Friday, March 29, 2013

Were You There? (A Good Friday Meditation)

TITLE: WERE YOU THERE?
SCRIPTURE: Luke 23:33-34
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 29 March 2013

32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:32-34)
TV Commercials are full of special sales, displaying and publicizing their Easter bunnies and the chocolate eggs. Community centers (and even Churches) put the play and fun into special Easter egg hunts and children's events to simply have a good time. Many around the world are more than happy to have a long weekend, so that they can take a break from work and routine. I ask myself, "What is so good about Good Friday?"

Is it the extra holiday we can get? Is it about the resurrection of Christ? Is it about fun jumping with the bunnies, hunting the hidden eggs, and gobbling up all the candies we can find? Certainly not. Just like Jesus who needs to suffer and crucified before he can rise from the dead, we cannot fast-forward the painful events leading up to "Good Friday" and replace them with happy and joyous celebration of Easter Sunday. Just like there is not much meaning in simply watching the last half hour of any movie, we cannot skip Good Friday and go straight to Easter Sunday. For the road to Easter must go through Good Friday. There is no short cut. There is no quick fix. For if Christ has not died, how can he rise again from the dead?

A) What's So 'Good' About Good Friday?

If you have seen the movie, the Passion of the Cross, there is little that is 'good' when you see blood and gore, sweat and tears, whippings and tormenting, suffering and pain, all inflicted upon a totally innocent man. The man is good, but the punishment is cruel. How can we say that it is good?

We see how Jesus got betrayed by Judas Iscariot, a disciple trusted with financial matters. We note how disappointed Jesus had been as he looks at the disciples who slept as he prayed, ran away as he got arrested, and retreated back to their former occupations when he died. Nearly everyone doubted what he had said. The disciples, the women, and literally everyone, lived on as if what Jesus had prophesied, were mere tales, not reality.

Can we really say that it is "good?" Scotty Smith, founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, describes this accurately in his prayer.
"I've always felt conflicted about calling the day of your crucifixion 'good.' It seems quite a bit insensitive and self-serving. That there had to be a day when you, the God who made us for yourself, would be made sin for us is no good at all." (Scotty Smith, Everyday Prayers, Baker Books, 2011, p110)

Perhaps, there is another way to look at it. Instead of seeing it as "insensitive and self-serving," although confession is a good thing already, we can look at the goodness of self-sacrifice, how Jesus exemplifies humility and innocence, purpose amid the pain, endurance all because he seeks to obey God the Father's will. Good Friday is good not because of good feelings or worldly celebrating. It is good simply because it is a complete act of obedience to God the Father. It is good because Jesus considers his own life nothing to be gained, and everything to lose. In doing so, he has saved the whole world, and at the cross, he has completed the race, fought the good fight, and kept the faith. For the road to Easter Sunday must pass through Good Friday.

B) The Road to Easter

One hymn that has often captivated my attention is this: "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" It comes in three stanzas that describe the crucifixion, the death, and the burying.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb? Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
You can watch the moving rendition here.

The words of the hymn describe very aptly the whole mood of Good Friday. It is a negro spiritual with three simple stanzas, each describing and helping people remember the excruciating pain and suffering of our Lord.  It causes us to wonder at the amazing love of God. It makes us pause as we are invited back to the last moments as Jesus breathes his last. Slowly, surely, and soberly, we let the words grip our hearts, and our hearts grab upon emotions evoked as we ponder at the cross of Christ. From crucifixion to the cruel nails; from the bleeding to the dying; and from the dying to the burying; the world pauses as Good Friday approaches. I like for us today to ponder upon this: "The Road to Easter Must Go Through Good Friday."

(From: NIV Quick View Bible)
C) Three Thoughts for Good Friday

Let me offer three thoughts for Good Friday. Firstly, it is a Friday, just before the day of the Jewish Sabbath.   It is a remarkable look back at the creation week, where God rested after all the work have been done in the past six days. Just like the seventh day completes the entire work of creation, Good Friday completes the task of Jesus, as we remember Jesus emphatically saying in John 19:30 that, "It is finished." All the work, and all the ministry, culminates in this one historical event, the Cross of Christ. It is the Cross of Christ that finishes the necessary work of saving the world from sin. At the cross, Jesus paid it all. At the cross, Jesus carried all the burdens of the world. At the cross, Jesus offered forgiveness for the world, for all the wrongs the world had committed in thought, word, or deed. For it is on Good Friday, Jesus rested completely, for his work on earth has been done.

Secondly, the old rugged cross represents the centrality of the gospel of Christ. When we celebrate something, we need to ask ourselves what are we celebrating from? As we think about Resurrection Sunday, we ask ourselves what is Christ rising from? When we think about victory, we need to remind ourselves what we are winning from? Without Good Friday, there is no meaning in Easter Sunday. The late John Stott has written passionately about the three central things accomplished at the cross, namely, to save sinners, to reveal God, and to conquer evil. In one sweep, all three things are accomplished to perfection and to God's complete satisfaction. Stott also notes that the Acts of the Apostles are less about the resurrection of Christ, but more on the centrality of the cross of Christ. From Peter to John, Stephen to Paul, it is the cross that gives the early disciples the power and the reason to live. For if the cross is the existential reason for our work and ministry as Christians, the resurrection builds upon this as our faith and hope for the future.

Thirdly, Good Friday is the culmination of the horizontal and vertical relationships of mankind and creation. The Cross is a visual symbol of a vertical reconciliation with God. It is also a horizontal reconciliation with fellow people. At the cross, Christ embodies the essence of love, and the greatest commandment of God. Stott says that "the cross enforces three truths - about ourselves, about God and about Jesus Christ." These three truths essentially nail down the reality of man, the divinity of God, and the humility of Jesus. The Cross represents so many things that it can be easily misunderstood. That is why I think it is an apt summary of what reconciliation is all about. Only through the cross, we can be saved from our sins. Only through the cross, God is revealed through the greatest act of love. Only through the cross we get to overcome evil. Only through the cross, we understand the significance of the Resurrection.

D) Don't Rush

The Cross Reconciles God - People and People - People
In conclusion, let me urge my readers not to rush. Everyone knows that Today's Friday, and Sunday is coming. It teaches us to be patient, just as Christ is patient. Can you imagine Jesus skipping Holy Week, and goes from Palm Sunday straight to Easter, just like the "Get Out of Jail" card in the game of Monopoly? No. I cannot imagine Jesus ever wanting to take the short cut? If he has taken the short cut, where is the meaning behind Jesus' coming? How are we going to appreciate a God who has not taken on human form and endured human suffering? What are we going to make sense of the cross in the first place?

Without Good Friday, there will be no cross. Without the cross, there will be no resurrection. Without the resurrection, there will be no Christianity. Without Christ, there will be no faith.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday. The Cross is the reason for Good Friday. As we reflect on these thoughts, and how Jesus died, go back after service. Keep a low profile. Pray silently. I know Sunday is coming, but the road to Easter must first go through Good Friday.

THOUGHT: "I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. 'The cross of Christ . . . is God’s only self-justification in such a world' as ours. . . . " (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006, p326-7)


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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. Note that views expressed are personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Is Social Media Really Free?

TITLE: Is Social Media Really Free?
SCRIPTURE: John 8:34-36
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 22 March 2013

"Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:34-36)

MAIN POINT: Freedom is not something we take. It is something freely given and freely received.

Social media is the in-thing nowadays. Just the other day, I heard on radio about a study by Intel Corporation about what happens in an Internet minute. More than 204 million emails are sent. There are 2 million searches on Google. Users download more than 1.2 million Youtube videos while Facebook has more than 6 million hits. These and many other Internet activities all add up to more than 639,800 GB of data transmitted every minute! That is about a whopping 625 TeraBytes every minute.

"What happens in an Internet Minute?" (Credit: Intel)

A) Free of Charge? Not Really

Marketers are especially fascinated by such statistics. It they are able to predict the patterns correctly, and strategically plan their products and services to catch the next wave, they will certainly profit from it tremendously. Companies with powerful business sense will not only survive, they will flourish with consumers lapping up their products like thirsty travelers. Apple is one such company. Their range of products symbolized by the iconic letter "i" has given new life to old ideas. There is the iPod that rejuvenated the music market, taking over from the old champion, the Sony Walkman. There is the iMac that adds zest to computing, or the iPhone that launches a whole new smartphone business. While many will refer to this "i" as referring to the Internet era, many people have observed that there is more that meets the eye (or "i" as a pun). Something is happening. Technology companies like Apple and Sony have understood the basic psyche of the human being. People are unwilling to pay for something upfront, but will readily opt for anything that does not require much from them. The thinking is like this: If it costs me nothing, why not? If I can get something without me giving up anything, it's a no-brainer.

The problem is this: What's free out there is not necessarily free.

Search media giants like Google have managed to make use of freebies in order to obtain for themselves privacy information free of charge. By offering "free" usage of their GMail, "free" blogging platforms and online Office-compatible apps, their "free" use of tools such as Drawing, storage Drive, Maps, and many online tools, their "convenient" search mechanisms and products have become an automated information mining giant. Instead of going out to seek information, users are unwittingly sending information to them free of charge! With such a huge cache of information, that is why governments sometimes subpoena search companies like Google and Yahoo to pass them information on private citizens. Just think of how brilliant the information collection strategy is. Let me give an example. You use Google Maps to locate a nearby restaurant or a gas station. Google then prompts you to turn on "Location services" on your mobile device to automatically determine your location to make it convenient for you. When you hit yes, you send free information to Google, who then makes use of this information to publicize "popular opinion" to restaurants and businesses wanting to know more about the search patterns of customers. Google can then sell this information to businesses, enticing them to advertise on Google or to prioritize their businesses whenever ordinary Internet users are searching for products or services related to their trade.  I think the "free" model used by these companies is actually a guise for information collection. The old adage is true. Nothing is for free. The conveniences we receive, we pay for them with our voluntary disclosure of information.

POINT: Nothing is free, even in an Internet era. Users pay for it someway or somehow.

B) Harvesting Personal Information on Social Media

Social media titans like Facebook and Twitter are also into the business of collecting private information under the umbrella of "free" use of the popular social media platforms. This explains how many different companies manage to target their products and services directly at us, directly into our email boxes or social media accounts. When I last checked, there is NO WAY users can prevent such information from reaching them. That is why many activist groups are up in arms over the invasion of privacy by Facebook. They know that social media companies ride on the web of connections. They utilize the proverbial effectiveness of word-of-mouth marketing, by using the social media equivalent. Promote the products to a friend, a friend's friend, and the friends of the friends of the friends, and so on. If you are familiar with the multi-level marketing scheme, you will notice a stark similarity on social media. It is a superb strategy for social media companies. Just get a member to sign up for your service free of charge. Then have them share passionately about what they like or believe. Soon, they will share that with friends, and when things go viral, social media companies take notice on the latest trend and sell the information to clients. Thus, they sell our personal information, where all money goes into their coffers, not ours. The costs to us are hidden. So are the profits that arise out of our private information.

Recently, there are lots of ads intruding into my Facebook wall. They are a constant source of irritation. The trouble is, there is no way to turn them off. If you report Company A, soon, Company B will take its place. Anyone who uses Facebook will have to live with this. Sometimes, I feel that there are increasingly three groups of people in the social media age. First are the employers looking to collect information. Second, are the employees who design, implement, analyze, and run the engines that collect information. Third, are the rest of us ordinary users, who unwittingly give up free information to these companies. The first group makes all the money. The second group gets paid when they help their employers make all the money. The third group, the rest of us, works for the first two groups, free of charge! So for Facebook with more than six million hits every minute, it is like having 6 million employees.

C) The Human Condition: A Self-Seeking Inclination

There is no turning back history right now. We remember the days where information shared within the four walls remains within the four walls. Those were the days where information shared stays where they are. Not anymore. In an Internet age, what goes out there, stays there. That is why personal photos, articles, and all kinds of individual digital paraphernalia have to be carefully guarded for anyone desiring to have their information as private and confidential. Unfortunately, people are willing to part with their information in order to get fame and publicity. See how Justin Bieber and Susan Boyle have grown wildly popular because of Youtube? Young people are fascinated with how fast one can be famous. A number have even gone on to be very rich people. Ask Psy who has popularized Gangnam Style.

There is a sinister creature that lurks behind a culture of self-promotion. This I call it a self-seeking inclination.  People want to be popular and famous. They want fast money and quick fame. They desire something for nothing. People who spend a lot of time on social media are likened to someone who likes to doll themselves up for the viewing or reading pleasure of the masses. Scandals have even erupted. Like the case of a University student who produces sex videos and have shot to fame or many will say, infamy. By revealing their naked selves, they think that they have a shot at fame, whatever the cost. The truth is, they are promoting themselves at the cost of their own dignity. They cheapen themselves. They reveal themselves openly. They lack proper judgment. As a result, they prostituted themselves digitally.

D) "Incurvatus in se" - Curved in on oneself

The Latin phrase, "incurvatus in se" literally means "curved in onto oneself." Like Augustine of Hippo, the great Reformer, Martin Luther has called this condition as sin. The Greek word for sin, harmatia, is literally to "miss the mark."  For Luther, any condition that grows away from God is essentially a sinful one. Such an "incurvatus in se" behaviour is so prominent on social media. As I look at the different postings, I cannot help but notice how people posts intimate details about themselves. They talk about their holiday travels or peeves. They complain about certain service standards at restaurants. They comment about political scenes. Some, like myself, like to take photos of food and favourite dishes. The point is not so much about the postings per se, by the choice on what people choose to post. Truth is, it is more about themselves.

Feel the adrenaline rush when you see this on your wall?

  • Why are you posting an article? It's certainly because it is something you have felt strongly about.
  • Why do you post a personal thought? It's because you like to be recognized.
  • Why does one get addicted to likes and a red mark attention on your notification dashboards?
  • Who are you actually trying to promote? 

The truth is this. Social media like Facebook has more to do with self-promotion and self-fascination more than anything else. It is a modern equivalent of a life of "incurvatus in se." Read the following testimony from a recently published book, True Purity.
"I’m a social media junkie. I control myself most of the time now, but in the past I would be on some kind of social media 85 percent of the day. I was reading a hundred blogs a day and commenting on over half of them. I was posting to Twitter and/or Facebook all day long, getting followers and playing the game of social media. But then I started to feel sickened by it. I started to see how it was just about me and myself—getting eyes on me, being heard, making comments, and being smart. Once I decided to turn my life over to God 100 percent of the time, my social media use dropped drastically. And now I strive to make all of the time I spend online time spent serving God. Because of that the stress in my life from trying to be heard and to be known has dropped 100 percent." (Michael DiMarco, in True Purity, Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2013, p97)

Wow. Social media draws attention to ourselves rather than God. For anyone who uses social media, and who claims to love God, this is something worth noting. Maybe, the author's case is an extreme one. Maybe, most of us are not like that. Maybe, social media is not exactly that evil or selfish. While I am prepared to offer my readers the benefit of the doubt, let me also ask: What if that is true?

Here is a check. Can you refrain from social media at least once a week? Can you resist from commenting, reading, or posting something about yourself at least a day a week, to focus on sharing the gospel and to carry the burdens of someone else? Can you learn to talk less about self and more about God and others? If you use social media a lot, why not take a step and ask why? Is there a need to share? Is there a need to be hooked onto social media for so many hours per day?

Maybe, it is unfair to classify all forms of social media as selfish display of self interests. Maybe, it is too general a statement to label. Maybe, the better approach is not to liberally dump social media as selfish media, but like all things, to use spiritual wisdom and judgment to decide. At least, let us all be aware that social media under the hands of a self-seeking individual will only feed the insatiable desire for self-glorification. Be careful. Be vigilant. Be watchful of sin that creeps.

In summary, social media is a powerful tool for self-promotion. Marketers know it. Technologists know it. Social media companies know it. Do we know it? Maybe, it is time for us to know that it is only the gospel that sets us free, not the free sharing of information on the Internet or social media. One of the things that the gospel sets us free from is none other than ourselves. In that case, limiting our social media usage is a wise first step to re-orientating our hearts toward Christ. Unlike the Internet companies out there, when Christ gives us freedom, it is totally free. It comes at no cost to us, because Christ has bourned all the cost.  As we approach Holy Week, this is one thought that we can cherish over and over again. If we are free people, live free. Do not be enslaved by self-promotion or self-glorification.

Peace.

THOUGHT: "The ultimate test of our spirituality is the measure of our amazement at the grace of God." (Martyn Lloyd Jones)

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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. Note that views expressed are personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Individualism and Isolation

TITLE: INDIVIDUALISM AND ISOLATION
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 4:13-14
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 16 March 2013

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Gen 4:13-14)
I remember a time I used to love playing board games. My brothers and I will challenge one another on Monopoly and Scrabble. Minimum to play is two players. Four is best. We enjoy outwitting opponents. Through Monopoly, we learn about investments, and be pleasantly surprised by wild cards which give us get extra bonuses to buy properties or accumulate title deeds. We take turns to rake in the profits and laugh when we get to charge high rental or exact payment from anyone falling into our hot zones. The fun increases with more people joining the game. The same goes for Scrabble. The more the merrier. Through Monopoly, I learn about investment. Through Scrabble, I get challenged on strange words, and at the same time, learn about strange and unique words that I have never heard of. One thing is common. When it comes to board games, one cannot play alone. I know how it feels to try to play Scrabble alone, by turning the board back and forth, to pretend I am both players, and to try to outwit myself. Boring.

Nowadays, it is common to see people playing "Angry Birds" or "Temple Run" by themselves. Just watch what people normally do at bus stops, or in subway trains. Even among traveling friends, they are often looking and talking more on their cell-phones with a distant person, than to chat and mingle with their friends next to them.

A) The Times are Changing

Times have changed. Since the invention of the video games, all we need is an electronic console and any one person. Many consoles are designed in such a way to allow one player to play at any one time. Unlike board games, there is no need for a quorum of two. With the popularity of smartphones and small electronic tablets, technology has become our constant companion, our travel buddy, and our sleeping partner. It follows us wherever we go. We use them to snap photos. See the difference in the two photos below?

Striking Contrast of How Pervasive Technology Has Become. (Credit: NBC / AP)

This week, the Roman Catholic Church has got a new Pope. As people wait for the official announcement, In a striking contrast of the changing face of society, the photo shows at least three major shifts in our culture. Firstly, note the pervasiveness of the electronic phones and tablets. Technology has squeezed its way and taken over much of our lifestyles. We have moved from a less technological dependent society to a very technology dependent culture. In fact, technology has become the face of our new era. Previously, it is rather expensive to carry a cell phone. Now, cellphones have become a commodity. It is now strange to find anyone without a cellphone. Secondly, we are becoming more 'indirect' people. People's way of viewing the world has moved from seeing the person with our naked eye, to snapping pictures or taking a video through our electronic gadgets. Sometimes, I really wonder where is all the fun at the zoo, when we prefer to fiddle with our electronic cameras to get the best shot on film, instead of simply admiring the beautiful creature before us. Once I tried to get a good pose with a dolphin, and in the process, failed to connect with the curious dolphin wanting to be friendly. Seeing that I was more interested with my cell-phone, the dolphin swam away. I missed both the shot and the joy of connecting with the lovely creature. Thirdly, the photos above are rather misleading. Technology for all its good, can be used deceptively. In fact, while the place is still St Peter's Square at the Vatican, and the people are real, the contexts are different. According to this report, The 2005 photo is taken when the people were waiting to catch a glimpse of the body of the late Pope John Paul II. The 2013 photo shot is the real picture that shows people waiting for the new Pope Francis I.

POINT: Technology can be used to to change lives, or to be manipulated as a tool of deception. 

B) Of Individualism and Isolation

Let me add one more observation about technology. Not only does it fit our desire for individual attention 24x7, it feeds our insatiable desire for companionship. The trouble is, technology finds us wanting, but does not fill it. Like Jesus who reminds us about the kind of water we seek. Are we constantly thirsting for water that does not truly quench, or food that does not satisfy? Technology has become the modern water and food that like the third observation above, deceives us. More subtly, it has left the individual more individualistic, and the individual more isolated. I do not need to say much about individualism in society. Since the release of classic book, "Habits of the Heart,"by Beulah, Madsen, Sullivan, and Tipton, many people have jumped aboard the bandwagon of criticizing the rise of individualism in America and elsewhere. The book begins with the story of a very successful man called Brian. He spends most of his time at work. He leaves home early and comes home late. His lifestyle becomes so work-centered and me-focused that he neglects his wife and his children. Divorce and isolation from the very family he loves, have left him regretful. Such a habit of the heart is tempting to get into, but delivers devastating results as far as relationships are concerned. Brian has become too individualistic and in the process, welcomed its buddy, Isolation, in.  Randy Frazee has described the plague of individualism in society. In "Connecting Church 2.0," Frazee observes that an individualistic society prefers:

  • lawsuits over reconciliation;
  • rights above responsibilities;
  • career advancement above company loyalty;
  • cynicism over trust;
  • relative truth over absolute truth.

That is not all. Individualism and isolation have also infected the Church. Remember the popularity of small groups? Yes, I remember it fondly. I still believe it is a critical component in the life of any Church. In a research by Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University, he observes that small groups simply "provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others." The author,  John Locke even goes to point out:

"The social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone's opinions. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied." (John Locke, De-voicing of Society, p202-3)

Locke goes on to quote the works of two Boston psychiatrists in Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life, that groups tend to "fail to replicate the sense of belonging we have lost. Attending weekly meetings, dropping in and out as one pleases, shopping around for a more satisfactory or appealing group - all of these factors work against the growth of true community."

In a nutshell, if technology is pervasive, the disease of individualism is even more pervasive. If cell-phones liberate us from wires, it has not liberated us from de-linking our insatiable needs for self-satisfaction and self-seeking desires. Instead of becoming more community-like in our cell groups, many small groups are in danger of becoming collections of individuals looking out for themselves, instead of communities of faith looking out for one another!

POINT: Beware of bringing in individualism into communities, and as a result turn communities into a giant collection of individuals.

C) Root Cause: Unfulfilled Individual Lives

Since the first murder of the world, we have seen how sin has isolated all of mankind. In Genesis 4:13, see the three effects of sin.

  • The Blame Game: Cain blames God for "driving him from the land"
  • The Isolated Condition: He admits that he is out of fellowship with God;
  • The Individualistic Condition: He complains that he will be a restless wanderer. (v14)

Sin has spread from Adam and Eve to Cain. Like Adam who blamed Eve, and Eve who blamed the serpent, Cain subtly blames God for driving him out of the land, instead of accepting that he has done wrong. Cain is aware that being out of fellowship with God, he will be in trouble. He will have needs but will never have his needs truly met. That is the devastating effect of a restless wanderer.

Like our technological gadgets that automatically search for the strongest WiFi signals all the time, the unsatisfied sinful human being is always on the lookout for something to satisfy his wants. He becomes an individualist who is more concerned about his own rights and problems. In trying to get things done his way, he has isolated people around him, just like Brian. In trying to meet his own needs, his own way, he has failed to recognize he needs something better. Fortunately, we know that there is hope. Remember the woman at the well?

"Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”" (John 4:13-14)

The Samaritan woman who hears immediately asks for a drink of such water that truly satisfies. Such an offer remains open for anyone of us who wants.

POINT: Authentic beings come from being made authentic first in Christ.

D) Water That Satisfies

We need to move from individualistic concerns toward community building. If we want to follow after God, remember that God is Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit? God is the Triune Godhead. God is the Divine Community. Like the famous saying, "No man is an island," we need to remind ourselves that we cannot exist for the sole purpose of ourselves. We need to acknowledge that we need help. We need to be part of a community for the sake of the community. We need to put our own needs in perspectives, that we exist not for the purpose of puffing ourselves up, but to give ourselves away for the kingdom and glory of God. We need the water that satisfy, that we may be used to satisfy others.

That is the gospel. Randy Frazee proposes three things to help us move from individuals to community-building living stones. He suggests that the way to grow against a culture of individualism and isolation is to learn to belong to a community, to grow as a community, and to serve the community. The three things are:

  1. "I must fully participate as a member of a community right where I live."
  2. "I must engage in a journey of learning to think, act, and be like Jesus."
  3. "I must actively use my life, my gifts, and my resources to serve others."

Ditto. Let me also say, that before we can live authentically as living stones, we must first become authentic through transformation and renewal. Feed of the living bread. Drink of the living wells of Christ. Live of the Risen Lord and Saviour. In a technology mad world, let me also suggest three things we can do.

  1. Give Your Gadget a break at least once a week. Six days we use our technology. One day, we rest from it. That is a good biblical pattern to follow. 
  2. Give your time away. Consider setting aside a time where you can fully and honestly listen to help other people. In fact, just listening to others, can be therapeutic for others, even ourselves.
  3. Give the gospel away. There is no greater joy than to share the gospel in a way that meets the needs of others. We do not share the gospel so that we fulfill the obligation as Christians. We share so that others and truly taste the sweetness of Scripture, and the bountiful promises of God.


Try it.

THOUGHT: “For He maketh small the drops of water: they pour down rain according to the vapour thereof.” (Job 36:27). If there is no vapour ascending, how then can there be a condensing of the clouds into rain? If there be no scattering of seed, how then can there be an increase of harvest? If there be no outflow of blessing from our hearts to others, how then shall we in turn inherit a blessing? Give and it shall be given unto you. The more we “bless the Lord,” the more He gathers up those “vapours” and multiplies and increases until He pours upon us blessings of an hundredfold.  (Ray Prinzing)

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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. Note that views expressed are personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Focusing Metaphor

TITLE: THE FOCUSING METAPHOR
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 13:45
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 8 March 2013

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:45)
A) Metaphor of Martyrdom
One of the ways that we understand the Christian life is through metaphors. Jesus use lots of them, especially in the way that he describes the Kingdom of heaven. In Matthew, we get metaphors of the kingdom as likened to the parable of the Sower, the mustard seed, the yeast that works through flour, hidden treasure in the field, the merchant and the fine pearl, and many more. All of these provide a spectrum of views to expand our understanding of what the kingdom of heaven is about. Some of the most Christocentric theologians I have read are people like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Stott, and of course Martin Luther. So focused are their thoughts on Christ that they write, they breathe, they speak, and they lived out Christ in all they do. The early disciples are known to be Christocentric people too. There is no greater calling than to die for Christ. Martyrdom is a metaphor that comes with a heavy price. Such a view is exemplified by the martyrs in the early Church, where martyrdom is seen as an honour. Note that at that time, being a Christian is a liability, where one risks arrests and persecution when found out. Perpetua of Carthage was reportedly martyred in 203 AD after having been imprisoned and suffered through unjust trials. All she needed to do was to renounce Christ, and she would be set free. Despite her father's pleas, Perpetua remained steadfast and sure. Moreover, she had just given birth to a little baby girl. When asked by her father to renounce her Christian identity, Perpetua made this remarkable response.

'My father,' I said, 'you see this pitcher. Can we call it by any other name than what it is?' 'No,' he said. 'Nor can I call myself by any other name than that of Christian.'

Perpetua was then thrown to the bulls and gored to death. Other reports say she was killed by leopards. You can watch the animated video here. More stories of martyrs can be read from the classic, the Foxes Book of Martyrs. Unfortunately, such news of martyrdom are not as widely read nowadays compared to the Puritan years. Unlike those early years where it is an honour to die for Christ, in our modern comfortable world, it is an exception to even think about dying for Christ. Death is not something that people like to talk about. In some cultures, mere speaking of dying is taboo. Yet, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts too that as far as following Christ is concerned, when Christ calls, he also bids the hearer to come and die. I remember the words of Jesus to describe the kind of death Peter will go through.
"I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."(John 21:18)
B) Metaphor of Silent Suffering

The Jews are well-known for their suffering. The metaphor of a God that is absent amid immense suffering echoes with a haunting silence. Barbara Brown-Taylor observes:
"It is no coincidence, I think that so much of the literature on the silence of God has been written by the Jews. The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschitz by Andre Neher. The Disappearance of God by Richard Elliot Friedman. In Speech and In Silence: The Jewish Quest for God by David Wolpe. The Eclipse of God by Martin Buber. Each of these writers is a Holocaust survivor, even if he never set foot in a camp. Each writes with the knowledge that the sky can grow dark with smoke from burning human bodies without so much as a whimper from God." (Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent, Boston, MA: Cowley, 1998), p72)
The heroes of the faith use martyrdom as a way to express their faith. The Jews express their faith in God amid the silence as a way to reflect how they feel, and the immense patience in waiting for a God who never seem to come to their rescue. The martyrs give up their lives. The Jewish writers above give in to their despairing. What about modern Christians? Is there a suitable metaphor to help anchor our Christian expression of faith? For this week, I like to suggest one.

C) Metaphor of Focusing

Think of our spiritual awareness as a form of auto-focus mechanism. When our lives are blurred, confused, or filled with multiple sets of priorities, our spiritual lens is out of focus. As long as our sight is blurred, whatever things we see in this world, it is constantly out of sync with what God wants for us. We cannot decide what is best for us. We cannot choose well, always wanting to take the easy way out to take everything. Should I give more or should I give less? Should I venture beyond my comfort zone, or should I stay? Should I preserve my life now, or should I risk it? In fact, any question that demands us more of ourselves, we will soon find difficult to choose or to make any decision. Sometimes, the most popular approach is NOT to make a decision. Such a life is sadly, out of sync with God, out of focus with Christ.

The man who finds the pearl of great value is one who is sharply in focus with what he needs. With this clear perspective, there is no distinction between needs or wants. There is no rationalizing of whether he needs to give up anything or not. Jesus mentions him as one who goes away, sells everything he owns so that he can buy that precious pearl. That pearl is his focused object of value. When he goes away, his mind is on the pearl. When he looks at his possessions, his mind is on the pearl. When he sells away his stuff for money, his mind is still on the pearl. The pearl of great price has captured his heart and mind. Nothing else matters save for that one pearl. This merchant is one with focus.

Note that the merchant is an expert in pearls. He goes looking for precious pearls and because of his trade and experience, he knows what the true value is. What about us? When we study the Scriptures, what are we looking for? Are we looking for choice verses to scratch out itchy needs? Or are we reading the Bible with a desire to obey Christ, with whatever it takes? Are we focused on self-needs, or are we focused on God?

Like an auto-focus mechanism in a camera, Christians need to cultivate an auto-focus on Christ in whatever they do. Whether it is asking the question, "What would Jesus Do?" or "What is God's will?" or "How do I glorify Christ in this decision making?" our central focus is clear: Be imitators of Christ.

D) Application of Focus

When our spiritual cameras are in focus, we can capture sharp images. The sharper it is, the higher the resolution, and the more dynamic the colours and light, the better the picture quality. When Christians read the Bible with a sharp lens to see God, they will learn to let God be God, to subject themselves under the Word. This is important. I know many people use the Bible only when there is a need. Some use the topical references according to their need. Like a spiritual index, it is not God who is the focus. It is the self-interests and self-seeking need that determines what passage to read. For example, I know of some bookmarks and booklets that parade the following need-based references.
  • Angry? Read 
  • Depressed? Read Ps 23
  • Happy? Read Proverbs 3:13
  • Need comfort? Read Deuteronomy 3:22
  • Need guidance? Read Psalm 32:8
  • Need courage? Joshua 1:9
  • Worried? Read  Philippians 4:6-7
  • ...
When people read verses according to their own needs, the focus is on the self, not God. When they read only when they feel like it, their feelings are in focus, not God. When they read the Bible only to look for verses they want to use, their intent is not God, but the fulfilling of self-objectives. In fact, I will venture to say that a life that is out of focus will misinterpret, misrepresent, and misuse the Bible for purposes other than glorifying God. That is a serious breaking of the first three commandments.

A life that is in focus will see Christ as clearly as possible. When reading the Bible, ask how can we glorify the name of Christ in our thoughts, our words, and our actions. How can we magnify and lift up the name of Christ higher? How can we follow after Jesus better? How can we sharpen our focus on God?

Pray. Perhaps, pray with our eyes closed. For our eyes have a tendency to be easily distracted. Memorize Scripture, so that in the dark of night, whether we are lying down or resting on the arm-chair, we can let the Word of God dwell and repeat in our minds and our hearts. Seek God for who God is, not what we make God to be.

Cultivate an auto-focus spiritual mechanism in our lives, that in whatever circumstances, we will know for sure that Christ is our focus. Like the famous prayer of St Patrick of Ireland, may this also be our prayer in developing our auto-focus metaphor. For the full prayer, click here.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Be focused on Christ. Be auto-focused on Christ.

THOUGHT: "If God were our one and only desire we would not be so easily upset when our opinions do not find outside acceptance." (Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)

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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. Note that views expressed are personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Beyond the Notion of a "Balanced Life"

TITLE: BEYOND THE NOTION OF A 'BALANCED LIFE'
SCRIPTURE: Philippians 1:18
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: March 1st, 2013

"But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice." (Philippians 1:18)

One of the most common things I have heard in my social circles is the call to live a balanced life. I have never really question that is true. In fact, I lived it. I loved it. I enjoyed every nod and approval people around me give. As a working professional, I tell my colleagues that I needed a balanced life. I need to allocate enough time for my family, for my work, for my social circles, for Church, and for charitable work. All is good.

Until I come to Canada. One fine day, a pastor I know said this to me. "You know, Conrade. I've always questioned the idea of 'balanced.' Did Christ come down to earth to call us to live a balanced life?"

Somehow, that moment, something inside me clicked. Why didn't I think of it before? Why have I bought into the 'balanced' doctrine uncritically, accepting it wholeheartedly, and unwittingly placed 'balanced living' above 'living for Christ?'

You may ask. What is the problem? The problem is not obvious, but very subtle. Let me share three problems about the 'balanced' view. The first is theological. The second is philosophical. The third is practical. For Christ is not some God that is balanced into our world. Christ is who we live full out for.

A) Theology: Questioning the "Balance" Doctrine

In theology, there is a word called dualism, which essentially builds on the desire to want a balanced life. If you have some 'yin,' you need some 'yang' to counter it. If you have the daylight, you need some night to balance it. Dualism is essentially a segregation of life into 2 parts: the good and the bad. The heretics of old have produced a version of dualism in terms of 'Material things bad; Spiritual things good.' This form of dualism is also called Gnosticism. We know that this is wrong. For if it is true, then Church work will be more 'important' than work outside Church. The priest gets to be elevated above the office worker. Sacred work will seem more special than secular work. That is wrong indeed.

While for the most part, trying to balance our life is commendable, that cannot be the purpose of living. Our purpose of living is to glorify God in all we do and with all we are.  If we are focused on 'balancing our faith,' we become stagnant just like a ball unable to move when the north-wind  encounters a south-wind that is equal and opposite. If we take 'balance' to the extreme, does that mean that we must balance life by making sure our good works are well balanced by their evil equivalent. If 'balance' is the end-game, it is not surprising that in pursuing balance, every act of good needs to be 'balanced' by some evil. That will be ridiculous.

Balance is not a good spiritual paradigm. It is too dualistic for comfort. I cannot imagine any Christian being 'balanced.' You mean, Christians are called to be 'balanced' in their pursuit of God? Don't obey God too hard? Should we only follow Christ half-way, and the other half, we balance it with following the world? In his understanding of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said,

"When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, London: UK, SCM Press, 1948, p44)

When Christ calls us, we are called all the way. Another problem scenario is how pastors spend time with their congregation. If balance is the overriding doctrine, the pastor will have to divide his time equally with every member. What about those who are really needy at any one time? Does the pastor then need to clock in each member?  Surely, there are some members in the church who need more tender loving care than others. There are also times in which some members are best left alone. If we aim at balance as a rule, we end up being vulnerable to worldly expectations instead of being sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

POINT: Balance may be a way of life, but it is not to be the "end" of all things.

B) Philosophical: Balanced Life in an Unbalanced World

If balance is the goal of life, we're always in suspension.
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying balance is unimportant. I am concerned that some Christians may have taken this to the extreme, using "balance" as an all-encompassing philosophy to live their lives. One Christian once said,
"I try not to be too involved in church because I am afraid of becoming sucked in. I just want to balance my life."

He uses this as a reason for not serving in Church. For me, when I hear this, I get sad. The philosophy is all wrong. What do you mean by 'too involved?' What do you mean by balancing your life? The fact is, when a person says things like these, he is already living an unbalanced life. His center of gravity is the self.

It is because of concern for self that he refuses to get involved in Church in the first place. It is because of an unwillingness to give up self-needs that leads to the fear of getting sucked in. It is an unhealthy perspective of 'balance' that has become the rule in life. When we get involved in anything, it is always a matter of calling, not a matter of balance. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he writes,

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:3-4)
If our aim is 'balance,' then we have a problem. Balance calls us to do 'something,' not 'nothing.' Balance will have a problem with the word 'better.' In fact, as long as balance is our key goal, the center of control is not God, but us. We are masters of our own controlling of balance in our life.

For Christians, our call is to Christ. It is out of our obedience to Christ that directs all of our living, our thinking, and our need to 'balance' our activities. This calls for radical living.

There are many Eastern philosophies that use 'balance' as their doctrinal base. Traditional Chinese medicine essentially uses this as a key diagnostic feature. It works. Personally, I have benefitted from TCM. There are so many things that seem right. When you are tired, rest. When you are sad, try to be happy. When you lack energy, take some energy booster. The practice of acupuncture is another example of how the Yin-Yang philosophy is put into practice.

Again, let me assert that while there are many truths in balancing life according to the Yin-Yang philosophy, it cannot be the goal or the destination of life. For Christians, Christ must always be our goal. 

POINT: Christ is our goal in life, not our self-defined 'balanced life.'

D) Practical: Better than Balance

Before John Stott died, he published a book that summarizes his major convictions about life. The book is called 'The Radical Disciple' where he talks about 8 aspects of a radical disciple. One of the eight happens to be 'balance,' but understood in a Christological perspective.  On closer reading, Stott's rendition of the word 'balance' is based on six images of growth.
  1. as newborn babes we are called to growth; 
  2. as living stones, we are called to fellowship;
  3. as holy priests, we are called to worship;
  4. as God's own people, we are called to witness;
  5. As aliens and strangers, we are called to holiness; 
  6. As servants of God, we are called to pilgrimage and citizenship.  
I suspect Stott's intention is not 'balance' per se but radical application of all 6 aspects of growth. His idea of 'balance' is to grow all of them proportionately rather than equally. The classic hymn, 'I SURRENDER ALL' is a hymn of unreserved love for God. In a balanced life paradigm, we can only sing 'I Surrender Some.' For how can we balance our lives only with God? Surely, our family, our friends, and our other interests need to be considered too, right?

Wrong. When we are called to Christ, all of these things are to be in Christ's perspective. That means we grow as best as we can at each stage of our lives. At certain times, we are called to spend more time to build up our family, in Christ. At other times, we are called to pursue our business goals to support our family, in Christ. Still other times, we may be called to spend lots of time in Church, to serve the community, in Christ. Whatever Christ has called, we are to live it out to the full. 100% of all, not just a 'balanced' number that we arbitrarily pluck out of our schedule. See what Paul writes about 'every way' and not just 'some' of the way when it comes to preaching Christ. The Greek word 'panti' comes from the root word 'pas' which means 'all, every, the whole.' It is a radical desire that Christ is first. If we have a 'balanced' view paradigm, practicing Christ is first will be impossible. For spiritual growth is about 'more and more,' never 'more or less.' It is about progress in Christ, not about controlling our lives in balance. It is about radical living, not balanced living.

When Christ calls us, he calls us to go all the way. He does not call us halfway. For if we think we are good enough to be half-way in, remember that it also means we are half-way out.


THOUGHT: "Having convictions can be defined as being so thoroughly convinced that Christ and His Word are both objectively true and relationally meaningful that you act on your beliefs regardless of the consequences." (Josh McDowell)

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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.

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