Friday, April 1, 2016

Faith and Contentment

SCRIPTURE: Philippians 4:12-13
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: April 1st, 2016

"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12-13)

This week, I want to share three thoughts from my sabbatical.

It has been a strange sabbatical for me. After seven years of being in gainful employment, I took a 3-month sabbatical so as to take a step back from my routine, my regular work schedule, and my familiar activities. During this time, I preached at different churches. I traveled to the Far East. I spent more time with family and friends. When people asked me what I wanted to do during this time, I told them I wanted to write a book. That had not taken off. The ideas were there. The thoughts were there. However, the determination and discipline to do that were not there. After all, a sabbatical must be a sabbatical. Otherwise, call it a different kind of work or some activity-oriented break. One of the problems in modern society is that we have not really understood what rest means. We know how to work from 9 to 5. We know how to bring our projects home from the office. We know how to get connected to the Internet, carry our emails with us, and stay connected to work even when we are home. We have become so comfortable with working that we are increasingly uncomfortable with anything non-work. With such a work-saturated mindset, true rest is hard to find.

Many people have said good things about the sabbath. Let me share a few.
  • Seven days of work makes one weak
  • "It is not the Jews that kept the Sabbath but the Sabbath that kept the Jews." (Jewish Rabbi) 
  • "He who cannot rest, cannot work; he who cannot let go, cannot hold on; he who cannot find footing, cannot go forward." (Harry Emerson Fosdick) 
  • "As a man addicted to activity and anxiety, I could tell you story after story about how a restless lifestyle is everything from silly to stupid to soul killing." (Mark Galli)
  • "Test the premise that you are worth more than you can produce – that even if you spent one whole day of being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight. " (Barbara Brown Taylor)
  • "No other behavioral change has brought so many unintended but welcome benefits to my life of faith and my work as a pastor." (Eugene Peterson)
This week, I want to share three thoughts about my sabbatical.

1) We Need Space from the Race

The Rat Race is Like . . . 
Whether we like it or not, most of us are in some kind of a race. From getting a good performance review to winning business deals, we want to make sure that our efforts bear fruit. We work hard. We push hard. We pray hard. In Christian communities, Sundays too can be one of the most hectic day of the week. Parents rush their kids to get ready for Church. Sunday school teachers prepare lessons diligently and deliver them faithfully. Preachers prepare sermons through the week and deliver them. They have to work hard, pray often, and hope that when the day comes, they do not fumble or say the wrong things. Following the Church service comes other activities like clean-up work, catching up with people over fellowship, and preparing as much as possible to minimize the following week's logistics. If afternoons are free, some would take a walk in the park. Some would have extended fellowship. Personally, Sunday afternoons are the best times to nap.

We have become so accustomed to doing things that we have missed out on what it means to really rest. When I was writing my doctoral thesis on the Sabbath, my supervising professor asked me to think about the question: "What do you do on the Sabbath?"

My answer: Nothing and Anything.

This may sound strange as both activities appear to contradict each other. How can nothing and anything co-exist? This brings me to the passage this week where Paul writes about his own faith and contentment.
"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty."
The context was about Paul's material needs. The Philippians cared for the imprisoned apostle. They had expressed concern about Paul's lack and wanted to bless Paul with gifts, according to what Paul needed. Gently, Paul assured the people that the material needs are secondary. He had learned that in all circumstances, contentment is key to joyful living. Being content is very much a reflection of the inner person. As I reflect on the topic of poverty, sometimes I wonder. Why is it that people who are poor often remain poor? Is it because they do not have enough food? Is it because they have been bullied by society, trapped by the poverty cycle, or cannot find gainful employment?

Hardly. The biggest problem with poverty is not material but a lack of hope. Without hope, without a dream, and without a vision for the future, people are unwilling to find a way out of their own predicament. It is like that lame man at the pool of Bethesda who laid pitifully beside the pool for 38 years. The moment Jesus asks if he wanted to get well, he didn't even answer the question directly. All he said was:

"Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." (John 5:7)

Jesus addressed this spiritual condition directly. He knew that the lame man's greatest need is for something more than healing. That was why when Jesus saw the man, He instructed: "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." (John 5:14)

The biggest problem with the lame man was not the physical handicap but a lack of hope for his future. Coming back to the Sabbath, I think without making space in our weekly schedules to re-orientate our souls, we will be unable to snap out of our self-inflicted work routines.

2) The World Goes On Even Without You

I got this theory, that the more we try to work ourselves hard, the more we are trying to prove to the world that we are needed. We are vital to the survival of the organization. We are indispensable. This is actually the cultivation of pride. The moment we start to heighten our personal sense of importance, the more we are susceptible to the fallacy of pride. At seminary, I have been trained to preach, to prepare, and to produce sermons week after week. Sometimes, it is out of necessity to preach week in, week out. Other times, it is because we cannot find alternative speakers. Still, there are churches that insist that their pastors preach every week. Sometimes, it is a case of the pastor's unwillingness to share the pulpit.

I have a problem with that. Even if a pastor can preach every week, I would caution against that for three reasons. First, every pastor needs a break. How can anybody maintain a high level of sermon preparation and delivery every week? It is impossible. Without taking a week or more to reflect and to be refreshed, the danger is that sermons become stale. Stories get repeated. The joy of speaking becomes dull. Eugene Peterson writes:

"We are capable of preaching good sermons on it to our parishioners, and we take great care to provide them a Sabbath of good worship and holy leisure. But we exempt ourselves. Curious." (Eugene Peterson in CT, The Pastor's Sabbath)

Second, the congregation also need a break. Imagine hearing the same voice every week, the same style, the same mannerism, and the same kind of sermon structure. Would that not bore even the most ardent listener? What about those who would like to hear a different perspective from time to time?

Third, others need a chance. I believe in the cultivation of a community of preachers. Whether it is a preaching elder, a theological student, a mature disciple, or some visiting speaker, when we have a community of preachers, we can let God use the different gifts they have, the creative ideas, and the spiritual maturity to bless the rest of the Church. Failing to let them exercise their gifts undermines the movement of the Spirit. I concur with Gavin Adams:

"I think every preacher forgets they were once young and learning, too. Every great preacher began as a young, growing, aspiring preacher. As a senior pastor, you have the opportunity to shape the future of the church by allowing the younger guys opportunities to preach." (Gavin Adams, Pastor: You Don't Have to Preach Every Week in "")
This is perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned in my sabbatical: Life goes on, even without me in it. God uses anyone, and God can also choose NOT to use me.

3) It's Important to See God Work Amid Our Rush to Do God's Work

In the days of creation in Genesis 1, there is a constant refrain,

"God saw that ____ was good."

Photo Credit:
The cellphone is one of the most visible symbols of our culture today. Just the other day when I was at an Apple store, one Apple specialist was boasting about the iPhone being the world's most popular camera in the world. True. Many people worldwide have iPhones. With the rear camera, they snap pictures of everything. With the front camera, they take selfies. Whenever they go, the automatic impulse was to snap an image with or without us in the picture and then post it on social media. The rush to get ourselves in the picture and to share with everybody on the Internet is so overwhelming that the actual scenery, monument, or attraction becomes secondary. Like a typical tourist that is more interested in taking a picture of the self next to the attraction. Once the picture is taken, the interest in the very attraction wanes. It seems like the "I've been there" is more important than the actual wonder of the world. Could this also mean that the rush to do God's work is more important than God?

When we are constantly on the move, we miss things. Those of us who drive often need to learn to take a walk around our neighbourhood. For when we do so, we slow down. We see our neighbourhood. We become familiar with our home surroundings. Drivers often miss things. In the same way, if we do not pause regularly, even in the doing of God's work, we may miss seeing how God works.

Paul writes to the Philippians that "He can do everything...."

What kind of "everything" is he talking about? It is about the doing of everything because it is the Lord who strengthens him. It is the Lord who makes things happen, not us. It is the Lord who gives us joy in service. Will God prefer to use a cheerful or a grouchy usher? Will God prefer to use an inspired or an exhausted Sunday School teacher? Will God prefer to use a happy or grumpy board member?

My fellow readers, and servants in Christ. Do yourself a favour. Take a break regularly and often. Just as the doing of God's work requires a step of faith, taking the Sabbath in itself is also a step of faith.

THOUGHT: "There is a restlessness and fretfulness in these day which stand like two granite walls against Godliness. Contentment is almost necessary to Godliness, and Godliness is absolutely necessary to contentment. A very restless man will never be a very Godly man, and a very Godly man will never be a very restless man." (D.L. Moody)


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