Spiritual social climbing

(photo illustration by Michael Elins)

Does God want you to be rich? Time Magazine‘s recent cover story explores the boom of a rising church in America that concentrates on prosperity theology. (So we’re both on the same page, please click on the link and read the article before going further.)

To be fair, aside from the occassional reminders on the duty of tithing, most churches rarely preach about money and its good stewardship. Preachers can be passionate about familial issues, sex, or even politics, but oftentimes, the issue of money is given a wide berth from the pulpit. Maybe they feel that a believer’s stand on that issue should be obvious (The love of money is the root of all evil – 1Timothy 6:10); maybe the preachers think that there are far more pressing issues that need to be discussed with the congregation; or maybe the preacher just finds talking about the subject a little disconcerting (I know I do), but the end of it is — most believers only have a rudimentary understanding of biblical principles in dealing with this ever-insistent daily concern.

No matter how rich or poor you are, money concerns are pervasive — they affect your lifestyle, your plans, your reactions to certain things, even the way your family or your church is run. I’ve been with people who don’t know when the next meal would come and worked with one of the richest men in this country, yet both wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking of the same thing: how to get more money. Yet Jesus, on perhaps His most important sermon, seemed to dismiss it altogether (Luke 12:27). Why would you even concern yourself with such things, He asked.

This seemingly sweeping dismissal of Jesus is backed by the promise that God will take care of you — you only need to have faith. While it is easy to believe that as I type this in my airconditioned office, it is quite another thing to sing “God is good, all the time” while your stomach shivers with hunger pangs and your little girl is tugging at your shirt, asking why she doesn’t have anything to eat.

Perhaps this is the reason why prosperity theology is enticing for those who already believe. Why shouldn’t you have both Jesus and a prosperous life, after all? If you believe that the Father loves you and He is able to do anything and that He owns everything, why not ask for and expect an affluent existence?

Prosperity theology is not without biblical verses to back it up. The bible is replete with promises of abundance and blessings to those who follow the way of the Lord. For a person who wants to believe in a God who promises not only salvation from sin but also prosperity in this life, hearing the relentlessly upbeat television sermons of Joel Osteen would seem like a booming voice straight from heaven itself.

As the TIME article mentioned, the most obvious problem with prosperity theology is that it shifts your attention from the gift-giver to the gift itself. “God becomes a means to an end, not an end in Himself,” says Southwestern Baptist’s Phillips. This is in no way different from the 19 year old chick who marries a multi-millionaire octagenarian because she ‘really loves him‘. If we find this girl’s act repulsive, how would it compare to accepting the blood of the Messiah so we can have a top-model car?

For the believer with no discernment, it would be hard to distinguish this shift in focus. Like all effective lies, prosperity theology has some elements of truth in it and then changes it into something else. Instead of eternally standing in gratitude and awe for the redemption of one’s soul, the spotlight of adoration shifts to “gaining the whole world and also my soul.”

Prosperity theology could also foster discontent. Osteen’s best-selling book, ‘Your Best Life Now’, focuses on financial gain and material wealth, sugar-coated in what he calls as what is meant by Scripture. In Osteen’s view, believers should expect bigger and better things because God can’t wait to pour out His blessings for His children. He implies that because God wants to help you, the world will give you preferential treatment. In other words, God wants to make it easy for us.

This flies in the face of what Jesus actually said — that the world will deny you because after all, the world denied HIM. The New Testament is riddled with warnings and reminders that the Christian life would be narrow and difficult (Matthew 7:14). And that we should be ready for trials and persecutions (2 Timothy 3:12). In the quest of ‘feeling good’ and ‘getting more out of life’ however, prosperity theology is ready to twist Scripture for its own insidious end. Daryl Wingerd of Christian Communicators Worldwide wrote a critical review of Osteen’s book. Do yourself a favor and read just how subtle are the questionable claims of Osteen’s book by clicking here.

Prosperity theolgy also implies that people who are suffering are those who don’t have enough faith. As mentioned in the TIME article, Rick Warren, author of the book Purpose-Driven Life, scoffs at the idea that God wants everyone to be wealthy. “Baloney,” he says, and I can’t help but agree. The very idea that faith automatically converts into worldly blessings speaks of an arrogance worthy of a pharisee. What of the blind, those that have cancer or who live in war-torn places? The ones who die despite all the prayers, the ones who fail in spite of placing complete faith in the one true God? Are we all egoistic spiritual retards to claim that it’s their fault they didn’t get better?

This is my second-most pressing trouble with prosperity theology (the foremost being the shift of adoration from the gift-giver to the gift) — that our attention is directed to what happens to us instead of who we become despite what happens to us. Knowing the God of the Bible, I get the impression that He is far more concerned with our character — how we react to Him more than what happens in our physical bodies. Hello, remember that dude named Job?

Although it cannot be denied that God blesses everyone — believers and even His enemies (Matthew 5:45) — God wants more for us. Scratch that — God wants the BEST for us, and that certainly goes infinitely far beyond material wealth. All my childhood and adolescent years I wondered why God allowed me to be poor, now I know — I know I needed to experience poverty so I could become more and more like His son than have a more difficult time going to His kingdom than the camel passing through the eye of a needle.


My confession is that I sincerely adore alcohol.

I really like the taste and look forward to the hot burn as it slides down my throat and the way I seem to glow from the inside out when it finally reaches my tummy. Hot sunday afternoons, for me, are nearly complete if I can only have a glass of ice-cold beer.

In fact, a lot of things go well with ice-cold beer, like raw fish, Tortillos, and anything my family cooks (which is probably intentional). But even then, I’m not a big beer drinker. Give me rum coke any day, and if it’s mixed by my friend Mikko, then even better. (His secret? Calamansi, not lemon.)

For years I have rebelled against the idea that I should stop drinking because some people still associate my “two bottles” with getting drunk, which, for most Christians, is tantamount to dancing with the devil.

And I hated that. I hated how I had to stop drinking some of the beverages I like just because they were so narrow minded they think one alcoholic beverage (not nearly as hazardous to your health as those cans of soda pop they ingest daily) would be detrimental to my spiritual health.

The idea was as insane as somebody telling me that “Ailene, it really bothers me that you’re drinking that banana shake. I mean, you know what everybody else says about people who drink banana shakes. They probably really love umbrellas.”

Because that’s what alcoholic beverages are for me: weird drinks that taste good. And because they’re weird I have to be extra careful to moderate it.

So what finally made me stop?

After years of my ex-boyfriend explaining why drinking is not a good thing for worship leaders, all it took was for him to be several thousand miles away for his message to sink in. Uncannily enough, he sounded a lot like Paul.

“Do everything in love.” I gave up my much-loved booze because I want whoever hears my music to know how much I love my God. I want them to realize that my booze is such a small thing to pass up on in the light of what God has done for me. In fact, if God thought that me going without clothes would make people stand up and notice Him some more, I’d do it.

You see, I finally realized that not everybody think of alcohol in such a positive light. Some of the kids I’ve ministered to grew up with alcoholic fathers. For them, my two bottles is the same as their father’s two bottles. Unfortunately, their father’s two bottles are never-ending. It’s two in the frigging afternoon and tatay’s all smashed out of his mind on their couch and cussing at them in a loud voice that the neighbors can hear. By 8PM, he’ll be hitting inay again.

Or maybe for them alcohol is about fast car rides through the night, parking on some bluff, making out with some random guy, losing your heart on that same night, and then being left behind.

I can’t be assured that the congregations’ memories of alcohol are always positive. Maybe there’ll be two or ten people out there who have been raised by good alcoholic fathers such as me and have wonderfully pleasant memories of alcohol. But not everyone.

So better err on the safe side.

When I’m up there on the altar, I don’t want them to bother asking themselves, “so why is she drinking?” All I really want them to think about is our Lord. Not me, not my music, not my lifestyle, or drinking preferences.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’ve nobly given up alcohol for the greater good. I’m just letting all the good drinks of this world pass me by as I sit here in my corner and sing to my God. But honestly, I miss alcohol a damn lot. Like I’d probably consider criminal activities in exchange for a glass of rum coke right now. But that’s just the way it is. Maybe when I meet my Father, He’ll pour me something even better than rum coke, but just for now… Well, for now, I’ll do this out of love.

Raising a boy

I grew up under the steady and nurturing guidance of my parents. It may have been the fact that I was so sickly when I was born that every single doctor that saw me told my parents that I wouldn’t last the week, but my mother was especially caring for me. We may have been poor, but I was never lacking in attention and care by my mother.

Fortunately, my mom’s tendency to be over-protective was balanced by my father’s firm and Godly guidance that I grow up as a guy: wounds and scratches, broken windows, lizard-in-my-pocket, mud-on-my-cheeks, slingshot skirmishes that constitute a boy’s childhood. While my mother cleaned up my lacerated knees and made sure I had milo every morning and took my vitamins every night, my father took me to community basketball leagues and introduced me to isaws, fishballs, and bruce lee movies. While my mother attempted to inject some culture in me by enrolling me on piano lessons (I lasted for about two sessions, I think), my father took me fishing, bought me boxing gloves, made me a makeshift punching bag, and bought me a mountain bike, which left me pasted on a wall after I forgot to break while I was speed-turning on a steep slope. He even bought for me my first ever gift to a girl classmate I liked – a troll doll I never would have thought of giving to a girl. Why would you give such an ugly thing to a beautiful creature, after all?

I remember when I was around seven years old. My father allowed me to spend my summer vacation at my grandfather’s house in Guinayangan, Quezon – my father’s hometown, alone; seven bumpy hours of travel time and a couple of hundred kilometers separated me from my parents. Naturally, my mother was against the idea. My father was firm, “lalake yang anak mo. Kailangang matuto yang mag-isa.” (Your child is a boy. He has to learn to live alone.) Entrusted to my grandparents and several of my father’s siblings, I spent the summer on the beach.

The summer turned out to be a boy’s dream. For two months, my feet were covered with wounds from the sharp rocks on the beach, which I dived in every other day. I got bitten by a dog on my ass (I kid you not) when I tried to steal kaimito (star apple) from a neighbor. I spent every afternoon choosing half a dozen or so comics that my grandmother and I rented (there was no electricity at the town back then so no tv, or anything) so we’ll have something to read every night. My cousins and I played on the streets all day every single day. I first came to love oral storytelling on my grandfather’s lap. I blew off my allowance on champoy and siopao. My cousins took me to the shore and we followed the water up the ‘river’. We hiked on the forest and came across an NPA camp. If I could wake up early enough and catch the low tide, we scoured the uncovered miles of the beach looking for stranded fish, crabs, and one time, even a baby octopus. There was also a girl, but that’s another story altogether.

Two weeks before school was about to start, my father took me home. I returned to Quezon a year later, and spent every summer vacation there hence. Never in my life had I ever been as busy than when I was a boy.

I have no idea how to raise a daughter, but I have a good blueprint on how to raise a son. My parents raised me well. I could come crying home, secure in the knowledge that my mother would wash my wounds and make the hurt go away whenever accidents ended my childhood adventures. I would also be confident to take on new and amazing adventures the very next day, because my father has given me the courage and strength, and he has encouraged me to explore more and more.

The purpose of parenthood is to rear up children who could one day be good parents themselves. Much as a parent would want to take care of their children, it is only the cruel parent who protects their children from every single challenge, every single hardship, every single hurt. They would end up with adult children – those who have grown old but never grown up. My father and my mother are good parents simply because they raised me in a way that I could stand on my own – even if they’re not around.

God is of the same way. When we are new believers, He makes His presence known to us and envelops us in His hands as we crawl around. Being a good parent, however, He does not want us to crawl around for the rest of our lives. Slowly, He raises us up and gradually withdraws His hands so that we may learn to stand and walk on our own. This is the only way we can grow – for there is no room for faith where certainty dwells. As C.S. Lewis said in his famous letters, when a man who stumbles and looks at the universe and sees no presence of his God yet continues to stand up and obey, that is the moment when God is most pleased.



* images from http://www.shutterstock.com 

as small as a mustard seed

Hello world,

Ailene, the grace addict and I have been planning to form a group blog for quite some time. Unfortunately, complications in the initial plan rendered us paralyzed. It was like a kindergarten using calculus to compute his pennies when he buys candy from a store — too complicated a tool for a simple job.

Here’s the relaunch — albeit slightly different. The initial idea was related to this, but this blog is designed to tackle a wider range of topics.

Without further blahs, I give you still earthbound — a christian perspective on 21st century life. don’t be shy, everyone’s invited.