Sunday, June 29, 2008

A time to rest...

I'm on my last week here in Singapore, wow that went by way too fast. And the strangest part is that my trip is less than half way done! I still have Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Hong Kong to go, but only another 2 weeks with the whole team. It has been a wonderful first half of the summer. I want to go ahead and thank all of you who have been reading my very random posts on this thing, and everyone who has been engaging in some amazing conversations with me on facebook messages/skype/emails, and for those of you that have been praying for me while I'm gone, you all know who you are and you are all so very wonderful!

I don't have a ton of insight to share with you this week except this: there is a time for everything, including a time for rest. God is very specific with the Israelites about how he wants them to rest regularly, a wonderful command which somehow got turned into a burden. I have been learning a lot the last few days about my own neglect for rest and seeing how my intellectual pursuits of how to live can sometimes negatively affect my own living of that life (if that made any sense).

This morning, I jumped on the MRT and made my way to the Every Nations church of Singapore. My friend Brian recommended it, and I figured I should check it out before I leave (friday!). The first thing that I realized is how awkward it is to show up to a new church completely alone. I've visited a number of churches, but always either with a member escorting me or at least with other visitors. This was the first time in my life that I have ever just shown up at a church by myself just to see what happened. I met a few people on the way in after standing around awkwardly for a few minutes, and then sat down next to some nice guys from Sierra Leone.

No need to share about the whole service (except it was a bit different than the traditional Anglican service I attended last week), but I will say that the thing which most impacted me was something the worship leader said about resting in the love of God. And I realized that while I have been searching a lot recently for truth and trying to figure out how to live my life as a response to the call of Jesus, I have not been resting much or remembering the love of God. In seeking obedience, I found my own form of legalism. In trying to follow, I forgot to rest.

So this week I am going to try to rest a bit. That said, I have 3 papers and 2 exams to do in the next 3 days. And after that it's a whole ton of travel. It should be a wonderful experiment in rest taking.

One last thing, I am going to have a bit less internet in my travels, but I would still love to hear from all of you. Here is a general itinerary of where I will be the next month or so in case you are interested:
July 4th - Leave Singapore
July 4th-12th - Thailand (Chang Mai and Bangkok)
July 12th-21st - Vietnam
July 21st -25th - Cambodia
July 25th-August 4th - Thailand again
August 4th-8th - Hong Kong
August 9th - Back home!

(the pictures are from the Chinese Gardens, where I wrote the ants poem below, one of my few days of rest here)

Thursday, June 26, 2008


sitting alone by the water,
ants cover my feet,
moving slowly,
working quickly,
carrying the remains of fallen warriors

back home,
to show the queen,
the triumphs of her brood

bound by duty,
seeking no fame,
there is no room for honor,
in the crowded subterranean halls,
where they find refuge

only obedience,
to a higher authority,
they stay the course,
fueled onward,
never ending,
by the thick nectar of,
esprit de corps

they gain momentum,
mandibles quivering,
dragging brothers,
all together,
only distracted by the cracks in the stone pathway,
which, like trenches on a barren battlefield,
hinder their retreat

and from above it seems so pointless,
the endless movement of waring regimes,
for their queens these ants keep marching,
for their queens they return with the spoils of war

fighting on for scarce resources,
fighting on the basis of colored carapaces,
fighting on for no clear reason,
for this is the way it has always been done

and from above i wonder,
what we must look like from above

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A lovely and not overly insightful day...

I nearly ran over a python today while hurtling down a hill on a bicycle. Yeah, it was just that kind of a day. Let me explain:

- We began the day with a visit to the Changi POW museum. Not a whole lot to say about the museum itself, it was a very solemn place, but it has been eye opening seeing WWII from the other side of the ocean. Singapore, and the rest of SE Asia, was occupied by the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor. The occupation is still very present in the collective memory of people here, mostly because of the rampant persecution, torture, and slaughter of the primarily Chinese population here. It is weird to see a people who hail the dropping of the atomic bombs as the act of their liberation compared to the questioning in American history of whether it was the appropriate action. All I'm saying is everything has multiple perspectives, and it can be rather enlightening to step outside your own for a bit.

- Most of the day was spent at this little island next to Singapore called Pulau Ubin. We rented some mountain bikes and took off for a few hours of adventure. The great thing was that we split up so that we didn't have to lumber around in our usual group of 25+, which just makes transportation difficult. I spent most of the afternoon riding around with Elliot, Raley, and Patrick. We got a bit adventurous and took on the mountain bike park on the island. This is where that whole python thing came in. After a while riding around on the easy trails in the park, we decided to try out one of the "Black Diamond" courses. (Mother, skip this sentence) Maybe not the best idea given the lack of helmets and relative sketchiness of the bikes, but you only get to do this sort of stuff once. (appropriate for my mom to continue reading) It was a really cool trail, some great downhill sections, and at the bottom of one of them we came across the dead python seen in the picture above. I had just enough time to get out my camera before Elliot came down the hill and freaked out. Anyway, it was a really cool experience. I loved the bit of freedom that we had within a larger group activity, sometimes the need to stick to a big group makes stuff kinda difficult.

- Finally, we spent the evening at the final event of the Singapore Arts Festival (which hosted stuff like Radio and Juliet). It was called Hydro-Sapiens, and was one of the most bizarre things that I have ever seen. I can't really explain it, but just check out the video below, it's from the very end of the performance.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

This is getting old...

(Oh yeah, two new posts today)
I was reading a few articles today by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. You may know him for some of his really powerful on the ground pieces from places like Darfur, Tibet, and other hot spots around the world. In one of his articles about the worsening conditions in the Central African Republic, a neighbor to Sudan's Darfur region, I noticed a very critical reply which ran something like this:

"Nick, Your thing seems to be righteous indignation. I find that a very cheap way to feel superior. Can’t you find a new shtick? Yes, it’s all very sad, tragic even. So what’s new? You bore me."
What sticks out most to me is the last sentence. You bore me. How have stories of genocide, destruction, group rape, and kidnapped children become boring to the audience? The article relates an aid worker's account of 1164 reported rape cases in a year (and probably many more unreported cases) in a country with a population of only 4 million. The youngest victim was 4 years old. And many of the rapes are performed by armed groups of 6-7 or as many as 18 men. That isn't boring, that is ridiculous!

Yet, unless something is new (like natural disasters, election results, or kittens being stuck in trees), it is difficult for it to grab people's attention. Stories can only be run for a few days before they become old news. This means that entrenched situations lose all focus because they move so slow and the population's attention quickly turns to more interesting updates. It is very difficult to keep people attentive to problems that are systemic and not just a single event which is easy to cover with a news team.

Also, people can only handle so much reality. At least I think this is true for the majority of Americans living in the safety and security of our own country. It is difficult to even comprehend the truth of the destruction and pain being experienced in these various "hells on earth," and after a little while it is easier to just give up and be bored than to care. Caring means being moved to action, and action is hard to maintain when you don't see quick results from your efforts. It may be easy to go to a concert for Free Tibet or Darfur awareness because we want to see the band they bring in, but it takes a bit more effort to be informed, assertive with your rights as a citizen (letters to congress and such), and to actually take steps to in some way see situations actually changed.

Finally, there has to come a realization that we can't do everything. You can't be educated fully about every issue. You can't just throw money at every problem. And if you try it will become overwhelming. I understand the frustration of the guy who replied to Kristof's article. What am I supposed to do about this? So there is another place going through some crazy shit, what do I care? My only response is that "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matt. 19:26)

When I turn to the words of Jesus about the suffering of this world, I see how we are to pray: for God's kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Looking around at this world, it is easy to see that this has not been the case in many places. In fact there is a lot of hell breaking out on earth. Where are the peace-makers? And let's not restrict peace to the absence of violence, it's much better understood as an active fruit of the Spirit.

As the Body of Christ, the universal church is called to action. Also, it seems like Jesus is pretty specific about how we should act, check out the sheep and goats parable in Matthew 25:31-46, and John the Baptist instructed his listeners to share their second cloaks and their excess food (Luke 3:11). Also, I referenced 1 Timothy 2:1-6, which instructs us to pray for the leaders of this world that we may live in peace, in my Burma post.

So I don't have answers to the question of what to do, but I am searching. I think that search will probably take a while, and I don't expect to ever have a definite answer. I know that the wrong response is apathy. I know that I am called to follow Jesus, I know that God loves those who suffer in this world, and I trust that he will lead me in a path that will allow me to in some way affect the least of these. As with all of my posts, I am not an authority on anything, just a fellow seeker. I would love to hear what people think about this, or ways that other people have found to react to the suffering in our world.

I close with one of my favorite passages from Isaiah:
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free, and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"
-Isaiah 58:6-7

Malaysia, Crony Capitalism, and Cool Hats!

Just a quick post on my recent excursion into Malaysia. My group crossed the strait for 4 days to experience a bit of what life is like in Malaysia and to take a little break from the classroom. We went to a mangrove forest (with even more monkeys), had lunch at a random fishing town (I ate a tasty fish eye ball and some baby teriyaki squid), spent a couple nights in historic Melaka, were ushered around like children by a tourist company, and went for a bike ride through some palm oil and rubber plantations.

I found the trip a very insightful glimpse into the general workings of business in many parts of Asia, specifically crony capitalism. This practice bases business transactions of relationships with family and friends. So if you are our crazy travel guide, Eddy, then you take us to all your friends' spots and make us get out and eat. We don't complain because we're getting fed, and you get a nice little kick back. Eddy conveniently knew everyone personally wherever we stopped, and I'm pretty sure there was a fair amount of financial transactions going on behind the scenes.

One example: we did a "leisure hunt" around Melaka, and on it had to try out a local dessert. It didn't specify what, but apparently the only way to get the "bonus points" for this task was to go to a certain stand and all get a dessert, which I'm pretty sure he charged us an extra 30 cents for. And you wonder where that extra 30 cents goes? and why they wouldn't could a group going to another stand? It's all about reciprocal relationships.

This isn't always a horrible thing, I mean our other tour guide took us over to her cousin's shop and gave us a little sample and showed us how they baked some special cookies, but she was very insistent on taking us to this shop so we could just look around...

Another thing, I thought our bike ride was especially funny because it was essentially the same thing as a bunch of Asian tourists coming to rural North Carolina and taking a bike ride in the crazy summer heat through a nice tobacco field. Who would do that? But when you're on vacation in Malaysia it's perfectly normal to go for a traipse through the cash crops. I love biking (prefer downhill though), but just found this idea funny when I looked at it in reverse.

Elliot, Katie, and I found a pretty cool local shop among all of the overly tourist oriented stalls of the market. Granted, we did have to ask around and get led there on a 10 minute walk by the shop owner's daughter. But we came away from the journey with some cool Malay hats and scarves, and a nice opportunity to have a short conversation with a local besides crazy ole Eddy.

More to come soon, I just finished The Problem of Pain (C.S. Lewis), and am starting up the Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer), so lots of good things to discuss. More pictures from Malaysia and other adventures are up on facebook, so check those out!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I love Muzak (and other random thoughts from Singapore)

I was sitting in a little cafe today on campus (National University of Singapore, where I'm studying), and intermingled with the usual din of conversations and chatter ubiquitous to coffeehouses the world over, I noticed the faint melody of a recognizable song. Upon further investigation, I realized that I was in fact listening to a popular refrain from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" rendered helpless by the underwhelming powers of Muzak!

It seems that Westernization has brought not only Coke, Starbucks, and McDonald's to the far reaches of the globe, but also Muzak, also known as elevator music. I was quickly attuned to the subtle presence of some well known tunes (for instance: I Will Always Love You, I Do It For You, Your Song, and Don't Wanna Miss a Thing) all set to the background of strings and the soloist skills of a poorly paid studio saxophonist. It was actually pretty comical, and a real indicator or the spread of Western influence into the deepest levels of society abroad.

Another example: the lack of local Singaporean talent in the music industry. Instead, local bands (a fair share in a population of 5 million) mostly resort to covering American/British popular bands in order to draw attention and fund their own endeavors. I have gone twice to a venue here called Wala Wala to see a wonderful cover band called The Unexpected. I was really surprised to see the extensive knowledge that the Singaporean audience had (displayed by requests and raucous singing along with the songs) of American popular music. For me, the highlight of both nights was a room full of locals (and a couple of us Americans) rocking out to Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name Of," skillfully and powerfully performed by the Unexpected's lead vocalist Shirlyn Tan. (the picture is of my group with Shirlyn, middle).

Of course I am only observing the very surface of these issues and can speak only from a small amount of speculation, but music can be a real indicator of deeper cultural undercurrents.

Next topic: Monkeys. Yeah random right? So here's the deal: Singapore is this little Island with like 5 million people on it. Land is super valuable and everything is about 5+ stories (completely different than Chapel Hill). Yet, they have managed to maintain a decent number of natural reserves on the island where nature is allowed to run free (with nice little paths and such of course) and along with nature comes monkeys.

Which is totally awesome! Somehow they seem to stay restrained to their natural areas and don't like coming much more than a few hundred yards out of the forest, but never-the-less, only minutes from the city center is a fairly large rain forest that is home to at least a few dozen ( at least what we saw) little monkeys. And this is just one of a handful of reserves, some larger. So it is promising that nature has been able to thrive so close to the presence of a large population of humans, but also shows the complete dominance over nature practiced by humans the world over.

For instance, Singapore has recently increased their land size by nearly a third (check me on that) through ocean reclamation. I mean they just stick dirt in the ocean and then build on top of it, that's pretty hardcore domination of nature. Not a judgment call, but shows man's power to alter his environment. So I have been pleasantly surprised to see so much of nature preserved in this little country as well as lots of parks and green areas in this "Garden City." (picture: the forest through the trees)

That's it for now, check out facebook for more monkey pictures, they're pretty cute.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Jesus and the Tatmadaw (how to respond to evil rulers?)

Singapore is still trucking along. We just finished our first full week of class, had the first quiz, got assigned the first paper, all that good stuff that I thought I left behind when I finished exams. However, I'm loving the subjects: history of SE Asia and political and economic change in SE Asia. We are just finishing a unit on Burma's political/economic situation which leaves very little hope, but I am incredibly excited about our group meeting with the exiled democracy leaders from the country while we are in Thailand.

Please keep the people of Burma (the name Myanmar is really only imposed on them by the Tatmadaw, or military leaders) in your prayers as they continue for the next few years to try to recover from the cyclone. Not only is the government not doing anything, they are stopping other groups (even monks) from helping, and have started kicking people out of shelters back to their destroyed villages. There is a horrible tendency for the media/governments/people to care about stuff so long as it is breaking news, but never bother to see problems through to their end. (watch Charlie Wilson's War for more on this)

There is not going to be change in Burma until the military leaders have a change of heart (which is where you come in). Paul tells Timothy in his first letter to him to make "requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving...for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Timothy 2:1-2) So I encourage all of you to be informed (about this and all the other crazy things that are going on in this world) and to actually take up those causes in prayer (Especially in cases like Burma where there is hardly anything else that you can do).

As a Christian, I am called to pray for the Lord's will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven," and also to be a part of the "body of Christ" (ie part of what God is doing here and now to bring heaven to earth), and peacemakers get the pretty cool title of "Sons (or Daughters) of God." So where the earth has been made a living hell, how can we bring heaven? The answer is definitely through prayer, and then there needs to be the follow up of acting on God's response. I think that a lot of people, myself included more often than not, discount the power of prayer because they tacitly assume that through prayer God will make stuff magically happen (miracles do occur, but they aren't the norm).

Instead, I think that when we ask God why he isn't doing something about the state of the world, he asks us the same question. Is my life making the world better for those around me? Am I actually loving my neighbor as myself? Am I loving my enemies too? even when they persecute me do I pray for the? Am I humble? Do I consider others better than myself? Do I speak out against injustice like the prophets? Or do I blindly follow in corrupt paths to quick wealth and security? My life should be a blessing to everyone around me.

But is it?

Especially to the non-Christian readers out there, I want to apologize for my many failings and general inability to actually follow the teachings and the example of Jesus. I want to apologize for the Church's tendency to focus on the specks that everyone else is dealing with while ignoring the plank in their own eye. Any follower of Jesus should naturally bless the lives of those they encounter, and if that has not been the case then I'm sorry. I hope that the gospel can truly be good news to the whole world, not just a checklist to the "elect" or good news only to those who believe it. In the same way that Israel was set apart to be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2-3), so too should Christians seek to be a blessing to others, not a hindrance.

Alright, well I ended up rather far from where I intended to go with this, but I hope you enjoyed it. I have a busy weekend ahead of me: homestay with my wonderful Singaporean friend, Yong Min. And then back to the grind: Vietnam next week (which is exciting b/c i'll be there in a month an a half). As always, I really want to hear reactions or questions about all of this, because I'm on a journey and trying to figure things out as I go.

ps - I'm really excited that our group has an opportunity to talk to a bunch of the pro-democracy leaders from Burma, who are currently exiled in Thailand, while we are in Chang Mai in early July. I'll make sure to post a follow up on some of this after talking to them and also after visiting Mae Sot (a refugee town on the border) and potentially popping into Burma for a day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Radio and Juliet

Picture this: an urban, modern, Slovenian retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet performed in the style of modern ballet, but all done to the music of Radiohead, oh and depicted in reverse. Needless to say, it was incredible!

My favorite part was the wildly (yet precise) choreographed fight scenes, and especially the death of Mercucio. It was a passionate display of dance that both told the story of Romeo and Juliet and drew upon some of the poignant themes of Radiohead's music, such as the opening and the wedding scenes being set to the lyrics of "Fitter Happier," a feeling-less diatribe on how to be fitter and happier which leaves us:
healthier and more productive
a pig
in a cage
on antibiotics.
The performance was part of the Singapore Arts Festival, a month long series of performances from a plethora of genres, regions, and time periods. My friend Leah, who went with me to see Radio and Juliet, commented on the significance of the piece drawing from so many diverse backgrounds and on top of everything being premiered in Asia. With the festival, my group is going to another show on Friday and hopefully a few more before the closing ceremony in late June.

Check out these links to some videos of the performance:
1) Flashback / fight scene
2) Group dance with changing Romeos (to Idioteque)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Week #1: Just the Beginning...

So by the time I finish writing this post I will have been in Singapore for exactly one week! I am seriously amazed that I have only spent 7 days in this crazy, beautiful, hot, humid, crowded, green, tropical island, and skyscraper filled city/country. My group has kept itself pleasantly busy with multiple welcome dinners, orientation, trips into the city, visits to Little India, Chinatown, Arab Street, recovering from 12 hours of jet lag, and of course classes. I'll try to give you a quick update on what's been going on recently without going into too much detail, and I'll mention a couple themes which I hope to keep exploring all summer.

Recap: Just got back from the Singapore vs. Uzbekistan World Cup qualifier game. Singapore lost in a tragic 7-3 defeat, but awesome opportunity to experience a football game in a foreign country. I kind of enjoy being part of the crowd here (although 25 Americans walking together does draw attention, and my hair catches a few strange looks).

Check my pictures on Facebook for a better idea of the places we've been, I have just about everything up on there from the week (3 albums worth). However, on Saturday I decided to leave the camera at home and enjoy the city just for the moment, not worrying about documenting everything. We went to a cool event downtown called VietFest, celebrating Vietnamese culture, music, and food. The night included a stop at Wala Wala, a club nearby our residence that plays live music. We rocked out to a very cool local cover band, The Unexpected, and my group enjoyed dancing and singing along at the top of our lungs despite the strange looks we got from people around us.

The thing that has hit me most this week, besides the heat each time I step out of the A/C, is the interesting mix of cultures, ethnic groups, and religions in Singapore. The country has 3 main ethnic groups: Chinese (76%), Indian (7%), and Malay (15%). In many parts of the country the population is very well integrated and diversified. However, yesterday I went to Little India and was surprised when I stepped off the train to find the normal diversity lost in a crowd of almost entirely Indian faces. This is partially caused by the influx of foreign workers, but still sticks out in a city that has tried so hard to integrate it's diverse populations into a single people.

I'm excited to learn more about the recent history of Singapore in my classes the next few weeks while we also study political and economic change in the region of South East Asia. It's only been 3 days of class, but good stuff is coming up already. I also hope to comment later on in my blog postings about a question I have been asking myself recently in light of our reading: which is more important: liberal (free) democracy or economic/political stability? I'd love to hear any preemptive thoughts on that or responses to the rest of this post. For now I leave you with a few pictures!