Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Choices

QUESTION: Are we too caught up with the pressures of making right and wrong choices?

We face choices each day. Some are mundane everyday choices. Mundane choices can be deciding what to eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Salesmen look at their schedule wondering which clients to call. Shoppers look at the large variety of choices, deciding which shopping mall to go, what shops to patronize and what things to buy. The choices are so mindboggling that many people need help to decide. Others are more significant and can change our direction in life permanently. Helping people make intelligent choices can be a profitable enterprise. We have all kinds of books nowadays, from helping people with buying a car, to choosing a computer.

What about our own life choices? how do we going about making big decisions in life? Decisions about who do we marry? What school do we go to? Which University subject to major in? What am I going to do when I graduate? When are we going to have kids? These choices may seem ordinary, but under certain circumstances, they can be extremely difficult to make. Some people simply bulldoze through life, just like the Nike label that says: "JUST DO IT." Others seem to be permanently in a state of indecision, that NOT-MAKING-A-DECISION becomes a decision in itself. Some Christians believe that all the answers they ever need is in the Holy Bible. But does the Bible tell us exactly who we should marry, or what job we should apply for? It is quite obvious that such specific things are not in any of the 66 book of Scripture. Ha ha. Wouldn't it be easier if all our names were already written in the Bible and we do not then have to agonize over life choices? Not really.

In Genesis 13, we read about 2 men given life choices. Abram and his nephew Lot could not get along because the land could not support their two families and their possessions. As a kind uncle, Abram generously let Lot take the first choice. He said to Lot:
"Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right; and if to the right, then I will go to the left." (Gen 13:8-9)
So Lot lifted up his eyes, saw the best land around and chose for himself the choicest part of the land, which is on the East side as far as Sodom.

If I am Abram, I will probably be thinking: "If Lot chooses the best part of the land, what about me? What about my family? Will there be anything left for me? Let's hope Lot make a bad choice."

Instead, after Lot chose what was pleasing in his eyes, Abram received this wonderful word from the LORD which says:
"Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever." (Gen 13:14-16)
WHAT A DIFFERENCE! Lot was given a first choice, and he was under pressure to choose the best for himself and his family. Abram on the other hand was given the FREEDOM to choose whatever. North, South, East or West, it doesn't matter. God assured Abram that when GOD IS WITH YOU, it doesn't really matter. When you have the GUIDE, why worry so much about guidance? Like lovers on a date, isn't it true that WHERE WE GO means nothing, when we know WHO WE WANT TO BE WITH?

In other words, God is telling Abram that it does not matter. It does not matter what choice you make. It does not matter whether your choice is right or wrong at the first selection. It does not matter whether you make a mistake or not. What matters is that if the LORD gives you, happily receive. If the LORD does not give, be thankful, knowing that God will supply us all we need according to the riches of his glory. Whatever it is, remember that God is with you. Isn't that liberating?

My College professor James Innell Packer, author of the well-known book called KNOWING GOD, says that the reason why Christians are anxious about making choices is because:

"a desire for guidance is linked with uncertainty about how to get it and fear of the consequences of not getting it." He then supplies 10 principles to go about dealing with this. Let me share with you his principle #10 which I personally find helpful:
"Never forget that it you make a bad decision, it is no the end. God forgives and restores. He is your covenant God and Savior. He will not let you go, however badly you may have slipped. "
Micah 7:8 reads
'Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. '
This is where I will leave you. Let us not be too caught up with the pressures of making right or wrong decisions. Lighten up. Things may not be as serious as your worries make them out to be. Let's enjoy the journey, believing that God will carry us through in his good time. Whatever wrong choices we think we have made, commit it to the LORD. As much as he can make our good decisions into BETTER decisions, he too is able to turn our wrong decisions into ways that can bring glory to his name. Let us not worry about which button to press, what shirt to wear or become anxious about the unknown future. Give thanks to God for all we have today, and let tomorrow worry about itself. Just make your best decision and leave the results to God. Apply wisdom and knowledge where appropriate. Talk to a trusted friend or a wise person. Most of all, the most important point is, no matter what choice we make, it is not the PRESENTS, but the PRESENCE OF GOD that is most important; for God is IMMANUEL. God is with us.

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Note: The podcast edition of this week's Sabbathwalk is available here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Spiritual Famine

"Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land." (Gen 12:10)
What do we do when we are hungry? We go eat food. What do we do when we are so hungry that the land we live in does not have any food that we need? We go in search of food, even if it means leaving familiar territory. What can force a person to go beyond familiar grounds? The Scriptures record the famine as very severe. It is a grim situation that demands serious planning and action.

At certain times of our lives, we too experience spiritual hunger and famine. Sometimes, when we are in such a state, even our regular spiritual 'gas stations' (like Sunday services, own Bible reading, prayer etc) are not able to fill our ravenous tank. We may surround ourselves up with sermons but remain unfulfilled. We may inject additives such as Christian books or self-help spiritual programs, but temporary measures do not last. Some people complain about the lack of feeding by the organization's shepherds and leaders. Others lament that whatever spiritual food dished out does not even whet one's appetite. The end result can be depressing. No solid food each week. Unappetizing and too plain for any enjoyment. So some people leave for supposedly 'greener' pastures. Before we come to any quick conclusions about the nature of one's spiritual hunger, it is good to ponder upon the following questions.
  1. What has changed? Our usual provider of food, or our changing appetites?
  2. Is our spiritual condition triggered by any single event?
  3. What if our current 'spiritual hunger' is in itself a gift?
This week, I like to focus on the last point. I want to suggest that spiritual hunger can be a gift from God. I remember those times when a lack of appetite is a precursor to an impending physical illness. Whether it is influenza, stomach flu or all kinds emotional conditions such as depression, a loss of desire to eat is an early warning sign that one is about to fall ill. When my kids feel hungry, I am actually glad as it tells me that they are in a state of healthy growth. Growing children eat a lot. I've got three kids, so I know firsthand. Indeed, to feel hungry is one of the best gifts in life. It is not a time to complain about whether the church is able to deliver enough food that is catered to our tastes. Neither is it appropriate for us to compare which church or spiritual entities are best able to churn out the right food for us. The latter is appropriate especially when it not the Church but us who have changed. In all these things, to be thankful remains one of the chief ways to maintain a godly attitude towards God, neighbour and self. Let me conclude with the following.
    BE THANKFUL
  • When we feel our clothes getting tighter around us, for it means we have been eating well;
  • When we are able to complain, be thankful for it means we have freedom of speech;
  • When we wake up in the morning, be thankful that we have the gift of sleep;
  • When we come back seeing our children watching TV or playing computer games, be thankful that they are not loitering about on the streets;
  • When we experience disappointment in worldly life, be thankful because it reminds us our hope is not of this world;
  • When we pay taxes, be thankful because it means we have a job.
  • When we experience spiritual hunger, be thankful for it is a means to desire more of God.
Finally, be thankful that in the midst of all our struggles and through our spiritual ups and downs, it could be a way that God uses to seek us instead of us seeking him. Remember that God is constantly drawing his children toward him, if we let him. What do we hunger for? If we hunger for God's righteousness, the promise of God is clear. We shall be filled.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (Matt 5:6)

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Consider

“… See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.” (Matthew 6b, NIV)
(Photo Credit: VanDusen Botanical Garden)


These past weeks I have been seeing and observing the cherry blossom (known as ‘Sakura’ in Japan) trees all over the neighbourhood. From mid-March to early April, a number of trees were already starting to bloom. In fact, the flowers blossomed so effortlessly that it is just a matter of days we see these big trees having more flowers than green leaves. Unfortunately, as quickly as they come, rapidly they fall as well. This is early May, and most of the cherry blossoms have dropped all their pretty petals. Cherry blossom flowers do not have a long life span. Soon, the streets are filled with decaying flowers fallen from the trees, just like trees that shed their leaves when Autumn arrives. Like the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves, both eloquently testify how transient life is. Consider....

Touch-n-Go Culture
... the way Jesus talks about lilies being temporal flowers (Matt 6:30). The Greek word for ‘consider’ is (καταμανθάνω, katabaino), which means ‘to consider, to think about, to observe.’ Part of meaningful learning and thoughtful living has to do with the word ‘consider.’ I remember friends forwarding emails to me with simply three letters: “FYI.” It means ‘for your information.’ The modern paradigm is Information-Is-King, which is easily absorbed without question. As a result, many people live like thoughtless sponges soaking up all kinds of information, regardless of how helpful it can be. The internet for example is both a boon as well as a bane. While information is more easily available, the dark side is that it can dull our ability to discern the important from the trivial. Even more troubling is, when important information arrives, will there be any room left in us to receive them? Will we become so busy with the urgent-but-unimportant things that we lose the space and opportunity to tackle the important stuff in life? In our busy modern world infatuated with technological speed and business efficiency, our kind of living is often touch-and-go. No time to pause. No space to ponder. No priority to pray. One can appear to do a lot of things, but eventually accomplishing few meaningful objectives. Like a hamster running a busy workout on a hamster-wheel. The wheel spins very quickly, giving an aura of busy activities. Yet the hamster remains at the same place, accomplishing neither distance nor freedom. Sometimes, people can live like hamsters.

Consider a life of .... katabaino
Living a life without worry requires us to learn to actively consider life itself (katabaino). Like a camera, if we try to force the lens to take in both the near object and far backgrounds together at the same time, we get a pretty fuzzy overall photo. Experienced photographers will know that even complicated panoramic scenes will require the stitching together of several individually focused shots from different directions. Cameras need a focal point in which to zoom in, and to bring every other image relative to its central object. When we live a life of focus, learning to take one day at a time, or to enjoy one moment at a time, we appreciate life better. We understand the meaning behind why we do what we are doing. We avoid rushing through life doing a lot but gaining very little.

Consider.....

... The Person Behind the Creation
Learn from the teachings of Jesus. Life is not simply about doing more things in less time, to be more efficient or productive. That will make us like machines. Neither should life become simply about loitering around and complaining how unfair the world is. That will make one resemble a baby crying over spilt milk. The wisdom of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) has taught us that reading great libraries will not satisfy our hunger for knowledge. Accumulating wealth may buy us great possessions but meaning cannot be purchased likewise. I urge you my reader to learn the art of consideration. If you have eyes, learn to see more clearly. If you have ears, try to listen more deeply. If you have tongues, try to speak more kindly. If you have noses, try to breathe in more calmly. If you have hands, try to use it more helpfully. An open hand is infinitely more healing than a clenched fist. Above all, keep that one thing, that one goal in your life as follows:
“One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek;
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD
And to meditate in His temple.” (Ps 27:4)

It starts with the word ‘consider’ (katabaino). Better still, ponder about the One behind the creation. Wonder over the Provider behind the providence. Be thankful for the Giver behind the gift.

THOUGHTS:
“Without any hesitation, and with a seemingly air of humility and thankfulness, the bird walked straight to her hand and began feeding. ‘Consider our little friend here,’ she began. ‘Most birds were created to fly. Being grounded for them is a limitation within their ability to fly, not the other way around.’ She paused to let Mack think about her statement. ‘You, on the other hand, were created to be loved. So for you to live as if you were unloved is a limitation, not the other way around.’” (William P Young, The Shack, Newbury Park: Windblown Media, 2007, p99)

No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)


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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Four Kinds of Silence

One of my favourite professors in college used to remind us: “Things are not what it seems.” It is a call for us to learn to see beyond the obvious, to notice things besides the superficial, and to observe circumstances with a careful eye. The saying, “Still waters run deep,” rings a familiar bell. It is easier to see the bottom of a still clear lake compared to squinting our eyes to look underneath choppy waters. An ordinary thing, seen with extraordinary sense of observation yields surprising discoveries. In the movie, Independence Day, the brilliant scientist was struggling to find a solution to defeat the powerful alien force field. After much frustration over his lack of progress, he discovered a breakthrough simply by noticing a very ordinary comment by his Jewish father. Two things played a key role. Firstly, he took a break. Secondly, he paid attention during an ordinary conversation. Things are certainly not what it seems, especially when we pay attention. Another example of ordinary things is about the different kinds of silence. The great 13th century Dominican monk-theologian-philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas, once said:
There are various kinds of silence; of dullness, of security, of patience, of a quiet heart.” (Thomas Gilby, trans, St Thomas Aquinas Philosophical Texts, Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p321)
Dr Johnny Almond of Colonial Beach Baptist Church interprets this four kinds of silence as follows (his words are italicised):
Dullness: “The silence of apathy displeases God – an uncaring heart doesn’t question injustice.
Security: “The silence of arrogance displeases God – an ungrateful heart doesn’t give heaven credit.
Patience: “The silence of perseverance pleases God – an uncomplaining heart will not quit faith marathon.
Quiet Heart: “The silence of prayer pleases God – an undistracted heart will pause to hear whispers from eternity.

My Interpretation
Almond’s interpretation conveniently breaks the silences into the types that please God and the types that displease God. I will not be too quick to jump to such a conclusion, to say that the first two is no-good, while the latter two are good. Instead, I believe the silences of dullness, security, patience and quiet heart can be helpful starting points in our spirituality of prayer. The reason is sometimes, we do not have the power to overcome our dullness or our security weakness. If we are feeling apathetic or dull, does that mean we cannot come to God? Far from it, Whether we are dull or needing security, we can still come to God, as we acknowledge our weakness, confess our sins and let God take over. Before I offer my model, let me make a few points about the four silences. The first silence, ‘Dullness’ can be due to a state of unmet needs. People are not born dull. They could be waiting for moments of excitement or engagement. Just last weekend, while doing groceries in Chinatown, I walked past a parked minivan. Suddenly, a dog barked loudly from inside the car, giving me a shock. My children who saw me were amused and laughed at me for losing my ‘cool.’ On my return, I told them that I will ‘take revenge’ on the dogs. They gleefully observe me as I walk up to the dogs in the minivan and gave them a boo. All my kids laughed and one of them said to me: “Dad, you’re not that boring after all.” I guess none of us can be called ‘boring’ all the time. There will be moments of dullness in our lives, but all it takes is a moment of inspiration.

Secondly, the cry for security is often due to fear. Some keep quiet fearing that they may suffer consequences, like making noise when the principal of the school is talking. Silence is also used by people arrested. We have seen how the police arrest villains at the movies, saying: “You have the right to remain silent.” Such attitude of silence seems rooted in fear.

Thirdly, patience is an attribute of waiting, plus continued perseverance. Fourthly, a ‘quiet heart’ is an attempt to build around oneself an environment for better listening and attention giving.

A Model of Prayer
I will suggest a model for prayer using such silences. If we feel ourselves getting DULL, feeling apathetic, or lethargic, or simply not wanting to care about anything, talk about it. Express the same feelings to God over and over again, using different phrases, different languages each time, even writing on the piece of paper about our inner struggles. By doing this, we honour God by honestly expressing our emotional selves, and seeking his forgiveness for any apathy or weakness we are experiencing. We try to move toward God through patience and perseverance, by praying continually. There is no need to fear dullness. Use it as an entry point to enter into the forgiveness of God.

If we feel ourselves getting fearful over SECURITY, commit to God our weakness and fear. God is our strong and mighty tower. Ps 46 is a good start too. If we start our prayer from either DULL or SECURITY, persevere in praying via PATIENCE so that we can attain a QUIET HEART. At the QUIET HEART stage, we start to sense the presence of God in a whole new way. We enjoy God simply for who He is.

Let me caution, that as much as we think we can move from DULL-->SECURITY-->PATIENCE--> QUIET HEART, the reverse can also happen. We may start with a QUIET HEART, but if we are distracted, we can easily fall into DULLNESS or SECURITY. The point is, we must be free to come to God, regardless of what state we are in. The way to God is often strewn with wild flowers by the side that distract. Stay focused on God. The door to God does not depend on our first getting our emotions 'correct.' We cannot simply say: "Impatience be gone." "Anger, disappear." It all needs time. Fortunately, the throne of grace is open not only to adults or seniors. God welcomes little children. Let us come to God with innocence like those of little children. Take it to the LORD in prayer. Don’t be afraid to come to God, just as you are. Let God know how you are feeling. Work toward developing an environment that facilitates a quiet-heart. A heart that takes all pleasure and comfort from God and God alone. The key is, we can start anywhere, but a QUIET-HEART will always be our purpose. Communion with God is our goal. The following prayer has been especially helpful to me this week.

THE SERENITY PRAYER (Reinhold Niebuhr)



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