Sickbed Mathematical Nightmares and the Fabric of the Universe

From earliest memory, I’ve had terrible nightmares lying in bed sick. Head throbbing with high fever that resisted all parental midnight sponging, I’d thrash about, sweating, limbs flailing against visions of the terrible chaos of the universe, the untameable fabric of creation, of unending ever-morphing fractals, unceasing mathematical conundrums, an eternity of recursions…

And this was before I even learned my sums.

(How hard this was to explain to adults. How I wished I dreamt of something more normal – like monsters, or ghosts, or of falling…)
J.R.R. Tolkien's "Farmer Giles of Ham", Tunnock's Milk Chocolate Mallow Biscuit, and a Tall Mug of Hot Milky TeaDecades later, my sickbed nightmares continue in the same vein. Except now, I can (mostly) articulate the horror.

These last few feverish days have been a pox-stench web of the Problem of Points, of binomial theorem all mixed up with Hebrew chiaisms, of the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of Pascal’s arithmetic triangle, the small yet infinite glimpse it (and any similar or derivative models and sets, like the Fibonacci sequence) offers into the intricate weave of the entire time-space…

When the most recent struggle was finally over and I’d awoken from a dreamless denouement on a damp bed, I sought solace in the material; in the comforting here-and-now-ness of a tall mug of thick hot milky tea, a chocolate confection (Tunnock’s milk chocolate mallow teacake), and a simple book where dragons were scared off (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham) and all ends were tied up very nicely indeed.

And solace also in the Father, of whom Isaiah says:

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
    and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
    and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
    and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
    no sooner are they sown,
    no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
    and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

25 “To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:21-26)

Chalk Farm Kueh Salat

Was waiting for someone to finish yoga class at Paragon Shopping Centre when I came upon The Chalk Farm cakery.

Chalk Farm kueh salat
Kueh salat in cake form? I was a little leery of attempts to contextualise Western concepts of dessert, or alternatively, to modify local Singaporean/Malaysian dessert for Western taste.

But never say never. (This was the last third of the slice that people kindly left for me.) The green firm custard was fragrant with pandan (screwpine) leaf and not as horribly salty as commercially made kueh; the glutinous rice base, tinged with blue bunga telang (peashoot flower) dye, was just the right consistency.

mao shan wang durian kueh salat, Chalk FarmAnd the maoshanwang durian kueh salat too was a success. Here, the glutinous rice base was the perfect foil for the creamy, happily-pungent durian custard (that didn’t bite the tongue like the acidity regulators in usual mass-produced durian pulp).

Contextualisation: works when the original message is kept intact, even though the form has changed.

Candour Coffee and a Failed Attempt at Ephesians Overview

Candour Coffee, Beach Road, SingaporeCame across Candour Coffee (facebook, 41 Beach Road) while on my way to Arab Street. Eyeballed the place: Synesso, Market Lane coffee on the menu…why not?

flat white, Market Lane beans, Candour Coffee, Beach Road, SingaporeSadly, any distinctive taste of the Market Lane espresso was overridden by the weird milk. The microfoam looked about right – good enough to hold some latte art. But instead of that velvet cream, it was sour (dairy sour, not coffee bean acid sour) and thin. Overheated or reheated milk, perhaps.

Wasn’t faring any better with my work on Ephesians. Is the big idea of Paul’s letter:

  • about the biggest mystery in the world that has now been revealed?
  • that the mystery is about God’s will and plan for the world – to unite all things under Christ (and therefore unity in Christ and unity in the body of Christ)?
  • about the hope and inheritance that believers have in Christ?
  • about the fullness in God?
  • about God’s power as present reality?
  • love pops up alot too – God’s love for us in predestining believers for salvation, our love that enables us to comprehend the love of Christ, love that builds up the body, etc.

Needs more work (and a lot of revelation)!

A Parisian summer, in a time of suspect intellectualism

To think of France is to think of Paris.

And to think of Paris is to think of its icons – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre with its I.M. Pei glass pyramid (and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel), Notre-Dame de Paris…and that distinctive odour of eau de urine in the Parisan metro…

View of the Eiffel Tower from a metro train. Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe. Paris, France

The Louvre, with I.M. Pei glass pyramid. Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. Paris, France
Notre-Dame de Paris. Paris, France

…or its iconic foods: cheese (from Laurent Dubois), sourdough bread (from Poilane),
Fromagerie Laurent Dubois. Paris, France

sourdough bread from Poilane, cheese from Laurent Dubois, chacuterie. Paris, France
escargot, frog legs, oysters, sweetbread at the restaurant of Hotel du Louvre:
oysters, escargot snails, sweetbreads, frog legs, roast potatoes at the restaurant of Hotel du Louvre. Paris, France

more escargot and deliciously heavy creamy foie gras ravioli drizzled with truffle oil at Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie (“foie gras maison!” proclaims its website):

escargot with butter, garlic, and parsley. Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie, Paris, France
foie gras ravioli drizzled with truffle oil. Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie. Paris, France

Having read A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals several times as a continually ravenous university student (possibly due to fencing training 3 times a week, rugby training once a week, and cricket, too, once a week), I used to despair of ever visiting such temples of gastronomy, expecting that any trace of them would have disappeared in the intervening years.

What Paris now offers though, is the pleasure of having my tummy satiated by a normal meal. In Asia, noodles and rice just don’t seem to present much bulk at all – an hour after lunch and I’ll be rifling through the office snack stash with a growling tummy, to the chagrin of weight-conscious colleagues. In the U.K., the ubiquitous potatoes helped some, but that had to be topped up with tea and biscuits ever so often. Ah, in France though, all that good tasty dairy fat in cheese and cream totally keeps me going for hours.

Still, worth rounding off a meal with sweets of course, just for good measure, and Pierre Hermé is just the thing.

feuilles. Pierre Hermé. Paris, France
ispahan. Pierre Hermé. Paris, France.
macarons, Pierre Hermé. Paris, France

I joked with my French ex-housemate that perhaps Paris would be a good place to settle in. Not only was the food a perfect Tinder match, the people too were just up my alley. Ex-housemate had been explaining how the locals considered themselves quite intellectual, and would not listen to even a simple proclamation of the gospel until there had been some serious argument over an issue of choice (not necessarily even the very reasonable and logical questions about the authenticity and authority of the Bible), and I simply love a good argument.

Religieuse pastry. Paris, FranceLast year, Sudhir Hazareesingh wrote about How the French Think. He considered French thought distinctive:

  • in its historical character (by which I mean both its substantive continuities over time and its references to the past as a source of legitimation or demarcation)
  • in its fixation with the nation and the collective self, which provide an enduring focus of public debate and the philosophical underpinning of assorted conceptions of the good life
  • in its extraordinary intensity (ideas are believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for)
  • in the belief that communicating specialised forms of knowledge to a  wider public is an integral feature of intellectual activity
  • in its constant interplay between the themese of order and imagination – or to put it in terms of specific thinkers, between the cold linearity of Descartes and the unbridled expansiveness of Rousseau.

Buddhist monk at Shakespeare and Company. Paris, FranceNaturally, as if to prove his point, many French people have critiqued the book for leaving out certain philosophers, for giving too much space to Napoleon, for misunderstanding nuances of certain ideas (“has he not read Baudrillard?!”), etc. But all agree that French pride in the intellect defines the nation.

Je pense donc je suis“. Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

And the French have interpreted Descartes to mean that Thought is man’s highest sacred duty.

But the current hooha over the burkini ban in certain part(s) of France has tarnished this image. Could it be that the French, like everyone else, is happy for the freedom of thought…as long as it is the same as their own?!

crepe, Breizh Café, Paris, France
a bowl of cider, Breizh Café. Paris, France

A more fundamental fallacy is this: the assumption that the human intellect is infallible.

A (more English) empirical enquiry would effectively evidence this.

A burial, on a normal sunny afternoon, just like any other

late breakfast of fried eggs and bacon, with smashed avocado on wholewheat toastI crawled out from under the bedcovers late today, aching, peering out at the hazy Singapore sky (thanks to forest fires in Indonesia), wondering what time it was. As I made breakfast/lunch/tea, the previous day came back to me.

**************

It was a normal sunny afternoon in Malacca, Malaysia. Just like any other. Along Jonker Street, tourists would have been queuing up for chicken rice balls or cooling off with a sweet chendol dribbled with gula melaka.

burial in Malacca, on a normal sunny afternoonBut we were here in the Malaccan countryside, by a narrow hole, in a graveyard.

The local Methodist pastor, who’d forgotten the deceased’s name twice already (it wasn’t really his fault – the deceased only turned up in church twice a year, at Christmas and Easter), was throwing white flowers into the grave.

As he threw the first white chrysanthemum he said, “You were made from the earth, and to the earth you shall return.”

Then,”Ashes to ashes.”

And finally,”Dust to dust.”

Family and friends threw flowers into the hole. When they were done, the workers who had been idling nearby, sipping water from plastic cups, moved concrete slabs over the hole and laid several wheelbarrows of cement over it.

His widow, who had become blind over the last few years, could only hear the scrape-scrape-scrape of the cement sealing in the decaying body of her husband in the tropical heat. She asked to be helped away.

Then the many wreaths were piled on.

Some of the younger mourners, who hadn’t known the deceased, were teasing each other by the grave (“hey, your boyfriend says he wants to break-up with you!”), and laughing, and talking about hatching eggs in Pokemon Go.

When all the wreaths had been piled on, we all left to go to lunch.

**************

Four days ago, life had been going on as usual. The deceased’s wife was holidaying with their daughter in the UK. And the deceased had gone for a golf game with some friends (“never said no to a round of golf”, nodded one of the mourners). On the way home from a trip like any other, the driver of the car lost control of the SUV. They smashed into a lorry, flipped over, and crashed roof-first onto the hard ground. Three people were “killed instantly”, the fourth was critically injured and didn’t know what’d happened as he’d fallen asleep in the back seat.

On hearing the tragic news, the rest of the family rushed back to the empty house, in utter shock and massive grief.

One day ago, my friend, the only son of the deceased, had given a eulogy. A very bold witness, he’d told those gathered that his father’s death was a warning that they must heed:

  • none of us knows when we will die
  • are we prepared for death and what will come after death?
  • if the Christian claim is true that we all live once and then face judgement, then we must all repent and trust in Jesus’ death to save us from that judgement, before it is too late!

The black-and-white photos before the casket had shown a dashing young man, with a bright smile and a full head of dark hair, in a sharp suit, with his arm proudly around his new wife (now widow), an equally fashionable young lady. Other photos recorded the births of a succession of children, then grandchildren. My friend’s father went on to lead a respectable life amongst the local people. A successful medical career behind him, he retired and was enjoying life without any major health complaints. “A nice man”, agreed the mourners. “Director of 6 companies, you know, to keep his mind active”. “Oh yes, and also director of a bank. It’s been in his family for ages!”

But he was unprepared for death. And then it was too late.

How inappropriate to warn people to repent at a funeral, my friend’s sister had berated him. But because death can come at anytime, there will never be a more appropriate time than now, than today.

Morning Swim and the Work Ethic of 2 Thessalonians 3

competitive pool, OCBC Arena, Singapore Sports HubNothing like a good swim to attempt to clear the mind, even if laps at OCBC Aquatic Centre at the Singapore Sports Hub aren’t quite as heartily bracing as a dip in the pool on a blustery day in Portishead, Bristol.

The Singapore Church is coming to the end of 2 Thessalonians at the moment. Last night, we read the passage below:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labour we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-11)

A bible study leader opined that this demonstrated Paul’s single-minded devotion to the gospel, with the application to us today that we too should follow his example. Paul does set such an admirable example in, say, Philippians.

D.A. Carson thinks that this is an example of the benefactor-benefactee relationship that was rife in those days, with the contemporary application being that we should not be of-the-world, but should be distinct from it.

But Paul’s instruction, nay, command, in 2 Thessalonians seemed quite a bit more pointed than that – work and not be sponge off others; be busy at work and not be idle busybodies.

If read together with the preceding chapters, it could be that some Thessalonians were so affected by the prevalent erroneous over-realised eschatology that they’d given up all attempts at “normal” life. But as BL pointed out, as we were discussing this over a picnic, there’s nothing in the letter to suggest that this might not be a completely separate point.

Ah well, parking it here for now.

flat white coffee at Symmetry Cafe, 9 Jalan Kubor, SingaporeThis flat white at Symmetry Cafe (9 Jalan Kubor, Singapore) was all creamy chocolate and hazelnut in the cup. Not sure which roaster they got the coffee beans from but the Etcetera is a blend of Guatemala Antigua, some Columbian, and some Panama. Excellent service as well, with one waitress coming round to top up the complimentary tap-water, even as I sat there trying to figure out 2 Thessalonians for several hours!

Killiney Curry Chicken, the Shadow of Joseph Schooling, and Hebrews 1:1-4

Peter O'Brien's Commentary on Hebrews, prata, curry chicken at Killiney Kopitiam, SingaporeI’d just settled down to a late breakfast of lemak curry chicken and crispy prata at Killiney Kopitiam, when the honking and shouting began.

Joseph Schooling's victory parade bus passing Killiney, SingaporeJoseph Schooling’s victory parade bus was just trundling past the Singtel building at Killiney, and the waiting drivers were saluting him with their horns, as people along the road waved flags and hailed him.

A small swell of pride – ah, our first Olympic gold medallist!

Unfortunately, it was difficult to be well and truly star-struck when working on Hebrews 1:1-4:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,

whom he appointed the heir of all things,

through whom also he created the world.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4, ESVUK)

Somewhat fresh from a summer of working on an overview of Psalms (oh how a tiny swing on the Hermeneutical Spiral gives hope to fallen brains!), these four familiar verses totally blew my mind (again)!

flat white at The Coffee Academics, Scotts Square, Singapore

Jesus – God’s full and final revelation.

Like most Christians, I’d readily assent to this without stopping to consider the biblical evidence for this and on the strength of that, the necessity of my acting on such belief.

Revelation

(Am fairly persuaded that there is a chiasm in Hebrews 1:1-4*, so that the passage is topped and tailed by methods of divine revelation in the past – the prophets (ie. most if not all of God’s revelation in the Old Testament) and the angels (the belief was that Moses got his official copy from angels – Acts 7:38-39, Galatians 3:19).

*friends will know that I’m well skeptical of “sandwiches”, especially when in the company of those adamant that they are as thick on biblical ground as Rattata in Pokemon Go.)

Our God isn’t one made up by deists – who creates the universe, then goes to the pub and leaves it to run itself in a closed system. The God of the Bible is fully engaged with his creation since he made the world, and has taken the initiative to reveal himself to humankind (mostly through one people, the Israelites) – he did this

at many times and in many ways…by the prophets…

In each archaeological layer of human history, as recorded in the Bible, God has spoken about himself and what he is doing in the world, in varied and fragmented ways. This revelation was progressive (but was not a progression “from the less true to the more true, from the less worthy to the more worthy, or from the less mature to the more mature” (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews)).

The Coffee Academics, Scotts Square, Singapore

Final Revelation

but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things,

Jesus, however, was/is God’s final revelation. There has been/will be no more new revelation from God.

This is because Jesus came to bring human history to a close, to bring this world to an end. It didn’t happen all at once, as might be obvious. But the eschatological last days began when Jesus was born as a human, and they will end when he finally and fully comes into his inheritance of the whole universe.

This is the utterly universally victorious divine king Psalm 2 has been looking forward to!

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.

And it was Jesus’ death on the cross that led him into this inheritance:

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Jesus’ offering of the sacrifice of his own life on the cross cleansed us from our sins. That high priestly act was forever effective (unlike the Jewish priests who have to keep offering sacrifices), so Jesus sat down.

He didn’t just sit anywhere, by on the right hand of God the King – showing that God approved and honoured him. The king that Psalm 110 had also been looking forward to – who will execute judgement on all the world (Psalm 110:1,5).

There is no further revelation to be had – God has said what he was going to do in the world, the Old Testament has been looking forward to the coming of Jesus, and now in 2016 Jesus has come and gone. And he has left word that he will definitely come again, to judge all the nations in relation to whether they’d acknowledged him as king; to wrap up human history. These are the last days.

Hand brew bar. The Coffee Academics, Scotts Square, Singapore
Full Revelation

 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

 In case any one was still thinking that Jesus being God’s official, approved, totally final wasn’t enough…the writer of Hebrews positively hyperventilates that Jesus wasn’t/isn’t just some model servant – he was/is exactly as divine as God. There was/is no one superior to him. He created the entire universe. And notice that the “laws” of physics/chemistry/biology seem to keep working? Oh, that’s because Jesus is maintaining the universe.

Therefore, says Hebrews 2:1, as if it wasn’t already, like, duh!

we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.

Yet, how skeptics assume that only the brain-washed to think that way!

And how Christians assume that it is by strict practices (Quiet Time, accountability groups, regular church attendance, etc) under their own steam that they manage not to fall away! Hardly, in and of themselves. It is only by meditating on the revelation of Christ that we are hard-put to leave him for any (necessarily lesser) thing.

…….

(flat white from The Coffee Academics, Scott Square, Singapore – a well-balanced classic cup.)