The Seed Initiative

Hi! We’ve recently started a Social Arm for Irwin’s Study, as a way to be a blessing to others in our society. =) I’m calling it ‘The Seed Initiative’ and it’s a movement that seeks to provide seed funding and mentoring for social projects that want to make a positive different in our worlds. It doesn’t matter how big or small the project; it’s the heart of giving and the desire to be a blessing that we are looking for! =)

Our website is www.theseedinitiative.sg, where you can find out more about the Purpose, Principles and Projects that drive this new initiative.

Do help us spread the word and let others who may be interested know about this as well. =)

We are blessed to be a blessing to others! =)

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“Does God call us to greatness?”

This was the question that Yingjie asked me after she stepped out of the shower one night.

(My mind immediately went back to a mentoring session we had just after the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew this year, where we were discussing the notion of greatness in the context of great men of history. Interestingly, this was also the time where I was reading Jim Collin’s ‘Good to Great’ with another mentoring group.)

“Nope! I think God calls us to goodness instead,” I replied without hesitation. “A goodness that is based not on how talented or how successful or even how obedient we are, but a goodness that is found in Him and His goodness.”

“But surely God calls us to achieve dreams in our lives and be the best in those things?”

“Hmm, that’s true too, because I believe that God calls us to be competent and proficient in what we do, like good workmen and faithful stewards of the talents we are given. But this greatness should not be based on what the world defines it to be: achievement, status, wealth, power, fame; this greatness should be as how God sees greatness. Remember the time when Jesus calls John the Baptist the greatest? In Matthew 11:11, it is stated that, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

What is greatest but knowing God and being found in Him and within His kingdom?

I recalled another passage from the Bible where the disciples asked Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom. And this was Jesus’ wonderful reply: “Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:2-5)

Who is the greatest but one who understands that in God’s kingdom values, the way up is the way down?

And you know, what is really great? Being able to discuss these spiritual and life matters with my other half, whom God has blessed me with – to love, sharpen, and walk with me on this sojourn through life!

measure-of-greatness

 

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How do we walk the Road to Character?

Every once a while in my reading journey, I stumble upon a book that is so irresistible because the writing touches you deeply and challenges the paradigms in your head that the reverberations of its ideas still echo after I put the book down. ‘The Road to Character’ by David Brooks is one such recent book. I must admit upfront that I haven’t finished reading the entire book, but the reason is that it is such a moving book that I’m going to ration my reading of it so that I can take time to savour and reflect on the gems found in this tome.

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David Brooks is a New York Times journalist and has taught undergraduate courses at Yale University on ‘humility’, which is also the subject of this book. He says,“I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it. ” Responding to what he calls the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success, Brooks challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our “résumé virtues”—achieving wealth, fame, and status—and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed.

We all possess two natures. One focuses on external success: wealth, fame, status and a great career. The other aims for internal goodness, driven by a spiritual urge not only to do good but to be good – honest, loving and steadfast. The inner self doesn’t seek happiness superficially defined; it seeks emotional commitments without counting the cost, and a deeper moral joy. Individuals and societies thrive when a general balance is struck between these two imperatives, but we live in a culture that encourages us to think about the external side of our natures rather than the inner self.

The impetus for writing this book came because Brooks found himself living in a shallow mode. For years, he remained focused on getting ahead and reaping the rewards for his efforts, placing his career before his character. Finding himself at a crossroads, Brooks sought out men and women who embodied the moral courage he longed to experience. Citing an array of history’s greatest thinkers and leaders – from St. Augustine and George Eliot to Dwight Eisenhower and Samuel Johnson – he traces how they were able to face their weaknesses and transcend their flaws. Each one of them chose to embrace one simple but counterintuitive truth: in order to fulfil yourself, you must learn how to forget yourself.

I’m not certain if Brooks is a Christian, but as he weaves his book, and in the last sentence in particular, I think he is not very far off from what Jesus himself said some 2,000 years ago: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

To live, we have to learn first to die.

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What Avengers: Age of Ultron reveals about the redemptive heart of God

I love reading articles on The Gospel Coalition because this blog/website weaves together theology & popular culture, exploring the issues that bear upon us and our Christian faith in this milieu we live in. An interesting article posted today is entitled “What Ultron Misunderstands about God and Man” (read here), discussing man’s wickedness, God’s judgement, and ultimately, the redemptive heart of God.

In the article, a reference is made to the story of Noah in Genesis,  where just as God used a flood to wipe out humanity in the story of Noah, Ultron decides he too will be an instrument of God to bring about humanity’s extinction. Now, the interesting point is that Ultron isn’t necessarily wrong in his diagnosis of humanity. War and sin are habitual practices of mankind, and one of the reasons God cursed our planet (Gen. 3:17-19). Sin manifests itself powerfully in every human relationship and leads to suffering and death, even of our own siblings (Gen. 4).

Yet while he may be correct in his assessment, Ultron is totally wrong about the solution. He thinks of himself as God’s instrument, but he fails to understand the Lord’s character. God is a holy judge, and he would be just in punishing all of humanity for our sin. But rather than seeking satisfaction in our destruction, God delights in saving. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek. 18:23).

Both the Avengers and Ultron say they are looking for peace, but what Ultron seeks through destroying, the Avengers find through saving. To save humanity from the wrath of Ultron, the Avengers fight and suffer. But to save us from our sin, God had to die. And he rose again. That’s real superpower!

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Amos Yee & the Scandal of Grace

It’s been a week since Amos Yee was bailed out by a Christian counsellor. For those who have not been following the news, Amos Yee is a 16-year-old guy who got into trouble with the law because of his online irreverent rants against the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and against Christianity. The sorry episode sparked off much debate about freedom of expression, social media, freedom and responsibility – all of which are rich grounds for classroom discussion with my GP tuition students. But what struck me most was the action of Mr Vincent Law, the Christian counsellor who bailed Amos out (read full story here), and which deeply moved me.

Why did Vincent choose to do what he did? I have no idea, just like I have no idea what would prompt Amos to do all that he did which caused all the furore. Yet what I do know is that grace, like water, flows to the lowest parts. What Amos Yee did was uncalled for, unbelievable and unjustified. But if we think about it deeper, we realise that what the counsellor did was also uncalled for, unbelievable and unjustified. And that is where I believe the beauty – and indeed, scandal – of grace shines through so brightly. Because Vincent’s act of bailing Amos out captures what grace really is: sans condemnation, sans understanding, sans justification.

For me, what Vincent did was a beautiful picture of what my faith bears. The Cross takes all the offenses cast upon it, cradles them in its bowels, and transforms them in redemptive power to show the world of a more excellent way. Where else would we find such a display of grace and power; courage and humility; love and misunderstanding all rolled in one? For one who walks in the Way of Jesus, and gives us a glimpse into a different world where the economy of grace prevails, Vincent is a praiseworthy example, of which, I fear, we have too few in this world.

Some say that the counsellor may have crossed certain professional lines in doing what he did, but I can’t help but think of how Jesus himself crossed pretty many lines as well in order to reach out to a world that is dead in sin.

A Jewish rabbi was not supposed to dine with Roman tax-collectors – Jesus crossed that line.

A Jewish rabbi was not supposed to speak with Samaritan women at wells – Jesus crossed that line.

A Jewish rabbi was not supposed to allow prostitutes to wash his feet with perfume – Jesus crossed that line.

And the Son of God was not supposed to die a criminal’s death on a cross – Jesus crossed that line.

When I’m called to cross the line, I only pray that God gives me the grace and courage to do so.

O grace, what have you done?

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A Response to the Moral Bucket List

Recently, I came across this New York Times article entitled The Moral Bucket List, and it contains such essential insights on our moral lives that I have to share it. I’m also thinking of having a GP tuition lesson where I can incorporate the points raised in this article with my General Paper students, and hopefully get them to think a bit deeper about our moral lives, which are being shaped and fed by the prevailing culture of our times.

David Brooks writes that there are two sets of virtues: the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. He explains that the résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace, while the eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Most of us, I suspect, would agree that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies we need for career success than the qualities we need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character. And when that happens, we lack a moral vocabulary to speak, understand and navigate the many choices we need to make in our lives.

So through his own experience and research, Brooks shares certain aspects as being the key building blocks of having deep, rich inner lives. Here I summarise them:

  • THE HUMILITY SHIFT

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were. But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever.

  • SELF-DEFEAT

External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness.

  • THE DEPENDENCY LEAP

Our individualist worldview suggests that character is this little iron figure of willpower inside. But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.

  • ENERGIZING LOVE

We need to receive and cultivate a kind of love that decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another. Most of all, this love electrifies. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love.

  • THE CALL WITHIN THE CALL

We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.

  • THE CONSCIENCE LEAP

In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.

 

I don’t necessarily agree with all of the choices that were mentioned in the article, but I realise that they are good starting points to think about the values we are cultivating which make us the people that we are. Yet, as I read, I cannot help but notice the glaring omission of God and His redemptive power to transform us, and while they are good starting-points, they cannot be satisfying ending-points. You see, each one of the above points are helpful to grow in, but ultimately all our self-efforts will hit a limit because what we truly need is not to lead better lives, but to lead new lives – touched, redeemed, and transformed by Christ. Only Christ can truly change us into who we really need to be: new people with new hearts. So, on the point about the ‘humility shift’, Christ said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”; to the point about ‘self-defeat’, Christ said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”; regarding the point about ‘the dependency leap’, Christ said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing”.

Our questions must start with where we are – that’s acknowledging our humanness. And our answers must end where Christ is – that’s recognising His deity, power and sufficiency.

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