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Theology Thursday – Lenten Reflections, Part II

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This month, I had the opportunity to attend two back-to-back conferences in good ‘ol US of A. First, I presented a paper at the Eleventh Annual Archbishop Iakovos Graduate Students Conference in Patristic Studies hosted by the Pappas Patristic Institute in Brookline, MA. I also got a chance to be a respondent and a moderator for a session. It was a great experience and I enjoyed getting to know so many awesome people. Perhaps, it is a sign of the times that before going, I was wondering if the presenters were Christians too. In today’s academic climate, you just never know. Just because it’s a conference on a biblical topic, doesn’t necessarily mean that those who go will necessarily be Christians. So it came as a surprising shock (albeit the good kind) when I found out that the presenters were Christians too! There is a certain bond, a sense of camaraderie and fellowship, that Christians share. It is this sense of belonging to something… or should I say, Someone… who is greater than me, than us, than my culture, than my nationality, than my gender, than my socio-economic status. Through Christ, we are all brothers and sisters. There is something inherently powerful about that.

I also got the chance to go to the SPS (Society for Pentecostal Studies) conference in Florida. There is something weird about not wearing winter jackets in March. I enjoyed meeting my new roommates and making new friends. There was something so beautiful about seeing so many like-minded and like-hearted people in one place. I think that’s why I loved these two conferences that I attended. In some mysterious way, I felt like I belonged. As an academic, I think it’s really important to make sure that you join a society that gives you that feeling of belongingness. Everyone was incredibly gracious and extraordinarily nice. SPS felt like home, a place where there are people of differing personalities and temperaments, but are still united in love for God and for one another. Yet, their love for God doesn’t mean shoddy scholarship. In fact, I think that their scholarship is great because of their love for God and their love for the church.

I have been blessed to attend these two conferences. If anything, it was a lesson on humility. I was surrounded by people who were so smart, it’s hard not to feel dumb. However, they were not arrogant or prideful at all. They were so humble and gracious. These are the people who, in my mind, have arrived. But, there is a danger for anyone who ever thinks they have arrived. There is always something more to be discovered. No single person has the ability to know everything about anything. It was great to see these men and women of God exhibit that type of humility and grace within an academic system that is often bereft of such qualities. It is a reminder that I need to guard against arrogance and pride as an academic scholar. The call for humility becomes even harder when you feel like you have something to boast about. If I were to boast in anything, may I only boast in Christ, and Christ crucified. As this Lenten season is nearing its end, may it also signal the end of my own pride and hubris, and the beginning of humility and grace.

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Theology Thursday – Lenten Reflections, Part I

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Lent is a time for reflection. To help me in this process, I have decided to give up Facebook and Twitter, two of the social media platforms that I frequently use. Today is Day One and I’m already feeling the withdrawal symptoms. As a result, it has forced me to reflect on some key personal issues that I will be reflecting on during this Lenten season.

One of those issues relates with the idea of being God’s image bearer. In the book of Genesis, it tells the story of how God created human beings, male and female, in his image. In theological circles, this is often referred to as the “imago dei” (the image of God). I was at a conference in Spain about five years ago when one of the speakers talked about this topic. He mentioned how a lot of the times, we are more image-builders than image-bearers. Too often, we become obsessed with creating an image for other people. We want others to know us as this self-created image. We put on masks and we readily wear it around those who surround us. We become people pleasers, continually seeking the approval of others. We end up finding our validation from what other people think of us. But, this comes at a cost. Wear a mask too long and there comes a point when you can fail to recognize what is fake and what is real. The mask no longer becomes a mask. The mask becomes the face.

As God’s image-bearer, we have nothing to prove. Have you ever met someone’s dad and look at your friend and be utterly shocked at the strong resemblance? I have. No matter how loud the protests of the son about not looking like his dad, it is to no avail. He is his father’s image-bearer. The imprint is there for everyone to see. He doesn’t have to announce its existence. His very presence is its own validation. There is something liberating about the notion of being God’s image-bearer. I have nothing to prove. Nothing I do will make me more, or less, of an image-bearer. There is freedom in that thought. This is not something I can conjure up or create by myself. This is something wholly Other.

As I think about this issue, I sadly confess that too often, I spend more time planning my own kingdom rather than furthering God’s kingdom. I think of all the ridiculous schemes I have in my mind to obtain money, power, and fame. Yet, too often, I don’t expend that much energy thinking of how I can help usher in the kingdom of God to this world. It is so humbling and humiliating to find oneself “losing the plot.” It is far easier to sing songs of devotion to God than actually being fully devoted.

And so, as the Lenten season continues, I pray that God would continue to reveal and uncover the various areas in our lives that we need to surrender to him. May we, as Paul beseeched the Romans, offer our lives as a living sacrifice unto God as our spiritual act of worship.

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#tbt – Living with Shame

It’s Throwback Thursday! This is a blog post I wrote awhile back about shame. I wrote another article on shame that was published in Bedlam Magazine. To check out that article, click here.

Shame is something that we all struggle with. However, there’s a big difference between experiencing shame and living with shame. One means that it is an isolated event that is largely circumstantial, the other means that this is chronic and on-going. The first can be the fodder for comedy (we all have our painfully-funny-way-after-it-happened embarrassing stories), the latter is not. For those living with the burden of shame, I encourage you to let it go. Shame is not a burden that you should bear all the days of your life. There is a way out… and it’s called vulnerability.

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Maybe it’s just me but I am really good at compartmentalization. I have friends for different purposes. If I want a deep theological talk, I have a friend for that. If I want to have fun, I have a friend for that. If I want to talk about the arts, I have a friend for that. I have a personal world and a professional world. I have different sets of friends who have never met each other and I try my best to make sure it never happens. I’m a social chameleon. I can change depending on who is around me. To a certain degree, we all do that unconsciously. However, when we consciously put on a mask, sometimes we can forget to take it off. What we pretend to be becomes who we end up being. It becomes a blurry line.

Behind all the pretending and the acting, there is a voice that serves as the bread and butter of shame. It is the thought that no one will love you for who you are when they finally realize who you truly are. It is in the secret place that shame rules and reigns. All the surface affirmations do nothing to address it because it is easy to dismiss them. “You say that because you don’t know the real me. If you only knew…” becomes the standard response. “If you only knew…” becomes the tired refrain.

The problem with shame is that no one can actually know you because you don’t allow yourself to be known. All they see is the outside: they see someone who’s an extravert, someone who seems like he has it all together, someone who laughs loudly and is often the life of the party. They don’t necessarily see what is happening on the inside: the plague of insecurity, the constant self-doubt of being good enough, the nagging fear that I will never find someone who will truly love me for all of me.

Vulnerability becomes the main mechanism for exposing shame. While shame still manages to have a grip on my life, its grip has been lessened by the fact that I have been blessed with friends with whom I practice openness and transparency. I’m thankful for these people who have spoken truth and love and grace into my life. They remind me how warped my perspective can be at times and how my shame needs to be crushed into oblivion. I don’t know where I would be without their life-giving advices over the years.

Shame is a horrible bedmate. To wake up in shame and find no escape even in sleep from it is a horrendous way to live. Been there. Done that. That’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Overcoming shame is a life-long battle. Thankfully, it’s a battle that you don’t have to do all by yourself. Take the risk of vulnerability. It’s worth it.

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Theology Thursdays – Why I Study Theology

For those tracking how I have labelled previous posts, you have seen Monday Musings, Tunes for Tuesday, Wednesday Writings, and Friendly Fridays. Poor Thursday was left out in the cold. So I figured I’d write about the one thing that I like so much, I have decided to do a Ph.D. in this area. What is it, you ask? Yup. The queen of sciences herself… Theology!

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For those of you who may not know, I’m currently pursuing my Ph.D. studies in Christian Theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Canada. My focus is on church history. I’m still up in the air in terms of the time period I want to go with but I’m debating between Roman North Africa between 300 – 700 AD or what’s happening right now with ISIS. I really need to decide soon.

A lot of people tend to ask why I’m studying theology. What is it about theology that is so exciting that I’m willing to forego sleep and some semblance of a social life to pursue a doctorate in this area? For me, theology is this living, vibrant thing that whether we want to or not, we are constantly engaging with in some form or another. As a group of people, theology has moulded and shaped cultures, people groups and nations. In a more personal way, theology has also helped define and instruct individuals’ life styles. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is subject to further discussion… however, we can’t escape from the fact that theology is a prime motivator in the lives of many people in the world.

The word “theology” comes from the word “theos” meaning God and “logos” meaning the study of… so theology is the study of God. In one sense, we are all theologians. In some way, shape or form, we all have ideas about who God is. To be an atheist is to posit a particular way of understanding God even if it is to say that God does not exist. While this may not be in line with orthodox Christian theology, it is still a way by which an individual engages in the theological enterprise. (Side note: Christians were once called atheists. Roman culture believed in the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses. Christians, on the other hand, believed in the One True God. As a result, Christians were labelled atheists because they didn’t believe in the Roman deities.)

I am firmly convinced that our particular theology has a direct impact on the way we live our lives. It is because of this very reason why theology excites my curiousity. I’m interested in how people interpret the Sacred Scriptures. I want to know why people think the way they think about certain theological doctrines. What is it about knowing God’s goodness that motivates people to do things like going to far-flung countries in their desire to heed God’s calling on their life? What is it about experiencing God’s love that has the ability to transform people’s life? What is it about the loss of a loved one that has the potential to incur feelings of anger and hatred towards God? All of these life events, as disparate as they may seem, are all areas in which theology is lived out.

Having studied Psychology in my undergraduate studies, I am aware of how we are affected by our psyche. Our bodies are wonderful things that are able to create neural networks that inform our thoughts and actions. Psychology offers a glimpse into the inner machinations of the human being. In the same way, theology gives us another angle by which we can examine the human experience. It allows us to look at the spiritual component that animates us and controls our words and deeds. This seemingly unsubstantial and intangible concept has, time and time again, manifested itself in tangible ways. When someone offers food and shelter to a person in need and does it in the name of God, this is theology at work; when people are killed because they have done acts that besmirched the honour of a particular religious tradition’s revered prophet, this too, is theology at work.

There is no escaping theology’s grasp. Its effects are everywhere. Instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, I’d rather accept its existence and figure out how it works. Perhaps, if we can figure out how to properly understand theology, it can still be a tool to make this world a better place.

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Monday Musings – Living with regret

regretIt would be nice if we can go through life without regretting some of the things we have done. But, that is often not the case. A lot of the times, there are relationships we have had that should never have happened in the first place. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. There are relationships that we should have started. When I look back at my life, the common denominator in all the situations and experiences that I have gone through is this: fear.

Fear has this horrible way of setting paths askew. I can remember so many goals I have had that has been derailed by my own fears. In my mind’s eye, there was a straight line. I was focussed on the prize. I was ready to do whatever it takes to achieve it. I counted the cost. I knew it was going to be tough but I had tenacious determination that I could do it. With great gusto, I went charging ahead, daring to defy the world to come at me. Hurtling forward, it was almost dizzying with all the excitement that launching into the great unknown can sometimes give. Everything tends to go your way in those early days. And then, out of nowhere, it hits you. What if the prize isn’t really worth it? What if this is the wrong path? What if this whole thing is a joke in the first place? Can I actually achieve what I have set out to try and achieve? In those moments, the straight path doesn’t look so straight anymore. It is full of detours and sign posts to turn back from whence you came. So, you head back to where you started. Then you suddenly realize something: your starting point just became your finish line. It is at this point that you start regretting turning back. If only I stayed the course… if only I kept on going… if only I didn’t listen to all the negative voices… if only… if only…

I’ve lived with regret for most of my life. Why didn’t I do this? I really should’ve done that! These are some of the questions and statements that pop up in my head from time to time. The one positive thing that can happen when you live with regret is that you are also able to realize a few things about yourself that you may have never known unless you have felt regret in your life. I can’t believe how easy it is for me to be distracted by fear. I can’t believe how easy it is for me to want to turn back and run at the thought of potentially failing. My hope is that I can turn my regrets into reminders. A reminder that I am never alone. A reminder that the darkness can never truly extinguish the light. A reminder that I constantly underestimate myself. A reminder that I am stronger than I imagined and wiser than I thought I could be. A reminder that I am made perfect by the One who made me.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you ever lived with regret? How did it affect you?

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Monday Musings – Living with hope

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“This world’s a tortured place to be / So many things to torment me / And as I stumble down this road / It takes a toll” – dc Talk, Supernatural

There are times in one’s life when the waves of insecurity comes crashing down so vehemently that one is left struggling to gasp for the air of hope. Each wave threatens to pound you down even further and further into the abyss of despair. It is hard to breathe, almost impossible, it seems. The will to struggle for survival is almost extinguished. The glassy eyes of apathy are but a symptom of this condition. The maelstrom of negative emotions swirling within leaves behind a destructive trail of broken dreams, failed attempts and copious amounts of tears.

Sometimes, it becomes easier to live in the land of depression. No one can hurt you there. After all, you’re already hurt. It is so much easier to curl up in an emotional fetal position than to stand up and daily live out the hurts and the pains of past, present and future. It takes courage and boldness and strength to face the challenges of today when reminded about the failures of the past and fear of the future. But to live in a state of constant anguish and anxiety is not a way to live. It saps you of energy. Vitality leaves your bones and is replaced with the burden of weariness that seeps into every fiber of your being. To prevent this from happening, it is important, nay crucial, to have hope.

Hope allows us to get through the day. It gently reminds us that the hurts of today does not have to be the hurts of tomorrow. Hope tells us that “this, too, shall pass.” Hope is the faint whisper of “things will get better” when we feel that our world is falling apart. Hope is what enables us to face yet another day that we fear to face.

It’s really easy to get trapped in the endless loop within our heads of how things are going wrong. One wrong thing after one wrong thing keeps on happening that sometimes I start wondering why the world/God/fate is against me. Hope is what enables us to get out of the horrible feedback loop we sometimes find ourselves in. Hope is our way out.

When it is impossible to change our circumstances, the one thing we can change is our perspective. You can let problems rule you or you can raise your fists in the air in defiance and shout “is that it?” Hope doesn’t mean that you fail to recognize your problems. That’s called denial. Hope is acknowledging that you have problems without letting your problems reign over you. Hope is what gives us the strength to wake up and fight every day. Never give up. Don’t quit. Choose to fight back. Choose hope.

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Monday Musings – Living with doubts

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In the words of Five for Fighting’s eponymous song, “it’s not easy to be me.” I always wonder how to answer the question “how are you?” when posed in social settings. Do you really want to know or are you asking me because social etiquette dictates that normal conversations usually begin with that particular question? There are times when I am tempted to just unload what I really think but I often hold back. No one deserves to get dumped on like that with no previous warning. My friends are usually the ones who truly ask me how I’m doing. They don’t readily accept an “I’m fine, how are you” response. After the initial question, the follow-up question of “really, how are you?” is posed. That’s when the reality of my situation begins.

I’m currently doing my Ph.D. in Christian Theology. I just finished my first year of course work. It was as challenging as I thought it would be. And more. But, it was also strangely rewarding. I’m really thankful that I get to do what I get to do. I’m surrounded by people who have devoted themselves to studying the Scriptures more intensely and more actively than most people. How awesome is that? When you’re surrounded by greatness, it is really easy to wonder if you belong. I often wonder if they picked my name by mistake. Maybe, I got in the Ph.D. program by a clerical error. The feeling of “I don’t belong here” can be really debilitating. They have a name for this condition. It’s called  Impostor Syndrome. I have it and many in the Ph.D. program have it too. Apparently, becoming faculty doesn’t quite erase the feeling. That’s always good to know. =)

I also wonder how I can remain in the program. Financially speaking, I’m at my wits’ end trying to figure out how to fund this endeavour. Money may not buy you happiness but it sure can help you buy the things that make you happy. Right now, I really don’t know where the funding will come from. And that’s scary. I’m looking for a job that will allow this to happen and I’m not sure if I can find a job that would enable me to make it possible. This is when the small doubts coalesce to an avalanche that threatens to overwhelm me and bury me in its wake.

Yet, during this most doubtful of times, God has sent people along the way to affirm me. He reminds me that I am on the right path. He reminds me that I am where I need to be. I think my first response when confronted with doubt is to run away and cut my losses. Yet, I know that if I quit, I would never be able to live with myself. Like a moth to a flame, I would find myself back in this very same scenario time and time again.

As a friend once said, “I am exactly where I need to be.” I find strange comfort in that. Success is often measured on how many obstacles you had to overcome to get to your goal. Doubts present us with obstacles, real or imagined, that try to tell us that we can’t make it or that it can’t be done. I have no doubt that I will not be able to make it through without the One who gives me strength. In Him, I have no doubt. He will help me make it through.