Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Kind Word

"An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up." (Matt 12:25)
About two weeks ago, I preached about the 'window of grace' from Romans 3 at my church in Vancouver. The people were exceptionally gracious in listening as well as affirming me in the message given. Yet, I felt a certain disappointment in myself. Words not well connected. My delivery was then interrupted by a battery which silenced the microphone in the middle of an important point. It was an animated sermon, and I put in my all as I preached, praying in my heart that people will grow to love God more. Still, I went overtime and did not manage to emphasize my final point sufficiently. After preaching about the window of grace, I felt like the one who needed that most was myself. I remember telling my group how exhausted I was, feeling spent and empty. Then this brother appeared out of nowhere. His smile and gentle hug spoke louder than words. He said a kind word, 'Thank you.' When I heard it, despite my exhaustion, I can tell it came from the bottom of his heart. Simple words uttered honestly and sincerely consoled more greatly. Yes. I need to learn to be thankful for at least 3 reasons.

Firstly, when I am thankful, I acknowledge the help of the Holy Spirit when I was preparing for the message, for the insights learned during the sermon meditation. Secondly, when I give thanks, I acknowledge the wonderful window of grace allowed me, to preach and share from the pulpit. It is the Word of God, shared by the preacher of God, for the people of God. Finally, in thanksgiving, I recognize that God is the one ultimately responsible for changing lives. He can use the most polished sermon ever, or the most boring message ever delivered and touch the hearts of anyone He chooses. I ought not give in to any anxiety of not having delivered the sermon according to my personal expectations. Rather, in thankfulness and gratitude for the grace extended to me by the church, I should be cheered up. Indeed, each time I have people asking me to clarify what was my last point, I leapt up in joyous ecstasy: "Thank God, these people have been listening and not sleeping!"

My reader. What weighs you down these days? Is it because of some work done badly? Is it due to worries over the lack of time and resources to do a better job? Is the anxiety described by words of regret about the past that says: "I should have done this or that?" Or is it some kind of hesitation over the unknown future, that apprehensively solicits: "What if things go wrong? What if matters do not turn out as planned?"

The worries of the past is revealed by the IF-ONLY, or I-SHOULD-HAVE. The nervousness of the future is exemplified by the WHAT-IF's. May I suggest that we replace the fret over the past and the fears of the future with an attitude of thankfulness. Learn from the wisdom of Proverbs. The valley of disappointments of the past, and the hill of obstacles in the future can be countered with a simple kind and cheery word: "THANKFUL." We cannot change the past. Neither can we predict the future. Why not simply thank God for history (in the past), praise God for the mystery (of the future), and appreciate the reason why our current moment is also called the 'present.'

Sabbath time is an excellent opportunity to live out a life of thankfulness. It is not restricted to a 24-hour cycle, although there are benefits in doing so. One can practice a Sabbatical routine by placing appropriate breaks in one's lifestyle. Such a break can come effectively through pauses. A pause to give thanks during meals; a pause to give thanks when stopped at a red traffic light and to praise God for family; a pause to sing praises of thanksgiving while at a shower; or simply pausing our normal routine to call up a family member or friend and say "Thank you for being my friend/family." It is not difficult. One more thing. One can learn to give thanks and live thankfully, when learning to do the same first to God.
"If God asks that you bend, bend and do not complain. He is making you more flexible, and for this be thankful." ~Meriel Stelliger

Thought: What weighs you down? Perhaps it is not the big boulders of your life, but the little irritations that builds itself up to become an imaginary Goliath. Give it to God in prayer with thanksgiving in your heart.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Overcoming Pressures

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:28)
Pressures of Paul the Apostle
Sometimes I wonder at how Paul is able to overcome all these pressures. The word ‘epistasis’ (pressure) in this verse is used to describe the burden and the repeated stress upon the apostle as he was working out his ministry to the different churches. It can also mean the inward pressures the apostle exerts upon himself, out of feeling responsible for the flock he loved. He does so without complaining, without being jealous of others more fortunate than him. He compares his situation by focusing on Christ, boasting in Christ and choosing to do all things with Christ as his reference. At that time, the Corinthian church has two major problems. Firstly, there were false prophets claiming to be 'super apostles’ (2 Cor 11:5). It creates envy for people around them. Secondly, these people apparently created ‘value-added’ services to the preaching of the gospels for a fee (2 Cor 11:7). In contrast, Paul argues that he gave all of himself in the preaching (without charge) of the gospel, even ‘robbing’ other churches’ contributions to his ministry to serve them! Yet, Paul's way of overcoming pressures is simply to be able to 'boast in the Lord.'

Our Modern Pressures
Pressures are a normal thing in our modern society. We are prone to all kinds of pressures. Patrick Morley lists several modern pressures in his book "The Seven Seasons of a Man's Life." We experience performance pressure to be constantly meeting our goals and expectations from organizations, family and friends. We grapple with technological pressure when we try to do new projects with older existing equipment. We face corporate downsizing pressure in the light of cost cuts and bottom lines, often forcing every worker to do-more-with-less. We suffer from communications pressure when trying to allow individuals to work at their pace while expecting them to work within a community like environments. For those who are constantly on the move, they face traveling pressure that requires them to spend long stretches of time without their family or regular social environments. Then there is the business-deal pressure which many tries to strike a balance between profits and bottom-line thinking; distinguishing competition and cooperation; long-term vs short-term; and trying to explore new opportunities without exploiting the weak and the poor. Are the pressures faced by Paul the Apostle any different from the stresses of a typical person in modern business attire? I believe that the pressures may be the similar in many ways. However, the key difference lie in the MOTIVATION behind handling the pressures.

How do we handle pressure?
For Paul, it is clearly not materialistic in origin but that joy in the Lord. Many years ago, I learned that JOY is actually an acronym for putting Jesus first, then Others, then Yourself. At that time, I thought it was such a wonderful way to know what brings joy. Over the years, I develop an alternative, which I will share it with you. J.O.Y. is a term that comprises a noun, a verb and an adjective.

J – Journey (a noun)
Remember that whatever pressures we face, it is but a part of the journey we have been called to travel on. It could be short. It could be long. As long as it is traveling in the direction toward God, the journey will be worthwhile. Paul longs to be with Christ, yet for the fact that he feels he has a calling, he endures the pain and struggles. "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (Phil 1:21)

O – Obey (a verb)
This verb is a doing aspect of our spiritual life. Apart from trust, ‘obey’ is the next most important action we have to do for God. Obedience is better than sacrifice. Better to obey one step in the Lord, instead of pretending to make one hundred self-centered steps and claiming them to be done in the name of the Lord. Paul's desire to serve is out of obedience to his calling. A prayerful person will know what instructions to obey. If we are actively obeying God, we will not be constantly caught up with the worries of the world.

Y – Yearning (an adjective)
This adjective is a great treasure of the early spiritual masters. What could encourage people to sell all they have, to give everything to the poor and to follow Christ? The early Christian saint St Antony of Egypt (251-356) is one such person. He became the father of monasticism from which we get our modern universities. It has been said that without monasticism, Western civilization would not have survived after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. He yearns for God so much that giving up becomes a no-brainer. It is like when one person is deeply in love, he does not mind splurging on a lavish dinner on his beloved.

Overcome any pressure with joy. Consider this practice of seeing our life as a journey, obeying the Word and above all, totally yearn for God so much that everything else on this earth is secondary to the primary goal: Seeking God. May the pressures that you encounter at work, at home or anywhere else be considered secondary, compared to the all surpassing joy and peace found in Christ Jesus our Lord. Helen Keller encourages us with this:
"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. (Helen Keller)"
Thought: What are the outward and inward pressures of your life? How are you overcoming it? Are you doing so out of bitterness and using worldly wisdom? Or are you overcoming them with J.O.Y?
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:13, NIV)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Making Space

"Be still and know that I am God." (Ps 46:10)
We live in a world where busyness is a virtue. Many even call it a good thing. Society holds it as a prime example of meaning of life. One is only useful when one is busy. In fact, busyness can easily fills up any empty schedule on our day timers, or calendars. For the paranoid, having an empty schedule is abnormal. Busyness is a common cliché among working adults. This is almost the same as the response to “How are you today?” Some say: “Fine, how about yourself?” Others can also say, “I’ve been busy, of course.” In my encounters with various individuals, there are several reasons (at least five) why people use the word ‘busy.’

Firstly, it can be used to repel any attention, especially unwanted ones. It is like a girl trying to shun unwanted suitors seeking to ask her out on a date. As much as there are people in the world who are appealing to us, there are also those who absolutely turn us off. I remember watching a movie where an irritating man seeks to get closer to a beautiful woman at a party. He hinted to her that he has been watching her the whole night from a corner of the ballroom. The lady curtly replied: “Really. I’m busy right now. You can go back to that corner and continue watching.”

Secondly, it is a common device to keep our private lives separate from public domain. It is like saying: “Do not ask me anything else, because I have no time to share more details with you.” Sometimes, even among close colleagues in the office, people do not share as readily as they wanted to, simply because they prefer to keep their private lives away from nosy people. Moreover, in a competitive world, one will never know if others in the office are seeking to play politics using private information.

Thirdly, busyness is also due to mindless overwork. In any situation where an employee is insecure, there is a tendency to take on more work than necessary just to prove a point. Too much work, too little time and inadequate rest are three potent ingredients for concocting eventual self-destruction. The Chinese word for ‘busy’ has the radical word ‘heart’ on the left, and ‘death’ on the right. Put together, busy is literally 'killing the heart.' I have previous expounded on the word in my other blog here.

Fourthly, busyness is simply a word to stay superficial. It is too risky to open up ourselves to so many people. ‘Better to be safe than sorry’ is the philosophy of such people. In fact, this has to do with age as well. I notice that the older one gets, the fewer close friends one has. One may have many acquaintances but friends are few in number. Chances are the older one is, the more selective one becomes when choosing between friends and acquaintances.

Finally, I will suggest that busyness is simply because we have lost track of the need for space. Even worse, we have become uncomfortable with space just like we feel uncomfortable in a group when no one is talking. This state of discomfort is a symptom of our restlessness. We choose to put busy activities into our lives in order to feel fulfilled. We feel that doing nothing in itself is a waste of time. So we fill up our lives with all kinds of activities, sometimes without much thought. It reminds me of a buffet, where one piles up food to fill every corner of the plate simply because one seeks to maximize the dollar paid. Unfortunately, when we are too busy, we lose track of what we are doing, and we fail to adequately communicate clearly to others. One may type a lot of letters on the computer keyboard, but without the space in between words, there is no meaning. George White’s example above tells us the importance of space. Think about what kind of space you are giving yourself during times of stress and busyness. Have you been taking time to rest and make space for more important matters? For loved ones? For God? When was the last time you simply take time off to read the Bible patiently? Pray without rushing for time? Have you had coffee with a friend without constantly checking the clock? When is the last time you actually celebrate the Sabbath? When did you last do your Sabbath walk? Remembering the Sabbath is a way of making space. Once a week.

Thought: It is important to make space for God and people. Have you ever thought about fasting from email or Internet once a week, so that you can make some space? Try it.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sharing our Daily Bread

When the seven years of plenty which had been in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said, then there was famine in all the lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. (Gen 41:53-54, NIV)
The story of Joseph and his adventures has always been very fascinating. It is a story of one man, who has had many doors closed to him, and each time that happens, a window opens up. It has often been said that when God closes a door, he opens a window somewhere. If we have eyes that we will see, we will see light coming in the midst of darkness. If we have ears that will listen, we will hear despite the gloomy silence, a sweet melody of hope. In Joseph, we see a person badly treated by his brothers, unjustly blamed for a sexual offense he did not commit and as one who did not receive his fair deal even after interpreting dreams for two of his clients. In every instance, where there is a famine arising out of failed plans and unmet expectations, there is a glimmer of hope, from the finger of God. Like the land suffering from seven harsh years of famine, in Egypt and only in Egypt, there was bread. Before we jump too quickly to think that Egypt is the Saviour of the land at that time, note how Egypt received their blessings in the first place; through Joseph.

Not by Industry, Nor by Luck but by God’s Wisdom
The bread was not obtained merely from the hard work of the people at that time. After-all, the famine destroyed all the land. No land. No jobs. No food. Whatever food available is certainly not out of nowhere, for the huge food reserves in Egypt were collected meticulously due to God's wisdom that has been imparted to Joseph. In other words, without God, Egypt will perish with all the rest of the nations at that time. We can take a leaf from the lessons of Egypt and Israel. Seven years of prosperity is quickly followed by seven years of famine. This is what I call the 7-year cycle. The comforting thing is that regardless of prosperity or famine, God provides the food not only for his people, but for all who lived on the land. Throughout the years of prosperity, the people were too busy building their careers. Yet, Joseph was quietly storing up food, anticipating the 7-year famine while the rest are oblivious to the potentially devastating food crisis.

During these bleak economic times, those of us who have stored up reserves, be willing to share with those in dire straits, or to give out more to assist the needy. Put aside past grievances. Let the grace of God flow out through you. Open up your storehouses and share what God has blessed you. Let not any act of grace become an act of ungrace by holding others to ransom. Exercise grace by basic generosity that is laced with the love of God. Let your material possessions point people toward the God who has given you all things. Hopefully, as they enjoy the bread to sustain their basic livelihood, they will be led to seek the One who provides all the bread in the first place. Pray that as Christians, (who are generally more affluent,) feed the hunger, quench the thirsty and comfort the sick or the weak, more people will be led to the Giver of life, the Author of our faith and the Provider of everlasting Bread. Despite the famine of the land, there was bread in the storehouses of Egypt. Likewise, in the midst of an economic crisis, may people from all walks of life, all religious faith come to know that there will be bread, the bread of love in the storehouses of God’s people. Let this love for people stretch farther than one’s love for material goods. May the love for God overcome any desire to hoard things up for our selfish consumption. In doing so, even as we deplete our current material stocks, take comfort that we are storing up treasures in heaven, each time we give to the kingdom of God.

“It is possible to give without loving, but it is impossible to love without giving.” (Richard Braunstein)

Thought: John Wesley once said about money, "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Earn, save, then give. Perhaps, when it comes to love, shouldn’t we reverse it? (ie give, save and earn)