Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In Pursuit of Money

SCRIPTURE: 2 Timothy 6:9-10
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: Jan 27th, 2016.
"Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (2 Timothy 6:9-10)

Last week, I wrote about the enticement of power, how power corrupts the flesh and how good Christian people in avoiding power like a plague miss the opportunity of seeing power as a gift to be stewarded rather than a poison to be shunned.  This week, I continue with some thoughts about a second temptation: Money.

I watched IP MAN 3 last night, a movie about a Chinese legendary hero, Ip Man. He was the said teacher of the famous Bruce Lee. A top martial arts pugilist, he pioneered a special kung fu called the Wing Chun martial art. This third installment, while not as good as the first one that launched Donnie Yen to fame, has enough bells and whistles to make it a worthy watch. There are many wonderful values in the film. There is the value of friendship, where leaders from the top pugilist schools regularly show respect to one another in admiration of their respective skill-sets and legends. There is the value of integrity, where people meant what they say, did what they promise, and kept their word. There is the value of marital love, where the protagonist lays everything aside, his reputation and fame, just to care for his cancer-stricken wife. Yet, a movie plot is not very exciting without villains and some level of bad behaviour. Here is where my reflections on money begin: Money corrupts the soul of the person from the inside out. Let me share three examples from the movie Ip Man 3.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

As the Spirit Leads - Reflections on Power

SCRIPTURE: Romans 8:5-8, 14
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: Jan 20th, 2016.

"5Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God." (Romans 8:5-8)
"For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God." (Rom 8:14)

If we crave status, we would be lead by the enticement of power.
If we crave money, we would become enslaved to activities driven by the pursuit of monetary gains.
If we crave fame, we would become infatuated with famous people in order to be somewhat like them.

This week, I want to start a series of reflections on how the idolatry of power, money, and fame are dangerous to the spiritual life. Power, fame, and fortune are three major distractions from the spiritual life. First off, power.

A) The Seduction of Power

George Orwell has famously written in his classic satire, Animal Farm, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Like nooses that render one helpless like a donkey, power makes one weak on the knees as the heart gives way to the potential benefit of power. The famous words of Darth Vader in Star Wars also refer to power: "Come to the dark side" and "You don't know the power of the dark side."

The star in the movie, Luke Skywalker was also intrigued with the powerful dark side when he asked Yoda his teacher: "Is the dark side stronger?" Yoda replied gently: "No, no, no. Quicker. Easier, more seductive."

The use of power is key to getting things done quickly in many societies. The movie, "The Story of Qiu Ju" (starring Gong Li) tells of a pregnant village woman (Qiu Ju) trying to find justice in a sea of powerful establishment. Angry at how the village chief kicked and hurt her husband on the groin, resulting in severe pain. Just watching the movie tells us a lot about the use of power in the Chinese culture. If one is a nobody, a weak peasant, a woman, or a marginalized person, it is hard to get things done. People brush one aside like fluff. They trample on the weak like leaves that dropped on the road. However, when they hear a serpent hissing, they stop their tracks. When they see a dalmatian growling, they freeze. When the king or president of the country travels, the roads that you normally drive in are immediately closed so that the royal or official entourage can pass.

In countries where corruption is rampant, if one does not have the right connections or know the right authority, it is quite impossible to get things done. Even issuing passports can be expensive. If one refuses to pay top dollar for quick processing, following the regular process can be extremely long and frustrating. Just one bribe to the man in charge and the passport could be renewed within 24 hours. Gang members drop names to tell others about who they are dealing with.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Spiritual Formation: A Love-Hate Relationship

SCRIPTURE: Galatians 4:17-19
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: January 11th, 2016
"17Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. 18It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. 19My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!" (Galatians 4:17-19)

SYNOPSIS: Spiritual Formation (SF) is not some Spiritual Disciplines version 2.0 or 3.0. It is a life-long process that lets Christ be formed in us so much that people who see us, would find it inviting enough to do the same. For all its good points, I still have a "love-hate" relationship with this term. This article explains why.

A sample copy of the popular devotional
There was a time in which people were all crazy about devotionals. I mean super crazy. The freely available "Our Daily Bread" from Radio Bible Class was one of the first devotionals I ever had. Printed as a pocket-sized booklet, it let new believers to read a verse, reflect on the story, say a prayer, and to hear a thought for the day. Other friends of mine swore by Selwyn Hughes's "Every Day With Jesus" devotionals. Unlike the ODB, EDWJ is not free. The first issue of EDWJ was published in 2000 and focused on monthly themes. The next wave was the practice of spiritual disciplines, thanks to the popularity of Richard Foster's "The Celebration of Discipline" which not only became a bestseller, it created a new wave of interest in both inward and outward practices of spiritual disciplines. Even today, people still talk about Richard Foster's spiritual disciplines as a way to live out their Christian lives.

Just like the way we upgrade our software, Christians sometimes wonder, "What's next?" Lo and behold, there is a new wave after Foster's Spiritual Disciplines. This is called "Spiritual Formation." I remember a time in which seminaries, churches, and various Christian groups were all talking about spiritual formation for their communities. In the minds of many, it was the "next big thing." For some then, it simply meant "Spiritual Disciplines 2.0" or version 3.0.

This week, I want to share the five things in my Love-Hate relationship with this strange thing called, "Spiritual Formation."

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year 2016?


Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: Jan 1st, 2016

Happy New Year? What does it mean? Wait, isn't this the exact same words we wish back in 2015, in 2014, in 2013, in 2012, and well, almost every other year? It's the same Auld Lang Syne every 365 days.

It's the same fireworks, parties, and dancing every 52 weeks. For some, it's the same mumbo-jumbo of goodbye or good riddance to a year mixed with more downs than ups. For others, it's the same "looking forward" to new hope, new promises, new adventures, and new opportunities. Then, like the annual clock, we come back to the same old midnight countdown the last minute of the year. With cheers and whistles, with beer and thistles, we welcome the new year by giving it another 365 days expiry date.

Then comes the tough questions.

1) What's your new year resolutions? (Don't know. Been there. Done that. What's new?)

2) What's your plan for the year? (Don't know. Same old same old, I suppose. What's new?)

3) What's different from last year? (Don't know. Is there really anything different?)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year End Reflections 2015

Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: Dec 31st, 2015

It's been another year. One regular thing I do is to reflect and to give thanks. Many people would note the big news highlights of the year. Whether it is political change or economic downturn, in an age of social media, people are becoming independent news broadcasters. I prefer not to focus on what the public have already written plenty about. I want to keep it simple and personal.

Like any other year, it began with a warm, nice, and fuzzy goodbye to the old and a fun and loud Happy New Year to ring in the new year. I was in Seattle last year with my family watching the fireworks over the harbour overlooking the Space Needle. It was nice to have all the family gathered together in one car. Of course, the few exciting minutes of fireworks were followed up by nearly an hour's wait for the traffic to clear after the fireworks event. It made me wonder if it was all worth it.

It was a year where I see a couple of high notes. Like many people, family has always been a priority for me. I am reminded of the biblical injunction in 1 Timothy 3:5 for any servant of God to learn to manage and care for his own family before even attempting to manage the Church. The apostle was clear:
"If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?" (1 Tim 3:5)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Peace

SCRIPTURE: Luke 2:13-14
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: Dec 23rd, 2015

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:13-14)

Christmas is around the corner. By now, the shopping rush is at its peak. Malls are packed. Car parks are full. People are ramping up purchases regardless of how slow the economy is. Christmas carols and festive songs are played over the airwaves about Santa Claus, reindeers, gifts, and of course the famous words, “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men.” Modern consumers generally let these songs remind them of shopping time and the coming end of the year festivities. Few would bother to pause and ponder at the words of the classic carols. In fact, some of these traditional carols were written not with modern hypermarkets or big box department stores in mind. They were written with a grim message of seeking hope amid the gloom.

A) Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All People?

One of these songs is the haunting 19th Century carol called, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who lost two wives and had a son injured during the war, when he hears songs about peace and goodwill, those were words he could not identify. His third stanza is an honest confession of his inner conflict.

And in despair I bowed my head: "There is no peace on earth," I said, "For hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men."

On one cold dark winter, he wrote these words: “Believe me, every man has his secret sorrows, which the world knows not; and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad,”

Longfellow is not alone. Some people dread Christmas for various reasons. It might be missing the presence of a loved one who recently passed away. It could be the absence of a family member who could not come home for the season. It could also be due to illness or some unforeseen circumstances that render family get-togethers impossible. Someone I knew from Church recently died in a tragic car accident. He was hit by a speeding car on an early Saturday morning. His family was left reeling in utter shock and disbelief that he could not be present with the family on Christmas. In times like these, we would rather the festive season be over as soon as possible. For every occasion of family togetherness reminds us of the tragic loss of a loved one. How can one celebrate Christmas when one’s love is no longer around? It is hard. Painfully hard.

As I think about the first century Bethlehem, the coming of Christ was during a period of hard times too. Joseph, engaged to be married to his fiancĂ©e, had to grapple with the shame of being married to a pregnant woman. He could legally divorce Mary, but was told not to. Then there was the evil King Herod who was so paranoid about the words of the Magi about the coming “king of the Jew” that he ordered the killing of all boys two years and under in Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary too had to escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s brutal genocide of baby boys. There was no Santa Claus to give presents then, only Roman soldiers ordered to kill. There were no nice hospital beds with advanced medical care for Mary, only a humble manger for Mary to rest and give birth.Just like Longfellow's carol, peace and goodwill are much hoped for but scarcely realized during the year of Jesus' birth.

Superimposed Modern Rendition of 1st Century Nativity Scene

Monday, December 14, 2015

Spiritually Rich - On Things That Matter

SCRIPTURE: Luke 16:25
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: December 14th, 2015
25“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. (Luke 16:25)
Codex Aureus of Echternach
In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus contrasts two scenes, and two worlds of richness and poverty. In the first scene (this life on earth), the unnamed rich man is presented as one who enjoys the luxuries of life, who is well-dressed with fine linen and has fine-dining daily. He lives the good life and appears to reside in a castle-like residence. He lives "in luxury every day." If he is in our modern world, I could think of him having the best of everything for self. He could be eating a lobster a day or had lots of choices about which tuxedo to wear when he goes out. He could have an indoor swimming pool or an elaborate exercise equipment. He could also be rubbing shoulders with the ruling powers of the day, meeting in high places and lazing around at posh resorts. Who knows, he could be playing golf with the Presidents or CEOs of major corporations of the world. Just a swipe of his credit card on a big purchase could render him frequent flyer miles that benefit his entire household. Life is good. So good that matters of poverty and injustice in the world do not register even a single thought of care or concern. People who are rich and powerful tend to have blind spots about the rest of society. 

Almost immediately, Jesus switches channels to zoom in on Lazarus, who not only sat at the gates of the rich man, he had sores so painful that he needed the dogs to moisten the wounds with their tongues. Hungry, he was willing to settle for any crumb that fell on the table. I am not even referring to leftovers. Crumbs are like bits of food that would be discarded anyway. Like rats or stray cats that snatch away any food that falls on the ground, he longed for those crumbs. If the rich man is the epitome of luxurious living and wanton splurging of wealth, Lazarus is the symbol of poverty and a life nobody wants.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Beware of Prim-N-Proper Spirituality

SCRIPTURE:Luke 16: 1-15
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date:December 3rd, 2015

8“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

One of the most intriguing parables of Jesus has to be the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. In that story, Jesus told his disciples about a rich man who had decided to terminate the services of someone he hired. The NIV describes this "someone" as the “Shrewd Manager.” This shrewd manager had heard about his impending dismissal. Worried about his future, he went ahead to do something rather unthinkable. Calling in each of his master’s debtors, he went ahead to give his own version of Black Friday sales. For the first debtor who owed 450 gallons of olive oil, the manager dished out a 50% discount. For the second debtor who owed 1000 bushels (about 30 tons) of wheat, he immediately offered a 20% discount. Other than these two debtors, there were no mention of other such deals but it is safe to assume that these two examples reflect what he had done to the rest. The Shrewd Manager was offering a Great Middle-Eastern Sale of the Century!

For those of us familiar with earthly sensitivities and the need for right ethical behavior, this story should rub us on the wrong side in at least three ways.

A) Damaging Profitability

First off, how can we ever justify giving huge discounts without consulting our superiors? In the service sectors, anything out of the ordinary require the approval or signature of the next line of authority. Over at the Starbucks counter, if there is a dispute, or when the customer asks for something out of the ordinary, a common strategy is for the barista to consult his or her manager in charge. Whether it is giving out discounts or providing additional features at a lower cost, the employee usually does not have the authority to go beyond his/her duty. When we go to the bank, a withdrawal exceeding a certain amount would require additional levels of clearance from the branch’s supervisors. From airports to supermarkets; car sales offices to corporate deals, getting approvals to give deep discounts are needed. Last week was US Thanksgiving, followed by the traditional mad rush to go shopping after the Turkey dinner. Across the United States, people would hop onto their vehicles to rush to the malls or department stores for the post-Thanksgiving event: Black Friday. The word “Black” is used to describe the dark midnight hour where businesses like Walmart, Target, Sears, Nordstrom, etc would open their doors at the stroke of midnight to give shoppers a magical night of discounts galore. It has become an annual affair where people would fight over goods at Walmart and other popular discount stores.

(Photo credit: dailymail.co.uk)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Why I Still Prefer Printed Bibles

SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 40:6-8
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 26 November 2015

6A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
8The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8, ESV)

(Picture Credit: aachristian.wordpress.com)
There was a time when people bring their printed Bibles to Church, to Bible studies, to conferences, seminars, and Church events. On Sundays, whether they are on public buses, community vans, or personal vehicles, they could be seen carrying a printed book on one hand. Whether they are carrying bulky study Bibles in their colourful hardcovers; large ones in beautiful leather jackets; or pocket-sized ones that can easily fit into a ladies bag; people going to Church were easily recognizable. In Bible study classes, some eager believers would even bring more than one Bible translation. Some carry with them interlinear types while others would have bilingual Bibles to aid their reading. With a Bible, a notepad, and a pen, the individual would be all set to write notes.

Not anymore.

Times have changed. Instead of printed Bibles, most people carry pocket-sized cell phones. Whether it is an aging palm-sized iPhone 4S or the larger screen Samsung Galaxies; Kindle Fires or the Android 10” tablets; there is a new revolution in the way people read Bibles. With a swish left, they can move forward page, a chapter, or a book. With a swipe right, they can page backward. Using fingers to magnify or to shrink the words, it is a technological wonder on how we have the whole Word in our hands, ready to be manipulated according to our eyes. Sometimes, it seems like the attraction is not the Bible but distractions of other things.

A) Distractions
Distractions like the brightness and look of the screens. Where is the elusive setting to control brightness? How can the fonts be made a little bigger? What version do I want to open? Which Bible app should I use? There are the free ones like YouBible; the Zondervan BibleGateway app; the Logos Bible app;  the Olive Tree Bible; the eBible; the GloBible; etc. Some of these require an active Internet connection in order to browse to our favourite versions. Unless of course, we pay a small fee to download some pretty good electronic Bibles such as the Tecarta (Android/iOS) and the NeuBible (iOS).

There is the distraction of seeing another person’s digital device looking more cool than ours. “Hey! Is that the latest iPhone 6S you’re using?

There is the distraction of pop-ups, emails, and Whatsapp messages that appear on our cell phones.  Hey! I really need to respond to my boss. Just gimme a second.

Meanwhile, the Bible reading progresses from person to person until someone says: “Where are we now?” This person had been lost trying to navigate the Bible on his own tablet. There were times in which I simply pass my own Bible to the person struggling to read from his own phone.

There is a change in the way we do Bible studies now. So what I do is to print out the entire passage for the group. Every single person gets the same Bible passage, the same Bible translation, and being on the same page. Literally and metaphorically. Literally, we all have a better following as the person reads the Bible and the rest of us follow accurately the verses read, the pages flipped, and the thoughts synchronized. Metaphorically, we are all following the journey through the same passage and studying the contexts together.

Having all on the same page is important for a Bible study environment. If not, we can easily go off tangent on other matters. A careless flip or an innocent tab on our tablets can launch us to a whole new app or page, leaving us behind from the rest of the group. Or when our phones go black to conserve energy, forcing us to look for the power button to get back on track. Worse, when we spend more time trying to navigate our eBibles, we subconsciously lose the train of thought by the person sharing about the Bible verses.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Welcome or Not to Welcome?

SCRIPTURE: 1 John 4:18
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 18 November 2015

18There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18)

The Paris attacks last week easily consume the front pages of most major dailies around the world. With sensational reporting and graphic pictures, followed by commentaries and opinion pieces, everyone have heard at least something about it: Terrorism in France.

Hundreds of people died, mostly French. By targeting at key popular spots such as soccer stadiums, restaurants, cafes, concert halls, etc, the objective of the co-ordinated attacks is to instill fear and a sense of insecurity among the people. It has partial success. As Parisians grapple with a world that would never be the same again, they realize that safety and security cannot be taken for granted. Flowing tears of grief are mixed with growing fears of new threats that could come anytime, anywhere, and to anyone. These fears resulted in more counter-terrorist actions. The next day, France launched one of the largest assaults at terrorist targets in war-torn Syria. Today, anti-terrorist forces continued their hunt for the masterminds of last Friday's attacks. As world leaders and community groups come together to pray for France, social media is filled with notes of love with #PrayForParis.

At the France-England friendly soccer match yesterday, although England won 2-0, the result did not matter. The highlight was not the soccer game but the events before the game. United as one people, both French and English national anthems were sung by all in the stadium, including a sizeable number of French in the crowds. It is a show of unity and defiance against terror, saying that good will always triumph over evil. Everywhere we go, we see the French flag colours of red, white, and blue across monuments, buildings, and public events. The social media titan, Facebook has even made it easier for users to create French coloured backgrounds for them to express their sharing of grief and their solidarity with the French people.

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