Friday, January 31, 2014

The Year of the Horse

SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 12:5
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: January 31st, 2014

"If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?" (Jeremiah 12:5)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Xin Nian Kuai Le! Happy Chinese New Year!

This week, Chinese people all over the world will be celebrating 15 continuous days of the Lunar New Year, also known to usher in the season of Spring. Today is the first day of the Year of the Horse. Many of my friends are in a "horsing" mood, sending pictures of horses, greetings and good wishes such as 龙马精神 (vigour like a horse) or 马到成功 (may success be speedy), or simply 祝福马年 (Happy Year of the Horse), and so on. One story I read about was on how farmers will choose to rest their horses this year and transfer the workload to their oxen! I don't know, but with so many references being made to horses, I wonder if Gangnam Style will be revitalized all over again. After all, the viral video has the superstar Psy in a galloping posture as if he is riding on horses. Those who are superstitious will flock to various fortune telling experts to try to see what bodes for them in the new year. It is the culture of Chinese people to make sure that only good things are said and done during the 15 days. Negative words or references are shunned to avoid jinxing oneself. One expert even say that the horse is "one of our best friends but you need to train it."

Horses are well described in the Old Testament. It is used as a symbol of power and might (Exodus 15:1). It is a legitimate item for barter trade or transactions (1 Kings 10:29). It is also used as a way to describe gates (Nehemiah 3:28). Psalms use the image of horses as vanity (Ps 33:17). It is used in warfare (Prov 21:31). It is used in prophecy (Zechariah 12:4).  In the New Testament, the horse is a vivid figure on the various judgments poured on the world. The term "Four horsemen" has also been used to signify four major powers. In Jeremiah, it is used as a rebuke to the prophet's lack of patience and resilience. It is also used as a precursor to something more, a preparation for worse things that is to come.

"If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out," is a sharp rebuke against anyone thinking of giving up at the earliest battles. I remember running long distance last year at the Vancouver Sun Run. At the beginning, I notice people were giving one another high-fives. They were very chatty with one another. They were upbeat and excited. Once the starting gun was fired, they all ran. Before long, the chats became shorter. With each stride, the distance between the fit and the not so fit became wider. The race became more and more challenging as the minutes ran by. Some eventually were forced to slow down to a walker's pace. Others stopped to catch a breath. A few even decided to just take it easy and forgot about bettering their personal best times. Only the determined pressed on to complete the race in good time. The hardest part of any long distance race is the middle part. I remember how my heart collapsed when after a seemingly long time, with my arms and legs totally exhausted, I saw a signboard that said:
"You're Halfway There!" 
I thought to myself, "What? Another 50% more?" Truly, I heart dropped. Exhaustion got the better of me. Something in me kept me going.

"Finish the race."
That I did. I finished the race, even when the timing was not my best. As I reflected on the verse, it dawned upon me that there is another way to understand it. The second part of the verse, "how can you compete with horses," is a remarkable elevation of men's ability to run and even compete with horses. It means we are created for more. We can do more. We can race with horses. Paul writes with passion about his service for God.

"To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me." (Col 1:29)

We are made for more. With Christ, we can do even more. Such is the awesomeness of our potential. We can compete with horses.

We are made for more, not average. Far too many Christians are content to live under the umbrella of average. They say that they are an average Bible reader, an average prayer warrior, and an average communicator. Why impose an average ceiling on ourselves? Is it not self-censorship of our own abilities? How true is our own notion of average?

Personally, it is an easy and acceptable answer to announce our average status. It is modest. It keeps us in the majority who prefers to be in the safety of the masses. My challenge is this: How true is our own "average"-ness? What if we have been made for more? Are we placing a lid on God's purpose for us?

Jeremiah 12:5 reminds us that competing with fellow men is not the main thing. It is letting that prepare us to race with horses. Perhaps, as we build up a discipline of excellence, we will be preparing ourselves to be more for the Lord. We are not average by default. We are made for more. We can beat the horses.

THOUGHT: "It is understandable that there are retreats from excellence, veerings away from risk, withdrawals from faith. It is easier to define oneself minimally (“a featherless biped”) and live securely within that definition than to be defined maximally (“little less than God”) and live adventurously in that reality." (Eugene Peterson, Run With the Horses, Downers Grove, IL:  IVP, 2009, p22)


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Thursday, January 23, 2014

How Technology Distracts

Written by: Dr Conrade Yap 
Date: January 23rd, 2014

This is Part 2 of my series of reflections on technology and faith.
"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24, KJV)

I remember years ago, the American Express company had a marketing blitz with the catchy phrase: "The American Express Card. Don't Leave Home Without It." Created by the advertising giant, Ogilvy and Mather, after the launch of the ad, people automatically remember the connection of the ad to the well-known blue Amex card. Nowadays, it is quite unthinkable to leave home without our cellphones, e-devices, tablets, or digital gadgets. For it contains not only our telephone contacts, the smartphone is our key source of communications, entertainment while stuck in traffic, as well as an important information aggregator and device to update our social media status. For many of us, our daily tagline just before leaving our homes is: "Your smartphone device. Don't leave home without it."

Without a doubt, if there is any one object that describes our era, it will be the smartphone. Behind this lies a potpurri of technology products from software to hardware; from communications infrastructure to the ubiquitous wireless waves; from public to personal; from business to leisure; and so on. With technology, many of us feel more advanced, more in touch with information, and more in control of the things we need to know. The question is, are we really in control of technology or is technology controlling us?

In the July/August 2008 cover story of the Atlantic, Author Nicholas Carr wrote a stunning article: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Noting that the way people are depending on the use of the popular search engine is affecting the behaviour of people, he asserts that the human brain is fast being manipulated by Google. Simply put, while Google is a boon for people seeking and consuming information, it is a bane when it comes to people actually thinking about the information. As the information deluge continues, people are getting more information but learning less knowledge. People are connecting more but thinking less. People are receiving more answers but are increasingly inept at questioning the truths of these answers. Carr expands his ideas in a book entitled, "The Shallows," which warns us against letting technology do all the thinking, the learning, and the living for us. That is not all, we are reminded that Marshall McLuhan's message that the medium is the message rings true even more today. Carr takes the same stand as McLuhan:

Friday, January 17, 2014

How Technology Divides - Part 1

SCRIPTURE: Ps 119:2-3
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: January 17th, 2014

GIST: How does technology divide us? Just look at the pervasive way in which technology is affecting our everyday lives. We may pride ourselves as users of technology. Yet, at the same time, we need to beware that technology can be a tool to divide us, by standing between one another to become a Technology as Validator? Maybe, in validating our facts, technology may be unwittingly invalidating the growth of our relationships.
"Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart—they do no wrong but follow his ways." (Ps 119:2-3)
It is a common sight. Oblivious people prefer their digital tablets to noticing people around them; Ignorant pedestrians worry more about talking on their cellphones than watching if there is traffic around them; Distracted friends busy uploading their selfies or snapping a photo of their food before they eat; Family members eating together but behave as if they are alone with their own digital devices. If Helen Reddy was to sing her best-selling song, she might even be singing:
“It’s you (cellphone) and me against the world. 
Sometimes it feels like you (cellphone) and me against the world. 
When all of me turn my face and look away
You (cellphone) can count on me to stay.”
Times have changed. Gone are those days when office work can be separated easily from social gatherings. Gone are those times in which we can just sit down and be totally absorbed in one another, without interruptions from phone calls, email beeps, or social media updates. Aldous Huxley is quite prophetic in his warning about technology. He writes:

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.”

As far as relationships are concerned, I think we speaking less to one another. We are talking less and texting more. We have reached that strange point in which we are most connected technologically, but more disconnected relationally. We have actually gone backwards in our humanness.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Can Anyone Live Without God?

SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 13:22-25
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date:  January 10th, 2013.

"22And if you ask yourself, “Why has this happened to me?”— it is because of your many sins that your skirts have been torn off and your body mistreated. 23Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. 24“I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind. 25This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you,” (Jeremiah 13:22-25)
Is it possible to live without God? Can people simply switch God off anytime they want? What about the strange logic that one can actually take a sabbatical from faith? This week, I want to entitle this week's article as "Can Anyone Live Without God?"

Can Christians take a break from God? It seems unthinkable. Yet, Californian pastor Ryan Bell of a Seventh-Day Adventist Church thinks otherwise. While many people around the world think about resolutions and make resolutions each new year, Bell decides that for 12 months this year, he would abandon his faith, stop praying at all, and try to live as if God does not exist. As an ordained minister, a pastor for 19 years, as well as a seminarian, Bell embarks upon his 12-month experiment through social media about his endeavors. Since then, it has been reported that Bell is struggling with losing a job, making ends meet, and at the same time, getting help from an unlikely source: Atheists. This may look like a publicity stunt, but when I read the report, it seems like Bell is embarking on a personal quest to try to live out his doubts in order to validate them. How successful will he be? I do not know.

There have been other similar experiments to try out something out of the ordinary. There is AJ Jacob's one year experiment described in his humourous book, "A Year of Living Biblically," where Jacobs puts all doubts about the Bible aside, and tries to live as literally as possible what the Bible actually says. He follows more than 700 rules and regulations stipulated within, and especially the Old Testament. Since that year, he has given talks about his efforts and his biblical experimenting. People laugh, but he sure is serious.

Such experiments are basically reactions to something they are uncomfortable about. Jacobs is uncomfortable about the way fundamentalists are insisting upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. Others like Bell is uncomfortable with doubts amid his own ministry. It is an honest attempt to deal actively with deep troubling thoughts about doubts and what-ifs. Bell is not someone who has embraced change. He has converted from being a Methodist to Seventh-Day Adventist. He has shifted from fundamentalist positions to something more "progressive." So why is it surprising when he decides to take the leap from faith to unbelief? Moreover, this is a one-year experiment, which also means nothing is decided until the end of the 365 days. I find that such lifestyles tend to be more hype and reality. Three questions will frame the discussion. What is the limit of such experimentation? Is it necessary in the first place? Is it worth it?

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Five Rs of New Year Resolutions

SCRIPTURE: Acts 1:4-5
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: January 3rd, 2014

4On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)

Happy New Year! People all over the world celebrate the end of 2013 and welcome the start of 2014. Behind the champagnes over the bar, the party on the streets, and the colourful fireworks in the sky, lingers the age old question: "What are your New Year Resolutions?"

Then comes an increasingly common reply which sounds either like "I have resolved not to make any more New Year Resolutions," or "My New Year resolution is not to make any more New Year resolutions." Such statements are increasingly "same old, same old."

As I was thinking about how more people are giving up the making of any resolutions altogether, I cannot help but wonder whether resolutions themselves fail not because of a lack of resolve, but for a lack of realism. Last year, I listed five New Year resolutions for my readers to consider. This year, I want to follow up with another five. They are not exactly new, but are some that we can all ponder and maybe embark upon. It is more important to make a small number of good resolutions instead of too many frivolous and impossible ones. I call it the 5Rs of New Year Resolutions. They are the Repetitions of punctuality; the Restoration of our commitment to promises made; Revelation from above; Resolution written down; and finally to participate in a spiritual Revolution. The first two can be done immediately. The next three require the disciplines of waiting, of pondering, wondering, and empowering.

In order to make any resolution stick, it needs to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or Attainable), Realistic (or Relevant), and Timely. This is also called SMART in many management circles. However, when it comes to spiritual matters, the SMART paradigm does not work as well. So this article will put forth two practical resolutions that meet the SMART requirements and three spiritual ones that help us wait, wonder, and be waken up by God.