Sunday, August 29, 2010

4 Marks of Faithfulness - Part I

TITLE: Four Marks of Faithfulness – Part I
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 29 Aug 2010
And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law but Ruth clung to her.” (Ruth 1:14)
[** Today is my (Conrade) wedding anniversary, so I am publishing this issue earlier.]

MAIN POINT: The book of Ruth provides us a laser-sharp focus on the faithfulness of Ruth that we can all learn from. I submit to you the four marks of faithfulness. This will be shared over 2 weeks. This week, I suggest that faithfulness transcends destination and moods.

In the Ancient Near East during biblical times, the lives of women can be very hard. Their sense of identity is strongly connected to the husbands they marry. Their whole livelihood depends on what the men of the family do. This link is often seen in the genealogy of Jewish families. During a census, families are registered based on their family of origin. In most of the genealogies, very few women are listed as part of the family heritage.

A) Amputated Hopes
The biblical book of Ruth begins with promise, of a Moabite family trying to survive a terrible famine in Judah. For some reason, the head of the family, Elimelech died (Ruth 1:3). His two sons who took Moabite wives also died subsequently (Ruth 1:5). In a short terse 5 verses, a family of 6 was reduced by half. All the men died. In such a male-dominated culture, as far as Naomi and her two daughters in law are concerned, their family’s future has taken a turn for the worse, as far as social status is concerned. All three of them are now widows. All three of them lost husbands. They have no children. They have a weak status. They have a bleak future. Their hopes of building a family have been cruelly amputated from them. Despite this situation, the Scriptures record Ruth’s amazing response: ‘Ruth clung’ on to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Instead of drowning herself in her despair, or immersing her plight through depression and regret, Ruth said something that has been quoted, memorized, and treasured by many.

“But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

This verse represents Ruth’s first words to be recorded. These words form the sub-title of the entire book of Ruth; an expression of what true faithfulness looks like. There are four marks of faithfulness that we can learn from here. The first two deals with vocation and location. It essentially answers the questions: “Where to go?” The next two deals with identity. It answers the question: “Who am I?”

B) Repairing Hope: Four Marks of Faithfulness
Ruth’s remarkable response is a mark of faithfulness. It is a vow of loyalty to her mother-in-law, despite her being given the permission to leave, and to return to her hometown. In a nutshell, Ruth chooses to be faithful. It is volitional. It is motivated from inside, not outside. It is freely offered. Ruth could have opted out of a life of continued misery. Yet, she clings on to Naomi. Ruth knows profoundly what it means to stick together, regardless of destination, of location, of people and of religious convictions.

MARK #1 – Faithfulness Transcends destination
I remember my first time I met my wife. Both of us are born in different countries, and hold different passports. It can be a scary feeling for her when I pop the question:
"If we get married, are you willing to follow me wherever I go?"
I felt most blessed when she said 'yes.' There is no greater feeling then knowing that both of us pledge our faithfulness to each other and to God. Out of this faithfulness, where we go does not really matter. WHO we are with becomes most significant.

For Ruth, her choice of where to go is far more intense. She has lost her husband. She has a choice to look for another. It concerns her entire life. It is like putting down all her chips to follow after her mother-in-law. Faithfulness according to Ruth, is not a matter of where she is going, but WHO, namely her loyalty to her mother-in-law. If we were to ask Ruth, where is she going, all she says will be: "Anywhere my mother-in-law chooses."

This reminds me of the argument between Abraham and Lot which led to their amicable parting of ways. While Lot looked at the place and chose Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham chose the relationship. He offered Lot the best of choice, but he himself opted for the best of relationships. Wow! This is exactly what Ruth did to. Ruth chose to be faithful to her mother-in-law, and not leave her to struggle alone.

MARK #2 – Faithfulness Transcends Moods
Being human, we are susceptible to choices according to our moods. When we are happy, we laugh. When we are sad, we become downcast. When we are restless, we look for exciting things to do. When we are restful, anything is possible. Sometimes, when we go out with friends, the location matters. I remember a time when we try to invite a friend to join the rest of us for a meal. Upon finding out that we are going to a fast-food restaurant, my friend declined the invitation. He is not into fast-food. I can understand. People who are health conscious tend to avoid fast food places. As a place to eat, I can understand. However, as an opportunity to meet and hang out with friends, I think my friend has missed out. Friends are important. Sometimes, we just have to bite our lip, (or our health choices), and follow along so as to spend time meeting up and renewing our ties with one another. One reason is because we do not know when we will ever see our friend again. We could die tomorrow. Our friend could be leaving the country for good. Anyone of us could have a new job that brings us to a new place at any time.

Ruth knows that when she makes a commitment to Naomi, it means her all, not simply a part. It is regardless of where her mother-in-law chooses to go. Faithfulness is independent of moods, for it transcends location with a pledge to follow Naomi wherever she chooses to go or stay.

If we were to ask Ruth, "How do you feel about throwing away your life by following your mother-in-law?"

I suspect that she will give a sharp rebuttal: "It is not about me or how I feel. It's about following my mother-in-law anywhere she goes."

Sometimes I wonder about marriages and Boy-Girl relationships. Have they become too dependent on new-wave moods rather than old-fashioned faithfulness? Faithfulness to God has a similar trait. On days where I feel exceptionally exhausted, I will be most reluctant to go to Church. Yet, there is something that tells me, it is an act of grace that I go. It is not for the sake of myself. It is a grace extended to the people in the Church. My presence encourages people. My participation aids worship. Faithfulness is a powerful emotion when it is directed toward God.

Faithfulness is not a question of new ways of worshiping God or following Christ. It is despite of whatever contexts we are in, we pledge ourselves to obey God and follow Christ.

A Pause to Comment
Let me pause to comment on one more behavior that faithfulness cultivates on the way. It is where we choose to shine our attention on. It is where we converge our resources. It is who we give our limelight to. It is like a laser-beam of the heart, focusing the rays of love, to cling on to the desire to give the person the best that we can offer. It holds nothing back. It gives up one's selfish ambitions and it keeps the other person more important than self. When this happens, when we learn to be faithful, we find ourselves strangely changed. We discover we are more focused. We realize that we know what we want in life. We are not longer scattered in our thoughts, for our lives are no longer dependent on where to go, or how we feel, but on plain utter faithfulness to God and the people He chooses for us to live with.

One more thing. I suspect that the reasons why we are prone to committing adultery is when our minds are confused and scattered over who we truly love. This is why we must learn to direct our focus to be faithful to God always. Our relationship with fellow people depends very much on our relationship with God.

~~~ To be Continued ~~~
"By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves, whereas we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity." (Augustine)


Thought: What would you do if you are Ruth? Faithfulness is not related to where we are going, or what location we are living in. Faithfulness to God and to our loved ones is a relationship.

sabbathwalk

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.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Enjoying God - Thoughts on Sunday Worship

TITLE: Enjoying God - Thoughts on Sunday Worship
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 27 Aug 2010

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12)

MAIN POINT: Too often we come to God with ‘Egypt’ (idols) in our hearts; Worship with God IN our hearts, to understand that true worship is in Spirit and in Truth. How can we enjoy God while idols still linger in our hearts? Answer: We can’t.

When was the last time you enjoyed God? Is it during your first year of professing faith in Christ? Your baptism? Is it during a time when you were led by a professional worship leader and band from organizations like Hillsongs from Australia? Was it during moments of ecstatic tongues speaking? When was the last time you can truly tell another person, that you have worshiped God that day?

Frankly, these moments for me are few. Each week, I feel that I can go through the motions of doing church more than the actual experience itself. I still go to worship together with a body of believers, but to really feel up and high, there are not many that I can boast about. Sometimes, what is preventing me from going forward is due to expectations inside me that I refuse to let go. Part of the disabling attitude is that stubborn old habits that I have yet to break.

It has been said about the Israelites’ behaviour after their amazing escape from the clutches of the Egyptians: It takes 40 days to get Israel out of Egypt, but 40 years to get ‘Egypt’ out of Israel. After crying out for deliverance for many years, the LORD hears and delivers them from the torturous era under the harsh Egyptians. Unfortunately, Israel continues to complain, to groan and even to accuse Moses for bringing them to greater hardship. Worse of all, the Israelites have the nerve to even ask to be brought back into Egypt!
The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD'S hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3)

How can stubbornness to old habits enable anybody to worship God? Definitely not! It reminds me of the popular quip about human behaviour:
“Old habits die hard.”

1) Old Habits Die Hard
We are natural creatures that gravitate toward comfort more than hardship. After all, who ever wish to suffer more? Israel suffers a lot during their time under Egypt. During the time of Joseph, Israel receives lots of privilege, thanks to the great favour the Pharaoh at that time bestows upon Joseph and his people. Over time, when the leadership changes hands, relationships turn from sweet to sour; from acceptance to suspicion; from love to hatred. In Exodus 1:9, instead of building upon the relationship, the new Pharaoh takes upon himself toward racial and ethnic discrimination. Afraid of the rising numbers of the Jewish people, he oppresses them with hardship and inhumane rules.

They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. (Exodus 1:14)
Even our desire to worship God each day, in particular each Sunday is not spared from this habitual stance. Here are some old habits. We use our previous experience as a ‘template’ to judge our existing level of worship. We depend on the ‘professionalism’ of the people doing the sound system, the worship leading, the announcements, the music, the sermon and the overall flow of the program to tell us how worshipful the experience is going to be.

Unfortunately, when we do that, we unwittingly allow the program and the process to determine our level of worship. Worship must be in Spirit and in Truth; not in program merits and in process smoothness. We cannot worship God as long as we retain old habits of stiffness and refusal to change. We must be led by the Spirit to worship God. This is done by letting God lead us. All of us. The first thing is to let God break our old habits, our old paradigms and our stubbornness.

2) Worship is Not Digging For Information

The beach is not the place to work; to read, write or to think.” (Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, NY: Pantheon, 1955, p15)
I spent the week enjoying the Oregon Coast. With miles and miles of spectacular beaches, I marvel at how creative the coastline is. Each landmark deserves more than a photo-shot, or a journal entry. It beckons anyone against doing anything else other than admiring, and appreciating the beauty of the sandy beaches. The magnificence of nature humbles the most glorious man-made structure. Like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I find myself simply unable to work my normal routines, read my stack of books, write the articles I have, and think the plans I want. (This is why this week's SabbathWalk is late.) Lindbergh goes on to add how she discovers the multitudes of seashells:

But it must not be sought for or – heaven forbid! – dug for. No, no dredging of the sea-bottom here. That would defeat one’s purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.” (17)

Isn't that true of worship as well? Worship in Church is like this beach experience. It is to be enjoyed not analyzed. It is to appreciate God’s people, not deprecate them. It is to be open to the LORD, not closed up and shuttered down.

3) Worship Begins with Breaking Our Alabaster Jars
Each time I read the gospel about the woman breaking the alabaster jar (Matt 26:7), I find myself behaving more like the disciples, in complaining about the waste of such good perfume. Why not sell it to the poor or better still, earn a profit from it? Unfortunately, this is the way we often come to church with. We refuse to break our stubborn alabaster jars of idolatry. We prefer to keep the good perfume inside us, and use the Church service as another opportunity to FILL MORE PERFUME. This we do by digging and more digging.

I find that our worship on Sundays is often likened to our individual efforts to dig for information. Such a view is like seeing Church as a form of spiritual oil rig that stores up fields of spirituality. We think that a ‘worshipful’ experience is one that looks like this:

“Powerful Music” + “Solid Sermon” + “Professional Band” + “Sleek Program” = “Great Worship.”

My question: Where is the Holy Spirit?

If true worship is to be in Spirit and in Truth, it has got to do less with the program and the process, but MORE with the PERSON of Christ.

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Where is Christ during our Sunday worship? Do we see Christ magnified in the programming? Do we see Christ preached from the pulpit? Do we see Christ-like behaviour in people, and in particular our own selves?


4) Breaking the Jars
We must break our alabaster jars that contain idols of popular and hip music that draws attention to melodies and fanciful lyrics instead of to Christ. Sometimes, when certain music plays, I find myself remembering the music videos of pretty singers and could not detach the music from the actors in the video. The music may be perfect, but the idols inside me prevent me from worship.

We must break our jars that contain ideas of what a ‘solid sermon’ is to be. This particular idol is quite easy to detect, but hard to destroy. One of my favourite preachers is my mentor: Haddon Robinson. I notice a trend that whenever he preaches, crowds will follow. On the other hand, when an unknown person is preaching, you will see a significantly less crowd. Same passage, different preachers, different turnout.

If Christ is preached, should we not be excited about the message rather than the preacher?

I acknowledge that some preachers are downright boring, even misleading in their preaching. What about seeing ourselves being used by God to behave like iron sharpening iron? If the preacher is not connecting with the audience, do not remain silent. Tell him. Talk to him. Let him learn to improve with our feedback. Let me caution: Be gentle in your correction by offering feedback in love.

We need to break our alabaster jars that contain images of professionalism and sleek performances we see in Hollywood or worldly circles. Jesus uses ordinary people to reach out to ordinary people. We should not presume to be ‘high-class’ Christians expecting kingly treatment from people running the Sunday services. Rather we are humble servants seeking to serve and to expect less of people, and more of God.


5) Emptying Ourselves
Last month, I twittered the following:

Christianity 101 - 1) Seek Christ Always; 2) Invite Christ inside; 3) Behave Christlike outside.

I think this is the essence of enjoying and desiring God. Before that can happen, we need to break our alabaster jars of idolatry, and to let ourselves be poured out open in front of the altar. If true worship is to be in Spirit and in Truth, we must let ourselves come to God in Spirit and in Truth. This is the essence of worship: Seeking Christ; Inviting Christ; Becoming Christlike.

In summary, worship is not about us. It is completely about God. It is seeking Christ by letting the Holy Spirit move us. The late bishop of Canterbury, William Temple says it much better than I can. This oft quoted definition of worship can be found in many places.

Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love and submission of will to His purpose. All this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of expressions of which we are capable.” (William Temple)

May we learn to do the same by breaking our alabaster jars of idolatry each Sunday, and hopefully every day. Try breaking them this Sunday, and let God work his miracle in you to bring you to a new level of worshiping Christ.

Thought: "Worship is first and foremost for His benefit, not ours, though it is marvelous to discover that in giving Him pleasure, we ourselves enter into what can become our
richest and most wholesome experience in life." (Graham Kendrick)



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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Which Church Should I Attend This Sunday?

TITLE: Which Church Should I Attend This Sunday?
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 17 Aug 2010
Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21)
MAIN IDEA: Rise of the Consumerist Christian. The biggest hurdle to true worship of God is none other than our own selves. Beware the four mentalities that prevent us from desiring God.

Which Church should I go to this Sunday?  One of the phone calls that I dislike answering in Church on Sundays is the one from church members that asks: "Who is preaching today?" Wait a minute buddy. Does the identity of the preacher determines your going to church?

A good friend sent me a copy of Singapore’s national newspaper, The Straits Times last week. It was a special report published on July 17th, 2010, entitled: “Rise of the megachurch – Gospel & Glitz.” As the main English language national newspaper, what The Straits Times publishes frequently reflects the mood of the times in the small island nation of Singapore. The issue fills 11 pages that begins with a swanky coverage of the Megachurches, and ends with modest 1½ pages for small churches. Numerically speaking, even Megachurches receive a greater share of the reporting. It is like Walmart vs the mom-and-pop neighborhood shop. The former wins hands down.

The main idea expressed in that special report is that there are 2 kinds of fast-growing churches in the country. The first is the rise of the Mega-Churches (numbering in thousands of members), and the second is the multiplication of smaller and nimble ‘house’ churches that have less than 100 members. This week's edition of Sabbathwalk is my reflection after reading that report. I shall list down the four mentalities that Christians should avoid in their decision to go to Church.

A) The Shopping Mall Mentality
Like a shopping mall, a megachurch offers practically everything. There is a professional hip music band with excellent acoustics and sound system for an upbeat and uplifting worship service. The auditorium resembles a cinema where all attention is focused on what happens up on the stage, like patrons attending a symphony orchestra or a live play. Supported with tip-top technological audio-visual effects, the sermon is delivered by a senior pastor who has a great amount of charisma and showmanship. In fact, the quantity of the brochures, the visitor packs can easily fill the largest handbag of any visitor. They give out free books too!

One curious fact is that instead of keeping the shopping mall out of the church, two of the largest Megachurches in Singapore have their services inside shopping malls! Yet, this is not a Singaporean megachurch phenomenon. Nearby in Indonesia, people flock to shopping malls to go to church, albeit for different reasons. Singaporeans have greater religious freedom compared to Indonesia. In Singapore, people are quite free to worship while in Indonesia, there is a high sensitivity over the tiny Christian minority amid a huge Muslim population. Moreover, for the Indonesian Church, it is a lot more difficult to get a license for a Church building. According to a BBC report, being persecuted by merely being a Christian is a common occurrence.  I am not talking about these Indonesian shopping-mall churches which meet out of necessity. I am referring to the consumerist model often adopted by the megachurches in Singapore and the West.

The problem with shopping-mall type Christians is that they approach Church going like shoppers rather than worshipers. In the book, “Seeker Churches: Promoting traditional religion in a nontraditional way,” Kimon Howland Sargeant writes:
In an age that emphasizes the search for personal fulfillment, consumer satisfaction, and self-realization, it is not surprising that many seeker church leaders are determined to learn from America’s omnipresent shopping malls, which offer customers an almost unlimited variety of goods and choices, all packaged for convenience and easy consumption.” (Kimon Howland Sargeant, Seeker Churches, NY: Rutgers, 2000, p106)

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to feel good and to consume goods. “Seeking God (the I AM) according to what my fleshly desires demands.

B) The Therapy Mentality
Living in the modern world is tough. Technology may have sped up the efficiency and productivity of many processes. Unfortunately, whatever time saved by these machines are quickly filled up with more plans and schedules by the insatiable appetites of humans to do things. When people’s heads and hands run so far ahead, is it any wonder that we need some space and personal time to catch a breather? Instead of taking a needed Sabbath, some Christians adopt a mentality of using the Church to meet their needs for a rest. They want sermons that bring them relief to their spiritual-aches, just like an aspirin to alleviate a headache.

This needs-based frame of mind is also called the therapy mentality. We see the sermon like some kind of a spiritual product to solve our spiritual problems. If the preacher does not preach to what I need, jump to the next Church on the line that will! My question, if going to Church is simply because of a need to get some kind of healing therapy, what happens when one does not have any need for therapy?

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to feel healed. “Seeking I AM according to what my personal needs demand.


C) The Up-to-Date Mentality

Some churches like Liquid Church seeks to become 'living waters for a thirsty world.' (note: It is Christ, not the Church who is called stream of living waters.) Others encourage members to use technological tools like Twitter, and other social networking tools DURING services. Time magazine published an interesting article on the Twittering Church back in May 2009. In it, one example talked about members of a Church who are encouraged to ‘twitter’ their experience with God with their cell phones throughout the Sunday service. Mars Hill Church in Seattle is a well-known Church that does exactly that. They are doing a great job in terms of engaging people. My question is whether it is necessary to twitter during Church hours? Is there any compelling reason to encourage it during the Sunday morning service?

Why is it so difficult for people, especially the young to set aside 1-2 hours away from their digital gadgets? After all, once the Church service is over, they can have all the time in the world to connect, to SMS and to use the Internet to communicate whatever they want. Maybe it boils down to a lack of discipline or worse, digital addiction. If relevance is the sole purpose of Church, how then will people see Church any different from the rest of the world?

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to stay relevant with the world. “Seeking I AM according to what the modern world demands me to become.

D) The Connecting Mindset

I remember attending City Harvest Church (currently they have 33000 members) in Singapore during the 90s. That day, as I made my way to the huge auditorium to attend one of their 5-6 Sunday services, the highly motivated volunteers and ushers would joyfully greet me with a smile. There were at least 6 people who casually came up to me and introduced themselves, to help me feel at home. I was impressed with the level of personal attention from the Church despite its size. In a nutshell, they tried to connect with me. That is a good way for introduction. My question is, will that be enough to be the main motivator for Church going?

One observation Church leaders of mainline churches have made is that the Megachurches is only a phase in the lives of the typical Church-shopper. After having ‘consumed’ whatever products offered by the Megachurch, once the fruits are picked, and the formulas are jaded, they will jump again to the next level of need: Need to connect with people.

Quite a number of members who left for a megachurch eventually return for a smaller setting. I remember one Church leader telling me that the young people are naturally attracted to the glittering image of being in the company of friends attending the prominent churches of the day. It is like going to a spiritual hypermarket. After a while, they return.

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to relate, and for people to relate to us. “Seeking I AM according to what relationships I need.

E) Desiring God

The first four mentalities I describe above are all based on some form of human need. The danger is that they can easily be twisted to become 'Desiring Self-fulfilment' instead of Desiring God. First, beware the shopping mall mentality which is evident in many who attend Megachurches and hypermarket style church offerings. They meet the needs of people who like familiar stuff that they see day to day. They use Powerpoint in their office, and they expect Churches to do likewise. They compare the quality of the world and easily question why the Church should not adopt ‘best practices’ from the commercial world. We must not use the ways of the world as a substitute for the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth. Neither should we use our own humanistic needs as a base for deciding which Church to attend. It must start by seeking Christ. I like what David Wells said:
"The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.” (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, p50)

The second type, the Therapy mentality is a more subtle one, where genuine human need for spiritual rest and recovery becomes confused with unhelpful, even unrealistic expectations on the Church, the pastoral staff and the Church programs.

The third type, the up-to-date mentality tries to play a game of perennial catch-up with the world. The problem is: How much catch up is sufficient?

The fourth type, the connecting mindset is relatively better than the rest but is still overly humanistic, in the sense that there is a lopsided focus on the needs of people. The way to meet needs is to allow God to meet our needs in God's time, not ours. Otherwise our thirst will never be quenched.

This leaves us with the fifth type, the path of desiring God.

What does it take to desire God and only God alone? It is a journey toward God alone. One way to test this is to ask ourselves if we will still pursue Christ without having our shopping mentality, our therapeutic requirements, our desire for up-to-date spirituality, and a need to connect with people? Take away all these. Will we still long for God? Are we so dependent on these spiritual ‘steroids’ in order to feel good?

I shall write more about desiring God next week. In the meantime, remember John’s warning in 1 John 5:21.

Thought: "It is important to remember that culture does not give the church its agenda. All it gives the church is its context. The church's belief and mission come from the Word of God. they do not come from the culture either through attraction to it on in alienation from it. It is not the culture that determines the church's priorities. It is not the (post)modern culture that should be telling it what to think. The principle here is sola Scriptura, not sola cultura" (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, p98).

sabbathwalk


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, August 11, 2010

Cheers of Hope

TITLE: CHEERS OF HOPE
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 11 Aug 2010

"I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6-7, NIV)

Greet each other with a holy Cheer.

MAIN POINT: How do we bring hope to the marginalized? By shining a ray of hope to light up the bruised wick of the weak, the needy among us, and the spiritually trapped in our neighbourhood. Cheering starts the ball rolling.

Football is one of the most popular sports in North America. It rakes in millions for organizers and players. It stirs up emotions. It unites supporters to cheer for their teams. It raises temperatures. It captures attention. Cheering and jeering are commonly practiced in football culture. In November 2008, such a way of cheering and jeering gets turned on its head. It gives us a new paradigm of how cheering and hope coalesces to become one act.

A) The Game
The historical statistics are lopsided. Faith Christian High School (FCHS) in Texas is a well-funded and prestigious private school. Gainesville on the other hand is a public-funded and generally shunned state school. FCHS has won 7 games out of 9 so far, while their opponents from Gainesville State School have lost all 8 of their previous games. Lose one more game and they will hit another depressing record.

The current state of things is not encouraging as far as Gainesville is concerned. While FCHS has more than 70 supporters, Gainesville has about 12 who mostly carried guns. Why? This is because the team of 14 players from Gainesville are prisoners of a maximum-security correctional facility. With good behaviour and track record, they get the privilege of playing football, as well as a chance to break the boring routine while they are incarcerated. Pit one well-equipped, highly trained and motivated team against a team that appears almost the complete opposite. You do not have to guess where the odds are as far as winning is concerned. One does not need to know who will win, only the winning margin.

B) The Plan
Kris Hogan, who coaches FCHS knows about this. He has other plans besides winning. He knows football is more than a game. He wants to do something for his youthful opponents, even though he is not their coach. Instead of going it alone, he enlists the help of FCHS parents, teachers, staff, students and players to go along with him. He invites the huge support base of FCHS to break ranks and for just one night, cheer the team from Gainesville called 'Tornadoes.' Amazingly, more than 200 people eagerly volunteered in this novel idea.

Imagine the surprise when the ‘Tornadoes’ run toward the pitch with screaming fans cheering not others but them! As they play, each Tornado player hears their names being called. The cheerleading team from FCHS cheers the Tornadoes throughout the game. Despite the feisty support, the visiting team lost to the favourite 14-33. But their hearts have already been won over with tears in their eyes. At the end of the game, every player from both teams hugged each other, and a Tornado player volunteered to pray. They have become not mere opponents but friends of hope. Eyes that used to instil fear in others have become like taps that drip tears of utter joy and hope.

That is not all. As each Tornado player walks to the bus, they receive a pack that contains hamburgers, juice, fries, candy, a Bible as well as personal notes of inspiration and encouragement.

“Way to Go!”
“You can do it!”
“You’ve done great!”
“….”

The cheers that started inside the football field continues outside in the parking lot where the Tornado team bus is waiting. I am certain the spark of hope that began in that game is continuing to burn in the memories of every player on that field that day.

C) Cheers of Hope
If a group of high school students can bring such inspiration to a cluster of convicts, what about us? FCHS has demonstrated that it is possible to cheer for both the home team and the away team. Isn’t it possible then to cheer our own team as well as our neighbour’s team? It is possible. As far as hope is concerned, there is no such thing as discrimination. We can greet one another with a holy cheer.

The opposite of cheering is jeering. Cheering builds the team up while jeering boos the team down. Cheering lifts up spirits, while jeering talks down any potential. Cheering inculcates hope. Jeering demolishes any promise. Cheering seeks to strengthen while jeering seeks to destroy.

A Christian may ask: “If I do not jeer, does it matter if I simply mind my own business even if I do not cheer?

I think it matters. It matters when we are simply pew warmers. It matters when we are passive consumers of Church programs thinking that as long as we do not jeer or complain, we do not need to encourage or to say anything positive. In fact, sometimes the mantra ‘silence is golden’ is a deadly phrase as far as Christian fellowship is concerned. Better a friend who speaks honest words that are negative than one who flatters falsely with positive words. Jeering and 'not-cheering' are not very different.

A Church that grows with passive members is like an obese man filled with junk food. The high calories make one’s stomach feels full but the body is never satisfied. Likewise, a Church that grows with consumerist-minded attendees feed on Church programs but never really feel spiritually satisfied. This can be changed. Cheerleaders can be agents of hope.

D) Cheerleaders Needed
We need cheer-leaders in the Church. We need active members to cheer up the hearts of people bogged down by personal problems and concerns. We need faithful labourers to help carry the exceptional burdens of the weak instead of the predictable burdens of the week. Not all burdens are the same. Some are manageable. Others are not. The problem is when we become so fixated on the routine issues of life, that we miss out on the unique matters of faith. This can prevent us from cheering.


Students from FCHS could have won by a larger margin, instead of the respectable 33-14 scoreline. Instead, by shifting away from their routine program of winning games, they turn toward the unique program of winning hearts.

What about us? What about those of us who are regularly way laid by the worries of this world, about what to wear, where to eat, what to drink, and how to make more money? Sometimes I think some Church-goers are perennial whiners. They complain so much about the quality of Church music that they forget the sacrifices made by the worship team members. They make small comments to belittle the preacher’s sermon, oblivious to the many hours spent preparing for it. They shake their heads about the length of the program despite the best efforts of the Sunday stewards. When we jeer the Church like that, are we not jeering Christ as well?


E) How We Can Cheer
Of course improvements can always be made. That is besides the point. The point is, what is our default mode when it comes to imperfections in the Church? Is it a complaint or a restraint of unhelpful comments? Is it a constructive feedback or a destructive one? Even if it is a critique, is it done in the spirit of grace, of correcting the truth in love? Why not make our default mode a mode of CHEER? Cheering in the Church looks like:
  • Affirming the usher with thanks, as we enter the Church;
  • Appreciating the pastor or preacher by acknowledging his work at the sermon;
  • Acknowledging the work of all responsible for putting together the Sunday service;
  • Applauding the worship team for their work of service, even if they are not as well conducted;
  • Aspiring to be a participating member instead of a passive consumer;
  • Adoring the privilege of being able to come together as a Body of Christ.

Christian people, cheer up! In spite of flaws, cheer the Church up. Let the knowledge and grace of the love of God cheer our hearts up with hope. FCHS has done their part to cheer a group of convicts to continue their positive recovery. Surely, we as a Church can do our part to cheer our congregational members.

May God raise many more cheer-leaders from amongst us. We need them, and we need them quick. Will you be one today? Greet each other with a holy cheer. Do it not just this week, but every week.

“YOU CAN DO IT!”

Thought: "Simply because we do not run across goal lines, slam dunk basketballs, or hit home runs, doesn't mean we can't change the score." (Anonymous)


"A good cheerleader is not measured by the height of her jumps but by the span of her spirit." (Anonymous)

sabbathwalk

note: You can watch the inspiring video of FCHS vs the Tornadoes here.


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, August 4, 2010

Childlikeness (Reflections on Parenting)

TITLE: Childlikeness (Reflections on Parenting)
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 4 Aug 2010
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (Isa 11:6)
People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:15-17)
Main Idea: Disciples of Jesus will need to become more childlike as they grow. Parents of children will need to become more teachable as their children grow. Like it or not, we will be led by a child.

(Photo Credit: Anglican.org)
Adults teach children many things. They teach little toddlers how to crawl and make their first step. They then teach adolescents to mind their table manners. They teach them how to dress up when they enter elementary school. It seems like the older they become, the lesser adults can teach them. My wise Professor at Regent-College, Dr James Houston once talked about the different ages the Church has gone through in its 2000 years of history. In the first century, it was the Age of the Martyrs, where the persecuted Church endured lots of hardship especially under Roman rule. Then comes the Age of the Monk in the Middle Ages, followed by the Age of the Soldier of Christ under the Crusades. Of this present age, Houston calls it: “The Age of the Child.” It is a call back to childlikeness in an age that prides itself as mature, advanced and developed.

A) Past: A Treasury of Stories and Wisdom
Houston has accurately identified what the Church in this modern era needs: Childlikeness. While one can argue that Jesus’ calling us to become like a child to enter the kingdom of God is applicable to all ages, I think it is particularly relevant for us because we have the benefit of learning from history. From all the successes and failures of our predecessors, we have a treasury of testimonies, stories, and learning moments stored up for us. Even hymns and songs do not appear out of a vacuum. The hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by a slave trader (John Newton), who was totally oblivious to God, until he was saved from a dangerous storm, which he attributed to God’s grace. I remember how Johnny Mathis’ rendition of “When a Child is Born” represents a symbol of hope especially during Christmas time.
A ray of hope flickers in the sky
A tiny star lights up way up high
All across the land dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born
Hope here is embodied in a child. TS Elliot has mentioned that the spiritual life tends to work differently when compared to the physical life. Physically, we may grow taller, some fatter, but all older. Spiritually, we discover the importance of frequently returning to first principles, especially when we encounter problems in life. Elliot writes in his poem, the Four Quartets:
“And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.” 
Sometimes I wonder why God did not send Jesus to earth like a spiritual adult Rambo to destroy our enemies, or a white beard stroking Gandalf like Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ to rid the world of evil. Instead, Jesus comes to earth as a helpless baby.

A little child shall lead them,” prophesied Isaiah.

B) Examples of Child Leading Adults
Will we let a little child lead us? The idea of little children leading adults has been used in many movies. One of them is the second installment of the hit series, “Aliens.” In it, the heroine Ripley mothers and protects a little girl called Newt. In one scene, the brave Ripley and a group of commanders were trapped in a room surrounded by the despicable alien creatures. Just when all seem hopeless, Newt motions Ripley to escape through a little hatch and manages to flee away. Ripley scampers to safety, thanks to a little child.

I have also encountered moments when my children become my teachers. At one time, it was a new short cut through the park that I do not know of. It shaves off a few minutes of walking time. If I had been stubborn, I would have missed out on this route. Little children can lead, if only we let them.

In technology, I find myself increasingly dependent on my kids to tell me what the most fun thing on the Internet is these days. As I grow older each year, my kids increasingly become my teachers. This is only possible if we humbly learn from them. Here lies the paradox of life. When they were younger, we teach them. When they become teens, we guide them. Eventually, they lead and teach us.

C) Thinking about Parenting (CIA)
As I reflect upon parenting methods, I find myself understanding parenting in terms of three phases. (Note that these phases represent a guide, not an absolute formula for parenting). The first phase is CONTROL. We expect our children to obey instructions, to comply to set rules and regulations within the house. Non-conformance leads to punishment. Take fighting among the siblings. Like most children, my kids sometimes quarrel and fight over things. Despite our warnings, our kids still fight among themselves. The consequence is simple. Regardless of who is at fault, any kind of fighting will result in punishment for all.

The second phase is that of INFLUENCE. As kids grow older, they are not easily controlled. They start to have a mind of their own. They make decisions based on their own thinking and understanding. The parents can only watch, influence and pray. The decision to act or not to act is not a simple command but a request; not a straight-forward instruction but persuasive pleadings. Sometimes, this may even be our only strategy. In the book on how adults can relate to teens, “How to Hug a Porcupine,” Julie A Ross equates influence with relationships. Ross suggests that as children grows into teens, parents need to move from control to a relationship mode. She writes:
All too often, parents spend the middle school years doing the opposite: trying to wrest control out of their children’s hands, hoping to stop time so that they can continue to relate to their child as they did during the elementary school years. This is a mistake. For one thing, control is an illusion. We can no more control our children than we can control the movements of the planets. For another, our children will develop with or without us. Choosing to learn the techniques, do the work, and brave the sometimes stormy seas of a relationship approach will help ensure that we walk with our children on their life’s journey rather than getting left behind.” (Julie A Ross, How to Hug a Porcupine, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p199-200)
Ross talks about building up a relationship with children as they grow. I like to add one more phase that parents can do: Appreciating them. The third phase of parenting is APPRECIATION.

When teens grow into young adulthood, they are no longer asking about what we want them to do. They are asking for affirmation rather than authority; acknowledgment more than affluence; and appreciation over apprehension. The road to appreciation starts from a humble desire to love. Only love can help one to let go and let God. Lawrence Kelemen shares a piece of Jewish wisdom when he compares animals with children. He notices that newborn animals seem to be more physically ready compared to new born humans. While animals like kittens can walk fairly quickly, it takes little babies almost a year before they can make their first walk. Why didn’t the baby prepare its walking skills inside the womb during the 9 months gestation period? Kelemen concludes the following:
“. . we are meant to love, and we leave the womb early only to train for this assignment. ” (Lawrence Kelemen, To Kindle a Soul, MI: Targum Press, 2001, p102)
Wow! The training of a child to love begins immediately after birth. Love gives the child the encouragement to crawl and to take its first steps. Love via control protects the child from falling off the crib or the high chair. Love via influence prompts the teenager to reflect and to consider both advantages and disadvantages of each action. Love via appreciation shows the growing child that no matter what happens, parents will always love the child. In the process, bringing up children is a curriculum for parents learn to love, and to teach them how to love.

D) Concluding Thoughts
In CONTROL, we learn from our kids what it means to be responsible to protect our little ones. We do not need to be a parent to protect. If we deal with little kids in any way, we have a responsibility to take care of them. In INFLUENCE, we learn what it means to humbly depend on God for an opportunity to guide our children. We will realize that there are many things outside our control. We learn to trust that it is in God's hands. In APPRECIATION, we learn to cultivate and enhance the meaning of life: The way of love.

CIA Parenting Styles Vary With Children's Age (SabbathWalk)

If you are a new parent or have to deal with little kids in your life, do not hesitate to exercise firmness and control to protect the child. If you parent or minister to teenagers, remember that influence is far more important than command and conquer. If you have young adults, encourage them with constant appreciation. We are all made to love. As we practice the C.I.A (Control – Influence – Appreciation) of parenting, we will teach our children what love is, and learn from our children to know what it means to be led by them. The curriculum of love is for both adults and children, and it works both ways. For all of us, there is One that we all need to learn from and hope for: Jesus.
"And all of this happens because the world is waiting,
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no-one knows
But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter,
Hate to love, war to peace and everyone to everyone's neighbour
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever." (Fred Jay)
A little child will lead us.

Thought: “Children have no past. For them there are no ‘good old days’; there are only good new days.” (Mike Mason)


sabbathwalk


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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