Monday, October 24, 2011

Fear of the Lord

TITLE: Fear of the Lord
SCRIPTURE: Proverbs 9:10
Written by: Conrade Yap

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10)

Wisdom means many things to many people.  For some, it means anything that brings about a good return on one's investment. For others, it may mean improving relationships overall. Yet, for some, it means simply cleverness, wit, or a masterful stroke of intelligent move performed at the right time. Buddhists have their Buddha figure as a guide to their ultimate nirvana. Hindus use holy men and Brahmins as objects of wisdom. Many in secular circles, especially atheists use their heads, often critically, against religion. For the secularists, the atheists, and the skeptics, the Christian religion is ultimately one big lie. Christopher Hitchens blames religion for their role in much violence and 'holy wars' and claims that 'religion poisons everything.' Richard Dawkins dismisses Christianity as a belief in a 'God delusion.' For these men, the fear of the Lord is farthest from their minds, for they are their own gods.

A) Foolishness to the Greeks

Greece is famously known as the land that has produced some of the world's most prominent thinkers and philosphers. People like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates are still being studied by many people in schools, universities, and widely quoted by learned people all over the world. According to the Greeks, the word 'philosophy' comprises two words: 'philo' (love) and 'sophia' (wisdom). Literally, philosophy means the 'love of wisdom.' Paul is well aware of the prevailing cultural sentiment at that time. He writes to the Church at Corinth,

"For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness." (1 Cor 22-23)

This week, I like to reflect on true spiritual wisdom. It is a wisdom that the world cannot understand. It is a wisdom that is foolishness to the Greeks. It is a wisdom that is drastically different from worldly cleverness. It is a wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Marital Conflict

TITLE: On Marital Conflict
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 17 Oct 2011

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” (Col 3:17-19)

Sometime ago, I spoke to a group of husbands, asking them to tell me about why they love their wives. The men were largely muted. Some were uncomfortable. Others seemed more protective about their own privacy. I ventured to provide a personal opinion, that I would tell my wife:

I love you because you’re you.

That sparked a flurry of responses. Of course, I am not at liberty to give out any further details. Safe to say, marital conflicts have changed the way many of us men perceive our marriage partners. Yet, a marriage is never just about the men or the women. A marriage is about both the man and the woman becoming one person, unique in themselves, united as one. That said, why are there so many troubled marriages?

This week, I will reflect on one of the biggest obstacles to marriage: Marital conflict and the management of it thereof.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Feeling Jaded About Church?

Title: Feeling Jaded about Church?
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 10 October 2011

Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.” (Songs of Solomon 2:5)

One Christian leader I know recently laments to me that Church attendance is declining at all levels. The numbers at Sunday services have dropped. The already small young people group has shrunk even more. Even Bible study group attendance has fallen. What is happening? This week we tackle the issue of Jaded Christianity and that the cause of it is due less to church programs and popularity but more because of broken and non-existent spiritual friendships. It is not about programs, preachers, or prizes. It's relationship or the lack of it!

A) Changing Climate

George Barna and Mark Hatch has predicted a general decline of Church attendance through the Millenium since 2001. From a high Church attendance of 49% in 1991, to 40% in 2000, and to a low of 35% in 2010. Worse, it is still declining. The statistics are grim:

(Statistics adapted from George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point – How Coming Cultural Shifts Will Change Your Life, Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2001, p213)

Looking at the numbers can be depressing. Apart from small group growth, which is holding relatively well, all the other numbers are dropping across the board. In North America, small churches are getting smaller. Those who leave their churches flock to Megachurches. Growth is hardly due to new converts but believers moving through revolving doors from one church to another. What do we make of this changing climate? Is it due to a jaded sense of religion, or is it simply a sign of the church unable to change with times? Angela Kiesling consolidates some of the reasons why people are leaving churches. Let me highlight three.

B) Reason #1 – Consumerist Mindset

The first reason is a consumerist mindset a typical Church attendee brings to the Church. Such a consumer Christian wants:
  • Lots of choices in Church programs, options that are catered to one’s personal preferences
  • Church to provide a product/service while members return a 'favour' by their attendance
  • No connection to the community interests except for one’s personal spiritual needs
  • When one does not feels the Church is meeting one’s needs, off they go.
  • Deny openly but practice a form of “Ask not what I can do for the church, but what the Church can do for me.”

If we are honest ourselves, we will see some of their consumerist tendencies pluck a sensitive string in our consumerist heart. That is not all.

C) Two Other Reasons – Era & New Communities

The second reason is based on which era we are born. If we are born before 1940, chances are we tend to be loyal in Church attendance. More often, we give structures and people in leadership the benefit of the doubt. If we are part of the Boomer generation born between 1940-1960, we tend to be more open to stay in traditional religion. If we are the Busters (1960-1984), we stay on the fence, waiting to see whether something is relevant to us or not, before deciding on change. Sometimes, these parents will simply choose church going on the basis of their children's needs. Those born after 1984 (Gen X) are more impatient and apt to change at the slightest disappointment. If these findings are correct, it more than verifies and explains the declining level of church attendance. In other words, we have a problem of archaic church structures that is increasingly unable to adjust to the changing population mix. For example, how can a Boomer-church make sense to a congregation filled with more Busters and Gen X? Is it then any surprise that pre-Boomer-style churches attract pre-Boomer and some Boomer people only?

The third reason is because of a more complex and sophisticated need that churches are not responding soon enough. While some churches are declining, others are growing. It is a decline of the old, but growth of a new. While the young tends to shy away from traditional religion, that does not mean that they are discarding the faith altogether. In other words, the decline is only for ‘traditional churches’ and NOT new forms of church. This explains the rise of new emergent churches that are full of young people and apparently meets the needs of ‘consumerist’ people as well as a changing landscape. Nate Krupp writes of three new types of ‘wine skins’ namely, the open Church, cell church and house church, where these people believes that the church is a community of believers gathered in the name of Jesus. Unfortunately, one church's gain is another church's loss. What is also not helpful is the increase of members who prefer individualized religion rather than community.

Kiesling warns of a 'Lone Ranger' Christian.

"Inherent dangers lurk anytime believers try to live a Lone Ranger existence, apart from other Christ-followers. We need each other." (Angela Kiesling, Jaded, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004, p124)

How then do we respond to a consumerist, a cultural age gap, and an individualized kind of faith?

D) Refreshment and Renewal

It is important that when we read statistics like these, and the attempts to analyze them, we do not lose sight of the presence of faithful sheep among us. For every one person who leaves a Church, there is also a responsibility to take care of those who are still attending. For both, who faithfully come, or are not coming, it is also important to note that BOTH groups need refreshment and renewal. The faithful attendee needs to be refreshed in the Lord, to have their faith in God renewed week after week. We cannot presume that people who leave the Church automatically leave the faith as well. No! Instead of criticizing their decisions, we need to understand them. When we understand the reasons for their leaving, not only can we learn, we share Christlikeness of love and understanding with them.

Most crucially, our desire for refreshment and renewal must stem from LOVE. We need to be careful of two errors we make when trying to woo back the sheep or to fast-forward our spiritual recovery.

Firstly, do not focus on programs. It looks too commercial. It is tempting to try to renew people’s interest by throwing in better programs. This makes the Church look more like a spiritual station dishing out religious variety shows.

Secondly, do not depend on a powerful preacher. It breeds a cult culture. It is also tempting to throw in a charismatic speaker to inspire people. Unfortunately, this makes the Church become like a one-man-operated motivational speaker circuit. No. We come to Church to worship God, and not to meet our needs, though the latter can happen when the Spirit leads. Richard Foster reminds us about what worship leads to.

"To worship is to chance. As worship begins in holy expectancy, it ends in holy obedience. Holy obedience saves worship from becoming an opiate, an escape from the pressing needs of modern life." (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1978, p173)
In other words, we do not come to God to change God to fit our needs. We come to let God change us to befit His glory. For that, we need help.

E) The Gift of Friends

Let me suggest that the key to recovery from jaded Christianity remains 'relational.' In a nutshell, a Christlike relationship has 3 components.

"Draw close to God. Let God draw you closer. Together, let God draw others closer through you."

Such a relationship cannot be done on our own strength, simply because our moods fluctuate from time to time. We need a community called the gift of friends to help one another link up.

The Songs of Solomon tell of a joyful and loving connection between a lover and his beloved. Bible scholars have long taken these songs to be the love poems of a man and a woman, or more specifically, King Solomon and his lover. A few other scholars have allegorized this as a conversation between God and human beings. I prefer to see it plainly as a man and a woman. There is no need for precise programming. There is no motivational speeches or clever remarks, save the deep emotional desire for each other. It is love. Renewal and refreshment must begin in LOVE. Love grows in the crucible of a relationship. This is the key theme in the Song of Solomon. The relationship is expressed through words of desire, hope, and love for each other.

SS 2:5 shows us that it is the LOVE that drives the beloved to long for the lover. She pleads for raisins to sustain her physical longing. She asks for apples to spread over her pining. It is not the raisins or the apple that is the key point. It is the LOVE that drives the cry for raisins and apples. Much like our modern worship. Do we let our desire for programs (raisin), and a yearning for apples (feel good) dictate our Church going? Or do we let our relationship with the Lord lead us to worship REGARDLESS of the building, the church programming, the facilities or all the external offerings? In other words, isn’t the Lord Jesus’ presence reason enough for us to go to Church?

I know some readers will argue back: “I love Jesus. I just need help to love him more.” Yes. I understand. Help is never from within ourselves, but always from outside. It is from the Lord, and the Lord often chooses to use community of believers. There is a third party in the lovely conversation between the Lover and the Beloved in the Song of Songs. Friends. The unspecified friends join in the chorus to affirm the desire of the beloved damsel for the Lover.

We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine.” (SS 1:4b)

They mirror the excitement of the woman for the man, in such a way that the woman is encouraged. They also praise the woman for who she is, encouraging her for her work, and her search for her lover.

If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.” (SS 1:8)

We need friends to encourage us in our spiritual journeys. We need friends to encourage us in our relationship with God. We need people to understand where we are, and also to understand others when they need us. Perhaps, when we are jaded about Church, it is not about the poor church programs, or mediocre sermons. It is probably not because there is a lack of desire to go to Church. It is more to do with a lukewarm faith. Such lukewarm faith can usually be traced back to a lack of spiritual friends.

Thought: “ . . . you could be a solitary wanderer, but you can’t be a solitary Christian.” (Eugene Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998, p25)

When all things fail, try love. Love never fails. Perhaps, you can try to remember a friend. Pray. Then call up that friend to say: "Hello. I thought and I prayed for you today. Want to catch up sometime?"


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Monday, October 3, 2011

Pious Parents, Rebellious Kids

TITLE: Pious Parents, Rebellious Kids
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 3 October 2011

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

After Dr John Stott, and Billy Graham, the next most well-known name in evangelical circles is the late Dr Francis Schaeffer. Known for his wide ministry in university campuses, his writings have influenced many. Together with his wife Edith, the Schaeffers founded the L’Abri ministry (L’Abri means shelter in French) in Switzerland, which focuses on spiritual formation, intellectual development, as well as a safe place for people to cultivate their discernment of their callings and giftings. Due to its huge success, L’Abri ‘study centers’ have been set up all over the world, in Europe, in North America, in Asia, and South America. I have many friends who tell me how they have been blessed by the Schaeffers and the ministry of L’Abri. While a lot is known about Francis and Edith Schaeffer, what is not so well known is a troubled father-son relationship. This week I like to address a rather sensitive topic for pious parents, hurting with rebellious kids.