Friday, May 31, 2013

Cultivating the Person

TITLE: CULTIVATING THE PERSON
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 27:4
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 31 May 2013

"One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple." (Ps 27:4)

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to listen to one of my favourite professors on spirituality, Dr Susan Phillips speak on the topic: "Spirituality of Cultivation: A Response to Disorders of Attention & Attachment." I got to meet several people at Regent College as well. I missed the place. For 90 minutes, I was enthralled by the whole atmosphere, with Phillips leading the way through her reflections on the need to cultivate an attentiveness to God, amid a complex culture of distractions. The idea is nothing really new, though the context continues to be more and more challenging. She talks about the linkage between social structures and psychiatric research which point out the rising challenges of disorders and inattentiveness in many people. In one study, watching broadcasting networks like television creates a "culture of expectation." For instance, it was found that in China, children who watch TV the most are least attentive to real life. Another report in America talks about the poor social skills that arise out of frequent TV watching.

"Studies show that too much television viewing can have adverse affects, such as more violent and aggressive behavior, poor school performance, obesity, early sexual activity, and drug or alcohol use. Children aren't engaging in the activities they need to help them develop their bodies and brains when they watch television." (University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Family Issues Facts, Bulletin 4100, p1)

A) Short, Quick, and Inattentive Culture

We live in a short-term, quick-tempered, and increasingly inattentive culture. Quick fix solutions are becoming the norm. Think of aspirin to give quick relief for headaches. I cannot help but notice that in technology, people are getting easily bored at a quickening pace. Having being wowed by the latest-and-greatest for so long, people tend to rise in expectations only to be let down when the best gadgets out there fail to rise up to such expectations. That is one reason why the powerful Apple company is in trouble. Having outdone itself through the iPad success and the iPhone phenomenon, the company is hard-pressed to come up with another industry shaping device. Without the iconic Steve Jobs to lead the way, the current CEO is increasingly on a hot seat.

One of the things that Phillips mentioned is the need to replace "communication theories" with tend to be adopted as magical solutions. Communication theories is like broadcast networks that diminish attention under the pretext of getting things done efficiently and quickly. In such a mode, there is hardly any incentive to develop any cultivation at all, let alone listening, contemplating, and praying. As long as one can get things done quickly, not having to lift a finger at all, or to exercise one's brains, people are happy and contented. Unfortunately, the side effects become harmful over the long term. Effects such as attention deficit, inattentiveness and inability to develop meaningful social relationships. One of the things that Phillips mentioned was the rise of organizations that thrive with people who have problems with attention span. Internet corporations are one glaring example. Knowing that the entrepreneurial spirit cannot be locked into a 9 to 5 time schedule, companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet titans are providing their employees the best possible climate for them to develop and innovate ideas. It is not surprising to find individuals with short attention spans able to work well in such an environment.
  • Developers are free to test, introduce, modify, adapt, even abandon ideas at any time. 
  • Employees are not bound by work hours, meaning they can get up in the middle of the night the moment they have an idea, and start innovating straightaway
  • Employees have the means to work from anywhere, anytime, and anyhow. With wireless technology and the communications gadgets, people are free to connect to the Internet at anytime, even from the bathroom. 
The rise of social media like Twitter is a prime example of living a world of snippets and short attention spans. No longer required to write long essays with many words, Twitter allows (even restricts) users from writing too much. There is a 140 characters limitation in each Tweet.  Even long URLs (or website addresses) can be abbreviated with shortened addresses.

B) The Human Side Effect

As a result, as technology becomes more and more advanced, with greater channels to connect with one another strangely, more people are becoming disconnected, fragmented, and utterly lonely. In one study, it was said that heavy users of Facebook tend to be easily depressed. More disconcerting is the way people are running around in circles, creating an environment that resembles a circus. Just consider how some of these terms have been introduced into the modern language usage:
  • We "juggle" our time (remember the circus clown who juggles multiple balls in the air?)
  • We "swing" from place to place; (remember the trapeze entertainer?)
  • We try to strike a "balance" (note how circus performers balance themselves on the line?)
  • The software is the "magic." (Remember magic shows in the circus?)
The last statement is quite popular when I work with software professionals who have absolute faith in the programs and systems that they have developed. More importantly, Phillips has described a more serious condition: Performer-Spectator mentality.

This reminds me of the age-old statement by Shakespeare: "All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts,"

When we reduce our world to mere performance and spectators, there is hardly any human connection. There is no personal interactions. People come together with entertainment in mind. One provides the entertainment, while the others receive it. The cycle then repeats itself. In the recent decade, Phillips quote one research that estimates a 246% increase in inattentiveness in children; up to 30% increase in loneliness; and the rise of attractiveness of Eastern spiritualism to counter these effects.

C) Cultivating Attentiveness

How then do we cultivate attentiveness? Phillips suggests three things: Love, Truth, and Discipline. She suggests that we adopt "cultivation theory" where she talks about it being a "stalagmite theory" where the limestone of effects (attentiveness) get accumulated over time. All of these three can be provided in the practice of Christian spirituality.

As I think about the implications, I like to stay attentive to the psalm above about "one thing." Like Kierkergaard's famous work: "Purity of heart is to will one thing," the psalmist is clear about what he wants. He wants God. He does not just want to be in a place. He wants to be with the person of God. What makes the house of God special is not the house, but God who is in the house.

Like the use of the Presidential plane "Air Force One." Any plane can be "Air Force One," when the President of the United States is in it. The type of plane does not matter. Even the label of the plane outside does not determine the Presidential plane. It is the President's presence that makes all the difference.

The same thing is with heaven. Heaven is not simply a place. It is where God lives. The Psalmist wants to be where God is. He wants to be there all the days of his life. He wants to be there in perpetual worship, praise, and singing, seeking, and seeing God. For he knows that there is beauty to be appreciated. There is love. There is glory. There is safety.

Our modern lifestyle has become too distracting for our own good. In trying to upend one another, companies are stumbling over one another to come up with the latest and the greatest to win the customer. In trying to better their friends, consumers too are losing attention to the latest at a quickening pace. In the process, they lose themselves and their identity. They get detached when what they need is to be attached. They get distracted when what they need is attention. They crave belonging, but at the same time, their restless hearts prevent them from being contented. Here is an exercise I like to teach with regards to building attentiveness. Think of these two words: "Thank You."

Concentrate your thoughts and your mind on being grateful. Be thankful about your family, no matter the ups and downs. Be thankful about your job. Be thankful about your place in society. Be thankful for your history. Just be thankful. Let the gratefulness in you, relax the muscles, and feel your stresses of life go away.

The second is this. Direct your gratitude to the Giver of all things, Judge of all men, Maker of heaven and earth. He alone deserves to be thanked. Henry Ward Beecher once said: "The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings!" Cultivate this gratitude, and you will sense how your life gets changed by God from the inside out. Today is not just another day. It is a day to give thanks. Learn from Brother David Steindahl in this classic video on gratitude.



Say "Thank You, my Lord and my God." That may very well be the best prayer to God this week, and every week.

THOUGHT: "Let us thank God heartily as often as we pray that we have His Spirit in us to teach us to pray. Thanksgiving will draw our hearts out to God and keep us engaged with Him; it will take our attention from ourselves and give the Spirit room in our hearts." (Andrew Murray)


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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, May 24, 2013

There is No Normal

TITLE: THERE IS NO NORMAL
SCRIPTURE: Ecclesiastes 7:10
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 24th, 2013

Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
Change has been on my mind lately. It reminds me of the popular quip my ex-colleagues and I have thrown about freely: "The only thing constant is change." We were then talking about changes in our work responsibilities, our reporting structure, our job titles, even our company names. Working in a high-technology industry, one has to learn to expect the unexpected, where it is not the big that swallow the small, but the fast that outruns the rest. In the past few years, I have seen big companies like Nortel, Citibank, Barings Bank, Worldcom, Enron, AIG, and many other companies that have failed to change with the times. In the mobile phones sector, Nokia and Ericsson are increasingly overshadowed by Samsung and Apple. In the Internet search business, Google has monopolized the search market, leaving Yahoo and other search engines to battle for a distant second. In software, Microsoft Office is under increasing threat from companies that are offering lots of software free on the web. Even the venerable lady of the Internet, the ubiquitous EMAIL is being challenged by social media. Change is here to stay. The law of the jungle remains very applicable to our modern world of competition and lifestyle. Those who do not change or adapt will fade away into oblivion.

During my recent visit to the Far East, I had the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. It brings back good memories and fun of yesteryear. Of course, I took the time to savour the local delicacies. Even as I ate and enjoyed the different selections of food, I cannot help but notice the aging workforce in some of the most popular eating places. In fact, one famous braised duck restaurant in Singapore will be closing this coming June. Some other hawkers are lamenting the lack of interest from the younger generation to take over their business. The threat of old recipes and famous food stores disappearing from the food scene is a real thing. No apprentices. No future generations. No more good food. If there is no concrete steps to address the lack of manpower and to train the next generation of cooks and chefs, the food that we enjoy now, will gradually disappear, as far as quality and taste is concerned. Like the business world, if the food industry does not recognize this quickly, the famous food that we praise so much will soon be history.

This one thing is most true. Change is happening all the time. There is no normal. Only constant changes.

Let us not kid ourselves. There is no normal. Whatever we have right now, is but a snapshot in time. Everyone of us is a walking clock ticking away every second.  Societ:y is changing. People are changing. We are changing. Even our family relationships are changing. Last week, I wrote in my Facebook account: "It is not teens who are struggling in their growing phases, but also parents who fail to grow up in their perception of their kids. Parents need to grow up too."

When I meet people I know, especially my peers who are also parents, we often say to one another about our kids: "Wow! Your child has grown so much." Looking back, I wonder why we make such comments. Do we really expect kids to remain kids after 10 years? Do we expect them to have the same rounded face or chubby look from years ago? Are we seriously out of touch with the next generation?

Sadly, we are. We have often failed to grow up with our children. The very remark about how much they have grown is one stark evidence of how much we have not noticed our children. Almost ten years ago, I said goodbye to hot and humid Singapore and Malaysia, and hello to cool and rainy Vancouver Canada. My kids were unhappy about being uprooted from their comfort zones. My wife and I were quite nervous about having to leave our comfort zones and to embark on a whole new adventure in a foreign land. Looking back at the ten years, I must say that what we have lost in terms of financial and opportunity costs, we gain in terms of seeing our children grow up during their formative years. We eat meals together very often. Both my wife and I take turns to cook for the whole family. Even though some evening meals, we talk relatively little, the very presence of one another make a difference. We notice one another. When our oldest daughter moved out last year to live on the University campus, the first three months prove to be hard to pass. We miss having everyone eating together during the all-important family meal.

We are all changing, whether we like it or not, know it or not, realize it or not. The only constant thing is change. There is no such thing as normal. Only new things that are happening every minute and every second. The "normal" that we used to know is only accessible through our shared memories and common experiences.

Normal is an illusion. When we fail to adapt or to change, we are hanging on to the "Good Old Days" illusion that is not constructive, but also destructive. Qohelet wisely observes the importance not to be trapped by the kind of nostalgia that inhibits present living. He says that it is "not wise" to ask questions like these. Why is it not wise? Let me offer up three reasons why.

First, it keeps us stuck in the past. One of the things that I have noticed in many church communities is the constant argument over traditional vs contemporary worship. The older ones like hymns or the familiar songs of the past. The younger ones desire the latest hip-hop style or loud choruses that appeal to the vigour of youth. What some older people are forgetting is this. They used to be young, and they too choose songs that are noticeably different from their predecessors. As long as we are stuck in the past, we will not be able to see clearly the needs of the present.

Second, is it really true that "old" is better than the present? We live in a generation where scientific advancement and technological progress is increasingly expected and demanded. Within a span of weeks, the latest and the greatest gadgets can be rendered obsolete. Just look at how quickly Hewlett-Packard abandoned their tablet project, the TouchPad, and left the business totally. Also see how the mighty Apple company is struggling to contain the Samsung onslaught of newer and sexier phones. For a generation such as these, "old" is more of a liability. Thus, anyone who claims the old is better than the new will not only be laughed at, he will also not be taken seriously.

Third, life is temporal. The "old days" in the past or the "new days" of the world we know, will soon be gone, and replaced by newer things and newer days. We can only look forward. Nostalgia is good for a while, but we need to snap out of it quickly so that we can start living in the present. Better still, live and anticipate the future.

Christians are in a great position when anticipating the future. There is no normal, only new hope to come. Our faith cannot be normal. We cannot be stuck in memories of the past. We need to grow and live more like Christ. We need to be freed from unhealthy nostalgia, and liberated to claim the promises of God as taught in the Bible.

There is no normal, only new beginnings. Learn from the Psalmist who prays:

"The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
  For His compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;
  Great is Your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Change is the only constant. For there is no normal. We change. There is only One who does not change. God. That is why God is our constant Guide, our faithful One, our everlasting Lord. Do not look back at the "old days" and call it "good." Look to God, the Author and Finisher of all our faith, and call out: "Come Lord Jesus! Come!"

Yes, God's mercy is new every morning. Let God's faithfulness, fill our hearts with hopes afresh, anew, and ablaze.

THOUGHT: "The deepest need of men is not food and clothing and shelter, important as they are. It is God. We have mistaken the nature of poverty, and thought it was economic poverty. No, it is poverty of soul, deprivation of God's recreating, loving peace. Peer into poverty and see if we are really getting down to the deepest needs, in our economic salvation schemes. These are important. But they lie farther along the road, secondary steps toward world reconstruction. The primary step is a holy life, transformed and radiant in the glory of God." (Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p99) 

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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, May 17, 2013

The Spirituality of Food

TITLE: THE SPIRITUALITY OF FOOD
SCRIPTURE: John 4:31-38
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 17th, 2013

[I dedicate this issue of Sabbath Walk to all who have walked with us during our trip to Malaysia and Singapore from May 4th to May 13th.]
31Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:31-38)
Last week, I was visiting Malaysia and Singapore, with one of goals to eat as much as possible the local delicacies that I have been missing all these years. What brings the different ethnic groups together in this South East Asian region is basically food. There are superb offerings from all different racial groups. The Chinese have their char-kuay-teow and the chicken rice. The Malays have their spread of Nasi Padang and the famous Satay. The Indians have rojak and roti-prata. There are even food delicacies that comprise the best of different ethnic groups. For example, the Peranakans, Nonyas, Babas, and others are those who have managed to combine the best of Chinese, Malay, and Indian recipes into a very unique dish. Rich in spices and creative mix, the food is welcomed by many locals, and brings much pride not just to one ethnicity, but to all represented. In some way, I am rather thankful that I have not read this passage from John 4, about how Jesus responded to the question about food.

Jesus has a way to say the most counter-intuitive thing and still get away with it. Sometimes, when I read this passage, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is being rude and insensitive to the genuine care of his disciples. After all, is it a very normal thing for us to be asking one another whether we have had our fill of food each day? Among many Asians, regardless of dialect groups, one of the most common greetings or conversational starters is to ask about a meal.

  • Mandarin: "Ning chi fan le mei you?" (Literal Translation: Have you eaten your rice yet?)
  • Cantonese: "Nei Sek Bao Mei ah?" (Literal Translation: You eaten yet?)
  • Hokkien: "Jiak Ba buay?" (Have you eaten yet?)
  • Malay: "Makan Belum?" (Literally: Eaten yet?)

It is culturally acceptable, and serves people well simply as part of our common human need for good food in our brief sojourn on earth.

Suppose it is dinner time, and we want to be a good host to Jesus. We then asks him if he has eaten yet, imagine our surprise to hear the words of Jesus coming back to us saying, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about."

Goodness. I dare not try that with my host. Who knows, I may not be invited back.

A) Good Food and God's Will

We all know that doing the will of God is #1 in the mind of Jesus. Everywhere he goes, he seeks to glorify God, to point people to God, to acknowledge the goodness of God, and to live-breathe-think-witness for God. Of course, with such a focus, we will not be so surprised when the answer to the disciples' concern is this: "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work."

Ok. That is Jesus. He has every right to say what is uppermost in his mind. It is this same man who has gone through 40 days in the wilderness with no food. At the height of his hunger, the devil tempts him with food, power, and riches. Having passed the tests and overcame the temptations, Jesus begins his ministry in zest and conviction. If he is able to fast well, he has overcome the temptation of food. This is in sharp contrast to Esau who gives up his own birthright to Jacob in exchange for food. While some interpreters have blamed Jacob for his art of deception, we cannot say that Esau is an innocent victim in the first place. The offer by Jacob was earnest. The acceptance by Esau was honest. It is in simple terms, an agreed transaction. Esau pays for the meat stew in exchange for giving up his birthright. Spiritually, this is serious. It means Esau is willing to give up something precious in the long term, just to satisfy his tummy cravings in the short term. Speaks a lot about the character of Esau.

If one is intent on doing God's will, one will apply this intent to all of life, not just a portion of it. Jesus has basically applied this desire to do God's will fully, comprehensively, and purposefully.

What about us? Surely, we are human after all. The saying goes, "To err is human, to blame it on others is even more human" reflects the state of the human condition. It can also be weird for us, even the most pious disciples, to say, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work."

Good grief. We are not angels. Neither are we so holy that we lack no earthly food. Come to think about it, there are at least three ways to reflect about the spirituality of food and eating. Fasting, Feasting, and Fellowshiping.

B) Spirituality of Food - Fasting

There is a time for everything, and that includes fasting. The author, Charles M Murphy writes:

"Food is an obsession in our culture, and I really think we need wisdom from the Church about eating.... It's a basic human activity and there is wisdom in this tradition of fasting, which is focused on God and not on ourselves." (Charles M. Murphy)

In fasting, we learn to deny ourselves the pleasure of food, so as to re-align ourselves toward what is more important. If Esau has this understanding in the first place, he will not have given in so easily to Jacob's temptation.

Thomas Aquinas lists three purposes for fasting: chastity, contemplation, and penitence. Of chastity, it allows one to stay pious and retains purity of focus on that one thing, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:5. Of contemplation, it frees one to yearn to see God, like Daniel's three week fast that culminates in the vision of God (Daniel 10:3). Of penitence, one fasts in order to demonstrate remorse for sins, like the prophet Joel (Joel 2:12).

One thing about fasting is that it cannot be a sole activity on its own. It needs to be supplemented with two other exercises: Prayer and good works. The Jews have a lot to teach us with regards to this. In Tobit 6:5, we read "Prayer with fasting and alms with uprightness are better than riches with iniquity."

Through fasting, we learn to look on the needs of others more than our own. We learn to be more aware of our sins. We will gradually realize that our need for God is far more necessary than our need for food.

C) Spirituality of Food - Feasting

People come together very readily when there is food. I note that in my years at various churches. Whenever there is food, there the people will be. This is not exactly a bad thing. Food is a cultural phenomenon. Good food brings people together. Great food often means wonderful fellowship. Authors Les and Leslie Parrott have even classify the time of eating as "The Hour That Matters Most." They note that the one thing American families need most in the present time, is eating together. They lament the fast-food culture in America. While it makes it easy for anyone anywhere to get food anytime, the present of fast-food essentially removes the opportunities for interactions and good old family talk. The Parrotts also highlight the lost art of home cooked meals. Not only are people using their kitchen less, they also miss out on a homely environment for their own family members. Thus, the Parrotts hope to create a movement that promotes family togetherness, cook healthy home-cooked meals, and over time, improve the level of health and good eating.

Good feasting means a good measure of togetherness and happy moments. Eating is more than just a meal. In his answer to his disciples, Jesus is saying that food is not just something to satisfy the tummy. The soul needs to be fed as well. This desire is a common one. Feasting is not just about eating. It is about enjoying a meal in togetherness and in unity.

"Our biggest assumption about you is that you'd do most anything to make your home a comforting refuge for your family. You want a home that is anchored in connection, buoyed by support, and filled with laughter. In short, you want your family to thrive." (Les and Leslie Parrot, The Hour That Matters Most, Carols Streams, IL: Tyndale, 2011, xvi)

That is also my assumption for you.

D) Spirituality of Food - Fellowshiping

During my time in Malaysia and Singapore, I have non-stop interactions with people, with food mainly as an excuse rather than a dietary requirement. In the morning, I will walk out to the market with my wife, chatting freely about life, living, and everything in between. We place our orders with the hawkers, occasionally adding in a word of observation about the environment, the people, and the tough working environments. Sometimes, we even get a bigger plate of food after a jovial conversation. During lunch time, several of our dear church friends and loved ones will contact us, offering to drive us to anywhere we want, according to what our appetites are craving. We leave nothing unturned. We are also thankful for our dear brothers and sisters who willingly endured to heat, patiently waiting in the hour long lines, and lovingly bringing piping hot nasi lemak for us to eat in a comfortable air-conditioned house. We ate. We laughed. We shared. Precious moments that we will be willing to pay restaurant prices for hawker food.

In the evening, our schedules are packed with dinner invitations. Every single evening we were booked out. The only limitation is our capacity to stomach everything the menu has to offer. We ate all kinds of food, at various places, with different people. Through it all, the joys of fellowship make up for the stresses of life.

Life is not just about eating, just like the Christian life is not just about Bible study. Life is about loving God, loving people, and serving all. Our trip may be short in length, but it is certainly long in memories.

E) Concluding Thoughts

When I think about eating, I want to remember these three things. In fasting, I am reminded that food is not just about eating. It is also about the act of refraining for a greater cause. Occasional fasting not only gives our stomachs a rest, it enables us to complement it with prayer and good deeds, following the ways of Jesus, whose food is to fulfill the will of God. Having said that, Christians are part of a culture. In many places throughout the world, feasting over food is a way of life. In feasting, we need not be too afraid to enjoy a good meal. Jesus himself has gone to wedding dinners as well as meals with ordinary people. Feasting brings people together. It is much better than eating fast-food alone. Third, fellowshiping is key to eating well and eating joyfully. It shows us again that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. The Word of God unites believers.

My friends, enjoy a good meal with friends and loved ones. Remember to fast regularly too. Finally, thinking of fellowship reminds me also of the Great meal the Church celebrates together: The Holy Communion. Feast. Fast. Fellowship. That's my brief take on the spirituality of eating.

THOUGHT: "When we break bread together, we symbolically enact the basic truth that we are most complete when we are together." (Wendy Wright)
 

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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, May 10, 2013

Praying for Leaders

TITLE: PRAYING FOR LEADERS
SCRIPTURE: 1 Timothy 2:1-4
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 10th, 2013

"1I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:1-4)

The recent Malaysian elections is supposed to be a watershed event. Like many, I too was disappointed with the results. With rising discontentment with the status quo, and the widespread accusations of deep corruption and rigged polls, the Rakyat (people) wants change. The Malaysian ruling party, in power since 1957, has seen their dominance shrink from majority to a small edge over the rest. On May 5th, even though the parliamentary seats are solidly in the hands of the ruling coalition, the popular votes tell a different story. It is the opposition coalition that has more votes. The existing government may have won the election, but they are increasingly losing the hearts of the people. What is worrying is that if their pledge for reforms are not put in place and implemented soon, the unhappiness and discontent will continue to grow. The Economist Newspaper calls the results a "Dangerous Result." Dangerous because the people are not convinced that the elections had been fair and democratic. Dangerous too because the way the government had won, reflects not just an ethnically biased voting trend, but a refusal of the government to move away from racial and religious politics. Despite the government's "One Malaysia" campaign, people just do not believe their words.

From my interactions with friends and loved ones, it seems like as far as the country is concerned, the people in general have grown away from racial politics. The government has not.  Worse, through the press, the government continues to instill threats and fears of the racially tense 60s into the new Millennium.  I wonder: Why can't these politicians grow up? I look at my Malay, Indian, and Chinese friends, I see more commonality than differences. All of us struggle to make a living, to give our families a good life, and to do our best in our communities. There are much bigger problems than skin colour.  For instance, poverty and injustice are some of our common enemies that we can all aim our guns at.

Still, I have mixed feelings about the results. On the one hand, the continuity of government does allow for the continuity of good programs so far. One example is the Iskandar project in the southern state of Johor. Foreign investors are glad. The economic sentiment remains bright. Life remains relatively more predictable as people will recognize the same style and same policies that they have pretty much gotten used to.

On the other hand, the results bring no sense of comfort to people clamouring for change. The government continues to lose popular support. The sense of suspicions of the government can only continue to rise. For many, the only hope for Malaysia is for a change of government.

I don't know. I am not sure if any new ruling coalition can better the current situation in the short term. After all, the people have not seen an alternative government for more than 50 years.  However, for the long term, I think it does not auger well for Malaysia. As long as the ruling government continues to adopt policies that are ethnically based, or religious discrimination, the long term is not promising. The idea of a "One People One Malaysia" remains just a slogan, nothing more.

For me as a Christian, one thing is clear. God is still in control even when we do not see it in the election results. We can still pray. We can still stand up for what is right. Hope is not lost.

Three Things How Christians Can Live?

On Prayer and Fasting
As responsible citizens, I suggest three things for Christians who care for Malaysia. First, Paul's advice to Timothy is clear. Pray for all people, for leaders, for kings and all in authority. Paul emphasizes "first of all," which is a priority phrase for believers to take not of and to put into practice. As a simple "prayer request," ask the Lord for wisdom for the leaders. Even though there are some leaders that I do not favour, I still have an obligation to pray for them. If God has allowed it, who am I to disallow it?

Secondly, pray without discrimination. Remember that all of us are members of the human race. We are all sinners. We are all guilty of hurting one another. Christ has not died only for any one particular race. He died for all. Do not let the party labels or the political symbols determine our allegiances. It is difficult to go away from racial matters when noticing the politics of Malaysia. We just have to keep praying that the day will come, where people will see beyond skin colour.

Thirdly, pray with a purpose in mind, that God will bring peace and harmony, for the people to live peaceful and quiet lives. For believers, this is especially important. We pray for an environment where we can continue to seek a path of holy and godly living. We pray for continued opportunities to share the gospel, and the be the light in a world of dark. We pray for discipleship in the Church that can flourish in times of peace and goodwill. Look carefully, we will know that there are greater things at stake. For us as Christians, the gospel is at  stake. We may be grieved about some election fraud or unjust results. We may even be flabbergasted at the arrogance and silly statements of certain politicians. Yet, the greater purpose is the centrality of the gospel, lived out in faith, hope, and love.

Hopefully, through our common prayer for people, all people will be touched by the love of God the Father. Through our non-discriminatory stance of prayer, we remind one another that Jesus makes no distinction between Jews or Gentiles, for He came to save all. Through our purpose, we depend on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us toward all things, to bring glory to the Coming King!

Let me close with this prayer of Billy Graham, in his prayer for America. You can modify it for your country as you see fit.

Our Father and God, we praise You for Your goodness to our nation, giving us blessings far beyond what we deserve. Yet we know all is not right with America. We deeply need a moral and spiritual renewal to help us meet the many problems we face. Convict us of sin. Help us to turn to You in repentance and faith. Set our feet on the path of Your righteousness and peace. 
We pray today for our nation's leaders. Give them the wisdom to know what is right, and the courage to do it. 
You have said, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." May this be a new era for America, as we humble ourselves and acknowledge You alone as our Savior and Lord. This we pray in Your holy name, Amen

THOUGHT: "He that loveth little prayeth little, he that loveth much prayeth much." (Augustine)

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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, May 4, 2013

"Can We Change our Spots?"

TITLE: CAN WE CHANGE OUR SPOTS?
SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 13
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 4th, 2013

"Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil." (Jer 13:23)

Elections are currently underway in Malaysia. Next week, provincial elections will also be held in British Columbia, Canada. Across the world, one word is quite often used to garner support: Change.

The question today is this. Can someone accustomed to all the wrong things be able to do all the right things? This week, I will be reflecting on the challenges of change, especially when one is bounded to the wrong things.

Let us turn to the book of Jeremiah. Compared to the New Testament, the prophetical books of the Old Testament are not preached as often. Some may wonder why. Perhaps, it is because the texts are way too ancient for modern understanding. Maybe, our modern fast-paced world and technological society cannot appreciate the contexts and cultures of the the old.  For the two reasons above, we can easily respond that there are lots of Bible resources, trained scholars and professors, and theological astute people in our midst who can bridge the gap. There are also pastors and gifted teachers who bring about powerful expositions of the ancient prophecy, to bring about change in contemporary times.

The passage today points to this truth: When change is no longer possible, there remains one thing: Destruction. Where change is possible, it is less about change on the outside and more about change from the inside.

A) Unbounded People

How on earth can a great nation of Israel end up in embarrassing defeat?

No one envies Jeremiah. Speaking out against a people wayward in their ways, perverted in their thoughts, idolatrous in the soul. It is a undesirable job, worse than debt collectors. Like a helpless non-swimmer looking at someone drowning in the waters, Jeremiah can only warn Israel about the impending judgment of God if they continue their wayward days. Instead of Israel turning toward God in repentance, they are continue to walk in their sins in delight.  Change is necessary, but the sinful Israel cannot change their sinful spots. A spiritual turnaround is possible, but they refuse the possible and choosing instead to reveal in incredulous things.

Chapter 13 of the book of Jeremiah shows us some horrible things which make us think about how God is loving in the first place. At the onset, readers are told about the arrogance of Israel (Jer 13:9). God uses a "girdle" or a "linen belt" to describe inner condition of Israel. The linen belt is symbolically about servanthood. It is meant to be bound around the waist, meaning that the purpose and meaning of a servant is bounded up in the relationship with God. God owns his people. His people are servants. The linen belt is like the covenant that represents God saving his people, and the people serving God.

Unfortunately, instead of serving God, the people loose their girdles and serve other gods. Instead of being bounded to God, they leave themselves to the crevices of sin (Jer 13:10). In  doing so, they become "ruined and completely useless" (Jer 13:7). They fail to listen to God. They commit horrible sins against themselves. One of the most horrible things that humans can do are the things they inflict upon themselves.

When I read about the part in Jer 13:14, where the LORD "smash them against the other, parents and children alike," it does make us wonder why God is so harsh and cruel. How does that jive with our understanding of a loving God? Is that not a horrible thing to "smash" families, even children?

In Scripture, the ultimate punishment is not what others do to us, but what we do to ourselves. Israel has been doing all the smashing in the first place. The judgment of Jeremiah 13:14 is exactly what Israel has been doing to each other in the first place. Like a fence that separates two rival predators, the ferocious predators on both sides of the fence continue to gnaw at the fence, curse at the other, ready to attack at the first opportunity. God has been stopping that from happening all along. It has then come to the point where the LORD deems enough is enough. The most merciful thing to do is to let them destroy themselves, as they no longer desire to be saved from themselves. Such a pattern is also familiar in the New Testament. In his letter to the Romans, Paul pronounces the Lord's judgment on the sinful race.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (Romans 1:24)
This is not exactly a prooftext against sexual perversions. It is less about attacking homosexual behaviour and more about attacking sin. The worst thing people can do to one another is to sin and continue to sin against one another.

B) Bounded to the Wrong Things

Just like a leopard cannot change its spots, the sinful man cannot change the colour of his skin.  Even with the most advanced plastic surgery, we know that the skin being the biggest organ of the human body, is impossible to completely changed, humanly speaking. It can be grafted in but with high risk of infection. It can undergo plastic surgery but at a great cost. The point is this. External changes are one thing, but inner changes is totally a different challenge altogether.

For Israel has bounded herself to the wrong thing. They have strapped themselves to the gods of the land. In the process fails to live out as servants of God, as according to the covenant. God has been keeping his promises all along. Israel has not. God has been sending leaders, judges, prophets, kings, and priests, to warn Israel. The people ignore God. Instead of being bounded to God, they are bounded to the wrong things. Worse, they have chosen to bind themselves to the sinful and shameful acts. The LORD has not planned in the first place to destroy Israel. In fact, the LORD constantly tries to rescue his people.

Our stubbornness can do us more harm than good. I remember the story where a man was left stranded on the rooftop after a major flood. He is a pious man who believes earnestly that God will appear from the sky in person and rescue him to the clouds. A rescue boat came by to offer assistance. He refused the offer, saying: "My God is coming to rescue me." A few hours later, another rescue boat arrived, only to be refused with the same reason. Finally, as the waters continued to rise, a helicopter came, with very much the same response by this man. He drowned.

When we are bounded to the wrong things, we do silly things. Conviction is a good thing, but when it is bounded to the wrong idea or purpose, it is bad. The trouble with Israel is that they have chosen to bind themselves to idolatry so much, that they have become accustomed to worshiping and following the idols of their lives. When that happened, they no longer are able to do good.

Positive change is not possible when we are bounded to the wrong things.

C) Bounded to Our Modern Idols

Source: Internet
Campaigns and elections are currently underway in Malaysia and soon in British Columbia, Canada. In Malaysia, people are clamouring for change. The common people have become sick and tired of the rampant reports of corruption within the existing ruling party. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. The logic is this: People want change for the better and hope that with a change of government, perhaps, they will get a better life.

This is a universal desire. Like Martin Luther King Junior's great dream, it is a dream that the day will come where all people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. It is a human right to be treated justly and humanely. It is a plain and simple desire to want a better life for all. Equality is one thing. Talking about it is another.

As I talk with loved ones, votes will probably be in favour of the "lesser evil." Will one vote for the ruling party to continue four more years of the same old thing, fearing change to our 'normal' lifestyle and continuity in existing states of unhappiness? Will positive change happen if the ruling party returns to power? The people hope, but there is no guarantee.

Or will one vote for change, by making sure the opposition wins? That way, there will be new opportunities and hopes, even though it comes at a greater risk of uncertainty, disruptions, and of course, possible chaos. This too, the people hope, but again, there is also no guarantee.

Whichever party wins, there is no guarantee of positive change. Elections themselves are risks. Check out Indonesia during the handover of power from Suharto. Or look at the Arab Spring countries where governments have been overturned.

I think the issue is much bigger than a mere political vote. As long as the human condition is unchanged, any external change will only be temporal.

D) Change is Possible But

This is because the common foe is not the opposition vs the ruling government. Neither is it about the rich vs the poor, or one race over the other. The common foe is idolatry eating ourselves to death. Kyle Idleman brings up three "temples of idolatry" which remind us how bounded we are to them.

Firstly, the temple of pleasure. Have we become accustomed to doing anything or everything so that we can attain more pleasure through junk food, perverted sex, and entertainment that spins us into greater bondage to pleasure? Secondly, there is the temple of power. Have we become accustomed to constant desire for achievement at the expense of principles, success instead of significance, money instead of meaning? Tony Campolo sums up pretty much our modern predicament. In an interview with 50  people over the age of 95, he asked them the question: "What will you do differently if you can live life all over again?" The answers are revealing of the idols they have gotten trapped in.
  1. If I had life to live all over again, I would reflect more.
  2. If I had life to live all over again, I would risk more.
  3. If I had life to live all over again, I would do more things that would live on after I am dead. 
My friends, are you trapped in some pursuit of an idol? Have you ever taken the time to pause from the madness of busyness, and to reflect about what it means to live? Have you sought out help with regards to how your life has reflected your deepest held beliefs? Have you discipled others so that they can go on to disciple others? Have you loved God enough to give up your idols?

I pray that the answers to all the above, will not only be yes, but a great desire to do something about it. One more thing. We cannot change the colour of our skin. Neither can leopards change their spots. What is be done is to have a new body. It is possible to be transformed in the heart and to be renewed in the mind. That is the work of God. May we all respond positively to the work of God in us, lest we are left to our own devices. Positive change is possible, but we need God first to change us.

"What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give." (Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods)


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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.

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