Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mark of Grace

The Mark of Grace

But the LORD said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. (Gen 4:15)

How do we respond after a terrifying act of sin? Do we give an eye-for-an-eye, or do we forgive?

Gandhi once said, that if the entire human race practices an eye for an eye retaliation all the time, we will all become blind. Cain had just killed his brother (Gen 4:8). When questioned by God, he lied and defiantly cast another question back at the Divine Creator (4:9). In quick succession, self-deception, trickery and evasion of responsibility come hot after the heels of the world’s first homicide. Can anybody ever tolerate such despicable behavior by Cain? How is it possible to ever pardon a murderer who refuses to admit responsibility for his own wrongdoing? Not many people can forgive. Most may never forget. In the case of Cain, what did God do? Retaliate? No.

God did something absolutely amazing. He demonstrates grace in the midst of sin. He protects Cain by putting a mark on him, to assure him some safety from physical harm. He did it in two ways, a stick-wayand a carrot-way.

Stick-Way (Implicit)

God protects Cain by warning all others that any harm on Cain will be reciprocated 7 times. It is like a heroic figure in the movies, warning his enemies not to touch his friend, else revenge will be severe. Even in mafia movies, the gang-leader will offer protection in the form of deadly consequences, against anyone who dares to harm his precious family. By placing a warning to all, God is telling the rest of his creation: “Don’t mess with my Cain. I still love him, in spite of what he has done.” Grace, via the stick-way warns others not to touch Cain, lest they too will be punished more ruthlessly. It is a mark of grace upon Cain. The killer has become a protected refugee.

The Carrot-Way (Explicit)

God also extends his security over Cain through providing a mark. We do not really know what this mark is. It could be a scar. It could be a unique feature in Cain’s physical body. It could also be an instinct weaved into the senses of other creation that automatically detects the special status of Cain, and avoids him. Like fishes that flee the moment the Great White Shark appears, Cain is protected as if he has a repellent on his skin that warts away potential threats. Grace is seen as an explicit statement that Cain, even though he has sinned, is still a child of God. Why do I call it a ‘carrot’ way? It is because grace has been extended not only to Cain, but to all other persons who may come into contact with Cain, people who may want to avenge Abel tragic death. The mark of Cain should not be seen merely as a cursed sign that brings down the family line of Cain. Neither should we view it as a main negative symbol to be avoided at all costs. This mark is essentially a mark of grace, extended not only to Cain, but to the world at large.

Discipline in Grace

When it comes to disciplining a child, sometimes we can become too narrowly focused on the sin that we forget that they are loved by God as well. The Fox hit-series, ‘Prison-Break’ shows us another side of justice from the eyes of prisoners. In the drama, one of the worst villains turns out to be prison guards, rather than the incarcerated ones. The guards were pictured as people who abuse their power, engage in bribery, bully the prisoners and revel in humiliating the prisoners. For them, it is basically thinking that the prisoners are having their just desserts. The guards have such a low view of the prisoners that they cared less about their prisoner well-being than their own self-gratification.

Discipline without grace is never true discipline. This is because true discipline must always be redemptive. When disciplining children, do we do it for the sake of inflicting pain or for the sake of correcting the person in love? Redemptive discipline must be laced with grace. We can learn from the way God dealt with Cain. His way of discipline includes a strong element of protection in the midst of punishment (restlessness, toil, etc). The grace of correcting the wrongdoer means using both the stick-way as well as a carrot-way. Not only must we recognize the sin, and deal with it appropriately, we need to use the opportunity to extend a hand of redemption. It means giving the person a second chance at life. Often, the trouble with society is that people when trying to protect their own skin, ends up hurting others in the process. Like King David, his desire to hide his adultery with Bathsheba from her husband, Uriah ends up in the death of Uriah. It also led to the death of the first son, which David conceived with Bathsheba.

Do not allow any one wrong to lead to more acts of wrong-doing. Address that one wrong with a double-edged strategy, using a stick-way as well as a carrot-way. Recognize the sin. Redeem the sinner. In all of these actions, have an eye to protect and cherish that person, no matter how bad they are. Like how God treated Cain, in the aftermath of the world’s first manslaughter, God extended his grace profoundly through a stick-way and a carrot-way. We too, with the help of the Spirit, can do the same. If not, more.

Amish Grace

How can anyone ever forgive a heartless killing? Tough, but the Amish succeeded. After the senseless killing of several children in the Amish town in October 2006, the Amish community captured the attention of the world through their amazing response to the tragedy. The parents of the dead children attended the funeral of the killer, 32-year old Charles Roberts. They supported in every way possible the family of the killer. The Amish community spoke words of forgiveness over and over again. How did they do it? The researchers discovered one significant thing: The Lord’s Prayer was present everywhere they looked.

Many of us known and even memorized the Lord’s Prayer in our hearts. Let the words flow out through our actions. Even when we want to discipline others, remember, forgive one another, as we have been forgiven. You can read more about this amazing community in “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcend Tragedy,” written by Kraybill, Nolt and Weaver-Zercher, published by Jossey-Bass, 2007.

The mark of Cain is less of a physical warning mark, but more of a symbol of grace.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blessed Assurance

"'Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land - against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and I will rescue you, ' declares the LORD." (Jer 1:18-19)
Jeremiah was given a pretty tough job. He could have lived a quiet life minding his own business. He could have built his own career and enjoy the fruits of his economic endeavors. Yet, the Word of the Lord kept coming. It tells the prophet that before he was formed in the womb, God already knew him (1:5). The Word encouraged him, with childlike faith, to take upon a role much bigger than most adults (1:7). It came to him as visions, of an almond tree and a boiling pot (1:11-13). It called the meek prophet to get ready and to prepare for the day of judgment (1:17). The expectations on Jeremiah are pretty demanding. He was to pronounce judgments according to who God speaks against. There will be resistance. Formidable resistance. Politically, the king and his officials can easily clamp down on his freedom of speech and restrict his place in society. Religiously, the priests can excommunicate him. With Judaism so much a part of the culture, this can cripple one's relationships. After-all, Jeremiah comes from a priestly background and to be cut off from the priestly fellowship is anathema to one's career. Socially, the people can treat him like an outcast, even a heretic. Under such overwhelming odds, isn't it easier to simply keep a low profile and mind one's own business? Jeremiah could have, but he did not make a cowardly retreat. He had been assured thrice.

Three things are worth noticing. Firstly, God has already given Jeremiah triple-layered protection. Against the political powers, the religious leaders and the social fellowships, God assured Jeremiah with triple-protection; A FORTIFIED CITY that will stave off the enemy; AN IRON PILLAR that will strengthen its inner resolve toward faith in God; A BRONZE WALL that is impregnable by the elements of nature or discouragement. With three assurances of protection, God has already fitted the servant way before the tasks. Secondly, God is aware of the anxieties and frailties of the human psyche. In other words, God understands the human heart that is prone to worry and anxieties. The verb "I have made you" (Jer 1:18) is like a pre-emptive strike against the elements of worry and doubt. He assures Jeremiah that even though the enemies will fight him, they will NOT overcome him. What a promise! What an assurance! It reminds me of the Fanny Crosby classic: "Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine." Thirdly, God promises that he will be personally present with Jeremiah. For me, this is the single greatest promise and assurance ever possible for Jeremiah. With God by our side, what is there to fear? If God is for us, who can be against us? Should not these three assurances be adequate reasons for the rise of courage?

Dave Kuzminski tells a story about the courage of a butterfly. A man was walking in the woods when he came across a water puddle. As he made his way on the dry area beside the puddle, he was suddenly 'attacked' by a butterfly. Taken aback, he thought the butterfly had accidentally bumped into him. After a brief retreat, he tried to make his way round the wet spot again. The same butterfly continued to butt at him, preventing him from proceeding any further. He paused again and tried a third time to continue his journey. For a third time, the butterfly refused to let up its 'attack.' Bemused, the man started to wonder if the winged insect was mad when his eyes fell upon another butterfly by the side of the water puddle that appeared injured. As he stood, the butterfly that 'attacked' him started to fly down to the injured mate as if it is comforting her. Feeling more impressed than upset about the butterfly attacks, the man began to admire the butterfly's act of love. He had realized that if not for the attacking butterfly, he would have carelessly trampled upon the helpless butterfly on the ground and killed it. The attacking butterfly despite its size had done everything in its power to save its mate.

We too need to muster courage according to what God has already given us, like the courageous butterfly who took on a target many times its size. It did not have guns. It had only wings. It did not have guaranteed success. It had only love for its mate. The prophet Jeremiah stood against tremendous opposition politically, religiously and socially. It is tempting to throw in the towel and to say that the task is too impossible for us to handle. Jeremiah did not surrender himself to fear. He knew that he has already been equipped. He has the Equipper as his companion.

Likewise, we have the promise of God that the Holy Spirit will be with us. We pray the LORD's prayer often that we be delivered from evil. Let us learn from the faith and obedience of Jeremiah, the courage of the butterfly. We can also learn from Jeremiah, that the greatest assurance is not the triple protection promised by the LORD. Neither is it the equiping process or the promise of victory. It is the assurance from the LORD who said: "for I am with you and will rescue you." (Jer 1:19)

Faith is not waiting to be equipped before the taking of any action. Faith is taking an active first step forward without worrying about one's lack. It is walking out proclaiming that the LORD is my Shepherd, and because He is faithful, I shall lack nothing. Jeremiah had the LORD and he went forward. The butterfly had wings and it used it as a means to save its mate. Let us remember that faith means holding the hand of God as we walked the journey into the unknown future.
Perfect submission, all is at rest;
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
watching and waiting, looking above,
filled with his goodness, lost in his love.

This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long.

(Fanny Crosby)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stress, Distress, Bless

A Special Edition of Sabbath Walk (incorporating a brief remembrance of Brother Eric Tan)
“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me…” (Jonah 2)
The Presence of Stress and Distress
It is common knowledge that stress is a big and growing part of an adult life. Even kids nowadays have experienced pressures like never before. Some children get ushered quickly into adult demands when they exhibit ‘special’ gifts, like math prodigy or music gifting. It is sad when a child is not allowed to be a child, simply because he or she has qualities treasured by the grown-up world. Mentally, adult life at work can be extremely demanding. Emotionally, trying to balance our responsibilities to family, accountability to work and church can exact a toll to a previously carefree life. Physically, stress can weaken the body, exposing one from simple things like headache to more serious cases like stomach ulcers, even strokes. Those of us in ministry work are also not spared. Ministry to people is tough. Some even said that ministry demands can be higher. One of my seminary professors jokingly said to the class that if we have a choice to avoid ‘full-time’ ministry work, avoid it. Working with people can be more challenging than machines like computers. Stress can lead to anxiety. Worry can lead to distress. Who can we call? Who is our hero?

In my childhood days, I remember reading fairy tales where a beautiful damsel in distress waits for a knight in shining armor to rescue her from the evil witch. The plot is usually attractively laid out, with the damsel describes as beautiful, the knight as handsome and concludes with a ‘happily-ever-after’ ending. The lady has to call, even to cry and then to wait for her rescuer to turn up. Fairy tales makes our hearts feel good because the heroes and the good guys always win. Who can the damsel call? The knight, of course.

Adulthood is different. Tales now become reality where it is more like M Scott Peck’s famous words: “Life is Difficult.” Both employment and unemployment come with some tension, the former with meeting expectations of the company, the latter coping with expectations of society. A insensitive boss? Power hungry colleague? An unreasonable customer? A frustrating job interview? Marriages go through tough times too. Parent-teen relationships can be pretty rocky sometimes. These little tensions in life when amalgamated resembles a ticking time-bomb waiting to implode. Adult tales can be highly complex, often with unpredictable endings, like a lottery win, business failure, customer win, collapse of one’s dreams, or sudden death. Who are we gonna call? Stress-busters?

The Presence of God
Jonah is a prophet who ran away from his call. Instead of preaching repentance to the city of Nineveh, Jonah headed in the opposite direction. Yet, God followed him to Tarshish. God followed him via the great wind (Jon 1:4). God was present even as they cast lots on who to bump overboard. God was present with Jonah in the great fish (Jon 2:1a). In that moment, Jonah cried out to the LORD waiting nearby and was able to say, ‘he answered me’ (Jon 2:1b). Think about it. After all the running away, all it takes is a simple call, a gentle request and the multitude of God’s love and presence comes storming in. Jonah was able to sense not only the answer of the LORD, he hears God in the deepest grave (2:2). He knows that God listens to him even at the bottom of the ocean. He feels the presence of God amid the stormy waves sweeping around him. The beauty of it all is, before Jonah called, God is already there.

Remembering Eric Tan (1961-2009)
This week, we remember brother Eric Tan, who passed away in Malaysia at a tender age of 48. The passage of Scripture accompanying the funeral service was from 2 Tim 4:7, a special credit to a life well-lived:
“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
From the reading of Jonah, we can picture how God has been with him. As Eric was fighting the good fight, the LORD was with him. As he was finishing the race through his respective work responsibilities, the LORD was also with him. As he played his last badminton game in Kuala Lumpur on the 12th July 2009, even as he breathed his last breath, he kept the faith, knowing that the LORD was with him.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the LORD’s presence is the best comfort we can ever receive. During the times of stress, as the LORD has been with Jonah, he will be with you. In places and situations of great distress, the LORD is there. As you sense the presence of the LORD, take off your shoes, for where the LORD is, the ground that you are standing is holy ground. Bless him.

Join with me to honour God with this song:

“Come bless the LORD. All ye servants of the LORD.
Who stands by night, in the house of the LORD.
Lift up your hands, in the holy place.
And Bless the LORD. And Bless the LORD.”

Thought: What comes to mind during times of distress? Do you feel alone amid the pressures and demands all around you? Who walks with you? Perhaps, during such moments, it is not doing more or working less. It is the recognition of the unseen person, the Good Shepherd who walks with us. Whether we ascend the mountain of doubt, or descend the valley of darkness, or simply feeling stuck in-between, God is present with us.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009


"Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights." (Isa 7:11)
One of the things I appreciate when driving to my destination is the visibility of signs. It gives me a sense of direction that I am traveling closer to my desired address. It provides a sense of comfort that I am on the right track. It gives me some relief that I am not lost. In the Old Testament, signs can be a reminder of a covenant made (Gen 9); an omen (Jer 44:29); a warning (Exodus 4); or a monument for the next generation (Joshua 4). In the Isaiah passage, the sign is used as an assurance to trust God. At that time, Assyria was a looming threat not only to Judah but to its neighbors. The neighboring nations (including Northern Israel), were trying to pressure Judah to join the alliance against Assyria. The dilemma for King Ahaz is: Trust the alliance? or trust the LORD? If only he had taken heed from his spiritual director, the prophet Isaiah.

We need spiritual directors to help us read signs. Signs provide a sense of direction for our Christian growth. Typical advice that says: "All we need is God," can appear fluffy. Lots of 'correct' words but little sense of what it means for us. In Soulguide, Bruce Demarest points out two aspects of Christian growth. The first is a REDEMPTIVE aspect which I call 'growing inside.' This includes our personal individual walk with God, our spiritual disciplines and our awareness that we are saved by grace. This is something we all aim at. However, if we only focus on the redemptive aspect, we risk becoming self-absorbed. We need a second aspect, which is the MISSION-ORIENTED aspect. I call this 'growing outside.' This includes the expression of faith via service (to all). Likewise, if one only practices the second aspect without regard to the first, one becomes like an empty vessel, pretty on the outside, but hollow on the inside. One without the other is like walking only with one leg. Thus, authentic Christian growth can only come when there is adequate growing both inside as well as outside. Authentic spiritual growth means walking on both legs, obeying the signs for Internal and External growth.

In Isa 7, Ahaz was requested to ask for a sign. This is a gracious call extended to him. God asked Ahaz to call upon him anytime. Whether one feels deep down in dire straits, or experiencing ecstatic highs, the LORD is ready to show the way. All he needs is to ask. Unfortunately, Ahaz refused to ask the LORD for a sign, much to Isaiah's frustration. He didn't appreciate the presence of such a prominent spiritual director.

Such an attitude continues to run rampage in the modern church. Dallas Willard, laments the lack of desire to seek spiritual direction in the church:
"Spiritual Direction was understood by Jesus, taught by Paul, obeyed by the early church, followed with excesses in the medieval church, narrowed by the Reformers, recaptured by the Puritans, and virtually lost in the modern church." (Dallas Willard, Satisfy Your Soul)
Henri Nouwen adds:
"Many ministers today are excellent preachers, competent counselors, and good program administrators, but few feel comfortable giving spiritual direction to people who are searching for God's presence in their lives." (Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder)
Christian. Do not despair. A lack of spiritual direction does not mean 'no' direction. There will always be a sign for the one who has a willing heart. God will supply signs and guides for us as we walk our Christian path. We need to discern the moving of the Spirit, who gives us signs to walk our journey of faith. We need spiritual directors to help us read spiritual signs.

Signs are essential for spiritual direction. May I humbly suggest three ways toward reading and obeying the signs.

1) Pray and Read the Word regularly; (Inner growth signs)
2) Practice the Word regularly; (External growth signs)
3) Seek out spiritual director(s) (to help put both inner and outer aspects together).

In 1985, Henri Nouwen was at the end of his illustrious teaching career in a prestigious University at Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was seeking for signs on what is next for him. In seeking inner growth signs, he prayed. He wrote journals, expressing his fears, desires and deepest desires to obeying God's call. He asked for a sign. As he prayed to discern inside his heart, as he continues to be faithful through external acts of service (external growth signs), he found a community to help tie it altogether. It was a scary next step. His next opportunity has "no money to offer, no attractive living quarters, no prestige." Nouwen consulted many (spiritual directors), to read the signs that clearly pointed him toward a commitment to the L'Arche community (handicapped people) in Canada. Like Abraham when he was called, Nouwen had no idea what God had in store for him. All he knew was to obey the signs. Perhaps, there is another consideration as far as signs are concerned. Maybe, a lack of spiritual direction is linked to a lack of willingness to obey the signs......

Thought: Signs are key pointers in spiritual direction. Reading the Signs is one thing. Obeying the signs is another. It is no use learning to read signs, without a corresponding willingness to trust God and obey his calling. Could it be that we fail to see signs, because of our inner UNWILLINGNESS to obey?
"God's commands are designed to guide you to life's very best. You will not obey Him, if you do not believe Him and trust Him. You cannot believe Him if you do not love Him. You cannot love Him unless you know Him." (Henry Blackaby)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Nostalgia or Lament?

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!..... ” (Lam 1:1a)
Regret – that it could have been better
Relief – that it could have been worse

When Wendy Murray Zoba’s husband committed adultery, her hopes of a near-ideal marriage crumbled. Everything else that made sense for her suddenly lose meaning. Her marriage was over. Her life was shattered. Her search for God became more teary and weary. She needed a miracle to ever recover emotionally and spiritually. What can she do? Did she regret what happened, or was she relieved that it was all over? Sometimes it is simply not possible to do either. One simply needs to go through the painful process. The question is: Where does our lament lead us to? More specifically, WHO does it lead us to?

We live in a world where there are many troubles. It does not take long for a young Christian to realize that the Christian life is often not like a nice bed of roses. There are challenges too. Israel learned it the hard way through its painful exile to Babylon. The biblical book of Lamentations is a detailed cry of pity over the loss of Jerusalem when the Babylonians sacked her around 586 BC. Written poetically and in acrostic manner, Lamentations is a structured form of poetry. Some people may even suspect that it was written for a funeral service. The sadness deepens as the author looks back at how Jerusalem lost its crown (1:1c), betrayed (2), exiled (3), abandoned (4), and utterly disgraced. The twin emotions or regret and relief play strong. Three observations can be made regarding this sense of lament. While Jeremiah laments, he is always looking back to God.

1) Lost Potential
Unlike the recent death of Michael Jackson, where some tries to milk his death buy selling more wares, the author Jeremiah makes no effort to ‘profit’ from the destruction of Jerusalem. The words in Lamentations reflect his grief over the loss of a once-great nation. Some of us who mourn, only have a few short words or phrases. Jeremiah on the other hand, wrote acrostic poetry, amounting to 5 chapters and 172 verses in Lamentations! A nation that was once 'great' among nations, has now become a forced laborer (Lam 1:1). What a loss.

2) Lost Promise
Not only has the nation lost its independence, it became subjected to the rule of its enemies (Lam 1:3). What happened to God’s promise about Israel becoming the nation of nations? Did God forsake Israel and his covenant? Will there ever be hope for mankind through Israel? At one look, it seems that it is the LORD who has 'caused her grief' (Lam 1:5). Verse 1:18 reveals the reason for Jerusalem's demise, their rebellion. Thus, it is Israel's rebellion that caused their own downfall. Israel has rejected not only the promise but the Promiser.

3) Lost Peace of God
The word ‘Jerusalem’ literally means ‘foundation of peace.’ How can a nation that is supposed to bring peace to the world, now becomes ravaged by war and drained of any power to bring peace? It is one thing not to be able to do something. It is yet another not to be able to live up to one’s name.

The sins of Jerusalem caused Israel to lose all three; Potential, Promise and Peace of God. In this state, life can seem meaningless and helpless. Lamentations is a call for us to mourn over the sad history of past Israel. Yet it should not be allowed to become an end in itself. We have a choice. We can remain trapped in the past or we can choose to look forward. The last verse of Lamentations is a guide for our prayers.
Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may return; renew our days of old
Unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lam 5:21-22)
What About Our Own Regrets?
Did Wendy Murray Zoba remain in a state of limbo, lamenting her own personal losses? No. She pressed on in her faith. Her personal story debunks the myth that a Christian life ought to be one that is ‘untarnished and sublime.’ Our Christian life is not simply "Prayer of Jabez" nature where God gives us all the nice things in life when we ask for it. Sometimes, it needs to be "Prayer to Jesus," where we need to pray, 'Have mercy on me, O God, for I am a sinner." I believe the 'cry for Jesus' prayer is far more Christ-centered than the 'Prayer of Jabez.' The former seeks God's mercy, while the latter seeks God's prosperity. The former seeks to be released from the pressures of sin, while the latter seeks to indulge in the pleasures of multiple blessings. If we claim to follow Christ, we need to mirror his heart (for God!) and not become infatuated with material riches (for gods).

As Wendy Murray Zoba tries to climb out of the painful seasons of her life, she recognizes that it is not coming to the end of the tunnel that brings her hope. It is actually God walking next to her in the tunnel that brings frequent consolation. A precious lesson she learned was from St Francis of Assisi.
"He was a pilgrim, stripped of life's easy consolations. Life as a pilgrim had but a single purpose: to have eyes to look for the unexpected, to imagine possibilities, and to remain accessible to the voice that speaks." (Wendy Murray Zoba, On Broken Legs, NavPress, 2004 153)
Thought: If you are always asking for nice things, you are prepared only for nice results. Whether nostalgia or lament, if you learn to seek NOT mere things nor only niceness, but instead the Face of God, you would have learned that the Christian journey is not one of joy or sorrow, but of companionship with the One you love.

Question: Where does your personal lament or nostalgia lead you to? Does it end in self-pity or does it lead you back to God?