-denial is still a laudable and attractive one. This simultaneously explains why the nation is happy to take two minutes out of its busy life each year to commemorate its fallen, and why there seems to be a limitless supply of suicide bombers to create more fallen for the nation to commemorate.

Talking about dying for others may be a bit morbid, but the other side of the same coin is talking about the living for others. While we are alive, are we passionate in living for something greater than ourselves? It doesn’t have to be grand; it just means that whatever we are doing, we are doing it for more than just ourselves—for our partners, friends, family, employers, employees… Selfless commitment has always been a difficult lesson for humans, a self-preserving race, to learn. But on the occasion of Remembrance week, let us not only remember those who have paid the ultimate price for us, but reflect upon what we can do for something that is greater than ourselves, even our lives.

Oh my God! Was that blasphemy?

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The Bible says: “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain”. Indeed. To do so would be offensive to God, and who wants to offend God? Some people take the commandment to mean that the phrase used in the title should not be used as an exclamation – and these are the moderate people. The “extreme” people include orthodox Jews, who think God’s name is so holy they omit the vowels from his name so it can’t be pronounced: “YHWH” is all we get. Some Protestant Christians (mostly American, as I have seen) are at it too, replacing the “o” in “God” by “-“, making “G-d” also unpronounceable*.

While I understand and fully endorse the reasons behind the “extreme” view (i.e. people believe in keeping God’s name holy, as it is holy), I have a rather different take on the commandment, and I’ll use “Oh my God” as an example.

“Oh” is the exclamation, an almost instinctive verbal reaction to surprise, shock, horror and other suddenly triggered emotions. There’s nothing really wrong about this word.

“my” is an adjective that expresses a relationship between myself and the subject of the sentence.

The most important part of the phrase is: who’s the subject? Well, “God” is. In fact, “God” is most significant word in the phrase. Who’s God? Well, he’s the creator of heaven and earth, dispenser of justice and compassion, and ultimately source of salvation and life. And he ismy God, so why should I not be allowed to call him that? Isn’t it abnormal for one to avoid calling one’s best friend by name?

So what’s wrong with using the phrase in times of surprise? In such times, isn’t it infinitely better to refer to God, and remind myself of my relationship with him, than to spit out some rude word or an “innocuous sounding word” such as “gosh” or “days”? Is God not allowed to share in my emotions? Does he not have a stake in how I feel? Should he not be the Person I turn to first in times of surprise, as opposed to excrement, sexual activity or simply sounds that don’t have any meaning?

I don’t doubt that some uses of the phrase does blaspheme the Lord, especially if they are used by non-believers (simply because they don’t have God). But I shall use “Oh my God” with gladness and pride. It is an invitation to my Friend to share in my emotions.

* Although, strictly speaking, God’s name is not “God”. “God” describes who God is, rather like “human” describing “Tim”. God’s name is “YHWH”, or, as he calls himself: I AM WHO I AM. So it seems that replacing “o” with “-” is a bit over the top…

A summer of sleaze

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William Hague

Caught up in speculation: Hague

Scandals involving politicians are breaking out left, right and centre – again. But what do they say about you and me?

Even with Parliament in summer recess, a number of scandals and would-be scandals involving our nation’s politicians found their way into the tabloids and blogs. In June (before the recess), the Liberal Democrat Climate and Energy Secretary of State Chris Huhne announced he was divorcing his wife over a woman who worked as his campaigner. Then, Conservative prisons minister Crispin Blunt, a married father of two, came out of the closet and declared that he was also seeking a divorce. Most recently, an aide to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has had to resign over unsubstantiated claims of a relationship between him and his boss.

Of course, those are by no means the only scandals (or would-be scandals) involving politicians to break out historically, or indeed recently. I have long been desensitised by them. Some of us may still shake our heads at them, disappointed at the seemingly low moral standards of our politicians. We expect them to be clean and honest, driven to public life by duty and compassion rather than power or prestige. In short, we expect them to be like us.

I’m sure many of us would like to think of ourselves as reasonably good people. After all, perhaps apart from the occasional speeding in “safe” conditions or convenient littering, we do not break the law. We work hard to provide for our families, saving up and investing for a comfortable retirement, and even try our best to live ethically and give to charity. Then we take one look at the state of our politicians, and snort at, or are perhaps saddened by, the details over their private lives.

If you are doing any of those things, I beseech you to stop. Politicians aren’t inherently worse than you and I, even as they crave power and popularity. Their lives seem so messed up only because they are being lived out in the public, whereas ours are protected solely by anonymity, not by our inherently better nature.

For example, all hell quite rightly broke loose when the parliamentary expenses scandals surfaced. MPs should not have been claiming for things that were not related to work, even if it was within the rules at the time. Yet outside the public glare, this sort of behaviour happens everywhere, committed by “hard-working”, “honest” people, like us. What about that expensive gourmet lunch you had on company’s expense when you could have made do with a sandwich? Or that taxi ride the company paid for when you could have taken the bus? If our own lives were lived in the limelight, what sort of commentary would the tabloids run on us?

The latest intense speculation over William Hague’s apparent relationship with his special adviser proves my point. We are so perversely interested in someone else’s private lives, and yet still claim the moral high ground and expect our own privacies to be preserved?

Sure, in exchange for power and popularity, politicians gave up their privacy. But they didn’t give up their imperfections, and it would be highly unreasonable for us to ask them to, unless we asked ourselves to get rid of all our little imperfections. Politicians are, after all, only human. They too work hard (I’ve seen them) to provide for their families, and I believe that they entered politics at least partly because they wanted to build a better society. So stop wondering why politicians aren’t better people: they aren’t because we aren’t.

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