Crime of Living Cautiously
“Never in my wildest dreams would I think you’d ever…” These were the memorable words that fell from the lips of my wife when I did several of what were to her unthinkable things – i.e., when I took up martial arts and got badly injured, cycled on the road and nearly got killed, and when I tried using contact lenses. Nothing unusual about all those things, except that I took them all on in my late thirties (about 20 years too late!). I thought I was learning to live more adventurously. My wife thought otherwise. She described my lifestyle then as being in “second teenage” (that’s the stage before ‘second childhood”!).
And so I thank God for Luci Shaw! Her book, The Crime of Living Cautiously, is a call to a spirit of adventure in Christian discipleship. It is a book I resonate with most profoundly, and it is not on account of my “mid-life crisis” (do believe me!).
I propose, in this review, to highlight some of the issues that spoke most pertinently to me, in the hopes that our readers of BTW might be inspired to dip in – and sense God’s call to a new level of existence more challenging than we have ever dared dream possible.
Shaw begins her book with her affirmative response to that stunning challenge – that of bungee jumping as a senior citizen. (The sound of the word “bungee” in Cantonese actually means “stupid pig”!) What made it possible for Luci Shaw? In a word, trust. But in her circular way of speaking, that “trust” would be defined as something that would always involve risk – the risk of the unknown. A hint of what made that possible is supplied by her use of Solzhenitsyn’s question (p.21): “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”
It would be easy for us to read Luci Shaw as the religious counterpart of the secular call to entrepreneurial endeavour. There is certainly a place for that, for is not the entire missionary movement one huge entrepreneurial enterprise? I think Shaw is chipping away at something more fundamental – that protective instinct in which one could feel self-righteous about an essentially suffocating set of values which is choking the life out of us even as it promises greater “security.” She call this the “lethargy of the soul” (p.38).
The hardest thing then is to break the “fear barrier”. All great works of art, according to another poet, Lucille Clifton, comes from facing up to what we fear most (p.47). And from Shaw’s perspective, the ultimate fear is that of relinquishing the power we possess. Power, in Shaw’s view, is necessarily destructive, for all the propaganda we have been sold about the possibility of “empowerment” (p.61). Citing her own work, Polishing the Petoskey Stone, Shaw reproduces her poem, entitled “Power Failure”, that graphically depicts the destructive potential inherent in all our contrivances for possession thereof (p.61):
By what anti-miracle
have we lamed the man
who leaped for joy,
lost ninety-nine sheep,
clutched the lunch fish
until they rot in our hands,
turned wine back to water
and bread to stone?
Shaw then goes on to speak of the greatest relinquishment of all power in the entire universe – that of Christ’s “downward mobility” (p.63). What an odd expression! Mobility by definition is the capacity to move up in our evolutionary quest for the better things of life. Everyone, including Christians, want to be “upwardly mobile”. Christ sought the reverse. What awesome inspiration! In an age when even our religious leaders would endorse external acquisition of power whether at a structural or individual level (the shorthand for that is “ambition”), Luci Shaw dares declare, “All ambition, by its very nature, is so often at someone else’s expense.” (p.65) In other words, and to put it more bluntly, ambition is as “unChristlike” as we could possibly have it.
Now this must surely raise the heckles of some of our readers. But before you react, consider Shaw’s next plea. Quoting Edward R. Murrow now, “We must never confuse dissent with disloyalty.” (p.71) And I had it pencilled beneath that quotation my own personal response, “How I wish my hearers would understand this.”
As a long-standing preacher who attempts to communicate God’s truth with a forthrightness approximating the OT prophets (and mine is a poor imitation, I confess), I feel I have sometimes been regarded with not a little suspicion. Shaw is right. “Being controversial is often risky business.” (75) She goes on to speak of Jesus’ tension of “walking alone” (p.76), and of how an act of love – yea, even as noble as dying on the cross for undeserving mankind – can be risky and “may not confer a guaranteed benefit” (p.78).
While being ‘counter-culture’ (and, in a sense, this is what all followers of Christ are called to be) will almost certainly bring loneliness, that “aloneness” will correspondingly bring, in its wake, a desire for communion and friendship (p.92). You long for someone who will “understand” you. And this is where the risk factors compound themselves. How in the world might you find love when it is a world with which you have become disenchanted? Shaw typifies people we meet as either “flowers” or “weeds” (p.96). But what if those with whom you feel some spiritual kinship look more like weeds than flowers in other aspects of their being? How do you love “weeds”? Might they not choke the life out of you, instead of nourish the essence of your being? Friendship, of all things, is one of the riskiest endeavours anyone could embark upon.
Then there is the “unknown”, which Shaw argues is essential to recovering a sense of dependence upon God (p.111). It is only upon recovering that dependence that we are able to live “generatively” (p.122). Shaw prefers being “generative” to being “productive”. We generate new life in others “organically”, rather than produce religious clones in a mechanistic fashion.
The supreme miracle of the universe is that God Almighty is a risk-taker. Take a look at Jesus’ genealogy. Four women received honorable mention – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, all of whom, in the eyes of respectable religionists of any hue or age, might be considered women of doubtful reputation. Shaw observes dryly that, were we given the job of planning mankind’s destiny, we would have chosen to use only those with the “cleanest track records”. Not God, the Almighty!
The Almighty represented the ultimate in foolishness as manifested in Jesus’ lifestyle – “he had no money, no home, no car, no organizational support…and his death was a scandal, a scandal that turned the world around forever.” (p.137)
Come next month, I shall be spending a month in Thailand. This is going to be my first “mission trip.” I would have you know that a “mission trip” is not my kind of a thing, if you know what I mean. I have no idea what to expect. I received an invitation some months back to help teach English to university students. This was the organization’s outreach tool. It was an offer I could not refuse. I cannot pretend to be good at many things. Teaching English was not an invitation I felt I could refuse.
I can think of all sorts of reasons for not going. There was just one thing I did not want to be accused of – that of having committed “The Crime of Living Cautiously”.
[Editor’s Note: The Crime of Living Cautiously will be available for loan at the BGST library in two weeks’ time. Make your reservation now!]
Chapel on 8 November 2006
The speaker at chapel was Daniel Ng. Daniel has been in China the last eight years in a tent-making capacity. He is currently back home in Singapore for personal reasons, and hopes to return to China early next year.
Daniel shared a word from the first chapter of Ruth. The message was largely focussed upon the idea of famine and migration. Elimelech (meaning, “God is king”) sought a better life via migration to Moab. But far from things getting better, tragedy struck repeatedly. Daniel saw this as part of God’s gracious judgement in bringing His people back to himself.
Daniel also saw famine at the level of spiritual understanding, and referred to it as a “famine of the word of God.” People often complain of spiritual dryness. Corruption is sometimes detected at the highest echelons of Christian leadership.
In closing, Daniel pointed to a better man from Bethlehem to whom God was truly king – David, himself a king. And in God’s sovereignty, redemption was to come to Israel (and subsequently the church) through a woman from Moab, the subject of today’s chapel, Ruth herself – ancestress to King David, and to a yet greater King, Jesus Christ.
(Summarised by Ng Seng Chuan)
Ms Sherry Hua 23/11
Ms Joyce Tay 23/11
Ms Amy Teo 23/11
Ms Koh May Fern 24/11
Ms Carol Cheang 24/11
Ms Aye Hukali 25/11