Monday, December 28, 2009

Reflections 2009 ( Two Words)

Reflections on the Year 2009 (Two Words)
I summarize this year with 2 words: Prepared and Stranger
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8, NIV)
It has become a cliché every year: “It has been an eventful year.” People in business often say to each other, “We’ve been really busy.” Many others continue their non-stop engagement with bread and butter matters, from work expectations to family situations. For this last devotional of the year, let me take some time to briefly reflect over the major events and also to summarize some personal thoughts .

Some of the major news events of 2009 includes:
  • January 20th – Barack Obama becomes the 1st black President of the USA
  • February 7th – Bushfires hit Australia in one of the worst droughts there (Brisbane Times)
  • March – Financial markets hit a new low; Remember AIG?
  • April – North Korea continues to show aggressiveness as they test launch missiles
  • May – Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers surrender to government forces;
  • June – H1N1 fears start to rise on a global scale; Michael Jackson dies;
  • July – Rioting in XinJiang China
  • August – Two American journalists freed from China after former President Bill Clinton intervenes; Corazon Aquino and Edward Kennedy dies;
  • September – Typhoon in Philippines;
  • October 22nd – Launch of Microsoft Windows 7 operating system
  • November - Economic Turmoil in Dubai
  • December – Failed bombing attempt on a NorthWest Airlines flight
Reflections on a World of Unpreparedness
I ponder upon the question: Are these events really that new? Should we really be surprised when sensational events that appear unexpectedly should become a drama by itself? Perhaps, it is not the event itself, but our 'perception' of the timing of the event. In other words, the more *unprepared* we are, the more likely we will be spooked by bad news and be caught off-guard in surprise and bewilderment. Jesus said to us that we 'see to it that you are not alarmed.' Let us take heed.  My first point is, how deeply shocked we are, sometimes reflects not the events per se, but the state of UNPREPAREDNESS in our hearts.

For instance, before Michael Jackson's death, tabloids were splashing all kinds of scandals and drug problems encountered by the star. Once his death was announced, people throng music stores and sales of his records skyrocket. Even a lavish memorial service is held in his name. Why are people so shocked? People will die anyway. It is only a matter of time. Indeed, it is because we do not expect the king of pop to die so young, that causes us to be 'shocked.'

Sometimes, the shock becomes more acute the closer it is to us. While many of these events hit the news headlines, many hardly go beyond the mental level, until it hits home. When that happens, we will complain that the world do not really care, forgetting that we were once the 'world' that we are now pointing a finger at. Just think of the H1N1 scare. It is one thing to read about it on the papers. When one of our children gets it, our perception of it changes dramatically. I experienced it as well, as one of my neighbours' children got H1N1 one after the other.

In North America, it would seem like the year began with much promise and anticipation of change, with the election of a new American President. Yet, it ends with a tragic terrorist attempt to explode an American airplane out of the sky. The faces of leaders may be new, but the issues they have to tackle are old. Headlines wow the eyes, but seldom move the hearts and hands to do more beyond watching the TV, unless it hits closer to home. Let me suggest that in prayer, we learn to care for matters beyond our homes. In prayer, we will learn to do more besides watching and reading about them. In prayer, God reveals the actions that we can take. Prayer is a necessary step toward a prepared heart. Pray for the world. Pray for loved ones.
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7)
Reflections Closer to the Heart
I have close friends who have experienced loss of loved ones this year. One lost a child. Another lost a spouse. Others continue to struggle with health issues. Through the years, I have seen friends struggling with remembrance of loved ones on their death anniversaries. As I watch these people, frequently, the best I can do is to sit next to them to offer a loving hug and empathetic look. Sometimes, I offer to pray for them. I would meditate on God’s Word to ask for peace to be with them.

Personally, my life this year has been largely quiet. I like it that way. It is something I cherish, even though sometimes I wish that I was a little more famous, so that people will not ignore me. At the end of it all, I am simply a small petal in an ordinary flower, or an insignificant drop of water in the world wide ocean. I am not as compelling as I would like to think. I have learned lots this year, updating myself with technological developments, constantly adjusting my attitudes toward the social networking phenomena spearheaded by Facebook and Twitter, and blessed by the people in my ministry. My book reviews have received both bouquets of compliments as well as brickbats that includes abuses. I am learning what it means to depend more on God and to see his grace flowing through both my lack as well as my plenty. I continue to marvel at how my children have grown, in physical size as well as mental prowess. The greatest joy of a parent is to see one’s children learning to make sensible and responsible decisions without prompting. Gratefully, I can see my children learn to cope with any financial insecurity, by learning to trust that we, their parents trust God to provide for all their needs. Building emotional confidence is best done within an environment of faith, hope and love.

Reflections Summarized by Two Words
Preparation is the first key word for me this year 2009. News events around the world may be tumultuous. Local news such as tax increases, reduction in social benefits and changes to laws may affect our pockets, but we must not allow these things to decrease our hope. Jesus has already told us not to be surprised. In October this year, I have written about being prepared, so I will not elaborate much on this word, ‘prepared.’ My second word for the year is *STRANGER*.

I cannot help but suspect that one reason why many of us do not grow in our spiritual walk with God, is because He is a ‘stranger’ to us. The less time we spend with God, the more ‘strange’ he becomes to us. Perhaps, for the new year, as far as your relationship with God is concerned, move from ‘stranger’ to ‘friend’ and watch how God becomes more real in your life. My second point is: We pay less attention to people we call strangers. We tend to focus more on people we love, like family and friends. Thus, if we learn to see people as ‘neighbours’ rather than ‘strangers,’ this world will be much better off.

My Prayer for You
Many of my readers know me personally, either through personal emails or contact over the years. It is usually through this method of matching the face to the name, and the name to the essay that causes one to read a little more graciously, and a little more carefully. Those who do not know me as well, may not pay as much attention to me or my writings. That is simply being human. Put it another way, we tend to pay less attention to ‘strangers.’ Just like Christmas cards. The first thing we usually read is not the card but WHO sent the card.

For some of you on my subscription list, even though I have not personally met you, I would like you to know that you are no ‘stranger’ to me, for I pray for you. I may not know you personally, but I count it a privilege to remember you in my prayer. Out of this attitude flows a desire to treasure you in my heart, wherever you are. Even though I may not change the world dramatically, I can still do my share in my own small way. Sabbath Walk is one tiny way. Thank you for walking with me, and do let me pray for you.
“Our God in Heaven, we come before you helpless in many ways. From politics to economics, from weather calamities to human follies, you are constantly watching over all. Every word we speak. Every letter we type. Every thought we think. Every memory we cherish. You know them all. I pray for each name on my subscription list that you will help them maintain a state of preparedness to await your Second Coming of your glorious Son, Jesus. Keep them watchful. Keep them hopeful. Above all, allow them to love You like never before, for the coming year 2010 and beyond. Enable them to channel their heartfelt desires into fruitful works. Keep them aware that their love for You be translated into love for one another. I pray for all of us, especially my readers, that we learn to see people all over us, not as strangers to shun, but neighbours to embrace. In our own strength, it will be an impossible task. Thus we ask that YOU, empower us to do the seemingly impossible: Love God and neighbour. Begin with all their loved ones, that their love for spouse, children, siblings, parents, colleagues, and all. May the New Year be one that is filled with hope and strength to overcome. Help us all to remember, that with each pain & suffering we encounter, there are also triumphs over them. We long to see your ultimate triumph soon.  
Help us to be PREPARED at all times. Help us to learn to see people not as strangers but neighbours. May we all make a step away from the road of strangers, toward the path of friends. All these we ask in Jesus’ Name. Amen.”
May your New Year 2010 be filled with hope in your hearts, and a constant state of preparedness to spring into action a love for God and neighbour. If our world each day can be one stranger less, and one neighbour more, this world will indeed be changed.

Written by conrade yap

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Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org/ . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How to Unwrap Our Gift

TITLE: HOW TO UNWRAP OUR GIFT
Written by: Conrade Yap (22 Dec 2009) 
"Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms." (1 Peter 4:10)
This is Christmas week. Retailers cash in on the last minute shopping rush. Consumers dash to finish their last hour of buying. Parents queue up for the coolest toys. Children wait up in anticipation of wonderful gifts. It is season's greetings, with shouts of jingle bells to the ears, Christmas lightups to the eyes and with merriment all around. Carols fill the airwaves. Flashy ecards flood Internet screens. Merry making starts the day with continuous feasting and drinking through the night.

I like this time of the year, where people stinge a little less, to give a little more. Partly because it is time for humanity to come together. Partly because it is a time to slow down and reflect over the past year. The mood is pleasant. I am not alone to wish that everyday is like Christmas Day. As I look at Christmas trees and their decorations, I admire the nicely wrapped presents of different shapes and sizes. North Americans are really creative. Everything seems to revolve around family and get together with friends. It seems like the whole world is wrapping and giving away presents to all. It seems like many people wants to express their love and appreciation through giving and sharing. It is entirely appropriate that I do the same, using the gift of God to serve the children of God, that they too can serve others in the world, young and old, rich or poor, sad or glad, regardless of language, ethnicity and worldviews.


Unwrapping God's Gift to Us
How do we unwrap God's gift to us? We read in many parts of the Bible about gifts. Today's passage above is from Peter. It is an exhortation to Christians to continue to bring love, joy and peace to the world, especially among the communities around them. One question that continues to draw attention is about the 'Will of God' in our lives. It remains one of the most sought after topics at workshops and seminars in churches, Christian gatherings and teaching seminars. I remember how Christians I meet will raise this question over and over again. Many of them want to do good but are unsure how. Most of them desire to obey God but are not sure how. Many of them know they have a gift, but are not sure what it is. this article is written to help us get an idea of how to unwrap our gift.

I believe that God has given each of us a gift. We may have many talents, but most of the time, these talents stem from something more intrinsic, even hidden from us. In fact, the different skills, and talents that we have do not define who we are. The reverse instead is true. We all typically have one gift, many manifestations. Let me suggest my paradigm for discovering and for unwrapping the gift God has given us. I call it the G.I.F.T. When we can unwrap our GIFT, we will learn to cherish it, to use it for the glory of God.

The GIFT Paradigm
Through the years, I have been reading about the will of God. I am still learning and this represents a small part of what I have experienced and learned. A common argument made by many Christian authors is that we need not look very far to find the will of God. They all agree, that we find God's will with God's Word as a guide. Let me supply my simple guide to unwrap our gift, based on 1 Peter 4:10.

1) G = Generosity
In uncovering our gift, there is a sense of a desire to share, not simply for monetary sake, but for BOTH monetary and non-monetary means and ends. This means that it is not only when we are paid to do something, then we exercise our gifts. No! God's gift is freely given. Thus it should also be freely given away through a proper use of it. Frequently, the exercise of this gift is demonstrated by a desire to share it, and to joyfully use it for the benefit of others. Peter exhorts his disciples and hearers to use their gifts 'in serving one another.'

I remember when I start Sabbath Walk devotionals, one of the concerns is how do I compensate for the time spent for it. How do I justify the initial small outlay to create the website, buy the domain and maintain it weekly? There is no business plan. There are no financial means to justify the hours I put in to pray and to write our my thoughts. In fact, many times, a devotional sent out hardly gets any feedback at all. Not that I crave recognition or positive affirmation. Rather, if anyone were to measure the *success* of Sabbath Walk, if it was a company based on positive feedback or monetary returns, Sabbath Walk would have been a bankrupt company within the first 3 months. I want Sabbath Walk to be a channel to use my gift, to encourage the body of Christ, and to be a gift for the people of God.

In a nutshell, I believe God has been very generous with me. I acknowledge God's generosity with me, and want to be generous with God's gift. Sabbath Walk is essentially a gift that I joyfully and generously want to share with my family, my friends and all who know me or are getting to know me. I discover to my delight, that 'generosity' is the one aspect of unwrapping God's gift to us. We need not be coerced from the outside to be generous. True giving is always something that grows from the inside.

2) I = Innovative spirit
Secondly, we can recognize the gift we have by seeing how we desire to innovate and to be creative around it. People who recognize a gift never stays contented in just one version of it. They desire to use this gift to create different versions of it. Those with a desire to sing learns as wide as possible a repertoire of songs. They want to reach the potential of their voices. They want to communicate powerfully the emotions tied to any song. They want to share more of themselves through the music they belts out. In other words, they have a strong desire to innovate and to continue to do so all of their lives. They 'faithfully administer God's gifts in their various forms.'

I have been reading leadership materials and how some companies succeed and others not. One of the key factors between great companies and merely good companies is how they innovate. Companies that move from good to great are those that do not simply sit on the successes of yesterday. They innovate. Hewlett-Packard is one of them. When they were already successful in their measurements unit (now Agilent), engineers in HP Labs, (top class research division) created the world's first inkjet device. Unknown to them, this small invention were to spawn a multi-billion dollar printer industry, and launch a whole new era in printing. The dot-matrix ribbon printer leader at that time, Epson, was left wondering what happened to their business, even as HP skyrockets to become one of the computer industry's biggest innovation stories. We can all unwrap our gifts by recognizing the particular gift in us that makes us want to innovate.

3) F = Fervour
Thirdly, it is the heart that drives the hands to do the most wonderful things. In business, one of the core traits of entrepreneurs is passion. Without it, one cannot run the marathon of hard business dealings. Without passion, one can easily give up when the funds are low. Without passion, one easily complains and whines about life and how unfair the world is. Fervour is one of my favourite words, besides zeal. It is a way to unwrap our gift. In other words, the gift that we have within us, is most visible when we employ our resources to use them with fervour. We dream it when we are sleeping. We think of it when we are waking. We pray about it in our working. We ponder over it frequently in our leisure. Sometimes, we are so excited about it, that we unconsciously exercise it.

I believe I have the gift of teaching through writing, sometimes speaking. Even though my writing is imperfect, with grammatical errors and long-winded prose at times, I continue to press on despite negative comments even nasty words. Some of the feedback I get are crude and painful. Others border on the non-committal word called "interesting." Yet, these negative things not only do not discourage me, they spur me on to improve. They make me want to do better, and to do more. Failures are seen as learning opportunities. Like the famous inventor Edison, a failed attempt is not a bad thing. It shows us what *NOT* to do next time. With fervour, we can unwrap God's gift to us even more, each time we do it with passion, with love and with joy.

4) T = Thankfulness
Paul's words to the Thessalonians is to give thanks in everything (1 Thess 5:18). I think there is a deep spiritual benefit here. It is also theology powerfully put into practice each time we give thanks. When we give thanks, we acknowledge that what we have, is nothing but grace. In fact, the world runs on grace that we often take things for granted. The bus transit system runs on time. The TV news channel broadcasts at the set hour. The electricity and water flows according to our demands. I believe that each time we give thanks, we make this world a better place, beginning with our hearts. When we turn on the power switch, and give thanks, we show our appreciation for the power engineers, the people who make the electricity possible to us. When we go for a nice warm shower, and give thanks, we recognize how much we have been blessed by an efficient water distribution system. When we go to the restaurant, and pause to give thanks, we start to realize that the chefs, the decorations, the meticulous menu and the people working in the restaurant did not appear overnight, but has been painstakingly planned and prepared for our benefit.

This is the fourth aspect of GIFT that unwraps the gift in us. In fact, I will say that giving thanks enable us to unwrap our gifts over and over again, each time able to see a newer perspective of our gift. Some of my best writing moments flow out of a thankful heart. My words become seasoned with grace and gratitude. My sentences are bubbly. My thoughts are lively. Give thanks to the Lord, for he indeed is good.


Summary
In this electronic day and age, distance has been overcome by the Internet. Sharing takes on a whole new level, and the world is now much bigger than simply our small neighbourhood. Distance is no longer a big constraint. We can use our gifts to benefit more people more than ever before. Let me summarize the four aspects of unwrapping our gifts.


We unwrap our gift through eyes of generosity. For some of us it is volunteering our services free of charge, like serving as an usher in church, hospitality, or even simply greeting one another. It is generously done. We never stop giving.
Ask:What are the things we are generous with? What are we most willing to invest, regardless of benefits or cost?
We unwrap our gift through innovative hands. We look at it from different angles all the time. We have that strong desire to improve and do things differently. We never stop becoming creative.
Ask: What are the things that we constantly try to improve, even without others prompting us?
We unwrap our gift through fervour.
Ask: What is our passion in life? What makes us persevere on in both good and bad times?

We unwrap our gift through continual thanksgiving. May I humbly suggest, that we have already been given much, so let give thanks frequently. In doing so, our efforts at generous giving of ourselves, time and efforts, our innovative ways to exercise the gift, our fervour to use them, will take on a new dimension each day. In giving thanks, the unique gift in each of us becomes more evident in us, and through us. In giving thanks, we unwrap our G.I.F.T over and over again. Each time we do that, do not be surprised that love, joy and peace comes alongside this unwrapping.
Ask: How much do we appreciate God's grace to us? Much is given, much is required.

One more thing. Each of our unique gifts grows out of a common gift of faith through grace. Let us celebrate the greatest Gift of all to us: Christ. In fact, as I think of church and the community, I dream of the day where Christian believers unwrap each other's gifts in such a way and still able to say the following"
“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree is the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.” (quote attributed to Burton Hills)
Let me add. Let's wrap our gifts around each other, and together become a united gift for God. May his kingdom come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

From Sabbathwalk, have a blessed Christmas 2009!


sabbathwalk



Copyright by SabbathWalk 2009. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Preaching the Word in Word and Indeed

TITLE: Preach the Word in Word and Indeed
“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Tim 4:2, NIV)
I love to preach. Whenever the text is opened, there is an inexplicable joy and enthusiasm to dive in, to dig in, and to swim in the Scriptures. While I do not preach every week, I am constantly in a preparation mode. I read widely. I write. I reflect. I blog. For I believe in Paul’s exhortation to young Timothy above, to be ready in season and out of season. That is why when I am asked to preach, my preparation frequently leads me to 3 or more versions of a sermon. It can look like a 3-in-1 gift to the church. I like to see it as offering 3 different versions to God and pray that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide me to select the most appropriate version. Such a version needs to be the one that answers three needs; truthfulness of my heart, appropriate to the congregation, and glorifying to God.

This is no easy task. In fact, the key to preaching is not in a good pulpit performance but a humble heart. The pulpit ministry can become a great temptation to show off one’s oratory skills and public speaking capabilities. Sometimes, we can confuse the pulpit with motivational talks. No! The pulpit is far too sacred to be secularized. It is far too precious to be diluted into worldly stories and motivational speeches. Some preachers think that telling stories and getting people’s attention is far more important. Yet, preachers of the Word of God are not called to be Sunday entertainers, but worshipers. If one does not worship well, how can one preach well?

Bored on Sundays in a Culture of Entertainment
The word ‘worship’ has become so widely used that its meaning has been diluted. We use it for singing songs. We use it in our printed bulletins. We use it to symbolize a Sunday gathering. A lack of understanding of true worship, easily tempts us to equate worship with another program to satisfy self. We need to remind ourselves that in worship, it’s not about us. It’s all about God. It is about giving God the credit, and to learn to give thanks and praise to a worthy God. Like Matt Redman’s popular song,
It’s all about You, Jesus.” which brings us to a heart of worship.
Unfortunately for many, our listening ability has been sharply curtailed due to unhealthy expectations we carry over unwittingly from the TV/movies to the pulpit. Watching TV, Youtube on the Internet and movies, 7 days a week can inadvertently create in us an entertainment mentality. We then carry this with us even as we sit on the pews each Sunday. If the preacher tells a nice story, we sit up and listen. When the preacher goes to the hard task of deciphering the biblical languages, we yawn and doze off in boredom. Toward the end of the service, we wonder what happened. One of the common complaints I have heard is that preachers speak above one's head. My question, is it solely the preacher's fault?
A joke was told about a man who slept through a boring sermon. The preacher, feeling a little indignant decided to embarrass the man. So he asks all who wants to go to heaven to stand up. Everyone did except for the snoring man. As members of the congregation begins to sit, the preacher asks another question, “Those of you who thinks he will go to hell, please stand up.” The dazed man suddenly wakes up and said: “Pastor, I am not sure about what we are voting here, but it seems like only the two of us are in agreement.”
Anybody can tell stories and jokes, but not everyone can preach in a manner that leads all toward worship. The pulpit ministry is essentially a ministry to worship God by letting God’s word shine forth into the hearts of all, including the preacher. I will even venture to argue that in any preaching situation, the one most blessed is often the preacher himself or herself. From experience, the biggest challenge in preaching is not the sermon material but the heart. It is the preparation of the heart that is most difficult. It is the preparation of the heart that is most treacherous. It is the preparation of the heart that most accurately determines who we are worshiping on Sunday. It is the preparation of the heart that tells us whether we are working for God’s glory or the preacher’s own reputation.

I remember one sermon which I was particularly proud of. Having put in many hours to prepare, I printed them out and practiced many times including the hours leading up to the Sunday sermon time. At the end of the sermon, I felt empty. I felt like I have merely performed an act. I felt while I have delivered professionally, I have worshiped miserably. The feeling is terrible, that I dare attempt to grab what is rightfully God’s and to chase after positive affirmations and feedback from others, to call it mine.

At other times, I will faithfully prepare my sermon. Despite a weak delivery, I will feel glad and peaceful within, knowing that the Lord’s power is made perfect in my weakness. I love this situation, where I know for sure, that if the parishioners were blessed, it is definitely not my work, but the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a strange journey of a preacher. God has blessed me with a desire to preach, and to do so as faithfully as possible. Knowing my passion, He has even provided me a preaching mentor, Dr Haddon Robinson, previously named one of America’s Top Preachers. He is also my current doctoral dissertation advisor. I have benefited greatly simply by listening to his wise experience.

Preaching is not a Ministry but an Attitude
Some say that entering seminary is essentially learning to minister full-time in an official ministerial capacity. While true in some ways, I think it is far too narrow a perspective. Going into seminary or Bible schools is not simply preparing one to minister. It is simply a phase of one’s walk with God. One of my Regent professors, Dr Paul Stevens recently gave a talk in Singapore entitled “Why Theological Education Is Too Good To Be Reserved For Pastors,” Stevens argues that theological education is for everybody. He proposes the radical idea that ministry is never to be divided into laity and clergy. In the light of the people of God, doing ministry is essentially the people of God, ministering together to the people of God.

I share this same ethos. After all, I have spent 4 years at Regent College, still one of the best and rewarding years of all of my life. I have never learned so much, from so many people before. This leads me to believe that preaching is not so much a ministry, but an attitude. This interpretation is consistent with Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to preach the word in season and out of season. Some of us may not be called to pulpit preaching. Neither is everyone called to teach from the Word like a Bible school teacher. However, all are called to let their own Christian testimonies preach God’s Word in truth and in love. Let God’s Word shine through our thoughts, our words and our deeds.

What About the Lay?
As much as the preacher needs to come with a humble heart, the parishioners and church goer needs to play their part too. Below are some of my suggestions. I call it P.E.A.C.E of heart.
  • Be PURPOSEFUL in preparing our heart for worship. Know the limits of our bodies. Maybe, we need to begin on Saturday evening. How about sleeping early, and waking up early to pray?
  • Be EARLY in Church. Sometimes, our impatience and restless minds come from a harried morning rush, and a hurried soul. This makes worship of God hard, as one is still trying to calm down.
  • Be ATTENTIVE to the needs of family members or friends. As a father, I struggle with this, and at times have allowed my unhappiness over punctuality affect the worshiping mood of my family. The key is communicate one’s plans to family members early.
  • Be CAREFREE. In preparing a heart of worship, we need to let go of distractions. One way is to practice the Sabbath. For example, every Saturday night from 6pm to 6 pm the next day, I will go on a computer fast.
  • Be ENCOURAGING. When we get to Church, say thanks to the ushers, the musicians, the pastor or even the one preparing coffee. A word of encouragement not only makes these servants feel acknowledged, it makes them feel loved.
In summary, the ministry of preaching is an attitude that covers both the preacher and the listeners. Together, we can worship God in Spirit and in truth. Preach the word in season and out of season, to correct, to rebuke and to encourage one another in the Lord. If we do this, this will be the best worship we can give to God on any given Sunday.
"Worship changes the worshiper into the image of the One worshiped." (Jack Hayford)

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Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org/ . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Four Stages of Modern Pride

The Four Stages of Modern Pride (9 Dec 2009)

COMPETITION BUSYNESS FEAR INSECURITY SELF-ABSORPTION

"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." (Prov 16:18)



One is not enough. Two does not quite cut it. Three is closer. Since my neighbour has four, I will shoot for five. These are ramblings of a competitive environment where people boldly go, desiring to be first, avoiding being last. Competition is good. It raises economic activities and lowers consumer prices. It spurs something in all of us. Do more; Earn more; Spend more; Get more, seem to be the four traits of the modern life. The economy thrives when businesses grow. This unwittingly breeds a kind of busyness that can become self-absorbing and narcissistic. What are we to do with busyness, fear, insecurity and self-absorption? Perhaps one way is to first do a spiritual diagnostic. Let me suggest the following 4-stage model, which I call the stages of modern pride.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Speaking Truth in Love

"Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." (Ephesians 4:13)

Those of you who know me will see that I enjoy writing. Specifically, I enjoy writing to glorify God, and to let my writings be an edification for all who read them. I must admit. One of the purposes of my writing is for my own benefit, to let the words be a mirror to reflect myself. This may seem rather selfish. This seems rather egoistic. Yet, it is because I am aware of my own faults, that I write to see how God's grace has shaped me over the years. Am I learning to write more accurately and clearly? Am I true to what I have learnt? Am I faithful to the calling God has given me? Am I easily understood?

I have received my fair share of criticisms. Some have accused me of being too big-headed. Others think I am trying to show off. None of them are close to the truth. Rather, I believe that all of us must continue to learn. For a student, any unknown word is not a chance to throw potshots at the one using it, but an opportunity to improve one's vocabulary. For a teacher, there is a duty to use simple words, but also a calling to help readers grow in their learning and understanding. There are some concepts that only 'big words' can faithfully capture. For instance, if I simply stick to the English word 'love,' I will fail to appreciate that Greek has many words on love that the English language does not capture. Should I who knows the Greek, selfishly keep to myself, for the sake of keeping things simple? To do so, is not only bad stewardship on my part, but also a sad deprivation of the opportunity for others to learn. I will continue to do this, even at the risk of others calling me names like 'show-off,' 'boastful' etc. It is more important to obey God, than to be concerned about being offended. We need to meet in the middle, both teacher and student. Often, roles change too, with teacher learning from student and vice versa. Both cannot brush each other aside and walk off without truly understanding each other.

Writing is a tough vocation. Not only can it be lonely, it does not bring in much income, let alone any in the first place. During my visit to Baker Books publishing house in Grand Rapids, I remember hearing the General Editor, himself a Regent-College graduate share about the publishing industry. Publishers typically reject more than 90% of all manuscripts submitted. Many of them were returned to the prospecting authors unopened! The takeaway is this. Unless you are a famous speaker, popular pastor or has rich connections with the establishment, forget it. Your writings may be superb, even highly credible. However, if you are a nobody, forget it.

Why then do I still write? Why then do I persevere on to try to encourage readers, even when I feel discouraged by negative comments and feedback? Just this week, one of my blog pieces got criticized severely despite my most fair-minded review. I begin to wonder. Am I really that bad? Is freedom of speech limited only to giving nice cosy words about things around me? Probably not. The process of working to uphold truth in love does not necessarily mean others will do the same. At least, not in the same manner I expect.

Christlike Freedom
Peter Marshall, husband of the famous authoress, Catherine Marshall once preached a sermon about liberty. He says:
"For freedom is not the right to do as one pleases, but the opportunity to please to do what is right."
Speaking about the Founding Fathers of America, he continues:
"The Founding Fathers sought freedom. . .
not from law but freedom in law;
not freedom from government - but freedom in government;
not freedom from speech - but freedom in speech;
not freedom from the press - but freedom in the press;
not freedom from religion - but freedom in religion.
" (Peter Marshall)
I may not be American, but I certainly appreciate the way set forth by the vision of the American founders. May I add that Christian liberty is not the freedom to speak whatever we like but the freedom to restrain ourselves, to restore others, to reconcile with people, and to refresh one another in the Lord. This is what it means to have freedom. For the Christian, free speech is not saying anything that pleases yours or my ears. It is the willingness to speak the truth lovingly, in a manner that is Christlike. This calls for fairness. Jesus may be angry, but he shows tenderness. Jesus may have overturned the tables at the temple, but he shows us that he is willing to turn himself in to the authorities seeking to condemn him. For Jesus, speaking the truth in love comes with a heavy cost. As disciples of Christ, we should not be too surprised if our best intentions fall on deaf ears, or others persecuting us for what we stand for.

As for me, I do not know how long I can sustain my writings. It has cost my family and I much time and resources. While I will continue to offer my writings free of charge, pray for us that God will show us how he has provided and will continue to provide, as I exercise my vocation to write, to teach, to preach and to speak the truth in love. Whatever little we have, we offer it to the Lord. Whatever much we have, we offer it to his people. We are a servant to all, as part of our devotion to God. The great Reformer, Martin Luther once declared a paradoxical truth:
"A Christian is a free lord, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.
" (Martin Luther)
I agree without reservation. That we may all grow up in Christ, in truth, in love and in giving glory to God. God alone. In God I write.

sabbathwalk

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Growing Spiritually

Metaphors of Spiritual Growth

One reason why I chose Regent-College for my first theological degree was because of its marketplace expertise. With eager beaver eyes to have a theological balance to my business-like solution-seeking background, I had thought that theology would provide the perfect wrapper for my life accomplishments. Boy was I wrong. Instead, my theologies were turned inside out. Studying theology does not mean a one-time payment, but a recurring pay-out of installment after installment. Faith is not a one-time exercise. The initial outlay (quitting my job, and future business prospects etc) was only a down-payment to give up more. Studying with theological experts mean my view is only one out of other hundred more competent ones. It was in a nutshell, a humbling experience. Yet, it is also a time to reflect on spiritual growth by beginning where I was.

Growing spiritually is something many church people want to do, but lack guidance. Sometimes, our own leaders seem too busy with various administrative duties to even provide spiritual direction or spiritual help. I remember being contacted frequently by church people, where the majority of the requests were to serve in various ministries in the church. Most of the time, I accede to their requests, knowing that they too were swamped. As I think about it, it is easy for younger Christians to feel discouraged, especially when becoming ‘active’ in Church means doing lots of ministry work like teaching in Sunday School, going for Mission trips, joining prayer meetings, organizing social gatherings called ‘fellowshipping.’ I would like to think that such activities do not define a person’s ministry. It is the ‘spiritual growing’ that makes all the difference. It is when one is growing spiritually, that one can share life learnings in the Sunday School class. It is when one is growing toward God, that one can show others in the mission field who He looks like. It is when one is loving God, that one can shine forth as servants dishing out yummy meals for the people around us, serving happily, willingly not grudgingly. It is when one is growing spiritually, that the default for prayer meetings is “How can I prioritize this time to meet my heavenly Father with my brothers/sisters?” instead of “What excuse should I give to skip this meeting?

Growing spiritually is something we would like to do. We need guidance and we need it real bad. Spiritual growth has both a direction as well as an intensity. One of my mentors, Dr Paul Stevens suggests 4 metaphors of spiritual growth which can be very helpful.
1) Seed – Agricultural metaphor
“The seed metaphor not only communicates the unfolding of the life contained within the seed but also suggests the pain and price of growth.” (Stevens, et al, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, 951)

2) Child – Biological metaphor
The apostle Peter urges us to grow beyond drinking milk to eat solid food (1 Pet 2:2).

3) Disciple – Educational metaphor
The Greek word for disciple is ‘mathetes’ which represents a learner. A disciple is more than simply being a student receiving instruction from a teacher. It is basically imitating the one who is our Master.

4) Building – Architectural metaphor
With Christ as the cornerstone, we learn to build upon Christ, to grow toward God.

All of these metaphors are helpful for us to try to picture where we are in our spiritual growing. As a seed, we need to recognize that growing has its ups and downs, joy and pain. The hardest is perhaps the breaking of the shell. As a child, there are also growing pains, from total dependence on our earthly parents to total dependence on our heavenly Father. As a disciple, we grow from copying the world around us, to imitating Christ completely. As a part of the building, we need to be aware what role we play, and who we are in the kingdom of God. If we are a brick, we need to look for people around us who are able to cement us with other bricks.

A Fifth Metaphor
The seed, the child, the disciple and the building are all wonderful metaphors to consider. All four of them seems to assume a posture of increasing in size and shape, or multiplication in terms of numbers. Let me suggest a 5th one, albeit a less popular one. This is in terms of simplifying. We grow spiritually toward God, by first untangling ourselves from worldly worries. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).

When we mix two or more metals, we create an alloy. Growing spiritually is the reverse. When we remove impurities, we move toward greater purity. When we remove sediments and contaminants from water, we get clean water. When we wash our clothes with detergent, we get dirt-free garments. If we want to grow toward God, make sure we prepare ourselves by being pure and spotless before Him. The Sabbath is an opportunity to be holy before God. Take each weekday as an opportunity to de-clutter our lives. Give up the unnecessary. Give in toward reconciliation with brothers or sisters. Give out our time and resources to people in need. Give of ourselves, our lives our all as a living sacrifice of worship to God. So that when we come to God on the Sabbath, we can be pure and spotless in the cloak of Christ. This is not faith + good works. It is faith that drives one to do good works. This process is simplification. One example I can think of is in terms of equations of enough.
“Too Much to do + Too Little Time = We Get Stressed;
Too Little to do + Too Much Time = We Become Distressed;
Enough to do + Enough Time = We are Blessed;”
Perhaps, the word ‘busy’ is synonymous with worldly concerns. A follower of Christ always aims toward ‘enough’ rather than busyness. He is aware of his own limits. She is conscious of when to draw the line. For the worldly, there will always be too little time to do stuff that is complicated by the necessary and unnecessary things. For the believer in Christ, there will always be enough time to do the necessary. The way toward God is to grow spiritually. The path toward Him begins by simplicity with this exhortation this week. Let me suggest, that we silence every thought that stems from a love of money; and amplify every thought toward love of God. For me, my foray into theological studies is but the beginning of simplification. It is learning to take every thought captive to grow more in Christ. May I invite you to do the same in your respective paths as we simplify our lives?

Let me begin by saying a prayer for all of you: I thank God for every remembrance of you, and pray that God will strengthen you more and more to love him and neighbour around you.

Thought: “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:17)

sabbathwalk

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gehenna

Is Jesus a fear monger or a people lover?
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matt 5:30)
How could a God of love send people to a place called hell? Before I address this question, I want to give a biblical understanding of the word ‘hell.’ In early Christian writings, images of hell are drawn up to look like torture chambers, surrounded by suffering people in fire and extreme pain. During the Middle Ages, such images of hell are commonly used by the Church to pose the question: “Do you choose heaven or hell?” The powerful Church in Europe then was the de-facto religious choice for salvation for the common folks. Many come into the Church out of fear. Oxford Professor John McManners, writes that:
“For much of Christian history the condemnation of unbelievers and evil-doers to the eternal torments of hell has not only been a formal item of Christian belief but a powerful and vividly portrayed aspect of the way in which the church has sought to ensure conformity of belief and reformation of life.” (John McManners, ed, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford: OUP, 1990, 566)
Hell can be a potent political weapon for the establishment at that time, even now. Jesus uses hell very differently. In the New Testament, the Greek word for hell ‘Gehenna,’ appears 12 times. Out of these, Matthew registers an astonishing 7 times in total. That’s more than half in the entire New Testament! Two comments can be made.

Firstly, Matthew is written to a Jewish audience who are familiar with the history of the Jewish nation. They would have been familiar with a place called Hinnom, a valley south of Jerusalem. In this valley lies one of the most horrible scenes where the wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh made human sacrifices to the pagan gods such as Molech (2 Kgs 16:3). The hearers would have known straightaway what ‘Gehenna’ stands for as it reminded them of Hinnom. In ancient times, Hinnom was referred to as the unwanted place, a garbage dump for the city. It is like a Jew who understands what Auschwitz represents or like a Cambodian who understands what ‘killing fields’ means. So, for the Jewish hearer at that time, ‘gehenna’ represents a place people will actively shun and avoid going to. Hence, it is a reasonable assumption that Jesus is telling hearers that the actions that lead to hell are to be avoided. He says such actions are to be utterly detested and not to be practiced. This refers to the breaking of fellowship (Matt 5:22), committing adultery (Matt 5:29), sinning (Matt 5:30, 18:9). In other words, the focus is on the direct emphasis of avoiding sin, rather than the indirect fear of going to hell per se.

The second thing is that Jesus makes references to ‘gehenna’ after promising true happiness in the kingdom of heaven. Incidentally, the word for heaven (‘ouranos’) appears 70 times in Matthew alone! If any of us are to claim that the exact opposite of hell is heaven, we will be hard-pressed to explain why there are 70 references to heaven while there are only 7 for hell. He begins the Sermon on the Mount with a lengthy treatise on the beatitudes, talking about the kingdom of heaven and all the benefits of being children of God. Mindful of the temptations that often beset an aspiring disciple, Jesus points out the need for his followers NOT to do the things that are clearly sinful. When he teaches one to let ‘yes’ be yes, and ‘no’ be no, he is strongly making reference to saying yes to the kingdom of heaven and no to sin (Matt 5:37). Anything else is of the devil (Matt 5:36). If one is not inside the kingdom of heaven, anywhere outside is plain hell. There is no halfway stand.

Gehenna: Future Concept or Present Reality?
While I believe that there is a place called ‘hell,’ there is a point in which our fear of hell becomes unhelpful, even unbiblical. This happens when we take Jesus’s use of ‘gehenna’ and blatantly apply them to fellow humans that if they do not believe in Jesus, they will go to hell. Who are we to judge people? Who are we to predict their future destination? If we judge a person fit to go to heaven or hell, then we are playing God. I am glad I am not the one to decide who goes where.

NT Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar argues convincingly that Jesus’s use of ‘gehenna’ is not a distant future concept, but a near present reality.
“The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life, they would burn in the next one.. . . It is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.” (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, NY: Harper Collins, 2008, 176)
Wright then points out the hellish environment in which the powerful Romans in the early centuries turned Jerusalem into a rubbish dump that resembled Hinnon. In AD70, Jerusalem was sacked, and its venerable temple destroyed when a rebel Jewish group fought against the Romans who eventually decimated the holiest Jewish place for their armed resistance.

I think Wright is spot on. If our present concept of hell is in terms of a futuristic torture chamber, many of us will harbor fears about our unsaved loved ones. We might even question our own faith about the love of God, like how can a God of love even create a place of eternal suffering? However, if we understand Jesus’ use of ‘Gehenna’ as another pointer toward growing closer to God, we will fear hell less and love God more. There is no fear in love. When Jesus uses ‘Gehenna’ in the gospels, he is not exactly telling the hearers new things, but a reminder of what they already know: Idolatry is sin. Sin has far worse consequences. In fact, the true fear is not the torture chamber, but the fear of eternal separation from God.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me state that I believe that there is a literal place called ‘hell.’ What I do not want is for people to use the concept of hell to strike fear into the hearts of people. If others want to prove that hell exists, fine. However, do not manipulate Jesus’ use of ‘gehenna’ in Matthew to justify that. Jesus is primarily concerned about drawing people close to him. Draw near in righteousness. Draw near by avoiding sin. Draw near fully and totally. Our duty? Focus on God. Focus on drawing people close to God. Cling on to Jesus, and Jesus will draw all unto him. Whatever is outside of God’s kingdom, let God be the true and fair Judge. He is the ultimate judge. Let us never forget that if Heaven is where God is, everywhere else without God is plain hell.

Jesus is no fear monger but a people lover. He judges fairly and justly from the standpoint of love, not fear.

THOUGHT: There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' (CS Lewis)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Priority Setting - Idol's Style or God's

FOCUSING ON UNIMPORTANT THINGS
"For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner." (Luke 14:24)
If someone invites us for a meal, will we say no? For some of us, it depends on our availability? For others, it depends on whether we have other 'more important things' (MIT) to do. Yet, many will depend on who is the one inviting us? In the parable of the Dinner, Jesus points out the various kinds of people who have their own priorities mixed up. It is a parable in response to one of his disciples who said optimistically:
"Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!" (Lk 14:15b)
The truth is, before one can eat, they have to come for the meal. In reply, Jesus lists out the people who put other things as more important compared to dining as an honored guest in the kingdom of God. The dinner was sumptuous. Notices were sent out ahead of time. On the day itself, the master even sent his servant to personally call the invited guests to come. Unfortunately, all started making excuses. They already knew about the dinner. Their hearts are unwilling. One said that he needs to tend his new piece of land (Lk 14:18). Another said that he needs to try out his five yoke of oxen (Lk 14:19). Yet another one said he has to attend to his new wife (Lk 14:20). All of them gave excuses NOT to go for the dinner. The first put property a priority. The second put his possession first. The third put his partner before everything else. All of them thought they had focused rightly on their MIT.

Priority Setting - Idol Style
It is not difficult for us to see why not. Isn't taking care of our work important, like the man tending the land? Isn't stewarding our resources part of our responsibilities on earth, like the man trying his new oxen? Isn't spending time with our spouses necessary, like the newly married person in the parable?

The point about the parable is not about stewardship or taking care of what God has given to us. It is about an open invitation to enter the kingdom of God. What is most important to man, is not necessarily the most important to God. God's smallest step is infinitely more important than man's biggest leap. Many people say that it is God's will for them to focus on the more important things in life. What if they are wrong? What if we have placed all our eggs in one basket called MIT, and ignore the rest? What if we have lost our ability to know what is MIT?

In business, MIT priorities are seductive. It makes us so mindful of the majority that we forget the minority. It makes us play the numbers game and promotes favouritism. It causes us to make unfair decisions between the have's and have-nots, like choosing to dine with the rich and ignore the poor. MIT policies discriminates and absolute practice of MIT discriminates absolutely. In our spiritual walk, when our MIT becomes an idol, we worship the idol. We say yes to the idol and no to God.

When our priorities get mixed up, we cannot distinguish which is idol-driven and which is God-led. We misinterpret signs. David Allen, author of the best-selling book "Getting Things Done," observes how people practice the 80/20 principle. This principle essentially refers to 80% of the profits from 20% of the customer base, or 80% of the job done by 20% of the resources. This leads many in the management to focus on the 20%, and in the process neglect the other 80%. Allen goes on to point out that such 'focus on the important' is one of the main culprits behind our current global financial crisis. He comments that the smartest people of the world focused 'too' much attention on the so-called more important things in their lives. Overemphasizing 20% star performers and undermining the other 80% is a fatal formula for eventual collapse of the corporation. MIT syndrome can also happen the other way; of blame.

The MIT Scandal
It does not take long for us to see the truth behind Allen's observations. In the aftermath of the Madoff scandal, where many investors were hoodwinked into losing more than $50 billion, people pointed fingers at the US New York securities watchdog, the SEC, in particular, Meaghan Cheung, for failing to uncover irregularities with Madoff's company. My question: How can we pin the blame solely on one person who is trying to do her job according to the system? Yes, Cheung may have been a lawyer trained in Yale. She may be very experienced with auditing big firms. However, is the problem because of a person or because of a system? Chances are, it is easier to point a finger at a person rather than a system.

I believe things do not simply collapse overnight. People can spend many hours building a big strong brick house quickly but on a weak foundation. All it takes is one big windstorm, and the entire house will be crushed by its own weight once the substructure beneath is destroyed.

In a money driven world where profits are considered 'more important,' what about the 'less important' aspect of employee relationships? In a bureaucracy where sticking to the rules are necessary to maintain order, what about the 'less important' creativity among standard procedures? Are we too caught up with numbers, that the 20% star players become more important than 80% majority? Can a star striker win a football game all by himself? The answer is clear. We need a team, both stars as well as ordinary folks.

In the kingdom of God, there is no distinction between more important or less important people. In the parable, it is the rich in possessions, the gainfully employed and the busy married person who refused the master's invitation to dine. For them, attending a dinner is less important than possessions, property or partner. The master then extended the invitation to all others, stating that those who reject his invitation shall not eat at his table.

Have we rejected God's invitation to dine? More importantly, have we made our own version of "MIT" (more important thing) into a stubborn doctrine? Are we too idol-driven that we fail to listen to God's prompting? God does not play favourites. Neither does he look at statistical tables before making a decision to invest. He sees the hearts. He sees people, not numbers. He invites all to come and dine with him. Will we say yes to him, or say 'no' by putting the M.I.T in between God and ourselves? Remember. MIT (or LIT) does not always come first. God's leading must come first.

THOUGHT: What do you make of God's commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me?" Will the MIT we put first slowly turn into an idol that puts God last?
"The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life." (CS Lewis, Christian Reflections)
sabbathwalk

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winning Over God

Winning Over the Almighty @ Peniel
“Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Gen 32:28)
Overcoming Life - Jacob's Style
Jacob has been having a smooth ride so far. From birth, he shows strong indications of a competitive spirit in him by grasping at his brother’s heel (Gen 25:26a). He is a master at trickery able to deceive both his brother and his father. While his brother Esau can hunt, Jacob can cook. The pining of Esau’s hunger and the timing of Jacob’s stew delight resulted in one of the world’s most unfair trades: Surrendering a birthright for a bowl of red stew. Jacob though born second, overcame his brother in terms of wit. What Jacob lacks naturally as a #2 ranked son, his penchant for winning against all odds ranks first. However, Esau’s verbal agreement to relinquish his birth-right is not enough to seal the deal. Jacob has to receive the coveted prize of all: Isaac’s blessing. So while Esau was busy hunting for short-term game, Jacob was scheming for his long-term rewards. In Jewish culture, the blessing of the father represents the ultimate prize any son can receive. It has been said that the blessings of a Jewish father is like his last precious words on earth, to be given out only once in his lifetime. Jacob left nothing to chance. He was prepared. Aided by his mother, he provides stew, dresses up like his brother, imitates his brother’s voice, and cleverly coaxes Isaac to bless him. Jacob wants this blessing very much.

On the other hand, Esau could not care less, until it was too late. Jacob was blessed. Esau was not. Jacob went on to achieve many more great things. Esau remained under the shadow of his young brother, holding a grudge (Gen 27:41). Jacob's achievement continued. He was shown a heavenly dream (Gen 28). He found himself a decent job (Gen 29). He married not just one but two lovely women. Soon he became a happy father blessed with many children, thanks to the wives and their maids who were constantly squabbling to be ranked top of the household. Jacob also found much success in raising cattle. With glittering successes with his brother, his father, his relative (Laban) and his own household Jacob became one of the most prosperous biblical Patriarchs in the history of Israel. This life of scheming, planning and seeking for the best deals in life continues in Jacob until the scene at Peniel (Gen 32:30).  Imagine with me. Suppose a person has obtained nearly everything this world has on offer, there will soon come a time when he/she will ask: “What’s next to overcome?

Overcoming Life's Hurdles - Maslow's Style
The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow, developed his famous hierarchy of needs that depicts very clearly the various levels of human needs toward self-accomplishment. From physiological needs, to safety, to love & affection, to esteem and finally self-actualization, Maslow’s model seems to map out Jacob’s ‘career path’ very well. How will Jacob achieve his final level? What other prizes are there for Jacob to compete for? He allowed his fanatically competitive spirit to get the better of him. Maybe, the ultimate prize is success itself. Success becomes ‘self-actualization’ personified. He unknowingly wrestles with none other than the LORD himself, in the hope that he can be successful over ‘success’ itself. The Gen 32 passage is paradoxical. The LORD seems to have defeated Jacob (32:25).  Yet it is stated that Jacob has ‘overcome’ (32:28). How can there be 2 winners? Will there be two gold medals for this pre-Olympic days wrestling match?

Perhaps, Jacob’s perspective of winning and the LORD’s perspective are different altogether. The LORD may defeats Jacob in the physical contest, but Jacob’s persistence deserves an honorary award. It is Jacob’s ‘never-say-die’ attitude that impressed the LORD. Let me suggest that we can do the same in persistent prayer.

How We can Overcome: Via Persistent Prayer
I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Gen 32:26)
Isn’t that hauntingly familiar? Earlier on, didn’t Jacob try to trick his father to bless him instead of Esau? Perhaps, even though Jacob is now old, and more mature, his competitive nature is still strong. With his father Isaac, he used all his cunning to receive blessings. With this stranger, Jacob used all his available ounces of energy to wrestle, so as to receive the final and most precious thing he knows: A blessing.

I will not let go’ reflects a determination not to be trifled with. ‘unless you bless me’ shows the way to end the contest. The LORD listens. The LORD shows mercy. The LORD blesses Jacob. Jesus too displays a similar attitude. He tells a parable of the persistent widow who ultimately gets the justice she wants (Luke 18:1-18).

I will not let you go unless you bless me,’ is an attitude we must bring with us as we pray. If we ask God in a half-hearted manner, it reflects negatively about our true desire. Half-hearted prayer is no prayer at all. It is like saying words without actually meaning it. It also puts God in a difficult position whether by giving in to our careless wishes, we become spoiled. Half-hearted prayer is like a son asking for $100 with an attitude of ‘whatever,’ or 'anything goes.' It could also be a subordinate asking for a particular budget with little intention of using it for the benefit of the company. It could be simply doing things for the sake of doing it, lots of smoke but little desire. Such prayers do not deserve an answer.

John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience comes not out of a half-hearted request but an earnest, painfully persistent prayer to God. He wrestles constantly with his faith. He wants more, much more than what the world has to offer. He wants God. He asks and he receives, much more than he anticipates.Isn't this what prayer is all about, desiring God persistently and fully?

Let me close with one other comment about blessings. Wesley received the blessing, through which he blessed many others in the process. That is the true calling of the blessed. Blessed in order to bless others. A blessing is not something to be given to us for us to bury in our backyard. It is to be used to bless others.

Thought: In our daily lives, do your best. In our prayer life, seek God’s ultimate rest. When we pray, how WHOLE-hearted are we? When we intercede, how persistent are we? Tell God, I will not let you go until you blessed me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From 'How' to 'Who'

Reflections on our culture's pursuit of Happiness
For Thou Art my hope; O LORD my God, Thou are my confidence from my youth.” (Ps 71:5)
Sometimes when I feel down, depressed or even desperate, I will turn to the Psalms for help. Ps 1 reaffirms the solid foundation of the Word of God. Ps 2 tells us that while everything around us may be in turmoil, God is there for us to take refuge in. Ps 3 begins with direct threats coming at David, and ends with a trust that God’s people will ultimately be blessed regardless. By reading each psalm as it is, I cannot help but be amazed at the scope of emotional openness one can adopt before God. The 150 psalms together provide a treasure-house of praise & worship, joy & ecstacy, comfort & encouragement, affirmation of faith and expression of despair. No other book in the world could compare with the range of emotional experience encountered and shared by the psalmists. The psalms invite us in to share the journey, to experience the ups and downs of being human, and the utter joy to have God as our strength and refuge in our times of trouble. In our era, it is not always easy to approach the Bible with an attitude of God-seeking. This is because our present culture is one that is often filled with how's.
  • How do I make more money?
  • How do I have better relationships?
  • How do I make better presentations?
  • How do I design a winning plan?
  • How do I solve this computer problem?

THE 'HOW' MENTALITY
Such a mentality sometimes affect our reading of the Psalms. We begin to ask about how to use the Bible to meet our own needs. We become caught up with the techniques of reading that we fail to appreciate that God is not a method but a person. Part of the reason for this 'how' mentality lies in our lifestyle of consumerism. We use electricity at home. We eat food at least three times a day. The cars we drive consume fuel. Studies in 2005 have shown that close to 80% of the world's resources are consumed by the wealthiest 20% of the world's rich nations. When we live most of our hours 'consuming' stuff, what is there to ensure that when we open the Bible, we are still wearing the hat of consumerism?  If that is the case, we read the Bible as if it is a Do-It-Yourself spiritual perk-me-up pill, or a daily dosage to 'balance' our busy careers and lifestyles. The Bible becomes as follows:
  • Suffering: "What does the Bible say about suffering?"
  • Jobless: "What does the Bible say about unemployment?"
  • Bad Relationships: "How do I get my spouse to treat me better? Is there a verse to convict him/her that I can use?"
  • World Events: "How does the Bible prophesy about these events?"
Such an attitude immediately straitjackets the Bible to conform to our own ideas and expectations. We flip from one verse to another looking for the 'right' answer. We sacrifice reading in context so that we can catch the 'right' verse to meet our most immediate emotional need, even though it means reading OUT of context. In other words, if we approach the Bible from the perspective of how, we can easily get frustrated when we do not get what we want. Sometimes we think that when we know the 'how,' our journey to happiness is set.

Unfortunately, such methods do not last. They are but temporary fixes.  Worse, it tells God the kind of person we are. I remember a time when I was first introduced to multi-level marketing. I have not met this friend for many years, until we bump into each other at a shopping mall. After exchanging standard pleasantries, we gave each other our contact information. A week later, I got a call to meet up for lunch. Happily I agreed. Soon the lunch turned into a major sales pitch about the multilevel marketing scheme and product. My protests landed on deaf ears. My friend had me cornered at all angles. As I think back, I shudder to imagine subjecting my friends to similar treatment. That day, I felt used. It is one thing to share a product or service one has. It is yet another to keep pushing it even when I have expressly said no.

THE 'WHO' MENTALITY
Fortunately, not all salespeople as persistent as that friend of mine.  I like one particular quote from an insurance salesman. He says
"When you see me, do not think of insurance.
When you see insurance, think of me."
I appreciate that. It puts the desire for friendship before the insurance. Likewise, when we read the Bible, we must not think of our reading in terms of looking for answers to our own personal problems. Doing that only scratches the surface of our true needs. That will be using God's Word to meet our own ends. When we read God's Word, think of God.

In “On the Spirit of Happiness," a community of monks in New York commented:
Today’s culture idolizes technique. How-to manuals literally overflow the shelves of bookstores. We are so conditioned to the genre that we automatically seek out books on whatever interests us, fully expecting that we can achieve whatever results we might desire simply by finding the right recipe – learning the technique.” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p95)
It is a rebuke on our world's infatuation with solutions and techniques. Wisely, the monks lead us toward the true source of happiness: Jesus.
Being happy involves the intense struggle of entering intimately into all that we do. And that is in our very nature; it’s what God has placed in us. This is what the Transfiguration is about. It’s not some pious story about going up a mountain and having light shine on everything. It has to do with the apostles gaining an insight into who Jesus really is.” (Monks, In the Spirit of Happiness, p313)

Let me conclude: The psalms point us back to God. True happiness must be in God alone. Scriptures remind us that only God can provide true comfort and true happiness. True happiness does not lie in the technique or the how of living. One can follow all the formulas of the self-help books and still be unhappy. Remember that there are 3 common letters in the word ‘how' and 'who.’ The next time we ask H.O.W in our pursuit of happiness, shake them loose like scrabble letters and rearrange them by putting ‘W’ in front of HO. True happiness lies in seeking the W.H.O, not the how. Let us come to God just as we are, ready to put aside our selfish agenda, and to be willing to be obedient to God's agenda.

Come to me, all who are weary and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

THOUGHT: Reading self-help books or following positive formula can be useful at times. Reading the Bible to meet our needs can be appropriate at times. Yet, when they become the main staple of our lives, they can become addictions, or idols. How do you know if they (or your good self) have taken over the place of Christ on your throne? Have you been guilty of using other people toward your own ends?


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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When We Are Discouraged

Staying Up When One Feels Down
But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)
This week has been rather challenging. There are projects to work on, books to review, people to meet, and obligations to keep. While these things do not normally stress me out, mood swings do. They amplify the smallest speck of error. They intensify a simple task into one big chore. They can petrify the meek in spirit into a weak midget. Like a microscope, tiny organisms normally invisible to the naked eye suddenly become huge trolls that threaten to jump and engulf everything that we ever stood for.

Do not be surprised. Even people like me, who are trained in theology, pastoral care and Christian spirituality do get discouraged. Like rains that fall on the whole land, no one is immune from the treacherous tentacles of discouragement. When caught, one of the first things that gets squeezed out of us is hope. As I was praying, and needing some encouragement, I was led to Scripture. I asked, “How do people in the Bible cope with discouragement?

I decided to read Exodus, to see how the Hebrews cope with Egyptian persecution. It is so ironical. After years of prosperity and fruitful multiplication, the Jews who were welcomed with open arms during the reign of Joseph, suddenly become the scum of the Egyptian hierarchy. The Bible did not specify the exact date, but we can estimate based on Exodus 1:6 that this period is after the demise of Joseph and his brothers, and their entire generation. Hence, we are dealing with a new generation who not only did not know Joseph, but sees the immigrant Jews not as a valuable asset but a huge liability. They forgot that it was through Joseph, that Egypt was used as a channel to save both Egypt and its neighbours from a devastating famine. The Pharaoh forgot who is Joseph. The Egyptians forgot how the Jews have blessed them economically. Such absentmindedness made the Egyptians exchange a hand of friendship for a fist of oppression. In the midst of rising persecution, there is a group who remembers the Source of all life, the God of all nations: the midwives.

Imagine having received an imperial order and willfully chose to disobey it. It is like Rahab who told a lie to keep Joshua’s spies from capture (Jos 2:4). It is like the Magi who chose to trick Herod to protect baby Jesus from being apprehended and killed (Matt 2:16). It is already hard to do the right thing all the time. However, to do the right thing at the risk of being caught and prosecuted takes courage. Like the midwives, Rahab, and the Magi, doing the right thing, and doing it the right way requires godly fear. Let me first deal with two other forms of fear.

Firstly, doing the right thing can sometimes be motivated by fear of earthly powers. It is like fearing for our jobs if we disobey the top bosses. It is like fearing for our lives when we defy vicious hooligans and gangsters. It is like fearing for our relationships if we do not please their expectations. Sometimes, these fears can drive us to perform better. Other times, it sucks the joy out of us, and pumps us back with feelings of being coerced, forced to do what we do NOT want to do. Their actions are clothed with fear of earthly powers.

Secondly, doing the right thing can sometimes be motivated by a higher purpose. It is like a boss who tells his employee to falsify the accounts before the auditors arrive. It is like Schindler who deceived the Germans so that he can protect the Jews he is sheltering from imminent death. It is like fearing a loss of our own sense of righteousness. Backed by higher principles, we justify defying the higher authorities. However, what if we got caught, and our family members get implicated in the process? Will we then back away from our ‘higher’ principles so as to save our loved ones? Highly principled actions are driven primarily on the basis of refusing to break personal values. Sometimes, actions that flow from higher principles resemble more of a negative fear of breaking them rather than positive desire for keeping them.

Fear of God
The first two types of fear have something in common: they do not last.

The midwives in the first chapter of Exodus did what they knew best. Their actions are driven by godly fear. Godly fear is not something that happens because one is afraid of retribution by worldly powers. The midwives were clearly risking themselves and their families to defy the greatest power in Egypt: Pharaoh. John Bunyan, (author of Pilgrim’s Progress), in his treatise on the fear of God, reminds us that fear of God has many faces. It is the beginning of wisdom. It is the utterly detesting sin. It is fully embracing the love of God. It is also that keen awareness of the trickeries of the evil one. I believe the actions of the midwives reflect all of them.

The feeling is strange. I started off feeling downtrodden. After reading and reflecting on the simple and courageous faith of the midwives, I felt the motivation to look not just inward (due to fear), or outward (due to principles), but upward (godly fear).

David Livingstone’s life (1813-1873) is an example of one that burns for God. As a missionary to Africa, he has witnessed countless difficulties and hardships. His physical body bore the brunt of the harsh environment. When he was invited to speak back in his homeland in Glasgow Scotland, he walks with his broken shoulder slumped, half-deaf, half-blind, but fully alive in God. He gave his all to share the gospel with many in the Dark Continent. A medical doctor, he battled against the terrible illnesses afflicting the poor Africans. Sometimes he succeeded. Other times not. Yet, one thing remained. He held the God’s promise close to his heart, that Jesus is always be with him (Matt 28:18-20). Indeed, the verse commonly quoted by people pursuing the Great Commission tends to focus too much on the ‘Go ye therefore,’ and not so much on the ‘Lo! I am with you always.’ May I humbly suggest that the key to godly fear, lies in the reverse. We go forth in faith, be uplifted in love, knowing that God is with us. Always.

Thought: If you are to list all your current pursuits, concerns and anxieties and label them either as “Fear of earthly powers,”, “Fear of betraying one’s principles,” and “Fear of God,” which list is longer?


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Friday, October 16, 2009

Trust and Obey

OBEDIENCE
For I was afraid of the army, and I followed their wishes.” (1 Sam 15:24b)
King Saul had just won another major victory. Not only were the Amalekites defeated, the Israelites humiliated their leader King Agag. In jubilation, thinking that the LORD will be happy with the precious loot, they decided that it is appropriate to keep the best, and destroy the rest. It seems perfectly normal and logical. Why waste something when it can still be recycled?


Under ordinary circumstances, there is nothing wrong in keeping good stuff. However, the context of the biblical passage is something more serious than recycling. The retention of things exposes the idolatry of the first king of Israel. Which is Saul obedient to? All of God's instructions or some of them only. By rationalizing himself out of it, Saul justifies his actions by saying that the LORD will be pleased with his offerings. Unfortunately, in every gift, every work and every sacrifice, God's eye looks first at the heart, before anything else.


Saul's Heart
For Saul, the choice is clear: Obey God or disobey God? He thought that obeying half-way is enough. He was dead wrong. There is no ambiguity in the LORD's command. King Saul was told to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:3). This is consistent with God's promise to protect Israel (Exodus 17:16). Throughout history, the Amalekites have one main objective: Totally blot out Israel from the face of the earth. It follows that If Israel does not totally destroy the Amalekites, the Amalekites will decimate the Jews. It is a tough choice for God who has promised to protect his chosen people, for the sake of the whole world. God decides to act by sanctioning the destruction of the Amalekites: through King Saul.


Instead, what did Saul do? He underestimates the depth of evil of the Amalekites. He undercuts God's clear instructions by adopting a half-way obedience. He undermines God's purposes and in the process threatens the entire Jewish nation. For Saul, his main desire is short-term gains over long-term obedience. The temptation is too great. This displeased Samuel. In the prophet’s mind, one thing stood clear: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” Without respect for God's instruction, how can the leader lead God's people? Without an attitude of obedience, the leader surrenders the privilege of headship. Without reverence for God’s wishes, how can Saul lead Israel to be the ‘father of all nations?’


What About Our Obedience?
I have heard many Christians tell me, that they want to do God's will. Whether it be the kind of work to do, who to marry, where to live, which ministry to be involved in, the desire is similar. Words are nothing until they are put into action. How far are we to go the distance? Will we give up mid-way, and rationalize our actions according to our own interpretation of God, like Saul?


Who sits on our throne determines who we obey. If it is possessions, then our obedience will be based on how to collect more stuff. If it is our family, our obedience to God will be secondary to this primary concern. If it is our job or career, God takes second place down the pecking order of importance. If it is our children, obedience to God is ranked lower than our children. What happens when we put idols before God? One quick symptom of idolatry is fear. Fear of not possessing things tempt us toward unhealthy fixation on material things. Fear of not receiving family acceptance prevents us from honesty with family members. Fear of losing our jobs tempts us toward covering our backs over standing up for what is right and ethical. Fear of our children's future leads us toward greater control of them.


  • Will God be pleased when we use the profits from shady business deals to tithe to his Church?
  • Will God be pleased when we curse and swear at our neighbor, and with the same breath sing praise and thanksgiving to God?
  • Will God be pleased when we strive to keep our jobs at all expense, even compromising God's standards in the process?
  • Will God be pleased when we help our children to cheat in their schoolwork or exams, so that they can achieve our own definition of a better life for them, and then give God the glory for the distinctions that they obtain?  


If God is first, there is no fear. A truly God-fearing person never does things out of worldly fear. A sign of a godly person lies in full obedience. Do not be like Saul, who feared his people and allowed his fear to dictate his actions.


The December 1981 issue of Reader's Digest tells of an interesting story of obedience and devotion. There is a housekeeper who works for John Kenneth Galbraith. One day, the US President, Lyndon Johnson called, asking to speak with her employer Galbraith, who had earlier instructed his housekeeper to hold all calls.
President: "Get me Ken Galbraith. This is Lyndon Johnson.'
Housekeeper: "He is sleeping, Mr. President. He said not to disturb
President: "Well, wake him up. I want to talk to him.'
Housekeeper: "No, Mr. President. I work for him, not you."
When Galbraith finally called back the President, instead of indignation, Lyndon Johnson was rather pleased about the devotion of Galbraith's housekeeper. The President admired the housekeeper so much that he wanted to see her in the White house!


Thought: Who do we work for? Can we be so devoted like the housekeeper, that everything else is subjected first and foremost to the obedience of our Lord and Savior Jesus? Indeed, obedience is better than sacrifice. 
"Trust and Obey, for there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." (John Sammis, 1887)




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