Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Worry

TITLE: WORRY
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 28 Apr 2010

My Church recently ended the 'Sermon on the Mount ' sermon series with a reminder to build our house on the rock, and not on sand. This week, after the service, I had my usual morning coffee in church, followed by a discussion with a group of keen adults, wanting to explore more on the Sermon on the Mount, and reflecting on the morning message. I kicked off the meeting with a question:

"Of all the teachings of Jesus, recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, which was the most difficult or challenging?"

I guide the group through Matthew 5, 6, and 7, and highlight key points so as to jiggle all of our memories. One say that listening is a challenge itself. Another say that loving enemies is tough. Still another say that putting into practice any of them is tough. A brave soul manages to squeeze in a statement saying that ALL of Jesus' teachings are tough. One said with a heavy heart that it is worry that is hard. Finally, the group spends a substantial amount of time on the 'worry' theme in Matthew 6:25-34.

Is it alright to worry? The stately man calmly shares that he worries a lot. While the specifics are not revealed, I know that most of the worries come about because people care. It is when we care for a friend or a loved one, that we worry about their well-being. A Church member recently asked me to pray for someone strickened with cancer. With cancer comes fear. With fear comes anxiety. With anxiety comes depression. The emotions are hard to handle. When we hear of a loved one getting a terminal disease, how are we not to worry?

A) When the Darts of Worry Hits Close to the Heart
It is a tough question. In fact, struggling with these hard issues, especially when it hits close to our relationships, can be nerve wrecking. It can test our faith. It can push our resolve. It can stretch our financial and emotional resources. I think of my father, who has suffered a stroke. It is hard for him to have to depend on others to feed him, and to assist him in nearly everything. From morning to night, from one meal to another, from physical movement to bowel movement, nothing can be done on his own, unless assisted by another person. I thank God that my mum and a domestic helper are able to be there for him. Sometimes, with a worried frame of mind, I start to think,

  • "How is my father doing? He must be feeling really lonely and helpless."
  • "How is my mum coping? She must be really exhausted from all these caregiving duties."
  • "How are my family finances? Will they be able to manage from month to month?"

Honestly, these things trouble me. That is why I can empathize and appreciate when people in my church share about their struggles over worries. I cast my cares on God through prayer. I encourage my mum with occasional financial help. She knows I do not earn much. She does not expect much from me financially.

B) What Can we do about Worry?
Firstly, we need to acknowledge that worry in itself is not a sin. It is part of being human. Even if we do not claim to be worriers, that does not erase the fact that we are sinners, and can sin terribly anytime. If we were to claim that worry is a sin, then we will be bogged down by sin always. Note that it is not the worry per se that is sin, but the preceding idolatry behind the worrying facade. Just before Jesus tells his disciples not to worry in Matthew 6:25, look at the preceding verse.
"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:24)

Idolatry is sin, manifested in worry. In other words, when we worry, it is because we try to solve things on our own intelligence, do things on our own abilities, and trusting in our own strengths. Any attempt to trust anything other than God is idolatry. We can make idols out of our own self. Worry, if it is a result of idolatry becomes fodder for sin. Worry is the root of many evils.

Secondly, when we worry, take heart, for it is often because, we-worry-because-we-care-deeply. Rather than to condemn another person for his anxiety, why not acknowledge that he cares. Like a mother who worries over her sick child, or a father who worries over his missing daughter. It can also be a boss who worried for his colleagues' safety at a foreign country, when he heard about riots there. It could be a pastor worried about his flock's spiritual needs. Many of these 'legitimate concerns' can appear in the form of worry and anxious moments. So, worry if it is due to a heart that cares, is alright. The problem is when we allow this state to continue without end. Such worry becomes sin, when we attempt to carry them all by ourselves. Instead of casting our cares upon Jesus, we carry our cares on our own back. When this happens, are we serving God, or serving idols?

Thirdly, look at one of Jesus's prescriptions for worry.

"Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more than they?" (Matthew 6:26)
Hello? Did Jesus make a mistake? Is Jesus telling us to look at birds?

C) BIRD-WATCHING: An antidote for the self-absorbed

I like to take walks in my neighbourhood. Often I see squirrels running around looking for nuts. A familiar black squirrel is frequently seen rummaging around a garbage bin. They are pleasant, and sometimes humourous to look at. Above them are birds chirping away. As I observe these flying creatures' gift of flight, and their freedom from the cares of this world, I cannot help but be amazed at the privilege of simply being a bird. Their biggest treasure appears to be the freedom from worry.


What is Jesus teaching us when he recommended bird-watching? I can only guess. An immediate benefit is actually the shift of focus from self to outside of ourselves. When we start to look outward, we stop looking in. When we worry, we tend to become inward-conscious, and lose our sensitivity to external concerns. Self-absorption is usually one of the first steps down the ladder of depression. The moment we step out of our individualistic coccoons, we see things with a fresh perspective.

I remember a time when I was struggling with my Hebrew language. After many torturous hours of memorizing and practicing, I still find it mysterious and perplexing. When I lock myself in my room to study Hebrew, I can get depressed and discouraged. The moment I step out of my room, and start venturing into the library, or take a walk along the corridors of my college,  I see a distinct shift inside me. I see that there are many students, just like me. I realize I am not alone in this Hebrew nightmare. Imagine my utter astonishment, to realize that there are other students who are in worse shape than I am!

Bird watching does work wonders. In this tough economic times, this can translate into savings as well, as we avoid buying expensive prescription drugs to calm our nerves. Go watch a movie with a friend. Take a walk. Spend time talking with a loved one. Drink a cappucino. Take a break. Photograph a bird. Read a good book. There is a Swedish proverb that is worth pondering on.
"Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow."
How very true. We often let the small little things in our life to worry us to death with their long shadows. Cast our cares (and our worries) upon Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. I like these words from the song 'He Is My Peace.'

"Cast all your cares on Him, for he cares for you;
He is your Peace, He is your peace."

Worries are part and parcel of being human. While it is not a sin to worry, allowing ourselves to wallow in self-pity is not only unhelpful, but can easily lead us down the path of sin. Worry may not in itself be a sin, but it can dangerously lead us down the path of sin. Remember, if we are not trusting God, we are trusting idols. There is no middle ground.


Thought: "That the birds of worry and care fly over you head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent." (Chinese Proverb)


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Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Lesson Behind Natural Disasters

Title: A Lesson Behind Natural Disasters
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 21 April 2010
Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.” (Eccl 11:2, NIV)
MAIN POINT: The folly of procrastinating on our promises.

On April 14th, 2010, a volcano in Iceland erupted, spewing out tonnes of hot lava and emitting thick dark plumes filled with deadly ash. Many people have already been affected, especially air travel to and from, as well as within Europe. The name of the volcano itself is a tongue twister When I listen to newscasters struggling to pronounce this unusual name, I break into laughter. According to native Icelanders, ‘Eyjafjallaj√∂kull ‘ is a six-syllable name that sounds like ‘ai-yah-f'got-my-yogurt.’ Even if we live thousands of miles away from this hard-to-pronounce volcano name, many of us will know friends and loved ones affected by it. Airlines have cancelled flights. Passengers are stranded at airports and many are financially strapped while waiting out the delays. For businesses, the financial losses are mounting. For families, it can be a long anxious wait for loved ones to return. Jokes are already circulating on the Internet about this volcano. Some of the humorous ones are listed below.
  • Some in America are accusing Iceland of harbouring a ‘weapon of ash eruption.’
  • Iceland needs cash, not ash;”
  • Iceland’s last wish is for its ashes to be spread all over Europe.
  • Waiter, there's volcanic ash in my soup. Don’t you know it's a no-fly zone.” (My favourite)
A) A Call to Recognize Future Uncertainty
Jokes aside, the question I want to ponder this week is: “Knowing that our future is so easily shaped by unforeseen circumstances, why procrastinate on doing good works? Why delay in keeping our promises?” This is the essence of the Scripture verse above.The Book of Ecclesiastes belongs to a genre called the ‘Wisdom books.’ The writer refers to himself as the ‘Teacher.’ Some scholars say that the book was written sometime in 940BC, way before the Greek culture reaches the Jews. This means that the 'Teacher' does not have access to Greek literature, which later educated Jews would have possessed. Thus, it is very commendable that at such an early period, that the 'Teacher' can derive such profound insights.

After personally witnessing the futility of pleasure, education, work, riches, even wisdom itself, the ‘Teacher’ bemoans the futility of life in general. Toward the end of Ecclesiastes, the ‘Teacher’ comes one full circle to acknowledge that despite all of these meaningless activities on earth, he is still impressed by the fruits of wisdom (Eccl 9:13). Thus, it is important for us to read Ecclesiastes and contextualize it from beginning to end. The ‘Teacher’ makes several conclusions, one of which is the futility of trying to predict the future. Eugene Peterson renders it as:
Don't hoard your goods; spread them around. Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night.” (Eccl 11:2, The Message)
Indeed. Today could be our last day. Tonight could be our last night. We will never know until the next day. What we do know is that God gives us sufficient resources to achieve the tasks of today. Tomorrow will worry about itself. What about the present moment? What can we do now?

B) A Call to Redeem the Present Moment
One way to interpret Eccl 11:2 is in terms of diversity of investments. ‘Give portions to seven, yes to eight’ urges us to spread our ventures. Since we do not know which particular asset will bring about a profitable return, why not invest in a few? Even if we do not get good returns on all, at least, we can get some reasonable margins as well as spread out our risks? For investment managers, diversification is a key financial strategy. Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Even non-profit corporations have adopted different modes of ministries. From offline to online outreaches, from paid to volunteer opportunities, they seek to live out their mission with different ways to reach different target groups. They diversify their outreach. In the Church, we have different individuals each having unique gifts. When put together, the Church is enriched for others as well as for self. Behind all of these efforts, is an active urgency toward redeeming our present moments through proper and responsible stewardship. If we do not know the future, that does not mean we cannot redeem our present moment. Make good our present by planting seeds creatively, so that we can bear fruit in the future.

C) The Call To Learn from the Past: To UN-Procrastinate
Another way to understand Eccl 11:2 is to read it doing good in as many ways as possible, and to do it with a sense of urgency. Do not procrastinate. Church people generally desire to do good works and to be a salt and light to the world. The good intentions are there. The big ideas are there. Yet, it is common to see big plans fall by the wayside through inaction, or a lack of urgency. I remember Jesus’ parables that consistently speak about the danger of procrastination. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, five virgins brought lamps without the oil. The other five brought both the lamps AND the oil. It is the latter five that brought praise from Jesus who called them wise. This theme is repeated in the Parable of the Talents, where the good and faithful servant actively uses his possessions for the good of his Master, instead of simply lazing and waiting. The time to do the right thing is always right now.


D) Do not Procrastinate. Keep Your Promises While You Can.
Disasters often remind us of the end times. Whether there are tsunamis or hurricanes, earthquakes or floods, this latest volcanic eruption reminds us how fragile our world is. It tells us that the best plans of man can be easily delayed, thwarted by an eruption thousands of miles away from where we live. If we know how vulnerable man is to external circumstances, why not do whatever good we can from day to day?
  • Why wait until a loved one get cancer before we start to appreciate them?
  • Why postpone helping a needy friend until it is too late?
  • What good are promises if they are constantly being ‘KIV’ed (keep-in-view), or sitting permanently on our to-do list?
Like stocks and shares. The value of the asset may rise or fall. It is only when we cash them out; we will see the actual money. In some ways, it is similar to human relationships. We can guess at another person’s expectations. We can promise to do something for a friend. We can tell the world that we will ‘keep in touch’ and yet never actually bother to keep in touch. We cover no distance if we do not do what we say. We achieve very little, maybe nothing if we chronically procrastinate from keeping our promises. 

The 1990 hit movie ‘Ghost’ tells a story of two lovers Sam and Molly. For a long time, Molly was the one openly saying ‘I love you’ to Sam. In return, Sam’s typical response is ‘ditto.’ Until the day when Sam was murdered, the deceased Sam in the form of a ghost regretted not telling Molly how much he loved her. That movie alone sparked a ‘I-Love-You’ revolution among many of my friends. It reminds us to cherish one another before it is too late. There is a quip that often speaks of the hypocrisy of Christians. It reads:
A lot of church members who are singing "Standing on the Promises" are just sitting on the premises.
Are we sitting on our premises of procrastination, or are we actively performing our promises? May we be followers of Christ, recognized by our intentional behaviour of keeping our promises to one another, and to God. May these volcano eruptions in Iceland, remind us not to wait, but to keep our promises we have made. I like the Fedex company motto: "Under-Promise, Over-Deliver." Perhaps, we as a Church can do more of that in discipleship of the nations.

One more thing. Even though we do NOT know what disaster will come next, we DO know that Christ will come again. Let that be our motivation to do good works, that we hear Jesus say to us that day: "Well done, good and faithful servant."
Thought: What promises have you made to loved ones and friends? How far are you in fulfilling these promises?


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Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Easy Labeling Tough Laboring

Title: Easy to Label, Tough to Labour
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 14 April 2010

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)

The big news this week is the resignation of a prominent Old Testament professor from a conservative seminary. It started with a video recording of the professor’s views on creation and evolution. When it was released on the Internet, it created a huge controversy that shone unwarranted attention on both the professor and his seminary. The professor was not given an opportunity to vet the video in the first place. Upon realizing the damage, he laboured vigorously to explain and to re-explain what he said. He politely requested for the video to be removed. He decided eventually to offer to resign, so that negative publicity would fall on him rather than on his seminary.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wisdom in Our Downtime

Downtime: A Boon or a Bane?
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 6 Apr 2010
Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.” (Proverbs 3:13)

I remember getting my first personal computer many years ago. After years of sharing the school computer at the computer labs, you can picture how happy I was as a young engineer, to have a computer all to myself, to work with. As a software engineer, my computer is my main tool at work. Keeping the computer up and running is vitally important. If there is a power outage, I simply cannot function. It becomes a downtime. For the business, it is bad. For the worker, it can be a moment of respite from the busy project schedules. A power outage is a legitimate reason for my downtime. Of course, we enjoy our extended coffee breaks.

In our busy society, downtimes can be extremely discomforting. The Internet cannot be connected. Our blackberries cannot work. We cannot read our emails. Our social connections with friends are interrupted. Even the shopping malls are left in the dark. Security guards with torchlights will have to escort shoppers toward the exit doors. At home, for those of us with an electrically-operated garage door, it means we cannot even drive our car out. We are practically trapped in our inability to be efficient or be productive. We feel like time is being wasted and our plans fall by the wayside.  Downtimes can be frustrating, especially for the high achiever.

One such downtime happened recently in some parts of British Columbia, near the Greater Vancouver region. Due to strong winds and stormy weather, many trees fell on electricity lines, and interrupted power supplies to thousands of households. Even though this is early Spring, temperatures can be freezing cold at night. I remember a student friend at one time telling me that a power outage means no heating in the house. They were left to freeze throughout the night. I told them that they could have called us, and bunk in with us. They did not call. Maybe, they could not locate our contact number as their electronics were also affected.

Downtimes can be life threatening, like freezing in the Winter cold. I wonder if there are possible advantages at all, besides the extended coffee break at the office, or the extra time to talk with family and friends on a more casual basis. My argument in this week's Sabbath Walk is that downtimes can be moments of inspiration and collecting wisdom.

A) My Personal Downtime
Apart from all the daily practical problems surrounded by a downtime, there can be positive aspects when pausing from our normal routines. During a personal downtime, we can get a spark of insight. It is what I call a change in perspective.

For Lent this year, I voluntarily chose a Facebook downtime. For 40 days, I refrained from doing anything on Facebook, so that these moments can become moments of remembering Jesus’ journey to the Cross. You can call that Facebook-fasting. Almost immediately, after announcing my intention, I was accused of practicing a form of legalism in my Christian walk. Surprised I was. I never knew that trying to do something in order to remember Christ more personally can be misconstrued as ‘legalistic.’ It still baffles me today. This symbolic Facebook-fast for me is a way to counter the potential grip Facebook can have on me. Yet, some people choose to interpret otherwise. I know that this hot social phenomenon is going viral from day to day. If we are not careful, we may end up becoming so addicted that Facebook becomes an electronic drug.

Facebook is fast challenging email as the social communication of choice. Sometimes, it is easier to locate a friend through Facebook, than ransacking through all the old emails sent and received. Searching Facebook pops out not only the email address, but the photograph and other relevant details as well. The power to connect has never been more effective. Yet, this very tool, efficient and powerful, can become addictive. My Facebook-fast teaches me that I can live without Facebook. There is life beyond social networking. I learn to see that in my moments of fasting, there is always some precious insights to be learned.

B) Finding Wisdom in Our Downtime
Once there was an explorer attempting to travel across the Amazon jungle as quickly as possible. He brought along some natives to help him navigate. After a few days of speedy progress, he found the natives unwilling to travel further. Annoyed, he asked them why. In reply, the lead native said: “We cannot continue until our souls catch up with our bodies.” These natives know certain matters that many of us take for granted. Sometimes we confuse our natural bodies with a 7x24 always ON computer system. We subconsciously work all day, thinking like a computer that is always up and running, and always ready. We are not computers. We are human.

I have been reading this amazing little book by Andy Andrews called “The Noticer.” The central character in the book is a wise old man called Jones. He seems like a type of ‘Jesus’ who happens to know everyone by name, appearing at the deepest moment of need, and disappearing the moment people try to seek him out. In one instance, he was talking to a group of teenagers having questions about adult matters. They were exploring dating, curious but cautious about marriage, recognizing the high rate of divorces in their society. Jones mentions that there is a positive aspect of having a downtime.

Wisdom can be gathered in your downtime. Wisdom that can change the very course of your life will come from the people you are around, the books you read, and the things you listen to or watch on radio or television.” (Andy Andrews, The Noticer, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, p64)

C) Wisdom in Marriage Matters
One one chapter, Jones helps three teenagers learn that it is not love or commitment that is important in choosing a life partner. It is the ‘seeking and gathering of wisdom’ to help one decide. It is not because ‘people love each other’ as the reason for getting married. It is actually the wisdom to recognize who we want to spend the rest of our life together with. I think this little insight can only be understood in our downtime. In our quick-fix society, we often shortchange ourselves into thinking that marriage is simply finding the perfect partner. The pre-marital process is actually not the love itself, but the collection of wisdom during our quiet moments. Such moments of wisdom collected prepares us for marriage long-term, instead of an emotional romanticism short-term.

I agree. For every couple that falls in love quickly, they can also fall out of love speedily. In a world that worships the latest-and-the-greatest techno gizmos out there, we unconsciously transfer that to human relationships as well, expecting the ‘latest’ fashion our loved ones should wear, or the next greatest feat we should do to impress our partners. No. In any relationship, we need to have the wisdom to know our own limits and authentic being. We need to have the wisdom to help our partners be the best version of themselves. We need to let our relationships grow naturally, and not with ‘artificial steroids’ like magical seminars or techniques to improve our relationships. It is wisdom that we need to seek after. It is wisdom that we need to wait for. It is wisdom that we need to collect. One of the best times to collect wisdom is during our downtimes. Our downtimes can be excellent moments to reflect and to build on our pool of wisdom.

Wisdom is 'the ability to see into the future the consequences of your choices in the present.' (73)

D) Seek Wisdom
Wisdom is precious in every relationship. We need more wisdom, not romantic love in deciding about our partners. We need not mere short-term love, but a long-term vision of who is the person we want to spend the rest of our lives with. We need more wisdom, not mere commitment, to maintain our current relationships. Wisdom that is more precious than feelings or gold. Wisdom that is concentrated in the Person of Jesus. Wisdom that bears fruits through the Holy Spirit. Wisdom that brings us assurance that no matter what happens, we are loved by our Heavenly Father.

Be glad when there is a forced downtime. Be purposeful in planning a personal downtime. Once a week is a good start. Regardless of forced or planned, may the Holy Spirit guide you always unto all wisdom and understanding. Seek wisdom in your downtime. Perhaps, wisdom comes to us only when we allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.
Thought: “Smart people spend time alone. They don’t fill their days with appointments from 8am to 10pm, as many executives do. Inspiration is nurtured by activities like chopping wood, preparing dinner and reading to the kids. These activities soften the rigid pace of the day’s pursuits and allow all our God-given intuition to work its unlogical magic.” (Philip K Howard)


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Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.
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