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, ‘Eyjafjallajökull ‘ 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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