Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Imprisonment and Prayer

"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13, NASB)

Imprisoned. Facing a room with stony walls like a caged animal, there is not much space to go anywhere, to do anything significant or to meet anybody. No missionary trips. No executive meetings. Not even a chance to personally gather people together to pray. After-all, what tangible things can a person do when in chains? Surely, the gospel must be proclaimed. The good news must be shared. The Word of God must be spread to all the Jewish community as well as the Gentile nations. There are so many things to do, but very little freedom to act on it. In times like these, the apostle Paul could have heard a voice screaming:
“God, it’s not fair. Here is a man who longs to give his all to advance the gospel, but you let him get caught and be jailed. What good can a man in prison do to further your cause?”
What do you do when you are totally helpless? How does one overcome the feeling of powerlessness especially when important matters need to be accomplished as soon as possible? One of the worst feelings of being locked up is to know that while the spirit is willing, the hands and legs are tied. Not only that, how does one deal with the thought of being held against one’s will unjustly?

If a man's sense of achievement is in terms of getting things done, an imprisoned man will be the least contented. Jens Soering under such conditions, spent 14 years contemplating taking his own life. Accused of murder, he has been imprisoned in a jail cell in Virginia since 1986. Attempts to free him have all but failed. Life in prison is likened to that of a little ‘guppy’ trying to fend off large ferocious hungry sharks. In 2004, his cellmate, ‘Keith’ committed suicide. Soering instead committed himself to do something more positive, namely writing and praying. While ‘Keith’ decided to end it all. Soering determined to start afresh. His first book, “The Way of the Prisoner” was published in 2004. In the book, Soering tells us profoundly that every person has their own kind of prison to contend with. People all over the world generally want external freedom, to be liberated from all kinds of chains. However, there is an inner prison that is much more formidable than the 'Alcatrazes' of the world. There is an inner penitentiary that cripples the heart through sin. Jesus teaches us that the things that comes out of such a heart make us unclean. Mark’s gospel details them as follow, namely; ‘evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly’ (Mark 7:21-22). How do we counter this inner dungeon of fearsome dragons? What do we do when we feel mistreated and unjustly accused? What hope is there for any prisoner? Soering teaches the beauty of centering prayer for such situations. This is pivotal to turning around from a life of misery toward a path of hope. He said true freedom is one that is focused on following Christ. In prayer, we ask God to forgive us of our sins and to nip any evil at the bud. Through this, we begin to learn that prayer is not simply an exercise in asking for material gains. There is a spiritual development aspect as well.

Breaking Out of Our Inner Prisons through Prayer
Prayer is something that nearly every Christian agree theologically, but fail to do enough of it practically. I suppose one’s desire to pray is a measure of how much they recognize the prisons they face, whether literally or metaphorically. Ask the last person without a key who fails to leave the shopping mall before the gates are locked. Ask a person trapped in the staircase corridors with all exits sealed. The emotions are remarkably alike. Fear. Distress. Helplessness. Next inquire into the thoughts of people hemmed in by expectations from all directions. Imagine a worker constantly berated by an unreasonable boss; unfairly accused on not being a good parent in the home by both spouse and children; isolated by friends and colleagues. Such barrage of cruel expectations can invariably imprison the poor soul.

For Soering, the ‘way of the prisoner’ is but a path to following Christ. Through the practice of centering prayer, he realizes that the very chains he wear help him maintain a focused attention to Christ, who offers freedom. For many Church fathers, prayer to God is the most wonderful time of the day amid the busyness and great expectations from all people. For the Apostle Paul, in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, even when in chains, he is able to say that he can do all things through Christ, who gives him strength. The fact that a man in prison, can write such a positive and uplifting book of Philippians goes to show us that in Christ, there is nothing too difficult or impossible. In prison, or in prayer, may we deeply feel that in Christ, we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us. Recognize whatever chains we have. Give it to Jesus, and watch him miraculously set us free.

Thought: Are you in prison right now? Are you constantly under a barrage of unfair or ridiculous expectations placed on you at work, at home or among your social circles? Or are you feeling that no one in this world truly understand what you are going through? Take it to the Lord in prayer, and learn in your heart: “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis Smedes)

“You can't undo anything you've already done, but you can face up to it. You can tell the truth. You can seek forgiveness. And then let God do the rest.” (Source unknown)


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Life Lessons (Aging)

Life Lessons (Aging)
Listen to your father who begot you,
And do not despise your mother when she is old. (Prov 23:22)
What constitutes a ‘life lesson?’ Is it a teaching about life in general, or is it something that is more personal in nature? In Life Lessons, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler reveal to us the mysteries of life & living by talking ironically about death & dying. They observed succinctly: “The dying learn a great deal at the end of life.” I remember watching the movies like “Tuesday with Morrie” and “Wit” which essentially touches on situations where the patient is essentially dying with each passing day. From Morrie, we discover that aging and learning are both closely intertwined.
"As you grow old, you learn more. If you stayed at twenty-two, you'd always be as ignorant as you were at twenty-two. Aging is not just decay, you know. It's growth. It's more than the negative that you're going to die, its also the positive that you understand you're going to die, and that you live a better life because of it." (Mitch Albom, Tuesday with Morrie, Broadway, 2002, p118)
In Wit, we shudder to see a cancer patient, in trying to get a chance at life, ends up living (or dying!) miserably in a chilling world of technology and cold-hearted medical researchers. It takes an old woman to provide the comfort and discernment to recognize the true need of the patient: Companionship and Comfort. This is in stark contrast to the young, highly qualified doctors who are only too concerned about their newer state of the art medical technology, tests and results. The lessons of life comes not with youth, but with age.

Looking at society’s obsession with youthfulness, where the old is given up in favour of the young, ‘Aging’ is taboo. Even older people reminisces nostalgically on their ‘good old days’ while lamenting their aging conditions. The pattern of downplaying the aged in society also extends to the working world. In a fast-paced society, economic realities often force companies to compete aggressively, hiring only the fast who outruns the rest, the quick who outthinks the slow; and the younger, cheaper, adaptable worker who gets the job done faster and better than the older, the more expensive and the more change-resistant but loyal employee. Long live the vigor of youth!

However, biblical wisdom usually do not come packaged neatly in a young immature person, who tends to be brash with their behaviour and rash in their attitudes. Proverbs teach us to learn to listen to our father and our mother, and not to despise them. Why isn’t it the reverse? After-all, in our technological era, many older people are taking computer lessons from younger folks. The latest technology, while easily embraced by the younger people, can be a real struggle with elderly people. Some of the modern Blackberry devices can be stressful for older people to use. Internet tools on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter applications can become very intimidating, overwhelming older adults with the scintillating amount of information flung mercilessly at them. In a world where the young catches the electronic medium faster than the old, does that mean that Proverbs’ teaching on wisdom no longer applies?

Not really. Wisdom is not in terms of production or efficiency. It is not even defined in terms of technological prowess or economic riches. Wisdom does not mean accumulating knowledge and various techniques. It is essentially the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the first step to entering the door of wisdom. Such a teaching cannot be learned by a simple download from Wikipedia or a technological source. Neither can wisdom be learned by simply reading a book or attending a lecture. With and increasingly technological society on one hand, and the rising complexity of family problems on the other hand, has our culture unwittingly assumed that technology can be used to solve everything? Can technology be the solution to every human problem?

Let me raise the alarm bells that if we are careless, technology can become our modern tower of Babel. The young, while astute in technology needs to be guided by the wisdom and experience that can only be learned from the school of life. Such life lessons cannot be emailed, twittered, ebooked or processed technologically. It has to be taught by people who have been schooled through the hard knocks of life. Never underestimate the depth and profound lessons our parents and elders can offer us. There must be a reason why Scriptures insist that children obey their parents. There is no time limit to it.

Perhaps, we need to honour not only our parents, respect the elderly but also to appreciate the aging process. The way to comprehend all these is not to live a 24x7, in a non-stop arena of activities and busyness. We need to instill pockets of rest and leisurely rhythms of life to try to make sense of what it takes to call our work ‘good.’ During the first week of creation, God took a step back to see all he has done. Remember his response? At the end of each day, God was pleased with his creation and declared it good. Perhaps, when we feel busy and meaningless, by taking a step back to ponder and contemplate, we might see the bigger picture of life. If not, consult an elderly and learn from the wisdom of the aged.

THOUGHT: Do not despise aging. Delight in the lessons that can only be learned through the aging process which ALL of us will have to go through. One way to appreciate these life lessons is to instill a rhythm of rest especially in times of stress or emotional restlessness.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Judge Not

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged."

"Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way." (Rom 14:13)
We do a lot of pre-judgment on a lot of things, people as well. Some judge others on the basis of skin colour. Even before the person is allowed to speak, things are already happening in the decision making engine of our head. Others judge people on the basis of their qualifications. If the person does not even have a degree, a skillset discount is automatically applied. Still, many people judge prospective candidates on the basis of their experience. This leaves new graduates out of any employment consideration. In social circles, judgment easily happen both consciously and unconsciously. In general, people gravitates towards their own kind, those that one feels more comfortable with. Any person(s) who does not share the common background gets filtered away as strangers or generally to be avoided.

A prominent Taiwanese professor of Psychology once shared about his early experience as a clinical psychologist in America. The moment people sees his Asian face, people automatically give a '50% discount' on his ability to accurately diagnose their condition. In other words, people judged him as ineffective simply based on skin colour. It is sad that all over the world, discrimination like this happens in different cultures. All races, all religions and all cultures discriminate in various ways. Some more, others less, but all attempt to differentiate people according to their own set of criteria. In the name of efficiency, a set of criteria is usually applied to sort out the good from the not so good. In the name of unity, people pick out those who tends to be more team-players rather than stubborn dissenters who pose a threat to cohesiveness in a group environment. When that happens, any gain in homogeneity leads to a loss in diversity.

What goes on in the head tends to dictate the actions our hands, our feet and our mouths make. When we judge a person, we make a premature conclusion that infringes on that person's freedom to be who he is created to be. Scientists have done research and concluded that people has a tendency to behave according to the expectations imposed on them. In particular, the words of a father can profoundly impact his children.
- You are useless!
- Lazy bum! Always looking for ways to shirk responsibility.
- "Bravo. Keep it up. You can do it."

When a father constantly berates his child, he is setting his child up for a rebellious and unfulfilled future. In the violent Jackie Chan movie, "The New Police Story" released in 2004, the main villain in the movie is that of a son of powerful police chief. This head of police used lots of negative language to abuse and humiliate his son, whom he deemed useless and good for nothing. As a result, the son grows up to hate cops, and spends his time dwelling in a video game environment that kills cops. Disastrously, he moved from the virtual video world and started to kill cops in the real world. The power of a father's words strikes deep and far.

Recently, I was deeply embarrassed as I watch the "Britain's Got Talent" episode featuring a humble, not too impressive looking middle aged lady called Susan Boyle. From the camera's angle, lots of people were already giving a '50% discount' on this woman's ability to croon. However, when the music starts, and the time comes for her to sing, she delivered one of the richest voices and hauntingly beautiful voices ever to be heard. Many in the audience, including the judges gave her a standing ovation. As the whole scene was played out, I cannot help but feel embarrassed that I too, were one of the guilty ones giving a '50% discount' to this plucky lady. I thought to myself: "Have I consciously or unconsciously judged others? Have I, in the process become unfair in not allowing them to be the best selves, simply by my discriminatory stance?"It is a wake-up call for me, that as a disciple of Christ, as one who desires to be part of ushering the kingdom of God for all mankind, we must be champions of diversity. More importantly, we must be chief proponents of ensuring everyone has a fair chance to succeed, to be the best they were made to be. Matthew 7:1 may come across as a negative "Do not do this" or "Do not do that." I propose that there is also a positivistic angle to it. We can avoid judging others, by helping them be the best person God made them to be. It starts by first acknowledging that only God can judge. Never us. Never discount anybody, not even a stranger.

Thought: What causes you to judge people? Have you unfairly applied different criteria to different people in your daily interactions with people? In hiring? In choosing friends or social acquaintances? Indeed, when we judge others, we are not freeing them but enslaving them according to the imperfect chains of our expectations, including those that we ourselves have trouble meeting.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." (Martin Luther King Jr)

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." (Mother Teresa)


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Two-Second Rule

"There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven" (Eccl 3:1)
One of the key things about driving on highways is to observe the 2-second rule and establish a safe stopping distance. Under good weather and normal road conditions, a driver can use a 2-second time stop gap to leave enough space between one's car and the vehicle in front. For drivers with slower reactions, more time should be added to it. What it means is that any driver should be able to stop his or her vehicle within 2 seconds without hitting the car in front during an emergency brake. In higher speed roads, this standard gap should be increased to 3 seconds and in bad weather road conditions, it should be lengthened to 4 seconds. This rule of thumb is for the sake of both the driver as well as the driver in front. What about tailgating? In defensive driving, we can minimize the probability of a rear side collision by leaving even more space in front of us so that we can do a gradual stop, and to allow the rear driver enough time to safely stop without crashing into our boot.

Our modern life is a fast-paced one. Things can only get faster and more demanding. Microprocessor speeds are expected to rise with each succeeding generation. In computer technology, Moore's law states that the number of transistors doubles nearly every two years. This has been applied to speeds, memory capacities, volumes and many forms of measurable devices. In management sciences, people make it a point to multi-task efficiently without sacrificing productivity. People fill in all empty spaces of their busy schedule and appointments. Even lunch breaks have been turned into opportunities to solicit business deals. It is a vicious cycle. Competition pressures businesses to increase their pace and reduce their prices. Businesses squeeze employees to cut costs, to do more with less. Employees are tempted to cut corners, which endanger quality and put customer satisfaction at risk. Customers intensify the whole cycle by emphasizing price over and above loyalty. Goodwill and well meaning gestures of tolerance and patience are slowly being replaced by quick-tempered behaviour and impatience. Such actions can unwittingly feed the the hamster wheel of busyness, constantly running but never really gaining much ground. The American clergyman, William Boetcker writes perceptibly:
If your business keeps you so busy that you have no time for anything else, there must be something wrong, either with you or with your business.” (William J. H. Boetcker)
There is a time for everything, and for every event under heaven. Unfortunately, the mad rat-race can fatally blind people into thinking that they can manage life without leaving a safety distance for themselves and for others. Fil Anderson describes his experience in his book "Running on Empty." A high achiever, he constantly worries over expectations placed by others and himself. His life is a living testimony of speeding up when his tank is running empty. His situation is a serious case of an overworked professional. He had allowed his busy lifestyle to become his sense of identity, leaving no space for others, for himself and for God to work.
"... I lived with a deep sense of loneliness, fear, frustration, and disappointment. While always busy and usually productive, I rarely feel satisfied, at peace, or at home with myself. As a natural consequence of my feelings of isolation, I was often resentful, afraid, and angry..... A deadly pattern developed: My body would fall apart whenever I broke away from the constant activity, often around holidays and vacations." (Fil Anderson, Running on Empty, Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2004, 11-12)
We need to learn to leave a "2-second rule" to unwind and not throw our work frustrations when we get back home. Otherwise, the family we claim to love only becomes an innocent punching bag for any work-related stress and accumulated steam of anger. Leave your office a little earlier each day so that you can drive slowly and not be upset by bad traffic conditions. Take a casual walk, slowly and prayerfully up the stairs, through the garden or simply pausing to chat with neighbours. You can also apply this 2-second rule for the sake of those following close behind you. Practice slowing down when others are hot on your heels, like speaking a bit slower or gentle breathing. If necessary, increase the time-space gap according to your personality. In doing so, you will grow to appreciate the wisdom of the Ecclesiastes passage, that there is a time to speed up, a time to slow down, and also a time to stop. Pause. Pray. Give thanks.
"When I stopped running and started listening to God's whispering voice, I heard my true identity declared, 'Fil, you're my beloved son, and I love you.'" (Fil Anderson, p195)

Thought: Examine your calendar. Have you placed a 2-second rule between appointments? Have you given yourself a planned time to unwind and to recover before coming back into the embrace of your loving family? Do you know how much space and time you need before any anger blows up uncontrollably? Show your loved ones you love them, by giving space and time all around you.

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." (Viktor E Frankl)


Thursday, April 2, 2009


"Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart." (Ps 37:4)
The journey motif is one of the most powerful and meaningful image of a Christian walk. We ready our resources. We plan our routes. We arrange our itinerary. Sometimes we design Plan B in case of interruptions or unforeseen events during our voyage. There are 3 phases of a person's journey. The first is excitement and novelty. The third is anticipation of the destination. It is the middle that creates a kind of stuck-in-the-middle feeling. At the middle, one feels that it is too late to turn back, and too tired to carry on forward. The latter needs encouragement to press on. The former needs reminder of the original goals and purposes. Either way, the person needs to decide to proceed or to call it quits. However, there is a third option. He/she can intentionally schedule breaks. Whatever it is, at every stage, one's delight of the journey being taken, makes a big difference in the attitude and the aptitude. After all, it is the attitude (the heart), not the aptitude (the skills) that determines the altitude (the height). I suggest that this is in the delighting.

We are in the midst of another big move in 9 months. Due to the unique circumstances, we embarked upon this move in order to meet the requirements of our growing children. The work is huge, with cleaning up to be done on both the old and new places. Nearly every box packed at the old house has to be unpacked at the new. The work is tremendous, and this is on top of our current commitments at work and at school. In the midst of rushing to complete our tasks of unpacking and organizing, sometimes we get frustrated over not finding our stuff, and having to live literally 'out of the box.' What happens when one feels overworked, exhausted and totally discouraged from all the work? We found our respite in taking short breaks in between. Lots of them. This period of break is also a time to reflect back thankfully on the old and to reaffirm our delight in a brighter future. I find that while reminiscing in the past may carry with it some nostalgia, looking forward with pleasure and delight of the promised rewards spurred us forward more powerfully. It is the desire for the better life that makes one feel that it is all worthwhile. Phillip Sheldrake, a professor at Durham University in the UK describes the connection between desires and identities.
The more authentic our desires, the more they touch upon our identities and also upon the reality of God at the heart of our being. Our most authentic desires spring ultimately from the deep inner wells where the longing for God runs freely.(Philip Sheldrake, Befriending Our Desires)
This sense of identity is also sharply brought across in our relationships with one another. He continues:
Desires are best understood as our most honest experiences of ourselves, in all our complexity and depth, as we relate to people and things around us.
Indeed, Sheldrake communicates a depth about desiring that dovetails into our passage in Psalms.

'Delight yourself in the Lord' is something that can be seen as reminiscing in the past faithfulness of God. Think of how God has been leading us through the years, and to give thanks. When we allow ourselves to fall into the embracing arms of God, we begin to see that the worries and the worldly concerns of the world does not seem so important anymore. In fact, safe in the arms of our Father, God's light becomes our delight. God's desires overwhelms all of ours. Above all, when we delight ourselves in the Lord, we realize who we are made for, what we are created to do, and how we can go about the fulfill the will of God. "And he shall give you the desires of your heart" becomes re-interpreted as not our will, but God's will be done. Too often, we see 'delighting in God' as a BACKLIGHT for our own greed and wantings. We fail to see that God wants to make us the LIGHT of the world. When we use our delighting in God as a backlight, or a headlight, we can become guilty of trying to bend God toward our selfish covetousness. Will we not be better off, by allowing God to turn us into HIS LIGHT instead? Will it be more beneficial for all if our delighting in God is actually an earnest "desiring-after-God-for-who-He-is" rather than "desiring-after-God-for-his-gifts-only"? God forbid. Let us delight ourselves in God for who He is. He will give us the authentic desires of our hearts, to help us realize exactly what we need. The one who claims to know exactly what he needs is a fool. The one who trusts God to teach him what he needs is a humble child of God.

Thought: What are the desires of your heart? Is it anchored on your personal sense of identity? Or is it a competitive reaction because others have it, so I must have it?
The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." (Zephaniah 3:17)”