Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Growing Spiritually

Metaphors of Spiritual Growth

One reason why I chose Regent-College for my first theological degree was because of its marketplace expertise. With eager beaver eyes to have a theological balance to my business-like solution-seeking background, I had thought that theology would provide the perfect wrapper for my life accomplishments. Boy was I wrong. Instead, my theologies were turned inside out. Studying theology does not mean a one-time payment, but a recurring pay-out of installment after installment. Faith is not a one-time exercise. The initial outlay (quitting my job, and future business prospects etc) was only a down-payment to give up more. Studying with theological experts mean my view is only one out of other hundred more competent ones. It was in a nutshell, a humbling experience. Yet, it is also a time to reflect on spiritual growth by beginning where I was.

Growing spiritually is something many church people want to do, but lack guidance. Sometimes, our own leaders seem too busy with various administrative duties to even provide spiritual direction or spiritual help. I remember being contacted frequently by church people, where the majority of the requests were to serve in various ministries in the church. Most of the time, I accede to their requests, knowing that they too were swamped. As I think about it, it is easy for younger Christians to feel discouraged, especially when becoming ‘active’ in Church means doing lots of ministry work like teaching in Sunday School, going for Mission trips, joining prayer meetings, organizing social gatherings called ‘fellowshipping.’ I would like to think that such activities do not define a person’s ministry. It is the ‘spiritual growing’ that makes all the difference. It is when one is growing spiritually, that one can share life learnings in the Sunday School class. It is when one is growing toward God, that one can show others in the mission field who He looks like. It is when one is loving God, that one can shine forth as servants dishing out yummy meals for the people around us, serving happily, willingly not grudgingly. It is when one is growing spiritually, that the default for prayer meetings is “How can I prioritize this time to meet my heavenly Father with my brothers/sisters?” instead of “What excuse should I give to skip this meeting?

Growing spiritually is something we would like to do. We need guidance and we need it real bad. Spiritual growth has both a direction as well as an intensity. One of my mentors, Dr Paul Stevens suggests 4 metaphors of spiritual growth which can be very helpful.
1) Seed – Agricultural metaphor
“The seed metaphor not only communicates the unfolding of the life contained within the seed but also suggests the pain and price of growth.” (Stevens, et al, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, 951)

2) Child – Biological metaphor
The apostle Peter urges us to grow beyond drinking milk to eat solid food (1 Pet 2:2).

3) Disciple – Educational metaphor
The Greek word for disciple is ‘mathetes’ which represents a learner. A disciple is more than simply being a student receiving instruction from a teacher. It is basically imitating the one who is our Master.

4) Building – Architectural metaphor
With Christ as the cornerstone, we learn to build upon Christ, to grow toward God.

All of these metaphors are helpful for us to try to picture where we are in our spiritual growing. As a seed, we need to recognize that growing has its ups and downs, joy and pain. The hardest is perhaps the breaking of the shell. As a child, there are also growing pains, from total dependence on our earthly parents to total dependence on our heavenly Father. As a disciple, we grow from copying the world around us, to imitating Christ completely. As a part of the building, we need to be aware what role we play, and who we are in the kingdom of God. If we are a brick, we need to look for people around us who are able to cement us with other bricks.

A Fifth Metaphor
The seed, the child, the disciple and the building are all wonderful metaphors to consider. All four of them seems to assume a posture of increasing in size and shape, or multiplication in terms of numbers. Let me suggest a 5th one, albeit a less popular one. This is in terms of simplifying. We grow spiritually toward God, by first untangling ourselves from worldly worries. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).

When we mix two or more metals, we create an alloy. Growing spiritually is the reverse. When we remove impurities, we move toward greater purity. When we remove sediments and contaminants from water, we get clean water. When we wash our clothes with detergent, we get dirt-free garments. If we want to grow toward God, make sure we prepare ourselves by being pure and spotless before Him. The Sabbath is an opportunity to be holy before God. Take each weekday as an opportunity to de-clutter our lives. Give up the unnecessary. Give in toward reconciliation with brothers or sisters. Give out our time and resources to people in need. Give of ourselves, our lives our all as a living sacrifice of worship to God. So that when we come to God on the Sabbath, we can be pure and spotless in the cloak of Christ. This is not faith + good works. It is faith that drives one to do good works. This process is simplification. One example I can think of is in terms of equations of enough.
“Too Much to do + Too Little Time = We Get Stressed;
Too Little to do + Too Much Time = We Become Distressed;
Enough to do + Enough Time = We are Blessed;”
Perhaps, the word ‘busy’ is synonymous with worldly concerns. A follower of Christ always aims toward ‘enough’ rather than busyness. He is aware of his own limits. She is conscious of when to draw the line. For the worldly, there will always be too little time to do stuff that is complicated by the necessary and unnecessary things. For the believer in Christ, there will always be enough time to do the necessary. The way toward God is to grow spiritually. The path toward Him begins by simplicity with this exhortation this week. Let me suggest, that we silence every thought that stems from a love of money; and amplify every thought toward love of God. For me, my foray into theological studies is but the beginning of simplification. It is learning to take every thought captive to grow more in Christ. May I invite you to do the same in your respective paths as we simplify our lives?

Let me begin by saying a prayer for all of you: I thank God for every remembrance of you, and pray that God will strengthen you more and more to love him and neighbour around you.

Thought: “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:17)


Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Is Jesus a fear monger or a people lover?
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matt 5:30)
How could a God of love send people to a place called hell? Before I address this question, I want to give a biblical understanding of the word ‘hell.’ In early Christian writings, images of hell are drawn up to look like torture chambers, surrounded by suffering people in fire and extreme pain. During the Middle Ages, such images of hell are commonly used by the Church to pose the question: “Do you choose heaven or hell?” The powerful Church in Europe then was the de-facto religious choice for salvation for the common folks. Many come into the Church out of fear. Oxford Professor John McManners, writes that:
“For much of Christian history the condemnation of unbelievers and evil-doers to the eternal torments of hell has not only been a formal item of Christian belief but a powerful and vividly portrayed aspect of the way in which the church has sought to ensure conformity of belief and reformation of life.” (John McManners, ed, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford: OUP, 1990, 566)
Hell can be a potent political weapon for the establishment at that time, even now. Jesus uses hell very differently. In the New Testament, the Greek word for hell ‘Gehenna,’ appears 12 times. Out of these, Matthew registers an astonishing 7 times in total. That’s more than half in the entire New Testament! Two comments can be made.

Firstly, Matthew is written to a Jewish audience who are familiar with the history of the Jewish nation. They would have been familiar with a place called Hinnom, a valley south of Jerusalem. In this valley lies one of the most horrible scenes where the wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh made human sacrifices to the pagan gods such as Molech (2 Kgs 16:3). The hearers would have known straightaway what ‘Gehenna’ stands for as it reminded them of Hinnom. In ancient times, Hinnom was referred to as the unwanted place, a garbage dump for the city. It is like a Jew who understands what Auschwitz represents or like a Cambodian who understands what ‘killing fields’ means. So, for the Jewish hearer at that time, ‘gehenna’ represents a place people will actively shun and avoid going to. Hence, it is a reasonable assumption that Jesus is telling hearers that the actions that lead to hell are to be avoided. He says such actions are to be utterly detested and not to be practiced. This refers to the breaking of fellowship (Matt 5:22), committing adultery (Matt 5:29), sinning (Matt 5:30, 18:9). In other words, the focus is on the direct emphasis of avoiding sin, rather than the indirect fear of going to hell per se.

The second thing is that Jesus makes references to ‘gehenna’ after promising true happiness in the kingdom of heaven. Incidentally, the word for heaven (‘ouranos’) appears 70 times in Matthew alone! If any of us are to claim that the exact opposite of hell is heaven, we will be hard-pressed to explain why there are 70 references to heaven while there are only 7 for hell. He begins the Sermon on the Mount with a lengthy treatise on the beatitudes, talking about the kingdom of heaven and all the benefits of being children of God. Mindful of the temptations that often beset an aspiring disciple, Jesus points out the need for his followers NOT to do the things that are clearly sinful. When he teaches one to let ‘yes’ be yes, and ‘no’ be no, he is strongly making reference to saying yes to the kingdom of heaven and no to sin (Matt 5:37). Anything else is of the devil (Matt 5:36). If one is not inside the kingdom of heaven, anywhere outside is plain hell. There is no halfway stand.

Gehenna: Future Concept or Present Reality?
While I believe that there is a place called ‘hell,’ there is a point in which our fear of hell becomes unhelpful, even unbiblical. This happens when we take Jesus’s use of ‘gehenna’ and blatantly apply them to fellow humans that if they do not believe in Jesus, they will go to hell. Who are we to judge people? Who are we to predict their future destination? If we judge a person fit to go to heaven or hell, then we are playing God. I am glad I am not the one to decide who goes where.

NT Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar argues convincingly that Jesus’s use of ‘gehenna’ is not a distant future concept, but a near present reality.
“The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life, they would burn in the next one.. . . It is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.” (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, NY: Harper Collins, 2008, 176)
Wright then points out the hellish environment in which the powerful Romans in the early centuries turned Jerusalem into a rubbish dump that resembled Hinnon. In AD70, Jerusalem was sacked, and its venerable temple destroyed when a rebel Jewish group fought against the Romans who eventually decimated the holiest Jewish place for their armed resistance.

I think Wright is spot on. If our present concept of hell is in terms of a futuristic torture chamber, many of us will harbor fears about our unsaved loved ones. We might even question our own faith about the love of God, like how can a God of love even create a place of eternal suffering? However, if we understand Jesus’ use of ‘Gehenna’ as another pointer toward growing closer to God, we will fear hell less and love God more. There is no fear in love. When Jesus uses ‘Gehenna’ in the gospels, he is not exactly telling the hearers new things, but a reminder of what they already know: Idolatry is sin. Sin has far worse consequences. In fact, the true fear is not the torture chamber, but the fear of eternal separation from God.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me state that I believe that there is a literal place called ‘hell.’ What I do not want is for people to use the concept of hell to strike fear into the hearts of people. If others want to prove that hell exists, fine. However, do not manipulate Jesus’ use of ‘gehenna’ in Matthew to justify that. Jesus is primarily concerned about drawing people close to him. Draw near in righteousness. Draw near by avoiding sin. Draw near fully and totally. Our duty? Focus on God. Focus on drawing people close to God. Cling on to Jesus, and Jesus will draw all unto him. Whatever is outside of God’s kingdom, let God be the true and fair Judge. He is the ultimate judge. Let us never forget that if Heaven is where God is, everywhere else without God is plain hell.

Jesus is no fear monger but a people lover. He judges fairly and justly from the standpoint of love, not fear.

THOUGHT: There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' (CS Lewis)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Priority Setting - Idol's Style or God's

"For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner." (Luke 14:24)
If someone invites us for a meal, will we say no? For some of us, it depends on our availability? For others, it depends on whether we have other 'more important things' (MIT) to do. Yet, many will depend on who is the one inviting us? In the parable of the Dinner, Jesus points out the various kinds of people who have their own priorities mixed up. It is a parable in response to one of his disciples who said optimistically:
"Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!" (Lk 14:15b)
The truth is, before one can eat, they have to come for the meal. In reply, Jesus lists out the people who put other things as more important compared to dining as an honored guest in the kingdom of God. The dinner was sumptuous. Notices were sent out ahead of time. On the day itself, the master even sent his servant to personally call the invited guests to come. Unfortunately, all started making excuses. They already knew about the dinner. Their hearts are unwilling. One said that he needs to tend his new piece of land (Lk 14:18). Another said that he needs to try out his five yoke of oxen (Lk 14:19). Yet another one said he has to attend to his new wife (Lk 14:20). All of them gave excuses NOT to go for the dinner. The first put property a priority. The second put his possession first. The third put his partner before everything else. All of them thought they had focused rightly on their MIT.

Priority Setting - Idol Style
It is not difficult for us to see why not. Isn't taking care of our work important, like the man tending the land? Isn't stewarding our resources part of our responsibilities on earth, like the man trying his new oxen? Isn't spending time with our spouses necessary, like the newly married person in the parable?

The point about the parable is not about stewardship or taking care of what God has given to us. It is about an open invitation to enter the kingdom of God. What is most important to man, is not necessarily the most important to God. God's smallest step is infinitely more important than man's biggest leap. Many people say that it is God's will for them to focus on the more important things in life. What if they are wrong? What if we have placed all our eggs in one basket called MIT, and ignore the rest? What if we have lost our ability to know what is MIT?

In business, MIT priorities are seductive. It makes us so mindful of the majority that we forget the minority. It makes us play the numbers game and promotes favouritism. It causes us to make unfair decisions between the have's and have-nots, like choosing to dine with the rich and ignore the poor. MIT policies discriminates and absolute practice of MIT discriminates absolutely. In our spiritual walk, when our MIT becomes an idol, we worship the idol. We say yes to the idol and no to God.

When our priorities get mixed up, we cannot distinguish which is idol-driven and which is God-led. We misinterpret signs. David Allen, author of the best-selling book "Getting Things Done," observes how people practice the 80/20 principle. This principle essentially refers to 80% of the profits from 20% of the customer base, or 80% of the job done by 20% of the resources. This leads many in the management to focus on the 20%, and in the process neglect the other 80%. Allen goes on to point out that such 'focus on the important' is one of the main culprits behind our current global financial crisis. He comments that the smartest people of the world focused 'too' much attention on the so-called more important things in their lives. Overemphasizing 20% star performers and undermining the other 80% is a fatal formula for eventual collapse of the corporation. MIT syndrome can also happen the other way; of blame.

The MIT Scandal
It does not take long for us to see the truth behind Allen's observations. In the aftermath of the Madoff scandal, where many investors were hoodwinked into losing more than $50 billion, people pointed fingers at the US New York securities watchdog, the SEC, in particular, Meaghan Cheung, for failing to uncover irregularities with Madoff's company. My question: How can we pin the blame solely on one person who is trying to do her job according to the system? Yes, Cheung may have been a lawyer trained in Yale. She may be very experienced with auditing big firms. However, is the problem because of a person or because of a system? Chances are, it is easier to point a finger at a person rather than a system.

I believe things do not simply collapse overnight. People can spend many hours building a big strong brick house quickly but on a weak foundation. All it takes is one big windstorm, and the entire house will be crushed by its own weight once the substructure beneath is destroyed.

In a money driven world where profits are considered 'more important,' what about the 'less important' aspect of employee relationships? In a bureaucracy where sticking to the rules are necessary to maintain order, what about the 'less important' creativity among standard procedures? Are we too caught up with numbers, that the 20% star players become more important than 80% majority? Can a star striker win a football game all by himself? The answer is clear. We need a team, both stars as well as ordinary folks.

In the kingdom of God, there is no distinction between more important or less important people. In the parable, it is the rich in possessions, the gainfully employed and the busy married person who refused the master's invitation to dine. For them, attending a dinner is less important than possessions, property or partner. The master then extended the invitation to all others, stating that those who reject his invitation shall not eat at his table.

Have we rejected God's invitation to dine? More importantly, have we made our own version of "MIT" (more important thing) into a stubborn doctrine? Are we too idol-driven that we fail to listen to God's prompting? God does not play favourites. Neither does he look at statistical tables before making a decision to invest. He sees the hearts. He sees people, not numbers. He invites all to come and dine with him. Will we say yes to him, or say 'no' by putting the M.I.T in between God and ourselves? Remember. MIT (or LIT) does not always come first. God's leading must come first.

THOUGHT: What do you make of God's commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me?" Will the MIT we put first slowly turn into an idol that puts God last?
"The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life." (CS Lewis, Christian Reflections)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winning Over God

Winning Over the Almighty @ Peniel
“Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Gen 32:28)
Overcoming Life - Jacob's Style
Jacob has been having a smooth ride so far. From birth, he shows strong indications of a competitive spirit in him by grasping at his brother’s heel (Gen 25:26a). He is a master at trickery able to deceive both his brother and his father. While his brother Esau can hunt, Jacob can cook. The pining of Esau’s hunger and the timing of Jacob’s stew delight resulted in one of the world’s most unfair trades: Surrendering a birthright for a bowl of red stew. Jacob though born second, overcame his brother in terms of wit. What Jacob lacks naturally as a #2 ranked son, his penchant for winning against all odds ranks first. However, Esau’s verbal agreement to relinquish his birth-right is not enough to seal the deal. Jacob has to receive the coveted prize of all: Isaac’s blessing. So while Esau was busy hunting for short-term game, Jacob was scheming for his long-term rewards. In Jewish culture, the blessing of the father represents the ultimate prize any son can receive. It has been said that the blessings of a Jewish father is like his last precious words on earth, to be given out only once in his lifetime. Jacob left nothing to chance. He was prepared. Aided by his mother, he provides stew, dresses up like his brother, imitates his brother’s voice, and cleverly coaxes Isaac to bless him. Jacob wants this blessing very much.

On the other hand, Esau could not care less, until it was too late. Jacob was blessed. Esau was not. Jacob went on to achieve many more great things. Esau remained under the shadow of his young brother, holding a grudge (Gen 27:41). Jacob's achievement continued. He was shown a heavenly dream (Gen 28). He found himself a decent job (Gen 29). He married not just one but two lovely women. Soon he became a happy father blessed with many children, thanks to the wives and their maids who were constantly squabbling to be ranked top of the household. Jacob also found much success in raising cattle. With glittering successes with his brother, his father, his relative (Laban) and his own household Jacob became one of the most prosperous biblical Patriarchs in the history of Israel. This life of scheming, planning and seeking for the best deals in life continues in Jacob until the scene at Peniel (Gen 32:30).  Imagine with me. Suppose a person has obtained nearly everything this world has on offer, there will soon come a time when he/she will ask: “What’s next to overcome?

Overcoming Life's Hurdles - Maslow's Style
The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow, developed his famous hierarchy of needs that depicts very clearly the various levels of human needs toward self-accomplishment. From physiological needs, to safety, to love & affection, to esteem and finally self-actualization, Maslow’s model seems to map out Jacob’s ‘career path’ very well. How will Jacob achieve his final level? What other prizes are there for Jacob to compete for? He allowed his fanatically competitive spirit to get the better of him. Maybe, the ultimate prize is success itself. Success becomes ‘self-actualization’ personified. He unknowingly wrestles with none other than the LORD himself, in the hope that he can be successful over ‘success’ itself. The Gen 32 passage is paradoxical. The LORD seems to have defeated Jacob (32:25).  Yet it is stated that Jacob has ‘overcome’ (32:28). How can there be 2 winners? Will there be two gold medals for this pre-Olympic days wrestling match?

Perhaps, Jacob’s perspective of winning and the LORD’s perspective are different altogether. The LORD may defeats Jacob in the physical contest, but Jacob’s persistence deserves an honorary award. It is Jacob’s ‘never-say-die’ attitude that impressed the LORD. Let me suggest that we can do the same in persistent prayer.

How We can Overcome: Via Persistent Prayer
I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Gen 32:26)
Isn’t that hauntingly familiar? Earlier on, didn’t Jacob try to trick his father to bless him instead of Esau? Perhaps, even though Jacob is now old, and more mature, his competitive nature is still strong. With his father Isaac, he used all his cunning to receive blessings. With this stranger, Jacob used all his available ounces of energy to wrestle, so as to receive the final and most precious thing he knows: A blessing.

I will not let go’ reflects a determination not to be trifled with. ‘unless you bless me’ shows the way to end the contest. The LORD listens. The LORD shows mercy. The LORD blesses Jacob. Jesus too displays a similar attitude. He tells a parable of the persistent widow who ultimately gets the justice she wants (Luke 18:1-18).

I will not let you go unless you bless me,’ is an attitude we must bring with us as we pray. If we ask God in a half-hearted manner, it reflects negatively about our true desire. Half-hearted prayer is no prayer at all. It is like saying words without actually meaning it. It also puts God in a difficult position whether by giving in to our careless wishes, we become spoiled. Half-hearted prayer is like a son asking for $100 with an attitude of ‘whatever,’ or 'anything goes.' It could also be a subordinate asking for a particular budget with little intention of using it for the benefit of the company. It could be simply doing things for the sake of doing it, lots of smoke but little desire. Such prayers do not deserve an answer.

John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience comes not out of a half-hearted request but an earnest, painfully persistent prayer to God. He wrestles constantly with his faith. He wants more, much more than what the world has to offer. He wants God. He asks and he receives, much more than he anticipates.Isn't this what prayer is all about, desiring God persistently and fully?

Let me close with one other comment about blessings. Wesley received the blessing, through which he blessed many others in the process. That is the true calling of the blessed. Blessed in order to bless others. A blessing is not something to be given to us for us to bury in our backyard. It is to be used to bless others.

Thought: In our daily lives, do your best. In our prayer life, seek God’s ultimate rest. When we pray, how WHOLE-hearted are we? When we intercede, how persistent are we? Tell God, I will not let you go until you blessed me.