Wednesday, April 30, 2008

生意 (Business)

Business in the Chinese language is called 生意 (sheng yi). Literally, it reads as "grow meaning." Isn't it a pity that such a wonderful phrase cannot be adequately captured in English? For the economically minded Chinese person, 生意 is equivalent to a profit making enterprise. The more the better. It is common for business people to wish one another well in growing their money-making enterprises.

If 生意 is to be true to its original meaning, would it not be appropriate to measure good business as one that does not only make money, it brings meaning to the participants of the business relationship. Biblically, working hard and being fruitful in our work is an honourable endeavour. Jesus even warns us to count the cost, and measure our resources before we embark upon major projects like building a tall tower. Yet, the statistics compiled (referred to by Stephen Covey's The Eighth Habit) by Harris Poll paints a grim picture of the reality of the business world.
  • Only 37% of workers clearly understood what their organization is trying to do
  • Only 20% are enthusiastic about their organizational goals
  • Only 20% see the link between their work and organizational goals
  • Only half are satisfied with their work at the end of each week
  • Only 15% sees their organization as a place of high trust
  • Only 17% felt their place of work supports open communications
  • Only 10% felt that people are held accountable by the organization for results
  • Only 20% fully trusts the organization they work for
  • Only 13% have high-trust working relationship

Sad picture, isn't it? It makes me wonder why. If the statistics are correct, then more than 75% of the workers surveyed are pathetically doing meaningless work! What happened to the 'growth of meaning?' Covey gives a rather persuasive diagnosis and divides the human person into four parts: body; heart; mind and spirit. The 'body' represents being paid fair wages. The 'heart' represents being treated kindly and respectably as an employee. The 'mind' represents the creativity employed in the work. The 'spirit' represents the meaning behind the work. This is a neat and tidy description which will whet the typical Western mind trained in systematic thought. My question would be: "Can a person be neatly divided into four parts?" I will agree that for pedagogical reasons, such an approach is a helpful beginning. However, it is only for the purpose of a framework of understanding. He goes on to define the greatest need for people to go beyond becoming effective in whatever they do, into becoming 'great' people once they have found their voice. After finding their voice, they ought to help others find their voice as well. Bear in mind, that Covey is talking mainly about principles of life and it is another "if it works, use it" contribution to the bludgeoning stacks of how-to books in management. He identifies a problem and prescribes a solution to it. Using delightful quotes and captivating anecdotes, it is no wonder this book is becoming a bestseller in many ways. However, its impact is not as widely felt as his first book about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Darrell Cosden suggests another model, seeing work in terms of three interrelated dimensions: Instrumental, Relational and Ontological. There needed to be an eschatological thrust in all of these dimensions, argues Cosden. The instrumental refers to using work as a means to an end. The relational being the motivational aspect while the ontological means the personal human aspect, or the state of being. All three are not separated. I feel that Cosden's model is more integrative than Covey's. Covey's framework is compelling, from an understanding point of view, but I feel that while it is easy to break them up, putting them back together is no simple feat. Covey did mention a small reference to God in his 400-over pages of exciting reading. He quotes an anonymous source:
I sought my God and my God I could not find.
I sought my soul and my soul eluded me.
I sought my brother to serve him in his need,
and I found all three - my God, my soul and thee.
(Stephen Covey, The Eighth Habit, NY: Free Press, 2004, 314)
On the other hand, Cosden's model does not require one to break them up, but argues for a theology of work that is integrative.
Human work is a transformative activity essentially consisting of dynamically interrelated instrumental, relational, and ontological dimensions: whereby, along with work being an end in itself, the worker's and others' needs are providentially met; believers' sanctification is occasioned; and workers express, explore and develop their humanness while building up their natural, social and cultural environments thereby contributing protectively and productively to the order of this world and the one to come. (Darrell Cosden, A Theology of Work, Paternoster, 2004, 178-9)
While Cosden's monograph may not have been as financially successful compared to Covey's big fame and reputed name, his theology of work is more encompassing and meaningful for a Christian. He reminds us that work done merely as an instrumental tool is at best incomplete. There is a need to derive hope by looking forward to the future. Don't get me wrong. I like Covey's 8th Habit. It contains lots of helpful tips for living and helps us go beyond the surface level of body-mind-heart into the spirit domain. However, it is too 'neat' for my comfort, that life can be so easily divided into body-mind-heart-spirit. Cosden's model on the other hand, does not deny the instrumental and relational role, and uses the ontological role as one that 'transcends' the two. It is all about being human. That is exactly right. The best way to grow in meaning (生意) is to know oneself more truly. Alas, the world constantly ought to be reminded of the following in order to build and help one another find meaning in their work. The following is a list of seven helpful checkpoints in our work-life, to make sure that our means must measure up to whatever ends we seek. We must avoid the following (saying attributed to Gandhi):
  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Knowledge without character
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice
  • Politics without principle
Let me add one more. We must avoid work without rest; and rest without worrying about work. The Sabbatical principle must be kept.



Discernment is a key word in Christian life. There is an interesting story which helps us to understand what discernment entails.
It was said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper they said to him:

'Aren't you that Agathon who is said to be a fornicator and a proud man?'
'Yes, it is very true,' he answered.

They resumed, 'Aren't you that Agothon who is always talking nonsense?'
'I am."

Again they said 'Aren't you Agothon the heretic?'
But at that he replied: 'I am not a heretic.'

So they asked him, 'Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated this last insult.'

He replied 'The first accusations I take to myself for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.'

At this saying they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.
This story reminds me of Paul, who is willing to endure anything and everything, in order to know Christ deeply and to make him known widely. He desires to be with Christ, but obeyed the calling to remain in the flesh for a while longer for the sake of the Church (Phil 1:22-23). Jesus prays compassionately for his disciples and all believers that they may know God more deeply. He prays for Peter that his faith will not fail (Luke 22:23). The biblical writers have this in common: Their writings point us to God. That is discernment at work. Discernment in the Hebrew Scriptures points us to knowledge/wisdom. The word 'bin' in Hebrew can be translated 'to understand with great care' or 'to discern with knowledge and wisdom.' It has always got to do with the fulfilling of God's mission and vision in the lives of the people of God. The word was used to show forth Daniel's righteous character while the prophet was in Babylon. It was used to describe the character of Joseph who virtually saved Israel from famine (Deut 41:39). It was used in the selection of leaders for the tribes of Israel (Deut 1:13).

On the other hand, punishment and downfall awaits those who are dull to discernment.
When its limbs are dry, they are broken off;
Women come and make a fire with them,
For they are not a people of discernment,
Therefore their Maker will not have compassion on them.
And their Creator will not be gracious to them.
(Isa 27:11)
Does that mean that discernment is compulsory for Christians? Affirmative, but it is not one fenced by an iron rod of forced compliance. It is one soaked with the thirst for God. A lover will not find loving the beloved any difficult. How can anyone say to the person who loves apples, that he has to eat an apple a day? He will be more willing to eat more than one! The desert fathers express this deep thirst and hunger for God, by subjecting themselves to spiritual disciplines not to punish themselves, but primarily to seek after God in an unhindered manner. If the world prevents them from knowing God, they will forsake the world. If family and friends stand against them in their journey to God, they will let them go. If food and luxury distracts them, they will fast and abstain from material riches. Another story points us to the difference between adopting spiritual disciplines for its own sake, or for God's intimacy.
An old man was asked, “How can I find God?”

He said, “In fasting, in watching, in labors, in devotion, and, above all, in discernment. I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad from fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all the Psalms of David, but we have not that which God seeks: charity and humility.”
These two stories point us to one single desire of the desert fathers: God. Abba Agothon is willing to bear all things, except that which imply separation from God. Like a fish needing to get back to the water, he thirsts for God. Like fire that requires wood in order to burn, he seeks the ultimate Fire of Love. Like one who needs oxygen to survive physically, the desert fathers knew that spiritual survival means needing to breathe in God's presence. The Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians:

"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better." (Eph 1:17)

Wisdom and revelation is Paul's prayer request for the church at Ephesus. Is it for them to live a meaningful life? Yes. For them to live a good material life? Maybe. For them to live a fruitful life? Surely. Most importantly, it is for them to draw near to God. This drawing near to God, is the single most important factor in any Christian discernment process. The reason why we are to despise the world and to count all things but loss is because these things distracts and draws us away from the fountain of life, the giver of water that satisfies.

Desiring God is something we seek to practice. Yet, we must be humble to recognize that we are still sinful beings, and have not arrived at a state of perfection. We cannot fully appreciate God until we see his kingdom come in all his glory. Until we are given new bodies, our desire cannot be complete. It is the 'desiring' that continues to catapult our heart from longing for Christ to belonging to Christ. From the state of longing to that prolonging of being with God. It not only feels good. It IS good. Michael Casey, in his reflections on Bernard's desire for God has this to say:
"Desire for God is not a visible, measurable factor within human experience. It is an element of the inner life of every human being, yet it is only glimpsed fragmentarily through successive and disparate manifestations. As such, it cannot be described in the language of ordinary experience; it is forced to rely on abstraction and symbolism. To penetrate to an understanding of desire for God requires the 'gradual construction of a quite different mode of apprehension and of expression.'" (Michael Casey, Athirst for God, Kalamazoo:Cistercian Publications, 1987, 129)
Casey points out an important observation. Desiring God must never be measured in human terms, although it can be expressed humanly. This desiring is part of the discernment process of informing our senses:
  • Which is the best way toward God?
  • What can I do to know God better?
  • Which is the best path where I can walk closer with God?
  • What are the impediments and barriers that prevent me from a closer walk with Jesus?
  • Which steps appear 'correct' but is actually leading us AWAY from God? We must avoid anything that draws us away, especially subtle things.

This third story is one I really like. It is about one's desire for God, that prayers made out appear on the surface to be a selfish one. However, such 'selfishness' is actually driven from a desire for a deeper and longer time with God. Two persons have different objectives, but their desire to obey and to be with God is played out very differently.
I must tell you how the venerable Father Benedict once wished for something but could not obtain it.

His sister, Scholastica, had from her infancy been dedicated to the Lord Almighty. She used to come to see the man of God once a year. He would come down to her with some disciples. They devoted the whole day to the praises of God and to holy conversation. As the shades of night were falling, they ate their meal together. They were still eating, and it was getting late as they continued their holy talk when his sister, the holy nun, put this request to him: 'I entreat you, do not leave me tonight so that we may talk on till morning about the joys of the heavenly life.' 'My sister,' he replied, 'what are you saying? It is completely impossible for me to remain outside my cell.'

At the time, the sky was so serene that not a cloud was to be seen. When she heard her brother refuse her, the nun placed her hands on the table with fingers intertwined and rested her head on her hands to pray to the Lord Almighty. When she raised it up again, such violent thunder and lightning and such a downpour of rain broke out that neither the venerable Benedict nor the brothers who were with him could put a foot outside the door of the place where they were sitting. For the nun, while laying her head on her hands, had spilt streams of tears on the table, and this was how she changed the serenity of the sky to rain. Nor did the inundation begin a little after her prayer, but the prayer and the downpour were so closely related that she raised her head from the table along with the thunder and it was at one and the same moment that she raised her head and the rain fell.

Then the man of God, amid the lightning, thunder and immense downpour of rain, seeing that he could not return to the monastery, began to complain sadly: 'May God Almighty pardon you, sister! What have you done ?' 'See,' she replied, 'I asked you and you wouldn't listen to me. I asked the Lord and he listened. Go now, if you can. Leave me and go back to the monastery.' But he had to stay under that roof. He was not willing to remain freely in the place, so he had to stay unwillingly. And so it happened that they passed the whole night in vigil, and each fully satisfied the other with holy talk on the spiritual life.

It was of this incident that I said that he wanted something but could not prevail. For if we consider the thought of the holy man, evidently he would have liked the good weather he had while going down to have continued but, contrary to his wishes and by the power of almighty God, he found a miracle coming from a woman's heart. Nor is it any surprise that the woman who wished to see her brother for a longer time was on this occasion stronger than he, for according to the words of John, 'God is love,' and by an altogether fair judgment, she was able to do more because she loved more.
Let our discernment process never be done in isolation from the love of God. Let our love of God be the main lens of discernment. Discernment has got to do with wisdom and knowledge. It can be found in wise decision making. However, discernment is never true, never complete without love. The love of God which surpasses all understanding.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008


You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (John 15:16)
I received my Master of Divinity last night at a convocation ceremony held at Broadway Church. The whole church was packed with the Regent community, friends, relatives and of course the graduands of 2008. If there was a time where the question: "What's next?" was asked, yesterday was the single most number of times that question was asked from nearly everyone. My standard answer was: "I just want to take a short break first, to pray and discern." For the closer ones, I will let them know about my doctoral pursuits beginning this June 2008.

The subject of 'calling' has been very much in my mind in my four years in Regent College. We are trained not to hastily or carelessly answer that question. In my first year, I felt powerfully called to the ministry upon graduation. In the second year, the question becomes: "Why are you so sure?" In the third year, the question becomes: "Are you sure?" Finally, the question becomes: "What exactly is your calling?" This is not to be interpreted as an elevation of doubt, but a prompting to continually recognize our primary call to Christ, and to count the cost constantly as we follow Christ. Today, that question takes a dramatic twist. "You are already called. You need to listen in order to obey."

John 15 is known as the vineyard passage. It calls us to remember that it is Jesus who is the vineyard and we are the branches. The branches cannot take initiatives on their own. They must be led by the vine. God calls, and we as his disciples obey. The moment we tend to see a 'calling' as something we have to grapple with, we are already starting on the wrong track. We are already called. the question is "How best are we to express that calling?" In other words, I am already called the day I state my profession to follow Christ. I am called to love one another. I am called to be faithful in my present tasks. I am called to honour my wife and called to take care of my family. I am called to teach the Word of God. All of these callings stem from the single most important beginning: "God has chosen first." It is not we who choose at the onset, but it is Christ.

There is a theological divide here, pertaining to choices. The Augustinian camp will argue that man does not have the power to choose salvation, and in many ways, they are utterly helpless and dependent on the grace of God. Hence the verse above speaks powerfully, that all of creation, especially human beings need God. God is the first mover and the initiator of any act of salvation. This is the core belief of Calvinists and many Reformed believers. On the other hand, the existentialists, Pelagius (even Semi-Pelagians like Methodists) will argue that men in many ways have the power to choose. Otherwise, why give a commandment for people to obey in the first place? People must be given the chance to choose, otherwise, giving commandments are meaningless. The Danish existentialist, Soren Kierkeggaard presumes the need of a person to choose. He writes:
"The ultimate blessing is to choose is the pearl of great price. Each person must choose between God and the world, God and mammon."
Kierkegaard is perhaps appealing in terms of rationalistic arguments rather than a theological argument. In order to be consistent with John 15:16, his statements is essentially an extended discourse of a theological decision made previously. Yet, Kierkegaard's writings strongly suggest a humanistic power to choose. This is very appealing to modern minds, as freedom of choice becomes a more treasured and protected possession. He shifts from the existence of making choices to the dangers of not making a choice.
There is a tremendous danger in which we find ourselves by being human, a danger that consists in the fact that we are placed between two tremendous powers. The choice is left to us. We must either love or hate, and not to love is to hate. So hostile are these two powers that the slightest inclination towards the one side becomes absolute opposition to the other. Let us not forget this tremendous danger in which we exist. To forget is to have made your choice.
(Soren Kierkegaard, To Will One Thing) Such an attitude, I feel, tends to over exalt the power of choice of a human person. It makes one the sole ruler of the salvific act. Do you mean to say that one's power of choice can deny God? Does it make sense that one can defy God simply by one's tweaking of the mental faculty of denial?

For a Christian, choosing salvation is never a human act. God is the only one capable of doing that. The decision to recognize is however, within the jurisdiction of human choosing. For example, a child may feel very angry because his father did not buy him a car on his 21st birthday. He cannot simply turn to the father and announce: "You are not my father anymore." This is absurd. how can a child deny his 21 years of history? How can he simply decide to terminate a father-son relationship on the basis of a statement. Whether he likes it or not, he is still bonded and bounded to admit that he has a father. Whether he RECOGNIZE this at that time is another matter altogether.

Back to calling and choices, sometimes we find ourselves in a complicated mass of options that we claim we have a choice. We need to remind ourselves that we are already a chosen people of God. We are already called of God to be witnesses to the world in any role we play. We must not be paralyzed by the multiple options we have before us, and spend hours and years trying to decide which one. We must move to the position that says: "It does not matter." Whichever happens, I will still honour God. Thus, it is more important to move to an emotional readiness to fit the person to the task, rather than to force the task into the person. For a Christian, there is the need to understand the context of one's call. Choosing what to do next may be artificially challenging. Deep down in the hearts of every Christian, they already know that they are called to witness and be a light for Christ. Do not be distracted by the potpourri of choices. Ask in the manner of which path helps us grow closer to God, and to help others draw closer to God. That is the Christian calling. God has chosen us. We only need to recognize his closeness to us. Amazingly, verse 16 of John 15 ends in a comforting note. "The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name." Wow! I will ask for a deeper and closer walk with Christ. I will request for a higher experience with Christ. I will pray for a wider expression of my faith in Christ. I will ponder on greater truths revealed in his Word. I will wonder in admiration his kingdom come and the kingdom that is to come. Maranatha! Praise be to God who first chose us.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Way, The Truth and the Life

One of the best commentaries on John 14:6 is that of Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ.
Follow thou me. I am the way and the truth and the life. Without the way there is no going; without the truth there is no knowing; without the life there is no living. I am the way which thou must follow; the truth that thou must believe; the life that thou must hope. I am the inviolable way; the sovereign truth; life true, life blessed, life uncreated. If thou remain in my way thou shalt know the truth, and the truth shall make thee free, and thou shalt lay hold on eternal life.

[Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 56.1]
It has also inspired many other memorable compositions. The one below is delightful.

Without the Fire, There is No Burning
Without the Fire, there is no Burning,
without the Teacher, there's no Learning,
without the the Shepherd, no safe Keeping,
without the Sower, there's no Reaping.

Without the Judge, there is no Pleading,
without the Bread, no heav'nly Feeding,
without the Vine, no holy Drinking,
without the Mind, no Christly Thinking.

Without the Way, there is no Going,
without the Truth, no inward Knowing,
without the Life, there is no Living.
Without the Cross, no full Forgiving.

Without the Grave, no Resurrecting,
without the Light, no Love's Reflecting,
without the Vision, no clear Dreaming,
without the Savior, no Redeeming.

Text: Rae E. Whitney, based on a few line by Thomas á Kempis,
© 1991 Selah Publishing Co., Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa., 15227.

May you be led to know Christ more deeply.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Story: Fern and the Bamboo

Hearing a good inspiration helps us go through life in a more bearable way. Stories have been used through the ages as a teaching tool as well as encouragement. May this story encourage my faithful blog readers.
The Fern and the Bamboo

One day I decided to quit...I quit my job, my relationship, my spirituality.... I wanted to quit my life. I went to the woods to have one last talk with God.

"God", I said. "Can you give me one good reason not to quit?" His answer surprised me.

"Look around", He said. "Do you see the fern and the bamboo?"

"Yes", I replied.

"When I planted the fern and the bamboo seeds, I took very good care of them. I gave them light. I gave them water. The fern quickly grew from the earth. Its brilliant green covered the floor. Yet nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. In the second year the fern grew more vibrant and plentiful. And again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. In year three there was still nothing from the bamboo seed. But I would not quit. The same in year four. Then in the fifth year, a tiny sprout emerged from the earth. Compared to the fern, it was seemingly small and insignificant. But just six months later, the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall. It had spent the five years growing roots. Those roots made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive. I would not give any of my creations a challenge it could not handle."

God continued: "Did you know, my child, that all this time you have been struggling, you have actually been growing roots? I would not quit on the bamboo. I will never quit on you.

"Don't compare yourself to others." He said. "The bamboo had a different purpose than the fern. Yet they both make the forest beautiful.

"Your time will come", God said to me. "You will rise high"

"How high should I rise?" I asked.

"How high will the bamboo rise?" He asked in return.

"As high as it can?" I questioned

"Yes." He said, "Give me glory by rising as high as you can."

I left the forest, realizing that God will never give up on me. And He will never give up on you. Never regret a day in your life.

Good days give you happiness; bad days give you experiences; both are essential to life.

--Author Unknown


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Who is Preaching Today?"

One of the dumbest questions I have been asked is the one above. I remember my years as a Sunday School teacher, trying to get materials ready in the Church office an hour before the class. Often, the Church telephone will ring on those early Sunday mornings with only me in the office. After a few rings, the call will usually be transferred to an automated voice system, as Sundays are not considered working days for the Church administration. Sometimes, I will pick up the phone just in case someone needed to contact the pastor urgently. Instead, most of the time, the question will be either: "Who is the speaker today?" or "Who is Preaching today?"

I get irritated at such questions. Out of courtesy, I will simply read out the morning's church bulletin for them. Inside me, I was thinking: "What if I had said, Jesus will be personally speaking to everyone in the Church today, or the Holy Spirit will be present today, or God the Father is giving some commandments today. Please come." "You mean to say that the name of who is preaching today is the main determining factor for coming to Church?"

People have become so sucked into a consumerist mentality that if Monday-Fridays are for them to fill their financial tanks, Saturdays to fill their social tanks, Sundays have become a time for them to fill their spiritual tanks that are running empty. More accurately, they are looking to meet their own needs according to their own sense of tastes. Going to church becomes like picking an ice-cream in front of 31 Baskin Robbins ice-cream flavour. Is this what 'openness to God' looks like? When will we ever get Church members who are mature enough to be open to God, regardless of who preaches that day? Perhaps, this is another reason for people to register their commitment by becoming Church members. Otherwise, non committed people are like nomads that wander from Church to Church, looking for a place that they know not, for food that don't satisfy, for a 'perfect' church will meet their needs. Membership on the other hand, will sway one's restlessness toward becoming a part of that community, to sink-and-swim, to rejoice-and-celebrate together. Come each Sunday, the member will not even think about which church to go to. He will know where, and the attention can be focused on getting the heart ready and right before God. Knowing where to go in advance also helps planning the time and journey properly, though I am aware of many who, despite the preparations are still perennial delinquents in punctuality.

Asking the question "Who is preaching today?" may be an occasional legitimate one, if one feels that he/she cannot worship God properly due to some previous grudge or hurt. There could be a valid reason to avoid church that day. Didn't Jesus say to be reconciled with that brother first before offering one's sacrifice in worship? For example, if a person had been previously hurt by the preacher in some ways due to some insensitive remarks, going to church may affect that person's worship experience or ability to give God the required honour. Another reason could be due to one's consideration of inviting non-Christian friends. Some preachers can speak in too abstract terms that non-Christians can get put off. Other legitimate reasons can be found too, but I think more often than not, people ask the question in a manner so 'matter-of-fact' that they miss out on the true meaning of Church and worship on Sundays. This is a very contagious behaviour that needs to be addressed. It has implications for community and one's sense of spiritual journeying.

They miss out on community, that Church is essentially the coming together of believers in Christ in the local context to worship God TOGETHER. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life together:
"It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ. "
Indeed, it is important to remember that no man is an island. The author of Ecclesiastes wisely writes:"
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.
For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. " (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Coming to Church is coming together as a community again after six days of isolation and immersion in the world. The word 'church' in Greek is ekklesia which means a 'called-out people.' It is a community of believers aptly described by Eugene Peterson's "A long obedience in the same direction." It is not a place to be served, but a place to serve. It is not a place to feed first, but waiting for one another to be fed, even feeding one another.

Unfortunately, it will seem that churches still adopt a more 'performance-driven,' or a utilitarian form of 'purpose-driven' Sunday services paradigm, instead of a 'formation-led' mindset. 'Performance' and to some extent 'purpose-driven' tends to be more information gathering. The latter (formation-mindset), on the other hand adopts a posture of openness, in order to be 'formed' or be used as part of the community being formed together as one body that seeks to honour God together. We must be renewed and transformed in our hearts and minds to see church in terms of 'spiritual formation' rather than a weekly withdrawal of spiritual information from the Bank of Jesus Christ. Instead of a financial-spiritual-material bank, how about opening oneself to walk along the spiritual river 'banks' delineated by the Holy Spirit? There is a sense of direction as the water flows along the banks, with the banks hemming in one's tendency to stray away. Like Jesus who carried his cross along the road to crucifixion, we too have to carry our own crosses together, to crucify our sinful selves, nailing our sins at the cross and see a new us in Christ. If we see fellow brothers and sisters falling, should we not venture forth to support them, like what Simon did when Jesus fell under the heavy cross?

Not only will consumerist-style Christians miss out on community life, they will continue their sense of restlessness and aimlessness on Sunday mornings. Those in the middle to upper echelons of society express their nomadicity in the form of like 'spiritual tourists.' They check out each church congregation on the basis of external appearances and a feel-good criteria. If Church B gives me a better 'feel-good' factor, or if Speaker C inspires me more, then I will make my choices accordingly. I argue against such haphazard choices because it puts the self at the throne instead of God. It makes one the almighty teddy-bear always needing to be hugged by polished speakers and pampered by great ambience. Didn't they know that the early church worship in a climate of fear and capture? Didn't the persecuted church celebrate communion in the dark and uncomfortable catacombs? Diana Butler Bass of Virginia Theological Seminary, who is a director of the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, to help Christians embark meaningfully on their spiritual journey writes:
"Becoming a pilgrim means becoming a local who adopts a new place and new identity by learning a new language and new rhythms and practices. Unlike the tourist, a pilgrim's goal is not to escape life, but to embrace it more deeply, to be transformed wholly as a person, with new ways of being in community and new hopes for the world. Being a tourist means experiencing something new; being a pilgrim means becoming someone new. Pilgrimages go somewhere - a transformed life.(Diana Butler Bass & Joseph Stewart-Sicking From Nomads to Pilgrims, Virginia:Alban Institute, 2006, xii)"
One way of living intentionally is to join a community of believers with a spiritual growth plan. It could be a program to move one from doubt to faith; from baby-faith to adult-faith; from seed to plant to tree; from spiritual tourists into spiritual travelers; from nomads to pilgrims. When a person has such a plan, he will not be easily tempted to browse external appearances of one church to another. He will resist making decisions to go to church on the basis of the quality of man. He will be saved from having to make a decision whether to go to church or not. The question will then not be "Which church to go to?" or "Which service to attend?" Instead, he will be free to give due attention to the attitude of the heart. His mind will be rested from the mental assessment of different church statistics in order to arrive at a decision whether or not to attend a church service. Having a commitment to a community and an intentionality toward journeying meaningfully, he will be able to conserve energy resources to worship God more fully.

So who is preaching today? We shouldn't be too bothered about this as long as we are intent to recognize that all of us, speaker included are members of a fallen human community that needs grace and forgiveness from God and one another. We shouldn't worry so much about our spiritual needs not met, because each time we attend church, we are exercising our learning and affirming one another of our unique church identity of which we are a part of. In John 15, Jesus said to his disciples: "I am the vine, you are the branches... (John 15:5a)" Note that the branches is plural, telling us that Jesus is speaking to the disciples as a community. Perhaps, all of us need to remind one another constantly that we are all branches. All of us need to journey toward the Vine who is the Author and Finisher of our faith. We need to progress toward God, who is the Sustainer and in Christ, holds all things together. We need to cling to the cross of Christ, so that our relationship to God remains reconciled and fully restored. With Christ in our minds and hearts, it does not matter where we are, what kind of ambience we are in, as long as Christ is preached, as long as the Holy Spirit is present and as long as God the Father is glorified in the community in love. Who the worship leader is that day does not matter, because God is in their midst. Who the preacher is, who leads the singing or who make the announcements does not matter, as it is all about God, not us. It is all about the Vinedresser, the Vine, the Master of the Universe. It is about God. May we always remember that.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

"The Books of the Bible"

The Bible has 66 books of which there are 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. There are a total of 1189 chapters and 31173 verses. If you are interested in Bible trivia, you can check it out here. However, while the number of books is originally 66, the verse numbers are a recent addition, around the year 1448. It can be said that while the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the verse numbers are not. Sometimes, the reading of the Bible can end rather awkwardly if we were to follow strictly to modern segmentation of the Bible into respective frames called 'pericope.' A pericope is a set of verses that are grouped together if they present one coherent context. However, such delineation, no matter how honourable the intent contains a risk of reading the Bible out of context. For example, Romans 12:1 is one of the most popular verses preachers like to choose in their sermons. The word 'therefore' that starts the chapter is sometimes least emphasized. Essentially, after the reader has read the first 11 chapters of Romans, then can he understand the actual impact of Romans 12:1.

Dr Gordon Fee (Professor Emeritus @ Regent College), once gave a talk on "Why Christians read their Bibles Poorly." He bemoans that Christians have largely lost the art of 'fine reading.' Not only that, Christians are not able to sustain attention over the long haul as a result of 'overstimulation' of their various senses in a modern technological era. He also called the problem that "Scripture is seldom read on its own terms." I take that to mean modern readers do not read the Bible as the original authors have intended. For example, the letter of Philippians is a letter. Can anyone of us read a letter only halfway, or to pick and choose parts of the letter to read? One of the problems is also "non-contextual individualization of verses" where verses are pulled out of their contexts in order to fit into our own contexts. That is not reading the Bible correctly. It is using the Bible according to our own wisdom.

One organization has decided to take up the challenge to help readers to read their Bibles better. It de-versed the Bible and sets them up into one book by itself. Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of the Bible, the MESSAGE, does not contain verse numbers. Popular demand chapters and verses won the day, so sometimes we can find the MESSAGE with verse numbers. I think this is a worthwhile project. See the difference here.

Even the way the books were arranged follows a more precise chronological order according to when they were written. For instance, Matthew is written after 1 Timothy! Check it here. I am going to get my hands on "The Books of the Bible." It makes a good solid one book read rather than random verse reads. It has no footnotes, no verse numbers and all the sentences of the chapters placed as if it is a novel. Currently, it is available only in the TNIV. I hope other versions will appear soon. Do check it out.

Thanks to Matt who first pointed me to this project at his blog.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Regent Tradition Conference 2008

Guess what? The conference held on April 5th, 2008 is entitled "Humanness Lost and Recovered."

From the photograph, I have been inducted as part of the 'tradition.' Dr JI Packer and Dr James Houston were the main speakers that day.

MEMORY: Helpful Devices or Convenient Dumps?

Prices of memory devices have gone down remarkably over the years. Due to competition and technological improvements, new generations of memory chips replaces the old at less than half the price. Modern disk drives not only perform better, they cost less. The memory capacity increases dramatically while reducing the physical size at the same time. Whole encyclopedias of old can be easily crammed into a tiny gadget. What used to fill huge library shelves can now be simply compressed into a small device to fit the shirt pocket. With the invention of the Amazon Kindle, entire books and libraries can be downloaded wirelessly into a small electronic reader. While on the one hand, we marvel at what technology can do for us, it might be good to pause and ponder if it has helped us become better developed persons.
  • Has it improved our ability to read and write?
  • Has it resulted in a gentler and more caring society?
  • Has it help mankind be more patient with one another? Look around us, especially in hush-and-rush environments, and one can see more negative than positive examples.
  • Will this improvement in technology lead to a proportionate increase in literacy levels?
  • Is it correct to say that modern people read better compared to fifty years ago? Can we legitimately use technological improvement as a reliable yardstick for human development?
  • What about the natural skills of old? In downloading our life into a memory device, are we dumping away a part of ourselves?
A Technological Illusion
I am quite critical of people who determine human progress only in terms of technological achievements. Though modern devices are better designed, the human mind has not kept pace. It is amazing to see how more and more people are increasingly reliant on electronic gadgets and devices to manage their lives and appointments. For the tech-savvy busy executive, doing without an electronic diary to keep track of our appointments could lead to many disappointments. We use computers at our workplace. We prepare sermons using Bible software. We communicate with one another through the Internet. Technology has changed our way of life for good. Such reliance however, has its repercussions. Why is it necessary for some people to send reminders to themselves (sometimes a double reminder) in order to keep their appointments? Why must people insist on reading each other’s email when they bump into each other face to face? Is the convenience of sending an SMS preferable to speaking on the phone?

Human progress is always related to learning. We can learn either of what to do, or what not to do. We can benefit from both mistakes and triumphs, though more often than not, it is the former that teaches us more profoundly. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) believes that learning is remembering. The process of learning involves gathering them together (cogo), from dispersed places in order to do, to agitate, to make and refer frequently to the things we have learnt. Gathering them together into a device is different from gathering them together in the human mind! Hogging electronic data in our memory devices does not mean anything to us as persons if the owner of the device has not learnt or remembered anything. The Old Testament books and the prophets consistently gave the same warnings to Israel.

  • "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:8)
  • Israel is called to "remember all the commands of the LORD" (Num 15:39)
  • "Remember the LORD in a distant land, and think on Jerusalem." (Jer 51:50b)
  • "Because you did not remember the days of your youth but enraged me with all these things, I will surely bring down on your head what you have done, declares the Sovereign LORD. Did you not add lewdness to all your other detestable practices?
    " (Eze 16:43)
If we do not remember how can we obey the LORD and not sin against him? If we claim we love God, should we not remember the Word? For Christians who are technologically versatile, beware not to let the devices do the 'remembering' for us. Simply saying we ‘own’ it, does not mean that we have learnt what was in it. We need to use it. We need to remember and creatively apply what we learn into our daily lives. The power of technology to make things happen remains an illusion as long as no human good comes out of it.

Spiritual Amnesia
Will the overdependence of technology to manage our lives eventually contribute toward an acute form of spiritual amnesia? Will a net technological gain in assets result in a liability of losing our memory prowess in our balance sheet of life? The Economist on Dec 19th, 2007 ("The Battle of the Books"), made an interesting comparison between Islam and Christianity. For Muslims, the ability to recite the Koran forms the ‘backbone of Muslim education.’ For Christians, I wonder if the lack of willingness or discipline to memorize and to recite Scriptures will lead to a demise of Christian education? The article highlights deep concerns about biblical illiteracy in the West.
“A Gallup survey found that less than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Billy Graham is a popular answer) and a quarter do not know what is celebrated at Easter (the resurrection, the foundational event of Christianity). Sixty per cent cannot name half the ten commandments; 12% think Noah was married to Joan of Arc. George Gallup, a leading Evangelical as well as a premier pollster, describes America as ‘a nation of biblical illiterates.’”
There is however a more optimistic perspective here that claims Christianity has an edge over Islam. I am not sure I can agree with all the contents there. It seems to me that the article from the ChristianPost have committed the technological illusion error. Distributing Bibles in technological format does not mean the receivers actually read them. Firstly, they might be attracted initially to the novelty, only to dump them later. Secondly, are we cheapening the Bible by putting them into cheap, disposable devices? It might be too simplistic to equate biblical illiteracy with technological misuse. The cause for illiteracy is far more complicated than the technology factor. What if, one day, when there are no more printed material, when everything becomes digitized, and the whole world suddenly experiences an irreversible electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that virtually wipes out all digital forms of information? In the movie ‘Six Days and Seven Nights,” there was a scene where a stranded couple on a remote island was not able to ask for help because their cellular phone could not connect to any wireless signals. In the Matrix Reloaded, the ship Nebuchadnezzar used a similar EMP technique to destroy the electronic enemy. The effect was dual. It destroyed their electronic defenses as well.

As a technology user myself, I am not against the use of devices to help us manage our many responsibilities. What I am concerned about is not with the increasing use of technology, but the decreasing emphasis on cultivating the use of our ability to remember. I remember a story I heard about Christians in one village China a couple of years ago, who had only one Bible to share. They tore out the pages and distributed them around so that after memorizing what they received, they can exchange the pages they have with the next person. In the West, we are flooded with technological gadgets that not only contains the entire electronic Bible, some even have multiple Bible translations in different languages, all within one small electronic device! Will the Christian living in a rich technological society simply not bother to remember God’s Word in their hearts simply because it can be available in a flash? (Flash is a pun and has a double meaning. It can mean ‘quickly’ or refer to computer memory sticks called ‘flash memory.’) Will our next generation update the Ps 119:11 to read:

“I have hidden your word in my ‘Cellphone’ that I might not sin against you.”?
Perhaps the cellphone does a better job about not sinning than the owner of the device. Not only are we in danger of under-utilizing our memory, our ability to remember becomes diminished. Even those little memory capacity that remains will be relentlessly bombarded by the multiple demands for consideration. The temptations to become impersonal are many. A personal email gets saved onto our computer disk drives for future reference. An excellent web page does not go beyond a bookmark on the Internet browser. As we rush from one task to another, a friend’s plea for help simply gets forwarded to an email list, or left unanswered until a later time.

Amnesia is no longer a medical disorder that can be simply blamed on the aging process. The negative exposure to technology can affect both young and old. The spores of technological addiction finds a ready and lush spot in our restless hearts. As the spores germinate, they consume the nutrients called ‘attention’ within the human heart. Subsequently, the soul gets deprived of the needed meditation on things that mattered most to us, influencing our disposition to shape our ability to love the people around us. As the addiction grows, the capacity for attention decreases to the point that the weeds will finally and completely choke the seed from growing. This competition for attention is perhaps one of the most critical battles for the human soul. In terms of memory, let not our dependence on technology turn us into memory couch-potatoes.

Under what circumstances will computers do a complete memory dump? Answer: when the computer program or operating system reaches a point of non-recovery and crashes. May that not happen to us. If we do not use whatever is in our device (there'll be memory leakages over time), or what is in our heads, the results are similar. We’ll lose them.

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