Sunday, July 27, 2008

Working with God in mind

Thank God Only on Fridays?
“Thank God It’s Friday” or TGIF took on a cult phenomenon when it was first coined in the late 70s. Many have attributed the early beginnings to a movie and song of the same name. There is also an American restaurant that uses the acronym in their name so as to epitomize the meaning of their business, to help people wind down after a hard week.

The basic use of the term TGIF is to celebrate the end of the workweek, a time for people to let down their hair and hang loose. After five toilsome days at the workplace, Friday represents the day where workers can finally start becoming more like themselves, in contrast to working days where they have to either put on a façade before people they do not like, or to do things their bosses ask them to do, against their own wishes. Working is not seen to be a glamourous thing. For some, it is downright burdensome, and if they have a choice, they would rather quit. Few people like Mondays. Assuming a typical Monday-Friday workweek, most prefer Fridays. Many workers I know prefer Fridays. Some dress up more casually on Fridays. Some take extended coffee breaks. Others simply choose to start that day early so that they can go home earlier. Moods on Friday are lighter. Some companies like US Cellular was reported even have a ‘No-Email’ Fridays! Intel has even piloted one program to do just that, to address the ‘stilted cubicle communications,’ where two engineers sitting next to each other communicate through email rather than face to face conversation. Some Intel staff have even taken a further step to explore ‘Quiet Time’ in the office. The report however gives a qualified statement about the effectiveness of No-Email-Fridays, that they are more effective for people who sit in the office most of the time. This is an astute observation and should help us avoid throwing a wide blanket to banish emails on Fridays. The point is clear. The idea is not simply to say that email is evil. It is to recognize that we are humans after all. We cannot forget that while emails are important for our daily work, having that face-to-face contact keeps us human.

Three Observations Gen 1:22b-23
1) In the creation narrative, God made the sea creatures and the birds in the air on the fifth day. He did not give thanks to himself only on that day. He declared the goodness of creation every single day. ‘… And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning.’ (Gen 1:22b-23) I have three observations on this verse. One, the ‘evening’ was stated first, before the ‘daylight.’ A day essentially starts in the evening! This is in contrast to the popular use of ‘day and night’ rather than 'night and day.' Many people see the day as the beginning. However, looking at chronological time, the start of a new day actually begins at 12AM, which is that moment past midnight. If we were to see the day beginning at 12AM and ending at the 11:59:59 PM, evenings are essentially the markers to distinguish the actual day. You may ask, what’s the significance of such an observation? What is so special about a day that begins and ends in evenings? The Jews actually take it even more literally. If the clock-day begins at midnight, the Jewish day actually begins at ‘sunset’ the day before. For example, Saturdays for a Jew begins on Friday 6PM or about an hour after sunset. Thus, a typical Jewish day starts in the evening and ends at the last moment of daylight. This is the Jewish interpretation of ‘evening and daylight’ in their understanding of the Genesis narrative. For the Jews, a 24-hour day begins in the ‘evening’ and ends in ‘daylight.’ This literal interpretation is best seen in the light of beginning a day in the evening sundown, and ending in the daylight sunset. In contrast to our normal definition of a day beginning with work, by starting a day from evening, it is an opportunity to give thanks, first thing in the beginning, to remind us that God is in control from the start. If we were to hurriedly start a day without being mindful of our Creator, we will be like entering a day ‘blindfolded’ into thinking that we know the way to do our work. Starting our day correctly involves a proper disposition of the heart and mind, so that we can start the day purposefully and intentionally. If we do not have an intentional stance, our work will lack meaning. Our attitude toward work will be less thankful and our quality of work will be negatively affected. Max Lucado lists the following depressing statistics:
  • One-Third of Americans say, “I hate my job.”
  • Two-thirds of your fellow citizens labor in the wrong career.
  • Others find employment success, but no satisfaction.
  • Most suicides occur in Sunday nights.
  • Most heart attacks occur on Monday mornings.
Lucado goes on to give us this advice: “Before you change professions, change your attitude toward your profession.” (96)

Like an engine that takes time to start up, evenings can be seen to be a time for one to get ready for a busy workday. If one did not properly prepare for the day, he or she becomes vulnerable to a negative view of work. I encourage you, my readers to move a level deeper. See the day not simply as a time for useful work. Sleep/rest 8 hours. Work for 8 hours. Have other activities (eating, drinking, miscellaneous activities like travel etc) for the other 8 hours. This is living a balanced life.

2) A second observation I have is that God reflected on his work at the end of the work day. A pause for a cause; A recess after the progress; a hiatus to take stock of the status. At the end of the day, by taking the time to reflect and be thankful, we appreciate more of what we have done, learning from them precious lessons and preparing for a new day to improve ourselves and our work. Without such a meaningful break, we will not be able to adequately take stock of our lives. Time becomes an endless and cruel master, imprisoning us in hours of despair, minutes of dejection and seconds of desolation. Mark Littleton describes our ‘hurry-scurry society’ people like those reduced to:

cutting their showers so that they do their backs on Mondays, the feet on Tuesdays, and a rinse only every third day (underarms, every day, of course – they do have some respect for others)…” (15-16)” [Mary Littleton, Escaping the Time Crunch, Moody Press, 1990, 15-16]

Littleton laments that “Time no longer just ticks. It crunches. It squeezes people from waking to retiring until they literally feel like a used toothpaste tube.” (Littleton, 11)

For Littleton, he says that the solution to escaping the time crunch is ultimately a supernatural one. More specifically, only God can help us, and time is not supposed to be our enemy but to be used for the glory of God. Indeed, Genesis may be teaching us this lesson subtly, that just as God the Creator taking a step back to admire his creation and call it good, we must also take a step back at the end of the day to reflect and give thanks for all that has been done, and not to be worried about things that are not done. Worry will propel one’s sense of anxiety into disproportionate amounts and make time an enemy to be grappled with, rather than a friend to accompany us in our glorification of God’s name. If we do not take time to pause, even in our most honourable causes, we will not only find 24 hours insufficient, we will eventually wear ourselves out (burn-out) and we will be physically and emotionally weakened.

3) Thirdly, this reflection was done every day of the week. Every day for God is good. Fridays are not to be deemed a better day than any other day. We live ‘seven days for God’ as advocated by Paul Stevens. When we do so with an attitude to give God the glory, we will learn the cure for monotony in our daily living. When we worked with God in mind all the time, when we rest with God in our hearts all the time, we learn the truth about God and ourselves. Let me end with Lucado’s excellent words on using our uniqueness for God daily.
What if everyone worked with God in mind? Suppose no one worked to satisfy self or please the bottom line but everyone worked to please God. Many occupations would instantly cease: drug trafficking, thievery, prostitution, nightclub and casino management. Certain careers, by their nature, cannot please God. These would cease. Certain behaviours would cease as well. If I’m repairing a car for God, I’m not going to overcharge his children. If I’m painting a wall for God, you think I’m going to use paint thinner? Imagine if everyone worked for the audience of One. Every nurse, thoughtful. Every officer, careful. Every professor, insightful. Every salesman, delightful. Every teacher, hopeful. Every lawyer, skillful. Every corner of every chapel, glistening. Impossible? Not entirely. All we need is someone to start a worldwide revolution. Might as well be us. [Max Lucado, Cure for the Common Life, (W Publishing Group, 2005) p94]
These three observations are to be seen as one whole. If we can practice adequate pauses in our waking hours, if we can take the time to reflect and be thankful throughout the day, and if we can do the same on a daily basis, we can make every day a blessing not only for ourselves, for others but most importantly, for God. We will learn that we are mortal beings under the mercy of the Immortal God. Bernard of Clairvaux has this to teach us.

"If you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reserviour than as a canal. For a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reserviour waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus communicates, without loss to itself, its superabundant water. In the Church at the present day, we have many canals, few reserviours." (Bernard of Clairvaux)

Truly, we may live for a day being the most effective and efficient canal. That should not be the purpose for our lives. We must become like a reserviour to receive God's blessings in all its fulness, so that we can become a channel of blessings not simply for many, but for any who is in need. This is the gospel of Christ. The good news of becoming a reserviour for God, so that we can work out the glory of God among people, always with God in mind.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wandering (a curse?)

When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Gen 4:12)

This curse on Cain is a terrible one, one that reflects the gravity of sin. Cain brought it upon himself. His life was a graphic display of the extent of sin. Selfishness, jealousy, murder and defiance. The question I will address in this blog is: "Is wandering a bad thing?" Is it too harsh of God to impose such a sentence on Cain? My quick answer is no. God has a purpose when he tells Cain to be a nomad. Unfortunately, Cain bit the hand, over and over again. A hand that offered him hope and an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.

Cain’s Life of Defiance
His selfish desire to keep some of his produce to himself made his offering a lesser one compared to his brother Abel, who gave ‘fat portions’ to the LORD (Gen 4:3-4). Instead of learning from his mistake, Cain became ‘very angry’ and ‘his face was downcast’ with the LORD’s treatment of him (Gen 4:5). Cain behaved as if the LORD is the one who is supposed to take-it-or-leave-it. He wanted the LORD to accept his offering on his own terms. It is like whatever Cain gives, the LORD should equally accept regardless of the quantities or intent of the givers. It is like a 'beggars cannot be choosers' kind of an attitude toward God. It was Cain who was born first, and he was the first to give an offering to the LORD. Yet, the first-mover advantage for Cain was overshadowed by his inadequate willingness in his heart to give. He failed to honour the LORD fully. His offering was eclipsed by Abel, due largely to his inner heart's attitude of not willing to honour God, the giver of all produce and life. He lacked the faith that the LORD is looking for. His jealousy turned into dangerous covetousness leading to an unrighteous form of anger. The NASB records Cain as being ‘very angry’ that leads to a crestfallen disposition. Immediately the LORD addressed Cain, asking him why he is so angry and downcast. He gave Cain advice to control his anger, and not allow sin to dominate his life. Interestingly, God’s conversation with Abel is unrecorded. Instead, Gen 4:1-16 is a recurring series of events about Cain and his rebellion against the LORD.

  • The LORD looked on Abel’s offering with favour and Cain rebelled with anger.
  • The LORD asked Cain to control his sin, but Cain allows sin to lead him to commit murder. He murdered Abel in cold blood.
  • The LORD inquired of Cain about the whereabouts of Abel. Cain rebelled with a smut comment: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Such defiant behaviour revealed the rebellious steak in Cain.
  • The LORD banished Cain to be a vagrant and wanderer. Cain rebels again by ‘settling down’ at the East of Eden. Worse, he built a city as an open defiance against the LORD (Gen 4:17). Called to be a wanderer, to be constantly on the move, Cain rebels by sinking his roots in one place, refusing to move.
  • Cain called the city he built after a human person, his son. This is in contrast to the way that Abraham names his cities and places, which is related to God’s name or to praise God. Such defiance is preposterous.
The list is depressing. At each point, we see the LORD giving Cain a chance to repent, but repeatedly, Cain wants to be lord over his own life, thinking that God should bow down to his wishes. Interestingly, Cain’s son ‘Enoch’ also means ‘city.’ It is the ultimate mark of defiance that he refuses to obey his calling to be a wanderer, but makes his place defiantly at a single location. Like blood getting clogged in one place, the fresh flow of blood to the rest of the body is curtailed. There is a reason for Cain to be on the move all the time. This is a way to prevent sin from crouching at his door and making inroads into his life. Yet, Cain refuses to repent from the multiple opportunities presented to him by God. He simply insists on his own ways and subsequently led to the devastation in the form of the great flood. Dr Bruce Waltke says: “He will be a nomad without home and security,” which aptly verbalizes Cain’s condition. Instead of continuing a nomad life until the LORD says otherwise, Cain draws his own conclusions and assumes control of his own destiny, instead of obeying God. God wants him to remain a wanderer until sin is no longer crouching at his doorstep. Instead, Cain wants to remain in the city, and entertains sin by inviting sin into his life and household.

Wandering in Christ
Here, there is a lesson on what faith entails. Faith is trusting God to reveal the next step to us, as we obey what has been clearly communicated to us. We do not presume God’s next step. Our next step is being faithful to what has been given us, until otherwise stated. When God gives us instructions, even harsh ones, he has our ultimate renewal and blessing in mind. He wants us to trust him, and not the world. He wanted a long-term relationship built on faith and trust, rather than a short-term fling that is erected on lust and worldliness. Wandering includes an element of running away from sins. I recall Paul’s instruction to Timothy that says:

Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” (2 Tim 2:22)

Unfortunately, Cain allowed his rebellious attitude to be personified into a city-like monumental challenge to God’s garden of Eden. By building a city on the East side of Eden, it is a work of confrontation against the rule of God. Being human, all of us have a wandering spirit. It is important not to see it as something that is all-bad. Instead, we must see the purpose of being a wanderer. It is not for the sake of restlessness for the sake of restlessness. It is not to become a nomad because God likes us to be aimless in life. It is for the sake of avoiding sin. It is to run away from sin as much as possible. It is an effort to be holy, a lifeline of spirituality for us to be holy once more, sanctified for God. Jesus Christ came to earth and wanders around from place to place. People tried to hold on to him, but he was quick to avoid being crowned and institutionalized in a single location. He would have been crowned king of the Jews in Jerusalem, but he chose to walk according to where the Spirit of God leads him. Obedience is greater than the desire to settle in one place. For Jesus knows that sin is always crouching at the door. He said that to Peter. He knows the danger. He experiences and triumphs over the temptations. In Christ, we no longer need to wander around aimlessly. We wander around in Christ. We wander along with the presence and companionship of the Holy Spirit. We become pilgrims on the journey of holiness. Do not adopt Cain-like defiance in our wandering. Do not even settle at being Abel-like in our giving. Become Christ-like in our obeying. Then we shall say to God in Christ:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;” (2 Tim 4:7)

In a nutshell, when we wander about, in all our restlessness, use it as an opportunity to run away from sin, toward the open arms of God. That said, wandering no longer becomes a curse, but an opportunity to embrace God.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Andrew Widman (1978-2008)

This morning, I woke up with a shock from news about a former seminarian. A former missionary to Thailand, and a graduate of Gordon-Conwell, he felt a call to become a police officer and was completed his police academy training in September 2007. At a tender age of 30, he was killed in the line of duty as a police officer in Fort Myers, FL. He was not fighting a military war. He was not entering into to any gangland neighbourhood. He was simply trying to break up a domestic violence in the community that he was serving in. In the ensuing mayhem, he was suddenly shot in the face, without any time to defend himself. Andrew Widman leaves behind a wife and three young children (4 years, 20 months and a 5 month old infant). Cruel is an understatement. Gut wrenching. One word best describes my reaction: Devastated.

How can anyone justify such a killing? Just yesterday, I was teaching my kids that ‘anger’ is one letter away from ’danger.’ Kids do need to learn how to deal with their anger. Isn’t it true that anger is a behaviour that can become destructive if not dealt with appropriately? Rod Wilson and Glen Taylor describes anger as “an experience that occurs when a goal, value, or expectation that we have chosen has been blocked, or when our sense of self-worth is threatened.” Anger is a natural human emotion. Jesus has been angry before, but it was controlled anger. If our sense of self-worth is secure in God, we will not be easily shaken. The Psalmist cries out to God for mercy, knowing that God is the source of all comfort. When fallen into the deepest valley, the God of the highest mountain is able to lift him up. When drowning in the deepest waters, the God of the widest horizon is able to scoop up any sinking person. When trapped in the tiniest of crevices, the God of the universe is able to detect and sense the smallest squeak, the tiniest murmur and the minutest emotional movement. God is able to draw unto him every struggling person, attracting them to him like iron filings to magnet. God as a loving father constantly listens out to the cries of his people. He is close to the hearts of the Widmans. God, in Christ, alone is able to right all wrongs, cleanse all from sins, and deliver people from evil. Until that time arrives, we can only wait upon his comfort. We pray with all earnestness that God will be gentle upon the souls of the Widman family, to hear them out, to seek their attention, just as he seeks to give them the attention they needed.

Like most mourning, it takes a long time for healing to take place. I have previously described Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s advice after a dear friend’s funeral service. I reproduce the stages of mourning here:
  1. Shock stage: Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news.
  2. Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable.
  3. Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
  4. Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out.
  5. Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable.
  6. Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions.
  7. Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward.

Meditation on Ps 130:1-6
"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
To my cry for mercy.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
therefore you are feared."
(Ps 130:1-4)
This psalm is a cry for the Lord to listen and to show mercy. The psalmist knows in his deepest sorrow that the safest comfort comes only from the Lord. There is no other better source of consolation. There is both a desire to be encouraged, and also an awareness of personal sins and weaknesses. For one to be able to struggle from within, to seek help from above, and realize that one still needs to be forgiven is indeed a quality of a spiritual person. In it lies the secret of inner healing. So often when one experience bad times or suffering, there is a tendency to blame external factors and forgetting the inner aspects.
"I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the LORD
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning."
(Ps 130:5-6)
Isn't that a wonderful way to start our mourning or plea for help? It is an exercise of patience, anchored on God's Word? 'My soul waits' indicates the posture of the whole person. It includes heart, mind and will. It causes the physical action and the inner emotion to stay in sync. Neither will go prematurely before the other. Both waits for God's inner prompting and outer guidance. Verse 6 is unique. I want to make 3 observations of this verse. Firstly, the words 'more than watchmen wait for the morning' is repeated. Having a statement repeated is an important point in Hebrew literature. It shows the seriousness of the whole matter. A double emphasis coincides with the level of deep mourning and sorrow. Secondly, the Hebrew word for 'watchmen' is a verb. This teaches us that becoming a watchmen is a disposition to look out intently in hope. It is not a title or a mere job. Thirdly, there is a strong reference to hope. Morning will come, and one waits intently and expectantly for the coming of dawn. What a picture of hope! What a wonderful way to expect the coming of the LORD. This attitude of hope is so necessary in times of tragedy, struggle and suffering. May the LORD bring the Widman family close to him during this time of grief.
More information below.

  • Fox 4 news has it covered here.
  • The statement from the Widman family can be read here.
  • There are some efforts to raise $100k for the family.
  • Fort Myers Police Department Memorial Page.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

For Your Comfort....Call for Unity

If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.” (2 Cor 1:6-7)
Whether in distress, or whether in comfort, Paul and his followers prays and longs for them with a heart of love in Christ. Their mindfulness of the people they love is so intense, that whether they feel down or up, they pray blessings and goodwill on the Corinthian Christians. Whatever stresses or joys they experience, they desire good upon their brethren in Corinth. Whether in distress or in comfort, they remember their brothers and sisters in Christ there. Such a focused prayer is a powerful demonstration of their love for the Corinthian Church. This is only possible because Christ has first done the same for Paul and his followers. ‘…through Christ our comfort overflows,’ is a vivid imagery of what Christ has done for them. Likewise, having received such blessings from up high, they are empowered to share that love. Looking at the word ‘comfort’ which was used 3 times, I marvel at the extent of Paul’s love. Twice the word comfort is used as a noun, once used as a verb. The words in bold ‘for your comfort’ is in the genitive voice, which means that ‘comfort’ is for the recipients of Paul’s letter to accept. It is a free gift to the Corinthians. It is a noun. The word ‘comfort’ that was used of Paul is actually a verb in the middle voice. Being a verb, it is actively being practiced, that Paul is essentially the generator of comfort for the Corinthians. In manufacturing terms, it is like anything ingredient he obtains he processes it and churns out comfort for his brethren. This extent of such love is driven home by the word ‘comfort being used in the middle voice. It is like waiting for something to come. It is something that Paul has not received yet, but he is prepared beforehand to give it away the moment he gets it. It is a credit card of love that he is prepared to sign for, at his own expense, even at the brim of exceeding his credit limit.

Let me explain it in another way. If we were to replace the word ‘comfort’ with $$$, it can be paraphrased like this: “If we struggle to earn $1000, know that the benefits of the struggle are also meant for you. When we receive $1000, even though we are broke now, we will earmark all of it for your sake, so that you will be able to endure the same struggles like us.”

A Reprimand?
The rhetoric that Paul uses is a subtle reprimand on the Corinthians who argue and quarrel over every little thing. What Paul is demonstrating is that there are far more important things than to boast in their own righteousness and perspectives. Nothing shall separate Paul from loving the Corinthians. Then why are they going to argue and dispute little things that mean almost nothing compared to Paul? The Church of today needs to learn this lesson over and over again. Churches have been known to split over a single issue. The Cambodian proverbs teaches us:
When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” (Cambodian proverb)
If feuding parties take time to pray and be magnanimous in their treatment and opinions of one another, they will not come to the point of trampling the grassroots of the church. David Wong lamented on how his church denomination a few years ago, split over a single issue: use of Bible translations.
How was I to explain our decision to the people in my church? They might have had an inkling of the troubles brewing in the Synod, but how would they understand their spiritual leaders’ inability to resolve their differences? If pastors and elders could not agree on what was right and wrong, true and false, where would that leave them? The issues on which we were divided were too complex for ordinary believers. They came to church not to debate theology or engage in politics. They came to receive the Word of God from leaders in whom they had put their trust.” (David Wong, Journey Mercies Singapore: David Wong, 2002, 83-4)
He suggests that ‘irreconcilable differences’ are often due to the clash of two strong personality types: ‘Priestly’ vs the ‘Prophetic’ types. Priestly types are more ‘people-oriented’ while the prophetic type tends to be more ‘task-oriented’ and they do not match (Wong, 86). I think Wong might have managed to put a toe on the closing door, in trying to explain church splits. The Corinthians were in danger of being divided many ways. Paul, in writing his epistle to them wants to see unity in the body. He wants to direct all of them back to God in Christ. Unfortunately, many churches in our modern world tend to major on the minors, that they lose sight of the big picture as they zoom into the smaller details. Or they become too general in their great visions, that they lose sight of the small particulars that matters to the ordinary members. God made all of us different, granting us various gifts not to divide and boast about, but to use it to bring the body of Christ closer to one another.

We need childlike simplicity in our churches. May this prayer, written for children be our prayer too.
O God, give me in my life the fruit of peace.
Help me to take things calmly.
Help me not to get into a panic when things go wrong.
Help me not to worry but to take things as they come, a day at a time.
Help me not to be nervous but to keep cool when I have something important to do.
Help me never to lose my temper, no matter how annoying things or people may be.
Keep me calm and steady, so that I will never collapse,
And so that others may be able to rely on me when they are up against it.
This I ask for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

(Carol Wilson, 365 Children’s Prayers, Oxford, England: Lion Book, 1989, 11)


Friday, July 18, 2008

Christ our Comforter

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows." (2 Cor 1:3-5, NIV)
These are soothing words for today’s needy soul. It is a comfort from God, the One who fully understands our troubles and afflictions, is able to reassure us over and over again, that in Him, everything is going to be alright for He is in control. It is a comfort from the loving Father, who longs to hold us in his arms, to say ‘I love you’ in infinite ways. Most importantly, it is not in the multitude of methods that God has in his arsenal of love, but the magnitude of accepting us as we are, and comforting us in Christ.

Verse 3 of 2 Corinthians 1 strikes home the centrality of Christ in the comfort that God gives to us humans. There appears to be a chiastic structure organized by Paul in his introduction in his long letter to the Church at Corinth. In literary style, chiasms are words framed around a central point and purpose of the verse. I have rearranged 1 Corinthians 1:3 in the follow chiastic structure (ABXB’A’) as an example.

A-A’ begins and ends with reference to God the Father, the origin of comfort and the purpose of comfort. We are comforted so that we can comfort others. The word of God will not return to him empty. It reminds us to look back toward the Creator-God, from whom all blessings flow. Sometimes, we can be so enthralled in created things that we forget the person who made it all possible in the first place. Raising the bar a little more, B-B’ represents the father-heart of God. It is from God the Father that blessings flow from, it is from God the Father that all compassion is derived. This is important. Sometimes, there are people who claim that God is so high up in heaven, that they cannot fathom how God can ever come down to earth to empathize with lowly people in this world. How can he, maker of the Universe, fit himself into a small world called earth. If God cannot squeeze in, how can he comfort us up close? If A-A’ shows the Almighty God up high, B-B’ shows the loving Father up close and personal. Still there might be those who cannot comprehend how all these can ever make sense. That brings us to X, where only through the person of Christ, all things are held together. Sovereign God up high meets man up close in the person of Christ. X shows the pivotal central argument. Christ is 100% divine and 100% human. The blessings of God up high and the closeness of God the Father is driven home through the person of Christ. Jesus, being fully divine is able to know and understand the extent of God’s blessings. He knows completely the Father’s love. He is also fully human, and is thus able to understand the struggles and temptations mortal beings go through. That is why as Christians, we bear the mark of Christ, and only in Christ can we claim the comfort and compassion of God.

In a nutshell, all that the Father has, and all that anyone of us on earth can receive, is summed up in Christ. Jesus is central to our spiritual walk and faith. No amount of spiritual disciplines can replace this. A minute with Christ is better than hundreds of hours running on our own strength. We must be careful not to be too focused on the attributes of Christ, that we ignore the Person of Christ. This sometimes happen when we are too self-conscious and self-inclined, that Christ becomes another means to our selfish ends. Christ is our ever present help, a comforter in all our afflictions and troubles.

A Small Beginning is the Beginning of Comfort
Sometimes, starting small is the first step to accomplishing big things. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Ever wondered why Jesus uses the mustard seed as a parable for the kingdom of God? That is because smallness is something that everybody can identify and understand. Miniature size beginnings are more readily appreciated. When we look at a successful person in our industry, we may marvel at their achievements on one hand. Yet on the other hand, we bemoan our own ability to even reach a tiny spectrum of their feat, forgetting that these successful people often had humble beginnings. We see the external successes but fail to appreciate the internal toils and struggles that pay for it. Many great organizations of today began with a single vision, a sole prayer warrior or a dedicated individual who maintained hope in the midst of challenges and discouragement. Their most common denominator is a humble ordinary beginning. Be comforted, for Christ had a humble beginning. It is God who raised him up, and like Christ, we too will be raised up when the kingdom comes in its ultimate glory.

Being comforted is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it is necessary in order to make sense of the world, that while we live in a world of injustice and hardship, comfort brings a welcome relief so that we can get to hold out another day in hope. Little acts of kindness and goodwill is far better than procrastinating in the foolish waiting for one lump truckload of good deeds, which may never come. God often does big things starting with small deeds. If we can be faithful in little things, God will trust us with bigger things. Jesus came to earth as a vulnerable baby instead of a powerful ‘Rambo-like’ figure. He came to Jerusalem and was laid in a manger rather than a palace of safety and wealth. The baby was born at a dangerous time under the threat of King Herod who was killing baby boys, instead of being born in a safe hospital during peacetime. Baby Jesus came without weapons or wealth; exposed and defenseless; weak and dependent. In the midst of such helplessness, there is comfort in angels who ministered to him. He is almighty God but he chose to be weak for the sake of being with us.

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” (2 Cor 1:5)

What a wonderful way to see comfort. Spirituality in Christ is a two-way street. As much as we are suffering, similarly we too will be comforted. Max Lucado has this to say about small things being used for God.
“Moses had a staff.
David had a sling.
Samson had a jawbone.
Rahab had a string.
Mary had some ointment.
Aaron had a rod.
Dorcas had a needle.
All were used by God.” (Max Lucado, Cure for the Common Life, Nashville: W Publishing, 2005, 116)
Be comforted, and as you receive comfort, share and bring glory to God.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jolt Quote XX (Ken Blanchard and friends)

I found an interesting definition of humility today, from Ken Blanchard's Heart of a Leader.
People with humility don't think less of themselves;
they just think of themselves less. (60)
Here are 30 of my favourites from the book.

  1. "Don't wait until people do things exactly right before you praise them." (6)
  2. "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." (16, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt)
  3. "Never punish a learner." (28)
  4. "In managing people, it is easier to loosen up than tighten up." (42)
  5. "If you want people to be responsible, be responsive to their needs." (56)
  6. "Anything worth doing does not have to be done perfectly --- at first" (44)
  7. "Without a change in your behavior, just saying 'I'm sorry' is not enough." (74)
  8. "Take what you do seriously but yourself lightly." (78)
  9. "Real communication happens when people feel safe." (88)
  10. "Vision is knowing who you are, where you're going, and what will guide your journey." (92)
  11. "Vision is a lot more than putting a plaque on the wall. A real vision is lived, not framed" (94)
  12. "All good performance starts with clear goals." (96)
  13. "People without information cannot act responsibly. People with information are compelled to act responsibly." (108)
  14. "A river without banks is a large puddle" (114)
  15. "Leadership is not just what happens when you're there; it's what happens when you're not there." (116)
  16. "People in organizations need to develop a fascination for what doesn't work." (130)
  17. "Choose work you love and you will never have to work a day in your life." (132, attributed to Confucius)
  18. "Consistency isn't behaving the same way all the time." (138)
  19. "The only job security you have today is your commitment to continuous personal improvement." (142)
  20. "There's no pillow as soft as a good conscience." (148, attributed to John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach)
  21. "It's surprising how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." (150, attributed to Abraham Lincoln)
  22. "Early in life, people give up health to gain wealth... In later life, people give up some of their wealth to regain health!" (154)
  23. "Servant leadership is more about character than style." (156)
  24. "Am I a servant leader or a self-serving leader?" (158)
  25. "Take responsibility for making relationships work." (164)
  26. "G.O.L.F. stands for Game of Life First" (168)
  27. "Leadership is not something you do to people. It's something you do with people." (170)
  28. "As a leader, the most important earthly relationship you can cultivate is your relationship with yourself." (184)
  29. "Purpose is never about achievement; it is much bigger." (186)
  30. "Purpose has to do with one's calling - deciding what business you are in as a person." (188)
[Ken Blanchard, The Heart of a Leader, Escondido: David C Cook, 2nd ed, 2007]


This thing is driving me crazy.”
“The man was driven to commit this wrong.”
“I have been driven to err due to anxiety.”

Drivenness is a symptom of anxiety and fear. Mildly put, drivenness appears like activities being pursued vigorously to accomplish a purpose. At an extreme, drivenness equals obsession. I learned today that ‘drivenness’ is also a medical disorder. Calling it ‘organic drivenness,’ some medical quarters define it as:
“hyperactivity seen in brain-damaged individuals as a result of injury to and disorganization of cerebellar structures.” (Dorland's Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers. © 2007 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.)
A Misplaced Protestant Ethic
Christians are also known to be highly driven people. The forefathers of modern evangelicalism have been credited for the Protestant ethic which puts hard work as a virtue, for it demonstrates one’s desire for salvation and one’s saved state. Some call it puritan ethic, but the essence is identical. This creeps into modern Western society where hard work continues to be cherished, especially in the church. When asked where I have lived for many years, I will usually reply: Singapore. One professor who asked me that question was quick to say: “O Singapore. I know that place. Singapore is a very driven society.” That sets me thinking. ‘Singapore is a driven society. What does that mean?’ It took a while to understand what that professor means. It means that constant state of activity and the obsessive desire to be ‘doing something’ in order to feel important. It is that insatiable need to feel needed. It is that ambitious push toward a purpose in life, without which life will be meaningless. Members in a driven society will not be able to feel the difference. They find it very normal to be ambitious about achieving many objectives with a single stretch of time. Multitasking becomes a virtue. Speed is a necessity. Efficiency and efficacy are givens. A fully completed checked list must be followed up with another one. Another facet of drivenness is perfectionism. Dr Ralph Winter’s book, Perfecting Ourselves to Death, reflects the struggle between the pursuit of excellence and the perils of perfection. How do we know the limits? How do we know what is the best possible stage of excellence and perfection? For some, it does not matter as long as we keep trying to be perfect. I know that the Bible teaches us to be perfect. It also reminds us that we are humans in need of God’s grace. How do we reconcile the two? How do we know when to push and when to pull? For me, perfectionism is good, but the moment we make perfectionism or its variants a god in itself, it is deadly wrong. It becomes unhealthy. It is spiritually fatal.

Driven to Unhealthy Perfectionism
Dr Winter blames advertisements and technology as big contributors in society’s drive toward perfectionism. At this juncture, drivenness and perfectionism are twin brothers of obsessed behaviour to achieve. One way of understanding healthy and unhealthy perfectionism/drivenness is according to David Stoop’s table as follows:

If you are like me, you will agree that neither one of them fully represents us. We will see ourselves having inclinations that snakes or meanders their way down the list. Dr Winter distinguishes the two sides of perfectionism as follows:

The pursuit of excellence is an honourable intent. However, we need to recognize the traits of when it becomes unhealthy. The following is very revealing:

“Some people are active and energetic in their pursuit of excellence. They push themselves – and sometimes others – hard and usually very productive in what they achieve. But they may drive themselves too hard, often because their identity and self-worth depend on succeeding at everything. One failure for such a driven person might be enough to tip the scales from a healthy pursuit of excellence to self-destructive perfectionism. Paralysis may ensue with fear of mistakes, self-doubt, indecision and procrastination to the point of passivity and utter defeat.” (Winter, 34)
Drivenness is like speeding down a spiraling mountain of activities on a single lane. Gravity becomes a deadly friend to the self-driven momentum. Like a car going down a steep hill, the brakes gets worn out quicker and the danger of collision greater. The thrill of speeding and achieving many things within a short period of time is appealing, often sought after gleefully. Maximizing results using minimal of resources is a common business trait. Unfortunately, it has entered the personal realm as well. Dr Archibalt Hart, Professor of Psychology at Fuller Seminary has this to say:
“The reason we are seeing such a dramatic rise in stress disease, anxiety and clinical depression in modern times is not too difficult to discern. Humans were designed for camel travel, but most people are now acting like supersonic jets. In a nutshell, most of us are living at too fast a pace. Our adrenaline is a continuous stream of supercharged, high-octane energy. And, as with any vehicle running on high-octane fuel, we usually burn out quickly. If you really want to know why you are so stressed-out, consider the fact that you, like many others, are too hurried, hassled and overextended. The pace of modern life is stretching us beyond our limits. And we are paying for this abuse in the hard and painful currency of stress and anxiety-plain and simple.... High adrenaline, caused by overextension and stress, depletes the brain's natural tranquilizers and sets the stage for high anxiety.” (Archibalt Hart, The Anxiety Cure, W Publishing, 1999, vi)
Isn’t that a sign of drivenness? The trouble with high achievers is that they are most susceptible to anxiety and depression too. There is always a price to pay. Interestingly, Dr Hart did not simply prescribe medication or psychotherapy. He promotes the need for a lifestyle change. Toward the end of “The Anxiety Cure,” he touches on the classics of spirituality. For him, ‘tranquility’ is the goal to resolve the anxiety quagmire. He realizes that modern medicine can only go so far. When searching for a holistic way to be whole, he suggests the spiritual component for healing. “We need to learn the spirit of unhurriedness.” (Hart, 257) Well put, Dr Hart! In trying to be objective about life, we should not elevate objectivity to justify all means to achieve the ends. Getting results is a good thing. Sometimes, it may be a necessary endeavor. However, the goal in life is not simply to get results. There is something more. I remember the highlights of my life. Graduation; receiving a job offer, getting a prize or promotion; successful completion of a major project; children getting into their first-choice school. These are some tof the highlights of my life. Once we reach the peak of a mountain, the rest is all downhill, though it could be peppered by invitations to scale another surrounding mountain.

Being Led
Rather than promoting drivenness to justify the need to be perfect, the Christian way is to be led by the Spirit. The verse: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matt 5:48) is sometimes used to justify perfectionism. The problem arises when we extract this verse out of its original context and apply it carelessly into our modern situations. When things go wrong, we blame God, or we continue on our foolish ways in the name of perseverance. Matthew 5:48 must be read in the light of verses 43-47 which touches on the need to love one’s enemies. Verses 43-48 must be seen in the light of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus gave to his disciples and hearers. It is a declaration of what it means to live blessed lives in God. The Sermon on the Mount is part of Matthew’s gospel of Jesus Christ, authored by Matthew to the Jewish Christians during 70-80AD. The gospel is part of the big story of God coming and revealing himself to creation and man. Hence, it will be foolish for anyone to pluck one verse out of this context and apply to their own self-driven objectives. When Jesus calls on his disciples to ‘be perfect,’ he was using it with reference to loving one’s neighbours and enemies with the same attitude of the heart. Jesus uses the Greek (telos) τέλος which also means ‘complete.’ It is a journey of achieving completeness. This love journey has no time limit. Just like God causes the sun to shine on both the evil and the good, we ought to love people on a renewed basis day by day. The sun rises at dawn daily, so too, our attitude to love people must increase each day. At dusk, we learn to rest, and this is a wonderful corrective to a life of drivenness. Even the most capable commando needs to rest. Sleep is a gift from God (Ps 127:2b). One reason why we find it difficult to love our enemies is perhaps because we have failed to rest sufficiently. Love requires attention. It necessitates wakefulness. Love needs to be led by the Spirit, for loving people can never be done on our own strength. Driven love is not love because it is fundamentally a selfish behaviour. That is why when it comes to love, nothing beats the imagery of a shepherd tending his sheep. Frederick Buechner eloquently describes the shepherd and his sheep:
“Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place. There is nothing that the world has to give us, there is nothing that we have to give to each other even, that ever quite fills them. But once in a while that inner emptiness is filled even so. That is part of what the psalm means by saying that God is like a shepherd, I think. It means that, like a shepherd, he feeds us. He feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.” (Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, Harper San Francisco, 1992, p178)
At rest, we learn hunger. We seek to be fed. We are given water to quench our thirst. We are given food to satisfy our hunger. Pity the one who uses drivenness to meet his needs, who drinks water of objective goals that never quenches and the food of perfectionism that never satisfies; For the one who is lord over himself, who feels called only to pursue his own ends/means, who runs meaninglessly toward illusive goals under the guise of attaining objectives that never seem to end. The words of a favourite song comes to mind.

Where might you be going this fine day, my friend?
Off a long and aimless road that soon must end,
Chasing an illusive dream that shines so fair,
But when found, isn't there.

I can understand your weary sigh, my friend;
There, but for the grace of God go I, my friend.
Come and let Him lead you to your jouney's end,
Oh, come along and walk with Him

If without the grace of God your life should end
And before the face of God you'd stand, my friend.
What would your illusive dream avail you then,
So, come along and walk with Him.

Yes. Let us continue to walk in the Lord. Let us swim with him in the waters of uncertainty, knowing that he is in control. Let us run with him and not faint. Let us mount up our wings like eagles, and fly toward the horizon of God, and in our flight learn not an escape from the world, but to engage with the world. In our fight against the spiritual powers of evil and darkness, let us learn to not to replace our childlike enthusiasm to serve God wherever we are, to continually embrace the loving arms of the Shepherd. We must serve well, and rest well. I shall close with an excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams Bianco.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
It is important to note that drivenness is not real. It is not even a demonstration of what 'real' means. In order to be real, we need to learn to be led by God into becoming who we really are. That way, we do not allow drivenness to define our identity. We allow our Creator to bring us back to our original blueprint for life. This blueprint is best described by the famous words of Augustine's Confessions.

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.

Indeed, under the loving hands of our Maker-Creator, we are made real.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Ideal Spiritual Combo

Jonathan Edwards is considered to be one of America’s and evangelicalism’s greatest theologians and Puritans. His “Religious Affections” tries to bind the will to act with the passion to serve. In other words, what one knows is demonstrated through one’s actions; and vice versa. In this sense, there is no strict division of the intellect and the passionate life. On the contrary, both the intellect and the emotion are to be close companions for living. Both are important. I will add that while some of us like to enter from the intellectual front door, and others who prefer an emotional entrance gate, it is necessary that both the mind and the heart be engaged. There is no hard and fast rule of how much or how frequent. There is no law on what should be done first. It is simply a case of personal preference and the situational contexts. Sometimes, the intellectual angle is most appropriate. Other times, the emotional perspective is more suitable. Whichever way, the mind and the heart has to be involved. The decision to employ any one of them more over the other is the result of discernment. Developing a attentiveness to God is both a theological and a practical endeavor. Some may even argue that a theology without practical applications is not a true theology at all! I guess the letter of the argument is suspect, but the underlying motivation of that statement basically reminds all theologizing individuals to consider both mind and heart in all of their theology.

The Wesleyan Quartet
One distinctive of Methodism is the Wesleyan Quartet of Reason, Experience, Scripture and Tradition (R.E.S.T.) This quartet comprises the elements of theological judgment, that whatever we do, we need to approach it with reason; we need to surround it with experience; we need the backing and testing of Scripture; we need to be faithful and mindful of the interpretations available to us through the eyes of tradition. Theological, for the devout Methodist, they make an ideal combo for discerning all matter and instructing all manner of behaviour. In Christian leadership, many traditions have embraced the three components of ministry. Some uses the Be-Know-Do format; namely spiritual formation (being); intellectual formation (knowing); and pastoral formation (doing). Others use the Sacrament-Word-Order liturgy. Calvin will promote the ministerial offices/roles of Priest-Teacher-Pastor. Luther left us a legacy of theological study of oratio, meditatio, tentatio. In all of these, we notice how the different traditions try to develop an ideal combo for spiritual life.

Visionary Hedgehog & Discerning Fox
Recently, I have been drawn to Sir Isaiah Berlin who quotes a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This little statement can be profoundly understood in Christian leadership styles. The fox-style is one that focuses on small details, is meticulous and is exposed to a rich library of perspectives on how to solve a problem. The hedgehog style is more of a BIG-PICTURE type. It is the ability to integrate what one sees and discerns into one contiguous and meaningful whole. Foxes are those who try to pursue many different objectives, often not related to each other, and appear haphazardly connected, if at all. They excel in details and enjoy taking stock of them. Hedgehogs on the other hand see everything from one single central vision. They are understood and integrated into one connected diagram. The gift of the fox is discernment. The hedgehog’s specialty is vision. According to Charles Wood & Ellen Blue, theological attentiveness requires both the hedgehog’s vision and the fox’s discernment. They wrote: “In cultivating theological attentiveness, both modalities must be nurtured in close interaction with each other. Achieving the appropriate balance and relationship may be difficult, not only on account of our temperamental differences in this regard but also in part because of the different contexts and approaches required for cultivating the aptitude for vision and the aptitude for discernment.” (Charles Wood & Ellen Blue, Attentive to God, Abingdon Press, 2008, 16).

A dear classmate of mine is currently setting up a church plant in Oregon. In his prayer letter, I can sense the excitement mixed with uncertainty like wheat growing amidst weeds. Immediately I thought about vision/discernment. Church planting is exciting. I have done it myself. It opens one to great and immense possibilities limited either by one’s imaginations or fears. I shared with him my thoughts on vision/discernment and affirmed him that the way to go is prayer. How do we know when to exercise discernment and when to enjoy and deploy vision? I pondered, I wondered, I perspired and I concurred. Prayer! It is only in prayer we can meander with the Spirit just like the Spirit coming and going like the wind. Without prayer, we will not be able to catch the wind.

Sometimes the choice of words can be problematic. If we see vision as ‘theory’ and discernment as ‘practical,’ are we straitjacketing them unfairly into categories? True visionaries will not only know the theoretical aspect, but appreciates the contexts of implementing any vision. Good discerners on the other hand, will not only be skilled in the practical contexts but also understand the vision of doing them. Perhaps from an initial pedagogical standpoint, the distinction is helpful. Beyond that, it becomes debilitating. The practice of religion requires both theory and practice. There is no theology that ends only in the mind. Neither is there any true religion that orbits only around heartfelt emotions. Some theologians like to make a distinction between Greek and Hebrew thought. The former analyzes and understands by breaking things apart. The latter integrates them together. For example, in Greek forms of thought, some might try to understand a human being in terms of heart, mind, soul. In Hebrew, the heart encompasses all of them into one. Hence in Hebrew, when we use the word ‘heart,’ we should understand that it means all the faculties of the human person.

The Bible has constantly asserted the need for both theory and practice. Any practice of faith requires knowing the Scriptures.

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." (Matthew 22:26)

Likewise, any true knowledge of faith requires faithful practice.
"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (James 1:22)

Scriptures keep both in healthy tension and tells us that both makes an ideal combo. Prayer keeps us in making sure we know how and when to handle this mix with vision and discernment.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Living By Vows

I visited a church on June 8th, 2008. The preacher was a visiting professor who hails from Columbia International University, an alumnus of Gordon-Conwell, well sought after by the New England churches, Dr George Murray. In a sermon entitled "Go! Look! Be Moved! Pray!" he exhorted the congregation to reinvigorate their evangelism by making plans to go, yet willing to stay. Contrary to the popular option which often reverses the two. The harvest is plentiful, yet the workers out there are few. Conversely, the harvest at home is meagre, yet the workers are many. Despite the fact that 90% of any church are done by only 10% of the people, there are still lots of well-trained individuals in that 10% compared with the third world and less developed countries. I heard of one country where a believer became the pastor/teacher of the hungry flock in 1 day! I am not sure how many people will follow through with "Planning to Go, Willing to Stay." That was quite similar to what I heard years ago, that all Christians should make plans to be missionaries, unless otherwise stated. There are not many Abrahams or Samuels nowadays compared to Jonahs.

Living By Vows
What was memorable that day was not the sermon itself, but the story of Robertson McQuilkin and his commitment to his wife Muriel. In a very touching testimony in Living By Vows, Dr McQuilkin resigned from being President of Columbia International University in 1990 so that he can take full-time care of Muriel who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Initially, he was torn between two commitments, his responsibility as a President at the University vs his responsibility as a husband. He was torn between two divine callings: to serve as a Christian witness on campus matters, vs to serve as a witness within the boundaries of a small little house. What does it mean to put the kingdom of God first? What does it mean to 'hate my wife' for the sake of Christ and the kingdom? He was ripped right in the middle between two necessary and important deeds. He prayed:
"..we would trust the Lord to work a miracle in Muriel if He so desired, or work a miracle in me if He did not."
The advice comes fast as Dr McQuilkin was planning to quit. Some tried to persuade him not to give up a colourful career in academia. Others claim that his experience and talents will be wasted if not used for 'kingdom-work.' In 1990, he made his decision and resigned from all responsibilities save one: Care for his wife, Muriel. He rationalizes: "She is such a delight to me. I don't have to care for her, I GET TO. One blessing is the way she is teaching me so much - about love, for example, God's love...... Had I not promised, 42 years before, 'in sickness and in health...till death do us part?"

Dr McQuilkin spent 13 years caring for Muriel, until her death in September 2003. An established missionary of 12 years, as President of Columbia for 22 years, he willingly gave it all up to be faithful and committed to a wife who is dying from Alzheimer's disease. That day, God taught me something precious and important in my heart. It is one thing to know in the head my marriage vows. It is another thing to understand in my heart what it means. Dr McQuilkin's testimony reminds me once again how beautiful love can be. He taught me that the kingdom of God is most magnified in love, for it is in love that Christ came to earth to die for all of us. I learned that day that responsibilities in the will of God will never conflict. Dr McQuilkin's actions have done more for the gospel than if he had chosen to leave his wife alone. I sat at the pew that morning fighting back tears.

"Most women will stand by their men, but very few men stand by their women." McQuilkin bucked the trend. You can read a brief article, the Christianity Today reprint here.

For more details about Dr Robertson McQuilkin's testimony, read "A Promise Kept: The Story of an Unforgettable Love. (Tyndale House, 1998).

Friday, July 11, 2008

"Cure for the Common Life"

In "Cure for the common Life," Max Lucado, a great story teller argues that there is a 'sweet spot' in every one of us. According to him, 70% of workers find their jobs boring, and their talents wasted in doing things they do not enjoy. This is the 'common life' that affects a majority of people in the workplace. Life will only start to make sense when one discovers and obeys their sense of calling and purpose. His big idea is basically this:
Use your uniqueness (what you do)
to make a big deal out of God (why you do it)
every day of your life (where you do it)
When one discovers his/her 'sweet spot,' everything will then click into place. Neat. Problem is, is life neat? Is a fallen world able to fall neatly into place? Not if we depend on our own strength. One of the first things that caught my attention in Lucado's book is not the sweet-spot thesis but the story of asking God for things according to one's size. He relates the story of a professor George Washington Carver in 1915, where in trying to help farmers replace cotton growing with peanuts in order to tackle the boll weevil bug which are quickly destroying the cotton crops. The end result: Too much peanuts. What became an instant success becomes a liability overnight. Dejected, he prayed in the woods:

"Oh, Mister Creator," he cried out, "Why did you make this universe?"
And the Creator answered, "You want to know too much for that little mind of yours. Ask me something more your size."
So I said, "Dear Mister Creator, tell me what man was made for."
Again He spoke to me and said, "Little man, you are still asking for more than you can handle. Cut down the extent of your request and improve the intent."
Then I asked my last question. "Mister Creator, why did you make the peanut?"
"That's better," the Lord said. And he gave me a handful of peanuts and went back with me to the laboratory, and together we got down to work. (Lucado, pp. 1 1-12).
The results were astounding. More than 300 products were discovered from the humble peanut. The peanut industry in Alabama became one of the wealthiest sections of the state.

So began Lucado's journey to his sweet-spot treatise. It is Lucado's method of explaining calling and vocation in our ordinary lives.

(A) Our Uniqueness
Lucado believes that all of us are created for a certain specific purpose. That is a biblical truth. Chapter 3 of his book is entitled: "Read Your Life Backwards" reminds me of Kierkegaard's perceptive statement that life is lived forward and understood backwards. Too often, we try to find out all the possible reasons and meaning before doing something. Uncertainty frustrates us and impair our progress. Yet, isn't it also true that there are many things in life that can only be understood later on when we reflect back on what we have done? This is important. Only when we take time to sit back and ponder what are the things that really motivates us, we will be less vulnerable to complaining about the mundane activities we do each day. Lucado proposes that we study our own S.T.O.R.Y of our life.
  • S - Strengths (find out where our strengths are)
  • T - Topic (Find out what are the things we enjoy doing)
  • O - Optimal Conditions (Find out what factors surround our motivation)
  • R - Relationships (Find out how our satisfaction help others around us)
  • Y - Yes! (Find out how the earlier four integrates and energizes one)

He ends the first part of the book with a caution not to allow greed take over one's finding of the sweet spot. Good reminder. We can sometimes take a good thing too far and make it a bad thing to have. Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim 6:6). This alludes to my previous blog about what success entails.

(B) Making a Big Deal Out of God
Lucado continues his part 2 of 3 with a desire to glorify God with our discover of our sweet spot. In other words, the correct way of understanding our gifts is to see it in the light of God's glory and kingdom. Well done, Max Lucado! You hit the right spot. He starts to draw readers to the sweetest spot of all: Jesus. This is where I have a problem. God seems to be treated in a utilitarian manner. Look at how Lucado concludes chapter 7.
Lonely? God is with you.
Depleted? He funds the overdrawn.
Weary of an ordinary existence? Your spiritual adventure awaits.
The cure for the common life begins and ends with God.
(Lucado, 70)
Textually correct, but theologically did not quite cut deep enough I feel. The words represent a certain truth that we should begin and end with God. However, the motive to getting there stems overly from an individualistic mindset. Call it spiritual narcissism if you like. For an evangelistic outreach perspective, it whets one's appetite. For a quick-fix pick-me-up, it works like a spiritual pill. However, it is merely a pain reliever rather than a cure. I think part 2 of Lucado's book is the weakest of the three parts. However, I enjoyed the first part and the third.

(C) Every Day of your Life
As we practice the above two parts on a daily basis, we need to learn to pause. Purposeful pausing ourselves is a wonderful reminder that we should not work a 24x7 arrangement. We need to practice the Sabbatical rest. I appreciate Lucado's story of Eugene Peterson.
Monday is my sabbath. Nothing is scheduled for Mondays. If there are emergencies I respond, but there are surprisingly few. My wife joins me in observing the day. We make a lunch, put it in a daypack, take our binoculars and drive anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour away, to a trailhead along a river or into the mountains. Before we begin our hike my wife reads a psalm and prays. After that prayer there is no more talking - we enter into a silence that will continue for the next two or three hours, until we stop for lunch.

We walk leisurely, emptying ourselves, opening ourselves to what is there: fern shapes, flower fragrance, birdsong, granite outcropping, oaks and sycamores, rain, snow, sleet, wind... When the sun or our stomachs tell us it's lunch time, we break the silence with a prayer of blessing for the sandwiches and fruit, the river and the forest. We are free to talk now, sharing bird sightings, thoughts, observations, ideas - however much or little we are inclined. We return home in the middle or late afternoon, putter, do odd jobs, read. After supper I usually write family letters. That's it. No Sinai thunder. No Damascus Road illuminations. No Patmos visions. A day set apart for solitude and silence. Not-doing. Being-there. The sanctification of time.

-Eugene Peterson (from Cure for the Common Life by Max Lucado, 109)

This is the essence of building a relationship with God and fellow people. Time. We have so little time, that how we use it becomes very important.

Some Problems
However, there is a problem, and that is linked to the individualism article in my previous blog post: Too much individual sweetness can lead to diabetic conditions. Lucado's book will sell well. I will recommend it for light reading, and for people who desires a pick-me-up quick read on the bus/train ride. However, while it whets the appetite, it cannot substitute for the full meal. The book should be retitled as: "Relief for the Common Life." Just like there is no cure for the common cold, there is also no cure for the common life.

I remember a doctor-friend telling me one time, that when a person is said to have died of 'heart failure,' actually he does not really know what caused that person's death. Heart failure could mean many things. It could also mean ANY cardiac disorder. The trouble is, we do not know which one, or what combination. Likewise, life is too complex for anyone to easily identify their individual sweet spots. Some of us have more than one at different points of time. There is no cure for the common cold, only cold-reliefs. The only true Physician in the Universe is God. Hence, the cure for the common life is an interesting piece of work. However, while it encourages and appeal to popular Christian reading, it is too simple an idea for a complex world we live in.

Read the book, but do not take it as a substitute for the main course: The Bible.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

God's Way or Our way?

"The contrast between God's way of doing things and our way is never more acute than this area of human change and transformation. We focus on specific actions; God focuses on us. We work from the outside in; God works from the inside out. We try; God transforms." (Richard Foster)

Foster is best known for his best-selling work: "Celebration of Discipline." In that book, he essentially revolutionizes the disciplines of Christian living. Describing vividly the 12 disciplines (8 personal and 4 corporate), Foster weaves in the personal inward practices of prayer, fasting, meditation and study with the outward alliteration of simplicity, solitude, submission and service. Then he outlines the four basic corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Published in 1978, the book has remained a popular and often used as the benchmark for the practice of Christian disciplines. He has continued his desire of going deeper by founding Renovare. "Superficiality is the curse of our age" represents his conviction that people needs to grow deeper in the faith. "Growing deep in God" is also the desire of Rev Edmund Chan of Covenant Evangelical Free Church, whose book reflects the title of the same name. In that book, Chan hits the mark with the intent to integrate theology and prayer in wanting to grow deep in God. I believe Chan has approached this correctly. Prayer is the pathway to deepening our faith in God. It is essentially a book about prayer. The desert fathers have constantly focused on prayer as the way to knowing God. Cassian's Conferences for example, is a classic for prayer. In Conference 9, Cassian writes:
"That still higher condition....that fiery prayer known and experienced be very few, and which properly speaking is ineffable, transcending all human thought, marked not by any sound of the voice, not movement of the tongue, nor speaking of words. The mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light speaks not with human and limited language but richly pours forth [its prayer] with a mass of feelings, as if from a copious fountain, ineffably uttering such great things to God in the shortest possible space of time that when it returns to its normal state it cannot easily express of relate them. (Conf 9.25)"
Cassian's contemporary, Evagrius of Pontus describes ecstatic prayer as that state of praying in an unaware manner, just like sleeping. Thus prayer progresses beyond duty toward pure desire. Prayer transforms into a lifestyle rather than mere activity. Prayer becomes invisible as it becomes infused into our own being and soul. That is what growing deep in God should be.

Indeed, God's way and our way are so different, that the only way for us to be united with God is not to choose our way but God's way. Humans need to be transformed and renewed. Otherwise, we will always be trying to straitjacket God into our mortal ideas which are fallible and imperfect. One consequence is divisiveness. Take the Corinthian church for example. The Corinthians were divided by various interpreters of God's truth: the Pauls, the Apollos, the Cephas's, and even the Christ's. All of them had one thing in common: Divisiveness. In other words, if we are too focused on self, divisiveness will often be the price to pay. Inflating the self at the expense of deflating community building.

1 Cor 12 reads:
Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” (1 Cor 1:12) The Greek is even more dramatic.
ἐγὼ μέν εἰμι Παύλου, ἐγὼ δὲ Ἀπολλῶ, ἐγὼ δὲ Κηφᾶ, ἐγὼ δὲ Χριστοῦ. [I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas, I of christ]
The word ἐγὼ is pronounced as 'egg-go.' It is the root of the English word 'ego' which is often referred to perjoratively as a self-inflated sense of importance. I have made bold the word 'I' in the translation, to indicate that when Paul uses the word ἐγὼ on the respective quarters in the Corinthian church, he is directly accusing them of putting themselves as more important than Paul, Apollos, Cephas and Christ. This gives us the clue to the root of the problem of Church divisions in Corinth. People see their own opinions and interpretations as so important that they are prepared to fight for their 'rights' at the expense of the broader unitive aspect. Verse 13-17 confirms this interpretation. The Corinthians' self-exaggerated sense of importance, have clouded their understanding of biblical truth. Paul goes on to use himself as an example, that to follow Christ, is essentially to do what Christ has done, that is, to preach the gospel not with human wisdom but in the cross of Christ. The question is how did the members of the Church become so self-focused? Where did they get this sense of high individualism? The use of Pauls, Apollos, Cephas and Christs means that there is a climate of spiritual competitiveness. People in the Corinthian church tried to upend one another, even to the point of dropping famous names. This level of self-importance gets raised a bar higher when one drags in other names as well to their points of view. Individualism has a corporate component as well. Some other examples of spiritual competitiveness is trying to upend each other in saying the last word in Bible studies questions. Or competing with one another to choose the best and popular style of worship. Or to preach based on one's oratory powers rather than depending on the unction of the Spirit at the pulpit. Spiritual competitiveness also rears its head at the boardroom.

It is common that when one tends to garner support from more reputable sources in order to substantiate a personal argument. Scholars quote from many sources in order to make their papers more credible. Established scholars do not have to quote so many. When a person runs out of arguments, the next option is to ride on the back of a famous name. This happens in discussion groups too, and it is frequently noticed that people quote from sources more sympathetic to their point of view. Like what one of my professors used to say: "If we copy from one source, that's plagiarism. If we copy from many sources, that's scholarship! (sic!)"

There is a very subtle difference between "telling the whole truth as is" vs "telling the truth that is welded to a personal point of view." The former is seen more from a distant observer viewpoint, while the latter treats the whole matter very personally. It has been said that when one is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When a person views the world from an individualistic perspective, global matters become sharply skewed to the one's scope of understanding. 2 to the power of 5 makes it 32. Likewise, seeing the world to the power of self increases individualism in the world. In the 80s, a group of social scientists surveyed the American cultural landscape and concluded that the "vocabulary of individualism" has damaged community living in a big way. Four major research projects were described, 2 about the private lives and the other 2 about the public life of Americans.
  1. Love and Marriage (older forms, private)
  2. Therapy (newer forms, private)
  3. Local Politics and voluntary organizations (older forms, public)
  4. Political Activism(newer forms, public)
Alarmingly, Bellah et al states
... that the family is no longer an integral part of a larger moral ecology tying the individual to community, church, and nation. The family is the core of the private sphere, whose aim is not to link individuals to the public world but to avoid it as far as possible. In our commercial culture, consumerism, with all its temptations, and television, with its examples, augment that tendency. Americans are seldom as selfish as the therapeutic culture urges them to be. (Bellah et al, "Habits of the Heart", Harper & Row, 1985, 112)
The enthronement of self appears to be on the rise.

Activist Individualism
Recently, Dr Henry Morgentaler, the pro-choice activist, was awarded the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award by Canada on distinguished contributors to Canadian society. This has generated much controversy and resulted in a former Order of Canada recipient returning the award, saying that it has tarnished the Order of Canada. As of July 10th, four persons have returned the award as they continue the uphill battle against the 'pro-choice' movement. Indeed, the pro-choice, and pro-rights movement is growing at an astounding rate judging from the report that two-thirds of Canadians support Morgentaler's award. Another observation is that many of those who spoke against the pro-choice movements continue to be among the older generation. It is one thing to fight for one's right to do certain thing. However, we must make sure that one recognizes his/her responsibility to society too. There is a small tiny island on the Cul-de-Sac (semi-closed roundabout) near my place. Some people simply dump old unwanted garbage like torn sofas, old TV sets, and damaged furniture in the middle of the island without due consideration for the neighbourhood. I was told that the municipal authorities have posted a fine of $1000, provided the culprits are caught. Still, the dumping continues as if dumping indiscriminately has become their divine right. What will happen if society continues to fight tooth and nail for the rights, but are soft hearted about their responsibilities? Individualism reigns to the detriment of the human race.

That is why we need to arrest Individualism and ask ourselves daily: "Are we obeying God's way or our way?" The first step to spiritual renewal is to seek for divine help. The second step is to listen for the response and obey.

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