Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Life's Biggest Question

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt 19:16)
What is our biggest question in life? For those who are afraid, they will ask what it takes to be saved, or be less fearful. For those who are unsure of their direction in life, they will ask for a clearer path to take. For those of us who are bored with life, they ask for more exciting and entertaining options. Sometimes, we let fear dictate our questions. Fear of failure or not having. We can easily become victims of fear. In fact, this ‘fear’ factor has become such a serious concern that the famous Christian writer, Max Lucado recently published an entire book on it, entitled: “Fearless.” (you can read my review of the book here) In Fearless, Lucado points out the common fears that we all face and tries to help us bring fear into proper perspectives. Overall, it is a good read, even though it lacks the meaty stuff that I am used to.

As I reflect on the young man’s question to Jesus, I cannot help but be sad about the things that many people run after in life, the so-called rat-race. Whether we call it ‘making a living,’ or 'making ends meet,' we are all rats in a sense. We run after things. We chase schedules. We pursue goals, even honorable ones. Sometimes life looks like a hamster running quickly on a hamster wheel. The wheel spins very quickly, but the hamster remains stuck in the cage. The young man in Matthew 19 came prepared for Jesus’s first answer. He was not prepared for Jesus’s second answer. The man was caught off-guard, when the very ‘good thing’ he desires to do, involves the disposal of all his possessions and achievements. How can anyone give away all his achievements after the sweat and toil? In fact, fear of not possessing what other people have can depress us, isolate us, and leave behind a bitter aftertaste of unfairness. When others seem to possess ‘better’ things than us, we ask: “What about me?” When a tragic event happens, our biggest question becomes “Why me?” Perhaps, the clue to knowing what is our largest question in life, is to learn to ask the question behind the question. Like the young man, it is not ‘what must I do?’ (Matt 19:16) but ‘what am I still lacking?’ (Matt 19:20)

The Question Behind the Question
We may be worried about not getting something, but what about the expectations AFTER we get it? We may be concerned about not achieving our targets, but what about the actions AFTER we achieved our targets? We may agonize over exams, meet our family responsibilities, or struggle over our job expectations. My question is, what happens next, especially AFTER we achieve our targets? Unfortunately, many of us have no time to deal with this second question. The first question already sucks up more than 90% of all our energies and resources. Let me ask ourselves, how sure are we that we are different from the young man in Matthew 19? Are we prepared for Jesus’s second imperative?

Someone has said, that if we expect to find an answer to any of our questions, it simply means we have not asked a big enough question. What is your big question in life?
  • If it is helping your children be successful, what about AFTER they achieved it?
  • If it is having a happy marriage, what happens AFTER?
  • If it is getting the promotion and recognition you crave at the office, what happens AFTER you get it?
  • If it is getting the degree or over achieving a sales quota, what comes AFTER?
My Story
I struggle with this a lot. My first year after receiving my University degree has been anything but easy. I hear stories of people getting jobs even before graduation. I hear fellow classmates getting not one, but multiple job offers. I hear that some even get bonuses to join a particular team. “What about me?” I asked God. It is ironical. Graduation is supposed to be a proud moment. My parents were beaming with joy at the convocation. It was the culmination of many tough years of hard work. Little did I expect the emotional turmoil during the months AFTER this mountain top experience. Like the saying goes, after the summit, the next step is all downhill. At least it is true for me then. The optimistic ones among us will say that somewhere ahead is another mountain, a more challenging one to climb. However, in my mind, that mountain even if it exists, is too far away for me to glimpse. I feel less than fulfilled. Even failure. Even though I have my precious degree on one hand, my other hand is still empty. No job. No girlfriend. No car. No house. Whatever friends I have were all so busy. Their new jobs have given them air-tickets for overseas training and massive four figure salaries totally unheard of in my student years. For me, I avoided meeting friends, especially those who prefer to exchange name cards rather than a simple greeting. I disliked social gatherings where the first questions starts with “What are you doing?” instead of “How are you doing?” When approached, my conversations seem short. Money talks. Status talks. The unemployed walks.

People come loaded with questions pertaining to their new jobs, their great salaries, the products and services they deal in. They cannot offload them on me as I did not have answers to what they seek. For me, I just had my degree. Period. Mercifully, within a few months, I joined the crowd, but I became lost in the pursuit of answers to my first question, not the question behind the question. “What should I do with the money and reputation attained?

In 2004, I gave up my comfy job to study theology. I had no inkling about what to do next, except to immerse myself in the study of God’s Word, something I loved. I must say, the experience is scary. It still is. The question behind the question may give us a clue to what should be the larger question in life. What is your question in life? If it is something related to the evil trilogy of temptations, like Money, Sex and Power (MSP), you’re way off track. Traveling along MSP lines, is like the young man in Matthew, buying a ticket to travel on the wrong train of life, even when we do good charitable deeds. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it succinctly:
“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
Indeed, if our first step is wrong, the subsequent steps no matter how ‘right’ only delays, not prevent the impending destruction. Sometimes, the biggest problem is not failure, but what happens after. Allow me to paraphrase Tim Kizziar,
“The greatest threat we can ever face is not failure. It is success in things that does NOT matter.“
Are we running after things that ultimately do not matter as much as we thought they would? Are we only seeking answers to the world’s first question, totally ignoring the more important question behind the question? Let us put our resources toward things that matter. Let us place our energies into the more important things in life. For me, the way I prepare for the second question is by first adopting a thankful heart, for whatever little I have or receive. May I encourage you to do the same.

Thought: What is your biggest question in life?


Thursday, September 17, 2009

While He Was Sleeping

“Jesus himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:38)
This scene intrigues me. Imagine ourselves traveling in a boat with Jesus. Mysteriously, a storm comes up. Fierce waves pound the boat, flooding the inside with water. Everyone shouts. All except one. Not only is Jesus unperturbed, he is cooly sleeping at the stern! Clearly, if the whole ship operates based on a democracy, Jesus would have been outvoted. Everyone was doing the normal thing, that is, to do something to save the boat from sinking. Obviously, the disciples were pretty confused about what to do. The sight of calm sleeping Jesus was simply too much for anyone to bear. They could not deal with the fact that Jesus was not panicking like them! Almost immediately, Marthas outnumber Marys. So the disciples went for the jugular. Instead of asking Jesus to calm the storm, they use themselves as bait, asking if Jesus really care for them. They must be thinking, ‘Surely we are as important as the lepers, the tax collectors and the sick that Jesus has been healing?’ By screaming out: ‘Do you not care,’ they launch a veiled assault on the love of Jesus for them. For them, if Jesus really cared, he would have woken up and do the regular thing: his miracles, and to do it in a state of alarm (like them!). Doing the normal thing comforts them in ways they know best. Really?

Better Than Normal
When things go awry, we often enter emergency mode. The normal thing is to do something quickly, be terrified or both. My question: Did Jesus come down to earth to be like everyone else just to do the ‘normal’ thing? Certainly not. Suppose Jesus was to freak out like the disciples, what kind of a message will he be sending out? It will be an embarrassment for the witnesses then to view the Coming King whose ‘feathers’ are so easily ruffled. Thankfully no. Jesus came down to earth as an ordinary man with an extraordinary heart of peace and purpose in God. There are three things Jesus has revealed about himself through this incident. He is Captain and is in control. He is Larger than any forces of nature. He is the Revealer of the Great Story.
  1. Sleeping in the Stern;

    The stern is located at the rear end of a ship or boat. Boating experts recommend that the most stable place to anchor the boat is from the stern side, instead of the bow in front. In modern ships, this stern is also the domain of the captain of the vessel. With Jesus sleeping at the stern, it is rather symbolic in the sense that Jesus is the Captain of the ship. Jesus is also the anchor of the vessel. If Jesus were to be in sixes and sevens during this time, imagine what it will do to the morale of the occupants in the boat? When the leader of a tribe is killed, the confidence wanes drastically. When the Shepherd is struck, the sheep scatters. No. Jesus refused to be drawn into the sinister temptation of pressing the panic button. Who is Jesus? He is the Captain of our souls.

  2. Silencing the Storm;

    The disciples should have discovered it. Jesus is not an ordinary man. He is greater than anything else in the world. The storm at the Galilean lake is like a storm being stirred within a teacup. The Master of the Universe sees more things than the man of the puny earth. Who is Jesus? He is larger than hurricanes of nature or the tsunamis of life.

  3. Uncovering Slowly the Great Story

    Up to now, the disciples are still scratching their head over who Jesus is. The finite mind can only know so much. The limited heart can only experience a little of what Jesus did. Jesus knew the disciples more than the disciples know Jesus. For instance, it took more than 40 years before the gospel of Mark was written. In other words, people need time to comprehend who Jesus is. That is why Jesus has to stress his teachings and use incidents like these to reinforce the need for faith. Without the personal encounter with Jesus stilling the storm, the disciples may simply categorize Jesus as a great rabbi. The gospel is not merely a story of Jesus’ teachings. It is a story of his life. It is a story of how he choose to limit himself so that we can understand him more. Who is Jesus? He is comforter and paces himself with our needs.

Are you struggling with the daily chores? Are you anxious about the cares of this world, or what the uncertain future holds? If you are, you are not alone. Look at Jesus instead of the storms. If the Master himself is able to sleep through the blizzards, we know that the fears are not as big as we make them out to be. Recognize that he is in control as Captain of our ship. Remember that he is able to silence any storms of this world, if he chooses to. If not, there is always a reason, and that reason is usually to strengthen us. Finally, our Christian life is a journey with Christ. He reveals his plan for us a step at a time, according to our ability to handle. Amazing love, that Christ chooses to comfort us, walks with us at our speed, with full knowledge of what we need.

Thought: What do you do when everything around you seems to go wrong? What's the first thing you do?
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." (The Jesus Prayer)


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Choosing Life

I have loved you,” says the LORD. (Mal 1:2a)
When the hard choices in life comes, how do we choose? Between life and death, which do we opt for? Sometimes it is tough. Like many first time parents, The Lauxes were overjoyed when they discovered Deidrea was pregnant with a baby boy. The joy was short-lived. 20 weeks into Deidrea’s pregnancy, they discovered that baby Thomas suffers from a rare genetic disease called Trisomy 13, which is an abnormality where there is an extra chromosome in the body cell. Also called Patau syndrome, more than 80% of the babies suffering from this condition dies within a month. Hobson's choice: To have or not to have the baby.

Should they choose to terminate the baby while in the womb? Should they proceed with the pregnancy, knowing that the baby may suffer a quick death? Life can be cruel. Yet the Lauxes made their choice to proceed. In a touching news coverage, Dallas Morning News chronicles the life of the Lauxes and baby Thomas in one of the most moving renditions of love in action.

For 5 days, the family braved an emotional roller-coaster, watching the cycle of living and dying being played out before their very eyes. They laughed. They cried. They carried. They later buried. Within five days, the Lauxes experienced the ecstatic joy of birthing Thomas, agonized over the pain and suffering for them together with Thomas, and mourned the passing at 5am, five days later. Even when baby Thomas was alive, while most new parents will be shopping for a nice crib or cradle, the Lauxes were at funeral parlors to select a suitable baby coffin. Life's not fair. Some even say life's downright cruel.

"They should have aborted!" screamed the pragmatics, armed with statistics and practical advice. Instead of flushing down the baby with the abortion option, Deidrea and TK chose life for Thomas. The choices before them was hard, and they chose life.

God Chose to Love Us

The book of Malachi begins with a remarkable statement of love. It was written to the Jews who had recently returned from their exile in Babylon around 500 BC. The Jerusalem temple has just been restored, but the people's spiritual condition was getting more and more deplorable. Not only were the Jews beginning to take God for granted, they were beginning to be disillusioned about their own future and the promises of God. Without hope, they have little to look forward to. Without affirming their trust in God, their faith is at most lukewarm, something which God utterly detests. In other words, the Jewish faith has entered the domain of nominal-ism. While physically they are returning back to their Jewish roots, spiritually they are dying.

As we all know, nominal religion is a symptom of a dying faith. Practitioners practice the bare minimum. Surely, God will know what end the Israelites will come to, yet he sent the prophet Malachi to prophesy and wake them up. It is remarkable that everything else in Malachi flows out of the declaration of God's love for Israel, even nominal Israel. God chose to want to give life to Israel, even when Israel is on the foolish path of self-destruction.

"Because He is our son"
It is gut-wrenching for new parents to see their new child born and then die within the same month. Painful can be an understatement. Let us not be distracted by the endless debate over the pros and cons of whether it is ethical or not for the Lauxes to choose to endure the pain, and to see baby Thomas born and die. Perhaps, we should even keep the philosophers away. Keep pro-lifers and pro-choice groups away too. This is not a time to take sides. Let's simply appreciate the Lauxes for their courage to go through what they chose to do. They knew they had a choice to abort a fetus that has a fatal genetic composition. They chose to let Thomas live. They knew their baby has an 80% chance of not surviving the first month. They went ahead with the normal delivery process. They knew that Thomas could die anytime, 11 minutes, 11 hours, or 11 days. Yet they chose life for Thomas. For all the debates over whether they are doing it right or wrong, let us acknowledge their love for Thomas. In their own words,
We know it will be a hard road but, I think sometimes when you make the toughest decisions you can get the greatest joys out of those. . . . We didn’t not terminate because we were hanging on to some sort of hope that there is a medical mistake or there is gonna be some kind of a medical miracle. We didn’t terminate because he is our son.” (Deidrea)
The Lauxes chose life simply because Thomas is their son. "Because he is our son." These 5 days of agonizing wait can be summed up in this five beautiful words. Deidrea and TK chose life simply because Thomas is their son.

Do babies go to heaven? Some say yes. Others say no. I trust that God will be the final arbiter of this, and it is not up to us to play God. God will be fair, and to have the babies under the gentle care and the fairest Judge in God will be the best 'heaven' any baby can ask for. Many of us will rejoice at this, at least for a while until it is our turn to say goodbye ourselves. There is also something else that deserves greater attention. Baby Thomas lived for a while, and 5 days later died. Christ died for a while, and 3 days later was resurrected, according to the Scriptures. This resurrection is the very hope of our life on earth. This resurrection will be true to life and the glory of God will be fully revealed when the kingdom comes. Then, all who are in Christ, will be resurrected with him. Even before we are formed in our mother's womb, God already knew us in our inmost being. He knew that we will be born in sin. Yet he chose to let us enter this world, and for Thomas, a short span of 5 days. God chose life for us. Far more significant, by sending his Son to die for us on the cross, he GAVE us life.

THOUGHT: Deidrea and TK chose life for Thomas that baby Thomas can live even though it is only for a while. God chose death for Christ, then resurrect Christ promising that the human race can live for eternity.

The Lauxes' 5 words for choosing life are: "Because he is our son."

God's 5 words to us: "Because you are my child."

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8)


Choosing Thomas (9.5 minutes video) {Warning: It's a tear jerker.}

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Means of Time

Time - Not an End in Itself
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (Eccl 3:1)

We live in a time management age. Every leader thinks it. Every follower pursues it. Parents plan out it. Their children obey it. The umpire controls it. The players compete by it. There are many common sayings about time. Below is a sampling:

  • Time and tide waits for no man;
  • It's only a matter of time....;
  • Time is precious. Don't waste it.
  • How Time flies;
  • Only time will tell;
  • Only time can heal;
  • A Stitch in time saves nine.
  • What's the time?

Such universal use of 'time' tells us one thing: Time is absolutely central in society throughout all walks of life. Those with timekeeping gadgets track time. Those without clocks use the natural sun and the moon to tell time. Strangers strike up quick conversation with a simple: "What's the time?"

Time can be unifying. Experts like management gurus, religious teachers, scientists and philosophers, despite their differences usually agree on this: that time is of the essence. Time can also be profitable. Huge industries flourish around time-making devices like clocks, watches and timekeeping instruments. Millions of dollars are spent each year on diaries, appointment calendars, pocket digital assistants, alarm clocks, day-timers and various types of time scheduling equipment. Even the ubiquitous personal computer cannot function efficiently without an accurate time stamp. Emails, schedulers, legal documents, TV programming will float away into insignificance, when the gravity of time forfeits its magnetic grip. Time keeps life in order. So much so that, we have become so accustomed to time that we feel lost when we exhaust our ability to keep track of time. Like many, I agree that time is essential for daily living. I can declare unreservedly that time management is utterly crucial in our modern lifestyle. Without an awareness of time, we cannot keep track of our plans, accomplishments, goals and our normal life. This brings me to the focus this week. Despite time's authority and universal acceptance, no matter how important time is, time is merely a means to an end, not an end in itself. Let me repeat. Time or time management is a means, and not an end in itself. Why am I stressing it? This is because, we can become competent time managers, but incompetent at appreciating the reasons for time management. In other words, we can become extremely qualified in the means, so focused on managing time well, that even though time is a means to an end, we unwittingly consign to oblivion what the ends are. It is like getting caught up with the process that we forget the purpose in the first place. When that happens, the means has become an end in itself.

Forgetting the Purpose of Time
Here is an illustration. Many executives pay plenty of money to learn the latest and the greatest time management techniques, or seminars to better manage their time. Howbeit, there can be a sense of 'penny-wise, pound-foolish' among many people with regard to their use of time. One such wastage revolves around chronic busyness. A man can become so busy in managing his time, that he forgets why he is doing what he is doing. An exam student may become so engrossed in writing down answers that she fails to read the instructions carefully, answering only 6 questions instead of the required 8. One can become so efficient at the office, but totally inexperienced at home. A faithful husband/father can work hard to make a living, but still struggle to live meaningfully on the fruits of his hard work. Many highly successful executives at work fail miserably when it comes to relationships at home.

We can invest tremendous efforts to schedule an evening together, but carelessly squander them away due to lack of communication skills, or gracious behavior. We can become so wise with the nitty-gritty details of planning and scheduling, but foolish when actually enjoying the appointment per se. Those who are willing to strengthen their hard technical finesse of doing, what about the softer side of being? A boy who is courting a girl, can create brilliant plans and scintillating strategies to date the prized damsel out. On the actual occasion, what good will those plans be when the boy gets tongue-tied into silence, or lacks the minimal graciousness of knowing how to woo a girl? There is also another instance of 'penny-wise-pound-foolish' as far as time is concerned. It is chronic busyness.

In social circles, it is common to acknowledge that ‘busyness is good.’ For a hurried executive, a favorite chorus to any greeting stanza is: “Oh. I’ve been busy.” For the harried worker, the refrain to any request is: “Sorry, I’ve no time.” It becomes an unconscious habit that every appointment has to fit into a schedule. There was a scene from the recent Summer movie: “Julie & Julia,” which portrays a lunch session with Julie and her three friends. While Julie was longing to experience a really nice time of catching up with her friends, her companions practically ignored her. They chose instead to talk incessantly on their cellular phones, indirectly boasting about their status and business responsibilities. They looked like busy people while trying to hype up self-importance, making Julie less significant. If I'm Julie, I'd probably walk off. Why should an insignificant 'me' waste the precious time of the three 'important' people?

Isn’t that a pity when others prioritize their time to such a point that it downplays the importance of others? Relationships cannot thrive when we seem too busy with our own things, and ignore what matters to our friends and loved ones. We can schedule in an appointment to meet friends. However, we betray our good intentions of wanting to spend time with them, by carelessly taking and responding to every ringing cell. Worse, one may unwittingly hype up one’s own sense of importance to the detriment of others. Who deserves our time more? A planned meeting scheduled months ago, or unplanned phone calls that chime at random intervals? Let us not take our appointees for granted. Give them the time they deserve. One way to do so is to cultivate the remembrance of Someone larger than time.

Remembering the Prime-Mover of Time
The verse above in Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us that we live on this earth by faith. Do not be deceived by advertisements that tell us to hurry our life. Do not trust soothsayers who tempts us to rush for the sake of rushing. There is a time for everything. Saying we have no time is not simply a bluff. It speaks of a life that trusts more in self rather than in God. If Scripture says there is time for every activity on earth, why are we worried that we have no time? Why are we paranoid about keeping up with the Joneses? Why must we subject our bodies to unnecessary stresses when we make our own clocks parrot after others? Perhaps, the clue to alleviating our daily stress lies in NOT imitating other people, but to imitate the Giver of Time: God. We imitate Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith by allowing every activity to run its course in time. We imitate the Divine God to arrive at a deeper understanding of ourselves, that we are more significant that strange thing called time. In Christ, we become conquerors over time, as we seat ourselves in the confidence and shelter of the Living God, who is Sovereign over all, including time.

The world may say that time and tide waits for no man. They may even say that time that is lost will never be returned. Let us not be troubled. As Christians, let us take comfort that God is in control, now and always. Reflect on the purposes of time and time management. Reflect on the time that is past, the time that is future and the present moment. How aware are we of God's work in our past, present and future? If we are too busy even to ponder this question, the consequence can be tragic. Instead of keeping time in check, time has come up from behind, saying to us: "Checkmate."

THOUGHT: "The moment you say, "I haven't got time," time has gotten you. Time has us on the hook. There is no denying it. Time is reeling us in towards one deadline or another." (Brother David Steindl-Rast)

REFLECT: "God created time and God created plenty of it." (Irish proverb)

Keep time, but remember that it is only a means to a greater end.