It was a dream come true as I finally get to prayer walk at Seminari Theologi Malaysia (STM). The busyness of life and the recent COVID-19 lockdowns prevented me from going to the seminary in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia. It was thus a great joy when I was invited to conduct a retreat there recently. This was a hybrid retreat with on-campus and online participants.
The labyrinth is the legacy of the late Bishop Wong Lik Wah. His writeup on the STM website is as follows
“Prayer labyrinth is not a maze. It has no dead ends, no crossing points, no high walls, bushes, or false passages. It is an ancient spiritual tool with a single path of prayer, reflection, and meditation weaving to the centre and returning back again to the entrance which is also the exit. We will not get lost in the prayer labyrinth just as when we journey with Christ.
The winding path of the Labyrinth reflects our life and spiritual pilgrimage which involves discovery, transition, uncertainty, pauses, changes of direction, and achievement. From the entrance, we move prayerfully towards the centre where we be still in God’s presence. From the centre, we exit with thanksgiving through the same path and back to our daily life in His presence. This journey signifies that our life is a journey continuing return to our ultimate Centre: The Triune God, to our own within, and back out again into the world.
The walk helps to quiet our mind to focus in God’s presence and moves our soul toward wholeness in God. If we are attentive, it could be a means of grace which brings healing, renewal and transformation.
The first prayer labyrinth at STM was completed on May 6th, 2017 which is the World Labyrinth Day (1st Saturday of May).
The new prayer labyrinth was completed on Dec 21, 2020.”
It was a privilege to use this spiritual tool in the seminary.
From the way, we celebrate Mother’s Day every year and as the celebration became as commercialized as Christmas, the assumption would be all mothers are kind, loving, and nurturing. Unfortunately, not all mothers are saints.
In this shocking memoir, Philip Yancey reveals disturbing events about his childhood and growing up years. The book started with the death of his father, a fundamentalist pastor, from poliomyelitis which was a pandemic at that time. Yancey’s father was on an iron lung in the hospital as polio had paralyzed his respiratory muscles. In accordance with his belief, Yancey’s father discharged himself from the hospital and removed the iron lung believing in divine healing. He died, leaving behind a young widow with two very young sons.
The family fell into hard times. For many years, they lived in a trailer and were considered ‘white trash’ by the racially biased South. The mother supported the family by offering bible study in their very Southern Fundamentalism church. She also brought up her sons in that strict and rigid tradition. We were given glimpses of these fundamentalist churches in Yancey’s books such as “Where is God when it hurts”, “What’s so amazing about Grace”, and “Church: Why Bother”. In this book, Yancey went in-depth into various events, pain, and suffering in his own life that he hinted about in his other books.
Memories can be malleable with time. Two incidents seem to stand out in this memoir. The first is that after the funeral the young widow laid face down over the freshly filled earth over her husband’s grave and ‘gave her two sons to God’. Due to her strict unyielding Southern Fundamentalist way of parenting, she was estranged from both her sons. In hindsight, she tried to form her sons in her image instead of in God’s. The elder son became a rebel, especially against authority. The younger son, Philip, withdrew into a shell. The second incident occurs when the elder son decided against her wishes to leave their Fundamentalist bible college to study at Wheaton College (which she thought was liberal). Apparently she ‘cursed’ her son for defying her and prayed that God will break his elder son and make him lose his mind.
This curse remained in the background of the narrative. Like many young persons from a repressed religious home background, the elder son adopted a countercultural life in college. It was the era of the hippie movement in which he embraced free sex, alcohol, music, and LSD. He had a meltdown and became suicidal. The elder son continued to live a broken life with bouts of alcoholism, and two failed marriages. He left the Christian faith. The mother and son were not able to reconcile for more than twenty years. An unspoken question in Yancey’s narrative is what kind of a mother will curse her son?
Philip Yancey survived her mother and their church to become a bestselling author on suffering and grace. This book gave a disturbing glimpse of what he lived through and what birthed his books and writings. Parents play an important role in shaping the character and faith of their children. What Yancey has shared with us in this book is what a domineering mother with a toxic religion can do to her children.
The Batman (2022) is possibly the worst Batman movie I have ever seen. In this iteration of one of the icons of the DC Universe, Bruce Wayne/Batman was a young, rich, messed-up, entitled, very white young man who wears an armoured suit, and plays at being a vigilante by beating up street thugs. His city, Gotham was a morally and financially corrupted cosmopolitan marked by squalor and poverty. The corrupted elected officials and the criminal elements are living it up in the city. Bruce Wayne/Batman was not exhibiting any of the cleverness which earned him the title ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’. Instead, he fumbled behind the villain with lots of bashings, gore, explosions, and destruction.
I felt my insides cringe as the overlong movie stretched on. I had looked forward to this new Batman movie with much anticipation and eagerness. Pathetic was my impression as the movie credit rolled.
In its 80 years of history, the saga of Batman has always been the reflection of its times. From his first appearance in comics, then television, and finally the movies, Batman’s Gotham is a mirror reflection of the socio-political-economical and sometimes moral climate of its times. There was the hopeful period of the early Batman to the darker tones of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Unlike other superheroes, Batman does not have superpowers except he is very rich (if money can be considered a superpower). Batman is always a man who tried his best to fight the evil of a person, a corporation, or an institution to make a difference. Using his brains, his technology, and his perfectly trained body Batman managed to defeat even the uber superpowered Superman. Yet in this movie, Batman was a messed up young man with kohl eyeshadow, like a rock star, making a lot of bangs but not actually going anywhere.
In the days following watching the movie, my insides cringed again as I reflected on the movie. Gotham, I realized is a dark reflection of the world today. Most if not all our elected officials are corrupt. Law enforcement and the judiciary are in tatters. The rich are getting richer while the poor are poorer. Cities are degenerating into dangerous places where crime and violence prevail. We are hapless; manipulated and driven by social media. As in the movie we are rushing headlong into total self-annihilation.
I was very impressed by the ending scene when Batman carried a child in his arms to a waiting chopper for evacuation, after leading people out of a flooded convention center. Whether that is the intended message, the key to making a difference is helping one another. That is a satisfactory alternative to beating up villains, locking them up in prisons or Arkham Asylum, and by the next comic issue, they are back on the streets again. Violence and vigilantism may not be the answer to rebuilding Gotham, and by reflection, our society. After 80 years, it may be time for a different Batman. I await who this Batman will become. Perhaps he will be The Batman who will make a difference!
The Metaverse is Web 3.0, the next step in the development of the Internet. The evolution of the Internet as a private data sharing network for scientists with its clumsy modem to its user-friendly browser user-friendly interface has been very rapid. Web 1.0 is when the webpages are static and we can only read off them. We cannot interact with them by adding or subtracting. Then came Web 2.0 which was a marvellous interactive experience. We can edit, produce, and chat using that technology. There was a proliferation of chat groups that lead to blogs, personal websites, add sound and video, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Web 2.0 for all its benefits is still 2-D. It still remains on the screen. Web 3.0 or Metaverse is 3-D. Content with which we can interact is no longer flat. It is now 3-dimensional. The movie Ready Player One is a good visualization of what Metaverse is. In the first half of this article, I will describe what Metaverse is and then I will share some implications this will have on Christians and the Church.
Welcome to the Metaverse Metaverse should not be confused with multiverses which is a scientific concept that there are more than one universe, or the comics and science fiction stories that are so popular in stories, television, and movies. In fact, the name the Metaverse was coined by a science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. In that novel, Stephenson built a virtual computer world which he called the Metaverse for his hero, Milo, a hacker to have his adventures in. Twenty years later, Stephenson’s the Metaverse became a reality in Web 3.0. Stephenson’s Metaverse is so uncannily accurate that Facebook Corporation took the tactical step of rebranding itself as Meta thus copyrighting the name and concept for themselves.
The Metaverse exist is because of the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Initial AI is nothing more than a glorified calculator with enormous data storage capability. When the AI in the computer Deep Blue beat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997, it was done by examining 200 million chess positions per second. Deep Blue has enormous memory storage of millions of chess games. What became more interesting is when it is discovered that AI can be programmed to learn and to discover new ways of learning. This was called machine learning. Al Alpha Zero was given only the rules of chess and programmed to play itself to win. Within 6 hours, the AI has taught itself so well that it was able to beat a human grandmaster! Computer scientists admit they no longer understand AI learning so it is now named Deep Learning. Subsequently, new AI chess engines were so powerful that it was matched against other AI rather than humans. AI Leela Chess Zero is the present world champion in 2020. The extraordinary computing power of AI in deep learning in problem-solving and the development of new ideas is the foundation of the rise of the Metaverse. Basically, the Metaverse is composed of four main components: (1) augmented reality, (2) lifelogging, (3), mirror worlds, and (4) virtual reality.
Augmented reality is the technology to superimpose a virtual world onto the real physical world. Google Glass is an example of a wearable augmented reality device. The person wearing the glass can see the real world but also see information or image superimposed in their vision. Those who have played the game using the mobile phone Pokemon Go will have seen life-like Pokemon in their visual space. Another useful use of augmented reality is for online shopping. If you want to buy a sofa and are not sure where to place it in your living room, you can download the program, switch on your phone camera and you can place the sofa (virtual) in your living room (through your camera). You can move the sofa around and see how it fits in with your other furniture and decorations. These are only a few applications of augmented reality. Its applications in surgery, engineering, factories, and keeping us connected are limitless.
Lifelogging is the storing of personal data. For decades we have been storing our digital data since the advent of social media. Our postings, comments, photos, audio, and videos are part of the internet. Never before have so large a part of humanity been willing to reveal their most intimate details to a global audience. Many have abandoned journal writing to document every minute of their waking (and some live stream themselves sleeping) moments in their Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp, Telegrams and photos storage. The internet has enough data and information on each one of us to build a detailed persona, digital person, or avatar. Real-life applications are in healthcare where our lifestyle choices, healthcare risk, and medical histories are available to our doctors, employers and insurance companies. The creation of our avatar or our digital self is of especial interest in the mirror worlds.
The mirror world in the Metaverse is not actually a mirror reflection of REALITY (our real world, the one we are living in) but a digitalized duplicate of REALITY made up of ones and zeros. AI is building up this mirror world even as you read this. All the Google and Apple mapping data goes into the geospatial data of this world, all the Google Books and Library of Congress scans, eBooks and digital documents add to the database of knowledge. The internet is the largest database of knowledge since life began on earth. Every photo, selfie, and podcast broadcast contributed. Alexa, Assistant, and Siri provided invaluable uploads. So did spyware, state surveillance data, and trillions of bureaucratic forms created every day. This mirror world is in use in designing autonomous driving cars and trucks for these vehicles are actually moving in a digital rather than a real world. Other real-world applications include the use of robotics in factories, hospitals, and shipyards. The cute autonomous robots which deliver the case file in a hospital or the autonomic robot ‘police’ that enforce good behaviour in the streets of Singapore moves in a mirror world. Second Life is a popular computer game in which we can create an avatar to represent us and interact with other avatars in a virtual world. Online programs have evolved into complex social experiments. Avatars (humans) are developing a civilization. They are building houses, developing businesses, getting married, and nurturing communities. It will only be a matter of time when we can move into the Metaverse or the mirror world using our own avatar based on our lifelogging. This technology is already here. It is called virtual reality.
Virtual reality (VR) is moving into a constructed digital world and interacting with the objects in that world as we do in the real world. It is a 360° total immersion experience. The first popular real-world use of VR by the billion dollars gaming industry. VR games using VR devices such as Occulus and Playstation VR set allowed players to play total immersive VR games in their own living rooms. Other real-world VR uses are in training and education. Pilots are trained how to fly planes, soldiers in how to fight, and surgeons on how to operate in a totally immersive experience. The Metaverse or Web 3.0 when it began to migrate to our workstation or home entertainment or houses will be a fruitful experience. We have been interacting with 2-D objects when we are in fact 3-D beings. It would not be a shocking revelation as gaming and movies makers using CG has already introduced us to 3-D screens and the virtual world.
Concerns of Christians in the Metaverse
Metaverse or Web 3.0 is the next logical development of the internet. It should not raise much alarm to Christians as it is just technology as much as the computer, the plough, or the printing press. Human beings are called to be creators using the materials of the created world. We are also called to be stewards of the created order. Technology is created to make our lives better. Indeed it has. We now live longer, starve less, are healthier, and have more comforts than our ancestors. Christians are not Luddites. In fact, the technology which is the printing press played a large role in the reformation of the Christian church. Christian concerns about the Metaverse be divided into the following: (1) Artificial Intelligence, (2) Identity, (3) Worship, (4) Hospitality, and (5) The Gospel.
Artificial Intelligence is the elephant in the room for most Christians. Nowadays most major projects are designed by AI rather than human minds. Models of climate change, Wall Street financial transactions, and even Major Newspaper articles are written by AI. The genie is already out of the lamp. I have written about AI here. Yet, many Christians are ambivalent about AI. This ambivalent is fueled by science fiction stories and movies (Skynet in the Terminator series) about AI deciding to kill all humans on earth or enslaving humans as battery sources (Matrix movies), and wanting to be God (Star Trek Original Series). This negative perception is not negated by the perception that AI may be benevolent (movie Transcendence, Isaac Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series). These, we must be reminded, are mere speculations, no facts. So far, there is no evidence that AI are not what they are: very smart technology to achieve what they are programmed to do. They do not have consciousness or a soul. They do not have the spark of divine life that will enable them to worship God. The AI in our mobile phone has more computing power than Deep Blue the AI chess grandmaster. All of us regard that as an essential piece of technology rather than a potential rival for the affections of God or wanting to be God.
Our human identity is bound to our awareness of who we are as human beings. It is not bound to our bodies. We can lose a limb and yet remain aware that we are still human. Christian consciousness of the identity in Christ is bound by the relation to God as revealed in the bible and in his creation. Awareness of the big bang, the expanding universe, stars with planets with water, do not in any way diminish our Christian identity. In fact, it strengthened our awareness of the awesomeness of the creator God. Does moving into the Metaverse and creating an avatar affects our Christian identity? I believe it will because it will expand our consciousness from physical reality to expand to a digital reality. It helps us to be more aware of who we are. Of course, in a digital space, we are creating an avatar who is not us. There is nothing new. In the real world, we have been creating our false selves since Cain. This focuses down on two essential components of identity: integrity and authenticity. It will be a test of our Christian identity; how our integrity and authenticity holds in the real world and the Metaverse.
Will it be possible to worship God in the Metaverse? I believe the answer is are given in the two-year-old COVID-19 pandemic which forced Church ministries and worships online. Though still in Web 2.0, it has proved beyond a doubt that God is in cyberspace and it is possible to worship him in spirit and in truth there. Numerous digital churches or Christian faith communities have already been formed with regular services and other ministries. The Metaverse will expand on this to allow even more innovation to worship. There will be new ways to pray together, meet together with a global reach, study the bible together, and hang out together. Paul’s concept of one anothering is being been applied online.
Hospitality and inclusiveness are hallmarks of the Christian church. In the real world, this has not worked out in practice. Church buildings are built with the non-disabled in mind. Very few are built with the disabled in mind. Many are added as an afterthought. In the real world churches, many people fell through the cracks: the physically disabled, the bedbound, the hospitalized, the prisoners, the behavioural challenged, those without transport, the very old, and families with very young children. The church in the Metaverse may truly democratize hospitality and inclusiveness. No longer are the above mentioned be excluded from an authentic 3-D worship experience or interactions with other people. Real-life churches can help these to acquire appropriate devices so that they may have a more meaningful human experience.
The Gospel will be better able to reach the far ends of the earth in the Metaverse. There will be greater opportunities for education and building relationships in the Metaverse. The Metaverse can only exist in the real world. It has no independent existence. It cannot exist without the real world. The Kingdom of God and the new earth is for the real world and all the things in it. By implication, the kingdom of God covers the Metaverse. Hence there is no need for theologians to develop a theology of the Metaverse. One does not need to develop a theology for the mobile phone. There is however a need to live a Christ-filled life in the Metaverse as we would in the real world. All Christian teachings and traditions apply in both worlds.
We are living in exciting times. In biological and medical realms we are living during the genomic code revolution. The mRNA vaccines are one of many new innovations coming from this revolution. We are also living in the computer code revolution. Within a few years, we will be moving from our present 2-D Web 2.0 to the Metaverse, Web 3.0. We will be experiencing innovative augmented reality, lifelogging, mirrored worlds, and virtual reality soon to be assimilated into our daily life. We will have more and powerful AI which will solve more and more complex problems. Are there anything for Christians to be concerned about? Technology is not neutral. It influences the society using it. Christians have the role to ensure that technologies be used well and those who use them be accountable. These concerns include AI, our human identities, worship, hospitality, and the kingdom of God in the Metaverse. We have the knowledge. We need wisdom.
“The ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them.” (Num. 10:33.)
GOD does give us impressions, but not that we should act on them as impressions. If the impression be from God, He will Himself give sufficient evidence to establish it beyond the possibility of a doubt.
How beautiful is the story of Jeremiah, of the impression that came to him respecting the purchase of the field of Anathoth. But Jeremiah did not act upon this impression until after the following day, when his uncle’s son came to him and brought him external evidence by making a proposal for the purchase. Then Jeremiah said: “I knew this was the word of the Lord.”
He waited until God seconded the impression by a providence, and then he acted in full view of the open facts, which could bring conviction unto others as well as to himself. God wants us to act according to His mind. We are not to ignore the Shepherd’s personal voice but, like Paul and his companions at Troas, we are to listen to all the voices that speak and “gather” from all the circumstances, as they did, the full mind of the Lord.—Dr. Simpson.
“Where God’s finger points, there God’s hand will make the way.”
Do not say in thine heart what thou wilt or wilt not do, but wait upon God until He makes known His way. So long as that way is hidden it is clear that there is no need of action, and that He accounts Himself responsible for all the results of keeping thee where thou art.—Selected.
“For God through ways we have not known, Will lead His own.”
Lettie B. Cowman, Streams in the Desert (Los Angeles, CA: The Oriental Missionary Society, 1925), 303–304.
10 If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.
Our calling to be doctors requires us to be life-long learners. Most of what we have learned in our time in medical schools will be out of date by the time we graduate. We are living in a time of digital and genetic revolution. Emerging technology and genomic manipulations will make many changes in our practice of medicine that unless we keep up to date with the changes, we will be left behind.
Aside from learning new things, we must keep sharpening our medical skills as we go along. The lesson from Ecclesiastes is that an axe may start out well when it is new and sharp. Continuous use will blunt the edge. So will our clinical skills. Unless we are care, continuously reviewing and retraining, our skills will deteriorate. Experience may mean the fruit of repetition. It may also means repeating the same mistakes repeatedly. So take opportunity of every learning situation you encounter. Also always strive to be better than you already are. Success in medicine is knowing what to do, when to do it, and doing it well.
An axe may be sharp. It is then only a sharp axe. It is nothing without the skill of the woodsman or woodswomen who yields it. Learning is a whole body experience. It is not just head knowledge. It involves patience, muscle memories, and our transformation. As Christians and as medical professionals, our learning must involve a great appreciation of the Creator of this universe and lead us into deeper worship.
Further reading: 2 Timothy 2:15
Prayer: Lord, help us to keep our skills and mind sharp so that we may serve patients you have given us well. Amen