Friday, October 1, 2010

PRAYER: Heavenly Purposing in Earthly Living

TITLE: Heavenly ‘Purposing’ in Earthly Living
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 1 October 2010

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

MAIN THOUGHT: Prayer is not a temporary measure of meeting our own physical or spiritual need. It is seeking God’s will be done in heaven as well as on earth. It is heavenly purposing in earthly living. Prayer changes us more than it changes God.

It is exactly a month since my father passed away. The family is still in mourning. We struggle with making sense of what this all means. Letting go is hard. It takes a lot of ‘heart-work.’ Even my children occasionally repeat what I used to tell them when I am ministering to other grieving families. They will remind me cheekily:
There are 5 stages of grieving, dad.

So it is. I know that there are different levels of grieving, and they could happen at any time with no apparent chronological sequence. Yet, knowing about it in my head, and to personally go through it in my heart, are 2 entirely different things. Being aware of it keeps me prepared. Going through it keeps me humble. Thanks a lot, kids!

A) Nothing Much to Fight Over
My mum bounces between restlessness and a desire to make sense of life after dad. Things will never be the same again. When the family patriarch is gone, there is a shuffling of responsibilities in the family pyramid. One thing makes me glad. We do not have many possessions to fight over. My family does not have much, so there are not many things to really dispute about, assuming if we are trying to fight in the first place. If there is one thing to really tussle about, it will probably be some of the old photographs of my parents during their younger days. In an age of digital scanning and photography, these pictures can be easily replicated. If there is something that can be counted upon as a family treasure, it will probably be a ring that my father gave me many years ago. Unfortunately, it was stolen when my house I was renting in was burgled. Even if I have it today, I will be more than willing to give it up to any of my siblings if any of them wants it.

It reminds me so vividly that death happens to those who are rich and those like us, who are not so rich. I minister among people of different levels of affluence. There are those who are struggling to make ends meet. Like new immigrants, those who possess good careers and powerful connections back in their homeland, become unknowns in a new world. It can be a rude shock for the highly accomplished and richly qualified. In fact, I am learning that a life without much possession can be a blessing in itself. I prefer to word this kind of blessing as follows:
“True blessing is to be able to focus on storing up treasures in heaven, without the distraction of earthly treasures or the accumulation of earthly goods.”

The former is permanent. The latter is temporary. Storing up treasures in heaven gives us God’s perspectives. Storing up treasures on earth stubbornly clings on to human outlook or fleshly want. Heavenly living keeps God’s will in our priorities. Earthly accumulation of goods grips man’s will as the sole purpose in life. One lets go and lets God. The other refuses to let go, and loses sight of God’s purpose in the process. Purposing in God requires a letting go of earthly mindsets.

B) Futility of Earthly Qualifications and Experience
During my years at Regent-College, one of the places I haunt is a philosophy café close to the University campus. Many students flock to that coffee house. Books surround the tables and chairs where customers sip coffee and chat freely about life in general. The ambience is good. People are encouraged to voice their thoughts. Even in the restrooms, there are whiteboards with markers for people to write down their musings as they ‘sit on the throne.’ I think of one particular person’s sad story:
“I was once a General Manager of an MNC. I have a PhD and qualifications from a prestigious University. Now as a new immigrant, I wash dishes. Life sucks.”
It is ironical. Immigrants who are well regarded and established in their home countries, become ordinary labourers in their chosen new country of residence.

For me, I am not affected as much because I came to Canada with a different mindset. I willingly gave up my professional career so as to spend more time to study and to bask in the riches of theological studies. For I believe that life is short. One should not simply wish for a long life, but to invest in doing things that lasts longer than one’s lifespan. That said, even if I were to wash dishes, if I can enjoy and do that to the best of my ability, it can be something very worthwhile too. A great American civil rights leader once said:

If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.” (Dr Martin Luther King Jr)

Purposing in God is not dependent on what we do, but what attitude we bring to what we do.

C) Storing Up Heavenly Treasures
In a nutshell, we need to be mindful of what really matters in life. We get a more accurate assessment of what is most important. We need to know more of ourselves. We practice what we claim to be. For example, one of the most common corporate catch-phrases I have heard is:
People are the most important assets in this organization.

For many of us, we have seen too often how untrue and hypocritical this has become. When the company is in trouble, one of the first things they do is to cut staff. They shrink salaries and at the same time ask the surviving workers to justify their existence in the company. I remember a supervisor being asked to lay off some people in his department. Upon returning to his office after delivering the bad news, he finds his door opened with two security guards, and a pink slip on his table with his own name on it. Cruel stuff.

For people who have poured out their life to work for their companies, getting the sack is one of the hardest things to experience. So much about one being a treasured asset in the company.

Yet, getting the sack is not necessarily the end of life. If one has put in his best, the one who appreciates and sees our works is not our earthly boss but our Heavenly Father. If we can learn to see our life as a temporary stay rather than a permanent resident, it helps immensely in our earthly endeavors. A Vancouver businessman, Joe Segal has been quoted as follows:

Many people think of life as a road or a highway. And that may be true in so much as there are many unexpected twists and turns and sometimes you get lost or end up at a destination that wasn’t on the map. But if you think about it, a highway can go on forever, and life isn’t like that. Life is more like a runway – because at some point you’re going to run out of asphalt.” (Peter Legge, The Runway of Life, Eaglet Publisher, 2005, p8-9)

Purposing in God is storing up treasures in heaven.

D) Prayer is Risky
Indeed that is a good metaphor of earthly living. Life is more a runway. We need to lift off before reaching the end of the runway, and to safely land in another runway. Each time we lift off, we give thanks. Each time we land, we appreciate God’s grace upon us. Let me end with something more practical by asking the question: How do we cultivate a heavenly purpose in our earthly living? The answer begins in one word: ‘prayer.’ Prayer changes us more than it changes God. Eugene Peterson warns us about prayer. He writes:

We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests.” (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, p44)

Perhaps, when we pray, we get jolted out of our comfort zones. We jump out of our tiny fishbowls of self-interests and individual concerns, to see a world larger than our concerns. We begin to dip in lakes of community around us. We find ourselves immersed in bigger concerns, as we become aware how tiny our problems are when compared to the huge needs around the world.

Prayer can be risky. So risky that our worldly priorities shifts from me to we; from we to God. So dangerous that our own personal concerns suddenly become less important when we feel the heart of God. While we are scrambling with meeting deadlines, God is scrambling to feed the hungry in the world. While we are rushing to meet our monthly bill payments, God is rushing to mete out justice in parts of the world that are persecuting the innocent and the weak. In prayer, we see God’s purposes more than we see ours. In prayer, we begin a journey of living God’s will on earth, of heavenly purposing on earthly living. Pray without ceasing.

Thought: “In prayer I shift my point of view away from my own selfishness. I climb above timberline and look down at the speck that is myself. I gaze at the stars and recall what role I or any of us play in a universe beyond comprehension. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.” (Philip Yancey, Prayer-Does it Make a Difference?, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006, p29)


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