Ministry and Theory of Mind

Garrett talks about the Theory of Mind and how it can help us understand the spiritual journeys of ourselves and others.

One piece of advice I will never forget receiving from my Spiritual Director is this: in ministry, you must learn to speak the language of the heart. This means learning to empathize with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and identifying with their struggles and hopes. Being a more bookish and studious sort of guy, I must admit this changed the way that I approached my ministry. When before I looked to form ideas from high concepts to improve the institution or society as a whole, I started again from the ground up, having casual conversations that eventually led to a deeper sharing of lives, which in turn helped me gain a deeper understanding of the universal struggles of the human condition. I realized how crucial it was to understand the hearts of my fellow members of community, and how easy it was, as a leader, to become out of touch with the average member’s spiritual needs.
But rather than turn my back on everything that I had read, I found my established literary foundation an invaluable tool in learning the language of the heart. This intellectual formation, coupled with carefully processed intuition, helped me form and connect ideas, especially when my friends found that they lacked the words to describe their situation. Often, after I managed to draw that connection, I was met with an exclamation of ‘Whoa, you read my mind there’, or on one particularly memorable occasion, ‘STOP STARING INTO MY SOUL, GARRETT!’. I started to wonder if I had struck upon something, if I had begun to figure out the way that the head and the heart can come together in walking this faith journey with others.
Perhaps a little anecdote will serve to elaborate this idea further. Recently, I attended a panel discussion titled “The Relevance of Literature in a Time of Confusion”, organized by the Singapore Management University. At the end of the discussion when the panel was opened up to the audience, an elderly professor who was in attendance shared his own answer to the question. He gave the biblical example of John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The professor brought up the fact that this is the only time in the whole of scripture that Jesus is recorded as writing, when he “bent over and wrote in the dust with his finger” (Jn 8:6). What did Jesus write? We may never truly know, but some believe that it was the Law of Moses, and the professor’s response seemed to place him among their number. Others, referencing the Old Testament, see a connection with this verse: “Lord, you are Israel’s hope; all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust, because they have abandoned you, the Lord, the spring of fresh water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) Could Jesus, then, have been writing down the names, or even the sins, of those who were accusing the woman?
Whatever the case may be, the professor put forth the idea that perhaps this is the only glimpse we have of Jesus the literary critic. He had to analyze the letter of the Law of Moses, the hearts of the accusers, the accused woman, and whatever he was writing on the ground. And from this analysis, Jesus was able to draw out from this chaotic situation an amazingly compassionate response: “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her” (John 8:7). Perhaps, said the professor, this was the most compassionate response in all recorded writing.
I would propose that a good way to learn the language of the heart is practicing the Theory of Mind. The definition of the Theory of Mind is given below:
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to recognize and attribute mental states — thoughts, perceptions, desires, intentions, feelings –to oneself and to others and to understand how these mental states might affect behavior. It is also an understanding that others have beliefs, thought processes and emotions completely separate from our own.
Theory of Mind is a skill, just as much as St. Ignatius’ Discernment of Spirits is a skill. As such, it can grow better with practice, as you hone your intuition and become better at attuning to the thoughts of others. In a nutshell, this process consists of taking what a person is telling you and forming a theory about the underlying patterns that influence these thoughts and behaviors. It remains a theory as it is impossible to completely understand the mind of a fellow human being, and your conclusion may be right or wrong. The theory of mind is also similar to empathy, but the key difference is that empathy is the ability to feel what the other is feeling, while theory of mind relies on intuition and leaps of logic.
However, I would argue that this does not make the latter any less valid in the process of journeying with someone, as empathy has it’s limits. As humans, our experiences are all different, and that means we aren’t necessarily able to feel completely everything associated with someone else’s experience. This is where theory of mind helps fill in the gaps: “Oh, so-and-so probably feels X because Y.” Furthermore, theory of mind is something that everyone practices instinctively on some level. As such, it can be understood and harnessed to bring others to Christ.
In my opinion, to develop theory of mind in the context of Christian ministry, I would propose that three things are important:
  1. Firstly, prayer. As with all things in ministry, prayer is at the heart of everything. In this case, I believe that having a deep prayer life is of the utmost importance, as we are helping each other along in our Faith. Like any aspect of psychology, the theory of mind can be used to sinister or manipulative ends. Knowledge is power, and the very act of journeying together implies a mutual trust between two Christians that this knowledge will not be abused. So we must continue to pray that we will be given the grace to honor that trust, and to use it for God’s purposes, to lead others to Christ and to grow in Faith ourselves.
  2. Secondly, reading fiction. I understand that reading fiction is a luxury that few can afford, but it is nevertheless a very good way to develop the theory of mind. Stories resonate with people because the author, if competent, is able to replicate on the page experiences which resonate with the readers. Why did Harry Potter react that way? The narrative trick of ‘show, don’t tell’ forces you to think and guess at the motives of characters from the author’s description.
Another way that reading fiction helps is that stories and narratives bring people together, and which parts of a story people are drawn to can tell you quite a bit about them. I once gained an insight into someone’s particular emotional baggage and spiritual struggle by his sharing with me why the character of Darth Vader appealed to him so much.
  1. Lastly, spiritual reading. Journeying with others in a ministry or community setting necessarily operates on the assumption that humans have a spiritual dimension to them that cannot be ignored. Therefore, understanding this spiritual dimension is paramount if we want to use the theory of mind in helping others develop in their relationship with Jesus. I particularly recommend the works of Henri Nouwen, as he draws deeply from his own experiences and understanding of humanity, making his works extremely relatable. Spiritual reading helps us to uncover the common yearning that all humans, including ourselves, hold in their hearts, allowing us to help each other along in our journey.
So this has been my short and no means comprehensive introduction to a particular cognitive skill I think anyone in ministry should be aware of and aim to develop. I hope that as inadequate as it is, it will inspire readers to do their own exploring and reach their own conclusions.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Updates!!

Hello everyone! 🙂 Our one year anniversary is coming up REAL SOON (it’s actually tomorrow!! WOOTZ!! 🎉). So instead of our usual article upload today, we’d like to give you all some new updates that can be expected from us in the upcoming second year of our blog!
New Writers!
We’re very happy to announce that we’ll have some new writers joining us on this Grace-filled journey with us! Over the coming year, we’ll slowly be introducing some of these new brothers (and sisters 🙆‍♂️) so do look out for them and keep them in your prayers as you have been keeping us in your prayers the past year! 🙂
Readers’ Involvement!
In line with our name, we’d like to create more conversations and discussions in our blog! As such, sometime in the year ahead, we will be calling out for new ideas and discussion topics (and maybe even articles, hmm 🤔) from you, our readers! So if you have any thoughts, prayers or edifying experiences you’d like to share with us, please do so!
New articles!
As always, you can look out for new articles every Wednesday! Following the warm reception of our themed months, we will continue to have such themes in the upcoming months. Look out for those! Furthermore, we will also be launching articles in… wait for it… MULTIPLE LANGUAGES!! That’s right!! In order to reach out to more people in a multilingual country (and beyond), we’ve decided to release articles in other languages – so stay tuned!
That’s all, folks! Keep a look out at our YouTube page for a very special video tomorrow to celebrate our first anniversary!

Poem: Dining in the Desert

In this special post, the three of us come together in a collaborative effort to weave our individual searches for Jesus together into a poem.

A/N: Blessed Wednesday everyone! To round off Odes to October month, Chris, Greg and I thought we would try writing a poem together. After giving it some thought, I struck upon the idea of modeling the poem after a Japanese collaborative style of poetry called “renga”. 

You may notice that Greg’s first three lines take the form of the famous “haiku” – the three line, 17-syllable Japanese poem. A renga consists of a series of haikus linked together by a couplet – two lines of 7 syllables each. I thought the structured form of this poem would both impose healthy creative limitations (the challenge was to sum up the state of our current spiritual lives in a haiku), and aid some of us who had grave (and unfounded) doubts about our poetic abilities (*cough*Greg*cough*).

So over a long video call across various time zones, the three of us spent a light-hearted three hours listening to each others journeys and trying to fit our spiritual lives into 17 syllables, as well as finding ways to express where our spiritual lives overlapped, mainly in our combined desire to search for Jesus. Do let us know your thoughts on social media or if you ever wish to try a similar exercise with your community or loved ones. We hope you enjoy the read!

– Garrett

Greg:

I walk the desert 

Relishing in a mirage 

More real than the rain 

Garrett:

Truth reveals reality 

Turning desert to summer; 

Lazy summer’s day 

Seeker puts his satchel down 

To hear the Lord’s words: 

Chris:

“Why search for answers outside? 

Can you find rest in me, child?” 

New yet familiar 

I cook a meal for Jesus 

I am loved; He smiles. 

Greg:

My meal and His Eucharist 

We dine together and live 

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok

Poem Dialogue: “Thermopylae” by C.P. Cavafy

Garrett attempts a response to the poem ‘Thermopylae’

A/N: Continuing on from Chris’ post last week, I’ve also tried my hand at writing a response poem. The poem I’ve chosen is C.P. Cavafy’s poem ‘Thermopylae’. Thermopylae is the place where the 300 Spartans held their ground against an invading Persian force until they were slaughtered to a man. As you can imagine, it’s a poem about heroism and sacrifice, the best of humanity. I thought it would be interesting to try (badly) to emulate that style while talking about another place – Gethsemane, where the disciples fell asleep while Jesus was praying before the Passion. Oftentimes, we’re a lot less noble or amazing than we think we are, but we are still loved nonetheless. Hope you enjoy it! 

Thermopylae
Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtis will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.
Constantine P. Cavafy

Gethsemane

Have mercy on we who for an hour
fall asleep on their watch at Gethsemane.
Blissfully unaware of the trials of our Lord,
the dripping of his blood upon the ground
but still trying to serve Him, despite it all;
despite the petty failures, trusting in His grace,
to break through our weakness,
and bring the Gospel to others;
with awareness of our sins,
showing mercy to others as well.
And have mercy on especially,
when we realise (as we have already been told),
that the cock had crowed three times,
but our betrayal is already forgiven.

Garrett Ng

Fishers of Men: Leaving Nets Behind

Garrett reflects on following the call of Jesus, and what it means to ‘leave the nets behind’ for him.

This is a response to Chris’ article, “What are my Nets?” where he reflects on the passage in Mark about the disciples leaving their nets behind in order to follow Jesus. It’s a poignant reflection, elaborating on the need for detachment in order to follow Jesus with a dedicated heart. What really struck me when reading this article was this image of the nets. It’s a striking image, and I wondered whether further reflection on this image would prove fruitful. So this article is an attempt to do just that, expanding on the imagery of nets as found in the Bible and an attempt to synthesize this with my own personal experience with the ‘nets’ of my life.

Chris mentions that nets can come to symbolize many things that are important to us – “Nets of affirmation and societal approval? Nets of security and material desires? Nets of past hurts? Nets of people? Safety nets?” I think in particular, nets had a special significance for the lives of Simon and Andrew as fishermen. In Chris’ words again, dropping their nets means “letting go of their job, their profession — indeed, letting go of everything that they have stood for and done in their lives”. Yes, nets can be things that we are proud of, things that we can take pride in, things that give our life meaning. This rings true for me in particular, as the ‘nets’ that I cling to the most at the time of this writing are my own abilities and what I have accomplished with them so far.

I consider myself to be a late bloomer in terms of recognizing the places and skills I excel at. When I take an honest look at myself, I find myself badly wanting to use my gifts in order to impact the world in some way, as much of a pipe dream as that seems to be. Deep down, I fear that my life will be meaningless, and I find myself unconsciously taking hold of my abilities a bit tighter than I should.

But the Bible shows us how unhealthy these kind of attitudes are. In the book of Habbakuk (How’s that for a book of the bible you don’t read every day!), the prophet laments “A people, these, who catch all on their hook, who drag them with their net, in their dragnet gather them, and so, triumphantly, rejoice. At this, they offer a sacrifice to their dragnet, for providing them with luxury and lavish food. Are they then to empty their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity?” (Hab 1:15-17). These ‘people’ that Habbakuk refers to the Chaldeans or Babylonians, whose growing power in the region threatened the prophet’s Kingdom of Judah, which they eventually conquered.

Habbakuk thus exposes the danger of trusting too much in one’s own gifts and talents. When we use our gifts in a self-serving manner, we often end up misusing them instead. When we are so confident in our own strengths and abilities, our pride can often lead us to do things that are… ill-advised, to say the least. True, I may have some talent in certain areas such as writing, research and literary analysis, but if I buy too much into the idea that I can use these things to glorify myself, I may very well end up hurting or alienating others. To pursue ‘greatness’, be it in the form of excess wealth, fame, or other things, to the exclusion of everything else, is to be like the Babylonians in Habbakuk’s time, ‘empty[ing] their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity”.

So rather than use our gifts in self-serving ways, what should we do with them instead? I think the answer lies within the call of Jesus to the apostles on the beach: “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

Fishers of men. What is the significance of this phrase, other than showing that Jesus was rather skilled at wordplay? For me, it shows that Jesus is not ignorant of our abilities, but rather, he values each of us for who we are. More than that, he teaches us and directs us to use these abilities for ends that perhaps we could not envision ourselves. He saw these rough fishermen tending the tools of their trade on the shore, and knew that they could apply the same effort and tenacity they employed in catching fish to gathering their fellow men into the Kingdom of God. He saw tax-collectors, men reviled as greedy and race-traitors, and knew that that same sharpness and business acumen could be applied towards matters of social well-being, as seen by how Zechariah repaid anyone who he had cheated four times over.

So for myself, in the coming weeks I will continue to reflect on the transformation between fishermen, and fishers of men. I will continue to try to offer up whatever gifts God has given me back to Him, to let go of the nets of my fears and comforts. In doing so, I trust that the adventure He sends me on will prove a fruitful one.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Praise and Worship Reflection: Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)

Garrett reflects on how Chris Tomlin’s song “Whom Shall I Fear” shows us how God is with us always.

I still remember the first time I listened to “Whom Shall I Fear” by Chris Tomlin. It was my freshman year in NTU and I had, like a typical freshman, bitten off more than I could chew. It was one day in particular that I was buried under CCA commitments, on top of a whole slew of school assignments in a course I was extremely ill-suited for. Deciding to listen to some gospel music to settle myself, it was then that I noticed this song appearing in my YouTube feed. It looked interesting enough, and so I clicked on it hoping God would speak to me somehow through the singing, the lyrics, anything.

Boy, did He deliver.

The song begins by calling God our “morning song”, a reminder that God is with us from the very moment we awake, ready to meet the day with us. The following lines “Though darkness fills the night, it cannot hide the light” also reinforces God’s omnipresence, and the fact that He is with us through thick and thin, morning and night.

The next verse talks of God’s ability to aid us in the struggles of life. Chris Tomlin sings about how God “crush[es] the enemy underneath our feet”, a biblical reference to Genesis where God tells the serpent that Eve and her descendants shall crush him underfoot. God’s faithfulness is contrasted with Eve’s unfaithfulness, as this takes place after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and been cast out. Despite the choice of our first parents to rebel against God, He still looks out for them when he can. For Catholics, this line also has special significance as it refers to Our Blessed Mother’s role in conquering sin and death through her obedience to God as well, allowing herself to be an instrument in fulfilling God’s promises as the New Eve.

The next lines describe God as our “sword and shield”. This is reminiscent of many of the psalms which refer to God as someone who comes to our aid in very military terms. This kind of language appeals to me, mainly because I’m a massive dork who thinks such things are cool. But more importantly, it reminds us also of the reality of spiritual warfare, that our lives on earth are literally a battle to save our souls, no matter how we slice it. The next line is “though troubles linger still”. I love this line because it grounds the song back in reality, that it still expects trials despite God’s help. Ancient Greek plays employed a deus ex machina, a god out of the machine, to tie up their plays with a neat bow at the end. Our God, however, does not come from a machine, and He empowers man to face their challenges rather than simply handwave them away.

In between these two verses, the line “Whom shall I fear?” is repeated. This line is a challenge, a sign of confidence in God. It’s funny how in biblical terms, questions are often used as challenges. Think of the Archangel Michael’s very name – ‘Who is like God?’

This brings us to the chorus, which begins with “I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind.” The reason why these lines resonate with me is that it reminds me of the famous lines from the ancient Irish prayer, the Lorica of St. Patrick:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.”

I once read a blog post that said that this prayer is almost mathematical in its construction. It’s very measured and structured, and it’s a good prayer for meditation. It reminds us that there isn’t any facet of our life where Jesus doesn’t permeate or is absent from. And finally the crux of this song:

“The God of Angel armies,

is always by my side.”

Tomlin’s use of ‘Angel armies’ is a striking one, and one that has deep roots in scripture. In the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites is often called the “Lord of Hosts”, alluding to the angels he has under his command. But what does this mean for us, or what did it mean for Jesus back then?

A reading of the Gospels will show us that while Jesus trusts that his Father and the angels are watching over him, he never expects them to magically show up to pull him out of trouble. When facing the Temptations in the Desert, when Satan tempts him to cast himself down so that the angels will rescue him, Jesus declines, saying that one should not put the Lord to the test. A sterner test is asked of him in Matthew’s Gospel at the time of his arrest, when Jesus chooses to go quietly with his captors, remarking that his Father could send  “twelve legions of angels” to his rescue if he wished it.

I find Our Lord’s reaction fascinating – this sense of trusting so absolutely in God’s providence while at the same time accepting trials and tribulations with a peaceful heart. Jesus truly shows us by his example what it means to believe that God is always by our side, no matter what may happen. In my own situation, this song reminded me that my own trials were transient, and with some perspective, and perhaps time, I’d eventually be able to see the hand of God at work through these trials. Perhaps in the end, one of the only things I can be sure of is that “The God of Angel Armies, is always by my side.”

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Christian Castaways Part 2: Spiritual Survivors

Garrett reflects on a poem by Cardinal Newman, about trusting God in times of trial.

Last time around, we looked at the phenomenon of being ‘spiritually shipwrecked’ – moments where we realize that our pride and worldly desires have cut us off from God and left us spiritually desolate. I ended off that article with a quote by John Henry, Cardinal Newman, reflecting on how our struggles on Earth require us to change often in order to live an authentic Christian life.

As I reflected more on this idea however, I realized that Newman’s life and writings constitute a good reference on how to cling to God throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of life. With that in mind, I hope to provide a very brief introduction to this important Catholic thinker, as well as provide an analysis of his short poem, St. Paul at Melita, which describes the saint’s own shipwrecking and his response to that situation.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was an Anglican (and later Catholic) priest who distinguished himself as a thinker and academic at Oxford University. He was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, an intellectual movement that sought to re-introduce Catholic elements back into Anglican theology, a movement that resulted in the Anglo-Catholicism branch of the Anglican Communion. In 1845, Newman was received into the Catholic Church, an extremely controversial decision that alienated many, but at the same time, led to him and many of his followers to set up the Birmingham Oratory. Newman wrote multiple influential works defending Catholic thought and tradition, and was eventually made a Cardinal.

St. Paul at Melita was written in 1833, before Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, while he was touring Italy with a friend. This trip seemed to have been a productive time for him – many of his poems were written during this time, and also around this time he wrote his famous hymn, Lead, Kindly Light, about trusting God through darkness and fear. In many ways, it is easy to see this period as a foreshadowing of Newman’s later spiritual journey, one of trusting God through difficult times.

The poem is a reflection on the events of Acts 27:9-28:6, the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck on the island of Malta (Melita). Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Paul knows that the voyage is a bad idea. He attempts to warn the others, but they ‘took more notice of the captain and the ship’s owner than of what Paul was saying’ (Acts 27:12), leading to their shipwreck. Paul comforts the crew, and they eventually end up on the island of Malta. Newman in particular calls attention to Paul’s actions on the island – “Paul had collected a bundle of sticks and was putting them on the fire when a viper brought out by the heat attached itself to his hand” (Acts 28:3).

“SECURE in his prophetic strength,
The water peril o’er,
The many-gifted man at length
Stepp’d on the promised shore.”

Paul here is described as a figure of authority. He has ‘prophetic strength’, and is described as ‘many-gifted’. The impression he gives off is one of supreme confidence and trust in God. Despite the trials that he is undergoing – Paul at this point is heading to Rome as a prisoner to testify before Caesar – Paul surrenders everything to God, trusting in His will and His providence, something that Robinson Crusoe eventually learns to do as well.

“He trod the shore; but not to rest,
Nor wait till Angels came;
Lo! humblest pains the Saint attest,
The firebrands and the flame.”

Newman here draws attention to Paul’s actions on the island, namely his commitment to gathering sticks for the fire. Paul does not give in to despair or remain idle during his shipwreck. He does not even wait for divine help, but rather resolves to do his part. I think that last point is a poignant one, too often, I find the temptation to say that I will ‘leave something to God’ even though I know that there are more, possibly God-given opportunities for me to do something about the situation, and my holy language becomes a mask for my own resignation. No matter how little our actions can be, perhaps even just putting sticks to keep a fire going, if they bring warmth and cheer to those around us, they are surely pleasing to God.

But, when he felt the viper’s smart,
Then instant aid was given;
Christian! hence learn to do thy part,
And leave the rest to Heaven.

These last few lines are ones that I find especially piercing, as it really speaks to me and my experience of service in Christian ministries. People are people, and in ministry and community there will certainly come moments of pain and disappointment. To choose to continue to serve means to sometimes be reminded of such moments of pain, I find the thought of facing such ‘vipers’ unbearable. However, Newman here reminds us that God is still with us in our tribulations, ready to be with us in these moments of pain.

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng