Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Three Thoughts

TITLE: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - THREE THOUGHTS
SCRIPTURE: Romans 4:18
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 29 August 2012

"Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Romans 4:18)
MAIN POINT: Watching movies like the Dark Knight Rises can be downright depressing. Yet, for all the realities of life that they try to portray, there is none more striking than the presence of hope. [Beware, spoilers below.]

Yesterday, we celebrated our son's birthday in a way a teenager enjoys. We watched the latest Batman flick, famous for its superhero cult status, but infamous for the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado, last month at a movie premiere. It took a while for me to get over the link between the shootings there and the immense violence in the movie. For all the negative connotations and the bad news, there are some good themes to take away from the movie. The storyline is the usual initial happiness, followed by a downward despair toward the middle of the film. Following that, just as it seems that the worst is becoming worse, where the villains seem to be winning all the wars, there flickers a glimmer of hope amid the climate of despair.

I told my kids that there are at least five themes to learn from the movie. They said I reminded them of their English teacher who seems to see meaning in every kind of movie. I smiled. Maybe, that is the nature of my training, to be reflective and always trying to perceive some truth out of everyday life. For this week, I will try to piece together three major themes in the movie that I feel resonate strongly with my Christian faith.

A) Reality of Evil

The movie begins with widespread celebrations of heroes of Gotham City, who has played a large part in eradicating organized crime from the city. With media blaring away, and the accolades flowing down throughout for Harvey Dent, all things appear well on the surface. Unfortunately, Dent is not saintly at all, for his crimes have all been covered up, with the full knowledge of the Police Commissioner, James Gordon. Instead, Batman takes the fall, and retreats to his own private world. Like many instances in the world, beneath the layer of smiles and happy faces, belies pain and some kind of wrongdoing.

I remember a Police commercial that says: "Low crime does not mean no crime."

If there is one major theme the movie has, it is this. Evil is real.

The movie is dark, not just for the title but also for the general lighting throughout the movie. Batman's costume is dark. Catwoman's mask is black. Virtually the entire police force are trapped in a dark underground. The lighting is not that great, perhaps, to generate a sense of gloom and doom for the fictional Gotham City. As the evil Bane pounces on all the innocent people, and tries to instill a misguided sense of justice, the entire city is held at ransom. Even outside help like the military from the rest of the country has to play by the rules of Bane and his violent criminals.

Abraham has also encountered evil firsthand. Most notable is how he pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, on the basis of a few good men. Unfortunately, the evil of the two cities have turned out so bad, that God had no choice but to destroy the city. Remember how in Genesis 19, that evil threatens to invade the household of Abraham? For all the theory that Abraham argues with God, about justice and righteousness, Abraham has no clue about the reality of great evil. God has to intervene.

Theme: Seeing no evil does not mean there is no evil. 


B) Resurgence of Despair

I asked my kids about how they feel about the movie. One of them even gave a 2.5 stars out of 5! While they tell me that there is too much shooting, I feel that the dark theme in the movie is actually more depressing than their expectations of a superhero movie. In baseball, once we have three strikes, the batter is automatically called out. The downward spiral of defeat and despair does appear very depressing for most parts of the movie. We see how helpless Bruce Wayne has become, to see his billions disappear with just a theft of his fingerprints. We see how the precious technological gizmos Wayne Enterprises have developed, fall into the very hands of the enemies. We see how time and again, the catwoman betrays the trust of Bruce Wayne, the ridiculous pursuit of Batman at the expense of the obvious villains, and the non-stop victories of the invincible but despicable Bane. Even the name of the villain personifies pain. The women in the movie show more reasons not to trust people. See how time and again the catwoman steals, humiliates, and misleads the mighty batman. The proverbial stab in the back comes from none other than the woman Batman trusts most: Miranda Tate. Just when Batman has the upper hand on his archrival, Bane, along comes Tate hurting Batman not only with her dagger, but piercing his deepest emotions. The truth be told, that Miranda has been conspiring all along with Bane, to trick Wayne Enterprises into developing a thermonuclear device to blow up Gotham City.

Thinking of Abraham, many years have passed since the promise of God to make him a father of all nations. After barely surviving the horrible encounter with deranged men of Sodom and Gomorrah, he sees his wife nearly taken by kings of the foreign lands they enter into. He foolishly risks Sarah's life by pretending she is his sister (Genesis 20:2). Due to inner feud between Sarah and her maidservant, he is forced to send away Hagar and his descendent Ishmael. Moreover, he has to sacrifice Isaac, his only son! Instead of seeing God giving Abraham one son after the other, God is asking Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son. Hello? Did Abraham mishear anything?

Key Theme: Despair can be tormenting. For some, the saying "it will get worse before it gets better" will appear long and unending.

C) Resurrection of Hope

This is perhaps the biggest feeling I have, seeing the rising of Batman again, and the image of the Resurrection of Christ. When all seems lost, when everything appears headed for doom, suddenly there is help. Catwoman has a change of heart, and becomes a key ally. The inspector John Blake appears unscathed, and continues to be a force to be reckoned with despite him being ordinary and outnumbered. Of course, the bad guys do not get all the best stuff. Batman still has a few other special weapons hidden away from the sights of the enemies. What is most crucial is the renewed spirit to want to save the city rather than taking revenge. In many Rambo-style movies, we see the desire for revenge outweighs all other emotions. As anger turns to wrath, and fear into hatred, many of these heroes seem to develop a fighting evil with evil mentality. They attempt to respond with heavier artillery or more powerful weaponry.

As moviegoers watch Batman crawl and climb out of the pit, it is symbolic of hope resurrected. With the new-found spirit, and the overwhelming resolve not to let evil has its last say, Batman rises from the ashes of defeat, to save Gotham City. In response to Catwoman's plea for him to save his own skin, after all the nasty treatment inflicted on him, Batman refuses to give in to the temptation to flee. Instead, he is fixed on doing the right thing. He wants to rise again, for the sake of the city.

Abraham could have given up on waiting for God. Yet, he believes God. He offers his son Isaac up willingly at Mount Moriah. For that he has been credited for righteousness. Despite his wife's age, he continues to trust God to provide him offspring. The Apostle Paul calls Abraham as one who believes "against all hope." For Christians, the biggest hope is none other than the Resurrection of Christ. See how not just one, but all the disciples flee at the arrest of Jesus. See how everyone returns back to their normal lifestyles after the death of Jesus. See how surprised people become when they hear about the Resurrection of Jesus.

If only they had believed.

D) Hope Resurrected

I wonder how many of us actually believed that Batman can rise from the dead. Toward the middle of the movie, I must admit that the darkness seems most invincible. Even the mighty Batman has been badly beaten up by Bane, who defeats Batman with his bare hands. See how thousands of law enforcers are trapped, releasing lawlessness into the streets. I like the way Paul renders Abraham's faith.

"Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised." (Romans 4:20-21) 
We know that in the movies, the superhero will always win. What about life? Will we believe in our hearts that God will always win? Or are we more tempted to disbelieve in the light of hopelessness? In the aftermath of the terrible shooting in Aurora, the theatre management gives out a one-statement survey for their community.

"As Aurora moves forward after the tragedy of July 20, it is our hope that the entire community will participate and benefit from the citywide healing process. Many people have asked about the future of Aurora's Century 16 theater. We want to know your thoughts. Please take a few minutes to tell us your thoughts. These comments will be shared with Cinemark for consideration in their decision making process."

The way that they put the words, "it is our hope" seems rather ambivalent. It appears distant and uncertain. For us as Christians, hope is not just wishful desires, but a reality that is anchored on the resurrection of Christ. As Jesus appears to the disciples, he does not simply ask us to hope. He calls us to declare the good news. He calls us to make disciples of all nations. He calls us to receive power from above, and to begin witnessing to the ends of the earth. Jesus is the personification of True Hope. He is not the dark knight but the Bright Shining Morning Star.


THOUGHT: "God is the only one who can make the valley of trouble a door of hope." (Catherine Marshall)

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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, August 22, 2012

Going to Church?

TITLE: GOING TO CHURCH?
SCRIPTURE: 1 Peter 2:4-5
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 22 August 2012
"As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:4-5)
MAIN POINT: What does it mean to "go to church?" It's not buildings. It's people. Maybe, it is time we stop using the words, "going to church." Instead, use . . . . . .

One of my earliest encounters with Church is at a youth group meeting. Having ventured forward during an evangelistic rally, I remember the evangelist laying hands on me. Strange spells surround me after that. I do not recall all the details of that event, but I remember I wanted to just lay myself down on the grass then. After that, I feel I have confessed Jesus. I am a believer. Dutifully, the next step is Church. That youth group meeting happens to be my first prolonged participation at any Christian based gathering within the compounds of a church building. Despite my best efforts, I have problems fitting in. The teacher has problems trying to coax me in. The group has problems on how to receive an unfamiliar newbie into a familiar group environment. Going to Church is easy. Fitting in is not. After the first meeting, I never went back. Nobody followed up. No one cared. I didn't care too.

Church as Building?
My next church happens to be a pentecostal church. Belonging to the Assembly of God denomination, it is warm and welcoming. Other than the loud singing and the frequent breaking out into strange tongues, this church seems ok. More importantly, even if I cannot fit into the AOG Church programs, I can certainly fit into my friends' lunch gatherings. My early years in Church has been largely sustained by good friends who stayed with me, traveled, with me, and encouraged me on the discipline of attending a Church weekly. Without their initial years of companionship, I seriously doubt my ability to go to church on my own.

A) Why Go To Church?

The conventional wisdom is that regular church going is a sign that I am NOT a nominal Christian. Whether I read the Bible daily, pray twice a day, or give thanks at each meal, people generally do not care. Skip Church once or twice in a row, and if you are a leader, the feathers of concern will have been ruffled. No amount of private spirituality can overcome the perceptions about one's public church-going track record. Simply put, the perceptions are pretty straightforward. If you go to Church, you are deemed fine and has shown proof you are on your way to heaven. If you stop going to Church, you have problems, and you are on your way to being asked: "Are you truly saved?"

These statements are naive, but mind you, quite a number of people actually believes them. Even if they do not spell it out in words, you can sense it out in actions like furrowed brows or concerned tones. It is a legitimate concern that not all who go to church are saved. Likewise, not all who do not go to church are not saved. It comes back to the basic question of: Do you know Jesus?

B) Three Problems with the Phrase "Going to Church"

I have three concerns about these three words, "going to church." Firstly, it makes church look like a building or an institution. From mainline denominations to megachurches, small assemblies to house churches, it requires a place before the word 'church' can be comfortably used. My question: Is Church a building? Didn't the Apostle Peter call church as "living stones?" rather than bricks and mortar? From Scriptures, it is clear that church is not made of physical stones but of people. The popular chorus says it well.
"For He does not dwell in buildings made of stone
He dwells within the hearts of men alone"

Secondly, in a need-obsessed society, the three words make church look like going someplace to have our needs met. It makes Church look like a needs-fulfillment agency. It paints a deceptive picture that going to Church automatically meets our needs. In other words, we go to church in order for our needs to be met. If our needs are not met, we leave for another church that WILL! I have been in church groups long enough to hear all kinds of reasons why people leave their existing church.

  • "I am leaving for another church because this church does not meet my needs."
  • "The other church's children's program is better, that is why I am going there."
  • "The other church has better preaching."
  • "This church does not meet my needs or my family's needs."

The last example is perhaps one of the biggest indictment on how the world has indoctrinated us with our own self-importance. For example, TV commercials have given us a false belief that the most important person is us. We have a right to get this new car. We deserve a new hairdo. We are so important that we need this new shirt or dress. With the overwhelming focus on self-need, is that any surprise why we have more impatient drivers, more rude consumers, and more demanding customers? The culture of entitlement is not just limited to kids or young people. The culture of entitlement is everywhere. The critical question we need to ask is this: If everyone who goes to church are waiting for spiritual handouts, who does the giving? Who does the handing out? In my years of attending church, I do not recall myself even having my "needs met." It is absurd just to think that the primary purpose of Church is to meet needs. Perhaps, I have been serving a lot that that question has often not been asked in the first place.

Thirdly, the phrase "I am going to Church" smacks of veiled individualism. One of my favourite theologians is Simon Chan, a professor from the Pentecostal denomination. I was his teaching assistant back in 2005 when he taught a course at Regent College. He is highly critical of the individualized mindsets of the modern church goer. In his paper, he minces no words when he critiques the feel-good mentality. The things he wrote about the Pentecostal community can also be application to many others. He observes:

A basic problem in Pentecostalism is that it is hardly aware of this communal context of Spirit baptism. The Pentecostal reality has tended to be understood as individualized experiences. My relationship with God is primary, while my relationship with others is secondary. But the truth of the matter is that we cannot conceive of fellowship with God apart from fellowship in God through the Spirit. There is no question of priority.
(Simon Chan, "Mother Church: Toward a Pentecostal Ecclesiology" in PNEUMA The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 22, No 2 (Fall 2000), 180)
Indeed, that is so true for other denominations and Christian groups as well. When we come to God thinking that our own relationship is primary, we have failed to understand what church is all about. Church is not about the miserable I, Me, or Myself. Church is a community of believers, humbled that they are worthy even to serve one another. I love this section from the Anglican Book of Prayer often said prior to Communion.

"We do not come to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name."
This is the spirit of church going. For me, going to Church has got nothing to do with coming in the name of self, but everything to do with coming together as a forgiven people in the name of Jesus Christ. We need grace, not goods. We seek God not to meet our self-needs, but to ask how we can avail ourselves to meet the needs of God's people together. It is not a "church out there" waiting for us to come. It is a "people becoming church" gradually taking shape as individual people deny their self-seeking ways, take up the cross of service, and following Jesus.

C) Becoming Church

Church as Living Stones
(Credit: http://www.ourladyofrefuge.org)
Instead of the three misused and misunderstood phrase "Going to Church," I strongly recommend a two-word replacement: "Becoming Church." In the first epistle of Peter, we all learn to build the church with us as primary living stones that stand on the foundation of Christ. Church is not a building but is a community being built up, with us as human living stones. We are in the process of becoming. We are in the process of being formed. We are being shaped in Christ to become the Church God has called us to be. We are "being built into a spiritual house." Church is not a completed building program but a work in progress. Instead of "Going to Church," I prefer "Becoming Church" because:
  • "Becoming Church" involves us as active participants, a living organism instead of dead bricks.
  • "Becoming Church" is about becoming more the bride of Christ, and not about meeting needs.
  • "Becoming Church" is about community building, rather than individual ego-boosting.
  • "Becoming Church" is a growth-in-progress, rather than a finished product.
How do we know we are on the way to become Church? When we serve God together as members of the holy priesthood, (priesthood of all believers). When we offer spiritual sacrifices to God through our personal giving, worship, and service. When we become the people of God that God has called us to become.

One more thing.  The end of 1 Peter 2:5 shows us the purpose of becoming Church. The words, "offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" indicates one thing: Worship. Maybe, the best words to replace "going to church" is this: I am going to worship God together with my brothers and sisters in Church. Is that a mouthful? Try this. "I'm worshiping with God's people in Church."


THOUGHT: "Hypocrites in the Church? Yes, and in the lodge and at the home. Don't hunt through the Church for a hypocrite. Go home and look in the mirror. Hypocrites? Yes. See that you make the number one less." (Billy Sunday)


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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, August 15, 2012

Marriage Therapies Don't Work. Do They?

TITLE: MARRIAGE THERAPIES DON'T WORK. DO THEY?
SCRIPTURE: Song of Songs 4:1
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 15 August 2012

"How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are behind your veil are doves. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead." (Song of Solomon 4:1)

"In happy marriages partners incorporate each other's goals
into their concept of what their marriage is about. (John Gottman)
Two things struck me last week. As I was preparing for my weekly sermon, I came across this statement by Dr John Gottman, author of the bestselling book on marriage. He decries the ineffectiveness of many marriage manuals by saying, "most marriage therapy fails." He calls the diagnostic of "communications" as the biggest myth in marriage counseling. He even disses the role of conflict management, saying that techniques such as "active listening" are useless.

I find myself rolling my eyes somewhat. Great.

Just because you think your technique works, does not mean you can downplay other types of marital counsel. Then, after my sermon, I hear a comment from a wise individual, who also says something quite similar to Gottman. I start to wonder why. Are marriage books useless?

A) The Efficacies of Marital Therapy

Admittedly, advice about marriage is everywhere. Go to any library, you can find whole sections devoted to marriage, love, and relationships. Seminars on marriages are well attended. Talks are frequent. Every year, books about marriage roll off the press. Newspapers and the mass media continue to garner high readership just by talking about all things marriage. People blog about it. Authors write it. Publishers print it. Readers lap it all up. Marriage gurus are also everywhere. As a pastor, I can say that marriage remains the single most popular topic one can ever talk about. People never seem to get tired of hearing it. Just within the span of 12 months, I have reviewed three new books on marriage, written from a Christian perspective. You can read about them here.

After studying more than 650 couples, many of them having gone through marital therapy sessions, John Gottman is convinced that couples are too imperfect, making them unable to execute the marital advice well enough. He believes that "successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed." Say it all you want, for if it only addresses the symptoms, one can never resolve anything, at least for the long term.

I concur. Relationships are more often slow growth types rather than quick fix therapies. That is why I like the  use of the garden as a marriage metaphor. Dr H. Wallace Goddard and James P. Marshall sees a marriage relationships as a garden that needs to be cultivated. There is no point trying to get rid of weeds well. One needs to learn to follow through with good planting and growing good fruit. That is, to cultivate the positive parts of each other more. More importantly, the two gardeners have to be both husband and wife.

B) In Defense of Marriage Resources

I am for one, unwilling to cast aside marriage manuals without first understanding what we are throwing away. While I agree with John Gottman about the lack of effectiveness in many marriage therapy, and the statement by my church member about how "useless" self-help marriage books are, I have three reasons why we need to remain open. Firstly, I think the key issue lies not in the therapies or the books. It lies with understanding one's own contexts first. A good marriage resource will always aim to help us understand ourselves. Without understanding the various nuances of our own marriages, or our spouses, it is hard to know what resources work best for us. It is like going to a doctor, and without much investigation or diagnosis, we ask the doctor to tell us what is wrong with us. We insist that the doctor, being a doctor, tell us exactly what is wrong with us, what prescription we need, and how soon can we be cured. If we apply such an attitude toward any marriage resource, we are bound to be disappointed.

The second reason why I want to defend marriage books and therapies is because they open up avenues for learning. Having something is better than nothing. If a marriage is crumbling, at least, a therapy session can give each other a sense of hope. Whether the therapy cures the relationship or not is besides the point. At least, couples can start agreeing on something. Maybe, they may even be united in their opinions about the marriage counselling. Thirdly, for people who have come all the way to the point of saying that "self-help marriage books do not work," do not forget the road they have travelled to get to where they are. Will they have come to the same conclusion without having gone through 'failed programs' in the first place? I am reminded of the great inventor, Thomas Edison, who failed 1000 times before inventing the light bulb. When asked about how he feels about the 1000 failures, his reply is simply:
"I have learned 1000 ways how NOT to do it."

I think it can apply to marriage counselling as well.

C) Good Marriage Resources

Good marriage resources have three core elements. It needs to be practical. It needs to be proven sound and theologically grounded. It needs to be life giving and hope generating.

In my theological training, marriage counselling is one of the key areas students have to be equipped in. I went through many hours of tests, research, and training. One such training is the PREPARE/ENRICH program. This requires a facilitator to guide and to accurately diagnose the conditions of the marriage. It is practical because of its clear and guided questionnaire for couples. There are different categories of needs according to the phase of marriage, young or old. Backed by scientific research and real life data, it gives couples an objective look at their marital condition. For those of us with a scientific mind, we will be assured that the test questions and scores are based on real life references and data.

Another resource that we can look at will be either pastoral counselling or couple mentoring. For many couples, one of the best resources is to talk with their pastors who know them. Pastors see their members every week. They are not in the ministry for the money, unlike some well paid marriage therapists. Moreover, pastors do get to see the ups and downs that couples go through. Couple counselling is also increasingly popular as it enables couples to mentor one another from both male and female perspectives. I know of respected elderly couple who makes excellent hearers and advisers to struggling marriages.

Finally, good marriage books are many. We just need to know where to look. I have four recommendations for now. The first is John Gottman's "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." It is based on two premises. The first is that couples must see each other as best friends. The second is to create strong shared meaning in their marriages, through seven principles. The second book is Matthew Kelly's "The Seven Levels of Intimacy." Highly practical, it maps out seven levels for couples to know where to begin, and to understand the process in moving from one level to the next. The third book is Tim Keller's excellent "The Meaning of Marriage." It is strong in recognizing present limitations and enlarging future aspirations. The fourth book is a recent publication called, "Renovating Your Marriage Room by Room." This book shows couples the need to look at all aspects of their marriage through regular renovation. I like the metaphor of rooms within a house. It helps keep a marriage relationship fresh, and is a good reminder of how easy it is for couples to take each other for granted.

D) Love and Romance: Solomon's Style

One of the nicest things couples can ever say to each other is: "If I were to go back in time, I will choose to marry you again, and again, and again." This is romantic steroid that lasts. Just make sure that is really what you truly feel. One of the most beautiful books of the Bible is the Song of Songs. Written by Solomon in poetry form, we read pages and pages of sensuous and erotic language that can make the modern reader feel uncomfortable. Very few preachers preach on this text. In all the weddings I have attended, I can only remember one sermon that is based on this book.

Looking at the way the man shows his love to the woman, I see not only intimacy but the attention to details. There are lots of images used to describe how one feels for the other. In Song of Songs 4:1, the phrase "How beautiful!" gets repeated. The man then goes on to describe the eyes, the hair, followed by teeth, lips, mouth, the neck, the temple. Lovers leave no stones unturned in their admiration for the other. With such romantic gestures, how can women not be attracted to Solomon! Solomon is able to connect what he knows from the world, and describes his beloved.

The key point is this. When we are in love, we are more mindful of the beautiful parts of the person we love. Imperfections are nothing, when we see with eyes of perfection.

Let me close with this great piece of advice from Arielle Ford.

"Early on in our relationship we decided that our union would be our number one priority. We promised each other that our choices would be based not on what Arielle wanted, or on what Brian wanted, but on what was ultimately best for our relationship." (Arielle Ford, Wabi Sabi Love, New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012, p14)

Indeed. Many of us tend to forget that marriage is not about us. It is about the union. It is about letting God help us invest in a joint marriage account. Both husbands and wives make constant deposits to this joint account all the time. Even when either makes a withdrawal, there is a constant desire to want to put back into the account lovingly and sacrificially.

THOUGHT: "There's a good reason we compare marriage to a garden. A good marriage is as lush, rich, and satisfying as a great garden. But neither the good marriage nor the great garden happens without wise and consistent effort. Marriage, like a garden, can be renewing and life sustaining. Yet, neither will happen by accident." (H. Wallace Goddard and James P. Marshall, The Marriage Garden, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010, 2)


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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.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Is God Cruel and Unjust?

TITLE: IS GOD CRUEL AND UNJUST?
SCRIPTURE: Deuteronomy 12:2-3
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 10 August 2012
“You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods and obliterate their name from that place." (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
MAIN GIST: The impression of a cruel and unjust God in the Old Testament continues to linger in the minds of modern people, including Christians. One common predicament is how can we reconcile a God of love with a God who asks Israel to massacre huge populations? On the one hand, we are sympathetic to lives being taken. On the other hand, what if the target concerned is beyond hope, but utterly and relentlessly evil to the core?

Old Testament style killings
(Credit: Patheos.com)
Last weekend, my Church were given an exceptional biblical buffet meal. The main dish was the Book of Deuteronomy. For me, it was a Bible exposition at its best. Given by Dr Bruce Waltke, a highly esteemed and immensely respected giant of biblical studies and Old Testament, we were given new eyes to read Deuteronomy. Held at Squamish, on top of the beautiful mountains of British Columbia, the whole Church spent an entire weekend traveling there for a time of fellowship and learning, and of course eating! For me personally, the food on the buffet table is nothing compared to the spiritual food that was served. I have attended many Bible camps and Church retreats, but none of them come close with regards to the level of scholarship and biblical teaching that Waltke has given us. Before the weekend retreat (called the Summer Conference in my Church), many of us were concerned that the highly esteemed Dr Waltke will be speaking 'above our heads.' In fact, we were worried that there will not be enough time to cover the entire 34 chapters of the Old Testament book.  Even the prepared notes we were given was more than 50 pages! Too difficult? We were wrong. Instead of complex theological terms, Waltke speaks and explains in layman terms. Instead of leaving us guessing what each word means, Waltke gently defines and clarifies the terms he uses. Instead of rushing to complete all 34 chapters page by page, Waltke goes on a pace to ensure that we learn the fundamentals of reading Deuteronomy. If there is one thing I remember most, it will be the essence of the laws of Deuteronomy: God values human life.

Why is God calling for "Zero tolerance?"
(For more, go to Quickview Bible here)
Rather than trying to cram everything into one article, this week, I want to concentrate on just one area: Is God unjust when He commands Israel to annihilate the Canaanites? Why is God exercising zero tolerance when it comes to dealing with the idolaters? Perhaps, the question is to ask: "What do we do with people that is utterly evil to the core?"

A) The Context

One reason why people find it hard to read (or accept!) the Old Testament is because of the gore and blood shed. Making it worse, it seems like Israel when they destroyed their enemies, are given the mandate to do exactly that. Such commands make many Christians shudder and wonder if the God of the New Testament, the God of love, is the same as the God of the Old Testament?
  • If God is love, why does God command Israel to annihilate whole populations in the foreign territories?
  • If God is love, why does He sanction killings?
  • As killing is prohibited in the Ten Commandments, why did God ask Israel to kill their enemies?
B) Who are the Canaanites?

Dr Waltke affirms that the main purpose of the laws in the Book of Deuteronomy is about preserving the sanctity and dignity of life. As first look, it seems like destroying Canaan completely is a complete reversal on that. Not so fast. What if the long-term purpose requires short-term actions? What if a failure to address evil head on is worse than ignoring the evil happening before us? Who are the Canaanites and why are they so evil? Dr William F. Albright explains the deteriorated state of Canaanite society at that time.
"With might she hewed down the people of the cities, she smote the folk of the seacoast, she slew the men of the sunrise (east). After filling her [Anat, Baal's mother] temple with men, she barred the gates so that none might escape, after which 'she hurled chairs at the youths, tables at the warriors, footstools at the men of might.' The blood was so deep that she waded in it up to her knees - nay, up to her neck. Under her feet were human heads, above her human hands flew like locusts. In her sensuous delight she decorated herself with suspended heads, while she attached hands to her girdle. Her joy at the butchery is described in even more sadistic language: 'Her liver swelled with laughter, her heart was full of joy, the liver of Anath (was full of) exultation.' Afterwards Anath 'was satisfied' and washed her hands in human gore before proceeding to other occupations."  (William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006, 76-77)

In my reflection, I wrote, "Of course, we can all preach love and goodwill to the Canaanites at that time. The question is, will they have listened? Or before we even finish saying 'L.O.V,' heads will already have been lobbed off. Try preaching love and goodwill to the piranhas when you are in waters full of them." In other words, if Israel do not destroy them, the Canaanites will ultimately destroy Israel, the world, and finally, themselves.

Other clues of how the Canaanites lived can be found in Leviticus 18. Leviticus 18:6-19 is an extensive series of warnings against "uncovering nakedness." The LORD gives clear warnings to Israel not to commit incest among own family members. The text meticulously lists the different women that are to be untouched. There are to be no sexual involvement with one's mother or father, one's sisters, or in laws, one's cousins, one's blood relations, etc. There are to be sexual proprietary throughout. It warns against adultery. It warns against sacrificing children to idols (Lev 18:21). It warns against same-sex activities (Lev 18:22). It prohibits sex with animals (Lev 18:23). All of these things are common activities among the Canaanites!

C) What About Killing?

This is a tricky area. Dr Waltke shows us that one reason why many modern readers are stumped is because the English language for the word "kill" is grossly restricted. In the Hebrew, there are at least 12 different words that can be used for "kill." In Deuteronomy, the commandment not to kill is the word "ratsach." It is to be understood as an intentional act of "murder." This contrasts with unintentional killing (nakah) which is also referred to as "manslaughter." Again, Hebrew language is nuanced but not as clear cut as what modern scientific minds desire. Context is key to understanding the use of the terms. That is why BOTH language and the context need to be considered whenever we study biblical texts.

“Now this is the case of the manslayer (ratsach) who may flee there and live: when he kills (nakah) his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously— as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live; " (Deuteronomy 19:4-5)

The point is this. Every act of killing is not the same. The intentions are different. The instruments and the manner are different. The life that is taken is equally important as the life taking it. In other words, prohibiting killing is not simply to preserve the life of the victims or the persons wielding the axe. It is to maintain a just society that treats life with dignity. It is to cultivate in Israel the sacred human being made in the image of God. Anything that tarnishes this image and causes harm, needs to be dealt with. Not surprisingly, the multiple cities of refuge and the different words used to describe killing shows a loving and compassionate God who understands the many facets of life and death. The gods of idolatry lead people to death. Only the God of Israel leads people to life.

D) Protecting Lives

In Proverbs 2, we read about a kind of person whose path leads not to life but death.

 "For her house sinks down to death And her tracks lead to the dead;" (Proverbs 2:18) 

Do we want to deal with people like this? Remember what Jesus says about the one who stumbles the little ones?

 “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble." (Luke 17:2)
The punishment is severe if one is foolish for self. The punishment is even more severe if one's foolishness leads others to sin and death. This is where Israel is called to obey God, and to see from God's perspectives. The whole book of Deuteronomy is designed to preserve lives not just for the present but for the future. One more thing. Due to the naivete among many Israelites at that time, they need the laws to be written clearly, with instructions not to be defiled with the idolaters of the land. One way to understand the Old Testament is to always compare and interpret it with the New Testament, especially Jesus' interpretation of the Torah. One example is this.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)

Jesus has not only affirmed the Old Testament, He has upped the standard that murder is not just the act. It is the premeditation before the act. So, is God cruel and unjust to order the execution of the Canaanites? No. God has a reason. In fact, for those of us who thinks that God is cruel through Israel, modern equivalent of massacre is worse.
  • Between 1975-1979, more than 2 million people were killed in Cambodia (Killing fields);
  • In 1994 in Rwanda, 800,000 Hutus were murdered in cold blood;
  • In 1995 in Bosnia, more than 8000 Muslims were killed;
  • In China, the cultural revolution, more than 78 million people were murdered.
What about Canaan? The data is hard to find, but even the largest estimated Canaanite population during the ancient times, is no where close to the numbers in China's cultural revolution!

Interestingly, the new atheists like Richard Dawkins are quick to point a finger at the God of the Old Testament, and fails to attack the same degree the same kinds of massacres that are based on atheistic grounds, like China and Cambodia! Why the double standard? 

E) Summary

Yes, God is a God of love. He is also a God of justice. There is no love if justice is not done. Likewise, justice without love is cold and hard. Only Jesus personifies love and justice. He loves us to come down to earth. He maintains justice by becoming the lamb to be punished for our own sins. He of all people will be most hurt when human beings hurt one another. I prefer to see the Canaanite killings in the Old Testament more as capital punishment and preserving Israel's future of the sake of the rest of the world, instead of genocide. I am doubtful that the Old Testament style killings will be repeated in the future. What I am more fearful about is what idolatry will lead human beings to do cruel things to one another. If that happens, perhaps, many of us will then be praying that God will quickly impose Canaanite style capital punishment. God does not take sin lightly. Neither does He take the punishment of people that He loves lightly. I believe each time a life is taken, the One who is most grieved is God Himself.

THOUGHT: "It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui." (Helen Keller)


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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.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Humble Listening

TITLE: HUMBLE LISTENING
SCRIPTURE: James 1:19-21
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 2 August 2012
"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." (James 1:19-21)
MAIN POINT: The debate on homosexual unions or marriages continue to create huge reactions from many parties. In this article, I reflect on why people are so easily heated in their discussions.

(Credit: Baptist Press)
This is the third week of the Chik-Fil-A controversy. All over the Internet, there has been a uproar over the words of the President of a fast food restaurant, Chik-fil-A. On July 16th, 2012, in an interview with the Baptist Press, Dan Cathy is reported to have said:

"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. 
"We operate as a family business ... our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that," Cathy emphasized.

"We intend to stay the course," he said. "We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles."

The article has also been given a provocative title, "Guilty as Charged." The big subject is marriage, increasingly connected to gay marriage as well. Any mention of this subject will immediately cause individuals to draw the line. People are up in arms, with views both for and against Dan Cathy and Chik-Fil-A. For some, it means loading their verbal cannons or intellectual armoury to aim at anyone opposed to their personal views. When tempers are charged up, any reason is good enough to be used as bullets or attacks on the opposition. Besides stoking controversy, anything about "gay marriage" is poised to be divisive. Politicians have weighed in with their opinions, even suggesting that the restaurant be denied permits to open restaurants. Such a move is a blatant discrimination against the freedom of speech and religion. Yet, I notice that the arguments for/against the stand of Dan Cathy arise mostly out of emotional outbursts. Just take a look at any side, you will see passionate display of support for/against their viewpoints. This is not simply about Christians vs non-Christians. Even among Christians, the issue has split churches. In every single denomination, this one single issue of homosexuality has led to painful separations of the people of God. Both sides claim they have biblical support. Both sides claim their rights to free speech and the right to exist as they are. Of course, in many cases, both sides will claim to one another that no one has a right to preach to them, or to tell them how and how not to live. Even theological seminaries are divided, or at least faculties among them having diverse opinions about the homosexual issue.

I want to take this opportunity to do some humble listening. I use the following questions to guide the discussion. Why are the reactions to a personal statement of faith so sensitive to public ears? What makes a simple statement of biblical faith so repugnant in the eyes of many in the public?

A) No Longer Just Personal or Private

The culture has shifted. Just a few decades ago, it is completely normal for Cathy to say what he said, and people just accepted his words as his personal opinion. After all, Chik-Fil-A is a privately held company. Moreover, he expresses his opinions not on some major national news network like ABC, CNN, or FOXNews, but on a Christian news press. Yet, the naysayers are plenty. Why is that so?

It used to be the case where if anyone wants a copy of a publication, a subscription is needed. Then there is a wait time for the printed material to arrive in the mail. All of these can take weeks. By then, the main views and opinions will be from experienced reporters or readers who have early releases of these publications. The time gap gives people a chance to slowly read and think through the implications of the reports.

The Internet has changed all that. Whatever that has been reported are no longer just private to a local concern. It has become public on a global scale. News are no longer limited to printed paper on slow mail. It travels at electronic speed, and is quickly available on many modern electronic readers like iPads, smartphones, and computers.

B) Why the Intense Response from Both Sides?

When I read about the rather ridiculous calls for boycott or support for the restaurant, and the way that politicians have tried to garner majority support for themselves, I cannot help but ask why the heightened passions. Why is this issue so controversial? In a thoughtful article, the extremely popular blogger, Rachel Held Evans has made a strong case for both sides, with her words, "I get it. I really do."

Why are groups so ready to boycott Chik-Fil-A over Dan Cathy's words? Similarly, why are some Christians so pumped up to rally their faithfuls to eat more chicken from Chik-Fil-A? Why the intense responses from both sides? This again points to a case of a divided Christian public. I know of many Christians who are ready to disagree in public with their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, over this single issue. I am on some closed discussion groups that talk passionately in terms both pros and cons for BOTH sides. Mind you, they can get ugly, even among well meaning Christians.

The problem balloons with some people who make statements like, "There is no such thing as right or wrong." If that is true, then how do we explain the intensity? Surely, these people, whatever the camp, firmly believe that they are right. Otherwise, why are they using words and emotions with such high levels of passion?

C) We Are Not Listening Enough

The words from Paul says it clearly. "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." Instead, some of the Youtube videos and social media postings seem to suggest the reverse. Many are quick to become angry, fast in their speaking and immediate rebuttals, and painfully slow in listening. In fact, many of us are guilty of only listening to what we WANT to listen. This stance puts us dangerously in a position of putting words in the mouths of others. By stating our own views too quickly, are we loving another person when we fail to listen, to paraphrase, or to clarify why they say what they said?

I feel sad. We have failed to be slow to speak. We are guilty of being too ready to cast the first stone. We are not listening enough.

D) We Are Not Humble Enough

It is no secret that all of us have a right to our own opinions. It is also public knowledge that we are not to impose our views on others. Sadly, errors have been committed on both sides not only with regards to a pathetic lack of listening, we have judged one another and misjudged the others far more readily and irresponsibly. For all our "right words" or "right arguments," there is no excuse for a "wronged brother/sister in Christ." We can feel as if we have all the right arguments, and yet be utterly wrong in our approach. We can claim to be speaking out in truth and in love, but the fact is, our passionate responses only reveal how bigoted we ourselves are. When we are too quick to shoot off the hip, we similarly shut down others unwittingly. We give ourselves an authority certificate, issued personally, to be used as legitimate weaponry against others. How foolish we are to do that.

We are not humble enough. If if doubt, try this quick test. When you find your tempers inside you rise, just ask: "Why are you so quick to become angry?" Perhaps, that is a good test of pride and how humble you are. "Guilty as charged" is not just Dan Cathy's confession. It is ours too.

E)  We Need More Humble Listening

For all the naysayers, we can still be humble enough to listen not to the angry words at the surface, but the hurting person under the surface. Let me suggest learning to listen in the following way. Behind every word and every sentence, there is a person that God loves. The position they hold is secondary. The person they are, is primary. Listen not only to what they say, but be sensitive to what they are not saying. Behind each angry word, they can very well be a hurt past, or a painful experience. Behind each point made from either side, there is a reason we need to appreciate, and to understand. If we fail to understand why the person has said what he has said, we have no right to let our emotions rise to the next level.

Here is my tip on humble listening.

  1. H - Hearing.
    When we listen, do not just listen to the words, but sense the underlying emotions and circumstances the person is in. It has been said that "Everyone hears what you say. Friends listen to what you say. Best friends listen to what you don't say." We need to hear people out carefully, even if it means at the cost of our views not getting heard.
  2. U - Understand
    Have we practised trying to understand others more, before we speak? Carl Jung has said, "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." Perhaps, we all need to learn to understand better, including understanding ourselves first.
  3. M - Mull
    Take time to mull over the words you hear. Do not be too quick to judge what you hear or what people say. Take time. Give people space to express themselves. Perhaps, after mulling, we will be less emotional about ourselves, but more open to understand and to constructively engage one another.
  4. B - Breathe
    Breathe in slowly and intentionally. When we take quick breaths, we pent up emotions and allow angry emotions to accumulate. Manage your breathing. Smell the flowers. Take a short walk.
  5. L - Learn
    One common reaction is that people are more ready to "teach others" instead of "learning from others." What if we all tell ourselves not to assume we already know, but put ourselves in a position to learn from what we hear?
  6. E - Empathize
    Behind every opinion is a person. Learn to empathize with the person you are hearing, especially the one you seem to be "strongly against." 
Let me close with two stories from the desert fathers tradition. In the first story, the early century monk, Abba Isidore was once asked about why demons are so afraid of him. He replied: "Ever since I became a monk I have tried never to let anger rise as far as my mouth." 


The second story is about a conversation between two desert monks, Abba Joseph and Abba Nisteros. Abba Joseph asked Abba Nisteros, "What should I do about my tongue, for I cannot control it?" Abba Nisteros then replied, "When you speak, do you find peace?. . . If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent, and when a conversation takes place, prefer to listen rather to talk."

Let not anger rise too quickly. Instead be quick to give listening a VIP seat. Then let "slow to speak"occupy the front seats. Finally, tell "anger" that you have no more tickets for your personal theatre.


THOUGHT: Being humble is not simply thinking more of others and less of ourselves. It is thinking lovingly about others, and appropriately about ourselves. This we do with being mindful of Christ, always.


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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